Review: Starsailor – All The Plans

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Since Starsailor first burst into the mainstream in 2001, most famously declaring ‘Your daddy was an alcoholic,’ singer James Walsh’s voice  has become an immediately recognisable part of the UK music scene. Now on their 4th album, returning after a considerable break, the best new band to come out of deepest, darkest Lancashire this decade are back with ‘All The Plans’, another brilliant slice of indie pop realism.

Having moved record labels and inspired by all the ‘rights and wrongs’ they’ve experienced in the last few years, lead single “Tell Me It’s Not Over” showcases compelling harmonies and an emotive vocal that sizzles with passion. Reminiscent of Coldplay’s “The Hardest Part”, it’s just as epic and makes a strong impression as the album’s opening track.  ‘All The Plans’ and the yearning ‘Boy In Waiting’ have a similarly epic quality and capture that essential festival anthem spirit with hints of Oasis creeping into James Stelfox’s bassline on the title track.

Equally there’s a honesty in Walsh’s voice that makes the gorgeous ‘The Thames’ feel like a genuine insight into his broken heart.  Despite sounding like it could soundtrack a Western, were it an instrumental, lyrics like ‘the birds & the bees, the leaves on the trees, die all at once, now that you’re gone’, coupled with a compelling belief that his girl will one day be back in his arms, crackle with heartbreak.

Starsailor have unfairly become a band most people sneer at but “All The Plans” has recaptured that special something that made debut album “Love Is Here” so exciting. Whether it’s too late to change people’s opinions remains to be seen, but were we not so bothered by the ‘cool’ factor, there’s no doubt the songs on this album show an anthemic return to form.

Fall Out Boy – Folie A Deux

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Following on from the stats grabbing initial review of the new Fall Out Boy album, this was the review that was actually published back in October. It’s about to be finally released.

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Could Fall Out Boy be any more perfect? They make songs you can stomp along to, give us the eyeliner hotness of Pete and have donated $50k to a pro gay marriage campaign. Three hoorays from Attitude. French for ‘shared madness by two’, ‘Folie A Deux’, might be more thoughtful but remains packed with melodramatics that leave us pondering just how amazing an FOB musical would be.

Lead single ‘I Don’t Care’ steals a glammy beat from ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and almost sounds like a Xenomania production with campy ‘oohs’ sandwiching a dark chorus. With special guests including Pharrell and Debbie Harry popping up,  Elvis Costello delights on ‘What A Catch, Donnie’ – born to soundtrack the moment that goofy boy everyone laughs at has a Tyra style makeover becomes the fiercest girl in school.  Although nothing can top last album’s ‘Gay Is Not An Acronym For Shit’, the boys would still win awards for song titles  with the random likes of ‘Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes’ and the creepy, epic sounds of ‘Head First Slide Into Cooperstown On A Bad Bet’.

Though ’27’ might claim ‘We’re all just fucked’, the anthemic (Coffee For Closers) stresses that ‘change will come’. Released on US Election day, Folie A Deux is ultimately the sound of a frustrated generation looking for a way out.

Review: Brandy – Human

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Unless you grew up watching Moesha, Brandy has unfairly struggled to make much of a long term impact on us here in the UK. Although we might still be slightly in awe of the fierceness of The Boy Is Mine, albeit over ten years ago, the average person may struggle remember many of her other 11 top 40 hits. Now returning after a four year break which saw the explosion of Beyonce and Rihanna as R&B superstars, is there any room left for in our hearts for Brandy? 

Her fifth album arrives after several years of personal trauma following Brandy’s involvement in a serious car crash. A vulnerable and revealing album, the title track calls out for forgiveness and declares herself as, ”fragile and broken, perfectly human”. Although names like Missy Elliot, Taio Cruz, Keri Hilson and Timbaland were all touted as writers on this album, it ends up being mainly written and produced by long term collaborator, Rodney Jerkins, aka Darkchild. Lead single, Right Here, hits the mark, with a haunting piano topline and retro ”oh oh ohs”, creating an almost gospel sound and reminding us how sweet Brandy’s voice can sound. Understated ballad Long Distance is just as good as If I Were A Boy and should be a global hit, beating with surging strings and tenderness. Expect to hear this one sound-tracking a heartbreaking moment on a Grey’s Anatomy finale sometime soon. 

Although there’s nothing as fiesty as 2002’s What About Us or jittery as the Timbaland produced Afrodisiac, midtempo highlights The Definition and Piano Man sound bang up to date practising their best Ryan Tedder impression by matching synths, drums and a sweet vocal to great effect. Plus our very own Natasha Bedingfield teams up with Brandy to write uplifting album closer, Fall. 

Concentrating on melodies and inspiration, Human, is a mature, sensitive album. Although complete with stunning vocals, its lack of daring and experimentation could be its downfall though, with her once faithful audience now utterly devoted to dancefloor driven R&B.

Originally published at BBC Music

Review: Britney Spears – Circus

 

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Every generation has its fallen hero and Britney Spears is ours. Yet despite being released at the height of her madness, 2007’s Blackout proved that Britney could still create brilliant pop moments. Now, just over a year later, Circus arrives with an overwhelming swell of public support behind it.

While Blackout was 45 minutes of eye-rolling, crotch-crunching, but utterly brilliant insanity, Circus is, like Britney herself in recent months, a touch calmer. Sometimes it works, like on the disconcerting ‘Unusual You’, an electro ballad of Robyn-sized proportions, or the serene ‘Blur’, documenting Britney’s last two years through lyrics like “I can’t remember what I did last night”. Other times, like on the sickly ‘My Baby’ – an ode to her children including a mawkish reference to their “tiny hands” – it goes horribly wrong.

To be honest, though, all we really want from Britney is floor-filling pop to live up to ‘Womanizer”s manic sirens. ‘If You Seek Amy’ is a secretly filthy playful romp, while ‘Kill The Lights’ is a scathing attack on “Mr Photographer” who stalks her every move. Our favourite moment lies in the slow-motion middle eight of ‘Shattered Glass’: we can just imagine Britney, in full diva mode, strutting through a icy forest, completely back in control.

Circus is an album of highs and lows, but there’s a danger we’re just so excited about Britney surviving that we’re happy to accept mediocrity. ‘Womanizer’ is probably the album’s only iconic moment, but it certainly proves there’s fight yet in the girl we’d almost written off for good.

Originally published by Orange Music

Review: Beyonce – I Am… Sasha Fierce

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In a world ruled by downloads perhaps the flow of tracklistings, once pored over for hours by record labels, isn’t that important any more. It’s certainly not to Beyonce who, on this, her third solo album, has spread 11 songs over two discs in order to create a ‘concept’. Double albums usually make us pull an ugly face (Back To Basics, anyone?) but we guess at least this has a point, almost. 

Let’s explain. For this album Beyonce has split her personality into two. Disc 1, labelled ‘I Am’, reveals the ‘real’ Beyonce behind the makeup, baring her soul with insecurities about love. The simple, If I Were A Boy, is ably joined by the very strange, but wonderful Ave Maria and Ryan Tedder’s Bleeding Love-lite, Halo. Unfortunately when faced with six ballads in a row, you might find yourself dropping off into a deep slumber, no matter how good they are. 

You’ll wake up sharpish though when it’s time for disc 2, as Beyonce is gone, replaced by the hilariously monikered Sasha Fierce. Sasha is B’s on-stage personality and the hair flicking, stiletto strutting beats of Diva with it’s dictionary defining ”diva is the female version of a hustler” prove it. Yet though the electro pounding of Sweet Dreams or the wild Radio might be standouts here, there’s nothing that announces Beyonce’s experimental side like the raging Ring The Alarm from B’Day 

An attempt no doubt for credibility and importance, I Am … Sasha Fierce ultimately falls short of this goal. In a world where Rihanna seems to have released hit after hit, Beyonce, although the superior on-stage performer, needs to come back with something stronger than this if she wants to steal her sparkly crown back off the young pretender.

Originally published on BBC Music

Review: Seal – Soul

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With 15 million album sales and three Grammy Awards under his belt, you’d think it might be easy for Seal to make a successful album. Yet since the mid-1990s his popularity dramatically waned, with even the super contemporary Jacques Lu Cont produced System last year failing to make much of a mark.

Thus Seal has decided to return to his self-declared roots with his sixth album, the simply titled Soul – a collection of classic songs, produced by legendary Canadian producer David Foster, best known for his work with Celine Dion. Entirely a covers album, it features the work of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Reading and James Brown to name but a few, and here enlies the problem. Choosing such definitive songs, and performing them, on the whole, with such a loyalty to the original recordings, simply makes us want to listen to those originals. Sure, there may be some novelty value the first time you hear a man sing Ann Peebles’ glorious I Can’t Stand The Rain or Deniece Williams’ enchanting Free but a faithful cover of If You Don’t Know Me By Now leaves us reaching for the Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes original, or at very worst Simply Red. Cover albums always face this risk, but Seal could have done with taking a leaf out of George Michael’s Songs From The Last Century album and finding some brilliant, but lesser known songs to scatter through the album.

Though there’s no doubt that Seal has a great voice, perfectly designed for singing soul music, ultimately Soul feels a touch too smooth. In his day Seal was an innovator – constantly pushing the genre boundaries of r ‘n’ b & dance music – but now we’re left hoping he finds some of that magic that seems to have been lost along the way.

Originally published at BBC Music

Review: Take That – Circus

Staging a comeback far bigger than any of us could have imagined, it’s now time for Take That – The Man Band to release their 2nd album since returning to their adoring fanbase looking slightly crinkly. Circus, coincidentally released on the same day as Britney’s album of the same name, is it, and we’re pleased to report it’s pretty damn amazing.

Modern day Take That are like the drama faces of Melpomene and Thalia. Gary Barlow, the graceful swan of the group, is cementing his position as the country’s premier pop writer by dripping tragedy over soaring, epic ballads. Melancholy lament ‘What Is Love’ has Howard shining on lead vocals, questioning ‘the science of fate’ while title track ‘The Circus’ says it best with ‘I’m the only clown you’ll ever know. I love you was too many words to say’. The brilliant ‘Rule The World’ might be hard to top but opening track ‘The Garden’ and the perky ‘Hold Up The Light’ have that same magical feel. With songs like this, we’re left curious why they went with the relatively lacklustre ‘Greatest Day’ as lead single.

Then there’s Mark Owen, representing comedy, still happily bouncing about like ‘Clementine’ was as big a hit as it should have been and creating adorable upbeat pop songs Paul McCartney would be proud to sing. If Morrisons have ruined ‘Shine’ for you, then the cheeky ‘Hello’ will happily take its place in your heart. ‘Julie’ puts Mark in story telling mode and almost feels like a sequel to Babe, but the real highlight is the utterly catchy ‘Up All Night’ complete with a proper oom pah pah band and skip down the street chorus – we can just imagine the video with Take That clad in drummer outfits with big shiny silver buttons.

A stunning album, Take That are the vintage champagne of pop fizzing with playful bubbles and happily maturing with age.

Originally written for BBC Music.

Dirty Diegos

In a brilliant moment of pop / tv crossover, Fascination Records (home of GA & The Saturdays) have signed up Hollyoaks very own band, the Dirty Diegos to release a single at the end of November. Now I love Hollyoaks and love Fascination, so to me this is hilarious but brilliant news.

They’re treating them totally in character and the promo cd reads, “The Dirty Diegos are a local band from the Chester suburbs. They met at Hollyoaks High where they are all currently studying. The band first started life as the baby Diegos with Amy as the lead vocalist but she stepped down when she gave birth to Leah. etc etc” Brilliant.

Of course, you would expect the song to be properly rubbish. But it’s not. Instead it’s a fierce 2.36 of Michaela McQueen actually on vocals sounding pretty hot. It’s originally a song by Dimestars, a short lived band in the early 2000s fronted by Roxanne Wilde (sister of Kim) and featuring Morgan who’s now in DoesIt Offend You Yeah. It’s snarly, snazzy and I’d be able to play it pretty much immediately main set at Popstarz and get people dancing with them having no idea what it is. Just listen to that middle eight.

Fascination are, however, RUBBISH because they won’t let me embed the video. I don’t understand when people do that on youtube, so lose your prejudices and go watch it here. The single is out on November 24.

Here’s the original:

[youtube]http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hSqUUWXQn3E[/youtube]

The Good Natured

I’m so predictable. If you have a pretty female singer with a synth chances are I’ll love it. So when my friend Ben passed on The Good Natured there was a good chance I was going to think she was the new best thing ever! And I did.

The Good Natured is black haired, red lipped 17 year old Sarah McIntosh.  Don’t let the over enunciated accent put you off though, this is gorgeous synth pop that raves away with a church organ & drum machine going at rocket speed.

She released her debut ep Warriors in October and it sold out almost instantly. Think Kate Nash meets The Postal Service and wallow in it’s excellence.

Download The Good Natured – Warriors [MP3]

Review: Girls Aloud – Out of Control

Even before Queen Cheryl of Cole sharpened her perfectly manicured judging nails to become the nation’s new sweetheart, Girls Aloud were adored by everyone from misery guts Noel Gallagher to toff David Cameron. Now teaming up with hit factory Xenomania again for their fifth studio album, our girls show no sign of giving up the hunt for the perfect pop song.

That perfect song might not, however, be exactly what you’re expecting. Instead of compelling us to race to the dancefloor and jump on our tutu, Out of Control has taken its lead from the success of icy ballad Call The Shots and brought us a shimmering album of heartbreaking electro pop with the tearstained melancholy of the Ashley baiting Love Is Pain its defining moment.

Forgetting about hugely disappointing Neil Tennant collaboration The Loving Kind, the Balearic bliss of epic seven minute marathon Untouchable and the haunting swirls of Turn 2 Stone (which cries out for a big trance remix) prove that you don’t have to be brassy to be brilliant. That said, if you’re running back to Tangled Up frantically searching for Girl Overboard, you need not fear. Although there aren’t as many stompers as usual, the sarcastic country of Love Is The Key and drum and bass anti-anarchy anthem Live In The Country, in which Sarah begs for a ”stall selling strawberry shortcake” will go some way in cheering you up. Miss You Bow Wow impresses as one big non-stop chorus and the dancehall mayhem of Revolution In The Head mean there’s no chance of an overly serious ‘we are no longer pop’ edict being issued.

Pop music at its finest, Girls Aloud have opened up their hearts, and finally won their battle against drippy, re-hashed ballads. Long may they reign.

Originally published at BBC Music