album: The Crookes – ‘Soapbox’

Emblazoned with the freewheeling spirit of the Beat Generation, 2012 saw The Crookes hone their penchant for tightly constructed, unashamed pop songs with Hold Fast, none more pertinently than on the almost-cinematic, cascading sunset-gorged melancholy of ‘Sal Paradise’, poetically capturing the essence of Jack Kerouac’s diffident, introverted narrator of On The Road the song takes its name from. Indeed, writing songs about solitary people so lucidly, so poignantly and so naturally seems to perhaps stem from being inherently solitary characters themselves: their formation is a much-regurgitated tale of dancing alone in the dark of the Steel City, commercial success has perpetually eluded them, and even founding member and lead guitarist Alex Saunders jettisoned from the band’s vehement #NEWPOP cause (to be replaced by Tom Dakins, recently referred to by lead vocalist George Waite as a ‘blessing in disguise’). But, despite all this, they retain an unwavering propensity for hopeless romanticism that is wholly endearing. Which brings me to Soapbox, the consciously more focused followup recorded in a suitably remote, abandoned church in the northern Italian alps, evoking palpable senses of harmony and isolation that pervade thematically and sonically.

Taking its cue from last year’s meatier, rollicking groove of ‘Bear’s Blood’, opener and lead single ‘Play Dumb’ marks a somewhat bold musical progression, loosening the shackles of the foursome’s jangly mantra with thumping drums and spikily sullen guitars, and continuing their collective ripening into the Angry Young Men they’d always threatened to be since Albert Finney, the face of working-class, youthful disillusionment in ’60s era-Britain by means of his role in Karel Reisz’ superb Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, graced the cover of their debut LP. Directing their frustration at the music industry itself – perennially casting them as outsiders, a role they admirably embrace throughout Soapbox – it’s a rallying cry for their individualistic ethos of making music they want to make, one you could imagine being sermonised on an actual soapbox on the streets of Sheffield, as George Waite howls his defiant refusal to play dumb and “change to get you off”.

The album’s other most potently self-conscious stab at the prominent theme of isolation is centrepiece ‘Outsiders’, marrying Daniel Hopewell’s sincerely optimistic lyrics and Waite’s unusually expressive vocals with glistening melodicism that sees the band revelling in the Kerouacian attitude of “waiting for something to happen” but not knowing exactly what that something is. ‘Howl’ is further exploration of this, as the narrator articulates his affinity for being left alone with his imagination and “watching the world go by” over the docile, brooding melancholy of the guitar melody and domesticated drums, with the title explicitly tipping its hat to another figure of Beat poetry in Allen Ginsberg and his acclaimed poem of the same name. Akin to the use of Sal Paradise on Hold Fast, the allusion adds greater literary depth to the narration of the song, lyrically evoking a similar sense of despair and solitude that Ginsberg communicates in his magnificent opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”.

Embodying the ethereal spaciousness of the abandoned church recorded in, ‘Holy Innocents’ inevitably imbues the album with a religious undercurrent, sacralising an ill-fated love affair through lonesome piano chords and Waite’s cracking, whispered vocals. The fragile ballad is essentially Soapbox’s answer to ‘The I Love You Bridge’ – although falls just short of the profound, raw heartache Waite’s anguished wailing conveyed, as Hopewell masterfully built further on a piece of iconic, tragically romantic piece of Sheffield graffiti (proving “it’s the gesture, don’t you know?”) – demonstrating their talent for quietly affecting, majestically intimate love songs not confounded to jovial, jangly guitar pop. Standout ‘Echolalia’, meanwhile, offers further proof the production is in harmony with the atmospherics of the church: it boasts a sprawling, reverb-laden sound that’s airy and dense at once, with its Orange Juice-ish chiming guitars and post-punk bass divulging into an ’80s aesthetic. Dysfunctional love reappears in ‘When You’re Fragile’, disguised by the infectiously melodic, overtly pop-oriented surface of jangling riffs that apex and soar in the chorus, a staple of their now-signature sound. It’s a song whereby Hopewell interestingly demasculises his male narrator, casting him adrift in the wilderness of sincerity and honesty, leaving him to openly confess of his affection for sharing a bond based on sorrow and pain, arguing that “if it don’t hurt, it ain’t worthwhile.” ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’ is similarly grounded in brutally self-deprecating confessions of self-doubt and vulnerability, employing the positively Shakespearean symbolism of “fading like old light here” that’s reinforced by the dark, nightly bassline.

The supercharged, frenzied jaunts of the ‘Soapbox’ chorus bring the album to a close on an emphatic note, with Waite’s cries of “young love screaming from a soapbox” epitomising the themes of youth and unrequited love that characteristically pervade throughout the entirety of Soapbox. Building on the central dynamics between Hopewell’s heartfelt lyricism and Waite’s evocative voice, the interplay between Dakin and Hopewell’s guitar and Russell Bates’ spaced-out drums, The Crookes find themselves channeling their anti-industry frustration into their tightest collection of material yet: it’s allusively American, but Northern Soul at heart. If Hold Fast was a collection of hymns at the Church of New Pop, Soapbox is the sermons.

8.7

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blog: Best of 2013

It is the middle of March. I have survived a literary behemoth, Middlemarch, in my first semester of university. 2013 is a bygone era. I am devouring a bowl of Fruit Loops when I am struck by something of an epiphany: my blog is going through its own existential crisis, deprived of an inane list that ultimately means nothing but seems to be a requisite for every blog on the blogosphere to truly function, to become not just a blog, but a blog. Today, I will not let bygones be bygones, I will make a stand, and I will rectify this gross violation of music blogging etiquette with a belated (and pithy) evaluation of the last year. Because, well, the best things come to those who wait and all that hokum. So here:

10. Veronica Falls – ‘Waiting for Something to Happen’

Veering away from the gloom-and-doom gothic pop of their debut and instead relaying lighter, romantic themes, much of Veronica Fall’s sophomore effort derives from their penchant for airtight boy-girl harmonies and twinkling hooks, and is all the better for it.

9. Crocodiles – ‘Crimes of Passion’

Psychedelic, shimmering pop music was at a premium last year, what with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Smith Westerns and Foxygen all giving to the wild. But it’s Crocodiles who take the cake, with their indelible melodies and wonderfully weird lyrics (‘Her graveyard eyes / they lured me in’) helmed into a tight reverb-laden affair (courtesy of The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner). Striking the right balance of bubbly effervescence, prickly risqué humour and sticky sweetness, Crocodiles more than found their bite.

8. Jagwar Ma – ‘Howlin’

‘Howlin’ is a classic case of revivalism, reinterpretation – whatever you want to call it – ultimately surpassing the original movement. With their feet firmly on the dancefloor of the Hacienda and their heads high up in the clouds, Jono and Gabriel put the Bez in the Australian psychedelic renaissance, fusing ’60s pop sensibilities with the ’90s acid house rave into a distinctly fresh, modern sound, trading Noel Gallagher’s notoriously acerbic bite for an uncharacteristic, gummy gushing of praise.

7. Arctic Monkeys – ‘AM’

Alex Turner’s lyricism continues to evolve at a rapid pace (see: ‘Arabella’), bolstered by the slinky R&B grooves offered by his bandmates (see: ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High’) who continue to exercise their stoner-rock muscle (see: ‘Knee Socks’). A phenomenal album from a phenomenal band. It’s possibly even more phenomenal live.

6. Los Campesinos! – ‘No Blues’

The rambunctious, endearingly verbose Welsh indie poppers’s last album ‘Hello Sadness’ was – predictably according to its title – punctured by darker, introspective lyrics, knocking their gleeful, maniacal streak of punchy indie pop records where you’re unable to digest much other than the kitchen sink being thrown at your ears, well off balance. This was actually a bad thing. And thankfully this has been rectified by ‘No Blues’, featuring as many obscure footballing references as ever and presenting a cleaner-cut, spacious sound without extracting that quintessentially Los Campesinos! essence.

5. My Bloody Valentine – ‘m b v’

Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2013: lingering in the chasms of perpetual nothingness, fretting to and fro in foetal position in the corner, probably sucking a thumb if it had ever formed limbs, was My Bloody Valentine’s forgotten third album, cast aside by Kevin Shield’s perfectionism-fuelled reluctance to release a follow-up to his band’s seminal career defining 1991 magnum opus. Fast forward to March 2014, and a new piece of the MBV mythos has been embraced. That should tell you all you need to know about how good this comeback truly was. Six tracks of some wobbly tremolos, submerged reverb and androgynous, ethereal vocals that frolicked and fucked about in the distinctive ‘Loveless’ aesthetic, followed by three tracks of modern psychedelia. Yep, not satisfied with merely redefining his own mythology, Kevin Shield decided to create a euphoric, psychedelic shoegaze rave that continued to push the boundaries he had set 22 years prior. 2nd February, 2013: the date innovation saved our nation.

4. Kanye West – Yeezus

I subscribe to the view that Kanye West is one of the few embers still burning in the true spirit of punk. Beneath the layers and layers of egomaniacal narcissism that shape his public image, a nucleus of unwavering creativity and provocatively paradoxical genius lies. None more so is this evident than on ‘Yeezus’, an often graphic satire of the hyper-sexual, materialistic, nihilistic, secular, post-modern society that we inhabit – a society that Kanye is a key component of. On a purely sonic basic, ‘Yeezus’ is a far cry from the sophisticated oddball soul revisionism explored early in his career (excluding the brilliantly nostalgic closer, ‘Bound 2’), it’s an abrasive beast replete with crunching industrial synths and piercingly warped vocals, a beast that the late, great Lou Reed – with his tongue presumably firmly in his cheek – referred to as ‘majestic and inspiring.’ The record essentially plays out like a high-power drill, relentlessly burrowing its way through both society and Kanye’s own persona. Take ‘Blood on the Leaves’, a debauched tale of eroticism and alimony precariously treading on the toes of a Civil Rights anthem, Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’, and an explicit reference to apartheid. Hypocritical? Of course, but that’s what makes the enigma of Kanye West fascinating. Aggressively alienating but inevitably complex: that is ‘Yeezus’ down to a tee. 

3. Peace – ‘In Love’

Falling head over heels for the denim-dipped pop panache of ‘In Love’ felt like falling in love under the pastel shade of a robust oak tree; a fairytale romance of boy meets band choreographed meticulously by the perpetually fanciful Taylor Swift. They ‘vibe so hard.’

2. British Sea Power – ‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’

The sea is a timeless, richly evocative mistress, a background figure of divine beauty, ever ebbing and flowing, ever watching the development (and degeneration) of the island we call home. British Sea Power have grasped this. Reconstructing songs from their past decade and imbuing them with an even denser atmospheric quality, echoing the ethereal transcendence of our favourite azure mistress, BSP masterfully, poignantly match Penny Woolcock’s arresting visuals from her celebratory documentary of the same name. This is a hauntingly beautiful, pervasively melancholy and intermittently traumatic score that eulogises our great heritage and triumphantly pays the debt we owe to Mother Nature.

1. Vampire Weekend – ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

I have been wholly enamoured with this album since its release in May last year. Rather than trying (and inevitably failing) to detail why this is, I’ll simply take the apex of the album, the apex of Vampire Weekend’s career thus far: ‘Hannah Hunt.’ It is far and away the best song the band have ever put their name to, and is far and away the best song released last year. Sweepingly melancholic, building subtly and graciously through soporific swoops and a gentle piano chord, the song bursts into life with vigor and vivacity just after the halfway point; Ezra’s anguished wailing in the final chorus – controlled beauty, anomic at its core – is Vampire Weekend.

Honourable mentions: Toy, Foals, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Queens of the Stone Age, David Bowie, Suede, King Krule, Pond, Arcade Fire & Chvrches

Sidenote: Cheatahs’ self-titled debut is my favourite release of 2014 so far, edging out St. Vincent’s self titled fourth*, since you didn’t ask. *subject to change

Sidenote #2: Here is a bonus playlist featuring the best SONGS of 2013.

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live: King Krule @ The Harley, Sheffield

krule(y)Somewhat surreally floating in and out of a gathering crowd within the Harley whilst the jangly, bluesy groove of Filthy Boy‘s Nick Cave-influenced guitar pop warms the stage for the main attraction – with no sign of fan hysteria or excessive swooning – is the main attraction: the unmistakeable Archy Marshall, AKA King Krule. His pale face and gangly figure, topped off with an oversized shirt, and almost-bohemian air of nonchalance, belies his acidic, world-weary musical persona: his set, primarily focused around the eclectic palette of his debut album, is brimming with visceral tales of teenage angst and disillusionment, and occasionally the odd piece of poetic balladry. But it’s his raspy, cigarette-strewn voice that is most striking, a voice so deep it’s hard to find; it’s a world away from the boyish nineteen-year-old Londoner with marigold-red hair about to take to the stage.

Maintaining his unfazed, contemplative demeanour as he picks up his guitar, he turns and awaits for the minimalist drums of ‘Has This Hit?’ to slowly kick in, before letting the primal power of his vocals rip through the venue. To some extent, this sets the tone for much of what’s to follow, his intense Cockney reinterpretation of Tom Wait’s unrelenting drawl orchestrating the tone and mould of each tale of bleak, repressive urban squalor. It’s a smart move, perhaps, to maximise the verve and dominance of his voice over his backing band’s darkwave soundscapes, when considering the immaculate production values present on 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, of which would be virtually impossible to effectively recreate on such a small stage. None more so is this evident than on the luscious, blue-eyed melancholy of ‘Baby Blue,’ an undeniable standout on record, but live Archy’s floating vocal melody – and consequently his intriguing, abstract poetry (see: “My sandpaper sigh//Engraves a line//Into the rust of your tongue”) – occasionally withers away underneath the dreamy, xx-ish guitar chords. Still, this provides a welcome opportunity to showcase a talent that endeavours beyond an endless pit of anger.

The rest of the set veers and bounces off the zeal of the chaotic melting pot ‘A Lizard State’ – incorporating elements of jazz and rap, and showing he certainly knows his way around a guitar – from EP survivors, ‘The Noose of Jah City’ and ‘Bleak Bake,’ to a revamped remnant of Archy’s Zoo Kid alias, the brilliant high-point ‘Out Getting Ribs,’ threading his frank, hopeless theme of being “beaten down” through a simplistic, clean-toned guitar reminiscent of, but ultimately superior to, early Billy Bragg. By the time the rumbling bassline of set-closer ‘Easy Easy’ comes around, chants of “Kruley! Kruley!” emerge in a small section of the crowd – sounding eerily similar to a drunken football chant – and continue for the duration of the song, with Krule thriving off this energy for an appropriately anarchic finale, followed by intimately jumping into the crowd.

Truth be told, King Krule could be a face for your average disillusioned youth in Cameron’s Britain. But that voice is so much more: dark, deep and immediate – you get the sense it could speak for everybody here in this student-dominated crowd, too.

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