Every week we guide you through the biggest albums, to help you decide what you should be streaming. This week: Hampshire folkie hears it for the girls, Friendly Fires try to wake us up before they go-go, and former riot grrrrrl-ers snatch victory from the jaws of defeat…
With a particularly virulent and loyal fanbase, reviewing the work of Frank Turner with any kind of, well, frankness is a dangerous game. But for all their talk of the authenticity of his music, the songs of his that break through are clearly made for the widest possible audience: ‘Wessex Boy’ could almost be sung on beery terraces.
Because of this, it’s impressive to discover that the Hampshire troubadour is trying something different with his new album, No Man’s Land. Punning title aside, the record is a celebration of womanhood, 13 songs dedicated to real women with interesting tales to tell, supported by an all-female backing band.
Though the concept has drawn ire from some quarters, it keeps the LP grounded and sees Turner drawing further back than ever before. The very best tracks are inspired by English folk music long consigned to tiny pubs on the Cornish coast, less Ed Sheeran’s winsome guitar ballads and closer to Bellowhead and Pentangle. ‘I Believed You, William Blake’, ‘The Hymn of Kassini’ and ‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’ feature fiddles, violins and traditional a capella respectively, the perfect backing and old feel to tell the stories of 18th century witches, backgrounded wives and women “branded unclean”.
However, while the stories of the women in these songs are fascinating (particularly the final moments of Challenger crew member Christa McAuliffe on ‘Silent Key’), Turner’s approach to songwriting is often purely narrative, with little poetic flair beyond that. The exception is the wonderful ‘The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead’, exploring the hypocrisy of a Bishop happy to use street prostitutes but unwilling to give them a marked graves after they pass away. “No burial plots, just forget-me-nots” Turner coos sadly, before an instrumental break sees a piano build the song to a much-needed crescendo.
When Turner pushes away from his comfort zone, his songs and his ideas do the women he sings of justice. However, too many songs like ‘Sister Rosetta’, ‘The Lioness’ and ‘Eye of the Day’ stand as tired retreads of his stereotypical sound: bright, open but ultimately generic. “From Kentish Town she came” he sings at one point and…well, we’ve been here before haven’t we?
Another group heading further backwards in their influences as they return are Friendly Fires, whose new album Inflorescent might have been more acceptable in the 80s. One of many indie darlings to break through in 2008, Friendly Fires originally stood out for their use of Latin beats over the usual combination of guitars and EDM, but here they sound like they belong in a sticky floored nightclub on cheese night.
On paper, there’s nothing wrong with this. Opening duo ‘Can’t Wait Forever and ‘Heaven Let Me In’ slither with beats and horns that might be more expected to be heard on Wham’s ‘Club Tropicana’. Sadly though, George Micheal’s knowing wink and camp humour are missing, and it’s a lot less fun as a result.
On other tracks, it feels like the band are reaching for the Balearic wonders of New Order’s Ibiza-recorded Technique album, but the balance is off. The band rely on corny, dated beats rather than the effective pop hooks that made early hits like ‘Paris’ and ‘Jump in the Pool’ so memorable, with ‘Love Like Waves’ and ‘Cry Wolf’ every bit as bland and shallow as their titles. Standing out a mile is the gorgeous ‘Silhouettes’, backed by a sunny Samba feel and moreish “da-da-da-da-da” that prove an irresistible combination. Sadly, the track stands out like a sore thumb covered in Day-Glo body paint.
Finally this week, influential Washington rockers Sleater-Kinney return once more with The Center (sic) Won’t Hold, produced by St Vincent’s Annie Clark. Though we are legally obliged to refer to the trio as “riot grrrl survivors”, the truth is it’s a tag that they outgrew before their mid-00s hiatus. 2015’s No Cities to Love saw them punching back to relevancy with ease, with the new record, they continue on their trajectory.
And it seems that in Clark, the trio (more on that later…) have found the perfect vessel for their sound. Though ‘RUINS’ is the only track that explicitly references the St Vincent synths and Prince guitars, her production allows every squeal, beat and powerhouse vocal pop right off the vinyl, feeling like the band are plugged directly into your eardrum.
Generally, the noisier things get, the better. And it gets loud very quickly. The obliterating title track opens proceedings with a wall of industrial noise that tear at your synapses, providing by clashing notes, strange harmonies and an abrasive attitutude. Self-abusing and self-destructive tracks like ‘Hurry On Home’ and ‘Bad Dance’ (“I’m unfuckable, unlovable,” on the former) shred painfully, with the fury and anger of a band half their age.
The issues explored here are thoroughly modern though, proving that the three songwriters are still laconically plugged into the mainstream. Particularly effective is ‘The Future is Here’. The protagonists’ day starts and ends on “a tiny screen” as they fail to find a real human connection anywhere else; it’s every bit as effective as a Black Mirror episode, but achieving it within three minutes. ‘Can I Go On’ gives similarly short shrift to the Instagram generation (“It’s obscene,” comes the withering reaction). It should feel like a parent telling of a teenager texting at the dinner table, but the directness of the fury means it ends up as anything but.
Quieter moments don’t quite have the same impact, but the anxiety of closing ballad ‘Broken’ ends things on a question mark rather than a full stop, which is appropriate. Despite the insistence on ‘LOVE’ that the three authors are best friends, the departure of drummer Janet Weiss a month before the album’s release throws their future in doubt. Let’s hope they work out the kinks because, on the strength of The Center Won’t Hold, Sleater-Kinney are the band we need right now.
No Man’s Land by Frank Turner: 3/5
Inflorescent by Friendly Fires: 2/5
The Center Won’t Hold by Sleater-Kinney: 5/5