Category Archives: Great Albums

Review: Routines (2017) by Hoops

Routines is just one of those albums with a sound that I find impossible not to love. The music Hoops makes is the sort of stuff you just want to chill out to – to just lay back and think about things a little bit. It’s got great riffs, smooth drum machine beats, chilled out, almost psychedelic, vocals… Basically it’s right up my alley.

I’ve listened to quite few underwhelming debuts this year, and I’d say that Routines is the first one that’s really exceeded my expectations. One album in and it feels like the band have already got their sound nailed. And this is why it succeeds so well; Hoops’ debut is an album that feels very assured. The band know what sort of music they want to make and they don’t feel the need to try and act big or flashy to try and grab the audience’s attention. The whole album flows as smoothly as anything else I’ve listened to this year, with each of the songs flowing into the next effortlessly.

And yet, thankfully, each of them feels distinctive within the band’s defined ambient music-esque sound. ‘Bengals’ is a gorgeous instrumental track led by a great drum machine beat, ‘Burden’ features perhaps the catchiest hooks on the album (‘No, I don’t wanna be a burden’) and ‘Worry’ is brought to life by some very twinkling synth notes. In many ways, it reminds me of a Beach House album; when I listened to at first, all the songs bordered on same-y slightly, but repeatedly listens revealed how distinct they really are.

Another thing I loved about this album was the brevity of the tracks. Most tracks on Routines hover around the three-minute mark and, in the hands of another band, probably would’ve been stretched out longer than they needed to. ‘Rules’ is a gorgeously layered, punchy track that clocks in at just over two minutes; like many other songs on the album, it shows the band get in, say what they want to say, and then get out again. And given psychedelic music’s love for indulgence, that’s pretty refreshing.

Hoops’ debut is very much recommended. The more I’ve listened to it over the past couple of weeks, the more its grown on me. I wouldn’t say the band do anything mind-blowingly creative here, but the songs on Routines are really well put together and really enjoyable. And sometimes that’s all that good music needs to be.

Best Tracks: ‘Rules’, ‘Burden’, Worry’.

Review: After Laughter (2017) by Paramore

I’ve never really be part of the Paramore crowd in the past. And, to be honest, up until After Laughter, I’d never really listened to any of their music. I always associated them with the whole pop-punk/00s emo music crowd – bands like Asking Alexandria and Fall Out Boy (who have just put out the worst song I’ve heard in a long time) – which has never really been my bag.

However, a friend recently turned me on to their new album’s lead single ‘Hard Times’, saying they thought it was my sort of thing. Though I liked it immediately – quirky and catchy with a killer bass groove – I’ve definitely grown to love it even more now that I’ve had a few weeks to sit with it. In fact, it’s probably one of the best indie pop songs I’ve heard in a long time. And while it doesn’t do anything particularly new, I especially get clear Two Door Cinema Club vibes from it, it does what it does really well. The instrumentation is tight and well layered, it’s got a good groove, an explosive chorus that just makes you want to dance as well as some pretty solid lyrics to boot. It’s a pop song in its purest form, right down to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure, and the band execute it more or less perfectly.

After Laughter doesn’t stray from the formula of ‘Hard Times’ too much, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each song has something going for it that makes it stand out, whether it be some particularly strong lyrics or a creative bit of instrumentation, but the majority of them are pop songs like the lead single. They’re all short and punchy and are guaranteed to worm their way into your head.

The album’s second track ‘Rose-Colored Boy’ features some of my favourite lyrics on the album, exploring depression creatively – talking about what it’s like to be around people who’re happy when you aren’t. ‘Told You So’ features a fantastic guitar-driven chorus and plenty of energy. Following these two is ‘Forgiveness’, another favourite, which despite being a slower cut is still incredibly easy to get stuck in your head. The vocal delivery on this track is particularly great. Like ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, the lyrics are fantastic here as well. These four opening songs are easily the album’s high point, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to love throughout the rest of it. There are still some great songs in the album’s second half, like ‘Idle Worship’ in which Hayley William struggles with being idolised by Paramore’s fans: ‘I’m just a girl and you’re not as alone as you feel’.

Apart from the experimental ‘No Friend’, After Laughter is a pretty straightforward indie pop album, but like I said, an incredibly well produced one. Whether you’re a long-time fan or you’ve never really been into Paramore before – much like me – I definitely recommend checking out this album. It’s got a lot going for it.

Best Tracks: ‘Hard Times’, ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, ‘Idle Worship’.

Review: Flying Microtonal Banana (2017) by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

Over the past few years, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have proven themselves to be one of the hardest working bands around. Despite only releasing their debut in 2012 – having formed in 2010 – the band have put out a total of nine albums so far. Not only that, but they’ve vowed to put out at least four albums in 2017, with Flying Microtonal Banana being the first.

This wouldn’t be that impressive if these nine albums were mediocre, but they’re really not. Despite King Gizzard being a psychedelic rock band at their core, each of their albums has seen them experiment with their sound in some way. Quarters was made up of four prog rock jams totally 10 minutes and 10 seconds each, Paper Mache Dream Balloon saw the band using nothing but acoustic instruments and on Nonagon Infinity, perhaps their most impressive effort yet, King Gizzard produced an album that was an infinite loop, with all of the tracks leading seamlessly into each other – the closer into the opener included.

Flying Microtonal Banana, as the album’s title suggests, sees the band experiment with the world of microtonal instruments. Microtonality takes advantage of note intervals not commonly heard in Western music, due to the way that Western instruments are tuned. On the surface, it seems like a bit of hollow gimmick – but luckily the album produced from this experiment is nothing less than fantastic.

There is a heavy Eastern music influence in Flying Microtonal Banana – in part due to the presence of microtonal instruments – that really gives it a unique style. This influence is most evident on album highlight ‘Nuclear Fusion’ – which somehow manages to seamlessly blend together the band’s psych rock roots with some very African stylings. This influence is also very present on the instrumental closing track, ‘Flying Microtonal Banana’, making excellent use of the zurna.

It’s this album’s effortless meshing of different styles that really makes it so compelling. Though this Eastern aesthetic ties the album together as a whole, the band also experiment with a number of other different styles – such as on ‘Billabong Valley’, which is structured like an old Spaghetti Western ballad, with the band singing of a famous Australian bushranger: Mad dog Morgan / He never gave a warning.’

There are also a few classic-style King Gizzard long psychedelic jams on here, which feel like they could have fit onto previous albums with ease. These songs, ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Open Water’, are definitely some of the least adventurous tracks on the album, but that doesn’t stop them being fantastic. King Gizzard have put out so many tracks in this style that they’ve pretty much mastered writing them now. It’s a testament to the band that I can listen to Stu Mackenzie sing little more than ‘Rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattles me’ for a seven and a half minutes without getting bored.

This might not be the band’s best release, but that’s only because they’ve set the bar so high with their past releases. The only less-than-great track on here is the titular one, with it feeling slightly underwhelming as a closer despite its interesting instrumentation. Everything else, however, is gold. From the dreamy ‘Sleep Drifter’ to the stomping and distorted ‘Doom City’ and the apocalyptic ‘Nuclear Fusion’, Flying Microtonal Banana continues King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s seemingly endless hot streak.

Essential Songs: ‘Sleep Drifter’, ‘Billabong Valley’, ‘Nuclear Fusion’.

Review: The Far Field (2017) by Future Islands

With their last album, it felt like Future Islands had perfected their synth-pop formula, delivering some of their most emotional ballads yet. From break-out single ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ to the moody and growling ‘Fall From Grace’, Singles was filled with fantastic songs. As the album’s title suggests, pretty much all of them were up to ‘single’ standard.

So where next? On their fifth album, The Far Field, Future Islands don’t try to mess with their signature sound too much, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Though far from being Singles 2, the album does feature a number of songs that could have fit snuggly onto the band’s past releases. Like I said, this is a weakness and a strength. On one hand, some might find the The Far Field to be a little bit on the samey side, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – right?

The first half of the album in particular shows the band staying squarely in their comfort zone. Songs like ‘Time On Her Side’ and ‘Ran’ are instant classic Future Islands tracks, featuring powerful vocal performances from Samuel T. Herring as well as some pretty moving lyrics: ‘What’s a song without you / When every song I write’s about you?’ ‘Cave’ is another stand-out on the album’s first half, with Herring unleashing the fiercer side of voice, which is always great. It’s not the first time that Future Islands have put out a song about heartbreak, but the passion they put into it makes it feel incredibly fresh.

On the album’s second half, we do get to see the band try out some new styles. ‘Candles’ stands out through its slow pace and groovy bassline, being perhaps the most intimate song the band have released; ‘Shadows’ is an emotional duet, featuring guest vocals from Debbie Harry of Blondie; ‘North Star’ has a jumpy charm to it, with Herring reeling off lyrics with more upbeat enthusiasm than usual: ‘But if the sun don’t shine / Well, then the birds won’t sing.’ These songs are still very obviously ‘Future Islands’ songs, but these experiments with style help keep the album from feeling too samey.

One thing that sets The Far Field apart from its predecessor is that definitely feels more like a complete set of songs. At the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, it sounds more like a journey. While Singles felt like, well, single after single, this album builds up momentum slowly. Opener ‘Aladdin’ takes its time to get going, fading in slowly, with the next couple of tracks slowly raising the intensity.

There is also more thematic unity among the songs. As shown by some tracks’ titles – ‘Beauty of the Road’, ‘Cave’, ‘Through the Roses’ – as well as the album’s title, The Far Field, it is focused on the natural world. On ‘Aladdin’, Herring sings about the ‘the dew of the field’ and on ‘Ancient Water’ he dreams of being ‘patient like the forest’. On the album, the outside world is shown as something that promotes love – on many tracks Herring sings of exploring the world with his loved one – and something that hinders it, with other songs like ‘North Star’ being about the large distance between the protagonist and his love.

Whether you’ll love The Far Field or not will depend largely on how you feel about the band’s previous albums. This isn’t the album that’s going to convert you to loving Future Islands, but if you like what they’ve been doing up this point then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It may be a bit cheesy at times, but there’s no denying that a lot of heart has gone into every track.

Essential Songs: ‘Ran’, ‘Cave’, ‘Candles’.

Review: Hang (2017) by Foxygen

After releasing two fantastic albums (Take The Kids Off Broadway and We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors…) and one of questionable quality (…And Star Power) in the span of three years, Foxygen took a well-earned break. In fact, for a while it seemed like the band was done for good, with there being a lot of on-stage conflict between its two members (Sam France and Jonathan Rado) and even a ‘farewell tour’ taking place. And yet here we are with album number – Hang.

The album sees the band return to their roots somewhat, re-embracing the showtunes-y and theatrical vibe of their debut. However, where that album had hardly no budget at all (Foxygen weren’t even signed when it was recorded), Hang has an incredibly lush and grandiose production. It shows the band exploring their interest in grand theatrical music in a way that they couldn’t really on Take The Kids Off Broadway, featuring a wide array of orchestral instruments. We’re talking horns, saxophones, violins, cellos, flutes, oboes… It sounds absolutely gorgeous and grand.

But what’s great production without good songs? Hang is only a mere eight tracks long, but each of those tracks bursts with personality. They’re also all arranged incredibly well, making good use of the orchestra the band have at their disposal. Just look at the album’s lead single, ‘America’; it’s a track that’s overblown and dramatic in a way that can only be achieved with an orchestra. It showcases pretty much every instrument, with the best part being the particularly crazy instrumental section that sits in the middle of the song.

Despite the overall theatrical style of the album, Foxygen manage to dabble with a couple of genres across the album. ‘On Lankershim’ has a definite country music vibe to it, ‘America’ features a notably jazzy interlude and ‘Avalon’ is a jaunty piano-led tune with an opening that feels like it belongs in an old Western movie saloon. Sam France’s vocals are also great, with him adopting a bombastic tone that reflects on grandiose style of the album. There’s less variety with his vocals than on past Foxygen albums, but it didn’t bother me too much – mainly because he sounded like he was having a lot of fun.

If there’s one area that the album falters slightly it’s lyrics. Foxygen mainly play it safe, straying pretty deep into cliché territory at times, demonstrated most clearly on the album closer, ‘Rise Up’: ‘And believe in yourself / And follow your heart, if nothing else’. Though it seems like Foxygen are very much aware of how cheesy their writing can get. Just like the album’s big bombastic instrumentation, the lyrics are grand and broad. On tracks like ‘America’ it’s obvious that the band are just fooling around a bit with their use of clichés. The song opens with them rolling off a string of tired, wholesome American phrases – ‘Merry Christmas from the pines / Hallelujah, amen’ – making it obvious that the band are critiquing and making fun of their country rather than praising it. It’s pretty difficult not to read the song’s lyrics in a political way.

Despite the writing’s general cleverness through its simplicity, I can’t help but miss the personal and surreal lyrics that dominated the band’s first two albums. Hang is an eccentric album, sure, but there’s nothing on here than exudes the weirdness that made me love Foxygen in the first place. It’s not the band’s best album, but it’s also not their worst one… And with all the orchestral ear candy on offer it’s hard to complain too much. It’s obvious that the band had a lot of fun putting this album together and as a result it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

Essential Songs: ‘Follow the Leader’, ‘America’, ‘On Lankershim’.

Review: Semper Femina (2017) by Laura Marling

Laura Marling is six albums deep into her career and has yet to put out anything less than fantastic. From the light-hearted and fun Alas, I Cannot Swim to 2015’s electric Short Movie, she’s proven herself to be one of the most consistent singer-songwriters around today.

Unsurprisingly, Semper Femina is another great release, and potentially one of Marling’s all-time bests. In many ways it goes back on the evolution seen on her last album, where she embraced the electric guitar pretty heavily, instead going down a quieter route. In fact, it might just be the most low-key album Marling’s ever put out. Take lead single ‘Soothing’, for example: unlike the main singles for her last two albums – ‘Master Hunter’ and ‘False Hope’, both great songs – the track has a quiet, intimate sound to it. Instrumentally, it doesn’t feature much more than a guitar, a quiet drum kit, some jangling bells and a couple of soaring violins on the chorus. And it’s fitting, given that the lyrics Marling delivers feel like they belong to an intimate conversation with a lover: ‘I need soothing / My lips aren’t moving’.

And ‘Soothing’ pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the album. The theme here is womanhood (semper femina translates to ‘always woman’) and each track addresses it in a quiet and subtle mode. ‘The Valley’ has an intimate sound, similarly to ‘Soothing’, being a beautiful and delicate track about a woman’s loss. ‘Wild Fire’ sees Marling return to the more American influenced tones of Short Movie, and it succeeds through her dry lyrics, addressing a close female friend: ‘You always say you love me most when I don’t know I’m being seen / Well, maybe someday when God takes me away, I’ll understand what the fuck that means’. ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Always This Way’ are similarly strong, making for a pair of melancholy songs about lost friendship.

‘Wild Once’ is perhaps Semper Femina’s only weak link. It’s not a bad song per-say, but is the only one on the album that feels like its filling time. Luckily it’s followed up by a fantastic closing trilogy of tracks.

‘Next Time’ is another introspective/melancholy song – Marling does seem to beat herself up a little bit on this album – and features some lovely guitar work as well as some lovely violin work. Marling’s vocals, as she tries to prove that she can change, are incredibly gorgeous. Basically just an incredibly pretty and moving song. ‘Nouel’ is similarly wonderful – being possibly the most personal song on an album full of personal songs. The closer, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ features Marling finally busting out her electric guitar again and to great effect. The majority of the song roars along and Laura’s lyrical delivery is once again fantastic: ‘Nothing, no, not nothing, no not nearly’. But fittingly to the album, the song closes with a gentle and impressive acoustic guitar solo.

Semper Femina reinforces Marling’s identity as an incredibly talented and an incredibly consistent musician. While I was hoping for Marling to follow the direction that Short Movie hinted at, I’m glad that she took this route with the album instead. It’s one of her bests and easily my favourite album of the year so far.

Essential Songs: ‘Soothing’, ‘Next Time’, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’.

Review: Infinite Worlds (2017) by Vagabon

Despite its brevity, Vagabon’s debut album has a lot packed into it. Across its eight tracks, Laetitia Tamko touches on a variety of topics – from failing relationships to losing someone’s cat – and does so in a variety of musical styles. ‘Minneapolis’ has a fierce electric guitar driven indie rock sound, ‘Alive and A Well’ features no instruments other than an acoustic guitar, ‘Cold Apartment’ is a stripped back ballad with a pulsating drum beat and ‘Mal à L’aise’ is swirling and synth driven… Also it’s sung in French. There’s a lot of variety here, and yet, somehow, all of the songs feel like they fit together.

If there’s one recurring theme on this album, it’s feeling small. As Tamko sings about in the opening track, the wonderful ‘The Embers’, it’s feeling like a small fish in a world full of sharks. It’s about wanting to escape and wanting to have your voice heard. (I don’t normally bring politics into my reviews, but it’s an album that feels particularly relevant given that you-know-who has recently taken the presidential office in America.)

There are some incredibly powerful moments on this album that are the result of Tamko’s fantastic voice as well as her lyrics. ‘Cold Apartment’, the highlight of the album for me, offers her most powerful performance… Her voice swells with emotion on the song as she reflects on a relationship that she thought would last: ‘And we sit on my cold apartment floor / Where we thought we would stay in love.’ The lyrics are moving as it is, but the vocal delivery is what really powers this song. The instruments surrounding Tamko’s voice are fairly minimal, because it’s only her voice that’s really needed to drive the emotion of the song home.

‘The Embers’ is another song where Tamko’s voice really shines. It builds as the song progresses, tracking the grow in confidence of the protagonist. At first it’s quiet and almost hesitant (‘I feel so small’) eventually building towards an almost shouting finish where she confronts those that make her feel small (‘You’re a shark that hates everything’). Other songs like ‘Fear & Force’ and ‘Alive and A Well’ are driven by the vocals, and while the instruments are solid on most songs, it really does feel like they’re mainly in service to Tamko’s voice.

Infinite Worlds is a really promising debut from a band that still seems to be working out its sound. There’s a lot of different styles on this album and a lot of experimenting – which is definitely not a bad thing. It’ll be really interesting to see where they go next.

Essential Songs: ‘The Embers’, ‘Minneapolis’, ‘Cold Apartment’.