IN THIS PHOTO: London Grammar
This Week’s Big Three
EVERY so often, I take some time to step away from newer artists and…
IN THIS PHOTO: Katy Perry
have a look at mainstream’s best. The past few weeks have seen some big releases come through. Yesterday was no exception as both London Grammar and Katy Perry brought their latest creations to the fore. Aside from that; Phoenix give us the long-awaited, Ti Amor. I look at the three (rather different) albums and decide which is best.
London Grammar – Truth Is a Beautiful Thing (Metal & Dust/Ministry of Sound/Sony Music Entertainment)
“Could you take my place and stand here? / I do not think you’d take this pain” are the opening words to the title track of London Grammar’s second album, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing. It is an apposite precise of a record that offer few chinks of light. It has been four years since the Nottingham-formed trio gave us If You Wait. That album was commended for its atmospheric textures and subtle blends – it was immensely powerful but had tenderness, delicate asides and shadowy fog – and Hannah Reid’s commanding, heart-stopping vocals. The dynamics are all in place and unchanged on the group’s second release: perhaps, in a way, that is part of the issue. There has been criticism they have not been flexible and ambitious enough – especially given the four-year gap between releases. Opener Rooting for You has already been released but is a song that instantly follows from the debut – fans will connect with its themes (loyalty and love-struggle), sounds (tinkling and orchestral at once) and vocals (rousing and tremulous). It is one of Reid’s most rounded and assured performances: the song itself is one of the standouts on the record. More positive and hopeful than the remainder of the disc; it is a shivering and building anthem that is likely to find a lot of affection when performed live. Big Picture, another single from the album, seems a little samey given what has come before. One would expect a more upbeat and accelerated sophomore track: instead, it seems like a second-half for Rooting for You. Saying that, it gives us a chance to marvel at Reid’s vocals: accentuated and narrative; husky and sweet; a mix of emotions and possibilities. Oh Woman Oh Man seems like a natural companion to Strong (from If I Wait) where the heroine reluctantly continues with a relationship – perhaps she should be more cautious and wise. Layered vocals come into the chorus which gives it a strident and bellicose feel – the mantra being laid down by the defiant sweetheart. Hell to the Liars is one of the most impassioned tracks from the trio but, considering the remainder of the songs, does not provide distinction or particular nuance. Greater success arrives in Non Believer. Here, punchy percussion backs Reid’s warning prayer: retreat from a lover who is not pure and will only cause hurt.
Demonstration of London Grammar’s ability to perfectly fuse evocative lyrics and composition whilst keeping things breezier and heavy at the same time. At fourteen tracks (on the deluxe version), the album could have done with a trim but I understand the trio’s need to provide that many numbers- showing those years have not been wasted or idle. Leave the War with Me is beautiful and investigative but lacks personality or any distinctive aftertaste – aside from a rather downbeat heart and soul that has seen better days. Truth Is a Beautiful Thing is a bi top-heavy but does leave one of its better tracks for last. If one buys the standard release, it ends at track eleven (the title cut). Maybe that is a more economic purchase but, if one does invest a bit of money, it is worth hearing Control. It shows a fragility and vulnerability to Reid but, unlike other numbers, does not feel too suffocated and wallowing. There are complexities in the lyrics – more poetic and personal than a lot of the clichéd, trope-reliant songs of the mainstream – and the production is a lot glossier (whether one considers that a good thing). The trio is willing to take risks but, for the most part, they are minor and fall more often than rise. It is the familiarities that provide the best moments but there are too many of them – in the sense, it seems like a duplication of their debut. That will please those who want an update of If I Wait but many will want a more forward-thinking and nimble London Grammar – perhaps that is reserved for album number three (let’s hope we do not have to wait four more years for it!).
DOWNLOAD: Non Believer; Who Am I; Truth Is a Beautiful Thing
STANDOUT TRACK: Rooting for You
Katy Perry – Witness (Capitol)
It is hard to believe Katy Perry’s debut album was released sixteen years ago. 2008’s One of the Boys was the first album under the name ‘Katy Perry’ – her debut was recorded under ‘Katy Hudson’ – and, since then, she has grown to become one of the most celebrated Pop artists in the world. Depending on how you view pumped-up Pop anthems with plenty of thrust (but little soul) will dictate your views of Witness. 2013’s Prism was the sound of Perry discovering who she was. Plenty of inspiring and strong songs to appeal to the pre-teen demographic – there were a few tracks more serious music-lovers could enjoy. Fierce, fiery and smarter than previous efforts from the American; the album was a major success. It reached the top of the U.S. Billboard 100 and, with Perry co-writing all songs on the album, seemed personal and confident. Perry has the same co-writing credibility on her current album and manages to throw in some typically assured and anthemic bangers – Swish Swish, Déjà Vu and the title track have a definite kick – but there are quite a few fillers. Chained to the Rhythm features Skip Marley and has plenty working for it. Perry remains focused and rarely goes overboard with the vocals: the chorus has a stomp and kick but is not a full-out fireworks display. There is a catchiness and it is one of the more inspired tracks on the album. Hey Hey Hey (the second track) starts with dark atmosphere and a definite physicality to it. Perry swaggers her shoulders and swims through the song with a dead-eyed ambition. It is never too cold but is a lot less accessible than her fans would expect. The lyrics do not stray far beyond self-confidence and rebelling against those who try to put her down. In an industry where a lot of Pop artists are saying the same thing; the song does not lift itself beyond the formulaic.
Swish Swish is a definite highlight and brings together tender pianos with finger-clicked sass and Nicki Minaj – one of the most successful collaborations on the record. It is one of the best tracks Perry has released for quite a few years and, whilst polished and radio-ready, it has enough Club-vibe to allure those who prefer their music harder, heavier and with more command. Power is another highlight that has pummeling percussion rolls and off-kilter electronic elements. Fifteen tracks-long mean there is a real issue with length. A more brutal edit and eye would easily remove three or four tracks and create a leaner and better album. Some of this flab means tracks Save as Draft and Pendulum pass you by without making any sort of impression. In fact, Save as Draft sounds energy-less and uninspired. Pendulum tries to make an effort but, again, we have either heard her do it before (better) or her contemporaries make a better stab of it. Into Me You See is a pallid way to end an album that, at least, starts with potential and spark. Is it too dripping and meagre and its lyrics do not show the same sort of intelligence and originality some of Prism’s best moments sported. Perry is at her best when writing big numbers like Swish Swish. More of these would definitely spike my interest but there are too many risky ventures and pale ballads. I admire her need for maturity but the cracks really do show. Maybe it is the producers and writers she works with; not really feeling things at the moment, I guess. Aside from the odd good tune, Witness is unlikely to have her huge fanbase going nuts over this. They will buy it but one feels a better album was inside Katy Perry. Whether that comes is yet to be seen but, on first listen, Witness is too patchy and inconsistent for me to recommend.
DOWNLOAD: Déjà vu; Power; Chained to the Rhythm
STANDOUT TRACK: Swish Swish
Phoenix – Ti Amo (Loyauté/Glassnote Record)
My first exposure to Phoenix has come in the form of their recent single, J-Boy. It was the first single to come from their sixth album, Ti Amo. The French band follow-on from Bankrupt! The 2013 album was seen as a more cohesive effort than previous Phoenix album but remains a thrilling and fascinating thrill for the senses. Anyone expecting something more honed and refined on Ti Amo are in for a bit of a shock. J-Boy is a perfect example of what is in store. It is a sun-kissed jam that is perfect for the upcoming festival season. The hero is in descriptive and hopeful mood: detailing the heroine and taking us through the course of the seduction. There is hesitation and caution but hard emotions – nicely juxtaposed against a relentlessly optimistic score. The lyrics get one thinking whether the hero is willing to endure the things he has to go through – it seems things are not as simple as they appear. It is an intriguing and perfect opener for an album that rarely loses pace. The title track, another single, has a Disco-flavoured, low-down introduction that builds its layers in the funkiest way possible. Dizzying and spirited, the body is compelled to move and sway. Tuttifruitti completes an impressive one-two-three that burns and shines with so many colours and contours. A detailed and entrancing number that keeps the sunshine hot and the vista packed and playful.
There is a little flab and repetition towards the middle of the record. Fior Di Latte is breathy and calmer but is one of those tracks pleasant to hear once – you will not come back for many more listens. When Phoenix do try to take things down a bit they seem out of their comfort-zone. That need to spread their wings is understandable but what they do best is those full and head-rush songs that transport you to beaches and Paradise scenes. Lovelife seems promising from the opening notes but does start to lose some of its lustre and appeal as the seconds tick on. Things (thankfully) heat back up for the final three numbers: Role Model, Via Veneto and Telefono. Strangely, Role Model has some elements of Dutch Uncles and Glass Animals. Whether that was conscious or not I am unsure but there is a pleasing nod to some of Britain’s current best. It is also one of the more restrained and level-headed tracks on the record – it does have a kick and punch but remains relatively composed and gentle. The band shows they are capable of producing varied and original compositions throughout. Rarely do they replicate a template: each track has its own personality and has its own voice. Via Veneto has some odd and delicate notes that create a curiosity and certain edginess. It is a curious number that never really lets one off or dies down. It sucks the listener in and takes them around some neon-lit streets and strange alleyways. Romantic, soft and soothing: something that offers respite from the intense energy and rush of earlier tracks. Telefono, as one would expect, brings the mood up a bit and reminds me of some of Phoenix’s earlier work. It has a definite confidence and quirkiness that will resonate with die-hard fans and interest new listeners. Our hero paints the house and does the chores – in case someone is planning a visit. There is a subject in mind but, whether it is a lover or friend, I am not sure. There is cuteness to the song and it shows the French band is capable of real emotion and maturity. I have seen some rather ambivalent reviews from the album: some saying it is one-dimensional and pale compared to their best work. Whilst it is not their finest record (2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Motzart takes that honour) it is a perfect soundtrack for the summer and the escapism we all need right now.
DOWNLOAD: Ti Amo; Tuttifruitti; Role Model; Telefono
STANDOUT TRACK: J-Boy