2006 – January

PHARRELL WILLIAMS – In My Mind

In the 13 years since Pharrell was discovered at a talent show by revered producer/singer Teddy Riley, he’s become a hitmaker extraordinaire, creating, along with Neptunes partner Chad Hugo, hits for everyone from Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Britney Spears, not to mention essentially inventing Justin Timberlake’s career. Everything they touched turned to platinum, and in 2003 a survey revealed they had a hand in one in five of all songs played on British radio. They’ve also released two albums themselves as N*E*R*D, but this is Pharrell’s debut solo effort. It doesn’t disappoint. One half R&B, one half hip hop, this, he says, is the first full representation of the music ‘in his mind’.
To us mere mortals, it’s just mindblowing. Lead (hip hop) single ‘Can I Have it Like That’ featuring Gwen Stefani, is a grinding instant smash already shaking dancefloors; second (or lead R&B) single ‘Angel’ showcases his soaring, sexy falsetto over an infectious bouncy piano loop. The trademark stripped-down percussion-heavy production is finessed throughout, and only a guest appearance by pal Jamie Cullum sits a little oddly. This is the sound of the bar being raised, again. Effortlessly.

THE STROKES – First Impressions Of Earth

The hype that greeted The Strokes and helped make their 2001 debut, Is This It, so successful was always going to be their biggest obstacle. It certainly hampered 2003’s numb follow-up, Room On Fire, which was more or less forcibly extracted by the record company. For their third effort the band side-stepped and retreated to a custom-built studio of their own design, replacing regular producer Gordon Raphael with David Kahne. The resulting record is more relaxed, confident and lively.
The best bet for a square-one is their breakthrough single, “Last Nite”, and the mysterious line
“spaceships they won’t understand”. Songwriter Julian Casablancas spends the vast majority of First Impressions Of Earth attempting to justify that enigmatic spaceship’s bewilderment at city life. The characters in his lyrics are over-populated insomniacs that lose feelings to drown in electricity and are so fascinated with the trivial that the essential becomes meaningless. By the time the album draws to a close with the jaunty “Red Light” the only conclusion that can be drawn is that there are “seven billion people who’ve got nothing to say” but that they shouldn’t worry because “the sky is not the limit and you’re never gonna guess what is”.
This would all be terribly depressing if it wasn’t delivered so nonchalantly. It’s a concept album with a hidden agenda – fun. The pounding bass of “Juicebox” is a virtual bedroom for the ears and the likes of “Heart In A Cage” are still up for some sloppy seconds. “Vision Of Division” struggles to contain it all and bursts out some guitar splendour that cannot be denied. They may be unhappy boys but they are very happy about it.

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN – The Life Pursuit

The Life Pursuit” sounds like Belle and Sebastian died and went to Heaven. And they smuggled in all of their earthen instruments, found a nice sunny hillside and knocked out this album in one take, with no rehearsals or anything. It’s not particularly edgy, but then again, it’s twee-pop at it’s finest and it doesn’t need any edge. The album is excellently crafted, without flaw or misstep. For fans, it has everything they could possibly want; hooks, harmony and flighty vocals.
But in heaven, there’s no time for being broken hearted, so while the band pulls out some bluesy rock jams, it comes across like the best Huey Lewis and the News songs never recorded.
The “fun” level that the band cultivated in “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” is still accounted for, and on tracks like “White Collar Boy” turns average-sounding tracks into something really special.
And unlike other Belle and Sebastian releases, this one is uncharacteristically loud. Spry speeds have always been one of this band’s hallmarks, but I just couldn’t believe that they finally made an album that should, and sounds great, played really loud. They shouldn’t have released this album in February, it’s a summer-fun record.
I really can’t give this album a bad review, but the truth is I was really expecting something more. It was like I expected to connect to this album in a special way, like I have with other Belle and Sebastian albums, but it didn’t happen. Truth is, I actually get a bit bored halfway through the album and start skipping around the iPod finding something else to listen to.
With a title like “The Life Pursuit,” it leads me to question where this band is going. Are these guys leading up to a career-making epic statement? Have they made it already?

COLDCUT – Sound Mirrors

AttentionColdcut fanatics! Let us all take a moment and Replay in our minds the pleasure of listening to Journey’s By DJ-70 Minutes Of Madness mix CD and Let Us Play. Remember when these brilliant concoctions of electronica left us in awe? And how Coldcut manages to combine elements of hip-hop, funk, electro, jungle, and breakbeat styles together into genre defying description? I do. The duo responsible for this sound collage, cut-and-paste producers Jonathon More and Matt Black, swung the world of electronic music wide open with Coldcut and didn’t look back. This is evident by looking at the artists on the roster of their Ninja Tune label: Amon Tobin, DJ Food, Hex Static, Funki Porcini, andHerbaliser (to name a few). Diversity central. Equally diverse is Coldcut’s latest and highly anticipated LP Sound Mirrors. This is realized immediately on the first single, “Everything is Under Control,” when guest vocalist Jon Spencer (Blues Explosion) readies us for the journey with the vocal lines, “Get your rock’n’roll and get it under control.” Thereafter, “ETUC” explodes into an ultra modern rock infused hip-hop and electro groove that sets Sound Mirrors into motion, accompanied by guest underground rapMC Mike Ladd. Through one song it’s obvious that with Sound Mirrors, More and Black have a full smorgasbord of innovative sounds to come. Like the infectious dancehall of “True Skool,” with Roots Manuva on vocals or the menacing and dark trip-hop feel of “Sound Mirrors” that is bathed with gentle string orchestration. Sound Mirrors is seductive electronica pleasing at first listen. Everything is represented here. On “Mr. Nichols,” Coldcut blends swashes of electronic ambience with Saul Williams’ stellar spoken word that places the inner mind into acute introspection. John Matthias delivers soothing vocals paired with the quirky rhythms of “Man In a Garage.” For up-tempo junkies, “This Island Earth” pairs delicate piano lines and the throbbing feel of techno/electro pulsation into a catchy pop-styled tune complete with the sexy vocal delivery of Mpho Skeef. For fans of Let Us Play, “Aid Dealer” sounds like the funky psychedelia More and Black perfected earlier in their careers with the addition of the prominent vocals of Soweto Kinch. With “Walk a Mile,” the highlight is the convincing performance of famed Chicago house vocalist Robert Owens and the addicting hints of subtle house music in Coldcut style.These songs all build to the proper ending track in “Colours the Soul,” which serves to put a soothing and satisfying cap on the music presented on here. More and Black have done it again. Sound Mirrors is a classic representation of what Coldcut does best: fusing diverse music into a cohesive mix with no boundaries that is impossible to categorize without using 18 adjectives to get the point across.

HAPPY NEW YEAR !!

I’m wired about the World Cup already, but if you’re not into football, there’s plenty to get excited about in the wonderful world of music this year.

At the time of going to press, there’s not much else to review just yet. BUT!! There’s a whole load of new albums and “Best Of”s slated for release in 2006, so here’s a tiny taster of what we can look forward to in the next couple of months :

Emo-rockers MUSE, surf bums THE RED HOT CHILLI PEPPERS and introspective piano merchants KEANE are all releasing as yet untitled albums, along with the prolific superchav Mike Skinner, also known as THE STREETS. Latin lovely SHAKIRA and human dolls LIBERTY X both are finalising their latest efforts to win the populist vote, while over in Weirdsville, BONNIE PRINCE BILLY has teamed up with TORTOISE to bring us “The Brave and The Bold” right about now. DEEP PURPLE are giving us a live box set from 1993, while an early contender for next Christmas’ best stocking filler award goes to MASSIVE ATTACK for their Greatest Hits compilation : should be a good one for the car.

On a more general note, look out for a new format : Dual Disc. Don’t worry though: you don’t have to buy yet another new machine! It’s just a great way of putting both CD audio and DVD video onto the same disc rather than in those annoying two disc boxes. Am I the only one that finds them really fiddly? Maybe I am … anyway : one side’s the CD, the other’s the DVD. They’re pretty common in the US now and are starting to filter over here too. I think by the end of the year, most major releases should be coming out on CD-DD (I just made that name up, by the way – it’s not official yet … but you heard it here first!)

Originally published in 2006

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