MUSIC REVIEW: Roger Waters – Is This The Life We Really Want?


The only consolation there has been for a music hack as the entire universe has descended into horror was ‘well, maybe we’ll get some great art out of it.’

Creativity thrives during times of strife and Roger Waters, Pink Floyd bassist and socialist firebrand has stepped back into the spotlight.

A political songwriter for some five decades, on Is This The Life We Really Want? Waters is perhaps the most political he has ever been – couple that with Nigel Godrich producing and you have a pretty great setup.

Is This The Life We Really Want? isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about solo Waters – his acquired taste vocals still flip between sullen murmurs and that soaring, animal yowl. At times the record seems to be deliberately obtuse – all over the album are his hallmarks both with and without Floyd.

Glass smashing, stereo trickery and dial tones are all hangovers from The Wall at the latest; the sound of channel hopping on an analogue television is definitively Waters himself.

Musically, there are flashes of Floyd everywhere – ‘Picture That’ is a fairly shameless retread of both 1971’s ‘One Of These Days’ and 1977’s ‘Sheep,’ despite lyrics shot through with modernity. On the title track, electric guitars sound like they were played, windswept, on a clifftop as ‘Greenland falls into the ****ing sea.’

If you are a Floydian that never discovered the delights of Radio K.A.O.S. then this record is for you. Godrich leaves the mix as dry as possible, and allows the instrumentation to speak for itself – which when you have access to orchestration, as on teasing opener ‘Deja Vu,’ makes the scope even more cinematic. Even the drumming – taut, blunt, abbreviated – sounds like it’s being played from inside a coffin that’s already underground.

Against all logic and reason, there is some genuine compositional growth here, though. The title track and ‘Bird In A Gale’ show some sort of weird trip-hop influence; the former is disquieting and in places genuinely terrifying, the latter might actually be groovy.

Outside of ‘Wait For Her,’ which is a genuinely moving, gracious love song based on a translation of the Kama Sutra, nobody is safe from the spotlight of Waters’ rage.

You don’t need a degree in political science to understand what ‘The Last Refugee’ is about.

Donald Trump as a target is easy and inevitable, but both barrels are aimed at pretty much everyone. Religion gets a taste (‘If I had been God/I would have sired many sons/and I would not have suffered the Romans to kill even one of them’), 1%ers (‘Sold for my kidneys, sold for my liver/…There’s no such thing as being too greedy’) and of course, war (‘We chose The American Dream/and Mistress Liberty/How we abandoned thee.’)

Perhaps the most harrowing lyric on the album comes at the end of the title song, across the lyric booklet from a defaced photo of Nigel Farage. ‘Every time the curtain falls on some forgotten life/It is because we all stood by silent and indifferent/It’s normal.’

With twenty-five years since he last released any original rock material, you can’t really call it a return to form. But if we get nothing else from the twisted state the world is currently in, we got one more go around the block from one of music’s all-time greats, and a pretty great one at that.


MUSIC REVIEW: Drake – More Life


Under a year since Views, Drake returns not with a mixtape, album or EP, but a so-called ‘playlist.’

What that means only Drake knows, but the low-stakes attitude makes More Life one of the most satisfying entries in his ever-growing catalogue.

Lyrically there are still occasional acknowledgements of Drake’s paranoiac worldview, most notably on ‘Madiba Riddim’ – ‘I can’t tell who is my friend/I need distance between me and them’ – but even there he adds ‘God knows I’m trying.’

Over a beat that sounds like a doomsday clock, ‘Lose You’ acknowledges his earlier emo-rap – ‘When do all the things I mean from the bottom of my heart start to lose meaning?’ ‘Can’t Have Everything,’ meanwhile, ends with a real answerphone message from his mother trying to shake him out of his negative attitude.

Outside of these moments, More Life is upbeat, generous and delightfully playful, showing Drake’s skill as a curator. It’s also crafted with more care than it wants the listener to perceive, moving stylistically across its 81 minutes backwards through Drake’s career from the modern experimentalism to the late-night, chillout beats of his early days.

Giggs and Skepta show up multiple times each, and on the surprisingly convincing grime of ‘No Long Talk’ Drake observes that he’s got ‘love for the West End.’ On ‘Gyalchester,’ he criticises millennials slyly through the line ‘tat on my ribs like I don’t know what permanent is.’ It gets embarrassing on ‘KMT,’ but weirdly it’s Giggs rather than Drake who sounds more ridiculous.

‘Madiba Riddim’ and especially ‘Passionfruit’ are simply irresistible dancehall pop, light, airy and flecked with club sweat, while the album is crammed with guest spots that elevate proceedings without stealing focus. Kanye West shines on the gospel-tinged ‘Glow,’ as does a melodic cameo by Young Thug, debutante singer Jorja and even 2 Chainz doesn’t ruin everything.

It may be overlong and a little patchy, but Drake in good spirits is something we’ve never really had before, and in its own bizarre, low-key way, More Life is a treasure.



COMEDY REVIEW: Dave Chappelle on Netflix

It can be very difficult when you try to espouse liberal ideas to still remain a fan of the people you have previously enjoyed.

Sometimes you go back with a wider view of the world and find that something is deeply problematic.

You wouldn’t think Dave Chappelle would be one of those people. A fierce satirist with a focus on race issues in America, Chappelle was admirably fearless with his sketch series Chappelle’s Show.

When white people started unironically quoting his sketches at him in the street, Chappelle took the virtually unprecedented move of simply refusing to be famous any more.

All of this information makes Chappelle quite admirable. Add in the fact that not only is he brave, but immensely gifted with timing, delivery and as a writer. Sadly, Deep in the Heart of Texas: Live at Austin City Limits and The Age of Spin: Live at the Hollywood Palladium are two immaculately conceive, but downward punching, mean-spirited standup specials.

Apparently there has always been a vein of homophobia in Chappelle’s work, one that I’d previously dismissed as being a parody of the stereotypical homophobia associated with some Afro-Caribbean cultures.

That vein has been mined for huge swathes of these two shows. Age of Spin opens with a killer twenty minutes for a man who’s remained out of the limelight for over a decade. His material about O.J. Simpson in particular acts as four tentpoles in the show as a whole; some jokes about Making A Murderer are less relevant two years after they were recorded but hit home nonetheless.

Some light homophobia arrives in the form of a bit about being able to ‘just tell’ that a movie producer was gay, a joke that if you give it the most charitable assessment is done to death. It comes with a side of well-crafted rape jokes.

But then you could say that about the whole special, which has a weird rape obsession. Bill Cosby comes up, obviously; Hannibal Buress’s material manages to be way sharper without making the victims into comedy figures themselves.

Deep In The Heart Of Texas wastes little time in starting that fun, less than minutes in dropping a lengthy bit crafted around a transgender art gallery owner. Chappelle is nothing less than disgusting here; complaining about having to change what pronouns he uses may be the lowest point, because it shows that he is educated enough to understand the lingual difference but refuses to acknowledge it.

Chappelle even plays the ‘my problems are worse than yours’ game by moaning about black oppression being worse than trans oppression or queer oppression, which of course misses the point entirely.

Chappelle wilfully punches down here, he attacks people who do not have a voice to defend themselves with even at the peak of their visibility in the public eye. He makes victims out of a minority, the exact way he rails against. For a man as clever as he is, there’s no excuse – he has always had a gift for making hard-hitting material seem cheap, disposable and mass-consumable.

It could be argued, and it’s a valid point, that what a comedian says on stage needn’t be their actual viewpoint; but had Chappelle not spent his whole career so perfectly skewering those people and actually retired rather than tolerate his audience not being smart enough to understand.

Netflix should be ashamed of themselves for allowing a special with this much hateful material in it to go through.

Somewhere in L.A., Chappelle is laughing – as a stand-up comedian, he is beyond criticism. They’re just jokes, after all, right?


MUSIC REVIEW: At The Drive-In – Incurably Innocent

If you were a fan of the post-hardcore boom of the 90s and early 00s, you’ll know that there were countless different flavours to sample.

For many, the main draw of this kind of music was the balance between melody and noise. Some bands would tip that balance heavily in one direction or the other, and one band that loved their screaming were At The Drive-In.

Having reformed in 2012 after an acrimonious split a decade before, they toured to a hero’s welcome before threatening new music.

Unfortunately there were was one sad observation to be made about Cedric Bixler-Zavala – he can’t really scream any more.

Compare this 2012 live footage of ‘Arcarsenal,’ one of the most powerful songs in punk history, to the album version.

Okay, so sometimes there are vocalists who simply can’t do onstage what they can do in the studio. Screaming can be extremely taxing, especially if you aren’t trained; Henry Rollins ruined his voice that way, and wasn’t even the only Black Flag vocalist to manage that.

In December, the first new music from ATD-I emerged, ‘Governed By Contagions.’

Not a great deal of harshness there either. The guitars still skitter away from melody at a moment’s notice, but the vocals are all clean. Just this week, another new song followed, ‘Incurably Innocent.’

Admittedly, this is a much better song. Some of the velocity of their heyday is there, the drums flail, the guitars shriek, the vocals don’t, but luckily, the lyrics really do.

As a vocalist who so often obfuscates his lyrics behind bizarre imagery (‘an abortion that survived/a lineage of bastard mastication’ anyone?) Bixler-Zavala here covers an enormously hot button topic; child molestation.

Highlighting such a sensitive issue is a brave move from a brave band. They may not be as heavy as they used to be, but if the only boundary they can push is lyrical content when so few people are able or willing to do so, maybe we are still lucky to have ATD-I around after all.


RANT: Review of the year 2016

So 2016 sucked. It sucked out loud. It was a pair of old clown shoes in a dumpster fire at the bottom of the barrel.

But there was also music, wasn’t there? Isn’t there something to cling onto? Well funnily enough such a small number of great albums came out that I’m only bothering with a top five.

So what didn’t make it? Chance The Rapper released Coloring Book, an album I slept on for a while due to lacking in an Apple Music subscription. A rare note of positivity in a year of darkness, it nevertheless didn’t hit the same peaks as last year’s Surf.

Several of the old guard came back to drop unembarrassing new albums; Primal Scream shamelessly aped themselves with mixed results on ChaosmosisWeezer similarly weren’t anything to write home about this year but were pleasantly insular to the problems of the real world. Iggy Pop showed why he’s been enjoying a renaissance of late by drenching Josh Homme’s guitars in sarcasm.

Dexys made up for 1999’s loathsome My Beauty by covering a set of soul classics, traditionals and LeAnn Rimes. No, really. Not to be outdone, New Order covered themselves by spinning out their last record into largely disappointing ‘extended’ mixes.

At the heavy end of things, after making their crowdfunding fans wait for two years, American Head Charge made a comeback with the justifiably panned Tango UmbrellaBilly Talent on the other hand started incorporating prog affectations into their music, which somehow worked.

Drake got super paranoid and slightly funny while Kendrick Lamar was happy to chuck eight songs that couldn’t cut it on To Pimp A Butterfly onto the internet and call it a releaseRun The Jewels dropped their new album for free on Christmas Day way too late to get it reviewed in time for this list, while Kanye West and Frank Ocean made their albums all but unobtainable to this writer. Blonde at least eventually showed up as a purchasable download, but without its companion piece Endless it’s a Q without a U.

5. Wilco – Schmilco

It takes guts to make a grower these days, especially an acoustic one. The dawn-lit comedown to follow Star Wars‘ vibrant sugar highs, Schmilco was another quiet triumph. Sarcastic, funny and concise, there were hidden depths in both the lyrics and instrumentation.

4. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

A Radiohead with nothing to prove is a Radiohead that just kind of gets on with making great music and they did just that, finally recording live favourite ‘True Love Waits,’ and adding lush string arrangements to an already graceful collection.

3. David Bowie – Blackstar

Bowie isn’t the first musician to write their own obituary, but after a 21st Century of victory lap albums and disappearances, Blackstar revived Bowie the artist. A man able to reinvent himself time and again, to find the bleeding edges of music and build on his legend from beyond the grave.

2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Shorn of any of the rock or even balladeer posturing of any previous Bad Seeds album, parts of this record don’t even sound musical. Cave is in a pit of static and despair here, inviting you into its centre. Yet in that centre is a loving embrace and angelic soprano vocals.

1. Beyoncé – Lemonade

Who would’ve thought that the album as monolithic work of art would be maintained by the woman who wrote ‘Bootylicious’? Her personal life smeared all over the papers, her husband unfaithful and her talent peaking, the Beyoncé of Lemonade is frightening, dominant and stadium-sized. While not as musically innovative as its predecessor, its scope is wider; by the time Lemonade dips its toe into African-American politics, a guest verse from Kendrick Lamar is just gravy.

Too busy to listen to entire albums? How about ten of the year’s finest songs?

1. Beyoncé – Freedom feat. Kendrick Lamar (Lemonade) – Two of the biggest talents in music cross swords at the height of their powers, this song is a revelation.

2. David Bowie – Lazarus (Blackstar) – Guitar strings scrape past like a death rattle and you can hear the dust fly off the cymbals; as eerie as Bowie has ever been.

3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Distant Sky (Skeleton Tree) – After an album of solitary, crushing sadness, a beam of light pierces through.

4. Cigarettes After Sex – K. (single) – To date only the sixth song released by these obscure ambient-poppers, ‘K.’ brings the dreamy groove into focus for the first time.

5. Chance The Rapper – All We Got feat. Kanye West (Coloring Book) – It all seemed so promising on this joyous opening track. If only it had maintained this momentum…

6. Drake – With You feat. Partynextdoor (Views) – His long-mooted masterpiece may have been a letdown, but it had moments of wonder like this airy, bouncy bit of electro-dancehall.

7. Iggy Pop – Gardenia (Post Pop Depression) – With a hangdog expression and a slouched vocal delivery, this is Pop feeling his age and getting cantankerous.

8. PWR BTTM – New Hampshire (single) – While their second album is as-yet-unannounced, PWR BTTM have released a single or two and ‘New Hampshire’ may be their biggest tearjerker yet.

9. Radiohead – The Numbers (A Moon Shaped Pool) – A circular guitar groove underpins this, but it steadily spreads out into the rest of the band and eventually an entire orchestra. Buy the album for a real version, here’s a live one.

10. Weezer – King Of The World (Weezer) – Goofy and disposable it may be, but this is what we all loved about Weezer in the first place.


ALBUM REVIEW: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

When Nick Cave’s teenage song Arthur passed away a few years ago, I wasn’t sure we would ever hear from him again.

He had achieved the more or less ideal level of fame, where he could make a living as a musician and had legions of screaming fans but was able to pop into an off-licence in Brighton unmolested.

He never really needed to work again, so after suffering such a shocking personal tragedy I figured he was gone forever.

But then, Cave’s 21st Century career especially has been defined by confounding expectations. With Skeleton Tree he has done that yet again. Somehow his music has become even darker, even more tragic and even more minimalist and somewhat alarmingly this is despite being all but complete before Arthur’s death.

Skeleton Tree is brief, pitch black and sounds like it’s broken. If you’re expecting ‘The Mercy Seat,’ ‘No Pussy Blues’ or even ‘Jubilee Street’ you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Push The Sky Away saw the almost total disappearance of guitars from Cave’s music. Here, I couldn’t tell you for definite where the sound of a guitar can be heard. Traditional rock instrumentation is almost entirely off the table; piano is mostly out the window, at least half of the songs don’t even have drums. Cave frequently sing-talks (remember ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’?) and at one point even gives up the mic entirely but we’ll come back to that later.

If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in traffic with your radio tuned incorrectly, you’ll have some idea of what the aural atmosphere of Skeleton Tree is. Synthesisers are the order of the day, programmed by head Bad Seed Warren Ellis, giving the effect of being surrounded by static. It sounds like a nightmare – but not the kind that scares you, the kind that leaves you under a heavy, grey cloud for a day. It’s exhaustingly sad, claustrophobic and at times even unmusical.

‘Jesus Alone’ shows you its outlook bluntly and brutally with the line ‘You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now.’ On ‘Magneto’ he intones ‘The urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming.’ For a man with such a high body count in his lyrical history, the breeze-block realness of that line still startles.

‘Rings Of Saturn’ is powerfully strange. Rhythmically slightly similar to 1997’s ‘Lime Tree Arbour,’ it floats on major key piano and a creepily upbeat, wordless backing vocal; but it’s distant and sour and somehow unsettling.

As is becoming customary with modern Nick Cave records, the album has a centrepiece. In this case it’s ‘Distant Sky,’ a song that even by this record’s standards is simply otherworldly.

Cave takes the verses, then as the chorus arrives so does Danish soprano Else Torp and her jaw-dropping voice. As a professional critic, there are simply no words. Just listen.

Nick Cave has always stood alone as an artist, the Bad Seeds following his muse wherever it went. But the evolution he has shown this past decade is ludicrous. Yet again, he goes against what is expected of him, and yet again it pays off in spades.

Skeleton Tree may not be the undeniable masterpiece that a lot of his recent albums have been, but it’s an alarming, disquieting, fascinating, chilling window into absolute blackness. As has been asked so many times before, all we can wonder is just where there is for him to go from here.


RETRO MUSIC REVIEW: The Hold Steady – Boys And Girls In America

In my days as an actual music journo, I formed a somewhat eccentric collection of music; often just having the third or fourth album by some band I’d never heard of, which I then feigned an in-depth knowledge of in order to review.

One such band is The Hold Steady, who ten years ago today released Boys And Girls In America, the best album Bruce Springsteen never made.

I’ve been meaning to investigate their earlier and later work ever since, but first of all none of it seems to be as well loved and second of all it seems to basically sound nothing like this one, great record, a record I’ve now spent ten years living in harmony with.

Originality is often the name of the game in music, and the only place you’ll find that here is in the lyrics – on opener ‘Stuck Between Stations,’ Craig Finn sings ‘you’re pretty good with words/but words won’t save your life.’

If you’re unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that’s pretty much my mantra these days.

Musically the album is E-Street Band with a hint of punk – generous, open-palmed piano, chunky, melodic guitars and hooks to die for.

It’s a surprisingly catchy album considering that Finn often favours sing-talking through his nose, but it forces his by turns witty, dark, insightful and inane lyrics to lodge themselves in your brain as words and thoughts rather than simple melodies. Finn is the kind of songwriter that crafts characters and then catalogues the realistic struggles they face with life, love, jobs, booze, drugs and dancing.

BAGIA is an album of warm thrills, but Finn doesn’t let his poor muses completely escape their comedowns. This is best illustrated in ‘Party Pit,’ a joyous romp that rides along on a a drumbeat that always seems like it’s about to fall apart.

As the piano crashes into minor chords at the bridge, even without lyrics you can hear the dread setting in – what alcoholics sometimes call that moment of clarity, before the chorus returns, pushing away the dark thoughts so that the party can continue.

Their punk fury even lends bite to what might otherwise be ridiculous topics, like ‘Chips Ahoy!’, named after the horse that wins the narrator some cash at the racetrack.

The band were so on fire that they even nail something dangerously close to a power ballad – ‘First Night,’ the kind of beautiful, closing-time swoon that seems to sound significant and weightless simultaneously.

Signing the album off is ‘Southtown Girls,’ a graceful, stop-start tearjerker about the comforts and contradictions that go with a love of your hometown.

One of these days, I’ll get around to delving into the rest of the Hold Steady’s catalogue. But frankly, I never really need to – whatever else they’ve done before or since, this one record means more to me than they’ll ever know short of me writing them a creepy letter.

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