Monday, May 27, 2013

Album Review: Atoms For Peace – Amok (2013)

Atoms For Peace is the current side project for Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, and the band includes talented friends like Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and sometime Beck and REM drummer Joey Waronker. Yorke initially formed the group as a nameless live/touring act back around 2009, and the long-time-in-coming debut album, Amok, says Yorke, was “the product of getting together, getting wasted, and listening to Fela Kuti” ...

The first couple of times I listened to Amok, it just sort of washed over me. It felt a little bit inconsequential, like well produced background music, and it barely registered at all. On first impression, the album was little more than a blurry montage of glitchy twitchy sounds, with an ethereal Thom Yorke vocal wailing indecipherably over the top. And while it had a persistent percussive pulse underpinning the whole thing, there just didn’t appear to be all that much substance beneath the exterior sheen.
Then I heard it through headphones, and the album instantly took on a different hue.

The intimacy of the headphone experience exposed a work of depth and detail that wasn’t initially even hinted at. Rather than the distant distraction it first appeared to be, Amok revealed itself to be a carefully crafted gem, an album that draws heavily from elements of synthpop, electronica, and afrobeat to create an almost perfect pop hybrid. And all of those minor details lost upon the first couple of listens immediately became features ... highlights even.

That shared love of afrobeat (and rhythm in general) shines brightly on Amok. There’s a strong synth/electronic presence throughout, but mostly the music is propelled by a nagging bass and multiple layers of percussion. The other major player in the band is the Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, and it is Refosco’s best work that tends to stand out on an album that simply oozes forward momentum.

It all feels very polished (thanks, presumably, to Godrich), and in the end, even Yorke’s occasionally annoying mumble-come-moan becomes a pivotal part of the music. There’s a barely disguised simplicity about it, and perhaps even something a little magical about the way vocal FX are employed on a couple of tracks. Seldom has Thom Yorke’s voice proved more engaging over the full-length course. While some of his fretwork isn’t half bad either.
When Yorke released his first “solo” album, The Eraser, back in 2006, it continued an electronica path Radiohead had already long been exploring, and as highly rated as that album was by others at the time, I had huge difficulty separating the work of Thom Yorke, the solo artist, from that of Radiohead, the band. But that’s definitely not the case here. With Atoms For Peace, I’m somehow able to get beyond the Radiohead thing, and for whatever reason, this band feels much less a side project, and something way more rewarding in its own right.

Running time is 44 minutes over the course of nine tracks, the best of which are: opener ‘Before Your Very Eyes’ (clip below), first single 'Default’, ‘Ingenue’, ‘Judge Jury And Executioner’, and ‘Amok’.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Gig Review: Jimeoin – What?! – at the Wellington Opera House, Wellington, May 19 2013

Stand up comedy might just about be the toughest gig in all of show business. If not the toughest, then certainly the most unforgiving. Up there on stage in front of hundreds of people expecting to be entertained by little more than what comes out of your mouth. No chance of a last minute edit before it goes “live”, and no chance to run and hide should things go a little awry.

But the experienced Melbourne-based Irish comedian Jimeoin has seen it all before, and he turned up at the Wellington Opera House last Sunday with his best game face on, delivering an hour-long set that, due to its brevity, only left many of those in attendance desperately wanting more.

I get that it was a comedy festival gig, which are by their very nature notoriously short, but I had expected a little more. Having seen Eddie Izzard captivate a similarly sized audience for a much longer spell at the same venue a few years back, I had hoped that Jimeoin’s set might stretch to around 90 minutes, or at the very least include an encore. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
Jimeoin is an engaging character with loads of charisma, but perhaps his best asset is that “lived in” face. So much of his humour is supplemented by a look, a sly glance, a knowing grin, a frown, or that moment where he tilts his head back slightly and sniggers, as though the joke is somehow on the audience itself.

There’s physical comedy (the gig kicks off with our man arriving on stage dancing to some retro-chic disco, which is a bit like watching your boss at the annual Christmas party), loads of observational humour about everyday little things, jokes about (not telling) jokes, a lot of self deprecation, with morsels of localised content thrown in every so often – the now almost obligatory mention of Lord Of The Rings is becoming a little tiresome, truth be told (it reeks of someone straining for local material and opting for the most obvious reference point).

The undoubted highlight was the section of the show near the end where Jimeoin dons the guitar and offers some light musical relief. Not so much a set of “songs”, rather, snippets of half-formed songs, or more accurately, a series of short quips about songs. There’s some audience participation at this point, and there’s no question that by the conclusion Jimeoin has offered more than enough to win the audience over.

So while it was some way short of the best comedy show I’ve seen, and certainly one of the shortest (he could have perhaps done with a local up-and-comer warming us up for 15 minutes or so), there is no question that Jimeoin is a very funny guy, and yep, I’ll definitely look for another chance to see him again.



Saturday, May 18, 2013

Album Review: Depeche Mode – Delta Machine (2013)

Given that Depeche Mode have been at the very heart of the synthpop scene for the vast majority of my music listening lifetime (40 years), it was something of a surprise to learn that Delta Machine is just the thirteenth full-length studio release of the band’s career.

I know Depeche Mode have not had their problems to seek over the years (health issues, personnel changes etc) but I’d always thought of the group as one of the most prolific of all the early Eighties pop survivalists. Apparently not, a grand total of a baker’s dozen worth of albums over a span of 30 years offers us a somewhat different perspective.
Part of the reason, of course, that Depeche Mode have managed to remain at the forefront of our collective consciousness throughout that period is to do with the fact that so much of the band’s output has always been ripe for remixing; seldom do we get just one released version of any given DM track. And I don’t know how many different dance versions of ‘World In My Eyes’ or ‘Enjoy The Silence’ I’ve heard over the years, but there’s been a few – most of them pretty decent too. That, aligned with regular tours, has ensured the band’s profile remains sufficiently high, and “new product” regularly available regardless of whether or not the band have a new album out.

Over the years I don’t believe I’ve come across any flop or “bad” DM albums, just varying levels of “good”, ranging from mediocre to excellent, or in the case of Violator, excellent verging on the truly exceptional. So perhaps another factor in the band’s relatively light album output is the small matter of quality control … they’re either perfectionists to the point of pedantry, or they simply refuse to compromise, opting for craft (or should that be art?) over timeliness. Or to put it another way – nothing ever feels too rushed.

My download of Delta Machine is the deluxe edition; that means the standard 13-track album, and an extra “disc” of five additional tracks, including a second and “live” studio version of the fair-to-middling lead single ‘Heaven’.

What we get on Delta Machine is classic Depeche Mode – state-of-the-art production, occasionally iffy songwriting, Gahan and Gore sharing vocals, and the requisite number of a top drawer synthpop gems. And doubtlessly, plenty of source material just waiting to be plucked for another round of remixing.

In calling it “classic” however, I’m not necessarily saying it is one of DM’s best, because in all honesty, it isn’t. It offers snippets of what the band does best, crossing over into the murky waters of dark pop, without ever really presenting us with a single moment, or track, where they truly nail it.

So it’s classic in the sense that all of the band’s traditional boxes are ticked. If anything, Delta Machine, much like its predecessor Sounds Of The Universe, represents a return to older style elements of the band’s sound; a move away from the harder edged guitar-infused stuff of a decade ago, with an evident willingness to embrace synth-orientated pop first and foremost.

Not bad for a bunch of old blokes …

Highlights: the opener ‘Welcome To My World’, the single ‘Heaven’, ‘My Little Universe’, ‘Soothe My Soul’, and from the bonus disc, ‘All That’s Mine’ (see clip).


Lost Alternative 80s: The Clean

May is New Zealand Music Month. Celebrated by some, condemned by others, ignored by the vast majority.

A marketing ruse. A worshipping of false gods. Something akin to the heralding of the world’s tallest pygmy.

Harsh? … perhaps, but it’s fair to say that with each passing year, beyond the music industry itself, more than a smattering of cynicism has started to creep in.

But it’s also about acknowledging some good things too … some very good things. For all of its flaws (of default and design), it does at least present us with an excuse to reflect on a body of work that was, for the most part, denied a pre-internet “rest of the world”.

On that note, one of my favourite Enzed bands of the 80s (and beyond), The Clean, embracing the lo-fi DIY ethic that made Flying Nun the “go to” label of the era … here’s ‘Anything Could Happen’ (from 1981).

What better way to conclude the Lost Alternative 80s series of posts.