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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

xlda790-radioheadRadiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead have always been a band I found easier to admire than to love. I’m very fond of The Bends and there’s a good dozen songs of theirs that move me deeply, but I never felt an urge to own a whole Radiohead album since their second one. So I’m rather surprised to find that I dig their latest so much. It’s probably their prettiest album; while they haven’t abandoned their weird eerie electronica thing the emphasis here seems to be more on the orchestral arrangements, with gorgeous strings and sad pianos. Thom Yorke’s vocals, which in the past I often found too nasally and strident for my liking, has also never sounded more gorgeous. From what I’ve read this album was inspired by the collapse of his long-term relationship, and while it retains a lot of Radiohead’s trademark twitchiness and tension, it does feel like there’s a sort of romanticism about A Moon Shaped Pool which I’ve never really felt with the rest of their music, even if there’s an obvious sadness at its core. The two opening tracks are probably the strongest – the single Burn the Witch is easily the catchiest song on the album and Daydreaming is a haunting piano-led lament that ends with some truly creepy but awesome electronic noise.

olympia-self-talk-signed-cd-instant-grats-6092125-1457055334Olympia – Self Talk

Who Weekly, my trashy magazine of choice, have ditched their shockingly good music review section recently (now it’s just the same bland 12 Things We Love Right Now with no actual opinions you see in any women’s magazine – boo). Which is a massive bummer because I discovered a great many under-the-radar artists on their recommendations, including this gem by a Melbourne singer-songwriter. Woozy, dreamy, shimmering sophisticated pop, with strong melodies and unique atmosphere that rewards further listening.

ladyhawkeLadyhawke – Wild Things

Third album from the Kiwi songstress which goes back to the 80s-flavoured synth-pop of her debut, except happier and shinier. It’s fun, upbeat and hook-laden to the max, though I do miss the darker edge of the best songs from the first album. This music style has been mined to death by many other artists recently and Wild Things doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s so care-free and enjoyable I can overlook that (also, I do love my 80s-infused synth pop). It makes me feel better just looking at her bright yellow T-shirt on the cover.

The-Unthanks-Mount-the-AirThe Unthanks – Mount the Air

Another wonderful, lush offering from the Northumberland sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and their bunch of talented musicians. The Unthanks are folk but they’re not your Sufjan Stevens or Fleet Foxes – they go back to the old traditional English folk, combining it with other musical genres to a greater extent with each new album. This album is probably their most experimental, with elements of jazz and even progressive rock, opening with a 10-minute title track that gently builds to an epic finish. For my money though, the album is still at its most powerful when it goes back to the simple, primal power of traditional folk that lodged The Bairns, their second album and masterpiece, firmly into my heart. Here it’s Magpie, an eerie retelling of the traditional rhyme that is pared down to Rachel and Becky’s impossibly evocative, almost a capella vocal harmonies. I love their willingness to stretch themselves musically, but I hope they never lose their connection with that raw powerful side of folk.