Sunday, October 29, 2017

Queens of the Stone Age - Villains

Queens of the Stone Age have carved out a comfortable position as elder statesmen of rock. Nobody expects them to flip their sound on its head at every turn. They could, if they wanted, give it just enough of a  perfunctory tweak to avoid being accused of repeating themselves, but of course they don't want to do that. Josh Homme is a songwriter's songwriter, always seeking new approaches even after having worked within his idiom with one band or another for nearly 30 years. The knee-jerk reaction is to call Villains QOTSA's pop album, given that Mark Ronson is producer, but if that's the case, they've arrived at it on their own terms. The album is full of the serpentine twists that have become the band's stock in trade, and the more floor-ready beats recontextualise familiar QOTSA tropes without compromising the muscularity of Homme's riffs. The result is less "Uptown Funk" than decadent disco. Villains forgoes the band's tradition of inviting high profile guests, which is not a decision that the first and so far only band to unite Trent Reznor and Elton John in the studio would make lightly. It shows they don't need a lot of help to pull off stylistic shifts such as this one - not that there's any reason to doubt it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn - Echo in the Valley

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn's personal r elationship goes back a decade and their professional relationship almost as far, but they hadn't recorded as a duo until 2014's self-titled album. Strictly a dual banjo and voice affair, it was more a showcase of their musical interplay than songwriting as they navigated how to work in that context, and it settled the question of whether Washburn, an excellent banjoist and Fleck, a virtuoso, could work as a duo. That's not to diminish its value as a fine collection of songs, but the point was occasionally a bit laboured - I personally didn't need a four and a half minute rendition of "Railroad" ("I've been working on the railroad...)".

Echo in the Valley builds on what the duo learnt the first time around and brings their songwriting to the fore. The first time around, Fleck and Washburn both wrote the bulk of the album, but did so separately on all but two songs; on Echo in the Valley, it's a collaborative effort all over. There's less reliance on both traditional material and traditional influences in general, but the album evokes a bygone era in less tangible ways.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Slowdive - Slowdive

So there's a new Slowdive album in 2017; it almost seems too pure for this sinful Earth, but I'll take it.

Of course, you don't want a Slowdive album compromised by two decades of cynicism and the world generally going down the shitter, so it comes as a relief that Slowdive, though recorded last year, could have been from 1994, a missing link between Souvlaki and Pygmalion, perfectly preserved in amber and discovered just when we need it most. Slowdive shouldn't be penalised for sticking to what works, because it does work; there hasn't been a time between their formation and now when their simple yet layered and meticulous compositions wouldn't have seamlessly blended into the musical landscape aesthetically while standing out in quality. Though it's no mere nostalgia trip, Slowdive nonetheless serves as a reminder of a time when there was assumed to be preordained limits on human ego, hubris and stupidity - that if we weren't already as low as we could go, we'd at least know when we got there. It's the album we need right now, even if it's not the one we deserve.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Benjamin Booker - Witness

A recently posted Instagram photo of Benjamin Booker from Christmas 2005 shows Booker with a Stratocaster. "My first Fender! White for Jimi and Kurt. Smashed on stage at Lollapalooza in the summer of 2014." Booker believes music is eternal, but instruments are ephemeral. That, or he just likes smashing shit. In any case, Booker embodies Cobain's punk spirit while being a student of classic rock, soul and blues. The sound of his debut could be compared to that of Chuck Berry fronting Nirvana, although his voice defies easy comparison. On Witness, Booker tempers the garage-punk sound on which he built his name, favouring those older influences, especially on the gospel-infused title track.

On his debut, Booker sang that "the future is slow coming", which recalled "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke (who is evoked on Witness in the string intro to "Believe"). He wasn't contradicting Cooke's message, but adding "it's gonna take longer than we thought". Booker is the change he wishes to see in the world, and Witness is the sound of him settling in for the long haul.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Spoon - Hot Thoughts

A band that released its first album in 1996 shouldn't sound this vital in 2017. Hell, not in 2007. Having got this far with only one genuine aberration (2010's Transference), Spoon has earned the right not to be expected to still deliver era-defining albums and only needs to vary its sound just enough to avoid staleness.

Hot Thoughts incorporates synth elements that have existed in the Spooniverse (I'll see myself out) since Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner's Divine Fits, but wisely doesn't mess with what's always worked about Spoon. Spoon's best songs are low key and moving in an esoteric way. "I Ain't the One" carries on this tradition with its simple keyboard chord sequence and swirling synth. Likewise, the centrepiece and the closing track, which are of a piece: "Pink Up", a slowly building composition of keys and thick percussion and "Us", a meditative brass jam on the former and a great finish to an album that consistently delivers and occasionally surprises.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Happy Birthday to the Following Albums (4)

Happy 5th Birthday, Lower Dens' Nootropics

Happy 10th Birthday, Battles' Mirrored

Happy 20th Birthday, Radiohead's OK Computer

Happy 25th Birthday, Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes

Happy 30th Birthday, Depeche Mode's Music for the Masses

Happy 40th Birthday, Television's Marquee Moon

Happy 50th Birthday, The Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Top 30 Albums of 2016

30. Deerhoof - The Magic

29. Minor Victories - Minor Victories

28. The I.L.Y.'s - Scum with Boundaries

27. Iron & Wine/Jesca Hoop - Love Letter for Fire

26. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered

25. ScHoolboy Q - Blank Face LP

24. Swans - The Glowing Man

23. Preoccupations - Preoccupations

22. Marching Church - Telling It Like It Is

21. The Kills - Ash & Ice

20. Wye Oak - Tween

19. 50 Foot Wave - Bath White EP

18. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

17. Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression

16. Braids - Deep in the Iris

15. Sarah Jarosz - Undercurrent

14. Aphex Twin - Cheetah EP

13. Parquet Courts - Human Performance

12. Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway 20

11. Mount Moriah - How to Dance

10. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - A Man Alive

9. Death Grips - Bottomless Pit

8. Lorelle Meets The Obsolete - Balance

7. Dana Falconberry & Medicine Bow - From the Forest Came the Fire

6. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It from Here...Thank U for Your Service

5. Lady Lamb - Tender Warriors Club EP

4. Angel Olsen - My Woman

3. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

2. Autolux - Pussy's Dead

1. David Bowie - 


Dana Falconberry & Medicine Bow - From the Forest Came the Fire
50 Foot Wave - Bath White EP

Sex, War & Robots