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

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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: U2 – Songs Of Experience

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U2 are a band that have always traded in grand gestures, yet at their finest and self-defining moments they’ve always tempered the pretension with mystery, mood or atmosphere. The spacious textures of  the Daniel Lanois-indebted The Joshua Tree, the emotive post-punk chime and sparkle of those early singles and the dark grooves of Achtung Baby all showed a creative and experimental group who, on Songs of Experience, prove once again that their best days are still 20 years in the rear view mirror.

Over three years in the making, this companion album to Songs Of Innocence inhabits similar sonic territory with it’s radio-friendly production and a blend of tender ballads and big, rhythm-heavy rock songs. The former is where they still excel with opener Love Is All We Have Left finding the sweet spot between modern production and raw and tender emotion. Likewise the optimistic and dreamy closer 13 (There Is A Light). Between those points most of Bono’s lyrics fall into bad high school poetry territory with clumsy rhymes and the cloying tendency to resort to wordless chants of woo hoo’s and la la’s.

The Showman (Little More Better) has a chorus like 80s Rick Springfield, the Kendrick Lamar-featuring American Soul is a brash and trashy attempt at a Black Keys-styled blues rock stomp that fails while Red Flag Day is a tangle of cliched guitar chords, a tired and bland rock song, badly dressed up in pop production. It all amounts to a grasp for relevance, an overworked reliance on studio sheen and the unimaginative box they’ve painted themselves into.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Nic Cester – Sugar Rush

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Eight years since the release of the last Jet album Shaka Rock, frontman Nic Cester has finally stepped out under his own name with his debut solo album.

Sugar Rush isn’t a great stylistic departure from the band’s last record, but it does dial back the rock elements, instead taking a trip into a tantalising stew of soulful psych-pop and Black Keys-flavoured boogie rock grooves. It’s a slinky and rhythmically progressive affair that channels Beck and Tame Impala on the songs ‘Psichebello’ and ‘Who You Think You Are’, where clipped electronic funk collides with technicolour pop production.

There’s no denying Cester has successfully melded modernism and retro soul into a seamless listening experience but its greatest asset is that it doesn’t obfuscate his powerful, bluesy voice, which still possesses the power to elevate a song. ‘God Knows’ in particular finds him hitting stratospheric notes like Charles Bradley on a gospel bender.

The bombast of it all can be overbearing at times and a little more subtlety would’ve gone a long way but this is just as the packaging describes – a heady hit of creative energy in the form of a musical sugar rush.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Destroyer – ken

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Now up to album number twelve as Destroyer, Dan Bejar, one-time member of The New Pornographers, has fully embraced the world of lush and literate sophisticated synth pop. Think New Order’s primitive machine sound, the avant, collage-like work of The The and Morrissey’s lyrical twists and turns of phrase and you’re in the right region.

Musically there are plenty of glorious post-punk melancholic moments with Bejar obtusely detailing doomed romance, broken love, fame and misfortune – all in his characteristically dramatic and pretentious singing style.

The themes may be universal but the sonic setting is specifically England in the mid 80s, making it a highly successful marriage of poetic and acutely-knowing musical nostalgia, not dissimilar to Jack Ladder and Alex Cameron.

Chris Familton

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: Jep And Dep – They’veBeenCalled

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This is album number two for Darren Cross (Gerling) and Jessica Cassar and it finds them expanding their monochromatic and ethereal world into darker corners where mystery slowly reveals itself and both hope and despair are around every slow bend.

Their debut was clearly a interpretation of folk music but here they use even more swooning strings, piano and billowing reverb to add a ghostly and dreamy warmth to the songs. The pair share lead vocals and counter each other with some wonderfully arranged harmonies that add to the haunting qualities of their music.

On ‘Poor Little Rich Kids’ Cassar’s voice hovers in the aether behind Cross’ closely mic’d vocal. Cassar’s performance on the exquisite ‘Cruel Moon’ is reminiscent of Portishead at their most organic. Her voice is high and keening, pastoral even, when combined with Cross’ finger-picked guitar. It’s one of those sweet-sounding songs that has a dark undercurrent flowing just beneath the surface. Elsewhere, ’Helpless City’ has an ominous quality, like Nick Cave warning of approaching doom from the Bang Bang Bar stage in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

From rich kids drowning to a captive’s lament, a city’s cultural decline to romance in jeopardy, there’s a gothic sheen to They’veBeenCalled that both soothes and unsettles. Throughout, melodies cascade like slow rain on a window pane and as the closer ‘This Is Not The End’  dissolves into gentle static, the overriding mood that lingers is one of beauty bruised but not vanquished.

Chris Familton

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