Music Features

The Singles Bar - 5th September 2011

Greetings, pop-pickers!

After the twin-horrors of Ed Sheeran and Jessie J, Joe Rivers couldn't face another week of the singles column, so I'm going to be your (temporary) host to the world of digital downloads, 7 and 12 inches and, if you can find them, CD singles. Not that I expect anybody actually cares about them any more, going by how incredibly difficult it was to even find out which ones were coming out today, but I've made the commitment now so best to just get on with it anyway.

The Drums – Money

As if to prove just how pointless aiming for the singles market is these days, everybody's favourite, or second favourite, or merely tolerated American Smiths-copyists The Drums have decided to release their comeback single on the same day as their second album. Quite why they bothered at all I don't know.

The good news is that the line-up upheaval that happened between albums one and two hasn't had any lasting effect on the band as Money is still a bit of a summery jangle, like all their other songs. It's just a shame that frontman Jonathan Pierce hasn't taken the opportunity to up his game in the lyric-writing stakes at all. The song features, in true Pierce style, some of the laziest stream of consciousness ramblings imaginable. Presumably his original plan was to just 'write' a song about his shopping list, before realising that he couldn't afford to go shopping anyway, and so he just sang about that instead. 4/10

Okkervil River – Your Past Life As A Blast

Perhaps Pierce could learn something from Okkervil River. Your Past Life As A Blast, on first listen, features lyrics almost as uninspiring as The Drums' effort – although to be honest it might just be Will Sheff's terrible diction rendering them pretty much indecipherable, if I had the time/inclination to look them up I might find he's a genuinely gifted poet (probably not though). However, they're cleverly buried under layers of Hammond organ and buried-in-a-mining-shaft backing vocals, which provide the perfect distraction as they sound really quite terrific. Generally, I subscribe to the view raised on the first episode of the No Ripcord podcast (still available on iTunes!) that the last thing the world needs is more Okkervil River records, but I could actually go for a bit more of this. 7/10

Big Deal – Chair

Chair just might be the least inspired song title in the history of popular music, which means that it's perfectly fitting for Big Deal's boy/girl namby-pamby nonsense. Even if they drop in some ragged guitar licks to give it a bit of life, the vocals are no better, and possibly even less charming, than those you'd hear from teenage buskers in any given shopping centre. Was the late (and sadly missed) Steven Wells trying to warn us about this sort of thing in his many Belle and Sebastian-aimed diatribes in the late 90s? Shame we didn't listen. 1/10

Snow Patrol – Called Out In The Dark

Speaking of Belle and Sebastian, remember when Snow Patrol were just a bunch of pleasant B&S wannabes? No, I'm not sure I do either.

Called Out In The Dark sees Lightbody and co continue in their, so far depressingly successful, plan to be Coldplay instead (all while trying to claim that they're '4 Real' in the extraordinarily patronising video), by attempting to bolt together an awful dirge of a verse with a ludicrously big chorus that sounds like its been lifted from an entirely different song - this one's a bit 'ravey'. Expect to get the chorus stuck in your head for weeks, but to also want to drive nails into your eardrums when being forced to listen to rest of it. 2/10

Ms Dynamite - Neva Soft

Cannily released the day before this year's Mercury Music Prize ceremony, so that when the inevitable 'whatever happened to?' conversation starts, this should turn up pretty high in the Google search results. So it's a good thing that its big, bolshy (particularly her sudden, and possibly insensitive, acquisition of a strong Jamaican accent) and the best thing that she's ever done, other than It Takes More or her guest-spot on the Katy B album. 7/10

Shockolady – Get It On

Russia's latest attempt to infiltrate the charts after t.A.T.u. and... um... is that really it? You'd think that a country with a population of 143 million would have thrown up a few more international popstars. It's a Lady Gaga-inspired Karaoke cover of the T Rex classic sung by a woman so far only known in this country for supporting Jedward on their last tour. Every bit as pointless as that description suggests. 0/10

Bon Iver – Holocene

After Justin Vernon's debut, and even the Blood Bank EP and Kanye guest appearances, I was a fully paid up member of the Bon Iver fanclub (or I would be if such things existed anymore), but I can't say I've warmed much to his second album. Not that it's bad per se, it just so obviously lacks the passion that kept For Emma, Forever Ago from sinking into interminable navel gazing. After the magnificent Calgary, 4AD were clearly left with a bit of a tough decision for what would be single number two from Bon Iver (the best stuff that's left isn't very 'Bon Iver' – consider the pummelling drum beat of Perth or the afrobeat rhythms of Minnesota, WI) and so they've had to go with this pleasant but unremarkable bit of melancholy that, despite the 'I could see for miles, miles, miles' assertion in the chorus, seems rather lacking in scope, and attached it to a glossy Icelandic-shot video in the hope that we won't notice that if you took away Vernon's amazing voice there'd be no difference between this and something from the David Gray back catalogue. 5/10

Laura Marling - Sophia

Yes, she should still be viewed with suspicion as a result of her involvement with both Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons, but this is rather good (take note Mr Vernon, this is how you do wistful acoustic melancholy) even if it definitely ain't original – starting out as a pleasant wisp of Joni Mitchell-ism before going all upbeat Dolly Parton. And while it's a bit annoying that the very English Marling is attempting to sing in an American accent (or two), she does belt it out with a just enough conviction, and pleasant harmonies, to get away with it.

Actually, I preferred the rendition of Jolene that I ended up singing during Sophia's second half, but as I have no plans to commit that to record as yet, buying Marling's record is certainly not a bad substitute. 8/10

Foster The People - Helena Beat

While Pumped Up Kicks established Foster The People as the new Maroon 5, Helena Beat's fizzy synths and ridiculous falsetto sees them aim for Empire Of The Sun's territory, and for some reason they've bundled it with an incredibly misjudged and heavy handed video. It's a riddle of contradictions, that's quite palatable in small doses. So it's a shame that it goes on for nearly 5 minutes. 3/10

Light Asylum – In Tension EP

It might be a bit of cheat including this as not only are EPs a bit of a grey area, but this one's been doing the rounds for well over a year now. However, as it's just been re-released so you can buy it in proper shops, or at least off the net, I'm choosing to believe that it counts, besides it's my column this week so I'll review what I want.

Presumably cashing in on Dark Allies from the EP now soundtracking a Nintendo 3DS advert (hopefully Light Asylum will see a sales bump out of it, as Nintendo certainly haven't), In Tension is a bit early-to-mid Depeche Mode, a bit Grace Jones (or at least what you'd expect Jones' records to sound like going by her reputation, rather than how they actually do) and really quite Yazoo – if Vince Clark was a massive Goth and Alison Moyet was a black Brooklynite, and if they used samples of horses and, on Skull Fuct, the instantly recognisable drum beat from Blue Monday. 9/10 SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Xiu XiuDaphny

Take one listen to Daphny's unsettling noise and its distant, tremulous vocals and you'll probably agree; Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stuart is rather keen on Scott Walker's The Drift. It all certainly sounds like no laughing matter (which is just as well as apparently it's about a friend of Stuart's getting raped by a cop – not that you'd have the slightest clue going by the lyrics, although the rather striking cover art might have given you a hint).

With it's really weird stop-start nature, I would say that it's a pretty ballsy choice for a lead single, but by Xiu Xiu standards this is actually quite radio-friendly (there's even a pleasant acoustic guitar interlude) and, as somebody who's always found the idea of the band more interesting than the actuality of them, I can confidently say that this is... interesting. 7/10

Foo Fighters – Arlandria

I'm starting to question Dave Grohl's position as 'the nicest guy in rock'. Surely if he was that nice he wouldn't insist on subjecting us to his ever-more patchy output. As if to remind us all that Wasting Light still exists here comes single number three and... well, it's alright actually. Somehow it manages to be both a cock-rock stomper and very polite with it. It could probably have done without the 'Fame, fame, go away bit' though. 6/10

Pixie Lott – All About Tonight

Pixie Lott's career seems to exist solely because of the wishful thinking of record label executives - her most significant contribution to culture being a co-starring role in Fred: The Movie (a film based on a youtube skit based on E number-induced hyperactivity). Can anybody actually remember a song that she's recorded? I certainly can't, not even this one.

Presumably All About Tonight was written when some guy in marketing looked at a Gaga video and a Boots Here Come the Girls ad and decided that that's what women want (or at least what tween girls think they'll want when they become women). So we've ended up with Miss Lott attempting to deliver a dance-y account of the kind of supposedly-empowering-but-actually-really-depressing 'girls night out' that takes place in every British town centre on a saturday night. And the problem is that it's not nearly brash or offensive enough to capture that market, instead it merely comes across as being, just like the rake-thin Lott herself, severely undernourished. 1/10

Melanie C – Think About It

The opening blasts of guitar suggest two things, 1) that Melanie C is, like a particularly tedious letter writer to the NME, still a bit obsessed with the idea of 'real music' and 2) that Think About It might be a bit of laugh anyway. Technically it's not a bad song - everything seems to be in the right place - but the former Sporty Spice remains so devoid of personality that somehow Think About It manages to erase itself from the memory while it's still playing. Although to be fair to her, she can just about hold a tune, until she strains for the high notes anyway.

Probably best that we just forget about it instead Mel. 3/10

The Saturdays – All Fired Up

Maybe it's the shameless pilfering of the really quite good synth wash from Chris Brown's otherwise irredeemable Yeah 3x (and for that matter Calvin Harris' I'm Not Alone – he may not be anywhere near as vile a character as Brown, but he still comes off as something of a dick and is thus best avoided), or maybe it's the fact that I'm starting to bleed from the ears, but I quite like this. Yes, it's brain-cell destroyingly stupid, but at least it's honest about it and, unlike Lott's similarly titled effort, it has some balls (sorry girls). Although in the notoriously undemocratic world of girl groups, the Saturdays might just have revealed themselves to be the most tyrannically authoritarian, as apparently only one of them gets to sing (which one it is I don't know, it probably doesn't matter anyway). 7/10

Mark Ronson featuring Pharrell Williams, Mndr, Wiley and Wretch 32 – Record Collection 2012

A remix of the title track from the bequiffed one's last solo album, in which he gets in a load of hip-hop artists in an effort to once and for all convince us that there's more to him than Back to Black, and being a bit of a dapper dresser. And by prematurely giving it the 2012 suffix, he's apparently hoping that we'll all agree that this is the sound of the future.

Of course it isn't, but it is definitely an improvement on the lumpen and flat original, even though there are way too many collaborators here. To be fair Wiley's there from the original, but it didn't really need Pharrell, Mndr and Wretch 32 to also chip in as it's pretty much impossible to tell who's who. Still on the plus side, it means that there's little room left for Ronson to make his presence known. 4/10

The Kooks – Is It Me

Yes, Luke Pritchard, it's you. 0/10

Wynter Gordon – Til Death

Despite the title, Til Death is a fairly traditional, albeit slick bit of electro-pop, built around a backing track that sounds like a Clanger in a blender, and Gordon's certainly been gifted with a strong voice. But the constant shifts in speed and tone eventually reveal it to be a pop song in search of a hook. 3/10

Dev – In The Dark

Every other song this week sounds like its been based around a Casio keyboard demo track, and as such In The Dark, the latest single from 'The voice of Like A G6' (as the adverts on the telly say, as if that's a genuine selling point), seems like it's going to be, at the worst, incredibly derivative, but then Dev's unenthusiastic vocals come in and it all goes downhill incredibly quickly. And then there's a really horrible 1990's euro dance sax riff to make matters worse.

To give In The Dark some credit, it features what will probably be the only ever use of the line 'It's the cataracts' you'll ever find in pop music, but when delivered in Dev's comatose style the realisation hits that this is what an OAP trying to be coquettish and sexy would sound like, and nobody wants to think about that. 1/10

Leona Lewis – Collide

Now firmly established as the only act signed by Simon Cowell that he's not subsequently dropped like a stone, Lewis no longer needs to try to appear even remotely credible, and so can just indulge her lacklustre ballad urges all she wants. So I was prepared for Collide to be dreary, I wasn't however, expecting it to be genuinely nightmarish, and not just because of the usual Mariah-apeing high notes. When an incredibly commercial pop song attempts to use the line "Crash into me at full speed" as a sexual come-on during its chorus, you do wonder if J.G. Ballard was onto something.

Although it's not just Lewis' vocals that are to blame, there's also the awfully repetitive 90s house piano and the insistent, but inept, beats to get past. It all adds up to a combination so toxic that on every attempt I've made to get through Collide I've ended up with a headache and lost the ability to form coherent sentences. 0/10

And after all that I'm going to have to retreat to a dark room with a bottle of gin for company.