August’s shopping bag: several bands with pretty crappy names make pretty good records. And Kate Bush – good name, crappy record.
ARCTIC MONKEYS –Suck It And See
Yesterday’s punky thrust is today’s rumbly rock, but this sanded down Monkeys marks a nice developmental step, and may be their best LP yet. Alex Turner’s blown some of Last Shadow Puppets’ softer airs into the Monkey balloon: “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala,” “Piledriver Waltz” and “She’s Thunderstorms” are nowhere near as frantic as their titles suggest. The wallop’s left to the lyric page, where Turner seldom disappoints. The advancement into melodic rock seems organic enough. This deep into their career The Jam – like the Monkeys, formerly brazen, chart-topping UK youth – were recording soul covers, about to down tools. Without a trace of similar identity clashes, the Monkeys’ bag is humour, bile and poignancy set to increasingly expressive tunes. I miss the edge a little, though.
KATE BUSH – Director’s Cut
Legend has it John Entwistle re-recorded songs he’d written for The Who out of boredom and pique. I find that pretty amusing. Quite why the great Kate felt overhauls were necessary in her life escapes me, but that’s what Director’s Cut comprises. Kate’s declared war on treble. Applying a serious low-pass filter to several key The Sensual World tracks and most of The Red Shoes’ first side, Cut sounds like an old cassette playing without the pressure pad. Or the mumbly adults in Peanuts. And this, from one of pop music’s great audio explorers and banshee wailers. Gated, late-‘80s drum tracks might’ve been the impetus for change, but switching out one dated production touch for another (AutoTune in “Deeper Understanding”) doesn’t smack of common sense. In Cut’s losing defence, “This Woman’s Work” and “Moments Of Pleasure” fare reasonably well – the songs’re indestructible, evidently – while “The Red Shoes” retains much of its pluck. Not so “The Sensual World” (retitled “Flower Of The Mountain” here), which is the deadest-sounding recording I’ve heard all year. Generally, Bush’s singing is warmly affecting, a maturing gift that promises to be heard from again later this year (!) on a new set that hopefully leaves past glories the fuck alone.
PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – Belong
Winsome indie-pop, sort of like The Cure in “Just Like Heaven” mode (“My Terrible Friend,” if you need proof). When Pains dial down the synth, Belong veers towards ‘90s alt, albeit with wide-eyed yearbook-quote sentiments, which makes them come off like 15-year-olds. Some of it’s awfully jejune – “she was the heart in your heartbreak, she was the miss in your mistake” – but every so often, the music turns more insistent, and that’s the best stuff. “Even In Dreams” buzzes along like Ultra Vivid Scene’s slightly sinister tick-tock shoegaze, while “Strange” – absolutely the best and most commanding Pains song to date – never breaks out of its stiff-backed drum, double-timed guitar strum, while Kip Berman nuzzles his object of affection with wistful us v. them couplets. As a paean to nerd love, it’s pretty and affecting.
CULTS – Cults
There’s a fizzy indistinctness to Cults that recalls this year’s Smith Westerns record, although these production touches hearken back further than ‘70s suburbia, all the way to girl-group pop’s toothpaste charms. It’s a nice, smart-dumb, summer record. The twinkly, heavily reverbed instrumentation – light on rhythmic grit, but laced with glockenspiel and tack piano-type sounds – is unremittingly bright and goes a long way towards obscuring the lyrical pessimism. The pluckily artless singing does too. On the terrific “Walk At Night” she sings of escape from home, bright lights and emotional deceit over a plinking swirl reminiscent of the opening bars of Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime”, only with such blitheness you picture taffeta instead of bruised knees. So, Cults is a bit of a ruse, something made more apparent by the band’s dark videos (they’re both NYU film students).
HORRORS – Skying
About 40 years ago the UK label Pickwick footed the bill for a weird series of cash-grab LPs aimed at the youth pop market, wherein hack studio players re-recorded chart hits for budget compilations. As a form of rights circumvention, it’s not as though the practice ever disappeared: Dancing With The Stars does it today. If ABC ever wants to up the ante for a new wave-themed episode, I’ve got the house band for them. Skying could be the next instalment in Rhino’s Postpunk Chronicles, only with Horrors playing original songs wearing various shades of Comsat Angels, The Teardrop Explodes, The Chameleons and Simple Minds. And doing a bang-up job. At this point in the year I’ve pretty much given up on hearing anything new, so it might as well be good pastiche. Throughout, the band’s grasp of dynamics is excellent: nervy (“Endless Blue,” “Moving Further Away”), stomping (“I Can See Through You”) or stately (“Still Life”), the sound and presence of Skying crackles with a ballsy sprawl melding chart ambition and record-collector wonk. It seems like a mainstream record only because the sound’s so familiar. But after playing spot-the-reference for 50 minutes, I’d like to note the only nod to Joy Division – seemingly every other band’s go-to influence – is the drummer’s Ian Curtis bowl cut. He also plays more ride cymbal than anyone I’ve heard in ages. Best record of the summer.