Saturday, 11 September 2010

New Releases

Summer Camp- Youth

Those Su-hummer- Niiiigihh-hiiights (tell me more, tell me more)

There's something deliciously English about the idea that the past is somehow superior.

Whether its women desperate to recapture their youth with botox, paunchy old rock stars reforming for stadium tours, or popular films, fashions and TV shows being rehashed and reshaped, the past is constantly becoming integrated into another generation’s identity and cultural narrative. Along with queuing and being casually racist, having a good old wallow in nostalgia is what us Brits do best.

It often seems that English people exist in a state of constant fear that they are living in a world that is worse than their predecessors, that somehow if they could return to the ‘free love’ of the 60’s or the ‘make do and mend’ attitudes of the 30’s or lose themselves in the hedonism of the 80’s they might feel more fulfilled. The sad truth is that most of the time nostalgia is a lie. The past was never that good, and all your reference points are way out of line. This is particularly true when it comes to your childhood. You may remember heady days of climbing trees, blowing huge bubblegum balloons and running until you ran out of park. The truth is that for most of the time you were bored out of your mind and you had nits.

If anyone is guilty of over romanticising youth it’s ‘Summer Camp’. A band more twee than a Belle and Sebastian convention or the lovechild of Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel, their lyrics paint a picture of the kind of adolescence you only see in John Hughes movies. We’re talking Polaroid photos, unrequited crushes that make you feel like you want to die, boys dressed as teen wolf barfing on the carpet, fumbles in the upstairs bedroom “on a dirty blue duvet” and burning your first love letter. Behind the dreamy boy-girl harmonising come punchy synths, squelchy at first and then languid and lazy like a day spent lying on your back on the grass, squinting at the sun. The backing track to opener ‘Round the Moon’ sounds like it’s being played backwards and has the feel of an 80’s detective show theme tune being fed through a mangle. If you’re not sure what that would sound like, it’s pretty rad.

The fact is, while it shouldn’t be, the whole album is pretty rad. The lyrics never feel cloying, perhaps because singers Jeremy Warmsley (yes, him) and Elizabeth Sankey deliver their message of a never-ending summer with a typically British curl of the lip. As Sankey intones on ‘Veronica Sawyer’:  “I’ll never be young again but that’s ok/ I’ve got so much more than this”

Perhaps it’s because Jez and Liz are a real life couple. Maybe its because it was recorded in their bedroom (at times you practically feel as if you’re snuggled in bed with them watching T4) Whatever the reason, the collection of songs never seem artificial. The sentiments always feel sincere. It also never becomes a pastiche, despite the lyrics being ones you’ve heard a million and one times before (“Think back to the summer/ Days went on forever”) Instead, you realise that ‘Young’ is an album created by people who are genuinely passionate about the kind of lo-fi tunes that ‘zines are written about. People who are living in the kind of artistic world where these kind of sentiments are not fantasy. Nostalgic and unrealistic it may be, but it’s delivered with a lot of heart and soul. Music needs shades of dark and light, and ‘Summer Camp’ with their NHS specs and their reliance on cardigans are keeping the lights on in the darkness of winter. Here’s betting their first child is called either Emilio or Molly. 

Brandon Flowers- Flamingo

The Killers frontman attempts to distance himself from the Mafia’s playground, and is largely unsuccessful.

It’s half past two in the afternoon and Brandon Flowers has woken up in a seedy motel. His money has been wasted on cheap whisky and expensive games of blackjack. His head pounding, he sits up and notices the ropey looking call girl lying next to him; the call girl who has given him the clap. Outside the wind rolls across the arid Nevadan desert and in the distance the lights of Las Vegas shine brightly. The same lights that cause Flowers to “stumble down the boulevard with neon encrusted temples” ‘Flamingo’ is the sound of Flowers coming round from the mother of all hangovers and looking for salvation from the excesses of sin city.

Billed as the languid front man’s ‘debut’, in truth this is a Killers album by another name. All of the band’s calling cards are present. Behold, if you will, the synths, eyeliner, juggernaut-sized choruses and well-observed slices of Americana. A witch-house album it aint. But this is perhaps not surprising. The songs had originally been written for the whole band to perform but when they fancied a break, Flowers thought he’d go it alone. The fact that he is the only one of the Killers anyone actually knows probably helped. The result however, is an album that is never quite as potent as it should be.

It’s not for want of trying. Flowers apes U2 and Neil Young and all but covers Born in the U.S.A in an attempt to pack a suitably road-trippin’, state of the nationish punch. It’s just not enough and by track 6, ‘Valentina’ his Springsteen karaoke shtick has begun to grate somewhat. What else is the line “I got a job at the nugget and I saved $1000 for a brand new start” but a poor man’s ‘Atlantic City’ rip off? -“I drew what I had from the central trust and I bought us two tickets on that Grove City bus”

The motif of a man’s desire to escape the confines of his hometown is not new, and while Flowers does it well, his pleas to the Lord and images of sin and forgiveness are never strong enough to provide a new perspective. When he begs “Redemption keep my sheets clean tonight” you almost believe, until you realise that Flowers is as much Las Vegas as Morrissey is Manchester. Despite his attempts to prove otherwise, and for all his rosary bed rubbing and talk of salvation from its evils, he needs the city. This album, his attempt at redemption, doesn’t work purely because it seems like a death- bed conversion. Flowers never truly believes and therefore neither can we.

One thing he should believe in is the power of his Killers band mates. Without his brothers in arms behind him, Flowers has lost much of his razzmatazz. ‘Flamingo’, like the city that spawned it, is style over substance and leaves us exhausted, with more questions than answers. Flowers needs to get himself to confession pronto because the salvation he is waiting for is not going to come with this album. 


Hurts- Happiness

A passion for fashion but not necessarily the tunes to match

Every fool knows that being in a successful band is 40% actual musical talent and 60% style.

Think for a moment of the coolest bands you know. The Ramones. Roxy Music. The Strokes. All of them have got a certain sartorial je ne sais quoi to match their banging tunes.  Give Hurts a quick once over and you know they’re a band who’ve got the image thing down. The brylcreamed hair, the slightly oversized Miami Vice jackets, the collarless button down shirts, the single gold hoop earring, and most of all the monochrome cover of their album, are all knowing nods to the decade that taste forgot. These look like the kind of lads who seduce girls by slow dancing them to ‘Smooth Operator’ over a campari and soda. And why the hell not? With a Tory government shitting on the poor, rising unemployment, weekly industrial action, ‘The A-Team’ and ‘The Karate Kid’ raking it in at the box office, and double denim sales through the roof, Hurts are striking at a time when the iron of 80’s revival has reached maximum heat. Stylish and strangely attractive (one of them even looks like those blokes from Bros-swoon!) they’re 60% of the way there. So, what of the other 40%? 

As you’d expect this is the artier, more sophisticated end of the 80’s spectrum. Whilst the album is partially dedicated to Kylie Minogue, there is little of her frothiness here (even on her collaboration with the band ‘Devotion’) Instead we’re firmly setting up pitch in the Pet Shop Boys-Tears For Fears-Spandau Ballet encampment of cerebral power pop. Not that it’s an especially sunny vacation spot. Only a few tracks in and you realise that ‘Happiness’ is an ironic title. The songs, awash with strings, heartfelt declarations of love, handclap drums and big, brassy choirs all topped off with the emotion laden blips and blops of the synthesisers leave little to smile about. Take ‘Sunday’ with its morose refrain “The loverless nights they seem so long/ I know that I’ll hold you someday/ But until you come back where you belong/ It’s just another lonely Sunday” The sorrow never lets up throughout the album, building to near hysteria by the end. While on some tracks it’s magnificent, on others it ends up being the 80’s at its worst- bloated and tedious. Many tracks become so fist clenchingly ballady that they threaten to tip into Eurovision territory. Yikes.

The strongest ditties on the album are undoubtedly singles ‘Wonderful Life’ and ‘Better Than Love’ although this is partly because they sound like you’ve heard them before. The latter especially is such an effective pastiche that it could be a lost ABC album track. Listen to hidden song ‘Verona’ and it takes a while to remember that you’re not listening to Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’.

A mixed bag then. When it’s good it’s good and when it’s bad it sounds like Michael Bolton. The album is somewhat like the 80’s itself- a lot of brilliance and moments of sheer lunacy that sometimes pay off but more often than not leave you feeling like you’ve done too much coke and you want to cry. If you’re really yearning for a slice of 80’s nostalgia pie then flick your telly box over to This Is England ’86, a programme that captures the spirit of the 80’s far more effectively than this album can ever hope to. Good try lads but you’ve got a long way to go for that extra 40%. 

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