July has come and gone, the summer is well under way, but depending on when and where you are reading this article you might be either enjoying a return to something resembling normality or going into severe lockdown for the very first time. Whatever the case, we hope that you are staying safe and that this column will guide you towards some great new music to help keep you sane as you (hopefully) enjoy the sunshine.
Taylor once rolled her eyes at an ex-lover who’d make a point of listening to an “indie record that was much cooler than mine”, but lo and behold, out of the blue or perhaps, given Bon Iver’s involvement, out of the woods comes Folklore – Swift’s chart topping moment of indie introspection. The sudden shift in palette and tone is both shrewd and disappointing in the same breadth. Swift’s winding, knife-twisting songwriting is allowed to shine and luxuriate in these wide-open and subdued spaces. There are few distractions and no gimmicks to draw the ear away from Swift’s words. Her tales are rich and only occasionally trite as she walks through the wreckage of failed relationships and old friendships with a straight-faced poignancy not seen in her songcraft since “All Too Well”. Folklore’s verses are imbued with the wisdom of an artist no longer in a rush to get to the point. Themes can develop glacially as Swift is afforded more room to articulate herself through metaphor, be it an underappreciated-but-comforting cardigan or the glittering mirrorball she transforms herself into to better reflect her lover’s desires.
Sadly, for every revelatory moment or songwriting breakthrough, there is ample baggage brought on by Swift’s conversion to soft-indie folk. In an attempt to capture the aesthetic (and to perhaps unintentionally satirize the genre’s failings), Taylor has forgone the incisive and addictive choruses that made her the world’s biggest pop star not named Adele. Instead, she has embraced meandering hooks that project a vague sense of sophistication. Unfortunately, these choruses are tasteful in the exact same way in which white walls exude good taste. They are universal acceptable, unlikely to provoke raised eyebrows or uncertain looks, but they express nothing whatsoever and represent an abdication of the creative impetus. More often than not, Folklore would hit harder if Swift abandoned these placid hooks all together and just let her spidery narratives spread out in enticing and wayward directions. Swift hasn’t remotely lost her touch (“August”, for example, is latticework of layered pseudo-hooks and “Betty” is better still), instead by trying to embrace a new genre she’s instead mimicked the tedium that often grips thoughtful, but uninspired second album offerings. Equally, there are moments where Swift reflects Lana Del Rey, either tonalyl (“Seven”) or in terms of narrative (“The Last Great American Dynasty”), unfortunately Swift never adopts the sordid nastiness of Ultraviolence and instead handles her subject matter with the kid gloves of a gossipy insider.
The at times bloated Folklore isn’t without it’s flaws, but it nevertheless represents a high water mark for Swift the storytelle by blending the pace and acerbic punch of her pop with the rolling narratives of her country roots and newfound spacious and earthy yearning for a halcyon yore. The x-factor is a more existential, introspective and expansive sense of distance that the indie-folk format affords her. Taylor is no longer caught in the onrush of celebrity; she has discovered perspective and disdance. The sharp elbowed reportage of old is replaced by the voice of wiser woman talking the long view. The threads of youthful naivety and rustic charm sit side by side with the calloused skin and all-seeing-eye of a Hollywood survivor. In this light, Folklore is both the most compelling (lyrically) and occasionally dreary (compositionally) record in Swift’s oeuvre. [7.5]
60 years into his career, Bob Dylan has somehow stumbled upon best and most accomplished backing band to have ever supported him – and that is quite the compliment consider he once played with The Band. Rough and Rowdy Ways is deceiving, at times its threatens to meander and churn on a single motif for six minutes straight minutes, only to be enlivened by the heart breaking addition of accordion or the most deft and understated of collective swells. The playing is uniformly tender, slowly tugging at the heartstrings, employing the most imperceptible of momentum shifts; emotional complexity is layered without a hint of showiness. Instead, the backing tracks are evocative of the great American songbook and its accompanying imagery. Smoke filed bars and the lamp lit streets loom large as Dylan forcible drags with weathered and distorted vocal through a collection of staggeringly beautiful streams of consciousness.
Dylan gives away the game at the outset. “I Contain Multitudes” is a beautiful ode to the breadth and depth of the human condition. The perfect table setter for a record that makes it clear that Dylan is not only the product of 79 years of globetrotting experience, but a rich cultural inheritance. He inhabits his every national, cultural and religious myth. He is born of love and hate, Beatles and Stones, Russell and Liberace, Ginsberg and St. Paul. The amorphous physical mesh of permeable cells that we know as human existence is mirrored by a porous and shifting cultural self, and yet, for all we contain, for all we embody, it is never enough: “I can see the history of the whole human race, it’s all right there, it’s carved into your face/Should I break it all down? Should I fall on my knees? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel, can you tell me please?”
Not content with joining this grand cultural tapestry; Dylan remains mortal and corporeal in his concerns, still desperately yearning for companionship and spiritual reconciliation. There is a recognition of his physical decay and the long journey he’s undertaken, but as his most cherished friends die his yearning only grows stronger. The result is a majestic and knotty collection built on simple but effective rhyme schemes, that confronts three contradictory impulses: to embrace and inhabit his place in our grand cultural continuum, to face down a death that may be drawing near and, lastly, an urge to feel, fuck, love and lose himself like teenager. These themes interlink and clash seductively. The middle ground between open-minded acceptance and pleading desperation proves both profound and devastating.
It feels churlish to critique Dylan’s voice, especially at this point in his career, but there are moments on Rough And Rowdy Ways where it’s hard to avoid imagining these poetic couplets sung in younger and more tuneful tones. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a sumptuous and romantic reverie that is charged by the vulnerability and fragility of Dylan’s voice, but is also clear that Dylan is reaching for tones and keys he can no long produce in his old age. Like Leonard Cohen on his final releases, this vulnerability proves both heart-breaking and potent, but it’s hard to avoid imagining these songs sung in perfect voice. It’s fitting for an album defined by shape-shifting temporal confusion that much of Dylan’s poignancy and power comes from a lack or an absence of what once was.
Rough and Rowdy Ways comes full circle with “Murder Most Foul” and the death of JFK – a man who never had to grow old and see himself written into Western cultural canon (the past tense) as he still lives and breathes. The former President escaped the purgatory of a long and lustful twilight; he was extinguished in split second that Dylan artful reimagines in a longform surrealist fantasy. The image is of Kennedy lying with his brains splattered in the back of ambulance, speeding hopelessly to Parkland hospital and somehow listening to Wolfman Jack playing the sounds of the rock and roll revolution (past, present and future) on the car stereo. Kennedy slips not into misery, although there are plenty of irrepressibly bleak moments, but into a glorious reverie fuelled by a pop-culture about to enter a globe conquering golden era.
Dylan is afforded no such escape. He is a survivor, a stuck needle, a troubadour who won’t cease his travels, an old dog whose libido will not be laid to rest, a prophet of “that old time religion” of rock and roll, still howling from his “12 pulpit. [9.0]
The Haim sisters finally reached their destination. The loose sisterly sunshine pop of their debut, Days Are Gone, the more serious FM radio rock of Something to Tell You and the improvisational dynamism of their live show seamlessly blend together on Women In Music Pt. III. That’s not to suggest for one instance that their latest album represents a smoothing of edges, quite the opposite in fact. The sisters instead embrace a diverse range of blissed out influences from slow-stewing alternative unease and the soft lilt of reggae to feather fingered folk and the pitch-shifted, low-end funk of modern R&B. Bizarrely, despite the sonic adventurousness, Haim have arrived at a point where they feel utterly at home in their own skin. Women In Music Pt.III is the 70s-90s-2000s hybrid music they were always destined to create, even as they expand their compositional horizons beyond recognition.
This contradiction in terms is captured perfectly by Danielle Haim’s assured lead vocal performance. Her verses are full of unease and isolation as she explores the psychological distance inherent her relationship, before rounding into the most sumptuous and laidback hooks imaginable. Somehow finding a perfect middle ground between extremes, the sisters’ playing feels loose and improvisational, full of sly aside and sexy grooves, while adhering to strictures that govern all great pop music. Women In Music Pt. III feels complex and expansive, but only one of its thirteen tracks goes beyond the four-minute mark. This almost beggars belief when a song like “I Know Alone” feels gargantuan, a wonderfully nonchalant sad banger that seems to warp and mutate in slow motion: an internal epic that rattles through Haim’s collective subconscious in just 3.46. None of it makes any sense. Every inch of this record feels loose and ragged, like the sisters are dropping in and out of live jams, but there is never a wasted motion as every melody rises at the exact right moment, whether that’s the subaquatic rattle of “Up From A Dream”, the wounded stream-of-consciousness ranting of “I’ve Been Down” or the heavenly independent pop of “The Steps”.
Miraculously, in an age of eclecticism where bands often abdicate their responsibility to make generational records in favor of solitary experimentation, Haim have emerged as genuinely important outfit. These sisters have serious ambition and the pop nous to transform stylistic experiments and deft understatement into arena sized anthems. Fittingly, for an album of contradictions, Haim are writing laid back, sun weary and intimate songs that feel bigger, brazen and more addictive than anything their stadium rocking peers could hope to dream up. They are having their cake and eating it too. By embracing their most far fetched and fanciful impulses Haim have somehow delivered the most serene pop record of their career to date. [9.0]
The Chicks return not only with the Dixie stripped from their name, but, by and large, from their sound too. There is no reason to mourn the trio’s move from the rootsy aesthetics of the south to the clean, chart-ready pop of producer Jack Antonoff, because Gaslighter is not defined by its sonics. In truth, The Chicks are less a band than a support group for Natalie Maines as she summons the strength to rip her cheating ex-husband to shreds. Gaslighter feels like a solo album and it is hard to complain when the axe is wielded with such precision and such hard earned bitterness.
The revelations are jaw dropping. From the moment when Maines had to make small talk with her husband’s mistress before taking to the stage at the Holywood Bowl to the discover that her husband has been carrying on his affair on the yatch she paid for (via a pair of discarded leggings). Bitterness is endemic and deserved. “How do you sleep at night?” is the question that haunts the entire collection. Revelatory break-up pop is common in Taylor Swiftian age, but Gaslighter isn’t knife twisting for sport, this album captures the most brutal of gut punches. Illusions are shattered, children are stranded and money is fought over as Maines narrowly avoids being silenced (the legal twist and turns are well worth following).
There are moments where the music and hooks can’t rival the power of the sentiment, but more often The Chicks rise to the occasion capturing both the heart wrenching pain of watching society embrace the man who desecrated your family home to the solemn desire to be free of the bonds and baggage of marriage itself. It’s not always brutally heavy, The Chicks make sure to have a little fun with a healthy dose of throwaway escapism in the form of petty insults (“Hey will your dad pay your taxes, now that I’m done?”). However, despite its slick pop surface, Gaslighter is a testament to human nastiness: a record that hopes it antagonist burns in hell and actually means it. [7.5]
The boys in the better land are wasting no time. A Hero’s Death comes hot on the heels of Fontaines D.C.’s incendiary 2019 debut Dogrel. Of course, in normal circumstances this would represent a quick turn around for the prolific post-punk outfit, but truth be told 2019 feels a very long time ago in an age of global pandemics. A Hero’s Death doesn’t so much pick off where its predecessor left off, as slam on the breaks. The frenetic energy and mile-a-minute observations of Dogrel are replaced by a sense of existential drift fit for a world slowly emerging from lockdown.
The band’s poetry is less pointed and precise; they are stretching out their arms and longing for human connection, threads of goodness and halcyon memories of spring. It’s fair to say that the band have come down with a bad case of the mid-tempos, but singles that felt dangerous like self-help aphorism masquerading as profundity (“A Hero’s Death”) feel more potent on an album that feels weighed down and stuck. “All your sadness pissed away, now you don’t care what you say, and nor do I”, lost in the unreality of television and non-experience it’s understandable that Fontaines would be desperate for any little reminders of their lost individuality (“life ain’t always empty”).
If there is a sense of aimless drift that threatens to rob the band of their edge, Grain Chatten makes up for it with his glorious cadence, milking every drop of the seductive resonance out of his depressive Belfastian drawl, “I was there, when the rain changed direction and fled to play tricks with your hair. Overlooking there…like a cat on the back of chair”. For every trite observation (“I Was Not Born”) there are ten or more glorious allusions delivered with an alluring-yet-grounded despondency. A Hero’s Death feels forlorn, a performative act of defiance against an undefeatable sorrow that is slowly swallowing us whole. [8.0]
Alanis Morrisette starts her ninth studio album with a dazzling trip back in time to a very specific moment in the late 90s when Radiohead were supporting her on The Jagged Little Pill tour. The sound of OK Computer was being slowly unfurled just as Alanis reached the peak of her stardom, the two sounds, paranoid and confessional, would harmonize on “Thank You” and Alanis shows just how easily she can evoke that era on the brilliant “Smiling”. And then she moves on.
Such A Pretty Forks In The Road quickly dives into more modern structures and conventions. Morrisette isn’t interested in nostalgia, instead she’s happy to survey new styles of confessional balladry be it throwaway (“Reasons I Drink”), dramatic (“Losing The Plot”), understated (“Diagnosis”) or bombastic (“Reckoning”). Strangely, whether Alanis draws deeply on the daily aches of motherhood or the lingering psychological wounds of old, there is an odd air of Eurovision balladry that permeates her latest release. This isn’t a bad thing per se, more a mark of how broad a reach her wilfully eccentric balladry has had on the global music scene. Morrisette’s voice remains both wonderful and chilling even after all these years of familiarity. At times she struggles to give her tales of middle-aged estrangement a sense of edge. “Missing The Miracle” is a lovely little reflection on missing what matters most, but it never quite hits as hard as John Lennon’s quietly comfortable reflection on fatherhood, “Watching The Wheels”, for example.
Nevertheless, Morrisette deserves credit employing the breadth of her talents to document her experiences without running from either her age or her less than rock and roll lifestyle. The result is a song like “Nemesis”, a track few artists would dare to write: a globetrotting alt-pop superstar admitting that she is now terrified of the pace of change. The supposedly boring happily-ever-after (marriage, kids, normalcy) is in fact a whirlwind that drags Alanis along almost against her will. She might not be giving blowjobs at the cinema anymore, but Alanis remains unguarded in the extreme. [7.0]
Following up Eternity, In Your Arms was always going to be difficult, but Creeper have seemingly raised the stakes with wonderful and wilfully melodramatically titled Sex, Death & The Infinite Void. The message read loud and clear, the band will never shy away from either ambition or preposterousness, they are a rock band who up the ante.
Album opener “Be My End” suggests that little has changed in Creeper’s world, they want to be ridiculous and vital, the kind of band who speaks to a generation of teenagers while mercilessly undermining their own severity with sly asides, 50s pop allusions and a tonal flippancy that defies a lyric sheet that coos “I don’t want to die tonight at the hands of anyone else, but you”. Like a gloriously camp and chronically depressed offspring of Springsteen and Jarvis Cocker, Will Gloud practically whispers in his listener’s ear: what if we just lived the cliché? Of course, all their seething rock & roll heroism and emo earnestness is filtered through a moribund gloom of goth and the arch eye rolls of synth pop. The result is a world of deadly serious insincerity, where perfect women kiss in “the acid rain”. At times, the arch ridiculousness of it all can prove wearing, but Creeper lay their cards on the table at the outset with an illusion to “Common People” – Creeper might as well be dyed in the wool romantics and rotten street punks simultaneously, “because there’s nothing else to do”.
“The world seems to be ending constantly…I’d shed a tear if I could spare the time”. No lyric better captures the ethos of a band who inhabit the middle ground between hysterical laughter and uncontrollable tears, whose music deserves to be both dismissed for its posturing and wholeheartedly embraced for vitality and bravery (“I break into your house each week, to sit and watch you as you sleep”). Creeper want to be big, bold and utterly essential, but they never, not for one second, lose their sense of humor on Sex, Death & The Impossible Void: a flawed (the hooks could use a little work), droll, enlivening and seductive listen. [8.5]
Phoebe Bridgers’ stunning 2018 debut Stranger in the Alps set the songwriter apart as an artist capable of both lacerating intimacy and airy acoustic hooks. Punisher, as sophomore albums are wont to do, represents a darker turn of mind. The breezy but bleak momentum of her debut is replaced with a whimpering confessional ache punctated by the most fragile and strainingly beautiful vocals. The result is a slow drip of details and loose depression as Bridgers slips in and out of focus. At times her stream of conscious provides sharp narrative detail (“I hate living by the hospital, the sirens go all night. I used to joke that if they woke you up, somebody better be dying”) only to dissolve into groping directional longing (“I’ll be whatever you want”, “I want to believe”, “Guess I lied, I’m a liar, who lies, ‘cause I’m a liar”). The result is an album that crawls underneath the skin in slow motion. There is no immediacy and no momentum to speak of, Punisher will not propel Bridgers up festival line-ups, but it will speak profoundly to those who allow it to unfurl and reveal its gentle, miserable, yearning mysteries. After all, there are few artists who can sculpt a dreamy hinterland only to slide between serene and sly allusions (“Crocodile tears, run the tap ‘til it’s clear”) and unmistakable bitterness (“I’m too tired to have a pissing contest”). In the final straight Punisher begins to blossom, letting in some light and expanding Bridgers’ compositional palette in soft and subtle ways, hinting at greater depths yet to be revealed. [8.0]
Jessie Ware has been on quite the ride from post-dubstep vocalist to serene and sensual 21st Century soul siren via a podcasting career alongside her lovable mother. With each release Ware has become more assured and less concerned with the zeitgeist. She explores the intersections of soul, R&B and dance while residing in the heart of a ven diagram with 70s glitter on one side and 2000s detachment on the other. The question, naturally enough, is who is her music actually for? The answer is simple enough: herself. Ware is a chameleon who can blend seamlessly into seemingly any soundscape or scene without sacrificing a sliver of her sense of self. Ware is never playing it cool or exuding pretence; she is a woman in love with music who has an intuitive feel for genres that should be alien to her.
What’s Your Pleasure? is shot through with disco and funk, the resplendent sound of the sordid cocaine statured streets of the 70s, but underwritten by the strange sounds of Berlin era Bowie, Abba’s sugary harmonization and the DIY rattle of an LCD Soundsystem banger. It’s all ungodly sexy and sleek in a manner that defies the OTT and overt raunch of the modern pop industry. This is the music of woman who loves to strut, slide and fuck, but who also enjoys sitting around her dinner table and having a natter with her mum. Ware and her shrewdly assembled production team, most notably James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco fame, have sculpted a squelchy, rattling and ever evolving European disco landscape that would bring a smile to face of David Byrne and the LCD displays of Daft Punk, respectively.
What’s Your Pleasure? might have finally revealed Ware’s true destiny and place within the record industry. She might just be UK’s very own Robyn: an eccentric in a completely different and more introverted British fashion, but a woman so astute and attuned to dance and R&B music that she can create perfect pop songs that show no regard for what the mainstream deems to be cool. Jessie Ware has been dancing on her own for a very long time and now we have proof that she can dance, sing and vibe divinely in any setting she sees fit. From subdued glitch-laden grooves and unrequited yearning of “Adore You” to hushed whispers, stately strings and sensual caress of “In Your Eyes”, Ware is a woman in total control. [8.5]
Posthumous albums are often an unpleasant and exploitative business as labels and estates trip over themselves to cash in on the recently deceased’s talents. Thankfully, with two albums, three mixtapes and eight EPs to his name, it is safe to assume that Juice WRLD would be happy to send his work out into the world in an unfinished and experimental state.
In this light, Legends Never Die feels like a strangely appropriate send off for a rapper who proved both prolific and prophetic. With “Lucid Dreams” Juice WRLD perfectly captured the hybrid of post-trap rap, the emo influenced woe-is-me songwriting trend and the blurred lines of personality inherit in the Internet age. Since that release Juice has floundered between hit singles and both undeveloped and overstretched ideas. Legends Never Die is itself long, meandering and inconsistent, but shot through with an incredible melodic impulse and a gift for lacing buoyant highs with introspective lows. Juice WRLD is determined to have his “cake and eat it too”, but is always on the edge of being pulled away from the world and back into his anxiety.
In rap circles it has become modish to play mental illness and depression off as either a joke (“I got depression”) or, perversely, the latest bad boy/sad boy posture. Legends Never Die presents Juice WRLD in a far better light, as the songwriter who could convey this feeling of being lost at sea, slowly sinking beneath the surface as the cheques roll in, without even a whiff of exploitation. Juice WRLD’s sorrow doesn’t come across as an Instagram filter quickly applied and crassly discarded, he’s consistent as he laces hook atop hook, not in the chorus, but within each verse. Typically backed by the distinctly 90s acoustic guitar sound typically favoured by the boybands of yesteryear, he dives into his feelings, allowing the ripples to spread and collide with every aspect of his success. If there is a chink in his hitmaking armor, it’s the choruses themselves. Juice’s verses are so catchy and intoxicating, that his actual hooks feel signposted, obvious and lesser.
Sadly, this collection is inevitably too long, too stapled together and too reliant on guest stars to reach the finish line to truly be a classic stand-alone record. Despite this handicap, Legends Never Die is testament to a rapper who inhabited the pop-cultural zeitgeist more thoroughly than any of his superstar peers. Proof that Juice’s third album would have been absolutely gigantic had he survived that tragic drug induced seizure. [7.0]
After releasing two stunning country albums, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and All American Made, Margo Price turns her arch satirical eye to the world of rock and pop. This her self proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll record” and fittingly the title track offers a sumptuous caress that instantly recalls Stevie Nicks in her whispy FM radio pomp. Of course, you can take the girl out of Nashville, but you can’t take Nashville out of the girl. Even as Price indulges in some driving rock arrangements or navel gazing ennui she retains the conversational narrative tricks of the country canon.
The trouble with her move toward a countrified rock and roll is that her compositions feel less original in these surroundings. “Twinkle Twinkle” starts with an intriguing dissection of the American mythos, “Way back in the good old days things weren’t really all that good. We grew up with the TV on”, but rather than growing in lyrical complexity the track gives way to a pedestrian array of guitar driven crunch and fuzz. “Stone Me” is better, with the guitar no longer in the foreground dictating the pace, Price is free to show off her understanding of the sensitive balance and soft textures of 70s pop. The result is a powerful tale on a once loving relationship torn apart both by both familiarity and their innate economic conditions.
The decision to ditch country certainly leads Price in a more impressionistic direction that limits her sharp songwriter’s eye to brief flourishes and stand out lines while placing a greater burden on her Dolly-like vocal. On “Hey Child” and “I’d Die For You” she more than delivers mixing a whispery verses with a high pinched and strained chorus. The latter track proves to be a bulldozing hybrid of gritty detail (“Boards go up, signs come down…missing teeth, payments plans”) and strapping yourself to the mast of the ship and howling into the oncoming storm style grandstanding.
Is Price a natural rockstar? It is hard to say. She’s certainly less novel in her new surroundings. In the country landscape she was a fresh and incisive voice, in rock she’s a deft songwriter performing well observed reinterpretations of winding new-wave (“Heartless Mind”) and street-stalking power-balladry (“What Happened To Our Love?”). There’s no denying Price’s talent as a retro-rocker and its always good to broaden one’s horizons, but That’s How The Rumors Get Started is more of a profound evolution for Price herself than music at large. [7.5]
After documenting the day-by-day brutality of the mourning process without even a whiff of sentiment or romance as Mount Eerie, Phil Elvrum has revived his old moniker, The Microphones, to escape the mundane drip of grief. Microphones in 2020 is hardly an album at all. It is one long 44-minute composition; a hypnotic looping acoustic strum rings for seven straight minutes, lulling the listener into a compliant malaise as Elverum lays a series of photographs before his audience. This sense of stationary motion, being held in place by movement itself, is fitting for Elvrum’s slow reflections on living, or rather existing, and art making (“The true state of all things is a waterfall with no bottom crashing end and no edge to plummet off”).
In a slow gentle migration the track grows in intensity, but Elvrum himself hardly notices, he trudges through his narrative unmoved. He has travelled from his ultimate destination, mourning alone while caring for his children, back to the very beginning: sitting in the theatre, being inspired by cinematography of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to make art of his own. He names his band, sets up an email address, finds inspiration, captures the incredible buzz of creativity and then watches it fade as innovation becomes his norm. The waterfall soon becomes a river, a long thread that connects his past to his present, the search for being and expression, however forlorn or pitiful.
This tender and transfixing autobiographical journey into the heart of creation concludes with two profound statements that capture Elverum’s flair for both elegiac expression and pretence crushing bluntness: “Each moment is a new collapsing building, nothing is true, but this trembling, laughing in the wind” followed by “Anyway, every song I’ve ever sung is about thee same thing: standing on the ground and looking around, basically”. [8.5]
Holiday Destination was a spellbinding and gruelling debut, a masterful release that set Nadine Shah apart as one of the UK’s most essential and incisive voices to flourish in PJ Harvey’s wake. Shah is her own women, the product of both her Norwegian and Pakistani background and, of course, her Tyneside roots. Her songwriting is worldly, reaching outwards towards Syria and inwards in search an darker and more personal disquiet.
As the title suggests, Kitchen Sink doubles down on the latter, exploring the bleak corners and shiver-inducing shadows of domesticity. Shah’s gift remains her innate ability to summon the greyed-out rumble of post-punk and blend it with the billowing expanse of jazz-fusion to create mini epics that flow out from humble begins towards stately and haunting climaxes (or diminuendos). The title track captures this aesthetic perfectly, the repressive opinions and pernicious gossip of a supposedly neighbourly community is recast as a contorted and seductive waltz. Shah’s tongue is both barbed and nonchalant, dipping between Geordie reproach and an imperious above-the-fray distance (“Don’t you worry what the neighbours think…forget about the curtain twitchers, gossiping boring bunch of bitches… I just let them pass me by”).
Like a disquieting hum, Kitchen Sink slips into your subconscious in delicious and wicked slow motion. Whether employing the grandest swells or the most Spartan and barren arrangements, Shah always ensures that her music exudes a seductive crookedness. At times Shah is happy to withdraw, letting her icy arrangements glide towards a beautiful and understated oblivion. It’s quite a gift to be able to reconcile such serious and dignified compositions with such a wilfully vicious and unglamorous tongue. She routinely wrings every last ounce of disdain out of accent: “I filled up my cup with Ukrainian wine, and I threw up my guts, but it’s a sign of a good time while spending our parents money. Pretty please daddy, pretty please mummy”.
Shah has the darkness and depth of her predecessors, but she also has the capacity to make hips move and her audience devilishly laugh – and for all their great talents, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey rarely managed that. [9.0]
100 Gecs – 1000 Gecs and The Tree Of Clues (Pop/Rock/PC Music): “Money Machine” was not a red herring, 100 Gecs were more than capable of following up on their breakthrough hit with their debut album that practically vomits internet culture out in torrents of genre-bending, taste-obliterating and ungodly danceable, ear-splitting “music”. Remarkably, as determined as 100 Gecs are to distort, decontextualize and destroy our sonic norms, they have an incredible gift for harnessing and showcasing their guest stars key assets, be it Charli XCX’s down to earthy vivacity, Tommy Cash’s Estonian accented rapping or Dorian Electra’s contorted ennui. 100 Gecs are determined to fuck up the beat and distort anything resembling sincerity, but despite these agit-punk impulses they’ve created an album with surprising depths of both heart and strangeness. [7.5]
Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics (Art-Pop/Post-Punk): Vancouver collective Crack Cloud have had to deny being a cult on a number of occasions, to the point where it’s impossible to view their pseudo-tribal, perverted gospel, post-punk rancor as anything but the work of an equal parts insidious and seductive outstretched arm inviting the listener in. Free form and unfiltered creative collaborations tend toward the messy and the indulgent, but Pain Olympics manages to conjure a sense of skittish ennui and telepathic, lock-step unity that both enlivens and unsettles. Like all art-punk endeavours there are moments where Crack Cloud’s music feels trite and overly droll, but it’s hard to complain when the tracks swing and linger so deliciously. [7.5]
Neil Young – Homegrown (Folk/Rock): In 1975, after playing Homegrown and its sister record Tonight’s The Night to a close-knit group of friends, Young decided to shelve the former and release the latter. The years passed by and Homegrown remained hidden, but not untouched. These songs have been repurposed before, but now they appear as intended, in sequence, in all their stoned and sultry glory. Perhaps its best Young kept these homestead fables to himself back in ’75 – Homegrown would have been a bizarrely wholesome follow up to the growling On The Beach – but in 2020 they are a delightful reminder of the Young’s unimpeachable pomp. As rambling as it is deft, as homely and quaint as it is candid and vulnerable, Homegrown was wisely left on the shelf in 1975 and it is just as wisely re-debuted in 2020. [8.0]
Liane La Havas – Liane La Havas (Soul): It was only five years ago that Liane La Havas was one of the hottest names in revivalist world of neo soul, but that feels like an eternity ago. As far as the music industry and the world are concerned the very art of blackness has fundamentally altered as soft radio ready edges are made jagged and lyric sheets turn incisive. Liane hasn’t so much reacted to this post-To Pimp A Butterfly world as flourished in its after glow. Her simultaneously smooth and wrenching soul (as inspired by Joni Mitchell as Al Green or Eryakah Badu) feels far more modern in 2020 than it did 2015. More importantly, La Havas has decided to dedicate an entire self-titled album to detailing a single relationship in incredible detail, flittering from wounded vulnerability (“Paper Thin”) to blinding heights of carnal bliss (“Green Papaya”) through to pairing’s eventual demise (“Bittersweet”). She also throws a Radiohead cover in for good measure on what is the best release of her career to date.[8.0]
Jarv Is – Beyond The Pale (Indie): Jarv Is… are Jarvis Cocker’s surreal new six piece band who were only supposed to perform live – stop me if you can see the flaw in this plan. Eventually, Jarvis agreed to overdubbed his live tapes to create his band’s debut album, Beyond The Pale. The pervading influence is clearly Leonard Cohen in his seedy and lustful I’m Your Man era, except Jarvis is turning his crusty and loathsome whispers to the state of the world and modern morality. The buzz and hum of post-punk sets a suitable scene, but there’s no hiding the fact that in 2020 Jarvis just doesn’t have the pen game to carry this sort of improvisational project to the highest of heights. The fleeting moments of transcendence are worth the price of admission, however. [6.0]
Logic – No Pressure (Rap): Praise the lord, Logic is back to rapping and we can all do our best to banish Supermarket to the very back off our minds. Logic’s flaws are still ever-present, but it’s undeniably good to have him back on song. On “Hit My Line” he rattles through an array of paint-by-numbers hip hop subject matter (crime, self-doubt, the ills of fame, etc…) as if working through a checklist before arriving at an uplifting chorus. It’s fine, but it feels hallow. The music swells in all the right places and Logic is never off rhythm as he reps his underdog story (which soon become overbearing), but his punchlines are almost too cute and overwritten – like a latter-day Eminem, except unlike Em, Logic has the good taste not to explain his jokes. No Pressure is unmistakable reassertion of dominance and competence for a rapper who briefly became a laughing stock, but it’s little more than that. However, few would deny the pleasure of hearing Logic ride a rhythm, even if only for sport. [6.5]
Unfortunately there are a whole raft of albums that I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to more than once, including the new releases from The Ghost Inside, Chloe x Halle, OHMME, Jessy Lanza, The Pretenders, Ellie Goulding and Lamb Of God among others.
So make sure to tell us which albums have been impressing you this summer.