Julia Stone – By The Horns

Angus and Julia Stone had a nice brother-and-sister thing going on. One song by him, one song by her. Angus channelled 1970s-era Neil Young. Try ‘Yellow Brick Road’ from Down The Way. Julia was the Nicolette Larson figure. A distinctive voice, but in the shadow. Generally, Angus had the more memorable tunes. Julia punctuated them nicely. But you kept going back to his songs. Now, both are solo acts. On paper, Julia has the tougher job. She has a great voice. Slightly breathy. Baby doll. But with the potential to be samey over the course of an album. To work, a Julia Stone solo album has to have variation. She has to resist the temptation to swaddle the lovely vocals in a pleasantly strummed guitar and polite percussion in a way that makes any given song sound lovely, but the whole a little anodyne. Variation is what resulted from the collaboration with her brother. Here, there’s a certain range. Nothing too dynamic, but something different to listen to across the album as a whole. And the lyrics say something too. Sure, on one track she really, really wants to live with someone in California. We know because she tells us so often. But the title track gives us more. Here, she sings with real feeling and pretty soon it’s obvious why. ‘You spread your darkness like a disease, Then you offered your body as the only remedy’. Things only get worse. ‘You had me by the horns, You had her in the same bed while it was still warm, My hair was still on the pillow, My clothes were still on the floor’. This is a really nice album. Worth going back to. And, guess what? There’s an Angus Stone album out in a couple of weeks. Watch this space.

Julia Stone official website

Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

This is an album of fleeting glimpses. In songs that last scarcely two-and-a-half minutes, and arrangements that offer hardly any orchestration, Paul Buchanan provides quiet observations on the world around him. For the most part there’s just Buchanan’s voice and a piano. The piano provides the melody and Buchanan sings just before or just after it. There are no backing vocals. No chorus. Musically, it’s so still that on the final track you can hear birds singing in the background. In such an intimate context, two elements have got to combine. First, the music must be memorable. It is. The pace is slow, very slow, but there’s a lovely cadence. The melody from ‘Mid Air’ is made to stick in your mind. ‘The Cars Are In The Garden’ will live with you. With The Blue Nile, there have been times when Buchanan has succumbed to the baritone/falsetto temptation. Not here. Almost everything is soft, deep. You can feel him in the room with you. Second, the lyrics must communicate something. They do. At times, they’re confessional. “Later when you told me about this, I was confused I was upset, And all I needed was a kiss”. At times, they’re beautiful. “The buttons on your collar, The colour of your hair, I think I see you everywhere, I want to live forever, And watch you dancing in the air”. There are no stories, but there are images. “The astronaut in God’s blue sky, Dreaming of a summer day, And waving his last goodbye”. Like his contemporaries, Mark Hollis and Kate Bush, we don’t get to know Paul Buchanan on this album, but we do get to be with him for a short time. And that’s pleasure enough.

Paul Buchanan official website

Beach House – Bloom

There is now a unique Beach House sound. It’s not the shimmery synths or the arpeggio guitar. They’re standard dream pop. What sets Beach House apart is the voice of Victoria Legrand. Deep. Compelling. There’s a fullness to the vocals that’s absent from similar bands. Sure, sometimes the lyrics get lost, but it doesn’t matter. Her voice is integral to the overall sound. Another instrument. The phrasing is slow. Unrushed. The vowels go on and on. They lift up ever so slowly and then fall more slowly still. The effect is a wonderful sense of space and more than a hint of melancholy. On Bloom, the Beach House sound has been perfected. Like on the previous album, Teen Dream, none of the songs on Bloom outstay their welcome. They’re given time to develop, but there’s no room for self-indulgence. However, perhaps because the Beach House sound has been perfected, Bloom is also a little less immediate than its predecessor. There are fewer stand-out songs. Fewer commercial-ready tunes. Beach House are a serious outfit and increasingly so. That’s not to say that the songs on Bloom are difficult to listen to. They’re intricate for sure, but they’re no exercise in contrapuntal polyphony. There’s just slightly less joy than before. And that’s because, more and more, the songs are built around the voice of Victoria Legrand. That’s no bad thing. Maybe because of her upbringing, she sings the songs from a slightly other place. And that makes them, and Beach House, both interesting and different.

Beach House official site

Richard Hawley – Standing At the Sky’s Edge

Around the time he released ‘Coles Corner’, Richard Hawley made a bunch of acoustic versions of older songs free to download from his website. Beautiful versions of ‘I’m On Nights’, ‘The Nights Are Cold, ‘It’s Over Love’. Seven years on, times have changed. His previous release, ‘Truelove’s Gutter’, was a more ambitious affair. Grander. Fuller. Longer. Satisfying. Building on these developments, Standing At the Sky’s Edge pushes the boundaries further still. The photos on the digital booklet give it away. Close-up pictures of guitars, phaser pedals, and distortion knobs turned up to 9.5. This is the psychedelic Richard Hawley. Does it work? Not really. That distinctive voice finally emerges from the noise on track 5. Up to that time, it’s been drowned in a sea of reverb and just plain sound. And the lyrics? The bitter-sweet, everyman-yet-transcendant Richard Hawley lyrics? Who knows? At times they’re almost indecipherable. But all is not lost. Songs like ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’ start off slowly, build up and then take-off. It’s an old trope, but it sounds good. ‘The Wood Colliers Grave’ is the best song on the album. It’s also the shortest. It’s a simple song, but here the psychedelic Richard Hawley fills it with a mystery that it wouldn’t have had as a straightforward ballad. Restless, Richard Hawley is probably his own harshest critic. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why he always wants to move on. And that’s good. The next album will probably be quieter. Calmer. The free downloads disappeared from Richard Hawley’s website pretty soon after he became an international treasure. It’s a shame. It’s good to move on, but it’s good to have a reminder of the past too.

Richard Hawley official website

Daughn Gibson – All Hell

In the same way that James Blake brought R&B into the post-techno age, Daughn Gibson is aiming to do the same with country music. So says his record label. Or, rather, labl. Even though there’s a sense with this album that one vowel is always unnecessarily absent, it’s an intriguing listen. The vocals are 50s-era baritone. Or Scott Walker, if you prefer. There’s a drum beat over samples of old country songs. It shouldn’t work. But it nearly does. It works a lot better than old country songs. There’s nothing maudlin about the sound. There are scratches from the original recordings. There’s often a piano, but always syncopated with the rhythm. Yes, there are lyrics about terminally ill children, but, honestly, it’s not a depressing listen. Singing over orchestrated samples of old country albums, there’s nothing remotely like it. And yet, Mr Gibson manages to make it insufferably cold. It’s not a depressing listen, but there’s no cheer either. Nothing welcoming. Nothing to like. To love. And not because of the old country samples. But because of the post-techno production. Take the title track with its lyrics about terminally ill children. In old country songs, you might start off indifferent to the story that unfolds, but in the end you’d care at least a little. You’d feel something. Here, you feel the same at the end of this song as you did at the beginning. There is something genuinely captivating about this album. Something stylistically unique. But nothing emotionally rewarding. And in the end good music has to illicit some sort of emotional response.

Daughn Gibson – official website

Jack White – Blunderbuss

This is unmistakably a Jack White album. The thin voice. The cold production. This is unmistakably a Jack White album. The angry riffs. The aggrieved, cutting, remorseless riffs. This time, there’s plenty of reason to be angry. The lyrics capture the break up with Karen Elson or perhaps Meg White. Allegedly. “I hear a whistle, that’s how I know she’s home. Lipstick, eyelash, broke mirror, broken home”. Ouch. “She don’t care what kind of wounds she’s inflicted on me. She don’t care what color bruises that she’s leavin’ on me. She’s got freedom in the 21st century”. Oucher still. Well, the Karen Elson album that you produced was full of murder ballads. Allegedly. So, Mr White, what did you expect? ‘Sixteen Saltines’ is the classic Jack White song. All bluster. But while there’s plenty of drums and guitars, there’s more to the music than just that. ‘Love Interruption’ reads brutally, but sounds composed. Keyboards. Acoustic guitar. Backing vocals. ‘Blunderbuss’ suggests it should be the noisiest, fearsomest track on the album. But with its backing of pedal steel guitar and double bass, it just lies on its back and waves its legs in the air. And that’s what works. Thirteen angry guitar-driven songs might have been very cathartic for Mr White, but it would soon have outstayed its welcome. Like someone you let sleep on your couch because they’re having a tough time, but who you soon want to kick out because they sure do moan a lot. You wouldn’t wish on anyone the obvious pain and torment that provides the background to these songs. But they sure make for a great album. Allegedly.

Jack White – official site

Simone Felice

As part of The Felice Brothers, Simone inhabits the shadier part of town. Not quite the wrong side of the tracks, but close by. Guns are either present or not very far away. Simone and his brothers, Ian and James, get into situations their mother probably warned them against. There’s usually drama in the songs. It makes for interesting listening. Recording as The Duke and The King, Simone Felice is in a much more benign place. Topanga Canyon circa 1975. At home with bands such as Dawes, Maplewood, and the arch-revivalist, the magnificent Jonathan Wilson, the mood is laid back. Hazy. With a slightly acrid smell in the air. His mother probably warned him against plenty of things that are going on there as well, but, on balance, she’d probably be happier he’s there and not in the other place. Now, Simone Felice has released his first self-titled project. The sounds don’t stray too far from the canyons, but the cast of characters suggests that he’s been hooking up again with his brothers. On ‘New York Times’ he sings about a 35-year old from New Jersey who “with a thirty-thirty, found them girls rehearsing in a ballet school, And when he bust in and point his musket he turned the lilly white muslin into bright red bloom”. Other characters include Bobby Ray, a rapist; Dawn Brady and her son who, guess what, has a gun and you know he’s gonna use it; Hetti Blackbird, an Indian from South Dakota who steals a gold Range Rover; Sharon Tate and Charlie Manson, and we know what happens there; and, most frighteningly of all, Courtney Love. Simone imagines himself in a relationship with the lonely Ms Love. ‘Take a chance and come away with me’, he sings. ‘I’ll work construction’. Suffice to say, there’s no sign of a happy ending. Mr Felice, it’s your mother on the phone again.

Simone Felice – Official website