Mike Atkinson

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 31st May 2005

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on May 31, 2005

Faithless ft. Estelle – Why Go

A distressingly unsympathetic re-working of the 1999 collaboration with Boy George (scheduled for single release at the time, but withdrawn at the last moment), in which all the plaintive, affecting tenderness of the original is brutally ripped out and replaced by manky old dance beats, with phoned-in vocals carelessly plonked over the top. (Note to the otherwise unimpeachable Estelle: you really don’t need to do this.) Shameful as it is to admit in polite circles, Faithless actually used to be my favourite band. Coming to terms with their inexorable artistic decline was hard enough; having them off-handedly piss all over my memories verges on the unforgivable. (3)

MC Lars – Signing Emo 

Maybe it’s just because I’m as jaded as the hapless A&R guy in the song, but for all its studiedly hip insider references, doesn’t this would-be sharp-as-a-knife satire on the follies of the US music biz follow a rather predictable, well-worn trajectory? Yes, the cycle of fashion is a fickle one. Yes, fame is transitory, and today’s hot new act is tomorrow’s dumper-bound anachronism. So tell us something new! And anyway, what’s with the paradigm here? “Emo” is hot, but “industrial” is hotter? It’s like the Noughties never happened! Roll over Casablancas, and tell Kapranos the news! (5)

Groove Coverage – Poison 

Objectivity be damned; I have an unshakeable fondness for low-rent, camp-as-tits, dizzyingly inappropriate dance cover versions – selected at random, knocked off in an afternoon, and bearing no signs of any experimental deviation from the classic Motiv8/Almighty template. Because once you’ve perfected a formula, why tamper with it further? Just give us a steady diet of gleefully sacriligeous variations on the same theme, and we will chow down contentedly upon them until kingdom come. As Prince once said: there’s joy in repetition. (6)

Ben Adams – Sorry 

As debut solo efforts from former boyband members go, Ben out of A1 has made a pretty decent fist of the whole “maturing with my audience” ploy, turning in a competent piece of interestingly textured (mariachi trumpets, radio static, layered background wailings, sudden thunderblasts of percussion), agreeably sophisticated modern pop. OK, so the steadily chugging dynamic might be a shade too turn-of-the-decade Britney for fickle modern ears, and the lack of progression makes for a rather boring final minute – but there’s still plenty here to suggest that, despite a dangerously long time away from the public eye, Ben might be in it for a longer haul than most. (7)

White Stripes – Blue Orchid

The yardstick against which this must be judged is, of course, “Seven Nation Army”. Does it have the Big Riff? Oh yes. Is the riff big enough? Potentially – but with its arena-filling potential as yet untested, it is difficult to say for certain. That aside, the familiar Jack/Meg dynamic is as engrossing as ever, and the overt Led Zep-isms (with Jack cast as a screeching Page/Plant hydra) are pulled off with aplomb. (8)

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Stylus Singles Jukebox, 16th May 2005

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on May 16, 2005

Antony & The Johnsons – Hope There’s Someone

A brave but bewildering choice of single from the I Am A Bird Now album, as it would have made more commercial sense to have gone with the deep Southern soul of “Fistful Of Love”, rather than this challenging performance piece for solo piano and voice. Starting out as a tenderly yearning, relatively conventional bedtime prayer, this departs from any recognisable song structure about halfway through, as Antony pounds out repeated and intensifying block chords on the piano, while ghostly layers of echoed vocals emerge in the background. The effect is unsettling, and will irritate as least as many as it enchants. The same applies for Antony’s unmistakable alto warble, which evokes comparisons with both Nina Simone and early 1970s Bryan Ferry, whilst simultaneously sounding like no other singer on this earth. There’s no doubt that you have to cross a line with this music – but it’s a line which should be crossed. (8)

Black Eyed Peas – Don’t Phunk With My Heart

Just as Jamiroquai has achieved massive success by playing jazz-funk to people who don’t like jazz-funk, so the Black Eyed Peas have pulled off the same trick with their all-conquering brand of hollowed out, de-funked, slickly ornamented, stadium-friendly hip-hop lite. It’s difficult to put my finger on what irritates me the most. Maybe it’s the constant boggle-eyed mugging to camera; maybe it’s the gruesomely euphemistic deployment of the word “phunk”; maybe it’s the wholesale desecration of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s 1985 classic “I Wonder If I Take You Home”. All I know for certain is that I am actively looking forward to never having to hear this again. (2)

Gadjo – So Many Times

Summery, uplifting vocal house for the smart-casual set, with Latin-influenced piano and percussion, that will probably find its way onto one of those Hed Kandi compilations before too long. Pleasant enough, but nothing that Masters At Work weren’t doing ten times better ten years ago. (5)

Max Graham vs Yes – Owner Of A Lonely Heart

Mmph, I’m calming down about this a bit now. Not quite the sacrilege which it first seemed to be, this is a reasonably sympathetic grafting of a rhythm track onto Yes’s Trevor Horn-produced 1983 hit, which you sense has been done by someone with some modicum of respect for the original. (Indeed, Graham has been quoted as saying that “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is his favourite track of all time, hence this “tribute”.) There’s not much more to it other than some looping of the main guitar riff, which fits right into the Deep Dish/Bodyrockers idiom of the day, and a couple of extended bridge/breakdown sections. Actually, it’s the first of these two breakdowns which I take exception to: building the tension up and up and up, leading you to think that something really exciting is going to happen, and then… oh, it’s the second verse. Bit of a waste, really. (6)

Hot Hot Heat – Goodnight Goodnight

The best defence you can make of Hot Hot Heat’s take on late 1970s skinny-tied power pop revivalism (oh, stifle those yawns) is that, having staked their claim a couple of years ahead of the pack, there is at least some vague sense of entitlement. Godfathers of the genre, or something. So let’s try and be nice. This is cheeky and snappy and snotty and radio-friendly, with a winning melody and a nice organ sound, and it’s all over quite quickly. Let it never be said that the Stylus UK Singles Jukebox hive-mind would ever discriminate against melodic guitar-based pop. (6)

Javine – Touch My Fire

With the strongest British Eurovision entry since Imaani’s “Where Are You” in 1998, only two obstacles stand in the way of Our Javine (formerly Poor Javine) and total victory in Kiev on Saturday night. Firstly: ancient Eurovision Anorak Lore dictates that no song drawn in second position on the night will ever go on to win the contest. (The “position of doom”, they call it.) Secondly: with at least four (if not five) other entries all rocking the exact same Fusion Of Eastern And Western Influences vibe, there is the distinct danger that Poor Javine (for it is her) may well get buried in the rush. Can only another Nipplegate incident save her now? (8)

Jennifer Lopez ft Fat Joe – Hold You Down

Any tune which has the discerning good taste to sample Roger “Zapp” Troutman’s composition/production for Shirley Murdoch, the sublime “As We Lay”, gets an automatic bye from me. With both J-Lo and Mariah Carey putting out solid material this year, the old certainties are tumbling around us like fragments of the old Berlin Wall. Oh happy dawn! That we should live to see the day! (7)

Mylo – In My Arms

On my way back from lunch not long ago, this popped up on my iPod just as I was crossing the big public square in the middle of the city. The sun was out, the people looked happy, and all felt right with the world. As my steps fell into synch with the track, so my eyes started jump-cutting between buildings and passers-by, doing one of those little personalised location shoots that you sometimes do when you’re out on your own. Then, as the familiar Kim Carnes sample kicked in, and fresh memories of the heart-warming boy-meets-girl Groundhog Day video started to superimpose themselves over my own visuals, a surging feeling of all-consuming bliss welled up inside me, sending cold shivers to my spine and hot tears to my eyes. Mugged by the unexpected, I allowed myself a broad, beaming smile and kept on walking up the pedestrianised alleyway back to the office, silently ecstatic, as both my inner and outer realities fused into one moment of luminous transcendence. So, ten points then. Bland my arse. (10)

New Order ft Ana Matronic – Jetstream

Did you ever invent imaginary groups when you were little? ‘Cos I had loads – including The Poppy Band, and their debut hit “Nefertiti (So Good To Me)”. Quite how New Order have managed to rip off the chorus of this song so thoroughly, I will never know – but rip it off they have, the evil telepathic memory-sucking bastards. Tempo, melody, rhyming structure, everything. Compare and contrast the following, if you will. Female backing vocals are in brackets.

The Poppy Band: “Nefertiti (Nefertiti), so good to me (so good to me).”
New Order: “J.E.T (J.E.T), you are so good for me (you are so good for me).”

Spooked? Too bloody right I’m spooked. I reckon it’s all that Ms. Matronic’s doing. I met her just before the Scissor Sisters became famous, and she seemed so nice. Little did I know that she was illegally downloading from my subsconscious into hers, even as I was complementing her on her band’s demo MP3s. Guess it cuts both ways, then. (7)

Oasis – Lyla

Scoff all you like, but Oasis are one of my guilty pleasures. Impossible to explain why, but there’s something about the sheer brass-necked obviousness of their musical thievery, and their brazen “best rock band in the world” arrogance, which I actually find quite endearing. Thus every few years, when Noel gives his statutory “best album since Definitely Maybe” interview, I always find myself longing for it to be true, and making every possible allowance in the process. And so it is with “Lyla”, whose thrilling musical innovation stems from a) a mildly diverting rhythmic twist in the chorus, which they then proceed to repeat as often as they can get away with, and b) ripping off the Stones rather than the Beatles for a change. Specifically “Street Fighting Man”. Yes, that’s Disc 1, Track 1 of the 40 Licks compilation, about 15 seconds in. Hey, why waste time looking any further? That’s for pretentious tossers, that is. Blur would do that. (Oh, and the title! Genius or what? What’s next: Glora? Jula? Ange?) Anyway, I fully expect to see a sea of zeroes from the rest of the panel, but I DON’T FOOKIN CARE, because this is going to be FOOKIN NUMBER ONE ANYWAY, so WHO GIVES A FOOK WHAT YOU THINK? (7)

Rob Thomas – Lonely No More

American readers might be surprised to learn that, like Modest Mouse and the Dave Matthews Band, Rob Thomas’s Matchbox 20 are virtually unknown in the UK, with the only real recognition factor coming from his collaboration with Carlos Santana on “Smooth”. Nevertheless, there is some serious promotional push behind this, as Thomas is given the full Priority Marketing treatment in a concerted attempt to catapult him into our hearts. I can’t see it happening, though. There hasn’t been much call for this type of amiably blokey sports-bar blues/rock since Men At Work split up and the Knopfler brothers went their separate ways, and while this might pass muster at low volume during Happy Hour at Hooters, I can’t see it making any further inroads than that. I’m going to be proved so wrong, aren’t I? (4)

Trick Daddy – Sugar

They gave us seventeen singles to review this week, you know. Seventeen! I do think they could safely have omitted this witless slop, though. After all, “Candy Shop” is still in the charts, and the Black Eyed Peas are already on this week’s list. Stick the knickers-knackers-knockers slobbering of the former over the fake jollity of the latter, and you’re pretty much all the way there. Gerroff! Rubbish! (2)

Turin Brakes – Fishing For A Dream 

Winsome, wistful, suffocatingly agreeable folksy acoustic strumalong, of no particular consequence. Not that I’m averse to folksy acoustic strumalongs in any way, but Kings Of Convenience do this sort of thing so much better. (And so did Ben & Jason, for that matter. Anyone remember them?) (5)

Stevie Wonder – So What The Fuss 

A return to form in so many ways, as Stevie evokes the glories of his mid-1970s peak with a satisfyingly taut, gritty funk workout. With guests including a reunited En Vogue doo-doo-doo-ing away in the background, and no less a figure than Prince on guitar, contributing what can only be described as (forgive me) Tasty Licks, everything about this spells Major Artistic Comeback – and not before time, either. Unfortunately, this largely successful referencing of Wonder’s “message” era does not extend to the finger-wagging lyrics, which take preachy pot-shots at a fairly random shopping list of targets, linked only by the phrase “shame on you”. Without any kind of unifying principle to link these complaints together, the effect encroaches dangerously upon Grumpy Old Men territory. Musically hot but lyrically not, this is still Wonder’s best work in many years. (7)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 9th May 2005

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on May 9, 2005

Doves – Snowden

As someone who normally runs a mile from anything so avowedly Big and Important, I am at a loss to articulate exactly why the widescreen, windswept cragginess of the Doves gets through to me, where all the others fall by the wayside. I suppose it must be something to do with their intuitive grasp of dynamics, and the particular ways they find to shape their sound, and I suppose that this might have something to do with their background in studio-based dance music, as opposed to the usual gigging circuit. Whatever it is, this is as gloriously sweeping and epic as ever, with a swooshing synth motif that puts me in mind of late 1970s Genesis. But in a good way. (8)

The Futureheads – Decent Days And Nights

Having originally found their debut album a little hard to take in one sitting, I’m now loving The Futureheads as a singles act. Separated from its slightly too samey surroundings, this takes on a whole new potency, making me wish that I’d come to all of the band’s material in the same way. Best of all – and just when you thought that the mathematical combinations had all been exhausted for good – there’s the return of our old friend, the Two Chord Killer Riff. Add this to an naggingly catchy tune and some fetching call-and-response harmonies, and you have yourself a dinky little slice of skinny-tied, knotty-browed, twitchy-kneed, punky-pop perfection. (9)

The Game ft 50 Cent – Hate It Or Love It

Oh Gawd, don’t tell me I’ve got to unravel another of those Big Hip Hop Feud back-stories, before I can begin to form a proper appreciation of the track? Because my head’s still hurting from having to deconstruct “Like Toy Soldiers”, and I just can’t go through all of that again. So, yeah, I dare say that this reconciliation between the two formerly warring parties (have I at least got that bit right?) is all immensely Significant and stuff – but to me it just sounds like routine biggin-up-me-dick braggadocio, set over a rather fetching Stax-style sample whose easy melodicism sits rather at odds with all the wearisome aggression on display. (5)

Gorillaz – Feel Good Inc.

Tell me, have you ever met anyone who actually gets the Gorillaz? Who is charmed by the concept, and enthralled by the genre-defying blend of styles, signs and signifiers? Who can barely wait for the new album to drop? No, me neither. I fundamentally do not get them, on any level. One reasonably jolly single a few years ago, that seven-year olds liked to jump and down to, and that was it for me. As for everything else, it just sounds like loads of bits and pieces all shoved together, that were never meant to be shoved together. Like snail porridge. Or bacon and egg ice-cream. (Does this make Damon Albarn the Heston Blumenthal of post-modernist pop?) (5)

Daryl Hall & John Oates – I’ll Be Around

Critical objectivity be damned: the long dormant flick-wedge white-socks-n-loafers soul boy within me is fucking digging on this, mate. Taken from a covers album of mainly early 1970s soul classics which is supposed to “shed light on their formative influences” (if you say so, boys), this beautifully sung, sumptuously constructed, painstakingly respectful re-working of the old Detroit Spinners hit adds/subtracts precisely zero to/from our appreciation of the original, and could therefore easily be dismissed as high-class cabaret, but, you know, so bloody what? It entertains me, and even moves me a little, and sometimes that’s all you need. (8)

Juliette & The Licks – You’re Speaking My Language

Now listen up, Missy Lewis, and listen good. So we think we’re channelling the spirit of Courtney Love, do we? Extending the franchise and building the brand, are we? Well, I’ve got a little list for you. Bruce Willis. Keanu Reeves. Minnie Driver. Robert Downey Junior. It never works, does it? Never. Not ever. So what makes you think you’re going to buck the trend all of a sudden? You might want to take that thought back to your “people”. Yes, run along now. No, give me the mike. We’ve suffered enough. (1)

 

Lemon Jelly – Make Things Right

This is the aural equivalent of stepping out of a nice warm bath, wrapping yourself in a big white fluffy bath towel (freshly laundered, with proper fabric conditioner and everything, straight from your mother’s airing cupboard), and hugging yourself tightly, while a reassuring voice inside your head tells you that yes, everything really is going to be OK. Except, that is, for an unexpected section towards the end, where all the steadily accumulated, softly undulating layers of bliss drop sharply away, exposing a dark pit of anxiety beneath. The way that you are gently steered away from this pit, and led back into the sunlit uplands above, makes the final restatement of the central melodic motifs all the more life-affirming. (And you thought Lemon Jelly were just a clever-clever chill-out turn for the post-clubbing urban bourgeoisie?) (9)

Kelly Osbourne – One Word

An almost note-for-note rewrite of Visage’s “Fade To Grey” – complete with an impenetrably po-faced new lyric, and lashings of suitably “arty” (if equally incomprehensible) mutterings in yer actual French – which, rather like pouty-faced strop-pot Miss Osbourne herself, manages to be both utterly preposterous and strangely captivating at the same time. (But Kelly, all those synths! And not a guitar in sight! We thought you wuz a Rebel Rockah! Are you trying to break your poor father’s heart?) (7)

Praise Cats ft Andrea Love – Shined On Me

What, this old thing? Really, hasn’t it been out before? I mean, I barely even go out clubbing any more, and even I know this one. And I bet you do too. Yes you do – it’s the happy-clappy gospelly one, with the early 1990s hollering disco diva, which goes “I’ve got peace, deep in my soul, I’ve got lurrrrve, making me whole, since you opened up your heart and shined (sic) on me”, over and over and over again. Yeah, right, that one. I know! Whiskers on it or what! Anyway, it’s a pleasant if slight confection, more of a steady repeated groove than anything else, with no melodic or rhythmic development to speak of, but with some nifty bass runs and jazzy organ licks along the way to stop boredom from setting in. (Is it time for the fluffy bras/silver trousers handbag house revival yet, by the way? Oh come on, why not?) (6)

Cliff Richard – What Car

Suffering Stratocasters, what fresh folly is this? Recorded in Nashville for added “authenticity”, this bizarre country-rockin’ attempt to connect with the Uncut-reading Sounds Of The New West constituency has cheeky Sir Cliff regaling us with a story (dragged out to the point of tedium) of “borrowing” his Daddy’s car behind his back in order to impress a girl, wrecking the car by crashing it into a tree, absconding from the scene of the accident, and then cheerfully denying all knowledge of it – all delivered with an extended “haven’t I been a naughty boy?” wink to the audience. But oh, Cliff! What kind of example are you setting today’s impressionable Saga generation? Stealing? From your own dear, sweet silver-haired father? Showing off, presumably for nefarious purposes? Driving without due care and attention? Being the cause of a serious road incident, and failing to report it to the proper authorities? Then, worst of all, lying about it? And getting away with it? And then boasting to us about it? Whatever happened to “Honour thy Father and Mother”, Cliff? If we can’t look to you for moral guidance any more, then truly we are lost as a nation. Repent! Repent! (4)

System Of A Down – BYOB

Difficult as it is to offer meaningful commentary on a genre from which I feel so culturally and generationally disconnected (are we even supposed to be calling this stuff “nu-metal” these days?), repeated listens find me swiftly progressing from lughole-covering bafflement, to a fond respect which teeters on the brink of outright pleasure. One of the major barriers to be crossed with stuff like this is the need to adjust to an altogether different level of musical/emotional intensity. As with hardcore techno, what initially sounds like an unsustainably full-tilt extreme is in fact the norm. If you relax and accept it as such, and let it welcome rather than intimidate you, then there is plenty to observe, admire and ultimately enjoy. Just don’t make me sit through a whole album of it, that’s all. (I am old. It wouldn’t be right.) (7)

KT Tunstall – Other Side Of The World

There’s some convoluted metaphor going on here about icebergs, and water, and melting, and distance, and… well, I’m fucked if I can make any sense out of it, to be honest. Take the meaning away, and you’re left with a rather insipid piece of soft-rocking AOR balladry, that would doubtless fit in nicely between Shawn Colvin and Dido on Radio 2’s “drivetime” slot. (Corks, it’s all a bit Adult Contemporary this week, isn’t it? Has the supply of post-punk influenced NME guitar bands finally run dry?) (4)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 2nd May 2005

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on May 2, 2005

The Dears – 22: The Death Of All The Romance

A well orchestrated dramatic duet between two unhappy lovers—desperately clinging onto the wreckage of their relationship, fatally locked into a kind of shared conspiracy of denial—the likes of which (in stylistic terms at least) haven’t been heard in the charts since “The Ballad Of Tom Jones”. Although both singers stretch themselves slightly beyond their natural limits, this has the effect of lending a roughly hewn authenticity to the performance, which only serves to increase its power. (9)

The Killers – Smile Like You Mean It 

Not unless you sing it like you mean it, mate. We’re into umpteenth-single-off-the-album diminishing-returns territory here, aren’t we? Difficult to imagine Killers fans going “OH MY GOD IT’S THIS ONE!” at gigs, and punching their fists in the air in recognition, and doing whatever else it is that Killers fans do in such situations (as you can probably tell, I’m having difficulty entering the mindset). It’s too much of a droopy plodder, cautious and conservative in construction, hemmed in by self-imposed limitations, and with a slight but telling weariness in its overly brief chorus, which falls a few steps short of the poignancy that the song half-heartedly seeks to evoke. (4)

Lucie Silvas – The Game Is Won

Regardless of which reality TV pop contest is commissioned next, one thing is certain. At some point during one of the early audition shows, Ant or Dec will introduce a cleverly spliced VT montage, in which a whole sequence of female contestants will be shown remorselessly belting out strained, over-cooked, nearly identical versions of “The Game Is Won”. There will be cuts to shots of Simon Cowell burying his head in his hands, or of Pete Waterman groaning “God, not this one AGAIN.” Because not only is this one of those songs which are all about striving, and being poised on the brink of a breakthrough, and struggling against self-doubt, and believing in your dream and stuff, it is also performed in that particular style—heavy on technique, crammed with ornate embellishments—which so many reality TV hopefuls try so very hard to emulate. Taken on its own terms, this more than adequately fulfils its brief. Taken on the terms which you or I might prefer to employ, it’s little more than a tolerable irrelevance. (5)