Indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers last collaborated with Conor Oberst on a terrific album, but her latest solo sophomore effort, “Punisher,” is even more impressive, a layered mix of contemplative, electronic-backed songs and upbeat, pounding anthems. Impressionistic lyrics explore yearning and dread and dislocation. Her voice, able to switch between whispery, penetrating urgency and soaring emotion, is particularly memorable. A stellar supporting crew of musicians and singers (including Oberst) never overpower. Highlights include the rousing, multi-voice chorus on “The End Is Near,” topped by crazed trumpets; the heartbreaking “Moon Song”; and the lovely, plaintive “Kyoto” buttressed by a burbling bass line, as she sings “dreaming through Kyoto skies.”
Long tracks of chugging psych-folk, overlaid by singer (and band leader) Jeremy Earls’s gentle falsetto … Woods is both easy listening and somehow unsettling, shifting as you listen. They have been around for years but I only cottoned onto them with their 2017 “Love Is Love,” which I found to be overly sentimental. “Strange to Explain” also feels optimistic but more steely and varied, and it has played again and again on my turntable (of course I don’t have a turntable but that expression is too precious to ditch). Songs flow with electronic piano and mellotrons, and even strategically placed brass, playing off against the typical precise guitar. Poetic lyrics explore life and loss and the times. Highlights include the driving “Can’t Get Out,” a lament of desperation; the swaying, sublime title track; the jammy instrumental “Weekend Wind”; and the pulsing, sad “Fell So Hard.” A ray of musical light indeed.
Will Toledo, singer and brains trust behind Car Seat Headrest, has pumped out lo-fi indie rock over nearly a decade. Bold with musical flourishes, introspective lyrics, and a pliable, howl-ready voice, Toledo has slowly acquired fame. Now he has taken four years to bring out “Making A Door Less Open.” No longer lo-fi, indeed close to stadium ready, Toledo zaps all over his range of genres, from buzzing guitars to electropop to world-music-lite. The album feels like a rolling set of fun songs, or at least as fun as a gloomy headspace guy can be. Vocally channeling various garage rock styles but also notably Matt Beringer from The National, Toledo is in fine form, and every song is both interesting and catchy (again in that indie sense). Highlights include the two versions of “Hostile,” one guitar punk, one brooding electro (the latter with a lovely acapella outro sealed with shouting); the opener, “Weightlifters,” with its Led-Zep-Kashmir intro and sawing guitars; and the majestic, National-esque “Life Worth Missing.” A beguiling, foot-tapping, intelligent jumble.
After their unexpectedly successful debut Hope Downs, “Sideways to New Italy” is both another splash of rushing indie rock from Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and quite different in feel. With three singer-songwriters steeped in 80s Australian rock and pop, with breezy vocals, with jaunty lyrics, with a rhythm section both driving and somehow calm, the early songs hark back to Hope Downs. “The Second of the First” bursts into life with an instrumental flurry, picks up urgent vocals, then morphs and grows wonderfully. “Falling Thunder” brims with lightness (“is it any wonder?”) over a rock-steady foundation. “She’s There,” a classic breakup rant, mixes lovely guitar figures and chart-ready call-and-response vocals. Then the album shifts into something more subdued, and occasionally less inspired, covering a range of pop/rock references, before the closing track “The Cool Change” lands us back in the 90s with a blissed-out confections. Sideways to New Italy is a feel-good antidote to lockdown Melbourne winter.
Brendan Benson weaves rocky/poppy songs that reek of casualness but are in fact closely wrought. Early brilliance faded somewhat, and recent years have seen him starring in a different role, alongside Jack White in The Raconteurs. Now, after an absence of seven years, “Dear Life” is a return to his pithy solo best, full of sharp wordplay and seemingly simple songs. A mix of his classic guitar-centred indie songs, and more chunky offerings propped up by Raconteurs-style boom, Benson’s traditional cynicism is often swept aside by the joys of fatherhood, as on the jangly “Good To Be Alive” and the horn-dappled, harmony-sizzling “Baby’s Eyes.” “Dear Life” is a troubadour-style story of dejected souls. Overall the album is a welcome confection in lockdown times, sweet song-making imaginatively dressed.
Ron Sexsmith, bard of the velvety, quasi-falsetto crooning voice, has been on my turntable for a decade and a half, but increasingly I’ve found his songs too minor key and saccharine. His trademark simple, evocative singer-songwriter style hovers between steely, melancholic brilliance and sappy pap, and even though every one of his albums contains at least one of the former, the latter had begun to dominate. Thankfully, “Hermitage,” his sixteenth, arrests that trend, and it’s the strongest Sexsmith since the early noughties. Known as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” Sexsmith ensures that each song is finely calibrated, with only a couple upbeat, the instrumentation mostly piano and strings, real music hall stuff. Channeling The Kinks like crazy, time and time again, the songs burrow into the brain after two or three listens. It’s hard to choose highlights but do listen to the unforgettable lilting melody of “Spring of the Following Year”; “Glow in the Dark Stars,” one of his most sublime songs ever, with earworm chorus and melody; and the short, piano-led, world weary “Whatever Shape Your Heart Is In.”
Jason Isbell and I haven’t crossed listening paths before and, based on “Reunions,” that’s my bad, for he is a terrific, earnest singer-songwriter in the vein of a Nashville-tilting Tom Petty or The Avett Brothers. His voice rings out true and high, his songs are impassioned slabs of honesty and narrative, and his band rocks hard and smoothly. Isbell’s soaring voice calling “What’ve I Done to Help” high in his register, on the haunting opening track (over six minutes long), is an immediate highlight but there is not a lowball track. Gentler songs, generally nostalgic, like “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children,” hold up the gaps between the stirring anthemic self-examinations such as “Be Afraid” (on which he roars: “Be afraid / be very afraid / but do it anyway / do it anyway”). Apparently Isbell is a recovered alcoholic and on “It Gets Easier,” he hollers the pain of the continuing call of the bottle. What a rousing treat discovering “Reunions” has been!
Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien’s debut “Earth” is an odd throwback to that mix of prog and new wave and guitar rock that characterized his band at the outset, but which also draws on the meandering musicality of the late 1960s and 1970s. An eclectic grab bag of upbeat and muted songs, all fizzing with his intelligent guitar and synths, featuring his undramatic but effective vocals, “Earth” drifts and surges and chugs. The lyrics fit in with the instrumentals, more effect than substance. Check out the driving, proggy “Olympik”; “Brasil,” a long, soaring and churning highlight; and the irresistible, chugging, syncopated “Shangri-La.” If some of the tracks leave little to memory, the result is a pleasing lockdown-friendly whole.
Two brilliant musicians from different fields, Mark T. Smith from that unforgettable propulsive group, Explosions In The Sky, and Matthew Robert Cooper of crackly, fuzzy ambient Eluvium, combine to make up Inventions. “Continuous Portrait,” their third album, is a modest yet rather thrilling collection of oddball tunes. “Calico” settles into a rattling, shuffling rhythm overlaid by choral voice, banjo and thumped keys. The pastoral title track combines in a smooth organic whole disparate ambient elements such as burbles, rhymic chimes, and whispers. “Hints and Omens,” the longest of the nine tracks, begins with laughter and interjected keyboard figures and sounds, and then morphs into a pleasing EITS-style grandiose panorama. Some of the tracks are properly background ambient, but overall “Continuous Portrait” is more than the sum of its disparate parts, a moody, optimistic ode to modern music.
Pinegrove, a band of jangly, rough-edged indie songs of wordy introspection, centered on writer/vocalist Evan Stephens Hall and nifty drummer Zack Levine, hits number four with “Marigold.” A lovely outing with swirling mixtures of grit and subtlety, the album provides a cohesive whole of familiar-sounding-yet-fresh songs dealing with private lives. It takes a few listens for the persuasive melodies of the songs to penetrate and then they stick like radio hits. There’s nothing tremendously adventurous here, just a directness that penetrates. Highlights include “Dotted Line,” the album’s opening, a juddering, intricate ode to optimism; the delicate country pickings at the end of rambunctious “Moment”; and the long, filigreed instrumental closer, the title track.