October 24, 2009

Artist of The Year - The xx



LABEL: Young Turks


RATING: 9.5/10

Thou shalt not feign integrity. This is commandment number one in any post-punk, angst-filled band’s rulebook. Creating an original and atmospheric musical mood is a difficult and extremely risky endeavour. If you, God forbid, try too hard, then failure is a guarantee. If your intentions are in any way evident, then the listeners will see right through your elaborate fa├žade, no matter how impressive your production work is. Contrive anguish and torment, and you’ll come off pretentious and fake. Aim for melancholy or sullenness, and chances are you’ll end up looking a self-righteous fraud.

South-Londoners, The xx, dress entirely in black and possess emotions that seem to flit between morose, to uninterested, and then back again. Their enigmatic stage presence is characterised by minimal movement and the much subtler, staring at the ground whilst looking coy. An intense peak of visual stimulation is achieved when bass player and vocalist, Oliver Sim, arches his left eyebrow ever so slightly. Yet for some reason, what The xx seem to have feels pure and completely authentic.

The band’s eponymous debut beguiles, entrances and lulls you into a euphorically comatose state – one from which you may never want to arise.

The xx have created an album that is delightfully drowsy. It sounds as if it were made by a group of awkward, melancholic introverts that all suffer from chronic insomnia. Then, one sleepless night they all decided to channel their moody personas into album form. After many late night recording sessions, several shots of espresso, and quite likely a few hits of speed, the album is complete; and by now this sense of the nocturnal and dark has deeply seeped into the fabric of the songs. Though the record does indeed sound as if its creators could hardly muster the vigour to complete it, it also holds the sensation of something tirelessly laboured over. The result of this contradiction is a shy, somnambulist yet passionate debut; one blanketed in an ethereal cloud of heartbreak and loss.

This is quite clearly a vocally dominated record that is shared by a boy and a girl - the boy being Oliver Sim, and the girl being the verbally gifted Romy Madley Coft. Their voices nimbly intertwine around each other and harmonise beautifully; the effect is truly mesmerising. With Oliver’s modest croon, and Romy’s exceptional voice, the two saunter around the minimal and malnourished backing of their band.

Minimal and malnourished are two words that do aptly encapsulate the sound and aesthetic of The xx’s instrument section. Stark and understated would work as well. Vague, resonant guitars and an edgy bass make up the band’s pathos-infused artillery. Add some delicate drumbeats that are electrified by subtle syncopated clicks, as well as the strategic use of surreal synthesised effects, and you have the sound of The xx. Though the music is undoubtedly sparse, it seamlessly fuses together to create an impossibly beautiful soundscape.

Despite the inexperience and youth of its creators, the overall feeling of this record is neither its bleakness nor its idealism, but the complete and utter excellence of its musical judgment. With their languorous and somnolescent understatements, The xx manage to freeze the mind, and then slowly release it to hitherto unrivalled horizons of splendour and pleasure. Lord knows it aint perfect, but it comes pretty damn close.

October 2, 2009

Album Review - Why?


LP TITLE: Eskimo Snow

LABEL: Anticon


RATING: 5/10

Why? is a Californian indie hip-hop band that shocked and startled the music scene with its complete and utter determination to defy conventional labelling. With the band’s fusion of avant-garde hip-hop, and quirky indie rock, Why?’s modus operandi seemed to be refusing to conform to a set of rules.

So when Why?’s front-man and founder, Yoni Wolf, announced that the band’s fourth studio album, Eskimo Snow, would be the least hip-hop of anything he has ever done, listeners began to worry.

Herein lies the problem. If Why? are no longer a hip-hop outfit, then that just leaves indie; and indie can be a very loaded term. It's a genre impacted by the pitfalls of individuality, purists, and a nonchalance attitude to mainstream acceptance. However this ideal has created a slew of identically sounding bands that are all “being original.” Sometimes its better just to keep your head down, do your thing, and leave the categorizations and clarifications to someone else, which is why I'm inclined to go along with Wolf’s refusal to get too tied up in aligning himself with the various movements of indie over the years.

The songs on Eskimo Snow were recorded during the same sessions as Why?’s critically acclaimed third album, Alopecia. The album retains the lyrical magic and distinctive if not eerie soundscapes that Why? is known and loved for. However, it unfortunately lacks the unity of Why?’s earlier releases. Alopecia acted as a manifestation of post-adolescent angst and sorrow. The album went far beyond heartbreak and self-loathing to examine the desperation and confusion that a relationship can leave in its wake. Why?’s second album, Elephant Eyelash possessed a list of songs that also covered the requisite topics of anguish and heartache, but instead shed a joyful light on the otherwise sombre realities of modern life.

Why?’s fondness for vague references and intricate if not maniacal lyrics has created both shocking triumphs and meaningless experimental pastiches. After all, there’s a fine line between enthralling poetry and pretentious drivel. Regrettably this time however, Why? has slipped into the latter.

Eskimo Snow lacks passion and sincerity - and this time around, Wolf’s crazed declarations of betrayal and loss come across as bitter and uninspired. The songs of Eskimo Snow never quite reach the high standard Why? usually achieves. Mr. Wolf sounds awkward without being especially endearing. He is simply not as sophisticated or as excitingly chaotic as he once seemed to be.

Why? has created a disappointingly safe album of reasonably enjoyable indie songs. Considering Why?’s previous flirtations with hip-hop, and the ambiguous yet refreshingly unique genre the band seemed to inhabit, I expected a lot more. Eskimo Snow just fails to deliver.

Album Review - The Big Pink

BAND NAME: The Big Pink

LP TITLE: A Brief History of Love



RATING: 8.5/10

As we venture further and further into the 21st century, the quest to find fresh, unadulterated, undiscovered and of course, non-commercial music is becoming increasingly more difficult. The fact that the Internet has a global audience, and that just like you, millions of other music-fanatics are trying to happen upon the next big thing does nothing to help this situation. And, perhaps even more than that, the idea that in the Indie world at least, any form of advertising whatsoever is considered selling-out. Thus, many of today’s most talented artists no longer possess MySpace pages, don’t distribute music through record labels, and seldom perform live. This is a predicament that makes this ambitious quest to find new music a very tiresome one indeed. Never mind the deeper, existential problems of trying to function normally as a coherent being in the seemingly ambiguous physical universe we occupy.

So you can imagine my delight was equaled by my surprise and incredulity, when The Big Pink’s debut album, A Brief History of Love, arrived on my doorstep. An album like this usually takes weeks of scouring music publications and the backwaters of the Indie scene to find. Yet here it was, like a message from God, that though scarce, it’s still possible to encounter damn good music amidst the drivel of mainstream radio.

Long before this record was complete, The Big Pink provided a spark of hope to music junkies that were completely fed up with today’s vacuous and mundane pop stratosphere. Here was an album that, A) was being produced and mixed by Rich Costey (Muse and Rage Against The Machine) and Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs). And, B) was recorded in its entirety at Electric Lady Sound Studios (a studio that helped create the sound of no less than Jimi Hendrix himself). Plus, one half of the musical duo’s father is legendary pop producer Denny Cordell, and it is widely known that the creation of great, catchy music is in fact genetic.

That alone should be enough to fulfill the fantasies of Alternative audiophiles everywhere, but in case you need more persuasion, listening to this album will remove any remaining doubt.

In the first 30 seconds of track number one, The Big Pink successfully channel My Bloody Valentine, Echo & The Bunnymen and even at times, The Dandy Warhols, which is in itself no mean feat. The band recreates the sound, feeling and Neo-psychedelia of 90s Shoegaze.

By the cynical few, and the holier-than-thou Hipsters, The Big Pink are being scorned for not attempting to explore new musical territory. But in this age, bands that defy the status quo and push the boundaries of music too far usually experience a short-lived success. These artists have their brief moment of fame, but are quickly rendered obsolete by listeners who know nothing of loyalty. So, restoring a musical movement that was both successful and enjoyable seems to be a smart move. And perhaps for a few of the younger ones who weren’t around, or aware of Shoegaze in its heyday, this album will be a life-altering introduction to music that combines melody and beautiful noise in equal measure.

Though there are no terribly weak tracks on A Brief History of Love, and the album plays relatively smooth as a whole, it seems that the record builds up to, and then builds down from, track number three, and perhaps one of the greatest musical achievements of the year, "Dominoes.

“Dominoes” brings to life everything there is to love about music, and then serves it on a nice and tasty platter. The track is comprised of: understated yet elegant beats; soaring vocals and slamming drums; ethereal harmonies and playful, yet insanely addictive melodies; and an extraordinarily catchy and caffeinated chorus that will be permanently embedded in your brain for weeks to come.

A Brief History of Love is far more than simply a good record; it’s an achievement and an enduring triumph. More than anything, it suggests that The Big Pink will be around for a while, and could grow into a musical tour de force and a real alternative heavyweight.

Here’s hoping we’ll see a lot more of these boys in years to come!