Saturday, 1 March 2014

Angel Olsen - "Burn Your Fire for No Witness"

Coming two years after the wonderful Half Way Home, the buzz in the lead-up to Burn Your Fire for No Witness was that Olsen had traded out gentle acoustic songs for guitar-driven rockers. Those paying attention between albums might have heard the standalone ‘Sweet Dreams’ as the first sign that Olsen would be changing her palette. Up-tempo lead single ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ seemed to confirm this theory, feeling more suited to festival stages than campfire confessionals.

As it turns out, those folk purists pre-emptively shouting “Judas!” needn’t have worried about Olsen’s new direction. Electric guitar is certainly an important part of the album, adding dirty Southern fuzz to ‘Hi-Five’ and driving the chorus of ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’, but it’s used sparingly, with the latter song an outlier on a slow album that overall doesn’t feel too far removed from the delicate spirit of Half Way Home. The differences though, while subtle, are enough to cause a few problems.

The two albums follow a similar pattern – eleven songs, with two longer ones. While Half Way Home was slightly undone by its longer tracks, with the meandering ‘Safe in the Womb’ diverting the flow of the album’s first half, Burn Your Fire avoids this problem – the seven-minute ‘White Fire’ beguils with its warm, hypnotic texture, while 'Enemy' stands as one of her best lyrical displays.

The main problem with Burn Your Fire is that it moves too far away from the intimate vibe of Half Way Home without offering much in the way of replacement. This isn’t always the case – the new set of textures is partly responsible for two of the best songs on the album, both of which start out as slow torch songs before being lifted into something much grander. 'Dance Slow Decades' begins with a particularly vulnerable passage bringing to mind the early-‘90s slowcore outfit Codeine, before morphing into something resembling Mazzy Star’s more country moments. 'Windows' is a brilliant album closer, with Olsen providing her own angelic backing vocals over a blossoming piano-led outro.

However, more often than not, the production dulls the atmosphere rather than accentuating it, and it’s rarely interesting enough in itself to warrant the increased fidelity. The instrumentation can feel sort of anonymous, whereas on Half Way Home it was right up there in the mix, almost uncomfortably, making it impossible not to imagine those songs being played by someone. Were it not for Olsen’s singing, which remains wonderfully dynamic and unpredictable, tracks like ‘High & Wild’ (the start of a mid-album lull) might feel drained of personality. As it is, all the heavy lifting is laid on her voice, which even then sometimes lacks that arresting quality of otherness that made Half Way Home such a unique document.

To add to that, Olsen’s writing talent, while remaining strong, has lost some of its quirks. Nothing here has the unexpected turns of, say, ‘Acrobat’, and there seems to be less variation in her melodies. Perhaps it’s just that she’s no longer a new artist, but the surprise of her early material is largely absent. Occasionally, as on 'White Fire', it gives way to songs that reveal their quality over repeated listens, but half the time that’s not the case. Burn Your Fire is hardly a bad album, as there are plenty of good songs, but it’s a disappointing entry in what to date had been a pretty flawless catalogue. There's nothing as good as her previous highlights, and the album as a whole doesn’t gel particularly well. By all accounts Olsen's live show has stepped up a notch, and neither her voice nor her song-writing ability is under question here, but next time round it might be interesting to see her push them some more.

Highlights: ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’; ‘White Fire’; ‘Dance Slow Decades’; ‘Windows’

Monday, 17 February 2014

"Buckfast and Rob Ford": An Interview with PUP

So, how’s the tour gone so far, what’s it been like in England?

Stefan [lead singer/guitar]: Our London show was pretty good, Glasgow was crazy! In Manchester we had our first ever heckler in the history of this band, but everyone recognised that she was kinda off her rocker. That never happens in North America. The first couple of shows we were really thrown off by it even though it was a totally friendly thing.

Zack [drums]: There was this dude in the audience egging us on, like, you should play that song again, over and over again. Super sweet.

Steve [lead guitar]: It’s been like going anywhere else in Canada for the first time – you don’t expect a huge crowd because you’ve never been here before, and you never know what kind of reach your music has had, but people have been coming up to us every night and actually calling out for songs which is just kinda mindboggling.

Stefan: We know this guy Wade from Gallows and his advice to us was when you go to Glasgow to ask for a bottle of Buckfast on your rider, so we did that and that was one of the more drunken shows that we’ve had in a long time!

Zack: I play drums so my thing is coordination, and that night just getting my legs to work was so hard!

Stefan: There’s also a lot of caffeine in that drink… you feel invincible and that’s exactly what Wade said so he was right.

Steve: I played everything at double speed, it was great.

I thought I’d ask about the punk scene back in Toronto, I know you guys are big advocates of all-ages shows.

Stefan: We all grew up going to all-ages shows from the time that we were 15 or 16. Going to those shows made me think that I could be in a band. If I hadn’t had that opportunity, I never would have tried to play music. There’s a really great bar scene in Toronto now because all the kids we used to see at those shows have started bands. You have to be a great band to get shows because there’s so much competition. Everyone’s just pushing everyone else to be better, it’s a good community.

Steve: One of the cool things I’ve noticed here [in the UK] is that lots of the age restrictions on our shows are a lot lower than they normally are, which is really cool. Last night we played a 14+ show in Nottingham, that is so crucial. I don’t know if there were actually any 14 year olds there, but just to have that option is a really important way to make that community grow in a way we can’t in North America.

The record doesn’t come out here until April, but could you talk a bit about some of the songs?

Zack: It was a very fragmented process because we started this band about three years ago and we were just cramming material together so we could have a set to play a show, so the album as a whole is kind of a mishmash. As far as recording goes, it’s all live off the floor. You wanna feel like the energy from the show is represented in the album.

Stefan: One of the highlight tracks for me would be 'Yukon', that’s my favourite song and it’s a really different one.

Zack: It’s super dirgey and it becomes almost pseudo-metal – not to put anyone off, but it’s just super heavy!

Stefan: There are little guitar things all over the record, but this is probably the only guitar solo and Steve plays it and it’s really fucking awesome and he nails it live every time as well.

Steve: I don’t know if I did in Glasgow!

Stefan: That’s true, you played it wayyy too fast! Anyway, that song is about this super isolated part of Canada that I went camping in. There’s nothing like it in Europe outside of Siberia – no roads, no people, so far north that the sun doesn’t set during the summer solstice. If you drive straight north from Edmonton for about 16 hours, and then you hike for a couple of days and then canoe down a river, that’s where I was. Me and my sister went up there and did a bunch of drugs and didn’t see anybody for a few weeks and just popped out a bunch of crazy songs. I think Yukon was the weirdest one, and when we started playing it as a band everyone was ripping so hard. It turned into something really cool that I think we’re all really proud of.

Nestor [bass]: In 'Guilt Trip', if you listen really hard, you can hear a little bit of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Stefan: That song is about an ex-girlfriend of mine. She’s a little bitch and I just like playing it and I call her a bitch and scream my head off, it’s really cathartic!

What do you guys listen to in the tourbus?

Zack: Nothing. We hate music.

Stefan: We sit back and we stare at the ceiling and we ponder our fucking pathetic lives.

Nestor: When you tour Canada you have to do a lot of driving, so we have a bunch of CDs we’ve listened to a million times so we can’t even listen to music anymore.

Zack: On the off chance that we’re in the American South, we'll to listen to Bible Belt preachers on the radio. It’s hilarious but fucking horrible, just spouting, babbling.

Stefan: I mean, the records that we used to listen to before we started hating music were like The Bronx, Queens of the Stone Age, Diarrhea Planet, they’re all amazing bands.

What other Canadian bands should we be listening to?

Zack: There’s a band called PKEW PKEW PKEW (gunshots) from Toronto. They’ve got the stupidest but also the best band name, they also just write really great pop punk songs. They pride themselves on being super literal with their lyrics, so they’re dudes and they’re hanging out, drinking a beer, watching the football game, and there’s no poetry about it because Mike their lead singer thinks poetry in music is stupid and it should just be about what it is.

Are you guys listening to any UK bands at the moment?

Stefan: I like that band Cheatahs a lot. I’ve gotta find a place to pick their record up because we can’t get it in North America. What I’ve heard of them is awesome. And Slaves, they're the one band that we listen to every day on this tour because we’re playing with them! Slaves are awesome. These guys are raw, and they don’t have any of those crutches like big light shows or a professional sound guy, and they kill it every night.

Final question – what’s it like actually having Rob Ford as your mayor?

Steve: Haha, we haven’t talked about this in like over a week! We thought no one would care in the UK. Do people know about him?

He’s got a sort of cult presence over here.

Stefan: When all the Rob Ford bullshit started happening we were on tour across Canada. At the beginning it was so funny for us, we’d be like "hey we’re Pup from Toronto" and people would be like "crackheads!" But then as it escalated, by the end of the tour it was really sad, because Toronto’s a great city and Rob Ford is making everyone think we come from a city full of shitheads. 

Zack: Yeah, like a kinda redneck dumphouse. He’s a homophobe, he’s racist…

Nestor: …and he’s a crackhead!

Nobody here can understand how he gets away with it.

Stefan: I know, it's insane. He had all his powers stripped from him but he’s still a figure which is ludicrous. He should be in prison! He’s a terrible person and he represents our city to the whole world. I mean, I still think it's funny, but I'm equally annoyed. People don’t know about the multiculturalism of our city, they don’t know about the awesome music scene.

Well, you guys are Toronto ambassadors to the UK!

Stefan: Luckily it’s an election year so hopefully… if he gets re-elected then I will stop believeing in democracy. If Torontonians are stupid enough to re-elect that guy then we deserve what we get and everyone can say whatever the fuck they want about Toronto.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Tink - "Winter's Diary 2"

“Trying to find love in a world so cold, is that too much?”

Alongside such diverse voices as Chance the Rapper and Lil Bibby, Tink stands as yet another exciting artist confusing the recent narrative of Chicago hip-hop. Remarkably for such a new voice, Tink is equally comfortable delivering tender R&B songs as she is rapping over drill production, and has also collaborated with exciting underground production team Future Brown. Winter’s Diary 2, her fifth tape in the last two-and-a-half years, focuses on the R&B side of things and ends up being her most immediately and consistently satisfying work.

The tape loosely traces the arc of a relationship, but the concept isn’t all that important until the final run of songs. Tink spends most of the time here happy in love, comfortable with her partner and herself, though her shadowy, ambiguous past is often on her mind. On de facto opener ‘Treat Me Like Somebody’, Tink implores, “Don’t be mislead by the things that I said in the past – I was young, I was looking for a thrill." ‘Your Secrets’ represents the tape’s cosy mid-point: “You never judge me for the things I did, you heard the rumours but you never tripped.” The production on this one is incredible – the first of the tape’s only two hip-hop tracks, it uses a pitched-up Alicia Keys sample, and the gentle piano chords mean that the beat never gets out of control.

In fact, the production is pretty ace throughout. There are some lovely touches like the acoustic guitar on ‘Treat Me Like Somebody’, the almost-reggae beat of ‘Money Ova Everything’, and the jingle bells/autotune combination on tape highlight ‘Lullaby’ – a promise of love which brings to mind the falling snowflakes on the cover.

Winter’s Diary 2 is mostly at its best when the beats are soft and sparse – if Tink has sometimes had a problem with flitting between styles, this wouldn’t be a bad one to pursue. Her singing voice, if lacking a certain star quality, is undeniably emotive. Cheeky lines like “Forecast didn’t warn me about you” on ‘When It Rains’ (about getting naughty under the sheets while a storm rages outside) succeed precisely because of the sincerity with which they’re delivered.

There are, admittedly, a few missteps – ‘HML’ has a nice chorus and finds room for a Rich Homie Quan reference, but ultimately feels a bit confused with its annoying ringtone effect and unnecessarily loud drum hits. ‘Fight It’ is the only real clunker – it feels out of step with the intimate vibe, and outstays its welcome. Lyrically, the tape can feel a little generic at times, and it would be nice to have some more sharp details like “I be damned if I miss that call, so my shit up loud."

The last three songs are a surprise after 40 minutes of romantic lovers’ jams, and the tone changes quite dramatically. The brilliant ‘Talkin Bout’ is Tink’s showcase for her rapping skills, sounding like a more soulful Angel Haze and trading verses with guest Lil Herb in a breathless back-and-forth between the two lovers, wherein it emerges that Tink’s boyfriend has spent time in jail. She accuses him of betraying her faithfulness by sleeping with other girls after getting out, he tells her to stop complaining because he gives her money and clothes. They almost make up, until she finds something incriminating on his phone, and the final two songs lead to a genuinely shocking confession that makes some sense of all the darkness that was hinted at earlier.

Earlier on, in ‘Dirty Slang’, we’re reminded that Chicago – a city not-so-affectionately called ‘Chiraq’ because of its gun crime problem – is the backdrop to this narrative. Perhaps this makes the darkness in Winter’s Diary 2 less surprising, but more importantly, it makes those tales of love and longing all the more powerful.

Highlights: ‘Treat Me Like Somebody’; ‘Lullaby’; ‘Your Secrets’; ‘Talkin Bout’

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Young Thug & Bloody Jay - "Black Portland"

Young Thug is blessed with one of the weirdest voices in contemporary rap – a kind of manic yelp that perfectly fits his tightly-wound flow, careening between staccato assault and drunken lurch. You’ll be marvelling over it for a while before you actually start paying attention to his stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Having slowly infiltrated hip-hop conversations last year with his excellent mixtape 1017 Thug, he teams up with Atlanta rapper Bloody Jay for Black Portland, an 11-track effort which, in its relative concision and collection of great beats, actually comes out on top as Young Thug’s best project yet.

Looked at from the right angle, this could be quite a conventional tape – there are some genuinely memorable hooks/choruses, and the beats, if tinged with that distinctive Atlanta weirdness, are satisfyingly high-octane and ready for the club. It’s to these two rappers credit then that Black Portland never really feels like a normal affair – their aesthetic is just too damn weird, throwing in demented ad-libs all over the place and interrupting each other’s lines.

It’s mastered better than 1017 Thug, but the fidelity is still slightly off, to the point where Thug’s voice at its most intense can actually be quite grating, especially on headphones. Whether this proves to be annoying or part of the appeal will depend on the listener. Thug and Jay’s voices are pretty interchangeable for the most part (Jay’s is lower but just as urgent), and that’s fine, it’s more like a personality overload than a clash of heads. I must emphasise that this tape is fun over pretty much everything else. It’s almost impossible not to imagine these guys having a blast in the recording booth while listening to Black Portland, and thankfully its brevity means that this isn’t one of those 20+ track efforts that run out of energy halfway through.

Anyone who’s been paying attention to Atlanta rap recently will most likely know the hit ‘Danny Glover’, a song that bears a striking resemblance to A$AP Ferg’s ‘Work’ and has had both Drake and Kanye singing Young Thug’s praises. The real keeper here though is the melodic ‘4 Eva Bloody’, which goes in straight out of the gate with its indelible chorus and a yo-yoing beat that sounds like an old Sonic the Hedgehog game.

There are two more chilled-out tracks here – ‘Florida Water’ is the major changeup, with its woozy, almost tropical vibe (it sounds surprisingly like Vic Mensa’s ‘Tweakin’), and later on Future turns up for ‘Nothing But Some Pain’ with one of his trademark hooks. Honestly, there are no bad tracks here, and loads of great ones. It’s that rare hip-hop mixtape where you’re not just combing the tracklist for keepers, everything earns its place.

Bloody Jay explained the name of the tape to the FADER – on one level it’s a funny stoner pun on Portland’s basketball team (the ‘Trail Blazers’), but more interestingly, he conceives of ‘Black Portland’ as an imaginary place, a state of mind for creative artists who aren’t afraid to break outside of regional contexts (Portland has one of the lowest black populations in America and, unlike Atlanta, isn't really know for its hip-hop scene...) Sure this tape conforms to the ‘Atlanta sound’ to an extent, but it always feels like a springboard for the two rappers rather than a net.

We learnt recently that Young Thug has done a couple of songs with Kanye, so hopefully we’ll see those in the future (damn, Thug would sound great on a Yeezus sequel). In the meantime we can look forward to confirmed projects with Rich Homie Quan and Chief Keef, and keep on bumping Black Portland. Grab it here.

Highlights: 'Signs'; '4 Eva Bloody'; 'Danny Glover'

Monday, 20 January 2014

FENNEC - Woke Up Feeling Disconnected

FENNEC's album, Let Your Heart Break, is released on February 11th, and this is the first taster from it.

'Woke Up Feeling Disconnected' starts off like a moody Chromatics cut, before gently pulsating synths quickly usher us into a more Balearic mode, sounding like a more relaxed Cut Copy.

The production is light and airy, and there are some lovely textures going on, but for me the vocal samples are what makes this track stand out - the beat may be simple, but there's a lot going on here beneath the top layers.

Fans of Poolside, Champions League or Postiljonen will definitely enjoy this. One to play next time your plane is touching down in the Mediterranean. Listen below (along with a bonus FENNEC remix of Hall and Oates!) then check the website.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Pixies - "EP-2"

Anyone complaining about the Pixies ruining their legacy with new releases is being too precious. As a test, I listened to Doolittle this morning to see if it had been tarnished and – hey, guess what? – it still sounded as good as ever. It's a separate era, and Pixies in 2014 are a different beast, especially now that Kim Deal is out of the band. I don’t think anyone honestly expected them to be writing material on a par with their classics, but still, people coming to EP-2 with any expectations will likely be disappointed.

Last year’s EP-1 was far from excellent, especially for a band of the Pixies’ stature, but it had a couple of interesting detours – veering into glistening dream-pop on 'Andro Queen' and shaking up the structure of 'Indie Cindy'. The classic Pixies quiet/loud dynamic seemed to have been replaced by a textural one – sparse/lush – and the relatively glossy production suited the more gentle songs. The best bits were the ones that didn’t really sound like the Pixies at all, but could easily stand on their own.

In comparison to EP-1, some of the more familiar elements of the Pixies sound are back in evidence on EP-2 – Frank Black’s howl, Joey Santiago’s guitar texture – but this does nothing to disguise how rubbish the songs themselves are. In all honesty, it just reminds us how poorly this new material compares to the older stuff. 'Magdalena' is probably the best thing here, sounding as it does like a Bossanova offcut with its floaty chorus, but it’s distinctly unmemorable.

Of the four tracks, 'Blue Eyed Hexe' has been given the video treatment and seems to be clocking up the most radio plays, but it plods along at an interminable speed, and is ruined by stadium-ready drums and the same annoying guitar chug as the verses in 'Magdalena'. Any sense of threat built up in the verses is immediately dispelled by the awful chorus. 'Snakes' is even worse, with the lyrics being the main offender here.

'Greens and Blues' is apparently the band’s attempt to write a new set-closer to replace 'Gigantic'. Not that you’d be able to tell from listening. It's not too bad, but the chorus never takes off the way it should do, and the old dynamic shifts that used to seem so natural are sorely missed here. Some of the riffs and little guitar measures hark back to classic Pixies, though that temporary spark of recognition never ignites into anything remotely convincing, pastiche or otherwise.

Maybe if EP-2 had been offered as a free download, then I could have approached it without any expectations. As a paid-for release, it’s incredibly disappointing, and I doubt many Pixies fans will be eagerly awaiting the third and final instalment in the EP series.