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Sainted Clown’s 19-year solo acoustic stocktake
“It ain’t too easy being a young man.” “Messin’ With the Kid” was jaded already on the Saints’ ’77 original and fully loaded on Ed Kuepper’s solo acoustic retrospective of ’95, I Was A Mail Order Bridegroom. Two more decades down the line it’s a poignant conclusion to this new stocktake, recorded unadorned but for the odd stringy counterpoint and the palpable weight of time. Gone is the watery reverb on “The Way I Made You Feel”, up front is a kickboard for the forthright propulsion befitting a journeyman of Kuepper’s confidence and stature. Selections like “Rue the Day” and “No Regrets” play off each other in a self-sustaining dialogue spanning ancient and modern blues.
Behold Sydney’s answer to Snow Patrol
Stadium-sized rock that could be used to soundtrack a tear-inducing moment on Grey’s Anatomy is not something Australian bands tend to be overly associated with. Indeed, while it’s easy to heap praise on a bare-knuckled outfit like the Drones (and deservedly so), a more polished act like Sydney’s New Empire is more likely to be chided for their unashamed adherence to the formulas of commercial rock. It’s a shame, because they pen genuinely moving songs that operate in the same sphere as Snow Patrol’s latter day output. It’s not all gold – they stumble on ballads such as the title track – but a song like “Relight the Fire” deserves to be heard in the stadium environment it was surely written for.
The Eels man ponders what he lost on an introspective outing
Mark Oliver Everett is getting personal. And for a guy who wrote an entire album about the suicide of his sister and death of his mother, that’s saying something. In many ways the 11th Eels album is a second cousin to Beck’s Morning Phase. He’s said that these songs were inspired by “someone I lost, by choice, and later came to regret losing”. This woman haunts the album. “She’s got a real big heart and I’ve got to win it back,” he croaks on “Kindred Spirit”. Pulling back from his wilder fuzz-pop tendencies and emphasising finger-picked acoustic guitars, tinkling electric pianos and shivering strings, it’s a more fragile and vulnerable Everett on these cautionary tales.
Kelis has traded milkshakes for soul food on album six
It’s one thing to call your new album Food. Another altogether to open it with a child asking “You hungry?” before a bouncy track called “Breakfast” kicks in. Kelis then serves up “Jerk Ribs” (smoky and sexy), “Cobbler” (Calypso-style), “Fish Fry” (with a country-western twang) and “Biscuits and Gravy” (saucy soul). The executive chef of this smorgasbord is Dave Sitek, an adaptable producer who worked on LPs by Beady Eye, CSS and Yeah Yeah Yeahs just last year. He brings the most out of Kelis’ adventurous palette, which takes a surprising and poignant turn on the Labi Siffre pop-folk standard “Bless the Telephone”. This isn’t Michelin-starred; just pure home cooking from the heart.
Slow-burn gold from quirky ex-pat
Berlin-based ex-pat Ned Collette has never “done” tidy pop. Working again with backing band Wirewalker, Collette relishes atmospheric instrumental runs, wordy rushes of lyrics and quietly mingled guitar, synth and rhythms rather than outsized hooks and choruses. The titular instrument on “At the Piano” nods to Bowie collaborator Mike Garson, while “Bird” recalls Taking Tiger Mountain-era Brian Eno. But Collette has long since come into his own, especially as a lyricist. “Update your profile,” he mocks on “A Lawyer or a Gimmick”, which also skewers modern methods of releasing music, and there’s even an archness to the pretty ballad “Opiate Eyes”. It’s well worth your patience.
Second full-length from eclectic Mancunian
On her 2011 debut O, Devotion! (and excellent early singles “Bad Medicine” and “Midnight Blues”), Liz Green elevated herself above other minimalist folk-influenced sirens with a fascinating mix of jazz, cabaret and even inspiration from musicals. Haul Away is along these lines, though with more ambition, as on the formidable title track with its sensitive layers of woodwind. However, throughout there is a standoffish reserve in Green’s slick delivery that inhibits a more meaningful immersion in her world. Each song is without exception sophisticated, yet the impression is of an artist who is cerebral rather than visceral; skilled rather than truly soulful.
Promising debut from Scottish growlers
Dale Barclay is very much the calling card for the Amazing Snakeheads, an intense frontman who sounds like he’s practically foaming at the mouth. The hotly-tipped Glasgow trio flank him with thick bass lines and rattling drums, though they do sneak in some nice chiming guitar melodies. But this is a night-time album, recorded after dark and complete with nocturnal sax licks. Barclay is clearly indebted to Nick Cave and Tom Waits and, as thrilling as his delivery can be, he cosies up to brooding rock & roll clichés on tracks like “I am a Vampire” and “Swamp Song”. The band nails a very specific old-school sound, but the songwriting doesn’t yet match the badass atmosphere.
Gritty, rough hewn punk from terribly named Cali outfit
Plague Vendor is a shitty name. Let’s get that out of the way and move on. Aside from that misstep, Free To Eat is a fine debut. Channelling At the Drive-In’s energy and the Birthday Party’s zombie surf punk these Californians aren’t rewriting the rule book, but their sloppy yet energetic delivery is nothing if not authentic. On songs like “My Tongue Is So Treacherous”, singer Brandon Blaine proves his mettle as a lyricist, and by all reports, he cuts a wild figure onstage. Drawling his poetry like Lou Reed and contorting like Iggy Pop, it’d be nice to see him add some touches of his own though. Free To Eat welcomes the arrival of a solid if slightly derivative punk band.
The song remains the same for bearded six-string maestro
Zakk Wylde must surely be the most reliable six-stringer in modern metal. Ever since Ozzy Osbourne discovered him as a 21-year-old on the No Rest For the Wicked album, Wylde has crafted some of the genre’s most formidable riffs, and so it continues on BLS’s ninth studio album of original material. Surprises are few and far between, with Wylde’s Ozzy-esque vocals and Alice In Chains-style harmonising a familiar foil for his sludgy riffing. Indeed, it’s ballads such as “Scars” and “Angel of Mercy” (at which Wylde is surprisingly adept) that prove essential to the mix, providing respite and variation when it’s needed most.
Avant-rock trio take a sudden turn toward weird, twisted disco
This globe-trotting trio have an uncommonly diverse dossier: Over seven albums, Liars have ranged from dance-punk chants to prog gloom to primal-rock action. They’ve never made the same album twice – and they’ve never made a dull one, an increasingly rare trait these days. Here, they reach for a macabre death-disco vibe. The first half has dance beats, even evoking the B 52’s in the vintage synth bop of “Mess on a Mission” – the first Liars song anyone could describe as “perky”. But the quieter second half gets darker and stranger, with Angus Andrew’s distorted squawks weaving in and out of the mix for the claustrophobic creep show “Left Speaker Blown”.
Synthpoppers make a play for the big leagues on fourth LP
Baltimore’s Future Islands have experimented with arty New Wave and synthpop since their 2008 debut, but this is the first time the trio’s ambition has matched ability, their disparate influences coalescing for their strongest set of songs yet. Producer Chris Coady (Grizzly Bear) and the band unleash the pop hooks and big choruses with confidence (hence the album title), opener “Seasons (Waiting on You)” setting the tone by sounding like a lost Eighties hit. Singles is equal parts danceable and dramatic, the latter quality personified in frontman Sam Herring’s huge, hoarse voice that’s like Antony Hegarty after a carton of cigarettes. His theatrical style may grate, but the songwriting is undeniable.
Psychedelic time lord continues blues regeneration on follow-up to hit LP
Time is the enemy for pop stars. Few in this country know that as well as Russell Morris: psychedelic prince of the Sixties, flaxen-haired troubadour of the singer-songwriter Seventies and, for the past 20 years, one of the hardest working men on the RSL nostalgia circuit. The fact that he never stopped writing and performing was clear in the taut, terse blues of last year’s platinum comeback, Sharkmouth, but its stroke of genius was a canny perspective on time that left pop in the dust.
Like its predecessor, Van Diemen’s Land is all-true Aussie histories strung up on wiry blues arrangements like so many pages cut from yellowing broadsheets. The panorama spans colonial horrors to WW2 bombers and Japanese labour camps; dramas on river and sea and character portraits from Birdsville to Kings Cross. With a road-hardened cast drawn from Daddy Cool, Chain, Midnight Oil, the Black Sorrows and the Living End, Morris subtly underscores the subtext of a shared past that made us. Not every track puts its hooks to history as convincingly as “Eureka”, but from the hard pub rock of “Dexter’s Big Tin Can” to the soulful murmurs of “Sweetest Thing” to the eerie, wind-in-the-wires whistle of “Loch Ard Gorge”, Morris’s voice is never less than totally engaged and engaging. Time, at last, is on his side.
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.