Sunday, 29 September 2013

Track Review: Anna Calvi - Eliza

I remember reviewing Anna Calvi's self-titled debut album in 2011, it was cold. It's Britain in the winter, do you expect any different? Calvi's art rock piece earned a Mercury Prize nomination, deservedly. It sounds like the typical soundtrack to an Anglo-Fran├žais film set in a coffee house. "Desire" offered up the single quality, which bribgs to mind the work of PJ Harvey's 90s material, with the vocal aesthetics and sincerity of Siouxie Sioux. "Suzanne And I" worked perfectly as an experimental pop song, with focus on Calvi's deep and sensitive vocal. Calvi tends to put emphasis on character names, which is why her new single stands out as an improvement, but at the same time holds back ideas and potential to what her sophomore album could contain.

"Eliza" is the pre-release single from One Breath, featuring a change of producer: John Congleton. He's worked with Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, Modest Mouse, and David Byrne - a blend of artists Calvi would happily be placed alongside. "Eliza" is a turn away from the quiet, self-confessing songs of Anna Calvi. There's a change of pace, something Calvi needed in her developing sound. The track title acts as the refrain, simple but sweet. There's thumping percussion and an uplifting guitar progression from Calvi's ever present rhythm guitar. It sounds just as poignant and fresh as it did with "Rider To The Sea" two years ago. If this is the developed sound of an up and coming British singer-songwriter, then I can't wait to hear her sophomore album in full, ready for the winter.

Discovery: John Puchiele Ensemble - Life Cycle

There are those genres, particularly in the electronic field, that come to lie associated with a given time of the year. Chillwave, dream pop, downtempo; many more to add to that list of sub-fields seem to encapsulate a feeling of summer, a unmitigated warmth and refreshing spectacle to the comfort and clarity that the middle ground of any calendar year, usually brings for us. Summer however is over, and we find ourselves - perhaps unknowingly - shifting our attention to more colder, more secluded sounds to take us up until the end of 2013. The benefit then of ambient music is that it has no seasonal limits; there are no do's and dont's to what a characteristically 'ambient' record should sound like. There are many forms to which this particular (and quite rewarding) field of music can take: in one form they can be warm, inviting, sensual; the next they could be cold, isolating, connotative. To categorize the music of John Puchiele Ensemble as lying somewhere concretely on the mercury scale, would be foolish. Not that the illusion of heat/cold isn't something I underpin as being a thought-provoking element that defines ambient music.  Rather it's one of many gifting comparisons one can take to a genre that brings with it as much mystery and challenge, as it does understanding and realization to the more simpler effects in life.

It's no surprise that Life Cycle, as its name might suggest, acts almost like both a summary and a pinnacle of how far ambient can traject in its basis of ideas, as well as in its musical content. Neither over-stepping the mark when it comes to emphasizing the shroud of atmosphere, nor leaving the listener with too sparse an idea as to its position, the album is coaxed by pieces varying in length (the shortest being a few seconds shy of two minutes, the longest a slight over the double-digit 10 mark), yet in each and every corner managing to encapsulate a specific degree of relayed effect. Whether it be the fine air of spaciousness and simplicity on opener From There To Here or the clunky, heavy drops of piano on a brief piece such as Foundations, Ensemble treats these initial offerings with a delicate cut of directness yet one that isn't entirely dictive of its message or its context. It's the best way to work around such minimal, over-arching usage of classical instrumentation, and in effect, the serene violins or the voided cellos that subtlely glide amid the track's space, gather much more physicality and presence for moments such as these where length and delivery seem not to weigh down a piece's given potential.

But when taken to a much longer composition, the prevalent mystery and sense of intrigue on a track like Thinking (which is a great name for a track of this vibe) shows little struggle - even awareness - to such a prolonged length. Ensemble's finer tonal qualities in the vocal layering and use of echo and distance act so as to redefine the track's length as being more a reference to the sound's own vast scope, as opposed to the musical's own length eing intentionally offered. Likewise on the two-part Life Gets Busy, the direction taken appears to be more about emphasis on the supposed musical negative space, while combining the previous attempts at texturally identifying classical instrumentation to invoke tension, let alone emotion. The result then, quite brilliantly, is a pairing focusing on the psychotic effect of a surrounding onto its listener, as much as there's an everlasting perception on the mystery/anxiety of said location caused only by the very indivdual and his/her own self-initiated line of thought. Yet these drastic shifts in intensity or attention-grabbing don't come off as intrusive to the other tracks' differing takes on space as an extension, as opposed to a catalyst for conflict. The latter remnants of the album just as equally illustrate a more questioning concern, yet one that's rightfully met with calm and assurance.

Amid the gentle sweeps of string instruments and frequent, inflating bass frequencies, there's hardly a moment where Ensemble doesn't manage to sustain the musical aesthetic as being one of ease. Life Cycle then has no identifying place on the spectrum - it is as much a warm and inviting record, as it is a cool and challenging one. Taking from past 80's line-of-thinking from the likes of Eno, Fripp & Rich to name but a few, there's an almighty showing that even in this digitized, synthetic of ages, there's never a dull moment where the more classical, nostalgic, and visually-invoking of ambient sounds, truly do take prominence in approaching the listener's more internal mind-set on a vulnerable level. A great argument then for a surge in classical ambiance, but to end with the notion that ambient isn't something entirely dictated by its feeling of temperature, this is an album that strives for a sense of honesty, and succeeds in using such simpler, finer treatment of orchestration, to bring that forth onto a more direct, and longer-lasting, plain of reflection. With it, the imagery it conjures leaves many with a lasting hunger for answers, but ones that the listener I'm sure will stride to seek for themselves. Life Cycle is out now via the artist's bandcamp.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Dizzee Rascal - The Fifth

Dizzee Rascal is the most celebrated, followed, and most critically acclaimed rapper in British history. He's the undisputed leader of the early 00s grime scene... Arguably, he's the biggest and best product to arise from the chav culture. Dizzee Rascal isn't just for fans of grime, or hip-hop, he's the young man's British alternative. His 2-step counterpart Mike Skinner (better known as The Streets,) released one of the best British albums of the decade in 2004 with A Grand Don't Come for Free. Alternative hip-hop was finally rising out of the underground in the mid-00s. Dizzee Rascal came out with Boy in da Corner in 2003, to huge acclaim, winning the Mercury Prize in the process. His career could keep on rising, and it did with next year’s Showtime, and then in my opinion his best effort in 2007 with Maths + English. Lily Allen gave guest vocals, on the fantastic back album track "Wanna Be" which samples "So You Wanna Be a Boxer" from the film Bugsy Malone. He even took out Joss Stone's guest vocal on "Da Feelin'", because he felt it sounded too poppy - ironic today. And this is where the story comes to a close. He leaves the stage, the curtains are drawn, and the crowd stomp their feet and...

Tongue n' Cheek was far from disappointing. Dizzee Rascal changed his philosophy; his bank balance did that for him. The music found on Tongue n' Cheek is electronic, dance, and has the tag 'club favourite' applied to a good three/four tracks. "Bonkers" was the lead single; it throws long-term fans of Dizzee Rascal from the rolling bus. But it stopped to pick up a whole new breed of fan, the clubber, the NOW buyer, and the pop listener. "Dance wiv' Me" introduced the old fans to his new sound, it also brought new light to Dizzee Rascal's name as it peaked at number one on the UK Singles Chart, and you all know what that means. It's passed over on to his fifth studio album, simply named The Fifth. The hype began with the impressive pre-release single "Bassline Junkie", which name is even more obvious than the album title. It takes on a heavier garage feel and vibe than the synth, dance music of Tongue n' Cheek. A return to the grime/garage roots, but with the production quality of his newer material. It's been several months since "Bassline Junkie" and Dizzee Rascal's fifth album is ready for listening, it’s right on the cusp of the club's doorsteps and Radio One's A-list.

Why then, do I feel like Dizzee Rascal is punishing his old skool fans? The Fifth has to be one of the worst pop albums released, that's not came from XFactor or a similar reality bullshit program. This is really bad, right from the off, "Superman", one of the worst vocals Dizzee has delivered to date. He's included his rapping, but its effect is rendered useless as it's put down by an auto-tune chorus and an awful refrain of: "I am superman, bitch I’m superman." It's the most basic and simplest of raps that makes Rick Ross sound like a Yale graduate. The Fifth continues down this path of bullshit with "I Don’t Need A Reason". He sings: "Everyday life can't stress me, stay on the ball like Messi, money and women are the only things that impress me," not impressive in the slightest. The beat is shallow and the track just passes by without any notice or care. Dizzee's pace means absolutely nothing if the content is poor. His lyrics vary from liking women, then rapidly changing theme to having endless money; it's the sort of lyricism that makes Jay Z's recent albums extremely repetitive and overall - shit.

Shit is a word that can be applied to most of The Fifth... Especially the terrible predictable soon to be chart hit "We Don't Play Around". It features bad song-writer but worse vocalist vocalist Jessie J. I mean, Dizzee Rascal was messing in the grime scene a decade ago and now he's fraternising with the same products the underground musicians of the 00s despised. It's Jessie J, which means, she's singing the basic refrain, and its pop, which means it’s the very same progression and structure as every single awful mess the UK charts seem to bone after all these years. It's not just the fact, that this is pop shit; it's that Dizzee Rascal is doing it for the fame and money rather than the creative outcome. Those that think he's trying to create a masterpiece with this load of garbage need their minds looking at. Long gone are the days of self-expression and utilising what you've got. Dizzee Rascal has all the money and all the contacts in the world, enough to make him even more money by putting out the same shit Simon Cowell endorses by saying, 'you can sing'. What annoys me even more is the song-writing credits. Dizze Rascal albums are used to "all songs written by Dylan Mills," on The Fifth it's ego heaven: Jean Baptiste, Ryan Buendia, Michael McHenry, Teddy Sky (a.k.a RedOne's bitch and writer/composer for One Direction... ONE DIRECRION,) this is what we have to work with. 

"Good" features R&B vocalist Angel, and actually marks a likable change of theme on The Fifth. It's one of the few tracks that are not either pop shit or in your face. It doesn't have a great refrain or beat as such, it's just a relaxing track that sits well compared to it's sandwich guests Jessie J and Tinnie Tempah. The latter delivers a lacklustre vocal on "Spent Some Money". The beat is 2013 relevant, and would easily be 2am club music, as Tempeh’s vocal suggests. Sean Kingston makes an appearance on "Arse Like That", didn't even know he was still around. This has to be the weakest point on the album, the moment the listener realises just how low Dizzee Rascal's credibility as an artist has gotten. It's trap music for people that don't like music. After Dizzee's very poor rap which wouldn’t even make a The Lonely Island B-sides compilation. Kingston sings the refrain which is completely irrelevant to what Dizzee is rapping about. The whole premise and lyrical theme behind this track is first of all worrying, but more importantly aimed for a cesspit of scumbags.

The Fifth doesn't surprise, and it doesn’t suggest a better Dizzee Rascal. It's lazy musicianship, something that’s a bigger gripe to me than the actual poor music. He's not even trying on this album. His raps are atrocious and the lyrics are completely meaningless. The guests; they're the tipping point. Will.I.Am, Jessie J, and Robbie Williams. In 2004, picture Dizzee Rascal working with Robbie Williams - what a mess. The track at hand is "Goin' Crazy", the worst song Robbie has put his name on. Bless his Stokey heart, he's tried his best in the past and has curated some sublime songs with "It's Only Us" and "Let Me Entertain You", but he's passed his time now. Robbie is only here because Example rejected the guest vocal... You know your career's gone to shit when Example rejects you.

Briefly, the back album tracks. They're always considered the weakest points on albums, except with The Fifth. "H-Town" is respectful, there's an ear-catching riff and finally, some important rapping from Dizzee Rascal. This is the hip-hop he's left behind, and it shows just how good he can be when he sticks to his roots and created the music of his past. It's about Houston, Texas, and features two Houston based rappers Bun B and Trae tha Truth. This is the peak, a short back album track with little features. As soon as the peak is reached, well, you already know. "Heart of a Warrior" enters, and leaves with nothing but mediocrity, then "Life Keeps Moving On" which is unnaturally placed as the penultimate track. it shouldn’t even be on this album at all. This track brings back memories of the repetitive badly produced Motown tracks of the 80s, instead of the innovative sounds of the soulful 60s. And Dizzee Rascal caps it off with "Bassline Junkie", which is the standout track and one of the few tracks worth keeping.

The Fifth It's like Psy's "Gangnam Style". Nobody actually likes the song, it's just one huge joke; but Dizzee Rascal is serious, somehow The Fifth has been created, and I’ve got to tell you, it's really depressing to hear such wasted talent. There's no experimenting on this album as some might suggest. Everything that's been outlined on The Fifth has been produced or created in the past through badly written lyrics, or basic progressions on synthesizers and expensive computer equipment. RedOne is written all over The Fifth, and his pop influence leaves its mark in a deep cut. Where Tongue n' Cheek excelled in dance music, The Fifth falls down, and completely takes a new direction to general pop. This is hardly hip-hop, it's hardly electronic, and it's hardly pop too. It's something in between all genres, but doesn’t push the boundaries of music. The Fifth is the Steve Aoki of British music, which is possibly the harshest comment I can say about this album. It's an album you need to experience, not for its qualities (which are non-existent,) but for its potential parodies. Dizzee Rascal is the joke, he's the sole reason this music is shit. He had a choice, and he took the money and fame over skill and credibility. He's now in the same category as LMFAO, Steve Aoki, and The Black Eyed Peas. Tongue n' Cheek wasn't bad, Dizzee Rascal was still at the heart of the album, and his lyrics still mattered. The Fifth is like a dodgy pop mixtape where the guests matter more than the name on the front. Dizzee Rascal didn't make these beats, he hasn't produced it, he's had help writing these tracks, and he doesn’t sing the refrains... The Fifth is as empty as Dizzee Rascal's own contribution.


Discovery: ETCHES - Let's Move In

Artists that play a mixture of post-punk and electronica are bracketed under the most simple and unoriginal genre title in music, electronic rock. The grouping is for LCD Soundsystem, who are too influenced by Iggy Pop to be an electronic band, but are also heavily involved with dance-punk, meaning they're too electronic to be associated with post-punk. It's a genre that brings to mind several bands, and many who started out in the 00s as British post punk-revivalists: Editors, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and White Lies. This is the last generation of indie rock, the post-feedback age of Cut Copy and Django Django. Sure, the rock is still there, and omitting guitars from this music is rare for electronic rock, but it's also a happening genre where the bounds of six strings can be broken and manipulated.

ETCHES are a newly formed quintet from Liverpool. They've taken the guitar rock aesthetics of 80s independent rock (Pixies, Joy Division, Pavement) and mixed it with the aforementioned British electronic rock acts of the 00s. When you take the riffs most associated with New York's Interpol and the electronics most likely to be found on an Everything Everything B-side; "Let's Move In" is born. Instead of using synthesizers heavily like with Editors' In This Light and on This Evening, ETCHES have utilised the sound of their baritone vocalist, most associated with the post-punk genre, and they've taken a light approach to their electronics. There’s a stark synthesizer riff acting as the basis for building, which happens rather quickly. The left / right sided electric guitar combat is a common approach, but one that needs to be done to succeed within this bracket of music.

"Let's Move In" has a catchy refrain, backed by defining characteristics like the right sided guitar solo, the reverberated layers of vocals, and the overall song structure; which is very impressive for debut material. This is a song ETCHES can build on. It may be tricky however, to pick them up out of a ditch where their music will almost entirely be placed thanks to genre labelling and the infinite wisdom of reviewers... All genres aside, ETCHES' "Let’s Move In" is a bright spark in a dark hole where the up and comers either fall flat on their faces in mediocrity or reach local/national stardom in the press.