Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
In the '90s, the Afghan Whigs made grunge that had soul quake and blues menace, with frontman Greg Dulli playing the alt-rock dude reborn as unregenerate lounge cobra. The stylishly sleazy intensity is still there on their first record since 1998's excellent 1965, only with a wider palette – "Parked Outside" is gnarled sludge blues, "Algiers" coats noir desert rock in Crazy Horse noise muck, and "It Kills" is a full-on doom-gospel epic. Dulli's grizzled predatory slyness ties it together. "Surprise, surprise/I'll have you know I've come to see you die," he croons on "Lost in the Woods," which bursts into a guitar spectacle that's still worth sticking around for.
The master covers Dylan and more on intentionally cruddy-sounding acoustic LP
Earlier this year, Neil Young unveiled Pono, a super-high-def audio service meant to deliver us from the sonic crimes of the earbud era. For his next act, he's released an acoustic covers set recorded at Jack White's Nashville music shop on a Voice-O-Graph--a super-low-def 1940s contraption that looks like a phone booth and sounds a few steps removed from a rusty tin can and some twine. If it's meant as some kind of joke, here's the punch line: In its perverse way, A Letter Home is one of the most enjoyable records Young has made this century.
The track list spans canonical folk songs (Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain") and rarer jewels (Phil Ochs' bittersweet "Changes," Bert Jansch's mournful "Needle of Death"). Young's bare renditions – just his voice and an unplugged guitar or harmonica on most songs – have an unrehearsed sincerity that's easy to imagine getting lost in a better studio. There are some head-scratchers, too: Of all Bruce Springsteen tunes, why pick a third-tier single like "My Hometown" for a solo acoustic session over literally anything from Nebraska? At its best, though, A Letter Home plays like a crackly field recording from a lost world.
Byron metalcore band save the planet one breakdown at a time
Carrying a serious environmental message, In Hearts Wake have taken firm steps to aid the cause. Through an affiliation with the Carbon Neutral organisation, a bio-diverse native tree was planted for every pre-order of Earthwalker, their second LP. However, it’s often difficult to pick up what they’re laying down in the midst of such an intense musical melee. Typified by frantic tempos and technical metal riffs, it’s possible to catch the occasional missive when the obligatory death growls are overtaken by the overtly emo melodies. Quiet closer “Mother” spells it all out clearly – “this land does not belong to you, it is you who belongs to this land” – but, damn, it’s cheesy.
Renowned style jumpers sit still for album number four
After arriving in 2006 looking like a cross between Edward Scissorhands and early Eighties Robert Smith, the Horrors haven’t let the dust settle on their musical style. First album – goth/garage rock. Second – droney with added synths. Third – stadium-sized and anthemic. With the follow-up to 2011’s Skying, however, they’ve lost their taste for reinvention. Luminous seems like an addendum rather than a great leap forward. There’s more Echo and the Bunnymen and Psychedelic Furs worship, with Nineties shoegaze wooziness and Giorgio Moroder-esque whirring synths added for effect. It’s all fine as far as it takes you, but the songs put atmosphere above content.
Former Maniac leaves other 9,999 behind
“I’m far too quick with the poison pen/Can’t believe that I’m writing again/After all these goddam years.” Natalie Merchant’s poison is fabulously potent on her first self-penned album since ’01, her distinctive voice so weighted with a seasoned campaigner’s authority that even the airy pop of “Ladybird” comes over like the bitter wisdom of ages. Loaded character portraits are the former 10,000 Maniac’s forte: the entitled oil princess in “Texas” and disgraced silent movie star “Lulu” resonate compellingly here and now. The masterstroke is “Giving Up Everything”, her quietly commanding voice crying off drugs, God and gurus while irresistible orchestral tentacles slide slowly backwards.
Whimsical folk from Mr Harper and his mother
After Grammy-winning joint-outings with blues maverick Charlie Musselwhite (2013) and gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama (2004), Childhood Home sees Ben Harper embrace a completely different type of collaborator – his own mum. Ellen’s country-tinged coffeehouse folk blurs sweetly with Ben’s blues-reggae jive, whether it’s the dark, old-time guts of her “Farmer’s Daughter” or his “A House is a Home”, resulting in a set that has telling echoes of Ben’s debut, Welcome to the Cruel World. And while Childhood Home only once reaches truly stunning heights – “Born to Love You”, possibly Harper’s best love song to date – it also never wanes below the completely worthy.
Mature second album from unassuming Kiwi
Hollie Fullbrook’s otherworldly sound feels like it has wafted down from the misty mountains of her New Zealand homeland, such is the pervasive, overwhelming mystery of these moody, sparse, folk-inflected songs. Now backed permanently by a bassist and drummer, Brightly Painted One achieves fuller, more complex textures than her debut, giving it a similar energy to Alela Diane’s About Farewell. Fullbrook’s quiet melancholy is explored with lazy, unhurried melodies, and some disarmingly poetic storytelling. The depth of “Straw Into Gold”, with its horns and meandering guitar, is proof of an artist with a handle on something beyond mere music, something a bit transcendental.
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.