Sunday, 26 April 2015

REVIEW: Blur - 'The Magic Whip' (Parlophone Record‏s)

Its not everyday I get to review an album quite like this one. When the band that changed my life release their first album in 16 years, this becomes more than just a record, a life event in fact. 

A lot of groups fade out after the creative rot sets in, things have to come to a natural end, and the members move onto other things in the hope that they can reinvent themselves. This was not the case with Blur. In the late 90s, their last two albums as a four piece saw them on a creative high which cemented their reputation as legends. The magic was still there, and there could have been plenty of it to come, as proved by the tantalising non-album single 'Music Is My Radar'. None of us knew it at the time, but behind the scenes there was major turmoil tearing these four friends apart. Strained relationships and high tensions within the band led to Graham Coxon's exit in 2001. Blur were weakened, and one of music's greatest relationships was cut short. Who knows what they could have accomplished had they stayed intact...

The Coxon-less Blur hobbled on and re-emerged in 2003 with the patchy 'Think Tank', an album that was clearly missing something. The void became even more apparent when the band went out on tour and with Damon Albarn feeling more inspired by his other projects, activity within Blur gradually ceased as they all embarked on their individual lives. Without Blur, British music dried up as the noughties went on and many of us were feeling their absence by the time we'd realised it had been six years since their last appearance.

In 2009 it was hugely exciting to hear that Graham and the rest of the group had put their differences aside and were playing together again, leading to a triumphant and emotional return at Glastonbury that year. With their hits now all-time classics and their albums regarded as seminal works, the prospect of new material seemed somewhat unimaginable. What would Blur sound like after so many years away and could it ever be as good as it was the first time round? Rather than striving for a grand comeback hit, in 2010 they surprised us with the limited edition single 'Fools Day', a subtle, low-key reconnection, and more of a "hello again, how's it going?" rather than a sensational return. What was obvious was that 'Fool's Day' was a comma that suggested unfinished business, but with Albarn constantly distracting himself with other musical endeavours, it seemed that the four of them only had time to get together and bash out the old hits. To coincide with a series of brilliant shows in 2012, the band released two more new songs, and although I described 'Under The Westway' and 'The Puritan' as "wonderful", in retrospect they sound somewhat subdued, and again more of a hint that this was just them warming up for bigger events.

Myself and many other fans longed for a fully active Blur to return with a new album, and were certainly frustrated as the years produced nothing but "it might happen one day" replies from band members and rumours of "brilliant" recording sessions being halted. Fans cried out a hopeful cheer as news came in 2013 that the band had started making an album during a week's break from touring in Hong Kong, but our hopes were again extinguished. "I just haven’t got the time,” said Damon when questioned about making a new Blur album, adding that the other members were “just all doing other stuff” and that he couldn't "foresee us in the near future being in a position to finish" the material. In July 2014 he claimed that the album "may just be one of those records that never comes out", blaming the Hong Kong heat for the band returning home before work could be finished on the album. “If I’d been able to write the lyrics there and then about being there, we’d have finished the record,” he said. “I like making records in short periods of time… Sometimes, if you can’t do it all at once, it dissipates…”

Damon's successful solo album 'Everyday Robots' and subsequent tour kept him busy throughout 2014, and with a musical in the pipeline as well as talk of new material from Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad And The Queen, up until a few months ago it seemed unlikely that we'd hear from Blur anytime soon. Then on one morning in February 2015 came rumours that the band were set to announce a new album, and all of a sudden years of waiting finally came to an end as 'The Magic Whip''s existence was revealed to the world. Determined that there would be a new album, Graham Coxon returned to the recordings that were started during the five days spent in Hong Kong and reunited with producer Stephen Street to shape hours of elongated jams into structured compositions. "It was something we did off our own backs," Coxon explained. "It was quite an overwhelming project. There was jamming and sonic landscaping. I said, 'Damon, can I have a little chat? I said, 'Do you mind if I have a look at this music and see if there's anything worth pursuing. Id compare it to someone's notes, scrawling all over the page. We slung it over to Stephen and he looked through bits of it." After Alex James and Dave Rowntree laid down additional parts, Damon and Graham returned to the studio in December to write lyrics and complete the record. “They did some editing and some production work and sent around the initial tracks and we all realised we’d done something quite special there,” said drummer Rowntree. “There was 18 months [in-between recording the songs] which allowed us to have a bit of perspective on it. When they played it back, that was the time everyone got very excited.” Since the album’s completion last year, the band kept information about the new record under wraps. “We had a blood pact between us about who we were allowed to tell and who we weren’t..." said Rowntree. 

While fans were thrilled, a few pessimistic voices on social media posed questions such as "What's the point in Blur coming back with new stuff? Damon's solo work was getting really interesting, why resort to nostalgia?". Which was missing the point entirely, since the new music was made to escape being trapped entirely in the past. I myself was a bit cynical, but not about the reunion or the release of a new album. Instead, as a fan I was concerned that the way the record was put together might not lead to what I'd hoped for. I was both excited and very nervous about what 'The Magic Whip' would sound like. This is the band that soundtracked my youth, and because of that it seemed inevitable that nothing was ever going to live up to the songs they released during those years: "Although I have longed for a new Blur record for years, the last thing I'd want would be for them to record songs because they felt forced." I wrote in a blog post. "To make a great record, you often need to be inspired. I just hope that this album is more than a load of recordings made under pressure. It's also a bit odd that this seminal band are releasing a comeback album comprised of songs that have been put together in such an unorthodox and non-organic way..."

The fact that they decided not to continue with the recording sessions suggested that their hearts just weren't in it. It also looked like some of the band were more desperate to make a new record than others, and editing down a load of studio jams was "the only way it was going to happen". I've wanted a new Blur album more than anything, but not a half-arsed one that they felt pressured to make. Talk of these songs made from "anything we could salvage' didn't exactly fill me with confidence. However, it turns out that working in such a way may have actually resulted in their most natural record. 'The Magic Whip' is everything I wanted in a new Blur album and more.

As the album begins we are taken to a familiar scene as 'Lonesome Street' revisits the sound of 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' and 'The Great Escape'. Re-establishing the connection perfectly, it's like finding yourself in a vibrant place after a long absence and being greeted by some old mates who take you down various different streets, filling you in on all that has changed and the things that remain. With lyrical imagery involving things like "the 514 to East Grinstead", you might initially be fooled into thinking that the once forward-thinking Blur have taken a backwards step until Damon's pastoral shades, chord changes and Coxon's odd Syd Barrett-esque bridge pull you down unpredictable avenues, leaving you in no doubt that this is the beginning of an eventful and thrilling journey. After being transported from the backdrop of London in the mid 90s, the setting of the majestic 'New World Towers' is a very different one indeed, fast forwarding to the technologically connected and emotionally disconnected climate of 2015. Continuing on from the sensual melancholic atmospheres of Albarn's 'Everyday Robots' LP, its ghostly emotional impact and graceful, meditative beauty are achieved via an intricate, spacious arrangement. "I wanted that song to be a sort of science-fiction 'Greensleeves', so I was putting my energy into making it sound very English, but in a slightly off-kilter way" says Graham. "It's a bit like that weird cylindrical planet at the end of Interstellar – I loved that image from the film, so I was trying to write some chord sequences that sounded quite traditional, but putting these 1970s-sounding futuristic effects on top of them."

For an album shaped so heavily by Graham, there aren't as many distorted guitars as you'd expect. Maybe that's because most of them are crammed into the awesomely noisy Go Out.
Underlining their versatility as a unit, Coxon unleashes a torrent of stinging guitars against the thick wallop of the rhythm section before Damon's foghorn chorus vocal accompanies the blazing noise to lift the whole thing forcefully off the ground. It's exactly the sort of gloriously abrasive racket that we've been in dire need of since '13'. Close your eyes, turn it up loud and listen to everything Coxon does across the track's broodingly raucous 4 minutes and 40 minutes. The darkly playful melodies and the fat slinky groove of 'Ice Cream Man' prove to be a most infectious combination, reminiscent of what 'Think Tank' might have been like had Graham been involved. It's ominous vibes and sing-along verses won't take long to dig their way into the listener's conscious, but the following 'Thought I Was A Spaceman' is much less of an instant gratifier. A deep and substantial piece where a sad tranquility gathers instensity throughout, it requires a patient and attentive ear to absorb its layers of intricacies. It also finds the band continuing to evolve, with a cleverly executed Planet Of The Apes-style lyrical concept set to stratospheric atmospheres, with the patter of drum machines and shady, jazzy chords gradually leading to a mass of guitar noise taking off like a rocket as it builds to a climax. A psych-rock epic is the last thing you'd expect from an album that begins with a song like 'Lonesome Street', but such is this album's urgently eclectic and adventurously vitalised nature.

The quirky pogo punk romp 'I Broadcast' returns to far more familiar territory and comes loaded with driving Coxon riffs. Evoking the hectic nature of the place it was recorded in, it brings to mind a 21 year old lovechild spawned by 'Tracy Jacks' and 'Jubilee'. Its boisterous chant-along chorus will no doubt reawaken something inside many listeners, and its lively character is perfectly placed on the album to break up the more introspective moments. One such moment arrives in the form of the hauntingly fragile tearjerker 'My Terracotta Heart', a song that will strongly resonate with anyone experiencing the breakdown of a relationship, whether it be a musical partner, friend, family member or lover. Casting a poignant spell with its achingly soulful vocal lines, weeping guitars and mournful harmonies, again it's more reminiscent of Albarn's more recent musical territory. Lyrically it sees the frontman laying his heart bare once again as he laments the damage that his friendship with Graham has suffered over previous years. “I knew it was going to be an incredibly sad song, which is why I put that crying guitar on there,” says Coxon. “What I didn’t know at the time was that the lyrics would turn out to be about Damon and I, our long friendship and the ups and downs we’ve had.” 

The darkness at the heart of this album is displayed further with the magnificent 'There Are Too Many Of Us', one of the most surprising things here, where striking synth strings and military snares lead to a groove evoking the sound of a dangerously overpopulated human race marching towards their own doom. Growing in stature throughout, much like the overcrowded tower blocks that it conjures up images of, its apocalyptic cosmic disco sound isn't a million miles away from 'Magic Fly' by 70's outfit Space. Utilising qualities perfected during Damon's years spent working on the Gorillaz records, it's hard not to shed a tear of joy during the gloriously laid back 'Ghost Ship', a glistening glimpse into heaven where sumptuous notes, and a wondrous arrangement distract you from the fact that a Britpop band playing reggae really shouldn't sound this sensational. After that particular ship sails happily off into the sunset, gathering spells of darkness lay straight ahead as the heavy, claustrophobic moods of the creeping 'Pyongyang' rise to the surface. Yet somehow, glorious rays of sun burst through the clouds during a high reaching chorus that sits somewhere between 'This Is A Low' and 'To The End' while arriving from another previously unexplored place.

After such intense stuff, the ultimate helping of light relief arrives as the triumphant, celebratory singalong 'Ong Ong' captures the heart and the memory with immediate and joyous effect. Quite simply one of the most brilliantly direct pop songs Albarn has ever penned, its humble sweetness and instinctive hooks are impossible to resist, as is the noisy guitar that joins in for the last couple of bars. A classic. Again visiting a completely different territory, the powerful cinematic finale 'Mirrorball' moves slowly, slipping away mysteriously into the night with its shadowy guitar figures and a subtle breeze of darkly elegant strings.

Staying cool under pressure and delivering an effortlessly superb piece of work, Blur use the things that made them great in the past, combine them with the things they've learned since, and emerged revitalised to create something that feels familiar yet fresh. It has a sense of space not present on the previous albums, as well as a sense of alienation that stems from 'The Magic Whip' sounding appropriately very much like a British band making a record in Hong Kong. In places it's brighter and more anthemic than much of '13' and 1997's 'Blur', yet darker and more introspective than 'Parklife' and 'The Great Escape'. It's more focused and far more consistent than 'Think Tank' and more eclectic than 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' and 'Leisure'. It remembers how the world was the last time they met with us, and how things have changed since, while embracing being all grown up in the present day with a newfound sense of purpose. And like any great Blur record, it sees them evolving and exploring new ground. 

I was worried that a new album wouldn't live up to the ones that these four men released during my teen years. As it turns out, these new songs give me back the buzz I had in my youth and make me feel like a teenager all over again. If this does turn out to be the last time we ever hear from Blur, then what a brilliant way to end things on a high. However, music this great suggests a recharged unit who still have plenty of this sort of brilliance left in them, and 'The Magic Whip' could be just the start of another chapter in the story of this remarkable band.

The most complete and astonishing album that anyone has produced in years. And trust Blur to be the ones that made it. Thank you for not letting us down. 9.9/10

Sunday, 19 April 2015

REVIEW: Spearmint - 'News From Nowhere' (Hitback Records)

Some bands grow more complacent and more mellow with age. Cult indie heroes Spearmint have been active for nearly twenty years, yet here they are with a surprising socially, politically and environmentally concerned new album that lyrically ventures into what is sometimes soapbox territory. 'News From Nowhere' is their first album in eight years, and as frontman Shirley Lee explains: "as the years pass, you either let go of the convictions you held in your youth, or your principles grow stronger and you become more fervent about your beliefs. Either way a gap opens between you and your younger self. This, more than anything, is what this album is about."

Moody resignation, superb guitar hooks and shuffling beats characterise the impressive opener 'It's Not As Far To Fall', while 'The Gleaners' serves up bright indie pop that understands the importance of being resourceful, inspired by an 1857 painting of the same name that depicts peasants making a simple living from the land. The sleeve notes even reference 'The Wombles' and their ability to make use of everyday things thrown away by man. The driving electro flavours and spacey synths of 'Light From A Dead Star' provide the musical accompaniment to thoughts about the shoddy treatment of animals, its chorus making the message pretty clear: "if you want to save the world stop eating meat".

If you feel overwhelmed by being given such a lecture, you'll prefer the light relief of the excellent 'Tony Wright', a song that seems to be about indie kids from the 90s growing old, and presumably named after the lead singer of Terrorvision. Either that or it's actually about Lee himself growing old and could very well be about a different Tony Wright. But the first one makes more sense to me. With one of the album's most memorable melodies and a heartwinning sense of fond reflection, it's classic Spearmint.

The slightly unconvincing 'Children Of The Sixties, Children Of The Seventies' is an urgent indie-rave rallying cry against complacency and apathy, with an underlying acknowledgement of the lack of protest in popular music. The stripped down acoustic, jazz-infused 'Not Small, Just Far Away' fails to make much of an impression compared to the brilliant, addictively tuneful Northern Soul-tinged 'My Anger', which charms and intrigues in effortless fashion, providing the album's finest moment. Elsewhere, the high reaching 'Punctuation' grows through a short series of tastily melodic movements before 'The Dolphins' warns of the dangers of overfishing and bleeding the world dry, setting the verses to cool, spaced out funk that promises more than its flaccid chorus delivers. It's set out in such a way, you can't be sure which is the chorus and which is the verse.

The title track is another pleasing moment, influenced by a book of the same name in which (as quoted inside the album) "the hero falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up the next morning to discover he is living in a socialist utopia one hundred years later". Breaking from the references and politics, the album closes with the playful, positive and beautifully understated 'I Will Sleep Tonight', a song which ends the record with a smile.

It's melodic indie pop music with a conscience, adding a refreshingly direct sense of confrontation and a sense of experienced wisdom to the sort of infectious tunes Spearmint have always excelled at. 6.2/10

Go HERE to listen to album track 'Punctuation'

Saturday, 18 April 2015

REVIEW: James - 'La Petite Mort' (Cooking Vinyl/BMG Records)

(Originally published in 2014) 

'La Petite Mort' is the 11th full-length effort from Manchester indie legends James, and their first new material in four years. It was written after frontman Tim Booth had to come to terms with the deaths of both his mother and one of his closest friends, experiences that have shaped and influenced the themes and tones of this elevating new record. "They were two very opposite experiences," says Booth, "my mother died in my arms at the age of 90. It was a quite beautiful experience, euphoric; it felt like a birth. And then my friend went. She had kept her cancer from me, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I was devastated.”

Overwhelming emotions can bring something out from the soul, leading to rich flows of inspiration that can translate into powerful artistic expression. But 'La Petite Mort' never sounds morbid, and although it's sometimes dark, sad and thought provoking, it's actually an inspiring, uplifting and euphoric piece of work that (amongst other things) looks at the idea that death may not be the end. A definite rejuvenation also coincides with the group all recording together again, following two mini albums from 2010 which involved the band members sending each other their individual ideas to work on. As a result of reconnecting with each other, this is a set of songs that succeeds in capturing their seismic live energy. Over 30 years into their career, and James are making some of their best music.

It comes alive immediately with the sensational 'Walk Like You''s dramatic keyboard intro and moodily defiant atmosphere. Although it's largely based around a few easy chords, it's Booth's bewitching vocal lines and the band's way of interpreting melodies that make it what it is. It builds in captivating fashion over the course of its glorious seven minutes, rising up to a storming crescendo lit up by Andy Diagram's joyous trumpet and Saul Davis's urgent, red hot fiddle that truly set the senses alight. A James classic. 

The mechanical beats and trance synths provide a tantalising backdrop to Booth's lyrics on 'Curse Curse', effortlessly demonstrating his wonderful way with words, and setting out the scene imaginatively to another fine melody. The astonishing 'Moving On' deals with loss in a most beautiful and deeply affecting way, while also approaching death itself as a beginning of another chapter, including the possibility of meeting loved ones again in another life. A line as poignant as "never said "I love you", hope you knew" is delivered with a beautifully expressive vocal in a way that proves impossible not to be moved by. The more you hear it, the more it chokes you up. 'Gone Baby Gone' is initially a bit of a throwaway, but that may be part of a knowing, tongue in cheek intention, as suggested by the "love love love love love, blah blah blah blah blah" refrain and the line "there's no depth to the song that you're singing". Beneath the surface there is far more to it, a number which grows more infectious with each listen and comes loaded with more than enough singalong potential. Although it didn't make an immediate impression when it was unveiled as the first album taster a few months ago, the sexually charged drama of 'Frozen Britain' is another grower that makes far more sense when heard alongside the other songs, buzzing with tasty guitar hooks, electrifying passion and a huge anthemic chorus.

On the album's magnificent centrepiece 'Interrogation' tortured, yearning emotions and self accusations of hypocrisy are put to a tension building pulse, building in atmosphere and strength throughout while displaying more immaculate songwriting instincts. Again there's that voice, heavenly calming one second, then making the spine shiver by rising into sheer power. 
The most surprising moment arrives with the soft piano and elegant darkness of 'Bitter Virtue', where Booth departs from his usual vocal style on a song with an odd cabaret feel and uncharacteristically light chorus. It may divide opinion, but it's good to find them exploring new avenues at this point in their career. The strident 'All In My Mind' rings with a chime of triumph and heartfelt resilience, while the wonderful 'Quicken The Dead' is a shadowy, piano driven waltz that reminds you to seize the moment, grab hold of life and value your loved ones while you and they are still here. Rounding things off perfectly, the sensual, mysteriously haunting qualities meet with progressive growth and powerful emotions again on the stunning closer 'All I'm Saying', an immersive, thought provoking goodbye.

Although they split for six years in the early 2000's, not many bands last as long as James have, and to hear them making music as strong and potent as this after 30 years is an absolute joy. 'La Petite Mort' is a dazzling addition to their discography and easily their finest collection of songs in years. 8.9/10

NEW: Blur - 'My Terracotta Heart'

With the release of 'The Magic Whip' just over a week away, Blur have unveiled another new song song from the upcoming album. The stunning 'My Terracotta Heart' is perhaps the album's most brutally sincere and heartbreakingly fragile moment, especially when you hear the story behind the lyrics. Graham Coxon said: "I knew it was going to be an incredibly sad song, which is why I put the crying guitar on there. What I didn't know at the time was that the lyrics would turn out to be about Damon and I, our long-term friendship and the ups and downs we’ve had."

"Damon and I have an increased respect for each other because of this record, and we're not ashamed to let each other know about that increased respect. But what we also have a lot of history, and our friendship – like any friendship between two people in a band together – has had to go through a lot. It’s been put to the test, and we’ve often let each other down. This record was a way of saying, ‘Sorry for being such a pain in the arse for the last 20 years.'"

Meanwhile, fans in Los Angeles were able to hear 'The Magic Whip' in its entirety today (April 18) as an ice cream van rportedly travelled to various record stores in the city. People who have purchased a record (presumably meaning pre-ordered 'The Magic Whip') will be given free ice cream while anyone using the secret code 'THE MAGIC WHIP' will receive a flexi-disc featuring 'Lonesome Street' on it. 'The Magic Whip' is out on April 27, and is the first proper Blur album since 1999's '13'.

Friday, 17 April 2015

REVIEW: Manic Street Preachers - 'Futurology' (Sony Records)

(Originally published in 2014) 

When Nicky Wire announced in 2010 that the Manic Street Preachers were going to have "an extended break", we all knew that their eventual return would be an interesting one. Their formula had begun to wear thin, and with the "last shot at mass communication" that was 'Postcards From A Young Man', they were often repeating themselves to lesser effect. A realisation that rock bands could no longer have hit singles coincided with a turning point moment for the group, where they decided that a rethink was in order. So they returned last year in 2013 with the wonderful 'Rewind The Film', an album that finally accepted that their days of mainstream superstardom were in the past, and that trying to repeat themselves was doing them no good. It had a sad, resigned tone to it, like an admission of growing old and feeling past your prime. It also took a retrospective look at their own past, as well as the gradual erosion of the things they hold dear, laid a few ghosts to rest and tried to figure out a way forward, all things that continue in a much more proactive manner on 'Futurology'. They've had plenty of experience at bouncing back, trying to make a fresh start, and changing people's perception of what they "should" be. Wasn't a lot of 'Everything Must Go' about that? Maybe it's impossible to "escape from a history" as eventful and astonishing as the one the Manics have had, but 'Futurology' ensures that they can still stay significant and relevant, proving that their continued existence is not only necessary, but hugely vital.

The difference between this and the preceding album is immediately apparent as the bright, uplifting title track bursts in. "We'll come back one day, we never really went away" sings Nicky on a wonderful chorus, which sadly isn't matched by a somewhat unconvincing verse. Of course they never really went away, 'Futurology' is about finding a new sense of purpose. And plenty of it can be found in the triumphant 'Walk Me To The Bridge', which pushes forward like some sort of transportation powering across the continent through the night, delivering a sucker punch of a chorus that has heavy touches of 80s stadium rock to it. Although it may initially sound like it was written about the disappearance of former lyricist Richey Edwards, it's actually "about the ├śresund Bridge that joins Sweden and Denmark", as Nicky Wire explains. "A long time ago when we were crossing that bridge I was flagging and thinking about leaving the band (the “fatal friend”). It’s about the idea of bridges allowing you an out of body experience as you leave and arrive in different places." Lyrically it often sees them trying to make some sense of their current position, asking themselves questions, reflecting on their own history, and taking a leap forward into unknown territories, excited by the uncertainty of what the future holds. Fully aware that "old songs leave long shadows", it's an album that sets out to cross new bridges, defy expectations and not be afraid to take risks. Ironically for a band no longer trying to write hit singles, this album delivers their most infectious choruses in years.

Indeed it is a very different kettle of fish to its predecessor, which was recorded during the same sessions. While 'Rewind The Film' "can't fight this war anymore", 'Futurology' declares that "we need to go to war again", as the band take a stand against the lack of rebellion in today's popular culture on the abrasive, unsettling militant groove of 'Let's Go To War'. Imagining a frightening future where "working class skeletons lay scattered in museums", it's a surprising moment that's not too far from a sinister trip hop version of 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King'. The magnificent 'Next Jet To Leave Moscow' references their past flirtations with Communism over a liberated, Krautrock-flavoured backdrop that brings to mind the similar energetic melancholy of The Clash's 'Spanish Bombs', and comes complete with an elevating guitar solo from JDB. There are echoes of 'The Holy Bible' too, but the tone is a great deal more introspective, and beautifully melodic. The European influence isn't just a purely musical one, as the intense, menacing stomp 'Europa Geht Durch Mich' demonstrates, with its references to roads and motion symbolic of a group travelling forwards. A commanding German-sung second verse from actress Nina Hoss sends shivers down the spine. Once again the Manics sound dangerous, and prepared to stand up and fight. 

However, the record is dragged down needlessly by the ill-fitting oriental ballad 'Divine Youth', an awkward sounding collaboration with Welsh harpist Georgia Ruth which doesn't work as a duet, and doesn't capture the imagination in the same way as the rest of the album. B side quality at best. It's followed by the complete contrast of 'Sex, Power, Love And Money', a startling blast of grunge-disco where we find James barking out the verses like a rock n roll army sergeant before launching into a mighty chorus that again shows the Clash's influence on them hasn't worn off and probably never will. It also contains a blistering guitar solo that wouldn't have sounded out of place on either of the first three albums. Then we're treated to one of the biggest surprises here, tje instrumental post-punk freak out 'Hugheskova (Dreaming A City)', which recalls 'Low'-era Bowie doing a cosmic funk cop show theme. In particular, the atmosphere and superb drum sound seem to have been influenced by 'Low''s 'Speed Of Life', which like 'Futurology', was recorded at the Hansa studios near the Berlin Wall. 

Lines are drawn between the slate-wiping ideas of radical Russian art and the hollowness of modern culture's dumbed down, disposable nature on pretty synth lament 'Black Square', a slow burning beauty which revisits musical ground last heard on 2004's opinion-dividing 'Lifeblood'. 'Futurology' is also destined to provoke initial mixed reactions. On the first listen, I didn't immediately warm to many of these songs, and felt that the band I fell in love with were barely recognisable anymore. After the second time I played it, all that changed. One thing that takes a lot of getting used to at first is the unfamiliar sound of the occasional guest vocalists. On the stunning 'Between The Clock And The Bed', you could easily be forgiven for beginning to think that the CD has accidentally been mispressed with another artist's track, as Scritti Pollitti man Green Gartside's voice emerges over the relaxed soul groove it slips smoothly into. However, by the time Bradfield's soaring, life affirming vocal melody arrives near the end, you may very well have fallen in love with another new side of the Manics. And that dazzling, uplifting feeling that shines throughout the song? Look beneath and examine the tortured lyrics, inspired by an unsettling painting by Norwegian artist Munch which gave the track its name. Returning immediately to darker musical territory is the incredible 'Misguided Missile', the sort of urgent, trail blazing excitement that we haven't heard from them in years. As well as featuring a hugely enjoyable bassline, it rhymes "schadenfreude" with "void", and delivers another massive singalong chorus. Joining the dots with 'Rewind The Film' is the ghostly, melancholic sigh of '(The View From) Stow Hill', which would rather spend time appreciating the world's natural beauty than indulging in a modern routine of "misguided tweets" and "sad Facebooking". It would have made a charming closer, but instead 'Mayakovsky' ends the record with a noodly instrumental hard rock sci-fi jam that's interesting enough but not really substantial or remarkable enough to be included here.

While 'Rewind The Film' is a more consistent and focused album, 'Futurology' strikes the most powerful blows, but gets points deducted for a few wobbly moments. Still, you can't expect them to try new things and not make the odd error. As well as movements in new directions, we still get all the things that have always made the Manics great: the incredible tunes, the slogans, the values, and of course James Dean Bradfield's magnificent voice. I'll say that these last two albums both stand as their strongest works since the 90s. Reignited once again, with 'Futurology' the Manics have written one of the most interesting chapters in their fascinating and eventful story. 8/10

Thursday, 16 April 2015

REVIEW: Martin Carr - 'The Breaks' (Tapete Records)

(Originally published in 2014)

Martin Carr was the songwriter behind the Boo Radleys, who built up an army of fans in the 90s putting out brilliantly experimental pop records and even cracked the mainstream with the eternal 1995 radio staple 'Wake Up Boo'. After the commercial failure of their final (and massively overlooked) album 'Kingsize', the group split in 1998 and Carr returned a couple of years later as Bravecaptain, before eventually deciding to release records under his own name. With many other 90s bands reforming, there has been no hint of the Boo Radleys returning to action, and very few people would expect them to anyway. 

It's a pleasure to find Carr returning with his first album in five years. "A theme running through my work is not fitting in,” he says. "Whether it was at school, work, in a band and even now, a 46-year-old with two small children – I always feel slightly alienated from the process. I think everybody knows what’s going on except me.” 

Backed by a group of musicians including  Andy Fung (Cymbient, Derrero, No Thee No Ess) on drums, the album lifts you into the clouds right from the beginning as it opens with 'The Santa Fe Skyway', a glorious helping of Stax-flavoured dream-soul that scores top marks all round, particularly for its joyous instrumentation. With the prospect of often having to play solo in mind, Carr wrote many of these songs for playing on the acoustic guitar, resulting in a set of tracks with strong melodies at its core. And it's more than evident on the thriving, organ driven high point 'St Peter In Chains', a glorious burst of vitality where Carr masks dark subjects with a bright tune, a trick he has pulled off so well in the past. The reflective sigh of 'Mainstream' revisits Jimmy Webb/Bacharach flavours reminiscent of that final Boo Radleys LP 'Kingsize', drawing lines between now and then. Lyrically it's an interesting piece that compares Carr's current place in mainstream society with the contrast of his days in the music business, describing getting up in the morning to take the kids to school, and being temporarily taken back in time whenever the breakfast show anthem 'Wake Up' comes on the radio. 

With the beautifully haunting 60s colours of 'Mountain', we get a classic Carr moment, immaculately arranged and built on the sort of great song crafting that would make it a standout on any of his previous albums. Another highlight follows with the ghostly acoustic beauty of 'Sometimes It Pours', a fine moment delivered in that voice and melodic style that (like much of his previous work) seem to suit Autumn like nothing else, tones embedded with a genuine melancholic yet uplifting quality. Although it develops nicely near the end, 'Senseless Apprentice' is bright but not quite as strong musically, while 'No Money In My Pocket' compels with touches of lyrical humour and a reminder to make the most of what you've got. After experimenting with electronics on previous releases, 'The Breaks' has a more organic feel and each song has plenty of room to breathe, with a humble warmth and modesty radiating sublimely from 'I Don't Think I'll Make It', another standout moment that demonstrates his undiminished brilliance as a songwriter. He doesn't always get it completely right all the time. Like on a few of the Boo Radleys numbers, a good verse turns out to be an unfulfilled promise on the irritating 'Mandy Get Your Mello On', which is ruined by a weak chorus and sounds especially weak in comparison to the rest of this LP. Luckily it's only a small blip, as 'The Breaks' winds down in playfully optimistic, beautifully subtle fashion with the quietly upbeat acoustic mood of the closing title track. 

In terms of his vocal performance, being without the Boo Radleys for so long has gradually enabled Carr to step further out of the shadows, and as a result now sings with more authority than on previous records. His gift for classic pop songwriting is as outstanding as ever during the best of what 'The Breaks' has to offer. There's more intimacy throughout this record, which allows the listener a deeper insight into Carr's life and a swim through his headspace. By the end of 'The Breaks', we've learned a lot more about this man and feel like we're finally a little bit closer to actually knowing him. And any album that features the line "If Jesus ran a chip shop all our fish would be free" has to be worth checking out doesn't it? 

Flawed but charmingly understated, and occasionally wonderful, it's a welcome return from one of British music's unsung heroes. 7.2/10

REWIND: Add N To (X) - 'Metal Fingers In My Body'

From the year 1999, the brilliant and now sadly defunct Add N To (X) and a song about having sex with a robot. 

I remember buying this from Replay Records in Bath, back when it came out as a single on 12" vinyl. I played my copy for the first time in ages the other week and it still sounds fantastic. 

Check out the utterly obscene promo video below (if YouTube haven't made it unavailable in your country).

The song was taken from the band's third album 'Avant Hard', which was released on Mute Records.