The consequence of reviewing new releases each week is that I already have too many records for one page. Here’s part two, continuing from part one.
Manchester Orchestra | Cass McCombs | Melody’s Echo Chamber | The Microphones | Midlake | Ela Minus | Victoria Monét | John Moreland | Mr. Twin Sister | Róisín Murphy | Meshell Ndegeocello | Kate NV | Emeka Ogboh | Beth Orton | Genesis Owusu | Owen Pallett | Sara Parkman | Arlo Parks | Perfume Genius | Phoenix | Poppy | Porridge Radio | Margo Price | Katie Pruitt | The Reds, Pinks And Purples | Rema | Dawn Richard | Porter Robinson | Jeff Rosenstock | Daniel Rossen | Run The Jewels | Anna B Savage | Tiwa Savage | Rina Sawayama | Shearwater | Amanda Shires | Spellling | Spoon | Squid | St. Vincent | Sudan Archives | Jazmine Sullivan | Moses Sumney | Sun-El Musician | Susanne Sundfør | SZA | Tinashe | Anna Tivel | Torres | Yves Tumor | tUnE-yArDs | U.S. Girls | Hikaru Utada | The War On Drugs | Waxahatchee | The Weather Station | Jane Weaver | Faye Webster | Emily Wells | Wet Leg | Jonathan Wilson | Steven Wilson | Wobbler | Wolf Alice | Xiu Xiu
The Million Masks of God
21st-century arena rock is often problematic – empty postures against predictable backing. But Manchester Orchestra are able to add enough emotional heft to make their cinematic rock appealing. In spite of their name, this band is from Atlanta. The name Manchester Orchestra reflects leader Andy Hull’s obsession with The Smiths. The title The Million Masks of God is taken from a G.K. Chesterton poem about ageing.
The most dramatic pieces on The Million Masks of God are the most memorable – Hull keens his way through ‘Angel of Death‘ and sings “I don’t want to hold back my faith any more” in ‘Let It Storm’. But they’re also excellent when they play gently – the gorgeous acoustic ‘Telepath’ and the brooding ‘Dinosaur’ are great moments.
The Million Masks of God sounds like a lame fifth-generation U2-knockoff on paper, but it’s often great in practice.
THE VALLEY OF VISION
Manchester Orchestra’s 2021 album, The Million Masks of God, was one of my favourites of the year. The Atlanta-based group were able to inject emotional catharsis into their arena rock, while always feeling sincere. Their 2023 release, The Valley of Vision, follows a similar sonic template, albeit on the mellow side of their spectrum. But it’s a more curious project – it’s a mere 25 minutes and 6 tracks, and it’s accompanied by a short virtual reality film. Like A Million Masks of God, The Valley of Vision takes its title from a religious text. It’s named for a 1975 book of Puritan prayers and devotions and was written in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
While it’s on the skimpy side, arguably closer to an EP than an album, it’s strong. Andy Hull’s voice is strong and unique – with a smooth lower register, and keening and emotive on the higher notes. He uses it to good effect on ‘The Way’, contrasting calm verses with a soaring bridge. ‘Letting Go’ is my favourite track here, contemplative and gorgeously harmonised. The band accompanied The Valley of Vision with a short film, containing the full record and allowing you to change the angle of view.
It’s difficult to justify giving Valley of Vision an especially high grade since it’s relatively brief, but it’s a solid chapter in their catalogue.
California’s Cass McCombs has been making classy singer-songwriter records for years. His work is austere, and he’s easier to admire than adore. But in terms of songwriting depth, McCombs has the gravitas of giants like Dylan and Prine. Heartmind is his eleventh record, in a career stretching back to 2003’s A.
The most striking song on Heartmind is ‘Unproud Warrior’. McCombs writes about a young army veteran struggling to readjust to civilian life.
You were only seventeen when you enlisted, you remember
SE Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was just fifteen
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen
At twenty-three, Stephen Crane published The Red Badge Of Courage
Which is still known as one of the most realistic depictions of war
Even though Crane was born after the Civil War ended
Maybe sentiments of regret are not all that unrelatable
You’ve always taken lengths to be aware of your own choiceUnproud Warrior, Cass McCombs
McCombs is always subtle and understated, but Heartmind is diverse – the title track, with its haunting saxophone, recalls the adult-contemporary weirdness of 1980s Van Morrison records like Common One. The country-tinged ‘Karaoke’ has the terrific line:
You sang a melody, unchained
But will your love godspeed to me?
Are you going to stand by your man
Or is it just karaoke?Karaoke, Cass McCombs
McCombs’ work isn’t always easy to embrace, but his range and depth are impressive on Heartmind.
MELODY’S ECHO CHAMBER
France’s Melody Prochet released her first album as Melody’s Echo Chamber in 2012, collaborating with then-partner Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. Emotional Eternal is the project’s third album, with her musical career interrupted by a serious accident in 2017 and now sharing time with motherhood. Prochet’s dreamy pop is lovely, recalling the tuneful and textural work of Stereolab. She also told Under the Radar that Sigur Ros’s use of the EBow was another influence on her sound.
Prochet’s motherhood is reflected in ‘Alma: The Voyage’ – it was the first song written for the project, inspired by the first night she spent apart from her new daughter. The Stereolab influence is most prominent here with the joyous melody, and it re-energised Prochet after some time away from music. There’s psychedelia in Melody Echo’s Chamber DNA as well – the buzzy rush at the climax of ‘Where the Water Clears the Illusion’ is one of the record’s best moments. Her primary collaborators on Emotional Eternal are Swedish musicians Reine Fiske (of Dungen) and Fredrik Swah – the pair began the gorgeous jangle of ‘Personal Message’ without Prochet during lockdown.
Emotional Eternal is gorgeous, with Prochet finding solace in motherhood and the natural world.
Microphones in 2020
It’s been a tumultuous few years for Phil Elverum – in the last five years he’s become a father, lost his wife to cancer, and come through a brief marriage to Michelle Williams. Microphones in 2020 is his first record as The Microphones since 2003’s Mount Eerie – in the interim he’s recorded as Mount Eerie.
Microphones in 2020 is notable for its format – it’s one single song, 44:44 in length. It’s clearly not the most lucrative form of presentation in the pay-per-play era of 2020, and it’s pointedly not on Spotify.
The stage is set by a seven-and-a-half minute acoustic introduction – it’s mesmerising and gorgeous, two acoustic guitars out of phase with each other. While a long track often consists of a bunch of shorter tracks stitched together, Microphones in 2020 is one long song. There’s an organ-driven interlude around the 26-minute mark, but that effectively functions as a bridge. Otherwise, it’s Elverum delivering stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a repeated chord sequence, but it’s engaging all the same, with Elverum’s lyrics and arrangements keeping the lengthy song entertaining.
The long acoustic song with stream-of-consciousness lyrics recalls Mark Kozelek records like Benji – an impression reinforced when Elverum namechecks Red House Painters; “Eric’s Trip, Red House Painters, Sonic Youth, This Mortal Coil.”
Microphones in 2020 is a risk-taking record, a single long song, but it’s rich and engaging.
FOR THE SAKE OF BETHEL WOODS
Texan folk-rock band Midlake were formed by a bunch of jazz students at the University of North Texas College of Music. Their original name was “Cornbread All Stars”, and their influences include Radiohead and Jethro Tull – a midpoint between Radiohead and Jethro Tull is a good way to describe their sound.
They’ve soldiered on since the departure of lead singer Tim Smith, who left before the recording of 2013’s Antiphon. It’s taken them nearly a decade to follow Antiphon; their fifth album For the Sake of Bethel Woods is named for the site of the Woodstock Music Festival. The father of keyboard and flute player Jesse Chandler attended Woodstock in 1969 – after he passed away, Chandler dreamed that his father suggested Midlake reform for another album. The cover art of Bethel Woods features Dave Chandler at Woodstock.
Midlake tried to emphasise their progressive rock tendencies on Bethel Woods. At its best, it’s absolutely gorgeous. A beautiful piano figure underscores ‘Bethel Woods’. ‘Feast of Carrion’ features lovely harmonies, flute, piano, and pretentious lyrics like “sought out to seize the Spring/Of seasons coming”. ‘The End’ is more theatrical than usual for Midlake, not far from Queen or Jellyfish. There’s more of an electronic pulse than usual on ‘Dawning’.
Midlake play effortlessly gorgeous music, and Bethel Woods is an excellent addition to their catalogue.
Acts of Rebellion
Gabriela Jimeno started her career as the drummer for Colombian hardcore band Ratón Pérez – they became big enough to play at festivals like SXSW. She moved to the US, where she became interested in electronic music and worked making synthesisers.
Her techno-pop is often retro-tinged – she aims to make music that she can recreate live on stage, working with an array of hardware synthesizers. She’s influenced by Radiohead and by 1970s electronic legends Kraftwerk. Like Kraftwerk, she’s not singing in her first language, and she has a slightly stilted delivery that’s part of her appeal and which also recalls Brian Eno’s vocal records from the 1970s. “Today I woke up at 7….pm” is the opening line to ‘Dominique’. Improbably, her vocals are simultaneously assertive, pretty, and robotic.
Minus originally planned a double album, but honed a wide selection of tracks into a tight 34 minute record. Peaceful instrumentals like ‘Pocket Piano’ give Acts of Rebellion balance, but the distinguishing feature are the vocal tracks. Minus’ vocals are mixed low on ‘Megapunk’, subsumed into the track’s electronic urgency. Helado Negro duets with Minus on the pretty ‘Close’, and the pulsating portrait of disconnection on ‘Dominique’ is the disc’s most memorable piece.
Acts of Rebellion is an amazingly accomplished debut record, with Minus marrying memorable songwriting to her electronic mastery.
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.
John Moreland wasn’t always an Americana artist – he grew up playing in hardcore bands. When he started his career as a solo artist, he played music inspired by the country-folk of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As its title implies, LP5 is Moreland’s fifth album.
The production, from Centro-matic drummer Matt Pence, is crisp, and the musicianship is lovely. Moreland is an accomplished guitarist – there’s gorgeous guitar picking on ‘In Times Between’ – and there’s an unexpected Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet solo on ‘A Thought Is Just A Passing Train’. Between his deep, gravelly voice and literate lyrics, Moreland’s often reminiscent of Springsteen’s acoustic material.
Moreland’s often circumspect, and the most memorable songs are the morose pieces like ‘I Always Let You Burn You To The Ground’ and ‘Fever Breaks’. The instrumental ‘For Inchiro’ is also lovely, and perhaps an interesting avenue for Moreland to explore where he’s not constrained by his vocal limitations.
I have my doubts about John Moreland’s stylistic range, but LP5 is a lovely record, full of thoughtful words and pretty arrangements.
Mr. Twin Sister
Al Mundo Azul
New York band Mr Twin Sister have been around since 2008, adding the title Mr to their name in 2014. Their music is eclectic – they like the jittery funk of Talking Heads, but there are also Latin flavours with Spanish lyrics and flamenco guitars. The arrangements are strong – the different textures from keyboardist Dev Gupta add to the variety, while the funky guitar provides energy. Andrea Estella is an excellent frontwoman, adding personality without being overbearing.
The material on Al Mundo Azul is diverse, bringing out different facets of Mr Twin Sister’s sound. ‘Polvo’ has an especially creative arrangement with its funky guitar and synth whooshes, and it defies genre classification more than most. ‘Diary’ has a gentle and percolating beat, but the guitars and keyboards are pushing toward disco. ‘Ballarino’ is instantly hooky, while ‘Carmen’ features flamenco guitars. The crown jewel is the gear shifting ‘Expressions’, funky and tuneful.
Al Mundo Azul is light and breezy, but it’s certainly not light on ideas.
It’s been a significant year for disco-revival – Jessie Ware, Kylie Minogue, and Ireland’s Róisín Murphy have all released disco flavoured albums. Murphy started her career in trip-hop act Moloko in the 1990s, and she’s known for her eccentric art-pop. She brings the same off-centre sensibility to this disco record.
Róisín Machine is Murphy’s fifth album, but it’s effectively self-titled – the album title helps everyone pronounce her name, while ‘Murphy’s Law’ is a key track. It’s also notable for its long genesis – ‘Incapable’ was written in 2010, while ‘Simulation’ was released as a single back in 2012. Murphy has released two albums in the meanwhile, but Róisín Machine collects Murphy’s collaborations with producer Richard Barratt, and it makes sense as a coherent record.
The longer tracks wend their way through different sections like twelve-inch singles. ‘Murphy’s Law’ is the centrepiece here, my favourite track of the year, with Murphy’s husky and theatrical vocals backed by house piano and scratchy guitars.
‘Murphy’s Law’ is invariably the song that I want to hear when I switch on Róisín Machine, but Murphy’s odd and charismatic disco is always interesting. ‘Narcissus’ is a compellingly odd reflection on the Greek legend, while ‘Incapable’ gets a lot of mileage from its simple keyboard riff. Róisín Machine hits a nice balance between approachable tunes and off-centre weirdness, a personality-driven disco record.
THE OMNICHORD REAL BOOK
German-born Meshell Ndegeocello is an artist whom I’ve never explored a full album from before. At 54, The Omnichord Real Book is Ndegeocello’s thirteenth studio album and her first for the venerable jazz label Blue Note. 2018’s Ventriloquism was a covers album, meaning that Omnichord is her first album of new material in almost a decade. She took advantage of the time and space afforded by the Covid lockdowns to create – she stated “I must admit it was a beautiful time for me. I got to really sit and reacquaint myself with music. Music is a gift.”
Ndegeocello lost both of her parents over the past few years, and the title of the album comes from a Real Book that her father had given her that she’d found when clearing out their belongings. A Real Book is like a cheat sheet for musicians, while the Omnichord is a moody electronic instrument, used on Robbie Robertson’s ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’.
The quality level rarely lets up over the course of eighteen exploratory tracks. The pretty guitar licks on ‘Good Good’ are an early highlight. ‘ASR’ recalls the relaxed dub sound that was popular in my country, New Zealand, in the early 21st century, but Ndegeocello is a step above, supported by the guitar licks of Tortoise’s Jeff Parker. ‘Burn Progression’ and ‘Virgo 6’ ride gorgeous jazzy grooves. ‘Oneelevensixteen’ is pared back and gorgeous, immediately followed by the vibrant African sounds of ‘Vuma’ with a memorable guitar lick.
Consistently classy, The Omnichord Real Book is an outstanding achievement.
Room For The Moon
Moscow artist Kate NV is was born as Ekaterina Shilonosova in Kazan, and also serves as the vocalist for the post-punk band Glintshake. Room for the Moon is her third solo album, but it’s seen a marked increase in her profile. It’s a concept album about the moon, occupying an art-pop space comparable with Cate Le Bon or Kate Bush. Room for the Moon is kitsch and infused with childlike wonder, but it’s also substantial musically.
Kate NV eschews rock textures, instead combining electronic rhythms with orchestral instruments. Post-punk bass lines share space with Japanese 1980s synth-pop. She sings in four different languages – French, Japanese, English, and Russian.
Room For The Moon starts meekly with instrumental tracks. The second track ‘Du Na’ percolates with a smooth late-night jazz feel, and the record doesn’t reach a full head of steam until the rhythm enters on the fourth track ‘Ça commence par’.
Unusually, the poppier songs are clustered in the second half of the record – ‘Telefon’ has a 1980s flavour with a great vocal hook and synth part. ‘Plans’ is built around a fretless bass that’s constantly in motion, while ‘Lu Na’ recalls Steve Reich with its interlocking synths.
Room for the Moon is a fascinating record that combines disparate musical traditions into a playful tribute to the moon.
Moscow’s Ekaterina Shilonosova, aka Kate NV, already had Wow recorded before the Covid pandemic. It’s been a tumultuous time for everyone around the world, but doubly so in Russia – Shilonosova told MusicRadar that “Everything is so unpredictable that I cannot plan ahead because I am not grounded and almost all of my friends left my country.” This record focuses on electronic sounds and loops of organic samples – she told HHV Mag that she was influenced by the soundtracks to the Sega games she played growing up.
The more electronic and sample-based sound of Wow is less successful than her previous studio record, Room for the Moon. When it works it’s joyful and fun. When it doesn’t work it can be a little grating. The best tracks are very strong – the opening pair of ‘Oni (They)’ and ‘Confessions at the Dinner Table’ are among the most memorable tracks. The latter was created with London-based producer Quinn Oulton. The closing ‘Meow Chat’ was my favourite track with a music video.
Wow isn’t my favourite Kate NV project – the art-pop of Room for the Moon is markedly stronger in my book. But it’s the mark of a strong artist that she can create fascinating music in an entirely different idiom.
Beyond the Yellow Haze
At the age of 44, Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh released his debut album. Ogboh’s better known as a visual artist and Beyond the Yellow Haze was created as the background music for the art installation No Condition Is Permanent. It works as standalone music, mixing African beats, ambient soundscapes and recordings from the busy streets of Lagos. Lagos was affected by violence in late 2020, with citizens protesting against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
The 40-minute record is comprised of four lengthy pieces and a brief outro. ‘Everydaywehustlin’ is the most rhythmic, while ‘Palm Groove’ is moody and unsettling. ‘Danfo Mellow’ references the yellow taxi cabs around Lagos. The gentle repetition of the music often places the focus on the field recordings.
Beyond the Yellow Haze is too far beyond my normal musical sphere to talk intelligently about, but it’s still engrossing.
Beth Orton wasn’t an artist I was expecting to review on this site this year. She’s best known for her 1999 album Central Reservation. It won her a Brit Award and featured terrific songs like the jazz-tinged ‘Sweetest Decline’ and a requiem for her mother on ‘Pass in Time’, a duet with Terry Callier.
Dropped by her record label during the Covid-19 pandemic, Beth Orton wasn’t sure if she’d ever make another album. Her writing process was sparked by finding a battered piano for £300 at Camden market. She works with drummer Tom Skinner, a member of Sons of Kemet, who also played with Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood in Smile. She’d already started on Weather Alive when she was dropped, and she had to take a bank loan to finish the project.
Weather Alive is similar in tone to last year’s Weather Station album from Canada’s Tamara Lindeman. Both offer jazzy and introspective songs with textural arrangements that recall late-period Talk Talk or John Martyn. The standout track is ‘Friday Night’, where Orton reminisces of drinking sessions with a teenage friend. The melody of the opening line always reminds me of Springsteen’s ‘Incident on 57th Street’.
But I’ve been dreaming of Proust all in my bed
And he speaks to me in my sleep
Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night
With bruised arms and broken rhythmBeth Orton/Bruce Springsteen
Orton’s tuneful resignation is well-served on Weather Alive – it’s lovely to have her back.
Smiling With No Teeth
Canberra, Australia, is about the last place you’d expect a cutting-edge neo-soul artist to emerge from. It makes more sense given that Owusu immigrated from Ghana at the age of 2. A surprising formative influence for Owusu was the Xbox game Jet Set Radio Future; Owusu played the game, with a pirate radio soundtrack of noise rock, future funk and rave, as a 5-year-old.
Owusu has already enjoyed success with his singles ‘WUTD’ and ‘Sideways’, but Smiling With No Teeth is his debut record. He went into the studio with a disparate bunch of well-known Australian musicians, like guitarist Kirin J. Callinan who’s prominent on the standout track ‘Drown’.
Owusu’s a multi-faceted artist, able to jump between abrasive rockers like ‘Black Dogs!’ and smooth soul like ”No Looking Back’. As a result, Smiling With No Teeth can be an exhausting listen, even at 54 minutes long. ‘A Song About Fishing’ is startlingly close to a smooth 1980s Van Morrison track, while his African/Australian voice is unique on songs like ‘Whip Cracker/
Sometimes Smiling With No Teeth is easier to admire than enjoy, but Owusu’s a talented guy and I’m interested to hear what he comes up with next.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name Owen Pallett, you’ve probably heard the Canadian composer’s music. Over the last two decades, he’s amassed an impressive resume as a violinist and arranger, appearing on records by R.E.M., Frank Ocean, Taylor Swift, Robbie Williams, Arcade Fire, and HAIM. Island is Pallett’s first solo record since 2014’s In Conflict.
The acoustic guitar picking and orchestration are reminiscent of Nick Drake – Pallett received a note of acknowledgement from Drake’s estate in appreciation of Island. Pallett’s voice isn’t as distinctive as Drake’s hushed whisper, but his orchestral arrangements, as played by the London Contemporary Orchestra, are phenomenally good.
Island picks up the story of Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, first encountered on 2010’s Heartland. At the conclusion of Heartland Lewis disavowed his creator, Owen, while at the start of this record he’s washed up on an Island.
The beautiful orchestral arrangements would make the record a keeper anyway, but the songs are good too. The acoustic guitar and orchestration of songs like ‘Transformer’ and ‘Fire-Mare’ is the most common mood of Island, while the solemn melody of ‘Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space’ resembles a Church hymn, even though the lyrics certainly don’t. The galloping percussion of ‘A Bloody Morning’ provides a jolt on energy on a mellow record. The record ends with band versions of ‘Paragon of Order’ and ‘Fire-Mare’, and they’re also gorgeous even without their strings.
Island is gorgeous, a supremely talented arranger letting his muse run freely over a beautiful record.
EROS AGAPE PHILIA
If you’ve ever studied the Bible, you’re probably familiar with the three Greek words for different kinds of love. Eros is erotic love, agape is divine love, and philia is brotherly love. Swedish folk musician Sara Parkman was inspired by “studies of theology and bible texts on love, combined with inspiration from thinkers such as the mystic Gunnel Vallquist and the philosopher Byung-Chul Han.” There’s a lot going on musically – she’s ostensibly a folk artist, but there are dollops of Wagnerian bombast, and it employs modern synths and dance beats tastefully at times.
Parkman’s ability to mix and match genres evidence on the standout track ‘Till Salka’, which takes flight from meditative to a trippy dancefloor beat. If the below translation is accurate, she’s a strong lyricist as well.
You were alchemy and nylon stockings
We spooned and you were warm
And a promise of eternity
You were all those things, that I wasn’t
Like an Amelie from the deepest dreams of Västernorrland
Whom I still lovehttps://lyricstranslate.com/en/till-salka-salka.html
Swedish-Finnish singer-songwriter Markus Krunegård sounds great duetting with Parkman on ‘Mörkgröna älven’.
Parkman already has a distinctive and unique style figured out on her sophomore album – an impressive feat.
MY SOFT MACHINE
London-born indie artist Arlo Parks is on her second album. Her debut Collapsed in Sunbeams was successful, winning the Mercury Prize for best album in 2021. She’s cited My Bloody Valentine and Irish band Fontaines D.C. as influences for My Soft Machine. It’s not always readily apparent – there’s some edge, but it’s mainly an indie pop album with nice tunes and clever lyrics, fronted by a charismatic and authentic artist.
My Soft Machine is diverse – ‘Devotion’ hits hard with tough guitars, while Phoebe Bridgers adds pretty harmonies to ‘Pegasus’. There’s an unsettling edge to tunes like ‘Purple Phase’ and ‘Blades’, but often the default mode is pretty, especially on the back half of the record. Parks is also a talented lyricist, sensible enough to keep these lyrics simple and clean.
I radiate like a star, like a star, star, star
I radiate like a star, like a star, star, star
I radiate like a star, like a star, star, star
When you embrace all my impurities
When you embrace all my impurities
When you embrace all my impurities
And I feel clean again
At heart, My Soft Machine is a pop album – it’s an impressive one, relatable and filled with strong tunes.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas has been releasing albums as Perfume Genius since 2010 – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is his fifth full-length. Hadreas has told interviewers that creating and performing the dance piece The Sun Still Burns Here has changed his approach, making his music more extroverted and universal. He nanes Townes Van Zandt, Enya, and the Cocteau Twins as influences on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.
Perfume Genius is a gifted arranger – his atmospheric chamber-pop songs boast creative string parts. The impossibly ascending coda to ‘Jason’ is a moment of arranging brilliance. Chamber-pop is Perfume Genius’ most distinctive style, but I find his voice overly querulous on the slower tracks like ‘Moonbend’ and ‘Borrowed Light’.
I prefer Perfume Genius when he’s aiming for the pop jugular. ‘Describe’ marries heavy guitars and great pop instincts, while ‘On The Floor’ bounces along joyfully. The straightforward pop of ‘Without You’, and the big dramatic strings of ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ are also keepers, and ‘Nothing At All’ balances pop hooks with personal confession.
I don’t love all of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, but the songs that connect are excellent.
French pop/rock band Phoenix have been together for three decades. They’ve made a lot of likeable music, even though 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a masterpiece that overshadows the rest of their discography. Phoenix started making Alpha Zulu during the COVID-19 pandemic, recording in a studio within the Louvre – most of the record was written in a 10-day burst of inspiration. The band lost longtime collaborator, Philippe Zdar, in 2019 – Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter stepped in to help with the new record.
Alpha Zulu isn’t a top-tier Phoenix album, but it’s typically breezy and fun. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig provides guest vocals on the standout tune ‘Tonight’, driven by a great bassline. ‘All Eyes on Me’ thrives with a rigid beat and electro-pop sound – there’s a great chorus. The snappy and tuneful ‘Artefact’ is another highlight. The closing track ‘Identical’ was originally from the 2020 Sofia Coppola movie On The Rocks – I never realised that Coppola is married to Phoenix vocalist Thomas Mars.
Alpha Zulu is modest and unassuming, filled with enjoyable gems.
On her third album, Boston’s Poppy explores an unlikely pop-metal crossover. Like Grimes, she’s adopted a dystopian image for her public persona – it’s not surprising that the pair collaborated on Poppy’s previous album Am I A Girl? The pop-metal sound of I Disagree is intrinsically gimmicky, but the results are sporadically excellent.
The best pop-metal tracks are at the start – ‘Concrete’ combines majestic Brian May-style guitar with an unusual vocal melody and even stranger lyrics. The title track and ‘Bloodmoney’ are abrasive, while ‘Fill The Crown’ and ‘Bite Your Teeth’ are the most schizophrenic mixtures of pop and metal, careening between different sections with reckless abandon. The metal elements are absent from ‘Nothing I Need’, but it’s a lovely piece of smooth pop, while the lead guitar in ‘Sick of the Sun’ is a nice touch in a pop song.
I Disagree doesn’t always feel substantial, but it’s a fun record that combines two disparate genres to interesting effect.
Porridge Radio are an indie guitar band from Brighton. Every Bad is their fifth album, but their first for a high profile label (Secretly Canadian) and their first since 2016. 1990s revival is popular among rock bands at the moment, and Porridge Radio seems to specifically takes its cues from early PJ Harvey – their music shares the same abrasive edge. Front-woman Dana Margolin has a distinctive haughty and austere voice, which suits the approach.
With little in the way of melodic interest or extroverted instrumentation, Every Bad lives or dies on the strength of Margolin’s lyrics and vocals. It’s a mixed bag – for every incisive observation, there’s a painfully obvious line like “Take me back to bed/And shoot me in the head” on ‘Pop Song’. The problem is worsened when Margolin deals in spoken word.
Despite my misgivings, there’s at least one excellent song – ‘Don’t Ask Me Twice’ unexpectedly launches into a genuinely memorable and unexpected melodic chorus. The drumming is fantastic, giving the song a heavy industrial feel in the introduction, before dropping out for the first verse. Margolin’s lyrics also shine ends with the tagline “Oh, I don’t know what I want/But I know what I want.”
The abrasive indie-rock of Every Bad isn’t tuneful enough for my liking, but there’s potential for more enjoyable records from Porridge Radio in the future.
Margo Price grew up in small-town Illinois, playing the piano and singing in Church choir. She spent her twenties in Nashville, working odd jobs, including teaching children to dance at a YMCA. Her career as a recording artist didn’t start until her thirties, and Strays is her fourth album. She’s produced by Jonathan Wilson, who recorded in his Topanga Canyon studio and provides an agreeably rootsy sound. Guests include Mike Campbell, who plays guitar on ‘Light Me Up’, and Lucius on backing vocals on ‘Anytime You Call’.
There’s a nice taste of grit in Price’s voice – she recalls Stevie Nicks on the rockier tracks like ‘Been to the Mountain’ and ‘Light Me Up’. She sounds like Rickie Lee Jones on the gentler, piano-based ‘County Road’. There’s a nice stretch of mellow songs at the end – “gentrification comes like it always does and some nice condos, they go in” is a great line in ‘Lydia’.
Price is a smart operator, making Americana that’s gritty and intelligent.
Katie Pruitt grew up in Atlanta and was raised Catholic. Her debut album Expectations, released at the age of 25, is focused on coming-of-age issues. Pruitt writes about the tension of growing up LGBTQ in a conservative household. Songs like ‘Normal’ and ‘Expectations’ are open in their portrayal of Pruitt’s experiences.
What’s it like to be normal?
To want what normal girls should?
God knows life would be easier.
If I could be normal, then trust me, I would.
Pruitt’s voice is warm and full, with a pleasant rasping edge and a southern accent that recalls Stevie Nicks. This impression is augmented by the first single ‘Expectations’, which taps into the same warm pop/rock as Fleetwood Mac, with lead guitar that recalls Lindsey Buckingham. She uses her voice wisely, often singing within herself, but able to launch to dramatic emotional climaxes. These songs are robustly written, and Pruitt’s also a strong lyricist (“But her body’s my temple and her soul is my savior” is a great line), but she has the vocal ability to invigorate lesser material.
‘Expectations’ taps into an upbeat pop/rock sound, but much of Pruitt’s material on the rest of the record is more restrained. There’s classy and straightforward country on ‘Normal’ and ‘Lovin’ Her’. The moodier pieces like ‘Grace Has A Gun’ and ‘My Mind’s a Ship That’s Going Down’ recall Julien Baker, who covers similar thematic territory in the intersection between LGBTQ and faith. Pruitt cites Brandi Carlile (see the handy chart below!) as an influence, and her admiration for another golden-voiced Americana artist makes sense.
Since Expectations is so autobiographical, it will be interesting to see where Pruitt goes with her next release. She’s clearly a talented vocalist and emotionally honest writer, so I’m expecting more great things.
THE REDS, PINKS & PURPLES
SUMMER AT LAND’S END
Glenn Donaldson is a veteran musician who came through the 1980s California punk scene. He’s worked his way through a bunch of musical projects; PopMatters describes them as “the lo-fi folk of the Jewelled Antler collective, the breezy psychedelia of the Skygreen Leopards, the tuneful post-punk of the Art Museums”. Now in his fifties, Donaldson’s achieving the highest sales of his career with The Reds, Pinks & Purples. Donaldson is a fan of The Jam, Leonard Cohen, and Lana Del Rey, but the key influence for The Reds, Pinks & Purples is The Smiths – their warm jangle was influential on Donaldson as a teenager.
Along with the band’s previous record, Uncommon Weather, Summer at Land’s End was written during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown. Donaldson wrote 75 songs during this period and has enough material for another two albums. Summer at Land’s End recalls the tuneful jangle of The Pernice Brothers, as well as the smoother moments of Antipodean bands like The Chills and The Go-Betweens. Donaldson has a flair for instrumentals – in particular, ‘Dahlias and Rain’ is one of my favourite songs on the record. The songs can be a little samey, but Donaldson’s found a lovely sound. The cascading arpeggios of ‘Pour The Light In’ are gorgeous, pairing with Donaldson’s whispery yet husky voice. The lilting jangle of ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Not In Love’ is another highlight.
It’s nothing revolutionary or challenging, but Summer at Land’s End is tuneful and comforting.
RAVE & ROSES
Nigerian artist Rema describes his music as “Afrorave”, a subgenre of Afrobeats that includes influences from Arabian and Indian music. Starting off singing in Church, Rema’s popularity has grown quickly – he’s been featured on a Barack Obama playlist and has reached a billion plays on Spotify. Rema has a lovely voice, able to deliver rhythmic raps or dreamy singing. With the lovely singing, pretty production, and airy tunes, Rave & Roses goes down easily. It doesn’t completely fulfil Rema’s potential – it’s too homogeneous for an hour’s running time, and his lyrics are often too facile.
But it’s great in small doses. The hit single ‘Calm Down’ was inspired by Rema getting blocked from his love interest by her protective friends, The integration of Indian instrumentation into ‘Love’ is effective, while the woozy synths that drive ‘Oroma Baby’ are a great touch. Conversely, the Chris Brown duet on ‘Time N Affection’ is a low point – “Girl, I dey feel your pressure/I will never leave you, you’re my treasure” is a shoddy lyric.
Rema is an impressive vocalist, even if Rave & Roses is less than the sum of its parts.
We’re living through a golden age of arty R&B at the moment, with artists like Janelle Monae, Jamila Woods, and Frank Ocean making great music. Dawn Richard started her career as a member of Danity Kane and has released a string of critically acclaimed but commercially underwhelming records over the last decade.
The title of Richard’s sixth album is a reference to a tradition in New Orleans, where parade watchers can dance along in a second line. The album is interspersed with interviews with Richard’s mother, recalling her Louisiana heritage – Richard’s family left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Dawn Richard grew up in New Orleans – her father is Frank Richard, lead singer of 1970s and 1980s soul-funk band Chocolate Milk.
Second Line isn’t an especially coherent album. Richard’s an imaginative artist who’s able to deliver everything from pop bangers like ‘Boomerang’ and ‘Jacuzzi’ to atmospheric and arty material like ‘The Potter’ and ‘Perfect Storm’ – always my ideal of an enjoyable artist.
Richard’s possibly too full of ideas for her commercial megastardom, but she’s making consistently strong records.
DAWN RICHARD AND SPENCER ZAHN
Dawn Richard has released five studio albums over the past decade, making alternative R&B that satisfies with its hooks and intelligence. She also runs a food truck in her hometown of New Orleans. On her sixth album, Richard heads for more esoteric territory, working with Spencer Zahn – the pair were introduced by Kimbra. Zahn’s soundscapes are atmospheric, recalling Brian Eno or Miles Davis’ landmark 1969 album In A Silent Way. The arrangements are rich, augmented by organic instruments like saxophone, cello, and clarinet. Richard’s treated vocals swoop effortlessly around – the ambient backing highlights the fact that she’s an excellent vocalist.
I think the difference here is the choice to move into a more atmospheric place, and the only reason why I wanted to do that is I’ve had huge influences in my early days of listening to records like Pure Moods and Enya. Growing up, that was another part of my world––my father has a master’s in Music Theory––so growing up listening to Debussy and Bach and watching his process in music was a heavy influence on me as well.Dawn Richard, https://editionml.com/dawn-richard-spencer-zahn-pigments-album-interview
It’s tough to pick individual highlights out from Pigments since it’s one long song broken into sections. Additionally, it’s difficult to differentiate between the tracks when they’re all named for single word, natural objects like ‘Sienna’ and ‘Cobalt’. Despite the double billing, Richard’s vocals are absent from some tracks. The opening ‘Coral’ has a lovely instrumental motif that evokes Brian Eno’s Discreet Music; it serves as a prelude for the beauty of ‘Sandstone’. ‘Saffron’ is mostly a saxophone instrumental, with Richards’ vocals only appearing at the climactic point.
Dawn Richard is undervalued, and Pigments is another fine addition to an increasingly impressive catalogue.
Porter Robinson’s sophomore album has taken a while to emerge. The North Carolina artist started his career making EDM, but changed direction to alternative synth-pop. Porter’s work on Nurture often recalls the electro-pop of The 1975, on songs like ‘Trying To Feel Alive’ and ‘Get Your Wish’. He’s more inclined to process his vocals – he often switches up his voice an octave on Nurture, giving it a feminine quality. Despite the synthetic textures, it’s often a vulnerable record with Robinson expressing vulnerability.
Robinson’s attempts at variety are appreciated, like the glitchy ‘Dullscythe’ and the acoustic folk of ‘Blossom’, where the feminised vocals are in full effect. But Nurture is a record that I cherry-pick for highlights than listen to the whole thing – the best moments are the high energy yet vulnerable pop songs. ‘Look At The Sky’ is stuffed with synth hooks and an uplifting chorus, while ‘Something Comforting’ is a great example of Robinson’s ability to blend introspection and propulsion.
The best songs on Nurture are very strong – hopefully Robinson’s next album doesn’t take so long.
Long Island retro-punk Jeff Rosenstock released his fourth solo album in May 2020. In his late 30s, he already spent time as the leader of The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry! before going solo. His 2016 solo album Worry was a breakthrough with Rosenstock’s anxiety resonating during an unprecedented period of US history. Rosenstock’s punk recalls the 1990s – at his least abrasive, he’s a bit like early Weezer, and sometimes he’s reminiscent of Bob Mould’s 1990s work with Sugar.
Due to its homogeneous nature making full-length punk albums hold attention isn’t easy, but it’s a skill that Rosenstock has acquired. While it’s not as strong as Worry, on NO DREAM he’s able to vary the intensity and use enough hooks to keep things moving. On ‘Old Crap’ Rosenstockkeeps up momentum using only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, while ‘Honeymoon Ashtray’ is also acoustic. The rockers on side one are most memorable though – ‘N O D R E A M’ adds a psychedelic swirl to the guitars, while ‘State Line’ is rapid-paced and full of hooks.
Rosenstock’s mining well-worn territory on No Dream, but he’s clever enough to do it well.
You Belong There
Like Let’s Eat Grandma, Daniel Rossen started making music as a lark with a friend. Rossen formed Department of Eagles with his roommate Fred Nicolaus, making lo-fi music built around samples. Rossen, the grandson of All the Kings Men director Robert Rossen, then roomed with Chris Taylor, bassist for the Brooklyn indie band Grizzly Bear. This led to Rossen joining Grizzly Bear as their second lead vocalist in time for their sophomore album Yellow House.
Grizzly Bear announced a hiatus in 2020, with founder Ed Droste leaving to study therapy. On You Belong There, Rossen is joined by Grizzly Bear drummer Chris Bear. Rossen’s music is complex and idiosyncratic – there’s the vibe of a dusty old freak-folk record, while Rossen’s thin voice also recalls Robert Wyatt.
There’s a lot to take in on You Belong There – it’s ornate, not far from progressive rock despite the acoustic textures and short running times. Rossen’s guitar picking is sophisticated, and he’s supported by creative orchestral arrangements. Opener ‘It’s A Passage’ serves as a prelude with its orchestration, leading into ‘Shadow in the Frame’. Bear’s drumming is creative and propulsive when it’s featured on tracks like ‘Unpeopled Space’ and ‘Tangle’.
There’s a lot to take in on You Belong There – it’s a dense, fascinating album.
Run the Jewels
As the title implies, RTJ4 is the fourth album from the hip-hop duo of El-P and Killer Mike. Both had enjoyed moderate success for years before joining forces as Run the Jewels. Given the current political climate in the US, it’s more serious than previous records – El-P told Rolling Stone that it’s “all fire”. The record dropped in early June 2020, a couple of weeks after George Floyd’s death. Scarily, it contains a reference to an earlier victim of police brutality – the 2014 death of Eric Garner – with words that apply to Floyd as well “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe””.
That line’s taken from standout track ‘Walking in the Snow’. Over an ominous backing, the pair deliver other incisive lines like:
Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent
Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit
If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different
What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it
I’d say you lost your Goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with
The non-stop intensity can feel oppressive, and the use of cameos is welcome. Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha delivers the record’s most memorable hook on ‘Just’ – “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar” – even though Pharrell’s repeated “geddit” in the same song is grating. Mavis Staples adds gravitas to ‘Pulling the Pin’, delivering a pretty yet tense chorus.
RTJ4 is a timely record for 2020 – it’s not an easy listen, filled with tough beats and incendiary lyrics, but it’s the right album for these times.
ANNA B SAVAGE
While A.C. Newman’s been making records since the 1990s, Anna B Savage is a relative newcomer. in|Flux is just her second studio album, following 2020’s A Common Turn. Based in London, she has a distinctive sound – she adds a modern sheen to her bluesy guitar. Her lyrics are incisive, and her voice is haunting – she has a similar timbre to Jeff Buckley, without going to his extremes of range.
There are some memorable songs – opener ‘Ghost’ is ponderous and hushed, but its refrain of “stop haunting me, pleeeeease” is powerful and memorable. Savage is happier on ‘Crown Shyness’, where she sings “you’re in my dreams, an awful lot.” She’s witty on ‘Pavlov’s Dog’ – “Just call me Pavlov’s Dog/I’m here, I’m waiting, I’m salivating.” There’s a slight jazz tinge to tunes to like ‘The Orange’.
Savage has a gift for creating memorable verbal imagery – hopefully she’s still on an upward artistic trajectory.
Nigerian singer and actress Tiwatope Savage was a late bloomer. While graduating with a degree in accounting, she also served as a backing singer for George Michael and Mary J. Blige. After spending her teens in the UK, she graduated from Berklee College of Music and returned to Nigeria to establish a performing career. Turning 40 earlier this year, Celia is merely Savage’s third studio album.
Celia covers a lot of bases – musically it encompasses Afrobeats, R&B, Soul, and pop. Lyrically it’s also broad, covering women’s empowerment, lust, and God. While Celia isn’t particularly explicit, it’s boundary breaking for a female Nigerian artist to discuss carnal matters. It’s a patriarchal culture; when Savage’s husband divorced her in 2016, he also accused his mother-in-law of witchcraft. The record is named for Savage’s mother, and ends with the hymn-like ‘Celia’ Song’.
Savage’s vocals are outstanding, her honeyed voice helping this disparate collection of songs to achieve unity. Single ‘Koroba’ sticks close to Afrobeats, while ‘Temptation’ with Sam Smith feels Western. The uplifting and spiritual themes of ‘Glory’ and ‘Celia’s Song’ end the record on a sincere and beautiful note.
A record with a scope as wide as Celia is often asking for trouble – aiming to please everyone, but ending with noone satisfied. But Celia is exquisite, a multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating woman.
Rina Sawayama was born in Japan, but moved to the UK at the age of 5. She’s a late bloomer, especially for the pop game, releasing her debut album at the age of 30. Her debut is brash and entertaining, running through autobiographical experiences like her family, helplessness in the face of climate change, and male privilege.
Musically, Sawayama is just as wild a ride, hitting a lot of genre points. What’s distinctive is the taste of mu-metal that pervades some of these tracks – ‘STFU!’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now’ feature crunchy guitars. She is also able to switch to Japanese, like in the second verse of ‘Akasaka Sad’. Opening track ‘Dynasty’ has thematic heft, brooding both musically and lyrically.
Not everything that Sawayama tries sticks – ‘Chosen Family’ sounds like the theme song for a shoddy 1990s teen sitcom. The other big ballad, ‘Bad Friend’, is terrific – Sawayama regretting the waning of a previously vibrant friendship. As you’d expect on a pop record, there’s breezy material like ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’, while ‘Xs’ punctuates a pop tune with buzzsaw guitars.
Sawayama is flawed, but it’s also filled with vibrancy – when it works it’s unique and exciting.
THE GREAT AWAKENING
Texan band Shearwater began as a spinoff project from indie band Okkervil River, founded by Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff for the quieter songs they were writing together. Meiburg, who has a master’s degree in geography with a focus on ornithology, took the band’s name from a family of seabirds (which includes The Mutton Birds). The band are known for their attention to texture – The Great Awakening, their ninth album, incorporates recorded sounds of toucans and howler monkeys.
Inspired by Bowie’s late 1970s albums like Heroes, The Great Awakening is divided into two sides, with the gentler second side almost entirely devoid of drums. The gorgeous moodiness and usage of acoustic textures recalls Talk Talk albums like Spirit of Eden – Meiburg’s voice resembles Mark Hollis.
Shearwater are a recent discovery for me, and I’m as yet unsure how The Great Awakening compares to their eight previous studio records, but they’re lovely.
Take It Like A Man
Texas-born fiddler and singer-songwriter Amanda Shires has always been a talent, but on her seventh album, she’s becoming more comfortable in the spotlight. Following a stint in The Highwoman, Take It Like A Man was partly written during a time when Shires and her husband Jason Isbell were struggling to communicate. This is chronicled in songs like ‘Fault Lines’, where Shires sings “Time was all I’d want/You can keep the car and the house.”
In line with the vulnerable nature of the material, Take It Like A Man is often beautiful. The opening ‘Hawk For The Love’ has some guitar muscle from Isbell, but the tone of the record is set by confessional and soulful material. ‘Lonely At Night’ sounds like a meeting point of Carole King and 1970s soul, while ‘Empty Cups’ is pretty. ‘Fault Lines’ is the centrepiece of the album, gorgeously vulnerable.
Shires thrives as a confessional singer-songwriter on Take It Like A Man, delivering her highest-profile album yet at the age of 40.
The Turning Wheel
Spellling is the alter-ego of Tia Cabral, an art-rock musician from Oakland. Her intentionally misspelled stage name is amusing given that, at the time of starting her musical career, she worked as a primary school teacher. She took the name Spellling from an Erykah Badu Tweet, but her music’s much closer to art-rock and chamber-pop. Spellling’s vocal style provides a unique genre mishmash – her voice has the sultry tone you’d expect from an R&B or soul singer.
The Turning Wheel is Spellling’s third album, and she’s afforded a bigger budget. Where she used synths on 2019’s The Mazy Fly, here she has orchestral colours. The Turning Wheel is somewhat detached and theatrical – it’s easier for me to admire than to love – but there are still some strong musical moments.
The start of the record is particularly strong – ‘Little Deer’ is lovely with the pretty string arrangement pushing it towards 1960s chamber pop, while ‘Always’ is closer to 1970s soul. The record’s divided into two parts – the first six songs are grouped as Above, and the second half-dozen as Below. The second half is often mellower – ‘Boys at School’ rides a pretty piano part over seven minutes, while the piano and 1970s vibes of ‘Revolution’ recall Kate Bush.
If Spellling can add some more emotional heft to accompany her musicality and theatrics, she’ll be a force to reckon with.
LUCIFER ON THE SOFA
Like Beach House a couple of weeks ago, Spoon are another acclaimed indie institution I haven’t yet covered on this site. On their tenth album, producer Mark Rankin brings out their earthy side. Even though it’s not Spoon’s most memorable set of songs, it’s enjoyably visceral. The instrument and Britt Daniel’s vocals are raw and bluesy, and it’s full of great playing – Jim Eno is of my favourite drummers, while there are great guitar moments like the quickfire rhythm guitar on ‘Wild’.
Years of playing together as a band are clear on tracks like ‘The Devil & Mr Jones’, building into a tight groove. There’s some nice stylistic variation toward the end too – the Fender Rhodes, acoustic guitar, and harmonies on ‘Astral Jacket’ sound like Crowded House, while ‘On the Radio’ is built around pounding piano.
Spoon have better records in their back catalogue but Lucifer is full of vigour for a band more than a quarter of a century into their recording career.
Bright Green Field
There’s a whole crop of young, critically acclaimed post-punk bands floating around in the UK right now. I can barely differentiate Dry Cleaning from Black Country, New Road. But this debut album from Brighton band Squid is fun, the group pairing the intensity of post-punk with other influences. Squid cite Can and Neu! as an influence, and their appreciation of these 1970s German acts is manifested in the motorik beat of ‘Paddling’ and the repetitive and lengthy closer ‘Pamphlets’.
Drummer/singer Ollie Judge is charismatic, somewhere between the abrasive vocals of Mark E. Smith and the paranoid yelp of David Byrne. His distinctive voice gives Bright Green Field a cohesive feel, even as Squid try out a bunch of different ideas on their debut. The abrasive use of brass instruments on ‘Documentary Filmmaker’, played by bassist Laurie Nankivell, recalls 1970s King Crimson. They have plenty of ideas – ‘Boy Racers’ changes from groove-based post-punk to spooky ambient. They can play unsettling funk on ‘G.S.K.’ while ‘Global Groove’ is often stately and gorgeous.
Squid have enough personality and chops to make Bright Green Field a fascinating debut album. It opens up plenty of possibilities for future Squid records to explore.
Philadelphian R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan hasn’t made a record since 2015’s acclaimed Reality Show. Heaux Tales is a 33-minute EP that still reached #4 on the US charts. With an appearance singing the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl, Sullivan’s star is clearly in the ascendancy despite her slow release rate.
The eight songs of Heaux Tales are interspersed with monologues from Sullivan’s friends. I’ve never heard a record where the dialogue is so integral to the record, the interviews provide perspective on sex and empowerment. The interviews are often disarmingly pragmatic, matching Sullivan’s lyrics. In ‘Precious’ Tale’, Precious Daughtry states “I’m not dealing with anyone who does not have money/Because I know my worth”, before Sullivan opens ‘The Other Side’ with “I’ve got dreams to buy expensive things”.
It’s hard to become immersed in Heaux Tales as a musical experience when it’s so brief and interspersed with dialogue, but the songs stand up individually. Lead single ‘Pick Up Your Feelings’ mixes the smooth neo-soul of Lauryn Hill with a powerhouse vocal performance. The vocals are only accompanied by solitary guitar on ‘Lost One’, while Anderson.Paak cameos on the full production of ‘Pricetags’.
Heaux Tales is a little brief and unsatisfying musically, but it’s also effective at getting its themes across.
Annie Clark has been one of the most critically acclaimed artists of the last decade or so. Recording as St. Vincent, she has terrific guitar chops and an ability to reinvent herself every few years like her hero David Bowie. Her newest record was made with Jack Antonoff, with the pair playing almost all of the instruments; veteran pedal steel player Greg Leisz appears on ‘Somebody Like Me’. Daddy’s Home is set in the mid-1970s, as St. Vincent referenced Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder as influences. The sound palette of Daddy’s Home is electric pianos and soul grooves. Like Don Henley in the mid-1970s, Clark is picking away at the dark undercurrents of fame in a time of opulence.
Saint Joni ain’t no phony
Smoking reds where Furry sang the blues
‘Pay Your Way in Pain’ is a great opener, shifting gears from a jaunty piano introduction to St. Vincent’s discordant verses. But more often Daddy’s Home is gorgeous – Clark’s sitar adds a surprising element to ‘Down and Out Downtown’, while the Wurlitzer of ‘The Melting of the Sun’ is lovely. St. Vincent’s a charismatic enough vocalist to pull off a torch song on ‘My Baby Wants A Baby’, while one of the most satisfying pieces is the brief closer ‘Candy Darling’.
St. Vincent often feels like a cut above other musicians – even when she’s limiting herself to a specific set of sounds, her music is still filled with personality.
NATURAL BROWN PROM QUEEN
Brittney Parks’ stage name is confusing – I would have assumed it was a collection of long-lost recordings from Northern Africa. But the Cincinnati-born artist is interesting enough anyhow – her skills as a violinist add a different angle to her alternative R&B. Parks told The Guardian about the violin that “It’s such a serious instrument in a western concert setting, but in so many other places in the world it brings the party.” Her sophomore album Natural Brown Prom Queen is sometimes confusing, as she bounces between party-oriented bangers and more arty fare, but her musicality is always impressive. The single ‘NBPQ (Topless)’ is a synopsis of Parks’ methods, bouncing from chanting “I just wanna have my titties out” to a lovely violin solo.
‘ChevyS10’ echoes Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’, repurposing the line “we can leave tonight or live and die this way.” ‘Tdly (Homegrown Land)’ collides an Irish fiddle part with R&B themes and textures. Oddly, ‘Freakalizer’ isn’t one of the album’s four singles, as it seems like the most radio-friendly piece, with its smooth electric piano groove, airy verse melody, and catchy chorus.
There’s sometimes an awkward collision between arty instincts and commercial instincts, but Sudan Archives’ sheer musicality makes Natural Brown Prom Queen fascinating.
Moses Sumney was born in San Bernardino, California to Ghanaian parents. He spent his adolescence in Ghana but is now based in Asheville, North Carolina. Græ is his second album, an ambitious double album that showcases his fusion between indie and soul.
Græ was released in two parts – the first in February and the second in May. I find the whole more impressive than enjoyable. He’s technically impressive on ‘Keeps Me Alive’, with its wide-ranging vocal and accompanying himself on guitar. The lack of hooks and stylistic variety makes for tough listening over 65 minutes.
There are some strong tracks nonetheless – the gospel-flavoured bridge on ‘Cut Me’ is a memorable moment. The more abrasive songs like ‘Virile’ are often the most effective, showcasing some grit in Sumney’s voice. Sumney’s joined by Thundercat on bass for this track, while Adult Jazz supplies the bass on ‘Cut Me’. ‘Colouour’, with its orchestrated introduction and tender vocal, is reminiscent of Vampire Weekend. The monologues from guest vocalists provide variety but interrupt the flow.
Græ is an ambitious effort with thematic heft, and Sumney’s vocals are technically impressive, but there’s not enough memorable material to sustain a 65-minute running time.
African Electronic Dance Music
South Africa’s Sanele Sithole has been ridiculously prolific over the last few years. He’s overseen a roster of African house musicians, including Simmy, Samthing Soweto, and Azana. He disqualified himself from consideration for year-end lists last year by unleashing the 160-minute double album To The World & Beyond in December. He’s back in 2021 with the more concise African Electronic Dance Music. He’s built a distinctive sound, blending traditional African elements with electronica in a way that feels soulful rather than gimmicky.
Sun-El’s production is complemented by vocalists from his label. Simmy sings on the astoundingly gorgeous single ‘Higher’, her honeyed voice soaring over Sun-El’s textures. These tracks often unfold slowly over long running times, but there are pop hooks here. ‘Bestfriend’ impresses with a melody that keeps ascending, Msaki’s guest vocal defying gravity. The intro of ‘Ululate’ recalls Talking Head’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’ – the vocal hook could easily have become irritating, but instead, it’s excellent. The instrumental songs on the back half of the record aren’t as strong as the vocal tracks – ‘Jozi (Maboneng)’ and ‘Spiritual Bomb’ run for nearly half an hour.
Sun-El Musician’s music is warm, spiritual, and authentic, and African Electronic Dance Music is a terrific addition to his oeuvre.
Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør is best loved for her 2015 album 10 Love Songs. She embraced pop beats, adding propulsion behind her haunting voice. On her sixth album, Blómi, she’s back in singer-songwriter mode, often behind the piano. The record is dedicated to two members of her family – her young daughter, born in 2020, and her grandfather. Her grandfather is a linguist, well-known for his controversial theories.
Kjell Aartun, (in)famous for his theory that Norway’s Norse Runes came not from Vikings but semitic fertility cults. While her grandfather’s speculative runology was heavily contested during his lifetime, on blómi, she translates excerpts of his work into song, turning them into something beyond question and criticism.https://www.stereogum.com/2221784/susanne-sundfor-blomi/interviews/qa/
Sundfør’s pretty tunes deserve the singer-songwriter label, but she’s often wide-ranging. There are pretty tunes like ‘Alyosha’ and ‘Blómi’, but there’s also weird material. The jazzy feel and junkyard percussion of ‘Ṣānnu Yārru Lī’ recalls Tom Waits. Then there’s the lengthy ‘Leikara Ljóð’, where the pretty humming jars with the “gimme gimme gimme shock treatment” hook. The record also emphasises the spoken word, beginning and ending with dialogue. The only music video released from this record features footage of Sundfør’s recent wedding.
Blómi has actually interrupted Sundfør’s impressive sequence of number-one albums in Norway, peaking at number two. But it’s fascinating nonetheless – not her best record, but full of ideas.
The publishing of end-of-year music lists has become like a nuclear arms race, pushing further and further into early November. I get vindictive pleasure from SZA, an artist who’s both a big deal critically and commercially, releasing an outstanding album on 10 December, effectively obsoleting a bunch of premature lists. SOS is the long-awaited sequel to 2017’s CTRL, one of the most beloved albums of the decade. It’s lengthy, stretching over an hour with 23 tracks, but it’s excellent. Like Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti, it uses its length to stretch out over other genres – in the case of SOS, it drifts away from SZA’s usual alternative R&B to explore mainstream pop/rock. I enjoy SZA’s introspection here, as her meditations on a breakup provide continuity as the record opens up. Her voice is rich, her lyrics are insightful, and her melodies are robust.
The run of ten songs at the opening is strong and conventional – the advance single ‘Kill Bill’ and the pretty breakup tune ‘Gone Girl’ are both terrific. The record opens up with the silliness of ‘Smoking on my Ex Pack’, before Phoebe Bridgers cameos on ‘Ghost in the Machine’. There’s music here that sounds far removed from SZA’s usual oeuvre – in particular, halfway through the record, the transition to the Avril Lavigne-style guitar rock of ‘F2F’ is jarring, SOS ends strongly – ‘Good Days’ is pretty, while Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard contributes a posthumous verse to ‘Forgiveless’.
The sprawl of SOS may deter some listeners, but it’s impressively consistent.
Tinashe Kachingwe started her show biz career young, moving to LA at the age of eight and appearing in The Polar Express and Two and a Half Men. Tinashe started her career strongly with Aquarius before record company interference caused the quality of her records to decrease. 333 is her fifth album and her second as an independent artist.
Free of record company constraints, Tinashe wanders freely around the alternative R&B space. Her most distinctive asset is her amazingly pure head voice, utilised often like the hook to ‘Last Call’. There’s a delicacy to the lovely ‘Angels’, which is a mile away from the raunchy sex jam ‘X [marks the spot]’ (which isn’t about pirates).
Her songs are sometimes tantalizingly short – ‘Shy Guy’ packs a lot of ideas into a mere 1:06. Brief opener ‘Let Go’ is reminiscent of Donna Summer’s ‘On The Radio’. ‘The Chase’ is funky and propulsive, while ‘Small Reminders’ is pretty. The highlight is ‘Undo (Back to My Heart)’, which starts mellow before launching into its huge chorus.
333 is a little inconsistent, but there are a lot of great ideas and it’s easily one of the best new records I’ve heard this year.
Anna Tivel makes small-scale music, with low-key tunes about ordinary people. She told Robert Horvat that “I’m drawn over and over to the small stories of people (myself included) just trying to get by, to do a little better, to feel some sort of beauty in an ugly world.” But her lyrics are disarmingly incisive at times.
You sit at the kitchen table, a six-pack and a capo
An artist and an asshole, you write all of your wrongs
And your heroes grow unruly, they overdose or just leave
Their lives are f***ed up movies and you’ve studied every oneHeroes, Anna Tivel
The entire record barely raises above a gentle conversation, but there is enough textural variation to keep things interesting. Piano and strings colour ‘Two Dark Horses’, while there’s a light drum machine on ‘Royal Blue’ and a slinky electric piano (I think?) on ‘Invisible Man’.
Tivel’s keenly observed vignettes are impressive.
It seems like I should enjoy an affinity with Torres. Her real name, Mackenzie Ruth Scott, is very similar to my wife’s maiden name. Like my wife, Torres learned the flute and grew up in a Baptist Church. Torres’ malleable voice is enjoyable – she can switch from an androgynous rasp to a more vulnerable higher register. She’s produced on her fifth album Thirstier by Rob Ellis, who’s known for his collaborations with PJ Harvey. The muscular and rootsy sound is enjoyable, but I find it lacking in subtlety at times.
To be fair on Torres, she’s recently engaged and Thirstier is her lust album – “I know I wear you out/I’m never sleepy” is a memorable couplet from the title track. But the lyrics are often a little disappointing compared to her robust tunes and arrangements – she drops into cliché on the chorus of closing ‘Keep The Devil Out’ when she sings “Everybody wants to go to heaven/But nobody wants to die to get there.” When the lyrics aren’t distracting, Thirstier is often enjoyable – ‘Don’t Go Puttin Wishes In My Head’ is a strong lead single.
Torres’ rootsy alt-rock is conventional enough that she’ll probably appeal to older music fans, but I’d prefer some more profound lyrics in places.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Yves Tumor is an American producer and vocalist, born as Sean Bowie in Miami and based in Turin, Italy. Tumour was raised in Nashville, and started making music to cope with “dull, conservative surroundings”; I imagine there weren’t many fellow Throbbing Gristle fans in Tennessee. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is Tumor’s fourth album.
Tumor’s an electronic artist, but the music’s abrasive enough to be accessible for rock fans. Tumor takes samples from John Wetton-era Uriah Heep and ‘Hangman’, from Jimmy Page and Roy Harper’s 1985 collaboration ‘Whatever Happened to Jugula?’ The industrial rhythms are propulsive, and there’s barely an ounce of fat on this quick moving record.
Tumor’s joined by New York R&B vocalist Diana Gordon for the wonderful advance single ‘Kerosene!’, and she does a great job of matching Tumor’s vocal intensity. Creative rhythms underpin songs like ‘Gospel For A New Century’, the opener where the stop-start rhythm track sounds like a technical malfunction. The second half of Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a little unmemorable and light on hooks, but it’s still an impressive record.
Yves Tumor’s abrasive electronica is a massive hit of adrenaline, and Heaven to a Tortured Mind is often thrilling.
PRAISE A LORD WHO CHEWS BUT WHICH DOES NOT CONSUME; (OR SIMPLY, HOT BETWEEN WORLDS)
The title of Tumor’s fifth album is like something you’d expect from Godspeed! You Black Emperor. But the music is the opposite of meandering post-rock – it’s a collection of twelve punchy tracks. Befitting his birth name of Bowie, there’s more than a touch of glam on these tracks. Praise is produced by Noah Goldstein, and features more of a live band feel – a journey away from Tumor’s origins as a self-contained DIY artist.
While Tumor’s androgynous charisma is at the centre of Praise A Lord, there are also great musical moments. There’s a terrific guitar riff that slips in halfway through ‘Heaven Surrounds Us Like a Hood’. There’s also an agreeably huge riff fuelling the closing ‘Ebony Eye’, while the pulsing bass that fuels the opener ‘God is a Circle’ sounds great.
Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume is an unrelenting blast of adrenaline.
Merrill Garbus worked as a puppeteer before she formed tUnE-yArDs with Nate Brenner. Based in Oakland, California, the married couple are an eclectic, post-modern duo. I find a disconnect between the raw yelping and kitsch music, but there are some great tracks on their fifth album Sketchy.. Their music is vibrant, with melody instruments augmenting with the lead vocals in their busy arrangements.
The stacked vocals on the chorus of ‘Hypnotized’ are gorgeous, my favourite moment of the record. There’s a great gospel-ish bridge on ‘Hold Yourself.’, and ‘Under Your Lip’ is also pretty with its neo-soul feel.
Sometimes Sketchy. is a record that I admire more than I enjoy, but it’s worth dipping in if you’d like something refreshingly vibrant.
Meghan Remy grew up in Illinois, but moved her experimental pop project U.S. Girls to Toronto in 2010. Adding a poppy sheen to her music helped Meg Remy gain attention for her previous record, 2018’s In A Poem Unlimited; ‘M.A.H.’ sounded like a lost Blondie track. 2020’s Heavy Light feels like a good followup, rather than a great one.
Remy’s often a provocative lyricist, and she’s doubled down on this aspect by including a few answer sessions with her bandmates on Heavy Light. Tracks like ‘Advice to my Teenage Self’ and ‘The Colour of my Childhood Bedroom’ are brief monologues that interrupt the flow.
The opening track, though, is great. ‘4 American Dollars’ recalls 1960s girl group fare with its organ and backing vocals, although it also has a contemporary sheen. It’s funky, and it closes with a memorable tag line.
I don’t believe in pennies, and nickels
And dimes, and dollars, and pesos, and pounds, and
Rupees, and yen, and rubles, no dinero
Other memorable tracks include ‘Woodstock ‘99’, which uses parts of Jimmy Webb’s ‘McArthur Park’, and ‘Born to Lose’ which again mines the blue-eyed soul sound.
Heavy Light is a little disjointed and disappointing after In A Poem Unlimited, but U.S. Girls remain vibrant and entertaining.
Hikaru Utada was born in New York City to Japanese parents – her father is a record producer and her mother was a singer. Utada has dominated Japanese domestic album sales – her 1999 album, First Love, which she released at the age of 15, is more than 80% clear of its nearest competition (Utada’s following album, Distance). Her personal life has often been tough over the past two decades, including stepping away from music for a few years in her early 30s. Utada’s far from a predictable pop star – Bad Mode is a boundary-pushing pop album with some experimental production.
Bad Mode is Utada’s 11th studio album and her first bilingual record – she’s previously recorded albums in Japanese and English. On it, she works with a variety of producers, including Floating Points, PC Music’s A.G. Cook, Skrillex, and Japanese producer Nariaki Obukuro. Bad Mode runs 55 minutes – a long time for a pop album – and sometimes struggles to keep momentum. In particular, the record gets bogged down in the middle – the seven minutes of ‘Not In The Mood’, with its nursery rhyme chorus, and the moody ‘Darenimo Iwanai’ make for the least interesting stretch of the record.
But there’s also some excellent material – the opening title track, produced with Floating Points, hits a perfect mix of buoyancy and sophistication. The two Cook-produced tracks that follow are also strong, including ‘One Last Kiss’, already used in the 2021 film Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time. The closing ‘Somewhere Near Marseilles’ is magical, the house beats and gorgeous production (again from Floating Points) providing the record’s high point.
Bad Mode is a little long and drifts in places, but it’s also gorgeous and full of personality.
The War on Drugs
I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Adam Granduciel formed The War on Drugs in Philadelphia in 2003. On their fifth studio album, they’ve largely dropped their psychedelic trappings for a series of 1980s heartland rockers. Even though it’s weird to hear gated reverb on a 2021 album, this 1980s retro-rock seems like well-worn territory; it often feels one step away from Don Henley’s ‘The Boys of Summer’.
Granduciel’s songwriting is unpredictable enough to keep things interesting. In particular, he’s fond of unusual phrasing – his vocals melodies don’t emphasise the first beat of the bar as much as most roots rock. He’s able to wrench plenty of moments of resonance – when he sings “I’m a desperate man” on ‘Change’, it’s easy to believe him.
With the gated reverb on the drums, single ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’ evokes 1980s Springsteen – the vocal tags with Lucius on the closing moments are often magical. On the more relaxed material, like ‘Rings Around My Father’s Eyes’, Granduciel recalls Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler. His nasal vocals on ‘Wasted’ are more like Tom Petty. But even though it’s immense fun drawing comparisons with 1980s rockers, Granduciel’s writing is strong enough that he’s comfortably able to step out of the shadow of his forebears.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore is an excellent record, with Granduciel a strong enough writer to ensure it’s not mere pastiche.
Alabama’s Katie Crutchfield hasn’t always been an Americana artist – she’s a talented young artist who’s able to switch genres. Her previous record, 2017’s Out in the Storm, was a furious album of cathartic guitar rock, recorded after heartache. Giving up alcohol and moving to Kansas City to join boyfriend Kevin Morby, Crutchfield reconnected with the country music that she rejected in her teens.
Crutchfield told The Guardian that she was influenced by artists like Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris in making Saint Cloud. Crutchfield has grown up through her music – Saint Cloud is her fifth solo album, but the first album she’s recorded in her thirties, and it reflects a new maturity and calm. She told Pitchfork that “I started to reject the idea that you have to live your life clumsily and be a big mess to write anything that’s exciting or interesting”.
Crutchfield’s imagery is straightforward and effective, and the folk-country arrangements are pretty with shimmering acoustic guitars and double-tracked lead vocals. Crutchfield’s voice has an emotional warble, and melodies like ‘Ruby Falls’ recall Gillian Welch’s work.
Although most of Saint Cloud is mellow and introspective, some of the best songs are upbeat. Crutchfield described ‘Hell’ to Pitchfork as “a little bit psycho”, but it’s based around a joyful acoustic strum, while ‘Can’t Do Much’ is straightforward and lovely.
Saint Cloud is strong all the way through, but some of the most significant songs are saved for the end. The beautiful ‘Ruby Falls’ is written about a friend who passed from a drug overdose, while the almost title track, ‘St. Cloud’, is sparse and unvarnished, a lovely conclusion.
Saint Cloud is a beautiful, timeless record that brings sunny personality to a well-trodden genre.
The Weather Station
Canada’s Tamara Lindeman has steadily been releasing records with The Weather Station since 2009. Ignorance, their fifth record, has raised The Weather Station’s profile considerably, changing tack from the acoustic folk-country feel of earlier releases.
Instead, The Weather Station mine the 1980s for a sophisti-pop sound; opener ‘Robber’ echoes elements from 1980s Talk Talk like the jazzy hi-hats and spurts of woodwinds. The piano vamps and atmospheric backing vocals in the climax of ‘Parking Lot’ recall Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 classic ‘Sara’, while the smooth sophistication of Roxy Music’s Avalon is another reference point. It’s a great backdrop for Lindeman’s poised vocals – her warm, assertive voice sometimes recalls Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. She’s supported by a cast of Canadian musicians, including Owen Pallett who provides typically accomplished string arrangements for ‘Wear’ and ‘Trust’.
I’m so enamoured with the music that I haven’t paid much attention to Lindeman’s lyrics. But while the music is often retro-inspired, her lyrics are contemporary in scope, often focused on the climate crisis. On ‘Atlantic’ she sings “With a wine in my hand, laid back in the grass of some stranger’s field, while shearwaters reeled overhead, thinking; I should get all this dying off my mind”.
Ignorance is gorgeous, the best record I’ve heard from 2021 thus far.
HOW IS IT THAT I SHOULD LOOK AT THE STARS
Tamara Lindeman’s sixth album was written at the same time as 2021’s Ignorance. According to Lindeman, it’s the moon to the previous album’s sun. While Ignorance presented a sophisticated veneer, How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars is presented simply, recorded in three days. There’s no percussion, and the songs are often brief. Lindeman’s vocals are lovely, recalling the jazzy warmth of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell.
It’s perhaps unfair to label Stars as an outtakes album, but it does feel less substantial than its predecessor. The playing and singing are so lovely that How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars works well as background music, but a couple of songs stand out – opener ‘March’ has a lovely lilt, with the minimal piano providing a lovely bed for the exploratory bass and saxophone. Ryan Driver provides duet vocals on ‘To Talk About’, and it’s a great change of pace – the lyrics are personal rather than existential angst in the face of climate change.
How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars is lovely, even while the songs aren’t always remarkable.
English psychedelic folk artist Jane Weaver has been around for decades without ever appearing on my radar – she formed her high school band, Kill Laura, back in 1989. Weaver has warmed into her work – the albums that she’s recorded in her forties, like 2014’s The Silver Globe, have enjoyed acclaim, and Flock is her first entry into the UK top 40. Flock adds a poppier sheen than before – hitting a sweet spot between tuneful accessibility and intellectual exploration.
Flock is subtly diverse – the lead single ‘The Revelation of Super Visions’ falls somewhere between Stereolab and Prince. There’s plenty of intelligent, slightly twisted pop – ‘Pyramid Schemes’, ‘Heartlow’, and ‘Sunset Dreams’ are other hooky songs.
But Weaver’s also good at dreamy pop music – ‘All The Things You Do’ is hypnotic, while ‘Stages of Phases’ would be close to a blues song without its electronic sheen. Closer ‘Solarised’ is another standout, with its synth shimmer.
Flock hits a lovely sweet spot – creative, intelligent, and accessible.
I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha
Atlanta’s Faye Webster is notable for how young she started her career – she self-released 2013’s Run and Tell while still in her mid-teens. She released I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha on her 24th birthday, her fourth record. Webster already has a unique sound figured out, a kind of country lounge. There are classy horns and slick cocktail jazz piano, coupled with country touches like pedal steel. She tops it off with her wistful voice and quirky personality. “You weigh just as much as me, don’t you?” is a disarmingly strange line for a love song; the song culminates in the line “you make me wanna cry in a good way.”
The quirkiness distracts from the fact that Webster’s a very talented operator. The biggest earworm is the low-key earnestness ‘Sometimes’, with its pretty chorus. There’s a great bassline in the moody ‘A Dream With a Baseball Player’. The spare tracks that spotlight Webster’s personality are most effective, but there’s more muscle behind ‘Cheers’.
Sometimes I’m Funny Ha Ha seems lightweight, but it’s ingratiatingly effective all the same.
REGARDS TO THE END
Multi-instrumentalist Emily Wells has been recording music for almost three decades. At the age of 13, she made her first record, a self-recorded cassette. Influenced by Wu-Tang Clan, Phillip Glass, and John Cage, Wells plays a wide array of instruments on Regards to the End, including cello, viola, and violin. The percussion is unobtrusive and the Wells’ music is layered with string instruments and keyboards; the end product is as close to classical music as it is to pop. It’s dense with ideas, and Wells’ keening voice can be an acquired taste. Wells’ father, a former music minister, plays the French Horn.
Wells’ music is angst-fuelled – Regards to the End addresses the AIDS crisis and the climate crisis. On the standout piece ‘Arnie and Bill to the Rescue’, Wells writes about Arnie Zane and Bill T. Jones, a couple who founded an avant-garde dance company in 1983. The song is about the night when Zane died from AIDS-related complications, and the medics wouldn’t touch him. Despite the tragic subject matter, Wells’ main motif that runs through the tune is gorgeous. In the context of the album, the closer ‘Blood Brother’ is suitably climactic, Wells seemingly drawing parallels between the Christian tradition of communion and the AIDS crisis.
Musically dense and thematically heavy, Regards to the End is often gorgeous.
Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg were one of the breakout stars of 2021, their innuendo-laden hit ‘Chaise Longue’ going viral. Wet Leg is the accompanying full-length record from Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers, and it’s met with success, topping the album charts in the UK and Australia. Their name comes from an Isle of Wight expression denoting visitors to the island, recognisable because they’d have wet legs from getting off the boat.
I was initially prepared to write Wet Leg off as gimmicky, but later singles impressed me that there’s substance here. Their debut album mixes a few strands of music – the exuberance of Britpop, the slacker attitude of 1990s alt-rock, and the rawness of post-punk. ‘Chaise Longue’, with its string of endearing silly double entendres, is far from the only humorously provocative song. There’s also ‘Wet Dream’, with its quirky promise “I’ve got Buffalo ’66 on DVD”. They’re most convincing on the full band songs like ‘Ur Mum’ and ‘Supermarket’.
As a somewhat gimmicky duo, Wet Leg will be reliant on a strong second album to establish a lasting career, but their debut is a ton of fun.
North Carolina’s Jonathan Wilson is in his mid-40s and not a household name but he’s exceedingly well-connected. He tours with Roger Waters, has produced Roy Harper, and played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dixie Blur is his fourth album, and it sounds piped straight in from the 1970s.
Wilson now resides in Laurel Canyon, but relocated to Nashville to record the Americana of Dixie Blur. More than anything, however, Wilson reminds me of British 1970s singer-songwriter Al Stewart, with his warm voice and finger-picked guitar; opener ‘Just For Love’ recalls Stewart’s ‘Broadway Hotel’ from 1976’s Year of the Cat.
Dixie Blur is so blatantly retro that it’s sliding toward irrelevancy. But it’s worth the price of admission just for Mark O’Connor’s gorgeous fiddle playing – O’Connor’s largely avoided session work over the past few decades, not enjoying the recording process. But Wilson coaxed him into playing by recording the tracks live in the studio, giving the music a warm and organic feel.
Dixie Blur is often more worthwhile for the pretty playing than it is for memorable songwriting. As well as O’Connor’s fiddle driving tracks like ‘So Alive’ and ‘El Camino Real’, Russ Pahl plays some lovely pedal steel on tracks like ‘Riding the Blinds’. ‘Oh Girl’ recalls the space rock of Pink Floyd, which makes sense given Wilson’s role playing Gilmour’s parts on Roger Waters’ shows.
Dixie Blur is lovely, although it’s more notable for the atmosphere and musicianship than for the songs.
The Future Bites
Kingston upon Thames’ Steven Wilson is beloved by vintage music fans, as a producer and a performer. He’s remixed classic albums like Roxy Music and Tears For Fears Songs From The Big Chair, while as a musician he’s best loved for Porcupine Tree, who mix classic progressive rock with post-Radiohead dystopia. His 2021 album The Future Bites has upset some long-term fans by straying closer to synth-pop than to progressive rock. It’s not unprecedented for Wilson – previous records like Porcupine Tree’s Lightbulb Sun also have prominent pop elements. Generally Wilson’s skillset – he’s an excellent guitarist and mediocre lyricist – is better suited to progressive rock, and The Future Bites is a mixed bag.
The most memorable track, ’12 Things I Forgot’, sounds uncannily like a track from English pop/rock band Keane. It’s tuneful, but Wilson’s most effective when he stays closest to his progressive rock roots, like the searing guitar solo on ‘Follower’. The atmospheric ‘Unself’, which feels like a Flaming Lips song, and the aggressive beat on ‘Self’ make for a strong beginning, but Wilson’s lyrics like “selfish acts…. between the sheets” aren’t as impressive. At almost ten minutes and featuring a Sir Elton John monologue, ‘Personal Shopper’ is more notable for its anti-consumerism tirade than for its music.
The Future Bites is often fascinating, but I’m confident that Wilson has made at least a dozen albums that are better.
Dwellers of the Deep
As much as I enjoy music from the heyday of progressive rock in the early 1970s, I don’t often dip my toes into the neo-progressive scene. While I don’t keep up, it seems that Norway’s Wobbler are one of the most beloved bands in the current neo-prog scene. Fascinatingly, they eschew modern technology, not using any instruments from beyond 1975. Instead of modern synths, they rely on piano, minimoog, and Mellotrons.
Progressive rock always requires a very strong vocalist, and Andreas Wettergreen Strømman Prestmo is a capable singer, with a high pitched voice than recalls Yes’ Jon Anderson and some huskiness a la Peter Gabriel. Even a vocalist of Prestmo’s calibre can’t pull off dopey lines like “Listen to the voices of the Naiad girls/Dancing by the pool, where the mighty river swirls.”
Lyrics are almost never the focus in progressive rock – the main appeal is from the rapid-fire riffs and the keyboard arsenal of Lars Fredrik Frøislie, which recalls Rick Wakeman in his 1970s pomp. The two longer tracks outshine the two shorter ones – the impressive riffing of the fast-paced ‘By The Banks’ and the more atmospheric ‘Merry Macabre’ are the highlights.
Dwellers of the Deep is dangerously close to a 1970s Yes pastiche, but there’s enough quality to make it worthwhile regardless.
London alternative band Wolf Alice have been around for a decade, but their third album feels like a step forward, a confident group at the top of their game. Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell is charismatic and interesting, and the band switches between memorable tunes and impactful walls of noise. Blue Weekend has been deservedly successful, debuting at number one in the UK.
Wolf Alice cover a lot of stylistic ground without deviating far from a four-piece band setup – although one notable guest is Owen Pallett on string arrangements. They play bouncy, Beatles-esque pop of ‘Last Man on Earth’ while ‘The Beach II’ recalls shoegaze. The group’s pop-smarts are on display on ‘Lipstick on the Glass’, while the main hook of ‘How Can I Make It OK?’ comes straight from the 1980s.
Rowsell takes the limelight on ‘Delicious Things’. It starts terrifically, with Rowsell’s wordless vocals riding over a great chord progression in the intro. It never lets up with Rowswell’s combination of wide-eyed wonder and pragmatism.
I’m often tempted to write off mainstream rock music as predictable, the last whispers of a dying art-form, but Blue Weekend is vibrant and exciting.
Jamie Stewart has been making experimental music with Xiu Xiu since 2002’s Knife Play. Percussionist and keyboardist Angela Seo, the band’s only other member, has been on board since 2009. Stewart’s gloomy yet theatrical baritone is softened on Xiu Xiu’s twelfth album by the presence of guest vocalists.
It’s too unsettling to serve as regular listening fodder for me, but there are some excellent tracks. Paired with Liars, ‘Rumpus Room’ is propulsive and fun. Grouper’s Liz Harris guests on lead single and standout tracks ‘A Bottle of Rum’, and she sounds great with Stewart over the moody and impulsive indie guitars. Likewise, the vocal blend of Stewart and the quivering tenor of Owen Pallett is captivating on ‘I Dream of Someone Else Entirely’.
I doubt I’ll ever become a major Xiu Xiu aficionado, but they’re creative and there are enough great tracks here to make Oh No! worth a spin.