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Sydney rappers display maturity on sixth album.
Sydney outfit Bliss n Eso have made a successful career out of big, ballsy hip-hop that showcases a blend of party anthems and socially conscious jams. Their sixth record has every right to be more of the same, but instead the foray into self-reflection makes for a more mellow and mature new direction.
Three years off the booze for Eso, parenthood, marriage, years of touring and just plain getting older are all mirrored in the lyrics from the pair of emcees, and they shine when they go in on the introspection. It's reflected in their sound too, which retains their familiar stylistic gymnastics from track to track, but taken altogether has a gentler, almost gospel edge compared to their earlier work.
Tracks such as "Believe", "Devil On My Shoulder" and "Blue" display it best, all choirs and melancholy hooks, but old-school fans will still find a few bangers. For all the maturity on display there are a few hints the group might not have gone completely straight edge, and joints like "Tear the Roof Off" and stand-out opener "Off the Grid" are safe bets to be menacing car stereos in the very near future. Older, a little wiser, maybe mellowed a touch, Bliss, Eso and DJ Izm have delivered an assured and welcome change of pace that will keep fans happy.
Pop maestro's melodic edge and psychedelic vision are undimmed.
After 45 years expanding England's psychedelic frontier to Nashville, Robyn Hitchcock's 21st album sparkles with the keen visions and vibrant musicality of a raring debutant. Not that a neophyte could hope to evince the sly confidence of the riff-slinging opener, "I Want to Tell You About What I Want". Nor take Woolfe, Plath, Shelley, Eighties cop shows and the year 1970 as signposts in his grand conceptual stride. From the high noon confession of "Sayonara Judge" to the blissful reverie of "Time Coast", the master tunesmith continues to imagine through "Autumn Sunglasses" the endless possibilities of John Lennon and Syd Barrett.
The apocalypse is nigh, and the reactivated Gorillaz will help us dance until the end.
Well, at least Donald Trump's presidency is good for something. Namely, giving songwriters something solid to kick against. And with the latest albums from Father John Misty and Depeche Mode, we're starting to see artists' reactions to the new world order.
Add Damon Albarn to that list, although he's not kicking so much as tripping. On the first album in half a dozen years from Gorillaz, the animated band he created with artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998, he's asking what's going on – in fact, he's going for a What's Going On vibe, taking cues from Marvin Gaye's 1971 album by sashaying into the apocalypse on an atmospheric dancefloor vibe.
He's also less of a presence at the microphone, but two melancholy tracks he dominates ("Andromeda" and "Busted and Blue") are highlights. Instead he cedes the spotlight to 24 guest singers and rappers. And the news they bring is not good. "The sky's fallin', baby," Vince Staples gleefully sneers in opening track "Ascension", amid sirens and a death-rattle rhythm. "Is this how it ends?" asks Peven Everett in "Strobelite", utilising his best Stevie Wonder wail over spacey synths and a disco beat.
With so many voices across 14 tracks on the standard album – 19 on the deluxe edition – it's a simultaneously overstuffed and scattered record. It's as if Albarn is soundtracking a sprawling party that's being held to both commiserate and celebrate the end of days. At times the guests could be given more rein and integrated into the whole Gorillaz concept more seamlessly. Getting the likes of Mavis Staples and Grace Jones on board must have been no mean feat, but their contributions sound sliced, diced and shoe-horned. Likewise, Ben Mendelsohn's short spoken interludes are fleeting and don't provide any kind of potential narrative. Still, this is an aural assault and Albarn is a curator as much as songwriter/producer, marshalling everyone from De La Soul to an uncredited Noel Gallagher to help create his musical world.
In a perverse move, the catchiest song is the curtain-closer and it comes and goes in just over two minutes – "We Got the Power" is a dayglo mix of Nineties acid house and Sixties sunshine pop. It also contains a message of hope in all the confusion and bleakness that the preceding 13 tracks have conjured. Jehnny Beth, vocalist with UK post-punk firebrands Savages, makes proclamations such as "Dreams don't know no fear!" while Albarn tunefully bleats "We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens, we got the power to do that." It's a potent, positive moment that's tucked away, almost as an afterthought. But if the world is really going to hell, we need more of it.
Austin quintet dive back into the heavy psych on blistering fifth LP.
After a slightly cleaner sound and some toe-dipping into Sixties psych-pop on their last LP, 2013's Indigo Meadow, Austin's the Black Angels dredge up some of the murk and fuzz here, which brings the heaviness and sinister vibes in spades. Opener "Currency" sets the tone with a damning commentary on capitalism while promising "one day it'll all be gone", but it's not all a simple retread of past doomy psych-rock glories: "Half Believing" channels the operatic gothic pop of Echo & the Bunnymen; "Estimate" is a restrained, moving elegy and "Medicine" adds a disco drum beat and falsetto to the mix. A solid marriage of the band's bad-trip past and some welcome new detours.
Sydneysider explores loneliness at a snail's pace.
Oliver Tank is lost, lonely and sad, and all he sings about on debut album OT is being lost, lonely and sad. So basic are the lyrics that they often feel condescending ("I call my friends, 'Wassup? I'm bored, let's go out"; "Never felt good enough, was all that kind of stuff y'know"), and though his textures and tones are warm and soothing in their muffled ambience and Bon Iver auto-tune, as a body of work it feels languid and cumbersome. Luckily it picks up toward the end with the trumpet-speckled "Silhouette" and bewitching "Charlene", OT's greatest triumph. Perfect for spa baths and meditation, but little demand for repeated listens.
Former King Cannons frontman delivers stunning solo debut.
After years of fronting Clash-indebted kiwis King Cannons, Yeoward's solo debut reveals an impressive musical chameleon. It's a record that takes unexpected turns like a less garrulous Father John Misty. There's an intelligent, soul-pop songwriting bent that evokes Elvis Costello in the simple and spare rock of "Who Can Save Us Now", and Ghost's sunny unpredictability is its strength. When the woozy island vibes ("Gainesville", "Cool Water") with echoing reggae percussion and a wobbly organ hit, the shift in tone and energy lifts Ghosts to a whole new level. It equals a debut that shows off the myriad strengths of a burgeoning, curious talent.
Veteran all-rounder returns to her easy, breezy roots on LP nine.
Despite a roundly positive response to her debut country album, Feels Like Home (2013), Sheryl Crow has done an about face, something to do with her distaste for country radio politics. It's our gain – such a versatile artist is wasted boxed into the one genre, and on Be Myself she flits breezily between pop, rock, blues, and a little country in a hark back to the fun and looseness of Tuesday Night Music Club. "Roller Skate" sneers at dating apps – "old-school contact, would it be asking too much?" – "Grow Up" is a sugar-spun pop jam, while "Heartbeat Away" showcases her still-intact rock chops. There's no killer punch, but it's an effortless listen.
Strong melodies almost enough to disguise trite lyricism.
Adelaide rapper Allday is a product of the ever-expanding definition of hip-hop. Singing heavily outweighs actual rapping on Speeding – though when he does rap, he exhibits an agile flow. The excellent all-electronic production focuses on bouncy dance beats and spacey synths. On the one hand, his melodies are smooth, sweet and catchy. On the other, his lyrics are banal, mostly juvenile and boring. Three fundamental characteristics appear in every song: he gives no fucks, he loves to fuck, and he loves getting fucked up. Nevertheless, the sentimental "Raceway" is a tender standout, as is "Baby Spiders" featuring Mallrat, with its mellow beat and pensive melodies.
Meditative folk songs that relish wide-open space.
Sydney's Kell Derrig-Hall makes slow, spectral folk music as the Singing Skies. The follow-up to his 2011 debut feels open and timeless. The drowsy Americana of "Taken By the Wind" could be decades old, while "Future Comes" edges closer to reverbed rock without losing the delicate touch. Vibrantly embellished by Melodie Nelson's Lia Tsamoglou and members of the Holy Soul and Cameras, the LP thrives on hushed moments. Derrig-Hall wrote the album in part as a response to his father's death, but these songs are decidedly universal – right down to the incredibly fragile closer "You and I".
Brooklyn duo's lovesick LP is a fantastic fuzz-pop record.
"Can we hang, no strings attached? Listen to *N Sync cassettes?" A typical come-on from Diet Cig, and an invitation tough to resist. The New York boy/girl duo specialise in lovesick fuzz-pop on their fantastic debut album Swear I'm Good At This. Guitar-toting firecracker Alex Luciano keeps tripping over her own reluctant sentimental streak in these sardonic modern-love vignettes – as she sings, "It's hard to be punk while wearing a skirt." Even when her melodies get sugary, Luciano never wusses out as she contemplates the anxieties of youth, the terror of adulthood and the ever-astonishing lameness of the male.
"Sixteen" has to be the best song ever written about dating somebody with the same name ("It was weird in the back of his truck/Moaning my own name while trying to fuck") while "Tummy Ache", "I Don't Know Her" and "Link In Bio" raise the aggression level.
The highlight: "Maid of the Mist", where she announces, "I want to hold a séance for every heart I've broken/Put them all in a room and say, get over it."
Swedish dance-pop mainstays strike balance of hard and soft.
Having dipped a toe in the mainstream with 2011's Ritual Union and then pivoted away from the dance floor towards Janet Jackson-influenced R&B on 2014's Nakuma Rubberband, Season High settles somewhere between the two, fusing the Berlin glitch of Rex the Dog with Nineties digital percussion and plenty of swag. There are mellower numbers like the minimally furnished "Don't Cry", led by Yukimi Nagano's pleading falsetto, and ice-cold club cuts such as the hypnotic "Strobe Light", cantering synths and strings slicing through a gloomy bottom note. Insistent and detached by turns, they're beguiling throughout.
Garage-party-punk reprobates grow up on welcome return.
Returning as a four-piece (and sans founding member Jordan Malane), the Bleeding Knees Club of Chew the Gum are a substantially different band than on 2013 single "Feel". The new line-up means new – welcome – depth, with the trashy bubble-gum punk title-track showing off not just a more well-rounded musical edge, but a captivating self-reflexivity from lead-man Alex Wall on burning out one's partying pleasure centres. "Sick Feeling" and "Cyber Doom" also deal with BNC moving beyond their grimy punk kid persona, and it makes the Go-Betweens-aping jangle of "Sun House" all the more striking.
Clunky lyrics and an Eighties pop sound add up to little.
If there were awards for clunky lyrics, Maximo Park would need a lot of shelf space. The title track of the UK band's sixth album may have good intentions, reaching out to those seeking asylum from their war-torn homes, but these people have suffered enough without Paul Smith's torturous schoolboy poetry. "The hand that giveth is set to taketh away," he sayeth in "Work and Then Wait", in a line Spinal Tap would jettison for being ridicule-eth. The band that arrived in 2005 in a kinetic blur of post-punk energy has undergone an INXS-meets-ABC makeover that gives the whole exercise an Eighties gloss to match the pop singer-as-social conscience approach.
25 years into their career, Screamfeeder are still killing it.
Thankfully Brisbane's Screamfeeder have never been very good at breaking up, and 25 years after their debut, Flour, they're still writing career-best songs. Screamfeeder pour a lifetime of indie-rock experience into this collection of blissed-out punk songs. They may not have achieved the chart success of fellow Brisbane-ites Regurgitator, Powderfinger or Custard, but their records have held up better than those of their peers. Pop Guilt is big, brash and shiny guitar music that will take you back to the Nineties. Think Hüsker Dü and the Go Betweens smashing heads with the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr and you'd be in the right ballpark.
Second album from Adelaide's finest tackles the (not-so) lucky country.
Bad//Dreems approach the toxic masculinity and racism masquerading as fuckheaded patriotism infusing contemporary Australian society with the same fervour mouth-breathing dipshits do righteous self-belief, Australian flag capes and intolerance. Their second album rumbles with the malevolence of Rundle Mall at 2am, spitting and kicking at a ruling class and confused culture fixated on self-interest and enrichment rather than insight and empathy.
Their songwriting – equal parts Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly and the Church mixed with a relatability that made Eddy Current Suppression Ring so vital – finds its range perfectly here, delivering an exasperated garage-punk wave as they name-check social ills like Donald Trump, racism, Australia Day, the credit crunch and coward punches. They're devastatingly stark on "1000 Miles Away" and the Springsteen-meets-Kill Devil Hills of "A Million Times Alone", but best are lead single "Mob Rule" and "Nice Guy". Both articulate the prevailing 'afraid-of-media-raised-spectres' national psyche and effectively explore our ingrained "boys will be boys" reductive machoism.
It makes for an album that's quintessentially Australian, full of free-wheeling scepticism about national identity and how it's applied to whatever you need it to justify, without preaching. Bad//Dreems aren't the heroes we need, they've just had a gutful of rampant dipshittery, just like the rest of us.
The Canadian keeps it cushioned and crooning on 14th album.
Some artists radically re-invent themselves over time. Ron Sexsmith is not one of them. The Canadian's 14th album sounds pretty much like his previous 13. There's no doubt the man has a gift for sweet McCartney-esque melodies, even if the bulk of these 15 tasteful tracks drift by on pillowy instrumentation and a cushioned croon, while his lyrics gently sway between wistful melancholy and wistful hopefulness. "Evergreen" and "Radio" break into a canter – the former is about love lasting until the end of time like vintage wine, while the latter casts him as a cuddly curmudgeon longing for the old days when a true voice was valued over The Voice.