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Dreary greatness of the most unguarded kind.
After years of leading Batrider, Sarah Mary Chadwick's second LP has all the makings of a word-of-mouth breakthrough. That's because Chadwick bares herself completely – and stunningly – over thin layers of keyboards and drum machine, her voice cracking as if on the verge of tears. "I'm always underdressed or overdressed," she moans on opener "Ask Walt", neatly summing up the awkward, self-effacing unguardedness to follow. Her native Kiwi accent still twangs sharply, and the DIY production from Melbourne pop creep Geoffrey O'Connor underscores her dreary charisma. These are love songs of the slowest, saddest kind, like synth-pop dropped to the pace of an IV drip.
Youthful exuberance wanes on fourth UK schoolyard pop rush
The sound of fizzing soda-pop opens Ian Parton's fourth album at the Go! Team console. The Team as such has dispersed since 2011's Rolling Blackouts but the slamming, skidding sugar rush of samples has grown more frothy as hi-hats hiss and snare drums thwack their brash, head-banging go-go pop. The Brighton laptop noodler's evolving parade of girly vocalists has left the jump-rope chants for more crafted songs, but the propulsion remains much the same between the hyperventilating "Waking the Jetstream" and the relative down time of "Did You Know?" and "Her Last Wave". Sound collage interludes endorse Parton's magpie aesthetic, but the nest can't help feeling a little more empty this year.
Iowan folk-punk hero goes electric, keeps the volume low
Having opted for little more than banjos, kick drums and acoustic guitars on previous records, Radium Death sees Whitmore experiment with an electric guitar and a backing band. But where the stripped-back acoustic approach would historically let that smoke and gravel-cut voice of his howl, electrification seems to have resulted in Whitmore paring back his holler. That's not true for "A Thousand Deaths", mind, which sees him turn phrases into fire. Truly steeped in soul, Radium Death still illustrates Whitmore's masterfully frank penmanship. But you're occasionally left wishing he'd just kick the fucker up a notch.
It don't come easy on the former Beatle's 18th solo album.
In the title track to his 18th solo album, Ringo Starr shoehorns in as many Beatles song titles as he can, in the clumsiest way possible, with lines such as "I ain't going nowhere man, because I want to hold your hand, it's like I said the night before, I'll love you when I'm 64." It goes for over five minutes, which is about four minutes longer than it takes to get the point. Accomplished buddies such as Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren and Peter Frampton drop in to do their thing on sluggish blues-rock that can barely rouse itself awake. "Right Side Of the Road" peters out in a fluffed ending, as if nobody could be bothered continuing with it. Which, quite frankly, is totally understandable.
A heartfelt, intermittently great tribute to the late songwriter.
Elliott Smith's all-too-brief career inspired a generation of artists taken by his piercing lyrics and delicate melodies. On this loving, hit-or-miss tribute, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield draw largely from Smith's 1997 breakthrough, Either/Or, and his posthumous work. Mayfield provides the highlights with her grunge rendition of "Roman Candle" and her elegant take on "Twilight". But the real revelation is how well such deeply personal material lends itself to interpretation. You're left marvelling less at these adequate covers and more at Smith's foolproof songbook.
Van the Man has fun unearthing forgotten tracks
For this charming, easily digestible release, Van Morrison mined his 360-song catalogue for under-appreciated gems and invited various long-time collaborators to sing on them. Eschewing his well-known songs was a wise move: Duets would have sounded self-congratulatory – and probably boring – had it contained renditions of "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Moondance". Instead, we get reworked deep cuts like the breezy "Higher Than the World" (made buoyant by George Benson) and the moody "Streets of Arklow" (featuring a plaintive Mick Hucknall). A few of the pairings fail to ignite – Joss Stone flounders on "Wild Honey" – but there are more hits than misses.
Vintage jump and swing from precocious Mississippi moocher
You don't measure progress from one Pokey LaFarge LP to the next. The fresh-faced old-timer from St Louis gargles from much the same well as CW Stoneking, albeit with slicker production values as he fine-tunes his turf between the Steamboat Willie jump of "Wanna Be Your Man" and the jungle creep of "Underground". Brighter rhythms and male chorus harmonies advance the plot, but the invocation of delightfully vintage/cornball Americana remains his charm, from the Latino steam of "Goodbye, Barcelona" to the hayseed quickstep of "Bad Girl". Tight craft and timeless scenarios keep things fresh, even if pick-up lines like "When Did You Leave Heaven?" demand a particular style of hat.
Asking Alexandria singer swaggers on regardless
Danny Worsnop always seemed a little out of place in Asking Alexandria. Constantly trying to out-excess himself, he seemed more married to Sunset Strip circa 1988 than the idea of being a metalcore icon. And, just like David Lee Roth, Diamond Dan has quit his band at the height of their powers and strutted on by himself. And it fits him like a fingerless leather glove. Where AA rage and roar, We Are Harlot slither lithely at you, all greasy rock & roll riffs and stripper stomp. Occasionally a little in thrall to their idols, for those who wondered what a drunken oaf like Danny might do were it not for Asking Alexandria, the answer is right here: become an even better rock star.
Scaggs shows his roots on latest offering
It's informative that a guy whose legend was built upon the sleek, slick grooves of Silk Degrees has always been a purist. Memphis, Boz Scaggs' recent return to the charts, was stark evidence of the evergreen Scaggs' rootsy persuasion. A Fool to Care – again produced by Steve Jordan – is a natural extension of that, a blend of Scaggs originals and smartly chosen covers. Boz comes on all Fats Domino-like during the title cut, his delivery as cool as a breeze, while fellow traveller Bonnie Raitt chimes in perfectly during the gritty "Hell to Pay". A closing take on the Band's sadly beautiful "Whispering Pines", alongside Lucinda Williams, draws the curtain on another classy musical journey.
Moody band adds sprightly new gear with welcome results.
The title of this brooding Baltimore band's third album suggests a deliverance, the most compelling reading of which might be from the group's own sound. Formed around the songwriting of androgynous-sounding singer Jana Hunter, they've proved adept at sticky, late-night atmospherics. But while a cold synth spirit lingers, Escape From Evil is the band's conscious attempt to lighten up. The result makes for a less cloistered, more welcoming descent: opener "Sucker's Shangri-La" has an immediate, defiant pulse; "Ondine" suggests Fleetwood Mac via spooky New Wave. There's still much to unravel from the band's sonic thicket, but this at least adds a propulsive hope to Hunter's dark reflective streak.
Indie-rock poster boys having difficulty turning indie-rock poster men.
Kintsugi comes at a perilous time for Death Cab For Cutie. Eight albums in, no other band so defines "college rock" – that creaky U.S. term that suggests both artful pop not built for the charts, as well as an inherent adolescence. It's apt: Death Cab For Cutie seem forever on the cusp of maturing.
Kintsugi announces no real sonic departures for the band – there's the familiar moody arpeggios tethered to dancey drum patterns, flashes of electronics underscoring supple indie-rock, and frontman Ben Gibbard's observational man-child philosophising.
Fans won't complain of the former – the band can craft a charming tune – but the latter is starting to feel problematic: there's a nagging immaturity to Gibbard's worldview. On the pretty "Little Wanderer" he casts glitches in technology as a simplistic metaphor for miscommunication; "Ingénue" judges the detrimental effects of the spotlight on a young woman; and on atmospheric centrepiece "You've Haunted Me All My Life", which recalls the icy mood of 2003 standout LP Transatlanticism, he sings: "There's a flaw in my heart's design/For I keep trying to make you mine". The band might have aspirations but Gibbard's still raking over old diaries.
Kintsugi is also a kiss-off to founding guitarist Chris Walla, who beyond playing guitar and live foil to Gibbard, produced every other Death Cab album. (Walla contributes music here but Rich Costey produces.) Walla didn't just co-write the band's identity, he executed it. But with a break up comes new horizons. Perhaps adulthood awaits.
Electronic veterans can't walk the walk on sixth album.
The Prodigy were once the most fearless act in rave, but on The Day Is My Enemy they sound like old men yelling at fast trains. Electronic music, the trio have been telling anyone who'll listen, has been infected by pop, and everyone in it is boring. They might have a point, but their new LP doesn't do anything to remedy the situation. Most of it is noisy and uninspired, while the best-realised moment, lead single "Nasty", could have been lifted off one of their classic albums. It hits ad nauseam when the Brits take aim at the overpaid DJs of the White Isle on "Ibiza" – given how loudly they're complaining, you'd want them to have something more to show.
Electronic prodigy delivers overdue debut
In 2011, when Madeon emerged as a teenage launchpad whizz with the mashup hit "Pop Culture", this was the debut album people wanted to hear. Many moons later in dance music years, the Frenchman's first LP is finally here, and probably a little less hyped than his label would have liked. But it would be a pity if that stopped people listening, because Adventure is fine work, spanning both the sort of electro that would make his idols Daft Punk proud and pop-leaning collaborations with Passion Pit, Foster the People et al. When it comes to the record's best tracks – "Pay No Mind" and "You're On" – there's just no denying that Hugo Leclercq's production skills are in a league of their own.
UK indie rockers offer energetic but unmemorable debut
The UK music scene is a veritable sausage factory for meat & potato indie rock bands that trace a predictable career arc of music press darlings to live favourites to being all but forgotten once they're usurped by the next Hot Young Things. Liverpool four-piece Circa Waves are the latest usurpers, their radio-ready debut containing familiar traces of greats – Pixies, Arctic Monkeys, and a faint dash of the Smiths – while doing nothing particularly original or memorable enough for them to deserve being mentioned within the same sentence. Festival crowds will eat up their jaunty, inoffensive singalongs, but this generic and instantly forgettable debut ensures their long-term fate is all but sealed.
L.A. country artist unveils solo debut proper.
Billed as a solo debut, Angeleno (produced by Ry Cooder) boasts a handful of reworked tunes from L.A-based Outlaw's vinyl-only effort Nobody Loves (2013). A slick country salute to the City of Angels, Angeleno tracks mariachi horns ("Who Do You Think You Are”) and swaying Latin rhythms ("Angeleno”) alongside nods to Outlaw’s heroes, from Gram Parsons to George Jones to Willie Nelson. While honkytonk-inspired cuts deliver unique charm, weaker moments stalk that style wasteland between the classic Bakersfield sounds of the Sixties and Seventies, and the neo-traditional country mode of the Nineties to now. A fine record with just a pinch too much fluff in the groove.
The Compton MC's second major-label album is a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique.
Hashtag this one Portrait of the Artist as a Manchild in the Land of Broken Promises. Thanks to D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation's pop mainstream. Malcolm X said our African ancestors didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us. The cover of Lamar's second major-label LP flips that maxim with a fantasia of bare-chested young hoodrocks flashing cash and booze on the White House grounds, Amerikkka's Most Unwanted victoriously swarming a toppled symbol of pale-skinned patriarchy.
The party begins in earnest with George Clinton's blessings and bassist Thundercat's love for Bootsy Collins. "Wesley's Theory" is a disarming goof that's also a lament for the starry-eyed innocence lost to all winners of the game show known as Hip-Hop Idol. "Gather your wind, take a deep look inside," Clinton says. "Are you really who they idolize?" Lamar's got plenty of jokes and jeremiads to launch at himself, us and those malevolent powers that be. "I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey," he raps later on. "You vandalize my perception, but can't take style from me."
He's also made hella room for live jazz improv on this furthermucker, from the celestial keys of virtuoso pianist Robert Glasper to the horns of Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington to Thundercat's low end. Black Musicians Matter majorly here – their well-tempered orchestral note-worrying a consistent head-nod toward Sun Ra, which producers including Flying Lotus and Lamar's right-hand Sounwave smush into a lush volcanic riverbed of harmonic cunning and complexity. Only a lyricist of Lamar's skills, scope, poetics and polemics would dare hop aboard it and dragon-glide. His virtuosic slam-poetic romp across bebop blues changes on "For Free?" harkens back to LA's Freestyle Fellowship.
Clearly, this is Lamar's moment to remake rap in his own blood-sick image. If we're talking insurgent content and currency, Lamar straight up owns rap relevancy on Butterfly, whatever challengers to the throne barely visible in his dusty rear-view. He relishes and crushes the gift he's been handed by CNN in the national constabulary's now weekly-reported racist tactics, 21st-century apartheid American style: "It's a new gang in town, from Compton to Congress/…Ain't nothing new but a flow of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans." This tactic is nowhere more resonant than on the studio-rigged beyond-the-grave convo with 2Pac he conjures up on ''Mortal Man,'' letting Pac deliver the album's most-fatalist mad-prophetic zinger: ''Next time it's a riot, there's gonna be bloodshed for real. . .I think America thinks we was just playing, but it's gonna be murder. . .like Nat Turner 1831 up in this muthafucka.''
But Lamar's own fears of assuming a messiah position are upfront and personal. "I been wrote off before, I got abandonment issues," he says on "Mortal Man." "How many leaders you said you needed then left 'em for dead?/Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton, or Detroit Red?" You can imagine Chuck D or Dead Prez going in as hard and witty against white supremacy as Lamar does on "The Blacker the Berry" and "King Kunta" – but you can't picture them exposing the vulnerability, doubt and self-loathing swag heard on ''Complexion (A Zulu Love)," "u," "For Sale?" and "i." What makes Lamar's bully pulpit more akin to Curtis Mayfield's or Gil Scott Heron's than any protest MC before him is the heart worn on his hoodie's sleeves.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a densely packed, dizzying rush of unfiltered rage and unapologetic romanticism, true-crime confessionals, come-to-Jesus sidebars, blunted-swing sophistication, scathing self-critique and rap-quotable riot acts. Roll over Beethoven, tell Thomas Jefferson and his overseer Bull Connor the news: Kendrick Lamar and his jazzy guerrilla hands just mob-deeped the new Jim Crow, then stomped a mud hole out that ass.