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?
Bon Iver is a really interesting band if you want to look at bands that really represent how modern technology is arming musicians with the means to push what boundaries we have left – and there aren’t many. Genres are almost completely useless, both from the producers of music and the consumers, as everybody just consumes everything, no matter what labels we put on things. This technology has elevated Bon Iver from a highly organic folk project with Justin Vernon at the centre to a highly synthetic multi-genre and multi-person thing. It’s harder to pin down, and that’s what’s great about it, that it’s very hard even now to say Bon Iver is ‘this’. Vernon has embraced autotune in a way only he and Kanye West have been able to master, to use such a highly synthetic and ‘fake’ instrument to construct beauty. And Vernon isn’t like Kanye – he can sing, so the autotune is an interesting choice. And despite all of this access to technology and communication, have we ever felt more disconnected from everything? When Vernon poses a question about how to be a human being, or repeatedly references God, it creates a stark contrast, and draws attention to why we shouldn’t be more connected. Famously Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago was created in relative isolation in a cabin in rural Wisconsin, but that was self-imposed. What happens when the isolation isn’t self imposed, and what’s worse, it’s when we’re surrounded by millions of people who feel exactly the same but can’t articulate it to each other?
The technology sometimes gets too much, funnily enough. On the first track, ’22’, and on ’29’*, there are purposeful glitches in Vernon’s extended vocal to the point of being unlistenable. If it’s an aesthetical choice, it completely guts the song, especially in the final chorus of ’29’ and if it’s to represent a fragmentation – of the mind – it’s still very off-putting. Because very often, 22, A Million is very beautiful, so when Vernon allows little inconsistencies to break the lovely guitar strums of ’22’ or the quiet folk of ’29’, it’s infuriating. Fortunately the album has very little of these, and we can get to praising this thing. Technology has saved Bon Iver, in a way. Not only has it freed Bon Iver from folk, but it pushes 22, A Million into something interesting. It began on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but it is a bigger transformation here, like the watery synths and chaotic backing vocals on ‘666’. Similarly, Vernon offers another ‘Woods’ on ‘715’, where he uses autotune, specifically a system called Messina, to split off multiple vocals from his own, so there’s one higher pitch and one lower pitch, and often when he really reaches deep, it’s overwhelming and magical. It isn’t what autotune was invented for, but hearing ‘715’, you could almost imagine this is what it is for. There isn’t even any extra instrumentation as Vernon remembers his character being abandoned by a creek (with more bible references about being left by the reeds and the more blunt ‘God damn, turn around now), and perhaps that character is comparing being left behind by a lover with being left by parents. Once again, Bon Iver is alone.
The numbers in the titles and the various religious references are important. Both represent hard facts and figures, and in the case of religion, explanations for the wrongs of life from divine knowledge. When something bad happens, you turn to science or faith to explain why it happened, even if the reason is much nearer and much more simple. The answer is often us, but Vernon is almost in denial, looking to much bigger things in order to explain very small faults. On one of the tracks where Bon Iver becomes the larger band that the live performances show, 33 “GOD”, it could be seen as a defeatist song, about how nothing really matters as we can’t live forever to enjoy it. But I think it’s a plea to enjoy what is presented in front of us, and the smaller things we never look to enjoy, like on the line ‘I’d be as happy as hell, if you stayed for tea’ or the sample from Jim Ed Brown’s song ‘Morning’, where they sample ‘Here in this room, this narrow room where life began when we were young last night’, and that’s about enjoying intimacy and not seeing it as a purely momentary happiness.
22, A Million feels like a big concept squeezed into a short space of time (it’s only a minute longer than the Pixies album that got released today – 33 minutes), but it’s one of those condensed concept albums and God knows it has the front cover for a concept album. It set itself a monumental task of dealing with alienation in the face of mass communication and its length and mystery has left us with plenty of questions to ask. Yes, the interpretation of the numbers and titles will be endlessly entertaining, but even at face interpretation it’s very interesting. The logic of maths and equations sitting directly next to the comforting reassurance of religion plays havoc with Vernon’s problems with the lack of things staying still, or being logical at all. The point of all of these things whizzing around Vernon’s mind is that it is too much. There is too much ‘stuff’ going on around us, much of it contradicting and arguing with each other. Bon Iver asks if we should sift through it all and try to make sense of it, or if we’re overwhelmed by it, or if ‘Well it harms me, it harms me, it harms me, I’ll let it in’ as Vernon sings on ‘00000’, and we can accept that it might hurt us, or it will help us make ourselves better humans, if there is such a thing. Clearly, we’ve not done a good job of articulating this album, and it’s very hard to do. Some things are too big to explain.
Funnel Recommends: 715 – CRΣΣKS / 33 “GOD” / 666 ʇ
*We shortened the titles of the tracks, because we’re really not keen on copying and pasting ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ over and over again.
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.
Glass Animals emerged in the wave that followed Alt-J’s success, alongside Django Django and Everything Everything (who were around before Alt-J hit big with An Awesome Wave, but finally found their scene). They were a bit different, in that they further embraced the poppiness of the flagbearer, dropping some of the moodiness and playing up the non-UK styles – that meant bringing in trap drums, african drums, pretty much any drums that had a foreign style. That weirdness remains on How To Be A Human Being, which is so bright and enjoyable it might just separate them from their peers. The singles that open the album, ‘Life Itself’ and especially ‘Youth’, have huge choruses, weird, unexplainable noises and just optimism beaming out of them. ‘Youth’ is aided by frontman Dave Bayley’s falsetto, which reminds me of Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe and pristine production by Bayley as well.
How To Be A Human Being is another example of these British alt-pop bands diversifying after relatively safe debuts to the world. Everything Everything did it on Get To Heaven, Wild Beasts did it very recently on Boy King. Glass Animals do it by enhancing the foreign imports – the funkiness of ‘Pork Soda’, the rap-trap on ‘Cane Shuga’, the Red Hot Chili strut of ‘Poplar St’ (the beginning really does sound like ‘Under The Bridge’), but as long as they keep bringing in the shiny production, the straightforward poppiness and the genre-hopping, Glass Animals can do what they like. ‘Poplar Street’, like many other tracks on here, does indulge in the weirdness though. It’s about a woman called ‘Mrs Moore’, and the protagonist, who transitions from a child to an adult with the chorus of ‘I feel like a new man’ and ‘I am a true romantic / Free falling love addict’ but the way it’s spun is that the boy loses his virginity to Mrs Moore, believing themselves to be a romantic individual only to be rejected by Mrs Moore. The song could have easily slotted onto Wild Beasts’ last album, but the huge chorus screams out for the radio, even if the creepy lyrics might not.
‘Cane Shuga’ is also another song ready for radio, riding an 8-bit beat and more of those trappy high hats. It just shows the band and how easily they can switch from style to style without dropping the ball, because they adapt so well. It reminds me of when Beck released the safe ‘Dreams’ and then did ‘Wow’, which was hyper-modern and very accessible. If ‘Life Itself’ is the safe choice then ‘Cane Shuga’ is the ‘Wow’. Also, extra points for reminding me of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ piano line. Deep down, How To Be A Human Being has some fairly dark lyrics too. ‘Cane Shuga’ is about cocaine and trying to give it up, and a relationship collapsing around it. ‘Mama’s Gun’ has references to murder and mental illness. And then there’s ‘Agnes’ and its story about a suicidal character.
How To Be A Human Being was genuinely surprising for how much it exceeded expectations. Just when you think you’ve pegged them, Glass Animals come back with an album that in many ways does better than their contemporaries. A lot of it comes down to their experimentation with sound, whilst still in the confines of pop music. There’s definitely hits to be had here – ‘Life Itself’ has already become a minor hit, but you could take most of the tracks here and they have two layers of accessibility the first time around, but the ability to dig deeper the second time and discover a Carpenters’ sample or a clever lyric. How To Be A Human Being is very refreshing.
Funnel Recommends: Youth / Cane Shuga / Poplar Street
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.
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
Wow is the expression you could use to describe any of Beck’s massive left-turns in his career. It also happens to be the title of his new song, a trendy hip-pop song with the kind of high pitched backing vocals, airhorn-like synths and brittle drums that’s filling the charts right now. It’s also surprising to see Beck take this direction after his sombre, acoustic last album Morning Phase, which was followed by the psychedelic and excellent single ‘Dreams’. By this point, ‘Wow’, shouldn’t be a surprise, and with Beck’s history of rapping it shouldn’t be confusing to see him try this style, but it is kind of jarring, and, dare we say it, sounds like Beck genre-hopping for the sake of genre-hopping.
Pop isn’t anything unusual for Beck, it’s just that in the past he has retained some of those idiosyncrasies that made him a little bit quirkier and ahead of the pack. It could mean ‘Dreams’, which picked up Tame Impala’s recent stretch for pop, and ran with it. There’s no life in ‘Wow’, even if it can perfectly show how Beck can imitate the pop of the moment. The lyrics, where Beck does manage to work in some of his weird eccentricities, there’s sore thumbs like ‘Now we’re pissin in the wind cause it’s so pine fresh’ and the infuriatingly catchy chorus of ‘Wow! It’s like right now’. In that aspect, Beck has crafted a very modern pop song which might have some legs on the radio.
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