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40 FAVOURITE ALBUMS OF 2017

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If anything, their music inhabits even darker territory, the songs collapsing in on themselves as they chug and career along – The Terminals, Antiseptic

In this day and age of accessibility and cultural saturation, it can be hard to unearth music you like, and at the same time discover new music outside the mainstream or the most prominent online access points. Digging through the detritus and overload, I’ve found that more and more I lock onto albums that give a little extra. They create their own world of music for the 30-60 minutes you spend with them. They make you wonder how the artists wrote the songs, how they composed the music. I was drawn to imperfect performances, atmosphere over precision (though The War On Drugs manage to exemplify both), melody, energy, intelligence and rhythm.

My favourite album of the year probably won’t feature on any other list you read (though hopefully it does). The Terminals, from NZ, released a record that mainlines a sense of musical nostalgia in my synapses, harkening back to the music of my teens and early 20’s in the NZ underground. The legacy of Flying Nun, alternative rock and darkly emotive music from a couple of islands at the end of the Earth. In my review I said “The Terminals have never been creatively stronger than they are on Antiseptic. It’s their finest album and the sound of musicians digging deep and exploring a lifetime of musical influences and experiences without concession to anything outside of their own ideas and instruments.”

Elsewhere you’ll find all manner of musical styles, from eccentric folk to kraut-tronica, country to ragged suburban punk rock, gothic 80s synth to skronking saxophone. Dig deep and enjoy.

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1. The Terminals – Antiseptic REVIEW

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2. Aldous Harding – Party REVIEW

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3. Kevin Morby – City Music

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4. Thurston Moore – Rock N Roll Consciousness REVIEW

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5. The Tall Grass – Down The Unmarked Road REVIEW

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6. Protomartyr – Relatives In Descent REVIEW

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7. Jep and Dep – They’veBeenCalled REVIEW

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8. Underground Lovers – Staring At You, Staring At Me REVIEW

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9. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding REVIEW

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10. Suicide Swans – Augusta

11. Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator

12. Ryan Adams – Prisoner REVIEW

13. Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band – Dreaming In The Non-Dream

14. Jen Cloher – Jen Cloher REVIEW

15. Omni – Multi-Task

16. David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanack

17. Traveller – Western Movies

18. Daniel Romano – Modern Pressure

19. The Texas Gentlemen – TX Jelly

20. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

21. Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys – Rot

22. Hollow Everdaze – Cartoons REVIEW

23. Feral Ohms – Feral Ohms

24. Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun

25. Pissed Jeans – Why Love Now REVIEW

26. Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory

27. Laura Marling – Semper Femina

28. Trevor Sensor – Andy Warhol’s Dream

29. The Singing Skies – Head In The Trees, Heart On The Ground REVIEW

30. Mount Kimbie – Love What Survives

31. Chomper – Medicine Mountain

32. Ricardo Villalobos – Empirical House

33. The Afghan Whigs – In Spades REVIEW

34. Marty Stuart – Way Out West REVIEW

35. Chain And The Gang – Best Of Crime Rock REVIEW

36. Karl Blau – Out Her Space REVIEW

37. Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Barefoot In The Head REVIEW

38. Destroyer – ken REVIEW

39. John Maus – Screen Memories

40. Gold Class – Drum REVIEW

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ALBUM REVIEW: Beaches – Second Of Spring

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Beaches go into overdrive on their new seventeen track album. It’s their magnum opus of sorts, taking everything they’ve explored on the first two albums and synthesising it into one kaleidoscopic take on all things psychedelic.

The album opens with two relentlessly churning tracks that set the stage for what is to follow. It signals their intent to push further out into the sonic aether, bridging the gap between melodic noisy pop hooks and hypnotic guitar-drenched head trips. Void is a brighter, headlong take on Wooden Shjips, psych-Kraut interstellar explorations while on track four they ease up on the gas and introduce chiming guitars, a post-punk interlude and a back half that sounds like The Primitives jamming with Look Blue Go Purple. Calendar sounds like a lost Pixies outtake with its mix of raw grind and dreamy vocals while Wine dives and shimmers like Crazy Horse doing shoegaze.

Arrow is the headiest pop rush the quintet have conjured up, the perfect nugget for the approaching warmer months and it feels like the apex of Second Of Spring. In the back third Bronze Age Babies adds a surprise with a recorder voicing the main melody before Grey Colours takes a gloriously melancholic wander that Robert Smith would be proud of. There’s a lot to take in but it’s an endlessly rewarding and freewheeling album for a band who are the equal sum of their parts and eager to explore all musical possibilities.

Chris Familton

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Machine Translations – Oh

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J Walker returns with his first album in four years and it finds him in an eclectic yet economical mood. The Bright Door (2007) possessed polish and an ornate sheen while Oh replaces that with rougher edges and a subtle shift toward a lower-fi aesthetic.

The opening track Made A Friend sounds like Beck in his melancholic balladeer mode before the first single Parliament Of Spiders (and later, the title-track) veers off into skewed art-pop mode akin to Spoon. It highlights the stronger focus on rhythm and melodies that jump from the speakers with more immediacy. Sola gets even more primal with a Sonic Youth meets Sparklehorse guitar skronk and driving urgency.

Walker has a way of vocally inhabiting his songs in a range of styles, from slacker dispatches to warm songwriter crooning. It shows his magpie approach to writing but even though the styles vary the sonic palette he utilises is cleverly controlled and its elements blended in service to the song, never for the sake of obtuse musical eccentricity. The instrumental Room 17 particularly stands out with its delicate phrasings and Dirty Three-indebted European gypsy sway.

Oh is an endlessly fascinating album, still built on multi-layered creativity but presented in concise and vibrant form.

Chris Familton

INTERVIEW: Ben Salter

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If there’s one thing that Ben Salter (The Gin Club, The Wilson Pickers) always appears to do, it’s to back himself. This time he’s even gone so far as to name his new solo album Back Yourself, and in the spirit of impromptu creativity and capturing songs on the fly he took a new and challenging approach to the writing and recording of the album.

“It was very different. I initially conceived it as being entirely improvised in the studio, says Salter. “I anticipated I’d do it fairly cheaply in friends’ studios, write the songs, record quickly and keep it playful – but if you don’t have any ideas when you get to the studio it can go downhill fairly quickly!” he laughs.

“We did a couple of weeks like that in Tasmania but came away with far less material than I’d hoped and it didn’t quite work as I’d thought. I had someone offer me help to finish it and they put me onto producer Chris Townend in Melbourne. I told him my plan and what I’d done and he was down with doing some more of the improv thing but I was kind of lamenting the fact that I hadn’t written the songs and that I’d gone about it this way. I think it ended up being good in the end though, I think it works,” reflects Salter.

Attention to detail and willingness to experiment with the songs to find their most interesting form made for an equally thrilling and frustrating process, but one that ultimately yielded the most rewarding results. ”There’d be days when we’d sit there, take songs apart and replace every single part – different bass lines, instrumentation etc. It ended up being a mix of what I’d anticipated and some studio re-working. It was quite challenging at times to go into the studio and just have nothing and be plagued by the normal doubts with the added indignity of not having any actual songs! Now in hindsight I can see that the impulses and instincts that drive the creation are still intact,” says Salter.

“I don’t really write for anything in particular,” admits Salter, when asked about his writing process and how it differs as he shifts between musical projects. “A lot of the sound is very much down to the personnel and the vibe. I’ve just finished recording an album with Conor Macdonald from The Gin Club here in Tasmania and Adrian Styles from the band played on it too. When we get together it just automatically has a very Gin Club sound. Some songs just don’t fit with other bands or I want to keep some for my own albums, Salter explains. “Writing these in the studio meant I didn’t even get the chance to make that decision as I needed all the songs I could get!”

Having a hand in a number of project means Salter operates as a full-time musician, yet it is only in the last year or two that he’s started earning what anyone would consider a reasonable amount of money as a recording and touring artist.

“Before that it was constant poverty,” Salter grimly recalls. “It’s certainly not getting easier. I treat it as my own thing – I book my own shows and I’m lucky I have a label who give me money and support. I don’t like it when musicians complain about it being hard. I just think, get another job if you don’t like it. There are plenty of other people who would love the opportunity they have,” says Salter.

“I don’t see things like Spotify being run in a very fair way. It’s hard with intellectual copyright as a musician,” states Salter, before switching his attention to the positive side of being a working musician. “Playing live, it’s never been better. If you’re willing to work and play all the time and you’re halfway decent, you can do it all the time. With the internet and email I can organise a NZ tour and a tour of Japan. It’s not rocket science. I’ve never been able to afford hotels all the time and you get a bit worn out but I wouldn’t swap it for anything to be honest.”

CHRIS FAMILTON

ALBUM REVIEW: The Weather Station – The Weather Station

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Music that is precise and austere is often tagged as being overly clinical and lacking soul – and by association, substance. It can be a fine line to tread and The Weather Station perform a balancing act on their fourth album.

The self-titled affair takes a dash of Joni Mitchell, adds a splash of Beth Orton and paints it in the kind of melancholic indie with string arrangements that bands like Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear do so well. The album starts in a low-key manner before Kept It To Myself quickens the pace with a hooky chorus and some brisk and light-fingered guitar playing. From there the intimacy becomes increasingly welcoming, revealing the pleasures in the subtle nuances of this quietly rewarding album.

Chris Familton

 

LIVE REVIEW: Midnight Oil @ Sydney Domain

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The Great Circle Tour came full circle, back to the city where it all began seven months ago with a warm-up show at Marrickville Bowling Club. Since then, Midnight Oil have conquered the world once more, returning sounding better than ever and with an enviable and overflowing back catalogue of generation-defining songs.

AB Original went down a treat as the opening act, standing tall and delivering their message of pride, culture and politics. A live drummer and keyboardist gave their sound depth and an organic feel. Hands were waved in the air as the celebratory outdoor-gig vibe kicked in, but not at the expense of conveying the importance of Briggs and Trials’ messages.

Although still with a conscience slant, John Butler Trio have a much more subtle delivery. Their breezy, rhythm-driven sound and Butler’s exceptional guitar playing worked well as the calm before the headliners’ arrival. It also may have helped to mellow out the copious tinnie-sinking punters who seemed to be intent on reliving their youthful excesses.

With slogans and messages of human and environmental rights peppering the large screens, Midnight Oil emerged on the towering stage and, as was appropriate, began with Armistice Day, Peter Garrett singing from beneath a hood. With crystalline sound they accelerated into Read About It, the screams of recognition immediate from that opening cowbell/guitar. From there it was a faultless set, balanced in its mix of the earliest of songs including Section 5 (Bus To Bondi) through to the biggest of hits – Power And The Passion, Beds Are Burning, The Dead Heart, Forgotten Years. Drummer Rob Hirst was having a ball, his muscular drumming a musical celebration of the band’s spirit in itself, joining the band front of stage mid-set for US Forces and Kosciusko. Nothing was lost with Jim Moginie restricted to a chair after his Melbourne fall, his playing a revelation of guitar and keyboards, the ingredients that added post-punk, art-rock and psych twists and turns to the band’s sound. Put Down That Weapon was reshaped as a slow-burning number and the large screens gave a fascinating insight into his and the rest of the band’s playing. Garrett is still the star of the show, though, the mad marionette dancer relishing the large stage and exploring every inch like the seasoned pro he is. He also created an intimacy with the audience with his interactions and expositions.

Sure, there were the requisite and important social and political messages, preached to the mostly converted, but the overriding message was a celebration of the music, songs that soundtracked more than one generation and still burn strong with real heart and soul.

Chris Familton

Here’s our Spotify playlist of the songs played in the Midnight Oil set:

 

ALBUM REVIEW: The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

 

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Adam Granduciel has called this album A Deeper Understanding but it could’ve quite easily been called A Clearer Understanding given the clarity he’s applied to his songs this time around. He approaches them with direct and confessional lyrics that sound unquestionably autobiographical  but he’s also pared back some of the hazy, gauze-like qualities of the dreamy approach he’s taken to the music in the past.

There is less drift and more direction in these ten songs but that doesn’t mean he’s sacrificed any of that wide open sound and the propensity to indulge musically. There are still epic guitar solos, now paired up with equally grand and soaring 80s synths as the rhythm section diligently chugs and occasionally canters along with loping country rock or gently propulsive Krautrock grooves. As a result it’s a rarity for a song to be under six minutes, with Thinking Of A Place stretching to a cosmic and hypnotic eleven minutes. If ‘meditative rock’ is a genre (it is now), they are the torchbearers.

Vocally, Granduciel sounds less Springsteen and more Dylan, accentuating the nasal qualities of his voice, that husky whisper that always sounds wistful and like an afterthought as he searches for answers to what sound like existential answers. There’s a spiritual quality to The War On Drugs but it comes across as a cosmic more than religious.

A Deeper Understanding requires commitment from the listener and it’s one of those slow reveal albums. Give it the time it deserves because this is their best and most complete album to date.

Chris Familton

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