British folkie returns to her roots on effortlessly enchanting sixth album.
Laura Marling gives the impression of being more comfortable when she's not talking about herself. Still just 27 and onto her sixth album, she's famously reticent in interviews and has always been an obtuse songwriter, though she dropped her guard on 2015's Short Movie, inspired by her youth-reclaiming hiatus in California. It was, she said, the first time she'd tried to write from her own perspective rather than the "something other" that comes more naturally to her, something she's returned to in this effortless collection of songs concerned with femininity and named after an old tattoo of Marling's, an abbreviated line from Virgil's epic Latin poem Aeneid, translated as "always a woman".
She focuses on an unknown muse throughout, positioning herself as a friend (and possibly a lover) prone to startling observations such as "Wouldn't you die to know how you're seen?/Are you getting away with who you're trying to be?" set to sinewy strumming, mellifluous melodies and vocals to match. See "Wild Fire" for the most breathtaking confluence of all four qualities, a deceptively simple ode to a woman just out of reach in Marling's best, most sweetly bruised vocal performance to date.
Off-kilter deviations keep things interesting – the smoky, swaggering "Soothing" might be a Roisin Murphy offcut – and producer Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, Kid Rock and Lana Del Rey) provides an unobtrusive, swelling backdrop, from the sun-drenched strings of "The Valley" to the barely perceptible clip and plinking piano of "Next Time".
While Short Movie saw Marling embrace electric guitars, Semper Femina is in the main pure folk. But Marling is adept at making the traditional sound sublime, as per sad-eyed lament "Always This Way", which sees her in unusually sentimental form; "stare at the phone try to carry on, but I have made my mistake". In finale "Nothing, Not Nearly" she lays herself bare again, couched in bluesy organ twang. "The only thing I learnt in a year/Where I didn't smile once, not really/Is nothing matters more than love/...not nearly." Elsewhere, she defiantly clings to a version of femininity not hitched to frills and fragility, recalling a rough-and-tumble outdoorsy childhood. "Well, you are wild and/You must remember/You are wild/Chasing stones." Championing a woman's right (and her prerogative as an artist) to be whatever she damn well wants, in "Nouel" Marling elaborates on that line from Aeneid: "a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing" and owns it throughout the record, abandoning the American twang she affected on Short Movie as she flits between spoken word and celestial lilt. In reverting to "something other", Marling sounds like she's reconnected with herself.
Topics: Laura Marling
Former 'finger frontman serves a bittersweet breakfast.
How brutal? The sequel to last year's Civil Dusk stutters to life like a sudden wake-up in a prison cell. "Shed My Skin" is a shudder of old demons and "How Many Times?" finds its way into a darker place again. "America (Glamour and Prestige)" is as brutally dismissive as the title implies and "Fighting For Air" seals a broad theme of grasping at straws of redemption in troubled times. The remedy is in Nick DiDia's full, warm, woodgrain production with crafty echoes of classic Seventies Americana from Dylan to CSN, and in songcraft strong enough to warrant the twin-album gambit.
Compelling debut from Cali alt-country singer-songwriter.
"I grew up my father's daughter; he said, don't take no shit from no one," sings Jade Jackson on "Aden", before a wounded fiddle slices open the track's careworn guitars. It's an apt opening salvo for an LP that occupies the sweet spot triangulated by the brash defiance of Lydia Loveless, Nikki Lane in full Western mode (locomotive shuffle "Troubled End"), and the world-weary self-affirmation of Tift Merritt ("Gilded"). Punchy barroom drums and ragged guitar textures ("Good Time Gone") flatter producer Mike Ness (Social Distortion), while Jackson's easy poeticism and vaporous, laconic delivery shine on nostalgia piece "Back When" and "Finish Line". It's a consummate debut.
Melbourne alt-country stylists return with mesmerising third LP.
In four years, the twin songwriting force of Luke Sinclair and Nick O'Mara has matured to a lustrous finish. Richer guitar textures proliferate here, while Sinclair's inflection is charged with uniquely Australian pathos throughout (the title track). There's freewheeling West Coast country-rock in "Nowhere (You Wanna Run)", vital Seventies roots-rock in "Night Wheels", and breathless poignancy in "Dreamer". Lyrically, a minor theme centred on modest hopes and ambitions thwarted casts an affecting light over proceedings ("By Now"). RBE are in good company with the likes of local alt-country luminaries Halfway and Tracy McNeil.
Strange and wonderful neo-folk visions from NZ singer.
Produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey) and featuring turns from Perfume Genius, Party is a mesmerising follow-up to Harding's 2014 debut. A less demonstrative heir to Kate Bush, Harding inhabits nine jaw-droppingly disparate vocal incarnations, delivering crystalline slivers of enigmatic, fragmentary poeticism amid delicate whorls of finger-picking and expressive piano. Childlike innocence is wryly counterpointed with sensuality in the title-track, while Harding summons profound hurt in "Horizon". Save for "I'm So Sorry", which bears the stamp of established collaborator Marlon Williams, it's an album of incomparable quality.
British outfit plunder darkness on debut album.
Hailing from East London, Pumarosa dub their sound "industrial spiritual", and it's not a bad description – the cold, The Cure-meets-Depeche-Mode-in-a-bar-owned-by-Interpol vibe of songs such as "Priestess" is offset by a melodic warmth and energy that prevents the album from veering too far into the insular. Frontwoman Isabel Muñoz-Newsome is a captivating presence, calling to mind a mix of PJ Harvey and Johnette Napolitano, her voice washing over the choppy guitar work of Jamie Neville. Witness the swirling climax of "Honey", a sonic freakout that will leave you breathless.
Impressively heavy debut from Sydney punks.
Just in case you had any doubts where Bare Bones take their cues from, their bio cites LA punks the Bronx and Every Time I Die as influences. Which is fine, but on first listen to opener "Thick As Thieves" it would be hard to guess this wasn't a Bronx record. By the second track though, these Sydney brutalists establish their own take on death rock. Songs like "Deathbed Visions" are punchy and memorable, the playing is tight and muscular, and Bare Bones shift gears regularly enough that Bad Habits sticks after a first listen, rather than being merely a moshpit soundtrack. This could be a hit record of the genre.
The contrarian pop veteran's predictably odd all-star album.
Forty-seven years after his debut album, Runt, Todd Rundgren's latest fuses his pop-wizard side and his studio-contrarian side more than usual, pulling an impressively odd array of stars into his vortex – from Trent Reznor (the android-apocalypse "Deaf Ears") to soulstress Betty Lavette (the bleary electro-hustle "Naked & Afraid") to Robyn (the Eighties tearjerker "That Could've Been Me"). Inconsistency is like a muse here, but he seems to work best with Seventies peers like Joe Walsh, Daryl Hall and Donald Fagen, whose smooth Donald Trump parody "Tin Foil Hat" is a timely highlight.
Victorian indie whiz kids' impressively imaginative debut.
The (musical) genus of APES ought to be easy to figure, but their debut evolves through stages of super smart indie pop to be marvellously hard to pin down. There's smoky, slinky, dark indie-electro pop on "Filter", a spiralling space rock rush on "Dimension" and wonky indie-funk on "If You Want It". Temper Trap have spent the past five years trying to write "Fourth Point", and the scuzzy new wave of "Tired Face" is harder to shake than herpes. The LP almost loses momentum, but is a playful, engaging record that'll have you guessing and impressed at almost every turn. Without thrown turds or anything.
Long-serving indie band go guitar-free on album 16.
John Darnielle has finally put down the guitar. And while the absence of an acoustic – once their sole instrument – is a surprising self-set challenge, little else has changed, with the now-quartet opting for a single subject focus, much like on 2015's wrestling ode, Beat the Champ. Goth subculture is just the jumping-off point, however, with Darnielle diverting to D.B. Cooper conspiracies, debt payment plans and more across the LP's 12 episodes, all of which lean heavier than ever on the other fourth-quarter career identifier – compositional prominence. Here, mostly jazz-spiked and hook-led scores serve not simply as lyrical support, but equal companion.
Melbourne blues-folk singer-guitarist releases second album.
Barefoot Wonderland is right: Bernasconi is so laidback here you can see the soles of those bare feet. While kicking back he's picking his way through Kentucky mountains folk and lowland blues on his Harmony Sovereign acoustic or Dan Robinson parlour guitar, picking up a 1936 Gibson or maybe a Martin 7-string along the way. Luckily for people who wouldn't know a Gibson from a gibbon, Bernasconi can write a tune almost as well as he plays this array. "Carrie Swoon" is light and amused, and the instrumental "Box Of Birds" skips along, but there's wistfulness in "Melatonin"'s bent strings.
'Big Country' dialled down on ZBB's seventh studio release.
Zac Brown Band have throttled down. Eschewing, for the most part, the glitzy sheen that's slathered over most 'big country', Brown and Co. employ a rougher, grittier edge, in the process slowing things and placing the emphasis squarely on the songwriting. Brown's songwriting has never been subtle, and despite being full of heart, it's what lets the record down, the by-the-numbers writing watery in comparison with the extremely talented band (Jimmy De Martini's fiddle playing in particular), which save Welcome Home from becoming just another 'American big country album'.
Indie-punk relishes in creative freedom – a little too much.
From no-fi bedroom noise to Fat Wreck Chords hangover, from indie labels to majors and back to self-released. Such is Nathan Williams' decade-long parabola path, arriving at album six near where it all began, with the experimental, cassette-warped vignettes that were stuffed between songs on Wavves' debut demos now serving as the backbone of his adopted paint-by-power-punk approach. At best, these shards of shitgaze and cut-and-paste weirdness recall his early work's raw disposability ("No Shade", "Million Enemies"), while the flipside, such as the near-untouched sample on "Come to the Valley", are borderline unlistenable.
Soft-focus pop bridging the Pacific Ocean.
Sydney native Hazel English is ready for her close-up. Now based in Oakland, California, she's bundled last year's debut Never Going Home EP with a newer EP made in collaboration with Day Wave's Jackson Phillips. It's a tidy introduction to both her stylised sweetness and soft-focus dream-pop, warmly evoking the Drums and Wild Nothing. Airy vocals and delicate, chiming guitars thread through nearly every one of these 11 tracks, striking an evergreen balance between breezy uplift and melancholy undertow. The songs can sound a bit too much alike, but otherwise the sparkling ingredients are all there.
Melbourne punks up the ante, craft their masterwork.
Clowns' third LP is an intricate document of the shape punk finally came in. Gleefully brutal riffs sit side-by-side with melodicism, patience, countless filthy prog-punk moments and insouciant throat-shredding. Nine tracks in 43 minutes bucks traditional punk standards, and it flows impressively through "Like a Knife At a Gunfight" and the muscly "Pickle", calmly picking its spots to deliver nuggets of pure punk-rock energy like "Destroy the Evidence". By the time Lucid Again closes out with the epic punk jam "Not Coping", it's hard to argue against Clowns having created one of the best rock – not ‘just' punk – albums of the year.