Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness Of Dancers

M.C.Taylor, along with a series of long term collaborators, is now on his fifth record under the Hiss Golden Messenger moniker and after the starkness of ‘Bad Debt’ and the darkness of ‘Haw’ this album feels like a stellar leap forward. Confident, lush and bursting with mature story-songs this is alternative Americana that flirts with the mainstream while always keeping its credibility. Guitar and piano underpin the songs while mellow solos waft around the words and are often punctured by organ, banjo and drum flourishes. Stand out centrepiece and title track ‘Lateness Of Dancers’ with its backward guitar build up to the chorus ‘Real love, it broke me’ is stunning, if Taylor’s voice wasn’t so beautiful it would crack over those words as Alexandra Sauser-Monnig joins him and complements him perfectly. The sound of distant crickets between songs and the use of a child to introduce ‘Day Oh Day’ give a very intimate feel drawing you in and holding you close throughout. From the jaunty ‘Lucia’ through to album closer ‘Drum’ you will wonder why, with songs this good, Taylor and his talented bunch are not one of the biggest names on the planet as he rightly deserves to be.

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Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems

The first two words that spring to mind when hearing the new Leonard Cohen album ‘Popular Problems’ is subtle and dark and yet despite this the eighty year olds work has never been better. ‘I’m slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast, You want to get there soon, I want to get there last’ he honestly opens with on ‘Slow’ his familiar gravel humming over the hushed instrumentation, as album highlight ‘Almost Like the Blues’ kicks in I’m instantly reminded of ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ as organs and distant bongos play a slow deathly march. ‘Samson in New Orleans’ is the story of hurricane Katrina and Cohen reveals the murky aftermath in his deep dulcet tones. Elsewhere there’s beautiful piano, Hammond organ and even gospel elements. ‘My Oh My’ is an affectionate ode ’It wasn’t hard to love you, I didn’t have to try’ it’s a little light relief as is the banjo driven ‘Did I Ever Love You’ with its jauntily placed chorus. At nine songs this record, if you like it, will leave you desperately wanting more but coming just two years after his last there’s hope for another cracking record from this legend yet, but for now revel in an album that is without a doubt one of his best.

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Robert Plant – lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar

What can I tell you about the new Robert Plant album, well it’s amazing, like a weird mix of Tinariwen, Zepplin (of course) and Depeche Mode if they weren’t electronic but more acoustic. Across its eleven tracks you will be treated to bits that sound like Bowie and Bjork and even Deep Forest, his backing band The Sensational Space Shifters, managing to output a mix of African trance and tribal beats with modern day sensibilities. It’s a heady mix, with Plant alternating between his gruff whisper and an ethereal falsetto while the band play their rhythmic grooves. Tempos vary but there is always a relentless pacing that all the instrumentation hangs off, drums and banjos mix with more exotic instruments like bendirs and djembe and there is always something exciting going on which is one of the reasons I can’t stop playing this record. Tracks like ‘Embrace Another Fall’ with its brilliant distorted guitar and ‘Pocketful of Golden’ with its catchy breathed vocal are highlights but there really isn’t a weak track on here, the whole album is a kaleidoscope of sound. At 66 years old Plant is still making exception music that put most of his younger contemporaries to shame and for that alone you should give this record a go.

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J Mascis – Tied to a Star

Walking to work on a cold morning Mascis’ second solo album was perfect for warming me up mentally if not physically, ten short but sweet song that showcase the Dinosaur Jnr frontman’s writing skills. Just like in his band he knows how to write a catchy melody and a simple killer riff or two and while sounding nothing like his band there are similarities. But whereas his band is a fuzz driven rock outfit, solo Mascis is beautiful and subtle with acoustic guitar the most prevalent instrument. Drums, bass and other guitars take a back seat until needed on say like a great bit of lead or an eastern coda. But the main thing here is Mascis voice which is so distinctive and while it sounds great over rock, as we all know, it also lends itself to this softer acoustic side perfectly. With guest spots from Ken Maiuri (Young@Heart Chorus), Pall Jenkins (Black Heart Procession), Mark Mulcahy (Miracle Legion) and Chan Marshall (Cat Power) this short but sweet album is a must for fans not just of Mascis but of great song writing.

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Shovels & Rope – Swimmin’ Time

Shovels & Rope, married couple Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, are it would seem the real deal and here on their kickstarter funded 3rd album prove that they have the chops to cut it with the best of them. If you have never heard them think a mix of swampy blues and alt-country, The Civil Wars meets Tom Waits via Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. A lot of the magic happens in the vocal play between their two voices, his gruff and low hers high and flighty, but also in the lyrics that sit over the simple but catchy compositions. ‘Evil’, fast becoming a favourite song of the year, is a good example ‘Every now and then I get evil, I’m ashamed in the shadow of a steeple, I’m a lunatic looking through a keyhole, I hit my kids but I don’t mean to, I’m a dead dog lying on the sidewalk, another victim of the mortgage bubble pop, waiting for the other shoe to drop’ it stomps its way over five minutes of pure dirty blues and it’s a belter. ‘After The Storm’ another highlight clocks in at over six minutes and shows that the band can do heartfelt ballads just as well as a memorable shanty. Across 13 tracks the band, both multi-instrumentalists, create a sound that while somewhat familiar feels all their own.

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Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

From the opening ‘Head Underwater’ to the closing title track Jenny Lewis has written 10 insanely catchy tunes. Lead single ‘Just One Of The Guys’ is a perfect example of her style that washes over this record in various forms. Acoustic guitars and layered vocals are the main stay with Lewis’ soft voice floating along with the melodies. Mixing themes like being on tour, insomnia and heartbreak Lewis leans towards the quirky and while some of the lyrics are a tad naïve the majority are well written. ‘Slippery Slopes’ is a particular favourite as is closer ‘The Voyager’ where Lewis sings ‘The voyagers in every boy and girl, if you want to get to heaven get out of this world’. Not dissimilar to her previous solo work and that of former band Rilo Kiley ‘The Voyager’ though goes someway to cement Lewis as a leading indie chanteuse.

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As Above, So Below

As Above, So Below has the premise to be a great horror film on paper but sadly on the screen just signals the death of a genre made popular by ‘The Blair Witch Project’  some 15 years ago. Do you want to make a film but can’t be arsed? Then make a shaky-cam film as there is little or no skill required to produce an hour and a half of headache inducing wobbly action. Starting in Iran before moving to the catacombs of Paris the camera work is so frenetic that I couldn’t make out what the hell I was looking at most of the time it certainly didn’t deliver on the promise of the great setting as this could have been any old cave by the time they finally get round to going there, and that’s the films main problem it’s just dull and drawn out. I’ve been to the catacombs (one of the reasons I went to see this film) and it is a quite scary place, the person I was with had a panic attack and yet none of this comes across in the film and this is before it spirals down into a mess of supernatural mumbo jumbo which just makes the last portion of the movie laughable. Plucky brit Lara wannabe Scarlett leads her team in to the caves like a poor man’s Descent, two of her party are clearly only there to be killed off and may as well of worn a red Star Trek top each from the outset. Once inside they quest for a magic stone that has the ability to heal you if you get hurt therefore removing any suspense that might have been left in this vacuous borefest. All it took to make this film is any old cave, a group of models and a handful of Go-Pros and a way of reducing the majesty and history of the Paris catacombs into nothing more than a gimmicky footnote to get people in to the cinema.

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