ALBUM REVIEW: Kevin Morby – Oh My God

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Apparently Kevin Morby went into the studio and recorded this album two years ago, before he released his last record, City Music. It sounds quite different to that album, different to his breakthrough album Singing Saw as well. What came out of those studio sessions is a concept album of sorts, one that is tied into the theme of religion, by someone who states that he’s not in the slightest religious.

With that in mind, it’s an interesting set of songs that explore the place, role and ramifications of religion, both at a personal and societal level. He leverages gospel music, angelic choirs and rhythm tracks built on handclaps, weaving them into his folk-flavoured indie rock. Morby’s ability to sound like a pastoral balladeer one minute and a street-wise poet the next is on full display as the songs unravel. At his best he’s a fine and convincing blend of Dylan, Reed and Cohen.

He’s got a clever way with lyrics too. “Do you want to play chess in my chest” he sings on ‘Piss River’ and on ‘Savannah’ he he follows the line “Sometimes I let my silence become the conversation” with an abrupt pause to emphasise the point. The arrangements on Oh My God are a real delight. Often sparse, with warm sounding organ, piano or jangly guitar and regular enhancement by lonely minimal, solo horn accompaniment. There are glorious interruptions of 50s doo-wop (‘Congratulations’) and Velvet Underground/Bowie chug (‘OMG Rock n Roll’) but the overwhelming mood is more reflective and gently interrogative than those exceptions.

Across Oh My God Morby plays with and eloquently investigates religion with equal amounts of respect and irreverence while placing his songs in artful and evocative musical settings.

Chris Familton

 

ALBUM REVIEW: The Beasts – Still Here

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The Beasts
Still Here
Bang! Records / Rocket

A new album from the remaining members of the Beasts of Bourbon (under the name The Beasts) is a bittersweet thing in light of the passing of bassist Brian Hooper and more recently Spencer P. Jones. The name of the band and the album are self explanatory and though there’s enough to justify the band coming together to record new music and tour, there’s the unavoidable sense of a band operating on dwindling returns.

The album was recorded only a couple of weeks after their last gig with Hooper and is made up of songs formed from, in their words, sketchy ideas plus some jams and covers. Jones is there, but he only made it onto one track, the slow and swampy blues crawl of At The Hospital.

Things get off to a good start with the one/two punch of Perkins’ On My Back and Kim Salmon’s heavy grunge/garage-rock track Pearls Before Swine. Both possess the right amount of grit and sleaze, worthy additions to the Beasts’ canon of work. Warren Zevon’s My Shit’s Fucked Up gets a passable workout, as does Zappa’s The Torture Never Stops, which fares better with its loose and queasy sound.

It’s All Lies and Your Honour sound like half-baked ideas – one-riff jams that were fleshed out long enough to justify calling them songs. The flip-side to them is the shadowy drone and grind of Don’t Pull Me Over, a sign of the band’s willingness to still effectively explore the avant garde end of primal rock n roll, an inner city cousin to Springsteen’s Nebraska. 

What The Hell Was I Thinking sounds like a late-night Rolling Stones jam and gloriously so. Searing electric slide and acoustic guitars weave a drunken dance while Perkins laments his actions in his wonderful country howl and croon.

All in all Still Here is a flawed beast but I guess they always were weren’t they. That was, and remains, the band’s charm. A collective throwing together of ideas that works often and fails sometimes.

Chris Familton

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

ALBUM REVIEW: Deep Sea Arcade – Blacklight

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It’s been six years since Nic McKenzie and Nick Weaver released their debut album Outlands. On the back of a run of singles they’d built a strong sense of anticipation about that first record and it certainly lived up to expectations. Fast forward to 2018 and how does a band evolve and change over that time? The DSA model is to essentially stick to the template with some refinement and an easing off of the accelerator.

As you’d expect with such a long gestation, they’ve no doubt rewritten and reworked tracks and that has given these ten songs a sense of calm control. The more frantic edges of earlier songs have been rounded off. This is the band sounding less indie psych rock and with more of an ultramodern sheen that embraces electronic and disco sounds as much as it distils the pop and psychedelic qualities of their past work. Mercury Rev, Spoon, Beck, The Horrors are names that come to mind, acts that all relish melodic hooks as equally as they paint in cosmic colours. 

McKenzie’s voice is shorn of some of its more nasally proclivities and is now in perfect marriage with the music. Musically, the Manchester 90s vibe is still there in tracks like Joanna with its dance-ready rhythm section. The closer Ready is a highlight of studio-polished melancholy while Learning To Fly is an absolute ear-worm of a track that uses hooks and repetition to bury itself deep. The other highlight is the single Close To Me with its loping trip hop groove and psych-soul feel that blossoms into one of the duo’s finest choruses.

Black lights are employed for artistic lighting effects as well as diagnostic and therapeutic uses and in that sense it’s a fitting title for a record that looks to combine art-pop and post-relationship dissection. There are moments when form supersedes the strength of the songwriting but overall Blacklight justifies the long wait for this second album.

Chris Familton

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

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: Suede – The Blue Hour

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Suede are this deep into their career and have flirted equally with the charts and the arthouse that they have earned the right to be the masters of their own destiny. Hence they’ve realised that the best Suede albums have a mix of grandiose, sweeping music and dissertations on the minutiae and unease of modern life. The Blue Hour is the third album in a trilogy that includes Bloodsports and Night Thoughts, set in the dark blue-hued twilight of the evening, the deepening shadows the heart and the oncoming dark night of the soul.

Strings sweep across the rural landscapes and the trash littered motorways that Brett Anderson sings of. He’s talked about viewing the world through the eyes of his son and much of this album deals with the terrors of childhood. You can hear it both in the tension of the music and literally in Anderson’s songs of broken homes, fractured family relationships, fear of the future and finding one’s self and place in society. It’s powerful and dramatic stuff. In other’s hands it would be overwrought and pretentious but this is Suede’s home ground advantage, their musical stock and trade.

Interspersed between the songs, recorded sound effects and sonic vignettes suggest dead birds and lost children and give the record a sense of a concept album, though it’s more of a collection of sketches or short stories rather than one linear tale. Wastelands, Cold Hands, Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You and Beyond The Outskirts are highlights of the glam, indie-rock variety and provide a good balance to the arch and avant garde tracks.

It all amounts to a fascinating and rewarding album with plenty to revel in on its surface whilst also offering a deep well of poetry and drama to explore at length.

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