Just in time for Halloween and four years on since Port Of Morrow, the Shins are back with a spooky twist on their Beach-Boys-in-the-21st-century style. James Mercer’s voice is still coated in a sort of heavenly mist that doesn’t sound ‘clean’, but it’s not all fuzzy either. The instrumentation jogs along at a blissful bounce, reminding me of Animal Collective, but if they decided to give up roughly half of their synths and decided to make up the rest of their sound and replace it with tapping on wood. If the instrumentation is happy (in a weird sort of druggy way), then the lyrics are the opposite. ‘So tonight, dance and cry’ and ‘Wash the blood and the guts to the ocean’ sings James Mercer, then there’s weird snatches of screaming and muttering in the introduction too. It’s a good sound for the Shins, slightly tweaked, and still slightly weird.
Franz Ferdinand keep pumping out the songs, and as they get more displaced from the indie revivalism they originated from, they get more interesting. ‘Demagogue’ might not be part of a new album (It’s part of a 30 Songs, 30 Days campaign until the US election), but it shows Franz Ferdinand in hyper-political mode, not cautiously tip-toeing around the subject, but throwing out lyrics like ‘He’s a demagogue / He pleases my fears’ and ‘Feels so good to be dumb’. It’s hard to make a political song without falling into parody, especially if, like Franz Ferdinand, the band don’t mess around with metaphors, but maybe that’s the entire point. It’s a bit like saying the election has gone beyond being a joke, and now it’s dangerous. Franz Ferdinand put together a really good song for this compilation, extra points for the bassline and the extra vocals which sounds like a nation of people screaming – exactly like the election, right?
It’s been over a year since Pixx released her debut EP, Fall In, and it’s pretty interesting to compare that EP with previous single ‘Baboo’ and the latest – ‘Grip’. The style of Pixx has become more interesting – in alignment with the dream-pop side of label 4AD, but maybe leaning towards the pop side and retaining a little bit of weirdness (think of what Grimes did with Art Angels). In ‘Grip’, that manifests in ambient synths, tribal drums and a high pitched hook of ‘Ay-ay!’. It’s stupidly infectious, but even when it grabs you towards those off-kilter sections, Pixx’s vocals come through with icy synthetic drums and you get thrown back towards a slice of 80s pop. It’s in that niche of art-pop where Pixx belongs, and ‘Grip’ is a step-up from Fall In last year.
There’s so many sides to Warpaint at this point, that when they land on your favourite – mine lies somewhere between the danciness of ‘Disco//Very’ and the dance-punk of ‘No Way Out’ – it’s a special moment. If ‘New Song’ was the poppiest Warpaint have ever been, ‘Whiteout’ might suit fans of their self-titled album more. It’s more guitar-based, indebted to Jenny Lee Lindberg’s favourites the Cure with the strong backbone of a funky rhythm section. The song is stretched out, giving space to those guitar passages that made Exquisite Corpse most Warpaint fans’ point of entry, plus room for Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa on the drums to work around the spidery guitars. It’s less immediate than ‘New Song’, but that’s the intention. This second single rewards repeated listens and latching onto each instrument.
Angel Olsen is writing some of the best songs of the year. ‘Sister’ caps off the holy trinity of ‘Intern’ and ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, each showing different elements of Olsen’s new album, MY WOMAN. ‘Sister’ is a bit of a throwback to Burn Your Fire…, at least at the beginning. Then it all goes 70s soft-rock (think the best parts AKA Fleetwood Mac) and the instrumentation fights with Olsen’s repeated statement ‘All my life I thought I’d change’ and there’s two guitar solos, the second as uplifting as the culminating chorus of ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’. Particularly in the first verse, when Olsen sings ‘From the sleeping life I lead / All the colours I’ve seen / I can’t help but recognize / The brighter one in front of me’ could be about the love of a sister or family always being there, and even when she thinks she needs the love of another person who isn’t part of family, she doesn’t recognise the greater love. But then the line ‘I want to follow / My heart down that wild road’ shows she knows it doesn’t make sense, but she’s going to try for both ways, to love family and love a partner, because even if you ‘fall apart’, you ‘fall together’. That’s the way I took it anyway, but it’s left unclear. Perhaps that’s the entire idea, that it’s unclear. And it is a song about life, and the ways we know it is scary and wild and unpredictable, but we take risks anyway, just because we want to ‘live life’. There’s no logic, but that’s life.
The Big Moon have quietly been building up their selection of singles, and mostly they haven’t lost any quality since the first track they ever released: ‘Eureka Moment’. ‘Silent Movie Susie’ is missing something, maybe it’s ‘Cupid’s grandness or the rockiness of ‘Sucker’, but it definitely lacks something. Along with ‘Cupid’, it is their most radio-ready, but then again, the Big Moon have always been a band with bigger aspirations than underground success. If it lacks something, it does not lack ‘whoos’. The Big Moon are a whoo-worthy band, and if you’ve come for whoos, ‘Silent Movie Susie’ has got them to spare. The song has come in the middle of summer, so when they sing ‘Come back for the summer’, it feels like the kind of breezy pop they’ve just been waiting to release. The Big Moon are starting to develop their own sound; you know the sound of that organ in the background, you know the whoos are coming.
Concept albums are famously hard to get a grip on. They can come across like overcomplicated prog-rock mazes or occasionally do the right thing by considering the music first and the concept second (see Kate Bush’s The Hounds of Love or Sonic Youth’s Sister for best examples). That’s what Bat For Lashes, Natasha Khan, has done with The Bridge. You could easily listen to this alongside her last few albums and not distinguish it as a ‘concept’ album, but in concept, it is a concept album – not that that makes a huge deal of sense. Khan isn’t new to concept albums; Two Suns was an album of dual personalities. But ‘The Bride’s character isn’t the opposing Mr Hyde that the alter ego on Two Suns was. It’s more of a character that Khan has chosen to play in a film, and the album works like a film. See it as a tragedy.
The story of The Bride is essentially on their wedding day, the groom dies in a car crash on the way to the wedding and the bride expresses her sadness that what should have been the best day of her life turns into her nightmare. The process of transferring the sound of the tragic wedding into music has been done perfectly – there’s nothing aggressive like on Khan’s sideproject Sexwitch, instead there’s strings on ‘Land’s End’ that could have slotted on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, minimalist electronic touches and shimmering guitars and pianos. And then, on top of everything, there’s a cinematic haze. To try and put it into words, imagine the colour of a Wes Anderson film in sonic form. That still sounds confusing, so we’ll just pretend that didn’t happen.
Natasha Khan’s music has always slowly bloomed rather than leap out, and The Bride may require several listens to properly ‘get’ the concept, or maybe it just refuses to be aggressive and shove its message onto the listener. It’s restrained, and that might be annoying for some people. Thankfully, we’re in the mood to listen to songs like ‘Joe’s Dream’ and ‘Lands End’ over and over again. These songs are impressive because they don’t require much to convey their sadness. On ‘Lands End’, there’s the orchestra, but there’s also a guitar that remains audible throughout. Khan sings ‘For my love, I will bleed / And I drive till I set myself free’, but these lyrics are so much more effective when you have to consider all of the story that has come before it. One of the things which makes the bride’s misery at her groom’s death is that she hardly ever mentions anyone else – there’s nothing of the mothers and fathers and relatives, it’s just bride and groom, and you get the sense that they’ve developed this little bubble of a world for themselves where only they exist. This comes into view on the song ‘In Your Bed’: ‘Let’s lay in your bed and dream together / In a world of our minds’.
The Bride needed its concept to be at the centre of stage, or this might just be an album about sadness and losing someone. But it doesn’t run away with its own story, it’s accessible and not hard to follow. It’s hardly The Wall, and all the better for it. But still, there’s a cinematic element, and just from the pieces of artwork that have come with the album, you can imagine this being transitioned into film (The idea for The Bride initially came as a short film). Khan herself called her short film pitch ‘very countryside, weird, English, surreal’, and that just about sums itself up. You can imagine that The Bride all takes place on English countryside roads, lit up solely by car lights. That kind of imagery is what makes the album interesting, but it’s the emotions that will keep you here to stay.
Funnel Recommends: Joe’s Dream / Close Encounters / Land’s End
Kate Bush is no stranger to a high-concept album or two. She’s one of those musicians that begins with a string of commercial successes and transitioned into projects which blurred art and popular appreciation. She’s also been written off as a child-like songwriter, something that rings true with musicians such as Joanna Newsom today. Kate Bush had long-establisher herself as a talented songwriter prior to The Sensual World rolling around in 1989, with albums such as Hounds Of Love (Arguably her other masterpiece) with large-scale concepts about a woman drowning at sea in a song suite called ‘The Ninth Wave’. Though The Sensual World did not have such big ideas along the lines of ‘The Ninth Wave’, it was no less thematically tight. As the title suggests, Bush explores sensuality in a way she hadn’t before. She was frank and unapologetic about emotions and desires – and rightly so. Whereas other (male) songwriters could spill their filthiest desires, it would be shocking to see a woman do the same. Bush asks ‘What is sensuality?’. A lot is said for sexuality in popular music; we get plenty of that. But sensuality? There’s lots to be explored there, and Bush repeatedly comes back to it, examining the different types, and not just the sexual kind. It has sexual connotations and can be taken literally, but it can also mean a physical overwhelming of the senses. A longing for physicality or the presence of family, which Bush comes back to time and time again.
Kate Bush outlived many of her contemporaries in the ’80s because whilst grabbing technology with both hands and making use of the synthesiser and drum machine, she was careful not to overuse them like many synthpop acts would. She meticulously blended new with old, from the Bulgarian folk trio Trio Bulgarka, traditional Irish music and classic rock courtesy of David Gilmour on guitar providing some of the silkiest solos outside his more famous band. A track like ‘Deeper Understanding’ is spooky in how forward-looking it is, with Bush singing ‘I turn to my computer and spend my evenings with it like a friend’ ten years prior to Sleater-Kinney’s technological prophecy ‘God Is A Number’. This was 1989! Bush pounced on significant technology with references that can still be understood today (aside from lyrics about ordering computer programmes from magazines and dial-up connections). She combines the hyper-modern and emotionally vacant computers with lyrics about love and an understanding that can’t be gained from a mathematical machine. Whilst computers will give a precise answer and Bush finds a peace in that precision, she also wants vague answers and questions that can only be found in human contact. Once again, this is the sensuality of basic human touch and connection, not of the sexual kind, though Bush does say ‘I’ve never felt such pleasure / Nothing else seemed to matter / I neglected my bodily needs.’
Bush finds similarities in water on ‘The Fog’. She compares the love of present to learning to swim in the past as a child. It’s not just the water in the previous memory that she swims in, it’s more the nostalgia of the memory she remembers. The comparison to a large body of water, with unknown dangers underneath, the fear of nothing is more than an excellent comparison to love. She repeats a sentence her father said to her as a child – ‘I’ll let go of you gently, then you can swim to me’. She has to be let go of her last connection, whether that’s family, a past lover, in order to swim somewhere new. She’s afraid of how big her love is, she’s afraid that it’s so big that it’s doomed to fail, like a star destined to be a black hole, it’s only a matter of time. On The Sensual World, growing up and becoming an adult go side by side with love, and that dual need for sensuality is what drives the themes of the album. Maybe we’re just heightening the intense images that Bush transmits, but the album is so mysterious and vast that it begs to be interpreted and explored in different ways. There’s so many different messages that can be taken from The Sensual World and some messages exist in their own vacuum, like ‘Heads We’re Dancing’, which is about a woman discovering she had danced with Hitler the previous night and not realising that she had ‘danced with the devil’.
The Sensual World not only vastly improves on its masterpiece predecessor, but manages to engulf all of the themes explored on that album and more. No more were the ‘Hounds’ of Love chasing her in the streets and Bush ‘never knowing whats good for me’, but rising above it without becoming a hound herself. She never completely leaves behind her more whimsical side, that would be a shame to see that quirky Britishness disappearing under the adult exploration of sensuality, but it’s more weighty to the mature side. It might not be as conceptually ‘big’ as The Hounds Of Love, but Bush does more with less, which is more satisfying that the occasionally dragging back end of The Hounds. At the core, it’s a great pop album. It shows the best parts of the 1980s; the technical advancements, the cute drum machine on ‘Heads We’re Dancing’, the collision between traditional folk and rock music and the far future of pop that caused a decade of often confusing music that eased off in the 90s towards the sounds of the future and leaving rock and folk in the dust. Kate Bush isn’t just the girl who sang ‘Wuthering Heights’, this album is proof of a mind that would happily blend avant-pop with high concepts that didn’t fall into the traps that prog rock did – which is kind of ironic considering their flag bearer plays guitar on The Sensual World, right?
Funnel Recommends: The Sensual World / Love And Anger / This Woman’s Work
Animal Collective hit their critical and commercial peak with the arrival of Merriweather Post Pavillion in 2009 and promptly followed it up with the indie-artists-textbook-commercial-response by releasing Centipede Hz. Centipede did an excellent job of distancing themselves from whatever new following they had garnered, but it was more to do with where the Collective wanted to go sonically next rather than escape a mainstream audience. For their new album, Painting With, collaborator Deakin (who is often responsible for the noisier moments of AC) has dropped out and we have the Merriweather team of Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist back again, which should send off sparks in any Merriweather fan. And true to the trio’s first real success, Painting With has a bubbly, poppy sound that you could play for anyone without wondering if it would freak them out. It’s less psychedelic and takes more inspiration from heavily textured electronic music, meshing the band’s vocals, synthesisers and percussion for a sound that has more than a passing resemblance to children’s music that’s injected with acid.
One of the best songs featured is ‘Bagels In Kiev’ which takes its time to begin over ambience electronics, but then Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s vocals come in and sing together, which always work because they have unique voices easy to pick apart. The song is very short, especially considering the lengthy intro, but the bounciness and pattering drums carry the song before AC throw in a lyric like ‘These days I’m not so sure who is getting along or if they were before’ to muddy the bright neon happiness in the instrumentation. The band have always been good at making music that sounds like an outburst of pure joy then secretly slipping in lines that are either ambiguous or utterly creepy, and that’s exactly what Animal Collective have done on Painting With. Then there’s the hyperactive ‘The Burglars’ which has vocals at double speed and synthesisers either hum or hop up and down, or ‘Vertical’, which sounds a bit like the Gerbils’ and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Scott Spillane crammed into an experimental pop song, with the endlessly catchy ‘My feet won’t cross the parking lot / The parking lot is way too hot’ outro and themes of height, people that ‘live above you’ and pressure explored.
Has more than a passing resemblance to children’s music that’s injected with acid
But the best song is reserved for the penultimate song – ‘Golden Gal’. It’s a bit like a sister to ‘My Girls’ because it’s so poppy and danceable and the lyrics are deep and perceptive. For example, as the band describe the ‘Golden Gal’, they describe all of the problems that women still face in modern society ‘Different roads not just sexual things’ and ‘You think a gal should feel so comfortable these days / But sex and gender brings some troubles to the fray’. For a band like Animal Collective, you might not expect a song like this, so it’s so pleasantly surprising that they’d write a song as good as this whilst wrapping it in an excellent message. The synths squelch and drop lower and lower on the verse and your stomach drops with it because it’s so dancey. Unfortunately, there are a few faceless tracks on here: ‘Spilling Guts’ has those guts but is pitifully short, almost like they ran out of ideas, and ‘Hocus Pocus’s slower pace and psychedelic squelching can’t quite keep up with its predecessor ‘FloriDada’, which grows and grows with every listen. The singles that AC have released prior to the release – ‘FloriDada’, ‘Lying In The Grass’ and ‘Golden Gal’ are some of the best showcases of the band, it’s just a shame that they couldn’t keep it up on the album tracks as much.
The innocence and darkness metaphors that Animal Collective tend to draw – ‘CBeebies on acid’ or ‘A children’s party on acid’ are very common, but they are rooted in some truth, especially on Painting With. They’ve never sounded this peppy and psychedelic at the same time and the fact that the album hardly lets up on its pace is one of its strengths. If the band stripped down their sound, I don’t think it would work as well and the sound that they have developed has so many nooks and crannies that it’s a sonic wonderland that will reveal something new with every listen. After Centipede Hz, a return to form was definitely needed, so it’s just perfect that the band have returned to their Strawberry Jam / Merriweather Post Pavillion highpoint, except with an even bubblier, squelchier sound.
Funnel Recommends: FloriDada / Bagels In Kiev / Golden Gal
We’d sort of come to the conclusion that Primal Scream were capitalising on their legacy for More Light, but ‘Where The Light Gets In’ is a sizeable shift for the band, making a pop song with none other than Sky Ferreira. Ferreira’s presence isn’t just a feature, she trades lines with Bobby Gillespie (who, to be honest, isn’t sounding as lively as the sound behind him) and Ferreira pretty much runs the vocal performances. The song could easily scrape into the top 40 with the only factor that might be off-putting to pop charts being the guitar solo. A ‘regular’ guitar solo could have slotted onto the song easily, but the one that Primal Scream actually deploy is a jarring, effects-heavy scrape-a-thon that sounds off-time, although that’s probably what Primal Scream and Ferreira were going for.
There’s not a Kevin Shields in sight for ‘Where The Light Gets In’. This is the danceable Primal Scream that’s not so much bothered about ‘KILL ALL HIPPES’ and making psychedelic avant-garde music as just making good pop, which is what they’ve always been able to do underneath all of the alternative-ness. ‘Sin’ and ‘desire’ is thrown about a lot in the lyrics, but this isn’t ‘Rocks’, Gillespie and Ferreira sing ‘peace begins within’ as a contrast with a lyric like ‘Lovers take the plunder, then they leave’. ‘Where The Light Gets In’ might be one of the logical collaborations of the year, but we want to hear an entire album of Primal Scream and Sky Ferreira if it sounds like this.