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Archive for the ‘album review’ Category

I was discussing it with a friend late the other night – my delay in publishing my ‘top albums of 2011’ list, that obligatory list that every blogger (or avid music connoisseur) needs to tackle in some shape or form as the end of the year draws nigh.

“A battle of head versus heart” I had phrased, somewhat dramatically, in explaining why I was struggling to order my top two records of the year. Dramatic it may be, but ultimately, a nugget of truth lay at its core. One album up for consideration was an impeccable journey in songcraft and production – wry, insightful, with enough left of centre melodic twists to keep your ears at slight unrest. The other was a journey of the emotional – raw, potent and an album that I carried with me through a dark winter, both season and metaphorical.

Am I head or am I heart? There is a big question there, with the obvious answer that answer music lovers around the continents know – the two are never mutually exclusive. Ultimately, you have to go with your gut, and think about the album that most changed your life. For that’s what music is; life-changing, gutteral expressions of humanity, soul and everything else that makes up this slightly dramatic cocktail of life. So lets get drunk.

 

#1. Adalita – Adalita

And so it was. I was never really a Magic Dirt fan. I didn’t even know much about the Australian rock royalty that was Adalita. Yet somehow this album ended up in my hands, almost by impulse – and it slowly started working its way into my life. It’s an incredibly powerful album, that much is easy to say; Adalita’s voice is a weapon against any happiness you had felt – ever. With sparse, stark instrumentation, the music is dark but never too dense that you feel trapped on the outside. From the chilly yearning of ‘Perfection’, the emotional turmoil of ‘The Repairer’ and the sexy-but-sad ‘Invite Me’, it is a timeless piece of work, up there with the best of PJ Harvey or any other obvious comparisons one could throw around. Ultimately, it was not just the best Australian album of the year, but the best album, period.

#2. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Tell Me

In a year where some of alt-country’s biggest names put out outstanding albums, the album by this young songstress was too easily overlooked – for shame, world. Offbeat, at times lyrically brilliant and just darn razor-sharp (not to mention impeccably and tastefully produced by Dan from the Black Keys), this is the best album you probably didn’t hear this year. Mayfield writes and sings with offbeat swagger, about love and lust and all the mistakes of youth – never taking the easy cliché or obvious emotional route – and ultimately, it is just a brilliant example of songcraft. The new generation’s best storyteller, all others be damned.

#3. Over The Rhine – The Long Surrender

Over The Rhine have put our numerous superb albums of the years, including their (until now) defining opus Ohio. Yet, with this independently released collection, free from expectation and pressure, they’ve remarkably produced a body of work that somehow encapsulates everything fans have loved about them, and didn’t quite realise they loved. Always soulful and thoughtful, Over The Rhine capture something new here – that tiny little spark that starts a wildfire. From the tense craving of ‘Rave On’ through to the (wait for it) sexy swagger of ‘The King Knows How’ (Over The Rhine get sexy! Indeed!), there is a new confidence that only comes from making music entirely on your own terms. And has it been mentioned that Karen still has one of the best voices on the planet?

Other Mentionables:

 

Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest

I had no desire to be a child of sin, but then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek…” sings Gillian, on the albums defining track ‘Tennessee’, before recounting “of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself, you might be my favourite one of all”. And so it is, as she reveals more of herself than ever before, that the queen of alt-bluegrass (is that a genre?) puts out the album of her career.

 

Lucinda Williams – Blessed (The Kitchen Tapes)

The second disc of Lucinda Williams Blessed’ is the moment Lucinda fans (and the world, if only they knew it) had been waiting for. Ripping the heart of her songs out and laying it bare on the kitchen table, these stark, acoustic renditions show Lucinda in all her remarkable glory.

 

Joan As Police Woman – The Deep Field

“I’m looking for the magic… I’m looking for the alchemy to release me” Joan coos, in the sultry, vinegary voice that can only be hers. An album largely about the search for relief and release, it is the work of a songwriter totally on form.

 

 

Live Performance of the Year

Portishead – Harvest Festival, November 2011

One voice holds an entire festival hostage. And we loved it.

 

Best Cover Song

Birdy – Shelter (the xx cover)

One word: brilliant.

 

Best Video

Tune-Yards – Bizness

 

Ready for…

A new album from Kathleen Edwards.

 

Until next year, folks…

 

 

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I’ll lay it bare from the outset: I do not have a history of love for Lisa Mitchell. Mark Holden was obsessed with her on that talent show but I, myself, didn’t quite get it.

Post-Idol, however, that slowly began to change. Her first EP, Said One to the Other, was nice enough – yet it was 2008’s Welcome to the Afternoon that made my ears perk up, showing an interesting blend of post-country (“See You When Get Here”) and Weepies-inspired folk-pop (“Neopolitan Dreams”) that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bravia television advertisement.

2009 brings us Mitchell’s debut long-play – which, to my surprise, I found myself purchasing late one night. The record store clerk perhaps should have been my first clue as to what to expect – “oh, it’s very nice” she said, somewhat non-commitedly. Another musically-inclined friend should have been the second – “oh, it’s very sweet”.

After the first listen, it was tempting to write this album off entirely. Sure, it still had “Neopolitan Dreams” and the slightly off-kilt lead single “Coin Laundry”, but there was nothing immediately striking about the rest of the material. Pleasant? Yes. Melodic? Indeed. Earth-shattering? Pass me the Nutella.

By the third listen, my thoughts have changed somewhat. While still lacking anything as musically exciting as “See You When You Get Here”, Wonder does contain a number of nice moments. “Jealous” has the unexpected swagger of a young Sheryl Crow (with some nice harmonica action to boot) while “Clean White Love” wouldn’t be out of place on an Old Man River album.

It is the slower, self-penned “Love Letter” that reveals Mitchell to be a surprisingly strong, highly personal songwriter and emotive performer. “Inside an old house, by the seaside, you can take off my blouse, but take it from me; I’m disorderly and you’d be off better writing someone else your love letter ’cause I’m always on the road“. It sums up what is most surprising (and impressive) about this album – the unexpected warmth and honesty it radiates.

With Julia Stone seemingly on hiatus, Mitchell may have just established herself as the benchmark in fragile, Australian folk-pop. Maybe Mark Holden was right after all.

Find out more at Lisa’s official website.

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Sweden, in the last decade, has become somewhat known for off-kilter pop music. From indie-electro-pop darlings The Knife through to the current day stylings of Robyn and Lykke Li, the Swedes have a talent for taking the standard, swirling it around a little and popping it out a little left of its original centre. Into that mix you could perhaps also throw indie-rock trio (and occasional NME favourites) Peter, Bjorn and John – and it is with bass and keyboardist Bjorn Yttling that Sarah Blasko’s latest story begins, with Blasko enlisting Yttling as producer for her latest solo effort, leaving behind Sydney’s sunny shores for a multiple-month stay in the depths of a snow-laden Swedish winter.

As Day Follows Night, the resulting album, is Blasko’s first since the Bernard Zuel-acclaimed (and ARIA award winning) What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have – an epic modern masterpiece in itself – and first without longtime collaborator Robert F. Cranny. Since the release of What The Sea, Blasko also dabbled in writing music for musical theatre, being nominated for a Green Room award for her work on Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is perhaps this influence that is immediately evident on As Day Follows Night, with album opener “Down On Love” containing a sprightly keyboard pixie that is part Wizard of Oz and part Tourism Victoria (if perhaps Joanna Newsom had a keyboard).

As the album moves onto first single, “All I Want”, it becomes abundantly clear that those hoping for a semla-fuelled “Konichiwa Bitches”-type outburst will be bitterly disappointed – this is a Blasko album through and through. While the track’s synth-like sounds hint at some of the more pulsating moments of What The Sea Wants (“Hammer”) it is the lyrical themes that instantly create synergy: Blasko has always been a highly literate, self-analytical composer and that theme is immediately evident. “I don’t even understand me, so don’t think that you can help” and “all I want is to one day come to know myself” she ruminates. While staying well clear of a Tori Amos cryptopia, it is nonetheless the start of a stream of self-questioning (including the “I wonder what I’ve done to end up this way?” pondering of album standout “Is My Baby Yours?”).

The influence of producer Bjorn Yttling becomes fully evident on the album’s third track, “Bird on a Wire”. Gone are the piano and guitar driven pulses of Blasko’s earlier work – and indeed, absent they remain for a large majority of the album’s remainder. In their place is the insistent pounding of a various drum beats and percussion – an occasionally arrhythmic heartbeat pounding loudly under Blasko’s musical skin (“keeping in time don’t matter as much as the feeling” she utters on “Over and Over). While much of her earlier was vocally and lyrically driven, the organic, percussive nature of As Day Follow Night takes centre stage – with Blasko’s usually languid vocals taking new haste on on “Bird on a Wire” and taking command on “Lost and Defeated” (“the emotional tide has turned and I see red”).

Despite its beat-centric schema, As Day Follow Night keeps things musically diverse with a few unexpected touches – the Copacabana-carnival keyboard introduction to “Over and Over”; the slight flamenco tinges of “Is My Baby Yours?”; the vocally-lead waltz of “I Never Knew” and the hints of film noir on album closer “Night and Day” (a track that, admittedly, would not have sounded out of place on What the Sea Wants, with shades of “Woman by the Well” and “I Could Never Belong To You”).

Ultimately, As Day Follows Night may divide Blasko fans, most noticeably for its stripped-back lyrical approach. The poetic twists and spirals of the Blasko literary vine are trimmed back and straightforward prose blooms in their place – more accessible for some, yet slightly disappointing for others. As an album it is much less challenging than What the Sea Wants, albeit never quite as jangly-guitar-pop-rock-easy as album debut Overture and the Underscore – and yet, doesn’t entirely sit comfortably between them either. Like all her work, it is worthy of repeated listens and, while never quite reaching some of the the dizzying heights What the Sea Wants, should help Sarah Blasko reclaim her coronet as Australia’s foremost* female singer-songwriter.

In summary: she is still good.

Standout track: Is My Baby Yours?, All I Want

You can read Sarah’s blog here, check out her Myspace and preorder the album.

As Day Follows Night is released in Australia on July 10.

*With apologies to Sally Seltmann. You are also excellent.

Robert F. Cranny

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Often remembered as the album where Nina Persson changed her blonde ‘Lovefool’ locks winter brown, 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight is also remembered as The Cardigans’ “contemplative” album. While not a radical departure from their earlier pop efforts, it was however an album with slight shades of folk or country – all, however, polished under a shiny Cardigans veneer.

What makes this album worthy of note is that – if you move past the Swedish pop sheen – it is a collection of tightly written, highly personal and emotionally expressive songs. “For 27 years I’ve been trying to believe and confide in different people I’ve found” sings Persson softly, “… but I don’t know how to connect, so I disconnect“. This theme runs rife through the album’s lyrical content, as Persson reflects on love lost, missed opportunities and occasionally slightly darker themes; addiction and domestic violence are both vaguely referenced albeit in nonesocertain terms: “I never really knew how to move you, so I tried to intrude through the little holes in your veins“.

If you’re searching for the vocal rawness of a Patty Griffin or a Kathleen Edwards this might not be the most immediate choice of record. However, for those who can see past the gloss it is ultimately a rewarding effort. It won’t shatter any aural universes with originality but remains a sombre, sometimes compelling, rainy night listen.

In summary: thematically interesting subdued pop that you wish was a little more sonically immediate or adventurous.

Standout track: Communication – a slowburning, thoughtful confessional piece.

Nina Persson has recently released a new project as her solo project A Camp. She has released the album “Colonia” and a Covers EP.

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What do you do when you keep putting out great music that gets largely ignored by the record buying public? In her career post Sydney (and occasionally Triple J) favourite Stella One Eleven, Genevieve Maynard has delivered two wry, adventurous albums of occasionally dark guitar pop – loved by McCabe and other such “critics”, but failing to make an impact on a commercial level.

For her third album – the yet to be commercially released The Hollow Way – Maynard brings along some friends in the form of The Tallboys – a group of instrument wielding gentlemen whose primary role is to add layers of alt-country sensibility to proceedings.  This sound is nothing new for Maynard – she names Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch as influences – and was hinted at throughout her previous releases despite their darker, occasionally electronic nature.

With shades of a young Bonnie Raitt, album opener “Ripped” sets the album tone and sees Maynard’s voice remain steadfast amongst a swirl of piano sprinkles, guitar strums and lap steel moans. “God knows she’s seen some sad things in her time” she ruminates, and you would be forgiven for momentarily fearing twelve upcoming tracks of alt-country sadness. Yet Maynard has always been, and remains, far too intelligent a songwriter for that – throwing in highly literate flourishes at every turn: “the albatross laid its weight on shoulders just not meant to take the strain“.

In line with her shift to more organic instrumentation, Maynard’s lyrics on this journey have a constant nature motif at their core. Whereas previous albums had references born from inner-alterna city dwelling, The Hollow Way is is littered with references to the sea, the sand (one album track is titled almost exactly that), red dirt, creeks and cattleyards. Don’t assume, however, that Maynard fills any kind of Kasey Chambers void – as she herself sings:

“From the beach to the mountains on the winding road / On her henna-stained hands old stories unfold /But I left my guitar on the train and I had to go back to the town again”.

Ultimately, it is Maynard’s voice that grounds this album as a reflective inner city effort. It is a voice of concrete and steel – a voice that knows too much about the world, even at its most fragile. While the alt-country musicianship adds a new richness and warmth to the material this is, at its heart, a true Genevieve Maynard effort: intelligent, thoughtful and just the tiniest bit heartbroken. If this means it is again largely ignored by the consumerist public then so be it – they’ll catch up eventually.

In summary: occasionally dark, sad, intelligent alt-country-pop. Think: Lucinda Williams, Kathleen Edwards, Patty Griffin, Mia Dyson, Jen Cloher.

Standout track: The Albatross

You can download the entire album in low quality mp3 from Genevieve’s website: click here. You can also order the full physical album and also purchase high quality downloads. (Support local artists, yeah?)

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With a running time of just over thirty minutes, Laura Jean’s Eden Land is a complex snapshot of a world far removed from the rainy streets of Melbourne, Australia.

Who let the birds out?

As a stark look at the Bible-paved roads that lead to and from salvation, Laura  Jean weaves a delicate tapestry of characters and delicate emotions – “Ten years doesn’t make me your wife” ruminates the “Lady of the Lake”, a barren tune of insular regret. As a premise album (some would say ‘concept album’; but that term doesn’t do this journey justice) the core ideas are not only expressed lyrically but tonally as well – Jean channels an era outside the scope of traditional Australian folk music. The combination of flighty clarinet with swirling gypsy handclaps is commonplace, with the result at times beguiling but never less than compelling.

Perhaps what makes this album such an interesting listen is the sheer craft of the tunes. Never prone to “overwriting”, Jean’s lyrical choices are often striking in their simplicity – shades of Patty Griffin or Gillian Welch are hinted at, but these words are her own. Jean is not stratosphere-shattering vocalist, but her voice firmly guides the material with a subdued reverence. In many ways, she is an insular storyteller – these are stories that she needs to tell, but she is willing to let you accept them on your own terms.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this album will also prove to be its greatest hurdle. This is not a simple album. Eden Land is a complex, literary album that is far removed from anything put out by a mainstream Australian artist this year. And we love it for that.

In summary: complex, emotive, literary, beguiling. A bright and unique spot on the Australian music scene.

Standout track: “Yellow Moon” – think Kill Bill Vol. 1 meets Gillian Welch.

(Note: this video is a clip of Laura’s earlier work – but should give you an idea of the sound)


Hear song samples at Laura Jean’s official website as well as on her Myspace. The album is available now on iTunes Australia.

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without arms or legs.

Album cover: without arms or legs.

As the beat begins to groove on the opening track, “Little Black Sandles”, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a scene from Six Feet Under. For non-fans who are feeling slightly confuzzled, allow me to elaborate: Sia’s ‘Breathe Me (from her very good 2004 album Colour the Small One)  was used in the closing scenes of Six Feet Under to haunting effect. It also introduced the concept of it being “pretty acceptably cool” to like Sia’s floating borrowed-jazz soundscapes. [Note: that same riff was later used in a television campaign for an Australian supermarket, but we’ll brush over that.]

So, essentially, this album is the same sound as the last, jah?

Not quite.

Undoubtedly, there are numerous tracks that capitalise on that ‘Sia’ sound that the broader public have come to appreciate. “You Have Been Loved” takes Colour‘s slow, whispy – almost incoherent – vocals but transplants them over a more mainstream concoction of piano-meet-strings-hello-guitar. The afore-mentioned “Little Black Sandals” glows with the familiar vocal texture but stirs them around with some punchy vocal phrasing. And here is where it gets interesting.

Where Colour was an album of restaint and consistency, Some People Have Real Problems is a rich mosaic of sounds – drawing on some unexpected influences. Lead single “Day Too Soon” could easily have been a disposable Gabrielle number (aargh, me hearties) were it not for the insistent groove and increasingly swelling jazztastics. “The Girl You Lost To Cocaine” shimmies into a Nikka Costa soulful funk and doesn’t let go, whereas “Academia”s singsong verses hint at an early Liz Phair.

Don’t be misled, however: this isn’t an album of someone borrowing others sounds and patching them together with some colourful superglue. Real Problems sparkles with an off-kilter freshness that was near-unrivalled in ’08. Lyrically astute and delivered with a fascinating emotional depth, the album bridges the gap between Furler’s earlier works and pops out her career achievement thus far.

In summary: original, innovative and complex. One of the best you’d have heard this year, if you’d known.

Standout track: Buttons (from the bonus disc), Electric Bird

Playing around the zoo in Sias hair. Naturally.

Playing around with the zoo in Sia's hair. Naturally.

For more Sia goodness, visit her website: http://www.siamusic.net or Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/siamusic

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