The definitive ‘Kylie Sound’; it’s what Kylie herself and pop obsessives everywhere are desperate to identify, capture and then immortalise and never has this felt more apparent than on “Kiss Me Once”, her twelfth studio album. Her biggest hits are studies in expert song writing, of-the-moment production and perfect execution. From “Hand On my Heart” to “Slow”, “Spinning Around” to “Can’t Get you Out of My Head”, all effortless sounding pop from an artist who has more than proved her worth as a leader in the field. This album sees her again working with some of the most de rigueur and established writers and producers available with reclusive pop extraordinaire herself, Sia Furler, curating the entire project. Kylie’s first album for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella has not come cheap it, seems. Three albums worth of songs have been recorded over the album’s two year creation and many have deemed not worthy of inclusion. For example none of the collaborations with Minogue’s new partner on the reality talent show The Voice, will.i.am, are here, a cause for celebration for some. So what exactly has made the finishing line and does the Kylie Sound of 2014 live up to some of her previous heady years? Yes and no.
The first half of “Kiss Me Once” is indeed the most problematic and some of it is best got out of the way as quickly as possible before the really good stuff starts to cut through and rise to the sheeny, shiny surface. Lead single “Into the Blue” is smart and solid -- very much a ‘Kylie’ song -- and contains a string section that is uplifting and vocal phrasing and beats that are certainly in keeping with current chart fodder. It is however disappointing in its overall niceness and lack of originality. Kylie’s best songs have also incorporated the unexpected with the familiar and for a song leading us into a new era it is not exactly encouraging. There are then two songs which both, at Sia’s insistence, contain the word ‘sex’ (a third follows later of a different standard entirely) and almost suggest the onset of a concept album. “Sexy Love” comes first and is a wholly derivative Daft Punk/Chic/”Holiday” hybrid which has tons of sunny Kylie enthusiasm in the place where the song should be. “Sexercise”, a Furler co-write, follows and is the most cynical three minutes here. It’s a focus-grouped, trend-chasing attempt at maintaining her Grindr demographic in addition to securing just one more USA hit, urban style. It’s horrible and if you liked Madonna’s “Hard Candy” weaker moments that it may just be your favourite.
Pharrell Williams, currently as ubiquitous a producer as Sia is writer, thankfully comes to the rescue with “I Was Gonna Cancel”. Seems Williams understands the Kylie DNA better than he did Madonna’s. A joyous, confident and supremely carefree disco tune that has a nice pinch of ‘fuck you!’ about it. With its “I Want Your Love” bassline and bells that resemble Blondie’s “Rapture”, this is the first song here where Kylie sounds like you might expect her to given the diverse talent that features here. “Feels So Good” is airy, electronic pop that is both enveloping and aloof in its purpose. It’s a cover version of the Tom Aspaul song “Indiana”, produced by new kid on the block MNEK, with its dreamy chord progression and Kylie’s translucent vocals is one of the best things here. Ariel Rechtshaid of HAIM and Sky Ferreira fame ups the ante further on the tense and metallic “If Only”. Vocal samples are slowed down and sped up and disorientate and muddle and the drums pound like a sci-fi “Hounds of Love”. Truly dynamic and modern sounding with Minogue’s coolly enunciated,heartbreaking admission -- ‘if I set you free and you actually came back to me…if only’. The final song in the sex trilogy “Les Sex” is another triumph. Written by the brilliant and underrated female electro star MDNR, it is a music box sweet and then a squelching and whacking camp delight.
Enrique Iglesias, following The Hurts and Neil Tennant before him, is allocated duetting honours on the deceiving ballad “Beautiful”. It’s deceptive because of its highly vocodered vocals and soulless machines suggesting something macabre and narcotic, when it is in fact excruciatingly sentimental and dull; a low point indeed. “Fine” is a handbag house type affair with lyrics suggesting a positive outlook equals a positive life cliché. It’s not the most adventurous song Kylie has ever made and like a lot of the songs here (see also “Million Miles”) it does a perfunctory job of producing workman-like album tracks. This leaves the one other Sia Furler penned song, the title track, “Kiss Me Once”. Given Sia’s song-writing style which is now becoming recognisable – dots can be joined that connect “Diamonds” to “Perfume” to “Pretty Hurts” – “Kiss Me Once” is unmistakable only as a Kylie song. Lush and dreamy, romantic and multi-coloured, it will be become a favourite for many. Kylie herself sounds re-assuring and warm and the bells and the beats that surround her balance out any concerns of mawkishness. It is a performance and song that could have come from the best of Minogue’s PWL years, the Cathy Dennis sessions of “Fever” or her first album for Deconstruction; a Kylie Minogue song for all seasons, beautifully realised.
If there is a comparison to be made between this and another of Kylie’s albums then it would be 2007’s “X”, another album that suffered from a long gestation period with many songs being recorded with a myriad of producers and writers and then a patchy final track-listing that lacked cohesion and quality control. Like “X”, “Kiss Me Once” also features some of the best material that Minogue has put her name to but also some of the worse. Only on her best but not most successful album, 2009’s “Aphrodite” (executive producer, the extraordinary Stuart Price) was this problem averted with a collection of expertly judged songs that formed a tight and unified vision of pop superiority. There is always a degree of good will placed at Kylie Minogue’s tiny feet, she appears loved by many in an industry that excels in back biting and a desire for always younger, fresh talent and a general sense that the UK, her biggest audience, do not want to see her suffer or to fail. ‘Kiss Me Once’ is not going to change that and is a crowd pleasing but uneven effort at maintaining her status as pop’s eternal princess. Her more interesting songs, of which only a couple appear here, have always hinted at a darker and more introspective and experimental Kylie; maybe it’s time now for her to embrace this side and allow us more than just the glimpse that she’s permitted over her 27 year tenure.
If you check out MusicRiot regularly, you’ll know that our contributors have one thing in common; they’re all passionate about (maybe bordering on obsessed by) music. All of the Riot Squad (John Preston, Louie Anderson and, most recently, Klare Stephens) love music of all styles and the reason we do this is because we want to share our passion and maybe get a few more people to listen to the music we love, whether it’s live or recorded. Also, because music is such a personal thing we like to bring that element into our contributions; opinions are always subjective, but at least we’re upfront about it. Often it can feel like shouting in the dark: then you have a weekend like the one I’ve just had.
Last week I published a review of the excellent album “Closer than you Know” by The Kennedys and I was invited to review their gig at Kings Place in London on Friday. I also had a gig lined up for Sunday night, going to watch the Billy Walton Band in High Barnet with some good friends. Both gigs were superb in very different ways; you can read The Kennedys review and previous Billy Walton Band reviews here on MusicRiot and work out for yourself that I’m impressed.
The live performances by these bands, however, are only part of the story. All of the musicians at these two gigs (Pete and Maura Kennedy, Billy Walton, William Paris, Rich Taskowitz and John D’Angelo) are extremely gifted musicians who love what they do and love to interact with their audience personally and online. Both bands mix with the audience when they aren’t actually performing (and sometimes when they are; yeah that’s you Billy and Rich) and have a huge amount of respect for their fans, fellow musicians and songwriters.
Both gigs were superb in different ways; The Kennedys stripped down their songs to arrangements for two acoustic guitars and two voices while the Billy Walton Band played raucous r’n’r (and blues and soul and the rest) in the way that bands from New Jersey do. Both bands were happy to play requests from the audience regardless of the setlist they had prepared. Most importantly, both bands were obviously having a good time. So far, so good, but excellence is pretty much what I expected from these two bands and this weekend was about much more than that.
I’ve been reviewing gigs in London and elsewhere for MusicRiot for six years now and sometimes it can be a bit depressing; you watch incredibly gifted bands and artists performing to audiences which just scrape into three figures and most of them are friends of the band. I’ve been to blues gigs where the majority of the audience at least twice as old as the musicians. It was great to see two very different gigs this weekend where the ages of the audience ranged widely and everyone was there to hear great live music and have a good time. And that brings me on to the reason why we all contribute to MusicRiot.
We don’t ignore the established bands at MusicRiot; we had two reviews of the Daft Punk album last week and we’ve reviewed albums by Bruce Springsteen, Scissor Sisters, Lana del Rey and Saint Etienne in the last year or so. We also love to discover a diverse range of bands and artists that you might not have heard of and tell you all about them so we’ll carry on telling you all about artists like The Kennedys, the Billy Walton Band, MS MR, Sally Shapiro, Tomorrow’s World, Lilygun, Stoneface Travellers, Dean Owens and many more. We’ve even got some pretty good photos for you to look at.
If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned from six years at MusicRiot it’s this; whatever you hear on daytime radio, there’s always good music out there if you know where to look and that’s why the Riot Squad do what they do. And thanks to Richie Taz for the title.
I think this is a first for the Riot Squad. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that two of our contributors wanted to review this album. Instead of choosing one or the other, we thought it would be great to publish both reviews. They come at the subject from different directions and experiences but the conclusions are… well you can read that for yourself.
Daft Punk are an act with nothing to prove. Given the amount of work that’s gone into “Random Access Memories” it’s easy to think otherwise but when you consider how the world fell at their feet upon the announcement of the album and the success its pre-release single, “Get Lucky”, achieved it’s fair to say it’s become clear that they’ve earned their place in the sub-consciousness of today’s pop world. Everything surrounding this new album almost allows it, in some people’s minds, to transcend the notion that the new release can be considered simply that: an album, which after all is all we’ve received here. Many bands whose status grows to the heights of an act like Daft Punk’s feel the need to use a new release to reignite the world’s passion for them, they craft a new statement defining their existence and remind everyone why they’re even here to begin with but here that’s not the case. With “Random Access Memories”, Daft Punk are simply paying tribute to the music that inspired them and the world and reminding people why we love it so. This album’s not about them, it’s about something much bigger and that’s nice.
This is most clear on the third track, “Giorgio by Moroder”, featuring a monologue from the almost-synonymous producer detailing his early music career. It begins as less of a piece of music, more a vocalised autobiography punctuated by a backing instrumental, however it evolves into a huge-sounding clash of Daft Punk’s usual electro-house sounds and a live orchestra, featuring rather explosive drumming. This song is where Daft Punk’s motive behind the creation of this album is most prevalent and obvious and is actually very exciting. It’s one of the moments where it feels like the duo truly deserve the status they’ve garnered over the years, at once displaying their skills at creating both futuristic and boundary-pushing musical landscapes and producing something an listener can relate to and enjoy. However these moments are actually few and far between. That’s not to say the rest of the album is bad by any means, although there is a lot of filler, just that much of it seems dwarfed by the ambition and scale of some tracks.
For example when you consider “Touch”, a sprawling eight-minute epic featuring Paul Williams on vocals which seems to try and explore all kinds of musical styles, including both the sounds of music halls from the 40s and string-laden power ballads, and compare it with something as simple as “The Game of Love”, a smooth, funky, soulful, robot-voiced jam that Daft Punk fans will be very used to by now, it feels like a lot more care and thought has gone into the tracks featuring the rather impressive list of collaborators. The duo’s solo tracks suffer and pale in comparison, feeling like bridges over the gaps between collaborations. Often it seems like extraordinary measures have been made just to distinguish them, like the bizarre Disney-esque fanfare pinned to the start of “Beyond”.
However it is these collaborations which save the record so the focus they’ve received is understandable (or perhaps the converse is true). Personal highlights include the irresistible Julian Calasblancas-featuring “Instant Crush”. His vocals are run through pitch-shift software which makes him sound like a falsetto version of one of Daft Punk’s own robot voices. The catchy, rhythmic runs in the chorus are nearly the most memorable moment on the album. “Doin’ It Right”, featuring Panda Bear from Animal Collective, is by far the simplest track here and is gorgeous. It is literally just AnCo vs. Daft Punk with the collaborator singing over a spine-tingling ascending robot vocal loop with very little else interfering. Nile Rodgers’ presence is made very clear, with his signature staccato guitar licks gliding infectiously over three tracks, including of course the full album version of the previously heard “Get Lucky” which now flows properly and feels fully formed in its extended album version.
The most consistent thing on “Random Access Memories” is the meticulous production values, ensuring that every track at least sounds meaningful and organic. Every instrument is crisp and warm, with overall soundscapes feeling very spacious yet united. Daft Punk often seem to try and recall the sound of seventies disco, free it up, give it a cleaner quality with more room to breathe and mix it up with their own unique feel, all the while pushing everything in a new direction. It’s a very sincere venture and elements which feel borrowed rarely seem to act as a crutch.
“Random Access Memories” is a pleasing but flawed album. When you strip away the notions of this release acting as a movement or an event and look at what is displayed front to back on a disc, what’s here is largely enjoyable; not consistently but the highs remind us why Daft Punk are now so highly-revered. While nothing is as instant or probably as memorable as hits of old like “One More Time”, several tracks here do deserve to be remembered and the overall product is very warm, it’s just that the duo’s sights seem to get distracted along the way. If you go in listening to this as you would any old album then there’s enjoyment to be had to a degree. If you fancy believing the promises made that this is the new best album ever, please calm down.
Louie Anderson (3 stars)
The best thing to do with an album is just listen to it; I’ve been doing this for 35 years now and can testify to its effectiveness. In the small, market town that I grew up in, I visited the tiny, local independent record shop almost every day for at least 2 months after school and Saturday mornings, waiting for Grace Jones’ “Nightclubbing” album to appear. The 2 staff, sick to the back teeth of seeing me , weren’t exactly sure when it was going to be released; it didn’t seem to be confirmed anywhere and then one day, there it was, this mysterious, magical disc. No inner sleeve notes, no guest producers or artists, no media assault and no idea how it would sound. I almost certainly ran home and then consumed every second of this amazing record, it helped me deal with the problems of being an outsider and influenced me in ways that I certainly didn’t understand then. It has since become an album that is considered a classic, a glimpse into the future which still doesn’t sound dated now and the house band of Sly and Robbie and the late Alex Sadkin (collectively known as the Compass Point All Stars), the ultimate in session musicians, are now stars in their own right. I can’t imagine what it would like if this album were to be released today. The hype that would be attached to it would probably break the internet.
I’ve been listening to Daft Punk’s fourth album proper, ”Random Access Memories”, on and off during the last week; on headphones, on my stereo at home, on my iPad. I’ve heard it in some of the few remaining record shops in central London and in a couple of bars, blaring out. It is without doubt an album that is ambitious, outrageous and gorgeous sounding, but try if you can to turn down the noise of the hype, the incredible marketing campaign which still hasn’t given us a full video for one song but has turned this album, by a band who were merely popular before but now appear to be reinvented as ‘iconic’, into a full blown event. It’s even been claimed that these two French men who are never seen without their robot heads, have rescued dance music from something; I’m not sure what exactly. This is all of course quite amazing, but what is it you can actually hear? You just need to try and listen.
Nile Rodgers is one of the two men, the other being the late Bernard Edwards, responsible for The Chic Organisiation, words that my still make my heart beat a little bit faster when I see them. Chic made their own intelligent, beautiful and sometimes euphoric, sometimes sad dance records and Rodgers and Edwards, along with their own session band and singers, went on to produce other artists such as Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie and Deborah Harry. Rodgers plays guitar on this album, most predominantly on the first track released from the album, “Get Lucky” and this song has really struck a chord with music buyers such is its immediate, enormous success; with Pharrell Williams’ falsetto, it has a strong melody line and its lyrical optimism is welcomed in what is globally, a pretty bleak time. Compared to the Chic canon of hits how would this one measure up? Well, it’s not “Good Times”, “Le Freak” or “I Want Your Love”. Lyrically, structurally and rhythmically “Get Lucky” would be a minor Chic record, more reminiscent of their 80’s work where a looser, less urgent and less staccato sound came to the fore and their success began to wane. “Lose Yourself To Dance” is not “Lost in Music;, Rodgers’ guitar, when it appears after the false start, is still so beautiful and so fluid but the song plods and is a good example of repetition not working although it can be a key component to some great dance music. Maybe I shouldn’t be drawing parallels between these two songs to Chic compositions but surely that’s what Daft Punk have tried to recreate here? Harking back to a time where music, dance music in particular, was more organic, soulful and, somewhat ironically for two men who have never been seen without their robot helmets glued to their heads, human. It would be their own fault if comparisons are made.
“I Feel Love” is not a song, it’s a place which Giorgio Moroder, record producer extraordinaire, and disco goddess and his most accomplished muse, Donna Summer, built together in 1977, took residence in and have never left; people still get lost in it and will continue to. Play it now and it still sounds like it’s from the future; its other-worldliness and beauty intact. Moroder himself explains how he came to make music on the second most audacious track here called “Giorgio by Moroder” and it’s one of the few tracks where, like “I Feel Love”, something happens in your brain which makes it respond to what it can hear in a very visceral way, a physical urge to react, with the last third of this nine minute opus in particular being a complete oral riot and making me grin like a crazy fool. An amazing bass line, synth hook, scratching effects, strings, live drums and an energy that is not matched again here and, despite the structure of the song, which is more like a suite and is very in keeping with Moroder’s more ambitious work (the original sixteen minute version of “McArthur Park”), this still sounds like a Daft Punk record, the aims of this album being very much achieved here.
“Touch” is a silly, show-off mess of a show tune, not a good show tune but a pretentious, overblown, rock-opera cheesy one made up of four different parts playing over eight minutes. The most divisive track on “RAM”, it has a full orchestra and a choir and is the only time you will hear a female voice albeit one blended with other vocals during the album’s seventy-five minute running time. This is one of the main flaws regarding the decisions made by Daft Punk in their choice of collaborators. Here’s the list in full; Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams, Giorgio Moroder, Chilly Gonzales, DJ Falcon, Todd Edwards, Panda Bear and Julian Casablancas from The Strokes. A complete boys club then and it’s an odd decision to exclude any kind of female presence when the genre which is being honoured, or being paid tribute to here, was one where the female vocalist was key, a generation of women who had almost dysfunctional levels of intimacy with the producer and who went on to record seminal pieces of work. No sign of that here though but Pharrell Williams, to his credit, has already, quite rightly, put Madonna’s name forward.
There are four, maybe five, tracks which have the trademark, sad robot vocoder sound or are completely instrumental. They noodle and doodle around a bit, electronic keyboards and soft rock guitar, quite beautifully arranged and played but seem created to fulfil the cliché of music made for the background, something that their previous output could not be accused of. Julian Casablancas’ very heavily treated vocals probably get the best actual song on here with the sombre, minor key “Instant Crush” and the minimal, electro jolt of “Doing It Right” with a bright, white Panda Bear vocal recalls a lesser “Digital Love”. The choppy chords on the opening track, “Give Life Back to Music Again”, again featuring Rodgers and his magic guitar, bring back memories of and sound a lot like Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down It’s Saturday Night”, nice but hardly inspired or original.
I have had a long term love affair with Daft Punk’s 2001 album, “Discovery”. It samples Barry Manilow (an early clue maybe?) and features at least four incredible songs which will contribute in helping to define a decade in music and culture generally. “RAM” announced itself loudly and long before its actual arrival and now it’s here it feels underwhelming and is nostalgic, clinical, and occasionally brilliant and will be a musical trainspotter of a certain age’s treasure trove. I’ve been guilty of indulging that part of me in this review. Giorgio Moroder speaks about his desire of wanting to create the sound of the future here, something he achieved with little fanfare, a bit like Grace, and this is what “Discovery” sounded like to a lot of people when it appeared some 12 years ago. The fact that it influenced pop (and r’n’b, which ended up becoming the new pop) to the extent that it did is still unbelievable; it sounded so underground, so consigned to a club! And this album is apparently a reaction to the further progression of commercial dance music labelled EDM (electronic dance music), which Daft Punk vocally dislike but are of course partly, and probably quite a large part, responsible for. Instead of looking to the future though, the duo now seem content to swoon over the past, a decision that will excite many I’m sure but in terms of their own evolution, it’s hard to hear anything that hasn’t been heard many times before. It’s clear though that the ultimate message being conveyed with “RAM” is that by aligning themselves with two of the best, most prolific and important dance producers and writers of our time, Daft Punk also consider themselves part of that gang too; only time can tell. Ask Giorgio, he’ll tell you.
John Preston (3 stars)
It’s beginning to look suspiciously like the start of summer, what with the rain stopping and the sun appearing at last, but the Riot Squad don’t care about any of that (apart from the fact that we can wear our shades now without looking ridiculous). Anyway, we’ve got a busy few weeks coming up with plenty of live and recorded music to tell you about.
I’m finally going to get to see Anna-Christina’s live, unplugged show “Pretty Little Lady?” this week and I’ll be telling you all about that next week. The highly-acclaimed New York duo, The Kennedys, are touring the UK and Ireland to promote their latest album “Closer Than You Know” and we’ll be telling you all about that later this month. Then, at the end of the month, I’ll be going to Edinburgh to see Modern Misfortune whose first EP is out now.
John’s going to be reviewing albums by Little Boots, Alison Moyet, MS MR and Daft Punk and I’ll be having a listen to The Kennedys album. I’m also trying to get hold of a review copy of the debut Federal Charm album which is out in June. I’ll keep you posted on that.
We’re also kicking around the idea of a monthly Riot Squad podcast to let you know what we sound like and what we’re up to each month. It’s going to be an interesting month.