“Better Oblivion Community Center” brings together the Zen poet of modern rock, Conor Oberst, and talented newcomer Phoebe Bridgers. It’s a quintessential indie package of varied songs, the garage band feel only thinly disguising the huge intelligence and songwriting smarts of this pair. Her reaching tones line up in perfect harmony with his quavering, familiar voice, and they swap leads and mesh choruses as if they’ve been playing and singing together for decades. I can’t tell who contributes how much to the lyrics, but to me the tales of despair or hope could have jumped right out of Oberst’s songbook. It’s hard to select standout tracks but here they are: “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” headlines Bridger’s plaintive hues; check out the lovely dual-voiced plaintive folk-rock of “Dylan Thomas; “Big Black Heart” begins in ruminative form, then roars off into combined grungy cacophony. Splendid, splendid, splendid.
The fiery hero of one’s youth mellows, morphing into the hooky singer-songwriter with barbed lyrics that he always was, and he spends years expanding his palette into country and chamber pop and classical and anything at all, and then, after a brush with cancer, brings out his first record in years… what do you do? You jump in for a look-see, even though you’d grown tired of his previous decade’s direction. Elvis Costello is back with “Look Now,” teaming up with the Imposters (the Attractions ex its sacked bassist) after a decade’s separation. And the result is an exemplar of baroque pop that shades into minor-key drizzle at times. Opening track “Under Lime” is the only song with a scrape in his voice, a fulsome five-minute extravaganza, but “Stripping Paper” is equally impressive as a leisurely melodic ode to a relationship soured. Costello’s lyrics are as intelligent as ever, his tales of tarnished lives remain evocative, and the Imposters form an invisible but impressive mesh. Those are the pluses but towards the end the songs slow and drift into crooner territory. Overall, it seems churlish to desire an AYM (Angry Young Man) comeback and if you’re amenable to literate pop, “Look Now” isn’t a bad place to be.
“Gerausche,” the six-minute opening track of “Iran Iraq Ikea,” sophomore release of Les Big Byrd, a foursome of grizzled Swedish band veterans, kicks off with a spacey groove that took me back to my Can fandom days, and the uncanny groovy-but-weird feel only grows with the dreamy lyrics and the piano figure clomped over the top. It’s a sensational beginning that is sustained through the driving, bleepy “I Tried so Hard” and the third track, “A Little More Numb,” more Slowdive than Krautrock. The rest of the nine-track album segues into more traditional synth-rock, but even this poppy fare slithers into your mind. Only the Swedish-language final track is naff. Check this one out – different and charmingly psychedelic.
A Philadelphian singer-songwriter straddling the sounds of Kate Bush and heavy-metal, Melissa VanFleet’s new EP, “Ode to the Dark,” is atmospherically arranged, executed, and produced, a lush feast for the ear. An EP always seems to me a slight offering, and this EP’s four songs can meld into each other, but any offering with a track titled “Raven” appeals to this birding Corvus fan. “Raven,” with its opening piano figure and blazing chorus, is in fact the standout track. Against the album’s positives, the seemingly dark-and-dark lyrics and the super-slick dark-themed cover/website imagery failed to hit a chord with me. An impressive if manufactured release.
Mancunian band James’s fifteenth album, “Living in Extraordinary Times,” came out a while ago and I ordinarily would not go back so far, but the city of Melbourne was recently graced with their presence. Their show was one of the most stunning in my recent memory and I’m compelled to bring your attention to this release, exploding with every emotion from rage to lust/love to compassion. James straddle anthemic rock, gorgeous pop melodies, chugging distortion, and strident choruses. Singer Tim Booth is a brilliant lyricist and here he is at his sublime best. Every track is a winner but let me single out the closer from their concert, which had the entire audience swooning and swaying to a lovely paean to human diversity, singing along to “There’s only one human race / Many faces / Everybody belongs here.” You only live once: experience James here at their best.
Dean Wareham is cult to the extreme. Those who came to his most cult band, Luna, have followed him since, as eccentric singer-songwriter, as half of a male-female pop crooner duo . . . and now here he is, pairing with Ralph Porpora (dressed up as Cheval Sombre) to evoke ten prairie western remakes. It’s twangy and echoing and high-voiced and . . . well, it’s weird as all heck. Saving the day is the pair’s intrinsic melodic sense and the loping musicality of the arrangements. Too much of a curio to end up on anyone’s 2018 Best Of list, I nonetheless enjoyed the gorgeous sound, familiar yet transgressive. Check out the weird, stately opener, a version of Marty Robbins’ “The Bend in the River,” then the sepulchral piano-and-acoustic-guitar pleas of The Magnetic Fields’ “Grand Canyon,” and then, if that hasn’t put you off, head for the strangest, part-whistled arrangement of “Wand’rin’ Star” (I still remember seeing Lee Marvin singing it!) you’ve ever heard. Somehow slightly more than the sum of its odd parts, this album is worth examining.
Mogwai are by now almost elder statesmen of dramatized, soft-and-loud, elegiac-and-distortion-heavy instrumental rock. They have increasingly focused on soundtracks and now we have “Kin,” backgrounding the recently released science fiction movie. A soundtrack is by definition music of muted impact but Mogwai’s modus operandi is highly congruent with such works, and Kin is a fine, atmospheric album that walks no new ground but soothes and bathes. Guitar squalls follow light piano motifs follow spooky synths follow thundering bass follow drifting feedback. The longer the track, the better according to me, so the highlights include the stately, ratcheting-up title track, the piano-led “Guns Down,” and the superb synthy rave-up “Donuts.” One for the study or late-night headphones.
British singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi has bloomed on her third release, “Hunter.” This is a powerful collection of songs propelled by drama and bold lyrics around gender and sexuality. She has one of those voices equally at home soaring or roaring or cooing, and ordinarily I’d be left a little cold by this kind of vocals, but not so in this case. Calvi’s guitar work is brilliant. I enjoyed the variety, ranging from swoony “Swimming Pool,” to dramatic, controversial “Hunter,” to snappy “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy.” The penny dropped when I discovered the producer is Nick Launay; he adds heft and grace and, yes, drama, to every track. A risky, triumphant album, “Hunter” is well worth a listen.
It’s nigh impossible to properly maintain the rage into one’s sixties, so I don’t listen to much metal or proper punk anymore. But “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” the sophomore release of much vaunted Bristol band Idles, came so highly recommended that I had to give it a spin. What a beauteous surprise! Idles takes me back to the days of Spooky Tooth or Black Sabbath or Public Image Limited, a sublime marriage of raw-voiced vocal savagery, a bludgeoning band attack, splendid lyrics, and – this is an essential ingredient – an ear for melody amidst the fury. Much of the hype about “Joy” concerns its earnest lyrics, tackling familial violence, racism, prejudice and loneliness, but that’s just the icing on the cake of a potent brew. Standout tracks include take-no-prisoners “Colossus,” the whooping sadness of “Cry to Me,” and the pro-immigration “Danny Nedelko.” For once the beat-up makes sense: Idles have a long highly creative future ahead of them.
Is Teleman England’s best kept cult secret? Surely! Once dedicated to creating the perfect pop (indie-style) confections, they’re now a robust four-piece with imaginative, solid musicianship around keyboards and guitars, all circling around frontman Tom Saunders’ field-fresh vocals. After some more experimental outings, “Family of Aliens” sees them leaping back into bouncy, almost-dance-style, sparkling songs built around intelligent, evocative lyrics (“Dreams are going to drown you someday, you don’t even know how deep you’ve gone”). Standout tracks include plaintive “Sea of Wine,” the ear worm opening track, and the sweeping “Song for a Seagull.” Not a dud track on this career best: buy and tap your foot and marvel!