New Music Reviews: Animal Collective, Gang of Youths, Charli XCX

This week on the review table, there are new albums from anthemic Australian alt-rock band Gang of Youths – think of a confluence between U2, Springsteen, and War on Drugs. English pop maverick Charli XCX is back with her fifth studio album, while indie darlings Animal Collective are enjoying their most critically acclaimed album for years.

Gang of Youths

Angel in Realtime

2022, 8.5/10
Australian alternative rock band Gang of Youths are more focused on lyrics than most. On their third album, songwriter David Le’aupepe examines the life of his late father. It’s fascinating source material – after Le’aupepe’s father died, he discovered that his father had kept secrets from him – he was actually born in Samoa, was ten years older than he’d previously told his family, and had two older children who had thought he’d abandoned him years earlier.

Le’aupepe didn’t resent any of this but used Angel in Realtime to tell his father’s story. He told Reuters: “It’s not a unique story in indigenous or black families … It’s a common thread in all families … people turning their back on what they were to become what they want to be. And that was my father.” ‘Brothers’ is especially focused on the narrative, closing with Le’aupepe meeting his half-brother and singing “Our father left him at the hospital/But if he forgives him, then I should too.”

While the focus is largely on the lyrics, U2 would love to still be able to write an anthem as uplifting as ‘Spirit Boy’, where Le’aupepe high notes recall Bono. The spoken Maori verse is written and performed by Shane McLean.

Gang of Youths originally formed around Hillsong Church in Sydney. They’re clearly not a cookie-cutter Christian band – Le’aupepe swears and ‘Spirit Boy’ opens with the line “God died today”. But at the same time, they tap into spiritual power – the gentle ‘Hand of God’ features a simple refrain of “hallelujah”.

Running over an hour and featuring weighty subject matter, Angel in Realtime is impressive enough to not drown under the weight of its ambitions.


Charli XCX

Crash

2022, 8/10
Charli XCX has had a mercurial career to date, veering between arty projects like 2017’s critically adored mixtape Pop 2 and more commercial projects like 2014’s Sucker. Crash is much closer to the latter, a fast-paced set of accessible pop songs. Where Sucker sometimes felt forced, on tracks like ‘Break the Rules’, Crash does a better job of self-expression. Perversely, Charli XCX embraced the pop game on Crash – where she previously wrote most of her material herself, here she tries working with songwriting teams as a way to extend herself. She’s also abandoned the hyper pop sound of PC Music for a more mainstream, 1980s sound.

Crash was actually planned for 2020, billed as a Janet Jackson-inspired record, but due to COVID it was pushed behind her pandemic album How I’m Feeling Now. It’s already XCX’s most successful record on the charts, reaching number one in the UK and Australia. It’s a deserved success for a fun and fast-moving record – while not every tune is great, the fast pace makes it more than the sum of its parts.

If anything, it’s the lead single that’s a little underwhelming – ‘Good Ones’ is fine, but feels more like a routine album cut than the main attraction. ‘New Shapes’, with vocal cameos from Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek, is much more fun. The best stretch of the record is the juxtaposition between the introspection of ‘Break Every Rule’ and the hyper-chorus of ‘Yuck’.

Charli XCX is always interesting, and it’s nice that a more streamlined album has brought her some mainstream success.


Animal Collective

Time Skiffs

2022, 7/10
The Baltimore quartet of Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin became one of the most beloved indie bands of the 2000s. Their popularity peaked with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, reaching #13 on the Billboard charts and recognised as the most acclaimed album of the year on Metacritic. It was an impressive achievement for a band that often create dense and challenging music. They’re often compared to The Beach Boys, a valid enough comparison if you’re thinking of the weird, tripped-out Beach Boys of the Smiley Smile era. The band also admire the Lindsey Buckingham tracks on Tusk, another frame of reference.

The band haven’t enjoyed as much success over the past decade, but Time Skiffs has received the most attention of any Animal Collective record for a while. The record’s name dates back to conversations with Trish Keenan, the prematurely departed lead vocalist for Broadcast, about how music can function as a time machine. Animal Collective haven’t yet coalesced as a personal favourite – often more reliant on texture than melody. They employ ornate harmonies and the arrangements feature exotic instruments like xylophone. hurdy-gurdy, and Nagoya harp. Time Skiffs is the type of record that I enjoy while it’s playing, but struggle to recall afterwards.

I appreciate that the band have written a song about the fabled Prester John, but I’m yet to warm to them – maybe I need to spend more time with records like Sung Tongs and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

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12 Comments

  1. Gangs of Youth sound good.. his vocals are Bono-ish in parts. Good quality song.

    Animal Collective is good but I don’t like it as much as the Gangs of Youth song…but…the video is very inventive. I have to give them that.

    • He doe sound like Bono more on this song than others – it comes out most on his high register. His Polynesian heritage comes out more clearly on other tracks.

  2. I haven’t heard any of these yet but I love that song Summertime Clothes by Animal Collective. A real lot. I’ve got that album Merriweather but I still don’t know the whole thing yet, I love that one song though and I always have it on any Playlist that I make.

    • I’ve barely listened to Merriweather but playing it now. I am kind of open to this band and album growing on me – seems like something I should like in theory, and it’s quite dense.

  3. Gang of Youth are my favorite here. I previously featured another tune from that album, “In the Wake of Your Leave,” which at the time was an upfront single. Then, as oftentimes seems to happen to me with new music, the album fell off my radar screen, and I was on to the next set of new releases.

    “Spirit Boy” sounds pretty good as well. And, yes, you’re right about your Bono comparison. I think on this one that’s more the case than on my pick.

    • Sorry I missed that song when you posted it. Probably something I would have written off based on their name, but they’re actually really good. I think his Polynesian heritage comes through in his vocals more on other tracks, but when he sings high here he’s pretty close to Bono.

  4. I really like what I’ve heard from Gang of Youths, and I love David Le’aupepe’s vocals. Have never gotten much into Charlie XCX, though I really liked her 2014 hit “Boom Clap”. No surprise that the other bloggers showed zero interest in her though, as her music won’t appeal to middle-aged straight men. I like “Good Ones” well enough, as it’s catchy and fun, but I agree that “New Shapes” is more vibrant and interesting. I’m not familiar with Animal Collective, but like the song you shared.

    • I like Boom Clap a lot too. I find her interesting, but she can be a little frustrating sometimes. I kind of know that my blog readers are going to enjoy Gang of Youths more than Charli XCX, but I still like to post the things I’m enjoying anyway. I don’t think I quite qualify as middle aged, but I’m heading up there. I find having daughters has probably pushed me a little more into pop music than I would have been otherwise.

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