Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Retro digi-pop light on depth but heavy on dancefloor fun.
The latest LP from L.A. husband and wife duo Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis is an aptly named melding of Eighties computer game soundtracks, spacey synths and vague New Age guff where telephone calls come from outer space, rainbows are chased and dream quests are duly undertaken. Save for feminism lament "New Grrrls", the album has all the depth and range of a game of "Pong", and both the songs and Dunis' vocals lack the dynamism to lift the LP above anything more than a fun curio. Still, the glitchy mix of digi-pop, dub and warped dance beats brings Peaking Lights’ fun “2014 as imagined by 1984 space cadets” vision to neon-lit, 8-bit life.
21st century folkies keep it high, lonesome and evocative.
What is it about modern life that seemingly forces every sensitive 20-something (cue Husky Gawenda) to reach for a six-string and share their aching heart with the rest of the world? To their credit, APRA- and Unearthed-winning Melbournians Husky know their way around a haunting tune; cue "I'm Not Coming Back”, the lead salvo from their second coming: it's part kiss off, part regret for a place Gawenda no longer calls home. While the trio's high and lonesome, Fleet Foxes-via-Everly Brothers harmonies remain intact, the band really kicks in to good effect during "Wild and See”, "Saint Joan” and the title track, adding welcome muscle.
Gawenda's the type of guy who doesn't mind singing about the wide open road and life in motion, and this album – written in a moonlit backroom, no less – delivers evocative big time. Gawenda is also a dab hand with a poignant rhyming couplet: "I thought I saw a vision of my youth/In the rearview mirror while I was looking for the truth,” he confesses during "Heartbeat”, sounding for all the world like the young Paul Simon. And as folkie touchstones go, they don't come much bigger.
Mississippi duo nail straight-ahead rock.
Bass Drum of Death graduate from lo-fi garage and proto-punk to old-school hard rock on this third album, sounding like a stripped-down cousin to Kiss or even AC/DC. Produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Jacob Portrait, it's a no-nonsense record that only relinquishes intensity on the mostly acoustic ballad "Better Days". Otherwise it’s one anthem after another: opener "Electric" is all un-ironic riffage and snide vocals, "Sin Is In 10" recalls the stoner side of early Weezer and "Lose My Mind" charges ahead with a huge, distorted hook. It’s totally one-note and totally effective, though the band’s growing ambition would be better served by a wider sound than a two-piece drums-and-guitar set-up can afford.
Growling Aussie blues anachronism goes electric.
If you can believe your ears, Cab Calloway was king and Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a pup when C.W. Stoneking made this album. Gon' Boogaloo is state-of-the-art circa maybe 1940: a single microphone bears eerie witness to deep jungle drums, upright bass and handclappin' girly chorus in far-flung corners as the Aussie blues enigma growls and shouts his scarily authentic voodoo. The brass section of Jungle Blues (2008) is gone, and Stoneking's Fender electric brings a twangsome edge where the old National plunk used to be, but the spooky creep of "The Zombie" and the street corner swing of "Good Luck Charm" are no more of this world than shellac and silk stockings. Which makes this, obviously, gold.
Duo deliver on their promise with breakout record
On their third album, Finnish/French duo Dan Levy and Olivia Merilahti pivot from the baroque folk roots of their previous work to turn in a dramatic, widescreen electro-pop LP. Shake, Shook, Shaken benefits greatly from the pair's past, however, with the duo submitting hook-laden arrangements to fuzzy organs, foggy drum machines and esoteric sound effects. Opener "Keep Your Lips Sealed" sets the template with its bombastic military beat, horns and huge hook. Merilahti can be a slight lyricist, but her versatile voice proves a good foil for the group's shift in mood, as on the hurt swagger of "Sparks" and "A Mess Like This". A break-out LP that deserves to be absorbed from start to finish.
Raucous third set from ragged Aussie blues combo
Back in the tie-dyed Seventies, no outdoor stage was complete without a band led by a gruff, beardy bloke and a lady who kicked every other tune up a gear with some of that Janis Joplin holler. That's the hazy Super 8 scene that Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson recall with this third album of harp-wailing, slide-slapping tunes about hard work, long roads and the portable beer fridge – that’ll be the title track – that makes it all worthwhile. There’s a rough majesty to the leaner likes of "Long Dark Cloud", a hillbilly hoot in "Coming Home" and sweet conviction in "Sister Sister", but the live-recorded vibe is an implicit acknowledgment that this is more souvenir than main event.
A turbulent year leaves U.S. pop-punkers in gritty mood.
Having dumped guitarist Steve Klein last year when he was arraigned on alleged child porn offences, New Found Glory are clearly a band scorned by their former bandmate's behaviour – see "The Worst Person" with its refrain of "You might be the worst person I've ever met, I've ever known". The Florida outfit's first album as a four-piece is arguably their toughest to date, their anger and hurt at Klein's betrayal channelled through Chad Gilbert's chunked-up guitars and Jordan Pundik's acidic lyrics. The trademark ear-worm melodies are still in place ("Ready and Willing", "Vicious Love"), but with extra buzz and bite. Talk about making the best of a bad situation.
Bloc Party frontman goes solo once more.
Ever since he first branched out on his own, Kele Okereke has been moving steadily towards reinvention as an electronic artist. Four years after his first solo LP, and with Bloc Party on an indefinite hiatus, the frontman's evolution feels complete. This is music made on computers, but fans of Bloc Party who are coming for their Kele fix will probably be relieved it isn't the Ibiza-ready house of his recent Crosstown Rebels releases. Here, things are much more accessible – and not dissimilar to the iciness of The xx, if you need a reference point – letting Kele pour his heart out about love and longing once more. In that regard at least, Tricks isn't that different to the iterations of Okereke's past work.
Strokes main man grows up, gets weird on dense second solo outing.
Julian Casablancas has always seemed at odds with the vestiges of stardom and privilege his band and rich-kid upbringing afforded him, but never more than here. His 2009 solo album Phrazes for the Young was a brash and exhilarating pop riot; Tyranny – an older, angrier Casablancas lashing out at the expectations and conventions of a world that still sees him as "that guy from the Strokes" – is a forceful riposte to anyone expecting a repeat.
Gone is Phrazes' easily-digestible catchiness; instead of disco-glazed pop nuggets, there's epic 11-minute schizophrenic jams warping strings across sci-fi electro, shredding guitars and Casablancas' interstellar airport lounge croon ("Human Sadness"), downer electro ("Xerox") and dystopian tropical hellscapes ("Father Electricity").
It might be wilfully antagonistic, but it's also delightfully bonkers. Buried amid the psyche explosions is the excellent woozy, discordant pop of "Johan Van Bronx" and the peevish electro-funk of "Dare I Care": sounding like it was concocted in a Moroccan opium den while Casablancas created the world's 38th-best Strokes cover band from street urchins. "Nintendo Blood" goes off the deep end, starting off like the soundtrack to an Eighties infomercial and unfurling into a sinister backwoods electro-funk jamboree.
"Crunch Punch" and "Where No Eagles Fly", though, will comfort anyone familiar with Casablancas, as will the raw punkiness of "Business Dog" and "M.Utually A.ssured D.estruction". But for all the times it's bizarre and captivating, Tyranny struggles to communicate much coherently. Of Phrazes, Casablancas has said he wished it was more experimental; but experimenting and being caught with a finger up your arse are often the same thing.
Noiseniks temper their buzzsaw edges on third record
Having made their name crafting skull-trauma-inducing noise welded to enough melody to ensure your girlfriend didn't hate them, for third album Blood Pulled Apart By Horses have aimed their careening wagon of hair, noise and anger down a slightly more moderate road. It's tricky, but it works... just. Tempered rumblers like "Weird Weather" and "Hello Men" show a softer side to the Leeds band, playing nicely in a more pensive, QOTSA-feeling sandpit alongside "Hot Squash" and the throat-shredding "Bag of Snakes". But lacking some of their sense of deranged adventure – "ADHD in HD" tries, but fails – it's left to the straight-forward arse-kicking afforded by "Lizard Baby" and "Medium Rare" to make Blood flow.
Bluesy Irish hype sensation shows he’s no one-hit wonder.
A few months ago, 24-year-old Andrew Hozier-Byrne was a little-known Irish singer-songwriter. But his YouTube hit "Take Me to Church" won him a wave of insta-hype, and his debut LP earns it. Blessed with a sensual singing voice and a seemingly bottomless well of lapsed-Catholic-style conflict, Hozier channels Van Morrison's Celtic R&B, Southern soul and Black Keys-style garage blues into intimately roiling songs like "Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene". On the Irish-folk lullaby "In a Week", he promises some lucky lass eternal rapture through the sweet embrace of shared death: "We'd become the flowers/We'd feed well the land." So down-to-earth!
Melbourne trio offer sordid pisstake on suburban Australia.
There's a fish drinking a tinnie and smoking a durry while wearing thongs and a wife beater on the cover of the Peep Tempel's second album. And that's not even close to describing the wrongness contained within. In the fine tradition of Primitive Calculators, Cosmic Psychos and SixFtHick, Tales proudly coats itself in the beer-drenched stench of Australia's vile underbelly. It sure ain't pretty – from the sex creep slobbering his way through "Edgar's Lament" to the bingo call at the heart of "Vicki The Butcher"'s suburban nightmare. But like the Drones with a sick sense of humour, the Peep Tempel revel in a kind of warped Australiana that'd probably be more compelling if they actually had something to say.
Curmudgeonly indie-rock hero rediscovers his funny side.
Over the past three decades, Steve Albini has established himself as one of rock's great malcontents. So any time he cuts loose with his fun-loving post-grunge trio is a refreshing change of pace. On Shellac's first record in seven years, Albini peppers his band's musical tempests with comically alpha-nerd lyrics about fighting strangers ("Dude Incredible") and riding bikes in an apocalypse ("Riding Bikes"). He even participates in a genuinely funny Monty Python-style medieval chant ("Fuck the king!") on the gloriously heavy rocker "All the Surveyors". The lighthearted diversions are welcome – but if Albini keeps up this pace, he'll be wearing Hawaiian shirts by 2021.
Ninth album finds eternal geeks rediscovering their mojo.
Those who regard 1996's Pinkerton as Weezer's creative high point will beg to differ, but Rivers Cuomo and Co tend to do their best work with producer (and Cars frontman) Ric Ocasek – see their 1994 debut, the Blue Album, and 2001's Green Album. Here they team up with Ocasek for a third time, perhaps in an attempt to regain the ground lost with 2010's forgettable Hurley. The irresistible stomp of "Back to the Shack" reaffirms the band's sense of purpose – "rocking out like it's '94" with the "strat with the lightning strap" – setting the tone beautifully for an album dripping with Cuomo's deceptively simple, sombre, guitar-charged melodies. A welcome return.
Reunited Melbourne minstrels reach new peaks of wit, fury and melody.
Funny guy, Glenn Richards. You need to scratch the purity of his medieval minstrel's tone and bend a keen ear to his leather-bound language, but the chortles seem thicker on his return to Augie March's autumnal wardrobe.
The running gag from "AWOL" to "The Crime", 14 songs later, is his absence these last "three dozen cycles": exiled to Tasmania, "the broken bit outside Imperium/Not for any mischief/Just enormous indifference in song".
Indifference doesn't craft songs like these, of course, with their swooning tunes, painstaking metre and elegance of expression. That's more lucid than ever in the likes of "After the Crack Up" and "Bastard Time", each dripping from the pen of a man raging at his ageing reflection. "You heal the wound like a crocodile saves its victim for later," he sweetly tells that motherless bastard.
"Definitive History", by brutal contrast, is as funny as a dog whistle from Canberra. It's a fragmented portrait of a vicious, ill-bred nation that damns "ordinary Australians" by name. The prettiness of Kiernan Box's piano in the murderous last turn is chilling.
There's always more to unpack in Richards' sumptuous verse but there's a fresh restraint here that gives his tunes more immediate impact, from the solo strum of "Father Jack and Mr T" to the full electric shuffle of "A Dog Starved".
But can this exile rekindle that fleeting indie cred, Uncle Nick style? "O I know self pity, it begins with nostalgia," he sings, "and you'll die of melancholy if the dolor don't get ya." See? You have to laugh.
Old-school indie rock with a few new tricks.
This has been the breakthrough album for Philadelphia uni student Alex Giannascoli, and it’s easy to hear why. DSU plays like an endearing time capsule of Nineties indie rock, evoking Elliott Smith, Modest Mouse, and early Death Cab. It’s got surprising range for a home recording, from the sampled screams of “Axesteel” and DIY beat-making of “Promise” to sporadic pitch-shifted vocals. Low-key gems like “Harvey” and “Sorry” remind us you don’t need much polish to make a strong personal connection. The album is brimming with potential, but there’s a fair bit of filler too. It’ll be interesting to see if Alex G can maintain his scrappy underdog appeal now that his profile is going through the roof.