A touch of whimsical, ‘60s-era rock graces your ears on Canberra band The Feldons’ third album, Goody Hallett, with a collection of playful, easy-listening tunes which wouldn't have sounded out of place in a groovy record shop in swinging London. The band experiments with bluesy guitar solos, vocal harmonies, piano riffs and even horn stabs to create a well-crafted, solid album with some definite single-worthy tracks.
The Feldons certainly have their influences (Oasis, The Yardbirds, Donovon), which isn't a bad thing – but they often sound like they are trying a bit too hard to be The Beatles, wishing they lived in pastel-coloured ‘60s London, with plenty of references to England in the folksy See the Sun and the early Bowie-sounding London Town. This is also evident in the mixing of the LP, which uses era-appropriate stereo and bluesy guitar effects, such as in Shadow and Hole in the Sky.
Lyrically it's pretty cryptic but stylish, with ditties about life, love and the sun, although Story of My Life is a bit cringeworthy. Mark Hunstone's and James Montgomery's harmonic vocals work well together, especially on See the Sun and Someone, as do their complementary songwriting styles.
Still, despite the almost too obvious British inspirations of the past (do we really need to mention the milkman?), I enjoyed it. There's an infectious sense fun on this record. If you're after something uplifting and boppy, check this one out.
Six Organs’ Ben Chasny dances to no tune other than his own. Across ten-plus albums he has explored a singular perspective on psychedelia that takes in drone, eastern string devotion and ‘60s US west coast guitar fervour.
Parts of Ascent come across like Quicksilver Messenger Service getting rock ‘n’ roll heads all steamed up at the Fillmore West, circa ‘69. At other times, the sounds burst forth in a pleasantly concentrated kind of way, somewhat like John Martyn’s otherworldly ‘73 album, Solid Air. Chasny does this kind of thing so well it would be too cheeky to suggest he wears his influences on his sleeve. An intense sensibility incorporates many different strains of guitar thought and expression, filtered through a singular vision of new weird America. This is amply articulated by such likeminded psychedelic travellers as MV & EE, who appreciate the power of drone with melody in the right settings.
Chasny’s open approach includes awareness of how to rock out, and a stint in psych-rock band Comets On Fire assisted with this. The latter influence is all over Ascent and burning opener Waswasa has sparks flying from Chasny’s electric guitar as the band fall behind him in jam mode. This sets a more electrified tone than explored on recent Six Organs releases. Yet a pervasive psychedelic troubadour vibe is never far away, which brings on a strange longing for something that is entirely modern but ageless.
Adelaide/Sydney duo Marcus Whale and Travis Cook made ripples throughout the local hip hop and electronic scenes with last year's debut album, Iconography. A scant 12 months on, this considerably anticipated follow-up, Die Young (actually recorded during Iconography's promotional chores), sees them heightening the sense of jittery uncertainty that's always underpinned their tracks.
Apparently inspired by memories of teenage crushes, the ten tracks collected here frequently come across as damaged and tentative as they do romantic and opulent. While the backbone of this album sits firmly around the sorts of spidery glitch-hop and fractured R&B-scapes for which Collarbones have established a reputation, a diverse range of electronic styles manage to infiltrate the mix here. Opening track Hypothermia sees Sydney artist Guerre contributing phased soul vocals to a spacious backdrop of clattering break-beats and twinkling soft-focus synths that calls to mind SBTRKT's streamlined glide. Losing sees traces of witch-house seeping to the forefront as eerie Boards Of Canada-esque detuned chords shimmer against drum machine triplets, the sparseness of the backing nicely drawing out even more swooning melancholia from Whale's indie-R&B vocals.
Compared to the sheeny pump of Collarbones' US R&B/hip hop influences though, it's the creeping sense of underlying desperation that really makes an impression here, something brought out equally in the broken-hearted lyrics and the ghostlike production. Impressive.
You have to marvel at Sun Ra selling lo-fi vinyl recordings of his astral Arkestra pretty much from the boot of his car. In some ways, his El Saturn label took an approach that was revived during the early days of punk, when the DIY ethic reigned supreme. A composer and improviser of the highest order, Sun Ra’s entire setup was always left-of-centre, a truly cosmic take on American music. And when Ra wanted to explore freer terrain... man, some of the Arkestra’s improvising left the galaxy. It might have been that Ra’s hundred-plus albums would never reach beyond the obsessive tendencies of keen record collectors, but committed labels have gone to great lengths to ensure availability. Consequently, I now own around 30 Sun Ra albums – but there is always more to discover.
I recently hit upon this gem on the Landspeed Records shelves. The Nubians of Plutonia was recorded around 1958, shortly before the Arkestra travelled to New York to kick-start a phase of totally avant experimentation. Here, the band adheres to a hard-bop format for a smaller grouping. Tenor saxophonist John Gilmore is on fine form and the arrangements are geared towards percussion. The bonus addition is an early New York album Bad and Beautiful from 1961, which features beautifully arranged standards along with lovely piano melodies from the master himself. The sound is less wild than the Arkestra would conjure later in the decade, but no less visionary.
This self-titled release from Canberra band Time and Weight might alternate between elements of metal, surf, punk, country and western, but it remains thoroughly rock ‘n’ roll throughout.
Distil kicks things off with a rising, pounding riff and a ‘Go!’ It’s one of the better tracks and, like most of the album, it doesn’t wait around. It leads right into And It’s a Mystery to Me, a good vocals showcase. Here they’re all snarls and growls, though other times they’re muffled drones or sleazy whispers. At their best, they remind me of Nick Cave’s sinister baritone, with a rougher edge. Later, The Ballerina is in Flames Again is musically interesting, with stop-start variations and crunchy guitars, but it’s a little hard to get past the silly title and some lyrics – these remain occasional niggles throughout the album. The penultimate Key Rye Seed is perhaps the most distinctive track. It tones things down a little, with its regretful, twangy tale of woe, but fades out without releasing its pent-up energy. Valley of the Clubs is a strong finisher, a creepy, angular fusion of Dead Kennedys and Metallica. Rock ‘n’ roll indeed.
This album shows versatility from track to track and they do occasionally break loose, but generally it needed more variation within each song, rather than riff repetition. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye peeled and an ear primed for more Time and Weight recordings, or for a gig about town.
Colorado native Tom Krell, better known as How to Dress Well, has well and truly surmounted the challenge of the Difficult Second Album. After the overwhelming critical response to his debut, 2010's Love Remains, it would've been easy for Krell to go the way of The Strokes (and many others) and deliver something comparatively lacklustre. But he hasn't. And that's really fucking good news.
It wouldn't be hyperbole to suggest that Total Loss is a fairly melancholy album. You get that from the name. It's about losing people and missing people and being really down about stuff in general. But it's never black in its misery. You feel like Krell is always seeking some silver lining in his pains and it comes out most strongly in the album's dynamics – his feather-light falsettos hover and soar over dark clouds of sub-bass and heavy, rain-soaked pads.
But, as Krell says, speaking through the sampled voice of a young boy on Say My Name Or Say Whatever, ‘The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the fuckin’ world.’ It's followed by the noise of a body splashing into water, as reverbed keys and Krell's ghostly voice return, dragging you down and under.
The album reaches its late peak with penultimate track Set It Right.Opening with a Clams Casino-esque noise bath, with a far-off moan soaked in gauzy, lo-fi noise, it envelops you utterly. It's like that old wool jumper your Nan knitted you: prickly and daggy yet so warm, so fuzzy and love-stitched. When the noise recedes and Krell’s voice rings out with a list of names – people he misses – it's almost too sad. When he brings things to a close with Ocean Floor for Everything, a sea-punk anthem come two years too late, you'll be in tatters. Beautiful stuff.
Whenever I see Peter Garrett in parliament I’m never quite sure what to make of it, but this compilation balances things out.
The Oils came to prominence in the noisy, sweat-soaked environs of the suburban beer barn and early tracks like Back on the Borderline bear that out. These songs came out in the late ‘70s when the Australian punk scene was in full flight and, although the arrangements on Oils songs were not as frenetic, the concept and sound was just as charged. From day one, Garrett sang about self-empowerment and his blunt serve of everyday realism was something that many punters in suburban football clubs could identify with. But the band also situated individual experience in a broader political context and it doesn’t take much to figure out what songs like US Forces and When the Generals Talk are about. When combined with tough-as-nails rhythms and no-frills melodies, the music/lyric blend is a potent one, as heard on Power and the Passion, which is a bona fide Australian classic that has lost none of its power.
The early to mid-‘80s were the band’s glory days and footage of the band performing live around this time reveal energy levels through the roof. Disc one concludes with my favourite Oils track, Hercules, originally released on the 1985 EP, Species Deceases, and, although the excitement and energy tapers off on the second disc, this collection peaks too often to ignore.
Squalls (screams or violent winds) is a fitting badge for this collection of songs written by Kiwi expat Katie Scott. Not since Love Outside Andromeda folded have we seen such fierce, angst-ridden female vocals. Howl at the Moon combines her blitzkrieg singing with the lush instrumental alchemy of fellow howlers Mark Renall, Mikey Brennan and Matt Storey.
These songs, based on shadowy themes of things gone bad, draw on the deep well of Katie’s past musings. They have been in limbo for several years, awaiting the light and the right combination of musical brilliance to give them birth. The initial PJ Harvey impression of the epic opener is quickly cast off as Katie stamps a hallmark of her own making on the sound. Caught by the Sun drags passion from a brooding rhythm, before turning the track on its wailing head. Just a Kid sows lust while Sword Fighting rocks out as slithering guitars cradle the alluring siren’s call. Costs a Lot advances haltingly with pained steps against a glare of cymbals, before being cast into a maelstrom of noise. In Let the Mainsheet Down, My Love the instruments cast a shadow of a voice like a curse. There are many facets to the songs, each a glittering, if slightly flawed, gem, resplendent in black velvet. Most powerful of all is Blackhearted Charlie, a song of self-destruction worthy of Nick Cave in its uncompromising delivery, with a despairing cry to ‘take me, cut me, kill me!’
In 2010, Melbourne DJs Xavier Bacash and Lionel Towers grabbed our attention as Gypsy & the Cat. Their critically acclaimed first release, Gilgamesh, was full of catchy tunes and sing-along tracks like Jona Vark and Time to Wander. Two years on, they've delivered their second album, The Late Blue.
The album was produced, written and recorded entirely by the duo and mixed by the renowned Dave Fridman (MGMT, Flaming Lips, Tame Impala) and released on their own label, Alsatian Music.
First single Sorry is poppy and catchy. Dripping with a ‘60s instagram feel, it's fun and it's easy. The opening guitar riff of Bloom sounds like you’ve stumbled upon a The Cure B-side – a true ‘80s Brit pop sound pulled off perfectly. Album opener Only In December has ‘summer hit’ all over it.
The album jumps around in styles – from Brit pop to ‘60s psychedelia to a synthy ‘80s sound reminiscent of Gilgamesh. It's in danger of jumping around too much, but the tracks mesh together enough and create an album full of dreamy melodies and pop ballads.
The Late Blue is a fun album – perfect for summer road trips and sun-filled Sunday afternoons at the lake. If you loved Gilgamesh it might take a few listens to love The Late Blue, but you'll get there.
Andrew Bird’s albums tend to be reliably excellent in the following fashion: looping layers of violin fiddling, wistful whistling and folk-inspired indie rock melodies, with slantways lyrics made of jargon, metaphor and wordplay. Hands of Glory retains most of these elements – Bird’s not unrecognisable, but it’s more of a return to his musical roots with a more traditional sound. It’s just him and his band gathered around one microphone, and the production walks the line between slick and raw.
Four of the eight tracks are covers of old-timey country songs and more modern tunes. Bird re-imagines them and makes them his own, like the melancholic Spirograph, vastly different to Alpha Consumer’s version. Similarly, Orpheo is a subdued reframing of a track from Bird’s recent album, Break it Yourself. A few elements nudge this release beyond extended companion EP territory. Something Biblical isa building, yearning standout original, where Bird sings of ‘Dreamin’ of that fifty-year flood/ Of oceans of plasma and rivers of blood’.The aural bookends to the album, Three White Horses and Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses, are also strong. The latter, rising out of insect song, is a 9-minute instrumental, an expanding, swirling, haunted thing that begs an album repeat.
Hands of Glory mightn’t be Bird’s broadest or most satisfying release, but it’s a damn good listen for fans, unacquainted Americana lovers or curious parties looking for some stirring songs of death and redemption.
Jens Lekman put out a call on his blog a few years ago asking for badminton players to get in touch. He’d just moved to Melbourne and was looking for competitors. This kinda sums him up. Quirky, sweet, the perfect songwriter for the mid-naughties post-McSweeney’s cute-with-an-edge meta pop star. Swedish, droll, prone to using strings that flirted with irony but still kinda worked, Lekman built a band of admirers the world round.
Annoyingly, some of the sunlight has faded from the music. The man remains fascinating and likeable (view both the song and back-story to the title track), but I Know What, whilst being a good record, is let down by some awkward phrasing, some kitsch that sails too close to cheese (a balance he’d previously pulled off) and the increasing familiarity of the phrasing; the coda, the repeated chorus, these song styles that seemed so fun and fresh on his classic Night Falls on Kortedela sounding familiar and tired.
It’s a heartbreak record too and Lekman sounds crestfallen. Which is fine, but the joyfulness of previous sets is missing, hence, this record is just that little bit less listenable as a result. I don’t begrudge him his broken heart. I just hope it mends in time for the next record.
The new Mountain Goats record is a pretty dark album. Well, the words are dark, but the tunes are jangly. It's a formula that shouldn't come as any surprise to fans of the band; John Darnielle has always had a gift for neatly tucking unbearably poignant sad truths into straightforward four-chord songs.
That's the part of Mountain Goats that people either love or hate. It's what Darnielle does best and does most. Old fans love it, and when I say ‘fans’, I'm generously including the stodgy complainers who moan on internet forums that Darnielle isn't still writing exactly the same songs as he was writing 15 years ago. But for the rest of us, a bit of variety is good and Transcendental Youth doesn't disappoint in that regard. Night Light brings in meandering, faintly psychedelic guitar tones over tense, insistent drumbeats, as Darnielle sings, ‘Live like an outlaw/ Clutching gold coins in his claw.’ White Cedar is gentle and delicate enough to make you weep, yet with more strength than previous ‘soft’ albums (I'm talking to you, Get Lonely). The title track, coming in lucky last, is another pleasant surprise – even if it does sound like the band borrowed Sufjan Steven's horn section.
To me, the most apt recommendation for Transcendental Youth comes from Darnielle himself: ‘It's a record about insanity and Satan. Doesn't that just make you want to go out and buy a copy?’
Much of Brian Eno’s reputation as a musical ‘genius’ comes from the idea that he invented a genre. He didn’t, of course, rather mutating and adapting a collection of influences to create the groundbreaking albums that kick-started the ‘ambient’ tag, but his reputation as the godfather of the genre remains.
Lux is his third album for the iconic Sheffield label Warp, his first solo outing since 2005, and it references an extraordinary run of ambient records from the late ‘70s. Eno’s goal in these releases is to alter the mood. Given that Lux is another in the style of Music for Films and Music for Airports – a non-melodic mood piece without the discernible hooks a music critic can hang their coat on – let me instead tell you how Lux feels: lovely. It’s an hour-plus-long sonic waft, which, while being difficult on which to focus all of one’s attention, drifts in and out of the listener’s consciousness with utterly moveable and fascinating results.
Unlike the creepy retro futuristic drama of Films, Lux is pastoral and comfortable and might be less essential as a result. Certainly, the proto-synthesisers that pop up on those early records colour the sound – as a result of time and the cultural accident of what we now hear – as retro or kitsch and the instrumentation on Lux feels safer, less tied to current technology, more classic. But it is a lovely trip nonetheless.
I’ve yet to see a review of Natasha Khan’s latest that doesn’t reference the cover. In a way, this is sadly predictable, but it’s fair enough. Khan, nekkid, defiantly meeting our gaze with a burden (i.e. a chap) upon her back, is a big statement. And so it follows that this record will be read in the context of that statement. The cover begs your attention. Does the music?
It does, but not quite as satisfactorily as one might hope. After the breakthrough of Khan’s previous LP, Two Suns, The Haunted Man should be the work that kicks her to the next level. It comes close. The songs are good, sometimes great. Laura, the first single, is a profoundly affecting tune. All Your Gold is terrific. The closing Deep Sea Diver is extraordinary.
The problem is twofold – firstly, there are a couple of tunes that shouldn’t have passed the cut. Secondly, the record feels overcooked. There’s a lot of sonic mist, a too-careful production ethic that buffs the intensity of the performances. There’s a hint of an edge throughout, but it’s too polished. It needs some ragged edges. Khan would’ve been wise to let the songs be as exposed as she is on that cover.
Sarah Blasko is an incredible singer and a fine songwriter – almost beyond criticism in recent times – but you can overdo 'whimsical', as I Awake confirms.
Recorded in Sweden, featuring the 52-piece Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra and self-produced to ensure ultra independence, Blasko's new record has upped the ante from the three which went before it. She’s pushed her creative boundaries and the triple j Award nomination is proof that the Sydney scene, at least, is impressed.
The opening/title track was co-written with drummer Fredrik Rundqvist and bassist David Symes and is a deceptively poppy beginning to the album. Lyrics like ‘Embrace the doubt and face the fear/ It's all about the endless search/ To be a hunter-gatherer’ set a scene of regeneration and starting anew.
From then on the 12 tracks maintain a pithy intensity. In Fool she sings, ‘Desperate to be loved I fell for all you said/ I believed you for so long that I forgot I was strong’. In the flowing God Fearing: ‘Tired of always being the fool… I'm not beaten down, I won't behave/ Just listen this once or you will rue this day.’
Part of the Blasko charm is her fragility, demonstrated often as the orchestra comes and goes, threatening to swallow her up. But cuteness and breathlessness isn't genius and rhyming 'sea' with 'see' is dangerously close to rhyme fraud a la Chris Martin. Still, she makes a beautiful soundscape – and that's no bad thing.
A good 15 years back, I wouldn't exactly have picked Placebo as being one of the groups to survive out of the mid-‘90s Brit pop pack. But survive they have, with a lot of their continued success being down to their ability to incorporate elements of goth, metal and glam without really becoming subsumed in a particular scene. Three years on from their Battle For The Sun album, this five-track EP, B3, acts as a warm-up for their next longplayer, expected in March.
From the very outset, it's pretty obvious that not much has changed sound-wise in the Placebo camp during the intervening years. Title track B3 kicks things off with classic stadium-friendly Placebo as vast crunching drums power against gothy Numanesque synths and wiry riffage, Brian Molko pulling from the same songbook of angst and sexual obsession that's served him so well in the past. I Know You Want To Stop offers up a fuzzbox-fuelled cover of obscure ‘90s garage rockers Minxus that's easily the dirtiest sounding rock-out here, before TheExtra takes things down into the sorts of burbling downbeat electronics, strings and sparse programmed rhythms you'd most likely associate with Depeche Mode.
If you're a diehard Placebo fan, B3 is likely to tide you over in the interim as you eagerly anticipate their next album proper. But there's extremely little in the way of surprises to be found here.
David Byrne practically invented art rock – or, at the very least, nursed it through infancy in Talking Heads – and in the decades since their low-fizz split has directed his energies towards world music, really tasty suits, Brian Eno collaborations and musicals about corrupt Filipino show collectors. Annie Clark played with arch non-conformists Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens before releasing three highly regarded ornate pop albums as St Vincent. They appear simpatico.
As expected, Byrne’s trademark jerky rhythms find an ideal match in Clark, who herself is not beyond staccato bursts of brass and noise. Vocally, they can both switch between soulful warmth and irregular halting yelps. But there are differences as well. Clark overloads with fussy detail whereas Byrne is way more relaxed, unafraid of simplicity. Byrne makes the complex sound simple – for Clark, vice versa. It’s the collision between these two approaches that makes Loves This Giant a success and a frustration.
On the success side of the ledger, Dinner for Two is spectacular. This is what modern pop songs should sound like – pulsating and ecstatic. But there are parts that simply don’t gel. Too often quirky instrumentation conceals deficient structure and melody (Lazarus) and with about 50 extra players spread over 12 tracks this is a chaotic and overbearing listening experience. It’s damn near tiring. On the cover, Byrne and Clark appear as a pair of serious and angular, distorted mannequins. That seems about right to me.
Appreciating music by experimental beatmaker Flying Lotus can sometimes seem like a hipster-based fashion. In this case, the hipsters are on to something.
At 18 tracks, Until the Quiet Comes still only totals around 46 minutes – some of the tracks more like cosmic interludes in studio trickery than complete pieces – but as a whole it just works. While the LP has an overall positive, uplifting vibe, demonstrated in the vocal-washed Getting There, DMT Song and Me Yesterday//Corded, there is an underlying paranoid, nervous edge – especially on Heaven and Electric Candyman – which could be the result of collaboration with Thom Yorke.
Ellison – the great nephew of late jazz pianist Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane – pays tribute to his jazz roots in Only if You Wanna, See Thru to U and title track Until the Quiet Comes with a twisted Ninja Tunes-eque vibe. The tunes would be enhanced by panning out for longer, but not a moment is wasted; each skewed beat feels intentional and placed with purpose.
It might be cliché to describe Until the Quiet Comes as a journey, but Flying Lotus takes you on exactly that – and a mind-expanding one at that. This is experimental electronic psychedelia at its best.
LA-based producer Steve Ellison has ended up in a very enviable and rare position, where the levels of critical acclaim have jumped exponentially with each record, along with the size of his fanbase.
While 2010's Cosmogramma easily represented his most spectacular and lauded album yet, there was the occasional sense that Ellison had taken its furious rhythmic interplay and sonic detail about as far as he could in that particular direction. It's for perhaps this reason that Until the Quiet Comes sees FlyLo changing the game slightly, aiming for a calmer, arguably more elegant collection that features more sense of space.
As with previous albums, the impressive vocal collaborations, such as Erykah Badu's appearance on the percussive detail-drenched See Thru to U and Thom Yorke's digitally manipulated contributions to Electric Candyman, fold into the surrounding tapestry, rather than sticking out as highlights. While there's an emphasis throughout on the lustrous post-jazz atmospheres upon which FlyLo made his name, some of the most interesting moments happen when he goes 'off-track', with Tiny Tortures' sudden detour into icily synthetic textures and wobbling sub-bass swells.
On the whole, you're left with a surprisingly digestible album that offers up some of FlyLo's most impressive and subtle work.