New Music Through Old Ears: Darkness No More, Sufjan Blur

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It’s new music time as entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a listen to new discs from Britpop survivors Blur, retro rockers The Darkness, offbeat folkie Sufjan Stevens and alternative journeymen Faith No More.

New Album from an Old Artist

Blur – The Magic Whip

You might remember Blur as being the band that most girls preferred to Oasis during the Britpop wars of the nineties, or maybe from that annoying/catchy Woo Hoo song. Formed by singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon in 1988, the band were initially prolific, releasing 4 albums in 5 years with Leisure (1991), Modern Life is Rubbish (1993), Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995).

The band tinkered with their sound with the 1997 self-titled release, and were rewarded with success in the USA and their biggest single to date…

Recording for The Magic Whip kicked off in Hong Kong in 2013, when the band were scheduled to play the Tokyo Rocks music festival and the gig was cancelled at short notice, leaving the band stuck together for five days with nothing to do. While Albarn was on tour promoting his 2014 solo release Everyday Robots,

Coxon gathered the rest of the band and turned these Hong Kong sketches into an album, with Albarn completing vocals in January 2015.

It’s been 12 years since Blur’s last album Think Tank, and it seems the band have spent the time mixing new sounds with classic influences. Produced by Stephen Street, Blur’s eighth studio album kicks off with the Kinks-influenced Lonesome Street, strolls through Smiths territory with New World Towers, while Ice Cream man lays vintage Blur ‘slice of British life’ lyrics over a videogame style electronic loop.

For a band that became known for playing quirky, upbeat songs, there isn’t a lot to smile about on The Magic Whip. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the atmosphere that pervades the album reward listeners willing to put in a bit of time.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping for another Song 2 or Country House, then you’re probably going to be a bit disappointed.

Best tracks: Mirrorball, Lonesome Street

Sample Lyric: ‘Satellite showers, falls like confetti on the cavalcade.’ (New World Towers)

Verdict: 7/10 — a mature album from a band comfortable with their musical legacy

New Album from an Offbeat Artist

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

After beginning his musical career with folk band Marzuki while he was still at school, Sufjan Stevens released his debut album A Sun Came in 1999. Incorporating influences from around the world including India, the Middle East and classic Americana, Stevens played most of the instruments on the album himself.

After the release of sophomore album Enjoy Your Rabbit (a concept record about the Chinese zodiac), Stevens announced that he was going to release an album based on each of the 50 states of the USA.

He managed to produce a grand total of two before he got bored and claimed that he had been joking, the sprawling Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State and the lushly orchestrated (Come on Feel the) Illinoise.

After the electronica of previous album The Age of Adz, seventh studio album Carrie & Lowell is a return to Stevens’ folk roots, featuring sparse instrumentation and heartfelt lyrics inspired by the lives of his mother and stepfather. There is a beautiful simplicity to many of the songs on this album, paring stripped back instrumentation with heartfelt lyrics.

This honesty and emotional rawness is confronting at times, particularly when Stevens addresses his failed relationships and the loss he feels for his departed mother. Taking this into account, there is a rewarding experience waiting for those willing to really absorb the album, as Stevens has a talent for constructing a simple yet incredibly moving song.   

Carrie & Lowell is an album that encourages quiet contemplation of where you have come from and what is really important — like family.

Best tracks: Death With Dignity, Carrie & Lowell, Eugene

Sample Lyric: ‘You checked your texts while I masturbated.’ (All of Me Wants All of You)

Verdict: 7/10 — laidback, meaningful folk by one of the masters of the genre

Album I Expect to Suck

The Darkness – Last of Our Kind

For about five minutes during the late 1990’s The Darkness were one of the biggest bands in the world. With an arrogance fuelled by massive amounts of cocaine and a sound ripped straight out of the seventies, singer Justin Hawkins and his band of merry men released album Permission To Land in 2003, selling millions of copies of the back of singles I Believe in A Thing Called Love and Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman.

Unfortunately, by the time second album One Way Ticket To Hell… and Back! was released in 2005 the novelty had worn off and the band’s arrogance was reaching stratospheric levels. The record sold poorly and received withering reviews, while fans and the international media turned on the band, leading to Justin Hawkins quitting the group in 2006 to enter rehab.

The story goes that while in this environment Hawkins met Razorlight singer Johnny Borrell and the two agreed to form a supergroup when they got clean. For some reason this has not happened yet.

Twelve years since they released anything good, The Darkness are back with new album Last of Our Kind. It’s pretty much as bad as the last album, albeit with an odd voiceover that intros the album and tries to bring some kind of coherence to the musical mess contained therein.

Years of hard living seem to have stripped Hawkins of the ability to hit and sustain the high notes, and what we’re left with is a marginally talented band who think music reached its nadir in 1974. 

For those interested in rock dynasties, the drummer for the Darkness is Rufus Taylor, son of Roger Taylor from Queen. This goes to show that the drummer does not necessarily make the band, and perhaps that talent isn’t always genetic.

Best tracks: Barbarian, because the intro sounds like a Monty Python sketch

Sample Lyric: ‘Enslaving the sweet women folk, while every man is slain.’ (Barbarian)

Verdict: 1/10 — so bad you might think it was a joke, except it’s not

Ch-check It Out…

Faith No More – Sol Invictus

Faith No More have the distinction of being one of the few bands who have replaced their lead singer and gone on to equal or greater success after the change. Originally formed in 1979 by bassist Billy Gould and drummer Mike Bordin as Sharp Young Men, the band morphed into Faith No Man and eventually Faith No More, releasing debut album We Care A Lot in 1985.

After singer Chuck Mosley was fired from the band in 1988 due to personal differences and falling asleep onstage at a gig, he was replaced by Mr Bungle singer Mike Patton. Within a fortnight Patton had written all of the lyrics for album The Real Thing, which was released in 1989 and leapt to success off the back of mega-hit single Epic.

While the band never really replicated the commercial success of The Real Thing, they built a rabidly loyal fanbase and became a staple on the touring circuit. Subsequent albums Angel Dust, King For A Day and Album of the Year established Faith No More as a resolutely independent band unafraid of challenging conventions, although the cover of The Commodores song Easy became the band’s biggest hit in many parts of the world.

Sol Invictus is Faith No More’s first album since their reformation in 2009, and shows an experimental band unbowed by the ravages of time. The songs are complex and take a couple of listens before you really work out what’s going on, but a bit of effort reveals a wealth of creative riches. Influenced by classic heavy acts including The Cramps and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sol Invictus is everything that Last of Our Kind isn’t — interesting, challenging and fresh.

While Faith No More is still unlikely to convince those who prefer songs from the Top 40, it is well worth a listen for fans of heavy and/or progressive music.

Best tracks: Superhero, Motherfucker, Black Friday

Sample Lyric:  ‘A smallpox laden blanket, invisible with stains.’ (Motherfucker)

Verdict: 7/10 — different from anything else you will listen to this week

Like what you read? John’s books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

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