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Top Five Deep Cuts: Arctic Monkeys Edition

11 Sep

In the fifteen years since Arctic Monkeys emerged on the music scene, they’ve donned a dozen different hats. From their garage rock-style energetic debut album to their most recent space-themed lounge rock album, their sound is incredibly hard to pin down.

They’ve been described as the distilled-down sounds of the Strokes, The Killers and Franz Ferdinand (arguably, three of the most influential rock outfits of the 2000s), but they’re somehow much more than that. With frontman Alex Turner’s expertly written and clever lyrics, and the band’s undeniable musical prowess, the Arctic Monkeys have rightfully dominated the rock scene for years now.

They hit mainstream fame with their 2013 album AM and became a household name, with tracks like “R U Mine” and “Arabella”. These tracks are, no doubt, incredible (and make you feel cool and suave for listening to them), but there are some truly hidden gems in their body of work that showcase a different side of the Arctic Monkeys.

If you’re keeping score, it’s been almost exactly seven years to the day since the release of AM in September 2013. (Note: We at TFR prefer to forget the existence of Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino.) Given the hellscape that is 2020, we thought it was a good time to take a quick, refreshing flashback into the early aughts. Without further ado, here are our picks for the top five Arctic Monkeys deep cuts!

5. “Piledriver Waltz” from the Submarine soundtrack

If anyone should be commissioned to write the soundtrack to a British coming-of-age drama, it’s Alex Turner. He’s incredibly skilled at finding the balance between deeply poignant and casually whimsical: which about sums up the teenage experience for most, we suppose. And how many musicians can write an upbeat heartbreak song with references to Elvis, circuses, Jesus and traffic lights, all while adhering to the incredibly difficult ¾ time signature?

Piledriver Waltz is the least mopey breakup song. It’s certainly wistful in tone, but has a warm fuzziness that leaves you hopeful for the future. The layered instrumental production on this version adds more depth to a starkly three-dimensional portrait of a broken relationship. Though a slightly different version was later released on Suck It and See, this version holds a special place in our hearts and in those of other true-blue Turner fans. Nothing changed too considerably between the two versions: the lyrics and the melody are identical, yet somehow, this one is just a little more cinematic and melancholic than the album version.

4. “Mad Sounds” from AM

Somewhere in the early 2010s, Alex Turner seemingly dropped his Suck It and See-era softboy persona and dove headfirst into a vat of hair gel and leather jackets. The band emerged fully reinvented, as a Proper Rock Band™ that played heavier rock with the catchiest riffs and hooks. It’s no surprise that they blew up with AM; it appealed to fans of rock, hip-hop, pop and R&B all at once. Tracks like “Do I Wanna Know” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” have permanently changed the face of the 2010s indie rock landscape and have quickly become modern classics.

“Mad Sounds”, though, is a sharp deviation from the rest of the album’s British-James-Dean feel. Nestled right in the middle of the album, the track is a gentle, lilting reminder that the Arctic Monkeys are more than a rock and roll band that writes about one night stands and pub culture. “Mad Sounds” feels, instead, like a spiritual sequel to Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”. If the Velvet Underground were still together, this is what they’d have sounded like in 2012.

Turner’s vocals ring sharp and crystal-clear, and though the lyrics aren’t saying much, it’s a much-needed respite from the verbal barrage of the rest of the album. The lines “And out of nowhere, somebody comes and hits you with an ‘ooh-la-la-la-la’” essentially sum up this track’s place in the album, and in their discography.

3. “Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend” feat. Dizzee Rascal

Possibly the deepest of deep cuts; even most hardcore fans don’t know about this B-Side to “Brianstorm”. The track features British rapper Dizzee Rascal who, at the time, was at the peak of his rap career. Arctic Monkeys have always cited rap and hip-hop as one of their primary influences growing up, but that’s usually a very subtle contextual layer to their music. This track is unique for a number of reasons. The band almost never features any other artist on their tracks, and they never mix genres to this degree. But somehow, they did it for this track, and somehow, it works.

It’s tough to produce art that transports the listener to an exact time and place, but this track does exactly that. The raw energy of the song makes you feel like you’re a frustrated British teen in the 2000s, which is probably exactly what they were going for (and until recently, were themselves). Turner’s lyrics are, of course, beautifully minimal (“The only roads are cul-de-sacs/ The only ends are dead”) and his voice still has the boyish charm of the band’s early work. The strong riff line and the syncopated drums are a perfect match to Dizzee Rascal’s grime-style rap bridge. “Temptation” might be an anomaly as far as AM’s music goes, but it’s a refreshing reminder that the band can dominate in just about any genre.

Bonus: Amazing live version with Dizzee from Glastonbury 2007. Ah, 2007.

2. “Secret Door” from Humbug

Humbug is, in many ways, a transition album for the Arctic Monkeys’ sound, where the line blurs between upbeat post-punk and romantic indie rock. Consequently, it’s one of their most divisive albums. “Secret Door” is the perfect example of this in-between space. While the verses have that classic high-energy style of the older Arctic Monkeys, the chorus and the outro are haunting,  cinematic and beautiful.

Alex Turner’s lyrics have always been good, but with Humbug, he began to write what was essentially poetry set to music (“Fools on parade cavort and carry on / For waiting eyes” ), yet somehow he manages to avoid sounding cloying in the process.

‘Secret Door” is probably frequently overlooked because it’s just such a shock to the system. As the opening track on Humbug, fans expected a huge, over-the-top audio explosion, like “Brianstorm” on Favourite Worst Nightmare. What they got, instead, was this mish-mash track that sounded like the background score to a sentimental scene in a John Hughes movie. But still, the raw talent of Turner’s vocals, combined with drummer Matt Helders’ impressive percussion make this one of the most engaging and musically interesting tracks on Humbug.

1. “She’s Thunderstorms” from Suck It And See

Alex Turner knows how to write a love song. He knows how to turn a phrase that’s romantic but never cheesy, and it shows on this track. Nobody in human history has ever described their love interest as “thunderstorms”, and yet, you know exactly what he’s talking about.

Suck It And See, Arctic Monkeys’ fourth studio album, is another one that’s heavily debated amongst fans: they either hate it with a burning passion or think it’s their best work. There’s no in-between. SIAS, the incredibly stripped down, softpop follow-up to Humbug, begins with the minor-key sinister opening riff on “She’s Thunderstorms”. Immediately, though, the warm vocals and lead guitars kick in, and you immediately feel cheery and comfortable; like you’re in 500 Days Of Summer.

The track showcases an amount of restraint that the band had never demonstrated before. The lyrics are minimalist, the production isn’t heavy-handed, and the instrumental arrangement is just enough. It’s clear that this is a grown-up version of the angry teenage Arctic Monkeys from the first two albums, but it’s mature in a quiet, self-confident way. They’re comfortable enough to tone it down a notch and still get their point across.

Honorable mentions:

Cornerstone” from Humbug

This may be a personal bias, but it’s our opinion at TFR that this is the best love song ever written. Paired with a hilariously low budget music video, this track really shows the Arctic Monkeys at their best.

Mardy Bum” from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

This is a simple song from their debut about a tiff between a couple, narrated in a ridiculously strong Sheffield accent. The band comes through with a surprisingly strong guitar solo, about midway, that changes the tone of the song entirely.

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” by Tame Impala (cover)

It’s tough to improve on a Tame Impala track, but if anyone can do it, it’s Alex Turner. The band has a way to make the song sound soulful and complex, seemingly effortlessly.

The Bakery“, B-Side to “Fluorescent Adolescent”

Very similar in theme to “Cornerstone”, but relayed in a British dialect so strong that you probably don’t know what they’re talking about, exactly. (What is a “tatty settee”?) Turner’s voice is delightfully laid back, and the production is so sparse that it feels like you’re watching your college band run through a practice. Its simplicity is what wins you over. 

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

13 Dec

In many ways, the Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the antithesis of their break-out debut (Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not).

For starters, Tranquility is much slower-paced, relying heavily on dreamy piano bits and understated bass-lines, while the debut practically rewrote the book on fast-paced guitar riffs. Lyrically, Tranquility has lead singer Alex Turner making circuitous, often self-important statements, differing vastly from the sharp observations on “From the Ritz to the Rubble” or on “A Certain Romance” – and ironically becoming the same person he lambasted on “Fake Tales of San Francisco”.

And that isn’t the biggest irony. The Monkeys’ debut propelled to instant fame partly because it was precisely at the right point in music history to become one of the Internet’s first “viral” hits – but Alex Turner, in an unfortunate turn toward the geriatric, devotes many lines on Tranquility to the supposed evils of a connected world.

It isn’t all bad news, though. “Four Out of Five”, with its bass-laden brilliance, details Turner’s fascinating album concept. Apparently, the very real Tranquility Base now houses a hotel and casino on the moon, complete with a house band (Arctic Monkeys as the Martini Police) and a taqueria on the roof. There’s also a hint of a futuristic dystopia (“Since the exodus, [the moon’s] all getting gentrified”), which the music video builds upon with intrigue.

Batphone” is another stand-out track, with a subtly sexy bass and an old-school thriller vibe that perhaps makes the Monkeys great contenders to soundtrack the next Bond movie. The title song also shines through O’Malley’s bass-line, and a dollop of magical realism (“Jesus in the day spa / filling out the information form”). By the time you get to the chorus, you almost feel like you are, indeed, at the Monkeys’ hotel and casino complex.

However, the album betrays a steep decline in Turner’s lyrics. “Technological advances / Really bloody get me in the mood”, he complains on the title song, and seconds later beseeches his lady love, “Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby / Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”. Yuck, on both counts. On “She Looks Like Fun”, he descends into simply yelling out non-sequiturs (“Good morning” / “Cheeseburger” / “Snowboarding”) – apparently, they are all references to his now-ex-girlfriend Taylor Bagley’s Instagram feed, but that knowledge cannot excuse these lyrics (and somehow makes them worse). On “Batphone”, he talks about using “the search engine” and the time he “got sucked into a hand-held device”. Perhaps the technological ignorance is meant to be quaint?

Apart from the lyrics, the album’s other big travesty is the criminal under-use of Matt Helders’ drums. Other than Turner’s (erstwhile) quick wit, Helders’ drumming was perhaps the key reason to be a Monkeys fan. On Tranquility, he is relegated to simple beats that a drum machine could have probably provided, while Turner takes front stage with an often-rambling persona. On the music front, the silver lining is that Nick O’Malley really outdid himself on the bass, practically carrying otherwise-unmemorable songs.

With Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the once-cool Arctic Monkeys have taken a worryingly avuncular turn. Hopefully, Alex and co. will be able to take the best parts of this album for a livelier seventh output. This one, though, is a dud.

Best songs: “Four Out of Five”, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, “Batphone”

The Top Five Albums of 2013: Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

As I mentioned in my Top Five Songs of 2013 list last week, 2013 has been a decent year for music. There were some great debuts, even better follow-ups and a promise for the future. So, without further ado, here’s my take on the Top Five Albums of 2013.

– Neeharika

5. Shaking the Habitual, by The Knife

Shaking the Habitual

It’s often hard to imagine what ‘textural’ means in the context of music. How can a purely tactile sense be attributed to sound? The word is often thrown about as a vague catch-all for everything from ambient to post-rock, but there is music for which ‘textural’ is a perfect adjective. One such example is The Knife’s fervent fourth album, Shaking the Habitual, which puts you in the middle of a seethingly alive jungle.

On “A Tooth For an Eye”, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s wild, unintelligible chants soar and whoop like tribal cants through her brother Olof Dreijer ‘s electronic safari through a rain-forest. The strongest beat lies on “Full of Fire”, which could form the ominous soundtrack for a dream that wakes you up sweating and disturbed.  You could get lost in the labyrinth of “Raging Lung”, gasping for breath while your masked overlords laugh at your ghastly predicament. It’s like each song comes with its own dizzying music video.

I will freely admit that I wasn’t a fan of The Knife prior to this album; their much-hyped Silent Shout came off as far too pretentious, like early Animal Collective gestated too far into the sinisterly inaccessible. However, after a few listens of Shaking the Habitual, I found myself getting enveloped in the ethereal gauze of “A Cherry on Top”, the busy techno of Networking” and the dark drama of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”. While it’s still not the most accessible music – case in point, the 19-minute horror-movie diegetic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” – there may hardly be an album in 2013 more imaginative and textural (there’s that word again) than Shaking the Habitual. Recommended, for those willing to stomach it.

Best tracks: “A Tooth For an Eye”, “Raging Lung”

4. Pure Heroine, by Lorde

Pure Heroine

Contrary to what twee stars may have you believe, being a 16-year-old famous pop star is not always easy or even fun. Even a normal teenager’s world seems to change all too rapidly; imminent rise to fame can only cause further confusion. Lorde’s Pure Heroine (full review here) is a meditation on this theme, a sort of commentary piece to the young New Zealander’s sudden rise to fame.

But sudden does not mean unexpected. In her mid-teens, Lorde possesses musical chops like none of her peers. She wields her whip-sharp pen – writing cleverly about teenage romance and suburban life and impending fame – with as much confidence as she sings, sly smirk in place. Add to that a magnetic personality – the hair! the winged mascara! – and you’ve got yourself a true pop star. The difference is that she really doesn’t want to be one. “We crave a different kind of buzz,” she explains on her hit “Royals”, before going on to claim her personal throne: “Let me be your ruler/ You can call me Queen Bee.” She fears fame, too, with the intensity of a small-town girl pushed into big-city spotlights: “How can I fuck with the fun again, when I’m known,” she wonders wistfully on “Tennis Court”. It’s quite a refreshing take on success.

Pure Heroine by Lorde – note the effect of the foisted ‘e’ in both cases – is perhaps the best debut of 2013, and one of the best albums overall. It will be interesting to see where true fame takes Lorde in her follow-up albums. She’s one to watch, for sure.

Best tracks: “Tennis Court”, “Royals”

3. Days Are Gone, by Haim

Days Are Gone

Every once in a while, a true revivalist comes along, making music that sounds like it should have been a famous hit already. On their debut Days Are Gone (full review here), Haim have managed pay perfect homage to a discography spanning synth-heavy hits from the late 70s all the way to glossy-lipped R&B from the 90s.

Haim comprises three attractive sisters – Danielle, Este and Alana Haim – whose first band was called Rockinhaim, composed of themselves and their parents. The girls make sunny, honest, genuine music that speaks of their pedigree as much as it does of their home in California’s carefree San Fernando Valley.

That Days Are Gone is a debut is a little hard to believe at times. Just listen to the sludgy-cool “My Song 5” or the shining hooks on “Honey & I”. This is music that already has a classic feel. In fact, Days Are Gone often feels like a best-of compilation of female-fronted music from pop’s golden eras, which is probably what the Haim girls intended to do.

Whether on the breezy post-breakup title song or on the irresistibly catchy “The Wire”, Danielle, Este and Alana have the confidence of old sessions regulars with nothing to prove, or world-famous musicians with several concert tours under their belts. With that sort of aura, it seems only natural that the Haim sisters are set to be superstars.

Best tracks: “The Wire”, “My Song 5”

2. AM, by Arctic Monkeys

AM

In late 2005, four young British lads released a kicker of an album about life as young British lads that immediately shot to unrivaled success. They hadn’t planned on fame: neighbors Alex Turner and Jaime Cook asked for guitars on Christmas only a few years prior so that they could play some songs together with their high school friend Matt Helders. Somehow, in an accident that involved the novelty of file-sharing, MySpace and a shamelessly salivating British music press, the boys became superstars: shy, ill-suited for fame and too wordy for their own good, but superstars nonetheless.

In 2009, Arctic Monkeys took a break from their witty chronicles of getting turned down by girls in clubs and headed to the California desert with Queens of the Stone Age front-man Josh Homme, who lent a heavy black aura to their music and lyrics. The band lost a legion of their earlier fans with the resulting album Humbug; even I, a devout fan-girl, was tempted to think that the Monkeys were losing their touch with this strange new direction. It didn’t help that the follow-up Suck It and See was lacklustre at best, with elliptical lyrics and a conspicuous lack of blistering indie rock that diverged sharply from their original image.

But now it all makes sense. Themes from their entire discography – the lusty darkness of Humbug and the way lyrics were carefully wrought on Favorite Worst Nightmare  – make an appearance on AM, which may just be their best album yet.

Every part of their act has gotten tighter. Alex has evolved as a vocalist, effecting a sly, jilted prowl on “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” as easily as the whipped desperation on “Fireside”. His lyrics, too, have gotten even better. “It’s much less picturesque without her catching the light/ The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes,” Mr. Turner sighs about the eponymous woman on “Arabella”, going on to croon, “And her lips are like the galaxy’s edge/ And her kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place.” Quite the poet he is.

But the band is not a one-man show. On AM, Arctic Monkeys have damn near perfected the art of drawing organically from influences to create a their own new sound. Jaime Cook’s ponderous riff on “Do I Wanna Know?” evokes a stripped-down QOTSA while “Arabella” could be slipped into a Black Sabbath mixtape. The best example, though, comes on “Mad Sounds”, a beautiful ballad that fittingly brings to mind the late Lou Reed, complete with “ooh la las” sprinkled over a sparkling-pop everyman love song.

The Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album is the latest stepping stone on their journey from clever cads with guitars to mature musicians. AM is at once the culmination of everything the band has done so far as well as an exciting direction for the future. One thing’s for certain: as good as this album is, their best is yet to come.

Best tracks: “Arabella”, “Why’d You Always Call Me When You’re High?”

1. Random Access Memories, by Daft Punk

Random Access Memories

Putting Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (full review here) above an Arctic Monkeys masterpiece really made me think. On one hand, I’ve been a rabid Arctic Monkeys fangirl for the past decade; on the other, Random Access Memories is otherworldly genius. In the end, timeless genius won over everything else, and that is why Random Access Memories is, in my opinion, the best album of the year.

There’s very little to say that hasn’t been said already. We can talk about the featured artists – industry legends and indie superstars alike – and how their combined starpower with Daft Punk resulted in perfect collaborations. “Doin’ It Right” sounds exactly like how an Animal Collective-tinged Daft Punk song should sound, while “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas would fit in uncannily well on the Strokes’ Comedown Machine.

We can talk about the theme – futuristic humans-turned-robots finding their way back to humanity through love and the power of music – and how perfectly every song fits into the overall idea, like robot-manufactured puzzle pieces. The story stretches from the disco heydey on song-of-the-year “Get Lucky” to the magnum opus “Touch”, which is basically a fantastic, musical version of Pixar’s Wall-E.

We can talk about the music itself, ranging from lackadaisical bliss on “Lose Yourself to Dance” to instrumental fantasia on “Motherboard”. But in the end, it’s as Giorgio says on the epic “Giorgio by Moroder”: “Once you want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want.” This, in essence, Daft Punk’s idea for Random Access Memories.

This is not music. It’s expression: timeless and impossibly perfect.

Best tracks: “Get Lucky”, “Lose Yourself to Dance”

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