This Week's Best Album Streams: 30th January 2013
Need something to listen to? 405 writer Tom Baker has your back...
Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God (NPR)
Jim James – or Yim Yames, or whatever he's calling himself this week – has been flirting with albums outside of his principal act, My Morning Jacket, for a while now. There was the Monsters of Folk supergroup with Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and M Ward; the, uh, New Multitudes supergroup where he, Jay Farrar, Will Johnson and Anders Parker recorded unreleased Woody Guthrie material. This is his first actual solo album, though, and it's informed very much by those extracurricular activities – whilst the running time of some of the songs bear the excesses of his main band (stand-out 'Know Til Now' pushes six minutes, including the stylophone solo), it avoids their special blend of Louisville psychedelic rock in favour of some wistful Californian singer-songwriter country-rock, James' versatile falsetto floating through gentle pianos, shuffling drum patterns, and a whole lot of duelling steel-string guitars.
Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse (The Guardian)
I was slightly worried by the last Frightened Rabbit album. It was good and all – 'Swim Until You Can't See Land' is possibly their crowning achievement – but frontman Scott Hutchinson seemed a bit too, well, happy. 'Living In Colour' and all that. Part of the pull of the Scottish quintet is that, whilst never quite plumbing the dark depths of miserablist countrymen the Arab Strap (and ensuing splinter groups/solo projects), they were of that most viscerally self-flagellating lyrical bent where beautiful, raw imagery meets brutal honesty. Luckily, that's back, and in spades; the first lyric of Pedestrian Verse is "I am that dickhead in the kitchen / Giving wine to your best girl's glass." Self-deprecation and philandering, the two most potent and recognisable ingredients in the Frightened Rabbit larder. It's a recipe book that's been expanded, as the music reaches for something "bigger" than Sing The Greys or The Midnight Organ Fight, and is much more successful in doing so than predecessor Winter of Mixed Drinks, which became a less sharp, more rotund beast as they layered on some stadium rock ephemera. Pedestrian Verse becomes more full-bodied by developing that trait I'm sure is the envy of so many other bands – the simultaneous looseness and meticulously developed structure. That opener, 'Acts of Man', unexpectedly erupts into a distortion-laden instrumental coda; 'Backyard Skulls' has a thrillingly alive rhythm section that would give the National a run for their money; 'The Woodpile' does the stadium rock thing right. As Danny Wright hit upon in his review, "the towering choruses here mean that nearly every song is imbued with the sense of 'anthem', even though Hutchinson seems to be fixated on death. It's when these two ideas intertwine that the band seem to hit the macabre sweet spot."
Eels – Wonderful Glorious (Soundcloud)
After the loose concept trilogy that encompassed 2009's Hombre Lobo and the quiet double-bill of End Times and Tomorrow Morning the following year, Mark Oliver Everett makes a clean break – from those albums, their subject matter (his waning marriage and subsequent divorce, from a Russian dentist no less) and the place those albums were recorded. In fact it's the place where the majority of Eels' recorded output, at least in recent years, was bashed out; from the feedback-laced garage of the former album to the quiet introspection and amateur electronica of the latter two. Wonderful Glorious then, is the latest evolution of the beast; as through its over myriad transformations – from nascent alt-radio star to confessional singer-songwriter, through full-tilt-boogie rock and roll, baroque pop, and back again – it's still recognisably Eels, but in a new environment. Moving from his basement studio due to necessity – there wasn't any room – into a professional venue means Wonderful Glorious is a full-band affair, playing live in the recording booth and playing enjoyably off of each other. Like Pedestrian Verse there's that misleading looseness, but the controlled chaos here is even more likely to tail off into destruction. Even more than Hombre Lobo, nearly every song has distortion covering everything like a storm cloud – guitars, drums, and especially vocals – and even the most upbeat of songs (single 'Cherry Blossom' is an extended invitation to go out into the world and smell flowers) is sung in an aggressive, Tom Waits-before-he's-had-his-coffee stylee.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We The Common (Exclaim!)
Phew, that was all pretty intense. Let's settle down a little with Thao Nguyen. Her last album was, apparently, in collaboration with fellow Californian singer-songwriter Mirah, which stands to reason: Nguyen has a similar tone of voice, wicked way with a heart-rending melody, and musical chameleon powers. With the backing of her band, The Get Down Stay Down, what might otherwise be a talented – if slightly throwaway – acoustic-accompanied YouTube singer is saved from such a fate with a richly timeless backing of piano and brass (most memorably on 'The Feeling Kind'), buzzing keys and thick, solid drums, warm guitars strumming and basses chugging. Although even on the stripped-down duet with Joanna Newsom I still can't deal with the Ys singer's voice. Sorry.
Pusha T – Wrath of Caine (LiveMixTapes)
And now for something completely different. I'm nowhere near as well-versed in Pusha T's back catalogue as I should be – by which I mean, I like his verse on Kanye West's 'Runaway', and I always forget what his highly-regarded duo with his brother is called (it's Clipse). In my defense when it comes to solo Pusha, though, is that he still hasn't actually released a solo album – apparently it's coming this year, a decade into his career – but Wrath of Cain is here to tide us over in the meantime. Which is enough to make me ludicrously excited for that debut proper, since there are a rappers who'd kill to release an album as brilliant as this mixtape. Released in collaboration with Kanye's G.O.O.D Music label, it features a cornucopia of special guests – tracks produced by West and the Neptunes, verses by Rick Ross and Wale – but Pusha stays front and centre, ably helped no doubt by a slick but smart production style that stays consistent regardless of who's behind the desk, an endlessly adaptable performer with the gravel of Lil Wayne in his throat, the aggressive intonation of Kendrick Lamar, and an original flow all his own. Stream below or download (I recommend both).
Veronica Falls – Waiting For Something To Happen (Pitchfork)
All this unsubtle shifting of gears, you can tell I've never had a driving lesson. I've not a lot of patience for quite a lot of the "twee" side of indie rock – I need something a little more than Dansettes, damsels, and dancing (sorry Amelia Fletcher). Luckily Veronica Falls have much, much more to offer, as beneath the sweetly worn bread-and-butter indie rock is a prickly thorn. As on their self-titled first album both the vocals and guitars of Roxanne Clifford and James Hoare intertwine, spar and converse, and as with breakout single 'Found Love In A Graveyard', all of that takes place atop songs with a morbid preoccupation with death. 'Buried Alive' takes pride of place as a one-up of that previous high point, and balances a song about – well, being buried alive – with the sweetest harmonies on the album. Gorgeously macabre.
So I guess iTunes is the proprietary platform for streaming albums now? Last week it was the place to hear the new Bowie, and this week it's holding an exclusive listening party for that guy from N*Sync's comeback record (which maybe isn't quite as anticipated as The Next Day, even if they both the performer in question turned out to be pretty good actors and have both had terrible haircuts). You know Justin Timberlake owns MySpace as well, right? [read more]
So how about those Grammys, eh? Yeah I don't have an opinion on the Grammys. And neither should you – they're a institution of fossils who somehow have retained their basic auditory functions, but perfectly preserved their Jurassic musical tastes. Which is why Mumford and Sons have featured heavily in the ceremony the past couple of years. [read more]
I know what you're expecting. I can read you lot like an open book. Or maybe a hacked Kindle book. You think the top album stream I recommend you this week is The Next Day, the new David Bowie album that you can listen to in full on iTunes. But I like to confound expectations, ladies and gentleman, much like a magician, or a cruel parent who promises their child a new games console for Christmas and places a PlayStation Vita rather than... anything else, under the tree. [read more]