Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Athlete - Singles 01-10 (EMI)

Is it that time of year already? The first of countless Best Of albums of 2010 has hit our Creative Zen (because iPod = shut up), functioning almost as an advent calendar for the digital age. And should you find this neat little anthology from Deptford indiesmiths Athlete in your stocking in a couple months’ time, you might be rather chuffed. (Assuming, y’know, you’ve also got some big presents.)

Singles 01-10 documents the rather impressive catalogue of a band who were never quite the stadium-filling rock behemoths they were often close to being. And yet, as we look back along their musical timeline, it’s a testament to a unique charm that would most likely have been diluted in a bigger arena.

The sundrenched, emotive Beautiful remains an unqualified classic, leaving you wondering how long it’ll be until a hapless Danish Idol runner-up proffers a hideous dance version, and the contagious thump of both Hurricane and Superhuman Touch demonstrate that the band’s knack for uptempo is equally capable.

The transition from the outward kook of Vehicles & Animals to the comparably sensible, introverted Tourist seemed a rather awkward one, given that it occurred via the low-key radio behemoth Wires. However, the two albums sit incredibly comfortably nestled in amongst one another. Meanwhile, the bigger – Coldplayesque, some unfairly commented at the time – sound of later material also works remarkably well in the mix.

Although Singles 01-10 demonstrates a chronological progression (when considered in that order, at least), there are probably few examples of Best Of albums as cohesive and as fluid as this. And as if to prove the point, closing track - and new recording – Back Track has noticeably more in common with Vehicles & Animals-era Athlete than with more recent offerings, going full-circle and tying the compilation up rather nicely as an overall package.

For a band who've spent the best part of their career being likened to other acts, Athlete actually boast a truly identifiable sound. Gigantic melodies, back-to-front riffs, a penchant for the occasional electro-twiddle and a generous smattering of bold quirkiness all come together to create something that is solely and unequivocally Athlete.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Honking Box Preview: The Great British Bake-Off

One year ago, when BBC Two allowed - or arguably, steered - The Restaurant into a laughable spiral of self-parody, it marked the premature end of a fresh, interesting elimination show which stood head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Quite why such poor decisions were made shall remain a mystery, but at least BBC Two have gone some way to clawing back a bit of respect, in the form of its newest food-based reality masterpiece.

So as The Great British Bake-Off reaches its grand final, we thought it'd be apt to celebrate its brilliance. And the two most basic components of the show do that fairly easily: (1) Mel & Sue; (2) food. Television doesn't get much better, really, does it? However, when you consider that the food in question is specifically within the realm of baking, the drool factor is at least quadrupled, easily trumping the likes of Masterchef (though no matter how good the food is on Masterchef, its repugnant hosts soon put you off). Cakes, breads, biscuits, tarts, pasties... this truly is food porn.

And the overall level of talent far surpasses that of The Restaurant. Granted, baking barely covers a fraction of the skills required of competitors on The Restaurant, but any of the ten contestants featured on The Great British Bake-Off would have made an admirable and deserving winner - rather unlike certain individuals who felt wrapping boiled carrots and green beans in a tortilla constituted Mexican cuisine, or the inexcusable champions who used cocktails to wallpaper over diabolical cooking. The closest we've come to such madness on The Great British Bake-Off is Jasminder's peculiar Jelly Tots bread, and even then, it invoked a morbid mixture of disgust and genuine curiosity to sample.

The final, which takes place in the gardens of Fulham Palace, sees the remaining three contestants - flowery mumsy-type Miranda; slightly-barbed Northern grafter-type Ruth; and the geektacular Edd - donning their flour-caked aprons to whip up their bestest efforts yet. From the earliest stages, a Ruth/Miranda final seemed fairly likely, though it's been hard to fault Edd's consistent efforts. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the absence of peculiar lesbian child Jonathan, whose elimination a few weeks back was unprecedented. Our money is on Edd, but whoever lifts the trophy, which we imagine is a gold-plated croissant (or at least, it should be) will be more than deserving.

Food aside (but only momentarily, don't worry), the return of Mel & Sue as partnership is, in itself, televisual ambrosia. Ever since Light Lunch, the ultimate in bunk-off TV, they've each gone on to entertain thoroughly outside of the pairing (Sue's constant outshining of Giles Coren as The Supersizers; Mel's uproarious Barbra Streisand turn on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy), but as a double-act they're greater than the sum of their parts. And although their on-screen interaction is minimal this series, their hilarity and casual warmth - such as interviewing contestants while swigging from a mug of tea, or freely nibbling on necessary ingredients - is a key component of the show's brilliance.

And kudos to Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in their roles as judges, whose encouragement is admirable and whose criticism is always constructive, fair, and doesn't see them using their authority as a power trip to compensate for their own issues. *COUGH* Alan Sugar, Arlene Phillips, Simon Cowell, Diddy, Richard Park, Pixie Lott, Craig Revel Horwood, Gordon Ramsay, that bitchy Australian thing off Dancing On Ice, Nigel Lythgoe, Gregg Wallace, John Torode, Sharleen Spiteri *COUGH*

And that's perhaps testament to The Great British Bake-Off on the whole - it's nice. Not necessarily in a twee, inoffensive way, but the mixture of lovable hosts, affable judges, talented contestants, interesting quasi-educational moments, picturesque settings and absolute fuckloads of cake makes for an overall highly enjoyable viewing experience. And furthermore, it's rather exciting to be entering the final of a TV show where its winner isn't a foregone conclusion. Tune in on Tuesday at 8pm to see the finalists take on their ultimate arduous challenge - although, let's face it, nothing will be working harder than the saliva glands of the entire viewership.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Single Reviews 20/09/10

A list of things you will not find mentioned during this week’s Single Reviews: the Pope, or anything related to the papal visit; nation’s sweetheart Cheryl Cole; any coverage or predictable jokes relating to the sentencing and imprisonment of George Michael; the Lib Dem conference (AKA Selloutfest 2010); or match-fixing allegations rocking the world of cricket. However, we hope the above mentions of such stories will at least add a few digits to our hitcounter.

You know that anonymous, oily black gunk you sometimes find on yourself post-Tube travel? Well, Ke$ha has created the audio version, as depicted in the scuzz-pop of Take It Off, an electro-ho anthem sampling that pseudo-Egyptian ditty many a schoolkid knew a filthy update on. Well, this is Ke$ha, bitches, and she outfilthies the lot. Irksome, nauseating and tasteless, and yet, it’s hard not to love her for it.

KT Tunstall’s status as immovable Radio 2 staple may mean her talents are often overlooked in the bigger picture, but on the eve of her third album Tiger Suit, she proves there’s still plenty to be impressed – if not necessarily excited – by. A subtle, swooning lullaby in the form of (Still A) Weirdo may not boast the loop-pedal lunacy she won us over with, but she remains a worthwhile British talent.

Single of the Week goes – very deservingly – to Richard Ashcroft, or more accurately, his pretentiously-titled new project of RPA and the United Nations of Sound. Having already provided one of the year’s greatest albums, they now pluck the gleaming distinction of This Thing Called Life from the mix, putting its warm, soul-flecked indie front-and-centre. (It also shamelessly references The Drugs Don’t Work, which = WIN.)

And last up, Nicki Minaj finally makes good on the inescapable buzz surrounding her with the haunting hip-hop of Your Love. An inspired use of Annie Lennox’s No More I Love Yous already sets Your Love apart from the great glut of beigeness filling the urban pigeonhole of late, but Minaj has a style all of her own. And certainly, her overt trashiness and helium-inflected rhymes will create as many detractors as fans, but then, is that not the mark of a great artist?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Single Reviews 13/09/10

This week’s all been a tad perplexing, has it not? A shrieking, attention-seeking trolley-dolly named the ultimate Big Brother housemate; Gary Barlow foolishly collaborating with Robbie Williams once again; Louis Walsh being the most sensible and likeable judge on last night’s X Factor. Alternate universe much? At least the Single Reviews are reliable. Ish.

Shontelle puts her bestest chops to work on Impossible, a blubbery ballad that employs the same subtle snifter of rave that The Saturdays recently made such a dog’s dinner of on the truly horrible Missing You. Thankfully, Shontelle does a much better job, even if the overall result is a relatively standard example of pleasant-enough-to-pass playlist filler.

Single of the Week goes to the Manic Street Preachers ahead of their tenth studio album, with the heroic, string-laden radio rock of (It’s Not War) Just the End of Love. The similarities to Stomp by Steps are near-bloodcurdling in their resemblance, but oddly enough it doesn’t detract from the song, and with any luck it’s the lead-in to a concept album where Deeper Shade of Blue, One For Sorrow and Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart are among the many samples. Christ, can you imagine?!

And lastly, a track that simultaneously ticks the boxes of peculiar, cacophonous, creepy and amazing. But coming from Yeasayer, that’s perhaps to be expected. While they’re arguably better at the louder, more melodic side of their catalogue (see O.N.E. for further details), the ethereal grizzle of Madder Red marks a band truly carving out their own genre, and doing so rather brilliantly.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Weezer - Hurley (Epitaph)

Tell you what, you get great value for money as a Weezer fan. None of these extended ‘tween-album limbo periods where the band is taking time out for “a swim in Lake Me” or whatever Californian spiel is peddled round the industry these days. Oh no, not with Weezer.

Releasing three albums across three successive years makes Hurley their third LP in little more than a 24-month period. So the work ethic is there; the capability, as demonstrated by albums one through seven, is there; and the unique balance of adorkable affability and genuine virtuosity, as is a given with Weezer, is there. But does eighth album Hurley keep the momentum going, or does it inadvertently serve as an advert for those aforementioned rest periods?

Hurley, so named for the gigantic face of Jorge Garcia grinning out from the cover artwork, is already off to a bad start via its Lost association. Granted, it’s merely a visual tool, but it’s difficult not to spit undiluted venom at anything related to that shitshower of a finale. Luckily, the content bears no relation, though there’s a worrying likelihood that fans might hold back some venom for the music itself.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what Weezer are trying to achieve with Hurley. No dangerous forays outside the comfort zone a la Raditude; yet, simultaneously, it doesn’t hold many parallels with the college rock magnificence of earlier Weezer. The faintly-discordant buzz of Memories gives away the farm a tad, all busy production and big ideas, while Where’s My Sex is so weird and clumsy it’s like a musical adaptation of watching an ITV1 drama with the whole family when an unexpected sex scene pops up.
But Weezer on a bad day nonetheless trumps most other bands’ career pinnacles, and there’s still plenty on Hurley to get excited about – the precise metal leanings of Ruling Me or the effortless, understated charm pouring out of Time Flies. It’s just that for a band of this standing, one would expect an entire album of such moments, rather than sporadically dotted throughout.
If there’s one thing last year’s fan-splitting album Raditude taught us, it’s to not judge Weezer too quickly. Dismissed fairly speedily as a gimmick-laden, cumbersome, aural mid-life crisis, and yet, twelve months on, it’s an agreeable, highly-listenable (if perhaps irony-heavy) Weezer near-classic. So check back next September where we’ll no doubt have declared Hurley the album of the decade. Until then, grit your teeth and try your damndest to find its good side – it is in there somewhere.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Brandon Flowers - Flamingo (Mercury)

Brandon Flowers has always held the potential of a bonafide, card-carrying popstar. Unashamed flair; a predilection for classic, visual Anglo-pop; frustratingly photogenic; and the obvious focus, whether sought or not, of The Killers, all implied that there was more to offer besides the conventions of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. So with debut solo album Flamingo, does he make good on the promise?

Evidently, the presence of three male bandmates makes for an unconscious emergence of bravado. On his own terms, however, Flowers has no such qualms about expressing a softer side. Twinkly, delicate and introverted are your three courses this evening, and although on paper these may give the impression of ornate or effeminate, Flamingo – in spite of its title as well – holds very much a chin-strokingly blokey sound.

There’s a much more organic feel here than on any Killers material, and couldn’t be further from the synthy, glamourous call-to-arms of most recent album Day & Age. In fact, it’s difficult to find parallels on most levels – where Hot Fuss was rooted in androgynous indie with a distinctly British flavour, Flamingo is very much a generous serving of Americana.

It seems The Killers’ short stretch as modern rock royalty has taken its toll heavily, with Flowers sounding decades past his 29 years, particularly on the gospel elegy On The Floor or the ironically-titled Only The Young. It’s tones such as these which present Flamingo as an understated, almost morose affair – potentially, the type of album that the more casual listener might lose interest in scarily quickly. However, it’s by no means the overall theme, with Flamingo merely taking a while to spring into life.
And it’s these louder moments that allow Flowers to truly blossom. Boom-boom. Was It Something I Said is a burningly immediate toe-tapper, while the subtle Mariachi stylings of Magdalena fast approaches the brilliance of lead single Crossfire. However, the fact that the three are clubbed together somewhere in the second half only serves to make the remainder of Flamingo drag ever so slightly.
If you’d been hoping that feathery epaulets and Pet Shop Boys collaborations were the stepping stone to a session with Red One and a Bruce Weber photoshoot, there’ll be severe disappointment. It’s perhaps not as bold a statement as the music world had been expecting, and demonstrates a more fatigued, withdrawn Flowers to the one most expected off the back of a ninja Charlize Theron punctuated by falsetto. But it’s a new side to him, in which the quality is irrefutable, and while it may not be the unveiling of a great pop star, it’s a reminder of an exceptional musician.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Single Reviews 06/09/10

Let us take a moment ahead of this week’s Single Reviews to remember GMTV as it finally bows out. Hey, remember that time Andrew Castle was smug and insufferable? Or that one time where Anthea Turner said something that was in her script? Or how about the time that Lorraine Kelly was the only bearable aspect of the whole televised Daily Mail circus? Ah, them were the days. Big shoes for the Brummie update on Toad of Toad Hall and the most overrated woman in TV history to fill, eh?

Alesha Dixon starts us off this week with the boisterous proclamation of Drummer Boy. In fairness, there’s a killer hook hidden beneath all that clattering, and it’s a welcome reminder of the energetic, inimitable Alesha that provided 98% of Misteeq’s overall charm, but it’ll have the median Strictly viewing audience diving for cover behind their chintz sofas.

Single of the Week is bestowed upon Fyfe Dangerfield, for what could have been the third occasion this year had we been bollocksed to do these every week. Barricades’ soft, mesmerising simplicity may not be an immediate single choice, but there’s no detracting from its beauty. (And FYI, popstars of the world – you have four months left in which to usurp Fly Yellow Moon as the best album of 2010.)

Irish R&B upstarts turned Magic FM croon-merchants The Script mark their return with For The First Time. While their debut album juxtaposed the good with the wishy-washy, at least it was launched by a song to get excited about. However, For The First Time, with its slight drippiness, doesn’t sell the band or upcoming release Science & Faith too effectively.

Contender for the worst video of the year – with a song that’s not too far behind – is Alexandra Burke, with the shockingly poor Start Without You. It’s, somewhat ironically given her race, a tawdry slice of white-man, Happy Meal reggae that sounds scarily close to Iko Iko, but without a single shred of authenticity. You’d think Cowell already had enough taxlosses, wouldn’t?
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