Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dreams - The Whitest Boy Alive

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Yes, I know it's an old album (released back in 2006) but no-one can expect me to be on the ball with everything that is popular music can they? And it was only released in the UK in November 2007, so it's relatively new.

The Whitest Boy Alive is Kings Of Convenience singer Erlend Øye's solo project (yes, I know there's a band behind him, but still...). And the slightly comedy name doesn't mean he's a white boy doing rap. One might call it Indie Pop or, heaven forbid, slightly "soft" rock. But whatever you would label it as, it's still really rather wonderful. So wonderful that you might question whether we need the Kings Of Convenience after hearing it.

Whether it's the lilting funk of Fireworks, the down and dirty Golden Cage or the staccato vibe of Figures, this is one of those albums that sounds innocuous at times but you soon realise that it's lodged firmly in your brain.

Granted, it's a little too slow tempo-ed as a cohesive whole to really reach out and grab your attention but at it's chilled out best its pretty irresistible.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Hard Candy - Madonna

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Some might have been thrilled and excited about Madonna working with Timbaland (and by extension Justin Timberlake) and The Neptunes on her new album, Hard Candy. Me? Well despite recognising their talents, I felt it was a backwards step. For the majority of her career Madonna has led the agenda, not followed it and virtually every pop ingenue under the sun has already recorded with them. The transparent attempt to appeal to the American market once again (Confessions On A Dancefloor had the lowest percentage of American sales of her career) has led to to an unusual state of affairs. After leading the way for two decades, and changing the face of pop music more than once, Madonna is content to follow the path already trodden in the all consuming pursuit of a hit.

Lead single, 4 Minutes is a decent enough affair but bodes ill for the album at large. Whilst not expecting any genuine insight from Madonna lyrically these days its a song that has no real discernible personal traits at all. Indeed, its a song that any of Timbaland's pop beauties could polish off in their sleep.

As if to highlight this, next single Give It 2 Me is the kind of track that Britney Spears would have done rather well...about four years ago.

And its a problem that besets great swathes of the album. It's generic where once it would have been unique; its attempt to keep up with, or follow, trends, rather than setting them.

Of course, it's Madonna, so its far from a dull album and being as engineered towards the mainstream as it undoubtedly is it's bound to keep her in Top 10 singles until the next album comes along. But, and it's a big BUT, it's a frustratingly disappointing affair. Madonna can do better and her producers certainly can.

To put it into perspective, it's a notch below Britney Spears' 2007 album, Blackout and certainly a notch below Madonna's last effort Confessions On A Dancefloor. Let's hope she can get back to her best next time around.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sounds So Good - Ashton Shepherd

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It's easy to be cynical about yet another photogenic young female releasing her debut country album; it only takes a cursory glance at the CD booklet to change your mind however as, with a little help from her brother-in-law, Shepherd has written 10 of the 11 tracks here. This is not your typical Nashville affair where a label gets in a pretty face to record ready-written tracks.

And if this immediately sets Shepherd apart from the pack, its not long before other things have the same effect. Her voice is warm and one of the best of any of the recent newcomers and although occasionally her lyrics (some of which were written when she was just 15) are a little simple and childish, the majority of it is startlingly good.

Whether it be the radio friendly Sounds So Good and The Bigger The Heart or the channelling of Loretta Lynn on I Ain't Dead Yet and Whiskey Won The Battle, Shepherd proves equally adept. Smart enough to know to ensure radio-play on the notoriously fickle Country radio, Shepherd never lets that become the over-riding point of the album and manages the trick of mixing the commercially friendly with the genuinely compelling.

An outstanding debut album.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pocketful Of Sunshine - Natasha Bedingfield

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It must have seemed to Natasha Bedingfield as if she had the world at her feet. And maybe she still does; but she's had to sacrifice most of her agreeable quirkiness to make it remain so.

Her "second album" NB may not have been brilliant, but it was an album that screamed out personality; indeed it was unmistakably a Natasha Bedingfield record. Admittedly that might not be everyone's idea of a good thing, but in the homogenised generic world that counts as the modern day pop industry it was certainly refreshing.

The American's didn't like it though, and it's Stateside release was quietly scrapped after the flop of lead single I Wanna Have Your Babies, conspicuous by it's absence here. What's more, after being postponed for some non-reason (which most certainly wasn't due to poor ticket sales), a UK tour was finally cancelled for some other non-reason (which again wasn't due to poor tickets sales at all) which suggested that things were looking decidedly sticky.

Hence Pocketful Of Sunshine, here second album for the USA. Half of it is rehashed from NB, the rest new tracks, all recorded simply through Bedingfield's high work-rate, and not because her American label insisted.

Yes, you might detect more than a smidgen of cynicism here, but anyone with a hint of common sense can work through the spin.

On balance, at least the better tracks from NB have been left intact but the new tracks are the typical, Americanised pap that you'd expect from an American/Pop Idol contestant. The success of this album so far, at least compared to it's European counterpart, may prove that Bedingfield has made the right choice. This listener, however, remains less than convinced that she did.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Backwood's Barbie - Dolly Parton

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Apparently this is Dolly's first "mainstream" Country album in 17 years. But throughout all the Bluegrass and covers albums, you should never have really lost sight of the fact that Parton is one of Country's greatest ever songwriters (and 9 of the 12 tracks here are Parton originals). And whilst this album would by no means convince anyone unaware of her greatness, there is just about enough of the old Parton magic to make this a worthwhile listen.

Pick of the bunch are the delicate Only Dreaming and the vibrant Better Get To Livin' which prove that for all the wigs, cheap-looking expensive clothes and ample bosom, Parton is a genuine talent.

Just don't expect anything but pained amusement from her cover of the Fine Young Cannibals (She) Drives Me Crazy.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Long Blondes LIVE

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It's no secret that, second time around, the Long Blondes have left me a little cold. Therefore the prospect of a Long Blondes concert which would undoubtedly be heavily weighted towards their second album, Couples, wasn't the sure fire thing it would have been a couple of months ago in my mind.

What transpired was pretty much what my reordered thoughts expected.

Was it awful? Not by any means. Was it great? Not really.

Certain new tracks, particular examples being Round The Hairpin and I'm Going To Hell, did sound better than their recorded counterparts, but all too often the new songs fell flat in the greater scheme of things. And whether or not it was my imagination, but this all led to the tracks off the debut album falling flat too, lacking the vitality that made them such an appealing proposition first time around.

All in all, I couldn't wait for it to finish - not because I wasn't enjoying myself (to a degree it was still a good night out) but more the fact that it failed on almost every level to live up to what I've seen from them before.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Lessons To Be Learned - Gabriella Cilmi

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I can imagine there was great delight in the Radio 2 playlist office when they first heard Sweet About Me; it ticks almost every MOR box you could wish for. Me, well I was more intrigued by the fact that this album was being "overseen" by Xenomania.

And in an essence, their presence is what sets this really rather good album apart from the chasing pack. Their eye for a catchy pop tune is undiminished and shines through like a beacon here and the fact that they're serious about pop, but not too-self serious, means that it immediately bypasses the Amy Winehouse clone argument.

Save The Lies might get a little too close to Anastacia for comfort, but it's a cracking start to the album and sets things up very nicely indeed. It's the more uptempo tracks that most grabbed my attention, the best of the bunch being Don't Wanna Go To Bed Now and Cigarettes and Lies, and even the cover version of Echo Beach works well, albeit in a camp way.

It's by no means perfect, perhaps being a little too reliant on ballads for my liking, but there is a definite sense that this could be the start of something special. Of course, Joss Stone seemed like a great talent on the back of her debut, so you'd be wise not to get too excited just yet; but on balance, Cilmi certainly looks as if she could have a bright future ahead of her.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Shine - Estelle

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Imagine my surprise when I heard Estelle's new single American Boy; how in the hell did she drag Kanye West into the proceedings...? And then get him to rap about Ribena and WAGS? Little did I know that John Legend had taken a, ahem, shine to Estelle, signed her to his label and the rest is, as they say, history.

And it's a history few would have predicted given her first album's failure (it only scraped the top 40) and dare I say that Estelle herself might never have imagined the day where Mark Lamarr would be replaced by Kanye West in her video's...

You can't ignore the Kanye effect; last November, the single release of Wait A Minute failed to even trouble the Top 100, and it's difficult to imagine one of her non-collaborations would have fared any better. But credit where credit is due, American Boy is a great little pop song and if I'm being churlish it would be amazing if a record produced by ten of the finest producers John Legend's money can buy didn't come up with some sublime moments but even if nothing quite lives up to the single, there's more than enough to make this a worthwhile listen.

More Than Words is a lilting jazz-inspired track that Joss Stone would give up her year's supply of Flake's for, and the collaboration with Cee-Lo, the Mowtown-esque Pretty Please could conceivably follow American Boy to the upper reaches of the charts.

There are the duff moments for sure, and Estelle doesn't quite manage to carry off an entire album on her charismatic personality alone, but there are more than enough killer tracks and hooks here to please most pop fans.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Brain Thrust Mastery - We Are Scientists

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I really liked Love & Squalor so it was with an immense disappointment that I got to grips with the lead single from the new We Are Scientists album, After Hours. Whilst not being offensive in any way, it wasn't really very good. And the video seemed to sum up the potential problem with their second album. Lyrically they clearly feel the need to get more serious but visually they were stuck in their "kooky" past.

And listening to the album there is, to me at least, a definite feeling of it being stuck between two different paymasters. In an attempt to "grow up" or mature their sound they've ended up sounding like perhaps the most terrible thing you could label a record; dull.

The odd moment of clarity aside (Impatience, Lethal Enforcer) you find yourself merely longing for the "old" We Are Scientists.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

2008 Concerts


4th February - Laura Veirs - Manchester Night & Day
10th February - Amy Macdonald - Carling Academy, Liverpool
19th February - The Von Bondies - Manchester Night & Day
1st March - Natasha Bedingfield - Manchester Apollo
4th March - Kate Nash - Manchester Apollo
14th March - Inspiral Carpets - Manchester Academy
16th March - Lucy Porter - Manchester Lowry (COMEDY)
25th March - Be Your Own Pet - Manchester Academy 3
29th March - Sugababes - King George's Hall, Blackburn
8th April - The Long Blondes, Manchester University
22nd May - Feist - Palace Theatre, Manchester
31st May - Girls Aloud - MEN Arena, Manchester
4th June - Bat For Lashes - Carling Academy, Liverpool
11th June - Cat Power - Manchester Academy 1

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Couples - The Long Blondes

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Someone To Drive You Home was my album of 2006, quite comfortably as it turned out. From start to finish it was a modern masterpiece. Notwithstanding the lack of an actual hit, it was an album packed full of singles, yet held together as it's own entity. And I'd think that even if Kate Jackson wasn't sex-on-legs.

Three tracks in, the follow up Couples seems to be heading for a similarly winning run. Century proves that adding synths to the mix (replacing the jangly guitars that were their trademark) was a good idea. Jackson has rarely sounded better and the insistent tune is soon lodged in your brain.

Guilt could have drowned in it's Disco beat, but lyrically it's classic Long Blondes and is one of those songs that gets better with every listen. The Couples is perhaps the song on the album that most could have fitted in on STDYH and as well as having a killer tune once again brings the biting wit of the Blondes to the fore.

So far so good then? Sadly it's pretty much a downhill ride from here, or at least you've got as good as your going to get in the first three tracks.

I Liked The Boys and Here Comes The Serious Bit basically forget to pack a tune in alongside the other ingredients, and Nostalgia may well achieve it's probable aim of reminding you of the early 80's but that doesn't stop it being a terrible song. Things reach a possible nadir with Too Clever By Half. I still can't make my mind up if it's so bad it's good, or whether it's just plain awful. I'm half tempted to think it's someone's bad idea of a joke.

At least Round The Hairpin and Erin O'Connor mean that the last two thirds of the album isn't a complete wash out but, especially after the blinding opening, it's all too much of a disappointment.

There are signs that they still have more to offer, and at the least they should be commended for resisting the temptation to record another STDYH and waiting for the money to roll in. Still that doesn't change the fact that, for this listener at least, Couples is very much a let-down.