2013 Catchup: The Emotional Desolation Of Banks

Banks - London EP

Banks – London

Confession time: I only got into Banks at the very beginning of this year – I’d seen that she was on the BBC’s Sound Of 2014 list, listened to ‘Warm Water’, thought it was alright and then moved on with my life. It was only after reading a DiS article on the aforementioned list and finally listening to ‘Waiting Game’ that my opinion did an immediate about face. Though ‘Waiting Game’ hit me instantly, I briefly remained unconvinced by the rest of last September’s London EP - but it wasn’t long before each of the other three tracks on it wormed their way irrecoverably into my head and heart.

But let’s rewind for a second and cover why ‘Waiting Game’ immediately connected with me. Its lyrics concerning separation, distance, and the nagging doubt that a relationship can only ever decline (“What if the way we started made it something cursed from the start? What if it only gets colder?”) are certainly relatable, and the stark piano chords and throbbing sub bass give Banks’ airy vocals plenty of space to breathe while further emphasising the feeling of loneliness that runs through the song.

‘This Is What It Feels Like’ comes next, and its woozy electronics and two-step beats provide a backdrop to another form of heartache – feeling like someone is pushing you away when you want them to hold you closer. “And when you saw that I felt the same/you pulled away, started acting like being with me was too hard,” Banks sings frustratedly, clearly wounded by opening her heart only to have her affection rebuffed. “Bring it now/bring it on,” she demands in the chorus, all the while knowing that her desires will no doubt go unfulfilled.

‘Bedroom Wall’ is the EP’s quietest track, with muted beats evoking a lonely room at 3am even as its synths attempt to sooth with a faint flicker of warmth. It’s absolutely the record’s most heart-on-sleeve moment, a softly desperate dedication to an unrequited love. Banks nervously but earnestly offers herself up to her potential lover (“I’ve been thinking ’bout, thinking ’bout/putting my body, body, body on top of yours”) before quietly mourning his blindness to her feelings with a repeated, fragile refrain – “Do I have to write it on your bedroom wall, you fool?”

It was ‘Change’ that took the longest to settle in, but perhaps hit the hardest – after I came to the uncomfortable realisation that, despite my best intentions, I’ve probably been that guy. You know, the one who makes promises to change, then never lives up to them and can only live to regret the consequences. Banks has clearly been on the other side of that relationship herself, and for all her lover’s apparent failings, she offers the harshest indictment of him by simply quoting his own words back at him – “Baby don’t go, I didn’t know, I’ll change I swear, I’ll change I swear.”

It’s strange to think that a four-track EP can pretty much sum up years of emotional and romantic frustrations and failings for me, and yet Banks has done exactly that with London. But whether or not you’re as much of a fuck-up as I am when it comes to relationships, her haunting, intimate and confessional lyrics will no doubt strike a chord somewhere along the line – by infusing her R’n’B with a deeply personal dark heart, Banks has come up with something truly special.

London is available now on Harvest Records/Good Years

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2013 Catchup: The Transportive Music Of Samaris

Samaris - Samaris

Samaris – Samaris

Ask someone to name a musician or band from Iceland and you can generally expect one of two answers: Björk or Sigur Rós. With those two artists as touchstones for our musical perceptions of the country, we may presume that all Icelandic artists are inspired by the unique, seemingly alien landscape of the island that they live on. However, that’s not always the case – neo-classical composer Ólafur Arnalds has admitted that one of his most beloved songs was, in fact, originally conceived with a far more pragmatic goal in mind, while electro-poppers Retro Stefson make music that would sound as at home on a Mediterranean beach as it does on the streets of Reykjavik.

Samaris, on the other hand, create the kind of Björk meets Fever Ray hybrid that feels like it could only have been conceived in this harsh yet beautiful climate – combining Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir’s haunting clarinet motifs, Þórður Kári Steinþórsson’s glacial electronica and the captivating vocals of Jófríður Ákadóttir, whose words are taken from 19th century Icelandic poems. Though they have stressed in interviews that they are not solely inspired by the nature of their country, it still seems somehow fitting to describe their self-titled debut release in terms of Iceland’s landscape – so let’s go on a journey…

At the outset, ‘Hljóma Þú’ serves as a perfect introduction to the atmosphere that Samaris create, calling to mind both the near-permanent darkness of Iceland’s winter and its vast areas of rugged basalt terrain. As if to complete this overall picture of the island, ‘Viltu Vitrast’ evokes the wide open sea that surrounds Iceland, with aquatic synthesisers bubbling underneath as a clarinet line soars above like a lone bird of prey. It’s ‘Góða Tungl’ that is the single most evocative piece on the album, however. Spacious, electronic beats reflect miles and miles of uninhabited landscape, the mournful clarinet sounds like a glacier slowly melting, rumbling bass echoes the tectonic activity that stirs between Iceland’s surface, and the ethereal vocals lend the whole thing an otherworldly feel.

The crystalline synths of ‘Stofnar Falla’ could represent frozen waterfalls, towering basalt columns or monumental ice flows, with the song’s dense atmosphere also conjuring up the bleak beauty of such distinctive landmarks. ’Vöggudub’, meanwhile, evokes the idea of finding respite from the bitter cold in other people, with Jófríður’s vocal shining like a beacon of humanity in an unforgiving expanse. As two takes on the same poem, ‘Sólhvörf (I)’ and ’Sólhvörf (II)’ feel like a slowly shifting lava field being depicted in two different ways – the former’s synths quiver and shudder in a way that evokes the dead of night, while the latter glistens like the first light of dawn, lending the imagined scenery a newfound serenity. Finally, we move to the very source of much of this natural beauty, with ‘Kælan Mikla’ sounding like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption – the vocals are more sombre and funereal than ever, with the synths like ash clouds slowly settling until they suddenly explode once again.

The last four tracks of this record are remixes by members of Iceland’s burgeoning electronic community, each of which throws a different filter on the pictures conjured up by these songs. Muted’s remix of ‘Hljóma Þú’ calls to mind an overcast, rainy day, while Futuregrapher’s version of ‘Viltu Viltrast’ is quite the opposite, bathing the song in the warm, comforting glow of summer. DJ Arfi turns ‘Góða Tungl’ on its head, his minor-key re-working making the landscape seem unnerving, with the threat of monstrous things lurking in the shadows cast by a distinctly bad moon – but the best of these remixes is Subminimal’s drum ’n’ bass refit of ’Stofnar Falla’, which offers not a change of mood but a change of pace. It evokes a feeling of travelling at great speed, with the rapid-fire beats akin to the foreground moving in fast-forward, while the vocals and clarinet remain implacable, distant and majestic, like mountains on the horizon.

And thus, Samaris comes to a close, as does our journey. But if you take one thing away from this piece of writing (or want a tl;dr version), let it be this – the music that Samaris create is truly transportive. You may not envision quite the same images as I do when you play this album, but I guarantee that what you see in your mind’s eye will be wonderful regardless.

Samaris is available now on One Little Indian records.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Brit Awards 2014

Brit Awards 2014 logo

You know you’ve been taking the piss out of the Brit Awards too long when you look at the current year’s shortlist and think “…well, at least it’s not as bad as last year’s.” You might disagree, and I’d very much understand that – perhaps I’ve just reluctantly come to terms with the fact that the Brit Awards are primarily designed to reward (chart) success first and musical credibility second. You’re never going to see Jon Hopkins or These New Puritans or Daughter or Savages or (insert other deserving British artist here) on these shortlists, and if you prefer your music to be prominently feature guitars then you’re largely out of luck – in much the same way as most ‘guitar bands’ are in the charts these days. This year’s selection of awards looks pretty lean at first glance, with no ‘Best Live Act’ and only three international categories, though what the Brits website doesn’t tell you is that the ‘Brits Global Success Award’ is returning after its introduction last year. ‘Best British Video’ will also be making a comeback after being absent for over a decade – apparently the nominations will be announced on the night and voted for via social media. While the sprawling mess of the Grammies is perhaps a little overkill, it does feel like the Brits could do with spreading its wings a bit and introducing some more genre-specific categories – we might see a few more interesting acts getting nominated that way…

Anyhow, let’s have a quick look at who might win, eh?

British Breakthrough Act
Bastille
Disclosure
Laura Mvula
London Grammar
Tom Odell

I briefly thought that the Brits had finally dispensed with public voting, but no, the British Breakthrough category continues its long tradition of being thrown open to the public. Sadly, my trusty method of judging who’s the most popular fell flat last year after Ben Howard won despite not having anywhere near the most fans on Facebook. However, that’s not going to stop me from using the very same method this year and declaring that Bastille will win this one – though it’s also because I reckon they’re the most likely to have the sort of obsessive fanbase who’d vote en masse for this sort of thing. London Grammar are probably the only other band who’d come close.

British Female Solo Artist
Birdy
Ellie Goulding
Jessie J
Laura Marling
Laura Mvula

Only one of these women has had a number one single (and, eventually, a number one album as well). That woman is Ellie Goulding, and I would be very surprised if anyone else wins this award. Any other result would seem a bit half-hearted on the Brits committee’s part, no?

British Group
Arctic Monkeys
Bastille
Disclosure
One Direction
Rudimental

What statement do the Brits want to make this year? You may as well rename the ‘Brits Global Success Award’ the ‘One Direction award for being One Direction’ again this year, and you’d think that would allow the judges to avoid making a potentially controversial choice here. But could they do the unthinkable and pull off a rare victory for pure pop music in this category? Or will the organisers pick the only ‘traditional’ choice and go with Arctic Monkeys, bucking the year’s predominant trends in the process? Or they plant their flag firmly in the ashes of ‘guitar music’ and proclaim Disclosure or Rudimental the winner?

I predict they’ll do none of these things and pick Bastille, which as far as statements go is roughly equivalent to a non-committal shrug.

British Male Solo Artist
David Bowie
Jake Bugg
James Blake
John Newman
Tom Odell

Well, we can safely say that David Bowie won’t win because the ‘token legend’ never ever wins. James Blake is mainly here because he won the Mercury Prize, but will that translate to Brits success? Probably not, though we can live in hope. Honestly, out of all of these I reckon John Newman might take it, if only because he’s got the most obvious hit single to play over the PA as he goes to collect the award.

British Single

Bastille – ‘Pompeii’
Calvin Harris feat. Ellie Goulding – ‘I Need Your Love’
Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge – ‘White Noise’
Ellie Goulding – ‘Burn’
John Newman – ‘Love Me Again’
Naughty Boy feat. Sam Smith – ‘La La La’
Olly Murs – ‘Dear Darlin”
One Direction – ‘One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)’
Passenger – ‘Let Her Go’
Rudimental feat. Ella Eyre- ‘Waiting All Night’

I do love the way the Brits website can’t even be arsed to list the names of the songs. You’d think that would be quite important for a ‘Best Single’ award, no? Anyway, whilst looking them up on Wikipedia, I discovered an interesting fact – these 10 songs were literally the 10 best-selling singles by British artists in 2013. Look here if you don’t believe me – you’ll find these ten songs at numbers 4, 5, 11, 12, 14, 15, 20, 24, 29, and 32. It’s also worth noting that Lily Allen‘s godawful cover of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was number 11, so thank your lucky stars that this list wasn’t even worse. (Looking at last year’s list, exactly the same process seems to have been used, except there were 15 nominations rather than 10.)

Anyway, as for the award itself, I’ve genuinely no idea how they’re going to decide this one. If we go purely on sales figures it’s a straight fight between Passenger and Naughty Boy (4 and 5 in the year-end sales figures respectively). However, Ellie Goulding might also be in with a shout because she spent the longest time at number one (three weeks, compared to one or zero for everyone else). Fuck it, I’ll go with that logic and say she’ll win.

International Female Solo Artist
Janelle Monáe
Katy Perry
Lady Gaga
Lorde
P!nk

Ok, process of elimination time – Janelle Monáe is too niche, Lady Gaga‘s last album felt like a relative flop despite going straight to number one, P!nk… well, P!nk somehow had the 20th best selling album of last year despite the fact it came out in 2012. What is life? Anyway, that’s not zeitgeisty enough for the Brits panel, so we’re left with Katy Perry or Lorde – established star vs. up-and-comer. I reckon they might actually go with the New Zealand up-and-comer, particularly after last year’s demonstration that the judges are willing to use the International categories to make themselves look a bit cooler.

International Group
Arcade Fire
Daft Punk
Haim
Kings Of Leon
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Surely Daft Punk are a shoo-in here, given that their chart success totally eclipses everyone else on the list? I mean, it’d be cute if Haim won and all but I just don’t think they’ve sold enough records.

International Male Solo Artist
Bruno Mars
Drake
Eminem
John Grant
Justin Timberlake

Well, they always find room for one total curveball eh? John Grant is easily this year’s most unlikely nominee in any category, but of course that means he’s probably not going to win. The field’s pretty open for any of the others to take the award though, so let’s go with the lowest common denominator and say Bruno Mars will win.

MasterCard British Album of the Year
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Bastille – Bad Blood
David Bowie – The Next Day
Disclosure – Settle
Rudimental – Home

Honestly, I was willing to give Bastille the benefit of the doubt – but then I actually listened to Bad Blood, and let’s just say I am now no longer willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m pretty convinced that anyone else on this list would be a better winner, but realistically, given their combination of sales and critical success, it has to be Arctic Monkeys, right?

…right?

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Review: Various Artists – 12 Traditional Christmas Songs (In Aid Of Radio York’s Good Night’s Sleep Appeal)

Various Artists - 12 Traditional Christmas Songs

Various Artists – 12 Traditional Christmas Songs

I don’t know about you, but I’m still not feeling particularly festive – so I thought I’d give this BBC Radio York curated compilation a spin and see if it helped to change my mood. As the title suggests, 12 Traditional Christmas Songs is exactly that – but the twist is that each of these songs have been re-imagined by one of 12 local artists hand-picked from the many acts featured on BBC Introducing In York & North Yorkshire.

Naturally, each artist has a different take on these traditional carols – Union Jill play things straight by delivering a faithful version of ‘Coventry Carol’, while Bull exemplify their slacker-rock approach to ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ by only singing two lines from the original song. Elsewhere, Pip Mountjoy has her sights set on next year’s John Lewis advert with her rendition of ‘The Holly And The Ivy’, while BluesBeaten Redshaw offers an appropriately jaunty take on ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’. Other tracks distinctly suggest the influence of a particular artist: Littlemores channel early Arctic Monkeys on their version of ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’, Adam Chodan imagines how Noel Gallagher might sing along to ‘Away In A Manger’, King No-One‘s cover of ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ echoes Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, and The Buccaneers take on ‘Jingle Bells’ in the style of ‘Birthday’ by The Beatles.

The best moments on the album are when the artists really make their own mark on their chosen song. Bear Station offer up a beautifully arranged version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, while Gavin Loughlin enlists the aid of two female vocalists to deliver a harmonious, minimal take on ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’. Special mention must also go to Nathan Luke, whose stunning delivery makes his version of ‘Silent Night’ a real highlight – you can just imagine him bringing an entire congregation to a standstill with it. It’s The Blueprints who best succeed in putting their own stamp on their chosen song though, rendering ‘While Shepherd’s Watch’ in their signature propulsive indie-rock style – and also throwing in a little trademark humour by featuring some alternative lyrics you may remember from your school days and a cheeky nod to BBC Radio York DJ Jericho Keys.

As if all this festivity wasn’t enough on its own, all proceeds from sales of the album are going towards the BBC Radio York and St. Martin’s Hospice “Good Night’s Sleep” appeal, which you can find out more about here. You can get a copy of the album on CD from the St. Martin’s Hospice website, or download it on iTunes - and do so knowing that it won’t just be your face that it’ll help to put a smile on.

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Banger Police: A Brief Summary Of ‘Bangerz’ by Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus - Bangerz

Miley Cyrus – Bangerz

In the current end of year list-o-rama, the Guardian’s list caught my eye for the wrong reason – namely that their writers managed to collectively rank Miley Cyrus‘s most recent album Bangerz above Jon Hopkins‘ incredible Immunity. But rather than spew ill-informed hatred, I decided I should at least listen to Miley’s record. For science. So, here’s what I thought of it…

…honestly, I should probably just put a funny gif here and have done with it, but here’s a track-by-track summary instead.

  1. Soppy ballad.
  2. Rihanna off-cut. (I’ve honestly been assuming that this was a particularly mediocre Rihanna song up until now.)
  3. Embarrassing attempt at ‘edgy’ rap.
  4. Comical country/rap fusion.
  5. Soppy ballad that shamelessly cribs from ‘Stand By Me’.
  6. I CAME IN LIKE A WREEEEECKING BAAAALL! (Probably the best thing on the album, for what little it’s worth.)
  7. Dross.
  8. Something cobbled together from the scraps from Daft Punk’s (turn)table(s).
  9. Miley Cyrus goes dubstep/soppy ballad hybrid.
  10. ‘Delilah’ with a dubstep chorus.
  11. Generic euphoria/hollow self-belief/terrible rapping/even more dubstep. “STAY IN YOUR LANE BITCH!”
  12. Soppy ballad.
  13. Rave rave rave, yawn yawn yawn.
  14. …fuck off, you really think I’m going to listen to the ‘bonus’ tracks?

In summary, you can quite safely get self-righteous about Immunity (or any other album of your choice) being better than Bangerz because Bangerz isn’t even “just good pop”, it’s just shit. You want a “banger” Miley? THIS is a “banger” – and also the perfect palate cleanser after having wasted 50 minutes of my life on your shitty record.

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“Baby You Left Me Sad And High.” – An Overly Personal Look At My Top 6 Albums Of 2013

It’s easy to forget in the flurry of lists that inevitably appears at this time of year, but music is ultimately a personal thing (…I don’t think that’s the first time I’ve said something like that on this blog). All told, this has been a pretty blockbuster year, particularly when 2012 felt relatively lean in comparison (to me, at least). With so many great records around, how do you decide the most worthy of praise? Personally, I keep coming back to the albums that have the greatest emotional resonance – and in that regard, 2013 has conspired to produce half a dozen records that align with the various emotions I’ve often felt this year. “…But I will not spill my guts out.”  - though if you read between the lines, perhaps I’ve come a little closer to doing so than I’d care to admit…

6. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

A friend of mine compared the words of Nick Cave to the ramblings of a madman when I was playing this record on a drive home, and to be honest, I found it difficult to refute him – but then, the line between madness and genius is one that Nick Cave & The Bad Seed have often straddled. Cave’s lyrics on Push The Sky Away may seem impenetrable on first listen, but focus on them a little more intently and you’ll find some surprising moments of clarity – and I’m not just talking about the year’s most oddly prescient reference to Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (on ‘Higgs Boson Blues’).

There’s the wounded pride of ‘Mermaids’, whose opening lines suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks one evening (“She was a catch, and we were a match. I was the match that would fire up her snatch. There was a catch: I was no match.”), or the desperate longing of ‘We Real Cool’, perhaps epitomised by the line “Wikipedia is heaven, when you don’t wanna remember no more.” But its most stirring moment comes at the close of the album, with ‘Push The Sky Away’ having the quiet yet bloody-minded determination of a man close to breaking point – “You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, keep on pushing, push the sky away.”

5. Daughter - If You Leave

Daughter - If You Leave

Daughter – If You Leave

Honestly, Daughter could pretty much have been designed by committee to appeal to me. Beautiful shrinking violet of a singer whose voice is gentle while still having an undeniable power? Check. Lyrics about love, loss and heartache? Check. Set to a backdrop of swooning guitars and tasteful percussion? Check. Thankfully, If You Leave never seems as cynically conceived as that – indeed, it’s a record of such sincerity that one can’t escape the feeling that vocalist Elena Tonra might be nursing some serious emotional wounds.

Don’t get me wrong, the music is gorgeous, but it’s the way it combines with Tonra’s lyrics that really makes this album so special. She’s at her most affecting when she’s making the kind of desperate pleas that will no doubt go unrecognised by the one person they’re aimed at: “Don’t bring tomorrow, ’cause I already know I’ll lose you.” / “Please take me back to when I was yours.” / “Give me touch, ’cause I’ve been missing it.” But she’s also equally moving when dealing with other aspects of loss and heartache, as evidenced by ‘Still’s portrayal of a disintegrating relationship or ‘Youth’s bitter inability to let go of the past. Even ‘Human’, the one moment of defiant resilience on If You Leave, ends in defeat - “Despite everything, I’m still human… but I think I’m dying here.”

4. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

If Daughter have effortlessly captured the feeling of heartbreak on If You Leave , then Arctic Monkeys have created an unlikely yet perfect companion piece in AM – an album that focuses on romantic and sexual obsession. It’s there from the off with the sultry groove of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ (“…if this feeling flows both ways?”), before ‘R U Mine?’ ramps up the ante and throws down the gauntlet to a desired partner – “Are you mine tomorrow, or just mine tonight?” It’s an album about being obsessed with someone whether you’re awake or asleep – “I dreamt about you nearly every night this week.” / “I just cannot manage to make it through the day without thinking of you lately.” - and also about trying to satisfy that desire (‘One For The Road’, ‘Knee Socks’).

But it also touches on the situations that would lead these thoughts to occupy your mind – being too close to the one who used to love you (‘Fireside’), seeing an old flame and feeling like they could do so much better than their current beau (‘Snap Out Of It’), or simply being completely wasted (‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’). In the end though, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ closes the album with the admission that Turner is ultimately following his heart rather than his libido – though he’d certainly like to satisfy the latter in the process.

3. Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Wait a minute, isn’t this all supposed to be about feelings and emotions? What’s a largely wordless album of electronica doing here? And yet, the reason I love Immunity is precisely because Jon Hopkins manages to imbue his electronica with a sense of emotion. Perhaps it’s most obvious on the sensual, throbbing ‘Collider’, a song which bristles with a relentless sexual energy. It’s immediately followed by the most perfectly-placed comedown in ‘Abandon Window’, which is all stark pianos and ambient swells, together with the fireworks exploding in the distance, as if to emphasise some far-off celebration that the listener is barely part of. King Creosote also appears on the title track to add even more emotional weight to proceedings, with his distant, mournful voice delivering lines like “you said forever was unkind,” as the record comes to a beautiful climax.

But even outside of that, there’s joy to be had in the pure, propulsive techno of  ‘We Disappear’ and ‘Open Eye Signal’, or the way that the piano chords cut through ‘Breathe This Air’ like a moment of clarity. All told, Immunity combines relentless thrills with a melancholy comedown to create one of the year’s most smartly constructed and perfectly-paced records.

2. These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

Again, the latest record from These New Puritans might seem like an odd fit in this list. Were it not for the sheer emotional power of my number one album, Field Of Reeds would probably take its place thanks to its unquestionable compositional mastery. But under the surface, it too is an emotional record – frontman and chief composer Jack Barnett has stressed as much in interviews. The album is able to match the power of classical music to create feelings without words – epitomised by the lump-in-your-throat moment when ‘Organ Eternal’ reaches its crescendo – with the ability to be explicit with words in the manner of a pop song, as on ‘Nothing Else’ (“I pray that just for a minute, real life and dreaming swap places”).

Make no mistake, These New Puritans have crafted an emotional journey on Field Of Reeds – just not in a conventional manner. But then, one shouldn’t expect anything remotely nearing ‘conventional’ from the band these days – and that’s another reason why I love them. (You can find many more reasons in my review of the record over on Soundsphere Magazine.)

1. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Over the past five years, The National have gone from being a band I like and casually listen to now and again, to one I absolutely adore. 2010′s High Violet was the catalyst (as I’m sure it was for many others), slowly winning me over and causing me to re-visit the copies of Boxer and Alligator that I already owned but had yet to truly fall in love with. By the time I had attended the ATP event that the band curated at the end of 2012, they’d captured a permanent piece of my (medium-sized American English) heart. All of which leads us to Trouble Will Find Me, whose mere existence made it an almost certain contender for album of the year in my eyes – but that didn’t stop it from having the settling-in period that all records by The National seem to have. But when it hit, it hit hard.

Pretty much every single song on this album has at least something about it that yanks at my heart or sets my mind racing – and I’m hardly even going to have room to mention the wonderful sonics on display, such is the intense nature of this record’s lyrics. ‘Demons’ describes a feeling of social inadequacy, (“But when I walk into a room I do not light it up. FUCK.”), ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ cuts to the heart of emotional turmoil (“I have only two emotions: careful fear and dead devotion. I can’t get the balance right.”) and ‘Graceless’ tackles feelings of self-loathing (“You can’t imagine how I hate this, graceless.”).

But many of the record’s finest moments concern matters of the heart. ‘Fireproof’ portrays the devastating realisation of a gulf between two ex-lovers (“You’re a million miles away, doesn’t matter any more.), the final lines of ‘This Is The Last Time’ perfectly sum up the bittersweet nature of lost love (“Baby you gave me bad ideas. Baby you left me sad and high.”), ‘Slipped’ mourns a would-be relationship that will never come to fruition (“I’ll be a friend and a fuck and everything, but I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be.”), ‘I Need My Girl’ captures the way losing someone can make us feel incomplete (“I can’t get my head around it, I keep feeling smaller and smaller. I need my girl.”) – I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’ll just leave you with one final example, a line from ‘Hard To Find’ that caught me completely off-guard when I wasn’t even listening to the album – I saw it while reading through the lyrics. “I’m not holding out for you, but I’m still watching for the signs. If I tried, you’d probably be hard to find.” 

The lyric “And if you want to see me cry, play Let It Be or Nevermind,” appears in the chorus of ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ – and I can’t help but think that, years from now, Trouble Will Find Me might be cited by some future artist as being similarly tear-inducing. It certainly has that effect on me sometimes.

Find a Spotify playlist containing all these albums here.

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Some Brief Thoughts On Arctic Monkeys @ Manchester Arena

It’s occurred to me that with the exception of writing small novels about music festivals (as evidenced here and here), I don’t really do all that much live reviewing any more – in stark contrast to the halcyon days of Myspace blogging, in which I felt compelled to write a review of pretty much every gig I went to at one point (I think that may have actually lasted for at least a year, if not longer). Sadly the new Myspace design appears to have eaten everyone’s blogs, so I can’t revisit those relatively youthful days – thanks for nothing, Justin Timberlake.

Anyway, now that my writing demands (outside of this blog) are a little more structured and I have a job to contend with, I don’t really feel as inclined to write stuff about random gigs I attend, beyond throwing out the odd thought or summary on Facebook or Twitter. After all, it’s nice to approach a show without an overly critical head on and just enjoy it every once in a while.

Tonight’s Arctic Monkeys gig inadvertently proved to be an exception that rule, and I’ve kinda ended up with more thoughts than can be conveniently shoved into a Facebook status – and this not-really-a-review is the result.

- My position in the venue was kinda weird. Having missed or passed up the opportunity to buy tickets when they were previously on sale, I bought what was literally the last ticket available on the arena’s website after stumbling across it by chance – because it was looking sad and lonely and I really wanted to see the band before the end of the year. Rather than attempt to describe my position, here’s a shoddy picture I took on my phone during the show.

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Surprisingly, this off-to the side view was actually ok for the most part – the band certainly aren’t any further away than you’d expect them to be when sat on the second tier of a big arena, it’s just a bit odd that they spend the entire show facing in a completely different direction. Sound was actually ok up there too, at least to my non-audiophile, non-technical ears. It’s still weird for me to think that I once saw Arctic Monkeys in tiny, 200-300 cap venues 8 years ago, but it’s gratifying to see that they’ve very much grown into their role as a stadium band.

- It would be unprofessional to gripe about the setlist in a review, but this is neither professional nor a review, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The focus on material from AM was not unexpected, but to play three quarters of the record and not include ‘Knee Socks’ seems pretty criminal. However, its omission did mean that we got ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ instead (at least, if you compare the Manchester setlist to the one from Newcastle the night before), so I’m ok with that – espeically as I was thinking how I wanted to hear that song just before they played it. We also got ‘Fireside’ as a bonus, presumably thanks to the fact that Bill Ryder-Jones was around to play his guitar part, and also guest on three or four other songs while he was at it.

The one trade I’m definitely not ok with is that Newcastle got ‘Do Me A Favour’ (quite possibly my single favourite Arctic Monkeys song) and we got… ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’. Now, I don’t mind ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ on record, but its nonchalant pace doesn’t really make it a particularly great live track – it’s no ‘Do Me A Favour’ in that regard, that’s for sure. Then there’s also the issue that long-standing set-closer ’505′ appears to have been retired entirely in favour of playing ‘R U Mine?’ as the last song of the encore. I guess I know how fans of ‘A Certain Romance’ feel now…

To be fair, Arctic Monkeys are now at that point where they have enough material to draw from that they’ll never be able to please everyone – I suppose my desire to hear tracks from the second album rather than the first just makes me a cooler-than-thou version of the bawdy guys who were singing ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ while waiting for the encore.

- Speaking of older songs, I don’t know if it’s just me but it felt like a few songs had been slowed down a touch, like a record played at slightly the wrong speed. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it could just be a measure to avoid fatigue), but maybe the band are starting to tire of playing certain tracks, but are near-obliged to do so anyway? ‘I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘Dancing Shoes’ were the most obvious culprits to my ears, but I swear even ‘Brianstorm’ received a little tweak in the tempo department. Then there’s ‘Mardy Bum’, which has pretty much been offered up to the crowd as a semi-acoustic singalong.

There was one newer song that had a fairly significant change though – ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, which was dropped into a minor key and took on a slightly menacing air in the process. It works reasonably well though, so it’s not so much a complaint as an observation.

- Despite these niggles and gripes, it was still a very accomplished set – you only have to look at the setlist to see that the band are basically at the point where they’re just playing hit after hit after hit. Sure, some of the new songs fit into that mould better than others  - aside from the singles, ‘One For The Road’ and ‘Arabella’ in particular feel like they could be future staples – but there were only two or three songs you could consider duds in an otherwise consistently crowd-pleasing set. Even seemingly unlikely songs like ‘Reckless Serenade’ got a huge reaction from the crowd, as well as unexpectedly giving me a ‘lump-in-my-throat’ moment – affirmation, perhaps, that even after eight years and five albums, I care about Arctic Monkeys as much as I ever did.

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