March album reviews (2)

Kingswood – After Hour, Close to Dawn

After Hour, Close to Dawn comes on, ‘Looking for Love’ starts and I’m taken to a tiny, dark club with a piano on stage, little tables full of seated patrons, sipping drinks and enjoying this soulful, bluesy goodness. But hold on a minute, isn’t this Kingswood? As in, smash ya face off, ‘Yeah Go Die’, ear bleeding, scream-a-minute Kingswood? Well yes it is. And as bizarre as this experience is, I really, really like it. Similarly, having heard ‘Golden’ on the radio without a back-announce grabbed me and only later finding out who it was made me double-take. Moving from ripsnorting rock and roll to various forms of soul and blues is an awesome change of tact for the Melbourne trio – it’s not so much a follow up to Microscopic Wars than it is a re-imaging of the band. Their repertoire has been smashed wide open now, the occasional Kingswood-of-old a rare thing (‘Like Your Mother’) among arguably much more interesting material. ‘Big City’ is full country blues that, along with ‘Belle’ before it, includes some stellar harmonies; ‘Rebel Babe’ is multi-faceted, genre-hopping wonder; ‘Alabama White’ goes wild on guitar; and ‘Atmosphere’ saves the best til last, going full-gospel with grouse layers of vocals, guitar and percussion for a rousing end.

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The Shins – Heartworms

So it turns out I like to hold stupid grudges. Upon learning The Shins had a new album, the first thing I remembered about the band was that, five years ago, they ruined a blissful gig when James Mercer self-indulged in a blatantly longwinded (I’m talking looong) solo throughout the encore. Apparently I’m still bitter. I thought about that timeframe, too, and realised Heartworms is the first Shins album in five years. I wish it had come sooner, because when I listened to this beauty I forgot about hating on them so much and quickly remembered how great The Shins are. ‘Name for You’ is instant Shins gold and the right way to kick things off. It feels like a cut from Wincing the Night Away, which given the time Mercer holds onto songs for it could easily have been. ‘Painting a Hole’ is a little weirder, and a few tracks join the variation to break things up (the dreamy country nostalgia of ‘Mildenhall’ and the spacey vibes of ‘Dead Alive’). For the most part though, this disc is full of familiar pop hooks – they haven’t tried any form of reinvention, they’ve just picked up where they left off. With its stirring strings and almost Celtic vibe, ‘The Fear’ is an intriguing way to end such a happy sounding album. “I passed another pointless year,” sings Mercer. “This fear is a terrible drug / If I only had sense enough / To let it give away to love.” This is a sad song masquerading in the company of joyful ones, and it’s done very well. An intriguing way to end a stellar album.

Milky Chance – Blossom

Remember ‘Stolen Dance’? That was a killer track; fresh and interesting with an earworm hook and unique vocals. Well, while I’m not reviewing a four year old single right now, I may as well be. ‘Stolen Dance’ was followed by debut album Sadnecessary and, several singles later, sophomore effort Blossom. From breakthrough single to album number two, you’d expect to hear some growth right? Well the sad fact here is that Blossom does not do what its name suggests, and when you throw it on you’ll hear the exact same Milky Chance you were hearing everywhere in 2013. Don’t get me wrong, single ‘Cocoon’ is damn fun in its own right, but it lacks the new excitement of the aforementioned “smash hit” (I wouldn’t afford the same judgement to the wasteful follow-up single ‘Ego’). I counted three attempts to not just copy and paste on this album: ‘Stay’, ‘Bad Things’ and ‘Piano Song’. The first of these dropped percussion from the equation to produce a dreary acoustic track and the third just annoyed me for how unimaginative its title was …because it’s a song with only piano, guys… ‘Bad Things’ is pretty great, though; the band employ Izzy Bizu to sing along and it makes for a nicely rounded pop item with variance to boot – probably the album’s highlight.

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Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Laura Marling has done something pretty cool over the last 10 years – she’s become a kind of archetype for female folk acts evoking a sound of decades past. Yes, that’s a pretty specific summation, but in fact her name does often come up as an influence or comparison nowadays, to the point it’s hard to not be aware of her work in some way. Like Marling’s work before it, Semper Femina doesn’t so much sound old fashioned as it does timeless, and it’s a good demonstration of why she’s held in such high regard. It’s full of diversity, from striking string arrangements, acoustic guitar carried by rich voice, and the odd rocky moment that breaks out from the calmness across most of the record. The depth of arrangements and lyrical prowess are fairly strong here, as Marling balances the dark and light, proving now – as she did back in 2008 – that she’s writing music beyond her years. Of course, her style is quite specific and therefore will draw a quite specific listener. For all the charm and magic that comes across to one listener, another dose of Laura Marling might just be a tad tiring to another.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts

This is a sexy beast of a record, and after only one listen it propped itself up as one of my favourite Spoon offerings. It’s fresh stuff for the Texans, yet so distinctly theirs; a fact that becomes quickly apparent. The first three tracks set the tone for this album: the steamy funk of ‘Hot Thoughts’, a toe into dark and broody territory on ‘WhisperI’lllistentohearit’ (something of a hangover from Divine Fits), and classy guitar work on ‘Do I Have to Talk You Into It’. The last of those, along with tracks like ‘Shotgun’, are for the Spoon purists, with driving, repetitive hooks and choruses, and Britt Daniel’s unmistakable squawk. But Hot Thoughts is more than predictable Spoon – it’s full of cool new trials and successes. The ensembles used are far more varied than before, with piano featuring heavily. There are psychedelic waves (‘Pink Up’) and deep groove basslines (‘Can I Sit Next to You’), as well as one airy, horn-laden outro (‘Us’) that delves into jazz territory far removed from what you’d expect of the band and is left to smoulder as the album ends. The album’s eclectic and a tad addictive, so get on it.

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March album reviews

Methyl Ethel – Everything is Forgotten

I really love Methyl Ethel’s song ‘Ubu’, which appears up front on the band’s second album Everything is Forgotten. The vocals are intriguing and distinctively Jake Webb’s, the hook is catchy and the chorus has one of those lines that just keeps creeping back into your head. The problem, though, is that the song contributes to a major flaw of the band’s second album. In isolation, the lengthy repetition of the lyric “why’d you have to go and cut your hair” is fun; but when batched in with a bunch of other tracks that employ a similar tactic it gets frustrating. This isn’t to say they’re musically similar – there is in fact a clever display of creative variance throughout – but to have at least six tracks refrains repeated a few too many times is kind of annoying. Sure it’s a pop technique, but it’s jarring here. They’ve chucked in plenty of neat stuff, however. ‘L’Heure des Sorcieres’ employs Midnight Juggernauts-esque synth, ‘Femme Maison/One Man House’ some messy fuzz (and transfixion), and ‘Groundswell’ an old worldly harpsichord intro, with each fronted by that unique vocal which pulled me in in the first place. I feel that in time I’ll forgive my initial criticism of this album, or at least just takes the songs in isolation. Many of them a pretty rad.

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Ed Sheeran – ÷

It’s the emo rap sob pop album nobody wanted! False, actually. Hordes of emo rap lovers wanted it. Or, pop lovers. Sobbing pop lovers? Or the Irish… Do the Irish like the English these days? I think the emo rap lovers wanted something different. Confused? I am too… Because that is what ÷ does to you. Now, the third album in Ed Sheeran’s mathematical catalogue does contain proof that he can write a fun, memorable pop song. The unfortunate thing though, is that it also contains a whole lot of other stuff. You’ve probably heard ‘Castle on the Hill’ – a perfectly rounded, rousing pop tune that reminds us that English teens love to vom (so nostalgic) – and ‘Shape of You’ (the banana shaker one). You could easily stop there, basking in the craft of two well-rounded radio favourites. But, if you want to hear Ed delve into all sorts, listen to ÷. There’s an expected list of (mostly ordinary) ballads on ÷, but there’s also an odd amount of rapping (‘Eraser’), a flawed go at sexy soul (‘Dive’), a kind of nod to Graceland (‘Bibia Be Ye Ye’), an attempted street party anthem (‘Barcelona’), and a stab at an Irish pub ditty (‘Nancy Mulligan’). While this all rushes past in a confusing blaze, nowhere is the randomness of ÷ reflected more than on ‘Galway Girl’, a rap-versed Irish fiddle love song. Now do you see why I’m confused? He’s used so much here, it’s hard to know what else is there to look forward to. Perhaps deathcore, reggae and EDM will be thrown into the mix on his future albums and π. You know, because Ed.

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Alice Jemima – Alice Jemima

These tunes may envelop you or just pass you by depending on how much attention you want to give them. On one hand, the wistful pop of Alice Jemima is a fair stress remedy and escape from the world. Electronic beats, synth and cool guitar (think the xx) combine with whispery vocals (think Lisa Mitchell) to create a dream state you can close your eyes and bathe in. It’s chilled out, summer arvo music. There comes a point where you forget to notice the songs differentiating, but try not to miss the gentle oh-so-odd reworking of ‘No Diggity’. On the other hand, if your eyes are wide open and you’re caught up in whatever else is going on nearby, the “quiet” of these songs will struggle to seep in. This is calm stuff – you have to meet it accordingly.

Holy Holy – Paint

Holy Holy’s Paint is a triumphant Australian rock album, stacked with beauty and feeling. Its paradox is that the songs sound both classic and brand new, each awash with rollicking guitar and smooth vocals that draw you further in with each track. While the band have sited American folk and country bands as influences in the past, there is a distinct Australiana about Paint that is instantly recognisable. Hints of Icehouse and The Church can be found, as can likenesses to many contemporaries who Holy Holy may just well surpass with this release – in several instances I heard a balance somewhere between a Husky-like folk and the brooding of City Calm Down. ‘Darwinism’ is an all-round brilliant track and the indie rock mastery of ‘Elevator’ contains the defining riff off the album, while added touches of progressive psychedelia (‘Shadow’, ‘Send My Regards’) and pop sensibility (‘True Lovers’) only add to Holy Holy’s conquest.

February album reviews

Maggie Rogers – Now That the Light is Fading EP

Maggie Rogers’ Now That the Light is Fading is grouse. It’s not fair, then, that there are only five tracks here. This EP is a really good insight into what Maggie has to offer – 20 minutes to show her wares and demonstrate why people should wait out for any longer catalogue additions. ‘Color Song’ – a track isolated to vocals – starts things off nice and chilled out, setting up the cool indie pop to follow in radio-friendly ‘Alaska’ and ‘On + Off’. The remaining songs flaunt more of Maggie’s gorgeous vocals captured so well on track 1, adding memorable pop hooks that make each track instantly loveable.

Elbow – Little Fictions

There are a great number of bands for which I can easily proclaim: “I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.” Elbow is not one of them. The band can’t put a foot wrong as far as I’m concerned. Not taking anything away from their earliest material, when The Take Off and Landing of Everything came out in 2014 – their sixth of now seven albums – it eventually launched to arguably my favourite. And they’ve delivered another dose of brilliance on Little Fictions. The rousing ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ is a formidable lead to a stellar new collection of tracks on this album, which moves between loving, joyous, uplifting, melancholy and all sorts – Elbow again delivering more feeling in 50 minutes than many bands can in a career. Along with the opener, cleverly percussive ‘Gentle Storm’, lyrically packed ‘K2’ and the stirring epic ‘Little Fictions’ are the strongest additions to a perfectly-rounded new addition to the Elbow family.

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Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer

I’m of the mind that grime music is terrible, so I set the bar pretty low when first listening to Stormzy; the next act in a line of British rappers who like black clothes, swearing a shit-tonne and generally coming across as very angry fellas. Why bother listening, then? Well, I guess I just like the way he says “bewts” and throws out truth bombs like “you’re never too big for Adele” in ‘Big For Your Boots’ (And that track has been hard to avoid). I was sucked in by one track, but this is far from a standout for me. There are some funny lines littered throughout and the odd winning track (2014’s ‘Shut Up’ resurfacing and claiming best on show), but there’s too much whatever everywhere else, with ‘Velvet’ sounding snorezy, the three-minute one-sided phone conversation ‘Crazy Titch’ far too self-indulgent, and ‘Mr Skeng’ (among others) sounding no different to any other grime act going around. That phone convo suggests Stormzy is taking grime “from a second rate genre to a first rate genre.” Do I agree? Meh.

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Dune Rats – The Kids Will Know It’s Bullshit

There’s a serious problem here because, evidently, the kids don’t know it’s bullshit. This is easily some of the worst local music around and having it constantly flogged on the radio is, well, bullshit. To be fair, if you’re a 15-year-old male who’s just discovered tinnies and weed, this is probably hilarious and close-to-home. But for all the rest of you that took this to number one on the Aria charts, please explain it to me? The music is appallingly unoriginal, the vocals painful to listen to, and the lyrics mind-numbing. Of course, that’s probably what they’re going for and I’ve missed the point altogether. Or maybe it’s just a complete load of rubbish and simply a Queensland thing.

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Middle Kids – Middle Kids EP

Some local talent is on serious fire at the moment. I couldn’t get over the number of female voices killing it in 2016 and I’m hoping the trend continues this year. Middle Kids’ self-titled EP is a good start. The tracks presented are an awesome representation of this Sydney three-piece and you’ll be singing along in no time. By the time Hannah’s vocals go high on ‘Edge of Town’, repeating the refrain “I’ve got something on my mind,” all you want to do is rock out hard. ‘Never Start’ follows, bringing you back to earth momentarily, only to get you similarly revved again when its own chorus rolls through. It’s not a formula, it’s a consequence of good song craft. Each song is its own entity – I wouldn’t turn one away if presented in isolation. For that, Middle Kids become very radio friendly, and an act that’s likely to draw in more fans with each offering. Generally middle kids are the unloved ones (certainly the case in my family), but I think I’m going to love these guys.

Jidenna – The Chief

Jidenna has a fair list of talents; he can sing, rap, and dresses impeccably. He has a lot to show off on his debut The Chief, which is why it comes across a tad hotchpotch. Drake’s getting rap Grammys for pop records, so maybe Jidenna is just covering all bases to avoid confusion down the track. Among the songs, there’s breathy war chanting, chats with dad, some icky auto tune, a lullaby nap, anthemic choruses, fiery rap and earworm pop – it’s all quite confusing. But despite the flip flopping, The Chief is a really fun album, full of clever lyrics, a touch of political poignancy, and memorable beats that stick with you even when not sticking to one another. All that is heavily seasoned with the man’s self-confidence –  he’s the chief, the lion, and even the better Bond (“And that lame tryna holler he a Bond wanna-be, He a Roger Moore I’m a Sean Connery, I know”).

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