Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Australia’s best roots guitarist mixes the moods
A true under-the-radar type, Jeff Lang has been the country’s best roots guitarist, a sort of Aussie Ry Cooder, for 20-odd years and now 15 albums. Lang’s a remarkably agile musician; he can deliver a slow, soulful blues just as easily as he can come on all high and lonesome (see “This City’s Not Your Hometown Anymore”), or noir-ish and menacing (cue “Petra Goes to the Movies”). Yet Lang’s at his best when he lets his nimble fingers do the talking, best heard here in a fretboard workout known as “I Want to Run But My Legs Won’t Stand”, or when he unleashes some stinging slide guitar during “People Will Break Your Heart”. Lang’s music is both vivid and visceral.
Bad Seed lends gravity to country-rock piss-up
The Australian rock underground boasts a proud lineage of hard-drinking reprobate cowboy types, but unlike Tracy Pew, Spencer P. Jones or Tex Perkins, tipsy teddy bear Henry Wagons has never seemed likely to turn ugly after the next slab. Roping former Bad Seed Mick Harvey to the producer’s saddle brings more grit and brimstone to the act – even if the Vegas showman’s wink remains hardwired to Wagons’ brand of hell-raising.
Witness for starters the outrageous extravagance of the horns and axe-play on “Hold On Caroline”, which necks the bad acid before heading out on the piss. The long night of libation veers from the coy bachelor pad croon of “Beer Barrel Bar” to the bogan boogie anthem of “Fortitude Valley”. The stray dog desperation of “Search the Streets” is balanced by the Campari-and-flute pas de deux of “Summer Liquor”, complete with raucous tango diversion that illustrates this band’s controlled insanity as a live unit. “Why Do You Always Cry” is where it all comes together: an epic storm of Harvey atmosphere, classic rock chops and Wagons’ mighty vocal range, from full-throttle wail to deep caramel warble. The guy can turn a phrase like the most laconic barfly but, ironically, it’s the sheer perfection of his rich vibrato that makes the heartfelt likes of “Dust in the Hall” hard to take seriously. Maybe if he shot a man in Dubbo, just to watch him die . . .?
Rootsy Texan goes to New York, loosens up, sparks fly
Both within and without the Be Good Tanyas, 38-year-old Jolie Holland has succeeded in giving old-timey music a modern makeover. With Wine Dark Sea, her fifth solo LP, Holland has tapped into Manhattan’s downtown jazz scene, bringing in players such as Doug Wieselman (Lou Reed). And she really kicks up her heels, especially during the wigged-out boho groove that is “Waiting for the Sun”, or the various junkyard guitar vamps (“On and On”, “Dark Days”). Holland’s ever-so mannered vocal style makes it hard to work out exactly what she’s singing about, but despite the odd dark cloud, there are moments (“All the Love”) when the lady simply couldn’t be any more mellow.
Five years in the musical wilderness hasn't dulled the Brit singer's edge
It's been five years since Lily Allen's last album, a period in which the U.K. pop diva got married and had kids. But fear not – she's still the same firecracker who turned heads in the mid-'00s with eclectic, post-hip-hop tunes and bullshit-slaying lyrics. The brilliantly titled Sheezus has loads of great punch lines ("I don't give a fuck about your Instagram or your lovely house or your ugly kids," she sings on "Insincerely Yours"). But Allen also rocks a sisterly warmth: The title track deals honestly with returning to compete with artists she loves, like Gaga and Lorde: "I'm prepared/Not gonna lie, though/I'm kinda scared." Please, girl.
Foos drummer ups the prog ante on side project
The debut album by Birds of Satan, a side project of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, sounds like every LP from Hawkins' teenage record collection playing at the same time. He and his bandmates – who also play with him in another side project, Chevy Metal – dabble in Queen-style operatic choruses, Cheap Trick power-pop melodies and a whole lotta Led Zep boogie. Hawkins even channels the jazz-fusion drum break fromRun-DMC's "Peter Piper" in "Thanks for the Line." That sort of eclecticism is both the best and worst thing about Birds of Satan: While its seven songs all go down easy, they can also feel like sensory overload. Lead track "The Ballad of the Birds of Satan" stretches over nine minutes (and features guest appearances by fellow Foos Dave Grohl and Pat Smear), with more twists and turns than a David Lynch movie. Then there's "Too Far Gone to See," which begins with a "Dream On"-style harpsichord intro and ends with an unexpected synth dirge. Birds of Satan is a memorable and often exhilarating listen – but with so much going on in the space of half an hour, you can almost hear Hawkins' life flash before your ears.
The first album-length collaboration from Brian Eno and Underworld frontman Karl Hyde has the slickness of Eighties pop, the tricky melodies of modern indie and the appeal of neither. Eno has boasted of the album's "deliberately irregular and awkward" constructions, which could apply to the goofy synth horns, the bone-dry guitars or the herky-jerk vocals that call to mind dead-eyed versions of acts like Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend. "When I Built This World," a minimalist suite that feels like it's made for strings and Nintendo, is weirdly gorgeous, but otherwise this just sounds like two electronic greats e-mailing dorm-room demos.
Noise gods deliver two hours of unparalleled intensity
Experimental rockers Swans have only ever had one goal: to overwhelm. Like their last sonic saga, 2012's The Seer, their latest offers two straight hours of spook-house drones, battering-ram guitar blasts and Michael Gira's howled imperatives about love, sex and death. Songs last up to 34 minutes and alternate between jazzy post-punk ragers ("Oxygen") and trippy jams plucked from the dark side of Pink Floyd ("Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture"). Backup vocals by St. Vincent and Cold Specks provide a stylistic through line back to the shimmery 1996 LP Soundtracks for the Blind, but Gira and Co. have grown more sophisticated since then. These days, they don't just crush – they hypnotise.
Blue Mountains hip-hoppers stretch out on LP three
Thundamentals have always had talent, but when they dropped romantic first single “Smiles Don’t Lie” from this, their third LP, they went from hip-hop heads painting the town red to a group with a whole new audience. The rest of the album opens up their sound even further; the whip-smart larrikin lyrics and funk infused jams of old are still there, but this time around they’re laced with electronica and a whole new level of polish. Opener “Home In Your Head” has hints of Burial, while the über-catchy “Something I Said” comes correct with a pure pop hook. A deft balance of fresh and familiar, the Thundas have their hearts firmly on their sleeves this time around, and that’s a very good thing.
Adele’s co-writer crafts grown-up, rainy-day pop
Post Semisonic, Dan Wilson’s found real form as a songwriter-for-hire. He’s cranked out the good stuff for Nas, Birdy, Missy Higgins – who repays the favour here – and, especially, Adele, with whom he wrote the Grammy winning “Someone Like You”, a huge pay day that means everything Wilson now does is for love, not money. Love Without Fear is a reminder that Wilson’s always had a winning way with heavy-hearted, organic pop; if you’re in a rainy day mood and crave a soundtrack, you could do far worse. And when Wilson goes for the big emotional splash during “When It Pleases You” and “Even the Stars Are Sleeping”, you can imagine Adele calling him, requesting something similar for her next outing.
Michael Jackson’s second posthumous studio album is surprisingly solid
Michael Jackson has been more prolific in death than he usually was while alive. For his second posthumous studio LP, weighing in at an ungenerous eight songs, Timbaland and Jerome Harmon lead a team of producers who’ve added bulk and even dubstep eruptions to Jackson’s unfinished tracks, originally laid down between 1983 and 2002.
“Loving You” (recorded during sessions for 1987’s Bad) follows the wonderful, breezy legacy of “Rock With You” and “The Way You Make Me Feel”. But it’s an exception: Most of these songs rot and sway with fear. In “Chicago”, Jackson rails at a harlot who seduced him, despite being married with kids. The Dangerous outtake “Slave to the Rhythm” details an ugly marriage, and the EDM surges of the astounding, audacious “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” chronicle the grim fate of a preteen girl who runs from an abusive stepdad. Even with such dark subject matter, though, it’s a joy to hear the joy in Jackson’s voice.
Female sexual predators and the abuse of children were frequent Jackson themes. So was his sense of martyrdom. In “Xscape”, he uses his array of percussive gasps and clucks to describe how TV cameras (and, inevitably, a greedy woman) plague his life. In the second chorus, he slips in a chilling ad-lib that’s easy to overlook: “I’m dying.”
Promising, if limited, debut from youthful Southerners
Horse Thief, from Denton, Texas, arrive with a certain amount of clout given that the town’s most famous sons, Midlake, deemed the quintet important enough to take them on tour. Their literate folk-rock can be placed somewhere between the looseness of Fruit Bats and a less penetrating version of the Shins. Songs like “I Don’t Mind” are absorbing, combining energetic, earthy rock with something more ethereal. The interesting “Human Geographer”, meanwhile, sounds like a ragged Fleet Foxes and offers ambition and depth with its changing sections, but like the whole album lacks the punch to match its passion. Though there is nothing to dislike here, there is not enough to rouse particular excitement.
Melbourne singer-songwriter hits an instant chord
Harry Hookey may be a new name to many, but straight from the box his songs already feel like they’ve been here forever. Taking cues from songwriters such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan, with a strong hint of the modern folk rock flavour of Sydney’s Boy & Bear, Hookey’s debut carves out an instant niche for the Melbourne songwriter. Whether he’s twisting simple folk on “Come and Go”, hinting at Iggy Pop on “Misdiagnosed” or veering towards Springsteen-esque intensity on “Man On Fire”, Hookey does it all with a poet’s touch and a masterful sense of melody. Some may say they’ve heard it all before, but when it’s done this well, it’s a pleasure to hear it again.
Precocious 21-year-old from rural Iceland takes on the world
Ásgeir’s first Australian release is the English language version of his debut Dyrd í dauðathogn o, a massively popular LP in his homeland. Yet his idiosyncratic trill is not for everyone. The histrionically emotive vocals can give an unattractive sense of postured misery – even if all lyrics are by Ásgeir’s 73-year-old poet grandfather (and translated by singer-songwriter and Iceland-phile John Grant) – but after repeat listens one does come round to his peculiar, high-pitched delivery. In the plaintive sensitivity of his songs, particularly when resorting to acoustic guitars on the title track, there are touches of Bon Iver, while frequent dashes of electronica evoke James Blake. A fascinating collection.
One of Australia’s most exciting bands deliver on early promise
While Brisbane’s DZ Deathrays served up a solid debut and have built a formidable live following, their earlier recordings saw them limited by the restrictions of being a two-piece. It’s hard not to sound like Death From Above 1979 or the White Stripes when you’re a duo, and DZ sounded a lot like the former. On Black Rat, the energetic youngsters have found their own sound and it’s as impressive as it is infectious. Like most of their I Oh You labelmates, DZ Deathrays can write massive hooks and are serving up records that would work as well in downtown Brooklyn as they would in Fortitude Valley. Black Rat is sexy, catchy and brutal heavy music hipsterism.
The glossy pop jams on the Utah band’s third LP come with an undercurrent of personal struggle
On their two hit singles – 2010’s “Animal” and 2012’s “Everybody Talks” – Neon Trees refashioned post-Strokes dance rock into unshakable radio pop. If the Utah band was from New York or L.A., its slick simulations of neo-New Wave might seem cynical. But there’s something sweet about kids from more or less the middle of nowhere getting their little piece of modern rock. They’re not Foster the People, they’re everyday people.
The Trees’ third album ups the empathy quotient: Frontman Tyler Glenn, who was raised Mormon, recently came out as gay, so phrases like “I was socially absurd” take on unexpected resonance. Pop Psychology opens with the biggest, shiniest songs he’s come up with, each taking on a slippery aspect of post-modern romance. There’s the sun-kissed alt-pop of “Love in the 21st Century”, the Peter Gabriel arena gush of “Sleeping With a Friend”, the Bowie-quoting bubble-punk of “Teenager in Love”. The stark, chilly synth ballad “Voices in the Hall” works as both a late-night breakup lament and a testament of personal struggle, as if the difference between pop and art was no difference at all.
Impressive progression by Melbourne soul revivalists
Saskwatch’s 2012 hype-generating debut Leave it All Behind was recorded in a mere four days, so the three weeks spent completing its follow up must have felt like luxury. Nose Dive is a polished, assured 11-track set by the nine-piece soul outfit, which has turned heads with its dynamic, festival-approved live show. But while the Melbourne band provides some obligatory hip shaking, big band action (“Give Me a Reason’’ and “Hands’’), the real story here is one of musical growth. Slower, groove-laden tracks like “Call Your Name” – an affecting ballad that reaches a powerful crescendo – demonstrate an impressive depth and maturity that sits seamlessly alongside the party starting fun.