Sunday, 28 March 2010

Super Adventure Club - Avoid Zombies

Super Adventure Club - Avoid Zombies (****)
album review for the skinny

In theory, Glasgow (via Livingstone) trio Super Adventure Club could be a nightmarish proposition: they have a singer/guitarist, Bruce Wallace, who screeches, wails, screams, howls and croons; sometimes he sings too; and they have a drummer, Neil Warrack, who shifts between rhythms in a song like a girl trying on dresses in a shop. It could add up to a hellish noise, but in fact their second album Avoid Zombies is a scarily imaginative and hugely amusing trip, the most incongruous thing about it being the final track, a pre-emptive self-defence against anticipated criticism that really isn't necessary.

Before that final track, Super Adventure Club have spent the preceeding half-hour being totally unselfconscious, showing a buoyant disregard for any sensitivities that might get in the way of their fun. Some bands don't seem to know it, but making music is supposed to be fun. The intro to Avoid Zombies' first song -- Hip Hop Hot Pot Pot Noodle -- is five seconds of fast n' mindless single-note pinging, before an unexpected eruption of noise as Wallace and bassist/singer Mandy Clarke crazily rave "If you can read this, your head's on fire". The mania of it is startling: a few bars into the album, they've already asserted their presence, declared their intentions, and shown more personality than some bands manage in a whole hour.

When the singers aren't ranting and the guitars aren't in overdrive, SAC like to slow it down with some breezy, light-hearted laments. Pick Up Sticks provides such a counterpoint to Hip Hop etc's abrasive full-tilt intro, as Wallace wonders aloud about being stuck in a rut, and in My Other Brain he considers extreme measures to deal with sexual frustration: "...but John Wayne Bobbit did alright, and his looks like it's stuck on with Araldite." Best of all is SAC Attack, sung sweetly by Clarke over a fantastic leaping bassline and a scratching, scathing guitar: "phone your mum, make the tea, avoid zombies," she reels off her to-do list for the day, "lock the door, feed the cat, avoid zombies". Always set achievable goals; that's just good advice.

And don't worry too much about what other people think of you; that's implicitly advised throughout too. When a band is described as inoffensive, it doesn't mean others go around abusing the ugly, it means this: others, like Super Adventure Club, take risks knowing they might lose as many fans as they win, and they don't much care about that. Nosferatu is the seven-minute multi-part centrepiece of Avoid Zombies; it's very funny, full of ideas, and honestly a little baffling on first listen: it's Super Adventure Club in one song. Starting with an incomprehensible rant over a quick-breathing bassline, it slows into something eerie about spontaneous combustion, before shifting gear again in time for Wallace and Clarke to abuse someone for looking like Alan Carr (wait, what was I just saying?), then calming again for a guitar solo that fades to almost complete silence halfway through the song. For no apparent reason, just because they want to, and then they fade back in again and there's another twenty parts before the song ends.

But SAC's indulgent tendencies -- like beginning an album with a heart-attack-inducing shock and fading out to near nothing halfway through another song, not to mention the soloing and tempo shifts -- aren't a negative, they're intrinsic to the band's appeal. Other apparently good-time bands would be too self-conscious to try half this stuff, so it wouldn't be convincing. On the contrary, you know Super Adventure Club are having the time of their lives, because they're not stopping to think it over, analyse it, write down their options, arrange a meeting, draw a graph, run it by the boss. Time flies when you're having fun because you don't stop to check the time. Super Adventure Club's brio is natural, most of their risks pay off, and the joy is contagious.

Until we get to the appendix, the apologetic Pointless Self-Indulgence, ironically their least indulgent and most pointless song. It's like a new best friend saying sorry for one corny joke. It's actually quite charming, when taken on its own. Two minutes, no big deal.


Wednesday, 24 March 2010

We Were Promised Jetpacks - The Last Place You'll Look EP

We Were Promised Jetpacks - The Last Place You'll Look EP (****)
review for the skinny

The Last Place You'll Look reprises two standout tracks from We Were Promised Jetpacks' underrated debut LP These Four Walls – Short Bursts and This Is My House – in slower, more restrained versions. Despite Adam Thompson's primal wail being one of the band's strengths, it actually works quite well, highlighting the dark inspiration for those vocal dramatics. By now Jetpacks have the slow-build-to-ecstatic-release thing down pat, exemplified on With The Benefit of Hindsight, which accelerates from nothing into a magisterial finale. Opening track A Far Cry is even better, gathering steam with bump-and-rolling drum fills and brief flashes of big guitars, before somehow managing to keep its climax going for a full minute-and-a-half. Jetpacks' know what they're good at, and they're very good at it.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

North Atlantic Oscillation - Grappling Hooks

North Atlantic Oscillation - Grappling Hooks
album review for DiS

Mibbe it's just their name, but I can't think about North Atlantic Oscillation's debut album without thinking about water. It's in the depths and swells of their song structures, the thin fluid sweep of their synths, and the drums which splash and spray across everything. North Atlantic Oscillation are an Edinburgh-based trio who eschew verse-chorus-story in favour of elongated washes, proggy effects and ever-inventive drumming. Grappling Hooks is an ambitious and accomplished-sounding record, that nevertheless doesn't hit the heights it aims for.

North Atlantic Oscillation's debut does excel in one area, and that's rhythm. Every track showcases drummer Ben Martin's restless impulse, stretching for fills and rolls where a lesser drummer might content himself with four-fours. Fourth track 'Some Blue Hive' is a good example, the grand opening rolls giving way to a relaxed, lolling groove, before the flourish-dotted outro that grabs tight to the song instead of letting it drift. Next is 'Audioplastic', a cinematic near-instrumental that rides atop a stuttering, shifting rhythm like a milder version of Primal Scream's 'Blood Money'; it just wouldn't be possible without a good drummer.

Whether North Atlantic Oscillation have a good singer is a more awkward question to answer. Sam Healy's androgynous vocal tone is nearly always filtered and in falsetto, giving it an otherworldly sense which works best on lead single 'Cell Count': his deadpan "it's amazing what they can do... to you", delivered over skittering flashes and whirrs, sounds like an alien observation of human science or the politics of power. But in other places his lyrics are unclear, or his delivery reserved, rendering his effected voice an instrument among all others, like a different tone of synth. Of course, its potential is to be far more expressive, so it isn't used to the full here.

There's nothing especially new on Grappling Hooks, but North Atlantic Oscillation's borrowing isn't usually problematic. '77 Hours' is a heated-up and stretched version of Boards of Canada's 'Roygbiv' that slowly builds towards a manic climax, and it's the highlight of Grappling Hooks' second half. 'Ritual', on the other hand, suffers from its rather blatant Sigur Ros-isms: not just in the slow build-up and ecstatic release, but also in the high harmony vocals which sound suspiciously Icelandic as they're reversed.

Although that's the only track worthy of specific criticism on this generally consistent full-length, Grappling Hooks doesn't reward repeated listens with new discoveries. Its tempo changes and pressure shifts flow in mostly predictable sequences where a few deep dives or bends-inducing leaps would be welcome. For such a rhythm-based record - where other potential qualities like beautiful harmonies or gritty passages of noise or big choruses aren't so relevant - it should be aiming for extra points on the dynamics of structure.

The many reference points to other bands Grappling Hooks fits in - in addition to the forementioned, Grandaddy, Flaming Lips and Holy Fuck all make ghost appearances - suggest North Atlantic Oscillation's burgeoning identity is still more composite than characteristic. That's entirely understandable for a new band, and a minor gripe even at that. Grappling Hooks is a strong debut by a band who can get stronger.


Saturday, 6 March 2010

Damon's Finest Five

Damon's Finest Five (link)

Blur – Parklife (1994)
Britpop's finest hour, the album that launched a thousand magazine trend pieces about Essex lads behaving badly. So, that's mid-90s Britain generalised then, but don't blame the music. "Yes, they're stereotypes," Albarn sang on the first song of next album The Great Escape, "there must be more to life."

Blur – Think Tank (2003)
With more input from William Orbit and Norman Cook than estranged guitarist Graham Coxon, Blur were forcibly removed from their college rock comfort zone, resulting in their most creative album of all. A glorious final gasp before the burial.

Gorillaz – Demon Days (2005)
Before Danger Mouse hit No.1 with Gnarls Barkley, he helped produce Gorillaz' second album which included a trio of classic singles: the kids' choir trip-hop of Dirty Harry, the languid groove and manic laugh of Feel Good Inc, and Shaun Ryder lording it over Dare.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen (2007)
Again with Danger Mouse behind the desk, Albarn with Simon Tong, Paul Simonon and Tony Allen recorded a London-themed album that replaced the peppy energy of Parklife with more doleful, resigned tones.

Monkey: Journey To The West (2008)
The soundtrack to an opera based on a 500 year-old Chinese folk tale: a belated natural follow-up to Girls & Boys, of course. Monkey is daring, moving, sometimes confounding, and truly unique. It's also unrecognisable as a Damon Albarn work, an outlier that demonstrates his remarkable range.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

City Dweller, Successful Fella

albarn hagiography for the skinny

sorry, I mean "feature"

What is the best shorthand to introduce Damon Albarn now? Is it: "former Blur frontman..."? Too retro. Perhaps it's "Gorillaz mastermind..."? But that forgets his first decade of fame. Is it "Chinese musical composer..."? Well, he's from Essex, but he has composed a Chinese musical, Monkey Journey to the West. But that description leaves out Blur and Gorillaz completely, as would any focusing on his The Good, The Bad and The Queen supergroup, or his recording ventures in Western Africa. There is no shorthand for Damon Albarn. He's done a lot.

My first memory of Albarn is as a lairy looking lad singing Girls & Boys on some Saturday morning show, early 1994, I was ten. Country House was the first CD I ever bought, having been persuaded by hype to pick a side and fight for it in the great Britpop battle of 1995. Only £3.99 from Woolworths; fill in your own old man joke here. How the guy who wrote Country House, and the system that sold it, has changed since then.

That's quite a pish song, actually, but I chose the right side in that battle. Do you ever meet people who seem to have listened to the same three bands for the last ten years? Those bands used to be the Stone Roses, Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene. Now, they're Oasis, Kasabian and Kings of Leon. That's Noel Gallagher. Blur's final album, and possibly its best, Think Tank, was recorded in Morocco. Liam Gallagher can't spell Morocco. Though we didn't know it in 1995, Damon Albarn is a proper music geek. He's obsessed by it enough to be curious about its every form. That could make him a dilettante, but, incredibly, he's morphed his endless curiosity into creativity everywhere he's turned, and successfully too.

Following six Blur albums, four of which had topped the UK album charts, Albarn and his pal Jamie Hewlett thought it'd be fun to invent a virtual group, Gorillaz, 50% hip-hop, 50% everything else. Gorillaz' self-titled debut was Albarn's biggest selling record yet. Let's stop and think about this for a second. Was Blur not big enough for him? Gorillaz gets even bigger. Someone ask Chris Cornell how easy it is for a rock singer to make a good rap record (or, let's ask Lil Wayne the reverse). Few even attempt it. Then there was Mali Music, Think Tank, which also went to No.1, and the second Gorillaz album Demon Days, which was even better and sold twice as much as the first.

Before meeting his Blur bandmates in Morocco for Think Tank, Albarn spent months in Mali recording with local musicians including Toumani Diabaté. Mali Music (2002) gathered little attention in the British press, but it was praised by those already familiar with Malian sounds. Since then, Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré and Amadou & Mariam have taken Malian music worldwide. It might be a coincidence, or there might've been a push. Anyway, critics don't always take kindly to African sounds: Vampire Weekend get a lot of shit thrown at them for supposedly being "cultural tourists". How dare middle class Westerners be inspired by African music! That's all bullshit; but it's a persistent criticism, easy to cop, avoided by Albarn.

The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Mojo's Album of the Year in 2007, was Albarn with The Verve's Simon Tong, The Clash's Paul Simonon, and Fela Kuti's extraordinary drummer Tony Allen, himself one of the central figures of Nigerian music history. Shall I keep going? In 2008 Albarn and Hewlett created a musical stage show based on an ancient Chinese folk tale; Albarn composed the frequently beautiful score for Monkey Journey to the West.

Isn't this range remarkable? David Bowie is widely praised for his chameolonic tendencies: boho folk, to glam, to soul, to krautrock, to disco, to industrial. That is an impressive range, but those genres are all related, or at least neighbours in the same borough. Madonna gets similar praise for latching onto new fashions early and helping to boost them, in a self-propelling pop-culture-fashion-pop cycle. By 2005 Albarn had taken Blur from She's So High to Moroccan People's Revolutionary Bowls Club, and made an album of Malian music, and recorded two multi-platinum hip-hop(ish) records with guests like De La Soul, MF Doom, Roots Manuva, and Dennis bloomin' Hopper.

Now, Gorillaz are getting ready to release their third album, Plastic Beach, which includes guest spots from Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, and – if you've been following up til now you'll almost be expecting this – the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. No joke.

Is this really the same gurning lad who was leaping around miming "following the herd down to Greece" at the height of Britpop's pomp? It's hard to believe. Going to Greece is something he might do, but he certainly wouldn't be following anyone.