Monday, 26 May 2014
In many ways, this was doomed from the start. Pixies released some of the greatest alternative rock known to man throughout the late 80's and early 90's, and the magic captured inside those 4 LP's has seen the band rise to God-like status in the music industry, credited by countless bands (among them such small names as Nirvana, Radiohead and Pavement) as their reason for existence. Outside their massive impact upon the music scene itself, the Pixies fan base has steadily grown since their parting of ways in 1993, and so too has the unanimous acclaim that the band now commands upon their very mention in critics circles.
And so the question really has to be why- specifically why now, 23 years after the band bowed out with Trompe Le Monde, did Pixies feel the need to give us Indie Cindy? A gap of two decades between albums for any band is going to be problematic, but Pixies seem to have only raised more questions and eyebrows in the process of releasing their fifth effort than actually settling any stomachs about the impending arrival of new material, much less get us excited about it all. First and foremost there's the fact that this is not unheard work- the tracks that make up Cindy consist largely of 3 EP's that were released over the past year to mainly lukewarm reception, making the full album format seem almost totally unnecessary. On top of that there's the absence of co-founder Kim Deal and a frankly dodgy title thrown into the already lame mix, adding to the suspicion that this will not be a classic Pixies comeback, or even a very good album at all.
Cindy kicks off pretty well though with ''What Goes Boom'', an opener that briefly inspires hope
by bringing the heavy/soft dynamics of ''Gouge Away'' and more classics back into play, but this optimistic outlook doesn't last long. In fact, it comes crashing down with ''Greens And Blues'', an indie pop style ballad that has no rightful place in the band's catalogue. Alongside the title track, this kind of indistinct mush comes off more like a parody or cover band more than the original thing. ''Bagboy'', the first track released post reunion, isn't terribly bad but average at best, and really should have acted as an initial warning to Frank Black not to follow up on this ill advised venture.
When the band stop pussy footing around and go back to heavier roots as with ''What Goes Boom'' things improve, like with ''Magdalena 318'', another rocker the like of which the band would have done well to fill Cindy out with, rather than the slower, plod along tunes that make up the majority of the track list (I'm looking at you, ''Silver Snail'' and ''Andro Queen''). The softer side of Cindy isn't completely unbearable in small doses- ''Ring The Bell'' is a gentle surf rock tune that's pleasant on the ears, but it's impossible to escape the thought throughout this 3 minute pleaser that it could have benefited hugely from Deal's presence. But surrounding ''Bell'' on the tracklist is evidence that rocking out doesn't always work for Black and co. here either- ''Another Toe In The Ocean'' and ''Blue Eyed Hexe'' again sound like the attempt of a band to cover their former, more inspired selves with diminishing results.
As we thankfully approach the end of the album, Pixies gift us with their worst track yet in ''Snakes'', a simply amateur attempt at pop/rock that's about as forgettable as Sum 41 filler, which is a fitting description considering that it sounds the kind of material which should have ended up stuck in the middle of a lowly pop-punk album in the early 2000's. ''Jaime Bravo'' closes shop with an inoffensive wave of guitars that neither adds to nor takes away from the numbness any Pixies faithful should be feeling right about the moment Indie Cindy concludes and the band, exhausted from trying to catch up with their younger selves, gratefully bow out and exit stage.
What more is there to say about Indie Cindy? Not a whole lot that can't be heard by pressing play and exposing yourself to the shadows of Frank Black, Joey Santiago and Dave Lovering on this tired, draining return for the legendary group. Certainly there were many signs that Cindy would be a let down, and unfortunately they've proven to be so very sad but true, as the band cap their wonderful career with an unmistakable black mark. Perhaps the most depressing thing about it all is that it just didn't have to be this way- in 23 years the Pixies had done nothing but age gracefully and win generation after generation of new fans with a near flawless output. But in 2014, for reasons that will remain a mystery, Pixies have scarred themselves with an album that's many things (weak, confused, careless, miscalculated) but most of, totally and utterly pointless.
Thursday, 22 May 2014
''Never be afraid of the obvious, it's all been done before.''
That Noel Gallagher quote right there is what Oasis built themselves around since day one. The unashamedly working class, in your face rock music that they emerged with 20 years ago to this day has been paraded around the world on stadium tours to the masses ever since, and two decades after Definitely Maybe hit record stores we're left in a temporarily Oasis-less world, making this a better time than ever to capitalize on the success of the feuding brothers in the first place.
The story of Liam and Noel's confrontational relationship only added to the traditional rock'n'roll band persona that they pushed since the start, and whenever critics felt like taking a pop they only had to point to the brothers Beatlemania obsession and its domineering impact on their discography to accuse them of plagiarizing their way to their iconic status, but that was always nonsense. The truth is that someone has to be that big band, and for the last twenty years Oasis have played the part with aplomb. They were aware of it from the start too (the first song on the album is called ''Rock'N'Roll Star'', come on), and when you revise it on this remastered version, from the sound of Definitely Maybe, they were ready to become legends from the very beginning.
We're introduced to Oasis with a defiant statement on their desire for success, delivered by the snarled drawl that would become so synonymous with Liam backed by Noel's simple yet strong lyrics and a heavy mix of guitar and drums. ''Rock'N'Roll Star'' and ''Shakermaker'' are effective intro's and both made for great singles, but listening to the opening sounds of ''Live Forever'' on track three will transport you back inside the world of the band so quickly that you'll remember in an instant why they're so celebrated if you were ever in doubt. The standout single, which reached as far as No 2 on the US Billboard even back in 1995, is still without doubt among the band's finest, and alongside ''Supersonic'', one of the greatest songs of the 1990's. Noel stated at the time that he wrote it as a counter act to the Grunge explosion and it's downer attitude taking place within rock music at the time, and both tracks were vital in delivering the UK and eventually the rest of the world with a new scene, and something to believe in following Kurt Cobain's passing and the eventual death of the Seattle born genre soon afterward.
Speaking of Grunge though, it's somewhat ironic that the band fought against and eventually succeeded their American counterparts when you consider tracks like ''Up In The Sky'' and ''Bring It On Down'' that most certainly took a leaf or two from the aforementioned style of the 90's with a sped up pace and distorted guitar showcasing that Noel was never afraid to mix and match something he liked to his own music, even if he'd typically end up trashing it in the press afterward. Other major highlights are the ones that show the softer side to the band- ''Slide Away'' and ''Married With Children'', the album's closing tracks, suggest the kind of maturity that would eventually manifest itself in the group's magnum opus ''Champagne Supernova'' a couple of years later, but as Definitely Maybe comes to a smooth, almost humbling end, it's obvious that the band were destined for glory all the way back in '94.
The best, and simplest, way to summarize Definitely Maybe is with another Noel Gallagher quote, one in which he claimed "I've pretty much summed up everything I wanted to say in "Rock 'n' Roll Star", "Live Forever" and "Cigarettes & Alcohol'', after that I'm repeating myself, but in a different way". Maybe that's a dismissive way to put it, but maybe he's right too- what came afterwards got better, worse and leveled out to some extent but the message, the attitude and the style of it all remained the same, and that's why at its heart Definitely Maybe, while not Oasis' best album, is probably their most definitive. It's one that celebrates the band, their fans and its culture like no other while capturing British rock in the 90's like lightening in a bottle, and that's enough for it to qualify as one of many seminal recordings in a landmark decade of music.
This reissue is certainly going to give fans a reminder why they still want Noel, Liam and Oasis to exist in peace, and the fact is that there's more reason to hope than ever since they called it a day in 2009 if you're to believe Liam's cryptic Twitter account. You might never hear the results of the band stepping into a studio again (and maybe that's a not a total loss) but twenty years on it's hard to believe we won't be hearing the band launch into ''Rock'n'Roll Star'', ''Live Forever'' and ''Supersonic'' again sometime in the near future, and that will be a very welcome sound to the legion of fans that Oasis originally won in 1994 with this brash, instinctive debut record.
Wednesday, 21 May 2014
Ever since Conor Oberst captured mainstream attention in 2005 with the acoustic glory of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, he slowly began to shift away from the tendencies that made him such a divisive songwriter in his early career. Early is perhaps an understatement; Oberst released his debut work as Bright Eyes at the age of just 17, and the resulting recordings all the way from A Collection Of Songs... in 1998 to Lifted in 2002 marked a series of ear splitting emotional wreckage that won serious critical acclaim and reproach for its searing teenage angst. But as the Nebraska native matured, so too did the music, as Cassadaga and The People's Key showcased a much more subdued poet, one who dealt more in spiritual and political topics than the naked, soul baring extremities of the past. Much like earlier work, previous albums have found fans and detractors both with the media and Bright Eyes' legion of followers, making it seem very much the case that Conor Oberst can't escape controversy anywhere he goes.
So it's interesting then that the Omaha man's recently revived solo career has rolled on quietly and consistently since it was cautiously picked back up in 2008 in between Bright Eyes projects. Oberst's individual work seems to be a hideaway for the songwriter when he's feeling a little more down to earth and relaxed than usual, and so the folk style ramblings of his previous two solo efforts have reflected this desire for inner peace- they're content, solid pieces that'll provide you with the odd moment of serenity and warmth, but never the blistering intensity and unforgettable fire that Bright Eyes was always ready to light underneath you. So while it's safe to say Oberst has never quite delivered a solo record worthy of his most notorious stage name, there was hope for Upside Down Mountain from the start, due to quotes from the man himself suggesting a balance between both sides of the now 34 year old.
What we get in reality is a twin brother of 2008's self titled effort, a straight up folk crowd pleaser that offers plenty of warm acoustic vibes and intimate tones without ever really reaching for anything more interesting or meaningful. The album is mostly divided into two different types of song- the upbeat, pop friendly tunes that hint at a somewhat deeper subject matter without clearly defining their message (''Zigzagging Toward The Light'', ''Hundreds Of Ways'', ''Kick'') and the down tempo, solemn country sounds of the other half, which is where the record finds most of its success.
''Double Time'' and ''Lonely At The Top'' are sorrow tinged ballads that populate the mid section, with ''Lonely'' recalling ''Laura Laurent'' from prime Bright Eyes in particular, albeit without quite the same depth of feeling and emotion- the title says all you need to know about an uncharacteristically shallow subject by Oberst's standards. ''Midnight At Lake Unknown'' and ''Desert Island Questionnaire'' are laid back acoustic meditations that sound quite nice but are mostly indistinguishable from the rest of the album, while ''Governors Ball'' is a self explanatory lead single as the only track that actually uses the electric guitar. It's a strong moment, one that separates itself from the rest with nice instrumentation overall that includes a trumpet and saxophone to boot, but the real highlight of the album lies in ''You Are Your Mothers Child'', the most engaging song on Upside Down by a mile, with its lullaby acoustic nature, gentle delivery and tender, beautiful lyrical ability, the kind of which should by all rights be expected of Oberst on every track considering his prowess. In truth, for all the pleasantries of the album, best translated by the warm welcoming and soft goodbyes of ''Time Forgot'' and ''Common Knowledge'' respectively, ''Mother's Child'' is the only real moment on Upside Down that you really feel Oberst shine through in his usual hypnotic way, and that's a fairly damning verdict no matter what way you look at it.
There is nothing obviously wrong with Upside Down Mountain- as stated, it's filled with an intimate vibe and friendly melodies throughout, but that safeness and normality is the essence of the problem itself. There were always huge flaws on albums like Fevers & Mirrors and Lifted, from the broken, untrained voice and unrehearsed yelps to the voices in the background of makeshift, shoddy recording conditions, but that was what demanded our attention in the first place- it was a unique kind of heart and soul that couldn't be bought, and when Oberst grew up in the late noughties he still found a way to translate his spirit and swirling thoughts into a magical journey on a grander scale through Cassadaga and The People's Key.
But yet again the folk ramblings of Oberst haven't quite hit the right note and it's obvious after even one listen of Upside Down Mountain that they never will. The album is fine, but it feels wrong to settle for that considering the incredible talent behind it and what we all know him to be capable of on form. The unceremonious claim that The People's Key was to be a retirement album for Bright Eyes in 2012 was somewhat hard to take seriously- it seemed like that persona would always be found somewhere inside Oberst no matter what his ambitions were toward other long term projects, but now it's even harder to swallow considering the potential ramifications of a real closing of the door for Bright Eyes and that chapter of Conor Oberst's career. If this really is the way forward from now on for one of the most gifted songwriters of this generation, we'll only be left wondering what happened to that teenage boy locked inside his bedroom on a cold night in Nebraska rather than celebrating the realization of his talent and growth into the genius that befit his young age.
If you balk at the above judgement of Oberst's ability that's perfectly normal- anyone who has ever heard the man sing and play a guitar has had a different assessment of his talent over the past two decades, but it was always clear in spite of those vehemently differing opinions that he was totally unlike anyone else in music. Upside Down Mountain sounds like it could have been written by just about anyone right now- it's an album you'll hear fifty times this year, drowned in a sea of similar material, and at the end of it all, that's the worst thing you can say about an album by Conor Oberst.
Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Electric Picnic have announced a further 21 names to this summers line up. The list includes Irish female icon and controversial singer-songwriter Sinead O Connor, LCD Soundsystem retiree James Murphy and legendary 80's rockers Blondie among plenty of others.
Joining them with be lower key highlights such as Scottish post rock act Mogwai, indie/post punk favourites The Horrors, and R&B idol Kelis.
For me, much like the first announcement, this is a solid line up of additions but somewhat lacking in the extraordinary quality of the past 5 or so years.
In any case, the full list of additions is as follows:
James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame)
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Vancouver Sleep Clinic
My plan over the next couple of months is to prepare for EP by selecting my favourite artists from the line up and writing up profiles for each, including best tracks, albums and such so stick with HMM for Electric Picnic previews which will be up and running before the end of the month.
Sunday, 11 May 2014
Iggy Azalea gave us plenty of reasons to listen to The New Classic before its eventual release this year; there was her extraordinary background story, a duo of mixtapes released over the past 2 years featuring input from an impressive set of producers including mentor TI and Diplo, and then this year came a pair of fantastic charting singles in ''Work'' and especially ''Fancy'', a number one worldwide smash hit that has demanded mainstream attention over the past month. All of this points to the possible introduction of a new female hip-hop talent with crossover appeal to boot, so does Azalea's debut album deliver star quality?
Not quite. The New Classic has its moments for sure, but they're too few and far between to ever really provide a coherent product. Those moments come mainly in the form of songs we've already heard, such as the two lead singles, which boast excellent production skills and real vocal talent from Azalea. ''Fancy'' in particular is comfortably the album highlight one of the singles of 2014 thus far, making great use of another like minded artist in Charli XCX to compliment Iggy's bars. And that itself is one of the standout features of Azalea's repertoire; she can really rap. Unlike other similar female rap stars, Azalea is a real, passionate hip-hop head and this serves to make the stunning Australian stand out from a large crowd of female talent in her genre at the moment.
Other highlights include electro tinged, rap heavy album opener ''Walk The Line'', smooth R'n'B jam ''Don't Need Y'all'' and a solid run of braggadoccio tracks toward the end of proceedings from ''Impossible Is Nothing'' to ''Lady Patra'', but there are a number of problems with the remainder of the tracklist that drag The New Classic down. ''Fuck Love'' closes the album on a bad note with a repetitive, empty hook that Azalea should look to avoid in the future if she wants to be a credible artist rather than merely a loud/controversial one, while other tracks like ''100'' and ''Change Your Life'' are no more than weak chart bait with underwhelming production that Iggy responds badly too. Conversely, ''New Bitch'' is only saved by the cool synths that distract the listener from a lyrically woeful track.
If we're to focus on the positive aspects of The New Classic for a moment, credit is due to Iggy for bringing across a typically male style rap persona (with the ego, brash style and delivery) with absolutely no fear or reproach of herself, an element that deserves praise in itself- Azalea executes a style that could so easily have gone laughably wrong with a comfortable and assured personality. In addition to this, it certainly wouldn't be crazy to suggest that the Australian has learned a thing or two from ex-boyfriend A$AP Rocky regarding choice of production style, with several areas of Classic recalling Rocky's debut early last year due to their cold, dreamy synth style.
With that said it's also true that the producers here are guilty of making and breaking some tracks as Watch The Duck and The Messengers create the most average beats here and in turn the most average tunes- when Iggy is backed up correctly here, she usually responds well. It's a real shame too that the potential of the album is never realized either; the industry could really use some strong female rappers, so it's hard not to think of The New Classic as a missed opportunity.
At the end of it all, The New Classic is an inconsistent debut, but one with some great pop rap moments that make the experience worthwhile and give us reason to believe that Azalea can sharpen up and focus on her abilities while ignoring her impulse to lean toward the limelight with superficial chart fillers. While not as impressive as recent debuts like True Romance and No Mythologies To Follow, The New Classic shouldn't be dismissed; Iggy has a style that will keep her interesting and relevant for a while yet, let's just hope she uses that time to hone herself into a more adept, conclusive artist.