Music review entries

October 17, 2004

ESTELLE – The 18th Day

The 18th Day
3 out of 5 stars

[nb. This review was originally written for BBCi and can be viewed here - link ]

Upon first hearing her autobiographical debut single "1980", you'd be forgiven for dismissing Estelle as another Chav chancer yammering about her newly-bling life. However, on closer inspection, the song's self-deprecating lyrics suggest a more humble approach than the grandstanding of many of her peers, and it's precisely this down-to-earth, everywoman charm which characterises much of her debut LP.

Estelle’s key reference points are clearly evident throughout The 18th Day – equal parts Salt ‘n’ Pepa and Missy Elliott (whose influence is most notable in the tart lyrics and high sass of “Dance Bitch”), the album is topped off with a significant nod to Destiny’s Child (the twangy hookline and sexy, shadowy chorus of “Don’t Talk” are a thinly-veiled imitation of “Bootylicious”).

Musically however there is also a significant amount of individual ambition on display, as showcased most impressively in the multilayered urban bustle of “Change Is Coming”. Indeed, Estelle’s willingness to experiment with different styles is a major plus-point: a pounding modern spin on 60s girl-groups make “Go Gone” a notable standout, whereas latest single “Free” is an obvious choice for chart success with its funky, Jackson 5-esque disco-bounce.

It’s a shame then that after such an inventive start the album begins to flag midway, with a series of mid-tempo ballads plodding by in unremarkable succession. Guest appearances from Baby Blue and Royston occasionally enliven the proceedings, but after the initial sparkle it often seems like Estelle is the kind of friend whose parties you’d readily attend provided she doesn’t start talking about her love-life.

Thankfully there are a couple more blinders scattered along the way in the form of the catchy schoolyard hip-hop of “On and On” and the soaring, inspirational “Gonna Win”, both of which suggest that if Estelle can match her infectious energy and engaging personality to a higher percentage of winning tunes, she will rightfully follow in the footsteps of the artists she so clearly admires. As it stands, this is a promising and slickly-produced debut which – while far from groundbreaking – possesses enough easy charisma to mark her out from the rest of the pack.

October 07, 2004

R.E.M. – Around the Sun

Music front cover
Around The Sun (Int'l Jewelcase)
4 out of 5 stars

This was always going to be a tough one for me because I'm inherently biased in my view that R.E.M. are the greatest band to have ever walked the face of the Earth. In musical terms, however, 'Around the Sun' is perhaps their flattest record to date, a noble but ultimately frustrating effort which is too-often marred by clinical production and a tendency to branch out in obtuse melodic directions when many of the songs demand simplicity. It's also something of a step backwards from the fractured experimentation of Reveal, with the overall tone marrying the aesthetic sensibility of the band's last two albums to the folky feel of Out of Time.

That said, it's one hell of a grower. After several listens, the first half of the album quickly becomes as good as anything in their illustrious back catalogue, with the band's measured, graceful instrumentation complementing the understated eloquence of Michael Stipe's alternately personal and politicised lyrics. "Electron Blue" is a minor classic in the making, whereas the cool, synth-driven glow of "The Outsiders" proves itself a real highlight by somehow managing to pull off the tricky feat of incorporating a rap from Q-Tip in its fiercely restrained coda. Likewise, "Make It All Okay" and "Final Straw" take articulate and intelligent pops at George W. Bush, the former distinguishing itself through a mixture of steely resolve and quiet fury ("So our past has been rewritten, and you threw away the pen… / Well Jesus loves me fine. And your words fall flat this time").

It's around track 7, however, that things begin to go slightly awry. Though admittedly catchy, the jaunty strut of "Wanderlust" seems inappropriate in the context of the rest of the album, its blurted vocals and awkward chorus coming across as forced and uneasy. The band quickly find their feet again with "The Boy In the Well", which throws off its introverted constraints to unleash a powerhouse chorus bursting with buoyant energy. However, by this point the album's initial fluidity and momentum have been derailed, and while the songs which follow are all eminently listenable (at times even invigorating – witness the awesome ear-grabbing hookline of penultimate track "The Ascent of Man"), they have a tendency to seem like misfit afterthoughts to the main event.

On first listen this comes across as a rather disappointing 3-star album, but with perseverance its overall project begins to come more sharply into focus and it slowly starts to edge its way up the rating scale. Mind you, give it a few months and I'll probably consider 'Around the Sun' the best thing R.E.M. have ever done – it's already sneaking further up the ladder with every listen.

BIFFY CLYRO – Infinity Land

Music front cover
Infinity Land
Biffy Clyro
4 out of 5 stars

After years of plugging tirelessly at the underground circuit, Biffy Clyro's third album in as many years is widely hoped to be the breakthrough which will drop-kick them into the big-time. It would certainly be a just reward for their unimpeachable work ethic since the release of debut single "27" back in 2001, as well as one in the eye for the clueless NME brigade determined to hype the latest Jam tribute act or Libertines spin-off while apparently failing to notice one of Britain's brightest hopes slyly sneaking in under the radar.

Musically this is a much darker and fully-realised offering than last year's brilliant but fragmentary 'Vertigo of Bliss', with the band's penchant for rhythmic experimentation and sideways innovation given full reign on the likes of the ludicrously quirky "There's No Such Thing as a Jaggy Snake", which twists and writhes in appropriately venomous fashion. Lead-in track "Glitter and Trauma" and possible future single "Wave Upon Wave Upon Wave" gloriously affirm Simon Neil's ability to meld lyrical and musical themes, the former shimmering like an incandescent disco ball while the latter alternates between raging torrents and oceanic calm with effortless grace.

Elsewhere, "The Atrocity" and album-closer "Pause It and Turn It Up" showcase the band's less-brutal and more reflective emotional side to poignant effect, "Some Kind of Wizard" opens up a nifty bag of musical tricks, "The Weapons Are Concealed" tosses a jaunty brass hook into the mix, and "The Kids From Kibble & The Fist of Light" perfectly encapsulates the band's ability to wrong-foot the listener by extrapolating moments of disarming melodic purity from even the heaviest and most discordant of rackets.

All in all, this is an album which is often difficult but never less than thoroughly engaging, and one which cements Biffy Clyro's reputation as one of the most consistently challenging, intelligent and fascinating British bands to emerge in many a year. They command your respect and deserve your support – throw away your Babyshambles fanzine and enter their delirious mindfuck of a world.

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