And so we arrive at our last monthly review for the year. As per the tradition established in past years, later this month we’ll bring you a playlist of our top tunes for the year. In January we’ll return with the best of December and January combined as release cycles slow down. For now though sit back and enjoy the bumper crop that November has brought us as record labels rush release a raft of quality albums before the year-end.
Song: The Way I Feel
From album: Cause and Effect
Keane’s last album was 2012’s Strangeland. It was a long way off their best and evidenced a band in seemingly terminal decline from the heady days of their debut Hopes and Fears and the brilliant follow-up Under The Iron Sea. The band appeared bereft of new ideas and seemed unable to even retread past hits. This lacklustre affair triggered an inevitable split and the band went on a possible permanent hiatus with the leading members dabbling in equally middling solo material. Then, during this gap, chief songwriter and keys player Tim Rice-Oxley split with his wife of many years and went on to pen a number of tracks describing the emptiness and regret he felt in the aftermath. Realizing that there was only one voice that could do these songs justice, he recruited his old pals back and reformed the band. And what a voice Tom Chaplin possesses. Soaring, plaintive and endlessly beautiful, Chaplin exercises the necessary respectful restraint on these desolate tales. Gone is the tiring pop-bombast of yore, repackaged to a more calming and melodious sheen. Poring over the lyrics you can’t help but feel very sorry for Rice-Oxley and the honest and obvious pain he feels for what he has lost. The one bright spot for him however is that this may at least chart a new path forward for his second love, the once magnificent Keane.
(Also download or stream from the album: Stupid Things, Thread, Love Too Much)
The New Pornographers
Song: Colossus Of Rhodes
From album: In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights
The Canadian ‘super group’ is back. Last previewed in these pages in 2017 for their previous Whiteout Conditions album, the band has now essentially been whittled down to the duo of AC Newman and Neko Case (whose 2018 solo album Hell-On also featured here). This hasn’t dented their maximalist pop approach one bit though. Nor indeed their quirky turns of phrase, evidenced by a cursory glance at the track titles. A song titled You’ll Need A New Backseat Driver is hardly likely to be attached to a political whine session or a death metal tune. Fun and smart in spades is their approach then. Case always somehow manages to sound like she’s singing through an effects pedal labelled ‘Chip n Dale’, but when harmonizing with Newman a beautiful thing happens, the combined voices tempering her tone. Perhaps one day successful former members like Dan Bejar (Destroyer) and Kurt Dahle will return to the fold. Until then though The New Pornographers remain in rude good health.
(Also download or stream from the album: You’ll Need A New Backseat Driver, Opening Ceremony, Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile)
Song: New Love Cassette
From album: All Mirrors
Angel Olsen is difficult to pin down. All Mirrors is her fourth album to date and all of these have taken a very different approach. 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness was a lo-fi acoustic folky affair while 2016’s My Woman donned a rock cloak and contained many critics’ pick for single of the year in Shut Up Kiss Me. No such fun and frivolity lurks on All Mirrors though. This is full-on alt-pop with almost all of the tracks on offer featuring a live orchestral backing. Normally this would signal that stage in an artist’s career where they have either run out of ideas or are taking themselves way too seriously a la Metallica circa 1999. Thankfully neither of those troubles are true here. Olsen penned these tracks largely as stripped-down numbers and then experimented with an alternative overlay. Having to decide which version to release she went ahead with this variant and it’s amazing. She has also promised to separately release the original versions sometime soon and it will be interesting to do a side by side ‘tasting’ when she gets around to it. Surely it couldn’t better this version? Immaculate.
(Also download or stream from the album: What It Is, All Mirrors, Spring)
Song: Closer To Grey
From album: Closer To Grey
Style is something you either have or you don’t. Chromatics seem to have it in effortless spades. Every album from the band comes across like a soundtrack to some unreleased but very cool movie. Album covers appear to be designed by some sort of current day Toulouse-Lautrec. Lead singer Ruth Radelet has those silver screen leading lady looks from the turn of last century. Their record label is called Italians Do It Better. Oh, and the chief songwriter is a guy with the impossibly brilliant name of Johnny Jewel. I mean, come on. The combined package could easily push them into over-the-top territory. But fortunately they have the tunes to back it all up. Even their quite bizarre cover of a Simon & Garfunkel classic manages to stay on the right side of pastiche (just). Perfect sundowner music as we head into the holiday period. Put this on, mix up an Aperol Spritz, and chill.
(Also download or stream from the album: Move A Mountain, You’re No Good, The Sound Of Silence)
From album: Pang
There was a time when artists with awkward real names (Reginald Dwight, Farrokh Bulsara) or boring ones (David Jones, Paul Hewson) changed their names in order to be more marketable to their audience. Thus we had Elton John, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and Bono respectively. In these anything-goes days though this seems like a quaint relic of the past. Singers like Caroline Polachek now proudly use their given names despite sounding pretty unglamorous. Not that you would generally attach a tag of unglamorous to Polachek mind; in looks and sound she exhibits a sexy sheen. The former lead vocalist of New York band Chairlift, Polachek split from both the outfit and her romantic partnership within the band in 2016 and hasn’t looked back. Pang is her 3rd solo album, and the first under her own name. Perhaps she was waiting to compile material this strong before plucking up the courage to label it as hers. For sure we can count on there being a lot more coming.
(Also download or stream from the album: New Normal, Look At Me Now, So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings)
Song: Water Me Down
From album: Vagabon
Vagabon is the stage name of Laetitia Tamko, and means ‘tramp’ in one of the Creole dialects. Cameroonian by birth but now living in New York, Tamko is something of a musical wunderkind – writing, playing, singing and producing just about everything on her second album. While her critically acclaimed debut, Infinite Worlds, had a touch of the homemade feel to it, there is none of that in evidence here. Shifting from a gentle acoustic sound to full blown electronic pop, Tamko’s transformation over such a short period of time is nothing short of breath-taking. She also steadfastly refuses to don the mantle of black-woman-from-difficult-beginnings-struggling-to-make-her-mark-in-the-so-called-western-world, preferring to pen tales that are closer to home and personal for her. A refreshing approach all around.
(Also download or stream from the album: Flood, Wits About You, Every Woman)
LISTEN TO OUR PLAYLIST
You can listen to previews of each track by clicking on the icons next to the song titles below.
If you have iTunes and an Apple Music account, you can listen to the full songs and add the playlist to your library. Simply click on the Apple Music icon.
(RELATED POST: NEW MUSIC REVIEW & PLAYLIST, OCTOBER 2019)