The Tab’s reviews of the last fortnight’s album releases…
Chew Lips – Unicorn
Chew Lips were overlooked at the start of the year (possibly due to their terrible name), but this is to an extent understandable. After the success of Little Boots and La Roux last year, there was probably a large sigh from critics on hearing that another electro-pop group with a female lead singer was releasing an album. Singles ‘Salt Air’ and ‘Solo’ from their EPs last year however showed that they were different from the pack, however, with the commanding voice of lead singer Alicia “Tigs” Huertas and almost low key background electro sounds. ‘Slick’ is the stand out track, with an eerie chorus that slips into your subconscious. Given that this album is only 32 minutes long, I was very surprised that ‘Salt Air’ and ‘Solo’ weren’t included. Then again, it does show they have depth sufficient depth to create an album without these tunes. Overall, ‘Unicorn’ proves to be yet another success for Kitsuné music label.
Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles were always an odd proposition; ‘dance’ music more punk in spirit than genuinely dance floor orientated. As such, the opening track is thoroughly ‘ Celestica’ showcases their more melodic leanings, while ‘Baptism’ channels the spirit of 80s synth pop, featuring an insistent and knowing lead line, before descending into a stroppy stomp. This tune is definitely the album’s highlight. The atmosphere the band creates is disorientating and glowering, but not to any real end, as all of the jagged posturing kind of starts to blend into one. Alice's vocals are often evocative and sometimes genuinely haunting, but by the time ‘Pap Smear’ comes around, it's all feeling a little bit ‘one trick pony’. Moreover, there is little sense of development within individual tracks. This effort represents a step up from their debut, and undoubtedly has its moments.
The problem is, the duo fail to match up to their self defined goals – if you want synth pop, the 80s did it better; if you want something really noisy and nasty, there are plenty of obscure acts to chose from. Crystal Castles are not nearly as deviant as they think they are, and not really ‘cool’ to fool anyone but plastic jacketed faux hipsters – ultimately, this is an exercise in style over substance.
Born Ruffian – Say It
Born Ruffian’s second album, “Say It”, abounds with the same kind of free spirited, off-kilter sound that made their first album so unique. Many will have heard their song “Hummingbird”, which featured in both the first season of Skins and an Orange advert back in 2007. However, that song proved a rare exception to their normally low-fi, pared down sound, resembling more traditional North American Indie, such as The Shins and Tokyo Police Club. “Say It” continues in this vein. One of the most striking features of the album is its restraint. On tracks such as “Sole Brother” and “Oh Man”, the obvious highlights from the album, the band are in complete control of their instruments, hitting only the most essential notes. This compliments perfectly the naked honesty of the lyrics, such as lead singer Luke Lalonde’s lament at not being an only child. However, while there are some charming tracks on “Say It”, which make it well worth the listen, there is simply not enough substance and energy in this album to put it in the same league as Born Ruffian’s debut “Red, Yellow & Blue.”
The National – High Violet
After 2007’s critically acclaimed Boxer and 2005’s Alligator, in my opinion two of the finest albums in the last decade, The National return with High Violet. Eagerly anticipated, (there have been previews of lead single Bloodbuzz Ohio on David Letterman as well as a stream of the album on the New York Times website) High Violet arrives at the perfect time in the bands history. After a gradual sleepwalk to success, the new LP presents The National a perfect opportunity to show everyone what all the fuss was about. Why then am I underwhelmed?
High Violet takes The National’s trademark neo noir sound and adds more. Layer upon layer of sound has been added in an attempt to orchestrate a more epic quality, as if the landscape of New York could simply be recreated through a single playback. When it works, it sounds damn good – the soaring choral backing vocals found in the rousing England or the crescendo of Afriaid of Everyone are testament to this. Yet this technique fails more often than it succeeds, sounding forced on Little Faith among other songs.
Whilst High Violet is still an accomplished album from a seminal band, at its heart there is a lack of lyrical dexterity to accompany the uplifting yet desolate sound that we’ve come to expect from The National. High Violet deals with similar themes as previous albums such as insecurity, isolation and the confusion of modern life but it is hard to appreciate this when lyrics like ‘I was afraid Id eat your brains/cos im evil’ cut you off in Conversation 16. Even in some of the album’s best moments, such as frontman Matt Berninger’s slick capture of middle class American sentiment to war – ‘cousins in colours somewhere overseas/ but it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me’ in Lemonworld is often upset with lyrical inconsistencies – the song’s chorus is driven by the mystifying yet baffling line ‘you and your sister live in a lemonworld’. One gets a feeling that Berninger has lost the ability to spell out a feeling without resorting to kitsch B-movie clichés.
Ultimately High Violet can be seen more as a franchise protection album that adds more of the same. It’s still worthy of numerous listens, but doesn’t deserve the positive review bukake session that it’s bound to get from other critics.