In twenty or thirty years time when the music of 2010 to 2020 is being rehashed, what will bands play? I ask this out of the deepest concern, as the resurgence in use of ’80s synths and ’90s shoegaze and fuzz-rock has become so common lately that it’s contributing to the lack of a distinguishable ‘sound’ of this decade making itself apparent. Are we doomed to repeat the same trends ad infinitum? London quartet Cheatahs aren’t going to help answer that question, as theirs is a sound so steeped in the guitar rock of 1990-94 to make it impossible to be described in any other frame of reference. In saying that, if a guitar band is going to pick a four or five-year period to lift its entire sound from, perhaps only 1966-70 or 1975-79 could be better. Their debut album is a solid mix of shoegaze, college-rock and fuzz in the mould of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Ride, and while you’ll have heard it all before, its familiarity feels like a gloriously cosy blanket being pulled over your anxieties and easing them gently off to sleep. The opening trio of ‘I’, ‘Geographic’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ get among the jangly fuzz without hesitation, but it’s when ‘The Swan’ lets a bit of Dinosaur Jr-esque riffs into the mix that the peak is reached. Overall, the entire album is an unmistakeable tip of the hat to a short period in time that changed guitar music for the better, but still somehow sounds fresh. The ’90s are dead; long live the ’90s. (Wichita)
Record review: Drowners – Drowners (2014, LP)
Named after Suede’s 1992 debut single, Drowners is a New York quartet fronted by a 25 year-old male model with all the pop pretentiousness of Morrissey circa 1985 and the unashamed retro-leanings of The Strokes on their 2001 debut; but don’t let that put you off. Being so obviously indebted to certain bands (including Camden likely lads The Libertines, and thus – to a lesser extent – The Clash) could either be a blessing or a curse (it worked for Casablancas & Co. after all), but Drowners have just enough chops to pull it off on this self-titled debut. Frontman Matthew Hitt moved stateside from his home in Wales while on the hunt for modelling work, but ended up forming a garage-rock quartet, releasing a little-known EP and supporting the likes of Foals and The Vaccines on their North American tours – as you do. Despite being three-quarters American, the band’s sound sits much more comfortably in that sweet spot directly between ramshackle and tight that so many groups of underfed and over-posh groups of London lads have done in the past couple of years. Spurts of Smiths-esque self-loathing, longing and alienation come from the likes of ‘Watch You Change’ and ‘A Button On Your Blouse’, while opener ‘Ways To Phrase A Rejection’ and single ‘Luv, Hold Me Down’ get amongst the angular guitar lines with alternating Johnny Marr-like control and Pete Doherty urgency. While sounding like a microcosm of garage-rock isn’t going to be enough for Drowners to build a career on, this is a pretty good starting point. (Frenchkiss)
Record review: The Jezabels – The Brink (2014, LP)
Sydney quartet The Jezabels have become such an integral part of the Australian indie-rock landscape that it’s easy to forget that their debut album is just a little over two years old. While much of their time has been spent overseas since that well-received debut, The Jezabels are back with a bang and treating their Australian fans to an album release over two weeks before the rest of the world, and that can only be good news for us.
Intense, brooding and full of their trademark grandeur, The Brink picks up where Prisoner left off, albeit with slightly darker undertones and a few new sounds. Soaring anthems are what The Jezabels do best, and ‘Look of Love’, ‘The End’, ‘No Country’ and the title track are the best examples, while ‘Angles of Fire’ adds a touch of Kraftwerk-esque synths and ‘Psychotherapy’ is the token slow-burner.
Hayley Mary’s voice is the unquestionable highlight and places her near the top of the pile of Australian female vocalists plying their trade right now, and when everything else seemingly falls into place so easily, it makes for another strong showing from one of the country’s best exports.
Record review: Dum Dum Girls – Too True (2014, LP)
What began in 2008 as a bedroom musical project for Dum Dum Girls singer-songwriter Dee Dee Penny must surely now be regarded as a pretty big deal. This third album from the Los Angeles native’s group comes bursting at the seams with an exhaustive list of influences that sees the band’s sound further moving away from that found on 2010’s I Will Be and 2011’s Only In Dreams. Opener ‘Cult of Love’ comes out of the traps at pace, like some sort of nightclub-noire rockabilly Blondie, and is closely followed in a similar vein by ‘Evil Blooms’; a swirly, fuzzy, The Cure-esque number, and ‘Rimbaud Eyes’, which plunders the sound of Michael Stipe and R.E.M. at their darkest. Elsewhere ‘In The Wake Of You’ gets punchy and lo-fi, ‘Lost Boys and Girls Club’ reeks of The Jesus and Mary Chain, and closer ‘Trouble Is My Name’ comes off like a gloomy yet laid-back Siouxsie Sioux. While some of the Dum Dum Girls’ earlier work could be called scuzzy, the production here is spot on; big where it needs to be, and restrained when it should be. In saying that, there’s a definite ’80s feel running throughout the album, and while to some that might sound like an insult, in this case it’s a compliment. Penny takes influences from only the best of that much-maligned musical decade – from New Wave, college rock, and most of the better indie-pop, and combines them with her trademark pop hooks to make a record that’s as catchy as it is charming. (Sub Pop)
Record review: Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes (2014, LP)
While the arrival of a new year brings new hopes and changes to many, some facts of life remain satisfyingly steadfast; and one of those is that The Boss never disappoints. Forty-five years and eighteen studio albums into a monumental career, the sixty-four year old New Jersey native shows no sign of slowing down; the fact that the majority of this album was recorded on the road, before being completed with covers, out-takes and reworked versions of songs that didn’t make the cut on previous releases is testament to that. The plundering of unpolished gems begins with the title track, a song originally recorded by The Havalinas in 1990 before appearing on the 1996 Blood Brothers EP. Aussie fans will notice a faithful cover of The Saints’ 1986 classic ‘Just Like Fire Would’, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound like it came straight from the mind and fingers of the man himself, but it’s originals like ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ and ‘Hunter of Invisible Game’ that really pick you up by the lapels, and set you down again with a soulful bump. The E-Street band is in fine form throughout, and given that the material is taken from a time period as long as ten years, recently-deceased members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici both feature, as well as Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello on the excellent ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’. While the coherence of previous Springsteen records is somewhat lacking and there’s a definite thrown-together feel to the record, the song-writing and execution are as masterful as ever, making this another fine addition to an already legendary catalogue. (Columbia)
Record review: Leona Lewis – Christmas, With Love (2013, LP)
Wow, Noddy Holder must really be quaking in his boots. The Slade frontman has more and more competition every year for the title of most-played Christmas song, with close to a dozen major artists taking a stab at the dying art this year. Leona Lewis isn’t going to trouble the ’70s legend with this substance-light ten-song collection of festive standards though, and you have to wonder why one of the most successful former X-Factor winners is lowering herself to make such a crappy record. Then you realise which record company she’s signed to, and the unmistakable whiff of Simon Cowell becomes as clear as day (Lewis is signed to the mogul’s Syco label); it’s easy to imagine him looking at the Christmas charts with glowing dollar signs in his eyes. Lewis has a strong and soulful voice, but listening to the cheesy schmaltz on this album made me want to tear down the tree, set fire to the tinsel, drop-kick the turkey off the balcony and cancel Christmas forever. Opener ‘One More Sleep’ is a dire start and probably the low point of the album, while ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘White Christmas’ are almost as painful but at least allow Lewis to flaunt her impressive vocal range. ‘O Holy Night’ makes a slight improvement, but then the horror of ‘Ave Maria’ drags the record back into the gutter. Perhaps Christmas albums shouldn’t be taken seriously, but this one is just another piece of evidence in the case against television talent shows. (Syco/RCA)
Record review: The Rusty Datsuns – Riverbank (2013 LP)
This long-awaited debut album from The Rusty Datsuns has roots in the 2011 floods, when the Brisbane trio played tunes to keep their spirits up as the rising water lapped at the door of their Queenslander. Deeply rooted in traditional bluegrass and folk, but with a delicately jaunty modern vibe, Riverbank is a homely and engaging collection of songs put together by members of local acts Bessy-Lou, These Dirty Bones and Chocolate Strings. The circumstances of the band’s formation is telling in tracks like galloping instrumental ‘Let It Rain’ and the excellent title track, and the vocal harmonies on ‘Pastis’ and
playful piano tinkling on ‘Porcelain’ are more than impressive, while closer ‘Billy Bob’ injects a dose of stomp into proceedings. The overall positive approach to song-writing gives the album a warm and welcoming feel, making this the type of stuff best enjoyed with a dark oak ale in your hand and a piece of straw hanging from your grinning mouth.
Record review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged: Deluxe Edition (2013 Reissue)
Man, it took a long time for Eric Clapton to become cool again. Since the mid-sixties when the words “Clapton is God” were daubed on London walls in reference to the then Bluesbreakers’ member’s skills, the man born Eric Patrick Clapton in 1945 has been considered a master of the guitar and one of the most important axe-slingers to have stepped onto a stage. However, there was a patch after around 1970 when Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs came out that the quality of his output went decidedly downhill. After the epic brilliance of his work with Cream and Derek and the Dominos, he began the seventies crushed by the death of Jimi Hendrix, before going on to have a string of affairs, make some unsavoury and racist remarks onstage while drunk, take a poorly misguided stab at reggae, and be labelled a dinosaur by a punk movement hell-bent on destroying the old guard.
After several more patchy albums throughout the eighties and the death of his four year-old son in 1991, he managed to reinvent himself with this classic entry into the MTV Unplugged series, which is perhaps bettered only by Nirvana’s effort, and he did it without really seeming to try that hard; maybe that’s what makes it so good.
Reinvention is most definitely the word to describe what is happening on this re-released, expanded edition of the original 1992 recording, as the finely executed ‘Lonely Stranger’ benefits from a softer approach, and the classic ‘Layla’ is heavily reworked, with Clapton challenging the English audience to “try to spot this one” before a heavy roar erupts as the lyrics kick in.
Elsewhere, Clapton takes his eight-piece band through a series of old blues and rock ‘n’ roll numbers including Jimmy Cox’s Depression-era classic ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, the brilliant Ellas Otha Bates’s (a.k.a. Bo Diddley’s) ‘Before You Accuse Me’, and Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Hey Hey’. But perhaps most special is Clapton’s tribute to his deceased son, ‘Tears In Heaven’; if there’s any song that will give you a lump in your throat, it’s this one. The fact that it was written and performed when the emotional wounds of his son’s death were still so prominent make it all the more heart-wrenching. With his mojo well and truly returned, Clapton’s output would take a sharp upwards turn from here on.
Extras here include six previously unreleased tracks (remastered), and an optional album and concert DVD option, which is worth getting just to see how smoothly the old master pulls it off. It’s been more than twenty years since this album heralded somewhat of a return for Clapton, and this re-release is a timely reminder of its – and his – brilliance.
UNPLUGGED: DELUXE EDITION BY ERIC CLAPTON IS OUT NOW.
Record review: Billie Joe + Norah – Foreverly (2013 LP)
Wow. I mean holy crap. I mean huh? Take a quick look at the basic ingredients of this album and something doesn’t seem to add up from the off. A somewhat off-colour-of-late pop-punk legend teams up with a jazz-pop Grammy-magnet to record an album of lesser-known Everly Brothers tunes; surely this has got to be a total stinker? Not even close; this unlikeliest of albums works a treat and the most amazing thing here is that it’s Green Day frontman Armstrong’s vocal performance that makes it work. The execution of the rootsy ballads and country numbers from 1958’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us isn’t as major a departure for Norah Jones as it is for the perennial punk brat, and it’s hard to connect the smooth and intimate vocals Armstrong displays here with the same voice that sang songs about going blind from too much masturbation on 1994’s ‘Longview’. “I am a roving gambler, I’ve gambled all around, whenever I meet with a deck of cards, I lay my money down,” they sing in perfect unison on opener ‘Roving Gambler’, and I’ll be damned if they don’t make it sound entirely believable, and not unlike a latter day Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris number. While Armstrong is a revelation throughout, Jones is an understated triumph, and apparently masterminded the intimate feel by making Armstrong sing facing her so they could synchronise their vocals perfectly. While it’s more likely to appeal to Norah Jones fans than the average punk bonehead, there’s something more than decent going on here that’s well worth checking out. (Reprise)
Record review: Made In Japan – Tame All Those Thoughts (2013 LP)
There are some genres that can go either way, and dream-pop is one of them. Often lumped together with similar sub-genres shoegaze, dark wave, post-rock and a whole lot of other words that don’t mean much, dream-pop is an oft-maligned genre. As purveyors of said genre, Made In Japan’s second album walks a fine line between making me want to write vaguely musical terms like “soaring instrumentation” or “haunting melodies”, and dig out some old punk albums as an antidote to the mind-numbing tedium of having to listen to it. If your idea of an entertaining piece of music is something that sounds like it should be played in a supermarket (and not a good one), then you’ll love repetitive opener ‘Community’. There’s a touch of Local Natives throughout, but at every point throughout listening to this album, you will be ready and willing to receive a dose of something heavy, something meaningful, something emotive, something anything, and at no point will it deliver. While it’s all perfectly executed, it’s all way too contrived for comfort. The nine-minute ‘Follow The Fool’ tries to breathe some much needed life into proceedings half way through and succeeds to a certain extent, but there’s an urgent need to involve some crunching guitar effects at some point, à la My Bloody Valentine; anything to pack a bit of punch. Back to the drawing board lads, and dream up something a bit better. (Independent)
Record review: Robbie Williams – Swings Both Ways (2013 LP)
Eyebrows were raised in 2006 when Robbie Williams split from his long-term song-writing partner Guy Chambers and uncharacteristically started rapping on his polarising Rudebox album. Since then his career has been somewhat unsteady, with a Take That reunion and a Greatest Hits release showing no real musical progression by a man who has sold over 70 million albums world-wide and still packs out stadiums across the globe. Swings Both Ways could be seen as another sideways step, given it’s a return to a genre he first visited with 2001’s Swing When You’re Winning, but Williams seems so naturally suited to this sort of stuff that it should only be seen as another ace move by the 39 year-old. The quality of writing is undoubtedly improved by the return of Chambers, and big name contributors like Lily Allen, Michael Bublé, Kelly Clarkson and tour buddy Olly Murs make this a smooth and varied collection originals and covers. Renditions of Cab Calloway’s ‘Minnie The Moocher’ and 1930s classic ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’ sit well next to the Williams/Chambers-penned ‘Shine My Shoes’ and ‘Snowblind’, and a Rufus Wainwright collaboration on the cheekily-suggestive title track. The inclusion of crooning muppet Bublé certainly wasn’t a good move, but will no doubt help the album find an audience in the North American market. He has built almost his entire career on his endlessly boyish charm and ability to endure, and Williams will no doubt nail the Christmas market with this release. (Universal)
Record review: Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident (2013, LP)
If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention, or so the saying goes, and by that standard, Future of the Left frontman Andy Falkous could never be accused of lacking focus. Album four from the Cardiff alt-rock quartet sees the former Mclusky man angrier than ever, and – given it’s a fan-funded, self-released effort – free to heap vitriol on all manner of subjects and people. Amid sludgy, demented bass-lines and angular guitar riffs he takes aim at record companies, consumerism, television, and property prices, before saving a special mention for a certain Razorlight singer on ‘Johnny Borrell Afterlife’. While it’s pretty much business as usual in terms of lyrical content, there’s experimentation in the form of country-rock closer ‘Why Aren’t I Going To Hell?’ and more than a hint of new-wave pop on ‘The Real Meaning of Christmas’, while ‘The Male Gaze’ could even be called catchy. Listening to song after song of an angry man ranting can wear thin, but How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident is the perfect antidote to manufactured pop.
Record review: Old Man Luedecke – Tender Is The Night (2013, LP)
This fifth album from Chris ‘Old Man’ Luedecke is rooted firmly in the traditional folk and country genres the Juno Award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter and banjo player has made his trademark. Recorded in four days in Nashville, Tender Is The Night sees Luedecke packing literary references ranging from Herman Melville to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the New Testament into thirteen songs, while switching moods between jauntily upbeat (as on ‘Tortoise and the Hare’) and the melancholia of the title track. Grammy-winner Tim O’Brien not only produces but adds tasteful mandolin and violin touches throughout, allowing Luedecke to explore new musical and lyrical territory. “I’m angry and bathed in fire,” he sings on ‘Long Suffering Jesus’, but when harsh words are accompanied with such playful banjo lines it’s hard to react to these songs with anything but a tapping foot and a smile. Forget Mumford; this is banjo music the way it should be.
Record review: Jeremy Neale – In Stranger Times (2013, EP)
Brisbane indie-pop troubadour Jeremy Neale must be one of the hardest-working musicians plying his trade today. Not satisfied with being a member of rabble rousers Velociraptor, surf-rock piss-takers Teen Sensations and space-noise act Tiger Beams, as well as being support act of choice for the likes of The Preatures and Surfer Blood, he’s now releasing a long-awaited debut EP under his own name. It’s reasonable to think that having fingers in so many pies might mean In Stranger Times would be a patchy affair, but in reality, it contains some of the Queensland Music Award winner’s best musical output to date. Giving generous nods to sixties lo-fi garage-pop and classic girl groups of the same era, it’s a fun and catchy breath of musical fresh air from start to finish. Neale’s innate ability to write three-minute pop gems and his soulful garage croon are his strong points, most notably on latest single ‘Swing Left’, which manages to mix clap-along pop with ominous piano-led despondency. The title track is another highlight, as Neale joins forces with Brisbane’s favourite all-girl guitar band Go Violets to run through a perfectly-rounded pop song with instantly catchy guitar intro and boy-girl harmonies to die for. ‘A Love Affair To Keep You There’ is a darker effort; the inevitable break-up song that’s in contrast to the previous lyrical content. It will be interesting to see if Neale continues with his solo ventures in the near future, or whether he’ll be happy to remain as frontman and song-writer for Velociraptor or one of his other acts, but on this evidence the path to take should be pretty clear. (Create/Control)
Record review: Stonefield – Stonefield (2013, LP)
Haim might be the most well-known group of sisters to storm the charts in recent times, but the hard-rocking Findlay sisters of Stonefield have been impressing on the live circuit since 2010, quietly (or blisteringly loudly, if you’ve been to one of their shows) building a following, and baby-of-the-family and bassist Holly is still only 15. For their debut album the quartet from rural Victoria have dipped a sponge into their parents’ album collection, soaked up the best vibes from early ’70s classic rock (think Led Zeppelin and The Who) and turned them into a classy set of rock tunes for a new generation. Drummer/vocalist and oldest sister Amy is the most powerful weapon in the band’s arsenal; her voice could probably knock out a bull at ten paces, as on grandiose lead single ‘Put Your Curse On Me’. Combined with Sarah’s swirling keyboard lines and the crushing riffs from Hannah’s Les Paul, it makes for a powerful album that will give you confidence that the future of Australian rock is in safe hands.