Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Sadly beautiful return from artist formerly known as Whitley.
Much has happened to Greenwood since 2013's spooked Even the Stars Are a Mess (released as Whitley). For one, a name change; for another, the need to tame some personal demons. What hasn't changed is his admirable knack with the dark and moody arts: the LP's title is perfect. There's something haunting about the way Greenwood wraps his fragile voice around baroque digital-era soundscapes (he makes good use of bowed guitar and a theravox). The prevailing mood is downbeat, channelling such landmarks as Bowie's Berlin trilogy and Peter Gabriel at his most ruminative. Definitely music for the morning after.
Stirring debut from up-and-coming MC.
Fierce, thoughtful, and backed by ball-out beats, Birdz is original and ambitious in his storytelling, consistently weaving the narratives over silky production that has your head nodding no matter the troubling questions it asks. From collabs with Jimblah on "Rise" to the brilliant "The Other Side" featuring Caiti Baker, Train of Thought comfortably mixes everything from gospel to G-Funk. It also never shrinks from highlighting contrasts even as it explores them; between head nodding and thought provoking, the personal and the political, and none clearer than that between black and white experiences in Australia.
Singer-songwriter backs up with solid pop gem.
Kim Churchill's fifth album, 2014's Silence/Win, was the record that finally brought him widespread acclaim. Weight_Falls, then, is almost that difficult second record – and difficult it was. Churchill had an album recorded and due for release, when he scrapped it and went back to the drawing board. A week later he came up with this, and the results are solid. Essentially a pop album, Weight_Falls ebbs and flows, the requisite amount of light and shade present as Churchill, still touching on his rootsy background, creates sonic landscapes that belie their rushed creation.
Songwriters draw strength from youthful uncertainty.
Seven albums in, the Ocean Party are no closer to having all the answers. "Tell me where to go," repeats "Cracked and Shattering". Yet the Melbourne guitar-pop ensemble are more assured than ever before. Their six songwriters stretch beyond their usual delicate, gleaming melodies, evoking Springsteen-esque soul-searching on the verses of "More to Run". "Strike" name-checks human rights and "Concrete" lopes ahead with stubborn momentum, while tunes like "If I Blink" add welcome ripples of volatility to the band's smooth veneer. As for what these guys have learnt from their 20s, this line says it all: "They're my mistakes and I'll make them, great as I want."
Melbourne stoner-psych rockers deliver the goods.
Devil Electric's mandate on their debut is pretty straightforward: kick some arse, take names, heavy-liddedly fuzz the fuck out. But taking their cues from stoner-metal longhairs like Germany's Kadavar and the roughhouse gothic blues of Jack White's Dead Weather, the Melbourne four-piece are piercingly precise, marrying Black Sabbath riffage in "Acidic Fire" to eyeball-melting sludge-punk on "Shadowman". Pierina O'Brien's powerful voice sails over the top of the morass, her range lifting moribund swampy metal riffs to a more beatific plane on the brilliant "Lady Velvet", while pushing epic closer "Hypnotica" to mesmerising heights. A spellbinding debut.
Intimate ironies and minimal piano strokes from indie girl.
Russack's "Everybody Cares" is a sardonic rejoinder to Courtney Barnett's "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party", cunningly rendered more antisocial in the voice of a deluded party queen. It's a slight departure from a confessional intensity that's maudlin to the point of wry comedy in the slow navel-gaze of "Migration" and finds the artist addressing herself in third person – "Emma, the jig's up" –in the title track. Self-image is the unsettling focus of "Blonde" and "Body Goals", then it's sly wit again in "Dream Man". Russack's deadpan philosophising and spare, lonely atmos weave a puzzling and compelling spell.
Adam Granduciel delivers Americana synth-rock masterpiece on album four.
Just as the first track on the War on Drugs' third and breakout album signalled an urgent new path lit by Springsteen and analog synthesisers, "Up All Night", the opener on A Deeper Understanding, leapfrogs the band's previous heart-stirring efforts. It sneaks up on you with bagpipe guitars, club-ready percussion summoned from Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" and Adam Granduciel's tobacco drawl communicating a kind of wearied optimism: "I've been through it, I always have/paranoia, but it wouldn't last."
The song and entire record mark a perhaps unintentional shift towards arenas, bold but safe in Granduciel's perfectionistic hands, whether he's coming over all Rod Stewart on the Mellotron-warm "Pain", sending scorching guitar solos skywards in "Strangest Thing" or steering 11-minute fuzz-bath "Thinking of a Place". And on "In Chains" he gets as close as anyone ever has to recording the sound of falling in love. It would have been a great song even without the left-field bliss hit of vibraphone at the 4:14 mark, but here and throughout Granduciel amps up his Lost In The Dream trick, bestowing already brilliant songs with stunning gear shifts. His heartbreak, too, has been tempered with newfound resolve and hope: "be the writer of your own story, let it turn you onto love again".
Anthems rise from melancholia on Sydney-sider's debut album.
Shadowy electronica and melodic dissonance meet in Reservoir, the slow-burning record from Sophie Payten, AKA Gordi. A textural pastiche, the album veers from polyrhythmic synths paired against warm bass lines to moments of subtle vulnerability, where vocals are left bare. "Heaven I Know" juxtaposes harmonious bliss with organic, horn-led counter-melodies that feel vaguely unsettling though never out of place. An acoustic duet with S. Carey ("I'm Done") is a welcome nod to Gordi's early influences James Taylor and Carole King. The record's anthemic charge does well to avoid melancholic indulgence, but at times misses the restraint so aptly captured elsewhere.
US folkie flashes back to rivers, songbirds and country roads.
The count-in is a whisper. Acoustic strings creak under rough fingers. The band breathes in unison and Sam Beam is back, pretty much, where it all began six albums ago. The embroidered cover image of beardy bloke with blindfold describes the tone of the Carolina farm boy's homespun inner visions: warm times and pastoral images recalled with gratitude bordering on exhilaration. Tender Paul Simon harmonies grace "About a Bruise" and Nick Drake lives in the rolling fingerpicking and dancing piano of "Song In Stone" and the "The Truest Stars We Know". The plinking pizzicato and xylophone of "Last Night" marks the playful peak of a decidedly contented afternoon.
Homme and Co. team up with Mark Ronson, channel Bowie and even get a bit sensitive.
"I was born in the desert, May 17 in '73, when the needle hit the groove I commence to moving, I was chasing what's calling me," Josh Homme states in the opening line of the first Queens of the Stone Age album in four years. It sounds like nothing less than a mission statement, giving us his origin story before getting down to business.
He's not been idle since 2013's ...Like Clockwork, making an Eagles of Death Metal album, collaborating with Iggy Pop on last year's Post Pop Depression and even writing songs for the latest Lady Gaga record.
In fact, you can hear the Iggy connection on the title track, which features a three-step ascending guitar riff, a fat, fuzzy bass line and a groove that you feel in your groin. But it's Iggy's late buddy David Bowie whose spirit hangs most heavily over many of these new songs. It's there most notably on "Un-Reborn Again", which echoes the Thin White Duke's Seventies period when he married glam's fuzzed-out stomp to art-rock's twists and turns. Even Homme's lyrics nod to Bowie's jive talk-meets-Nadsat style. "Acid-face Jack, he like them dancing straight boys, it makes his pupils dilate," he moans. He goes on to namecheck Skinny, Juzzy and Twizzy, almost as if he's renaming the members of the Spiders From Mars.
Meanwhile, Dean Fertita chooses keyboard sounds that quiver and slither somewhere between Heroes and Scary Monsters throughout the album. Or perhaps this had something to do with Mark Ronson, who produced Villains. Best known for his own natty dance-pop and as a producer for Adele and Amy Winehouse, Ronson recently said, "Queens are and have always been my favourite rock & roll band." He doesn't exactly remodel them, but adds window-dressing – the electro handclaps behind the buzzy boogie of "The Way You Used To Do"; the blaring horns at the end of "Un-Reborn Again"; the sawing violins that link the title track to "Fortress".
More surprising are the moments when Homme plays the sensitive card and doesn't get a full house. "Fortress" seems to be a message for someone who is going through a hard time, but it comes across as earnest, while "Villains of Circumstance" finds him expressing feelings for a geographically impossible love interest on a song that straightens out halfway to become a little too chintzy for its own good, as he croons "I'll be forever yours".
Of course, Queens of the Stone Age sometimes cop criticism for leaning too heavily on desert-rock drones, hedonism and testosterone, so all of the above marks a conscious shift. There's still plenty of muscular riffery, punishing rhythms and rib-rattling wails in these grooves, but that initial mission statement develops into a series of stylistic jumps rather than a revelatory leap.
Main page illustration: Leo Coyte
U.S. noise howler's latest descent into dystopia.
Erika M. Anderson boasted that Matador refused to release her third LP because it was "too political". Exile In the Outer Ring is BAU for EMA: summoning an All-American hellscape via tales of misfits on the figurative/literal fringes set to dark, tortured, uneasy music. On her astonishing debut, 2011's Past Life Martyred Saints, Anderson sang "I'm just 22/I don't mind dying"; here she's "33, nihilistic and female", her songs filled with drugs, disenchantment, distortion, noise guitar. The industrial influence from 2014's techno-paranoid The Future's Void lingers, but Anderson strips away the clutter, her ire left to sound out clear.
More dreamy melodies from evolving Virginia outfit.
Recent visitors to Australia in support of Touché Amoré, Turnover's earliest output and DIY approach to touring has long seen them lumped in with the punk scene. 2015's Peripheral Vision was a sonic step away, and so it continues on their third LP. Austin Getz's sleepy vocals mesh with the Virginia outfit's dreamy mix of chiming, reverb-laced guitars to create a sound that never sets the pulse racing, but instead washes over you like a warm bath of melody and mood. Perhaps lacking the energy of Peripheral Vision, Good Nature is nonetheless another interesting step in Turnover's evolution.
British indie outfit feed off the world's ills on fourth album.
What riches the world has bestowed upon Everything Everything singer/songwriter Jonathan Higgs for their fourth album. Between Trump, Brexit and the generally dire state of politics worldwide, there is much with which to indulge his operatic brand of decadent pessimism, from knockout opener "Night of the Long Knives" to "Good Shot, Good Soldier" ("you're a good shot, you're a good soldier, of all the good things to be"). Everything Everything don't always hit their targets – "Big Game" drags, "Desire" grates – but at their best, as in the aforementioned, they are glorious, all circling synths, artful layering and rapturous maximalism.
Sydney dreamers deliver a stunning double-album opus.
Gang of Youths don't do things by halves. Their 2014 debut was about disintegrating relationships, cancer, and suicide attempts: its follow up is a sprawling, magnificently realised double album that poetically explores the human experience in all its bleakness and triumph, confusion and clarity, heartbreak and joyousness.
It's a staggeringly cohesive multi-generational musical piñata: cross-pollinating Springsteen's sweeping Americana, the National's piercing truths and the sweaty insistence of LCD Soundsystem, with splashes of Arcade Fire, War on Drugs and U2 swirling amid its emotional tornado. There's the Japandroids-channelling, punch-the-air final moments of "Atlas Drowned"; frontman Dave Le'aupepe's jaw-dropping "get shitfaced on you" baritone wordplay during "Keep Me In the Open"; psyche darkness on "Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane"; baroque orchestration in "Achilles Come Down"; wild horns on "The Heart is a Muscle"; while its series of instrumental breathers allow you to be swept away on the album's all-enveloping current.
Le'aupepe's deft lyrical romanticism and emotional sincerity ties it all together forcefully and elegantly –lines crack like fireworks one after the other – defying cynicism anddelivering raw truth-seeking vignettes in unflinching fashion. It makes for a remarkable odyssey of an album that'll engulf you, leaving a bewildered smile on your face, a tear in your eye and a heart that's full.
Mercury Prize-nominated British MC cuts timely masterpiece.
Where South London-born Obaro Ejimiwe's first two albums explored ambiguous, surreal themes over prickly electronic instrumentation, 2015's Shedding Skin adopted a more tangible guitar-and-keys approach. Dark Days + Canapés picks up where that Mercury Prize-nominated record left off. Never quite rapping, never quite singing, the genre-defying MC invites listeners on a spine-tingling, head-nodding ride into his psyche. It's Roots Manuva meets Radiohead. All over this record, in fact, Ghostpoet manages to be two things at once: inviting and confronting; thoughtful and obscure; brilliant and understated.
Atmospheric fifth album from a unit now expert at composing experimental folk-pop.
It sounds absurd, but Grizzly Bear have carved a career from baroque-pop obfuscation. The US indie band's knotty creations very rarely sound like four guys in a room jamming a tune. Instead they're more slow-motion unspoolings of woozy sounds, teased and twisted into treacle-thick compositions so dense and dreamlike that somewhere along the line you forget how they began.
Painted Ruins is the band's first record in five years, and that labour shows. "Three Rings" begins as a reverb-drenched chatter, moving through groaning woodwinds and blossoming into a racket of fuzz bass, celestial synths and rippling guitar arpeggios, Ed Droste singing, "Don't you ever leave me/Don't you feel it all come together". Those details and underlying accusations continue on the glam groove of "Losing All Sense", Droste asking, "Could I ask of you not to cut into me?" The band's lyrics have never been direct, but the tension through Painted Ruins is palpable.
The density of arrangements can tire, but there's calm too – "Aquarian" builds until a beautiful sequence of unadorned chords; "Systole" opens with a rare bare vocal from bassist and producer Chris Taylor. Some touchstones call through the haze – Tame Impala's modern prog-psych, Radiohead's anxious percussive web, and White Album-era Beatles. But for the most part Grizzly Bear return again grown from their own strange plot.