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2020s Miscellany

This page collects album reviews for 2020s artists of whom I’ve only reviewed one or two albums.

Caribou | Brandy Clark | Destroyer | Baxter Dury | Childish Gambino | Grimes | Dua Lipa | John Moreland | Porridge Radio | Katie Pruitt | Tricot | Waxahatchee

Caribou

Suddenly

2020, 9/10
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 with 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.


Brandy Clark

Your Life Is A Record

2020, 8/10
Brandy Clark was born in Morton, Washington, a small logging town. She grew up enamoured with country, naming the Patsy Cline movie Sweet Dreams as a particularly strong influence. Clark started her career as a songwriter – she’s written material for Kenny Rogers, Sheryl Crow, as well as co-writing Kacey Musgraves songs like ‘Follow Your Arrow’. She released her debut record, 12 Stories, in 2013, and Your Life Is A Record is her third album.

Personally I always get confused between several similarly named musicians, so here’s a handy diagram.

CarlisleClark
BelindaBelinda Carlisle
Lead singer of The Go-Gos, solo hits like ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’.
Belinda Clark
Former captain of the Australian women’s cricket team.
BrandyBrandi Carlile
Americana artist, member of The Highwomen.
Brandy Clark
American country artist, whom we are discussing on this page.

2016’s Big Day in a Small Town utilised a mainstream country sound, notably on the heavy guitars of the lead single ‘Girl Next Door’. In comparison, producer Jay Joyce and Clark made the decision to use more experimental textures on Your Life Is a Record. The predominance of acoustic instruments and slightly psychedelic facade recalls Musgraves’ 2018 masterpiece Golden Hour. While Golden Hour was a warm celebration of a new marriage, Your Life is a Record is written at the end of a fifteen year relationship, dissected in ‘Who Broke Whose Heart?’ and ‘Can We Be Strangers’.

Despite the sincerity of the breakup songs, Clark is a born storyteller and the best songs use this skill. ‘Pawn Shop’ tells the story of a pawned guitar and wedding ring adeptly, while Clark’s story of a ramshackle old car on ‘Bad Car’ is also beautifully written.

I know it’s a bad car, I know it’s a piece of junk
I know the best tyre on it, is in the trunk

Bad Car

Clark’s such a good storyteller that it overshadows her other songs, even though the diversity in approach is welcome. Randy Newman adds his croaky vocals to ‘Bigger Boat’ – I like the sentiment of inclusiveness (“The rich get richer, the rest get a little more broke/We’re gonna need a bigger boat”), but Clark’s better at small scale portraits. She’s also best when she’s writing sensitively – the dismissal of ‘Long Walk’ isn’t as enjoyable as the warmth of ‘I’ll Be The Sad Song’. Clark slips into torch song territory on ‘Love Is A Fire’ and ‘Can We Be Strangers’, but the creative arrangements keep Your Life Is A Record feeling fresh.

Your Life Is A Record has sent me back to explore Clark’s previous records, always a good sign. It feels uneven, but mostly because the best songs are so good.


Destroyer

Have We Met?

2020, 7.5/10
Destroyer have 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 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.


Baxter Dury

The Night Chancers

2020, 3.5/10
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.


Childish Gambino

3.15.20

2020, 6.5/10
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.


Grimes

Miss Anthropocene

2020, 8/10
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 “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’.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Kn_5U2A7Dgw?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent

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.


Dua Lipa

Future Nostalgia

2020, 8.5/10
Pop music has become a much more respected art form in the past decade. Records like Taylor Swift’s 1989, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, and Robyn’s Honey have attained the acclaim usually reserved for more critically favoured musical genres.

Dua Lipa’s an obvious candidate to cross from mainstream radio to critical credibility. She enjoyed a provocative duet with St. Vincent at the 2019 Grammy ceremony, while her husky vocals and eastern European heritage make for an interesting pop star. Lipa was born in London, but her parents are from Kosovo, where her father is lead singer in a rock band.

Future Nostalgia is Dua Lipa’s second album. Its pop has a clear influence from 1980s synth-pop and traces of disco, like the string stabs in ‘Love Again’. Lipa particularly excels at upbeat pop songs, my favourite of which is ‘Levitating’ – the descending vocal melody suits Lipa’s range, and the hand-claps are invigorating.

There are other terrific pop tunes too – ‘Cool’ uses the husky textures of Lipa’s voice to great effect, while ‘Break My Heart’ samples INXS’s ‘Need You Tonight’. The opening title track steers close to disco, with Lipa charismatic in the rap section, while ‘Don’t Start Now’ has a funky bass line and a glistening verse melody.

The upbeat pop songs are great, but Future Nostalgia wavers when Dua Lipa diversifies. The lustful simmer of ‘Pretty Please’, the gimmicky ‘Good in Bed’, and the limp closer ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ are all flat spots in an already brief record. There’s also a sense that Lipa hasn’t yet developed enough of an individual personality – her lyrics don’t go far beyond generic tales of lust, even if the record’s got enough great tunes to stand proudly.

Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia doesn’t quite have the consistency of other recent acclaimed pop albums, but it hits some great high points.


John Moreland

LP5

2020, 7.5/10
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.


Porridge Radio

Every Bad

2020, 5/10
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.


Katie Pruitt

Expectations

2020, 9/10
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 southern accent that recalls Stevie Nicks. This impression augmented by 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.https://www.youtube.com/embed/mG1JsSh951U?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent

‘Expectations’ taps into an upbeat pop/rock sound, but much of Pruitt’s material on the rest of the 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.


Tricot

Makkuro (真っ黒)

2020, 9.5/10
Math-rock band Tricot formed in Kyoto in 2010, released their debut album in 2013. Their fourth studio album 真っ黒 (Japanese for Pure Black) marks their major label debut. Tricot spent time as an all-female trio, but drummer Yuusuke Yoshida was added in 2017. Yoshida provides the engine for the twin guitar attack of Ikumi “Ikkyu” Nakajima and Motoko “Motifour” Kida and phenomenal bassist Hiromi “Hirohiro” Sagane.

Tricot told Rolling Stone that their influences include the Eagles (for their harmony arrangements) and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it’s barely reflected in their sound. They play complex math-rock, with intertwining guitar parts and time signature shifts. Their fast tempos are reminiscent of punk, while Ikkyu’s sweet voice gives them a pop sensibility.

The group changed their writing approach for this record; previously the songs would be written around Motifour’s guitar parts, but for 真っ黒 the melodies were written first. The group’s backing vocals also add more pop candy. Math-rock purists may prefer earlier albums like 2013’s T H E, but Tricot’s balance of melody and muscle on 真っ黒 is exemplary.

Tricot’s strengths are demonstrated on the closing title track, which translates as ‘Pure Black’. The sweet vocal melody is complemented by the group’s sharp musicianship – the cleverly arranged intro and intricate guitar parts work wonderfully to support the song.

Sagane’s virtuoso bass-line opens the record on ‘Don’t Mix! Danger’, a rapidfire punkish opener that’s sweetened by the creative backing harmonies. The group mellow right down on ‘To a Non-Dangerous Town’ – it places Nakajima’s voice in the spotlight, and it’s pretty. The squiggling guitar of ‘One Season’ recalls 1980s King Crimson, but 真っ黒 perfect a math-pop aesthetic here.

It’s far too clever for mass appeal, but 真っ黒 is a terrific major label debut for Tricot. It wouldn’t take much to convince me that Tricot are currently the world’s most accomplished art-rock guitar band, and 真っ黒 is an early contender for album of the year.


Waxahatchee

Saint Cloud

2020, 8.5/10
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 personality to a well-trodden genre.

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