FEATURE: The July Round-Up

The debut from Manchester-born, London-based Shura (her mother is Russian; Shura trailed for Manchester City as a youth) is a record of self-discovery and examination. After record labels came calling in 2014, her music was wetting the appetites of executives listening to her songs on YouTube, Shura suffered a panic attack. The resultant hospitalisation and fear (she was dying) has compelled the creation of Nothing’s Real. The album cover sees the heroine staring meaningfully: half her face is beautiful and natural; the other, black-and-white and metaphysical. These contrasts and dichotomy; that mix of outwardly confident and inwardly reserved define the album.

Nothing’s Real title cut crackles; introducing child-like echoes and a cacophony of sounds (and distortions). Frenzied and hypnotic; a disturbed, psychotropic dream that is oddly soothing. Happy to stay in the moment and let it envelop you: the song fades with whistles and a distant cry. Without warning, it knocks the cobwebs away with synthesisers and ‘80s Pop blasts- the likes of Madonna come to mind. Shura unleashes a stone-cold gem: her voice is commanding an alluring; the words intriguing and rich. Everything is fake and intangible; the heroine is unable to connect with herself; there are nerves around the chest and anxiety lurking. Nothing’s Real is one of those tracks that paints dark shades whilst wrapped around bright, punchy compositions and graceful vocals. An addictive song that sees its author at her most confused and open.

What’s It Gonna Be? documents two lovers separated by the miles (“I don’t want to be that girl”): the nature of commitment and jealousy come to the fore. Not willing to give her man up; make a big deal of this: an ultimatum is thrown down. A sassy and energetic song that rushes and dances; Shura opens her heart in technicolour, glorious fashion. If the title track recalled a hard encountered with a doctor- there was no medical basis in Shura’s panic attacks; idiopathic or imagined?- Touch’s longing and so-near-yet-so-far imagining is equally affecting and hard-hitting. If Kidz ‘n’ Stuff exposes Shura at her most downbeat (“Maybe I knew right from the start and that’s exactly how I broke us down”); her sublime delivery keeps the song engaging and utterly fascinating. The naivety of adult relationships is prescient- Shura wearing a cap backwards; riding the last train with shrapnel in her pocket. Indecision, by contrast, is a proud, woman-like declaration: “You’ve got my love, boy”.

Holding on to the good and looking back at a relationship that should have lasted the distance: What Happened to Us? is another revelatory and soul-baring song- “I’m no child but I don’t feel grown up” is among the album’s most mature lines. Before Tongue Tied we get a little interstitial: a child voice that bridges the album’s half-way point (a similar one opened the L.P.). Tongue Tied is lustrous, kitten-like and in-control: ghosts of Like A Prayer-era Madonna come out here. 2Shy bravely blends fragility and hesitation whilst swansong White Light is a delirious and screw-the-world anthem that shows Shura at her absolute apogee.

Whether a young girl walking through London streets and piecing together broken hearts; longing for passion or introverted; she is always fascinating, unique and beguiling.  Shura co-produced most of the album and shows more fortitude, talent and depth than most of her peers. Nothing’s Real not only introduces a wonderful young artist the scene: it ranks among 2016’s most memorable albums.

 

London’s Michael Kiwanuka took breaths away when he arrived in music in 2012. His debut, Home Again, contained vintage Soul and a sense of naturalness and ease- he was not trying to fit into moulds or please marketing men. Combining artists like Bill Withers, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye: the album was lauded for its warmth, contrasts and wisdom. Perhaps some urgency and direction were lacking. That album was produced by Paul Butler (of Indie-Rock band The Bees in his Isle of Wight basement studio) and gained Kiwanuka plaudits and fans.

Four years can do a lot for a musician. Rethinking, adaption, and consideration go into Love & Hate. If its title seems vague and well-worn; the same cannot be said of its content. Maybe Kiwanuka seemed slight and scattershot on his debut, not really sure who he was and what he wanted to say, but there is intention and urgency on the follow-up. Gone is the nervous and hesitant artist: in his stead is a leader and bold voice; a musician that knows what he wants to say and does it magnificently. Most musicians that open an album with a just-over-twelve-minute track would open themselves up for ridicule and raised eyebrows. Such is the assuredness and instinct of our hero that he turns in a transcendent and otherworldly opener- replete with wordless vocals; Progressive-Rock build and symphonic gracefulness.

Never pretentious or boring: Kiwanuka sets the scene and introduces us to a brave, bold new world: an album that is astonishing from the first track. “I can’t stand myself” is a proclamation backed by squalling guitars and gospel choir; the song reigns itself in and unveils an astonishing, confessional vocal. Black Man in a White World turns that recrimination outwards. Assessing discrimination and imbalance in our modern world: not only does the song address social issues; it draws people in with its hypnotising chorus and determined vocal performance.

I get the feeling something is wrong” is languidly (and with elongation) portrayed in Place I Belong. Kiwanuka looks around him and the people leaving: his voice deep, expressive and majestic. One of the most focused and intense songs on the album; you cannot help but fall for the chocolate-rich vocals and choral builds; soul and passion drips from the speakers in a sermon of lost relations and identity. The title track scores wordless, mellifluous vocal chorusing with a Marvin Gaye-nodding number that hopes for no more “pain” ,”shame and misery”. Transcendent, ethereal and awe-inspiring- our hero will not be taken down and defeated. One More Night finds our hero finding and improving himself; no more lies and indiscretions- it is a call-for-action and self-improvement. A lot of the album addresses faith and spirituality and does so with startling beauty and profoundness. Searching for “miles and miles”; someone to walk with him: the guitars crunch, the keys are simple and direct- the vocal could cause jealous sighs from Otis Redding; such is its power and prowess.

Michael Kiwanuka has expanded his lyrical and thematic grasp and in the process, created a near-masterpiece. Love & Hate is a huge leap from his debut; few musicians have produced such a turnaround. Not that Home Again was a meagre or average thing. Here is a musician that seems reborn and simply unstoppable. In a year that has produced some transformative and life-affirming albums: Kiwanuka might have just unveiled one to best them all.

 

Formed in New York in 2011; the Anglo-American band’s eponymous album was greeted with muted reviews. Part of the issue (with their debut) was a calculated move towards being cool and mainstream. Vocals that sat uneasily between The Libertines and The Strokes; songs that strayed close to the aforementioned (The Smiths register too): the lack of personality was a concern.

With the mixed reception in mind; the band has retooled and taken stock. Opener Troublemaker explodes from the speakers in a riot of riffs, beats, and sweat- a conscious move to bring the noise early and hard. Some debut-era issues remain; the vocals are struggling for identity whilst the choruses are too generic to define them as Drowners originals. That said- and with the opening track in mind- there is plenty of fun, swagger, and confidence to compensate. Human Remains nods to ‘80s Pop and ranks among the album’s finest offerings. Light and breezy from the start: it is impossible not to sway and be moved (literally) by the song. Disco ball reflections fall on a freckled face; a brief romance is unfolding; lead singer Matthew Hitt watches his girl from across the room- his words and expressions are heartfelt and vulnerable.

Songs like Trust the Tension are the clearest expressions of Drowners’ improvement. Here, they manage to be sensitive and thought-provoking whilst retaining cool, credibility and, most importantly, their own sound. Tight performances and anthemic choruses rule the album: On Desire is designed for the festival crowds and sunny evenings- arms aloft and beers in hand. Another Go is all chugging guitars and primeval drive; evocations of Is This It ‘Strokes come to mind- a summer jam that is guaranteed to fill the airwaves in the coming months.

Yes, the boys have created a much-improved sophomore album. True, they need to dispense with The Libertines-cum-The Strokes desires as it could well be another critical sticking point. Don’t Be Like That (the album’s closer) could have come further up the pack: the track order is not as considered and balanced as it should be- the record is a little too bottom-heavy if anything. These niggles aside and you have a worthy album from a band continuing to grow, learn and evolve. On Desire provides plenty of joy, quality, and nuance: what more could you want? Let’s hope, by album three, the rough edges have been smoothed. If that is the case; they could establish themselves as one of the finest guitar bands around.

Following the recent release of their highly anticipated sophomore album On Desire; Drowners are in the midst of an exciting year.  The quartet will kick off their string of shows on 10th October in Glasgow; taking their electrifying set through Manchester, Leicester; Liverpool, Newcastle; Leeds, Birmingham, and London- culminating in a show in Cardiff’s S.W.N. Festival on 22nd October. Following that, they move on to Europe for a selection of dates. Having toured with Arctic Monkeys and Foals; played festivals such as Coachella: the quartet’s imitable show has been finely crafted and is always unmissable.

Photo credit: Amanda Demme

The score to Captain Fantastic features all-new compositions by American composer, musician, and producer Alex Somers- who first rose to prominence in 2009 via his highly acclaimed ambient album collaboration Riceboy Sleeps. Somers has since gone on to tour with Jónsi and produced his debut album Go, with further production work for Julianna Barwick, Sin Fang, and the last two Sigur Rós records, Valtari and Kveikur.  Jónsi is featured on several tracks and the music sounds like seminal Sigur Rós, sweeping, lush orchestral soundscapes.  The film itself stars Viggo Mortensen and premiered at Sundance to great reviews.

Part of the film’s acclaim/success must come down to its soundtrack. A New Beginning, the current single from Captain Fantastic, is awash with lush strings and evocative soundscapes. The song bristles, yawns and awakens the senses. An instrumental that puts you in mind of a beautiful dawn: the perfect way to set the scene. Church is a stately and tender song consisting of sporadic notes and echo: a spectral number that puts the listener somewhere safe, empty and inspiring- the imagination cannot help run wild. Campfire and Funeral Pyre continue the themes of gentility and beauty- the former is especially stirring and evocative- whilst Funeral Pyre contains distorted vocals and a ghostly wail; a song that could easily sit on a Sigur Rós album.

In fact, it is the influence of Sigur Rós and Jónsi that makes the soundtrack so familiar and instance. Tracks like She Slit Her Wrists– whilst the title is alarming- juxtaposes gracefulness and danger; juddering electronics and heart-rending strings. At times, the album does lose a bit of individuality and nuance; especially towards the middle: songs like Dream remind you how much wonder and reflection can be discovered.

Keepsakes is, perhaps, the soundtrack’s pivotal score: an orchestral, emotional moment that takes the breath away. Little details and shades entwine; so primal on the one hand; gorgeous and child-like on the other. Anyone who hears the song and does not become affected and changed is clearly not listening hard enough. There are some numbers (Goodbye and Disappear especially) that are too slight and homogenised to really stand out in their own right. Those niggles aside and you have a soundtrack that gets inside the head and takes the listener somewhere magical.

You do not need to be a fan of Alex Sommers, Jónsi or Sigur Rós to appreciate the myriad themes, ideas, and emotions contained within the album. In a hectic time filled with danger and unpredictability: we need to embrace something warm, nourishing and escapist. For that reason, Captain Fantastic’s score is the perfect answer. Switch off the nerves and clasp something colourful and breath-taking to the bosom. Alex Somers, who is the boyfriend of Jónsi; he lives in Iceland, has marked himself out as one of the film world’s most accomplished and unique composers. Let’s hope we hear much more from him very soon!

Guilty was recorded in January 2015 during her month-long residency at Somerset House, Recording in Progress, in which audiences were given the opportunity to see Harvey at work with her band and producers in a purpose-built studio. The Hope Six Demolition Project (her ninth studio album) has picked up emphatic reviews and proves the 46-year-old, Dorset-born musician has lost none of her step and power.

Guilty was released on Wednesday and was not included on the album. Producer Flood explained how the song felt outside of (the rest of the material). Harvey, Flood and John Parish (co—producer) decided to omit it. The track is propelled by bellicose percussion and a determined vocal. “What’s he doing with that stick?” is a mantra that gets into the brain.

Which one is guilty?” is the rejoinder that gets the listener curious. Whether looking at global inequality or the nature of justice- drone strikes by the U.S. compelled the song- the imagery is unforgettable.

Performed in a lower register to previous albums/songs: Guilty is a haunting and powerful song that is a perfect companion to The Hope Six’. If “Power to the predator/The Grim Reaper/Grainy little suspects running for shelter” leaves little doubt: the same could be said for PJ Harvey- an artist who is still capable of inspiring others and remaining essential. A rare talent who can write political songs (take note, Muse!) and sound credible and compelling.

PJ Harvey tours Europe in October; she plays in the U.K. at the end of the month: a chance to hear her in the natural environment; up-close and personal. For those who adored The Hope Six Demolition Project: Guilty is an essential and potent mandate- from one of the most fascinating musicians of our generation.

 

It seems like Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett came out of nowhere. The music world was not expecting anything as urgent, unique and invigorating as Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (her debut; released in March 2015). Of course, Barnett has been making music for years. From performing in Rapid Transit- between 2010-’11- to appearing on various works- including How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose (a combined package of her first and second E.P.s)- it was not a surprise, perhaps.

Sometimes I Sit and Think’ was the culmination of a year’s writing- Barnett presented the songs to her band a week before recording; in order to capture the live feel- the vocals for the album are the first time Barnett sang them out loud. Surreal and funny one moment; down-to-earth the next: her debut captured the hearts (and attentions) of the world’s press.

The video for Elevator Operator (directed by Sunny Leunig)- the album’s opener- has just been released and shows all her skills in one place. Thudding percussion and prehensile drive soundtrack a song of everyday simplicity and relatability. Its hero, Oliver Paul, drops Vegemite down his shirt; he dreads work- “Feeling sick at the sight of his computer“- and represents the modern-day, consumer dread- those who live to work; no fun to be had.

Descriptive, evocative lyrics- “A tortoise shell necklace between her breasts”; garnishing a lady looking Oliver up and down with a “Botox frown“- create smiles and sighs. A wonderfully rich songwriter: the track is part-anthemic singalong; part-suburban poetry. Barnett’s catchy coda- “Don’t jump little boy/don’t jump off that roof”- is sympathetic and earnest- to a man simply idling; on the roof to get perspective.

Elevator Operator encapsulates Courtney Barnett at her finest. That loveable, unfettered voice; a tight band performance: lyrics that build pictures, mini-dramas, and witty vignettes. Barnett visits London next week- playing Somerset House on Thursday; Lattitude two days later- make sure you see her. For anyone claiming Rock music is dead (or dying): listen to Exhibit A and think again!

Los Angeles’ Jillian Rose Banks (A.K.A. Banks) released her debut album Goddess back in 2014. Upon arrival, the positive reviews stacked up; impressed by her take on Fiona Apple-esque raw revelations and FKA twigs-like minimalist R&B (albeit more restrained and grounded). Although her shots at ballads were largely forgettable: the diverse range of sounds and moods across Goddess saw the album climb to number 12 in the U.S. charts.

If the confessional style of Lorde and Lykke Li bleed into the lyrics; the likes of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu could be detected in the vocals- an inimitable fusion of vulnerable and empowered. Maybe a little formulaic and generic at times: the dramatic, emphatic Beggin for Thread; Brain’s cut-and-putdown; the long-distance relationship stress of Waiting Game– plenty of promise and personality.

Banks’ sophomore album is released later this year and its title cut, Fuck With Myself, shows a different side to the 28-year-old. Instead of mimicking the times and fitting into the vanguard: the opening seconds to the song are instantly memorable. Nervy, glitchy electronics and tense beats see the heroine in confident mood (“I got two diamonds and a feather/Gimme three reasons why we ain’t together”). Banks’ voice switches between barely-there purr and bespoke vocal intonations- recalling Kate Bush during her Never for Ever peak. The song’s anti-hero has caused hurt and seems to be plunging the depths (“I caught you fishing through the fodder”); Banks is giving him an imperious dressing-down.

More dramatic, individual and compelling than anything on Goddess: Fuck With Myself still recalls shades of Aaliyah and FKA twigs at times. Instead of replicating these influences, they are employed as a point d’appui. An enchanting glimpse into her sophomore album: the young American’s sighs, whispers and proclamations are as sensual as they are alarming. The song’s accompanying video, in its twisted, Chris Cunningham-meets-Bjork dark quirk, perfectly backs the track’s marriage of coarse confessionals and empowered mandates. Banks is back and she is a woman on a mission!

 

 

 

 

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