Welcome to the final batch of 2019 reviews. One record I thoroughly enjoy, but only picked up on year end lists a couple of weeks ago, while the other two I’ve had on the backburner for months.
These New Puritans
Inside The Rose
On their fourth album, the official lineup of These New Puritans is two twin brothers: Jack and George Barnett. From England’s Southend-On-Sea, the band have released four albums starting with 2008’s Beat Pyramid. The group’s music is textural and a little dark – their emphasis of percussion and orchestral instruments recalls late-period Talk Talk.
The New Puritans’ strength is their production and arranging skills. Even though they bring other vocalists to complement him, Jack’s vocals are a little monotone, which does suit the unsettling music. But their arrangements are often wonderful.
It all coalesces on the spectacular opener ‘Infinity Vibraphones’, which is built around interlocking vibraphone parts. The lyrics build in intensity, culminating with this great couplet: “Down here in hell we’ve got everything you need/We’ve got carbon and mercury/We’ve got iron and iodine/Platinum, radium, hydrogen and uranium.”
The record’s other long track, ‘A-R-P’, is also a winner, undergirded by an unsettling electronic whine and more vibraphone. Despite Jack Barnett’s limitations as a vocalist, he hits hard with “this is the place where the trees are on fire”.
With its wonderful arrangements and dark unsettling atmosphere, Inside The Rose is often gorgeous.
Beware of the Dogs
Stella Donnelly was born in Wales, but moved to Perth, Australia, early enough to gain a thick Australian accent. Beware of the Dogs is her debut album, a followup to her 2017 debut EP, the exquisitely titled Thrush Metal. Armed only with a guitar, the feisty Australian woman retells tales from her catalogue of assholes, like an indie version of Lily Allen.
I have mixed feelings about Beware of the Dogs; I certainly take Donnelly’s side against the unhelpful men that she documents, but sometimes the personality overrides the musical content. Moments like the ways Donnelly pauses, then rhymes “get laid” with “muck” on ‘Tricks’ would be better suited to a stand-up comedy routine, and undersell her talent. Conversely, if you find most singer-songwriters a little dour, you may enjoy Donnelly’s animated delivery.
When the focus is on the music, Beware of the Dogs is often excellent. Opener ‘Old Man’ has a lovely acoustic riff, and it’s easier to sell the heavy message on sexual harassment – “You grabbed me with an open hand/The world is grabbin’ back at you.” Donnelly’s also a sharp lyricist – “Look me in the eye/Tell me that you’re fine/I’m not here to taste all your cheese and wine” is a cheekily effective couplet from ‘Die’.
I prefer my singer-songwriters more dignified, but you may well find Beware of the Dogs a breath of fresh air.
San Francisco-born musician Jessica Pratt learned guitar playing along to T. Rex’s Electric Warrior. With her hushed vocals and finger-picked guitar, Quiet Signs feels akin to the early 1970s folk and freak-folk scenes, and Pratt has been compared to Joan Baez and Sibylle Baier.
It’s almost always vocals that keep me from enjoying artists that I should theoretically like – I can’t stand Peter Hamill’s vocal histrionics for Van Der Graaf Generator, and I don’t enjoy Jessica Pratt’s pinched and mannered voice. With such a minimal sound, Pratt’s voice is at the centre, and it’s difficult to get past.
Aside from the vocals, there’s plenty to like. I appreciate how the first two songs start with identical chords, except ‘Opening Night’ is played on the piano and ‘As The World Turns’ on guitar. The production is gorgeous, surrounding Pratt’s voice with ambient prettiness. Pratt’s tunes are often very good; the upbeat ‘Poly Blue’ is an excellent change of pace with a creative chord sequence, and songs like ‘Here My Love’ are pretty.
I found it difficult to enjoy Quiet Signs, but if you don’t mind Pratt’s mannered vocals there’s a substantial record here.
That’s a wrap on 2019! I’m publishing my 16 Best Records of 2019 list on Tuesday. This year I’ve written reviews for almost fifty new releases; I think that’s a good number, but for 2020 I’ll try to space them out more. I started writing about one 2019 release per month in April, leaving me a large pile of releases to cover through the end of last year and the start of this year.