I reviewed MS MR’s quite special debut 4-track EP “Candy Bar Creep Show” late last year and may have even, in a moment of rare generosity, given it 5 stars. During its release the boy-girl, goth pop duo from New York were already speaking excitingly about their first album being almost ready to go and I remember thinking at the time, that’ll be good, something to look forward to. Well now it’s here and, although some of it’s good, it’s not really that special.
“Hurricane” was one of the best pop singles of last year; it swaggered beautifully. Lizzie Plapinger’s strong, clear vocals moaned about the foul contents of her mind; it was a helluva song. It was part of the aforementioned EP, the other three remaining tracks being equally strong, if subtle, shifts on the same sonic theme. It’s a big mistake though to include all 4 songs again here and especially to front load the album with them. Apart from another couple of songs, which also include the bombastic single “Fantasy”, again released as single before this album, the best tracks here are, disappointingly, still these same 4 songs and the decision for them to dominate the first quarter of the album only succeeds in hammering this point home.
Of the remaining 8, unheard, tracks only “Think of You”, which follows the same, already established, template with a catchy-as-hell chorus that, instead of being bellowed, is thankfully more reflective and the Lana Del Rey-indebted ballad “BTSK”, which actually stands for Big Teeth, Small Kiss (you can see why they decided to abbreviate it), has drama and build with another big but dumber chorus, comes close to the quality heard eight months ago on “CBCS”. Like Florence’s second album in particular, which MS MR’s brand of broad, glam pop has, rightly to a point, been compared to, the set up for every track is almost identical and that kind of repetition can of course work, but only if the songwriting is strong enough to support it. “Salty Sweet” is the one variation musically and is a lilting, feather-light reggae mistake. A song like “Twenty Seven” (as in the age, at which it’s hoped one will live past) feels so set up to soundtrack a Tumblr account of pop cultural clichés, is too shallow and under-written to penetrate in the way that it wants to. By the end of the album one song blurs into another and any strong sense of identity that may have been established at the beginning of the album has all but disappeared.
There’s a sense here that maybe there was a pressure to get this album out as soon as possible; MS MR have the feeling of a band who are very of the moment and dangerously hip. I’m sure that their moment hasn’t passed, half of this album is certainly good and enjoyable enough to make an impression and get them noticed, but if they want to headline Glastonbury, their ultimate dream, they’re going to need more than 1 EPs worth of cracking material so let’s hope that they can deliver on that initial promise.
It’s been a while since Lucinda has graced the UK with her presence and tonight she fitted in a Festival appearance as part of her north European tour. ‘An Intimate Evening With…’ is a chance to showcase her last album, 2011’s “Blessed”, probably her best offering since “West” in 2006. But she does not take to merely promoting her most recent work, instead preferring to cherrypick songs from over three decades for the festival crowd. But make no mistake, this is no greatest hits package as defined by sales but, thankfully, carefully selected songs from a vintage singer/song-writer. A few technical issues of sound and dry ice distract initially (“We’re not Whitesnake, y’know, I feel like I’m playing in a smoky bar!”)
She kicks off with “Passionate Kisses”, the Grammy-winning track she wrote for Mary Chapin Carpenter. The concert continues her themes of heartbreak and loss, but it takes a specialist to dissect the human heart without merely going over the same ground and Lucinda succeeds. Although repetition is a strong feature of her writing style in terms of turning some of her songs into drawling incantations of powerful lines, there’s not enough of this for me tonight as her song choices on the whole avoid such relentless intimacy. Writing prowess aside, an artist like Lucinda was born to tell her tales live and she certainly is a powerful performer and effective communicator; she also plays a mean acoustic guitar backed only by bass and lead guitar.
Lucinda is “so in the moment” that she forgets her set list and instead works her way through the ballads in her folder, before upping the tempo slightly. Williams’ voice attracts every Bourbon-soaked cliché but let’s just say she really sounds like she’s been there, and probably on more than one occasion, but at 60 years she still walks with her vulnerability; tonight we hear more of the songwriter and less of the singer. First person experiences form the bulk of her canon, which ranges from ballad to blues to rock edge which makes Lucinda an exciting live ticket. Long regarded as a competent live artist, Lucinda delivers those contrasts in tempo well, building the energy of the set that peaks at the much requested “Drunken Angel” and angry anthem, “Joy”. The audience are Lucinda’s contemporaries age-wise and sadly there are very few younger converts in evidence here and mostly festival goers taking a punt on a recommendation, but a core of fans enthusiastically make themselves known between songs.
Most of her albums were represented here including “Jackson” from “West”, the album that did the best, chart-wise in the UK and she showcased 2 new songs including “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, hopefully from a forthcoming disc as she admits that she is longing to get back into the studio.
The encore was an acoustic rendition of Nick Drake’s “Riverman” followed by the gratitude anthem, “Blessed” and it was all over after an impressive set of over 100 minutes. A quick mention is deserved for Jimmy Livingstone, support act who had his moments also on a singer/song-writer ticket.
Last time around Little Boots lost out to La Roux and no one was expecting it. Little Boots was hyped to the point where it was inevitable that she would become, at least for a year, a Very Big Star indeed, but this didn’t materialise. Following her big, underground blog hit and debut track “Stuck On Repeat”, still many people’s favourite LB track, the first big, official song “New In Town” came with a misjudged video and after a quick appearance in the top ten, it was gone. RedOne, massive at the time because of his involvement with the newly hatched star Lady Gaga, was roped in to produce the next single “Remedy” (subsequently very popular at the Olympics I’ve been told) and again, another terrible video and another song that failed to dominate. An album, “Hands”, was eventually released to very mixed reviews (it’s actually a very solid debut) and then La Roux crept in and became the Very Big Star with a number 1 single, a number 2 album and USA success resulting in a Grammy. That was, somewhat terrifyingly, 4 years ago now and neither LB nor LR have followed up their debuts; until now that is.
“Nocturnes” is an album that had a considerable history before it was even released; massive rows with record companies, lack of creative control and scrapped sessions finally resulting in Victoria Hesketh aka Little Boots releasing the album herself. One of the reasons for this act of ultimate control was obviously to allow Little Boots to release the album that she has been trying to make for the last 4 years with no absolutely no restrictions or compromises and this is why it is so bewildering that the end product is most definitely and disappointingly a flawed one. Little Boots knows her dance music and with co-writes from members of Hercules and Love Affair and Simian Mobile Disco and the album being produced by Tim Goldsworthy of DFA, sonically this is a change from the first album where Phil Oakey was a guest vocalist and eighties electro synth pop was cited as the main influence. There are overlaps of course but this sounds different. This is an album that wants to take its time and stretch out, languish; two tracks are over 6 mins long (and they are both mid tempos and down-hearted) but Boots is still writing 3 minute pop songs which can rattle around a bit in the overly extended time frames given to them here.
Three of the best songs on “Nocturnes” have been released before but the general tone this time is more serious. “Shake” is a straight-up chunky house track, the structure of the song, the repetition, it’s not a pop song and it holds up; you play this in a club and people dance. “Motorway” sounds like Saint Etienne (Hesketh and Sarah Cracknell also sharing similar sounding vocals) doing Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” (a good thing) and “Every Night I Say a Prayer” is old school vocal house with a lovely, dreamy piano riff. New tracks don’t do as well but “Confusion” has some lovely, intricate details and is a successful stab at disco (unlike the chicken in a basket, flabby Kylie album track, “Beat Beat”) and “Crescendo”, which is a real oddity, a pop ballad stretched out to 6 minutes that is lovely and sad for about 4 of those until it starts to morph into Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” and things become stretched to breaking point. The songs are here on the whole but the energy is oddly not, which is by far the biggest difference between this and her debut, and this is meant to be a dance album. Minutes go by where nothing happens and awkward synth lines or a lonely syndrum fill time where anther song could have taken their place; she must have written more than 10 in the last 4 years?
Little Boots reminds me of Cocknbullkid, another young, talented British singer-songwriter who has failed to engage with their target audience. Both are slightly self-conscious, intelligent women who can’t seem to fully inhabit the role required to be a successful pop star; arrogance and posturing is absent and it isn’t just this aspect that La Roux gets right. She is admittedly outspoken but she also has an almost instant iconic appearance which she knowingly, smartly exploits. I doubt most people could identify Hesketh by picture only, music lover or Daily Mail reader. Boots’ strength is her song writing and “Nocturnes” will establish her place in the touring circuit as a dedicated artist that needs to create and I hope she finds a way to continue to do this without becoming the massive pop star that initially it looked like she would be.
“When I Was Your Girl”, the lead single from Alison Moyet’s eighth solo album, suggests it is business as usual for the big-voiced Essex star; jangly soft rock pop, Radio 2 playlisted if it’s lucky, powerful and instantly identifiable vocal. You know the sort of thing. It’s a trick though, a decoy and a very welcome one at that. For a very long time, nearly 30 years in fact, I have hoped that Moyet would record an electronic album again, something reminiscent, admittedly, of Yazoo, the 1980’s dream man- woman electro pop duo that Moyet was one half of, and finally it’s arrived; but can anything be worth that long a wait?
The Minutes” is produced and co-written with Moyet by Guy Sigsworth who has worked with some very big, predominantly female stars. His involvement with Bjork for example resulted in some of her very best work and he encouraged Madonna to be both introspective and accessible on “What It Feels Like For a Girl”, but this doesn’t sound like Bjork or Madonna. It does however contain the same musical blueprint that can be found all over his recent work with Alanis Morissette (the material in question here is much stronger though) and in particular the one-off band he formed with Imogen Heap in 2002, Frou Frou. Entirely electronic, Sigworth favours big gestures both musically and vocally from the artists he collaborates with and with Alison Moyet he seems to have found the perfect, immaculate voice. “Horizon Flame” is a strong, showy, cinematic start with synthetic strings (which I can always spot and never like), and a brooding mood. “Changeling” demonstrates early on the worst excesses of Sigworth’s production, which can be very everything but the kitchen sink. A bit of dubstep, robotic r’n’b, drum ‘n’ bass, you name it, but god it’s nice to have Moyet snarling again; ‘how does anybody get to work like this’ she stroppily demands. Once this is out of the way though, the two really begin to find ways to push and pull each other in some very interesting directions.
“Love Reign Supreme” is joyous, speeding pop and “Right As Rain” is a pure, simple electronic dance track, not self-consciously camp, which some may have hoped for, but a tight rhythm track with Moyet seductively taunting the instantly appealing melody. Even better, and there are some brilliantly crafted songs here, is the slower “Filigree” which has shades of “The Winner Takes It All” melodically and musically is straight-up Yazoo. Whether this was conscious or not we will probably never know but it is such a joy to hear. Moyet inhabits these tracks with an ease and confidence that should be taught, her many years of experience and success shining through and she should be equally credited with some brilliantly imaginative, poetic language in respect to the song writing (‘I fell into a cinema, watching pictures in a dream, shifting the fidget into still, nine other people take their leave’; the opening lines of “Filigree”) which is of a consistently high quality. The final track “Rung By The Tide” merges the kind of folk song structure that has been prominent in Moyet’s more recent work with a pop sensibility, showered with some breath-taking electronics which create a portrait of something wild and beautiful. It’s the sort of thing that Ellie Goulding was aiming for on her last album but didn’t have the wherewithal to pull off.
Alison Moyet has been quoted as saying that this has been the best time she has ever experienced whilst recording an album, the freest she has felt in the studio and most true to what she dared to create now, in 2013. This kind of statement does not necessarily bode well for an artist of Moyet’s stature, it can suggest that self-indulgence and loss of quality control may have run amok but this isn’t the case here, with Guy Sigsworth turning out to her most compatible musical partner since Vince Clarke. It’s lovely to think that after 3 decades and with no jazz standards or cover versions insight, as she feared she would be forced into recording by her record company, Alison Moyet has made a superb grown-up, inventive pop record and satisfyingly, it’s her best yet.