Single review: Harry Styles’ ‘Sign of the Times’

harry-styles-solo-debut-april-7

You can blame it on Trump, global warming or technology, but whatever the cause – even pop music can’t escape a good old existential crisis these days.

Case in point: Harry Styles’ mammoth debut solo single, Sign of the Times. A cold, harsh, 5’40” epic that doesn’t so much as offer us a tissue in our hour of need, this surprisingly dark offering is a strange note on which to embark on a solo career.

Blunt, moody piano chords accompany the unsympathetic opening line: “Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times/Welcome to the final show, hope you’re wearing your best clothes”. Is this a somewhat arduous attempt to be taken seriously? To move as far in the opposite direction of You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful as possible? Whatever the motive, Sign of the Times is surely the music equivalent of the ice bucket challenge for the fluffier 1D fans out there.

If we follow his lead and put Styles’ musical past firmly behind us, there’s a good chance we’ll get swept up in the majesty of this song once the post-rock electric guitar catapults the chorus into the stratosphere. We could note the falsetto that is so clearly of the same mould that spat out Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk and the horrifyingly ubiquitous I Don’t Wanna Live Forever. We could even cheer up a little by the third refrain: “Just stop your crying, have the time of your life”.

Eventually, though, you’ll start wondering who this song really sounds like – because while it may be revolutionary for Harry, it’s a drop in the pop ocean creatively. Dredge up vague references to power ballads and rock bands and finally you may settle, as I did, for the thought that it sounds rather like a Michael Buble/noughties-U2 collab. Then again, that is something I’d pay to hear. 2.5/5 STARS

 

 

Adele @ ANZ Stadium 10.3.17

Screenshot 2017-03-11 at 21.35.44

She had them at ‘Hello’.

4/5 stars

They came with spouses, with boyfriends, with grandmas. They came in families, alone, with children, and friends. They came skipping and running and limping and strolling.

And they came in hordes.

Although there were many (no doubt willing) husbands in tow, it was clear that on Friday night Adele was providing the ultimate girls’ night out for a large chunk of Sydney’s female population. (And those who weren’t there, were probably Justin Bieber fans broke from buying tickets to his upcoming concert in the very same stadium)

While the gender sway was obvious, the median age was a little harder to pick – but the fact that over half the audience burst into song only when The Turtles’ Happy Together (not Gomez, Bieber and co.) was piped into the arena pre-show, indicated a strong Baby Boomer presence. Regardless of age or sex they were ready to party, and in the case of many, with tipsy abandon.

Still, that’s what Adele does, isn’t it? She gives us permission to simply be ourselves – whether that’s to contribute our soulful howls to Someone Like You (“My songs are pretty miserable, I know” she concedes with a laugh), or throw our hands in the air to I’ll Be Waiting (“I know they’re telling you to sit down, but don’t listen to them!”).

ANZ Stadium engulfs 95 000 people with ease, but all that changes the instant Adele opens her mouth. There is no other voice that could so effortlessly fill, overwhelm and utterly own that cavernous stadium, yet at the same time – here’s the crazy part – sound as intimate as a bar gig.

Perhaps it’s because Adele’s modus operandi is bizarrely earthy for one so revered. Defiantly behaving as normally as possible in the face of extraordinary fame and adoration, she shares genuinely funny anecdotes with 95 000 people as though we’d bumped into her at the supermarket check-out queue. There are plenty of artists who (credit to them) try to reach out to their audience with easy familiarity. Adele just does it.

How? We’ll probably never know. At least, not while we’re swaying to When We Were Young, hollering Send My Love To Your New Lo-ov-er, and sitting amidst a twinkling stadium during Bob Dylan cover Make You Feel My Love.

If the crazy part was that this mammoth concert felt intimate, the crazier (though less surprising) part is exactly how good Adele sounds live. She may have warned us that “sometimes I burp” in the key change of Don’t You Remember; she may have been on the verge of tears as she stopped the concert to check on an unwell audience member; she may also have almost fallen down her own (“f***in'”) stairs and walked around 7000 steps as she made her rounds of the circular stage; but delivery after powerhouse delivery made it very clear that no studio can truly capture the magic that is Adele.

Of course, Adele is not a stadium performer – she told us so herself – but that is most likely because she has little use for fireworks, streamers and balloons (all of which we got just the same). Her voice trumps the lot. At the end of the night it is not the stadium show we have paid for, no mere spectacle; it is the privilege of being in the same space as that magnificent voice, paired with uncanny relatability. And that was worth every damn cent.

On Lorde’s “Green Light” and its brave ugliness.

The first time I listened to Lorde’s Green Light, I wasn’t sure if she’d got away with it.

Growling right at the lowest end of her register, battling with an almost disastrous chord change in the chorus, the Kiwi kid of Royals acclaim had me crying “What the hell are you doing?!” sooner than she had me singing along.

No surprises that Jack Antonoff was involved – the sparse, pop-savvy verse will conjure references to Taylor Swift’s 1989 with little effort. And, like 1989, the experimentation ultimately paid off.

708145ff9e66c0b07469ef1da989ab89

Because by some devilry, that chorus works. While the initial shock might have cooled our enthusiasm for a second, Lorde brings it all flooding back with a dance refrain that will be flailed to on many a drunken night – and let’s be honest, some sober ones too.

I may have been bamboozled for a moment or two, but those seconds of shock and uncertainty were some of the most exciting of my day (I know, I live a wild life). Who dares to let these rough edges show, on radio of all places? Who dares to create something so uncomfortable, in the name of art? Not many artists who get airplay, that’s who.

And this, time and again, is why Lorde stands out. Because she refuses to shy away from a little ugliness, that little ugliness that is an inescapable and very real part of life, and which gives her art all the more credibility and daring.

On Repeat Lately #4

Sia – Move Your Body

This always seems to come on when I’m driving and cannot do my dance moves justice (or injustice? The judgement is perhaps not mine to make). But on the upside, red lights are now a beacon of freedom for my ready-to-flail limbs.

Helen Shanahan – I Only Hide

This slow-burning piece of country folk is the kind of song I had to listen to five times in a row. Its steady groove and haunting vocals wrestle with the anxiety of performance in the spotlight…a place Shanahan is going to have to get comfortable with if she keeps creating stunners like this one.

David Bowie – Life On Mars?

What do you do when writing about a Bowie tribute show? Listen to Bowie of course. And lust after this eye makeup job.

The Mis-Made – Blood Money

Joan Jett’s legacy is alive in these Sydney rockers, who I also happened to be writing about this month. Headbanging while writing is a skill, people.

Jack Johnson – Better Together

Summer has called for a lot of chill music, and when it has called, Jack Johnson has answered. An oldie but a goodie.

Why Mozart didn’t really win 2016.

As 2016 wrapped up, the world was reeling from the news that a 17th century classical composer had outsold the likes of Beyonce, Drake and Adele.

For those of you whose Christmas-addled brains missed the news, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sold the most CDs in 2016, thanks to Universal Music’s 200 CD box set release of his complete works. Cue classical music nerds fist-pumping and saying things like “Classical music will never die!”.

Well, this just in: young people weren’t the ones buying the CDs. Thanks to Apple Music and Spotify, streaming has captured the hearts (and bank accounts) of twentysomethings everywhere, including yours truly. So really, the fact that Universal filled the stockings of our parents and grandparents is nothing much to whoop and cheer about.

152550-004-669d4462

“Adele who?”

Excuse my pessimism, but if you’re under 30 and not working in the classical music industry, I am willing to bet Mozart is not in your daily playlists. He might pop up on your ‘music for sleeping’ or ‘music for studying’ compilations, but who really has the time to sit down and listen to anything longer than 3’10”?

Don’t be offended: I’m including myself in this sweeping generalisation of millennials’ music habits.

My cynicism is well-founded. Since the age of 6, I was trained in classical piano until the completion of my AMus diploma some years ago. For the best part of my life, I was playing Baroque, Classical and Romantic music almost every single day (note the almost: I had my rebellious moments). But as soon as that diploma was on my wall, I ceased to listen to or play classical music (meant here in the broad sense, encompassing music from Bach to Beethoven-ish) on a regular basis…eventually, my interest in it just faded out completely.

And yet. My most formative musical moments dogged me, even as I buried myself in musical theatre, pop and jazz. My father introducing me to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. My obsession with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf suite, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. My early fascination with Chopin’s polonaises, nocturnes and mazurkas.

As a teenager, I used my finely honed technical skills to accompany singers, play in theatrical ensembles and teach a multitude of students aged 3-90. Occasionally, I played a little Beethoven, a Chopin waltz or two – just to remind myself that I could. But for the most part, I shunned my classical days as lonely, finnicky training that had never enabled me to ‘join in’ with other musicians. Clearly, popular music was the way forward.

Strangely, my students thought otherwise. And damn it, they were right.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. “They always pick Bach,” my own vastly experienced piano teacher told me on numerous occasions. Having known the pain of learning to play five (simultaneous) voices with ten fingers, I privately thought my students would not be so moronic. In years to come, they proved me wrong (or right? I eventually recognised that appreciating Bach was anything but moronic), choosing J.S. and Mozart time and time again. They seemed to enjoy their choices, too – and on the occasions students chose popular songs to play, they almost all lost interest (which, I might add, had been BLAZING interest initially) within a week or two.

My heart began to sink every time a student requested a ‘radio’ song, and jump for joy each time they chose a star of the Western Canon. Popular music might be fun to sing along to, to share with friends, but those students who were most curious about music, most eager to learn the innermost secrets of its makeup, kept choosing Bach et. al.

Screenshot 2017-02-07 at 20.53.13.png

The author, not playing Bach.

Gradually, I lost my resentment for this music that made me a ‘lonely’ musician, and instead began to relish the joy and intellect it brought to my lessons with students. Classical music, in its finest forms, is a celebration of aural architecture on a grand scale. It plays with expectation, pushes at the boundaries of creativity, and connects us with both our innermost selves and something far, far bigger than our human existence.

So here’s my challenge to you: listen to some classical music. Now. Today. If you don’t like it the first time, listen to it again. This is music to be savoured, to be explored, to be absorbed. Be patient. Be open-minded. Be awestruck. And if there are children in your household, let them listen too.

“Won’t music so complex blow children’s minds?” I hear you ask. I say, let it. And once they’ve picked their jaws off the floor, let them ask questions, work on the techniques, learn the theory and have their minds blown all over again.

Then maybe, just maybe, Mozart will fly up the charts once more – this time on the Spotify Top 100.

Single review: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’ & ‘Castle On The Hill’

featured

Is it just me? Am I just an old humbug? Or are Ed Sheeran’s two new singles really nothing special?

There. I said it. I am underwhelmed.

It’s not that Shape Of You isn’t sensual, poetic and catchy – it is. It’s not that Castle On The Hill isn’t a tender, uplifting piece of pop – it is. And it’s not as though either of those singles could do anything other than hit the apex of the charts in a heartbeat – they did.

But after two years of the incessently ubiquitous hits of X, surely it wasn’t too much to hope for something…fresh? Sheeran has always been a passing interest of mine, an artist to play when I need a sentimental or angst-ridden singalong. He owes me no particularly great debt of fandom, and yet I feel cheated.

If you’re not too outraged to keep reading, I’ll explain myself now, I swear.

Shape Of You was always going to steal the limelight. Flirty, sexy, catchy as all hell…on paper it works, out loud it sounds like a rework of Nina with a little bit of Don’t thrown in. Is this really all Sheeran has to offer? It’s a solid comeback, but it’s so. damn. safe. Also, TLC’s No Scrubs keeps popping into my head every time the pre chorus starts and that is just not a good thing.

Castle On The Hill offers a surprising change of pace – perhaps Sheeran’s attempt at a new flavour of songwriting? – but it sounds strangely anonymous after the textbook songwriting of the sister single. Although Sheeran delivers with satisfactory character, Castle On The Hill could belong to anybody. Most plausibly, in the introduction, U2 circa The Joshua Tree.

Are you still reading? Did you make it? Do you think I’m crazy?

It’s just…after the sweet nothings of +, 2014’s X offered grit and swagger and a maturing sound. While Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill are deserving chart-toppers amongst the swirl of radio favourites, they have ultimately failed to build on Sheeran’s ever-promising foundations. Did Thinking Out Loud leave such a big void that we will happily greet regurgitated inspiration with such enthusiasm? Evidently so.

But keep grooving, kids – there are worse songs you could get excited about. Having had my vent, I shall now banish my disappointment to the quietest murmurings and leave you be. (Bah. Humbug!)

Living In 2017: A millennial commentary on Skyhooks

When Twenty One Pilots released Stressed Out, it was as though the millennial population found an outlet it hadn’t even realised it needed. Its words reached out and touched the tender bruise of anxiety in so many of us, acknowledging our weary battles on the frontlines of adulthood, so frequently glossed over by radio hits.

But like much millennial commentary on modern life, Stressed Out is permeated with a desolation that provides little comfort beyond empathy. After all, Twenty One Pilots are of our generation: they’re as lost and world-weary as the rest of us, and Stressed Out is as much a quest for answers as it is a comment on the lack thereof.

I listened to a lot of FM radio over 2016, so this New Year’s Day I did what I do every time modern music gets me down: raid my parents’ musical archives.

In the case of my mother, this features both Sherbet and Skyhooks rather heavily – and while Howzat will always be an irreplaceable piece of Australian music gold, I found Skyhooks to be the anxious millennial’s best friend. Yes, I am talking about a 1970’s band, no, I am not a Baby Boomer, and once I was as resistant to this idea as you probably are now.

Skyhooks first proved their millennial relevance innocently enough – my parents made me listen to All My Friends Are Getting Married after 18-year-old me had complained once too often about the number of engagements announced in my Facebook feed. Oh, I initially rolled my eyes at the dated groove and crazy costumes, but the not-so-subtle scepticism of marital life soon had me feeling as free as a bird.

As I embark on 2017 – due for the proverbial quarter-life-crisis in about 7 months – it is Living In The 70’s (the album, as well as the title track) that I find myself holding close. The track itself has a restless, wide-eyed bewilderment that is all too familiar for those of us growing up in this fast-paced digital age. It acknowledges the feelings of alienation that modern progress brings (“I feel a little crazy, I feel a little strange”); the can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it trepidation about the ever-increasing lack of humanity (“eating fake food under plastic trees”); and most of all, the rising panic of having to deal with it all (“I need another pill to calm me down”).

Where Twenty One Pilots soar into helpless falsetto, Shirley Strachan lowers his voice to a feisty snarl: Skyhooks may have felt bamboozled by the plastic age, but there’s a fierce survivalist pride to their delivery that feels bloody good to imbibe by proxy.

They keep up the fight for the rest of the album, too, if you’re interested – and again, it’s strangely relevant. Horror Movie makes us feel better for hating the news, while Whatever Happened To The Revolution sounds eerily applicable to a world full of “clicktivism”, where Trump is president and marriage equality still battles to come into existence:

Everybody thought we could win with a vote
So the band went home without playing a note
…When you’re sick of your parties and sick of your sweets
Get off your arses I’ll see you out in the streets

skyhooks

You’ll crack a smile though – it’s not all doom, gloom and politics. Anyone who’s ever had a dodgy Tinder date will have a hearty giggle at You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good In Bed and Balwyn Calling (“Oh she might have looked like a princess/ Why’d you have to give her your address?!”). Any self-respecting millennial has also surely had to put up with being asked Hey What’s The Matter With You? (“You can’t have your dope and smoke it too”) by Bernard Salt et. al., so why not clap along as you return the question with a healthy dose of sarcasm and electric guitars?

More than anything, Living In The 70’s provides ample distraction from the anxieties of today. Revel in the unbridled sexiness of Motorcycle Bitch and cringe at the pre-internet inconvenience of wanking in Smut (be warned also: it will ruin Twisties for you). Use this album as a time machine, or let it apply to now: the choice is yours, and the result is medicinal either way.

This music may be more than four decades old (indeed, nearly two decades older than most millennials), but in being older, Skyhooks can offer reassurance where our contemporary acts can not. We might feel a little crazy, we might feel a little strange, but we’re not the first to have done so – and we’re unlikely to be the last.

 

In defence of an unabashed love for Mariah Carey’s ‘Merry Christmas’

71oanh-wkfl-_sl1500_

There are two types of people in the world…those who hate this album, and those who love it.

Gather ’round children, and let me tell you a story of the 90’s.

Once upon a time, before Michael Buble was a household name, before his Christmas album was a twinkle in a producer’s eye, there was Mariah Carey and Merry Christmas. The year was 1994, and this reviewer was a wee tot of 2, but she was destined to cross paths with Carey’s holiday album in just a few years…and the year after that…and the year after that…and all the years after those.

I’m not entirely sure when Merry Christmas first came on my radar – I was probably 5 or 6 – but I do know that after that first encounter, nothing has sounded more like Christmas to me since. Two decades later, all I require to get into the holiday spirit is to hear the first rippling piano chords of ‘Silent Night’ and I’m good to go.

Whacking great dose of nostalgia aside, it is my humble opinion that Merry Christmas also delivers a musical treat the likes of which Michael Buble has yet to top. This was my first encounter with a gospel choir, a Hammond organ, and a voice of superhuman capabilities, and my childhood imagination was entirely captivated by this ridiculously groovy take on the season.

The prime time for listening to Christmas music when I was a kid was in the car with Mum and younger bro, on our way to our grandparents’ for various festive visits (tree-decorating, setting up the inflatable pool, delivering presents…). This was a 40 minute trip – just enough to blast out the 38 minutes of MC – during which all three of us would pump ourselves up on holiday spirit, ready to decorate the Christmas tree with gusto upon arrival at our familial destination.

“She has such an incredible voice,” my mother would say, shaking her head in wonder at Carey’s vocal acrobatics. It was the only time I really heard Mum admire a musician, so I listened to the mind-boggling melisma with rapt attention. Carey’s voice sounded like some wondrous alien instrument, flying up and down octaves of notes with fearless abandon.

And then there was the gospel choir.

I had no concept of gospel music at age 7 or even 8, but listening to the joyful cloud of harmonies sounded to me like there was a crazy good party going on inside that tape cassette. It was also the first time I heard a Hammond organ…there were so many things to listen to! For me, Merry Christmas was a festive patchwork of musical magic with no comparison.

By age 9 I’d been playing classical piano for three years, and the prominent piano solos and accompaniments across the album (but perhaps especially in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ and ‘Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child’) did much to reassure me that piano could be a ‘cool’ instrument, used for other purposes than Mozart. I promised myself I would learn such groovy riffs when I was older and had mastered Bach and Beethoven.

There were things I didn’t appreciate until I was older, too. As a child I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many things that made Carey sad at Christmas (‘Christmas: Baby Please Come Home, ‘Miss You Most At Christmas Time’)…surely this season was the best distraction from a lame boyfriend who’d dumped her unceremoniously? I didn’t understand the magnifying effect of Christmas until much later, although I’ve always tried to remember my childhood approach to heartache.

Perhaps the best thing about Merry Christmas however, was the way it drew my mother into as childish a state of Christmas excitement as our own. As the chorus of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ hit, Mum’s usually strict observation of driving safety would melt slightly, allowing her to take one hand off the steering wheel to punch the air with the ‘hey!’. We always knew it would be a good day if Mum was fist-pumping to MC.

I can’t be sure, because this is not the kind of thing grown-up people discuss, but I refuse to believe I am alone in this once-a-year obsession with a 90’s Christmas album (whoever DJs for Westfields clearly shares my love, for one). But as the years slip by and the baby-faced pop stars of today release their own takes on seasonal tunes (looking at you JB and Ariana Grande), the haters are so quick to trash my beloved MC.

Well, save your “bah humbug”s – the only crime Merry Christmas has committed here is to be so damn good it gets mercilessly overplayed. And may it be so for many years to come!

TV Review: The Right Note

screenshot-2016-12-16-at-18-23-13

The panellists of The Right Note, including: (L-R) Rod Yates, Lindsay McDougall, Danielle McGrane and Bernard Zuel. (image source)

This show so delightfully fits its title, there is really no need to say anything more.

But The Right Note, a new original TV series focused entirely on album reviews, live performances and interviews with up-and-coming musicians, is my new favourite way to spend screen time – so hear me out.

Our panellists are the best in the business: The Sydney Morning Herald‘s senior music writer, Bernard Zuel; editor of Rolling Stone Magazine Australia, Rod Yates; and entertainment journalist for Australian Associated Press, Danielle McGrane. Aussie rocker and long-time Triple J presenter Lindsay “The Doctor” McDougall hosts and contributes to the conversation, guiding us through the show with easy warmth.

Each episode includes commentary on the latest music news, three album reviews from the experts, and a live performance and interview with fresh, usually off-beat acts. At 35 minutes a pop, The Right Note is a quick injection of new music, presented by people with opinions worth listening to.

It’s a show for people with broad musical taste, too. Everyone from Pete Doherty to the Rolling Stones gets a look in, and as they wrap up each session the panellists drop recommendations for ‘albums you may have missed’…so whether you happily paddle down the mainstream, or proudly discover tunes ‘before they were cool’, chances are you’ll find something to your liking.

With the authority and perceptiveness of Stratton & Pomeranz’s At The Movies (ABC), and the easy lounge room discussion style of The Book Club (also ABC), The Right Note would surely be welcome on, well, our national telly channel. Surely that deserves 5 stars.

You can watch every episode of The Right Note, or just bite-size vids of the interviews and performances on Skipi TV, HERE.

Single review: Laura Marling’s ‘Soothing’

Four and a half stars

Slinky, seductive, and perhaps just a little coy, Laura Marling’s first single from upcoming album Semper Femina is as bewitching a herald of things to come as we could have hoped for.

Gone is the broody darkness, replaced by sensuality and tenderness. Gone are the earthy acoustic tones, replaced by sparse percussion and bluesy electric guitar. Somehow, we’ve ended up in experimental jazz territory, the likes of which are usually inhabited by Norah Jones. But Marling makes this strange new land her own.

Wafting delicately amongst the rhythmic gyrations and harmonic instability, Marling’s vocal has all the hushed intimacy of pillow talk, and all the confident authority of a narrator. It’s a combination of contexts that is as bewildering as it is bewitching, but when a cloud of strings lifts us into the dreamy surrender of the chorus (sounding a little as though it’s taken a leaf from Kate Bush’s book), all is deliciously clear.

The abundance of latex in the music video may spell it out, but the low purr of sexuality makes itself known through the songwriting alone. The tension of the verse melts into a gentle sigh of pleasure; Marling sings “I need soothing”, but the request sounds so fulfilled it seems to be uttered after the fact.

Soothing showcases a self-composed Marling, ready and willing to tackle her introspective themes with a softness she may not have known how to use before. It’s promising, it’s exciting and it’s bloody beautiful.

March 2017 can’t come fast enough.

Semper Femina is out March 10th, 2017 on Marling’s label More Alarming.