Phoenix has always possessed an idiosyncratic take on polished pop. Yacht rock for cool kids. Theirs is an identifiable sound. And now that the French foursome has crossed over into the big time, the pressure is on. Have they produced a winner, a fresh take on an established formula, or is it just more of the same? The answers are yes, kinda, and sort of.
On the first few spins Bankrupt! seems incredibly dense, both sonically and melodically. The opening three songs sound like a band second-guessing their hooks; unsure of one, they append another, creating dizzying mash-ups, mini greatest hits that add up to less than the sum of their parts. However, subsequent spins reveal a different, richer LP.
Bankrupt! sounds like a band responding to the circumstances of their updated success. Thematically and sonically it addresses excess. Singer Thomas Mars has one foot in the world of the A-list, and is battling to keep the other foot outside so that he might chronicle it. This is the struggle at the heart of the LP, a kind of disgust in wanting more when you have it all. It adds depth to the polished exterior.
Trying to be Cool, SOS in Bel Air, Don’t and Drakker Noir are dark pop winners, infused with far eastern dabs, light and dark balanced beautifully. There is nothing as immediate as Lisztomania aside from the single, Entertainment. Songs such as Bourgeois and Chloroform are jarring, but that’s their genius – like revealing the sadness of the pretty, rich kid. That may not appeal to all. But Mars isn’t interested in your sympathy. He seems interested in exploring his and their position. How French. It’s an honest appraisal of Planet Phoenix circa 2013. A great record lurks underneath the gloss. Give it time.
Watching The Cat Empire live provides an insight into their creative process. There they are, all six of them, usually accompanied by some amalgamation of their unpronounceable support act, all singing, banging or blowing their hearts out. They enjoy themselves. And it’s often infectious. But at some point in any band’s career, if that band’s sound hasn’t changed, it becomes poignant to ask whether they’re bored of making music together. Often bands will pre-empt this question by announcing they can go no further creatively and breaking up. In the case of The Cat Empire, their live show says it all: they’re far from bored.
And that’s a problem, because they’re boring. Steal the Light is The Cat Empire’s fifth album, and sees them stretching no new creative limbs whatsoever. Which is fine, were it not for the fact that the old tricks they’re pulling don’t give Steal the Light the flair and infectiousness of albums (long) past. ‘[Steal the Light] should make people smile, make people dance. That’s all we wanted,’ said the band’s modest genius, Harry Angus, but even the songs penned by Angus (who can usually be relied upon to provide a moment of surprise) are tired and trite.
One too many boisterous horn refrains, dying-to-be-earnest tonal ballads, and lyrics like ‘My heart is like a beating drum’ and ‘I held my breath and ran into the wild’, have worn The Cat Empire’s hooks to nubs. Back to Jackson Jackson with you, Angus.
Brooke Addamo (aka Owl Eyes) has left her history as an Australian Idol contestant far behind. After issuing a swag of EPs, she’s ready to make a bid for the title of Australia’s alternative pop princess with her debut album Nightswim.
The disk takes its time getting going. The instrumental intro is a waste of ones and zeros and the title track is a bit of a plodder. However, Owl Eyes lets her talents shine from Hurricane onwards, coming to life with feeling and expression. The album is happily devoid of the excessive auto-tuning often associated with pop songs. She also avoids the overblown vocal gymnastics favoured by young divas (the equivalent of doing burnouts; loud and attention-getting, but quite pointless). Instead, she serves up dreamy pop to either a slow dance rhythm, or a slightly faster electronic beat (at a canter rather than a full gallop). The voice is LED bright, delivered in a fresh, crisp style that just flows so well. A couple of songs employ voice shape-shifting effects, and she certainly sounds silky and sultry in Salt Water. However, Owl Eyes is at her best with less voice manipulation.
Disk highlights include Diamonds in Her Eyes, Closure and Golden Lies. The lyrics aren’t deep, but come laden with passion and ‘come hither’ messages. These, together with the catchy melodies and that magic voice, make her debut LP a pleasure to listen to, over and over again.
Born Radu Dumitru Bodiu, Romanian producer Petre Inspirescu has already attracted considerable attention in techno/house circles, despite being a relative newcomer. It's a situation that, to a certain extent, has come about through some high-profile associations; after releasing early material on Luciano's esteemed Cadenza label, vocal support from high-profile tastemakers like Ricardo Villalobos has seen Inspirescu poised as a name to watch. Fabric certainly seem to share the sentiment, with Inspirescu being given free rein here to build a 15-track mix collection completely comprised of his own unreleased productions.
Unfortunately, while there's plenty of tasteful elegance on show here, this 70-minute mix lacks the excitement and surprises usually associated with Fabric's outings. Throughout, there's an emphasis on deeply hypnotic atmospheres and a sense of intricate structural elegance, with ghostly orchestral influences bleeding through the crisp minimal tech rhythms on tracks such as Anima, but very little in the way of real peaks, making Fabric 68 far more geared towards headphones than the dance floor. While impressive constructions such as the understatedly eerie Chosen and Flurimba reveal a deft craftsman's touch, a sense of sameness soon begins to set in, with Inspirescu's often bloodless-sounding tracks lacking the percussive ingenuity and visceral edge of someone like Villalobos.
Sadly, Fabric 68 often feels like particularly lavish and rhythmic audio wallpaper more than anything else.
High-profile indie-poppers Hungry Kids of Hungary have made quite a splash in both the alternative and mainstream pop scenes. Having bagged a couple of awards and worked hard to expand their fan base through a hectic national and international touring schedule, they have released their second long-player You’re a Shadow.
Engineered by Wayne Connolly (Josh Pyke, Dappled Cities, Paul Dempsey), the material maintains the same style as their acclaimed debut Escapades. And why not, with a sound that melds the bright, uncompromising cheerfulness and warm melodies of the ‘60s with the vibe of indie pop today. Besides being chockers with catchy tunes, the band is blessed with the flexibility afforded by having not one but two very capable lead vocalists, Dean McGrath and Kane Mazlin. The opener What in the World, with its punchy drumbeat contrasted with echoing keys, serves as an ideal platform for the high-pitched voice of Mazlin.
The record goes up a notch with radio friendly Sharpshooter, full of happy guitar licks, ooo-ooo-ooohs and doo-doo-doos. The slow track Colours is a bit of a dirge, but it’s the odd man out in this company. Other highlights are Memo, with its driving rhythm and classy keyboard work, Do or Die and the incurable hip shaker Litter and Sand. The bonus disk is a good listen too, especially Hang Up with some most un-HKOH-like wailing guitar thrown in. The band has pop-song construction down to a tee.
I admit, when I heard the name, I thought, ‘This is going to be some arty post-punk band who've spent more time creating nothing than something.’ And I was kind of right. But in the nicest sense.
Dys/Closure, the follow up to 2011's Counter/Transference, is technical, heartfelt, unforgiving, brutal and rehearsed. All by three guys who look like they should be tradies (if they aren't already).
I say 'arty' almost with an air of jealousy, as it kind of seems to be the product of meticulous thought and experimentation, something I personally wouldn't be capable of; and 'creating nothing instead of something' because it's the best type of brief, inexplicable noise. The type of loud gritty incessant grinding punk you can't make sense of, but you love and respect because of the effort put in to create and express it.
I think a lot of people wouldn't get this band the way people who don't get art think there has to be something to 'get'. Yes, this is essentially punk music and there are some intense and some reflective elements, but mainly this album comprises heartfelt chaos; absolute noise in a succinct package. Fat Guy Wears Mystic Wolf Shirt slap a whimsical name on some very serious sounds. The lyrics are almost as intense as the songs, something you'll have to sit down with yourself to take in.
These guys are talented; there should be more DIY bands like them.
Sleepy Tea is a moniker for singer-songwriter Tom Wearne, who gathered some ‘guest musos’ to create his debut EP. Beautifully crafted, its artfully staged instrumentation is used to maximum effect to create a cache of warm melodies.
There are fleeting instrumental touches which gift each track its own custom features. Emma Louise supplied backing vocals for the single and CD highlight Make Believe. This song is a joy, in the same class as the work of The Dead Leaves with its beckoning vocals from Tom, a memorable hook, and an alluring acoustic line which rises to scintillating guitars at the end. Avian Aviation comes on heavy with the atmospherics, with its overlapping, floating vocals and guitars which echo away to infinity. Decorated with a complex tapestry of sounds, World’s End makes its mark with brusque percussion and electronic arabesques, before ending with rank upon rank of keyboard notes. Safer is the most upbeat track on the disk, breaking away from the dreamy pattern of the other songs and contrasting nicely with the gentle acoustic romp embodied in the closer Ghosts.
Determined to move to bigger things, Tom will be mentored by Dan Kelly this year to create new songs for the sequel EP. It’s a portent of great things to come after this very pretty debut. This is indie-pop at its most gentle and soothing, more relaxing than a cup of tea taken with two Bex.
Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work is a conceptual exploration of Ben Lee’s spiritual journey through use of the hallucinogenic South American plant Ayahuasca.
Lee states of Ayahuasca: ‘I wanted to make music as a gift to the medicine, in love and gratitude.’ The cloying descriptors in which Ben Lee binds Ayahuasca could be taken as ample reason to expect a drifting, spiritually guided wank-athon, and Lee does expend a lot of effort in his continual reach toward cloud-swathed revelation – but thankfully there’s enough intrigue within stretches of atypical instrumentals to provide welcome respite.
In Welcome to the House of Mystical Death, Lee begins by continually imploring you to ‘Let the light in/ Let the/ Let the light in’ amidst a shroud of glittering chimes and a sweet, upward-climbing choral backing. It goes on like this, and by the time Lee is encouraging you through In the Silence to ‘Show me your heart/ Show me your heart/ Let’s let each other in’ it’s possible you’ll have fallen into a stunned, aural-diabetic shock.
Most of the more enjoyable and thought-provoking points in the album occur during the instrumental tracks when Lee falls silent – such as when The Shadow of the Mind expands from sparse, empty-hall piano into an imposing, captivating waterfall of white noise, Lee showing an appealing blend of exploration and restraint.
Ultimately, Ayahuasca is musically pleasant – and at times absorbing – but lyrically regrettable, as Lee too often attempts to convey the transcendental through flaccid, sickly-sweet adulation.