Tread lightly Eddie, on your tip toes. You must avoid the Jake Bugg clique before being taken away to Nottingham to get shanked. There's Irony hidden here, and the Death of a Salesman is being acted out while Eddie writes this. Instead of following on from last year’s highly critical Jake Bugg review: "You just totally shit on an 18 year old kid for doing good in music and doing what he loves," Eddie will be writing the Shangri La review with a different approach. Who am I? you ask - well I'm the third person. I'm inside Eddie's head, I'm inside your head, listening to Charles Manson's Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, and partying with Syd Barrett, with B. Wilson telling us about his Phil Spector nightmares - Spector is here too. This isn't hell, as you might think, this is the realm of understanding. We've all came here to pass judgement on Bugg, as we did one year ago, but this time, we have a better understanding of the genre, the history, and the man behind the pen. There will be no nine's, no modest eights, or even a sweet six on Shangri La, Eddie can tell you now that Jake Bugg's sophomore album is a plain flat five, so you don't need to scroll down any further if you're looking for a subjective score system of a singer-songwriter belonging to a branch of modern folk rock.
We all know Bugg was rushed in to the music industry by Mercury Records, a subsidiary of the American giant UMG. They plucked him after appearing at the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury in 2011. If you listen carefully, you'll be able to hear the light bulb turn on inside the A&R's head as they hear Bugg's voice. It's not like Bugg was brimming with talent at the age of 17, but the A&R heard something, they saw something. Look how well Mumford & Sons did in the UK and especially in the USA over the last few years. They're signed to Island Records - yes, a subsidiary of UMG. Does Bugg have a label / distributor / promoter in the USA? Yes - Island Records, a subsidiary, of, U, M, G. It's the appeal. Bugg is not a special singer-songwriter. Sure, there are arguments that go for and against the former comment, but in reality, from experience and by listening to acres of music, Bugg - is - not - special. His debut album was dominated by the first three tracks (also the singles), "Lighting Bolt", "Taste It", and "Two Fingers", with the latter being Bugg's best effort. The rest of Jake Bugg was a washing machine of high school talent shows on Argos electric-acoustic guitars with your uncle's reverb pedal. It's enforced by Bugg's live performances, which usually end up being a discussion between the audience on Bugg's: "Creativity" / "beautiful voice" / "talent", and "upbringing". It's like they've never listened to Woody Guthrie sing about the Dirty Thirties, or Sparklehorse, Nick Drake, Elliot Smith or even Jackson C. Frank sing about their tales - can Bugg have his own tale to tell?
See, Bugg is going for this folk / singer-songwriter bracket, with influences from rock and roll - obviously. The thing is, he was pretty much spot on with this sound on the singles from his debut album. On Shangri La, Bugg sounds rushed - not rushed as in, rushed to write / record / release (though there’s a case for this too), but rushed in terms of the album's fluent tempo, which is far too fast. Bugg's vocal delivery is construed, combined in to short rhymes, coming across as a bad Artic Monkeys cover act with "What Doesn't Kill You". Bugg's vocal refrain on the chorus is the biggest putt off so far, he stretches his vocal chords to hit the high notes, but instead of reaching a level of intrigue - he reaches a bar set by Yoko Ono. He sounds like a screeching cat, leaving behind the decent vocal set by Jake Bugg, and entering this phase of annoyingness. "Slumville Sunrise" is similar, with Bugg singing a speedy vocal, where the verse seamlessly enters the chorus with Bugg singing another high pitched nonsensical vocal. This track doesn't flow, and comes across as repetitious after the first listen. Bugg's singing voice has changed on Shangri La, there’s the archetypical British Midlands accent in there still, but with the influence and commerciality of America's country folk artists. The way Bugg sings: "Nobody cares or looks twice, shine away in the morning, across this place where I was born in," first of all, it replicates a poor rhyming style from his debut album, and second - the way he actually delivers it with layers is similar to country folk like John Denver, especially his hit "Country Road".
Now, 2013 has produced some very good folk / singer-songwriter albums. There was a decent album by the new Billy Bragg: Frank Turner, not to mention the former Bragg and his album Tooth & Nail. Then there’s the singer-songwriter influenced by the same sound and music of Bugg, Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin, Kurt Vile, and Treetop Flyers. It’s not that Shangri La is a poor album, because it's far from it, and most of that comes from the team backing Bugg - especially producer Rick Rubin. The opening track "There’s a Beast and We All Feed It" starts with a predictable guitar progression known as the Buggy. The shaker and monotonous two chord acoustic guitar are just some of the basic elements of Shangri La's opening track. Bugg again utilises the simplistic rhyming pattern, which comes across as unoriginal and shoddy, because of the focus on the word: "It." It - is just not effective, and appears as typical basic Bugg lyricism.
There's too much of a grasp on influence with Shangri La. Bugg is caught up in the world of music, and the music he loves - that he's forgotten to record music as his own entity, and not as a follower and pursuer of a certain sound. We saw it with The Enemy on their second album Music For The People, an album so caught up on music's past that it flopped like the archetypal comedy sketch with the fat man on the diving board. Bugg's influence can be heard from start to finish on Shangri La, and usually that's not a terrible thing - but it's forced here. "Me and You" is as much a Neil Young B-side as a Bugg 'original'. "All Your Reasons" is like the little brother of Neil Diamond, and "Kingpin" the confederate Dixie song on USA summer radio. The Americanisms are so evident, something which alienates Bugg's strong followers who love him for being the Adidas wearing working class man from Nottingham, and not the trans-Atlantic role model for leather jackets. There's just too many passive tracks here, the five minute slow coach - "Kitchen Table", the short and snappy, but predictable story - "Messed Up Kids", and the slide guitar 40 years too late penultimate track - "Simple Pleasures".
Shangri La still has its moments of worth. "A Song About Love" is Bugg's time signature baby. It was almost altered by the corporate fat cats being the Bugg name, but he held on to it, and because of this "A Song About Love" is the best track on the album. It may just be Bugg's best track to date, surpassing the chav-anistic and rebellious "Two Fingers". He's at his best with an acoustic guitar and minimal accompaniment, as this genre is supposed to naturally be. "Pine Trees" is another highlight, sounding pure, with Bugg's weakened vocal, but strong heart. "Storm Passes Away" closes Shangri La with something to look forward to hearing in the future. It's not a return to the East Midlands, but it's a step in the right direction for an artist still finding his feet. Remember, Bugg is still young - 19 years young, and has many years and albums ahead of him. By boosting his album with a closer such as "Storm Passes Away", Bugg leaves Shangri La on a cliff-hanger. He knows that the first half of his sophomore probably could be scrapped if he was to do it all over again, and Bugg surely understands the money, the credibility, and the future lies in the softer, acoustic recordings with a story on top. It's an enormous contrast from the back half of Jake Bugg. Where Bugg's debut passed over our heads because of filler, Shangri La is the ultimate reverse. It shows a more sentimental side of Bugg, even if it's an American side of the Nottingham singer-songwriter. Nothing would impress me more than Bugg taking this away, and releasing a third album of post-American folk / blues. Using his travelling knowledge, the experience of touring the world, and two albums with developing tastes as influences. It's the voice inside Bugg's head that’s dictating his every move. He has a chance now to revel in singer-songwriter glory, by creating a follow-up so cut to the core that all the bullshit from Jake Bugg and Shangri La is eliminated. Or he can just listen to his aids, his label, his management, and create a follow-up aimed at the youth in America, which will never work because of Bugg's British image. This is an artist working with hit song-writers and hit producers, and he's confused. Shangri La is plain, average, mediocre, and all the rest of the typical not good, not bad words. But Shangri La shows promising signs for the future, and because of that, Shangri La becomes a stepping stone - nothing more, nothing less.