April album reviews (2)

Mew – Visuals

I’m new to Mew, the Danish indie band of over (wow, I’m late to this) 20 years… I came across this album by chance, and not aware of their previous catalogue found all sorts of likenesses as I listened through. At first it felt like the band were borrowing from so many of their contemporaries, but on learning how long they’ve been at it I realised it was the other way around. This made me wonder why those similar acts are getting all the praise here (in Aus), while Mew remain relatively unknown. Things kick off with full-blown anthem ‘Nothingness and No Regrets’, which would immensely please any Of Monsters and Men fan, before a pair of synth-laden tracks – ‘The Wake of Your Life’ and awesomely titled ‘Candy Pieces All Smeared Out’ – present the same glossy pop sounds adapted by Two Door Cinema Club and Passion Pit. Further likeness is then found in the vocals on ‘Ay Ay Ay’, which smell distinctly Shins-y. The whole way through, Mew present slick pop tunes, held together by a lot of synth with production evoking the feeling of a full string section. Mew could easily adapt this work to a pop/orchestra collaboration. I’m sorry I don’t know how Mew have come to this point, but I’m glad I can now find out.

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Gorillaz – Humanz

Z’s everywhere… “double the e, double the z, double the flava!” Not exactly the right kinda quote when listening new Gorillaz material, but with Humanz is there a right thought? There are a lot of trackz here and a seriouz case of cohesion confusion. ‘Ascension’ and ‘Strobelite’ (can they not spell because they’re animals?) lead the first Gorillaz outing in seven yearz and, surprisingly, it’s not an immediate capture. These first songz fair well on their own, but I could be listening to any number of hip hop recordz. A memorable synth sound eventually appearz along with Albarn’s voice to remind you where you’ve landed, but the early setup gearz Humanz in a randomised flight path that’z altogether confusing and a little frustrating. Genre-bending and guest-loading are Gorillaz trademarkz and there’z no shortage of that here. Discounting any interludez, there are 16 trackz and an even greater number of vocalistz. A bunch of humanz helping those gorillaz with their singing (but not spelling). While there waz no standout pop gem for me on this album az there haz been on otherz, ‘Momentz’ (feat. De La Soul) is certainly in the party camp when many of its neighbourz are dark or dreary. For said dark side though, there iz not a finer moment than late comer ‘Hallelujah Money’ (feat. Benjamin Clementine), a very nice, deep and murky political piece.

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The Smith Street Band – More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me

I really didn’t know if I liked The Smith Street Band before listening to a full album of their material (as opposed to radio singles), with their talking(yelling)-not-singing approach to vocals and lines all about the northern suburbs (that’s jealously… I live in the boring east). Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome, or maybe I found something, but my opinion of these fellas has turned around having heard More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me. Wil Wagner has some seriously heavy stuff to say here, and if you can move beyond his style (or perhaps you love it, weirdo) you’ll take something, perhaps a lot, away. There are three levels to the writing on More Scared… First, the complete album is a relationship story, beginning to end; second, the songs are emotional captures, among which you’ll likely find at least one that’s relatable; and third, some of the standalone lyrics are brilliant. There’s a lot to rediscover with subsequent listens. The standout for me was ‘Passiona’ – a candid expression of fear and anxiety – that’s musically gentle before fleshing out sounds along with its lyrics. I’m not convinced TSSB have an album to win over those that truly dislike their style yet. But if you’re still to decide, this one’ll do it for you one way or the other. As far as I can see, so long as you can write, who cares if you can sing.

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Maximo Park – Risk to Exist

Break out the hat and air splits because Maximo Park are back! I never get tired of this band, who consistently release albums with plenty of tracks I want to see on their setlist (and seeing them live is an absolute must). Their catalogue is far from a case of old-is-better and, in many ways, their tunes improve with age. In their sixth outing, the fast indie hooks are paired with a measured and pertinent sentiment. Europe’s political climate is high on their agenda. On title track ‘Risk to Exist’, Paul’s refrain “Show some empathy” is a good summation of the album’s message. There, as on ‘The Reason I Am Here’ and several other tracks, Maximo Park recognise and question a continent in crisis, and point out how flawed reactions to it are (“We will have to make a journey / Through the eyes of idiots / Where every problem in the country / Is blamed upon the immigrants / Not exactly high society / Neither tack nor sobriety”). Risk to Exist is cleverly created; while their strongest messages to date might appear this time around, they haven’t lost the flare of a good tune. You can take it intellectually, or just enjoy the musical mirth, that’s the beauty and the triumph here.

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.