This page collects album reviews for 2020s artists of whom I’ve only reviewed one or two albums. This page became a little long to edit easily so there’s a part two covering M-Z.
Alex G | Alvvays | Amaarae | Animal Collective | Ichiko Aoba | Fiona Apple | Art School Girlfriend | Azana | Bad Bunny | Beach House | Black Country, New Road | Beyoncé | Blondshell | Julie Byrne | Caribou | Brandi Carlile | Caroline | Nick Cave and Warren Ellis | Eddie Chacon | Chloe x Halle | CHVRCHES | Deafheaven | Iris DeMent | Destroyer | DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, and Tresor | Ducks Ltd | Baxter Dury | Avalon Emerson | Silvana Estrada | Fever Ray | The Flaming Lips | FKA Twigs | Fleet Foxes | Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra | Flock of Dimes | Florist | Foxing | Gang of Youths | Childish Gambino | Gabriel Garzón-Montano | Godspeed You! Black Emperor | Grimes | Grouper | Hatchie | James Holden | Ibibio Sound Machine | Japanese Breakfast | Cassandra Jenkins | Jupiter & Okwess | Kelela | King Krule | Natalia Lafourcade | Kendrick Lamar | Lankum | Jessy Lanza | Howie Lee | Let’s Eat Grandma | Low
GOD SAVE THE ANIMALS
Philadelphia’s Alexander Giannascoli, known as Alex G, is a product of the Bandcamp self-promotion era. He’s self-released bedroom pop albums for a decade, building a profile. On God Save the Animals, he took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to work in an actual studio. His music sounds more polished than before, but it’s not fundamentally different. As before, Giannascoli writes likeable and robust tunes, then dresses them up with quirky vocal effects.
The jangle of ‘Runner’ recalls Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’, although it adds enough elements to stand on its own. The deep counterpoint vocals and Giannascoli’s scream at the end of the last chorus are great moments. ‘Miracles’ is gorgeous, Alex G delivering an intimate and confessional tune. The fiddle is lovely, and there are terrific lines like “You say one day that we should have a baby, well/Right now, baby, I’m struggling, we’ll see, yeah.”
As well as fully-fledged songs, Alex G also excels at semi-instrumentals. On tracks like ‘Headroom Piano’ and ‘S.D.O.S.’, the low, pitch-shifted vocals are just window-dressing. The main appeal is from the instrumental parts. The simple lead guitar part that appears near the beginning of ‘Headroom Piano’ is memorable – it’s a great arrangement trick, as it’s withheld for the rest of the song, leaving the tantalising feeling that something’s missing.
God Save the Animals is a lovely record; Alex G’s quirks don’t disguise the fact that he’s a terrific songwriter.
My father and I didn’t enjoy much of the same music. He thought that Charley Pride was “better” than The Beach Boys. We both liked Emmylou Harris, but I liked her genre-bending Beatles covers and Daniel Lanois collaborations, while he liked her most traditional work. In the 1990s, I liked the Loud Family while he liked The Rankin Family.
Alvvays’ lead vocalist Molly Rankin is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the daughter of Rankin Family fiddler John Morris Rankin. Blue Rev is named for a sweet Canadian alcoholic beverage that Rankin and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan drank as teenagers. The band intended to follow up 2017’s Antisocialites quickly, but a Covid-enforced five-year gap between releases enabled them to build up an impressive and diverse store of material.
Alvvays are best known for their twee indie-pop, like ‘Archie, Marry Me’. But on Blue Rev, they sound tougher in patches. On the most intense tracks, like ‘Easy on Your Own’ and ‘Many Mirrors’, the heavier guitars coupled with pretty vocals evoke My Bloody Valentine. The band also offer energetic power-pop on ‘Pomerian Spinster’ and ‘After the Earthquake’. The twee side of Alvvays’s music is still present on ‘Very Online Guy’, while ‘Belinda Says’ is an answer to Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’.
Importantly, Alvvays’s ear for a tune never abates, and Blue Rev is one of my 2022 favourites.
Amaarae was born in New York to Ghanaian parents. Now based in Ghana, she’s received an amazing amount of critical acclaim for her sophomore album – on the aggregator Metacritic, she’s scored an impressive 95/100 for Fountain Baby, putting it alongside albums by Loretta Lynn and Brian Wilson in the most high-rated in the website’s history.
As you can probably tell from the grade, I’m not as enamoured with Fountain Baby as the professional critics. Musically, it’s dynamic, with short and punchy songs, and a surprisingly wide palette of sounds – it encompasses sophisticated alternative R&B and Afrobeats, while the punk of ‘Sex, Violence, Suicide’ is an unexpected left turn. But the lyrics are often distractingly facile –
Baby, wanna roll with a rude one
Say she want money, get her boobs doneReckless & Sweet
– a shame when Amaarae’s vocals are pretty and the productions are strong. The most laid-back tracks are often strongest – ‘Big Steppa’ is built around a scratchy guitar. ‘Come Home to God’ starts modestly, but quickly builds into an anthem.
I wish Amaarae could write some more interesting lyrics, but I appreciate the expansive and fast-moving Fountain Baby.
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.
Kyoto folk musician Ichika Aoba has been releasing albums for a decade – she was still a teenager when Kamisori Otome came out in 2010. She plays classical guitar – earlier releases like 2013’s o were centered around her guitar. On Windswept Adan she submerges her music in ambient strings and electronics. Billed as a “soundtrack for a fictitious movie”, it’s gorgeous. Aoba’s talked in interviews about how a lot of her songs come to her in dreams – she told Japan Times that “the dreams I have are like movies: They even have opening titles and credits at the end.”
The most accessible song is the most upbeat – ‘Sagu’s Palm Song’ is built around joyful guitar lines. There’s diversity in the textures – the piano in ‘Parfum D’étoiles’ has touches of jazz and classical. Even though the lyrics are in Japanese, songs like ‘Dawn in the Adan’ and ‘Adan No Shima No Tanjyosai’ don’t sound as Asian as you might expect – the guitars and strings aren’t far removed from what you might find on a 21st century Vashti Bunyan record.
Windswept Adan is a gorgeous album, a folkie embracing new sounds to widen her palette without losing her core appeal.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple’s been around for a long time, releasing her 1996 debut album Tidal at the age of 18. But she’s not prolific – Fetch the Bolt Cutters is only her fifth record, making each Apple release feel like an event. April’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters has proved especially major – in a fractured music scene, it’s dominated conversations about the year’s best record.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters deviates from Apple’s usual piano-driven music in favour of a percussion-heavy sound. The percussion came from found objects including baked seedpods and the bones of Apple’s deceased dog. Apple often initiated the tracks from basic recordings on her phone and, despite contributions by band-mates like bassist Sebastian Steinberg and multi-instrumentalist David Garza, the tracks retain the raw feeling of demos. Model Cara Delevingne, Apple’s sister Maude Maggart, and Apple’s dog Mercy are also credited with vocal contributions.
Musically, Fetch the Bolt Cutters resembles 1980s Tom Waits, as well as tracks like ‘Hot Knife’ from Apple’s previous record The Idler Wheel…. Apple is a more supple vocalist than Waits, however, and it’s her dramatic cabaret-style singing that gives Fetch the Bolt Cutters a distinctive flavour. Lead track ‘I Want You To Love Me’ is piano-based, but features some of Apple’s most extreme vocalising with her high-pitched machine-gun impersonations at the conclusion.
Apple’s fascinating lyrically, and Fetch the Bolt Cutters is both insular and inspirational. Some songs are directly inspired by minutiae in Apple’s life; in the case of ‘Drumset’, by bandmate and engineer Amy Aileen Wood borrowing Apple’s drumset without asking. The title is taken from an episode of TV series The Fall, and serves as a metaphor for freedom. Apple references another female auteur, Kate Bush, on the title track, singing “I need to run up that hill, I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.”
Most of these tracks are memorable thanks to Apple’s striking lyrics and vocal experiments. ‘Heavy Balloon’ addresses depression and uses a jazzy template with unexpected key changes. The stacked vocals on ‘For Her’ are effective, almost a capella apart from some percussion. ‘Relay’ rollicks along on a bed of percussion as Apple declares that “evil is a relay sport”.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters may not even end up as my favourite album from Apple. Nonetheless, it’s a notable addition to a fascinating catalogue that marks Apple as one of the most significant acts to emerge in the 1990s. Releasing a record that sounds somewhat original is an achievement in a congested market.
Art School Girlfriend
Is It Light Where You Are
Art School Girlfriend is the project of Polly Mackey, who comes from a small town in Wales. On her debut album, Is It Light Where You Are, she plays gloomy goth-pop where her airy voice floats over the top of the unsettling synths. Art School Girlfriend was her girlfriend’s idea for a DJ name, but the debut album was prompted by the end of their relationship.
“After we broke up,” she recalls, “I ended up sleeping on my friend’s sofa. I would wake up at 7am, drive to the Hampstead ponds, go swimming, use the showers… and then I’d go straight to the studio. And that was what I did for two weeks. During those two weeks, I’d say the bulk of the album was written and produced. Then I spent a year slowly working on it.”https://atwoodmagazine.com/asgl-art-school-girlfriend-is-it-light-where-you-are-album-review-music-feature/
Is It Light Where You Are is a little homogenous to sit through, but there are some excellent tracks. ‘Softer Side’ has a feel of a 1980s ballad, with its synths and reverb. ‘Low Light’ is an accessible pop tune, even though the long and drab coda indicates that Mackey’s aiming for emotional impact rather than hooks.
Mackie is capable of a stronger and more diverse record than Is It Light Where You Are, but it’s a solid start to her career nonetheless.
If you haven’t been paying attention, you might have missed the fertile South African house music scene. It’s known in South Africa by the name amapiano, Zulu for “the pianos”, and originated in South African townships like Soweto. Amapiano is now in the mainstream, blending house sounds with soul and pop. One of the leading figures in the house scene is producer Sun-El Musician, who enjoyed a prolific 2020, producing acclaimed albums from Mthunzi and Simmy as well as releasing the epically long three-hour album To the World & Beyond under his own name. Perhaps the most notable record from the SunElWorld stable in 2020, however, was Ingoma, a record by 19-year-old newcomer Azana.
Ingoma sits in the intersection of soul, pop, and house, and it’s lovely. Azana describes her vocals as “my voice is Rich and soothing. It sounds like Royalty.” It starts gently – ‘Okhokho’ functions like an opening prayer, evoking Azana’s Zulu heritage. The more upbeat material is on the second half – ‘Ngize Ngifike’ and ‘Umoqondana’ emphasise the house beats. The highlight, though, is the lovely ‘Your Love’, built around a shimmering keyboard riff. It’s simply a terrific pop song, with a great verse melody, memorable chorus, and wordless hook, delivered with Azana’s creamy vocals.
Ingoma is a gorgeous debut, and ‘Your Love’ is my favourite song of 2020.
UN VERANO SIN TI
Puerto Rican singer and rapper Bad Bunny is arguably the world’s biggest music star, the most streamed artist on Spotify in 2020 and 2021. In between acting (he’s set to star in an upcoming Marvel film), dabbling in professional wrestling, and running his own charitable foundation, named the Good Bunny Foundation, he’s released his fourth studio album. Un Verano Sin Ti is only the second all-Spanish album to top the Billboard Album Chart. A 23-track, 80-minute, non-English record sounds like a tough sell, but Un Verano Sin Ti is admirably diverse, all the while keeping Benito Ocasio in the centre of proceedings.
Bad Bunny began his recording his career as a trap and reggaeton artist. There are still some stripped-down tracks on Un Verano Sin Ti, but at other times he’s immersing himself in other Latin genres. On ‘Después de la Playa’ he veers into mambo, while ‘Ojitos Lindos’ is an ace collaboration with Colombian band Bomba Estéreo.
Un Verano Sin Ti is impressive, Bad Bunny keeping up momentum over a lengthy blockbuster.
Once Twice Melody
Baltimore duo Beach House are one of the most acclaimed acts of the past decade or so. I often like to use the website RateYourMusic as a frame of reference, and five of the Beach House’s eight albums to date have achieved the celebrated bold status – one of the few 21st century acts to receive such recognition. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally make dreamy, psychedelic pop/rock music. They’re like a more grounded Cocteau Twins, although the opening title track recalls Stereolab.
‘Masquerade’ juxtaposes Legrand’s pretty voice against tougher music – the beats are almost industrial. There’s a lovely tune on ‘Superstar’, while the melody of ‘Esp’ recalls the classical elegance of Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.
I don’t know Beach House’s back catalogue well enough to know how Once Twice Melody fits in, but it’s excellent from a duo who have been making music together for almost two decades.
Beyoncé Knowles is a global superstar, up in rarefied air along with Drake, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Bad Bunny, and Ed Sheeran. While I have firm opinions on the merits of those other artists, I’m on the fence about Beyoncé. Renaissance was inspired by post-1970s Black music styles like disco and house – Beyoncé was introduced to this music by her cousin.
Despite its thematic origins, Renaissance feels cynical – an overstuffed superstar album that’s overlong and engineered to maximise streaming revenue. Nevertheless, there are some terrific tracks toward the centre of the album – there’s a great sequence that starts with the gospel-tinged lead single ‘Break My Soul’. ‘Church Girl’ is another great showcase for Beyoncé’s hybrid rap-singing, backed by a gospel choir. The gentle ‘Plastic Off the Sofa’ and the woozy disco of ‘Virgo’s Groove’ complete a sequence that overshadows the remainder of Renaissance. Earlier on the record, ‘Cuff It’ is another great moment, with Beyoncé backed by legends like Chic’s Niles Rodgers and percussionist Sheila E. Elsewhere, there’s often more attitude than there is musicality – tracks like ‘Thicc’ and ‘I’m That Girl’ are only carried by Beyoncé’s charisma.
There’s an impressive run of tracks at the heart of Renaissance, but it needed some trimming.
Black Country, New Road
Ants from Up There
I never checked out Black Country, New Road’s 2021 debut album, despite enjoying Black Midi and Squid. All three mix the abrasion of post-punk with the complexity of prog. It’s sometimes reminiscent of early, overlooked King Crimson records like Islands, while the emotional vocals and the integration of melody instruments like violin and flute recall Arcade Fire’s Funeral. I was intrigued by how quickly their sophomore album followed 2021’s For The First Time – they were released almost exactly a year apart – and how frontman Isaac Wood quit the band before the release of Ants from Up There. For an experimental band, both of Black Country, New Road’s albums have been very successful on the charts – Ants from Up There nestled between Adele and Ed Sheeran at #3.
Ants From Up There falls into the basket of albums that I admire more than I adore – Wood’s impassioned vocals sometimes make for uncomfortable listening. But there’s plenty to enjoy – there’s lovely saxophone and piano on ‘Haldern’ and a great riff on the Warhammer-themed ‘Chaos Space Marine’. The band stretch out for longer tracks at the end of the record – ‘The Place He Inserted The Blade’ intensifies from a piano song into an impassioned epic, while ‘Snow Globes’ and ‘Basketball Shoes’ are also lengthy.
Black Country, New Road are continuing as a band with bassist Tyler Hyde on lead vocals – it will be interesting to hear where they go next.
Sabrina Teitelbaum has flirted with musical success in a different guise. Between 2017 and 2019 she released singles as the pop artist BAUM. Dissatisfied with the results, she showed her producer an alt-rock song she’d been working on. During the COVID-19 lockdown she got sober and wrote a full album of songs influenced by 1990s artists like Hole, PJ Harvey, and Mitski.
The record starts with its strongest track, ‘Veronica Mars’ – there’s a great guitar freakout halfway through the track. Producer Yves Rothman, who’s also worked with Yves Tumor, co-wrote ‘Sepsis’ – Teitelbaum’s charismatic enough to carry the half-spoken bridge:
He wears a front-facing cap
The sex is almost always bad
I don’t care ’cause I’m in love
I don’t know him well enoughBlondshell, Sepsis
It occasionally feels lightweight, but there are enough strong tunes like ‘Joiner’ and ‘Kiss City’ to maintain momentum.
Blondshell isn’t doing anything revolutionary, but her angsty 1990s alt-rock is effective.
THE GREATER WINGS
Buffalo-born singer-songwriter Julie Byrne was hit by tragedy in 2021. Her former romantic partner and longtime creative partner Eric Littmann passed away suddenly, leaving her bereft. Her third album The Greater Wings was almost complete when Littman passed, although closing track ‘Death is the Diamond’ wasn’t yet started, and serves as a tribute to Littmann. Littmann added a touch of sophistication behind Byrne’s fingerpicked guitar, adding layers of synths that augmented the music without detracting from it.
Because much of The Greater Wings was recorded before Littmann’s death, it’s not as mournful as it sounds on paper – although the gorgeous textures will have you lamenting his loss. Byrne started playing piano on this record, and the piano-driven tracks ‘Moonless’ and ‘Death is the Diamond’ are gorgeous. The latter has beautiful lines like “You make me feel like the prom queen that I never was.” The opening title track is another standout, with Byrne delicately navigating a pretty melody.
The Greater Wings is one of the prettiest records you’ll hear this year, a final bounty from Littmann and Byrne’s partnership.
I’m sure I’m not the only music fan who prefers music with obvious human emotion. Accordingly, electronic music can be a tough nut to crack – you can enjoy the sonic experimentation, but not emotionally connect with it in the same way as with music fronted by a human voice. Caribou’s Dan Snaith solves this dilemma by adding his own homespun vocals to his tracks, providing an easy way in for fickle fans like me.
Suddenly isn’t unlike Eno’s vocal albums of the 1970s – you can dance to it, and instead of star turns from guest musicians like Robert Fripp and Phil Collins, it’s the vocal samples that provide the spark. But Eno and Snaith share an interest in marrying textural experimentation with succinct songwriting, topped off by their endearing vocals. Snaith’s gentle voice often recalls Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue.
Suddenly is Snaith’s tenth album, including records as Manitoba and Daphni. The twelve songs were developed from nine hundred 30-second draft ideas. Snaith holds a doctorate in mathematics, in Overconvergent Siegel Modular Symbols, but there’s emotional heft communicated by his gentle voice as well.
Snaith covers a lot of stylistic ground on Suddenly – the immediacy of the dance-pop on ‘Never Come Back’ contrasts with the intimacy of ‘Like I Loved You’. The verse of ‘You and I’ recalls the 1980s-flavoured sophisti-pop of The 1975, but the chorus spirals unpredictably. Often it’s the mellowest material that works the best – ‘Ravi’ extracts every possible ounce of beauty out of its gentle groove. Snaith’s textural experimentation is at the forefront on pieces like ‘Sunny’s Time’ and ‘Cloud Song’.
Suddenly is a superlative album of smart dance-pop, delivering textual experimentation and memorable hooks.
In These Silent Days
Lead singer of The Go-Gos, solo hits like ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’.
Former captain of the Australian women’s cricket team.
Americana artist, member of The Highwomen.
American country artist, reviewed here
Brandi Carlile has many assets – a powerhouse voice and timeless Americana production from Dave Cobb and Shooter (son of Waylon) Jennings. As always, she’s accompanied by twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who cowrite all the songs on the album and who have played with Carlile since she was 17,
I don’t always find Carlile’s melodies compelling, and she shone brighter when she worked with writers like Natalie Hemby and Jason Isbell on 2019’s The Highwomen. But based on what I’ve heard of her solo career, she’s a reliable operator. She has a unique dynamic where her powerful voice often delivers introspective material.
Lead-off track ‘Right On Time’ is a case in point, written about Carlile’s lockdown experience in Washington state. She told Entertainment Weekly that: “Babies were born, divorces were had, people died, and there’s something really human about the obstacles that we’ve put in front of ourselves.”
Lucius provide backing vocals on the hookiest song, ‘You and Me on the Rock’, Carlile’s tribute to her wife. Carlile sounds great when she sings outside her normal register on ‘Sinners, Saints & Fools’, but I find the chorus of ‘Broken Horses’ overly reminiscent of George Michael’s ‘Freedom 1990’.
Carlile is always likeable, and there are enough compelling songs to make In These Silent Days a worthwhile listen.
There’s a lot happening on London eight-piece band Caroline’s debut. Despite their large lineup, there’s a lot of space in their sound and violin is often central to their arrangements. They feature two violinists, as well as a clarinet/saxophone player. The band describe their sound as “drawing on a mixture of choral singing, Midwestern emo and O’Malley and Llewellyn’s roots in Appalachian folk.” It’s often challenging music – it’s esoteric and experimental without many discernable hooks. The spacious arrangements, dramatic crescendos, and emotive vocals recall Kentucky band Slint.
The tracklist pads out six fully-fledged songs with some shorter interludes. The opener ‘Dark Blue’ is the most memorable track, built around a simple six-note figure. ‘Iwr’ augments chugging guitar with scraping violins, while the closer ‘Natural Death’ features some of the record’s most intense moments.
Caroline is an engrossing debut from an act with fascinating possibilities.
Eddie Chacon’s first band was Fry By Nite – a trio formed with his childhood friends Cliff and Mike. Impossibly, all three went on to success in different bands – Cliff Burton became the bass player for Metallica, while Mike Bordin has drummed for Faith No More throughout their career. Chacon didn’t follow his bandmates into rock – he worked as a songwriter before joining forces with Charles Pettigrew. The pair met on the subway, one of them holding a copy of Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. As Charles & Eddie, the pair enjoyed a worldwide hit with 1992’s ‘Would I Lie To You?’
Charles & Eddie folded after an unsuccessful second album – Pettigrew passed away in his thirties from cancer, while Chacon stepped away from the music industry for a long while. He restarted his musical career when he was introduced to John Carroll Kirby, a producer who has worked with popular alt R&B acts like Solange and Frank Ocean. The pair worked on Chacon’s first solo album, 2020’s Pleasure, Joy and Happiness. They reconvened for Chacon’s sophomore effort, released on the cusp of 60.
In 2021, Eddie Chacon and John Carroll Kirby decamped to Ibiza for two weeks. There, they rented the island’s only Fender Rhodes from one of the local rave crews. John posted it against the plaster walls and concrete floors of their temporary home, which was set into a green hillside overlooking a beach called Siesta. As they worked on Sundown, Pharoah Sanders’s “Greeting to Saud” was a daily listen. Instead of emulating its sound, Eddie absorbed its deeper lesson – that simplicity wins out over virtuosity every time.https://eddiechaconofficial.bandcamp.com/album/sundown
Sundown is rich in 1970s textures – Chacon has talked about The Delfonics as a formative influence. ‘Holy Hell’ provides an uptempo moment, rare in this restrained and reflective record. It contrasts with the languid gorgeousness of songs like ‘Step by Step’ and ‘Sundown’, filled with elegant flutes and Fender Rhodes. Chacon’s voice is agile yet weathered – even his falsetto has a trace of grit.
Chacon’s reemergence is one of the most unexpected comebacks of the decade, but he’s welcome.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
As this website is effectively one person trying to write about vast swathes of popular music, I often ignore the late-period catalogue of artists. Legendary artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen tend to enjoy massive acclaim for whatever they release. The groundswell behind Nick Cave’s recent releases, however, became so consistent that I checked in with Carnage, the first Cave record I’ve heard since 2004’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Cave comes from the town of Warracknabeal in rural Australia, but he’s carved out a place for himself in popular music. His work with the Bad Seeds makes him the 12th highest-ranked album artist of all time in the Acclaimed Music aggregator, close behind household names like The Beatles, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin.
Cave’s been prolific, with more than 40 years as a recording artist – an album with The Boys Next Door, three with The Birthday Party, seventeen with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and two with Grinderman. Carnage is Cave’s first studio album with long-term collaborator Warren Ellis – Ellis is also a member of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and the pair have previously recorded soundtracks. Cave’s style has aged well, with his stock in trade his baritone voice crooning literate lyrics about God and mortality.
There’s some feistiness on the bluesy ‘Old Time’, while the violence of ‘White Elephant’ recalls Cave’s fascination with gore in his earlier works. The cinematic balladry of the title track is much more typical of this project, focused on lush and luxurious ballads.
Every song on the back half of the record feels like a majestic album closer. The stately piano and strings of ‘Albuquerque’ are gorgeous, like a Jimmy Webb song. Ellis’ string arrangement is glorious on ‘Lavender Fields’, the perfect foil for Cave’s sonorous baritone. Cave’s one of the best lyricists in the popular music canon, and ‘Shattered Ground’ is gorgeous with “There’s a madness in her and a madness in me/And together it forms a kind of sanity.” ‘Balcony Man’ is the actual closer, and it’s suitably grandiose with its choral backdrop.
Clearly, I’ve erred in ignoring Cave’s last 15 years of work and I have some catching up to do.
Chloe x Halle
Chloe and Halle Bailey were born in Georgia, but moved to L.A. in their tweens. A Youtube cover of Beyonce’s ‘Best Thing I Never Had’ caught her attention, and they were signed to a $1 million record deal. For a young R&B duo, they’re unusually self-contained – they provide a lot of the instrumentation, and Chloe Bailey is the primary producer on most of these songs.
Even when the material on this sophomore record is generic, the singing sounds great. The siblings harmonise beautifully – there’s something magical about two voices, similar yet distinct, singing together. The record’s a little flat when they’re trying to make a hit single, even though ‘Do It’ is grand.
The beat’s modern, but ‘Wonder What She Thinks Of Me’ is reminiscent of a torch song, while ‘Don’t Make It Harder On Me’ is a lovely R&B piece buried deep in the second half of the record. The almost acapella ‘Overwhelmed’ shows off the sisters’ vocal chops.
Halle Bailey is set to play Ariel in a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, and the two sisters are set to become megastars.
Scottish synth-pop band Chvrches are up to their fourth album – it’s my theory that bands often peak with their fourth album, and it’s seemingly the case here (unless their next record is even better). Screen Violence was recorded remotely during the Coronavirus pandemic, with the trio spread between Glasgow and Los Angeles.
They temper the sweetness of synth-pop with some dark lyrics and some gritty rock instrumentation in places. The Cure’s Robert Smith provides backing vocals on ‘How Not To Drown’, a song written by band member Martin Doherty whilst dealing with depression.
The memorable tracks are often the poppiest – vocalist Lauren Mayberry’s Scottish lilt is delightful on tracks like the opening ‘Asking for a Friend’. The chorus of ‘Final Girl’ builds and builds, each line more ecstatic than the last, while ‘Good Girls’ is irresistibly catchy despite the downbeat opening line “Killing your idols is a chore”.
Screen Violence is a terrific album from Chvrches, mixing breezy synth-pop with some impressive depth.
San Francisco band Deafheaven have built up a strong reputation over the past decade, playing a distinctive sound known as blackgaze by melding black metal with shoe-gaze. Blackgaze already existed previously, through the French band Alcest, but Deafheaven releases like 2013’s Sunbather helped to popularise the sub-genre. Their fifth album, Infinite Granite, has caused consternation among metal fans by toning down the screaming. It’s also moved Deafheaven into the zone of something I can happily enjoy – the screaming is still there, but it’s mostly saved for the songs’ emotional climaxes.
There’s a face-melting riff at the centre of ‘The Gnashing’, but lead vocalist George Clarke sings conventionally and he sounds great. Standout closing track ‘Mombasa’ abruptly changes gears from an elegant, hymn-like melody to intense screaming. The majestic instrumental ‘Neptune Raining Diamonds’ is a gorgeous change of pace. Presumably to the consternation of metalheads, there are genuinely hooky and accessible tracks – ‘In Blur’ skirts surprisingly close to Brit-pop, while ‘Great Mass of Color’ only lifts into metal screaming in its concluding minute. The virtuoso rhythm section of Daniel Tracy and Chris Johnson gives these songs muscle and fluidity.
Infinite Granite is a strong record, showing Deafheaven’s credentials as a shoe-gaze band while still allowing their instrumental prowess to shine.
WORKIN’ ON A WORLD
My wife’s boss has been recommending DeMent, as well as her husband Greg Brown, to me for years. DeMent’s a slow worker – Workin’ on a World is only her seventh album in a career dating back to 1992’s Infamous Angel. Now in her sixties, DeMent’s attacking the hypocrisy of America – the Republican party and Jeff Bezos. She’s hitting obvious targets, but she does so with wisdom and dignity. She’s quoting scripture in ‘How Long’, singing “Justice rolls down like water/And righteousness flows like a mighty stream.” She told the New York Times about the title track.
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that song saved my life. Seeing my country embrace what it embraced in 2016 made me wonder truly and utterly how I was going to live. I don’t say that lightly. I just couldn’t comprehend it. But that song steadied me. I was singing it at home at the piano long before I recorded it. I would get up in the morning and sing it to get myself going, to get clarity. It was comforting in the way that even painful truths can carry comfort.”https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/21/arts/music/iris-dement-workin-on-a-world.html
DeMent’s creaky voice sounds like it belongs to a dusty old 78 on the more esoteric tracks like ‘The Cherry Orchard’. The music’s fine, but it’s DeMent’s lyrics that are most memorable on this record. The standout is ‘Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas’, a lengthy blues where DeMent airs a long and righteous list of hates and loves.
DeMent’s sharp on Workin’ on a World, needing to air her righteous anger for her own sake.
Have We Met?
Destroyer has the most misleading name in popular music. What you expect is death metal or perhaps a KISS tribute band. What you get is a man sardonically purring and bleating his twisted insights over smooth yacht rock.
Like many music fans, I first encountered Dan Bejar as a member of The New Pornographers. He’d contribute three twisted songs on each record to contrast with the classicist power-pop of A.C. Newman. Bejar hasn’t performed with The New Pornographers since 2014, and his solo albums have received more attention than his parent band over the last decade. In particular, 2011’s Kaputt often turns up on best-of-decade lists.
Have We Met backs Bejar with smooth pop sounds – it recalls music from the turn of the 1980s. The glacial beauty of Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon surfaces in the mellower songs, while the title of the opening track ‘Crimson Tide’ instantly recalls ‘Deacon Blue’ from Steely Dan’s smooth 1977 album Aja. The most immediate track is ‘Cue Synthesizer’, with Bejar languorously commanding his band. “Cue synthesizer. Cue guitar. Bring in the drums. Cue fake drums.”
The production, from New Pornographers’ bassist John Collins, is superb – the bass is warm and punchy, and the other instruments are warm and inviting. The best tracks utilise lush arrangements, like ‘It Just Doesn’t Happen’. Bejar also has charisma to fall back on – “I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors” is a great line to open the record with.
I’m not yet sure where Have We Met sits in Destroyer’s discography overall, but it’s an engaging and charismatic record.
Dan Bejar’s prolific – Labyrinthitis is his 14th album, and only tails 2020’s Have We Met by a couple of years. New Pornographers’ bassist John Collins is back in the producer’s chair. It’s Destroyer’s most danceable record to date. Collins and Bejar originally aimed for a techno album, but it often resembles New Order on dance-oriented tracks like ‘Suffer’ and ‘Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread’
The more straightforward songs like ‘All My Pretty Dresses’ haven’t worn well on repeat listens. The standout track is ‘June’, where Bejar devotes the second half of the track to a monologue, his voice altered to sound like a hipster Barry White.
Bejar is reliably interesting – Labyrithitis isn’t his best, but it’s plenty worthwhile anyhow.
DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, and Tresor
RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
Amapiano producers Kabza de Small and DJ Maphorisa, known as Scorpion Kings, pair up with South African vocalist Tresor on Rumble in the Jungle. Congolese-born Tresor has an intriguing backstory as to how he ended up in South Africa:
Goma was ravaged by a volcano eruption and we lost everything in 2001. Lost both parents when I was 17 in 2003. My family was divided among relatives so we could survive. In 2007, I took a major leap of faith on my own and travelled throughout Africa by foot, car and train. I even crossed a crocodile-infested river and walked crazy African wild parks.Tresor Raziki, Instagram post
Rumble in the Jungle is 98 minutes long – most of the tracks ride their grooves over six or seven-minute tracks. Without much stylistic variation, Rumble sometimes drag, but there’s no real drop in quality – closer ‘Love Like a Weapon’ is one of the key cuts. The record is multi-lingual but often the African-language tracks are stronger, as they carry a mystique.
Tresor isn’t usually an Ampiano artist, but his smooth and flexible vocals work with the smooth backing – it makes sense that ‘Folosade’ is a tribute to Sade. The vocals are especially impressive on ‘La Vie Est Belle’, showing Tresor’s astounding range.
It’s long and lacking in variety to take in during one sitting, but the coupling of exquisite Amapiano production and Tresor’s remarkable voice throws up some magical moments.
Kabza De Small
KOA II Part 1
South African DJ and producer Kabelo Petrus Motha is better known as Kabza De Small. Alongside his solo career, he’s a member of the Scorpion Kings along with DJ Maphorisa. KOA II Part I is the sequel to Kabza’s 2019 album I Am The King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust – it’s an epic first volume, clocking in over two hours.
The tracklist was winnowed down from a much larger pool of tracks- Kabza told Spotify that “I work every day so had 81 songs”. It features a vast list of guest vocalists, mixing known artists like Simmy with emerging artists like Spartz. Despite the array of guest vocalists, KOA II Part I is homogeneous – every track opens with a similar beat, and there’s little variation.
Despite the length and lack of variety it works, like a comforting blanket of sound. It’s hard to talk much about the individual tracks – they blend into one, but the vocals and tunes are invariably gorgeous. The blissful ‘Khusela’, with Msaki, is gorgeous. Spartz excels on the beautiful ‘Ingabe’.
To create a two-hour album that both works as background music and rewards repeat listening is no mean achievement.
The duo of Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis met on the Toronto scene, bonding over their shared love of vintage indie jangle-pop. They now split their time between Toronto and Geelong, Australia – it makes sense because their jangling recalls Antipodean acts like The Chills, The Go-Betweens, The Bats, and Look Blue Go Purple. Contemporary New Zealand indie band The Beths provide backing vocals on several tracks. Ducks Ltd. recorded their debut album during COVID lockdown, working with a drum machine.
“We had this time where neither of us had anything really pressing to do. So from April last year, to the middle of February this year, we were getting together twice a week, demoing, writing, recording, for at least three hours each time. We took it really seriously, wrote 22 songs in five months, because we had the time to devote to the process. In terms of being a band, there were probably a lot of cool experiences we didn’t have, but we did have an opportunity to make something we were proud of, which we might not have had otherwise.”https://hardofhearingmusic.com/2021/09/28/ahead-of-the-release-of-ducks-ltd-s-debut-lp-we-found-out-how-the-pandemic-shaped-their-musical-journey/
Modern Fiction is strong musically, filled with creative guitar licks and hummable tunes. At the same time, it lacks personality – there’s the core of a great band here that needs filling out with a drummer and a lead singer. But there’s much to admire in the songcraft – the album starts beautifully with the busy rhythm guitar of ‘How Lonely Are You’. Dynamic basslines drive strong tunes like ’18 Cigarettes’, while Ducks Ltd. sound lovely when they go acoustic like the instrumental ‘Patience Wearing Thin’ and the closing ‘Grand Final Day’.
Modern Fiction is an enjoyable throwback to 1980s jangle-pop with some excellent songwriting.
The Night Chancers
Even if you don’t recognise the name, if you’re a fan of music from previous generations you might recognise Baxter Dury appearing with his father Ian on the cover of New Boots and Panties!!
Following in a parent’s footsteps has often been a tough road in pop music. Baxter Dury’s never matched his father’s critical acclaim, but at the age of 48 he’s been enjoying some attention for his recent albums. As on 2017’s Prince of Tears, Dury presents his spoken monologues backed with smooth synths and female backing vocals. It’s like a cockney Serge Gainsbourg, and a full album of this approach is wearying.
Dury starts out on the wrong foot with me – ‘I’m Not Your Dog’ opens the record with the charmless line “I’m not your f***ing friend”, before using the female vocals for a French chorus.
Dury’s lugubrious hipster shtick is effective on the title track, with its dramatic synth string flourishes – it helps that Dury’s vocal delivery is less amelodic as he talk-sings about being left with the crumbs of his spare thoughts.
Maybe it’s just too specifically English for me to enjoy, but no matter how animated his oratory I find it difficult to enjoy more than a couple of Baxter Dury tracks at a time.
& THE CHARM
Avalon Emerson has spent her music career to date as a DJ. Her reinvention as the vocalist for a dream-pop record is unexpected. She used Jeff Tweedy’s How To Write One Song as a guide, album opener ‘Sandrail Silhouette’ was one of the first songs written for the project, coming together quickly. But it’s terrific. Emerson’s gentle and airy vocals sound great on these dreamy pop songs. She name-checks the Cocteau Twins as an influence, and they’re a good reference point, even if the sound palette is more contemporary and Emerson doesn’t have Liz Fraser’s vocal power.
‘Astrology Poisoning’ is a standout track with its memorable synth hook and a great opening line (“Closer to the sun / Just hit 31”). The funky guitars of ‘Sandrail Silhouette’ recall the Cocteau Twins’ Heaven and Las Vegas. Even on the quieter tracks, Emerson’s ear for a tune is unerring.
Avalon Emerson’s debut as a pop artist is a sophisticated delight.
Silvana Estrada grew up in Coatepec, a mountain town in Veracruz, Mexico. Both of her parents are luthiers, making and repairing musical instruments. Her signature instrument was made by her father – a cuatro, a four-stringed guitar-like instrument. Alongside Mexican folk, Estrada studied jazz, inspired by legendary vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her debut album was largely written back in 2018 – it’s all in Spanish, but reportedly reflects the heartbreak at the ending of her first serious relationship.
When these three strands are combined – the Mexican instrumentation, the jazz vocals, and the introspective songwriting – there’s a unique artist. In interviews, Estrada’s talked about how she resisted adding studio candy, leaving these songs unadorned. Her vocals are always understated, but she’s delightful on ‘Carta’, playing with her words and accompanied by tastefully sparse strings. Estrada’s cuatro picking is gorgeous on ‘Tristeza’ and ‘La Corriente’. Closing track
Marchita was held up for a couple of years by the pandemic. Estrada’s already started writing her next album, which she has promised will be happier.
I’ve barely dipped into the twisted world of Swedish musician Karin Dreijer. They’ve enjoyed acclaim for more than two decades, as part of the duo The Knife and as a solo artist. Dreijer’s back with their brother, for an informal reunion of The Knife, for the first four tracks of Radical Romantics. If Swedish music makes you think of ABBA, Fever Ray is broadly opposite – Dreijer’s voice straining enigmatically over unsettling soundscapes.
The disturbing album cover is indicative of the record’s contents. Trent Reznor produces ‘Even It Out’, almost funky in its insistent groove, with lyrics about standing up to your child’s bullies. Dreijer’s charismatic enough to carry some skeletal songs – ‘Shiver’ has some creative instrumentation, but it’s mostly memorable for its “I just want to see you shiver” vocal hook. There’s a strong run on the back half of the record, with ‘Carbon Dioxide’, ‘North’, and ‘Tapping Fingers’.
Dreijer’s world is an unnerving place, but clearly somewhere I need to become better acquainted with.
The Flaming Lips
Oklahoma City’s The Flaming Lips have been around since the early 1980s. They made their name in the 1990s with psychedelic alt-rock releases like ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ and In A Priest Driven Ambulance. Their legacy defining work is generally considered to be 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, where they employed a symphonic sound behind Wayne Coyne’s emotive voice. Songs like ‘The Spark That Bled’ and ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ were masterpieces. The Soft Bulletin is often found near the top of best records of the 1990s lists, drawing comparisons to The Dark Side of the Moon and Pet Sounds.
The Lips have dipped back into the grandiose textures of The Soft Bulletin again often since that landmark record – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was another ballad-heavy record, and new record American Head also recalls their 1999 masterpiece. At the same, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, as song titles like ‘You N Me Sellin’ Weed’ and ‘At The Movie on Quaalades’ indicate. Coyne’s goofiness has always been an endearing aspect of the band, stopping them from being overcome by bathos. Here his quirky storytelling provides a different topping on the Soft Bulletin sound.
Even on their sixteenth album, The Flaming Lips are still writing memorable melodies. Coyne’s voice navigates the pretty tune of ‘Flowers of Neptune 6’, underscored by pedal steel, while ‘When We Die When We’re High’ is an instrumental with plenty of melodic ideas. Country artist Kacey Musgraves acquits herself well, dueting with Coyne on ‘God and the Policeman’.
American Head isn’t as essential as the best Flaming Lips records, but it’s an enjoyable echo of greatness.
For some bands diversity is overrated. No one complains when The Ramones or AC/DC make the same album over and over again. Robin Pecknold’s Fleet Foxes fall into the same category, making ornately harmonised folk-rock – I can’t imagine them making any other kind of music. Shore, their fourth record, gives them a brighter production. This accentuates their retro stylings and Shore recalls a 1970s record by America or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Most of these songs are irresistibly pretty – all melody and harmony. Shore was released on the autumn equinox, appropriate for a record that’s often themed around communion with natural phenomena; song titles include ‘Wading in Waist-High Water’ and ‘Sunblind’. Pecknold had recorded most of the music for Shore before writing lyrics – most of the words were inspired by post-lockdown trips into the Catskill Mountains and Lake Minnewaska.
Lockdown also necessitated that Pecknold recorded without the rest of the band, but even without his bandmates he reels off 15 consecutive tracks of gorgeous folk-rock. My favourite is ‘A Long Way Past The Past’, beautifully harmonised with horn punctuations. The evocative acoustic guitar riff of the opening ‘Wading in Waist-High Water’ sets the tone, while ‘Can I Believe You’ soars with its sophisticated instrumental hooks.
Shore is gorgeous and timeless – a great Christmas present for an ornery uncle who thinks that no one’s made worthwhile music since the mid-1970s.
FKA Twigs was born in Gloucestershire to a Jamaican father and English/Spanish mother. She’s followed her serious 2019 art-pop record Magdalene with a more playful project. Caprisongs is a mix tape rather than a fully-fledged album, loaded with guest stars and dipping more into pop, hip hop, and R&B. Her main collaborator is El Guincho, known for his work on Rosalía’s El Mal Querer.
Some of these songs feel insubstantial, FKA Twigs letting us look into her creative process, while the skits provide insight into her personality. Her skittery vocals are effective in the opening ‘Ride the Dragon’, while Pa Salieu provides an excellent guest rap on ‘Honda’. FKA Twigs is strong on the low-key tracks like ‘Oh My Love’ and ‘Meta Angel’.
Caprisongs has its playful charms but often feels a little insubstantial.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra
Floating Points is a Manchester-born electronic music producer. Pharaoh Sanders is an octogenarian jazz saxophonist who cut his teeth playing with John Coltrane on albums like Ascension – Ornette Coleman described Sanders as “probably the best tenor player in the world”. The London Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1904 and claims that they’re the most recorded orchestra in history. These representatives of three different genres come together on Promises – Sanders initiated the project after enjoying Floating Points’ work and requesting a collaboration. I’d classify the result as a jazz album, although it also has elements of minimalism and the term third stream describes crossovers between classical and jazz.
Often niche genres like jazz or metal are overlooked in the mainstream of critical discourse, but occasionally a record will jump onto the mainstream radar. Promises has become a consensus critical favourite this year, and it’s also reached #6 on the UK album charts. Writing about jazz is outside my scope – I can’t really do much more than compare it to Miles Davis’ 1969 masterpiece In A Silent Way, but there are better reference points from those more knowledgeable about jazz than I.
Promises is built around a gorgeous keyboard motif from Floating Points, played on harpsichord, synth, and piano. The piece builds toward the climactic ‘Movement 6’, where the strings take the central role. Sanders also contributes vocals to ‘Movement 4’.
I’m not qualified to rate Promises in the context of the free jazz spectrum of the last sixty years, but it’s a gorgeous record all the same.
Flock of Dimes
Head of Roses
Jenn Wassner is known as a member of Wye Oak and Bon Iver, but she also releases her own music under the moniker Flock of Dimes. Baltimore’s Wassner covers a lot of ground on her second record as Flock of Dimes. While the primary mode of expression is Americana-tinged tracks like ”Walking’ and ‘Lightning’, she dabbles in rock and electronica as well.
Like a lot of current records, Head of Roses was inspired by the pandemic – Wassner experienced the end of a long-term relationship, and the ensuing lockdown gave her a lot of time to reflect. Most of the songs on Head of Roses were written between March and June 2020 as the world grappled with Coronavirus.
There’s an impressively strong triple punch to open Head of Roses. Wassner’s vocals are only accompanied by woozy synths on ‘2 Heads’, and it serves as a prelude to the epic rocker ‘Price of Blue’. The spiralling melody and moody guitars of ‘Price of Blue’ have shades of Neil Young with Crazy Horse or Built to Spill. The skittery electronica of ‘Two’ is tuneful and catchy despite the unusual 7/8 time signature.
The rest of the record tends toward gentle Americana, but it’s still lovely and tuneful. The pretty ‘No Question’ goes into sophisti-pop territory, while Wassner’s layered vocals sound beautiful over the electronica of ‘One More Hour’.
Wassner is adept in multiple genres on Head of Roses, and I look forward to exploring her catalogue further.
There’s a link between Beyonce’s world-conquering success and Emily A. Sprague’s gentle folk rock. Beyoncé employed part of the Florist track ‘Thank You’ in her 2019 Netflix concert movie Homecoming. Florist is the Brooklyn quartet’s fourth album, following 2019’s Emily Alone, which featured only Sprague. Recorded on a porch of a rented house in Hudson Valley during wet summer nights, echoing Sprague’s childhood in the Catskills. The record captures the ambience of its surroundings – the opening track ‘June 9th Nighttime’ features crickets in the background.
It’s tempting to draw parallels with Big Thief – both bands have an introspective singer who comes across as an outsider. Generally, I prefer Big Thief’s earthy arrangements to Florist’s ambience – my favourite song on the Florist album is ’43’, with a tougher sound. Of the 19 tracks on Florist, only 9 are fully-fledged songs. The remainder of the record is given over to shorter interludes, which add to the atmosphere – the intensity of ‘Bells (Pt. 3)’ is another welcome diversion on a chilled record.
There’s admirable craftsmanship on Florist – it’s gorgeous mood music, capturing a rainy summer’s evening in upstate New York.
Draw Down The Moon
St. Louis band Foxing have been a going concern for the last decade, and Draw Down The Moon is their fourth album. Musically, it’s in the same zone as the Manchester Orchestra album that was reviewed on these pages earlier in the year. It’s emotive indie-rock, with a big sound and spiritual overtones. Vocalist Conor Murphy is the focal point – his voice is raw and emotive.
The rawer vocals make Draw Down The Moon less enjoyable as a repeat listen for me, but when it hits it hits hard. When Foxing embrace a pop-oriented sound, as on the lead single ‘Go Down Together’ or on ‘Cold Blooded’, it’s effective. There’s musicality – the cinematic guitar solo on ‘Where The Lightning Strikes Twice’ takes the song in another direction altogether. The centerpiece is the dramatic ‘Speak With The Dead’, an epic meditation on losing loved ones.
Murphy’s voice is a tough sell sometimes, but there’s a lot of great music on Draw Down The Moon.
Gang of Youths
Angel in Realtime
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.
Donald Glover has established himself as a multi-talented superstar, topping the singles charts in 2018 with the politically charged ‘This Is America’, playing Lando Calrissian in Star Wars’ Solo, and voicing Simba in The Lion King remake. He started his career as a writer for 30 Rock before playing Troy Barnes on Community. He launched his music career as Childish Gambino, a title he created on a Wu Tang name-generator website.
3.15.20 is Gambino’s fourth studio album. Given his celebrity status, coupled with a long running length and lazy song titles (most songs are named after the timestamp they start at) it’s easy to perceive 3.15.20 as an indulgent hobby record. But despite a bit of bloat, it’s often enjoyable. Gambino’s clearly a fan of Prince and Marvin Gaye, and he’s able to produce an impressive falsetto. 3.15.20 finds a comfortable middle ground between classic soul and a modern sheen, and while it doesn’t reward close listening, but it makes for fun background music.
There’s upbeat pop on ’35:31′, where Gambino’s whoops are propulsive and fun. Ariana Grande adds backing vocals to ‘Time’, and it’s one of the record’s highlights with a soaring chorus. The closing ’53:49 (There Is Love In Every Moment)’ is suitably climactic, showing Gambino’s immense talents as a vocalist – he delivers energetically rapped verses and a beautifully shredded falsetto in the chorus.
It’s a little loose and meandering to be a great record, but 3.15.20 is a fun listen.
Gabriel Garzón-Montano comes from a Colombian and French heritage, born in New York City. It’s not just the naked-in-nature cover that recalls the Moses Sumney album that I reviewed a few weeks ago – they both use R&B as a jumping-off point for their experimental ideas. The Sumney album has received more attention, but I prefer Garzón-Montano’s more succinct record – he’s able to deliver the pop hooks amongst his eclectic explorations.
Gabriel Garzón-Montano told American Songwriter about the eclecticism – “I’ve got three distinct piles, one being the Latino Urbano hitmaker, one being the whimsical impressionist, and then the third is the debonaire leading man.” Garzón-Montano’s an avowed Prince fan – the cover is a tribute to Lovesexy – and there’s plenty of Prince in the guitar solo in the opener ‘Tombs’. He’s claimed that he needed stimulants to record his bravado-fuelled rap for the title track – delivering the reggaeton track in Spanish. On ‘Moonless’ he’s introspective, remembering his mother’s passing when he was a teenager.
Agüita is ambitious and wide-ranging but enough of it connects to make it worth the effort.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
It’s been a surprising year for 1990s post-rock revivals – Glasgow’s Mogwai topped the UK charts with As The Love Continues. Meanwhile, Montreal post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, are back with their seventh album. I haven’t caught up with most of their albums since they reunited in 2010, but new record G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! recalls their beloved 2000 record Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. It’s the same dense and intense sound, their cinematic instrumental tracks with layered guitars and the violin of Sophie Trudeau (not THAT Sophie Trudeau!).
The group’s other trademarks are in place too – the band accompany their music with projections, while the album contains this list of demands:
- empty the prisons
- take power from the police and give it to the neighbourhoods that they terrorise
- end the forever wars and all other forms of imperialism.
- tax the rich until they’re impoverished.
G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! boasts four tracks – two shorter tracks that set the scene for the two epics. Closer ‘A Military Alphabet (Five Eyes All Blind) / Job’s Lament / First Of The Last Glaciers / Where We Break How We Shine (Rockets For Mary)’ is tougher sounding with its crunching riffs, while ‘Government Came” / Cliffs Gaze / Cliffs’ Gaze At Empty Waters’ Rise / Ashes To Sea Or Nearer To Thee’ is more textural.
It’s pleasantly reminiscent of their early triumphs, but there’s enough substance to make G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! a worthy record in its own right.
It’s more than four years since Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, last released an album. In that time her profile has increased dramatically, dating tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk and becoming pregnant with his child. Along with the early leaks of Miss Anthropocene, it feels as though the side stories have overshadowed the music.
Miss Anthropocene is a concept album, named after the “anthropomorphic goddess of climate change”. It’s darker than Grimes’ previous record, the pop-laced Art Angels – the music follows the lyrics. Grimes told Lana Del Rey in Interview Magazine that the album is “a modern demonology or a modern pantheon where every song is about a different way to suffer or a different way to die.”
Grimes is an auteur – she’s known for recording techniques like overlaying fifty different vocal tracks over each other. ‘Delete Forever’ is based around an acoustic guitar part, but was created entirely from samples. Due to the dark nature of the record, the hooks on Miss Anthropocene are more subdued than on Art Angels. There are upbeat moments like ‘You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around’, but a lot of the material is darker, closer to post-punk than pop. The hooky ‘We Appreciate Power’ was slated as the album’s first single in 2018, but it doesn’t fit the dark mood and it’s instead a bonus track on the Japanese edition.
Miss Anthropocene is dark and oppressive, but it’s also endlessly fascinating. Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes features on ‘Darkseid’, breaking up the oppressive darkness with her distinctive voice. The pop side of Grimes is relatively subdued, and the most energetic piece, ‘You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone’, is buried in the middle of the second side. Your enjoyment of Miss Anthropocene probably depends on your tolerance for brooding ballads ‘New Gods’ and ‘Before the Fever’, and moody soundscapes like ‘Idoru’.
As usual with Grimes, Miss Anthropocene is able to offer both arty weirdness and pop hooks. The balance is firmly tilted towards the former on this record, but it’s still a fascinating concept album with plenty to reward repeat listening.
Like Low last week, Grouper is another artist with a large and acclaimed catalogue whom I haven’t yet discussed on this site. Shade is her twelfth studio album, from a career stretching back to 2005’s CD-R Grouper. Liz Harris grew up in a Fourth Way commune in California – she didn’t take her name from the fish, but because she “felt like the music was at its barest just a grouping of sounds, and I was just the grouper.” Liz Harris’ music operates in a dream-like space – it’s ambient folk, and on Shade it’s based around her acoustic guitar.
Shade runs the gamut from the harsh hiss and distortion of the opening ‘Followed the Ocean’ to the relatively calming sounds of the closer ‘Kelso (Blue Sky)’. It’s effectively a compilation, with the music recorded over a period of 15 years. The quiet, finger-picked songs like ‘The Way Her Hair Falls’ feel retro – they could have been drawn from a much older era, like Vashti Bunyan’s 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day. The closing ‘Kelso (Blue Sky)’ is lovely, presented in a straightforward manner without the ambience.
In the correct mood, Harris’ moody and pristine music is impossibly gorgeous.
GIVING THE WORLD AWAY
Brisbane’s Hatchie serves as the bassist and vocalist for the band Babaganouj. She started recording Giving the World Away, her second album, in New York but was forced to return to Australia due to the Covid pandemic. She worked in retail during this unexpected sojourn but also continued to work on Giving the World Away, writing with her now-husband Joe Agius.
Hatchie’s debut single ‘Sure’ was remixed by dream-pop royalty, Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. Hatchie’s previous album, 2019’s Keepsake, could be described as shoegaze with a poppy edge. On Giving the World Away the pop angle is accentuated – the lead single ‘This Enchanted’ is both dreamy and hooky. Reflecting Hatchie’s recent marriage, Giving the World Away is romantic, suiting the dreamy atmosphere.
‘Lights On’ is a terrific lead track, especially the bridge (“Cos I can’t stop thinking about your touch”) where the lead vocal suddenly accelerates. The hidden gem is the brief ‘Thinking Of’, two minutes of exquisitely jangly dream pop. ‘Sunday Song’ feels like a homage to The Cranberries’ ‘Dream’. Dan Nigro, fresh off working with Olivia Rodrigo on 2021’s Sour, contributes to ‘Quicksand’.
Hopefully, there’s an even stronger album in Hatchie’s future. Giving the World Away is strong enough to have me exploring her earlier records, always a good sign.
IMAGINE THIS IS A HIGH DIMENSIONAL SPACE OF ALL POSSIBILITIES
James Holden has been a successful recording artist since the 20th century. At the age of 19, he recorded the single ‘Horizons’, using freeware software. He’s back with his fifth album, which he describes as:
“I wanted this to be my most open record, uncynical, naive, unguarded, the record teenage me wanted to make. I used to balance my clock-radio on a wardrobe to catch the faint pirate FM signals from the nearest city, dreaming of what raves would be like when I could finally escape and become a New Age traveller. So it’s like a dream of rave, a fantasy about a transformative music culture that would make the world better. I guess it’s also a dialogue with that teenage me.”James Holden, Bandcamp
Holden layers organic and electronic instrumentation, providing evocative landscapes like the lead single ‘Contains Multitudes’. ‘Worlds Collide Mountains Form’ sounds like it could have been taken from Eno’s 1975 masterpiece Another Green World.
It might not be the effect that Holden was aiming for, but Imagine reminds me of growing up in the 1980s and playing primitive text-based adventure games on a Commodore 64. It’s an impression aided by song titles like ‘The Missing Key’ and ‘You Are In a Clearing’.
Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities is gorgeous and immersive.
IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE
London’s Ibibio Sound Machine are cultural synthesists, mixing 1980s West African funk and electronic sounds like drum and bass. The eight-piece band feature vocalist Eno Williams fronting a horn section, a Ghanaian guitarist, and a Brazilian percussionist. On their fourth album, Ibibio Sound Machine work with English synth-pop band Hot Chip, who emphasize the electronic elements of that band’s sound.
Electricity is diverse, although it’s their in-your-face tracks that are the most effective. Opener ‘Protection From Evil’ was inspired by George Floyd and it sets the tone beautifully, colliding African rhythms with pulsating synths, and building into a great climax – the “spiritual invisible protection from evil” hook is an earworm. The band also explore the idea of synths with African beats on the title track – like Giorgio Moroder with Tony Allen.
The gentler songs work too – the gorgeous ‘Afo Ken Doko Mien’ is almost a capella. The attention-grabbing synth arrangement on ‘Freedom’ is also effective.
Williams is a charismatic vocalist, and Electricity is a vibrant record.
Indie artist Michelle Zauner has taken the old-fashioned approach to success with her band Japanese Breakfast. Born in South Korea, Zaumer started Japanese Breakfast with self-released songs on Tumblr. Her career is now on an upward trajectory, signed to the label Dead Oceans and gathering more attention with each release. Jubilee is Japanese Breakfast’s third album, released shortly after Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart. Like Japanese Breakfast’s first two albums, Crying In H Mart is about the loss of Zaumer’s mother.
In comparison, Zaumer describes Jubilee as an album about joy. It’s surprisingly diverse, with everything from the horns of opener ‘Paprika’ to the lengthy, ruminative closer ‘Posing In Cars’. The moody electronic shimmer of ‘Posing in Bondage’ contrasts with the chirpy ‘Savage Good Boy’. The obvious single is ‘Be Sweet’, a sophisticated 1980s flavoured pop song with a killer chorus.
Zaumer has so many ideas that Jubilee feels incoherent sometimes, but it’s proof of a bright future with many different directions to explore.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
I’d never heard of Brooklyn’s Cassandra Jenkins before her sophomore album, but she’s well-credentialed. She was set to tour with Purple Mountains before David Berman’s suicide and has also worked with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and The Fiery Furnace’s Eleanor Friedberger. Berman is referenced on ‘New Bikini’ – “After David passed away/My friends put me up for a few days.”
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature sounds dubious on paper, an indie-folk record that celebrates nature, adds monologues about how men have lost touch and incorporates the kind of new-age textures you’d expect on a 1980s Van Morrison record. But it’s lovely in practice, pretty and warm. Jenkins’ voice is intimate and she’s a good enough lyricist to keep things interesting, casually dropping the word “panoply” into ‘Crosshairs’ and titling a song ‘Ambiguous Norway’.
Jenkins’ main collaborator is producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman. Kaufman’s a member of Bonny Light Horsemen and has worked with The National, Taylor Swift, and Josh Ritter. The arrangements are often key with lovely woodwind parts, while the dual lead guitar parts on ‘Ambiguous Norway’ are gorgeous.
The minimalist, meditative ‘Hailey’ is lovely. Lengthy closer ‘The Ramble’ brings the Van Morrison 1980s textures to the fore – with the saxophone and the exploratory atmosphere, it could have come from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has gained a larger-than-expected following – collectors have found it difficult to locate a physical copy – and it’s surprisingly endearing and effective.
Jupiter & Okwess
Jupiter Bokondji is a veteran performer in his mid-fifties. The son of a diplomat, he spent part of his childhood and teens in East Germany. He discovered Western music and fused it with Congolese traditions to create why he terms Bofenia Rock. He formed Okwess International in 1990, although he didn’t release his first album until 2013 after some attention from Damon Albarn helped him to gain a wider audience. I adored ‘Ofakombolo‘ off Jupiter & Okwess’ previous album, Kin Sonic; Barack Obama also included a song from it on his 2018 end-of-year list.
On Na Kozonga, Jupiter and Okwess valiantly try to expand their range, cramming the record with guest stars. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band provide a nice change of pace on ‘Abalegele Gale’, while ‘Bolingo’ is a chilled closer with its more traditional feel and pretty melody. They’re effective when they hit a hard-edged groove, like ‘Jim Kata’ or ‘Mieux Que Ça’. The band have a good sense of their best material, titling their album after the strongest track.
I find some frustration in not understanding the lyrics – they’re obviously a lyrics-focused band, so I find their subtitled video more accessible than the album. But there’s still plenty to admire in the band’s melding of rock and traditional Congolese forms.
There are some obvious parallels between Kelela and SZA, another alternative R&B artist recently featured in this column. Both released acclaimed debuts in 2017 but took a long time to follow up, both only issuing their sophomore albums in the last few months. They operate in different areas of R&B – Kelela’s songwriting on Raven is less attention-grabbing, but it’s lovely with the smooth sound and vocals.
Kelela was born in Washington, D.C., a second-generation Ethiopian American. She was a late bloomer, not releasing he debut album until her mid-thirties.
Raven is smooth and relaxing, even when it’s difficult to pick out highlights. The minimal approach is effective on the beautifully spare ‘Divorce’. The airy vocals of the album bookends, ‘Washed Away’ and ‘Far Away’, are lovely.
Raven is a lovely record – even when the songs don’t stick, it’s gorgeous.
Archy Marshall started young, releasing his debut album 6 Feet Beneath the Moon on his 19th birthday in 2013. Marshall grew up in a creative household – his mother is an artist, and his godfather Dave Ruffy drummed for Aztec Camera. Marshall’s music recalls post-modern acts like Beck and Pavement, offering moments of emotional resonance among songs that blend disparate styles. In King Krule’s case, alongside punky alt-rock, there’s a surprising jazz influence and traces of 1990s trip-hop.
Krule’s voice is malleable, rising in intensity to a tousled yowl at times. He’s best on abrasive tunes like ‘Comet Face’ and ‘Stoned Again’, where his gravelly voice and the deep bass combine to create a face-melting blast of low-pitched noise.
In contrast, the slower material isn’t melodic to hook me in, but Krule’s synthesis of jazz textures with a raw punk sound is often fascinating. He’s emotionally resonant in songs like ‘Please Compete Thee’, and his atmospheric guitar playing also distinctive.
Two records into my King Krule experience I’m still unsure whether I’m a fan, but his aesthetic is distinctive and fascinating.
Un Canto por México, Vol. 1
Natalia Lafourcade has been around for a while, releasing her solo debut as a teenager in 2004. She’s been successful in Latin America, scoring #1 albums and winning Latin Grammys, but it’s taken longer to raise her profile in the English-speaking world. Duetting with Miguel on the Coco soundtrack has helped boost her reputation. Lafourcade started as a pop-rock performer, but as her career’s progressed she’s delved into more traditional Mexican music.
Un Canto por México, Vol. 1 was released as a fundraising album – proceeds go toward the reconstruction of the Centro De Documentación Del Son Jarocho, in Jáltipan de Morelos, damaged by a 2017 earthquake. The setlist originated at a benefit concert, before being recorded in the studio. Although it’s all new recordings, Lafourcade revisits songs from her back catalogue and takes on folk standards. I don’t have any background in Mexican folk music to analyse this record adequately, but it’s lovely – Lafourcade’s voice is warm and perky, and the arrangements are authentic and soulful. Favourites include the sparse ‘Veracruz’ – the moment when the rhythm guitar enters just after the 90-second mark is magical. The flamenco guitar of ‘Sembrando Flores’ is also lovely.
I have no idea how Un Canto por México, Vol. 1 compares to other Mexican traditional music, but there are lots of great tunes.
MR. MORALE & THE BIG STEPPERS
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has enjoyed a stellar career so far. With his critical acclaim, a string of #1 albums, and a Nobel Prize in Literature, Lamar’s one of the most significant musical artists to emerge in the 21st century. He’s had an unusually long break between albums – his previous record, Damn, was released in 2017. Mr. Morale is a fascinating return from Lamar – he’s still at the peak of his artistic powers, but many of the songs here are like music as therapy.
Lamar’s voice, smooth yet barbed, is charismatic. He’s supported by backing musicians like bassist Thundercat also guested on Lamar’s landmark To Pimp A Butterfly, while pianist Duval Timothy also appears. There’s also a diverse range of guest vocalists, including Florence Welch (via a sample), Ghostface Killah, and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons.
If you wanted to write a Master’s thesis unpacking the lyrics of a popular album, Mr. Morale would be a great candidate – Lamar covers a lot of territory over these eighteen tracks. It’s uncomfortable listening at times – most notably the dysfunctional couple of ‘We Cry Together’ and the cheating confessions on ‘Worldwide Steppers’. Lamar’s not necessarily aiming for provocation, but revealing his inmost thoughts on tracks like ‘Auntie Diaries’ can be controversial.
Sometimes the personal content overshadows the music, but there are enough great musical moments to carry the record. The faith manifesto of ‘Purple Hearts’ is a terrific closer to the first disc – there’s a great intro with a jazzy beat, taken from The S.O.S. Band’s ‘Weekend Girl’, while Summer Walker’s backing vocals are beautiful. Mr. Morale would be a tough listen if it didn’t end on a more hopeful note; ‘Mother | Sober’, with Beth Gibbons, is the most intimate track, while ‘Mirror’ has the great refrain “I chose me, I’m sorry”.
Kendrick Lamar is indisputably one of the key artists in 21st-century music so far. Even the slightly drawn-out Mr. Morale has its share of great moments.
Lankum started as two brothers playing Irish songs in the pub. They were originally known as Lynched – Lynch is the surname of Ian and Daragh Lynch. Over twenty years they’ve evolved, adding singer Radie Peat and fiddler Cormac Mac Diarmada. They’ve become darker – they cover folk songs, but they owe to metal and avant-garde musicians with their use of drones and dark textures. There are echoes of 1960s English folk – Peat reminds me of Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee, and they’re a little like Fairport Convention at their darkest, as on ‘A Sailor’s Life’.
Their third album ups the ante, with more nuanced arrangements and a darker sound. As before, the group are largely mining traditional material, although there are a couple of originals woven seamlessly into the tracklist. The traditional tunes here are largely obscure – opener ‘Go Dig My Grave’ is the best-known.
The band’s arrangements are inventive, employing instruments like uilleann pipes and mellotron. The opening section of closer ‘The Turn’ reminds me of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ before it enters its dark conclusion. The band are careful to balance the darker moments with pretty acoustic tunes. The record’s immersive, with nary a weak moment in its seventy minutes.
False Lankum is an impressive achievement, an immersive and ambitious record.
Canadian electronic vocalist Jessy Lanza straddles musical worlds. She grew up listening to R&B and hip-hop artists like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Missy Elliott. But there’s also a decided arty streak – she’s well-versed in the solo output of all three Yellow Magic Orchestra members. The mid-point between accessible R&B and arty electronica works for Lanza – she’s mysteriously beguiling. It’s reminiscent of Jessie Ware’s disco record from this year, but Lanza is more subtle and ethereal. Lanza worked in her home studio, supplying much of the instrumentation, but The Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan remains a key collaborator.
The more energetic songs at the start of the record are often the most effective. Lanza can become bogged down on slower tracks like ‘I Hate Myself’, where her ethereal voice becomes too becalmed. But early tracks like ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’ and ‘Limbo’ work beautifully, Lanza’s voice floating over classy disco beats.
Lanza’s breezy pop music feels insubstantial by design, but it’s often gorgeous anyway.
Chinese producer and composer Howie Lee has collaborated with PC Music artists like Charlie XCX and the late Sophie, which helps to explain why this esoteric album has gained some attention. Lee combines elements of Chinese traditional music and electronic music on this concept album. It’s based on a floating Sicilian theme park, shared by venerated birds and ancestral spirits. There’s a blend of live instruments and electronic sounds, giving it a unique atmosphere. There are no lyrics, although Lee is part of a small choir that provides wordless vocals on some tracks.
Birdy Island is outside of the usual scope of this website – it’s more about soundscapes than songs. But it’s lovely anyway – the pieces are unusually short, so that it never really drifts – Lee’s constantly bringing in new musical ideas. There’s plenty of subtle diversity – ‘Wave, Wave, Wave’ is jaunty and jazzy, while ‘Feather Signifier’ is closer to folk or prog. The choral-dominated songs at the tail of the record provide an especially contemplative atmosphere.
I’m not always in the mood for Birdy Island, but it’s a gorgeous and exotic change of pace.
LET’S EAT GRANDMA
Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton met at the age of 4 in a Norwich classroom. Best friends since then, they made home spy movies together and dyed their clothes with beetroot, but also started a band. The name Let’s Eat Grandma is taken from a grammar joke (stripped of its comma, the phrase takes on a macabre meaning). The duo’s 2016 debut, I, Gemini, was extremely quirky, but by their third record they’ve dialled back the quirkiness in favour of more emotional connection.
The band’s recent experiences have fed into the music – Hollingworth lost her boyfriend to cancer in early 2019, and songs like ‘Watching You Go’ grapple with this loss. Let’s Eat Grandma went on hiatus as Hollingworth dealt with her grief, and the pair had to relearn how to communicate with each other. Walton and Hollingworth previously wrote in tandem, but they wrote this batch of songs separately – almost like a dialogue to renew their closeness.
‘Happy New Year’ is about Walton and Hollingworth’s friendship and it’s the perfect choice as album opener, with a great synth hook. The pair’s melodic sense is impressive on tunes like ‘Sunday’, with its delicate arrangement. ‘Watching You Go’ is poignant, juxtaposing upbeat music with lines like “just like a dream I had which slowly comes unstuck”. The pairs’ unpolished vocals are full of personality, but they’re still musically adept – Hollingworth adds a saxophone solo to Walton’s Hall of Mirrors.
What started as a fun childhood project has evolved into a standout album, Two Ribbons.
Low are an act with a rich, deep catalogue that goes back to 1994’s I Could Live In Hope. They’re from Duluth, Minnesota, the same city that gave the world Bob Dylan, Soul Asylum’s Dan Murphy, and R.E.M.’s Bill Berry. The core of Low is a married couple – guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker. They’ve never been a commercial force – HEY WHAT is actually their highest-charting record in the UK, reaching #23.
On HEY WHAT, it’s just Sparhawk and Parker with no bassist. Producer B.J. Burton has worked with Low over their last three albums, steering them towards a more abrasive sound – instrumentally, HEY WHAT is dominated by Sparhawk’s distorted guitar textures. If the two-piece format sounds like The White Stripes, it’s far from it – the guitar provides a framing for the duo’s vocals. The vocals are often pushed way up front, with striking a cappella openings to ‘Days Like These’ and ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’. At heart, this new era of Low is a continuation of the slow and minimal sound the band have always embraced, although I find Low’s newer work more accessible than beloved 1990s records like The Curtain Hits The Cast.
Despite the distorted guitars, HEY WHAT is often beautiful. ‘I Can Wait’ is simple and repetitive, but it only serves to emphasise the beauty of the pair’s vocals. The guitar acts like another vocalist on ‘Days Like These’, harmonising with Parker and Sparhawk. The focal point of Hey What is ‘Hey’ – it stretches almost seven minutes, and pushes close to shoe-gaze. ‘More’ leaves a cutting guitar riff relatively unadorned – it serves as a dramatic backdrop for the pair’s vocals.
Low are on their thirteenth studio album, but it seems as though there’s still plenty of fuel in the tank.