Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Rebuilt 'Burdens' rethinks the singer-songwriter's hit 1996 debut with help from some pals.
Tracy Bonham's 1996 debut The Burdens of Being Upright turned Gen-X jitters and Berklee-honed chops into alt-rock gold. 20 years later, Bonham has re-imagined the album, pulling its songs apart and inviting a few pals (Belly's Tanya Donnelly, Letters to Cleo's Kay Hanley, the New Pornographers' Kathryn Calder and more) to help put them back together. The radio hit "Mother Mother," originally a frayed-nerves blast through early-adulthood angst, turns into a blues-tinged mosey through 2017's magnified anxieties ("Trump is trending," she laments); "Navy Bean," originally a punky corker, stretches out its spindly lick over stomping drums; "The Real" gets a lift from rich harmonies (courtesy of Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis) and swirling distortion. Modern Burdens is a lovingly penned postcard to Bonham's past self, and a fascinating look at where she's at right now.
Passionate if generic debut from Sydney metalcore crew.
If Polaris bring anything to the world of modern metalcore, it's passion. There is an urgency in their delivery that is thoroughly convincing. This is a band with a genuine conviction for their music that is unfortunately overshadowed by a lack of individual identity. This is reflected in the generically typical overuse of Amity-style growled/clean vocal transitions and generally unimaginative songwriting. The Fallujah-like "In Somnus Veritas" offers some respite from the all-too similar bludgeoning and regurgitated tropes on display, exhibiting a small degree of risk-taking that Polaris should embrace further if they don't want to end up as just another metalcore band.
Jet frontman gets reborn on fuzzed-out rock-soul debut.
Nic Cester may have lost his head in the overnight whirlwind of Jet but he's found his soul on this slow-brewing solo debut. While the Melbourne rocker's retro sensibility remains unrepentant, his seasoned Italian band the Calibro 35 brings a more weighty range of feels to the party.
"Sugar Rush" signals the descent into vintage psych-r'n'b smoulder with a jazz-waltz beat, fuzz bass, electric organ and wah-wah. "Lead me to a higher place, fill my soul with love and grace," our reborn journeyman pleads, and, by Otis, he's halfway there already.
The timewarp envelops like an echo chamber as flutes and phasers lead us deeper, to the instant neo-psychedelic classic "Psichebello", the mellow brass undertows of "Hard Times" and the prog-synth fanfare of "Strange Dreams".
There's more of an Eighties funk feel to "Who You Think You Are", then a deeply melancholy orchestral interlude titled "On Top of the World" that shows a sense of humour blessedly intact.
"Is it all down to bad luck that I'm worn to the core?" he bawls in the bodice-ripping pitch of the album's string-sawing epic, "God Knows". It's one of several lyrics that might be interpreted in the light of a prematurely wasted rock star, but Cester's ear for classy production, his fuel-injected singing and brilliance as a songwriter consistently prove he's anything but.
Atlanta-based soul explorer returns with simmering second LP.
Although Curtis Harding's touchstones remain recognisable – Mayfield, Wonder and Gaye – this is less reverential than his debut, Soul Power, as he approaches his own sonic identity. This may be down to co-producer Danger Mouse, who brings an electronic-infused funk to outstanding opener "Wednesday Morning Atonement" and the Prince-esque "Dream Girl". Other tracks, such as "Need Your Love", feature more traditional arrangements, with the contrast producing an expressive, upbeat record that positions Harding with Leon Bridges and Benjamin Booker among the leading contemporary purveyors of classic soul with an edge.
Rapper preaches positivity and drowns out the inner demons on fourth album.
Rapper 360 is the kind of artist you want to see come out on top. Despite a difficult run in life that's included managing debilitating addictions and bipolar disorder, he's never wavered from promoting a positive, adversity-crushing viewpoint while still remaining completely unafraid to air out and examine his inner demons in a public forum. It's this candour that has forged a strong bond between the Melbourne MC born Matt Colwell and his dedicated fan base, and fourth LP Vintage Modern pushes his brand of forthrightness forward on his most inward-looking album to date.
The self-examination comes in the wake of a prescription drug overdose in 2016, an incident that appears to be the impetus for Vintage Modern's lyrical preoccupations. "No one loves me like the drugs used to," Colwell's autotune-assisted voice sings on "Drugs". True to form though, he keeps the overall message upbeat in the face of grim hardship: "Witness" and "Admission" preach learning from mistakes and holding your head high, sentiments that act as the LP's thematic through-line. For Colwell, there's always a devil ready to whisper in his ear; Vintage Modern is his wilful rejection of whatever sinister message it may hold.
This being a 360 album ensures the mood's not all strictly straight-faced: there's your mandatory track designed as a showcase for lyrical skill (posse cut "Coup De Grace" featuring Pez and Seth Sentry) and the obligatory "off-colour humour" song straight from Eminem's playbook (opener "White Lies", a misfire derailed by wince-inducing lines like "I know that karma's a bitch/but she's got marvellous tits").
It's the songs with more sharply-refined subject matter where 360 shines. "Trouble", featuring U.S. rock & soul singer Gary Clark Jr., is both a searing condemnation of Islamophobia and the destructive nature of zealotry, Colwell declaring that "the trouble with God is man". The focus narrows to something far more personal on "Tiny Angel", a sobering account of friends who lost their newborn baby. Powerful and deeply moving, it's not only proof of Colwell's gift as a storyteller, but possibly the finest song he's yet recorded.
Musically Vintage Modern eschews current hip-hop trends by placing more emphasis on live instruments, 360's collaborators Nic Martin, Styalz Fuego and Carl Dimataga helping to craft an album heavy on epic pop uplift and huge choruses. Combined with Colwell's earnest, inclusive approach it results in an album that is admirable and accessible, but at the expense of variety and visceral thrills. As a statement of positive intent, however, it finds a cohesiveness that will please fans ready to embrace a more mature 360, who proves yet again he's capable of coming out swinging, regardless of the setback.
Jazz singer's reverent take on a classic songbook.
Porter's Liquid Spirit (2013) broke streaming records for a jazz album. On his fifth LP he records songs popularised by musical hero Nat King Cole. Featuring a 70-strong London studio orchestra, it's an album of timeless cool, spanning swinging big band ("Ballerina") to the deliciously hot bop of "L-O-V-E". Taking in classic Cole tunes including "Mona Lisa" and sinuous jazz/soundtrack standard "Nature Boy", Porter distils the wide-screen cinematic romance of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, mantling his celebrated, honeyed baritone in glistening updrafts of strings, horns and woodwind.
Welsh four-piece reach double figures.
Stereophonics mark their 25th anniversary with their 10th studio album, and at points Scream Above the Sounds finds frontman Kelly Jones in a reflective mood. Most poignant is "Before Anyone Knew Our Name", a sparse piano ballad in which the singer reflects on the rise of the band and the 2010 passing of former drummer Stuart Cable: "I miss you, man," he laments. Such emotion is in stark contrast to the bland FM rock of "Caught By the Wind" and "Taken a Tumble", but the skittering rhythm and sombre, cinematic trumpet of "What's All the Fuss About?" speak of a band willing to try new things, and pulling them off.
Rivers Cuomo and Co. smooth off the edges on latest LP.
Weezer's 11th studio album was initially supposed to be called The Black Album, a reaction to the good-time summer feel of last year's self-titled LP (their third, commonly known as The White Album). As frontman Rivers Cuomo started to write, however, the new material maintained the good vibes, hence Pacific Daydream was born.
Testament to Cuomo's perfectionist tendencies, the songs here draw on thousands of riffs, chord progression and beat ideas, some of which he paired by using a formula on Google Sheets based on their key and tempo. Not surprisingly, every note and every melody sounds like it's in exactly the right place.
Lyrically Cuomo's in typically quirky form – see his longing in "Mexican Fender" for the girl he met at a guitar shop who was only there to "get her 10,000 steps and hang out with her boyfriend". Occasionally, though, he seems at odds with the tone of the music: "People don't bring me joy/I think you get the point," he sings in "QB Blitz".
Producer Butch Walker (whose credits include Pink and 2009's Raditude) is a good fit for the smooth but sombre pop of "Beach Boys", the AM glide of "Happy Hour" and gorgeous harmonies of "Sweet Mary", but there's a sense that Pacific Daydream is a little too overworked. Where The White Album had a rawness to its pop sheen, Pacific Daydream's edges are a little too smooth, its imperfections non-existent. And sometimes a little grit goes a long way.
Coolly contrived sex and candy from Sydney singer.
Sydney's George Maple was born Jess Higgs, and on her career-making creamy-voiced appearance on Flight Facilities' "Foreign Language" she was just "Jess", faceless and "afraid of the limelight". As Maple, she's a vixen with a penchant for haute PVC, but everything rings a little hollow. From pointed, unnecessary interludes such as "LA Strip Club" to slinky, anonymous R&B ("Sticks and Horses", "Romancandy"), it's telling that the standout track is an emotional, smoky cover of Jeff Buckley's "Everybody Here Wants You" paired with subtly brittle beats. She's a fine singer, but the real Jess Higgs is still hiding.
Singer-songwriter devastates on second full-length.
Julien Baker's 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, was one of those albums that seemingly sprung from nowhere to become an instant cult classic – a reputation-making record that ensured the 19-year-old from Memphis would enjoy a loyal audience well into the future. Now 22, Baker's follow-up plays to her debut's strengths – breathtakingly confessional lyrics, a voice that sounds as brittle and broken as it is beautiful, paired with funereal, choral guitar work – but expands confidently on the blueprint by incorporating strings, woodwind and more piano into these lusher arrangements.
On Sprained Ankle, Baker lamented "wish I could write songs about anything other than death". Turn Out the Lights is no more cheery, the singer focusing more broadly on the human condition and all its foibles. Her lyrics consistently devastate – see the heartbroken "Sour Breath" ("You're everything I want and I'm all you dread") or "Even" ("It's not that I think I'm good/I know that I'm evil/I'm just trying to even it up"). The moments where she truly opens her lungs are uncomfortably – but stunningly – raw ("Shadowboxing").
Turn Out the Lights isn't as instant as its predecessor, and lacks some of that album's naive simplicity. It's denser and, at 11 songs, longer. But while wading through Baker's emotional wreckage can, at times, feel exhausting, it's always worth it.
Jam band evangelist's solo debut fails to launch.
At his best, Nahko Bear – leader of roots/world/festival collective Medicine for the People – explores identity with arresting candour and a knack for rapid-fire vocal delivery. Confounding the more mature outlook of MFTP's HOKA (2016), Nahko's solo debut comprises songs penned between the ages of 18 and 21 (he's "stoned on a stone" in "Creation's Daughter"). It's an album of terminally pleasant roots-pop lullabies ("Goodnight, Sun") littered with more processed sounds ("Susanna"). Guitars are strummed and trumpets parp, but the message is always the same: an apprentice piece is an apprentice piece, regardless of production.
Melbourne cousins signpost a bright future with mature debut.
Backwater builds on the promise shown in Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam's prior two EPs; it's an utterly lovely collection of neo-garage/R&B that wears its influences (the xx, Kelela, Little Dragon) obviously while carving out a space all of Kllo's own. The alchemy is in Kaul's hushed, syrupy voice and Lam's broken beats, ghostly synths and astute use of space – hardly a new combination but an exemplary one, especially in tracks such as "Virtue", with Kaul doing angel duties on vocals while Lam demands that we dance, and the melancholic "Last Yearn", farewelling an ex with Adele-like faux sincerity in a spiralling haze of piano and clipped beats.
Melbourne quartet go beyond dream pop on impressive debut.
Much like labelmates the Ocean Party, Melbourne's Crepes serve their steady-handed, blissful guitar-pop with a side of bitterness. Early work stuck solely to this lane, but on their first full-length they stretch out with sombre, Beatles-like sitars ("Getting Lost"), layers of lush harmonies ("Four Years Time") and even experimental electronica ("Channel Four"). Despite such indulgences, vocalist Tim Karmouche is a constant, with his calm assessment of teenage drama ("cool kids") from a twentysomething perspective aptly suiting both sides of their sound – equally nostalgic and optimistic.
Hiatus Kaiyote singer's stripped-back solo debut.
Two albums deep, Naomi Saalfield's future-soul collective have scored Grammy noms and been sampled by Drake and Kendrick. Championing her prodigious, silken vocal, Saalfield's first LP as Nai Palm features reworkings of several HK tunes, along with a handful of new compositions, and even a curiously claustrophobic medley – Bowie's "Blackstar" and Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" segueing into HK's "Breathing Underwater". Resonant jazz-hued guitar tones ripple beneath lush chorales, opening a window onto the deep roots of soul music ("Haiku"), but stripping out HK's trademark polyrhythmic crosscurrents disperses some essential dynamism.
Songwriter proves ready for her spotlight moment.
While an eight-year veteran of the bedroom-to-Bandcamp scene, Universe marks Jess Locke's second coming, as the singer-songwriter's honest, TMI-bordering diary scribbles are beaten into bite-size slogans by a full-band backing. As expected, the fidelity boost comes at the sacrifice of some of Locke's heart-wrenching fragility, but not her poetic punches, which hit hard whether taking on self-worth, the pros of self-medication or unflinching self-analysis. Sense a common thread? Thankfully, despite sharing the spotlight, Locke remains the centre of her own universe, the perfect place for her blunt vulnerability to thrive.
Amiable countrified album for former X Factor runner up.
Originally sold as a generic-brand rock & roll bad boy balladeer, Dean Ray has ditched the saccharine bullshit and crafted a record that takes mid-20s existential worry and uses it as fuel for mature, beguiling country-folk tunes. At times coming off like a bluegrass Jeff Buckley with plenty of banjo and brushes ("Green"), and a world-weary Ian Moss acolyte ("Call It a Day"), Ray delivers a set that's steeped in Australiana and affecting story-telling, like the confessional tales of "Alcohol" and "Six Feet Under". The down-on-his-luck outlaw rocker motif isn't new, but Ray's talent turns it upside down with terrific verve.