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.
My relationship with singer James Mercer has been an off/on again one. I sat way at the back and talked with mates through The Shins set at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2006. I really liked Wincing the Night Away, missed the first Broken Bells album, wasn’t too fussed about the second, and never got around to checking out Port of Morrow. However, I did jump on Heartworms a few months ago, ignoring the horrendous cover artwork but really enjoying this press shot. In general it was a good decision, with a few reservations.
Self-produced by Mercer, the album jumps from style to style and often comes as a cross between the amped up pop of Weezer with the nostalgic lyrics of the recent Magnetic Fields album. The charming folk of “Mildenhall” looks back at discovering new music while living in the UK as a teenager. “Rubber Ballz” and “Fantasy Island” have similar nostalgic stories but of love at a young age.
Lead track “Name For You” has the most memorable hooks but is followed up with the darker “Painting a Hole” and therein lies the biggest knock on Heartworms. The multiple styles can be jarring at times and the lyrics are not always as deep as the ocean. A few of the tracks will surely end up as regulars in concert and appear on a greatest hits compilation someday, like the quite beautiful “So Now What”, while a handful of others really never need to be heard again.
Early last spring Third Man Records released Margo Price’s debut album and the singer was later featured in Uncut magazine in October 2016 before appearing on several year-end best of lists. Once or twice a year a country song will stop us in our tracks and that’s what autobiographical first track and single “Hands of Time” did late last year. The song came in at number 11 in our favourite songs of 2016 and probably should have rated a few spots higher. The tough talking Nashville transplant puts a protagonist in their place in “About to Find Out”. A dirty drum beat starts off “Tennessee” and the lyrics recall simpler times “the future ain’t what it used to be, let’s go back to Tennessee”.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter has all the classic country prerequisites: heartbreak, take this situation and shove it stories, drinking stories, a fiddle here, a pedal steel guitar there, etc. “I killed the angel on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams” being a particular favourite drinking lyric from “Since You Put Me Down”. “Weekender” spins a sad but great tale of spending the weekends in jail to a jaunty melody. The acoustic 1.30 minute track “World’s Greatest Loser” brings the album to a close on a quiet note. While sometimes veering into cliché, there are more than enough good tracks to make this a solid debut from a new and unique voice in country music.
Seventeen years ago, I was living in the UK and every week I’d head down to the trendy record store that was a few blocks away from London’s Angel tube station. While the vestiges of time have made me forget the name of the shop, I loved it there. Small but well curated; half of the store was devoted to records, the other half to CDs and every time I was there I stared at the album Nixon by Lambchop that was always on sale 2 for £20. I never bought even though the press was raving about it and only picked it up second hand in the last few years… but have yet to actually listen to it.
Such is the background I came to FLOTUS (For Love Often Turns Us Still) that Kurt Wagner released late in 2016. I’ve heard of the group for almost 20 years obviously but this is the first time I’ve ever really listened and on their 12th album, it certainly wasn’t what I expecting. Washes of electronics give the album a flow and water like quality, Wagner’s voice heard mostly through a vocoder. Like a lot of the album, the nearly 12 minute “In Care of 8675309” has a smooth, laidback late night style. “JFK” features a twitchy beat and “I talk too much” lyrics> “Old Masters” has a soulful 70s vibe followed by the relatively upbeat “Relatives #2”.
FLOTUS is bookended on one end with the 12-minute opener and the 18 minute “The Hustle”. Neither outstay their length and “The Hustle” in particular permeates the room and often changes as it goes. Wagner’s clear voice rings out through the beats that come and go to reveal jazzy horn sections then the beat reappears in a different form, like a brand new song before synthesizers once again wash everything away. “Do the hustle” Wagner tells us. Indeed. At 70 minutes long, this is a beautiful album that can float along in the background then suddenly pull you in to luxuriate in once again.