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Soul singer and star hip-hop producer team up.
With Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" dominating charts in the wake of Pharrell's "Happy", Tuxedo's previously unfashionable brand of svelte disco-lite and feel-good funk is suddenly hip. A passion project for butter-voiced soul singer Mayer Hawthorne and hip-hop producer Jake One (Drake, Snoop), Tuxedo is an ode to G-Funk, Studio 54, and the power of smooth music. Which makes for some uninspiring rehashes between on-point approximation. But Tuxedo isn't to be deconstructed – it's strictly for feel-good dancing. The fat groove of "Do It" could be a Chic cast-off, while "So Good" straddles Chromeo meets Prince. Switch off, lighten up.
Freo indie kids grow up on second album.
Gracetown is San Cisco understanding that cutesy indie-pop has a shelf-life roughly half that of an open packet of Doritos: great fresh, weird after a while. Taking the tried-and-true 'Just Add Synth' path to maturity, tales of broken hearts, growing apart and relationship drama abound, enhanced dramatically when singer Jordi Davieson and drummer Scarlett Stevens join forces. There's much more emotional and musical heft to their sugary sweetness as on "Magic", "Too Much Time Together" and "Run", but the album's highlights come when San Cisco go for broke and head off the rails in the impressively strange "Super Slow" and slinky electro-funk closer "Just For a Minute".
Accidentally acclaimed songwriter goes all in on LP two.
Soft rock hasn't had a proper hero since it was totally acceptable and completely un-ironic to wear a pair of tan loafers sans socks. Enter Matthew E. White. The Virginia-based singer was a revelation when he emerged with gospel-tinged debut Big Inner (2012). On its full-length follow-up he's well and truly arrived. White's great deception is the way he makes bold statements from such a hushed voice. Which makes it all the more curious why he's released a "minimalist mix" as a special-edition bonus disc sans orchestration and backing vox. These songs demand the full treatment – from the sweeping strings of "Vision" to the horns that make "Take Care My Baby" such a tour de force.
Post-punk heroes' radical attack curdles into vague paranoia
At their peak, Gang of Four stylised 1970s dissent into cutting post-punk. Sadly, the qualities that once made the English act so influential are gone on its ninth LP, and first since co-founding singer Jon King's departure in 2012. The question posed by the record's title is not one the band seems to know how to answer. In place of once-sharp radical jabs, we get empty alarmism. "Obey the Ghost" is full of vague Illuminati archetypes: "We're Facebook friends with celebrities," new singer John "Gaoler" Sterry accuses over ominous video-game chirps. The only threat it brings to mind is that Frogger might not cross the street in time.
Beloved Melbourne quartet again find bliss in domestic dualities.
Despite all four members juggling time in a constellation of Melbourne groups, garage-pop heroes Dick Diver have managed to forge something rare among young bands: a distinct musical language. It's one not completely foreign to fans of the Go-Betweens or the Flying Nun label, but sturdy enough to have seen their two albums – New Start Again (2011) and Calendar Days (2013) – celebrated as near-instant classics.
Melbourne, Florida refines and extends the unhurried quartet's charmed, charming streak. Dick Diver's multiple-songwriters – Rupert Edwards, Al McKay, Al Montfort, Steph Hughes – each have a real gift for melody and painterly emotions couched in wry plainspeak. "Europe's fucked probably," goes the breezy jam of "Private Number", "it seems insane, my friend's art needs guarding, end of days". Here they adorn their conversational guitar pop with piano, synth and horns, lending a subtle splendour to domestic concerns – see the trumpets that guide "Year In Pictures” home, or gorgeous piano closer "View From A Shaky Ladder".
Recorded in a shed in Apollo Bay, Victoria, seeking (or just noticing) a sense of place and commune anchors Dick Diver – it's in the playful guitar of "Tearing the Posters Down", or gentle admonishment of "there's sick on your lapel, daddy-o, that's confidence” on "Percentage Points".
They make friendly chatter universal. Even still, when Hughes sings of numberplates, kitchens and "waiting in the driveway, wondering when to get out” on "Leftovers", the familiar sting of ennui feels undoubtedly of Melbourne, Australia.
Singer-songwriter's first album in seven years marks a meek return.
The typical narrative of the lone acoustic singer-songwriter archetype is that of the outsider blessed with the gift of penetration. Who needs possession of a band, DJ booth or personal interior monologue, when the troubadour alone can divine some connection?
Swedish musician José González has long been installed in this lineage, ever since his miraculous cover of the Knife's "Heartbeats" isolated the emotional wreckage of that fabulous tech-glo tune. But three albums, a handful of EPs and a swathe of novelty covers later (Kylie Minogue! Joy Division!), there's a case to be made that this artist's status – and accompanying press release claiming: "one of the most important of his generation" – is fraudulent.
The Swede is certainly a skilled guitarist, if regularly sidetracked by dexterity over arrangement. Here his nylon string noodlings are lo-fi, breaking up nicely when pushed, as on "What Will". But specific to this album's failings is González has little to say and manages just shallow worlds within which to try.
"Every age has its turn/Every branch of the tree has to learn" he ekes on "Every Age", "Take this seed/Take this spade/Take this dream of a better day", as if listing fridge poetry is a dialogue.
Subtle opener "With the Ink of a Ghost" is easily the best thing here, suggesting a complexity untroubled by the mild sketches that fill out this disappointingly weak album.
Gravel-voiced country star returns with fifth album.
Ryan Bingham has made his reputation as something of a country troubadour, picking up Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy acclaim along the way for penning "The Weary Kind" from the 2009 movie Crazy Heart. On previous album Tomorrowland (2012), however, he largely dropped that persona and instead picked up his political jackhammer to vent his frustrations; it was a patchy record, but at his best Bingham exhibits considerable heart and a focused, brave poetry.
Fear and Saturday Night mixes his familiar acoustic balladry with Tomorrowland's harder-edged rock. Opener "Nobody Knows My Trouble" introduces the album on a surprising note given both his last LP and the ensuing variety of this album: a fairly predictable country shuffle with predictable country lyrical tropes. Things evolve nicely, however, with the pacy "Top Shelf Drug" recalling the acerbic vigour of early solo John Lennon and "Snow Falls In June" offering the gentle melodic finesse he bypassed on Tomorrowland.
This album is also more personal, dealing with his painful family background (both parents were alcoholics, his father committed suicide), yet by its conclusion the listener is left with a hard-earned sense of hope. Though truly brilliant songwriting may be beyond Bingham, this is a solid outing.
Young Aussie punks broaden their sound on second album.
Clowns made their name with quickie old-school punk anthems, but this finds them visibly stretching out. A few songs still clock in at under 60 seconds, but the glowering, dirge-like epic "Human Terror" stays purely instrumental for the first five minutes, while the Melbourne quartet jump from frantic Eighties hardcore ("These Veins") to punchy pop-punk hooks ("Never Enough") to scalding metalcore ("Infected"). That huge appetite means a bit more filler, and the lyrics aren't always the most profound. But when Clowns hit the boiling point where all that rising tension succumbs to a screaming burst of adrenaline – as on "Euthanise Me" – it's absolutely killer.
U.S. trio employ a poppier but no less charming sound.
Tennis (husband and wife Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, and drummer James Barone) released their first two albums in quick succession; Ritual in Repeat spent a little longer in gestation, and it's audible in the sure-handed production work of the Black Keys' Patrick Carney (who also produced their second record), Richard Swift of the Shins and Spoon's Jim Eno. "Bad Girls" and "Timothy" are fuller, more sophisticated iterations of the Brill Building ditties that Tennis favour, while the breathy harmonies and skittering beats of "Never Work for Free" have more in common with Haim. Poppy and polished, it's the sound of a band increasingly aware of their strengths and playing to them accordingly.annabel ross
A twisted pop visionary breaks his dry spell.
BC Camplight's first album since 2007 sounds like he's spent the intervening years playing mad scientist with these captive pop songs. Heir to both Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson, the Manchester-based American presides over the piano with hangdog sweetness before taking his twinkling melodies for brash hairpin turns. Watch out for sudden flirtations with wonky funk bass, mariachi horns and jarring guitar jags, and observe how "Grim Cinema" jumps from aw-shucks Beach Boys homage to far crazier reaches. BC Camplight spins such contradictions into pure gold: "Just because I love you doesn't mean I love you," goes the chorus of the lead single.
Brooklynites stick with what they know on second album.
The Lone Bellow's 2013 self-titled debut showed significant potential, with frontman Zach Williams' accomplished take on emotive, swelling folk-rock familiar but possessing enough nuance to suggest something less generic might be on the horizon. Unfortunately, the band's follow-up is largely more of the same, with most of this earnest, country-inflected fare rather predictable. The best moments come when they approach harder rock & roll instead of the attempts at gospel ("Heaven Don't Call Me Home"), or when Williams' powerful vocals are to the fore ("Marietta"). Produced by the National's Aaron Dessner, Then Came the Morning is nice enough, but lacks adventure.
Toronto MC polishes his crown on a lean, mean surprise release.
Is it an album? Is it a mixtape? Who cares? The 17 tracks that Drake released at midnight on a recent Thursday hit harder and hold together more cohesively than most big-budget event albums. There's nothing resembling a radio single on If You're Reading This It's Too Late, and not many of the seductively sung hooks that rocketed the Toronto MC to fame. Instead, there are lots of songs like "Star67," a sullen chomp at the hand that feeds him: "Brand new Beretta, can't wait to let it go/Walk up in my label like, 'Where the check, though?'" It's hard to imagine the heads of Cash Money Records, who are currently embroiled in a financial dispute with Drake's mentor Lil Wayne, shmoney-dancing to that one. But for fans of the singular aesthetic that Drake has developed in recent years, "Star67" and the rest are manna straight from heaven, or at least from Canada.
Musically, If You're Reading This is a deep soak in the sound he staked out on 2013's career-peak Nothing Was the Same and furthered on last year's hit "0 to 100/The Catch Up." Trusted collaborators like Boi-1da and Noah "40" Shebib weave together murky piano loops and wispy R&B samples that lurk in the background, leaving plenty of room for Drake to go off. Lyrically, he's in pure stunt mode, using his star power to turn obscure slang into the height of style. ("Running through the six with my woes" sounds cooler than "Hanging out in Toronto with my friends," doesn't it?) The lower stakes for this project let him focus and refine his strengths; the brags are less humble, the threats more pointed. "Please don't speak to me like I'm that Drake from four years ago," he sneers on "No Tellin'." "I'm at a higher place."
Drake has often been synonymous with emotional openness, but this is far and away the least vulnerability he's ever shown on record — at least until "You & the 6," a heartfelt, one-sided conversation with the single mother who raised him. He complains about the time she tried to set him up with her personal trainer; he pushes her to forgive her ex, his dad. It's one of Drake's best songs ever, but you might not notice it until the third or fourth listen because he plays it so cool. For the first time in his career, Drake doesn't sound like he wants to be remembered as one of the greats. This time, he just is.
Canadian rockers embrace the absurd on balls-out LP.
Danko Jones are a ‘no nonsense' rock & roll band that revel in one of rock's most important ingredients: nonsense. The Canadian band have not so much blurred the line between stoner rock, heavy bluesy punk and tongue-in-cheek humour as roundhouse kicked it into oblivion. Their seventh album takes that concept even further and it's all the more hilarious for it. With all-too-literal songs like "Getting Into Drugs" and "Gonna Be a Fight Tonight", it's hard not to be charmed by their deadpan rock & roll satires – they even have a song called "Wild Woman". Full of brutal, gut-churning riffs, Fire Music is a grinning bruiser looking to get into a bar fight just for the thrill of it and the story to tell afterwards.
Country outlaw takes high road to the blues.
A heavy-breathing blues-harp stomp called "Baby Baby Baby (Baby)" is a fabulous way to shake off the dustbowl shroud that hung over Steve Earle's last album, The Low Highway. This year he puts the modern American wasteland in the rearview mirror – along with his seventh wife, Allison Moorer – and sets out for a rockin' good time where he "Ain't Nobody's Daddy Now" and "Go Go Boots Are Back".
Related: Stream 'Terraplane'
Between the sleazy motel grind of "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had" and the crisp acoustic ramble of "Gamblin' Blues" lies a gleeful indulgence in southern blues feels and themes framed by Buddy Guy/John Mayall producer R.S. Field.
The outlaw's not in complete denial. Smack in the middle of the ragtime spring-steps and 12-bar boogie grunters sits "Better Off Alone", a hangdog portrait drawn from some unforgiving bedroom mirror. It's a blinder in the light of his fresh marital wound, pierced through the heart by Chris Masterson's stinging guitar solo. The slow pounding hangover of the last track, "King of the Blues", brings brooding ballast to the back end, too.
Which only makes the rest feel like so much guilty pleasure. From the half-spoken smoulder of "The Tennessee Kid", with its twist on Robert Johnson's crossroads showdown, to a sassy country swing two-hander with fiddlin' Eleanor Whitmore, "Baby's Just As Mean As Me", Terraplane is the sound of a man who's earned the right to get good and besotted with the blues.
Covering romantic pop songs once sung by Sinatra, he finds a new way into rock history.
As an encore at almost every show on his North American tour last fall, Bob Dylan performed an unlikely ballad: "Stay With Me," recorded by Frank Sinatra on a 1964 single and written for a 1963 film, The Cardinal, about a young priest who ascends to a post in the Vatican. Sinatra cut the song, a prayer for guidance, as if from on high, in orchestration as grand as papal robes. On this quietly provocative and compelling album, Dylan enters the words and melody — as he did onstage — like a supplicant, in a tiptoe baritone through streaks of pedal steel guitar that suggest the chapel-like quiet of a last-chance saloon. But Dylan's need is immediate, even carnal, and he pleads his case with a survivor's force, in a deep, shockingly clear voice that sounds like rebirth in itself. In stripping the song to pure, robust confession, Dylan turns "Stay With Me" into the most fundamental of Great American Songs: a blues.
Dylan transforms everything on Shadows in the Night — 10 slow-dance covers, mostly romantic standards from the pre-rock era of American popular songwriting — into a barely-there noir of bowed bass and throaty shivers of electric guitar. There are occasional dusky flourishes of brass (the moaning curtain of horns in "The Night We Called It a Day"), but the most prominent voice, other than Dylan's, is his steel guitarist Donny Herron's plaintive cries of Hawaiian and West Texas sorrow. Sinatra is a connecting presence: He recorded all of these songs, and Dylan made Shadows at the Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles where Sinatra did his immortal work for that label. Sinatra even co-wrote the first song, "I'm a Fool to Want You," in 1951. When Dylan crawls uphill through the line "To share a kiss that the devil has known," it is easy to hear Sinatra's then-tumultuous romance with Ava Gardner — along with echoes of the wounded desire Dylan left all over Blood on the Tracks.
Yet Shadows in the Night is less a tribute to Sinatra than a belated successor to Dylan's 1992 and '93 LPs of solo folk and blues covers, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong: a spare, restorative turn to voices that have, in some way, always been present in his own. "Autumn Leaves" and Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" are the kind of ladies' choices Dylan surely played with his Fifties bands at school dances. "That Lucky Old Sun" (Number One for Frankie Laine in 1949) turned up in Dylan's early-Nineties set lists, but that's no surprise: Its near-suicidal resignation is not far from that of Blind Willie McTell's "Broke Down Engine," on World Gone Wrong, or Dylan's own "Love Sick," on 1997's Time Out of Mind.
The great shock here, then, is Dylan's singing. Dylan's focus and his diction, after years of drowning in sandpaper, evoke his late-Sixties poise and clarity on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline — also records of deceptive restraint and retrospect — with an eccentric rhythmic patience in the way he holds words and notes across the faint suggestions of tempo. It is not crooning. It is suspense: Dylan, at 73, keeping fate at arm's length as he looks for new lessons, nuance and solace in well-told tales.
Indie youngsters deliver rambunctious debut
Whilst many of their Strokes-influenced siblings have chosen to mute their enthusiasm in favour of posturing cool, Pennsylvania's the Districts compliment their forefathers' frantic guitar leads with equally unhinged emotional emanations. It's a refreshing approach, with the young band frequently bringing frontman Rob Grote's passionate and unashamedly raw vocals to the foreground. Experiments on the album's latter half with the introduction of bare minimalism ("Suburban Smell"), loops ("Bold") and prog-light epics ("Young Blood") highlight the reliance on the favoured energetic two prong partnership, yet also prove the band's eagerness to break the formulaic grind.jonny nail