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Album Review

ALBUM RELEASE: Woman’s Hour – ‘Ephyra’

WORDS BY: CALLUM MITCHELL-SIMON

It’s been a long five years since we last heard from Woman’s Hour, when their stunning 2014 debut LP, Conversations, swiftly put them on the rise to becoming a household name, alongside the likes of contemporaries The xx & Daughter. They were a band with their own distinct identity and sound, and an incredible run of singles to support them, including Darkest Place, Her Ghost and In Stillness We Remain.

However, a lot can happen in five years. A relentless touring schedule, and the now fevered anticipation now placed on the band, added to their pressures. They began recording demo material for a second LP, but following a tense number of sessions, in 2016 the band decided to call it a day, citing “deteriorating mental health”. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when the remaining band members decided to reconvene in an attempt to finish the recording process that they started, which leads us to their present state, and their new, final album Ephyra. A band, not quite fully with us, but here in all their honesty to present their hard toiled over work. It’s a definitive take on the time old “difficult second album” story.

First track and lead single from the LP Don’t Speak sets the tone for the record from the start. It presents itself as more of a mood piece than a conventionally structured song. The title, plus a few more fragmented lyrics, are repeated over and over various shifting and modulated soundscapes, like an ever-changing state of mind, in flux of it’s own self.

This continues into second track From Eden To Exile. There’s a jittery, restless feel to the song, with several false starts and snippets from other songs and spoken word excerpts before the central melody kicks in. The effect is like a radio dial constantly being re-tuned, unable to settle on a frequency. This restless energy is found again on second single Luke, which builds itself up over a single synth line. “Am I shouting in a vacuum? Can you hear me?” lead singer Fiona Burgess calls out, before a simple chorus of a repeating piano note and the word “breath”, like a mantra to encourage a state of calm.

This sums up the album as a whole. It’s breathlessly inventive at times, a real artistic step up for the band. You can hear them really pushing to create something unique, not to settle on a sound that will define them. It’s impeccably produced – the songs don’t fit into set forms and structures, they’re much looser and free-form, compositions that seek to explore various emotional states. They reflect a fragmented, scattered state of mind – constantly shifting and changing in rhythm and tempo. The off kilter effects on I Can’t Take You Seriously, which starts off relatively straightforward, a clear guitar line guiding the way, then begins to build upon wave after wave of electronics, with various vocal modulations and pitch bends making it feel as if the foundations of the songs are slipping away from underneath you. There’s a pervading feeling of tension underlying the album, an edge, a sense of darkness, that all is not well. This informs and infuses it’s way into the sound and texture of the music.

The flip side of this, however, it that there’s not a great deal of consistency to be found.There’s no tracks on here that lift it to a level of greatness, and nothing to match some of the peerless work on Conversations. It can feel patchy at times, like a work in progress – which, in fairness, is what this record always was. It’s A Blast and Removal Of Hope in particular don’t feel fully finished, and wrap up before having made a distinct impression.

The band have been unflinchingly honest in saying that this is an album pieced together from the fragments of original demos, recorded in their hometown of Kendal. In their own words: “They contain the thoughts, memories, ambitions, fears and sleepless nights that have come to define the narrative of our lives over the last three years. These songs are letters to you, and once you’ve sent a letter you can never ask for it back”. It’s not a perfect album, but deliberately so. It’s an honest record, capturing a band in a state of uncertainty and complete emotional honesty.

Hopefully we haven’t heard the last from Woman’s Hour. They are one of the most deftly creative and emotionally resilient bands around at the moment. If not, then this album acts as a bittersweet finale for their story, a taste of what could have been.

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ALBUM RELEASE: YAK – ‘PURSUIT OF MOMENTARY HAPPINESS’

WORDS BY: MATTY PYWELL

Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness is Yak‘s sophomore album, coming almost three years after their debut record Alas Salvation. British indie music has had mixed fortunes of late, not many of the artists can really claim to be making music that’s very original or thought-provoking, a lot of them relying on re-hashing the sounds of old, to keep hold of a demographic fiercely loyal to anything with a guitar in it. This isn’t to say that all British indie bands are terrible, quite the opposite, you just have to wade through a swamp of mediocrity to get to the good stuff. I am here to tell you whether the new Yak album belongs in the swamp, or the green grass beyond it.

The first sound you’ll hear on this record, is that of a pan flute on Bellyache, used to signal the start of the industrious and mechanical repetition of, “you’re tired of greedy bodies”. The song’s lyrics point towards gluttony within society, the belief that money is power and once we get money we want more and more and more. Perhaps it could be perceived as a slight jab at capitalism. The track is erratic, there are ever so slight elements of psychedelia buried deep within the sound, under the brash riffs. Starting off slowly, Fried bursts into a more volatile and chaotic punk-rock track, boasting riffs that remind me of last years Shame record Songs Of Praise.

Words Fail Me sees singer Oliver Burslem being unable to open up and express his feelings in key moments. It features some really crisp and momentous orchestral sections, which pop up every so often throughout the run-time. They peak during the songs outro and it makes for a thrilling climax, but before we get to that point, the track is such a slow-burner that It’s doesn’t really justify the buildup to get to the momentary climax. In contrast, Blinded By The Lies is a non-stop adrenaline rush, the guitar riffs shred to the effect of an incoming stampede, as the lyrics point a middle-finger towards people of upper-class backgrounds who are drawn to big cities like bees to a hive. On one bridge, Oliver screams, “Kick em’ in the face!” over and over, while the drum-kit sounds as though its being butchered by a mace, it’s beautifully violent, one of the most satisfying kicks in the eardrum you will ever have.

Then there’s a rather pointless interlude track, that is honestly on the album for no real reason other than to fill space, there’s nothing particularly interesting about it at all. But then we’re straight back to where Blinded By The Lies dropped us off, with the equally vicious White Male Carnivore. But aside from having some gloriously animalistic hooks, what impresses me most about this song is the lyricism, seemingly pointing towards the sense of toxic masculinity within society. “With a low pain threshold. Am I the glass house throwing stones?”, in my interpretation, theses lyrics refer to how, stereo-typically, men are supposed to be big and tough, almost unfeeling, which is complete rubbish, men have a right to feel comfortable talking about their feelings. The culture of ‘bottling it up’ is toxic and a killer.

The final cut on the album, This House Has No Living Room is a little bit of a mixed bag. Running for about 8 and a half minutes, the track has a lot of space to fill, the first part centering around this decrepit house, which is seemingly stuck in a soulless, empty land. The first part of the song does get a little bit repetitive though and doesn’t really have anything interesting to say. It suffers from similar problems to Words Fail Me, there’s a brief moment of intrigue as the song reaches a slight crescendo half way through, but this then dissipates in to a combination of bird noises and synth. While the bird noises are relaxing, it adds nothing to the meaning or context of the song, I feel like the last two minutes of the track should have been cut completely.

 

Overall, this record confidently makes it over to the green grass. There are some fantastic guitar hooks on this record, especially on Bellyache and Blinded By The Lies. I feel as though the lyrics give an accurate portrayal towards modern-day societal attitudes, especially concerning capitalism, greed and our everyday struggle towards finding what makes us happiest. A couple of the tracks get bogged down by being a little bit too ponderous in their buildup and the last song is a disappointing bookend, but overall Yak have made an album that encapsulates the best elements of modern-day guitar music.

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ALBUM RELEASE: Foals- ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Part 1)’

WORDS BY: EVE WHITESIDE

This record is one of the most eagerly anticipated in recent years, as the Oxford alternative indie-rock group return with a vengeance after their four year break from releasing music. With the suspense bubbling over during their silent period, the bar was set very high for their comeback. Returning for this year’s tour, with a borrowed bassist from Everything Everything, things are visibly different this time which aptly reflects the state of the world portrayed through this album. The focus is direct and clear: doubt and caution for our threatened planet are saturated throughout the record, and intertwined through every track and lyric.

Our very first glimpse of the record was standout track, Exits, which encapsulates the current state of crisis our planet is in. Front man Philippakis’ brooding vocals echo throughout regarding how completely upside down and fated our world has become as he remarks “I wish I could figure it out, but the world’s upside down”. This track is a statement, possessing the band’s signature sound that sets them apart. With this track and the rest of the album still featuring an array of their familiar confident plucky guitar riffs that were ever-present in What Went Down and Holy Fire – there is a definitive move onto something new and futuristic.

Throughout Syrups there is a prominent striking bass line and slow burning melody, whilst the overall air of the track is ladened with the disappointment of the world. The landscape of the track hinting at the way digitisation has developed and our cities decimated around us – “all the kids have left the towns, foxes howl and preachers bow down”. Similarly, On The Luna features the ominous bridge “we had it all, we didn’t stop to think about it” which echoes the naivety of our nation when facing the issues of climate change – particularly fitting with the tropical February we experienced just a week ago. This is also reflected in the album title itself, with the underlying message to make the most of what you have while you have it, and save it. Despite this underlying message the track itself is simultaneously a classic, feel-good indie anthem.

 

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The mighty Q @qmagazineuk Photo credit: Alex Lake

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In particular with the high-tempo, urgent and punchy tracks White Onions and In Degrees, there is a certain familiar energy that would sound incredible in a live set. In Degrees stands out as it shows signs of something new from the group, almost as if it could be played in a nightclub. This track in particular showcases Foals’ new sound and versatility, with synthesised grooves featuring heavily throughout. As you reach the end of the record you find yourself experiencing a much more pensive note that exists in Sunday and I’m Done With The World (& It’s Done With Me), both featuring serene melodies and with melancholy piano whilst Philippakis’ vocals take centre stage.

Only Foals could take on the current anguish and frustration currently felt in the world and transform it into something wonderful and euphoric, taking the listener on a journey from beginning to end. As front man Yannis said, we will not witness the full impact of the album until we hear the second part, so until then, to be continued…

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ALBUM RELEASE: Julia Jacklin – ‘Crushing’

WORDS BY MATTY PYWELL

From working in an essential oils factory to becoming a singer-songwriter. It took a bit of an epiphany for Julia Jacklin to start her musical career, after realising that life could pass her by, she decided to turn a hobby into a career. Her debut album Don’t Let The Kids Win was released back in 2016 and three years on from that, the ending of a relationship and the experiences in-between have led to Jacklin writing introspectively on her new album Crushing.

The album’s first track, Body is one which Jacklin described as, “a very long and exaggerated sigh”. The lyrics tell us of a man who isn’t exactly the best influence/person for Julia to be around, she comes to realise this and ends up leaving in order to feel like herself again. The piano keys on this track ring out like a call to the distance, giving the song a feeling of thought, with a tinge of remorse. Head Above finds Jacklin frustrated at a partner who is a bit too hands-on with her, seemingly unable to show his love in a different way, she constantly reminds him that, “you can love somebody without using your hands”. The melodic guitar playing on this song, gives it a great rhythm, particularly in the latter part of the track when the tempo increases.

 

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#JuliaJacklin’s brilliant new album #Crushing, with bonus flexi track “Why Won’t My Friends Read My Mind”

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Pressure To Party is one of the more upbeat numbers on the album and is instantly memorable for how anthemic it is. Lyrically, Jacklin speaks of the social pressures people are faced with when going through a breakup. The pressure to take time alone, to feel alright and then go out and party as if you’re completely fine. Jacklin rebels against this, puts her foot down and states her intent to do things at her own pace. The frenetic mood of the track, perhaps reflecting the way that your mind can frantically switch between moods, as a repercussion of heartbreak. The lyricism on this track is at the highest level, I honestly believe that Jacklin has written the perfect breakup song.

Crushing is quite an emotive album, a few tracks are written about the strain and fatigue that start to seep into relationships and others are about the ways in which Jacklin wants to be treated and the perception of her body. One of the most emotional peaks is on the track, Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You, where she finds herself in a situation, where that fatigue has set in and the relationship just isn’t the same anymore. There’s an overriding sense of confusion as Jacklin seems to be struggling to distinguish the positive from the negative, “Into the darkness or is this the light? Should I be waking up or finding a place to sleep tonight?” The electric guitars that start to chime in towards the end of the song, sound like the tearful cries of someone who is simply just tired.

There’s an influence of country music to the track, Turn Me Down, the guitar notes feel like a walk down a long dusty road. Throughout the album, Jacklin’s vocals are consistently to a very high standard, she is a distinct vocalist. On this song she reaches some of her most impressive octaves, the way some of her vocal highs hang in the air is breathtaking, they can cut right through you. For a song that wasn’t originally going to make the final cut, Comfort is a perfect bookend to the album. It’s a bit of a reverse to Pressure To Party, except this time Jacklin is thinking of the man she left and is hopeful for his sake, as well as hers that he’s going to be okay after she left him. It offers a slightly different perspective than the other tracks on the album and it helps to summarise some of the records main themes.

Crushing is an example of how to write about love, breakups, and self-worth. Jacklin doesn’t care about societal perceptions of how she’s expected to deal with these issues, instead, she does it her own way. It’s an album that sees her confused, upset, awkward and reflective. As well as her outstanding lyricism, her brand of folk, country and pop music isn’t overly-reliant on distinguishable hooks, instead, it successfully immerses the listener in evocative palettes of emotion.

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ALBUM RELEASE: FLING – ‘FLING OR DIE’

WORDS BY JOEL MALLEN

Bradford psych rockers FLING play “wonky pop”, according to them, and much more besides. They’ve had incredibly successful debut and sophomore years, rising out of a white-hot arts scene in West Yorkshire, standing out with a committed following to a unique live show and old-school glam rock aesthetic, with all the lipstick, stripy jumpers, dungarees and bright colours that come with it. Working with Lee Smith at Leeds’ Greenmount Studios, FLING record FLING OR DIE, a fruity cocktail combination of reworked singles and new releases, put out into the world on the 22nd February.

In short, the record holds up really well, especially as a profile and introduction to what this band is all about. Kicking off with Welcome To The City, a glam song about a refugee alien running away from his own planet, an opener you really lose yourself in, yet also hear their influences brazenly. Ziggy-era David Bowie and T.Rex spring to mind, with the singers sliding ’70s half rock voice heavily recalling to Marc Bolan (there’s even a bonus “radio-oh-oh” reference a la Starman chucked in there for good measure). This and the entire album set a great tone; jangling acoustic guitars, organs, under a picked indie bass and combined with surreal lyrics and nasal, catchy melodies.

FLING OR DIES’s strength is in the individualism of each track; not enough that it becomes non-cohesive, instead additional sounds and instruments add to the character. Some are absolutely out of left field, like steel drums, recorders, sequenced synthesisers, kalimbas, upright piano, ultra-compressed vocals, and the droning sitar which dominates Revolution. It’s this kind of disrespect for the pop rulebook that gives the album such a life to it, whilst the songwriting absolutely and 100% sticks the landing in setting the mood. Whether it be softly spoken like Je T’aime, cheeky like Just A Dog or Banjo Billy, or tub-thumping like Revolution and Black and White Fibbers.

But it’s more than that: every one of the 11 songs feels intensely involving, with all the energy of a hitchhikers-by-the-fire novella, stored in the crevices of the brain. An album that champions the slightly psychedelic and the bizarre, a cavalcade of expressive joy that leaves you with no choice but to go along for the ride of every song. If you can get your hands and ears on this album, for it is certainly worth the upside down ride.

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ALBUM RELEASE: Maggie Rogers – ‘Heard It In A Past Life’

WORDS BY MWIKA BULAYA

Heard It In A Past Life is a piece of a reflection written, arranged and co-produced by Maryland native, Maggie Rogers. The debut album from the 24-year-old presents itself as a collection some of life’s uncertainties: love, anxiety and self-image.

The opening single Give A Little does exactly that – not too much is given, to begin with, creating a sense of curiosity of what is to come. Rogers eases us into the project with this song as her effortless vocals are layered with harmonies accompanied by a slightly electronic feel. Within the 12-track album, Maggie Rogers reveals so much of herself and her experiences which is not so common within debut projects. We slowly begin to learn about her feelings towards entering the music industry in songs such as Overnight and Light On. Both are incredibly candid accounts of Rogers’ journey so far and how her new found fame and success has affected her.

 

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for a few hours, everything made sense. thank you MR ✨

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An honourable mention must be given to the single Alaska that put Rogers on the map when it was first heard in 2016. This song caught the attention of music mogul Pharrell Williams when he heard the track during a masterclass he held at NYU, the university that Rogers attended. Inspired by a real-life hiking experience in Alaska, Rogers accounts a time where she took a year long break from music and learned more about herself. Self-discovery becomes a repetitive premise as the album goes on.

Much of the project feels as though the same template was used to begin with and then branched out into versions of a similar sound. Rogers often uses distinctive folk accents as well as the experimental use of electronic beats which shouldn’t work but somehow it does. One thing that can be taken from Heard It In A Past Life is that Maggie Rogers knows how to write a relatable love song. In Say It, Rogers sings about a crush that is quickly turning into something more than that – it’s almost becoming an infatuation, this is suggested by the lyrics: “I cannot fall in love with you / I cannot feel this way so soon.” A feeling that many of us have had.

Past Life is arguably the most vulnerable of all the tracks on the album. Rogers presents a heart-wrenching piece that is stripped back to reveal her haunting vocals. It is a truly special song hidden between two powerful vocal performances in the track list. Here, she reflects on what life once was before her success.

The album closes with the song Back In My Body and is a near-perfect ending. The uplifting track is about returning to your true self after going through periods of hardships that she experienced whilst touring. It is simple yet effective song about finally being grounded. Heard It In A Past Life is a beautiful and honest album – Maggie Rogers is definitely one to watch this year.

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ALBUM RELEASE: DRS – ‘From the Deep’

WORDS BY DALE BURGESS

Anyone who is worth their musical salt and knows of DRS will vouch for him as nothing short of an iconic veteran of the Manchester urban music scene – an MC and vocalist who stood the test of time through the evolution of drum and bass, whilst keeping a warm seat reserved in his heart for all things hip-hop.

From his features on LTJ Bukem’s ‘Progression Sessions’ in the late ’90s to his seemingly endless wave of collaborations with liquid D&B heavyweight Calibre; DRS has been and continues to be at the forefront of cutting-edge drum and bass since the genre’s birth.

Like many great urban wordsmiths of his era, hip-hop is where it all began for DRS, sparking the creation of rap group Broke ‘n’ £nglish in the mid ’00s alongside local figureheads Konny Kon and Strategy. The turn of the decade witnessed his first solo album Grown Man Biznizz – a 12-track extension of the gritty yet playful hip-hop-esque sound that Broke ‘n’ £nglish championed.

Two drum and bass albums later – with countless singles and EPs in-between – DRS returns to his roots with fourth studio album ‘From the Deep’ – accompanied by his brand new label ‘Space Cadet’ to unleash it on. The whimsical nature therein Grown Man Biznizz remains evident in this new project, with references to getting loose on the weekend amongst other things – but a lot has happened in nine years and DRS will be the first to tell you that.

 

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Just saw LSB & DRS in a room full of 50 people. Vancouver you just welcomed me back with arms wide open 😍

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From the Deep is exactly what it says on the tin – delving down into real word themes and occurrences from the past few years of the MC’s life – particularly revolving around society, bereavement, love, and everything in-between. Consistent in all his outputs, his soul is laid bare for all to see, with the track-list resembling a contents page to his heart and mind. Manifested throughout is a brutally majestic delivery of emotion and lyricism, presenting an opportunity to hear his passionate depictions delivered at a different BPM to what much of the new age drum and bass community will be used to.

None can argue that sublime craftsmanship in beat-making is the buttery biscuit base beneath all great hip-hop albums. DRS didn’t have to look much further than his own doorstep to find the right man for the job. All hail Pitch 92 – potentially the hottest hip-hop producer in the UK right now, never mind Manchester. His natural ability to fuse boom bap with jazz, funk, and soul proves that age is just a number, with the origins of his sound existing long before he did. Performing and producing with The Mouse Outfit since the turn of the decade, followed by two solid High Focus releases in less than as many years – Pitch plays a blinder in yielding the soundtrack to DRS’ masterstroke.

Each track within From the Deep holds its own identity and will connect with each listener in a different way on a different day – picking favourites is out of the question. Instead, here’s the three that grabbed me the most today in track-list order:

‘Northern galactic outlaw, mixed race pirate the Caribbean southpaw’ – round of applause for the sickest opening line to a track I’ve heard in a long time. Serial Escapist explicitly depicts over-indulgence and dependency on liquor and substances – with the video capturing a night in the life of a blurry bender, complete with face tattoos. Pitch’s trap beat fits the mood of floating in the twilight zone at 5am, as the final thirty seconds transition into slow motion, symbolising the inevitable wall that is hit when it’s all over. The words ‘Is this hip-hop? This is hip-hop’ flash up – a likely reference to the state of today’s hip-hop culture.

The production goes back to basics on Irreplaceable, using a simple drum beat under lo-fi piano keys – making room for an honest confession about the struggle to deal with the loss of loved ones. With direct references to DRS’ bereaved companion, the track feels like as much of a glowing tribute to the individual as it is about DRS’ path to coping with it. A sombre but elegant track that many will relate to.

A fine example of the emotional spectrum within this project. How Sweet It Is pays homage to the simple things in our ‘every day’ that keep us ticking over – the appreciation of the journey of life rather than the destination. Pitch’s production is sprinkled with the old-school, creating a chilled out beat that wouldn’t sound out of place in your bedroom as you draw the curtains on a brand-new day. A stunning piece of work from Manchester’s very own DRS and Pitch 92 – eyes peeled in the coming weeks for yet more new music from these two grafters. From the Deep is available to stream and download now on all major platforms.

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ALBUM RELEASE: ‘Encore’ – The Specials

WORDS BY MARK HUGHES

There was a real sense of anticipation leading up to the release of the first, The Specials, studio album for thirty-two years. When a band makes only two albums but puts an indelible stamp through the core of your young body, then you wonder where a 32-year hiatus will lead studio album number three. Mainly, as a pessimist, will it be a disappointment after all this time of waiting? But when you play the first track and think “yep this is cool”, the second track “oh I like this”, the third track, the released single, so you know it and love it already – and so it goes on. Smiling, foot tapping and moving to “da riddim” throughout the album.

This experience reminds me of when my 13-year-old self listened to More Specials, for the first time, and I discovered that they were more than just a revival ska band. Just like the first album introduced me to my love for Jamaican music, with its mix of originals and covers, then the second album opened other new influences for me. Songs such as the cover of Rex Garvin’s Sock it to em JB was my introduction to American R&B.

This new album, Encore, has the feel of both previous studio albums; politically driven, topical lyrics and authentic grooves. It also becomes personal with Terry Hall baring his soul on The Life and Times (of a Man Called Depression), which is both sad and most beautifully presented and Lynval Golding delivering a hard-hitting commentary, on the track BLM (Black Lives Matter), of how he and his family struggled to be accepted; experiencing racism, hatred and ignorance when invited by the UK to emigrate to England, on the Windrush.

The mixture of funk and ska is evident, as incredible covers by The Equals (Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys) and The Valentines (Blam Blam Fever), followed by an awesome alternative version of Ten Commandments, seen through the eyes of guest vocalist and activist Saffyiah Khan, who delivers a vitriolic feminist/anti-feminist comeback to Prince Busters misogynistic original, with the heavy rhythm provided by a version of Dawn Penn’s dancehall classic You Don’t Love Me. There are, of course, some powerful originals of their own in the mix too, such as the cleverly scripted and carny grooved Breaking Point, which tackles the cataclysm of social media and global politics that provides the most powerful line on the album; “with the help of God and a few marines, we’ll blow this place to smithereens.”

As always The Specials serve up education in their messages, but with the rhythm throughout being so mesmeric that political delivery and the slap around the face to the human race is almost subliminal at times. All of a sudden the message just hits you smack bang between the eyes!

Torp Larsen’s intelligent production takes the essence of Jerry Dammers to create a very authentic representation of the Dammers moniker, as demonstrated in studio album number 2 (and probably the self-titled first album as well, even though production is credited to Elvis Costello). With only three of the original seven members in the current line up (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter) then the authenticity is to be considered even more remarkable. If it looks like The Specials, quacks like The Specials and sounds like The Specials, then it probably is The Specials.

With my pessimism happily shot down and my disappointment replaced by euphoria, then I can gladly report that I’m feeling like my 13-year-old self once again by playing the album over and over and over until a parent tells me to “Give it a bloody rest” and at my age this isn’t gonna happen any time soon.

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ALBUM RELEASE: Sharon Van Etten – ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’

WORDS BY MARIA PASSINGHAM

Sharon Van Etten’s new album ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ makes me wish I were going through a breakup. The soul-baring, straightforward lyrics paired with the brooding bass drone that forms the first 90 seconds of album opener ‘I Told You Everything’ give you the perfect excuse to crawl into bed and pull the duvet over your head; block out the world and dwell on heartache.

The following sparse bendy guitars and the unpredictable trio of notes (what is that, is it a guitar? a piano? an electronic, engineered noise?) scattered throughout provide those moments of wonky beauty that most of us first learned with ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ (off 2014’s ‘Are We There’). With this latest album Van Etten will take your happy memories and twist them up with sadness, and you’ll gladly let her.

Like a perfect prose poem, Van Etten makes sure every sound is absolutely necessary, leaving plenty of ethereal space, so that when the propelling drums and screeching guitars of single ‘Comeback Kid’ launch you feel the full weight of their impact. The intro to that track by the way, still reminding me of the opening to ‘Something About You’ by Lucius, anyone else?

My personal favourite is the glorious ‘Seventeen’. First, it’s not often these days you hear a fade-in on a record. It’s the equivalent of a long zoom in from a far-out establishing shot at the start of a film: it takes you right to the center of the action without you realising how you got there. The action in this case? The driving drums that relentlessly underpin this anthem.

Second, those drums. Particularly paired with the echoing, wailing guitars, my mind immediately leaped to the best of The War on Drugs, which isn’t really surprising given Van Etten’s friendship and past work with Adam Granduciel. Providing a perfect base for layers to build and fall over the course of the song, the constantly-moving-forward drums provide the perfect contrast to the backward-facing nostalgia of the lyrics.

Third, I feel as though we haven’t often heard Van Etten break. Her signature vocal style is low-key – a beautiful elastic drawl – but here she allows herself a moment of unrestrained punk, full throttle, too-much-sincerity-for-karaoke singing, taking us all by surprise and amping up the earnest impact of the song. Other highlights include the drone-filled, ghostly, Suuns-esque ‘Memorial Day’, and ‘You Shadow’, which harks back to the simple and beautiful tracks from ‘Are We There’.

I’ll be honest with you, the first two times I listened to ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ I wasn’t enthralled. It was a background to working, cooking, cleaning music. But the third time I took an old-fashioned leaf out of Van Etten’s book. I sat down, headphones on, no distractions, and listened. This is an album to listen to, pay attention to the careful layering of sounds, lose yourself in her nostalgic narratives, and, if you need to have a good cry over your ex, it wouldn’t be bad for that either.

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ALBUM RELEASE: James Blake – ‘Assume Form’

WORDS BY TOM BRANFOOT

Multi-instrumentalist, singer, and producer James Blake’s 4th LP seems to provide a numbing acceptance to the plaguing and instinctual longing located within his unique brand of somber and reflective music. ‘Assume Form’ is a contented softening of the answerless intensity of his previous works and, as a result of being less emotionally devastating, allows both us to appreciate in a different manner and for Blake to explore foreign subjects and styles.

Although Blake has never shied away from rap music, (he even co-inhabited a mansion in L.A with Chance The Rapper in 2016) this album leaves a definitive sneaker-clad footprint in the aural realm, with features from Travis Scott, Metro Boomin and the legendary André 3000. The eponymous title track is a display of Blake’s poetic sensibilities, drifting atop piano motif’s and bit-crushed percussion. A classic James Blake blueprint song, with lyrics seemingly about re-materialising after a dark period of mental health and connecting with humans again. ‘Mile High’ sees Metro Boomin sharing production duties whilst Travis Scott soars above the liquid smooth beat with his melodically confident flow, albeit subdued in accordance with Blake’s signature vocal accompaniment.

A self-assured, late-night R&B track which feels as fresh as the rest of the album, even though it’s in keeping with a popular formula. ‘Tell Them’ features upcoming American soul singer Moses Sumney as well as co-producer Metro Boomin. With cues to earlier feature tracks such as ‘Life Round Here’ (featuring Chance The Rapper) however without the hard-hitting songwriting, including trademark synths and heavy beats with airy and glossy instrumentation, a vaguely forgettable track.

‘Into The Red’ feels like the McCartney/Lennon technique of incorporating two songs in one, however, if McCartney sounded like Bon Iver and Lennon sounded like Future. As Blake states on iTunes, this number is about a woman in his life “who put me before themselves and spent the last of their money on something for me. It was just a really beautiful sentiment”, the swelling crescendo in this song reflecting such a sentiment. Spanish, saintly-namesaked singer ROSALÍA adds a bilingual breeziness to this upbeat pop song, their vocals work wonderfully together over the mellifluously rolling beat.

 

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Opening with some sample splicing akin to Kanye, ‘Can’t Believe the Way We Flow’ surges into a gospel-style movement, cut off to allow room for Blake’s silver-smooth vocals to lay themselves down over, Blake taking hints from hip-hop production all throughout this number. ‘Are You in Love’ adapts the traditional James Blake formula, moving through jazz chords on a Prophet 8 synthesiser, billowing into a vocal layered, screaming soundscape, however quite lyrically simple – questioning the elephant in the room of a blossoming dalliance.

Three Stacks’ cameo on ‘Where’s The Catch?’ caught the eye of many hip-hop heads, a fitting beat, and dark piano motif, makes up the introduction with Blake, once again, talking about his new lover “we delayed the show we kissed so long”. The titular vocal riff sits over a searing guitar lick as André 3000 introduces his ‘heady verse’ which tackles paranoia and anxiety, (as does previous single ‘Don’t Miss It’) Three Stacks’ verse showcases his legendary flow with impressive an array of assonance and consonance. The track rolls out with the comforting notion that “everything is rosy”, a noticeable departure from the emotional dirge’s on his previous records.

Personal highlight ‘I’ll Come Too’ is a touching straight forward song, musing on wanting to follow your lover everywhere they go “I don’t want to go home/should we drive from zone to zone”, tackling the obsessive power of love through the language of men opposed to the poeticisms of ‘Assume Form’. ‘Don’t Miss It’ surfaced a few months ago but, here, Blake gives a rundown through what this egomaniacal and anxiety-ridden track is about: “moments I (sic) didn’t enjoy when I should have/Love’s I wasn’t a part of/Heroes I met that I can’t remember the feeling of meeting/Because I was so wrapped up in myself” using his trademark pitched up and spliced vocals. Album finishing ‘Lullaby for My Insomniac’ brings an oceanic blanketing to the record with a choir of vocals and falling pads.

‘Assume Form’ is a grounded and assured body of work, considerably less left-field and refines the ‘James Blake’ formula with a stronger magnetic leaning to rap music. However, these songs lack the emotional intensity of Blake’s previous records, and songs such as ‘Radio Silence’ or ‘Retrograde’, ditching the spaciously monstrous instrumentation for more subdued R&B beats. With some forgettable songs, such as ‘Power On’, ‘Tell Them’ and ‘Are You In Love?’, this album feels lackluster at times, however, it serves as an important record in the progression of James Blake’s music.

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