June Album Review (part 1) – Royal Blood, London Grammar, Fleet Foxes and Alt-J

We didn’t do an album review at the end of May so we will have a two-parter this weekend and next. So toady, four bands following up huge success in different ways.

Alt-J sounded odd, unique and somewhat disturbing when they emerged in 2012 with their arty, sometimes folky, sometimes dance, sometimes plain weird Mercury prize winning debut. Relaxer is their third album and it is … still weird. Indeed, it is probably even more varied than the two previous works, with everything from a slowed down and messed-around version of House of the Rising Sun (I rather like it but it’s hard to see why they have covered it) to a garage-punk stomper and a somewhat mournful acoustic number. The critics have been mixed in their views, but there are beautiful songs like 3WW and In Cold Blood already sounds like a concert highlight for years to come. All in all, it is unlikely to convert many new fans but we should be grateful we have such interesting bands around – and marvel that they have become festival headliners with such meandering, often obscure and decidedly strange music! (they make odd videos too...) 7.5/10

Royal Blood are another unusual proposition. A duo with a guitarist who makes his single instrument sound like at least two guitars and a taciturn but brilliant drummer. Both look more like lorry drivers than rock stars, yet their debut sold in huge quantities, with its heavy but tuneful and hook-heavy blues rock.  Their follow up, How Did We Get So Dark?  doesn’t stray too much from that muscular riffing model, but it is enjoyable, and Queens of the Stone Age come to mind more than once, which is always good. However, while there were six highly memorable tracks on the debut that stuck in your head, from initial listens there are only two or three here of that standard and nothing as bone-shakingly brilliant as Ten Tonne Skeleton. So this should reinforce their position without exciting the world too much. 7/10

Fleet Foxes were another unexpected success with their folk influences and beautiful four-part Beach Boys CSN&Y type harmonies. After their 2nd album in 2011, their main singer and writer went back to university, having not really enjoyed the whole fame thing. That time has certainly not simplified his approach. Like the Alt-J album, this one, Crack Up,  has some bemusing changes of approach, sometimes within the same song. There is a lot going on, with interesting tempos and complex instrumentation at times, and several tracks sound like medleys of unconnected songs. But it still has those moments of beautiful harmony, although overall it is not as easy a listen as the previous two albums. On the positive side, I suspect this will be a “grower” over coming months as it has much to explore. Hard to score therefore, and I suspect this may rise on multiple listens but perhaps 8/10.

London Grammar, like Royal Blood, came from nowhere to have a huge debut album that you suspect surprised them as much as anyone. Songwriter Dan Rothman met Hannah Reid in their first term at Nottingham Uni, and she told him she could sing a bit. I wish I could have been there for the first audition, when he must have discovered that her amazing and pure voice, an English folk alto really but with an impressive upper range too, more than lived up to her other attributes (she is stunning).  She really is an extraordinary singer, her voice Florence-like in its power at times but more nuanced and technically impressive. At first listen, I thought Truth Is A Beautiful Thing was a bit one-paced and a tad on the depressing side, with its polite and tuneful songs. But after three listens, you notice more  variation, the tracks that will clearly make great dance remixes (Big Picture goes into XX territory very effectively), and above all, the way her voice is cleverly used as an instrument, as much as it is to convey words and meaning. This works as rather lovely and polite background music but also repays closer listening – very good. 8.5/10

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