HospitalityHospitality -- “Trouble”

An archetypal indie band of the type you hear less and less these days, Hospitality’s second album is a masterful example of restraint, space and structure. Instrumentals, vividly detailed middle eights and trumpet solos are all given ample breathing space. Never too precise or self -indulgent, Amber Papini sounds like a fallen it-girl spending her days and nights on the phone smoking in coffee shops and crashing on other peoples’ sofa-beds. An album that reveals more with each listen, Hospitality are both old fashioned and forward-looking in their execution of guitar, drums and the occasional synth pop.

 

TinasheTinashe -- “Aquarius”

SZA, Kelela and Kindness have all been responsible for building the momentum of the new slowed-down and sonically screwed with RnB genre that came out of the remains of classic Aaliyah and Brandy and Cassie’s massively influential and singular debut. All commendable in the own right, none of these have yet mastered the all essential ingredient of delectable and persistent melodies like Tinashe has on her sublime debut album, the most consistent and important RnB album from a female vocalist in the last couple of years.

 

Azealia BanksAzealia Banks -- “Broke With Expensive Taste”

Her own worst enemy at times, but maybe that makes more sense now “Broke with Expensive Taste” has finally arrived in one piece and in the way Banks wanted it to. ‘I try all the cultures’ she sings over the appropriately tight and popping “Soda” and indeed she does; soca, hip-house, trap, surf-rock, UK garage and very deep house music all feature. The link to all of these styles is Banks herself; her inability to compromise and her keen ear have ensured her debut is one of the best within the genre, whatever genre that may be.

 

The Juan MacleanThe Juan Maclean – “In A Dream”

It’s hard not to mentally tick off the many influences that bubble up whilst listening to The Juan Maclean’s third album. Dance and club music is unavoidably indebted to its past, there are over five decades of a rich, diverse history to get lost in but McLean wisely avoids pastiche and nostalgia and creates his own nocturnal fantasy. With the essential Nancy Wang’s deadpan disco queen vocals dominating two thirds of the album, the duo have created their most successful and exciting collection to date.

 

St VincentSt Vincent – “St Vincent”

Not quite her masterpiece, so far that honour still falls upon 2011’s ground-breaking “Strange Mercy”. Annie Clarke’s first self-titled album is, following eleven months of getting-to-know-you time, probably her most strange and artful release so far. The original conceit is that it was going to be her most accessible and ‘pop’ album to date and yes, one of the songs does sound like a classic Madonna ballad. But tracks that start off as off-colour, other-worldly RnB end up somewhere completely unrelated, bruised and bashed 3 minutes later -- and it works beautifully. A genuine superstar, St Vincent’s ‘St Vincent’ is one of the year’s brightest and most brutal releases.

BabyThe first and last tracks on the third album by US female singer songwriter White Hinterland act as a misleading but appropriate prelude and postscript to the bulk of “Baby”. Misleading as, apart from one revisit to the downcast “David”, these tracks do not resemble the songs that they bookend in musical style at all. The album opener, “Wait Until Dark”, is tense and paranoid; unaccompanied vocals are finally joined by a lone, dominant piano which seems to circle the neighbour block referred to in the song’s lyrics. It’s a dramatic and attention-seeking opening and shows how far Casey Diesel has come as a performer since White Hinterland’s debut in 2008; she sounds fantastic. The last track “Live With You”, again just piano and vocals, sees some sort of resolution and tells of domesticity and a realisation of love, it’s warm and inhabits the soulful world of Laura Nyro or Carole King. So what of the remaining eighty per cent?

Dry Mind” opens with heavenly voices, fractured and bouncing vocal samples and a thick, mid-tempo beat.  More elements are introduced; further vocal loops, cut and reversed electronics and a melody and rhythm that are more in keeping with indie r’n’b as opposed to the more straightforward Kate Bush art rock that introduces the album. “Ring The Bell” continues with these big, busy extrovert musical themes and brings some gorgeous brass along with it. Diesel soars high above the whole thing and just about manages to take control of what almost teeters on the edge of chaos. These tracks, the style of which makes up the  majority of the album’s playing time, are reminiscent of early My Brightest Diamond, a less rigid St Vincent and the playfulness of Tune-Yards but without the world music bias; vocally dominant women who successfully dally in multiple genres, refusing to commit to just one.

White Noise”, the brassiest track here and also the most forthright, and “Metronome” (about alcoholism and sex respectively) are beat-heavy and uninhibited, delirious but thought-out tunes that serve as the absolute highlights of the set; they also serve to emphasise the shortage of solid songs here. Whilst these tracks grab your attention and maintain it from start to finish they also have tunes that will pop up in your head long after you’ve finished listening to the album and because of Diesel’s incredibly felt and centrally-placed vocals this is a collection of tracks that cry out for melodies that support the strength of her performances. Tracks like “Baby” and “No Devotion”, although drenched in fantastic effects and details, make little lasting impact and even following several album replays it’s as though they are being experienced for the first time everytime.

Enclosed within its acoustic shell, “Baby” is an album full of amazing, buzzing sounds and enduring passions. With each subsequent album Diesel has upped the ante and from the humble, lo-fi beginnings of “Phylactery Factory” to the present, the soundscape has grown to almost a full spectacle. On occasion it’s a little on the rich side; there’s nothing wrong with that but when opulence forsakes structure and a high is sometimes followed by amnesia then a wish for stronger melodies occasionally  prevails. Instant impressions based on the aforementioned opening and closing tracks also dictate that the album is listened to in full to avoid what could be considered by some as a nasty surprise. White Hinterland has made something that is, I suspect, deeply personal and with a palpable sense of freedom which is liberating, sometimes garishly so, but despite its shortfalls there is still plenty here to enjoy.

St VincentSt. Vincent’s star has been steadily rising for almost eight years. Each one of her three albums has surpassed the other for originality, songwriting ability and scorching self-possession. This, her fourth and the first to be self-titled (and appropriately at that), continues with that trend. Although it may not actually be better than some of 2011’s seductive and quietly threatening “Strange Mercy”, it is a more human and bolder work and marks the introduction of an unfiltered honesty that previous albums kept closer to their chest. She has taken both musical and physical elements of the biggest and most successful pop stars of the mid-eighties and early nineties -- Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson- and compressed them into an art rock template where David Bowie continues to dominate Annie Clark’s pop-cultured psyche. But then again the eponymous naming of the album adds credence and a confidence to the idea that this could only be a St Vincent album, every second of it could have only come from Annie Clark’s own pen, her lips and guitar.

A lot of the songs on “St. Vincent” are uncoded, straightforward story-telling songs relating to Clark’s own experiences. Some of the songs are harder to decipher and are more abstract and, on occasion, surreal. If there is an underlying theme here then it is how life is now for someone who has known what it is to be online for the majority of their adulthood but who has also experienced at the start of their childhood, pre-internet life. It is the outlook of someone who has therefore placed some (healthy?) distance to the option of only living a life continually attached to a screen of some size.

The opening track “Rattlesnake” and cloudily synthetic ballad “I Prefer Your Love”, which sits in the centre of the album and quite sensibly between two of the most frenzied and odd tracks, both fall into the first category of this vivid storytelling. The metallic and brittle shake of “Rattlesnake” recounts Clark’s walk through a seemingly deserted desert, how she removes all of her clothes due to the heat and a desire to be free and connect with both the moment and the surrounding nature. The sound and then appearance of a rattlesnake provokes a fight or flight sprint back to safety. This is a very loaded image or course, phallic maybe and certainly mythical and the raise in Clark’s vocal inflection towards the end -- ‘I’m not the only one!’ -- and the dryness of the rhythm helps bring to life both the thrill and the fear. 

“I Prefer Your Love” really does wear its heart firmly on its sleeve. Annie Clark recently very nearly lost her mother to illness and with lines like ‘wipe the blush and smudge from my cheek and wonder what will be become of your little one’, this is a last lullaby for a child whose parent means more to them than any spiritual or religious figurehead could. There is no trickery with this track, it’s a beautiful song and although the rhythm and melody of the verses sound a little like the verses of “Ashes to Ashes” and it could easily be the missing song in a quartet of Patrick Leonard-written Madonna ballads, compared to Clark’s discography thus far it is surprising for its truthfulness and sincerity.

Following last year’s sometimes successful collaboration with David Byrne, the brass funk that dominated “Love This Giant” makes a brief reappearance on the exhilarating “Digital Witness”, a better and more memorable track than any that appeared on “Giant”. Along with the eccentric and genre shifting “Huey Newton”, this song explicitly questions the point of some social media and specially that of sharing information that really requires no further spectators and the reasons why such validation is required for just about everything. Liking another person’s status when that status tells you that they are in their garden? ‘If I you can’t show it, you can’t see me; what’s the point in doing anything?’ echoes Clark.  “Digital Witness” is an example of the move, albeit subtle, to songs that are as catchy as can be, subversive lyrically still but brighter and bolder than before. In another lifetime it could have been a Kid Creole and The Coconuts track.  The astounding “Huey Newton” which follows a sedated lo-if r’n’b first half suddenly breaks down irreconcilably into a guitar-led psychosis-fuelled second half, initiated by nights of winter time loneliness with only Google Search for company.

Bring Me Your Loves” is probably the most outwardly and bracingly strange moment on “St. Vincent”. It has an addled and fevered sweat and atmosphere with marching drums, multi-tracked and obnoxious harmonies frustrated by the ‘I took you off your leash but I can’t make you heel’ predicament it finds itself in. The gradually building “Regret” is a throwback in some ways to the woozy and unstable 1960s Disney soundtrack style that dominated the “Actor” album and “Birth in Reverse”, although bold in its lyrical gaucheness (‘it just an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate’) and fluid and spontaneous guitar playing is a good St Vincent song but certainly not a brilliant one.

Later on, “Psychopath” delivers a taut electro-pop number which has some lovely and riveting sonic touches around the ‘ahh, ahh,ahh-ahh ahh’ refrain with everything bar the beat dropping out immediately and unexpectedly after the song’s chorus and “Prince Johnny” swoons sarcastically with divine lyrical  bite. Album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” is quite probably Clark’s best song so far, certainly featuring her most soulful performance to date. 60s girl group swells, chiming bells and guts, spleens and missing fingers. It’s interesting that the silly, noodling introduction to the track almost tries to undermine the weightiness of the sentiment, as though it’s embarrassed by its power. But its double bluff only really goes to show that St Vincent also acknowledges the absurdity that can accompany such grand gestures, that it is all still just an act and that sometimes there really is no hope left.

This is not the album with disco sounds and influences that many claim it to be (partly fuelled by St. Vincent’s description of the material herself before its release). You can dance to it, yes, but probably in the same robo-mannequin moonwalk style that Clarke herself has adopted during recent live shows. The full but still sometimes disconcertingly skeletal sound that is so intrinsically hers remains and has been honed to perfection here and the on-going production by John Congleton (previous collaborations tellingly include both Anna Calvi and Erykah Badu) is typically sharp and  flawless. It seems unrealistic to expect her to stay in this role which is her most defined and confident thus far for long but for now St. Vincent has delivered her most accessible, easy to relate to, and consistently engaging and sparky album to date; if you haven’t experienced her yet then “St Vincent” is an excellent place to start.

One BreathAnna Calvi’s debut album was heralded as a new classic within moments of its release. It was florid and troubled, being close cousins to artists such as Nick Cave and with a cinematic cloak draped over it as if imagined by David Lynch at his most romantic and doomed. It was also produced by Rob Ellis, long-time collaborator with PJ Harvey. Ah yes, PJ Harvey. It would be almost irresponsible as a reporter of music not to acknowledge that both artists can share a writing and melodic style, vocal comparisons can on occasion be made between Calvi and Harvey and both fall into the same genre of woman with a guitar (sometimes), not passive, singer-songwriter blues/rock, visually hyper-stylised , entertainer. There are many people who have made records over the past decade or so where the influence of PJH is undeniable but unlike the majority, Calvi’s talent is the actual link between the two and not her desire to mimic Harvey. This is reinforced here on her second album, the radiant and self-possessed “One Breath”. After the stalking guitars and ghostly ‘ooh-oooh’s’ of “Suddenly” and “Eliza” with its thumping strum, it’s only on the third track, “Piece by Piece”, that Calvi deviates from the sonic template previously established on her debut. After the broken and collapsing strings of the intro a rhythmic, tumbling drum snaps into shape and a plucked mandolin and various electronic  zips and pops swoon around Calvi who has conjured up the spirit of Siouxsie Sioux here,  whilst a scuzzy bass muscles  up against an airy string part. The total effect is mesmerising. It’s these string sections, very much a musical theme here, that give “One Breath” its power, the push and pull between light and dark. Producer John Congleton, who has, amongst others, worked with Joanna Newsom and St Vincent, helped create a sumptuous but frequently uneasy and volatile soundscape throughout. Calvi has spoken out about how during the making of this album she suffered from very low moods and that someone very close to her died. It is likely that this in some part went toward dictating the themes and mood of this album and the title track is the boulder around which each track is laid. ‘I got one, I got one breath to give ….it’s going to change everything’  Calvi repeats as though a mantra whilst everything around her is building unforgivingly and then, precisely at the 3 minute mark, a gorgeous orchestral coda breaks through the tension and instantly lifts Calvi, and the listener, wordlessly away to a safer and more beautiful place. It’s both moving and dramatic, a combination of theatre and absolute sincerity. Elsewhere, the near 6 minute “Carry Me Over” with its demonically euphoric final minute of Calvi’s rapturous wails pillowed by the continuing orchestration is a genuine tour de force and “Sing to Me”, which regularly threatens to break into “River Deep, Mountain High”, is an authentic and commanding torch song. After this heightened sensation of a noir love story gone awry , the false start of the rock roll throb of the most straightforward song here,  “Love of My Life”, is an unexpected and thrilling thump in the eye. The shortest and perhaps most breath-taking song here is the album closer “The Bridge”, an acapella, choral hymn that chills and will make many misty-eyed with its simple, crystalline beauty. In some ways Anna Calvi has toned down the theatrics and threat that dominated her debut and replaced them with a more nuanced and considered account of a persona under attack but ultimately, and appropriately breathtakingly, breaking free from previous restraints, self-imposed or otherwise. Without doubt the drama and darkness are still present, but on “One Breath” Calvi has created a collection of songs which reflect and show her as an exceptional artist in her own right as opposed to a great artist within the genre. If you want to be genuinely thrilled and startled by music that twists and turns in unpredictable shades and volumes then Anna Calvi has made an album to treasure and completely immerse yourself into, it’s quite an accomplishment.

Product DetailsTrumpets (muted and otherwise), trombones, tuba, saxophones; if you can’t stand a brass band then don’t bother entering this experimental space that is the collaboration between the grandaddy of new wave, David Byrne, and super cool new girl Annie Clark aka St Vincent. The majority of the songs here feature either Byrne or St Vincent singing solo, a few are actual duets but almost every second of each track is crammed full with a parping, swelling or squeaking wind instrument sounding off; it’s very much the third, non-credited party here.

David Byrne sounds very much at home in this musical landscape, an artist who has collaborated with many world music artists and has also produces music in his own right that incorporates many eclectic, diverse styles from various cultures (1992’s “Uh-Oh” album for example), not even taking into account Talking Heads. St Vincent makes queasy, dark, melodic indie pop and is a fantastic guitarist. She is an artist that has slowly, over the course of 3 albums, each better than the last, has established herself as a significant new talent, a fascinating artist very much in her prime whose best work is probably yet to come. But it’s actually the horns that tie the 12 tracks here together, providing a constant, nurturing narrative regardless of who takes the lead.

David Byrne sounds very much like David Byrne on the majority of this album, a cerebral, wise but paranoid voice: St Vincent though goes places she hasn’t before with some fascinating results. This is a funky album, it’s politely and quietly funky and never really works up a sweat but play it at home at a decent volume level and you will be inclined to move around a bit, I guarantee. St Vincent, unlike Byrne, has never, ever been funky.  On “Weekend In The Dust”, on which Byrne doesn’t feature, St Vincent’s vocals are soulful and flirtatious and tightly harmonised, with an ‘I don’t get it, I just don’t get it’ refrain sung over chunky horns and a r’n’b beat; it’s not just a curio it’s a success. On “Ice Age”, which is the most typical St Vincent track here, after a sudden key change in the second verse the angular, staccato horns and bass guitar start to lose control around her. She is also responsible for the best song, the languid and glistening, world-weary “Optimist”; a gorgeous, solo performance.

I Should Watch TV” and “Dinner for Two” see David Byrne typically bewildered and unsettled by metropolitan, urbane situations and are both excellent songs with elegant arrangements and crisp execution. Of the actual, proper duets between the two, of which there are actually only a couple (although they co-wrote the whole thing together, music and lyrics) “Lazarus” is a poised, assertive stand-off and makes you wish that there are more equal interactions between the two. The Dapp Kings are featured on the disappointingly flabby “The One Who Broke Your Heart” and why is St Vincent so buried on this track as she also is on the better “I Am An Ape” where she features as back-up singer to Byrne only?  Byrne’s voice dominates these songs entirely and it just feels like such a wasted opportunity.

 

It takes to time to settle into this odd, self contained album which doesn’t actually feel like a collaborative effort although I’m certain it is in the truest sense. David has his songs and St Vincent has hers and if you’re a fan of either, ideally both, then there is a lot here to recommend.