Mark Lanegan might be my favourite male singer of all time, with a gravelly cigarettes-and-alcohol baritone that sounds so richly lived-in and is deceptively controlled and flexible. And he looks like his voice too – like a person who’s lived through some dark and troubled times. His pipes have become more brittle with years and these days Lanegan sounds less like he’s about to jump out of the speakers and punch you in the face, and his lower register on Gargoyle is almost Leonard Cohen-esque. But his grizzled vocals are no less compelling for that.
These latest two albums continue the experimentation with electronica and synths that first appeared on the 2012 Blues Funeral, while retaining the trademark dark bluesy vibes and oblique lyrics full of macabre gothic imagery and ruminations on sin, death, love and redemption. Business as usual in other words, but as long as his output remains this strong and consistent I’m not complaining. Now bring on the tour!
I would have preferred a full concert recording from the Push the Sky Away tour, but this loose and casual 10-song show performed for the KCRW station in Santa Monica is a great live offering. It’s predictably dominated by the Push the Sky Away material, and the rest of the picks match the quiet, meditative mood of that album, bar the closer Jack the Ripper, a throwback to the fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave of old. It wouldn’t be a Bad Seeds gig without The Mercy Seat, their signature showstopper performed here as a stripped-down piano version with all the white-knuckle tension and power of the original.
Like many people, I adored this band’s hushed minimalist debut, but then came the dreaded second-album dilemma: where to go next after you’ve already emerged as a fully formed deal with the sound, image and mood all perfected? More often than not it’s a course of diminishing returns, more of the same but not quite as good. Luckily, on this third album the xx seem to have figured out how to move on by embracing a wider range of influences, samples and vocal loops, and the end result sounds both fresh and unmistakably like the xx. There’s also a greater variety of mood; while it’s not necessarily a “happy” album some songs sound decidedly more optimistic and upbeat. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim may not be great singers in a conventional sense – neither of them has much depth or range – but they know their way around limitations and their vocal interplay still remains enchanting. A couple of songs in the middle of the album sticks closer to the blueprint of the debut, and while they’re fine the best tracks are the ones where the band push themselves.
More like, music I got ages ago but didn’t get to write about, but better late than never.
Christine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens
Why does everything sound so much more charming when it’s sung in French, or with a French accent? Christine and the Queens is the androgynous alter ego of the French singer Héloïse Letissier, who alternates between English and French on this album but is at her most appealing when she sings in her mother tongue. Catchy, top-notch electronic pop with some provocative lyrics.
Sarah Blasko’s musical output over the years has been remarkably consistent and she’s not about to trip over with her fifth album – this one a tad more pop orientated and synth-heavy, with 80s flavour to some of the songs. Quality listen and solid songwriting from start to finish. I can’t say I’ve ever been emotionally moved by her music – even at her most confessional there’s just something chilly and distant about it all – but there’s definitely something very beguiling about her and her raspy-yet-ethereal voice.
Sounds exactly like you’d imagine a Jack White album to sound like at this point, which is no bad thing at all. I’m a huge fan of The White Stripes and his solo output has the same sense of eccentricity and weirdness, which I like a lot. Though his music is arguably less special and idiosyncratic without the simplicity and innocence of Meg White’s drumming, it’s still a fun, genre-blurring mix of blues, funk, folksy strumming and much more, topped off with quirky lyrics.
By a strange coincidence, the albums I’ve acquired lately are all by the British (and Irish) female artists and feature moody black-and-white cover photos. They are however nothing alike musically.
Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Every time an artist I really like releases a new album my reaction is half excitement, half trepidation – what if it’s no good? Luckily it’s three for three so far for Florence. The reviews I’ve read billed this as a more subdued, intimate offering, and while that’s somewhat true it only really feels reigned in by comparison to Ceremonials, where the melodrama and bombast were cranked up to 11. That album remains my favourite, but a slight change in direction is a smart move, there’re only so many tribal drums and viking warrior vocals you can do before it becomes repetitive. While for me the new album doesn’t have an individual standout track like Rabbit Heart or What The Water Gave Me, the songs are all strong and Florence’s voice is still marvellous, with a few of the songs displaying a new delicacy. It’s a damn shame I’ll be missing out on her live shows this time around.