Review: Alt-J – An Awesome Wave

Alt-J are the ultimate hipsters. While I write the term ‘hipster’, I have a cringe on my face but, at first glance, they fit the stereotype. Alt-J is the key command for the delta sign (Δ – a triangle*) on a Mac keyboard – you can’t find a hipper name. In photos, they refuse to have their faces showing – maybe looking at the camera is too ‘mainstream’.

*(For those unaware, triangles are the chosen shape of hipsters)

However, I may be a little harsh by throwing the ‘hipster’ term around so liberally. The peculiar race is known to have a love of the past and everything retro but Alt-J are not like this; so much current music just re-shapes past sounds, yet Alt-J seem to have created a whole new sound, codenamed ‘folkstep’. It describes their songs well; they are sort of peaceful dance music with acoustic sections. This is fresh and different, something a hipster will never be, no matter how hard they try.

An Awesome Wave is Alt-J‘s debut album, yet it seems to mature and well-rounded to be their first shot. It is all built upon and around the drum beat. Thom Green (the drummer, obviously) drums like he’s a machine; he is the beating heart of the songs. On top of this are the twangy guitar rhythms, synth tunes, and multi-layered harmonics to complete the sound. In songs such as ‘Fitzpleasure‘, the dubstep part of ‘folkstep’ becomes quite clear, with the wobble bass reverberating in the background, constantly supported by the tight drum line. This is topped by harmonics that mirror those of Django Django and, in all, something unique is created.

Alt-J – Fitzpleasure

Alt-J made their album available to stream three weeks ago (That was at the time of writing – by the time this is published, it was probably about two months ago). With the songs, they provided a quick insight into the lyrics meanings (while it may take the skill of interpretation out, it does make my life a lot easier). The most interesting of these stories is, possibly, ‘Dissolve Me‘. It is about one of the band member’s bedtime routine with their mum. Together, they would describe a day at the beach, and the band member would fall asleep to the mum making sea noises. It is such an amazing song- the story behind it just adds another dimension. Whenever they sing the line “She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes, to calm me down“, it is a peaceful break, one in which slipping into a dreamy realm is promoted, much like the sounds did for the child of the story. It is like a poem, something magical.

Alt-J – Dissolve Me

The album contains three ‘interlude’ tracks that are around one minute long, quite an unusual feature. The first is called ‘Ripe & Ruin‘, and is just vocals, one long harmony. The later are called ‘Guitar‘ and ‘Piano‘. They provide a rest in the album. ‘Guitar‘ is literally just a guitar line, with the sound of a road and some voices faintly drifting in from the background. ‘Piano‘ is similar; it is like a fifty second duet between a piano and a voice. You could quite easily listen to the album and not notice it, yet it’s so beautiful.

An Awesome Wave surprised me. I expected to like it, but it really blew me away. It is special. For a debut album, Alt-J couldn’t have done better. They are an exciting band, which is a rarity among today’s mundane mainstream music.

9/10

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Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

Lana Del Rey has grown a lot from very little in a short space of time; Lizzie Grant was almost unknown, but now her new persona has gone on to release a debut album that topped the charts in seven countries. Del Rey’s first single, ‘Video Games’, has a deep and meaningful feeling, her voice is gritty and emotional and is simply backed by a piano and strings, leaving the vocals to generate the song’s power. Unfortunately, the rest of ‘Born To Die’ doesn’t follow suit.

Although the album opens on a relativity high point with the title track, it progresses downhill quickly after that. It seems like the only subjects covered are money and men, and while the lyrics may talk of love, they feel synthetic. Songs like ‘Off To The Races’ and ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ employ false-sounding girly vocals that are far from Del Rey’s contralto voice in ‘Video Games’.

‘Born To Die’ is not to my taste thus I may be the wrong person to review it. Del Rey has moved from the beautiful pop of ‘Video Games’ towards R&B and has described herself as a ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’. To me, her debut album is a massive disappointment, it’s just the story of a girl’s shallow dreams.

3/10

Album Review: Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

Sharon Van Etten was abused and stopped from playing music by her ex-boyfriend. Her third album, ‘Tramp’, shows her recovery from this dark history. Produced by Aaron Dessner from The National, it is an emotional portrayal of her past and raw feelings.

Although the opening song, ‘Warsaw’, summarises the album with the line “I want to be over you”, it is the awe-inspiring single ‘Serpents’ that tells the true story: “You enjoy sucking on dreams / so I will fall asleep with someone other than you”. The single also starts to show forgiveness with the lines: “Serpents in my mind trying to forgive your crimes / everyone changes in time”. For most of the album, the music is just a simple mix of a guitar and drums, yet Van Etten’s vocals bring an incredible energy to the songs, resulting in something of beauty and depth.

‘Tramp’ features some guest appearances in the songs, such as harmonies with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner. The most notable of these supporting roles is in the optimistic ‘We Are Fine’, in which Zachary Condon of Beirut sings a whole verse by himself, as well as providing backing vocals. It is a cheerful song, even though it is about helping a friend through a panic attack, and it shows a feeling of hope for the future.

The name ‘Tramp’ brings words to mind that are complete opposites to those that could be used to describe the album. It is an epic ending to a chapter in life, as well as the exciting beginning to a new, brighter one. Sharon Van Etten has skilfully crafted an album that contains subtle emotion and tremendous power; it is a creation of near perfection.

9/10

Album Review: Beth Jeans Houghton and The Hooves Of Destiny – ‘Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose’

With the British folk scene almost completely controlled by the Communion crowd, it is refreshing to hear something new and quirky, Beth Jeans Houghton and The Hooves Of Destiny are just that. Their name may be a mouthful to say, but their debut LP is truly magical. Driven by harmonious vocals, backed glorious yet chaotic instrumentals, ‘Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose’ is a great album.

Beth Jeans Houghton is different and odd, there is no denying that. From the bizarre video for ‘Sweet Tooth Bird’ to dreaming about 12-sided polyhedra in ‘Dodecahedron’, the album proves it is not ordinary. But while you can’t take it totally seriously, you can respect that the music is brilliant. Take ‘Nightswimmer’ as an example. The lyrics are about getting rather sweaty at night, but if you forget about the words’ meanings you are left with a beautiful, graceful song. Luckily, some seriousness can be found in the song ‘Humble Digs’. Starting out as a marching beat and simple piano notes, it escalates into an epic crescendo, with Houghton’s angelic vocals perfectly contrasted by a choir of deeper voices.

If you can handle its quirks, ‘Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose’ is an amazing album. Even though it is peculiar in name and nature, the music it contains is different in a good way. Beth Jeans Houghton and The Hooves Of Destiny may of created the best alt-folk album of 2012.

9/10

Album Review: First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

If you are looking for a happy album, full of joy and elation, then carry on looking, First Aid Kit’s second LP is nothing of the sorts. Gloomy is the best word to describe it, like a winter’s sky just before the storm. Even ‘Emmylou’, which is probably the most cheerful song, has a certain melancholy to it. It is about Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, yet it still has hints of sorrow, the first line being: ‘the bitter winds are coming in, and I am already missing the summer’, highlighting the sadness at the end of the love story.

Johanna and Klara Söderberg vocals are spine-tingling; the sisters are still young yet their voices sound like they carry all the burdens of life, weary of a harsh world. While the music can be deceiving about the mood of the songs, the lyrics lay bare the raw emotion and nature. Take ‘Blue’ as an example, the simple glockenspiel tune reminisces of a care-free childhood, while the sisters sing of loss and ageing. The lyrics of the chorus: ‘You’re just a shell of your former you’, capture the mood of the saddening song.

The Lion’s Roar is not a fun album, nor is it going to be the feel-good album of the year. It is not an instant best-seller, and it cannot be played as background music. This is an album that requires concentration; it has to be listened to from start to finish and if you don’t listen to the lyrics the songs become meaningless. It is an album of simplicity, with its roots deeply imbedded in a country music influence. It is an album with a soul; a soul that has been beaten and battered yet is still as strong as ever. The end result is an album of awe-inspiring beauty, of sorrow and splendour.

8/10

Album Review: The Macabees – Given to the Wild

The Maccabees took a risk with their new album, they wrote songs individually and then combined them after a few months. The end result has polarized the music industry; NME gave the album 9/10, while Uncut gave it 2 stars. Is it an earlier contender for the album of the year or the first big disappointment?

Their risky decision could have paid off, instead they have created an album of cheap and tacky guitar pop with no guts and weak vocals. The songs lack hard gritty emotion and real drive, and at best they could be listened to for some thoughtless, meaningless entertainment. Saying this, not all the songs are cringe-worthy; ‘Ayla’ is okay and mildly enjoyable, as are a few others, but nothing outstanding. From the first song to the last, it is a bore. Given to the Wild is such a disappointment; The Maccabees have not really taken a risk, just resorted the bland and plain.

4/10

Album Review: Still Corners – Creatures of an Hour

Still Corners released their debut album last year, titled ‘Creatures of an Hour’. It is an album of dream-like music, with ghostly vocals and simple retro-influenced rhythms. The band say that they are heavily influenced by different film styles, from Italian horror to French New Wave, and this comes across within the atmospheric organs and the ethereal sound. This album creates something different, a gentle calm in a hectic world.

7/10