Review of The Cribs at Leicester O2 Academy, 01/11/12

First published 03/11/12 on http://soundblab.com/content/content/view/id/4875/preview/1:

Of all the bands in the world, reflecting on the career of The Cribs is perhaps the most heart-warming. It is slightly odd to consider that the Jarman brothers have now been a band for over 10 years and that this tour was in support of their fifth album – which is certainly not intended as an insult. It’s not that it’s hard to believe The Cribs had enough in them to make it this far, quite the opposite. It’s more that it’s odd to consider them a band on their fifth album because they’re the complete opposite of the kind of careerist band who by their fifth album are making dull versions of their debut over and over again. While bands like, say, Razorlight always seemed to want to be as big as U2 so much it was slightly embarrassing, The Cribs always seemed happy to be a cult band, inspired by the lo-fi riot grrrl scene and utterly unconcerned with passing musical fads.

Ironically, it’s this approach which has helped them become as big a band as they are today. The greatest bands in the world treat their fans well and make you feel proud, above all, to call yourself a fan. Following The Cribs through their career has always felt like being part of an exclusive club – ‘if you like The Cribs, you must be alright’ sort-of thing.

Of course, the caveat to all that is that a good attitude alone never got a band anywhere. What The Cribs have consistently done, no matter how lo-fi the sound (mainly on their first two albums), is write fantastic songs with hooks and melodies so catchy they could have been recorded on cassette, buried under the sea for 20 years, exhumed and still sound like the greatest lost pop songs of all time.

Things really began to move for the band with third album Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever. Gary Jarman recently explained that Alex Kapranos (lead-singer of Franz Ferdinand and Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever ‘s producer) tried to polish up their sound because he regarded them as such a good band they deserved the success he had achieved with Franz Ferdinand – a tactic which paid off. Lead single ‘Men’s Needs’ was their first big crossover hit and you know the rest – the album with Johnny Marr, his subsequent departure, and then this year’s In the Belly of the Brazen Bull and a return to the classic Cribs line-up of the three Jarman brothers. It says a lot about The Cribs that there was widespread relief from many fans when Marr left the group. Ignore the Ignorant was a good album and Marr is undoubtedly one of the greatest guitarists of all time, but The Cribs are at their best when it’s the three Jarmans against the world.

They open tonight with the none-more raucous ‘Come On, Be a No-One’ (considering its chorus contains a part which simply sounds like a drunk man shouting “whaaaaaaaaaaaaay”, it’s bloody catchy), and from then on they show once again how phenomenally good a live band they are. ‘You Were Always the One’, one of the first album’s best songs, is an early highlight but it’s ‘I’m a Realist’ which prompts the first mass sing-a-long of the night. Mind you, by this point Ross has already played his drums while standing on them for the duration of ‘Jaded Youth’ and there’s been crowd-surfing a-plenty, which tells you all you need to know about the energy of a Cribs gig.

One of the highlights of the night is ‘It Was Only Love’ (regarded by this writer as The Cribs’ most underrated song), which mainly consists of just Ryan and his guitar and proved The Cribs are just as good when they let the energy levels drop. ‘Be Safe’ has steadily become a live highlight too – the moment when Lee Ranaldo’s spoken-word verses give way to the chorus never fails to prompt a crowd to bawl along.

The Cribs don’t play encores (and all credit to them for not bothering with what became a gimmick a long, long time ago), so we get a choice between ‘Don’t You Want to Be Relevant?’ and ‘We Were Aborted’, with the latter winning out, then ‘The Wrong Way to Be’ and ‘City of Bugs’ and then they’re gone – another gig, another night where they endear themselves ever more to their fans.

Two more observations/thoughts about The Cribs which explain a lot: The first is that Gary sports a Free Pussy Riot t-shirt throughout the gig tonight. Not so odd, you might think; plenty of bands have come out in support of the Russian anti-Putin protestors. But where some artists give off the impression that they regard showing support for Pussy Riot as something that will reflect well on themselves (we’re looking at you Madonna), Gary keeps his T-shirt tucked underneath a long-sleeved shirt and doesn’t draw attention to it. It’s enough that it’s there because the one thing The Cribs could never be accused of is not caring and fanfare just isn’t the Jarman way.

Secondly, this writer (purely in the name of research, of course) has attended a number of nights out at the O2 Academy over the last couple of years and seen guest DJs a-plenty. Whether it be Ellie Goulding, Greg James, or whoever else had something to plug that month, they all played exactly the same songs as the regular DJs do week in, week out: ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Chelsea Dagger’ for the 500th time, until you start to wonder whether it’s even worth bothering with anymore.

The one exception was Ryan Jarman, who played stuff like The Ramones’ ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’, Nirvana and the least obvious (but no less brilliant) Franz Ferdinand song imaginable, suggesting he was there because he liked playing great music to people, not because he wanted to shift a few more copies of an album and pull a student. Fiercely uncompromising and completely brilliant, here’s to the next decade for The Cribs. We’re lucky to have them.

Review of ‘The Vaccines Come of Age’ by The Vaccines

First published in October 2012 in ‘The Ripple’, the University fo Leicester’s student magazine, http://the-ripple.co.uk/2012/10/09/review-the-vaccines-come-of-age-by-the-vaccines/:

It is an undisputable fact that The Vaccines have become one of Britain’s biggest guitar bands – indeed, ‘The Vaccines Come of Age’ sailed into the charts at No.1 – and yet the suspicion remains that The Vaccines have yet to fully justify the position they find themselves in.  ‘…Come of Age’ is not the album that addresses those concerns.

Debut album ‘What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?’ was remarkable mainly for the hype it generated.  Although it was a good album, a cursory glance at the NME at any point since its release could have given off the impression that it could relax in the company of debuts like ‘Unknown Pleasures’, ‘Definitely Maybe’ and ‘Is This It’ which, to this writer at least, seems like hype taken to its logical conclusion.

Which is a shame because although it wasn’t the kind of album that served notice of a new gang in town ready to re-shape rock ‘n’ roll in their image, most albums aren’t.  An album doesn’t have to be a generation-changer to be enjoyed, but when a band is being promoted like they’re capable of being this generation’s Clash/Smiths/whoever then it’s always going to be underwhelming to discover they’re another Strokes-indebted group with some catchy tunes but little originality.  Perhaps it’s a reflection on the paucity of genuinely exciting guitar bands to emerge since the Arctic Monkeys that The Vaccines have been thrust forward as the latest big deal.

Comeback single ‘No Hope’ appeared to confirm doubts about The Vaccines – workmanlike and unremarkable, it sounded like an aural shrug and a “this’ll do”.  There’s plenty more to support this version of The Vaccines, from ‘Teenage Icon’, let down by a lazy chorus, to ‘Aftershave Ocean’, which sounds like it could have been slipped onto The Strokes’ recent ‘Angles’ (or lead-singer Julian Casablancas’ solo album) without even the New Yorkers themselves noticing it wasn’t something they’d knocked out a few months back.  And let’s face it, if you’re going to rip-off The Strokes, you should at least rip off ‘Is This It’.

But it would be unfair to stick solely to the conclusion that The Vaccines are an over-hyped, derivative blank when there’s also evidence here to suggest otherwise.  ‘All In Vein’ is a joyful romp that is the first song on ‘…Come of Age’ that comes close to justifying the hype.  ‘Ghost Town’ follows and is even better – tight, punchy, race-a-long verses propelled forward by Arni Hjörvar’s bass, it sounds like it came straight from the 50s and is the best thing here. 

The biggest stride forward in The Vaccines sound comes from Freddie Cowan’s guitar work.  The aforementioned criticism of ‘Aftershave Ocean’ as being a little too Strokes-a-like could be countered with the fact that it at least shows Cowan to be easily as talented a guitarist as The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jnr.  A blistering solo half-way in makes it clear why Graham Coxon has felt moved to declare that he sees Cowan as a successor in the lineage of talented lead guitarists that he himself joined in the 90s.  Cowan’s guitar is the best thing about at least six of the songs here, in particular ‘Weirdo’ and ‘I Wish I Was a Girl’.  This prompts the thought that album three might gain significantly from allowing Cowan more scope to work songs around his guitar work – a little more experimentation might allow for comparisons with The Strokes to make way for acknowledgement of a band to take seriously in their own right.

There’s evidence to support both schools of thought on The Vaccines on ‘…Come of Age’ then, but for now they still have some convincing to do.  There’s plenty of decent bands that sound a bit like The Strokes (The Soft Pack and Howler to name but two), but very few that come close to reviving guitar music from a creative slumber in the way that The Strokes managed.  For now, evidence that The Vaccines are capable of this isn’t entirely convincing – perhaps the hype will have died down enough by album three for them to prove otherwise.

Review of Leeds Festival 2012

First published in October 2012 in ‘The Ripple’, the University of Leicester’s student magazine:

Leeds Festival (along with its older cousin, Reading): a vision of what the country would be like if it were populated solely by those between the ages of 16 and their mid-20s.  A place where it’s not uncommon to see someone passed out in a pile of mud at midday, where shouting “BUTT SCRATCHER” at the top of your voice is considered the height of comedic prowess, and where most seem to adopt the view that ‘if it doesn’t move, you can probably piss on it’.  But while it may not have the sophistication of your Glastonbury’s and your Bestival’s, it never fails to thrill.

While Foo Fighters did their polished rock/nicest-guy-in-music thing over on the Main Stage on Friday night, Justice treated those gathered in the NME/Radio One tent to a different show entirely – from behind a wall of speakers and lights they showed off what has become one of the most impressive dance shows around.  With their distinctive cross symbol centre stage, the lighting, coupled with teasing flashes of the much-loved ‘We Are Your Friends’ interspersed throughout, restored attention levels on the few occasions the set began to meander.  Gimmicks weren’t required, however, when the Frenchmen called upon the likes of ‘DVNO’, ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ and ‘Civilization’.  It’s safe to say dance is safe with the newest French duo in possession of killer tunes and a knack for beguiling stage shows.

There were grumbles in some quarters that Saturday’s Main Stage headliners, The Cure, weren’t suitable for Leeds/Reading.  Considering they were so evidently one of the main influences on a variety of the most notable ‘indie’ bands that have proliferated in the past decade, from Bloc Party to Franz Ferdinand, The Cure remain as relevant as ever.  And, yes, the two-and-a-half hour, 32 song set length is a little on the excessive side, but Robert Smith and co. have written enough classics in their time to excuse them the indulgence to re-visit lesser known numbers. 

After a slightly steady introduction ‘In Between Days’ was the first song to provoke a strong reaction from the crowd.  There then followed a slightly astonishing run of songs that highlighted the breadth of The Cure’s back-catalogue, from the lush melancholia of ‘Pictures of You’ to the shifting, stuttering pop rush of ‘The Caterpillar’; the bouncing, exuberant ‘Lovecats’ to the brooding, eerie new-wave of ‘A Forest’, one of their greatest songs.  Closing with ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, the set may have required a bit of perseverance and patience at times but it was repaid in spades by The Cure, undoubtedly one of the most interesting and intelligent bands to have emerged from the post-punk music scene.

Headlining the Main Stage on the Sunday night were Kasabian, one of our own generation’s biggest success stories.  To characterise Kasabian as ‘lad-rock’ luddites, as many have, is thoroughly misleading.  Granted, a significant part of Kasabian’s fan base are the Fred Perry-sporting blokes who sink eight pints, throw a bottle of warm piss over the crowd in front of them and jump around with their mates to ‘Shoot the Runner’, but this isn’t The Enemy.  Kasabian, and specifically guitarist Serge Pizzorno, have consistently produced interesting music that has also propelled them to becoming one of Britain’s biggest bands – no mean feat in this day and age.  It also helps that Kasabian are an astonishingly good live band, possibly the most certified headliner-worthy band this generation has produced. 

They know it too, and this is a group that thrives on the confidence of knowing how good they are.  ‘Days Are Forgotten’, with its brazen defiance of how much it resembles Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, opened the set and the pace didn’t relent for the remainder – with the exception of the Neil Armstrong-dedicated ‘Let’s Roll Just Like We Used To’.  ‘Where Did All the Love Go?’ prompted an early sing-a-long – festivals are an entirely different beast to back in the days of Woodstock but no-one told Tom Meighan as he summoned the spirit of the 60s in asking “What ever happened to the youth of this generation?’.  Old favourites like ‘Club Foot’, ‘L.S.F.’ and ‘Empire’ are bellowed back at them, but it’s set-closers ‘Vlad The Impaler’ and ‘Fire’ that showcase why Kasabian are a near-perfect festival headline act.  A suitably raucous ending to a great weekend.

Review of ‘Fragrant World’ by Yeasayer

First published 20/08/12 on http://soundblab.com/content/content/view/id/4746/preview/1:

Brooklyn five-piece Yeasayer first came to attention in 2007 with the release of debut album All Hour Cymbals, which was inspired by psychedelia and Afrobeat.  Whilst such esoteric influences occasionally got in the way of the songs, on the wondrous ‘Sunrise’ and ‘2080’ in particular they showed that they were in possession of a certain pop nous that shined through regardless of their more inaccessible instincts.

Follow-up Odd Blood was even better.  Whilst an entirely different record to their debut the progression felt natural rather than forced.  Where some bands would have been justifiably accused of jumping on a post-MGMT bandwagon, Yeasayer’s embrace of electronics had the air of being simply a new way for them to produce great pop songs.  Partially as a result, Odd Blood felt like a much more coherent record than All Hour Cymbals, and while songs like ‘O.N.E.’ and ‘Ambling Alp’ became cross-over hits, there were also moments like ‘The Children’, which sounded like it was sung by Saruman in a wind tunnel, and ‘Love Me Girl’, which contained enough ideas in five minutes for about eight different songs, that still sounded like great, interesting pop music.

Hopes were high for Fragrant World, then, but for reasons only they can know, Yeasayer seem to have opted for a strategy of self-sabotage.  In the run-up to the release of Fragrant World, the band have been talking up the fact that this would be a more experimental record than Odd Blood.  Unfortunately, where in the past they pursued experimentation but with great melodies attached, frequently on Fragrant World they seem to have forgotten to make the songs go anywhere.  ‘Longevity’, ‘Demon Road’ and ‘Damaged Goods’, for example, aren’t bad songs, but compared to Yeasayer at their frenetic best they sound a bit like the aural equivalent of the band jogging on the spot.

Fragrant World certainly has its moments, though.  The title-track is Yeasayer doing what they do best – odd, intelligent pop.  Similarly, the immersive ‘Henrietta’ is one of the best songs here, and also exemplifies Yeasayer’s occasional knack of making a pop song that does what you’d least expect but still makes sense, slowing down towards its’ end to woozy keyboards, some lovely bass work and Chris Keating’s treated vocals sighing “Oh Henrietta…..” – this is Yeasayer as they should be.  ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’, meanwhile, is the best song on the record – and showcases their impressive ability to write a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on Radio 1 and yet features lyrics like “Let’s make a skeleton in the moonlight” and incomprehensible references to “sentimental violence”, and is, let’s face it, called ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’ – One Direction this ain’t.

This is the frustrating thing about Fragrant World – listening to it, one gets the impression the band found themselves rather startled by the success of Odd Blood’s poppiest moments and have subsequently deliberately tried to make as awkward a record as possible.  But the best thing about Yeasayer is that their catchiest moments have never sounded forced – it’s pop music that hasn’t been stripped of anything interesting or experimental and is all the better for it.  Fragrant World’s highlights show Yeasayer certainly haven’t lost the knack of writing those kind of songs, they just need to become comfortable with the idea of themselves as a pop band – here’s hoping their fourth album will find a band more at ease with the direction they’re heading in.

Review of Blur at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 06/08/12

First published 06/08/12 on http://soundblab.com/content/content/view/id/4735/preview/1:

At this, one of a series of gigs at small venues serving as a warm-up to their appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony in Hyde Park, Blur proved themselves to be the perfect choice for closing London’s hosting of the games. There have been many distasteful elements to the London Olympics, all of which have mirrored the most distasteful elements of modern society – rapid privatisation (represented by the incompetence of security provider G4S) and the prevalence of commerce above all other concerns (sponsorship by McDonalds and Coca Cola; seats for sponsors lying empty while dedicated sports fans miss out on tickets) to name just two. But these concerns have been nothing compared to the celebration and admiration of athletes who have worked all their lives towards competing and many have found the games a heartening experience for this reason – particularly as the hard work and commitment of the athletes have often seemed in direct contrast to the sense of entitlement projected by Britain’s super-rich.

Indeed, combined with Danny Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony, which celebrated the things our country can be truly proud of, such as the NHS, the suffragette movement and our musical legacy, this has all been a pleasing counterpoint to the jubilee celebrations where Take That’s Gary Barlow (shortly after he was revealed to be engaged in tax avoidance) spearheaded a celebration of unearned hereditary privilege. It is for these reasons that Blur seem the perfect fit for the closing ceremony – recently, in particular, Damon Albarn has tended to focus his lyrics on examinations of the state of the nation and where we are at as a country.

This is something that has been apparent in Blur songs throughout their history, from ‘This is a Low’ to 2010 Record Store Day release ‘Fool’s Day’. It was again prevalent in new single ‘Under the Westway’, which made reference to a society in which “the money always comes first” and bemoaned “the distance between us when we communicate”, but also possessed an innate positivity which would not be cowed by the negative parts of our society (“Paradise is not lost, it’s in you/ On a permanent basis I apologise/ but I am going to sing/ Hallelujah, singing out loud, and sing it to you”). Albarn also recently spoke of how he’s “anti the capitalism side of it all. We’re not doing the gig for the corporate side of the Olympics, we’re doing it for the human beings” – hallelujah indeed.

But before celebration of Blur appearing at the closing ceremony becomes too much of an intellectual treatise, let’s not forget that Blur will be a great choice because of the back-catalogue they possess. Opening with ‘Girls & Boys’, the hits come thick and fast – highlights being a frantic ‘Sunday Sunday’, the unfairly maligned ‘Country House’ and a barnstorming sing-a-long to ‘Tender’. Some of the best moments, however, come in the quieter moments. ‘Trimm Trabb’ is one of the highlights of the evening, gradually working its way towards a pulverising close; ‘Out of Time’ is as beautiful as on record, and ‘Caramel’ is simply heartbreaking – as powerful now as the first listen, with lyrics consumed with heartbreak and self-loathing (“I’ve got to get over/ I’ve got to get better/ Will love you forever”) and guitar work from Graham Coxon which expresses just as well the gut-punch of heartbreak in its bursts of distortion as Albarn’s lyrics.

Closing with mass sing-a-longs to ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘The Universal’, it soon becomes apparent that 27 songs have been played without a single misfire. If tonight is any indication of how their Hyde Park gig will go, there couldn’t be a better choice to close Britain’s hosting of the Olympics than one of its greatest bands.

Review of ‘Ill Manors’ by Plan B

First published 23/07/12 on http://soundblab.com/content/content/view/id/4723/preview/1:

One thing that can be said of the musical career of Ben Drew, a.k.a. Plan B, is that it has been far from straight-forward.  Drew first burst onto the scene in 2006 with debut album Who Needs Action When You Got Words, which featured disturbing tales of lives blighted by poverty, drugs and crime, over backing tracks that often featured acoustic guitar played by Drew himself – not what one would expect from a rapper, perhaps.  The album was excellent but, unsurprisingly, was not what one would call a mainstream success.  When it was announced that Drew intended the follow-up to be an album of soul songs and, what’s more, a concept album based around the story of an innocent man being imprisoned, alarm bells began to ring.  It seemed likely that the album would be a disaster and that Plan B would fade away – which made the success and, lest it be forgotten, quality of The Defamation Of Strickland Banks all the more impressive. 

Consider the lyrical content of one of Who Needs Actions…’ best songs, ‘Kidz’ (opening line: “Yeah, this is my time now, you get me? Fucking cunts”), which detailed the lives of the underclass in an almost sadistic manner (“I break a bottle over some boy’s head/Stab a broken piece into the poor cunt’s leg/I leave him in an alleyway, screaming and bleeding to death/Run away, laughing my head off and leave him for dead”).  The idea that songs from the same artist’s second album would go on to be played around the clock on Radio 2 and Smooth Radio would have seemed as absurd in 2006 as someone telling you that Liam Gallagher would be the next Prime Minister. 

Having received such huge commercial success with …Strickland Banks, not many would have blamed Drew for deciding to abandon hip-hop and trying to carve out a career as the ‘male Amy Winehouse’.  It was a brave decision, then, for him to reveal his plans to return to the hip-hop of his first album.  Still, few would have expected what was to come.  Comeback single ‘Ill Manors’ was a revelation, with Drew rapping about life on a council estate over a backing of racing violins periodically interrupted by a chorus that sounded more like a football chant (“Oi! I said oi! What you looking at you little rich boy?”) than anything else.  It was the political edge that really raised interest, however.  Searing indictments of the cuts to the state imposed by the coalition government (“Who closed down the community centre?/I killed time there, used to be a member/What will I do now till September?/School’s out, rules out, get your bloody tools out/London’s burning, I predict a riot”) are not what one expects from Radio 1 A-listed artists – you wouldn’t get this sort of stuff from David Guetta, put it that way. 

Putting ‘Ill Manors’ as the first track on the album was a smart decision – as an attention grabber it couldn’t be much more effective.  In terms of the content of the rest of the album, however, it’s a bit of a red herring – there’s nothing else on Ill Manors that is as overtly political as the title-track.  As the second song on the album, ‘I Am The Narrator’, makes clear, the lyrics of the other songs are less of a call-to-arms and more of a neutral account of the activities of the ‘underclass’.  In this respect, much of Ill Manors is similar to Who Needs Actions… in lyrical content – harrowing tales of people forced into lives of struggle.  So we get songs called things like ‘Drug Dealer’ and ‘Great Day For A Murder’, and lyrics about heroin addiction (‘Deepest Shame’) and, on ‘The Runaway’, an illegal immigrant forced into prostitution to feed her newborn baby.  It’s safe to say that Radio 2 might not be playing these songs as much as they did ‘She Said’.  Ill Manors differs more from Who Needs Actions… musically than it does lyrically.  In the six years since his debut Drew has evidently diversified his musical influences – ‘I Am The Narrator’ has a vaguely reggae-ish feel to it, for example, and ‘Great Day For A Murder’ is backed by heavy guitar.  The excerpts of dialogue from the film of the same name that feature throughout are an annoyance, however, particularly on ‘Pity The Plight’ which deserves more after a beautifully written spoken-word appearance by John Cooper-Clarke.

Of the tracks other than ‘Ill Manors’, ‘Lost My Way’ is likely to be the biggest single, thanks mainly to its catchy call-and-response chorus.  The song takes an interesting turn, however, with the discordant piano that introduces the verses which feature (along with ‘Ill Manors’) the strongest lyrics on the album.  Drew’s critique of consumerism in the song rival anything written by Polly Toynbee about the plight of the poor:  “The worship of money merged all colours and creed/Into one true religion that was driven by greed/Corporate machines trying to sell you shit you don’t need/On television and the ad breaks in between/Until people only cared about material things/Not lives with other fellow human beings”.

It is moments like that that, lyrically at least, raise the album above Who Needs Actions… Drew still has a tendency to let his lyrics come across as Daily Mail-style urban-poor horror stories – at one point he writes of a prostitute breast feeding her baby whilst having sex, for example.  But where Who Needs Actions… never really gave any indication of how Drew felt about how the poor are sometimes forced to live, Ill Manors repeatedly tries to make the point that people don’t choose to live these lives – it is all they know, and it is not they who should be condemned, but the society that allows people to be failed to this extent.  ‘Lost My Way’ puts this best:  “You judge them on the life that they lead/But then it’s not all as black and white as it seems/They’re all some way enslaved and their circumstances/Shape the way they behave in their battle on the street/That’s why these kids ain’t got no hope”.

In a career characterised by brave decisions, releasing Ill Manors is perhaps Drew’s bravest yet.  It is often noted that the 21st century has been curiously absent of musicians willing to engage with politics – no modern day Billy Bragg or Paul Weller.  Even the bands that have come closest have abandoned their strategy – The Enemy’s Tom Clarke recently spoke of how he’s taken to chronicling the “serious beauty in life” over political matters, and Reverend & The Makers have released a single called ‘Bassline’ that is as far away as possible from John McClure’s previous attempts to engage with current affairs.  With this decline in bands engaging with politics, it would appear the way has been cleared for hip-hop to be politicised.  Plaudits were rained down on the unknown MC Nxtgen when he released the highly critical ‘Andrew Lansley Rap’ last year, and newcomer Joey Bada$$ has (if somewhat incoherently) alluded to the anger at Wall Street and politicians most associated with the Occupy movement on his new 1999 mixtape. 

As we witness the destruction being wrought by the failure of the neoliberal orthodoxy, someone has got to seize on the anger being felt by ‘the 99%’.  With the poor receiving punitive jail sentences for things like stealing a bottle of water, while bankers engaged in fraud to the sum of billions of pounds get off with a resignation and a massive pay-off, the idea of equality before the law has been exposed as a cruel joke.  Ill Manors is at its most impressive when it fully engages with these matters, as in the title-track:  “There’s no such thing as broken Britain/We’re just bloody broke in Britain/What needs fixing is the system/Not shop windows down in Brixton”.  It might not sell as well as …Strickland Banks but Plan B deserves praise for making an album as visceral, brave and challenging as Ill Manors.

Review of ‘Here We Are’ by Citizens!

First published 28/05/12 on http://soundblab.com/content/content/view/id/4660/preview/1:

Looking at the track list for Citizens!’ debut album, and spying the wonderfully titled ‘(I’m In Love With Your) Girlfriend’, I was reminded of a bit in Alex James’s autobiography, Bit of a Blur, in which he wrote about Pulp: “They were in our birds knickers: devious little fuckers… At least Oasis said they were going to shag your bird”.  Citizens! are no Viva Brother-style Oasis re-hash, however.  Produced by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, who recently dismissed Oasis as “boring”, this is an indie pop album through and through.  So if Citizens! are channelling the spirit of Pulp and the balls of Oasis they must be onto a winner right?

Well, to a certain extent.  At their best Citizens! fit seamlessly into the line of bands like Mystery Jets, Late Of The Pier and Django Django (who have already produced a strong contender for album of the year) in throwing out irresistible synth-led pop songs.  ‘True Romance’ begins with plinky-plonky piano, interrupted by synth stabs, that lead to a chorus that sounds not dissimilar to a slowed-down version of the Golden Silvers song of the same name, and is equally as wonderful.  ‘Reptile’, which manages not only to make the line “Don’t let your blood run cold” sound sensuous but also has one of the most naggingly catchy choruses heard anywhere in 2012, is even better.  Lead singer Tom Burke sounds endearingly yearning as he purrs about “turning into a reptiiiiiiiile”, perhaps at odds with the lyrical content which seems to be a warning about drug addiction (“Feeding off your friends and hang out late/Everybody wants it but nobody waits”).

Then there’s the aforementioned ‘(I’m In Love With Your) Girlfriend” which vies with ‘Reptile’ for best song on the album.  Burke declares not only his love for your girlfriend (adding a casual “she likes me too”), but also your sister (“I took her home”), while simultaneously goading you (“Tell me/What do you plan to do?”) – but having written a tune this good he could probably still have a fair crack at seducing you too. 

The album isn’t without blemish.  ‘Caroline’ and ‘Love You More’ are fairly unremarkable and the band seem to revert to their comfort zone a little for the stretch of the album from ‘Nobody’s Fool’ to ‘She Said’ – which isn’t to say they’re bad songs, just that they lack that extra something special prevalent in the best songs on the album.  Closer ‘Know Yourself’, however, leaves the album on a positive note with the band sounding like they’ve thrown caution to the wind and, by eschewing the calculated approach, producing an understated gem.

The album is produced to a sheen by Kapranos, whose production work has previously impressed on The Cribs’ ‘Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever’.  Where certain  bands sound smothered by excessive production (the recent Alabama Shakes album, for example, could have done with being a bit more rough ‘n’ ready), it sounds appropriate with Citizens! This is unashamedly a pop album, and if some songs sound well-crafted rather than instinctive then what does that matter?  They’re still great songs.  As they themselves have been quoted as saying: “Pop is not a dirty word.  It’s a holy one”.  Here We Are is an accomplished debut – a little more Django Django- style experimentalism on album number two and they could be even better.