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Intimate ironies and minimal piano strokes from indie girl.
Russack's "Everybody Cares" is a sardonic rejoinder to Courtney Barnett's "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party", cunningly rendered more antisocial in the voice of a deluded party queen. It's a slight departure from a confessional intensity that's maudlin to the point of wry comedy in the slow navel-gaze of "Migration" and finds the artist addressing herself in third person – "Emma, the jig's up" –in the title track. Self-image is the unsettling focus of "Blonde" and "Body Goals", then it's sly wit again in "Dream Man". Russack's deadpan philosophising and spare, lonely atmos weave a puzzling and compelling spell.
Adam Granduciel delivers Americana synth-rock masterpiece on album four.
Just as the first track on the War on Drugs' third and breakout album signalled an urgent new path lit by Springsteen and analog synthesisers, "Up All Night", the opener on A Deeper Understanding, leapfrogs the band's previous heart-stirring efforts. It sneaks up on you with bagpipe guitars, club-ready percussion summoned from Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" and Adam Granduciel's tobacco drawl communicating a kind of wearied optimism: "I've been through it, I always have/paranoia, but it wouldn't last."
The song and entire record mark a perhaps unintentional shift towards arenas, bold but safe in Granduciel's perfectionistic hands, whether he's coming over all Rod Stewart on the Mellotron-warm "Pain", sending scorching guitar solos skywards in "Strangest Thing" or steering 11-minute fuzz-bath "Thinking of a Place". And on "In Chains" he gets as close as anyone ever has to recording the sound of falling in love. It would have been a great song even without the left-field bliss hit of vibraphone at the 4:14 mark, but here and throughout Granduciel amps up his Lost In The Dream trick, bestowing already brilliant songs with stunning gear shifts. His heartbreak, too, has been tempered with newfound resolve and hope: "be the writer of your own story, let it turn you onto love again".
Anthems rise from melancholia on Sydney-sider's debut album.
Shadowy electronica and melodic dissonance meet in Reservoir, the slow-burning record from Sophie Payten, AKA Gordi. A textural pastiche, the album veers from polyrhythmic synths paired against warm bass lines to moments of subtle vulnerability, where vocals are left bare. "Heaven I Know" juxtaposes harmonious bliss with organic, horn-led counter-melodies that feel vaguely unsettling though never out of place. An acoustic duet with S. Carey ("I'm Done") is a welcome nod to Gordi's early influences James Taylor and Carole King. The record's anthemic charge does well to avoid melancholic indulgence, but at times misses the restraint so aptly captured elsewhere.
US folkie flashes back to rivers, songbirds and country roads.
The count-in is a whisper. Acoustic strings creak under rough fingers. The band breathes in unison and Sam Beam is back, pretty much, where it all began six albums ago. The embroidered cover image of beardy bloke with blindfold describes the tone of the Carolina farm boy's homespun inner visions: warm times and pastoral images recalled with gratitude bordering on exhilaration. Tender Paul Simon harmonies grace "About a Bruise" and Nick Drake lives in the rolling fingerpicking and dancing piano of "Song In Stone" and the "The Truest Stars We Know". The plinking pizzicato and xylophone of "Last Night" marks the playful peak of a decidedly contented afternoon.
Homme and Co. team up with Mark Ronson, channel Bowie and even get a bit sensitive.
"I was born in the desert, May 17 in '73, when the needle hit the groove I commence to moving, I was chasing what's calling me," Josh Homme states in the opening line of the first Queens of the Stone Age album in four years. It sounds like nothing less than a mission statement, giving us his origin story before getting down to business.
He's not been idle since 2013's ...Like Clockwork, making an Eagles of Death Metal album, collaborating with Iggy Pop on last year's Post Pop Depression and even writing songs for the latest Lady Gaga record.
In fact, you can hear the Iggy connection on the title track, which features a three-step ascending guitar riff, a fat, fuzzy bass line and a groove that you feel in your groin. But it's Iggy's late buddy David Bowie whose spirit hangs most heavily over many of these new songs. It's there most notably on "Un-Reborn Again", which echoes the Thin White Duke's Seventies period when he married glam's fuzzed-out stomp to art-rock's twists and turns. Even Homme's lyrics nod to Bowie's jive talk-meets-Nadsat style. "Acid-face Jack, he like them dancing straight boys, it makes his pupils dilate," he moans. He goes on to namecheck Skinny, Juzzy and Twizzy, almost as if he's renaming the members of the Spiders From Mars.
Meanwhile, Dean Fertita chooses keyboard sounds that quiver and slither somewhere between Heroes and Scary Monsters throughout the album. Or perhaps this had something to do with Mark Ronson, who produced Villains. Best known for his own natty dance-pop and as a producer for Adele and Amy Winehouse, Ronson recently said, "Queens are and have always been my favourite rock & roll band." He doesn't exactly remodel them, but adds window-dressing – the electro handclaps behind the buzzy boogie of "The Way You Used To Do"; the blaring horns at the end of "Un-Reborn Again"; the sawing violins that link the title track to "Fortress".
More surprising are the moments when Homme plays the sensitive card and doesn't get a full house. "Fortress" seems to be a message for someone who is going through a hard time, but it comes across as earnest, while "Villains of Circumstance" finds him expressing feelings for a geographically impossible love interest on a song that straightens out halfway to become a little too chintzy for its own good, as he croons "I'll be forever yours".
Of course, Queens of the Stone Age sometimes cop criticism for leaning too heavily on desert-rock drones, hedonism and testosterone, so all of the above marks a conscious shift. There's still plenty of muscular riffery, punishing rhythms and rib-rattling wails in these grooves, but that initial mission statement develops into a series of stylistic jumps rather than a revelatory leap.
Main page illustration: Leo Coyte
U.S. noise howler's latest descent into dystopia.
Erika M. Anderson boasted that Matador refused to release her third LP because it was "too political". Exile In the Outer Ring is BAU for EMA: summoning an All-American hellscape via tales of misfits on the figurative/literal fringes set to dark, tortured, uneasy music. On her astonishing debut, 2011's Past Life Martyred Saints, Anderson sang "I'm just 22/I don't mind dying"; here she's "33, nihilistic and female", her songs filled with drugs, disenchantment, distortion, noise guitar. The industrial influence from 2014's techno-paranoid The Future's Void lingers, but Anderson strips away the clutter, her ire left to sound out clear.
More dreamy melodies from evolving Virginia outfit.
Recent visitors to Australia in support of Touché Amoré, Turnover's earliest output and DIY approach to touring has long seen them lumped in with the punk scene. 2015's Peripheral Vision was a sonic step away, and so it continues on their third LP. Austin Getz's sleepy vocals mesh with the Virginia outfit's dreamy mix of chiming, reverb-laced guitars to create a sound that never sets the pulse racing, but instead washes over you like a warm bath of melody and mood. Perhaps lacking the energy of Peripheral Vision, Good Nature is nonetheless another interesting step in Turnover's evolution.
British indie outfit feed off the world's ills on fourth album.
What riches the world has bestowed upon Everything Everything singer/songwriter Jonathan Higgs for their fourth album. Between Trump, Brexit and the generally dire state of politics worldwide, there is much with which to indulge his operatic brand of decadent pessimism, from knockout opener "Night of the Long Knives" to "Good Shot, Good Soldier" ("you're a good shot, you're a good soldier, of all the good things to be"). Everything Everything don't always hit their targets – "Big Game" drags, "Desire" grates – but at their best, as in the aforementioned, they are glorious, all circling synths, artful layering and rapturous maximalism.
Sydney dreamers deliver a stunning double-album opus.
Gang of Youths don't do things by halves. Their 2014 debut was about disintegrating relationships, cancer, and suicide attempts: its follow up is a sprawling, magnificently realised double album that poetically explores the human experience in all its bleakness and triumph, confusion and clarity, heartbreak and joyousness.
It's a staggeringly cohesive multi-generational musical piñata: cross-pollinating Springsteen's sweeping Americana, the National's piercing truths and the sweaty insistence of LCD Soundsystem, with splashes of Arcade Fire, War on Drugs and U2 swirling amid its emotional tornado. There's the Japandroids-channelling, punch-the-air final moments of "Atlas Drowned"; frontman Dave Le'aupepe's jaw-dropping "get shitfaced on you" baritone wordplay during "Keep Me In the Open"; psyche darkness on "Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane"; baroque orchestration in "Achilles Come Down"; wild horns on "The Heart is a Muscle"; while its series of instrumental breathers allow you to be swept away on the album's all-enveloping current.
Le'aupepe's deft lyrical romanticism and emotional sincerity ties it all together forcefully and elegantly –lines crack like fireworks one after the other – defying cynicism anddelivering raw truth-seeking vignettes in unflinching fashion. It makes for a remarkable odyssey of an album that'll engulf you, leaving a bewildered smile on your face, a tear in your eye and a heart that's full.
Mercury Prize-nominated British MC cuts timely masterpiece.
Where South London-born Obaro Ejimiwe's first two albums explored ambiguous, surreal themes over prickly electronic instrumentation, 2015's Shedding Skin adopted a more tangible guitar-and-keys approach. Dark Days + Canapés picks up where that Mercury Prize-nominated record left off. Never quite rapping, never quite singing, the genre-defying MC invites listeners on a spine-tingling, head-nodding ride into his psyche. It's Roots Manuva meets Radiohead. All over this record, in fact, Ghostpoet manages to be two things at once: inviting and confronting; thoughtful and obscure; brilliant and understated.
Atmospheric fifth album from a unit now expert at composing experimental folk-pop.
It sounds absurd, but Grizzly Bear have carved a career from baroque-pop obfuscation. The US indie band's knotty creations very rarely sound like four guys in a room jamming a tune. Instead they're more slow-motion unspoolings of woozy sounds, teased and twisted into treacle-thick compositions so dense and dreamlike that somewhere along the line you forget how they began.
Painted Ruins is the band's first record in five years, and that labour shows. "Three Rings" begins as a reverb-drenched chatter, moving through groaning woodwinds and blossoming into a racket of fuzz bass, celestial synths and rippling guitar arpeggios, Ed Droste singing, "Don't you ever leave me/Don't you feel it all come together". Those details and underlying accusations continue on the glam groove of "Losing All Sense", Droste asking, "Could I ask of you not to cut into me?" The band's lyrics have never been direct, but the tension through Painted Ruins is palpable.
The density of arrangements can tire, but there's calm too – "Aquarian" builds until a beautiful sequence of unadorned chords; "Systole" opens with a rare bare vocal from bassist and producer Chris Taylor. Some touchstones call through the haze – Tame Impala's modern prog-psych, Radiohead's anxious percussive web, and White Album-era Beatles. But for the most part Grizzly Bear return again grown from their own strange plot.
Big-sky musing and epic noodling from UK prog maestro.
The subjective nature of truth. The bliss of death. An epic duet (with Ninet Tayeb) about despair, co-dependency and redemption that makes Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" sound half-cooked. Phew, eight songs to go. Porcupine Tree dreamweaver Steven Wilson thinks big as always on album five, a spacious head-trip with toe-curling flights of uber-muso malarkey. "Blank Tapes" is classic flutey melancholy, "People Who Eat Darkness" a crashing drama of urban paranoia. God (the mean, vengeful one) makes a cameo in the 10-minute suite, "Detonation". All told, a ton of melody and energy on face value, and a lifetime between the speakers for those so inclined.
Melbourne post-punks get punchy with Gareth Liddiard.
On Gold Class' second LP, Adam Curley is punchy, the music percussive. "We were beaten, but I still feel a thump," he hollers, amidst Evan Purdey's knotty guitar scrawl on the relentless "We Were Never Too Much". And Drum duly delivers a thump, producer Gareth Liddiard's stripped-down setting letting the propulsive rhythm section push towards the foreground. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but the quartet boast heart and wit, sounding committed to their cause. "Weave the blows/Like a boxer on tiptoe," Curley bellows in "Thinking of Strangers", recalling Morrissey's lyrical pugilists as the song drags Smithsy jangle into a dark alley.
First solo album in 12 years for Superjesus singer.
For such an ostentatious backstory – the Superjesus-singer-turned-solo-rocker-turned-EDM-bandwagoner shipped herself off to an icy New York winter for three months in isolation, simultaneously finding inspiration in Stallone's Rocky franchise – you'd expect Sarah McLeod's new album to be a touch more engaging. Instead, after a promisingly sweet opener ("Rocky's Reprise"), the Nineties rock tropes ("Giants"), country pop tropes ("Bad Valentine") and power pop tropes ("Hurricane") are catchy yet oddly one-dimensional. Despite her excellent, raspy voice, the familiar tales of love and loss offer little by way of meaning or memorability.
Traditional country-folk master tills the fertile field of Americana anew.
Rawlings' third solo outing finds him and indispensable collaborator Gillian Welch continuing in their alchemical quest to breathe fresh life into the sounds of Harry Smith's seminal Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) – from Appalachian folk (hill country nursery rhyme "Lindsey Button") to the prairie (the jaunty "Come On Over My House"). Spanning banjo-anchored ditty "Money is the Meat in the Coconut" to the brooding folk-rock splendour of the CSNY-like "Cumberland Gap", it's yet another masterful demonstration of enigmatic backwoods poeticism, technical mastery, and eternal songcraft.
The singer channels five years of personal hardship into resilient, genre-smashing pop.
In 2012, wild-child pop diva Kesha hit a high point with her dirty, glitter-soaked rock album, Warrior. But she's spent the past five years in silence, embroiled in a grueling legal battle with her most frequent collaborator, superproducer Dr. Luke, whom the singer accused of physical and emotional abuse.
On her excellent comeback record, Rainbow, Kesha channels that drama into the best music of her career – finding common ground between the honky-tonks she loves (her mom is Nashville songwriter Pebe Sebert) and the dance clubs she ruled with hits like "Tik Tok" and "Die Young," between glossy beats, epic ballads and grimy guitar riffs. In the process, she also finds her own voice: a freshly empowered, fearlessly feminist Top 40 rebel.
The LP opens softly with "Bastards," a ballad ripe for a campfire singalong. Above acoustic guitar, her once-Auto-Tune-weary vocals breathe easy as she nimbly and confidently shows off her underappreciated range, singing, "Don't let the bastards get you down." It's followed by the glam-punk kiss-off "Let 'Em Talk," where she's joined by Eagles of Death Metal. Kesha executive-produced the album, working with a team that included everyone from Ryan Lewis to Ben Folds to her mom. Across the board, she achieves a careful balance of her diverse musical selves: The gospel-tinged "Praying" takes the high road by wishing the best to the people who have hurt her, and "Woman" is a blissfully irreverent, proudly self-sufficient retro-soul shouter backed by Brooklyn funk crew the Dap-Kings.
Kesha used to sing about partying with rich dudes and feeling like P. Diddy. Rainbow is full of sympathetic (if at times cloying) prisoner metaphors and therapist clichés: "Live and learn and never forget it/Gotta learn to let it go," she repeats on "Learn to Let Go." Luckily, she also showcases her absurdist sense of humour. On the standout "Hunt You Down," she evokes June Carter with a devilishly threatening country ditty: "Baby, I love you so much," she sings in the most innocent Southern-belle voice she can muster, then warns, "Don't make me kill you." On "Godzilla," a gloriously surreal slice of indie-folk kitsch, she imagines what it might be like to fall in love with a cartoon monster, creating a lighthearted novelty out of chaos and destruction.
The album's most powerful moment is a cover of the 1980 Dolly Parton ballad "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle to You)" – Sebert's biggest country hit as a songwriter. Parton herself helps out on guest vocals. But this isn't some Grand Ole Opry homage. Kesha flips and filters it through her dreamy vision, turning the sweet tune into rousing rockabilly until the standard sounds refreshed and vividly modern, battle-tested and born again. Just like the woman singing it.