IN THIS PHOTO: Royal Blood
This Week’s Big Three
NOW that I am doing some freelance work for FEISTY…
IN THIS PHOTO: Lorde
there is less need to do mainstream album review but, since I have just started, I am compelled to investigate the three biggest albums of the past week. Included in my rundown will be Royal Blood’s How Did We Get So Dark?; Portugal. The Man’s Woodstock and Lorde’s Melodrama.
It is a mixed affair but I shall do my best to get to the truth of each record…
Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
Following their explosive debut back in 2014, there were many, myself included, who feared they had peaked right from the off. With no follow-up planned or any news; where had the Brighton duo (Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher) gone?! Finally, after a gap – that seemed like decades – the guys announced their second album, How Did We Get So Dark? It is a title that reflects the times but not, necessarily, the music contained within. One of the biggest difference between albums is the employment of Pop tones and lighter shades. There is still the guttural and intense riffs of the eponymous debut – that has been joined with harmonies and a sense of contrast. After a four-year gap, there is a definite need to make changes and show the wait has been worth it. Simply rehashing the debut would not stand, and so, the duo has been busy working on something that retains their core ideas and ethos but shows some progress. This evolution has paid off, to an extent, but there are a few niggles.
The title track kicks things off and instantly transports you back to Royal Blood. There is backing coos and different aspects but, essentially, it is the same sort of thing we experienced four years ago. One of the best things about the opening number is those backing vocals. It transports a potentially formulaic release into something more intriguing – almost sounding like Supergrass in places. Lyrically, we hear about love’s miscommunication and mistrust; anxiety and suspicions – perhaps reflective of the tension and stress the duo faced following the media festival of their debut. The chorus has addictive qualities and will get you singing along, for sure. Lights Out, the debut single from the album, is the standout and for good reason. Yes, it exists closely to previous Royal Blood songs but is their most raucous, swaggering and addictive song. The riffs are meaty; the percussion chunky and impressive – some awesome solo work in place – whilst the chorus hooks the brain. I Only Lie When I Love You could have been further down the pack because it does not differentiate itself from the opening tracks. Kerr’s vocal has more rhythm and skip; it raps in places and has a different mindset but (the track) does not distinguish itself where it is – maybe making more of an impression towards the middle of the album. Similarly, Look Like You Know could have done with being further down. A record that starts with an impressive one-two suffers a bit of fatigue by the middle. That said, we hear some form of subtlety in Look Like You Know. It is not as full-throttle as its predecessors and has more melody and calm.
Don’t Tell is one of the second-half’s best tracks. It is a crawling and creeping monster that stalks for prey. A Blues-like opening riff spars with Garage and Desert-Rock. Thatcher’s drums are kept in the background for the most part whilst Kerr gets a chance to show new sides to his voice – romantic and teasing in places. In terms of composition, one would like to see new elements and surprises but the fact the strings and percussion are not as full-on shows the duo have matured and changed since their debut (to an extent). Hook, Line & Sinker returns things to the Church of Rock. It is a smashing and pulverising song that does not stray beyond love’s rifts and problems. Hole in Your Heart brings in some much-needed sonic diversity – some keys – and has a quiet-loud dynamic. Sleep brings the album to a close and is riddled with stress and the “same ugly dream”. The hero is trying to forget the problems and endless woes of the bond and get to sleep – without imagining the girl’s face. It is a tense song that manages to keep itself relatively loose and mobile. Jealousy comes in and we can hear Kerr seething through gritted teeth.
The good thing about How Did We Get So Dark? is the fact there are new sounds and ideas tried. The duo has not simply repeated themselves and have grown a little since the debut. Those who love the debut will find many of the same riffs and sounds they got there. That is where a lot of the problems exist. Having such a defined dynamic – bass used as electric guitar together with percussion – it is hard creating true variety. The occasional piano and instrumental excursion do not hide the fact Royal Blood’s album lacks anything new. If you like it direct and hardcore then the album will please. If you want to discover something deeper then you will be left a little disappointed. If you look at similar duos from time – The White Stripes, for example – they managed to retain their sound whilst expanding their lyrical horizons and incorporating new genres and instruments. Royal Blood are too rigid and need to think carefully when it comes to a third album. How Did We Get So Dark? is an impressive album that has some definite highs but not as many as there should be – a shame considering the wait we have endured. I was excited to see what they could come up with and hoped they’d be something, I don’t know, a little better. As it is, it is a fine album but one that seems like a missed opportunity.
STANDOUT TRACK: Lights Out
DOWNLOAD: How Did We Get So Dark?; She’s Creeping; Don’t Tell
Portugal. The Man – Woodstock
Evil Friends was the last album from Alaska-formed band, Portugal. The Man. Ever since their debut in 2006 – Waiter: “You Vultures!” – they have amassed a loyal fanbase and grown in stature. Evil Friends found the band collaborating with Danger Mouse. Their eight album, Woodstock, shares many ideas and sounds with Evil Friends but is a tighter and tauter thing – boasting one of the best album covers of the year. It does not take long for the magic of the album to take hold: Number One features Richie Havens Son Little and is a song that transports you to a good-time bar in the Deep South. In fact, the kick of the drums and funky bass get the body moving and the head nodding. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” becomes a coda and one that creates curiosity. The stomping and funky composition reminds me, a bit, of The Black Keys. The band throws a lot of different sounds into the mix. It is a big and ambitious opening but one that will remain in the head. The need to separate themselves from their previous albums and try something new is evident. The guys step more into commercial waters but do not lose who they are. Live in the Moment has bellicose drums and a huge chorus. The sheer size and scope of the entire album is stunning. Uplifting and unifying choruses like this get the voice ringing. So much detail goes into the song and it is one that carries you away with it. Feel It Still is the Prince song that never was: a funked-up and sexy number that pouts its lips and shakes it hips. It shows how Portugal. The Man are unwilling to tread old ground and keep things fresh. This mobile and forward-thinking approach does not always work but shows they are keen to create something new.
Some have commented how the band is priming themselves more for the mainstream than the underground. Given the fact they are on their eight album means they do not need to get under the critical lens – they are a popular act and do not need to prove themselves. Rich Friends is, perhaps, a misjudged effort that sounds like it should be blasting from BBC Radio 1. It has some good moments but cannot shake itself past chart ambitions. I have mentioned artists like The Black Keys but it would be them on a bad day. Despite some occasional spells of pleasure; it seems like a track destined to open the next episode of Made in Chelsea. Keep On is a more satisfying song and one that gets things back on a keen footing. Its sweet and effusive harmonies melt with robotic electronic vocal lines and a summery vibe – perfect for the warm weather we are experiencing. Fat Lip lends his talents to Mr. Lonely: one of the most intriguing tracks on the album. Distorted and processed vocals provide creepiness and unsettle. Percussion and bass provide a strong backbone but it is a song that will split the audience. The Portugal. The Man faithful might feel it is an experimentation too far but it will bring new listener in. It departs a little from their past work but retains those distinctive vocals and ambitious songwriting. The chorus has groove and seems like a song ready for the festivals.
Noise Pollution closes things and sees, oddly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Zoe Manville appear – a bold but effective recruitment. Hard-edged and pulsating: one of the highlights and a great way to end the album. There are warm compositional notes that effortlessly sit with the edgier and tenser elements. It shows the contrasts and contradiction that make Woodstock such a pleasure. Noise Pollution is unlike anything on the album but distinctly the work of Portugal. The Man. There is so much going on but it never feels overwhelming. If you want something that follows the path of previous Portugal. The Man albums then you will have to look elsewhere. There are familiar elements but this is the sound of a band trying something new and aiming for new audiences. Some of the songs do not hit the mark – there are some odd and forgettable inclusions – but, for the most part, it is a fascinating and jam-packed album from a band with plenty more left to say.
STANDOUT TRACK: Noise Pollution
DOWNLOAD: Live in the Moment; Keep On; So Young
Lorde – Melodrama
Barely out of her teens, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the New Zealander’s second album, Melodrama. Pure Heroine, her 2013 debut, was the work a teenager with more maturity than the majority of her peers. Perhaps she was too young to create something truly profound and experienced but there were huge songs and plenty of promise on that record. A wait of four years is a risky thing in music. If you get it right – and create an album worth the gap – then all is forgiven: get it wrong and it means many will overlook you. Whilst Royal Blood’s long absence has resulted in mixed results: Lorde’s new album is the logical result of a young woman gaining experience on the road and building her music. Richer, more fully-realised and flesh-out than Pure Heroine: the songwriter has been at the coal face and crafting a record full of wonderful hooks and exquisite songwriting.
Green Light was the first taste we had of the album – released back in March – and it is a considered and slow-building track that sees the heroine angered. The guy is not in love and scared; a 1990s’ House piano line leads to revelation from Lorde. She sees the man wherever she goes but can’t let go. She wants that green light to give her the permission to let go and move on. The song moves from chorus-burst and explosion to more alluring and calmer verses. Teeth-baring truths and sharks run right through the track. Lorde shows what a mature and original songwriter she has with her images and wordplay – the album contains few other writers; giving it a more personal and uncluttered feel. Sober is less variegated and delirious than the opener but sees Lorde waking up from the hangover – and the need to forget her man – and plan her next move. It is a young woman showing a certain reckless. Pills and thrills come at the weekend; an abandon and nonchalant comes in – what do they do when they are sober? Vocals and multitracked and odd instrumentation comes in – a horn blast and ghostly synths. alongside tribal beats; soft and tender. The Louvre – aside from that great title – sees the heroine as the sweetheart (she still can’t get enough) and showcases some incredible production values and quirkiness. The New Zealand artist has always strayed away from the conventional which results in some incredible results – The Lourve among them.
Liability takes the lights down and sees Lorde in emotional mood. The boy is a little much for her; a liability that will break hearts. The gorgeous piano and extraordinary vocal takes you through the emotional mill and is a devastating and revealing song. Lorde create a modern classic that shows how grown-up she is. Rather than show petulance and childishness: here, we get a window into a woman who understands other people’s concerns and knows she is not perfect. Being that open and human with the audience is rare – it leads to something extraordinary here. “You’re all going to watch me disappear into the sun” is one of the most heartbreaking and vivid sentiments on the album – one that perfectly ends the standout track. Hard Feelings/Loveless reflects on the ghost of love and memories past. It is a regretful and sad song that makes sense of the situation. Another mature and level-headed track from Lorde; she is buying flowers for her room – the same way she used to do for him – and taking care of herself. The beats and clicks add spark and fire but, mostly, the track retains its temper and sports hugely emphatic and impressive vocals (multitracked and augmented).
Writer in the Dark is another revealing and heartfelt track along the lines of Liability. The hero will be rueing the day he kissed the writer in the dark – that will lead to creative expression and disclosure. It is an original slant and subject and one that sees Lorde sound a little like Tori Amos and Kate Bush. There is that same extraordinary and flighty vocal – bits of Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside and Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes. Another tremendous and long-lasting song that shows what a shift she has made since her debut. Supercut is Lorde compiling the best images and times from a relationship. All the magic and bliss never stop and the “ribbons wrap me up”, as she says, when remembering that supercut. There are sounds of 1980s’ Pop in a rushing and agile track that never loses its momentum. Following Writer in the Dark; it is a much-needed change of pace and sense of light. Perfect Places ends the album and is the latest single. Lorde sees the weather and the world outside. For a teenager (at the time) it is grey and uninspired. When she dances and moves with her suitor; all that is forgotten and there is light and joy to be found. An empathic and joyous song that overspills with colour and movement. It is youthful but has a mature head (like the rest of the album) that means it will resonate with listeners of various generations.
Melodrama is not only the best album from Lorde but, as it stands, the finest album of 2017. The New Zealand artist proves she is one of the finest voices and songwriters in modern music and has created an album full of unexpected treats and wonderful songs. Whether you want something mature and intelligent – or fun and frivolous – then you are catered for. There is not a weak track on the record (literally) which is a rare feat. A sensational album that gets stronger and better with each listen – it will be hard to top this!
STANDOUT TRACK: Liability
DOWNLOAD: Green Light; Sober; The Louvre; Writer in the Dark; Supercut; Perfect Places