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[Originally published in GoldenPlec]

There is a trembling, disarming intimacy that washes over you within the opening seconds of Content, the most recent EP from solo artist Participant. It’s a strange but pleasant feeling that endures throughout the 15 minutes it takes to listen to the four tracks all the way through. This is an EP that transports its listener to another world; slow sweeps of odd electronic sounds juddering behind pleasingly soft vocals that seem to hover over proceedings like a dream.

The second EP from Dublin’s Stephen Tiernan takes the themes and sounds explored on his 2014 debut, Bit Slow, and improves upon them. The soundscapes are a little more fully-formed – a little richer than before. Participant, fascinatingly, samples exclusively from his own recordings – repurposing and recycling to create something unique. It’s a quietly experimental approach, and the songs are striking for it. But, at times, one can’t help but wonder if he’s holding back a little bit.

Opening track ‘Your Better’ is a perfect exemplar of Tiernan’s style. At times, he is the more conventional indie singer-songwriter: guitar and heart-on-sleeve lyrics. But then, slowly, there is the ebb and flow of echoey sounds, adding a fullness that overwhelms whilst simultaneously somehow brimming quietly beneath the surface, like a subtly swelling ocean.

There’s more of an ‘80s-esque romantic spangle to ‘Sooner or Later’with its spacey, atmospheric waltz, soaring lines of dissonant melody and the occasional pang of guttural bass line. This, all while Tiernan repeats in that distinctive, delicate voice: “Sooner or later / He’s gonna break her”. 

Indeed, the verging on tremolo soft vocals on ‘A Change’ recall Devendra Banhart if he had ever gone a bit electro-ambient. This is very much a compliment: strange, indie, folky stylings and earnest vocals all paired with drum loops, echoes of strings and electronic treatment are no bad thing. It might be an interesting experiment to take things a little further though, letting the electronic sounds get just a tad more pervasive.

After the first three tracks, there’s a slight worry that the sound might wear a little thin – certainly, Tiernan is doing something that is, at times, quite beautiful, but it’s a style that might get tired in an album format. But then, closing track ‘By Default’ melds the lovelorn sweetness and ambience with occasional bursts of scuzzier guitars, and is all the better for it: a happy reminder that Participant is by no means a one trick pony. It’s a song that showcases the sound he has perfected, merged with something a bit different – something with an edge. The song crescendos quite wonderfully into a full-on ballad which is striking in its earnestness, before coming back down into rainy quietness.

For cold, sleepy, stressed-out nights, Participant has provided a comfort of sorts in this EP: a feeling of ‘Content’. For the next release, though, it’d be nice to see him more than content: to see Tiernan challenged and getting even more experimental.

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We’re Arctic Monkeys, and this is ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’. Don’t believe the hype.

The year is 2006. In the past couple years, Alex Turner and his band of fellow scrawny white boys from Sheffield have already (unwittingly) changed the way the music industry works, building themselves on an entirely unprecedented foundation of CD demos, file-sharing and MySpace-induced buzz. The press hasn’t been this overwhelmingly excited since Is This It, and in 2005 it had all culminated in an astounding number one in the UK charts with ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ – the band’s first single signed to Domino Records.

It is the opening lines of the accompanying video that are quoted above, and they seem an important starting point. From nowhere, this four-piece of young lads had descended; no traditional marketing, no big advertising campaign – instead, the hype of the press and their growing fan base alone had propelled them into the bright lights. So it’s hard to know if, in saying the above, Turner was simply playing coy or if he was genuinely surprised; shy and trying to play down the startling reaction they were getting.

Either way, when the tellingly named Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not arrives, there are no more questions of whether everyone’s been getting overzealous. In 2006 – ten years ago this month – Arctic Monkeys released the debut album for a generation.

To this day, it remains the fastest-selling debut album from a band in British history – and this too, when it had already leaked. It was a cultural phenomenon, but what exactly was it about the record that struck a chord – that led to it going quintuple platinum in the UK alone?

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[Originally published in GoldenPlec]

Sia Furler’s rise to the top of the pops has been like none other. Since the early ’90s the Australian singer has been working as a recording artist: to the recently initiated, it might come as a surprise that her latest LP This Is Acting is in fact her seventh. Indeed, Furler had intended to retire from life as a recording artist back in 2011, to focus instead on a career in songwriting. She was upset, then, when her song ‘Titanium’ (intended for Alicia Keys), was picked up by David Guetta and propelled her, unwillingly, into the very public stratosphere.

It explains all the anonymity of the oversized blonde wigs that regaled the promotion campaign for her last record, 2014’s 1000 Forms of Fear. That album was lyrically an insight into addiction and mental health, all delivered through her distinctively hard-hitting vocals. However, for all the positively sublime singles (‘Chandelier’ and ‘Elastic Heart’ in particular spring to mind), there was a formulaic approach on display that arguably started to wear thin when listening to the album as a whole.

The same could be said of This Is Acting (titled as such because all but one of these songs were originally written for and rejected by other artists). It is unfair, perhaps, but it’s difficult to not spend much of the record’s duration wondering how the songs would have fared if delivered by their intended vocalists: these are cast-offs from Adele, Beyoncé and Rihanna. There is no doubt that most of these songs are fantastic exemplars of what Sia does best: epic, soaring electro-pop with uplifting, empowered vocals are all on display from opening track ‘Bird Set Free’ and onwards.

The one track that was not intended for someone else is ‘One Million Bullets’, and it is a gorgeous but schmaltzy ballad of piano-laden swooning romance (with refrains of “Under the moonlight, under your rolling gaze / I know that I’d take one million bullets babe / Yeah, one million bullets can come my way”).

And “schmaltzy” is perhaps a telling word to use, because there is something a bit cheesy on this album, and one has to wonder how well this is going to date. ‘Move Your Body’ is already an unpleasant reminder of the worst of the past few years’ Avicii-style brash EDM, but is, thankfully, followed by the gentler, anthemic ‘Unstoppable’.

‘Cheap Thrills’ is a superbly fun, twinkling, tropical little number that recalls a lithe Soca number (you can tell it was meant for Rihanna). Another song intended for the Bajan star was co-written and produced with Kanye “greatest artist of all time” West; indeed, ‘Reaper’ has some hip hop-style beats and wavy synths, but considering the team behind it, the track isn’t actually that striking.

The highlight is perhaps ‘Sweet Design’ which samples Sisqo’s ‘Thong Song’ (of course). It was meant for Beyoncé, and is the freshest track on the album by a mile: it isn’t rehashing that same epic sound; instead, it’s just a fast-paced banger.

Sia’s powerful voice remains astounding, as does her ability to create some guaranteed pop hits; it’s just a shame that it’s an exercise in acting, rather than songs intended for herself. There are hints of some enticing pop here, but they can be drowned out a little with formulaic songs that are already on the verge of becoming dated.  

 

dbblackstarI’ve been wanting to write this for a while, but have struggled to find the right words and apt timing. It’s almost funny, because I started writing it this weekend, post-Blackstar and post-the great man’s 69th birthday. I had intended to finish writing it this morning. But of course, life is never predictable, and David Bowie has passed away, and – like many others I’m sure – I’m struggling to process it.

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[Originally published in GoldenPlec]

HAPPY CHRISTMAS YOUR ARSE, I PRAY GOD IT’S OUR LAST”.

Lyrics like the above do not, generally speaking, scream “yuletide cheer”. Indeed, they don’t sound like they could come from one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all-time; and yet, of course, ‘Fairytale Of New York’ is precisely that.

Though that particular line is humorous, the song as a whole goes beyond mere comic caricatures. There is a melancholy to The Pogues’ 1987 hit that has given it a timelessness. At any other time of year its huge popularity wouldn’t seem so incongruous: to paraphrase High Fidelity, pop music is generally miserable, and that’s why we love it. But why, around The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year™, are we so drawn to such an overwhelmingly sad song?

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It’s not often I’ll admit to it, but there’s a certain feeling I get when listening to Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ – that romantic, jittery, butterflies-in-stomach vibe. I mention it because it’s a similar sentiment to the one evoked in the opening bars of darling new track from Helsinki group Cina Polada, ‘Face 2 Face’.

The five-piece consists of of married couple Hilla and Tatu Miettinen, Tatu’s younger brother Teemu, as well as good friends Tony Salo and Nita Mattila. The relative intimacy of the group is evidenced in that easy, woozy warmth ‘Face 2 Face’ seems to exude, all fluid, lilting guitar licks, soft synths that feel like you’re sinking into a hot bath and Hilla Miettinen’s sweet, shy vocals floating over the top, singing all too relatable lines about social anxiety.

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