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Music I got recently

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Live From KCRW

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.

Gattaca – Original Soundtrack by Michael Nyman

It only took me 20 years but I finally got a copy of one of my favourite film soundtracks. Nyman’s beautiful emotional score suits this underrated sci-fi drama perfectly and stands up on its own as a classical piece of music. It’s on the sombre side and requires the right mood to listen to from start to finish, but its finest moments, especially The Departure, never fail to move me.

Feist – Pleasure

I’ve been a long-time fan of Feist, which is why I have stuck with this album for as long as I have. I probably miss out on a great deal of music that I could get into if I gave it more chance, but there’s just not enough hours in the day to treat every artist with patience. Pleasure is easily Feist’s least immediate and poppy record and there are no breakout quirky hits like 1234; the songs are sparse, pared back and lacking in obvious hooks. The opener Pleasure, with its weird dissonant bluesy riff, is probably the closest thing to catchy. The rest of the songs take a while to unlock, but prove to be worth the effort in the end.

Triple J’s Hottest 100 – Volume 24

I got into the habit of buying these compilations of Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 countdown every year. They make for a fun time capsule of what the radio station’s musical landscape was like in a given year (in retrospect, it’s a bit sad to trace the decline of rock music’s presence from the good old times when the early 00s bands like Franz Ferdinand ruled the list). This year it’s another solid 40-track, 2-CD compilation including songs by Flume, the xx, Starboy among others.

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

Laura Mvula’s rich soul voice would put her into the retro territory occupied by Adele and Amy Winehouse, but in truth she’s a lot more off-centre and idiosyncratic. The oddness reaches new heights on her second album, which is often gorgeous-sounding yet full of strange orchestrations and meandering melodies that have zero interest in becoming normal pop songs. Like Feist’s latest, it also requires some patient listening and letting the songs unfold and sink in. The only misstep for me is Nan, a recording of Mvula’s conversation with her grandmother; I generally can’t stand this sort of self-indulgent inclusions and they’re best kept on the artists’ private laptops.

D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated

It’s a bit hard to describe the style of this Australian muso, whose passport name is Oliver Perry: it’s a vibrant hodge-podge of various sonic elements (even some lush sitar on the album standout Alihukwe), blending into a rather unique and whimsical vision. Keeping it all together is Perry’s warm and likeable vocal presence, which lends the album an endearing childlike quality despite some dark lyrics. Some tracks are stronger than others, but overall it’s an impressive debut.

Music I got recently

The xx – I See You

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.

Seis Cuerdas – Mar Adentro

I rarely ever purchase CDs from the street buskers, but I happened to pass this duo while walking down the Santa Monica promenade in Los Angeles earlier this year, and I found their flamenco guitar music so inspiring and stirring I stuck around to listen and shelled out my last holiday money. That fiery live quality is inevitably dulled on the studio recording, but still it’s an excellent collection of instrumentals. The first track in particular makes me want to grab some castanets and go dancing down the street.

Goldfrapp – Silver Eye

I kinda lost touch with Goldfrapp over the last few years and didn’t think much of the last two albums, but got roped back in with this satisfying comeback. It returns to the electronic dance pop of Supernature, while also referencing their more atmospheric, subdued releases, so it’s basically a combination of everything they do well and there’s something for everyone no matter which Goldfrapp you like best, dreamy and pastoral or dance club and synthy. The opening and standout track, Anymore, with its steady pulsating beat, is vintage buzzing sexy Goldfrapp; while nothing else quite matches it this is a very solid album and Alison’s breathy vocals are fantastic and sensual as always.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Despite being a huge Nick Cave fan, I unconsciously held off listening to this new album knowing the tragedy that had shaped its making, the accidental death of Cave’s teenage son. In hindsight, I think I felt uncomfortable at the idea of getting close to someone else’s raw grief; death has always been a huge theme in Cave’s music but this real-life mourning is something else entirely. As I found out later, the writing and recording for Skeleton Tree had commenced before the incident, and there are no direct references to the loss anywhere on the record. But listening to the album, it’s impossible not to feel its shadow looming over everything like a black cloud, and not see the record as a stark landscape of grief. While harrowing, it’s also a brilliant follow-up to Push the Sky Away, and musically sounds like that album’s darker, more ambient and eerie cousin. Which is just fine by me.

Music I got recently

More like, music I got ages ago but didn’t get to write about, but better late than never.

christineChristine 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.

hopesixPJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

I’m a terrible PJ fan – I only got hold of this album a good few months after its release, which is inexcusable for a die-hard fan like myself. It says a lot about her consistently excellent output that I couldn’t describe this, probably my least favourite album of hers so far, as anything less than “very good”. A follow-up to 2011’s Let England Shake, Harvey’s first openly political album and a real game changer for an artist who’s mostly been very inward-looking in terms of lyrics, The Hope Six Demolition Project is basically more of the same, in terms of music and themes. It’s inspired by her travels to war-torn or otherwise tragic areas of the globe, including Kosovo and Afghanistan; and musically it’s quite close to its predecessor – in fact when I first heard the opening single The Wheel, I thought it was a standalone leftover from the Let England Shake era. It’s fair enough for an artist to keep exploring the themes that feel close to their heart, but it is slightly disappointing to see a retread after a career full of bold turns with every album. Not that it’s a complete sound-alike – it leans heavily on the saxophone and horns this time around, and a lot more choral singing. It’s a very solid album that grew on me more with further listening, but apart from the already-mentioned The Wheel it’s not chockfull of individual memorable songs, another somewhat disappointing first. And what’s up with that clunky title and the hideous cover art?

bat-for-lashes-the-brideBat For Lashes – The Bride

Another hardly-favourite-but-still-very-good release from one of my favourite artists – a concept album written as a soundtrack for an imagined film about a bride who is left at the altar, not because her fiancé is a scumbag but because he dies on the way to the wedding. A downer, that. I fell in love with Natasha Khan’s beguiling, dreamy, mysterious music right from her debut, and here she sticks to her unique vision. The mood is overwhelmingly sad and mournful, which can get a bit same-same if you’re not in the mood, and there are no standouts like the stunning Laura from her previous album, but it’s a beautiful collection of songs and Natasha’s voice is as bewitching as ever.

catseyesCat’s Eyes – Treasure House

I have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast duets – Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra – so this collaboration between Rachel Zeffira (dreamy, celestial) and the Horrors frontman Faris Badwan (dark, gravelly) hits the spot. I loved their retro-ish debut album from a few years back and I’m very pleased to see that the spark remains on their second album as a duo. 60s-tinged, multi-layered, baroque and luscious music, with a sinister neo-noir vibe on some songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Twin Peaks soundtrack.

Music I got recently

unnamed1Sarah Blasko Eternal Return

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.

GTBPPackshotJohn Grant Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

I loved Queen of Denmark, Grant’s outstanding solo release from 2010, but for some reason skipped over the follow-up. I’m glad I got acquainted with this most excellent third album. It’s got some of the same gorgeous guitar/piano balladry from his debut, plus experimental electronic weirdness. Some songs are outright funky! Nothing on it is as affecting and emotional as the first two tracks on Queen of Denmark, but Grant’s smooth baritone is just wonderful to listen to and his lyrics are so good and off-the-wall bizarre here they’re worth sitting down with the booklet to make sure you don’t miss anything. They go from touching to acerbic to self-deprecating to hilarious; how about this bit of character assassination which demonstrates why it’s never a good idea to have a bad break-up with a musician:

You and Hitler oughta get together
You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters

On coming to terms with being HIV-positive:

I can’t believe I missed New York during the 70s,
I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease
I’m sure that I would have contracted every single solitary thing

however…

There are children who have cancer,
And so all bets are off
Cause I can’t compete with that

And then on another song he namechecks:

Rachmaninoff, Skriabin, Prokofiev,
Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Vysotsky and Lev

which warmed my little Russian heart. Most of these names are pretty famous, but Vysotsky? Respect.

Music I got recently

JackWhite-LAZARETTO_AlbumArt_Front1_zps9804205eJack White Lazaretto

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.

AlbumCover-Szymon_Tigersapp_1600x1600-640x640Szymon – Tigersapp

When I saw the minimalist cover and the Scandinavian-sounding title while browsing at my local JB Hi-Fi, I thought this album was by some Icelandic dude or whatever, but it’s actually the first and only recording of a 19-year-old Aussie musician who took his own life before its completion. His family finished and released his work this year, nearly three years after his death. Albums rarely come with a story more tragic than this, but the music itself is actually quite upbeat, a whimsical and shimmering blend of electronica, folk and pop. Good music to listen to on a warm summer day.

81+ry2l58QL._SL1500_David Gilmour – Rattle That Lock

With all due respect to Roger Waters, when it comes to Pink Floyders I’ve always been a Gilmour Girl, and it’s great to see him put out quality music at nearly 70 years of age, even if his gorgeous vocal sounds a tad more frail these days. This album is not as cohesive as On An Island and doesn’t have its melancholic, dreamy romanticism, and its cover art is frankly… ehh. But it’s a fine collection nevertheless. A couple of songs have a strong jazzy vibe, and daaaamn when that unmistakable guitar kicks in it just makes my heart soar. It definitely recalls Pink Floyd, but on a much smaller, more personal and intimate scale.

Music I got recently

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.

ArticleSharedImage-47481Florence + 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.

toughloveJessie Ware – Tough Love

When I first listened to this I kinda went, nah thanks not for me, too polite, too beige, too smooth, too much like dinner party background music. But first impressions aren’t always right; after I gave it more time I realised that this collection of songs about love, romance and heartbreak actually falls on the good side of refined soul-pop. It’s still too polished for the songs to have any real emotional punch, but Ware’s vocals are fantastic and at its best it’s the kind of classy, sophisticated stuff Sade used to make (and I love me some Sade).

soak_before_we_forgot_-_600(1)SOAK – Before We Forgot How to Dream

A rather wonderful and promising debut album by a teenage singer-songwriter from Northern Ireland. It’s got the kind of shimmering, melancholic vibe that can only come from the British Isles; it makes me think of walking down some northern beach on an overcast day, looking out at the vast grey ocean. Most of the music is guitar, with some violins and piano thrown here and there. The mournful, wistful mood can get a bit samey over an album’s length, but the idiosyncratic vocals and the general loveliness make it a good listen.

WIGLP357_GEORGIA_ALBUM_sleeve_1Georgia – Georgia

Another debut album, this time by a London girl called Georgia (GEoRGiA) Barnes. Rather hard to describe; she’s a musical magpie in that she throws in all sorts of samples and elements to create her own unique electronic chaos. The second track for instance samples a cassette she was given by a Pakistani cab driver, apparently. There’s one track that resembles MIA a lot, but otherwise this feels completely original, fresh and a whole lot of fun to listen to.