New Music 07/2022 – Dry Cleaning, Brandi Carlile, Tori Amos

Wiry and playful post-punk; classic songwriting and a great voice; a sparkling return to form, fifteen years in the making.

New Long Leg

I struggle to think of a more yawn-inducing band name than Dry Cleaning, but this debut album is pretty damn exciting and fresh. I have a bit of a basic love for the dark, sparse and spiky post-punk sound, and here the angular guitar riffs and tight rhythm section are married with a striking vocal presence of frontwoman Florence Shaw. It would be more correct to refer to her as a vocalist rather than a singer, since she speaks through the songs rather than sings them, delivering surreal imagery and bizarre observations in a very British, very droll, slightly sardonic manner that suggests permanently raised eyebrows. It should really get old from song to song, yet somehow it doesn’t.

As a rule abstract lyrics rarely do much for me, but though most of the time I’ve no idea what Shaw is banging on about, the cumulative effect is somehow charismatic rather than alienating. It doesn’t hurt that the first half of the album especially has some incendiary guitar riffs that contrast so effectively with the coolly detached vocals. It doesn’t quite maintain the momentum in the second half, but hey I’ve loved a great many front-loaded albums.

In These Silent Days

I’ve never heard of Brandi Carlile before, but this American singer-songwriter has been making music for some time, releasing her latest seventh album in 2021. My first impression was that she sounds a lot like Pink, with the same powerful, gritty yet vulnerable feel to her vocals. I don’t intend to be mean to Pink, but none of her songs blew me away as much as Right On Time, a torchy piano ballad about apology that opens Carlile’s album. It’s a reminder of how spine-tingling good classic songwriting put together with heartfelt lyrics and a genuinely great voice can be.

The top-notch songwriting continues throughout the album that doesn’t really sit in a particular kind of genre: a bit of folk, a bit of country and roots, but also some muscular rock and symphonic pop. Along the way there are warmly empathetic, compassionate lyrics about life and its imperfections that are intimate and yet accessible. Carlile gets a bit more overtly political on Sinners Saints and Fools, an allegory for xenophobia which might be a tad too earnest and simplistic for me, even if I can’t fault her good intentions. But that’s a very minor blip on what has to be one of my best recent discoveries; I’ll definitely be checking out Carlile’s back catalogue.

Ocean to Ocean

It’s been a loooooong dry spell for this long-time Tori Amos fan; the last time her new album did anything for me, George W. Bush was still in the White House! After American Doll Posse in 2007, I’d still drop everything to see her live in concert, but her studio releases left me increasingly indifferent… until this one.

Mind you, this is no bold reinvention. Tori more or less stays comfortable in the same tasteful, mid-tempo, soft-rock musical territory she’s been content to mine for years and years, and at this point it’s safe to say that the brilliance and brimstone of her 90s output is never coming back. But her newest can sit comfortably next to her very best 00’s output, which is a good feeling after a fifteen-year break. It’s also her lithest and trimmest offering in years; at eleven tracks, there are no songs that immediately stick out as filler.

The album’s picturesque cover caught my eye instantly, and in fact Ocean to Ocean was partly inspired by the landscapes and mythology of Cornwall, Tori’s home for the last twenty years or so. Another major influence was the loss of her mother, and the chaos and misery of the last two lockdown years, which must have been particularly hard for an artist who loves to perform live as much as she does. The album grapples with grief and cruelty of the world, but beautiful arrangements and Tori’s still-gorgeous voice, honeyed yet rough-edged, stop it from being a dour affair.

The midpoint track Spies is probably the album’s highlight, tinged with psychedelia, with a propulsive rhythm and dramatic strings that made me wish Tori broke loose like this a bit more often. Birthday Baby is a rare great Tori Amos album closer (there’s Little Earthquakes and… umm…), slinking around like a tango and celebrating resilience. It’s nice to have an album that actually makes you look forward to hearing Tori’s new music live, if she can make it Down Under that is. Pretty please!

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