Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Little Birdy singer snaps and claps back to life.
It's taken Katy Steele seven years to find a world she could live in for a whole album. It's a relatively exotic place rhythmically, all finger snaps and handclaps and treated vocal counterpoints, though the synth-pop sweetness isn't far removed from her former life in Little Birdy. What she hasn't found is satisfaction. Even the brightest moment, "Where's the Laughter", is concerned with something that's missing, a default emotional pitch that grows a little taxing between the twin cries for help – "Signal To You" and "Rescue Boat" – and cinematic closer "Lonely". What's clear from "No Slave" is that she'll do this her way: "I'm no slave/I pay my own way/I create".
Cult act back from the dead for more of the same.
"They didn't sell many albums but everyone who bought one started a band." So said Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground. Had Eno been a math-minded, Nineties indie-guitar nerd he might have said the same about American Football. The Illinois group broke up right after their 1999 (also) self-titled debut, only to watch its heartfelt lyrics, chiming guitars and oddball time signatures become a benchmark for 2000s emo. Now they're back with an unashamed reproduction of that sound, meaning winsome lines like "I can't believe my life is happening to me", sung by earnest middle-aged dudes. But lovely slow-burners like "Give Me the Gun" and "My Instincts Are the Enemy" prove a life nicely lived.
Eerie empathy in songs from a musical about a writer.
Further reading is required for this cycle of songs in the character of the late Southern Gothic writer Carson McCullers. With shades of Lou Reed and John Cale's Songs For Drella, it's Suzanne Vega's homage to a frail, eccentric but formidable artist of great fascination. The Thirties jazz feel of "Carson's Blues" is a Berenice Abbott photo come to life; the jealous rollcall of contemporaries in "Harper Lee" a vivid invocation of a golden age. The lightness of Vega's voice and weight of her intellect make apt parallels as obsessions from the writer's life ("Annemarie") and fiction ("The Ballad of Miss Amelia") blur into an intriguing if incomplete portrait.
Amid heartache, Kiwi synth-poppers deliver sparkly pop.
The Naked and Famous's debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, was a thing of indie-pop beauty, and 2013 follow-up In Rolling Waves kept the good times, er, rolling. Alisa Xayalith's voice remains their selling point, and here it's an evocative force of nature on the anthemic "Higher", the aggressive "Backside" and icy album highlight "Rotten". At times, though, it feels like the Naked and Famous are playing musical catch-up, as Simple Forms struggles to move beyond place-holder synth-pop like "Water Beneath You". But when Xayalith and former partner Thom Powers team up on the sparkling "My Energy" and "Last Forever", their taut, dynamic atmosphere shines.
Followill boys reach for pop grandeur without losing their guitar-slinging potency.
"Like in a mainstream melody/Oh, I want to take you in!" sings Caleb Followill on "Wild," a pop-rock rhinestone delivering said melody with bell-toned guitars and a sing-along chorus. Sure enough, after a sleeves-up recommitment to their Southern garage-ish roots on Mechanical Bull in 2013, the band's seventh LP tries to parse what "mainstream" means right now for a bunch of true-to-their-school guitar-slingers. The result is radio-buff rock & roll that could spoon between One Republic's genre-splicing power moves and the Head and the Heart's folk-pop uplift.
Producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Mumford & Sons) does an admirable job of translating Followill's signature slurred delivery and the band's muscular jangle into thicker arrangements, though the result can feel generic: "Reverend" resembles the pro-forma rock Nashville now markets as "country," while the anthemic "whoa-ooo"s in "Waste a Moment" – mirroring the Kings' mega-hit "Use Somebody" – have a whiff of old stadium hot-dogs. Encouragingly, the best bits are less predictable. The homeboy requiem "Muchacho" echoes the drum-machine cha-cha revival seeded by D.R.A.M. and Drake's "Hotline Bling" with a Roy Orbison delivery (remix!). And the title track is a slow-build power ballad suggesting the Kings can be more potent and distinctive when they dial it back.
Hard-bitten Melburnians perfect their bleak portraiture.
The Peep Tempel's terse character studies crossed over in a big way with 2014's Tales. The Melbourne trio reconvene with engineer Anna Laverty for their third album, doubling down on frontman Blake Scott's restless scrolling through different accents and vocal styles. That tactic suits his irony-salted Australiana, from the declaration "And they're all on ice!" during "Rayguns" to barstool asides like "I'm often tired and I'm often drunk". A wider splay of sounds pushes keyboards to the fore, and beneath Scott's gruff immediacy lopes a chewy rhythm section that peaks with the Krautrock chug of "Neuroplasticity". These shout-along anthems survey both our beer-sodden culture and the collective hangover that awaits.
Austere effort from prolific troubadour does as it says.
Written over a bleak winter's sabbatical in his home state of Omaha, Oberst's seventh solo record is defiantly unadorned. While no great departure from his usual impassioned quiver, such are the charming playing errors and audible gulps as he sings that the one-take rawness of Bright Eyes' early days is strongly evoked. Each song sees him alone with piano or guitar, covering personal ground rather than his occasionally strident political beseechings. A certain nostalgic mood characterises several tracks – depressed, mournful reflections that encapsulate Oberst's always-remarkable ability to sing about loss, isolation and social disorientation without sounding trite.
Sydney's baggy beat boys turn it up for album two.
The second record from psych-dance revivalists Jagwar Ma sounds like it was recorded on a dilapidated sunflower farm in the French countryside, and that's because it was – natch – and all of the sunshine, vintage filters, vacillating bliss and melancholia and Van Gogh landscapes that conjures can be heard here. It also sounds as though the band might've been rifling through Andrew Weatherall's vinyl collection (they were; it was partly recorded in a studio shared with Weatherall in London).
This is to take nothing away from Jono Ma (production, synths) and Gabriel Winterfield (vocals, guitars), though, who spike the mix with the Sydney Future Classic sound of now. Aided by producer Ewan Pearson, the result is a familiarity that feels fresh, with beats that are tighter and harder than Weatherall's of old; a sinewy throughline cutting through Balearic blear and stoner synths.
"Say What You Feel" builds on beat-free beginnings and Seventies guitar fuzz into flutey freakouts; "Loose Ends" comes up in jaunty stoned horns and twisty beats custom-built for passing the dutch in Provence; and "High Rotations" is "Good Vibrations" on ketamine, Winterfield crowing over screechy feedback. The lyrics still have that charming Beach Boys naivety, while Ma's production elevates them in the same way Brian Wilson did for that band. 2013 debut Howlin' was great; this is even better.
Psych four-piece find a new groove after lengthy lay-off.
A Laurels gig circa 2012 was among Sydney's most enjoyable live experiences, as the band promoted their excellent debut, Plains, and its sophisticated but earthy grunge-psych. A four-year hiatus and a line-up change have not dulled them, with Sonicology adding a dose of funk and various synth touches to what remains a shoegazey template. "Some Other Time" is a superb example of their sonic evolution as well as more satisfying songwriting, which is more floral and elaborate than Plains, evoking British bunch Temples. The nasal, affected vocals of Luke O'Farrell and Piers Cornelius encapsulate the controlled aggression and moody intent of this simmering, ambitious album from a special band.
Irish alt-indie favourites make triumphant return with third LP.
If 2012’s Beacon hinted that Two Door Cinema Club had tired of the touring, on Gameshow, their first record since the band took a much-needed break in 2014, sees the trio rested, with a broader perspective and different axes to grind. Namely, these are the machinations of the biz that wore them down and the dearth of quality IRL interactions – you can bet they won’t be happy to see iPhones in the air at their shows. Sorry, boys, there’ll be plenty of them – TDCC have always known how to craft an exceptionally hooky pop song, and Gameshow is flush with their most sophisticated, rewarding iterations of them yet. Best is "Lavender”, a Hot Chip-meets-Justin Timberlake delight.
After a seven-year wait, Tassie's finest return with not one, but two classic Aussie punk records.
It seems like only yesterday that The Nation Blue were seen as a bunch of Tasmanian inbreds trying to win over mainland audiences with guitars that were too raw and accents that were too thick for punks raised on the SoCal whine. Fast forward 20 years and the trio are a Melbourne institution, and the inspiration for numerous bands that now proudly embrace the convict aesthetic.
After a seven-year spell from the studio, the Nation Blue are back with an embarrassment of riches, spread over two quite different albums. Black is the most like a traditional Nation Blue album, angry, dissonant, experimental and rhythmically challenging, while expanding on their last album, 2009's Rising Waters, beautifully. Kicking off with the shouty poli-poetry of "I Have No Representatives" and the biting skronk of "Australian of the Year", Black is a tough record dealing with some tough themes. "Rendition", with its Fugazi-esque muted groove, may prove to be their defining track, while "Negative Space" and "Great White Death" hint at a tantalising new direction.
Blue, by comparison, is almost catchy in its simplicity. Two-chord upbeat ragers that touch on things that regular folk can relate to – like feelings. At times, it sounds like a tougher version of Spy vs Spy or the Angels – they play these simpler, more direct songs with the sort of attitude that only a band capable of much more can achieve. If Blue is the last record the Nation Blue ever record, they should sleep easy.
Rating is aggregated from the two individual ratings, as featured in issue #780 (November 2016), available now.
Singer tentatively makes changes with third LP.
Warriors finds Mitchell ditching much of the guitar and piano that has defined her sound. While she's aided by producer Eric J (Chet Faker, the Rubens), it's incomplete. With its understated electro groove and chiming synths, opener "The Boys" is quicksilver pop bliss veined with whimsy and surrender. Vocally, Mitchell is diaphanous and delicate as ever, while at the same time less fussy, less determinedly offbeat ("Warriors"). The acoustic "What Is Love", though, reminds that young love is perennially tedious, while the earnest "Where You Are" is a plaintive piano ballad per Bless This Mess (2012). The dragging regression erodes gains won by the winning electro-pop feeling of preceding passages.
Jazz giants welcome genre-hopping chanteuse back home.
Norah Jones was the face jazz needed in the Noughties, but she never bought the poster girl thing. Vanishing into varied collaborations (the Little Willies, Puss n Boots, Danger Mouse), she shared her creative spoils with consistent daring, and so it remains on this "full circle" return to piano-led acoustic jazz. Sure it's her own lazy purr and sensual touch that stroke and tickle her songs to life, but sax god Wayne Shorter steals "Peace" and Hammond organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith skates rings around the blue soul of "Flipside". Meanwhile, equally seductive takes on Neil Young and Duke Ellington continue to push Jones's parameters to oblivion.
Castlemaine export conjures up the fantastical on exceptional LP.
D.D Dumbo, born Oliver Perry, conjures fantastical visions singing of squidling, spilt blood and the sea on his exceptional debut. Tales of another time that speak equally to the dark and capricious mood of 2016 are brought to life with painstakingly crafted collages of blues, world music and textured pop. Be it the splashy rhythm and gummy bass on disorientating opener "Walrus", or the tidal manner that Perry's voice and guitar rise and fall away from one another on "In the Water", there is an elemental nature about these songs that makes Utopia Defeated bristle with energy. Captain Beefheart and Paul Simon are subtle influences here, but even so Perry is clearly inhabiting a space all of his own.
Songwriter lives up to her promise on debut album.
Julia Jacklin captures that point in your mid-20s where your childhood recedes into the rear-view mirror and you're left wondering, "How did I get here?" On the title track, the Blue Mountains-reared musician sings of the need for letting go of the past, no matter how sun-dappled those childhood memories are. "We're gonna keep on getting older," she sings. "It's going to keep on feeling strange." Jacklin's songs are simple and unadorned. Like Jessica Pratt, she has a unique way of wrapping ear-worm melodies around inventive chords ("Elizabeth"). On "Leadlight", you can just imagine yourself drunk, swaying along with her band and someone you love in a dimly lit bar.
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.