The Spinoff Music team review albums from Drake, Laura Marling, Spiral Stairs and James Blunt.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Drake – More Life
What you’ll be dancing to this weekend
A few years ago, as the recording industry was drowning in free mp3s, I told a friend who works at one of the Big Three record labels that the way pop music was heading, albums would soon just consist of 25 one-minute songs which would be made up entirely of choruses and danceable bridges. How wrong I was. To dominate the charts in the streaming age, savvy artists are making super long albums that can be played on endless repeat, racking up huge numbers (metrics!) and dominating both the albums and singles charts in a single sweep.
Savviest of this new terrain is Drake, the Svengali of streaming, whose every utterance is designed for maximum chart impact. And less than a year after his chart-dominating ‘album’ Views (20 songs over an hour-twenty), Drake is back with More Life, a 22 song ‘playlist’ that goes on (and on) for over an hour-twenty. I say ‘album’ and ‘playlist’ not to be an ironic dick, but to signal that I have no idea what the difference is supposed to be. This is not a playlist as you’ve come to expect, browsing Spotify for ‘Sunny Electronic Afternoon’ or ‘Cloudy Coffee Morning’, it’s a collection of songs by the same artist, just like albums have always been. Though there are a few sample-heavy tracks, there aren’t other people’s songs on here. And, as far as we know, he’s not going to continue to update it with whatever he does next. It’s not some unmastered mp3 uploaded to Soundcloud. This is a pre-hyped, premiered-on-Apple, soon-to-be-available-on-fucking-CD-for-Christ-sake album. And, to be fair, it’s a really good album at that.
More Life is a combination of career-spanning self-pastiche and sonic scrapbook of a world-travelling rich man, pasting local influences in his scrapbook as he goes. The themes will be familiar to anyone who’s listened to any Drake music before (i.e. everyone) – he can’t trust his friends, he can’t trust the women he’s hooking up with, he’s richer and more successful than you. But musically, it’s a grab-bag of his previous hits (from the dancehall pop of ‘One Dance’ to Atlanta-influenced rap of ‘Jumpman’) with a comfortable expansion into new influences and appropriations. At its worst, things can get a little cringy (Drake’s grime-lite use of ‘ting’ gets annoying fast), but at its best (as on, say, ‘Passionfruit’ and ‘Get It Together’), More Life is exuberant, familiar, and full of, well, life. – Henry Oliver
Laura Marling – Semper Femina
Folk and female friendship
Marling’s sixth album, Semper Femina, is about femininity and female relationships, its title drawn from The Aeneid and meaning, if my recollection of Year 12 Classics serves me, “woman is always fickle and changeable”. (Just kidding! I looked it up in another Laura Marling review.) In every way, her craft belies her 27 years, her bare-bones folk sufficiently stripped back for a double bass to loom large. Sophisticated and quietly self-possessed, it’s the antithesis of most radio-friendly popular music, which she said in a recent interview she found “quite abhorrent” for its “lack of soul”. Speaking as someone who’s never let an absence of soul hold her back from enjoying, say, Avicii, it was Marling’s lyrics that reeled me in: witty and wry and relatable for even the average 20-something, like this from ‘Wild Fire’: “She’s gonna write a book someday / Course, the only part that I want to read / Is about her time spent with me”. And this from ‘The Valley’: “I know she stayed in town last night / Didn’t get in touch / I know she has my number right / She can’t face seeing us”. “Twenty-five years and nothing to show for it”, sings Marling on ‘Always This Way’; it wasn’t true two years ago, and it’s certainly not true now. – Elle Hunt
Spiral Stairs – Doris and the Daggers
Ex-Pavement weirdo returns
History is written in hindsight, and in the case of the greatest indie band of the 90s – Pavement – that has tended to overplay, and then calcify, certain truths about the group. Yes, Stephen Malkmus was the driving force behind the band, but Scott ‘Spiral Stairs’ Kannberg was a crucial piece of the Pavement puzzle, with his non-ironic, melodic strum-alongs operating as a perfect foil for the stoned/beautiful mess of the Malk. Since Malkmus delivered wry, smart and generally excellent albums in the wake Pavement’s demise (with his backing band The Jicks) and Kranberg delivered OK but infrequent records via his new band Preston School of Industry and a singular solo effort, time tended to overplay the gulf between to two. This made it hard to process that back in 1999 when Terror Twilight was released, many Pavement fans felt it was Malkmus that was holding Kranberg back by not giving him any space for his songs.
Doris and the Daggers, his first new music since the Pavement reunion tour in 2010, is a very nice reminder of what Kannberg can bring to the table. The modus operandi doesn’t change too much (these are still fairly simple indie songs, with a strong Flying Nun influence, and backed by members of the The National and Broken Social Scene) but there’s a deepening as Kannberg takes on his middle age via cleverly written songs like ‘Dundee Man’ and the Echo & the Bunnyman-style opener ‘Dance (Cry Wolf)’. The result is an understated charmer of an album, and Kannberg’s best record – well worth checking out if you’ve ever had an affection for Spiral Stairs. – Pete Douglas
James Blunt – The Afterlove
What happens when you’re better at Twitter than music?
James Blunt’s very first single, ‘You’re Beautiful’, was so omnipresent it gave the British singer a career, while also creating an albatross which would colour everything else he did. That song was easy to grow weary of due to its syrupy construction, trite lyrics, and how it showed off the very worst in Blunt’s garbled, whiny delivery (his vocal remains to this day his Achilles heel), but it wasn’t really representative of the rest of his music. Rather than a sappy new-age balladeer, Blunt was more akin to a reboot of a mid-tier ’70s British singer-songwriter – crafting melodic but workmanlike soft rock with few interesting quirks, but personality enough to gain a loyal audience and have intermittent hits. Blunt was subsequently always savaged by critics, and gradually over his first four albums (none of which were really thaaaat bad) he receded from the charts.
Which means his fifth album, The Afterlove, calls for a reboot. To do so, Blunt looks to the British pop king of the day (and his mate, apparently) Ed Sheeran, co-writing a song with him and picking up a few tricks from him along the way. This cuts both ways: while the modern beats of ‘Lose My Number’ give Blunt a pulse, the creepy undercurrent of the lyrics is a far less attractive new wrinkle. Blunt ends up with a record that might buy him more time in the spotlight, but just as his Twitter presence suggests a funnier, more likable version of himself, it’s hard not to wish he just embraced his soft rock strengths rather than the muddled compromise he hits upon on The Afterlove. – PD
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