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Review: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

The shape of the next Radiohead record was revealed in an interview for Familial, drummer Phil Selway’s modest acoustic side-project. The question: whether the album would be born from extensive touring and live experimentation as was the case with In Rainbows. ‘Uh, no’ was the chuckled reply.

It’s easy to see what was so funny. Where In Rainbows was conciliatory and sensuous, Limbs heralds a return to their stark post-Kid A textures: a part-Jazzy, part –IDM inspired and introverted sound that dispriviledged the guitar at every opportunity. Take album-opener Bloom: Greenwood’s hollow bass punctuates an ephemeral piano sample and a scattershot drum rhythm; where schoolchildren’s cheers would have lifted the mood on 15 Step, sky-bound strings and heralding brass only offer a monetary relief from the repressive murkiness. It’s a dark, in-ward looking opening, but once the layers are peeled off and examined – whirring tremolo guitar, Yorke’s reverberant croon – it’s a sumptuously cascading sweep up there with anything the band have done. Part of what made In Rainbows so bracing, a muscular, organic quality exampled by ‘Bodysnatchers’, is packed away (along with the guitars) in favour of the band’s unique brand of the post-millennial existentialist blues.

Officially the album stands as Radiohead’s eight full-length, but in reality it’s not quite there. The album as a medium of carrying music has always been troublesome for Radiohead; Thom’s ambivalence to making ‘long-play’ records is well known and, as the In Rainbows album cycle wound down, the group made noise about what exciting and innovative way they’d their work in the future. Middling tracks such as Twisted Words and Harry Patch were rushed out along with some ill-defined talk about how they might just release singles and EPs here and there when it suited them. Far from idle chatter from a band the world now listens to when it comes to release strategies, the difficult and well-documented Kid A/Amnesiac sessions bear out the sincerity of the message. For a band that hasn’t been shy in distancing themselves from rock convention, a less rockist delivery method didn’t seem that unlikely.

Coming in at a undernourished 37 minutes and eight tracks, The King of Limbs bears this discomfort unapologetically. The first four songs riff on their Warp influences, favouring kinetic energy and texture over melody and traditional song writing. Whilst the second half is a far more conventional affair where the organic, understated ballads the band made their name with predominate. It’s a messily paced album formed of eclectic elements, but far from the genius offcuts of a restless band, Limbs never really sees the group pushed out of their comfort zone; there’s never the feeling that they’re exploring new territory. The urge to shock and to re-invent is absent, and the result is something sometimes familiar to the point of self-plagiarism. The break in Little by Little sounds like an amalgamation of several Amnesiac tracks, Codex is a mash-up of every ethereal piano ballad the band have made their name with – Karma Police, Pyramid Song, Nude, take your pick – and lead-single Lotus Flower’s spasmic beats, only really offers a less nervy, more sensuous take on Idioteque – a good one, but still.

Obviously re-heated Radiohead is still better than most bands’ best. Alongside the aforementioned Bloom, Feral’s looming bass and off-kilter drums offers a convincingly Radiohead regurgitation of all those esoteric dubstep tracks Thom posts up on his office charts; the brass swell and funereal piano of Codex is very pretty if very familiar. Doing what you’ve done before isn’t the way to a poor album for a group like Radiohead; it’s just not the way to a great one either. When the band does misstep it isn’t down to bad songs, rather familiar or unpolished ones. Morning Mr Magpie features light, patterning and, you guessed it, syncopated percussion; three understated guitar lines intersect with one another and the beat, grounded by that ever present, mushrooming bass. The confluence of too many ideas eventually reaches a head when a second and just as shambolic drum beat ambles in accompanied by an electronic chime, creating a grating dissonance before the song fades out to bird chatter and static fuzz – an abandoned, half-successful experiment, nearly there, but not quite.

From a younger band Limbs would be promising pre-debut EPs, but from the celebrated ambassadors of the avant-garde it’s an unapologetically messy catharsis of ‘Radiohead-y’ tracks; the kind of album an established band puts out when they’re not that keen on going through the rigours of crafting big statements but still have creative itches to scratch. There are great songs that, though sometimes familiar, can sit proudly next to anything they’ve done. There’s also an equal amount of promising but unrefined ideas not yet polished into the diamonds we’re used to on Radiohead albums. That Radiohead probably meant to release a more informal record doesn’t excuse the unremarkable from a band that can do better.



MP3: Radiohead – Bloom


MP3: Radiohead – Codex


Review: James Blake – James Blake LP

Though blurred, that James Blake on the cover doesn’t obscure the fact that the guy’s now a popstar of sorts. The album art isn’t new: we first saw the image, depicting Blake as a kind of split Jekyll and Hyde figure, on the cover of the Klavierwerke EP. The two records don’t share much in common, but it was obviously decided that it’d be silly not to have the boy on the cover for the main event. He’s pretty easy on the eyes, after all. And he sings.

Compared to the Kelis-sampling, R&B-obscuring pseudo-dubstep Blake announced himself onto the scene with, Blake is the sound of a personality creating music instead of chopping and slicing others. Where he was a producer, he’s now an artist –even singer-songwriter. Though it sounds like it through the vocoders, the pitch bending and the multitude of other electronic manoeuvres, the love songs that populate the album aren’t samples from other artists, other eras. It’s him singing in that clipped but soulful croon. Where earlier EPs traded in minimal abstractions and woozy club numbers, Blake has actual, traditional songs. The result is something that sits between blue-eyed soul and singer-songwriter pop.

What makes Blake interesting is the way that croon is employed. He sings, sure, but his singing is figurative and essentially does what his samples did in texture and purpose. On The Wilhelm Scream – notably a reimagining/cover of a (very yacht rock) song his father wrote – his voice loops ‘I don’t know about my dreams / I don’t know about my dreaming anymore’. It’s part communication, a world-weary sigh, but more purposefully – the lyrics, like the song don’t progress much beyond that – it ratchets up the song’s gradual build. Three minutes in and the song begins to rattle as if it’s about to launch into orbit; his voice climaxes similarly, gaining extra layers of cavernous reverb as it goes before falling down to the same mumbled sigh as the song returns to earth. Voice for Blake is just another instrument to be played with and manipulated for textural purpose; where he rummaged, through other’s recorded sentiment, he now performs a similarly mechanical process with his own – part human, part machine. On ‘I mind’ his cold tremolo croon is accompanied by a more mechanical, barely-vocal cry that weaves itself into the mix, imitating an oscillating synth riff; on To Care (Like You) helium, goblin-like cries punctuate the nocturnal skitter, reminiscent of the haunted voices that echo through the darkness in Burial’s Untrue. On an album so apparently conventional in many ways, it’s a strange, but neat trick to pull. The move to a broader, more accessible sound doesn’t feel anything like a compromise, rather a new challenge, and he’s very good at it.

Its strongest point – that deconstructive ability to redefine pop – is also a source of weakness. The hypnotic repetition of voice – not quite sample, not quite human; not quite hook, not quite emoting – can jar, and the quality of his songwriting – or, perhaps more accurately his reimagining – sometimes wobbles. Far from a ‘Heartbeats’ type transformation the cover of ‘Limit To Your Love’ isn’t far from the original. Take the sub-bass wobble and the nervy pauses out and you’ve got a typical ‘Live Lounge’ type cover. Both Lindesfarnes immediately sound live Bon Iver; the refinement of the piano vignettes, ‘Give Me My Month’ and ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’, places him not far from Antony Hegarty. Neither are unflattering comparisons and the songs, though some of the weaker cuts, hold their own. They just don’t feel as complete as a result. It’s as if he’s still finding his own voice, literally and figuratively.

A collection of pop songs that seem so familiar and are yet so strange and challenging is a rare thing. Blake may not be the revolutionary leap that changes everything; it’s more evolutionary step than great leap, drawing an ancestry back through Thom Yorke, Bon Iver and the like. That doesn’t make it any less interesting. This album is, afterall, getting airplay on primetime Radio One; being advertised on the underground; and championed in the kind of critic’s polls that tend to play it safe with Adele and Ellie Goulding. Commercially it may not be the coffee table dubstep album that introduces a wider public to genre – if they need introducing at all – but it’s a fine collection of intelligently thought out songs that show considerable promise for someone so young.



MP3: James Blake – You Know Your Youth

MP3: James Blake – I Mind

Review: Tennis – Cape Dory

If you’ve got a shtick, you’re already ahead of the pack; if you’ve got two, people will pay attention. Before a note was played, Tennis had a thing going for them. Husband and wife duo? Check. Interesting and verifiable back-story relating to the creation of your album? Check.

Not since Bon Iver back in 2008 has a band come readymade with such a strong narrative. As it’s impossible not to imagine the snow-capped Wisconsin wilderness in the creaky honesty of For Emma, Forever Ago, the shimmering guitar, cymbal splashes and bobbing organs of Tennis’ debut lights up a vivid recreation of the Atlantic seaboard in the mind’s eye. The fact that these guys are a genuine couple also lends an emotional authenticity to lyrics that could be cast aside as typical of the sound they’re doing – as much as Bon Iver’s achy ‘my girl left me’ penmanship would be without investing in the idea that there was actually an Emma. Kanye might not be calling them up for guest vocals on his next opus, but the pair has managed to woven an organic narrative into their music, something hard to do on the buzz-band conveyor belt.

Of course, that’s not to do the album a disservice and suggest this debut is all smoke and mirrors; that it’d be less solid and impressive an album without their nautical adventures. Cape Dory is a great album. Rarely have such a simple sounding pop band sounded so vital. Few songs hang around much beyond the three-minute-mark, the set-up strictly adheres to a streamlined guitar, organ and drums attack; the lyrics switch between literal storytelling of journeys undertaken, cooing mediations on relationships, and, sometimes, both (‘We didn’t realise that we had arrived at high-tide, high-tide / barely made it out alive’); the songs themselves stay as breezy and polite as I imagine the New England shoreline is. Like Beast Cost, the shoreline and the sea is a central motif of, but stylistically this is more ‘doo-wap’ than ‘oooohhh-oohhh’, more ‘let’s get a dog’ than ‘I wish my cat could talk’, more comfortable martial monogamy than achy-breaky breakups, more Elvgren than Warhol, more Eisenhower than Kennedy.

And they are *so* nice. Playing a basement cabaret venue in the heart of Soho – a jarringly unwholesome venue – the song introductions are so earnest. ‘This is a love song’, ‘This is a song about an injured bird we saved when it landed on our boat – it was *this* small’ and, perhaps most illustrative of how unhiply nice and apple pie they are, ’This is song about being fired from American Apparel for having bangs’ (…Baltimore, if you were wondering). Similarly, the tracks own transparency and directness never hinders their charms: Moore’s girl-group self-harmonising and Riley’s textured surf-guitar jangle being two examples of a simple idea that’s been done before – a lot – just being done better and more effectively and tightly here to conjure up the most sumptuously hazy summer daydreams.

If there’s one glaring fault in an album so brief, streamlined and effectively executed, it’s that it’s *too* polite. On a harsh day, Tennis is the sound of your favourite garage-pop band’s slightly more polite predecessors. It’s country club garage-pop, preppy and privileged without the self-awareness. Perhaps it’s to be expected from a band that is – I don’t know about the drummer – seemingly happily married. The wash of guitar occasionally teases at enough bite to break up the daydream comfort and warrant being called a riff; a handful of other tracks have that Shangri-Las drum shuffle that might inspire some polite dancing with a crowd that is cool with a bit of gentle pre-rock shimmying. But you wonder: there must have been some genuine discomfort and discord on these journeys, right?

These are cheap shots, sure. It’s hard to really criticise Cape Dory for not having more dissonance when it’s so clearly intended to emulate a sepia-toned and rose-tinted picture book of that brilliantly long holiday. Like half-remembered memories the songs can become indistinct at times, but a better collection of ten songs will be hard to find this year. Say hello to your summer soundtrack.



MP3: Tennis – Long Boat Pass


MP3: Tennis – Baltimore

Review: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy


Kanye talks a lot about producing art. Not music. Not albums. Art. The way he frames it suggests something that can sit on a Dorian plinth and be labelled as such; something that could be played back- to-back with a Beethoven symphony in an ornate hall somewhere.

Last time around, this distaste for previous glories resulted in the art-pop fetishising of 808s and Heartbreak. He sang. He ruminated about loves won and lost, existential crises and death. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare it’ll do for Kanye. Out went the sped-up R&B samples and Chi-town consciousness, and in went stark, tasteful minimalism.

Statements of intent from established artists don’t come much bigger, and it helped change the conversation in a conservative genre. But as an album 808s was only semi-successful. For every “Say You Will”, there was a “Robocop”; for every audacious three minute drum-loop outro, there was a Lil Wayne verse.

The luke-warm reception was always unlikely to dent his ambition, and here ploughing on single-mindedly, chasing windmills in pursuit of his classicist ideal of ‘art’ as you’d expect Kanye to do, Fantasy represents a second try playing with high-minded ideas.

Only it’s downright decadent this time; a cursory glance at the measurements reveals as much. 68 minutes long, the majority of tracks stretch over the five minute mark; two posse cuts, “Monster” and “So Appalled”, occupy the heart of the album, featuring nine guests between them; the song before it features Alicia Keys, Rhianna, Fergie, John Legend and Elton John – indulgently deployed to sing one refrain on the song’s outro. It’s pure unrestrained maximalism. The mid-west consciousness from College Dropout, the baroque manoeuvres from Late Registration, the stadium-filling sensibility from Graduation and the emotional honesty from 808s are all here. And it’s delightful. If 808s was a minimalist Mondrian then Fantasy is a gold-gilded, 9-digit value Klimt – a different approach, but equally artful.

Kanye has talked of taking this project to Broadway; it wasn’t immediately obvious from the Spike Jonze short how’d that work, but here the widescreen vision is apparent. Fantasy, sequenced in the finest traditions of prog, offers the tale of the fiery descent of a man with everything felled by love and the blinding scrutiny of fame. The Louis Vitton Don becomes The 21st Century Schizoid Man (‘nothing he’s got he really needs’) throwing himself on the funeral pyre. Where 808s focused on introverted, bleary-eyed reminisces, Fantasy offers the whole Greek tragedy from the top.

In the tribal battle-cry of “Power”, he swaggers and offers pithy, tweet-length retorts, “I don’t need your pussy, bitch. I’m on my own dick.” It’s the same Kanye we always knew. But in the next song, amidst regal herald and maddening drums, domestic violence and the court-sanctioned civility of a relationship gone sour (“Public visitation, we met at Borders.”) peeps from the backstage.

The turn takes hold. By the nine-minute sprawl of “Runaway”, the central jewel in Fantasy’s crown, the outward smile is gone. The black super hero music is replaced by plangent, lonely piano notes and mushrooming bass tones. He breaks, “Never was much of a romantic, I could never take the intimacy.” Brusque cello stabs and elegiac violin strains charge in to hide the dirt and decay, and the whole rottenness of the situation.

It’s one of the peaks of the album’s narrative, but what’s more striking is what Kanye’s done with the song. The MPC samples and the whole baroque schtick are both good, fantastic. But the hurt croon, filtered through a superbly distorted vocoder is a stunning justification of his obsession with auto-tune and vocal modulation. The fizz and buzz of it crashes against the classical refinement of the strings like a tear-soaked drunk stumbling through the orderves at a wedding (given the imagery of the song, it’s probably a more germane simile than first appears). Its deranged distortion bears out the fractured mea culpas from the earlier verses. When he reaches for the higher notes, the untrained strain in his voice gets clipped, strangled and comes out in an alienated wail. It’s genuinely affecting music full stop. Not just for Kanye. Auto-tune and vocoder cynics be dammed.

Critically, on an album stuffed with guests. Everyone brings their A-game and are carefully directed for maximum effect. Not much more needs to be said about Minaj’s schizo, show-stopping verse on “Monster”. What’s more subtly impressive is how apparently ill-suited guests like Rick Ross (who does what Rick Ross does best over the shimmering soul and cinematic sweep) and Pusha T are employed, on “Devil in a New Dress” and “Runaway” respectively, to act as mischievous foils to the sentimentality, or perhaps just ghoulish representations of the younger, bolder Kanye. There’s even a three minute Chris Rock skit that features the phrase ‘Yeezy reupholstered my pussy’ but still emerges as a poignant piece of narrative exposition; a “Fitter, Happier” or “Vera” in his own modern-day Hip Hopera.

The album as a whole thrives on these juxtapositions: the collision of Perez Hilton blog revelation and the art-house sophistication. The last two tracks proper feature Kanye bouncing between angry foolhardiness and shattered resignation, and a ‘lighters in the air’ festival closer that, despite the stirring harmonies, is about confused self-isolation and escape. It’s the kind of muddled complexity that comes from bearing and letting loose. For a pop superstar who exists in the public consciousness as a collection of played-out internet memes more than anything else (Imma let you finish, Fishdicks etc), it’s a big, big move. Perhaps he’ll never succeed in making us believe his problems are as significant as ours, or that he isn’t just an arrogant asshole. But he didn’t have to make an album like this, and it should be applauded that he did.

Only a hubris approaching Kanye’s own would suggest this album represents Hip Hop future, but the breadth of emotion, the sincerity and the wide pallet of sounds on display here is stretching what Hip Hop can be and can do, bringing to mind work of Outkast a decade earlier. Purists of the genre will sneer, “his rhymes are clumsy. He can’t sing.” so what? A few clumsy rhymes are forgivable for an album that displays such artistic wholeness. It’s hard to imagine a less fallible storyteller producing such a confessional and raw album about himself that would produce the same effect. It’s his ineloquence, his rustiness and his off-key singing that makes Fantasy so affecting at times.

In a string of tweets before the Today show ambush (another outburst/another meme), Kanye announced (via Twitter, the social network of choice for egoists) he was pulling out of a string of promotional interviews. ‘I’m gone make this art but I’m not going to be scrutinized as a human being… I’m tired of using my celebrity to sell my art’. It’s a strange statement to make. The album’s Greek chorus of voices is never speaking exactly as him – unless he has some kids and a history of domestic violence he’s kept quiet – but it’s hard to imagine the album’s ruminations on the spotlight of fame and love and everything those things bring to bear are about anything else than was going on in his mind. He may not be that ‘motherfucking monster’ on the cover, but he’s thought he is at sometime.

An album like this gives interviewers more questions to ask about Kanye. Is he ok? What is this song about? Who’s the object of your affections in that song? His celebrity and infamy is inseparable from the albums he puts out. And if you’re one of those joyless people who gets so riled by his antics, his self-belief and self-dramatising, then this album isn’t for you. If you’re cool with it then the album is, as Kanye put in another tweet, ‘unquestionable’.

How Kanye defines art is a mystery; it’s unlikely they’ll ever be a time in history where someone won’t raise an eyebrow over “Moonlight Sonata” being followed by “Monster”, but this is a great, great album; his best. He might rile, he might not have the smoothest flow, or the smartest samples, but the ambition on display is unfaultable. Let’s have a toast for the greatest show on Earth.



MP3: Kanye West – All of the Lights


MP3: Kanye West – Runaway feat. Pusha T

Review: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Win Butler invokes ‘the kids’ endlessly on The Suburbs. Not in a way that strives to be hip or is particularly flattering, just witheringly. They’re depicted with ‘their arms folded tight’, ‘using words that they don’t understand’ or asking what is that ‘horrible sound’. It’s not hard to suggest that one of the many things that The Suburbs might be about is the hyper-critical, immensely self-aware hipster culture that has grown in recent years that Arcade Fire have matured amidst: blogs, bloggers, Pitchfork, cynicism, irony, cynicism about Pitchfork – the kind of culture where everyone’s a critic with their own little soapbox from which to take potshots and attempt to build an unthinking consensus on what’s good, right and authentic. It’s a pre-packaged defense against criticism, much like Best Coast’s studied lo-fi amateurishness; it makes it hard to really say too much for the fear that you might be missing the point or saying what they want you to say.

Not that I’m really yearning to score cheap hits on Arcade Fire. I’ve had a special affection for them and have done from the outset of my ‘serious’ interest in music. When I was still fumbling about in the dark with my musical preferences and what to do with them, Funeral was one of the first contemporary albums I remember loving. Alongside 70s Pink Floyd albums and 90s Radiohead, I placed Funeral on a plinth and declared it to be good music – as much to myself than to anyone else – and it’s remained a touchstone ever since.

Big, overarching themes are, of course, just as much a part of Arcade Fire’s music as their ornate baroque instrumentalisation and the intensely private narratives; here the big overarching themes are as much of a problem as they are exhilarating, the baroque stylings are as dialed down as they’ve ever been in favour of restrained melancholy, and private narratives are forgone for the band’s desire to define a generation and frontman Win Butler’s craving to sneer and lay judgment on it.

The fractured, private honesty of Funeral this is not. Weighing in at a bulky 65 minutes, The Suburbs is low on immediate hooks and heavy on mid-paced, stadium-ready navel-gazing – falling somewhere, awkwardly, between Neil Young, Bruce Spingsteen and U2. More optimistically, despite these comparisons, this isn’t Neon Bible part deux, either.

Whilst it shares in elements of their previous album’s anti-whateveryougot attitude and desire to capture the zeitgeist, The Suburbs is a far more human record. Instead of railing against the state, church and Bush-era America, the band has fallen back to wider and more relatable themes. Sprawl II – as well as being one of the album’s stronger and more immediate songs – details the end of adolescence (“They heard me singing, and they told me to stop/ Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock”) and romanticised childhood (“We rode our bikes/ To the nearest park/ Sat under the swings and kissed in the dark”) with technicolour clarity.

These themes are repeated ad nauseum throughout the album to lesser effect on the album’s weaker songs (of which there are a few) Win repeats ‘the kids’ a lot – and you get the general idea through pure brute force by the time you’re half way through your second listen. The synths and bright textures on Sprawl II are wonderful for what they are, but it wouldn’t be out there to suggest that its success is partly down to the relief it brings after a good thirty minutes of grey, indistinct songs with formulaic instrumental crescendos and breathy Springsteenian lyrics about ‘the kids’ in rustbelt suburbs. Some of it grows on you, but in trading in some of that baroque melodrama and theatrical strangeness for a more nuanced, restrained sound the album lacks punch and immediacy for a considerable amount of its runtime; you get the impression that some of the album’s unnecessary sprawl (sorry) is as a result of Win’s desire to fill out his narrative, to make sure he’s said everything he wants to say. It’s a admirable goal and given his committed craft and literary detail as a lyricist in an age where it’s more fashionable to mumble what you don’t have to say behind layers and layers of reverb, it’s almost commendable – only, it doesn’t always work.

It’s a shame as his world-weary musings often do find satisfying outlets. As well as the aforementioned New Wave sparkle of Sprawl II, Rococo offers baroque grandeur and the title track offers one of Win’s stronger vocal performances over a piano shuffle backing that could be unkindly described as sounding like a smarter Travis. Whilst, like most double-album length records, everyone will take away with own personal favourites, the The Suburbs biggest irony is that , as a concept conceived so singularly as a piece and a statement – down to the uncountable variations of the album art, which will mostly only be seen ‘compressed on a tiny screen’ – it’s ordering is its greatest weakness. As a collection of songs it’s stronger, far stronger than Neon Bible, but as a cohesive album it doesn’t hold it together.

Compelling is probably the best way to describe The Suburbs. Not a vague, CD quote kind of way, but in an equally bewildering and quizzical sense. It’s a cop out, but this is the kind of album that can’t really be done justice in a review made after half a dozen or so spins, and the band, with their big ideas and intricate details, almost definitely meant it to be that way. As I listen now I still notice little touches I overlooked before, and lyrics affect me where they merely went by before. It’s not Funeral and no amount of ‘growing on me’ will make what is undeniably – despite its charms – an overlong album reach those heights. But then the band would be hard pushed to better it even if it wasn’t. It’s is strong album; the kind of album only Arcade Fire could make. How good that is depends on what you already think of Arcade Fire by this point.


MP3: Arcade Fire – Deep Blue


MP3: Arcade Fire – Ready To Start


LCD Soundsystem @ Brixton Academy 23.04.10

As much as I love LCD Soundsystem, I’ve been to the Brixton Academy quite a few times, so feel qualified to declare that its sound quality sucks. Animal Collective, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hot Chip, lord knows you all tried your best to make it work, but Brixton wasn’t co-operating. You all put on great shows; they just could have been that much better somewhere else. I was cautiously optimistic.

‘It’s been so long since we’ve been in London’. If they hadn’t just played opener, ‘Us v Them’, twice due to the keys being broken on the first take – a fact largely unnoticed, apart from those close enough to see keyboardist Nancy Whang remonstrating– such a statement would interpreted as standard crowd banter, making nice with the audience, but in this instance, coming from the heavy figure of James Murphy, it’s closer to an apology, a hint that the band might not be up to taking on the cavernous acoustics of Brixton Academy.

As a frontman, he cuts an awkward shape: his lyrics are conflicted, self-aware, analytical; his physical build is very Fred Flintstone and when he’s not obsessively moving about stage, tweaking sounds emitting from the band’s vast arsenal of machinery, he’s gesturing to the wings to turn it up, turn it down – all whilst spewing out world-weary melancholia through that vintage mic that is forever glued to his lips. Oh, and he occasionally makes time to dance in the most understated fashion, but totally unself-conscious way, too.

Usually such an obsession with perfection is damaging, but he’s always right. No one noticed the keys missing on the first take of ‘Us v Them’ but everyone preferred the second take. There’s a moment, around three minutes in, on new track, ‘Pow Pow’, where a simple bass groove suddenly cuts into the mix – you never noticed it wasn’t there on the studio version and certainly most of the crowd won’t realise that something so initially innocuous is missing on a yet to be released track in a live setting, nonetheless he marches across stage and turns up the bassist’s amp when another one of the venue’s gremlins appears. He cuts a vaguely heroic figure. I mean, this is the guy who coined the line, ‘borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties’ rendered more prophetic than ever in a scene of twenty-somethings, endlessly toiling to create music that sounds pre-aged, recovered off dusty VHS tapes. A world pre-Chillwave, before Harrison Ford agreed to the Indiana Jones remake, before Ashes to Ashes, before Rickrolling. The guy’s already pretty heroic.

The success of this herculean struggle is appreciated; people’s impression of the show is mixed and even from a cosy, central position the vocals are murky – not that it matters when everyone is determined to list every band in that bit of ’Losing My Edge’ – but the effort is more than welcome.

The rest of the gig lurches between disco workouts, rowdy – but considered – moshing and sombre, head-nodding reflection in the way that perhaps only a LCD Soundsystem gig can: after hipster posturing (Losing My Edge) and frat boy chant (Drunk Girls, greeted like an old favourite) we’re suddenly down in the teary deliberation of All My Friends. It’s a meticulously planned exercise, just when things threaten to descent into a sweaty mindless rave; you’re grounded again with an elegiac ‘Someone Great’. The respectful applause to James’ tribute to loved ones lost juxtaposed with an excited crush in reception to a messy ‘Daft Punk’ is intense stuff, and all entirely respectful and earnest; a welcome reminder that it’s possible to engage the heart without being smaltzy and move feet without being inane. Testaments to a band’s ability to not only meld together genres and influences, but moods too, don’t come much more convincing. The band are at the height of their powers and, as omniscient as James Murphy’s judgement is , it seems a shame to call it a day.

MP3: LCD Soundsystem – Pow Pow

MP3: LCD Soundsystem – Drunk Girls

Review: Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles are a tricksy band: despite their chiptune stylings, they’re not named after the 1983 Atari videogame; they’re not adverse to an on-stage hissy fit or a pre-show cancellation and Crystal Castles, the name of their second album, is the same as their first – Crystal Castles.

Such inscrutability translates into their music. Crystal Castles (the album – the first one) held still just long enough to be unsatisfactorily pinned down with labels like the aforementioned chiptune and, more awkwardly, new rave. But the NME’s keenness to create and categorise a movement unsurprisingly never quite rang true. The chiptune element on their debut was one of the most notable sounds of the album, but beyond xxzxcuzx me and Alice Practice it was a supplementary texture than a dominant one and was confused with a more general lo-fi, scuzzy sound. And, whilst plenty of Klaxon’s fans found themselves to be fans of the Toronto duo, there’s yet to be a convincing description of nu-rave that goes beyond vague aesthetics and marketing guff.

Crystal Castles continues to indulge in the child-like curiosity and refusal to settle, best exampled by the three track run of Celestica, Doe Deer and Baptism. Celestica is a breathless, airy affair; Alice sings in a perfectly crystalline tone and displays surprising warmth in her voice. The brief interlude of Doe Deer soon demolishes any frivolous sensitivities with a scuzzy, lo-fi scream-fest and then, suddenly, we’re greeted with stabbing, fissuring, stadium-sized synths, frolicking 8-bit key riffs and Alice delivering vocals in her trademark snarl, a world away from wounded croon of Celestica. The band remain eclectic and whilst there’s no equivalent to the debut’s acoustic closer, Tell Me What To Swallow, in terms of thematic sucker punches, it’s an album that defies an easy, sentence length summation. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. The album is long and more importantly, it feels long; as with the debut, the band’s restlessness grows fatiguing over the sub-hour runtime.

The duo clearly has a sense of adventure when it comes to their music and it often works in their favour. They deliver a remarkable variation of sound from such a low-key and limited set-up. The aforementioned mentioned Celestica and Doe Deer are both excellent tracks, having them back to back showcases the benefits of mixing up a sound, as does the larger, more ambitious sound of Vietnam whose eerie, glistening strains ebb and flow throughout its five minute runtime over a steady House beat and showcases the band’s progressive edge – something that couldn’t be said of their visceral debut.

A keen ear for current trends and perhaps an overly enthusiastic desire to dabble in them is evidenced by chillwave influenced Violet Dreams which takes the wistful soundscapes of Celestica further with a washed-out synth that repeats a hypnotic four chord progression over and over as it dissipates into the horizon over which processed, Alice’s vocals are disfigured, slowed down and glitched as ever; her vocal nihilism seems the perfect match for the genre’s passive indifference. It’s another accomplished switch-up and welcome change of pace that offers a welcoming mid-album palate cleanser and presents an interesting sound that the band could choose to pursue.

Despite this breadth the album’s numerous styles never feel completely explored or mastered. You almost wish they’d pick a couple of approaches and really drill them for hooks and melodies whilst also creating a cohesive, less fatiguing album.

Crystal Castles is a solid step-up from their debut and shows the duo displaying an increasing maturity and confidence in their craft. As the blogs invent and reinvent a dozen genres a week, the band shows a clear determination to avoid being typecast after a brief dalliance with the novelties of chiptune and nu-rave. This same desire to expand their sound and avoid falling into a niche does hinder when they set their stall to broadly, but the foundations of a stronger album is here. If the duo nail their colours to the mast, they could make something great, something permanent.


MP3: Crystal Castles – Violent Dreams

MP3: Crystal Castles – Vietnam