Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Resistance: What happens when you go beyond epic.

Picture the scene. You’ve come out with an album so huge in scope that it makes the Milky Way look comparatively miniscule. You’ve conquered arenas the world over, culminating in two triumphant shows so Brobdingnagian in scale that even the biggest stadium in the UK struggled to contain them. The question is, where do you go from there?

The answer, apparently, is write the manifesto for a global revolution while whimsically experimenting with your musical formula – or at least, that’s what Muse appear to have come up with on their fifth studio album The Resistance. It starts with the call to arms – listening to ‘Uprising’, you can almost imagine massed armies of Muse-bots marching upon the world’s biggest population centres, spurred on by one Matthew Bellamy, who’s positioning himself as a Che Guevara for a new genration with his rallying cry of, “THEY WILL NOT FORCE US! THEY WILL STOP DEGRADING US!” Elsewhere, Unnatural Selection’ pushes agressively for equality, but the message takes a turn for the idealistic on ‘Resistance’ with Bellamy yearning “Love is our resistance,” while United States Of Eurasia speaks of unity – “Why split these states, when there can be only one?” The themes aren’t exactly anything ground-breaking, but equally they don’t seem as heavy-handed as other recent attempts at social commentary (hi there, Green Day).

Musically, there are cues taken from previous records. The intro to ‘Resistance’ has an air of ‘Map Of The Problematique’ about it, but with the latter’s coruscating guitar replaced with twinkling piano, and ‘Unnatural Selection’ features a guitar riff that’s very similar to that of ‘Newborn’ – but it would be churlish to accuse the band of repeating themselves. They haven’t penned a song that sounds like Queen before – or at least, not one that apes ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as brazenly as ‘United States Of Eurasia’. Nor have they come up with a song that you half expect Rhianna to start crooning over at any second – ‘Undisclosed Desires’ changes all that with its R’n’B strings and dancefloor beat. And yet, both these experiments come off surprisingly well, somehow sounding like enough of a natural fit for the band to avoid seeming ridiculous.

It’s not all good though – ‘Guiding Light’ struggles to sound like anything other than an anaemic version of ‘Invincible’, and unfortunately there does come a point where things start to get a bit too ridiculous. Specifically, ‘I Belong To You’ is where the record jumps the shark – the incongruous piano-funk balladry that begins the song is bad enough, but then Bellamy turns the sentimentality up to obscene levels, crooning in French over schmaltzy piano and mournful strings. Add in the jazzy clarinet that kicks in towards the end of the song, and it’s all enough to make you feel a little bit ill. To complete the album’s descent into the bizarre, the three-part ‘Exogenesis’ symphony that follows sees the record turn right round and start repeatedly doing fucking backflips over the increasingly bemused shark. It’s basically ‘Muse: The Opera’, condensed into about 12 minutes or so – sounds promisingly audacious in theory, but in practice it spends half its time not really going anywhere: It’s just epic for epic’s sake.

As a whole then, The Resistance suffers a little from diminishing returns – its biggest hitters and most worthwhile experiments are largely contained in the first 4 tracks, and from thereon out the quality is uneven, to put it generously. Not a patch on Black Holes & Revelations then – but Muse should be commended for at least being willing to experiment, rather than just trying to turn the epic factor up even higher.

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Review: Mando Diao @ Manchester Club Academy, 17/09/09

(This review was originally written for Muso’s Guide – find the original article here.)

Despite emerging during the post-Strokes garage rock explosion of the early ’00s, Swedish five-piece Mando Diao have been thus far largely overlooked in the UK – cruelly so some might say, but most would probably say, “Mando who?” Still, that hasn’t stopped them building a huge and fanatical fanbase in Germany, Japan, and their native Sweden – as our own Luke Rodgers discovered when his lukewarm reaction to the band’s recent Mean Street EP was bombarded with over 150 comments from die-hard Mandofans (however, it’s fair to say there was barely a single coherent argument among them). Speaking of die-hard fans, it seems that a not-insignificant number of them have travelled from far and wide to be here tonight – not all that surprising when you consider their fanatical nature and the fact that these UK dates are some of the most intimate shows they’ve played in a long time.

So, what is the argument for Mando Diao being good, apart from “THEY MAKE U WANT 2 DANCE!!!111!”? It’s arguably not lyricism, and if that’s what you’re looking for in a band then you should probably leave your brain at the door, lest you start asking yourself questions like “why are they singing about a trenchcoat?” and “who the hell is Jimmy Fire?” It’s not truly exceptional musicianship either. Now, I don’t mean that as a slight against the band, they’re all good musicians – but anyone expecting some seriously virtuoso playing should probably stick with their prog-rock records.

Crucially, however, what tonight’s performance at Manchester Academy would prove to me is that Mando Diao are entertaining. Shortly after taking to the stage, the band rip through ‘Blue Lining, White Trenchcoat’ with a conviction and energy that’s impossible to ignore, despite the song’s apparently flimsy premise. ‘You Got Nothing On Me’ is equally likeable in a Beatles-meets-Strokes-meets-Hives sort of way, and even the cheesy bounce of ‘Mean Street’ is better live, gifted a rawer edge by toning down the piano and cranking up the guitars. I feel like I’m being slowly won over, and it’s making me feel a little bit dirty. The slinky, minimal blues of ‘High Heels’ certainly doesn’t do anything to make that feeling go away, and neither does the fact that the band continue to bust out prime cuts from their most recent LP Give Me Fire – both ‘Gloria’ and ‘Dance With Somebody’ in particular are stupidly infectious pop songs. Even older tracks like ‘The Band’ and ‘God Knows’ – which to my ears were a tad generic on record – sound like anthems, and both crowd and band sure as hell treat them as such.

The Mando boys know how to work their audience too – they may have been criticised by some of their own fans for extending the intros to some of their songs, but in an intimate setting such as this it works well to build anticipation. Frontmen Björn and Gustaf goad the crowd on with practised ease, able to coax a reaction out of almost nothing with just a few words – and even though it’s clichéd, when Björn removes his shirt and slings it into the crowd during the encore, it goes down a treat.

However, the show did have a couple of minor flaws, and it would be lax of me to ignore them. Firstly, the band’s two backing singers were so badly co-ordinated at times that it was laughable – hilariously epitomised by the moment when one was clapping along at twice the speed of the other. Secondly, the acoustic section halfway through the gig seemed fairly superfluous and a little bit dull, with Björn and Gustaf trotting out imaginary place themed ditty ‘Ochrasy’ and then, perhaps because they’re lacking a live string section, they proceed to use the potentially beautiful ‘If I Don’t Live Today, Then I Might Be Here Tomorrow’ as a throwaway acoustic number.

The acoustic section did provide one interesting insight though, with Gustaf telling us before ‘If I Don’t Live Today…’ that “Normally we dedicate this song to someone who’s died, but as we’re in Manchester we’re going to dedicate it to a band who died.” And while other bands might have come out with a Joy Division reference in order to be cool and/or witty, Gustaf simply confirms what he means with brief, but revealing honesty: “Long live Oasis.”

For me, that anecdote is indicative of the honest, genuine passion that Mando Diao have for what they’re doing, and it runs throughout their set – so much so that by the time they’ve finished romping through the scuzzy garage rock howl of ‘Sheepdog’, I actually find myself surprisingly convinced by their performance. Granted, I’d be the first to admit that their music isn’t particularly groundbreaking or mind-blowing – but the band’s energy, showmanship and sheer self-belief makes them worth seeing in a live setting. Whether or not Give Me Fire will finally help Mando Diao ‘break’ the UK is debatable, but for now, I’m sure both their local and international fans will have relished the chance to see them in such an intimate setting – I’d imagine that a lot of the charisma and stage presence the band have demonstrated tonight would be easily lost in the sell-out arena shows they’re more accustomed to on the continent. Might as well enjoy shows like this while we can, no?

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Let’s Get Cynical About: P2K

If there’s one thing that Pitchfork’s P2K: The Top 500 Songs of the 2000s made me realise, it’s that 10 years is actually quite a long time – getting on for half my current lifespan, in fact. Nothing re-enforced this fact like catching Elliot Smith‘s ‘Everything Reminds Me Of Her’ nestled at #364 and realising, yes, he was still alive at the beginning of the decade – and, had I had prodigiously good taste for a 14 year old, I might have been able to see him live (oh, who am I kidding). The decade also encompasses the whole life-span of some of our most popular bands. Remember when Coldplay weren’t a stadium-filling, award-winning behemoth? ‘Yellow’ is there at #263 to remind you of the days when they were just four nice students with a good debut album. The list is also a timely reminder of how musical tastes come and go – remember More Fire Crew? No? Not even that “Oi! Who’s that More Fire Crew?!” song? Regardless, it’s there at #483, three places above that thinnest of excuses for Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s solo career, Spiller’s ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’. A decade later, among various other tracks from the current year, cuts from The Big Pink (#500), Kid Cudi (#475), and Animal Collective (‘My Girls’ reaches the lofty heights of #9), show how times have changed.

Like any such list, there’s bound to be decisions that inspire incredulous reactions, and they’ll no doubt be different for each reader. For me, it often comes down to the songs chosen to represent certain artists. ‘The Magic Position’ (#427) for Patrick Wolf? Arguably his greatest ‘pop moment’, yes, but I wouldn’t say it’s his best tune overall. ‘Alice Practice’ (#471) to represent Crystal Castles? Its shouty abrasiveness is only one side of their 8-bit equation – and I’d argue that the more ‘considered’ side has produced far better songs (‘Untrust Us’ and ‘Vanished’ to name but two). ‘Golden Skans’ (#419) for Klaxons? It’s probably their most popular tune, but that doesn’t necessarily make it their strongest. Another amusing quirk of the list is its often very specific nature. Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘It’s The Beat’ makes an appearance at #414 – but make sure it’s the 12″ version! Similarly, ‘Mundian To Bach Ké’ by Punjabi MC appears at #190 largely on the basis that Jay-Z did a remix of sorts with him rapping over it.

However, no matter how much you agree or disagree with it, it’s important to remember that such a list can never hope to be truly definitive. Indeed, to me there’s a sense that the order isn’t necessarily important, particularly in the lower parts of the list. Someone could have picked these songs, shoved them all in iTunes and put in on shuffle to generate the order and we’d almost be none the wiser. Still, it makes for interesting discussion – you can pick any two or three songs (at random or otherwise) and start an interesting debate. For example: When it comes to Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs, is ‘Y Control’ really superior to ‘Cheated Hearts’? Should Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ really be sandwiched between The Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realize??’ and Interpol’s ‘NYC’? Is ‘Some Girls’ by Rachel Stevens actually better than all of the 242 songs that precede it in the list? These and thousands more questions present themselves, and that’s arguably the point of lists like these – to be a talking point.

One final thing to note is that, while there’s plenty of good stuff in the top 20, the actual number 1 song itself seems like a resolutely ‘Pitchfork’ selection. If I told you that an Outkast song was number one, you’d probably guess it was ‘Hey Ya’ or ‘Ms. Jackson’. But while ‘Hey Ya’ makes it to #12, the top song is, in fact ‘B.O.B.’ – a song that, like me, you may even have forgotten existed. Now, having given it a spin again it would be foolish to deny that it’s a good song –  but would I pick it over… well, most of the other songs in the top 10? I doubt it. But then, that’s just another thing to discuss, isn’t it?

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There Can Only Be One: Thoughts On The Mercury Prize Winner

So, Speech Debelle eh? Certainly the not the most likely candidate to win this year’s Mercury Prize, but if you take a look at the nominees then she ticks the right boxes. Perhaps, the judges felt it was time for a more left-field winner, so it couldn’t be someone too popular (Kasabian, Florence & The Machine, La Roux) or too critically acclaimed (The Horrors, Friendly Fires, Glasvegas). If you eliminate the more ‘obvious’ choices, everything fits into place. Speech is the only relatively unknown artist who could be picked without seeming wilfully obscure, the only ‘token’ artist who could be picked without it seeming false – and she still fits conveniently into one of the year’s prevailing trends (i.e. female artists are big news right now).

Of course, to say all that is to take a rather cynical view and ignore her album entirely – and it’s the album that’s supposed to matter, after all. To be fair to her, on those terms she’s a deserving winner – of all the records that I hadn’t listened to before the nominations, hers was one of the most impressive, to my ears at least. Lyrically and instrumentally, she’s doing something a little different from clichéd hip-hop, and that’s worthy of praise. There’s also the fact that she probably needs the £20,000 prize more than many of her compatriots – not exactly the best justification, admittedly, but it does make some sense for the prize to go to one of the lesser-known artists.

The question is, where will she go from here? Talking to Lauren Laverne shortly after receiving her award, she cited Ms. Dynamite’s Mercury Prize win in 2002 as a key motivator – let’s just hope Speech doesn’t follow in the footsteps of her inspiration and fade into obscurity. Right now, her future is firmly in her own hands – with the money and exposure from the prize, she has every opportunity to go on to bigger things. For her sake, I hope she pulls it off… lest we end up looking back at 2009’s Mercury Prize and wondering, “what were they thinking?”

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