Five great new albums
27 July 2017
We asked New Zealand’s music guru Grant Smithies to tell us about five albums he’s been digging lately.
“Here is your princess, and here is the horizon.”
Lyttelton’s Hannah “Aldous” Harding soars off into the middle distance on this, her second album, the arresting and assured follow-up to her self-titled 2014 debut.
Produced in Bristol by PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, Party explores lust, anxiety and interpersonal power dynamics from multiple fresh directions. The arrangements are spare and understated, her voice forsaking the folkie warble of old in favour of a full-bodied roar, a jazzy swoop, a pained whisper.
The album won rapturous reviews offshore while proving divisive at home. One local critic’s review consisted of nothing but video clips of braying goats. Others mocked her bug-eyed theatrical performance on Later with Jools Holland.
“Harding is a musical method actor, inhabiting her songs’ characters with rare courage and conviction.”
But accusations of affectation comprehensively missed the point.
Harding is a musical method actor, inhabiting her songs’ characters with rare courage and conviction. She ventures deep into painful territory and hauls back gold, and close attention is richly rewarded.
“A soft flurry of gut punches”, is how Lorde described “Imagining My Man”, which features backing vocals from Seattle’s Perfume Genius. “I think Aldous is the most interesting musician around.”
This fêted Compton rapper’s third album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, was a wide-ranging “state of the nation” address about contemporary American culture from a black perspective, its hefty jazz and funk undercurrents adding sugar to a pretty bitter pill.
DAMN has a similar thematic density, but the backing tracks have been stripped back, whittled down, cracked open to let in a little more air and light. Nutrient-rich tributaries of jazz, soul, funk, spoken word and Jamaican dancehall flow into Kendrick’s hip-hop style, the resulting braided river of sound and meaning rushing fast and clear and deep past your grateful ears.
Old-school storytelling meets modern production chops as Lamar endeavours to restore rap music to its former role as “the black CNN”, casting himself as chief reporter while Rihanna and U2 get a byline as passing freelancers.
The rhymes are complex, dynamic, soulful and wise, and to hear Lamar – widely regarded as the most gifted lyricist of his generation – in full furious flow is a revelation. Witness “DNA”, which unpicks the shonky biological determinism at the root of racist thought over a low-slung trap beat, the wordplay dazzling, the track the equal of anything from hip hop’s “golden age” of the late 80s / early 90s.
Where are we? Germany? San Francisco? Merseyside? Mars? There’s an amorphous pan-global psychedelia at work on this dopamine-drenched, space-pop album from Liverpool musician Jane Weaver.
Vintage synthesizers swirl and spin, weightless and twinkling like distant stars. Electric guitars strum quietly, adding texture and warmth, while the bass and drums lock into hypnotic, pulsing grooves that recall 70s “Krautrock” bands such as Can, Neu! and Faust.
“Vintage synthesizers swirl and spin, weightless and twinkling like distant stars.”
Delivered in a high voice through a fog of effects, the vocal melodies share kinship with the free-form acoustic reveries of kaftan-clad folkies in Haight-Ashbury circa 1967.
But it really is a marvel, this record. Listening to it makes you feel better, like medicine. The sounds wrap around you and squeeze – a warm hug of empathetic sound.
You hear Hawkwind in it, Stereolab, early Depeche Mode. There’s a faint whiff of Velvet Underground, Steeleye Span and The Doors. “The Lightning Back” is a dead ringer for New Zealand’s foremost space-pop legend, Bachelorette.
Modern Kosmology is pastoral and urban, blissfully cosmic and shamelessly poppy, endlessly expansive yet palpably home-made. You picture late-60s commune-dwellers jamming with a very “now” sort of ethereal English techno-waif and you think – Modern Kosmology is quite a trip.
A Crow Looked at Me
(PW Elverum and Sun, Ltd)
“Death is real” sings Washington musician Phil Elverum. “It’s not for singing about, or making into art …”
And yet he does just that, and I am thankful.
After earlier adventures in cult indie band The Microphones, Mount Eerie is Elverum’s solo project, and his ninth album concerns the death of his wife, Canadian artist/musician Genevieve Castree, in July last year.
Grief drips from these songs, which are some of the most nakedly moving I’ve ever heard.
A Crow Looked at Me is document and diary, love letter and lament, the rumpled lyrics draped across a simple bed of acoustic guitar, piano and percussion like a cast-off funeral suit.
There are no comforting metaphors, no sentimental moral takeaways, just a web of memories and images that weave together to give shape to the sorest times of this gifted musician’s life.
Elverum recorded these songs in his wife’s old workroom, using her guitar, her bass, her amp, gazing out of her window to the woods beyond.
Many were written in her favourite places nearby. He stands in a field ablaze with wild flowers, asking “Are foxgloves a flower you liked? I can’t remember; you did most of my remembering for me.”
There are songs about the difficulty of throwing out his wife’s old toothbrush or making conversation with compassionate neighbours in the grocery store.
Beautiful, tender and cathartic in the extreme, it’s a record about pain and absence, but also about what it means to keep on living.
As with other albums concerning profound loss – Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree – you’re made mindful of the fragility of human happiness, and when a song has gone as far as Elverum can go, he ends it, mid-sentence.
“I am a container of stories about you,” he sings. “People around me don’t want to keep hearing about my dead wife / But I’ll carry these stories around my whole life …”
Inner Peace: Rare Spiritual Funk and Jazz Gems
Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Cage, Dizzie Gillespie, Art Blakey, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed – esteemed LA record producer Bob Shad worked with them all, but this comp bypasses such heavy-hitters in favour of more obscure soul–jazz nuggets laid down in his studio between 1971–73.
Shad’s back catalogue is now managed by his grandson, filmmaker Judd Apatow, who had a hand in cherry-picking these hefty, swinging grooves.
“Shad’s back catalogue is managed by his grandson, filmmaker Judd Apatow, who had a hand in cherry-picking these hefty, swinging grooves.”
Inspired by the freedom-seeking social tumult of the late 60s, many of the featured players shunned traditional themes, tempos and harmonic relationships to pioneer a bracing hybrid of R’n’B and folk, funk and hard bop, African music and the European classical tradition.
Their music could be chaotically atonal or blissful and serene, and sometimes both within the same tune. You listen in amazement as Eastern mysticism slaps up against fiery ear-frying noise, and Pan-African earthiness lifts off into deep space.
Some tracks might be fleetingly familiar: Roy Haynes’ “Senyah” was sampled by De La Soul, while Shelly Manne’s “Infinity” was the backbone of Jeru The Damaja’s hip-hop classic, “Come Clean”.
Many spiritual jazz heavyweights are absent – there’s no Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, John or Alice Coltrane, Albert Ayler – but Shad extracted knockout tunes from the margins, too, coaxing career-best performances from Harold Land, Roy Haynes, Frank Foster and Lamont Johnson, among others.