Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Kiwi has strong handle on moody, melancholy pop.
Dunedin native Kane Strang laces his second LP with lurching, lugubrious indie rock, delivering dazed vocals that often double up and overlap. It’s reliably brooding, with whiffs of Modest Mouse (“Two Hearts and No Brain”) and Interpol (“Not Quite”). But the long shadow of the Nineties can start to feel limiting, and Strang is most appealing when splashing lyrical acid across the façade of sing-song catchiness. The quietly scathing “Oh So You’re Off I See” nails that brief. Doprah’s Stephen Marr lends a downcast consistency to it all, but it’d be nice to hear Strang double down on the subversive potential of those brighter moments.
The Only Ones’ lost antihero gets first solo album off his chest
Drug runner first, punk poet second, Peter Perrett squandered his big chance with the Only Ones (“Another Girl, Another Planet”) in late Seventies London. Incredibly, at 65 his smoke-ravaged adolescent croak remains unmistakable on his first solo album. His acerbic wit is laugh-out-loud brilliant in the Lou Reed drawl of the title track. With his flinty confessions mixed to wry raconteur effect and his axe-slinging sons picking up his old band’s tight-but-loose cool, songs about love and temptation ring heroically true, from the unapologetic ménage of “Troika” to the stoic abdication of “Take Me Home”.
Political fear inspires Vampire Weekend bassist’s second LP.
Man of the World may be fuelled by the fear and anxiety Chris Baio felt in his adopted UK home during Brexit and as the Trump presidency transpired in his native USA, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s immaculately produced, upbeat, Eighties-inspired pop, resplendent with crisp horns, spritely synths and thick drum machine beats. Baio carries some of Vampire Weekend’s preppy arch louchness, even when his lyrics wrestle with meaty matters. It somehow manages to make the weighty quite weightless, but political doom has certainly never sounded so much fun.
Perth trio refine intoxicating signature sound on debut LP.
Crooked Colours have a sound both calculated and seductive, all wispy rhythms, distant beats and sexy R&B that coolly glides beneath the radar. Vera sees them hone and refine that sound to a tee (and it ultimately nestles somewhere in the middle of Glass Animals and Cut Copy). Intoxicating opener “Flow” is the album’s best track; the remaining songs almost feel like variations on the theme – that is, husky vocals, weightless percussion and stuttering rhythms. Elsewhere lies interesting experimentation, from the lysergic, woozy instrumental title-track, to the hip-hop-tinted “I Hope You Get It” and the solemn, intimate piano closer “Perfect Run”.
Outkast’s other guy limps through third solo effort.
Playing the stable yin to Andre 3000’s unrestrained yang for over two decades has taught Big Boi well, with Outkast’s lesser-half employing a – mostly long-toothed – list of guests to fill the void around his one-size-fits-all Southern rapidfire flow on album three. Contributions range from a soppy Adam Levine hook to a posthumous Pimp C verse, but the politico-swagger of one-time protege Killer Mike shines brightest, his fiery trifecta of verses showing up the LP’s other missteps – most notably, the forced fit of g-funk vets and awkward shifts to EDM (“Chocolate”) and conscious rap (“Overthunk”).
Promising start for a drummer turned lo-fi balladeer.
Returned from a six-year stint drumming in bands around London, Lake Macquarie native Alex Knight has debuted his solo project. Intimacy is key for Brightness, from Knight’s light, wispy singing to his knack for using humble home-recording tactics to evoke wider, more majestic reaches. “Oblivion” opens Teething with George Harrison-style slide guitar, but it soon lurches into the fuzzy, sloshing hooks that later signal Nineties touchstones like the Flaming Lips (“Queen Bee”) and early Smashing Pumpkins (“Silver Birch”). It’s a fairly short album, but Knight shows a tender touch throughout, especially when addressing personal desperation on standout “Surrender”.
Quicksand/Rival Schools frontman goes back in time.
Dead Heavens frontman Walter Schreifels is quite the musical chameleon, having steered a career through classic New York hardcore (Gorilla Biscuits), agit-post-rock (Quicksand), alt-rock (Rival Schools) and acoustic based solo work, to name just a few of his projects. Here he teams up with former members of Into Another, White Zombie and Cults to make a sound rooted in the Seventies, be it Black Sabbath dirge (“Basic Cable”), garage rock (“Away From the Speed”) or prog-esque psych trip-outs (“Gold Tooth”). It’s good, occasionally great, but frustrates when it meanders rather than maintains focus.
Brisbane mainstay delivers towering solo debut.
After a stint in L.A.’s the Silver Chords and setbacks including a serious spinal injury, Lawrie’s solo debut arrives wreathed in expectation. From the gutbucket riffage of pulsating opener “No Rules” onward, Lawrie sets about conducting an operatic spectacle (“High Time to Fly”) – the album’s darkly brooding, guitar-driven grandeur recalling the sonic tableaux of Yawning Man (“Little Red House”), while Lawrie imports ample bruising, Abbe May-like heaviness. Baring her teeth to the void, Lawrie dials back the shrillness of, say, Karen O or Alison Mosshart, while more than matching them for raw menace and pure, animal soul.
Twice the nuclear chill on expanded prog-rock masterpiece.
To their right, the cocksure nu-retro geezers of the Verve and Oasis. To their left, the teeth-gnashing electro-rock juggernauts of the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy. But it was Radiohead’s third album, symphonic in execution and devastating in its techno-paranoid context, that nailed the future of rock & roll in 1997.
Twenty years on, the prescience of its outlook on humanity splintering under the jackboot of progress is a given. But the stunning scope of the panorama is well worth another spin in the headphones, from the exhilaration of “Paranoid Android” to the uncoiling scream of “Exit Music (For A Film)”, to the breathtaking elegance of “The Tourist”, with its plaintive entreaty to “Hey man, slow down/Idiot, slow down.”
The 11 bonus tracks from surrounding sessions reveal a band in a maelstrom of inspiration. “I Promise” is a bridge from the simpler emotions of 1993 debut Pablo Honey, but the other two unreleased tracks, “Man Of War” and “Lift”, are so rich and dramatically satisfying that any other album would have called them keepers.
The reissued B-sides span the epic landslide of “Polyethylene (Part 2)” and the raw piano-vocal take of “How I Made My Millions”. The ambient collage of “A Reminder” is among several explorations foreshadowing the abstract developments of Kid A and beyond. As a companion to the main event, it’s a lot more OK than not.
Las Vegas outfit strike out with album number three .
Imagine Dragon’s Night Visions (2012) and Smoke+Mirrors (2015) were arena-sized super-spectacles stuffed with massive hooks and synthy electronic bloat. True to the remix-fodder and soundtrack/ad bait of those albums, Evolve is a calculated sugar-rush. There’s an EDM club banger (“I Don’t Know Why”), rapid-fire faux-hop (“Whatever It Takes”), and a towering power ballad (“Walking the Wire”), frontman Dan Reynolds leading his band deeper into that terminally infectious long good night with so many trite, hollow lyrics (he’s “seeking higher elevation” on “Rise Up”). By the time solid-gold electro-pop slugger “Thunder” arrives, it’s too late.
Quartet return with blistering indictment of modern world.
Given the geopolitical events that have unfolded since Algiers’ 2015 self-titled debut, it’s hardly surprising that their follow-up is a darker, angrier work. The band’s evolution comes in their intensity rather than any stylistic shift, with “Death March” and the brilliant “A Hymn For An Average Man” expressing their dystopian bleakness through literate, showing-not-telling lyrics and some electrifying electronic-led arrangements. The deep-toned vocals of Franklin James Fisher bring a certain humanity to the imposing wall of noise, on an LP that channels the sonic ambition of TV On the Radio and the conscience of Edward Said.
A crisp remaster and discs of bonus material will make you miss the pop auteur even more.
A legendary control freak, Prince's business instincts were always idiosyncratic, from scrawling "SLAVE" on his face and changing his name to an icon (to protest his Warner Brothers contract) to his New Power Generation pop-up shop in Minneapolis (for the year or so it lasted on Lyndale Avenue, I always remember finding it empty – when it opened at all – save its clerks). In some cases, time proved him prescient: Frank Ocean and others have refined the pop-up, while Prince's CD giveaways and streaming service holdouts are now standard marketing strategies. As for sitting on decades worth of "vault recordings" of still-unknown quantity and quality, the jury is out, and it's impossible to know if Prince would have ever green-lighted the release of the early-to-mid-Eighties outtakes included in both the two-disc Deluxe Edition and four-disc Deluxe Expanded Edition of Purple Rain, his megahit soundtrack LP to the film of the same name. Perhaps it's best to take them as a gift from an artist you will miss even more after hearing them.
Billed as the Prince-supervised "2015 Paisley Park Remaster" of Purple Rain, the reissue of the original album may or may not be the same mix posted in 2015 to Tidal – comparing the latter stream with a new one provided by the label, it's hard to discern much difference. Nevertheless, it's a fabulously crisp mix of one of modern pop's greatest LPs. Details sparkle: the string flourishes on "Take Me With You" and "Purple Rain"; the finger-snap on "When Doves Cry," just after dude coos about "you and I engaged in a kiss"; the actual kiss around the three-minute mark of "Baby I'm a Star."
The bonus disc titled From the Vault & Previously Unreleased opens with "The Dance Electric," an apocalyptic 11-minute party jam with a churning machine-funk groove and Syndrum sequences that mirror West African talking-drum salvos. "Good morning, children" begins the Purple Proctor, echoing the "Dearly beloved" intro of "Let's Go Crazy." He instructs his charges to "Listen to the rhythm of your soul," and that they'd "better love each other," invoking Babylon and the "light of truth" along the way.
"Love and Sex" – unrelated to the Sheila E song of the same – refracts elements of "Take Me With You" in a galloping mix of Prince tropes, decked out in squishy DX-7 synths, "sh-boom"s and "sha-la-la-la"s. A 12-minute version of "Computer Blue" is exploded from the album version with an eight-minute jazz-funk-rock coda full of over-the top guitar alongside trippy Prince narration and a Siri-like cyborg (likely a mix of Revolution bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) scolding a "poor lonely computer/It's time you learned 'love' and 'lust'/They both have four letters, but they're entirely different words."
"Electric Intercourse" is a falsetto ballad grounded in florid church piano chords, guilded with synths and driven with programmed drums – another digital sex metaphor that maybe hits its target a bit too squarely. More interesting is "Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden," a cleaned-up medley of two songs recorded in '84 at his 26th birthday concert. "Our Destiny" features marvelous orchestral framing, with lead vocals by Lisa Coleman; then Prince comes in slinging memories ("This is the house where we used to play"). It's a taste of what his golden-era music might have sounded like if he'd shared the spotlight more often.
"Possessed," about being crazy in love, has a melody which snakes through fluttering harp notes towards a breakdown that never quite arrives, peppered by a processed vocal display worthy of The Exorcist. "Have you ever had the feeling that someone was tearing you up into little bitty pieces and contemplating selling you for a jigsaw puzzle?" sings a chorus of demonic Princes. Absolutely, dudes.
Befitting its title, "Wonderful Ass" might be the most purely satisfying of the vault tracks: a chipper, silly funk-strut duet between Prince and Lisa Coleman, who were at the time dating the twin Melvoin sisters (both of whom shared the titular attribute, according to Coleman). The bandmates rap-rhyme "educate," "negotiate," "communicate," "litigate," "interrogate" and "masturbate" because, well, that's what they do.
"Velvet Kitty Kat" sounds like a solo Prince demo: lo-fi, slightly muffled, with a basic drum track and simple guitar. Its charm is its brevity and DIY simplicity, a rarity for Prince at this stage. "Katrina's Paper Dolls," meanwhile, is something of a mystery, sketching a story of a lonely girl who stays home and makes her own company, literally. It might be about Prince's protégée Vanity (real name Denise Katrina Matthews) of Vanity 6. Or it might just be an interesting metaphor for a guy who made his own company similarly, by shaping artists like Vanity.
Opening with finger cymbals and what sounds like an oud, the outrageous "We Can Fuck" gets straight to the point, then makes it for 10 minutes, putting a Middle Eastern spin on his sexual revolution over a slow funk jam as X-rated as any official Prince release to date. It's followed by "Father's Song," the piano meditation written, or in any case co-written, by Prince's dad, John Nelson. A fragment appeared in semi-autobiographical context in the film Purple Rain, and its melody was used as the main motif of "Computer Blue"'s back end. Here, the piano melody is teased out and ghosted with synth, becoming an easy-listening psychedelic coda to this scrapbook culled from what may stand as Prince's hottest streak.
The Deluxe Expanded set includes a DVD of a 1985 Syracuse show that's circulated in bootleg bits on YouTube for a while, as well as the Single Edits & B-Sides disc. The latter gathers worthy flipsides, including the two-cigarettes-and-a-broken-heart anthem "17 Days" (Prince's second-best lyrical application of the word "rain"); the bizarre steam-kettle space-gospel ballad "God"; the aching, banana daiquiri-soused lover's requiem "Another Lonely Christmas"; and the mighty seven-minute "Make Love Not War Erotic City Come Alive" mix of "Erotic City" – which reminds us that, as long as we are alive, "We can funk until the dawn," which is good advice always.
Accomplished but derivative fare from 29-year-old folk-rocker.
Kevin Morby's previous three LPs have proven him to be an elegant and often moving songwriter; City Music confirms this talent, but continues his wilful refusal to forge his own unique voice. Just as behemoths Dylan and Cohen informed Singing Saw (2016), these laconic songs are firmly in thrall to Lou Reed. A nocturnal, hazy feel results, with Morby's vocals echoing Reed's weary drawl, while the liveliest moments come with the impressive title track, with its playful changing tempo, and the catchy "Caught In My Eye". City Music is well constructed and mature, yet one wonders how many albums of homage are necessary before Morby's own identity is solidified.
Irish boys shift sights to Seventies new wave, power-pop.
When this Irish quartet emerged five years ago as teenagers, they were in the thrall of Sixties English blues-rock – now they've fast-forwarded through their record collections to the late Seventies. The influence of Squeeze's knotty wordplay and new wave/power pop is obvious, especially on "Grin and Bear It", which is virtually a tribute to 1979's "Up The Junction", while "Turnin' My Back" bolts the riff from the Only Ones' "Another Girl Another Planet" onto Joe Jackson's punchy "Got the Time". The smudged fingerprints of Elvis Costello and the Jam are also evident. All fine reference points, but a little more borrowing and a little less theft might be nice next time.
There's a lot to like about this young producer's sonic ambition.
Sydney producer Ned East has built a sizeable following in his short existence as Kilter. His debut LP delivers a swag of grit-tinged, electro jams made or marred by vocalists either scene-stealing (Yaw Faso, Woodes) or snooze-worthy (Pip Norman, Tyne-James Organ). Kilter's wheelhouse is big sawtooth-wave synths – it's how he uses that familiar EDM-blare as an unlikely base to explore myriad genres that makes him interesting. Whether it's the dancehall grind of "Count On Me", welding sirens to acoustic guitar, or the cinematic, jungle-inflected gurn of "Badai", Kilter shines best when bold.
Life-affirming folk-pop from Byron Bay transplant.
Reprising the rootsy folk textures of 2013's I'm a Bird and major touchstone the Waifs ("Jolene") while adding unexpected detail – including steel pan parts ("Hammer & Love") – to the mix, Buckingham's latest is an optimistic album of abundant, easy charm. These are winsome songs delivered with empathic delicacy, adding up to something like an album-length mantra. Buckingham recalls a conversational Kasey Chambers on "Living in the Dark", while kitschy roots-pop jaunt "Little Old Train" deploys kindred spirit Fanny Lumsden to winning effect. Although relentless affirmation is apt to wear thin, The Water is a consistently likeable release.