WEEKLY UPDATES (with some special editions in between)



August 28, 2011

Album Review: YUCK - Yuck

This is another band that was on my hit list for Austin’s SXSW last year, but I never got the opportunity to see, ‘Yuck’. The self titled debut studio album the English indie rock band, ‘Yuck’ was released on 15th February 2011 in the US and a week later in the UK. It’s taken me a while to get to it, but I’m glad I have. 

To form something of a background, Daniel Blumberg (lead vocals and guitar) and Max Bloom (lead guitar and vocals) started writing what would be, 'Yuck' material shortly after leaving their previous band, ‘Cajun Dance Party’ in 2008. Adding, Jonny Rogoff on drums and, Mariko Doi on bass the band released two singles on vinyl only in, ’Rubber’ and ,’Georgia’ early in 2010 before the group proceeded with recording this, their debut album, ‘Yuck’.

They start out with, ‘Get Away’ which I (as with my previous review of Smith Westerns) I hear one of my favourites of the 90’s, ‘ Ash’. It opens with a fuzzy guitar riff and thumping bass lines by, Doi, It’s a fairly low paced tune and perhaps a mid-paced, discreet introduction to the rest of the album. The lyrical delivery of lead man, Blumberg does resemble, Tim Wheeler of the aforementioned, ‘Ash’. The next track, ‘The Wall’ is lazy and hazy, but has a great sound to it…nothing complex, just an honest, good sounding track. The distortion and screeching guitar which are accompanied by the scorched repetitions of, "tryin’ to make it through the wa-a-all" work really well here.

‘Shook Down’ takes things down a peg or two and remind me very much of a New Order song (not sure which one…I wasn’t a fan, but my brother played them back to back for years and we shared a bedroom). This is the first evidence that this band is very diverse and perhaps has not pinned down there sound or where they want to go just yet. It’s downbeat and mid tempo with a sound somewhere between, Weezer and, REM of, ‘Out of Time’ stage. The tables are thrown over once again with, ‘Holing Out’ where a lo-fi sound and screaming feedback alongside languid lyrics work to emphasise a relationships communication problems.
‘Suicide Policeman’ goes back to the tender side of, ‘Yuck’. It’s the backbeat of, The Beatles with some well thought out lyrical content and some sweet sounds and vocals. ‘Georgia’ which follows continues in the similar vein with a guitar riff that has me humming, “Friday I’m in Love” by, ‘Cure’. This track flits with pop, but the distortion here puts pay to that to bay. Illana provides wonderful backing vocals on this fun little track. ‘Suck’ is very slow, with an acoustic melody and a little steel guitar. This one could be a, ‘Snow Patrol’ jingle. 

It’s kind of misplaced, but decent all the same. ‘Stutter’ follows this mid album down and depressing theme in what sounds like a heartfelt pout. Again, it’s a decent track in its own right, but almost ill fitting in this album. Following this brief downside, ‘Operation’ rocks in with something of a darker, ‘Yuck’ sound and to be candid, it’s by far my favourite on this debut album. It starts off as it means to continue with buzzing bass, hammering drums and crunching guitar. The vocals are distorted in perfect manner. This is right down my street.

‘Sunday’ chills things out again and sounds somewhat 60’s, but still manages to burn a 90’s Manchester vibe…almost Stone Roses like. The repetition of lyrics like “I’ve got a choice now, I’ve got a voice now” and “cold winter bugs and I’m thinking of you, hanging out with me” fit exquisitely with the guitar harmonies. ‘Rose Gives A Lilly’ is a well constructed instrumental prior to the seven minute long closing drone that is, ‘Rubber’ which is a more than suitable jam to end this strong deubt .

It’s abundantly clear that this London four-piece loves the 90s sound. This debut stirs up sounds of indie bands from the era hailing from both sides of the pond…from, ‘Dinosaur Jr.’ and, ‘Pavement’, too, ‘Teenage Fanclub’ and, ‘Ash’.  ‘Yuck’ are well worth a listen for their familiar yet likable and distinct indie rock sound. Rating 7.5/10

August 24, 2011

Album Review(s) SMITH WESTERNS- ‘Smith Westerns’ and ‘Dye It Blonde’

The ‘Smith Westerns’ are an indie rock band hailing from Chicago, Illinois and note inspiration from the likes of, T. Rex, David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Their self-titled debut album was recorded (for the most part) in lead guitarist, Max Kakacek’s basement and released in mid 2009. Their most recent album, ‘Dye It Blonde’ was released in January of this year. I plan to review both, the most recent a little more comprehensively than their debut.

This Chicago group scour through 1970's glam rock, Phil Spector teen-pop, and garage-punk with the youthful excitement of kids on Christmas morning. The ‘Smith Westerns' self-titled debut exudes an honesty almost as pure as its recording levels which are eardrum blowing. Their simple, sweet choruses about boys and girls in love are earnest and well composed. With well delivered lyrics by lead man, Cullen Omori, his bassist brother, Cameron, second guitarist Max Kakacek, and drummer, Hal James more than match with their tunage and do more than make themselves heard over the bands vintage sound.

From the initial track, ‘Dreams’ my first thought is “incredibly lo-fi”. With blurred out xylophone and crashing drums on the frenetic opener, this sounds rough cut, but promising.  A happy little back beat and sweet melody follows on, ‘Boys are Fine’ and the, ‘Smith Westerns’ turn to a more light hearted theme. ‘Gimme Some Time’ is reeking of 60’s glam rock and ‘Girl in Love’ that follows immediately has me thinking of the, T. Rex classic, ‘Get it On’. It’s a raunchily produced glam rock bop which seems to strive to address the naivety and briefness of youth. 

‘We Stay Out’ allows lo-fi to take over with a guitar line that sounds like a helicopter rotator underwater. I love the opening guitar riff on, ‘Tonight’…it’s simplistic, but screaming. The sound becomes very, Rolling Stones. In fact of the more modern era, it sounds a little, ‘Black Lips'. ‘Be My Girl’ is another, string laden ballad which softly perforates an innocent hook with some edgy, humorous and bordering perverted pick-up lines. In ‘The Glam Goddess’, Omori sings along in a desirable, Marc Bolan/Bob Dylan like fashion to a bump cha cha beat and mellotron strings.

‘Diamond Boys’ has a 70’s piano similar to that which, Bowie would use in his retro experimental phase and it’s here that the bands scratched glam harmonies sound fresh and vivacious. ‘My Heart’ is crammed with tense rhythms which work well and is completely different to the heavy, dirty guitar sound that we’ve become used to on this debut album. This is perhaps a sign of what’s to come on the follow up.  

This album stirs up hot, grungy garage rock out of the. Marc Bolan, Rolling Stones and even The Beatles playbook. It’s youthful music that reminds me, ‘1977’, the debut album from Irish rockers, ‘Ash’. It’s raw and noisy and was recorded while the band members were still in high school. I like the lo-fi sound and enthusiasm of this vibrant guitar band. Rating 7/10

For the follow-up, ‘Dye It Blonde’, the band found themselves in a New York City studio, with a real producer, Chris Coady who had produced the ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ and ‘Beach House’ among others. The leap is audibly significant, yet follow up, ‘Dye It Blonde's’ marked success is not solely the result of its production values and ambition. This bands ability to cut melodies was evident from the start and now they have grown with their resources. In an interview shortly after the album's completion, Omori suggested that the new set of songs was influenced by Oasis, Teenage Fanclub, and Suede…I’m fine with that.
‘Weekend’ kicks the album off with an ice cream van like melody before guitar takes the fore. As in the first album, the theme is often girls, love and teenage dreams. It’s a happy go lucky start with a drunk on love feel. Cullen Omori's voice is far more distinguishable in this more produced effort with brother, Cameron's bass lines supporting to great effect.

‘Still New’ floats in with some gentle guitar interplay before, Kakacek rips in with a guitar line so huge it effectively serves as a chorus. It kind of doesn’t belong in the same song, yet works a treat. In ‘Imagine Pt. 3’ the progress of the band is immediately there for all to hear. Synths and guitar work to great effect. Kakacek’s guitar fuses perfectly with the front man’s lyrics as opposed to battle them as they did on the previous track. 

‘All Die Young’ sounds a little ‘Mind Games’ or perhaps even ‘Oh Yoko’ The album's centerpiece is a ballad turned hymn when it its closing moments, Omori sings - "Love is lovely when you are young." Indeed towards the end, I somehow here British glam rockers, Slade and ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’. ‘Fallen in Love’ that follows is an enjoyable tune with the frank lyrics that we have come to expect from this young Chicago quartet.

‘End of the Night’ crunches in with screeching guitars that sounds similar to the opening credits for a motor racing program. In the middle we are offered a brief soberness with a piano section and Omori singing in delicate fashion - “everybody wants to be a star on a Saturday night”. ‘Only One’ that follows starts with a brilliant guitar riff harking back to, The Kinks or, The Animals. This one has a very 60’s/70’s feel to it. In fact it is more, The Animals…I’m hearing a bit of, There Is A House In New Orleans’ (great tune). It then becomes more like the 90’s Manchester sound by the end of the track. Great diversity and range in the space of four minutes.
‘Smile’ is a slight change in step and a little more of an acoustic track. This seems to be something autobiographic in substance, but I guess most of this bands content is. This is pretty deep stuff and becomes psychedelic while again using almost gospel like chorus lines. ‘Dance Away’ is a little disco and definitely feels like a summer song. It puts me in mind of ‘The Thrills’ and their hit, ‘Santa Cruz’ from album, ‘So Much for The City’. ‘Dye the World’ closes the album with a sweet whining sound. It’s a bit ballady and shares Oasis like riffs and bass.  

‘Dye It Blonde’ does have shades of classic, T-Rex Oasis, Suede, and, John Lennon, but it is far from backwards looking. The albums elements may not be terribly original, but the way they are brought together is a sheer pleasure.
It's fantastic to hear an album from a band who begs you to enjoy their music. While the melodic foundation was already evident in the bands self titled debut, producer, Chris Coady deserves some plaudits for transforming a previously rough cut diamond in to a far more polished gem. Rating 8/10

August 21, 2011

Album Review: FOSTER THE PEOPLE - Torches

The young American indie pop band formed in Los Angeles, California just two years ago are made up of, Mark Foster, Mark Pontius and, Cubbie Fink. Foster initially named the band, ‘Foster & the People’, but in time, people starting referring to them as, ‘Foster the People’ and the name stuck.

‘Foster the People’ are a band currently receiving a lot of attention and buzz both state side and in the UK. With highly praised performances at SXSW, the hype only heightened. A couple of catchy tunes and a growing reputation for active live shows, this L.A. trio are already being pigeon holed as upbeat West Coast indie pop, drunk on disco infused tequila. Their debut album, ‘Torches’ is an interesting, if not novel concept with trippy, catchy tunes not unlike ‘Passion Pit’, ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Daft Punk’, where their strength is perhaps their music as opposed to their lyrics. The songs dart and meander stylistically and rely on foraging pop history to complete their sound.

Their song, ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ is best known and was recently used by the UK mobile phone company, ‘O2’ for their commercials. ‘Foster The People’s’ falsetto alternately evokes Jamiroquai and Mercury Rev, while keyboards are more akin to 90’s dance pop and share more recent similarities to Brooklynites, MGMT. They succeed in the ability to write a chorus so brazen yet plain that you can hear it once and sing it for a fortnight, a tactic that has already made aforementioned , ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ relatively big hits.

The album kicks off with a drumbeat and darkness that sounds promising, but gets poppy very quickly in, ‘Helena Beat’. The music and beat is addictive, but the lyrics soon have me thinking back to, Jermaine Stewart and ‘You Don’t Have to Take Your Clothes Off’ of the late 80’s. Their most renowned, ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ follows and this is an undeniably brilliant pop song.  It’s catchy as hell, yet quirky enough for the cool kids to get down to.  It’s not too dissimilar to, Daft Punk’s, ‘Around The World’ from their debut album, ‘Homework’. I envisage this song kicking in on DJ sets around the globe and everyone in the place doing whatever they do in clubs.

‘Call It What You Want’ is another fun little track with interesting beats and sounds before, Foster appends his fairly simplistic lyrics. Already I’m thinking this band missed their calling in the late 80’s/early 90’s. With, ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ being by far the standout on, ’Torches’, ‘Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)’ falls not too far behind for me. It’s a mix of, ‘The Dandy Warhols’, with some, ‘Supergrass’ harmonies thrown in for good measure and vocals a little along the lines of my old favourite, John Power of, ‘Cast’ and ‘The La’s’ fame.  

‘Waste’ is very chilled and puts me in mind of Cambridge, Massachusetts based, ‘ Passion Pit’ who had some cracking tunes out a year or so ago on, ‘Manners’, but have since fallen off the face of the earth. ‘I Would Do Anything For You’ sounds a little, ‘Phoenix’ which I do like, but, ‘Foster The People’ grind a two line melody into the ground on this one and never really build upon it - “Ooh la la, I’m falling in love, and it’s better this time, than ever before” is bubble gum pop at its very best/worst.

‘Houdini’ is home to melodies so catchy it has you ready to hit repeat, but unfortunately, Mark Foster’s delivery can oftentimes sound a little, ‘Maroon 5’ which is a bit off putting as far as I’m concerned. I do love the sound though. ‘Life on the Nickel’ begins with keys and xylophone sounds that have an almost, ‘Toploader’, dancing in the moonlight theme before applying those high pitched backing vocals. There’s a repetitive melody that references ‘Alex Party’, and their huge hit, ‘Don’t Give Me Your Life’ in the 90’s. The high pitched vocals continue in, ‘Miss You’ and share some similarities to a current band hot on my playlist, Portugal. The Man. ‘Warrant’ which closes the ten track debut begins with choir like harmonies before descending in to a house like beat with more mushy lyrics.
The hooks are so big, blunt, and persistent, but on this album, that can act as a weakness as much as a strength. That said, the band have enjoyed rapid successes in the form of a major record label deal, a Billboard top 10 debut and a coveted slot at music fest, Lollapalooza. No denial, ‘Foster The People’ are a wonderful pop band, and the production of, ‘Torches’ works well to accentuate each clap and harmony to maximum effect. Truth of the matter, I am not mad about pop and this is one where, like MGMT, I will enjoy a couple of their songs while sitting in a bar or perhaps on a TV commercial, but no more than that. I currently have no real desire to see them live or pick up their music, but which them all the very best in their pop adventure. Rating 5.5/10

August 14, 2011

Initial Thoughts: Noel Gallgher's High Flying Birds

Unfortunately, I don't have time to compose a fully baked review today, so I am instead introducing and providing my inital thoughts on, Noel Gallagher's evolution in life without, Oasis. With younger brother, Liam already releasing his bands effort with, 'Beady Eye' who I have reviewed here - and given my approval, the focus is now on, Noel and his new band to showcase their skills. The first song from their upcoming album, 'The Dreams We Have As Children' (set for release on October 17th) is a week away, August 21st and is aptly named, 'The Death of You And Me'. From the few listens I have given the track it is typical of, Noel Gallagher with something of a 'Dig Out Your Soul' theme. It is very much of the same theme and sound as, 'Little By Little' from, 'Heathen Chemistry' which was the fifth of, Oasis' studio albums. My candid thoughts are that this is good, honest music from, Noel, but it's a little hollow. I expected him to take something of a new direction working on his own, but from, 'The Death Of You And Me', it does not appear so.

Gallagher has indicated that the band will begin touring a week after the release of the album - "We're going to go out on tour a week after the album is out. We're going to start off slow in small theatres (Dublin, Glasgow and London mentioned). If it's good enough to get bigger than that then it'll get bigger than that. I don't think there'll be a huge great big tour this year. I think this year it'll be a quick whizz around the world and try and do the major cities and then it will probably be a bigger tour next year."

I am certainly keen to hear more of Noel and his high flying birds and thoroughly look forward to future releases and particularly their album. There has been a mountain of press around, Noel of late and I was not a fan of the boxer like press conference when he announced the bands name and future plans. Noel Gallagher is heralded as a God in some circles of the UK music press and this kind of feather flaunting was, in my opinion, uncalled for.

To be continued...

August 10, 2011

Album Review: Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne

Despite having been a fan of Jay-Z since, The Blueprint and Kanye since, Graduation, I had my doubts on this collaboration. Yes, it's father and son working in perfect harmony, or is it? I mean the talents here are both boundless and unquestionable. These are two leaders of their particular pack. In terms of personalities and profiles that each artist exudes, I have absolutely no interest, however, their music is impressive. With egos such as these, there was always going to be drama. The album release in itself was an episode with all kinds of rumours breaking over 'professional' differences of opinion and 'musical' variances in tact.

'Watch the Throne' is the recent collaborative studio album by, 'The Throne', an American hip hop duo composed of Jay-Z and Kanye West. The album will be released by Roc-A-Fella Records, Roc Nation, and Def Jam Recordings, Jay-Z's and West's respective record labels. Its digital release was August 8th, while its physical release is scheduled for August 12. An official 12-song track list, with four bonus tracks slated for the LP's deluxe version. The previously released "H.A.M." doesn't appear on the album proper but instead is earmarked on this deluxe version.
Originally intended as a five-track EP by Jay-Z and West, 'Watch the Throne' was revealed by, West to be a full-length album in an October 2010 interview for MTV. He said in the interview that they planned to record in the South of France. Production for the album began in November in Bath, England and continued during available times in, Jay-Z's and, West's respective schedules at recording locations in Australia, Paris, New York City, and Los Angeles. In an interview for Billboard, Jay-Z said that they often recorded in hotel rooms and that the album went through three iterations, as he and, West had scaled back from their original musical direction for the album. He also noted difficulties in the recording process, including arguments with, West regarding their direction. Parts of the album were recorded at the Mercer Hotel and Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York City. In an interview for Rolling Stone, Jay-Z discussed their insistence on recording in person and attributed it to the delay in releasing the album, stating "If we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it together. No mailing it in". The album features guest appearances by recording artists, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and, Mr. Hudson.

On July 7th, Jay-Z hosted a private listening session at the Mercer Hotel in New York City, previewing the album's songs from his MacBook Pro for a select group of reporters and music journalists. One of whom summised - "The songs were dramatic and boastful, with Jay-Z often taking the lead lyrically, and the collection showcased the differences between the two artists - Jay-Z, the technical marksman, and Kanye, the emotive chest beater".
Enough of the formalities for now...let's crack on with reviewing this widely anticipated album release. 'No Church in the Wild (ft Frank Ocean)' gets us started with a kick ass little beat, stalker of a bass, and Kanye murmuring "What's a King without a God?" before, Jay-Z rattles off a some strong verses and quickfire lyrics that we come to expect of him. Frank Ocean sings the hook through a vocoder which works in will and being produced by, West, performs the sound of his, 808's & Heartbreak' of 2008. It's a solid start and I do enjoy the bass line here. 'Lift Off' follows with a pumping keyboard/horns sound and strings/other galactic sounds before, Beyoncé sings "We're gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars." Whether this is a reference to the album itself or some other idea, the track is fast and furious with 80's like synth. Not sure of the need for, Beyonce on this track or the album as a whole.

'Niggas in Paris' is a quirky, percolating little track with amazing sub-bass and a snare that sounds like static. This is of, Jay-Z's, Blueprint ilk and both rappers are in top form, with Jay-Z classic in his " ball so hard motherf*&%$rs want to fine me" Kanye compliments Jay-Z beautifully on this, a standout track- "I'm suffering from realness" and "Don't let me get in my zone." 'Otis' featuring namesake, Otis Redding slows things down and touch and chills things out somewhat. From the classic, 'Try A Little Tenderness' most famous for the, Redding rendition in 1966. I love the song, but not sold on its success in this format. I have my doubts with mixing certain old tracks with the new, and I'm afraid this is the case on this one.

'Gotta Have It' has a decent backing vocal and beat, but doesn't really grab us. Kanye delivers some fairly deep and sarcastic lyrics at the outset with "LOLOLOL, white America, try assassinate my character." Other than this, fairly uninspiring as we reach the mid point of the album. 'New Day' produced by one of my all time hip hop artists, RZA is a quality tune. Again, an interesting topic with both rappers rhyming about raising their hypothetical male offspring. Kayne most engrossing with the powerful deliver of lyrics such as - “I’ll never let my son have an ego. He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go, I mean, I might even make him be Republican, so everybody know he love white people.” Clearly a small reference to his famous George W Bush altercation. It's a trippy, enjoyable little track despite the perhaps slightly 'off' lyrical content. 'Prime Time' features another of my favourites on the production side with, Q-Tip aiding, West this time around. Some tender keys get us started here before, Jay-Z enters in sultry fashion with "we're in the time of our lives" and the mix scratched in from, 'Public Enemy's', 'Brothers Gonna Work It Out'. It's a slow burner of a track...of course it is – they sampled it from La Roux. It's almost a little, 'Portishead' with male rapper interesting concept.

'Welcome to the Jungle' has a great little twist with a, 'ABC' beat throughtout and reference to the late King of pop, Michael Jackson - "Rest in peace to the leader of the Jackson 5." The mnemonic guitar forms the backdrop here on a more poppy sound than one would perhaps expect. 'Who Gon Stop Me' ruffles us up with more with a pumping bass and rave like synths and, Kanye setting out with - "This is something like a holocaust, millions of our people lost."
"I can't stop-op-op-op-op-op". This is raw, fast, aggressive and edgy. It's more along the lines of what one would expect of two leaders in the game, Jay-Z and, West. This is among my favourites on this offering thus far. 'Murder to Excellence' is a more than worthwhile follow up. In fact, it's probably the albums centerpiece with, Kanye rapping, "Pay-per-view murder, black-on-black murder" it's a song split into two mesmorising parts. “It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power,” West declares in the first part where he compares urban murder tallies to casualties in the Iraq war and even genocide. In part two, Jay-Z appears to find some solace in prestige and wealth - “It’s a celebration of black excellence. Opulence, decadence, tuxes next to the president.” The conclusion being - “Power to the people. When you see me, see you.” With two tracks left, we finally have what we were looking for from this collaboration.

'Made It In America' features, Frank Ocean and instead of looking to the future as the pair had done in, 'New Day', this one looks back at days gone by and key figures in history. While, Jay-Z includes his grandma in his raps while rhyming with "star-spangled banner", Kanye talks about his mama and meeting his producer 'No ID' in Chicago and "getting high on my own supply". 'Why I I Love You' featuring Mr. Hudson brings the curtain down on this colloborative effort, 'Watch The The Throne'. Mr Hudson's hook sounds like a high pitched, shrieking metalheaded bombast, but I do like the tune and beat on the track. Jay-Z's rythyms and verses are pretty good, blasting, "got a pistol under my pit bull." The song, and album is aggressive and ends abruptly in the same fashion as it was delivered.

'Watch the Throne' feels like a fairly meaningful victory following one solitary listen. It is a compelling, complex, conflicted album, layered with heavy commentary on class and race. Thankfully, those anticipating a disastrous ego clash will have to wait until the pair hit the road together later this year. Many of the West co-produced tracks would not sound out of place on, West’s fantastic 2010 album, 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' which was among my top albums of last year. This one is good, but it's no classic. Rating 7/10 

Some other reviews:

"The album's highlight, and an instant classic, is 'Made in America,' a solid, slow-paced Frank Ocean-teamed jam about the American dream that reveals the main difference between West and Jay-Z: humility." - LA Times

"Both West and Jay-Z were vocal backers of Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign, but now that America is struggling to regain its economic bearings, they rhyme about their private jets, expensive watches and supermodel escapades." - Chicago Tribune

"As a whole it’s not totally legible; there are too many ideas. It's an album with several phenomenal moments, even if it doesn’t quite add up to a phenomenal album." - NY Times

"Dig deep into Throne, past the bacchanal celebration of the finer things in life, and you'll find the album's heart: two men grappling with what it means to be successful and black in a nation that still thinks of them as second class." - Time

Track List
No Church in The Wild (ft. Frank Ocean)
Lift Off (ft. Beyoncé)
Niggas in Paris
Otis (ft. Otis Redding)
Gotta Have It
New Day
Prime Time
Murder to Excellence
Welcome to The Jungle
Made It In America (ft. Frank Ocean)
Why I Love You (ft. Mr Hudson)

August 7, 2011

Album Review: BLAKROC - Blakroc

This is something that has been on my ‘must review list’ for quite some time. I was late to the game for this album (around six months late), but the BlakRoc rap-rock collaboration of, ‘The Black Keys’ and several hip hop and R&B artists is one that struck a chord immediately. It still to this day surprises me that so few are aware of this collaboration and album. The project was overseen by, Damon Dash (co-founder and formerly owner of a share in Roc-A-Fella Records). The album was recorded at, ‘Studio G’ in Brooklyn, NY and includes illustrious guests such as, ‘Raekwon’, ‘RZA’, ‘Jim Jones’, ‘Mos Def’, ‘Nicole Wray’, ‘Pharoahe Monch’, ‘Q-Tip’ and , Billy Danze of M.O.P. I told you it was an ‘illustrious’ line up.

When, Damon Dash got listening to, Ohio bluesy rock outfit, ‘The Black Keys’, he reached out to the band that he heralded as his favourite musicians to meet in person where he asked if they would hit the studio with, Jim Jones. One thing led to another and the album was (allegedly) completed following eleven days of recording. Included in the project are vocals from deceased rapper and former, Roc-A-Fella Records, ‘Wu Tang Clan’ artist, ‘Ol' Dirty Bastard’. The album was aptly released the day after Thanksgiving, 27th November 2009 (otherwise known as Black Friday in the world of retail) on, ‘V2’, a new label started by, Dash and, The Black Keys.

You might think the project is astonishingly similar to the unsuccessful, ‘Black Lips’ and, ‘GZA’ collaboration from earlier in 2009 and that this failure would have provided food for thought for the BlakRoc project, but it may well have actually planted the seed and sprung the challenge. ‘The Black Keys’ had of course delved  into hip-hop when they had, ‘Danger Mouse’ produce, ‘Attack and Release’ which was the first of their albums that I purchased. 

When asked what made him return to the music business after all these years, Dash said it was all about the love. “The Black Keys are about real music and all these other people that came through are really good at what they do”. He continued, “at least after being in the game this long you don’t wanna just be doing it for money that becomes obvious…If I was to be a part of anything, it would have to be something like this. We had a good rapport with one another and I like the way they do their business and they kind of like the way I do mine and it just turned into this project”. 

‘Coochie’ which doesn’t appear on many popular versions of the album features, Ludacris & Ol' Dirty Bastard is most certainly the record's riskiest sonic experiment, but it seems a little restrained for these two. Perhaps this was a way to get people to give the album a go. The fact of that matter is that the track that had already appeared on mix tapes…this is merely a recast.

‘On the Vista’ is far more representative of the theme of the album. The Black Keys and ‘Mos Def’ make the most of the stoned salutation with the sort of sing-rapping about "total control" that one only feels in a hallucinatory state. ‘Hard Times’ follows and features, ‘NOE’. It’s a trippy little track which pays homage to the familiar blues sound of, The Black Keys. ‘Dollaz & Sense’ featuring, RZA and, Pharoahe Monch is simple, but the beat and lyrics are thoroughly enjoyable. It really puts me in the, Bobby Digital frame of mind and Monch does a fine job accompanying the former, Wu Tang Clan legend with some clever lyrics.

‘Why Can’t I Forget Him’ slows things down somewhat when hook lady supreme, Nicole Wray (yes, the one who made the phenomenal, ‘Make It Hot’ in the late 90’s) bubbles admirably on this more emotional, heart string pulling track. The down and dark mood is soon blown out of the place with, ‘Stay Off the Fuckin’ Flowers’ featuring, Raekwon. It kind of deviates somewhat from the typical subject matter on, but does succeed in coasting like a late night soundtrack to the south of the 60’s.

I have always been a fan of the super cool, Mos Def ‘Ain't Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)’ with Mos Def & Jim Jones is one of my top tunes from this album. From, Mos’s initial “pure heart” and “ooh ooh ooh ooh’s” to Dan Auerbach’s well placed “la la la’s” and, Jim Jones’s beautifully poetic lyrics, this one works a dream. ‘Hope You’re Happy’ features a wealth of talent with, Billy Danze of M.O.P., Q-Tip, & Nicole Wray. Kicking off with a bluesy riff and sweet ripostes from, Q-Tip and, Wray, Danze jumps in with his notorious aggressive spitting which makes for an interesting and diverse track.

‘Tellin’ Me Things’ has, RZA back at the mic and again, he's in a quasi-Bobby Digital mode on this one. This is a slow burner…enjoyable all the same. In, ‘What You Do to Me’, The Black Keys influence shines through like a beacon from the outset and, Auerbach’s, “you don’t know” howl. Wray compliments this sound exceptionally well while , Jones and , Danze apply the finishing touches with great aplomb. The final track is a more rocking sound in, ‘Done Did It’ with, NOE and, Wray again featuring. It’s got a great beat and fun sound to it.

In the video ‘webisodes’ which you simply must take a look at (, the Keys looked like nervous little school boys trying to get in with the tough nut bullies that surrounded them. However, Dan Auerbach and drummer, Patrick Carney brought game and if not matched the talents in the studio, surpassed them in this recording. Yes, there are a few obligatory clichéd rap lyrics about cribs and guns, but if you are looking for a solid project collaborating the best of blues rock and rap, BlakRoc will not be a letdown.

That a band like, ‘The Black Keys’ got to be involved in something like this is quite heartening. They recently elevated themselves of one of the best bands around with the release of, ‘Brothers’ and some amazing live performances at some of the world’s largest arena’s. This project gives me optimism with an approach that is exciting and hopefully invigorating to some of the ‘hard to listen to’ rap and hip hop that’s out there. Rating 8/10

August 3, 2011

Have the Kings of Leon fallen off their throne?

Have Tennessee rockers, ‘Kings of Leon’ fallen off their throne just seven years after they began their great quest for the Holy Grail? It certainly looks that way from recent events.

The band's concert in Dallas last Friday ended prematurely and calamitously as lead singer Caleb Followill told fans, “I'm gonna go backstage and I'm gonna vomit, I'm gonna drink a beer and I'm gonna come back out and play three more songs." The Kings’ lead man, never did return to the stage, with bassist and Caleb's brother, Jared left to front the crowd - "Caleb's just a little unfit to play the rest of the show...We love you guys so much, but I know you guys fucking hate us. I'm so sorry. It's really not our fault, it's Caleb. He can't play the rest of the show. We will be back as soon as possible."

Following this drama in Dallas, it was announced on the 1st of August that the ‘Kings of Leon’ were canceling their entire US tour citing, Calebs vocal issues and exhaustion as the reason. The statement did however deliver some promise for KOL fans ending, “Unfortunately, the U.S. dates cannot be rescheduled due to the band's international tour schedule."

Jared's subsequent Twitter postings however suggested some more intense issues as the reason - "I love our fans so much. I know you guys aren't stupid. I can't lie. There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade." The social media and entertainment press world in which we live in is in full throttle circus mode…there’s nothing quite like breaking down the monster they once helped create and perhaps built it up again in the future. 

Is this their eulogy I am about to undertake? I hope not, well, I hope not if they go back to basics instead of cut the recent drivel they’ve been producing.

I don’t want to come across as boastful, but I was on the, Kings of Leon bandwagon long before mainstream America was. With the release of debut album, ‘Youth & Young Manhood’, in 2003 I was sold. This was only elevated when I first saw the band perform live at Glasgow’s, Carling Academy on December of the same year. Tennessee bluesy rock was not the in thing at that time, neither were cowboy boots, skin tight drain pipe denims, shoulder length hair and handle bar moustaches, but the, Kings of Leon carried it off and the masses wailed their approval on that evening (including myself and Mrs ScoAustin). Indeed, I vividly recall a young lad of around 21 years sitting next to us with what appeared to be his 50 something year old father. The boy clearly enjoyed the show, but the father was in raptures. “That was great son…that was one of the best shows I’ve ever been tae…that was fantastic.”

The NME agreed, declared the band’s debut album "one of the best debut album of the last 10 years" and The Guardian described the band as "the kind of authentic, hairy rebels The Rolling Stones longed to be." Despite these raving reviews, that album failed to make any significant strides in the US…it sold a meager 100,000 copies. Songs such as ‘Red Morning Light’, ‘Trani’, ‘California Waiting’, Spiral Staircase’ and ‘Molly’s Chambers’ really captured the imagination. They still remain high on my playlist today and indeed I still hold the album in my top 20 all time list.

The band's second album, ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’, was released just over a year later in the UK and generally built upon the southern infused bluesy garage rock of their first album. It was down and dirty with songs like, ‘The Bucket’, ‘Pistol of Fire’, ‘Soft’ and my favourite from the album ‘Four Kicks’. Some wider acclaim was offered with appearances of their music in movies like, ‘Disturbia’ and , ‘Cloverfield’. This was exacerbated when they had the honour of touring with both, 'Bob Dylan’ and, ‘Pearl Jam’.

Third album, ‘Because of the Times’ dropped in 2007. For the first time, the album demonstrated a clear evolution from, Kings of Leon's previous work. The band's trademark dirty, southern swagger was replaced with a more polished, perhaps, over produced sound. Although I still very much like this album, this was the first real worrying sign that the band was diverging in to another sound. As opposed to hosting several strong tracks, there were slimmer pickings with just three of four masterpieces in this work. ‘On Call’ soon became a huge hit in the UK debuting at number one and selling more than 70,000 copies in its first week of release. I personally enjoy, ‘Knocked Up’, ‘Charmer’, ‘Fans’ and Black Thumbnail’ from KOL’s third album.

‘Only by the Night’ released in 2008 really took the band to new horizons reaching number one in the UK and a lofty number four in the US. The band had made it back home at last with rave reviews from the top echelons of music press, ‘Spin’, ‘Rolling Stone’ and the likes. Meanwhile, ‘Pitchfork Media’ were highly critical offering a mere 3.8 out of 10 for the album. ‘Sex on Fire’ soon became the band's most successful and probably still is. A shame given I consider this track alongside the, ‘Wonderwall’ of, ‘Oasis’ - The most popular, but probably the weakest they have delivered. I struggled with the album as a whole…it was a huge leap away from all the things I liked of the original, Kings of Leon. It’s something my mother would enjoy listening to on the local radio station…it’s not bad, but it’s just not that very good either. It comes across as poppy, shallow and over worked. Don’t get me wrong, the songs were catchy, but, ‘Use Somebody’ is no classic, nor for that matter is, ‘Revelry’. The songs really begin to dry up and the quality in my view diminishes to just two or three songs. Even the bands traditional and appropriate look had changed…by this time, they looked more like, ‘The Killers’ with a more clean-cut look and now dawning waistcoats as opposed to tightly clad t-shirts.

The, Kings of Leon fame was widespread by 2009 headlining the biggest and best music festivals across the globe – Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds, Oxegen, T in the Park, Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits to name but a few. I had the pleasure of seeing them at the kings of all theatres, MSG in 2009 and it was wonderful to see them really appreciate where they had gotten over several years of music making and touring. They were extremely humble and genuinely blown away that they were playing the famous stage of MSG.

The band's fifth album, ‘Come Around Sundown’ was released on October 18th 2010. Recorded in Nashville and New York, Angelo Petraglia and Jacquire King once more in the control room on this release. It’s an album that I afforded just one listen, declined to purchase and ultimately sulked about what has happened to one of my all time favourite bands. To think that they received a Grammy nomination in the best rock song category in 2011 for, ‘Radioactive’ blows my mind. “It’s in the water…it where we came from”…it’s a shadow of their former glories in a song that seeming strives to be an anthem, but succeeds in being cringe worthy in my humble opinion.  Yes, Caleb can still sing across his wide range of husky chords and yes, the band can play, but I am sure they can come up with better than that. 

The coming and going of bands like these really underlines the magic that bands like The Rolling Stones and U2 as well as artists like, Neil Young and, Bob Dylan possess. That they can continue to tour and release decent music across the decades is a testament to them. Regardless of what happens next, Kings of Leon have enjoyed a wonderful ride and I am grateful that I rode along with them…particularly for those first three albums. The fact that they became more marketable and sell-able elevated them to new plateaus, but may potentially result in their sad demise.