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Melbourne blues-folk singer-guitarist releases second album.
Barefoot Wonderland is right: Bernasconi is so laidback here you can see the soles of those bare feet. While kicking back he's picking his way through Kentucky mountains folk and lowland blues on his Harmony Sovereign acoustic or Dan Robinson parlour guitar, picking up a 1936 Gibson or maybe a Martin 7-string along the way. Luckily for people who wouldn't know a Gibson from a gibbon, Bernasconi can write a tune almost as well as he plays this array. "Carrie Swoon" is light and amused, and the instrumental "Box Of Birds" skips along, but there's wistfulness in "Melatonin"'s bent strings.
'Big Country' dialled down on ZBB's seventh studio release.
Zac Brown Band have throttled down. Eschewing, for the most part, the glitzy sheen that's slathered over most 'big country', Brown and Co. employ a rougher, grittier edge, in the process slowing things and placing the emphasis squarely on the songwriting. Brown's songwriting has never been subtle, and despite being full of heart, it's what lets the record down, the by-the-numbers writing watery in comparison with the extremely talented band (Jimmy De Martini's fiddle playing in particular), which save Welcome Home from becoming just another 'American big country album'.
Indie-punk relishes in creative freedom – a little too much.
From no-fi bedroom noise to Fat Wreck Chords hangover, from indie labels to majors and back to self-released. Such is Nathan Williams' decade-long parabola path, arriving at album six near where it all began, with the experimental, cassette-warped vignettes that were stuffed between songs on Wavves' debut demos now serving as the backbone of his adopted paint-by-power-punk approach. At best, these shards of shitgaze and cut-and-paste weirdness recall his early work's raw disposability ("No Shade", "Million Enemies"), while the flipside, such as the near-untouched sample on "Come to the Valley", are borderline unlistenable.
Soft-focus pop bridging the Pacific Ocean.
Sydney native Hazel English is ready for her close-up. Now based in Oakland, California, she's bundled last year's debut Never Going Home EP with a newer EP made in collaboration with Day Wave's Jackson Phillips. It's a tidy introduction to both her stylised sweetness and soft-focus dream-pop, warmly evoking the Drums and Wild Nothing. Airy vocals and delicate, chiming guitars thread through nearly every one of these 11 tracks, striking an evergreen balance between breezy uplift and melancholy undertow. The songs can sound a bit too much alike, but otherwise the sparkling ingredients are all there.
Melbourne punks up the ante, craft their masterwork.
Clowns' third LP is an intricate document of the shape punk finally came in. Gleefully brutal riffs sit side-by-side with melodicism, patience, countless filthy prog-punk moments and insouciant throat-shredding. Nine tracks in 43 minutes bucks traditional punk standards, and it flows impressively through "Like a Knife At a Gunfight" and the muscly "Pickle", calmly picking its spots to deliver nuggets of pure punk-rock energy like "Destroy the Evidence". By the time Lucid Again closes out with the epic punk jam "Not Coping", it's hard to argue against Clowns having created one of the best rock – not ‘just' punk – albums of the year.
U.S. band triumph via shiny pop, moody lyrics on fifth LP.
Paramore's giant hooks and soaring vocals have often been accompanied by a withering worldview – their rip-roaring breakthrough single "Misery Business" was a poison-pen letter to a romantic rival, while "Ain't It Fun," the Top Ten single from their 2013 self-titled album, blended the gospel-assisted bounce of "Like a Prayer" with a firm trust-no-one stance. The tension between sugar-spun pop hooks, the acrobatic soprano of lead singer Hayley Williams and an arm's-length take on the world has placed Paramore at the head of music's post-millennial class. They simmer on After Laughter, their first album since that 2013 offering and their reunion with drummer Zac Farro, whose acrimonious departure from the band in 2010 presaged their fuller turn from the rock world into pop.
What "pop" can be in 2017 is open to question, and on After Laughter Paramore thankfully decides to junk large chunks of the concept as it's currently practiced. ("I can't imagine getting up there and playing a Max Martin song – at that point we might as well just stop," guitarist Taylor York told The New York Times in April, shortly after the album was announced.) Instead, they embrace "pop" as a musical vibe, with a record that's so sunshine-bright it gives off a glare at times, rooted in fleet basslines and beats made for open-road drives and solo bedroom dance parties. The hooks are big and the detailing is sublime, at times borrowing from unexpected sources. York's highlife-inspired arpeggios add bursts of colour to the manic "Told You So" and the freestyle-jam-in-disguise "Hard Times"; "Rose-Colored Boy" nicks its swinging synthpop from Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche 85 arsenal; "Pool" shimmers like a mirage on a blazing day, its countermelody recalling a Doppler-ed ice-cream truck's chime. The ballad "26" sighs into its lush strings, an older-and-wiser version of the twangy 2009 track "The Only Exception." "No Friend," the menacing second-to-last track that lets Williams off the hook on vocal duties and hands the mic to MeWithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss before burying him in a cacophony of rumbling bass and frantic guitars, has a persistent lightness.
But while the surfaces of After Laughter might glint, Hayley Williams' lyrics evince a weariness that makes that brightness seem garishly empty. "All that I want/Is to wake up fine," she sings on the opening salvo "Hard Times," a track that also shouts out "My little rain cloud/Hanging over my head." Things don't get much sunnier from there – fake friends abound; "26" pivots on a vision of love that's assuming eventual doom; "Idle Worship" rides its titular homonym to comment on fame. Williams' voice is in gorgeous form, providing even more of a contrast to the stunning acridity of lyrics like "I'm gonna draw my lipstick wider than my mouth/And if the lights are low they'll never see me frown," from the gently rolling "Fake Happy."
After "No Friend," where Weiss shouts doom-and-gloom metaphors from beneath the band's noisy rubble, After Laughter comes down with "Tell Me How," a stutter-step ballad that allows Williams' voice to curl around and into expressions of anxiety that sound impossible to quiet. It's a fitting closer for After Laughter, a gorgeously produced, hook-studded record with cocked-eyebrow trepidation adding a jittery edge – a combination that's very of-the-moment in 2017, even if it veers outside of pop's rigid lines.
Girlpool expand their sonic palette on album number two.
Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad could never recapture the wide-eyed wonder of their 2015 debut Before the World Was Big, which delicately sketched out the pair's path from adolescence to adulthood. Now resolutely traversing that big world they are questioning decisions and inviting adventure. It's fitting, then, that as Girlpool's universe has expanded so too has their sonic palette, the addition of drummer Miles Wintner allowing Powerplant's songs to bubble up into anthemic crescendos – see "123". At the heart of it all, though, beats Tucker and Tividad's hypnotic vocal harmonies, a reassuring constant in these uncharted seas.
Melbourne crew deliver strong modern rock album.
Five years after their 2012 debut, Melbourne four-piece Strangers return with a full bodied modern rock album that calls to mind the ambition of the Butterfly Effect and the power of mid-2000s metal, albeit with a slight electronic influence. They know their way around a strong hook – witness "Birthmarks" and "Fear of Nothing" – but the album suffers from a lack of sonic variation, with the guitar tones in particular varying little throughout. When they back things off a touch and make room for more dynamics, as on album highlight "Sand", the effect is jolting. At the other end of the scale, bulldozing closer "Flexx 2230" sends the LP out on a ballbusting high.
For his debut, the One Direction heartthrob invokes an intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe.
Harry Styles doesn't just want to be a rock star – he wants to be the rock star. And on his superb solo debut, the One Direction heartthrob claims his turf as a true rock & roll prince, a sunshine superman, a cosmic dancer in touch with his introspective acoustic side as well as his glam flash. He avoids the celebrity-guest debutante ball he could have thrown himself – instead, he goes for a intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe. No club-hopping or bottles popping – it's the after-hours balladry of a 23-year-old star wondering why he spends so much time in lonely hotel rooms staring at his phone. Harry digs so deep into classic California mellow gold, you might suspect his enigmatic new tattoos that say "Jackson" and "Arlo" refer to Browne and Guthrie.
"You can't bribe the door on your way to the sky," he warns early on in "Sign of the Times," but the sky is where he's aiming, and his sheer brazen confidence is dazzling – he never sounds like he's trying too hard or scrounging for cred, which is where boy-band alumni usually screw up their solo records. The whole album has the personal yet witty spirit of the cover photo, where a topless Harry has a moment of doubt and pain in a bathtub full of pink unicorn tears. (His original title was Pink, because it's "the only true rock & roll colour.") He spends a lot of the album wet, actually – whether it's tears, other bodily fluids, or just "candy dripping on me till my feet are wet."
Harry's soft-rock fetish won't surprise fans of One Direction gems like "Olivia" or "Stockholm Syndrome," but this is the first time we've heard Sweet Baby Styles run with it for a whole album. The songs he tipped in advance didn't play coy about his old-school inspirations – the Badfinger hook of "Ever Since New York," the "Blackbird" guitar of "Sweet Creature," the way "Sign of the Times" tweaks Queen and Bowie in candelabra mode – yet they all sound like him, playful and tender in equal measure. In most of these songs, he mourns a dead-end relationship, the kind where "comfortable silence is so overrated," and you can hear that he's been binging on singer-songwriter confessionals from Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Schmillson to Taylor Swift's Red. "Meet Me In The Hallway" sets the tone – a touch of John Lennon echo in his voice, a touch of Jimmy Page in the acoustic guitar – as he pleads like a love junkie craving a fix. "Carolina" rides a tropical low-rider summer groove, while the lovelorn "Two Ghosts" could pass for vintage Bread. "Woman" could be a lost slow-jam duet between Prince and Joe Walsh, as Harry asks, "Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we can find?"
He dabbles in hard rock raunch with "Kiwi" ("She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect") and "Only Angel." Yet he sounds brassiest, most confident, most himself when he gets vulnerable. He ends with "From the Dining Table," an acoustic lament where he wakes up alone in yet another hotel room. ("Played with myself, where were you?/I fell back asleep and was drunk by noon/I've never felt less cool.") Through it all, he manages to steer clear of all the traps that ordinarily sabotage a boy-band star's solo move. But as the whole album proves, there's not a thing ordinary about this guy.
Kasabian champion escapism through any means on sixth LP.
Kasabian have fallen back in love with guitar. Or so says songwriter Serge Pizzorno, who has described the Leicester band's sixth album as a reaction to the middling sonic experimentation of 2014's 48:13. The result is quintessential Kasabian: 12 ready-made festival anthems pinned together with the DNA of English music greats.
Setting the mood for a record that is steeped in nostalgia, opener "III Ray (The King)" recalls the shuffling dance-punk of the group's mid-00s work. With rattling castanets and melodic "oohs", standout "Good Fight" is an earmworm-y nod to 1960s British pop. Similarly, the acoustic "Put Your Life On It" echoes the rapturous slow build of "Hey Jude"; culminating in a soaring one-minute outro on which Tom Meighan's uncharacteristically honeyed vocals are elevated by a gospel choir. While pop rock is the band's driving force here, they don't entirely abandon their ravetronica roots either – see the baggy eight-minute "Are You Looking For Action".
Gone are the clumsy attempts at social commentary that missed the mark on 48:13, replaced here by more familiar tales of romance and excess. On For Crying Out Loud Kasabian champion escapism through any means: love, partying, or rock & roll.
The Oils clear out their musical garage, with generally superb results.
It's genuinely weird that a band as venerable and storied as Midnight Oil has been so little anthologised over the years.
Most comparable bands would have all sorts of legacy-enhancing-slash-barrel-bottom-scraping collections out in the marketplace by now, but not the Oils. In fact, the relative paucity of product (a handful of best-ofs and live albums) has been matched by the near-impossibility of getting hold of many of their original albums in any decent format until relatively recently. Even classics like 10-1 and Red Sails in the Sunset spent decades available only on low-quality mid-price CDs, when they existed at all.
Thankfully the announcement of the band's reactivation and world tour has been accompanied by the re-release of all the band's material on vinyl and CD – in big fancy box sets, no less! - and a proper, overdue trawl through the band's archives. It seems appropriate that instead of putting out a steady stream of coffer-filling live recordings, b-side and demo collections, documentaries and concert DVDs, the Oils do the whole lot in one hit.
The price tag alone means that the four CD/eight DVD Overflow Tank is something that only a devoted fan would purchase, which is a good thing: there is material here that only a devoted fan would want – or, for matter, endure.
Such fans, however, are going to love the absolute hell out of this.
Let's start with the least interesting bits first: the Lasseter's Gold disc of unreleased demos, and the b-side compilation Chiko Locallo.
The first doesn't turn up any lost classics. Five of the 12 tracks were from the Blue Sky Mining sessions and the most appealing - the Hirst/Moginie "Wreckery Road" – would later be resurrected for Ghostwriters, while "A Sunburt Sky" was a first draft of Moginie's solo song "A Love So High". What's perhaps most noteworthy is the inclusion of two songs named after (and performed by) the pre-Oils versions of the band – the scrappily inept joke jam "Schwampy Moose" and the atmospheric instrumental sketch "Farm", which are historical curios you'll listen to once and never, ever again.
Similarly, the Oils were not a band that wasted great songs on b-sides, although "You May Not Be Released" has a late-night swing and you can't fault the intent behind earnest polemics like "The Last of the Diggers" and "Ships of Freedom", especially when compared with the studio sound experiments "Frontier... What Frontier?" and "Kingdom of Flaunt".
Most of the songs are from the band's nineties era and tend to be more mid-paced ballads and Garrett's idiosyncratic voice means that cover versions tend to sound incongruous rather than appropriate – proven here with their versions of Russell Morris' "The Real Thing" and Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love & Understanding?" - although the dark groove of 'Heaven & Earth' is begging to be sampled for a modern EDM track.
The live recordings fare rather better, however. Not only were the Oils a band who were at their best on stage, as demonstrated on the career-spanning compilation Punter Barrier BPM, their thumping 1978 Live At The Wireless recording arguably does a better job than their self-titled debut album at capturing the raw energy of the band at the time.
But the real gems – the things that will have fans fishing down the back for change – are the DVDs, which are uniformly excellent.
The best of the several live DVDs on offer is undoubtably Oils on the Water, the band's legendary Goat Island gig for the tenth birthday of Double/Triple J in 1985. It remains one of their definitive live performances (and it's surprisingly adorable to see them stumble on the complex stop-starts of "When The Generals Talk") – and if that's the band at their juggernaut peak, their 1993 MTV Unplugged set goes some way to proving Jim Moginie's assertion that they were basically a folk band under their rock trappings.
The absolute first thing to watch, however, is the documentary Only the Strong: the making of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. If you're a fan of the Oils – and, as asserted earlier, you won't have this thing if you're not – watching the double-act of Moginie and producer Nick Launay scamper through the multitracks of the album that made the band's career is both fascinating and inspiring (so that's how they got the "sproing!" sound at the beginning of "US Forces"!), and the interviews with Peter Garrett and Rob Hirst are equally illuminating.
Black Rain Falls is a short doco about the band's 1990 protest performance on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon Mobil building in New York after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and is impressive partially in the band's gumption in doing such a thing since these days they'd have been in Guantanamo Bay before the truck was even parked, and partially because the band sound tight as a freakin' drum despite playing a guerilla show on a truck.
But the gem is Blackfella/Whitefella, a documentary about the band's 1986 outback tour with the Warumpi Band. This was a pivotal moment for Midnight Oil, leading directly to Diesel and Dust (and even includes an early, uncertain live version of "Beds Are Burning" with rambling, extemporised verses). And watching the way that the experience of spending time in Arnham Land changes the band is fascinating, especially in watching the Sydney rock stars get a little humble and sheepish in front of Aboriginal audiences listening politely, as opposed to an RSL filled with northern beaches surfers leaping about.
And the Warumpis get the best musical moments too: the highlight is watching the band swap during a performance of the song "Blackfella Whitefella", where the Warumpis are replaced by members of Midnight Oil as the song transforms into "The Dead Heart" (watch Gordon Butcher and Rob Hirst swap over without missing a beat) – and their rough and ready performance of their classic "My Island Home" should jolt anyone only familiar with Christine Anu's smooth version.
There's basically an entire weekend's worth of stuff to listen to and binge watch, and if not all these Oils are (ahem) essential, the highlights of Overflow Tank are more than worth the sticker price.
New York pioneers call on others in faltering refresh.
With 10 albums behind them, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein have sought inspiration elsewhere; Pollinator is almost entirely composed of songs co-written by others, including Johnny Marr, Sia, Dev Hynes and Charli XCX. The results are mixed – Hynes has borrowed the beat from "Heart of Glass" to comforting effect, while Sia's "Best Day Ever" is tepid pop dampened further by Harry's half-strength delivery. "Fun", co-penned by Dave Sitek, is a highlight, with Nile Rodgers-esque noodling and a disco strut; but overall, even with contributors of this calibre, Pollinator fails to recapture the vitality and attitude of erstwhile Blondie.
Reunited English band still shoegazing.
What's a 22-year silence between friends? When it comes to one of the non-movers and non-shakers in the UK shoegaze scene, not much. The tinkling guitar wash and moochy vocals of opener "Slomo" fade in as if they just went off for a quick smoke in 1995. "I wanna see it," coos Neil Halstead in "Go Get It". "I wanna feel it," answers Rachel Goswell. It would be nice to feel more. The wall-to-wall haziness means the atmosphere switch is on 10, while the "innovation" and "surprise" switches are set somewhat lower. When they close with "Falling Ashes", a hypnotic song built around a circling piano melody, you wish they'd branched out earlier.
Deluxe Best Of pays reverent tribute to Cave and Co's back catalogue.
"There are some people out there who just don't know where to start with The Bad Seeds," says Nick Cave as way of justification for this latest compilation, a full 19 years after the last Bad Seeds Best Of. Given how heady a period the past two decades have been for Cave creatively, such justification isn't really necessary.
Lovely Creatures comes in several formats, from the basic double CD (21 tracks) to a triple vinyl package and, at the top of the tree, this 3-CD and two-hour DVD package, complete with glorious hard cover book featuring essays by the likes of journalist Bleddyn Butcher and author Larry 'Ratso' Sloman. In addition to myriad photos plucked from the archives of members past and present, the book also holds delightful little secrets stuck loosely between the pages – a row of negatives, a hand drawn prototype of the cover for "Into My Arms", an after show pass – lending it the feel of a scrapbook you've stumbled across.
Musically, its three discs are split into distinct eras – 1984-1993, 1994-2003 and 2004-2014 – charting Cave and the Seeds' journey from the primal, wailing, apocalyptic blues of "The Mercy Seat" to the cinematic strains of "Jubilee Street". It's an astonishing ride.
Greg Dulli and Co. mine murky themes and soulful alt-rock.
Although lumped in with the Nineties alt-rock movement, this Cincinnati band developed a swing and swagger that took cues from heavy soul, R&B and funk. Their second album since reforming six years ago continues Greg Dulli's exploration of dark themes including power, self-loathing and damaged relationships. But opening track "Birdland" signals a change in approach, with see-sawing Morricone-like strings and chopped-up backing vocals providing a staccato rhythm. "Copernicus" proves they've still got an ear for noise, but there's a cinematic scope to the instrumentation and an impressionism to Dulli's lyrics that paint a more menacing shade of murk. b.d.
Underground hip-hop hero swaps anger for enlightenment.
"I am not beautiful. I am an elegant beast," begins Brother Ali on his peaceful, pacifying sixth album. The Minneapolis rapper meditates on police brutality, race and personal topics like suicide and family with a learned silver-lining attitude ("You've got a spirit that a bullet can't kill"). But the music, produced by Atmosphere's Ant, often tips from inspiring to soppy, with sugary pianos ("Dear Black Son") and mawkish horns ("Can't Take That Away"). That said, its dramatic moments are sublime, particularly the woozy trip-hop of "Never Learn". Ali's message is powerful; shame about (most of) the music.