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By The Numbers: Ageism In Hip-Hop Doesn't Exist

The argument that rappers must lose relevance after a certain age is as old as hip-hop itself, and artists like Rakim, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, M...

Depeche Mode - Delta Machine

 7/10.

I'll always be perplexed by critics. Strictly speaking, I am one myself of course, falling quite comfortably into the 'those that can't do teach, those that can't do either critique'. But what I am referring to is the complexity of subjective opinion, and the way it blends in to objective conformity.

Let me explain. Depeche Mode are one of the great acts of all time. In terms of pioneers, they are absolute thoroughbreds, gracing a category inhabited by only the elite, such as Kraftwerk, Ramones, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Prince. These are just a few of the artists and bands that have shaped genres, defined sounds, and litter the influence list of yesterday and todays top musicians. Wikipedia writes that "Depeche Mode influenced many of today's popular recording artists, in part due to their recording techniques and innovative use of sampling." It's a little more complex than that. They shaped electronic music in a unique and wildly successful way, such that their sound has been copied and restrung for decades, all the while they have been busy selling 100 million records and being one of the most popular live bands of all time.

So we come back to my first sentence. Why in God's name are critics lining up to pan them about no longer being revolutionary? There are a tiny handful of bands who have managed to reinvent themselves and the direction of music throughout a career. The Beatles, Bowie, Pink Floyd. For the other mere mortals, pioneering a sound is hard enough work without having to do it every 5 years. No-one can deny that Depeche Mode have grown and evolved. From their delightful early pop work, simple synthesizer riffs pursued by crisp drum machine loops and Gahan's sometimes whispering, sometimes wailing dreams of life and musings on the world, they've weathered. A more industrial, heavy electronic sound created by dark reverbs, distorted keys, buried vocals, aggressive, urgent percussion developed. Even Rammstein cites DM as a source of inspiration. So they have evolved, but according to the musical press, not enough..

Delta Machine inhabits that metallic, industrial world that gently evolved and entered in to the bones and structure of DM records around Violator, and remained a mainstay throughout the rest of their career. Gahan and Gore are obsessed with their universe, it's a common theme, possibly a technique utilised to establish a grounded setting for records and their explorations of the human psyche, namely their own, and how it relates to those around them. We're always within their universe, and Welcome To My World ensures full disclosure. Gore is omnipotent, but menacing. I like to call Gahan and Gore the merchants of misery. With an effortless abandon they spread a sense of pessimism, even when not directly expressing the details of their dystopian universe. The opening track establishes this. The thumping 808 is almost a death knell, the keys only adding momentum to your descent in to the record. It's a descent. Everything is coloured with a lo-fi, dull tinge, and you know you won't glimpse the sun for the next 13 songs.

All that said, the first two tracks are easily the most dynamic on the record. Angel is Gore's 'attempt' at brightness. Gahan briefly transcends his morose baritone to extol the virtues of love. He never actually sounds happy, but he tells us he is, "The angel of love was upon me  / And Lord, I felt so high  / I swear I could have reached up  / Placed my hands upon the sky". That's a big deal, because we've already descended in to the pits of hell that is their world, and it's a bloody long way back up to the sky. The euro-dance beat with siren-like noise that accompanies this momentous occasion doesn't breathe life, rather it sucks it out of the statement, giving a sense that we're witnessing a broken soul trying to escape an insurmountable force.

Considering the next song is titled Heaven, you immediately assume Gahan has indeed completed his transformation from despair to happiness. Rather, it is a chilled tale of a God trying to recover from the body blows the music is dealing. That down trodden piano riff mixes with a heavily distorted guitar to create an image of Gahan staggering under the weight of some dark force as he tries to "guide the herd up to heaven". It's almost as if Gore wrote these upbeat lyrics and challenged Gahan to overcome the music in order to deliver the message, the contrast is staggering and quite destructive, it's brilliant.

On Playing The Angel, consequently one of my favourite records of all time, there were tracks like Macro, The Darkest Star and Damaged People that served as the liquor to colour the sugary delivery system of Suffer Well and Precious. On Delta Machine, it's all liquor. The effect is to create this harnessed, high walled structure in which Gahan and Gore inhabit together, although of course we know them as one voice (Gahan has 3 song writing credits, Secret To The End, Broken and Should Be Higher). The peppy yet stale sounding My Little Universe is Gore almost delighted in his surroundings, 'Here I am king  / I decide everything  / I let no one in  / No one'. He would sound child-like if not for Gahan's terse reading. Alone reinforces the (ironically) sobering effect that these  'liqour' songs have. A self-centred woe is me storyline is enhanced brilliantly by a wall of distorted guitar noise and broken, atmospheric synth injections. It'd now be too easy to confirm my point with the content of Soothe My Soul, a funkier number that explodes in menace during the chorus about the singular focus of the hunger of addiction. Too easy, but I just did it.

Gahan's voice is still a force to be reckoned with. He can dial in emotion seemingly at will. On Slow he is seductive, even sensual. The seemingly forgotten gift for melody resurfaces on Soft Touch/Raw Nerve, the poppiest track on the record, as his chorus actually injects some groove. It's only on The Child Inside, a minimalist electronic track that harks back to Ultra's more muted rhythms, that Gahan is upstaged by the surprisingly confident voice of Gore. The track exposes a delicate, concerned side. It's actually a brilliant song, the electronic backing doesn't sound descriptive but it is the warmest track on the record, a beating heart that adds weight to the content of a deeply depressed, lost individual. Gahan tries to make sense of the situation, but you sense a childlike quality in himself that blocks his understanding, and he despairs as the loved one slowly slips through his fingers. 

Delta Machine fittingly ends with a song called Goodbye. It's a 1980s thing I guess, Welcome and Goodbye. It's closest sibling is probably I Feel You, it had a similar energy and used a keyboard to achieve what those distorted guitars managed. Is it a love song? Difficult to say. But it is again insular. The theme will not be tasered by a happy ending.

Uncomfortable though it may be, Depeche Mode's days of influencing the landscape of contemporary music are well and truly over, they probably ended with Songs of Faith and Devotion. Within the realm of pop they have precious little power with which to make waves anymore. I don't see why this needs to be a source of frustration though. Bands like Sigur Ros defined a sound and rigidly stuck to it. History is filled with stories of pioneers who created and maintained a genre over their life-span. And if we examine one statistic, you may question the relevance this negative opinion, and it may reinforce the relavence of Depeche Mode. First week sales. UK: 28,450, US: 52,000, Germany: 142,000.. Now that's pretty bloody good for a few 50 year olds.

7/10. I have neglected to truly rate this album throughout the review. So here goes. It sits comfortably in their catalogue, it does the band and their legacy justice and proves their longevity. An extremely impressive longevity. That said, it lacks that pop sensibility that we have craved. Playing The Angel will always be a masterpiece in my mind, this is a different direction and a different focus. Heaven is a nice choice of single, Angel and Soft Touch/Raw Nerve do provide brief outlets, but that 1980s bubblegum pop noise is lost. This is not a criticism, the rhythm that DM find within misery and despair is admirable and highly enjoyable, and it serves to keep the record flowing when possibly it could fall short.
Best Tracks: Heaven, The Child Inside, Soft Touch/Raw Nerve

Quarterly Report Part 2: 10-1 top records from Q1 2013

So we've reached the end of Quarter 1 of 2013, and survived March Madness. Here are my picks for the top 1-10 records and mixtapes of the year so far.

1. Autechre - Exai (Autechre – Exai)

This dense, dark, industrial strength monster from the glitch kings proves to be the best record so far. It's such a never-ending well of ideas and thoughts you'd be forgiven for believing it can't ALL be good, but there isn't a single thought expressed that comes off as stale or ill-advised. There is weeks and months of intense listening hidden within these 2 hours, and each experience with it reveals further layers of noise. You can't help but appreciate the technical prowess and the sheer stamina that has gone in to crafting this colossus. From the soulful 80s synth of T ess xi to the pretty yet unnerving method similar synths are used on YJY UX, the intention is always to challenge, never to allow a settled rhythm of listening. There always exists that stabilising influence of yore, hip hop and dance, but it's buried behind manic levels of tampery. Even recks, sounding like something J Dilla produced, employs an odd staccato that disturbs the rhythm and turns the track in to some form of late 90s dance number.  Not for everyone, but if you are this way inclined, you'll find delight in every song everytime you revisit it, whether you choose to immerse yourself fully in the listening experience or prefer a background noise approach.
Best Tracks: T ess xi, recks on, jatevee C
Sounds Like?: Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Venetian Snares

2. John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts (John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts)

Stunning second solo LP from the witty renassiance man, Pale Green Ghosts builds beautifully on his debut via a plethora of new influences and a penchant for travelling down dark lyrical avenues. The Midlake-inspired subtlety is replaced by a confidence and electronic integrity that can only come from recording in Iceland, musics melting pot for beautiful sounds. As Grant's baritone addresses everything from addiction, love and AIDS to the dismissal of well forged vanity, producer Biggi Veira swirls around him like an electrical storm, soaring from stadium filling EDM to dense 4am balladry. The title track harks back to Kraftwerk, and fans of the journeyman approach will love Grant as he channels a weird, medicated Johnny Cash vibe. He still revists the astounding influence Midlake had on him during the recording process of his first record, on I Hate This Town his jaunty delivery matches a light and airey country bumpkin nutter. The balladry is also effective, hard-luck love stories and deep, thoughtful moods are explored on tracks like It Doesn't Matter To Him. For a man once so withdrawn that he wouldn't face the audience he was performing for, every track on here is bathed in personality. The album is an absolute must listen.
Best Tracks: Glacier, Ernest Borgnine, I Hate This Town
Sounds Like?: Matthew E. White, New Order, Depeche Mode

3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away)

The king of violence Nick Cave returns from Grinderman duties to hook up with his more subdued friends The Bad Seeds. At times he sounds like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, his calmness and serenity as he delivers his threats and slightly unnerving observations paints him as the perfect anti-hero. Not so much a stylistic left-turn as a general reduction in volume, the band who wrote Murder Ballads still has teeth, they're just slightly withdrawn. The menacing We Real Cool and the sprawling, rising Higgs Boson Blues prove these guys can still ROCK, but their judgement on when to do so and when to soften makes this a stunning exercise in restriction and restraint, and allows Cave to take centre stage, which is where he belongs. He even references Miley Cyrus on a long and winding road of thoughts and musings. On Jubilee Street he even addresses his moral shortcomings rather than embracing them, with lines like 'The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page' and 'I ought to practice what I preach'. On the same track, he transforms in to some form of demonic being though. Such is the weird and wonderful way of Nick Cave. Push The Sky Away will intrigue and shock.
Best Tracks: We Real Cool, Higgs Boson Blues, Jubilee Street
Sounds Like?: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Dirty Three

4. The Drones - I See Seaweed (The Drones – I See Seaweed)

Australia's most complex and technically gifted lyrical purveyor Gareth Liddiard paints swathes of meaning over the top of some barely bridled aggression provided by his talented bandmates. The man likes to be taken seriously, and you'll do just that as he walks us through his reflections on subjects as varied as moats, Google street view and The Vatican. Happiness is absent, and Liddiards punk drawl blends perfectly with the latent aggression that regularly spills over in to full blown war. The enormity of the man's subject matter comes to the fore on Laika, a song about the first dog in space, propelled by the Russians. If that feels overwhelming, the stunning closer Why Write A Letter You'll Never Send is Liddiard's ticket to the madhouse, a rolling traipse through his inner musings that hides the best lyric of the year, 'each headland masks the next'. It embodies the desperation and untamed despair of the record. The delicious intent of Kitschin and co escapes its flimsy cage on A Moat You Can Stand In, and for 4:23 everyone in the Annandale Hotel will go absolutely ballistic until there is blood on the floor and a plenitude of brain cells lost to the night. It's downright punk insanity, yet Liddiard adds a touch of Cloud Nothings to ensure madness doesn't reduce that melody. This record is a future Aussie classic.
Best Tracks: How To See Through Fog, I See Seaweed, Laika
Sounds Like?: Grinderman, Black Flag, The Stooges

5. Bilal - A Love Surreal (Bilal – A Love Surreal)

Half D'Angelo chill-neo-soul, half Prince guitar-based funkery tinged with Bobby Womack levels of loss, A Love Surreal can be enjoyed or experienced, but nothing less. I wrote on Beardfood.com: 'Bilal channels his inner Prince to deliver neo-soul drenched in lo-fi grooves. Halting jazz gives way to 70s funk and smooth contemporary balladry, but laid-back turns to soul stomp in a blink. Not always the main event, Bilal croons, roars and at times soars, varying styles to enhance his subject matter. Authentic, smooth, good for the soul.' It's such a refreshing feeling to know that in 2013 music like this is still being made, a throwback to the roots of neo-soul propelled by a production process harnessing the fresh edge of live band instrumentation and a soul-man who finally finds his voice after 4 albums. How Do We Get Back To Love is a sensual dream, and the drum and bass sounds so fresh you'd swear The Roots were in the studio with him. The funk infusion of West Side Girl betrays Bilal's attempted portrayal of a lad not in the same class bracket as his target woman, his smooth, supple tones can't hide his inherent quality and upper-east side demeanour. Slipping Away is the stunner of the year, and showcases that not only can the man entertain, he can inform and relate as well. The second half of the record brilliantly deals with loss and desperation, but Bilal rescues us on occasion with an unbridled optimism that belies his age. Stunning, smooth, beautiful.
Best Tracks: Slipping Away, Back To Love, West Side Girl
Sounds Like?: Jamiroquai, D'Angelo, Prince

6. Problem & IAMSU! - Million Dollar Afro (Problem & IAMSU! - Million Dollar Afro) free mixtape

Mixtapes, really good ones, have been as rare as quality hip-hop LPs so far this year, but thankfully these two have come along with a relaxed attitude and an absolutely beasting production list. In a world where quality control has taken a distant backseat to vast quantity, Problem & Iamsu actually sound like they've taken their time on this. Problem in particular sounds fresher than I've ever heard, dropping calmly on to every beat and destroying it. The production steers clear of the EDM synths littering the airwaves and allows free reign to the duo who duly respond. Understand Me gleams like a brand new Bentley, the Juvenile featured 100 Grand harks back to Southern raps rise in the late 90s and even Wiz Khalifa gets bodied, IAMSU! delivers the choice line 'hit the dick before I give the bitch my Government'. Don't miss the AWESOME Wassup with legendary Too $hort, the beat will blow your speakers and $hort's verse will.. well, what every $hort verse does 'I tell a bitch exactly what I want, lick my dick from round the back to the front'. IAMSU and Problem match him sick line for sick line, 'plus I got bread and cheese like a calzone'. The whole record smacks of confidence and rewindable one-liners. You need a pen and a pad listening to this. Don't forget Problem & IAMSU! were on that killer E-40 classic Function. Think of this as a whole fucking album of that. The production steers clear of the EDM synths littering the airwaves and allows free reign to the duo who duly respond.
Best Tracks: Understand Me, 100 Grand, That Nigga
Sounds Like: Too $hort, E-40, Juvenile

7. Serengeti - Saal (Serengeti – Saal)

The reigning master of mope, Serengeti returns with a piece that veers away from traditional hip hop definition and more towards desperate poet mixed with soft folk singer. The spoken word moments punctuate his admirable melodic capabilities with doses of sobering reality. We're dealing with the difficult side of life. Serengeti strikes you as more than just a struggling soul. He may deal in frank observation, but behind those despairing eyes lies a mind working overtime to manufacture ways out of the rabbit hole. Still, his subject matter deals with experience and reality. On Karate Serengeti is battling an aggressive and overwrought older woman, on Wedding he hauntingly sings about attending the wedding of his lost love in disguise, and on Erotic City he digs in the murky depths of the stories that make up a cities underbelly, 'she was crying in the abortion clinic, her pimps name was British, he was a mean son of a bitch, who always hated tennis'. The production is stellar, ducking and weaving between morose, downbeat tempos to fleetingly poppy synth structures, such as on Seasons, a rare ray of sunshine, and the pulsing synths driving the relentless Friends. It's no beach soundtrack, but you'll experience moments that will have you desperately reaching for it.
Best Tracks: Karate, Seasons, Friends
Sounds Like: Destroyer, Sage Francis, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone

8. Birds Of Tokyo - March Fires (Birds Of Tokyo – March Fires)

Smooth edged, stadium level pop rock hasn't come in a better package this year. Australian slammers Birds Of Tokyo have again dialled back their heavier tendencies, but the result is such a good one you can't criticise. The explosions of This Fire, a jaded man considering a dramatic removal from the city he has grown irritated and tired with, the melancholic opener Liquid Arms, an ode to the sweet healing embrace of alcohol, and the call to arms of Lanterns, a stunning journey of a man energised and envigorated by an inner passion to change an unhealthy and degrading mindset forge a brilliant pop landscape. Then, there os density of Boy, a lost and helpless middle aged man searching fruitlessly for a wondrous and enchanting childhood, and intricacy of Blume, a left-field number with shades of Snow Patrol's You Could Be Happy we're treated to a verdant array of sounds and emotions. Tormented though he may be, Kenny's efforts to change and take control are valiant and admirable. Melody is always at the forefront, and even the sing-along choruses refuse to feel tacky, they just enhance the enjoyment. Added to all of this is the ride that singer Ian Kenny takes us on through his at times tortured mind. His mood swings border on manic, and it's hard not to get dragged in to his world despite the relatively toothless sonics. Definitely an album of layers, just pick your mood and interact accordingly.
Best Tracks: This Fire, Lanterns, Boy
Sounds Like?: Cursive, The Killers, Dappled Cities

9. Atoms For Peace - AMOK (Atoms For Peace – AMOK)

It's a new Radiohead album. Plain and simple. Thom Yorke may be incapable of shaking the iconic sound of the band, but thankfully those around him mould and shape it in to an edgy, concise package that delivers a surprising amount of groove (thank you Flea) and a bounty of rolling synthesizer work from Godrich that bleeds in to infectious rhythm. You'd be surprised that driving along listening to this, you may occasionally break in to spontaneous, slow limb flailing, like Peter Garrett on valium, the mastery and trickery of Yorke and Godrich's electronic work is such you'll not even notice till the end of the song. Added on to this is Yorke's trademark lyrical brilliance, his anxious, self-deprecating, self-doubting emotions are sometimes lost amongst the noise, a blatant and effective technique, but when you do focus on his content, especially on tracks like Default, ' 'I'm still hanging on / Bird upon the wires / I fall between the waves', the mood elevates those twitchy, math rock building blocks the band uses to really forge a strong song-writing platform. AMOK is not a varied release, but when viewed amongst it's contemporaries, Grimes, How To Dress Well, Toro Y Moi, it sparkles.
Best Tracks: Best Tracks: Default, Unless, Stuck Together Pieces
Sounds Like: Grimes,  James Blake, Radiohead 

10. Free Energy - Love Sign (Free Energy – Love Sign)

Love Sign delivers on the promise housed within that band name. First impressions were fun (the band) without the belting, grating vocals and overwrought melodies injected with steroids to appeal to the Glee generation. Rather, Love Sign promises a more laid-back listen, there's no cynicism or blatant cash-grabbing super-stage, and yet if you heard these tracks on the radio you'd be forgiven for thinking they're a solid gold pop band. Guitar based pop rock, that blends uncomplicated riffs with conventional drum and bass and the delightful licks, solos and general padding that Scott Wells provides on lead, the entire album is constantly moving forward. Even the less than impressive capacity of vocalist Sprangers adds to the energy of the songs, his exuberance more than makes up for lack of technique. Dance All Night showcases his story telling, morose side with a piercing number about (what else?) lost love and moving on, whilst Hangin is just awesome jock rock, chanelling KISS Sprangers takes us back to carefree college, when girls were all that mattered. The whole record personifies that relaxed nature towards everything but love, and celebrates the way our happiness can be tied to something as simple as your crush saying yes.
Best Tracks: Dance All Night, Hey Tonight, Hangin
Sounds Like: Fun, KISS, Kings Of Leon, anything indie rock

Quarterly Report Part 1: 20 - 11 top records from Q1 2013

Albums 20 - 11 from the first quarter of 2013.

11. Foals - Holy Fire (Foals – Holy Fire)

The Math Rock merchants return from their haunting LP Total Life Forever with Holy Fire, a record that revists the old punk philosophy of to make it better make it LOUDER. I think Foals are well aware that they've ascended the staircase of British alternative music and entered the hallowed halls of royalty, rubbing shoulders with the countless great bands that inhabit these upper echelons. Simply put, there is now always pressure on them. It starts curiously, the initial 2 minutes actually bring to mind Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose's brilliant soundtrack to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Darker, danker, much more menacing than anything I've heard from them. Those dirty guitars enter and it feels like an aggressive, beasting track. It sets the tone for the entire record. Where Foals previous two albums have sounded light, airey, even dainty at times, this has much more substance to it, a sound rooted much deeper in Funk Rock, a genre largely discarded save for a few very high profile resuscitation jobs. That's not to say their overall objective has changed dramatically. Holy Fire feels much rawer, most bands usually release their less restrained work at the beginning of their career but here Foals revert to the 90s Grunge epidemic and channel their inner teenage selves. It's a compelling contrast to Total Life Forever and Antidotes. Propelled by the anthemic singles Inhaler and My Number, and tempered by atmospheric Out Of The Woods, the Spanish Sahara moment, with Yannis ditching any facades and discussing his journey from despair to greener pastures. Catchiness is an unavoidable symptom of all work they do, and it is a quality that is embraced rather than contained.
Best Tracks:  Out Of The Woods, Inhaler, Milk & Black Spiders, My Number
Sounds Like: Radiohead, Everything Everything, The Maccabees

12.  Dawn Richard - Goldenheart (Dawn Richard – Goldenheart)

My love of modern R&B knows no bounds. Dawn Richard comes to us during a fertile period for the entire genre, roots and all, and her previous experience with big labels and BIG hit makers, such as Bad Boy and Diddy, shine through but never stand in the way of the woman herself. She serenades me. A toned down Santigold, with no less gift or talent. The whole album surges along with an inherent energy that Richard provides at all times. Return Of A Queen, Riot, Warfare. This is a woman engaging in the fight of her life. It’s all about love, but this is no Taylor Swift/Adele croon along. She rarely sounds vulnerable, her voice oozes strength. I don’t want to tussle with this woman. Then she flips the entire script on closer Goldenheart. It has her desperately remembering the past, an urgent need to be there. It’s instantly relatable, and the use of Clair de lune by Debussey perfectly complements her rose-tinted view of the past she longs for. Brilliant closer.
Best Tracks: Riot, Warfare, Goldenheart
Sounds Like: Santigold, Solange, Kelly Rowland


 13. David Bowie - The Next Day (David Bowie – The Next Day)

The Next Day is not intended to make any statements, it doesn't exist as a testament to contemporary times nor does it house any revolutionary or even evolutionary content. For someone who has been instrumental in shaping pop music, this record is the perfect outward projection of a man contented and happy. Furthermore, it comes from a 66 year old man who has achieved all he surely set out to. There is no need for this record, but we thank the musical gods he was bitten by the bug again. Less rambunctious than his last LP Reality, Bowie is thoughtful and outwardly focused, only letting us in to his inner workings on the balladry of Where Are We Now? and once on If You Can See Me, claiming he has 'a fear of rear windows'. That's ok, his keen sense of history and thirst for knowledge mean he is never short on content, the brilliant I'd Rather Be High seeing him step in to the boots of a WWII infantryman and You Feel So Lonely You Could Die he displays a cold, emotionless honesty in describing how one reacts to the depression of someone close to them. Bowie is timeless, his most recent albums always seem to sit comfortably within the contemporary landscape without adhering to any rules or trends. The same is true of The Next Day.
Best Tracks: Where Are We Now?, I'd Rather Be High, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
Sounds Like?: David Bowie!  

14. Ra Ra Riot - Beta Love (Ra Ra Riot – Beta Love)

Ra Ra Riot's cheesy, indie/electro pop has never enticed me before Beta Love, yet now everything I didn't really like seems to have been the inspiration for the creation of an energetic blast through 11 bright and bubbly party starters. Well I say 11, there are moments of lull, yet these, When I Dream for example, brilliantly utilise vast quantities of produced music to create a comforting, lush environment in which Wes Miles can put forth his still poppy love musings. 'When I dream it's not of you'. Beta Love is Digitalism on ecstasy, Angel, Please the perfect example, the strings and Miles' falsetto- approaching bleet reach for the stars from nowhere, and you're swept up inside it. Beta Love is a stunning summer soundtrack starter. Binary Mind is jittery in the same way Atoms For Peace are, yet Miles' gift for melody ensures it wouldn't be out of place on the local dance floor at 10pm. The refreshing thing is the lack of EDM synth mush, this is much closer to the Devo's and the Depeche Mode's of the 80s than the Gaudino's and the Felix's.
Best Tracks: Binary Mind, Beta Love, Angel, Please
Sounds Like: 80s synth pop, Digitalism, Devo, Erasure

15. Juelz Santana - God Willin' (Juelz Santana - God Willin')

Who cares where Juelz Santana has been for the last 5 years, he's back now and he sounds as fresh-faced as he did as a 19 year old on Hey Ma. God Willin' may not be what the game has been missing, but it's a damn fine return. His ferocious, aggressive delivery has in no way been dimmed, he sounds positively menacing on Bad Guy, and his clarity of voice, developed during the early 2000s when radio hits demanded such a skill, is a sight to behold next to Yo Gotti on Clickin. It's akin to watching HD TV after you've been cursed with SD, and it's ironic that it takes a man who hasn't released anything meaningful since 2005 to dispense it. The production is bog-standard 2012 fare, but it serves to highlight that Santana does bring a different quality to the mic compared with the Gucci Mane's and the Waka Flocka Flame's of the world. He even indulges in a rare showing of mortality on My Will, 'Just in case I get killed tonight / I'm writing my will tonight', 'Everyday is a fight, thrilla in manila / And if I die I pray for my killer'. Refreshing if fleeting. Never tiring, either, with 18 songs and 15 guest spots, including a lifeline thrown to Jim Jones, a delicious trip down memory lane on Turn It Up with Lloyd Banks and a focused, dynamic performance from Lil Wayne on standout track Black Out, Juelz has plenty of help. Not that he needs it, this is straight fire.
Best Tracks: Bad Guy, Black Out, Soft
Sounds Like?: You're favourite early 2000s pop rappers over the top of sparkling 2013 production

16. Rhye - Woman (Rhye – Woman)

My recent re-discovery of the genre of soul was enhanced wonderfully when Rhye released Woman.  Like a warm coffee shop on a bitterly cold winters day, Woman embraces you gently, hands you something warm and slowly ushers you in to oblivion for 36 minutes. The production flits around various historical influences, utilising 70s funk, 80s pop and synth sensibilities especially on the slightly bombastic flourishes of Last Dance, as well as fervently mining the work that defined trip hop from artists such as Massive Attack, Portishead and even Zero 7. There is a healthy mix of horns and strings that entice rather than enslave the listener to a particular mood or setting. However rather than anchoring too firmly in relaxation, the tempo is always slinking forwards. Over the top of all this, Michael Milosh, yes I said Michael, lays thick layers of smooth, soul-infused vocals detailing romantic, erotic moods that capture the obsessed honeymoon phase of love brilliantly. Never complicated, Milosh discards convoluted thoughts for a less is more approach similar to the xx, using his voice equally as a tool for expression and an extra instrument. Share a hot chocolate and some honeymoon love with Rhye, it's an absolute haven.
Best Tracks: The Fall, Last Dance, 3 Days
Sounds Like: Sade, Morcheeba, Zero 7

17. Jim James - Regions Of Light And Sound Of God (Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God)

Jim James is, and rightfully so at times, accused of not cherishing a gift. His voice is one of the most iconic in modern music, it's flawless qualities stunningly on display for anyone lucky enough to witness My Morning Jacket live in concert. A solo album then appears to be the perfect canvas on which to spread his vocal wings and treat us. Unfortunately, whilst we are blessed to hear its full glory on occasion, such as the haunting opener State Of The Art and the oddball All Is Forgiven, too often he retreats in to that MMJ mindset of burying his voice behind layers of sound and reverb. Still, it doesn't detract from the overall listening experience of this project. Journeying in to the mind of James we're greeted with this manic desire for control, from the ardent statement of the rejection of technology on the opener to his confident assurance to a troubled loved one on Dear One, 'Dear one, you always pushed the boundaries of my soul / We fly found love and finally gained control' and his sea-change dreams on A New Life. Packaging all this is an odd mix of sounds, James seems to leap from roots and all soul singer, languidly delivering over rising strings and guitars, to left field Middle Eastern influences that includes a severely over worked Oboe. Still, it creates an interesting mix, you won't be bored!
Best Tracks: State Of The Art (A.E.I.O.U.), A New Life, Know Til Now
Sounds Like: Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Matthew E. White

18.  Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse (Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse)

Never allow stereotypes to get in the way of good music. I had a friend who loved Frightened Rabbit, but I hated my friend. Therefore I hated Frightened Rabbit. Insanity. Pedestrian Verse is an exercise in the other side of UK alternative music. Big, giant sounding rock records, chasing the ever vanishing tale of U2. But Frightened Rabbit don't let that disappearing dream sour the experience, rather they relax and allow their insane guitars to breach the stratosphere and truly, well and truly, rock. If their live shows are anywhere close to their potential, dazed hipsters will be wandering around thinking they've just had a religious experience, similar to what you find after a Script gig. Centring the project is Scott Hutchison, who, if you're weary of elevated heart rates and sore hands from using your steering wheel as a drum kit, can finally deliver a matured version of every Scottish man's pillars: Love, War, Religion. On Backyard Skulls he is at his most venemous, digging amongst the muck of history and exposing the atrocities of those past. On Late March, Death March, he sings 'I cursed in church again, and the hand-claps all fell quiet / I watched the statue of you cry' as he struggles internally with a blatant split from religion that filled his younger life. This is Frightened Rabbit's best release, and I fear it may grow on me ever further as the year progresses.
Best Tracks: Woodpile, Holy, Acts Of Man
Sounds Like? Arcade Fire, Foals, U2

19. A$AP Rocky - LONG.LIVE.A$AP (A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP (Deluxe Version)

Kenrick Lamar's influence may yet be seen for decades to come, yet already, merely months after his groundbreaking LP, A$AP Rocky has delivered a gem that, inadvertently giving the timings, follows GKMC's legendary blueprint. A more apt way to describe it would be the influence of the Black Hippy movement, and the idea now that records need to be crafted from all angles. To write a modern day classic it is no longer enough to enlist Pharrell and Dr. Dre and spit 16 of your best over whatever they come up with. Producers need to be handled carefully, an aesthetic needs to be built and maintained, and a theme needs to endure. We knew A$AP had the ability to invite us in to his VIP lounge with his slight drawl and laid-back delivery when Purple Swag came out. On LONG.LIVE.A$AP, he delivers an entire album that expertly mixes new age techniques from Clams Casino and T-Minus with genuine old school hard headedness, like the brilliant Fuckin' Problems or the 90s throwback 1Train, which even manages to survive a Yelawolf guest spot. There's even a beasting Skrillex number, you'll be rolling without rolling. Rocky doesn't scale the lyricals peaks that Lamar managed, he remains moored in the waters of drugs, girls, and money. When he does address the less glamorous side of life it is usually him languishing in the pursuit of fame or mired in its pitfalls, although the very first line is 'I thought I'd probably die in prison', which is a sobering yet slightly optimistic thought to being your first album with. It is an excellent record, well worth the wait, and the star-studded guest list is testament to the potential Rocky has.
Best Tracks: PMW, Fuckin' Problems, 1Train
Sounds Like: Black Hippy (Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar)


20. Curren$y - New Jet City (Curren$y - New Jet City) free mixtape

I've been listening to Curren$y's newest offering whilst running. This may seem extremely counter-productive, as Spitta's dulcet, weed-haze music seems like the antithesis to a high intensity work out. It actually provides the perfect escape. The instant you switch on his music you join his world, a wonderful fantasy land where all anxiety seeps away and you're almost meditative such is the hypnotic nature of his drone perfect flow. Much is written about the man's propensity towards a pre-determined sound. Whether Curren$y sets out directly to achieve this goal on each project, or whether it comes in to being as part of his process is unclear. He has an inherent gift to ride any beat. His hook work on NJC is focused and effective, and lyrically he is, as usual, witty, dry, dismissing, matching his guests (for the most) on wordplay. As Lil Wayne drifts deeper in to the abyss of a drug-addled mind, Spitta seems to have struck the perfect balance. He cuts through the weed haze when need be, but mainly likes to be viewed obscured by it.
Best Tracks: Three 60, Mary, These Bitches 
Sounds Like?: Whiz Khalifa, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q

 

Lil Wayne - I Am Not A Human Being II

 5.5/10

I have a very good friend who reminds me greatly of Lil Wayne. No, he isn't a rapper, but he said something to me a few weeks ago as we sat together on a friends bed. He simply remarked, with a wry chuckle, 'I burned out'. He is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met, and, for the majority of the time we knew each other, the hardest worker. Bar none. He was top of the tree. Working in Finance, he spent his first 3 years finishing an insanely hard degree whilst working full time (a degree that took me 5 and a half years), then after graduation continued to chase even harder qualifications whilst working even longer hours. Then one day he was made redundant. That was 18 months ago, and he has not worked a day since. He burned out. He's 24.

It saddens me greatly to say it, but Lil Wayne has walked a similar path. His back story is legendary. Between 2004 and 2008, he released 3 stunning, classic LPs. And I mean classics, they will be viewed as such in time. Tha Carter's I through III. III especially is one of the greatest hip-hop releases of all time. During these years he also released a slew of critically acclaimed mixtapes, starting with Da Drought in 03 up to No Ceilings in 09, which included the world-beating Dedication 2, generally regarded as the best mixtape of all time. And yes, there's more. Countless, and I mean countless, guest spots. For about 5 years he barely slept by all accounts, and old-timers like 2 Chainz have testified to his work ethic, saying he is the hardest worker in the industry.

Fuelled by Syrup and Weed, his claims of I am not a human were almost under-stated. The only misstep was Dedication 3. But by the time Tha Carter IV came around, alarm bells began to ring. By no means a poor release, and sparked to Platinum status via the brilliant single How To Love, Weezy began to sound, for the first time ever, sloppy. Considering his prolific output up to then, you'd be amazed at his quality control. Contemporaries like Gucci Mane and Lil B are just as prolific, but sifting through their myriad of releases to find the gems is like finding the grain of sugar in a mountain of salt. Lil Wayne never had that issue.

As his behaviour and music became increasingly erratic, many questioned his 'dedication'. And rightfully so. Talks of retirement were rife, and his incarceration spawned the flawed but passable I Am Not A Human Being, as well as Sorry 4 The Wait. Rebirth was a write-off. Dedication 4 was a delightful romp but at no stage did Wayne surpass the original tracks he was rapping over. By 2013, the once great man was basically pronounced dead on Twitter days before the release of IANAHB II. He had officially burnt out.

IANAHB kicks it all off, and it's an extremely promising start. An odd producer selection, ELEW (Eric Lewis), spawns a rolling piano epic upon which Weezy lays some vintage era rhymes with a stunning ear for flow, giving the track an epic, stadium filling effect. There's some severe crassness, lines like 'I stick it in her ass like some fucking steroids', or '90 billion bitches on my dick like a skewer', but his focus and dexterity are a sight to behold, he speaks truth when he remarks 'No rubber, I just fucked this piano'. Even the second song, the Future inspired Curtains, is on point. There are few artists who can pull auto-tune off anymore, and Wayne's foray in to it in the past (read: Dedication 3) has been chequered, but on this it gives him this hallucinogenic quality. He's rapping from out of space, spazzing out. He even introduces a rare moment of clarity, 'Spent my birthday in jail, I was making bad decisions'. You warm to it, he doesn't sound like a human being. Has Lil Wayne come back?

Umm.. Not quite. Rather than treat us to the bounty of scattered insights we recieved on Tha Carter III, or the insanely driven and aggressive manner in which he destroyed competition on Tha Carter II, we're delivered a rolling mass of sex, drugs and violence delivered in single doses. In fact, someone has taken the time to document all 80 similes used on the record. Lines are just grabbed out of the ether and thrown at you, whether they make any sense or not. It results in the most confusing rabble of a rap album I've ever heard. On Days and Days he raps 'Pussy on my mind, on my breath and on my fingers / Niggas try to bite my style, but my style a jalepeno / I got skinny ass jeans, trucks on the pocket / Money talks, nigga, I'm caught up in that gossip / You know all my bitches badder, and all my swishas fatter / I milk this shit like cattle, that's my word like Scrabble'. Yes these are back to back bars. On Beat The Shit he rhymes 'They say we all gotta pay the price / Fuck it, man - ring me up / Fuckin' right I skate, ho - pussy is my scapegoat'. The fact that you can find his lyrics on Rap Genius is a joke, I don't think even Wayne can explain his ramblings. These are of course lowlights I am showing, but they just make the record feel like a mixtape. Lil B does this too, as does Gucci Mane and a colossal number of other DatPiff warriors. None with as much wit as Wayne of course, but it begs the question why it wasn't just released as a mixtape.

The reason I say that is two fold. Firstly, his lackadaisical attitude towards his record has been well documented. Apart from announcing an impending retirement, he has more than once declared his boredom with rap and a desire to skate more. From a man once so scrupulously dedicated to his craft, why put out something less than his worth? The second reason is there are 6 or 7 truly excellent tracks on this record, songs that are worthy of carrying the pre-2009 nameplate. No Worries, first introduced during the Dedication 4 mixtape, is an insane auto-tuned romp that absolutely went off at the 2012 VMAs. IANAHB and Curtains have already been mentioned. God Bless Amerika, standard political fare, again sees Wayne in a zone he relishes, when he actually emotes on a track it makes for compelling listening. Lines like 'Everybody wanna tell me what I need / You can play a role in my life but not the lead' and 'Granted we do it for vanity not humanity' punctuate a truly strong frame of mind. There's a thoughtful human being in there, and it's so refreshing to see it.

Trippy, a beasting affair orchestrated by Juicy J (who should've left his verse at home) sees Wayne walk us through his vast drug addictions that has you constantly hitting the rewind button to catch his fractured thoughts, 'I graduated to better drugs, my cap and gown on / Don't knock me off my high horse, what I do is my choice'. Rich As Fuck is the best track on the record. T-Minus sets it off with a delightful halting, spacey synth number that has Wayne inspired, his one line thoughts are more insightful and cutting, his voice swirls and catches the beat as 2 Chainz, who's hook is only 4 lines, still manages to inject his inherent energy acapella. Love Me is even a decent track, Future saves it with his trademark auto-tuned funk contrasting with Drakes deadpan delivery, and if you hear Mike Will Made It at the start of a track it's a sure thing.

The thing is, technically, Wayne is one of the most gifted and class leading rappers in the world. His flow is never off and he displays such diversity on the beat. Beat The Shit displays his impactful spitting whilst Trigger Finger harks back to Carter II where he demolishes beats with a relentless string of detached maliciousness. Even on Wowzers, a truly awful track, his cadence is admirable, and the simplicity of Soulja Boy's piano and snare is no match for his melodic tendencies. I think Wayne probably knew his lyrics were going to let him down here. His uncaring nature didn't extend to his competitive acumen. Drake doesn't have a verse, Nicki only has one (which she murders Wayne on), and 2 Chainz has a verse. No Kanye, no Eminem, no Jay-Z, no Gucci Mane, no Mack Maine, not even Tyga. Gunplay, 2 Chainz, Nicki, Corey Gunz, Big Sean and even protege Boo all deliver better verses than Wayne. He only manages to body Juicy J, Soulja Boy (Duh) and Gudda Gudda lyrically. The end of an era? Mixtape era Weezy was challening Jay-Z on his biggest ever tracks. 2013 Weezy can't even take down Corey Gunz..

5.5/10. This is Lil Wayne we're talking about here. By no means is this a total write-off. But it's a desperately depressing release. You're witnessing the decline of one of raps greats. He's had ample opportunity to prove he can still cut the same swathe through rap music he did in the mid-2000s, and he continues to disappoint. Just like my good friend I mentioned earlier, he has well and truly burnt out. It's time to focus on his skating. As for a summary, IANAHB II should've been a mixtape. Beat selection, technical prowess and 6 or 7 extremely good songs and some typical insane quotables save this release from total anonymity. Will it even go platinum? I doubt it.
Best Tracks: IANAHB, Rich As Fuck, God Bless Amerika





Bilal - A Love Surreal

 8.5/10

Bilal came to me in an hour of need. I'm not saying it was a spiritual experience, but with his heavy soul tendencies I won't deny there was some spirituality in it. The problem with tasking yourself with the at times overwhelming objective of digesting copious amounts of new music in order to write a semi-functioning blog about it is that you eventually become jaded and bored. An unavoidable mindset, and certainly not conducive to critical review. Experiencing such a moment recently, I was hunting around desperately for something to listen to, to soothe my aching ears. I happened upon Bilal.

The career of this man began unconventionally in the strict neo-soul mould, but recent trends in hip-hop and R&B music have seen a close alignment with the way Bilal has plied his trade and what is currently in vogue. Releasing just 3 records (plus an additional unreleased one, due to label issues), in 12 years is slow. It's glacially slow. However Bilal's work ethic is more in tune with someone like The-Dream than D'Angelo. He has churned out an impressive resume of appearance credits between records, incorporating everyone from Jay-Z and Beyonce to Clipse and Solange. He even appeared on a Daedelus track. So fans haven't been short changed, but it is nice to finally get a new long player.

Now I say that he came to me in an hour of need, and you may very well find yourself echoing my statement. A Love Surreal is a wonderfully smooth affair, it is soul tonic for the tortured mind. Whereas his debut, 1st Born Second, was a hip-hop hybrid number, and his second, Airtight's Revenge, was the closest you'll get to Prince without actually trawling through his impressive catalogue, A Love Surreal is a much more settled piece. Gone is the over-reliance on heavier, distorted funk/rock guitar and the harder-edged collaborations with the likes of Common and Mos Def, as well as the slightly ill-advised Dr. Dre dalliances, replaced by wonderfully grooved electric jazz pianos, Roots-like percussive integrity and spacey digital funk. Coupled with the prevalence of a much more considered approach to the guitars, which create atmosphere rather than inject edgier venom, a smoother sound is produced. And of course, a singer who finally feels like he's fronting the kind of organic soul music he is at home with. Despite his production capabilities being harnessed by Clipse and Jay-Z and his hire-a-hook side job in the hip hop world, this is where Bilal sounds most comfortable, in that beautiful late 80s - early 90s perma haze of groove tinged with Prince-levels of experimental soul.

Nowhere is this more obvious than West Side Girl. Bilal creates a track dripping with cool, a phat (yes), low-down throwback that harks back to, of all artists, Jamiroquai, if slightly muted. Rather than sounding dated or dusty, it's almost refreshing. 'Hey, how’d you do it? / You got me back up, on my 90’s kick, yeah', and thank god for that, although it isn't strictly true, as during the 90s Bilal was rolling with Common and Black Thought. His harmonising is a feature of the record and is introduced early. The chorus sees him snap momentarily out of his James Dean coolness to approach a falsetto but it fails to raise the heart rate of the song in to triple figures. The same is true of lead single Back To Love, the third track. If you didn't know better you'd say it was Questlove gracing the skins, such is the authenticity of the beat. Whether this was done intentionally, maybe Bilal wanted to make something more organic than the myriad of highly produced sounds in the contemporary R&B landscape, or whether it was just his preference, the use of live instrumentation in the majority of the recording process is a welcome breath of fresh air. On Back To Love it results in a track that sounds so crisp and new, the jazzy electronics that would normally be slathered on something like this gives way for a live band atmosphere. You're in the room with Bilal, it's friday night, it's smokey, you're alone, and you're about to text your girl, 'Baby, come here!  / Let me kiss your temple, breath in your ear'.

It's this youthful exuberance from a man on the wrong side of 30 that endears. On Back To Love he sounds like he is 17, literally exclaiming 'Making reservations back to love / Your happiness is what I'm for! / ..down to Spain / Into Morocco, Marrakesh'. That same vibe is carried over in to Winning Hand, a beautiful bassline powers an uncomplicated percussion rhythm, as Bilal croons over a dirty guitar 'Baby your winning hand/ A game change, I’m on the roll'. The metaphor may be slightly 3rd grade but the sincerity is by no means phoned in.

Beyond Winning Hand, things take a slightly darker turn, as if he turned off Justin Timberlake and placed the needle on Gil Scott-Heron. A higher focus on marauding, desolute sounding electric guitars, and a more sombre delivery from Bilal signify a disparate change of mood from the opening few songs, the darkness has descended. Longing And Waiting manages to inject a hint of panic in to the atmosphere as Bilal croons 'we got a lot of catching up to do,  / and I'm longing and waiting / I'm longing and waiting.' Never Be The Same sounds nostalgic, as if it was recorded in 1972, there is an opaque quality to it, as if you're listening through a time machine. The lyrics enhance this mood, 'It’s been about a year and a month / Living in a black hole'. It's dark, and unexpected after the optimism Bilal has shown through the early part of the record.

Slipping Away is the greatest marker of the sea change on this record. It's a stunning, knife edge thriller in which Bilal exhibits his vocal dexterity. It reminds me of the descent in to madness scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, the whole thing crashes as insane rising guitar licks engulf Bilal's tortured screams. He doesn't articulate any thoughts past the 4 minute mark, but his desperate wailing enrages the whole affair. The start of the song, 'your love is, slipping away / For a while / I see it in your eyes / And in your voice' is the clear change in focus from playful, joyful days to severe pessimism. One of the best tracks of the year.

This is a trend that is common through Lost For Now, Astray, Never Be The Same and Climbing, certainly not rays of sunshine, punctuated by soulful, soaring guitars and despondent moods. Butterfly is a falsetto paired with a haunting piano section. Lost For Now is an almost country sounding guitar combo, he channels his inner Johnny Cash as he describes a slow, tortured journey back to optimism and positivity. The Flow then compliments this beautifully, the perfect end to the record, an aggressive drum beat partners a call to arms, 'Woke up this morning to a sound of this new beginning / Sweet song to the wing, / Suddenly I knew just where to begin'. Rather than leave us to wallow, which he could by all rights do, Bilal provides us with his blueprint for redemption. It's quite stunning how the mood changes so dramatically from happiness and youthful expectancy to pure desolation and depression. The change is stylistically marked by the introduction of the sinister guitar, but the live-band feel is never tampered with.

8.5/10. I really do love this record. You think you're in for a jazzed out groove through the early 90s, Jamiroquai style, and then Bilal flips it wonderfully, injecting some true 1970s soul and even introduces a bit of Bobby Womack darkness to our ears. Slipping Away is one of the best songs of the year. This is the essential Bilal record, and Justin Timberlake will be absolutely green with envy over a project like this because it's everything he tried and failed to achieve. One of the best records of the year.
Best Tracks: West Side Girl, Back To Love, Slipping Away

Birds Of Tokyo - March Fires

 Rating: 8/10

Australian's relationship with home-grown pop music has always been healthy. Whilst discretion is blatantly advised regarding international acts who make it on to Triple M from Triple J (see Kings Of Leon), locals are championed when commercial success is achieved, no matter the method. Believe it or not, GOTYE is not a dirty 'word' amongst Australia's hipster elite. Jet, famously SLATED by Pitchfork, twice, made no missteps in making it to number one on the Triple J Hottest 100 in 2003 (I should note that Triple J is, for our out of state readers, the official standard in new alternative music. Think our version of XFM). Even Human Nature, now a Motown tribute group performing in Las Vegas, the absolute height of sell-out, are still blessed with a strong reputation amongst the younger generation.

So it is with open arms we embrace the watered down, smooth edged pop-rock of a band like Birds Of Tokyo. By all rights, if they were being entirely unfair, the pretentious few amongst the listening community should really shun them. After independently releasing their first two records, Day One and Universes, the latter winning a nomination for the coveted J Award, alarm bells should have rung when they signed with EMI and enlisted Michael Brauer of Coldplay fame to mix their brilliant 2010 self-titled record. Even more so when the second single, Plans, proved a massive crossover hit, featuring everywhere from the Hottest 100 (4th) to every hit playing radio station, to Mastercard Direct Debit events! Day One was a stomping rock throwback, melding favoured attributes of Powderfinger, Silverchair and The Living End, aussie rock royalty. Universes carried this trend, with an added melodic sensibility. By the time Birds Of Tokyo came around, the DNA for March Fires was fully formed.

It was, I will admit, a hard sell for me at first. The stadium rock aspirations, the blatantly smoothed edges, a volume knob that was once duct-taped on 11 but was now safely in the relative comfort of 6. It's a pop record. But why does that have to detract from the listening experience? As I said, elsewhere in the world, Williamsberg for example, starting a record off with something like Liquid Arms is a shunnable offence. Following it up with the second best pop-rock song of the year, and the best at number 5, you'd be burned at the stake. But whilst Liquid Arms lacks teeth, it provides a beautifully strong pulse, a rousing vocal performance from Kenny, and a throbbing keyboard injection from Sarangapan. The muted emotion in the music masks the depth in the words, Kenny describes the sweet, warm embrace of alcohol and his desperation to remain in its perma-haze, 'I surrender to liquid arms / In the ether / Answers found / And I don't want to leave / Or lose this peace'. You wouldn't open a live show with it, but it serves its purpose nicely here.

Others have remarked on the not so well-hidden fact that Kenny and co have written to a formula on this record. There are anthemic choruses, rousing guitar melodies, strong but unimaginative bass lines and by the books drumming. When The Night Falls Quiet could have been released by The Fray, rather than using strings to achieve those stratospheric heights in the chorus Kenny adds a choir-like element to propel his performance. Don't be alarmed, this is no My Chemical Romance quest for the perfect 'explosion' chorus. Everything is kept in check and the result is a lovely mobilising effect, Kenny implores us to 'riot as one' against whatever dark forces we are facing. On The Others he best take his own advice. Another energetic affair, created by an overworked bassist double-timing and the perfect hint of keys to punctuate statements, Kenny wonders 'Why don't I feel like all the others', effectively alienating himself from the army he roused on the second track.

This darker undertone provides the perfect foil to the positive surge the music provides. It's almost as if the lyrics were written by Kenny, alone, in a deserted shack in the Simpson Desert with a case of Jack Daniels and temperamental internet connection. When he interacts with the outside world, his load is lessened. On the brilliant Boy, the closest thing to a ballad on the record, his connection is obviously down, as we see him confronting a much brighter past from a desolute present, 'My memory's a vault / it plays against me' and 'It's been so long since, I remember days / when the sun would never fade'. It's the only track where the mood matches the words, as if the rest of the band finally caught his wave length. It's such a stirring picture of a grown man yearning for a past he knows no longer exists, watching it torment him is almost voyeuristic.

Then there are the brief moments when he ventures in to the light and is jump started in to positivity by those around him. Lanterns is the best pop/rock song of the year so far. It's a formula so many have tried to replicate and been chastised for their poor execution, Keane and OneRepublic for example, but this does not disappoint. A humble beginning, an impossibly simple bass partners Kenny as we begin his journey with him, 'In darkness I leave / For a place I've never seen / It's been calling out to me / That is where I should be'. Emerging from the darkness, the crowd call goes out, 'On we march / With a midnight song / We will light our way / With our lanterns on'. As each layer is added, the drums, the angelic backing vocals, you feel like you're marching down that road with him. When it explodes at 2:45 it's quite inspiring, 'And realised / We were chasing / Shadows behind / Not worth saving / So burn it bright / Forever illuminating'. Honestly they should play this in treatment facilities, it feels so much more sincere than you'd expect, there is no hint of pretension especially if you've sat yourself down in those dark corners with Kenny on the rest of the record.

Elsewhere on the we find lead single This Fire, the second best pop/rock song of the year, the anti-thesis to something like Station Approach by Elbow. An insight in to why Kenny took that hypothetical sabbatical in the Simpson desert, he shuns an over-crowded and relentless city with a jaded callousness, the drum-line beat and an excursion up to 9 on the volume knob propel the chorus and ensure it will be a mainstay on playlists for months to come. There are also 2 instrumental pieces, Motionless which is a stunning, spacey intro for Lanterns, and Blume, a delicate number that serves to arrest the heart rate after the epic, EDM romp that is the 8 minute White Leaves, another stunning piece that sees Kenny emerge in to his fabled light and explode in positivity. Rolling Stone had the interesting impulse to compare the 2 instrumentals to Brian Eno and Mogwai, but they are no more than well executed interludes. Hounds and Sirin do little to mess with the status quo.

8/10. I honestly love this record. It was a hard sell, but once it infected me I couldn't stop listening to it. For a good 4 days it was the only record I played, with the exception of their back catalogue. The wonderful mix of stadium pop/rock ambition and clear, relatable lyrical mission really resonates. When Kenny emerges, you emerge with him, when he retreats, you're sitting in the dark corner watching. You never really get to his level, because the music acts as the antidepressant, ensuring a base level of enjoyment. A strange mix, but so very effective.
Best Tracks: White Leaves, Boy, Lanterns





Low - The Invisible Way

I wrote a review yesterday in which I remarked there is something to be said for not standing still. It seems ironic that I now sit down to review a band that, over their 10 album history, has vehemently denied this statement. Far from re-inventing the genre they helped to define, Low have been content in their 20 year career to fly comfortably under the hype radar, and as a result have carved a devoted fan base and a productive groove for themselves. Guitar reverb, haunting and at times astral vocal harmony, and a penchant for deep seated, anxiety based content have provided a solid grounding from which they rarely stray. In fact reading a review of their 1994 album 'I Could Live In Hope' in preparation to write this review I am struck by how the reviewer could easily be writing about The Invisible Way. Progress, then, has been slow, but it needn't be rushed.

Low have always conducted themselves with a certain dignity and grace that shines through without a hint of pretension. A very difficult balance to achieve, especially for a band refusing to experiment. On C'mon, their brilliant 2011 record, everything finally appeared to click wonderfully in to place. Whereas there were awkward moments on recent previous records, such as the slightly off-centre harmony on Sandanista on Drums and Guns, the misplaced raw aggression on The Great Destroyer or the disappointingly stale tracks such as John Prine on Trust, C'mon combined all of these elements and presented them brilliantly, an invigorating blend of much needed forward motion, stunningly effective harmonies and concise, explainable, relatable lyrical content. It was the consummate Low album and was recieved thusly.

The Invisible Way, then, finds them in fine form. It also sees them teaming up with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame, interestingly a man not renowned for standing still stylistically, so to speak. His roots in country can be seen slathered all over this record, as acoustic guitars play a starring role throughout, a clear technique change from their previous few releases that focused more on heavier, reverbed and distorted guitars to create a lush yet menacing atmosphere. The Invisible Way sits less comfortably on that inherent conflict that always lies under the surface of a Low release, however it is a pleasant contrast to experience. It provides a light, a tempering influence.

The first two tracks, Plastic Cup and Amethyst, do set a sonic tone for the record that isn't greatly deviated from. The opener sees Alan Parker musing about the progression of two of the most important wordly affairs: getting high and getting by, with Sparhawk sweetly enforcing his delivery. It's a dull opening, one that doesn't inspire confidence, and even feels slightly cast off as Parker disdainfully remarks at the end 'well maybe you should go and write your own damn song, and move on', possibly a dig at himself that almost feels as though it renders the song null and void of any message or point. Amethyst, thankfully, provides a much needed depth and insight that is carried through the rest of the record. A slow moving, rumbling piano chord progression is helped forward by an almost dancing acoustic guitar as Parker menacingly slides in with an observational track about social anxiety and its dimming effect on someone he clearly holds in high esteem, with phrases like 'you always hide so deep in the amethyst mine' and 'afraid the things they say, they reach'. It's a consistent lyrical theme they adhere to, not always as coherent or clear as this, but the undercurrent of fear and a gamit of different anxieties are introduced, but not always exposed.

More so than usual, Low lack forward momentum here. On C'mon the melodies seemingly wrote themselves. Even Witches, which wasn't a particularly peppy song was able to sleepily boulder along, Parker had the balance of impactful spits and droning monotone down to a science to keep things moving. On The Invisible Way, tracks like Holy Ghost and Waiting stall and tread water. Despite Sparhawk's hauntingly sincere performance on the former, a description possibly of fleeting spiritual encounters tinged with abandonment (now I don't know much / but I can tell when something's wrong / and something's wrong) the song splutters, peaking at the minute mark and dropping back in to a reclusive haze. When they try to really force a beat, like on Clarence White, it lends itself to awkwardness, although Parker's rawer display does endear. Four Score is another lower moment, a meek country-bound song you might hear at 3am in a deserted bar in Southern America. It seems like Sparhawk snagged the raw end of the deal, being stuck with a couple of difficult tracks with which to work, despite this she does a good job harmonising with herself. Her lyrics are ambiguous but that only enhances the mood of the record, it sounds downtrodden.

The frustration then comes with tracks like So Blue, On My Own and the brilliant Just Make It Stop. Clear displays of what Low are capable of, yet too thin on the ground to elevate the whole project. So Blue reminds me of something from Drums And Guns, possibly Murderer, but the piano gives it a much more organic feel. Sparhawk really gets her teeth in to it as well, again harmonising with herself, she emotes brilliantly about a torn state of mind over a fractured relationship, 'So blue with you' is contrasted with 'Can no longer bare, to miss the dance, with you'. Her vocals may not be as iconically 'Low' as when she harmonises for Parker's crackly drawl, but she is clearly the more accomplished singer. Her ability to harmonise so sweetly with herself is testament to an impressive range. She also snares the highlight track on the record, Just Make It Stop. Again you feel Jeff Tweedy's hands all over it as another swelling piano section underpinned by almost frantic sounding drone guitars back Sparhawk as she pleads "You see them close to the edge /  I'm at the end of my rope  / the rope is starting to thread,  / I'm trying to keep my hold" before an impassioned chorus of "If I could just make it stop / I can tell the whole world  / to get out of the way." It's an uncharacteristically clear description of her determined mindset, and with the help of such a strong backing it acts as a call to arms and really enlivens the second half of the record, it comes out of nowhere. 

6.5/10. After progressing on from their early - mid 2000s lull, Low have stalled slightly again with this release. It lacks the complete package feel of C'mon. Too many instances where progress is made then surrendered through stagnant acoustic ballads. Parker and Sparhawk both deliver very solid performances, and the lyrical content is typical Low, a blend of introspective, anxiety-focused musings and observational touch points that always remain sincere and natural. Even the possibly cringe-inducing Mother tackles a timelessly tricky subject with poise and grace. The mood and themes are what saves this record, it could be time for a new producer. 
Best Tracks: So Blue, Just Make It Stop, On My Own

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