By Cait Brennan, April 9, 2015.
In a career full of astonishingly beautiful songs, Namoli Brennet continues to rise. Every album since her daring debut, Boy In A Dress, has been leaps and bounds above the last. On her new album, Ditch Lilies, Brennet steps up her game yet again with one of the strongest albums of the year.
Drawing on folk, country and rock influences, Ditch Lilies kicks off with “Marjorie,” a driving, desperate tale of an older woman trapped in a paycheck-to-paycheck grind. Brennet is a gifted storyteller who finds the humanity in each of her characters, often outsiders struggling to make it in a dehumanized world. The strong acoustic groove, subtle but gorgeous harmonies and extraordinarily fine musicianship stand out, with great slide guitar and mandolin flourishes. “Bloom” celebrates the possibility of second chances in “the freedom of a vine, the stretching poetry of shoots.”
It takes a delicate hand to write songs about political issues without sounding like sloganeering, but Brennet’s always been adept at making the political personal and vice-versa. The elegiac, do-not-go-gentle “Bleecker St.” is a trip through decades, celebrating progress in LGBT rights while cursing the hate and ignorance that made the struggle so necessary, and mourning the losses of those taken by HIV. Songs like “Babylon” and “18 Summers” touch on contemporary American life with the timelessness and power of traditional folk ballads.
Brennet’s voice has a gorgeous timbre that conveys urgency and tenderness with equal skill and her lyrics have a literary depth few can match. There’s no finer artist making music today, and Ditch Lilies is one of her best.
When longtime Soft Cell/Marc Almond fan Chris Braide heard that Almond had essentially retired from recording new original songs, he just couldn’t take it lying down – he had to hear Almond sing again. It helped, of course, that Braide is one of the top record producers in the business (Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Sia, Christina Aguilera). Braide reached out to Almond and the pair struck up a highly unusual partnership without ever having met or even talked on the phone, they created The Velvet Trail, Almond’s first new album of originals in five years.
Braide sent Almond instrumental tracks from LA and the London-based singer then added his contributions. The result, though, is seamless. The album is divided into three acts, with each opening with a lush instrumental. “Bad To Me” kicks off act one, a zippy dance number with a weird Casio rhythm and a sinister, tongue-in-cheek ode to naughty boys everywhere.
The ‘80s synthpop era comes out in full measure on the upbeat “Zipped Black Leather Jacket,” “I’m a shape shifting changeling, so stop trying to assimilate me.” You hear that, Gay Borg? Almond won’t be your Locutus. Almond’s voice sounds magnificent and his playful, funny lyrics reference gay icons and his own image. “Scar” breaks out the piano and cello synth for a big-beat ballad, while “Pleasure’s Wherever You Are” is a gentle midtempo tune about enjoying life as it comes.
“Minotaur” is another playful lyric, while “When The Comet Comes” teams Almond up with Gossip’s Beth Ditto for the album’s most upbeat, earworm-ready pop moment. It’s ideal hit-single material.
Almond’s at his best as a romantic torch singer. “The Pain Of Never” lingers sadly on what might have been, while “Winter Sun” is an impressionist painting of a breakup, with a beautiful chorus. The title track ends the set with a haunting goodbye of remembrance and regret.
Almond, who was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in 2004, had to learn to sing again from scratch in the intervening years. His melancholy, richly romantic voice is a joy to hear again.
From Alice Cooper to the Gin Blossoms and Jimmy Eat World to Nate Reuss of fun, Arizona’s “local music” has a funny habit of becoming globally huge. You might want to keep that in mind while listening to Fairy Bones’ glorious full-length debut, Dramabot.
The thundering opener, “Demons and Dogs,” sets the tone early. Lead singer Chelsey Louise rolls from a soaring banshee wail to a guttural rock and roll growl that’s practically demanding to be heard in stadiums. It’s a declaration of intent, and you’d better take notice. “You And You Again” doubles down with a sucker-punch jolt. Matthew Foos’ drumming will knock your fillings out, while Ben Foos’ inventive, spot-on bass lines pound out the rhythm. Robert Ciuca’s guitar sparks like an arc-welder. It would take guys this good, and this anarchic, to keep up with Louise.
Produced by dapper sonic wonderboy Bob Hoag at his soon-to-be legendary Flying Blanket studio (The Ataris, The Format, etc.), Dramabot has the analog fullness and resonance that is Hoag’s bread and butter. It belongs on vinyl. Hoag also does a great job of capturing the intensity of their amazing live shows.
“Waiting” is a particular highlight, with a gorgeous melody and one of Louise’s finest vocal performances. Hoag’s production shines, with layers of swirling keys (is that a Moog or an ARP?) and an almost disco giddiness that ends with a huge smile. “Jack” sells the drama with rock ballad swagger and a jagged, Cobain-esque guitar riff. Indeed, parts of Dramabot definitely have a Seattle-circa-1991 feel, coupled with an Iggy and the Stooges Raw Power vibe that is straight out of the ‘70s.
And yet there’s nobody like Louise. Her volcanic vocal explodes on “Yeah Pretty Yeah” and the aptly named “Banshee,” while the album closer, “Notes From Wonderland,” blasts and crashes like mountains coming down. It’s another winner from 80/20 records. With an album this powerful, we’re gonna have a hard time keeping these guys in town.