It's been five years since Gravenhurst's last album, 2007's The Western Lands, and in the time since, the band's line-up has slimmed down to just founder/multi-instrumentalist Nick Talbot, aided live by an array of electronics and looping devices. Given these developments, it's perhaps initially surprising that this fifth album, The Ghost In Daylight, comes across as Gravenhurst's most lush collection to date, and certainly one that expertly balances its more sweeping vistas with a sense of folky intimacy. While there's a loose shoegazer/psyche-rock feel to opener Circadian that calls to mind The Brian Jonestown Massacre with its slow, rolling drums and meandering fuzzed-out guitar howls, the acoustic guitar-centred In Miniature soon sees Talbot drawing upon the familiar influences of Simon & Garfunkel and Nick Drake that have previously coloured his work, the deceptively warm vocal harmonies almost masking the sense of uncertainty that haunts all of the ten tracks here. Elsewhere, eight-minute-long centrepiece Islands brings the icy electronics to the forefront as frigid synth drones and slow clicking beats provide a hypnotic motorik backing to Talbot's smeared-out and processed whispers, only for The Foundry to send things off into a gentle acoustic guitar fugue that's as much contemporary jazz-classical as it is Bert Jansch. In this case, the five-year-wait has been worth it, with the subtleties of The Ghost... best enjoyed through repeated listening.
After changing their name from Howl because they apparently kept getting mixed up with a doom-metal band in the USA, six-piece band Hunting Grounds are ready to release their debut album. With a few EPs under their belt, the winners of triple j’s 2009 Unearthed competition have tinkered around with their sound, settling on a combination of hard guitars, strong drums and melodic singing.
The word ‘punk’ keeps getting thrown around in descriptions of the band but I’ve heard little evidence of punk on this debut album. Indie-rock, sure. Psychedelic grunge, yeah. Hard pop, maybe.
Newly released single In Colour is just that: a single. Clean rock sounds, double-dubbed vocals and a catchy chorus, In Colour just seems different from the rest of the album, but that doesn’t detract from the appeal. Kill My Friend is a fun one, a harder rock sound that is closer to their old Howl days. Like another Victorian band The Vasco Era, Kill My Friend has an early ‘90s sound and is a great listen turned up LOUD.
Star Shards is a typical pop-rock song. Starting off with some grandiose piano, it blends into your standard indie-rock bass line and harmonic vocals. Throw in some jangly guitars, and you’ve got yourself an easy listen. Sounding like a harder Gypsy & The Cat with a splash of Grinspoon, Hunting Grounds’ debut album is worth a listen.
In the late '80s and early '90s, Roxette proved that there was more attitude to Swedish pop than Mamma Mias and Dancing Queens. Their killer album Look Sharp and the follower Joyride were chock full of power pop riffs, rippling keys and impressive ballads. Several albums (including Best Ofs) followed, but who remembers them? I was prepared for mediocrity in Travelling, but it’s actually not too shabby.
Though no Look Sharp, there is a lot to like in the bouncy pop rhythms, elegant vocal arrangements and the catchy twists that appear in almost every song. It’s a mixed bag of material recorded live or in hotel rooms, and repeats of previous songs such as It Must Have Been Love. Marie Fredriksson’s crystal-shattering vocal chords are still impressive, especially in Stars, but Per Gessle takes a prominent lead in the vocals in half the tracks. He’s at his rockin’ best in Charm School and even shows a touch of country twang in Easy Way Out. The opener Me & You & Terry & Julie has a definite recorded-in-the-bedroom feel rather than the expected big label gloss. Angel is like a limp Eurovision song entry but the live track She’s Got Nothing On (But The Radio) features some convincing guitars and percussion in what is definitely a keyboard led album. Other highlights are the poppy Touched By The Hand Of God and theballad Turn Of The Tide.
Transport yourself to England circa 1972. The swinging ‘60s are a distant memory, the Summer of Love never made it across the Atlantic, a recession is hitting hard, unemployment has doubled in two years to tip the one million mark and a state of emergency is declared after a prolonged miners strike. Grim times, end of the world vibe. So it must have been quite a shock when the glammed up, otherworldly and thoroughly androgynous Ziggy Stardust touched down in June, singing “We've got five years, that's all we've got,” in a calm, distant voice. It was also a sketchy time for Bowie; haunted by the belief he was a one hit wonder (Space Oddity was three years previous) he threw everything he had into the fictional Ziggy Stardust after a trip to NYC to hang out with the Warhol crowd. It paid off handsomely and after The Rise And Fall... Bowie never looked back.
This 40th Anniversary edition has been remastered from the original analog tapes and is revelatory; from the first note it’s rich, warm, enveloping and lush, more vinyl than digital. Starman pops and shimmers unlike any other four-decade-old song but the troika that rounds out the album (no bonus tracks preserve original running order) confirms its groundbreaking status. Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City and Rock & Roll Suicide concluded Ziggy’s time on Earth but set Bowie’s path for the next 40 years, forever changing the face of popular music.
"I've never really had a religious experience… The closest I’ve ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music. Rap music is my religion.” Those are the opening words of the title/final track on R.A.P. Music and by the time you hear them Killer Mike’s earned the right to preach.
Two phrases that appear more and more in great hip hop are ‘countryfied’ and ‘country shit’. Big K.R.I.T. is at the tip of this, whiling away hazy porch tracks with grandfather wisdom and a twanging, Deep South flow. But K.R.I.T. seems alone out there, content to chew a cheroot and watch the big smoke from a rocking chair. The big smoke, of course, is Atlanta, Georgia, a southern Mecca still touched with the lingering memory of Outkast. A few years ago that memory galvanised into Big Boi’s solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, an ultimately disappointing release. It smacked of cleverness and marketability but lacked authenticity and soul.
Though Killer Mike spat the guts into numerous Outkast tracks in the past, as a solo artist he stayed indie in his ethics and production values. However, R.A.P. Music (Rebellious African People) sees producer extraordinaire El-P step in. Just last issue we touted El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure, an album with production so intense and paranoid it puts its own verses on the back foot. Here El-P has scaled things back and put Mike in the spotlight, let his genuineness guide things.
Killer Mike is exactly what Deep South rap needs. He’s an antithesis to K.R.I.T.’s dusty wisdom and a rapper without Big Boi’s crossover pop feel. Sounding as full of soul and political animosity as any great, Killer Mike owns this. The cover art reads, ‘Readers of the books, Leaders of the crooks’, and Mike toes the line between eloquence, intelligence and raw realness with godly confidence.
The standouts (Southern Fried, Ghetto Gospel and Reagan) set out, respectively, to own Atlanta’s rap game, lament the violent realities of getting by and unveil Ronald Reagan as the devil. The key to each are pulsing El-P hooks grounded by Mike’s southern croon and fiery verses. But between all these are tracks banging with the violent energy only classics muster: the opener Big Beast and Mike’s ode to New York City, Anywhere But Here, in particular.
Synthetica is the new record from New York indie outfit Metric. It follows their hit debut album Fantasies and rising success, including involvement in various film scores and a performance for the Queen.
Synthetica has a somewhat darker tone than Fantasies, both instrumentally and lyrically (for example, the environmentally-charged Speed The Collapse). Emily Haine’s voice is emotive and genuine but its pop-punk sheen – disguised by mic distortion on Lost Kitten – reminds me of, well, Twilight.
There’s a definite The Cure/Smiths influence on the record but Metric’s creative abilities fall a little short. The band has experimented with different synth sounds which are omnipresent in Dreams So Real. Scott-Key (drums) brings sharp, uncomplicated beats that give their sound an unmistakable hipster feel. The sweet guitar melodies, the innocent xylophone-esque synths, the predictable interludes and song structures, make this record less than impressive; it’s comfortable to listen to. Even the attitude on Synthetica – a kind of rebellious anthem against homogenisation of the pop culture world – seems a little safe.
On the good side, softer tracks like Clone and Nothing But Time with Haines’ whispery tones and mellow instrumentals aren’t unpleasant to listen to. No doubt added energy at their live shows would bring the songs to life, especially in a hip New York club. Nothing But Time exhibits building intensity, layered electronic sounds and sees the band break their usual song structure. It finishes the album in a nice ethereal, haunting space.
Damon Albarn must easily be one of the biggest workaholics to emerge from the UK music scene. If he wasn't already well occupied with his new Rocketjuice & The Moon band project, this latest solo album Dr. Dee offers up his musical score to the opera of the same name, written in collaboration with theatre director Rufus Norris and performed at last year's Manchester International Festival. In this case, the Dr. Dee in question is John Dee; 17th century astrologer, occultist and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, a man who rose to the highest ranks of influence in the British courts before being undone by his less talented rivals and dying penniless in obscurity.
It's a typical English tale that continues some of the themes explored by Albarn on The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and this is a far more immediately accessible collection than first portents might suggest. While there are the expected massed librettos and theatrical segues scattered throughout the eighteen tracks here, it's Albarn's own vocals that emerge as the centrepiece to much of the story, backed up by string and woodwind instrumentation. While regular Albarn associates Simon Tong and Tony Allen make subtle appearances here, the latter's presence is only apparent on instrumental segue Preparation, the one concession to beats here.
It’s haunting and intriguing, but without having seen the accompanying opera there's a sense of missing context more than anything else.
The eye-catching artwork on this CD would be overtly sexist if used by a male artist. However, rather than an image of objectification or exploitation, it portrays the philosophy of this record, of abandoning cares and immersing yourself in life’s finer things. In her third album, Martin moves on from her past of electro-pop and electronica for something more sophisticated and seductive. A mixture of classy pop and jazz, there’s a strong cabaret feel to the album, with lots of finely tinkling keys and understated percussion.
Opener So Long sounds like a super-sultry Megan Washington, with dreamy piano and sweeping strings at the finish. Songs such as Darling are a delicate waltz between Liz’s soft, breathy vocal and the instrumentation which is delicately cued to highlight her lush voice, instead of obscuring it. Co-produced by Dave Symes (Sarah Blasko, Missy Higgins), the highly polished tracks are crafted to furnish a romantic, indulgent ambiance. In Oh and Night Time the instruments flash softly like neon signs, cocooning Liz’s voice. Meanwhile serves as an instrumental interlude, combining a beginning like an overture from a Bond film with bird calls and heels clacking on a hard floor. There’s also a very jazzy cover of David Bowie’s Sound and Vision, with the male vocals supplied by Mr Percival. So if you’re feeling stressed, sit back and listen to Liz a little.
Self-negging has never been a step on the road to success. Winners yell ‘YYEERRSSS! I’M THE CHEERRRMPION’ and are echoed by screaming fans they know will be there as they sprint onto a field already layered with laurels. Calling your album Out Of The Game is not gold medal behaviour. Neither is recording a kitschy set of California pop songs when California pop died with The O.C. soundtrack, and you live in New York.
Authenticity? I loved you, Rufus. I made a fool of myself singing your songs at a college talent quest while an exchange student played the piano. As for Out Of The Game – too right. I’m glad I kept the receipt. [Ed: he took a copy from our office.]
Classic self-negging points go to a set of arch, patronising interviews wherein Rufus explained that he was ready again, after forays into Shakespearian adaptation and touring in drag as Judy Garland, to write mind-numbing pop that The People could dance to. Actual quote from producer Mark Ronson: “We were just doing guitar overdubs, and Rufus gets a call and says, ‘Does anyone want to go to the duchess of Austria's yacht for a little party?’”
On the other hand, everything Rufus touches turns to gold in a campy kind of way, and the last-gasp play-your-best-hand tribute-to-Mum ballad Candles will blow you away. You’ll cry in the first line, if you swing that way: “I tried to do all that I can/ but the churches have run out of candles.” Sob.
One of the finest albums of 2010 was the first Gil Scott-Heron had released in 16 years: I’m New Here. It turned out to be his last; he died in May 2011, aged 62. The album came about as a result of a push by XL Recordings-owner Richard Russell, who reportedly hassled Scott-Heron to complete it for two years. It featured sparse electro hooks and eclectic drum breaks, over which Scott-Heron’s metal-filing croon was brought to the fore. It was brutally confessional and brilliant.
With Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man, Russell and cohort Damon Albarn repeat the process. And the raw material’s good; like Scott-Heron, Womack (now 68) is a man whose life has been a technicolour smorgasbord of fucked. He married Sam Cooke’s widow three months after Cooke died, later narrowly surviving her attempt to shoot him when she discovered he was sleeping with her daughter. His wire-worn voice has been shredded by decades of booze and cocaine; when brought to the fore it conjures a wealth of meaning and soul to supplement the precise clicking beats and sparse instrumentation Albarn and Russell have provided.
However, The Bravest Man is ultimately inferior. There are half-baked anomalies, both in arrangement and lyricism: “Our love’s like lollipops/ Lollipops running through the rain.” Despite missteps, though, this is an incisive cut into a deep well of talent. This modern, expositional take on what most regard as a generation whose best work is long past has resulted in a virile, valid record.
Alt country-roots band The Audreys launched albums in 2004, 2008 and 2011 and won ARIAs for best blues and roots record for all of them. This collection brings together the whole shebang. You don’t get awards in that category for having an outstanding hairdo or your own fashion label. This is songwriting at its best, delivered through brilliant musicianship enfolding the alluring voice of Taasha Coates. The style varies from whimsical folk to gypsy swagger to sounds that slash and stab at each other. The best Audreys tracks have sharp edges and undercurrents that run deep. Trying to pick highlights is challenging but Paradise City, Two States Away and Head So Heavy are diamonds amongst many gems. Shivers run up the spine and goose bumps form with the visceral pleasure of the sound. Instruments shadowbox with each other in the track When the Flood Comes. The cover of Don’t Change from the first release, gently morphed by violin and mandocello, paints the INXS song in never-before-seen hues. There’s a shift in vibe between discs, with the second album being less folky and displaying a lusher approach. The band unravelled a bit after that and the third disk, while still radiant, has lost some of the spark of the previous work. But if you ever were tempted to invest in a little Audreys music, then this is the time to indulge.
We’ve all experienced the emotional yuck of a relationship break-up and some of that has to do with accompanying feelings of self doubt – as in, ‘Could it be that I am not as desirable as I thought I was?’ The Wedding Present’s David Gedge seems to spend much time asking himself questions like this and others along the lines of, ‘This girl is so beautiful; why would she want to be seen with the likes of me?’ Gedge wonders about this on Mystery Date, a not atypical track on Valentina. This thought is sustained by a fluid melody and rhythm which makes the point without getting too carried away. In earlier days The Wedding Present had mastered the quiet-to-loud dynamic where the music would increase in intensity to match raw feelings in the vocals. The band had been doing this to good effect since the late 1980s and outlived the short rein of emotion-drenched grunge guitar in the earlier half of the 1990s. The idea was to keep the arrangements simple and the guitars alternating between gentle and forceful to keep listeners focused on the rollercoaster ride that shapes the precarious state of mutual attraction. Gedge has mellowed a bit these days and although his turbulent narratives have remained pretty much intact, the music sets an unhurried pace where a contemplative atmosphere punctuated by properly edgy riffs and accessible insight creates a space for consideration of universal themes.
The advance word on this, the seventh LP from the Brooklyn-via-Philadelphia five-piece, had an unfamiliar tone. Instead of hyperbolic details of struggle or personal excess (still the key ingredients in rock mythology), the talk suggested that Heaven was comfortable: the sound of a band at peace after 11 years of graft. Not the stuff of rock legend.
Heaven does sound comfortable, but this is not a bad thing. The Walkmen have long been modern rock’s underdogs; never as famous or acclaimed as The Strokes, The White Stripes, The National and the rest of their Class Of 2000 kin, and unable to follow through on the promise of vast singles like The Rat. And yet, unlike The Strokes or Stripes, they remain alive and alert. Hamilton Leithauser remains one of the greatest voices in modern rock and the shimmering guitar and piano interplay is as it ever was, with the urgency of Angela Rock City or In The New Year replaced with the embrace of rollicking easy rockers like Heartbreaker or the ‘50s swagger of The Witch. It’s a record about getting older and being okay with that. The album might have been trimmed a little but when songs slip by as easily and enjoyably as these, it seems unkind to quibble.
Bands rarely age this well. The Walkmen are to be celebrated for taking the least rock-friendly circumstances and making an essential rock record from them. Heaven is exactly that.