ALBUM REVIEW: Cass McCombs – Tip Of The Sphere

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Cass McCombs
Tip Of The Sphere
Anti- / Cooking Vinyl Australia

For a number of years, across seven albums, Cass McCombs flew under the radar for the most part. He was recognised for his work but it wasn’t until the critical acclaim and success of Mangy Love in 2016 that he went overground and found himself the talk of the indie world. That album was a fairly direct affair with a smooth veneer and darker themes lurking beneath the surface. Now, on Tip Of The Sphere, McCombs has taken a more circuitous route with a more cohesive, hypnotic and searching sound.

There’s a bucolic feel to much of the album, ‘Estrella’ being a typical example of the way McCombs weaves a 70s folk aesthetic into dreamy indie rock. There’s a fair amount of repeated phrases and insistent bass rhythms that add to the heady, aqueous and meditative vibe. ‘Real Life’ is like Tim Buckley jamming with Porno For Pyros with its percussion, strummed guitars and new age mysticism. The album centrepiece ‘Sleeping Volcanoes’ is a real highlight with cascading guitars, primitive yet pulsating bass and McCombs’ way with constantly renegotiated vocal melodies forging a gentle path through the song. ‘Prayer For Another Day’ is a more intellectually astute cousin to Kurt Vile, heading closer to the newer work of Steve Gunn. 

Perhaps sensing a need to inject some aural unease into proceedings, ‘American Canyon Sutra’ is a queasy trip through spoken word over a minimal drum machine that distracts rather than provide an engaging contrast. It’s only a momentarily blip before the cosmic psych folk resumes and the album closes out with the ten minute countrified jazz-fusion noodling of ‘Rounder’, a glowing reverie of sun kissed guitars that embarks, mid-song, on a psychedelic journey that sounds like it could wind on endlessly into the cosmos.

All in all this feels like an intimate set of creative and explorative musical expositions. Eloquent, contemplative and for the most part intriguing and absorbing.  

Chris Familton

NEW MUSIC: Joey Walker – On Top

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This song caught my attention early with a vocal sound and feel that reminded me of Wild Beasts. Stick with it and it’ll take you on a journey. It builds into a turbulent cacophony like Josh T Pearson’s Lift To Experience before the clouds part momentarily and a more darkly euphoric swell spirals upward for the last two minutes. It’s epic and immersive, emotive post-rock built on great dynamics and Walker’s fine voice.

“This is probably my most autobiographical song on the album,” Walker explains, “No–I haven’t murdered anyone, but I could’ve foreseen myself on a similar path if I gave into my sexual desires in a violent way like the character of the song. Even though the character ends up a murderer, he’s hardly to blame and easy to empathize with, maybe like Aileen Wuornos.”

ALBUM REVIEW: The Goon Sax – We’re Not Talking

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They were young when they formed, young when they recorded their first album and they’re still only just sloping out of their teens as they release their sophomore album. At its strongest, We’re Not Talking still reaches the same impossibly catchy jangle-pop heights that they impressed with on their debut, but across its 30 minutes some minor risk-taking doesn’t quite pay off. 

Their trademark innocence and honest dives into the realities of approaching and entering adulthood is still intact and if they were previously singing about those things from an observational POV, now they’re reporting from the inside, as they experience them. Other changes include the three band members take a greater share of lead vocals, with Riley Jones’ voice particularly impressing on the tender Strange Light. They’ve also experimented with different instrumentation such as strings, piano and a drum machine, widening their palette from the straight rock trio format.

When the album works it’s a thrilling dash through young love and self-doubt. Opener Make Time 4 Love is brisk, fun and infectious, She Knows is reminiscent of the rough and barely contained sugar rush of The Strokes while Sleep EZ and Get Out recall the golden heyday of Flying Nun’s skewed pop moments. In contrast, other songs such as Now You Pretend are only partly formed interludes. They add variety to the album but they feel like filler before the next primitive, melodic pop explosion occurs.

The many highlights on We’re Not Talking suggest that The Goon Sax are still evolving and successfully exploring the art and craft of confessional, catchy and quirky songwriting.

Chris Familton

INTERVIEW: Adrianne Lenker

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THE OVERWHELMING SENSATION OF BEING ALIVE

Three years on the road with her band Big Thief has been a life changing experience for Adrianne Lenker and as she explains to Chris Familton, she wanted to document and archive her thoughts and emotions through that period on her new solo album abyskiss.

I made my first solo record when I was 21 and I was so much closer to my influences then. Now I’ve got farther from those influences although I’m more influenced by more things than I’ve ever been,” explains Lenker as she ponders they ways in which she’s evolved musically and personally since her debut, Hours Were The Birds, was released. “I’m 27 now and I feel like there have been so many things that have happened. When I made that record I hadn’t even met the band and I’ve spent the last three years on the road and they’ve become my family. That in itself has completely changed me. I’ve shed skins. I’ve been so influenced by the music the guys in the band have shared with me and people I’ve met on the road. My heart has been expanding with the challenges and heartbreak and the wounding and mending over that time.”

The album was predominately written on the road, something many artists choose to avoid. For Lenker, her muse has a habit of dropping in at any time and capturing the songs in certain situations can make for a difficult creative process. 

“Songs are always welcome in my soul but reality sets in sometimes and there are moments when I can’t give attention to a song that’s coming through. That can be so frustrating. Time is so fleeting and with touring pretty much all of your hours in each day are structured and everything is planned out ahead of time. Writing on the road is about stealing time from myself, finding moments to get lost in my soul,” says Lenker. “That can just be for 20 minutes or a couple of hours or for a day, but there have been so many times when an idea has been forming that I’ve felt really excited about and then we have a soundcheck or a show or a meeting. That’s happened countless times where I’ve lost ideas that I’ve loved. I also think when it doesn’t form fully it is meant to be, they’re just stepping stone ideas to get to another thing.”

Sonically, there is a clear separation in the sound of the album from the full band elements used on Big Thief recordings. “I had the intention to keep them minimal because I really wanted the acoustic guitar to shine,” explains Lenker. The approach is an effective one, drawing the listener into the intimacy of her performance and the simple details of her songs. “I just sat in front of the microphone and sang and played the songs and recorded them. There was no editing at all and we only aded one or two other elements. I was conscious to keep it like that – quiet.”

Lenker is known for her astute and sensitive approach to detailing events and the emotional impact they have. On abysskiss she again takes a magnifying glass to life experiences but places them in  the context of big picture existential questions.

“The biggest theme is the least original thing possible. Life, pain, birth, death, the cyclical nature of things. A lot of it is about questions themselves. The aching bittersweetness of being alive and the inherent duality of everything. What kind of twisted, hilarious or crazy thing brought all of this into being and how insane it is that we are brought into his world and then leave and the only guarantee we have is that we will die and lose everyone that we love. Somehow that’s what makes it so rich,” she says, with a mix of wonder and passion in her voice.

“I’m fascinated by the microcosms and explosions that are happening minute to minute within all of us. It’s creating this crazy tapestry that feels extremely gruesome, morbid, gory and bloody and also so delicate and magical and pure. The ocean exists and the most beautiful harmony exists but also war and destruction. I’m constantly overwhelmed by the sensation of being alive. That’s where it’s coming from.”

ALBUM REVIEW: Adrianne Lenker – abysskiss

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Known predominantly as the singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker is one of those artists who writes constantly, documenting daily life and existential thoughts as she travels the world with her band. abysskiss is her second solo album and it finds her expanding the raw folk of her debut into a freer and more subtly textured set of songs.

Acoustic guitar is at the core of each track. Generally finger-picked and inventive it is the vessel that carries the songs as Lenker’s voice quietly drifts across the music, repeating phrases, re-shaping words into different phrasings and emphasising mood and tone over any quest for perfection. It amounts to a hypnotic effect akin to heavy-lidded lullabies and that sweetly intoxicating drift when you’re halfway between dreaming and awake. As a result the songs have an intangible quality that requires repeat listens to get a handle on them. Each track also contains a secondary element or two – a ghostly backing vocal, field type recordings  or another instrument, adding another thin layer of texture to the music.

Out of Your Mind is the most immediate song, sharing a gentle chug and sound with some of Liz Phair’s work while Blue And Red Horses is catchy in a playground chant kind of way. Symbol is another that lifts the pace and inhabits a nice pocket of ethereal psychedelic folk. Across the album, themes seem to alluding to big picture things such as childhood, the inevitably of death and the cyclical nature of life. Heavy stuff indeed but in Lenker’s hands it has a sense of mystery and wonder that draws the listener into her intimate world of song. 

Chris Familton

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: 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