ALBUM REVIEW: Mudhoney – Digital Garbage

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It’s hard to believe but Mudhoney are now in their 30th year of active service and on Digital Garbage, their 10th album, they show they’re still the kings of fuzzed-out punk and garage rock. Their disdain for everything fucked up about the world is still vital and biting and they don’t hold back one iota.

No topic is out of bounds as they rail against social media, the rich getting richer at everyone else’s expense, gun control, religion and environmental destruction. Mark Arm has sharpened his pencil with more scathing intent than he’s ever done before. “Fuck the planet, screw your children, get rich, you win,” he sings on Prosperity Gospel while on Paranoid Core he throws barbs of sarcastic truths at an unnamed Donald Trump and his supporters. Musically the band are as economical as ever but in addition to their trademark buzzsaw guitars and MC5, Stooges shakedowns, they also get dark and moody with an early Nick Cave feel on Night And Fog and there are strains of Neil Young in the chord progressions of Messiah’s Lament.

There’s plenty of humour at play too. Lines such as ‘turning water into wine is dismissed as a parlour trick, that’s insensitive to the struggles of alcoholics,” throw amusing shapes across the underlying messages on Digital Garbage. Few bands have remained so close to the sound and integrity of their music. Mudhoney are still out front of the pack, setting the benchmark with brutal and brilliant honesty.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Cash Savage & The Last Drinks – Good Citizens 

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On her fourth album, Cash Savage does two things. She takes an unflinching look at Australian society and gives an intimate and evocative insight into love and desire. She does it all with her characteristic swagger and assertive tone, superbly backed by her cohorts, The Last Drinks.

Better Than That is a devastating opener, honing in on the events of last year and the impact of the marriage equality debate in this country. As she sings “Secretly I’d hoped you were better than that”, the band deliver a bittersweet, melancholic sound that feels like the calm after a storm.  Similar subject matter is addressed on the insistent pulse of Human with its frayed nerve, post-punk sound that blossoms into glorious intermittent choruses and the title track where she sings, with the emotional drama of latter day Nick Cave, about the male dominated world she works in. Collapse imagines a society where socio-political structures have fallen and the world is chaos, undone by its own failings. The Last Drinks back her to the hilt with an ominous industrial junkyard blues stomp that perfectly amplifies the song’s apocalyptic leanings. 

The single Pack Animals is a magnificent example of Savage’s ability to build and maintain tension in her more rock-leaning songs. Its Krautrock pulse patiently builds like a slow-moving tsunami, with sonic flares and sparks heading off in all directions like downed psychedelic powerlines. “I keep thinking ahead, to when I don’t have to lose my head” sings Savage, one of many instances across the album where she contemplates the future of the world and whether humans will resolve their multitude of failings.

Elsewhere Savage dials back the intensity and paints a tender picture of the highs and lows of love and devotion. The melancholic longing on Sunday has the feel of the Dirty Three in its staggered rhythm and Kat Mears’ aching violin. February and Found You explore similar territory, the latter taking a big melodically swinging approach with chiming guitars and an agitated dance-floor rhythm section.

For all the stage prowling, piercing stares and stirring sound of Savage’s live performances, Good Citizens possesses a resolute sentimentality about it. She’s speaking out with conviction about societal inequalities and how they manifest and are dealt with in the public realm yet the aforementioned flip side of how to navigate the miniature minefields of personal relationships is what hits the hardest. As she sings “I’ve never been so down, never needed anyone, now all I ever want is you” on February, she captures the essence of love and common experience.

Good Citizens is a bold and astute album that thrives on its balance and range. It pulls on heartstrings as effectively as it raises questions and it thrillingly blends musicality with Savage’s emotionally and intellectually-based commentary. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Low – Double Negative

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Press play and the first thing you’ll hear on the new Low album is the equivalent of a digital sandstorm.

Slowly but surely, out of the static and sonic scree comes the voice of Alan Sparhawk, sounding like a ghost trying with all his might to re-engage with the physical world. It’s a fascinating way to open an album; a new approach for Low and one that sets the scene for their most experimental and strangely beautiful record to date.

There’s a strong David Lynch aesthetic at play across Double Negative. That blend of a sense of foreboding and unease mixed with tender and affecting musical emotiveness. ‘Dancing And Blood’ continues to ratchet up the tension and usher the listener further into the present. Producer BJ Burton has worked in Bon Iver’s studio and you can certainly hear elements of the creative deconstructionist approach to traditional song that has happened within those walls. Mimi Parker takes the lead vocal on ‘Fly’ and it’s a powerful moment, almost backwoods ecclesiastical in the way it billows and urges. The defiance is short lived though as ‘Tempest’ submerges their voices in grainy, almost all-consuming decay. The clouds part momentarily before the connection is again violently disrupted.

‘Always Trying To Work It Out’ is a soulful suffocated pop song while ‘Poor Sucker’ is unsettling and laced with existential dread. When ‘Dancing And Fire’ emerges with pristine, clean guitars and an unprocessed vocal from Sparhawk, it sounds positively calming, Parker’s voice acting like a tonal echo chamber. “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” they sing, and it sums up the album’s themes of standing up for one’s beliefs, the danger of losing optimism and how the negative forces in the world are warning signs to correct things before it’s too late.

Low leave us with ‘Disarray’, a robotic dance at a death disco and a plea for change; “Before it falls into total disarray, you’ll have to learn to live a different way.Double Negative is bold and powerful music, fusing the avant-garde and traditional song with both friction and harmony. It’s unnerving, visceral and wholly compelling.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Roadhouses – Roadhouses

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They say that it is harder to play music slowly than it is to play it fast. Things fall apart and momentum is lost. In the case of Sydney trio Roadhouses, sedated rock music is their calling card. They deal in drifting, alt-country-imbued, slowcore torch songs where heartache is just a tear away. If you got Lucinda Williams to front Spain, at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse – you’d have a pretty accurate summation of the sound and aesthetic of this album.

Skirts as short as sin, drinks that don’t touch the side – you get the picture of where Yvonne Moxham takes her songs. Late night bars, heartbreak and yearning populate her songs of burgeoning and fracturing relationships. First you’ll be mesmerised by the band’s haunting, atmospheric sound, then drawn in by Moxham’s lyrics that hang heavy in the air. Drummer Cec Condon (Mess Hall) throws inventive rhythms and accents into the mix, like a slow motion Jim White. 

‘Black Lights’ throws a subtle curveball into proceedings with its melancholic synths and trip hop drumming that brings to mind Everything But The Girl jamming with Cowboy Junkies. Elsewhere, ‘Heartless’ recalls the haunting minimalism of Low and in ‘Drinkin’’ they conjure up a wonderfully lush, swoon and swell of a sound. Sadness, pain and bruised romance never sounded as good as it does on this excellent debut album.

Chris Familton

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Alice In Chains – Rainier Fog

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They were one of the heavyweights of the 90s metal/grunge scene, successfully blending melodic, down-tuned riffs and harmonies with crunching distortion and classic rock elements. Of course theirs is a tale of tragedy with the drug issues and subsequent death of singer Layne Staley curtailing them for a decade, but it is also one of resurrection, determination and integrity. 

Recruiting vocalist William DuVall 12 years ago, they’ve churned out three accomplished albums that have built on the band’s legacy. The latest, Rainier Fog takes the revitalised feel of their comeback album Black Gives Way To Blue and improves on the middling The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, with rewarding results.

Leading the pack is first single The One You Know with its serrated riff and headbanging call to arms. Jerry Cantrell and DuVall’s vocal harmonies are instantly recognisable as the song opens into a soaring, ‘eyes on the horizon’ type chorus. The title track, a reference to weather in Seattle and a tribute to the scene they grew out of, is another gem. Less metal and more of a churning punk feel, it springs from the speakers with a surging glam rush. Red Giant sounds like an outtake from the Dirt album while Maybe showcases their ability to blend acoustic guitars and sweeter melodies without losing the weight of their sound. Never Fade is the only real misfire in that it tries to blend the sound of Rage Against The Machine and Stone Temple Pilots on an average song. 

Alice In Chains are still bound to their past but they’ve found a way to maintain relevance, grace and swagger with each new album they release and remain a benchmark in the world of hard rock.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Deaf Wish – Lithium Zion

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Straight out of the gates the Melbourne quartet lock into a relentless distorted churn of guitars that sounds like 90s era Bailter Space sharing a practice room with Blank Realm. The guitars never let up but the lazy vocal smears a dull monotone melody across the surface of the song. It’s a wonderfully hypnotic and mildly unsettling start to an album that has a real sense of sonic self-determination about it. In the face of dippy psych rock and lightweight indie rock, Deaf Wish are resolute in their celebration of post-punk informed rock ’n’ roll.

Sonic Youth are an obvious touchstone and an unavoidable comparison when Sarah Hardiman intones a Kim Gordon-styled sing/speak vocal on ‘FFS’. Beneath her the guitars rip, chop and howl, combining dissonance and hook-laden melody, as they do right across the album. Things slow down with ‘The Rat Is Back’ but essentially it’s the same thing on half-speed – a pause for breath before they hurtle back into the rapid-fire dispatch of ‘Ox’. The title track best encompasses all that the band attempt to cram into their sound – the density and sonic collision of rhythm and riffs. It’s one of those songs that could easily power on for ten unrelenting minutes without outstaying its welcome.

There’s a dark beauty across Lithium Zion. Sometimes it feels impenetrable but when the songs come up for oxygen they can blossom on something as simple as an ungainly vocal line or  a melancholic, fuzzed out trail of guitar notes.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Harmony – Double Negative

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Melbourne’s Harmony have had a four year break between albums but that time has clearly been well spent with Double Negative the strongest culmination of their soulful, ragged and cathartic sound.

 Carpetbombing (2014) was a sprawling collection of songs that often sounded brittle and impenetrable, the core of the songs sonically buried beneath the surface. It still impressed but the good news is that on Double Negative they’ve tightened their arrangements and collated an economical 40 minute record that blossoms courtesy of a warm and open production sound. 

The key tenets of Harmony are the full-throated bellows and raw exaltations of singer Tom Lyngcoln and the contrasting beauty of the female-voiced avant-choir. Combined with the post-punk meets Neil Young and Dirty Three musical backdrop, it all makes for a constantly fascinating and emotionally visceral album. 

Stripping the songs of extraneous noise has provided a focal point for Lyngcoln’s songs and lyrics, where his words are carried aloft on his delivery, not relegated to just sounds and vowels. Opener ‘I Love You’ sets a high, almost attainable, bar but they consistently get close, right across the album. ‘Fatal Flaw’ has a wonderfully infectious, maudlin quality while ‘It Hurts’ is a primitive collision of astral guitar and hammering drums. 

Constantly exploring the possibilities of their sound – from minimalism to angst-ridden, inner city confessional howls, it all makes glorious sense in the hands of Lyngcoln and his existential choir.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Gorillaz – The Now Now

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Over the last 30 years you’d be hard pressed to find an artist who has equally embraced music that appeals equally to the commercial pop world and the more discerning and eclectic listener. Damon Albarn really is a man for all seasons, a polymorphic, post-modern songwriter with an insatiable creative streak that has seen him find success, primarily in Blur and Gorillaz, but also with a myriad of side projects. Album number six finds Albarn, producer and musician James Ford and assorted collaborators finding a decidedly reflective and melancholic electronic pop streak.

The guest stars are still a key facet of the Gorillaz template but there are only a few in attendance this time around. Snoop Dogg, George Benson and Jamie Principle all make strong contributions but Albarn is clearly the musical eye of the storm. His voice colours every song, draping them in that weary, wistful croon, perfectly suited to the album’s themes of finding solace in a mixed up world, the importance of living in the now in the physical world and the value of the inner soul vs the attraction of the shallow glamour of Hollywood and Instagram. Much of the album was recorded while on the Humanz tour – lyrics and beats composed on time-sapping bus journeys and in indistinguishable hotel rooms, giving The Now Now it’s personal, observational and ruminative quality.

The maudlin sound of much of the album still retains the futuristic gleam that defines the technological and graphic quality of Gorillaz. Synth washes and lush arpeggios, stuttering funk and hip hop beats blend seamlessly with piano and the iconic guitar sound of George Benson as well as subtle appearance from Graham Coxon on Magic City. With a more cohesive and consistent sound, the rewards come from the details – the synthetic folk wash of closer Souk Eye, knowing 80s Depeche Mode synth pop excursions such as Tranz, Idaho’s art pop akin to the latter-day experimentations of Radiohead and  the 21st century, low-riding electro-funk grooves that permeate the album.

The Now Now is a deeper than normal listen and a welcome balancing addition to the Gorillaz discography. It’s also, tantalisingly, the closest we’ve come to a new solo record from Albarn.

Chris Familton