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Folk-rock all-stars the New Basement Tapes relish tackling maestro's forgotten verses.
The postman's gift to Nashville producer T Bone Burnett was the stuff of dreams: a box of Bob Dylan's handwritten, unsung lyrics circa 1967. One pictures jaws falling like dominoes as Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James and Marcus Mumford answered his call.
This 15-song selection (stand by for Vol. 2) owes more to careful composition than the freewheeling spirit of Dylan and the Band's original Basement Tapes, but that's no bad thing. Each track is palpably owned by its singer/composer – though it's impossible not to feel the absent maestro looming over their shoulders like the ghost of songwriting itself.
The tender melodies of Dawes' sweet-voiced frontman Goldsmith feel particularly in tune with the sepia-toned panoramas of "Liberty Street" and "Florida Key". James (My Morning Jacket) filters the stately roll of "Nothing To It" and the coy pillow talk of "Hidee Hidee Ho #11" through John Lennon's piano and echo chamber.
Each musician quietly relishes the thrill of textbook Dylan zingers from a forgotten dimension, not least "Now look here baby snooks, doesn't matter what books you keep underneath your seat" and, "There I sat with my eyes in my hand, just contemplating killing a man."
Mumford's star turn is the tippy-toed stalker's creep of "When I Get My Hands On You". Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) brings the old weird folkie vibe to haunt a stunning title track. Costello has a rowdy crack at that one too, but only on "Married to My Hack" does his unmistakable stamp allow the sacred verses to breathe.
Californian punkers stick to what they know best on their first album in five years.
In the flurry of message board activity that followed last December's news that Rancid's eighth album would be called Honor Is All We Know, one pundit suggested it should instead be dubbed Honor Is All We Know... Except When It Comes To Honoring Release Dates of Albums. To be fair, prior to September the Berkeley quartet had never actually specified when they'd be releasing this latest LP, though news they were working on it began to surface all the way back in 2011. If those reports were true it seems other priorities soon got in the way, for it wasn't until February last year that the band posted a photo from the studio on Facebook with the caption, "Recording has begun".
After 23 years, you could argue Rancid have earned the right to do things at their own pace. And it's not as though each member has been idle – since 2009's disappointing Let The Dominoes Fall, co-vocalist Tim Armstrong has released a third Transplants album (2013's In a Warzone) and produced albums by Jimmy Cliff and L.A. ska merchants the Interrupters, as well as releasing a slew of singles as Tim Timebomb (one of which, "Honor Is All We Know", lends this album its title, and is re-recorded here). Guitarist/vocalist Lars Frederiksen contributed to the Tim Timebomb project, while bassist Matt Freeman issued an album with his side project Devil's Brigade in 2010.
While years may elapse between Rancid albums these days – gone is the era when they released their first three one year after another – some things never change. The band's us-against-the-world spirit courses throughout Honor Is All We Know like a piranha chasing a blood scent: "Now We're Through With You", a hyper-speed sub-two minute charge, draws a line in the sand with the lyric "You drew blood with the wrong crew/Now we're through with you".
Musically, the 14 songs on Honor Is All We Know weigh in at less than 33 minutes, and the LP combines the raw and reckless abandon of 1994's Let's Go with the more mature songwriting of 1995's ...And Out Come the Wolves, tarnished only by the fact that it's not as great as either of those albums. It is, however, a very good record, never really veering into filler territory, just as it never truly reaches the heights of two decades ago.
"Raise Your First" (sample lyric: "raise your first/against the power/oppress the power that exists"), "Collision Course", "A Power Inside", "In the Streets" and the title-track are mid-tempo rallying cries, all big choruses and gang vocals. Closing track "Grave Digger" is a razor-sharp burst of aggression that confirms age has done nothing to dull Rancid's bite, while opener "Back Where I Belong" is a rousing statement of intent. Their penchant for ska and 2 Tone is limited to only two songs, "Evil's My Friend" and "Everybody's Sufferin'".
The overall impression, then, is of a band unhindered by expectations and unburdened by anyone's opinion but their own. There are no surprises, and you could argue that this is a result of Rancid's continuing creative dormancy. Or you could just raise your fists and sing along with a band that clearly still mean it.
Former Eurythmic takes Rod Stewart path to reinvention.
Does the world really need another former pop superstar tackling a set of jazz standards from the Great American Songbook? Probably not, but it would be unfair to let that undermine the fact that Annie Lennox actually does a damn fine job with some sadly overused material on Nostalgia. At 59, the Scot's voice is still powerful, soulful and expressive, and backed by some very punchy arrangements, Lennox makes you forget this is the umpteenth version you've heard of "Summertime”, "Georgia on My Mind” and "Mood Indigo”, instead letting you enjoy them for the great songs they are. As a challenge for the singer and an easy-listening addition for her fans, Nostalgia earns its place. dan lander
Swedish pop singer Tove Lo makes her debut with a concept album about a relationship.
Like her pals in Icona Pop – not to mention Robyn, Lykke Li, First Aid Kit and who knows how many more Swedish prodigies waiting in the wings – 26-year-old Tove Nilsson is a pop artist fond of big hooks and self-aware emoting. Yet for sheer sucker-punch verse-slinging, no one's touching her, as showcased on this smartly produced arc-of-a-love-affair concept LP.
How is it that no one has built a perfect single around the enduring bon mot "I'm not on drugs, I'm just in love" until now (in "Not on Drugs")? On the self-deprecating "Moments", the singer asserts, "On good days, I am charming as fuck" over clattering samba flourishes, and "Like Em Young" flips its creepy title with helpful qualifiers ("young like me") and snap-queen zingers ("Hey, girl, why you judging me/When your guy's turning 53?") over a dubby parade march. The beat-trampling word rush of "Timebomb" sounds like the Hold Steady reimagined by The Kick Inside-era Kate Bush; "Talking Body" finds T-Lo ramping up octaves and advising, "If you love me ri-i-ight/We fuck for li-i-ife." And the tail-end signature hit, "Habits (Stay High)", spits pained quips over post-coital hurt like a dance-floor-targeted Lena Dunham production. Pop haters: It's your loss.
Melbourne punkers seek to build on the buzz with heartfelt third album.
This magazine once published a bizarre letter from a reader bemoaning the fact that Frenzal Rhomb frontman Jason Whalley sings in an Australian accent. What the hell must that poor confused soul be thinking when confronted with the Smith Street Band? The Melbourne outfit's frontman Wil Wagner doesn't simply accentuate his Aussie vernacular — he turns it into a misanthropic, Antipodean battering ram. Flanked by a band that adds the spirit of the Bushwackers to the common ground between the Nation Blue and Blueline Medic, Wagner carves out snarling soliloquies in his bark of a voice, laying lyrical waste to a world in which "we laugh, while we trickle down the drain" ("Something I Can Hold In My Hands").
Like the band's previous records, Throw Me In the River is almost relentless in its combative, heart-on-sleeve approach, but fortunately, this time there are some softer (but by no means soft) moments ("Calgary Girls", "Throw Me in the River") to break up the often-exhausting onslaught, making for a much better balanced record. That said, Throw Me In the River is still a kick in the head — the term "fuck" comes up frequently, and whether Wagner is raging against the universe ("Surrey Dive") or wrestling his own emotions ("I love you so fucking much right now, fuck 'em, let 'em talk" from "I Love Life") he does so with the conviction of a man who has nothing to lose. As he says in "Surrender": "I'm not from around here so I think with my mouth." Seems to work.
Electro platform lifts Sydney crooner to new heights.
Jack Ladder has had two close shaves with the Australian Music Prize but this is where he lights the proverbial cigar. It may be the weight shouldered by the Presets’ Kim Moyes, whose production recalibrates the man/machine equation. But Ladder’s dark baritone sounds freshly liberated and focused, whether roaming the piss-sodden alleys of "Come On Back This Way", the hospital corridors of "Reputation Amputation" or the Lynchian landscape of "Model Worlds". The electronic chill is a good fit with the cycle of romantic maladjustment that spans the coldblooded lovers of "Her Hands" and "Neon Blue" to the creepy declarations of commitment in "Let Me Love You".
A strong artist stumbles with bland pop offering.
What happened here? After turning in a dark, personal and stunning fourth album with 2012’s Pope Innocent X, Bertie Blackman decided to embrace the “challenge” of fun pop music. That’s fine as a premise, but The Dash never gets far beyond the watered-down Eighties pop announced on lead single “Run For Your Life”. It’s a bland record stocked with faint synths and cheesy vocal echoes, and Blackman turns to empty platitudes for her lyrics: “If you want to find love, you’ve got to let it go.” The Fleetwood Mac-esque “Dancing Into Trouble” teases some more inventive touches, but the most exciting that things get is when “Beams” evokes the clubby pulse of Madonna. Sadly, this is a misfire, plain and simple.
California act return with second LP in two years
The 2012 album from Californian slow-core masters Spain came as a surprise – it had been more than a decade since their last release. But The Soul of Spain – though the songs were unrecorded Nineties tunes – sparked a creative flame in frontman Josh Haden and his band. While their sound is distinctive, on Sargent Place Spain take a bold step in a different direction, informed by both Haden’s jazz-musician dad Charlie and Black Keys producer Gus Seyffert, who takes away any reservedness. As a result, songs like “Love at First Sight” have a wonderful swagger, while ballad “To Be a Man” feels like an open letter to Charlie and has the kind of heartbreak Spain always threatened to deliver.
Gomez singer/guitarist lets his vocals shine on second solo LP.
At their height, British indie outfit Gomez boasted fans who were among the most passionate – some might say obsessed – on the planet. A large part of that zeal was centred on Ben Ottewell's voice – for some, his rough baritone was easy to dislike, but those who liked it did so to the hilt. Ottewell's second solo effort makes the most of his main charm, a collection of subtly pulsating tunes that put his vocals in the spotlight. Still acoustic at heart, Rattlebag is nonetheless more intense than Ottewell's solo debut – there's Zeppelin in "Patience & Rosaries", noise rock hints on "Edge", psychedelia on "Papa" – and the album is all the better for it.
Legendary rockers' albums reissued with a slew of extras/
In the liner notes of this lavish box-set, journalist (and Rolling Stone contributor) Toby Creswell writes that "Radio Birdman was, for a moment, the greatest rock & roll band on the planet". That moment was around 1977, when the Sydney quintet were at the vanguard of the Australian punk rock movement – not that they ever really associated themselves with such a tag.
For those who never had the opportunity to witness the late-Seventies incarnation of the line-up in full flight, one of the most anticipated aspects of this seven-CD box-set is surely the 19-song live set from the Paddington Town Hall on December 12th, 1977. Never before released in its entirety and mixed from long-neglected master tapes, it captures the band in incendiary form on the eve of their departure to the UK in support of debut album Radios Appear – witness the mesmerising, hypnotic drawl of "Man With A Golden Helmet" and the way in which it sounds like it could fall over at any minute but, somehow, doesn't.
Radios Appear is, of course, featured here – both in its original format (recorded at Sydney's Trafalgar Studios) and as the Sire version (released internationally, and featuring remixed and/or re-recorded versions of the Trafalgar sessions songs, as well as some new tracks) – as is the posthumously released follow-up, Living Eyes (in its original format and remixed). Each album comes with a second disc of outtakes, demos, alternate arrangements, new mixes and, in the case of the Trafalgar version of Radios Appear, the Burn My Eye EP.
A DVD of several live cuts and a booklet of never-before-seen photos rounds out the package, but it is that live document that truly illustrates the raw power of Radio Birdman.
Hard-Ons guitarist hits it out of the park on solo album number two.
Hard-Ons guitarist/vocalist Peter "Blackie” Black has been a busy boy, what with celebrating 30 years with the Hard-Ons, working on reissues of their early records, and a huge national tour. It’s surprising then that he’s had time to record another solo album, following on from 2012’s No Dangerous Gods In Tunnel, let alone a record of this quality. Expanding on the acoustic guitar/falsetto vocal approach of his solo debut, The Paintings On Your Wall… introduces strings, woodwind, a choir, piano and propulsive drums, and Blackie’s arrangement of these elements show a formidable understanding of musical theory. Often, he makes it seem infuriatingly simple. Instrumental track “The Corridor Song” is a bona-fide piece of contemporary classical music that many famed composers would be incapable of spunking out with such little fanfare. Where much of No Dangerous Gods… sounded insular and introspective, this release shows off the same ability to write infectious melody that we saw on Hard-Ons classics like “Sit Beside You”. His humour remains intact, albeit less biting than in the past. “God Is On My Side” shows he knows how to swath a potent message in his jokes, and the lyrics are overall less obscure than usual.
The biggest achievement of this album is the way Blackie allows these simple songs exactly the room each needs to build. He hasn’t denied his songs anything. If it needs an electric guitar solo, he cracks out his SG. If it needs a choir of children, he can make it happen (apparently at an hour's notice). He reaches for the stars on every song, building walls of joyous sound that feel fit to bursting. There’s enough love and hurt here for ten albums, and indeed, the one criticism that could be levelled at Blackie is that he could have easily saved a few tracks for his next release. His love of the Beach Boys has never been so obvious, and while others have attempted to play homage to Pet Sounds' ambition and failed dismally, Blackie manages to come bloody close without even sounding like he’s trying all that hard. If he keeps releasing a solo record every year, it’s frightening to think what he might come up with in 2016.
When it comes to Taylor Swift and supercatchy Eighties pop gloss, too much is never enough.
When Taylor Swift decides to do something, the girl really knows how to overdo it. So on her fifth album, when she indulges her crush on Eighties synth-pop, she goes full blast, spending most of the album trying to turn herself into the Pet Shop Boys. 1989 is a drastic departure – only a couple of tracks feature her trademark tear-stained guitar. But she's still Taylor Swift, which means she's dreaming bigger and oversharing louder than anyone else in the game. And she still has way too many feelings for the kind of dudes who probably can't even spell "feelings".
Swift has already written enough great songs for two or three careers. Red, from 2012, was her Purple Rain, a sprawling I-am-the-cosmos epic with disco banjos and piano ballads and dubstep drops. But as every Eighties pop star knew, you don't follow one epic with another – instead, you surprise everybody with a quick-change experiment. So rather than trying to duplicate the wide reach of Red, she focuses on one aspect of her sound for a whole album – a very Prince thing to do.
Max Martin produced seven of these 13 songs, and his beats provide the Saturday-night-whatever soundtrack as Swift sings about the single life in the big old city she always dreamed about. In "Welcome to New York", she finds herself in a place where "you can want who you want/Boys and boys, and girls and girls." She hits cruise mode on the floor in "Blank Space" ("I can make the bad guys good for the weekend") and the hilariously titled "Style", where she swoons, "You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye."
The best moments come toward the end, when Swift shakes up the concept. "How You Get the Girl" mixes up the best of her old and new tricks, as she strums an acoustic guitar aggressively over Martin's expert disco surge. "This Love" brings back her most simpatico producer, Nathan Chapman, for the kind of tune that they were just starting to call a "power ballad" in 1989. On the killer finale, "Clean", English singer Imogen Heap adds ethereal backup sighs to Swift's electro melancholy.
If there's nothing as grandiose as "All Too Well" or "Dear John" or "Enchanted", that's because there wasn't meant to be. 1989 sets the record for fewest adjectives (and lowest romantic body count) on a Swift album. Most of the songs hover above the three-minute mark, which is a challenge for Tay – she's always been a songwriter who can spend five minutes singing about a freaking scarf and still make every line hit like a haymaker. But if you're into math, note that the three best songs here – "How You Get the Girl", "This Love", "Clean" – are the three that crash past four minutes. Deeply weird, feverishly emotional, wildly enthusiastic, 1989 sounds exactly like Taylor Swift, even when it sounds like nothing she's ever tried before. And yes, she takes it to extremes. Are you surprised? This is Taylor Swift, remember? Extremes are where she starts out.
Unlikely obsession with classic soundtrack spawns new Primus
As concept albums go, a reimagining of the soundtrack to the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was always going to be out there, but even more so with Les Claypool at the helm. What could have been a fairly wack record comes across as a stroke of demented genius. In full Primus mode, with support from the Fungi Ensemble – Mike Dillon (marimba, percussion) and Sam Bass (cello) – Claypool taps into and then explodes the surrealism of the original material, updating Roald Dahl’s dark morality for the modern era in a way Tim Burton failed to do. Truly sailing the seas of chocolate.
Screamo stalwarts make a 180-degree turn.
It takes guts – not to mention musical chops – to radically change your sound mid-career, and Baltimore rockers Pianos Become the Teeth deserve recognition for more or less pulling it off. On their third LP, they've abandoned their heart-on-sleeve screamo in favour of a more contained aesthetic. Kyle Durfey’s vocal lines bring to mind Jimmy Eat World’s post-Bleed American output, while his band tastefully channels Brand New and Balance and Composure. What's missing is an edge to set the five-piece apart from those aforementioned bands. There's plenty to enjoy about Keep You, but the band will need to reach further next time in order to remain engaging.
The much-loved art-punk gets the retrospective he deserves.
When curating a posthumous package like this, you can either put together a loving collection that will please the most hardcore of fans, or look at educating the uninitiated. Ex-band mate Genevieve McGuckin (with help from Mick Harvey and others) has chosen the former route here, leaning heavily on Howard’s work with These Immortal Souls and his later solo efforts. It's admirable – this material was criminally overlooked at the time. But equally, some of the Birthday Party’s music is just as hard to find, and his most famed band gets equal billing with his less successful outings. While this is a beautiful collection for the dedicated fan, one can’t help but think this could have benefited from a tighter edit.
Birmingham youngsters deliver tasty debut record
Even if moments of Don’t Say That feel like Superfood are playing nostalgia bingo with Primal Scream, Oasis and Supergrass while high and listening to Blur’s Leisure, their psyche-funk tendencies help them avoid the modern Britpop trap of landfill indie. Their youthful exuberance and appropriation of nostalgia turns moments like “You Can Believe” into a stomper of the highest order, and “Right On Satellite”, “Superfood” and “Pallasades” into stone-cold killers. Though Don’t Say That is an accomplished debut, the edges are almost too smooth; there’s no roughness to grip on to. So while Superfood bemoan the inertia of modern life, their own thrills struggle to linger long enough to help.