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.
Topics: Ron Sexsmith
A crisp remaster and discs of bonus material will make you miss the pop auteur even more.
A legendary control freak, Prince's business instincts were always idiosyncratic, from scrawling "SLAVE" on his face and changing his name to an icon (to protest his Warner Brothers contract) to his New Power Generation pop-up shop in Minneapolis (for the year or so it lasted on Lyndale Avenue, I always remember finding it empty – when it opened at all – save its clerks). In some cases, time proved him prescient: Frank Ocean and others have refined the pop-up, while Prince's CD giveaways and streaming service holdouts are now standard marketing strategies. As for sitting on decades worth of "vault recordings" of still-unknown quantity and quality, the jury is out, and it's impossible to know if Prince would have ever green-lighted the release of the early-to-mid-Eighties outtakes included in both the two-disc Deluxe Edition and four-disc Deluxe Expanded Edition of Purple Rain, his megahit soundtrack LP to the film of the same name. Perhaps it's best to take them as a gift from an artist you will miss even more after hearing them.
Billed as the Prince-supervised "2015 Paisley Park Remaster" of Purple Rain, the reissue of the original album may or may not be the same mix posted in 2015 to Tidal – comparing the latter stream with a new one provided by the label, it's hard to discern much difference. Nevertheless, it's a fabulously crisp mix of one of modern pop's greatest LPs. Details sparkle: the string flourishes on "Take Me With You" and "Purple Rain"; the finger-snap on "When Doves Cry," just after dude coos about "you and I engaged in a kiss"; the actual kiss around the three-minute mark of "Baby I'm a Star."
The bonus disc titled From the Vault & Previously Unreleased opens with "The Dance Electric," an apocalyptic 11-minute party jam with a churning machine-funk groove and Syndrum sequences that mirror West African talking-drum salvos. "Good morning, children" begins the Purple Proctor, echoing the "Dearly beloved" intro of "Let's Go Crazy." He instructs his charges to "Listen to the rhythm of your soul," and that they'd "better love each other," invoking Babylon and the "light of truth" along the way.
"Love and Sex" – unrelated to the Sheila E song of the same – refracts elements of "Take Me With You" in a galloping mix of Prince tropes, decked out in squishy DX-7 synths, "sh-boom"s and "sha-la-la-la"s. A 12-minute version of "Computer Blue" is exploded from the album version with an eight-minute jazz-funk-rock coda full of over-the top guitar alongside trippy Prince narration and a Siri-like cyborg (likely a mix of Revolution bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) scolding a "poor lonely computer/It's time you learned 'love' and 'lust'/They both have four letters, but they're entirely different words."
"Electric Intercourse" is a falsetto ballad grounded in florid church piano chords, guilded with synths and driven with programmed drums – another digital sex metaphor that maybe hits its target a bit too squarely. More interesting is "Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden," a cleaned-up medley of two songs recorded in '84 at his 26th birthday concert. "Our Destiny" features marvelous orchestral framing, with lead vocals by Lisa Coleman; then Prince comes in slinging memories ("This is the house where we used to play"). It's a taste of what his golden-era music might have sounded like if he'd shared the spotlight more often.
"Possessed," about being crazy in love, has a melody which snakes through fluttering harp notes towards a breakdown that never quite arrives, peppered by a processed vocal display worthy of The Exorcist. "Have you ever had the feeling that someone was tearing you up into little bitty pieces and contemplating selling you for a jigsaw puzzle?" sings a chorus of demonic Princes. Absolutely, dudes.
Befitting its title, "Wonderful Ass" might be the most purely satisfying of the vault tracks: a chipper, silly funk-strut duet between Prince and Lisa Coleman, who were at the time dating the twin Melvoin sisters (both of whom shared the titular attribute, according to Coleman). The bandmates rap-rhyme "educate," "negotiate," "communicate," "litigate," "interrogate" and "masturbate" because, well, that's what they do.
"Velvet Kitty Kat" sounds like a solo Prince demo: lo-fi, slightly muffled, with a basic drum track and simple guitar. Its charm is its brevity and DIY simplicity, a rarity for Prince at this stage. "Katrina's Paper Dolls," meanwhile, is something of a mystery, sketching a story of a lonely girl who stays home and makes her own company, literally. It might be about Prince's protégée Vanity (real name Denise Katrina Matthews) of Vanity 6. Or it might just be an interesting metaphor for a guy who made his own company similarly, by shaping artists like Vanity.
Opening with finger cymbals and what sounds like an oud, the outrageous "We Can Fuck" gets straight to the point, then makes it for 10 minutes, putting a Middle Eastern spin on his sexual revolution over a slow funk jam as X-rated as any official Prince release to date. It's followed by "Father's Song," the piano meditation written, or in any case co-written, by Prince's dad, John Nelson. A fragment appeared in semi-autobiographical context in the film Purple Rain, and its melody was used as the main motif of "Computer Blue"'s back end. Here, the piano melody is teased out and ghosted with synth, becoming an easy-listening psychedelic coda to this scrapbook culled from what may stand as Prince's hottest streak.
The Deluxe Expanded set includes a DVD of a 1985 Syracuse show that's circulated in bootleg bits on YouTube for a while, as well as the Single Edits & B-Sides disc. The latter gathers worthy flipsides, including the two-cigarettes-and-a-broken-heart anthem "17 Days" (Prince's second-best lyrical application of the word "rain"); the bizarre steam-kettle space-gospel ballad "God"; the aching, banana daiquiri-soused lover's requiem "Another Lonely Christmas"; and the mighty seven-minute "Make Love Not War Erotic City Come Alive" mix of "Erotic City" – which reminds us that, as long as we are alive, "We can funk until the dawn," which is good advice always.
Accomplished but derivative fare from 29-year-old folk-rocker.
Kevin Morby's previous three LPs have proven him to be an elegant and often moving songwriter; City Music confirms this talent, but continues his wilful refusal to forge his own unique voice. Just as behemoths Dylan and Cohen informed Singing Saw (2016), these laconic songs are firmly in thrall to Lou Reed. A nocturnal, hazy feel results, with Morby's vocals echoing Reed's weary drawl, while the liveliest moments come with the impressive title track, with its playful changing tempo, and the catchy "Caught In My Eye". City Music is well constructed and mature, yet one wonders how many albums of homage are necessary before Morby's own identity is solidified.
Irish boys shift sights to Seventies new wave, power-pop.
When this Irish quartet emerged five years ago as teenagers, they were in the thrall of Sixties English blues-rock – now they've fast-forwarded through their record collections to the late Seventies. The influence of Squeeze's knotty wordplay and new wave/power pop is obvious, especially on "Grin and Bear It", which is virtually a tribute to 1979's "Up The Junction", while "Turnin' My Back" bolts the riff from the Only Ones' "Another Girl Another Planet" onto Joe Jackson's punchy "Got the Time". The smudged fingerprints of Elvis Costello and the Jam are also evident. All fine reference points, but a little more borrowing and a little less theft might be nice next time.
There's a lot to like about this young producer's sonic ambition.
Sydney producer Ned East has built a sizeable following in his short existence as Kilter. His debut LP delivers a swag of grit-tinged, electro jams made or marred by vocalists either scene-stealing (Yaw Faso, Woodes) or snooze-worthy (Pip Norman, Tyne-James Organ). Kilter's wheelhouse is big sawtooth-wave synths – it's how he uses that familiar EDM-blare as an unlikely base to explore myriad genres that makes him interesting. Whether it's the dancehall grind of "Count On Me", welding sirens to acoustic guitar, or the cinematic, jungle-inflected gurn of "Badai", Kilter shines best when bold.
Life-affirming folk-pop from Byron Bay transplant.
Reprising the rootsy folk textures of 2013's I'm a Bird and major touchstone the Waifs ("Jolene") while adding unexpected detail – including steel pan parts ("Hammer & Love") – to the mix, Buckingham's latest is an optimistic album of abundant, easy charm. These are winsome songs delivered with empathic delicacy, adding up to something like an album-length mantra. Buckingham recalls a conversational Kasey Chambers on "Living in the Dark", while kitschy roots-pop jaunt "Little Old Train" deploys kindred spirit Fanny Lumsden to winning effect. Although relentless affirmation is apt to wear thin, The Water is a consistently likeable release.
Brooklyn trio carve out their own path with anxious garage punk.
B Boys don't believe in straight lines. Theirs is a world of crisscrossing guitar and zigzagging rhythm that hurtles incessantly onwards into a gurgling whirlpool of nerves. It's anxiety imbued with sunshine ("Reminder"), paranoia parading as introspection ("Energy") and a neat reduction of life in Trump's America, where the personal and political intersect at whim. "This body encases all my fears," the Brooklyn trio warn us on their 'anthem', a prologue of sorts to a record of urgent quasi-solipsistic garage punk. While they are indebted to Parquet Courts, on Dada B Boys manage to carve out their own oblique path.
Aussie folk duo shine on heartfelt debut.
Steve Grady and Josh Rennie-Hynes formed the Ahern Brothers during a U.S. road trip last year – a creation story writ in the 'redwood range' of centrepiece "Today's the First Time". The duo's vocal harmonies and careworn acoustic guitars shiver with timeless folk feeling from the opening bars of "Comb That River". Less tightly-wound than the Milk Carton Kids, the pair reference both Gundagai ("Years On the Run", which suggests an unplugged Louvin Brothers) and Melbourne, further dissolving the aloofness and remove so much trad-folk entails. A mesmerising contemporary folk recording: restrained, pithy, and pure.
Electro-pop and hip-hop get mashed up.
John Gourley trashed a whole album of songs for his Portland band when he discovered his dad's 1969 ticket stub to Woodstock and decided to let his freak flag fly. You can hear that spirit on opener "Number One", which throws blues-folk tropes about freedom and feeling like a motherless child over chugging keyboards and a rolling beat. And single "Feel It Still" is unstoppable, its plunking bass line and synthesised horn blasts pushing lines such as "I'm a rebel just for kicks now, I've been feeling it since 1966 now". But Woodstock gets lost in a hall of mirrors as Danger Mouse and Mike D tweak vocals and mash up electro-pop and hip-hop.
Cascading fuzz pop with welcome subtlety and depth.
Following a pair of winsome EPs, Brisbane's Major Leagues pull together a full album of sun-warped indie pop. Anna Davidson's sweetly understated vocals evoke the breathy melancholy of Alvvays and Camera Obscura, while gossamer harmonies and keyboard lines mingle with chiming jangle and woozy fuzz. "It Was Always You" is a luxuriously dreamy centrepiece, and "Mess Up" exudes slacker beach vibes. Yet there's a dark undertow to the lyrics, plus other subtle touches like the sleepy Mascisian guitar wrangling on "Swimming Out". Especially lovely are the horns welling up on "How Will the Heart Know", showcasing Jonathan Boulet's swirling production.
Long Beach rapper embraces the electronic avant-garde on second full-length.
Vince Staples made his name as a first-person documentarian, penning vivid narratives about the Long Beach gang life that loomed over his childhood summers. For second album Big Fish Theory, he moves from the past to the present, writing an open-hearted avant-garde dance record that takes stock of his current loves, victories, politics and – most noticeably – interest in the cutting edge of electronic music. Think Kanye's EDM-fuelled Graduation for a future-minded, Spotify-fried, genre-free generation.
His most notable new groove is that of 2-step, the stuttering, shuffling beats brought to pop prominence in the early 2000s by British artists like Craig David, but eventually mutated by contemporary electronic vanguardists like Disclosure, Burial and SBTRKT. On songs like "Crabs in a Bucket," "Homage" and "Rain Come Down," Los Angeles beatmaker Zach Sekoff gives Staples a jittery, London-inspired base where he flows in that funky, late-Nineties way when rappers were compared to James Brown. On these songs Staples is just as quick to spit Afro-centric politics ("I'm the blood on the leaves, I'm the nose in the Sphinx") as he is uncut rap bluster ("Where the fuck is my Grammy/Supermodels wearin' no panties") and pure pop sentiment ("Just lose yourself in the music"). Sure, it's less focused than the reportage of 2015's Summertime '06, but the varying emotions and outlooks mark a full step forward into becoming a multi-layered, genre-crossing, emotion-spilling pop auteur in the vein of West, Drake or Childish Gambino.
And the beats are some of the most forward-thinking in EDM, hip-hop or otherwise. The two tracks by Sophie, the London producer loosely associated with the cartoonish pixel-splurts of the PC Music label, toot and parp and clamour like CGI updates of Raymond Scott's cartoon jazz, a cacophony of clanking pots-and-pan electronics that could only be "pop" in an alternate dimension – or, if America catches up to Vince Staples.
Wilco leader takes a lo-fi rummage around in the rearview.
Together At Last is the first of three acoustic albums exhuming the Jeff Tweedy songbook. Anyone familiar with the Wilco band-leader could anticipate it: heavy-lidded observationals sung in a stagger over a gently thumbed acoustic. Across 11 low-key tunes there are no revelations here. That's OK – Wilco's existential anthem "Via Chicago" is infallible; Loose Fur's "Laminated Cat" gorgeous; and "Hummingbird" shows there's still power in Tweedy's dog-eared voice. But there are moments of background snooze, too; "Lost Love" sounds like the once ornery songwriter kicking into caretaker mode. Or maybe just clearing his hard drive.
The Drums reduced to their wonderful, winsome essence.
Across three albums and nearly a decade of zippy, melancholic pop songs, US four-piece the Drums have finally whittled to one: founding songwriter and frontman, Jonny Pierce. Not that you'd notice. Long responsible for the majority of the Drums' recordings, Abysmal Thoughts is the DIY manifesto Pierce finally gets to own.
It's another reverb drenched collection of addictive guitar-synth pop, by an author now expert at couching his woes in gilded pop exteriors. (And still with fair debt to the Smiths). But there's been trouble since third record, 2014's Encyclopedia. Pierce split with his husband, as well as with co-founding bandmate Jacob Graham. Abysmal Thoughts is a document of the ensuing self-examination. "How do I say goodbye to something I love so much/This boy I cradled in my heart?" he pines in a typically wounded sigh on "If All We Share (Means Nothing)". But Pierce never mopes, instead harnessing the drama of emotional turmoil to energise his music.
Pierce's production benefits from the same focus. The dubby, synth sub-bass that burbles under opening earworm "Mirror"; a pedal steel-whine haunting "Under the Ice"; the goopy analogue synth in "Your Tenderness" – these parcels freshen the Drums' already boundless pop smarts. Abysmal Thoughts might find Pierce at the end of both his band and tether, but the result is a sweet unshackling.
Local post-punk quartet aim big, and deliver, on album three.
Sydney post-punks Mere Women say their third full-length is positioned as "an alternative view of the female experience", with consideration given to social and physical isolation, not just economic inequalities. An ambitious aim, yet boldly met by an across-the-board dynamic boost of both the band's mathy anxiousness and haunting synth surrounds. Better still, vocalist Amy Wilson wrestles free from her all-too-often companion role, and here her striking one-liners leap from the desolate, backwater scenes with a confidence and clarity that further delivers on the album’s thematic focus.
Gossip singer impresses on her debut solo LP.
"We could always play it safe/ But that's no fun," Beth Ditto teases on "We Could Run". As Gossip's enigmatic leader, Ditto emboldened the group's zigzag evolution from garage-punk to disco-pop, and that adventurous spirit remains intact on Fake Sugar. A record about love in all its gnarly forms, Ditto is overcome with desire on retro cut "Fire"; indulges obsession on Eighties torch ballad "Oh My God"; and questions her lover's gaze over the disco funk of "Do You Want Me". Fake Sugar is Ditto in all her forms: some perfect, some flawed. But that may just be the point.