Recordings | June 2015

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, June 2015 Issue.


Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Mom + Pop Music | 4halfstars

“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” out singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett shouts on her new stream-of-consciousness single “Pedestrian At Best.” A lot of people are putting Barnett on a pedestal right now. In the past month or so, the Australian indie phenom has been featured on Ellen, played South By Southwest, named Amazon’s 2015 Artist To Watch and is on her first American tour – and, oh yeah, she just made one of the best albums of the year. The queer indie rock of Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is like nothing you’ve ever quite heard.

courtneybarnett-1Barnett has a totally unique lyrical style that’s hard to put in context, but it’s magnificent – fearless, brutally honest observations of life. It almost feels like you’re just hearing her thoughts. She’s got an unpretentious voice that is hauntingly expressive and totally non-showbiz. And the music is like an entirely new iteration of indie rock, by turns eerily spacious and shoegaze-wall-of-sound intense.

The album’s opener, “Elevator Operator,” is irresistible, with stomps and claps and a great hook, but all the cheesy repetitive pop lyrics you’d expect are replaced with Barnett’s beat-poet storytelling genius, rich with occasionally agonizing and anxiety-packed OCD detail. The spectacular, punky “Pedestrian” leads the rock charge, and it’s not alone; “Aqua Profunda!” would be right at home in late ‘70s London, and the thundering “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party” is deadpan riot-grrrl heaven. But Barnett might be at her best on the languid, midtempo tracks like “Small Poppies” and the spare, confessional “Depreston.” With room to breathe, her lyrics have that much more impact. The epic “Kim’s Caravan” plays like a vivid short film, while the simple acoustic “Boxing Day Blues” concludes the set with a wistfulness and regret that will stay with you. Courtney Barnett is an amazing talent and Sometimes I Sit And Think is a vital new work.

Martin Gore
Mute Records | 3halfstarsMG

Depeche Mode’s songwriting soul, Martin Gore, has blessed us with two slight but lovely solo
releases in a nearly 40-year career, and both of those were collections of other artists’ tunes as interpreted by Gore – from Joe Crow’s Pillows and Prayers classic “Compulsion” to Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.” At last, Gore has favored us with his first solo album of originals, and guess what? One of pop music’s greatest lyricists and vocalists, the man who wrote “Personal Jesus” and “People Are People,” the man who sang “Somebody” and “A Question Of Lust” has…has…

…has made an entire album of instrumentals.

Breathe, relax, it’s going to be OK. We’ll get through this together. The idea of a whole album of Martin’s vocals is still a beautiful dream. But don’t kick MG out of bed just yet. It’s a fascinating musical journey that reminds us that above all else, Gore is a composer par excellence.

Starting with material created around Depeche Mode’s Delta Machine, and continuing on from his successful collaboration with former DM frontman Vince Clark (2011’s VCMG), Gore composed 16 gorgeous soundscapes that range from clubworthy outre-techno dance (“Brink,” “Crowly”) to roots-electronica (the opening song “Pinking,” which lives somewhere between Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame and a boss battle from Super Mario 3. That’s intended as a compliment.

The dark, brooding synth-bass on “Swanning” pulls you in seductively, while tracks like the aptly named “Featherlight” sound like hold music from the year 2097. Indeed, Gore himself has noted that the album plays like a soundtrack to a science fiction film that does not yet exist. It’s akin to a more contemporary, more hook-centric Brian Eno project, and while there’s a danceable spine to many of these, this is an album that rewards a careful listen. One day, maybe, Martin will sing for us again. For now, MG is an excellent headphone listen, and an imperfect but welcome reminder of Gore’s brilliance.

alabamashakesAlabama Shakes
Sound & Color
ATO Records | 4stars

Brittany Howard’s voice is so earth shaking that it should be under 24-hour guard lest its awesome power fall into the wrong hands. Alabama Shakes’ 2013 debut, Boys & Girls, was a lightning bolt from the blue, a pure shot of real rhythm and blues that struck fear into the hearts of every wannabe-blues diva on the circuit. The band’s power and Howard’s fire were flawless. But some outliers grumbled that the songs weren’t quite there, or that there was too much tired soul-revival in their sound.

Sound & Color should blow both of those complaints away pretty fast. Full of prog-rock, punk and roots-soul influences, it’s that rarest of rarities, a sophomore album that sounds fresher and more innovative than its predecessor.

The title track opener is a slow burn ballad that’s almost an invocation for what’s to come, and then it’s off to the races. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a deep Stax soul groove married to a funky 1970s riff (think the Stones’ “Miss You” as performed by Otis Redding’s band). It’s powerful stuff, but the real fun comes later, as the Shakes shake things up with some tasty left-field sounds.

“Dunes” mixes things up with crunchy fuzz pedal guitar riffs and a double-tracked vocal by Howard that is somewhere between psychedelic late-‘60s Beatles and Suburbs-era Arcade Fire. “The Greatest” doubles down on the rock and roll, with shades of Iggy Pop and the Strokes in a blazing-fast punk-rock belter. “Shoegaze” is a stomping rocker that’s perfect for radio.

But the soul still shines bright, especially on the showstopper “Miss You” (not the aforementioned Stones song), the kind of gutsy heartbreak ballad Janis Joplin would’ve killed to sing. And “Gemini” brings the intense, dark funk and late-night moody atmosphere that allows Howard to really crank the dramatics. Sound & Color is a dynamite follow-up to one of 2013’s best.