Tuesday, March 17, 2009

No Lily On The Horizon (aka It's Not Me, It's U2)

Is it just me or is 2009 just not zinging with music yet? Perhaps i'm jumping the gun a bit (It is only March) or perhaps i've been in this blogging game long enough to know that it's not brilliant music all the time. Don't get me wrong, there's already some highlights in recent times i can think of, but i've been finding myself struggling to passionately vomit post after post (a condition that's normal i promise). Jaded amateur music criticism aside, here's some reviews of some albums I have been enjoying. Take a gurnsey, oh, and apologies for the epic word count, but i figured after two weeks off i'd make up for lost time.

Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You (Regal, 2009)

A lot has happened in the three years since Lily Allen’s debut, 2006’s Alright, Still. Allen’s surprise success, word of mouth via myspace and sparky media presentation, opened the doors to a number of talented young female artists in England. Most notably Kate Nash and Adele, and to a lesser extent Duffy and Laura Marling, still these songstresses haven’t filled the void left by Allen’s absence.

Opener Everyone’s At It sets the tone for the album and is more ambitious than anything from her debut, mixing pulsing drums and a wealth of studio trickery with Allen’s still-cutting lyrics, here focusing on the behind-the-doors attitude to drugs.

Following is The Fear, an excellent lead single, rich in production with a chorus of canny synths for a refrain and Allen’s self-referential words pushed to the fore, “I want to be rich and I want lots of money/ I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny.” The irony being that her open approach is at once both clever and funny.

Take Not Fair mixing humour with straight up realism “Oh I lie here in the wet patch/in the middle of the bed/ I’m feeling pretty damn hard done by/ spent ages giving head/then I remember all the nice things that you ever said to me/Maybe I’m just overreacting maybe you’re the one for me.”

Her disarming honesty, complete with cursing, makes her charming and likeable. Of course it helps that carrying her words is a brilliant command of effortless melody. Fuck You begins like the beginning of some romantic soapy and its bright chirpiness remains even while Allen decries racism and bigotry. Sure, it has novelty hit written all over it, but it shows her excellent ability to balance credibility with savvy pop smarts.

There’s more to the album than just canny lyrics too, where previously Allen dealt in national styles like ska and garage, It’s Not Me, It’s You looks wider positioning Lily Allen as a massive genre-flirt. Not Fair contains snatches of rock-a-billy and 22’s middle eight is rag-time piano, elsewhere there’s dance pop, dark ballads and Never Gonna Happen sounds like Zorba The Greek given a fresh funky lick of paint.

The only real time her charm fails her is on Him, him being God, and her tackling an issue just a bit above her – no pun intended. Where most of her songs contain an important subtext beneath a surfeit of off-hand language, it doesn’t gel properly here. It isn’t as crassly serious as, say Joan Osbourne wondering ‘What if God was one of us?’ but it reeks of tackiness just as badly.

Allen’s second album shows that her debut wasn’t simply a fluke, nor that her style is simply a shtick, while she’s unapologetically ‘pop’ and modern - her cheeky delivery and accessible variety make her the most interesting (and likeable) version of a diva in an age.

U2 – No Line On The Horizon (Island, 2009)

In a parallel universe where U2 aren’t one of the world’s most popular bands fronted by one of the world’s most recognisable pop stars, the release of No Line On The Horizon would be a triumph. Imagine it were the debut of an unknown entity, it would be considered a masterpiece, but – back to reality – it isn’t; it’s the product of a band whose every move is categorised with high expectations. Besides it contains the hallmarks of a group with years of experience.

Produced by the classic team of Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and Daniel Lanois, it’s at once capitalises on U2’s traditional sound that they’ve galvanised from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb while pushing them in some more adventurous directions.

While Bono remains Bono, all Christian references and yearning philosophy, this album sees him writing in an intriguing character driven mode. Album closer Cedars of Lebanon imagines him as a war correspondent “trying to make a deadline/Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline.” Elsewhere the playful rocker Stand Up Comedy dips into self-parody “be careful of small men with big ideas” and the laid-back epic of Moment of Surrender contains a fantasy of anonymity “I did not notice the passers-by/and they did not notice me.”

Along with the lyrical variety is a panorama of styles. Essentially the album is strung together by a series of big radio-friendly songs such as Magnificent and I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight complete with sing-a-long choruses. But it’s the moments in-between that offer the most variety. Taking in everything from spiky rock in the form of the title track, while Breathe and lead single Get On Your Boots provide something playful. Elsewhere there’s a wintry ballad suitably titled White As Snow while the seven minute groove of Moment Of Surrender instantly cements itself among the ranks of the U2 canon alongside One.

Even for a band that has never shied away from thinking and living large, it’s an ambitious record; attempting to appeal both to the newer admirers, an iPod friendly generation, as well as the long-term fans that put the band in such a lofty position in the first place. For the most of it they succeed too.It’s very easy to forget that this is a band that’s been around for nearly three decades. Their age only shows in positive reflections like their adeptness with the studio and Bono’s occasionally richly weathered voice, despite their age they still manage to find the energy and excitement from every new album; they’re surely the envy of their peers.

Speaking of which, when recently asked by Q magazine if there were any heirs to U2’s legacy, Bono replied impishly “I would love to see more people try to knock us out. Y’know, we’re trying to get down into the middleweight. Because that’s the only place where there’s company.” Bono, love him or loath him, that’s a confidence bordering on arrogance, but in this case he’s absolutely right.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A pinch and a punch for the first of the month

It seems the horizons have expanded for the ol' rant. First up i've been accepted as a writer for Beat Magazine and on top of that Al's Music Rant will be a formal part of The Elephant Room a news and information site, with a little bit of humour and a lot of love. Go check it (and moi) out.

Working on a couple of reviews and playlists at the moment, so here's a lil' something to tide you all over.

Chris Cornell used to be a powerful voice, both literally and figuratively, in the alternative rock scene – but the operative phrase here is ‘used to be.’ While his stint as frontman of Audioslave marked a high-point for the vocalist, he soon left in search of a solo career. Like most former singers of big rock acts that set forth on their own, his solo endeavours thus far have been a patchy affair.

Although gaining resurgence thanks to his rocking Bond theme song (You Know My Name), the resultant album, Carry On, sank all momentum with by-the-numbers tunes and some horrible missteps (including a ‘serious’ cover of Billie Jean, that the less said about, the better).

So how does Cornell address his flagging relevance? By going R&B of course. You read that right. Scream sees Cornell teaming with the pop crossover superproducer Timbaland to create a strange brew indeed. At first listen you could mistake it for another of Timbaland’s Shock Value productions – until you hear the former Soundgarden singer’s distinctive growl. Even then it’s occasionally neutered into a wash of harmonies and treated vocals.

In fact Timbaland’s signature sound is all over the record often battling with Cornell’s presence for space. While it does indeed contain his grizzled croon and rock guitars to the fore, they fight for space amongst the finely polished rhythmic backing. Where it should be a mesh of styles, instead it’s, well, Long Gone’s sound and lyrics say it best, “like oil and water we always clash.”

Elsewhere Climbing Up The Walls, Sweet Revenge and Time are probably the best examples of the genre hybrid that Cornell and Timbaland are attempting to create, but most of the rest of the tracks are muddy, confused affairs that either flit too abruptly or too plain dull to engage.

Redeeming the album are the intriguing segues that give a flow and consistency to the record. But if the best thing you can say about an album are the parts between the songs – then there’s been a horrible miscalculation.

If Cornell is attempting to find a new audience, he finds himself in an uphill struggle. His name is of little significance to the R&B/pop scenesters who will only discover this album through Timbaland’s name, and his glossy production sheen is a bit much for rock purists to take on. The album is stuck in a unique purgatory between the two styles, a place where only the curious and the blindly dedicated will tread. It’s good to see an artist like Chris Cornell try something different to shake up expectations, but it feels more akin to desperation than innovation.

Check out the title track:Chris Cornell - Scream (YouTube)
and the man's website: Chris Cornell