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Fitzroy firecracker hits his rock & roll stride
Nashville agrees with Dan Sultan. Leaving behind parochial expectations for the geographic heart of roots-rock and soul has focused his fire and upped his craft as a writer, as flagged by the lean, addictive riff-rock of first single “Under My Skin”. The second, “The Same Man”, is a more ambitious production from anguished blues piano howl to bluegrass banjo. Elsewhere “Nobody Knows” has an affecting air of Celtic longing and “Ain’t Thinkin’ Bout You” is Stax soul with matt finish from producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon). Man, band and crew concoct a consistently blistering mix here but the unvarnished first take of “Gullible Few” is, ironically, ultimate proof of Sultan’s arrival.
Bleak pop from the ex-Gowns member turned solo artist
For the follow-up to the brilliant Past Life Martyred Saints, Erika M. Anderson wanted to make a record about the “digital commodification of our online lives”. It may sound like the most boring university lecture you never attended, but it’s a compelling listen from the moment “Satellites” opens with ominous piano, violin swells and a cold-war lesson transposed for 2014. The industrial intensity (she wasn’t joking when she cited NIN demos in the album notes) gives way to acoustic guitars on “So Blonde” and album highlight “When She Comes”. But if the intention was to create an environment where digital debris interrupts moments of pure beauty – just like real life – then mission accomplished.
Melbourne crooner-producer lets in too much filler on long-awaited debut LP
Nick Murphy named his solo project after jazz singer/trumpeter Chet Baker, whose delicate bedroom voice always seemed to hover just outside one’s ear. Murphy brings that same intimacy to his long-awaited first album as Chet Faker, self-producing it in his home studio and playing nearly everything himself. It’s suited for climbing into a pair of headphones, where you can let his rumpled, crooner’s vocals and low-key, future-soul instrumental layering wash over you.
That woozy sensitivity is all over Built on Glass, which sets out to extend the acclaim for 2012’s Thinking in Textures EP (including a career-making cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”) while making the overall sound more café-friendly than ever. Murphy achieves that and comes out with a fistful of strong singles, from the more commercial “Talk is Cheap” and irritatingly catchy Kilo Kish duet “Melt” to the former-friend lament “1998” and smooth-operating “Gold”.
There’s no questioning how well Murphy does ballads – see the sparse loop and slinky cues of “To Me” – but the album also lets in considerable filler. On their own, tracks like the halfway-point interlude “/” and the closing “Dead Body” (featuring earnest guitar licks from Cleopold) help establish a dreamy, laidback atmosphere. But even the unmoored vocals and Brian Eno-inspired ambience of the likable “No Advice (Airport Version)” slows down the album on repeat visits. That’s especially true of the comedown “Lesson in Patience”, its moaning harmonies and handclaps feeling as unnecessary as its electric piano noodling.
That said, “Cigarettes & Loneliness” is the reason to keep watching Murphy. Ambitious and self-referential, musing about exactly which approach to take, he hits all the right sonic and emotional buttons. He’s close to our ear again, but he makes a point of prodding himself well beyond his own snuggly comfort zone.
Singer-songwriter creates an eclectic mix on latest LP
Given his heritage, Liam Finn has always been something of a global citizen, so it’s no surprise that his dense, psychedelic soundscapes reflect a bizarre cacophony of cultural and musical influences. Recorded in Manhattan, The Nihilist extends this aesthetic, embracing an urban menace that marries perfectly to the more genteel pop sensibilities of his earlier nature and nurture. The title track finds unlikely common ground between Tom Waits and old-fashioned AM-radio rock; “Helena Bonham Carter” marries nasty pop to QOTSA psychedelia. Start to finish, it’s an album full of layers and left-turns, but they’re all clearly part of Finn’s fabric, not simply self-indulgence.
Midwestern basement-punk prodigy starts feeling 22
Cleveland indie rocker Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings has been releasing records since 2009, when he was 18, spending what would have been his college years learning the ways of catchy, low-fi guitar punishment. Now he’s 22, and the third proper Cloud Nothings album feels a little like graduation day. Baldi’s songs still bash and seethe as you’d expect, but with more flashy time-signature shifts, open space and studio trickiness. The torrid, seven-minute epic “Pattern Walks” is almost suitelike, and Baldi’s angst is cut with a wide-eyed ambivalence. A few years ago, a song called “Psychic Trauma” would’ve been radiant vomit. Here it’s almost majestic.
British trio find their feet and craft an album as big as its monicker
Conjured with the assistance of producer Nick Launay (Nick Cave, Arcade Fire), Himalayan – the third album from Southampton trio Band of Skulls – is as epic by nature as it is by name. The period between the release of the trio’s second slab, Sweet Sour, and the recording of their latest was filled with hugely affirming moments – headlining London’s 5000-capacity Brixton Academy, supporting the Chili Peppers, flooring Splendour in the Grass – and Himalayan bristles with a contagious new confidence. Coupled with growing songwriting smarts, this fresh swagger infects everything, sweeping away all hints of the mopiness that slightly undermined the band’s first two records.
At its most obvious, the new edge is there in the visceral, glam-cum-stoner riffing of opener “Asleep at the Wheel”, which immediately announces this album’s loftier ambitions. The title track, which follows, confirms that this time out the band are not only aiming higher, but now also have the chops to hit their mark – an infectious dirty guitar rock groove melds into an ethereal, almost-acapella harmony section, before guitarist Russell Marsden gets his Jack White on for a solo that’s all sweet angles and sexy edges. Band of Skulls’ new-found confidence rears its head in a completely different fashion on “Cold Sweat”, which features vocals from bassist Emma Richardson – it’s a wash of sprawling, majestic atmosphere, a first-rate take on the sort of textures English anti-chanteuse Anna Calvi has worked so well lately.
As a whole, Himalayan is Band of Skulls’ coming of age, an undeniable shift from what could be to what is.
UK rockers drop the ball after founding member’s exit
It would’ve been easy for Kaiser Chiefs to call it quits following the resignation of drummer – and main songwriter – Nick Hodgson in late 2012. Instead, the one-time Britpop revivalists soldiered on with album five. Singer Ricky Wilson has learnt a bit about radio-friendly hooks from his current gig as a judge on The Voice [UK], with “Coming Home” and “Meanwhile, Up In Heaven” penned with lighter-waving stadium crowds in mind. Closest to the spiky Chiefs of old is “Cannons”, which starts like a Rocky Horror off-cut and morphs into a glam rock stomper. But disappointingly, Hodgson seems to have exited with most of the quintet’s charm and personality in tow.
Melbourne five-piece set to go global with album five
There was a time when you couldn’t write about Architecture in Helsinki without the word “twee” and an obligatory Belle and Sebastian comparison. But the Melbourne outfit moved on from its early sound years ago, and on its fifth album further develops the dreamy, synth-led pop that made 2011’s Moment Bends its most successful record to date. Co-produced by the band and François Tétaz (Gotye), Now + 4EVA is a highly polished 11-song set that peaks with the Eighties disco boogie of “I Might Survive”, the breathy “Echo” and irresistibly catchy recent single “Dream a Little Crazy”. The complete package is, however, assured, confident and worthy of repeated listens.
Former Police guitarist rocks out for the first time in decades
With the exception of his stint with the Police on their reunion tour in 2007-2008, guitarist Andy Summers has spent the years since their 1986 split indulging his jazz, world music and classical urges. When the Police reunion ended, though, he decided he still wanted to rock, and teamed up with L.A. native Rob Giles to form Circa Zero. Not surprisingly, given Summers’ distinctive style, there are strong traces of the Police throughout (“Whenever You Hear the Rain”, “Gamma Ray”, “Summer Lies”), though the likes of “The Story Ends Here” and “Underground” put a modern, harder-edged twist on proceedings. At 71, Summers clearly remains a potent creative force.
Literate alt-folk from intense foursome on second LP
Saintseneca’s rise as a band took in playing Columbus, Ohio’s thriving circuit of house concerts, therefore the looseness and often-amateurish production on this endearing album seems appropriate. Here is a happy marriage between largely Appalachian-influenced folk (as on the excellent “Takmit”) and West Coast folk-rock, with the balance between slow ballads and fast stomps, as well as the male and female vocals, recalling Port O’Brien. Admittedly, it can get a bit samey, yet songs like the remarkably disconcerting “Falling Off” take things beautifully off course, hinting at a moodier and more eclectic side to Saintseneca that might be explored further. Still, Dark Arc is an impressive offering.
All-star cast pay their respects to a metal great
If a man can be judged by the calibre of artists lining up to pay homage on a tribute album, then Ronnie James Dio’s place in the pantheon of metal greats is assured. Prior to passing away in 2010, the diminutive vocalist carved out a 50-year career with acts such as Rainbow, Black Sabbath and as a solo artist, which explains why the likes of Metallica (who perform a medley), Anthrax (“Neon Knights”), Judas Priest’s Rob Halford (“Man on the Silver Mountain”), Slipknot’s Corey Taylor (“Rainbow in the Dark”) and many others place their stamp on Dio’s music. Ultimately, though, rather than listen repeatedly it just makes you want to hear the originals again.
Long-lost Eighties recordings from late country legend see the light of day
Unlike pop, country music is not exactly youth-obsessed. In 1980, Johnny Cash became the youngest person to ever be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. He was 48. Ironically, his relationship with Nashville hit the skids soon afterwards and his record company of three decades, Columbia, pretty much lost interest in him, finally dropping him in 1986. It’s a bittersweet irony that the songs on this shelved album, recorded in 1981 and 1984, were rejected by the same label that is now heralding their release.
Produced by Billy Sherrill, who helped usher in the countrypolitan style popularised by Glen Campbell, Tammy Wynette and Charley Pride, it’s a collection that has aged well and encapsulates the many sides of Cash. There are the wry story songs with a twist – the quite literal last drive with a former sweetheart on “I Drove Her Out Of My Mind”; the saucy wordplay about a singing star he won’t identify in “If I Told You Who It Was”. There’s the social commentary of the title track, where a kid with nothing left to lose holds up a liquor store knowing he will get caught and probably die. There are two warm and lusty duets with wife June Carter Cash and a rave-up on “I’m Movin’ On” with Waylon Jennings.
He closes proceedings with “I Came To Believe”, a plain-spoken declaration of surrender to a higher power after admitting he can’t manage the mess he has made of his life. This last one plays out like a prelude to Cash’s celebrated final years, when Rick Rubin recognised that the man in black should be recorded with that tombstone voice front and centre. Rubin treated Cash with the respect he wasn’t afforded when these songs from Out Among the Stars were recorded. It’s a pity the man had to die and be re-evaluated before they saw the light of day.
British upstarts continue journey towards maturity
After outgrowing their scrappy mid-'00s New Fellas phase and maturing into the UK's cult indie rock godfathers, here's another sharp turn: the Cribs taking a leaf from Weezer's playbook, infusing power pop into each possible seam of their woozy garage punk. Hell, the stunning "An Ivory Hand" is the Cribs damn near writing a Blue Album-era Weezer tune. Which, considering For All My Sisters was overseen by Blue Album producer Ric Ocasek, feels perfectly apt. It's an ideal mix with classic Cribs shout-alongs on "Diamond Girl" and "Finally Free" and the croon of "Pacific Time" and "Spring on Broadway" – making for a fully-fledged indie pop Cribs experience, trademark scrappy weirdness intact.
Second LP for Felice Brothers founder is a family affair
Open-heart surgery gave Simone Felice the impetus to forge a solo career – and that’s pretty much how he’s been making records ever since: Like his life (and aorta) depended on it. Strangers trades in the intimacy of his 2012 self-titled album for something a little more expansive, with guest artists and friends – including his old band the Felice Brothers and members of ubiquitous alt-folk trio the Lumineers – dropping in and bringing tracks such as “Molly O” and “If You Go To LA” to a rousing close. Felice’s voice is as real as it gets, especially when his quivers are punctuated by a trumpet and strings on the heartbreaking lament, “The Best Money Can Buy”.
German house purist keeps the beats smooth on his first album
Hamburg producer Tensnake is part of the same heavy-hitting label roster as superstar DJs like Sebastian Ingrosso and Eric Prydz, but he’s not really EDM. On his first full album, he makes sharp-lined, song-oriented house music that draws heavily from strutting early-Eighties electro-disco, like an all-synth version of Brooklyn’s Escort. Nothing here bounds as joyously as Tensnake’s club-ubiquitous 2010 single “Coma Cat”, but “Feel of Love” (featuring Madonna producer Jacques Lu Cont and Brit crooner Jamie Lidell) and the Nile Rodgers-feature “Good Enough to Keep” add some well-timed jolts to a collection that flows, at times, a little too smoothly for its own good.
After years as a sideman, Pharrell grabs the spotlight with a bubbly party record
2013 was the year of Pharrell. Sure, he’s been lacing the pop charts for more than a decade, composing beats and singing hooks for everyone from Snoop Dogg and Jay Z to Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. But last year, he finally capped his transition to centre-stage stardom with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” – two megasmashes driven to ubiquity by Pharrell’s lighthearted cockiness and free-range funkiness. Pop music can get pretty overbearing and self-serious in the era of Drake, Kanye and Lorde. Compared to them, Pharrell’s records are like the big, goofy-arse hat he wore to the Grammys and the Oscars.
Despite being ludicrously consistent in supporting roles, he’s never had much success as a leading man: N.E.R.D., the early-’00s rap-rock band he led with fellow Neptune Chad Hugo, and his no-fun 2006 solo album, In My Mind, are mostly best forgotten. That bad luck ends with Pharrell’s second solo disc. Girl is a simple, even slight record – and that’s definitely meant as a compliment. Everyone in pop owes him a favour, but the superstar cameos are few and easefully turned: There’s Timberlake harmonising on the mirror-ball fantasia “Brand New”, and there are the robots of Daft Punk vocoding along to the spiralling astral-groove come-on “Gust of Wind”. The music is just as uncluttered as the track list, riding the light, euphoric vibe Pharrell established on the album’s Number One hit, “Happy”. The only requirement for getting into this club is admitting your own joy.
The 10 songs on Girl are steeped in sunshine, air and the most natural, universal strains of Seventies and Eighties R&B. The thick, juicy beats are full of hand claps and falsetto sex; the overall vibe is less $300 champagne behind the velvet rope than Corona on the rooftop in summertime. Where Jay Z big-ups his Basquiats and Kanye name-drops Le Corbusier, Pharrell plants his flag on the stanky soil of American pop culture at its most goobery: “Duck Dynasty is cool and all/But they got nothing on the female’s call,” he teases on the elegantly asinine “Hunter”, a daffy blast of disco slapstick.
When Pharrell first tickled our collective trunk 15 years ago with genius-establishing Neptunes cuts like Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass”, his go-to beat was dirty and Southern. Lately, he’s drawing from a broader, smoother palette: “Hunter” evokes New Wave sophisticates Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and the high-gloss strings and jazz-kissed keyboards on “Gush” could give 1979 Quincy Jones the vapours.
Girl plays like a concept album, the concept being that Pharrell likes girls a lot. But he’s never pushy or gross about it. On opener “Marilyn Monroe”, he includes OG strong woman Joan of Arc in his historical canon of hot chicks. And the album’s most charming song, “Lost Queen”, is a Lion King doo-wop valentine with trace elements of South African mbube, beautifully sung with a lovely sentiment: “Though my planet’s full of warfare, you make it feel like a dream.” Times like these, it’s nice to see such a good dude winning.