Our take on Twain's 'Now' and Cyrus' 'Younger Now'.
There's always been something contentious about the borders of country music, borders that Shania Twain and Miley Cyrus have spent their very different careers exploring. In the Nineties "is this country or is it disco" culture wars, Shania scandalized Nashville propriety with her glam-rock flash and mirror-ball glitz, just a few years after Miley's dad Billy Ray Cyrus came out of nowhere with the ass-wiggling dance-craze blockbuster "Achy Breaky Heart." Miley, of course, grew up playing Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel before turning into America's favorite sex-drugs-and-twerking shock-pop diva. But Miley and Shania have both served as noble pioneers, opening old-school country up to alien sounds – though on their new records, both of them aim to get back to their roots, however un-rootsy these roots might be.
The New Improved Miley of 2017 is as far from "We Can't Stop" and Bangerz as that Miley was from "See You Again" and Hannah Montana. Her last album – just two years ago – was a psychedelic rock opera about her dead pets (R.I.P., Pablow the Blowfish) with a genuinely touching galactic-sex ballad, "Something About Space Dude," one of the last great songs written about David Bowie in his lifetime. But the Dead Petz-eraMiley now sleeps with the blowfishes. Her new Younger Now is the debut of yet another Miley, playing down her whimsical and outrageous quirks for a[ ]sincerity-intensive move into the country-pop maturity of "Malibu." Still only 24, she's out to rebrand herself as a dues-paying twerk-free Nashville adult – any remaining Flaming Lips influence has gotten toned way down.
Cyrus' ace in the hole has always been the dusky country ache in her voice, which she's carried with her through all her incarnations. All over Younger Now, she revives her Southern accent, demonstrating her Nashville bona fides by including a voicemail from her godmom Dolly Parton to cue their Monkees-esque duet "Rainbowland." The songs are deliberately low-affect, if short on personality compared to her other albums. But the attention-getter is the finale "Inspired," where she writes a folksy country ballad to express some of her fears about climate change, with the opening lines, "I'm writing down my dreams/All I'd like to see/Starting with the bees." In this context, it's refreshing to hear from the Old Weird Miley again.
For Shania, Now is her first album in 15 years, after a historic run that rewrote the rules of country with hits like "That Don't Impress Me Much," "You Win My Love" and "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" As a Canadian chanteuse married to Def Leppard's producer, with zero nostalgia and no apparent sense of shame, Twain was perfectly positioned to mix up Eurodisco beats with fiddles and steel guitars for an emerging global audience. (She got her break singing in an Ontario resort revue called Viva Vegas, which made all the sense in the world.) Since her 2002 Up!, she's endured a high-profile divorce from Mutt Lange, a two-year Las Vegas residency and a sorely underrated reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Shania Twain: Why Not? (Not to mention blowing up Drake's Instagram.)
From the opening seconds of "Swingin' With My Eyes Closed," it's clear Shania's up to her old genre-trashing tricks – the quasi-metal guitar twang and "We Will Rock You" stomp of "Any Man of Mine" meet a reggae skank, and for good measure, she urges us all to throw our fists in the air like we just don't care. As you'd expect, the songs on Now are her mid-life personal statements, along the lines of "Poor Me" and "Roll Me on the River," with an emphasis on post-divorce piano ballads about getting the Shania groove back. (As she sings in "Life's About to Get Good," "I wasn't just broken, I was shattered/ … /I couldn't move on and I think you were flattered.") Maybe next time she'll cover "Hotline Bling." But like Miley, Shania is taking inspiration from the expansively chaotic sound of contemporary country pop – a sound she helped to shape in the first place.
Main page illustration by Yuta Onoda.
Melbourne cousins signpost a bright future with mature debut.
Backwater builds on the promise shown in Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam's prior two EPs; it's an utterly lovely collection of neo-garage/R&B that wears its influences (the xx, Kelela, Little Dragon) obviously while carving out a space all of Kllo's own. The alchemy is in Kaul's hushed, syrupy voice and Lam's broken beats, ghostly synths and astute use of space – hardly a new combination but an exemplary one, especially in tracks such as "Virtue", with Kaul doing angel duties on vocals while Lam demands that we dance, and the melancholic "Last Yearn", farewelling an ex with Adele-like faux sincerity in a spiralling haze of piano and clipped beats.
Melbourne quartet go beyond dream pop on impressive debut.
Much like labelmates the Ocean Party, Melbourne's Crepes serve their steady-handed, blissful guitar-pop with a side of bitterness. Early work stuck solely to this lane, but on their first full-length they stretch out with sombre, Beatles-like sitars ("Getting Lost"), layers of lush harmonies ("Four Years Time") and even experimental electronica ("Channel Four"). Despite such indulgences, vocalist Tim Karmouche is a constant, with his calm assessment of teenage drama ("cool kids") from a twentysomething perspective aptly suiting both sides of their sound – equally nostalgic and optimistic.
Hiatus Kaiyote singer's stripped-back solo debut.
Two albums deep, Naomi Saalfield's future-soul collective have scored Grammy noms and been sampled by Drake and Kendrick. Championing her prodigious, silken vocal, Saalfield's first LP as Nai Palm features reworkings of several HK tunes, along with a handful of new compositions, and even a curiously claustrophobic medley – Bowie's "Blackstar" and Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" segueing into HK's "Breathing Underwater". Resonant jazz-hued guitar tones ripple beneath lush chorales, opening a window onto the deep roots of soul music ("Haiku"), but stripping out HK's trademark polyrhythmic crosscurrents disperses some essential dynamism.
Songwriter proves ready for her spotlight moment.
While an eight-year veteran of the bedroom-to-Bandcamp scene, Universe marks Jess Locke's second coming, as the singer-songwriter's honest, TMI-bordering diary scribbles are beaten into bite-size slogans by a full-band backing. As expected, the fidelity boost comes at the sacrifice of some of Locke's heart-wrenching fragility, but not her poetic punches, which hit hard whether taking on self-worth, the pros of self-medication or unflinching self-analysis. Sense a common thread? Thankfully, despite sharing the spotlight, Locke remains the centre of her own universe, the perfect place for her blunt vulnerability to thrive.
Amiable countrified album for former X Factor runner up.
Originally sold as a generic-brand rock & roll bad boy balladeer, Dean Ray has ditched the saccharine bullshit and crafted a record that takes mid-20s existential worry and uses it as fuel for mature, beguiling country-folk tunes. At times coming off like a bluegrass Jeff Buckley with plenty of banjo and brushes ("Green"), and a world-weary Ian Moss acolyte ("Call It a Day"), Ray delivers a set that's steeped in Australiana and affecting story-telling, like the confessional tales of "Alcohol" and "Six Feet Under". The down-on-his-luck outlaw rocker motif isn't new, but Ray's talent turns it upside down with terrific verve.
More arresting and confessional indie rock from Nashville band.
Alicia Bognanno doesn't mince words. "I cut my hair, I feel the same, masturbate, I feel the same," she howls on the album opener. Bully play the kind of wiry, slightly out-of-control indie rock Pavement and Superchunk pioneered in the Nineties. They move from inspired to imitative on "Guess There", and the see-sawing guitar and throbbing bass of "Seeing It" shows their debt to the Pixies is ongoing. Still, with a singer as arresting and confessional as Bognanno, the songs demand attention. When she shreds her throat with lines such as "I've been staying away from the west side, trying to keep away from the booze and you", she sounds brave, not broken.
Sydney folkie returns with more apple-pie optimism on LP five.
Fans of Lenka won't be jolted by a sudden change of sound after 2015 album The Bright Side. She's produced Attune herself and it's a more stripped back record, largely acoustic and organic in keeping with the subject matter. The title is a reminder to all of us, Lenka included, to reconnect with the natural world. But the songs are as winsome as ever, and while Lenka's rosy outlook often rings twee, you have to admire her ability to make even dying sound cute, as in afterlife ballad "Disappear". The Sally Seltmann co-write "Heal" is the strongest track on an album with simple charms that are both quaint and refreshing.
Psychedelic plot continues to swirl for guitar cosmonauts.
There's less to prove and more room to breathe on the second album of the Church's new era: a 10-song doddle after the monolith of 2014's Further/Deeper. But between the shifting keys and ecstatic dream-state chorus of "Another Century" and the filmic apocalypse of "Dark Waltz" is an eminently familiar envelope of sonic architecture. Guitarists Peter Koppes and Ian Haug weave a seamless continuum in the synthy wash of "Submarine", then jangle and chime blissfully nostalgic through "In Your Fog". From ocean to desert, Steve Kilbey's astral visions wax reliably majestic and mercurial. Did you want peyote with that?
The pop star shows off her brassy firepower.
Demi Lovato is at her pop-princess best when her majestic wail takes over, as the high points of the singer's sixth album attest. The title track channels the brassy clamour of her 2015 smash "Confident" into maximum-overdrive R&B; "Sexy Dirty Love" throws back to the robo-funk era, with Lovato using its fluid bass line as a springboard for vocal pyrotechnics. The LP gets bogged down in chilled-out trap pop (see the Lil Wayne-assisted "Lonely"). But slow jams like "Concentrate" perfectly balance the downtempo and the energetic.
Melbourne artist realises her potential on debut album.
When Ecca Vandal emerged in 2014 with "White Flag", she appeared to be an artist fully formed. A brash electro-punk anthem complete with striking DIY film clip, it wasn't a question of how good it was, but more where did she come from?
Putting out singles is, of course, a different exercise to releasing a debut album, something not lost on the singer given that she spent a year-and-a-half constructing Ecca Vandal. That the record contains only one previously released song ("End of Time") suggests she resisted the urge to rely on past glories, and a good thing too, for this is a vibrant, dazzling collection of new tunes. Vandal made it clear early on that she wouldn't be boxed in to a certain sound, but the real art here is her ability to fuse multiple genres coherently into each song, as opposed to having the "electro one", the "punk one" and so on. Melody, too, is a going concern, meaning hooks fly thick and fast, be it in the electronic thump of "Future Heroine", the punk guitar rave of "Broke Days, Party Nights" or the stuttering beats of ballad "Cold of the World".
Vandal is an astute lyricist, "Price of Living" taking aim at Australia's offshore detention centres ("Back there I was a lawyer and a mother/Now I'm stuck behind barbed wire"). Only the Garbage-esque rock of "Out on the Inside" feels superfluous to needs – a minor blight on a stunning debut album.
Indie Sydney-siders knock the dust off after a long hiatus.
Having split in 2007, Sydney guitar-pop boffins Hoolahan return to almost the exact same sweet spot they hit with their 1999 debut, King Autumn. From the shoe-gazey opener "The Morning Roll" to lead single "Ev'ry Time You Go", Hoolahan mine a rich heritage of jangling guitars and sweet vocal harmonies. Like the Go-Betweens, Hoolahan place more emphasis on songwriting than having a consistent sound, bouncing confidently between densely-textured bliss-pop, psychedelic experimentation and alt-country twang. While it's not the most cohesive record, Casuarina sounds like talented musos needing to get some great songs off their chest.
Slinky debut from Northern Beaches brotherly duo.
On their debut album, Oli and Louis Leimbach have thrown the kitchen sink of funk, folk and synthy electro at their garrulous, sunny indie pop. The insidious reggae of "Risky Love", pop bounce on "Other Way Round" and deafening echoes of the Strokes on "Can I Be Your Lover" are covered in gooey layers of instrumentation, as barely a moment goes by that isn't polished to a gleaming sheen with horns, strings and playful experimentation. It's all exceptionally pleasant, but it's hard to shake the feeling its heart is being subsumed by its need to prove its worth, even on chest-bursters like "Underground" and "Top Of My List".
In sound and vision, the greying golden god is still on fire.
We carry a flame for lost love. We carry fire to vouchsafe humanity, with all its accumulated wisdom and empathy, through dark days. Robert Plant has a bet each way here, shifting between intense romantic longing ("Season's Song", "Dance With You Tonight") and calling out inhumanity in the savage "New World..."
He referenced the image once before, on the stunning musical watershed of Mighty ReArranger in 2005. But these days are far darker and his mission more urgent at the crossroads of east and west, and at "the dimming of my life" he references wistfully in the dusty swirl of "The May Queen".
That title carries a cheeky glimmer of his past, of course. But his last few albums with the Strange Sensation/Sensational Space Shifters are about kaleidoscopic consolidation, not dry nostalgia: Bron-Yr-Aur and Appalachia, Mali and Morocco fuse seamlessly in this bonfire to incredibly potent effect.
This world spans the rich, slow strings of "A Way With Words" and the title track's mystical twang of djembe and bendir; the terse historical polemic of "Carving Up the World Again… a wall and not a fence" and a majestic duet with Chrissie Hynde on a mellowed rockabilly tune, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain".
Few troubadours alive have this much to carry, let alone do it so lightly. Fifty years since his first album, Plant remains essential.
Smashing Pumpkins head honcho strips back with pleasant results.
Billy Corgan is no stranger to self-indulgence – remember that eight-hour live set inspired by Siddhartha? – so seeing him use his full name on this solo offering sets off the 'pretentious warning' alert. The truth couldn't be more different – this is the most straight forward, stripped-back album of Corgan's career. Accompanied by piano and/or acoustic guitar, the Rick Rubin-helmed Ogilala suffers only from being perfectly pleasant, nothing more, nothing less. "Aeronaut" and "Archer" contain melodies so wistful and beautiful they weaken the knees, but elsewhere Ogilala is notable mainly for hearing Corgan in such raw surroundings, as opposed to its songs.