On the sleeve of this pre-release copy of Early Summer, Amaya Laucirica cuts a mysterious, intriguing figure: eyes obscured by her fringe, peering out from a crevice in the ghostly rockface at Hanging Rock in Victoria. And there’s a lesson here for others, which is never to skimp on artwork. When you’re up against such photoshopped atrocities as the latest Soundgarden record, a sharp cover like this is enough to set your disc apart from the deluge of hopefuls littering the office floor. Adelaide-via-Sydney-via-Melbourne singer and songwriter Amaya trades in country-inflected pop – alt-country, most would call it. While 2008 debut Sugar Lights was a relatively straight-down-the-line affair, with this, the second full-length, Amaya and band have created a darker, more melancholy atmosphere that engulfs the listener. Though the instrumentation itself is quite sparse, it all combines under Amaya’s harmonies to form a dense, slow-burning set of songs which gradually unfold in layers of shimmering keyboards and guitar chords that hang in the air, lingering. When Amaya stretches her syllables, there’s a touch of Hope Sandoval’s hushed delivery. At the other end of the spectrum, on the breezy Anywhere She Went, there are echoes of Jenny Lewis with a country twang. Of course these reference points only tell part of the story, as Amaya’s style is very much her own. One can only hope that Early Summer, excellent as it is, will alert people to this.
Deerhunter vocalist Bradford Cox is a rather interesting bloke who seems equally attuned to the dream-pop scene of the late 1980s with its beautifully ethereal psychedelia, and the Brian Wilson school of sublime melody writing. Either way, his contributions to this fantastic album contain the right amount of sweet tunefulness and unsettling lyrical traits that make this band’s music a totally engaging experience. Opening track Earthquake begins with unusual atmospherics while Cox’s slurred, distorted vocals that include such stark utterances as, “do you recall waking up on a dirty couch in the grey fog,” blend with multi-coloured arrangements that require repeat listens to fully absorb. Unlike the equally compelling Microcastle/Weird Era Continued album, Deerhunter has toned down moments of shoegazer distortion on Halcyon Digest so that all those great tunes skewed in the proper direction can shine through, along with little stand out bits like the liquid percussion on Helicopter which anchors a radiant melody. Deerhunter has once again broken free from merely coming across as the sum of its influences on this fourth album, and arrived at something that distorts reality in a not unpleasant way which the greatest psychedelic music has always sought out. But it has done so in an understated manner which likeminded bands like The Flaming Lips are seemingly incapable of these days. And so on Desire Lines, Cox sings, “Walking free. Come with me.” I think I might.
Antony Hegarty’s haunting, overwhelming vocals and his collaborator’s ability to craft beautifully disarming songs from simple arrangements has meant that both have rarely needed to dabble in indulgent experimentation to engulf the listener with the intimately powerful emotions present within Hegarty’s lyrics. However, on the sprawling and at times dense Swanlights, new depth is added to Hegarty’s always resplendent chamber pop style via delicately placed layers of percussion, alongside some minor, yet conspicuous experimentation with shoegaze-style reverb. Thankfully, the group’s discipline means that the exotic, surreal tones they’ve toyed with on Swanlights have been masterfully executed; the only possible criticism being that at times these moments, if anything, have the potential to over-stimulate. Alongside this, the album is discernibly more hopeful and optimistic than its austere, confronting predecessor, The Crying Light - a departure which, while saying nothing of quality, is likely to please as many fans as it will disappoint. It’s hard to say whether Swanlights will imbed itself in the minds of listeners in the same way that The Crying Light did, but its immediate impact is sure to be just as deep.
After a promising start with their 2007 EP Some Strangers Ship, this roots band from Brisbane hit a speed bump last year when the failure of their record label was accompanied by energy sapping legal wrangles. Now wiser in the ways of the music industry, they have bounced back with Ur. On My Way Back Home sets the bar high right from the start, displaying awesome musicianship as notes fly from Tim Loydell’s 12 string guitar, creating melodies of hypnotic intricacy. Moaning and wailing like a wild animal, as it cuts across this musical canvas, is the air shredding lap steel of Josh Catt. United with Alex Mitchell’s bass line and Joe Brisick’s many-faceted percussion, these guys form a potent combination. Look beneath the surface lyrics to find richly illustrated themes that dissect contemporary values. The muddy blues of Hello Friends spotlights the all prevalent self-centredness and other songs explore attitudes varying from the self-imposed manic pace of living to the bovine acceptance of the status quo. The band’s musical mastery and story telling ability, exemplified by such tracks as the beautiful The Owl, puts them up there with such roots stars as the mesmerising Jeff Lang. The Deckcahirs have adopted a revolutionary marketing strategy, sending the beautifully packaged CD to whomever emails them for a copy, with the request that, if you like it, please send money. If you don’t, then pass it on to someone who does. I’m not giving mine away!
Many will find this album an acceptable addition to the realm of hip-hop and even a testament to Big Boi’s ability to stand apart from Outkast. The beats are solid, sometimes even imaginative. (General Patton is a standout with a fantastic ball-slapping booming choir loop.) Further, Big Boi’s lyrical flow is deliciously honed and his Georgia twang is undeniably infectious. So with all this in its favour, what is the album missing? Well, it’s missing something new. With a couple of exceptions the sound of the record is exceedingly familiar. The 808-esque vocal loops and electro-synthesised tunes have been the norm for forgettable mainstream hip-hop for over a year now. When someone whose status as an innovator has been well earned produces a record that is reminiscent of the flash-in-the-pan chlamydia music made by B.o.B., there is something unfathomably disappointing about it. Big Boi’s choice of topics is unimaginative also. Besides the odd offhand reference to Obama and New Orleans, this album is essentially about blowjobs, drugs, how much better Big Boi is at stuff than other people, and blowjobs. While accepted tenets of the hip-hop genre, these are tired and superficial paths to walk for an entire album. Not only should more be expected of high-profile creators such as Big Boi, it should be demanded. While it should be noted that the album’s release was long delayed, compromising its potential originality, this can only begin to soften the anti-climax.
After an initial moment of confusion – the opening bars of Worlds Collide replicate exactly Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express before morphing into a gratuitous revisit of Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song - listeners to this album will be immediately comforted by the familiar aural surroundings couched within its environs. Unruly Child initially exploded onto the hard rock scene in 1992, just as Kurt and company were sweeping this kinda schtick out of music’s back door, and were thus lost to the world in short order. This is a shame, because their Zeppelin-infused hysteria was rather fine, and pleased though your reviewer is to announce that not a lot has changed 18 years down the line, it’s hard to see them having much widespread impact now either.
One major change has occurred – vocalist Mark Free is now Marcie Free, but whatever nipping and tucking has taken place has mercifully not had a deleterious effect on Free’s vocal chords, which still deliver a grittier version of Robert Plant with pleasing results. Opener Show Me the Money exhibits this state of affairs perhaps too well; elsewhere the less heavy duty AOR of When We Were Young and Tell Another Lie both allow Free more personality beyond mere lemon-squeezing apeage, whilst the excellent Love is Blind finds Marcie really stretching out on an excellent chorus that brings heady memories of Hard Rock titans House of Lords flooding back into the ol’ memory banks. Good stuff.
Michael Gira can rightfully claim to being years ahead of his time. Swan’s apocolyptic brand of neo-noise, swirling avante-dissonance and harsh metallic grind can be found in artists as disparate as GSY!BE and Marilyn Manson. Critical adulation was one thing, but the latter years of Swans Mk. I were bitter and terse. Maybe that’s why his solo work and Angels of Light output was, at times, so bucolic and dare I say it - joyful.
And now all these alt-rock marquee acts are filling theatres and Gira struggles in Upper New York State to turn a profit running his label, Young God Records. Gira does it for the passion, those visceral moments where slack-jawed audiences can only stare at him, stunned (witness his highly lauded 2009 Australian tour) – not the cash. But bills need to be paid.
And so 14 years after their ‘last’ album, Swans Mk. II are here. But this is not a nostalgia trip, whatever this is. If you came across Swans late night on Rage assaulted by epic, verdant Love of Life you’ll find much to love on this album – Inside Madeline and My Birth are natural progressions whilst Eden Prison has all the crushing urgency of Swans circa 1991, thank a returning Norman Westberg for that. A singular triumph for Gira, My Father... will please fans familiar with any part of his incredible canon.