Album Review: ‘The Colour in Anything’ by James Blake

James Blake has a signature sound, a style that means when you hear the first 10 seconds of most of his tracks you’ll instantly be able to recognise it as him. True, he is not alone in the field of minimalist electronic R&B and pop, though other artists/groups like the xx and Mount Kimbie are always chasing, both vocally and via production also.

Although the deep and aching piano chords, finely used autotune, saw and pulse-based synths, and idiosyncratic percussion remain, it does feel just a bit different from past releases – it’s still minimalist, but his voice is higher in the mix, and it really makes a difference in filling out the tracks just that bit more.

It could be the increased collaboration you hear on the album too – Blake in the past has been very limited on this front, but here Rick Rubin co-produces on various tracks, Bon Iver returns on ‘I Need a Forest Fire’, and Frank Ocean chips in for some writing credits too. Kanye West was reportedly providing a verse on the track ‘Timeless’, but the verse didn’t materialise and the atmosphere of the album changed (trust me, Kanye would be really out of place on this record). Add in his input on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and The Colour in Anything really does represent a shift for the London artist.

The album’s a hefty 17 tracks, and it does take a bit out of you after every listen – it’s much longer than his previous efforts. The transitions are smooth enough though, and there are more than enough new sounds introduced do keep it fresh. Classic James Blake themes are on the album, from missed love, self-doubt, grapples with loneliness and so on – the opening lines to the album are “I can’t believe this, you don’t wanna see me”, as reserved piano chords are played beneath, and Blake recounts miscommunications and love lost. If I’m completely honest, it’s very whiney, and the lyrical content is not consistent across the whole album, but the falsetto-laden singing imbues an extra layer of emotion that allows Blake to get away with it.

The vocal humming melodies return to full effect on the following track, ‘Love Me in Whatever Way’, casting minds back to Blake’s classic song ‘Retrograde’ from previous album Overgrown. Noise slowly fills the sonic landscape as reverb is gradually added to Blake’s voice, and the synth filter is slowly peeled away to provide an enormous crescendo of lament. It definitely helps that it’s lyrically stronger than the opener:

“Giving up is hard to do”

Other lyrical highlights include the solemn request on ‘Waves Know Shores’, “I suggest you love like love’s no loss”, and the imagery provided on single ‘Modern Soul’, “So I swim to you while I’m sleeping// through sage green rivers of England”. The intense sound that opens the track and triggers later on throughout still intrigues me; I have no idea what it is, but it’s a great pairing with the sweeping dives of synths. Although it’s obviously about relationship struggles, the refrain that appears in the middle of the track suggest some kind of unrest and unhappiness with the touring life, with the musical life wrenching him away from friends and family – he sighs “Because of a few songs” over and over before he recounts a split from a partner.

The title track sees Blake get rid of synths and experimental percussion, opting for his voice and the keys to carry the listener through the three-and-a-half minute ballad. The eclectic run up to it may have listeners even somewhat bored as they listen to, the double-tracking in the chorus the only pick-up. Such a thing is very purposeful however, giving space for Blake set up an emotional sucker punch of a track whilst showing off his piano chops. Again, it casts your mind back to another track, Blake’s phenomenal cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’.

Even though it’s a much fuller album than past efforts, it’s still modest – on the closing track Blake opts to get rid of all instruments, and delivers a palate-cleansing acapella, displaying dexterity with the vocoder. Everything and everyone seems to have left him, but he holds some optimism. He closes “Music can’t be everything”, an oddly strange sentiment considering Blake’s past soundscape exploration, but oddly beautiful at the same time. Ghostly and emotional as always, Blake continues to deliver.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez.

Up and Coming: Strange Collective

I got an email about these guys roughly a week or so ago, along with a link to their latest release: ‘Heavy’. I’ve been on a recent spree of listening to HOMESHAKE, Mac DeMarco, Tame Impala, Temporex, The Allah-Las, and so on, and this really fit right in with those names. Obviously they’re not quite at that calibre yet, but from what’s been said about them I definitely look forward to see where they’ll end up –

A Liverpudlian quartet, they specialise in a psychedelic-laced form of garage rock. Guitars laden with reverb aplenty, and an unexpected change-up that lurches into action in the latter quarter of the track make for a great listen. The vocals are most definitely the highlight of the main segment though, Alex Wynne providing the lead with exciting yelps, and when the backing vocals come in during the chorus it really works well. It almost feels cinematic – I could definitely imagine it featuring in an opening or closing shot of a film, the change-up providing a shot of energy, the more laid-back beginning bringing out that ‘tying-up-of-loose-ends-but-unsure-if-it’s-a-happy-ending’ kind of feeling. The only thing I may have changed was perhaps a bit of reverb on the percussion, especially the starting fill which opens up the the main verse arrangement. They do fit nicely in when the lead and bass come in though, a hazy summer’s day vibe for sure.

The track, along with the few other recordings they’ve put out, apparently show a much tamer side, their live sets at Liverpool Music Week, Sound City Festival, and Liverpool Psych Fest being noted for their explosiveness and charismatic performances.

Strange Collective’s debut EP Super Touchy will be released by Salvation Records on the 1st of July, and they look set to begin touring the UK soon as well. If they come by Newcastle or Manchester, I’ll personally be trying to grab a ticket for sure.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez.

What we’re listening to (#22): ‘Midnight Snack’ by Homeshake

HOMESHAKE is the alias of Peter Sagar, best known as being the former touring guitarist of Mac DeMarco – he took time off from the touring life citing loneliness and detachment from friends and family to focus on his solo project, releasing The Homeshake TapeIn the Shower, and, most recently, Midnight Snack.

Comparisons to DeMarco will always come up – the jangly chorus effect guitar is still there, some wavy synths, some falsetto crooning, the ingredients to a DeMarco album are all there. But there’s something to Sagar’s music that’s a bit different. Where as his former bandmate’s Another One  is filled with charming love ballads topped with trademark goofiness, Midnight Snack is more RnB, more spacious, minimal with a twang of experimental,  and perfect for a midnight listen (who’d have thunk it?).

The introductory spoken word piece drops you seamlessly into the opener ‘Heat’ – a detuned synth  and a drum machine loop, a change from In the Shower‘s guitar led tracks, provide the backing for a catchy opening and chorus vocal melody, the subject matter definitely evoking the loneliness aforementioned – “All alone and got nothing to do
except lie awake and dream of you”

‘He’s Heating Up!’ follows, the guitar making its debut on the album, shaky and rapid riffs the core, a bass lumbering in the background – the chorus is the key to this song, the vocal melody is really catchy, the basketball analogy works well, and the manipulated-backing vocals aren’t too intruding that it takes away from the song. The song is so minimal, but it’s most definitely more than the sum of its part.

“Looks like I put up a brick again
I can feel it
(He’s heating up!)
Got stoned and then he jammed it in
I can see it
(He’s heating up!)
One lonely shot no good for two
But I need it
(He’s heating up!)
You wanna hold onto him too
(He’s on fire!)”

The vocal manipulation is much clearer on other tracks – ‘Give It To Me’ is perhaps the best track on the album. A trunk-shaking 808 is the heartbeat of the track, and whilst Sagar’s falsetto is on full display a pitched backing vocal picks up the rest of the weight. An extremely sensual guitar riff breaks the pattern in the chorus, windchimes ringing along for the ride. A cry for feeling and love, quintessential dream pop.

‘Under the Sheets’ continues the vocal manipulation, strongly so – drumless, synth stabs provide the percussion for the bass to follow, whilst airy and robotic vocals fly over the top. It’s probably the least pleasant listen on the album if I’m honest, and doesn’t quite fit the rest of the album’s more laid-back vibe. It’s up to you whether you want to applaud the imaginative production or not.

When you’re listening to this album, throw any connection to Mac DeMarco away – there are some things Sagar does better than DeMarco, and there are things DeMarco does better than Sagar, but they’re two different musicians. The first half of the album is stronger than the second, and whilst the drum machine use does tend itself towards repetitiveness, it’s easy to get lost in the airy and spacious nature of the album so it’s really a minor drawback.  So, what are you waiting for, grab yourself a snack and give this album a listen.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez 

Album Review – ‘Mind of Mine’ by ZAYN

The first effort of Zayn Malik’s solo career I came across was a cover of Rae Sremmurd’s ‘No Type’, Mic Righteous providing the verses – what comes across is that he really does have vocal chops, but the R&B style of the hook didn’t quite suit him (you definitely couldn’t imagine One Direction hopping on it to give it a go), and you could tell he was trying to do too much with his voice, meaning some of the emotion he was trying to get across was lost. It was like he was lost being the sole focus of attention without the rest of the boys singing with him, and it didn’t really put me in a settled position when it came to thinking about what I should expect from his solo debut Mind of Mine.

 

Then ‘PILLOWTALK’ dropped in late January, one of two singles from the album – it genuinely shocked me how much I enjoyed the track, solid vocal melodies in the verses and its more mature content (though, generically so, the classic ‘I’m not a teenage boy-band member anymore, I’m a real man’ kind of vibe), and some very tight production with stuttering trap influenced 808s/909s laid beneath heavily modulated and distorted guitars. Comparisons with The Weeknd come to mind, not only sonically, but also lyrically in the combining of pleasure and pain of sex – he’s not quite got the same grasp as The Weeknd in delivering simple lines which still hit home though. The chorus is actually the weakest part of the song, a simple bemoaning of “it’s a paradise, it’s a warzone” making the dichotomy not quite as complicated as it should be. If you listen past his brazen happiness to be free from past-label requirements though, his voice definitely picks up the slack.

Similarities with other heavyweights of the genre spill-over into the next track ‘ITs YOU’, that sounds like it could have been taken straight off of Channel ORANGE (helped by the fact it’s produced by Ocean’s producer Malay), a low organ sitting below falsetto crooning delivered well, despite it being quite out of place straight after the club-friendly ‘PILLOWTALK’. It might be his best effort at putting out a slow jam, the distorted guitars returning to provide a neat and gentle crescendo.

‘BeFoUr’ channels Drake’s tried and tested ‘Hold On We’re Going Home’ formula, the drums sounding eerily a little too similar for comfort, and even the vocal melody sometimes sounding samey at points too. Once again Malik saves the track with his (obviously) superior singing as he recounts his experiences just prior to him leaving One Direction.

If you couldn’t tell by now there’s a theme developing – the album is definitely a new sound for Zayn Malik, who in our minds we still link to One Direction, but as for the genre in general there really isn’t much new about Mind of Mine. What’s more there isn’t really that much of a unified sound despite it sounding like a lot of thought has been put into how the album should sound.

 

‘INTERMISSION: FLoWer’ feels very out of place, a homage to his Pakistani heritage as he sings the song entirely in Urdu. And yet, by itself, it’s definitely not a bad track – pads quietly soar in the background as an acoustic guitar is fingerpicked, and the reverb on his vocals give quite an ethereal and spectral vibe to it, also helped by the fact that he barely enunciates his words when he sings (whether in English or in Urdu), which I initially found a tad annoying but grew to deal with.

“Until the flower of this love has blossomed,
this heart won’t be at peace,
give me your heart” (translated from Urdu)

Kehlani, the only feature on the album, shines on ‘WRoNg’, seemingly another Weeknd inspired track, with one of the stronger hooks on the album, though that isn’t really high praise as in general the earworm-level hooks that you would expect from The Weeknd are definitely not present here. ‘LIKE I WOULD’ fairs a bit better in that regard, the verses and bridge in the second single, much like the first, carrying strong melody – the chorus, whilst also strong, is a very blatant borrow (that’s putting it nicely) from ‘Can’t Feel My Face’.

 

Malik dips into a few other artists’ bags, moving towards a Michael Bublé/Mariah Carey style on ‘FOoL FOr YoU’, a classic piano-based chordal progression forming the basis of the ballad (and it must be said that his voice could be placed in the same calibre as those two artists), and then strangely dipping into reggae on ‘DO SOMETHING GOOD’, which works somewhat (though the attempt to modernise with a stuttering siren really didn’t work), but when I read the lyrics on paper (or rather, on screen) it really didn’t impress.

I think there was lot of pressure Malik for his debut solo effort, many people comparing his trajectory to that of Justin Timberlake  who burst into stardom after taking a break from NSYNC – just watching the music videos and his live performances, he seems kind of stiff, not ready to take the main stage and the world by storm. That being said, this is definitely not a flop of an album, and fans of Zayn prior to his split from One Direction will not be disappointed; he may even gain some new ones too. He just needs to take a much more relaxed approach with his next effort, and needs to search for his own sound. If he does so, it wouldn’t surprise me if he followed JT’s narrative of leaving his boyband in the dust.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez

What we’re listening to (#21): ‘Submarine – EP’ by Alex Turner

Submarine, a 2010 film directed by Richard Ayoade of IT Crowd fame (who has directed some past Arctic Monkeys’ music videos, notably ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ and ‘Cornerstone’), was about story of Oliver Tate and his comically strange and awkward coming-of-age. Visually it’s slightly washed out, a faint sepia colour correction a feature of most scenes, some Super-8 footage thrown in to boot. It really is a great film overall, quirky yet cool, and not too far on either side of the scale, topped off by a phenomenal soundtrack as written by Alex Turner.

He ditches his typical rock style that he’s been known for a long time and instead opts to pick up his acoustic guitar to provide at the time five (and a half) new songs – it’s soft, ballad-like, and there’s not too much going on that it detracts from itself as well as the film. If you’re watching the film, the tracks are more of a secondary focus, and so Turner doesn’t pull all the tricks from out of his sleeve lyrically and musically, instead restraining himself. The result is an album that on the surface, especially when combined with the content of the film, perfectly reflects the uncertainties of adolescence whilst showing the growth of Turner as a musician separate from the Arctic Monkeys, his at times snarky yet retaining tenderness.

 

 

‘Stuck on the Puzzle’, fairly barebones with simple percussion providing backing a slowly picked chordal-background, a solid bass riff, and a watery organ synth that comes to the fore at the end, is perhaps, audibly speaking, one of the more catchier songs on the album. Turner croons away about the stubbornness of a teenager’s emotions and the perceived eventual change in view that comes with age, and a realisation at the end that he just ends up in the same place he started, confused as ever:

“I tried to swim to the side
But my feet got caught in the middle
And I thought I’d seen the light
But oh, no
I was just stuck on the puzzle
Stuck on the puzzle”

‘Piledriver Waltz’, later reworked into a more upbeat and rocky version on the Arctic Monkeys’ Suck It and See, is also notable, it’s crescendo building up perfectly, a breathy delivery of the words ‘Piledriver’ bringing in the organ synth that lays in the background for the whole song to play a fantastic melody – lyrically though it’s not quite there, and Turner only just manages to make the hotel metaphor of the chorus work, the line “If you’re going to try and walk on water make sure you wear your comfortable shoes” wrapping it up nicely. It’s a great way to close the EP, the time-signature changes a great highlight.

 

The other three tracks feature less instrumentation but provide better imagery via the more classic Turner-lyricism on display, and there’s so many lines that can be pointed too. Personal favourites include “And I will play the coconut shy//and win a prize even if it’s rigged//I won’t know when to stop//And you can leave off my lid, and I won’t even lose my fizz//I’ll be the polka dots type” (on ‘Hiding Tonight’), and “It’s like you’re trying to get to heaven in a hurry//And the queue was shorter than you thought it would be//And the doorman says “you need to get a wristband”” (on ‘It’s Hard to Get Around the Wind). The latter evokes almost Bob Dylan/Simon and Garfunkel-esque vibes with its fingerpicking, strings extremely delicately placed beneath, the former’s electronic notes almost equally as unobtrusive. ‘Glass in the Park’ features some fantastic secondary-lead guitar for a bit extra melodic weight.

The album does sound quite samey throughout, but that’s what was trying to be achieved, a soundtrack that could be followed with the progression of the film, with the progression of the character of Oliver Tate, and in fact shows very well the progression of Alex Turner as an artist.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez

Album Review: ‘The Interpreter’ by Danny Ruane

We had a look at Danny Ruane’s last work, Arrythmiatake a look here

The album begins with a remix of Martijn Comes’ ‘Depths of the Nile’. ‘Depths of the Nile (Danny Ruane Remix)’ is an incendiary, atmospheric assault onthe senses that teases the listener with its heavy avant garde structure and machinations of sound. The remix of ‘Phaneron’ by Trinkkets follows a more conventional song structure, using heavy purring synth sounds reminiscent of Ruane’s previous works. The Aniki San Remix (Inverchoulin) that follows sees the first implementation of conventional instrumentation, with soothing electro-piano lines that fall over a funky rhythm that turns almost into afro beats. The beat drives the song forward with pace and provides an interesting back-drop to the piano and also strings that come into the song later. The beat then falls away to reveal thicker and thicker string instrumentation before returning to the piano and beat combination.

Ruane’s second Trinkkets remix, ‘Lace’, is one of the longer tracks, building darkly through a moody beat and intermittent industrial sounds. As the song progresses it becomes recognisably more ‘techno’ and the bassline thumps and drives more and more aggressively, culminating with an ultimate crescendo of bass and industrial drum beat. The first Ruane track on the album is ‘Leaf’ remixed by Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. The track opens to an almost siren like effect over the top of some frantic drum beats. After a minute or so the song moves up a gear as heavy synths and the same frantic drum beat take hold, the siren still intermittently sounding over the top of the snarling back track. The song punches on with dark determination until it eventually slowly fades out and pulses out into nothing.

 

‘Switch’ is another Ruane song, this time with editing credits attributed to LOFTMIND. This tune opens with an unrelenting drum beat which is often a hallmark of the album. The build-up is slow and subtle as the backing track slowly comes alive, intermittent sounds hovering over the beat as tension is built. A light synth line slowly feeds into the mix as the high-hat opens on the off-beat. Tension continues to rise as more is added to the song. Suddenly, however, the song changes as it goes up another few notches almost without warning. The song’s new tempo adds a greater dance aspect that isn’t seen in the other tracks in the same way – this song definitely shows the dexterity of Ruane as an artist.

‘Tranquilizer’ appears twice on the album, being remixed by once Shay and then being ‘recalibrated’ by Trinkkets. The Trinkkets recalibration is the end track on the album and is a strong sign off from the album. Opening on an almost explosive feedback, there’s a dark mood to the track, the echoing mournful synth behind the explosive noises reminiscent of choral church singing. It paints a conflicting picture between the harsh electronic noises and the soft sounds that weave behind them. There is no backing drum beat, but this ambient track would lose much of the feel that it created through the use of a conventional beat. The synth sounds become faster and faster and then drop away again, eventually the sounds falling away completely to leave a wash of sounds from the back of the mix to fade out the song.

 

Overall, whilst Ruane’s album is by no means commercial, it is very listenable and fairly accessible. The hooks and subtle building of the songs grab the listener and keep them guessing for the whole song. It’s a strong album from a strong artist who’s going places in the electronic scene.

You can pick the album via bandcamp here

This article was written by Samuel Brunt

What we’re listening to (#20): ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’ by Drake

I went back to listen to this album after I had a friendly debate with good friend of mine about two of hip hop’s modern day heavyweights: Kendrick Lamar and Drake.

I’m in the camp that absolutely adores Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but my friend made some valid points about the anachronistic nature of his instrumentation when compared to many other artists around today, and how his delivery is seemingly too forced at times – he said that he was ‘too conscious’ at times, and at first I wrote this off as complete rubbish, but I began to think about it a bit more.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and To Pimp a Butterfly are both albums that I can listen to the entirety of the way through, but they provide such different experiences – To Pimp a Butterfly is a more memorable experience, complex composition, social-lyrical wizardry, and interesting vocal inflections make sure of that, but Drake’s album is a fluid experience, one that I can lie on my bed and listen to, downtempo vibes throughout. Drake and Kendrick are two sides of the same game, both bringing forward different things.

This record releases Drake of his commercial restraints (well documented on the album); there aren’t too many club tunes on this one, you get stripped down and filtered production from his frequent collaborators Boi-1da and Noah 40 Shebib. The backbone will often be a simple piano or synth line, or a tender chord progression. Stuttering high-hats and some sub-bass round out the instrumentation, resulting in eerie, captivating, yet easy to listen to beats – ‘Star67’ and opener ‘Legend’ in particular take on this role. That’s not to say that you won’t be getting hyped at some points in the album, the still powerful ‘Know Yourself’ provides the best hook on the album and brings great energy, whilst the fast-paced synth of ‘6 God’ provides a much more menacing feel.

On some tracks Drake vents and rants, ‘Energy’ clear in this aspect as he goes in on those things which drain him, and ‘No Tellin”, where he talks of his record label issues, saying “Envelopes coming in the mail, let her open ‘em, hoping for a check again, ain’t no telling”. The highlight has to be on bonus track ‘6PM in New York’, where he comes out with a now infamous line against Tyga:

“It’s so childish calling my name on the world stage, you need to act your age and not your girl’s age”

Yes, the rough Drake is not convincing as the ‘Drake the type of n-gga who…’ Drake, and yes the first half of the album is in fact much better than the second, and yes the guest producers on the album really don’t do as good as a job as they should have, but we have to remember; this was just a stopgap, a mixtape, almost a track-dump. The fact that he felt confident to put such compelling songs on this album should make us all feel incredibly excited for Views From the 6.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez.