ALBUM REVIEW: Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance

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Ryley Walker is a restless musical soul, constantly shapeshifting and looking for new ways to present his avant jazz/folk guitar songs. Over his first three solo albums he travelled from Tim Buckley/Van Morrison/Nick Drake traditional folk to the songs that, three years ago, explored more eclectic and contemporary territory on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. 

On Deafman Glance he continues that work, taking further influence from the Chicago post-rock sound and draping his songs in synths, brass and tactile percussion. Songs change tempo, jump from meditative to frenetic and dance loosely on instrumental flights of fancy. Opener ‘In Castle Dome’ possesses a languid bluesy shimmer akin to his earlier work, his vocal strangely recalling Eddie Vedder. That thought is quickly eviscerated by the jazz shuffle of 22 Days, sounding like a more organic version of the band I’m Not A Gun. Boundaries are stretched and abstraction increasingly embraced on each song, adding up to a sense of both calm and unease, often within the same track. Lyrically there is little to grasp onto thematically other than a sense of questioning and a desire to find a surer footing in life.

With the album highlights ‘Opposite Middle’ and its gentle Tortoise-like propulsion, the prog and psych qualities of ‘Telluride Speed’ and the gorgeous closer ‘Spoil With The Rest’, Deafman Glance occasionally amounts to a disorientating listen but it never tips over the edge into wilful self-indulgence. It’s the sound of an artist inching closer and closer to realising the wild sounds in his head.

Chris Familton

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ALBUM REVIEW: Tropical Fuck Storm – A Laughing Death In Meat Space

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Gareth Liddiard has been the most important Australian songwriter of the last 15 years, certainly within the world of chart-swerving guitar music. His strengths lie in literary lyrical astuteness, willingness to explore the sprawl and corners of his songs and the raw, unhinged and visceral quality of his performances. The Drones always seemed like the cross between Neil Young, Dirty Three and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds but by the time they hit Feelin Kinda Free (2016) their restless inventiveness had branched out into new experimental territory, the precursor to Tropical Fuck Storm.

With new members around Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, Tropical Fuck Storm have thrown away any rule book they may have had and taken an ‘anything goes’ approach, embracing dark electronic undercurrents, heavy funk and a wider palette of voices. Liddiard is verbose and incoherently eloquent as ever, this time railing against popular culture, the rise of intelligent machines, the despair of modern politics and the fear and paranoia of modern living with an apocalyptic backdrop. 

‘You Let My Tyres Down’ is pure Drones with it’s quiet/loud dynamic and beautifully weary chorus. ‘Shellfsh Toxin’ is an instrumental comprised of queasy unease, the title track is optimism short-lived, ‘Two Afternoons’ is a coruscating death disco and ‘Rubber Bullies’ suggests Liddiard has been immersing himself in Saharan desert rock. Tropical Fuck Storm are a glorious detour into deconstructed rock music, reflective of societal malaise and unafraid to tell it like it is. Qualities desperately needed in the current musical climate.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Damien Jurado – The Horizon Just Laughed

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The Horizon Just Laughed comes on the back of the loosely thematic trilogy of albums he recorded with producer and musician Andrew Swift. They were psychedelic in nature though still rooted in the folk form. In contrast, this feels like a retreat from the density and experimentation, to a place of reflection and solitude.

Jurado is often lumped in with songwriters like Phosphorescent, Sam Beam of Iron and Wine and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and on Over Rainbows And Rainier he certainly shares a rustic minimalism with the latter. There’s a plaintive mood across most of these songs, a gentle grandeur and a tender sway. The lyrics are introspective, dealing in character observations (six of the eleven song titles are names) and vignettes that reference fires and ghosts, dreams and Charles Schulz – skilfully shifting from literal to impressionistic storytelling and back.

Allocate is the album’s scene-setter, a dreamy, string-enhanced soulful meander that recalls Jurado’s starker early work. It’s followed by Dear Thomas Wolfe which highlights his seemingly endless ability to effortlessly weave beautiful, understated melodies. Marvin Kaplan introduces a sweet Tropicália via Laurel Canyon shuffle that lifts the album’s heart rate and recalls some of the work of Devendra Banhart, while Florence-Jean is catchy Sixties pop and closer Random Fearless adds some of CSN’s looser moments to the mix. Another gem from this consistent and inventive songwriter. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Earthless – Black Heaven

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The trio, renowned for their epic psych rock and metal instrumentals that can reach the 20 minute mark, are back with a new album that turns that reputation on its head by way of shorter songs and most noticeably, the addition of vocals.

Guitarist Isaiah Mitchell steps up the mic on Black Heaven and it’s a move that shifts the dynamic of the band. His singing gives those songs shape and structure that previously was subsumed by Earthless’ improvisational approach. Once you acclimatise to the change it makes sense and feels like a refresh of the band’s sound. It’s them trying something different and for the most part it works well.

Opener Gifted By The Wind is a dead ringer for Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil with Mitchell’s voice sitting somewhere between the howl of Ozzy and Comet’s On Fire’s Ethan Miller. Electric Flame settles into an insistent Blue Cheer chug – metal boogie of the most contagious kind. Drummer Mario Rubalcaba and Mike Eginton nail their Krautrock meets 70s rock precision and groove, anchoring the songs with gravitas yet also pushing and pulling them in constantly inventive directions. The title track sends a not-too-subtle nod to Led Zeppelin albeit in overdrive with spiralling riffs barely hanging on as the song accelerates into the stratosphere. In contrast, Sudden End goes for an epic lumber and sway with long, held notes. This is Earthless going out on a limb and impressively incorporating new sounds without abandoning their cosmic interstellar roots. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Eleanor Friedberger – Rebound

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Eleanor Friedberger was the voice of the quirky and inventive Fiery Furnaces before going it alone. Now onto her fourth solo album, she’s more than established herself as a fine songwriter and clearly decided to stretch out into some new sonic territory on the more electronically textured Rebound.

Eschewing the knotty indie guitar sound, she’s delved into a more synthetic world of drum machines, keyboards and melancholic music that references the sadder side of 80s pop but is in no way a nostalgia exercise. There’s a patina to the music whereby the songs sound lush and contemporary with one foot in simple melodic pop and the other in the art-pop world of artists like Stereolab. 

The single Make Me A Song is as catchy as anything she’s done in the past and demonstrates her playful wordplay and consistently infectious way with a chorus hook. The downbeat thrum of Nice To Be Nowhere recalls both Julee Cruise and Jack Ladder in its plaintive soft focus sway while Are We Good dances with a playful kosmiche pulse. Her use of electronic sounds add a warmth to these songs rather than colder machine-like qualities. It’s a re-housing of her songs in a new setting and she’s again matched it with sensitive and astute songwriting.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – Blue Poles

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The sense of Jack Ladder’s career to date is that he’s constantly been searching for his lost soul sound. The early bluesy rock n roll to the introspective troubadour, the gothic synth sounds of Hurtsville to the brighter colours of Playmates. Blue Poles is named after the Jackson Pollock painting and yes it does draw on all manner of styles but this time around he pulls them together into a cohesive set of nine songs. It’s also the first record he’s self-produced, another clue as to why this feels like the album that is most uniquely and naturally his own sound and vision.

‘Can’t Stay’ is the first introduction and transports the listener back to the junction where post punk met pop art, immediately reminiscent of peak-era Thompson Twins with their twinkling synths and fascinating rhythms wrapped up in pop music. ‘Dates’ takes that scene setter and turns it on its head with a repetitive glam stomp, like prime Roxy Music with Ladder shapeshifting between Eno and Ferry. It’s infectious stuff, enough to induce self-indulgent lounge room strutting. Another song, another colour added to the canvas. ‘Susan’ is all dark and shadowy hues, Cohen circa ‘Everybody Knows’, but Ladder gets pleasingly perverse with a tale of a car accident fatality and and husband calling his wife to join him in the afterlife.

Bowie is never far from Ladder’s orbit and ‘I.N.M.’ is unabashed funk of the Thin White Duke variety, complete with skewed scattershot guitar courtesy of one Mr Kirin J Callinan. ‘Tell It Like It Is’ is of the same ilk, Ladder getting louche and mysterious, dropping great lines such as “Our love is like a door with no handles, you kick it down…”

‘Blue Mirror’ is an exceptional song. The mood it conjures, the nod to ‘Moon River’, the languid swirl and solemn pulse of the music that recalls David Sylvian, the crown prince of austere pop. Ladder finds the perfect backing for his soft bellow of a baritone. Sometimes it has sounded too knowing or a touch too sardonic in other settings. Here it meshes seamlessly. First single ‘White Flag’ is another melancholic highpoint of Blue Poles. Built on little more than a breakbeat and simple tremolo-laced guitar notes Ladder sings ‘I surrender, surrender to be free, in your chains is where I’m gonna be’, conjuring a mood of giving in rather giving up.

‘Feel Brand New’ feels like a respite from the blue mood of much that precedes it. It’s a good old fashioned rock n roll tune with guitars ringing high in the mix, throwing out unabashed and catchy hooks with the kind of optimism you get on a new morning that promises possibilities instead of weariness. Ladder leaves us with ‘Merciful Reply’. An Orbison-styled, solemn yet grand gesture. It harkens back to the lachrymose ballads of yesteryear, yet in Ladder’s hands it rings true and artfully heartfelt.

Blue Poles draws on a sense of romanticism, one steeped in melancholy yet ultimately not fatalism. There is dark humour at play and some fine wordplay on display and it sounds exceptional. This is Ladder’s finest record to date, his maudlin opus par excellence.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Jamie Hutchings – Bedsit

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It’s been seven years since the last solo album from Jamie Hutchings. In the interim he’s busied himself with 2 noisy rock records with Infinity Broke and the wonderful Down The Unmarked Road, the result of his collaboration with Peter Fenton of Crow. Now he returns to the solitude of the self with the intimate, graceful and poetic Bedsit.

This is a sparser and more delicate set of songs than those on his previous solo album Avalon Cassettes. They feel weightless, unconcerned with time and the restraints of conventional song structures. There is a fragmentary and fragile quality to the music with guitars pulling in and out of focus, with gentle augmentation from strings, harmonica and the emotive piano of sister Sophie Hutchings on Above The Rain and Shadow On The Lung. For the most part this is Hutchings and his vignettes and song poems. Opener Second Winter details a dream of waking up with blocks of ice as feet and the resulting surreal happenings. A highlight is December Park, propelled by light flurries of guitar strings, upright bass and Hutchings’ voice sounding weary like a hazy, late-night afterthought.

References to dreams, seasons and nature abound, framing existential questions and the foibles of human relationships. Centennial Park and Marrickville get name checked and it feels very much like a Sydney album, albeit a reflective, introspective and intensely personal one from the melancholic side of town.

CHRIS FAMILTON

ALBUM REVIEW: The Breeders – All Nerve

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Some bands hit the pop culture sweet spot just at the right time, igniting and reflecting the spirit of a generation before burning out and fading away. Others hang around, soldiering on with diminishing returns, a loyal fanbase in tow, cushioning their middle-aged bank accounts. There are also those acts who have that moment in the spotlight, vacate the pedestal but then re-emerge years down the track, with the essence of their creativity still intact. Bands like Afghan Whigs, Sleater-Kinney and Dinosaur Jr.

Kim Deal of course tasted the rewards of that with the resurrected Pixies but the scale and dynamics of that band clearly didn’t suit her. There were new and fairly well received Breeders albums in the interim years (Title TK, 2002 and Mountain Battles, 2008) but after reconvening the line-up from their seminal 1993 album Last Splash (Kim and Kelley Deal, Josephine Wiggs and Jim Macpherson) for its 20th anniversary celebrations, it became clear that there was still a spark and desire to write and record new material.

All Nerve could just as easily have been titled All Verve, for it’s an album that captures the some of the joie de vivre of Last Splash, tempers it with the perspective of age and is filled with sardonic swagger, obtuse wordplay and a musical dynamism that rarely becomes anything other than pure Breeders.

The first single Wait In The Car throws a sly nod to the drum rimshots at the start of their most famous song Cannonball before being overrun with cascading guitar distortion and downstrokes. Deal sings of embracing inspiration and intuition and screw the consequences. That continues in the title track as she sings “I won’t stop, I will run you down, I’m older”, alluding to both determination and obsessive personality traits. Metagoth shifts musical gears into a world of Joy Division and Bauhaus with its brooding and foreboding rhythm section. It’s the least ‘Breeders’ song on the album but they suit it, especially given there’s always been an element of post-punk deconstruction running through their music.

The Breeders always show an ability to balance the punkish rush with prettier, more meditative moments. The verses of Spacewoman do just that with a delicacy and spaciousness that makes the crunch and stomp of the chorus even more rewarding. There are shades of Courtney Barnett’s sound on Walking With A Killer as the song meanders along, decorated with a quasi-psychedelia similar to early Smashing Pumpkins.

Archangel’s Thunderbird is a rare misfire, lacking direction and seemingly built on a drum pattern but never building on it. Relief comes in the form of Dawn: Making An Effort with its billowing, gauzy, shoegaze guitars. It’s like a lost 50’s pop song, filtered and reimagined via a ghostly transmission. Their trademark blend of heavy and raw guitars and spectral, almost naive melodies return on the monstrous sounding Skinhead #2 before Blues At The Acropolis finds Deal referencing false hero worship and perhaps bemoaning the watering down and dissipation of artistic worth.

Thankfully, quarter of a century after crafting Last Splash, The Breeders have the nerve and the creative impulse to again inject some life and imagination into rock music.

Chris Familton