Bradford Cox, the frontman of Atlantan band Deerhunter, is a wilful contrarian and each album needs to be addressed afresh. His output is certainly interesting and can be inspired. “Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?” is another mishmash of so many different styles, there’s never a sense of cohesion. Opener “Death in Midsummer” is an incredibly catchy but odd mix of chinky guitar, harpsichord and Cox’s increasingly impassioned paean to blue collar workers. “No One’s Sleeping” intersperses Cox singing in a British accent about “the great beyond” and rambunctious guitars; it’s lovely. A couple of other tracks, with varying sounds, are fine, but then we get the daffy instrumentals, the vocoder vocals, and the instrumentals, none with heft or logic. A mixed bag, this one, but worth a look-see.
What an unusual artist, Jake Webb, the Methyl Ethel chieftain, channelling Human League and Abba while singing in a falsetto that seems not to echo any other singer. The Perth band is labelled as “psych” but I think that downplays their nervous, lush, loping sound. Not my kind of music, normally (though I adored Human League way back when), but somehow “Triage” has insinuated itself into my weasel brain. Opener “Ruiner” is piano/synth heaven, “All the Elements” subverts its low-key intro into ear candy that sticks around, and the quick piano over synth groove of “Hip Horror” somehow work wonderfully. The lyrics seem to brush across topics of love and introspection, but they’re not central to the eccentric appeal of this surprise package. Recommended as both summer road trip backdrop and study wallpaper.
The second, much awaited release by Toronto grunge rockers Dilly Dally, “Heaven” is uncommercial but full of loveliness. Kate Monks, the core of the group, has one of those voices you’ll not forget, stretching and cooing, shredding the larynx, and soaring with a stratospheric rasp. At the group’s best, on the opener “I Feel Free,” the combination of small-girl, wispy voice and ballistic chorus, accompanied by atmospheric guitar and solid rhythms, is memorable. “Sober Motel,” sweet then screeching, some kind of paean to longing and sobriety, concludes with a voice/guitar finale. “Marijuana,” an ode to the substance, seesaws from plaintive wonder to raucous insistence. Although the unremitting holler dullens the experience somewhat, this blend of Pixies and Courtney Love, is most impressive and even enjoyable.
Cass McCombs is the epitome of indie cult in the world or rock music, wilfully obscure with lyrics, tunes and music, yet he is rightly revered for hypnotic, rewarding music. “Tip of the Sphere” is his ninth and, regrettable, not one of his best. The opener, “I Followed the River South to What,” is wonderful burbling McCombs, and “Sleeping Volcanoes,” with its references to Armageddon, quickly found a niggling spot in my head, but the other tracks contain little magic and the closer, “Rounder,” is plain tepid. It’s hard to be obscurantist and still win hearts, and on this release, McCombs has dropped the ball.
“Better Oblivion Community Center” brings together the Zen poet of modern rock, Conor Oberst, and talented newcomer Phoebe Bridgers. It’s a quintessential indie package of varied songs, the garage band feel only thinly disguising the huge intelligence and songwriting smarts of this pair. Her reaching tones line up in perfect harmony with his quavering, familiar voice, and they swap leads and mesh choruses as if they’ve been playing and singing together for decades. I can’t tell who contributes how much to the lyrics, but to me the tales of despair or hope could have jumped right out of Oberst’s songbook. It’s hard to select standout tracks but here they are: “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” headlines Bridger’s plaintive hues; check out the lovely dual-voiced plaintive folk-rock of “Dylan Thomas; “Big Black Heart” begins in ruminative form, then roars off into combined grungy cacophony. Splendid, splendid, splendid.
The fiery hero of one’s youth mellows, morphing into the hooky singer-songwriter with barbed lyrics that he always was, and he spends years expanding his palette into country and chamber pop and classical and anything at all, and then, after a brush with cancer, brings out his first record in years… what do you do? You jump in for a look-see, even though you’d grown tired of his previous decade’s direction. Elvis Costello is back with “Look Now,” teaming up with the Imposters (the Attractions ex its sacked bassist) after a decade’s separation. And the result is an exemplar of baroque pop that shades into minor-key drizzle at times. Opening track “Under Lime” is the only song with a scrape in his voice, a fulsome five-minute extravaganza, but “Stripping Paper” is equally impressive as a leisurely melodic ode to a relationship soured. Costello’s lyrics are as intelligent as ever, his tales of tarnished lives remain evocative, and the Imposters form an invisible but impressive mesh. Those are the pluses but towards the end the songs slow and drift into crooner territory. Overall, it seems churlish to desire an AYM (Angry Young Man) comeback and if you’re amenable to literate pop, “Look Now” isn’t a bad place to be.
“Gerausche,” the six-minute opening track of “Iran Iraq Ikea,” sophomore release of Les Big Byrd, a foursome of grizzled Swedish band veterans, kicks off with a spacey groove that took me back to my Can fandom days, and the uncanny groovy-but-weird feel only grows with the dreamy lyrics and the piano figure clomped over the top. It’s a sensational beginning that is sustained through the driving, bleepy “I Tried so Hard” and the third track, “A Little More Numb,” more Slowdive than Krautrock. The rest of the nine-track album segues into more traditional synth-rock, but even this poppy fare slithers into your mind. Only the Swedish-language final track is naff. Check this one out – different and charmingly psychedelic.
A Philadelphian singer-songwriter straddling the sounds of Kate Bush and heavy-metal, Melissa VanFleet’s new EP, “Ode to the Dark,” is atmospherically arranged, executed, and produced, a lush feast for the ear. An EP always seems to me a slight offering, and this EP’s four songs can meld into each other, but any offering with a track titled “Raven” appeals to this birding Corvus fan. “Raven,” with its opening piano figure and blazing chorus, is in fact the standout track. Against the album’s positives, the seemingly dark-and-dark lyrics and the super-slick dark-themed cover/website imagery failed to hit a chord with me. An impressive if manufactured release.
Mancunian band James’s fifteenth album, “Living in Extraordinary Times,” came out a while ago and I ordinarily would not go back so far, but the city of Melbourne was recently graced with their presence. Their show was one of the most stunning in my recent memory and I’m compelled to bring your attention to this release, exploding with every emotion from rage to lust/love to compassion. James straddle anthemic rock, gorgeous pop melodies, chugging distortion, and strident choruses. Singer Tim Booth is a brilliant lyricist and here he is at his sublime best. Every track is a winner but let me single out the closer from their concert, which had the entire audience swooning and swaying to a lovely paean to human diversity, singing along to “There’s only one human race / Many faces / Everybody belongs here.” You only live once: experience James here at their best.
Dean Wareham is cult to the extreme. Those who came to his most cult band, Luna, have followed him since, as eccentric singer-songwriter, as half of a male-female pop crooner duo . . . and now here he is, pairing with Ralph Porpora (dressed up as Cheval Sombre) to evoke ten prairie western remakes. It’s twangy and echoing and high-voiced and . . . well, it’s weird as all heck. Saving the day is the pair’s intrinsic melodic sense and the loping musicality of the arrangements. Too much of a curio to end up on anyone’s 2018 Best Of list, I nonetheless enjoyed the gorgeous sound, familiar yet transgressive. Check out the weird, stately opener, a version of Marty Robbins’ “The Bend in the River,” then the sepulchral piano-and-acoustic-guitar pleas of The Magnetic Fields’ “Grand Canyon,” and then, if that hasn’t put you off, head for the strangest, part-whistled arrangement of “Wand’rin’ Star” (I still remember seeing Lee Marvin singing it!) you’ve ever heard. Somehow slightly more than the sum of its odd parts, this album is worth examining.