Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz Review


It’s been five years since Sufjan Stevens last released a song-based full length album, and much pressure has been put on the Detroit born folk-rocker in the wake of the success of 2005 hit Illinois. Despite announcing that he would release 50 concept albums based on each of the American States, Stevens seems to have abandoned this idea, instead choosing to take a new direction with his music.

His latest effort breaks away from his signature baroque sound in favour of heavy electronics and drum machines. There are still the various instruments quintessential to Stevens’ style, such as flutes and horns, and these are incorporated into the automated modulation to varied effect.

Supposedly the album’s title (mysteriously pronounced “Age of Odds”) is a reference to the apocalyptic artwork of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson and the album itself reflects this, being somewhat darker than his previous work both in terms of  its themes and sound.

The album itself begins very safely with “Futile Devices”, a beautiful expression of love, created through the medium of guitars and keyboards combined with Stevens’ ethereal vocals. The following track “Too Much” offers a gentle easing into Steven’s new electronic sound as, despite being heavily orchestrated with blips and punchy synths, it contains a highly catchy melody. Here, the combination of sweeping flutes with synthesizers and drum machines works surprisingly well.

As the album progresses it becomes increasingly experimental, ending with the epic 25 minute “Impossible Soul”, which represents the pinnacle of his tentative exploration and contains fetching melodies and a multitude of instruments; from some rather avant-garde guitar to truly bizarre strings.

Stevens is evidently multi-talented with his incredible instumental versatility. This is not his first electronic endeavour; his 2001 album Enjoy Your Rabbit, based on the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, was entirely electronic. However, in some instances there is a feeling that his eccentricity has gone slightly too far.

Many of the songs are just too obscure, making them inaccessible and in some cases chaotic and disorganised: more of a cacophony than a symphony. For those into the likes of highly experimental music, this is definitely an album to explore, but for the standard Stevens fan the song title “Too Much” may be an apt summary of his latest effort.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 19th 2010.

Broken Bells – Broken Bells Review


‘Broken Bells’ is the self-titled album from the American indie rock band consisting of artist and producer Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse and the lead vocalist and guitarist of The Shins James Mercer. Burton is no stranger to collaborations having produced for Damon Albarn’s side project Gorillaz , Beck, the Black Keys and being one half of funk-soul project Gnarls Barkley with singer Cee-Lo Green. Burton and Mercer have already worked together on the track ‘Insane Lullaby’ from the quintessential album ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ from Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse which when initially released in physical form contained only a blank cd-r but is set for a proper release in June.

We were introduced to the opening song ‘The High Road’ in December of last year and so anyone who has been avidly following updates from this band will be familiar with the track. The combination of Mercer’s sultry vocals and acoustic guitar against Burton’s downtempo hip-hop sweeping analog synths is superb. The following song ‘Vaporize’ beginning simply with the strum of an acoustic leading into some slightly reverbed vocals and then the addition of an electric organ and snares makes for another excellent track.

Other highlights on the album include the bouncy pop track ‘The Ghost Inside’ with a hugely catchy melody delivered in stunning falsetto from Mercer and the addition of a hand clap to the synthetic drumbeat with soaring synths and ‘Sailing to Nowhere’ with its sense of yearning and a complex mix of computer modulated tones and a switching from electronic to acoustic to piano ending with deeply moving strings.

Some critics have heralded the album as innovative and a prime matching of musical talents whereas others dismiss it as nothing particularly original in the line of soul infused trip-hop and similar in sound to Burton’s previous work. Personally, I think the album is excellent but perhaps peters out during the second half but only in contrast to the strength of the opening tracks, the latter still being good songs. It is definitely an album to check out, especially for fans of Danger Mouse or The Shins but not necessarily an album that will make history.

‘Broken Bells’ will be released on March 9th

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach Review


It’s been five years since Damon Albarn has released anything from his cartoon electronic, pop, hip- hop outfit Gorillaz. The third studio album from the group and one of the most highly anticipated albums of 2010 but is it any good? I think the problem with creating so much hype around an album is that unless it’s an absolute masterpiece one tends to be disappointed and I think that is definitely the case here.

I think the main problem with this album is that it is trying to be too ambitious as a follow up to ‘Demon Days’ which was beautifully produced by Danger Mouse was always going to be difficult. Given the massively high status of Gorillaz they are pretty much able to pick and choose any artist they like to collaborate with as can be seen in ‘Plastic Beach’ with the huge array of guest artists from differing genres. There is a sense that this album is almost overproduced with Albarn trying to mix genres together where they don’t go. For example the song ‘White Flag’ which features Kano, Bashy & The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music rather than blending together in an original fashion it seems to be very much stop and start between the very different orchestral music which cuts off abruptly as the hip hop begins.
Very much a conceptual album it seems to point towards the direction that the music industry is currently heading towards where in the name of originality artists are attempting to mash together competing types of music as can be seen in the emergence of fusion genres such as folktronica and crunk. It seems unusual to combine hip hop artists and rock artists on the same record but this is exactly what Albarn has done making it appear more of a mixtape than an album.

Don’t get me wrong, although this may sound a very pessimistic review many of the songs taken on their own are really quite excellent, for example ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ featuring Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals and Gorillaz regular De La Soul is a very upbeat hip hop track with a melodious chorus from Albarn that works really well. ‘Some Kind of Nature’ featuring Lou Reed from The Velvet Underground with his gruff vocals, staccato piano and electronic drums and synths along with Albarns soothing tones in the chorus is exquisite and ‘Plastic Beach’ featuring the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon is another standout track.Not just that but some of the Albarn only tracks are brilliant as well such as ‘On Melancholy Hill’.

It seems difficult then to judge the album as it contains some truly exceptional tracks as would be expected from Gorillaz but personally I don’t feel it flows as an album. Perhaps it is something that grows on the listener with time and one becomes able to appreciate the links between the tracks and see what Albarn is trying to portray but there is a definite sense that in attempting to compile the best collection of superstar appearances something has been lost in the production of the music.

‘Plastic Beach’ is to be released on March 8th

A preview of the album can be heard in its entirety for free here.

The Knife – Tomorrow, In a Year Review


The new album from the Scandinavian siblings is one that is definitely different. Rather than a standard release it is the soundtrack for an opera based on Charles Darwin’s seminal work ‘On the Origin of Species’ which they wrote for Danish performance group ‘Hotel Pro Forma’ and so cannot really be seen as a follow up to their 2006 album ‘Silent Shout’ but rather more of a side project. A collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, it really stretches the boundaries of modern music. It seems to be the popular thing in modern opera to recruit the aid of contemporary pop artists as was seen in the ‘Monkey Opera’ whose soundtrack was written by Blur frontman Damon Albarn.

An album that can’t really be put on as background music it has to be viewed as a performance piece and thus in conjunction with the opera that it is written for. The opening song (if you can call it that) is a collection of minimal clicks and droplet modulations reminiscent to the intro for ‘Like A Pen’ immediately leaving the listener questioning the intentions of the album. As the album progresses, the juxtaposition of beautiful classical vocals against the harsh and garish synthetic noises provides a truly original concept as can be seen in ‘Ebb Tide Explorer’ which offers a chilling combination of soothing masculine tones and very deep synthesizers with an ever present treble that is constantly fluctuating in intensity. The addition of outside singers Kristina Wahlin Momme, Danish actress Lærke Winther Andersen and Swedish pop artist Jonathan Johansson adds dimension to the album, the Scandinavian vocals perfect for the record.

It has to be taken with a fairly open mind as some of the intros for tracks, such as ‘Variation of Birds’ would seem more appropriate in a Merzbow or at the least one of Aphex Twin’s more out there records. It is only in combination with the vocal parts that the music becomes in anyway accessible unless for the overly pretentious. There is a definite underlying development which progresses through the album with ‘Letter to Henslow’ using human vocals with delay effects to simulate jungle animal noises and the following track ‘Schoal Swarm Orchestra’ where what I assume is the scratching of a microphone produces a similar feral sound.

It isn’t until cd two that the album becomes properly accessible to someone who is only listening and not watching and one is able to relate to a more ‘Knife’ like sound. ‘Annie’s Box’ offers a gorgeous combination of violin and soprano whilst the transition from ‘Tumult’ into the breath taking odyssey that is ‘Colouring of Pigeons’ is superb.
I would like to give the album a better rating and perhaps I am not doing the album justice but its initial inaccessibility which would only be more suitable for the opera it is written for makes this hard to do so. Nevertheless it is an extremely engrossing album and one definitely worth a listen.

‘Tomorrow, In a Year’ is out on digital release and will be released on cd on March 1st. Also, the opera is touring various European countries, information of which can be found here

Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back Review


It’s been a while since Peter Gabriel has given us something to really sink our teeth into with his last solo album ‘Up’ being released in 2002 almost a decade ago. His latest album ‘Scratch My Back’ which came out today features a selection of covers of various new and old artists encompassing a diverse range of styles. Unlike the standard cover, Gabriel offers an insight into his own creativity by giving us his own interpretations of the songs aided only by various orchestral instruments arranged by John Metcalfe and none of the standard rock band set up. His husky voice gives a sense of raw emotion to each of the songs which conveys new meaning to them and allows the listener to approach them from a different perspective.

The title of the album is so for a reason as Gabriel plans to release another record later on in the year aptly named ‘I’ll Scratch Yours’ where the artists involved in Gabriel’s project will return the favour by covering one of Gabriel’s tracks with The Magnetic Fields’ cover of the Gabriel song ‘Not One of Us’ already available to download.

The result of Gabriel’s interpretation of each of these songs is ambivalent as for some songs it seems to work really well whilst others seem to detract from the poignancy and success of the originals. For example his cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’ which is already a highly emotional song becomes rather exorbitant, however, tracks such as ‘Mirrorball’ originally by Elbow are made beautiful with the addition of strings and his deep, hoarse voice.

There are a few classics in there such as a cover of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ which are insightful whereas the addition of newer artists such as Regina Spektor, Arcade Fire and Radiohead gives a fresher more modern feel to the album.

An album that could potentially reinstate Gabriel’s musical creativity or see him as ‘past his best’ it is one that will see a thorough analysis from critics. Personally I feel that in ‘Scratch My Back’ Gabriel has presented us with a discernment of his own feelings of today’s music, hand picking tracks which although may not be the most loved or appreciated of songs truly encompass the spirit of decent song writing reflecting true creativity and emotion. ‘Scratch My Back’ shows a Gabriel back on form in a society that is constantly changing its opinion of what constitutes ‘decent’ music and managing to slot itself amongst the contemporary artists of today.

‘Scratch My Back’ was released on February 15th on Virgin

Hot Chip – One Life Stand Review


Few bands have been as consistent in the quality of their music as Hot Chip. From their debut album ‘Coming on Strong’ in 2004 they have been giving us their quirky electronic pop which the nation can’t get enough of. Their latest album ‘One Life Stand’ is no exception containing its fair share of blippy synthesizers, drum machines and Alex Taylor’s dulcet falsetto. The epitome of geek chic, Hot Chip manages to combine an array of electronic instruments with heartfelt lyrics giving us their original sound.

Their latest effort, arguably less get up and go then their previous releases seems to be more of a relaxed and sentimental affair. Love seems to be a recurring theme throughout this album as can be seen simply from the title’s of some of the tracks: ‘Hand me down your love’, ‘We have love’ and the title track whereas ‘Brothers’ offers Joe Goddard’s insight into brotherly love. The opening song ‘Thieves in the Night’ sets up the standard for the rest of the album with atmospheric synths leading into a thrusting drum beat and soaring vocals. They still have the catchy dance tune similar to the likes of ‘Ready for the Floor’ on ‘Made in the Dark and ‘Over and Over’ in ‘The Warning’ in the form of the title track where the combination of Taylor’s euphonious singing and the floaty vocals of Joe Goddard with a stable backing and the addition of steel drums make for a track to remember. ‘Take it In’ offers another more upbeat track with evil backing synths in the verse leading to a much more ethereal chorus.

However, there are a couple of down points in the album most notably tracks such as ‘I Feel Better’ where the effects put on the vocals in the verse make it sound more akin to a popular house tune found in a commercial club and the track ‘Slush’ doesn’t seem to have enough substance leaving you wondering where the song is going apart from a cheesy exclamation of love. Finally, arguably the best track on the album is ‘Alley Cats’ whose chilled out guitars and mellow vocals can be paralleled to the likes of ‘And I was a boy from School’. Despite these minor setbacks ‘One Life Stand’ is a very good album overall and one that definitely warrants a listen.