Alela Diane – Cusp
The last time we crossed paths with Alela Diane was about five years ago. About Farewell was a bleak, but beautiful album that chronicled in no small detail the decline and fall of a relationship. Then, there was no looking forward, only back. And with a mix of both regret and resentment. Now, though, things are very different. With a new partner and two young children to boot, the focus is straight ahead. “I’d rather be an albatross, flying high, Than in the tail winds, looking back at what I left behind”. And the theme is unashamedly one of family. A new family. “She took shelter in my womb, And I felt her tiny feet, Kick me from the inside”. Creatively, of course, the fear is that domestic tranquility will always crowd out the ever popular tortured artist effect. And, for sure, this is not an album for the angry, the restless, or even the mildly irritated. But it is a very honest album nonetheless. Things come to a head on ‘Never Easy’, which describes how motherhood has led Alela Diane to reevaluate her relationship with her own mother. “I didn’t know how much you loved me, I didn’t know until I had my own little daughter”. It’s a very poignant admission. And it’s a sign that in its own very different way, Cusp is as revealing as its predecessor from five years back. Let’s hope we cross paths again sometime soon.
I was over the Uncut website and I came across John Mulvey’s list of his favourite albums of the first six months of 2017. I like John Mulvey and his writing. This time, though, I was struck by the fact that the list included 60 albums, now increased to 66. With 26 weeks in the first six months of the year or just over 180 days, he has included on average about 2.5 favourite albums per week or one about every three days. Now, let’s assume that he has left the same number of albums off his list. This means he has devoted quality listening time to about five albums a week, or one for every day and a bit. In fact, this figure is a little generous, because there aren’t very many releases in the first couple of weeks of January. Now, John Mulvey is a professional music journalist. He listens to music for a living. It’s his job to spot good music quickly and he’s good at it. All the same, my guess is that he has devoted at most about a day’s listening to the albums he’s calling his favourites of the first half of 2017. That’s not very much.
Here are my top five albums of the year so far. They are all cherished listens. And quite some time has been spent with them. What’s more, last weekend saw the release of three albums – Fleet Foxes, Jason Isbell, and Kevin Morby – that are all candidates for a top five spot. But I’m still getting to know them. So, I’m not going to include them here. Maybe they’ll feature in December’s end-of-year list? In the meantime, here’s my summer solstice favourites.
Conor Oberst – Salutation
Ryan Adams – The Prisoner
Holy Holy – Paint
Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth
Jeff Caudill – Reset The Sun
Happy Record Store day. This week’s stand-out release is Jeff Caudill’s new 6-track EP/mini-album, Reset The Sun. It’s an alt-country road record about someone who has made “some questionable life decisions and is struggling with forgiveness and starting over“. Musically, it’s a ways away from Jeff Caudill’s previous work with Gameface. Here, we’re deep in the heart of Son Volt territory. And if anyone was disappointed with Jay Farrar’s recent blues-based album, then Reset The Sun can fill the gap very nicely. It’s country, but not Bro-Country. It’s rock, but not Dad-Rock. The song craft is exceptional. The break in the middle of ‘Tears In My Eyes’ is a particular favourite. And the playing is top notch, with the keyboards making a real difference on all the songs. So, if you looking for some slightly down-at-heart songs with a few upbeat hooks, then Jeff Caudill’s new release is for you. It’s available on vinyl and CD from all good record stores. And there couldn’t be a better day to try to track down a copy at one. Essential.
Holy Holy – Paint
Fan of early 1980s Rush, but don’t like Ayn Rand? Then Holy Holy are for you. Paint is their sophomore album, building on an already sublime debut, When The Storms Would Come. With hints not only of Rush (‘True Lovers’), but also The Police and Foreigner, Paint captures an era when rock ruled supreme. But it’s no fake copy. No paint-by-numbers, if you will. The colours are fresh. The experience is vivid. It’s full of inspired touches. The break out at the end of ‘Willow Tree’. The riff on ‘Darwinism’. The bass on ‘Shadow’. With Paint, Holy Holy have delivered a modern-day masterpiece. And one thing’s for sure, their work will only increase in value.
Conor Oberst – Salutations
Conor Oberst has hit upon a great new idea. In October last year, he released Ruminations, a stripped-down set of new songs. Now, he’s released Salutations, a ramped-up collection of the same songs plus seven others. Whereas previously there was just himself on acoustic guitar or piano plus the occasional harmonica, here there’s a full band. The two albums complement each other really well. They’re not just the equivalent of a tired-old Deluxe edition. There are no outtakes. There are no demo versions, though the songs on Ruminations were always refreshingly immediate and raw. And there’s perhaps just one change of lyric, courtesy perhaps of the lawyers. On ‘Counting Sheep’, “[Someone] got killed walking to school, Hope it was slow, hope it was painful” becomes “Billy got killed walking to school, Hope it was quick, hope it was peaceful”. The result is two separate, but related albums, containing songs that are familiar yet transformed from one iteration to the next. In this manifestation, the band includes the great Jim Keltner on drums, plus sundry visitors, including M. Ward, Gillian Welch, and Jonathan Wilson. The most telling presence throughout, though, is that of Ian and James Felice. They bring their trademark controlled raggediness to the proceedings in a way that allows these versions to remain fundamentally true to the ‘difficult’ originals from last year. And the seven new songs are welcome too. In fact, you can almost hear some of them in full on Ruminations mode. ‘Overdue’ is perhaps the best example, “I’m in bed beside some jailbait, Meghan’s passed out on the staircase, Michael’s searching for a good vein, Tomorrow comes we’ll do the same thing”. Maybe Salutations was the idea all along. In which case, Ruminations is the treat. Or maybe it was only ever intended to be Ruminations. In that event, Salutations is the icing on the cake. Two different, but similar albums won’t work every time with every artist, but here it’s an inspired choice. And maybe there’s more. On the recent tour, there was another variation. Conor Oberst plus a solitary bass player. That sounded really good too. Time for the live album perhaps?
Her Harbour – Go Gently Into the Night
Thanks to everyone who has sent me their music in the last few weeks. I listen to everything and I’ll post some other nuggets in the near future. In the meantime, one album that has really stood out is the new release by Gabrielle Giguère, who records as Her Harbour. It’s one of the most minimalist albums that I’ve heard in a long time. Wintry-sounding. It’s perfect for the northern hemisphere season that’s in it. More than that, set against the backdrop of death, hence the allusion in the title, these are songs that weigh heavily on the psyche. Happily, though, some of them come with the most beautiful melodies attached. My favourites, if that’s even an appropriate term in this context, are ‘Chime and Knell’ and ‘Memento Mori’. The album is available from 3 February from Her Harbour’s Bandcamp site. Highly recommended.
There’s a new Florence + The Machine track out. It’s called ‘St Jude’. The patron saint of hope in desperation. Enough of that already. While the full album will probably be completely over the top, this track is much more reserved. And really rather nice. The forthcoming album, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, is out on 1 June.