YOUTH LAGOON – Wondrous Bughouse
Wondrous Bughouse finds Trevor Powers emerging out of hibernation, armed with an album dedicated to the formative advice extended to him at the centrepiece of his debut: “Don’t stop imagining. The day that you do is the day that you die.” Where that imagination – both musically and production-wise – seemed kept within the confines of his childhood home, here it explodes outwards, reaching into space. Like all fantasias however, the expression comes packed with both the gorgeously fanciful and the darkly surreal.
The anthemic qualities and grandiosity on display here, not just through a production upgrade but within the songwriting itself (the majority of the tracks exceed the five-minute mark and contain multifarious leaps and lurches in sound and mood), expounds a new self-confidence in Power’s explorative compositional capabilities. The melody of ‘Raspberry Cane’ has this anxious, psychedelic Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the wrong RPM quality; the wooziness that infuses ‘Dropla’ gives way to the urgently emotive, eyes-screwed-shut refrain “You’ll never die / you’ll never die”. ‘Mute’ meanwhile, is humongous, propelled by crashing drums and celestial synths, building through a guitar solo that would have seemed near-inconceivable two years ago, all the way up-until the final, triumphantly teetering piano-line – undoubtedly the album’s highlight.
Throughout these moments of grandeur though, the pervading abstract edge of the album always breaks through. The endearing bedroom-pop melodies and personal lyrics that characterised Year of Hibernation give way here to the overarching sonic vision of a disintegrating cosmic circus. A lyrical fixation on death and grotesque imagery, and songs punctuated by dissonant pulsating loops reach their most queasy and discomforting on ‘Attic Doctor’ and ‘Sleep Paralysis’. When you buy into the aesthetic these aspects prove to be immensely successful. But, particularly when combined with the occasionally grating pitch of the vocals, songs sometimes have the effect of being pushed too far. It’s a bit like witnessing a shrill 4-year old sing/squawking ‘adorably’ on an ancient home-video.
Like all coming-of-age stories, Youth Lagoon’s music has its flaws, errors of judgement and mishaps, but the truth is having broken free of the small-town boundaries he was looking to escape, Powers has returned with a clutch of truly memorable songs and an album of impressive and exciting scope. It’s a 2K13 recasting of the ‘Summer of Love’ from the perspective of a boy who gets anxiety attacks and has spent too long indoors with an iPod full of Elephant 6. And that, in many ways, is wonderful. 7.8/10
PEACE – In Love
Great band name by the way, no idea why that wasn’t already taken. There’s, t-shirts, a pudding sponsorship, and of course oh so many album titles available: …and Quiet, Five Minutes of…, World…, the late-career desperation of Give Peace a Chance, before the fond farewell of Peace Out – I should work in marketing. Anyhow on that point, having seen the bounteous hype (and the requisite backlash), but yet somehow having managed to avoid engaging with their actual material, it was with equal portions of trepidation and relish that the respectable difference that Peace had thus far maintained from my eardrums, less Berlin wall and more garden-fence, was broken down.
Disappointingly though, the resultant meeting constituted much of the exhaustion and redundancy which underlay the tedious punning which opened this review. For all the plenitude of youthful exuberance in many of their songs, and apparent in their music videos, over the course of a record it becomes increasingly depleted, to the extent that the ultimate end-product is of the par-baked variety.
The hooks and riffage galore that make up their wares are catchy and commendable, but the actual substance of the record – the lyrics and production in particular – are at best cookie-cutter and efficient, and at their worst embody the Delicious EP’s watermelon, excessive sweetness descending into the saccharine and consequently exhausting the possibility for, and failing to achieve, any semblance of engaged emotion beyond a somnambulant foot-tap.
Similarly their songs themselves are referential if not outright derivative, to the extent that listening to the album is just as much, if not more, entertaining if you take it as a kind of aural comparison puzzle game you might play with your friends in Zuckerbergland (other social media networks available).
There’s bountiful Charlatans on display, ‘Toxic’ and ‘Sugarstone’ are all Oasis, ‘Waste of Paint’ has plenty of Blur going on, and I’m pretty certain Foals have a lawsuit when it comes to the intro of ‘Wraith’. On the latter there’s even a point where the synth-line that breaks through (and then drops out just as quickly as it was hinted at), sounds like they’re about segue into a Calvin Harris cover, (which would probably work fine on your next Live Lounge appearance actually – get on it boys).
But, whilst there’s undoubtedly a place for revivalism, and all of these touchstones at the very least make them an easy band for a hack to describe, when it actually comes to the record itself it is clear that any of the edge, any of the appeal, of their forebears and influences has been entirely sandblasted away. Even more so, particularly when so many of those Britpop bands (Suede, Blur, Pulp) have made comebacks of late, and reminded any erstwhile followers of both how it’s done and the flaws of such a sound, Peace’s offerings seem even more substandard.
Perhaps most depressingly of all though, the knife is further twisted when the songs that are missing from the conventional tracklist – ‘Drain’, ‘Scumbag’ for instance – are actually their most impressive efforts, a hundred times more interesting for their spaced out grungy weirdness, and the suspicion is that Columbia might have had more than their fair share of input into their exclusion.
It is with the latter in mind though that Peace actually manages to avoid an outright drubbing. The ability to compose the hypothetical mapping out of their whole career at the top of this review, is entirely symptomatic of their easily identifiable influences and hollow impression they leave in their wake. But the very possibility of such a career is afforded by what they do well, an ear for catchy, energetic grooves, combined with their evident penchant for the more frantic, raucous elements of bands like brief contemporaries, and the now sadly deceased, WU LYF. Hopefully we’ll see some more of the latter next time round. 5.4/10
LOW – ‘So Blue’
One half of everyone’s favourite musical Mormon couple, guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk, recently spoke of his trepidation at the introduction of piano into Low’s song-writing on the upcoming The Invisible Way, but any sign of second-guessing their choice is initially undetectable, the piano-line first kicking the door of the track down with a burst of intensity, and then proceeding to constitute the structural spine of the entire track. It’s not a flourish but instead a vital mechanism, working in conjunction with the pound of the drums and Mimi Parker’s hymnal vocals throughout, in order to heighten the dramatic edge of the repeated rise and fall.
I say ‘initially’ though, because frustratingly it becomes clear that whilst the drama is potent and the build powerful, neither ultimately leads anywhere, the catharsis promised never quite being attained, instead being restrained, just at the peak of the crescendo. The essence of this frustration, this atrophied catharsis is perhaps represented lyrically by the chorus: ‘‘So blue / with you”. For a simple line it’s immensely tonally complex, expressing deep melancholy and heartache but held up against and undercut the ultimate sense of holding-on despite the sadness. With the delivery not being particularly inclined to either, this sense of being stuck in a rut reflects the inability of the track to completely rise out of the gloom, instead slipping in the ascent. Which is all very clever and admirable, but in praxis leaves the track steeped in flawed, slightly monotonous, majesty.
LORD HURON – ‘Lonesome Dreams’
Having received perhaps more than their fair share of critical flak for their rationally refracted or reductively recycled (depending on who you asked) Americana and folk-inflected sound on their debut, the title-track ‘Lonesome Dreams’ provides as much evidence necessary for agreement or rebuttal. Undoubtedly, wherever your ears turn their influences and peers can be encountered (there some My Morning Jacket, here some Fleet Foxes…), certain melodies and harmonies, certainly some lyrical themes: “But I don’t really know this place / And it’s lonesome here in the wide-open space” are shared. However, where the thin-line between stylistic correspondence and outright theft is drawn, and why Lord Huron find themselves on the right side of it, is summed up in the language of dreams in which these recognisable refrains are expressed. Such a manner reflects the extent to which these ideas and sounds are tied up with the American cultural fabric: and evidently, as long as life is long, people are young and the world is wide, musicians, American or otherwise, will be getting lost and writing songs about it. The overriding note is one of proficiency rather than progression, but the music itself is robust, harmless, heartfelt and eminently appealing.
GHOSTPOET – ‘Meltdown’
The first single to drop from Some Say So I Say Light, the upcoming follow-up to the Mercury Prize-nominated Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, finds Obaro Ejimiwe a.k.a. Ghostpoet maintaining his healthy diet of both. The general tone and form of his sound – the half-slumbering, reflective sung-rap vocals over grime meets trip-hop production – is still in place, but the song-writing has tightened up, production values appear to have been bumped up also, and both contribute to an atmosphere of added clarity. The toms in particular really pop, and there’s added beauty and romance through the organic instrumentation employed and which suits him well. Such an instrumental tune-up appears to match the thematic outcome of the song, fighting through sadness, bitterness and regrets in order to move on from a relationship and hopefully make something better of himself out of it: “But baby it’s my heart, this time I gotta follow it.” All of the above contribute to the sense that ‘Meltdown’ stands as a document of an artist in good musical stead, ready to step up and make his mark.