Simone Felice – Strangers

Two Studies of a Seated Nude with Long Hair

Simone Felice is in a good place. In 2010 he nearly died. Emergency heart surgery saved his life. Still recovering, his first post-op album had a distinctly dystopian side to it. There was theft, murder, more murder and, most nightmarish of all, a song about eloping with Courtney Love. Fully recovered, he’s back. And how. Whereas his previous outing was often a pretty sparse affair, his new album is a fully realised creation. There’s a band, including friends and relatives. ‘Molly-O!’ sets things off in lively fashion. And ‘Gettysburg’ fairly clips along, making it more like the address than the battle. ‘If You Go To LA’ is a classic Simone Felice song, reminiscent of ‘If You Ever Get Famous’. And ‘Heartland’ is perhaps the stand-out track. It’s so familiar, it sounds like it should be a cover of a much-loved 70s song. Yet it’s a Simone Felice original. But utopia comes at a price. Before, a major part of the attraction was hearing about the antics of Bobby Ray, Hetti Blackbird, and a cast of often disreputable, if not downright dangerous characters. But, here, they’re largely absent. ‘Our Lady Of The Gun’ continues some of the Second Amendment themes of its self-titled predecessor and ending the album with a song called ‘The Gallows’ is a sign that there can be trouble in paradise. For the most part, though, this is, whisper it, an almost happy-sounding album. Is it the worse for that? Absolutely not. But there’s a different vibe for sure. In an interview, Simone Felice recounts that you can actually hear the ticking of his automatic heart valve on at least one of the songs on the album. It’s a life-affirming sound. And that’s the vibe that dominates Simone Felice’s new album.

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The War On Drugs – Lost in The Dream

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Thrilling. That moment before a track plays for the very first time. When you just know it’s going to lift you up and sweep you along. And it starts. And it does. And it’s thrilling. And the new album by The War On Drugs is chock full of those utterly thrilling moments. It’s built on a simple foundation. There’s always a solid backbeat. More often than not, it’s an almost monotonously solid backbeat. Creating the energy, but not getting in the way. Allowing everything else to play off around it. And over the top there’s always a guitar line. Sometimes it barks at you in a Neil Young-like angry way. Sometimes it weaves its way carefully in and out of the song. It’s a dizzyingly simple foundation. And then the beauty begins. Simple piano melodies. Shimmering synths. Plain keyboards. More guitars. Both simple acoustic and effected electric. Saxes. Saxes? Yes, saxes! And, most of all, huge, magnificent, majestic, transcendent chord changes. It all combines to create a resolutely earthy and yet totally trippy sound. A blue-collar fiesta of an album. An album to get lost in. MH370 lost in. Only once does it take a misstep. Three tracks in and ‘Suffering’ brings you right down. It’s not the only slow track on the album, but it’s the only miserable one. Otherwise, this is an eyes-closed, head-wobbling, foot-tapping, mind-cleansing collection of songs. On Lost in The Dream Adam Granduciel has created this year’s first and, who knows, perhaps only masterpiece. An album full of tracks you don’t want to end because they’re so good. Tracks you want so much to end because you know the next one is going to be even better. It’s thrilling.

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Elbow – The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything

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Elbow have done their level best to alienate their core demographic. Lads. Blokes. Laddish blokes. Happy married couples who once swapped vows to the strains of ‘One Day Like This’. Recently divorced couples who once swapped vows to the strains of ‘One Day Like This’. Unmarried early thirty-somethings who still sing-along to the life-affirming, but ever-so-slightly-ironic anthems of The Seldom Seen Kid. They’re all gone. The previous outing, Build a Rocket Boys!, was enough to put off most of them. It was just so slow. The latest offering will do for the rest. And, like its predecessor, what a great album it is. There’s a point on the first track, ‘This Blue World’, and at about 3.40 to be precise, where they could have changed gear and burst into yet one more life-affirming, but ever-so-slightly-ironic anthem. And, gloriously, they resist the temptation. In fact, they resist it so utterly and completely that there’s nary a one throughout the whole album. Admittedly, there are times when it makes things just a little dull. A little one-paced. ‘Honey Sun’ and ‘My Sad Captain’ are the equivalent of a Sunday afternoon nap in front of the TV. But most of the album is full of great, yet beautifully understated hooks. ‘Charge’ and ‘Fly Boy Blue/Lunette’ both contain wonderfully hummable choruses. The title track picks up the pace and gets into a great, almost stoner-like groove. And there are so many internal rhymes in ‘Real Life (Angel)’ that you can only sit back and wonder. And yet, for the lads, the blokes, the couples, ex-couples, and single-bed singletons who bought The Seldom Seen Kid in their droves it still won’t be enough. This is not the Elbow of a certain age. This a new Elbow. A different Elbow. And more power to them.

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Real Estate – Atlas

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On their new album, Real Estate issue an open invitation to compare them to their mid-80s indie jangle-pop counterparts. The results are in. They’re more melodic than McCarthy. More shiny than The Brilliant Corners. More sturdy than The Field Mice. Much more. Less trotskyite than The Redskins. Not difficult. More canine than Miaow. And on ‘Crime’ when they sing “Toss and turn all night, Don’t know how to make it right, Crippling anxiety”, you’d swear it’s déjà vu all over again. That’s a good balance sheet. But there’s a big difference. Mid-80s indie guitar bands were populated by very serious young men (mainly) making music in a rather ramshackle way. And the ramshackleness of it all was a major part of the attraction. By contrast, Real Estate would probably be great fun to have a drink with, but they take music making seriously. Really seriously. Atlas comprises 10 perfectly performed tracks, none of which is a moment too short or lasts a second too long. And all of which are produced absolutely beautifully. It’s a treasure. Sublime. A musical artefact. A truly good album. And yet, it’s just a little difficult to get lost in. With not a note out of place. With every composition so carefully structured. With so much thought having gone into to generating such a wonderful set of songs, it feels just a tiny bit forced. Only occasionally does it break free. ‘Had To Hear’ starts things off really well. ‘Primitive’ stands out. And ‘Navigator’ brings things to a close very nicely. But it never quite transcends. More than 25 years ago on Foxheads Stalk This Land, The Close Lobsters delivered 10 frantically jejune indie guitar pop tracks. Nine were the same length as the average Real Estate song on Atlas. But on the last song, ‘Mother of God’, they spaced things out and let themselves go. Is Atlas a better album than Foxheads? Absolutely. But would it benefit from a little more ramshackle transcendence at times? Yes, it probably would. And that would make for a truly great album.

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St Vincent

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The latest offering from St Vincent is a choir of clangs. A symphony of squiggles and squonks. A bedlam of booming, burbling, belching bass lines. All on a giant, epic, industrial scale. And all conducted, constructed, concocted in a way that generates hook after hook after sing-along hook. In one way it’s a logical progression from Strange Mercy. The same elements are present. This time, though, there’s an undisguised resoluteness of purpose. A hard-headed, lip-biting, eye-squinting desire to deliver something different. And not just something different from previous St Vincents, but something different from anyone else around at the moment. Mission accomplished. The pace of the album is exhausting. “Sweatin’, sweatin'”, she sings on the opener. “Runnin’, runnin'”. The sound is exhilarating. There’s never an minimal minim, or a quivering quaver. And the lyrics are a typical St Vincent mixture of the hilarious. “Oh what an ordinary day, Take out the garbage, masturbate”. And the downright scary. “Pleasure, Dot loathing, Dot Huey, Dot Newton, It was a lonely lonely winter”. Annie Clark has spoken of her desire to make an edgy album. But be careful what you wish for. Things rarely remain on the edge for very long. And in music, today’s edginess is tomorrow’s museum piece. Yet there’s just enough here to keep St Vincent out of the collection of mid-2010s items. And more than that. There’s also one genuine classic. In contrast to the furious fuzziness of the rest of the album, ‘Prince Johnny’ is simply sublime. Harking back to the most beautiful songs on Actor, it’s that moment when the fog lifts and the light shines through, revealing not an urban wasteland but a vast, verdant vista. St Vincent could be Annie Clark’s masterpiece. ‘Prince Johnny’ certainly is.

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Sun Kil Moon – Benji

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Mark Kozelek delivered two of the finest albums of 2013. The first in conjunction with Jimmy Lavalle. The second with Desertshore. Both were full of beautiful songs, with sad but not depressing lyrics. “Somehow the wonder of life prevails”. Only a few months later, he’s back again. This time he’s largely by himself and performing under his Sun Kil Moon moniker. The album has received some of the best reviews of his career. Pitchfork awarded it a 9.2. The Line of Best Fit gave it 9/10. The Guardian called it “utterly riveting”. So, what’s the problem? Well, in one way, nothing. The lyrics are as a powerful, poignant, funny, moving, intimate and, yes, as crushingly sad as usual. Whether it’s the story of him being afraid of an albino in kindergarten and that evening his Dad putting on an Edgar Winter album to reassure him, or him simply encouraging us to remember “the families that lost so much in Newtown”. Whether it’s about how he confesses that he won’t have the courage to sort through his mother’s things when she passes, or how he recounts multiple deaths of second cousins, uncles, grandparents, friends, innocent victims, and serial killers. Every story is touching. Utterly riveting indeed. And, at times, the delivery is also captivating. ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’ is wistful and tender. And on tracks such as ‘Dogs’ and the beginning of ‘Ben’s My Friend’ there’s more of the wonderful rap-style of singing that he’s recently perfected. But something doesn’t fully work this time. Maybe it’s because the previous albums were collaborations, but the songs on Perils From The Sea and the Desertshore album just sounded better. More melodious. Here, some of tracks lack imagination. ‘I Love My Dad’ chugs along to the most primitive beat. ‘Jim Wise’ tinkles unremarkably. And on ‘Ben’s My Friend’ the saxophones actually spoil the delivery of some of the great lines towards the end of the song. Mark Kozelek is a poet. On ‘Carissa’ he even describes his words in that way. And he’s someone who delivers his poetry through music. There are times, even on this album, when the mixture of the two is almost unbearably beautiful. But here, there are also times when the music lets them down a little. With luck, though, another album will come along later in the year. And the thought of that is still something to savour.

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Band of Horses – Acoustic at The Ryman

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The best ideas are the simplest ones. Band of Horses playing an acoustic set. Now that’s a genius idea. The guys like to thrash out the heavy numbers. And they can be really good at them. But some of the best Band of Horses songs are the more thoughtful ones. ‘Window Blues’ from Cease To Begin, ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ from Mirage Rock and the magnificent ‘Reilly’s Dream’ from the Sonic Ranch sessions. Now, having debuted the idea on a Spotify exclusive, they’ve taken a bunch of their most well-known songs and given them the full acoustic treatment. And at The Ryman no less. The good news is that they sound great. The interplay of the piano with the guitars works really well, keeping the melody up front while giving the songs a nice new sound. ‘The Funeral’ really stands out and ‘Factory’ picks up a melancholy that was slightly buried before. But they do make a couple of strange choices. For one, there are no drums. Maybe it makes things more acoustic, more authentic, but it also means that some of the arrangements lack a little lustre. And then there’s the song selection. For the most part, they’ve chosen tracks that are already pretty down tempo. ‘Neighbor’, ‘Marry Song’, ‘The Funeral’, ‘Detlef Schrempf’. Only a couple of choices are originally up tempo numbers. One, ‘Wicked Gil’, is totally transformed. Slowed down, it’s almost unrecognisable and in a really good way. But, amazingly, ‘Weed Party’ is the revelation. While sometimes the down tempo song selection make things sound just a little too reverential, this one is allowed to retain its zip. It’s only a shame that it’s not on the standard version of the album and that a few more like it aren’t included in the set. (Tip: try You Tube). Band of Horses acoustic at The Ryman is a genuinely good idea that works really well. Next time, break out the drums, play ‘Ode To LRC’ and things would be perfect.

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