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First Impressions: Rihanna, Jamie xx, FKA twigs + More

firstimpressions_31march
First Impressions is an interns roundtable review of songs on their first (or second) listen. Each week we review six new songs from the past week, each giving them a score out of five and awarding our pick of the week. This week we pick apart tracks by Rihanna, Jamie xx, FKA twigs + more. 

Rihanna
Bitch Better Have My Money

Meshell: PRAISE ALMIGHTY QUEEN RIH! The bitch is back, and this piece of juicy trap goodness is getting put on REPEAT. After the sickly sweetness of her new animated film Home and the heart on her sleeve of Fourfiveseconds, we can all finally breathe a collective sigh of relief that our blunt-smokin-titty-showin-not-givin-a-f**k-Rihanna is back stronger than ever. 4.5

Sam: Last week I read that Rihanna was making an album that was “timeless” and then we get this. I ain’t mad though. RiRi has always used trends to her benefit and this one sees her at her best bat shit craziest. From the first bet she digs in and goes hard. What she’s doing is not singing and it’s not rapping, it’s simply doing Rihanna. God bless her for putting the word bitch back into the charts. 4.5

Zanda: Definitely a dark side to Rihanna that we’ve seen glimpses of before. Grimey synths and bass suit her slightly altered vocals to a tee, and it’s really quite a captivating track in its simplicity. I don’t really think the outro with the male vocals adds a whole lot and I’m not quite sure why it’s there. Other than that, a cool tune. 3

Jamie xx
Loud Places (Feat. Romy)

Meshell: The opening of this song has an effortless grace and sadness that we have come to know and love from Romy and Jamie. The song almost sounds like it was written for The xx, until we reach an unexpected build-up right before the chorus. As the bubble pops I am both joyous and confused. It’s an interesting arrangement in the choruses, Jamie has used an old Idris Muhammad sample that both lifts the song to a nostalgic place and also draws the song away from being a melancholic xx number. It was not what I was expecting and I think that’s why I love it so much. 4

Sam: “I go to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with,” is such a beautiful beginning to a song and it’s made even more heartbreaking by Romy’s heartbreaking voice. This is the warmest thing we’ve ever heard from Jamie xx and it’s also his most accessible. The gospel-influences in the chorus elevate the song while Romy brings it back down to earth. This rise and fall makes it such a subtle journey of emotions which is something I feel xx hasn’t achieved before in his solo career. Stop saying we can pretend this is a new xx track because it’s so much more than that. The xx have never been this uplifting. 5 Sam’s Pick

Zanda: There is just so much to love about this track, from the haunting lyrics from Romy to the chilling harmonies when the group vocals are introduced. A master of musical texture, Jamie xx again showcases his ability to build a very specific mood in his music, and to then explore the complexities of that mood through subtle variations in timbre and repetition. It’s hauntingly intense and almost could be interpreted as a teaser for his album, which unfortunately isn’t due to be released til June. 5

FKA twigs
Glass & Patron

Meshell: There’s just not much left to say about this new offering from FKA twigs as it’s already flooded every corner of the internet and I’ve already sung its praises in my coverage of the YTMAs. To re-iterate though, this is the song that has given me my FKA twigs appreciation breakthrough as nothing else she has done had really stuck with me. I think I just love the raw energy at the start of the song and the unusual transition into something that’s…kind of sassy. 4

Sam: I’ve tried to listen to this without watching the visuals because I didn’t want to get caught up in the whole image of it. Luckily the song is just as intriguing on its own. The start is mystifying. I really didn’t know where she was going with the whole minimalist almost acapella part but I’m completely digging where she went. Speeding it up makes her sound almost sub-human and sounds like it could’ve been produced by SOPHIE in parts. It’s distinctly FKA twigs but at the same time it offers up something different from her LP. It’s exciting that she’s clearly got plenty of creativity left in the tank. 4.5

Zanda: There’s no denying FKA twigs is an incredible and unique vocal talent, but personally I find her music a little bit hit and miss. There are sections of this track that are super engaging and pleasing aurally, but other parts that I struggle to make sense of musically. A track that isn’t for everyone, but I can at least appreciate that’s her aim, to polarise an audience. I’m not even going to start on the video because I can’t even. 3

MAS YSA
Look Up
[soundcloud width=”750″ height=”200″]https://soundcloud.com/masysa/look-up[/soundcloud]
Meshell: This song kind of makes me want to tear at my shirt and run screaming through a rainy street in a London. Y’all feel the same…right? In seriousness though this vocal delivery is devastating…it’s beautiful but it’s so damn sad which is in completely juxtaposition with the very preppy drum-beat and washy synths. I like it…I’m just a bit unsure what I like. 3.5

Sam: You’ve got to listen to this in headphones. It’s so beautifully and intricately textured with crisp, glassy beats and popping vocal samples. I think it could’ve done with a more defined chorus but it’s enthralling nonetheless. I just can’t get over the production value of this, it’s so rich and measured and that really makes the song for me. I find myself listening for nothing else but those little ear prickers. 3.5

Zanda: Gorgeous production by MAS YSA here. He is part of a growing number of artists bridging the gap between indie instrumental and electronic music. The texture builds nicely throughout, but unfortunately there’s nothing here that really makes it stand out musically. Not a huge fan of whatever the effect is that makes the vocals sound increasingly shaky throughout. 3

Brandon Flowers
Can’t Deny My Love

Meshell: Brandon Flowers has so much to live up to every time he releases a track…a lot of his earlier work with The Killers essentially defines my teenage years. So do I think this lives up to the excellence I expect off him? I think it does, it’s got a lovely unique melody that jumps around quite a bit, the percussion drives the song and there is fantastic layering, especially in the chorus. It’s not the best I’ve heard from him but there is a subtle excellence in this song. I feel like Brandon Flowers is akin to a great bottle of scotch, he is getting smoother and easier to sip with age. 4.5

Sam: I feel like Brandon Flowers’ opinion of what he’s bringing to the music world is much larger than what he is. Nonetheless it’s a smart move on his behalf getting Ariel Rechstaid on board. It sounds just as good as any of the alt-pop music going around at the moment. It probably won’t be remembered by the end of the year but that euphoric chorus is something to behold for the moment. 3

Zanda: An emotional track that showcases Brandon Flowers’ immense vocal talent. The chorus is incredibly catchy and is built up really well through each verse, and I really enjoy the guitar-synth effect that echoes the vocal chorus line. Not hard to see why his popularity is booming with songs like this. 3.5 

Japanese Wallpaper
Forces (Feat. Airling)
[soundcloud width=”750″ height=”200″]https://soundcloud.com/japanesewallpaper/forces[/soundcloud]
Meshell: When I saw that Airling had paired with the unfairly talented wonder-child Japanese Wallpaper I knew it was going to be epic before I even listened. Then I saw Andrei Eremin mixed and mastered the track because OF COURSE HE DID HE IS A GENIUS. This song is so easy, everything about it just works together perfectly. I’d be really happy to see this partnership do a few more tracks as they’ve really created some magic here. (Side note, wrote the word “magic” as Airling sung it…totally freaking out). 5 Meshell’s Pick

Sam: I’ve been pretty nonchalant about Japanese Wallpaper’s previous offerings but how good is this? Airling’s voice is so crisp and pure and this is the perfect atmosphere for her to show off in. The verses are stronger than the choruses melodically but for a song that sticks on the same waveform for the most part it keeps my attention. It’s mindblowing to think about how young these two are but that shouldn’t matter. This track would be great whatever age they were. 3.5 

Zanda: I was a massive fan of Between Friends, and although this follow-up has taken a while to be released it’s been well worth the wait. Japanese Wallpaper has an almost unbelievable maturity and polish to his production for someone so young. The production itself is deceptively complex (despite sounding quite simple), with various aspects of melody and effects slowly added and removed throughout, to complement Airling’s ethereal vocals. Airling has been killing it recently by herself, and it’s truly a testament to Japanese Wallpaper’s talent to really feature her in a way that shows off such a huge amount of her ability. 5 Zanda’s Pick

If you feel the need to abuse us for our opinions, you can reach some of this week’s writers below:

Content Director: Sam
Contributor: Zanda

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thekillers2

The Killers’ Hot Fuss: A Decade On

THEKILLERS

On this month, ten years ago, it’s likely that you were anticipating Las-Vegas band The Killers’ debut record, Hot Fuss. With four albums to their name now and a greatest hits, The Killers have engrained themselves as a band that never quite made it as big as Coldplay or The Strokes but have happily plodded along as a sometimes-headliner.

On 7 June 2004, when Hot Fuss was released it was looking like The Killers were destined for giddy heights. The album went number one in Australia (such trendsetters), Ireland and the UK while it also reached the top ten in the US. At the end of the decade, the LP was the 27th and 97th highest selling album in the UK and Australia respectively.

The Singles also performed well. Mr. Brightside reached the top ten in the US and the UK while Somebody Told Me mustered a peak of number three in the UK.

Few new bands that were born around the time The Killers surfaced managed that feat with their debut. Indie-rockers turned stadium-fillers, Kings of Leon and the Black Keys, started with critically acclaimed albums but ultimately it took them the better part of a decade to turn that into commercial success. Even if it was at the cost of critical adoration.

The perfect combination of alt.rock and stadium-ready tunes

At the time of Hot Fuss’ release there was no other band, apart from perhaps Coldplay and an ageing U2, that presented alternative rock in such a straight-forward, digestible manner. Lead singer Brandon Flowers marks it best in Glamorous Indie Rock N Roll, when he preaches “It’s indie rock n roll for me/It’s all I need”. Hot Fuss was certainly not the most indie record of the time. Far from it. But it exposed ‘the rebel’ inside all of those who didn’t want to delve into garage-rock to reveal it.

Lamenting on Glamorous Indie Rock N Roll, NME wrote “The Killers’ charm is to be both clever and clueless at once”. And to this day, that is still true of Hot Fuss. They probably knew that proclaiming they love indie rock was somewhat cringeworthy but it works because Flowers’ delivery is so self-assured. Personally, as a twelve year-old kid there was a certain feeling about holding The Killers’ record and believing I’d uncovered a band that was just a tad alternative.

On paper, The Killers sounded ridiculous. They were a band from Las Vegas who sung a lyric like “somebody told me that you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend”, and delivered decadent, Moulin-Rouge style videos. There was nothing gritty to this indie rock n’ roll. It was clean; formulaic even. But it was also perfectly delivered and believable because Flowers and co were so convincing in their delivery of such grandiosity.

In labelling Mr. Brightside the 72nd best song of the ‘00s, Pitchfork wrote “Merging Duran Duran makeup, New Order hi-hats, and Bruce Springsteen-ian grandiosity, they gave rock fans a non-geriatric arena-ready alternative to the world’s Nickelbacks”. A year later, PANIC! At The Disco would release their first album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, borrowing a similar, if not more emo-enhanced formula. Even now, bands are still using that well-balanced combination of alternative rock and stadium-ready flashiness. Has anyone seen Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys or Muse live recently?

The British influence

In 2009, Brandon Flowers told Spin that “Hot Fuss was all based on fantasy. The English influences, the makeup — they were what I imagined rock was. I’m a dreamer, you know? So I dug into that dream and made Hot Fuss.” It comes as a defence to critics saying the album held no sense of identity. Pitchfork wrote in their 5.2 review of the album, “The Killers are just the latest band to be born too quick inside the popular music vacuum, where expectations for broad accessibility kill dudes’ potential for deeper creativity quite fabulously dead.”

In 2004, the Brits dictated alternative rock, so it made sense that the Killers would follow this formula. However, it left little room for them to inject their hometown and own influences into it. Listening back to Hot Fuss, it’s hard to say that it sounds specifically British. So many bands from around the world have adopted the Brits’ alternative style of rock that it sounds universal now more than anything.

In an interview with The Quietus, after the release of their third album Day & Night, Flowers admitted the rock n roll fantasy had become “unhealthy”. He said, “I think we still can be the biggest band in the world. But maybe we were falling into traps – getting the producers and photographers U2 had. That’s unhealthy.”

Hot Fuss, iconic?

In the interview with Spin, Flowers also notes that Hot Fuss was “a very special part of this generation.” And it’s true. It would be hard for anyone to deny hearing All These Things That I’ve Done and not singing along. As Vice writer, Clive Martin puts it “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” was the “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten” chorus for the cool clubs.”

As I listen back to the album many of the lyrics sound iconic if not slightly over-heard. Lines like “Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine” or “It’s not confidential, I’ve got potential” are instantly nostalgic. They’re aggressive and well-timed, perfect for both the clubs and stadiums. They also induce some serious nostalgia which is a good tell-tale that the album was a signpost of the time.

When Mr. Brightside was voted in as the fifth best song of NME’s lifetime, drummer Ronnie Vanucci said “The song is basically about one being totally content and fearless and happy, and then having it totally be the antithesis in a blink of an eye – all of the sudden being the opposite of that because of someone”. Basically, it’s the topic of just about every pop song but delivered differently. Instead of a Scott Storch, Max Martin or Timbaland production it was partly-distorted and centred around a delicious guitar lick. The drum-beat is rollicking and Flowers vocals are commanding in a conversation, train-of-thought way.

It’s withstood any song from Hot Fuss and has become The Killers’ signature track. Ten years later, it sounds unaged. Radio still plays it, clubs still play it and every man and his dog knows it started out with a kiss.

Even Smile Like You Mean It sounds instantly comforting when hearing it ten years later. As does the theatrical, desperation of Believe Me Natalie.

The Strokes achieved a similar feat with Is This It?, particularly in regards to Last Night. They disguised a beautifully simple, pop melody under waves of distortion and noisy guitars. Yes, the Strokes record was more successful but it’s easy to see how and why the Killers were inspired by this. Flowers even told NME, “Is This It…just sounded so perfect. I got so depressed after that, we threw away everything and the only song that made the cut and remained was ‘Mr. Brightside’.”

The Verdict ten years on

Rolling Stones put it best when they wrote, “So what if they were from Vegas, not the U.K., and the year was 2004, not 1983?” Hot Fuss is a guilty pleasure record in every sense. It’s a big, boastful record that touches on matters of relationships, sex, bitterness and falsity. Or as Vice puts it: a record about a murderous homosexual relationship.

Hot Fuss didn’t have the gritty, indie aura that the first records by Kings Of Leon or The Black Keys did. The Killers were introduced with a flurry of glitz and glamour that lends itself more to Duran Duran than it did the bands of their own era. As such, they were able to permeate a pop/rock landscape that was dominated by the likes of Maroon 5, Nickelback and Jet.

When hearing those three bands it’s hard to argue that The Killers are not the more likeable alternative. Even their harshest critics would surely have to agree.

It’s difficult to call Hot Fuss a classic in the way that The Strokes Is This It? or Oasis’ Definitely, Maybe are regarded but it’s a key post-it note in the musical timeline of the ‘00s. It was a time when alternative rock became glamorous and digestible once again; made for huge audiences. It’s worth noting that the year after Hot Fuss, Coldplay became a fully-fledged arena-rock band with their synth-heavy X&Y. A sound not dissimilar to the foundations of Hot Fuss.

Hot Fuss was an integral part of the transition period that got us to the point where Arcade Fire and The Black Keys could headline festivals.

The positive of Hot Fuss not being Is This It? is that The Killers have not been burdened in the way The Strokes have. In different ways, Sam’s Town and Day & Age have matched Hot Fuss whereas The Strokes other albums have paled in comparison. They are not as instantly recognisable, but each of them have tracks that make worthy additions to their ‘Greatest Hits’. It’s helped their career track-along in a straight line rather than plummet like The Strokes.

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