Album Digest, March 2014
I’m back in the UK so it’s back to posts about albums each month. This one is a bit different because I didn’t listen to very much new stuff while I was away so not all of the albums are up to date. I had to write about the new album by Liars though because it’s awesome and I couldn’t wait to discuss it! Here’s the list of albums:
- Tegan and Sarah Heartthrob
- Fanfarlo Let’s Go Extinct
- Liars Mess
- London Grammar If You Wait
Tegan and Sarah Heartthrob
I would argue, as I have throughout my sequence of understated classics posts, that a great album is one that changes you as a person. Sometimes an album changes your mood consistently, sometimes an album makes you think about the experiences in your life differently, and sometimes an album is just so great and comes along at just the right time to knock you for six. I’d say that in 2014 Tegan and Sara’s “Heartthrob” has been that album for me.
My only previous experience of Tegan and Sara was their vocal contribution to the Tiesto track “Feel It In My Bones”. I liked that song a lot, I even went so far as to put it on one of my playlists. Meanwhile when “Heartthrob” was originally released back in January 2013, I took advantage of the iTunes single of the week promotion to download the lead single “Closer” for free. But I never listened to it. Ever. Not until I populated my iPod Nano with a smart playlist containing every thing in my library dated 2012 and 2013 for my trip to South America. One day on shuffle “Closer” came on (I think it must have been after we left Santiago) and I found myself thinking “What the heck is this? It’s brilliant!”. And so I became addicted to “Closer” playing it pretty much twice a day.
When we got to Bariloche in Argentina and a decent wi-fi connection, I bought “Heartthrob” on my phone and kept it charged almost solely for playing that album. “Closer” happens to be a perfect three and a half-minute pop song and with the album I got exactly what I wanted: more. It’s an album of exquisitely produced pop music that barely falters at all in its thirty-six minute run time. Highlights include the swooning “I was a fool”, the identity affirming “I’m Not Your Hero”, and the simply wonderful “Love They Say”. Throughout it’s raunchy, e.g. a sample lyric on “Closer” is “All I think of lately is getting you underneath me” and on “You Drove Me Wild” we have “When I think of you I think of your skin”, but it’s also attuned to the dramas of “proper relationships”™ especially in later tracks like “How Come You Don’t Want Me?” and “Shock To Your System”.
Beyond that, I would not want to over analyse a gem of a pop album. It’s short, it’s clever, and it always makes me happy to listen to it. I think that’s enough for me. I don’t give scores when I write these pieces but if I did “Heartthrob” would get ten out of ten.
Fanfarlo Let’s Go Extinct
I love Fanfarlo. They have an understated classic of their own and “Let’s Go Extinct”, their third album, is pretty close to being one too. It’s a concept album about life and is executed with aplomb. Each song expands the scale and scope under consideration, seamlessly zooming out the lens like those videos that take you from the surface of the earth to the edge of the known universe and back again.
As with their second album “Rooms Filled With Light”, I was underwhelmed at first. Not so much with the first two songs “Life In The Sky” (about the theory of life on Earth being the result of a comet) and “Cell Song” (with its beautiful lyrics about DNA spirals and the whole business of cell division being a pyramid scheme), but rather that the whole thing is rather ponderous on the first few lessons. Of course those first two tracks are among the best Fanfarlo have committed to whatever it is that MP3s are made of. From trying to sing “Cell Song” in the shower I know that it’s very to sing along to, at least correctly, and musically it reveals a lot of interesting detail.
The problem is that as the scale increases to humans and colonies of those humans, things get rather bleak. As early as “Myth of Myself”, which ruminates on how individual thoughts become what we know to be our own personalities, you begin to wonder whether the happiest solution to the problem of “I work around the clock and I’m always tired” is the one that will be considered. I guess it depends on how you read the final line: a fraught scream of “it’s coming down!”. Fortunately the next song is the upbeat celebration of the wilderness “A Distance” though it too seems to be underpinned by a mistrust of communication. It’s one of two belters on the album. The second “Landlocked” is even more upbeat and shiny but even after listening to it thirty I’m not that sure what it’s all about.
As you may have guess from the album’s title, Fanfarlo don’t seem to believe our collective story is going to end well. Perhaps they’ve just read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” a little too often and extrapolated from there. Mind you, who could blame them, it’s a fantastic book. It doesn’t have to be that way, after all Foals managed to produce a concept album (well part of one in “Total Life Forever”) about the idea of us all heading toward the singularity. Mind you, at least it makes for some achingly beautiful songs. There are three here about the fall of the world: “Painting With Life” (Simon hangs out in an abandoned theme park on his own and self-harms); “The Grey And The Gold” (sample lyrics: “but if nothing dies / how can we learn to live with it?”, music by way of early-90s R.E.M. with extra trumpet); and the amazing “The Beginning And The End” (makes me think of the aliens uncovering the ash-covered Earth).
Hopefully Fanfarlo won’t go extinct (hey, I’m still buying your records guys!) because I look forward to what they will do next. If there is one thing missing from “Let’s Go Extinct” it’s songs that put the skill of the entire band front and centre. The main difference between “Reservoir” and “Let’s Go Extinct” is that there are fewer moments on the newer album where the music is given enough room to explore the emotions alongside the vocals. The tracks that do are among the more successful and it is telling that the B-side of “Cell Song” is an instrumental version of “Painting With Life” in which the musical beauty of that song is unmasked.
Overall, a potentially majestic album undermined slightly by its downbeat worldview and inability to cut loose with its musical arrangements. If a slough of despond is okay with you (it is with me), you will find much to enjoy here.
Each new Liars album takes a new tack from the previous one. This makes the announcement of any new Liars album something of an event for me because it sends me scurrying off to listen to the previous N-1 albums to try to work out where they are headed next. It is usually impossible to work out what is going to happen next in the Liars discography though once you listen to the new album it’s possible with hindsight to work out what previous tracks would have signposted the new direction. In this case “Brats” on WIXIW was probably the biggest clue and last year’s excellent double A-side single “Perfume Tear” b/w “I saw you from the lifeboat” given away to e-mail list members was something of a red herring.
”Mess” takes “WIXIW”’s delicate electronic plotting (“Brats” aside) and sweeps it away, scooping out the romantic reticence and replacing the skittering beats with a more malevolent industrial sound. It is the leap from the self-titled album to “Sisterworld” conducted in reverse. Here a concept album has given way to a brash reinvention and it is really quite exciting. It is also incredibly fun at the outset with “Mask Maker”’s incongruous calls to “eat my socks” and “eat my face” continuing Liars’ great tradition of fantastic opening tracks. In fact lining up the opening tracks from Liars’ seven albums in one playlist is quite a fun game to play on a rainy day. The song titles alone make it worthwhile. In fact if you have 28 minutes spare, you can listen to them now, all thanks to the magic of Spotify. I for one had forgotten the sheer exuberance of the last minute of “Plaster Casts of Everything”.
”Mess” itself can be split in to roughly three parts, though this division blurs in some places. At the beginning you have bangers like “Mask Maker” and “Vocal Tuned D.E.D.”, all strident industrial strength dance tracks with detached vocals. Toward the middle the songs are more mellow with more pronounced vocal lines, these are perhaps the most Liars-like songs here with the lyrics of “Pro Anti Anti” a case in point: “Crashed like a car into a tree / I’ll die before the fire’s out” could feature anywhere on Liars’ seven albums even if the electronic arrangements might be a little more out-of-place. Of course, we also have to accept that the adjective “Liars-like” is an oxymoron. My favourite is the title track “Mess on a mission” for both its iconoclastic refrain of “Facts are facts and fiction’s fiction” and the loping blip rhythm that underpins it. The refrain amuses me because (for me) all Liars’ songs are about blurring fact and fiction: “Facts are facts and fiction’s fiction” could almost be the opposite of their artistic manifesto.
”Mess” slides into more abstract tracks as it progresses leaving about a third of the songs as an ambient sludge that is compelling to listen to in its own right but also in its callbacks to earlier Liars material. I could try that same playlist trick with closing tracks of their albums though I’m not sure many people would appreciate having to listen to the thirty minute locked groove of “They threw us in a trench and stuck a monument on top”’s closer “The Dust That Makes Mud” more than once. While not quite that locked groove, the sixteen minutes of “Perpetual Village” and “Left Speaker Blown” combined do represent a similar desire to allow the album to drift to a close. These two tracks are more like connective tissue that attach this new direction to Liars’ past material (just as “Brats” on WIXIW looked forward) because you can sense the presence of both the minimalism of “Drums Not Dead” and the clattering chaotic clamour of “They Were Wrong So We Drowned”. Given that these two albums are probably Liars’ career highlights, it’s a high note to end on.
The tempting question to ask is what Liars might do next. One might argue that with “Mess” perhaps entropy has caught up with them once and for all, but things have looked that way from the beginning. Side note: anyone who thinks “…Monument on top” is a more focussed record than “…Drowned” needs their ears checked. The best bet is to go along with the ride, Liars are consistently inconsistent and keep adding great albums to their output as a result. Now take all their albums and shuffle that playlist, that’s a real mess and a complete delight to listen to.
London Grammar If You Wait
I acquired London Grammar’s “Shyer” in the same fashion as Tegan and Sara’s “Closer”. “Shyer” also happens to be a great song, a beautiful vocal strewn over a pretty yet minimal hook. It promised great things of their album “If You Wait”, which I missed last year but resurfaced this month in special edition form. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy “If You Wait” as much as “Heartthrob”. In fact I think listening to “If You Wait” in its entirety is rather boring and unpleasant, which is a shame because they are clearly talented.
Like “Heartthrob”, “If You Wait” is pretty homogeneous. Unfortunately, sometimes homogeneity is a bit boring and this is the case here. Like The XX, London Grammar are a fantastic vocalist backed by two anonymous instrumentalist types. You can play a sort of Top Trumps for bands and play the strengths off against one another. London Grammar are blessed with a better vocalist but poorer songwriters. The “annoying homogeneity” score of both bands would be identical but at least The XX make up for it with tunes. In fact The XX shine in remixed form and this might be the case for London Grammar too as I’m yet to hear any remixes of their songs. The fact that the best thing on the special edition apart from “Shyer” is their collaboration with Disclosure suggests that a) they should mix it up a bit more on their own records and b) the remixes will probably sound pretty good.
It’s not all a wash out though. The lead singer does have a magnificent voice, she just needs to sing songs that don’t rhyme lightning with frightening. Having a début album sell enough to merit a special edition at least means that they will be given the chance to improve and I think that they will be worth listening out for if they do.