Released: April 27th, 2015
Highlights: My Terracotta Heart, Ghost Ship, Pyongyang, Mirrorball
“The Magic Whip” marks the return of Blur after an immense twelve-year absence. Given the band’s chameleonic nature, a release of the sort naturally makes fans wonder what shape of Blur is emerging from the lull – the early days shoegazing quartet, the unstoppable force that delivered a spectacular Britpop trilogy, or the more mature band that experimented wildly on the trio of records that preceded its demise. As if Damon Albarn’s endless unpredictable side-projects were not evidence enough, both Graham Coxon and him – the group’s creative forces – are restless inventive souls always looking for new soundscapes to travel to, and so “The Magic Whip” is – naturally – a quirky trip through very unique waves and frequencies.
Stranded in Hong Kong after a show in Japan had been canceled, the four musicians gathered in a studio to see what would come up, and the resulting jams were the embryo that would later develop into “The Magic Whip”. Both the city and the working method are evident in the record. The city-state comes through via the cosmopolitan and contemporary aura Blur is able to conjure through the electronic sounds present in most songs and the vivid sense of claustrophobia and isolation in tunes like “Thought I Was a Spaceman”, a great contemplative and soothing musical depiction of what being afloat in outer-space must feel like; “There Are Too Many of Us”, whose orchestral backup and lyrics perfectly capture the city’s unshakable overpopulation and the ever-diminishing open spaces; and the gorgeous “Pyongyang”, a masterful merging of apocalyptic motifs and loneliness.
Meanwhile, the freewheeling composition strategy leads to very loose grooves upon which Coxon can have fun with his guitar and Albarn can explore his palette of melodies without major shackles. The problem of such approach is that where some rhythmical beds rise, others stall. “Ghost Ship”, for example, is pleasantly sunny; the kind of music one would hear when arriving on a beach resort. On the other end of the scale, there is “Going Out” and “New World Towers”, tunes that seem to have been written on autopilot, with the former nodding to the band’s Britpop era and the second to its more daring electronic phase.
Fortunately, however, differently from “13”, an album on which the group’s experimentalism, at the worst times, bordered on overindulgence, “The Magic Whip” is a far more concise and focused work. Therefore, its few duds are so brief they come off as little detours that need to be taken in order to find the treasures. At the same time, its many highs are incredibly varied, inventive, and clever. From the bubblegum silliness of “Ong Ong” to the haunting “Mirrorball”, “The Magic Whip” is a journey through the many tricks of an ever-motivated group that has, with this latest release, either a motivation to keep working on new music or an opportunity to go out on a fantastic high note.
Artist: The Verve
Released: June 20th, 1995
Highlights: This Is Music, On Your Own, History, No Knock On My Door
In a way, “A Northern Soul” is a lot like its predecessor “A Storm In Heaven”. It is an ambitious sprawling work of a group that blends the melodic sensibilities of Britpop with the spacious production of the Madchester movement in order to create music that sounds so huge it feels like it is coming out of a portal to another dimension that has just burst open in an explosion of flash and color. A good look at the album, however, reveals that The Verve have evolved to more accessible grounds without abandoning the loose structures of their songwriting and their love for lengthy running times.
For starters, Richard Ashcroft’s voice is unearthed from its electric grave. What was once buried beneath layers of loud lush guitars is now on the forefront of almost all of the tracks, and that shift reveals the vocalist’s incredible versatility. On barn-burning rockers, he sings with the power of a man that is comfortable standing on the edge of a cliff while gusts of wind try to sweep him; on ballads, the honest sadness of his delivery is impossible to ignore. Additionally, the band’s sound feels considerably tighter, though still impressively atmospheric. Instead of washing over listeners with their beauty, the guitars wall them in, packing a far greater punch and surrounding them with loud vibrating mountains.
As a consequence, grasping the tunes becomes far easier; their shape is clearer and their melodies jump out with immediacy. The ballads are more beautiful, be it the acoustic and layered “On Your Own” or the string-adorned “History”, which is as epic as its title and five-minute length suggest. At the same time, the rock tracks are more energetic and engaging, and the band wastes no time displaying their newfound qualities as “A Northern Soul” opens up with the astounding pair of “A New Decade” and “This Is Music”, perhaps the most conventional, yet brilliant, set of numbers the band has ever written. To those looking for wilder electric tracks, though, the album still delivers with great and relatively complex songs such as “So It Goes” and “No Knock On Your Door”.
Sadly, “A Northern Soul” shares its key flaw with its predecessor, which is The Verve’s tendency to be self-indulgent. Given the record’s sixty-four-minute duration, the addition of a six-minute dull instrumental interlude and a lackluster vocal-less closer of the same length feels unnecessary. Besides, a few tunes of similar size do not justify their scope, wearing out their welcome by staying around for a bit too long. Still, despite those issues, when “A Northern Soul” clicks, it does so marvelously well. When the group is able to balance ambition with quality – which thankfully happens through most of the work, they find a nearly unreachable groove and achieve a level of beauty and greatness few bands have touched.
Artist: Echo and the Bunnymen
Released: May 4th, 1984
Highlights: Nocturnal Me, The Killing Moon, Seven Seas, My Kingdom
After the odd detour of “Porcupine”, an album whose irregularity was rather telling of how painfully labored over its compositions were, Echo and the Bunnymen jumped right back into form with “Ocean Rain”. Structurally, the group goes back to writing straightforward rock tunes of relatively short duration that are drenched in the drama spewing out of Ian McCulloch’s voice. However, “Ocean Rain” is – sticking to the band’s tradition – far from being safe and simple, it is a bold musical trip through reverberant environments that make the songs sound simultaneously huge and confined, like a tidal wave on an enclosed pool.
“Ocean Rain” is, true to its title, magnificently drenched in strings. All of the songs feature a powerful orchestration that adds a sinister undertone to the record’s quiet moments and lends grandness to its peaks, ringing with the might of a thunder hundreds of miles away from shore in the middle of a raging storm. Dressing up pop music in exaggerated ornaments, especially those provided by a 35-piece orchestra that is nearly omnipresent through the album’s thirty-six minutes, often results in either overblown cheesiness or in a diluted message, but “Ocean Rain” is one of the few examples where the outrageous arrangements click.
Truthfully, the album is not solid all the way through. Following a spectacular trio of openers that features the dark “Nocturnal Me” and both “Silver” and “Crystal Days”, perhaps the work’s most orthodox songs, listeners walk through the pair of “The Yo Yo Man” and “Thorn of Crowns”, tracks that meander without ever going anywhere. Thankfully, however, “Ocean Rain” rebounds to conclude with one of the most spectacular closing sequences of any record, featuring “The Killing Moon”, the very apex of the mixing of rock and strings; “Seven Seas”, which brilliantly culminates on a rousing chorus; “My Kingdom”, the record’s most purely beautiful moment; and the title song, a five-minute mini epic that finely concludes the orchestrated experiment by, through lyrics and music, perfectly summing up life in a stormy sea.
More than a mere comeback, “Ocean Rain” is Echo and the Bunnymen’s best album. It is a record that fully realizes the drama and disturbed energy that had always been present in the band’s sound via its arrangements and happens to encounter Will, Ian, Pete, and Leslie on the peak of their songwriting powers.
Artist: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Released: March 13th, 2003
Highlights: Ramp of Death, Vanessa From Queens, Animal Midnight, Dark Wave
As the primary songwriter of Pavement, one of the greatest bands of the 90s, Stephen Malkmus was responsible for a great part of the their identity: the loose demeanor of their tunes, the straight-up rock sound they cooked up together, the ringing guitars that could have supported beautiful folk tracks but that instead served locked-in alternative grooves, and the careless delivery of the lyrics. With the group disbanded after five great records, Malkmus still clearly had a lot of fuel to burn, and “Pig Lib” is his second work backed up by his impressive supporting band: the Jicks.
All of the aforementioned qualities, which turned Pavement into the kings of indie rock in America during the 90s, are present here. The difference is that, following a natural progression that the act’s fifth and last album – “Terror Twilight” – had hinted at, the low fidelity production and overly distorted guitars are completely removed. Therefore, what remains is a clean sound that leaves out in the open one of Malkmus’ greatest gifts as a songwriter, and one that was often eclipsed by Pavement’s beautiful roughness: his ability to conjure likable and engaging melodies effortlessly. Much like the self-titled “Stephen Malkmus”, the artist’s solo debut, “Pig Lib” is loaded to the brim with great hooks.
It is not that Malkmus, a man who once stepped on his pedal to unleash guttural guitar sounds that levitated between unpleasant and awesome, has grown soft. He still experiments bravely and wisely, as it happens on the extended jam of “1% of One”, where the band goes on a wild rave-up – channeling Pavement – before the song goes back to its quietness; on “Witch Mountain Bridge”; and on “Animal Midnight”, which is made up of multiple glorious segments. He mixes up those centerpieces with short-and-sweet rock numbers, such as the inventive and catchy “Dark Wave”, and electric songs that border on balladry, like “Us”, which has a pleasant harmony work on its chorus and verses; and “Ramp of Death”, the album’s most beautiful moment.
Out of the realm of instruments, Malkmus is still a master lyricists in his own quirky way. He is positively wordy, sometimes shamelessly placing odd and uncommon vocabulary right in the middle of a pop song. Moreover, as if his voice was just yet another component of the musical fabric that makes up the songs – as it happened on early R.E.M. Records – he works without the responsibility of delivering any concrete meaning, giving preference, instead, to taking advantage of how the words sound in order to construct his melodies. All in all, “Pig Lib” is an impressive rock record that does not fall very far away from the Pavement tree, combining a lot of what made the band deeply loved and respected into a more accessible sound.