Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/kurt-vile–wakin-on-a-pretty-daze

08 April 2013

Kurt Vile’s fifth solo album ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ follows on from the well over-due success of 2011’s introspective and emotionally fragile ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’, an album that, to me at least, sounded like Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ that had gone through the spinner; dispensing of Young’s naivety and picking up thoroughly modern anxieties that concern and inform a 21st century audience. It was a born classic. For the follow up Vile and his would be Crazy Horse backing band The Violators have drafted in help from members of LA’s darlings Warpaint.

Opener ‘Wakin On A Pretty Day’ is all sun-dappled throwback west coast Americana, pinned by a simple acoustic chord progression that rolls and unfurls at its own unhurried pace. Clocking in over 9 minutes it betrays Vile’s languid approach to song writing: deliberately measured and loose. It’s an inherent contradiction in his work that, despite being restlessly prolific, his songs are never impetuous or forced, rather coming across as effortlessly relaxed in their inception. ‘KV Crimes’ nods to the likes of Creedence and Tom Petty; a cowbell stomp that allows for some restrained but effective electric guitar solos. Although welcome it’s not quite rocking out to the same extent that he once did with his tenure in psychedelic Heartland kraut-rockers The War on Drugs. One imagines there’s a fear of surplus to Vile’s modus operandi; a phobia of over cooking his music, as if having too many ideas at play at any one time would serve to distract and distill the essence.


‘Was All Talk’ begins with a programmed motorik beat which gives suitable thrust for the exploration of every single possible wrinkle in what is, at heart, an incredibly simple chord sequence. It’s this restless, almost scientific, perfectionist approach that is at utter odds with Vile’s external lackadaisical veneer. ‘Girl Called Alex’ provides a more pensive moment with Vile’s laconic murmuring picking apart a relationship from an outsider’s perspective.

The 8 minute drift of ‘Too Hard’ is the most personal and confessional moment of the album as Vile, reflecting on his fatherhood, intones “I promise not to smoke too much, I promise not to party too hard”. This intimacy is juxtaposed with the up-tempo mid paced alt rock of ‘Shame Chamber’ and ‘Snowflakes are Dancing’. ‘Goldtone’ is a fitting closure, a dreamlike ballad that ebbs and flows to the horizon on washes of languorous organ and slide guitar.

Whereas previous albums have been introverted ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ is Vile at his most assured and confident. At times this boldness is a mixed blessing since, at 70 minutes, the album sometimes feels stretched beyond its means, as if navel-gazing for the mere sake of it. Vile’s music has never been in a rush, but this time a few more ideas would’ve been welcome.

6/10

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/the-flaming-lips-the-terror

01 April 2013

2013 marks The Flaming Lips’ 30th anniversary. Cause for mass celebration then! Let’s get the candles on the cake… After all that’s 30 years of restlessly resisting classification, 30 years of playfully inverting expectations, 30 years of crafting some of the finest, noisiest, weirdest, dreamiest, surreal, emotionally affecting pop known to human ears. They’ve managed that rarest of feats; juggling critical acclaim with popular success. Since hitting the mainstream at the turn of the millennium with the undisputed classic albums ‘The Soft Bulletin’ and ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ Wayne Coyne and co have disrespected every convention thrown at them with the pomp and ceremony of their legendary live shows only being the tip of the iceberg (anyone remember Coyne popping up on Google maps having a bath on his front lawn?). Since 2009’s meditative ‘Embryonic’ The Flaming Lips took to covering Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in full and a collaboration album featuring such diverse and luminary guests as Nick CaveLightning BoltYoko Ono and, er, Ke$ha.

So, in true character 13th studio album ‘The Terror’ is another canonical curve ball, and a decidedly lo-fi psychedelic affair. Vintage Moog synths dominate the opener ‘Look… The Sun is Rising’ and it’s initially apparent that it paints a darker hue than previous albums with Coyne’s lyrics more introspective and vulnerable. Maybe they OD’d on the Pink Floyd paranoia but ‘The Terror’ is the Ronseal Wood Paint of Flaming Lips albums – perfectly capturing the titular sense of anxiety, fragility and dread but writ large in acid-hued technicolour. The stadium-sized chorus to ‘Try to Explain’ is rephrased amidst post-industrial electronic noise and church organs as Coyne implores “Try then walking away on a bridge to nowhere, Try to explain why you’ve changed, I don’t think I’ll understand”.


The album highlight comes with the 13 minute restrained solar freak out of ‘You Lust’ which is pinned on a synth line not dissimilar to one you may expect to hear in a John Carpenterfilm. It constantly promises a cathartic crescendo but teases us at every juncture before dissolving into pensive electronic tones. In a sense it’s classic Flaming Lips as it harks back to their formative freeform experimentation as exemplified to such great skill on the conceptual ‘Zaireeka’ album. ‘The Terror’, the self titled crux of the album, relishes in throwing dissonance against the harmonious whilst Coyne’s hushed melodies battle for space against the warbling machines of yesteryear’s future.

‘Butterfly, How Long it Takes to Die’ takes propulsive free jazz drumming and marries it against scratching guitar stabs and ethereal electronic washes. ‘Turning Violent’ oscillates on brooding modular synth warbles interspersed with cacophonies of feedback segueing into album closer ‘Always There… In our Hearts’ which gives the final purging, ecstatic release that this tense and anxious album has promised up to this point.

‘The Terror’ is a taught album; never losing sight of it’s single-minded aim to perturb and unease. It’s almost redundant to try and pigeon hole The Flaming Lips but if one were to be bold it would be fair to say that ‘The Terror’ is a retro-futurist mood peace and, in many respects, their own ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

8/10

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Kraftwerk live at the Tate Modern

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/kraftwerk-live-in-london

14 February 2013

What else can be said about Kraftwerk that hasn’t already been said this past fortnight? Their eight night retrospective residency at the Tate Modern has barely been out of the news, lauded with unanimous critical praise that dutifully matches the much publicised fervour that caused the Tate website to crash almost instantly when tickets went on sale. It would be churlish to wax lyrical for the duration of this piece about the influence Kraftwerk has had on contemporary music; it’s a self-evident truth that modern dance, hip-hop and pop simply wouldn’t exist as they do without their legacy. Indeed, it’s perfectly legitimate to propose that Kraftwerk have had a much wider reaching impact on modern music than The Beatles.

With this in mind let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment here… the concept of playing an album in its entirety is not exactly new, and this is the third time Kraftwerk have performed a museum residency (having already done so at New York’s MoMA last spring and in Dusseldorf earlier this year). Also isn’t the fact the gigs are all in 3D a bit of a gimmick? So what is that makes these Tate Modern shows so spell bending, so unique? The fact of the matter is that Kraftwerk are ambiguous, suggestive and moreover influential – like all the best art, modern or not. They have always been more than a mere sum of their musical, visual and stylistic parts. There is a knowingly playful synergy by staging these Tate performances because the band instantly become performance art by virtue of their context.

I’m fully aware how important context is to lone founding member Ralf Hütter. Having seen the band twice before, once in a Stalinist steel factory in Poland and at the Manchester Velodrome accompanied by the UK Olympic team doing laps during the musical ode to cycling that is ‘Tour De France’. Let’s also not forget that the Tate Modern is a decommissioned power station, and ‘Kraftwerk’ in German means, you guessed it, power station!

They kick start tonight’s proceedings by wasting no time in performing 1986’s ‘Techno Pop’ (originally called ‘Electric Café’ before a post-millennial re-branding exercise) practically in sequence, getting through it in the first half hour. An often undervalued album, what really comes through is the way they are able to reinterpret the material live. This is specifically apparent during ‘The Telephone Call’, which originally worked as the vocal led pop fulcrum of the album, whereas tonight it is an experimental instrumental. Delving into their back catalogue headfirst with ‘Autobahn’ what becomes apparent is the unprecedented weight the 3D effects add to their inimitable visual identity. The reimagining of ‘Radioactivity’ as a staunchly anti-nuclear energy song has caused something of a stir amongst critics but altering the lyrics to reference Fukushima and by singing half the verses in Japanese has kept the song vibrant, relevant & timely. Although Kraftwerk do up to a point exist in a hermetically sealed time capsule it is these subtle changes that make the largest impact.

Playing the lion’s share of both seminal albums ‘The Man Machine’ and ‘Computer World’ back to back is, quite frankly, a dream come true and it is at here that the pure technically of the concerts comes to the fore. From a sound design perspective you are very unlikely to ever experience anything to rival these performances. The 360 degree rig is perfectly nuanced and crisp as exemplified through the opening beats of ‘Spacelab’ which spin round the room in perfect balance. During ‘The Man Machine’ the bass booms back, presumably using the back half of the turbine hall as a natural subwoofer. It’s like going from mono to stereo and sets a whole new bar for live sound production, especially as it could have so easily been a muddy and echoey mix lost in the height of the tall ceiling.

Kraftwerk as an entity has always been equally about concept as execution and six nights in to the residency there’s one thing that all parties can be agreed upon – Kraftwerk are quite simply peerless. If only they were a permanent installation…

Images by Peter Boettcher

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Yo La Tengo – Fade

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/yo-la-tengo–fade

15 January 2013

Hoboken bred, husband and wife founded, indie-rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo are principally renowned for two things… Firstly for being this generation’s answer to The Velvet Underground (a comparison that they’ve never really made too much effort to shy away from) and secondly for being the quintessential critics’ band. If they’d have split up and reformed there would have been a huge clatter of attention, akin to the Guided by Voices or Pixiesreunions. But Yo La Tengo, ever the blue-collar mainstayers, have instead kept their heads down and consistently put out solid album after album of noise drenched melodic pop for nigh on thirty years.

‘Fade’ is the band’s thirteenth album and represents a culmination of the relative experimentalism of recent albums whilst also signaling a return to the more plaintive and personal tone of the landmark 2000 release ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out’. It also represents a certain disruption in the natural order being the first album in twenty years not produced by Roger Moutenot, instead transferring the button duties to Tortoise’s John McEntire who brings a jazz-tinged soulfulness to the table. This is not to say their sound has dramatically changed – it hasn’t, if anything it is now more focused and direct.

Opener ‘Ohm’ is a propulsive juggernaut, providing enough rhythmical bedding for shards ofIra Kaplan’s frenzied guitar feedback as the band coo “nothing ever stays the same, nothing’s explained” in unison. It’s a firm statement of intent and the sort of song they’d have previously worked into a 15 minute album closing freak-out. Despite clocking in at six minutes the impact hasn’t been dampened; rather it benefits from the confident restraint at play. The string laden ‘Is That Enough’ is infectiously melodic whilst ‘Well You Better’ is a 60s pop facsimile very much in the Belle & Sebastian vein. Both tracks offer an upbeat curve before the krautrock tinged ‘Stupid Things’ evokes a more reflective mood.


‘I’ll Be Around’, a raw and tender acoustic folk ballad, sees Kaplan mournfully intone “when I stare into space I’m looking for you… and I can see you at times”. It serves as something of an emotional fulcrum to the album, and a perfect epitome of how effective stark simplicity can be. ‘Corneila and Jane’ is a fittingly bittersweet counterpoint as Georgia Hubley provides delicate vocal harmonies over cushions of whispered horns. It manages to be both comforting and utterly heartbreaking. The Hubley fronted album closer ‘Before We Run’ builds around a circular crescendo of horns and strings as Kaplan pleas “Speak to me in words we can’t erase, take me where it’s only us”. It is at once of the band’s most poignant, intimate and assured statements to date.

Yo La Tengo have not only released the first great album of 2013 but have also crafted their finest and most cohesive album in over a decade. This is no small feat given their status as the guardians of the indie-rock mantle. They’ve always modestly accepted this lot, but ‘Fade’ is evidence (if it were needed) that, despite such humility, Yo La Tengo are one of the true great bands of any generation.

9/10

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Top 20 albums of 2012 #9: Actress – R.I.P

http://www.virgin.com/music/blog/top-20-albums-of-2012-9-actress–rip

16 December 2012

‘R.I.P’, a singular and cerebral testament to death and faith, quickly asserted dominance over 2012 when it was released back in April. Working as fall of man allegory for the 21st century,Actress (AKA Darren Cunningham) constructed a dark, poetic paean to our purgatorial, temporal existence. At times intensely claustrophobic at others revelatory, R.I.P has more in common with ‘Paradise Lost’ or ‘Dante’s Inferno’ than any contemporary electronic music… or music in general for that matter.

Cunningham has previously discussed in interviews how programming music is a science and that the resulting ideas he comes up with are, for him, a religion – that their very creation is a quasi act of repentance. This idea of faith informing your craft is hugely important as R.I.P is in many respects an abstract, wordless scripture. It’s an opus of personal and universal truisms as it documents life’s battle with inner demons and the struggle towards spiritual ascension and reincarnation. If one were feeling particularly succint you could accurately describe it as musical moksha.

He approaches programming with the studied reflection of a painter. Every part of this record is significant and there for a reason; like how Mark Rothko would sit for hours contemplating his next broad brushstroke you can practically hear Cunningham agonise over the inclusion of every snare and digital degradation. This concept of erosion brings an organic, humanistic quality to his heathen take on techno. It also allows him to work far from the pre-ordained grid, using samples far more fluidly than the minimalist precision equated with the likes of techno contemporaries such as Richie Hawtin.


‘Uriel’s Black Harp’ is a case in point, as waves of industrial digital noise decay in spirals around a descending harp line. The following ‘Jardin’ and ‘Serpent’ both allude in title to rich Judaeo-Christian religious symbolism, the former sounding like a distant cousin of Erik Satieand Aphex Twin whilst the latter a tense, almost rhythmless cacophony. The sense of mood is fundamental to the album’s narrative arc; the first segment is introspective and brooding but by the third act the tone is comparably ecstatic. ‘Caves of Paradise’ and ‘The Lord’s Graffiti’ echo the enlightenment of the protagonist whilst ‘N.E.W.’ represents the sense of reincarnated spiritual and physical purity.

Actress has come a long way in the course of his three album career. Working more like a vessel than a musician, he has imbued an incredibly disparate set of influences, from left-field techno and house to contemporary classical music and John Milton. R.I.P avoids classification at almost every turn but is probably best described as transcendental. In the philosophical tradition of Kant’s transcendentalism we must analyse the process that governs our experience in order for us to understand the nature of reality. To this end Actress has successfully helped give us a glimpse of a new reality.

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Night Beds live in London

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/night-beds-live-in-london

3 December 2012

https://i1.wp.com/s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/cdn0.virgin.com/uploads/images/story/Night_Beds-16520-530x330.jpg

Night Beds, the solo project of Nashville based Winston Yellen, is the sort of skeletal free-form forlornness that would appeal to fans of Bon Iver before he picked up a vocoder and started hanging out with Kanye West. Maybe it’s the confessed jetlag but tonight sees him confiding in the audience that this is his first time outside of the US and that he’s genuinely touched by the opportunity to play in London. He possesses an unassuming and clean-cut southern state earnestness that runs through his demeanour and lyricism; bereft of even the faintest whiff of pretention.

His performance may be considered threadbare, after all it’s the classic set up of one man, his guitar and his sorrow with only the most subtle brushings of a drummer to keep the pace. However, the ace up Yellen’s sleeve is his beguiling and echoing falsetto, which is at once delicate yet full of emotional resonance.


Playing heavily from this year’s EP ‘Every Fire; Every Joy’ his set shuns the lush instrumentation of his recordings. In less skilled hands this could be suicide – but live his songs are given a striking immediacy and intimacy, proven by the fact he often chooses to simply sing whole verses a cappella.

New single ‘Even if We Try’ is the sort of wistful Fleet Foxes esque Americana that will comfortably soundtrack many a cold night from now until spring, by which point his debut album ‘Country Sleep’ will have dropped and will no doubt give Night Beds the stamp on 2013 that tonight so confidently hinted at.

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Halls – Ark

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/halls–ark

15 October 2012


‘Ark’ heralds the debut album from Halls – the solo moniker of the preciously talented 21 year old South London native Sam Howard. For newcomers Halls inhabits the ever evasive, genre avoiding no-man’s land between glitchy Warp indebted electronica, dubstep and intelligent post-Radiohead indie.

Equally informed by the nomadic urban broodings of Burial as by the crystallized soulfulness of James Blake, Halls paints large sonic vistas with the minimum of constituent parts. But what perhaps comes as most surprising is how overtly indebted his musical lexicon is to the church. There is certainly a touch of the sonically curious and errant choir boy to Howard’s evocative falsetto. Not that this should really be that surprising; I can’t speak for his personal circumstance but for anyone with an ecclesiastical background the presence of music in liturgical worship cannot be undermined or denied and this influence, consciously or subconsciously, is important from a highly impressionable young age. However, it seems to be quite a self-aware decision on behalf of Halls, as indicated by the titles of closing pairing of ‘Holy Communion’ and ‘Winter Prayer’. If one were being particularly hackneyed and trite you may say his sound comes from a place similar to if Sigur Ros and Thom Yorkeperformed Catholic mass.

Instrumental track ‘I’ opens the album with a blend of found sounds and sustained church organ chords, it’s all very cinematic and acts as an apt segway into ‘White Chalk’, a brittle piano ballard that serves as a suitable anchor for Howard’s plaintive vocals as echoey beats jostle for attention with chorale melodies underneath. ‘I’m Not There’ ebbs and flows gently with restrained washes of guitar feedback propulsed by Atoms for Peace-esque skittering bit-crunched beats.

On ‘Roses for the Dead’ Howard sounds equal parts confessional and mournful as he sings “we were pale statues round the bed, our bodies soaked in the bitter light”. Certainly his predilection for lugubrious lyricism could rival Ian Curtis, but the austere nature of his delivery never comes across as anything short of heartfelt. This sobered sincerity is exemplified in the titular piano led instrumental ‘Ark’, which feels so gossamer and fragile that the merest breath could tear it apart. The companion piece ‘Arc’ features a chorus of angelic vocals reverberating around each other as if sung from the cloisters of a medieval Cathedral.

Album highlight ‘Reverie’ has a chorus highly reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘There There’ as a loping bass line provides a sturdy scaffold on which Howard hangs the more subtle musical colours in his spectrum. ‘Holy Communion’ builds with a mournful piano line married to twitchy electronics before glacial waves of reverb and frantic drumming close with dramatic dynamism. Final track ‘Winter Prayer’ is centred on a doleful toy box melody shot through with shards electronic light; it sounds like Aphex Twin at his most reflective.

For an album so earnest and so entrenched in the concept of death ‘Ark’ could have been a bitter pill to swallow. However it’s so expertly crafted and delivered with such grandiose conviction that one cannot but be in awe of the ethereal otherworldly panoramas it portrays.

7/10

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.