Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Melbourne crew deliver strong modern rock album.
Five years after their 2012 debut, Melbourne four-piece Strangers return with a full bodied modern rock album that calls to mind the ambition of the Butterfly Effect and the power of mid-2000s metal, albeit with a slight electronic influence. They know their way around a strong hook – witness "Birthmarks" and "Fear of Nothing" – but the album suffers from a lack of sonic variation, with the guitar tones in particular varying little throughout. When they back things off a touch and make room for more dynamics, as on album highlight "Sand", the effect is jolting. At the other end of the scale, bulldozing closer "Flexx 2230" sends the LP out on a ballbusting high.
For his debut, the One Direction heartthrob invokes an intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe.
Harry Styles doesn't just want to be a rock star – he wants to be the rock star. And on his superb solo debut, the One Direction heartthrob claims his turf as a true rock & roll prince, a sunshine superman, a cosmic dancer in touch with his introspective acoustic side as well as his glam flash. He avoids the celebrity-guest debutante ball he could have thrown himself – instead, he goes for a intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe. No club-hopping or bottles popping – it's the after-hours balladry of a 23-year-old star wondering why he spends so much time in lonely hotel rooms staring at his phone. Harry digs so deep into classic California mellow gold, you might suspect his enigmatic new tattoos that say "Jackson" and "Arlo" refer to Browne and Guthrie.
"You can't bribe the door on your way to the sky," he warns early on in "Sign of the Times," but the sky is where he's aiming, and his sheer brazen confidence is dazzling – he never sounds like he's trying too hard or scrounging for cred, which is where boy-band alumni usually screw up their solo records. The whole album has the personal yet witty spirit of the cover photo, where a topless Harry has a moment of doubt and pain in a bathtub full of pink unicorn tears. (His original title was Pink, because it's "the only true rock & roll colour.") He spends a lot of the album wet, actually – whether it's tears, other bodily fluids, or just "candy dripping on me till my feet are wet."
Harry's soft-rock fetish won't surprise fans of One Direction gems like "Olivia" or "Stockholm Syndrome," but this is the first time we've heard Sweet Baby Styles run with it for a whole album. The songs he tipped in advance didn't play coy about his old-school inspirations – the Badfinger hook of "Ever Since New York," the "Blackbird" guitar of "Sweet Creature," the way "Sign of the Times" tweaks Queen and Bowie in candelabra mode – yet they all sound like him, playful and tender in equal measure. In most of these songs, he mourns a dead-end relationship, the kind where "comfortable silence is so overrated," and you can hear that he's been binging on singer-songwriter confessionals from Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Schmillson to Taylor Swift's Red. "Meet Me In The Hallway" sets the tone – a touch of John Lennon echo in his voice, a touch of Jimmy Page in the acoustic guitar – as he pleads like a love junkie craving a fix. "Carolina" rides a tropical low-rider summer groove, while the lovelorn "Two Ghosts" could pass for vintage Bread. "Woman" could be a lost slow-jam duet between Prince and Joe Walsh, as Harry asks, "Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we can find?"
He dabbles in hard rock raunch with "Kiwi" ("She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect") and "Only Angel." Yet he sounds brassiest, most confident, most himself when he gets vulnerable. He ends with "From the Dining Table," an acoustic lament where he wakes up alone in yet another hotel room. ("Played with myself, where were you?/I fell back asleep and was drunk by noon/I've never felt less cool.") Through it all, he manages to steer clear of all the traps that ordinarily sabotage a boy-band star's solo move. But as the whole album proves, there's not a thing ordinary about this guy.
Kasabian champion escapism through any means on sixth LP.
Kasabian have fallen back in love with guitar. Or so says songwriter Serge Pizzorno, who has described the Leicester band's sixth album as a reaction to the middling sonic experimentation of 2014's 48:13. The result is quintessential Kasabian: 12 ready-made festival anthems pinned together with the DNA of English music greats.
Setting the mood for a record that is steeped in nostalgia, opener "III Ray (The King)" recalls the shuffling dance-punk of the group's mid-00s work. With rattling castanets and melodic "oohs", standout "Good Fight" is an earmworm-y nod to 1960s British pop. Similarly, the acoustic "Put Your Life On It" echoes the rapturous slow build of "Hey Jude"; culminating in a soaring one-minute outro on which Tom Meighan's uncharacteristically honeyed vocals are elevated by a gospel choir. While pop rock is the band's driving force here, they don't entirely abandon their ravetronica roots either – see the baggy eight-minute "Are You Looking For Action".
Gone are the clumsy attempts at social commentary that missed the mark on 48:13, replaced here by more familiar tales of romance and excess. On For Crying Out Loud Kasabian champion escapism through any means: love, partying, or rock & roll.
The Oils clear out their musical garage, with generally superb results.
It's genuinely weird that a band as venerable and storied as Midnight Oil has been so little anthologised over the years.
Most comparable bands would have all sorts of legacy-enhancing-slash-barrel-bottom-scraping collections out in the marketplace by now, but not the Oils. In fact, the relative paucity of product (a handful of best-ofs and live albums) has been matched by the near-impossibility of getting hold of many of their original albums in any decent format until relatively recently. Even classics like 10-1 and Red Sails in the Sunset spent decades available only on low-quality mid-price CDs, when they existed at all.
Thankfully the announcement of the band's reactivation and world tour has been accompanied by the re-release of all the band's material on vinyl and CD – in big fancy box sets, no less! - and a proper, overdue trawl through the band's archives. It seems appropriate that instead of putting out a steady stream of coffer-filling live recordings, b-side and demo collections, documentaries and concert DVDs, the Oils do the whole lot in one hit.
The price tag alone means that the four CD/eight DVD Overflow Tank is something that only a devoted fan would purchase, which is a good thing: there is material here that only a devoted fan would want – or, for matter, endure.
Such fans, however, are going to love the absolute hell out of this.
Let's start with the least interesting bits first: the Lasseter's Gold disc of unreleased demos, and the b-side compilation Chiko Locallo.
The first doesn't turn up any lost classics. Five of the 12 tracks were from the Blue Sky Mining sessions and the most appealing - the Hirst/Moginie "Wreckery Road" – would later be resurrected for Ghostwriters, while "A Sunburt Sky" was a first draft of Moginie's solo song "A Love So High". What's perhaps most noteworthy is the inclusion of two songs named after (and performed by) the pre-Oils versions of the band – the scrappily inept joke jam "Schwampy Moose" and the atmospheric instrumental sketch "Farm", which are historical curios you'll listen to once and never, ever again.
Similarly, the Oils were not a band that wasted great songs on b-sides, although "You May Not Be Released" has a late-night swing and you can't fault the intent behind earnest polemics like "The Last of the Diggers" and "Ships of Freedom", especially when compared with the studio sound experiments "Frontier... What Frontier?" and "Kingdom of Flaunt".
Most of the songs are from the band's nineties era and tend to be more mid-paced ballads and Garrett's idiosyncratic voice means that cover versions tend to sound incongruous rather than appropriate – proven here with their versions of Russell Morris' "The Real Thing" and Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love & Understanding?" - although the dark groove of 'Heaven & Earth' is begging to be sampled for a modern EDM track.
The live recordings fare rather better, however. Not only were the Oils a band who were at their best on stage, as demonstrated on the career-spanning compilation Punter Barrier BPM, their thumping 1978 Live At The Wireless recording arguably does a better job than their self-titled debut album at capturing the raw energy of the band at the time.
But the real gems – the things that will have fans fishing down the back for change – are the DVDs, which are uniformly excellent.
The best of the several live DVDs on offer is undoubtably Oils on the Water, the band's legendary Goat Island gig for the tenth birthday of Double/Triple J in 1985. It remains one of their definitive live performances (and it's surprisingly adorable to see them stumble on the complex stop-starts of "When The Generals Talk") – and if that's the band at their juggernaut peak, their 1993 MTV Unplugged set goes some way to proving Jim Moginie's assertion that they were basically a folk band under their rock trappings.
The absolute first thing to watch, however, is the documentary Only the Strong: the making of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. If you're a fan of the Oils – and, as asserted earlier, you won't have this thing if you're not – watching the double-act of Moginie and producer Nick Launay scamper through the multitracks of the album that made the band's career is both fascinating and inspiring (so that's how they got the "sproing!" sound at the beginning of "US Forces"!), and the interviews with Peter Garrett and Rob Hirst are equally illuminating.
Black Rain Falls is a short doco about the band's 1990 protest performance on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon Mobil building in New York after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and is impressive partially in the band's gumption in doing such a thing since these days they'd have been in Guantanamo Bay before the truck was even parked, and partially because the band sound tight as a freakin' drum despite playing a guerilla show on a truck.
But the gem is Blackfella/Whitefella, a documentary about the band's 1986 outback tour with the Warumpi Band. This was a pivotal moment for Midnight Oil, leading directly to Diesel and Dust (and even includes an early, uncertain live version of "Beds Are Burning" with rambling, extemporised verses). And watching the way that the experience of spending time in Arnham Land changes the band is fascinating, especially in watching the Sydney rock stars get a little humble and sheepish in front of Aboriginal audiences listening politely, as opposed to an RSL filled with northern beaches surfers leaping about.
And the Warumpis get the best musical moments too: the highlight is watching the band swap during a performance of the song "Blackfella Whitefella", where the Warumpis are replaced by members of Midnight Oil as the song transforms into "The Dead Heart" (watch Gordon Butcher and Rob Hirst swap over without missing a beat) – and their rough and ready performance of their classic "My Island Home" should jolt anyone only familiar with Christine Anu's smooth version.
There's basically an entire weekend's worth of stuff to listen to and binge watch, and if not all these Oils are (ahem) essential, the highlights of Overflow Tank are more than worth the sticker price.
New York pioneers call on others in faltering refresh.
With 10 albums behind them, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein have sought inspiration elsewhere; Pollinator is almost entirely composed of songs co-written by others, including Johnny Marr, Sia, Dev Hynes and Charli XCX. The results are mixed – Hynes has borrowed the beat from "Heart of Glass" to comforting effect, while Sia's "Best Day Ever" is tepid pop dampened further by Harry's half-strength delivery. "Fun", co-penned by Dave Sitek, is a highlight, with Nile Rodgers-esque noodling and a disco strut; but overall, even with contributors of this calibre, Pollinator fails to recapture the vitality and attitude of erstwhile Blondie.
Reunited English band still shoegazing.
What's a 22-year silence between friends? When it comes to one of the non-movers and non-shakers in the UK shoegaze scene, not much. The tinkling guitar wash and moochy vocals of opener "Slomo" fade in as if they just went off for a quick smoke in 1995. "I wanna see it," coos Neil Halstead in "Go Get It". "I wanna feel it," answers Rachel Goswell. It would be nice to feel more. The wall-to-wall haziness means the atmosphere switch is on 10, while the "innovation" and "surprise" switches are set somewhat lower. When they close with "Falling Ashes", a hypnotic song built around a circling piano melody, you wish they'd branched out earlier.
Deluxe Best Of pays reverent tribute to Cave and Co's back catalogue.
"There are some people out there who just don't know where to start with The Bad Seeds," says Nick Cave as way of justification for this latest compilation, a full 19 years after the last Bad Seeds Best Of. Given how heady a period the past two decades have been for Cave creatively, such justification isn't really necessary.
Lovely Creatures comes in several formats, from the basic double CD (21 tracks) to a triple vinyl package and, at the top of the tree, this 3-CD and two-hour DVD package, complete with glorious hard cover book featuring essays by the likes of journalist Bleddyn Butcher and author Larry 'Ratso' Sloman. In addition to myriad photos plucked from the archives of members past and present, the book also holds delightful little secrets stuck loosely between the pages – a row of negatives, a hand drawn prototype of the cover for "Into My Arms", an after show pass – lending it the feel of a scrapbook you've stumbled across.
Musically, its three discs are split into distinct eras – 1984-1993, 1994-2003 and 2004-2014 – charting Cave and the Seeds' journey from the primal, wailing, apocalyptic blues of "The Mercy Seat" to the cinematic strains of "Jubilee Street". It's an astonishing ride.
Greg Dulli and Co. mine murky themes and soulful alt-rock.
Although lumped in with the Nineties alt-rock movement, this Cincinnati band developed a swing and swagger that took cues from heavy soul, R&B and funk. Their second album since reforming six years ago continues Greg Dulli's exploration of dark themes including power, self-loathing and damaged relationships. But opening track "Birdland" signals a change in approach, with see-sawing Morricone-like strings and chopped-up backing vocals providing a staccato rhythm. "Copernicus" proves they've still got an ear for noise, but there's a cinematic scope to the instrumentation and an impressionism to Dulli's lyrics that paint a more menacing shade of murk. b.d.
Underground hip-hop hero swaps anger for enlightenment.
"I am not beautiful. I am an elegant beast," begins Brother Ali on his peaceful, pacifying sixth album. The Minneapolis rapper meditates on police brutality, race and personal topics like suicide and family with a learned silver-lining attitude ("You've got a spirit that a bullet can't kill"). But the music, produced by Atmosphere's Ant, often tips from inspiring to soppy, with sugary pianos ("Dear Black Son") and mawkish horns ("Can't Take That Away"). That said, its dramatic moments are sublime, particularly the woozy trip-hop of "Never Learn". Ali's message is powerful; shame about (most of) the music.
Oakland dream-pop polymath makes a mixed debut.
Jackson Phillips births his first LP as Day Wave to ample buzz. Surfing a tide of fuzzed-out guitars, lucent synths and skeletal basslines seemingly borrowed from Peter Hook, much of the album is intractably summery, in the same way that lense-flare, overexposure, and pervasive languor are 'summery' ("On Your Side") – the reigning drowsiness underscored by Phillips' penchant for hammering a vocal refrain into the ground ("Home"). Phillips never quite achieves the penetrating honesty of fellow DIY-fuzznick Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast), but when he imports some genuine DIIV-like urgency, he's hypnotising ("Promises").
More sumptuous, sophisticated pop from Seattle's golden boy.
2014's Too Bright saw the artist also known as Mike Hadreas combine songwriting prowess with cutting social awareness, confirming him as a genuinely original, idiosyncratic voice. His fourth LP is less ideologically charged yet just as powerful. Some eclectic production ranges from the polished, Prince-like "Sides" to the electronic minimalism of "Go Ahead", and even lo-fi 'folk' on "Valley". Hadreas's melodic turns remain subtle, with some songs requiring extensive listening to be properly revealed, while his vocals increasingly feature a winsome quiver comparable with Anohni. Heartfelt, contemporary and very beautiful.
Fremantle indie quartet return with sun-drenched, beachy pop.
For a band whose breakout single was titled "Awkward" (2012), San Cisco have an uncanny knack for the easygoing. Their third studio album is brimming with sunshiny pep: chirpy synth adds multi-coloured splotches of sound to crunchy guitar chords and gently grooving bass lines. "Kids Are Cool" kicks off the good vibes, "The Distance" injects some funk, and club tune "SloMo" is anything but. As the LP continues consistency starts to turn into predictability, blurring together some cheery, if forgettable, tracks. However, an album so blatantly feel-good earns forgiveness easier than most, so don't overthink it.
Sonic Youth guy surrenders to mystical shoegaze sojourn.
"Exalted" might be a cool indie pop song if the chiming riff cut to the vocal after four bars. But no, it's a tense minute before the chordal vista opens; three more til the stinging lead guitar and almost eight when the metal press shears your ears off. The song's muse (via London poet/ lyricist Radio Redieux) appears after that, a prophetess "spaced out in timelessness" and French kisses. Gods and ghosts likewise haunt the four songs to come, in a textural soup tellingly seasoned by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and My Bloody Valentine bassist Deb Googe. "Aphrodite" is a cosmic climax but naturally, the trip is more exploration than destination.
Sydney quintet find themselves stuck on fifth LP.
The glorious glitter cannon crescendos of 2006's Granddance are gone. As are any signs of the stadium-sized ambitions of 2009's follow-up, Zounds, or the quirk-charm of 2004 debut A Smile, and its second act, the spit-shined 2012's Lake Air. The fifth full-length from the Sydney quintet is as imaginative as its title.
Aside from a few flirts with variance –the heartland hope of "Know Your History", swooning chillwave wobble of "Stone Men" and disco-funk counterpoint, the commanding "That Sound" – Five is categorically capital-A adult contemporary, where, between those few selected side-steps, distinguishing each song is isolated to inspiration source alone – be it Fleetwood Mac soft-rock sway, Yoshimi-esque melancholy or Ziggy Stardust-lite pop theatre. The result sounds unmistakably unambitious, a framework sketch of Dappled Cities' previous efforts, where neither pop heights are scaled nor rabbit-warrens of weirdness pursued.
The damage is done by the time we reach standout closing track "Driving Home at Night Alone", a crushing take on the urges of adulthood escapism set to a dark, minimal synth-pop soundtrack. It's the band's logical next creative pivot – yet unfortunately absent across the album's previous 10 tracks.
Icelandic megastar hints at a new direction on second LP.
His 2014 debut (also released in English as In the Silence) is the biggest selling Icelandic record of all time, but on the follow-up Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson – Iceland's cornier answer to Bon Iver – has wisely done away with some of the more cloying acoustics and amped up the synthetic sounds, providing a far more interesting backdrop to his angelic falsetto. Some of it is still overwrought, but there are welcome surprises, from "Stardust", coming over like an upbeat James Taylor if he started playing around with synths (no slight), to the flute-driven jaunty breakdown of "I Know You Know". The back end lags, but his new direction is promising.
Canada's indie idol stays daggy on fourth album – but sincere too.
Three years after Salad Days, the affable, overall'ed Mac DeMarco doesn't sound like he's sweating stardom in the least. This Old Dog finds him stripped-back and laidback to the max, gently serenading us in solo mode against acoustic guitar and budget synth. That beachy breeziness can bely some darker lyrics, like "Simply bein' alive's been rough" and "Oh no, looks like I'm seein' more of my old man in me". But the Canadian breakout always seems supremely unruffled, no matter what his words might signal.
As for the album's sound, DeMarco riffs on daggy genres with glowing affection, whether spacey Seventies R&B on "For the First Time", smooth jazz licks on "Still Beating" or pure soft rock on "One More Love Song". The title track nestles into the overlap between Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, while "A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes" oddly evokes JJ Cale and other moments veer toward Jimmy Buffett territory. And on wry lullabies like "Dreams From Yesterday", the indie idol sounds like a busker crooning over chintzy pre-recorded backing. That's no insult though: DeMarco has a way of turning silliness into sincerity before our very eyes. It's only around the last quarter that the album starts to drag, due to the unnecessary inclusion of the baggy seven-minute jam "Moonlight on the River".