Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Blue Mountains hip-hoppers stretch out on LP three
Thundamentals have always had talent, but when they dropped romantic first single “Smiles Don’t Lie” from this, their third LP, they went from hip-hop heads painting the town red to a group with a whole new audience. The rest of the album opens up their sound even further; the whip-smart larrikin lyrics and funk infused jams of old are still there, but this time around they’re laced with electronica and a whole new level of polish. Opener “Home In Your Head” has hints of Burial, while the über-catchy “Something I Said” comes correct with a pure pop hook. A deft balance of fresh and familiar, the Thundas have their hearts firmly on their sleeves this time around, and that’s a very good thing.
Adele’s co-writer crafts grown-up, rainy-day pop
Post Semisonic, Dan Wilson’s found real form as a songwriter-for-hire. He’s cranked out the good stuff for Nas, Birdy, Missy Higgins – who repays the favour here – and, especially, Adele, with whom he wrote the Grammy winning “Someone Like You”, a huge pay day that means everything Wilson now does is for love, not money. Love Without Fear is a reminder that Wilson’s always had a winning way with heavy-hearted, organic pop; if you’re in a rainy day mood and crave a soundtrack, you could do far worse. And when Wilson goes for the big emotional splash during “When It Pleases You” and “Even the Stars Are Sleeping”, you can imagine Adele calling him, requesting something similar for her next outing.
Michael Jackson’s second posthumous studio album is surprisingly solid
Michael Jackson has been more prolific in death than he usually was while alive. For his second posthumous studio LP, weighing in at an ungenerous eight songs, Timbaland and Jerome Harmon lead a team of producers who’ve added bulk and even dubstep eruptions to Jackson’s unfinished tracks, originally laid down between 1983 and 2002.
“Loving You” (recorded during sessions for 1987’s Bad) follows the wonderful, breezy legacy of “Rock With You” and “The Way You Make Me Feel”. But it’s an exception: Most of these songs rot and sway with fear. In “Chicago”, Jackson rails at a harlot who seduced him, despite being married with kids. The Dangerous outtake “Slave to the Rhythm” details an ugly marriage, and the EDM surges of the astounding, audacious “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” chronicle the grim fate of a preteen girl who runs from an abusive stepdad. Even with such dark subject matter, though, it’s a joy to hear the joy in Jackson’s voice.
Female sexual predators and the abuse of children were frequent Jackson themes. So was his sense of martyrdom. In “Xscape”, he uses his array of percussive gasps and clucks to describe how TV cameras (and, inevitably, a greedy woman) plague his life. In the second chorus, he slips in a chilling ad-lib that’s easy to overlook: “I’m dying.”
Promising, if limited, debut from youthful Southerners
Horse Thief, from Denton, Texas, arrive with a certain amount of clout given that the town’s most famous sons, Midlake, deemed the quintet important enough to take them on tour. Their literate folk-rock can be placed somewhere between the looseness of Fruit Bats and a less penetrating version of the Shins. Songs like “I Don’t Mind” are absorbing, combining energetic, earthy rock with something more ethereal. The interesting “Human Geographer”, meanwhile, sounds like a ragged Fleet Foxes and offers ambition and depth with its changing sections, but like the whole album lacks the punch to match its passion. Though there is nothing to dislike here, there is not enough to rouse particular excitement.
Melbourne singer-songwriter hits an instant chord
Harry Hookey may be a new name to many, but straight from the box his songs already feel like they’ve been here forever. Taking cues from songwriters such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan, with a strong hint of the modern folk rock flavour of Sydney’s Boy & Bear, Hookey’s debut carves out an instant niche for the Melbourne songwriter. Whether he’s twisting simple folk on “Come and Go”, hinting at Iggy Pop on “Misdiagnosed” or veering towards Springsteen-esque intensity on “Man On Fire”, Hookey does it all with a poet’s touch and a masterful sense of melody. Some may say they’ve heard it all before, but when it’s done this well, it’s a pleasure to hear it again.
Precocious 21-year-old from rural Iceland takes on the world
Ásgeir’s first Australian release is the English language version of his debut Dyrd í dauðathogn o, a massively popular LP in his homeland. Yet his idiosyncratic trill is not for everyone. The histrionically emotive vocals can give an unattractive sense of postured misery – even if all lyrics are by Ásgeir’s 73-year-old poet grandfather (and translated by singer-songwriter and Iceland-phile John Grant) – but after repeat listens one does come round to his peculiar, high-pitched delivery. In the plaintive sensitivity of his songs, particularly when resorting to acoustic guitars on the title track, there are touches of Bon Iver, while frequent dashes of electronica evoke James Blake. A fascinating collection.
One of Australia’s most exciting bands deliver on early promise
While Brisbane’s DZ Deathrays served up a solid debut and have built a formidable live following, their earlier recordings saw them limited by the restrictions of being a two-piece. It’s hard not to sound like Death From Above 1979 or the White Stripes when you’re a duo, and DZ sounded a lot like the former. On Black Rat, the energetic youngsters have found their own sound and it’s as impressive as it is infectious. Like most of their I Oh You labelmates, DZ Deathrays can write massive hooks and are serving up records that would work as well in downtown Brooklyn as they would in Fortitude Valley. Black Rat is sexy, catchy and brutal heavy music hipsterism.
The glossy pop jams on the Utah band’s third LP come with an undercurrent of personal struggle
On their two hit singles – 2010’s “Animal” and 2012’s “Everybody Talks” – Neon Trees refashioned post-Strokes dance rock into unshakable radio pop. If the Utah band was from New York or L.A., its slick simulations of neo-New Wave might seem cynical. But there’s something sweet about kids from more or less the middle of nowhere getting their little piece of modern rock. They’re not Foster the People, they’re everyday people.
The Trees’ third album ups the empathy quotient: Frontman Tyler Glenn, who was raised Mormon, recently came out as gay, so phrases like “I was socially absurd” take on unexpected resonance. Pop Psychology opens with the biggest, shiniest songs he’s come up with, each taking on a slippery aspect of post-modern romance. There’s the sun-kissed alt-pop of “Love in the 21st Century”, the Peter Gabriel arena gush of “Sleeping With a Friend”, the Bowie-quoting bubble-punk of “Teenager in Love”. The stark, chilly synth ballad “Voices in the Hall” works as both a late-night breakup lament and a testament of personal struggle, as if the difference between pop and art was no difference at all.
Impressive progression by Melbourne soul revivalists
Saskwatch’s 2012 hype-generating debut Leave it All Behind was recorded in a mere four days, so the three weeks spent completing its follow up must have felt like luxury. Nose Dive is a polished, assured 11-track set by the nine-piece soul outfit, which has turned heads with its dynamic, festival-approved live show. But while the Melbourne band provides some obligatory hip shaking, big band action (“Give Me a Reason’’ and “Hands’’), the real story here is one of musical growth. Slower, groove-laden tracks like “Call Your Name” – an affecting ballad that reaches a powerful crescendo – demonstrate an impressive depth and maturity that sits seamlessly alongside the party starting fun.
Guests spice up album four from electrofunk vets
After a decade and three albums of ironic Eighties-flavoured, vocoder-heavy electrofunk that largely plays like Daft Punk taking the piss, you’d be forgiven for wondering if the world needed another LP from Montreal duo Chromeo. Perhaps sensing their relationship needed some spicing up, Dave 1 and P-Thugg have invited others into their sonic boudoir. They find a perfect foil in Toro y Moi for the disco bounce of “Come Alive”, and Solange adds some welcome feminine sass to “Lost on the Way Home”. Still, the best thing here might be the guest-free “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)”, a song which eases up on the retro shtick and hints at a possible poptastic future direction for Chromeo.
More songs about beards and people who grow them
For the band that can play anything, comedy is far from the worst option. If it were even slightly serious in intent, there isn’t one song on the Beards’ fourth album that could raise its head above the trashcan of cliché. That goes from the minor key piano melodrama of “Beards Are Back” to the cowbell-clanging Eighties rock of “All the Bearded Ladies”; the sax-wielding lite funk of “Touch Me In the Beard” to the jangling ballad of the chin-stroking drifter, “Damn, That’s a Nice Beard”. The solitary gag – beard fancying taken to a somewhat irrational extreme and delivered in a tone of defiantly piratical pomp – is what it is: best enjoyed with a beer in your fist.
Disco bangers aim for the smart but fall a little short
De Lux (LA duo Sean Guerin and Isaac Franco) open their debut with “Better at Making Time”, their best track: seven-plus glorious minutes of Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem getting wasted together at the discotheque. It’s both a smart and dumb move, a predicament that plagues the rest of Voyage. The music itself is adept at getting the party started, but when Guerin attempts David Byrne’s particular brand of subversive wit, he largely comes up short (a fact perhaps noted in “I’ve Got to Make a Statement (No More Likes and Ums)”). De Lux will have no problem getting feet to the dance floor, but a more original voice is needed to ensure they’re seen as more than just a passing pleasure.
Metal supergroup is equal to the sum of its parts
A supergroup in the truest sense of the word, Killer Be Killed features Max Cavalera (Soulfly/Sepultura), Greg Puciato (the Dillinger Escape Plan), Troy Sanders (Mastodon) and Dave Elitch (the Mars Volta), with Cavalera and Sanders assisting Puciato with vocal duties. The results sit somewhere between the blunt-edged brutality of Soulfly and the skewed melodicism of Mastodon – indeed songs such as “Wings of Feather and Wax” and “Face Down” veer between the two with pinpoint accuracy. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the collaboration is just how melodic it is, and the fact that it avoids the technical wizardry of the Mars Volta and Dillinger for something more classic, primal and immediate.
Debut from Sydney seven-piece shows intriguing variety
One might not expect anything particularly nuanced of a band called Little Bastard, and indeed opener “High For You” delivers a primitive thud of high-energy country-punk; part Pogues, part Gogol Bordello. But then more interesting layers emerge, with the pleasing blues of “Just Won’t Do” and the mournful “Desert Roller”, a splendid ballad with echoes of early Whiskeytown. With their riotous, loud live show vital to their identity, this LP proves they are more eclectic than they might seem. “Be My Kind” again surprises with its move away from recognisable folk forms to sound like a jugband Joy Division, ensuring that the boozy, frenetic tracks, supposedly their calling card, become rather boring.
Swede’s stellar mini-epic packs a big emotional wallop
“Trilogy” may be a word commonly associated with Star Wars movies, but it’s one that 28-year-old Lykke Li has recently employed to link her three LPs to date: thematically united works, she says, charting the pleasure and pain of being a woman in her twenties. A close listen reveals a loose arc: 2008’s Youth Novels is playful and naive, but by 2011’s Wounded Rhymes, the sleeve-on-heart romanticism was being tempered with a streak of caustic cynicism. Skipping the Hollywood ending, I Never Learn’s denouement arrives as a tragedy: the sound of failed love and deep regret.
A glance at the track list offers a preview of the journey ahead: “Never Gonna Love Again”, “Heart of Steel”, “Sleeping Alone”. It may look grim, but a combination of stellar songwriting and heart wrenching honesty makes this Li’s strongest album to date. Along with producers Greg Kurstin and Björn Yttling (of Peter Björn and John), Li has created a concise nine-track album that swings from sparse to sweepingly epic; boldly alternating between poised restraint and pure bloodletting.
“I Never Learn” and “No Rest for the Wicked” make for a devastating one-two emotional gut-punch: the former an aching acoustic lament; the latter a delicate piano number that opens up into a huge chorus, Li confessing “I let my true love die”.
Dramatic? Very. But entirely appropriate for an epic farewell to the love’s won and lost over Li’s triumphant trilogy – as tragic as the final conclusion may be.
Staggering second album from Melbourne genre-hoppers
A lot’s happened since this Melbourne quintet released their debut LP in 2009, not least a stint in the U.S. and the blooding of some new members. If the mindbogglingly intricate and genre-less songs on this 11-track effort are any indication, they must also have spent a great deal of that period writing. As with early offerings by the Mars Volta, CIM manage to be both accessible and complex, at times recalling the techno-funk of Mutemath (“The Church of the Technochrist”), while the chorus of “Seeds of Gold” even has a touch of (whisper it) Maroon 5 to it. “The Fool”, meanwhile, could teach Karnivool a few new tricks. Inventive, but not at the cost of good songs.