Monthly Archives: January 2014

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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