“Whole New Mess” is essentially the set of demos underlying All Mirrors, that revved-up, souped-up tilt at grandiosity that succeeded splendidly. All Mirrors was a triumphant song-cycle, I thought at the time, so would Whole New Mess, released less than a year later, pale by contrast? Not at all, it turns out. The nine progenitor songs, featuring her swoon-worthy, soaring voice (the voice I first fell in love with) and accompanied by scratchy or reverb guitar with occasional organ thrown in, almost feel like different compositions. The rawness elicits the underlying harshness of her lyrics, while her voice beckons rather than rouses. “What It Is (What It Is)” feels doubly powerful compared with the band-backed storm version. The woozy, guitar-up-at-mike version of “(New Love) Cassette” is a stunner, while “(We Are All Mirrors)”, which became the torchy title track of last year’s release, conjures up images of Olsen enfolding the world with her voice-and-guitar genius. There are two tracks new to us, and the title track, “Whole New Mess,” is a career highlight, a broken, emotive plea. Overall, I rate Whole New Mess even more a wonderment than its cultured spawn. Brilliant and beautiful.
I sigh whenever I spot another album from Robert Pollard, solo or from his multitudinous bands. Should I listen or should I shrug? It’s impossible to keep up and in any case, listening to them all debases the better ones. A new release from the classic GBV, though, that has to be grabbed and savored. What then of “Mirrored Aztec“? Eighteen of-the-moment, lasting-only-a-moment riffy delights, amazingly upbeat for a band so prolific (this is Number 31!). My feet tapped and on the second track, all of two minutes, “Bunco Man,” I punched an arm in the air, just as I did all those years ago when Guided By Voices made a rare excursion to Australia. “To Keep An Area” is a plodding, strummed song that only Pollard could write and sing. An oddly tuned guitar signature launches “Thank You Jane,” a glorious confection (three minutes long, a rarity). “Haircut Sphinx” lurches and groans as if 1969 were next year. You get the picture … Mirrored Aztec is a gorgeous splurge of music love. And did I mention the fabulous psychedelic album cover? Recommended.
“Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” is the tenth album, and the first in nine years, of Bright Eyes, the flagship band of genius songwriter Conor Oberst. Anything Oberst puts out is wondrous but Bright Eyes teams him up with a solid group of musicians and songwriters, and Oberst’s Bright Eyes presents him at his most expansive and ornate. Take the stripped-down tremulous outpourings of a bard and add Queen-spirit adventurousness of arrangements and weirdness … well, it’s a triumph. Oberst’s vision and yearnings have not abated a whit, and every one of this capacious album’s fourteen tracks sparkles with inventiveness, talent, and invention. Lyrically, as ever, Oberst marries personal concerns, in this case a break-up and a family death, to the vast and apocalyptical. Every song, even those that flirt with harshness or weirdness, contains a kernel of indie melody. I find it hard to pluck out highlights from this cohesive album, in the old vernacular, but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck when, during the swoony “One and Done,” which seems to be about wedding memories, Oberst keens: “Around here we’ve been wondering what tomorrow’s going to sing / On the final field recording from the loud Anthropocene.” Folks, if you wish to see non-mainstream music, sadly still much overlooked, at its most profound, snap up Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.
Australian folk/pop/rock/whatever artist, Sophie Payten, AKA Gordi, unleashes emotionally on “Our Two Skins,” her second. Standout track “Aeroplane bathroom” is as spare and airy as can be, while “Unready” and “Sandwiches” rattle with pop-rock rhythms out of Sinead O’Connor’s playbook, but those three tracks and the other eight sink deep inside the listener with emotional heft. Beautifully produced by Zach Hanson and Chris Messina, using space and echoes that feature Payten’s swaying ethereal voice, the album roams over joy and anxiety and meaning. The closing minute of “Volcanic,” a tinkling, accelerating piano figure overlain by an urgent chorus, is another highlight. Lovely music, real lyrics, what more could one yearn for?
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.”