Friday, 12 February 2010

These New Puritans, Hidden

These New Puritans, Hidden

Two amazing albums in one month? And I haven’t even had time to listen to Four Tet, Vampire Weekend, Beach House, or Magnetic Fields, et cetera and et cetera, yet. (Note: Yeasayer is out in February, officially. But who cares about official release dates, right?)

Is January turning into a perennial bumper crop of music in the same way as it always is for cinema, with movies trying to cash in during awards season? Too bad these awesome albums are preening and posing for an awards ceremony that doesn’t exist. Sometimes it’s kind of sad that the Brits and the Mercury Prize are so pathetic (and that there’s no real alternative since NME took its finger off the pulse about five years ago), but on the other hand it’s distinctly satisfying that brave and innovative albums like the one I'm about to review aren’t lowered to competing on a shortlist with La Roux or The Killers for a hollow golden token which serves only to place a full stop at the end of a career spurt while allowing hacks to move on to the Next Big Thing.

Well, These New Puritans were The Next Big Thing a couple of years ago; I was totally in love with their debut Beat Pyramid and pissed off that so much criticism of the band was based around them being pale, angular and from Southend, which in a pre-Primary Colours world was still a joke ("Look at those naff provincials with their pretentious sixth form ‘philosophy’ and ironic love of Wu-Tang Clan", etc).

Well, no. They’re just weird. Like the many of the genuinely great musicians, composers and artists of the past 50, no – 100 years? 200? Not that I’m pushing the whole ‘tortured genius/mad artist in his garret’ thing, which is one of those ridiculous clichés that means nice and talented people are seen as ‘lesser’ in comparison to bastard miserly megalomaniacs with vast and delicate egos, like some of the sainted ‘legends’ of rock and pop sneering at me from the semi-matt covers of respectable music monthlies. Naturally, I digress.

So, Hidden. The second album from These New Puritans. But first: did you hear that Blakroc record? Where the Black Keys teamed up with Wu Tang, Ludacris and Mos Def to play hip hop with live instruments? Well, turn that concept inside out. Invert that shit. This is electronic beats, razor sharp production and white boy vocals, nasal and half-mumbled – and oh yes, did I mention the bassoon motif popping up throughout the album?

‘We Want War’ is the single; you may well have heard it by now – make sure you soak up the gorgeous video embedded above. Bear in mind that it's the first single, and it's seven minutes long. The production is really what hits you first. Though Beat Pyramid showed a lot of flair and innovation from such a young band, TNP have clearly made staggering leaps ahead. The silvery shrrrring! of a gleaming sword pulled from its hilt couldn’t be a sharper contrast to the cavernous gravity of the bass and beats, showing that the band’s production sensibility is first and foremost a hip hop one, focused on pristine sounds and rigid rhythms, with vocals taking a supporting role.

The beat on ‘Thought Rush’, for instance, a track on the Rough Trade bonus CD, is very, very much like that 2003 number ‘Never Leave You (Uh Oooh Uh Oooh)’ by Lumidee, which, interestingly, is a much worse version of the Ol' Dirty Bastard track 'Welcome Home' - no doubt TNP had both those songs very much in mind. It’s also weirdly sparse and more ‘live’ sounding than any track on the album proper, and also includes some brilliantly inappropriate bassoon polyphony near the end.

Also on the extra CD, a competent dark and techy remix of ‘We Want War’ ticks some boxes, but I’m sure it’s only the tip of the iceberg for dissecting Hidden into dozens of incredible remixes. The inclusion of an instrumental version of the track – thoroughly listenable in its own right, so well produced is it - is surely a canny move. Also, an alternative mix of ‘Hologram’ offers a cleaner, stronger vocal performance and a captivating piano arrangement which is about 94,758 galaxies away from the usual ‘piano song’ on an indie album, and in fact reminds me a touch, what with Jack’s half-spoken Estuary lines, of a couple of the almost jazzy arrangements on Original Pirate Material (the ones that had less to do with Mike Skinner, we must assume).

‘White Chords’ is also ripe for a seriously good remix, with a Thom Yorke style vocal and light and dark elements flashing in and out; a girlish ‘ooh’ reverberates and glitchy buttons ripple as the bass spreads out thick and spacious over a dubsteppy beat.

‘5’, the album’s coda, is weird, subtle and oddly affecting, and sees Jack Barnett try his hand at pure composition. Apparently he had to learn notation and write the bassoon sections ‘deaf’, as it were, before the band travelled to the Czech Republic to hear it played to them for the first time by a 13-piece brass and woodwind ensemble. A number of influences make themselves known, including, I suppose, Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar, as the band has mentioned in interviews, but there's also a Reich/Riley-esque minimalist phrase played (I think) on tubular bells and sounding like nothing less than the soundtrack to The Exorcist – which is then butted out by a ghostly children’s choir and Jack Barnett’s sombre, quiet monotone.

Like the rest of Hidden, it’s like nothing I've ever heard - and it's exquisite.

As a final word – please do buy this record. It’s really not going to sell that many copies and this band very much deserve to make another album. Sermon over.


Imagine how good it would be to be a youngish indie fan who’s been learning bassoon for years ‘cos his parents made him, and all he wants is to be Johnny Thunders – wait, this is 2010: Ezra Koenig? – but then he hears this and he’s like, Wicked, now I can be an indie star too, I’m gonna start a band!, etc etc. Cue new generation of proper weird pop, a true post punk revival.

[On a related note, this is of course the reason why a disproportionate amount of girls are into twee. It’s not that females are naturally programmed to prefer pretty ickle tunes with earnest lovesick lyrics (obviously), it’s that it gives bored 15-year-olds a chance to be in a band and put to use those ridiculous violin/flute/piano lessons that Mummy forced on them for 10 years in some sickly remnant of a 19th century ladies’ education, all of which seemed so incredibly boring before but now turns out to be an excellent way to get foppish lads from Upper Sixth to write earnest lovesick lyrics about their wavy red hair and awkward smiles that they hated until they realised their true cultural value in Twee Land. Cue girls on keys/flute/harp etc in twee bands. I'm not sure it's The Answer, but it'll do for now]

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