By BRUCE DENNILL
Kelis: Food 6
Alt-J: This Is All Yours 7
Muse: Drones 7.5
Queens Of The Stone Age: Villains 7.5
Kelis’s best-known hit is arguably still Milkshake, so perhaps there’s a connection between those stats and the title of her latest collection, which features the tracks Breakfast, Jerk Ribs, Friday Fish Fry and Biscuits’ N’ Gravy in the same culinary tradition. Whatever the thinking there, this album’s sound is more about soulful R&B than it is about radio pop. Keli’s voice plays beautifully into that niche, deeper and more emotionally ragged than many listeners will remember. Producer David Andrew Sitek (of TV On The Radio) has introduced a horn section, prominent basslines and more, shown of on first single Jerk Ribs to smooth, catchy effect. Floyd, conversely, is all smoky film noir soundtrack, ringing with organ chords and breathy lyrics about wanting to be “blown away”. And later, there’s a duet – set against simple, picked acoustic guitar – with Sal Masekela (Hugh’s son) called Bless The Telephone, followed by the relatively raucous stomp of Friday Fish Fry. The range is impressive, but it’s also – other than the menu-related-related items – disparate. Kelis seems unsure of her (or the character from whose point of view she might be singing) identity. This means that Food as a collection connects more as the expression of a mood than as a number of stories that listeners might resonate with. No bad thing, necessarily, but vaguely unsatisfactory.
English trio Alt-J won the Mercury Prize for their debut An Awesome Wave and join many previous winners out somewhere in left field in terms of mainstream tastes (though this album was a UK chart-topper on release). They specialise in what could perhaps be called electronic folk, with vocalist Joe Newman keening plaintively over starkly picked guitars, alternately gentle and threatening keyboards and the occasional sample. Lyrically, Alt-J are not folk in the conventional storytelling sense, with lines like “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag, turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet” (in the relatively forceful Every Other Freckle) suggesting a less than clichéd perspective. Left Hand Free has a Black Keys swagger to it and is probably the most accessible thing in the collection, though the band take care to balance that out – this is not pop, thank you very much – by following it with a minute-long flute-and-birdsong instrumental called Garden Of England. Choice Kingdom is about where you realise that This Is All Yours, for all its quirkiness, is starting to creep under your skin, recalling the melancholic but beautiful likes of Bon Iver and helping to continue to dismantle the verse-chorus-middle eight songwriting model. That’s not to say that Alt-J is completely immune to the charm of the pop world, with Hunger Of The Pine suggesting the hovering presence of A-ha in its hook and vocals. There’s more ethereal appeal in Pusher and Bloodflood Pt II before, right at the end (after a huge gap) there’s a hidden track – an unsurprisingly reconstructed version of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day at once more pastoral and angular than the original. This is an intriguing collection that reveals its unusual charms in stages.
Muse long ago stopped focusing on commercial appeal (if indeed that was ever a consideration) and much of Drones feels as much like a statement as a collection of music. To that end, two of the tracks are spoken word records – one of a drill sergeant shouting at recruits and the other of a JFK speech (which mentions dissenters being silenced rather than praised, among other things) with some looming guitar chords in the background. The song themes do nothing to add levity, but Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard’s superior musicianship does ensure that there are dynamics aplenty, so listener emotions are manipulated in that way. Dead Inside has all the drama of an updated Queen – still the best reference for the skill and musical experimentation of which the band is capable. Pyscho’s loping rhythm and chunky riff support lyrics speaking of the distressing brainwashing soldiers are subjected to. Mercy starts more gently, but when Bellamy starts opining, “Show me mercy from the powers that be; show me mercy from the gutless and mean”, it becomes clear that the ubiquity of Big Brother and the negative effects of poor leadership pervade every perspective. Reapers allows the trio a little more space for musical expression before the slow, angry march of The Handler showcases all the Muse staples, from bass effects to Bellamy’s falsetto. By now, the moodiness has become entrenched, and for listeners committed to meditating on the topics the band is presenting, Defector provides another anthemic outlet. Revolt suggests the slightly more mainstream output of Scottish outfit Twin Atlantic, though it lacks the crushing chorus of many of that band’s songs. There is finally some respite in Aftermath, a relatively old-fashioned power ballad. The Globalist is also fairly quiet (and very long) – think Radiohead tackling the soundtrack for a Western – before the a cappella chant of the title track leaves listeners feeling contemplative rather than complete, a cue to head back to track one and explore the collected philosophy all over again. Challenging, stimulating material.
Few musicians enjoy a reputation for being authentically rock ‘n roll that is the equal of Josh Homme’s. That may have something to do with the Queens Of The Stone Age (QOTSA) singer’s imposing bulk – he’s a rugby lock forward-sized slab – but it’s more likely the result of his dedication to gut-driven, rootsy rock, infused with casually sublime musicianship, on show again in his band’s latest, Villains. The project kicks off with the mildly messy preamble to Feet Don’t Fail Me Now – the equivalent of the orchestra warming up before a symphony – before the song’s thumping, blood-pumping riff kicks in, compressed and compact courtesy of producer Mark Ronson. As ever, Homme’s voice seems improbably high for such a large man, but lines like “One foot in the gutter, the other in the stars,” underline the scale of what the band is aiming for. In the spiky The Way You Used To Do, there’s another line – “I’ll bury anyone who does” – that suggests that anyone getting in the way of such a vision will get short shrift. Domesticated Animals is more in the same vein, evidence that an aggressive five-piece doesn’t need to make that much noise (relative to a power trio, say) to create a cutting, strutting rock song. A sensitive streak is then revealed in Fortress, in which the amps are slightly tempered and Homme almost croons, “If your fortress is under siege, you can always run to me.” Latent punk roots are then exposed in the quick-fire Head Like A Haunted House, before Un-Reborn Again adds electronica and comes across like Muse after a sojourn in Las Vegas. The empty, sinister intro to The Evil Has Landed is the musical equivalent of Pennywise in the drain, but it develops into an agreeably scrubby jam that extends to six-and-a-half minutes, leaving you invigorated rather than startled. Closer Villains Of Circumstance wanders close to pop territory, but in the way that David Bowie did – combining a more obvious hook than most of its predecessors with a left-field perspective and a distinctively alternative delivery. Villains is good the first time you hear it, and better when it’s many sparks are expected as you spin it again.