Album Of The Week – Skeleton Tree / Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

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Nick Cave never had to release an album dedicated to the loss of his young son, but he made the decision to both relive that awful event and articulate it. In a perverse way, who better than Nick Cave to explore this kind of tragedy? He’s always been able to master the gloom and sadness, but before it had a cartoonish violence to it, or at best it was the secondhand sadness of his post-2000 albums. But now it’s personal and it’s very real. It’s a shame that Cave had to go through this in order to write one of his best albums, both sparse instrumentally but vivid and heartbreaking lyrically. It’s the most understated he’s been, a world away from Murder Ballads and even Push The Sky Away sounds full and vibrant compared to this. Subtle suits Nick Cave more than he knows. He has a tendency to come across as a caricature, and before it’s suited him well, but when it comes firsthand it has more impact.

The Bad Seeds side of Nick Cave’s band has been tasked with lurking behind Cave as he spills his guts, not overwhelming instrumentally but providing a sonic companion. They never crescendo above Cave, and for good reason. They work in small, considered moments, only rarely rising, such as the tugging strings on ‘Girl In Amber’, the harrowing backing vocals on ‘Rings Of Saturn’ and Else Torp on ‘Distant Sky’. Warren Ellis, now Cave’s right hand man since Mick Harvey’s departure is master of synthesisers, loops and strings, but never breaks into anything that might resemble abrasive. It’s not like they are doing nothing because it helps Cave deliver his point, they are just toning it down to the point where it becomes more ambient on ‘Jesus Alone’ or film soundtrack-y on ‘Skeleton Tree’. On the album highlight ‘I Need You’, both Cave and the Seeds get the opportunity to really explore their role. Ellis contributes heavy synths, Thomas Wydler donates a slow beat on the drums and Nick Cave delivers one of the most astounding and heartbreaking songs he’s ever written. It’s easy to interpret the song as an ‘I Need You’ to both his son and wife, but I saw it as a complete tribute to his wife. He needs her in order to get through the loss. Only in the final line, ‘Just breathe / I need you’, did I see that as a direct plea to his son. Would this song have as much impact if we didn’t have the context behind it? Perhaps not, but the reality is that it has happened, so to completely divorce it from the lyrics would not be getting a full picture.

The less direct songs in the album still deal in vivid imagery of life and death. On ‘Magneto’, Cave sings ‘I was an electrical storm on the bathroom floor, clutching the bowl’ and the line ‘My blood was for the gags and other people’s diseases’ I saw as Cave breaking the fourth wall, singing about his pain being used by listeners in order to empathise and respond with the same emotions. Once more in the song he sings another metaphor – ‘All the stars have splashed and splattered across the ceiling’. This is where Cave turns into more poet than songwriter. It’s never cliche, and the metaphors are always meaningful and original enough to be interesting – ‘All through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns’. That line in particular I think is Cave imagining that people are laughing at his loss, which was a bit like his line ‘My blood was for gags’.

Skeleton Tree really did blow me away. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or whether it would be too close to the bone, but the Seeds have depicted loss in a subtle and considered way. It doesn’t hold back in sadness or anger and questioning, and what else would you expect from Cave. He looks to God and he looks to his wife, but he also looks to apparently meaningless objects like a jittery TV or a skeleton tree. On the last track – the title track – there is an ounce of hope in the song, when Cave sings ‘And it’s alright now’. But then again, when he sings ‘Nothing is for free’, it could either be hope that the loss won’t be for nothing, or his cynicism of the world and gifts that he might be bestowed, such as children. The track is a slight moment of pause against the grim backdrop, and even though it doesn’t end on a happy note, it certainly shows movement towards something that might resemble hope. One of Cave’s finest moments, and his Bad Seeds too.

Funnel Recommends: Magneto / I Need You / Skeleton Tree

Track Review – Rain / Foals

Foals have released ‘Rain’ ahead of it’s full release on Record Store Day, which seems a bit of a disincentive to anyone going out to get an unheard track so far (But they’ll only go and upload it anyway, so it kind of makes sense). So now that that’s dealt with, it’s fair enough to see why Foals didn’t throw this onto What Went Down from last year. They promised an ‘aggressive’ record and didn’t deliver, and ‘Rain’ wouldn’t have helped that claim any further. Anyone looking for an ‘Inhaler’ or a ‘What Went Down’ won’t find it here (it’s a B-Side after all) and instead there’s a shimmery synth-pop song that plods along harmlessly with glistening glitches in the background and a guitar that could be a synth or a synth that could be a guitar. It doesn’t pick up, it’s kind of anticlimactic.

On the bright side, frontman Yannis Philippakis’ vocals are pretty much spot on throughout, taking more of a ballad-man form of having a minimalistic backdrop of instrumentation and putting his voice to the test instead. He sings ‘No I’ll never sleep again’ with his voice tearing up on the back end of ‘again’ to very good effect. It’s just a shame that the shimmery instrumentation is too lifeless to try and compete with his vocals. Whatever, it’s a Record Store Day release and people are going to buy it because it’s got the soul of John Lennon ingrained in the grooves of the vinyl or something (That’s not actually happening, we’d just like to clarify).

Track Review – Baby Ain’t Made Of China / Wolf Alice

On the back of this years’ pretty amazing My Love Is Cool, ‘Baby Ain’t Cool’ is the new b-side which you can snap up for free right now. It serves as a softer, sweeter side to ‘You’re A Germ’, but retains the American-affecting vocals at points where Ellie Rowsell sings ‘Wash those tears away’. The instrumentation starts subtly, with drums that almost sound synthetic, but are actually just wrapped in tinny effects. The effect is mixed. However, the chorus brings in the kind of grungy distorted guitars you’d expect on ‘Your Love’s Whore’ or ‘Giant Peach’. The vocals are spot on, as always. They soar over the chorus and work even better when backing vocals come in over the last chorus. When Rowsell sings ‘Give me a reason to care’ at the end of the track it’s a moment that could slot right next to any of the emotional highpoints of My Love Is Cool.

It’s important to recognise that ‘Baby Ain’t Made Of China’ is a b-side that follows the same structural cycle as every other grungy Wolf Alice song. There’s nothing in terms of experimentation, though that’s a big ask for any artist sticking an album offcut onto the b-side of their latest single. As a continuation of My Love Is Cool, however, it’s certainly not a bad song to leave on the cutting room floor.

Track Review – Garden / Hinds

This is the Hinds song that should come next. Sure, the opening vocals sound identical to ‘Bamboo’, but the evolution from that track which they came through with is pretty amazing. The track doesn’t just amble along like many of the Hinds songs that have come before, even the start takes its time to kick in, getting steadily faster, like some kind of electric mariachi, before a secondary guitar cuts through the typical Hinds 4-chord sequence that they tend to deploy on every other song by now. At this point, it’s important to recognise that Hinds aren’t technically proficient, the charm comes with the clumsy beginner playing that they somehow make into a cohesive song. Another familiar aspect is the joint vocals, sounding like the whole band is chipping in. Their voices are individually recognisable, each adding another element to the collective-voice-chorus.

The lyrics are a little less considered with partying than previous Hinds tracks, apart from the ‘I can’t take you dancing’, which in itself shows that Hinds don’t just want to celebrate the party, but show the sadder side to it. The beauty of Hinds is that even when their vocals are all over the place (They regularly overlap on ‘Garden’), the mood of the track (which can only be described as ‘feista-worthy’) is enough to make the track exciting and fun. The outro to ‘Garden’, whilst short and sweet, is their best ending yet; winding down with the clean guitar that cut through the intro not too long ago. Hinds don’t let up in their wild happiness, something which is missing greatly in modern indie rock and it’s something that should be treasured. Even if they say ‘we had a more sober ~ or even sad ~ album than we expected’ in their blurb for new album Leave Me Alone, the music itself is pure bliss.

Track Review – Gunga Din // The Libertines

If you had any doubts about The Libertines signing with a commercial label and getting a pop producer on board, it’s apparent in ‘Gunga Din’. Now, before I get onto where the track goes wrong, here’s where it goes right: The chorus is everything you really want out of a Libertines song. The guitars are spot on, clattering together just like ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ or ‘Time For Heroes’ might. The melody of the chorus is just as good, it’s just the lyrics (typically the area where the Libertines excel) which lets down the chorus. ‘The road is long, but if you stay strong / you’re a better man than I’ is anthemic, but in a vague, radio-rock anthemicness. It’s sad but the chorus is one of the only redeeming feature of the track.

It only gets worse in the verse. The guitar and drums are tinged with a reggae beat, but it’s the vocals and lyrics that truly let the remainders of the song down. Lyrics like ‘the mirror is fucking ugly and I’m sick of looking at him’ and ‘I woke up again / to my chagrin’ somehow bound the lines between pretentious ‘Albion’ poetry and some miserable bastard in a pub attempting to string together a sentence. The Libertines are still focussed on drugs, drink and that good ‘ol brotherhood and by this point the topics are a little stale. The change-up of styles to a mixture of reggae and indie rock is a hard pill to take, only inflamed by the strangely weak lyrics and Pete Doherty and Carl Barat’s mixture of slurred and nasal vocals. It’s a bizarre track to promote the new album with; it doesn’t hold up with the punky beginnings of ‘Horrorshow’ or the later developments into chart-topping pop with ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’.

Track Review – What Went Down / Foals

‘What Went Down’ was initially a bit of a downer for me in terms of a comeback single. It had flares of ‘Inhaler’ and the ferocity of ‘Providence’ in the later parts of the track. In short, it felt a lot like what Foals had produced on 2013’s Holy Fire. The lyrics are even more direct, more so than Holy Fire’s exploration into poppier formulas. The chorus is so simple and direct its rawness is very present, especially when lead singer Yannis Philippakis belts out ‘When I see a man I see a liar’ it resembles Kurt Cobain barking out ‘Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman’ on ‘Territorial Pissings’. The lyrics get even darker when Philippakis sings ‘You’re the apple of my eye’, but it’s sinister and not exactly loving. Philippakis has never delivered his lyrics so venomously and with so much passion. Before its been a mixture of mumbling and yelling, but here Foals tap into an animalistic side of Yannis that truly has to be witnessed on the strange video. And we haven’t even got to the instrumentals yet.

For the verses, the hard guitar strums are a little unnecessary and remove the power of the chorus. Whereas on ‘Inhaler’, the blow-your-head-off-riff came so suddenly that it was impressive, however here we get a taster of it before. The pre-chorus of Yannis mumbling and the growling guitars shortly enough explode into Philippakis’ aforementioned straight-up ballistic vocals. The bridge, containing an unwelcome piano which subdues the ferocity the song has brought up, descends into the build-ups that Foals have refined from ‘Spanish Sahara’ tearjerkers into tension-building nailbiters. The guitars seemed to have got to their absolute height, before another pedal is pressed and they get even louder. Initially I wasn’t too keen on the track – it had little resemblance to the slow-burning, lyrically-cryptic past of Foals, but this is Foals. They’ve become more than a math-rock band from Oxford now, this is the kind of song that they’ll be headlining festivals with and have fans yelling back at them.

Track Review – Sip ‘O Poison / Cherry Glazerrz

If you compare the new Cherry Glazerr single with older Glazerr tracks, it’s a pretty big difference. Even on the harder tracks, such as ‘White’s Not My Color This Evening’, it built up into a punk frenzy. Here, on ‘Sip O’ Poison’ begins with twenty seconds of feedback and spoken word consisting of ‘A single sip of poison killed a kid who wasn’t shy’ before diving into a furious punk-up with a killer bassline. Comparing it to ‘Had 10 Dollaz’, ‘Sip ‘O Poison’ is a marked difference to the more psychedelic-pop side of Cherry Glazerr and hints at a more direct, angry sound.

‘I feel my blood is boiling / I’m crawling up the wall’ and ‘When I was eighty feet tall’ alludes to an Alice in Wonderland theme, before singer Clem Creevy sings about ‘horny boys’ and the chorus turns into a series of short yelps and whoops. The lyrics are still just as funny and sometimes trippy as ever, but the point of delivery has been skewed into a Bikini Kill-esque punk song. ‘Sip ‘O Poison’ is part of Adult Swim’s Single Series so this may just be a one-off chance for experimentation, but the tantalising prospect of Cherry Glazerr morphing from teenage goofs into something darker and more direct could be very interesting.

Track Review – You’re A Germ / Wolf Alice

‘You’re A Germ’ is another track that doesn’t seem quite right in the run up to the new album later this month. Despite strong signs with ‘Giant Peach’, the new version of ‘Bros’ glazed over the original raw version with glossy production and the same applies on ‘You’re A Germ’. The guitars never explode during the chorus, sounding subdued. The vocals are only listenable during the acoustic intro and the backing vocals, appearing on the verse, are perfect but are similarly sunk into the mix. ‘You’re A Germ’ sounds like a decent-quality gig recording, but definitely isn’t the quality it should be living up to. Strangely enough, the yelling of Ellie Rowsell in the chorus has some anger, but then she decides to go into a faux-American accent behind the chants of ‘Eyes wide’.

The only time the guitars ever hit hard enough is during the first burst of Sonic Youth-esque noise, but they hardly last long and dissolve into the murky verses. The lyrics are personal and familiar still, with Rowsell mumbling ‘This is not exploring / When you are dead inside’ and ‘You’re a creep’ in the verses, before full-on screaming in the chorus, albeit in an American accent that throws the entire track into parody. ‘You’re A Germ’ could have been one of the harder hitters on My Love Is Cool, however the production and the vocals let down the track and this results in a muddy song with fragments of genius in the vicious instrumentation that’s left subdued and lacks any kind of volume.

Album Review – Before The World Was Big / Girlpool

After a steady release of teaser songs, Girlpool’s debut Before The World Was Big has landed. They had killer EP back in late 2014, with songs like ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Blah Blah Blah’ establishing them as a minimalistic-instrumentally but complex-lyrically group with knowingly naive and honest words. Truth is, Before The World Was Big is more of a collection of songs they’ve been playing live for a long time, as seen by five of the songs here being found on their ‘Things are OK’ documentary back in the early part of the year. Some may be surprised by the lack of a quick, loud folk-punk song like ‘Blah Blah Blah’ from the EP, but where Girlpool excel is their hushed slow-burners anyway and Before The World Was Big is full of them. From ‘Cherry Picking’ to ‘Emily’, Girlpool whisper/shout often biting lyrics like ‘Yes I am picking cherries / I have a hard time staying clean’ and ‘Truth is that I am working for myself and only me’ on ‘Cherry Picking’, a song that slowly turns into a furious criticism of ‘lovers turn to strangers’.

‘Magnifying Glass’ is Before The World Was Big‘s ‘Love Spell’, an almost spoken word tale of childish naiveity. The theme of children and growing up is a common theme, as is the fear of growing into an adult that, you know, pays bills and has a ‘real’ job. The dual singing of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad has been a common turn-off for the band, as Harmony’s edges on ‘whiney’ sometimes. Personally, I don’t think it hurts at all to have a singer that isn’t ‘perfect’, in fact most of my favourite bands have singers that can’t ‘sing’ in a traditional sense. The off-key singing aids the whole cobbled-together, DIY feel of the band. The childish naiveity returns on many tracks, most notably ‘Before The World Was Big’, which I reviewed a while back. The band sings ‘I just miss how it felt standing next you / wearing matching dresses’ behind the simplistic guitar and basslines.

Trouble is, sometimes the songs never reach their full potential. ‘Crowded Stranger’, a song that could easily extend itself, but Girlpool withdraw and the song is cut short. Whether it’s because Girlpool songs demand a punky shortness or because the song is unsure where it can go next, the song suffers for it. Another problem I find is that some of the songs don’t match up with the live recordings nearly as much. On their ‘Things Are OK’ doc, rendentions of ‘Cherry Picking’ and ‘Chinatown’ were in-your-face and angry, whereas here the singing is hushed and the shoutier parts (‘Do you feel restless when you realise you’re a lie?’) are muffled. This may be a production weakness, but the singing doesn’t have nearly as much emotion as it does live.

The best songs you’ll find here are ‘Emily’, ‘Dear Nora’ and ‘Crowded Stranger’. ‘Emily’ and ‘Crowded Stranger’ as tales of urban boredom, broken relationships and friendships. ‘Dear Nora’ as a whispered, heartfelt message to a friend that’s also a description of Girlpool’s travels as a band, with the alternating singing of ‘Cleo was tired / Harmony was hyper’. Friendship plays a big part in Girlpool and Before The World Was Big. You get the sense that the friendship, as depicted by the doc, comes before the band. It’s very real, very personal and heartwarming to not see a band ripping out each others throats like many do.

Before The World Was Big has its faults: the production is ocasionally sloppy and hushed, the singing is awkward and some of the songs don’t live up to other performances. However, I think Girlpool take pride in the DIY mistakes of the album and the band itself. They aren’t some manufactured indie band, it’s an organic and believable friendship narrated by an album about childhood naiveity and growing up. You can almost believe that there are children inside Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad just bursting to escape and play.

7/10

Album Review – Pale Honey / Pale Honey

This album release went under my radar earlier this month so it only seems fair to review it now. Pale Honey are a Swedish two-piece, but it isn’t like your recent spout of rock duos trying to tear things up once again. Pale Honey moves from lush pop songs ‘Bandolier’ to the loud/soft dynamics of Pixies ‘Youth’. Despite the expected stripped-back sound, they actually layer their sounds very well, often mixing in synths, multiple guitar tracks and vocals. A lot of it calls back to the 90s, on tracks such as ‘Lonesome’ which has a whiff of ‘Song 2’ Blur about it and ‘Tease’, which is a taste of Rid of Me / To Bring You My Love-era PJ Harvey. However, it’s sometimes hard to wonder which their stylish, glittery video game synths are just propping up a mediocre rock band.

The best moments of Pale Honey is when the band verges on the odd. ‘Fiction’ descends into reverby-XXness, but then again there’s some surf rock guitar and an obnoxious cowbell that somehow make it better. The lyrics are somewhat hard to interpret, when guitarist Tuva Lodmark sings ‘Go to sleep / you’re all diseased again’. This is followed by the beautiful fingerpicked ‘Desert’ which had charmingly sloppy guitars that remind of some kind of beach scene. Lodmark sings ‘I drown, baby’ which contrasts the shining synths and the subtle bassline. However, there’s trouble to be found in the synths. They pop up every now and again and completely take over the song from any other instrumentation, especially the drums, which are frequently lost in the mix. There is a flourish of strings at the end of ‘Desert’, which is hardly necessary and only serves to over-dramatise the song.

‘Tease’ sounds like the soundtrack for an early-00s action movie that was probably bad, but the soundtrack was killer and that’s a compliment. Lodmark sings ‘Why’d you tease me so?’ over EDM-ish synths and laser gun sound effects that are so over the top it’s good. The band take themselves seriously, from that artwork to their songwriting, but the instrumentation is a completely different. ‘0100’ starts as a gentle acoustic track before a farty guitar line that pops with funk comes rushing in and the synth appear once again. It’s hard to gauge where the fun ends and the conscious songwriting begins. Maybe I like that, maybe it is a flaw.

Down on paper, everything is good. However, when it comes to writing songs Pale Honey are left behind. They have their good, shadowy moments such as ‘Over Your Head’ where Lodmark sings ‘Do you require / My desire?’ and describes a controlling partner (either herself or the other). Even some of the weirder moments have their way of being endearing, such as the funky ‘Fish’ which ascends into a surf-rock solo and a crescendo chorus. However, for every good moments, there’s the awkard ‘Lonesome’, which flickers with potential before throwing in some over-the-top synths to mix things up and ruins what could be a two-minute punk-rock song.

4/10