Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rockwell - Anni Rossi

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It's ironic that this should follow the Jarvis Cocker review, as Anni Rossi's debut album is also produced by Nirvana producer Steve Albini. Calling it a debut album might be slightly pushing it as it's got five of the six tracks from last years Afton EP and is less than ten minutes longer than that EP to boot.

That said, the duplicated tracks are not "duplicated" in their entirety; well if you're going to hire an expensive producer you might as well get your money's worth out of him. And, to be fair, it's a move that seems to have worked for the most part.

Her "unique selling point", that is her virtuoso Viola playing, is not lost in the shuffle but only the most eclectic of music listeners would suggest that the steadying hand of Albini hasn't improved matters.

The "old" tracks are probably account for most of the album's highlights; Ecology benefits from the addition of some keyboards and is about as mainstreamly catchy as you'll get on the album.

It's just a pity that most of the record companies promotion seems to revolve around her cover of Ace of Base's Living In Danger. Pleasantly cute it may be, but it's still nothing more than a novelty, no matter how "straight" Rossi treats it. That it follows perhaps the album highlight in the form of the creepy but eminently catchy Deer Hunting Camp 17.

You can't imagine this catching on with the wider populace, a la Feist, but that doesn't mean that it's not worth a listen, or ten, for a music fan with an open mind. And that's not just me being biased thanks to it's Icon-approved running time of less than 30 minutes - for once an artist seems to have realised that less is most certainly more.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Further Complications - Jarvis Cocker

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"I met her in the museum of paleontology and I make no bones about it". There's certainly one thing you can't take out of Jarvis Cocker no matter who you get in to produce his album and that's his trademark wit.

Yet there also seems little point in bringing in Steve Albini, producer to Nirvana and The Pixies most famously, to drown out Cocker's wit in a wall of noise.

The result is an album that never really quite gets going. There's nothing particularly wrong about listening to Jarvis "rock out" but there is so little variety on display that you've not even got half way through the album before you're starting to tire of it. And, whisper it quietly, when you do get the chance to listen to the lyrics there's little variety there either, with song after song about sex as if Jarvis is undergoing some form of mid-life crisis.

It's not a dreadful record (to put it into perspective it's nowhere near as dire as Chris Cornell's recent "change of direction") and it may well only be because I expect so much more from him that it falls flat. But at the end of the day, there's no way you can label this classic Cocker.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Polly Scattergood - Polly Scattergood

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With an opening track that kicks in at seven minutes long, you're pretty much going to know by the time I Hate The Way comes to an end whether or not you've got the stomach for Polly Scattergood.

If the opener leaves you cold then you're not going to be impressed by much of what follows; if on the other hand you like it, you may well just be led towards giving Scattergood the benefit of doubt despite the overwrought indulgence that permeates some of the nine tracks that follow.

If you're in the latter camp you'll acknowledge that I Hate The Way, the rocking Nitrogen Pink and the sweet melodrama of Other Too Endless make good songs whilst lamenting the likes of Unforgiving Arms where you can't help but feel the personal lyrics aren't anywhere near as interesting or insightful as you suspect Scattergood thinks they are.

Another graduate of the Brit School, Polly Scattergood is one of those artists who some people will unconditionally love and others will unconditionally hate - with little scope for either side to soften their stance. For me, there's probably just about enough good stuff on the album to at least lead to me giving her the benefit of the doubt that second time around things might really click, but at the same time the flaws with this record might not be so easy to overcome without Scattergood losing the things which could make her an artist worth listening to either. But then no-one ever said that this music malarkey was easy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Relapse - Eminem

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There's an argument that Marshall Mathers said all that he had worth saying by the time you'd finished his third album. Indeed, you could even argue that stretching that to 2002's The Eminem Show would be pushing it.

So here we are in 2009, with Relapse (his first album in five years) and things are pretty much still the same. He's still taking pot shots at his mother, his missing in action father and saying rather scandalous things about (imagined, presumably) step-fathers.

But the fact that Relapse is largely exactly what you'd expect from Eminem doesn't mean that is completely without merit. Same Song And Dance may re-visit old familiar themes (this time he's murdering various female celebrities) and it may be vile and cruel but it's a stunning piece of work. Sadly for every song like this there are two or three (such as terrible lead single We Made You) that seem to consist of out-dated pot-shots at increasingly irrelevant targets. Which is all the more frustrating as, whether or not you agree with - or can stomach - his sentiments, when he's good he's still very good.

The "beats" (I'm down with the lingo you know) that are provided by Dr. Dre at least ensure that this album is a lot better than 2004's Encore but it still falls depressingly short of his heyday. With a second volume apparently hitting the shops before the end of the year you might find that out of the two of them you can eventually put together a decent enough album but the good tracks on this album are outweighed by the mediocre, or even worse, dull ones.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Little Boots LIVE

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It’s amazing isn’t it? Here we are at Liverpool’s O2 Academy, three days before Little Boots debut single is released and the critical backlash against her is already seemingly in full swing. But let’s ignore those doubters/haters (whose main arguments against her seem to be A) she’s reasonably attractive and B) makes “pop” music of such a level that it’s quite catchy and people might actually want to buy it) and concentrate on the facts. All the hype in the world means nothing if the tunes don’t back it up and for the most part, the tunes back it up as far as Little Boots goes.

Granted there were a few people in the audience who seemed to be there for little more reason than they supposed it was a “cool” thing to be seen at, but when the majority of your audience are singing along to album tracks a month before the album is even released, you must be doing something right.

It may be my imagination (or it may be the fact that I was very, very drunk when I last saw her in Preston) but this time around she seemed more confident in her performance which led to more of a stage presence than before. Attempting to dance on top of the speakers in THOSE heels though, might have been a tad dangerous.

The likes of Stuck On Repeat, Symmetry, New In Town and Meddle are fantastic pop singles and whilst not everything can quite live up to those, neither is there ever really a dull moment in the set. There a lot of critics out there who seem eager to berate Little Boots for what she’s not, but they’d be better off celebrating her for what she is; the best new “pop star” of 2009.

None of the above is in any way biased by the fact that I had the good fortune to meet the lovely, and she is very lovely, Victoria Hesketh after the show…

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(We’ll mention the support acts considering I got to see them for once; Halo I Love You were apparently performing their first ever gig so we’ll not be too harsh. Not that they were terrible, but their bizarre mix of electro pop and Irish folk ditties (look, it’s what they sounded like to me anyway) didn’t really hit the mark. Soft Toy Emergency were the second support act and the surprisingly warm reception they received from the crowd couldn’t really disguise the fact that they sounded little more than a 21st Century version of Bis. Not that there is anything inherently bad in that (I don’t mind a bit of Bis at all) but neither is it all that thrilling).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ladyhawke LIVE

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Day two, and could the delightful New Zealander Pip Brown follow Girls Aloud? Well of course she could. Her album was on of 2008’s best and if the concert didn’t quite match up to the brilliance of the record (due in part, no doubt, to my usual gripe of an “electro” band feeling the need to ramp up their sound during a live gig) it got close enough to make this a very good night’s entertainment indeed.

Her appearance on FM (shit show I know, but I had to at least watch the one with her on it) showed that she had a sense of fun/humour (yes, which was something that was somewhat missing from the show itself in general), something that doesn’t always come across in the live performance of hers I’ve seen on TV. Tonight though, she seemed relaxed and comfortable with the crowd, even at one point admitting that she “didn’t usually talk” as much but felt the need to do so.

The concert was basically a run through of the album, with a couple of B-sides tossed in for fun, but you can’t expect much more from a debut artist. At least she resisted the temptation to throw in some pointless cover versions. The “big” singles such as Paris Is Burning and My Delirium were the crowd favourites but most tracks were welcomed and everybody seemed to be having a great time. Especially the two girls next to me who spent half the night kissing each other. I wouldn’t have noticed, only Dave kept pointing it out….

Perhaps even more so “live” than on record, people who would unkindly say that Ladyhawke offers up precious little that is “new” in terms of her sound would find a lot to back up their opinion. But I say what does it matter? Perfectly crafted pop songs, which rarely veer into mere pastiche, are more than enough for me, regardless of what “era” they hark back to. And whisper it quietly, but I may have enjoyed this a little more than I enjoyed the previous night’s festivities…

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Girls Aloud LIVE

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Well it was that time of year again. It's May, so it must be Girls Aloud at the M.E.N.

After the hilarity of three people in Old Orleans having two starters but four main courses between us (I substituted my desert for two Ice Cream Cocktails - the second of which I was brow-beaten into having by the lovely waitress) and a quick drink in Henry J. Bean's it was over to the arena just in time to miss the final support act murdering Lady Gaga's Just Dance and spend offensive amounts of cash on promotional tat. I don't include the £8 foam finger in that. That was money well spent in terms of it's power to get women either talking to me or slapping my arse.

In many ways there's nothing new to report in the world of Girls Aloud live. As ever it's one hell of a show (and I would have to say that this year's extravaganza must be their best yet from a visual point of view) which surely has to be one of the best on the arena circuit. Cheryl is still by far the most popular (to quote Dave, "she's gone Hollywood), Nicola still looks incongruously pale alongside the other four, Sarah still shouts at inappropriate moments and Manchester, for the fifth year running, is apparently the best place they play. At least this year, Nadine sounded a lot better than she did last year when she was seemingly auditioning for the lead part in a new Bonnie Tyler musical.

My only minor complaint is that there were a few too many songs from Out Of Control at the expense of some crackers from their back catalogue. I can't say I was that pleased that they tossed away three of my favourite songs (The Show, Wake Me Up and No Good Advice) in the show closing medley but hey, at least they did them.

All in all this was another entertaining night from Girls Aloud . We'll sure miss them when they're gone.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Outer South - Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band

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Ok, so Conor Oberst most definitely isn't the "new Bob Dylan", as if anybody ever could be these days, but he does have a good, and very varied, back catalogue. Which makes the appearance of this album, just months after his self-titled album with the Mystic Valley Band, something of a surprise, albeit a nice one.

As ever there are a range of sounds that he goes for, be it the epic country of Snake Hill or the stripped down starkness of White Shows. Most fans will have grown used to the chameleon like charms of Oberst by now, even if a lot of this is played on his his default alt-country setting.

He may regret giving the "band" their heads (nearly half the tracks are sung by his band mates) as tracks such as Air Mattress (which could indeed be compared to Bob Dylan, if you were saying it was a particularly bad attempt at a Dylan pastiche) prove and like a lot of musicians with too much control over their own output at 16 tracks this checks in at far too long a running time and would have surely benefited from some prudent editing to remove some of the dead weight. Still this spreading out of the duties does at least provide one great song in the form of Big Black Nothing.

So whilst it's nowhere near his best, and indeed very rarely threatens to ever challenge his best stuff, most fans will lap it up, even if they do find themselves permanently removing some of the tracks from their running list.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Transmitter Failure - Jenny Owen Youngs

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As good as Jenny Owen Youngs' debut album, Batten The Hatches, was it did have that "unfinished" air about it (at least in it's original form) and as ever with these things the question about the second album was always going to be, for me, whether or not Youngs would be able to take on the "mainstream" without losing what made her so delightful in the first place.

Well thanks to the nice people at Amie Street, and indeed the lovely Miss Youngs herself, I picked up a download of her new album, two weeks before it's in-store release, for a bargain $7 (including a charity donation - so shame on anyone who illegally downloads it). And I can safely say that if there ever was a hurdle for her to climb to her second album, she's vaulted over it with ease.

It's everything that I loved about her debut but cranked up about five notches, never mind one. You could argue that it's slightly less off-kilter than her, at times, raw and nervy debut, but it's only a slight change and it's certainly not watered down at all. In fact, it's probably more the fact that a lot of the songs are just so damn catchy that most people will miss a lot of the deeper, more brutal meaning in the lyrics.

Starting with the 40-second First Person perhaps shows that Youngs' sense of humour is intact, and it's a delightful start, even if it's briefness will surprise you first time around. Not to worry though, as Last Person turns out to be a longer and fuller version and is an excellent tune.

And whether it be the up-tempo foot stompers of Led To The Sea or Clean Break or the more reflective moments such as Here Is A Heart or What Beats Within, Jenny Owen Youngs rarely puts a note wrong on this fabulous album. And the sheer scale of emotions she can take you on shows again that she can both tug at the heart strings and, with her tongue-in-cheek attitude, make you laugh.

First time around I said JOY was a talent to watch out. Second time around, she's proved me right.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Scream - Chris Cornell

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Theoretically the mixing of Chris Cornell and Timbaland wasn't that bad an idea. Cornell needed to do something different from his rock roots to try and inject life into a moribund solo career and Timbaland has never been afraid to experiment, and seems intent on making a "rock" record at some point in his career and is a great enough producer not to be stymied by mere musical boundaries.

Sadly, whilst the theory might have been good (and I'm sure there were many a record executive rubbing their hands with glee upon the suggestion of this collaboration) the result is one of those brilliantly misguided attempts to do something different that manages to fail on almost every level.

Perhaps if this dull, almost continually similar sounding album had been given to the Pussycat Dolls (or someone of their ilk) they might have dragged out something from it as at least they would have added some personality to it, something that Chris Cornell fails abjectly to do. Whether he's wailing tunelessly or whether his voice is being put through a vocoder or Auto Tune, Cornell might as well be anyone. Whilst his vocal style not being your traditional R'n'B style might be the point, rather than finding yourself thinking this is a mix that works, you are just wondering why early in the proceedings someone didn't realise just what a dog of an album this would turn out to be.

Timbaland is on auto-pilot, Cornell sounds hideously out of place. This is probably an album only for those unlucky enough to need something to keep their Naomi Campbell CD company on their shelf.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In A Perfect World - Keri Hilson

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Until the release of this album, Keri Hilson had been known more for her collaborations (such as her turn on Timbaland's The Way You Are) or her songwriting duties on other people's songs (such as Britney's Gimme More or Mary J.Blige's Take Me as I Am) than she was for any of her attempts at solo success, most of which charted surprisingly low.

Yet with such a wide-range of pre-release achievements with other artists, there was always going to be somewhat of a buzz around this debut album. Even the fact that Return The Favour failed to trouble the American charts (it limped to number 19 in the UK) wasn't too distressing; it was a top quality tune after all.

And there's more like that, at least when all concerned are keeping things up-tempo. Return The Favour is joined by the likes of Turnin’ Me On, which features Lil Wayne, and Get Your Money Up, which are perfectly respectable R'n'B pop tunes that should be huge.

Of course there is the, seemingly ubiquitous, reliance on overwrought (and dull) ballads that seem to ruin most R'n'B albums by female vocalists these days. In, ahem, a perfect world there would have been more of the good up-tempo stuff, less of the filler slush. And sadly, there's just far too much of the slowed-down dross for me to recommend anything other than careful cherry-picking of the best tunes rather than the album as a whole.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fearless - Taylor Swfit

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May I just point out that I reviewed Taylor Swift's debut album in March 2007. Apologies if that confuses anybody who has merely happened upon this site and doesn't know me but I hope there's some out there who get my point...

Anyway, since then quite a lot has happened in the world of Taylor Swift, not least this album becoming America's biggest seller of 2008. Not bad for a record that the Guardian labelled as "dull pop-rock". But then again, when did the Guardian know anything? (And to be fair, Q Magazine did give it even more of a slating). I'm not attempting a review to redress the balance mind you, I'm just catching up after a long absence from this site.

Lead single in the UK, Love Story, managed the double whammy of Radio 1 airplay and neat top-of-the-chart status and it's not difficult to see why. You could argue it's nothing mind-blowing but it's a catchy pop tune with sentimental lyrics that nevertheless are never cloying. And therein lies Swift's appeal. Writing (or co-writing) all her own lyrics, Swift certainly seems more of an authoritative voice of the teenage world than many of her "peers" who have all their stuff written for them. So whilst it may not always hit the spot with us oldies, it's difficult not to fall for her sentiments, however naive they may seem on occasions.

Fifteen, for instance, manages to be both authentically "age-specific" to her teenage years, but is remarkably wide-ranging too. The lyrics could well be written by a woman twice her age.

It's "Country" sound will no doubt put a lot of people off, but Fearless is nowhere near as "Nashville" as her debut was and no matter what you try to pigeon-hole a track like The Best Day as, it's so sweet and simple, but genuinely uplifting, that it shouldn't matter what you label it with. And at her best, Taylor Swift cuts through everything else and just comes up with a knockout song.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Hardships - Jenny Wilson

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An album cover that features the Scandinavian Jenny Wilson (who has worked with The Knife) adorned in a flat cap holding a shot gun will probably give you some idea that this isn't going to be the most straightforward album you'll listen to all year. And within a minute of the opening track, The Path, with lyrics like "I wanted to be born, so I crawled out in the middle of the night, out of my mother" it's clear that this is all going to be, well, a little idiosyncratic.

So it's certainly not your run-of-the-mill female singer-songwriter effort, but don't be put off by that (as if you would be) nor by the fact that, nominally at least, this is some sort of attempt to use R'n'B as a muse because it's certainly nothing like most of the pap released under that guise.

Lead single The Wooden Chair mixes a bouncy drum beat, backing vocal that wouldn't have been out of place in O Brother Where Art Thou and bursts of percussion to startling effect and if it remains true that nothing else on this album quite lives up to the promise of that song, there are numerous other highlights to enjoy.

Pass The Salt turns childish backing vocals into something that Kelis would turn into a global hit, Anchor Made Of Gold is a better stab at a 70's Elton John song than Scissor Sisters have ever quite pulled off whilst We Had Everything slows things down a little and turns out to be quite a beautiful piano-driven ballad.

Not everything Jenny Wilson attempts quite comes off, but enough of it does to make this a very interesting and very good record. If you agree that pop stretches further than the latest abomination from the X-Factor, this is an album you simply have to check out. You shouldn't be disappointed with what you find.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

My Paper Made Men - Amy Studt

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It's perhaps a sign of how Amy Studt's career went that this album has been out digitally for a year and I've only just got around to hearing it. Unfairly labelled a flop (her debut album sold a respectable 200,000 copies) I did like her debut album False Smiles. Ok, so it was possibly a little too close to Avril Lavigne for it to have been a coincidence but the likes of Just A Little Girl and Misfit were catchy little pop ditties and the album as a whole certainly suggested Studt was a girl worth taking a chance on.

Six years later (and having found out about being dropped by her label by reading the paper) My Paper Made Men will probably sink without trace (indeed, it may well already have done so come to think about it) but it proves that indeed, Studt wad worth taking a chance on.

The opening track, Sad Sad World is a dark, brooding song that packs an emotional punch, whist Changing The Light cranks up the rock guitar to full effect. The initial lilting vibe of One Last Cigarette couldn't be any different, but is also a winner. Indeed, Studt's voice is well suited to to vast number of styles, and it deserves it's place as the star of the show.

The one track that sounds most incongruous is Nice Boys, which is the song that most sounds like something off her debut. It's relative lack of punch on this collection at least proves that Studt has definitely moved on from her "old" sound.

Ultimately it doesn't quite show enough personality of it's own to really make a mark on you but it does confirm that Studt is a talent.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Actor - St Vincent

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Every so often a song comes from out of nowhere and grabs you, punches you in the balls and demands that you not only listen to it but that you immediately seek out more from where it came from. Thus it was with me and Actor Out Of Work by St Vincent (Oklahoma's Annie Clark). It might well be the most exciting two minutes and fifteen seconds of song committed to record so far this year.

Of course upon discovering that Clark was once affiliated with The Polyphonic Spree (who once used a great single to drag me into a baffling mediocre album) I did start to wonder if this was going to be another anti-climax; I'm happy to announce that it wasn't. Actor may well be my favourite album of the year so far.

Never content to limit herself to a particular style, Actor is an album that constantly surprises you. From the opening haunting choir on The Strangers to the last strings on the album closer The Sequel you will listen to this never quite knowing what's coming next. One particular case in point would be Black Rainbow whose pop symphony opening gives way to disturbing scuzzed up guitars reminiscent of some Horror film soundtrack.

Her invention perhaps reaches a peak on Marrow. With it's orchestral introduction segue-waying into a haunting choir and a drum pedal, just when you think that she couldn't throw any more in , the rock guitar kicks in and says hello to disco horns. What is perhaps more surprising is that this "kitchen sink" approach works so well. Everything just seems to fit together like this is the way you are supposed to make music.

At one point she sings "I can't see the future, but I know it has big plans for me." On the basis of this, I hope that she's right. If this isn't up there contending for my best album of the year in December, then the next six months or so must be about to serve up quite a lot of classic albums.

Monday, May 04, 2009

To Be Still - Alela Diane

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Alela Diane's debut album, The Pirate's Gospel, was an album I rather unexpectedly liked. Still the unashamedly low-fi recording of it (it had been knocking around for a couple of years before it made it's "official" bow) meant that whilst it had a certain charm there was something holding it back from being something really special.

The question regarding it's follow up To Be Still was then one of whether or not it could capture those parts of Diane that made her debut so beguiling whilst at the same time offering us a little bit more. I'm pleased to say that for the most part it does.

Whilst it might all be relative, there is indeed a "bigger" set of production values to be heard on this album and it certainly does the trick whilst never neglecting the fact that the real star of the show should be Diane's captivating voice.

Whether it be White As Diamonds proving that Yodelling can still be cool, the playful slightly off-kilter harmonies of Every Path or the way that The Ocean moves from it's low-key starting point of just her voice and a drum beat to a cacophony of guitars, harmonies and mandolin's, there is rarely a duff moment on the album.

To Be Still has taken all that made Alela Diane such an intriguing prospect in the first place and taken it up a notch. It's delicate folk stylings still may not be to everyone's taste (and there's no guaranteeing that this slight "commercialisation" of her sound will pay off) but no-one with a love for the folk side of Americana will be disappointed with what they find here.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Nonsense In The Dark - Filthy Dukes

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Trumpeting the fact that you've recorded your debut album on the mixing desk of producer and Krautrock legend Conny Plank (as the story goes on the very same desk that Kraftwerk used in their heyday) not only gives reviewers a nice little hook to place their coats on (guilty as charged) but it also gives you certain preconceptions about the album before you even put it in the machine for a spin.

Indeed it's almost as if DJ's Tim Lawson and Olly Dixon, the men behind Filthy Dukes, are pushing this as the main reason why you might want to investigate this album. And whilst it goes without saying that this certainly doesn't live up to Kraftwerk (after all, what could?) it does have it's moments.

As you listen to the opening track This Rhythm you might be convinced that you are really onto a winner. Featuring guest vocals from Samuel Dust (Late Of The Pier) it's a foot stomper that simultaneously takes you back to the Electro 80's yet sounds utterly of the moment. Sadly it's not a trick that they pull off too many times on the rest of the album.

The likes of Light Skips Cross Heart (which sounds like a Depeche Mode out-take, but in a good way) and Twenty Six Hundred certainly hit the spot but far too often Filthy Dukes mis-fire. That the instrumental Twenty Six Hundred is one of the best tracks highlights one particular problem with the album; the lyrics are often ponderous and clumsy and whilst few would ever suggest that the success of dance music hinges on its lyrics, when you go to such lengths to create something that tries to appeal to the head as well as your feet anything that falls short is going to cast a shadow on proceedings.

Nonsense In The Dark is by no means a terrible album, and it has just about enough highlights to keep you interested, but neither is it a great one. In fact the one overriding feeling it gives you is one that being great DJ's doesn't always mean you are going to deliver a great record.