By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | April 29, 2009 |
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | April 29, 2009 |
Noisettes are the biggest thing to take off in Britain since the last band that was the biggest thing since the Beatles (about a month ago, or so). The British press are not given to restraint in their assessment of pop music. Is the hype surrounding Noisettes at all deserved?
Well, I don’t quite get it. I’m personally a little sick of all the cod-soul pop that’s going around at the moment, with more and more English women singing in a Lauryn Hill-style twang over some ‘retro’ beats and a dab of brass. So I wasn’t too happy to hear that - at times - Noisettes sound like Duffy meets Morcheeba meets the Pipettes. Meets Corinne Bailey Rae. By way of Amy Winehouse. And Leona Lewis. Their shtick is that they are playing soul-tinged pop with a garage-y sort of sound - but the trouble is that this music is a little overproduced, and singer Shingai Shoniwa sounds too much like the afore-mentioned to distance themselves from that sort of fare.
Which isn’t to say that this is completely bad stuff. In fact, it’s pretty good pop music. The title track has handclaps, good rhythm, a la-la-la chorus and some pleasing descending chords on a plinky piano. Not bad at all: it’s as light as a feather, and just as memorable. ‘So Complicated’ has got a nice skiffly rockabilly beat, in the manner of Mark Ronson: little clutches of guitar are woven into a really bouncy rhythm and some plucky bass guitar. ‘Don’t Upset The Rhythm’ (their break-out single) is also pretty pleasant: it’s got enough sonic invention to make up for the song’s lack of originality, with some snappy splinters of electric guitar, echo-y vocals and the odd yelp from Shoniwa. Then there’s a breakdown in the middle section which gives it a bit more meat.
Elsewhere, the band strays back to its roots a little with ‘24 Hours’ and do a good power-pop number with ‘Beat of My Heart’. The real winner here, although it is derivative, is ‘Never Forget You’, which is the most developed song. It’s got it all: a roar of guitar to kick things off, and a Motown-style chorus, with pizzicato strings and bells and drums and rolling piano generating real heat. It’s ace - but pure pastiche pop, of course, harking back to the Marvelettes and sounding not a little like Winehouse.
So to sum up: this isn’t bad, but it’s a shame the vocals sound so hackneyed, and that a band which was going for a different sound has been shanghaied into piggybacking a new current of safe, slightly bland soul-pop.
The sun beats down with the strength of a million shining sledgehammers and yet, it’s still cold outside. This is what happens when you choose Chicago as your spring break destination (okay, so I’m not getting drinks poolside, but a week off is a week off - I’ll take what I can get). Fittingly, this is also what it feels like while listening to the third full-length effort by Norwegian electronic duo Röyksopp. And it’s such a distinct combination of calm brightness and brisk freshness that it’s pretty impossibly to resist. Like I said, whether it’s 40 degrees or 80 as I walk down the street, I’m just glad I can feel a warm spot on my back while I can see my breath in my front of me.
Torbjørn Brundtland and Svien Berge have attempted this balancing act twice before with different but equally memorable results. The first was 2001’s Melody A.M., which prominently featured the vocals of Kings of Convenience’s Erlend Øye and veered more toward a twilight approach, where the chilly arctic tones sat tranquilly aside serene twinkles of pop melodies. Songs like “Remind Me” and “Poor Leno” (not referring to Jay, though listening to it in that context does put an interesting spin on it) catapulted the twosome to electro-pop mainstay status well before artists like The Postal Service started blending the syrupy sweet with blips and beats. Four years later, they resurfaced with The Understanding which went a more sultry and almost kitschy route, emphasizing the dance side of their sound with the single “49 Percent”. Luckily they also proved they were still cutting edge by introducing the indie world to the voice of Karin Dreijer of The Knife with the phenomenal track “What Else Is There?” and many other solid cuts.
With such a signature (and still comfortably familiar) voice in the electronic community, adding the necessary pop element to gain widespread appeal, and getting in just before the DFA craze set the dance world on fire, Röyksopp’s third offering has been awaited by many for a long time now. And for the most part, another four years between records has been worth the wait. “This Must Be It” is the first sign of greatness on the album, with the seductively villainous croon of Dreijer rip-roaring back into riffs that are even denser and more manic than on their last LP. It might not be as quietly suspenseful or moving, but it’s definitely a tour de force dance track with twisty turny sequencing and a beat simple yet blistering in its relentlessness. The other immediately rewarding standout track features vocals from Brundtland himself, which is a possible first for the duo, whose instrumental craftsmanship usually vastly outshines any attempts at providing their own vocals. But “It’s What I Want” is the kind of concise three-minute mid-tempo jam that works perfectly as a penultimate track. It’s got a chorus that’s mind-blowingly addictive, a bubbling keyboard progression that’s both ominous and friendly, and the kind of deceivingly simple message that’s perfect for shouting along to in the car.
The immediate accessibility doesn’t end there though. It’s just that the remaining tracks, all of which are worthwhile, do easily blend together despite the duo’s tendency toward eclectic vocal work. Spunky chanteuse Robyn shows up in upcoming single “The Girl And The Robot,” which is delightful but ultimately inert compared to the incomparable beauty of Dreijer. Same goes for Swedish buzz girl Lykee Li, whose turn on “Miss It So Much” is cherubically adorable, yes, but largely ignorable once again due to the severe dramatics and wow factor that Dreijer provides. It’s sad because I truly enjoy and admire the smooth splendor of both of these vocalists, but they simply cannot hold a candle to the intensity that Dreijer pours on top of Brundtland and Berge’s opaque and crowded beats. She’s the only one that can rival their majesty. Li’s second attempt on the closing track “Were You Ever Wanted” get closer, with soaring ululations and epic multi-tracking, but still leaves me wanting to go back to a song like “Tricky Tricky”, Dreijer’s second guest spot on the record, where she proves she can be playful like Li and earnest like Robyn, but still keep her coarse edge that neither of the others have.
Luckily there are two spots on the record where vocals aren’t a factor. Röyksopp got where they are today not because of their ability to persuade amazing female singers but because of their talent in the arena of beatmaking. Both instrumentals on the album, “Röyksopp Forever” and “Silver Cruiser”, signify a distinct shift in the duo’s attitude toward lyric-free music. In albums past, they were often used as placeholders or respites from the more bombastic or more substantive vocal-led tracks, but here we get two of the albums best songs - and they’re actually songs, not interludes. The former is a string-heavy cinematic celebration of sound whereas the latter gets softer and a little more sci-fi, but still ebbs and flows with quaintly ornamental ambience and a low-end brass section that surprises and delights in the second half. These two cuts are reason enough to wait another four years if necessary for the impending Senior in which Brundtland and Berge have said they will focus more on the atmosphere of the record and be more introspective in nature. Can’t wait!
You love Bob Dylan, don’t you? I bet you own a few of his albums. Let me guess: you’ve got Shot of Love, of course, and World Gone Wrong, and I’ll bet you’ve got his classic Modern Times, from 2006. Wonderful. Well, you can rest assured: Together Through Life, his new album, is at least as good as those indispensable recordings.
I jest. If you love Dylan, it’s for the 60s: the swooping ecstasy of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, perhaps, and his sarcasm on ‘Positively 4th Street’, and the rhapsody of ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.’ There’s so much goodness there, and so much energy and fire in his work; so much variety, too. Witness the early material, singing in the style of Rambling Jack Elliott - from there (as you know) he moved on to protest songs, electric material, country and back to folk. It’s a wonderful time for music, and his personal achievement makes my head spin a bit. When you listen to the Bootleg recordings of the sixties, you hear more and more excellent material that didn’t make the albums. Listen to that sheer proliferation of words, ideas, melodies: he’s obviously inspired, and constantly working and creating. Wow.
Contrast that with this new album, his 33rd: it’s perfectly OK. It’s fine. You know - not at all bad. But Dylan at 67 has none of the mesmerizing, engaging qualities that made him so interesting. This is a steady, decent album of mid-tempo, well-played blues-rock songs. (That’s also what his last album was: perhaps someone should call him out on it.)
The record starts with ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin”, which has accordion providing a blues hook, with some noodling guitar and some snatches of brass tacked on: it’s got a kind of lo-fi Mariachi wedding-player feel to it. It’s one of many songs of desolation, and finds Dylan “moving after midnight/Down boulevards of broken cars”. He’s been known to write a better lyric than that, but it’s a good enough start.
There’s plenty more so-so blues where that came from: try ‘My Wife’s Left Town’ for a growly rip-off of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ (I wrote a note as I listened to this. It reads: ‘BORING’) or ‘Jolene’, which is a story about a temptress and is a straight-up Muddy Waters pastiche. ‘If You Ever Go To Houston’ also plays on this electric blues jug-band sort of style. All of these songs are saved from being mortally awful by some good accordion and a generally tight band. Sometimes the arrangements lose their way and descend into a sticky sort of jam, but in general the band’s style and togetherness are a pleasant aspect of this record.
I just don’t know why Dylan made this record, or who for. What’s driving him? I read in a review of a recent gig that he didn’t play any of his new material at all. So why did he write this? The lyrics on this can be pretty hokey, relying on old troubadour tropes: the sun is “sinking low”, someone’s “on the run”, a “gypsy curse” is mentioned; someone is “motherless, fatherless”. In ‘Jolene’ Dylan vows, “I’ll sleep by your door/Lay my life on the line”. How can he write such a cliché? Only on the closing song, ‘It’s All Good’, does some strong writing emerge, as Dylan extols modern ills and returns again and again to the withering chorus, “but it’s all good”. It’s a really tart play on the hackneyed phrase, and ends the record on a juicy note. That’s by some distance the best song on the album, because it has a sense of purpose and some drive behind it, which feeds into the jumpy beat and squawks of electric guitar. Compared to this, his supposedly metaphoric ‘I Feel A Change Comin” feels like hokum: speaking in parables, Dylan asserts that a change is coming (Obama, anyone?) and notes that “the best part of the day is already gone”. It’s a nice idea, but what does it apply to? What change? Where? Who for? I feel like a teacher in high school: “develop this thought, Zimmerman.”
There’s the usual sweet song - in his late years Dylan can still be relied on for a pretty ditty (‘To Make You Feel My Love’ and ‘Moonlight’, for instance, from Time Out Of Mind and Love and Theft respectively) although his vocals are like a rusty saw being dragged through a large bar of toffee, and tend to spoil things a bit. On this album, that song is ‘This Dream Of You’, which melds violin and accordion, here in spiraling mode, to great effect. ‘Life Is Hard’ is also quite listenable, with soft licks of acoustic guitar and lashings of pedal-steel, but is unmemorable. ‘Forgetful Heart’ never gets you invested in its story of emotional Alzheimers.
The problem for me is that I don’t believe Dylan, and I’m tiring a little of him spinning his own myth. Todd Haynes’s masterpiece, I’m Not There, brilliantly cut Dylan up into so many personas and showed how what interested him wasn’t so much what he does, but how he does it: he isn’t the person whose point of view he’s singing; these cowboys and heart-broken folkies and lovers and travelers are all characters. That’s fair enough, but this album and a few others in his so-called Indian Summer are sung in a personal, confessional mode, which means that you’re always being tricked into believing it’s sincere. Similarly, Dylan also chucks in some of the old prophetic, visionary stuff, forcing people to analyze his prose for signs of the end of the world. On the evidence of this, he’s just an aging man playing some decent music; he may not be the voice of the country. I think a case can be made that Dylan has made some good records in his old age: his late recordings from Time Out Of Mind onwards have certainly done a good job of tying his style to the blues. But I think this album is a little thin on ideas, if quite well executed, and no-one would pay it very much attention if it weren’t Dylan.