ALBUM REVIEW: Aldous Harding – Designer

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Aldous Harding
Designer
4Ad / Remote Control

Aldous Harding’s artistic trajectory continues to billow skyward on her third album, the second produced by John Parish for the 4AD label. Long gone is the stark and fragile folk of her debut, though it still lurks under the surface of what is now lush and detailed avant chanteuse pop music.

The quirkiness of Harding’s vocal delivery has always been debated but it is a crucial component of what makes her music so compelling. She’s dialled it back on this album, ironing out some of the quirks and as a result the overall impact of this record feels slightly diluted. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of highlights. Early on, the title track is a light tripping affair with a brief chorus that dismantles the flow and gentle funk feel (reminiscent of Devendra Banhart) before it resumes for a summery run to the end of a song that seems to question the retention and spark of creativity. 

Baroque psych folk sounds enhance much of the record and come courtesy of woodwind instruments on songs such as ‘Zoo Eyes’ while ‘Treasure’ draws Harding’s vocals to the foreground. It’s good to see that the focus remains on Harding and her voice and that any temptation to make thing bigger and busier have, for the most part, been resisted.

First single ‘The Barrel’ is prime Harding with its almost hip hop backbeat over a brass sounding instrument and piano, which features widely across Designer. The song deals in issues of conformity, settling down and having parameters placed on one’s situation. Much of the album seems to one of questioning and doubt, looking for a strong moral compass to guide one through the vagaries and vulnerabilities of life. “I don’t know how to behave” Harding sings on the exquisite closer ‘Pilot’. Riding on a Tears For Fears melody and a bare piano she intones her concerns and fears. It may be decorated in almost theatrical avant-folk details but it’s a remarkably bold statement to end another strong and intriguing album from the New Zealand songwriter.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Big Thief – U.F.O.F

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Big Thief
U.F.O.F.
4AD

What started with a debut album in 2016, that introduced a fragile and poetic songwriter and her band, has blossomed into a fascinating and quickly evolving career for Adrienne Lenker and the rest of Big Thief. They’ve been touring relentlessly, Lenker even having time to record a well received solo record last year. From Masterpiece to Capacity and now U.F.O.F, the quartet have gently worked away at the canvas of folk and knotty guitar music that draws on both conventional song structures and avant garde curiosity.

This album continues the mystery and beauty of their previous releases while adding even more depth and textural minutiae. There are drone-like textures,  found sounds – like the rolling effect at the start of ‘From’, and fascinating percussive elements that rise and fall in the mix. There’s a feeling of perpetual motion in many of the songs due to the looseness of the arrangements and the playing which makes the music sound both improvised and highly arranged. ‘Jenni’ imagines a Cat Power-fronted Tortoise in the way they use organic instrumentation and allow volume and tone to fluctuate as the song slowly unfurls.

The straightest moment comes right at the start of the album with opener ‘Betsy’ and its sparkling acoustic guitar, gently shuffling drums and Lenker singing in a lower-than-normal register. It’s intimate and affecting and pulls the listener right into the album from the get-go. ‘Contact’ is dreamy and meditative until, as if waking in terror, the guitars gain sharp edges and Lenker emits piercing screams.

If they didn’t already, now Big Thief unequivocally have your attention. Lovers of inventive music would be foolish not to join them on their post-folk journey.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Lambchop – This (is what I wanted to tell you)

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Lambchop
This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You)
Merge Records

The band Lambchop is a very different beast these days, compared to a decade ago when they numbered up to 12 members with more of a conventional country soul sound. Now Lambchop is essentially Kurt Wagner with a small coterie of collaborators – a much more intimate proposition yet still possessing the gorgeous and hypnotic Lambchop qualities that have always been at the heart of their deeply soulful, emotive and intellectual music.

With compadres Matt Swanson (bass), Tony Crow (bass) and Matthew McCaughan (of Bon Iver and Hiss Golden Messenger) who co-wrote and produced the album, the band further refine the sound that first took shape on Mr. M (2016) and then blossomed into new eclectic pastures on the synth and auto-tune affected FLOTUS in 2016. Those new explorations are still embedded in the music on this record but there’s a leanness and a barer framework to these songs. You can hear the trademark melancholy via Wagner’s voice and the generally downbeat tone of the music but the songs are filtered through jazz, hip hop, future soul and the kind of avant-pop sounds that people like Scritti Politti, David Sylvian and Mark Hollis of Talk Talk developed.

Wagner’s way with words still shines through these lush textures, his devastating way of making seemingly simple phrases carry additional weight. It’s in his somnambulant delivery, the heavy use of effects on his voice but most importantly it’s the words themselves that carry the greatest weight and air of curiosity. “I’m in a Mexican restaurant bar, watching surfing and it’s amazing” he sings on ‘The Air Is Heavy And I Should Be listening To You’ and on ‘The You Isn’t So New Anymore’ he simply states “Michael Jackson just informed me that Santa Claus is coming to town”.

Wagner is firmly in his post-country phase, maybe he’s really always been there. Regardless, he’s a relentlessly inventive songwriter who is as devoted to sound, texture and atmosphere as he is to the lyrical possibilities of his poetry.

Chris Familton

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Beastwars – IV

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Beastwars
IV
Destroy Records

Sometimes it takes monumental life events to galvanise a band, or any creative endeavour for that matter. In the case of New Zealand band Beastwars it was the diagnosis singer Matt Hyde received, confirming Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In the weeks following his chemotherapy treatment the band hit the studio and recorded their fourth album – a blistering, pummelling, cathartic battle cry of a record.

“You can never get away from your mortal decay,” Hyde howls on ‘Mortal Decay’. This is an album that addresses mortality and the brutal reality of our time on this earth and the fragility of life. Out of that there is a sense of immense strength and resolution from both singer and band. There are winding, ruminative passages in some songs that add a reflective quality to the heavier, more visceral sound that dominates the album, but don’t start thinking this is a metal band going soft, their essence of heavy swinging and paint-peeling riffage is still firmly intact, made even more powerful with the quality of the songwriting and ideas on IV. 

As musicians, the band sound freer and more inventive than they ever have before. There is colour and shade on a song such as ‘Omens’ which combines the moodiness of Tool with lumbering doom metal density, while on ‘Mortal Decay’ the song straightens into pure metal chug and gallop at the three quarter mark to brilliant effect. On ‘The Traveller’, Hyde stands exposed, delivering an affecting primal scream  before the band join him and carry the song forward on a comforting melodic bed of heavy bass and avant garde guitar squalls. ‘Wolves And Prey’ tumbles and churns like a spinning vortex and ‘Like Dried Blood’ combines a piano and Hyde’s ghoulish vocal to great effect as the thunder grows and the riffs thicken and fill the air like heavy smoke.

“Out of adversity comes opportunity” said Benjamin Franklin and Beastwars have taken that mantra and bled a visceral, life-affirming album into existence. You’d be hard pressed to find many better metal albums than this in 2019. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Amyl & The Sniffers – Amyl & The Sniffers

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Amyl & The Sniffers
Amyl & The Sniffers
Flightless Records

Roaring out of the gates like an amalgam of Motorhead, AC/DC and The Datsuns, Amyl & The Sniffers know the power of simplicity, attitude and abandon on their debut self-titled album. It’s a lean 11 songs that capture the spirit and verve of their live shows surprisingly well due to an avoidance of unnecessary studio sheen.

‘Gacked On Anger’ is the first smile-and-nod moment on the record, where the dots connect and Amy Taylor’s brattish, sneering yelps bring the visceral, yet basic, garage punk and rock riffage to life. She’s a force of nature right across the record, always sounding urgent and impassioned. The distorted bass riff that opens ‘GFY’ (an acronym for Go Fuck Yourself) is a momentary reprieve from the onslaught before the hurricane of fast chords and four-to-the-floor drumming resumes. 

One can hear the historic traces of Australian, UK ‘(Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled) is reminiscent of The Damned’s ‘New Rose’) and US punk in the the sound of The Sniffers and their blend of melody and primitive rock ’n’ roll means they’re clearly the latest local gem in the lineage of The Angels, The Saints and AC/DC. Taylor is clearly the star, the front person balancing unhinged mania with some astute nutshell observations on love, lust and self empowerment. Her two finest moments on the album are ‘Got You’, with verses that sound like a spiky Courtney Barnett and a tearing chorus that begs for mass sing-alongs at high volume. ‘Angel’ has a brilliant vocal hook in its chorus and guitars that sing and move like the best moments of The Sunnyboys.

Even though this is the kind of inner city punk rock that has echoed from pubs for nearly half a century, it’s still refreshing to hear primitive, raw and febrile rock ’n’ roll bottled so appealingly and urgently as it is here.

Chris Familton

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