Friday, 29 January 2016

On Song: The National 'Afraid Of Anyone'

'Little voices swallowing my soul...'

It took me a long time to 'get' The National. I'm still not sure I do. Having tried any failed to get into them many times, I always felt too overwhelmed by their legacy, too entombed by my friends suggestions that they might change my life.

I liken my tentativeness over pressing play on 'High Violet' for the first time to the place I was mentally this time 18 months ago. Fresh out of University, jobless and not sure where to go next, I had all the plans but nothing to cling onto. With a first class degree and a fairly exemplary academic record before that, options were plentiful, but almost too many - so many tunnels, so many alleyways, so many labyrinths. My optimistic resolve gave way to self-doubt and near crippling anxiety, to the second guessing of even basic decisions ('then I'm radio/ then I'm television') and conversations that clouded my ability to socialise or move forward.

It made it near on impossible to make a decision, and on some days, near on impossible to get out of bed. The job centre became a sign of failure, a manifestation of my deepest darkest fear that despite my best efforts, the end was still inevitable. That we get up, go to work (or don't), watch reality TV, cook banal meals and die alone. Morbid I know, but a mindset that is oh so common amongst millenial graduates - an instagram filter over life, permanently set to grey.

For a song named 'Afraid of Everyone', it's unsurprising that I found some comfort in the parallels of anxiety within an album track nestled on The National's most critically successful record. Wracked with resignation, it sounds like the thoughts of someone who has come to terms with their own shortcomings, who dislikes what they see in the mirror but has accepted that it's the face they've been given. The romanticisation of mental health is not something I encourage, but it's a song with a definite beauty, 'starspangled tennis shoes', the perfect metaphor for the American dream placed before cold feet.

I still don't think I 'get' The National. But when I'm alone on a dark train coming back from a successful day of work in a job that fulfills me, or visiting somewhere new, or experiencing the full-body exhale that comes from climbing into bed next to the person that I love, 'Afraid Of Everyone' reminds me how far I've come, and how far I have yet to go.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Review: BBC Radio 1xtra Live with #ThreeGoes1Xtra

When I moved to Leeds in April, a huge part of the appeal was the sheer volume of music, arts and culture the city had to offer. From the world-renowned Brudenell Social Club to the tiny wardrobe to the chart-slaying O2 Academy, it seemed Leeds was a city where there really was a multitude of amazing gigs to choose from every night of the week.

While work commitments and other opportunities have meant that I haven't had a chance to immerse myself in the music scene as fully as I intended, I did get the opportunity to attend Leeds Arena a couple of weekends ago with the lovely folk from Three Mobile. Having only been the once before to watch Kasabian, it's a venue I loved instantly - despite it's size, the clever semi-circular arrangements of seats means that everybody gets a good view, and after spending my teenage years screaming at Wembley, it feels remarkably intimate too.

But I digress. I found myself at Leeds Arena once more for 1Xtra Live, a culmination of all the great urban, trap, hip-hop and RnB coming out of arguably the BBC's most exciting radio station. Armed with the new Samsung S6 handset, I was challenged to snap my way through the evening, testing out the phone functionalities while enjoying some music.

Coming straight from work and feeling both tired and highly underdressed compared to some of the frankly stunningly fashionable attendees, I unfortunately missed Miguel (sob) and Flo Rida (not so sob), arriving just in time for old favourite Lethal Bizzle. His bold lighting and backdrops made for good clarity on my handset for the night - being used to an iPhone 4, the zoom was pretty good for a phone and there were so many modes - I particularly liked how the video mode allowed you to zoom in and out even after you'd started filming, which sounds pretty obvious but is surprisingly absent from a lot of cameras. The music itself was less revolutionary, but that's what Bizzle does best - songs you had completely forgotten about but somehow know every word to.

Next we were treated to Stormzy and Krept & Konan, two acts that received the biggest reaction of the night - it appears Leeds folk are really into their grime, even forgetting the north/south divide to chant along with the likes of 'Shut Up' and 'Don't Waste My Time'. Pacing the stage and rolling out the confetti cannons, I took the opportunity to try out some panaromas and video filters. By this point the phone was starting to feel a little warm in my hand from overuse, fairly standard for such a thin device but perhaps a little concerning for those who prefer to use their handset without a case.

After an unremarkable showing from Kid Ink (a little too slick for tonight's audience), we were treated to the headliner, Tinie Tempah. Remarkably photogenic in his own right, I was braced to take some good shots. With our seats quite far away from the stage I wasn't expecting miracles, but unfortunately the amount of dry ice in the air made it quite difficult to focus the camera. With plenty of shots from the evening already taken, I decided to pop my phone away and just enjoy his set - a medley of hits that peaked with a guest appearance from Katy B for number one track 'Turn The Music Louder'.

As a mixed race blogger, I really enjoyed my night with 1xtra. It felt like a wonderful celebration and urban and black culture - everybody was so dressed up in completely different styles and having fun with their friends and strangers alike, a world away from how the media likes to portray 'urban culture'.

But did I rate the phone? Gig lighting can be a nightmare under even professional circumstances so I was prepared to be unwhelmed, but the Samsung S6 wasn't half bad for a phone considering our distance from the stage. I was particularly impressed with the sound quality on the videos and there were enough selfie modes to keep any millenial happy. Would I purchase one myself? Perhaps not. But it has reminded me how much I like to take pictures at gigs...maybe time to dust back off my Nikon?

Big thanks to the lovely folk at Three Mobile for the ticket - the invite was complimentary but all opinions are completely my own. For more information, check out the Samsung hub here 

Friday, 16 October 2015

LIVE REVIEW: Years & Years, Leeds 02 Academy, 14.10.2015

It's a cold evening in Leeds. Freshers week has faded into hazy-drunken memories, the hard working is starting and people hustle through town with scarfs high and heads down, trying to get home in the prematurely dark night. Illuminated at the heart of the city is the 02 Academy, where a queue of altogether more colourful and cheerful bodies are winding around the churchlike walls, wrapping one, two, three times. This is one very sold out gig, and it belongs to a band barely heard of this time 18 months ago - Years & Years. 

Riding the wave of heartfelt electronic pop that has made household names of the likes of Disclosure and Chvrches, Years & Years are spearheading a new type of teenage-resonating chart music that has lyrical substance at the heart if it's minimal verses and huge choruses - true pin a poster on your wall and make fan art for tumblr type of stuff. Tonight's first act Oscar Key Sung has studied the art well and proffers the sort of music that prick the ears of any major label record exec - low key RnB with one arm slung round the shoulders of Chet Faker and the other SBTRKT. The Australian's twisty dance moves and unassuming good look have the makings of a star, as does his music - 'All I Could Do' is super catchy, as is 'Brush', which conceals at it's heart an impressive feminist message "Aren't you sick of men /Thinking you need them/To tell you who you are/And what you are?"

But Years & Years fans are used to euphoria less sophisticated than this. Cursed to that 'first on' timeslot, his more minimal efforts strain against the audible chatter of the disinterested crowd. As a live show, there's very little to look at, and it's his biggest downfall - in this day and age, it'll take a little more than setting tracks off and singing along to truly impress. An intriguing listen, but one that might benefit with a little dressage.

Offering a little more exuberance is Tove Styrke, bounding on stage with her band, all clad in orange two-pieces that would make Piper Chapman proud. It's slick scandi-pop at it's not-too-bonkers - it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine some of these songs being pitched in the offices of Kylie Minogue's people. Blending whimsy with occasional ska-sensibilities, Tove is instantly likeable, and the crowd go wild for her slapped-bass-happy cover of Britney classic 'Hit Me Baby One More Time.' It's her own song that makes the biggest impact though - 'Even If I'm Loud It Doesn't Mean I'm Talking To You' is like Charli XCX having a scrap with The Tings Tings and coming out covered in heart-shaped bruises. Cutesy, but with a definite high-kicking attitude.

'I can't even' and 'Olly you give me life!' ring through the crowd before the lights even dim. Tonight's headliners enter the stage one by one - a low-decibel screech for synthesist Emre Türkmen, a modest cheer for bassist Michael Goldsworthy, and then an absolute Harry Styles-worthy caterwaul for lead singer Olly Alexander that forces him to take a small step back. For the next 90s minutes, they scream everytime he draws breath, everytime he smiles, everytime he adopts a new dance move. Most satisfyingly, the screams come from a wide demographic - teenage girls, teenage boys, mums, dads, the lot. He is rocket fuel.

They start with 'Foundation' (barely audible above the fuss before hitting their stride with 'Take Shelter', encouraging the dance routine that only people born post 1998 seem to know how to do - not quite a twerk but certainly a pouting squat, wrists limply trailing in the air. As a slightly (only slightly) writer, there is plenty to be a cynical killjoy about here, but there's just no need - this is pop worship at it's finest. A posterboy for the young LGBT community, Alexander is the perfect frontman, eminently loveable in the giddyness that makes it obvious that he's along for the ride with us. A quickfire rendition of 'Desire' and 'Worship' whip them into a further frenzy, before stripping things all the way back for a keyboard rendition of 'Memo'. But even this has to come with that extra touch of glitter - Olly invites a banner-toting young boy up on stage to sing it with him (he nails it by the way), and the moment is X-Factor-worthy genius. The whole thing positively reeks of clean good fun.

The sparkle does dim occasionally - the slower tracks are a hard sell but at least put pay to the rumours that Alexander's exuberance is a mask for his inability to stay in tune. They remedy a mid-set lull quickly with a cover of Blu Cantrell & Sean Paul's 'Breathe' - a little fussy an interpretation, but a crowd pleaser nonetheless. Released in 2003, it's a well-selected choice for their audience, with minimal head-scratching around the room. Closing with 'Real' before the inevitable encore of 'King', it's all over that little bit too soon - such is the nature of becoming an academy sized band on only one album. Who knows what next year's Arenas will bring...