Scott Hansen, aka Tycho, has produced some pitch-perfect ambient albums but “Weather” is not one of them. Epoch, his previous release, featured guitars to great effect, but on Weather he embraces short electro-pop songs and introduces vocals, the breathy lounge voice of Hannah Cottrell, both of which swing him away from effective ambience towards, frankly, boredom. “Into the Woods” is enjoyable jaunty brain fluff that fades away in lovely fashion, and the title track is an instrumental with his old emotional mix of hue and rhythm, but the other six tracks disappoint.
“The Imperial” is modern Americana that sits on the edge of real country and western, a music genre anathema to me, but I enjoyed my numerous listens. Willy Vlautin, of Richmond Fontaine fame and one of the best novelists around, has penned ten melancholic tales of down-and-out tragics, and the band’s singer, Amy Boone (sidelined by a car accident for three years) has a wonderful careworn, yet generous, voice. Standout tracks include the gentle title track with its slide-enriched chorus; the warm-in-spite-of-the-story “Cheer Up Charley”; and the bleak kinda torch song “Holly the Hustle.” A nuanced, unusual album.
Album Number 17 for ultra creative John Darnielle (his novel Wolf in White Van was one of my 2014 standouts), “In League with Dragons” is odd enough and subdued enough to almost be a curio. Continuing Darnielle’s recent phase of semi-jazzy arrangements (again drummer Jon Wurster breathes life into every moment) and quietly enunciated vocals, at first listen this can seem bland. But the left-field song topics and lyrics – we’re talking tales of marsupials, wizards, rock singers, Ozzy Osbourne, cadaver sniffing dogs, and more – ensure a fascinating eleven-song offering. And “Going Invisible 2” reminds us of the declamatory old Goats, with Darnielle building up to sing “I’m gonna burn it down one day.” A genuinely strange but intriguing set.
In their live shows, The Felice Brothers unspool their dual-singer folk-rock with flamboyant ramshackle joy, but their albums vary in intensity. “Undress” is the band at its peak, it’s sound veering from massed instruments and voices to more intimate tunes filigreed by precise guitar or lovely piano or squeezebox. The dozen songs mix political targeting and personal poems and singalongs. The overall effect intoxicates, you find yourself breathless for the next offering. I could name ten highlights but here are three: the title track begins as a humorous ode to “lightening up” before fat horns join the mix to climax at a plea to “find the light of day”; the corrosive jaunty “Special Announcement” in which Ian sings of “savin’ up my money to be president”; “Socrates,” a soaring hymn to modernity’s discontents. But wait, how can I convey the poetry of “Days of the Years,” Ian’s ode to the moment, each line threatening to raise tears! Buy this now and if you can, catch a live show.
LA band Wand’s fifth album “Laughing Matter” extends their journey into Can territory, indeed for the first few tracks I kept thinking I was immersed in 60s vinyl. Opening track “Scarecrow” begins with jittery drums and shimmering guitars anchored by pulsating bass and melodic keys, before Cory Hanson’s semi-falsetto kicks in to sing about nature: “The light inside a silver birch.” “xoxo” begins as a bouncy almost-pop song before lighting up into distortion. Over the hour-plus of fifteen songs, whenever the scratchy guitar screams into screeches, the effect is electric. Pastoral folk-rock songs, also straight from the hippy days, and woozy electronics-led tracks vary the mix. It’s a stunning, serious and immersive album that deserves recognition.
Lyrical wordplay abounds throughout the whole of Californian three-piece Cheekface’s debut album “Therapy Island“, which requires multiple listens to appreciate the dexterity of songwriting. On first listen the atonal vocals are prominent over a surf-rock/indie-slacker aesthetic, breaking out into the occasional melody, but it’s not to be written off as unformed or non-cohesive. The album kicks off with “Dry Heat/Nice Town,” a catchy slow jaunt about consumerism, other standouts are “Eternity Leave,” a minute-and-a-half fast paced attack of society and … exactly what the subject is is unclear, and “Here I Was,” with the chorus line “Ten million dollars cash tax free, if you don’t want it, would you give it to me?” and a charming backing vocal track. Overall, “Therapy Island” is much cleverer than it has a right to be and comes recommended.
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.