Singles

Single review: Harry Styles’ ‘Sign of the Times’

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You can blame it on Trump, global warming or technology, but whatever the cause – even pop music can’t escape a good old existential crisis these days.

Case in point: Harry Styles’ mammoth debut solo single, Sign of the Times. A cold, harsh, 5’40” epic that doesn’t so much as offer us a tissue in our hour of need, this surprisingly dark offering is a strange note on which to embark on a solo career.

Blunt, moody piano chords accompany the unsympathetic opening line: “Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times/Welcome to the final show, hope you’re wearing your best clothes”. Is this a somewhat arduous attempt to be taken seriously? To move as far in the opposite direction of You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful as possible? Whatever the motive, Sign of the Times is surely the music equivalent of the ice bucket challenge for the fluffier 1D fans out there.

If we follow his lead and put Styles’ musical past firmly behind us, there’s a good chance we’ll get swept up in the majesty of this song once the post-rock electric guitar catapults the chorus into the stratosphere. We could note the falsetto that is so clearly of the same mould that spat out Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk and the horrifyingly ubiquitous I Don’t Wanna Live Forever. We could even cheer up a little by the third refrain: “Just stop your crying, have the time of your life”.

Eventually, though, you’ll start wondering who this song really sounds like – because while it may be revolutionary for Harry, it’s a drop in the pop ocean creatively. Dredge up vague references to power ballads and rock bands and finally you may settle, as I did, for the thought that it sounds rather like a Michael Buble/noughties-U2 collab. Then again, that is something I’d pay to hear. 2.5/5 STARS

 

 

On Lorde’s “Green Light” and its brave ugliness.

The first time I listened to Lorde’s Green Light, I wasn’t sure if she’d got away with it.

Growling right at the lowest end of her register, battling with an almost disastrous chord change in the chorus, the Kiwi kid of Royals acclaim had me crying “What the hell are you doing?!” sooner than she had me singing along.

No surprises that Jack Antonoff was involved – the sparse, pop-savvy verse will conjure references to Taylor Swift’s 1989 with little effort. And, like 1989, the experimentation ultimately paid off.

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Because by some devilry, that chorus works. While the initial shock might have cooled our enthusiasm for a second, Lorde brings it all flooding back with a dance refrain that will be flailed to on many a drunken night – and let’s be honest, some sober ones too.

I may have been bamboozled for a moment or two, but those seconds of shock and uncertainty were some of the most exciting of my day (I know, I live a wild life). Who dares to let these rough edges show, on radio of all places? Who dares to create something so uncomfortable, in the name of art? Not many artists who get airplay, that’s who.

And this, time and again, is why Lorde stands out. Because she refuses to shy away from a little ugliness, that little ugliness that is an inescapable and very real part of life, and which gives her art all the more credibility and daring.

On Repeat Lately #4

Sia – Move Your Body

This always seems to come on when I’m driving and cannot do my dance moves justice (or injustice? The judgement is perhaps not mine to make). But on the upside, red lights are now a beacon of freedom for my ready-to-flail limbs.

Helen Shanahan – I Only Hide

This slow-burning piece of country folk is the kind of song I had to listen to five times in a row. Its steady groove and haunting vocals wrestle with the anxiety of performance in the spotlight…a place Shanahan is going to have to get comfortable with if she keeps creating stunners like this one.

David Bowie – Life On Mars?

What do you do when writing about a Bowie tribute show? Listen to Bowie of course. And lust after this eye makeup job.

The Mis-Made – Blood Money

Joan Jett’s legacy is alive in these Sydney rockers, who I also happened to be writing about this month. Headbanging while writing is a skill, people.

Jack Johnson – Better Together

Summer has called for a lot of chill music, and when it has called, Jack Johnson has answered. An oldie but a goodie.

Single review: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’ & ‘Castle On The Hill’

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Is it just me? Am I just an old humbug? Or are Ed Sheeran’s two new singles really nothing special?

There. I said it. I am underwhelmed.

It’s not that Shape Of You isn’t sensual, poetic and catchy – it is. It’s not that Castle On The Hill isn’t a tender, uplifting piece of pop – it is. And it’s not as though either of those singles could do anything other than hit the apex of the charts in a heartbeat – they did.

But after two years of the incessently ubiquitous hits of X, surely it wasn’t too much to hope for something…fresh? Sheeran has always been a passing interest of mine, an artist to play when I need a sentimental or angst-ridden singalong. He owes me no particularly great debt of fandom, and yet I feel cheated.

If you’re not too outraged to keep reading, I’ll explain myself now, I swear.

Shape Of You was always going to steal the limelight. Flirty, sexy, catchy as all hell…on paper it works, out loud it sounds like a rework of Nina with a little bit of Don’t thrown in. Is this really all Sheeran has to offer? It’s a solid comeback, but it’s so. damn. safe. Also, TLC’s No Scrubs keeps popping into my head every time the pre chorus starts and that is just not a good thing.

Castle On The Hill offers a surprising change of pace – perhaps Sheeran’s attempt at a new flavour of songwriting? – but it sounds strangely anonymous after the textbook songwriting of the sister single. Although Sheeran delivers with satisfactory character, Castle On The Hill could belong to anybody. Most plausibly, in the introduction, U2 circa The Joshua Tree.

Are you still reading? Did you make it? Do you think I’m crazy?

It’s just…after the sweet nothings of +, 2014’s X offered grit and swagger and a maturing sound. While Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill are deserving chart-toppers amongst the swirl of radio favourites, they have ultimately failed to build on Sheeran’s ever-promising foundations. Did Thinking Out Loud leave such a big void that we will happily greet regurgitated inspiration with such enthusiasm? Evidently so.

But keep grooving, kids – there are worse songs you could get excited about. Having had my vent, I shall now banish my disappointment to the quietest murmurings and leave you be. (Bah. Humbug!)

Single review: Laura Marling’s ‘Soothing’

Four and a half stars

Slinky, seductive, and perhaps just a little coy, Laura Marling’s first single from upcoming album Semper Femina is as bewitching a herald of things to come as we could have hoped for.

Gone is the broody darkness, replaced by sensuality and tenderness. Gone are the earthy acoustic tones, replaced by sparse percussion and bluesy electric guitar. Somehow, we’ve ended up in experimental jazz territory, the likes of which are usually inhabited by Norah Jones. But Marling makes this strange new land her own.

Wafting delicately amongst the rhythmic gyrations and harmonic instability, Marling’s vocal has all the hushed intimacy of pillow talk, and all the confident authority of a narrator. It’s a combination of contexts that is as bewildering as it is bewitching, but when a cloud of strings lifts us into the dreamy surrender of the chorus (sounding a little as though it’s taken a leaf from Kate Bush’s book), all is deliciously clear.

The abundance of latex in the music video may spell it out, but the low purr of sexuality makes itself known through the songwriting alone. The tension of the verse melts into a gentle sigh of pleasure; Marling sings “I need soothing”, but the request sounds so fulfilled it seems to be uttered after the fact.

Soothing showcases a self-composed Marling, ready and willing to tackle her introspective themes with a softness she may not have known how to use before. It’s promising, it’s exciting and it’s bloody beautiful.

March 2017 can’t come fast enough.

Semper Femina is out March 10th, 2017 on Marling’s label More Alarming.

SINGLE REVIEW: Tinpan Orange’s ‘Rich Man’

Four stars

With their loving attention to detail, quirky topic material and Emily Lubitz’s eerie-yet-approachable vocals, it’s hardly surprising this standout Aussie act is charging ahead with their 5th studio album. Due for release on April 8, Love Is A Dog is available for pre-order now, and Rich Man is the first single off the album.

Tremulous guitar arpeggios let Lubitz’s elastic croon take centre stage in the opening bars; applying the first brushstrokes to the shady character of this cautionary tale: “He can buy the love he needs/ Opens doors with all his keys/ Takes you where the people know/ Wear it like it’s yours to own”.

Feather-light piano accents may raise goosebumps, helped along by the plaintive violin harmonies. You can almost feel Lubitz’s breath close to your ear, thanks to the intimacy of the vocal delivery. Later, the sparsest of bass lines is provided by the piano and brushed snares whisper secretively in the background.

If Rich Man is anything to go by, Tinpan Orange are moving away from the wayward freshness of 2012’s Over The Sun (incidentally the first album I reviewed for The Sydney Morning Herald – excuse my nostalgia), due probably to the inevitable march of maturity. There’s a sultry darkness, a whiff of hard-earned wisdom and a deeper sensuality to this track than their previous work.