Someone was obviously having a laugh this week. Some record industry mogul says, "Hmmm, it's Londonist Pop's turn to do the reviews this week. Why don't we release albums by Foo Fighters, Funeral For A Friend and Nine Black Alps? That'll learn him for not wanting to do the Coldplay review!" His drinking partner, drunk on rider lager laughs heartily, raising a glass, saying : "I'll drink to that!" Thankfully, someone takes pity and makes sure that there's some sweetness and light in the form of The Magic Numbers, Roisin Murphy and Saint Etienne making it onto today's release schedule.
The Departure - Dirty Words
Which brings us to the first record up for review. Where does The Departure's album fit in? Well, it's not pop, it's not noise, it's just... indie rock and it sounds like an album hastily chucked onto The Bravery-esque bandwagon before the wheels fall off it.
To be fair, we enjoyed a couple of tracks off this album: singles All Mapped Out and Be My Enemy. However, two enjoyable tracks doth not a good album make. In the context of this album, the singles actually suffer by drowning within the formulaic noise that is a song by The Departure. We couldn't help thinking this was an Estuary English (though the band come from Northampton) version of The Bravery at almost every chiming guitar line; the thing is, we don't like The Bravery very much, so The Departure were onto a loser from the off with us.
To be more positive, The Departure are still a relatively young and new band, and if they've been pushed down a certain 'scene' for commercial purposes, we hope that experience and confidence allows them to dictate their own direction to drag them out of that particular mire. If they survive, though, we don't think they'll be looking back at this album with any particular pride.
There weren't many other reviews from sources we trust on this, with only the one review from Gigwise (**) worth picking out. They're pretty much in agreement with us, saying that "every track is written from the same set of blueprints and 'Dirty Words’ sounds like one really long song." Although rather cruel, we liked the Gigwise review's conclusion: "'Dirty Words'? There really isn’t enough of them to describe what a disappointment this LP is."
Foo Fighters - In Your Honour
Whilst the Foo Fighters really fit within Londonist Noise's remit, they're mainstream and melodic enough to bear repeated listening in the Londonist Pop household. And, what luck, In Your Honour is a double-album which neatly reflects the split personality of the Londonist Music Dungeon. Disc one is the noisy half; disc two being the acoustic half. Being open-minded, though, we didn't just use disc one as a handy coaster, we did actually give it a listen.
So the play button is duly hit and, as is our addicted wont, we settle down into the sofa with pencil, rubber and sudoku puzzle. 30 seconds later, we're looking in a puzzled manner at the track-listing wondering why the cover version of Sulk by Radiohead wasn't listed as track 1. 15 seconds later Dave Grohl starts screaming and our confusion is lifted but we defy anyone with a love of The Bends (and there'll be plenty of you out there if sales and polls are anything to go by) not to have an over-riding feeling of 'you've nicked that from Radiohead, you have' when listening to that first track. And, to be frank, that's not a good thing when it comes to disc one. Foo Fighters have their place, but they ain't no Radiohead. Having ceded the softer moments to disc two, disc one loses the ability to demonstrate any proper light and shade and, unless you're really paying attention, this could easily start to sound like a load of white noise.
There are highlights though, with DOA doing its best to sound like Queens of the Stone Age before a very Foo Fighters chorus (i.e. noisy but melodic enough for softies like Londonist Pop to enjoy); Resolve is classic Foo Fighters in radio-friendly mode, with its melodic guitar line and Dave Grohl, for once, in non-shouty mode, at least for the verses.
After all that, it's a blesed relief to put the acoustic disc two on. In an uncanny repeat of the start of disc one, the first guitar noodlings again bring to mind a Champions League band. That Still (or its guitar part, at least) sounds like Nirvana's All Apologies, however, is understandable. The spectre of Kurt Cobain looms large again in Friend of a Friend, both musically and lyrically. Miracle could almost be classic REM, with the tinkling piano, string parts and affecting lyrics. Surely a song made to soundtrack a thousand home-made videos of new-born babies. Elsewhere, it's pleasant acoustic rock and, for our money, Dave Grohl's way with melody is best showcased in this environment, when given air to breathe. It's still recognisably Foo Fighters, just toned down. You get the feeling that, free from the need to rock out, the band have relaxed with disc two. Consequently the song, rather than the arrangement, becomes the focus. Someone at the CD mastering stage really ought to have 'forgotten' to include Virginia Moon, though. It's a bossa nova abomination featuring Norah Jones and, in a word, terrible.
All in all, an album of two halves. 3-0 down at half-time, disc two levels the score at 3-3, with disc two's quality eclipsing the memory of the worst moments of disc one.
A mixed bag of reviews elsewhere, we'll start with the cheerleading one from the NME (7/10) which describes the Foo's thinking behind the double-disc concept: "No more mixing of messages. This is where they have become great." NME agrees with us, though, about the two halves. Disc one is "a record that sounds like the band are racing through so they can start work on Disc Two a bit quicker." The Observer Music Monthly in its *** review is a bit harsher about this: "The first disc of this fifth album is an unremitting drudge." Moving on, the NME continues that disc two is "the sound of a band pushing themselves, in its very restraint."
Most of the other reviews give 3 out of 5, with those angry indie kids at Drowned In Sound being the exception (**). It's obvious which side of Foo Fighters they prefer: "They are essentially now a fine American trad rock band with hardcore roots". DiS were none too impressed by the acoustic half: "By track four, my eyes are feeling a trifle heavy... anyone with a Lemonheads album has gotta find this stuff pretty derivative, pretty insipid." To sum up, they damn with faint praise: "Sure, the Foos are excellent at what they do. It’s just unfortunate that what they do is so unavoidably mediocre."
Uncut (***) subscribes to the 'disc one bad, disc two good' school of thought:
Disc Two mostly delivers... The chiming Cold Day In The Sun, fronted by drummer Taylor Hawkins, is a Ringo moment that’s pretty enough not to knock matters off course. And given the potential perils and pitfalls of the double-album, that’s surely enough to chalk this one up as a success.
The ever-reliable Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian (***) is a little less generous about the acoustic songs - "Ten tracks of this kind of thing is pushing Grohl's ability as a Damien Rice" - but acknowledges the context: "It makes a neat complement to the first disc, and together they're pleasantly chewy."
Finally, The Independent (***) gives the same rating as elsewhere but decides to go against the grain by declaring that "The standout tracks are mostly from the rock disc." Are we the only one to think the Indy occasionally tries a little too hard to demonstrate just how independent it is?
Foo Fighters' marketing men have done the business and if you're a fan, tune into XFM today (Monday 13th) because today is Foo Fighters Day on XFM. The culmination of the day will be the latest of XFM's excellent X-Posure Album Playbacks series, starting at 10pm, when you can hear the entire album, and Foo Fighters' thoughts on it.
The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers
Onto more familiar territory for Londonist Pop then, and this is actually the toughest one for us to review. It's no secret how much we love the Numbers here in the Londonist Music Dungeon, but that's a double-edged sword. To switch metaphors, on the one hand, we have so much love for the Numbers that we could automatically declare anything released by them as great. On the other hand, we've seen the band so many times that we've lived and breathed most of the songs on the album for so many months, so the album will have to be going some to match the euphoria of their live performances.
We've actually gone through the whole cycle of feelings about this album. The initial feeling was negative: it doesn't match up to the live performances. But how could anything match up to what are quite frankly the most enjoyable gigs we've ever been to? And is that a fair criterion against which we should be judging the album?
So we reserved judgement and, after living with this album for a while, we've decided that we like it; we just don't love it. We love the band, we love the songs, we love the gigs, we just don't like the way the album's been produced.
The image The Magic Numbers portray is of a band who are comfortable enough to be themselves without too much styling going on, and that is a powerful reflection of their music which, as a live proposition, is fairly uncomplicated - guitar, bass, drums, vocals, the occasional melodica and xylophone but (live performances of Oh Sister aside) it's as simple as that. The songs don't need anything else, they're strong enough not to need embellishment. Tellingly, the only song on the album to feature a string part is the one which Londonist hasn't heard the Numbers perform live: This Love, a beautiful song which features a rose petal delicate arrangement.
To be fair, the production does avoid trying to do too much. Sure, there's a banjo part in the opener Mornings Eleven, but it's subtle and not showy. The songs sound almost exactly as if it was recorded as played and herein lies the problem. When you are as brilliant live as The Magic Numbers, you need to be able to capture that on record very well. Either that or bring something else to the recorded versions that take them away from direct comparison with the gigs.
To take a band who were in a similar situation, The Libertines recorded their stuff 'as live' and got good results, at least for the debut album. You get an 'organic' feeling with The Magic Numbers, in that there's a huge amount of love generated at their gigs. In contrast, the album sounds rather clinical at times. It sounds here as if the warm fuzzy edges were lost somewhere in the translation to zeros and ones of the digital process.
Take the curiously truncated backing vocals of Love Me Like You, the sparse arrangement in the guitar solo of Long Legs, the clean edges of Mornings Eleven. Mornings Eleven is normally a euphoric set closer, so its presence at the very beginning of the album messed a little with our tiny little minds too. In fact, the track sequencing does seem to have produced an overly-mellow second half to the album, again something at odds with the usual effervescence of the live proposition.
There are positives, however. The vocals in the verses to The Mule have always seemed to be at a weak point in Romeo Stodart's range, and the recorded arrangement makes it easier to balance the various parts. The tearjerkers Try, I See You, You See Me and Wheels On Fire benefit from being listened to intently without the distraction of several hundred other people in close vicinity. I See You, You See Me's production, by the way, is spot on, so it's not all bad. Similarly with Love Is A Game, although its pace is a touch too leisurely for our liking.
Those who have never seen the Numbers live will note the quality of the song-writing apparent on this album and will appreciate it for the good record it is. Those of us who have seen the Numbers live will appreciate having the recorded songs just because we love the band and the songs. The songs are great, with a great variety of styles and the strongest melodies you will ever hear; Romeo, Angela and Michele's vocals and harmonies are spot on; Romeo's finger-picking guitar is subtly effective. But it's just a very good album when we really wanted it to be great.
Having said all that, this is still Londonist's Album of the Week.
What does everyone else make of it? Well, the angry indie kids at Drowned in Sound reckon the album's damn near perfect (****½). The songs are "cohesive mishmashes of slow-burning melody and damn fine harmonic fun", making the album "a satisfyingly dynamic mix of ups and downs, joy and heartbreak, pop and hillbilly soul..."
In our warped fantasies, we often think what it would be like to see a fight between reviewers who differed wildly in opinion. Drowned In Sound and The Independent could be the first up in our Reviewer Death Match series, as The Independent is not very nice at all about our beloved Numbers:
Other than the lilting "This Love", hardly any of these songs is allowed to run its natural course. The result is an intermittently enjoyable, but somewhat over-egged, exercise in classic pop which only occasionally surmounts the air of studied artifice.
The Guardian is closer to Drowned In Sound with its review (****) describing the Numbers' sound as "an alluring kind of soulful harmony-pop" and the album as "classic pop, rejuvenated". The Guardian's reviewer takes the opposing stance to us on the production, appreciating the fact that the Numbers "avoid the pitfall of unnecessary clutter".
Horrifyingly for Londonist, The Observer Music Monthly (OMM, lest we forget, gave the awful Oasis album a full 5 star review) entirely agrees with our analysis:
The clinical production sacrifices the kinetic uplift of the band's live shows. Despite the buzz, then, not quite a classic. But if they can build on the unadorned intimacy of 'This Love' and mighty doowop rocker 'Mornings Eleven', greatness is but a formality.
You can make up your own minds and try before you buy at the XFM listening post.
Fans of the Numbers should note that tickets for their UK tour went on sale this morning. They'll be playing the Shepherds Bush Empire on Tuesday 18th October. Tickets available from the usual places, and other dates are listed on the The Magic Numbers website.
Saint Etienne - Tales From Turnpike House
Given our obsession with The Magic Numbers, it takes something very, very special to stop us giving every award going to Romeo & Co. Saint Etienne very nearly pulled it off, though, and up until the last play of each respective album, they were going to wrest Album of the Week from the Numbers with their surpringly superb album Tales From Turnpike House. Saint Etienne's fans would take issue with the use of the word 'surprisingly' but after the excellent Foxbase Alpha and So Tough, Tiger Bay was a little disappointing; so Saint Etienne slipped from our minds with a few decent singles here and there occasionally stirring up memories of a band that, for us, used to represent our romantic vision of London. We have to admit it came as a surprise to us that this is the band's seventh album.
Tales... is a concept album of songs set around a fictional estate somewhere in, where else, London. So you wake up with Sun In The Morning shining through until the rattle of a Milk Bottle Symphony stirs you in a bitter-sweet manner. With lyrics like:
Tony leaves the depot late
17 years with the Unigate.
Number 9, Mrs Doris Brown
Pulls on her quilted dressing gown
you know you're in Saint Etienne's world, and it sounds wonderful. An introduction to the estate it skilfully echoes the epitome of London's bitter-sweet life. Generally an upbeat and chirpy song, the introduction of the lower strings towards the end of the song lends it a slightly mournful quality, and saves it from being too saccharine. Slow Down At The Castle echoes the structure with an initially sweet song hinting at sadness. Lightning Strikes Twice, A Good Thing and Stars Above Us hark back to the more clubby side of Saint Etienne's back catalogue, and the rest of the album brilliantly synthesizes everything the band have done up till now. The latin beats which sounded a little hackneyed in previous albums now work deftly as part of a melody-, rather than beat-, led song.
The most memorable track will be obvious to anyone who's heard the album: Relocate, a duet with David Essex, is an argument between a couple about, well, relocating out of London, which perhaps documents the current state of the Etienne's relationship with our city.
The grass may be greener,
The air may be cleaner,
But I love this city,
I know it's not pretty,
But at least there is life.
You call this life?
We heartily recommend you buy the package of the album which includes the Up The Wooden Hills EP. All the tracks are great but the fabulous You Can Count On Me is alone worth the extra couple of quid (especially if you find the thought of Sarah Cracknell speaking French a little exciting).
This is the best Saint Etienne album for absolutely yonks. It's consistently strong, pulls off the concept album idea, and has a bonus CD which is actually worth the extra money.
Saint Etienne's low profile in recent years means there aren't too many other reviews to pick from. Gigwise (**) weren't turned on by the album: "The whole album is reminiscent of Blackbox Recorder attempting Belle and Sebastian. Imagine it, and then remove the wit, entertainment and social insight and you pretty much have it."
Our friends at The London Line are as positive as us, however:
It's absolutely great, but not as fabulous as the bonus mini-album of educational songs for (hip) kids, which includes probably the finest song about animals ever (Let's Build a Zoo) and, erm, David Essex. Inspired.
The Guardian, as usual, agrees with us. It sticks its neck out by giving the album a full ***** review: If, as rumour has it, St Etienne's seventh album turns out to be their last, then it's a good job that it's probably their best.
Albums released this week we didn't want (or couldn't be arsed) to review in full:
Funeral For A Friend - Hours (album stream available at XFM)
Nine Black Alps - Everything Is (album stream available at NME.com)
(Be grateful you got a Foo Fighers review, there's no way we could have listened to these two enough times to do it justice.)Roisin Murphy - Ruby Blue (some songs available for preview at official site)