Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Twangy indie rock that’s hit and miss
Billed as a companion to last year’s likeable La Costa Perdida, Camper Van Beethoven’s ninth LP proves the indie rock OGs can still pluck catchy choruses out of thin air. While the songs aren’t as genre-scrambled as the band’s Eighties output, they’re still heavy on fiddle and snuggle up close with country. Beyond that are nods to CCR and, on “Darken Your Door”, Beggars Banquet-era Stones. David Lowery’s worn-in croak is all his own, though, and he can find rumpled romance just about anywhere. The father/daughter ballad “Out Like a Lion” is plenty sweet, but “Sugartown” and “Goldbase” feel like B-sides. Reliable enough, but El Camino Real won’t make many new converts.
Hotly tipped outfit hint at greatness on debut
Tipped in some circles to be this year’s surprise breakout – being signed to Adele producer Paul Epworth’s new label won’t hurt – it’s not difficult to understand why this British outfit has managed to excite keen-eared punters. Introspective and atmospheric, the band’s debut is all surging bass lines, ethereal sound effects, stuttering R&B and Dave Bayley’s whispering, sleepy vocals, packaged with an indie pop sheen that makes the likes of “Black Mambo” eminently memorable. Where it falls down is in the lack of variation – as “Gooey” fades out and “Walla Walla” springs to life, the temptation is to think of Glass Animals as possessing a limited, albeit very good, bag of tricks.
Victorian singer-songwriter maintains the quality on LP five
Mia Dyson may not have the mainstream kudos of some of her contemporaries, but creatively she’s barely put a foot wrong, endearing her to a legion of clued-in fans. The challenge with her fifth record is how to top 2012’s epic cut, The Moment. Indeed Idyllwild has a lot to live up to, but Dyson isn’t one to bog herself down. Instead, she’s drawn inspiration from the success of its predecessor, and crafted a more guitar-focused LP, but you could hardly call it a roots album per se. Lyrically fulfilling and musically sound, it’s a collection of songs covering rock, blues and country, and its charms grow slowly. Another strong chapter in Dyson’s continuing evolution.
Atlanta prog-metallers pull out all the stops on spellbinding new outing
In the lead up to the release of this, Mastodon’s sixth album, drummer Brann Dailor spoke with pride of a record that encapsulated every element of the band’s career to date – from the sludgy brutality of 2002’s Remission and the psycho-prog of 2006’s Blood Mountain to the more refined songwriting of 2011’s The Hunter – while taking their sound to a new planet entirely. Remarkably, he wasn’t over-selling things.
Once More ’Round the Sun – the apostrophe in the title suggests that, besides being purveyors of top notch metallic prog, Mastodon are also sticklers for grammar – springs to life with “Tread Lightly” and its charging, Eastern-inspired blast of acoustic riffing, and it’s a full 54 minutes before epic closer “Diamond in the Witch House” (complete with guest vocals from Neurosis’s Scott Kelly) brings proceedings to a close in deliciously malevolent fashion. By that point Mastodon have proved they can do melodic (“The Motherload” boasts arguably the catchiest chorus of the band’s career, with “Ember City” not far behind) and succinct psychedelia (the sub-three minute title-track) as proficiently as they can progressive (“Asleep in the Deep”) and classic (“Halloween”). It is, frankly, an astonishing ride that charts myriad feels and emotions while sticking true to the traits that have endeared Mastodon to fans of intelligent, progressive music worldwide.
There is a temptation amongst those fans to shower everything Mastodon do with praise, and it’s one to be wary of – no band is above reproach. For now, though, Mastodon are about as close as you can get.
Editor needed as a man and his moustache dream out loud
It’s hard to keep up with Dave Graney. Not only is he prolific (28 albums) but everything he does is overloaded with hip pop culture references and asides. Here, with the help of Lisa Gerrard’s studio and partner Clare Moore’s myriad skills, Graney waxes enigmatic (“Everything Was Legendary With Robert, Everything Is Perfect In Its Beginning”), poetic (“Je Est Un Autre, to Borrow From Rimbaud”) and obsessive, pondering London, country roads and invisibility. Clocking in at just over an hour, Fearful Wiggings does meander; much of this feels like voice-and-guitar sketches in search of an art movie soundtrack. Still, who but Graney would even imagine something like “A Woman Skinnies a Man Up”?
Oddball Americana proves interesting, not mesmerising
The Felice Brothers’ formula has never been failsafe – a loose, eclectic mix that draws as much from Scorsese as it does Dylan, the band’s back catalogue has been great and grating in equal measure. This time out, however, they are neither. Returning to a rootsy, folk format, Favorite Waitress carries the same crooked, conversational charm as the band’s earlier work – intimate tales of Mafioso-infused modern day heartache abound once again – but the songs consistently lack the final twist that would lift them above average. The punkish singalong “Katie Cruel” comes close to the band’s best, but most of what Favorite Waitress serves feels like good filler.
South Coast minstrel mixes the downbeat with the widescreen
With his third full-length, 24-year-old ex-busker Kim Churchill has nailed something that seems to defy most singer/strummers: he’s whipped up an album not shy on melody and muscle – seriously, the opener, “Single Spark”, flexes more brawn than Popeye after a bang-up meal of spinach. It feels like anyone with a bruised heart and a battered Maton can do soft and sensitive, but Churchill has mixed it up with the big and ballsy – and that’s no bad thing. He does have his moments of quiet reflection, but he’s got a real flair for the epic; the widescreen “Fear the Fire” and “Don’t Leave Your Life Too Long” have future classic written all over them.
Electronic duo usher in an early summer with chilled debut
It’s no coincidence that Sydney friends Doug Wright and Russell Fitzgibbon have named their production duo after the most laidback of leisure activities, for Shy Glow is the soundtrack to an endless haze of summer Sundays. Warm analogue synths and dusty samples abound, with opener “Recoup” sounding like an Avalanches’ offcut before several vocal guests drop by: Sures’ Jonas Nichols (the Animal-Collective-gone-pop bounce of “Your Mouth”); Collarbone’s Marcus Whale on the “Buffalo Gals” sampling, uber-chilled “Chi Glow”; and Cloud Control’s Al Wright on “Nineteen/Boy Wunder”. A solid, enjoyable debut that will have you fantasising about sipping piña coladas on the beach.
Third album from passionate country siren
Originally from the U.S. but based in Sydney, Jenny Queen’s music is an intriguing hybrid of the mournfulness of Southern alt-country noir with Australia’s more primitive, sentimental take on the genre – as embodied by Shane Nicholson, who produced this. Queen’s subject is the agony of provincial life, and she doesn’t avoid the endless clichéd imagery that comes with that: cars, late nights and religious references abound. Musically, there’s plenty to like – Nicholson has married things like lap steel with imaginative use of more unexpected instruments (the vibes on “I Don’t Want You”), yet cannot quite inject the album with the vitality and poignancy it strives for.
Death, despair and bliss share equal billing on fifth LP
Michael ‘Passenger’ Rosenberg went global with 2012’s “Let Her Go”, and locals such as Josh Pyke, whom Passenger worked with during his Aussie sojourn of a few years back, must be wondering, “Why him and not me?” The answer’s not abundantly clear during the fifth Passenger LP – he has a winning way with folksy arrangements and melodies, but Rosenberg’s chipmunk-y chirp and overwhelming earnestness can grate. Regardless, confessionals such as “Hearts on Fire” reveal a guy willing to share far more than his Twitter feeds. He even gets cranky during “Scare Away the Dark”, railing against cynicism and despair and a whole raft of modern-day curses. Watch your back, Billy Bragg.
Sumptuous second album from Hot Chip frontman
Alexis Taylor’s 2008 solo debut, Rubbed Out, was a fascinatingly sombre, skeletal and unkempt alternative to the energetic bounce of Hot Chip. Await Barbarians offers similar intimacy, yet with more accomplished songwriting and softer arrangements. The majority of songs, with sparse synth-based backing, are intense in their minimalism, particularly alongside Taylor’s undemonstrative yet soulful voice – most moving on the extraordinary “Closer to the Elderly”. It is therefore surprising to hear piano-led ballads such as “Without A Crutch (2)” veering towards Elton John territory. It works, but Taylor is most effecting when the mood is low and melancholy, as it mostly is on a tremendous album.
Cool songs but not enough personality from NZ trio
Since last year’s noise-soaked debut Antipodes, Popstrangers have relocated to London and shifted from Nineties rock to Sixties pop (see Zombies-esque opener “Sandstorm”), though “Distress” straddles several decades in between. Fortuna’s remaining raucousness doesn’t hide the sheer abundance of melody, as on the sinister lead single “Country Kills”. Unfortunately there are some clunky lyrics – “You’re my chosen disease” from “Tonight”, one of a couple of songs that could pass for a Phoenix demo. In turning down the volume between albums, Popstrangers reveal an identity that’s not yet fully formed. The songs are plenty enjoyable, but they don’t sound like the work of a single, distinctive band.
British prog outfit continue their evolution on 10th album
Rare is the band that can completely reinvent themselves, but it’s a trick Liverpool’s Anathema have pulled off, evolving from their earliest incarnation as doom metallers to a group that deals in the kind of crafted soundscapes and gloriously emotional crescendos that is Marillion’s stock in trade. In some ways, Distant Satellites feels like a sequel to 2012’s outstanding Weather Systems – as with that album, its first song is split into two parts, Vincent Cavanagh’s vocals working in tandem with Lee Douglas’s to create an epic storm of orchestrated grandeur. The rest of the album may be a touch more stripped back, but songs such as “Dusk” and “Ariel” are no less emotional for it.
More suicide screams and life-affirming melodies
To a generation of kids, scream-sing-scream has become the new loud-quiet-loud, and the Amity Affliction are their biggest poster boys. The Brisbane band’s fourth LP is not a shocking stylistic departure, but an overall enhancement. Death-like growls intercut with clean vocal melodies, intense self-loathing obliterated in shimmering rays of light, but now there’s more contrast between the poles. Lyrically, suicide and redemption continue to dominate. Circle pits the size of moon craters are sure to open up when they bust out “Pittsburgh”, but the album’s scope is best personified by “Never Alone”, which starts out poppy, turns heavy, and finishes with razors at its wrist.
Impressive solo turn from Walkmen leader
With the Walkmen (currently on "extreme hiatus"), Hamilton Leithauser tied rakish, majestic indie rock to Fifties sounds from doo-wop to Sun Records. That stuff is more present than ever on the singer's solo debut, where he's backed by members of Vampire Weekend, the Shins and Fleet Foxes, plus Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon. Leithauser's voice has traces of Sam Cooke and Steve Perry of Journey as he stretches out on songs like the lachrymose "Self Pity" or the happy skiff le stomp "Alexandra." If his songwriting can be a bit flabby, the deep palette and intimate musicianship sustain a mood of late-night melodrama stretching toward 5 a.m. epiphany.
Ragged New Yorkers maintain energy levels and quality
Parquet Courts perfected their guitar clang on 2013's Light Up Gold – if all they wanted to do was make the exact same album again, most of us would have been delighted. But these Brooklyn dudes go even deeper on Sunbathing Animal. They've outgrown the Pavement comparisons – these songs make you wonder if you're hearing early Wire jam with Creedence while Thurston Moore brews the tea. Austin Brown and Andrew Savage trade off deadpan vocals, mostly about arty girls, stretching out for fantastic guitar rambles like "Instant Disassembly." Best in show: "Raw Milk," a sweetly demented love ballad to a dog-walker.