Tuesday, 26 December 2006

2006: The Year That Was

The festive season might be to good music what John Prescott is to diplomacy, but it serves as the perfect time to look back on all the grand achievements of the past twelve months. 2006 had its low points; we lost Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, J Dilla and James Brown. It was also the year the world's biggest boy band reformed. Cliff and Tony Bennett grew older disgracefully with Christmas cash-in albums. 2006 may well be remembered as the year of the comeback; it's not every year we see Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Prince, Van Morrison and countless others all supplying new material. After a fairly slow start, it also became a great year for the quality of albums released. Below are this writer's choice of twenty of the very best, in descending order:

20. Ghostface Killah - Fishscale

Streets ahead of his once-mighty Wu-Tang cohorts, Ghostface displayed cinematic vision and gripping narratives on his latest solo album. Excursions into straightforward battle rap and wittily candid childhood reminiscences only served to highlight the breadth and intelligence lacking in a relatively poor year for hip-hop.

19. Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly - Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager

Southend-reared Sam Duckworth’s debut was an endearing blend of earnest lyrics, acoustic guitar and playful, laptop-spawned electronica. Stand-out 'Call Me Ishmael' came complete with cornet solo and an inspired change of pace, revealing pop nous which will stand Duckworth in good stead for the tricky second album.

18. Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere

Buoyed by 'Crazy's summer ubiquity, 'St. Elsewhere' was a meeting of (off-kilter) minds between producer de-rigeur Dangermouse and former Goodie Mob rapper and general voice-for-hire Cee-Lo Green. Exploring a loose theme of mental instability, the album mixed dusty psychedelia, stuttering beats and Cee-Lo’s incomparable gospel-reared voice to great effect.

17. Ed Harcourt - The Beautiful Lie

With 'The Beautiful Lie', the prolific and prodigiously gifted Ed Harcourt finally shook off the albatross of his Mercury-nominated debut 'Here Be Monsters'. Resolutely romantic and free of fads, Harcourt’s torch songs were a flashlight through the crowded, darkened tunnels of the modern singer-songwriter.

16. Graham Coxon - Love Travels At Illegal Speeds

While Damon Albarn spent the year resurrecting the supergroup with Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, former Blur band-mate Graham Coxon simply continued crafting his own inimitable brand of lovelorn punk-pop. Packed full of punchy gems such as 'I Can’t Look At Your Skin', 'Love Travels…' was an assured and excellent performance from an indie institution.

15. Acoustic Ladyland - Skinny Grin

Not so much a melting pot, rather a face-melting combination of sludgey metal riffs and cacophonous virtuoso jazz. Traces of Coltrane resonate through Peter Wareham's sax, but the most potent weapon AL possess is Polar Bear's Seb Rochford on drums. Opener 'Road Of Bones' and Scott Walker's nightmarish mix of 'Salt Water' are the best examples of the band's drastic new vision for British jazz.

14. Kasabian - Empire

Building on the template of 2004’s self-titled debut, Leicester lads Kasabian beefed up their swaggering dance-rock hybrid with a notable nod to ’70s glam, particularly in stomping single 'Shoot The Runner'. Despite the continuing presence of forefathers Primal Scream and Oasis, Empire stood out as the year’s most irresistible hook-led guitar album (by a band formed outside of Sheffield).

13. Cat Power - The Greatest

Chan ‘Cat Power’ Marshall recruited a host of Memphis musicians to flesh out her damaged, lo-fi songwriting for 'The Greatest'. The result was a heady soul brew, the wistful confessionals of 'Where Is My Love' and 'Lived In Bars' made all the more poignant by Marshall’s recent battles with depression and alcoholism.

12. The Beatles - Love

Created for Cirque Du Soleil, this trawl through The Beatles’ back catalogue allowed George and Giles Martin to re-imagine some of the Fab Four’s finest moments. The mash-up style popularised by Soulwax’s '2 Many DJ’s album is used to stunning effect as 'Tomorrow Never Knows' is juxtaposed with 'Within You Without You', a highlight of a project handled lovingly and with no little flair by its curators.

11. The Roots - Game Theory

Taking a step back from previous album 'The Tipping Point's overt commerciality, 'Game Theory' was a dark and claustrophobic affair, the Philadelphia hip-hop veterans preoccupied with war zones at home and abroad. Dynamic, unhinged contributions from former members Dice Raw and Malik B offered a counterpoint to lead emcee Black Thought’s technical flow, while ringleader ?uestlove’s musical vision remained undimmed fifteen years since the band’s formation.

10. Rodrigo Y Gabriela - Rodrigo Y Gabriela

Renowned for their astounding live performances, Mexican duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela translated their on-stage energy onto record with a little help from production maestro John Leckie. Indebted to flamenco masters such as Paco De Lucia, but equally the fervent, devotional energy of hard rock, it was telling that they chose to cover Led Zeppelin and Metallica on this outstanding set.

9. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

While debates still rage about whether they are the greatest band since The Smiths, (or perhaps more realistically, the best band from Sheffield since Pulp) the Arctic Monkeys debut album stands as a timely and timeless continuation of the British art of storytelling. Whether berating ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’ or extolling the joys of late night cabs, Alex Turner’s wit and the Monkeys’ winning tunes struck a chord with the nation.

8. Neil Young - Living With War

Initially available as an internet-only download, Neil Young’s rush-recorded 'Living With War' was a timely example of the emotive power music can have in the political arena. Backed by rugged guitars and a 100-strong choir, Young tears into the Bush administration furiously and unreservedly on 'Lookin’ For A Leader' and 'Let’s Impeach The President'. 'Living With War' struck a victory for both its venerable creator and the unabated spirit of protest writing.

7. Old Crow Medicine Show - Big Iron World

Championed by Americana icon Gillian Welch - who appeared here on drum duties - this five piece channelled youthful vigour and age-old songs into a vibrant and remarkably cohesive album. Rollicking fiddle-led standards such as 'Cocaine Habit' rubbed shoulders with the boys’ own accomplished compositions such as 'James River Blues' and 'My Good Girl'. Country album of the year by a country mile.

6. Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics

Proving the commercial breakthrough of 2002’s 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots' was no fluke, Wayne Coyne’s enigmatic Oklahomans resurfaced stronger than ever in 2006. Dalliances with funk ('Free Radicals') and prog-rock ('Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung') broadened the group’s creative palette, while naysayers and warmongers bore the brunt of Coyne’s lyrical broadsides.

5. Bob Dylan - Modern Times

Completing a trio of late-career triumphs, the ironically-titled 'Modern Times' shunned contemporary techniques in favour of old-time blues, ballads and boogie-woogie. Dylan’s unmatchable lyrics provided ammunition for accusers of literary plagiarism, hours of fun for train-spotters and his first US number one since 1976’s 'Desire'.

4. Guillemots - Through The Windowpane

This oddly-named troupe of eccentric popsters provided two of 2006’s most inventive pop singles in 'Trains To Brazil' and 'Made Up Love Song #43'. The accompanying full-length lived up to the promise of these earlier offerings, equally showcasing leader Fyfe Dangerfield’s penchant for tender love songs and kitchen-sink approach to arrangements.

3. Amy Winehouse - Back To Black

Moving even further from the jazzy lounge of Melua and Jones, in 2006 London chanteuse Amy Winehouse created that rarest of artefacts, a top-notch UK soul album. Helped by producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, 'Back To Black's searing songs were honest and heartfelt odes to love, loss, addiction and “fuckery”.

2. Spank Rock - YoYoYoYoYo

Thrillingly futuristic dance floor action abounded on this debut by filthy, electro-informed hip-hoppers Spank Rock. Traces of Timbaland’s sonic invention and swathes of 2 Live Crew’s misogyny perpetuated 'YoYoYoYoYo', but it was na├»ve electronics and mind-boggling lyrical verve which carried the likes of 'Top Billin’ From Far Left' and 'Tell Me What It Look Like' from the Baltimore underground to the critical consciousness.

And finally...

1. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain

For all the experimental gusto of Brooklyn art-rockers TV On The Radio’s follow-up to 2004’s 'Desperate Youth Blood-Thirsty Babes', there was a definite pop heart behind the enveloping soundscapes. Opener 'I Was A Lover' mixed looped strings and a stuttering hip-hop beat with inflective lyricism, while the majestic 'A Method' cranked up the barbershop harmonies behind front-man Tunde Adebimpe’s lead. Celebrity support came in the guise of David Bowie’s guest vocals on 'Province', although true to form they were hidden within the foggy midst of the track. While they stopped short of repeating the snowballing success of fellow Bowie faves Arcade Fire’s 'Funeral', this was an equally moving, memorable and masterful set of songs.

R.I.P. James Brown
Happy birthday Shane MacGowan (for yesterday)

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Flaming Lips live review

Flaming Lips live, Hammersmith Apollo, 14 November

You have to hand it to the Flaming Lips, they sure know how to throw a party. No specific occasion this one - they bypassed the twentieth anniversary of their formation some three years ago - but for the most relentlessly joyous band around, every day is one to celebrate. The buzz of pre-performance anticipation is discernible, those who’ve previously witnessed a gig by the Oklahoma trio (along with live drummer Kliph Scurlock tonight) have clearly built up the expectation levels of the Lips virgins present. They’ve all come expecting dancing Santas and aliens, confetti explosions and the most uplifting live experience around. They are not to be disappointed.
The 5,000 green and yellow balloons handed out quickly begin to soar around the converted theatre, adding to the childlike qualities of chief Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys’ warm-up show. Performing an array of solo songs in English and Welsh, he sits at a table surrounded by a multitude of toys, instruments and combinations of the two. Some of these he plays, others such as a large red crash helmet similar to the one worn by Jack Nicholson in 'Easy Rider', appear to be there for feng shui purposes. Rhys’ quirky acid-folk and good-natured buffoonery prove a winning combination, it’s telling of the headliners’ approach that they selected such a genial character to open.
Famously debuted at the Grammies and unveiled in the UK via the Lips’ performances at the Leeds and London Wireless festival this summer, Wayne Coyne’s giant hamster ball has become the stuff of legend. To the delight of the crowd, he emerges from backstage climbing into the transparent sphere and launches himself onto the swathes of arms waiting. Following a full lap of the Apollo’s standing area, he is joined by his fellow band-mates and they launch into ‘Race For The Prize’, taken from astonishing breakthrough album 'The Soft Bulletin'.
Yet more balloons, on-stage explosions and a dancing cast of superheroes form the backdrop for one of the most intensely euphoric live experiences imaginable. The crowd are ecstatic, bouncing throughout and beaming back at Coyne as he stands, palm stretched out, ushering in the pounding drums of the chorus with the refrain, “They’re just humans with wives and children!”.
He ends the song dancing like a snappily-dressed, excitable Pied Piper, twirling a dazzling cord of light around until the mania dies down. It’s an unbelievable opening, and while the rest of the show cannot possibly live up to the bottled essence of those amazing four minutes, there are plentiful highlights to come.
'Free Radicals' and recent single 'The W.A.N.D.' trade funk-rock riffs, while crowd favourite 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt.1' ends in a massive communal sing-a-long - one of many tonight. Once again expressing his disgust for George Bush’s administration, Coyne subverts any negative energy into a gloriously confrontational and exhilarating ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’. While there are none of the Lips’ famously eclectic cover versions tonight, they do trawl into their back catalogue to play the zany psych-pop of 1994’s 'She Don’t Use Jelly', although die-hards in the crowd shouting for 1989’s 'Unconsciously Screamin' are sadly out of luck.
Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins are quiet and professional throughout, content to let Coyne run the show, but aware of their huge contribution. As Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers once retorted, “Wayne’s biggest asset? Steven!” The skeleton outfit-wearing Ivins cannot be underestimated either, his presence since the outset of the band shows how integral he has been to their success. The set is rounded off by 'Do You Realise', its ubiquity matters little, it is clearly a special song that inspires open sobbing, air-punching delight and embraces all round.
Frequently when introducing the songs, Coyne explains at some length the intentions behind them in passionate, humble terms. If music can’t change the world he concludes, then joy, positivity and love might - feelings the Flaming Lips and their wonderful music inspire in all tonight.


Friday, 1 December 2006

The Rapture - Pieces Of The People We Love

One of the hyped pace-setters in the early ’80s revivalist movement of the past few years, The Rapture have perhaps wisely bided their time before following up 2003’s stellar debut ‘Echoes‘. In the three years leading up to ‘Pieces Of The People We Love‘, the four New Yorkers have seen their thunder stolen by a new wave of new-wavers, headed up by the likes of Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand.
While they have clearly employed subtle changes in their sound, there is no attempt made to cast off the dance-punk/indie-disco/punk-funk (delete as appropriate) framework within which they operate.
Replacing the DFA with Paul Epworth and Ewan Pearson behind the boards, the result is a punchier sound, with the disco percussion to the fore and warring bass and lead guitars reduced to a supporting role. Lead single ‘Get Myself Into It’, in particular, suggests their well-worn copies of ‘Entertainment’ have been replaced by a healthy fascination with ‘Remain In Light’-era Talking Heads.
Klaxons fans will be blown away by the stunning new-raver ‘The Sound’, while super producer Dangermouse (of Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz fame) pops up on two tracks; adding jittery lo-fi beats to ‘Calling Me’ and the skippable title track.
The foursome come into their own in the album’s middle section, where the grooves are truly irresistible. ‘The Devil’ and ‘Whoo! Alright - Yeah… Uh Huh’ show the band at their best; the tight, propulsive bass and resolute disco drums serving as the grounding for explosions of Afro-funk guitar and proclamations such as “I say the lineage runs Morrison, Patti Smith then me”. It’s clear The Rapture aren’t taking anything too seriously besides the music - while they may have initiated a stylistic revolution three years ago, they now seem content to let the pretenders wear their crown while they strut off to the next party.


Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Let Me Make You A Tape: The Thirty Best Tracks Of 2006

You gotta love a list!
These are in no particular order (but TV On The Radio is my favourite!)

What no Girls Aloud or Tom Waits? - Let me know your thoughts at http://www.myspace.com/chewmusic or lphingston@hotmail.co.uk

1. 'Whirlwind In D Minor' - Ed Harcourt (available on 'The Beautiful Lie')
2. 'Trains To Brazil' - Guillemots ('Through The Windowpane')
3. '5/4' - Clogs ('Lantern')
4. 'Mardy Bum' - Arctic Monkeys ('Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not')
5. 'What It Look Like' - Spank Rock ('YoYoYoYoYo')
6. 'Cocaine Habit' - Old Crow Medicine Show ('Big Iron World')
7. 'My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion' - Flaming Lips ('At War With The Mystics')
8. 'I Was A Lover' - TV On The Radio ('Return To Cookie Mountain')
9. 'Workingman's Blues #2' - Bob Dylan ('Modern Times')
10. 'The Devil' - The Rapture ('Pieces Of The People We Love')
11. 'The Champ' - Ghostface Killah ('Fishscale')
12. 'Lived In Bars' - Cat Power ('The Greatest')
13. 'Amsterdam' - Peter, Bjorn & John ('Writer's Block')
14. 'Kindness For Weakness' - Dilated Peoples ('20/20')
15. 'Roscoe' - Midlake ('The Trials Of Van Occupanther')
16. 'Tamacun' - Rodrigo Y Gabriela ('Rodrigo Y Gabriela')
17. 'The Ride' - Joan As Policewoman ('Real Life')
18. 'My Favourite Mutiny' - The Coup ('Pick A Bigger Weapon')
19. '7/4 (Shoreline)' - Broken Social Scene ('Broken Social Scene')
20. 'Blue Honey' - Pop Levi ('Blue Honey EP')
21. 'Shoot The Runner' - Kasabian ('Empire')
22. 'Call Me Ishmael' - Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly ('Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager')
23. 'Nag Nag Nag Nag' - Art Brut ('Nag Nag Nag Nag' single)
24. 'Workinonit' - J Dilla aka Jay Dee ('Donuts')
25. 'Yr Mangled Heart' - The Gossip ('Standing In The Way Of Control')
26. 'Rally' - Phoenix ('It's Never Been Like That')
27. 'Gone Daddy Gone' - Gnarls Barkley ('St. Elsewhere')
28. 'Over And Over (Lost And Found)' - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ('Clap Your Hands Say Yeah')
29. 'Black Sweat' - Prince ('3121')
30. 'Lookin' For A Leader' - Neil Young ('Living With War')

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

The National - Alligator

For any music lover, one of the joys of life is the feeling that you’ve discovered something. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of excitement, first hearing a song or band that you know will impact your life, and dropping everything to focus all your attentions on the wondrous racket emanating from a nearby speaker. You pass along the discovery to a select band of friends, confident that they will most likely share your passion, and come back to thank you in days to come. You look with a keen sense of pride as their reviews just start to perforate the outer reaches of the mainstream press, then wince at the feeling that they might not be ‘your band’ for much longer. John Peel had this very feeling hearing 'Teenage Kicks' by The Undertones, for the first time. I am delighted to share that my own personal musical highlight of 2005 was first 'discovering' 'Mr. November' by The National.
It is a melancholy yet rousing mix. An ambiguous, repetitive lyric delivered by an instantly unique voice, possessed of the same unmistakeably personal style of an Ian Curtis, Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen. A raw, yet polished sound, moving from lulling to frantic, particularly in the machine-gun drumming of the song’s last bridge. The brilliant use of the sound of silence following the chorus, leading to the song’s best line; “I wish I believed in fate, wish I didn’t sleep so late”.
Given that this was my first encounter with The National, their Beggar’s Banquet-released third album, had a lot to live up to. Formed in Brooklyn, and hailing from Cincinnati, this five-piece have been around longer than it would seem, as they have remained just below the mainstream radar up until now. Preceded by 2001’s self-titled debut (showing potential without finesse), 2003’s brilliantly-titled 'Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers' and the EP 'Cherry Tree', they aren’t the newcomers any more, and Alligator has a tender confidence to prove that.
Opening track 'Secret Meeting' is a revelation, once again, sounding absolutely nothing like 'Mr. November', and all the better in its own right, for that. Centred around the baritone of Matt Berninger, it saunters rather than explodes from the speakers. A bundle of alluring poetics, backed by wonderfully-noodly guitar lines, it is a great track to begin the album, and correctly bodes well for what is to follow. 'Secret Meeting' is also one of the album’s most quotable songs with its central line “I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain”, and “Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?” among the eloquent highlights.
Lyrically, the darkly humorous 'Karen' is a tale of those aforementioned dirty lovers, evoking scenarios such as: “It’s a common fetish for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand”.
Listening to this new set, The National have grown into a great band, who are intriguingly impossible to pin down. Sparsely sprinkled through the album are raucous New York stormers such as 'Lit Up' and the single 'Abel', alive with electric drumming and insistent, powerful choruses. For the main part, though, they retreat to down-home American tales over sorrowful, melodic arrangements. Soul-searching, wistful and touching; 'Looking for Astronauts' and 'Daughters of the Soho Riots' are among the best Americana you are likely to hear. The latter rotates around simple guitar, comparable to the best of Richmond Fontaine or Bright Eyes’ less complex arrangements, and reveals another of the album’s most memorable aural images- “Break my arms around the one I love, and be forgiven by the time my lover comes.”
The mood of the album is also difficult to easily pinpoint- whereas before they nailed their ‘sad songs’ colours to the mast- 'Alligator' is a trickier, less-navigated emotional journey. While the majority of the tracks are downbeat and introspective, there is seemingly always a pervading sense of hope. Likewise, the more upbeat sentiments expressed cannot shake their composers’ keen sense of irony, particularly noticeable in the likes of 'All The Wine'. In Berninger’s own words he has given “a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart”.There are no weak links in the album’s song list, as each track is a revelation; and it’s all rounded off with 'Mr. November', which provides a feeling of the experience coming full circle for this writer. Whereas the group’s earlier releases could be seen as somewhat two-dimensional sad songs, they are showcased in glorious 3D Technicolor here.

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly - Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager

The voice behind the beguiling moniker Get Cape… actually belongs to 20 year-old Southend native Sam Duckworth, who has built a growing reputation over the past year armed with just an acoustic guitar, laptop and a diary full of impassioned lyrics.
Delivering his first full length, Duckworth has drawn a few comparisons, particularly with fellow Essex lad Billy Bragg, who is a definite precursor to Get Cape… in the lineage of the protest song. While also making use of up-tempo laptop beats, he doesn’t fit into the homegrown folktronica niche devised by taste-makers over recent years - while 'Chronicles…' has its antecedents, Duckworth is his own man.
Four of the final cut of songs appeared on last year’s limited self-titled mini-album, although the finished versions are suitably fleshed out for this Atlantic release.
'Once More With Feeling' is a misleadingly understated introduction to the album - not an accusation which will often be levelled at Duckworth. Things get going with 'An Oak Tree', with jazzy touches and a breakneck rhythm which suggests a copy of Roni Size’s 'New Forms' has perhaps sat next to the assorted troubadours and guitar bands in Duckworth’s record collection. The vocal styling gives away a history fronting several hardcore/emo bands - the raw chorus of 'I-Spy' in particular suggests having been road-tested in this guise. The album settles upon a formulaic song structure of acoustic intro/verse followed by beats kicking in before the first chorus, perhaps gleaned from the Postal Service album of a few years ago.
Duckworth’s earnest and well intentioned lyrics fall short of exerting too much political leaning or malice, perhaps unlike US contemporaries such as Bright Eyes, although clumsy couplets perpetuate the likes of 'Whitewash Is Brainwash' and certain sections of the writing are unneccessarily wordy (“You don’t need a degree to de-construct this melody” - 'Chronicles… Part Two'). Having said that, the importance here is of a young spokesperson eager to speak for and to his generation about issues affecting their lives - be it capitalism, reality TV, addiction or war, all of which are dealt with here.
Where 'Chronicles…' excels is in the obvious pop nous of its creator; stand-out 'Call Me Ishmael' would have been just fine on its own, but an inspired change of pace for the end third and a wonderful cornet solo lift it up above the rest of the tracks here. The other previous single, 'Chronicles… Part One' is a similar grower, progressing from bedroom lament into super-charged sing-a-long. Occasionally the arrangements can seem overcooked, the beauty of these songs is in their simplicity and some of the assorted beeps and bleeps seem superfluous.
While not a perfect debut by some stretch, Duckworth’s talent for pop songwriting should not be underestimated and his intentions are admirable. As he himself opines on theme song 'Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly', “Open your eyes. You don’t need to buy.” Apart from this album, surely?

Bloc Party Live, Portsmouth Guildhall Monday 10 October 2005

“Today is a very important day, in the days of the Bloc!” exclaims singer Kele Okereke, introducing Bloc Party’s understated yet majestic new single 'Two More Years', released earlier in the day. There is something knowingly triumphant about his tone, well-deserved after a remarkable year for the four-piece who Liam Gallagher famously dismissed as looking like “a band off University Challenge”. Widespread praise garnered on debut LP 'Silent Alarm' led to a Mercury nomination, and recent performances have showcased a band coming into their own in the live arena.
Portsmouth’s student hordes seemed far more intent on loading up at the bar than offering much appreciation to the support act, whose already rather thankless task was not helped by the female singer’s one-syllable shrieking, and half-hearted attempts at crowd participation.
The crowd began to swell as the lights dimmed and Bloc Party took to the stage. Drummer Matt Tong’s cascading drum intro to 'Like Eating Glass' kicked in and the crowd were on-side immediately, familiar with all of 'Silent Alarm's plentiful highlights and erupting with contagious energy at regular intervals. A cleverly disguised opening to 'Banquet' kept fans on their toes, before the band gave in and unleashed the song‘s muscular guitar line.
The hot, stuffy atmosphere led Okereke to note that they were being made to “work for the money tonight“. Tong flung off his shirt, while guitarists Russell Lissack and Gordon Moakes quietly smouldered, perhaps literally given the venue’s stifling heat. Slow burning highlight 'This Modern Love' received a rapturous response, before 'Little Thoughts' and 'Helicopter' whipped the crowd into a frenzy of manic energy.
The band also plugged the remixed version of their debut by playing an extended version of 'So Here We Are', before 'Tulips' was introduced as “the one we played really badly last time we were here.” Such a happening was very unlikely tonight in what was a very polished and assured performance, but there was to be one spoke in the wheel as the band played out with 'Pioneers'.
Moakes and Lissack looked daggers at the few crowd surfers who made it to the stage, and the sound was cut momentarily by one such offender, and they had to start from scratch. In response Okereke called him a “nincompoop”, which is quite possibly the first time the word has ever been used by a rock star. It was a strangely comical ending to an accomplished set by a thrilling, though rarely humorous band.


Wednesday, 15 November 2006

The Roots - Game Theory

Given that Philadelphia’s arty hip-hop crew The Roots have always had an ear for a catchy melody, fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst from their recent label defection to Jay-Z’s new look Def Jam. Previous effort 'The Tipping Point' was undoubtedly the most overtly commercial of their career, while the dutifully-selected roster suggests Jigga is intent on securing as many sales as possible to resurrect the once-mighty label to their former glory, in financial terms at least. Thankfully, the free-spirited ?uestlove and his cohorts have thrown a curveball with 'Game Theory', as it proves to be their least compromising work to date. Beyonce or Rhianna cameos seem decidedly unlikely as dark, claustrophobic opener 'False Media' arrives equipped with Public Enemy quotes and edgy drums. The storming title track hijacks Sly And The Family Stone’s 'Life Of Fortune And Fame', while lead emcee Black Thought attacks the beat with a vigour he clearly keeps in reserve for times of need. Old friends Malik B (axed from the band six years ago for drug abuse) and Dice Raw turn in thrilling guest spots, countering Thought’s steady flow with unpredictable lyricism, the tag-team particularly effective on the pounding 'Here I Come'.
The impending sense of doom caused by war zones at home and abroad constantly informs the chilly, unwelcoming production and foreboding lyrics on display - the gritty 'In The Music' being a fine example, “I‘m from the illest part of the Western hemisphere, so if you into sight-seeing don‘t visit there“.
The versatility of the band’s musicianship always elevates The Roots above their peers, and the work displayed here is no exception, eerie strings complementing the relentless rhythm section.
While there are some alluring hooks hidden beneath the murk, there‘s nothing here to rival their previous pop moments such as 'You Got Me' or 'The Seed (2.0)' - even lead single 'Don‘t Feel Right' balances its infectious melody with paranoid writing. As with the last few Roots albums, the latter stages see more introspective tracks easing out the previous braggadocio and street-level observations, although the likes of 'Livin’ In A New World' and the Radiohead-sampling 'Atonement' are not on a par with previous such ruminations.
J Dilla tribute 'Can’t Stop This' concludes the album, fittingly promising to continue the work of their late, great collaborator. Fifteen years into their career, The Roots are handling their business as usual.


Medium Is The Minefield

TV On The Radio live, Koko, Friday November 10

If this year’s excellent 'Return To Cookie Mountain' full-length is any indication of their intentions, Brooklynites TV On The Radio are choosing to correlate their growing audience with ever-increasing layers of sound - creating a dense fog of recorded instrumentation and samples that rewards repeated listening. Even keen admirer David Bowie’s guest vocals on 'Province' are left to fight it out in the swampy midst of the song. Sonic mavericks they most certainly are, however the real challenge for a band of TVOTR’s ambition is making these vast songs and soundscapes work in the live arena. Fortunately, front-man Tunde Adebimpe’s vocal abilities manage to maintain the same presence on stage at Koko as they do in the recording studio. Few modern bands are blessed with a singer capable of shifting from doo-wop harmonies to wildly impassioned, yet note-perfect, howling with such apparent ease.
Adebimpe begins by encouraging a little creative visualisation from the throngs packed into the venue - the ambient sea voyage conjured up is swiftly attacked by wave after wave of 'Dirty Whirl's stormy onslaught. Guitarist David Sitek attaches wind-chimes to his guitar for the opening of 'Dreams' from 2004’s 'Desparate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes', further stretching the influence of the elements upon tonight’s performance.
The first problem in the set arrives during 'Province' when the sheer density of the sound produced causes a few seconds of eardrum-splitting interference. Either that or it was the former Ziggy Stardust himself trying to influence proceedings from afar by phoning in a vocal. To the band’s credit, they quickly get back to their best - recent single 'Wolf Like Me' sees Jaleel Bunton’s explosive drumming prompting a raucous reaction from the front rows. One of their most traditionally rock compositions, the band’s vibrant on-stage energy ensures that it sounds even better than the album version. The same unfortunately, cannot be said of '…Cookie Mountain's sublime opener 'I Was A Lover'. Although Adebimpe’s vocal performance carries the song’s lyrical imagery, the deft multi-layered intricacies that encircle the staccato hip-hop beat are lost in the acoustics of the arena, the resulting wall of noise doesn’t do the exceptional recorded version justice.
Once again, however, TV On The Radio recover their stride - the usually stoic guitarist Kyp Malone coming more to the fore as the set progresses. Leaving the crowd with what has become the band’s signature track 'Staring At The Sun', the vocal interplay between Malone and Adebimpe is measured to perfection, going to show what a couple of year’s practice on the road will do to polish an already exceptional song.