Albums from the wonderfully droll, poetic, and oddly radical Robert Forster sound at first to be amateurish but then speedily morph into ear candy. So too “The Candle and the Flame,” his first album since 2019’s Inferno. Produced at home and roping in family and friends as needed, Forster delivers nine delightful, low-key but muscular songs anchored by his trademark semi-conversational voice. The album kicks off with a brilliant curio, a furiously strummed riff over which Forster spits (singing to his wife who came down with ovarian cancer), “she’s a fighter, fighting for good,” before “Tender Years,” a gorgeous love song. “There’s a Reason to Live” offers homespun philosophy over an unforgettable, lilting melody, while the closer, “When I Was a Young Man,” is a lovely, poetic reflection on the past. Overall, The Candle and the Flame is a brilliant package that cuts through the ephemerality of much modern music.
The opening vocals by Will Sheff on “Nothing Special,” his first solo album, immediately recall the glory of Okkervil River, with a lilting melody bursting into an exuberant chorus and massed musicians. Check out that track, “The Spiral Season,” and you know what to expect. Sheff cannot write an unmelodic song, his voice is sweet and high, and the pace is unhurried. As ever, his lyrics are intelligent observations on the world, including the death of a former bandmate. I loved the sad, profound title track and the sudden shredding guitar roar at the close of “Like Last Time.” A charismatic frontman, Will Sheff is a wonderful singer-songwriter, and Nothing Special deserves to succeed.
London band Dry Cleaning carries the label of “post-punk,” but that barely hints at the radical nature of its music. “Stumpwork” is the band’s second release in two years, and is fully aligned with their debut. Essentially, evocative poet Florence Shaw voices poems over a canvas of a three-piece band headed by Frisch-style, sonic guitarist Tom Dowse. The laconic voice is upfront in the mix but the background, slow musical accompaniment is as much a part of the listening experience. The feel is lazy and lush. Gently hypnotic. Shaw’s lyrics are journal outpourings, impressionistic and of-the-moment. For some reason, perhaps because I remember various bands with a similar timbre, I enjoy Stumpwork as both background while working and immediacy on a gym bike. Check out the bouncy “Kwenchy Kups,” with its lyrics about otters and much more; the escaped tortoise astride a racing tune in “Gary Ashby”; or the raspy, slow guitar of “Driver’s Story.”
Following last year’s brilliant Swallowing the Sun (catch my review) from English folk-rock master Steve Robinson, my truncated listening roster for 2022 is notable for “Shadow Play” from his joint project with an American power pop cult figure I know little about, Ed Woltil. If Robinson’s solo gem reeked of Wesley Stace, the Jayhawks, and the Microphones, the duet’s combinatorics add other influences; I can also hear the influence of late 60s psychedelia and the Beatles. Shadow Play is a powerful mix of sunny power-pop (“Shadow World” and “On Your Side”), throwback homages (the piano and organ in “Lifeboat” and the woozy, atmospheric “Ultramarine,” featuring an oh-so-welcome melodic guitar wig-out from ex-XTC Dave Gregory), and love songs such as the soft, coiled “One Day Never.” Maybe it’s a reflection of my own ambiguous existential state at the moment but I weep every time I listen to “On the Way to My Appointment with Death,” a Lennon-esque, quirky reverie (why, oh, why couldn’t they have extended the three minutes of this bliss to, say, twenty?). Consummate musicianship, sharp and intelligent lyrics, and achingly light or sunny vocals … Shadow Play is a benediction from start to finish.
“Big Time” dims the raw-edged fury that first attracted me to Angel Olsen, but the melodic and lyrical chops, and the crystalline voice both stay strong, so, to my surprise, I enjoyed and was moved by this honeyed, countrified album. With lyrics imbued with emotions from coming out and loss of parents, there is a rare surfeit of optimism on the first two twangy tracks, “All the Good Times” and the title song. The mood darkens on “Dream Thing,” and I shed a tear when she sings, high and clear, “I was looking at old you, looking at who you’ve become.” My standout track, “Right Now,” build from C&W into 60s torch pop, ending with defiance I felt: “I’m telling you right now, right now.”
Big Time is a new Angel Olsen chapter, as powerful and moving as has ever been. If you’re not a fan, why not?
An oddity in the rock/pop pantheon, Belle and Sebastian are quintessentially British in a very modern but regressive way, bouncy yet plaintive, quotidian in lyrics but also profound (bandleader and singer Stuart Murdoch is a Buddhist), straddling genres in the same way that Mike Scott does. “A Bit of Previous,” their tenth and first in seven years, was apparently recorded fully in their native Glasgow, thanks to Covid, and perhaps that explains a pleasing unity to the album’s dozen songs. Skating all over the place amongst their varied influences, the music ranges from violin-led folk, to synth-pop, to pastoral. Murdoch’s lyrical concerns are, as ever, razor-sharp yet thrillingly domestic. There’s nary a dud track on “A Bit of Previous” and if you’ve shied away from the quirkiness, it is a wonderful entry point to the band. Check out the lovely violin intro over a bouncy beat on “Young and Stupid,” delighting in its ridiculously melodic chorus; the deep, beautiful choir backing vocals at the end of the band’s paean to survival, “If They’re Shooting at You”; and Sarah Martin’s sweet-but-angry vocals on the rageful “Reclaim the Night.”
Arcade Fire is a wonderfully strange band, a capable ensemble band revolving around Win Butler, a brilliant songwriter who is also instantly recognizable when singing. Combining elements of alt rock, pomp rock, and synth-pop, it retains cult status. Call it sensitive, theme-based music writ large in front of stadiums. If you are an Arcade Fire fan, you cry with their songs, songs that talk of existential threats and questions, of apartness and togetherness. The last couple of albums have seemed weighed down by themes and over-baroque musical clamour, but “We,” their sixth album, dropped a half decade after the last one, is simply superb, quite as fine as their classics, The Suburbs and Neon Bible. Butler’s songwriting tackles social media, modern anxiety, our desire for transcendence, and much more. The songs, none of them excessively long for once, burst with imagination and melody, and Butler’s voice, after all this time, still shifts something inside me. Highlights include “Age of Anxiety I,” with its winning, repeated chorus; the full-synth earworm “Lightning I & II”; and the quintessential Arcade-Fire-vibe of “Rabbit Hole.” We is my top listen for this year so far, hands down.
Beach House, a Baltimore duo, might sound superficially frothy but repeated listens have always revealed sweet, sweet combinations of dream-pop or synth or folk-pop arrangements overlaid by Victoria LeGrand’s slithering, invasive, sweet vocals. “Once Twice Melody” is at once a grand creation—eighteen tracks, three years in the making, released in four tranches—and a blur of Beach-House-y bubbliness. Unlike a couple of earlier albums with clear killer tracks, here there is a unity of sound and purpose, both creepily soothing and numbing. Once Twice Melody is the perfect post-pandemic floater. Standout tracks include the chugging sugar of “New Romance,” with its Tangerine-Dream-like rondo background; the stately, swirling closer, “Modern Love Stories”; and the inviting ooze of “Another Go Around.”
Hear the plaintive, wise voice of Simone Felice in the opening song, “Year Around the Sun,” sing “What does it mean to be a child, It means you’re lost out here in the wild,” and maybe, just maybe, you’ll weep like I did. “All the Bright Coins,” Felice’s new release, is strummed, sung, or spoken magic, the essence of this hugely talented songwriter pared down to the essentials. The album is evidently a passage through his early years, a hardscrabble indie troubadour reincarnating, and the songs are wispy, elegiac trips into a character’s thoughts. This is not the impassioned, thumping Felice Brothers but a record so quiet it may escape notice but what a tragedy that would be! Check out the spoken poetry over piano of “The World’s Fair”; the oh-so-sad reflections (“drag your sorrows on the road”) amidst the stately background of “Puppet”; and the ode to hope “in our hour of trial and pain” on the simple “After the Rain.” Introspective and strangely demanding, All the Bright Coins is a keeper.
A decade and a half after Raising Sand, a seemingly unlikely but wonderfully realized collaboration of covers by metal idol Robert Plant and bluegrass-country diva Alison Krauss, the pair have returned with “Raise the Roof.” Time has not diminished the magic. Once more, Plant alternates between a tense, gravelly croon and a manacled bluesy violence. Once more, Krauss is the perfect innocently-voiced foil or an ethereal ghost. And, significantly, T Bone Burnett has again assembled a crack ensemble and created a smooth yet robust sound. The dozen tracks, all unknown to me, range across American and British folk, country, and blues, and there is not a dud amongst them. My highlights include “Quattro (World Drifts In),” a Calexico folk-rock windswept song that kicks off with banjo and piano twinkling, then lurches into restrained passion; “Go Your Way,” which begins with Plant’s divine space-filling raspy whisper, over melodic guitar, then settles into an ear-worm farewell plea of release, like Led Zep hushed; and the busy, foot-stomping “Somebody Was Watching Over Me.”