This week we cover some power-pop from New Zealand, some Americana from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and a mini-album from R&B artist Victoria Monét.
Jump Rope Gazers
Power pop is a great genre for one hit wonders, and a tough one for sophomore albums. It’s a straightforward genre, based on youthful energy and vibrant hooks, and it’s easy for subsequent records to sound like retreads.
Fortunately, New Zealand’s The Beths have a couple of tricks up their sleeves. Front woman Elizabeth Stokes has a deadpan personality that’s very un-power pop but very New Zealand – typically, the most energetic track is named ‘I’m Not Getting Excited’. The Beths met in jazz school and they all bring great chops to a genre that’s not always focused on musicianship. The backing vocals are often ornately arranged as well.
Their sophomore record Jump Rope Gazers does a good job of balancing power pop thrills with some exploration in other directions. Energetic songs like ‘Dying to Believe’ are boosted by the clever arrangements – the double-tracked guitars and virtuoso drumming in the introduction indicate that Jonathan Pearce, Benjamin Sinclair, and Tristan Deck could probably make a pretty decent metal band. On ‘Mars the God of War’, Stokes uses clever metaphors to condemn internet trolls.
The slower songs show growth. Stokes is yearning and vulnerable on ‘Do You Want Me Now’, while shimmering guitars underpin ‘Jump Rope Gazers’. The band go full acoustic on the pretty ‘You Are A Beam of Light’, while the closer ‘Just Shy of Sure’ updates the Flying Nun sound of the 1980s.
Jump Rope Gazers has been getting less attention than their debut, Future Me Hates Me, even though The Beths do a great job of growing and expanding their sound.
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
All The Good Times
Americana legend Gillian Welch and partner David Rawlings have been joined at the hip throughout their musical career, providing harmonies and guitar for each other’s records. All The Good Times is their first album as a joint billing. It’s a quarantine album of covers – Rawlings announced it on Instagram, saying “in the Spring of 2020 Gillian and I dusted off an old tape machine and did some home recording.”
All The Good Times is exactly what you’d expect from Welch and Rawlings delivering a record of traditional tunes and singer-songwriter fare. It’s not surprising that they cover Bob Dylan and John Prine, and it’s not surprisingly that All The Good Times feels intimate with lovely harmony singing and guitar picking. The pair take turns at lead vocals – the pristine precision of Welch contrasts with the roughness of Rawlings – they sound lovely together on ‘Jackson’.
Rawling’s cover of Dylan’s ‘Abandoned Love’, a 1975 outtake, is amazingly Dylanesque. The sudden tape noise and halt on ‘Abandoned Love’ is one of the few reminders of the homespun nature – half of these tracks are first takes, but the pair have played together so long that it feels natural and real.
It’s nothing revelatory, but All The Good Times is lovely comfort food for trying times.
Sacramento’s Victoria Monét has been around for years without releasing a full-length album. She grew up singing in church choir and featured on Nas’ Life Is Good in 2012, while she was still a teenager. She’s built up a resume as a songwriter, most notably co-writing on Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next album, but has only released a handful of EPs as a solo artist.
It’s debatable whether Jaguar qualifies as an album – at 25 minutes, it’s too long for an EP, but more like a mini album. Monét has told Apple Music that Jaguar is the first of three installments of a full-length record.
Monét’s voice is warm and honeyed, and she employes creative arrangements. ‘Go There With U’ features a guitar solo that would fit on a 1980s AOR track, while ‘Ass Like That’ drops an elegantly harmonised chorus into an ode to booty fitness. ‘Experience’, with guest spots from Khalid and SG Lewis, joyfully evokes the feeling of a 1970s roller-disco – as the video helpfully illustrates.
There are enough ideas on Jaguar to fuel a full length album – hopefully the next two installments are just as good.