In Lizzy Goodman’s excellent book, Meet Me in the Bathroom, The National are cast as lesser characters in the NY/Brooklyn scene of the early 2000s. While The Stokes, Interpol and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs hit the ground running, The National took longer to find their footing. But over time, they have risen above their more popular colleagues from that era to become critical darlings and festival favourites. Back in September the National released their seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast. Their last album, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, felt like the end of a trilogy which would make this a new beginning or at least a transitional one.
Second track “Day I Die” has a guitar line that sounds air lifted from The Kings of Leon with an instantly classic chorus. The sung/talked “Walk It Back” has an electronic blip running through it and first single “the System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” replaces the blip with a squiggly guitar line. “Empire Line” starts a string of classic National songs that runs through the great “Guilty Party” and ends with “Carin at the Liquor Store”, that features their usual trick of sounding both melancholy and uplifting at the same time.
Unlike the past few releases, Sleep Well Beast has a few tracks that when listened to individually are a bit dull (“Born to Beg” and “Turtleneck”) but when run right through, are less noticeably cast as missteps. Where the last three albums felt more concise, Sleep Well Beast meanders here and there – a guitar squall here, an electronic flourish there, a few tracks that go on for a few minutes longer than they need to, etc. However, there are enough good moments on every track that makes this another great album from The National.
Back in 2014 the shoegaze band Slowdive reunited for live dates and continued on to record their fourth album, the self-titled Slowdive. Since hearing a b-side on a random blog years ago, Slowdive for me have been on the longlist of bands to check out after missing them the first time around. So, I started backwards with the latest release, one that sound tracked many late summer walks, with an eye on collecting their older albums.
The album was preceded early in the new year with the joyous single “Star Roving”. “Emma flies a kite, said she’s feeling love for everyone tonight”. Second single is the quieter, more ethereal “Sugar for the Pill”. The chorus of “Don’t Know Why” is pure Cocteau Twins, full of beautiful yet unintelligible lyrics and soundscapes.
Where Slowdive the album starts to drag is on the very dull penultimate track “Go Get It” and album closer “Falling Ashes” would work better as a concise three-minute instrumental instead of the eight-minute slog it can be. Overall, this is the sound of grown up and mature indie shoegazers. Other bands that have reunited in the past few years should be so lucky to have recorded something as good as what Slowdive has done here.
Spoon’s eighth studio album, Hot Thoughts, is the one that broke this website! I was on a roll with reviews and then hit this one and found myself struggling on what to say or write about… for several weeks that turned into months. There’s plenty of good tracks here – the title track could fill an indie dancefloor in seconds, “First Caress” features a piano that sounds like it’s falling down the stairs, while “Shotgun” packs a mighty punch.
The problem is that while most of the songs are good there is nothing truly great to help raise the album above the fray. It would be great to see Spoon pull a Kings of Leon and just have that one random radio hit to get them into the mainstream and start playing arenas. While Hot Thoughts should please the fans it probably won’t turn on many new converts.
The Manchester band has gone through a few changes in the past few years. Singer Guy Garvin made the transatlantic move to New York a few years ago before getting married and the band have parted ways with drummer Richard Jupp. The band’s seventh studio release and first since 2014 continues their Oasis meets Coldplay meets Radiohead meets The Doves sound – introspection and a bit melancholy with a touch of the anthemic.
The driving strings and dramatic chorus swells on “Magnificent (She Says)” are a particular highlight in what could almost be a James Bond theme. Underneath a slow burning 80’s style R n B jam there is a great percussive beat that propels “Gentle Storm”. A smart producer will use this at some point and feature a soulful female singer to sing the wonderful “fall in love with me… everyday” line. The poetic and understated guitar make “Head for Supplies” a lovely little tune while “K2” performs a similar feat with more of a drum beat and a political bent to the lyrics.
This is my third Elbow album of the last four and I’m not sure if it’s better than the others but I seem to like it more (a revisit of past work is definitely in order). Songs average just under five minutes each and at times can blend into one another. But there is a beauty in the lyrics that at times reflect the joy in Garvey’s recent marriage to actress Rachael Stirling and the welcoming of their first child earlier this year. “Then my telephone shakes into life and I see your name, the wheat fields explode into gold on either side of the train” This is a strong album for a band this late into their career.
After moving to London from her native North Wales, Kelly Lee Owens interned at XL Records and worked at trendy record shops across the city. A few years ago, she began contributing vocals to friend’s releases before moving on to creating her tracks as well as a Jenny Hval remix for “Kingsize”. Already in 2017 Owens snagged our coveted favourite song of the week spot a few months ago for “Anxi.”(!!) and the full self-titled album does not disappoint.
Owens eases into the album with two minimal ambient tracks before the cold wave intro of single “Anxi.”, featuring Jenny Hval on vocals, ups the BPM. There is a hands in the air moment when the beat on “Evolution” kicks in at the 49 second mark while “Cbm” is just a step behind in terms of getting people moving. The ghostly vocal of “Lucid” gives the track an icy ethereal quality.
The atmospheric album closers “Keep Walking” and “8” have enough of a pop feel that could qualify Owens as a more techno version of Grimes. Like Grimes, this debut touches on numerous styles (techno, ambient, pop, indie rock, etc) and excels in nearly all of them. An electronic album that crosses over to the indie rock world, this is one of the highlights of the first half of 2017.