Music catch up: Sleigh Bells; The National; Tracey Thorn; Teenage Fanclub; MGMT
Top of the pile this time round is ‘Treats’, the debut from Brooklyn’s Sleigh Bells. It’s the tried-and-tested combination of fantastically brutal backing tracks with sweet melodies over the top. Opener ‘Tell ‘Em’ sounds, amazingly, like nothing so much as Big Country brought into the 21st century; the title track uses great big slabs of sound like those in ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart'; highlight ‘Rill Rill’ configures an old Funkadelic riff into something like an alternative summer-hit-in-waiting. The mixture of noise and female vocals might not appeal to everyone: me, I reckon that together with a few cans of Diet Coke I could just about live on this stuff. Get on the bandwagon now.
I was going to call The National the biggest alternative band in the world, but if your new album hits the Billboard 200 at number 3 you’re probably a bit bigger than that. The National have built an audience the old-fashioned way, and their timing is impeccable: ‘High Violet’ is perhaps their most accomplished album to date, and they’ve released it at the peak of their popularity. It’s brooding, adult stuff: The National know what they’re doing and know they’re good at it, and with tracks like ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ in the bag they’re looking, perhaps, at the sort of mainstream popularity that blunted Kings of Leon; something tells me they can handle it.
More for the grown-ups. Tracey Thorn, of course, will always be at the very least a footnote, both as a solo artist and as part of college favourites Everything But The Girl, in the history of those of us who were students in the 80s. She and bandmate Ben Watt are still a couple, and the details of her life as mother and musician can be followed on her Twitter feed, which is one of the very best there is. And her latest album, ‘Love And Its Opposite’ is an acutely observed assessment of the lives of those of us of a certain age: ‘Oh, The Divorces!’ (which as a title is a word and exclamation mark too long) is an unsparing but empathetic look at the couples around her breaking up: “Who’s next?… Always the ones that you least expect…”, leading to the heartbreak of “the afternoon handovers by the swings”, a more elegant but just as wrenching version of Radiohead’s “cut the kids in half” in ‘Morning Bell’. ‘Hormones’ is a wry reflection on the behaviour of her twin daughters: “Yours are just kicking in, mine are just checking out…”. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musician of my generation take on subject matter like ‘Late In The Afternoon’, about the mystery and challenge of a long-term relationship (“I’m not a novelty, you know every inch of me…”). It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s very good indeed, and her voice has just got better and better.
And more. Teenage Fanclub are, of course, only rivalled by Belle and Sebastian as Best Scottish Band Ever, and if you look at their golden period from ‘Bandwagonesque’ to ‘Grand Prix’ you could make a case for them being one of the very best bands on the planet at that point. (I’m including the unfairly underrated ‘Thirteen’, of which the first half alone would suffice as a triumphant career for lesser bands.) Unlike, say, Pavement, Teenage Fanclub didn’t go away and come back: they’re friends, they’ve hung around releasing an album every few years, some better than others. ‘Shadows’ is one of the better ones: it’s no shame to say that it doesn’t quite match the peaks of their early career, because very little does, but tracks like Norman Blake’s ‘Baby Lee’ and Gerard Love’s ‘Into The City’ prove that Teenage Fanclub are ageing very gracefully. It’s a lovely, mellow piece of work.
Which, of course, the new album from MGMT isn’t. Interviews with the duo have suggested that they’re remarkably sour about the success of their debut. ‘Congratulations’, however, although it doesn’t have anything like ‘Kids’ or ‘Electric Feel’, isn’t quite as wilfully perverse as it first appears: opener ‘It’s Working’, from its REM-esque opening riff to its later tempo changes is thrilling, but the rest of the album doesn’t quite get there. There are some great ideas in there, and it’s not without merit by any means, but for the moment it goes down as an interesting failure.