Category: It’s Album Time




In January Scottish rockers The Twilight Sad released their fifth album. The Penguin was particularly excited to hear it given the lead single from the album was his favourite track of 2018, but not even that really prepared him for the totality of this album. It’s an album that merits – and really needs – repeated listens to understand the sheer scale of ambition and emotional depth the album contains.

The band toured extensively with the Cure and it is easy to hear their influences throughout the record. This is not an upbeat record, as the album title strongly hints at, and it may be that your tolerance for sadness dictates how much you enjoy this album. 

Instead it is a journey of pain, insecurities – riddled with contradictory lyrics “And he won’t leave us alone, And please don’t leave me alone, I don’t know who to trust, Don’t let me do my worst” and anguish, with the lyrical pain amplified by the wall of despair that builds in almost every song.

James Graham’s voice is one of the finest things in music. His Scottish lilt adds an effortless poetry to their sound, his lyrics sound all the more striking because of it. But every instrument is pulling in the same direction here; this is a special album because it’s that oh so rare musical moment when a band are delivering exceptional songs and everything feels essential. The guitars and keys in particular elevate the album into something truly meaningful; walls of tormented noise leave you with little room to breath at key moments throughout.  

[10 Good Reasons for Modern Drugs] starts the album off as it means to go on. “Why can’t you remember me?” Graham sings in anguished tones over a wall of noise that sounds deeply unsettled and shifting. The accusatory nature of Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting (“I caught you kissing in the back stairs’’) veers between angry and almost child-like excitement (“I know something you don’t know”). The Arbor feels like a missing classic from the Smiths, with the addition of the swirling echoed vocals that stick around for a deeply unsettling outro. 

VTr is one of the finest moments on the album. Musically more radio friendly than many of the tracks, the softer indie edged mask the brutal honesty of the lyrics (“There’s a monster inside of you, Someone that you never knew, And someone that we didn’t choose”). I/m Not Here [Missing Face] is the band’s finest song to date, and a genuine modern classic. To capture so much despair and tension in five minutes is astounding. 

Auge/Maschine is just a cyclone of accusations “I can’t believe you hit me, I don’t know where to go” and almost oppressive tension, the guitars piercing your ears like the lyrics pierce your soul. Keep It All to Myself speaks of shame, regret and frustration “You put up with me and the love that you see, You deserve so much more” and Girl Chewing Gum is the moment when it all becomes too much “Put me in the ground, I don’t want to be here anymore”. I cannot think of another sequence of songs as emotional raw as these three. 

There’s a couple of weaker moments on the album. Let/s Get Lost struggles to follow the previous sequence of songs and Sunday Day13 feels like we’re covering ground we hear elsewhere on the album, but both are perfectly fine songs. And the album closes with Videograms, which feels like a moment of reflection, musically delicate but lyrically questioning (“Is it still me you love?”) 

Somewhat fittingly, the final words on the album are “I’m Not Sure”. I don’t think the listener is either, the album is only sneaking a glance into Graham’s tortured soul, where pain and contradictions compete for attention. The urge to want to give him a hug crosses my mind every time the album finishes. It must have been so difficult to write these songs and to share this level of honesty. That he has done so and made something so special with those feelings will, we can only hope, give him some joy.

It’s rare to hear a ‘bloke’ – meant in the nicest possible way – open up so much. Where I grew up I was surrounded by northern working class men and they generally didn’t acknowledge feelings, for fear of seeming weak, confused or because they didn’t know how people would respond. It’s a toxic culture where drink masks pain and steam builds up without having anywhere to vent. That Graham is living in a similar culture and allows that steam to form the spine of this album fills me with admiration and gives me hope that maybe things can change. Lots of songwriters can speak of love or heartbreak, but how many let you peer into their soul when they’re genuinely struggling to make sense of the world and their place in it?

This album is an absolute triumph. It may not match the commercial successes of other artists this year, but artistically few will being together an album so coherent, ambitious and brave. You feel all of the raw emotions that Graham’s lyrics give you, and his vocals really are the star turn on the album. But they’re not alone in being exceptional. Those lyrics hit you because they’re surrounded by the emotional instability he feels, only we hear it as backing music. 

It feels a little early to be talking about albums of the year, but someone’s going to have to produce something astounding to steal the annual crown from the lads from north of the border. 


Album Review: Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness


Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness

The legendary Chaka Khan returned on the 15th February with her first album since 2007. With only 7 tracks – one of which is a reworking of an earlier track – and a running time of 27 minutes, Khan has eschewed the norms of the streaming era by keeping it short and avoiding collaborations. But the shorter running time leaves little room to hide and exposes the clear weaknesses in the album.

Following a battle with addiction that resulted in a stint in rehab, Khan embraces a new found joy with the title track. ‘I wanna dance’ she sings, embracing the mantra of ‘goodbye sadness, hello happiness. It’s a funky and fun start that embraces her back catalogue whilst giving herself a modern sound.

It’s followed by Like a Lady, the finest song on the album. With playful production incorporating strings and teasing bass and guitar parts, there’s plenty of space for Khan’s vocals to soar with their tales of love and joy.

Sadly, the album nosedives from there. Don’t Cha Know feels like a remix that should have been binned immediately. Starting with watered-down dubstep, the track mostly revolves around the instrumentation. Khan’s vocals are spliced in and out, but feel superfluous. When you have that voice, you shouldn’t be digitally manipulating it and using it sparingly. The resulting track is just soulless nonsense.

Too Hot opens with an organ stream that flows into a bluesy riff. It’s perfectly serviceable – catchy even – but the repetitive chorus and overworked production combine to make the track feel inauthentic. In different hands, this may have been a fine single.

Last year’s single Like Sugar appears next. It still has that teasing bass line and funky retro vibe. It’s good, particularly the call and response vocals, but the stop start nature – another poor production choice – prevents it reaching the heights it should.

Penultimate track Isn’t That Enough gives you laid-back reggae vibes which mesh nicely with Khan’s voice. This will sound great in the sunshine at festivals, and there’s almost certainly a cracking drum and bass remix in the pipeline. An EP with this and the first two tracks would have been a fine collection of songs.

Somewhat inexplicably the final track, Ladylike, is a slowed down reworking of track two, Like a Lady. Complete with nauseating ocean sounds and centred around acoustic guitars, it losses all the joy and sense of fun that makes the other version so distinctive.

There’s moments on this album that demonstrate how good Khan can be. Taking the retro funk ethos and giving it a modern twist is a tried and tested technique for many artists, and when followed here it works nicely.

Unfortunately there’s so many experiments with other sounds and so many poor production moments – most egregiously by barely using Khan’s voice, the best instrument on the album, in some songs – that it’s hard to breeze through this album, even with its short running length.

It’s great to have Khan releasing new music and if she can find the right producer then I wouldn’t bet against her having some monster hits again. As it is, Hello Happiness starts strongly before dropping badly and never really recovering.


ALBUM REVIEW: James Blake – Assume Form


James Blake – Assume Form 

There are certain acts who always create intrigue when they release new material and James Blake is most definitely one of those artists. Whilst the falsetto vocals, electronics and intriguing beats are omnipresent in his work, his growth as an artist has seen him span genres and become as popular in the hip hop world as he is within the indie crowd that originally supported him. In a remarkably understated and underground way, he’s become an essential part of twenty-first century music.

The Penguin has been a fan since 2011, but was hugely disappointed by 2016’s The Colour In Anything, which was overly long and lacking in substance for his aquatic tastes. [Although it should be noted he wasn’t alone in 2016 in producing overly long, unimpressive albums: I’m looking at you Frank Ocean].

Last month Blake released Assume Form, and it has been on pretty steady repeat here ever since. For anyone who has listened to the album, it’s apparent that this is a very different James Blake; he is in love and – largely – a happy chappy. From the opening title track, it’s obvious he can barely believe his luck “When you touch me, I wonder what you would want with me” and the piano and soaring strings mirror his wide-eyed wonder. It’s a little soppy and slightly meandering start, but it begins our journey into Blake’s psyche.

Assume Form has a number of collaborators that help to elevate the album. Mile High, featuring Travis Scott, benefits from some superb production with the tinkering beats always teasing the ear, and the two voices mesh together nicely. Tell Them, a tale of regret about one night stands, is possibly a little overdone on the production, but Moses Sumney’s voice really shines. Barefoot in the Park with ROSALIA has been well covered on the blog is simply exquisite and continues the story of love woven throughout the album.

But it’s the collaboration with Andre 3000 – Where’s the Catch – that most rewards repeat listen and really anchors the album. With its unsettling, murky piano and deep beat, it turns the positives of the album on their head and questions if this really is too good to be true. It’s a dark moment cleverly placed within the album. And in truth it slightly saves the album, because the preceding two tracks – Can’t Believe The Way We Flow and Are You In Love? – are clearly the weakest on the album. The former is full of scatters of sound that never settle, and lyrically loses both the subtlety and quality that succeed elsewhere.  With Are You In Love?,  the vulnerability is there, but it feels meandering and slightly unnecessary.

Power On also jars slightly; it’s hard to know if we should be delighted for the person singing and appreciate their evolution into love, or whether they remain quite selfish company. Last year’s release Don’t Miss It also makes an appearance, a song with admirable emotional honesty but lacking in musical quality.

But there are other musical highlights intertwinned. Into The Red feels like it has a baroque arrangement involved and brings the strings back to centre stage. It’s an incredibly moving track in which he acknowledges a debt much greater than – but certainly not excluding – money. I’ll Come Too feels like Blake has hijacked a touring musical and appropriated its biggest number for his own. There’s a classic melodious pop song in there, but Blake gives it his own spin. And Lullaby For My Insomniac gives an almost choral ending to the album.

Assume Form is an enjoyable journey for the listener, with a central theme and some exquisite moments of musical genius. There are a few duds in there as well, but they’re generally well masked by how the album evolves around its thematic core. On that note, your tolerance for the album will largely depend on how much you can cope with Blake’s new-found happiness. The Penguin is also slightly in love with his other half after recently getting into The Good Place, so is happy to forgive, but others may struggle given how open and on-point the lyrics are at points.

At 48 minutes the album still feels a little baggy – lose two songs and we could be talking about a masterpiece – but its probably Blake’s finest album to date and shows yet more evolution. If anything, the intrigue will be even higher when his next release comes out.


Album Review: Red Rum Club – Matador

Image result for red rum club matador

Red Rum Club – Matador 

Have you ever wondered what it’d sound like if the Coral soundtracked a western? Well wonder no more, because Scouse sextet Red Rum Club  (I assumed they’re named after the Grand National winning horse of the 70s, either that or they’re guzzling some weird cocktails) have brought together a collection of indie pop songs that’ll satisfy your curiosity with their debut album.

Matador is a relentlessly fun album that – at a pithy 31 minutes – never outstays it’s welcome. Encompassing a Mariachi sound through its almost ever present trumpets, it’s full of fun and toe-tapping songs. The album comes galloping – quite literally – out of the gates with Angeline, an instantly catchy and fun track that instantly sets the tone for what is to come.

It’s almost impossible to write a review of a band from Liverpool without referencing the proud pop heritage of the city, and throughout Matador there are homages to their predecessors. You can certainly hear the Coral (Honey, but many others as well) and the La’s (TV Said So) and there’s hits on here – perhaps most notably Would You Rather Be Lonely?) that a certain Fab Four would be proud of. But the joy of Matador is that they’re taking the past – with all its familiarity – and giving it a new and playful twist.

The songs are catchy, the trumpet elevates everything and if this is as good live as it is on record then they’re a ‘must not miss’ for the summer festivals. My personal favourite is probably Nobody Gets Out Alive – which feels like a proper western showdown with its ominous bass and dramatic trumpeting – but there are few bad moments here.

Matador is not a lyrically or musically complex album. It probably won’t win any fans at Pitchfork. But sometimes you just need music to be fun, where you can sing and dance along. This is an album that has that in spades.