ALBUM REVIEW: Beck – Colors

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Beck’s much anticipated 13th album follows the lush and melancholic Morning Phase and though Colors is equally lush, it’s an album built on widescreen technicolor, bold sonic brushstrokes and a saturated pop aesthetic.

On first listen it feels like the quirks and eccentricities that made Beck so iconic are absent on this album but dig below the pop-laminated surface and you’ll find an equally audacious approach to song-craft.

Beck dials in funk, hip hop and psychedelia, exquisitely blending rock guitars and low slung beats in a clever collision of synthetic and organic musicality. ‘No Distraction’ is a standout with its clipped funk and snaking vocal melodies. Like many of these songs he operates in areas of structural cliche – build-ups and anthemic choruses – but it’s all done with an auteur’s ear and sleight of hand that belies the complexities at play.

Old school Beck fans will enjoy the collage-constructed ‘Wow’ but the overwhelming focus of Colors is Beck’s continuing exploration of the frontiers of pop music, like a 21st century Steely Dan.

Chris Familton

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ALBUM REVIEW: Protomartyr – Relatives In Descent

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Protomartyr immediately stood out from the rest of the anguished post-punk pack when they first emerged four years ago with their debut album All Passion No Technique. They went from strength to strength over their next two albums, twisting Joe Casey’s mantra rants over caustic punk, dark indie guitars and tumbling drums before arriving at their most realised set of recordings to date.

Relatives In Descent stands as their most exploratory and wide-ranging album in that they’ve pulled apart their sound, and reconstructed it with the same elements but a new and revitalised sound. Greg Ahee’s guitar is less all-encompassing. Now it slashes with intent on ‘Here Is The Thing’, spirals in woozy circles on ‘My Children’ and sparkles with chiming funk stabs in ‘Corpses in Regalia’. That diversity allows the rhythm section to conjure all manner of grooves; from the rapid fire jerkiness of opener ‘A Private Understanding’ to the catchy melodic swagger of ‘Caitriona’ and the taut post-punk propulsion of ‘Don’t Go To Anacita’. Elsewhere there’s the introduction of subtle strings and synths that take the songs to endlessly intriguing places.

Joe Casey is often the focal point of Protomartyr with his nihilistic blue collar vibe and barking vocal delivery akin to a transatlantic Mark E. Smith. Here he maintains the speak/sing/howl approach but lyrically he’s followed the lead of the rest of the band and upped his game. Thematically the album takes a look at contemporary America under the mismanagement of Trump and the state of society that Casey’s witnessed from tour van windows and coast to coast trips. It paints a dystopian vision of gluttony, excess and despair but you can still hear the glimmer of hope and humanity in the songs, framed and enhanced by the life-affirming creative intellectualism of Protomartyr.

Chris Familton

Read our recent interview with Joe Casey of Protomartyr

ALBUM REVIEW: Gold Class – Drum

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Gold Class seemed to hit the ground running when they released their debut album It’s You in 2015 and backed it up with urgent and emotional shows centred around the controlled drama and tension of singer Adam Curley. On their new album Drum they’ve cemented and built on their already impressive post-punk sound.

Control is the order of the day on Drum. The songs feel more strongly anchored and though the sonic tension is still tightly wound, they approach it with greater poise and an assured management of space and dynamics in the songs. Gareth Liddiard (The Drones) produced the album and he’s replaced some of the instrumental coldness of their debut with a warm and organic production that sounds more like spring than winter.

The early singles Twist In The Dark and Rose Blind set the standard for bristling, brooding angular guitar rock but dig a little deeper and there are some other album tracks that really excel. Trouble Fun rolls along on restrained melodies and gently crashing guitars that sparkle rather than slash. Get Yours highlights the grinding propulsion of bassist Jon Shub – reminiscent of Big Black, Gordons and My Disco, while soaring across it all is Curley’s voice, that stentorian howl of angst and poetic declarations as he grapples with the issues of finding one’s place in the world.

A phrase from Rose Blind sums up the sound of Gold Class as Curley sings about “barricades and ecstasy”. Drum is darkly ecstatic music that sounds both defiant and spirited.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains

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The fascinating evolution of Joshua Homme continues on this, the band’s seventh album. He’s spoken of not wanting them to become a parody of their own original sound and if you rewind back to Regular John, the opening track on their self-titled debut it sounds positively primitive and a million miles away from how they sound now. Back then he was peddling Kyuss mark II but it didn’t take long for the cogs of creativity to start spinning forward, gaining momentum with each new album.

Villains comes at the point where Homme has a fanbase who have grown with him and accept and delight in his darker moodier excursions, equally as much as they pine for the heavy stoner fuzz rock of lore. For the most part Villains eschews the slow and shadowy songs and goes straight for the hips with a kind of glam boogie, rock sound. With Mark Ronson producing, they’ve clearly focused on rhythm and groove, pulling in funk elements and colouring them with effect-laden guitars, handclaps and Homme less in croon mode and embracing his inner pop strut. That isn’t to say it doesn’t rock. The last minute of The Evil Has Landed is prime QOTSA riffage, a straightening of their sound that jolts the listener back to an almost nostalgic place. The way the band have arranged the songs is testament to their ability to add detail in the music. Counter melodies constantly splinter off and collide with one another as the rhythm section tumbles on like a musical robot gone AWOL.

This is bereft of the couple of top-shelf songs it would need to be up there with their best albums but Villains is for the most part a fascinating and dizzying prog rock collision of Devo, ZZ Top and Bowie.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Neil Finn – Out Of Silence

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Out Of Silence is unique for the fact that it was rehearsed and then recorded live at Finn’s Auckland studio, whilst being streamed live to the world via Facebook and You Tube. It was a fascinating insight into a logistical and creatively adventurous undertaking. Even for those who didn’t see or know about the process, the spirit and communality of the session is imbued in one of Finn’s most intimate and ornate albums.

Written and performed wholly on the piano, Finn takes a baroque pop approach to the songs, draping them in rich and sweeping orchestral figures, minimal guitar and drums and a choir that includes famous New Zealand names such as Tiny Ruins, Don McGlashan, SJD and Lawrence Arabia. As you’d expect, Finn’s voice is the icing on the cake – delicate and fragile at times as he explores the personal and universal mysteries of love (‘Love Is Emotional’), uplifting and melodically expansive on the infectious ‘Second Nature’ and the sweet falsetto soul of ‘Chameleon Days’.

‘Terrorise Me’ is a deeply affecting and resolute repudiation of the terrorism that struck Paris and the simple act of celebrating music. It has a melancholic Ray Davies feel, culminating in a chorus with the line “love is stronger when it hurts”. Finn once again proves his ability to translate both joy and deep emotion into concise and poetic lyrical form. Add in his classic and inventive melodic framework and Out Of Silence is another tour de force from New Zealand’s finest songwriter.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Jen Cloher – Jen Cloher

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This is album number four for Jen Cloher and in keeping with the title and stark artwork, featuring her naked and with guitar, it is her most honest, clear-cut and autobiographical release to date.

So many songwriters cloud their ideas and experiences in metaphors and diversionary tactics but Cloher goes straight for the literal and personal, detailing the trials and tribulations of extended periods apart from her partner (and guitarist) Courtney Barnett, suburban malaise, gay marriage, Dirty Three and the shallowness and strain of the music industry. It amounts to an internal and external state of the nation address, delivered with poetic poise and intellectual observation.

Musically, Cloher and her band frame her songs with a loose indie rock sound that can be locked and direct, with a gentle toughness (Shoegazers), drifting and dreamy (Regional Echo) or noisy and surging like Sleater-Kinney (Strong Woman). That stylistic range creates a flow and dynamism to the album and complements the songs perfectly, ensuring the focus remains on Cloher and her lyrics. That intimacy takes the listener right to that place side-of-stage at a Dirty Three show or a kitchen table with your loved one 17,000 km away.

It’s hard to distil one’s thoughts and emotions into song with such self-awareness, artistic confidence and lack of pretence but Cloher has, quite wonderfully, done just that.

Chris Familton