ALBUM REVIEW: RVG – Feral

RVG

Feral

Our Golden Friend/Fire Records

RVG’s new album finds them presenting a fuller sound with even greater depth and clarity in the guitars and the spotlight still firmly on Romy Vager’s declamatory yelp and melancholic musings.

Quality Of Mercy already had the defining ingredients of the RVG sound – The Smiths-like insistency and nimbleness of the rhythm section, those sparkling, chiming and shimmering guitars and Vager’s voice a commanding strident force out in front. What Feral does do is highlight some sharper songwriting with more space and dynamics, in a wider, more sonically detailed sound courtesy of producer Victor Van Vugt. 

You can particularly hear the sound of The Go-Betweens and Echo & The Bunnymen amid the jangly post-punk and garage rock. It’s simple, melodic indie guitar pop but those guitars sound perfect in the way the notes tumble and cascade from the speakers, all frantically free-falling and forlorn. 

I Used To Love You is a heartbreaking ballad par excellence with its ache and swoon perfectly conveyed, while Photograph sends the listener out on a high. Tentative at first, it builds into a glorious rallying cry. On Feral, Vager’s dissection of how it feels to be sidelined and disenfranchised is treated poetically and ultimately there’s a sense of hope and resilience that rises from the near perfect musical backdrop.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways To New Italy

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Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Sideways To New Italy
Ivy League

Since the release of their debut album, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have traversed the globe, playing numerous headline shows and music festivals. Now those experiences and the associated dizzying dislocation have fed into their second record, a consistently superb collection of songs that matches the hit rate of their debut.

All three singer/guitarist songwriters again contribute songs, managing to stamp their own style and  personalities without bending or breaking the symbiotic jangly guitar rush and heady pop clamour that defines their sound. You get a sense of homesickness – both geographically and emotionally, a searching for place and context after the last few years of the band. 

Joe White’s She’s There and The Only One are love songs, the latter introducing a 80s indie pop sound reminiscent of Prefab Sprout while the former tumbles forth with irresistible guitar riffs. Fran Keaney’s Cars In Space is both urgent and intricate, like The Smiths at their most nimble. Sunglasses At Night imagines itself as a lost You Am I ballad, while the guitars of Not Tonight swoon and dive before the band hits one of their most divine pop choruses to date.

The heady rush of the band’s sound is still intact but there’s an additional sense of wistful reflection and a wider musical palette on Sideways To New Italy that takes their sound to even greater heights. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Underground Lovers – A Left Turn

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Underground Lovers
A Left Turn
Rubber Records
★★★★

Underground Lovers are back with their ninth studio album, their third since they reactivated after a hiatus through the first decade of the 21st century. That return showed they were still in fine form with their blend of psychedelic indie rock and electronica and they’ve again produced a strong album that brings those elements together in perfect hypnotic harmony.

Their last album Staring At You Staring At Me focused on the guitar sound of the band, giving it more of a rock feel. This time around they’ve ushered their electronic explorations back into the fold, placing the album close to the work they produced on Cold Feeling at the end of the ‘90s. 

Early on, Bells sets the psych controls for the heart of the mind and just as viably, the dance floor, with its droning Krautrock sprawling across more than six wonderful minutes. They have the ability – like Spiritualized and Wooden Shjips, to find the sweet spot of a groove and ride it endlessly. Hooky ups the rock ante yet still in a warm embrace with the melodies of Glenn Bennie’s guitar and Vincent Giarrusso’s vocal incantations.

Shoegaze has always been another mainstay of the band’s sound and on Dunes and Lusher, Philippa Nihill sounds like a dream sister to My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins as the music shimmers, glows and gently shudders behind her. The single Seven Day Weekend is anthemic in its drum machine-powered rhythm and distorted see-saw guitars as Giarrusso trips out in full Shaun Ryder mode on the ode to carefree socialising. 

By the time we reach the conclusion of the epic nine minute closer Rocky Endings, there’s a sense of post-rollercoaster exhilaration in the wake of the album’s propulsive peaks and floating valleys. The song winds its wistful way for four minutes before taking off into the stratosphere on an interstellar space-rock mission of chiming guitars, pulsing bass and metronomic drumming that billows and expands gorgeously. A Left Turn is another sonic gem from one of Australia’s psychedelic finest.

Chris Familton

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Refused – War Music

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Refused
War Music
Spinefarm/Search and Destroy
★★★½

With the band’s split in 1998, it took 14 years for them to spread their various music wings (including the excellent International Noise Conspiracy) and re-set their personal lives before reconvening for live shows and then delivering the strong comeback album Freedom in 2015. It showed they were still vital and able to conjure up fire-in-the-belly forward thinking heavy music. 

War Music solidifies the band’s return to active duty but it’s a more refined and compact take on the modern rock album. Trimmed of any excess, it rips and roars across ten songs in 35 minutes. There’s little diversion into synth interludes or overly prog workouts. Instead it keeps things locked tightly around the precise and knotty guitar riffs and that rhythm section that still kicks and drives with metronomic muscle.

Not everything works though. Malfire swaps intensity for more melodic commercial rock shapes and it just sounds overplayed. Likewise the punk-pop melody of the chorus in I Wanna Watch The World Burn. The second half of the album is where they really find their feet, Turn The Cross tumbles violently with tangled breakneck playing from all band members. It sounds truly thrilling, a band on knife edge, right on the lip of the wave. They follow that with Damaged II, a song that would fit on any Rage Against The Machine album. When they re-enter the maelstrom after coming to a halt momentarily it’s like the swing of a sledgehammer. The Infamous Left is an exercise in old school thrash metal before the band closes the album out with the stomp and swagger of Economy Of Death.

The themes of War Music are still the same with Dennis Lyxzén howling and screaming about protest, struggle, revolution and inequality. With Refused it’s the sound though. That hurricane of distortion. militant rhythms and the combination of primal physicality and intelligent application in the band’s intoxicating noise.

Chris Familton

 

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Chastity Belt – Chastity Belt

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Music is about mood and the way it sonically hits the ears, heart and mind just as much as it’s about the stories and ideas conveyed by the lyrics. The appeal of Chastity Belt’s new self-titled album lies in both elements but it’s the overall sound and the warm dreaminess that billows out of the speakers that provides the strongest appeal and connection point.

All four band members share lead vocal duties and they’ve spoken of adding more dynamic harmonies and violin on this record. Those changes are key to the overlapping, drifting and lightly psychedelic sound across the ten songs. Structural experimentation, such as the drums taking a minute and a half to enter the fray on Elena, take the song structures away from standard rock shapes and closer to post-rock or a dream-pop version of Sonic Youth, bereft of their sharper edges. In a way the album sounds like lo-fi jangly guitar songs recorded in high fidelity, given the rich and lush treatment given to the recordings. The result is immersive and, once the listener lets go, quite immersive.

Many of the songs unfurl slowly, gently revealing their melodies on repeat listens as they seep in. A distant descending guitar riff on Rav-4, the counter playing on Half-Hearted that works like a beautifully disembodied version of Verlaine and Lloyd duelling in Television. Split is another gem, bathed in reverb and a tumbling verse that breaks through the clouds into a skyward chorus, it again shows the band quietly pulling at the threads of guitar pop – like The Smiths and some of the bands that emerged from the underground scene in ‘80s New Zealand.

The album never reaches the peak and immediacy of the single Different Now from 2017 but taken as a whole and listened to accordingly, there’s a beauty in the textural nuance and overall gentle hypnosis of the album.

Chris Familton

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)

Lambchop

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