Widowspeak – Expect The Best

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Four years ago, Widowspeak released an EP called The Swamps. There was a wonderful onomatopoeic quality to the music. It was sweaty and sultry, and listening to it generated a certain sense of foreboding. There isn’t the same onomatopoeic element to Expect The Best, but Molly Hamilton, the singer and lead song-writer, certainly knows how to evoke a mood. Written in the Pacific Northwest, it’s sometimes disorientating, like being lost in an seemingly endless forest of trees. And perhaps there’s more to it than a simple simile. The music is built around Hamilton’s vocals, which have a certain slightly breathy, Hope Sandoval, 90s dream-pop aspect to them. It means that the dynamic range is deliberately diminished, as if the sound is being at least partly soaked up by an immense dark green mossy floor. The result is Widowspeak’s most rewarding album to date. Whereas the rocky peaks could have been elevated as high as Mount Rainier on Expect The Best, here they’re reduced to the level of Mount Formidable. Still magnificent, but not overwhelming. And well worth the trip.

Angus & Julia Stone – Snow

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Angus Stone is a sort of modern-day, Australian Jim Morrison. But with a better sense of self-preservation and fewer pretensions to poetry. His Instagram account is full of wonderful photos. The chest is often bare. The beard is always scraggy. The glass is typically more than half full. And there’s frequently a lady around too. Sometimes, of course, it’s his sister. Julia Stone is a sort of suburban, southern hemisphere Lana del Rey. She’s carefree, coquettish, and more than a little come hither. All the same, the evidence from her solo album is that she’s probably not one to be messed with either. Together, Angus & Julia Stone make a great brother-and-sister musical team. They’re certainly not pop. They’re definitely not folk. And they’re not really indie either. It’s both a blessing and a curse. They have a certain cross-over appeal, but they’re likely to leave hardcore folk, pop, and indie devotees a little wanting. Their main strength is that in the space of about four minutes, they know how to get into a great groove. ‘Cellar Door’ is a case in point. It’s quite a trick. And it makes for a really good album so long as you’re not expecting an exercise in pure folk, pop, or indie. Which is more than fine.

Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile To The Surface

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To say that A Black Mile To The Surface is about an old-time, gold-mining town is like saying that the Songs: Ohia classic, ‘Farewell Transmission’, is about a power cut. For sure, the fifth full-length release by Manchester Orchestra features references to Lead, South Dakota, a real-life, old-time, gold-mining town, and there are mentions of caves that collapse and of people searching for a way out. But, as with any song written by Andy Hull, the undisputed band leader and now sole-surviving member of the original line up, the literal is never meant to be taken literally. The allusions come thick and fast. And, as ever, it’s useful to have a dictionary nearby, “Forced myself to take a different name, Buried with metonymy”. On previous albums, the lyrical complexity has been offset by a certain musical simplicity. Cope, an ear-bleeding set of songs, was accompanied by Hope, featuring acoustic versions of the same. This time, though, things are slightly different. This is no live-in-the-studio release. Here, even the overdubs have overdubs. It could all get a little cluttered and crowded, but it doesn’t at all. The production is designed to accentuate the signature Andy Hull melody at the heart of the song. And the three-track suite, ‘The Alien’, ‘The Sunshine’, and ‘The Grocery’, stands out in particular. Andy Hull and Manchester Orchestra have always been a band worth rooting for and with A Black Mile To The Surface they’ve delivered their best album to date. Just don’t go thinking it’s a concept album about an old-time, gold-mining town. It’s probably that, but certainly much more.