Clear-eyed rock reckoning from Melbourne indie powerhouse.
Meet Jen Cloher. Sure you've seen her around, maybe shared some quality time. But here's where you bust in on her playing guitar naked on her bed. Her girlfriend's away on tour. Again. The job's a slog. The country's a joke. Shut the door on your way out. She's going somewhere with this.
The bliss, longing and jealousies of her life with the celebrated Courtney Barnett simmer in the present, in the wiry opener "Forgot Myself", and the sweet intimacies and raw insights of "Sensory Memory", "Waiting in the Wings" and "Dark Art". The past comes in raging flashbacks to Catholic girls' school, where "to love was to live in sin"; and to scenes of music as salvation, as ecstatic as the Dirty Three in "Loose Magic" and as heroic as the Saints and the Go-Betweens' in the savage "Great Australian Bite".
Cloher's perspective on Australian culture and its music industry's navel-gazing and compromises are brutal. Bickering mynah birds and crabs in a bucket define our politics and sad illusions of success.
It's the weight of three albums that make her every truth shake the foundations of the cosy singer-songwriter myth. Well, that and her band, with Barnett at her back, and a voice that's found a new well of deeply personal resonance. "It's exhausting up here on the surface," she sings. Too true.
Topics: Jen Cloher
Melbourne artist realises her potential on debut album.
When Ecca Vandal emerged in 2014 with "White Flag", she appeared to be an artist fully formed. A brash electro-punk anthem complete with striking DIY film clip, it wasn't a question of how good it was, but more where did she come from?
Putting out singles is, of course, a different exercise to releasing a debut album, something not lost on the singer given that she spent a year-and-a-half constructing Ecca Vandal. That the record contains only one previously released song ("End of Time") suggests she resisted the urge to rely on past glories, and a good thing too, for this is a vibrant, dazzling collection of new tunes. Vandal made it clear early on that she wouldn't be boxed in to a certain sound, but the real art here is her ability to fuse multiple genres coherently into each song, as opposed to having the "electro one", the "punk one" and so on. Melody, too, is a going concern, meaning hooks fly thick and fast, be it in the electronic thump of "Future Heroine", the punk guitar rave of "Broke Days, Party Nights" or the stuttering beats of ballad "Cold of the World".
Vandal is an astute lyricist, "Price of Living" taking aim at Australia's offshore detention centres ("Back there I was a lawyer and a mother/Now I'm stuck behind barbed wire"). Only the Garbage-esque rock of "Out on the Inside" feels superfluous to needs – a minor blight on a stunning debut album.
Indie Sydney-siders knock the dust off after a long hiatus.
Having split in 2007, Sydney guitar-pop boffins Hoolahan return to almost the exact same sweet spot they hit with their 1999 debut, King Autumn. From the shoe-gazey opener "The Morning Roll" to lead single "Ev'ry Time You Go", Hoolahan mine a rich heritage of jangling guitars and sweet vocal harmonies. Like the Go-Betweens, Hoolahan place more emphasis on songwriting than having a consistent sound, bouncing confidently between densely-textured bliss-pop, psychedelic experimentation and alt-country twang. While it's not the most cohesive record, Casuarina sounds like talented musos needing to get some great songs off their chest.
Slinky debut from Northern Beaches brotherly duo.
On their debut album, Oli and Louis Leimbach have thrown the kitchen sink of funk, folk and synthy electro at their garrulous, sunny indie pop. The insidious reggae of "Risky Love", pop bounce on "Other Way Round" and deafening echoes of the Strokes on "Can I Be Your Lover" are covered in gooey layers of instrumentation, as barely a moment goes by that isn't polished to a gleaming sheen with horns, strings and playful experimentation. It's all exceptionally pleasant, but it's hard to shake the feeling its heart is being subsumed by its need to prove its worth, even on chest-bursters like "Underground" and "Top Of My List".
In sound and vision, the greying golden god is still on fire.
We carry a flame for lost love. We carry fire to vouchsafe humanity, with all its accumulated wisdom and empathy, through dark days. Robert Plant has a bet each way here, shifting between intense romantic longing ("Season's Song", "Dance With You Tonight") and calling out inhumanity in the savage "New World..."
He referenced the image once before, on the stunning musical watershed of Mighty ReArranger in 2005. But these days are far darker and his mission more urgent at the crossroads of east and west, and at "the dimming of my life" he references wistfully in the dusty swirl of "The May Queen".
That title carries a cheeky glimmer of his past, of course. But his last few albums with the Strange Sensation/Sensational Space Shifters are about kaleidoscopic consolidation, not dry nostalgia: Bron-Yr-Aur and Appalachia, Mali and Morocco fuse seamlessly in this bonfire to incredibly potent effect.
This world spans the rich, slow strings of "A Way With Words" and the title track's mystical twang of djembe and bendir; the terse historical polemic of "Carving Up the World Again… a wall and not a fence" and a majestic duet with Chrissie Hynde on a mellowed rockabilly tune, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain".
Few troubadours alive have this much to carry, let alone do it so lightly. Fifty years since his first album, Plant remains essential.
Smashing Pumpkins head honcho strips back with pleasant results.
Billy Corgan is no stranger to self-indulgence – remember that eight-hour live set inspired by Siddhartha? – so seeing him use his full name on this solo offering sets off the 'pretentious warning' alert. The truth couldn't be more different – this is the most straight forward, stripped-back album of Corgan's career. Accompanied by piano and/or acoustic guitar, the Rick Rubin-helmed Ogilala suffers only from being perfectly pleasant, nothing more, nothing less. "Aeronaut" and "Archer" contain melodies so wistful and beautiful they weaken the knees, but elsewhere Ogilala is notable mainly for hearing Corgan in such raw surroundings, as opposed to its songs.
Sprightly but vanilla electro-pop from arty LA talent.
Given Lawrence Rothman's ongoing experimentation with dazzling and often disturbing video clips and a shape-shifting Bowie-like approach to his own look and style, the Californian's debut LP is surprisingly conventional sonically and musically – a series of upbeat synth-based tracks with roots in 1990s R&B (How To Dress Well, who references the same period more successfully, appears on the so-so "Wolves Still Cry"). In moving away from the adventure of darkly excellent 2013 single "Montauk Fling", Rothman is playing it safe, but his deep, sensuous baritone remains a striking point of difference.
Wordy New Jersey DIY punks deliver storytelling good times.
One of the surprise success stories of wordy, beardy-man-feels punk, the Front Bottoms' easygoing nature belies just how smart, insightful and genuinely moving their ouvre can be. Brian Sella remains strikingly relatable as the everyman with the reedy storytelling voice coughing up sneaky-deep narrative gems like the travelling doubt of "Raining". The plaintive "Trampoline" and charming "Don't Fill Up On Chips" are terrific, but the perky synths on "You Used To Say (Holy Fuck)" and the ponderous "Grand Finale" land awkwardly. But for communal drunken sing-alongs ("Ocean", "Everyone But You") and bud hugs, few do it better.
Spunky diva keeps the energy high, vitriol catchy on seventh album.
Pink was dominating the charts with spunky, real-talking anthems back when today's slow-sad divas were in preschool, and her seventh LP is a reminder of that. The title track and the strummy "Whatever You Want" are vintage Pink, with juicy hooks and pop-rock muscle; "I Am Here" underscores its EDM-powerment message with a gospel choir. Beautiful Trauma's chilled-out middle sags, but "Revenge," her bad-romance duet with Eminem, is an early shot of energy; Max Martin and Shellback's homage to Dr. Dre's skip-step beats may be too on the nose, but Em's rhymes nicely recall a time when even lunatics rode bright hooks.
Indie-rock leaders fail to uncover common ground on collaborative LP.
Her: a master of the mundane, building global recognition on recalled tales of gardening-induced faints and sulky fist-shakes at the depressingly exorbitant state of the Melbourne housing market. Him: less fussed, by everything, nowhere to be but strumming on some stoop in Philadelphia, stoog between fingers. World's apart, quite literally, and while this merger between two of the best modern indie-rock conversationalists might be a marketing wet dream, Lotta Sea Lice lands closer to compromise than collaboration.
In lieu of uncovering commonality across the album's nine tracks, the pair end up sticking to a to-and-fro chat, covering general catch-up topics – from sleep routines ("Let It Go") to social faux pas ("Blue Cheese") to creative approaches ("Over Everything"). Side-by-side the glaring differences of their individual styles emerge – and are ruthlessly diluted. Vile's obfuscated, laconic drawl is exposed in often-cringeworthy clarity, while Barnett's anxious energy and linguistic playfulness are levelled out with a stoned metronomy. The ill-fitting partnership works better on the pair of previously released solo tracks ("Outta the Woodwork" and "Peepin' Tom") which, despite being performed by the other party, sound distinctly less forced. Rare flashes of comfort on a release that's less the sum of its parts but rather two halves awkwardly moulded together.
St. Vincent writes her most together album about falling apart.
Annie Clark's last album in 2014 was both critically lauded and her most commercially successful. And yet the 35-year-old who makes music as St. Vincent was barely holding things together physically, spiritually and emotionally. While Clark is pretty much the opposite of a confessional songwriter, Masseduction is uncharacteristically open and a rare thing – a together album about falling apart.
"I spent a year suspended in air," she sings over the herky-jerky, almost hysterical feel of "Pills", before detailing all the meds she had to take to keep functioning. "New York", on the other hand, is a bewitching piano-based ballad about a city not being what it was now that a significant other has gone. Yet it's not sentimental. How could it be with the killer line "You're the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me"? It's enough to make even the late Lou Reed crack a smile.
Jack Antonoff (Lorde) co-produces and his maximalist pop tendencies are targeted rather than overwhelming – the title track's Prince-meets-Janelle Monae freak-funk; the helicoptering keyboards and shuddering beat of "Sugarboy". Whether she's sweating out a slinky kink-fest ("Savior") or creating a beautiful ode to a difficult relationship with a junkie ("Happy Birthday, Johnny"), Clark hits the head, heart and hips simultaneously.
Lucky 13th album is all of Beck's feelgood summers at once.
Since Midnite Vultures followed Mutations followed Odelay, the radical mood swing from string-soaked acoustic introspection to beat bustin' party central has been a key premise of Beck's discography. Accordingly, after the ravishing autumnal down of 2014's Morning Phase, Colors is a whole new summer high.
"I'm So Free" might be his most irresistible mash of experimental sonics, rubber-lipped rap and classic grunge guitar chorus hook ever. That's the third killer track on the trot on an album that almost hyperventilates in pursuit of the ultimate endorphin kick.
Mad genius pop producer Greg Kurstin (Sia, the Shins, Tegan and Sara) brings an extra sugar rush to the table, retro-tastic in the flagrant Beatles pastiche of "Dear Life", punching a hole in the mirror ball of "Dreams" then floating into the futuristic ether of "Wow".
Subject wise, the hedonistic gist of "Seventh Heaven" and "Up All Night" sums up the best part of Beck's headspace, but there's enough intrigue in his lyrics to keep the brain in gear even as blood rushes to the dancing organs. In the closing track, "Fix Me", he finally exhales in the album's sole slow track, an oceanic ebb designed to segue, perhaps, into his next morning phase. For the rest of this cycle, though, get ready to party like it's 2019.
Has Adam Sandler become a lyric writer for the Darkness?
The Darkness have never been a band for serious lyrical sentiment, but their transition into full-blown Carry On territory is complete with their fifth album. Musically it's all top notch glam rock fare, the AC/DC swagger of "Solid Gold" butting up against the pop-rock mastery of "Happiness" and steaming riffing of "Japanese Prisoner of Love", but Justin Hawkins' lyrics push so far into joke territory that the album may as well be filed under "comedy" – witness the opening line of ballad "Stampede of Love": "You walked in and the ground shook/Can't believe how much food you took".
Darwin soul singer charts new heights in cool on debut.
An A.B. Original collaborator and one half of electro-soul duo Sietta, Caiti Baker draws a heady through-line from Bettye Swann to contemporary peers including Ngaiire and Son Little, remaking soul music in her own image. Zinc harnesses brassy mid-century big band and R&B cool ("I Won't Sleep") to filigreed neo-soul texture ("Dreamers"). The album's most intoxicating tracks sample roughcast recordings of Baker's bluesman father laying down guitar licks on a smartphone; Baker and producers Michael Hohnen and James Mangohig welding the dawn of popular song to engrossing contemporary production. Each piece is unique, each uniquely wonderful.
Goth-metal veteran gets back to his shock-rock roots on 10th album.
Two years after releasing the surprisingly mature goth-metal offering The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson has returned to straight-ahead shock. "I write songs to fight and to fuck to," he sings on "Je$u$ Cri$i$," from his 10th LP, over spiky, electro-hard-rock riffs that occasionally recall his glammy Mechanical Animals period. That old black magic often sounds forced, but he makes up for it with a few more melancholy tracks, the best of which, "Saturnalia," is an eight-minute ode to orgiastic revelry that feels like a long-lost descendant of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead."