Noga Erez – Off the Radar review

noga erez

Originally published for The Skinny.

★★★★

Album title: Off the Radar
Artist: Noga Erez
Label: City Slang
Release date: 2 Jun

There is a distinct air of chaos on Noga Erez’s debut album Off the Radar, stemming mainly from the experimental, industrial electronic beats. It’s an expansive sound that has drawn comparisons to Björk, M.I.A. and FKA twigs, and for good reason. Working in collaboration with her creative partner Ori Rousso, the pair have created a sonic landscape that stretches across all areas of electronic music. The intensity of the sounds allow the political undertones on the tracks to shine through in an incredibly visceral manner.

Dance While You Shoot challenges the corruption within the Israeli government, and Pity was inspired by the live-streamed gang rape of a woman outside a nightclub in Erez’s hometown of Tel Aviv. The latter sees Erez addressing what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world, using imagery of ‘a skinny cat in a dog’s lap’, over military-style drums and a pounding bassline. There are some downtempo moments though: Worth None is Erez at her most Björk-y, Global Fear merges a trip-hop beat with Erez’s woozy vocals and album closer Junior is a sprawling ambient sonic journey.

Despite being an album filtered with political statements, Off the Radar is by no means a solely political record. Erez personalises her experiences so as not to be preachy and although references are made to political situations, they are never the sole subject matter. For only being her debut, this is an incredibly accomplished record, which carves out a distinct sound that captures and captivates the listener. Noga Erez should really be on your radar.

Listen to: Toy, Global Fear

Pixx – The Age of Anxiety review

pixx

Originally published for The Skinny June 2017 issue.

★★★

Album title: The Age of Anxiety
Artist: Pixx
Label: 4AD
Release date: 2 Jun

Try to imagine for a minute what it would sound like if Nico fronted an 80s synth band; now, stop imagining because that’s exactly what Pixx’s debut album The Age of Anxiety sounds like.

It’s pretty evident that 21-year-old BRIT school graduate Pixx is a big 80s head, blending the gothic post-punk of Siouxsie Sioux with the avant-garde synth-pop of Kate Bush, but she does it all with a modern electro-pop twist.

There are straight-up pop bangers all over The Age of Anxiety, with stand outs including Grip, Romance and Waterslides. Many of these tracks are likely to make listeners nostalgic for 2007-era electro-pop, when artists like Uffie, New Young Pony Club and CSS were certified popstars but also indie icons.

On the other hand, there are also some tracks on the darker end of the spectrum, where drone-y, distorted guitars play a bigger role, particularly on the menacing Toes and the Bauhaus-esque, gothic wonder Your Delight.

There are certainly some great tracks on the album but as a whole, it does seem slightly confused. It can be quite difficult to follow at times, as tracks jump from upbeat electro-pop to lo-fi indie to gloomy gothic rock with no real consistency.

With more thematic clarity and less of a throw in everything and the kitchen sink attitude, The Age of Anxiety could have been a phenomenal debut for Pixx. Despite the high quality of many of the tracks, however, there’s just a bit too much going on for it to all make sense.

Listen to: Romance, Toes, The Girls

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/6CFP5J38IuNjqXhgmzupdh

The Japanese House @ The Liquid Room, Edinburgh, 10 May

the japanese house

Originally published for The Skinny.

★★★

Amber Bain, aka The Japanese House, takes to the stage at Edinburgh’s Liquid Room looking like the fourth member of Hanson, with her denim on denim attire and wispy blonde hair covering her face, announcing that she’s ill but will “try not to cough.”

Luckily Bain’s vocoder masks any sign of illness in her vocal, as she plays through songs from her three EPs with almost no interruption. In fact, the only between-song chat we get from Bain is to introduce the next song. What Bain lacks in charisma, however, she makes up for in songwriting ability: particular highlights include Teeth, Saw You in a Dream and Clean. The performance of the latter is sadly ruined though by the distracting and unnecessary strobe lights, but the band seem to think it’s cool and headbang along to the track’s clichéd dubstep-esque break.

The difficulty with Bain’s music is that, at its core, it is bedroom music. It’s minimal, ambient and best listened to alone with headphones in; live, it just doesn’t quite have the same effect. But this doesn’t stop her droves of teenage fans, many of whom will be aware of her music from the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack and from her ties with The 1975, gazing up at her admiringly and singing along to every word.

There is something undoubtedly captivating about The Japanese House but if Bain intends to move on to playing headline shows in bigger venues then she’s going to have to come up with something more exciting than a few strobe lights.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Perfume Genius interview

perfume genius

Originally published for The Skinny May 2017 issue.

Perfume Genius tells us about trying to feel happiness and rebelling against himself on new album No Shape

Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is known to bare his soul in his music but once a tortured soul has expelled all their demons, can they ever achieve real happiness?

‘Let all them voices slip away,’ sings Hadreas on Slip Away, the lead single from new album No Shape. The track is indicative of Hadreas’ new writing style and, seemingly, his current state of mind. “I was writing more in the moment about how I feel or how I wanted to feel, as opposed to going over old stories of things that have already happened to me,” he says.

Hadreas’ first two albums as Perfume Genius, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, introduced us to some of his deepest, darkest secrets: battling drug and alcohol addiction, teenage sexual abuse and struggling with his sexuality, to name a few. But 2014’s Too Bright really felt like Hadreas’ coming out; his departure from lo-fi piano-playing, singer-songwriter to fully fledged queer icon.

Hadreas’ music is heart-wrenchingly honest and on each album, we’ve listened to him processing different issues in his life, with Too Bright feeling like the moment he finally unleashed all that lingering internal anger. Now that he’s shed that skin, on new album No Shape he has been able to explore more positive themes. “I never really get happy, but I’m really trying to,” he says. “There’s a lot of rebelling against my own self and my own brain in some of the songs.”

Writing optimistic songs doesn’t come easy to Hadreas, who is more accustomed to drudging up dark moments from his past. “I find it really easy to write something really disturbing,” he says. “Even the happier moments have a dissonant thread underneath but there is something vulnerable about it because you’re just admitting that you have no idea what’s going on.”

Despite his previous material dealing with darker issues thematically, there has always been an underlying sense of hope in Hadreas’ writing; a desire to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. With his life in a much less tumultuous state nowadays, he had to make a conscious effort to tackle new ground musically and emotionally for his latest effort and it appears he has finally come to terms with his own contentment. “I thought about it all together, not just the emotional content but how to push myself farther in the structure of the songs and the chords that I went to,” he says. “Happy chords for me felt fresh, just to try more major keys.”

While Too Bright had its experimental moments, and toyed with the idea of a bigger sound, No Shape is much more boldly cinematic and epic. Hadreas enlisted Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills to assist on the songs, taking his music to another level of grandeur. “I kind of let everybody go to town on the songs,” he says. “I knew I was writing these anthemic, stadium songs so I wanted it to have that kind of feeling and I knew working with Blake would take it there.”

Much of Hadreas’ music is created at home. His debut album Learning was recorded in his mum’s house outside of Seattle, following a stint in rehab, and the songs for every album since have been created in his own home. Taking his music from such a personal space into a big studio may have taken some getting used to at first but for No Shape, Hadreas knew he wanted a fuller sound right from the beginning.

“I wrote this album knowing much more than before that that was going to happen,” he says. “I knew that the piano was a placeholder and I wrote the songs knowing that the sound was going to be completely created after the demo.”

Hadreas’ boyfriend Alan Wyffels is the somewhat unsung hero of Perfume Genius. The pair first met during a period when Hadreas had relapsed and Wyffels helped him get sober again. They have now been together eight years and live a very normal, peaceful life together in Tacoma, Washington with their dog. But Wyffels is much more than just Hadreas’ muse, if you could even call him that in the first place.

Wyffels, a classically trained musician, has seen Hadreas through every step of the making of his last three albums – every album apart from Learning – and has lent a helping hand on each one along the way. “I write the music but he’s played every single live show with me and he helps figure out how to translate the songs live,” Hadreas tells us. “It’s nice to be talking about him more because even though he’s been here the whole time, I’m always the one getting my picture taken.”

Sometimes getting your picture taken isn’t so bad though. Hadreas worked with Dutch photography duo Inez and Vinoodh on the artwork for No Shape, which sees him facing away from the camera looking upon a picturesque landscape. “When we were doing all the pictures, I thought for certain we would use the one that was a more traditional portrait and I even had to fight my label after for this one,” he says. “I felt like it fit with the songs, having this warmer energy but then underneath there’s always some discomfort.”

Interestingly, Too Bright is the only Perfume Genius album to use a portrait shot on the artwork, while both Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It used images where faces are masked or covered up in one way or another. “I think for [Too Bright] having that picture felt really rebellious. It felt more defiant to be on the cover of that one, the way that it was,” he says.

Hadreas has never shied away from his sexuality and he openly deals with queer issues in his music. “I can’t get too mad about constantly talking about my sexuality, because if I didn’t want to then I probably shouldn’t have made three albums about it,” he says. But that’s not to say you must be queer to identify with his music. The emotions and feelings dealt with in Hadreas’ music are universal, but being labelled a queer artist can create unfair prejudices.

“People are allowed to steal ideas, or to play with the same things that queer people play with, but as long as they’re not actually queer then it’s seen as subversive and exciting and somehow people can be thrilled by it, but not feel like they need to be uncomfortable and that can be really frustrating,” he says. “Some people think listening to a queer artist means something about their sexuality, and sometimes it does and it can then be a really powerful thing, but you don’t have to qualify before you like my music.”

You begin to get a sense that Hadreas really does struggle to allow himself to be happy, but it seems that in many ways, he is also his own worst enemy. Although he makes steps towards a more positive, uplifting sound on No Shape, there are still plenty of cracks to be found underneath the surface and those demons appear to still be there, even if they aren’t as obvious as they once were.

Whether Hadreas will ever be able to reach that light at the end of the tunnel is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure,  he’ll never stop trying.

No Shape is out on 5 May via Matador; Perfume Genius play with The xx @ The Galvanizers Yard, Glasgow, 29 & 30 Aug

PWR BTTM @ CCA, Glasgow, 15 Apr

pwr bttm cca

Originally published for The Skinny.

★★★★★

PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins makes a crucial observation about the difference between British and American crowds halfway through tonight’s show at Glasgow’s CCA: that Americans will scream in your face and maybe even throw a cheeseburger at you if they enjoy the show, whereas British people will tell you ten reasons why they found it interesting.

To begin, there are two very important things to be taken from the show: 1) Support band Orchards are about to be your new favourite indie band and 2) PWR BTTM are the most exciting live band around right now. Here are a few more reasons why the show was interesting.

Hopkins shredded the life out of his guitar and his vocal cords throughout most of the show but particularly during performances of Silly, from new album Pageant, and Ugly Cherries, from the duo’s eponymous debut. When Liv Bruce takes over the mic, the biggest singalongs of the evening occur, to fan favourite I Wanna Boi and recent single Answer My Text.

The chemistry between Bruce and Hopkins is unlike that in many other bands. The pair bounce off each other like a pendulum swinging at full force, exchanging banter back and forth between songs, making for a thrilling – and hilarious – punk-rock show from two performers in their absolute prime.

If all musicians could be as enthusiastic about being in a band together and playing their music live as PWR BTTM are music, and the world, would be in a far better state.

K.Flay – Every Where Is Some Where review

k.flay

Originally published for The Skinny.

★★

Album title: Every Where Is Some Where
Artist: K. Flay
Label: Night Street / Interscope Records
Release date: 7 Apr

Just a few seconds into the opening track on K. Flay’s second album Every Where Is Some Where and you’ll know whether you want to continue listening or swiftly turn it off.

Hailing from San Francisco, alt-pop singer K. Flay has been heralded as ‘the next big thing’ by many, but it’s difficult to see why. If there’s anything to be said for the singer, it’s that she has catchy pop choruses down, but her lyrical abilities are seriously lacking.

There are several failed attempts at political commentary on Every Where Is Some Where and a lot of clichéd references to not needing drink or drugs to feel high. To top it off, all of this is sung in a squeaky, baby-voice that makes Lorde sound listenable.

There are some tolerable tracks, however. Black Wave is a noisy, grungy piece of electro-pop reminiscent of early Crystal Castles and It’s Just A Lot is a solid dark-pop tune, with some interesting harmonies and instrumentation. You Felt Right is almost good, with its cutesy dream-pop chorus but is sadly ruined by the poorly attempted rap verses, something which seems to be a recurring theme on the album.

K. Flay is definitely a Marmite artist and her alternative take on electro-pop/rock is likely to appeal to a lot of people, but unfortunately for some it will be quite difficult to stomach.

Listen to: Black Wave, It’s Just A Lot

Flying High: Little Dragon interview

little dragon

Originally published for The Skinny April 2017 issue.

Little Dragon tell us about celebrating twenty years together and finally feeling comfortable in their own skin

Not many bands can boast twenty years of friendship, but Little Dragon seem to have found the secret to making it work, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it.

“It gets stranger and stranger to work together and it gets creepy sometimes,” says frontwoman Yukimi Nagano. “Somehow, we’ve managed to stay together and change, all in different ways, and still like each other.”

Over the years, the Gothenburg four-piece have made a name for themselves as musicians’ musicians, collaborating with everyone from Gorillaz to Big Boi and featuring on tracks from SBTRKT, DJ Shadow and Kaytranada. It really feels like Little Dragon have done it all.

Coming off the back of their Grammy-nominated fourth album Nabuma Rubberband, however, the band were keen to take things back to basics for their next project and not let all the success go to their heads. “We’re trying to go back even more to the time when we didn’t have a record deal and we were just making songs for the fun of it,” says drummer Erik Bodin. “We’ve gone through phases and all of them have been equally important and part of our journey but right now, we’re not trying to fit in as much,” agrees Nagano.

Earlier this year, the band teased us with the first single from their new album Season High with the seductive, 90s R’n’B-influenced slow jam High, appropriately released on Valentine’s Day. But just when it looked like the band might be taking things in a softer, more mellow direction, they followed it up with the club-ready, electro-pop banger Sweet, just to keep us on our toes. “We always like to mix flavours,” says Bodin.

The band worked with surrealist filmmaker and frequent Yung Lean collaborator Ossian Melin on the videos for both singles and, despite admitting to not being particularly aware of his previous work, they appear to have formed a strong bond with him, almost like kindred spirits. “He’s a character and a real sort of tortured creative soul that we totally connected with,” says Nagano. “He has a strong artistic personality and his expression is very inspiring so we’re very happy we found out that he existed on the planet,” adds Bodin.

For the first time in the band’s history, they chose to work with outside producers on Season High, accepting a helping hand from Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and revered pop producer Patrik Berger (Robyn / Charlie XCX / Santigold / Icona Pop / Lana Del Rey). Despite the calibre of those producers though, the band say they are always nervous allowing others into their close-knit circle to work with them on their music. “With our own music, we feel a bit protective because we really feel like it is already a big collaboration between the four of us,” says Bodin. “It’s a big process working with four strong-willed people, trying to get to a conclusion and we’re still working on that,” adds Nagano.

Once they’ve reached that conclusion, however, they don’t seem to feel that natural sense of relief most people would when completing something. “It’s always a bit frustrating to finish an album,” says Bodin. “You want to leave it sort of fresh and have a feeling that it’s a bit unfinished almost so it’s still open for taking it to the live shows and you can keep on developing it.”

The band’s process now sounds just like what it was when they first got together, one big old jamming session. So much so that one of their biggest struggles, they say, is trying to rein themselves in. “There are quite a few songs on the album that are over four minutes and there’s one even going on eight minutes, but it’s just showing our classic ability of not knowing when to end a song,” says Nagano. “An average song at three and a half minutes always feels too short to us… I think it’s like a little beautiful accident constantly.”

Just like all their albums previously, Season High was made in the band’s home studio in Gothenburg, which they built themselves and have continued to develop over the years. “There’s a personal touch to it and I think everyone feels at home,” says Nagano. “I think that kind of security is important when you want to somehow express yourself and not feel any walls or restraints, especially when you’re trying to find something new and dig within yourself.”

Having that studio space has also allowed the band to encounter fellow like-minded Gothenburg musicians, such as their studio neighbour sir Was, who features on the album playing clarinet on the track Butterflies. “He’s a bit of a Swedish Woody Allen, a beautiful neurotic person whom we love very much, so it was fun to have him on the album,” says Nagano. But the family affair doesn’t stop there, a childhood friend of the band, Agge, also features on the album. “Some of our first shows we actually did were with him, just at the local shitty jazz club or whatever. He’s someone who everyone in the band loves so for him to be on the album feels like the most natural thing ever,” adds Nagano.

It seems routine for the band to take a two- or three-year gap between each album, something they believe allows them the ability to maintain a fresh creative outlook and a healthy balance of work and personal life. “We really make music out of passion in our hearts, not to please anybody’s demand so I think creatively it’s better when you have time and that freedom, but we also prioritise life,” says Nagano. “It’s nice to step out and take a break from it because then you keep your ears and your mind fresh for when you come back and work with the music.”

For Little Dragon, the secret to being able to stay together for so long seems to be keeping things simple. By working in their own studio space and rarely collaborating with anyone outwith their tight-knit unit on their own music, they manage to avoid a lot of the pressures that may come with being a globally successful band and instead, focus on doing things their way, on their own terms.

Little Dragon’s Top Collaborations

SBTRKT – Wildfire

Much of Little Dragon’s mainstream success can be put down to their feature on this 2011 dubstep smash from the mask-wearing British producer SBTRKT. The track was such a hit that it even spawned a hip-hop remix from Drake, taking it to even bigger, but not necessarily greater, heights.

Big Boi – Higher Res

The band featured on three tracks on ex-OutKast member Big Boi’s 2012 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours but this track, also featuring the ever-elusive Jai Paul, is certainly the best of the bunch. Nagano described working with Big Boi as “the most exciting collaboration we’ve done so far.”

Gorillaz – Empire Antz

Damon Albarn selected Little Dragon as his ‘star of the future’ for Dazed & Confused’s 20th Anniversary issue in 2011 after working with them on two tracks for Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach. The subtlety in the production of this track brings Nagano’s vocals to an almost otherworldly dimension.

De La Soul – Drawn

One of the band’s heroes, De La Soul got them on board for a track on their 2016 Kickstarter-funded album …And the Anonymous NobodyKelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer cited the track as one of the reasons DLS decided to crowd-fund the album, due to its experimental nature.

 

Season High is released on 14 Apr via Because Music.