Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
Anais Mitchell’s previous work, Hadestown, was special. Transposing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to Depression-era America, she kept the poetry of the original and added melody. She was helped by an ensemble that included Bon Iver, playing Orpheus himself. It was magnificent. Totally original. On her new work, Young Man in America, again she gets a little help. This time, though, the songs stand alone. There’s a general theme of birth, children, parenting, death, but no over-arching narrative. Yet still she creates a wonderful, coherent whole. In part, it’s because of the songcraft. She likes to create a tension both musically and lyrically. This was central to Hadestown, but it’s here too. There’s repetition in the songs, but they’re never repetitive. “When he said, when he said he was leaving / I took up the violin. When he said, when he said that my body he’d not miss / I became a sculptress. When he said, when he said that my face he’d soon forget / I became a poet”. For ‘The Shepherd’ she retells another old tale, this time a short story that her father wrote as a young man. She turns it into pure poetry. “Said the shepherd to his wife / ‘The crop of hay is cut and dried. I’ll bale it up and bring it in / Before the coming storm begins’. ‘Go’ she said ‘and beat the storm / And then there is another chore. Today the baby will be born / You’ll take me to the hospital’”. At the risk of giving away the ending, the shepherd’s wife never makes it there. Like Hadestown, Young Man in America is compelling. Somewhat less ambitious. Slightly less orchestration. But just as beautiful.
Anais Mitchell – Official site
First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
A sign of a great album is that you feel you’ve heard all the songs before. They’re familiar, but fresh. They’re easy to get into your head, because they’re familiar. But they stay in your head, because they complement the sounds that are already there. A sign of a bad album is that you feel you’ve heard all the songs before. They’re familiar, but derivative. As soon as you’ve heard them, you forget them. At best, they might make you want to return to the original, but if they do then it’s at the expense of the copy. The Lion’s Roar makes you feel you’ve heard all the songs before. And it’s a great album. It’s clearly coming from a certain place. ‘Emmylou’ gives you a clue, but, as if that wasn’t enough, it name checks Gram and Johnny and June as well. But this is no Elite Hotel 2. No Return of the Grievous Angel. The songs might be inspired by a sound past, but the spirit is new. The harmonies soar. And sometimes they transcend. Near the end of ‘Dance to Another Tune’, the song just takes off in a different, wonderful direction. Sure, there’s a familiarity to The Lion’s Roar. But in a good way, creating its own precedent that others will want to follow.
First Aid Kit – Official website
Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
Vic Chesnutt’s ‘Grim Augury’ opens with the tolling of a southern bell. It welcomes in a world where a baby is being cut out with an antler-handled carving knife, where catfish are wriggling in blood and gore in the kitchen sink. It’s humid. If you can sleep, then the dreams are bad. But the family living there thinks it’s normal. Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ also opens with the tolling of a bell. Sounds southern. At this point, Lana could be the youngest daughter of the Chesnutt family. Scarlett. She has a way with words. She’s got a tar-black soul, but she knows a man who’s as sweet as blood-red jam. She’s got a friend who eats soft ice cream, but whose liquor’s top shelf. There’s a glasshouse and I bet it’s unbearably hot in the summer. But Lana Del Rey’s world suddenly changes. She heads to New York. She finds the northerners beaux and she learns a new way of talking. Cooler, but utterly vacuous. You can still hear a certain southern sound, but behind it the bass is bigger, the beat is blander, the hook is familiar. Too familiar. The folks back home miss her. But in ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’ she says that she’s never going back. That’s a shame. When she was there she really made a mark.
Lana Del Rey official site
Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
Kathleen Edwards first album, Failer, was a tawdry affair. It could have been set in a trailer park. It was peopled by folks whose best years were already behind them. Women who drank. Husbands who were being played by the people they were playing around with. Kathleen Edwards almost certainly didn’t live there, but she made you think she did. It was a peek behind life’s dirty curtains. Four albums in, she no longer lives there. She’s been on a journey. Away from the ditch and towards the middle of the road. It’s a safer place. More predictable. Less captivating. She sings about a House Full of Empty Rooms, but it’s in a nice suburb. Sure, she’s had a difficult period in between times. Man-wise, particularly. But she’s got through it. It’s left her with stories to tell, but they’re more obviously her stories. She lives in a big house now, but there’s less room for the imagination. And yet, she’s still Kathleen Edwards. The voice remains. And sometimes, Change The Sheets and Going To Hell, there are glimpses that she’s finding a new sound. She may have moved out of the trailer park, but the suburbs contain their own demons. Kathleen Edwards may yet be discovering new ways to express them.
Kathleen Edwards official site
Laura Gibson – La Grande
Laura Gibson’s previous album, Beasts of Seasons, was an atmospheric affair. It was dense. Thick. Misty. It dragged you in and you got lost in it. It was a stayer. But she needed to develop. Beasts of Seasons 2 would not have had the same impact. With La Grande she’s definitely moved on. Nowhere is this more evident than with the first track. The title track. Immediately, there is more instrumentation. There’s a beat. Sure, the lyrics are mildly disturbing, but it’s warmer. It welcomes you in. The same goes for other tracks. ‘Skin, Warming Skin’ has a creepier theme, but with a fuller sound than Beasts. ‘The Rushing Dark’ is just plain creepy. But it’s not all good news. Maybe Laura got a little lost in the mist. Two of the tracks, ‘Lion/Lamb’ and ‘Red Moon’, have a syncopated, slightly latin feel that obscures the song as a whole. In ‘The Fire’ various pots and pans get banged around in a campfire collective sort of way. ‘Crow/Swallow’ sounds like an outtake from Beasts of Seasons. The phrasing is exactly the same. It’s lovely, but, wait, hadn’t she moved on? What was really rewarding about Beasts was it coherence. By contrast, while La Grande has plenty of lovely moments, it doesn’t entirely come together. It’s a place worth visiting, but one that’s a little more difficult to get lost in than others she has created. And that means you’re not likely to stay there for quite so long.
Laura Gibson official site
The High Highs EP
The High Highs aren’t lo-fi bedroom music-makers, dour emo-envying nu-shoegazers, or 80s synth-pop revivalists. So, they already have got something going for them. They’re a collective. So, presumably, while one of them is writing a song, another is washing the dishes. They have also recently released a 4-song EP. Melodic, catchy, well orchestrated. They have an earlyish Grizzly Bear vibe going on, though without the craft of, say, On A Neck, On A Spit. The two earliest songs, ‘Open Season’ and ‘Flowers Bloom’, are immediate. You’ll like them after just a few notes, if you like bands with an earlyish Grizzly Bear vibe going on. The newer songs, ‘Ivy’ and ‘Horses’, show a certain development. ‘Ivy’ is slower, more contemplative. It works. ‘Horses’ is, as far as I can figure it out, a song about, well, horses. It works too. So far, the High Highs have produced 13 minutes of really good music. On this showing, a whole album would be a bit dull, mainly because the singer, Jack Milas, has a vocal range that would make a chicken coop seem large. However, if they can flourish in a way that Grizzly Bear have done, then they will be worth staying with.
The High Highs official site
The Black Keys – El Camino
This is an album that doesn’t overstay its welcome. 11 songs. 38 minutes. No solo frills. No long drawn-out endings. Just the beat, the melody and that’s it. Move on. Everything about this about is tight, except the feeling it creates. You will not be able to get some of the tunes out of your head. You will want to dance or at least throw some neat air-guitar shapes. Sure, the lyrics are sixth-form standard, or maybe Dan Auerbach really has had a series of girls that he’s loved and lost (and pretty quickly by the sounds of it). Yes, the influences are there for everyone to hear. Is that a Led Zeppelin riff? Was that T-Rex? Actually, no, it was Sweet. Ballroom Blitz anyone? But, so what? This is a great album. A bit like one of Dan Auerbach’s seeming relationships, you’ll want to move on pretty quickly. But, in the time that you live with this album, it’ll take you over.
The Black Keys official site