Folk, Singer-songwriter

Harp Samuels Channels Loss Into Experimental Folk

In 2017, midway through promoting his debut album “Wanting”, Harp Samuels received the news that his father had passed away. Returning home to Melbourne (he has dual citizenship of Australia and New Zealand), be began to channel his grief and confusion into his art. Initially planning to produce a short film and the accompanying soundtrack for it, as work progressed the soundtrack gradually blossomed in scope and importance to the point of eventually overshadowing the film it had been conceived to accompany.

It was this soundtrack that evolved into Samuels’ upcoming album “Breathe”, to be released on the 14th of September. The seismic rupture with the past of his father’s death was mirrored in a striking left turn musically—drifting away from the sparse folk of “Wanting”, “Breathe” incorporates influences from ambient and electronic music, with vocoder and synthesiser beginning to seep into the sound. The results are often homespun choral music, the celestial tones paralleling the churchyards and funeral parlours death forces one into, and the incorporation of distorted sounds expressing “the tension involved with grief and change”, in Samuels’ own words.

Mixed with analogue gear in Melbourne’s Sing Studios, the album nonetheless journeys away from the tangibility of acoustic instruments into more opaque and ambiguous musical and moral territory. This push and pull of the intimate and the infinite is captured in “Closure in C”, a song recorded on the piano owned by Samuels’ father, before it was sold. In time hopefully Samuels will find this closure, but for now he has a desolate and emotionally rich album to offer. CO


Pop, Rock

Rare Americans- “Balmoral Hotel” Review

Although rock is often spoken of in wistfully familial terms, this bond of blood is literalised in Rare Americans, a band comprised of frontman James Priestner, his brother Jared and guitarist Lubo Ivan. With “Balmoral Hotel”, the band forge their own concoction of smooth pop hooks, rapped verses and rolling soft-rock sheen. The band’s most immediately striking feature is Priestner’s nervy, nasal flow, evoking a little of Counting Crows or even Twenty One Pilots in his loose and emotive semi-rapped, semi-sung delivery over a rock backing. However, this is only the most noticeable facet of the band’s genre-bending—the sultry female vocal interjections and clean, crisp production evoke modern pop, but the squalling solo that slews the track to a climax and prominent acoustic guitars once more recall rock.

The track is complemented by the hazy soft-focus of its video, mirroring the lyrical references to drinking and drugging until you’re “numb in the face”. This is heightened by the video’s drab monochrome giving way to an eerie swaying blue that slips in and out of slow motion during the intoxication sequences. Although it all ends, with dispiriting inevitability, with footage of the band playing in a bar, this traditionalism is at least cushioned by the narrative caveat of the performance being filtered through the unreliable perspective of the video’s protagonist. The striking visuals on show will doubtless enhance the song’s commercial viability, and as it currently stands at nearly 900,000 YouTube views at the time of writing, Rare Americans’ sleek brand of pop, rock and hip-hop is beginning to pay serious commercial dividends. CO


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Chillout, Electronic, Jazz

Uno Prism- “Into Place” Review

The vibraphone is not the typical stepping stone to commercial success, but Uno Prism makes a surprisingly convincing case for it, integrating it seamlessly into a rich and layered musical landscape. “Into Place” blends lushly cinematic strings, the loose swing of jazz drumming and sweet, heady plumes of vocal harmony into an alluring collage of sound. The sheer number of different instruments and tones that are displayed here without sounding jarring or arbitrary alone is impressive, and the earthy, spontaneous jazz rhythms provide a welcome counterpoint to the synthetic sweeps of strings.

Uno Prism’s training as a classical percussionist reveals itself in the subtle, textured rhythms of the verse. Incorporating faint hand-claps and the sturdy twang of walking double-bass, the track takes a surprising detour into sensuous, moody R&B. However, its greatest strength is its ability to cycle through these different musical tones while retaining a palpable sense of atmosphere and space. To nit-pick, the crystalline, reverberant vocals here are a little unremarkable, but they complement the track effectively and are more than compensated for by the richness of the music that surrounds them. Overall, this is a striking recording and an intriguing introduction to Uno Prism. If her music is consistently of this standard, the possibilities for her career are endless. CO


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Chillout, Electronic

Steele- “Paroxysm” Review

Born Sara Steele in Stockholm, there’s certainly something of the frosty Scandinavian melancholia to Steele. Floating on the outskirts of the Big Time™, racking up 5 million streams and only missing the 2017 Elle fashion show because of a bout of Meningitis, “Paroxysm” seems custom-tooled to be the final crack that brings the dam crashing down into mainstream acceptance. The elegant, hushed vocals and quiet grandeur on show here evokes Lana Del Rey, while the sweeping soundscapes recall the xx, Steele’s musical trajectory intersecting with mainstream tastes.

Opener “Machine” adheres smoothly to this formula, splicing sparse, arena-friendly drums, flares of cinematic synth and Steele’s own languid vocals. “I’m a fuck machine” she declares in a striking moment of wait-a-minute incongruity, but this flicker of lyrical transgression vanishes as quickly as it appears. For the majority of the album, Steele’s vocals are used more as a musical instrument than a conveyer of lyrical meaning, and although this enhances the album’s atmospherics it also robs it of a tangible sense of identity. Indeed, an easy comparison here is Lorde, both in the smoky intimacy of the vocals and the minimalistic beats, but “Paroxysm” lacks the wit and emotional resonance of a “Pure Heroine” or a “Melodrama”. Despite the smoothness and slickness of the album’s surface, at times it can be difficult to unearth a tangible sense of identity to Steele.

However, the artist does show intermittent musical range here. “Looking For You” is a welcome stylistic break into imposing, trap-inflected pop faintly reminiscent of Björk’s “Army of Me”, all thudding bass and distorted electronics. “8AM” is a sweeping, swooning digital torch song topped by a crackling, subtly emotive vocal, and perhaps the album’s highlight. On “Opium”, Steele’s signature atmospherics are spun in a striking fever-dream of echoing vocals and pulsing percussion. However, the stylish production that enhances the latter track proves to be a mixed blessing for the album as a cohesive work. The tracks here are rendered smoky and opaque, beams of light only occasionally slicing through a murky sea; while atmospheric, it has a tendency to blur the songs into one another.

This lack of definition is perhaps the central flaw of “Paroxysm”. Even after listening to a full album ostensibly about her life, the listener is left with no real impression of Steele beyond the booming production that shrouds her vocals. The sleekness of her aesthetic simply isn’t enough to distinguish her from the innumerable other artists in her now-saturated genre of minimalist electro-pop. However, there are flashes of potential here that could be built upon in further releases, most notably “8AM” and the melancholic sweep of “Machine”. CO


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Jazz, Rock

Arctic Monkeys- “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino” Review

A lot has changed since 2013. 5 years may as well have been a lifetime ago, especially given the incessant, eminently changeable turbulence of the past few years. When Arctic Monkeys released “AM” into those mists of time, the narrative framing the record was one of triumph and finality—the home-grown wunderkinds finally cracking America, and sailing off into some implied sunset. Thus, the real question is now what to do with the world now that it sits in the palm of your hand? What comes after the credits?

Thankfully, the band have transformed what could have easily lapsed into an epilogue into the opening act of some strange new chapter. Rather than settling into stasis, the band have treated success not as a straightjacket but a blank cheque, questing off into unexpected sonic vistas in perhaps their most off-kilter, studiedly wry release. The clipped hip-hop grooves of “AM” are out in favour of faded-glamour piano balladry, spacey jazziness and a seemingly endless stream of absurdist lyrical non-sequiturs—“My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl’” intones Turner on the hallucinatory sway of “American Sports”, and croons of a “Swamp monster with a hard-on for connectivity” on the Captain-Scarlet-meets-Black-Mirror balladry of “Science Fiction”. This is the space age filtered through the low-res, coked-out excess of the ‘70s: “karate bandana, warp speed chic, hair down to there, impressive moustache”.

But the future isn’t what it used to be, and such an album becomes strikingly anomalous in the media landscape of 2018. “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino” seems almost precision-tooled to shear off the band’s casual fans in its careful maintenance of a mid-tempo docility, with even the impish lilt of lead single “Four out of Five” only ramping up the intensity as it draws to a climax. Turner’s washed-up lounge-lizard persona is a knowing extension of the greaser sex god facade of “AM”, and on first listen the album is spun into relative impassivity by the spongy vagueness its musical elements merge into, which the cavernous, swampy production does no favours. This complete dearth of clarity and immediacy will guarantee the album divisiveness, but over successive listens certain elements gradually begin to rise into focus: the gorgeous intersection of chords and melody on “Golden Trunks”, or the mellow beauty of the chorus of the ludicrously named “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip”.

While the album’s retro musical stylings can become exasperating in their traditionalism, when viewed in the context of Arctic Monkeys’ discography this album is anything but traditional. Almost completely shedding the angular hooks that made their name, the “Pet Sounds” by way of “Moonraker” aesthetic here is complemented by a level of lyrical density and richness unusual even for Turner. Whether it’s the final frontier or not, it’s certainly an intriguing left turn. CO


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Big Dik Blak- “Tales From Wreck Deck” Review

When aliens survey the monuments of human culture, one monolith should tower above the rest: “Tales From Wreck Deck” by Big Dik Blak. This opus from “Canada’s Prolific Rock Legend”, as he is rightfully heralded in his press release, after only brief listening indeed begins to challenge the human brain’s ability to process recorded sound. Frankly, we should all appreciate that Big Dik Blak exists, and that he has gifted us what is perhaps the most comprehensively baffling album in recorded history. This is an album so utterly illogical that it is difficult to fully comprehend. An album in which seemingly every possible decision made at every possible stage was nonsensical. An album against which a conventional ratings system, and indeed life itself, becomes meaningless.

“Satellite Gurl”, the album’s opener, adroitly sets the tone. Against a meat-and-potatoes rock backing, Big Dik Black blesses us with the slurred, bellowed cadences of a tramp toppling into a shallow stream, each verse of which is followed by an indeterminate, under-mixed organ solo. With dogged, almost heroic insistence, Big Dik Blak assures us that some presumably embarrassed woman is his satellite gurl for 7 minutes and 59 seconds, all of which is felt by the listener. “One more time!” he yells, at which point the song abruptly ends. This is uncanny-valley rock, in which the clichés are mirrored with such superficial similarity yet subtle wrongness that the overall impression is one of creeping unease, as if Eric Andre decided to make a rock album.

On “Claudette”, Blak’s vocal style unexpectedly morphs from “Patrick Star hollering into septic tank” to “Jim Morrison after cerebral aneurism” as he recounts the tale of the titular, painfully fictional femme fatale over stiltedly artificial accordion backing. “Remember That Night” sees him try his hand at country, complete with wheezing harmonica and comical bass vocals. On “I’ve Got a Boyfriend”, the music startlingly transforms into ‘90s Euro-House, right down to the sampled female soul vocals, as if Big Dik Blak is repeatedly pressing the “Sound Effect” button on a keyboard from 2005. He delicately states his political goals on “World Peace and Free Love”.

The album is perhaps best encapsulated in the gruff Barry-White-read-by-Nicolas-Cage ramblings of closer “Butterfly”, which truly must be heard to be believed, but for which text does reasonable justice: “Sweet makin’ love all night long… oh yaaah… you know what I mean… you look at me with those big brown eyes… you say “Oh daddy, can I come again?”… I say, “Well, I’m pretty tired [throaty laughter] but I think you can… I know… you’re so niiice… you’re so lovely… such a loving woman… I want you so bad, all night long…” At this point, the album has transcended simply being bad. It has even transcended parody. We now exist on another plain of post-ironic sincerity. For this reason it would feel untoward to offer it a conventional ranking. It is years ahead of us all. CO


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Hip Hop, Jazz, Pop

Jonny Dee- “The Human Experience” Review

San Diego indelibly colours the music of Jonny Dee. His musical base, its remnants of Summer of Love transgression spill over into a crate-digging gusto in “The Human Experience”, whose title’s universalism is matched by its musical diversity. The album veers from retro synth-pop—“Ticketless Trip”—to breezy G-Funk—“Luna’s Lullaby”—and even elements of the languid, percussive spaciousness of trap in “Feedback”, all delivered with an off-handed insouciance.

Dee’s strengths, on this album at any rate, are solidly as an MC rather than a lyricist. His sing-song, lackadaisical flow at times echoes Slick Rick, but his delivery is also dexterous and fluid at faster tempos even if his enunciation, crucial for a rapper, is slightly patchy. However, he is also adept at constructing myriad musical landscapes; in a bold move that is perhaps indicative of his perception of himself as a fully-rounded artist rather than just an MC, he doesn’t appear vocally at all on final track “Cosmic Poem”, instead supplanting himself with Hendrix-esque flurries of guitar.

Nonetheless, for all its disparity “The Human Experience” is a surprisingly accessible project. “Summer’s Song” is easy to envision as the sort of thing blasted from car stereos of tipsy teens across the nation, weaving hazy, submerged vocal samples through flickering webs of hi-hats. However, the strongest prospective single here is “A Ways Away”, whose sugary chorus recalls the more radio-friendly moments of J. Cole. However, Dee is equally able to integrate the jazzy fluency of the verses into this poppier musical milieu, meshing together the different facets of his musical identity with ease.

The production of “The Human Experience” is admittedly dated at times, the pitched-up synth line and clipped, precise beats of “Live Thursday Night Groove” simply rehashing old G-Funk tropes rather than housing them in any new musical context. The manic “Rhythm of My Life” interpolates cheesy club classic “Rhythm of the Night”, but gets away with it by splicing its vocal hook into a dense musical landscape of breakneck tempos and glitching synths. Although his musical experimentation can be slipshod in execution, with the discordant electric guitar of “In The Sound” jarringly clashing against the track it finds itself in, Dee is largely successful in blending a variety of styles into a coherent whole. Although “The Human Experience” could never live up to the grandiosity of its title in terms of the diversity of its musical escapades, it certainly qualifies itself as the San Diego Experience. One to watch. CO


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Electronic, Pop

Poliça and Stargaze- “Music For the Long Emergency” Review

Formed in 2011, Poliça have carved out a moderately successful career skirting various genres—a little of the tactile, atmospheric production of modern electronic music; flashes of electro-pop and brassy orchestral ornamentation. This latest salvo marks a schism from their previous works in several ways, both finding the group teaming up with Berlin-based orchestral collective Stargaze, and (at least ostensibly) casting off the autobiographical, relationship-centric narratives of their previous albums in favour of a grander political scope.

The political angle here will inevitably be contentious. Trump looms over chunks of the album as an abstract, unspecific bogeyman, particularly dominating “How Is This Happening”, which was apparently written on the day after the 2016 election. In a voice which could credibly be mistaken for Björk’s, singer Channy Leaneagh murmurs of her disbelief at the utterly transformed national landscape around her. The track dangerously skirts self-parody in its capitulation to drab stock phrases—“Our freedom isn’t really free”, “We have got a lot of work to do”—and in its inclusion of the now cliched device of the increasingly dissonant orchestral backing, although it surprisingly proves to be the only overtly political aside on what is billed as a political album.

Of course, other tracks could also be read through a political lens: the title track’s “Give me a worthy tool/To tell me it’s not over” is perhaps an assertion of continued political resistance, to latch onto a random example. However, the danger is of re-contextualizing the entire album through an only sporadic political narrative. Without this awareness of the circumstances of the album’s production and its flashes of overt politicization, most of the songs here are vague and open-ended enough to function equally well as micro, personal vignettes and macro, national critique.

The orchestral flourishes here are a double-edged sword, both enriching the otherwise spartan likes of “Speaking of Ghost” and producing a propensity for time-consuming, indulgent atonality of which “How Is This Happening” is the worst culprit. “Cursed” tramples through brash Dictaphone-rap and clattering junglist drums, with “Marrow” venturing into industrial chug, imposing orchestral swells and drooping, off-kilter synth lines. However, the album’s highlight is “Agree”, “Music For the Long Emergency” revealing a surprising knack for pop melody in perhaps its most straightforward cut. The track coheres beautifully, Stargaze’s strings in the chorus warming its tender, swooping melody. Perhaps the album’s potentially sour political gripes deserved to be sold through this sort of rich sweetness, even if their discordant musical backings were closer thematic matches. Write a catchy enough tune and people won’t realise what they’re singing until it’s too late. CO


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Funk, Soul

Rhye- “Blood” Review

Following the modest critical and commercial success of their previous release, 2013’s “Woman”, Rhye’s sophomore release, with oddly appropriate ennui, drifted through an unusually prolonged gestation period. Although their developments in listening practices have facilitated the blossoming of “Woman” into a cult hit amongst YouTube-trawling musos, the past 5 years also fractured Rhye’s original lineup, with instrumentalist Robin Hannibal departing from the increasingly amorphous project.

However, the fact that Rhye now consists only of monikered mononym Milosh and a well-oiled live band would be completely unnoticeable if listening solely to the music. The template of slippery, sleekly brass neo-soul and monochrome tastefulness previously established by the group is largely adhered to here, with the supple androgyny of Milosh’s vocals recalling Daniel and the Johnsons and the subtle arrangements framing them with unobtrusive delicacy. “Feel Your Weight” is light, airy funk topped off admirably by the woodsy softness of Milosh’s voice, cresting into warm, imposing chords as the song slides towards its conclusion. The up-tempo (by Rhye’s standards) “Count to Five” gently recalls Mark Ronson’s “Daffodils”, although the finely-tuned grooves of “Phoenix” slightly outmatch it at the same game.

As with “Woman”, the central flaw of “Blood” is ironically its consistency, a stylistic intransigence that at first seems focused, but which feels increasingly obstinate as the album rolls on. At its worst, “Blood” is just glossily impenetrable, vaguely soulful background hum of the kind that occasionally drifts into earshot in lifts and submerges shopping centre forecourts. However, at its finest it transcends its incidental lyrics, its repetitive arrangements and its stubborn sameness to acquire a surprising poignancy. “Song For You”, which was rightly issued as a single, is gifted with a melody so richly pretty that it imbues its stock lyrical phrases with a cracked-open vulnerability and desperate tenderness: “I feel your heart, baby/I feel your pain”. The song is also enriched by a rare discursion from Rhye’s musical template, the see-sawing strings that flit in and out of the song drawing out a tightly-wound, unfurling beauty.

For all the behind-the-scenes turbulence that has engulfed Rhye from time to time over the previous 5 years, the ultimate irony is that on “Blood” they simply emerge from it sounding more like themselves than ever. Rather than musically evolving over the past-half decade, the band have sealed themselves in aspic, starkly reaffirming their musical philosophy rather than ripping it up and starting over, as might have been necessitated by their internal circumstances and the changing currents of pop culture. Although it would be easy to loose a salvo of criticisms at such a mentality, the truth is the “Blood” is simply an album too pretty to truly dislike, garnering disapproving tuts at best. CO


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Boards of Canada- “The Campfire Headphase” Review

20 years ago, Boards of Canada’s “Music Has the Right to Children” was released, promptly and justifiably being heralded as a watershed in what was homogenously termed “Electronic Music”. However, the inevitable puffy-eyed nostalgia flooding the album for its 20th anniversary runs the risk of beaching what is perhaps a greater work, 2005’s overlooked opus “The Campfire Headphase”. Lacking the transgressive innovation of “Music Has the Right to Children” only because of the shifting tides of popular music from 1998 to 2005, the more organic and less overtly electronic exterior of “The Campfire Headphase” discloses not a drought of creativity, but an abundance of it. Of all the duo’s releases, this is the album that most seamlessly and adroitly blends the earthly and the artificial; the woodland and the city; sacred pastoralism and profane urbanity. And isn’t that what Boards of Canada are all about?

A fair amount has already been written about the pair’s altered working practices on the album. “The Campfire Headphase” consists of fewer samples and digitally manipulated effects than their previous two full-length albums, instead incorporating the novelties of acoustic instrumentation. Indeed, it is the interplay of folksy finger-picking and glacial electronic futurism that define the album through the very difficulty of defining the album, providing it with a malleable identity that remains perpetually, tantalizingly in flux. This is captured in “Constants are Changing”, a hazy fever-dream of gently plucked guitar and swirling synths, the melody fluttering just out of reach.

The band’s new methods, beyond providing the album’s central intrigue, often yield astonishing results on a song-by-song basis. “Dayvan Cowboy” intercuts noise-rock fuzz, sparklingly reverberant guitar, splashy sampled drums and laconic lift-music keyboard into a surging, richly realized whole. The proto-vaporwave (if an album made in 2005 can be the “proto” precursor to a genre reliant on slowing down ‘80s songs) of “84 Pontiac Dream” drifts by with a slick, melancholy impersonality, culminating in a gorgeously wistful guitar epilogue, and “Chromakey Dreamcoat” spins a wobblingly askew riff into mordant, ghostly soundscapes.

By the time the flickering, underwater keyboard line of concluding track “Farewell Fire” has spooled off into darkness, “The Campfire Headphase” has established itself as a strikingly cohesive blend of the organic and the electronic, and the most coherently realised summation of its creators yet. The digitized naturalism of the album is both its central paradox and greatest strength, ironically drawing more attention for its virtual invisibility and seamlessness. An album equally suited to pastoralism and cyberpunk. A


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