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Red on Black

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Foil Deer
Foil Deer
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Speedy Ortiz - Make the great leap forward, 27 April 2015
This review is from: Foil Deer (Audio CD)
Speedy Ortiz have followed their last album, the 1990s inspired "Major Arcana" with this wonderful piece of vinyl that just about betters it in every department. "Foil Dear" is winning third album which once again echoes the great achievements of bands like the Pixies and Pavement, although some distinct new territory opens on the horizon. On this record, this band starts to come into their own and in doing so produce a musical statement which is irresistible. This Massachusetts indie rock quartet led by Sadie Dupuis do not neglect the angular lines and distortion of their debut yet they couch it all in a fresh pop sensibility. For example in songs like "The Graduates", you are swept along with the sweetness of Dupuis's voice whilst being conscious that this is not quite as straightforward as it appears. When she sings that "we were the law school rejects so we quarrelled at the bar instead" it is clear that Dupuis' delicious wordplay will win through. Indeed, the pop blast that is "Swell content" would be equally at home on a "Best Coast" album.

These are fine but it is the darker more sinister tracks which impress the most. Songs such as the standout "My Dead Girl" are grungy treasures revealing new pop hooks each listen. The excellent Pixies influenced "Raising the Skate" make you hark back to the halcyon days of Kim Deal and Co and give you a nice warm feeling. Throughout you can lead the needle anywhere in these grooves and be presented with songs that challenge and stimulate. The albums close "Dvrk Wrld" has a delicious vocal by Dupois amongst all its complexity while the pounding "Homonovus" will smash your best vase and trouble the local environmental health department.

On one of the mid-point songs "Zig" we note Dupois questioning "How many laps does it take to decide you're back at the start"? She should not fear. "Foil Deer" shows Speedy Ortiz developing at a rate of knots and moving away from a solid starting point into gorgeously structured anthems which do not dilute the passion they have so far exhibited and deepening their claim to be one of the greatest emerging American bands of the moment.

Sound & Colour
Sound & Colour
Price: £9.99

10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Alabama Shakes - A Curates Egg, 20 April 2015
This review is from: Sound & Colour (Audio CD)
Alabama Shakes came close to delivering a perfect debut in 2012's "Boy and Girls" although it fell short of the primal quality of this bands on stage presence and the sheer level of raucousness they summon up. Still it had some great songs, especially the single "Hold On". The echoes of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett were everywhere and in Brittany Howard the band had a stellar singer capable of superhuman vocal feats.

It would, therefore, be wonderful to report that this sophomore album "Sound & Colour" addresses the flaws in their debut and delivers more effectively than Parcel-force. Sadly the target is missed on this occasion. It is not that this is a bad record, it is just that it doesn't sound that distinctive any more and truly great songs are in short supply. Granted the best tracks like the pulsating "Don't wanna fight" and the Motown swing of "Shoegaze" show a band determined to bust out of the straightjacket that could result from an over rigid adherence to a Muscle Shoals template. Indeed the desire to develop in new directions is laudable and when it all comes together in a powerhouse track like "Gimme all your love" you look up to the heavens and smile broadly. If only this could have been sustained throughout five stars would have followed. Whilst experimentation is fine, sadly the quality of the majority of these songs just do not cut it. "Gemini" is overlong and you will search in vain for a compelling melody. Other tracks like "Miss You" try to ooze that that "ole soul stew" yet are all over the place in an overwrought tangle. Finally with "The Greatest" you cannot work out whether the band want to be the Ramones, Velvet Underground or Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. It ends in a messy cacophony where Howard chuckles upon its conclusion, yet you suspect she is the only one laughing.

"Sound & Colour" is an attempt to move the Alabama Shakes in newer directions and position them for future releases. This is by no means a disaster but neither is it a roaring success. On balance there was no way that the band could deliver "Boys & Girls Part 2" since they had already essentially nailed the old soul sounds and succeeded in dusting them with the veneer of a raw and urgent new ethic. On this second album, the ship has left the comfortable harbour of this tradition although has yet to find the next port to anchor. Clearly there is fun to be had sailing on the open seas, however the Alabama Shakes need to put this record down to experience and come up with something in their next release that secures them for the future.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 28, 2015 7:27 AM BST

Price: £10.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stornoway - More songs about birds and beaches, 15 April 2015
This review is from: Bonxie (Audio CD)
For some odd reason following their solid debut "Beachcomber's Windowsill" the Oxford band Stornoway dropped off the chart for this reviewer despite the fact that they subsequently released a sophomore album. Thus to be reacquainted some five years later with "Bonxie" is a chance to mark progress. Clearly the band remain firmly in the folk genre and have a pop sheen which should ensure commercial success. Nevertheless, the overwhelming feature in this passage of time is how the quality control has increased and how good nearly all these songs are.

The lovely opener "Beneath the saltmarsh and the sea" sees frontman Brian Briggs tugging at your emotions with a breezy tale where you can almost sense the waves, while "Get Low" positively chimes and is sardine-packed with sunny melodies. Part of the album was written by Briggs in a camper van on the superb Gower peninsula outside Swansea and its nice to imagine that songs like the lifting "The road you didn't take" being inspired by the wonders of Rhossilli Beach. The proximity of the sea influences all of these recordings not least the warm shanty tones of the love song "Josephine" excellently executed with three-part harmonies by the band.

"Bonzie" contains nothing particularly revolutionary in approach, but it confirms the band is hitting its stride. If there was a criticism of Stornoway's debut it overdid the whimsy and did sound on occasions like a bunch of middle-class lads trying a bit too hard to locate themselves in a tradition which had already been colonised by Mumford and Sons. "Bonxie" on other the hand sounds like a band at ease with itself and starting to plant its flag in territory occupied by bands like the Decemberists, in turn demonstrating much greater pop muscle. Nowhere is this clearer than on the last track "Love Song of the Beta Male" which echoes the best of bands like Belle and Sebastian, which can't be bad. The result is that Stornoway have improved dramatically and produce songs perfectly timed to soundtrack warm spring days.

Darling Arithmetic
Darling Arithmetic
Price: £9.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Villagers - Simple and pure, 14 April 2015
This review is from: Darling Arithmetic (Audio CD)
If Conor O'Brien's last Villagers album "Awayland" was a full band album this time round it's his time to strip everything back and return to a set of largely intimate acoustic songs. The question for buyers of this album is whether O'Brien's sparser approach is enough to hold attention over an album and do the songs fully engage the listener?

There are some lovely songs present. The gentle piano ballad "Everything I am is yours" and the melancholy wistfulness of "Dawning on me" stirs an autumnal air and sees O'Brien reflecting in depth on love and relationships. What is noticeable here is that the symbolism and metaphors of Villagers past albums are completely discarded for a "heart on his sleeve" approach where O'Brien lays himself bare. In "Hot Scary Summer", this rawness comes to the surface when he recollects a lost love, "Remember kissing on the cobblestone/ In the heat of the night/ And all the pretty young homophobes/ Looking out for a fight". Similarly on "Little bigot" he takes on themes of anti-gay hatred and contrasts them with the intrinsic worth of true love in whatever guise or relationship format that people choose. This is a deeply personal message partly to address his own deep feelings with an introspective form of song therapy. Others tracks like the "Soul Serene" are perfectly appealing but by the end of the album a certain lack of colour does emerge. As such "Darling Arithmetic" is an album of subtle brushstrokes never really touching the adventure which O'Brien was embracing with previous records. There is nothing wrong with that and as the Villagers "acoustic" album it does allow us to peer more closely at his skills as a songwriter stripped of all embellishments, revealing some similarities with the American musician Conor Oberst.

What we see is a musician not afraid to look inward and thereby present a largely elegant set of songs which grow in stature on each listen. This album has the feel of O'Brien pausing and taking stock. This is the wise approach in terms of a musical career although you sense that he will come back with something very different from his next release. Therefore reflect upon and enjoy the naked honesty in the nine songs of "Darling Arithmetic" and keep this artist firmly in your musical sights, now and into the future.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 15, 2015 2:57 PM BST

The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies
The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies
Price: £9.99

54 of 68 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Battle of the Five Armies - A Muddle in Middle Earth, 11 April 2015
Depressingly the final part of the Hobbit trilogy "The Battle of the Five Armies" confirms that Peter Jackson's monumental achievement with Lord of the Rings has been undermined by a horribly messy prequel that has outstayed its welcome and is essentially "Tolkien for the X-Box and PS4". It is not surprising that the great authors estate have disowned the bloated enterprise. Indeed, Christopher Tolkien's sad observation even before the release of this series says it all. As he states "the chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialisation has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing".

There is little point rehearsing the many departures from the book. Overall the sheer level of story padding present is best explained when it is recognised that the "Battle of the Five Armies" runs for 144 minutes, during which time it covers the six final chapters, or only 47 pages, of Tolkien's book. The final battle lasts forever with no real suspense. Legolas, for example, has become an elf killing machine, a sort of effete terminator. For him, an Orc is not so much a fearsome challenge as target practice. Indeed, the Orc's in Jackson's universe are now the most useless bad guys in cinema history. You sense that if you dropped them into a Disney film, Bambi would trounce them. Equally dear old Billy Connolly's role appears to be to play himself in Middle Earth in the guise of some sort of demented Rab C Nesbitt like character. Watching him swearing, charging into battle on the back of a computerised pig was excruciatingly unfunny. Even Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) the one invented character for the series who did add something to the "Desolation of Smaug" gets submerged in the wafer thin plot and is lost in all the CGI. Worse of all is the dialogue especially the ham-fisted exchanges between the Dwarves that is extracted from the deepest mine of blockbuster cliche in Hollywood. This is exacerbated by Thorin, the King of the Dwarves moping about fixated with greed and gold. With the amount of money that this film was bound to take at the box office you felt that Richard Armitage should just take a chill pill and wait for the cheque in the post.

Peter Jackson has admitted that for legal reasons his fixation with Tolkien must now end. As he recently stated "The Tolkien estate owns the writings of Professor Tolkien" and they are refusing to release any further works. Ultimately with the "Five Armies" Jackson has milked this source dry and "The Silmarillion" would have been a bridge too far. In many respects the finished outcome now uncannily mirrors the fate of that other great blockbuster "Star Wars". In short three brilliant films at the outset followed by a prequel series which could have happily stayed on the cutting room floor.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 1, 2015 4:24 PM BST

Culture of Volume
Culture of Volume
Price: £9.79

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars East India Youth - Moving to the mainstream, 10 April 2015
This review is from: Culture of Volume (Audio CD)
William Doyle aka East India Youth's debut "Total Strife Forever" was a Mercury nominated album full of sparkling synths, echoes of Bowie's Berlin era mixed with dance music and a dollop of huge ambition. It appears that the dalliance with fame has convinced Doyle to head in a more mainstream pop direction on his second album "Culture of Volume. The result is a less startling piece of work but one which shows a restless artist determined to develop in different directions albeit with a fair degree of success and executed with aplomb.

The single "Turn Away" is a beautifully constructed piece of synth pop which seems to throw in bits of A-Ha, Soft Cell and Kraftwerk for good measure and create an intoxicating mix. It is noticeable in addition that Doyle's vocals are brought to the forefront of this album where they lurked as a backdrop in his debut. Again this is a real positive. When all the elements collide like on the concluding track "Montage resolution" you would place a bet on Doyle to conquer this genre. It positively chimes and pulses throughout, echoing the work of German producer Panthu du Prince. At around 3 minutes, the instrumental track goes deeper than a spy uncover and then slowly trickles to a conclusion. Others like "Beaming White" would happily add a touch of class to the charts should it be released as a single, although perhaps some of the revenues would need to go to Julian Cope since the melody often veers in the direction of the Teardrop Explodes "Treason". The track "Entirety" alternatively could show the Prodigy a thing or two about bass driven synth music and is a pounding success. The penultimate track "Manner of Words" is a 10-minute slow extravaganza which is a thing of beauty albeit a shorter edit might not go amiss. On "Carousel" the debt to Owen Pallet is clear but whilst perfectly pleasant Doyle is not yet a match for the former.

Overall "Culture of Volume" is clearly a pitch by Doyle for greater fame and fortune, and why not? Throughout he manages to make an album which is underpinned by sharp pop sensibility but also has it challenges. The end result is a more mature albeit slightly less exciting album than its predecessor. Doyle undoubtedly wants much more than a "knowing" techno audience and he has opened the shop window with this album. It is well worth a visit.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 11, 2015 11:41 AM BST

Bashed Out
Bashed Out
Price: £7.49

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is the Kit - For folk's sake, 8 April 2015
This review is from: Bashed Out (MP3 Download)
"This is the Kit" have been lauded by the great and good including Elbow's Guy Garvey and a host of DJs including that discerning Welshman Huw Stephens. It is hardly surprising. "This is the Kit" are fronted and led by the wonderful Kate Sables whose music sits uncomfortably under the banner of alternative folk. In fact, if you listened to the previous single "Earthquake" it owes as much to indie bands like the Walkmen. On "Bashed Out" Sables has employed Aaron Dressner from American wonders "The National" to undertake production duties and the result is an album of unmitigated excellence throughout.

Starting with the languid "Misunderstanding" the folk echoes remain in place but noticeably Sables is heading towards territory currently occupied by singers like Sharon Van Etten. Echoes of "The National" are all over this record. The slow pounding rock of "Silver John" and the wonders of a standout track "Cold but Colder" all demonstrate that Sables growing skills as a tunesmith and a musician with a widescreen vision for her art. The mellower "Vitamins" has been a song that has been around a while in the "This is the Kit" repertoire and is a beautiful gentle acoustic jewel and every bit the match of her best song to date "Two Wooden Spoons". Other mentions in dispatches should go to the minimalist folk of the title track where Sables puts in a vocal performance of rare delicacy and the joyous "Magic Spell" which for some reason reminds this reviewer of those Cardiff wonders the Young Marble Giants. As for the track "All in cahoots" it opens with Sables ruefully reflecting that "just because they got away with it/doesn't mean to say that we will too/probably the opposite, in fact". One wonders what she alludes to? Finally "Spores all settling" sees the most understated use of the banjo in a rock song this side of Sufjan Stevens.

"Bashed out" is a little cracker of an album. There are no bold or brassy brush strokes present yet the whole album builds up to the complete picture. The less charitable may put this down to the presence of a top-notch producer from the beating heart of one of the world's greatest bands. They would, however, be wide of the mark and this unworthy slur should be firmly countered and politely withdrawn. Kate Sables has come of age on this album and produced a seamless and completely believable set of songs for your delectation.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 19, 2015 3:50 PM BST

Tomorrow Is My Turn [+digital booklet]
Tomorrow Is My Turn [+digital booklet]
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rhiannon Giddens - Takes centre stage, 4 April 2015
In recent months, Rhiannon Gibbons has contributed to a range of collaborations involving some of the best and brightest on the current music scene, notably Elvis Costello, Jim James and Marcus Mumford. Whether through her contribution to the T-Bone Burnett produced supergroup "The New Basement Tapes" or the show-stopping performance in the concert film of "Inside Llewyn Davis", it is clear the Rhiannon Giddens oozes star quality and has one of the best female voices to grace the record business in years.

T-Bone Burnett is back on producing duties on this debut solo album "Tomorrow is my turn" which is largely a covers album and builds on some of the musical preoccupations of her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It is a super confident record and Giddens mines that source of pure Americana with aplomb. Her version of "Waterboy" stopped the audience dead at the "Llewyn Davis" concert and her sassy powerful delivery on this album is a revelation as is the funky groove of "Black is the color". it takes a brave artist to cover a Patsy Cline classic quite as famous as "She's got you" yet she does the old Hank Cochran standard proud and makes the vocal sound as effortless as her great country precursor. Another song by a country giant, in this case, Dolly Parton, is tackled on "Don't let it trouble your mind" and again not a step is out of place. Perhaps best of all is the sweet simplicity of the version of Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree" which is a pure delight although the deep blues of the Geeshie Wiley's "Last kind words" packs spiritual real punch.

If there is is a small complaint about this album it is perhaps that a couple more originals might have also allowed the listener to pass keener judgement on Giddens songwriting skills which if they come anywhere near her vocals will be a force of nature. As it stands the one self-penned song, namely the country swing of "Angel City", does show real potential and it bodes well for future albums. This debut highlights an artist who is beginning to stretch out and cash in on a rare talent. This which will undoubtedly accelerate to much greater levels across many great albums in the future. "Tomorrow is my turn" shows that Rhiannon Giddens as a musical prospect to be devoured and followed with rapt attention.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 12, 2015 7:31 AM BST

At Least For Now
At Least For Now
Price: £9.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Benjamin Constantine - Glorious You, 2 April 2015
This review is from: At Least For Now (Audio CD)
Benjamin Clementine's recent EP "Cornerstone" laid the foundation for this ravishing album "At least for now". This 26-year-old Londoner who learned his trade via Paris owes more to European theatrical traditions than the turgid run of mill pop dominating the charts. There are easy comparisons made in terms of Clementine's music to the drama of Nina Simone and the operatics of Anthony Hegarty, but this does not do justice. Benjamin Clementine ranges over different disciplines and styles with consummate ease. He is a self-taught singer and pianist whose powerful voice and genre-defying narrative music are audacious in their execution.

The album contains a number of songs from his two recent EPs and it would have been nice to have had more originals present. Assuming however that this is the first point of contact with Clementine for most listeners this debut is an impressive commencing point with an artist who is a compelling musician. Songs like the beautifully soulful "London" and the "Sinnerman" soundalike "Adios" show him at his absolute best with his passion worn on the sleeve and imagination cut loose. Others like "Winston Churchill's Boy" paraphrases the great War Leader opening with the lines "Never in the field of human affection / Had so much been given for so few attention." and develops into a beautiful piano torch song. Others like "Gone" are heartfelt ballads which are simple in construction and prove that Clementine can be at his best when he is at his most economical. There is some weirdness here and frankly a good producer really would have reigned some of it in. Thus the strained chant "St-Clementine-On-Tea-And-Croissants" is mercifully short while "Quiver a little" lacks any real melody and the structure becomes disjointed. Alternatively the powerful "Cornerstone" is easily one of the best songs that will grace the music world in 2015 and the jazzy "Nemesis" is not far behind, ending with a huge vocal performance from Clementine.

There is often a nagging feeling that if Benjamin Clementine could reign back some of his natural exuberance he would be a better singer, however, would it also mean that he would be a lesser artist? This duality of roles may need resolving at some point, but for now learning to love these contradictions is at the heart of enjoying Benjamin Clementine. "At least for now" is an often scintillating debut by an artist who is trying to do something different and unique. There is no shame in the fact that he does not always pull off his grand vision, for even where it falters it is completely endearing.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 7, 2015 9:16 PM BST

Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell
Price: £9.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sufjan Stevens - Magic and loss, 30 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Carrie & Lowell (Audio CD)
Thankfully with his seventh "official" album "Carrie and Lowell" one of America's greatest singer-songwriters returns to peak form. Sufjan Stevens has recorded an album, which is about coming to terms with love, loss, regret and a son yearning for a mother he never really knew. It is a record about bereavement, the randomness of life and will deeply resonate with anyone who knows the difficulty of closure and the search for hope. As subject matters go it is not the usual warp and weft of popular music, but Stevens is not the usual pop artist. "Carrie and Lowell" comes fully formed as a 10 song suite of beauty and meditation. In his fascinating recent interview with Uncut, Stevens also stressed an important caveat. As he stated "I'm not exploiting my misery- if that's how it seems I have failed as an artist".

The album sees Stevens returning to that wintry indie folk of the "Seven Swans" era. It starts with "Death in dignity" a lilting gorgeous lament where he reflects "Spirit of my silence I can hear you/But I'm afraid to be near you". It is followed by "Should have known better" which must rank as one of his greatest songs. It tells the tale of an incident when his mentally troubled and alcoholic mother abandoned her four-year-old boy in a video store. It builds from acoustic beauty to a repeat chorus so beloved of his approach on "Illinoise". In effect both these two opening songs set the template for the album with prospective reviewers scrambling for new words to describe the loveliness contained herein but also register the hurt which underpin so many of these songs.

Perhaps the most "upbeat" song is ironically entitled "Drawn to blood" full of religious imagery and biblical allusion. It is the "Fourth of July" however, which stops the listener in their tracks. Underpinned by repeating percussive keyboard cycles it is the album's most beautiful song cut from the same mould as the "Owl and Tanager". Here he questions those childhood angelic perceptions of parents as he sits next to his mother's deceased body. "Sitting at the bed with the halo at you head/Was it all a disguise like junior high?/Where everything was fiction, future and prediction/Now where am I? My fading supply" He repeats the words "we're all gonna die" until the song drifts to silence. The remaining tracks are all first class including the bittersweet "The only thing" and the stunning hymnlike "No shade in the shadow of the cross". Here Stevens references his own personal demons including the devastating line "There's blood on that blade/F*** me, I'm falling apart/ My assassin, like Casper the ghost/There's no shade in the shadow of the cross".

The past few years have been frustrating for those who subscribe to the view that Sufjan Stevens is the most unique and original musician "treading the boards" in modern music. The multifarious bleeps, electronica and 25 minute mini-symphonies of 2010's "Age of Adz" marked an album of incredible highs combined with the sound of failed experimentation, while last years self-indulgent Sisyphus collaboration was a huge misstep. In "Carrie and Lowell" he is back to his best with an album of exquisite beauty. It is a deeply personal and brilliant record and will deeply resonate if the pain of grief has touched you. Ultimately his key theme is to dedicate his songs to those we love yet who elude us.

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