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Tag: dance rock

Album Review: Phoenix – Bankrupt! [Glassnote]

The success of Phoenix is just a little bit perplexing. They’ve been plugging away and working hard as a band for close to 15 years now, but it wasn’t until their fourth album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, that they finally saw any sort of measurable success. It’s equally strange that the popularity of that record and their introduction to the mainstream populous really offered nothing different or more attractive than their previous efforts. Indeed, this band has been writing incredibly addictive and danceable songs since at least 2000, it’s just not a lot of people bothered to pay attention for all those years. So what changed? Tastes, most likely. Phoenix have been ready and waiting this whole time, the general public was still trying to work up to their sound. Either that, or they had a piss poor team promoting their music until their last record. No matter how you look at it though, the band paid their dues. To those of us that have been listening to them for several years already it wasn’t so much a matter of if they’d ever be successful but when. Spurred solely on the singles of “1901” and “Lisztomania,” they rocketed to stardom, to the point of major music festival headliner status, which when you think about it is about the most confounding thing of thos entire crazy tale. Are two really great, really catchy songs all one needs these days to earn a place along side the likes of Pearl Jam or Green Day or Coldplay? Apparently so. As they cash in and prepare to headline virtually every major music festival in 2013, Phoenix are finally unleashing their Wolfgang follow-up, which is ironically titled Bankrupt!.

The album sounds like they spent a whole lot of money on it to make it sound as shiny and grandiose as possible, which is what you might expect as they’re trying to metaphorically top themselves and extend their shelf life another few years. Yet Phoenix has always been a big, anthemic band with a super clean sound, so you’re not going to notice much of a difference except that they really try to maximize what they can do with that sound. First single and opening track “Entertainment” is a great example of that, aiming for a grand slam sort of synth pop song with a dash of Asian-sounding keyboards to lend the French band a little more international appeal. The song itself is about the band’s experience with fame and singer Thomas Mars’ largely passive feeling about being viewed as this big rock star. Despite it’s aims and very “1901”-like feel, something about the track feels just a little bit off. The fluctuation in tempo knocks it back on its heels a little, and there seems to be some slight hesitation in the band’s approach that prevents them from really, truly, genuinely going for broke (album title pun intended). It may be largely satisfying the masses thanks to the strong and forceful hand of promotion and radio airplay, but that awkward distance makes it feel like the least effective of their major singles so far.

In fact, Bankrupt! as a whole is has less going for it in the way of singles than just about any of Phoenix’s previous records. It’d be nice to think that they weren’t concerned about such things, and maybe they aren’t, but on songs like “Drakkar Noir” and “The Real Thing” there’s a certain forcefulness built into their structure and hooks that feels more coldly calculated than genuine and organic. Despite this small issue on a couple of tracks, less effective single material leads to some interesting and perhaps better developments in terms of overall album cohesion. Whereas Wolfgang could often feel like a record built around its singles with not much else to inspire in between, the new album brings a consistency and pattern that flows far better despite being less memorable. The same can be said for the lyrics, which have continued to grow ever more obscure and random with each new record from the band. Mars often sings in what feels like half sentences, starting one thought but then finishing it with another that comes across as completely out of context. If you’re looking to connect with these songs on a deeper level, perhaps it’s best if you fill in your own blanks and interpret the lyrics in whatever fashion best suits your own life rather than trying to penetrate the impenetrable.

The best moments on Bankrupt! come when Phoenix sound most relaxed and in their comfort zone. “SOS in Bel Air” is the brightest spot on the album, a jittery would-be single that’s well on par with some of the best things they’ve ever done. Sliding from that into the toe-tapping “Trying to Be Cool” makes for the strongest pairing of tracks as well, right before the colossal mistake that is the seven minute title track shows up to add dead weight in the middle of the record just as it started to hit its stride. Still, “Don’t” and the upbeat closer “Oblique City” are great second half highlights that serve to add balance to the album and keep the listener properly engaged. For the legions of new fans that discovered this band via their last album in 2009, there’s enough going on with Bankrupt! to keep you happy. Like Mumford & Sons, who are arguably the biggest thing in music today, the formula hasn’t really changed and they certainly don’t stumble much in the face of what might be seen as overwhelming pressure to maintain their status among that same upper echelon. What’s truly lacking on this record is a sense of drive and experimentation. Then again, Phoenix have never been the sort of band to rock the boat much with each new album. You’d hope that success would afford them greater freedom and more leeway in their sound, but perhaps where they’re truly bankrupt is in the new ideas department. Oh well, after 15 years of hard work and paying their dues, they’re more than entitled to a victory lap.

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Album Review: Foals – Holy Fire [Warner Bros/Transgressive]

The evolution of Foals has been a fascinating one. On their 2008 debut album Antidotes, they no doubt attracted the attention of tastemakers because of their somewhat unique take on the dance rock genre, which was at a high point during that time period. While some critics would argue that their songs were poor imitations of leading bands at the time such as Bloc Party and Maximo Park, others felt the math rock guitars were crucial to setting them apart from their peers and bringing a fresh twist to an increasingly stale sound. It’s not hard to say that at the time Foals lacked a certain emotional maturity which in turn froze a lot of listeners out and prevented them from engaging with the songs in a deeper way. Big changes and improvements arrived on 2010’s Total Life Forever, which was more plainspoken and heartfelt, and frontman Yannis Philippakis proved he could actually carry a melody beyond uttering short, declarative phrases. The melodies also got larger in scope, moving slightly away from the intricacies of their debut and into a widescreen, power chord territory with hooks that grabbed hold of you like never before. It represented the exact right steps the band needed to make at the time, and their continued evolution earned them a newfound respect among fans and critics alike. They hadn’t so much sacrificed anything as they added to what was already there.

On what’s now their third official full length Holy Fire, Foals once again push forward and work hard to grow in sound and stature. They take the best parts of their previous work and appear to commit to try and fix their previous flaws. Philippakis continues to grow as both a singer and a songwriter. He stretches himself vocally on this album more than ever before, and the payoffs are pretty exhilarating. The opening instrumental, appropriately dubbed “Prelude,” provides some nice ebbs and flows but still doesn’t quite prepare you for the track that immediately follows it. “Inhaler” has a late-90s alternative rock vibe going for it, which means there’s a certain amount of malice and bad intentions running like an undercurrent through the duration of the track. Sooner or later, the dark, masked feelings build up and require release, leading to the explosive chorus you don’t necessarily anticipate arriving until it lands. “I can’t get enough SPACE!” Philippakis yells into a seemingly endless void as the fuzz pedals and power chords drive his point home with all the force of a battering ram. It’s a cathartic, exciting and memorable moment early on in a record that winds up having a bunch of them. None quite operate on the same level as “Inhaler” when it comes to overall aggression, however most are equally as fun and addictive.

Chief among the many catchy songs on Holy Fire is the single “My Number,” a track that finds Foals in the purest of pop modes with a chorus that stays with you like it’s etched inside your brain. It’s easy to envision the song becoming a monstrosity of a hit in their live shows, and the video for it doesn’t do anything to dispel that notion. That’s really just the start of a great run of smart and effective tracks that include “Everytime” and “Bad Habit,” both serving as great reminders that while the song structures are very familiar and the hooks are intensely strong, there’s enough distinction in the intricate guitar work and vocals to set Foals apart from any similar-sounding peers. On Total Life Forever there were hints of this very broad yet indistinct stadium-sized band bubbling underneath the surface of some songs trying to wrestle control away from some of the more charming quirks that have earned them a decent amount of respect over the years. That they chose to avoid giving in to those impulses and occasionally push some experimental buttons is heartening and a great sign for their future.

Such experiments enter into play during much of the second half of Holy Fire, which is a little slower and less pop-driven yet compelling in its own unique way. On their previous albums, Foals have proven themselves relatively adept at the slow build in songs, turning otherwise innocuous ballads or mid-tempo numbers into hot-blooded explosions of noise or genuine rave-ups. When done properly, it can leave the listener exhilarated. In that sense, tracks like “Late Night” and “Milk & Black Spiders” are two of the best slow build tracks the band have ever put together, and that is a great sign of their growth and maturity these last few years. “Providence” plays off a similar template, though instead of moving from slow to fast it evolves from a dance track to a muscular rock song. You could well call it the Side B cousin of “Inhaler” from Side A. The band’s energy peters out in the final two cuts “Stepson” and “Moon,” coming across like the overcast sky beginning to show signs of daylight after a long night partying. The smile fades from your face as suddenly it’s time to come back to earth after the dizzying highs you’ve been experiencing the last few hours. This bout of sincerity and sadness feels earned and rightly placed at the end of the record, holding Foals in formation as a well-rounded band instead of a lopsided one. Perhaps the biggest fault with Total Life Forever was how its attempt at true balance led to a front-loaded bipolarity that sank like a stone halfway through. Thanks to a couple late album injections of energy though, this new album feels balanced in a much smarter fashion and makes the replay value that much higher. It’s fantastic to hear that Foals have learned this and many other lessons for Holy Fire, and with any luck they won’t forget them ever again.

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Album Review: Bloc Party – Four [Frenchkiss]

It’s been four years since Bloc Party released their last album Intimacy, and a couple things have happened since then. Frontman Kele Okereke took the more electronica leanings of Intimacy and explored them fully on his own with his 2010 solo album The Boxer. The response from critics and the general public was largely mixed, but in spite of that there were suggestions Bloc Party might not return or would return but with a different singer. Okereke recounted in an interview how he observed all the other guys in the band entering a rehearsal space without him, getting him worried they might be continuing on without him. That was quickly followed by a comment from guitarist Russell Lissack saying they wanted to make new music and decided to have a few jam sessions without the very busy Okereke to try and figure out where they wanted to go next. Hours after it was reported that the future of Bloc Party might be in jeopardy, a post appeared on the band’s website denying that any lineup changes were happening. Now nearly a year later, they’re back with everyone intact and a new full length, Four. If you think they’re going to pick right back up where they left off though, you don’t know Bloc Party.

By calling their album Four, Bloc Party are reminding us of a few things. First and foremost, there are four members of the band. Secondly, it’s been four years since their last album. And thirdly, this is their fourth album of original material. There’s probably a fourth point, just to keep the whole number theme going, but exactly what that is could be considered open for debate. More important than any number games though are the songs themselves. The electronica leanings of Intimacy? They’re almost completely gone. In some respects, so are the dance rock leanings of their first two records Silent Alarm and A Weekend in the City. They’ve been there and done that, more often than not with mixed results. Dance rock mostly died off years ago, and the electronica scene is dominated by dubstep, which isn’t such a good idea for a full band to try (see: new Muse). So for a band that’s made their name on those sounds, what’s the next step on the evolutionary chain? Take what you’ve got and use it to the fullest. Say hello to Bloc Party: alternative rock band.

Four opens with an element that a lot of bands try when they’re trying to sound raw and underproduced – they insert some “sounds of the studio.” In this particular case a comparison can be drawn to the beginning of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, where you’re greeted with the sound of a guitar being plugged into an amp. That was to signify their move away from the electronic-based textures of Kid A and Amnesiac and their return to more guitar-based rock. Bloc Party are making a similar move, which is why you hear some guitar scrapes amid a snippet of dialogue before the band launches into “So He Begins to Lie.” The effect is not nearly the same however, especially since Bloc Party are coming off a streak of increasingly mediocre records. While you’d expect their return to rock music to perhaps reinvigorate their creativity like it did early in their careers, they trip and fall right out of the gate. “So He Begins to Lie” has some angularly heavy guitars that wind up sounding like a mixture of 311 and early Muse. There’s nothing particularly inspiring about it, as it’s missing a brisker pace and a hook that genuinely grabs your attention. First tracks are designed to suck the listener in and make them want more, but this comes off sounding like a Silent Alarm b-side.

When Four truly begins is with “3×3,” a very meaty and metal-inspired track that races with fury matched by a heroic vocal performance from Okereke. The bridge, with a whispered “no means no” building to a cathartic scream of “Yes!” makes for one of the album’s early highlights. Okereke also does great work on “Kettling,” his voice cutting like a hot knife through the dirge of what feels like a cross between The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. But his singing aside, much of the record actually does seem like a collection of influences from the ’90s and early ’00s. The acoustic guitar first half of “Coliseum” is an almost blatant rip-off of one-hit wonders Days of the New, with the nightmareish punk-metal second half might best be classified as Arctic Monkeys with a Metallica twist. Soundgarden are channeled on the album closing “We Are Not Good People,” in what might be the most intense and loud songs Bloc Party have ever made. That doesn’t make it good however, because what Four really suffers from is an identity crisis.

Mixed between all the heavy stuff are softer songs and the lighter dance numbers that bear the familiar markings of the earliest and best Bloc Party material. Four‘s first single is “Octopus,” a track that seems designed in every way to convince you that the band you know and love is back. The jittery guitar riff that’s the basis of the song feels eerily reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and while it’s ripe for remixing, it doesn’t quite have a high enough BPM rate to make it dance-worthy on its own. The chorus isn’t as instantly memorable as some of the band’s greatest hits either, likely leading to its inability to gain the massive sort of popularity the band wants and needs right now. By contrast, “Team A” does have the energy and instrumental groundwork to succeed, but it sorely lacks transitions and an actual chorus. Where the band fares best are in the moments when they don’t come off like they’re trying too hard. “Day Four” may fall somewhere in between The Temper Trap and Minus the Bear with its stylistic references, but it’s a genuinely beautiful and heartfelt moment that recalls a Bloc Party classic like “Blue Light” and nearly lives up to its high bar. Fans of “This Modern Love” can probably find plenty to love about “Truth,” which is one of the few moments where it seems like the band is being honest with us about who they are. If only the record’s other ballads “Real Talk” and “The Healing” were as creative and interesting.

The one trump card that Bloc Party unleash on Four is “V.A.L.I.S.” It might not be a barn burner equivalent to say “Banquet” or “Helicopter,” but it’s an intelligently crafted, catchy song with a healthy bounce to it. That foundation is really the basis for what made Bloc Party such a well-respected band in the first place. The off-kilter guitar work of Russell Lissack and driving drum hits of Matt Tong are at the heart of what makes the band great, and not using either to the best of their abilities as on Intimacy causes the overall results to suffer. For this album, Lissack is relegated to loud and heavy riffs instead of punchy hand-picked creativity, while Tong exercises brute force trying mostly to keep up with everything going on around him. The record’s unsettled variety pack of styles doesn’t do them many favors either. In other words, Bloc Party sound lost. Perhaps they made the conscious decision to throw a bunch of things at a wall to see what would stick. While it is nice to hear them taking some real risks, it’d be even better if they would jump in with both feet instead of dipping a toe in the water. Hopefully their next one will do exactly that, even if it is unlike anything we’ve heard them try before.

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Album Review: Hot Chip – In Our Heads [Domino]

One of the greatest challenges about the dance music genre is how easily things can become stale. If dance artists aren’t consistently evolving from record to record, they’re prone to stagnation and may fizzle out. Don’t ever let the beat drop or let your audience get bored. James Murphy as LCD Soundsystem played his cards almost exactly right, crafting three of the best dance records so far this decade, each one building off the previous one, before calling it quits at the top of his game. Not every attempt at reinvention works out though, as best evidenced by Justice’s most recent effort Audio, Video, Disco, which boldly sought to bring bits of 70’s prog-rock into their club-heavy, pop single sound. Nice thought, but the end result was far weaker than it could have been.

Hot Chip probably fall towards the middle of the pack when it comes to building a successful career in dance music. Their 2005 debut album Coming On Strong was filled with smarmy bedroom pop, the kind that needed work instrumentally but was quite funny lyrically. Building off that, 2006’s The Warning hit almost all the right notes and generated hits like “Boy From School” and “Over and Over.” That trend continued on 2008’s Made in the Dark, though it peppered in more mature themes and slower balladry to calm the waters a bit. Such an adjustment suggested they were growing up, but the end results were more mixed and off-balance, like a teen going through puberty. 2010’s One Life Stand was the band’s full-on attempt at maturity and adulthood. It was a skillfully moderated meditation on love and settling down and the pleasure one could derive from that, and many loved how well it balanced the band’s celebratory and fun side with something calmer and more mature. Others balked under the impression that a more domesticated and ballad-dominant version of Hot Chip wasn’t what they signed up for based on their earlier material. In the time since that last record, band members took time out to work on some side projects. About Group, The 2 Bears and New Build were the three results, and while each carved their own distinct paths musically, they all had one thing in common: an upbeat and playful demeanor.

Thankfully, that seems to be where the members of Hot Chip’s heads are on their new album In Our Heads. This past March, Joe Goddard said in an interview that they intended for the album to exude “positivity.” That means an increase in tempos and moods and a return to some of the dance-addled style their first couple records played up so well. This time though, the band isn’t retreating so much as they are refining. The lessons learned in One Life Stand are not lost, but incorporated into the album both lyrically and in how some of the songs are structured. The electro-funk of “How Do You Do?” might function as the best distillation of what the entire record is about, with a chorus that includes the line, “You make me want to live again.” “Dont Deny Your Heart” smartly lays out a case for why a partner should “say yes” to love, using an 80’s-style synth pop base to make it that much more memorable.

Perhaps the greatest moments on In Our Heads come from the longest songs. It’s not because they’re long that makes them good, it just so happens to work out that way. The seven minutes of “Flutes” makes for one of the darkest yet most exciting tracks on the album. It’s a swirling techno beast that morphs into this shining dance party pillar before you can fully grasp what’s going on. Hot Chip have never made a song quite like it before, and it speaks exceptionally well towards their continuing evolution as a band. The same can be said for “Let Me Be Him,” which brilliantly skirts the line between ballad and dance track by placing a soft rock melody atop skittering beats. The longer it glides, the more beautiful it becomes, eventually breaking down into bird chirps and spaced out electric guitars that will make you salivate with sheer passion. Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor’s vocals swim in these fertile waters and set the right tone thanks to a line like, “My soul, my love is running away with me.” Played differently, the song could very well have fallen into the realm of excess or even poorly concocted parody. Its escape from such a fate only makes it stronger.

For those that prefer their Hot Chip funky and loud, as on a past single like “Ready for the Floor,” In Our Heads has “Night & Day” for your enjoyment. The groove is built around a wobbly bass line, and the chorus splits open with some laser-guided synths that send things into the stratosphere. Hot Chip’s trademark humor is well in place too, and if the video for the song doesn’t cause you to crack a smile, hopefully the deadpan faux rapping during the bridge will. “These Chains” also does excellent work by playing the darker cousin of “Boy From School,” quietly pulsating as Taylor and Goddard trade verses and harmonize with one another. It’s one of the record’s more subtle numbers, but pay close enough attention and you’ll find it sticking with you far longer than expected.

The greatest thing about In Our Heads is how ecstatic and joyful Hot Chip sound from start to finish. As One Life Stand could be a bit of a drag for those seeking the band that churns out dance hit after dance hit, that album remains a necessary step in their continued growth. Finally reaching maturity and adulthood doesn’t always mean putting away childish things though. In fact, maintaining a positive attitude and staying active can help keep you young. That seems to be the lesson the band is trying to teach us with this record. Even as they sing about love and holding onto the key relationships in your life, they’re still compelled to craft melodies that bring a euphoria of a different sort. Whether that pleasure lasts a minute or a lifetime, Hot Chip seem intent on spreading and sharing it with us. We should consider ourselves lucky.

Hot Chip – Night And Day

Hot Chip – Don’t Deny Your Heart

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Album Review: The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love [DFA]

Hallelujah! The Rapture are back. It’s been a minute since we last heard from them, most notably 5 years ago with the release of their second album “Pieces of the People We Love”. Where have they been since then? Well, as some bands do, there was an upheaval and personnel change that went down, complete with the personal lives of a band member or two taking a hit as well. First it was frontman Luke Jenner that quit tha band, and he had a number of things going on in his life, from reaffirming his spirituality to the birth of his son to the tragedy that saw his mother pass away. Eventually he would return though, and bassist/co-frontman Mattie Safer would quit the band. The reasons and the politics are less important than the band choosing to carry on. Now functioning as a three piece, the boys took their time in recording their third full length. The biggest hurdle facing them was how to continue evolving their sound from the original dance punk mold that has now become old hat. It was wearing super thin on their last album, and it’s even thinner now. Yet dance music itself keeps developing new and interesting quirks, even if The Rapture aren’t ones to try out a certain sound just because it’s popular. A song like “House of Jealous Lovers” was a huge hit when it came out precisely because it was unlike anything else out there at the time. So largely keeping the grooves but tweaking them further away from guitar-based shimmy, “In the Grace of Your Love” marks the band’s return to the big leagues. Back at home on their original record label DFA, the hope is to recapture the hearts and minds of the disaffected dancefloor junkies.

If you’ve heard the first single off “In the Grace of Your Love”, then you know The Rapture have proven they can still write a hit song. “How Deep Is Your Love” plays out like a 6.5 minute manifesto upon which the band rebuilds their church. Guitars are nowhere to be found in the early going, instead the song settles into a strong groove thanks to some briskly paced beats and piano, which together have roots in House music. Halfway through, there’s a breakdown to handclaps and vocals before a frenetic saxophone shifts the song into third gear and carries it home the best way it knows how. That single song is better than anything that appeared on “Pieces of the People We Love”, and while it’s not ahead of its time, by no means is it behind either. What’d be wonderful is to say that the rest of the record is as good as that single song. Unfortunately that’s not the case, but it’s certainly not without a lack of trying.

Every song on “In the Grace of Your Love” has some sort of groove to it, and essentially you can throw a full-on dance party with just this album, but not in the way you might expect. The Rapture can’t seem to resist a strong beat, but what they do with that beat keeps everyone on their toes. Rather than playing to what they know full well are their strengths, they use the majority of the new album to mess around with varied textures and instruments for the sake of both mixing it up and proving they’re more than just a flash in the pan. They’re smart to avoid guitar-propelled melodies, instead choosing to place emphasis on the much more current trend of synths. That’s evident straight from the beginning of the record with the hard-charging “Sail Away”. For the energy it tries to bring, there’s not quite enough variation in the melody to hold your interest, but Jenner’s strong vocal performance makes it worthwhile. Also, a weird, psychedelic keyboard breakdown in the final 90 seconds of the song is unexpected and challenging and a step in the right direction. A more guitar-based melody shows up on “Blue Bird”, but it’s not the frenetic strumming that dance punk typically propogates. The drums do all the heavy lifting, while Jenner adopts a falsetto that is more annoying and strained than it is charming. Crafting a dance track out of a few accordion notes and finger snaps is unconventional in itself, and “Come Back to Me” spends its first half doing just that. The mid-track breakdown into something much more sparse and synth-based seems inspired until it never builds to anything and simply peters out. One of the greatest sins on this album comes courtesy of the title track, a song that not only goes nowhere, but has the gall to be so lyrically threadbare that it’s almost a joke. After Jenner repeats the word “heaven” a bunch of times near the middle of the song’s 5.5 minute duration, he resorts to a non-verbal sing-along with the melody via “la la’s” and “whoa’s”.

The second half of the record fares a bit better. The disco funk-meets-horn-section of “Never Die Again” at least has some creative instrumental mojo going for it. Meanwhile both “Roller Coaster” and “Can You Find A Way?” feel Talking Heads inspired, but in completely different ways. Jenner tries to embody David Byrne with his vocal performance on the marked slowness of the former, while the band gets all hopped up and electro-funky on the latter. To close out “In the Grace of Your Love”, the slow jam “It Takes Time to Be A Man” appears to try and hug it out in the style of “Lean On Me”. You just want to find a friend, throw your arm over his or her shoulder, and sway back and forth. There’s a positive message to the song too, and it’d be a lot more effective were the melody not so schmaltzy. Jenner’s voice is not a good fit for a track with this sort of emotional heft and tempo. The song may be trying to leave you feeling good, but it feels closer to an ill-fitting betrayal. Looking at this record purely from a lyrics perspective though, there’s plenty more to find out of place. Given that they’ve always been a dance rock band and that dance music in general doesn’t need anything close to intelligent lyrics to work, The Rapture have never been known for coming up with brilliant wordplay. Considering their variations in style and some of the sonic experiments/risks they take here though, they’ve stepped away from their direct line to the dance floor just a bit and it makes those lyrical shortcomings that much more obvious.

For those blissful few minutes that were “How Deep Is Your Love”, it was easy to say that The Rapture had risen from the dead and returned to take the believers with them into the next realm while everyone else was left behind. The thing is, the band seems to be the ones that were left behind, and they’re now trying to play catch up. They spend much of “In the Grace of Your Love” playing around with variations on different musical styles, virtually all of them worth their salt when tested in the clubs. Yet there always seems to be one flaw or another that makes itself known on an otherwise lovely track. Plus, the shuffling around in song types makes the band seem a little indecisive and uncomfortable. They’re clearly aware that dance punk is not going to work for them anymore, but they’re not exactly sure what will. Once they find that new niche, whether it’s exploiting something fresh and popular or just sticking to a tried and true formula that has been working for bands for decades, they’ll likely be better off. Losing Mattie Safer probably didn’t help much either. If we learned one thing from this new album, it’s that The Rapture are much more versatile than originally thought. Hopefully next time they can use that to an advantage.

Buy “In the Grace of Your Love” from Amazon

Click past the jump to stream the entire record (limited time only).

Album Review: Friendly Fires – Pala [XL]

If you were in any doubt that summer has officially arrived, throw on your best open-toed dancing shoes and pick yourself up a copy of Friendly Fires’ “Pala”. That quote right there has been approved for use in any press blurbs about the band you might read. Seriously though, straight off the tropical bird on the album cover and a track titled “Hawaiian Air” you can get a fantastic idea of what the record is going to sound like without even hearing a single note of it. All the better if you’re familiar with Friendly Fires’ 2008 self-titled debut album, which was so rich in dancefloor goodness that it took the band on multiple world tours and required a deluxe edition re-release to help out the new fans and keep the old ones baited with extras to bide the time until a follow-up was ready. Now it is, and “Pala” is in every way an evolotion from where the band was 3 years ago, adding more influences and sounds, not to mention sheer energy to a fire that was already burning pretty strong.

There’s a moment right before the first time through chorus on “Pala”‘s opening track “Live Those Days Tonight” where the beat largely drops out, things go relatively quiet, and somebody whispers, “Don’t hold back” a handful of times. As if pushed by those words of encouragement, the chorus then explodes to life with both some huge percussion and a hook that is more than addictive enough to stay in your head after only one full listen. That’s not even counting the bridge breakdown, where the chanting of “I’ll live” builds to yet another cathartic release of endorphins in case the first time wasn’t enough for you. Even more incredible is how the band is able to dish out variations on that same strategy across the entire record, keeping your feet moving during the verses and then achieving these blissfully anthemic and catchy choruses to keep you coming back. Producer Paul Epworth deserves at least some of the credit for pushing the band to these more advanced levels in which they owe as much to the dance rock craze of several years ago as they do to modern techno and house music. Epworth’s past resume includes working on key records from Bloc Party and The Rapture, so his fit here is a natural one even if he does tend to make a lot of albums sound super squeaky clean to the point where it’s unnatural. “Pala” suffers that same fate, but the light and airy nature of the record makes it a lot like the audio version of a huge blockbuster film – it’s great to put it on and have some fun without the pressure of thinking too much.

Close analysis of “Pala” is largely what might affect your enjoyment of it as a whole, because while it is an immensely fun dance record, there’s not exactly brilliance behind some of the lyrics and subject matter. The choruses are supposed to be memorable and therefore economical on words, but the verses are where the exposition is supposed to take place. That’s why lines like, “Seeing the mountains through the fog/Watching a film with a talking dog” on “Hawaiian Air” come across as poorly constructed and only existing to achieve a rhyme scheme. The topics as well are overly familiar ones, with almost every song either being about the ups and downs of love (“True Love”, “Hurting”, “Running Away”, “Pull Me Back to Earth”), the best and worst parts of the dancefloor (“Live Those Days Tonight”, “Show Me Lights”) and the sheer beauty of nature (“Hawaiian Air”, “Pala”). LCD Soundsystem, among other acts, proved that you can pretty seamlessly blend dance tracks with words that are genuine, emotionally significant and smart. Of course there are also no indications the band is looking to do a whole lot beyond getting you moving and providing you with something easy to sing along with. In an ideal world, “Pala” would be both, but when choosing between smart and fun, fun is by far the better choice for a band like this.

The different sounds explored on “Pala” is one of the more exciting things about the record and also further proof that they’ve made significant advancements since their last effort. With chillwave all the rage these last couple years, there are brief nods to those sounds, which largely ape lo-fi dance recordings from the 70s and 80s, on tracks like “Blue Cassette” and “Hurting”. The way that actual cassette tape noises such as the high-pitched squeal of rewinding and the click of the “play” button are worked into the context of “Blue Cassette” is particularly well played and impressive. Meanwhile, the strong mixture of synths and piano in conjunction with a vast array of beats on “Running Away” and “Chimes” bring to mind some of the more Balearic elements of today’s club scene. “Show Me Lights” is very 90s R&B in its construction, with frontman Ed Macfarlane’s voice sounding like it was forged in those same fires anyways. You might also think that R. Kelly would be proud of the album’s only ballad, the title track “Pala”, which is smooth as glass matched with the sort of slow clap beat you can make some serious love to. The funky bass and synths of “True Love” feel ripped straight from the Talking Heads, which is a delight. And the Afrobeat bits of “Pull Me Back to Earth” have plenty of charm to go around as well. This sort of diversity is absolutely a sign of growth, and while each track is great individually, together the entire record can appear to be a little scatterbrained and unfocused. So long as you keep your eye on the prize of just generally enjoying your listening experience though, it’s a problem that ultimately feels minimal.

“Pala” is a party record through and through, one ideal for the warm months where you can loosen up and have some fun outside. It is, by all accounts, tropical and exotic too, an auditory vacation where you’re not bogged down with the stress of work and everyday life and can just enjoy relaxing by a beautiful body of water. You should treat it as such too, because the more you study it the more its flaws become apparent. Turn your brain off and put your dancing shoes on. It might not be as amazing as Cut Copy’s latest “Zonoscope”, but the two records have a lot in common with one another. There are also so many “big” songs on “Pala” that it’s practically begging to be embraced by hundreds of millions of people. Friendly Fires have been on the steady rise since 2007, and this is in many ways their opus that should launch them into the big time. The songs are crazy addictive and easy enough for even the most hostile crowd to embrace. Give them a few months to build up some more steam and they will take over the world. Hang onto your spotlights ladies and gentlemen, because Friendly Fires are about to steal them. There’s another quote for the next press release.

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Album Review: Cut Copy – Zonoscope [Modular]

First and foremost, Australian band Cut Copy are all about the dance floor. The numerous labels affixed to their sound, be it dance rock, dance pop, synth pop, electronica, etc., don’t matter so much as knowing that if you put on a Cut Copy record, there’s little chance you’ll be able to avoid moving at least one part of your body to the beat. But in addition to those intense grooves, they’re also extremely adept at crafting hooks that stick with you long after the music has stopped. Their last album, 2008’s “In Ghost Colours”, was plentiful in all those ways, and tracks like “Lights and Music” and “Hearts On Fire” were more than just great cuts to play in the club – they were anthems worth playing in some huge spaces. That record also had a very “night out” feel to it, perfect to play when the neon lights were aglow and you’re cruising the city in a flashy suit or sparkly dress. The band is back at it again this week with their third full length “Zonoscope”, and it’s a lighter, brighter affair that scales back the massive choruses just a little in an effort to produce something a little more intelligent and cohesive than what they’ve done before.

“Zonoscope” opens with the uplifting “Need You Now”, a 6+ minute track that starts with a relatively basic beat and builds to an explosion of light and energy that’s just plain thrilling. There’s a distinct 80s pop vibe to “Take Me Over”, and it’s no wonder considering that much of the melody is just a dressed up dance version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” with new lyrics. Cut Copy make it their own, though it does have what feels like a Blondie vibe too (think “Heart of Glass”). And in what becomes a running theme through the course of the record, “Take Me Over” transitions flawlessly into first single “Where I’m Going” without looking back. Thanks largely to the backing vocals and a little bit of a psychedelic edge, “Where I’m Going” comes across like a beat-heavy Beach Boys classic. The track has such a sunny disposition to it, with the energetic shouts of “Yeah!” during the insanely catchy chorus, that you’ll fall in love with it almost immediately. Altogether it makes for one of the best songs of a young 2011, and at this point in time it’s difficult to think of how much else could surpass its brilliance.

The way the keyboards and splashes of cowbell are used on “Pharaohs and Pyramids”, along with the eventual wind-up and breakdown in the final 1:45 of the song, there’s something about the track that transports you to a classic club setting. It feels like something a band like Delorean would put out, though three things actually push this song to an entirely higher level. First is the beginning of the track, which holds a Talking Heads-ish stature before the chorus strikes the first time. Second is the end of the track, which courtesy of some carefully placed bass guitar brings to mind New Order in the best possible ways. And thirdly, Dan Whitford’s vocals convey just the right emotions compared to the tempo and overall arrangement. If a record like this could actually get away with going a bit sentimental, this is the closest Cut Copy get and it works beautifully. Not just because of the title, “Blink and You’ll Miss A Revolution” owes some contemporary debts to LCD Soundsystem and !!!, as both bands have similar markers that are on display in the track. The bits of xylophone and violin are nice Cut Copy touches though, bringing just a little extra wink and a smile to the party.

Guitars begin to factor in much more heavily on the second half of the album. “This Is All We’ve Got” brings in some almost shoegaze-inspired hazy electrics amidst the twinkling electronics for what ultimately becomes a very lovely ballad. That leads to a silky smooth transition into “Alisa”, which is by far the most guitar-centric song on the entire record. At its core the song is reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen mixed with David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine. It’s still very pop-driven and danceable, but darker and again with the shoegaze edge. Acoustic guitars show up for a bit on the ballad “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat”, blending pretty effortlessly with the spacier electro bits and synths. For some reason the band Yes comes to mind whenever I hear that song, and the comparison may very well be justified in this case. “Zonoscope” ends on a pretty wild note, with the 15+ minute “Sun God”. The track is essentially a showcase for everything they’ve done on the album up until that point, moving from a slightly uptempo pop song into a blissed out instrumental. The good news is that there’s very few dead spots across that 15 minute runtime. The bad news is that there’s very little justification for why the song exists in the first place as it primarily feels like an extended club remix of a normal Cut Copy song. Given what you’ve been listening to for the previous 45 minutes, such a thing can’t be considered bad, just a little underwhelming considering what came before it.

This is not the best time of year to be releasing a dance album, but that’s probably only relevant if you live in a place where the weather gets cold and snowy in February. Of course it’s always hot inside dance clubs no matter where you are, with crowds of sweaty bodies rubbing up against one another. “Zonoscope” is less of a club record than Cut Copy’s last one, but that doesn’t make it any less good. The more tempered approach taken by the band this time puts better overall composition on display, which in turn also does well in elevating moods. If you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder and a daily dose of sunshine just isn’t doing the job, this album is like the audio version of that. Even once the weather improves and you’re outside in some blistering heat, you’ll still feel motivated to dance if you turn this record on. What Cut Copy lacks in the emotional connection that LCD Soundsystem does so well, they more than make up for with dynamic pop hooks and flawless transitions that work so well portions of the album feel like one long slice of beat-infused bliss. If you can appreciate such things, “Zonoscope” will likely be one of your favorite albums of 2011. So far, it’s most definitely one of mine.

Cut Copy – Need You Now

Cut Copy – Take Me Over (Thee Loving Hand Remix by Tim Goldsworthy)
Cut Copy – Take Me Over (Midnight Magic Remix)

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Album Review: The Hundred in the Hands – The Hundred in the Hands [Warp]

With all the intense focus on glo-fi/chillwave these days, more normal-sounding dance records can skate under the radar with relative ease if you’re not paying attention. And dance rock, the genre upon which guitars hit hard amidst the beats, well that’s been as good as dead in the last couple years. This is why once highly prolific bands such as Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand find themselves in a bit of a struggle to survive in their current state. Evolve or die is the mantra, and that tends to go for dance rock bands both popular and unpopular. In keeping a close eye on the trends, many record labels are signing bands according to what’s hot, which is why glo-fi continues to make the (chill)waves it does. Not calling anything a mistake, but now and then you do get the occasional band making their debut while playing up trends that have already passed. The progressive dance label Warp signed the duo known as The Hundred in the Hands and is putting out their self-titled debut record this week, but one listen and you’ll get a firm grasp on a the hot sounds of 2005. Now it stands to argue that judging music purely based on the public zeitgeist is foolish, because you never know when some band will turn in a brilliant record using an outdated sound. Hell, if there’s a rap-rock record that comes out in the next couple months that’s incredibly smart and well put together, the general public would be idiots to not give it the proper attention. So let’s not judge The Hundred in the Hands based on what genre they’re choosing to exploit, but rather the content and composition of their songs.

Having hammered that point home, it’s a shame that The Hundred in the Hands don’t have something stronger to offer for a debut album. These two first attracted my attention a few months back when I caught their live set as they were opening for another band. It was such a strong show and such fun that they pretty much blew all the other bands on the bill that night out of the water. As a direct result, I picked up a copy of their “This Desert” EP and continued to be captivated by their somewhat quirky take on what would normally be a standard dance rock album. The issue is that the band apparently made the conscious choice to avoid that sound in order to move in a bit more of a mainstream and “traditional” direction. The sonic gap between what appears on that EP and this self-titled full length isn’t as big as you might think, but when you’re working in a world of stale ideas, any unique spin you can put on your music is an advantage. This is why the squeaky clean production on “The Hundred in the Hands” turns out to be a very bad thing, along with the easy melodies that occasionally feel like you’ve heard them before. As disappointing as that might be, the band still does well for itself on a few levels. First is simply Eleanore Everdell, who is simply amazing on virtually everything she puts her voice to. Those are some seriously strong pipes, both incredible in their range and depth of emotion. When she gets all bedroom eyes on “Lovesick (Once Again)”, it turns into one of the most beautiful and intense moments on the record. “This Day Is Made” is haunting and immensely gripping thanks pretty much entirely to her singing. It doesn’t always work out though, and a song like “Gold Blood”, which is heavy on the rock angle and ups the BPMs just a bit turns Everdell into a Karen O-like figure. Unfortunately, she’s no Karen O, and the track makes that all too clear. Instead of a wild child she’s best in the character of an ice queen, freezing you out with talk of empty houses and wasted time. Jason Friedman’s role as guitarist and general foil works just fine, though he does very little to distinguish himself on the record. Everdell’s synths are generally the more dominant instrument, and the mixed use of drum machines and live drums doesn’t seem to make much of a difference except to pile more polish on top of what’s already there.

Thankfully “The Hundred in the Hands” doesn’t fall prey to every dance rock cliche there is. There are moments, glimmers if you will, of a potentially great band amid the blatant attempts to generate hook-filled choruses that will reach more ears and rise them above many of their indie bretheren. Songs like the opening “Young Aren’t Young” and “Pigeons” stand out for their ability to maneuver around the simplest melodies and try for something greater. There’s potential here, as there was potential on the “This Desert” EP, just not nearly so much of it. When faced with two paths to travel down, The Hundred in the Hands chose the easier walk. They’re now paying for it by being tagged with the “just another band like dozens we’ve heard before” label. It’s a shame too, because Warp pretty much only signs “above average” bands, which this duo seemed to be based on my brief history with them through a live show and an EP. Hopefully this debut record does well enough for them that they’re able to hold onto their label for another one. That will truly be the test of how ready they are to play in the big leagues of indie. They don’t need to be glo-fi to make waves in dance music, they just need to be great. Right now, The Hundred in the Hands are only moderately good.

The Hundred in the Hands – Dressed in Dresden

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