Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
New York duo throw the kitchen sink into the mix.
"Pop rocks and coke make your head explode!" squeals Alexis Krauss in "Rule Number One". Your head may well do the same during the duo's fourth album. Derek Miller still shreds like the hardcore guitarist he used to be, but they've gone for a maximalist pop approach that can grate, sometimes sounding like they're playing three or four mismatched songs at once – digitally diced and sliced beats are tossed against jibbering Eighties synths and random blasts of metallic guitar. "Torn Clean" provides some brooding respite from the ADD approach and "I Can't Stand You Anymore" is one of their more catchy moments, but when Krauss exclaims "I'm manic and breathless, it's exhausting", one can only agree.
Our take on the songwriter's eighth album.
Alicia Keys' eighth album downplays her classical training in favour of a grittier R&B edge. She roughs up the piano she once played prettily, endows her vocal exertions with more church than ever, and leans into a solid old-school hip-hop backbone fortified in large part by her husband Swizz Beatz. Her socially consciousness lyrics are as tough as her sound, from the sex-positive pacifism of "Holy War" to the inner city blues of "The Gospel," where her raw holler skirts the edge of despair. But Here also offers hope: "More Than We Know" is an uncommonly strong anthem of uplift (bolstered by actually acknowledging the everyday reality experienced by the kids it preaches to) and "Blended Family (What You Do for Love)," which celebrates Keys' real-life co-parenting experiences with her husband's ex-wife, suggests how caring can build community. And musically, the way a boom-bap here brushes up against a Latin flourish there while Seventies soul echoes nearby suggests less a fusion of styles than an atmosphere the singer inhabits – these are the sounds New Yorkers overhear blasting from passing cars and seeping from pedestrian earbuds, reimagined as a hectic but coherent symphony.
Sting holds stick shift in hand on pop-rock victory lap.
"Dear leaders please do something quick/Time is up, the planet's sick." That's the worst of Sting's surprise rock return after a decade of Renaissance lutes, stage musical autobiography and other un-danceable shenanigans. But the listless climate change rumination of "One Fine Day" is far from the only clanger here.
"50,000", a half-spoken musing about rock & roll immortality, plays just as clumsily into the hands that would paint him as a pompous pranny intoning his humble wisdom in a deep, thespian rasp that Russell Crowe might deem a tad ponderous.
The lead track and single, "I Can't Stop Thinking About You", is much more clever, casting elusive inspiration as a lover lost in the snow with a melody and attack that would have fit the Police's Synchronicity like, well, an OK B-side.
That familiar brash electric twang cut with extended jazz chords is all over "Down, Down, Down" and the more raucous "Petrol Head", which recalls that unfortunate yogic sex incident with its squirmy juxtaposition of "burning bush" and "stick shift in my hand".
Even given the rich folk tradition of cross-dressing battle songs, "Pretty Young Soldier" is the most bizarre of the lilting acoustic tunes. Thematically, the anxious parent's modern world lament, "Inshallah", seems to sum up a general acquiescence to fate, which is anything but inspiring.
Indigenous legend uses love and hope as a central theme.
Archie Roach's tenth record is a gem. At its core is the theme of love, but overall it's an 11-song long message of hope: "what I wish for," as Roach himself says. Covering a range of styles, Let Love Rule centres around his deep and rough-edged voice, the mainstay through these songs which paint vivid pictures of a theme which in no way seems clichéd or overused, not in Roach's hands anyway. The addition of the Dhungala Children's Choir and the Short Black Opera Choir on the title track and "No More Bleeding" is a masterstroke; Jen Anderson's violin throughout plays a pivotal role; the songwriting is poignant and as strong as ever, on an album which fair oozes soul and honesty.
Irish-Australian couple deliver fourth album of rough blues.
There's an argument to be made that a musical partnership between a husband and wife – particularly in the folk and country realm – can have a problem accessing what we might call ‘edge'. Often, the energy born of restlessness and friction is dulled by domestic contentment. Hat Fitz & Cara operate somewhere on the brink. The duo's percussive, gutsy blues can produce a brooding intensity, as on "Try", whereas elsewhere the more upbeat boogie-woogie comes to grate. Cara's vocals are as powerful as ever in a conventional kind of way, while her husband's growl, like a less raspy Seasick Steve, is the LP's most soulful ingredient. An accomplished, if unremarkable, addition to their oeuvre.
A gauzy blend of Coldplay and Jeff Buckley.
They say one of their major influences is Wu Lyf, the short-lived Manchester band better remembered for the hype than the music. But in reality, this English quartet take more from early Coldplay, along with the overt Jeff Buckley affectations of "It's Over" and "Family". Everything in Palace jangles, trickles and tinkles, underpinned by skittery drum patterns, with reverb whacked on top to give it all plenty of echo and space. Singer-guitarist Leo Wyndham sounds like he's singing everything with big puppy dog eyes, crooning earnest lines such as "trust yourself, it's harsh out there" in a flighty tenor over trebly guitars that stutter and spark without really catching fire.
My Morning Jacket frontman gets political with second solo outing.
James' follow-up to Regions of Light and Sound of God (2013) and last year's blue-skies MMJ outing The Waterfall is, in James' telling, a reaction to the 'broken' and 'corrupt' political system of the day and systemic denial of 'equality and respect'. Yet James-the-noted-practitioner-of-transcendental-meditation and James-the-politically-minded-voice-in-the-wilderness collide to oddly measured effect.
The overarching project of the album is most patent in lead single "Same Old Lie", a hypnotic late-nite funk spell in which James all but exhales his prophetic message, while the droning electronics and intrusive bass of "Hide in Plain Sight" make for a disquietingly world-weary, even claustrophobic meditation on transcending isolation. The plaintive whimpers and spiking highs of James' vocal work with the ever-mutable MMJ are ironed out into something smoother and duskier here, as the ever-impressive multi-instrumentalist delves deeper into the electronic textures and crystalline keys that shaped much of Regions. Instrumental "We Ain't Getting Any Younger Pt. 1" settles uneasily into an inscrutable groove and spacey prog shades, while sluggish funk entry "In the Moment" speaks to mindfulness and peace. Tellingly, though, funereal closer "Eternally Even" feels like a recessional.
For an album that takes political and social engagement as a jumping-off point, Eternally Even is an incongruously resigned — if prodigious — experience. The ultimate suggestion is, paradoxically, one of surrender rather than collectivity and action.
MC releases long-awaited follow-up to 2008 debut.
Eight years is a decent wait for a follow-up record, but as Pez takes time to explain on Don't Look Down, his second set has had a tough genesis. Immediately after his debut the emcee faced a long period of illness, and while he discusses the self-doubt and challenges he faced during the creation of this album, his still-familiar laid-back flow lends things an easy charm. It's the guests who add welcome variety: Paul Kelly, 360, Hailey Cramer and Paul Dempsey deliver strong contributions, with Kelly particularly memorable on the haunting "Livin' On". Maybe not the breezy follow-up fans expected years ago, but Don't Look Down rewards those who've grown up too.
Melbourne duo's long-awaited synth-pop debut is terrific fun.
Four years after Client Liaison dropped their first single "End of the Earth", the album is finally here, and it sees vocalist Monte Morgan and producer Harvey Miller continue their ridiculous romp through Eighties-era excess – see the George Michael grunt of "Off White Limousine" and sublime electro-ballad "Hotel Stay" – in a vibrant Ken Done canvas of Prince-inspired pop, Eurobeats and the odd didgeridoo. "Canberra Won't Be Calling Tonight", an ode to diplomatic immunity, looks set to become the unlikely refrain of the summer, and Tina Arena makes an inspired cameo with a wink at the Sorrento moon. At once irresistibly stupid and very, very clever, it's well worth the wait.
Melodic rockers feel the weight of the world on fifth album.
Hats off to Birds of Tokyo – given the success they've had with radio-friendly fodder such as "Lanterns", they could have been forgiven for riding that wave into a well-funded retirement. Instead, for Brace they enlisted producer David Bottrill (Tool) and made an album as dark as the times in which it was written. "Harlequin" sees them embrace their inner Muse, a reference that rears its head perhaps a little too frequently ("Gods", "Brace"), while the brooding "Pilot" finds Ian Kenny asking, "If I had to drown myself in gasoline would you carry the match for me?". Clearly not an album for your next party, it is, however, one that requires – and rewards – full immersion.
Frank Iero changes things up on second solo offering.
Frank Iero has shaken off his old band name to explore new sounds on his second album. Operating under the guise of Frank Iero and the Patience (rather than the previous "andthe Cellabration"), the former My Chemical Romance guitarist ventures beyond his usual sonic parameters. Co-produced by Ross Robinson (Slipknot), Iero channels Johnny Cash on "Miss Me", fires up unapologetic punk angst on first single "I'm a Mess" and mixes melodic alt-rock on "Oceans". The album closes with "September 6th", a heartbreakingly raw song about Iero's late grandfather. A mixed bag of styles, Parachutes is Iero finding himself.
Fremantle bruisers dive headlong into psych overdrive
Caked in lo-fi noise, HSD exploit the overheated intersection of Sixties psych meets Seventies proto-punk. The Fremantle foursome's second album starts off strong, translating the live-wire stage presence of frontman Vincent Buchanan-Simpson. He's mouthy and manic, breaking into hoarse shouts on the surf-damaged "Foreign Lands", Eddy Current talk-singing on "Bad Girl" and even rapping on "Monogamy". Such wild-eyed urgency suits the band's fuzzed-up freakouts, especially on gems like "Vita Z". But all that intensity can be tough to sustain across 12 tracks, and the last few songs begin to resemble a less focused King Gizzard. Still, there's a lot of demented potential here.
Swedish singer works the dark side of dance-pop on messed-up second LP.
Swedish singer Tove Lo works a killer pop paradox: her songs sleek and sheer, her raw-boned lyrics delivered with chill concision. But her world is a mess of bleary late nights, stifling doubt and confessional abandon: "Give zero fucks about it," she sings on "True Disaster", from her second LP. "I know I'm gonna get hurt." Lucky for us, she gives as good as she gets.
Tove Lo got her start working in Max Martin's Top 40 laboratory, and there are elements of crash-test Britney Spears and Robyn's introspective dance pop in her sound. She's especially good at making odd, even uncomfortable phrases seem as natural as hip-hop bons mots: "[You] give me lady wood," she notes effortlessly on the title track. Lady Wood doesn't have anything that hits quite as hard as "Habits (Stay High)" and "Talking Body", standout singles from her 2014 debut. But its minimalist tech-house sound has a darkly textured allure; "Cool Girl" builds a noirishly predatory thumper out of a reference to a line from the novel Gone Girl, and "Vibes" deploys spidery acoustic guitar and creepy low-end blurps as she sings, "I want you to lick my wounds."
Whether she's high as fuck ("Influence") or stranded on the dance floor ("WTF Love Is"), she thrives on the power of losing yourself in sounds you can dominate and emotions you'll never contain.
Melbourne folk-rock outfit honour late singer on debut.
This first album from Big Smoke comes after frontman and songwriter Adrian Slattery died earlier this year following a protracted battle with cancer. Indeed, the album was recorded as he underwent treatment, and it is a testament to Slattery's resilience that Time Is Golden is mostly an uplifting collection, benefitting from production similar to the Tom Petty-influenced sound of Ryan Adams' self-titled LP of 2014. With arrangements and song structures echoing Okkervil River and Springsteen, the eight-minute "When You Dance" is a fine example of Slattery's songwriting gifts, as is the gospel-infused bluster of "Kiss Me Once". A moving farewell from a much-loved local hero.
Duo hit a comfortable groove on slick third LP.
The charm of Empire of the Sun's 2008 debut was a sense that the two musicians involved – the Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele and Pnau's Nick Littlemore – were pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. On Two Vines, the pair have honed in on a definable EOTS "sound": big, glossy pop songs designed to bring euphoria to big festival crowds. At points it plays too much like sticking to a tried and tested formula, but when they ease back on the maximalist production (the Eighties pop-referencing "First Crush", "ZZZ" and Lindsey Buckingham-featuring "To Her Door") there's a sense that their strengths may not necessarily lie solely in songs designed to move the swaying masses.
Alt-metal heroes stop taking themselves too seriously.
Ever since Helmet's 1997 LP Aftertaste, Page Hamilton has been struggling to rediscover that 'special sauce' that made his band such a cornerstone of Nineties alt-metal. He's tried going back to their first producer, he's tweaked the lineup, gone intentionally lo-fi, anything to recapture the magic. On Dead To the World, Hamilton sounds like he's decided to just enjoy himself, resulting in Helmet's best album in years. Touches of the melody that made '94's Betty such a smash come through in tracks like "Red Scare", while the jackhammer riffing of Meantime is still front and centre. Now that Hamilton is looking forward again, it's exciting to see what Helmet will come up with.