A man of style and wit and smarts, Robert Forster is. A real songwriter who makes the best of a fragile voice. Half of the legendary Go-Betweens. His newie, “Inferno,” is an odd fish that works in spite of itself. Quite a few of the songs have such simple plodding underpinnings that I almost recoiled, but the grace and verve of the lyrics carry even those ditties through. With varied instrumental backing and a clear sonic feel, the album readily graces a road trip. As ever with Forster, it’s the standout tracks that transform. “I’ll Look After You” is a touchingly naïve long song that comes straight from the heart. “Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)” surges, an urgent crunch paean to a city few sing about. And at the end, one of his best songs ever, “One Bird in the Sky,” his voice aching (“time to hit the ground, time to walk around”) for the simple pure life.
What I’ve heard this year, in terms of rock music, hasn’t thrilled me like my reading and watching have. Only four albums hit the 8/10 mark and they’re a varied bunch of records by mostly older musicians, so your tastes might not match. But do give them a shot.
“Iran Iraq Ikea” from grizzled Swedish veterans Big Bad Byrd is charmingly psychedelic.
Conor Oberst teams up with talented Phoebe Bridgers under the moniker of Better Oblivion Community Center. It’s splendid!
Uncommonly suffused with beauty, “The Wisdom Line” is the best in David Bridie’s inspired career.
Check out the literate earworm songs by English pop-punk maestro Edwyn Collins on “Badbea.”
Fourth album from James Chapman, known as Maps, an absurdly talented studio creator of electronic-based songs, is called “Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss” And it’s a creation that seems to echo all those expansive ideas, a major unfurling into a quasi-symphonic extravaganza replete with other vocalists and musicians, even a string ensemble. Chapman’s songs range from quirky to pastoral, his voice sounds like half a dozen different touchstones. The ambience is lush and sometimes poppy, sometimes pastoral. What a blissful listen! My core tracks are the opener, “Surveil,” more Grandaddy than the original; the long, grandiloquent “Wildfire” with its unforgettable chorus; and “You Exist in Everytning,” a rolling, sweet anthem.
In their day, Orange Juice passed me by; my knowledge comes from Robert Forster’s amazing memoir. “Badbea” is frontman Edwyn Collins’s ninth, and his first in a half decade or so. The front cover portrays him hamming it up with a walking stick and a couple of songs work that seam, but this release is no “gentle into the night” strum-along. The sound throughout has a swaggering fatness, every tune is constructed with skill, and Collins’s voice remains a baritone force, able to croon or punk-holler. Buttressed with simple yet poetic lyrics, every song has lodged in my head, replaying while working or jogging. Favorites – and they’re hard to choose – are literate earworm “It’s All About You,” driving “Outside,” and sweet “Beauty.” Grab this – Edwyn Collins is on fire.
Amanda Palmer has forged her own path since her Dresden Doll days and is now a unique firebrand performer and Patreon favorite with an independent cast of mind. “There Will Be No Intermission” is an impressive, cohesive crowdfunded work with 10 tracks, separated by 10 musical interludes. Sparsely instrumented, mostly with her piano or banjo, her expressive voice is often delicate, sometimes roaring. Highlights include the nine-minute candid “The Ride,” a passionate cry for solidarity; “Drowning in the Sound,” with its electronica beat and backing, railing against social media hate; and “Bigger on the Inside,” her voice cracking over a repetitive refrain as she covers insults, forbearance and her dead brother. Beauty resides on every truth-infused song.
“The Wisdom Line” is uncommonly suffused with beauty, even for a musician as brilliant David Bridie. Bridie’s groups, first Not Drowning Waving, then My Friend the Chocolate Cake, have tended to overshadow his eclectic solo work, but the best of his own releases are the ones I keep coming back to. Here he foregoes some of the experimentation he can get up to, and has put together eleven exquisitely filigreed tracks. Gentle rhythms, piano leads, sparse instrumentation, an echoing ambience, all leave space for his soft, amazingly expressive voice. Spoken voice additions on three songs meld perfectly. The lyrics address places and moods and modern politics. Highlights are the sublime piano and electric guitar, just a minute-plus granted to us with the title track; the plodding Nietzsche-quoting “The Abyss”; and the heartbreaking chorus of “She Upped and Gone.” Unforgettably lovely and profound.
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.