Monday, 29 August 2011

Joy In Misery: Blonde Redhead's '23'

God, I hate it when someone dismisses music as being "too depressing". How does the presence of a particularly strong emotion make it worse? Surely, you'd imagine, it'd be far preferable to dull, bland stuff with no passion behind it? Sadly not everyone agrees, as a quick listen to XFM will prove.

Anyway, as depressing rock goes, Blonde Redhead are experts in both departments - with fifteen years under their belts, they know exactly how to put together a melancholy, guitar-driven track. Admittedly I've been unaware of them until excellent mp3 blog ThisBonusTrack recently posted a few tracks, but after just a couple of listens I knew I had no choice but to download their 2007 album 23.

Also: WTF is up with this cover?
The best was to describe 23 would be as "Hail To The Thief Part Two". It shares with Radiohead's sixth album not only the bleakest of tones, but also a heavy empathsis on clean guitar and a little bit of eerie electronic squiggles here and there. Not to mention the album's title track sounding a helluva lot like 'Where I End And You Begin' (which can only be a good thing, really).

This isn't just a big Radiohead tribute act, however. Lead singer Kazu Makino has a distinctive soft falsetto that perfectly complements the dreamy guitars (and may be familiar to those who have heard the song 'Sweetie & Shag' off the latest Battles album). Backed by the strong guitars and enegetic drumming of twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace, it succeeds in the rare achievement of sounding both dainty and muscular.

There are weak moments, of course. At some points in the album, the glossy production (contributed by Alan Moulder, a veteran of depressing alternative rock after working with Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine and Smashing Pumpkins) threatens to swallow the songs it's supposed to be supporting - the cheesy robot-voice opening to 'Heroine' very nearly spoils one of the most delicately-written tracks on the album.

I've yet to check out much else by the band yet, but with eight albums under their belts, there's plenty to look into (if anyone can recommend any other good albums, please leave a comment!). That is, of course, as long as you can deal with feeling pretty miserable afterwards.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Album Review: Givers - In Light

Buying an album on the strength of just one single can be a risky business. I, like many of you I'm sure, have been burned before after having a particularly awesome tune stuck in my head before finding out that the album is, well, just not that special (*cough* Funeral Party *cough*). Givers' debut single is the irrepressibly catchy 'Up Up Up', a bouncing summer anthem which borrows the twiddly Afro guitars of Vampire Weekend, the lo-fi blown-speakers effect of Sleigh Bells and the cutesy boy/girl vocals of Cults (as well as prominent glockenspiel) blending them into a buoyant pop song which isn't afraid to delve into fuzzy noise-pop in its closing minute. When I got hold of In Light, I was expecting ten three-minute pop nuggets, of which 'Up Up Up' would probably be the obvious highlight as 'the one with the slightly spikier edges'.

  "Up Up Up" by GIVERS by Glassnotemusic 

In Light isn't a collection of three-minute pop nuggets. And 'Up Up Up' isn't the spiky one. In fact, it's probably the most 'obvious' track of the ten, considering its simple chorus-verse-chorus etc. formula. But what unfurls over the course of 50 minutes (!) in In Light is infinitely more exciting, surprising and downright delightful than any of my expectations.

Take, for instance, 'Meantime', opening with a reverb-drenched guitar riff, some lovely vocal harmonies and a mid-tempo beat. Thirty seconds in, a slightly lurching harder-edged melody takes over, and just past the minute-mark you're into full-on surf-calypso territory. It's as thrillingly melodic as it is disorientating. Switching deftly between time signatures and styles with no regard for the conventional structure that 'Up Up Up' followed, 'Meantime' is also one of the most impossibly upbeat, joyous songs of the year, particularly in its confounding final minutes. That it all coheres and sounds quite as brilliant as it does is revelatory.

The rest of the album follows suit; the confidence as Givers transcend genres belies that this is only their debut. 'Saw You First' begins with a folky Americana feel before shifting into more structured electronics, like if Rusted Root's 'Send Me On My Way' found itself gatecrashed by Battles. Really. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a regular chorus again until the anthemic 'Noche Nada' five tracks in.

Ironically, one of In Light's poppiest tracks is actually one of the best, as well as being the shortest (though still over four minutes long) - the brilliantly named 'Ceiling Of Plankton'. Through its intensely catchy verse and glowing, heartfelt chorus, it feels like a song from the second album many wish MGMT had made (whateva h8erz, Congratulations ruled). That is, until it dives headfirst into a jazzy flute freakout with a cacophony of rapid-fire drums and handclaps. The final minute is an exercise in blowing minds with the pure power of a bassline; think the 'You Can Call Me Al' solo lasting sixty seconds and you're almost there.

I'm reluctant to go into much more detail on the album itself - the twists and turns that In Light undergoes are as densely packed as a thriller, and I'd hate to ruin the plot. In some ways, the first few listens of the album are the best, where the line between songs goes unnoticed, but you're continually struck by segments of blazingly creative melody. Weaving an adventurous thread through aspects of experimental pop, afro, funk, electronics and even math-rock, In Light is a thrillingly diverse listen with a pace that very rarely slows. Where you imagine Battles spent their youth in front of dimly-lit PC monitor pixels, it seems Givers spent theirs staring directly into the sun. In Light is without a doubt one of the best albums of the year so far, and certainly one of the brightest and most richly melodic. File this one under awesome surprises.

In Light is released in the UK on October 10th, and it's well worth a pre-order. Find out more about Givers at their official website.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A second look at Florence + The Machine's Lungs

True story: I wrote this before the release of new single 'What the Water Gave Me' - but it's perfect timing anyway I guess.

Florence + The Machine burst onto the indie scene in 2008 with ‘Kiss With A Fist’, a three-chord ode to a violent love affair. Yet on the basis of this modest single, few could have predicted the rapid success of the band’s debut album Lungs, which spawned several bestselling singles, Glee covers and a collaboration with Dizzee Rascal. How did such a radically individual album go on to rule a chart otherwise dominated by oversexualised electro-dance divas like Rhianna, Katy Perry and Kesha?

The boom in solo female artists that began halfway through the last decade spun out some truly successful and, in some cases, talented acts. Yet an early emphasis on indie rock and singer-songwriters like KT Tunstall was replaced by Lady Gaga's prevailing electro-pop, a style which, Adele excepted, still maintains a vice-like grip on the public consciousness. Florence + The Machine's debut album sticks out like a sore thumb, its use of (mostly) acoustic instruments and blustering, non-autotuned vocals going against all current mainstream trends.

To describe Lungs as a folk record would be misleading; yet, with an emphasis on the band's harp and Florence's strong voice, it sounds almost rustic. These are great songs, too - gloomy yet singable, with massive choruses derived from the darkest of feelings. 'My Boy Builds Coffins' is spooky and ethereal; 'Hurricane Drunk' is a clever take on the old theme of 'drinking the pain away', and 'Dog Days Are Over' is a joyous yet violent song of sheer celebration. Sure, the closing cover of 'You've Got The Love' may be a popstastic, neutered version of a dance classic, but in the context of the album it makes for a pleasant palate-cleanser after the gloom that precedes it.

It's not just the music: Florence's lyrics are mostly about her own mortality, with songs about her heart as both another bodily organ and a mysterious supernatural force in its own right. In the euphoric 'Rabbit Heart', Welch sings of herself as the "rabbit hearted girl… shedding her skin", natural imagery contrasted with pseudo-spiritual ideas of "offerings" and "sacrifices". I would go as far as to say - and stop me now if this is getting a bit too A-level English for you - that parallels could be drawn to Lyrical Ballads and other works of the Romantics in the presentation of the natural world as some kind of otherworldly, supernatural force.

Regardless of how you interpret it, as an album Lungs is a pleasant listen with plenty of variety and some very strong songs. But what's truly remarkable about Lungs is the manner in which it took off after release. In the same way The xx's debut album was pounced upon by serious documentaries as a Serious Soundtrack, Lungs has become the de facto standard for inoffensive reality shows and daytime trailers. 'Dog Days Are Over', 'Howl' and of course 'You've Got The Love' are now inescapable TV clichés. The band's mainstream success was cemented with a TV-friendly duet with Dizzee Rascal at the Brit awards and - shudder - a Glee cover.

How did an album that at one point was destined for underground, if not cult, recognition, do so well? Its glossy production and position on a major-label go only so far. To see the album from a wider perspective of society at large, Lungs was released as the recession began to ratchet up, but the popular environmental movement was still in fashion - perhaps explaining the success of an album that emphasises our own fragility as humans and our powerlessness in the face of nature.

The question is, will the follow-up - due in November - still find an audience among a public who always preferred the easy-listening bits to the truly dark and moody highlights? And will the band opt to charm the charts once again, or revert back to the underground (who may or may not be interested now the band has 'sold out')? Here's hoping Florence + The Machine can find a way to capture the public's imagination once again without compromising any of their vision.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Little Dragon, Big Tunes

If you can cast your mind back to last year's excellent Gorillaz album - I am of course referring to Plastic Beach, not that iPad-produced bore The Fall - you may remember a female vocalist guesting on a couple of the tracks. Well, the owner of those vocals is Yukimi Nagano of Swedish band Little Dragon, who have just released their third album, Ritual Union.

Though produced entirely on electronic instruments, Little Dragon's music is pleasantly low-key and subtle - the type that makes you click your fingers but not quite throw shapes on the dancefloor. With this third album, the band maintain their strong, original sound - all glittery computerised twinkles and glitchy beats - as well as their strong songwriting.

It's a great album, missing just one thing - the emphasis on bouncy rhythms is crying out for a guest appearance by a rapper (and I mean that entirely seriously)! I guess that's a job for the remixers, perhaps.

Anyway, here's a couple of choice songs from the new album. Enjoy!

An Unironic Love Of Motivational '80s Cheese

Though you're reading this on Quiff Pro 'Fro, for Elliot's sake I shall state explicitly that this post has been solely conceived and composed by myself. It's 'Quiff (No 'Fro)', if you will. For I shall, from the next paragraph forth, be expressing an utmost fondness for the sort of music that I'm sure many 'real' music critics (if such a thing exists) would turn their nose up at. So here's some wiggle room for the 'Fro in case this is just too embarrassing for him to bear.

I love the '80s. I frequently wish I'd been alive in the '80s. They had the best teen movies, the funniest fashion, and it was the decade that Batman got his balls back. It was the era of Born In The U.S.A, the beginnings of the Pixies and Graceland. But there's always some sidelining of certain aspects of '80s pop culture, especially when it comes to pop music. Whilst the aforementioned Born In The U.S.A and Graceland are deemed pop albums with real integrity, much of the chart music of the '80s is often viewed as being pretty awful. Many cried accusations of style over substance - and in lots of cases that would be true, though one has to ask themselves how any quantity of substance could ever possibly top the excessive style so prevalent in that decade. Many tunes from the '80s are usually seen as 'guilty pleasures', tunes with a certain novelty kitsch value; inevitable really, what with '80s production being so unmistakably of its time.

But here I present a song which I absolutely love with no irony and no sense of it being a 'guilty pleasure' - John Parr's 'St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)', the song from the brat pack film of the same name.

  John Parr - St Elmo's fire by slstrand

Originally written about a Canadian athlete on a world tour in his wheelchair to promote spinal cord injuries (excellent, I know), it's one of those supreme, uplifting motivational songs that the '80s did best. Just listen to that beast of a chorus, overflowing with increasingly grandiose and brilliantly ridiculous visual metaphors of eagles, horizons, mountains and seas - that kind of stuff simply wouldn't pass in the charts nowadays. Here in the '10s (is that what this decade is being classed as?) it's all just David Guetta lusting misogynistically after every bitch/chick/bad girl (delete as (in)appropriate) he can shake his knob at. The fist-pumping optimism of 'St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)' is so impossibly buoyant that it never fails to raise a smile - it's so OTT that it passes all the way from being one giant cliche back around to actually being pretty damn brilliant. Those lyrics also happen to coupled with a genuinely stunning melody, catchy enough that it'll stick in your head all through the day (whilst conveniently providing you with a constant flow of positivity) and appearing even better than you remembered it being every time you listen to it, whilst the constantly bubbling synths underlying the whole song give it a real momentum. The chord progression in the verses, well, it simply just does it for me. I don't really know how to describe it, it just sounds really bloody good. 'St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)' is a song so extravagantly '80s that I'm sure many will scoff at it, but remove any cynicism and it's actually just a really brilliant pop song.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Friday Power Playlist #1

Whilst at work the other week, I found that my Friday afternoon zipped by so much more quickly if I sat down on my lunch break and made a playlist on my iPod full of the biggest tunes I could think of. Nothing subtle, nothing dainty, just wall-to-wall power-tunes - as soon as the next track starts, if you don't immediately think "YES! TUNE!" then you're doing it wrong.

This week I thought I'd try and get some of you involved, using a Twitter hashtag #FridayPowerPlaylist and a Spotify playlist to build up an awesome playlist aimed to allow any listener to coast through the afternoon and blast them head-first into the weekend. Well, here's the result embedded as a Grooveshark player below - thanks to anyone who added to the Spotify playlist, and to anyone who didn't unfollow us on Twitter despite my incessant playlist tweets.

Enjoy your weekend everybody, and see you for another Friday Power Playlist soon!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

It Wasn't Meant To Be-acons

Can't help but feel I jinxed this a bit...

Like many others, today I was informed mere hours before I was due to hop on a train to Skipton that the first ever Beacons music festival in Yorkshire has been cancelled. Crap.

Needless to say, I'm pretty disappointed - this was to be my one festival of this summer, and though there weren't any massive names on the lineup, it was set to showcase a strong range of top-notch smaller bands and up-and-coming talents including Quiff Pro 'Fro favourites Dananananaykroyd, Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Jamie Woon to name but a few. At first, I thought, the claims of a flooded festival site seemed a bit of a wishy-washy excuse (no pun intended) to call the whole thing a day. Though heavy rain had apparently battered Skipton over the last day or so, surely music festivals are usually prepared and equipped to combat such adverse weather conditions? After all, the likelihood of it raining in Yorkshire can hardly have come to a surprise to the organisers...

Aw, crap.
Alas, once I'd returned home from work and saw the photos posted on the Beacons Facebook and Twitter pages, I understood the severity of the flooding. Just see to the left - it looks less like a festival site, more like someone's tried pitching a teepee in the middle of a lake. Obviously there was nothing that could be done to get rid of that much water at such short notice. As let down as all my fellow ticket holders surely feel, my thoughts also go to those who've spent the past year organising the festival only to have it fall rather spectacularly at the final hurdle. If any of you read this - thanks for going to so much effort to put together such a great line-up, it's a real shame it hasn't gone ahead and I really do hope that you're able to try again next year.

All of this got me thinking about the current music festival situation this year - Leeds festival is still yet to sell out, ticket prices in general have risen to dispiritingly high levels, and it seems like more new events are ending in last-minute cancellations than ever. Just last week, Newcastle's first camping music festival Ignition was forced to cancel the day before it was set to kick off due to the venue pulling out. My suspicions lead me to think that poor ticket sales might have been the cause for that - why else would the venue withdraw from the event other than if they were likely to make a substantial loss?

With so many smaller festivals cropping up every year (every city seems to have their own now), it's not particuarly surprising to see that not all end up being successes. Within every tier of festival size - from big hitters like Glasto and Reading/Leeds, fairly large ones like Bestival and the Big Chill and smaller ones à la Y-Not - more new events seem to spring up year upon year. This summer, I found myself put off by the high prices of the large and even medium-sized festivals, especially when most of the acts doing the rounds this year have appeared on previous line-ups. I saw Beacons as an alternative where I could pay much less and discover a load of new music instead of paying big bucks to go and see a few stadium-filling bands.

"If you book them, they will come" - still true?
Whilst I believe that Beacons would have been a success had it gone ahead (Friday day tickets had apparently sold out, and there was a strong buzz about it on the whole) due to its diverse and alternative bill, the festival market has become dangerously overcrowded - there are only so many willing festival-goers, who only have so much disposable income, and if your new little festival isn't offering anything different to other well-established ones of a similar size, you're not offering an incentive to pull the punters in. Devon Rox, Amplitude, Northern Lights and First Days Of Freedom festivals have all been unlucky enough to have to withdraw their events this year, all due to either being financially inviable or venue troubles. Whilst it's great seeing so many places trying to host their own festivals, it's no longer enough to assume the Wayne's World 2 mantra of "If you book them, they will come".

The danger here is the effect that this will have on future festivals. Yes, what happened to Beacons is extremely unfortunate and unavoidable (there's no stopping the weather), but had it been a on a larger scale with more money available then a solution along the lines of a water pump and bark chippings may have been an option. Of course, the line-up and independent style of Beacons wouldn't have suited a large budget and a Bramham Park-esque site - my point is, rather, that there is increasingly a risk when choosing to invest your money as an attendee in smaller festivals. Year after year, Glastonbury has coped with ridiculous weather and mud precisely because: it's Glastonbury! What happened here shows that smaller festivals can be less well-equipped to deal with the many problems that these sort of events can come up against. With so much money involved in larger festivals, they carry a much lower risk of being cancelled.

That's not to say the 'anyone can do a festival' spirit doesn't work - just see LeeFest, also taking place this weekend, which has retained its intimate, independent spirit whilst growing every year from its origins of literally being in someone's back garden. In fact, I think it's brilliant that there are so many options available to festival-goers in the UK when it comes to choosing a size, price and line-up that suits you. My worry is that with the instability of smaller festivals becoming more apparent, the safer option for audiences will be to cough up a bit more cash to go to Glasto or Reading and avoid the independent festivals safe in the knowledge that what you've booked will at least be going ahead. If that becomes the case those wonderful, charming little enterprises, just like Beacons could have been, will be in even more danger of becoming financially inviable through poor ticket sales.

I'm not pretending to know any sort of solution to all of this. However, it does seem clear that if smaller festivals are to survive, there needs to be a serious re-think as to what approach organisers should take, with an emphasis on fewer events and more diverse line-ups to ensure that corporate giants don't become the only options and, crucially, more paying customers aren't left in the lurch with last-minute cancellations and festival dreams dashed.

02. Dananananaykroyd - Good Time by Republic of Music
Tom Vek - Aroused by modularpeople

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

This Just In: Brilliant Pop Band Does Brilliant Cover Of Brilliant Pop Song!

Noah and the Whale in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge - 10/08/11

After a few weeks off, due mainly to Elliot being on holiday and me working 9-5 and generally being a bit knackered and busy, I've finally mustered up the motivation to write a little blog post before I head off gallivanting at Beacons festival in Skipton this weekend. Once again, it's another Noah and the Whale love-in on Quiff Pro 'Fro - wahey! As regular readers will know, I bloody love this band. They're the most underrated, misunderstood British pop/indie/folk/rock of the past few years, blah blah blah blah... I think I've pretty much covered my opinion on Noah and the Whale in these respective pieces (Last Night On Earth Album Review // Interview // Anti-Valentine's Albums // 'Wild Thing' Article), so I'll just get on with it.

Today's Live Lounge band in with Fearne Cotton on BBC Radio 1 was - yep, you guessed it - only Noah and the bloody Whale. I've listened to an inordinate amount of that station recently, as any followers of our Twitter feed (follow us - @QuiffProFro!) will undoubtably know. Working back in the same warehouse job that inspired these posts on Radio 1 a few months ago, I've struggled amiably through a tidal wave of terrible #1 singles (Pitbull, JA-son DeruuuuuUUuuloooOO, JLS and Cher Flippin' Lloyd), but every so often that station does produce a golden nugget. It's always interesting hearing the Live Lounge covers - I'm often surprised by artists I might have written off, sometimes disappointed with artists I like, and always intrigued to hear what one crap band might do with another crap band's crap song. And sometimes, everything just magically aligns in the Maida Vale studio. Just last week, Nero did a surprisingly excellent cover of Friendly Fires' 'Live Those Days Tonight' - they took the song, applied their own sound to it, and made it sound absolutely huge. Adding a throbbing wub-wub-wubby bassline where the original is toe-tappingly synthy and rhythmically samba-esque actually sounded pretty ace.

I was pretty psyched to hear what Noah and the Whale were going to come up with for their mystery cover. After playing a live version of the absolutely amazing new single 'Life Is Life', Noah and the Whale unveiled it as being Robyn's 'Call Your Girlfriend'. As soon as it kicked off, I felt myself grinning almost instantly - the original is a really excellent pop song, and probably the best of its type to have been released in recent memory. I really do love it - the melodies are great, the lyrics provide a different take on the standard break-up theme, and it's catchy as hell. Noah and the Whale's cover is predictably rocked-up, and transforms a very modern synthy pop song into an '80s sounding pop-rock tune, whilst Charlie Fink's slightly drawling vocals really suit Robyn's moderately unconventional pop stylings. With a stomping 4/4 beat, to me it actually sounds more energetic than the original, though that just might be because, well, I prefer 80's sounding pop-rock to modern synthy pop. Oh, and the guitar solo is simple but really nice - to me, the crazy synthy solo-y bit in the original is the track's only weak point, so I was pleased that the guys managed to translate it nicely. Either way, it's a really great Live Lounge performance which proves yet again what an excellent band Noah and the Whale are, so give it a spin below!

  Noah And The Whale - Call Your Girlfriend by quiffprofro