New Music Through Old Ears: London Pharrell and Beth the Panther

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This week, entertainment editor John Turnbull reviews new discs from silly hat aficionado Pharrell Williams, David Cameron’s favourite band London Grammar and metal parody act Steel Panther, as well as a live review of Beth Hart and Genevieve Chadwick at the Basement.

New Album from a New Artist

London Grammar: If You Wait

Apparently, it is now cool to hate on London Grammar because British Prime Minister David Cameron said he liked them.

Because I don’t care what Cameron thinks one way or the other, I’m going to listen to this album with an open mind.

After meeting at the University of Nottingham in 2009, singer Hannah Reid, guitarist Dan Rothman and multi-instrumentalist Dominic Major moved to London in 2011 and posted their debut single Hey Now on YouTube in December 2012:

Within three months, the band released EP Metal & Dust, followed by single Wasting My Young Years in June 2013.

Much of the furore that circled around London Grammar early in their career was due to the lack of a publicity machine behind them; they were just three young people who wanted to make music. While the truth is a little more complex, there is a certain purity to the songs on If You Wait — a little like the band don’t care whether people like them or not.

The music itself is mellow to the point of ambience, but vocalist Reed’s voice lifts the band above the pack.

When you get past the hype, London Grammar sound a bit like Florence and the Machine crossed with Dido, with a pinch of Kate Bush thrown in good measure.

If you like any of these artists, or appreciate spectral, ambient sounds, there is a good chance you will enjoy London Grammar.

Best tracks: Strong, Sights, Wasting My Young Years

Sample lyric: ‘I might seem so strong, yeah, I might speak so long, I’ve never been more wrong.’ (Strong)

Verdict: 6/10 — not as bad as some people would have you believe, but still a little generic.

New Album by an Old Artist

Pharrell Williams: G.I.R.L.

While he doesn’t look it, Pharrell Williams has been in the music game for a long time.

After meeting best friend Chad Hugo in the seventh grade, the duo started marking music together and eventually formed The Neptunes.

The band were discovered by producer Teddy Riley at a high school talent show and Pharrell got his first taste of production, courtesy of Riley.

Through the Nineties The Neptunes began to build a reputation as hitmakers, charging escalating fees as their fame grew.

The breakout came in 2001 when The Neptunes produced the Britney Spears single “I’m a Slave 4U”, and released the debut N.E.R.D. album In Search Of. Recorded with rock act SkyMob, the album featured the single Rock Star.

Named Producers of The Year at the 2002 Billboard Awards, The Neptunes were commanding massive fees to produce tracks, using the success to release oddities and passion projects.   

In 2005, Pharrell released his debut solo album In My Mind to moderate sales and middling reviews. Rather than letting this get him down, Williams doubled down and produced tracks for Madonna, Beyoncé, The Hives and Shakira, allegedly charging up to half a million dollars for the privilege.

After featuring on Daft Punk’s mega-hit Get Lucky and Robin Thicke’s one hit wonder Blurred Lines (prove me wrong, Alan-spawn) Pharrell released insanely catchy single Happy, accompanied by a 24 hour interactive music clip and a summer blockbuster film in Despicable Me 2.

Happy is the lead single from G.I.R.L., and it’s probably fair to say it’s the best track on the album.

Second single Marilyn Monroe is annoying after a couple of listens, and much of the rest of the album devolves into generic sexy lyrics over generic catchy beats.

This is not a bad album, but you get the impression that rather than put all of his best beats into this disc, Pharrell might be keeping some powder dry to sell to the highest bidder…

Best tracks: Happy, Know Who You Are

Sample lyric: ‘Clap along if you feel that’s like that’s what you want to do.’ (Happy)

Verdict: 5/10 — for fans only

Album I Expect to Suck

Steel Panther: All You Can Eat

Steel Panther first came to my attention back in 2009, with their debut album Feel the Steel.

The novelty of Steel Panther came from the fact that they dressed and acted like an Eighties hair metal band. At the time, I dismissed the band as a novelty act with one passably amusing single — the catchily named Death to All but Metal.

Formed as a cover band called Metal Shop in Los Angeles in 2000, the band became Metal Skool for a while before settling on the name Steel Panther.

Band members adopted somewhat derivative metal pseudonyms, with vocalist Michael Starr joined by drummer Stix Zadinia, guitarist Satchel and bassist Lexi Foxx. I’m pretty sure their mothers don’t call them by those names — but based on the content of this album, I’d be surprised if their mothers spoke to them at all.

Sophomore album Balls Out was released in 2011, but not before Steel Panther announced they would be playing the main stage of Soundwave Revolution, alongside their heroes Van Halen. When music fans heard the news, ticket sales plummeted and the event was cancelled (promoters spun it slightly differently).

Despite this reverse-Midas touch, Steel Panther continued to attract fans from established heavy bands and were invited to play with Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Guns 'n Roses. As you would expect, this just encouraged them.

All You Can Eat is something of a concept album — and that concept is sex. Not adult sex, mind you, but the juvenile sort of sex that only happens in the mind of fourteen year old boys. They are fascinated by bodily functions and seem to think that the mere mention of menstruation is cause for hilarity.

A handful of song titles to give you a distasteful flavour: Pussywhipped, Gloryhole, Gangbang at the Old Folks Home.

The closest thing to a song you could play for humans is first single Party Like Tomorrow Is The End of The World — a song that sounds a lot like Andrew W.K. before his mysterious disappearance/contractual identity change.

The word ‘parody’ gets thrown around a lot these days — often by people with little understanding of what it actually means. Steel Panther are not a parody, they are a joke — and a one-note joke that got tired five years ago, at that.

Best track: Party Like Tomorrow is the End of the World

Sample lyric: ‘There was so much love on your face, I couldn’t see the tears.’ (Bukkake Tears)

Verdict: 1/10 — unless you’re a fourteen year old boy, in which case 4/10 (still sucks, might be slightly funnier).

Live Gig Review

Beth Hart & Genevieve Chadwick: The Basement 13/4/14 

Sunday night.  Sydney.  Late (for me). Beth Hart is playing at The Basement, supported by Australian singer/songwriter Genevieve Chadwick. Pretty much the first non-festival gig I’ve been to in over ten years.  I really need to get out more…

The first time I went to the Basement to see a gig was over twenty years ago, back in the days when people were allowed to smoke inside licenced venues. A layer of smog almost obscured the stage when the band – whose name is lost to the mists of memory and alcohol – took the stage and I remember being blown away by how close you could get to the stage and the great quality of sound throughout the room.

In 2014, the smoke has cleared, but the sound quality remains the same.

As I search for the Basement entrance (like I said, it’s been a while) Genevieve Chadwick takes the stage and I redouble my efforts to get inside to see who this wonderful noise is coming from.

Raucous, untamed and exceptionally talented, Chadwick has been described as a female John Butler — but in my eyes this is damning her with faint praise.

It is true that the two musicians share similar guitar styles, however Chadwick’s playing has a frantic, urgent quality that the JBT hasn’t seen since Sunrise Over Sea.  

A perfect example of why you should always turn up early enough to see the support act, Genevieve Chadwick is an artist with a bright future and warmed up the room perfectly for the marquee act.

Beth Hart took the stage a few minutes later to a warm reception, then launched into a solo performance with keyboard and vocals.

Oh, the vocals.

While Beth’s voice sounds strong via recorded media, it’s absolutely spectacular in person.

As the set progressed, she was joined by guitarist Jon Nichols for a couple of tracks, then a full band including bassist Bob Marinelli, drummer Bill Ransom and Dewey Crowe lookalike PJ Barth.

The temperature in the room rose gradually as Beth stalked the small stage, singing to each and every member of the audience.

It was an intimate performance, backed by a super-tight band and stage-managed by husband Scott Guetzkow.

The set was drawn from throughout her career, with highlights including Better Man, L.A. Song and a blistering version of I’d Rather Go Blind.

Engaging and playful, Beth bantered with the audience through the show, telling stories of her life, loves and struggles with addiction.

The show went on until well after midnight, with a generous encore and requests from the floor. It was, in a word, fantastic.

I feel privileged to have been at The Basement that late Sunday night.

Verdict: 9/10 — seriously, check out Genevieve Chadwick. She’s awesome.

Read John Turnbull's interview with Beth Hart here.

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