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MC releases long-awaited follow-up to 2008 debut.
Eight years is a decent wait for a follow-up record, but as Pez takes time to explain on Don't Look Down, his second set has had a tough genesis. Immediately after his debut the emcee faced a long period of illness, and while he discusses the self-doubt and challenges he faced during the creation of this album, his still-familiar laid-back flow lends things an easy charm. It's the guests who add welcome variety: Paul Kelly, 360, Hailey Cramer and Paul Dempsey deliver strong contributions, with Kelly particularly memorable on the haunting "Livin' On". Maybe not the breezy follow-up fans expected years ago, but Don't Look Down rewards those who've grown up too.
Melbourne duo's long-awaited synth-pop debut is terrific fun.
Four years after Client Liaison dropped their first single "End of the Earth", the album is finally here, and it sees vocalist Monte Morgan and producer Harvey Miller continue their ridiculous romp through Eighties-era excess – see the George Michael grunt of "Off White Limousine" and sublime electro-ballad "Hotel Stay" – in a vibrant Ken Done canvas of Prince-inspired pop, Eurobeats and the odd didgeridoo. "Canberra Won't Be Calling Tonight", an ode to diplomatic immunity, looks set to become the unlikely refrain of the summer, and Tina Arena makes an inspired cameo with a wink at the Sorrento moon. At once irresistibly stupid and very, very clever, it's well worth the wait.
Melodic rockers feel the weight of the world on fifth album.
Hats off to Birds of Tokyo – given the success they've had with radio-friendly fodder such as "Lanterns", they could have been forgiven for riding that wave into a well-funded retirement. Instead, for Brace they enlisted producer David Bottrill (Tool) and made an album as dark as the times in which it was written. "Harlequin" sees them embrace their inner Muse, a reference that rears its head perhaps a little too frequently ("Gods", "Brace"), while the brooding "Pilot" finds Ian Kenny asking, "If I had to drown myself in gasoline would you carry the match for me?". Clearly not an album for your next party, it is, however, one that requires – and rewards – full immersion.
Frank Iero changes things up on second solo offering.
Frank Iero has shaken off his old band name to explore new sounds on his second album. Operating under the guise of Frank Iero and the Patience (rather than the previous "andthe Cellabration"), the former My Chemical Romance guitarist ventures beyond his usual sonic parameters. Co-produced by Ross Robinson (Slipknot), Iero channels Johnny Cash on "Miss Me", fires up unapologetic punk angst on first single "I'm a Mess" and mixes melodic alt-rock on "Oceans". The album closes with "September 6th", a heartbreakingly raw song about Iero's late grandfather. A mixed bag of styles, Parachutes is Iero finding himself.
Fremantle bruisers dive headlong into psych overdrive
Caked in lo-fi noise, HSD exploit the overheated intersection of Sixties psych meets Seventies proto-punk. The Fremantle foursome's second album starts off strong, translating the live-wire stage presence of frontman Vincent Buchanan-Simpson. He's mouthy and manic, breaking into hoarse shouts on the surf-damaged "Foreign Lands", Eddy Current talk-singing on "Bad Girl" and even rapping on "Monogamy". Such wild-eyed urgency suits the band's fuzzed-up freakouts, especially on gems like "Vita Z". But all that intensity can be tough to sustain across 12 tracks, and the last few songs begin to resemble a less focused King Gizzard. Still, there's a lot of demented potential here.
Swedish singer works the dark side of dance-pop on messed-up second LP.
Swedish singer Tove Lo works a killer pop paradox: her songs sleek and sheer, her raw-boned lyrics delivered with chill concision. But her world is a mess of bleary late nights, stifling doubt and confessional abandon: "Give zero fucks about it," she sings on "True Disaster", from her second LP. "I know I'm gonna get hurt." Lucky for us, she gives as good as she gets.
Tove Lo got her start working in Max Martin's Top 40 laboratory, and there are elements of crash-test Britney Spears and Robyn's introspective dance pop in her sound. She's especially good at making odd, even uncomfortable phrases seem as natural as hip-hop bons mots: "[You] give me lady wood," she notes effortlessly on the title track. Lady Wood doesn't have anything that hits quite as hard as "Habits (Stay High)" and "Talking Body", standout singles from her 2014 debut. But its minimalist tech-house sound has a darkly textured allure; "Cool Girl" builds a noirishly predatory thumper out of a reference to a line from the novel Gone Girl, and "Vibes" deploys spidery acoustic guitar and creepy low-end blurps as she sings, "I want you to lick my wounds."
Whether she's high as fuck ("Influence") or stranded on the dance floor ("WTF Love Is"), she thrives on the power of losing yourself in sounds you can dominate and emotions you'll never contain.
Melbourne folk-rock outfit honour late singer on debut.
This first album from Big Smoke comes after frontman and songwriter Adrian Slattery died earlier this year following a protracted battle with cancer. Indeed, the album was recorded as he underwent treatment, and it is a testament to Slattery's resilience that Time Is Golden is mostly an uplifting collection, benefitting from production similar to the Tom Petty-influenced sound of Ryan Adams' self-titled LP of 2014. With arrangements and song structures echoing Okkervil River and Springsteen, the eight-minute "When You Dance" is a fine example of Slattery's songwriting gifts, as is the gospel-infused bluster of "Kiss Me Once". A moving farewell from a much-loved local hero.
Duo hit a comfortable groove on slick third LP.
The charm of Empire of the Sun's 2008 debut was a sense that the two musicians involved – the Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele and Pnau's Nick Littlemore – were pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. On Two Vines, the pair have honed in on a definable EOTS "sound": big, glossy pop songs designed to bring euphoria to big festival crowds. At points it plays too much like sticking to a tried and tested formula, but when they ease back on the maximalist production (the Eighties pop-referencing "First Crush", "ZZZ" and Lindsey Buckingham-featuring "To Her Door") there's a sense that their strengths may not necessarily lie solely in songs designed to move the swaying masses.
Alt-metal heroes stop taking themselves too seriously.
Ever since Helmet's 1997 LP Aftertaste, Page Hamilton has been struggling to rediscover that 'special sauce' that made his band such a cornerstone of Nineties alt-metal. He's tried going back to their first producer, he's tweaked the lineup, gone intentionally lo-fi, anything to recapture the magic. On Dead To the World, Hamilton sounds like he's decided to just enjoy himself, resulting in Helmet's best album in years. Touches of the melody that made '94's Betty such a smash come through in tracks like "Red Scare", while the jackhammer riffing of Meantime is still front and centre. Now that Hamilton is looking forward again, it's exciting to see what Helmet will come up with.
Melburnians reactivate to make nu-metal great again.
Twelve years after being relegated to the nu-metal scrapheap, Superheist are back with new singer Ezekiel Ox (Mammal, Full Scale) and drummer Benny Clark in the fold. Mainstay guitarist DW Norton and bassist Drew Dedman retain the band's down-tuned trademarks, however the dated synths have gone the way of the wallet chain, replaced with more mature-sounding string and piano flourishes. Rapping like Zeke de la Rocha, Ox's rhymes might feel forced at times, but his political rage is potent ("Back to Base"), and he shows off his impressive range on several soaring choruses, the most effective being "Wolves in Your Headspace" and "The Deepend".
Hip-hop star in the making delivers impressively diverse debut.
There's a lot of expectation riding on the shoulders of young Tkay Maidza. Over the past two years, the Zimbabwean-born, Adelaide-raised 20-year-old has been impressing crowds and cognoscenti at home and overseas with a string of impressive singles and a mini-EP, blessedly obfuscating the memory of one Iggy Azalea and instead earning comparisons to the far more talented Azealia Banks (in talent, not attitude – anyone who's seen Maidza perform live knows the girl is pure sunshine).
By now, she's had enough smoke blown up her arse to know that she's a bit of all right, and it shows in the steady-eyed, unapologetic swagger of tracks that, while not as incendiary as the likes of "M.O.B." or "Switch Lanes", hold your attention as Maidza ducks and weaves through grime, garage, straight-up hip-hop and electro-ballads in frenetic three-minute bursts. She's got Killer Mike backing her on the sing-songy "Carry On", borrowing brat-Brit from fellow firespitter Charli XCX; is sweetly aspirational on "Simulation", coming over all Tove Lo; and channels M.I.A. on the glitchy "Tennies", an ode to her tennis shoes. High school themes abound, but there's nothing childish about some of these explicit lyrics and tracks like "Monochrome", setting a bloated, bouncing bassline to snarling verse. "The winner you'll be seeing is me," she spits. Highly likely.
Arizona quartet feel the emotional blues on ninth LP.
If the song "Pass the Baby" is any indication, Jimmy Eat World clearly don't prescribe to the saying you can't teach old dogs new tricks. Featuring a hushed Jim Adkins vocal, and atmospherics Trent Reznor would approve of, it concludes with a slab of almost stoner-esque riffing quite unlike anything the Arizona rockers have ever attempted. The sombre, orchestral title-track also pushes their sonic boundaries, but elsewhere Jimmy Eat World's ninth studio LP plays pretty much to type, albeit with a distinctly downbeat feel. "Sure and Certain", "You With Me" and "It Matters", however, are reminders that few pull off heartfelt emo-indie-whatever rock as well as Adkins and Co.
An octogenarian lady's man seduces the eternal with grim, spiritual beauty.
On his signature classic, "Hallelujah", Leonard Cohen sings about meeting "the Lord of Song". But on the title track of his new LP, the third in a late-game rally that's been as startlingly brilliant as Bob Dylan's, Cohen takes that imagined reckoning with the Almighty deeper, intoning "Hineni", a Hebrew term for addressing God that translates as "Here I am". The punchline, aside from the title's cheeky challenge – true Cohen fans always want it darker – is that with his cantorial delivery, the famous lady's man makes the phrase sound kinda like "hey, baby". In fact, an unlikely EDM remix of "You Want It Darker", by DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, turns the phrase into a dance-floor chant – more proof of how much modern lifeblood still flows through Cohen's voice after five decades on the job.
This is Cohen's gift to music lovers: a realistically grim, spiritually radiant and deeply poetic worldview, spiked with a romantic thrum and an existential wink. Following a string of records that have each felt like a swan song, You Want It Darker may be Cohen's most haunting LP – and at 82, it might also be his last.
"I'm angry and I'm tired all the time," he sings on "Treaty", a stately parlour march to piano and strings that blooms from breakup lament into meditations on the fool's errand of religion. The Brylcreem-scented slow dance "Leaving the Table" similarly flickers between romantic and spiritual resignation, Bill Bottrell's electric guitar and steel fills flickering like mirror-ball beams as the famous rake ruefully insists, "I don't need a lover/The wretched beast is tame" – as sure a sign of the End Times as Arctic melt.
As on Cohen's 2014 Popular Problems, blues define the vibe. But other colours deepen the narrative. The Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, who billow across the title track, recall Cohen's Jewish upbringing in Montreal; "Traveling Light" conjures his halcyon years in Greece in the early Sixties with his late muse Marianne Ihlen, the subject of "So Long, Marianne", who died in late July. "Good night, my fallen star... ," Cohen sings in a near-whisper amid bouzouki notes, like a man dancing in an empty taverna after closing time.
Like David Bowie's Blackstar and Dylan's long goodbye, You Want It Darker is the sound of a master soundtracking his exit, with advice for those left behind. "Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall," he sings near the album's end, against a gently bouncing bluegrass fiddle, his son Adam's subtle guitar and Alison Krauss' angelic backing vocals. It's what he's always done, helping the rest of us do the same, as best we can.
Main page illustration: Rory Kurtz
More cosy attic dreams from Danish piano whisperer.
There's always been something kinda glassy about Agnes Obel's albums, glistening as they do like ice crystals at attic windows. The hushed, folk-classical singer-pianist from Denmark has a grander concept for her third inward journey, but an alleged theme of privacy vs. transparency is (ahem) opaque at best, as glacial keys and slithering strings sculpt her cosy snowbound inner world. "Stretch Your Eyes" serves notice of occasional robust rhythms, and her pitch-shifted vocal on "Familiar" is the most startling example of a wider range of sonic elements, but the enveloping steam bath destination typified by the instrumental "Grasshopper" remains her main allure.
Indie-pop wunderkind goes for acoustic rumination on 11th LP.
Ben Lee walks a blurred line of dewey-eyed idealistic optimism and insufferable pretension, but his transition from precocious pop maestro to folksy ‘adult' pop has been quietly impressive. Lee built a career delivering glorious pop tunes with the odd experimental concept record (2013's Ayahuasca), but Freedom, Love… is an intimate acoustic meditation on the nature of spirituality, the self and searching for higher meaning. Amid the quiet, gentle folky pop of "Simple Gospel", "Two Questions" and "Bigger Than Me", Lee infuses the whole record with an insular, earnest agreeableness. But even so, musically it lacks Lee's usual vitality, and its message sorely needs it.
Rob Sheffield on fifth album from art-pop chameleon.
Joanne is Lady Gaga's best album in five years, since the disco-stick hair-metal manifesto that was Born This Way. In her quest to master all pop spectacle – hit singles, scandalous TV stunts, The Sound of Music medleys at award shows – Gaga's been too restless to slow down for albums. Or maybe after she hit it so far out of the park with Born This Way, she figured album-making was a party trick she'd already done. Her Tony Bennett duet was a clever rebranding Hail Mary after her overheated yet practically song-free fiasco Artpop. But Born This Way was the one moment she hit the longform glory of album auteurs like Kanye, Beyoncé or Taylor.
With Joanne, Gaga starts over with music that feels stripped-down, restrained, modest and other adjectives that you wouldn't usually associate with her. It's an old-school Nineties soft-rock album, heavy on the acoustic guitar: Meet Lilith Gaga, who goes for both the incense-and-patchouli hippie vibe of Sarah McLachlan and the cowgirl glitter of Shania Twain. And for anyone out there who might carry a torch for Paula Cole, there's "John Wayne," where Gaga wonders where all the cowboys have gone.
Earth Mama Monster mutes any trace of disco or glam – the giveaway is her ostentatiously squeaky fingers on the guitar strings in "Joanne," a touching ballad mourning her deceased aunt. It works best when Gaga gets some grit into the songwriting, especially the hands-down highlight "Sinner's Prayer," a faux-country family melodrama where she wails, "I don't wanna break the heart of any other man but you" – it's her kissing cousin to Beyonce's "Daddy Lessons." She co-wrote it with Father John Misty – bet he's the one who added those Wowie Zowie guitar hooks. Another oddball peak is her Florence Welch duet "Hey Girl," a tribute to Prince in lovesick midtempo mode – it could be a lost B-side from between between Around The World in a Day and Parade.
Gaga gets understated production from Mark Ronson and guests like Tame Impala's Kevin Parker or Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, who adds guitar to "John Wayne" and "Diamond Heart." There's no move to the dance floor – the nearest she comes is "A-Yo," a taste of Motown handclaps and dirty talk, or "Dancin' in Circles," a reggae ode to she-bopping. Strangely, it's a duet with Beck, whose presence can't be heard – it sounds more like a No Doubt cover band who'd call themselves Spiderwebs or Hella Good. She also avoids cracking any jokes, which is a loss, since Joanne really falls flat when she gets solemn. "Angel Down" reminds you what a fine job Jewel used to do, opening with the self-parodic announcement "I confess I am lost in the age of the social," before musing, "We all belong in the arms of the sacred." With "Perfect Illusion" already fizzling as a single, the time is right for Gaga to reclaim some luster as an album artist – for all its hits and misses, Joanne is a welcome reminder of why the world needs her around.