February Music Review – Radiohead, Frankie, Low Anthem, PJ Harvey and James Blake

If you would like to refer back to last week's musical homework.. .

(And in the comments section of that post, you'll find some more suggested listening from Adam, who is I, happen to know, a leading global taste-making music writer.  He includes a couple of albums I may get round to next month including Yuck... )

Let's start with one of this month's pleasant surprises; Frankie and the Heartstrings with Hunger.  From Sunderland (not that I'm biased), they've an energetic, bouncy, engaging pop / indie style, with nods to Razorlight, Vampire Weekend and the Pigeon Detectives. There's also a touch of something more retro and deeper to tracks such as Fragile which carries them above the standard 'indie' level. They need a couple of anthems to get some radio play but I'm hopeful they may make it to album 2, unlike so many promising indie bands recently. A strong 7.5/10.

Bouncy and engaging are not words you would use about Radiohead. And again they've demonstrated their marketing genius, getting huge publicity through the silence before the release of King of Limbs, which was then slipped out a day early. Some tracks are closer to their OK Computer style than more recent works; Codex is a beautiful, atmospheric piano ballad, and Give up the Ghost is gorgeous yet strange.  But Feral is almost unlistenable; and their repeated use of a skittering drum 'n bass rhythm section doesn't do much for me.  But you have to give Radiohead credit for being both one of the biggest bands in the world and simultaneously at the cutting edge of contemporary 'popular music'  (I don't think you can call this 'rock' in any sense really). 8/10 but that is the average of some pretty wide track by track scoring that literally ranges from about 2 to 10!

Talking of non-rock, I wasn't sure I'd like James Blake and his eponymous album from the reviews.  With elements of dubstep, strange electronic treatments of his voice, discordant harmonies, not really my scene I thought. And he's too damn young and good looking. So I was pleasantly surprised and, in an exciting new innovation, it is my Album of the Month. Underpinning the bleeps and static is a strong sense of melody;  tracks such as Measurements and Wilhelm's Scream (see the video below) are great tunes, and it is actually strangely relaxing as well as engaging music. Reminds me at times of a (less folkie) Bon Iver, one of my top 5 albums of the last decade, so I'm going with a 8.5/10.

Now we have a tough one; PJ Harvey's album, Let England Shake has probably been the best reviewed album of the year so far, and it is very impressive.  It's virtually a concept album about the First World War - intelligent, with a unique style that encompasses rock, folk, and samples of  'world' music; each track has fairly simple but highly varied instrumentation.  But it just didn't quite engage with me emotionally for some reason and while I am a fan of Harvey, her voice can get to me a little after 20 minutes or so.  I admire this, quite like it, and I can see why some are giving it 10 out of 10 reviews. It may grow on me, but I'm going back to James Blake a lot more than to this at the moment. A provisional 7/10.

And finally, Low Anthem with Smart Flesh, follow up to the excellent Oh my God, Charlie Darwin.  This was recorded in a disused factory, and you can hear that; folk / Americana that echoes around the empty space, with the gaps between the notes as important as the notes themselves. I'm very fond of this sort of music (last month's Decemberists album is even better than I thought at first) but I would warn you; this does border on the depressing at times.  The echoing vocals can start to haunt a little, and even the jolliest sounding track (Boeing 737 - see the video) turns out to be about 9/11.  Not something to listen to over a couple of beers while you're getting ready for a night on the town. But if you're in the right mood, a 7.5/10 for some excellent songs.

So a busy month, and a couple of contenders already for that top 20 of 2011!

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