“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.”
Melbourne band Tiny Little Houses burst onto the scene with the distinctive semi-sneering vocals of frontman Caleb Karvountsis declaiming on the Pixies-like stunning track “Garbage Bin” off the band’s debut album. It was a stunning debut. Three years on, “Misericorde” is less bile, more storytelling, but the band’s derivative-yet-distinctive lo-fi mix of fuzz and catchy melody has arced up a notch. Maybe you need to remember 90s indie to immediately fall in love with Misericorde but even if you need some time with the songs, eventually their pull will work magic. Not one of the thirteen tracks is filler, each deserving rotation. Highlights include “Richard Cory” with its stunning lyric describing how he “one calm summer night put a bullet through his head”; the album’s closer, the majestic “Holy Water”; and spiky “Car Crash.” If Tiny Little Houses keep progressing like this, the next release will be a classic.
Such a crime that British band Teleman is not better known. I labelled their previous release, Family of Aliens, as a career highlight. Since then they have slimmed down to a three-piece, and their sound has simplified as a result, with both positive and slightly negative results. “Sweet Morning EP” features stark, almost simplistic arrangements that can at first seem primitive, but repeated listening to the six tracks reveals that the band’s essence—Thomas Sanders’s ringing, pure, semi-falsetto voice allied to gorgeous melodies— is now fully on display. The result is magical catchiness deepened by poetic, immersive lyrics. Sweet Morning is a byway, not a new road, but it is well worth checking out. Listen to that high voice laid over a boppy, light tune on “Right As Rain,” or the bell-like chorus on “Free Birds” as Sanders sings a song of childhood, “kicking a tin can and dreaming.” Wonderful.
One of the most compelling, intelligent musical artists gracing our ears is Angel Olsen. An EP of six songs, comprising 80s songs she recalls from supermarket aisles, “Aisles” is a tasty pandemic-times diversion, a woozy concoction. Olsen’s voice, as always, is hypnotic and emotional, her delivery flawless, and she is not afraid to subvert each song’s original treatment. Standouts are faithful but atmospheric rendition of Alphaville’s “Forever Young”; a gauzy, funereal version of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria”; and a lilting go at Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” Look, Aisles is not the next Angel Olsen, the one we’re longing for, but anything she sings is instant ear candy, and Aisles is a loveable diversion.
“Sympathy for Life” is a departure for Parquet Court, the rambunctious, intelligent punk rockers. Alongside angular thumpers like “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” the album includes bumpy, loud rockers (“Black Widow Spider”) and Talking Heads robot-rock (“Marathon of Anger”) and almost-funk (the title track). Adding continuity are Andrew Savage’s shouty voice and the band’s rousing choruses. Much of it is actually dance-inducing, something that does not always appeal to me, but I found repeated listens burned all the songs into my head. Impressionistic lyrics complete the picture of a solid ninth album.