Now I can’t pretend to know what cutting edge electronica and dubstep sounds like nowadays, I’ll leave that to the hipsters with a few less years on the clock.
But it seemed to me that the arrival of James Blake’s debut album a couple of years back signalled the emergence of an artist with a very singular and unique musical vision.
His hushed, multi-layered vocals conjured up the intimacy of the first Bon Iver record along with the theatricality of Antony Hegarty. There was a bravery about the minimalism of those beats and arrangements.
Blake’s star has been in the ascendant ever since and he’s gone on to collaborate with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and been given the seal of approval by his heroine, Joni Mitchell.
So there’s a good deal riding on this follow-up. Blake takes the expectations in his stride, refining and distilling the best elements of that debut and polishing up his songwriting craft. The headline news, of course, is the contributions from Brian Eno on Digital Lion and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA on the standout Take A Fall On Me. This is still very much a James Blake record though with his quivering vocals taking centrestage pretty much throughout.
Joni Mitchell was an influence on the opening title track apparently, an introspective analysis on the pros and cons of fame: “I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore.” It builds to a beautifully swelling middle section. A classic Blake trick of restraint and release that he’s already proved to be the master of.
He’s in full-on tremulous Antony Hegarty mode for I Am Sold, which revisits the debut album’s motif of repeating snatched phrases before piling on the echo and distortion effects. It’s a muted opening pair, but lays out Blake’s introspective stall without compromise.
The pace picks up for Life Round Here, an ode to Blake’s girlfriend, the LA-based Warpaint guitarist Theresa Wayman. Laying bare the neuroses behind trying to keep up a long-distance relationship. Yet again, another repeated motif dominates: “part-time love is the life we live, we’re never done; everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day.”
RZA’s arrival on Take A Fall On Me provides a nice counterpoint, particularly his quirky Anglo-centric lyrics
“I wouldn’t trade her smile for a million quid” and “fish and chips and vinegar/With a glass on cold stout or something similar.”
Accept for the refrain: “I need you like I need satisfaction,” it’s a pretty oblique contribution. Another skewed love song to add to the Blake canon then.
You may have already heard the single Retrograde - it made number 10 in Denmark, after all. It’s one of his strongest melodies and part of the middle section of the album that tiptoes up to the edge of the dancefloor. The Eno hook-up on the pulsing almost wholly instrumental Digital Lion features a cut and paste repetition of the title emerging then disappearing into the mix as well as a klaxon. Hands-in-the-air techno, it most certainly is not though. You’d be hard pressed to detect the fingerprints of Eno here though, although it’s unfair to merely expect his trademarks soundscapes on everything he touches. He’s far more than a one-trick pony.
The delicate skeletal piano-led ballad Dim is another low-key delight that doesn’t try too hard.
The slinky house rhythms of Voyeur up the ante once again although by this time you may tire a little of Blake’s constant use of repetitive central vocal lines wandering in and out of the mix. If there’s a flaw here then it’s this dogged determination to pull off the same stylistic trick again and again.
There’s more melancholia and introspection on the Our Love Comes Back which once again melds piano with electronica.
The Big Boi-sampling bonus track Every Day I Ran is a welcome injection of energy on another steadfastly downbeat collection from Blake.
He claims that there is more light and shade this time around, but if that’s so then the more upbeat moments come from outside sources. This may be as divisive as the first album, but it won’t come as such a shock.
Now this is a work of art - even if I am a bit biased. In homage to one of my favourite Manc miserablists and the Half Man Half Biscuit song of (almost) the same name, my wife has come up with this fantastic Joy Division Oven Glove. They’re completely hand-stitched and homemade. The stitching took quite a while, but I think you’ll agree it was totally worth the effort.
Twitter went nuts when I shared this last night and the positive feedback is still coming thick and fast. Now the question is, what does my missus Laura attempt next? Maybe a Tom Waits apron or Leonard Cohen slippers, maybe something Screamadelica-related. That’ll look nice.
And for the uninitiated, here’s the original Joy Division album cover and a link to the song that inspired Laura.
“I enjoy the airport and the shuttle bus, not necessarily the hotel room at the end…”
There you have it from the man himself - Tony Law’s comedy is more about the journey than it is the destination.
Willfully ripping up the rulebook, he certainly lives up to his billing from fellow comic Stewart Lee as “the Sherpa of stand-up.”
Eschewing punchlines for wild flights of surrealistic fancy, it’s not easy to get down on paper exactly how Law makes it from A to B. He’s certainly a force of nature on stage though and totally fearless, pushing his material into the kind of unchartered territory few of his contemporaries would dare consider.
He’s upfront about the lack of a linear narrative, too. After all, this show was titled Maximum Nonsense. His talent lies in off-the-wall frantic storytelling, mimicry and an odd timing that slightly brings to mind Harry Hill.
So we’re treated to a mock autobiographical segment where Law reveals his pirate and Viking heritage as well as a story which starts in an uncomfortable dinner party and ends in deep space.
Continually deconstructing his material throughout the course of the show, Law frequently commented on his own cult status, musing aloud what it would take to break into the mainstream then realising that his brain just isn’t wired in the same way as the arena-filling observational stand-ups of this world. There’s grit, too, behind the mock puzzlement, as the mean-spirited likes of Frankie Boyle were slapped down in spectacular fashion.
If there’s any hint of regular material to be found then it’s during a brief routine about his twins but even that was skewed into something fantastical.
That’s firmly blown out of the water though as the show builds to a sketch featuring several elephants arguing in a pub. Yes, really. And a final send-off saw the crowd waving their arms in the air from side to side as Law shone torches on plastic model elephants hung on wires from the ceiling. We won’t forget that in a hurry.
If it wasn’t such a conventional punchline, you could say Tony is a Law unto himself.
As comebacks go, Bowie’s return to the rock’n’roll fold after a decade of near silence has been a remarkable success.
The great man himself has kept his counsel, but he must be delighted with the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his guerrilla releases since the understated Where Are We Now? was unveiled to mark his 66th birthday on January 8.
Within hours, the internet was awash with predictions about what the forthcoming album The Next Day would sound like. A nostalgic look back at his Berlin glory years perhaps? Even an MOR collection of artful ballads was suggested.
Thankfully, producer Tony Visconti immediately set the record straight – the cracked, vulnerable Bowie heard on Where Are We Now? was a red herring. The remaining tracks on the album, we were told, included full-throttle rockers and finds Dame David on fine, unabashed form. It sounded promising…
While Visconti, of course, talked up the album as being something good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bowie’s work in the 70s and his Scary Monsters high watermark of the early 80s, he wasn’t exaggerating that this was a discernible return to form.
Half a dozen listens to The Next Day confirms it’s a fine, diverse collection on which every Bowie fan which find at least a handful of premium grade tracks to get their teeth into.
He comes fairly tumbling out of the blocks with the aggressive title track.
“Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree…” he positively mocks those who thought his heart attack of 2004 had blown his flame out for good.
It’s a remarkable statement of intent with Bowie putting in a particularly passionate vocal performance.
In terms of trademark Bowie art rock, complete with skronking baritone sax, then the following track, Dirty Boys, ticks all of the right boxes. It boasts a classic middle eight, too, and an instantly hooky chorus. Earl Slick’s guitar lines are economical and very precisely played.
If there’s one surprise to these ears on The Next Day is that it’s two of the poppiest tracks that shine brightest. The slyly vituperative The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is a none too veiled attack on vacuous celebrity culture. It’s a real grower and (whisper it) boasts a singalong chorus. How very conformist.
Valentine’s Day is another straight ahead pop song, but none the worse for that. The Dame seems to be having real fun with the throwaway backing lyrics and there’s some great supporting guitar work as texture.
Less successful is Love Is Lost, where Bowie inhabits the character of a disturbed young woman. Zachary Alford’s drums steal the show on a tune slower than the rest to reveal its charms.
After the relatively frantic opening exchanges, Where Are We Now? offers up some respite and grows in stature with every listen. It’s no ‘Heroes’, let’s not get too carried away here, but the closing refrain of “As long as there’s fire, As long as there’s me, As long as there’s you” - as lyrically oblique as that might be – still packs a mighty emotional wallop thanks to Bowie’s delivery.
If You Can See Me, complete with speeded up chipmunk backing vocals, is the most obvious and successful return to peak period Bowie art rock. It’s an unrelenting steamroller of a track which rattles along at a million miles a minute. There’s still fire in his belly, for sure. Those who harrumphed at his mid-90s adoption of drum and bass with Earthling may at least get something from this.
The chiming I’d Rather Be High is another favourite. With a decided Britpop feel of chiming electric guitars and strummed acoustics, there’s a little Stone Roses shuffle to this knowing anti-war plea. The “I’d rather be fly…” line does sound a little odd coming from a pensioner, though, but certainly raises a smile as does the very camp Bowie payoff: “just remember duckies, everybody gets got…”
The baritone saxes are back for the 80s-sounding Boss of Me which returns us to the Ashes to Ashes era. I could have done without the slap bassline, and it’s one of few tracks here that feels like filler.
The mid-album drop-off continues with Dancing Out In Space. Driven by a finger-snapping amped up Motown backbeat drives it’s frothy but inconsequential fun.
Much stranger is another anti-war song, How Does The Grass Grow?, which follows it. Dropping in a vocal appropriation of The Shadows’ Apache is a memorable hook but I’m not too sure what Bowie was trying to accomplish with it.
The opening fuzz tone riff of (You Will) Set The World On Fire rocks you back on your heels and is the album’s heaviest moment. Leavened by another singalong chorus it seemingly tells the story of the Greenwich Village beat poet and folk scene of the early 60s although you have to scratch away pretty hard at the surface to reveal its true meaning. It’s another grandstanding, bravura vocal performance from Bowie, though, and a late highlight here.
Equally affecting is the emotive ballad You Feel So Lonely You Could Die – as overwrought as its title suggests. Hats off for the sheer cheek of including the shuffling Five Years drumbeat from Ziggy Stardust as a coda, too.
He rounds off with the blatant Scott Walker homage of Heat. Cut very much from the same cloth, Bowie and Walker make perfect bedfellows as feted pop stars turned art rock experimentalists. The song itself seems rather out of place from the rest of The Next Day. A square peg in a round hole. In a way, there’s a certain poeticism about that.
Nothing then to ruin the legacy of one of the great back catalogues in rock and a healthy handful of gems to add to the canon. Oh, and let’s not forget that if Tony Visconti is to be believed then there’s another full album’s worth of material already in the can. If those dozen or more songs are up to snuff then Bowie’s Indian Summer is complete.
I’m a bit slow on the uptake here, but here’s the new tune from James Blake. Looking forward to the new album, Overgrown, which comes out on April 8. Guests include Brian Eno and the Wu-Tang’s RZA. What a pair. Apparently, RZA’s track includes him waxing lyrical about fish and chips and stout. An early April Fool’s Day joke perhaps? We’ll find out.
‘I Am Sold’
‘Life Around Here’
‘Take A Fall For Me’ feat. RZA
‘Digital Lion’ feat. Brian Eno
‘To The last’
‘Our Love Comes Back’