Blues, Pop

Hunter- “So Gay” Review

Billed modestly in press releases as “The greatest gay anthem of all time?”, “So Gay” is the latest offering from Tanzanian singer Hunter. Raised to Indian parents in the former capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, an environment in which homophobia is governmentally sanctioned, it’s tempting to read “So Gay” as less of a timid emergence from the closet as a cavalry charge into Judy Garland’s swimming pool.

The track surprisingly eschews the Vengaboys-esque glitzy tat of many songs self-consciously styling themselves as gay anthems in favour of a measured, bluesy stomp, complete with bluegrass ornamentation and twanged slugs of walking Double Bass. Hunter works in his Indian heritage with blares of Bollywood brass, and unorthodox vocal processing in the chorus spools his voice into a digitised babble.

Vocally, the singer has apparently spent several decades gurgling battery acid in Tom Waits’ diaphragm, gnarling his voice into a wizened growl somewhere between a chain-smoking Genghis Khan and Moe from the Simpsons, which lends a delicious incongruity to his opening salvo “You think I’m weak, a fairy boy?” Although dealing in didactic and hackneyed gay-is-OK platitudes that are readily available in countless other songs, there is a wry playfulness to Hunter’s drawled instruction to “Never mess with the gays/Have a heavenly day”, and his impish awareness of his own daftness in his gruff boasts that “Your girlfriend wants me, sister too”. Although advertised as “the leader of an LGBT revolution”, he might have to settle for charmed bemusement and polite applause for now. CO


Listen here:

Alternative, Indie, Pop, Rock

Everything Everything- “A Fever Dream” Review

In 2015 Everything Everything released a superbly inventive pop album entitled “Get to Heaven”, which received infuriatingly little attention and soon sunk back into the mire of quiet, docile reputability that seems so oddly unbecoming of the band. This was obstinate, often luridly colourful and wryly brazen music that didn’t belong in the back lanes of British “indie”, even though the lumping of the band into this category at all strains credulity. After the opulent blowout of “Get to Heaven”, “A Fever Dream” feels strangely like an incidental epilogue, irrespective of its contents. If their last album didn’t have the requisite boldness to break them, what will?

The band don’t seem to have an answer either, merely dimming the technicolour glare of “Get to Heaven” into muted blacks and oranges, Dante’s inferno via grainy polaroid. “A Fever Dream” is aptly named, a murkier and subtler work that eschews the punchy bombast of their previous albums in favour of more uncertain, introspective tones. “Good Shot, Good Soldier” emerges from beige aimlessness into a weary, rotating grandeur, while “Run the Numbers” buries a superb vocal melody beneath a down-tuned riff and Tom Morello-aping solo. As always, the unusual intonation and dynamism of Jonathan Higgs’ vocals dominate, as he gently wrings sympathy from the likes of the tender “Put Me Together”.

Despite the floaty moodiness of many of the tracks, much of the songwriting here is noticeably more conventional. “Desire” bludgeons its listener into submission with dreadnought synths and the belted brashness of its chorus, although it redeems itself with a superb bridge. Some sort of newfound fuzzy rockism tramples the intricacy of “Big Game”, with a dash of Rush or even Dream Theatre slashed into the proggy riffing of “Ivory Tower”. Although perhaps momentarily diverting, the allure of Everything Everything is their genre-bending and oddball vim, and they are far more unremarkable as a conventional rock band.

Unsurprisingly, there are scattered moments of transcendent beauty here, such as the swell of brass midway through “Good Shot, Good Soldier”, the complex arpeggios “Big Game” breaks into around the 2-minute mark or the entirety of the enveloping stateliness of “New Deep”. However, a faint air of anti-climax pervades the album, which was perhaps inevitable when it was tailing the cocksure cohesion of “Get to Heaven”. For the first time in their career the band feel suspended in aural stasis, treading water, with little here that they haven’t already attempted elsewhere. Unsure of how to progress, they have concaved slightly into the (by their standards) conventionalism of their second record, “Arc”. It’s a real pity they took the rather self-consciously “credible” path on “A Fever Dream”, because there’s a phenomenally strange pop band in there somewhere, nibbling at the walls. CO


Listen here:

Pop, Rock

Weezer- “Pacific Daydream” Review

The Beach Boys. The Doors. The Smiths. Steve Ray Vaughan. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

Whether these references, liberally scattered throughout the album, are simply intended to cushion the inevitable scorn of Weezer’s fanbase towards the work billed as the band’s foray into pure pop, or whether they betray a deeper sense of nostalgia and loss, is the central intrigue of “Pacific Daydream”. For all its breezy hooks and Pro Tools sheen, a wistfulness and melancholy slinks beneath the surface of the album. With its members well into their late 40s and early 50s, Weezer is an ageing band, and one that seems acutely aware that this may be its last comically futile gasp at pop viability, even if it is little more than an asthmatic wheeze. To be absolutely clear, “Pacific Daydream” is not going to produce hit singles, regardless of its tracks’ commerciality or lack of it. Just as Linkin Park’s “Heavy” didn’t catapult them into the hit parade, “Feels Like Summer” or, heaven forbid, “Beach Boys”, will not beckon Rhianna guest features and VMA glitz. It’s just not going to happen. But I digress.

Given that chart hits seem out of reach, “Pacific Daydream” is worryingly only readable as part of the Weezer canon. Though far from the band’s first venture into squeaky-clean pop—there’s the scrubbed-from-the-record “Raditude”, the not-as-bad-but-still-embarrassing “Hurley” and arguably even “The Green Album”—it’s their most overt and fully-realised. However, despite the cosmetic stylistic revamp, Rivers Cuomo’s old lyrical themes quickly resurface: loneliness and confusion, societal otherness, a childishly absolute faith in the wonders of love. Potentially jarring references to romantic longing and summer at the beach are somehow acceptable from Weezer. At this point, midlife crisis has become their house style.

Although they have dabbled in electronic pop—2009’s nightmarish “Can’t Stop Partying” looms ominously into view—“Pacific Daydream” is far more Train than Avicii. Surprisingly, the album often gets away with its glib, blustery commercialism thanks to the sturdiness of its tracks: “Weekend Woman” is as good a pop song as the band have ever recorded, and “Sweet Mary” is a lush evocation of both vintage Weezer and the ‘60s Californian harmonies they incessantly fetishize. Even “Feels Like Summer”, once the antiseptic cleanliness of the album has been acclimatised to, is a punchy, effectively constructed track.

However, what is most pervasive is a sense of dislocation from modern musical trends, and society generally. Allusions to this abound, from “It’s a hip-hop world” on “Beach Boys” to “You gotta choose between the internet and me” on the finger-picked “QB Blitz”. However, despite risking down-with-the-kids desperation, Weezer’s submersion in earnest poptimism feels far less incongruous than it should; the band have always written pop hooks, and their lovelorn sincerity slots right into the pop vernacular. “Pacific Daydream” therefore treads an uneasy line, somehow both not Weezer at all and the logical conclusion of the band. Not nearly as bad as you might think. CO


Listen here:

Pop, Prog-Rock, Singer-songwriter

Steven Wilson- “To the Bone” Review

Despite a career spanning more than 30 years, you probably don’t know who Steven Wilson is. Described by The Daily Telegraph as “the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of”, he rose to relative prominence as frontman of the band Porcupine Tree, as well as working with a plethora of storied bands playing prog or off-kilter pop, from King Crimson to Tears for Fears. However, the cover of “To the Bone”, his fifth solo album (although he has produced endless work through other names and projects) implies a literal and figurative stripping down. Rather than the studiedly moody Porcupine Tree album covers, here a shirtless Wilson is simply lit blue against a red backdrop in a repudiation of his previous tetchiness about publicity.

In some ways, “To the Bone” does seem to amalgamate all his divergent creations and influences: for instance, in dazzling highlight “Refuge” there are echoes of Rush in Wilson’s soft vocals—Geddy Lee but less shrill—or perhaps Tool in the mechanised, vaguely Eastern clatter. However, “Permanating” is weirdly reminiscent of ABBA at times, illuminating an underbelly of pure pop that intermittently surfaces throughout “To the Bone”. The album also strays into fleet-footed metal at times in the maniacal, jazzy riffing that concludes “Detonation”, or the trebley bite of “People Who Eat Darkness”, whose riff’s similarity to that of Metallica’s “The Memory Remains” is difficult to ignore.

However, this constant genre-hopping proves surprisingly stylistically durable. Even the broody Depeche Mode affectations of “Song of I” dovetail into typically maximalist string swells, snapping the song cleanly into the album’s track listing. The exception to this rule is the arpeggiated restraint of “Blank Tapes”, whose resemblance to Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” isn’t too tenuous given Wilson’s prog credentials. The track is a welcome avenue of quiet prettiness, coming off more like “Ghost”-era Devin Townsend than the glittering bombast of “The Same Asylum as Before”, which balloons from tastefully bluesy soloing into a scalding climax somewhere between A Perfect Circle and The Chameleons.

However, despite the musical smorgasbord Wilson unveils, his undeniable technical skill sometimes struggles to gloss over a dearth of emotional engagement. The album’s lyrical opacity occasionally gives way to bland sloganeering: “I float above the stars, and I feel the rush of love” he gaudily declares on “Nowhere Now”. Nonetheless, “To the Bone” is largely carried by its musicianship, which is thankfully and necessarily excellent. Wilson’s virtuosity electrifies the album, providing it with its integral heft and invention. However, it is maybe this slightly alienating reliance upon technical ability that keeps Steven Wilson as “the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of”. Or then again, maybe he just likes it better that way. CO


Listen here:


Brian Wilson- Live Review

In Newcastle’s Times Square—it struggles to compete with its American counterpart, but it makes do—a stage has been assembled and hastily barricaded off. A drizzly enclave in the North East is a strangely incongruous place to see Brian Wilson in the flesh, given that in the popular imagination he is virtually indivisible from the California he rhapsodizes about in his work, but seeing him at all in old age is surprising. His tragically comprehensive wringing out in the 70s and 80s—drug addiction, mental illness, creative roadblocks: the works—has thankfully mellowed into more peaceful, productive twilight years, and his current tour is a mammoth farewell hike that he’s already 17 months into.

Aureoled beneath deathly white lights, Wilson himself cuts an almost spectral figure onstage: a softer jaw and greyer thatch than the tanned boy-next-door of the public consciousness, but still recognisably the same. At 75 he is shaky vocally, often slurring or garbling his parts, but he is carried by the wonderfully precise harmonies of his band. He remains a relatively remote presence, engaging in brief and clearly scripted audience banter and leaving the rest to his musicians, but there is a pervasive sense that the crowd is there to exalt him regardless.

Indeed, there is a sharp delineation in perceptions of the Beach Boys between the casual fans, who adhere to the general perception of the band as a kitschy, surfy novelty, and the more hardcore cadre to whom Wilson is a quasi-mythical misunderstood, tormented genius. This crowd fall firmly into the latter camp, papering over the cracks in Wilson’s voice with warm enthusiasm: as the show opens with the irresistible bounce of “California Girls” there is a rapturous wave of cheering that almost drowns Wilson out, ironically.

From there the show is harnessed by Wilson’s superlative band, who thunder through the classics with precision and brio. Al Jardine’s son Matt does much of the vocal heavy lifting—through some bizarre irony, Brian Wilson’s 2017 band contains more Beach Boys than the Mike Love-fronted band that tours under the Beach Boys name—and the complex harmonies are note-perfect. They will be needed as the band crest into Pet Sounds, ending up playing it in its entirety. The greatest compliment the musicians could be paid that they sound virtually identical to the album, with the deep cuts sparkling beautifully (“That’s Not Me” and “I Know There’s an Answer” are particular highlights). From there’s it’s a home run through an effervescent string of hits, including a robust “Good Vibrations”. However, perhaps the most revealing moment occurs after the concert ends. Within literally 2 minutes of the final notes of a tender “Love and Mercy”, security shunt open a backstage gate and a four-by-four carrying Wilson streaks away into the night. As ever, the flesh-and-blood Brian Wilson is subsumed by his legend. CO


Listen here:

Afrobeat, House, Pop

Bimbi Philips- “Lamba” Review

Bimbi Philips’ music is, to a large extent, a study in escapism. By day an IT consultant in London, he moonlights as a singer of fizzy Afrobeat, and this contrast is exemplified not just by the tropical zest of his music but by the “Lamba” music video, in which he is zapped from a grey city street to a lush forest, snowy peak and fire-lit log cabin. He is also escaping from the traditional Afrobeat of Fela Kuti in his incorporation of elements of house and modern EDM in the airy, clean production, synthesised basslines and clipped, ecomical drum machines of “Lamba”.

In this, Philips makes an effective stab at pop resonance. His music is far lighter and breezier than an Ebo Taylor or a Kuti, and the influence of modern pop is evident in his soft, slightly effeminate vocals that are vaguely reminiscent of Justin Bieber or The Weeknd. “Lamba” is carried by its nagging, insistent bassline and the unusual African inflections of Philips’ singing, although they never overpower the cheerful, blustery accessibility of the music. The sunny optimism of “Lamba” almost tips into self-parody at times—notably in the repetition of “I’m going to do everything for you ‘cos I love you”, but the lyrics are a circumstantial concern and barely scratch the potential of “Lamba” as a nascent club hit. CO


Listen here:

Hip Hop, Pop

DJ Khaled- “Grateful” Review

The prevalence of DJ Khaled in modern pop and hip-hop is perpetually puzzling. A man who doesn’t produce his own beats, and who is, to put it kindly, a limited MC and lyricist has nonetheless been heard bellowing his own name on radio hits for over a decade. By his own admission, Khaled is closer to an organiser and promoter of the music that is released in his name, generating a reputation through his bullish self-promotion and seemingly endless connections. A brief scroll through the track listing of “Grateful” will reveal endless famous names: Beyoncé, Jay Z, Rhianna, Drake, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj just to name a few.

Khaled’s status as a meme is also probably a contributing factor in his fame. His escapades, including famously getting lost on a jetski, leaking his own sex tape and live-streaming the birth of his son have all drawn bemused incredulity, as well as the easy dilution of his brand down to a handful of hollered phrases—“Another one”, “We The Best Music”, “Congratulations, you played yourself”. In this noisy and transient zeitgeist-defining, his actual music is often lost.

“Grateful” itself is primarily defined both consciously and unconsciously by excess. The record bloats horribly at 23 songs, loosely defined as a concept album about Khaled’s thankfulness for his “blessings”, namely his fame, his money and his son. An Apple interview before the album’s release provides a surprisingly insightful glimpse into his mentality in producing “Grateful”: “This is my 10th album so I’m going all out… there’s no album cuts on there, these are all anthem singles”. Indeed, tracks often seem to mirror recent rap hits: “Iced Out My Arms” bears a strong resemblance to Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” and “Good Man” sounds a bit like Desiigner’s “Panda”.

Ironically, as the album wears on, the endless guest spots that were probably intended to obscure Khaled’s lack of talent become its greatest weakness. Songs like “Whatever” are ruined simply through overcrowding, various guests virtually shouting over one another to be heard, and this is mirrored in the glossy clutter of the production. This problem is compounded by Khaled’s desire to make the album into a non-stop hit-fest, meaning that there are no subtle, reserved moments on “Grateful” in which the listener can catch their breath. Despite being 23 tracks long, the record still feels strangely truncated and rushed.

In amongst the unfocused clutter and noise there are glimmers of potential. One of the best moments on “Grateful” is the relaxed, sunny and (at least comparatively) spacious “I’m the One”, which will probably become one of the biggest songs of the summer. “Wild Thoughts” is a dreamy Spanish guitar reverie with a passable Rhianna guest spot, and “I Love You So Much” is a catchy enough to survive the typical pointless overproduction, a sweet Jackson 5 pastiche glorifying Khaled’s son with likeably ridiculous Khaled hyperbole (“you’re a mogul, you’re an icon, you’re a legend”). However, most of the rest of the album is lost in a din of headache-inducing excess, soullessly clinical production and Future’s ridiculous comatose flow. CO


Listen here: