Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Keith Morris-fronted punkers deliver more raw power
There’s no point expecting a shift in direction from Off!. Repetition and simplicity are the main weapons in their arsenal. Songs like “Legion Of Evil” and “It Didn’t Matter To Me” are punk rock blueprints, every bit as authentic and angry as anything released in the Regan-era. At 58, Keith Morris doesn’t have time to waste on unnecessary bullshit like repeat choruses and guitar solos. His succinct diatribes throw down and then move on at a cracking pace. If you don’t want to listen, Off! have no time for you. “I’ll take/You can’t have/I’ll take/All I can grab,” barks Morris on “All I Can Grab”, and it sounds as relevant in the Kardashian-era as it would have under the “yuppie-scum” threat of the 1980s.
Atlantans pare it down on heavy fourth album
Frontman and songwriter Andy Hull’s solipsism and lyrical overindulgence were blights on the otherwise impressive Simple Math (2011), the album that saw the five-piece soar to new heights, artistically and commercially. As if aware of his melodramatic tendencies, Hull has opted here for some of the most direct guitar-based indie you might find, 38 minutes of impassioned, vaguely emo rock elevated by Hull’s increasingly fine tenor. Amid the break-neck pace comes intriguing respite with songs such as “The Ocean” and “Indentions”, although these are slightly dwarfed by the shards of noise on such monoliths as the title track. A mature, less showy collection from the mind of a complicated young man.
Singer teams up with Middle East members for album two
On 2012’s Sounds of Our City, Narooma-born Emma Russack was toasting her new home of Melbourne. On its follow-up she’s contemplating a trip back to rural NSW: “All the horses in the field/Make we want the countryside.” Returning to Yowrie (about 45 minutes away from her hometown), Russack has cut another deeply personal album about love, heartbreak and indecision in just four days. On “Cairns” she laments the solitude of Melbourne’s cold over the kind of jazz chords she toyed with as Lola Flash. On “Two Lovers”, she’s questioning her morality over lashings of pedal steel. The bird noises on “In The End” just add to the album’s homely feel – even if she’s not quite sure where that is just yet.
Smart, propulsive third act from Brisbane indie kids not afraid to think big
Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. That’s the subtext of the self-contained 60-second prelude to Ball Park Music’s third album. The delightfully theatrical conceit always means the same thing in pop music: what follows is not the spontaneous eruption of its brute cousin, rock, but a thoughtfully confected studio play of many cunning layers. From the clean, propulsive syncopations of “Next Life Already” to the Cobain-esque catharsis of “Cocaine Lion”, Ball Park Music’s two-year trail of buoyant, elaborate, intelligent pop shows no sign of exhaustion here.
“Everything Is Shit Except My Friendship With You” highlights their winning mix of share house subject matter and hairpin musical turns that invariably explode into cardigan-tearing hooks. “Fruit falls on my head and I don’t discover anything,” is clearly the lament of a man (singer-guitarist Sam Cromack) who thinks more than he feels, but Jennifer Boyce’s fuzz bass and Daniel Hanson’s reckless drums speak just as eloquently to the hips. They slam a frantic counterpoint to the chorus of “A Good Life Is the Best Revenge” and grind a dirty groove under “Struggle Street” as Cromack’s tunes follow their noses like the Shins’ James Mercer after an especially deep breath. “Polly Screw My Head Back On” might be more novelty than keeper in the last quarter, but “Girls From High School” is a pop-symphonic finale worthy of that portentous opening fanfare.
Fitzroy firecracker hits his rock & roll stride
Nashville agrees with Dan Sultan. Leaving behind parochial expectations for the geographic heart of roots-rock and soul has focused his fire and upped his craft as a writer, as flagged by the lean, addictive riff-rock of first single “Under My Skin”. The second, “The Same Man”, is a more ambitious production from anguished blues piano howl to bluegrass banjo. Elsewhere “Nobody Knows” has an affecting air of Celtic longing and “Ain’t Thinkin’ Bout You” is Stax soul with matt finish from producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon). Man, band and crew concoct a consistently blistering mix here but the unvarnished first take of “Gullible Few” is, ironically, ultimate proof of Sultan’s arrival.
Bleak pop from the ex-Gowns member turned solo artist
For the follow-up to the brilliant Past Life Martyred Saints, Erika M. Anderson wanted to make a record about the “digital commodification of our online lives”. It may sound like the most boring university lecture you never attended, but it’s a compelling listen from the moment “Satellites” opens with ominous piano, violin swells and a cold-war lesson transposed for 2014. The industrial intensity (she wasn’t joking when she cited NIN demos in the album notes) gives way to acoustic guitars on “So Blonde” and album highlight “When She Comes”. But if the intention was to create an environment where digital debris interrupts moments of pure beauty – just like real life – then mission accomplished.
Melbourne crooner-producer lets in too much filler on long-awaited debut LP
Nick Murphy named his solo project after jazz singer/trumpeter Chet Baker, whose delicate bedroom voice always seemed to hover just outside one’s ear. Murphy brings that same intimacy to his long-awaited first album as Chet Faker, self-producing it in his home studio and playing nearly everything himself. It’s suited for climbing into a pair of headphones, where you can let his rumpled, crooner’s vocals and low-key, future-soul instrumental layering wash over you.
That woozy sensitivity is all over Built on Glass, which sets out to extend the acclaim for 2012’s Thinking in Textures EP (including a career-making cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”) while making the overall sound more café-friendly than ever. Murphy achieves that and comes out with a fistful of strong singles, from the more commercial “Talk is Cheap” and irritatingly catchy Kilo Kish duet “Melt” to the former-friend lament “1998” and smooth-operating “Gold”.
There’s no questioning how well Murphy does ballads – see the sparse loop and slinky cues of “To Me” – but the album also lets in considerable filler. On their own, tracks like the halfway-point interlude “/” and the closing “Dead Body” (featuring earnest guitar licks from Cleopold) help establish a dreamy, laidback atmosphere. But even the unmoored vocals and Brian Eno-inspired ambience of the likable “No Advice (Airport Version)” slows down the album on repeat visits. That’s especially true of the comedown “Lesson in Patience”, its moaning harmonies and handclaps feeling as unnecessary as its electric piano noodling.
That said, “Cigarettes & Loneliness” is the reason to keep watching Murphy. Ambitious and self-referential, musing about exactly which approach to take, he hits all the right sonic and emotional buttons. He’s close to our ear again, but he makes a point of prodding himself well beyond his own snuggly comfort zone.
Singer-songwriter creates an eclectic mix on latest LP
Given his heritage, Liam Finn has always been something of a global citizen, so it’s no surprise that his dense, psychedelic soundscapes reflect a bizarre cacophony of cultural and musical influences. Recorded in Manhattan, The Nihilist extends this aesthetic, embracing an urban menace that marries perfectly to the more genteel pop sensibilities of his earlier nature and nurture. The title track finds unlikely common ground between Tom Waits and old-fashioned AM-radio rock; “Helena Bonham Carter” marries nasty pop to QOTSA psychedelia. Start to finish, it’s an album full of layers and left-turns, but they’re all clearly part of Finn’s fabric, not simply self-indulgence.
Midwestern basement-punk prodigy starts feeling 22
Cleveland indie rocker Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings has been releasing records since 2009, when he was 18, spending what would have been his college years learning the ways of catchy, low-fi guitar punishment. Now he’s 22, and the third proper Cloud Nothings album feels a little like graduation day. Baldi’s songs still bash and seethe as you’d expect, but with more flashy time-signature shifts, open space and studio trickiness. The torrid, seven-minute epic “Pattern Walks” is almost suitelike, and Baldi’s angst is cut with a wide-eyed ambivalence. A few years ago, a song called “Psychic Trauma” would’ve been radiant vomit. Here it’s almost majestic.
British trio find their feet and craft an album as big as its monicker
Conjured with the assistance of producer Nick Launay (Nick Cave, Arcade Fire), Himalayan – the third album from Southampton trio Band of Skulls – is as epic by nature as it is by name. The period between the release of the trio’s second slab, Sweet Sour, and the recording of their latest was filled with hugely affirming moments – headlining London’s 5000-capacity Brixton Academy, supporting the Chili Peppers, flooring Splendour in the Grass – and Himalayan bristles with a contagious new confidence. Coupled with growing songwriting smarts, this fresh swagger infects everything, sweeping away all hints of the mopiness that slightly undermined the band’s first two records.
At its most obvious, the new edge is there in the visceral, glam-cum-stoner riffing of opener “Asleep at the Wheel”, which immediately announces this album’s loftier ambitions. The title track, which follows, confirms that this time out the band are not only aiming higher, but now also have the chops to hit their mark – an infectious dirty guitar rock groove melds into an ethereal, almost-acapella harmony section, before guitarist Russell Marsden gets his Jack White on for a solo that’s all sweet angles and sexy edges. Band of Skulls’ new-found confidence rears its head in a completely different fashion on “Cold Sweat”, which features vocals from bassist Emma Richardson – it’s a wash of sprawling, majestic atmosphere, a first-rate take on the sort of textures English anti-chanteuse Anna Calvi has worked so well lately.
As a whole, Himalayan is Band of Skulls’ coming of age, an undeniable shift from what could be to what is.
UK rockers drop the ball after founding member’s exit
It would’ve been easy for Kaiser Chiefs to call it quits following the resignation of drummer – and main songwriter – Nick Hodgson in late 2012. Instead, the one-time Britpop revivalists soldiered on with album five. Singer Ricky Wilson has learnt a bit about radio-friendly hooks from his current gig as a judge on The Voice [UK], with “Coming Home” and “Meanwhile, Up In Heaven” penned with lighter-waving stadium crowds in mind. Closest to the spiky Chiefs of old is “Cannons”, which starts like a Rocky Horror off-cut and morphs into a glam rock stomper. But disappointingly, Hodgson seems to have exited with most of the quintet’s charm and personality in tow.
Melbourne five-piece set to go global with album five
There was a time when you couldn’t write about Architecture in Helsinki without the word “twee” and an obligatory Belle and Sebastian comparison. But the Melbourne outfit moved on from its early sound years ago, and on its fifth album further develops the dreamy, synth-led pop that made 2011’s Moment Bends its most successful record to date. Co-produced by the band and François Tétaz (Gotye), Now + 4EVA is a highly polished 11-song set that peaks with the Eighties disco boogie of “I Might Survive”, the breathy “Echo” and irresistibly catchy recent single “Dream a Little Crazy”. The complete package is, however, assured, confident and worthy of repeated listens.
Former Police guitarist rocks out for the first time in decades
With the exception of his stint with the Police on their reunion tour in 2007-2008, guitarist Andy Summers has spent the years since their 1986 split indulging his jazz, world music and classical urges. When the Police reunion ended, though, he decided he still wanted to rock, and teamed up with L.A. native Rob Giles to form Circa Zero. Not surprisingly, given Summers’ distinctive style, there are strong traces of the Police throughout (“Whenever You Hear the Rain”, “Gamma Ray”, “Summer Lies”), though the likes of “The Story Ends Here” and “Underground” put a modern, harder-edged twist on proceedings. At 71, Summers clearly remains a potent creative force.
Literate alt-folk from intense foursome on second LP
Saintseneca’s rise as a band took in playing Columbus, Ohio’s thriving circuit of house concerts, therefore the looseness and often-amateurish production on this endearing album seems appropriate. Here is a happy marriage between largely Appalachian-influenced folk (as on the excellent “Takmit”) and West Coast folk-rock, with the balance between slow ballads and fast stomps, as well as the male and female vocals, recalling Port O’Brien. Admittedly, it can get a bit samey, yet songs like the remarkably disconcerting “Falling Off” take things beautifully off course, hinting at a moodier and more eclectic side to Saintseneca that might be explored further. Still, Dark Arc is an impressive offering.
All-star cast pay their respects to a metal great
If a man can be judged by the calibre of artists lining up to pay homage on a tribute album, then Ronnie James Dio’s place in the pantheon of metal greats is assured. Prior to passing away in 2010, the diminutive vocalist carved out a 50-year career with acts such as Rainbow, Black Sabbath and as a solo artist, which explains why the likes of Metallica (who perform a medley), Anthrax (“Neon Knights”), Judas Priest’s Rob Halford (“Man on the Silver Mountain”), Slipknot’s Corey Taylor (“Rainbow in the Dark”) and many others place their stamp on Dio’s music. Ultimately, though, rather than listen repeatedly it just makes you want to hear the originals again.
Long-lost Eighties recordings from late country legend see the light of day
Unlike pop, country music is not exactly youth-obsessed. In 1980, Johnny Cash became the youngest person to ever be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. He was 48. Ironically, his relationship with Nashville hit the skids soon afterwards and his record company of three decades, Columbia, pretty much lost interest in him, finally dropping him in 1986. It’s a bittersweet irony that the songs on this shelved album, recorded in 1981 and 1984, were rejected by the same label that is now heralding their release.
Produced by Billy Sherrill, who helped usher in the countrypolitan style popularised by Glen Campbell, Tammy Wynette and Charley Pride, it’s a collection that has aged well and encapsulates the many sides of Cash. There are the wry story songs with a twist – the quite literal last drive with a former sweetheart on “I Drove Her Out Of My Mind”; the saucy wordplay about a singing star he won’t identify in “If I Told You Who It Was”. There’s the social commentary of the title track, where a kid with nothing left to lose holds up a liquor store knowing he will get caught and probably die. There are two warm and lusty duets with wife June Carter Cash and a rave-up on “I’m Movin’ On” with Waylon Jennings.
He closes proceedings with “I Came To Believe”, a plain-spoken declaration of surrender to a higher power after admitting he can’t manage the mess he has made of his life. This last one plays out like a prelude to Cash’s celebrated final years, when Rick Rubin recognised that the man in black should be recorded with that tombstone voice front and centre. Rubin treated Cash with the respect he wasn’t afforded when these songs from Out Among the Stars were recorded. It’s a pity the man had to die and be re-evaluated before they saw the light of day.