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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