Florence And The Machine, ‘Dog Days Are Over’

Florence And The Machine

Yes, I fibbed. I played the industry tart last night and went along to the BRITs launch at the Roundhouse, so it seems only fair to stick around in 2008 for a few minutes to laud Critics’ Choice award winner Florence. Her vocals were mixed way too high – not quite such a treat when your voice leans towards the old banshee’s wail – but nothing could spoil this storming number. Flo bashed the drum Bat For Lashes-style while harp trilled prettily alongside. Whether she’ll hit the commercial peaks of last year’s CC winner Adele is another matter altogether, but she’s sure to be a whole lot more interesting.

Junior was acting the arse this morning, rabbiting baby talk back at me whenever I asked a question. To give her the benefit, she was possibly trying to include little Junior 2 who writhed rhythmically on the rug while big sis did a ludicrous high-tempo dance. It’s the kind of record that should make you lose your inhibitions, whirling wildly to each burst of energy. Either that or you’ll just hate it.

Where are you then? Pick a year, any year, except 1969, 1973, 1977, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Sam Sparro, ‘Black And Gold’

Sam Sparro

I kind of like it, but I sort of don’t. Sam Sparro’s huge written-in-the-stars hit was in the mix for our countdown until I was overcome by wishy-washyness. There’s something undeniably impressive about ‘Black And Gold’, and yet there also seems to be nothing there when you chip away at the surface. Should that matter? I guess, sometimes, it does. Anyway, it’s bold, it brims with cod-philosophy and it appears convinced it really means something. Throw in some weighty synths and catchy dust, and you’ve got a hit lodged in everyone’s brain for a calendar year.

Perhaps I should have left the decision with Junior, who yells “Black and gold!” before Sparro’s finished uttering his first line. She taps out the rhythm on her little table and has a merry old time for the duration of Sam’s career.

So long then, 2008. And so long it was. I’m ready to move on and I reckon the rest of you are too. If the mood grabs, use the comments box wisely to choose a new year – but not 1969, 1973, 1977, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 or 2008.

Duffy, ‘Warwick Avenue’/‘Mercy’


Any seemingly endless round-up of 2008 would be incomplete without mentioning the Dusty-voiced siren from Wales. Rockferry was the bestelling album of the year, chart fans – no mean feat in a climate where Coldplay were releasing their best record in years (ever?), Oasis were returning to form (hmmm – maybe Q asserted that) and Leona Lewis was still shifting units by the warehouse. But is Duffy up to much? On this day in history or near enough, I saw her play at the Pigalle when she was a mere twinkle in an industry tipster’s eye, and thought, “Yeah, ok, she does it well enough.” That “it” being “the voguish ‘60s thing”. The songs are pastiche with a bit of verve – Bernard Butler’s calling card from McAlmont And days – and she has some nice, witchy hand gestures.

That’s about the limit, though. Today’s tune was ‘Warwick Avenue’, all bereft and stirring, but we turned to ‘Mercy’ soon after because we hadn’t quite reached nursery. To the first, Junior asked, “Is that Duff?” which seems harsh – it’s a pleasant song, even if it sticks to its template like glue. I could see Junior mouthing along to ‘Mercy’ in the rear view, which is no surprise considering its grating ubiquity. “I heard this yesterday,” said Junior, and in her speak that means any point in the past. Sounds about right.

Fleet Foxes, ‘White Winter Hymnal’

Fleet Foxes

Another one that narrowly missed our 2008 chart, finishing around 23. It’s a gorgeous song, but that’s not enough, is it? It needs to be a single – not just a single – and this feels like part of an album. If that doesn’t make any sense, stick it on my list of hang-ups.

So, beards in popular music: do they make better harmonies? I’m thinking later Byrds, Fleetwood Mac (ok, maybe not Stevie and Christine, but who knows what Lindsey Buckingham and John McVie were trying to hide?), The Beach Boys in transcendental mode, erm, ZZ Top? Well, it has the doings of a theory. Fleet Foxes’ debut – an album of the year in all the likely places – is glazed in harmony, and nowhere is the melding of hirsute voice more lovely than on ‘White Winter Hymnal’, with its mercury lyrics (“scarves of red tied ‘round their throats/to keep their little heads/from fallin’ in the snow,” anyone?) and rising/falling chords.

It’s a soft hit with Junior who answers my “Do you like it?”s with “Stop talking, Daddy, I’m trying to listen”. I shut my trap and the album wanders on, with Junior recognising other tracks and pointing out I play them at home. She’s right – it’s been one of my favourites too. I’d like to see these bears perform live but I understand you need to be well over six foot to catch a glimpse of them, sitting down strumming their guitars. I’m not that tall yet.

R.E.M., ‘Man-Sized Wreath’


We need a dose of healthy scepticism to tackle the thorny old “return to form”: was it up to much in the first place? Did the artist really lose it or just fall out of fashion? If they lost their mojo, have they genuinely rediscovered it? And were they better when they had hair?

It’s particularly hard with R.E.M. –  who seem to tempt these fanfares with every other release – because no one can agree when they peaked. Last year’s Accelerate was critically regarded as a near-match for Murmur, an aficionado’s high-point, but R.E.M.’s universal love-in centred around Out of Time and Automatic For The People. No one’s expecting them to reap those commercial riches again, so perhaps it’s safest just to wish for the solid basics again. Do things well, avoid the spectacular, mittens to megasales. On this playing field Accelerate’s a success, but it’s not enough to matter.

Junior’s first reaction was an oddly leading question: “What’s his hair like?” Makes you wonder; can you hear if a singer’s bald? And can we get a government grant to find out? She was pleased to hear about Michael Stipe’s chrome dome anyway, because Harry Hill’s pate has been fascinating enough.

And what about ‘Man-Sized Wreath’? We both enjoyed the steely guitars, the urgent riffing. It’s angry and engaged, with some quotable lines – “Turn on the TV and what do I see? A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up me”, “Nature abhors a vacuum, but what’s between your ears?” – and rousing “wow!”s. On the album it’s tethered by some ordinary pegs, but set against the old-time form this is one track that isn’t shamed.

Beyoncé, ‘If I Were A Boy’


And here’s B herself, who made the halfwit’s decision to release a double album in 2008 showing both sides of her personality. One, presumably, is the real Beyoncé – a girl who likes nothing better than to flex her vocal chords on a stack of lachrymose ballads, seemingly bent on reducing our braincells to so much grey sludge – while the other is the much-trumpeted Sasha Fierce. Ol’ Sasha’s a bit more fun than real B, happier to bump and grind her way through some r’n’b floorfillers, waggling those intimidating thighs, but even she has nothing to challenge the dazzling B’Day, Beyoncé’s storming 2006 triumph. All in all, a schizo misfire.

The maudlin, bitter ‘If I Were A Boy’ is of course one of those “real me” ballads, and one of the better ones too. It’s heartfelt country-soul that should really be crooned by the likes of LeAnn Rimes, but Beyoncé makes a decent fist, elevating a fairly ordinary song to something closer to special simply by the power of her lungs and emotional heft. Obviously, we chaps got all miffed at the outrageous suggestion that we never listen to the missus and just want to have a beer with the lads and… ah, ok.

Junior had a gander at the sleeve, keen to know who was claiming to champion her interests. She was quiet, so I fired a few questions: “Do you like it?” met with a modest nod; the more searching “What would you do if you were a boy?” got her thinking. Then the answer: “Run.”

Solange, ‘Sandcastle Disco’


There’s no rush to leave 2008 behind – and besides, until we choose a new year or set up the crazy vinyl-ripping device that’ll allow us to dive into those dog-eared 7”s, we have no new project – so we’ll clear up a few songs that might have made the Top 20 if they’d been good enough or I’d actually heard them in the first place. Kicking off, Beyoncé’s self-styled crazy sister.

It’s a smart enough metaphor: she might look all strong and fortified, protected by drawbridge and moat (and archers in the battlements), but really she’s just made of sand; “don’t blow me away”. Metaphors alone won’t sell a pop song, though, so it’s lucky that Sol’s brought a sweet melody, shuffling beats and some earworm “ooo-ooo-ooo”s along for the ride. Not that they helped – the perfectly formed ‘Sandcastle Disco’ washed away with the tide before it could even crack the top 150.

So Solange’s valiant attempts to distance herself from big sis actually bore fruit – no one gave a stuff about her. It’s a pity, because this track has the pop nous to be an instant hit with Junior, who’s “ooo-ooo-ooo”ing to perfection by the second chorus and bopping like a deely in the car seat. I’m certain she’d like the whole album too, with its mild psychedelic soul and sunny tunes, and perhaps we’ll make an effort to find out. It’s the least we can do for poor Sol-Angel.

Oh, happy new year, folks.

[1] MGMT, ‘Time To Pretend’


Like LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’ last year, this is so far ahead of the pack it isn’t funny. Except it is. Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser dream of their rock’n’roll future to come, and it’s all drugs and supermodels – are they as knee-deep in them now as they anticipated? Hell, probably.

‘Time To Pretend’ has an irresistible, kinetic energy. It’s a rolling stone, but it gathers moss, drums (the drums, the drums), synths, pure glee and giddy excitement. I suppose it has an ‘80s bent in its shiny, pumped-up production yet the excess is unfiltered ‘70s. They look like a pair of prog/hippie casualties to boot. The second half is one long spine-tingle and the hanging chords of the final bridge/chorus sound almost heroic – assuming there’s heroism in “The models will have children/We’ll get a divorce/Find some more models/Everything must run its course”. Naturally there is.

The album Oracular Spectacular is a bit Blue Oyster Cult for me; let’s just revel in a perfect single’s anticipation of living fast and dying young. The album prize can go to Vampire Weekend, with honours to TV On The Radio, Lykke Li and Coldplay (yes, Coldplay – I couldn’t believe it either).

As for Junior, she’s loved this from the moment she first heard the chirupping bleeps of the intro. Today she dances, rolls around the floor and bounds about in front of her sister – and her sister’s clapping. Bravo.

[2] The Ting Tings, ‘Great DJ’

The Ting Tings

“Ah-ah-ah-ah ah-ah-ah-ah”, “Ee-ee-ee-ee ee-ee-ee-ee”. It’s what purest pop is all about, isn’t it?

Mind you, this is all about dance music, but performed by an ostensibly rock act. Hands across the divide, people. The Ting Tings can pull this off because they’re tight enough to run a groove, and they capture what it feels like. Strings (ee-ee-ee-ee) and drums (drums, drums, drums). House music in a vague nutshell, right?

Above all this is a brilliant pop song, monstrously catchy and annoying in the wrong ears. Katie White and Jules De Martino (IF that’s your real name, Jules) could only take it No.33, even on the back of a No.1 hit (which I’m calling a 2007 release), but when have the record-buying public ever known a thing? When I was buying lots of singles, that’s when.

Junior knows when a chorus is a sop to a young child, but she happily sings along and – crucially – gets hooked by “the drums, the drums, the drums [etc]”. Suddenly everything in the room is fair game. She looks at her table: “The book, the book, the book…” She’s going out with Grandad for the day: “The Grandad, the Grandad, the Grandad…” No way this’ll get wearing.

[3] Girls Aloud, ‘The Promise’

Girls Aloud

I can play this with the utmost confidence, because Junior’s now done what I would have expected far earlier – she’s fallen in love with Girls Aloud. Let’s face facts: we all have. The most surprising thing is they haven’t run out of steam; ‘The Promise’ is the curtain-up to their fifth (that’s fifth) album, and while the long-players are patchy as ever, the quality of single just isn’t dipping. ‘The Promise’ faced brickbats to begin with, sourpusses claiming it was the first step towards Westlife safe-playing or a pale Duffy/Winehouse identikit girl-group-throwback, but it soon revealed itself to be as complex as any ‘Biology’ you could mention. Only the brashness has been sacrificed, the brazen ambition is still there. Listen to it – no verse is the same (there are three, with entirely different melodies), no bridge is the same, and still they throw in a middle eight. If this is pop in the 21st century, I’m on board.

Junior knows all the words, and shimmies her shoulders just like her mum. She’s probably got an opinion about Kimberley’s hips too. I reckon Junior even knows what “walking Primrose” means and understands what the “promise” is and who it’s pledged to. It’s multi-layered, you see; once you’ve sussed out what the music’s doing, you still have to decipher the lyric. The ‘Aloud are two steps ahead of the pack.

But how much longer have we got them for? Rumours that Nadine’s on the way out won’t abate – and she continues to blow the others off stage with sheer lungpower – while Cheryl suddenly looks too big for a band. If they gotta go, go now. It’s been golden.