Strand of Oaks – HEAL


Have you ever waved good bye to one of your favourite artists? Perhaps the creative juices have dried up, making what was once exciting now merely formulaic. Or maybe there’s been a violent musical volte-face and the new sound simply isn’t appealing. Last year, this was the fate of John Grant. The shift from Midlake to Depeche Mode was so disconcerting that it wasn’t so much a matter of waving him goodbye, as hailing a taxi to take him to the train station, making sure he was sitting comfortably in the carriage, and paying the engine driver to take him a very long way away. This year, a similar fate threatens Timothy Showalter, recording as Strand of Oaks. After a couple of albums of gloriously spare indie folk, he’s returned with a heavy, pounding guitar and synth-led album. Hell, J Mascis even guests on the opening track. Like John Grant, most of the songs on HEAL address Showalter’s previous drug and alcohol issues head on. Also like Grant, there’s a barely disguised sense of self-loathing for his former life. Showalter was, in his own words, “an abomination”. “I spent ten long years feeling so fucking bad”, he confesses on the title track. But now he’s changed. And it’s not just his habits he’s transformed, it’s his music too. HEAL is certainly a departure and that’s always welcome in principle. But the grinding guitar riffs, the Journey-style synths, the 70s solos? He may now be heavy, but he’s no longer my brother. So, it’s tempting just to wave goodbye to Showalter and wish him well on his way. But it’s not quite that simple. Showalter is a wonderful lyricist and a very thoughtful songwriter and there’s still some really good stuff here. ‘JM’, a song for Jason Molina, not J Mascis, is magnificent, evoking both the quiet, plaintive guitar side of Molina’s work and the riff-heavy Crazy Horse side. ‘Mirage Year’ showcases both Showalter’s new and old musical personas and they combine to good effect. It’s only when he luxuriates in the new guitar and synthy sound, especially at the start of the album, that things fail to connect. For now, then, it’s not so much adieu as au revoir. The best may be behind us or it may still be yet to come.

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review

Spin review

AV Club review

The 405 review

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence


Ultraviolence is the Lana Del Rey album that should never have been. Imagine the meeting in UMG HQ. “These demos are, ahem, very interesting, Ms Del Rey”, says the Deputy Vice President of Music Marketing and Artistic Management. “However, we were thinking that the songs might benefit from being, well, speeded up a little”. “Speeded up?” “Yes. You know. More BPM. Erm. Much [sic] more”. To her eternal credit, Ms Del Rey pouted one her biggest pouts (and that’s a big pout), upped sticks, turned her back on the meeting, and left the room. And then, to the eternal credit of the corporate heads at UMG, they gave in. Like totally. Proving, if proof were needed, that it’s just so difficult to resist Ms Del Rey. If this scenario even faintly resembles any real-life scenario, then it was the most inspired musical about turn of recent times. Born To Die was a great album, but it was uneven. For every masterpiece like ‘Off To The Races’, there was a pseudo-dancefloor stinker like ‘Diet Mountain Dew’. And to big musical corporations, pseudo-dance floor stinkers are where the spondoolicks are usually thought to lie. On Ultraviolence, by contrast, the dance floor is a million miles away. And every song is a gem. True, there’s a formula. The songs all start slow, build up to a big but not overstated chorus, revert back to the slow theme, and then end all moodily. Sure, the message may be a little confused at times. It’s an album that exudes girl power. But it’s like watching an episode of Buffy. The protagonist has real agency, but her tops do seem to be a little more closely cropped than the other women on screen. And, yes, there’s the full range of sometimes slightly strange Lana vocals. The one where she coochy-coos like she’s talking to a new-born baby is a particular favourite. Yet nothing should take away from the sheer magnificence of this album. There are some stupendously good songs. ‘Brooklyn Baby’ and ‘West Coast’ stand out. There are also some utterly sublime moments. Try 1.21 on ‘Shades of Cool’. This is a wonderful album. Ms Del Rey, we are forever in your debt for pouting that pout and walking out of that room.

Consequence of Sound review

Spin review

Drowned in Sound review

Pitchfork review

Pretty Much Amazing review

Pop Matters review

Music OMH review

The Felice Brothers – Favorite Waitress


The Felice Brothers are the kings of The Catskills. The princes of Poughkeepsie. The aldermen of Albany. The masters of a raspy but lilting, and sometimes lyrically disturbing, upstate New York Americana. All of which made their previous album, Celebration, Florida, sound so displaced. Having hit the dance floors of the Sunshine State, they turned on the techno and pumped up the volume. Funny thing is, it almost worked. Sure, grafting one sound onto another meant that sometimes it was a mess, but other times it sounded new and more than a little refreshing. Raspy but lilting, plus funky too. But maybe the experiment was all a little bit too much, because on their new album, Favorite Waitress, the Miami sound machine has fallen off the charts. This is a more traditional Felice Brothers album. The beatbox is banned and the beards are back. ‘Bird On Broken Wing’ opens the album safely and gently. ‘Hawthorne’ dips into the disturbing old lyric bag and plucks out a little political commentary too. And yet, this isn’t simply a return to the status quo ante. It’s not just One More Night At The Arizona. The band is still trying to push the sound forward. ‘Constituents’ could have been a standard Felice Brothers cut, but this time it’s backed by a classical organ and it turns out really well. And there are more up tempo songs on this album than on most previous outings. ‘Cherry Licorice’ is worth a campfire sing-along, though the thrashy folk of ‘Katie Cruel’ sounds too close to the Mumfords for comfort, and ‘Woman Next Door’ is just a noisy mess. The Felice Brothers are wily old critters. They know they’re easy to pigeonhole and so they’re keen to keep things fresh. That’s a good quality and more than reason enough to stick with them on their musical travels.

The Line of Best Fit review

Led Zeppelin I, II, and III (Deluxe Editions)


At 2:53 on ‘It’s Up To You’ from their great new album, Turn Blue, The Black Keys lift one of the main riffs from ‘How Many More Times’ on Led Zeppelin I. More than that, they lift it blatantly, unashamedly, lovingly, almost reverently. The new Deluxe Editions of their first three albums are a reminder, if one was ever needed, of why Led Zeppelin are still such an influence on bands like The Black Keys. The power of the songs still amazes, but they’re also chock full of thrilling melodies. On these Deluxe Editions the original tracks remain as stunning as ever and the packaging is something to behold. The extras, though, are a little disappointing. Led Zep II and III are mainly filled out with rough mixes and backing tracks. There are some new sounds, but they’re largely unremarkable. ‘La La’ from II sounds like a Yardbirds outtake. There are a couple of blues standards on III. Only ‘Jennings Farm Blues’ from III has some potential, not least because it sounds like a louder, angrier version of ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’. By now it seems the cupboard is well and truly bare. There is some interest in the extras from I, where the second disc contains a full concert from Paris in October 1969. However, compared with the BBC sessions CD and the 2003 Live DVD, even this material is a little underwhelming. There’s a nice early version of ‘Heartbreaker’, a typically ferocious take of ‘Communication Breakdown’, and ‘Dazed And Confused’ comes alive, but the sound quality is only just above bootleg standard and there’s yet another interminable rendition of ‘Moby Dick’. In the end, though, we don’t need the extras on these Deluxe Editions to remind us how magnificent Led Zeppelin were. Just put on ‘How Many More Times’, lie back, and think of ‘It’s Up To You’.

Consequence of Sound review