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.

Hans Zimmer @ Rod Laver Arena

Hans Zimmer’s name might not be instantly recognisable among the general public, but most people would know the popular films he had scored: Gladiator, The Lion King, Inception, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Rock, and many more. An impressive body of work to say the least. I have my sister and her husband to thank for letting me know about this concert: they’re big fans of Zimmer’s work and were blown away when they saw his show in Prague last year. I could only afford cheap tickets at the very top of the arena, which unfortunately blocked about a third of the orchestra from view, but in the end it didn’t matter so much.

This was definitely a very unique and memorable event. I was a bit amused to see the arena full of young dudes who probably wouldn’t be caught dead at a classical music concert, cheering a classic orchestra for over two hours. There was also Zimmer’s own band, which included the more traditional rock instruments like the electric guitar, a badass female cellist and a drummer with a long bushy beard Leo Tolstoy would envy. Despite his self-confessed stage fright, Zimmer was a wonderful showman, very warm, personable and loveably dorky. No stuffy conductor, he wandered the stage, bantering with his band and sharing a few anecdotes from his long career about working with Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, and hanging around the Louvre while it was closed off for filming Da Vinci Code.

The first half of the show included medleys from film scores for Sherlock Holmes (I always loved the jaunty main tune but had no idea it was Zimmer’s), Crimson Tide, Pirates of the Caribbean, and my personal huge favourite, Gladiator. The Holst-inspired battle theme was stirring and the more ethereal, emotional parts were made even more so when Lisa Gerrard, who had collaborated on the soundtrack and lent her gorgeous otherworldly vocals, came onstage. It was a truly spine-tingling moment. The Lion King introduction, with the dramatic red sun lighting up the screen and the instantly recognisable lyrics (iconic despite the fact that most people including myself have no clue what they actually mean) drew the biggest cheer from the crowd, as the original singer of the intro was joined onstage by the other vocalists who sang their way through the film’s themes. The Lion King is my favourite Disney animated movie and the Zimmer score, I’ve come to realise, is a big reason why.

After a short intermission, the show resumed in a superhero mode with the selections from Man of Steel, The Dark Knight, and an amazing rendition of the Wonder Woman theme which is probably my favourite thing from the wretched Batman vs Superman debacle. I actually couldn’t remember the music from The Dark Knight all that well, but the menacing Joker theme was brilliant and a proof that you don’t need nostalgia for the great film score to stand up on its own. Overall it was a darker, heavier, more sombre second half, never more epic than when the booming Interstellar theme came along; sadly they didn’t bring their own real organ onstage but even with the synthesizer it sounded overwhelmingly majestic live. It was accompanied by a cool onscreen image of an organ floating in space, which gave me very strong Pink Floyd vibes. The Thin Red Line theme was yet another familiar and very emotive piece of music I didn’t realise was composed by Zimmer.

Interstellar officially closed the show, but of course there was no way they’d skip that track from Inception, and yep Zimmer and the rest came back for the encore to perform Time. What a magnificent way to cap off the concert with this deceptively simple theme which just builds and builds and swells and explodes into celestial epicness before ending on the same intimate piano notes.

Now of course I want to re-watch all of the films featured in the show, and hopefully catch Mr Zimmer live again down the track.

PJ Harvey @ The Sidney Myer Music Bowl

pj-harvey-1478274130It’s been a long five year break since her last visit, but PJ finally made her way here with her latest tour and I made it to my ninth PJ concert. Short review, it was awesome (again). Passionate, intense, musically and vocally perfect, great crowd.

Last time I was at the The Sidney Myer Music Bowl I didn’t have a great experience and found the venue rather underwhelming, but I enjoyed it much better this time now that I managed to get proper seating tickets for my friend and I. The people on the grassy hill behind us got very lucky with the weather – it was a perfect, beautiful summer evening with not a cloud in sight; had the concert happened a day earlier they’d be cold and miserable, toughing it through the rain. Sitting on the grass rather did look like an inviting option, but I’m not sure I’d be up for the soreness after four hours of it. On our way to the gig, neither of us could remember exactly which way the Music Bowl was, so our strategy was to spot an alternative-looking person likely to visit a PJ Harvey concert and follow behind them, which worked to perfection.

The opening act was a duo called Xylouris White. I thought their music sounded vaguely like Dirty Three, a guess which made sense when I googled the band and found out that it in fact featured the drummer from Dirty Three, Jim White. The other guy, a Greek musician and singer, played a lute-like instrument called laouto. Can’t say they were really my cuppa but I enjoyed a couple of their songs.

PJ got onstage at around 9.15, wearing a rather eccentric and fabulous purple outfit and purple feathers in her hair, mowhawk-like. This time around, she was backed by a nine-piece band, including long-time collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish, and for the first time, saxophones baby! Unsurprisingly so, since the latest album relies heavily on sax. Introducing the band was the only bit of crowd banter throughout the show, but I never hold the lack of interaction against the artists as long as they’re into the show and give it all. It was also a much more deliberately theatrical performance from PJ, who for the most part was freed from having to play an instrument, so she could prowl dramatically across the stage.

They played five songs off The Hope Six Demolition Project (gah I hate this clunky title) in a row, before varying it with the older tracks, including some non-obvious choices. Some picks from Let England Shake was a given, considering how close it is to the new album thematically, but To Talk to You from White Chalk was a nice surprise. I absolutely adore that album and there’s something about those ghostly, otherworldly songs that’s especially mesmerising live. The River as a final encore song was also unexpected (Is This Desire? is such an underrated gem in PJ’s discography), and 50ft Queenie was a glorious blast of the old-old-school, snarly shouty PJ. I love her recent stuff but god I wish I could see a whole show of her just rocking the **** out. It was great to hear the old favourites Down By The Water and To Bring You My Love, though in case of the latter I wasn’t 100% sold on the saxophone interpretation; that song is just not the same without the sinister organ outro. Of the new album, The Wheel was a clear standout but I enjoyed all of the new songs.

My only complaint was that there wasn’t a second show, so I could experience all of this again.

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.

John Grant @ Forum Theatre

grant-pale-green-ghosts-011Went to see John Grant at my favourite music venue in Melbourne, for a night of exquisite balladry and funky grooves. Forum was only maybe two thirds full, which was enough for a good atmosphere while also making it very easy to move around. I started the concert second row from the stage before deciding that the sound was kinda abysmal there, with the vocals getting lost in the mix, and moved further away which improved things significantly. Because the floor wasn’t packed like sardines in the can, it was easy to move to quieter spots whenever people around me got annoying. People who talk non-stop, loudly, at a music concert are only one step above the people who blab during the movie, in my book.

This was my first John Grant concert and it was fantastic. His gorgeous, wonderfully controlled baritone is absolutely magical to listen to live, and as a performer he’s just as funny and entertaining (and sweary) as his lyrics suggest. He might look like a bearded truck driver, but the guy can dance up a storm, as he did during the funky uptempo numbers, shimmying and shaking his booty like there’s no tomorrow. Grant made a lovely comment about how he always felt a connection to Australia and the Australian film and music; musicians say this “so happy to be here” stuff all the time but this felt genuine – especially when he namechecked Chrissy Amphlett and said that the yodelling touch his singing sometimes has was inspired by her. He was backed by a full band, including two Icelanders, judging by their something-son last names, which makes sense since I think that’s where he’s based now. The setlist was dominated by the recent album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, and I really enjoyed the songs from the previous record, Pale Green Ghosts, that for some reason I never got around to listening. My beloved Queen of Denmark, Grant’s debut which made me a fan, was represented by three songs, but they were the best ones from that album. I don’t cry or get a tickling sensation all that often at live gigs, but hearing Marz almost did that; there are few songs that hit me emotionally as much, even though the lyrics are just basically listing various flavours at a sweets shop. I guess it’s the childlike innocence of the song that really gets to me. And Caramel, which is one of the most beautiful love songs ever, was a perfect way to close the encore.