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Let’s Get Cynical About Leeds Festival 2011, pt I: Friday

Leeds Festival

Having decided that watching Young Knives isn’t really worth spending an extra night in a tent, I head over to the Leeds Festival site on Friday morning. I luck out and manage to get set up shortly before it starts to rain, before making my way through the mud-strewn campsite to the arena – along the way, I witness the first and last person I’ll see all weekend who managed to remain attractive while wearing a hooded, animal print playsuit. Hats off to you, girl with long, flowing hair.

In the NME/Radio 1 tent, Dananananaykroyd start the weekend off in typically ebullient fashion, with vocalists Calum Gunn and John Bailey Jnr hugging members of the front row before launching into ‘Reboot’. Later on, they realise they have time for an extra song, and so offer us the choice between a song about “burying shit in the ground and finding it later” or one about “having sex on the back of a bus” – no prizes for guessing which one the Leeds crowd went for. Although I didn’t know what ‘Black Wax’ was actually about up until now, so I guess I learned something today.

“Thank God for the rain!” exclaims Fucked Up vocalist Damian ‘Pink Eyes’ Abraham, apparently worried that only about 20 people would have turned up otherwise. I think he’s underestimating both his current competition and just how much fun his band are. Much of the entertainment is provided by Pink Eyes himself – his shirt comes off about halfway through the band’s first song, and before long he’s down in the pit, high-fiving people, posing for photos with security, catching crowd-surfers and generally being a sweaty, bearded bundle of energy. He even runs all the way through the crowd to the secondary barrier and spends the last couple of songs there – and it takes him a good three minutes or so to get back to the stage after the band finish their set, such is the level of love for him. Not being the greatest hardcore punk fan in the world, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy Fucked Up, but the upbeat, infectious nature of their sound left me pleasantly surprised, and to be honest it was worth being there just to watch Pink Eyes’ antics.

In contrast to the first two acts, Best Coast struggle to engage the crowd. “Are you guys ok?” asks singer Beth Consentino, before playing ‘Boyfriend’ mid-set “You look kinda bored.” Maybe they are, I dunno – the problem with Best Coast is that, essentially, they only have one song. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a very nice song, with Consentino delivering her vocals with 60s girl-group longing as a wash of guitars conjures up hazy, summer afternoons. But the similarity of the band’s sonic palette and lyrical themes from song to song means it’s difficult to pick out highlights, aside from ‘When I’m With You’ and the aforementioned ‘Boyfriend’. However, I still enjoy their set regardless of that, even if it doesn’t make too much of a lasting impression on me.

It’s still pissing it down at this point, but luckily the Festival Republic Stage is only a quick dash away, so I head over there to catch Dutch Uncles. I’m not completely convinced that they’re as brilliant as some reviews have made them out to be – but as they soldier on despite blowing an amp (that’s not even theirs), I do find myself being slowly won over by their intelligent, slightly mathy pop sound.

The DJ in the tent clearly has a sense of humour, playing a North-East band marathon of The Futureheads, Maxïmo Park and Field Music before Tyneside up-and-comers Little Comets come on stage – it’s almost as if to say “THIS is the standard of oddball indie-pop brilliance you must live up to.” And to be fair, Little Comets aquit themselves pretty well in that regard – their set is packed with chirpy hits like ‘Joanna’ and ‘One Night In October’, and when set-closer ‘Dancing Song’ offers up the refrain “this one’s for dancing!” the crowd don’t need to be told twice.

I’ve seen Benjamin Francis Leftwich reduce an entire room to stunned silence before today, but sadly that was never going to happen with a festival crowd. But regardless of the nattering masses at the rear of the tent, there’s still a dedicated group of fans at the front hanging on to his every word, with ‘Pictures’, ‘1904’ and ‘Atlas Hands’ proving particular highlights.

After that, it’s back over to the NME/Radio 1 Stage for one of my most anticipated bands of the weekend, Warpaint. Thankfully, they don’t disappoint – eponymous opening track ‘Warpaint’ sets the scene with its beguiling harmonies, atmospheric guitars and expansive drums, and the band play a uniformly gorgeous set. ‘Undertow’ and set-closer ‘Elephants’ are obvious highlights, and the four-part harmonies on ‘Billie Holiday’ are spine-tingling. Also, Theresa Wayman is my new boyish crush – not only is she as pretty as anything, but she delivers a pair of stunning lead vocals on ‘Bees’ and ‘Majesty’. I leave the tent convinced that Warpaint have set the bar very, very high for the rest of the weekend.

Unfortunately, such brilliance has come at a price – I’ve had to miss most of Friendly Fires’ set, but I do manage to get over to the Main Stage for their last three songs. Ed Macfarlane is definitely a frontrunner for ‘most inappropriately dressed’ – it’s really not the right weather for a Hawaiian shirt – but that isn’t going to stop him from shaking his hips like his life depends on it during set-closer ‘Kiss Of Life’. If you close your eyes and think about it really hard, you might just be able to transport yourself away from this wet, muddy field and onto a sun-drenched beach somewhere…

Interpol frontman Paul Banks is probably one of the few people in rock ‘n roll who can get away with wearing sunglasses on a day like today, and his band have the tunes to back up their effortlessly cool image. Mixing up tunes from all four of their studio albums, they run through ‘Success’, ‘Say Hello To The Angels’, and ‘Narc’ (a personal favourite of mine) – I’d love to stick around for more, but I have to leave while they’re playing ‘The Heinrich Maneuver’, as there’s a band playing in the NME/Radio 1 tent that I’d very much like to see…

The band in question are Death From Above 1979 – I’m ashamed to admit that I totally missed the Toronto two-piece the first time round, so I was eager to make up for that tonight. Opener ‘Turn It Out’ sets off a frenzy at the front of the crowd, and aside from some slightly awkward banter about the Queen, the set pretty much continues in the same vein throughout. ‘Blood On Our Hands’ and ‘Romantic Rights’ get the biggest reactions, but the duo exhibit a furious, battering-ram intensity throughout their performance. The band’s backdrop features a gravestone with ‘DFA1979, 2001-2006’ carved into it, which may suggest that this reunion isn’t going to be permanent – and if that’s the case, it’s been well worth witnessing.

I return to the Main Stage to find Elbow in full swing, and Guy Garvey in a strangely political mood. The recent riots are clearly still fresh in his mind as he introduces ‘Lippy Kids’, stating that it’s a reminder that not all kids are “fuckwits and hooligans” – but at least he has the good grace to see that he might come across as a little over-earnest (“I hate this Bono thing that I’m doing…”). The band are as impeccable as you’d expect them to be, of course, even if the crowd aren’t exactly at their most responsive – though Garvey does his best to engage them with some call-and-response action before ‘Grounds For Divorce’. As I leave, they’re performing a suitably stirring rendition of ‘Open Arms’ – but I know Elbow will endure, and there will be other opportunities to see them, unlike the next band on my list…

While Mike Skinner may be calling time on this particular aspect of his career, it would be unfair to call The Streets a band in their death throes – the atmosphere is more like that of a massive retirement party for a lovably crazed uncle. Skinner is on top form, marshalling the crowd (“WATCH THE MOTHERFUCKING HAND”) and even directing the cameramen (“You’re missing it mate, it’s all over there”) – and all the while, he’s delivering his trademark wit and lyricism. It’s enough to make even the more middling numbers from his recent albums sound good, to say nothing of the out-and-out classics like ‘Weak Become Heroes’ and ‘Blinded By The Lights’. Even stood on the periphery of the tent, it’s hard not to smile at the feel-good vibes coming from the crowd – I leave them bouncing along to ‘Fit But You Know It’, happy to have taken part in the celebratory conclusion of The Streets’ career.

Arguably one of the weekend’s biggest draws, Muse take to the stage just after 9pm for a two-hour set – and I’m glad I brought my umbrella, as it rains for the entirety of it. The big deal for long-time Muse fans is that they’re playing their second album, Origin Of Symmetry, in full – something that has never been done before (and after Sunday’s performance at Reading, most likely will never be done again). The stage is suitably decked out with several imposing models of the pylons/pitchforks/American football goalposts that adorn the record’s cover, and a giant screen displays images that are presumably linked to each of the songs – although if anyone can tell me what ‘Hyper Music’ has got to do with the Roxy Disco then I’d love to know.

As expected, the more obvious hits – ‘New Born’, ‘Bliss’, Plug In Baby’, ‘Feeling Good’ – go down a storm, and it’s never a bad thing when they’re played. But the most interesting thing about this part of the set is that it demonstrates how, even at this relatively early stage, Muse had pretty much nailed the bombastic, show-stopping dramatics that would later go on to define them – as evidenced by the likes of ‘Space Dementia’ and ‘Citizen Erased’. Sure, there’s a bit of a lull as the band play the slightly forgettable duo of ‘Micro Cuts’ and ‘Screenager’, but as ‘Megalomania’ brings the set to a fiery conclusion via some on-stage pyrotechnics, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Origin Of Symmetry has stood the test of time.

After the main event, the band offer up a post-Origin selection of hits that contains three too many tracks from The Resistance for my liking, as well as a fairly pointless bass ‘n drums section that essentially amounts to Chris and Dom doing an impression of a comatose DFA1979. But ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ perfectly walks the line between silly and slinky, ‘Hysteria’ still buzzes with as much menace as ever, ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is equal parts vicious, histrionic and sublime, and ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ is, frankly, just ridiculous in the most brilliant way possible. An increasingly obnoxious fanbase may mean that it’s not particularly cool to like Muse any more, and I’ll happily admit that their most recent album is a complete dud – but for me to deny that I enjoyed their set would be an obvious lie. Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain as much tomorrow, eh?

BONUS!: During Muse’s set, someone asks me if I’m the drummer from 30 Seconds To Mars. What the fuck? Never mind the fact that said band are probably still on site at Reading, I don’t look anything like the guy…

Find a Spotify playlist with some of the day’s highlights here.

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(Some Of) The Songs Of The Year So Far.

Seems that everyone and their blog is talking about their ‘X best albums of the year so far’. Screw that – but here’s a bunch of songs instead. A few of these might not be my absolute favourites from their respective albums, but I’m just working with what I could find on Soundcloud. That said, here they are, in no particular order of preference. Continue reading

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Something In The (Hawaiian) Air: Friendly Fires Preview Tracks From Pala

If you’re a fan of Friendly Fires then you’re in for a treat today – the band have posted not one, but two new tracks from forthcoming album Pala for your listening pleasure. You’ve probably already heard the record’s fantastic first single ‘Live Those Days Tonight’, but if not, here’s what you missed:

And now, for the first of the new tracks, ‘Hawaiian Air’, featuring typically upbeat drumming, shimmering synths and a soaring chorus – as well as some amusing lyrics about “watching a film with a talking dog” and “skipping the meal for a G&T”. I think all that Hawaiian air might have gone to Ed’s head… still, it’s another corker:

Finally, you can hear another track from the new album, ‘Blue Cassette’ courtesy of Hype Machine. The song concerns discovering a lost keepsake from an old relationship that brings the memories rushing back (“As I hear your voice/it sets my heart on fire”), and is quite cleverly built on what sounds like a warped sample of an old tape playing. Unfortunately I can’t post the nifty little widget they’ve got (WordPress.com doesn’t like HTML all that much), but if you head over to the Friendly Fires artist page on Hypem you can have a listen to the track and even download it in exchange for your email address. Better still, they’ll have the whole album up there to listen to on Monday (9th May), so check back then for your first chance to hear what’s surely going to be one of the albums of the summer.

Pala comes out on the 16th May, on XL Recordings, and the band already have a healthy amount of tour dates announced for the coming months – keep an eye on the Friendly Fires website here for more.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Brit Awards 2010

After finally finishing my ‘Songs Of The Decade’ posts, I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk about next. But as luck would have it, the nominations for this year’s Brit Awards have just been announced – and they’re always ripe for a good kicking. Without further ado then…

British Female Solo Artist

Bat For Lashes
Florence & The Machine

Leona Lewis
Lily Allen
Pixie Lott

Bat For Lashes is clearly the standout act in this list – which means, of course, she stands bugger all chance of winning. Predicting a winner from the rest of the artists seems a little bit tricky, but if I were a betting man I’d put my money on the big-selling winner of last year’s ‘Critics Choice’ award, Florence & The Machine.

British Male Solo Artist

Calvin Harris
Dizzee Rascal
Mika
Paolo Nutini
Robbie Williams

Well, Robbie Williams has already won this about a million times before, and he’s picking up the Outstanding Contribution To Music award this year, so it seems a bit pointless for him to win here. As for the rest… well, Mika should clearly not be winning anything apart from ‘most irritating voice’. It’s not easy to make a prediction here, but I reckon they might be ‘edgy’ this year and pick Dizzee Rascal. He is performing at the ceremony, if that’s any indication of anything.

British Breakthrough Act

Florence & The Machine
Friendly Fires
JLS
La Roux
Pixie Lott

This category has been subject to the vagaries of the public vote for as long as I can remember, which has resulted in some truly terrible winners. That tradition is probably set to continue here – I predict a JLS victory, but I’ll be quite happy to be wrong. I’ll be voting for Friendly Fires, for what it’s worth.

British Group

Doves
Friendly Fires
JLS
Kasabian
Muse

While the only possible reaction to JLS being on this list is “oh, FUCK OFF,” seeing Friendly Fires get a nomination is a very pleasant surprise – but I don’t think either of them will win. It’s probably a two horse race between Kasabian and Muse, and I think Kasabian will take it.

British Album

Dizzee Rascal – Tongue N’ Cheek
Florence & The Machine – Lungs
Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You
Paulo Nutini – Sunny Side Up

Considering the amount of brilliant British albums released in 2009, this is quite a mediocre list, in the grand scheme of things. Oh, wait, it’s the Brits. Anyway, I think it’s going to be Florence & The Machine or Kasabian, but I can’t decide which… Florence or Kasabian. Florence or Kasabian…

Florence.

British Single

Alesha Dixon – ‘Breathe Slow’
Alexandra Burke Ft Flo Rida – ‘Bad Boys’
Cheryl Cole – ‘Fight For This Love’
Joe McElderry – ‘The Climb’
JLS – ‘Beat Again’
La Roux – ‘In For The Kill’
Lily Allen – ‘The Fear’
Pixie Lott – ‘Mama Do’
Taio Cruz – ‘Break Your Heart’
Tinchy Stryder Ft N-Dubz – ‘Number 1’

In recent years, the British Single category has devolved into the ultimate public-voted crapshoot, making it near impossible to make an accurate prediction. But isn’t it wonderful that there are three X-Factor acts in this category AGAIN! Isn’t it touching that both little Joe McElderry and his X-Factor mentor, Cheryl Cole, are nominated! Isn’t it brilliant that the best songs on here, by a country mile, are by La Roux and Lily Allen! Aren’t N-Dubz shit!

…wait, I’m not being sarcastic about that last one. Better hope Dappy doesn’t send me death threats!

BRITs Album of 30 Years

Coldplay – A Rush Of Blood To The Head
Dido – No Angel
Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms
Duffy – Rockferry
Keane – Hopes & Fears
Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
Phil Collins – No Jacket Required
Sade – Diamond Life
The Verve – Urban Hymns
Travis – The Man Who

Question: Which of these albums is the best of the last thirty years?

The correct answer is Radiohead Kid A. But uh, that didn’t win when it was nominated in 2001, and the slightly obtuse rules for this category state that, to be nominated, an album has to have won in the ‘Best British Album’ category at the Brits (as well as having sold a truckload). This one’s up for the public vote as well – as if one complete crapshoot wasn’t enough. As for a prediction… my stab in the dark would be Coldplay.

Most Memorable Brits Performance of 30 Years

I’m not even going to bother listing the extensive nominations for this category, as among them is one Michael Jackson – he of recently-deceased-King-Of-Pop fame – and as this is yet another publicly voted category, I would be massively surprised if anyone but him wins.

International Female Solo Artist

Lady Gaga
Ladyhawke
Norah Jones
Rhianna
Shakira

Well, after reading the first name on this list, the rest just read like a formality. Personally, I’d take Ladyhawke over Lady Gaga any day of the year, but I really can’t see anyone but the disco-stick rider taking this.

International Male Solo Artist

Bruce Springsteen
Eminem
Jay-Z
Micheal Buble
Seasick Steve

Well, technically Lady Gaga could win this award too lolololol!!111! I don’t really know which way this one’s going to go, but Jay-Z lost out to Kanye last time, and with Mr. West nowhere to be seen, I reckon it could be the Hova’s year.

International Album

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Black Eyed Peas – The E.N.D.
Empire of the Sun – Walking On A Dream
Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
Lady Gaga – The Fame

While I didn’t particularly get into it myself, it’s nice to see the Brits academy at least acknowledging the critical love-fest that surrounded Animal Collective’s latest record. However, as always, they’ll reward the artist that sold a shit-tonne of units – that’d be Lady Gaga then.

International Breakthrough Artist

Animal Collective
Daniel Merriweather
Empire Of The Sun
Lady Gaga
Taylor Swift

For some reason, the Brit awards have seen fit to replace ‘Best International Group’ with this new, publicly voted category – and because it’s a public vote, Lady Gaga wins. The End. I guess it’s kinda funny that Animal Collective are considered a ‘Breakthrough Act’ after nine albums though.

And that’s your (Pixie) lot(t). Ho ho ho. Come back after the awards ceremony on the 16th to see how right/wrong I was!

… you can come back before then if you like though. I might even have written about something else.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize

Yes, I’m a bit slow on the uptake I know. But I wanted to give each of the albums a reasonably thorough listening before spouting off about them, and I’d heard less than half the list beforehand. Unfortunately, Sensible Shoes by Led Bib isn’t to be found on Spotify, or Last FM, or anywhere else that I could think of, so I’ll have to leave it out of my critique. But here’s my take on the 11 other Mercury nominated albums, in reverse order of personal preference.

11. Glasvegas – Glasvegas

Glasvegas - Glasvegas

Glasvegas – Glasvegas

You may be surprised to find an ‘indie’ album at the bottom of this list, but in my opinion Glasvegas are shit.

Ok, maybe ‘shit’ is too strong a word when you consider the sweeping strains of ‘Geraldine’ and the heartfelt, tub-thumping bellow of ‘Daddy’s Gone’, but beyond that I honestly don’t think they’ve got much going for them. The swathes of guitar noise that define the album are too often dragged down by awkward nursery rhyme/playground chant lyrics – see ‘It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry’, which features James Allan singing “liar, liar pants on fire” more earnestly than any grown man ever should, or the mawkish chorus of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ that’s extraneously tacked onto the end of ‘Flowers And Football Tops’. And at worst, the album ignores the band’s strengths entirely – as on ‘Stabbed’, which is basically just Allan monologuing morbidly over Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. By the time I’ve arrived at dreary album-closer ‘Ice Cream Van’, I’d pretty much fallen asleep – how Glasvegas have received such widespread praise for an album with so few highlights is beyond me.

10. La Roux – La Roux

La Roux - La Roux

La Roux – La Roux

Ah, La Roux. Catapulted into the spotlight and duly embraced by the British public after a string of admittedly very good singles (‘Quicksand’, ‘In For The Kill’, ‘Bulletproof’), I’d almost be disappointed that the quality of the singles hasn’t carried over to the album… if that fact wasn’t so damn predictable. Front-loaded to the extreme in typical pop record fashion, after it’s dispensed with its singles and ‘Tigerlily’, (which is fairly decent despite a bizarre ‘Thriller’ pastiche towards the end), it quickly tails off into dull, dull, dull territory. ‘Cover My Eyes’ is a yawnsome sub R’n’B ballad, ‘Armour Love’ is so sluggish that it makes me feel like I’ve been tranquillised, and there’s a song called ‘Fascination’ that’s so full of nothing that it makes me long for the Alphabeat track of the same name. And I love video game style synths as much as the next geek, but tracks like ‘I’m Not Your Toy’ and ‘As If By Magic’ just manage to make them sound trite and formulaic – not to mention that by the time that ‘Reflections Are Protection’ rolls around, there’s a nagging feeling that the album has descended into repetition.

Overall, I can sum up my opinion of La Roux’s nomination in four words: Little Boots was robbed.

9. Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

Lisa Hannigan - Sea Sew

Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

This year’s ‘token folk’ nomination is Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, who (like me) you may have heard without realising – she made major contributions to Damien Rice’s first two albums. However, after their writing and touring partnership ended in 2007, she returned to Ireland to record her debut solo album, Sea Sew – and from its handmade patchwork artwork and the fact that it contains a song called ‘Splishy Splashy’, it’s clear without listening that it’s all going to be very lovely. Indeed, even after listening, the word ‘lovely’ is pretty much all that comes to mind. Hannigan’s quietly beautiful vocal glides over gentle acoustic strums and graceful strings – it’s all just rather nice really. Thankfully, just as the album threatens to make you zone out completely, it mixes things up a little – ‘I Don’t Know’ is cute, catchy and has a pleasing simplicity about it, and the minor key tones of ‘Keep It All’ make a welcome change. But then it returns to ‘lovely’ territory again – even album-closer ‘Lille’ is overshadowed by its cutesy pop-up book video.

It seems harsh to place this album so low largely for the crime of being ‘too nice’ – indeed, in my opinion it’s markedly better than the previous two albums – but unfortunately it just doesn’t grab me enough to warrant a higher position. Sorry about that, Lisa.

8. Florence & The Machine – Lungs

Florence & The Machine - Lungs

Florence & The Machine – Lungs

Like La Roux, Florence Welch (otherwise known as Florence & The Machine) was another female artist who was hotly-tipped at the beginning of the year, and she makes it higher on the list than the red-haired one largely on the basis that her Kate-Bush-lite schtick is more interesting than La Roux’s one-dimensional electro. ‘Dog Days Are Over’ and ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, start the album compellingly enough with blissfully ethereal vocals, dreamy instrumentation and harmonious chanting. Thankfully, the quality doesn’t completely drop off after the first two tracks – ‘Howl’, ‘Drumming Song’ and ‘Cosmic Love’ are all suitably dramatic, and the scuzzy guitar of ‘Kiss With A Fist’ provide a good contrast to the rest of the album. It’s not without it’s duds, however – ‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’ merely plods along, and ‘Girl With One Eye’ is a lethargic warbling exercise that’s also rather creepy. The decision to tack her cover of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ on the end is potentially a double-edged sword as well. It’s good, yes, but it threatens to become her ‘Hounds Of Love’ – except, unlike The Futureheads, she hasn’t truly made the song her own.

At the end of the day, however, the main reason I can’t place Lungs any higher than this on my list is that there’s already a far better ethereal pop album present (take a bow, Two Suns). Florence & The Machine’s effort is certainly far from unlistenable, but it lacks the truly jaw-dropping highlights that Natasha Khan’s record has in abundance.

7. Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

I’d never heard anything at all about Sweet Billy Pilgrim prior to this year’s Mercury nominations, but upon listening to the opening track of Twice Born Men I was prepared to be blown away – ‘Here It Begins’, with its majestic instrumental build-up and world-weary, spoken word lyrics, almost signalled the beginning of something brilliant. As it turns out, I wasn’t quite as amazed by the rest of the album as I’d hoped – but I was nevertheless very pleasantly surprised. ‘Truth Only Smiles’ is a charming, pretty, multi-instrumental ballad, while ‘Bloodless Coup’ has an air of quiet melancholy about it. As a whole, the album is well composed, thoughtfully textured and beautifully played… and yet, it has a tendency to just drift past, barely noticed, like a quiet breeze. Depending on what you want from your music, that may or may not be what you’re looking for – for me, the shimmering beauty of Twice Born Men is easy to like, but difficult to truly fall in love with. Nevertheless, it’s an accomplished album that’s deserving of a place on the shortlist.

6. Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Kasabian - West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

If you were surprised by Glasvegas’ placing then you may well be balking that Kasabian have even ended up this high. In truth, I wasn’t convinced by West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum at first – but with repeated listens the number of dud tracks seemed to steadily decrease. ‘Fire’ was an instant winner with its jaunty, wild-west verses and anthemic chorus, as were the fuzzy bass and thumping beats of ‘Vlad The Impaler’. ‘Take Aim’, ‘Underdog’ and ‘Fast Fuse’ were also fairly quick to impress, but it’s when the band attempt to break from their usual sonic template that the songs take a little longer to reveal their charms. Drowned in Sound pointed out that ‘Thick As Thieves’ has more than an air of The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ about it, but it works just about passably with the bands’ swaggering demeanour, while ‘Secret Alphabets’ isn’t any worse off for trying to sound a bit like psychadelic-era Beatles. On the other hand, ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’ attempts to take a crack at being ‘epic’, but ultimately ends up sauntering around aimlessly for five minutes without really going anywhere. Album-closer ‘Happiness’ is also pretty much an outright dud, with the best word I can use to describe it being ‘nice’ – and when the Gospel choir kicks in you’ll probably think “WTF? This isn’t Kasabian.”

It’s good to see the band trying something a bit different, but most of the best tracks on West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum are the ones where they sound like the ‘old’ Kasabian. Maybe that opinion aligns me closer than I’d like to the lager-lads who the band seem to be perpetually linked with, but hey, I’m just calling it how I see it.

5. Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

Speech Debelle - Speech Therapy

Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

It’s good to see Speech Debelle continuing the trend of ‘token urban’ nominations that are far from ‘token’ (never mind the fact that I’ve no clue what ‘urban’ is supposed to mean these days). If there’s one thing that Speech Therapy does well is throw ‘urban’ stereotypes out of the window within its first two tracks – the plaintive guitar of opener ‘Searching’ is disarming, and second track ‘The Key’ features clarinets. Yes, clarinets! Bog-standard beats ‘n’ rhymes rap this ain’t. Of course, all that would count for very little if the eclectic instrumentation wasn’t matched with a solid flow – thankfully, Speech has effortlessly affecting rhymes in spades. And they’re spoken from the heart – ‘Go Then, Bye’ tackles break-ups without being trite, ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ is an emotionally raw, yet calmly restrained attack on Speech’s absent father, and title track ‘Speech Therapy’ is both a crucial insight into Speech’s motivations and a moving tribute to her mother.

To ignore Speech Debelle simply because she’s an ‘urban’ artist, or because she’s a rapper, would be foolish indeed – she provides an emotional and thought-provoking view into a world that you may not have even considered thinking about.

4. The Invisible – The Invisible

The Invisible - The Invisible

The Invisible – The Invisible

The Invisible were surely one of this year’s more unexpected nominations, but their self-titled debut is certainly deserving of the exposure. It takes a little while to get going – ‘Constant’ is a slow-burner that sounds like the moody, disaffected cousin of Bloc Party’s ‘Banquet’, but once the funky bass of ‘London Girl’ kicks in the album rarely looks back. ‘Baby Doll’ is subtly builds up to an understatedly anthemic chorus, ‘Monster’s Waltz’ bubbles along pleasingly before breaking out into a wall of guitars, and ‘Ok’ is just pure feel-good funk. The band also know how to switch things up a little – ‘Climate’ features oppressive synths building up to an urgent coda, while ‘Tally Of Souls’, shows that a sparse acoustic guitar also works well as a backdrop for David Okumu’s gently soulful voice. But just as you think the album’s pace has dropped off completely, ‘Time Waits’ smacks you in the face with a blast of raw guitar to take the album out on a high.

The Invisible may have been a surprising nomination, it would surely be an even more surprising winner – but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a listen. You may well like what you hear.

3: Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires

Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

In a review on my previous blog, I called the debut record by Friendly Fires “one of [2008’s] most effortlessly listenable albums”, and I’m sure anyone who’s had this album on repeat will agree with me. From the samba rhythms of ‘Jump In The Pool’, through the wide eyed, hopeful euphoria of ‘Paris’ and the Hot Chip-esque funk of ‘On Board’, all the way to the sinister guitar and dark emotion of ‘Ex Lover’, the band switch styles while maintaining an effortless sense of coherence and flow. Friendly Fires has both hands in the air moments (‘Skeleton Boy’) and touches of understated brilliance  (‘In The Hospital’) – indeed, the only reason that this album doesn’t rank as the best of the Mercury nominees this year in my eyes is that it doesn’t have anything quite as good as the best tracks on the two albums at the top of my list. But that’s just me nitpicking – in reality, the quality of songs on Friendly Fires is so consistently good that it would be as worthy winner as either Two Suns or Primary Colours.

2: Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes was a hot favourite to bag the Mercury Prize two years ago with her debut album Fur And Gold, and some would argue she was duly robbed by Klaxons (who, for the record, were surprising but worthy winners in my eyes). She more than deserves a second go round this time though – Two Suns is an absolutely stunning record. Bombastic, jaw-dropping centre-piece ‘Siren Song’ is almost worthy of the prize on its own, while ‘Glass’ and ‘Two Planets’ are both spectacular highlights, featuring thundering drums, atmospheric instrumentation and soaring vocals in equal measure. Crucially, she’s also capable of mixing her ethereal stylings with pop sensibilities, as demonstrated perfectly on singles ‘Daniel’ and ‘Sleep Alone’. She handles her slower numbers well too – ‘Moon And Moon’ is a beautiful piano ballad, and her fragile, haunting duet with Scott Walker on ‘The Big Sleep’ wraps up the album perfectly.

I would certainly have no complaints if Natasha Khan walked away a winner on her second try – the only reason that Two Suns doesn’t make the top of this list is that it’s not as startling a jump forward as Primary Colours is. What it is, however, is a masterful progression from the already very solid foundations of Fur And Gold – this album deserves your attention.

1: The Horrors – Primary Colours

The Horrors - Primary Colours

The Horrors – Primary Colours

Who’d have thought it? This time two years ago, I doubt the Mercury judges were rushing to nominate Strange House – although maybe they should have been, it was miles better than The View’s debut for fuck’s sake. However, two years and one almost completely different album later, The Horrors are on the shortlist, and it’s not hard to see why – critics have fallen head over heels with the band’s second album. Whatever influences you may pick out on Primary Colours, chances are that they were already present in their impressive record collections even around the time of Strange House. This is just them realising their potential by exploring a different set of influences and making a bloody brilliant album.

From the dark, queasy swirls of ‘Mirror’s Image’ through to the astonishing 8-minute soundscape of ‘Sea Within A Sea’, the album rarely falters. ‘Who Can Say’ sees Faris tackle fading love with surprising sincerity as his band create a wall of relentless beats and guitar fuzz, while ‘Scarlet Fields’ is a hazy masterpiece of understated bass and swirling synths. It’s not perfect of course – ‘I Only Think Of You’ drags on for a little too long and ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ isn’t quite as good as everything else in my opinion, but overall these are minor complaints. If you didn’t like The Horrors before, put aside any prejudice you previously had for them and give this a listen – and if you did like them before, prepare to fall in love with them in a whole new way.

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