March Album Review – War on Drugs, Wild Beasts, Elbow and Sky Ferreira

One of the very best reviewed new rock albums this year to date, according to Metacritic, is the War on Drugs with Lost in the Dream. It’s a breakthrough for Kurt Vile collaborator Adam Granduciel, with this throwback album, bringing to mind the epic, widescreen songs of Tom Petty, Springsteen or Bob Seger, with Dylan another key influence  (his vocals are almost Dylan pastiche at times). Yet there are heavier and more electronic influences too – a track like The Haunting Idle  is more Sonic Youth than Born to Run.

And this is growing on me despite the ‘boring’ which was my wife’s one word verdict on her perfunctory, through the kitchen door hearing via Spotify. She is not a Dylan or Springsteen fan it is fair to say, which I really am. But I know what she means.  Half the tracks clock in at six minutes or more (see below – a theme this month), and it can sound somewhat AOR at times – at quite a few times actually. But if you like those artists and songs that sound quite traditional in some ways, yet also want to be in the hipster vanguard, this will fit the bill perfectly.  I’m still struggling to assess it properly but let’s go with an 8/10.

I listened to the next two albums four times each on my long car journeys this week. And whilst I felt I understood them better at the end of the 750 miles, the Wild Beasts in particular was still a bit of an enigma with Present Tense.  Their second 2009 album Two Dancers was my album of that year, a sensuous yet tuneful indie-dance romp with the amazing falsetto of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s lubricious baritone lending a vocal uniqueness to the overall sound.

Maybe they’ve just grown up. But this new release is much darker, with synth rather than guitar dominating, and whilst the vocals are still a stand out, and the songs do grow on you with more listening, I just longed for the energy of All the Kings Men from that previous life. Songs are restrained, carefully constructed and scored with a depth that reveals itself over time, and it’s got great reviews from the serious music press, with comparison to 80s acts like Talk Talk and Japan. But I guess I used to find those 80s bands a bit dull and serious too.

And it is selling well, to a somewhat older audience I suspect than their earlier work. Present Tense is worth persevering with, and I should stress that I like this and find it an impressive piece album, but one I admire rather than love at the moment. So 7.5/10 on the marking scale, but that may rise a little with more time I suspect.

The other album I got immersed in on the motorways of the UK was Elbow’s The Take Off and Landing Of Everything . I have followed them since their unfashionable and unsuccessful early days, and there is no more heart-warming story in rock than their late blossoming success. And this is a very good album, with maybe nothing quite up there with One Day Like This as a single track, but four or five really excellent songs, such as New York Morning and My Sad Captains with a gorgeous brass section and a great tune. Their emotional warmth is a huge asset and that’s there in spades, and all in all, if you like Elbow already, this won’t disappoint.

But.. perhaps success means no-one is telling Guy Garvey to keep his ‘prog rock’ inclinations in check. (‘Depressing’ was the one-word view from my wife here I’m afraid).There’s a tendency for songs to meander then suddenly morph into a totally different sounding coda or part two, which started to become a little clichéd. Five of the ten songs are over 6 minutes long. And the title track starts with a nice groove then goes absolutely nowhere for over 7 minutes!  (That’s three times the length of the Undertones Teenage Kicks by the way). Gets irritating after about 3 minutes anyway.

Really someone should have told Garvey to drop or cut the track – indeed, I feel this is an album that could have been cut down to 45 minutes and would be better than the 57 minute current work. I’m being hyper critical here really because I love the band and this is still arguably their second best album.  But it feels like it could have been pretty much a ten out of ten with a bit more discipline. As it is, still an 8.5/10.

A manufactured pop poppet? Or a misguided bad girl, arrested last year for drugs possession? Both these stereotypes have been applied to 21 year old Sky Ferreira, who finally after years of argument with record labels released her full-length debut, Night Time, Right Time recently, with a resolutely un-sexy topless photograph on the cover.

Yes, I know, this all isn’t sounding too good. But do give this a go, because anyone whose influences appear to be 80s goddesses Debbie Harry and Cyndi Lauper (plus a bit of Britney when she was good)  on the one hand, and Nico, Siouxsie, Berlin-period Bowie and Iggy on the other darker side is an interesting proposition.

There are some tuneful indie-pop songs like You’re not the one, and Everything is Embarrassing, which is a lovely and catchy mid-tempo pop ballad, and one of my favourite tracks of the year to date, balanced with some really quite odd stuff with heavy industrial and electronic type backing. “I blame myself’  is about her history of being on the receiving end of past abuse. And title track Night Time My Time sounds like a Velvet Underground outtake circa 1969 rejected for being... too weird. Is that a harmonium droning away in the background? And the spooky distorted backing vocals?

So of today’s four very different albums, all impressive in their own way, who wins? Yes, Sky has my vote by a whisker. 9/10 for her.

Two songs here so you can see the different sides of this album anyway.


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