November album reviews

Taylor Swift – reputation

I’ve never listened to a Taylor Swift album before and have zero intentions of dipping into the back catalogue. However, I figured I’d give this one a go given all the hype surrounding it and all things Tay Tay. Turns out reputation is a fairly solid pop album, albeit tainted by Swift’s attempts to convince everyone that she doesn’t want restitution for having been a victim all this time, she just wants to be a badass. The problem is, she’s terrible at her new persona (I can’t vouch for her previous ones) – her “dark passenger” is as cheesy as that very Dexter voice-over reference. Lead single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is where the reputation journey started. It’s hard to convince anyone this is a good track when its chorus is as bad as it is, but if you were to cut that out it’s actually pretty cool. Funnily enough there’s a bit of Lorde rip-off on the track, as Swift makes it clear she’s keen for a little melodrama of her own. The single will go down as a 2017 flop, but it’s kinda fun to see some kook from a mainstream mainstay. Follow up single ‘…Ready For It?’ is far more solid of a pop tune, and as the album’s lead track it kicks things into gear before you’re jolted back with ‘End Game’, a mixed-genre attempt that for some ungodly reason reboots rapping Ed. It’s probably more shocking than samples of Right Said Fred, but at least it’s out of the way early, leaving Swift enough time to try and make it up to us. What we’re left with is a package of mostly fun pop tunes, the odd misstep (like ‘Gorgeous’ – what a dud), and a question of why Swift needed to go “dark” so hard. Pop reinvention shouldn’t seem so forced.

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* I thought we left rapping Ed back in January!? Why was he not murdered on Game of Thrones!?

Sam Smith – The Thrill Of It All

Bringing mum music to the masses, Sam Smith returns with some superb soul on The Thrill Of It All and confirms classic components like piano and choir are fit for the mainstream in 2017. This is a seriously schmick record, beautifully produced with Smith delivering vocals that are smooth af. The album flows between forlorn balladry and roof-lifting gospel, the latter of which truly shines. The gutsier stuff hits hard early on, which meant there were many quieter moments on which I just wanted that choir to come back (and the odd time they did so frightfully – ‘The Thrill Of It All’). Musically, this album is consistently strong, although there are moments that hint a Chrissy album is on the cards (‘One Last Song’). Complimentary then are the words placed to those songs, which work especially well when Smith is conflicted between faith and feeling (‘HIM’). The Thrill Of It All is a bold follow up to a huge debut, but given Smith is just 25, his best is very likely yet to come. If that’s the case, watch this space.

Pnau – Changa

Pnau’s self-titled record – their third, released in 2007 – was an unexpected delight, embracing us with the kind of strawberry kisses we actually wanted, and earning its place among the memorable Aussie dance records of the naughties. With the exception of the kinda novel Elton John material, it’s taken Pnau a good ten years to come back to form. And while they’ve taken a new form, it’s pretty damn cool. Lead single ‘Chameleon’ was flogged hard in 2016, yet being almost a year older than its album home doesn’t mean it’s not a good indication of what to expect on Changa. The neon spattered jungle feels are all over opener ‘Save Disco’, as the tripped-out vibes blend into the fluro-bounce of ‘Chameleon’. It’s an altogether new brand of whacky thought up, at least in part, by the man who used to completely lose his mind and hang precariously from stage scaffolding – Nick Littlemore. There are a lot of pools that Pnau then dip in and out of among the tribal path of Changa, from pop rave ‘Go Bang’ to falsetto thumper ‘Please Forgive Me’ and from 90s British club vibes on ‘Into The Sky’ to all out sci-fi theme in ‘La Grenouille’. There’s even an intriguing cameo from Vera Blue on pulsating ‘Young Melody’, who delivers some of the rare lyrics you can actually understand. Pnau have created a real animal in Changa, which I feel is what they were after.

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Paloma Faith – The Architect

Paloma Faith’s latest begins with a monologue from Samuel L Jackson. It’s meant to be a political rally call, but there are no obscenities to be heard from the king of yelling “motherf*er” and a minute into The Architect I’m already left yelling “Snakes on a plane!” It’s a strange way to begin things, sitting alongside the title track, which totally blasts off. But while the lyrical message demonstrates Faith in political mode, The Architect is still an brazen pop record. Gutsy at its best and cheesy at its worst, glossy summer jams (‘Crybaby’) neighbour Smooth FM fodder (‘I’ll Be Gentle’) and Faith moves through a kaleidoscope of pop varieties. ‘Kings and Queens’ is an early crowd pleaser, built for the theatrics of a live arena, while the neo-soul likeness to Amy Winehouse and Duffy (‘Guilty’ and ‘Love Me As I Am’, respectively) offer more substantial emotion. The Sia-penned ‘Warrior’ bares more likeness to the writer than just its words, with Faith’s marbles-in-the-mouth delivery a vocal doppelganger of the Adelaide songstress. ‘Til I’m Done’ follows that up as though it were a new Sia collection, nodding to her We Are Born material. The likenesses play in Faith’s favour, coupling with her own kookiness to create an album simultaneously familiar and standalone.

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Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built The Moon?

Liam Gallagher just released a chart topping solo album and within a month his bro Noel is back… Get the popcorn. While the post-Oasis Gallagher race has been neck and neck tool-wise, musically Noel’s been out in front when compared to Liam’s Beady Eye material. Where Liam’s 2017 As You Were won’t let go of the brothers’ heyday, Noel’s found his own groove as a solo artist, marking prominent territory with a High Flying Birds debut and backing it up with Who Built the Moon? While High Flying Birds is no Oasis 2.0 (ala Beady Eye), there is a familiarity to much of the material here, with Noel often doing a kind of Kasabian doing a kind of Beatles. The psychedelic side that made the first High Flying Birds album such a trip isn’t quite as prominent, but there’s enough loud, fuzzy grit to keep it real and the horns that feature heavily are superb. ‘Fort Knox’ is a formidable opening track, bound to soundtrack a big action sequence someday and one of the album’s finest moments straight out of the gate. From there the album is a reminder of great rock and roll, which Noel does justice. There are plenty of nods to Noel’s merry ol’ home of England: ‘Holy Mountain’ rings Bryan Ferry’s ‘Let’s Stick Together’, ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ borrows from The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’, ‘End Credits (Wednesday Part 2)’ smells of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’, and ‘The Man Who Built The Moon’ is all kinds of, well, Oasis. It seems he’s not completely over the good old days.

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June album reviews

Lorde – Green Light

I’ve been in love with ‘Green Light’ for a while now, praying the tune doesn’t suffer the curse of popularity, get played to death, and sent to the hatred bin. This happens a lot if you’re keen on pop music, and Lorde has joined the genre’s elite. Melodrama is probably one of the year’s most anticipated albums. A golden first single followed up by a heart wrenching piano ballad ensured a lot of intrigue in its lead up. So does it live up to the hype? Yep. Lorde has delivered an album that’s as much true to her debut style as it is an opening to the mainstream; somehow pairing new, intriguing and often dark musical ideas with pop, radio earworm sensibilities. ‘Green Light’ isn’t a fluke, with tracks like ‘Supercut’ and ‘Perfect Places’ offering perfect follow-up options for high rotation dance floor hits. Despite their shining through though, Melodrama’s most prominent moment in fact comes from the subtlety and lyrical prowess of ‘Liability’, the stripped back moment that pulls you apart. Lorde’s got all the right angles covered.

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Phoenix – Ti Amo

Listening to Phoenix in June is like watching the Tour de France in July – a French summer escape in the darkest part of Melbourne’s year. Ti Amo isn’t surprising – it’s as cool and sexy as you’d expect a Phoenix album to be. But while it seems very familiar, I doubt fans are gonna shirk off any new material from the band. The album begins at a very fast pace, playing with bilingual lyrics, tonnes of synthesizer and a voice so cool it wears shades at night time. How they turn a title like ‘Fior di Latte’ into a slick indie jam, or deliver lyrics like “I don’t like it as it is / A disaster scenario / So don’t look at what you did / This melted Gelato” with suavity is beyond me, but they pull it off without seeming cheesy. (Ok, it’s a little cheesy, but pay a little less attention and you wouldn’t even notice.) Memorable for its words, but more so for the stellar dance tracks behind them, this is a hot, holiday-vibes album that’s a pretty sweet escape when you need it.

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Fleet Foxes – Crack Up

Who knew Fleet Foxes had gotten so huge? As Vivid headliners in 2017, I was surprised to see they had four concert hall shows on the go – a mean feat for what I thought was a humble little indie band without any new material in the past half-decade. It’s hard to articulate how I hear Fleet Foxes’ music, as they’re a rare band I associate with a specific setting. Their songs have a kind of wild feeling about them, taking my mind wandering through forests and prairies of West America. Crack Up is their third outing and while I don’t think it necessarily has their best or most accessible songs on it, it has struck me, wholly, as their most compelling work. Like its predecessors,Crack Up is lyrically poignant and highlighted with gorgeous harmonies and rich instrumentation; but this time there is a feeling of continuity that runs through the record, resulting in a product that succeeds its predecessors. There are many occasions here where songs adjoin one another, the passage from one to the next marked by subtle melodic shifts. This creates a musical timeline holding everything together, instead of presenting a collection of individual songs. A triple-headed and very unconventional opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’ begins the diverse meander that is Crack Up, setting the scene for a widely varied, beautifully performed, and perfectly pieced together folk meandering.

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Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?

How Did We Get So Dark? is a good question and an even better record. Royal Blood’s second outing is ferocious, loud, varied, and above all addictive. It rounds out in under 35 minutes, but doesn’t relent from the word go, pulling you into its mosh pit and dragging you through some of 2017’s most rockin’ turns. Musically, the heavy pace on How Did We Get So Dark? sounds like a visceral mash up of Queens of the Stone Age and Muse, yet altogether it remains distinctly Royal Blood. It’s a rock and roll album that tightly packs highlights and doesn’t let a token track in, which accounts partly for its brevity, but more importantly for its excitement. Perhaps most impressive is the fact Royal Blood is simply made up of two guys – proof that good ideas is the principle ingredient for intense diversity.

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London Grammar – Truth is a Beautiful Thing

I’m fairly impressed by the success of a single like ‘Rooting For You’. It’s a striking song for one thing, but what’s really interesting is that despite being so far from high rotation radio material, it is. It’s really cool to hear tracks that completely change the pace of all else getting attention (a reminder to just calm your farm, folks). The single is a fair example of the album it’s plucked from, with London Grammar continuing to defy their own popularity by creating pop that’s very much understated. Hannah Reid’s vocals are elegant and Dan Rothman’s guitar work atmospheric, setting the tone for Truth is a Beautiful Thing. Where London Grammar lose ground is in the time they commit to this album – the songs feel quite long (epic slow burner ‘Hell to the Liars’ clocks in at 6 minutes, although the average is above 4) and there are lots of them. As a result, in its subtlety Truth is a Beautiful Thing risks fading away as it moves along; for as lovely as its songs are in isolation, there is a starkness that overcomes them as a collective. London Grammar have delivered a wonderful album here, but its consumption is something best broken down.

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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.