REVIEW: APRIL ’21 LISTENING TRAIL

RECORD OF THE MONTH

DRY CLEANING – New Long Leg
[Post-Punk, Spoken Word – UK – 4AD]

I feel like there has been a whole wave of rowdy post-punk bands emerging in the last couple of years and now 4AD bring us the debut full length from London based band Dry Cleaning, who take a small whiff of classic artists like PIL, Television and Wire but also sound completely contemporary and fresh. The instrumentals have that perfect laid-back-yet-ready-to-get-wild vibe to them with plenty of shuffling drums, chunky bass grooves and scatty reverby guitars, all sublimely performed and captured. But it’s the vocals and lyrics of Florence Shaw that really elevate Dry Cleaning. Shaw’s delivery is refreshingly blasé and controlled, rarely if ever breaking into anything too anguished or emotive, keeping this seemingly monotone stream of consciousness like they have recorded every take sat down with a cup of tea and a cigarette in hand. Shaw’s vocals will probably be the “dealbreaker” that decides whether you love or despise this band, but patient listeners will be rewarded as repeat listens reveal a hypnotic quality to their delivery.

Dry Cleaning’s lyrics are very much here and now, observing small disjointed vignettes of characters we don’t know, unashamed pop culture references, product placements, bizarre anecdotes, unanswerable questions, random thoughts and overheard conversations. Individual lines may make a bit of sense, but the way each song pulls together different threads without narrative cohesion gives the entire record a surreal and satirical edge, like assembling together random tweets and Facebook posts and having them read back to you out of context. If you find yourself drawn in from the first listen or two, it becomes even more rewarding to zone in on Shaw’s lyrics as there are so many wonderful quotables to be found; “A woman in aviators firing a bazooka.” “Someone pissed on my leg in the big Sainsbury’s.” “You can’t just come into my garden in your football kit and start asking questions about who lives here.” and perhaps the album’s most poignant lyric, “Do everything, feel nothing.” Not only are Shaw’s lyrical observations sharp and presented in such a compelling manner, but the way they duck and dive around the band’s supreme performances is intricate and tightly wound. Dry Cleaning come across like the John Cooper Clarke of the social media generation, sounding so British that it’s almost painful, painting their own vision of what post-punk should be today, and it’s fucking excellent. YABBA!

BROCKHAMPTON – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
[Hip-Hop, Pop Rap – USA – Question Everything
]

Forward thinking American hip-hop collective and self-proclaimed “best boy band since One Direction” Brockhampton return with a brand new album, their first to formerly include features from the likes of Danny Brown, JPEGMAFIA, A$AP Rocky and more. With 2017’s self produced and self-released SATURATION trilogy, the collective strived harder than anyone else in hip-hop to address socio-political issues and proudly fly the LGBTQ+ banner. Their success was a wildfire phenomenon that lead to them signing with RCA, releasing a feature length film and performing a sold out US tour, but also struggling to top what they had done before after parting ways with key member Ameer Vann, purposely leaving entire albums unreleased, and toying with trying to take their sound in different directions. The backstory of Brockhampton is as fascinating as their music, and with the release of opening track and lead single ‘BUZZCUT’ (featuring a killer verse from Danny Brown) it looked like the fire, innovation and hooks that made the SATURATION albums so good might be back. This is absolutely one of the best tracks Brockhampton have ever made, from the hard hitting beats and killer verses lead by Kevin Abstract all the way through to the spacey trap finale featuring outstanding singing from Joba. Brockhampton have always had a knack for releasing incredible singles that provide instant ear candy, but in the album format, the large ensemble have never quite found the same magic, and Roadrunner is sadly the epitome of this. Whilst there are some strong tracks in their own right, such as the whistling lead melodic sing-along ‘COUNT ON ME’ and the throwback G-funk of ‘DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY’, as an album experience Roadrunner is so lopsided that it feels awkwardly uncomfortable to listen to in one sitting. Admittedly things do start pretty strong but after the first few tracks, Brockhampton try and push and pull into too many different moods, tempos and styles that it could send you feeling dizzy, making Roadrunner as a whole feel like a disjointed collection of B-sides.

BRUIT – The Machine Is Burning And Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again
[Post-Rock – France – Elusive Sounds]

Sometimes an artist just wants to make the most beautiful music the world has ever heard, and I’m totally convinced that was the plan in mind when it comes to this debut full length from French post-rock band BRUIT. Across four lengthy tracks amounting to a mere forty minute record, BRUIT take you on such a whirlwind journey with an ability to seamlessly transverse through different genres without looking back. Opener ‘Industry’ is the most typically post-rock oriented track that works on a brilliant crescendo, inviting pulsing synths, heavy bass riffs and towards the climax, a rush of delightful swelling strings that dazzle the ears with a powerful, overwhelming melody. This flows dreamily into a wonderful folk inspired piece, ‘Renaissance’ which pairs together shimmering clean guitars and jaunty finger-picked acoustic guitar arpeggios before transitioning into a minimalist piano and woodwind motif that would make Steve Reich proud and then culminating in a rare moment of cinematic sound explosion. ‘The Amazing Old Tree’ takes the mood down to a glacial pace with a wash of harmonious synths and sparkling piano, entering a soothing ambient realm. BRUIT leave us with their loudest statement with the closing title track, which sounds like the conclusion to an epic film. Whilst each individual track has its own flavour, it’s the way these four pieces are sequenced together that really tells a story to the listener. The Machine Is Burning is remarkably striking debut effort that feels like it achieves so much more than what the total run-time implies. BRUIT compliment post-rock lore whilst simultaneously striving towards something bold and fresh performed with absolute power and beauty.

DINOSAUR JR. – Sweep It Into Space
[Alternative Rock, Noise Rock – USA – Jagjaguwar]

Noise rock legends Dinosaur Jr. are sounding like a far cry from the band who released the 1987 classic You’re Living All Over Me. Gone are the chugging guitars, psychedelic sound collages and abrasive pinches of noise. Sweep It Into Space is a firmly chilled and blissful experience in comparison, produced by Kurt Vile. Dinosaur Jr. have unashamedly turned in a sugary sweet alt-rock-pop album with some of their most linear and accessible songs yet. Other than adding in sprinkles of piano and backing vocals to help bring out the vocal harmonies, Vile largely lets the trio do their thing. J. Mascis’ vocals sound fantastic with a laid back confidence emphasising on bittersweet melodic choruses and hooks, with songs like ‘I Know’, ‘And Me’ and ‘I Ain’t’ being much catchier than their titles lead on. Sweep It Into Space is a simplistic rock album and even when the riff energy picks up on ‘Hide Another Round’, it’s still very easy on the ear. Though it could well be Dinosaur Jr. at their softest, they’ve still come through with an expressive and consistent work resulting in the sound of a band aging gracefully.

GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – G_D’s Pee At State’s End!
[Post-Rock, Drone Rock – Canada – Constellation]

You’d think that this era of the pandemic and political unrest would bring about the Canadian post-apocalyptic-rock masters darkest and most destructive record yet; but for Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s latest, their lockdown album is their most blissful and hopeful to date. The ensemble’s lengthiest opus in a while, marvellously spread across both 12″ and 10″ vinyl, At State’s End is something of a back to basics album that strongly mirrors their 2000 landmark double album Lift Your Skinny Fists with lengthy tracks, two of which are suites with multiple movements contained within. Twenty minute opener ‘A Military Alphabet’ boasts Godspeed’s exceptional ear for rich sound design and sonic depth, making the most from combining dual drums, cinematic violin and big repetitive guitar drones. This lengthy suite sounds somewhat reminiscent of motifs heard on ‘Storm’ (the opener from Lift Your Skinny Fists) and is bookended by eerie muted samples and field recordings. Compositionally, I feel that Godspeed have played things a little too safe here and on the following side-length track ‘Government Came’, resting on the laurels of the predictable “crescendocore” that they first pioneered with their pre-break up albums, and then tried to downplay with their post-reunion works. To my surprise, I found the two shorter tracks housed on the 10″ to be the most engaging, with ‘Our Side Has To Win’ being one of the greatest and most beautifully melancholic recordings the ensemble has ever made, taking a leaf from ambient Eno with a stirring string guided drone that could easily soundtrack the desolation of a Bela Tarr film. Usually when Godspeed release a new album it is an event that eclipses just about every other post-rock band out there, but this time around the beloved genre giants have delivered something a little too comfortable and unimaginative.

JEAN-MICHEL JARRE – Amazonia
[Ambient, Electronic – France – Columbia]

Alongside the likes of Kraftwerk, John Carpenter, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, French composer Jean-Michel Jarre should absolutely be considered one of the pioneers of synthesiser music. Their mid-’70s albums Oxygene and Equinoxe in particular are masterworks that centred around strong melodic synth leads. In the past five years especially, it seems like there has been a renewed interest in Jarre’s music, perhaps coming from a new generation of music listeners discovering synthwave artists and appreciating listening to synth-dominant film and TV scores like Drive and Stranger Things on their record decks. Jarre has capitalised on this with plenty of reissues, deluxe boxsets, an epic collaborative double album Electronica 1 & 2, and new sequels to their two most popular albums, Oxygene 3 and Equinoxe Infinity respectively. But it’s this latest effort, Amazonia that has really surprised and impressed me, sounding far darker and more experimental than anything I’ve heard from Jarre previously. Amazonia at points verges on dark ambient, inviting unsettling field recordings that create a jungle dwelling atmosphere, cavernous reverb, tribal percussion, eerie manipulated synth buzzes, haunting low end and even a bit of minimal techno here and there. At 72 years old, Jarre has made one of his most interesting and out of the box albums yet, stranding the listener alone, lost deep within the Amazon rainforest at night.

SKULLCRUSHER – Storm In Summer
[Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Secretly Canadian]

Skullcrusher is not a death metal band but the alias of US indie folk singer/songwriter Helen Ballentine. They haven’t even made their full length debut and yet the small amount of EP material that has been released through Secretly Canadian is incredibly exciting. Skullcrusher’s music is pretty, intimate, earthy and effortlessly expressive, told through their chilled out acoustic guitar playing and floaty vibe. Their sound exists somewhere between the blissed out melodies of Soccer Mommy and the cutting melancholia of Phoebe Bridgers. Storm In Summer builds on everything that made Ballentine’s self-titled debut EP so great, merely adding more layers and greater confidence. ‘Song For Nick Drake’ is surprisingly a feel good ray of hope, wonderfully adding in swirling keyboards that boost the song. In contrast, following song ‘Steps’ is pure bedroom folk, lasting just shy of two minutes and proving that the simplest ideas sometimes work best. The wonderful title track adds full rock band instrumentation and feels like a perfect song for playing summer festival stages (which will hopefully become a reality by next year). Though we live in a time where we have a huge pick of astonishing female indie folk musicians, Skullcrusher still manages to feel like an artist just on the cusp of superstardom.

TAYLOR SWIFT – Fearless (Taylor’s Version)
[Country Pop – USA – Republic]

Fearless is a word that applies much more to Taylor Swift today than it did back in 2008 when the original Fearless album was released. Looking back on their nineteen year old self in the recent Netflix Original documentary film Miss Americana, Swift in their own words reminisced, “label executives would say a nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people; a nice girls smiles, waves and says thank you; I became the person everyone wanted me to be.” The Taylor Swift of 2008 would actively avoid talking politics and was victim to a controversial live on air putdown from Kanye West at the MTV Music Video Awards. The Taylor Swift of today however, is absolutely fearless, actively offering political insights since the 2018 US state elections and vocally championing progressive social causes as well as making the music they want to make and taking control of their own life, record releases and stardom. One thing that Swift couldn’t foresee was the acquisition of the masters to their first six albums by talent manager Scooter Braun who bought the rights from Swift’s previous label Big Machine. Swift had already been trying to buy back the masters but Braun and Big Machine’s demands had been – in Swift’s own words – unreasonable, going as far to denounce Braun as a “manipulative bully”, even claiming that Big Machine have gone as far as to try and put a block on performing and licencing older songs. Whilst Swift may not own the masters to their own songs, they do own the publishing rights, and thus the decision to re-record each album originally released by Big Machine would allow Swift to licence these new versions in any way they see fit and could allow Swift a new avenue to take control of their own back catalogue and effectively shut down Big Machine’s older versions. It’s working already because as of the end of April, the original 2008 version of Fearless has already seen a 19% drop in overall sales and streams in favour of Fearless (Taylor’s Version).

Though cynics may see this move by Swift as being largely motivated by money, those who look at the bigger picture will see that the truly fearless Taylor Swift is on some revenge shit and in the ultimate punk move is actively using a creative loophole to takedown Braun and former label Big Machine. In a wider context, Swift is taking a stand against big businesses who continue to treat artists unfairly and profit off their creativity. Artists in dispute with their own labels, masters and publishing rights has been an age old problem with no clear solution, which has affected musicians as big as The Beatles, Prince and Janet Jackson in the past. What Swift is attempting to do by re-recording their own back catalogue is something that has rarely been attempted before on such a large scale and is breaking new ground in revisioning how a business relationship between artists and their publishers can and should operate.

But how is the actual music? Well as someone who thought Swift’s previous albums Folklore and Evermore (both released during pandemic lockdowns in 2020) were their best works to date, hearing Swift go back to revisit songs over ten years old wasn’t exactly the next move I was hoping for. However, hearing Fearless (Taylor’s Version) has given me a new appreciation for the roots of Swift’s music. Though these songs in comparison sound much more formulaic and sugary sweet than anything on Folklore and Evermore, there are still some damn great pop songs on here such as the title track and ‘Love Story’. These new versions try to be as faithful to the originals as possible, but with a matured and improved lead vocal from a now 31 year old Swift, as well as bringing along recent collaborators Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce and record these new versions, capturing some of the earthy stripped back production that made Folklore and Evermore sound so spectacular. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) really is the ultimate way to hear these songs today, and as a treat to fans of the original, a whole extra disc of unreleased gems has been recorded too. Seeing and hearing Swift re-record another five albums over the next few years could be a bit of a slog, as that time could be better spent writing and recording brand new material, but in the spirit of this act of sticking it to Big Machine and Scooter Braun, critics and fans will have to respect that this is just something that Taylor Swift has to do. It could change the whole music industry forevermore in the process, as well as proving that Swift is a total badass and a true icon that the current music landscape just cannot be without.

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