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Reclusive EDM god can still blow minds after all these years.
Richard D. James has been so far ahead of his time for so long that comebacks are clearly no big thing. In June, the EDM godfather OK'd the limited release of a shelved 1994 album that sounded utterly modern. So does Syro, his first new Aphex Twin music since 2001. Thick with Seventies jazz-funk nods, it answers Daft Punk's Random Access Memories with future-shock electronics supplanting nostalgic dazzle. Per usual, James makes halls of mirrors; ghost voices and silver ambience crest over beats you can imagine destroying a stadium while you fumble with your headphones. Greying snobs once called this "intelligent dance music". Even now, few do it better.
Uneven debut from Sydney buzz band contains pop gems among the rough.
Earning a prestigious Vanda & Young songwriting award and a Number Nine spot on Triple J's 2013 Hottest 100, the Preatures' hugely successful single "Is This How You Feel?" has set not only the public perception of the Sydney five-piece, but the very direction of the band itself. Using the song as a kicking off point for an unashamed pop album, the group – led by vocalist/keyboardist Isabella Manfredi – have created nine other songs that aim to be within orbit of the slinky pop groove of their breakthrough juggernaut.
Understandably for a nascent band taken off guard by an unexpected hit, the Preatures are still trying on different looks to see what fits. The on-the-nose "Cruel" and clumsy "Rock and Roll Rave" show a band still grappling to get a hold on their strengths; elsewhere, the hooky "Ordinary", the hazy soundscape of the curveball title track (driven by Thomas Champion's nimble bass, a hip-shaking secret weapon deployed to great effect all over the LP) and the airy keys and swoon-inducing vocals of "Two Tone Melody" prove that when the group hit the right formula, they hit hard.
Uneven as it may be, Blue Planet Eyes boasts enough high points to suggest that once the Preatures gain a more confident handle on their identity, they'll deliver an LP that can fully live up to their considerable promise.
Aussie misfits channel Primal Scream, amp up the psyche.
Marinating psychedelia with woozy, pulsating indie-rock and bluesy gospel Brit-pop, the Delta Riggs' second LP regards convention as Keith Richards views hard drugs and coconuts; with exceptional disdain. "The Record’s Flawed" is a fuzzy psyche monster that recalls more of Primal Scream’s career than Bobby Gillespie can, while groggy rave up "Supersonic Casualties" is the spiritual successor to Kasabian’s "Cut Off". Belligerently unfettered, they swerve across the Kinksian stomp of "Telescope House", the broken funk of "No Friends" and the austere "Ornate Delicate Creatures", engaging baser instincts – dance, fuck, be free – but possessing enough smarts and charm to avoid boneheadedness.
Debut solo LP from former My Chemical Romance frontman
The news that My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way was recording a Britpop-influenced solo set shouldn't have been a shock – they'd long expressed a love of British anthems, particularly from 2006's The Black Parade onwards. Whether the world needed it was another thing.
Fortunately, the singer and part-time graphic novel writer delivers a bright, commanding record that plays to his strengths of writing strong pop melodies.
Debuted (over the PA) of the Sydney Opera House in October last year, "Millions" has the kind of stomping beat, searing melody and Britpop melodrama of bands like Suede and Pulp. The latter's widescreen drama oozes through soaring ballad "Drugstore Perfume", which plays to Way's strength as a glorious happy-sad pop songwriter. Where MCR were often deemed earnest to their detriment, Way veers more to the fun, playful side here: the buoyant "Action Cat" is a pop-rock celebration that is three minutes of fuzzed-up joy, and single "No Shows" wouldn't be out of place in the Killers' canon. It's almost enough to excuse the weakest links, which land mid-album with fuzzy, angry alternative-rock relics "Zero Zero" and "Juarez".
While this direction is sure to divide fans and critics, Way sounds happily unbridled. And like much of his creative output – be it music, visual art or comic books – you feel that, as Britpoppers the Super Furry Animals put it, the man don't give a fuck.
Bono and Co. look inward for inspiration on "surprise" 13th studio album.
No other rock band does rebirth like U2. No other band – certainly of U2's duration, commercial success and creative achievement – believes it needs rebirth more and so often. But even by the standards of transformation on 1987's The Joshua Tree and 1991's Achtung! Baby, Songs of Innocence – U2's first studio album in five years – is a triumph of dynamic, focused renaissance: 11 tracks of straightforward rapture about the life-saving joys of music, drawing on U2's long palette of influences and investigations of post-punk rock, industrial electronics and contemporary dance music. "You and I are rock & roll," Bono shouts in "Volcano", a song about imminent eruption, through a propulsive delirium of throaty, striding bass, alien-choral effects and the Edge's rusted-treble jolts of Gang of Four-vintage guitar. Bono also sings this, earlier in a darker, more challenging tone: "Do you live here or is this a vacation?" For U2, rock & roll was always a life's work – and the work is never done.
Songs of Innocence is aptly named, after William Blake's 1789 collection of poems about man's perpetually great age of discovery – childhood. For the first time, after decades of looking abroad for inspiration – to American frontier spirituality, Euro-dance-party irony and historic figures of protest such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – Bono, the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have taken the long way 'round to metamorphosis: turning back and inward, for the first time on a whole record, to their lives and learning as boys on the way to uncertain manhood (and their band) in Dublin.
Bono's lyrics are striking in their specific, personal history. In "Cedarwood Road", named after a street where he lived, the singer remembers the fear and unrequited anger that drove him to music and to be heard – and which won't go away. "I'm still standing on that street/Still need an enemy," he admits against Clayton and Mullen's strident, brooding rhythm and the enraged stutter of the Edge's guitar. "Raised by Wolves" is a tension of metronome-like groove and real-life carnage ("There's a man in a pool of misery . . . a red sea covers the ground") based on a series of car bombs that bloodied Dublin one night in the Seventies.
In "Iris (Hold Me Close)", Bono sings to his mother, whos died when he was 14, through a tangle of fondness and still-desperate yearning, in outbreaks of dreamy neo-operatic ascension over a creamy sea of keyboards and Clayton's dignified-disco bass figure. "You took me by the hand/I thought I was leading you," Bono recalls in a kind of embarrassed bliss. "But it was you who made me your man/Machine," he adds – a playful shotgun reference to his youthful poetic conceit in Boy's "Twilight" ("In the shadows boy meets man") and his wife Ali. The teenage Bono once gave her Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine as a gift while they were dating.
For U2 – and Bono in particular – the first step on the road out of Dublin was the sound of a voice, and they name it in the opening track, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)". U2 have always been open in their gratitude to New York punk and the Ramones in particular, and this homage to unlikely heroism – that kid you least expect to take on the world and win – is suitable honour: a great, chunky guitar riff and a beat like a T. Rex stomp, glazed with galactic-Ronettes vocal sugar. "I woke up," Bono sings, "at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world." U2 also pay due diligence to the Clash in "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now", dedicated to Joe Strummer, and there is a strong hint of the Beach Boys' allure – their standing invitation to a utopia far from the Dublin grit and rain – in the Smile-style flair of the chanting harmonies in "California (There Is No End to Love)". "Blood orange sunset brings you to your knees," Bono croons in an awed register. "I've seen for myself."
These are the oldest stories in rock & roll – adolescent restlessness; traumatic loss; the revelation of rescue hiding in a great chorus or power chord. But Songs of Innocence is the first time U2 have told their own tales so directly, with the strengths and expression they have accumulated as songwriters and record-makers. This album was famous, long before release, for its broken deadlines and the indecision suggested by its multiple producers: Brian Burton a/k/a Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth of Adele fame and Ryan Tedder of the pop band One Republic. Those credits are misleading. Burton, Epworth and Tedder all co-produced "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" and contributed keyboards; that's Epworth on the additional slide guitar in "Cedarwood Road"; and Burton arranged the chorale in "Volcano". But the extra hands and textures are thoroughly embedded in the memoir. There is no time when the telling sounds like it was more than the work of the four who lived it.
And it is a salvation, U2 believe, that keeps on giving. "Every breaking wave on the shore/Tells the next one that there will be one more," Bono promises in the tidal sun-kissed electronica of "Every Breaking Wave". And "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" comes with a pledge to every stranded dreamer who now hears Rocket to Russia, Give 'Em Enough Rope or some U2 for the first time and is somehow, permanently, changed. "We can hear you," Bono swears. "Your voices will be heard."
Just find one of your own. Then shout as hard as you can.
Missy Higgins accompanies covers album with book of related essays.
Missy Higgins' 2012 set The Ol' Razzle Dazzle signalled more than just a different musical direction. It was a liberating record – as Higgins says in the book that accompanies her new album, "I felt a newfound freedom and wanted to try something different." And this is the story of Oz, a set of considered, cherished covers of songs the singer holds close.
Buoyed by her Women of Letters tales, Higgins also felt newfound confidence in her writing. In Oz's complementary book, she's conversational, candid, endearingly self-deprecating and can tell a yarn. More letter to the listener than literary classic, there's something relatable here – like how she admits to always messing up lyrics to covers.
Whether talking about her discovery of Chrissy Amphlett (a story paired with Divinyls' "Back to the Wall") or the aching brevity of love (for the Blackeyed Susans' "A Curse on You"), Higgins delivers it with unguarded openness.
The music follows suit. What she also calls Songs I Liked And Reckoned I Could Sing Well, And Stuff, she's skipped the hits for lesser-known Aussie gems that, she says, "still had some room for me to inhabit".
The Drones' "Shark Fin Blues" should be a difficult tune to tackle. But Higgins' piano-led, sparse retelling is powerful and beautiful, warmed by its choral and strings crescendo.
There are moody pieces, like Paul Kelly's "Everybody Wants to Touch Me" and the Go Betweens' "Was There Anything I Could Do?", but Higgins handles those delicately, and she's never at risk of taking herself too seriously – the ukulele-plucked Joy McKean and Slim Dusty cover "The Biggest Disappointment" and her spin on the great Perry Keyes' rollicking "NYE" attest to that.
Are the UK trio still the new Radiohead on LP number two?
Critics don't quite know what to make of alt-J, which is something the Brits have in their favour. The band from Leeds in the UK were touted with three pretty heavy words when they emerged in 2012 with An Awesome Wave – "the new Radiohead". No pressure, then. Recorded on a laptop in their student digs in Cambridge, the album sold a million copies and won the Mercury Prize. So far so good, then.
This Is All Yours finds them reduced to a trio after the departure of founding member Gwil Sainsbury. It definitely hasn't lessened their impact. The line "Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisps packet" sounds faintly ridiculous until you hear it in "Every Other Freckle", a swoon-worthy song of lust punctuated by a "hey" backing chant and a propulsive backbeat. It's followed by "Left Hand Free", which is apparently a response to the band's U.S. label asking for something more commercial – the fact it features cowbell and sounds like the Bees getting it on with Beck gives some indication of alt-J's idea of pop.
Speaking of pop, "Hunger of the Pine" is getting all the attention because it features a looped sample of Miley Cyrus wailing "I'm a female rebel" from "4x4". Unfortunately it sounds like it was gratuitously shoehorned in there. There are so many other beautifully layered songs here that effortlessly combine the baroque and the digital while rubbing shoulders with Grizzly Bear, Wild Beasts, Bon Iver and – yes – Radiohead, that they really didn't need to twerk that hard for our money.
Prince’s Melbourne protégé releases a guitar-synth overload.
Harts is that rare talent who can tell the difference between good cheese and bad. He can shred like a blues-rock virtuoso ("Red & Blue"); write an otherworldly slow jam like Dâm-Funk ("Under Falling Skies"); and has an innate sense of funk like Prince – who says Harts reminds him of his younger self. That probably applies to Harts’ Prince-like ability to do absolutely everything, including slapping the hell out of the bass on the impossibly smooth "Tide". It might also apply to the misplaced idea that he can do no wrong – his debut is still prone to the odd clunker. But when you encounter a crazy diamond like Harts, the only thing you can do is encourage them to shine on.
Eccentric Sydney-sider brings the party.
It's hard to know where the knowing irony ends and originality begins with Donny Benet. His second album boasts myriad collaborations, of which "The Edge" – a Hi-NRG electro beauty featuring Kirin J Callinan – is perhaps the best thing he's done, followed by the thrilling "Charlotte's Web" and "Sex Tourist". Elsewhere, Benet hints at Blondie circa "Rapture", while Prince, an obvious influence on debut album Don't Hold Back, is again a massive presence, with unashamed funk bass to the fore. This smart and witty Italo-influenced soul is consistently interesting, though after the initial colour and novelty wears off, it's unlikely you'll return to it often.
Unfussy but impressive live outing from blues hero.
Recorded at various shows on Gary Clark Jr.'s world tour in support of 2012's Blak and Blu, Live lacks the coherence and momentum that a live document can provide when capturing a single show. This 15-song effort does, however, make up for it with Clark Jr.'s absolutely sizzling playing. What's better, it actually sounds live, as opposed to live in the studio. The guitarist's albums are melting pots of genres such as blues, hip-hop, rock and pop, and so it is here, with Clark Jr. paying tribute to Hendrix on an epic "Third Stone From the Sun" (which segues into Albert Collins' "If You Love Me Like You Say"), before shifting gear with a soulful, unaccompanied "Blak and Blu", showcasing his silky smooth vocals.
Sydney indie band ditch the dream-pop and crank the amps.
Bearhug began as a bedroom project built on a foundation of fragility, a style expanded into wider dream-pop territory on their 2012 debut, Bill, Dance, Shiner. This natural progression takes an unexpected detour on their follow-up LP, So Gone, with almost all aspects of the group's introspective sincerity unapologetically snuffed out by abrasively dominant guitars, lo-fi tape hiss vocals and an impenetrable barrier of noise. It's liberating to witness the band attack their own pop sensibilities so maliciously, yet the enjoyment here is predominantly contextually indebted, as those unfamiliar with the contrasting precedent will most likely be unappreciative of the record's bold statement.
Geelong outfit present the slacker side of the Sixties.
The Frowning Clouds began as painstaking Sixties revivalists, from songwriting and production to wardrobe and haircuts. But they’ve loosened up, and their drug-friendly third album is a carefree, lo-fi ramble through their favourite decade. The Beatles, Kinks and Stones are still easy touchstones, but the Geelong scamps cast their net wider. "Move It" nods to both Elephant 6 and proto-punk, while "No Blues" pairs its lament "I’ve got no right to sing the blues" with a ramshackle groove, saloon piano, wheezing harmonica and lazy fingersnaps. Surf, garage, psych and folk cues tangle for alternately groggy and frisky results. The slacker vibe won’t be for everyone, but there’s much tunefulness beneath it.
Glassy-eyed guitar-pop wizardry from slacker kings.
Sydney trio Step-Panther are hardly the first band to filter young adult ennui, pop culture references and bong hits into slacker rock jams, but their second LP does a fine job of continuing the glassy-eyed lineage of fretboard freak-out hall-of-famers like Pavement, Superchunk and Dinosaur Jr. The band display an instinctive knack for spry guitar melodies, deftly skipping from spacey jangle ("It Came From the Heart") to metal chug ("User Friendly") and every permeation of indie rock in-between. The lyrics – largely geek-friendly references to zombies, outer space monsters and comic books – are mostly frivolous, but when the results are this fun it doesn’t matter a hot lick.
Pond singer tones it down, but stays weird.
Allbrook’s solo debut is as colourful and exuberant as you might expect, yet also offers surprising depth. The boyish vocals and gleeful, effects-laden psychedelia are immediately recognisable, but this is smoother and more soulful than Pond – he has evidently listened intently to Connan Mockasin's Caramel, arriving at a similar brand of nerdy, knowing sensuality. It is notable that Pond’s hooks and gusto aren’t really here, which is the album’s blessing and curse: Allbrook has sacrificed accessibility, yet there is a refreshing lack of cliché on the first release in his career that requires concentrated listening to reveal itself.
Craig Nicholls returns with a new line-up and a double album,
Few bands have self-destructed quite so publicly as the Vines. The band was – and is – a vehicle for the mercurial but troubled Craig Nicholls, who infamously melted down at a Sydney show in 2004 before revealing his mental health issues in court. Although it halted the band's career in its tracks and put a stop to extensive touring, Nicholls has managed to release six albums in 12 years.
This latest incarnation of the band – with Lachlan West on drums and Tim John on bass – is completely different to the group that recorded the last album, 2011's Future Primitive.
Whatever Nicholls' personal issues may be, they certainly haven't affected his productivity. Wicked Nature is a two-CD set featuring 22 tracks. He was never one to make a song outstay its welcome, and the bulk of these are in and out of there before the three-minute mark.
He was always equally enamoured with Sixties British invasion and Nineties grunge. That hasn't changed. In fact, just about nothing has changed. You could call him remarkably consistent – or if you were being less charitable, remarkably unimaginative.
"Green Utopia", for example, has the same distorted overdrive, simple rhymes, shredded vocals and drug references as many songs from the Vines' back pages. With that said, it still ricochets around your skull and makes you want to play air drums for two-and-a-half minutes. His weakness for trippy ballads – "Venus Fly Trap", "Into the Fire" – is still in evidence too, and there are too many of them on the more ponderous second disc. Besides, the ideal Vines album is 30 minutes long. The words "second disc" are just wrong.
Singer-songwriter takes the direct approach on second LP.
Megan Washington revealed her battle with a stutter recently, and she drops another bombshell midway through There There. "Do you want it back?" she asks the man she was supposed to marry, before devoting an entire verse to the awkward practicalities of an engagement gone sour. This man is not metaphorical, and neither is the marriage. Each song, says Washington, is connected to a real-life event – from the frank confession of infidelity on the raw ballad "Begin Again" to "Get Happy", where she falls in love over Eighties New Wave textures. 2010's I Believe You Liar masked insecurities under ambitious orchestrated pop. On There There, she's both fearless and direct.