Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
L.A. country stylist airs his softer side on sophomore outing.
Tenderheart is an assured step forward for this rising country star. Expanding upon the more trad. country lay of Angeleno (2015) – albeit with added emphasis on silvery pedal steel ("Two Broken Hearts") – Outlaw reprises a little SoCal mariachi verve ("Everyone's Looking For Home"), before taking in the broad sweep of L.A. with urbane cosmopolitan country ("Now She Tells Me"), classic Bakersfield strains ("All My Life"), and sun-dappled Suburban nostalgia ("Bougainvillea, I Think"). There's heartland rock redolent of Tom Petty in "Tenderheart", while "Look At You Now" recalls Justin Townes Earle.
Sydney hip-hop duo embrace pop on most confident album yet.
On their fourth LP Spit Syndicate achieve a consistency that was lacking on 2013's Sunday Gentlemen. While Jimmy Nice and Nick Lupi still seesaw thematically – wedging their signature party jams ("Late Nights") up against overt political statements ("Not In My Name") – slick R&B production weaves it all together neatly. The extensive guest list is used to great effect: Thelma Plum's dynamic vocal simmers over a restrained beat on "Darling Street", while Remi is a mischievous counterpoint to Nice and Lupi's verses in "Houdini". No longer just tinkering with pop music, this is Spit Syndicate's most confident LP yet.
Fragile UK model-folkie tends post-divorce wounds.
Professionally speaking, Jack White was always a mixed blessing for Karen Elson. As husband/producer, his shadow fell heavily over her 2010 debut The Ghost Who Walks, and the couple's estrangement only brings him into sharper focus on this album of open wounds and stoic resolutions. "Wonderblind" and "Double Roses" count the cost in a gauze of harp, flute and harpsichord, an olde folkie thread that weaves around orchestral bodice-rippers, fragile confessions and the token Nashville twang of "Million Stars". What sticks is the nakedness of lines such as "In the end I forgive/I was set free by what you did." Ouch.
Foo Fighters guitarist turned podcaster keeps it country.
Shiflett had country in the crosshairs well before honkytonk renditions album All Hat and No Cattle (2013). Aside from the pedestrian late-Nineties-era Third Eye Blind strains of "Sticks & Stones", the Bakersfield guitars of this third solo LP are generally tasteful (see low-slung rumble "I'm Still Drunk"), the pedal steel and keys uniformly glossy, while Shiflett's vocal layers nicely with a country grounding. The input of producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson) is patent – despite insincere weeper "Room 102". Still, when Shiflett unbuttons the rodeo suit a little (cowpunk tune "Cherry"), he's far from bereft in a diverse California scene.
L.A. five-piece stick to the formula on album number six.
Cold War Kids have described their sixth album as both a tribute to the band's adopted hometown of L.A. and an exploration of love, yet LA Divine never fully commits to either of these ideas. Returning to the Springsteen-like bombast of 2014's Hold My Home, stomping opener "Love Is Mystical" is a soulful anthem, buoyed by hand claps and Nathan Willett's powerful range. From here the record rarely shifts gear, and by jaunty mid-point "No Reason To Run" the "woah-oh-ohs" prove tiresome. Three all-too-brief L.A.-themed interludes are compelling, but ultimately serve as respite from the bluster rather than the insightful vignettes they were intended to be.
Worldly trio continue with uncategorisable folk-fusion.
The appeal of 2016 debut Everything Sacred lay in its capturing of three gifted, adventurous musicians getting to know each other, resulting in beautiful improvisations exhibiting the elegant sensibilities of each. In exercising more restraint and relying more on mood, groove and structure, their second album is a game-changing masterpiece. Suhail Yusuf Khan's sarangi enriches the Celtic-tinged songs sung by James Yorkston ("Recruited Collier"), while Khan's own singing is of dazzling timbre. Jon Thorne's double bass lays sonorous foundations on a brave LP that is drenched in the soft spirit of friendship and playfulness.
A Krautrock Fifth Dimension? All in a day's work for these Canadians.
On their last album, the Canadian collective were trying to make Xanadu crossed with Sigue Sigue Sputnik. That seemed like crazy talk until you heard Brill Bruisers, a confetti cannon of brainy pop starbursts. For this follow-up, bandleader A.C. Newman said they wanted to make a Krautrock version of The Fifth Dimension. The guy should be in advertising. Take one listen to the propulsive rhythm, chiming melody and blaring synths of "High Ticket Attractions" – that's all it takes to become embedded in your brain for the rest of the year. The chirpy call and response between Newman and Neko Case will have you singing into a hairbrush to a song about the world going to hell.
Meanwhile, Case reaches a Stevie Nicks-like state on "This Is the World of the Theatre" and there's a Vangelis aura to the whirling blur of "We've Been Here Before".
They retain a knack for uncovering zingy melodies no-one's ever thought of, but there's a unifying sleekness and swagger too. It's the first New Pornographers album not to feature the requisite three songs written and sung by Dan Bejar, presumably off doing his own thing with Destroyer. His beat-poet lyrics and arch, spoken-sung delivery are missed, as his grit always adds pearls to the oyster. Still, this is a mouth-watering (almost) dozen.
Black-comedian folk-rocker reads last rites for humankind.
The blush is off the rose for Josh Tillman. The Honeybear that redeemed him on the brink of his existential abyss two years ago is but a speck on the bitter panorama of doom that comprises this epic comedy of the blackest hue.
Doomed we are, of course, as escalating failures of biology and technology fuel the insanities of religion and politics "on this godless rock that refuses to die". Tillman's distinction as a writer is a refusal to sugar that pill, even if it costs him his wages in "manic virginal lust and college dudes", as he scathingly predicts in the 13-minute career suicide of "Leaving LA". Destined to polarise, that 10-verse self-immolation is the bleeding edge of a contemptuous survey of What We Have Become as a species, with God and entertainment twin opiates for a pathetic condition that not even art (don't make him laugh) can save.
Ironically, ample beauty oozes from the Lennon-esque austerity of his acoustic guitar and piano, cut with orchestral peaks of dizzying exhilaration. But between "Ballad of the Dying Man" and the post-apocalyptic "Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution", even his yearning for the end is ambivalent.
Ultimately, the faux reverend's dazzling intelligence as a commentator only sharpens his perception of humankind's terminal stupidity. Now that's funny.
Maturing indie rockers deliver dreamy experimentation.
A precursory listen to opener "Rings" may not convince you that the Splashh of 2017 is any different from the Splashh of 2012. There are golden crunchy guitars, fuzzy processed vocals, and insistent rock beats. But where their early work failed to mesh, Splashh have now found a style of experimentation that is spontaneous yet refined. Like the echoey onomatopoeia of their name, they favour dreaminess over immediacy – as in the odd sensuality of "Honey & Salt" – but there are enough accessible grooves to balance the nebulous explorations. An album that is effortless and energetic, even if it is a little too hazy to linger long in memory.
Melbourne punks stretch their sound on fourth full-length.
Same again? So it would seem, as on album four the Smith Street Band rely on their usual staple of stage-ready, pub-punk chant-alongs and constant applications of contrast – seemingly unscheduled shifts between quiet, nostalgic reflection, snippets of self-deprecation and boisterous, beer-spilling, crowd-leading crescendos.
Yet there remain notable attempts at extension here, with snippets of synths, light-industrial noise, angelic choirs and polished R&B pop scattered throughout. But as drastic, and often awkwardly pasted-in, as these palette experiments are, they pale in prominence to vocalist Wil Wagner's wordplay, which is tighter than ever, whether painting perfectly economic scenes of "payday beers"; pitching poetic pearls of twenty-something wisdom ("Just because I don't think I know everything, doesn't mean that I don't know anything"); or re-punching his punk card with straight-shot simplicity ("Music industry professionals, they can go and fuck themselves").
As a test of the versatility of their trademark sound, More Scared Of You... is a pass. As a testament to one of the country's best lyricists in full flight, it's a true triumph.
Gothic-folk Canadians' dystopian poetry and dark improvisations.
From the ominous album title to the growling guitars and unsettling synth lines, disillusionment and darkness ooze through this album. The abrupt endings ("Velvet Gloves & Spit"), heart-stopping silences ("Moment") and dystopian funk ("Grifting") are deliberately polluted and ugly, yet the shyest rays of respite regularly peep from the void. "Western Questions" offers hypnosis amongst the chaos, and the album closes on a surprisingly soothing (defeated?) note with "Floating Cathedral". But the relentless lack of direction creates an aura of pointlessness that may well trigger that existential crisis you've been keeping at bay.
The synth-pop band tries to outrun one-GIF wonder status.
The Baltimore band skyrocketed to fame via their 2014 TV appearance on Letterman. Frontman Samuel T. Herring's chest-beating, shirt-pulling performance that night, where he danced like a lovesick gorilla at a roller disco, went viral. Everyone remembers it. But can you name the song without looking it up?
Three years down the track, Letterman is gone and Future Islands are in danger of becoming a one-GIF wonder. Their fifth album is a series of galloping beats, loping bass lines and perky synths that blend together and almost become interchangeable. So it falls on Herring's stocky shoulders to give each track some individuality. Whereas a lot of synth-pop vocalists go for a slick, almost robotic delivery to fit in with the sonic landscape, Herring is like a method actor. He stretches vowels until they snap, emits guttural moans and quivers with emotion.
His lyrics veer from the dramatic to the melodramatic, the opaque to the bonkers. "Doubled the top-knot, flew out of the lattice door," he moans head-scratchingly on "Aladdin". A duet with Debbie Harry called "Shadows" is tucked away on the second last track, and her contribution sounds like she was in a different city and possibly a different planet to Herring. "A melody that trails and falls and never fully blooms," Herring sings. It's a telling line.
More breathless feeling from upstate New York woodsman.
Recorded at Memphis' immortal Sam Phillips Studio with producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell), Rowe's latest finds the singer-songwriter following oft-cited touchstone Richard Thompson along the forking paths staked out by Madman (2014), digging bold piano and sweeping strings, Gospel-soul, pastoral folk-rock and loping country-folk into his favoured earthy ground. Rowe's rib-rattling baritone – fresh air and clean living continue to separate him from, say, Mark Lanegan – is as distinctive as ever, and despite some faltering moments ("I'll Follow Your Trail"), he's often exquisitely enigmatic (emotive high point "The Salmon").
Age shall not weary Ice-T and his band of hardcore metallers.
Body Count's 1992 debut resonated through the alternative music scene like a bullet fired at close range – ferocious, defiant and hardcore in themes and sound. The years since have been lean, with Body Count sinking into parody – until now. Lyrically, Ice-T traverses a mix of at-times laughable fiction (the home invasion horror of "The Ski Mask Way") and insightful social commentary ("No Lives Matter") with typical bravado, but it's the full-blooded production courtesy of Will Putney and the bone-crunching grooves of songs such as "This Is Why We Ride" that makes this a must-hear for headbangers.
Americana icon surveys a storied career on 15th solo outing.
A spiritual successor to 2001's The Houston Kid, Close Ties is the Bildungsroman of a melodious poet. "East Houston Blues" reflects on Crowell's knockabout youth with all the tension of a Gulf Coast electrical storm, "Life Without Susanna" is a penetrating meditation on late friend Susanna Clark, while "It Ain't Over Yet" features ex-wife Rosanne Cash. "I Don't Care Anymore" pairs earthy twin-guitar crosscurrents with a wry reflection on stardom, presaging nostalgia-piece "Nashville 1972". Along with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, Close Ties confirms Crowell as the Texan troubadours' fourth cardinal point.
His third collection of standards exudes and celebrates a majestic darkness.
Bob Dylan's third foray into songs previously recorded by Frank Sinatra isn't only the largest set of new recordings he's ever released (three CDs, 30 songs), it's also majestic in its own right. Dylan moves through this area – the region of Sinatra, and also of standards songwriters like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein – as if it's territory for him to chart and command. Indeed, Dylan has now made more successive albums in this idiom than in any other style since his world-changing mid-1960s electric trinity, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
That's stunning – and not only because of the album's grand latter-day vision. When Dylan issued his first set of Sinatra-related songs, 2015's Shadows in the Night, the project reflected the history of American music's oldest cultural war; the songs Dylan chose for that album, and a follow-up volume, last year's Fallen Angels, showed how well he understood Sinatra and the rarefied "Great American Songbook" era of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals. When the rise of outsider forms – country music, rhythm & blues, rockabilly – displaced all that in the 1950s, some reacted as if barbarians had stormed the gates. Sinatra was among them. "Rock & roll smells phony and false," he said. Dylan, though, had done something even more radical – maybe worse – and he knew it. "Tin Pan Alley is gone," he said in 1985. "I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now."
With the monumental Triplicate, he's certainly made amends. Though Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his own songwriting – that is, for how he expanded the arts with his use of language – songs have always been much more to him than wordcraft. Music itself carries as much meaning. A song isn't a song without melody, harmony and voice.
Time and again he proves the same thing on Triplicate. Though a handful of songs here are delightful bounces (including the opening track, "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans") and some easygoing almost-blues ("That Old Feeling", "The Best Is Yet to Come"), most are downbeat, spectral ballads. In songs like "I Could Have Told You", "Here's That Rainy Day" and "Once Upon a Time" – ruminations on a memory of loss that is now central to the singer's being – Dylan raises devastation to a painful beauty. Other times, he intimates something ghostly. In Sinatra's original 1965 version of "September of My Years", arranger Gordon Jenkins opened with an eddy of strings, invoking the tide that eventually rolls in for everybody. Dylan's band creates the same undertow effect, sounding just as full, with Donnie Herron's steel guitar and Tony Garnier's bowed bass.
When Dylan first decided to sing Sinatra, the idea seemed far-fetched. Did he have a voice left that was possibly up to it? Dylan made plain at the outset of Shadows in the Night, in the opening measures of "I'm a Fool to Want You" – the most defining of all Sinatra songs, and one of his only co-writing credits – he was better than up to it: He did the song dead-seriously, and chillingly. "Smooth" is not a word you would use to describe Dylan's weatherworn voice. But he can wield phrasing as effectively as Sinatra himself.
Dylan uses only a quintet throughout Triplicate, no strings, no big band (though there's a small dance horn section here and there). They re-create the solemn openings to "Stormy Weather" and "It Gets Lonely Early" in all but instrumentation. He's picked his repertoire carefully and meaningfully here. Of the 50-some albums he released between In the Wee Small Hours, in 1955, and 1970's Watertown, Sinatra made about a dozen exploring loss, masterpieces every one. Dylan culls more than half of Triplicate's songs from those releases – particularly favouring Sinatra's often-overlooked last LP for Capitol, Point of No Return, from 1962.
He closes Triplicate, though, with something Sinatra sang many years earlier: "Why Was I Born", written by Kern and Hammerstein in 1929. It's a torch standard that epitomises the sort of writing that Dylan killed off, asking the biggest questions – "Why was I born?/Why am I living?/What do I get?/What am I giving?" – on the most personal level. Dylan is no stranger to dejection or hard self-examination. What he understands here is the triumph in surviving that darkness. It's in that survival, and how you put it across to others, that you find out why you were born.