Review: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

The Arctic Monkeys came into my life around ’05-06, as a burned copy of the UK version of Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, that a friend pressed into my hands with the urgency that defined all of our musical exchanges back then, and which I’ve found absent from life as an adult. Alex Turner, then younger than I am now, sang about Sheffield lechers and cuddles in kitchens and fake record executives and running from suburban British cops – nothing I could claim to understand. But it’s undeniable even today: that first album articulated something about hitting the peak of puberty in a post-“Mission Accomplished” world of continual, ever-visible, but mostly ignored war; of ringtones; of . It made our former interests in Lil Wayne seem merely dilettantism and our enthusiasm for Linkin Park look embarrassingly adolescent. And Alex Turner’s croon has continued to undress desire, vapidity, hypocrisy, ennui, ego, loneliness, and obsession on every album since.

AM (2013) was a grime-glam parade of hits, the album that was just as meaty, fast, and infectious as their debut, but with the benefit of maturity, confidence, an L.A.-noir aesthetic, and dark 90s hip-hop vibes. The songs will continue to pop into my mind for the rest of my life. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino follows a tough act well, but not triumphantly. It proves the band is still culturally relevant and ready to dare – and Alex might even be at the height of his lyrical abilities – but it’s too much of Alex’s subconscious, not enough pop magic. I reviewed the album for The Skinnyread it here.

It will be interesting to see how these songs, mostly absent pop hooks but dense with the atmospheric noise of collaborators, will hold up live (apparently on a set Alex designed himself, while working on the cardboard model on the album’s cover). I caught the Monkeys in Toronto in 2013 and Lewiston in 2014 (and saw Alex with The Last Shadow Puppets in Manhattan in 2016). I’ll be seeing them again this summer in Canandaigua. You can count on reading about it here.

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In Austin, TX for SxSW 2016

Music festival reporting can be physically and mentally exhausting: last summer Scotland’s T in the Park saw me haul-assing across a muddy wasteland to catch a very late and very crowded bus, and Latvia’s Positivus (though the accommodations were more comfortable) left my schedule in the hands of some seriously hard partiers. Then Edinburgh’s Fringe made August of 2015 the most hectic month of my life. But I’ve never, as a reporter, felt myself so spiritually and bodily taxed as I did on the last night of SxSW 2016, pondering giving up on a 3-hour queue to see The Roots, enduring unseasonably bitter winds, very aware of having been oversaturated in music and local craft beers for too many consecutive days.

Of course the endurance test was not only “worth it” – it was a privilege. Just taking a glance below at some of the incredible acts I saw in one packed week proves that. Each new day seemed to erase the previous, and only when I type the names out all together do I have any sense of the sheer volume of the good music I heard. You can check out my schedule, with links to my daily posts for The Skinny, below.

SxSW Tuesday 15 March: Thelma and the Sleaze, Gymshorts, Yonatan Gat, St. Lucia, Big Boi

SxSW Wednesday 16 March: WOMPS, Hinds, Mothers, Iggy Pop & Josh Homme

SxSW Thursday 17 March: CHVRCHES, Lucky Chops, Declan McKenna, KLOE, 2 Chainz, Earl Sweatshirt

SxSW Friday 18 March: Duncan Fellows, Joseph, Flo Rida, Charli XCX, Sylvan Esso, Santigold

SxSW Saturday 19 March: Sugarmen, Fizzy Blood, Demob Happy, The Roots

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The Skinny on Latvia’s Positivus

A few days ago I was sitting on cool sand, watching the sun like an electric arcade coin drop from a sorbet sky into the waters of Riga Bay, off the Baltic Sea, black as a pint of Imperial Baltic porter, some accident of algae and tidal patterns.  This was minutes before one of the secular saints of my childhood, Robert Plant, took the main stage, just a short walk east through the pines.

IMG_8258The Skinny sent me to cover the Positivus music festival in Salacgrīva, Latvia last weekend – so go ahead, click, and skip the precis.  It was incredible: intimate, idyllic, with a great mix of marquee acts (Kasabian, Robert Plant) hot newcomers (St. Vincent, Warpaint, Jack Garratt), and delightful Eastern Euro surprises (The Big Bluff) and in size, setting, and atmosphere, a total contrast to T in the Park, which I’d covered the previous weekend. IMG_8449

Naturally, I spent my days sampling as many of the Baltic States’ distinctive beers as I could.  I’ll also have a post on the charms of Riga, where the UK and Central European press (and plenty of the bands) stayed during the festival – expect more soon.  In the meantime, you can see my pictures of Riga and the festival here, and my amateurish efforts at band photography from the press pit here, and listen to my interview with The Big Bluff (just under 20 minutes – at turns awkward and heartening, always interesting) here.

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