Damien Rice: O (Vector Recordings: 2002)
Associated to a genre that I’ve never really warmed to, where, subjectively speaking, there exists a minefield of sub-par, mundane posers unable to evoke even the slightest bit of energy or emotion, it would be fair to say that acoustic music has never been capable of seducing me.
With that said when I first heard Damien Rice’s single ‘Cannonball’ on the radio I absolutely despised it and continued to do so until an ex-girlfriend proclaimed to be a fan. Taking this as a subtle hint to show some initiative, after several days of fretting I eventually opted to ignore my hatred for acoustic music by purchasing a copy of Rice’s debut album O. This in turn resulted in her playing it when we were together, which, to my surprise, eventually culminated in it winning over my stubborn affections.
While many of his folk peers seem content to just string a few chords together, churning out tepid, dull narrations with little vocal range, Rice surpasses this mediocrity by emphatically adding texture and personality to the songs. Most notable is his ability to induce an abundance of melodrama, create powerful instrumentals and then articulate himself through a wide range of vocal tones. Akin to the style of Jeff Buckley, besides having a spectacular voice, the Irish singer-songwriter tends to vary his delivery from timid whisperings to loud cries, a tool that undoubtedly adds suspense to the emotion-filled narrative.
This particular method of vocal delivery is coupled with the album’s varying sound, alternating between a stripped down acoustic guitar and an entire orchestra of potent instruments. Creating an impressive backdrop of melodramatic vision, each track contains enough substance and character to distance itself from the often monotonous drone associated with the genre.
As far as O’s themes are concerned, the majority of songs chronicle stories of love and betrayal. However, that’s not to say that Rice doesn’t at times delve into other themes, as ‘Older Chests’ and ‘Eskimo’ for example emphasis other concerns based upon a culture’s breakdown and lack of inspiration.
Despite Rice’s touching, alluring vocals maintaining enough zest to overcome any fear of boredom, the occasional appearance of Lisa Hannigan’s angelic voice proves to be yet another shrewd move. Further intensifying the emotional density of the material, in a genre where vocals play such a central role, the duo flawlessly demonstrate a rare ability to make each and every song cry.
It’s these well executed aesthetics that solidify O’s status as a solid debut album. Packing that extra punch that so many acoustic folk albums seem to lack, rather than taking you on just any other mediocre, restrained trip of self-indulgence, here we are presented with a unique opportunity to partake in this engaging rollercoaster journey of pain, misfortune and sorrow.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: The Blower’s Daughter / Eskimo
The Killers: Hot Fuss (Island: 2004)
Hate it or love it, when Las Vegas’ The Killers first arrived on the scene in the summer of 2004 their cheesy indie-pop polarised the masses. With some, including numerous critics, slating Hot Fuss as being typically big budget, soulless, superficial and irritatingly unoriginal, others of us seemed to get swept into the alluring anthemic nature of the CD’s content. Incidentally, despite the often true legend proclaiming that catchy pop tunes tire rapidly, the fact that this album’s release was perfectly in sync with some great personal memories has ensured that potential flaws are bypassed by a consistent flow of pleasant nostalgia.
Providing a key insight into the new wave revival trend of the 21st century, Hot Fuss merges elements of both 1980s punk and synth in a nostalgic yet equally modern fashion. Employing biting guitars, synth pads and catchy melodies, the album’s predominately disco rock nature has resulted in it being compared to past and contemporary British acts such as Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, The Cure, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party.
Overall Hot Fuss, both lyrically and thematically, is simplistic and cliché-ridden, an aspect that notably emphasises its status as a project largely centred towards sound and instant aesthetic appeal. Mirroring the fad of many other catchy chorus singing, tight-jeans wearing indie bands seeking instant success, while many of their peer’s lack of integrity and talent saw them quickly appear and disappear into the one-hit wonder hall of fame, The Killer’s borrowing of past trends and magnetic hooks quickly propelled them to super stardom.
Despite staking a strong case for the new wave revival throne, The Killers’ ability to outmuscle many of their competitors is at times questioned by an occasional flaw in the formula. Replacing their fast-paced disco rock for a slow and clumsy ballad, the album’s final track ‘Everything Will Be Alright’, exposes an inability to create magic outside of the energetic disco sphere.
Regardless of the occasional freshman slip up, all in all Hot Fuss can be compared to a greatest hits tape filled full of carefully selected party jams. Possessing an abundance of seductive tactics dependent upon the foundations of Brandon Flowers’ effeminate, enchanting delivery, while substance and longetivity are not among its key features, The Las Vegas quartet compensate their debut disk’s lack of depth by serving up an alluring, overpowering dose of enchanting sugary pop numbers.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: Midnight Show
Like the majority of supergroups, Audioslave, a band formed by ex-Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell and the Rage against the Machine instrumental support cast of Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, were from the beginning destined to be dismissed. Composed of personalities who had effectively already “made-it”, the initial question was just how Rage’s politically active identity could coincide with Cornell’s depressing, apolitical song writing. Big players working together on a project usually brings about a forced, incoherent outcome, as each member generally seems hesitant to compromise his talent for the greater sound of the band.
With Chris Cornell taking up writing duties, the album on a lyrical level is largely comprised of heartfelt but altogether flaccid, impotent stories. Based predominantly upon the ex-Soundgarden vocalist’s own drink problems and split from his wife, regardless of their personal importance, the big budget monstrous sound tends to swallow up into oblivion any potential sense of narrative brilliance.
Although it would be fair to assume that Cornell’s introspective lyrics would struggle to harmoniously exist alongside Morello, Commerford and Wilk’s trademark aggression, Audioslave’s debut album demonstrates that the instrumental cast’s heavy artillery actually serves well in adding substance to the vocalist’s pain. Adding some much needed melodrama to the angst-ridden lyrics, the end result clearly illustrates each band member’s mutual respect against self-indulgence.
Laughing in the face of popular criticism and on looking sceptics, Audioslave’s hybrid of styles somehow defies all odds by impressively clattering forward in an unselfish yet competitive fashion of pure exhibitionism and unadulterated swagger. Incorporating Morello’s trademark guitar riffs, Commerford’s stinging baselines, Wilks’ combative drumming and Cornell’s howling delivery, each member plays his part in creating a truly well-rounded, forceful sound.
While it is yet to be seen whether the public will ever let go of the group’s roots, it is inevitable that fans of each respective camp will have their own particular conflicts of interest. Indicating the necessity in obtaining an objective, non-nostalgic approach, eliminating each band member’s past associations offers the prospect of being pleasantly surprised by a project that succeeds in fusing the style of two hugely successful bands from the previous decade.
Combining an assortment of hard-rock anthems and captivating ballads, Audioslave’s debut album can be best compared to a provocative, big-budget action movie. Directed by the Ridley Scott of the rock world Rick Rubin, this release is undoubtedly geared towards explosive, aesthetic results and an altogether short-term appeal. Consequently lacking the durability and required substance of a masterpiece, while you may not be listening to this album in five years time, its well-managed exhibitionist nature does affirm its status as a respectable, harmonious, fully functional encounter between two powerhouses of 90s rock.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: Set it Off
Embrace: The Good Will Out (Hut Records: Geffen: 1998)
Released when the subgenre of Britpop was arguably on its last lap, The Good Will Out was to be a precursor to a new brand of British music that favoured a more introspective direction. Drifting away from the “laddish” culture of Oasis and Blur, this era of music tended to focus less specifically on British identity and more on universal issues of emotional turmoil.
The Good Will Out tends to float between these two mediums, incorporating Embrace’s trademark softer, orchestral sound alongside the occasional appearance of archetypal, testosterone-fuelled “Britpop” material. Incidentally, the band do themselves no favours when attempting to imitate the cocky, macho style of Liam Gallagher. In what can only be defined as external pressures to fit within the quick-fire success path of the “Britpop” legacy, when Embrace skip the ballads in favour of formulaic, grungier aesthetics, the end result tends to expose their inability to successfully play the role of the alpha male.
Such examples can be extended to I Want the World, One Big Family, You’ve Got to Say Yes and The Last Gas, songs that appear totally out of place on an otherwise cohesive album. Clinging on to the classic formula of Britpop in its heyday, one has to wonder if their presence is down to record label politics and a determination to follow the previous prototype of guaranteed success.
Nonetheless, besides these few disastrous moments of misidentification, the band seems to really prosper when performing emotive, sing-along ballads geared towards the dissection of vulnerability, rejection and turmoil. Introducing a style that Coldplay, Snow Patrol and Keane would later make their own, chances are if you’ve ever been in love you’ll be able to at least relate to some aspects of this album.
Implementing simple yet moving lyrics, this heartfelt material incorporates many themes that play a key role in contemporary relationships. From Come Back to What You Know’s insight into the difficulties faced when leaving a doomed relationship, to Higher Sight’s focusing on balancing ambitions with love, the album’s delicate tone and heartfelt lyrics succeed in creating a powerful ambience of fragile relations.
The enchanting, heart-wrenching aspects of the album are furthermore reinforced by lead vocalist Danny Mcnamara’s occasionally out of tune, plaintive voice, a tool that excels in expressing a range of emotions without ever sounding artificial. Matched with a potent orchestral arrangement similar to the Verve, the grandeur of the evocative production complements a style that outweighs the occasional misplaced, distorted sounds of Britpop’s macho swagger.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: That’s All Changed Forever
Formed in 2006, the coming together of Tom Morello and Boots Riley had leftist revolutionist rubbing their hands together in sheer joy at the prospect of an all-star political supergroup. Unfortunately as if often the case with the majority of supergroups, this optimism was somewhat hindered by the bands self-titled debut offering, an LP full of style and swagger that despite being charming lacked that killer punch. Undermined by cheesy choruses and a surprising lack of substance, the album’s at times rushed, diluted party themes failed to live up to the pairs politically conscious past accomplishments.
Fast forward one year and the group are back with an EP appetizer formulated while on tour. Introduced through the promotion of the lead single, a cover of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes, fans should be warned that this new CD includes three covers plus a mix of Promenade, a song that originally appeared on their first album. As the EP boasts 7 tracks this simply means that only 3 of them are entirely new, an interesting twist that already begins to raise question marks over its status as a valued asset.
Given my stance on seldom appreciating cover tracks, it is of the utmost importance that such moves can be justified by at least enhancing a segment of the original. As past attempts often reveal, bar one or two rare examples very few have succeeded in legitimizing this risky challenge. In the case of The Ghetto Blaster EP, the rendition of two vastly popular, critically acclaimed songs leaves mixed results. Firstly despite always being a fan of the LL Cool J version, Morello and Riley’s Mama Said Knock You Out can in comparison be defined as a complete failure. While the duo do manage to capture the hip hop classics’ aggression and effectively re-enact its simple production, its presence is nowhere near on par with the charismatic original.
On the other hand the band’s attempts at covering the more contemporary Paper Planes appears somewhat less deseperate and artificial, an arguement that is reinforced thanks mainly to Morello’s trademark verstatility. Managing to at least stand ground with the original, the only question mark left hanging is why its inclusion was deemed so necessary, given Riley’s own songwriting credentials and the fact that the song has always been on a lyrical level pretty damn poor.
Besides the covering of these two external tracks the EP also features two internal variations, with one being a rock rendition of the Coup’s Everythang and the other a head-scratching “Guitar Fury” remix of Promenade. In respect to these two particular additions, there is very little to say besides further questionings of filler-material and sinister motives based upon making a quick buck out of fans. To this extent while Everythang is indeed a strong track that merits praise as a separate entity, the fact that it’s a rehash from Riley’s Coup material hardly justifies its inclusion 9 years later. If the covering of songs wasn’t bad enough the “Guitar Fury” that adds 1 minute and 9 seconds to the original version of Promenade is arguably the most bizarre inclusion of all. Adding nothing bar a funky riff from Morello, it is hard not be sceptical when defining its useless presence on The Ghetto Blaster EP.
Covers aside track number one Ghetto Blaster appears as the first of three entirely new songs that grace this otherwise nostalgic release. Providing everything that was to be expected from the duo, the song can be best defined by its aggressive funk-inspired rage that see’s Morello provide a trademark riff and Riley a slick-flowed rant on racial injustice. Pulsating through the speakers with alarming velocity, the track’s aggressive edge hints at the revolutionary stance seldom evident on the band’s debut LP. Showing promise and further delight to those who have always basked in Morello’s hard-rock artillery, the tracks rippling presence helps conceal the cracks by presenting a glimpse into the bands undisputable potential.
Unfortunately the other two newcomers Scars -a tale of being broke- and The New Fuck You -a glimpse at the changes in society- tend to go down another route, once again confirming the bands key flaw to date, namely tacky, cringeworthy choruses that undermine the materials vigour. Illustrating a frustrating example of under achievement, much like the 1st album the tracks strong points fail to contain the knockout punch thanks to lazy slip-ups that ultimately cost the band dearly. In the case of Scars and The New Fuck You, humorous lyrics together with Riley’s slick flow and Morello’s monstrous production clearly display that these shortcomings are not related to a lack of chemistry, but rather are tarnished by poor misplaced choruses that relate moreso to the bands detrimental, conflictive party persona.
As far as flows go Boots’ cannot be disputed, as more often than not his laid back drawl complements Morello’s thundering riffs in a harmonic fashion. Despite this it is the lyrical content that lets the emcee down, illustrated by party rhymes that dilute the ferocity of the instrumentals and the overall identity of the bands revolutionary stance. Whether it’s rehashing successful pop tunes or playing sing along for drunk frat-boys, it is clear that while at times aesthetically pleasing The Street Sweeper Social Club needs some serious tweaking if it is ever to become the super revolutionist group that it was initially hyped up to be.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: Ghetto Blaster
Available For Free Download/ Purchase: http://www.organisedmess.com/mentaldisorder.html
As is often the case with many independent debuting artists, any pre-release enigma surrounding their persona can often be unveiled by attempting to interpret their adopted alias and MySpace page. In the case of UK rapper Jester Jacobs, a glance at his name and MySpace would instantly identify him as being a humorous emcee, more concerned with packing jokes than following his peer’s trends of macho braggadocio. Presenting a potentially viable marketing strategy for a bourgeois emcee without a history of ghetto residency, Jester J’s MySpace page tellingly includes an idiosyncratic Pringle rap, a comical music video titled Blap and a professed analogy that sees him liken his sound to Alan Partridge on crack.
“I’m not familiar with arms and shanks, merely take the piss like armitage shanks” - Targets
Existing as a free download, Mental Disorder’s 16 tracks can be thematically divided into a number of principal concerns. Touching on drug abuse, rejection and remaining defiant in the face of adversity, Jester overall attempts to criticise hip hop’s phony nature by concocting an array of personal narratives within the realm of comic commentary. Although such themes are littered throughout the album full attention is dedicated in a categorical fashion, meaning that similarly themed songs will often be found grouped together. As such the albums general direction kicks off with a couple of tracks based upon the premise of ultimately flaunting the rappers punch lines, a factor that clearly emphasises his battle rap history and eager desire to justify his place in the music game. Packing rhymes full of similes, Jester’s preoccupation with promoting himself as “best rapper you never heard of” at times comes up short, as by squeezing too many words into the bars –Broadband Flow and Hot Metal- the rappers flow becomes suffocated and out of sync with the music.
This out of sync dispute can perhaps be attributed to the production process, as in certain cases it does seem as though Jester had penned the rhymes before hearing the beat. This argument however can be overlooked by the often consistent standard set by the rapper, hinting that the fault perhaps lies equally with moments of weak production. Whilst in those few painful periods the emcees swagger is severely hindered, the quartet of Organised Mess and Raven Beats deserve credit for laying down a varied selection of fresh instrumentals. Being an independent artist without major financial backing must surely prove difficult at times, as opportunities to choose from a whole market of beats become something of a pipe dream in contrast to rap’s world heavyweights. Nonetheless besides the bewildering inclusion of Broadband Flow, Hippo Magnet and Targets -instrumentals that are garbage and clearly don’t favour the emcees flow- production on Total Control, Hypercondriacs and Note to Self at least help redeem the albums overall promising sound. From the latter’s pulsating, sped up sampling of the Scarface theme tune to Lost Mines refreshing ambient offering, Mental Disorder covers a whole range of pleasing aesthetic styles.
“Can’t sleep you swore it was the last time, but talks cheap now you’re in deep in this pastime” – Comedown King
After bypassing the bulk of self-promotional introductory bragging material that births the majority of the LPs beginning, Mental Disorder takes a moment to focus on one of its protagonist’s favourite pastimes, drugs. Composing a narcotic-orientated narrative of 4 tracks that start with Automatic and end with Lost Mines, Jester J commentates on his destiny as a “toker” before presenting us with a psychedelic insight into the hallucinating trips of an evening on mushrooms. Verbally sporadic and vividly intense, the night’s events end with the inevitable comedown as the suffering emcee is forced to confront his mental torment whilst “sharing commuter trains with suits in the AM”. Sure to please the student crowd as well as anyone else who shares the same pastimes, these songs generally deliver on the promise of comedy rap whilst furthermore illustrating Jester J’s abilities as a competent storyteller.
“It aint about where you from or where your beds at, it’s about what you on and where your heads at” – Hypercondriacs
Whilst the album flirts with comedy, drugs and battle rap swagger, its true underlying theme and the cause for such “Mental Disorder” stems from Jester’s bitter love/hate relationship towards the genre of hip hop. Surrendering from the get-go his lack of gangster credentials, the emcee rejects the clichéd lies of the genre by painting an honest personal portrait of his affluent status. Far from an upbringing in the impoverished ghettos, Jester openly confesses to having “took a degree to waste time” and overall seems determined to challenge the foundations of a genre often based upon fabrications. Dismissing raps “steroid chugging queens” and their self-professed perfection, in tracks such as Run and Platonic the emcee portrays himself as an everyday guy outmuscled and jacked by thugs, whilst in regards to the latter shunned in his attempts to get a “cheeky lay”. Refusing to imitate the traditional tough guy / player persona, Jester’s status as a child of the middle classes sees him attempt to play with the identity of rap music by embracing its myths in a comic fashion. Attacking fake gangsterism by effectively parodying it, the finest example has to be the single Blap, a story based upon a group of guys pulling drive-bys with a pissed-filled super soaker. Being both witty and playful, the track cements its status as one of the albums highlights, as well as evoking pleasant memories of the 1996 comedy film, “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood”.
Although the parodying proves fruitful in successfully pointing out some of the genres absurdities, in the case of Jester J it also illustrates his sense of delusion at the difficulties presented within his inability to infiltrate raps circle of respect. Recounting stories of DJs who blank him up until they hear his rhymes, the industries judgemental, stubborn nature leaves the artist at times feeling slightly wounded. Going as far as predicting potential failure as a result of his affluent background, on Hypercondriacs the emcee predicts a backlash due to him possessing “no infamy”. Reacting by claiming that “most rappers are hopeless”, Jester vocalises his concerns on just how much talent is being pushed aside in favour of finding artists that fit a more “gangster” image.
As far as features are concerned Mental Disorder includes appearances from 3 other artists, in what proves to be a smart move for a musician looking to gain some much needed coverage. Keeping it strictly in-house, only the inclusion of a rapper dubbed Scott Sprite can have cause for complaint, as despite adding to Run’s humour the emcee’s poor rhyme structure and flow tend to undermine the necessity of the tracks presence. Despite this wayward inclusion both the soulful vocals of Charlie White and the raps of Jake Frost help maintain the albums appeal, as both guests enhance the material whilst equally demonstrating good chemistry with the protagonist.
Besides the help of friends, Jester also calls upon the use of various film samples in a bid to clarify and heighten the intensity of the narratives direction. Whilst some include the typical motivational gangster film quotes, the emcee also plays it true to his comic roots by incorporating a range of more humorous samples. For example a scene from Falling Down is used to good effect in highlighting a territorial dispute, whilst arguably the best aesthetic choice is the addition of Office Space’s Peter Gibbons characteristically expressing his dismay at the working life. Employed as a platform for Mental Disorders hustler anthem Resume, like the film the concept of 9-5 slavery is shunned here in favour of living the dream.
Overall Mental Disorder plays out as the title would suggest, with the core of Jester’s work presenting a somewhat schizophrenic internal conflict. Unfortunately whilst fresh at times, the albums preoccupation with commercial hip hop’s “inane chatter” seems to rub off on itself, as within the jokes and vivid stories comes clichéd tales of lyrical prowess, hustling and cruising. With Hot Metal providing a strong representation of this conflictive outlook, after dismissing rappers and their tendency to engage in monotonous bragging, Jester goes on to ironically describe his lyrics as being “lavish”. This side of our protagonist’s persona arguably points to a transitional period from battle rapper to studio emcee, as whilst moments of the album offer interesting narratives of comic intelligence, other parts make way for your typical battle themed arrogance. In fact even the rapper’s attempts to wow listeners with his wordplay at times falter, an argument reinforced by the occasional employment of impotent generic punch lines. That said songs such as the bonus track “Rapper Rundown” unveil a contrasting glimpse of creativity, as Jester’s uncanny attempt to incorporate rapper’s names into a tale of a fugitive illustrates just how much talent the emcee possesses.
Whilst far from perfect –the stench of amateurism does squeeze through at times- Mental Disorder does throughout the majority of its duration prove to be technically sound. From Jester’s applaudable, attention-commanding charisma to a range of topics aimed to please almost any hip hop lover, its diversity can be defined as a showcase that refuses to confine the emcee to only one style of rapping. Experimenting with almost everything including the flow, production and choice of topic, we are energetically informed just how much more to Jester there is than the funny side as he invites us onboard an intimate journey into his many internal conflicts. Overall regardless of the inevitable flaws that often come with a debut piece so varied, Jester J’s versatility, charisma and evident talent enable us to warrant overlooking questionable decision-making in favour of caving into the captivating lure of this shizo-infested journey.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: BLAP, NOTE TO SELF
Mowgli: 93 (Dodeca Records)
Digital Release Date: 9th April 2010
If you type Mowgli into Google, besides numerous Jungle Book sites and some London-based house artist, you are likely to eventually stumble across several promo links centred upon a UK hip hop artist and his soon-to-be released album, 93. Dubbed the “Emcee-artist-poet-social critic”, Mowgli’s publicist team at Dodeca Records sent me over a copy of the CD as they look to create some pre-release buzz for an artist still unknown to many.
Given the rapper’s alias and its association with the Jungle Book, the title of his debut LP 93 could perhaps be linked to Mowgli’s first appearance in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “In the Rukh” (1893), or perhaps more fittingly the 1933 chronicle, “All the Mowgli stories”. The title aside, the first thing noticeable about this release is both the credited length of the production process –the album was recorded over a period of 5 years- and the fact that it contains an incredible 25 tracks. Inciting memories of the marathon, skit-filled No Limit albums, potential listeners will be relieved to know that 93 does in no way incorporate any gunshot / voicemail filler material, and has instead been intricately crafted by a 24 year-old with clearly a lot to say.
Another reason for the CD’s high volume of tracks is due to the implementation of interweaved sampled melodies which, although short in length, fundamentally prove key in enabling one to take in the barrage of information being vocalised. Creating a sanctuary to the rampage of lyrical mastery, these periods provide a refreshing contrast to the fury of the heartfelt lyrics, while furthermore offering a chance to reflect on the cryptic social commentary.
In fact compared to many of his peers the phrase commercial is certainly not to be associated with the 24 year old-rapper, as he avoids clichés and radio friendly hooks in order to bring more of a rugged, heartfelt perspective to the pains of London street life. Discarding the traditional 16 bar verse / chorus formula, Mowgli, discontent with merely spitting ABC rhymes, challenges the boundaries of wordplay by intricately crafting rhymes that pay homage to true hip hop in all its complexity. With personification, vivid imagery, an extensive vocabulary and all-round wordplay paving the path, the Londoner uses his literary arsenal in such a head spinning fashion that to hold on for the journey listeners should be advised to remain firmly seated with a pair of headphones.
Within this representation of “a generation born dreading what’s next”, Mowgli doesn’t once seem to delve into personal stories of macho bravado, preferring instead to elect himself as the mouthpiece for a generation of abandoned youth. In line with such concerns, the cockney emcee covers a range of discourses including seedy sex stories, drug abuse, decayed streets and brutal violence. Filled with pessimism and outright disdain, the album’s bleak outlook speaks from the eyes of one of the many “dreamers with beanstalks to climb up”, while even encompassing global themes as diverse as: economic turmoil, “feel like kings when they’re living in debt”, malnutrition, “fast-food sushi, powdered lunches, death comes a’ la carte” and environmental concerns, “counting how many islands sunk in the past week”. Firing off on all cylinders, Mowgli even takes a crack at creating a modern-day post-Victorian Oliver Twist tale, in which themes of poverty and thieving are modernised into today’s concerns of fraud and mindless stabbings.
As the album is fundamentally lyrically dense, the production, much like the “second golden age” era of US hip hop, plays a slightly secondary role. Largely atmospheric, it aesthetically mirrors the work of Pete Rock and RZA in being effective while failing to draw attention away from the lyricist. There are exceptions however, such as Sky Diver, She, Tax, Puddle and the 24 year-old’s quasi-grime offering Grit. These tracks purposely help break up any potential sense of monotony, as well as in the case of the first two, offering the possibility of nightclub airplay. While evoking instances of energy the overall recipe of minimalist beats seems to function as the main blueprint, providing the springboard and necessary space for Mowgli’s puncturing lyrical display.
One of the album’s controversial points is most definitely its quick-fire sporadic delivery, which in helping to create a somewhat mysterious aura could, depending on personal preferences, prove off-putting to some. On the other hand the same characteristic can arguably assist in enhancing the albums longevity, as its abstract nature, whilst perhaps not necessarily evoking instant pleasure, finds itself being appreciated over a period of time. While slightly frustrating to some, any true music enthusiast will be able to appreciate the beauty of an album that even years after purchase still offers something new and fresh.
Returning once more to the debate surrounding the equivocal title, it is somewhat coincidental that the Wu Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was released in 1993. Going on to set the blueprint for many young up and coming lyrical technicians, the album was largely celebrated on account of its success in ushering into the mainstream the raw sound of the hip hop underground. In fact ironically 36 Chambers’ aesthetic similarities with Mowgli’s 93 are endless, as minimalist lo-fi production, lyrical hunger and sampled intervals provide the backdrop for a new UK orientated prototype. Arriving some 17 years later, it would at this stage be optimistic to suggest such similar successes will be obtained on this occasion. Nonetheless despite any questionings of accessibility, Mowgli’s first effort certainly raises the bar for UK hip hop. Featuring a selection of highly talented philosophical poets and producers, this savage swamped portrayal of inner city life brings hope to those subscribing to the notion that hip hop is dead.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: BACK TO THE BRICKS, THE ONE
Before reviewing this album, I decided to embark on a mission to unbox the neglected dusty case of CDs left lingering in the corner of my room. Hoping to invigorate a sense of hype towards Julian Casablancas’ first solo release, I felt it essential to relive the glory days of The Strokes by relistening to the music that 8 years ago took the indie rock scene by storm. Whilst admittedly not inducing the same enthusiastic response as several years back, it did however take little time to reacquaint myself with Casablancas’ distinct vocals and catchy choruses over post-punk/electro-garage melodies. A success of its era and the spawner of many disciples, The Strokes’ recent hiatus has seen its self-proclaimed creative force disappear from the spotlight. Whilst his colleagues flirted with solo careers, Casablancas perhaps yearned for a bit of downtime, taking a moment to re-assess his future endeavours whilst continuing with the ongoing detox programme. Off the bottle now for several years, Casablancas’ unintoxicated vocals still remain drunk-like, as his almost incomprehensible monotonous drone battles its way throughout the duration of Phrazes for the Young.
Profiting from the freedom afforded as a solo artist, Phrazes for the Young offers Casablancas the opportunity to experiment with a number of styles. From 80’s synthpop and country, to a throwback of The Strokes’ post-punk garage sound, one thing this short release doesn’t lack is variety.
Easing listeners in slowly, the first track Out of the Blue, attempts to play it safe by employing what resembles a potential Strokes leftover. With The Strokes-esque guitars setting the backdrop, Casablancas proceeds to recount past mistakes in a bitter tale that subsequently leads his destiny to the gates of hell. Mediocre at best, the songs poppy and evidently catchy rhythm becomes something of an irritation after three listens, with its true lack of substance already beginning to reveal the cracks to this sinking ship.
These cracks become gaping holes after the next two songs, which both incorporate a strong sweet sickening dose of 80’s synthpop. The second of these, 11th Dimension, is incidentally the lead single, ironic considering that it is quite possibly the worst song on the entire album. Coming across as a rendition of the UK band Human League, its gayness stinks of tacky production and surely fails where The Killers have prospered in reestablishing the “New Wave” sound of the 1970’s and 80’s. Whilst perhaps not quite as bad, Left & Right in the Dark‘s synth chimes and drum machine certainly provide yet another example of an experimentation gone wrong, as despite sounding vaguely promising alongside 11th Dimension, it too suffers from its striking aura of cheesy shabbiness.
With the 80’s throwback section thankfully over and done with, Casablancas takes the experimentation to a new level by introducing both 60’s soul and country music. This kicks off with the “soul ballad” 4 Chords of the Apocalypse, followed by the country booze song, Ludlow St. Now whilst the former highlights Casablancas’ vocal discomfort at genre swapping, or rather his inflexibility in general, the latter’s inviting banjo production appears to compliment more the vocalist’s style and as such can be considered a moderate success. In fact whilst failing to arouse anything more special than simple mediocracy, its somewhat charming inclusion at least helps to numb the garbage that has preceded it.
Unfortunately Casablancas’ evident obsession with 1980’s new wave disco punk music makes its return for track number 6, River of Brakelights. However what listeners will find here is a more accessible effort, as the song manages to detach itself from 11th Dimension and Left & Right in the Dark, by incorporating more of a Strokes-esque sound. Uptempo, together with a very 80’s chorus chant, it is sure to sit well with The Strokes’ followers and without being special perhaps exemplifies more of what was expected from this release.
With reactions at this stage generally bordering towards a complete write-off, Casablancas manages to redeem himself on song number 7, Glass. Being the best of the bunch, it’s refreshing presence could easily have found itself playing a lead role on either Room on Fire or First Impressions of Earth, as Casablancas finally momentarily finds a style where he actually prospers. This glorious homecoming to his destined comfort zone is highlighted above all by the manner in which he confidently exercises his trademark vocals, liberating himself from his dull drone over sleek seductive electronic production.
This moment of prowess is short-lived however by the following song Tourist, which above all whilst not returning to the garbage of the CDs openers, marks the return to the now familiar territory of mediocracy. Serving as a critique of industrialization and a sense of feeling out of place, it at least exhibits Casablancas’ experimentations with synth on a more respectable level; although on a better album its mediocracy could equally be shunned as a weak filler.
Whilst I have always respected an artist who experiments and attempts to push himself in breaking new boundaries, the cruel truth is few succeed. With Phrazes for the Young finding itself firmly within this scrap-heap category, it is clear that Casablancas’ two dimensional attempts failed miserably where the likes of Mike Patton and David Bowie have prospered. Sure to still warm the hearts of the NME/Indie faithful, whom ostensibly will never get over the hype that was Is This It, a neutral will clearly see that Casablancas didn’t possess the necessary character and vision to pull of this project – either that or not enough time was invested in truly mastering a new sound. Whichever way you want look at it, this endeavour to recreate cliché driven generic pop music has come up short, with perhaps Ludlow St. being the only true experimental inclusion that he manages to succeed in mastering. Leaving little to cherish bar one song, Casablancas’ ambitious attempt plays more like a misidentity-riddled demo tape, illustrating an artist feebly attempting to find his sound after a period of creative inactivity.
OPENHEARTZOO RECOMMENDS: GLASS
14 dark years have passed since Alice in Chains last released an album. Whilst the music industry has continued to innovate and redevelop styles, for the group and fans alike this time can be characterised as a period of death, both in regards to the Seattle born phenomenon “grunge” and that of lead vocalist Layne Staley, whom after years of reclusion and drug abuse eventually met his demise in 2002. With the embers of this once roaring fire all but dying out, Alice in Chains finally release a much anticipated comeback album just one week after fellow grunge innovators Pearl Jam unveil their ninth album, Backspacer.
Pre-release apprehension came as no surprise, as besides the lengthy hiatus, the devastating loss of Staley together with the drafting in of William DuVall had many questioning how a band can continue to operate without its soul and backbone. After all Staley’s vocals embodied the symbol of the groups melancholic identity, as each song of torture and despair was amplified with emotional power by the lead vocalists distinct haunting voice.
This perceived scepticism over any potential remodelling of the band can firmly be put to rest however, as the majority of die hard nostalgic fans will be delighted with Black Gives Way to Blue’s ever so 90’s grunge sound. Perhaps due in part to the strong influence of Jerry Cantrell both vocally and on guitar, Alice in Chains refuse to stray from their original path, instead gifting us with 11 tracks filled with the trademark guitar distortion over vocal slurs of pain and anger. Incredibly even a cameo from Elton John on the title track, fails to rob the release of its “grunginess”.
Rather than using DuVall’s inclusion and the passing of trends to remodel themselves, Alice in Chains have made it their duty to emphatically continue the legacy of grunge and Layne Staley. This factor can be credited equally to the role of DuVall, whom in karaoke-esque fashion seems to fit perfectly into the group’s aesthetic. Whilst arguably being part of a “break them in slowly tactic”, here the new vocalist does not attempt in any way to implement his own style, instead naturally evolving himself into the backdrop of the AiC trademark sound.
As we enter the age of cringe worthy money-orientated comebacks, it was perhaps natural to be at first a little sceptical about any potential AiC reunion. In fact whilst other groups have recently helped define the great phrase “falling off”, Black Gives Way to Blue presents a pleasant contrast, offering its fans and new apprentices the opportunity to relive Alice in Chains in all its grunge-metal glory.
Proving they still have it, what remains of the rest “of the best” grunge powerhouses makes this release that little bit more special. That is whilst Cornell has gone pop, Cobain’s dead and the world continue to celebrate the mediocrity of Pearl Jam’s continuously deteriorating sound, Black Gives Way to Blue serves to remind us of the good times, a fact which will surely bring an element of peace to the late great Layne Staley.
OPENHEARTZOO HIGHLIGHTS: ACID BUBBLE, A LOOKING IN VIEW
Call me a pessimist of whatever, but I always seem to be emotionally drawn to discovering music of a more negative nature. That’s not to say I spend my days slitting my wrists whilst listening to my music collection, or that I’m some self-harming goth type, only that I find sad music to often have more substance. Yes a controversial discourse, but what the hell I’ve put it out there and well on that note after discovering that Patrick Wolf’s new album The Bachelor was to be a journal of hard times, I was perhaps even more eager to listen than previously.
Another factor I originally found particularly appeasing was that Wolf would be releasing this album through bandstocks.com. This avoidance of mainstream politics produces pleasant results in breaking down the ongoing artist/fan barrier, as the fans can invest £10 shares, thus helping to fund the album and getting in return a share of the profits.
Whilst I found Wolf’s previous album The Magic Position surprisingly fresh, his own cult fan base will be pleased to know that his parting with Universal Records will see him return more to his signature folk sound. That’s not to say that the colourful eclectic style of the Magic Position has been totally abandoned. In fact The Bachelor style attempts to fuse Wolf’s Celtic folk sound with a somewhat futuristic mesh of Techo pop. Aided by Alec Empire, (formerly of Atari Teenage Riot), and the pretentious voice of actress Tilda Swinton, Wolf’s new album does however mark a return to a more gloomy and overall reflective perspective, a characteristic missing on the overly positive and poppy Magic Position.
In fact whilst originally planned as a double album, Wolf has decided to release two albums separately, with the second edition The Conqueror before slated for release next year. Whilst The Conqueror is said to be the ending of depression and the celebration of Wolf’s new found love, The Bachelor is influenced by his period of touring, a period in which he was ultimately lonely and losing faith in the concept of love and happiness.
Despite the album being pinpointed as a journal of losing hope, the first song actually displays a rather upbeat and positive willingness to fight against “the evils”. Hard Times marks a somewhat political stance, in which Wolf discusses revolution and fundamentally re-opens the whole twin tower conspiracy theory. Nonetheless after this somewhat triumphant bow, melancholies darkness gently seeps into The Bachelor. This is reflected on the song that takes the albums name, as The Bachelor paints a picture of loneliness, in which Wolf echoingly repeats, “No one will wear my silver ring”. This theme of lost hope, of never finding his true love is sprinkled throughout the album, finding its way once again on Who Will, a ballad of despair and defeatism.
The Song that follows the Bachelor marks the refreshing return to Wolf’s trademark Celtic folk sound. Arguably being the best song on the album, Damaris sees him play the part of a broken hearted man dealing with the wounds of a lost love, as religion and the constraints of society cause his heart to bleed for Damaris, the “gypsy stray” and “bleak orphan”. Embodying the albums strikingly dark and bleak imagery, Wolf paints a picture of black rain and death in a heart rendering and extreme melancholic fashion.
In fact the song that follows, Thickets, whilst not possessing the same awe as Damaris, doesn’t fail to continue this imagery of darkness and suffocation over yet another Celtic folk inspired instrumental. With Wolf at his lyrical best, we are enlightened into another tale of darkness, in which he delivers a lyrically summary of his world tour…
“Well, have I been travelling so long
that I forgot how to stop?
Why are my brakes all broken?
Wheels spinning out of control”
Metaphorically bleak, Wolf at this point delves into a somewhat more experimental nature as we enter the second half of the album. This begins with Count of Casualty, a song that marks a break from the Celtic folk by incorporating a more Death Cab for Cutie type electro pop sound. In line with this aesthetic change of music, Wolf temporarily awakes himself from a moment of self-pity, by demanding the young generations to “Wake up!” and ultimately attempt to make a change.
Unfortunately despite Wolf’s move away from his signature sound paying dividends on Count of Casualty, Vulture the first single and a reference to the continuous struggles of touring, fails to offer the same sense of hope. Using a somewhat 80s pop sound, this songs experimental edge doesn’t hold the lure of Count of Casualty, and like Battle -another experimental number which sees Wolf attempt to aggressively emulate Nine Inch Nails’ industrial sound- these songs end up rather shamefully adding a tint to an otherwise flawless album.
Besides these moments of musical crisis, The Bachelor remains relatively triumphant in painting a portrait of Wolf’s melancholy. Exploring a number of themes that include media and political corruption, the album sees him more at home when delving into the dark imagery and self-pity that clearly haunt and dictate this personal moment of loss and hopelessness. Thankfully for Wolf there’s a sense of hope however, illustrated by the fact that the album both starts and ends on a note of positivity, of an energy to stand up and on a sense of refinding inner strength, themes that I’m sure will play a more frequent role in The Conqueror.
In this light whilst any sense of hope this time round is drowned out by the dark imagery and self-pity that plagues The Bachelor, what we get here is a clear and rather interesting account of Wolf’s pain, a journey which leads us through his own internal battle between hope and defeat, and his overall attempt to overcome the evil demons that possess him. Whilst it may not be the masterpiece that was Lycanthropy, Wolf’s fourth album is definitely worth a listen and should at least help his cause in reclaiming those loyal fans left scarred by The Magic Position and Universal Records.