February Album Review – Midlake, Los Campesinos, Vampire Weekend and Cuba

It’s time for the February music review.   And two of my most eagerly anticipated albums of the year were released last week.

I first came across Los Campesinos at Reading Festival in 2008 and loved their vitality, tunes, unusual lyrics (songs like “We are all accelerated readers” had a particular appeal to tortured, romantic teenage geeks ), lack of pretension, and boy – girl shouty vocals,  keyboard, violin and throw everything at the wall and see what stick approach.  They seemed like a band I would have loved to be in when I was 20.  I bought their first two albums and loved them too.

But with “Romance is Boring” they have moved into another league.  They could be this year’s Maccabees; release an album early in the year and see it build and build so that by the time we get to the Festival season you are killing the competition at Reading. This is a major step forward to being a mature but still thrilling rock band.  The instrumentation is more complex, there is less kitchen sink, shout and hope for the best.  The gorgeous 54 seconds of 200-102 could almost be Sigur Ros; the strange discordant middle section on In Media Res could not have come from the first 2 albums.  There’s more singing from Gareth and less shouting, but the semi-random firework passion of earlier work has been maintained alongside the greater variation of approach.

And “The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future”  is genius.  Arcade Fire is a valid comparator here.   Look, I’ve only listened to this twice so it is hard to get into perspective quite how good it is.  But it’s the first essential buy of the year for me.  9/10.

And the second; Courage of Others, Midlake’s follow up to the Trials of Von Occupanther (‘TOVO’)  which was one of those albums (much like Funeral from Arcade Fire) that first time through I thought was OK and ended up being one of my favourites of the decade.   TOVO combined west coast smooth rock with CSN&Y harmonies, story driven lyrics and a folk /Americana sensibility to give an almost hypnotic experience; one of the best albums ever for listening late at night through headphones.

I saw them live in 2008 at Shepherd’s Bush and there was a cathedral-like hush as they showed that their five part harmonies were not a recording studio trick; they were better live.  Along with Bon Iver, one of my two best gigs ever where no-one danced!

Anyway, Courage of Others which has been reviewed and positioned as an English Folk Rock throwback - think Fairport Convention / Pentangle if you’re old enough to remember .  Most reviewers have liked it; 8 out of 10 in NME, but Pitchfork hated it (3.6 out of 10); but who the hell marks with decimals?  How on earth do you distinguish between 3.6 and 3.7?

It is actually a hard album to judge at first or second listen.  I’m biased by my TOVO experience; I suspect this will grow on me in the same way.  The harmonies are still there, used in a folk rather than country / west coast style, and the tunes are less immediate than TOVO.  But there is a subtlety which I think will emerge.  I’m not sure the English folk comparison is that strong;  I can see the linkages but there is none of the exuberance or referral to the dance tradition (jigs and reels) you get in Fairport or Steeleye.  So given I’m struggling a bit to give you perceptive or witty comments,  here are my multi-tasking,  (while writing PowerPoint training slides),  somewhat  random PowerPoint style jottings from my second listen through today.

  • More Simon and Garfunkel than British folk (and that’s not a criticism)
  • ‘Winter Dies’ and a couple of other tracks could be from TOVO – not sure the album is as different as critics make out
  • Great harmonies ; that’ll work well live
  • Lots of flute – don’t go all Jethro Tull on me Midlake!
  • Fortune – really pretty.  Would sound great with Sandy Denny singing
  • Vocals less prominent in the mix than TOVO; this is an instrument rather than a vocal driven album
  • ‘The Horn’ intro sounds like ‘don’t fear the reaper’
  • It is all a little soporific in places...

So...7/10 but that might be up or down graded a mark as time goes by.   I have a feeling this is going to be their ‘Neon Bible’ (where TOVO was their ‘Funeral’);  a good album but not quite up to the classic that preceded it.

And the final review for February  – Contra by Vampire Weekend.  4 star or better reviews everywhere, straight to number 1 in the US album chart.  And I just don’t get it.  Irritating vocals, annoying lyrics, affected style, rip off world music for people who don’t like world music and probably don’t like music at all but like the concept and the look of Vampire Weekend,  OK, they were pretty good at Reading but sorry, not for me.  4/10.

And now, to finish, a special guest review from Mr David Smith (no relation).

Just come back from a (well earned) break in Cuba and, as the brochure states, music is played just about everywhere. Cuban music is mostly of Spanish and African origin and is probably a creolized fusion of both. Have always been a big fan of Cuban (and Spanish) music which I can get on my internet radio (do try Radio Habana) and remember how much the late, great Kirsty McColl became influenced by it. Must have heard ‘Oye Como Va’ played by street bands over a dozen or so times which reminded how much I liked 70s Santana (who of course is Mexican.  Go listen to Abraxas again!!!

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Voices (3)

  1. Adam Shoesmith:

    Downloading Romance is Boring as I type. Haven’t been able to stop playing the lead single ‘The Sea…”. I think its crying out for an accompanying video shot on some sparse Norfolk coastline in black and white, if that’s not too cliched!

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