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Melburnians reactivate to make nu-metal great again.
Twelve years after being relegated to the nu-metal scrapheap, Superheist are back with new singer Ezekiel Ox (Mammal, Full Scale) and drummer Benny Clark in the fold. Mainstay guitarist DW Norton and bassist Drew Dedman retain the band's down-tuned trademarks, however the dated synths have gone the way of the wallet chain, replaced with more mature-sounding string and piano flourishes. Rapping like Zeke de la Rocha, Ox's rhymes might feel forced at times, but his political rage is potent ("Back to Base"), and he shows off his impressive range on several soaring choruses, the most effective being "Wolves in Your Headspace" and "The Deepend".
Hip-hop star in the making delivers impressively diverse debut.
There's a lot of expectation riding on the shoulders of young Tkay Maidza. Over the past two years, the Zimbabwean-born, Adelaide-raised 20-year-old has been impressing crowds and cognoscenti at home and overseas with a string of impressive singles and a mini-EP, blessedly obfuscating the memory of one Iggy Azalea and instead earning comparisons to the far more talented Azealia Banks (in talent, not attitude – anyone who's seen Maidza perform live knows the girl is pure sunshine).
By now, she's had enough smoke blown up her arse to know that she's a bit of all right, and it shows in the steady-eyed, unapologetic swagger of tracks that, while not as incendiary as the likes of "M.O.B." or "Switch Lanes", hold your attention as Maidza ducks and weaves through grime, garage, straight-up hip-hop and electro-ballads in frenetic three-minute bursts. She's got Killer Mike backing her on the sing-songy "Carry On", borrowing brat-Brit from fellow firespitter Charli XCX; is sweetly aspirational on "Simulation", coming over all Tove Lo; and channels M.I.A. on the glitchy "Tennies", an ode to her tennis shoes. High school themes abound, but there's nothing childish about some of these explicit lyrics and tracks like "Monochrome", setting a bloated, bouncing bassline to snarling verse. "The winner you'll be seeing is me," she spits. Highly likely.
Arizona quartet feel the emotional blues on ninth LP.
If the song "Pass the Baby" is any indication, Jimmy Eat World clearly don't prescribe to the saying you can't teach old dogs new tricks. Featuring a hushed Jim Adkins vocal, and atmospherics Trent Reznor would approve of, it concludes with a slab of almost stoner-esque riffing quite unlike anything the Arizona rockers have ever attempted. The sombre, orchestral title-track also pushes their sonic boundaries, but elsewhere Jimmy Eat World's ninth studio LP plays pretty much to type, albeit with a distinctly downbeat feel. "Sure and Certain", "You With Me" and "It Matters", however, are reminders that few pull off heartfelt emo-indie-whatever rock as well as Adkins and Co.
An octogenarian lady's man seduces the eternal with grim, spiritual beauty.
On his signature classic, "Hallelujah", Leonard Cohen sings about meeting "the Lord of Song". But on the title track of his new LP, the third in a late-game rally that's been as startlingly brilliant as Bob Dylan's, Cohen takes that imagined reckoning with the Almighty deeper, intoning "Hineni", a Hebrew term for addressing God that translates as "Here I am". The punchline, aside from the title's cheeky challenge – true Cohen fans always want it darker – is that with his cantorial delivery, the famous lady's man makes the phrase sound kinda like "hey, baby". In fact, an unlikely EDM remix of "You Want It Darker", by DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, turns the phrase into a dance-floor chant – more proof of how much modern lifeblood still flows through Cohen's voice after five decades on the job.
This is Cohen's gift to music lovers: a realistically grim, spiritually radiant and deeply poetic worldview, spiked with a romantic thrum and an existential wink. Following a string of records that have each felt like a swan song, You Want It Darker may be Cohen's most haunting LP – and at 82, it might also be his last.
"I'm angry and I'm tired all the time," he sings on "Treaty", a stately parlour march to piano and strings that blooms from breakup lament into meditations on the fool's errand of religion. The Brylcreem-scented slow dance "Leaving the Table" similarly flickers between romantic and spiritual resignation, Bill Bottrell's electric guitar and steel fills flickering like mirror-ball beams as the famous rake ruefully insists, "I don't need a lover/The wretched beast is tame" – as sure a sign of the End Times as Arctic melt.
As on Cohen's 2014 Popular Problems, blues define the vibe. But other colours deepen the narrative. The Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, who billow across the title track, recall Cohen's Jewish upbringing in Montreal; "Traveling Light" conjures his halcyon years in Greece in the early Sixties with his late muse Marianne Ihlen, the subject of "So Long, Marianne", who died in late July. "Good night, my fallen star... ," Cohen sings in a near-whisper amid bouzouki notes, like a man dancing in an empty taverna after closing time.
Like David Bowie's Blackstar and Dylan's long goodbye, You Want It Darker is the sound of a master soundtracking his exit, with advice for those left behind. "Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall," he sings near the album's end, against a gently bouncing bluegrass fiddle, his son Adam's subtle guitar and Alison Krauss' angelic backing vocals. It's what he's always done, helping the rest of us do the same, as best we can.
Main page illustration: Rory Kurtz
More cosy attic dreams from Danish piano whisperer.
There's always been something kinda glassy about Agnes Obel's albums, glistening as they do like ice crystals at attic windows. The hushed, folk-classical singer-pianist from Denmark has a grander concept for her third inward journey, but an alleged theme of privacy vs. transparency is (ahem) opaque at best, as glacial keys and slithering strings sculpt her cosy snowbound inner world. "Stretch Your Eyes" serves notice of occasional robust rhythms, and her pitch-shifted vocal on "Familiar" is the most startling example of a wider range of sonic elements, but the enveloping steam bath destination typified by the instrumental "Grasshopper" remains her main allure.
Indie-pop wunderkind goes for acoustic rumination on 11th LP.
Ben Lee walks a blurred line of dewey-eyed idealistic optimism and insufferable pretension, but his transition from precocious pop maestro to folksy ‘adult' pop has been quietly impressive. Lee built a career delivering glorious pop tunes with the odd experimental concept record (2013's Ayahuasca), but Freedom, Love… is an intimate acoustic meditation on the nature of spirituality, the self and searching for higher meaning. Amid the quiet, gentle folky pop of "Simple Gospel", "Two Questions" and "Bigger Than Me", Lee infuses the whole record with an insular, earnest agreeableness. But even so, musically it lacks Lee's usual vitality, and its message sorely needs it.
Rob Sheffield on fifth album from art-pop chameleon.
Joanne is Lady Gaga's best album in five years, since the disco-stick hair-metal manifesto that was Born This Way. In her quest to master all pop spectacle – hit singles, scandalous TV stunts, The Sound of Music medleys at award shows – Gaga's been too restless to slow down for albums. Or maybe after she hit it so far out of the park with Born This Way, she figured album-making was a party trick she'd already done. Her Tony Bennett duet was a clever rebranding Hail Mary after her overheated yet practically song-free fiasco Artpop. But Born This Way was the one moment she hit the longform glory of album auteurs like Kanye, Beyoncé or Taylor.
With Joanne, Gaga starts over with music that feels stripped-down, restrained, modest and other adjectives that you wouldn't usually associate with her. It's an old-school Nineties soft-rock album, heavy on the acoustic guitar: Meet Lilith Gaga, who goes for both the incense-and-patchouli hippie vibe of Sarah McLachlan and the cowgirl glitter of Shania Twain. And for anyone out there who might carry a torch for Paula Cole, there's "John Wayne," where Gaga wonders where all the cowboys have gone.
Earth Mama Monster mutes any trace of disco or glam – the giveaway is her ostentatiously squeaky fingers on the guitar strings in "Joanne," a touching ballad mourning her deceased aunt. It works best when Gaga gets some grit into the songwriting, especially the hands-down highlight "Sinner's Prayer," a faux-country family melodrama where she wails, "I don't wanna break the heart of any other man but you" – it's her kissing cousin to Beyonce's "Daddy Lessons." She co-wrote it with Father John Misty – bet he's the one who added those Wowie Zowie guitar hooks. Another oddball peak is her Florence Welch duet "Hey Girl," a tribute to Prince in lovesick midtempo mode – it could be a lost B-side from between between Around The World in a Day and Parade.
Gaga gets understated production from Mark Ronson and guests like Tame Impala's Kevin Parker or Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, who adds guitar to "John Wayne" and "Diamond Heart." There's no move to the dance floor – the nearest she comes is "A-Yo," a taste of Motown handclaps and dirty talk, or "Dancin' in Circles," a reggae ode to she-bopping. Strangely, it's a duet with Beck, whose presence can't be heard – it sounds more like a No Doubt cover band who'd call themselves Spiderwebs or Hella Good. She also avoids cracking any jokes, which is a loss, since Joanne really falls flat when she gets solemn. "Angel Down" reminds you what a fine job Jewel used to do, opening with the self-parodic announcement "I confess I am lost in the age of the social," before musing, "We all belong in the arms of the sacred." With "Perfect Illusion" already fizzling as a single, the time is right for Gaga to reclaim some luster as an album artist – for all its hits and misses, Joanne is a welcome reminder of why the world needs her around.
Melbourne singer dials up the darkness on album two.
No matter how tense things get, Lost Animal's Jarrod Quarrell never loses his cool. Five years on from the brilliant Ex-Tropical – which pitted his laconic snarl against calypso beats and faux steel drums – Quarrell and Co. have taken that record's underlying menace and pushed it to the fore. "Do the Jerk" is a desperate song for desperate times. "When I've got nothing left/I'm going to put my body to work," Quarrell drawls, before all hell (in the form of an unwieldy clarinet solo) breaks loose. Amy Franz and Amanda Roff's vocals play off nicely against Quarrell's gritty hustle on "Prisoners Island", while Ex-Tropical's calypso vibes are obliterated by the dystopian nightmare of "Message For the Future".
Little Birdy singer snaps and claps back to life.
It's taken Katy Steele seven years to find a world she could live in for a whole album. It's a relatively exotic place rhythmically, all finger snaps and handclaps and treated vocal counterpoints, though the synth-pop sweetness isn't far removed from her former life in Little Birdy. What she hasn't found is satisfaction. Even the brightest moment, "Where's the Laughter", is concerned with something that's missing, a default emotional pitch that grows a little taxing between the twin cries for help – "Signal To You" and "Rescue Boat" – and cinematic closer "Lonely". What's clear from "No Slave" is that she'll do this her way: "I'm no slave/I pay my own way/I create".
Cult act back from the dead for more of the same.
"They didn't sell many albums but everyone who bought one started a band." So said Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground. Had Eno been a math-minded, Nineties indie-guitar nerd he might have said the same about American Football. The Illinois group broke up right after their 1999 (also) self-titled debut, only to watch its heartfelt lyrics, chiming guitars and oddball time signatures become a benchmark for 2000s emo. Now they're back with an unashamed reproduction of that sound, meaning winsome lines like "I can't believe my life is happening to me", sung by earnest middle-aged dudes. But lovely slow-burners like "Give Me the Gun" and "My Instincts Are the Enemy" prove a life nicely lived.
Eerie empathy in songs from a musical about a writer.
Further reading is required for this cycle of songs in the character of the late Southern Gothic writer Carson McCullers. With shades of Lou Reed and John Cale's Songs For Drella, it's Suzanne Vega's homage to a frail, eccentric but formidable artist of great fascination. The Thirties jazz feel of "Carson's Blues" is a Berenice Abbott photo come to life; the jealous rollcall of contemporaries in "Harper Lee" a vivid invocation of a golden age. The lightness of Vega's voice and weight of her intellect make apt parallels as obsessions from the writer's life ("Annemarie") and fiction ("The Ballad of Miss Amelia") blur into an intriguing if incomplete portrait.
Amid heartache, Kiwi synth-poppers deliver sparkly pop.
The Naked and Famous's debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, was a thing of indie-pop beauty, and 2013 follow-up In Rolling Waves kept the good times, er, rolling. Alisa Xayalith's voice remains their selling point, and here it's an evocative force of nature on the anthemic "Higher", the aggressive "Backside" and icy album highlight "Rotten". At times, though, it feels like the Naked and Famous are playing musical catch-up, as Simple Forms struggles to move beyond place-holder synth-pop like "Water Beneath You". But when Xayalith and former partner Thom Powers team up on the sparkling "My Energy" and "Last Forever", their taut, dynamic atmosphere shines.
Followill boys reach for pop grandeur without losing their guitar-slinging potency.
"Like in a mainstream melody/Oh, I want to take you in!" sings Caleb Followill on "Wild," a pop-rock rhinestone delivering said melody with bell-toned guitars and a sing-along chorus. Sure enough, after a sleeves-up recommitment to their Southern garage-ish roots on Mechanical Bull in 2013, the band's seventh LP tries to parse what "mainstream" means right now for a bunch of true-to-their-school guitar-slingers. The result is radio-buff rock & roll that could spoon between One Republic's genre-splicing power moves and the Head and the Heart's folk-pop uplift.
Producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Mumford & Sons) does an admirable job of translating Followill's signature slurred delivery and the band's muscular jangle into thicker arrangements, though the result can feel generic: "Reverend" resembles the pro-forma rock Nashville now markets as "country," while the anthemic "whoa-ooo"s in "Waste a Moment" – mirroring the Kings' mega-hit "Use Somebody" – have a whiff of old stadium hot-dogs. Encouragingly, the best bits are less predictable. The homeboy requiem "Muchacho" echoes the drum-machine cha-cha revival seeded by D.R.A.M. and Drake's "Hotline Bling" with a Roy Orbison delivery (remix!). And the title track is a slow-build power ballad suggesting the Kings can be more potent and distinctive when they dial it back.
Hard-bitten Melburnians perfect their bleak portraiture.
The Peep Tempel's terse character studies crossed over in a big way with 2014's Tales. The Melbourne trio reconvene with engineer Anna Laverty for their third album, doubling down on frontman Blake Scott's restless scrolling through different accents and vocal styles. That tactic suits his irony-salted Australiana, from the declaration "And they're all on ice!" during "Rayguns" to barstool asides like "I'm often tired and I'm often drunk". A wider splay of sounds pushes keyboards to the fore, and beneath Scott's gruff immediacy lopes a chewy rhythm section that peaks with the Krautrock chug of "Neuroplasticity". These shout-along anthems survey both our beer-sodden culture and the collective hangover that awaits.
Austere effort from prolific troubadour does as it says.
Written over a bleak winter's sabbatical in his home state of Omaha, Oberst's seventh solo record is defiantly unadorned. While no great departure from his usual impassioned quiver, such are the charming playing errors and audible gulps as he sings that the one-take rawness of Bright Eyes' early days is strongly evoked. Each song sees him alone with piano or guitar, covering personal ground rather than his occasionally strident political beseechings. A certain nostalgic mood characterises several tracks – depressed, mournful reflections that encapsulate Oberst's always-remarkable ability to sing about loss, isolation and social disorientation without sounding trite.
Sydney's baggy beat boys turn it up for album two.
The second record from psych-dance revivalists Jagwar Ma sounds like it was recorded on a dilapidated sunflower farm in the French countryside, and that's because it was – natch – and all of the sunshine, vintage filters, vacillating bliss and melancholia and Van Gogh landscapes that conjures can be heard here. It also sounds as though the band might've been rifling through Andrew Weatherall's vinyl collection (they were; it was partly recorded in a studio shared with Weatherall in London).
This is to take nothing away from Jono Ma (production, synths) and Gabriel Winterfield (vocals, guitars), though, who spike the mix with the Sydney Future Classic sound of now. Aided by producer Ewan Pearson, the result is a familiarity that feels fresh, with beats that are tighter and harder than Weatherall's of old; a sinewy throughline cutting through Balearic blear and stoner synths.
"Say What You Feel" builds on beat-free beginnings and Seventies guitar fuzz into flutey freakouts; "Loose Ends" comes up in jaunty stoned horns and twisty beats custom-built for passing the dutch in Provence; and "High Rotations" is "Good Vibrations" on ketamine, Winterfield crowing over screechy feedback. The lyrics still have that charming Beach Boys naivety, while Ma's production elevates them in the same way Brian Wilson did for that band. 2013 debut Howlin' was great; this is even better.