Carl, Courtney and Kendrick – Richard’s album round-up

Carl Barat and the Jackals – Let it Reign

A record entirely untroubled by genius, but a jolly, Clash cliché-ridden romp nevertheless. The song titles seem to have come out of a Libertines random phrase generator – Victory Gin, Summer in the Trenches, etc – and the lumpen lyrical content (“when she goes, she really goes” apparently) exemplifies the need for Pete Doherty to come back from rehab forthwith. That happy circumstance would allow Carl to put down the biro and return to being in a band in which his main duties are having good hair and insouciantly smoking cigarettes.

Carl Barat doing what he does best
Carl Barat doing what he does best

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney-Barnett_4

This album is so laden with lovely lyrics it is almost obscene. Courtney Barnett’s mordant, jaunty take on life is entirely to my taste, and she makes the endeavour of making music seem so easy. On Pedestrian at Best she says

I love you, I hate you, I’m on the fence
it all depends whether
I’m up, I’m down, I’m on the mend

which is fabulous; and when she says

You’re saying definitely maybe
I’m saying probably no

she appears to take down Noel Gallagher in one neat couplet. Or rip a former lover. Or both. Either way, Courtney Barnett is a hero in my ears.

Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

This new Villagers LP has done away with the playful, surreal songwriting of the previous album, and moved, perplexingly, toward songs of choirboy-ish yearning. Conor O’Brien is a delightful writer, and always worth listening to, but on some of the songs here he seems to be aimlessly noodling on his guitar, apparently oblivious to the fact that someone is recording him. Still, I like Villagers, and am going to see them in a fortnight, so I’m tuning my ears to thinking this one is better than it is.

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Where the hooks go, Kendrick?
Where the hooks go, Kendrick?

To Pimp a Butterfly has all the standard issue Kendrick Lamar ingredients: great rapping, intricate storytelling, a dollop of preachiness, all woven together with classic funk. To that mix he has added poetic interludes, free jazz, quite a bit of screaming and some kind of bizarre, beyond the grave chit-chat with Tupac. All this leads me to think that this album is like prog-rock – grand and long and definitely impressive, but perhaps not actually good.

Also, when he says, “Shit don’t change, until you get up and wash yo’ ass” he seems to be pushing the kind of problematic pull-up-your-pants message advocated by the moralising rapist Bill Cosby. Fuck that, son.

In short, Kendrick is a genius, and I do love him, but I think this year I’ll be getting my hip-hop kicks from Earl Sweatshirt.

Warpaint – Warpaint

How do you come up with that album titke, Warpaint?
Long meeting, was it, coming up with that album title?

The members of Warpaint seem to have watched the Virgin Suicides and decided to form a band which sounds like that. Listening to this album you can imagine Sofia Coppola in an advisory role, doling out tips on casual indifference. The songs come at you with glances, making you desire them all the more. Warpaint is quite the most feline album I have ever heard: complex, cool, and with charms which unfold beautifully.

5 reasons why Young Fathers are great Mercury Prize winners (not being George Ezra is one of them)

Edinburgh's finest: Mercury winners Young Fathers
Edinburgh’s finest: Mercury winners Young Fathers

I am thrilled that Edinburgh-based rap group Young Fathers have beaten off a particularly strong field to win the Mercury Prize. Their Dead LP is now officially designated as brilliant and I couldn’t agree more. Before I get into my top 5 reasons why their album is great, I want to say: people, listen to the 12 albums on the shortlist, pick the ones you like, and buy them. Young Fathers only got £20,000 for winning the prize, which, by the sounds of the record, will barely cover their annual weed bill. Show some love to the artists, and buy their work.

Okay, here’s my five reasons why Dead by Young Fathers is splendid:

1. Lyrical madness
On the poppiest song on the album, Get Up, one of the rappers says:

“Taking off my clothes at the lido
all I got is my decadent credo”

Which is genius, right? Fair enough, he has to pronouce “lido” leedo to make it rhyme with credo, but when you’ve got that level of mad couplet bubbling up, it would be churlish to quibble about a mispronounciation. Elsewhere on the album, one of the lads starts a rap with the assertive “bish bosh”, rhymes “Liberian” with “Presbyterian” (underlining the band’s Afro-Caledonian roots) and talks about “handing out endorpins to nature’s orphans.” Wordplay is just that – playing with words – and Young Fathers are a rabble playing Scrabble with Margaret Drabble. (This is why I am not a rapper.)

2. They are not George Ezra
Some people, a lot of people, seem to like George Ezra. Why, or even how, I do not know. George Ezra is about as rock n’ roll as William Pitt the Younger. Listening to George Ezra makes me think that he is instinctively in favour of fracking. Not that they care a jot about such chart-topping codswallop, but Young Fathers are the polar opposite of George Ezra. The Mercury judges, in their wisdom, understand this and have given Young Fathers a platform for people to see that there is an alternative to stadium-folk.

The old standing in front of graffiti to make it look like you didn't grow up in a stately home trick: George Ezra
The old standing in front of graffiti to make it look like you didn’t grow up in a stately home trick: George Ezra

3. They are like Kanye without being complete twats (yet)
On the jollily titled song, War, one of the boys (I have no idea which) starts ranting “you chopping me down like the Amazon” which is the kind of idiotic nonsense Kanye spouts. It’s one of those lyrics right on the borderline between utter shit and utter cool – just like most of Kanye’s. This shows Young Fathers have the potential to be both massive stars and megalomaniac lunatics. I like that.

Note to Young Fathers: it's all right copying Kanye, just leave Taylor Swift alone if you see her at awards ceremonies
Note to Young Fathers: it’s all right copying Kanye, just leave Taylor Swift alone if you see her at awards ceremonies

4. Musically, it is all over the place
Also like Kanye, they take a trawler to the world of music and pick out the bits they like. Hence, the album starts with a bit of squeezebox, which is probably not something P Diddy would have considered.

Other songs sound, in part or in whole, like: The Prodigy; Burial; a particularly violent video game with a moral message like “bad things happen to good people, a lot”; Justin Timberlake after a trip to Guantanamo; Andre 3000; a teenage boy trying to making himself pass out purely through bass noise; gospel without the redemption; Boyz II Men getting mugged at knifepoint, in a sewer, by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; a fat boy farting into a fan. You get the idea. It’s commercial, sort of.

5. It is only 32 minutes long
I am not criticising long rap albums. One of my favourite albums is Redman’s Muddy Waters joint, which is about 70 minutes and has more comedy skits than actual songs. In those skits he comes up with such timeless acronyms as NASWIPP (N*ggas Against Smoking Weed In Public Places) and “IKSRFO” (I’m Knocking Somebody Right the Fuck Out), which my life would be a greyer place without.

That said, there is something pleasurable about a rap album finishing its business at just over the half hour mark. Wu-tang’s knowledge god, the GZA, once remarked, “Make it brief, son, half short and twice strong,” and Young Fathers have taken that advice on board.

Of course, the Wu followed up their first album with the unwieldy Wu-tang Forever double LP, which begins with some shambling old dude named Poppa Wu giving a not interesting sermon about fuck all for six minutes. Therefore, I will stand by Young Fathers if they get famous and obnoxious and think it a good idea to get Frankie Boyle to open up their next album with a lengthy diatribe against the English generally, and George Ezra specifically. In fact, that might not be a bad idea.

redman muddy waters

Mercury Prize 2014: the contenders (plus winner prediction)

I have always viewed the Mercury Prize with suspicion. The most salient reason for my suspicion is that M People won the award in 1994 with their soul-sapping soul album, Elegant Slumming. If that is what it takes to win the thing, it raises the question, what were the judges looking for? An album to make children realise there is no hope?

Fortunately, things couldn’t get that bad again. Even in 2007, when the frankly shocking Klaxons won, the British people could rest easy in the knowledge they weren’t as bad as M People.

This year’s nominees have been picked with a caution appropriate to an award sponsored by Barclaycard. (Note to Sleaford Mods: stop being so working-class, and so angry, and you might have a chance.) However, the list of nominees is rather exciting. Yes, there is a fair amount of turgid rubbish – but at least it is turgid rubbish we can hate with some vigour. And there are four or five albums which are very good, two outrageously so.

I have waded through Spotify listening to this stuff, and here is my summary of the runners and riders:

Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

Listening to this album is like watching Ryan Giggs play football over the past few years.* Damon’s a bit slower than he used to be, but still better than most, and occasionally spectacular. Here, he has assimilated his work on soundtracks, world music and even opera to potent, if restrained, effect on this sumptuous, sighing, swooning album.

*NB: Not like Ryan Giggs’s private life. That would have been a WHOLE different album, probably by Chris Brown. And R Kelly. And Goldie Lookin’ Chain.

Not a very good cover, but a very good album
Not a very good cover, but a very good album

Jungle – Jungle

The people in this group have named their band and their album Jungle, yet they do not produce jungle music. That’s a devious, deceitful moniker they’ve adopted, like opening a public school and only letting in rich people. In any case, their bland, superficially cool “soul” music sounds like something Huw Edwards would listen to while taking his mistress for a drive in the drop-top on a Sunday.

Anna Calvi – One Breath

Music for people who like Fleetwood Mac, and want to take a bold step into the future.

Anna Calvi: a boring person dressed up as an interesting person
Anna Calvi: a boring person dressed up as an interesting person

Royal Blood – Royal Blood

Murky thud-rock, the sound of a growly fart endlessly shuddering through your bowels. (I’m a vegetarian. I know.)

Despite this, it appears the record industry has decided Royal Blood are the rock band of choice for the next 6-12 months. Therefore, there is every likelihood we will see this witless duo prowling through the UK’s larger live venues, acting with all the subtlety and bonhomie of an underfed, undersexed invading army. Talking of which, I reckon this music would be hugely popular with the Russian army (although, on second thoughts they’re all probably listening to the new one from U2. Or, more likely, Living on a Prayer).

If you think this picture is dull, listen to Royal Blood's album
If you think this picture is dull, listen to Royal Blood’s album

FKA Twigs – LP1

I don’t know what she’s singing about, and I don’t care. FKA Twigs sounds filthy, and weird, like Bjork has gone up to heaven and done an album with Aaliyah. Marvellous.

Praises to FKA Twigs
Praises to FKA Twigs

Nick Mulvey – First Mind

The kind of hellish folk music that makes me want to start a riot in Waitrose and set the Cotswolds on fire. I tolerated track one. On track two he rhymed “sadness” with “gladness”, at which point I switched off, fearing further provocation.

The photographer asked Nick Mulvey to look like he was thinking
The photographer asked Nick Mulvey to look like he was thinking

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

Brilliant minimalist electro-folk. I don’t have anything witty to say about this. Simply a very good album, with a lovely mix between vocal and instrumental tracks. A proper reviewer might call this an unalloyed joy.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One

A work of genius from start to finish. The only album on this list I would declare a masterpiece. However, to give some context: that is an electro-jazz masterpiece. Which means, if you like Bitches Brew, Detroit techno, and a bit of freak-rock, then this is right down your alley. If you like tasteful middle-of-the-road rock such as Anna Calvi, this might make you run for the Anderson shelter (and if you haven’t got one, gawd help you!).

Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow

Music I would be excited about if I hadn’t heard any other music.

Kate Tempest – Everybody Down

Kate Tempest picks up awards as regularly as I pick up houmous from Londis. That is, about three to five times a week. The woman, while being a poet and rapper with a rare gift for storytelling, has somehow been designated as having a higher purpose: to win awards. I tend to hear about awards because Kate Tempest has won them. I am therefore going to stick my neck out and say, as this is an award, and Kate Tempest has been nominated, she will win it.

There are good reasons for her winning. Her poetry feels urgent, visceral, and vaguely zeitgeisty. She has turned a marginal interest – poetry – into something which can be heard on Radio 1. This is good for everyone, including myself, in the spoken word scene.

Her show, Brand New Ancients, was the best thing I saw on stage last year. That said, I’m not quite such a big fan of this album. It is well above average, but the interplay between words and production is not as seamless as, say, Young Fathers (see below). Over here is the music. Over there is Kate. They are good, but separate. It is still a solid album, however, and, more than likely, an award-winning one.

And the winners is...
And the winners is…

Young Fathers – Dead

If OutKast were from Edinburgh they might sound like this. Young Fathers prove that the Scots are pound-for-pound the best songwriters on earth. This is dark, uncompromising rap music, yet always tuneful, musically fantastic, and often surprising. A welcome antidote to commercial UK rap. And only 34 minutes long.

GoGo Penguin – v2.0

Just jazz. As in Just Juice. It’s Just Jazz.

Have I become a boring, middle aged fool?

Why can’t I keep on hating you, Norah?

I have recently had an experience which has seriously made me question whether I am becoming middle-aged. Boring. Satisfied. Mellow. Less the angry person I used to be, and more a person my younger self would have bitterly, ironically, and derisively disliked.

For, this weekend, after listening to her new Little Broken Hearts album, I have become a Norah Jones fan.

Norah Jones. Norah fucking Jones. The one who did Come Away With Me. An album which might as well have been sponsored by Chill FM, in association with the Dignitas Clinic. An album which I couldn’t get past the first 20 seconds of, so filled with horror was I of its sheer, ‘let’s snuggle up, take sedatives and abandon all thought-ness’.

When she first released her ‘music to have an organic picnic to’ album in the early part of this century, I was a big fan of the Libertines. And Biggie Smalls. If I listened to a female artist it was PJ Harvey. I had a lot of anger and a short attention span.

So maybe I didn’t give Norah the chance she deserved.

But fuck that. Her album was a sweetly smelling pile of shite. Pitiful bollocks which John Peel would have said something about with a casual wit of which I am not capable.

I hated Norah Jones, her music and everything she represented. (You may have inferred this already, but I like to underline a point.)

And the good thing is, after the abortion that was her first album, it seems that a lot of people hated Norah, too. It appears that her nearest and dearest have undergone a concerted campaign to be as nasty as possible to the pretty girl with the pretty voice.

Because her new album is so full of malevolence, hate, and cruelty that it makes you wonder if the thing has been penned by Nick Cave.

Exhibit A is the song Miriam. The choice lyric here is:

“Miriam, you know you done me wrong, I’m gonna smile when I take your life.”

She sings it sweetly enough, which makes the murderous threat all the more twisted. http://youtu.be/bnBnzP_nQ3g

On She’s 22, she sings, “She’s 22, and she’s loving you, and you’ll never know how it makes me blue. Does it make you happy?” A very simple lyric, but delivered with a bittersweet attitude which is not far from Billie Holiday. http://youtu.be/W6O1xQMv6o8

Norah Jones has gone from being background music of the worst sort, to music, if it were played at a dinner party, I’d tell people to shut up and listen (this is perhaps why I rarely get invited to dinner parties).

But maybe it is me. Maybe I have changed. I have been on the live performance scene for a couple of years now. I’ve witnessed performances which have made me cringe in horror (some, on reflection, by myself). I know what a revelation it is when you hear someone with talent, up close. If Norah Jones was in a small venue with an acoustic guitar, she would blow me away, saccharine lyrics or not.

I can now appreciate talent for what it is, rather than instantly seeking to denounce something which is not to my specific taste, however enjoyable that might be. I am, without doubt, more tolerant.

So, it seems, we’ve both changed. And from my new, slightly more mature standpoint I am happy to say Norah Jones’s new album is brilliant. However, just to balance things out, I also downloaded the new Killer Mike album, which hopefully will assuage my old self that I haven’t changed too much.

Jay-Z: the lessons from history

How did Jay-Z rise to the top?

I have always been mildly perplexed by Jay-Z’s pre-eminence in the rap game. He is not the best rapper, nor the most inventive or best produced. His monotone delivery is tedious when compared with Ghostface or Eminem. His lyrical content tends to shift between the contents of his bank balance and reminiscences about his youthful work experience.

I remember being given a white label of his Hard Knock Life album. I was getting nicely into Big Pun at the time, a rapper of astonishing wit and verbal dexterity. In comparison, Jay-Z seemed tame, and despite a somewhat amusing title track featuring the orphan Annie, Hard Knock Life was seriously below the late-90s average.

However, a decade or more on, there Jay-Z still is, still making that ridiculous ‘cheah’ sound before beginning yet another limp boast, on another pop hit.

So, the time has surely come to ask: how did Jay-Z rise to the top? And, more important, how does he stay there? Here I search through the history books to find some parallels to explain the phenomenon that is Jigga.

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)

Casually ordering another execution: Joseph Stalin

Stalin rose to power in Russia after the death of the more brilliant Lenin. He then wiped out all of his enemies, including Zinoviev, Trotsky and a few million others. He cannily made great political capital of carrying on the flame of Lenin, much like Jay-Z does with Biggie.

Now, I would never suggest Jay-Z organised the deaths of the more talented Biggie, Tupac, Big L or Big Pun. But he certainly benefited from a lot of rappers dying just at the time he was starting out in rap. It was, I am sure, all just a terrible coincidence.

Lesson for Jay: Eliminate your enemies.

Duplicitous and money-grubbing: Richard Arkwright

Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)
Arkwright was as skullduggerous, money-hungry, thieving bastard as has existed in England, who Jay-Z would no doubt admire greatly. During the Industrial Revolution, he infamously nicked the idea for the spinning frame, patented it, got rich, consigning the actual inventor, Thomas Highs, to the margins of history. This is similar to Jay-Z’s appropriation of Ice-T’s 99 Problems, and nicking part of Nas’s The World is Yours on Dead Presidents, which began their little argument.
Lesson for Jay: Nick other people’s ideas.

Joe Kennedy: The US ambassador was orignally a bootlegger

Joe Kennedy Snr. (1888-1969)
JFK’s dad made his fortune selling bootleg liquor during the Prohibition era, before going legit. This echoes Jay’s youthful business enterprises. Joe also married Rose Fitzgerald, a beautiful woman who was from a powerful political family in Boston. They went on to form the greatest political dynasty in US history, which bears a striking similarity to Jay’s highly strategic marriage to Beyonce. The happy couple have no doubt already plotted a great future for their offspring.
Lesson for Jay: Stack your riches, then go straight. Marry into power.

Beyonce and Jay-Z: in love with the Kennedy-esque idea of the career enhancing marriage

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The original Executive Producer. Did Shakespeare write all of Shakespeare’s plays? Of course not. Jay has learnt from the Shakespearean business model and is unconcerned about actually writing his own songs. As Ol’ Bill would no doubt tell Jigga, as long as most people think you wrote something, that’s all that matters. Legacy secured.
Lesson for Jay: Claim credit for everything.

Shakespeare: the original Executive Producer
Smaug
A dragon who nicked everyone’s money then sat on it.
Lesson for Jay: Nick everyone’s money, then sit on it.
Smaug: a massive influence on Jay-Z

Is Lil Wayne any good at rap? Erm…

As a hip-hop fan raised on Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and the Wu-tang Clan, I tend to take the view that rap music isn’t what it used to be.

My last significant foray was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, which is less a rap album and more the sound of Kanye’s ego expanding to swallow up the known universe.

On the UK side of things, I am aware of Plan B, who is a tedious curmudgeon; Giggs, who thinks anything less than sullen aggression might compromise his heterosexuality; and Klashnekoff, who tries to sound preachy, and intelligent, and fails at both.

I’ll say this up front. I like commercial rap music. I like rappers who are boastful, arrogant and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And not afraid to write a stupid lyric. Nelly’s first album has brought me more delight than all of the conscious rappers put together. His chorus to ‘Ride Wit Me’ never fails to make me smile:

Oh why do I live this way?
Hey, it must be the money

Nelly keeps his name round his neck, in case he forgets

Conversely, when Jurassic 5 came up with their pantwetting line, ‘I’m not trying to say my style’s better than yours’ my thought was, well if that’s your attitude why don’t you fuck off and play folk music instead?

So that’s where I’m coming from.

My investigations into modern rap began with Drake. I’d heard word he was the coming man. I YouTubed him and it just seemed like pop to me. A rapper with all the edges smoothed off. Boring.

I next looked at Kid Cudi, who has got an absolutely awesome freestyle he does on Westwood’s show. It was cool, but rather too intelligent for my liking.

YouTube then pointed me towards a freestyle Lil Wayne had done, also on Westwood. He prefaces his performance by saying ‘I can’t rap’ and proceeds to fully justify that claim. It was so incompetent I decided Lil Wayne was definitely worthy of further investigation. I’m also predisposed to rappers with ‘Lil’ in their name, as I’m rather lil myself.

Lil Wayne pretending to think

I’d usually go for the first album, but it appeared that Lil Wayne was almost totally inept on his debut. Wikipedia suggested his fourth album, 2004’s Tha Carter,‘marked what critics considered an advancement in his lyrical themes.’ With tracks such as ‘Hoes’, ‘Snitch’ and ‘I Miss My Dawgs’ one wonders what his less mature lyrics were about. Cheerios, perhaps.

Excited, I downloaded the album. It didn’t disappoint.

On the track ‘This is the Carter’ he opens with perhaps the best boast I have ever heard when he declares, ‘I’m finally perfect.’

‘Hoes’ has a lovely nursery rhyme chorus:

‘Hoes, let’s just talk about hoes
Can’t we talk about ho-o-oes?’
Ho-oes, motherfucker’

There’s a rehash of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, called ‘Shine’, which he converts into a boast about one night stands. I imagine if Common heard it he’d have his head in hands, despairing about a new low for rap music. And then wank off to Gil Scott Heron.

But my personal highlight is ‘We Don’t’, on which he sounds like a skateboarder desperately trying to stay upright, and succeeding, but not quite knowing how.

In it he audaciously rhymes ‘feel me’ with ‘dealy’, creating a word to make the rhyme. Later he rhymes ‘Missi’ (as in the river) with ‘Swimmi’ (as in swimming). This, you have to admit, is technically rubbish, and would probably upset the GZA no end, but with his winsome southern drawl, he has enough gusto to pull it off.

When I mention my new rap love people uniformly respond that I don’t look like a Lil Wayne fan. I think that’s part of the appeal. There’s something good about standing on a packed bus, in my suit, reading the Guardian, while listening to a chap rapping about snitches, bitches and, indeed, riches.

He might be stupid, commercial and not that good at rapping. But, dammit, I HEART Lil Wayne.