Florence and the Machine: ‚High as Hope‘ as good as new

I loved Florence and the Machine’s debut album. It was dramatic, grand and full of epos and theatrical songs, cheeky storytelling and some amazing cover versions of underrated songs. 

Since the album reached me during the last years of my life as a student, just getting out of a deep, close to depressive phase, the album also felt like one gigantic catharsis, because Florence Welch is so loud and that’s such an amazing thing to just stand there and shout every feeling from the rooftops. 

However, with her second album „Ceremonies“, I lost her a little. The high production values and the big dramatic arches verged on decadence. It felt like a menu that serves only the richest chocolate cake. It was too much and the accents of her first album got lost in the grandeur of it all. 

Now, with her fourth album „High as Hope“, I feel the joy, drama and big moods of Florence Welch are back in my life and what a rich life that is. 

I am not aware of most music videos because music television is basically dead and done but my gosh, that’s a fantastic music video. 

What I always loved about Florence is her punk infused balance of emotion over beauty. Sometimes, her voice breaks or she gets too loud to sound pretty but that’s just it: it’s not about perfection and smoothness, it’s about that slightly burned note of caramel, that bitter taste of coffee, that off-key note full of feelings.

I also feel like music like Florence’s is such a beautiful thing because she really never shies away from pathos. Loyal readers of my blog know that I – a gigantic fan of classic rock and pretty much all of the 80s pop catalog – have a soft, squishy spot for pathos. Freddy Mercury wasn’t the star he was because he was moderate and cool. He was a star because he gave it all, like a theater actor dressed up colorful enough and talking loud enough that even the last row could feel what he felt. Florence’s music is just like that. It’s such a strong, intense, emotional thing that it can really grip you, no matter where you are, no matter how far away. 

Personally, I love this side of her and I am very glad that Florence went back to less pizzazz in the production and more Feels in the whole album. It’s a beautiful album, an honest album, a great pick-me-up.

I love everyone who emulates Kate Bush during her “Babooshka”-era, so thank you very much, Florence. Also: that’s a banging choreography. It’s so unnerving, I love it!

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Neko Case ‘Hell-On’: thank the heavens, it’s a gorgeous album

Look, if you take a solo-album break for 5 years, people expect a lot! Sure, that Poweralbum with K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs was great but it wasn’t enough for all of our cravings. So, when the first songs of “Hell-On” were released and were great, I was so excited but also scared that it was one of those ‘oh, the first singles are great but the rest is not’. Oh, but it is and I can hear that sigh (and jubilee) of relief all over the world.

“Hell-On” is absolutely gorgeous, it’s riveting, it’s exciting, it’s full of cool guest stars which show again that if you want to do a duet, do it with Neko Case because her voice fits everyone’s voice and adds so many layers. Even more so, “Hell-On” is a typical Neko Case album in that it has a lot to say in beautiful images and such a beautiful way with words.

And me, I am not a mess

I am a wilderness, yes

The album is an ode to the things that get lost on our way forward, for better or worse. Quite often, there is a sadness to the wastelands we leave in wake of our own evolution. In “The I5 Corridor” there are hints of an old romance that still could feel fresh but doesn’t and it’s such a great country song (also thanks to Mark Lanegan, who is such a graceful duet partner). It has the cigarettes and the booze and something sexy and something sad.

You were a good man before you knew it

And I’m not vain enough to think that

I’d have been good for you if I’d stayed

In the current of your life

I was an eyelash in the shipping lanes

In “Bad Luck”, Case shows her grim humour. It’s like 2018’s “Ironic” but without sad dudes explaining us for decades how it’s not ironic because Case simply invents new ways of bringing old rituals and superstitions to life.
The cover symbolized (in Neko Case’s words in this Stereogum-Interview) the force of nature and Case herself is shown with a halo of burning  (fake movie) cigarettes on her album cover because she fell in love with them.

One of the greatest talents of Neko Case is her sense for change: when does a song need this one backup vocal that pierces your heart, or that one radio-voice that will break up a solemn song like “Gumball Blue” and remind you of your teenage years in the 90s? That she also defines relationships outside of the romantic realm – something that still gets not enough space in modern songwriting – is another beauty. “Gumball Blue” was co-written by A.C. Newman, by the way, Case brought him into the songwriting because the song is essentially about him and she wanted him to be part of it.

Another thing and story that might have framed the album is the history of the abuse of women. Neko Case dealt with a stalker and had to go through all the tedious and stressful procedures women have to endure before someone takes them seriously and she wondered when this started. “My Uncle’s Navy” is one of these songs and reminds a little of “Deep Red Bells” given that it deals with horrible men and how they affect not only women but society as a whole with their abuse.

“And if you’re tenderhearted you should stop the tape, snap the tape”, Case sings before she tells what he did (now, whether it’s autobiographical or not doesn’t really matter, as probably most listeners know people like this, sadly).

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Case says that Adrienne Mayor’s book “Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” helped her a lot to understand how women’s history is buried but it can be found and it is being found by younger generations. And right in there fits “Winnie” (with additional vocals by Beth Ditto) because it reminds me of the great girl groups of the 60s. The song itself is a story about female empowerment through female friendship which can be overwhelmingly beautiful.

The last track on the album, “Pitch or Honey” is a grand last song because it’s like Case’s journey towards this album as it’s pretty meta lyrically, announcing “I use major chords to make this a sadder song”. And finishes with “I love you better when you’re wild” and I guess that’s why Neko Case is such a force in songwriting: she’s not afraid to get dark and aggressive and sinister and sarcastic but she always adds her humanity into it.

Mystery Art Orchestra ‘Prismatic Dream’ – dark and moody from Brandenburg/Berlin

On May 25th, the Berlin/Brandenburg outfit Mystery Art Orchestra released their album “Prismatic Dream” and asked me ages ago to do a review. Originally, I was a little on the fence because I always expect the worst but this band is quite the surprise.

By the way, this is a very atmospheric moody video with good story telling. I like the “Twilight”-shots of the forests in Brandenburg (don’t be smug, the camera work in the first “Twilight”-movie was pitch-perfect melancholia).

Opening with tittering violins and then delving into deep drums and electric guitars like a late 80s metal band (looking at you, Danzig!), one could think that this is going to be a blast from the past. And it is. Although more new wave/post-punk than metal, Mystery Art Orchestra indeed reference the darker, more sinister side of the 80s. But they also lead their songs into mesmerizing instrumental parts that are verging on psychedelia. That in itself is a lovely combination. Add to that a charming lo-fi production and vocals from the other room (love that garage sound) and you have a beautiful journey through time and space and warbling guitars.

I am not too sure about the vocal decisions on some of the songs (there’s some grunge-Cobain flair on “Dead Faint” that can also be heard on “Immaculate Youth” that bothers me on these songs more than on others) but as with most post-punk outfits, the vocals are not  front and center and therefore merely raise an eyebrow.

One of the greatest things is the guitar work on the album. “Dead Faint”, for example, has a beautiful Smith’s guitar with a little Beach Boys-tinge that sounds outright sinister with all the bass b(l)ooming from the sidelines. Don’t forget, this genre lives and dies by the guitar and this one does amazing, sweetie.

Songs like “Camouflage” remind me of the big, gigantic 80s flashback of the early 2000s (Editors, Interpol, The Departure) as well as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club but with synths (!).
You can clearly hear that the band still is trying out a little which direction they want to take (they started out as a psychedelic band and moved more towards post-punk in recent years) but everything sounds cohesive enough for the experiments to be entertaining and part of the overall feel of the album. There’s a few songs I could take or leave (“Immaculate Youth” is a little bit too clichè which is not helped by the much stronger “Awake” preceding it).

This is some “A place to bury strangers“-video right here.

I also feel as if “Dreams” tries something that Echo & The Bunnymen perfected, which is the dreamy, slowed-down wave ballad. As it is, it also leans more towards the slightly unfinished cruise ship lounge-variety hour than “Ocean Rain” (but then again, Ian McCulloch is a singing power house).

But enough criticism, I am generally very fond of this album and will absolutely dig it up once Autumn hits Berlin, because 80s post-punk is the best for gloomy and rainy evenings. I especially applaud the track list because they throw the heavy songs right into your face at the beginning and only later show that they can also be a little more radio-friendly. In my case, those heavy songs were so interesting that I immediately wanted to write about the album, so kudos for that.

All in all: if you like blurry guitar sounds, melancholic vocals and long stretches of instrumentals lining your car rides, lonely walks or meaningful stares out of the windows, you’ve reached the right address with Mystery Art Orchestra.

Wax Fang ‘Victory Laps’ – how the hell do I keep missing these album releases?

So, Wax Fang and I have a running gag going: I will listen to their albums and look them up and follow them on all social media accounts and wait for news of a new album and then roughly a year later I will do the same and realize that they have released a new album ages ago, like, seconds after I last checked them. I suspect that they do this in a weird time bubble that only special people get invited to and I am not one of them (maybe because I think that Szechuan McDonalds sauce is gross?).

Anyways, so back in 2017, Wax Fang released “Victory Laps” which starts with the spacey electro beat monster “Pusher”. It starts like you should be disappointed because it sounds so normal and then, as usual, it turns into the theatrical extravaganza that all of their songs and albums do so well (and do so differently each time). I guess, if you don’t like Scott Carney’s voice, you will be lost with basically all Wax Fang-albums because his vocals are so present (and desperately close) on all of them but I personally love this weirdo and amazing voice since the first time I heard it on “American Dad” (of all the places …).

Whereas their previous album “Astronaut” was a nearly claustrophobic psychedelic prog monster so intense that I once had to stop and listen to something else whilst on a plane, “Victory Laps” goes more into the pop/disco/rock’n’roll direction with the usual pizzazz of Carney’s vocals and the long, winding instrumental solos that always leave you somewhere completely different than the initial starting point. Every Wax Fang album, so far, has been like “Alice in Wonderland”, you just really never know what the hell will happen but it’s all so fascinating and quite charming if you don’t think too much about the head-chopping.

Maybe, Wax Fang is the closest we could get to a 21st century Sparks, if Sparks weren’t still releasing albums.

“Victory Laps” is less conceptual weirdo rock opera like “Astronaut” or “La La Land” but still beautiful. Songs like “Do the Math” are such a gorgeous break from the high-tempo, breathless predecessors. Weirdly enough, this could appear just as ironic and detached, dare I say “phony” as the Arctic Monkeys wearing weird beards now, but with Wax Fang, the humor always goes along with so much love to the pathos, that their music never sounds like a sneer towards the more emotional side of rock.

The only song that I really could live without because it’s full-on parody 80s sci-fi teen comedy is “Mystery Girl” which has a ridiculous chorus. But even that song turns into the weirdest space instrumental in the second half, so that you can’t even get mad at them. By the end of the 6:15 (one of the longest songs on the album), it’s like the annoying camp song you hated at the beginning but that now reminds you of all the good times, looking for that serial killer’s secret brother you fell in love with during musical rehearsals.

Oh, and that last song? My kinda song. Actually, I did hear that song when it was released but apparently still missed the memo about the album. Still, “Exit Strategy” is the kind of dark, desperate scream into the void that really speaks to me late at night shortly before I remember all the horrible things I’ve ever done. It’s disturbing and gorgeous and oh so sinister. Also, Carney’s duet with the guitar is beautiful.

Arctic Monkeys ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ – something’s missing

Since the debut album in 2006, the Arctic Monkeys have cemented their status as a band with some of the greatest ironic song titles combined with – at times – surprisingly intimate songwriting. Alex Turner has a way with words and just knows how to make everything sound more meaningful even if it is just about returning home to your partner after a long time away or flirting with someone in a club.

For the first couple of albums, these strengths in songwriting were combined with superb and quite titillating melodies and song structures. And then, for better or worse, Alex Turner met Josh Homme and it feels as if nothing has ever been the same since then.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Qotsa and think Homme is a great musician if he’s not kicking music journalists in the head like a total dick. And I love the Arctic Monkeys. But the Homme-touch did turn all Arctic Monkey albums that followed into a musically more experimental, daring albeit less fun venture that sometimes (for me, too often) lacks heart.

I loved the first two albums to death and even respected the somewhat different direction of “Humbug”. Every new album feels like I could get back to the initial excitement and a few songs always intrigue me but it’s now been nine years and three more albums and I guess I have to admit that I just don’t like and/or get their music anymore. For me, the band that used to be so much fun, ironic but still sensitive, smart and rambunctious turned into a band that always sounds detached, a little bit bored and despite obvious talent within the whole band, a little lackluster despite the quality of their songs. Like a lounge band on a ship after 10 years of serenading people in cargo shorts eating all-you-can-eat shrimps day in, day out. In short: the fun you could hear from the music back then seems to has lost its way for something that’s more artistic maybe, but also quite a bit smug.

I love the retro vibe of the new songs. But honestly, I thought that Turner’s side project “The Shadow Puppets” did it better. The production is impeccable and Turner’s vocals are getting better and better each year. But it’s weirdly off-putting for me to hear Alex Turner sing like a parody lounge singer, mashing and drawing out his vocals into something sticky, sleazy, something you do when your friends ask you “to do that thing, you know, the thing” and then you parade around the room and everyone laughs.

(it’s all such a look but it feels so artificial)

Everything feels ironic with the new album and maybe that’s the plan but after songs like “505” or “Do me a favour”, which sounded like honest views (from the afternoon) on someone’s life, this irony is layered a bit thick.
I don’t care about musical finesse if there’s a Zappa-esque ironic detachment, it’s like a hollowed out candy, like the wizard of OZ it deflates as soon as I look behind the curtains. I guess I would have appreciated more if they would have started out differently but this way, it’s just a little sad to say goodbye (for now).

Oh, and don’t get me wrong, I still would recommend the album if you like musical experiments and a little weirdness thrown in because it’s a brilliant album when it comes to that. It’s just not what I was looking for.

Blackwater Holylight: holy shit you guys, this rocks!

Blackwater Holylight just released their album (you can hear it on Bandcamp) and it is so delicious, I can’t even!

It starts out in this 80s wave-length that I generally get drawn to but then, OMG, they suddenly drift into this heavy doomy bass-ridden Stonegaze as if True Widow were asked to do the soundtrack for “Stranger Things” and it is absolutely marvelous.

“Willow” is the first song on the album and it packs a punch. I mean, listening to this I kinda wish they would remake “The Craft” and only use Blackwater Holylight for the soundtrack.

For one, it’s such an awesome combination to have the melody-happy 80s mixed with the heaviest guitar walls and pretty much move you into dark and fuzzy psychedelia. Their song “Sunrise” is so gorgeous because it’s cool, retro but also old, dangerous and stares at you way too long. Fronted by vocalist and bass monster Allison Farris, the band also consists of Laura Hopkins (vocalist and guitar dragon), Cat Hoch (drumming machine) and Sarah McKenna (official 80s synth siren).

It’s the greatest kind of fusion, especially when you thought you know what they’re about and suddenly a song turns around the corner to do a gitarrero bit or sludge its way to your heart.

Look, if you want to get way too hard into a band this year and shout at everyone who doesn’t know them, this is the band to beat.

Orlando Weeks ‘The Gritterman’ – it took a while to get here

Sometimes, an illustrator also does music and he does it so well, that all people know him for is his music. And because maybe he is humble or maybe he does not yet know what to draw, one day he does music and lets another illustrator draw the story for it and then one day, the music as he did it before comes to an end and now there’s time and there’s an idea and there it is, a book, a picture book full of snow.

To be honest, I saved this one, because that’s what I do. I keep the thing that I want most on the plate and eat everything else, so I can have it for myself without anything else distracting me. And sometimes, I wait too long and then I am full and don’t want it anymore or the story about a gritterman on his last day of work in the midst of Winter feels awfully out of place on a warm day in Spring. But here I am and here is the book full of snow and here is also, a lovely audio book but also an album that feels like a radio play that has fallen out of time into our time, right into Spring, as it is.

“The Gritterman” is – first and foremost – about saying goodbye. On many pages, we see him on his own in his flat, sitting by himself – his “Joy” died a while ago – and going about his day as people do who feel something’s missing but don’t feel like giving up.

“Truth of the matter, it’s always the same. You dress for the sun and down comes the rain so you dress for the rain and the sun’s out again. It’s as old as the weather.”

The Gritterman has his last day as the gritterman on Christmas eve, they don’t need his old van anymore, nor his grit, nor the shaky headlights nor him. So we go along with him, on his last drive.

The accompanying record is narrated by Paul Whitehouse as Gritterman. The songs and the music are by Weeks who is incredibly soft-spoken, a warm piano like a blanket. It’s like a Christmas tale by the fire, such a lovely, gentle story, such a beautiful and sad story, something that doesn’t feel like it ever was written but was something that one person told the other and so on.

“I love that one. You never think of someone having to write Christmas carols. They’re just sort of there, aren’t they, like the AtoZ.”

You can wonder whether it is the loss of his job or the looming loneliness that awaits without anything to look forward to, without his Joy to be “company on the slower days”. Is “The Gritterman” about grief that is buried under the snow or is it about an old thing coming to an end because the time has come for change and some things don’t fit when things have changed?

It’s equally open to interpretation (or maybe not so much) how the Gritterman ends his last day of work. Alongside the smaller and smaller illustrations of the places his van has driven by all the years and the small shining light in the dark and stormy night, the story itself grows into fragments of thoughts and images and finally a dark starry night.

When one thing ends, it’s sometimes hard to grasp how anything can go on afterwards. In small ways, it can be the end of a band you’ve listened to since 10 years and more. In big ways, it can be the loss of a person who you were so close to and who was as much a part of your life as you were part of theirs. And without them, your life feels a little lonelier but you’re also missing some parts that went with them, maybe the person you could only be when you were with them.

Sometimes, though, there is a moment, when everything is calm and peaceful, like a starry night, like snow on Christmas, like a last journey on well-trodden paths. Sometimes, in small ways, someone might pursue what they intended to do in the first place and create a book full of snow and create music full of warmth and love and create a story about something that is sad but hopeful. Sometimes, in big ways, you find that the loss has grown into a new part of you and it might not only be filled with grief but also with love and memories and dreams that allow you to see them, if only for a while, if only at night.