I've been writing for NME since April 2013 – here is a small spread of the sorts of things I've been wanging on about, from a live review of Queens of the Stone Age to frothing about new electronic releases.
I revisited the brilliant 'Rounds' by Four Tet, which was reissued this month to mark 10 years of its awesomeness. Read my appraisal of it over at Drowned in Sound or below.
The cult of the legendary dance music producer is gathering pace. As electronic music continues to pound the mainstream with the force of Thor’s hammer, legendary DJs are infiltrating clubs at an alarming rate. They’re trotting out to the decks after 40 years and one big Chicago house hit to play ‘old-school’ sets, or they’re 21 with a number one single and playing their first club. Had over 1,000 hits on Soundcloud? You’re a legend. Ran a club night once? Guess what, mate, you’re a legend!
‘Legend’ is not to be confused with ‘cult’, though – there is loads of that about, too. Cult producers are the ones playing difficult records to half-a-dozen people at peak time, dismissing conventional gurn-curling beats and never stepping into the spotlight long enough to get a decent press photo taken. They’re too old for Radio 1’s playlists and too youthful to be considered an electronic elder, but they’re everywhere, being all cultish.
While we breezily drop these descriptors so much that they start to lose their meaning, few producers possess the rare, indefinable quality that allows them to straddle the best of both. Electronic artist Kieran Hebden, better know as Four Tet, is one of that small number. The parties he curates with Eat Your Own Ears sell out months in advance and his singles are inhaled from the shop floor in half an hour. He’s also worked with some of the most exciting leftfield names in music, including Thom Yorke and Burial, remixed pop names like Justin Timberlake and, at the other end of the spectrum, collaborated with American jazz drummer Steve Reid and Syrian electro artist Omar Souleyman. Consequently, you’re as likely to hear Jamie Cullum play his productions, as you are Joy Orbison.
Yet Four Tet doesn’t come to you, not really: you have to seek him out. You can’t listen to his back catalogue on Spotify, he rarely does interviews and the singles he puts out on his label, Text, are vinyl-only. Similarly DIY – and inspired by a Fugazi show he went to at Brixton Academy when he was younger – he keeps tickets to his coveted all-nighters under a fiver (or, more recently in New York, $5). He’s not the most underground DJ, not by some way, but he encourages his huge and rapidly expanding fanbase to help keep that dance music culture alive.
In recent years, respect for Four Tet has swelled to such epic proportions that his seminal 2003 album, Rounds, is being rereleased. Two albums came before it, Dialogue in 1999 and 2001’sPause, the latter of which was credited with inventing ‘folktronica’, Rounds is considered his masterstroke. Instead of being a love letter to folk or jazz music in the way his previous albums had been interpreted, Rounds takes Dialogue and Pause’s essential threads – angel-soft ambience and minimalist melodic slivers of unconventional sounds, like banjos, gamelan and harpsichords – and spins them into glinting soundscapes that are distinctly ‘Four Tet’. His productions feel improvisational, as if they are free-falling through the air and creating shapes instead of sounds. The patterns dart across a few dainty musical motifs, on tracks like ‘Hands’ and ‘Spirit Fingers’, with all the unpredictability of a moth fluttering around a flame. You’re never sure whether it will eventually singe its wings or flit off into the night.
Take flight it does: Rounds is determined to escape chillout’s beige-carpeted lounge and instead illuminate how sound sculptures can be groovesome and complex. A muscular breakbeat drives ‘She Moves She’, for example, cutting through its geisha-graceful melody, while the grainy, echo-y clatters of ‘My Angel Rocks Back and Forth’ recall very early dubstep. The drums sound as live as any jazz band’s, too: ‘Unspoken’s cymbals gush like breaking waves and the chunky breaks of ‘As Serious as Your Life’ are, presumably, what made hip hop producer J-Dilla want to remix the track. It’s remarkable, considering Rounds wasn’t made in a hi-tech studio but in Hebden’s London flat, using, as one interviewer put it, 'a motley selection of software, much of it lagging behind the cutting edge.' To anyone who mocks the possibilities for bedroom production, give them a hefty spin of Rounds in return.
If you haven’t already introduced Rounds to your record collection, the special anniversary version makes it even more worthwhile. It comes with a bonus disc of a live set in Copenhagen, originally a limited-edition live album released by Domino in 2004 on CD-R only, in which fragmented versions of Rounds tracks like ‘She Moves She’ and ‘Spirit Fingers’ sandwich Pause classics ‘Everything Is Alright’ and ‘Glue Of The World’. For the vinyl purists, the 12-inch edition also comes with download codes – a Four Tet first, it says here.
But, though you’ll be rewarded with rare recordings, Rounds 2.0 is also a reminder of how beautiful electronic music is timeless and tirelessly challenging. That, after all, is the hallmark of any cult and truly legendary artist. And if we all succumbed to Four Tet’s way of thinking, dance music's world would be a much lovelier place to exist in.
First Listen: Daft Punk's Random Access Memories
You know the facts by now: the roll call of discerning collaborators, the listening party in the arse end of Australia, the fake Glastonbury appearance, the glittering robots kitted out in Saint Laurent – and that it’s Daft Punk first new artist album in eight years.
And now, the next stage of the duo's drip-feed marketing plan, is to let a bunch of journalists who’ve heard the new album once in a soundproof room in the Sony offices loose on the internet with their, er, random memories of it. Hiyaz!
But we can tell you, in short, that Random Access Memories is a lavish celebration of a time when dance music was human and had a proper beating heart, told through the eyes of two robots who have redefined computer music. It’s when pop-rock was easy and groovy, when the people that played it had impressive facial hair and their melodies had the bronze glow of a sunset over the Pacific Coast. It’s also bloody bonkers.
For the full Random Access Memories experience, however, read on below.
Daft Punk deliver their mission statement. They paved the way for stadium-filling electronic beats, but now they’re rejecting the WARMP-WARMP of modern club fodder and giving life back to music by digging into the glossy disco that defined dance in the mid-Seventies. And they’ve hired the best sessions musicians of the era – including two that played on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Off The Wall – to play them live. Basically, it’s all well clevs. 'Give Life Back to Music' is as tight and as bright as a pair of starched white flares on a flashing dancefloor, anchored by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and his elegant, genre-defining guitar hooks. Then the familiar vocoderific vocals chime in, setting up the album’s contrast between the full-blooded ‘human’ jams and the robotic narrator. It sounds like – and probably did cost – millions of dollars.
Daft Punk recall 2001's 'Something About Us', where a robot with Wall-E-sized feelings gets his own retro-futuristic ballad. But rather than another slinky pick-up song, ‘The Game Of Love’ is a shadier LA noir. It introduces Random Access Memories’ melancholic tone, as Mr Robot drives aimlessly around neon-lit backstreets pondering how he’s going to get the ladyrobots to like him. It’s sultrier than anything Daft Punk have done before too, the slippery, serpentine rhythm like the wily bionic woman of his dreams, but it bristles with tension, as if he might get zapped at any minute.
This song tells the story of how Italian disco innovator Giorgio Moroder discovered the Moog modular synthesiser, the piece of equipment that made his name, and probably the world’s first electro-biography. It starts over a click track and the faint background chitter-chatter of a café and builds into something else entirely. It’s both a history lesson from Moroder and from Daft Punk, whose cosmic Kraftwerkian synth line pays homage to Moroder’s space-age sound – the one that famously underpinned Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. “Free your mind of harmony and the preconception of what is correct”, another voice says, at which point Daft Punk take a hefty dump over everyone as all the elements that have been gently simmering away kick in together. The drums try to break out of the speakers (there’s even a drum solo!), the strings soar opulently and the temple of synth tries its best to contact another planet. It’s going to blow your tiny minds.
Any follow up to 'Giorgio' is going to sound like a wet fart in comparison. So it may as well be pianist, rapper and Peaches and Feist collaborator Chilly Gonzales’s song that suffers the blow. Its shimmering ivories and lounge-jazz vibe are a relaxed elevator ride down from 'Giorgio By Moroder’s dizzying heights, with plenty of falsetto for good measure, but it comes off like just a bridge between two far better tracks.
It’s on track five that DiS starts to wonder who has been crushing on each other more: Daft Punk or their collaborators? Not just a mangled voice smoothed out through a vocoder, Julian Casablancas’s dive bar attitude swaggers in and out of the song too. But the song's plucky guitar, reminiscent of The Strokes' early albums, quickly turns into a slower, throbbing Eighties electro-pop number not dissimilar to something by The Cars – or from The Strokes’ latest album, Comedown Machine. Pompous rock solo aside, they’ve played it a bit safe.
Aha! Here we go. Daft Punk take the baton from ‘Give Life Back To Music’ and run with it once more, insisting this time, via Pharrell’s squeaky falsetto, that you “lose yourself to dance”. And will you? Well, they do insist, repeating it like a mantra until you succumb to its glittery groove, continuing until the lights have come up and the empty bottles are being swept off the dancefloor. For Nile, whose career in Chic was cut short when the after effects of Disco Demolition Night in 1979 cleared disco from the charts, tracks like this must feel particularly sweet.
Touch, DiS likes to imagine, is one big LOL at dance music luddites who shove a drop on a track and call it a banger. It starts with the ghosts of disco past swirling around dance music’s cemetery, while an ominous, God-like voice chimes in with “Dance. I remember dance.” Veteran songwriter and Seventies pop music architect Paul Williams appears on vocals, plucked for his work on cult 1974 sci-fi rock musical Phantom of the Paradise. The young Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were obsessed with the film and its murderous villain was the inspiration for their robot outfits. Likewise, ‘Touch’ shares Phantom…’s theatrical DNA. From graveyard, it springs into life as a camp disco number comprised of a dizzying 250 tracks, with more gear changes and jazz-hand moments than anything by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Would any of the current chart-scaling producers have the guts to make something as bombastic as this?
There isn’t one piece of ass that hasn’t shimmied to this perfect disco-pop single, on which Pharrell sings about sexing ladies and Nile Rodgers smashes some sweet harmonics on guitar. It’s even massive in Mongolia. By the end of summer you’ll be sick of everyone putting this on at the end of the night in a last-ditch attempt to get laid.
Number nine kicks off with another orchestral gesture: grandiose string arrangements that could bring an opera house to its knees. The rest of ‘Beyond’, meanwhile, evidences the smoother side of disco, all subtle synths, sublime songwriting and radio-friendly grooves. The guitar licks are straight out of Lindsey Buckingham and The Doobie Brothers’ Californian rock book, with a rhythm that canters over the Hollywood Hills and into the sunset. But it’s all still strangely in a funk. If Paul Williams’ wistful lyrics are anything to go by (sample line: “there’s no such thing as competition…the perfect song is rendered silence”) perhaps it’s Daft Punk’s way of letting the younglings know that it’s OK to be uncool.
An instrumental continuation of ‘Beyond’, ‘Motherboard’ presents a cinematic jungle of frenetic drum patterns and reedy wind instruments, strings fluttering near the canopy and sunny synths shining overhead, which is possibly about to be destroyed by replicants. Riding Terricons. In space! It’s a meaty ‘fuck you’ to anyone who thought that their Tron: Legacy soundtrack was underwhelming, an ostentatious exploration of the future (via the past) that builds into a Massive Attack-epic climax. The sound of the bathplug being pulled reminds you that Daft Punk aren’t just laughing at everyone else but at themselves, too.
US garage-house pioneer and long-standing Punk collaborator Todd Edwards appears on this lovely ditty, providing both vocals and some of his micro-sampling mastery on the production. It harks back to a time when Californian pop-rockers like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles ruled the radio waves, channelled through Edwards’ recollection of gliding along palm tree-lined Mulholland Drive, sunroof down, with Thomas Bangalter during the two weeks they spent recording. Todd Edwards said of the album that he’s waiting for everyone to hear it so that he’s not “making music in a sterile world anymore”. If they like it as much as we do, it won’t be long.
If there’s one electronic artist doing it right at the moment in Daft Punk’ laser-sharp eyes, it’s Animal Collective’s co-leader, Panda Bear. As such, this track sounds exactly like something the latter might write for his Brooklyn band, had they added two singing robots to their line-up. It’s the most unusual sound for the record, potentially because it’s the only purely electronic song and thusly with a hipster-house beat. But, as is Panda Bear’s special skill, its dreamy electronica still sounds lush. “Everybody will be dancing and be doing it right,” the robot, prophetic as ever, calls.
Really, Daft Punk could have ended here, but they’re having too much fun. Old French touch guard DJ Falcon joins them for blast-off. Think of this as ‘Aerodynamic’ but in live mode: an Amadeus-sized overture that drives eerie organs, pounding drum breaks and modular synths whistling like a kettle boiling towards a mind-fucking finale. But the climax never comes. You hear an excerpt of an exchange between mission control and the last captain of Apollo 17 before the track erupts like a rocket shooting into the great unknown once more. Who knows what it will return with next time.
When Major Lazer bounded onto the party circuit with 2009’s Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do, it was, in two words, dancefloor dynamite. London house music veteran Switch and Philadelphian global bass ambassador Diplo’s collaborative debut was a hyperactive, gymnastic concept album that flipped dancehall on its head and gave it a jolt of electro. Its Spandex-tight beats, blooping 808s, spaghetti western guitar, badman lyrics and rhythms made you want to oil your buns, slide into a neon thongkini and grind. Even Beyoncé saw its vag-wiggling potential and sampled 'Pon De Floor’s zippy siren in her superwoman anthem, 'Run The World (Girls)'.
One spin of Major Lazer’s second album, Free The Universe, and it’s clear that it’s of a very different bun entirely, the kind that hangs hairily out of low-slung jeans and threatens to meet your face as it pogos into the air at dance festivals. You can hazard a guess at why Switch left, citing 'creative differences': these days electronic music fills stadiums quicker than you can whisper ‘EDM’ and Diplo is a step closer to becoming the younger, blonder David Guetta.
Free The Universe is still, at its very core, a dancehall record, with plenty of guest appearances from Jamaican veterans like Elephant Man, Shaggy and Vybz Kartel. But it obscures the connection ever further with lacerations of Dutch house and brutalising bass and appearances from friends-in-high-places like Bruno Mars and Wyclef Jean. The abysmal 'Mashup The Dance' features Dutch DJ duo The Partysquad, whose only purpose seems to be to puncture Diplo’s tiresome carnival drums with a few lazer-blazing build-ups to make frat boys holler. 'Sweat', meanwhile, with Dutchman Laidback Luke, shoehorns sledgehammer-subtle pwew-pwews in around a Ms Dynamite rap. Heavier still, 'No Partial’s promising old-school reggae vibe flops like a gnarled troll’s belly – thanks to Brit wobblesteppa Flux Pavilion – into an ugly WAMP WAMP.
Despite that, there are some great moments. 'Scare Me' suggests Tiga producing Le Tigre and electroclash legend herself, Peaches, delivers a few predictably fruity verses. Songs from Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors ('Get Free') and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend ('Jessica') are lovely sun-bleached slabs of wonky reggae that sound like they’re bubbling underwater. Yet they are as if from another record entirely. Surprisingly, Bruno Mars isn’t even the worst thing on the album. He sings the lead on 'Bubble Butt', a swaggering song about sexing big booties. Its minimal hip-hop bounce is a deceivingly intricate jungle of trilling, squawking samples, and a reminder that Diplo can be one of the most talented producers of his generation.
In a parallel universe Diplo could have been the next Timbaland. His obsession with scouring the globe for unearthed beats was established on M.I.A.’s debut album, Arular, and he has since worked similar magic for major artists like Usher, Snoop Dogg, No Doubt and Shakira. But Free The Universe reeks of chasing the success of Baauer’s 'Harlem Shake' – which, incidentally, came out on Diplo’s Mad Decent label – like a rabid dog. As such, it’s just another notch on macho rave’s bedpost.
This review originally appeared on Drowned in Sound, March 2013.
The Strokes Comedown Machine
If they made instructional videos for schools about the perils of joining the rock’n’roll circus, The Strokes may have had you believing that being in a band is a joyless fate. On their last and fourth album, 2011’s Angles, you can hear the sound of five grown men’s heels screeching across the floor as they were dragged into the studio by their shrink-wrapped leather jackets. In the five years it took to make the album, they had, so reports go, scrapped most of their original material, ditched the producer and rewritten and produced it themselves. Their unpredictable singer, meanwhile, recorded his vocals separately, when he could be arsed, someplace else. Probably in bed.
It wasn’t that the Angles was a necessarily bad album (though it wasn’t great); it was a case of 'Why bother?' Because if you’re a joyless band putting out joyless records when you couldn’t give a hoot anymore, how can you expect anyone else to either?
But two years since Angles and 15 (15!) since they were playing to five people a night on New York’s toilet circuit, The Strokes have finally got it together. Despite the drink and drug battles, the actress wives and girlfriends, the children with ludicrous names, the ‘experimental’ side projects and communication breakdowns, Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond, Jr., Nikolai Fraiture, Fabrizio Moretti and Nick Valensi have emerged on the other side. And with a brilliant and wonderfully weird album, Comedown Machine, in tow. Now how’s that for a rock’n’roll cliché?
Still, you won’t find many on Comedown Machine: it’s The Strokes’ poppiest album yet, indulging the 80s synth-pop of Casablancas’s 2009 solo effort and underpinning it with the band’s familiar garage-y rock hallmarks. The result is surprisingly playful, a clutch of tracks that could happily sit on a Kitsuné Maison compilation and still keep pace. Slinky, angular funk-bass number ‘Welcome To Japan’ is much like a sleazy Frenchman trying to hit on you in a neon-lit club, while ‘One Way Trigger’ is A-Ha-by-numbers (and all the better for it). A light-hearted wafer-thin falsetto stretches over the top of its frenetic plinky-plonky ‘Take On Me’ synth line, before it kicks in with a powerslide-worthy air guitar riff. Then there is ‘Partners in Crime’: I defy you not to find fun in its exuberant jingle-jangliness, which could rival Phoenix for perkiness.
Elsewhere, there are both bleak and epic moments. The taut '80s Comedown Machine’ has more than a touch of the dystopian sci-fi about it, a lovely, light piano and strings melody, like something from a Wes Anderson film, crushed by a juddering bassline crunch. By contrast, ‘Chances’ relishes in its fluttery cosmic synths and choral moments to match the bit in the show when the twinkly LED lights are turned on and cover the audience in shimmery dots.
There are old school Strokes pleasers, too. ‘All The Time’, the video of which is a curious montage of all of the band’s best performances, the sort of thing you’d usually only see after a band splits, and break-neck number, ‘50/50’, harnesses their early punkish energy and nonchalant dive bar swagger. I can only hope they stay together long enough for me to drop my lager down myself as the riffs rip across a festival stage.
Very little is known about Comedown Machine, save that it has 10 songs, a faded red cover and that the band wrote and produced it themselves with help from some mystery friend at Electric Lady Studios in New York. They’ve done little to no promotion either, and I’m ready to swallow my words when the stories of studio dramas, week-long coke binges and bitter arguments over snare drums emerges. But, for now, there’s the music: The Strokes will never get back the raw magic of Is This It? but, with Comedown Machine, they’ve cast a different spell entirely – one that’s almost joyful.
This review originally appeared on BBC Music on May 5 2012.
BBC Music reviewSoul Clap - Efunk
If you believe the blogosphere-fuelled hyperbole, the future of dance music lies in the hands of Brooklyn label collective Wolf + Lamb and its slow burning seam of deep house. It launched the career of American-Chilean minimalist Nicolas Jaar and has made international party boys out of its DJs, Seth Troxler, No Regular Play and Art Department.
The jesters of this court are Boston-bred duo Soul Clap. They’ve been fizzing away on the underground club circuit since 2007, steadily gathering acclaim for their bootlegs of RnB classics and house remixes. Their debut album, EFUNK, however, has more in common with similarly fun-poking duo Chromeo. They share the same penchant for electro-funk, but Soul Clap sling classic 90s RnB, house, disco and New Jack Swing into the frat party punch.
Unfortunately, they spike it with cartoonish bro-rap bravado too. Their cover of 80s cult electro producer the Egyptian Lover’s The Alzeby Inn, with its homophobic undertones, is an outright clanger (though, we suspect, considering the title’s acronym spells out “everybody’s freaky under nature’s kingdom,” it is meant ironically).
The lyrics aren’t the only thing holding EFUNK back: Soul Clap’s chugging pace drags on the heels of their most anthemic numbers. Even one of EFUNK’s strongest tracks, Let’s Groove On, which references club classics like Snap!’s The Power and C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now), fails to reach the euphoric heights those inspirations might suggest.
The 90s thread continues on tracks Ecstasy and Need Your Lovin with Mel Blatt, who was in one of the era’s biggest girl bands, All Saints. Sadly, her vocals are wispy-thin and uncoil faster than a bad perm. Better is standout Take it Slow, which could have as easily come from Janet Jackson’s 1986 album Control with its slinky-sweet vocal from Franceska.
Still, the Soul Clap sound isn’t all stuck in the past. They may wear 80s and 90s influences on their sequinned sleeves, but they blend neon-splattered nostalgia with a crisp futurism thanks to their experimental production techniques. If the future of dance music does lie with Soul Clap, you can at least count on it being downright freaky.
Miaow. I am writing this from the future, even though it will (hopefully) publish in the past. I've been so terrible at updating this blog with all my work over the summer, but there's no time to start like a cold Sunday night in on the sofa, and I'm going to backlog as much as I can.