Dream Wife – Dream Wife

Following a string of impressive singles, Dream Wife’s debut album is here. Boasting a strong alt-rock sound with a feminist edge, the style the band go for isn’t entirely fresh but they pull it off incredibly well. Fronted by Rakel Mjöll and her violent vocals (with Alice Go on guitar and Bella Podpadec on bass), at their best, they deliver up fantastic punchy anthems full of aggression and energy.

When the songs land here, they really do. The aforementioned impressive singles – ‘Let’s Make Out’, ‘Somebody’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Hey Heartbreaker’ – open up the album in a long line. All of these tracks have the same verse-chorus pop song structure, but there’s just about enough variation between them for the songs to stand out from each other. ‘Let’s Make Out’ starts things off on a huge high-note; I love Mjöll’s screaming, raw delivery of the song’s title on the chorus. ‘Hey Heartbreaker’ is similarly high-energy, with plenty of shouting again and even some peppy hand clapping. ‘Somebody’ and ‘Fire’ are both gentler in tone, but no less solid. The lyrics on these songs aren’t anything remarkable, but they’re fun and memorable.

Unfortunately, the album seems to lose its footing after these opening tracks. While the rest of the album is far from bad, nothing really matches up to those first four songs. We get a number of slower, less poppy tracks, such as ‘Kids’ and ‘Love Without Reason’. Both of these songs shift away from screaming vocals, opting for a more tender sound… But Mjöll’s voice doesn’t work half as well when she’s speaking softly. It’s way more suited to big, melodramatic songs about heartbreak than quiet ones about friendship, like ‘Kids’ (even if it has the most lyrical depth out of any song on Dream Wife.) In comparison, ‘Love Without Reason’ falters largely because of its lack of lyrical depth, pretty much jumping between a one-line verse and a one-line chorus for the entirety of the song. It just feels underbaked.

The songs in the second half in which the band return to their energetic punk-rock sound work better. ‘Taste’ and ‘F.U.U.’ are both solid, fun songs, featuring huge choruses… But they’re held back by the fact that the band have done the whole ‘quiet verse and loud chorus’ structure better before, making it hard for them to stand out. They’re fine, they’re fun – but there’s not much more to them than that. And in a way, that’s how I kinda feel about Dream Wife as a whole. It’s a really enjoyable rock album with tons of attitude, but you’ll probably get everything out of it on the first listen. I just can’t see myself coming back to it much.

Best Tracks: ‘Let’s Make Out’, ‘Somebody’, ‘Hey Heartbreaker’.

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Tune-Yards – I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life

I first got into Tune-Yards a few years ago after hearing their song ‘Bizness‘ on a TV show (Transparent, if you’re curious). I don’t normally look up songs I hear on the TV, but I found myself really drawn to the track; it had a certain playfulness to it that loved, with singer Merrill Garbus’s sampling her own voice and playing it like an instrument. I found this same playfulness and inventiveness running through all three of Tune-Yards’ albums when I checked them out, and I quickly began to really love them. They’re a band that fills their songs with hand claps, laser sound effects and weird vocals – like Garbus imitating siren – giving them a sound that’s really unlike anything else.

This playfulness leaks into the Garbus’s lyrics a lot as well, even as she deals with big political and social issues. Their songs have dealt with everything from cultural appropriation (‘Gangsta’) to taxes and droughts (‘Water Fountain’), with Garbus approaching these topics in unique and off-kilter ways. This juxtaposition between Tune-Yards’ fun feel and the serious issues their songs address is a large part of what’s made the band so impressive to me in the past. 

Following up 2014’s Nikki Nack, Tune-Yards new album I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life doesn’t abandon these two defining features of their music – it’s still playful and it still deals with heavy issues. Purely musically, it might be the most impressive album that the duo, Garbus and Brenner, have put out yet. It takes their sound in a number of new directions – in particular, a more dance music inspired one. Tune-Yards pull off this new, more danceable sound pretty effortless and I Can Feel You Creep definitely feels like the poppiest they’ve ever been.

‘Heart Attack’ and ‘Look At Your Hands’ make the strongest arguments for a dancier Tune-Yards, with both songs having an immediate appeal to them. ‘Heart Attack’ balances fun and darkness perfectly (I love Garbus’ ‘heart attack-tack-tack’ delivery on choruses) and builds to a fantastic climax. It features Tune-Yards’ usual instrumental ticks, including handclaps and some solid bass work from Brenner, as well as few new sounds, including a very 80s sounding synth. ‘Look At Your Hands’ similarly balances Tune-Yards childlike characteristics (the lyrics punctuated with Garbus’ la-ing) with some very retro instrumentation, shown most clearly by the drum loop that opens the song. There’s even a really nice synth solo – again, very 80s – that comes in towards the end.

Though these two songs were the clear highlights for me, there are plenty of other musically interesting moments in the tracklist, such as the creeping ‘Coast to Coast’ and ‘Colonizer’ with its manic finish. It’s only really towards the end of the album that I think the instrumentation on I Can Feel You Creep becomes a bit lacklustre; songs like ‘Who Are You’, ‘Private Life’ and ‘Free’ come across as underbaked to me. They don’t feel like fully finished songs, rather ideas that still needed a bit more development.

However, it’s in its lyrics that the album falters most for me. As always with Tune-Yards’ albums, I Can Feel You Creep is heavily concerned with social issues – Garbus stated in an interview that the album primarily deals with her own whiteness – but the way that it explores them is a lot less nuanced and interesting than the way the band’s past releases did. While I definitely think it’s admirable for Garbus to discuss her own white privilege and potential appropriation of other cultures (Tune-Yards has always been very heavily influenced by African music), it doesn’t make for a compelling listen. Again, these themes are nothing new for Tune-Yards, but on older songs like ‘Gangsta’ there was a certain cleverness and sense of character to the lyrics that made them shine… Most of the time on this new album, however, Tune-Yards plays things pretty straight.

Almost every song on I Can Feel You Creep is concerned with issues of whiteness; ‘ABC 123’ sees Garbus confronting her own white centrality, ‘Now As Then’ focuses on her guilt for appropriating music from other cultures and on ‘Colonizer’ she addresses the privileges of being a white woman: ‘I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially, generally for me’. While there’s a sense of creativity to the band’s instrumentation as always, the lyrics definitely feel lacking this time around. Garbus brings up some interesting and important topics but it rarely feels like she has anything worthwhile to say about them.

Luckily, a lot of the tracks (at least in the album’s first half) are able to get by on the strength of their instrumentals, and there are a few where the lyrics do work as well. As I mentioned before, ‘Heart Attack’ and ‘Look At Your Hands’ are great; Garbus keeps the lyrics vague and almost childlike on these songs (especially on ‘Look At Your Hands’), giving them an interesting angle on the topics they address. ‘Colonizer’ is also fantastic. There’s a great sense of synergy between the instrumentation and lyrics, with the song building to a powerful and purposefully uncomfortable climax.

But overall, I Can Feel You Creep is a lot less consistent than Tune-Yards’ past albums. It feels like the band took one step forward and two steps back, taking their sound in an interesting new direction while losing some of their lyrical creativity at the same time. Despite this, there’s still a lot to love here and definitely still worth checking out if you’re a Tune-Yards fan.

Best Tracks: ‘Heart Attack’, ‘Colonizer’, ‘Look At Your Hands’.

 

Shame – Songs of Praise

There are no moments of praise on Shame’s debut album. What might be mistaken as a collection of softly sung hymns based on its tongue-in-cheek cover, is, in fact, a whole lot more – blending post-punk and rock, ugliness and anger.

Shame have made a name for themselves over the past few years through their infamous live shows (which may involve the lead singer stripping down to his underwear), leaving Songs of Praise with a lot to live up to. Luckily the band don’t disappoint; the album is a versatile one, with each song having a distinct feel to it. From the Q&A style ‘Concrete’ to the punchy and incoherent ‘Donk’, Shame do a good job of keeping things interesting. They also take influence from a wide variety of bands, with The Fall, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses among other (including some modern bands) shining through their songs at times. While they label themselves as post-punk, they do toy with other genres too.

Because of this, the album rarely feels repetitive and the songs definitely hit more often than they miss. Probably my favourite moment in the tracklist is ‘The Lick’. Backed by a slow and sinister bass riff (that sounds like the audio equivalent of a dark alley), Charlie Steen rambles on in a stream-of-consciousness style. Starting off talking about a trip to the gynaecologist, he quickly wanders onto a number of other topics, with the song including a pretty funny rant about the NME. Shame have stated that an earlier version of the song clocked in at just under eight minutes, and it’s not hard to see why.

‘Concrete’ is another highlight. The call and response structure of the song does a good job of summing what the band is about, focusing on the anxiety and worry that young people feel about today’s society. The verses are a barrage of existential questions (‘Do you alone? Do you feel replaced?’) which the singer shows his desire to break free from on the chorus: ‘No more questions’. ‘Gold Hole’ also stands out, showing Shame at their most compelling unpleasant, with it focusing on a woman’s affair with an older man (‘She knows it’s wrong, but she feels so good in Louis Vuitton‘). It’s a great bit of commentary on consumerism that walks a fine line between being clever and nauseating.

Closer ‘Angie’ is the album’s most anthemic moment, resembling 90s Brit-pop (reminding me of Oasis’ ‘Champagne Supernova’) more than post-punk. Unlike most of the tracks on Songs of Praise, ‘Angie’ avoids social commentary instead of being a love song – though a twisted one. The protagonist sings about his love for a woman who hung herself, leading to lyrics that dance between romantic and disturbing. It shouldn’t work, but it does. And at almost seven minutes, it feels grand in the way that the best album closers do.

Although their debut is heavily indebted to old-school post-punk, Shame still seem to have carved out their own sound – each track bursting with its own sense of character. While Songs of Praise isn’t perfect, it feels like they achieved what they and set out to do on it. It’ll be interesting to see where they go next.

Best Tracks: ‘Concrete’, ‘The Lick’, ‘Angie’.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland

When King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard announced their plan to release five albums in 2017, a lot of people were worried that it would lead to a quantity over quality situation. It’s not like the band weren’t already prolific when it came to releasing albums at a fast pace (last year’s Nonagon Infinity was their eighth album despite the band only forming in 2010).

Now that we’re four albums deep into the band’s five-albums-in-a-year experiment, I can say – personally at least – that the band’s 2017 output has been pretty mixed. While I loved Flying Microtonal Banana – easily one of my favourite King Gizzard albums – Murder Of The Universe and Sketches Of East Brunswick (which I didn’t around to reviewing) both felt lacking. While both of them had some interesting stuff going on in them, they felt pretty disposable as a whole. Since they were released a few months ago, I’ve felt no real desire to go back and revisit them.

So what about Polygondwanaland? While the album is definitely a step up from Murder Of The Universe and Sketches Of East Brunswick, I still wouldn’t say it ranks among the band’s best work (except maybe lead single ‘Crumbling Castle’). More than ever before, it feels like King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are beginning to run out of steam a bit. While the band explore a few new ideas on the album – taking a lot of inspiration from prog rock and polyrhythms – it comes across as King Gizzard by the numbers. It doesn’t feel like they do much here that they haven’t done better on past releases.

Let’s start with the album’s main highlight: ‘Crumbling Castle’. This monstrous 11-minute track ranks among the band’s best songs, flowing along steadily before building to a huge climax. It’s impressive that the band are able to keep things interesting for so long, changing things up along the way just enough to hold the audience’s attention. King Gizzard sound like a well-oiled psych rock machine on this song, all the instruments meshing together incredibly well. It feels effortless and dense at the same time in a way that the band’s best songs do.

The album’s other nine tracks feel distinct from the opener, blending into each other in a characteristically King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard way. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because it helps the album feel like one long journey – the songs’ lyrics even tie together narratively – and bad, because it makes it difficult for any one song to stand out by itself. Almost every track on here has its own quirks and unique flourishes – like jittery vocal delivery on ‘Inner Cell’ or the spacey ambient section on ‘The Fourth Colour’ – but few of them feel memorable. Despite the featuring the same sort of seamless transitions between songs, every track on Nonagon Infinity feels wholly unique and can stand by itself – but I can only say the same for a handful of tracks on Polygondwanaland.

It’s a solid album, don’t get me wrong, and given that it’s the band’s fourth in a year, it’s way better than it has any right to be. But I can’t help but feel like King Gizzard have been stretching themselves too thin lately – reliably delivering good but forgettable albums rather than great ones. Let’s just hope that once this year is over, they’ll slow things down a bit.

Best Tracks: ‘Crumbling Castle’, ‘Deserted Dunes Welcome Weary Feet’, ‘Inner Cell’.

Alex Lahey – I Love You Like a Brother

Following up last year’s excellent B-Grade University EP, the debut album from Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Alex Lahey is a fantastic amount of fun. It’s filled with clever lyrics, energetic instrumentation, big hooks and maybe my favourite song title of the year (‘Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder’) – basically, it just ticks all the boxes.

I Love You Like a Brother is incredibly consistent across its ten tracks, offering up punchy song after punchy song. The opening stretch is particularly strong – with lead single and album opener ‘Every Day’s the Weekend’ exemplifying Lahey’s appeal really well. It isn’t the sort of song that tries to reinvent the wheel, but instead, I guess, just succeeds in making a really good wheel. It’s amazing how on-point everything is here; the lyrics are fun and memorable (‘Fuck work, you’re here, every day’s the weekend’) and the song’s sound progresses just enough to stay interesting. Sure, it doesn’t really break free from the usual verse-chorus-verse structure, but Lahey and her guitar barrel through it with such energy that it doesn’t really matter.

Things don’t let up for a while after the opener, with ‘I Love You Like a Brother’ and ‘Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder’ being similarly punchy. Both tracks are big and catchy like ‘Every Day’s the Weekend’ (‘I love you like brother, just like I oughta‘) and they also do a good job of showing off the cleverness of Lahey’s songwriting. On ‘I Love You Like a Brother’, she breaks away from the usual love song mould, putting together a great track about sibling relationships. It has a really genuine and honest feel to it. ‘Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder’, on the other hand, is technically another song about love – but Lahey frames it cleverly. Rather than talk about the break up the track is about directly, she filters it through her relationship with the city where it happened: ‘Perth is lucky that she’s pretty, otherwise I’d hate that city.’

And this is the main appeal of I Love You Like a Brother for me; Lahey does a fantastic job of balancing the cleverness and emotion in her lyrics. Despite most of the songs on here being about relationships – not exactly an original topic – they never feel generic. ‘I Want U’ opens with a string of close observations about a guy Lahey is enamoured with (‘You’re the kind of person who likes the go to the movies alone’) which really helps bring the song to life. The people she sings about always have a sense of character to them – they don’t feel like the faceless love interests you get in a lot of pop songs these days – which is something I appreciate. The way she gets her emotions across is also great. Like I said, relationships are not exactly an original subject-matter, but Lahey always does a good job of expressing her feelings for someone without resorting to clichés, such as on the hook on ‘Backpack’: ‘I find it hard to put my arms around you when your backpack’s on’. It’s a bit goofy, but it feels really genuine.

‘There’s No Money’, easily the album’s slowest song, is also its saddest. It abandons the fun pop-punk energy that’s present throughout most of the album in favour of a more ballad-like feel. The lyrics here are great as always – with Lahey dwelling on the fear that her life is going nowhere – but it does a particularly good job of showing her great use of sound. The song starts off quiet, with only vocals, a guitar and a drum machine beat – reflecting on the lonely feel of the lyrics. But things begin to build on the second verse, with the drum kit, bass guitar and even some choral backing vocals coming in. Eventually, things come to a big finish, closing out the album really nicely.

I Love You Like a Brother is incredibly consistent, especially for a debut album. Even the album’s weaker songs (like ‘Awkward Exchange’) are hard to dislike too much. Everything moves along quickly, there are only a couple of songs that go over the four-minute mark, meaning that Lahey doesn’t give you enough time to get bored with one sound before she moves onto the next one. Bottom line: it’s a fantastic album that you should check out. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.

Best Tracks: ‘Every Day’s the Weekend’, ‘I Want U’, ‘There’s No Money’.

Wild Beasts – Punk Drunk & Trembling

 

Last month, UK art rock band Wild Beasts announced they were splitting. Personally, as a huge fan of their work, it was depressing news. Though their last album, 2016’s Boy King, was by far their weakest (it felt like the band were trying too hard to gain more mainstream appeal), it was by no means awful. I hoped the band would bounce back from its lukewarm reaction, but instead they’re breaking up, leaving behind one final release – an EP made up of leftover songs from the Boy King recording sessions.

Given that this is Punk Drunk & Trembling’s background, it’s not surprising that the EP feels thrown together. Only one song on it is actually new – the title one – with the other two having been released previously as bonus tracks on Boy King’s deluxe edition. On one hand, it’s a shame that such a consistently fantastic band is ending things with a release that honestly feels very inessential… But then again, on the other hand, I suppose it’s better than nothing.

‘Punk Drunk & Trembling’ is the EP’s main highlight. Though it’s a leftover Boy King track, it’s surprisingly better than at least half of what made it onto the album. (Though I can see realistically that there’s nowhere in the tracklist that it would’ve fit in naturally.) The song does a great job of combining the swaggering masculinity of the band’s last album with the more vulnerable and emotional sound found on their earlier releases. Hayden Thorpe’s vocals on the track have a real sadness to them, as do the synths that linger in the background. The lyrics are also incredibly melancholy – ‘Why dry the tongue, what’s done is done’ – which helps the song feel like a fitting parting note for the band.

The other two songs, while not bad, definitely do feel like leftovers. Like ‘Punk Drunk & Trembling’, a big part of why they didn’t make it onto Boy King is because they don’t fit the album’s mood – yet, unlike it, they also don’t really surpass any of the songs that did make it on. ‘Maze’ is the better of the two; it’s the most stripped-back song the band have put out in years, placing all emphasis on Tom Fleming’s vocals. That’s not entirely a bad thing, because Fleming’s vocals are fantastic as always – it’s just that there’s nothing particularly interesting going on here. You can find similarly low-key Fleming-led songs on Smother or Present Tense that are more powerful lyrically and more interesting instrumentally.

‘Last Night All My Dreams Came True’ fares worse though. Sandwiched between two much sadder tracks, it doesn’t fit the EP’s overall mood well or the circumstances surrounding its release. Driven by a squelchy drum beat, the song sort of meanders along. The only thing I can really say in its favour is the vocal interplay between Fleming and Thorpe, but even that isn’t particularly great. Both of them sound bored on the track and it’s not difficult to see why.

At only ten minutes long, there isn’t a lot to take away from Punk Drunk & Trembling. The title track hints at what direction the band might’ve taken next, but unfortunately we’ll never know for sure. Even if this isn’t the send-off that a band as good as Wild Beasts deserves, it is – as I said before – better than nothing.

St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

MASSEDUCTION is an album full of contradictions. It’s St. Vincent’s most unabashedly poppy album and yet it also feels like her weirdest one. It’s loud and blaring in places and quiet and tender in others. It’s fun – and it’s also heartbreaking. If it’s not Annie Clark’s best album, it’s at least safe to say that it’s her most interesting one.

With 2014’s self-titled release, it felt like Clark had perfected St. Vincent’s sound. Songs like ‘Birth In Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ felt like cumulations of the weird style she had been striving for from her very first album… So where could she really go next? In answering this question, MASSEDUCTION takes two different paths; half of the album sees St. Vincent go even further down the weirdness rabbit-hole, while the other half shows her taking things in an incredibly stripped down and emotionally honest direction. The divide between these two styles is the album’s greatest strength and its great weakness… It almost feels like Clark is torn between two worlds.

The album’s first half is full of that distinctive St. Vincent weirdness, with tracks like ‘Los Ageless’ and ‘Pills’ being pretty much instant classics for her. ‘Los Ageless’ has all the usual makings of a solid St. Vincent single – the thumping drum machine, the wailing synths, the distorted guitar riffs – and could’ve easily fit onto Clark’s last album. ‘Pills’ is similarly great. Sound-wise, it has a great childlike feel to it, with the peppy synths and Cara Delevingne’s chanting chorus vocals (‘Pills, pills, pills, every day of the week’). I also appreciate the shift that the song takes towards its end, avoiding a big finish in favour of a gorgeous and soft acoustic guitar-led breakdown.

‘Masseduction’ is another of the album’s best ‘weird’ songs, even if there isn’t that much to it. It basically centres around a single line which Clark chants over and over (‘I can’t turn off what turns me on’), but it’s such a great mantra for St. Vincent that I don’t really mind the repetition. But while the high level of repetition works on this track, it doesn’t really on ‘Sugarboy’ – easily the album’s weakest track. While it’s not completely awful – Clark’s seductive delivery on the verses is particularly good – the loud, obnoxious chanting of ‘BOYS’ and ‘GIRLS’ does get old incredibly fast.

As I said before, MASSEDUCTION feels like it’s split between two worlds – and this becomes increasingly clear in the album’s second half. Apart from ‘Fear The Future’ and ‘Young Lover’, every track has a quiet, intimate feel to it, with Clark being as emotionally open as she’s ever been before. There’s even a couple of piano ballads – a far cry from the eccentricity usually associated with St. Vincent. The first of these, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, is heart-wrenching and shows just how good a storyteller Clark can be. It demonstrates that there’s a lot more to her appeal beyond her unique instrument choices. The second of these ballads, ‘New York’ – which centres on Clark’s break-up with actress Cara Delevingne – is slightly weaker overall, but just as emotionally raw: ‘You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.’

The album’s closing tracks dial up Clark’s emotional openness even further, delivering some of the artist’s most down-right depressing work. A common problem I’ve had with St. Vincent’s past albums is that they felt like they ran out of steam (or solid songs) before the end – this is especially true with 2014’s self-titled release. MASSEDUCTION, however, avoids this problem by saving its best tracks till last. The lyrics to ‘Slow Disco’ are beautifully sad (‘Slip my hand from your hand and leave you dancing with a ghost’) and the string arrangements that hang in the background just intensify this. It’s a moving break up song that again shows how powerful Clark can be even when she strips back her sound. ‘Smoking Section’, the album’s closer, is somehow even more depressing and just makes you want to give Annie a hug. She knocks herself down pretty heavily – with there even being some suicidal imagery – leading to one her most powerful and difficult to listen to songs.

And it’s the emotional honesty on tracks like this one that really makes the album for me. It’s easily St. Vincent’s messiest and most inconsistent release, containing some of her most forgettable songs, but it also feels like one of her most important ones. And besides, break ups are messy – so shouldn’t an album born out of one be messy too?

Best Tracks: ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Smoking Section’.

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