MusicRadar album round-up: Feb 2011
14th Feb 2011 | 17:04
MusicRadar new album round-up
As we’re sure you’re all aware, for some time now MusicRadar has been bringing you in-depth track-by-track reviews of some of the bigger album releases that we think will interest you musicians.
But, just like you lot, we're all music fans as much as we are musicians, so we thought it was high-time we ramped up our album coverage a bit. From now on we’ll be bringing you a regular round-up of some of the most interesting and noteworthy albums releases each month, giving you our verdict on each and letting you see what’s been on our stereo over the past few weeks.
So click through to check out what February has to offer, and don’t forget to keep it locked to MusicRadar in the coming weeks for more track-by-track reviews of the biggest album releases and reissues that you can’t afford to miss.
And, as ever, we want to hear from you. Use the comments section below, Facebook and Twitter to let us know what you've been listening to, what releases you're excited about and what you think of our verdict on things.
First up: James Blake - James Blake
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James Blake - James Blake
Debut album from the fast-rising young musician & producer who was featured in our artists to watch list last month and came second in the BBC’s Sound Of 2011 poll.
In some ways James Blake’s debut album is a bit of an odd proposition. During the course of 2010 Blake shot to acclaim in UK dance music circles thanks to a string of accomplished and impressive dubstep-influenced electronic singles.
Yet this first full length - most of which was written well before any of his previous releases - sees him eschew dance beats and sampled vocals in favour of piano-led, singer-songwriter territory.
But while the LP is dominated by Blake’s (undeniably strong) singing voice, it’s still his abilities as a producer that shine through and impress most. Throughout he underpins his songs with brooding basslines and minimal drum parts that still betray the influence Blake takes from dubstep.
His previously released Feist cover, Limit To Your Love, is easily the albums most accessible song. But it’s some of the less immediate tracks like The Wilhelm Scream and Lindesfarne I & II that stand-out for their minimal, drone-like synth parts and processed vocals.
Blake’s vocals, both in terms of lyrics and abrasive production, are likely to divide opinion. But however you look at it James Blake has certainly marked himself out as one of the UK’s most interesting and exciting young artists and has produced an album that is definitely an essential listen.
Listen: James Blake - The Wilhelm Scream
Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Seventh full-length album from the Scottish instrumental-rock behemoths. Effects pedals at the ready ladies and gentlemen…
Mogwai are one of those bands that have got to a stage in their career where they can do little wrong in the eyes of their fans (and deservedly so). Let’s be honest, Mogwai could release an album of unlistenable atonal cat-beating and people would still be glad just to be holding a new Mogwai record in their mitts.
Fortunately, 15 years into their career the guitar-heavy post-rockers still have a lot to offer. It’s fair to say that few bands out there can work distortion and delay effects in the way that Mogwai’s three guitarists Stuart Braithwaite, John Cummings and Barry Burns can.
Sure, Hardcore Will Never Die… doesn't feel quite as essential as their ‘classic’ LPs, but there is certainly no shortage of interesting moments.
The repetitive bass riff on Mexican Grand Prix stands out, sounding like Mogwai’s take on The Fall, and it’s one of the rare songs in Mogwai’s catalogue where the band use vocals to add an extra layer to their wall of sound. While the strings on Too Raging To Cheers add an air of Godspeed You! Black Emperor into the mix.
Listen: Mogwai - Mexican Grand Prix
The Streets - Computers And Blues
The fifth, and reportedly final, album from Mike Skinner as The Streets.
Despite the ‘blues’ in its title, The Streets’ (supposed) swan-song is a relatively upbeat affair. The sense of tension that characterised a lot of Skinner’s earlier albums has mostly given way for a general sense of optimism.
The ‘computers’ part is more apt, however. In terms of production Skinner skilfully crafts his songs out of GarageBand loops and often recognisable softsynths, while a certain amount of chiptune influence can be detected throughout. Lyrically also, the album is very much set in the computer age - standout track OMG is a lovesong about Facebook relationship statuses.
Computers and Blues has a decent amount of strong moments, but is a little hit-and-miss overall. With age and optimism Skinner has lost the urgency that was present in The Streets’ excellent debut Original Pirate Material. In all, a nice coda to The Streets’ career, but also an appropriate point to call it a day.
Listen: The Streets - OMG
Bright Eyes - The People's Key
Cult indie/folk band made-good, led by acclaimed singer-songwriter and Saddle Creek Records founder Conor Oberst. The People’s Key may or may not be their final album.
The People’s Key sees Oberst and co. making a conscious move away from the stripped-down Americana sound that they’ve long been known for. Here we find them in more polished, plugged-in territory (not for the first time, see also 2004's Digital Ash In A Digital Urn).
In terms of lyrics, Oberst seems to have all but abandoned the literate, story-teller style of songwriting that won him so many fans earlier in his career. Throughout The People’s Key he seems to favour largely incomprehensible verses full of references to religious conspiracies and Rastafarianism. That said, this far into his career Oberst is undoubtedly a very accomplished songsmith, and these talents still shine through on much of the album.
The real hero here, however, is Oberst’s long-term sidekick, producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis. With the abandonment of their folky roots Mogis really gets to go to town with interesting production tricks - layering up country-esque guitar licks with rhythmic keyboards and multi-tracked vocals in a way that really complements Oberst’s often-baffling vocals.
Listen: Bright Eyes - The Ladder Song
Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX - We're New Here
Jamie Smith, producer, beat-maker and one third of last year’s Mercury winners The XX remixes I'm New Here, the 2010 comeback album from spoken word/soul artist Gil Scott-Heron.
As anyone familiar with The XX’s spectacular 2009 debut album will no-doubt be aware, Jamie Smith is an incredibly talented young producer.
Over the past few months, with The XX off duty, Smith has taken a bit of a sidestep into the world of club DJing and dance production, yielding some intermittently strong results (check out his excellent remix of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep). This remix LP, however, confirms our suspicions that Jamie is at his best when he’s got some proper instruments, vocals and drum beats to get his teeth into.
Overall, We’re New Here is streets ahead of the vast majority of remix albums out there. Smith has successfully kept much of the soulful, dark feel of the original record - reworking select tracks from I’m New Here and mixing in selections of unreleased material from Scott Heron’s earlier years.
Smith turns Gil Scott Heron’s spoken-word jazz into, in turn, laid back house (Your Soul And Mine), bass-heavy floorfillers (NY Is Killing Me) and XX-esque minimal pop (I’ll Take Care Of U). Highly recommended.
Listen: Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX - NY Is Killing Me
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Much-acclaimed British singer-songwriter Polly Jean Harvey returns with her eighth solo-album.
Polly Harvey’s songwriting has always been focused around her imaginative, often poetic lyrical abilities. This time around, however, Harvey seems to be writing on a grander scale. On Let England Shake she crafts songs around of cast of characters that span a decade of history, using the battles of Gallipoli during the First World War as a repeated touchstone.
Here Harvey - joined by regular contributors John Parish and Mick Harvey - uses her talents as a musician and a variety of production tricks to fully emphasis the themes of war and nationality that run throughout the album.
She combines a variety of different guitar sounds, and her newly found penchant for the autoharp, to draw upon a whole history of classic protest music. Across the album Harvey sonically touches upon the political folk of Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the literate punk of The Clash and Elvis Costello, roots reggae and the anti-establishment artiness of Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground.
In production terms, Let England Shake is full of little touches used to emphasise the military themes of her writing. She fleshes out tracks with marching drum patterns, regal-sounding horn sections and - on The Glorious Land - out of sync bugle calls.
Let England Shake is likely to be held up among the pinnacles of PJ Harvey’s already impressive career.