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Album Review: Jake Bugg – Shangri La

 
By on Monday, 18th November 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Jake Bugg Shangri La coverIt’s a bit hard to believe Jake Bugg’s second studio album ‘Shangri La’ is released today, in November 2013, even as his self-titled, 2013 Mercury Prize-nominated first album continues to make the rounds. While it might be unusual for the influences of the two records overlap, the songs seem to have developed and progressed in a very natural way, making the transition from ‘Jake Bugg’ to ‘Shangri La’ feel almost seamless.

In short, ‘Shangri La’ is not as different from ‘Jake Bugg’ as I initially expected it to be. The first two singles, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ (reviewed here) and ‘Slumville Sunrise’ (watch the video here), seemed to mark a striking change in direction toward a heavier, edgier sound, but much of the album is more in the vein of Bugg’s earlier acoustic folk rock. The main musical difference between the two albums is in the song arrangements, which have branched out into added layers of electric guitar, keyboards, and percussion. Bugg’s songwriting hasn’t drastically changed, even with the influence of famed Californian producer Rick Rubin. His lyrics are still unrelentingly real, and his song structures still plainly straightforward. Opening track ‘There’s a Beast and We All Feed It’ is a quick and dirty introduction to his typical pugnacious style, which he revisits on ‘Messed Up Kids’ and ‘Kingpin’. However, Bugg does have a few tricks up the sleeve of his leather jacket, and these are parceled out slowly over the course of the album.

The major surprises on ‘Shangri La’ come in the form of two love songs, ‘Me and You’ and ‘A Song About Love’. The larger instrumental arrangements are most effective on these tracks, and Bugg’s singing voice sounds better than it ever has, especially in such raw emotional passages as the chorus of ‘Me and You’. ‘A Song About Love’ is surely the record’s pièce de resistance, displaying a deftly written tenderness in its lyrics and a remarkably effective vocal technique, particularly from a singer not known for his emotionally effusive personality.

The general tempo on the second half of ‘Shangri La’ slows down a bit, with the sultry bass line and keyboard riffs of ‘Kitchen Table’ and the austere narrative of ‘Pine Trees’. Heavier tunes ‘All Your Reasons’ and ‘Simple Pleasures’ have a languid, minor key blues feel. True to his roots, Bugg ends the album with a pure folk ballad, ‘Storm Passes Away’, which nods to his expanded repertoire of sound by including a fuller arrangement of instruments than we previously might have heard.

The expanded sonic palette on ‘Shangri La’ adds an intensified degree of emotional depth to Bugg’s already precocious songwriting ability. Bearing in mind that he is still only 19 years old, I am inclined to forgive his determined ‘rebel without a cause’ theme if it means a chance to hear brilliant moments like ‘A Song About Love’. ‘Shangri La’ doesn’t venture as far from the pathway as it might have, but it does show the confidence and scope of an artist who has hit his stride.

8/10

Jake Bugg will be touring through the end of the year and has announced a lengthy list of live dates for 2014 as well. His upcoming UK dates in early 2014 can be found here, and a full list of live shows can be found on his official Web site.

‘Shangri La’ is available starting today from Jake Bugg Records / Virgin Records.

 

Live Review: Jake Bugg at London Brixton Academy – 23rd October 2013

 
By on Thursday, 31st October 2013 at 2:00 pm
 

‘Champagne Supernova’ rang out from inside the faux regency portcullis that frames the stage at London’s faithful Brixton Academy. The crowd, clearly hyped, were eager to catch up with their own palatable rebel just weeks before the release of his latest album, hopeful of the chance to garner any loosely disguised teasers. What was once part of the raw appeal of Jake Bugg – his stripped back appraisal of urban life in often decaying provincial centres – has become a brand on the back of the astronomical success of his debut LP. This was one of the first opportunities for his most loyal UK fans to learn whether he would stay true to his roots.

Oasis’s seminal track gave way to the haunted tones of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’ reverberating around the cavernous hall as Bugg and his band coolly took to the stage with all the fanfare of a band practice on a rainy Tuesday. The sense of compulsion that is at the heart of the Johnson “I sold my soul to play the blues” legend (a misplaced attribution meant for his predecessor Tommy Johnson – one for all you bluesos) was also evident in this 21st century journeyman, who has delved to depths beyond his years since the tender age of 12 – even if it could have been done using a more subtle, less worn cliché.

Not the kind to require total self-reinvention on each release, opening track ‘There’s a Beast and We All Feed It’ was a neat little teaser from his eagerly anticipated second album ‘Shangri La’ that suggested his vantage point has remained the same, even if his horizons have changed. His blissful incoherence already stood in stark contrast to the bubblegum autotune of so many of his contemporaries.

The stage layout was simple, with drummer Jack Atherton shifted off to the right and a scaled back lighting rig hidden behind a sheet adorned in Bugg’s now universal half vinyl logo. Beams like truck headlamps erupted through the darkness for ‘Troubled Town’, an infectious single release from his eponymous debut album that details the apathy of the British recession in his native Nottingham.

The first chords of ‘Seen it All’ – a song that perhaps best characterised his initial shift from promising protégé to dominant chart force – pulled the crowd up by their vocal chords for a rousing recollection of urban hijinks with a Bob Dylan esque narrative and soaring choral line.
‘Simple as This’ was the first of the night’s mellower tracks, and although it’s hard to dispute Bugg’s sincerity, it’s fair to say that he seemed to find it more difficult to connect fully with an audience that were more overtly distracted than, say, Arctic Monkeys to The Verve within three tracks.

Aside from activating the advertising node of all fans of slightly watery mainstream ale in the room, ‘Country Song’ provided relief in demanding total attention from a crowd that had hitherto drifted in and out. Such a unified moment caused the song to echo off the vast ceiling, even if the “old rusty guitar” of which he sings is sounding a little more clinical these days.

Despite its meeker approach, the crowd remained fixed throughout ‘Pine Trees’ and on into ‘Song About Love’ (get your laughing gear around that in a thick Midlander accent!); a number that showed real versatility and rose to a lofty, magnificent summit. Such a view became the perfect intro to the image rich ‘Slide’, another acoustic wander that beautifully expresses Bugg’s vocal range and joy in isolation.

The daydream was shattered as the rest of the band returned for the mildly psychedelic vibrato of ‘Green Man’, which passed in a customary two minute thirty blur into the swinging “you take the wheel” blues rock of ‘Kingpin’ – one of the standout tracks from Bugg’s upcoming album. ‘Taste It’, with an intro that resembled Johnny Cash’s cover of Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’, had the seated circle on their feet in appreciation, whilst the skiffle sound of ‘Slumville Sunrise’ spoke of separation from nostalgia and alienation in a pacey, amped mould. The final track of the set proper, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, was a manic first finale with an up-tempo beat and slicing solo, with Bugg himself exhibiting an unmistakeable tonal inflection worthy of Alex Turner.

Again, Bugg instigated a major dynamic change to the set as he returned for the pastoral grief of ‘Broken’. The audience would repay his self-effacing admission of outsider tendencies with their most interactive response yet, united in voice and a point of view that they could not have put so eloquently. With slide guitar and a gospel sounding chorus, this is also one of Bugg’s clearest indications of musical malleability.

The subtle juxtaposition at the heart of Neil Young’s ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ might have been best covered by Bugg mid-set, as the audience grew antsy for their personal favourites to be shoehorned into the closing minutes of the set. However, the concept of placing oneself outside the archetypal established or contemporary musical circle – the idea that forms the fulcrum of Young’s original – is undoubtedly one that chimes with Bugg.

It was right to give the final slot of the night to a track that potentially played the biggest role in elevating this young troubadour to his current height. Coming after two such touchingly personal numbers, there was an element of “putting a brave face on” throughout ‘Lightning Bolt’ that rendered it stock compared to his performances a couple of years ago. But, with its jangling chords and country fried vocal melody, it was a chance to take stock with a bass and drum breakdown, even though the majority of the crowd were behaving more like frontmen by now than the song’s own architect.

At this stage of his career, it seems fairer to label any criticism of the band more as growing pains than a precursor to survival in the musical wilderness. Yet again, Jake Bugg possessed one compelling feature that granted him brevity; that it was evident he’d still have writing those same songs, even if no one had ever listened.

 

Jake Bugg / February 2014 UK Tour

 
By on Thursday, 24th October 2013 at 9:00 am
 

Following on the heels of his sold out autumn 2013 UK tour, Jake Bugg has announced a short tour of the UK for February 2014. Tickets go on sale tomorrow (Friday, the 25th of October) at 9 AM.

Carrie reviewed ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, the first single from his upcoming second album, here. ‘Shangri-La’ will be released on 18 November on Jake Bugg Records / Virgin. You can watch the video / mini-film for next single ‘Slumville Sunrise’ under the tour dates; it appears from the video that he can take a joke and isn’t sullen all the time, which is nice.

Sunday 16th February 2014 – Newcastle City Hall
Friday 21st February 2014 – London Royal Albert Hall
Saturday 22nd February 2014 – Edinburgh Corn Exchange
Sunday 23rd February 2014 – Manchester Ritz

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4wTRbW0aos[/youtube]

 

Single Review: Jake Bugg – What Doesn’t Kill You

 
By on Thursday, 3rd October 2013 at 12:00 pm
 

Jake Bugg’s first album, ‘Jake Bugg’ (reviewed by me here) was hailed as a fresh take on folk-rock; its combination of tenacity and musical sensitivity took listeners by surprise, especially from someone so young. With ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, Bugg upends his punk-folk image with a foray into heavy guitar rock, using brash electric guitar effects and a bolder, harsher singing tone to make a direct statement of musical intent.

In the introduction to the stark black and white video accompanying the song, Bugg talks about trying to avoid gritty subjects in writing his second album, but in the end, he says he was unable to escape those tough influences and experiences. Thematically, the song deals with what Bugg calls “smaller subjects”, witnessing the mugging of a friend and being left by a lover. Musically, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is as about as straightforward as they come, electric guitar banging out power chords over pounding drums as Bugg snarls through his fast-paced verses. But the lyrics in the chorus provide an interesting twist. The opening line, “What doesn’t kill you…” never completes the idea with the expected “…makes you stronger.” Instead it crashes right into the next thought, “sometimes you feel you’re up against the world”, then, “this life, it seems, can bring you to your knees”, and, “you try, you bleed, then finally you breathe”. The song ends abruptly on this final lyric, as Bugg’s intention becomes fruition.

The video for ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ features Bugg and his sullen punk demeanor in stereotypical rock fashion: black leather jacket, nothing in the shot with him but his guitar and amplifier. While the forceful, hard-edged electric sound comes as a welcome surprise, Bugg’s singing voice isn’t quite as well suited to heavy rock as it is to his previous alt-folk tunes. His nasal tone, which blended with the warmth of his acoustic sound, comes across as a bit whiny as he competes with the volume of the guitar and drums. But Bugg’s music has never been about purely pretty singing, and his tone here goes right along with the less-than-subtle shift in his style. I might personally prefer his folkier debut album, but this change in direction will keep interest piqued among erstwhile fans in the UK and American fans who are still discovering Jake Bugg.

7.5/10

Jake Bugg’s second album ‘Shangri-La’ will be released on 18 November on Jake Bugg Records / Virgin. First single ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is available now; the accompanying video can be viewed below. Bugg heads out on an UK tour in mid-October but sorry folks, it’s entirely sold out now, including three huge London Brixton Academy shows.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxjZbFpBpbE[/youtube]

 

Video of the Moment #1329: Jake Bugg

 
By on Tuesday, 24th September 2013 at 6:00 pm
 

Jake Bugg is currently on tour in North America but his PR engine is in full force: we’ve just learned that his sophomore album ‘Shangri La’ will be released on the 18th of November (and on his own Jake Bugg Records, no less) and the first single from it, released today, is called ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’. Harder edged and less folky, with a rapid fire vocal delivery, here is the promo video that we presume must have been filmed when the Noel Gallagher protege and now 2013 Mercury Prize-nominated singer/songwriter was in Los Angeles earlier this month. Watch it below.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxjZbFpBpbE[/youtube]

 

Mercury Prize Shortlist 2013: Is It Even Relevant Anymore?

 
By on Thursday, 12th September 2013 at 11:00 am
 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. That time of year has crept up on us again. Yesterday evening, the nominees for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2013 Albums of the Year were revealed in London. Maybe this is the direction the Mercury Prize nominations will be going in from here on out, but it’s rather startling how mainstream this year’s shortlist is. In past years, there was always one or two curveballs thrown in the mix of straight-forward, famous artists and well thought of indie. Not so much in 2013…which leaves me wondering if this competition is even worth my time anymore in the years going forward.

Let’s examine the biggest names first. The now Josh Homme-influenced Arctic Monkeys just got in under the wire, with their new album ‘AM’ literally just made it to store shelves this past Monday. They don’t need any help selling records. (Technically, they also fall under the next category I will examine, but for the sake of argument, it’s this album people are focusing on, not one 7 years ago…which won the gong that year.) Neither does legendary artist David Bowie; his March 2013 surprise release ‘The Next Day’ also makes an appearance on the shortlist.

Then there are the repeat ‘offenders’. Dubstep wonder boy James Blake, whose self-titled debut album in 2011 garnered a Mercury nod back then, is yet another safe and predictable choice. Given their headline slot at Latitude Festival this year and continually rising star, Foals‘ nomination for ‘Holy Fire’ (review here) is not such a shock. But they were nominated for and lost in 2010 for ‘Total Life Forever’. I’m a great fan of Conor J. O’Brien’s songwriting, but this year’s ‘{Awayland}’ pales in comparison to its predecessor, Villagers‘ 2010 opus ‘Becoming a Jackal’.

While he was 1/2 of the nominated collaboration with King Creosote in 2011’s ‘Diamond Mine’, Jon Hopkins makes another appearance, this time by himself for ‘Immunity’. There is also no escaping the fact that the selection of Laura Marling‘s ‘Once I Was an Eagle’ (review here) comes across as particularly lazy: the woman’s been nominated two times already prior to this. I’m all for equality when it comes to music awards and it’s great that this year there are two female singer/songwriters on the shortlist, but surely there has got to be another woman – and in the folk genre, certainly – whose album would have been up to snuff to the Mercury voters instead of giving Marling another nomination.

Next, let’s look at the acts that are toeing the line between their indie background and their big chance at the mainstream. Having enjoyed a successful 2012 with sold out shows and his debut album selling very well, Noel Gallagher‘s sneery young protege Jake Bugg makes a not so surprising appearance on the shortlist. Popular Brum soul singer and #4 on the BBC Sound of 2013 list Laura Mvula also receives a Mercury nod this year for ‘Sing to the Moon’. Helps quite a bit that both of them are on majors (Mercury and RCA, respectively) and therefore had major label muscle to help along the promotion of their debut albums.

If there is one saving grace of this year’s shortlist, it was that instead of a truly oddball experimental jazz album getting a nomination, dance is for once decently represented with not one but two good albums: Disclosure‘s delicious brand of house in the form of ‘Settle’ and Rudimental‘s drum and bass-rich ‘Home’. But wait a minute. They’re on majors too, Island and Warner. Hmm… The one oddball nominee, if they can be called that, are post-punk girl group Savages. They might not be a household name – yet – and they’re on an indie label (Beggar Group’s Matador) but they were already firmly in our brains from their BBC Sound of 2013 longlist nomination. Yawn.

This all begs the question, just how relevant is the Mercury Prize in 2013? Also, was it ever relevant? And when did it stop being so? While it has never been a dirty little secret but rather an obvious known fact that major label backing helps with funding, which leads to promotion and visibility opportunities and therefore record sales, this is probably the year more than any other in the past in which the expensive fee to enter the Mercury competition comes through loud and clear as the reason why this year’s list is sadly predictable. In a piece by the Guardian’s Michael Hann, Kerrang! editor James McMahon said the egregious lack of metal on the shortlist year after year is a major oversight: “The thing is, within the rock music industry there’s a bit of debate about how bothered people are with an award like the Mercury. The other year we were pushing the idea of Bring Me the Horizon being nominated as an innovative, exciting British rock band who want to be seen out in the world – but they didn’t enter. If the rock industry doesn’t have any belief in its relevance, what can the Mercuries do? But if it were genuinely the 12 best records of the year, it would be blinkered to ignore metal.”

Hann’s article goes on to point out that Leeds buzz band Hookworms chose not to enter either, their frontman MJ explaining, “The nondescript thousands in marketing fees and physical product is even more shameful [than the entry fee]”. Even ubiquitous rock journalist Pete Paphides took to social media yesterday to bemoan the situation: “It’d be good to have a music prize where part of the sponsorship meant bands not having to pay hundreds of £s to be eligible for contention.” Quite right. There is no one obvious solution to “fixing” the Mercury Prize because let’s face it, like all award shows, it’s a business, and businesses exist to make money. But it’s a shame that what the Mercury Prize used to be known for – bringing attention to lesser known acts that otherwise might not get their time in the limelight – seems to have been all but been entirely forgotten.

 
 
 

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