Rock's enduring romantic in entrancing return to form on 15th LP.
It would be unfair to regard Ryan Adams' excursions into emotive 1980s-inspired rock on 2014's self-titled LP as anything but sincere. After all, he was aged six to 16 during that decade, and it's only natural that the likes of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and his beloved Bruce Hornsby made a meaningful impact on this now 42-year-old songwriting phenomenon.
Yet Ryan Adams, while highly listenable, lacked a certain intangible quality – that impassioned, mournful urgency with which his more unpolished, troubadour-ish albums brim. Prisoner sees the savage romantic heart of this unpredictable artist return, whilst maintaining that MOR sheen in its production. This is, in short, his most original album in years, and on songs like the exquisite "To Be Without You" and "Breakdown", the unmistakable melodic warmth that was in short supply on the more clinical Ryan Adams is back.
Adams says that this record "saved his life". Looking past the cliché, this is perhaps an indirect reference to his divorce from Mandy Moore, an ordeal that brings a certain context to many of these songs. "Every night is longer than before/ Nothing really matters anymore" he sings on "To Be Without You", undoubtedly the album's conceptual centrepiece as well as its musical highpoint, evoking Sweet Baby James-era James Taylor. That's about as far as it goes in terms of any acoustic feel, while he lurches towards a more muscular Replacements-like sound on "Anything I Say To You Now" and "We Disappear".
Most songs, however, manage the significant trick of tastefully combining the solemn balladry with the soaring alt-rock, arriving at a tuneful, melancholic jangle that recalls Adams' brilliant Love Is Hell of 2004 – most successfully on the title track.
That is not to say there aren't songs that seem somewhat adrift. Both "Outbound Train" and "Doomsday" meander without any robustness of arrangement or prettiness of melody, while occasionally Adams' singing takes on a certain throatiness, a rasp, that compared to the gorgeously rich vocal timbre of earlier records, is a little lifeless.
Despite those minor shortcomings, there is a compelling atmosphere of crisis throughout, balanced by a cathartic sense of resignation, which suggests Adams is not being flippant in claiming that making Prisoner saved his life. Lyrically, it even rivals his other great break-up record, Heartbreaker (2000), for emotional rawness. Indeed, he has not been as direct as this in the expression of his own heartache since that seminal album, yet his vague imagery and the expression of a relatable sadness ensure ambiguity and a universality of sentiment. It is to his endless credit that he can, more than 20 years into his mercurial career, still make the brutality of lost love a fruitful source of art.
Topics: Ryan Adams
Perth oddballs ramp up the rhythms – and songwriting.
Methyl Ethel find more focus here than on their 2015 debut. Producer James Ford bolsters frontman Jake Webb's increasingly danceable vision, from gleaming hooks ("L'Heure des Sorcières") to percolating synths ("Drink Wine"). The combination of funky production and spacey falsetto can evoke Broken Bells, but Webb has stepped up his songwriting enough to stand on his own. "Ubu" is a worthy entry in the pantheon of songs lamenting a subject's haircut, and other tracks balance entrancing mantras with lively contrast just as well. A lingering creepiness haloes all the catchiness too, as in the excellent "No. 28".
Twenty-five years into their career, the Waifs go long with a double album.
It's been 25 years since the Waifs busted out of a dusty Kombi on the Western Australian coastline to become one of the nation's most-successful folk bands, and now is as good a time as any to take a breath and reflect. Ironbark is the Waifs' celebration: of their endurance, of their relationships, of their deep and unwavering love for their fanbase. As befits a 25-year celebration, it unfurls languidly over two discs and 25 tracks – but don't mistake Ironbark for an intimidating listen. Rather, it is blissfully unhurried and comfortable, the pure distillation of the grown-up folk that the Waifs have been gently perfecting for a quarter of a century.
There are moments of utter loveliness (the wistful "Long Way From Home" and "Shiny Apple") and darkness too (the timely subject matter of "Syria"). After 25 years together, the strength of Vicki, Donna, and Josh's relationship is palpable, and for the first time ever they join all their vocals on the twisting opener and title track.
Releasing a double album is ambitious and fraught with danger, and where Ironbark fails to satisfy is for the same reason most fail: there is simply an excess of filler tracks. Their desire to stretch to 25 tracks is understandable, but Ironbark probably could have been served better if pared back to a single disc.
Carolina Chocolate Drops mainstay delivers sophomore solo album.
"Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you," urges virtuosic North Carolina vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist Rhiannon Giddens. Where debut Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015) saw Giddens reimagining the songs of towering U.S. female artists from Odetta to Dolly Parton, this predominantly original follow-up centres on the African-American experiences that underpin and inform American music: from 19th Century slave narratives and the Civil Rights movement (Richard Fariña-penned Gospel-soul entry "Birmingham Sunday"), to Ferguson and beyond (smouldering R&B tune "Better Get it Right the First Time").
Aside from some bold and brassy moments (slinky Delta dance tune "Hey Bébé"), it's an often-brooding counterpoint to the string-band jaunts and rambles of CCD landmark Genuine Negro Jig (2010) – always rich and resonant, Giddens' old-time banjo parts are frequently urgent and ominous ("Julie"). Vocally, Giddens is a typically mesmerising presence throughout, proving a soulful stand-in for Mavis Staples in a deft take on the Staple Singers' locomotive 1965 anthem "Freedom Highway". Freedom Highway is an immersive wellspring of era-defining sounds drawn up and into the fraught light of 21st Century racial consciousness.
A solid debut from an inspired heavy collaboration.
Members of the Melvins and At the Drive-In felt so enamoured with the vocal stylings of Teri Gender Bender, frontwoman of Mexican band Le Butcherettes, that they formed this supergroup just so they could work together. It's no surprise, then, that Gender Bender's vocals are the focus on this riff-heavy album. TGB is a force of nature, an ungodly blend of Courtney Love, Kate Bush and Joan Jett, and her prickly girl-power anthems sound even more powerful with the masculine sludge of the Melvins backing her. Crystal Fairy aren't as groundbreaking as Le Butcherettes, but neither are they standard punk-fare. A solid intro to what could be a great band.
Fourth LP from Sydney rappers tackles the big issues.
In nine years Horrorshow have grown from earnest young hip-hop prodigies to veteran performers, and Bardo State reflects the confidence that comes with experience. Single "Push" is as big and sincere as they've ever been, but tracks like "Non-Stop" and the menacing "Ceiling Fan" reveal a fresh swagger and some serious One Day crew vibes. Guests like Omar Musa, Turquoise Prince and teenager Taj Ralph are only a few of the collaborators Horrorshow have brought into the mix but the set is stacked with talent, and on a record that's about transitioning between states they help elevate Horrorshow's sound to a higher plane.
Duo demonstrate sonic daring on confident second album.
The temptation when writing a follow-up to a successful album – in Holy Holy's case, their 2015 debut When the Storms Would Come – is to repeat the formula to consolidate that success. In keeping with the chaotic James Drinkwater painting that adorns the cover of their second record, Holy Holy have chosen a far more interesting approach.
There are enough familiar signposts to their past not to alienate their fanbase, but they're largely derived from inherently organic elements the band can do little to change: Tim Carroll's placid, soothing voice, for example, and the way in which it works with Oscar Dawson's fluid guitar work. Largely, though, Paint sees the duo embellishing the at-times pastoral sonic landscape of their debut, incorporating vague R&B elements ("The Message"), strident pop-rock (the wonderfully catchy "Elevator" and "Amateurs"), progressive rock ("Send My Regards") and pure Eighties soft-pop ("True Lovers"). That Paint pulls this off while still sounding like the work of one band, let alone the same band that released their debut less than two years ago, is a testament to the songwriting prowess of Dawson and Carroll. Clearly they have an inherent understanding about what Holy Holy is, and more importantly, what it can be.
Experimental pop maverick pushes boundaries.
David Longstreth has always been experimental, but this is a quantum leap from indie pop. Opener "Keep Your Name" serves notice – puttering beat, sparse piano and downtuned vocals that sound like a soul singer slipping down a rabbit hole of regret. Longstreth digs deep into his personal relationships, from initial attraction ("Up In Hudson") to bliss ("Little Bubble") to breakdown ("Death Spiral"). Fluttering woodwinds, shivering strings and parping brass wrap around glitchy beats, and although Longstreth bends and stretches his voice into weird and wonderful shapes, he reveals more soul than ever before.
Pennsylvania gutter-dwellers team up with Lydia Lunch.
Fittingly for a band named after soiled pants, Pissed Jeans have never made music for the masses, and on album number five their apocalyptic dirge is just as dense and impenetrable, thanks to input from producer and no-wave queen Lydia Lunch. Why Love Now is menacing and plodding with driving bass and spazzy vocals reminiscent of the Jesus Lizard or Killdozer. PJ are still dealing with the same themes of flawed masculinity as they were on earlier LPs like Hope For Men, but songs like "Ignorecam" show them moving on to themes of technophobia. Pissed Jeans are one of the only bands still making music like this, and it's an ugly, exhilarating thrill.
Americana stayer mines the past on first solo album in 18 years.
A departure from 2011's rustic nu-grass LP with Union Station, Paper Airplane, the 14th studio outing from Krauss revisits the classic songs of bygone decades. Windy City takes in the broad sweep of the Nashville sound's ascendency – bold piano lines, strings, chittering pedal steel, and well-deployed BVs from Jamey Johnson and others – while reprising country/bluegrass tunes from the Fifties, Sixties (a chic take on 1964 Willie Nelson tune "I Never Cared For You") and Seventies, along with soaring mid-century Broadway ("River In the Rain") and Hollywood melodrama ("All Alone Am I"). Krauss' spellbinding vocal makes for engrossing – if inessential – listening.
Chicago band deliver brilliantly discordant art-punk.
The follow up to 2015's Delusion Moon is a snarling, twisted, discordant indie-punk gem, full of brilliantly bare riffs and sweet and sour melodicism. Blessed by the production presence of Steve Albini, there's minimalist, plaintive bleakness ("No Light"), no-wave shredding ("Killing the Incessant") and scatter-brained riffage ("Glass Teeth"), and if the Cribs were raised solely on deep-dish pizza and Cubs fatalism the biting "Run You Out" might be the result. Best, though, are the drunk Gang of Four intertwined discordant guitar lines that disintegrate into a Mars Volta-y cacophonic mess on "Leopard Print Jet Ski".
Debut LP has strong handle on moody, melancholy pop.
The project of multi-instrumentalist Mark Zito, Fractures specialise in a form of melancholic pop that blends electronics and live instruments, all tied together by Zito's multitracked vocals that recall Bon Iver having a not particularly great day. It isn't all downcast moods and tempos: see the pacier "Alchemy", the light-at-the-end-of-a-dark-tunnel guitar pop of "Lowcast" and "Time Frame", which combines Eighties-Prince guitars and even Eighties-er drums for an effective dramatic pop number. The second-half doesn't offer the same kind of stylistic shifts, but that can't detract from what is a debut that boasts some undeniably accomplished songwriting.
Enchanting debut from Sarah Blasko/Olympia tour mate.
You may hear several clear touchstones on the debut album from Sydney-based singer-songwriter Sarah Belkner. There are touches of Kate Bush and Tori Amos to her voice and arrangements; there's a daring sense of musicality that suggests an allegiance to Bowie and Peter Gabriel. Satisfyingly, though, on But You Are, But It Has Belkner emerges as a singular artist; she is very much her own person, rather an amalgam of her influences. Created over a three-year period, a song such as "Chance" dazzles with instrumentation and cascading rhythms, but Belkner also knows the value of space, something she employs with expertise.
Melbourne mentalists unveil the first of their five albums due in 2017.
There's a fine line, they say, between fear and excitement. The unsettling existence of infinite so-called microtones in between the 12 legal notes of the western scale has been freaking out rock kids since George Harrison tripped over a sitar in 1965.
It was only a matter of time before some tricksy lizard magicians smuggled the spooky little critters into a metaphorical piece of airborne fruit and here it is, in nine hyperventilating slices of psychedelic terror conceived on cunningly modified instruments and no shortage of red cordial.
From whooshing segues to bad-acid imagery, the Melbourne jam freaks' ninth album feels like a sister to last year's Nonagon Infinity: a frantic nightmare of rattlesnakes, rising seas, oxygen deprivation, bloodthirsty bushrangers and nuclear fusion set to a bone-rattling pace for whipping festivals into a lather.
The furious tumble of drums, parrying and noodling electrics and volleys of staccato vocals are woven with some squawking cobra-taming pipe instrument making like an evil Pied Piper from "Open Water" and "Billabong Valley" to "Doom City".
The overall effect is plenty immersive without being all that progressive: a vaguely exotic continuation of an established sonic landscape that will spawn another four albums, they're warning, before the year is out. Whether all of them are strictly necessary is a question maybe only Lizard cultists, like Grateful Deadheads before them, can answer.
Swedish indie songwriter spins tales on fourth full-length.
Singer Jens Lekman has always revelled in quirky, whimsical storytelling, sort of like the indie-pop inverse of Tom Waits. His fourth LP, Life Will See You Now, presents 10 new vignettes with a bizarre cast featuring a Mormon missionary seeking the meaning of life, a pair of friends joyriding on a hotwired Ferris wheel in the middle of the night and a man curiously examining a 3-D printout of his own tumour. One disco-y tune recounts "How We Met, the Long Version," but it goes back to the Big Bang. Although Lekman's voice sometimes sounds like Morrissey doing a Kermit the Frog impression, he revels in strong songwriting and brilliant hooks played on steel drums, funky horns and hip-hop bells.