music review

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

 

 

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Adele @ ANZ Stadium 10.3.17

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She had them at ‘Hello’.

4/5 stars

They came with spouses, with boyfriends, with grandmas. They came in families, alone, with children, and friends. They came skipping and running and limping and strolling.

And they came in hordes.

Although there were many (no doubt willing) husbands in tow, it was clear that on Friday night Adele was providing the ultimate girls’ night out for a large chunk of Sydney’s female population. (And those who weren’t there, were probably Justin Bieber fans broke from buying tickets to his upcoming concert in the very same stadium)

While the gender sway was obvious, the median age was a little harder to pick – but the fact that over half the audience burst into song only when The Turtles’ Happy Together (not Gomez, Bieber and co.) was piped into the arena pre-show, indicated a strong Baby Boomer presence. Regardless of age or sex they were ready to party, and in the case of many, with tipsy abandon.

Still, that’s what Adele does, isn’t it? She gives us permission to simply be ourselves – whether that’s to contribute our soulful howls to Someone Like You (“My songs are pretty miserable, I know” she concedes with a laugh), or throw our hands in the air to I’ll Be Waiting (“I know they’re telling you to sit down, but don’t listen to them!”).

ANZ Stadium engulfs 95 000 people with ease, but all that changes the instant Adele opens her mouth. There is no other voice that could so effortlessly fill, overwhelm and utterly own that cavernous stadium, yet at the same time – here’s the crazy part – sound as intimate as a bar gig.

Perhaps it’s because Adele’s modus operandi is bizarrely earthy for one so revered. Defiantly behaving as normally as possible in the face of extraordinary fame and adoration, she shares genuinely funny anecdotes with 95 000 people as though we’d bumped into her at the supermarket check-out queue. There are plenty of artists who (credit to them) try to reach out to their audience with easy familiarity. Adele just does it.

How? We’ll probably never know. At least, not while we’re swaying to When We Were Young, hollering Send My Love To Your New Lo-ov-er, and sitting amidst a twinkling stadium during Bob Dylan cover Make You Feel My Love.

If the crazy part was that this mammoth concert felt intimate, the crazier (though less surprising) part is exactly how good Adele sounds live. She may have warned us that “sometimes I burp” in the key change of Don’t You Remember; she may have been on the verge of tears as she stopped the concert to check on an unwell audience member; she may also have almost fallen down her own (“f***in'”) stairs and walked around 7000 steps as she made her rounds of the circular stage; but delivery after powerhouse delivery made it very clear that no studio can truly capture the magic that is Adele.

Of course, Adele is not a stadium performer – she told us so herself – but that is most likely because she has little use for fireworks, streamers and balloons (all of which we got just the same). Her voice trumps the lot. At the end of the night it is not the stadium show we have paid for, no mere spectacle; it is the privilege of being in the same space as that magnificent voice, paired with uncanny relatability. And that was worth every damn cent.

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.

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!)

In defence of an unabashed love for Mariah Carey’s ‘Merry Christmas’

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There are two types of people in the world…those who hate this album, and those who love it.

Gather ’round children, and let me tell you a story of the 90’s.

Once upon a time, before Michael Buble was a household name, before his Christmas album was a twinkle in a producer’s eye, there was Mariah Carey and Merry Christmas. The year was 1994, and this reviewer was a wee tot of 2, but she was destined to cross paths with Carey’s holiday album in just a few years…and the year after that…and the year after that…and all the years after those.

I’m not entirely sure when Merry Christmas first came on my radar – I was probably 5 or 6 – but I do know that after that first encounter, nothing has sounded more like Christmas to me since. Two decades later, all I require to get into the holiday spirit is to hear the first rippling piano chords of ‘Silent Night’ and I’m good to go.

Whacking great dose of nostalgia aside, it is my humble opinion that Merry Christmas also delivers a musical treat the likes of which Michael Buble has yet to top. This was my first encounter with a gospel choir, a Hammond organ, and a voice of superhuman capabilities, and my childhood imagination was entirely captivated by this ridiculously groovy take on the season.

The prime time for listening to Christmas music when I was a kid was in the car with Mum and younger bro, on our way to our grandparents’ for various festive visits (tree-decorating, setting up the inflatable pool, delivering presents…). This was a 40 minute trip – just enough to blast out the 38 minutes of MC – during which all three of us would pump ourselves up on holiday spirit, ready to decorate the Christmas tree with gusto upon arrival at our familial destination.

“She has such an incredible voice,” my mother would say, shaking her head in wonder at Carey’s vocal acrobatics. It was the only time I really heard Mum admire a musician, so I listened to the mind-boggling melisma with rapt attention. Carey’s voice sounded like some wondrous alien instrument, flying up and down octaves of notes with fearless abandon.

And then there was the gospel choir.

I had no concept of gospel music at age 7 or even 8, but listening to the joyful cloud of harmonies sounded to me like there was a crazy good party going on inside that tape cassette. It was also the first time I heard a Hammond organ…there were so many things to listen to! For me, Merry Christmas was a festive patchwork of musical magic with no comparison.

By age 9 I’d been playing classical piano for three years, and the prominent piano solos and accompaniments across the album (but perhaps especially in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ and ‘Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child’) did much to reassure me that piano could be a ‘cool’ instrument, used for other purposes than Mozart. I promised myself I would learn such groovy riffs when I was older and had mastered Bach and Beethoven.

There were things I didn’t appreciate until I was older, too. As a child I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many things that made Carey sad at Christmas (‘Christmas: Baby Please Come Home, ‘Miss You Most At Christmas Time’)…surely this season was the best distraction from a lame boyfriend who’d dumped her unceremoniously? I didn’t understand the magnifying effect of Christmas until much later, although I’ve always tried to remember my childhood approach to heartache.

Perhaps the best thing about Merry Christmas however, was the way it drew my mother into as childish a state of Christmas excitement as our own. As the chorus of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ hit, Mum’s usually strict observation of driving safety would melt slightly, allowing her to take one hand off the steering wheel to punch the air with the ‘hey!’. We always knew it would be a good day if Mum was fist-pumping to MC.

I can’t be sure, because this is not the kind of thing grown-up people discuss, but I refuse to believe I am alone in this once-a-year obsession with a 90’s Christmas album (whoever DJs for Westfields clearly shares my love, for one). But as the years slip by and the baby-faced pop stars of today release their own takes on seasonal tunes (looking at you JB and Ariana Grande), the haters are so quick to trash my beloved MC.

Well, save your “bah humbug”s – the only crime Merry Christmas has committed here is to be so damn good it gets mercilessly overplayed. And may it be so for many years to come!

Three albums to add to your library right now

Dustin Tebbutt – First Light

Vance Joy fans rejoice – for those of us who have outgrown Riptide and its fellows, Tebbutt’s latest release offers a perfect (dare I say, more grown-up) alternative. At once chilled out and uplifting, the gentle mix of acoustic guitar, light percussion and occasional layer of electronica, support Tebbutt’s floating vocal deliveries. Cue lazy Sunday morning.

Lakuta – Brothers and Sisters

If Western club music has you wanting a little more, look no further than the global sounds of Lakuta. Including musicians from Africa, Spain and the UK, this group combines the very best of danceable soul, disco and funk with socio-political statements, sensual Latin vibes and infectious Afro-beat rhythms.

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

I don’t remember being this awestruck by musical charisma since I first heard Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs in my early uni days – Cohen’s latest album is absolutely bloody mesmerising. Skeletal accompaniments and gospel choirs take a backseat to musings that have been 82 years in the making. “I’m ready, Lord” growls Cohen, to which your ears will reply “Take me, take me now”.

Michael Buble: Nobody But Me (Deluxe Version)

michael-buble-nobody-but-me-2016-2480x2480Album: Nobody But Me (Deluxe Version)
Artist: Michael Buble
Label: Reprise Records
Released: October 21, 2016

RATING: 2.5/5 STARS

Michael Buble has been around long enough to hone his template to perfection; so while it is both comforting and disappointing to discover I could have written this review just as accurately without actually listening to his latest record, it is certainly not a surprise. Nobody But Me is yet another perfectly crafted album of knee-melting ballads, toe-tapping jazz, and pop tunes of the sweetest vanilla. Admittedly, there’s less of the latin influence I danced to incessantly when To Be Loved hit the shelves, and the brass blasts are fewer and smoother than those of its predecessor, but for the most part Nobody But Me is of the same mould.

There’s the uplifting but forgettable pop original (I Believe In You), the cheeky rock ‘n’ roll number (Nobody But Me), the guest cameo (Meghan Trainor, on Someday), the deliciously scathing revenge song (I Wanna Be Around), the no-brainer classic covers (My Baby Just Cares For Me, My Kind Of Girl), the classic cover that didn’t really work (God Only Knows…how much better this version could have been, were it not so slow and stilted) and thankfully, the gorgeous reimagining of a vintage sound (On An Evening In Roma). In between these certainties lie a few slower and/or ordinary numbers (The Very Thought Of You, Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow) that fill the gaps and carry us to the bonus tracks, if you’ve chosen the deluxe version for your purchase (not a terrible idea, as Take You Away is a fun little cha cha).

Consistency is usually reassuring, but this time around it’s made me restless to hear a little more daring from Buble. He must certainly be applauded for maintaining a fresh sound – and for offering new material alongside the classics – but Nobody But Me continues the trend of over-production in his more recent work. Gone is the rawness we heard in 2007’s I’m Your Man, and where is the innovation that created that extraordinary jazz cover of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love?

While the radio stations will likely delight in the cutesy ukulele that accompanies Buble and Trainor in the safe ray of sunshine that is Someday, I’ll listen to On An Evening In Roma and dream of bygone days when Buble’s albums oozed with nuance and romance.

Tinpan Orange @ The Vanguard 20.5.16

Tinpan Orange on stage at The Vanguard last Friday


4.5/5

The red wine flowed generously among the diners of The Vanguard last Friday, as they held hands in the candlelight or chatted animatedly to friends over multiple courses of dinner. With the median age hovering closer to 50 than 25, this was a crowd who likes to gig in comfort – and with such mesmerising performers as Tinpan Orange on the bill, why not?

The mood was unsurprisingly mellow before support act Jim Lawrie took the stage to serenade us. His lilac-hued tales of heartbreak, featuring resolute circles of emotional self-destruction, added an extra layer to the room’s comfortable stupor. It seemed we might never emerge from these fuzzy depths of melancholy, but they vanished the instant Emily Lubitz stepped on stage.

Blessed though she is with a magnetic stage presence and bewitching voice, Tinpan Orange’s front woman is also about as unaffected as they come. Chatting candidly about her inspirations, Emily readily admitted to borderline plagiarism and seeking songwriting assistance from Facebook, causing giggles and guffaws from every seat.

Beginning with the title track off new release Love Is A Dog, Tinpan powered through a crowd-pleasing set list that was equal parts nostalgia, and a persuasive argument for the purchase of their new material. Over The Sun favourites Birdy and Barcelona made a well-received appearance, while Song For Frida Kahlo satisfied the more loyal fans in the audience. But it was the band’s new songs that sounded freshest and most assured.

It is likely some of that assurance comes from Tinpan Orange’s newly refined musical identity. There is a cohesiveness to their latest album borne of artistic confidence, and it manifested in the quiet conviction that underpinned all their deliveries. Guitarist Jesse Lubitz provided solid rhythmic support not just in his playing, but in guiding the set list seamlessly through its paces, while Emily left us breathless in the wake of her candid vocal explorations.

The addition of violin virtuoso Alex Burkoy brought yet another dimension to the Tinpan sound – and it damn near made the show. At first it seemed Burkoy was only there to provide the melodic bass lines we were all familiar with, but suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a blistering violin solo that garnered a roar from the audience when it finally ended.

The fireworks were kept to a tasteful minimum however. Cities of Gold soared tenderly above the hushed crowd, Fools and Cowboys charmed and amused with its cautionary advice, and Rich Man was every bit as captivating as it sounds on the record. But it was unassuming album-closer Leopard that delivered that moment of pure,  spine-tingling intimacy that us gig-goers secretly hope every live encounter will offer up. Walking casually among the tables, the band clambered up on chairs and issued forth with disarming candour, stunning musicianship and a very real awareness of who they were sharing the room with.

An encore was non-negotiable and it came, in the form of a Lubitz-ised cover of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya. An odd choice perhaps, from a band whose audience had consistently begged for their originals, but it was further proof that these musicians’ confident brushstrokes can be applied to other canvases with stunning effect.

Follow Favourites

 

Twitter is perhaps my very favourite way to discover new music. Sorry PR people, I read your press releases too – but it’s such a satisfying surprise to discover a new favourite jam in-between catching up on the day’s news.

There’s also the added advantage of those emerging artists who follow me as soon as they see the words “music critic” in my profile. I appreciate that the music industry is a tough ol’ place, so I thought I’d spend an afternoon listening to the work of the artists in my “Followers” list. Because, #lazyweekend.

Happily, I discovered a few great tunes that had previously slipped under my radar – and possibly snuck past you as well. Enjoy.

Tori Forsyth – Black Bird EP

I don’t know about you, but I never get tired of good and moody folk tunes. Tinge them with a haunting country twang and things get even better. That’s exactly what Hunter Valley NSW local Tori Forsyth has done in her debut EP, and it’s a quiet-spoken gem you really shouldn’t miss. ‘Nuff said, just go listen.

Mabel – Rachel EP

Sydney band Mabel are, according to their Twitter profile, “The world’s single greatest band ever”. Curious? I was too. But then, they only have 250 followers, so we can safely assume they’re just a fun-loving bunch who don’t take themselves too seriously.

Mabel’s sound is crunchy, energetic garage rock meets boppy, feel-good pop. Hard enough to headbang to, groovy enough to dance to; not wildly original, but a hella lot of fun. Start your weekend off right with Spaceman:

Into Orbit – Dark Matter

It’s difficult to believe this New Zealand duo is just that – a duo. For lovers of post/prog rock, the mindblowing volume and depth of one drummer and one guitarist (and, okay, obviously a helping hand from technology) will be an adrenaline rush of satisfyingly epic proportions. Reminiscent of sleepmakeswaves and Porcupine Tree, Dark Matter delivers an experimental explosion that is all-encompassing, yet coherent.

They’re giving this one away for free too, so head on over to their Bandcamp to download.

Episodes – Hunny Please

There really isn’t another way to put it: this track has swag. Although the Brighton four-piece might call their work “electro indie pop”, there’s a heavier, bluesy vibe to Hunny. You can feel it in the smokin’ bass lines, and hear it in vocalist Alana Westall’s sensual, effortless melisma. These kids could be ones to watch.

 

Over The Trees – Garbage Crown

Restless cello, ethereal harmonies, additive meters and eccentric lyrics – this driving tune is a breezy, yet thoughtful, addition to the indie rock genre. The melody is difficult to grasp and will vanish almost as quickly as it arrived, but you’ll likely find your foot tapping long after its 3’22” has passed you by.

Are you an emerging artist? Want your work featured? Follow me on Twitter @jessie_adora so I can check out your tunes – always keen for new sounds to feature!

 

On repeat lately (#2)

An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY) – Courtney Barnett

As much as I love it when Courtney irreverently hurls lyrics like a punk rocker, it was her inescapably honest depictions of insecurity and mundanity that won me over. Can’t get tired of this one.

 

Well Did You Evah? – Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra

Ahh that French champagne, so good for the brain. The sarcasm, the wit, the dancing…proof, if proof were needed, that Bing and Frank would have been the best drinking buddies.

 

Foolish – Alpine

Alt-pop that is sultry, groovy and ethereal all at the same time. Not suitable for the daggy-dancers among us…it’s suave gyrations only in this one.

 

Hitchcock – Finn Anderson

There’s something about this broody, noir ballad that awakens the musical theatre fan in me. The clinking piano chords, sliding strings and Anderson’s melancholic, yet stoic, vocals conspire to deliver this curiously haunting track.