Years & Years refuse to obscure queerness on ‘Palo Santo’

Palo-Santo-artwork.pngStream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Add to library: ‘All For You’, ‘Palo Santo’, ‘Up In Flames’

Years & Years introduced their second album with two uninteresting singles and a preposterous concept.

So it’s a relief that Palo Santo is a solid collection of tropical electropop, dripping with sweat, tears and charisma from frontman Olly Alexander.

The title refers to a pansexual metropolis that sprung from Alexander’s imagination, a place where androids rule, and humans are plucked from the streets to writhe around on a stage, using their flesh to provoke genuine emotion in an audience of automatons.

The accompanying short film is the kind of thing a person dreams up after eating a block of cheese and watching Blade Runner. It’s a lofty gimmick, but at least it’s one that articulates the record’s inherent queerness rather than obscures it.

What Palo Santo does successfully is depict the life of a socially mobile, twenty-something gay man in 2018. Across atmospheric ballads and glow-in-the-dark dance tracks, hookups (‘Rendezvous’), heartbreak (‘All For You’) and internalised homophobia (‘Preacher’) are each captured in golden melodies.

Like 2014’s Communion, images of Catholic flagellation appear as thinly-veiled metaphors for anal sex. When written to bouncy, playlistable beats – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Preacher’ – they make for welcome additions to the band’s canon. First single ‘Sanctify’ exhausts the premise with a plodding tempo that had me checking my watch, but as the opener it’s inoffensive. 

Alexander brings an unapologetically queer perspective that deserves to be heard loud-and-clear. Trailblazing? Absolutely not. But his visibility shouldn’t be taken for granted in the current political climate.

Forget the sci-fi window dressing – by bucking heteronormativity, Palo Santo is a futuristic work in its own right.

Katy B works the stickier side of the dance floor on “Turn The Music Louder”

THE ONEAs chart-ready bangers go, “Turn the Music Louder (Rumble)” is virtually foolproof.

KDA’s “Rumble” instrumental earned kudos from the likes of Annie Mac and Pete Tong when a re-edit from Shadow Child started doing the rounds back in April, while a guesting Tinie Tempah has already proven to be an enduring chart presence since scoring his sixth UK number one with “Not Letting Go” this summer.

Yet the track’s real pull is a riveting turn from London-born vocalist Katy B. The coalition that Katy’s cool but expressive voice forms with KDA’s ricocheting beats highlights just how badly 2014’s Little Red failed to capitalise on the singer’s innate understanding of dance music.

The success of electro-ballad “Crying For No Reason” allowed Katy to exhibit some versatility, but in a year where every other number one took cues from sounds Katy arguably helped usher into the charts with her 2011 debut On A Mission, it was frustrating to see her shine from the sidelines of pop.

KDA’s “Rumble” is a simple but heady cocktail of arcade synths and pummeling percussion, but without the pointed angles of something like Oliver Helden’s “Gecko” – another club-tested instrumental given the ‘vocal treatment’ to become last year’s chart-topping “Overdrive”– a rewrite would have had to be lyrically bold in order to truly impress.

Alas, Tinie Tempah’s raps are mere splashes from an alcohol-addled stream of consciousness. This isn’t normally a problem when dealing with a dance track, but the song’s superior second half presents a missed opportunity.

Morphing into what is essentially a solo track, the song allows Katy to reel off a bunch of clichéd observations about her ride-or-die infatuation (“I wish I could forget / the day that we first met / But now it’s blowing up / I just can’t get enough”). That Tinie never thought to play the Lothario to Katy’s blushing damsel throughout his verses is a disappointment, as this would added a sense of cohesion to the listener’s experience.

An unimaginative but infallible chart hit, “Turn the Music Louder (Rumble)” is most notable for returning Katy B to the stickier side of the dance floor. Here’s hoping her tears don’t wash her away from it yet again.

[Music] Jess Glynne – I Cry When I Laugh (review)

15-JessGlynne_ICryWhenILaugh_NoText_0Available to buy on iTunes

Review: While Adele drifts in hypersleep around the outskirts of our pop galaxy, the British public’s enthusiasm for Jess Glynne’s similarly husky tones suggests that a disco-driven return for the platinum-selling singer could be particularly lucrative.

At least that’s what Glynne seems to be banking on throughout her debut album I Cry When I Laugh. The quinoa-flavoured dance-pop of “Hold My Hand”, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” and the Clean Bandit collaboration “Real Love” whizz by with a cheeriness that can be almost nauseating, but it’s difficult to fault their structures. Whether it’s a double-barreled chorus, rumbling choir or pirouetting piano stabs, each artifice is deployed with the utmost precision.

In an age when controversy seems to be the primary way of ushering fresh talent into the public consciousness, Glynne’s ascent has been a relatively quiet one. Yet the absence of a titanic personality is actually the album’s trump card. It’s refreshing to approach a record with no external drama to spoil or undermine a sense of relentless optimism that’s perceptible from the song titles alone.

The roller rink disco of “You Can Find Me” makes for a delightful standout. One could never describe Glynne’s delivery as fierce or even particularly charismatic, but she’s rarely less than engaging, and inside the track’s bubble of subtle synth, funky bass lines and soulful backing vocals, she casts a warm and enchanting presence. The clanking percussion and austere violin strokes of deluxe track “Home”, meanwhile, adds a much-needed variation in sound.

Glynne avoids an excess of guest stars; a wise move for an artist that’s credited as a feature artist on three out five of her number one singles. Still, the addition of a slushy Emeli Sandé duet entitled “Saddest Vanilla” shows she may be comically unaware of her own inoffensive persona.

More successful is “Take Me Home”, which excels within the narrow parameters set by the modern piano ballad.  It also seems destined to become a staple sing-a-long for those hoping to land a shag at the end of a night out – another mammoth achievement for Glynne in a career that’s been startlingly full of them.

6.5/10

[Music] Katy B – Little Red (review)

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Available to buy from iTunes.

Review: “I just can’t blend in…” Katy B laments as Little Red begins to wind down; a dangerous statement to make considering even her biggest fans would struggle to label the chirpy Brixtonian as an extrovert. One of the most refreshing things about her 2011 debut On a Mission was how she reclaimed partying for the people, breaking down the myriad emotions of a night out over racy house beats in a way that only a quasi-wallflower could. In an interview with The Quietus back in February, Katy explained the fate of “Hot Like Fire” – a sexy, raucous blast of attitude that positions the usually modest singer in a whole new light. But her account rather ironically paints her as disappointingly passive; apparently Geeneus, her producer and co-manager, was “unhappy with his bassline. Or something.” And so a potential game-changer festers on the deluxe edition.

Katy’s loyalty to the Rinse FM honcho is understandable; his continued guidance has yielded a cleaner, more well-oiled machine than her debut. Singles “5 AM” and “Crying for No Reason” showcase the album’s duality of dancefloor-ready bangers and gusty, synth-laden balladry. Katy once again thrives on tracks driven by intimate, often internalised scenarios. Jessie Ware joins her in confronting a DJ boyfriend’s temptress on “Aaliyah”, “5 AM” examines a post-party panic attack, while the clattering anxiety of “All My Lovin’” retraces those final steps towards an all-consuming desire.

The success of “Crying…” has most likely led to a mellower record than originally planned, but in a manner appropriate for a record once plagued by pushbacks and an aborted lead single, Little Red rewards perseverance. Both the greasy, hi-hat-heavy slog of “I Like You” and the aimless clipped beats of “Sapphire Blue” explode in their final stretches. In the latter, Katy takes a potentially banal breakdown (“No more walls / No more doors / No more windows / No more floors”) and sells it with a passion unheard of from her contemporaries. Whatever she may lack in showmanship, Katy more than makes for in her ability to transform what once bordered on filler material into an album highlight. Little Red deserves to be massive.

8.5/10