Album reviews: Robbie Williams - The Heavy Entertainment Show, Lambchop - FLOTUS, Bon Jovi, and more

Also Moby & The Void Pacific Choir, Shirley Collins, American Wrestlers and Will Varley

Andy Gill
Wednesday 02 November 2016 18:25
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Download: When You Know; Love My Life; Mixed Signals

Listening to The Heavy Entertainment Show is a bit like watching EastEnders – a constant barrage of snarling, strutting chippiness passed off as authentic British geezerism. “You searched for a saviour, well here I am…enjoy me while you can,” preens Robbie Williams on the title-track, that trademark caricature arrogance tinged ever so slightly with a knowing cynicism. But any traces of humour are obliterated by a densely-packed soundstage of brash horns which makes listening to it no fun at all.

The same applies to “Party Like A Russian”, only more so: with its slowed-down Prokofiev theme and a lowing Latvian choir lending monkish mien, it’s distasteful in so many ways, before considering lyrics cajoling us to “’ave it like an oligarch”, or something. It’s quite ghastly. I suppose spending your life on a stage might lead to this kind of musical-theatre approach to pop, but I hate musical theatre. Which perhaps accounts, in part, for my dislike of “Hotel Crazy” too, in which Rufus Wainwright and Robbie inhabit a sleazy cabaret creeper replete with muted trumpets, oozing oleaginous menace in languid monotones: the only way it could become less agreeable is if Helena Bonham-Carter turned up in the role of a spoilt-diva party animal, so that’s exactly what happens.

Still, so long as Robbie’s enjoying himself – which according to the modest “Sensational”, he surely is: “It’s so unusual to feel this good/I’d sing forever if I could/Maybe I should”. Lest his self-regard stumble, it’s inflated with huge orchestral and choral arrangements that mire the song in cabaret stodge; it’s left to The Killers to restore a little chart-oriented rock punch to the album, writing and backing him on “Mixed Signals”. Elsewhere, John Grant provides the widescreen dark romance of “I Don’t Want To Hurt You”, and Ed Sheeran is amongst the authors of “Pretty Woman”, a charmless invitation to the dance.

Williams makes some amends with the not-quite-apologies for bad behaviour “Best Intentions” and “When You Know” – the latter’s sparkling harp is one of the crisper sonic touches here – and the anthem “Love My Life”, which despite its title is an offer of endless support doubtless destined for weddings and christenings alike. But no sooner has he shown his better side than “Motherfucker” finds him (not really) explaining to a child their heritage, claiming merely that “we are bad motherfuckers, you’re a bad motherfucker”. Still, he does finally hold out hope that “you’re the one that breaks the chain”. Fingers crossed.

Lambchop, FLOTUS

★★★★★

Download: In Care Of 8675309; The Hustle; Writer; JFK; Relatives #2

Nothing to do with Michelle Obama, FLOTUS – it stands for For Love Often Turns Us Still – finds Lambchop effecting a fascinating amalgam of their old country-soul style and the desiccated electro-nu-soul sound of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Abandoning guitar, the songs float on clouds of jazzy piano chords, eerie synth whines and a gently scudding patter of beats, with Kurt Wagner’s mellow vocal tones autotuned into strange new shapes. The songs employ Wagner’s distinctively inclusive lyrical mode, a shifting canvas of seemingly random observations, speculations and reflections replete with mystery and wonder, particularly on the moving 12-minute “In Care Of 8675309” and 17-minute “The Hustle”, which bookend the album, the latter’s quietly scuttling beat, Terry Riley-esque cyclical organ and smudges of reeds eventually resolving into a sparse, melancholy solo piano exit. A remarkable case of sonic reinvention.

Shirley Collins, Lodestar

Download: Awake Awake; The Banks Of Green Willow; Cruel Lincoln; Death And The Lady

“Awake! Awake! Sweet England,” runs the opening line of Shirley Collins’ first album in nearly four decades, and it’s entirely apt, hers being one of the emblematic English voices of the past century. Lodestar features traditional English and American folksongs of enigmatic, sometimes impermeable mystery and no mean violence – in “Cruel Lincoln”, a daughter is forced by the eponymous murderer to catch her own mother’s blood in a bowl, and “Banks Of Green Willow” traverses sex, theft, flight, assisted suicide and infanticide, all in three minutes. Mortality is an ever-present shadowy guest at this song-feast, though reminders that “death will rot your bones and your flesh will melt away” are mercifully tempered by squeezebox-driven celebrations of spring and bold, resonant droning pipe instrumentals; while Collins herself brings a demotic charm to whatever she sings.

Moby & The Void Pacific Choir, These Systems Are Failing

Download: Hey! Hey!; Break.Doubt; And It Hurts

The cover of These Systems Are Failing features a lenticular image of the kind made famous by the Stones’ Satanic Majesties; and it’s not the only aspect of the album suffused with anachronistic retro-futurism. Moby says that musically he put in “everything I like: punk and post-punk and new wave and euphoric rave and yelling”, a barrage of alienated disillusion; but the Suicide-style electro-throb of “I Wait For You” and the industrial steamhammer motorik of “Don’t Leave Me” are the kinds of thing that sounded darkly new four decades ago, grim harbingers of a dehumanised future, but now seem just a bit dated. The scuttling electropop anthem of self-deception and dying dreams, “Hey! Hey!”, opens the album with focus and intensity, but it doesn’t take many tracks to blunt the impact of Moby’s relentless goosestepping drum programmes and shouty slogans.

American Wrestlers, Goodbye Terrible Youth

Download: Vote Thatcher; Give Up; Real People; Terrible Youth

Last year’s eponymous debut as American Wrestlers paid sizeable artistic – and commercial – dividends for Mancunian expat Gary McClure’s years in the shoegazing trenches, establishing him as a songwriting force on the American indie scene, and enabling him to expand from that album’s lo-fi solo recordings to a full band line-up for this follow-up. The difference is more than just a matter of fidelity: opener “Vote Thatcher” (ha!) bulges with garage-pop organ, febrile guitar and ebullient washes of distortion, while the sheer crunch of the buzzsaw fuzz guitar of “Terrible Youth” punches home its farewell to childish failings: “Now I’m done with you/Goodbye, terrible youth”. But amongst the poppy organ and droning guitars, McClure’s managed to retain the ingenuous character of his debut, blending pop sparkle and melancholic indie charm in a way that recalls New Zealand’s legendary Chills.

Bon Jovi, This House Is Not For Sale

Download: Labor Of Love; Come On Up To Our House

Despite the departure of Richie Sambora, things remain pretty much as they were with Bon Jovi thanks to the efficient but unremarkable skills of his replacement Phil X, a much-travelled journeyman guitarist who offers neither innovation nor, more importantly, significant challenge to Jon Bon Jovi’s leadership. Accordingly, the chugging riffs service bloated anthems to notions of integrity, community and hedonism couched in threadbare metaphors in which the sky has grown black, the streets are on fire, and “life ain’t a merry-go-round, it’s a rollercoaster”. Freed momentarily from emulating U2 and Springsteen stylings, X’s best moments come on “Labor Of Love”, a romantic collapse to which he lends a touch of twangsome poignancy. But the comforting simplicities peddled in tracks like “Reunion” and “Knockout” offer the rock equivalent of Donald Trump, currying favour without getting too specific.

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Will Varley, Kingsdown Sundown

Download: To Build A Wall; Something Is Breaking; February Snow; Wild Bird

There’s a flinty, wounded edge to Will Varley’s delivery that recalls the Dylan of The Times They Are A-Changin’, which is perfectly appropriate to the themes of hardship, betrayal and loss broached on Kingsdown Sundown. Angry and careworn, it’s best employed here on the prescient opener “To Build A Wall”, where he considers the various ways – fear, lies, money, time and cannonballs – we keep others out, with just a rhetorical flourish of hope to compensate: “Who owns the cracks between the walls?”. It’s sharp and sour, as is “Something Is Breaking”, a sullen social commentary which brings to mind the late Mike Hart, Varley’s weary declamation punched home by the drum and cymbal on “breaking”. Elsewhere, his understated guitar work serves sad love plaints and romantic warnings alongside the political pieces, while “February Snow” offers a suitably melancholy apology for his pervasive melancholy.

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