Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under
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We live in a toxic world, according to Sam Fender. We’re politicised, polarised and in a permanent state of anxiety. Why not celebrate surviving all that, he seems to say on his second album, Seventeen Going Under.
Fender broke through as a council estate kid singing about his upbringing in North Shields. His debut album tackled poverty, male suicide, class wars and white privilege with the kind of directness that only comes from lived experience. While he’s balked at comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, it’s easy to understand why they’re made: the 27-year-old has a similar, hollering vocal style, along with a penchant for wheeling sax solos. This hasn’t changed a jot here, but Fender has refined both his songwriting and his sound.
He opens with the jangly title track, a trip down memory lane that recalls “The Borders”. Like that earlier single, “Seventeen Going Under” is about hurt people left out in the cold, who swing their fists because there’s nothing else to do. Fender has a sharp turn of phrase that stirs the imagination like few other songwriters his age, singing of when he was “amongst the white noise and boys’ boys/ Locker-room talkin’ lads’ lads/ Drenched in cheap drink and snide fags/ A mirrored picture of my old man/ Oh God, the kid’s a dab hand/ Canny chanter, but he looks sad.” There’s a ripple of The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the luscious guitar twangs on “Getting Started”. Meanwhile, “The Leveller” echoes the post-punk hellraiser Fender turned into for the stonking B-side, “Howdon Aldi Death Queue”. There are clear nods to Radiohead, too, in his Thom Yorke wails, orchestral flourishes and a furrowed brow of a guitar riff.
Fender still saves his most vituperative tones for The Man (“I don’t have time for the very few!/ They never had time for me and you!”) on the tension-filled “Aye” and the unforgiving “Long Way Off”. He pays tribute to the people he grew up with for their resilience, while simultaneously condemning the government indifference that causes them to suffer. The first six tracks of Seventeen Going Under are, at least lyrically, far stronger than the second. Songs such as “Paradigms” paint with too broad a brush, lacking his usually meticulous eye for detail. But then he comes back blazing on “The Dying Light”, which takes Dylan Thomas’s plea to heart and spins a stark piano intro into a rage against impending darkness and crying mothers and yet more dead young boys. “I’m damned if I give up tonight,” he cries. A real cri de coeur. ROC
BadBadNotGood – Talk Memory
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Talk Memory has been described as a “return to roots” for BadBadNotGood. But the Toronto jazz ensemble’s origins are hard to figure out. They cut their teeth reinterpreting beats from rap collective Odd Future in 2011. One viral video later, they were collaborating with rap heavyweights including Tyler, the Creator, Dilla, Earl Sweatshirt and the late MF DOOM. They released an album with Ghostface Killah. On their fifth record, though, they’ve moved away from their hip-hop-adjacent sound to deliver a portrait of a jazz band in the 21st century, forever in motion.
The album’s nine-minute opener is indicative of the band’s ambition. “Signal from the Noise” rumbles into a cloud of static; lead-laden keys stalk across tranquil snare rhythms. Those beginning few minutes would fit perfectly into the soundtrack of an A24-produced indie horror. Then the lights come up, to reveal a cavernous swell of mercurial jazz. Unexpected, unbridled joy is found in every corner.
“City of Mirrors” also warrants special mention. With spaghetti western licks, it relishes in the splendour of an 11-piece string orchestra. The inclusion of renowned Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai demonstrates how BBNG’s savvy when it comes to collaborators extends to instrumentals, too.
Still, it’s hard not to miss the vocals, at least a little. On their previous record – 2016’s succinctly titled IV – joint efforts with Charlotte Day Wilson and Future Islands’ Sam Herring made for career highlights. The same goes for the band’s beloved hip-hop inflections, which are missing here; Sowinski’s typically driving drums take a different route instead.
On Talk Memory, BBNG have mostly kicked their habit of slipping into jam-band noodling. The three-piece (formerly four, until founding keyboardist Matthew Tavares stepped away in 2019) spent two years sitting with these songs, an uncharacteristic approach for a band known to develop their ideas in front of a live audience. At times this makes for a more considered output; other songs run the risk of overthinking themselves. After all, it was BBNG’s playfulness that caught our attention in the first place. AN