Zac Brown Band's cocktail of soul, rock, jazz and more is tasty, even when it's a little predictable.
They triangulate country bounce, classic-rock flex and jam-band wiggle like crossover wizards. Their frontman has a buttery midrange tenor, can sell the heck out of a song, and keeps his lumberjack beard nicely trimmed. With the possible exception of their relentless likability, there's nothing unlikable about the Zac Brown Band. On their fourth LP, they bang out styles with such preposterous ease – Seventies Philly soul, old-timey gospel, Celtic folk, metal, reggae, jazz – they could double as a single-band music-placement agency.
If only they reached a little further. "Beautiful Drug" works pharmacology-of-love metaphors into an arena-pop framework with a side of banjo. Guest Chris Cornell adds hard-rock cred to "Heavy Is the Head", which nods to "Smoke on the Water" and misquotes Shakespeare. "Castaway" is Jimmy Buffett-ish life-is-a-beach redux, "Homegrown" a boilerplate small-town-pride anthem. The only head-turner is the sole cover: Jason Isbell's "Dress Blues", which fills the military-tribute slot common to country LPs with uncommon depth. Brown magnifies it brilliantly (even if he swaps the phrase "God-awful war" for Isbell's "Hollywood war", the song's linchpin). A pop star who can deliver like this should deliver more.
Topics: Zac Brown Band
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.
Solid if more-of-the-same second outing for UK duo.
The seismic grooves of Royal Blood's debut LP set them apart in 2014, not only due to their line-up – a two-piece rock band featuring bass and drums – but because they breathed life into rock's quickly cooling corpse. But where that album benefited from their sonic limitations – thanks largely to bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr's array of effects pedals – its follow-up isn't quite so fortunate, coming off as a facsimile of that record rather than a fresh new statement. The riffs are still big ("Don't Tell"), the hooks insistent ("I Only Lie When I Love You"), but while there are a few new tricks – the keys in "Hole In Your Heart" – they're subtle at best.
Pacific Northwesterners emerge unbowed with mind-expanding triumph.
After a six-year wait for a new album with only some strategically timed social media hints to go on, Fleet Foxes have successfully created an aura for themselves. Well done, them – but it does burden them with an obligation to live up to the enigma and intrigue. What's more, in attempting a concept album partly based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald essay that gives the record its name, they are hardly making things easy for themselves.
Thankfully Robin Pecknold, he with the unassumingly angelic voice, has artistically matured in such a fascinating, worldly way since 2011's Helplessness Blues, that this record works. This is no sugar-sweet indie-folk smothered with those luscious harmonies that made them de rigueur in 2008 – this is challenging, instrumentally eclectic and not immediately accessible. Complexity and experimentation – by Fleet Foxes standards anyway – combine in a sprawling wall of sound suggestive of the smoky haze of David Crosby's early solo work, particularly the outstanding "Mearcstapa", while "Naiads, Cassadies" and "Kept Woman" show they remain capable of straightforwardly beautiful tunes.
Fleet Foxes have answered the question of how to redeem ensemble-based folk-pop in a post-Mumford world by embracing the esoteric, the risky, the lyrically abstruse – this is Pecknold's Smile, if you will. Indeed, anyone turned off by the five-piece's erstwhile unrelenting pleasantness should give this a spin.
Head Automatica duo summon the spirit of the Eighties.
Glassjaw/Head Automatica frontman Daryl Palumbo has never shied away from his Eighties influences, but never has he worn them so brazenly on his sleeve as he does in Color Film, his collaboration with fellow Head Automatica member Richard Penzone. Their debut album isn't so much a tribute to the decade as it is a time machine, placing the listener firmly in the John Hughes era of electronic drums and new romantic songwriting. The spectre of the Cure, the Smiths and Talking Heads looms large, so much so that it's hard to discern the point, beyond a couple of musos simply indulging their love of all things Eighties.
Dreamy cohesiveness of the highest order.
What is so delightfully refreshing about this London duo is the utter effortlessness of their music. Oh Wonder's brand of alt-pop is modern, beautifully crafted and often catchy as hell, but the radio-savvy hooks are delivered with little fanfare, and the songwriting seems to take its own seamlessness for granted. Perhaps it's the made-to-meld voices of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, or the carefully paced tracklisting that goes from earthy energy and quirky pop (think Of Monsters and Men covering Kate Miller-Heidke) to the arresting sparseness of "My Friends" and "Waste". Either way, this dreamy, polished album is a winner.