• Kate Bush, Before The Dawn live, London Eventim Apollo, 10 September 2014

    Set 29 2014, 15h45

    Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had only the faintest awareness of who Kate Bush was. She appeared virtually locked in the embrace of Peter Gabriel in the video for “Don’t Give Up” on “Top of the Pops”. I knew she was considered a “serious”, earnest artist, and that she had an uncanny knack of being perennially nominated for the Best British Female at the BRITs, including in years in which she appeared relatively inactive. As biographer Graeme Thomson puts it in his (really quite good) book “Under The Ivy”, she was also the industry’s corporate sweetheart: a bankable mega-seller in the first, honeymoon period-flush of the CD’s golden age, or an ambassador for the “Dire Straits, Phil Collins and Annie Lennox-orthodoxy”. So far, so opaque, perhaps – or simply not all that interesting.

    As my insatiable desire for music-related knowledge grew and grew into my teens, however, (and at one stage this entailed owning – and poring over – copies of Guinness’s British Hit Singles, Top 40 Charts *and* Rock Stars books…with Rough Guides’ “Rock” reference book thrown in for good measure) further layers to Kate Bush were revealed that belied that safe, middle-England first impression. Lyrics that dealt with incest, murder, nuclear war; you name it. A four-octave voice. Her fixations with mime and modern dance. One night late in 1995 I decided to give the source material a try and heard, for the first time (I can’t quite recall how or where), 1978’s breakthrough UK#1 “Wuthering Heights”. In the pop music landscape of the time, it stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of gobby punk at one extreme, and formulaic disco at the other; an eerie, other-worldly slice of faux-operatic camp pop inspired by the 1847 Emily Brontë novel of the same name…and all the while sounding like nothing else released before or since (Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is arguably cut from the same ‘70s cloth of high-drama and excess…but even then, only comes close). And all this achieved, of course, at just 19 years old.

    Just as for many people, the level of invention, originality and sheer resonance of that song alone triggered a switch in my head; a unique “A-ha, *now* I see what the fuss is about”-moment. Slowly but surely, following an initial foray into 1986’s The Whole Story greatest hits set, the explorations of the back catalogue turned into an ever increasing number of CD purchases. If the “worthy” reputation and air of Kate Bush proved too much for my poor l’il childhood brain to process, then she was instead, in the end, very much the sound of my university-student years; a time of discovery, self-sought altered states, and wilful eclecticism all at once. Somehow, her songs managed to serve as the mood music for both times of introversion or necessary solitude – that early twentysomething feeling of still finding an identity or niche to fit into – as well as, on the other hand, very exterior times of boiled-over rage, abandon or any other kind of cathartic primal scream that might take your fancy (sample the climaxes to “Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake” and “Violin”, if you don’t believe me about the latter).

    Despite this emotional richness and primacy to the actual music, however, her songs also mysteriously functioned – to borrow another of Graeme Thomson’s astute observations - as quasi-museum-pieces, frozen in static at the time of their recording and initial release. While our Kate became known as a notoriously pain-staking studio worker – a dozen years between 1993 and 2005 marked the infamous yawning chasm that separated The Red Shoes and Aerial albums, during which many fans simply gave up waiting for a follow-up and presumed she’d retired permanently – she was increasingly averse (as time went on) to public appearances and promotional niceties. These niceties included touring: her one concession to a conventional series of concerts, 1979’s Tour Of Life, was an admittedly elaborate, pioneering and lavish affair both for the time and since. Conspiracy theories (physical exhaustion, incurable stage fright, a fatal accident involving a crew member, incompatibility with motherhood and wanting to lead a non-celebrity life) abounded thereafter as to why it was never repeated, and it attained an almost near-mythic status.

    Fast-forward to March 2014, and after a brief period of steadily increasing presence and activity in the public sphere (two albums released within the space of a year in 2011, a re-recorded version of “Running Up That Hill” contributed to the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, and a CBE from The Queen in 2013), the previously unthinkable happened, and it was casually announced that Kate would perform a 22-show residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Social media went into meltdown, and one week later the tickets themselves sold out in 15 minutes.

    On show-night itself, such is the level of surreal anticipation that an inexorable edginess kicks in, or an anxiety about safely finding your way to your appointed seat; it’s akin to aiming to successfully catch a plane to the dream-job interview of a lifetime. Once there, the realisation of suddenly being in a community of like-minded fans results in a spontaneous need to connect and story-swap. The couple next to me have travelled from Detroit (and took out the insurance policy of investing in *two* nights’ worth of tickets); another, not far away, have schlepped in from Seattle. One guy in the row behind me proudly sports an unofficial Kate Bush Fan Club badge, which possibly last saw the light of day in 1980 (or thereabouts). For the record, while the majority of the audience appear keen to abide by Kate’s pre-residency request not to film or record the experience on tablets or smartphones, many are scratching the itch to commemorate now; the outside-the-venue-selfie or pre-show-empty-stage both proliferating.

    Show-time, and the entrance of the woman herself, stage-right, behind a chorus-line of backing singers shuffling forwards to the opening bars of “Lily”, is sufficient to send the audience into a (relatively civilised) state of having-gone-bananas. Perhaps it’s the realisation that “Kate Bush”, as opposed to being a hologram or figment-of-the-imagination, is not only a flesh-and-blood, embodied, living breathing human being, but also one warmly and openly grinning from ear to ear, singing clearly, powerfully and note-perfectly, and bookending every song with an impassioned, almost exultant “Thank you SO much!” The likes of “Running Up That Hill”, “Hounds Of Love” and “Top Of The City” are greeted not just with disbelieving euphoria but as if they’re harbingers of the Second Coming itself. In this context, even “Joanni” – a previously turgid, relatively unloved album-cut from “Aerial” – sounds re-imagined and newly invigorated.

    Following the building of “King Of The Mountain” into a towering wall of sound, in an apparent flash everything then changes: the crowd is showered with Tennyson-inflected “confetti” and we’re ushered into a film of a fisherman making a call to the coastguard (script by David Mitchell of “Cloud Atlas” fame, no less). While “The Ninth Wave” was the one section of the show whose existence managed to leak out in advance, somehow the fact of the spoiler doesn’t seem to matter – partly because mere words don’t seem to do justice to the vividness, immersive-ness, and total theatricality of this song-suite experienced in person. It’s everything your imagination might have promised or hinted at since Side B of “Hounds Of Love” was launched on an unsuspecting public back in 1985, and then some more. The show’s co-opting of Royal Shakespeare Company director Adrian Noble is made plain-to-see here: not a prop or effect is out-of-place or wasted, sets-within-sets appear as if from nowhere and then disappear again just as rapidly. While the unconscious imaginings running through the mind of a drowning woman are arguably the stuff of existential nightmares, this is an absolutely compelling rollercoaster-ride; my eyes were fixed on the stage so much that I momentarily lost the correct sequencing of the songs within the “Wave” itself (brain forgetting to be 100% present, clearly).

    Following an interval, the incident- and detail-packed disaster movie, trauma and rescue of The Ninth Wave is well and truly washed away with "An Endless Sky Of Honey", the 42-minute concept-piece/song-suite that comprises the second half of 2005’s Aerial. A sweeping, at times meandering and impressionistic meditation on the cycle of a “lovely afternoon” merging into a flamenco-drenched sunset, ambient starry night and subsequent dawn, it’s a challenging piece to fully attend to and truly appreciate at first listen; and one could argue that in being brought to the stage, it’s found its natural, more intuitive home. The visual hooks placed for the mind's eye to take hold of and use as points of orientation are more organic: a faceless Pinocchio-like figure stalks the stage in Kate's shadow; a giant "tawny moon"; massive projections of birds in flight interspersed with snowflakes; Kate herself literally being given "wings" as the pulse-quickening dawn approaches. It's more expansive and less structured than the fraught first half, and therefore perhaps more "noodly", but it's also beautifully rendered and never less than sumptuous to look at. Humourous touches are also not forgotten, and deployed just when you could be forgiven it's all at risk of disappearing up its own am-dram backside - "Piss off!" yells the Sky's painter (played here by Kate's son Bertie) at the boy-puppet. For all the juxtaposition with the Ninth Wave, in addition, Kate even manages to sneak in one of its vocal phrases ("...this black box!"), possibly just to test who really is paying attention; and a brief human imitation of actual birdsong is followed, not long afterwards, by a drawn-out, nearly-breathless cackle...almost guffawing at the ridiculousness of it all.

    Two codas are dangled before the audience after this double-whammy emotional journey; "Among Angels", the sparse, voice-and-piano denouement of 2011's 50 Words For Snow, for which the very term "goosebumps" might have been invented; and a jubilant, mantric "Cloudbusting". The struggle with summarising anything in relation to Kate Bush is the fact that usual mere adjectives don't seem to apply, and that a whole new vocabulary needs to be created (just try and classify "Sky of Honey", for instance, and watch as you tie yourself in knots. Neo-pastoral? Freeform folk-jazz? Postmodern classical in a pop-rock idiom?) If the discernible feeling in the room during the interval was a universal "I almost can't take all this in", the equivalent as the audience troop out is one of contagious gratitude. Grousing about the absence from the setlist of her first four albums, and/or the prominence in the show given to her son, is really - in context - missing the point.

    When all is said and written, then, about Before The Dawn, what was learned? It's perhaps first of all an unflinchingly honest and even portrayal of the human psyche in all its duality - wide-eyed, childlike wonderment versus weary experience; the terror and despair versus the joy and solace found in friendship, family and the pleasures of the sensual (and sensuous) world. More importantly, however, it's a long overdue - and yet somehow perfectly-timed - display of one of the rarest and most singular imaginations and talents to ever inhabit popular music being given free rein. Before The Dawn is like any experience - you live it, then you move on - but its backstory, attention to detail and overall sheer artistry will ensure it retains an echo in the minds of those fortunate enough to have been present long after these gigs have faded as a 2014 water cooler cultural talking-point. The mooted film of Before The Dawn will be a wise investment for those who were successful and unsuccessful in securing tickets alike, perhaps for the very reason that we can never be entirely sure what Kate's next move will be, in a career which has steadfastly never followed the script. It's that unpredictability that makes nuggets like this show so precious, and - ultimately - priceless.
  • Pet Shop Boys @Bingley Music Live, Myrtle Park, 31 August 2014

    Set 29 2014, 10h44

    The Pet Shop Boys’ “Electric” Tour is a 105-date behemoth, spanning eleven months and visiting comfortably over 30 countries. For all of that coming, seeing and conquering, however, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe arguably face a uniquely difficult – if not unenviable – gig in topping the bill of the final day at Bingley Music Live.

    Pause for a brief bit of background. As festivals go, Bingley – which has undergone various incarnations since its original establishment in the early ‘90s; and mushroomed since joining the multiple-stage event-set in 2007 – is a bit of an odd animal. A champion of live music and emerging, off-radar talent at accessible prices, the festival is pitched at a broad and highly diverse church: wizened rock veterans rub shoulders with metrosexual, designer label-club kids; chemically-enhanced teens share oxygen, sometimes awkwardly, with camping-chair-toting middle-aged families with face-painted broods in tow. The festival’s attempt to give equal weight to contemporary dance music sounds (Gorgon City) and guitar bands (The Strypes) has already, earlier in the weekend, seen some purists take to social media, apoplectic at the very idea of a DJ set inhabiting a “main stage”.

    The booking of the PSBs, while clearly a considerable coup for the organisers, could therefore have transpired as either a roaring success or an unmitigated disaster. Uniting and pleasing such a range of disparate tribes (at the end of a weekend in which a lion’s share of that audience has been burning the candle at both ends) is one task; maintaining face – let alone winning new fans – before a crowd of 15,000 (give or take) dominated by casual listeners, where the sound might all be sucked up into the late-August dusk anyway… quite another. Given a show which features excerpts from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, jackets constructed entirely from drinking straws, and dancers appearing – variously – as masked Minotaurs one minute and pogo-ing tinsel-yetis the next, again, it’s a safe bet to venture that the Bradford suburbs have probably never witnessed anything quite as arch or bonkers as this.

    For in the first place, despite close to thirty years as the UK’s most pre-eminent pop duo, with over 50 million albums sold worldwide, and feted with an Outstanding Contribution BRIT Award as recently as 2009, the PSBs nevertheless sometimes seem to occupy a curiously anomalous, anti-establishment place in the culture (not for them, at least yet, a sniff of anything like a “Services to Music” accolade in any Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Answers on a postcard, but it might or might not have something to do with persistent urban legends swirling around just what might have inspired “that” band name). Cards-on-the-table: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan, who thrilled to the Stuart Price-produced, return-to-form album that gave the Electric Tour its name. For many others, however, the fact remains that their inimitable (and yet instantly recognisable) synthpop can veer on the side of something slightly too futuristically sterile, almost; too fey, too faux-intellectual. The now-familiar trope of the raconteur-singer (Tennant) offset by an unsmiling accomplice at the keyboards (Lowe) has resulted in numerous parodies, sometimes hitting their targets spot-on (the uninitiated should check the Flight of the Conchords’ take on breakthrough #1 “West End Girls” - “Inner City Pressure”); at the same time, the PSBs’ own refusal to play ball in terms of pilfering from sometimes unlikely genres and sources has, equally, been a point of tension (their camp-as-Christmas cover of U2’s po-faced “Where The Streets Have No Name” supposedly provoking Bono to quip “’What have we done to deserve this…?’”).

    The good news is that what’s served up for the Bingley audience is a streamlined, pacier, 90-minute version of the show the PSB’s took on the road in the Electric Tour’s first summer, with only marginal changes (the radio-ready “Thursday” is sacrificed for the far clubbier, techier New Romantics-homage “Fluorescent”; ballads “Miracles” and “Invisible” are also, wisely, left in the pile labelled “For completists only”). Such is the show’s range, however, that the duo somehow manage, from the word go, to take turns in both bewildering the audience and having them eat out of the proverbial palms of their hands. The two opening songs (“One More Chance” and “A Face Like That”), for instance, are performed entirely behind a distancing translucent screen, whipped away – much to the relief of several head-scratching bystanders – for a raucous rendition of their ironic anthem to ‘80s materialism “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)”. The inspired thing about several of the subsequent song-choices – if the friends I went with are anything to go by, one of whom was born after the last PSBs UK#1 – is their ability to trigger “Where might have I heard this before?” reactions, even with non-singles. “I’m Not Scared” – heartbreakingly melancholic as only the PSBs can do – is enhanced with a plethora of lasers that really have to be seen to be described; “Fugitive”, alongside the duo’s trademark clear-as-a-bell melodies, is packed with rises and “drops” which cause at least two declared full-time techno/trance-musos stood near me to nod appreciatively, while turning down the corners of their mouths in approval. It barely goes without saying, perhaps, but the Bingley show, by the same token, also confirms that the PSBs’ surviving anthems from their “imperial”, chart-trouncing phase (“It’s A Sin”, “Domino Dancing”, “Suburbia”) sound just as commanding, emotive and transformational in the era of torrents and streaming as they did in the positively – by comparison – analogue age in which they first emerged. (…I’m not counting “Go West” in this, which I probably wouldn’t have missed even if they hadn’t succumbed to hauling it out).

    What’s especially pleasing about Electric is that it ends not with an “Always On My Mind”-type mass karaoke-session (though that would’ve been fine), but with “Vocal”, itself the hands-in-the-air piece-de-resistance of Electric the record, whose lyrics exalt in the redemptive power of the dancefloor. It’s a reminder that the PSBs, having witnessed the first generation of club aesthetics cross-pollinating the mainstream, are riding the crest of a full-circle wave – and might have a thing or two to teach those who followed them. I’m gratified to learn from my trance-muso-friend, on our way out, that far from being the cabaret synth-pop act it’s okay to ironically like once you’re drunk enough, the PSBs provided his entire point of entry into a life of immersion in dance music. Despite this level of debt owed them by many, more impressive still is that the PSBs, now at the very top of their profession, are refusing to rest on their laurels and contemplate lives of Rolling Stones-style-retromania: plans for beginning work on a sequel to Electric, again with Stuart Price on board, are already in the works for this November, and if I end up having an iota of Neil Tennant’s charisma – let alone stage presence - at sixty (…I know, sixty!), I’ll be happy. I hope they continue to thumb their noses at convention for a long time to come.
  • Kylie Minogue, Kiss Me Once Tour, Manchester Phones4u Arena, 26 September 2014…

    Set 27 2014, 23h52

    Fri 26 Sep – Kiss Me Once Tour 2014

    During 2013 I read a slightly obscure, slender and yet oddly riveting 1980s novel by Nicholson Baker, "The Mezzanine". Baker's main protagonist observes the world with the realisation that in late-capitalism our memories, however unreliable, aren't so much free-standing impressions in our brains as multi-layered, often proxy constructions, yoked to and made manifest in the objects we fill our lives and homes with: the consumer goods and products that we see in commercials and supermarket aisles.

    Almost no-one would claim that the run of 13 straight near-identikit Stock/Aitken/Waterman Top Ten hits Kylie Minogue amassed in the UK in the late 80s and early 90s would withstand much serious compositional analysis, at least not at its front end. And yet... those same coy, frothy pop songs manage to trigger visibly strong reactions in grown adults more than a quarter-century on not so much for being masterpieces in the conventional or objective sense, but instead for serving as shorthands for a removed, former time and place in the stories of our lives: as markers, almost, for the extent to which we evolve and grow (it gives me momentary pause later in the night when I tell some friends that the last time I saw Kylie perform was *23* years ago: I was eleven years old).

    In Kylie's specific case - and possibly due to the fact that she arguably functions largely as a tabula rasa onto whom numerous producers, songwriters, stylists, fashion designers and directors alike have projected their fantasies and imaginations down the years - the level of related, peripheral pop-career trivia that manages to stick in the mind of anyone who might consider themselves any kind of "fan" might surprise (unless you're a Nicholson Baker character, of course). I seem to have no problem recalling that Kylie's fan club address was a PO Box 292 in Watford; that her first acting role was as a Dutch girl called Carla; that the childhood family pet was a dog called Gabby; and that apocryphally, her guilty-pleasure favourite food was - assiduously reported in the pages of Smash Hits, Look-In! and Fast Forward magazines; and not apparently even a euphemism for anything - a "chocolate sandwich".

    Given the over-familiarity with this type of minutiae that must come with the territory for any adopted-national-treasure, Kylie has embarked on what seems like her umpteenth arena tour faced with something of a dilemma. While the air of general public goodwill towards her appears undiminished, and her brand continues to move and delight live audiences in numbers this embattled industry wouldn't sniff at, with 12 studio albums now to her name, the elephant in the (albeit still rather large) room is whether, just possibly, that hardcore and still fervent fanbase might nevertheless have grown - even if just ever so slightly - somewhat jaded. 2014 album "Kiss Me Once" has infamously underperformed; lead single "Into The Blue" causing even Kylie's most ardent cheerleaders to start wondering out loud just how many times that tried, tested, previously world-beating template of euphoric dance-pop can be hauled out...before it begins to more closely resemble the sound of the reinvention of the wheel itself.

    It's been well documented that popstars on the cusp of - or firmly in - this "heritage" category seem to face a stark choice: retreat into peddling all-beige, cruise-ship fodder, or be obliged to play an increasingly zero-sum-game of attempting to exceed their past glories harder, better, faster and stronger (what some might call the Madonna route). Happily, with the Kiss Me Once Tour, Kylie manages to avoid entirely falling into either trap. Just as there was no point in the organisers of the London Olympics consciously aiming to out-spectacle Beijing's opening ceremony, so is Kiss Me Once a departure from the Vegas-style decadence and opulence of its predecessor, 2011's Aphrodite: Les Folies. It's a bold affirmation and re-statement of core values and strengths, preaching strictly to the loyal and long-ago-converted, with the odd unexpected curveball (an appropriately S&M-tinged cover of late ex Michael Hutchence's "Need You Tonight") as well as predictably crowd-pleasing moments, neither of which disappoint.

    Earlier this year, during the initial promotional grind for Kiss Me Once, Kylie gamely partook in a surprisingly lengthy TV skit with comedian Alan Carr poking fun at the choreography and styling from the video for "Sexercize" (a highly literal interpretation of a song if ever there was one, made for the YouTube era and straight out of the school of "all publicity is good publicity"). It's that willingness to submit to sending herself up that has served her - and her longevity - well, and which is in evidence in this show in abundance. An "80s medley" of those early S/A/W confections, for instance ("I Should Be So Lucky", "Got To Be Certain", "Hand On Your Heart" and "Never Too Late") is knowingly self-referential - set in a garishly pink "Dolls' House"-cum-dress up-box brought-to-life - and yet also performed sincerely and utterly straight.

    Crucially, strategic stops are also pulled out, and are delivered in some style. "On A Night Like This" is punctuated with a kaleidoscopic laser show with which the Pet Shop Boys (themselves previous infectees of the Kylie muse) would be proud.
    Pioneering early 21st-century electro-pop classics like "Slow" and "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" are present and correct, darkly reimagined in a manner befitting the industrial scaffold stage-set that comes and goes in the background. What's especially heartening is that as well as appeasing the dancing-in-aisles constituency hungry for their nostalgia fix, many of the truly singalong disco moments come from relatively recent material ("Timebomb", "All The Lovers", "Wow"); this is a singer whose quality control bar is clearly still set high. The word "flawless" has a tendency to be a bit liberally overused when it comes to common-or-garden pop "divas", but it's honestly hard to fault the alchemy of musical direction and visuals on offer here: dancers, when they do appear, are costumed and rehearsed to within an inch of their lives, and arrangements for the likes of "Step Back In Time" and "Love At First Sight" are tweaked just enough to sound both faithful and revitalised at the same time. Even "Beautiful", the one nearly universally-agreed skip-worthy track from Kiss Me Once, is redeemed with a simple but disarmingly effective intro of a giant rain projection that morphs seamlessly into a burst of dry ice across the stage (and, it must be said, the dropping of duet-partner Enrique Iglesias).

    During the bits in between, the enduring enigma that is Kylie herself is spontaneous, humble and effusive in spades, with the easy confidence of someone who's been in the game a long time and yet is taking nothing for granted (the show's opening act is a mere "cocktail", she assures the crowd; breaths are caught in later songs to address individual audience members with "...nice T-shirts" and "Your outfit, Madam, is a-MAZ-ing!"). In the final analysis, however, mere vague "likeability", or any number of sequinned hotpants or showgirl-headdresses, can't ever be the sole tickets to the kind of staying-power or mass, diverse appeal Kylie has now enjoyed for 27 years. Instead, possibly the key ingredient is an unwavering recognition that even ostensibly shallow, shiny, edge-less pop songs retain a raw emotional power not for being technically complex, but for partly being signposts of continuity amidst all of the human condition's topsy-turvy twists and turns. If the uncomplicated point of stars like Kylie is to cheer us up, Kiss Me Once as a show is a generous, grade-A mission-accomplished.
  • La Roux "Trouble In Paradise" review

    Jul 26 2014, 14h38

    Back in the misty depths of the comparatively recent past (aka 2009), I was initially sceptical about the La Roux sound/concept. There were several signs that didn't augur well. The notes that only dogs could hear in "In For The Kill". The controversy-baiting sound bites. The whiff of one-trick-pony Eighties pastiche; the general Sunday-broadsheet-hype...

    Then, over the course of that spring and summer, the songs themselves started to worm their way under my skin. Thanks in part to a transformative Skrillex remix, "In For The Kill" virtually snuck in from behind and - bucking the nadir of the late-noughties trend for chart-toppers by cabaret acts (Kid Rock, N-Dubz) and X-Factor Finalists - lodged itself in the pop consciousness (UK #2 for four straight weeks) as a genuine song-based hit. Slightly symbolically, during the week in which the arguable figurehead of pop's old-guard (Michael Jackson) passed away, its follow-up, the anthemic "Bulletproof", went one better and was sitting pretty at Number One. I relented and bought the self titled debut album; "I'm Not Your Toy" became a particular target for the repeat button, and I simultaneously thrilled to and drowned in the sincere synthiness of "Colourless Colour" (with its deadpan yet oddly moving reference to "early 90's decor") and "Armour Love". 350,000 UK sales, a Mercury nomination and a 2011 Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album later, and I was happy to be proved wrong: set aside the window-dressing, and Eighties-electro-pastiche this emphatically was not.

    Despite - or perhaps because of - such a concentrated period of seemingly runaway success with a debut, Elly Jackson (the surviving member of and creative force behind La Roux) surprisingly turned out to be the last of the new generation of UK pop-dance female artistes first emerging in 2009-10 (Florence Welch, Marina Diamandis, Ellie Goulding, Little Boots) to come out of the blocks and nail that archetypal "difficult second album". As Jackson herself has observed in recent interviews, a gap of five years between releases - traditionally the preserve of the Kate Bushes of this world - both is and isn't an eternity in the ephemeral, transient mainstream pop industry...embattled as much by the new normal of legitimate, paid-for streaming as that of internet piracy; and arguably struggling for truly bankable hits, and artists with staying power, more than ever.

    As those sixty months mounted up, my relationship with La Roux's music came full-circle; the first album having been retired firmly to the shelf, and a real case of "out of sight, out of mind" having set in, my first reaction to news that a second album would see the light of day after all was probably a shrug at best. In an uncanny instance of history-repeating, however, having lived with and played "Trouble In Paradise" repeatedly for the last week, I've delighted in discovering that the drawn-out absence has ended with an album which sounds absolutely inspired.

    Perhaps it's partly the uncanny timing (there's something about releases happening at the height of sultry midsummer, maybe, which result in more vivid, more visceral responses), but this feels like a textbook in classically hooky, groove-driven, pop songwriting-alchemy, where not a single ingredient, phrase, or instrument feels superfluous or out of place. You catch glimpses of this all over the album: the "lose, lose, lose/prove, prove, prove" refrain in "Uptight Downtown"; the infectious, positively fizzy "Kiss and Not Tell"; the warm, organic and effortlessly funky breakdowns in "...Tell" (which sounds like a worthy sequel to "I'm Not Your Toy") and the almost-too-perfect, Vampire Weekend-goes-disco workout of "Sexotheque".

    The extended electro-pulse of "Silent Partner" notwithstanding (and is it just me who's compelled to sing the words "BAT-MAN!!!" when the first of those keyboard stabs kick in...?!), the overall feel is one of looser, free-er, less hard-edged arrangements than the debut album, that are nevertheless either still danceable at heart or have a club aesthetic. The bass lines are sinewy and elastic, the guitar-licks are scratchy and Chic-like, the effects are nostalgic in a "where have I heard that before"-way without sounding hackneyed (in 2014, no mean feat). While it doesn't reinvent the wheel, even the record's concessions to such familiar tropes as the electronic torch song, or the epic comedown ballad ("Let Me Down Gently" and "Paradise Is You", respectively) manage to feel as if they're doing something slightly different and fresh. It's both a self-assured and engaging album, that both stands up to and rewards multiple, focused listens, so much so that even its admitted minor blips can, on balance, be forgiven. The otherwise fine "Tropical Chancer", for example, appears to start with a sporadically recurrent mastering-hiccup, and proceeds with a chord progression that at times veers perilously close to Daft Punk's "Get Lucky"; while the coda of "The Feeling" just feels subdued, and in context, plain odd.

    All in all, however, Elly Jackson and her collaborators can take a bow for having retained so much of the spunk and raw talent that made the La Roux debut a legitimate double-take moment, while also managing to develop and nudge the La Roux sound forwards. While it'll be interesting to hear some of the perkier and sunnier of these songs by the time the tour rolls around in the chill of autumn (tickets are bought, and I can't wait), it has a deserved place in several year-end best-of lists. I've been re-converted in this past week, and whether the follow-up ends up taking as long as another five years to be finished, one thing I can be sure of is I'll be less indifferent to La Roux in future. It's been good to be proved wrong a second time, and I hope that Elly's rewarded.
  • Sophie Ellis-Bextor live review

    Abr 22 2014, 18h11

    Fri 18 Apr – Sophie Ellis-Bextor

    Sophie Ellis-Bextor ("SEB" hereafter!) is, it's fair to say, fairly giddy. Her self-funded fifth studio album, "Wanderlust", released in January 2014, has just been certified silver, and has already outperformed its ill-fated, criminally underrated predecessor, 2011's Make A Scene, five times over. It's the start of a long holiday weekend for the vast majority (if not all) of the audience, who could also be forgiven for being in a slightly raucous mood. To SEB's expressed astonishment, however, they're "quiet during the quiet bits", itself no mean feat in an age of gig-going where the distraction of a restless fellow audience member commemorating their attendance with a #selfie or social media check-in is never far away. Perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised: despite a notable contingent undoubtedly lured here by the nothing-to-lose PR-fillip that was SEB's autumn 2013 participation in the BBC's flagship ratings hit "Strictly Come Dancing", her cultish, fiercely loyal fanbase dominate, and are not only appearing to hang on every note but are singing along to the hooks with gusto; the as-yet-unplayed-on-radio parts of Wanderlust included.

    This being SEB, "giddy" is of course a relative term. From the commanding, Levantine opening strings of "Birth of an Empire" onwards, and for the duration of Wanderlust's rollercoaster emotional arc (from the bonkers, racing, borderline gypsy-punk of "Love Is A Camera" and "13 Little Dolls", up to the impossibly old-Hollywood glamour and warm-and-fuzzy romance of "Young Blood", "When The Storm Has Blown Over" and a gorgeously-executed "Interlude"), she's both imperiously controlled and scrupulously professional, right down to the effusive votes of thanks she offers for her current commercial good fortune. (Strange, as these are perhaps the very qualities that elicit the tired and unwarranted charges of "icy" or "stuck-up" from her perennial detractors, including those who weren't won over during the "Strictly" popularity-contest). Even her one mis-step, a Creme Egg slightly mis-aimed at a member of the front row (it being the Easter weekend) has a line drawn under it with a frank, smilingly unembarrassed "I'm terribly sorry, Sir!"). If the music were to ever dry up altogether and she found herself competing in the assessment centre of a bluechip company (God forbid), she'd walk it on communication, presence, and that ever-elusive "emotional intelligence" alone.

    This was my first time seeing SEB "up close" (a completely free PA at 2013's Leeds Pride officially doesn't count, not least due to the dire sound), and to my shame, I caught myself thinking the "she's like a china doll"-comparisons that have followed her throughout her now fifteen-year career. Given this susceptibility to clichéd analysis - indeed, the continued potential distraction of SEB's undeniable and enduring photogenic-ness - it's a good job that Wanderlust transcends its movie star-good-looks, and manages to sound so inspired throughout; a top-notch triumph of sheer melodic songcraft. Despite the natural and unsurprising ease with which it's been lapped up by Radio Two playlisters, it somehow never lapses into all-out middle-England beige-MOR territory: instead, it's generous with its moments of darkness, drama and soulfulness, and for all the Slavic aesthetic flourishes, it also never feels camp, contrived, or as if everything but the kitchen sink is being thrown in. (Indeed the two most arresting Wanderlust tracks are arguably found in the uncomplicated melancholy of "Under The Stars Collide" and "Wrong Side of The Sun"; in an alternate, more just universe, either would be no-brainers for the end credits of the next hit drama on HBO).

    This being a pop star with an intuitive understanding of what her audience want, and what made them fall in love with her in the first place, the show culminates in an ecstatic disco medley, leading to an interesting realisation: the second coming of disco possibly wasn't ushered in with "Get Lucky" at all, but instead with the filter- and sample-heavy sound that populated dancefloors around the turn of the millennium. "Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)", "Lady (Hear Me Tonight)" and "Sing It Back" in particular, despite being staples for anyone who's caught the SEB band at a festival more than once over the last five years, are elevated to a transcendent, copper-bottomed "classic" plane (with "Take Me Home", "Heartbreak", and SEB's signature "Murder on the Dancefloor" not far behind... and I suspect -or hope!- that this might be more than misty-eyed thirtysomething nostalgia talking). SEB deftly inhabits the dance numbers with so much of that strange charisma that's equal parts girl-next-door and ageless-film-siren, you momentarily forget that with more than one, she had no hand in their original creation.

    An SEB show is a fascinating, enthralling mess of contradictions; not all of them straightforward to fully rationalise. She's warm and distant, cerebral and unashamedly pop, a balladeer and a dance diva, a persistent underdog who nevertheless seems (at least in 2014) to have emerged from a recent period in the wilderness and hit pay-dirt at exactly the right time. For all these discrepancies, it's hard not to share in her visible, unadulterated joy at having made such a direct connection with a self-confessed "risky", uncompromising record, that's clearly close to her heart. This lady knows the fickle ups and downs of the music business more than most: her humility (and possible bemusement) at the fact she's not only been granted another crack at the whip, but also on her own terms, is contagious, and something to celebrate.

    Setlist

    Birth of an Empire
    Until The Stars Collide
    Runaway Daydreamer
    The Deer & The Wolf
    Young Blood
    When The Storm Has Blown Over
    Do You Remember The First Time
    Wrong Side Of The Sun
    When You're Lost, Don't Want To Be Found
    13 Little Dolls
    Love Is A Camera
    Cry To The Beat of The Band

    Take Me Home
    Groovejet/Lady/Sing It Back
    Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)
    Murder On The Dancefloor

    Interlude
  • Review of Goldfrapp, York Barbican, April 5, 2014

    Abr 9 2014, 13h04

    Sat 5 Apr – Goldfrapp, We Were Evergreen

    There’s an intriguingly unscripted, incongruous between-song moment mid-way through Goldfrapp’s York Barbican performance. Though the associated tour is primarily in support of the duo’s sixth studio-set Tales of Us, a brooding, slightly eerie collection of musical vignettes addressing (among other things) such traditionally party-pooping themes as infidelity, murder, and transgenderism; the otherwise-reverential atmosphere is suddenly punctuated with a shrieked, borderline-pleading heckle. “…Play ‘Rocket’!!!” cries out one anonymous lady somewhere in the crowd, clearly having the time of her life but apparently also chomping at the bit for a gear-change.

    A mischievous murmur ripples out through the audience: fans who’ve done their homework know that the almost impossibly perky Van Halen-esque lead single from 2010’s Head First is now regarded as something of an unloved, illegitimate child by Goldfrapp themselves –ostensibly rushed out under pressure from former parent label EMI; and something they would, with the supposed benefit of hindsight, only have been happy to supply to another singer (… and which sadly, therefore, will probably never be heard live again). Alison [Goldfrapp] ponders the request for a few tantalising seconds (…is the infamous Goldfrapp-artistic temper of legend about to get another airing, some are surely wondering), before uttering a carefully considered reply of “…Nnnnnooooo.” It’s a matter of a few seconds that seems to crystallise a lion’s share of the very essence of Goldfrapp-fandom in all its joy and frustrations: the inimitable humour that’s equal parts camp and deadpan, an underlying sense of tease, and a back-catalogue that’s both abundant and divisive at the same time.

    For an act who owe a large part of their success over the last 15 years to relatively accessible yet deceptively simple dance-pop (the finest examples of which; “Train”, “Strict Machine”, “Number 1” and “Ride a White Horse”; are all rolled out in the show’s exhilarating final section), Goldfrapp are nothing if not assiduous in their attention to detail with their markedly more subtle most recent direction. The multi-layered tracks from Tales of Us are allowed in their live incarnations not only to breathe but also to soar: “Annabel”’s starkly exquisite, oddly-cathartic four-minute-long sob is enhanced even further; “Alvar” and “Clay” pulse and swell with hitherto-hidden layers of rhythm and momentum; “Thea” is a pounding power-house of dynamics, which somehow manages never to feel cluttered or overwhelming. The oldies-but-goodies are also, by and large, excellently-chosen, and provide a showcase for what made the duo such a unique pair of musical geniuses in the first place: the vocal effects of “Lovely Head” still sound like the stuff of a space-age nightmare, the synth-string stabs of “You Never Know” build inexorably to an almost Hitchcockian climax; even “Yellow Halo”, which originated on a begrudgingly-delivered, contractual-obligation “best-of”, is able to sound definitive; a master-class in warm and expansive electronics in a world where the labels of “ambient” and “chill-out” are ubiquitous but, more often than not, misapplied.

    This was my eighth time seeing Goldfrapp (if their Tales of Us cinema-experiment of early March 2014 is also counted), and after so many repeat outings, true objectivity – and true constructive criticism – both arguably become more difficult. While one hesitates as a non-practitioner to lapse into praise such as “note-perfect”, the impression of a flawlessly sung and played-show nevertheless seems inescapable. The fact that Goldfrapp and their team of session colleagues seem to still, enviably, be at the very top of their game perhaps logically leads to a picky superfan-suggestion: given the breadth and range of that previous output, you’d hope it wouldn’t be too optimistic to speculate on whether they might, just maybe, shake things up a bit on future live jaunts. How amazing would it be, for instance, to hear an update of the electro-filth of “Twist” or “Slippage”, the melancholy of “Pilots” or “Eat Yourself”, the cinematic swoop of “Let It Take You” or “Simone”? The choices are endless, and time will of course tell. Just don’t ask for “Rocket”…

    Setlist:
    Jo
    Drew
    Stranger
    Alvar
    Annabel
    Clay
    Yellow Halo
    Little Bird
    You Never Know
    Thea
    Ride a White Horse
    Number 1
    Train

    Utopia
    Clowns
    Lovely Head
    Strict Machine
  • Goldfrapp "Tales of Us" - review

    Set 29 2013, 16h22

    I can sometimes feel slightly odd, having greedily devoured (and loved) all five of Goldfrapp's previous studio albums. Maybe it's just an unusual type of person who's as enthralled by faux-glam-disco-sleaze as they are by ambient-psych-folk (although Alison and Will's sound has of course encompassed umpteen other things, and perhaps the one thing that they can be relied upon to produce each time is something that eludes precise definition anyway). I bailed on hearing their sixth opus, Tales of Us, at its official premiere (a stiflingly hot Manchester International Festival), perhaps due to a feeling of trepidation...as a diehard fan, what if I wasn't instantly smitten? (I did something similar with Björk's Biophilia in 2011, bought the record, then promptly kicked myself for missing the live shows). Lesson clearly not yet entirely learned, here is my take on the new Goldfrapp in its more polished, less raw form...

    "Jo"
    Tales..., counter-intuitively, opens with perhaps one of the most subdued cards in the pack. The tone of chilled instrumentation set against sinister or ominous lyrics is set from the word "go", however. Built on a recurring, two-chord piano trick, and a "you'd better run for your life" refrain, it succeeds more as a scene-setting, mood piece rather than a traditional "song", allowing some of the subsequent tracks to, rightly, take centre-stage. (6/10).

    "Annabel"
    Stop-in-your-tracks emotional and arresting, the gender-confused child back-story, while mildly diverting, hardly matters when the atmospherics and music are as goosebump-inducing as this. Built on a mournful, elegiac acoustic guitar line, the track builds and soars as a string section slowly hovers into view, then falls away again. While "melancholic" is an understatement, it never feels cloying or wallowing. Riveting in its bare-bones simplicity, and for its visceral punch. (10/10)

    "Drew"
    More enigmatic and mysterious than "Annabel", but still with an equally cinematic "arc". Nothing feels out of place, from the light-as-air electronics to the strings functioning almost as punctuation marks in a perplexing story of "dreams of your skin on my tongue", that somehow manages to be both seductive and creepy at the same time (8/10).

    "Ulla"
    Perhaps the most MOR-sounding moment here of all, this song is perhaps also the least successful at fully connecting, even on repeated listens. It alternates between a bright and breezy main section, and a sadder, more minor-key-sounding "bridge" (apologies, classically trained musicians), ensuring it can't be simplistically reduced to a "pretty" label as a whole. That said, I found there was little overall for the brain to take hold of (it took some skipping on my fresh-out-the-box vinyl copy for me to really start paying attention to this song). One where an accusation of "background music" might stick. (6/10)

    "Alvar"
    Mesmeric and quietly hypnotic, this track again builds slowly through a fog of insistent, multi-tracked mandolins (?) before it culminates in a totally unheralded, but no less mantric, backwards-vocal section. Although it's primarily another "mood" piece, of understated, subtle drama, there's enough interesting things going on musically for a more lasting impression to be made. (7/10)

    "Thea"
    Conspicuous by definition for being the only thing on "Tales..." with the semblance of anything resembling "beats" (and therefore the only thing likely to withstand a remix treatment with a chance of not feeling totally tenuous and/or incongruous), "Thea" elicits a marked double-take anyway due to the attention-to-detail in its production: the pounding, martial rhythm; the sound-effect left at the very end. Injects some welcome dynamic range while still staying true to the overall feel of the album, sonically and thematically. (10/10)

    "Simone"
    Initially, this track fell into the nondescript, washes-over-you category for me. However, slowly but surely, in four briskly efficient minutes, it succeeds in stealthily creating another mini world of incremental dread and intrigue, begging an appropriately dark music video or short film-treatment. (8/10)

    "Stranger"
    After the opacity of some of the album's "difficult" midsection, "Stranger" finds Goldfrapp on more accessible, familiar ground. All of the leitmotifs of delicately-picked guitar, soaring strings, and even a whistled tune possibly not heard since the days of their Felt Mountain debut, are present and correct. It succeeds, however, by including some chord changes from heaven, and in being utterly charming. (10/10).

    "Laurel"
    This has an analogue, tinny, almost cosy and nostalgic feel that once again possibly hasn't been suggested or hinted at since the very first Goldfrapp record. Wistful, romantic, effortless-sounding and yet extremely hard-to-imitate (and therefore quintessentially Goldfrapp). (10/10)

    "Clay"
    Tales ends on a widescreen, poignant and bittersweet note, with a song inspired by a love letter from a World War combatant to one of his fallen comrades. If I'm being brutally honest, I think I was in fact more "moved" by Laurel and Stranger, but this is, on its own terms, a perfectly fine coda to an absorbing album which in places sets the bar extremely high. (6/10)

    Overall: 8.1/10
    Tales of Us is by no means flawless. Alison's trademark penchant for close-miked or half-enunciated vocals doesn't allow for much of an appreciation based on the lyrics (although they're mercifully reproduced in full in the sleeve notes), and there are definite patches where the admirable striving for aural cohesion inadvertently results in vague washes of sound that are a little too soft-focus to fully satisfy. When it hits its targets, however, (Annabel, Thea, Stranger, Laurel), Tales of Us contains some genuine moments of jaw-dropping beauty, which are sure to weave yet further layers of magic as autumn gives way to the winter of 2013-14. It's a bold artistic statement from a duo which, while relying on some tried-and-tested tics, takes the Goldfrapp mission statement somewhere entirely new.
  • Bjork, Biophilia, 03.09.2013

    Set 4 2013, 20h18

    Tue 3 Sep – Björk

    On a balmy, early September evening in London, pipe-organ renditions of selected highlights from Bjork's vast, now twenty-years-long solo back catalogue usher her loyal fanbase (who, despite a preponderance of impeccably-groomed facial hair among the men, elude precise characterisation as any one single demographic) into Alexandra Palace's Palm Court, the antechamber for this one-off show, tickets for which were pounced upon when it was unexpectedly announced back in June. (The gig is, in turn, closing a two-year tour which is unlikely to be mimicked or bettered any time soon). Although the tunes are familiar, given the momentary cognitive dissonance that occurs in hearing them re-presented through the organ-y leitmotif so dominant on Biophilia the album, the slightly disorienting effect is not only one of hearing Bjork's "greatest hits" dragged into the present (or recent past), but also of something akin to awaiting a twist on the traditional wedding ceremony, or perhaps a populist, atemporal pagan carol-service untied to any one season or climate. Just on the way in, incidentally, we've managed to brush shoulders, twice, with Tilda Swinton (narrator of the recent rapturous Channel 4 documentary on Biophilia costarring David Attenborough, whose unmistakably dulcet and authoritative tones introduce each of the "new" tracks in their live versions): this is clearly going to be no ordinary night.

    In a similar vein, to call the scope of Biophilia (whether viewed as a cultural happening, educational project, or interactive app-album-template for the beleaguered 21st century music industry) "ambitious" would, of course, be to simultaneously redefine the term "understatement". Its ten songs' subject matter cover everything from unfathomable mysteries of the cosmos, through the origins of the universe, and end up in childlike wonderment at the minutiae of sub molecular phenomena such as DNA replication and viruses infiltrating cells. The unifying high-concept? My own take is that it's how a close study of nature, filtered through the twin enablers of music and technology, is key to connecting and engaging on a spiritual as well as scientific plane; revealing as it does order, patterns and structures in what might otherwise appear superficially as a randomised, arbitrary, and chaotic world. This overarching theme isn't quite always successful at coherently and fully hitting its lofty targets: Biophilia's more obtuse, self-consciously "avant-garde" tracks ("Hollow", "Dark Matter"), for instance, are more successful in mystifying at best, or, at worst, alienating, members of the audience more nostalgically inclined towards Bjork's '90's commercial zenith. But as one of my friends accompanying me to the gig (having admitted to "struggling with" Biophilia-as-listening-experience) wryly concedes "...You've gotta love her for trying".

    What seems to be less up for debate are the sheer virtuosity and attention-to-detail evident in Bjork and her supporting cast, which includes a 24-strong female choir, and a number of instruments tailor-made for the Biophilia project. As cliched as it might sound, tonight the star really is the music. Bjork rises to the occasion (and, one suspects, the crowd's sky-high expectations) by being in particularly captivating voice - her control and dynamic range remain truly awesome to behold, whether in her trademark, meticulously front-rolled "r"s in opener "Thunderbolt" (...think "craving mirrrrrracles"), the reverential, hymnal phrasing of "Solstice", or the jolly, irreverent whistles liberally sprinkled through an enchanting, percussion-led encore of "One Day". 

    More impressively, and with kudos to the sound engineers, Bjork's harmonies with her umpteen backing singers are somehow pitched at just the right level, and never swamp or muddy the overall atmosphere; the choir deftly stand in for the whole soaring string section, for example, in an other-worldly, brilliantly-executed "Isobel" (tantalisingly overheard as a soundcheck in the adjoining Alexandra Park earlier in the day), making for a live arrangement that manages to both tread newly innovative ground and still, at the same time, deliver the emotional wallop of the very first listen to the original parent CD. The choir seems, in addition, to double as a beguiling quasi-Greek chorus-cum-amateur-dance-troupe; whether head-banging and thrashing along to "Nattura", embodying the propulsive, ecstatic crescendos in "Mutual Core", or scattering themselves across the ingeniously set in-the-round stage for a subtly-choreographed "Crystalline", they also inadvertently lend the audience some stealthy visual cues for response, particularly the aforementioned contingent confused (or frustrated) by the overall dearth of 4/4 tempos and stereotypical singalong verse-chorus-verse.

    A show with as uncompromising an artistic vision and as premium an asking price as this (even by current industry-/London norms) was never going to satisfy all comers at once: overheard instant reaction on leaving the venue ranged from those rueing the £80 price tag to those nearly speechless with joy at what they'd just witnessed. For this particular punter, however, minor quibbles about the venue's relatively out-on-a-limb location and haphazard approach to crowd control were ultimately made redundant when set against the non-negotiable unique-ness of what's being attempted with Biophilia. While the concert film being made on the night (which occasioned a strangely stop-start feel to proceedings as certain songs were performed twice, leading Bjork to muse on how "this is the chattiest I've been in ages") will be a worthy souvenir, it will also only ever scratch the surface of what it felt like to have been in the room for what was an unparalleled, unhinged and enthralling piece of performance-art for the digital age. In the final analysis, it's for her peerless invention, and daring to contemplate ideas and themes that wouldn't even enter the heads of most common-or-garden "pop stars", that we should continue to regard Bjork as an international treasure. You've gotta love a trier, after all.

    Setlist

    Thunderbolt
    Moon
    Crystalline
    Hollow
    Dark Matter
    Hidden Place
    Mouth's Cradle
    Isobel
    Virus
    Sonnet/Unrealities XI
    Possibly Maybe
    Where Is The Line
    Mutual Core
    Cosmogony

    Sacrifice
    One Day
    Nattura
    Declare Independence
  • Madonna "MDNA" - my review

    Abr 1 2012, 15h39

    Having lived with this album for a week now - and other reviews/opinions for slightly longer! - I can't guarantee that what follows will sound like an entirely original assessment of Madonna's 12th album. For those who are interested, though, here goes...

    "Girl Gone Wild"
    Kind-of the love child of Celebration, Sorry and Get Together, album opener "GGW" finds Madonna on familiar, self-plagiarising territory. It starts with a portentous spoken-word prayer intro with synthy strings before descending into a common-or-garden four-to-the-floor number. The phrases "The room is spinning/Must be the tanqueray" and "Here it comes/When I hear them 808 drums" probably didn't originate in Madonna's head, but this is high-camp which - for all its faint whiff of ridiculousness - manages to seem way more convincing than any po-faced films M might put her name to about The King and Mrs Simpson. 7/10.

    "Gang Bang"
    A menacing, borderline-unhinged electroclash track, this wins bonus points for managing to sound not quite like anything M's ever recorded before now. People will either absolutely love or absolutely hate it. The dubstep breakdown - although it could have been borrowed from any number of modern tracks - might not be entirely unexpected but is still executed well enough to elicit a double-take on first listen. 9/10.

    "I'm Addicted".
    Where MDNA really takes off, and lives up to its title. Euphoric, intense, effects-laden. Does what it says on the tin, and very hard to dislodge from your head once it's wormed its way inside. 10/10.

    "Turn Up On The Radio"
    The verses on this are more interesting than the chorus... which promises and teases lots but (to these ears) never quite manages to soar. Sustains the breakneck pace set early on, and will win plaudits simply for being so unashamedly upbeat...but still could have been better melodically speaking. 7/10

    "Give Me All Your Luvin'"
    Confused-sounding, ill-fated lead single, too juvenile-sounding for BBC Radio 2, too retro/anachronistic for BBC Radio 1, which (somehow) manages to redeem itself slightly in an album context. Some interesting production flourishes from Martin Solveig if you listen close, but still manages to sound derivative, hackneyed and gimmicky in a way that somehow seems slightly beneath even Madonna (the cheerleader chart refrain being the feature that's still hardest to swallow). You imagine Team Madonna hoped - or presumed - the association with Nicki Minaj and MIA might have been enough in itself to win pop radio round. And/or this song was composed to fit around the idea of launching the album campaign at the Superbowl, rather than the other way around... 6/10

    "Some Girls"
    Better. A briskly efficient, Ladytron-like track that really benefits from the understated-cool of Robyn collaborator Klas Ahlund. The main melody line of the refrain ("Some girls are not like me/I never wanna be like some girls") starts off pitched quite low and monotone, but ends up high and almost atonal. An album standout. 9/10.

    "Superstar"
    Frothy, simplistic, bubblegum pop which - while more subduded than some of the fare on offer here - manages to hit more of its targets than its sibling "Give Me All Your Luvin'". Easy to dismiss as tinny and insubstantial on the first few listens, it wins you round over time mainly due to an old-school, sunny charm. 7/10.

    "I Don't Give A"
    Sounds like it could have fit on either of American Life or Hard Candy... but manages on this occasion to avoid falling into the trap of coming across as the kind of "woeisme" multi-millionaire self-pitying which has hobbled Madonna when she's attempted this subject matter in the past. A shame then, that the lyrical candidness comes in what might be MDNA's most "filler-like" moment. 5/10

    "I'm A Sinner"
    Bass-heavy, woozy, psychedelic, and very hard not to move to, this is Madonna and William Orbit partying like it's (still) 1999 and the latter never left. It uses the "Some Girls" trick of taking the vocal refrain higher and higher as the song progresses. By the time the couplet "St Anthony, lost and found/Thomas Aquinas, stand your ground" is deployed in the middle-eight, all further resistance is futile. I love - love - when it goes all throbby and tribal in the final 16 bars or so. 10/10

    "Love Spent"
    Forums have buzzed with talk of this track as having "sampled Hung Up". I personally hear the Pet Shop Boys' "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)". Either way, it's a good fit for Madonna, although I agree the key change in the middle ushers in a slightly less powerful final act. Succeeds as a whole in the way it manages to sound both intimate and anthemic at the same time. 8/10

    "Masterpiece"
    Setting aside a rather clumsy Mona Lisa metaphor at the start, this is a highly competent, classic Madonna ballad, the likes of which she's not really touched with a bargepole since the late 90s. It's just a shame that it's probably been included here primarily by virtue of its association with her own "W.E" vanity project. 8/10

    "Falling Free"
    The ultimate comedown song, and the only thing on MDNA bereft of beats altogether, Madonna again manages to sound familiar while treading totally new ground in the pretty, almost folk-y melody of this closer to the main album. Could perhaps have been cut down slightly, but on the whole works very well. 9/10.

    "Beautiful Killer"
    An odd omission from the main album (perhaps sacrificed in favour of the more dramatic "Gang Bang"), this midtempo pop-dance number has eerie lyrics - "Can't really talk with a gun in my mouth/Maybe that's what you've been dreaming about" - at odds with its largely chipper disposition. Very hooky, string-soaked middle-eight. Ends even more awkwardly and jarringly, with the sound of a single gunshot. 8/10

    "I Fucked Up"
    Uncharacteristically frank electro-ballad which sees Madonna rueing her contribution to a match supposedly-made-in-heaven going irretrievably pear-shaped. A distant cousin of "Drowned World/Substitute For Love", with its shifts in tempo and ultimate ambivalence about the problem-at-hand. 8/10

    "B'day Song" (featuring M.I.A.)
    Completely throwaway, goofy, and perhaps unmemorable, this 60s-sounding faux B-52s-y track is unambiguously B-side/bonus track-fodder, but again has a certain irresistible charm about it (in the vein of "Superstar"). 6/10

    "Best Friend"
    Probably the most disarming and perplexing of the "bonus" tracks, and packed-to-the-gills with what seems like a multitude of weird synthy sounds buzzing and fizzing around its periphery, for all of the sound and fury of many of the 15 preceding tracks, MDNA ends with something of a whimper, albeit an affecting one... a startlingly candid and poignant insight into M's state of mind about her divorce from second husband Guy Ritchie. 9/10.

    All in all (average 7.8/10):
    While MDNA might not ultimately be able to claim the pioneer or genius status of some of the totems in her back catalogue (Ray of Light, Music, Like A Prayer), and although I'm not sure at this point how well it will hold up in weeks and months from now, it's a tangible improvement on 2008's hollow-sounding Hard Candy, which will appease a sizeable chunk of M's hardcore fanbase. It's far more enjoyable than anything even the most optimistic Madonna-watcher had the right to expect, especially given the excruciating wait of the last four years - a period in which Madonna was increasingly distracted by various non-music projects and business ventures. It's a zeitgeisty, shamelessly au-courant record which capitalises on America's contemporary mania for dance sounds, while still managing to avoid the out-and-out vacuousness of the Top 40 fodder churned out by Guetta et al. I'm reassured to hear that Madonna's ear for a good producer and melody (the real clue to her 30-year staying power) is undiminished by time, and gratified to see her redefining the kind-of music our culture "expects" a 53-year-old woman to make.
  • My Best Tracks and Albums of 2011

    Dez 22 2011, 9h52

    So, my top ten (in no particular order)....

    1. Beth Ditto "I Wrote The Book" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UECeJzd-G30&ob=av2e)

    All the promise of "Cruel Intentions" - her 2009 collaboration with Simian Mobile Disco - and then some (James Holden repeated his production trick of course in November, with Little Boots' "Shake"). My enduring memory of this track is it going down a storm on the dancefloor at our wedding. The video is also an example to other "artistes" (... mentioning no names!) of how a Madonna homage should really be done!

    2. Cut Copy "Pharaohs and Pyramids" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxF4Ps7tl0Y)

    This track has a build-up and breakdown that kills me every time. Those who know me well (... and even those who don't) will be able to tell which bit I mean!

    3. Sophie Ellis-Bextor "Starlight" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qolwP5UxIMY&ob=av2e)

    Very amusing fan indignation at the "cheap" video, as if people were oblivious to the fact that she really is a DIY-pop star now. Anyway, this is a lovely song, and I love a Richard X production. Oh, and thanks to Frank of course for pointing me to the Da Brozz remix...! :-)

    4. Jessica 6 "In The Heat" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IBqVNbGEGM)

    ... everything Hercules and Love Affair's (disappointing) second album should have been! I need to hear this while out and about, in the worst way!

    5. Sneaky Sound System "Really Want To See You Again" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FOOZZq_OVs)

    This track is full of hooks and I love it... resistance (for me at least) is futile...

    6. Bag Raiders "Sunlight" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TLCkIGV2mw)

    These guys are kind of an Australian Basement Jaxx - they're geniuses, their long-awaited debut album didn't disappoint, and this track brightened my January no end. This also went down well at the wedding!

    7. Katy B "Broken Record" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oES929aenGc&ob=av2e)

    New UK female singer where the hype - for a change - was largely justified.

    8. Gus Gus "Over" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K703vlIgens)

    From Iceland. Been around a long time. They know what they're doing!

    9. Azari and III "Reckless (With Your Love)" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMEhf9iw55M)

    ...Toronto in da house!!!

    10. Flight Facilities "Foreign Language" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI6fDb6IBmU)

    I think the description of this duo as a kind-of hybrid of the best bits of Quincy Jones and Daft Punk is pretty accurate... I also hear Crazy P (when they're on form) in hear as well. The Beni remix also comes highly recommended.


    ... with "honourable mentions" for...:

    •Fenech-Soler "Demons"
    •Jamie xx "Far Nearer"
    •Metronomy "The Bay"
    •Joe Goddard "Gabriel"
    •Calvin Harris featuring Kelis "Bounce"
    •Adele "Rolling In The Deep"
    •Hercules and Love Affair "My House"
    •Breakage "Fighting Fire"
    •Britney Spears "Hold It Against Me"
    •Britney Spears "I Wanna Go"
    •Fox "S-S-S-Single Bed" (not, in fact, a track from 2011 at all, but in honour of BBC4's re-runs of "Top of the Pops" from 1976 which started this April... a track so damned funky it's painful)

    And my top ten albums (again in no particular order)....

    1. Sophie Ellis-Bextor Make A Scene
    2. Björk Biophilia
    3. Jessica 6 See The Light
    4. SBTRKT SBTRKT
    5. Cut Copy Zonoscope
    6. Kate Bush 50 Words For Snow
    7. Bag Raiders Bag Raiders
    8. Friendly Fires Pala
    9. Katy B On A Mission
    10. The Sound of Arrows Voyage

    ... with "honourable mentions" for...:

    •Jamie Woon - Mirrorwriting
    •Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
    •Nicola Roberts - Cinderella's Eyes
    •Little Dragon - Ritual Union
    •Kate Bush - Director's Cut