By BRUCE DENNILL
Red Hot Chili Peppers: The Getaway
The National: Sleep Well Beast
Bombay Bicycle Club: So Long, See You Tomorrow
Brian & Jenn: After All These Years
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of those bands who, for better or worse, sound exactly like themselves album in and album out. It’s a notable achievement in terms of the way that sound has been developed and the influence it has had on dozens of other bands, but it does mean that dishing up something fresh is a challenging task. Bringing producer du jour Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton) on board has made something of an impact in that regard, adding a few layers of electronica here and there and often downplaying Chad Smith’s usually muscular rhythm-setting. Single Dark Necessities ignores these changes, sticking closely to the Peppers’s formula – Flea’s prominent bassline, Antony Keidis’ rap-sung melody and dependable back-up from the rest – but sounding (certainly in the first half, before the strings kick in) like a garage demo, where the band’s chemistry plays a larger role in making the song effective than any production could. The Longest Wave meets Burton halfway (old-school Peppers vibes plus smooth synthesisers) before Sick Love offers a familiar note, something that sounds like Seventies pop. A glance at the credits reveals no less than Elton John and Bernie Taupin as co-writers (John also plays piano), which proves that observation true. Go Robot, also a single, displays Burton’s more obviously – to the point that it could be a Danger Mouse single featuring the Chili Peppers as easily as the other way around (though, interestingly, it’s not one of the tracks on which Burton gets a co-writer credit). The Hunter is woozy psychedelia, stepped up for closer Dreams Of A Samurai, a typically out-there, Hollywood topic for a song by a band who’ve fully indulged in the rock and roll lifestyle over the years. The Getaway doesn’t feel completely cohesive up front, and there’s a fair bit of filler. But the aforementioned capacity to make music that is consistently of a type means that listeners who have liked the Chili Peppers at some point will find a mood and a tone they can relate to here.
Sleep Well Beast is nearly an hour of mostly introspective musical mumbling by the deep-voiced Matt Berninger, accompanied by backing that comprises as much electronica as it does guitars and drums. This is not much of a departure from the band’s usual modus operandi, but as their influence has grown, it’s possible that more is expected from them and this album is more a continuation of a theme – a feat in itself, mind – rather than growth into that expanded authority. Nobody Else Will Be There is naggingly effective, a spoken-sung Velvet Underground dirge that returns to its hook often enough to make it lodge in your brain. Day I Die is faster and louder, Morrissey fronting The Killers; before Walk It Back lyrically examines conflict in relationships, but only in the brain of one half of the partnership. The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness adds a gritty little guitar lick and a trebly Britpop chorus to what is a lyrically desolate track to create an unlikely single, and then Born To Beg suggests a mopey Death Cab For Cutie or a trippy Leonard Cohen as the album begins to reveal the thought behind its genesis and the balance in its construction. Turtleneck turns expectations on their head by turning everything up and making it messier, like REM jumping from Automatic For The People to Monster in the space of a few minutes. I’ll Still Destroy You sounds half like that title suggests it will and half skittishly melodic, before the equally sinisterly named Dark Side Of The Gym pours on the musical beauty, though the line “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while” could be sweet or psycho, depending on how you look at it. This is not a simple album to listen to and may inspire occasional ambivalence as well as appreciation. The band’s sterling reputation, though, is not built on nothing, and close listening will yield different rewards each time.
Purveyors of indie electronic pop rather than, as the name suggests, a gently humorous coming of age film starring Judi Dench, Bombay Bicycle Club, don’t adhere to stereotypes. As a result, a first listen to So Long, See You Tomorrow may not leave listeners much the wiser as to how they feel about what they’ve heard. But perseverance reveals layers that entice and fascinate in much the same way the music of Chris Letcher does. Overdone is a forgettable start, but it’s followed by the album’s first highlight, It’s Alright Now, which offers psychedelic countermelodies that untangle pleasingly as you listen. Whenever, Wherever begins quietly but then develops, a la The Beach Boys or ELO, to a strong crescendo. Eyes Off You is a love song, but an unconventional one, taking Death Cab For Cutie brittleness and giving it a touch of Polyphonic Spree bombast. Feel goes back to Letcher, with a kwaito-style beat thrown in to add another touch of familiarity for South African fans. But for a couple of patches of filler – few and far between, this would be in line to become one of those albums repeatedly referenced by fans over the course of a number of years; a soundtrack rather than a snapshot. For some, it may yet achieve that status.
Married couple Brian and Jenn Johnson are two of the leaders of the super-productive Bethel Music collective. They usually perform and record with their fellow worship leaders from the Bethel Church in Reading, California, but After All These Years sees just the two of them fronting a collection of ten new songs. There’s a crack team involved, with Matt Redman, Jeremy Riddle and Jason Ingram among the co-writers collaborated with, Ingram also handling the production (with Paul Mabury) and Brett Mabury handling the quite gorgeous string arrangements. Those strings are a standout feature of the album and no doubt one of the driving factors behind putting together this release, as a full band of of other Bethel players, with guitars and keyboards and all the rest, would not have fitted these songs nearly as well. If that is true, the inclusion of Mercy And Majesty – or at least this arrangement of it, with an indelicate electronic club-style beat distracting from its melody – is an odd choice, and placing it halfway through the album slightly undoes the good work of the first four tracks in establishing a meaningful mood and tone. Opener Mention Of Your Name, with Jenn taking lead vocals, is stately and gorgeous, a subtle electronic voice filter suggesting Imogen Heap trying her hand at worship music. Brian takes the lead on the next song, Only Jesus (the swapping back and forth is a general but not reliable pattern), and the track is as strong – if not as plaintive – as its predecessor. Jenn is again on top form for Gravity, which swells and subsides in a chest-filling, soaring fashion. It’s one of several examples of her improved range of expression, with less stridency and more sensitivity. Brian – and the string arrangements – follow suit on I Won’t Forget to complete a formidable opening quartet. After the out-of-place blip (stylistically speaking) of Mercy And Majesty, there’s more of the same until the end of the album. That such a serene approach can be maintained throughout speaks to the quality of the songwriting, the brilliance of the string arrangements and the considerable nous involved in combining them effectively. Sonically, there’s plenty going on here, but the way the songs are structured speaks directly to listeners’ emotions, encouraging a meditative, bigger-than-this-moment mindset – arguably much more effective for a worship experience than something with a more cluttered soundtrack.