Rock music made by older people can be wise and moving, but mostly it is a few levels below peak. This is not a lament. I mean, what can we possibly expect of our earlier musical heroes when we ourselves are decrepit? I was never a Crowded House fanatic but Neil Finn’s songwriting genius could never be denied, so “Dreamers Are Waiting” seemed a welcome possibility. For the band’s first release in over a decade, the band composed Finn (teaming up sometimes with brother Tim for songwriting), founding bassist Nick Seymour, Finn’s sons Liam and Ellroy, and, remarkably, producer/arranger extraordinaire Mitchell Froom on keys. My expectations were high and it is fair to say they were mostly dashed. The album of a dozen songs is by no means crappy, and the songwriting is intelligent, but musically, this version of Crowded House plods. The three tracks that shine out are “The Island,” with its joyous chorus; the swaying, dreamy “Too Good For This World”; and “Bad Times Good,” with Finn in great, smooth voice over a building accompaniment. Dreamers Are Waiting will please old fans but welcome few new ones.
“All the Colours of You,” the sixteenth album in a long, stellar career, has attracted the usual “best ever” reviews, but the truth is, old men’s albums like these, even when highly skilled, can never capture early moments of genius. That said, All the Colours of You is a wonderfully entertaining, sophisticated set of songs in indie style, graced by the fluid wonders of singer/writer Tim Booth’s voice and underpinned by a smooth adventurous band backing. Each one of the eleven tracks is a joyful listen and Booth’s questing lyrics, often barbed, never flag. James’ fans are the most fanatical of all, and we will all soak this release up, but if you’ve never encountered the band, All the Colours of You would make a stylish, singalong introduction. Highlights include the anthemic, existential “Zero,” with Booth singing supreme; the radio-friendly “Beautiful Beaches,” relating California’s recent wildfires; and the lilting refrain of “I will wait” on a gentler track, “Hush.”
No one can keep up with Robert Pollard’s unique outflow of unique garage-rock-style music, in a bewildering array of identities, and in practice, I suspect, few do. It’s not that his profligacy is full of filler—his amalgam of singalong melodies, rough prog-infused guitar music, and freeform lyrics never bores—but true brilliance is steady yet only partial. I seem to listen to only a tenth of the blur of releases. Luckily, he always comes back to his first group, Guided By Voices, and often those releases return to the mother lode. His 33rd GBV album, “Earth Man Blues,” seems to have found lockdown life. Nominally mostly rejects from previous GBV releases, they cohere wonderfully into something that resembles a harsher concept album from the early Genesis days, the fifteen inventive tracks often buttressed with woozy synths. Intoxicating stuff, Earth Man Blues is Guided By Voices at its magical best. Highlights include the two minutes of raging, melodic garage pop of “Trust Them Now”; “Lights Out in Memphis (Egypt),” a five-minute wig-out flitting between ponderous guitar riffs and 60s-style voiceovers; and the short, off-kilter swooning pop of “Sunshine Girl Hello.”
Mogwai’s tenth album in nearly a quarter of a century, “As the Love Continues,” encapsulates all the elements of their unfolding brand of music, from post-rock, bass-heavy walls of sound, through tinkly keyboard contrasts, to melodic instrumental wig-outs. If it doesn’t contain the grandeur of a couple of the band’s earliest classics, there is a pleasing sense of variety and craftsmanship that pervades As the Love Continues, and the album’s overall impact is one of a satisfying journey. Moods of grace and grandeur and sadness seem especially fitting in a world still stifled by lockdowns. Highlights include the panoramic, six-minute “Midnight Fit,” with its bursting strings; the opening “To the Bin My Friend, We Vacate the Earth,” unfurling into booming majesty; the surprisingly cheesy but brilliantly choreographed “Supposedly, We Were Nightmares”; and “Dry Fantasy” which somehow grafts that bass-loaded Mogwai grandeur onto a Tangerine Dream melody. As the Love Continues is, perhaps unexpectedly, perhaps foretold, a career highlight.
Scant months after Nick Cave’s lockdown solo album Ghosteen, a masterpiece of emotive melancholy, he is back, this time accompanied only by inexhaustible Warren Ellis. “Carnage” is a jostling volume of eight grandiose poetic soundscapes that seems to channel everything from The Boys Next Door to piano soliloquy. Cave’s voice growls and keens, crackles and pleads. Ellis lays down tracks of resonant surety. “Hand of God” is a triumph, biblical Cave crooning and crying over a chant and Ellis’s insistent pulse and swelling electronic strings. “The trees are black and history / Has dragged us down to our knees / In a cold time” sends shivers down one’s back on the dark “Old Time.” The elegiac title track throbs to Cave’s voice caressing a chorus that is as emotionally affecting as any he has sung: “It’s only love / With a little bit of rain / And I hope to see you / Again.” Carnage is intelligent, beautiful music for this age of ours.
Old folks gravitate towards soft music, is that true? Certainly I can barely stand much heavy rock now. And ambient music, something I used to love during its genesis in the 70s and 80s, is now making a comeback on my daily listening rosters (is that a pandemic symptom?). The fifth release from Icelandic ambient-classical artist, Olafur Arnalds, “Some Kind of Peace” offers ten dreamy melanges of electronic instruments and piano/strings, some with contributed vocals. Some tunes are as welcomingly sparse as George Winston’s famed solo piano pieces. Other tracks clearly come from a well-equipped studio. Highlights include the delightful plinky electronica of “Loom,” featuring Bonobo; the lilting piano of “Spiral”; Jofridur Akadottir’s aching ephemeral, string-backed vocals on “Back to the Sky”; and the gorgeously restrained keys of “We contain multitudes.” Some Kind of Peace is a drop of radiant beauty in a savage world.
At this point in a year, I customarily provide my Top 10 albums thus far, but over the past six months, despite thinking I might have enjoyed some twenty musical offerings by now, my listening has been paltry. Eight albums, barely one a month!
I did hear amazing stuff. Virga I from the prodigious talent of Eluvium was the highlight, but it’s a niche taste, long-form ambience that reminded me of Klaus Schultz from the 70s! Matt Berninger’s Serpentine Prison ear-wormed me for weeks with its poetic, lilting songs. And who could resist the indie folk-pop magic of Swallowing the Sun by Steve Robinson? But none of the other five albums ranked over 7/10.
It’s not that I don’t long to be blown away by a diet of superb modern music. The problem has been long brewing and it is twofold. Firstly, background listening seems to annoy me during this phase of life and dedicated loungeroom listening is history. Secondly, I have not lucked upon an efficient, enjoyable means of garnering and triaging new rock music. The result is that listening is not part of my life in the way that reading and watching is, and, even more relevant, what I hear is mostly old-person shit that is, at best, tired.
No solution readily pops up. But I’m not ready to retire my ears (even though all my friends have done so) and I’ll attempt to address the issue over the coming months.
To me, the best rock music listening experiences revolve around the voice. That’s a generalization, certainly, but remarkable vocalists, singing on song, transform ditties into compelling songs. Thus too with Another Sky, fronted by Catrin Vincent, with a high voice tinged with a falsetto-like dark timbre. “I Slept on the Floor” is the British band’s thumping, ambitious, post-rock debut, and by the second track, with Vincent plaintively singing “Fell in love with the city as I fell out of love with you” before lovely raging guitar, you know this is special. Blistering personal and political lyrics underpin a dozen memorable songs. Whether booming in stadia or whispering over pianos, Vincent dominates but the rest of the band more than hold their own as they channel Radiohead and a dozen other grand UK bands. Standout tracks include the coruscating “Avalanche,” the catchy “Let Us Be Broken” and the pounding “Brave Face.” I Slept on the Floor has been a highlight of my 2021 listening and I eagerly await its follow-up.
“Invisible Cities” is yet another soundtrack by Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran (A Winged Victory for the Sullen), this time for a dance performance. The thirteen tracks seep drama and slow flair, all distinct yet of a whole. Soundtracks are, of course, background rather than inspiration, but Invisible Cities rewards the lockdown ear. Highlights include the oozing drone and sepulchral keys of “So that the City Can Begin to Exist,” reminiscent of long-forgotten Klaus Schulze; in “The Celestial City,” the dread of a distant choir and soft horns atop pulses and distorted jangle; the un-ambient buzzsaw distortion field at the end of “There Is One of Which You Never Speak”; and “Total Perspective Vortex” in all its boiling magnificence.
“Serpentine Prison,” the first solo album from Matt Berninger, that distinctive singer in the majestic National, is less grandiose and adventurous than his band’s output. Co-produced by the legendary Booker T. Jones, it has a smoothly sonorous, spacious sound, almost laid back. Accomplished sessions musos buttress Berninger’s oh-so-distinctive world-weary upfront voice in a gorgeous mix that sits equally as lockdown solace, study background, or car music. As with the National albums, Serpentine Prison seems a seamless whole, pulled together by that gentle soundscape and Berninger’s elliptical, poetic lyrics. As ever, his concerns are solipsistic, but in that fine manner that invites the listener to identify with deep personal concerns. Every one of the ten tracks seeps into the listener’s mind; I found myself humming snatches at odd times of the day. Standout songs include Berninger’s nihilistic voice on “Take Me out of Town” burrowing into my soul as he sings “Swear to God, I’ve never been so burned out”; the Hammond organ solo alongside the softly-softly anthemic chorus of “Loved So Little”; and the swaying, piano-led bleakness of “All For Nothing.” In spite of the downbeat nature of Berninger’s concerns, there is something wondrously hopeful in the listening experience of Serpentine Prison that speaks to us in pandemic times.