March Madness – March in Review

I’m going to avoid any disingenuous attempt at linking the Stateside March basketball spree and the music world’s busy March period. Instead, let’s dive straight into it. March really was a big month in  the musical calendar of 2013: featuring releases from anxiously awaited debuting bands; the return of a few old favourites and of course the full return of the Thin White Duke. Check the foot of the page for our current rating system.

Bastille – Bad Blood

Released: 4th March

Neither my, nor any other individual’s opinion is going to make any difference here: we will be hearing a lot more of Bastille’s Bad Blood. “The Weight of Living Pt.II” has dug itself out a cosy livelihood on the soundtrack of FIFA 13 whilst the singles along with the album itself have become the darling of the charts. However, the actually nature of the music is remarkably simple. Much like other alt-pop bands, such as Mumford & Sons, that have been taken into the hearts of contemporary Britons, part of their success could be chalked off to the ability to take a musical genre and popularise it, making it somewhat more accessible to the wider public sphere.  Much as Mumford & Sons play the part of a folk band, Bastille perform the role of a Synth-rock band. It is key to note here that any manner of making music more accessible must be respected and taken seriously, however, as Mumford & Sons have proven, it can sometimes lead to a dead end and a warped view of the genre that they are trying to portray.

Bastille are an advertisers dream, creating an image of something different to the homogeneity of the charts without being so outlandish to tempt someone to really try anything new. None the less, the non-offensive, sing-a-long sound of Bastille is easy listening with catchy rhythms and lyrics to boot. “Bad Blood” showcases a decent range of forms within the album, from the worldly backing vocals to “Pompeii” to the balladic piano chords and glass-shattering falsetto of “Oblivion”. It will do just fine as a gateway to the wider synthetic genre but will barely even register with those with any pre-existing knowledge of it. This is an album that has and will continue to thrive but one that will not be inducing too many goosebumps any time soon.

Rating: 2/5

Stornoway – Tales from Terra Firma

Released: 11th March

In “Beachcombers Windowsill” Stornoway gave us a smooth, upbeat and folksy album that made for easy, happy listening. A far cry from rock, it offered a precision made and welcome slowing of pace. The Oxford band seemed to represent an unashamedly nostalgic technophobic lifestyle in which they happily observing the birds flutter by while rolling around in their big plastic zorbing balls. This anti-rock charm continues through to their second album as they even consider “life without electricity” in the opener “You Take Me as I Am.” The album, like many others across music, seems to want to ignore the perils of the working world, but unlike others, who would use the freed up time to drink, dance and screw, the mere art of procrastination seems to be entertainment enough for Brian Briggs & Co. The mild air of naivety and nostalgia offers up an inviting break from the hard work of an always-on, boozy rock lifestyle sold to us by most modern bands. Some of the spacier sounds underlying tracks such as “You Take Me as I Am” sound a little misplaced, but the album is a good follow on to their 2010 debut. Acoustic precision lain gently over a bed of worldly percussion, Tales from Terra Firma sits nicely.

Rating: 4/5

David Bowie – The Next Day

Released: 12th March

This, I suppose, would represent the biggie. “The Next Day” gets off to a cracking start with its namesake track, some solid melodies chiming in beneath the building tide of vocal strength and guitar. Questions of the strength of Bowie’s voice might not be immediately thrown aside as the vocal aspect isn’t so much sang as spoken for the most part, but it is done so to brilliant effect, creating an immensely powerful and rousing feel. “The Next Day” seems to announce Bowie’s intentions of not being through yet, proclaiming that he’s “not quite dying.” However the reference of death does set a tone, a dark aspect follows Bowie’s lyrics and melody throughout. Second up, the darker, grimier element is very evident in “Dirty Boys,” which works brilliantly, recurring melodies atop Bowie’s still largely spoken lyrics and creeping riff combine with the sax solo to create an sense of imagery that is unparalleled by anything else up for review here. Bowie’s sense of setting a scene continues brilliantly on as the album progresses through “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)  to the slowed “Love is Lost” and balladic “Where Are We Now?” (Which acts as a quite brilliant advert for Berlin). Like “Where Are We Now?” Bowie’s slight nod to nostalgia continues on in “Valentine’s Day” as a sad yet somehow triumphant melody ticks on.

The album, isn’t however a flawless return to form, as the bizarre “If You Can See Me” proves, it’s not a bad song, just a little off the pace. However, most of us will be more than willing to let that go as the return of Bowie is in large highly satisfying. In a few cases, such as “Boss of Me,” a few listens might be required to really get to grips with your opinion on it, however it’s well worth the time invested. The lyricism and imagery of the album really do work wonderfully and the proof is there that Bowie’s ear for a melody is far from gone. There is always a slight wonder in the back of my mind as to whether I big the album up slightly out of the excitement of its very existence, but it doesn’t linger for long as I go back to enjoy more of the brilliantly constructed sound of “The Next Day.”

Rating: 4/5

Daughter – If You Leave

Released: 15th March

I saw Daughter live in Leeds and they were phenomenal, the vast chasm of Leed’s O2 Academy was filled wall-to-wall with the immensely powerfully sound of “Medicine” and “Youth”. Since that day, having heard the EPs, I was hugely excited for their first full release. Like Bastille, a few of Daughters tracks have found homes in the media, with non-album track “Medicine” being used on a recent ad campaign for a BBC drama. A complaint concerning “If You Leave” that I am aware of is that of the tone of Daughter is so downbeat that an entire albums-worth of such saddening songs could cause a deepening national depression and not in the economic sense. This is understandable, but when you do sadness so well, who really needs to be happy. Daughter’s sound is about throbbing synthetic builds atop of plucky yet tentative and melodic guitar, creating a strong sense of a beautiful yet crushing vulnerability. So yes, sad songs, but sad songs to an art form. Some critics have implied that the link from fragility to beauty is irksome and a tired female stereotype, however this in itself seems to twang of counter-progress: Bowie’s recent “Where Are We Now?” saw a great beauty in the vulnerability hiding within its vocals, so this is not a cause to fire up the gender debate. Frailty of voice suggests a great emotion behind the spoken words and regardless of whose words they are, this link will be frequented often. Some of their tracks sound a little disjointed, such as “Amsterdam”, but generally, the album holds together well. Daughter’s debut release suggests a promising future.

Rating: 3/5

Depeche Mode – Delta Machine

Released: 22nd March

The great survivors of music are back again to take a whack at 2013. Dave Gahan in his mid-nineties battle with mortality embodies strongly the spirit of Depeche Mode as death itself failed to stop their continued evolution. In the true spirit of Easter Gahan rose again and 17 years on the Basildon trio are still adapting and producing high quality music. The danger for a band, who achieved their initial success in earlier decades, continuing their career, changing their style to fit shifting tastes, is that the band loses itself in the change. Thankfully, Depeche Mode have adapted, producing a sound that is definitively Mode, with their bluesy influences bubbling over the edges of grimy, dark and at times almost mechanical sounds. It might not be for everyone but there’s no denying its power to create opinion. The sound isn’t excessively dark as some have postulated, rather the darker melodies act as a perfect contrast to emphasise the album’s other features as they break through, acting as powerful driving forces throughout, such as in “Angel.” Many have proclaimed this to be one of, if not the best Depeche Mode album, which is a real credit to the band’s durability over 40 years ago after they formed. Quite brilliantly, counter to what your High School headmaster or boss might tell you about order being the key to success, Depeche Mode confidently proclaimed recently that their success is all thanks to the very dysfunction at the heart of the band that came so close to tearing them apart. They played with fire and came out welded as one and stronger than ever, not a burn in sight. A strong, complex synth/rock album that was a treat to listen to, though not one that can be raced through.

Rating: 4/5

Peace – In Love

Released 22nd March

There is the weight of a hell of a lot of expectation resting on the shoulders of Peace, which makes sense I suppose. “In Love” gets off to a powerful start with “Higher Than the Sun” in which it sets the theme for the rest of the album: borrowing. It’s safe to say that this album won’t be revolutionising the musical world, that’s not to say it’s no good, just that it’s nothing new. Just because we have heard something before, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done again better or at least to a good standard. The psych-pop start acts as a solid entry to the album with an easy festival-friendly chorus and is followed in suit by “Follow Baby” which disguises its somewhat soppy falsetto chorus: “We’re gonna live for ever baby” (which sounds vaguely familiar) with a dirtier guitar and bass line. Critics of the album have been accused of a nostalgic, outdated  “it was better in my day” approach by fans of the album. Both sides of the argument have good points, the album is largely based on the innovation of others, but if we couldn’t use the work of others to aid our own, progress wouldn’t exist. The “standing on the shoulders of giants” argument is, ironically, amongst the oldest criticisms still in use, having being “borrowed” by generation after generation of critics. So there. “Float Forever” provides a slow in pace after the opening tracks, though is followed by a perfect example of the kind of unoriginality that critics are referencing in “Wraith” which features a remarkably Foals-esque guitar line, which resurfaces in “Bloodshake”, and if you can’t hear a bit of Blur in the chorus of “Waist of Paint,” you clearly aren’t paying enough attention. However, “In Love” represents a solid debut even if it’s nothing particularly revolutionary, or even all that original.

Rating: 3/5

The Strokes – Comedown Machine

Released: March 25th

The Strokes’ latest work is quite different from the typical sound that brought them their initial glory, such an attitude is partially what brought such acclaim to bands such as Radiohead who, instead of sticking to the massively popular formula of “The Bends,” carried right on experimenting with new sounds. It’s a brave move, but always a risky one. The albums beginning chimes like a continuation in the direction that they started on with “Angles,” but starts sounding more like a Hot Chip record than one by the Strokes in “Tap Out”. The more typical guitar style of the Strokes begins to break through as the song progresses. By the time “All the Time” starts, the Strokes’ sound is slightly more evident, but stillaq3 far from the style that launched The Strokes onto the scene in “Is This It.” And with that, I have done it, I have made the same old cliched statement that has become so associated with The Strokes, who have long been a victim of their own debut success. Since then they slowly, though more rapidly of late, swung away from the style that brought them recognition, aware that they could provide what people wanted, but unwilling to accept or settle for it. For this attempt to bring out new Strokes styles, they should be commended at least for their guts: after all so many complain of the monotony of the charts’ congruent sound.

If nothing else, the bizarre, almost retro arcade game-esque style of the anomalous “One Way Trigger” and its direct contrast with the following slow, balladic start of “Welcome to Japan,” provides a sense something different. This makes The Strokes a valuable musical asset. Opinions will vary, the progression of The Strokes since “Is this It” has provided plentiful space for divergent opinion, and if music really is the art form it is claimed to be, surely this is necessary. One thing however that does not stand up is the argument of those claiming “but if this was the debut, leading towards “Is This It” you’d all have different opinions!” The simple fact is, that’s not the case, The Strokes raised their bar high so have and  forever will have to be judged by that standard. In any case, “Comedown Machine” is a solid album and it sounds like the noughties indie revivalists are back to enjoying their music after a tough time with “Angles.”

Rating: 4/5 – Though it might take a couple of listens.

March Review

Other notable releases:

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Spector at the Feast – A strengthening second wind inspired by tragedy: 4/5

Woodkid – The Golden Age – Piano piece gems mixed into an album with enough script and metaphor for a decent film: 4/5

Rhye – Woman – An interesting debut, questions over their “hipster” image aside, vocals present plenty of potential. Can become a little repetitive: 3/5

The Virgins – Strike Gently – A growing up or a dulling down? The Virgins strike much more gently this time around. Donald Cummings stands out on guitar: 3/5

Stereophonics – Graffiti on the Train – A slowing of pace and the start of a new direction that won’t change your current opinion on them, for better or for worse: 2/5

Suede – Bloodsports – Reunited to produce a solid record, some stodgy moments but a satisfying listen none the less: 3/5

The Rating System:

5/5: Absolute classic, a must-have.

4/5: A great work.

3/5: Solid sound, might not be for everyone.

2/5: Listen-worthy but nothing special and easily forgotten.

1/5: Disinteresting.

0/5: More pointless than Alexander Armstrong.

For your enjoyment, here’s a playlist featuring a few tracks from each of the albums reviewed:

Thanks for reading and as always, we want to hear your opinion: how do you agree or disagree? Let us know. Jack Meredith – @JackMeredith7

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