Friday, 29 June 2012

REVIEW: Friends - Manifest!

*Originally published for the Oxford Music Blog (29/6/12)

Brooklyn’s Friends are the new funk-punks of pop, the crème de la crème of cool and, quite literally, the kind of people you want to be friends with. Stick on their debut album, Manifest!, and you’ll feel that little bit closer to their world of street parties, hedonism and don’t-give-a-fuck mantras. With last year’s, ‘I’m His Girl’, going sonic on the blogosphere, have the five piece lived up to all the hype?

Coincidentally, opener ‘Friend Crush’ is all about vocalist Samantha Urbani’s unabashed desire for friendship: “I want to be your friend, I want to ask your advice on a weekday, I want to plan something nice for the weekend.” It’s this honesty that makes her just so damn cool – sassy vocals surfing over growling bass lines and drums burning with her desire to kick start a new relationship. ‘Sorry’ is very Vampire Weekend-esque, with fluttering synths, bouncing cow bells and alternating ‘ooh/ahs’ making it also instantly likeable and soft on the ears.

As expected with a band from Brooklyn, there are the token 80s moments. ‘A Thing Like This’ is a lethargic regurgitation of effects-laden New Order guitars, RnB-kissed vocals and disco synths. The lullaby-like ‘Stay Dreaming’ is just as retro in its sound, with its lush new wave textures beaming Cocteau Twins’ ethereal sound.

Buzz-song, ‘I’m His Girl’, effortlessly demands your attention with a thumbed bass circling Urbani’s half-rapped/half-sung vocals: “When you see me walking around with him, I’m not just another chick, I’m his girl.” Rhythm lies at the heart of the song, with more of Lesley Hann’s bossy bass lines thumping against the rest of the troupe’s jungle percussion.

Unfortunately, Friends’ authenticity crumbles at ‘Ruins’ (pun intended). Two minutes of painfully try-hard thrashy and trashy post-punk spoil the preceding chic of the earlier tracks and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, you’d be forgiven for thinking a 90s J-Lo song had gatecrashed the party in ‘Ideas of Ghosts’, with its Mediterranean guitars and pulsating bass. But at the same time there’s something quite captivating about Urbani’s unearthly wails.

Towards the end of the album, ‘Proud/Ashamed’ challenges the idea that Friends are all about rhythm. Close harmonies coo over oscillating synths and it doesn’t sound unlike Braids with its dream pop progressions and netted vocals.

But it’s ‘Van Fan Gor Du’ that really shows Friends at their best. Fresh funk pop seeps from every snare snap, hand clap or call-and-response shout. This, along with the muddy bass and bongo drums of ‘Mind Control’, sums up everything about the band. Fun.

Friends aren’t reinventing music on Manifest! or swallowing fifteen minutes of buzz-fame. They’re just hosting a party, and everyone’s invited.


Sunday, 24 June 2012

LIVE: Suzanne Vega @ The Sage, Gateshead

*Originally published for The Journal newspaper (21/6/12)

Suzanne Vega is quite the veteran performer, with 27 years' experience on and off the road.

But for all her wisdom, she took to the stage of Hall One with the playfulness of youth, top hat at a jaunty angle for 'Marlene On The Wall' and oak-smoked vocals resonating with warmth.

The first half hour of the set was littered with early hits, including delicate guitars and heavy metaphors in 'Small Blue Thing.'  The audience seemed gently lulled by these folky numbers, which lent themselves to Vega's conversational singing style.

But Vega's talents do not stop there. Slotting a fake cigarette between her fingers and losing her guitar, she suddenly transformed herself into Carson McCullers, the ambitious protagonist of her musical, Carson McCullers Talks About Love. She confidently presented a trio of Broadway-like tunes, but they seemed a little humdrum and out of place.

'Blood Makes Noise' is a strange number live. Vega danced trance-like, while her pal on guitar looped effects frantically for an industrial-rock sound. By experimental standards, the song was brave and sounded fresh 20 years on, but it jarred noticeably against her earlier acoustic work.

After the catchy chorus and rhythms of 'Tom's Diner', Vega once again brandished her mighty acoustic. 'Some Journey' and 'Luka' really charmed the audience at the set's close with full-bodied guitars and glorious, chiming vocals.

Clearly, it is her early work that still pleases audiences most.

FEATURE: Ninetails

*Originally published for The Generator's 'Tipping Point' blog (29/5/12)

Ninetails are certainly creating a buzz on the underground music scene, but that’s no thanks to their Pokémon-fuelled title. With extensive plays on BBC 6 Music, an EP sold out within two weeks, a record deal with Superstar Destroyer and support slots with Alt-J, Three Trapped Tigers, Errors, Dutch Uncles and Jonquil, it looks like the Liverpool bunch are set for great things.

Their latest single, ‘Blue Bottle Flu’ is tantamount to the hype, with an impulsive I-want-to-click-the-replay-button motion kicking in before the song has finished. At its opening, a slender delayed guitar kisses muted strings before math-rock percussion and angular bass rhythms splash at every direction. It’s very, very Antidotes-era Foals – as much as the band may squeal at such comparison – but that’s nothing to be disheartened about. In fact, to achieve a sound that projects as much musical precision as Foals but bears arguably richer melodies is something to be proud of.

Further still, when you think you have the jist of the song, the foursome takes you on another journey for the remaining thirty seconds. Balmy string slides and celestial harmonies seem a whole world away from the electrifying throbs, crashes and scurrying guitars of the preceding few minutes and the juxtaposition is an absolute joy to listen to.

Ninetails are surely set to get the recognition they deserve.