Album reviews: Drake – More Life, The Jesus And Mary Chain – Damage And Joy, and more

Also Depeche Mode – Spirit, Janka Nabay – Build Music, and The Moonlandingz – Interplanetary Class Classics

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The Independent Culture

Drake, More Life: A Playlist By October Firm

★★★★☆

Download this: Passionfruit; Madiba Riddim; Sacrifices; Glow

With the music biz still pondering the implications of the blanket Sheeran-isation of the singles chart through the incorporation of streaming, the whole issue threatens to get further out of hand with the appearance of Drake’s latest release, which in commercial terms has summarily swept wee Ed aside with a haughty shrug of its digital shoulders. Where Sheeran’s Divide accumulated a mere 56.7 million Spotify streams on the day of its release, Drake’s More Life racked up 61.3 million; and that’s not counting Apple Music, where Drake’s single-day tally of almost 90 million streams bested Ed’s by some 30 million.

I have no idea how this translates into earnings, but I suppose there must still be a few pence kicking around even after the servers have served themselves. What it does confirm, however, is the extraordinary popularity of the Canadian R&B star – especially given that More Life isn’t actually considered an album, but a “playlist” intended to “bridge the gap between major releases”, according to Drake. In other words, something more akin to a mix album, with plenty of guests dropping by to chip in a verse or a rap, over 80 minutes’ worth of grooves and beats sculpted by a veritable army of producers. Pleasingly, two of the best are British, Sampha capping “4422” with an emotive outburst, and Skepta getting an entire “Skepta Interlude” to himself to muse about how he “died and came back as Fela Kuti”.

Elsewhere, the likes of Giggs, Young Thug and 2 Chainz add furtive but menacing sketches of thug life to tracks like “No Long Talk” and “Sacrifices”, the latter offering Drake’s most elegant mea culpa for past transgressions: “I made sacrifices, I been ballin’ ever since/I did some wrong, I had no choice, in my defence/Someone watching over, I’m convinced/So shout goes out to Him”. But Drake’s forte is seduction, smoothly negotiated here in the duet “Get It Together” and urgent “Teenage Fever” (“I ain’t scared, and she ain’t, either”), although his best efforts with the slinky boudoir croon of “Passionfruit” prove less successful in preventing his lover leaving, as the backing track dissolves at various points, like sink-hole lacunae of despair. Though as he claims in the infectious “Madiba Riddim”, “my heart is way too frozen to get broken”.

He’s still not happy, though. Of course, it wouldn’t be an R&B/hip-hop album without a few grumpy reflections on envy and ambition, so it’s no surprise to find the 22 tracks bookended by digs at haters – “I am a reflection of all your insecurities”, etc – while on “Fake Love” he comes across like R&B’s Donald Trump, all-powerful yet still paranoid and reproachful. Maybe he should heed the advice of his mother, who delivers a morale-boosting call on “Can’t Have Everything”, recommending that “when others go low, we go high”. Mom knows best, clearly.

The Jesus And Mary Chain, Damage And Joy

★★★☆☆

Download this: War On Peace; All Things Pass; Songs For A Secret

“I hate my brother, and he hates me – that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” sings Jim Reid on “Facing Up To The Facts”, a re-statement of the classic rock’n’roll sibling rivalry not borne out by Damage And Joy, which sounds more peaceably focused than previous Mary Chain releases. There’s not quite as intense a contrast between the sweetness of the melodies and the antagonistic howls of guitar feedback on this first album in 18 years, which allows the swaggering pop charm of tracks like “Songs For A Secret” and “All Things Pass” to work their magic in less edgy manner. The essential elements are all in order on tracks such as “Get On Home”: a puttering drum-machine, a waspish thread of guitar and a swirl of distortion, allied to abrasive attitude: “I got a heart full of evil, a soul full of rock’n’roll”. But yearning heartbreak has always figured heavily in their worldview too, most potently in the damaged balladry of “War On Peace”.

Depeche Mode, Spirit

★★☆☆☆

Download this: You Move; So Much Love; Cover Me

On Spirit, Depeche Mode get serious and political, which doesn’t really suit them. They’re fine on romance and pervy urges and dark nights of the soul, but hearing Dave Gahan on “Poorman” attacking big corporations for the failure of the trickle-down economy just seems crass and absurd. Likewise, the sub-Devo critique of “Going Backwards” (“we have not evolved, we have no respect, we have lost control”) confronts mankind’s loss of soul without the salvaging wit of “Are We Not Men?”. They fare better with the simple desire and dance of “You Move” and “So Much Love”, driven by a pounding Suicide-style synth-motor pulse; and the chilly Northern Lights tableau “Cover Me” pleasingly recalls Yello’s widescreen soundscapes. But elsewhere, the ticking beats and dark synth washes of “Where’s The Revolution” are wasted on a track stating the bleeding obvious about truth and lies; while the brittle electro antipathy of “Poison Heart” and “Scum” just seems plain nasty.

Janka Nabay​, Build Music 

★★★☆☆

Download this: Build Music; Santa Monica; Bubu Dub

Following the Luaka Bop label’s rediscovery of Afro-electro pioneer William Onyeabor, Build Music presents the comparable work of Janka Nabay, a Sierra Leonean who, following initial success in the Nineties, fled his homeland for America during the war. Nabay’s innovation was to take the country’s traditional processional music, Bubu, and transpose its bamboo flute lines to electronic keyboards, the staccato melodies and fluting pump-organ tones stippled with fast, popping cowbell and other metallic percussion which, on “Game Ova”, sounds like the lid rattling on a boiling pot. “Build Music” is a fast, scuttling riff of loping bass and stabbing organ, its call-and-response lyric celebrating the act of making music; while on “Santa Monica”, an itchy but fluid guitar motif is threaded into the groove, as Nabay protests LAPD harassment – “Investigation, interrogation, yea!” – like Fela Kuti recounting oppression in a less balmy clime. But crucially, the backing vocals still sparkle lightly despite the heavy hand of the law.

The Moonlandingz, Interplanetary Class Classics 

★★★★☆

Download this: Vessels; Sweet Saturn Mine; IDS; This Cities Undone

A meeting of minds between Eccentronic Research Council and Fat White Family, The Moonlandingz track the grubbier, less glamorous fringes of pop on Interplanetary Class Classics, but do it in impeccable guttersnipe style. Right from the lolloping big-beat Goth motorik of “Vessels”, there’s a confident, low-life muscularity to the album, partly recorded with Sean Lennon at his upstate New York studio. Tracks such as “Black Hanz” and “Sweet Saturn Mine” confront the burdens of desire and guilt (“I can be a vessel for your shame”) head-on, while there’s an echoey Velvets vibe to “The Strangle Of Anna”, like Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra doing “Sunday Morning”. Elsewhere, Ian Duncan Smith’s legacy is suitably honoured, over the tumbling psychedelic electro-pop of “IDS”, with the mordant chant “40,000 years of Job Club”. It all comes to a glorious head in the rolling maelstrom of “This Cities Undone”, with octogenarian Yoko wailing her berserk best over the massed title chant.

Craig Finn, We All Want The Same Things

★★☆☆☆

Download this: Preludes; God In Chicago; Tangletown

Craig Finn’s third album is full of his trademark Springsteen-esque tales of crumbling reminiscences and dashed hopes, in which characters called Nathan, Janie, Jester and June meet up again years after their glory days. It’s an essay in transience: “I came back to St Paul, but things had progressed and grown strange,” he notes in the autobiographical “Preludes”, with friends leaving for hipper cities, while he stays and gets mugged. Starting as a piano-accompanied poem, “God In Chicago” deals with disposing of a dead friend’s possessions, involving momentary meetings with old acquaintances who can’t wait to get away. As he observes in “Rescue Blues”, “I guess we all get by in different ways”. It’s all a bit depressing, and not helped by the plodding music, which sags back into plonking piano quadruplets and dissatisfying, baggy sax, leavened by the occasional squall of guitar. Finn should perhaps take his own advice from “Tangletown”, and try to “hang around some finer things”.

The Residents, The Ghost Of Hope

★★★☆☆

Download this: Horrors Of The Night; Death Harvest; The Great Circus Train Wreck Of 1918

A concept album about early American rail disasters, The Ghost Of Hope sounds more naturalistic than many Residents albums, with plenty of chugging engine noises, and strings summoning conventional tragedy, as grisly crashes are recounted in typically sinister Residential tones. But it’s punctuated by startling musical moments, such as the thunderous burst of bulldozer metal churning up the latter half of “Death Harvest”; and the poignant funfair tone underpinning “The Great Circus Train Wreck Of 1918”, a ghastly incident resulting in 56 carnies and performers being buried in Showmen’s Rest Graveyard in Illinois, eternally mourned by five stone elephants. There’s probably some underlying cautionary message about our weak grasp on the headlong rush of technology, but it’s all done with admirable attention to detail, and no shortfall of poetic empathy – as per the bodies in “Shroud Of Flames”, recognisable only by “fragments of their clothes, clinging to their limbless trunks like the scent around a rose”.

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