What genre of music suits lockdown best, came the thought. Methinks it’s the earworm indie rock put out by London four-piece The Big Moon. On their sophomore album, “Walking Like We Do,” the band overshadow their guitars with bouncy synths, keys, even some sax. Nothing revolutionary or even evolutionary here, female-singer songs that could have come out of any of the past four decades, but the writing is tight and intelligent, and lead singer Juliette Jackson’s yearning, sweet voice rules over an airy production. The lyrics are light but not silly. All eleven tracks hit a mood in the first second and play out with wonderful timing. Standout tracks, hard to separate from the ruck, are “It’s Easy Then” with its piano/bass intro and synthy harmonies and oh-so-catch chorus; “Don’t Think” sees the roaring twin guitars return for a dark-edged ripper; and “Your Light” is the highlight, Jackson’s voice light over banging bass and drums as the verses build to a Heart-reminiscent chorus. If only all so-called light indie pop could be so accomplished yet unmanufactured.
The second album from Halifax band The Orielles showcases their off-kilter rhythms and melodies and phrasing. “Disco Volador” sounds like smart, funky style squirrels at work, shifting mid-song from funk to art-rock instrumental asides. Unlike many art-rock aspirants, the constant cleverness seems almost tongue in cheek. Breezy girl-band vocals glisten over the top of the equally commanding arrangements. The ten tracks on “Disco Volador” form a semi-sleepy melange of pop-rock styles that serves equally as work ambience or evening relaxant. Highlights include the jangling, woozy, chorus-rich “Come on down Jupiter,” the dance-cool flurry of “Bobbi’s second world,” and the cheesy cuteness of “Euro Borealis.” A sparkling late summer treat.
Elbow songs possess an instantly recognizable signature, the dense instrumentation and Guy Garvey’s expressive poetic voice, but they always startle by varying the emotional palette. “Giants of All Sizes” is, above all, pissed off, and the effect invigorates the band and Garvey’s lyrics. Gone are the more baroque and chunky experiments of recent releases, here we have nine songs that are recognizably brooding pop songs, if dressed in dark colors. The album plays out as a cohesive reflection on the now of Brexit, Grenfell, death, and so one. Opening track “Dexter and Sinister” has a familiar lurching rhythm with keyboard surges, plus piano twinkles, and Garvey is in fine song. “White Noise White Heat” rushes in a fierce outburst of heartfelt rage and sounds like teenagers. “Weightless” is a smooth lament. Elbow hit the heights but not as ascendant as they should have been, but regardless of the past, “Giants of All Sizes” is a splendid creation.
“A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery,” the debut album of an oh-so-Irish elfin bard, inherits a long lineage of wordy, swooping, fiddle-led music, from perhaps even Van Morrison, certainly through Christy Moore, and especially Luka Bloom. A triumph of atmospheric wordiness, relentlessly eccentric, it often seems to substitute variations of instrumentation and rhythm for melodic variety, but over the course of “Bravery,” the listener (at least this one) sinks into the magic of modern Irish folk-rock. Highlights include the name-dropping “James Dean,” the fevered call to action of “The Healing,” and the long, rambling, feverish “Origin of the World.” Mark my words, David Keenan is one to watch out for.
A lush, almost transcendental masterpiece from a genius, “Ghosteen” stood out from my 2019 year of half-hearted, wrong-track listening. At age 64, I hate reprising favorite artists or bands from my 30s (for that’s a feature of today’s music scene, all the oldies keep on giving) but for the life of me, cannot find highly affective, inspiring music from the younger generations. Nick Cave and his longstanding, morphing band, here lightly but potently employed, have crafted eleven keening, yearning songs about loss and seeking and reality and questing and raging (softly) and love … well, you get the picture that for me, each of these synth-and-chorus-soaked songs, some long, some shorter, builds inside me with great force. Every word carries portent and mystery. I can barely present highlights, so strong is each song, but listen to the soaring wordless chorus behind “Bright Horses,” or Cave’s lament or triumph on “Waiting for You,” or the whispering softness of the title track. Oh, why can’t more music move me like this?
Joe Pernice is an energetic wonder, a cult singer-songwriter with melodic chops galore and Elvis-Costello-style cutthroat lyrics. After a number of different forays, he’s back with the eighth offering of Pernice Brothers, featuring his brother and regulars. Nine years after “Goodbye, Killer,” the new one, “Spread the Feeling,” bangs out eleven pithy pop songs. Play it as background to work or let it rip in the car, every track immediately makes sense and can be hummed. Every track is old-fashioned pop magic but check out super-catchy “The Devil and the Jinn,” with backing vocals from Neko Case; the crunchy guitars and wordplay of “Mint Condition”; and bittersweet “Wither on the Vine.”
Roger Daltrey sounds half a century younger than his seventy-five years on the amazing comeback “Who” album, full of vinegar and still soaring. Pete Townshend’s songs, mostly about old rockers shouting and pondering but with 2019 checkpoints, are sprightly and varied, another surprise (most old songwriters have lost their mojos). His guitar sounds as sharp as ever. The anthemic, churning “All This Music Must Fade” is a hoot, “Beads on One String” does hippy lyrics proud, and “Street Song” rages about the Grenfell building disaster. A couple of lame tracks cannot dampen the renaissance.
I swoon over Angel Olsen’s torch song voice allied to her deft guitar and dramatic indie tunes, like a reincarnation of Dusty Springfield. All her releases so far have been wonderful and “All Mirrors” is wonderful again but this time dressed up in extravagant arrangements including a mini orchestra and thumping drums. The songs seem to explore ambiguous thoughts and emotions amidst growing fame, and the several songs speak to that aching emotionality featured on her previous album. If perhaps I enjoyed her solo indie music making before, the super-fried production here does not detract from her soaring climaxes. I play three songs again and again: the torchy title song, the tremulous vocals over the dubby floor of “New Love Cassette,” and the breathy bounce of “What It Is.” But selecting highlights is the wrong way to listen to “All Mirrors.” Instead, revel in the artistry of the entire eleven-song cycle.
Cathy Lucas heads Vanishing Twin, a cross-border, cross-genre mashup of world music, electronica, and burbling pop, held together with busy drumming. Their sophomore release, “The Age of Immunology,” offers some lovely sweet grooves, such as on the six minutes of chugging, bleeping “Backstroke.” On the scrabbling “Cryonic Suspension May Save Your Life,” her ethereal voices chips in right at the end. To my ears, the instrumental passages beguile; the vocal passages less so. Interesting.
Mega Bog is eclectic, subversive, playful Erin Birgy and “Dolphine” is her fifth flitting release. Talk about all over the shop! Songs leap from bouncy folk to glistening jazz to jagged guitar-led pop. Sounding life a refugee from the early 70s prog-folk interface, Mega Bog is, nonetheless, a cohesive marriage of pop trippery and avant music flourishes, and I thoroughly enjoy letting it wash over me while working. Standout tracks include the wonderful, rolling, pulsing title track of yearning, the short duet “Spit in the eye of the fire king,” and the shapely musical odyssey of “Fwee again.” Much recommended, this musical outflowing.