Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Super Furry Animals leader stays weird
Gruff Rhys’ last album was inspired by shampoo swiped from hotels. For his next trick? This is a concept record about John Evans, an untrained Welsh cartographer who guided U.S. explorers Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. Steeped in U.S. geography, American Interior bridges several cultures, from Welsh to Native American. Anyone who’s followed Rhys’ career knows to expect a truckload of quirkiness. But there’s something classic about these songs: “100 Unread Messages” would be perfect for a singing cowboy, and the piano ballad “Walk into the Wilderness” is Super Furries-style magic. Backed by Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock, Rhys continues to carve out his own meandering path.
U.S. singer-songwriter tries a few new tricks
LaMontagne’s fifth solo album may be a slightly more joyful affair than his heavy-hearted earlier efforts, but the spectre of regret still looms: “I look at you/I see my life is a sham/Am I just a conman/I fooled you once and I can do it again” he sings as the otherwise pastoral “Smashing” takes an introspective turn. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, with creative encouragement from Elvis Costello, Supernova finds the singer in an exploratory mood, lurching from acoustic laments (“Airwaves”) to the psychedelic inflections of “Pick Up a Gun” and the bump & grind groove of “Julia” (a clear beneficiary of Auerbach’s stamp). An interesting step forward.
Brooklyn rockers bring bigger guitars to a party
On the Hold Steady’s sixth album, 42-year-old frontman Craig Finn is still finding new ways to chronicle the underside of dead-end partying (see the gruelling opener, “I Hope the Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”). The Brooklyn crew’s punked-up bar-band rock is more streamlined now, and has been heading that way with each successive album. But the addition of a second guitarist (former Lucero six-stringer Steve Selvidge) makes for a big sound that gives Finn more room for detail and nuance. “Almost Everything” offers this classic image: “The kid that went down isn’t dead/He just can’t find his phone.” Get up, bro. You’ve got a life to waste.
Australian-born rapper proves how far she’s come on debut album
Iggy Azalea was born and bred in Mullumbimby, but she raps like she’s from Miami. That’s where she landed six years ago, aged 16, with “no money, no family”, as she spits over trap beats on the autobiographical “Work”. It catalogues Iggy’s rise from a Tupac loving kid in the “red dirt” of her hometown to the statuesque rapper we see gracing covers of XXL today. “White chick on that ’Pac shit,” she intones, without a trace of her muddled accent. “My passion was ironic and my dreams were uncommon.” It’s one of the most self-aware hip-hop tracks since Drake’s “Furthest Thing”, and yet the fact she feels the need to give context to her improbable career says a lot about the barriers she’s overcome to get here.
Some may find a white Australian rapping like she’s from South Beach a little jarring, but if that doesn’t bother Dre, Nas, Beyoncé or her mentor T.I, then why should you give a shit?
Iggy may’ve lost her accent, but she never buries her past. “Ain’t no going back now,” she reminds herself on the downcast “Don’t Need Yall”. On “Fancy”, she casts Charli XCX in the role of Gwen Stefani, while she dreams of Australian summers on the T.I collab “Change Your Life”. “New Bitch”, which sees her boast “I’m his new bitch”, is a real clanger, though. Pandering to genre stereotypes seems so unnecessary for an artist who’s made her career defying them.
Former Melbourne punker charts new musical ground
It’s been five years since Brody Dalle last graced us with new music, then using the monicker Spinnerette. In the years since she’s taken time out to have two children with husband Josh Homme and, it seems, learn a few new musical tricks. The punk attitude of her early 2000s output with the Distillers is well and truly still in effect, but musically this is a far more diverse beast – witness the abrasive horns that pepper the otherwise hard riffing “Underworld” and the Eighties drum machine-approach of tracks such as “Rat Race” and the almost Gothy “Dressed In Dreams”. She may still sound like a dead ringer for Courtney Love, but Dalle’s far more musically adventurous.
Melancholy trip down memory lane for Blur/Gorillaz mastermind
Don’t expect an open book when Damon Albarn’s people tout his “most soul-searching and autobiographical” album. A master of artistic, even cartoonish deflection from the class caricatures of Blur to the animated canvases of Gorillaz, even his least guarded confessions arrive via kaleidoscope here. The modern-life anxiety of the title track murmurs over creaky doors and other sonic detritus, the first wave of a continuous, underlying ambience that morphs into schoolyards, motorways and gently clattering cutlery as the album’s whispery hallways of memories and regrets unwind. The pretty, elegant piano that lifts “Lonely Press Play” is the constant that carries much of Albarn’s classic melodicism. Other hooks rest on ingenious acts of assembly, such as the shrilling flute loop that shadows the chorus of “The Selfish Giant” and the diving sonar that carries “You & Me” down, down, down. Those lovely seven minutes – so intimate, so non-specific – feel like the bleeding heart of a matter that turns intriguing in “Hollow Ponds” with its cryptic flashes of 1976, 1991, 1979 and 1993; then stodgy and morose in “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)” and “History of a Cheating Heart”. The late arrival of ambient maestro Brian Eno to sing the lead vocal – yep, you read that right – on the handclappy “Heavy Seas of Love” affirms Albarn as an artist of razor wit with no use for convention or sentimentality.
Melbourne quartet get in touch with their rock & roll side
From busking on the streets of Melbourne to touring with the Who and now releasing their third studio LP, Bonjah have shown they’re a band not afraid to put their noses to the grindstone. Along the way the group have evolved from a loose blues/groove unit to the almost fully fledged rock & roll band they showcase on Beautiful Wild. Opener “Bullet in the Barrel” shimmers menacingly; “Other Side” is a chunky free-wheeler; “Honey” stomps along, a la Jet at their height; while the almost folky title track reigns it in with backing vocals from former Killing Heidi singer Ella Hooper. It’s a mixed bag, but it retains a cohesive bluesy thread, the mark of a band that knows what they’re doing.
Sainted Clown’s 19-year solo acoustic stocktake
“It ain’t too easy being a young man.” “Messin’ With the Kid” was jaded already on the Saints’ ’77 original and fully loaded on Ed Kuepper’s solo acoustic retrospective of ’95, I Was A Mail Order Bridegroom. Two more decades down the line it’s a poignant conclusion to this new stocktake, recorded unadorned but for the odd stringy counterpoint and the palpable weight of time. Gone is the watery reverb on “The Way I Made You Feel”, up front is a kickboard for the forthright propulsion befitting a journeyman of Kuepper’s confidence and stature. Selections like “Rue the Day” and “No Regrets” play off each other in a self-sustaining dialogue spanning ancient and modern blues.
Behold Sydney’s answer to Snow Patrol
Stadium-sized rock that could be used to soundtrack a tear-inducing moment on Grey’s Anatomy is not something Australian bands tend to be overly associated with. Indeed, while it’s easy to heap praise on a bare-knuckled outfit like the Drones (and deservedly so), a more polished act like Sydney’s New Empire is more likely to be chided for their unashamed adherence to the formulas of commercial rock. It’s a shame, because they pen genuinely moving songs that operate in the same sphere as Snow Patrol’s latter day output. It’s not all gold – they stumble on ballads such as the title track – but a song like “Relight the Fire” deserves to be heard in the stadium environment it was surely written for.
The Eels man ponders what he lost on an introspective outing
Mark Oliver Everett is getting personal. And for a guy who wrote an entire album about the suicide of his sister and death of his mother, that’s saying something. In many ways the 11th Eels album is a second cousin to Beck’s Morning Phase. He’s said that these songs were inspired by “someone I lost, by choice, and later came to regret losing”. This woman haunts the album. “She’s got a real big heart and I’ve got to win it back,” he croaks on “Kindred Spirit”. Pulling back from his wilder fuzz-pop tendencies and emphasising finger-picked acoustic guitars, tinkling electric pianos and shivering strings, it’s a more fragile and vulnerable Everett on these cautionary tales.
Kelis has traded milkshakes for soul food on album six
It’s one thing to call your new album Food. Another altogether to open it with a child asking “You hungry?” before a bouncy track called “Breakfast” kicks in. Kelis then serves up “Jerk Ribs” (smoky and sexy), “Cobbler” (Calypso-style), “Fish Fry” (with a country-western twang) and “Biscuits and Gravy” (saucy soul). The executive chef of this smorgasbord is Dave Sitek, an adaptable producer who worked on LPs by Beady Eye, CSS and Yeah Yeah Yeahs just last year. He brings the most out of Kelis’ adventurous palette, which takes a surprising and poignant turn on the Labi Siffre pop-folk standard “Bless the Telephone”. This isn’t Michelin-starred; just pure home cooking from the heart.
Slow-burn gold from quirky ex-pat
Berlin-based ex-pat Ned Collette has never “done” tidy pop. Working again with backing band Wirewalker, Collette relishes atmospheric instrumental runs, wordy rushes of lyrics and quietly mingled guitar, synth and rhythms rather than outsized hooks and choruses. The titular instrument on “At the Piano” nods to Bowie collaborator Mike Garson, while “Bird” recalls Taking Tiger Mountain-era Brian Eno. But Collette has long since come into his own, especially as a lyricist. “Update your profile,” he mocks on “A Lawyer or a Gimmick”, which also skewers modern methods of releasing music, and there’s even an archness to the pretty ballad “Opiate Eyes”. It’s well worth your patience.
Second full-length from eclectic Mancunian
On her 2011 debut O, Devotion! (and excellent early singles “Bad Medicine” and “Midnight Blues”), Liz Green elevated herself above other minimalist folk-influenced sirens with a fascinating mix of jazz, cabaret and even inspiration from musicals. Haul Away is along these lines, though with more ambition, as on the formidable title track with its sensitive layers of woodwind. However, throughout there is a standoffish reserve in Green’s slick delivery that inhibits a more meaningful immersion in her world. Each song is without exception sophisticated, yet the impression is of an artist who is cerebral rather than visceral; skilled rather than truly soulful.
Promising debut from Scottish growlers
Dale Barclay is very much the calling card for the Amazing Snakeheads, an intense frontman who sounds like he’s practically foaming at the mouth. The hotly-tipped Glasgow trio flank him with thick bass lines and rattling drums, though they do sneak in some nice chiming guitar melodies. But this is a night-time album, recorded after dark and complete with nocturnal sax licks. Barclay is clearly indebted to Nick Cave and Tom Waits and, as thrilling as his delivery can be, he cosies up to brooding rock & roll clichés on tracks like “I am a Vampire” and “Swamp Song”. The band nails a very specific old-school sound, but the songwriting doesn’t yet match the badass atmosphere.
Gritty, rough hewn punk from terribly named Cali outfit
Plague Vendor is a shitty name. Let’s get that out of the way and move on. Aside from that misstep, Free To Eat is a fine debut. Channelling At the Drive-In’s energy and the Birthday Party’s zombie surf punk these Californians aren’t rewriting the rule book, but their sloppy yet energetic delivery is nothing if not authentic. On songs like “My Tongue Is So Treacherous”, singer Brandon Blaine proves his mettle as a lyricist, and by all reports, he cuts a wild figure onstage. Drawling his poetry like Lou Reed and contorting like Iggy Pop, it’d be nice to see him add some touches of his own though. Free To Eat welcomes the arrival of a solid if slightly derivative punk band.
The song remains the same for bearded six-string maestro
Zakk Wylde must surely be the most reliable six-stringer in modern metal. Ever since Ozzy Osbourne discovered him as a 21-year-old on the No Rest For the Wicked album, Wylde has crafted some of the genre’s most formidable riffs, and so it continues on BLS’s ninth studio album of original material. Surprises are few and far between, with Wylde’s Ozzy-esque vocals and Alice In Chains-style harmonising a familiar foil for his sludgy riffing. Indeed, it’s ballads such as “Scars” and “Angel of Mercy” (at which Wylde is surprisingly adept) that prove essential to the mix, providing respite and variation when it’s needed most.