Tune-Yards -- aka New England vocalist Merrill Garbus and partner in bass-playing crime Nate Brenner -- have allowed some major pop producers, namely John Hill and Malay, access to their already established and almost aggressively individual sound. Concerns of a disaster in the making may ring out; their first album unbelievably lo-fi and the second self- produced -- how would makers of albeit alternative but identifiable r’n’b pop affect the truly eccentric and self-sufficient band’s identity? Well, not as you much as you may imagine or possibly fear. There are changes of course as one would expect and also hope from any artist that has been producing music in excess of five years, but these are subtle and even, on occasion, welcome amendments made to the Tune-Yards manifesto.
2011’s “Whokill” was an astonishing force of nature; it blew everyone and everything that stood in its path away but left Merrill Garbus drained and creatively arid. “Nikki Nack”’s opening lyrics tell of Garbus’ frustrations and the encouragement given to her by a stranger based only on her casual, overheard, singing:
‘You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing
Just like a bird has to fly
And I really wanted to believe him because he seemed
Like a really nice guy
But I trip on the truth when I walk that wire
When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar
I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had never to sing again
And he replied ‘You’d better find a new way’
Garbus’ wide eyed, exclaiming vocals -- certainly soulful and often astoundingly powerful -- sound pretty much the same on “Find a New Way” as they always did. The change then comes mainly from the songs themselves and Tune-Yards development as writers. Garbus has spoken about her love of sticky, ear worm- songs that attack the brain, embedded forever. One of the objectives she had for this album was to figure out how to write such hooks and incorporate them without compromise of creativity and individuality. Maybe this was the reason for recruiting the producers of, amongst others, Pink, Shakira, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera; John Hill and Malay are music specialists who understand how to navigate an artist towards the potential of a great melody. Along with Brenner, the band has again self-written the entire record and this objective of creating catchiness has, on the whole, been met, with many satisfying examples.
The first half on “Nikki Nack” is more convoluted stylistically than the second and also has a lower hit rate. “Water Fountain”, the album’s first single, squashes all of Tune-Yards characteristics and tics into one song. It’s a very tight squeeze; playground skipping rhymes, yelps and ‘yee- ha’s!’, clanging and clattering percussion, exhibitionist vocals and lyrics about a crumbling and under-funded neighbourhoods and a video that references Peewee Herman’s “Play House”. Ostentatious, wacky and be-jewelled, it’s not subtle and, after the initial and undeniable rush has worn off, it’s not enduring either. “Look Around” and “Time of Dark”, both slower tracks, feel longer than their playing time and “Real Thing”, which starts off brilliantly with staccato thrown verses circa “Writing on the Wall” era Destiny’s Child, ends in a tangle of voices and sonic muddle.
“Hey Life” chronicles an existence led too fast accompanied by anxiety and a pressure to cram as much as possible into every waking second; its drumming, synth prods and speed singing all add to the heightened feeling of panic with Merrill central to the ensuing chaos. It’s a minor track in some ways but one that is nonetheless thrilling and manages to avoid any cartoonish inclinations on a track where this could have been an easy temptation.
The strongest section of the album begins with “Stop that Man” which introduces a trio of songs where evidence of growth in song-writing and an ability to apply a more contained but ultimately more rewarding approach is clearly apparent. One of the continued aims of Tune-Yards has been to comment on social and left-leaning political issues with lyrics that are set against predominantly upbeat and dense dance rhythms and beats that imply a celebratory mood. Casual racism, gentrification and sexual harassment are all central themes here and “Stop that Man” questions racial assumptions based on media statistics and news reports and also personal experiences. The song succeeds mainly though by being part angular, glitchy electro clash experiment (it turns inexplicably and temporarily into Blue Monday/ Bobby O for forty-five seconds mid-song) and part glorious, singalong pop song. So if Garbus’ intention was to create a song serious in intention that you’ll also sing and dance along to, she has also again succeeded.
“Left Behind” and the downbeat but not depressing, smoothly r’n’b “Wait for a Minute”, probably the album’s best tune and performance, complete the trio and these moments are some of the finest in Tune-Yards discography to date. There is nothing that rivals the unruly, audacious and already ground -breaking “Gangsta”’ for example, here; the Tune-Yards of “Nikki Nack” are indeed more mannered but also more intricate with one beady eye placed on fine detail and songs that reveal themselves more slowly and reward generously over time. Claims of cultural appropriation, for they have been made, are surely overblown and only on the multi harmonies of the lullaby-like “Rocking Chair”, short and little too on the nose, does the intention grate. Other influences can also be heard, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Santigold, Big Boi, MIA and Neneh Cherry in particular all register at certain points but never once could you mistake Tune –Yards for anyone else. “Nikki Nack” may not shout its intentions as loudly as before but its power is found elsewhere, you’ll find yourself madly singing its merits -- probably unaware and almost certainly with glee.
American synth trio Au Revoir Simone have stepped out from the shadows a little on “Moves in Spectrums”, their fourth album in a decade. They were never a dark band, don’t let the adoration of superfans like David Lynch confuse you, but they were introverted and their sound straightforward in its small way where basic electronics meshed with sympathetic but independent, occasionally folky female leads. The trick was that little thorns would stick and cut occasionally if you weren’t careful and sadness would completely dominate and then just evaporate. It was this that made them special and why so many would always come back for more of something that they couldn’t quite put their finger on.
Over the course of three albums Au Revoir Simone had gone from their relatively lo-fi, cheapo keyboard aesthetic to something far more expansive and expensive without ever compromising what is essentially their sound. Their last “The Bird of Music” was in many ways their most experimental but almost their most whimsical; it had more sonic clout than the previous two releases but it was also hard to escape the feeling that three albums from the trio may be enough. “Moves in Spectrums” goes some way in proving this hunch to be somewhat short-sighted and premature. Opening track “More Than” with its menace and prowl and dominant drum pattern and droning synth has only the bright harmonised chorus that reveals the band’s identity and it sounds great. “The Lead is Galloping” with its interestingly reversed, request hook of ‘Nobody put your hands up’ is a lolloping, sarcastic low self-esteem anthem and both “Just Like a Tree” and “Somebody Who” (featuring some all too brief but totally gorgeous cowbells) plunder satisfyingly rich-sounding, 80’s electro chart pop. Swirling and ‘ha-ha-ha-ha’ voiced “Boiling Point” is a commendable homage to Laurie Anderson and “Crazy” has the most incredible use of synths as if they were guitars that you will have heard for a while.
There are some odd decisions made here though and this is something all of Au Revoir Simone’s previous albums suffer from; plonking a track in, three in this case, whose inclusion seems to make little sense to anyone other than, I presume, the band themselves. Personal songs or experimentation are one thing but “We Both Know” is a very boring, almost five minute, semi-instrumental that goes nowhere, vocals popping up in the last minute and a half to be forgotten forever. “Love You Don’t Know Me” is that one line repeated over a minor MOR electronic keyboard melody for three minutes and album closer “Let the Night Win” although superficially vibrant, is not exactly captivating. It’s almost a complete certainty that the band have better material but they’ve decided that these tracks are the ones that should be heard; it’s frustrating and feels oddly self-indulgent.
“Moves in Spectrums” is an album where the good is some of Au Revoir Simone’s best and the average is still present. Every album has been more interesting than the last and this is their most cohesive in many ways and certainly the most assertive, a much needed attribute that the band required to move forward and to avoid the sometimes all too appropriate ‘nice’ tag. They are currently one of only a few female groups making this particular type of warm, slightly eccentric electronic music and therefore the competition may not be great but they do still lead in their genre. The feeling now though is whether Au Revior Simone can find that one brilliant album that they surely have in them as sadly, despite the very strong opening, this isn’t it.
Just in case anyone hadn’t realised, I’ve loved the Manics almost from day one. From the first time I heard “Slash ‘n’ Burn”, I was hooked and I’ve never heard anything since that came remotely close to unhooking me. I loved the Richey-period Manics because of Richey’s lyrics and James’s voice, playing and ability to write a memorable tune and I didn’t skip a beat when Nicky Wire took over as main lyricist for the band. He’s a gifted writer and he has an opinion or two; I like that.
So, in 2006, when James Dean Bradfield released his solo album “The Great Western”, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I loved it the album the first time I listened to it and I still love it every time I listen to it. The highest chart position it reached (with minimal promotion) was 22, and that puts it firmly in Closet Classic territory. Oh, and my favourite mondegreen is on this album, but I’ll tell you about that later.
So why would a songwriter in a commercially successfully and critically-acclaimed band want to release a solo album? Well, the Manics have always been big on the manifesto songs but, with a few exceptions (including “Life Becoming a Landslide” and “Ocean Spray”), they’ve not really done the personal, apolitical and introspective thing. If you’re a songwriter as prolific as James, you’re always going to have a bunch of great songs that just won’t work on any band album. When you listen to “The Great Western”, you realise that it would be criminal not to get these songs out there.
I love an album that opens with a big guitar riff and “The Great Western” certainly ticks that box; throw in some handclaps as well on the intro to “That’s No Way to Tell a Lie” and you’ve got my attention from the first four bars (it was even used on “Match of the Day”, so full marks to that BBC researcher). The production on the album is generally Spectoresque wall-of-sound, with the exception of the beautiful minimalist acoustic Jacques Brel cover “To See a Friend in Tears” and the final song “Which Way to Kyffin” which references Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”, and James has great fun with all of the melodic invention, layers of acoustic and electric guitars and completely over-the-top backing vocals that you would never hear on a Manics record (ok, maybe on “Everything Must Go”).
Lyrically, the album generally looks backwards to the early days of the Manics, life in the valleys in the 1980s and moving away from that life. “An English Gentleman” is a tribute to the band’s first publicist, Philip Hall, “Say Hello to The Pope” and “Bad Boys and Painkillers” (the only song on the album co-written with Nicky Wire) look back to life in Blackwood, and “Emigré” deals with the conflict created by leaving your roots to pursue your dreams. “Still a Long Way to Go” sounds a lot like a prequel to the highly personal “Ocean Spray” and “Run Romeo Run” has a chorus to rival anything that made it on to a Manics record.
Anyone with a pair of ears knows that James Dean Bradfield can write a great tune (and you can ask Shirley Bassey about that) but “The Great Western” proves that he’s a gifted lyricist and a talented producer as well. Seven years after I bought this album, I still love to listen to it and I’m convinced that James had a huge amount of fun putting the whole thing together. I suspect it was bought almost exclusively by Manics fans and that’s a bit of a shame really because this is a superb bunch of songs and it’s eclectic, well-crafted, well-performed and well-produced.
And what about that mondegreen? After hearing “On Saturday Morning We will Rule the World” many, many times I was still confused by a line that I heard as “A book of Brie and a telephone” until I finally realised that it was “A Ford Capri and a telephone”, which is ironic given that I’ve spent the last ten years living as an emigré a couple of miles from the old Ford complex in Dagenham.
Even if you’re not a fan of the Manic Street Preachers, put your prejudices to one side and listen to an album that absolutely fizzes with emotion and musical and lyrical invention. What more could you possibly want?