It has been another incredibly busy week in the art pop world so lets not waste time with pleasantries lets get right down to it.
Bob Dylan turns 70
Great musicians have birthdays all the time (every year in fact), but Dylan’s 70th was truly special, it brought music fans and Dylanophiles together. His artistic brilliance and his undeniable influence were part of the equation, but the reason why Dylan’s 70th birthday has been celebrated and not merely acknowledged is pure stubbornness.
Dylan is an old mule, he’s been doing things his way for over fifty years, and as a result he’s just as interesting figure in 2011 as he was in 1965. While The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Robert Plant have all settled down into comfortable routines, Dylan has shunned comfort and shunned convention.
Firstly he’s still touring, his voice is ripped to shreds, but rather than playfully rolling out the classics in a pre-planned polished stage show, he’s playing new materiel, he’s reworking classic, he’s confusing and confounding audiences and he’s dressing like a cowboy. Dylan shocked in ‘64, he reinvented himself in ’74, he bemused in ’92 and ’05 and by 2011 we’ve simply given up predicting what he’ll do next.
In true Dylan fashion he rounded of his 70th year on the planet by playing gigs in China and the Far East, breaking new ground, battling censors, and mystifying his liberal fans back home. There is only one thing Dylan likes more than perplexing and riling up his own fanbase and that’s being himself; so whether it’s becoming a born again Christian, going electric, playing to a gated community or writing a right wing folk album you better believe Dylan’s going to do it.
He’s an artist, he will never quit and he will never relent. So this week we not only celebrate Dylan’s artistic triumphs (the brilliance of Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks and Love And Theft) but his perseverance. Dylan might not sound like Dylan in 2011, but he still is Dylan. A living breathing creative legend, breaking new ground and still spitting in the face of convention. He hasn’t made it to 70, he’s not still going at 70, his achievement isn’t existence; his existence is excellence, fifty years of improbable uncompromising excellence.
Rest In Peace Gil Scott-Heron
This news came as an incredible shock, not because we had some great knowledge of Gil Scott-Heron’s health, but because Heron had just reaffirmed himself in the public consciousness with a sublime album (I’m New Here) and the thoroughly enjoyable Jamie XX remix We’re New Here.
His resurgence only makes the news of his illness and death (he became ill on a tour of Europe) more sorrowful. Heron was finally getting his just due with a new generation and his second run at fame has been snatched from him.
Scott-Heron was the most iconic and recognizable of the 70s’ great black poets. He tackled societal injustice from racism and poverty to homophobia and the struggles and contradictions of black inner city culture. He also branched out to nuclear issues and in his later days wrote great pseudo-pop songs about exclusion and detachment.
Trying to summarize Heron or his impact in just three paragraphs is impossible, his loss is a tragic one, and rather than trying to capture his career in words I’ll let you enjoy one of Heron’s finest and most recent works:
Humbug was a puzzling album for many; it lacked the immediacy and the quick fire brilliance of both Whatever People Say… and Favourite Worst Nightmare as the Monkeys began to experiment with texture, tone and mood. The album’s stand out moments no longer derived from buzz saw guitars and ironic couplets but instead came in the form of lucid ballads “Cornerstone” and “The Jewller’s Hand”. Alex Turner married the world-weariness of an old head on young shoulders to an underlying sense of vulnerability making Humbug the Monkeys most intriguing album to date.
Where Turner would turn next became the subject of some debate and Suck It And See’s tepid lead single “Brick By Brick”, an uninspired grinding retro-rock pastiche, offered little insight. Suck It And See’s opening salvo of “She’s Thunderstorms” and “Black Treacle” soon set the record straight highlighting the Monkeys two primary methods of delivery.
“She’s Thunderstorms” is alluring groove driven 60s inspired retro pop while the appropriately titled “Black Treacle” is dominated by a dense arrangement with thick tones, where everything woozily shimmers with Spectorish reverb.
Suck It And See is less terse and haunting than Humbug’s ominous rock instead leaning towards a murky reflective pop sound. Turner’s croon is sublime throughout melting seductively into the Monkeys’ sonic fog on the enticing “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” and dreamy “Reckless Serenade”.
Its not all evolution however “Library Pictures” sounds tragically dated, occupying the same territory as “Pretty Visitors” it feels like a throwaway gesture. A blitz of wiry guitar work that you feel the Monkeys could write in their sleep, and similar to regrettably obvious “What came first the chicken or the dickhead”, “Library Pictures” builds to the tedious punch line: “an ipp, dipp, dog shit rock’n’roll”.
“All My Own Stunts” is starts in a similarly uninteresting fashion. Feeling like a left over cut from Humbug it grinds and shunts along with Turner offering his most contrived lyricism to date in a series of verses that swing for the intellectual fences but come up empty each and every time. The track is only saved by a truly delicious chorus that is entirely wasted on such a fundamentally dreary offering.
There is much to admire on Suck It And See, the album is dominated by dreamily engaging textures that constantly seduce the listener, but nothing truly grabs hold and leaves an indelible mark. “Piledriver Waltz” and “Love Is A Lazerquest” are both beautiful misty-eyed reflections, perfectly paced music to long to, capturing the essence of an emotive pause. Unfortunately what Suck It And See delivers in considered subtlety it lacks in bold universality, there is no sweeping “Cornerstone” moment, and definitive heartbreaking hooks are few and far between.
Strictly Our Opinion: Suck It And See is the purest pop record the Arctic Monkeys have made since their debut. Rather than using lightening fast guitar work and inescapable hooks, Suck It And See operates in the realm of dense subtly textured arrangements and reflective thoughtful lyricism. Despite relying heavily on a 60s Merseybeat aesthetic, Alex Turner offers little in the way of irresistible hooks, instead relying on his own seductive croon and phraseology. Suck It And See is therefore an enticing seductress who reveals her charms slowly over time, offering little in terms of immediacy and even less that’s definitive. [3.5/5.0]
(I will be reviewing the album in full for both Guitar Planet and 411mania upon its commercial release, so keep your eye’s peeled for my full thoughts)
Like most people my first exposure to Cults came via a quick glimpse at their Band camp website. They may have been formed as an in joke between friends but any act capable of penning a track as gorgeous as “Go Outside” was worthy of consideration. By the end of the 2010 Cults were “hotly tipped” garnering attention from The Guardian and Pitchfork and it appeared that 2011 would be their year.
They certainly started out on the right foot, a freshly retired Lily Allen made Cults the first signing to her new record label. Cults were not only rubbing shoulders with UK pop royalty but they now shared the same promotional machine as Bob Dylan and Beyonce.
I saw Cults headlining a packed out Lexington back in February. The band were nervous and light on materiel but they had an intoxicating sheepish charm and a flair of haunting 60s melodies, and that sense of alluring frailty dominates their eponymous debut.
Cults follow in Cat’s Eye’s footsteps by revisiting the girl group pop of the 60s while warping the Spector meets Motown wall of sound into something more ominous. Even the album’s most carefree moments like the airy “Most Wanted” convey a hidden sense of menace in their encroaching bass lines and the placeless spoken word samples.
The arrangements swirl and entice, even when the guitars saw and crunch they poses a disarming hypnotic quality and Cults are constantly drawing the listener in. The record starts with a bang; “Abducted”, “Go Outside” and the yearningly urgent “You Know What I Mean” are three irresistibly addictive slices of retro-pop sure to win over even the most reluctant of listeners.
Unfortunately, Cults cannot maintain its early impetus and becoming a record of gradually diminishing returns. “Never Heal Myself” is a serene slice of depressive rebellion but it gives way to the underwhelming “Oh My God”, a passable pop single not lacking in enthusiasm but desperately lacking a substantive hook. Substance is a real issue for Cults, their melodies are endearing, their arrangements silky and light, but there is a transience to their music. “Never Saw The Point” is charming pop but it glides over the listener without leaving a mark.
Strictly Our Opinion: Best Coast had a similar issue with the short melodious surf-pop of their debut, but where the music faltered, the force of Beth Cosentino’s personality overwhelmed and took hold. Cults by comparison are the voice of meek resistance, quiet unassuming allure, and as such they’ve created a modest album that despite it’s superb craftsmanship is devoid of resonance or edge. [3.0/5.0]
There was simply too much to discuss this week, so I’ll be back with another addition of Stumble Into The Night later than the week.