Devendra Banhart – Ape In Pink Marble
The title hardly suggests it, but Ape In Pink Marble features Devendra Banhart at his most well behaved. There are no bursts of dance music like on ‘My Fine Petting Duck’ from Mala, or searing guitar solos à la ‘Seahorse’ on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. This is the official Olympic flag bearer for the People’s Republic of Freak Folk minding his musical Ps and Qs. The result is an even quieter and more intimate offering than his most recent outings. And yet this is still a quintessentially Devendra Banhart album. The slight tremor in the vocal from the very first lines of the first song. The totally groovy, Latin-influenced tracks. And, of course, the general sense of playfulness throughout. “Me and my policeman, pulling over everyone we can, sometimes I breathalyse, and he gives DUIs”, on ‘Good Time Charlie’. There are some innovations. The slight Asian-tinged sounds on a couple of the tracks. “I heard there’s a new zoo in Thailand, so I hitchhiked on a private flight and got there, man fast!”. The many false endings on ‘Linda’. It’s all a variation on a by now familiar Banhartian theme, but what a lovely theme. “I embody the same song stuck on repeat, drunk mom in the lobby, sad cop on the beat”. This is Devendra Banhart’s ninth album no less. Relative to when he first burst upon the scene, his output has slowed down somewhat in recent times. Happily, Ape In Pink Marble proves that a new Devendra Banhart album is still something well worth waiting for.
Wilco – Schmilco
Around the time The Whole Love was released in 2011 Jeff Tweedy admitted that many people would greet the thought of a new Wilco album with a resounding ‘meh’. In fact, The Whole Love was a good album, containing one of the band’s finest tunes, ‘One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)’. Since then, though, Tweedy seems to have been trying to distance himself from that period of his musical career. The Alpha Mike Foxtrot retrospective in 2014 contained hardly any recent material. Star Wars, with its free download release last year, had a deliberate back-to-the-good-old-experimental-days vibe. And Schmilco is more than simply the latest in a string of dad-rock records too. It’s all starting to add up to a new era in Tweedy’s musical odyssey. One where he and the band are not trying to deliver anything desperately original, but where they’re not willing just to trot out one more variation on Wilco (The Album) after another either. That’s refreshing. Schmilco was recorded around the same time as Star Wars, but they’re very different beasts. Here, Tweedy’s vocals hardly ever make it beyond the level of a hushed late-night conversation. There’s a little bit of fuzz-style guitar work on ‘Someone To Lose’, but nothing like the amount on Star Wars where it was the dominant sound. Generally, Schmilco is a very quiet album. And a slim one too, running in at barely 37 minutes. Does it work? Well, sometimes it feels like Tweedy has handed over his home demos to Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche with a note to go away and fill in the gaps. Maybe the songs were all conceived and recorded as a collective unit, but on occasions it can seem like the work of a set of individual musicians. There are also times when it would be great to hear some of the songs played in full on Sky Blue Sky mode. ‘If I Ever Was a Child’, ‘Cry All Day’, and ‘We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)’ would already be classic Wilco songs by now in that event. Here, by contrast, they’re downplayed a little. In the end, Jeff Tweedy is right that some people will respond to anything by Wilco with a big ‘meh’. And it’s good that even so he still wants to shake things up a little. On Schmilco the result is much more than ‘bah’, somewhat less than a ‘wow’, and more along the lines a contented ‘hmm, not bad at all’.
Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
Angel Olsen has the spikiness of a Patti Smith or a PJ Harvey. The vulnerability of a Cat Power or a Lucinda Williams. The strength of a Sharon Van Etten or an Annie Clark. Most importantly, Angel Olsen has the ambition to create a very special record that’s a feature of any great artist. MY WOMAN is that record. It’s a tale of two sides. It starts with the punky, in-your-face, no-messing-around side. ‘Never Be Mine’ impresses with its 21st-century wall of sound. ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ gets to you right where it matters most. It’s a blast, albeit a slightly acerbic one. Turn over, though, and there’s the reflective side. You’d think the former would be the most immediate and if you don’t get ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ from the very first listen, then your musical tabs are seriously out of whack. But it’s the second side that impresses right out of the box, demonstrating that pretty-sounding songs don’t have to be about cutie-pie themes. Highlights include the ever-so-cool, late-night vibe of ‘Those Were The Days’. The guitar at the end of ‘Sister’. The lyrics throughout. “Was it me you were thinking of? All the time when you thought of me, Or was it your mother?”, from ‘Heart Shaped Face’. “I dare you to understand, What makes me a woman”, from ‘Woman’. It all culminates in the piano-led ballad, ‘Pops’. As the voice cracks, you wonder how both you and she are going to make it through to the end of the song. MY WOMAN is a very special record. And with it Angel Olsen has shown that she is a very special artist.