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Captain Ambience sets pedal steel for the heart of the sun.
Canadian artist-producer Daniel Lanois (Dylan, U2) earned his wings as a non-verbal sonic explorer co-piloting some of Brian Eno's ambient sojourns of the Eighties. It's into the morphing orbits of similarly wafting, throbbing, ringing and bleurgling worlds that this heavily dosed pedal steel odyssey launches itself. The results are just as lovely and abstract, as the ether warps and wibbles from the subliminal classicism of "Satie" to the lulling engine hum of "Heavy Sun", Lanois and lap steel companion Rocco Deluca nudging every flange envelope in the ship. The rewards are as rich as your headphone budget – or whatever's in your tea.
Canberra's electronic upstarts step up with a confident debut album.
When SAFIA won Triple J Unearthed's Groovin the Moo competition three years ago, they were fresh-faced Canberra kids who loved singer-songwriters and electronic music equally. The trio's breakout single, "Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues", found that middle ground between heartfelt crooning and a desire to make people dance. SAFIA's major asset is Ben Woolner's warm and malleable voice, which shines with the help of his bandmates Michael Bell and Harry Sayers.
SAFIA's readiness to switch things up serves them well on their debut album. Internal gets off to a dramatic start with the five-minute instrumental jam "Zion", before Woolner's vocals assume the album's lead role. Throughout, he sells the age-old lyrical themes of loves lost and unrequited with nuance and conviction. "Fake It Til the Sunrise" is typical of a favourite SAFIA song structure: the supple build-up that crescendos to a dancefloor stomp in the final stretch. As a result, much of Internal feels engineered for a live set-list, with pop-savvy vocal hooks and bright, clean electronics.
While "Over You" and "My Love Is Gone" capture SAFIA at their most assured, there's a streak of musical theatre pomp to the likes of "Bye Bye" and "Close To You" that doesn't fare quite as well. It's refreshing, though, that Internal is more interested in earnest emotion than affected cool. That sincerity might just be SAFIA's secret weapon.
Cat Empire frontman takes stock of space and simplicity.
Felix Riebl's musical journey has been well-documented, but it's away from the constant movement and change one encounters while on the road with a band like the Cat Empire that his second solo release comes from. Utilising "the rare quiet spaces and simple still spaces", Paper Doors is a calm album for Riebl. While the record is quieter than past work, this isn't to say it's melancholic or lacking in impact. "Crocodiles" makes good use of subtle beats; one of three duets, "In Your Arms" with Martha Wainwright, is sweet and simple with solid harmonies; while the title track is mysterious, setting up an album which sees Riebl as far more than the frontman for one of Australia's most enduring party bands.
Anxious London indie outfit finds redemption in riffs.
The cute story about Lawrence Pumfrey and Ollie Pash meeting at a uni Halloween party may as well be true. Their band's riff-and-rumble debut sounds like it's happening inside the head of a drunk in a gorilla suit, staving off the dawn in an act of heroic hedonism. "I don't wanna think about it" is the key line to "Ladybird", and maybe the London band's whole crafty portrait of reckless youth on the cusp of responsibility. The cocaine binge of "Powder Baby" comes with inbuilt regret. In "Sleeperhead", lines from the Noel Gallagher nonsense rhymer are tossed off with the certainty that every gurgling guitar hook is another killer party starter and for now, nothing else matters.
Jeff Tweedy and Co. mellow out on their most pastoral album in a decade.
On "Normal American Kids", the opener of Wilco's 10th studio LP, Jeff Tweedy delivers maybe his most straightforward lyrics ever. Over coffeehouse strums and muted electric-guitar lines that swirl like an old movie flashback, the singer recalls being a teenage stoner with a chip on his shoulder, getting high "behind the garden shed" and "under the sheets in my bedroom", loathing the "normal" kids – but also fearing them and maybe, secretly, envying them.
Misfits of all ages should relate, and the reflective sentiment brands a deceptively pastoral Wilco record, their most folk-rockingly introspective since 2007's Sky Blue Sky. It's a nice follow-up to last year's No Wave-y glam rush, Star Wars, a free surprise release that found them refreshingly noisy, energised and maybe a little bit defensive. (In some ways, it was their anti-"dad rock" record.) With a nod to Harry Nilsson's pop-eccentric touchstone Nilsson Schmilsson, Tweedy's mood is less self-conscious and more easygoing on Schmilco. His son Spencer plays drums on it, and it's also salted with nostalgic in-jokes. "Shrug and Destroy" puns off the title of a Stooges anthem while musically recalling White Album balladry. "We Aren't the World (Safety Girl)" invokes the superstar 1985 charity single, surveying a tough-guy candidate – Trump? Reagan? – and the singer's Armageddon fantasies while showing gratitude to a lover. "If I Ever Was a Child", all genteel guitar shimmer, and "Cry All Day", riding a brush-beat freight-train rhythm, both look back stoically through tears.
Along with its return to bedrock sounds, the album seems especially shaped by the Midwestern-ness that's always defined the Chicago-based crew: their scepticism of fame, trend-mongering and empty rebellion; their Everyman work ethic and hometown pride – what some might describe as their "normalcy". All this is a plus when they nail a classic like "Normal American Kids", but can also make for music that occasionally verges on pleasant blandness.
Wilco are at their best when they subvert their conservative impulses: See "Locator", with its loping bass line and guitar skronk, sounding like a matured sequel to the Pixies' "Debaser". Or "Common Sense", a melodically and rhythmically woozy shout-out to that Middle American virtue, with marimbalike flourishes and insectile guitars rising like cicadas on a still summer night. "At the moment I'm bored, buried," Tweedy intones, longing for "a burning bush or a button to push". His solution, of course, is making songs – songs that might even inspire a solution of your own.
Main page illustration: Jonny Ruzzo
Gleeful pep-rally indie pop harbours some dark thoughts.
Grouplove might seem like a bunch of bad indie-hippy ideals come to life – pastels, stripes, long hair, hats – but among the twee dickishness there's a really good pop band. Big Mess is just that: a mash of hyperactive indie-pop that tries its hardest to grab your attention. And it's hard not to be charmed by Grouplove when they loose the hands-in-the-air bubblegum indie rock of "Traumatized" or the goofy singalong of "Do You Love Someone". Luckily it succeeds more than it fails – see the pure island-pop shine of "Good Morning" – and even if they trade in memorable pop songs that are almost instantly forgettable, their pep-rally indie pop hides some satisfying darkness under its perma-grin exterior.
Melbourne four-piece throw up a few surprises on third LP.
With a garage-rock sound specifically skewed towards sweaty moshpits, third time out the Pretty Littles attempt to somewhat refute their own reputation. While still underpinned by the distinctly colloquial dialect of vocalist Jack Parson's Vasco Era strain, amongst the various pop-facing formats – sickly sweet "Soda Pop", anthemic "Pride" and radio-ready love ode "Sleeping In Water" – the LP manages a few surprises. Notably, the political-angled pair - the anti-authoritarian "Tall Man" and misogynistic media take-down "Sam's Mob" - both of which, alongside haunting closer "Overwhelmed", find the band shifting the hedonistic party to a far darker space.
Seasoned duo pit power of song against existential void.
Songwriting is an act of interrogation for Deborah Conway. After the Old Testament bashing of Stories of Ghosts comes this dogged dissection of the notion of transcendence, and the deals and sacrifices that come with it. Her Jewish roots weave a personal thread within "Through Your Blood Shall You Live", and "This Song Has Got Me" lays her own vocation and motivation as a writer on the table. But the harsh truths of the title track and "Life's a Curse" put all humanity in the same rocking lifeboat. Tasteful strings man Willy Zygier leads a band as urgent as "Throw Me A Lifeline" and as contented, at last, as the sweet surrender of "Serpent's Tooth".
Full throttle, irresistible fun from Melbourne good-time crew.
If Northeast Party House are getting older, they're not sounding it. The six-piece signposted their hedonistic bent from the outset, and album two sees no signs of that abating. It's no bad thing, not when tracks like "Heartbreaker" ride seductive basslines and jangly guitars into Primal Scream-esque all-out dance incursions; "Your House" turns a cheeky proposition into an irresistible overture, all crunchy riffs and insouciant confessions – "I've been thinking of a way to get to your house!" shouts vocalist Zach Hamilton-Reeves; and "Wallflower" blooms from jittery groove into blissed-out synths and keening harmonies. The Bloc Party comparisons are understandable, but NPH are no cheap imitators – their lyrics might be centred around young people pastimes and hazy nights bleeding into the day after, but their music is deceptively intelligent and relentlessly catchy, impressively self-produced and mixed and mastered by drummer Malcolm Besley. May they stay forever young.
Florida outfit still caught in a mosh after all these years.
Six albums into A Day To Remember's career, it's very much a case of perfecting and polishing their melange of metalcore and pop-punk as opposed to stretching their sonic boundaries. Hell, it's worked for AC/DC. And so Bad Vibrations sees the Florida five-piece calling on familiar tropes (breakdowns, belched vocals, buoyant pop choruses) that sound most alive on the searing blend of melody and aggression that is "Paranoia". Oddly, given that it's co-produced by Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson, the hooks aren't quite as memorable as those on 2013's Common Courtesy, with the honourable exception of "Naivety". Fans, however, will find little to complain about.
Singer-songwriter goes straight for the jugular on album three.
There were plenty of rock moments on 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but few as direct as this album's ultimate to-camera moment, "Shut Up Kiss Me". "Tell me what you're thinking don't delay," Olsen sings, her vocals fiercely pushed into the red. On "Intern", she surrounds herself with a Morodor-esque bed of evocative synths, and while that may seem like a jarring combo for a singer leading a new breed of indie-informed country acts, it works. Still, My Woman is more evolutionary step than complete transition. As the album closes with a clutch of contemplative ballads, you're left wondering what it may've sounded like had she committed wholeheartedly to the experiment.
Everything falls into place for bittersweet Melbourne band.
Over a string of bewitching LPs, Teeth & Tongue mainstay Jess Cornelius has nurtured a voice that can swing from suggestive simmer to fluttering heights. She sings better than ever on this fourth album, channelling Heart's Ann Wilson while mastering Springsteen-esque character studies on tracks like "Small Towns". At the same time, Give Up On Your Health broadens its sound with room-filling synths, percolating rhythms and gorgeously unfurling guitar lines. Cornelius peppers her lyrics with frustrated curses and violent images as the songs graduate from a purring and prowling cool to something harsher and jagged like "Your Ghost Is the Hardest to Kill", her biggest vocal breakout to date.
Thrash metal classic from Perth quintet gets remastered.
In the early Nineties, Allegiance were playing the Big Day Out and being championed by Judas Priest's Rob Halford. But tensions within the band saw them relegated to a footnote in metal history three years after the release of this 1994 debut. Dusted off and given a spit and polish, D.e.s.t.i.t.u.t.i.o.n still stands up. "One Step Beyond" and "Hate Frenzy" boast chant-worthy choruses, and though the LP nods heavily towards the rapid-fire right-hand riffing, delicate acoustic passages and shredding solos of vintage Metallica and Slayer, there are also death growls and blast beats peppered throughout. Essential for the uninitiated or existing fans wanting to reconnect with a long lost classic.
Emotional punks find their rhythm on sophomore release.
On previous album I Don't Want To Be Anywhere But Here, Melbourne quartet Ceres compartmentalised their contrasting methods of heart-sleeved balladry and pub-punk revelry. Here, there's significantly less segregation and, through a constant arm-wrestle between fist-pumped fury and emo transparency, a far more free-flowing and emotionally complex record emerges. This unravelling of densely-packed ideas is never better displayed than on "Choke", a track that compliments its emotional indecisiveness – hopeful euphoria vs. martyrised regret – with a transition from scrappy acoustic strum to an unhinged pop-punk ambush.
Irishman's sonic journey continues on slinky, stripped-back third album.
For a casual listener of James Vincent McMorrow – or if you hopped in around the time of single "Cavalier" – We Move might come as a little bit of a shock, because there's a fair bit of distance between it and McMorrow's last record, 2014's Post Tropical. Where that album was dramatic – with orchestral flourishes and endless synth washes – We Move is completely direct, the effects minimal. It's an even further slip away from the folk and isolation of his debut, Early in the Morning. We Move is McMorrow's sideways slip into R&B – a slip that, upon further listening, feels very comfortable.
McMorrow's stunning falsetto finds a fair match within glitchy, electronic beats, and thick and stanky bass lines. For the first time he wasn't alone at the production desk, enlisting some heavy hitters: Nineteen85 (Drake's "Hotline Bling") and Frank Dukes (Rihanna, Kanye). The added hands have imbued We Move with focus – there are no more vacant sonic rabbit holes that McMorrow can blissfully lose himself in. In fact, this is probably about as stripped back as McMorrow could ever allow himself to be. The Irishman's signature moves remain, such as the fey harmonies on single "Rising Water", but where We Move shines is when he extends himself: the heartbreaking soul of "I Lie Awake Every Night", or the thudding "One Thousand Times".
Former Drones drummer tackles German theatre on third solo LP.
George Büchner's unfinished 1837 play Woyzeck is a bleak meditation on war, violence and madness, and rich for interpretation by an artist such as Mike Noga, who re-imagines the tale in 1950s Australia. Themes include the clashing of machine with body and existential bewilderment, but rather than being bogged down in this misery, Noga explores Büchner through melodic rock & roll; there is something of Tom Verlaine in the guitar lines, while "Runnin' At the World" evokes the Triffids. Indeed, something atmospherically Australian runs through several tracks, while baleful narration from Noah Taylor heightens a mood of disorientation. An intricate, ambitious, and absorbing concept album.