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Big, brash second dose of radio-friendly indie.
While Circa Waves' debut Young Chasers sparkled with a brash youthful restlessness, Different Creatures brings in co-producer Alan Moulder, steps in a heavier, more focused direction, and broadens their ramshackle indie-pop appeal in a similar way to their Liverpudlian forebears the Wombats. While Kieran Shudall making sense of life in a band and a changing world isn't breaking new ground, it's charmingly honest, and their indie-punk spunk is still happily present, if expanded. The life can feel sucked out of the bigger, brasher moments, but the intimacy of "Old Friends" is terrific.
Puerto Rican-American roots music traveller's homecoming.
The Navigator sees New Orleans transplant Alynda Lee Segarra return home to the Bronx, the political verve of Small Town Heroes (2014) intact. The wayfaring Nuyorican singer-songwriter weds Caribbean rhythms to her favoured rustic Americana ("Finale"), while navigating doo-wop ("Entrance"), jangling folk-rock ("Living In the City"), and rollicking fairground-roots ("Life to Save"). Defiant off-Broadway tune "Nothing's Gonna Change That Girl" is a standout moment, while Segarra summons her most fervent vocal performance to date in "Pa'lante". At a time of hair-trigger identity politics, The Navigator is a stirring manifesto.
British folkie returns to her roots on effortlessly enchanting sixth album.
Laura Marling gives the impression of being more comfortable when she's not talking about herself. Still just 27 and onto her sixth album, she's famously reticent in interviews and has always been an obtuse songwriter, though she dropped her guard on 2015's Short Movie, inspired by her youth-reclaiming hiatus in California. It was, she said, the first time she'd tried to write from her own perspective rather than the "something other" that comes more naturally to her, something she's returned to in this effortless collection of songs concerned with femininity and named after an old tattoo of Marling's, an abbreviated line from Virgil's epic Latin poem Aeneid, translated as "always a woman".
She focuses on an unknown muse throughout, positioning herself as a friend (and possibly a lover) prone to startling observations such as "Wouldn't you die to know how you're seen?/Are you getting away with who you're trying to be?" set to sinewy strumming, mellifluous melodies and vocals to match. See "Wild Fire" for the most breathtaking confluence of all four qualities, a deceptively simple ode to a woman just out of reach in Marling's best, most sweetly bruised vocal performance to date.
Off-kilter deviations keep things interesting – the smoky, swaggering "Soothing" might be a Roisin Murphy offcut – and producer Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, Kid Rock and Lana Del Rey) provides an unobtrusive, swelling backdrop, from the sun-drenched strings of "The Valley" to the barely perceptible clip and plinking piano of "Next Time".
While Short Movie saw Marling embrace electric guitars, Semper Femina is in the main pure folk. But Marling is adept at making the traditional sound sublime, as per sad-eyed lament "Always This Way", which sees her in unusually sentimental form; "stare at the phone try to carry on, but I have made my mistake". In finale "Nothing, Not Nearly" she lays herself bare again, couched in bluesy organ twang. "The only thing I learnt in a year/Where I didn't smile once, not really/Is nothing matters more than love/...not nearly." Elsewhere, she defiantly clings to a version of femininity not hitched to frills and fragility, recalling a rough-and-tumble outdoorsy childhood. "Well, you are wild and/You must remember/You are wild/Chasing stones." Championing a woman's right (and her prerogative as an artist) to be whatever she damn well wants, in "Nouel" Marling elaborates on that line from Aeneid: "a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing" and owns it throughout the record, abandoning the American twang she affected on Short Movie as she flits between spoken word and celestial lilt. In reverting to "something other", Marling sounds like she's reconnected with herself.
A masterful comeback from a yesteryear supergroup.
The Blackeyed Susans work wonders on their first LP of new material in more than a decade. Originally conceived in 1989 as a casual detour for members of the Triffids and other fine Perth bands, the ensemble now highlight the considerable gifts of vocalist Rob Snarski and bassist/songwriter Phil Kakulas, among other members. There are loving echoes of the Everly Brothers ("Dream On") and the Velvet Underground ("Lover or the Loved"), while the electronics-flecked "I Asked My Mother" tips its hat to Leonard Cohen. "I Don't Dance (Anymore)" could pass for Tindersticks. These songs slow the pulse and nourish the soul.
On third album, folk-pop troubadour continues to showcase his pop savvy side.
In the four years since Ed Sheeran established himself as Taylor Swift's opening-act-slash-bestie, the British singer-songwriter hasn't just become a star – he's helped make over pop's sound. Blending acoustic sensitive-guy vibes with digital-age craft, Sheeran has knocked out hits for Justin Bieber and One Direction while influencing the strummy likes of Lukas Graham and Shawn Mendes. On ÷, his first album since 2014's X, Sheeran doubles down on the blend of hip-hop bravado and everyday-bloke songwriting that helped him break out at the turn of the decade.
The first chart-topper from ÷, the feather-light "Shape of You," might have hinted at a different direction; it's a beat-heavy, body-focused track that Sheeran used as a Grammy showcase for his impressive collection of loop pedals. But for the most part, ÷ puts Sheeran and his guitar center stage. "Perfect" is a lushly arranged love song that evokes golden-age pop; "Castle on the Hill," which balances jittery guitars and a massive chorus, strives for a Glastonbury-ready rock grandeur à la U2, Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons. The album closer, "Supermarket Flowers," is a wispy ballad Sheeran wrote as a tribute to his late grandmother, a retelling of the aftermath of her funeral from the perspective of his mother. Though the workaday poetry of its verses reveals the mundanity of dealing with death's aftermath in a detailed way, its chorus, with its angel imagery and "hallelujah"-ing, seems built for cathartic group sing-alongs.
Vivid character sketches provide ÷'s best moments. The deceptively breezy alt-acoustic "New Man" is an acidic rebuke of an ex's new boyfriend's faults. The way Sheeran paints the picture – sunglasses indoors, man bags, fake patois – ably puts across the "uggggh" that rises in his mind every time he creeps his former flame's Instagram. "Galway Girl" pays tribute to a fiddle-playing Irish lass who isn't above chowing down on Doritos when bringing a guy home – and it even brings some Emerald Isle-inspired bounce into the mix. Nodding to his own Irish roots and acknowledging a country where he's bigger than Bieber, Sheeran offers his own spin on the Irish drinking song to the present-day pop world in a modern-day jig that recalls a synthesis of Justin Timberlake meets the Pogues – and is released in March, to boot. Sheeran's musical history lesson is both well-timed and rip-roaringly fun, another example of his still-evolving craft.
Dark themes veiled by chirpy French indie-pop.
Musically, Fránçois & the Atlas Mountains' fourth album is colourful and fun, from the catchy twangs of "Grand Dérèglement" to the soothing, tropical "Apocalypse à Ipsos". But beneath the vibrant melodies, Solide Mirage contains confronting political commentary. Deeply impacted by global political chaos, particularly after touring a post-Arab Spring Middle East, Fránçois Marry and his bandmates felt a responsibility to address political issues through their music. While the language barrier may pose a challenge, the musical juxtaposition makes for an engaging, layered listen – should you choose to look beneath the surface.
Latest from Mark Kozelek is a stream-of-consciousness epic.
Three years after the resplendently sorrowful Benji – Mark Kozelek's apotheosis, 20 years in, as a songwriter-cum-barstool-storyteller – comes this 130-minute stream-of-conscious brain dump, delivered over dreamy grooves driven by ex-Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. The obsessions (death, boxing, mass murder, indie-rock inside baseball) feel more obsessive; the diaristic style more diaristic ("May 28th, 12:58 A.M., 2016," he intones on "Butch Lullaby," a requiem for a fellow traveller). Sometimes it drags, hypnotically or solipsistically, then a line – about the Orlando shootings, or Bowie's death – snaps things back into dazzling, desperate, furious focus. Taking its place alongside recent work-in-progress-style releases by Kanye and Kendrick, it's an epic for our unfiltered moment.
Elegant, moody folk-pop from gifted New Zealander.
If Nadia Reid's sumptuous 2015 debut Listen To Formation Look For the Signs explored vulnerability amid love gone wrong, her second LP is a compelling statement of defiance and empowerment. The acoustic guitar and other folk elements of Listen To Formation have mostly been jettisoned in favour of thicker, more adventurous arrangements that reach a fabulous peak on "Richard", with its droney electric guitar and effortlessly emotional vocals. The lo-fi indie of Juliana Hatfield is a point of comparison, while Reid has matured considerably as a songwriter and lyricist, as evidenced by "The Way It Goes", which drips with melancholy resolve.
Front-bar-folkie takes stock with 23-song collection.
Why Paul Kelly and not Mick Thomas? Thomas has always been the one singer/strummer who can cut straight to the weighty stuff ("Father's Day", his 1992 almost-hit with Weddings Parties Anything). This 23-tracker (a companion to his new memoir) is culled from two decades with the Sure Thing and solo. Such snapshots as "The Lonely Goth" and "Forgot She Was Beautiful" poke around in the world that Thomas knows best: everyday folks trying to make sense of the world. Not the sexiest subject matter, sure, but Thomas' signature, regular-bloke style adds flesh and blood.
British pair continue their anti-austerity plight.
Those who've already adjudicated on Midlands punk-electro pair Sleaford Mods are unlikely to find much on English Tapas – their 10th full-length in as many years – to sway them. Vocalist Jason Williamson's stream-of-protest, Mark E. Smith-esque rants continue to hold court, on an LP that's mostly more of the same: fidgety bass-heavy minimalism backing street-level social commentary (with a side of smut). Shame the duo now seem stuck in this lecture-and-lager-spilling loop, as the occasional crooned chorus – and ballad "I Feel So Wrong" – highlights the benefits of unexpected variance on their distinct sound.
Sydney folk-pop quartet deliver on debut.
When We Fall is the vision of four singularly-accomplished singer-songwriters who, together, simply gel. Trading lead vocals, variously opening up and teasing out their honeyed four-part harmonies before weaving them into a silken, gauzy web once again, AOELIT eschew Carter Family country crackle and the rough-hewn folk shades of the McGarrigle Sisters in favour of more polished tones. They span the ominous and atmospheric ("The Devil's Part"), deliciously drowsy weepers, and irresistible vocal-pop ("Tell Me"), traversing so many ill-fated romances while needling gender roles at every turn ("Oh Lover of Mine").
Down decibels, up blue notes on hard rockers' radical reinvention.
A 4am piano ballad called "Looking For Love" was not, to say the least, the most obvious opening gambit for Kingswood's second album. It's bold notice of a soulful departure from the twisted metallic edges of the Melbourne art-rockers' 2015 debut. The grunt remains in the filthy bass groove of "Creepin" and the higher register intensity of "Library Books", and "Alabama White" picks up the space-rock thread in the back half. But the creamy electric piano and jazz harmonies of "Golden", "Belle" and "Why Do I Get Stuck When You Arrive" comprise the default pitch of an album that's more Steely Dan than AC/DC, and far more affecting for it.
British lads continue down paths well trodden.
Temples' evolution between debut Sun Structures (2014) and this follow-up mirrors the maturation of Tame Impala from Innerspeaker to Lonerism. That is, the lean, compact approach to songwriting and production has been replaced by an expansive, spacy feel driven by synths and woozy effects. It makes for a mannered wall of sound that is pleasant enough though hardly original (think Eno and Berlin-era Bowie). The odd terrific tune does still emerge, with "Oh the Saviour" and "Strange Or Be Forgotten" seeing the band ease off on the elaborate psych motifs. Though Temples often get in their own way, there is substantial melodic charm to their best work.
Perth oddballs ramp up the rhythms – and songwriting.
Methyl Ethel find more focus here than on their 2015 debut. Producer James Ford bolsters frontman Jake Webb's increasingly danceable vision, from gleaming hooks ("L'Heure des Sorcières") to percolating synths ("Drink Wine"). The combination of funky production and spacey falsetto can evoke Broken Bells, but Webb has stepped up his songwriting enough to stand on his own. "Ubu" is a worthy entry in the pantheon of songs lamenting a subject's haircut, and other tracks balance entrancing mantras with lively contrast just as well. A lingering creepiness haloes all the catchiness too, as in the excellent "No. 28".
Twenty-five years into their career, the Waifs go long with a double album.
It's been 25 years since the Waifs busted out of a dusty Kombi on the Western Australian coastline to become one of the nation's most-successful folk bands, and now is as good a time as any to take a breath and reflect. Ironbark is the Waifs' celebration: of their endurance, of their relationships, of their deep and unwavering love for their fanbase. As befits a 25-year celebration, it unfurls languidly over two discs and 25 tracks – but don't mistake Ironbark for an intimidating listen. Rather, it is blissfully unhurried and comfortable, the pure distillation of the grown-up folk that the Waifs have been gently perfecting for a quarter of a century.
There are moments of utter loveliness (the wistful "Long Way From Home" and "Shiny Apple") and darkness too (the timely subject matter of "Syria"). After 25 years together, the strength of Vicki, Donna, and Josh's relationship is palpable, and for the first time ever they join all their vocals on the twisting opener and title track.
Releasing a double album is ambitious and fraught with danger, and where Ironbark fails to satisfy is for the same reason most fail: there is simply an excess of filler tracks. Their desire to stretch to 25 tracks is understandable, but Ironbark probably could have been served better if pared back to a single disc.
Carolina Chocolate Drops mainstay delivers sophomore solo album.
"Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you," urges virtuosic North Carolina vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist Rhiannon Giddens. Where debut Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015) saw Giddens reimagining the songs of towering U.S. female artists from Odetta to Dolly Parton, this predominantly original follow-up centres on the African-American experiences that underpin and inform American music: from 19th Century slave narratives and the Civil Rights movement (Richard Fariña-penned Gospel-soul entry "Birmingham Sunday"), to Ferguson and beyond (smouldering R&B tune "Better Get it Right the First Time").
Aside from some bold and brassy moments (slinky Delta dance tune "Hey Bébé"), it's an often-brooding counterpoint to the string-band jaunts and rambles of CCD landmark Genuine Negro Jig (2010) – always rich and resonant, Giddens' old-time banjo parts are frequently urgent and ominous ("Julie"). Vocally, Giddens is a typically mesmerising presence throughout, proving a soulful stand-in for Mavis Staples in a deft take on the Staple Singers' locomotive 1965 anthem "Freedom Highway". Freedom Highway is an immersive wellspring of era-defining sounds drawn up and into the fraught light of 21st Century racial consciousness.