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American duo defy genres, but the results fail to captivate.
Phantogram have always existed on the fringes of the mainstream, in part because their unique brand of indie-pop/R&B is so hard to categorise, and also because particularity should not be confused with greatness – their sound is admirably original, but often curiously unsatisfying.
Their third LP opens promisingly enough. "Funeral Pyre" marries foreboding synths with spindly guitar lines in a skittish electro-folk elegy; "Same Old Blues" fuses samples, blues, rock and Sarah Barthel's seductive coo into something compelling; and album highlight "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" continues in the same vein, switching from pretty, high-pitched vocals to crashing dark percussion in a comment on the fleeting pleasures of, well, everything. But hereafter the album starts to lose its way; "Barking Dog", on which guitarist Josh Carter assumes lead vocals, sounds like a late-era Ben Lee offcut, and on "You're Mine" Barthel and Carter snarl at each other against stuck-zipper synths, but like dogs tethered to leads, neither is able to fully unleash. They share another vocal turn on "Answer", a not unpleasant if conventional ballad that feels oddly out of place here.
Indeed, cohesion is another issue for Phantogram – the flights of experimental fancy occasionally work, as on closer "Calling All", but too often it feels like they're shoehorning styles for the sake of it.
UK crew undergo an electro-pop makeover with mixed results.
Enduring indie band enlists famous pop producer to make a record about monogamy that people can dance to; it's a move as risky as it is savvy, and one Kaiser Chiefs almost nail on album number six. Teaming up with Brian Higgins' production team Xenomania (Cher, Kylie), frontman Ricky Wilson leads his band through an electro-pop transformation, splintering the band's identity in the process. With Wilson's distinctive Leeds accent barely detectable over a tired tropical synth line, "Parachute" falls flat, as does dancefloor filler "Hole In My Soul". But elsewhere, the old and new come together neatly – see the rhythmic funk of "Sunday Morning" and electro slow-burner "Still Waiting".
Sophomore outing from Austinmer dream-pop crew.
Black Opal finds the seven-piece saturating the languid coastal rhythms and misty lay of debut Leisure Coast (2013) with colour. Presaging the album's vividly impressionistic bent, opener "I Can Run" is high drama played out against a backdrop of Russell Webster's crystalline keys and salvaged Icehouse synths. The album teems with textures, sound-grabs and lyrical flourishes abundantly suggestive of the varicoloured Australian landscape: heady sax counterpoints didjeridoo on "Charlie", for example. At a time when indie's urge toward recycling frequently lacks purpose, Black Opal confirms Shining Bird as an entrancing synth-pop outfit.
Master's craft undimmed on post-Bee Gees LP.
That throbbing vibrato is as much breath as voice now, and "if tears were diamonds", reflects the last Gibb standing, "I'd be a rich man now." In truth, the king Bee Gee is probably living quite comfortably but there's nothing complacent about his second ever solo album. Whether huskily soulful on the title track, Americana-tinged on the deeply telling "Home Truth Song" or ranting at modern televised life in "Blowin' a Fuse", his mastery of phrasing and melody is as stunning as ever. Production-wise he may err on the swishy chimes side, but the moody likes of "Cross to Bear" and "Amy In Colour" harbour a quiet, psychedelic invention Neil Finn might envy.
Three-quarters of Creed do as Creed do, with better vocals
In dark times we search for heroes and so, it seems, do Alter Bridge – check out some of the song titles on this, their fifth album: "Show Me a Leader", "My Champion", "The Last Hero". The follow-up to 2013's Fortress is a typically muscular, arena-friendly affair, with Mark Tremonti's fearsome riffing providing the foundation for Myles Kennedy's vocal histrionics. The guitarist is in particularly crushing form on "Crows On a Wire", though is at times guilty of reverting to type and sneaking into overly-mawkish Creed territory ("You Will Be Remembered"). Most damning of all is that come the end of the album, the sense is of a record that finds its groove early and sticks to it, variation be damned.
Sonic travellers reunite for hard-edged new record.
The second album from this collaboration between Australian doyen of alt-rock drumming Jim White and Cretan lute virtuoso George Xylouris continues the lo-fi production and vague sense of menace that made debut Goats (2014) so compelling. Particularly affecting are Xylouris's elastic vocals, which soar on one track and become guttural on the next. His lute playing, meanwhile, bears the imprint of drone rock and punk on "Forging", and in combination with White's more tribal tendencies produces a ritualistic fervour on standout "Hey, Musicians". Along with Everything Sacred by Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, Black Peak stands as one of the year's great fusion releases.
Perth transplants paint in broad brushstrokes on album five.
The Panics' sound has grown more expansive over the years – but they've never been this cinematic. "This is the movie's opening song," frontman Jae Laffer sings on "Weatherman", a climate change warning set to a driving Eighties synth-rock soundtrack. What's the movie about? Lots of things, actually. Laffer has always been a rich and evocative storyteller, whether he's narrating small-town roadtrips ("Passenger Side") or reflecting on those halcyon days hanging out in carparks in his native Perth ("Carparks Of Greschen"). "You get your lesson on a Friday night," he sings, his band doing broad musical burnouts around him. The Panics' uniquely Australian take on widescreen rock just gets better with age.
Grunge supergroup resurrect their previously legal-locked debut.
Tied up for years in a legal stoush over ownership of the master tapes – the brother of deceased co-producer Rick Parasher claimed they belonged to the studio in which the LP was recorded – the rights to Temple of the Dog's sole album were returned to the band earlier this year. Now, to mark its 25th anniversary (and the band's first ever run of shows in November), it gets a new mix courtesy of producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Springsteen), and some additional extra tracks.
Initially conceived as an outlet for the grief following the death of Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, Soundgarden singer (and Wood's one-time flatmate) Chris Cornell teamed with Wood's former bandmates Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, then on the cusp of forming their new group, Pearl Jam. Along with Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Pearl Jam six-stringer Mike McCready (with occasional vocal flourishes from Eddie Vedder, most famously on single "Hunger Strike"), their debut was largely ignored on its release, until it gained a second life in the wake of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam's exploding popularity. And rightly so, as Temple of the Dog is equal to any record to have emerged from the early Nineties Seattle scene.
The key for longterm fans will be the extra material, with the two-disc version containing two unreleased songs (demos of "Angel On Fire" and "Black Cat", both of which were justifiably left off the album), outtakes, alternate mixes and demos. It's a kick to hear subtler album tracks such as "Wooden Jesus" and "All Night Thing" beefed up with electric guitar, if only for the fact that these songs have remained frozen in time for two decades, but are suddenly changing before our ears. Similarly, hearing different drum patterns, solos and vocal phrasing on the demos is both fascinating and a joy. Tellingly, though, it's not these extras to which you'll keep returning, but to the album itself, one of the Seattle scene's landmark releases.
New Yorker frees up when she gets ‘out there'.
Spektor wrote and recorded "You've Got Time" for Orange Is The New Black, and now the opening song from her seventh album is littered with incarceration-oriented lines like "you serve your time drinking all night long, staring at the walls of your jail-like home". The Russian New Yorker can get melodramatic – "Sellers Of Flowers" finds her aiming for Leonard Cohen but overshooting the mark. When she goes ‘out there', she frees up her sound. "Small Bill$" has a stomping beat, brooding strings, loopy keyboards and a demented but delicious "la-la-la" refrain, while "The Trapper and the Furrier" is positively terrifying, a Nick Cave-meets-PJ Harvey slice of unnerving gothic storytelling.
Punk veterans return to basics on first album in four years.
"My name is Billie and I'm freaking out," sings Billie Joe Armstrong on "Forever Now", the most ambitious song on Green Day's 12th album. Indeed, in the wake of two concept LPs and, in 2012's ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré!, a trilogy of records all released at once, Revolution Radio is Green Day's leanest, most focused statement since 2000's Warning. Save, that is, for the aforementioned "Forever Now", a near-seven-minute opus that calls to mind some of 21st Century Breakdown's grander moments and, in lyrics such as "If this is what you call the good life/I want a better way to die", alludes to Armstrong's alcohol-fuelled breakdown in 2012.
Self-produced and recorded in relative secrecy, Revolution Radio marks something of a back to basics approach for Green Day. Sure, there are hints of the Who in opener "Somewhere Now", and "Ordinary World" is a sweet acoustic lament, but incendiary first single "Bang Bang" (a window into the mind of a mass shooter: "I want to be a celebrity martyr") and the title-track rail with the spirit of teenage kids attacking their instruments.
At points Armstrong is in a reflective mood – "Outlaws" romanticises his band's early days, while "Youngblood" is a tribute to his wife – while "Still Breathing" pairs some of the album's bleakest lyrics to its catchiest tune ("I'm like a junkie tying off for the last time"). In truth there is nothing here we've not heard before; the joy is in hearing masters of their craft at work.
Breathy love letters to jangle and twang from U.S. trio.
Balancing the Byrds' airy uplift with the Zombies' choirboy melancholy, EZTV also look fondly to R.E.M. and Real Estate. Despite their New York base, this self-produced second album stokes a pastoral vibe that glistens with 12-string twang. It can take time for frontman Ezra Tenenbaum's gentle delivery to make a proper impact, but repeated listens tease out the yearning and sophistication amid the daydream breeziness. It's happily low-stakes, as the refrain on "Hammock" makes clear: "Lie on my back, stare at the sun." But between those honeyed hooks and priceless harmonies – including some by Jenny Lewis on opener "High Flying Faith" – this is sighing guitar-pop that feels classic in every way.
Mike D-produced punks get political on second album.
UK punk duo Laurie Vincent and Isaac Holman channelled their spitfire disaffection and anger on 2015's Are You Satisfied?, and their follow-up doesn't pull punches. From the cacophony of "Spit It Out" and "Play Dead" to the swaggering Mclusky punch of "Consume or Be Consumed" (featuring a loopy drop-in from producer and Beastie Boy Mike D), it's rough, raw, angry, but with added yelping political nous. Slaves cram shredded blues-punk and plenty of dashes of electro weirdness ("Steer Clear" with Baxter Dury) into 16 songs, but never quit throwing a wry humour on top of their pissed-off spitting about the ostriching of contemporary society.
Queen of confessional R&B treads a dynamic between dark and darker.
It's easy to fall into Jillian Banks' world. Since cresting with 2014 debut LP Goddess, the U.S. singer has owned her own lonesome corner of the dark R&B landscape, one now crowded with po-faced folks like Sohn, FKA twigs, and the Weeknd.
That space can sometimes feel like a cloistered race to the confession booth, but on that front Banks excels. Again working with a crack team of smokey producers, including Goddess alumni Sohn and Al Shux, The Altar treads a maddening line between intoxicating interiors ("Lovesick") and faceless, modular pop ("This Is Not About Us").
Banks really shines when her synth-heavy production leaves space for her words to crawl through the slick and down into your soul. "Ode to my two thighs/I still want you to kiss 'em 'cause they're lonely," she slurs on addictive opener "Gemini Feed". "I think you need a weaker girl/Kind of like the girl I used to be," on string-drenched, mid-album highlight, "Weaker Girl".
Banks talks openly about depression, and it's the self-scathing notes that stick more than any grand chest-beating jam. On the skeletal "To the Hilt" she shares: "Hated you for leaving me/You were my muse for so long/Now I'm drained creatively/I miss you on my team." Such directness needs no props. Truth hits hardest every time.
Progressive Swedes move forward while looking back.
After distancing death metal fans by going the whole prog on 2011's Heritage, Sorceress sees Mikael Akerfeldt and Co. continuing to pay homage to the Seventies with vintage keys, jazzy drum fills, psychedelic solos and growl-free vocals, while reaching a compromise of sorts by revisiting hallmark sounds. Several of the acoustic arrangements recall the softer sides of 2001's Blackwater Park, with "Will O the Wisp" and "Persephone" particularly nostalgic. Medieval pomp and mediocre rock mar "A Fleeting Glance" and "Chrysalis" respectively, but the climax of "The Wilde Flowers" is earth-shatteringly epic, and the title-track's chunky chug marries past and present perfectly.
Alt-rock legends have become a pale imitation of themselves.
"It's déjà vu, it's not like I planned, looks like I'm goin' where I've already been," sings Frank Black on the title track. Sounds like he's writing the review for us. And, sadly, he's spot-on. The second Pixies album since their 2004 reformation comes across like some band imitating the Pixies. "Bel Esprit" appears to have been created entirely with DNA swabs taken from "Wave Of Mutilation". It's so obvious that you have to wonder if Black is just trolling at this point. The alternative explanation is that he has no new ideas.
"All I Think About Now" is reportedly a tribute song to much-missed founding member Kim Deal, but as her replacement Paz Lenchantin (Zwan, A Perfect Circle) takes lead vocals and it shamelessly rips off "Where Is My Mind" right down to Deal's trademark high-pitched "oo-oo" refrain, it sounds more like a "fuck you" than a "thank you" – to both Deal and fans.
Admittedly, the bar for the Pixies is set way higher than, say, Candlebox. Black can still write the odd stick-in-your-head chorus ("Tenement Song") and his undimmed screaming on "Baal's Back" suggests AC/DC should have called him instead of Axl Rose. But as he leads one of the most original and influential alternative bands of the past three decades, we have a right to expect more than the reheated leftovers of past glories on offer here.
Our take on the R&B rulebreaker's third album.
The third album by Solange Knowles, A Seat at the Table, is a record about black survival in 2016; a combination of straight talk and refracted R&B for what she calls her "project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing." Beyond titles that telegraph the album's powerful, political backbone – "F.U.B.U.," "Mad," "Don't Touch My Hair" – its a fantastic-sounding LP that takes sonic cues from dusty soul sides while sounding as timely as a freshly sent tweet.
Co-executive-produced by Solange and neo-soul sage Rapahel Saadiq, A Seat at the Table derives its sonic power from lightness, with Solange's simply stated opinions landing harder as a result. A triptych of songs serve as invitations for people to check themselves: "Don't You Wait" pairs a stuttering bass line and Solange's falsetto with lyrics about removing negative influences from her life; "Don't Touch My Hair" uses sparkling synths and drowsy horns as broadsides against those who might deny Solange and other black women their bodily autonomy; the trembling guitars of "Don't Wish Me Well" provide a glittery backdrop as Solange revels in her personal growth. "Junie," a lightly percolating shimmy that pays tribute to funk polymath Junie Morrison (Ohio Players, Parliament-Funkadelic), brings Andre 3000's falsetto and a vamping piano into its heady mix.
Solange coaxes honesty out of the album's guests, whether they're adding verses or just sitting down with her to chat. Her father Mathew looks back on his youth, when he was spit on as one of the first black students at a school in the South; on the interlude "Tina Taught Me," her mother Tina effectively dismantles "white lives matter" rhetoric. Master P appears in conversation multiple times, including an interlude where talks about his inspiration for beginning his wildly successful label No Limit Records as a door-to-door sales business ("I watched the Avon lady in my hood. She popped her trunk and sell her products. So I put all my CDs and cassettes in the back of my trunk and I hit every city, every hood") over suspended flute chords. And Lil Wayne's verse on the spectral "Mad" offers straight talk about what he has "to pop a Xan about," including alienation and loneliness.
A Seat at the Table is a gentle-sounding album, but it is not weak. Solange has referred to it as a punk record: In conversation with W, she said she was aiming to make "A highly honest, disruptive, angsty record with all of the nuances that I wanted to express." Her minimalist distillation of R&B, which takes into consideration not just the genre's rich musical history but also its penchant for social commentary, has resulted in a stunning statement that redefines the old chestnut about the personal being political. In a volatile world increasingly defined by the brash and the crude, Solange's packaging of brutal honesty in tender, harmony-rich murmurs is both beautiful and radical.