IN THIS PHOTO: Slowdive
This Week’s Trio: 5th May, 2017
IN a new feature, that might not happen every week, I will be taking the three best…
IN THIS PHOTO: Blondie
(or most compelling) albums from the week and give them a quick overview. It is not my usual several-thousand-word assessments: a brief and concise (I hope) review of the album.
This week, Blondie make a welcome return with Pollinator. Slowdive have released their eponymous album and have already been picking up some incredible feedback. In terms of much-needed returns: At the Drive-In give us the oddly-titled (aren’t all their albums?!) in•ter a•li•a. It shows them in a more mature frame of mind but still their unique and astonishing best.
I look at that trio and select my favourite from the pack.
Blondie – Pollinator (BMG Rights Management)
Blondie 4(0) Ever was the last album from the U.S. group in 2014: a fortieth-anniversary collection that was, essentially, a ‘best-of’ double-album. To find their previous studio album, one would need to go back to 2011’s coolly-titled Panic of Girls – some eight years after their album The Curse of Blondie. Panic of Girls contained the reliable mix of inner-city cool and incredible band interplay. Modern paranoia fused with 1980s Disco and Rock. Being Blondie, it was hard to define and hone them: the record was one of their most inventive and fulfilling of the past decade. Wind the clock forward to 2017 and there was a genuine excitement in the air when Pollinator was announced. Unlike previous albums; Pollinator borrows heavily from other artists in terms of co-writing and collaborations. Johnny Marr, Sia and Charli XCX are in the mix – so too is the Strokes’ Nick Valensi. What one finds, compared to previous incumbent Panic of Girls, is a return (of sorts) to Blondie’s 1970s heydey – albeit it with a contemporary sheen and urgency. Clem Burke’s riffled machine-gun percussion are the first thing one hears – in the nervousness and anxiety of Doom or Density. Whether referring to a singular romance or a wider look at the state of the world (political divisions and internal strife) you are hooked by the energy and rush of the song. Snarling strings and a constantly intense percussion heartbeat gives the song its essential authority and unpredictably. Blondie have always been big on emphatic and euphoric chorus – there is no change on Pollinator’s opener. Long Time is the most intriguing early cut from the album and one that casts the memory back to the glory days of the band. Critics have noticed a (natural) decline in Debbie Harry’s voice – more weathered and raw than once it was. Here, it sounds as clear and fresh as it was back on Parallel Lines. “I can give you a heartbeat/I can give you a friend” suggests there is purity and dedication at the heart. As the song progresses, it seems like there is something more cynical at work. Some Classic strings and punchy percussion combination give the song an elegance and power that, in lesser hands, might feel contrived and ill-advised. As it is; it is one of Pollinator’s most addictive and memorable songs.
Fun, is, as the title implies, in no shortage of festivity and juvenile glee. It is a funky and foot-tapping stomp that cracks from the speakers and has that lip-licking thump and jive. Harry is talking to a man or suitor, perhaps: someone who picks her up when she is down; that much-needed tonic at the end of a day. Again, one experiences a jet-sized rush and hook in the chorus – Blondie duly aware of their legacy and sound but keen to incorporate slick modern production and a contemporary sheen. Fun is a song that could easily soundtrack a New York disco in the 1970s or a night out at a Chelsea bar – whether that is a good comparison or not. My Monster, the Johnny Marr cover, takes a bit of time adjusting to but reveals its charms and strengths after a few listens – still one of the album’s weaker tracks. Best Day Ever, Nick Valenso and Sia lending their talents, struggle to lift a rather weary track to anything befitting of Blondie’s reputation. It is perfectly fine but sounds too similar to other cuts on the album and lacks that necessary hook – the one that sticks in the mind and begs for repeated listens. Maybe the song will solidify and make sense the more I listen but, as of now, it seems like a slight miss for the band. Better news comes with the taut and pulsating, Love Level. Caribbean/Reggae vibes and a tub-thumping percussion makes it another easy highlight from Pollinator and a return to that ‘classic Blondie’ sound. What does up must come down it seems: the love our heroine and her man have found, it appears, is subject to entropy and quick divorce. Harry sounds cool and slinky throughout; Leigh Foxx’s bass silky but melodic; Chris Stein’s guitar subtle but vital. It is, in essence, a vocal-and-lyric showcase: John Roberts can be heard on the track and is one of the most successful collaborators. Fragments is almost seven-minutes in length but ends the album with a perfect sense of refinement, contemplation and dignity. The Unkindness cover is well-suited to Harry’s voice and she makes the song her own – the rest of the band coming together superbly in one of their most nuanced and impressive performances. Towards the two-minute mark, the song gets a mule-kick of alcohol and spit as Harry – dropping the F-word – needs her man to prove himself and step up. It goes to show the legendary icon, in spite of encroaching autumn years, is as feisty and sassy as she was in her 20s. In all, Pollinator is an album that deftly unites Blondie’s earlier albums – their Plastic Letters–Parallel Lines dynasty – but looks to the future whilst addressing what is happening in the world. It may not rank as one of their finest records, but, I’d say it is their strongest record since their last real heavyweight: 1979’s Eat to the Beat.
DOWNLOAD: Long Time, Fun; Love Level, Fragments
Slowdive – Slowdive (Dead Oceans)
This week’s ‘outsider’, and, perhaps the finest album of the trio (to me) is Slowdive’s eponymous album – in the sense it is not a big band coming back after a long rest. That said, Slowdive did enjoy a comeback, of sorts, recently – even if it was done with very little fanfare and media hysteria. Pygmalion was their last album back in 1995 – okay, perhaps it is a bigger deal than Blondie coming back – and it seems, in those twenty-two years, there has not been a huge loss in quality and conviction. In fact, Slowmo builds from the abstract textures of their last album and has little of the sweet-toothed Pop of Just for a Day. The opening track to Slowdive has that experimental and eerie nature: like a drive through the city after dark; a look inside the mind as the mind reacts to that balance of solemn quite and neon insomnia. Of course, drums samples and, as Pygmalion did, will split fans. Those who loved that album appreciated them being a bit left-field and disposing of their established and successful template. Anyone who was against that album might feel a bit short-changed here: it is, as you can hear, more of what Pygmalion offered. Slowmo has that far-off vocal from Neil Halstead – Simon Scott’s drums adding a subtle, yet intoxicating, pulse. Rachel Goswell’s vocal interjection is ethereal but underused – maybe nice to hear more of her in the opening number. After that powerful and impressive introductory salvo; Star Roving, the first single from the album, is one of those instant and undeniable smashes. Its snarling guitars and slow build-up; the way it swaggers with cool, magic and sensuality – mixing an edgy and aloof strut with something beckoning and dream-like. The entire band are more fused and together on this track – it is more muscular, direct and decipherable (vocals at least) than the opener. Don’t Know Why is for those who crave the sweetness of Just for a Day and Souvlaki – they will appreciate the lashings of Shoegaze and sensuousness – just as hypnotic and beguiling as their 1991 introduction album.
Sugar for the Pill, sounding like little else on the album, is another single from Slowdive and one where Nick Chaplin’s bass really stands out. In fact, Halstead’s voice is more concentrated, lustrous and breathy than anywhere else. It is nice to hear the frontman come closer to the microphone and higher in the mix – not quite a man in the mist looking from the shadows. It is one of the most personal, emotive and, maybe, romantic songs on the record. Not quite as intangible as other numbers on the eponymous outing: a perfect example of how Slowdive take from their first two albums and nod to 1995’s divisive statement. Go Get It is another key track – I feel Everyone Knows and No Longer Making Time lack necessary memorability and pass by without too much impression – that has subtlety and gentility in the opening moments. It soon heightens and yawns as the dawn breaks. Fragmented guitar snatched and echoes yowl and howl in the darkness – a dichotomous unity of foreboding darkness and the encroaching light. Again, Halstead is like a man coming from down a well – calling out to the world above him. It is no surprise the ghosts of Pink Floyd make a big impression on songs like Go Get It. There is that same experimental nature and Prog.-Rock expansiveness – spacey and floating but focused and intent at the same time. Perhaps Slowdive is more Pop-driven than Pygmalion but has a lot more in common with that album than it does the band’s earlier work. Most groups, having been away for that long, would take the time to acclimatise and galvanise. The legendary band impress on the nine-track album that has definitely been worth the wait. It is a blend of slow-burning songs that will have you racing back to hear them time again – others that hit you straight off and satisfy the appetites after that infantile hit.
DOWNLOAD: Slomo, Star Roving; Sugar for the Pill, Go Get It
At the Drive-In – in•ter a•li•a (Rise Records)
In a week that contains Pond’s concept album, The Weather – many would argue, a better album than At the Drive-In’s latest – I wanted to review the Texan band’s fourth album as it has received some mixed reviews so far. The band, like Blondie and Slowdive, return from absence but, unlike those bands, have changed quite radically. in•ter a•li•a will not gain the same celebration nd legendary status as their 2000 album, Relationships of Command, but is a fascinating revelation from a band who make a hell of a racket – whether you like it or not. No Wolf Like the Present is a fast-flowing and slamming number that prides itself more on its intensity and pace than it does necessary clarity. Drummer Tony Haljar is exceptional, if underused, in the song whilst lead Cedric Bixler-Zavala repeats the song’s title like a mantra. In terms of the song’s subject; it is hard to fathom but one gets lost in the rush of the song and its pure feral ambitions. It is a brutal and electric opening statement that leads to another ball-buster in Continuum. Funkier and less insatiable than the opening number: instead, there are little nods back to albums like In/Casino/Out – if not possessed of the same quality and originality. The doom-laden lyrics look at political dread and deceit. Omar Rodríguez-López’s guitar is as head-dizzying and crazy as before. The time signatures are unorthodox and the song has that sense of unpredictability and experimentation few bands can pull off. Continuum is album’s first standout song and one that takes a little while to gain a playmate. Tilting at the Univendor has similarities to Continuum – cosmic guitar whirls and that insatiable lead vocal – but lacks the same muscularity and thrill of Continuum. Percussion is, once more, too low in the mix and it is a song that looks like it will ignite but never capitalises on that threat. It plays happily enough and will please existing At the Drive-In fans but unlikely to lure and speak to new employees.
Governed by Contagions makes a nod to eponymous Rage Against the Machine but doesn’t have the same guitar wizardry, guerrilla genius and exceptional band interplay to make it a credible modern option. As it is, it is a powerful performance but one that begs for the Ross Robinson production and band innovation on Relationship of Command. There are shades of that album – the aggression and stop-start dynamics; the apocalyptics and nerve-shredding lyrics – but those variegated and mind-altering moments (from that album) are not to be found here. Incurably Innocent, whilst treading the same pace and dynamic lines as the tracks that came before, seems to have more of the At the Drive-In we demand: the same brash and out-of-the-blue boys who impressed so effortlessly on Acrobatic Tenement (their 1996 debut). It is another album highlight that, whilst not eradicating the vanilla and average fare of the previous tracks, shows there is still spark and magic in the ranks. Call Broken Arrow is one of those songs that will divide fans of the band. Those who bemoan the fact their glory days cannot be preserved in wax and those who want to see them push forward. Here, one gets a bit of both. You can definitely hear elements of their previous three albums but a definitely drive at originality and subverting expectation. Whilst it is not as striking as any songs on the previous three albums, it is stronger than most of in•ter a•li•a. Torrential Cutshaw could have carried straight on from Call Broken Arrow – were Holtzclaw not in the way – and, as such, is unable to really create its own personality or say anything new. It is a song perfectly effective and purposeful but not one that would lodge in the mind, perhaps. Hostage Stamps ends the album and does so with plenty of pummel and rouse. The band, unlike on some tracks, seem more ‘up for it’ and determined to continue the fantastic work they did on their last three records. It is a late spark that reminds people At the Drive-In should not be written-off – nor should they be compared with their previous work. The band have undergone changes and are not the same as they were back in 2000. Whether this long gap has been ill-advised (many wanting them to take more time) or not is down to what you want from the band. As a fan of the group’s early work, I know they were never going to recapture the same brilliance as those records but feel in•ter a•li•a is too lacking and insubstantial (for something this many years-in-the-waiting). If they do follow this album up, let’s hope they go back to the drawing-board and realise why they have the legacy they do. As it stands, in•ter a•li•a has some big and impassioned moments but sounds too ordinary – something At the Drive-In have rarely been accused of.
DOWNLOAD: Continuum, Call Broken Arrow