You'll also find our 50 tracks of the year here.
Plus, to read all-new reviews of the 50 best albums and tracks of the year, plus all the trends that defined the year, pick up the new issue of NME, on sale from Wednesday December 9.
10Kings & Queens
When Jamie T surfed the initial wave of hype on his washboard, it just seemed like Virgin had dropped a syringe on Camden and signed up whichever posho troubadour dabbling in ragamuffin chic it stuck in. However, even though his vocal inflections and street poet lyrics seemed desperately seeking for a place between His Holiness The Doherty and Citizen Skinner, his jumble of punk, hip-hop and folk proved to be great fun, and his debut album ‘Panic Prevention’ became an unlikely favourite of Mercury judges, Whiley coyotes and mams and dads too.
It was good for heaven’s sake, but two years on, which way has the 23-year-old gone with his follow up? Lo-er than lo-fi’s ever been before? Not a chance, the music industry’s on its arse, and Jamie T rumbles back into view sitting astride a big, shiny chart missile.
The milk-bottle percussion on opener ‘368’ is about as skiffle as it gets here, and it only serves to add even more of a feel of Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ to the song, a pulsing, bottom-heavy and darkly atmospheric vision of life today with an addictive, helium-voiced chorus. It’s expansive and streetwise but still hooky as hell, and, while there’s a couple of acoustic tracks, mostly this new incarnation of Jamie T is somewhere between Death In Vegas, Lily Allen and N-Dubz.
It works too, with the roiling ‘Hocus Pocus’ and standout rabble-rouser ‘The Man’s Machine’ showcasing punk-heavy hip-hop which you can’t help but sing along to, even if you’re clueless as to what he’s on about – it manages to make the words “concrete the gravel” sound like the cure for all human relationship difficulties.
The single ‘Sticks N’ Stones’ is the pinnacle of this, as Jamie T’s usual background setting of a night on the town is painted with an amusing story of getting in bother given a bouncy backing and ends up sounding like Dexys Midnight Runners. If that doesn’t get the tweens robbing in glee then ‘Chaka Demus’ will, a song which uses the theme tune to The Banana Splits to nefarious ends. While making such a glossy record may sound slightly vulgar, beneath the push for boisterous sonic victory still lies the nervy, slightly goofy, puckish Jamie T.
It remains one of his key flaws that the street-tough language he uses doesn’t always convince, the references to “the bullet holes or the shit up your nose” and suchlike, but it works in his favour when he reveals that his gobbiness is disguising a vulnerability. The rising claustrophobic panic of ‘Spider’s Web’ is like Nick Drake reincarnated as Eminem, while ‘Castro Dies’ sounds exactly like Kasabian’s ‘Cutt Off’ only riddled with doubt.
‘Kings & Queens’ isn’t without it’s duds – ‘British Intelligence’ aims for The Jam but ends up closer to Kaiser Chiefs; ‘Earth Wind & Fire’ is funk with no soul – and while Jamie T remains something of a flawed hero, he’s the type you just want to get behind. Where he once seemed like a busking Rodney Trotter, he’s now left the loser affectations behind and is more like Del Boy, a man aiming for bigger and better things and becoming a national institution in the process. Lovely jubbly.
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Karin Dreijer Andersson sounds demented on this album. Not in a keeping-a-woman-down-a-well kind of way. And not demented in a constructing-furniture-out-of-human-thigh-bones-as-a-sickening-monument-to-insanity fashion. And not even in a following-deranged-orders-from-a-long-since-deceased-mother-in-the-attic manner either.
Dreijer doesn’t sound sick, she just sounds slightly ill. And it’s this feverishness that’s key to this magnetic and rewarding album. Intoxication is one of the prime motivations in human psychology after sex, food and shelter, and most of us first encounter it as poorly children.
As well as discomfort and pain, youthful fever can cause high temperature, wooziness and an almost hallucinatory quality to everyday life. It is this kind of illness that sees toys come to life and re-enact terrifyingly entertaining versions of half-remembered bedtime stories. That first Wizard Of Oz/Fantasia-style hit can become the high that a youngster chases well into adulthood, whether this is conscious or not.
Andersson, the Swedish singer and electro-pop artist who previously sang with Honey Is Cool and who makes up one half of publicity-shy duo The Knife with her brother, Olof, has made an addictively sublime and slow-burning album as Fever Ray.
It must be said that this project has none of the immediacy of albums such as The Knife’s ‘Silent Shout’, with its playful eclecticism and heavier, dancefloor-leaning beats. Most importantly, it doesn’t have a killer hit single in the style of ‘Heartbeats’, the song that launched the duo into uneasy prominence after being taken into the Top 10 by José González in 2006 on the back of a TV ad (their far-superior version was released in 2004 and was one of the singles of the year).
To fully appreciate this beautiful and understated gem, however, it’s important to relinquish all desires for another ‘Heartbeats’ and enter fully into the world of Fever Ray.
Dreijer, a mother of two, has shrunk her universe so that it only contains her and her children. She uses her insomnia to recreate the trippy world of the young. Lead single and opener ‘If I Had A Heart’ pitches her voice right down into a hot-browed and torrid twilight world. There are few obvious musical comparisons here but her ability to see the mundane domestic world with the wonder of young eyes over evocative electronica (‘Seven’) calls to mind Kate Bush’s 2005 album ‘Aerial’ and her exploration of the tender area between synth-pop and early house music with simplistic, chiming guitars (especially on ‘Dry And Dusty’) calls to mind Underworld’s pre-fame album ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’.
Elsewhere, ‘Triangle Walks’ shows an appreciation for cult Japanese electronic outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra. ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’, a duet with Swedish pop singer Cecilia Nordlund of Cilihili, explores an even deeper escape route from the adult world by entering the refuge of zoomorphism (this surreal state of wanting to return to an idealised natural world by becoming an animal has been a rich place to visit recently for current DIY indie favourites Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective).
“I learned not to eat the snow/My fur is hot, my tongue is cold/On a bed of spider web/I think about to change myself”, the pair sing. It’s some kind of sweet-and-innocent version of lycanthropy; the narrator turning into a cuddly soft toy rather than a blood-crazed werewolf. This track contains one of the album’s few jarring moments in the use of insipid and new-agey pan pipes but otherwise, ‘Fever Ray’’s excellence seems like child’s play. John Doran
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The way people toss around words like ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’, you’d think they were important to still have any meaning. But trust NME, Fuck Buttons aren’t avant-garde. Sure, their debut, 2008’s ‘Street Horrrsing’, was a weird beast – a hybrid of the tropical wibble of Black Dice, the abrasive howls of and the starburst kosmische of Boredoms, birthed from laptop, floor tom, myriad synthesizers and some kit apparently shoplifted from the Early Learning Centre.
But what made Fuck Buttons different was the way they approached their singular noise. They did this not to batter ears, or confound expectations. No, Fuck Buttons sounded comfortable within their sound, at home in this whirl of giddy optimism and euphoria-tinted melodies. This was their pop music.
Recorded after a good 18 months spent playing ‘Street Horrrsing’ to ever-growing crowds, ‘Tarot Sport’ marks a change, albeit one of increment. Much of what made Fuck Buttons’ debut great remains: just listen to ‘Rough Steez’, with its ridged waves of synth, quizzical robot squawks and clacking percussion; or ‘The Lisbon Maru’, a martial gallop serenaded forth by a fanfare of electro feedback. But what is new here is a fresh sense of momentum. For that, you can largely thank producer Andrew Weatherall.
Rockabilly punk, rave veteran and hands-on desk jockey – Primal Scream’s 1991 classic ‘Screamadelica’ was largely his handiwork – Weatherall knows a bit about dancefloor motion. Thankfully, though, Fuck Buttons haven’t just whacked a donk on it. Rather, songs like ‘Surf Solar’ feel plotted by a desire to make people move, symphonic epics that combine sky-chasing dramatics with four-to-the-floor rhythms.
The real secret of ‘Tarot Sport’ lies not in the beats, but in the tunes. These songs are long, not because it makes filling out an album easy, but because these melodies resolve in galaxy-spanning orbits – see ‘Olympians’, a flowering of synthesizers and feedback crackle that could probably replace ‘Chariots Of Fire’ in the ‘heroic score for slow-motion playback of sporting event’ stakes.
This cinematic feel is a quality they share with sometime tourmates Mogwai, who soundtracked Zinedine Zidane shoeing a football about a few years back. But whereas Mogwai’s more recent work threatens to make a formula familiar, Fuck Buttons’ fizzling DIY laboratory still has the invention and ingenuity to surprise.
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7A Brief History Of Love
'A Brief History Of Love’? That’s a big undertaking. Love’s infinite and sublime vicissitudes have proved a draw for creative sorts since time immemorial, its landscape mapped by every artist who ever felt the rush of oxytocin to the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Not that Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell are daunted. This year’s recipients of the Philip Hall Radar Award, they’ve crafted a sound that could variously be described as ‘big’ and ‘fuck-off massive’. This is evident from the first minute of their debut, when ‘Crystal Visions’’ ambient atmosphere of chiming guitars is exploded in a wave of gristly feedback and droning vocal – if anyone’s got the scale to ‘do love’, then it’s probably them.
They may have named themselves after an album by The Band, but their influences lie closer to home, with the spectre of The Jesus And Mary Chain casting a shadow over the record like a smack dealer at a house party. You can see it in the press shots, leather of jacket and red of eye, you can hear it in the casual nihilism of their lyrics (sample: “We’re better off dead” Furze sings over and over again on ‘Count Backwards From Ten’). But most of all, you can hear it in the music; when these guys aren’t thinking about love they’re thinking about effects pedals. Single ‘Dominos’ sees them taking casual heartlessness to new levels over a bank of guitars that the Reid brothers would have given their Wayfarers for.
However, on repeated listens the broad strokes of shoegaze peel away to reveal muscular subtleties. There may be shades of lad-rock in Furze’s inebriated croon, but it’s Milo Cordell’s history as honcho of Merok Records – the achingly hip early adopter of music by Klaxons and Crystal Castles – that gives a truer indication of the progressive electronic leanings at play. ‘Tonight’ is saved from baggy anonymity by a shower of 8-bit bleeps and a sandblast of distortion more suited to HEALTH than The High, while ‘Velvet’’s stadium-shaped indie is given character by the digitised twangs and metallic, Autechre-style percussion.
Listen to ‘Golden Pendulum’’s two-step syncopation and call these boys retro-fetishists, we dare you. Indeed, The Big Pink never sacrifice their anthemic properties for cerebral navel-gazing. Like My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’, this is an album created from a sensual palette of sound, with the emotional resonances deriving from the method of its construction.
Yet, for all the bluster, the album’s most satisfying moment comes when the boys drop things down a gear and call in vocalist Valentine Fillol Cordier for the woozy title track, a song that captures that heart-crushing feeling of a night-long talk followed by a break-up at dawn. Among the sea of distortion and skewed emotion that characterises ‘A Brief History Of Love’, it’s a moment of clarity that grabs you by the aorta and forces you to feel. It’s this ability that makes The Big Pink so special for, beneath the dissonance, the artful posturing and the pop hooks is something far more enduring: these guys have got a soul and they’re not afraid to bare it.
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Classifying Grizzly Bear alongside American folksters Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver is a common error – it’s like comparing the real-life Ursus arctos horribilis (that’s grizzly bear to you) with a runty park squirrel. In the years since Ed Droste released the lo-fi solo album ‘Horn Of Plenty’ under the Grizzly Bear name back in 2004, he and his band have proved themselves to be more than mere backwoods strummers. They’ve become favourites of Radiohead, won over the lantern-jawed hosts of the American late-night talk show circuit, played tonsil tennis with Feist and CSS on covers and reworkings EP ‘Friend’ and joined the bow ties of the Brooklyn Philharmonic for a one-off live collaboration.
Despite all this, a lack of any aesthetic gimmick – recording albums in log cabins, having beards – has caused Grizzly Bear to remain an elusive beast. But ‘Veckatimest’ is an album sure to flush them out of the bloggy undergrowth.
Their first record as a quartet, 2006’s ‘Yellow House’, was at times frustratingly inconclusive: on its closing track, ‘Colorado’, Droste and friends sang, over and over, “What now, what now, what now?” before lapsing into silence. Now, ‘Veckatimest’ answers the question. Opening track ‘Southern Point’ exhorts us to abandon the fug and rush of the city for the calm of the coast. A chorus of “in the air” is sung full-lunged as guitars rise like seagulls startled from their nests, and with this we take flight for a wonderful adventure.
‘Veckatimest’ is the Native American name of an uninhabited island near to the place where the album was written and recorded – Droste’s grandmother’s Cape Cod home. It’s a beautiful area of quiet, rocky creeks backed with lush green trees, yet this album doesn’t follow the American counter-cultural paradigm of the outsider in his rural escape, the one mined by Thoreau, Bon Iver and, more dramatically, the Unabomber. No: ‘Veckatimest’ is distinctly the work of New Yorkers – not scruffy Lower East Siders, or self-conscious Williamsburg hipsters, but the smart jazz set embarking on a creative caper up the coast.
Romantic and wistful, ‘Veckatimest’ draws you in like a collection of photos from a fondly remembered summer long ago. There’s an overarching mood that sits almost outside these 12 songs: sensitive without being fey, accomplished but not muso, elegant yet never overly stylised. That’s achieved not only by the deft production, but also through the four members sharing vocals to create a palette from which these colourful songs emerge. For Grizzly Bear, voice is as important as their impressive multi-instrumental skills. On ‘While We Wait For The Others’, guitars are secondary to vocal tics that burst into glorious chorus, like the appearance of the first cracks of sunrise over a distant ridgeline.
From the album’s delicate nuances emerges a deeply evocative experience. ‘Fine For Now’ has cymbals as waves on a deserted pebbly beach, while the gentle sunbeams-through-water guitar of ‘John Dory’ imagines the freedom of becoming the peculiar spined fish. One can sense the dusty corners and whispering floorboards of the grandmother’s house in the sparse, reflective ‘Hold Still’; in ‘All We Ask’ a sense of space almost as important as the ebb and flow of guitar informs the joyous chorus.
Even in its simplest moments – the effortless pop carried by the chiming single ‘Two Years’, or the piano and choral tearjerker of the summer’s farewell that is closer ‘Foreground’ – ‘Veckatimest’ requires the listener to make a studied and careful exploration. But for those patient enough to wait for this record to relinquish its quiet delights, the treasures waiting to be discovered it are rich indeed.
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5Merriweather Post Pavilion
The picture of the sleeve on this page is nowhere near big enough. Go look it up online, as big as you can, and stare at it very hard. See how, as you try to focus on any one part of the tessellated pattern, the sections in the periphery of your vision shift and undulate, almost alive, making it impossible to pin the image down in your mind?
Right. Sadly for me, that’s probably given you a much better idea about the nature of the new Animal Collective album than the next 700 words will.
For while Baltimore avant-gardists AC have always been tricksy melders and magpies of genres and styles, on their eighth album, they’ve achieved musical alchemy and created something that is much more than the sum of its parts. ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is a crate-digging, blog-reading, lost treasure-unearthing music nerd’s world of influences distilled into something that anyone, people who don’t even know what a blog is, can get immediately, and keep on getting at different levels. Take standout track ‘Summertime Clothes’, a sun-stroked piece of bio-mechanical mongrel pop with a Neu!-ish rhythm and the feel of Grandaddy in its spacey winsomeness: you could analyse it for hours. But you really don’t need to.
Animal Collective always fitted uncomfortably in the freak-folk camp, and nowadays they share far more sonically with Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, Of Montreal or the freakazoid organic electropop of Leila, Björk collaborators Matmos or Warp’s weirdest corners. Whereas early albums like ‘Here Comes The Indian’ were twisted, tortured things with one toe in the water of American folk, by 2004’s ‘Sung Tongs’, their sound was less harsh, but still crammed with ululations, barks and lolling, lilting, leering collages that complexified to unbearable mind-filling intensity before lulling into gentle ebbs. They made you work for their moments of transcendence.
Still, though, their unfeigned oddness was occasionally tainted by puerile surreality, or the odd burst of yawnsome pastoral (or “fuckin’ canoeing music” – Holy Ghost Revival’s one gift to the world, that term). Their most recent efforts, ‘Strawberry Jam’ and Panda Bear’s solo opus ‘Person Pitch’, continued the ascent into accessibility, with any remaining folk influence becoming less obvious in favour of a more playful, more relaxed, less try-hard spaced-out sound.
‘Merriweather…’, their psych-pop pinnacle, shares the simultaneous relentless complexity and instant simplicity of the best Of Montreal albums, but where Kevin Barnes’ last effort got lost in its clever-clever weirdness, shifting rhythms and textures in a way that felt like standing onboard a bus going down a mountain, Animal Collective’s is an easy, good-natured beast. ‘Guy’s Eyes’ in particular nails their wholesome, positive brand of psychedelia. It’s like, to reluctantly pull on the tiredest of psychedelic clichés, they swapped the acid for ecstasy (although really, they probably opted for a nice cup of tea).
The MDMAzement is strongest on ‘My Girls’, where Panda Bear, aka Noah Lennox, concocts a starry-eyed hymn to nest-building, cooing about “four walls and adobe slats for my girls”. It’s housey in both senses of the word, with an insistent synth line borrowed from Frankie Knuckles’ club classic ‘Your Love’ (and indeed, the song used to be called ‘House’ – Do. You. See.), and a great euphoric “whoo” on the refrain.
There’s a beaty bent through the whole album, although this is dance music hammered together from the weirdest of materials; ‘Lion In A Coma’ fashions a funky shuffle from a medieval rhythm and a didgeridoo. ‘In The Flowers’ starts with a long, oscillating Eno-esque intro before it’s engulfed in a wall of radiating ambient noise and a motorik beat, as Avey Tare fashions a new futurist folklore of kinetic energy, imagining “A dancer high in a field from her movement… I couldn’t stop that spinning force I felt in me”.
There are moments when they still trip off into self-indulgence: ‘Also Frightened’ is dreamy, a tribal, woozy waltzing that recalls CocoRosie via Björk, but stretches out just that little too long. ‘Bluish’ edges a tiptoe too far into Fleet Foxes territory, but these are tiny moments in an album that’s overwhelmingly rich in invention and imagination.
‘Brothersport’ rounds it off perfectly, a resplendent orgy of Afrobeat pop with touches of hard house, like Orbital double-dropping with Fela Kuti or Vampire Weekend in space. It ends in radiant, My Morning Jacket-style harmonies and leaves you wondering what happened to your mind and ears.Put the album on again. Listen hard. Focus on each sound, analyse it, pin it down, pull it apart. It’ll just shift under your gaze and run off laughing. Or you could just run with it.
Buy Merriweather Post Pavilion now from Rough Trade
Making the strange seem normal is the most accomplished act of artistic alchemy. Any idiot can try to be weird; most will just end up being depressingly inane. But to take something as wonderfully, magically strange as Wild Beasts’ debut ‘Limbo, Panto’ and sublimate its elements into something as subtly beautiful as ‘Two Dancers’ is something very special indeed.
The ‘look at me!’ theatricality of Hayden Thorpe’s swoops and screeches, the poetic flourishes and jarring incongruities of the lyrics, the olde-world historical scenes… well, they’re all still there. But Wild Beasts Phase Two is less vaudevillian and a lot more lyrical.
The clever-clever playfulness of ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ and ‘Please Sir’ is left aside in favour of a more mature, immersive and organic sound. Taking its jump-off point from the most refined song on ‘Limbo, Panto’, ‘The Devil’s Crayon’, this is an album that takes your heart by sleight of hand rather than ambush.
The counterpoint between the neurotic, lascivious thrill of Thorpe’s falsetto and bassist Tom Fleming’s impossibly rich, sonorous, northern tones is delicious. It’s like listening to Ted Hughes read poetry in the drawing room while Maria Callas has a breakdown in the kitchen. The fact that these intriguing set-pieces are put to music this gorgeous is double the wonder. At one moment, an aching melancholy of word and tone conjoin, the next a horrific image sings out in a beautiful voice.
The other thing that’s so compelling about ‘Two Dancers’ is that it really is a cohesive album. Many pay lip service to the idea of the album in an age of downloading, but here is one where to skip a track feels like sacrilege. From the propulsive, Blue Nile-ish beauty of ‘The Fun Powder Plot’, a deft exploration of the rage of fathers denied custody, to the almost -like lullaby ‘Empty Nest’, each feels like a dream-like, disconnected scene in an abstract play you don’t quite understand but that touches you in strange ways.
The two-piece title track is grim and gorgeous in equal measure. Recalling the tense drama of Associates and the strange emotional scapes of late Smiths and early Suede, it paints a picture that seems to be set in some nightmarish ancient ransack, all gang rape, poverty and broken families. The line, “Oh, do you want my bones/heart between your teeth” recurs in the second section, depicting a broken relationship haunted by the genetic ghosts of violent history.
‘All The King’s Men’, meanwhile, runs through the courtship ritual, Fleming wryly grouping “girls from Roedean, girls from Shipley” in a dizzy array of belles of the ball, before reducing them to sex (“girls astride me, girls beneath me”) and then “birthing machines” in a caddish exploration of droit de seigneur. Rather than an anthem of patriarchy, it feels like a man exploring the nastiest edges of his psychic potential.
No less brave is the Hayden-led ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’, a folky ballad of quick fumbles up back alleys that makes the crude and mundane darkly romantic. Of all the second albums expected this year, this might not have been the one you were waiting for. You might even have hated their first. But Wild Beasts have undergone a sea change, and this beautiful album is a treasure that deserves plundering.
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Repent ye and make ready for the coming of the Lord: the end days have come. Frogs rain from the sky, the beer taps froth with blood and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have started using synthesizers instead of guitars.
Funny when you consider that production of the commercial synth predates both ‘Sgt Pepper’s…’ and ‘Beggars Banquet’, that sticking a vintage Arp on your record in 2009 can still be considered some sort of reckless rush into modernity (especially considering how this album was rush-released because of internet leaks – not exactly future-embracing). Really, it was always surprising, considering the dance-dance-revolution that James Murphy et al have helmed in their adopted hometown, that Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t use synths.
In truth, their adoption of electronics on their third album sounds more evolutionary than revolutionary. But it’s an evolution amazing in tooth and claw. Although Karen O frets that “It’s not easy to change what you do when what you do is so badass,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ shifts of tack are less reinventions than reinterpretations of their driving force, the same ecstatic, wired thrill that runs from ‘Bang’ to ‘…Blitz’, the vibrant energy-explosion depicted by the smashed egg on the record’s sleeve.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, after all, have always been a club band, keeping their date with the night and channeling the feeling that if you spin fast enough on that dancefloor, you can whirl yourself right out of your body. It’s just that they’ve moved from the cider-smelling indie dive to the fancy uptown nitespot with the velvet rope.
And Lord is it the stuff disco dreams are made of. Sticking the overcharged rush of ‘Zero’ up front is a bold move, and on first listen, in the same way that ‘Gold Lion’ initially seemed to dominate ‘Show Your Bones’, it seems to skew the album. YYYs, however, are accomplished in the art of slow burn. And where their second album, despite its brilliance, sometimes felt confusingly paced, their third is masterfully put together, a proper, cohesive album with a journey.
Less lairy than ‘Fever To Tell’ and less troubled and experimental than ‘Show Your Bones’, it’s a polished record, characterised most by the spangly bleep and thrum of ‘Soft Shock’, which, rising up from the bloody dancefloor of ‘Heads Will Roll’ into some sort of disco rapture, exudes the ‘cool stability’ that drummer Brian Chase claims characterises the album. Which is not to say it’s ‘mature’ or ‘restrained’ or anything boring like that: it simply glows with a radiant, quiet bliss before kicking in with a wholly irresistible chorus, Karen beseeching “Summer moon/Catch your shut eye in my room”.
‘Skeletons’ is the emotional heart of the album. Only four songs in, it creates a charmed, still space and quietly dominates it – in terms of sequencing, it’s a masterstroke. Sounding like the battle hymn of the intergalactic republic of love, its spare, slightly martial drums and hymnal hums of synth are topped by Karen’s poignant plea of “love, don’t cry”. It’s amusing to think that people used to dismiss this band as ‘style over substance’ so adept are they at getting the balance between fashion and passion exactly right.
Leading us out of the calm centre of euphoria into a dark back room of the soul, ‘Dull Life’ floats in slow and spacey before crashing into a rollicking rush of a chorus, Karen howling, “The beast that I lie beneath is coming in” over – yes – classic Nick Zinner wheeling, wiry guitar. Most similar to their raw work on 2007’s ‘Is Is’ EP, it reveals the fretful energy that always lurks just inches beneath their new sheen.
The dark core, though is the pairing of the ominous, bassy rumble of ‘Shame And Fortune’ and the doomy, desolate lonely wash of ‘Runaway’, Karen moaning “lost, lost, lost my mind” as synth swathes build around her into a Interpol-worthy sea of sound. Then, just as we’re about to bid farewell to this cruel world and sink beneath the sine waves, we’re yanked back blinking into the pink-and-green disco lights of ‘Dragon Queen’, where Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio and Karen weave a far superior version of the kind of his-and-hers hormone-fugged retro slink peddled by Glass Candy, before being kissed back to life by the sweet pop lullaby of ‘Hysteric’. The acoustic-and-synth folksiness of ‘Little Shadow’, similar to Karen’s Native Korean Rock work, rounds things off with a walking-home-in-the-early-hours feel.
So sure, it’s no revolution, but ‘It’s Blitz!’’s is an unexpectedly emphatic reassertion of why Yeah Yeah Yeahs are one of the most exciting bands of this decade. Better than that, they know how to “shake it like a ladder to the sun”.
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Space. Everyone needs it to stay sane. In London, though, it’s hard to find. Coffin-narrow streets are piled with tiny flats, subdivided into even tinier rooms, cramped and claustrophobic. No act of chance, perhaps, that it’s in the capital that the most original music of recent years, dubstep, with its booming, echoing spaces, first developed.
The XX, four kids from the dubstep heartland of south London, have quietly set up an emotional squat in those spaces, with bedsit-delicate love songs. It’s strange that such a traditional set-up (drums, bass, keys, guitars, voices) has resulted in one of 2009’s most unique debuts. The praise can be laid at the door of the band themselves: synths-and-beats man Jamie Smith produced the album himself and they draw together eclectic materials from avant-garde hip-hop to R&B to pure pop.
‘Islands’, a gorgeous psycho-geographical love song, finds the husky twosome of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft cooing, “I am yours now, so now I never have to leave/I’ve been found out, so I’ll never explore”: the perfect soundtrack for wandering aimlessly along rainy London streets.
‘Heart Skips A Beat’ is, again, almost unbelievably beautiful, aching with longing. All these songs seem in the first flush of love, agonisingly obsessed, talking of waiting outside doors and wanting to drown. ‘VCR’, casting a match into the gloom with a bright, innocent keyboard chime, recounts evenings filled with unspoken, natural intimacy. For a band of schoolfriends whose singers “learned to speak together”, this is not insignificant.
That closeness intensifies on the beautifully menacing ‘Crystalised’, a gentle warning to an over-hasty lover. The contrast between the reverberating spaces of their stripped-back sound and the almost insular intimacy of the soft, smoky duets is totally delicious. Towards the end, though, that deliciousness can start to become suffocatingly rich. But that’s a little bit like complaining about having too many diamonds, though. For the most part it seems like the space The XX have made for themselves is infinite.
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At first sight, you could easily have dismissed The Horrors as haircuts, scenesters, talentless art-school chancers. Sure, after listening to the brilliant, bilious racket of their debut ‘Strange House’, you might have struggled a bit more. But you’d still have managed it.
Then a mysterious, online countdown appears. As it ticks to a close, an ominous, seductive, gothic, motorik thrum begins. Red, green and blue lights flash across skinny, mop-haired figures on a bare stage. A voice intones “Some say, we walk alone…”. And just like that, the eldritch enfants terribles are born again as something new, strange and quite wonderful.
But shocking as their metamorphosis has been, uniting longtime fans and former sworn haters across the NME office, it’s not as revolutionary as might first appear. The Horrors’ transition, Wizard Of Oz-style, from grim monochrome into scintillating rainbows of sound is rooted in their love of psychedelia, in the original, old-school sense of the word.
As an expression of the LSD experience, the unsettling music and art that emerged in the ’60s reflected the nightmarish ego destructions as well as the delirious highs of having your mind poisoned. The Horrors’ well-schooled, deliberate evolution into psychedelia feels so very right, not a hokey ‘new direction’ but more of a growth of their black tendrils into an expansive genre where they can darkly flower. And boy have they flourished under the tutelage of the master of soul-scaring sonics, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow.
Their second blooming begins with a pulsing beat and neon synth patterns, out of which, awesome in its size, comes a screaming wash of guitars. ‘Mirror’s Image’ is essentially My Bloody Valentine in sharper focus, a wall of heavy distortion cut through with melody, into which Faris wails “Is it the way… is it the way she looks at you?”
The cartoony affectations of ‘Strange House’ are replaced by atmospherics, the changed rhythm section of Rhys Webb and Joe Spurgeon brooding beneath Josh Third’s aching guitar and Tom Furse’s melancholic keyboard hooks. It’s a captivating new sound, which shifts into overdrive for the following ‘Three Decades’, an exhilarating krautrock ride across The Cure’s doomy landscape.
It’s not, as the brave decision to release the epic motorik thrum of ‘Sea Within A Sea’ as the lead single might have suggested, all widescreen and soundscape, though. There’s also breathtaking thrills, as with ‘Who Can Say’’s almighty buzz raving up The Jesus And Mary Chain. When the instruments drop away, and Faris states the Shangri-Las referencing line “When I told her I didn’t love her any more… she cried” it also marks the first time that emotion has made it into The Horrors’ work.
Even this early on in the album it’s apparent this is a band who’ve found themselves, and to whom everything is now coming effortlessly. Sure, their influences are there for all to see, but whereas on ‘Strange House’ the fanboy references verged on pastiche, here it all feels natural, real, fresh. ‘Do You Remember’ is a pure rush reminiscent of MBV’s ‘Soon’ and benefits, like much of the album, from Faris having dropped his often goonish sub-Birthday Party lyrics, in favour of lovelorn, dream-logic imagery like “I will be with you soon,
I will cross the ocean blue”. ‘Scarlet Fields’ glides like Neu!, with Third’s shimmering guitar counterpointing Furse’s keyboard hooks to spellbinding effect. They go even slower with the drone ballad ‘I Only Think Of You’, which in Spacemen 3’s hands would’ve been about a junk fix but here is simply, sweetly, about a girl. Restraint and maturity covered, we’re drawn inexorably back to sensual racket with ‘I Can’t Control Myself’.
Its blatant steal from Spiritualized’s superior ‘Come Together’ makes it the most unsatisfactory thing here, but it’s followed by perhaps the most perfect; ‘Primary Colours’ is a powerful pop song in which Faris reveals a surprisingly rich baritone for a beautifully mysterious lyric which takes it into the realm of the masters, Echo And The Bunnymen. The album ends with the song that first signified The Horrors’ reinvention, ‘Sea Within A Sea’. Here it works as ‘I Am The Resurrection’ does on ‘The Stone Roses’, allowing the acid house elements to come to the fore in a bravado demonstration of what the band are capable of.
For us listeners, it’s a relief to hear a band growing so impressively at a time when most others have neither the talent nor the opportunity to do so. Time will tell how ‘Primary Colours’ stands up to the likes of ‘Loveless’ or ‘Psychocandy’, but right now, this feels like the British art-rock album we’ve all been waiting for. Martin Robinson
Buy Primary Colours from Rough Trade complete with an exclusive 40 minute mix cd compiled by the band