Album reviews: Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up, Beth Ditto - Fake Sugar, Royal Blood - How Did We Get So Dark?

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, Can, Songhoy Blues, and Floraleda​

Andy Gill
Wednesday 14 June 2017 16:59
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Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up

★★★★☆

Download: I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar; Third Of May/Odaigahara; Fool’s Errand; I Should See Memphis

Possibly the most self-effacing (successful) musician I’ve ever interviewed, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold couldn’t imagine fans wanting anything more from the band after 2011’s Helplessness Blues, and consequently retreated from the music world for several years. Part of the hiatus was spent studying at Columbia University, a move that has not exactly moderated his earlier tendency towards abstruse intellectualism and hifalutin classical/historical allusions.

Quite the opposite: Crack-Up is replete with references to Roman treachery, American Civil War battles and Goya paintings, while a pair of successive tracks are stiltedly titled “Cassius, -” and “- Naiads, Cassadies”. And just when you think a song is finished, it usually sprouts a contrasting instrumental section, if not an entirely different sub-song, to conclude. Take the opener “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar”, where Pecknold’s quite, murmured vocal and desultory guitar is suddenly assailed after about a minute by rousing Mumford-esque folk-rockery, thereafter switching back and forth between contrasting vocal “characters”, one just wanting to sleep, the other demanding a steelier regard for the world beyond.

This Janus-faced, schizoid attitude suggests one interpretation of the album title, as the singer’s extrovert, bandleader past attempts to surmount his introvert, academic inclinations. Similarly, “On Another Ocean (January/June)” surely reflects upon his move from Seattle to an East Coast college, a journey of which he eventually realises, “Wherever you run, you see all you leave behind you lies inside”. Throughout this intensely poetic, introspective album, currents of guilt, regret and resolution battle in quiet turbulence, the group’s trademark harmonies and acoustic folk settings augmented with additional sonic strata, from the closing coda of piano, woodwind and strings riding the martial beat of “Cassius, -”, and the gentle, burnished swells of brass and wispy violins left stranded at the end of “Mearcstapa”, to the welter of looming industrial drones and indistinct vocal keening that concludes “I Should See Memphis”. It’s a curious counterbalance, these more expansive, experimental arrangements forcing the songs’ reclusive tendencies out into the open.

Ultimately, Crack-Up is an album about purpose, mutual support and reconciliation, nowhere better expressed than in “Third Of May/Odaigahara”, the complex, nine-minute song quixotically chosen as the first single. The title refers to the Goya painting celebrating resistance to Napoleon; but it’s also, apparently, the birthday of Skyler Skjelset, Pecknold’s bandmate, co-producer and lifelong best friend, separation from whom has clearly triggered the undertow of betrayal and regret coursing beneath the album’s surface. “Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?” muses Pecknold over miasmic strings, pounding piano and guitar. It’s as if, trapped in the quicksand of fatalism, he’s urgently seeking resolution through the reflection of his life in others: “To be held within one’s self is deathlike, oh I know/But all will be, for mine and me, as we make it”. And as Crack-Up confirms, things often work out so much better when we work with others.

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound

★★★★☆

Download: Last Of My Kind; Cumberland Gap; If We Were Vampires; Anxiety

There’s nothing particularly Nashville about Jason Isbell’s new album – no cowboy hats or keening steel guitars – but it does possess, in spades, the kind of blue-collar concerns that have traditionally furnished country music’s backbone. Isbell’s recent rise is down to the gritty acuity of his songwriting, exemplified here by “Cumberland Gap”, a blue-collar rocker in Springsteen style about escaping the bonds of inherited work traditions, and “Anxiety”, a grimly soulful account of depression which ends in clouds of guitar distortion. The latter is one of several songs, alongside “White Man’s World” and “Something To Love”, which reflect the worries brought by Isbell’s recent fatherhood, though he’s equally adept at giving voice to outsiders such as the wannabe-escapee to “Tupelo” and the misplaced rustic of “Last Of My Kind” (“Tried to go to college but I didn’t last long/Everything I said was either funny or wrong”). But the most touching song here is “If We Were Vampires”, a premature contemplation of the inevitable pain of bereavement.

Beth Ditto, Fake Sugar

★★★☆☆

Download: Fire; Ooh La La; Savoir Faire

Beth Ditto’s debut album is a bit of a mixed bag – no great surprise, given her openness to temper her indie-punk roots through previous collaborations with Simian Mobile Disco and even pop thoroughbred Brian Higgins’ Xenomania production team. This time around, she relies mainly on Jennifer Decilveo to realise her ideas, with occasional input from the likes of Jacknife Lee, with whom she co-wrote the simple but effective glam stomp “Ooh La La”. Her roots are most rousingly recalled on the big, blowsy opener “Fire”, whose predatory throb explodes into a chugging fuzz-rock boogie streaked with squalling guitars. Sadly, it’s the best thing here: stylistic variations like the title-track, with its folksy, pop-reggae twitch, and the routine Scandi-pop soundalike “Do You Want Me To?”, aren’t quite as capably handled, while the impassioned rocker “We Could Run” comes across as a wannabe-U2 mash of Edge-style guitar, dynamic build-up and windily meaningless sloganeering.

Royal Blood, How Did We Get So Dark?

★★☆☆☆

Download: How Did We Get So Dark?; She’s Creeping

The most successful second albums tend to reveal an artist’s broader strengths, whether it’s Led Zep stirring folk into the heavy rock of Led Zeppelin II, or The Band inventing Americana with The Band. Sadly, despite the occasional addition of elements such as the plodding piano on “Hole In Your Heart”, there’s little such development on How Did We Get So Dark?. Royal Blood’s energies here are expended not on expansive outreach but intensive simplicity: any added layers simply buttress the basic riffs of tracks like “Lights Out” and “Where Are You Now”, both of which ape Queens Of The Stone Age’s terse, robot-rock style. Even when they slip down a gear for the languid swagger of “She’s Creeping”, or attempt a more contemplative attitude on “Don’t Tell”, they’re still sculpted from the same small portfolio of sounds – basically, buzzing distorted guitar riffs and harmony chants borne along on pummelling drum barrages – which tends to impose too narrow an emotional range on the album. It’s like being hectored loudly by a bore.

Can, The Singles

★★★★☆

Download: Vitamin C; Moonshake; Dizzy Dizzy; Vernal Equinox; I Want More

Though more renowned for the out-there, cauldron-like intensity of their collective improvisations, Can were also the most humorous of the ‘70s Krautrock bands and, along with Kraftwerk, able to apply their idiosyncratic skills to create the occasional hit single, most notably with the neo-psychedelic brio of “I Want More”. Their trademark formula of infectious, jazz-tinged cyclical rhythms, wry melodic charm and instrumental exploration was established a few years earlier on cuts like “Vitamin C”, which epitomises Can’s dialectic ability to embrace apparent opposites, being both open and stealthy, sinister yet alluring. “Moonshake” is another standout, its jaunty character encompassing an almost comical middle-eight montage of rhythmic noises guaranteed to raise a smile; while “Dizzy Dizzy” and “Vernal Equinox” flew off at contrasting tangents, the latter’s hurtling metal momentum shockingly at odds with the former’s whirligig alliance of violin and swirling keyboards. A late-career lapse into gimmicky covers of “Silent Night” and “Can Can” aside, this compilation is a marvellous confirmation of pop’s fringe possibilities.

Songhoy Blues, Resistance

★★★★☆

Download: Voter; Bamako; Sahara; Yersi Yadda

Perhaps reflecting the three years spent touring after their marvellous Music In Exile album, the excellent Resistance finds Malian desert-rockers Songhoy Blues forging firmer bonds between their native modes and Western styles. Opening track “Voter”, for example, yokes the nimble itchiness of their soukous-style guitars to a powerful rock riff, whilst the tribute to their homeland capital “Bamako” blends a Staple Singers guitar figure with a James Brown funk groove, over which vocals are bawled with punky intensity: a dizzying crossover of punch and power. Iggy Pop drops by on the desert-blues groove “Sahara” to cement the alliance, chipping in over the snaking, cyclical guitar interplay an amusing account of Western nations’ wariness about the region: “It seems unfriendly/There ain’t no condos, there ain’t no pizza/It’s a genuine culture, no Kentucky Fried Chicken”. Elsewhere, scuttling guitars predominate on tracks like “Badji” and “Ir Ma Sobay”, while Fela Kuti looms large over the Afrobeat drumming, burring brass and call-and-responce vocal of “Yersi Yadda”.

Floraleda​, #Darklight

★★★★☆

Download: Hammers; Silencio Du Park Guell; Antartica; The Beatitudes​

Already renowned for her interpretations of John Cage and Philip Glass, on #Darklight Italian harpist Floraleda Sacchi explores the work of a younger generation of composers such as Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter and Nils Frahm. Working solo with acoustic and electric harps, electronic devices and ambient recordings, her compelling interpretations expose the enigmatic quality of the compositions. Max Richter’s “Andras”, for instance, emerges from a buzzing cloud into delicate clarity before slipping back into the fog; while for Nils Frahm’s “Hammers”, a rhythmic bass pulse carries the kind of intense fingerpicking employed on early Leonard Cohen tracks. Her ambient recordings are variable – the sounds made by icebergs shearing off from ice shelfs, used in Roberto Cacciapaglia’s “Antartica” are less cliched than the showers used in Richter’s “Europe After The Rain” - but the only real misstep here comes with the oldest piece, DJ Tiesto’s dance remix of Barber’s “Adagio For Strings”, where the overly busy beat straps too tight a girdle around music which needs to be allowed to wilt.

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