[Lo-Fi Folk, Ambient – USA – Kranky]

Grouper, the recording alias of US recording artist, singer and multi-instrumentalist Liz Harris has carved out their own sound that finds a marriage between folk and ambient. Shade could just be Grouper’s most brittle sounding album yet, stripped incredibly bare and captured with a lo-fi bedroom recording quality. Harris’ understanding of lo-fi methodology is so fine-tuned that it gives Shade a very special quality – as if you are hearing a haunted record.

Opener ‘Followed The Ocean’ is buried in distortion with Harris’ ghostly voice just barely emerging from a wash of hiss and surface noise, as if you’d just dusted off a beaten up old vinyl record discarded in an attic of an abandoned hilltop mansion. We then get clarity with the simple and fragile acoustic song ‘Unclean Mind’, which sounds like it could have been recorded lying down on the bed. Every languid strum is played hard yet loose and Harris’ hushed, indecipherable vocals almost sound akin to the feel of a My Bloody Valentine song, only with all the sonic density removed from the mix. ‘Pale Interior’ is an aching and affecting centrepiece that is played so quietly and carefully you’d think Harris was afraid to wake the neighbours during a spur of the moment 3am recording session. But it’s these qualities that add so much atmosphere, melancholy and vivid imagination to each composition. ‘Disordered Minds’ has this ancient, decaying quality reminiscent of William Basinski and The Caretaker’s experiments in artefact tape loops, allowing the texture of the recording itself to dictate the composition.

There’s a rare juxtaposition in Grouper’s work where they have the ability to sound so empty and yet so full. Such as on the remarkable ‘Promise’ which has very little more than a simple acoustic guitar arpeggio, some room hiss and one of Shade‘s most lyrically present vocal performances; and yet this thin, muted piece of music speaks volumes and enriches the soul. Like many of Grouper’s records, Shade is another carefully and skillfully constructed work where the feelings and timbres of both the gentle performances and the sonic details work in tandem to create something sadly soothing. Shade sticks out as one of Grouper’s most passionate records that captures this weightless, drowning sensation – where time has stopped, memories flash before your eyes and all there is left is quiet, stillness and vast bittersweet melancholy.

JAMES BLAKE – Friends That Break Your Heart
[Alternative R&B, Electronica – UK – Polydor]

Ten years ago I saw James Blake play live at Sankeys nightclub in Manchester just as the self-titled debut album was released. It was a magnificent performance, even if Blake back then was very reserved – only just adding vocals into their repertoire. Sophomore album Overgrown was a bold step forwards that really felt like an artist finding their footing, and yet the two albums that followed I found to be surprisingly patchy, even if they did take Blake to new found stardom. Even with a hit and miss discography, Blake has still continued to be an artist I’ve wanted to keep an ear on and thankfully Friends That Break Your Heart is their strongest album since the brilliant Mercury Prize winning Overgrown.

Sure, Blake’s music is still mopey as fuck and can fall onto the dreary side, but I feel this is also contrasted rather well with some colourful production and upbeat dancefloor cuts. Opener ‘Famous Last Words’ captures this juxtaposition in just one song alone, pairing pulsing synthesisers and heady kick drum with teary eyed soulful wails. ‘Life Is Not The Same’ is the break-up song to soundtrack all break-ups in 2021, again finding an interesting pairing between misery drenched vocals and a classy stuttering beat, moody synths and clever touches of atmospheric auto-tune. This vibe is reflected back towards the end of the record where almost everything but Blake’s voice is stripped away on ‘If I’m Insecure’, complete with funeral organs. It’s a total party pooper saved by a rapturous multi-layered chorus where Blake bellows “I’m gonna care for you until I’m no more”. Hell even the opening line of the title track is the most James-Blake-as-fuck line ever written, “I’ve haunted many photographs in the background”.

Blake’s self-immolating misery porn could be at risk of becoming parody or caricature if it wasn’t for that brilliant, vibrant and richly melancholic voice. That and Blake keeps going strength to strength as an arranger and producer, resulting in some of their tightest compositions to date. Fortunately though, it’s not all doom and gloom because the icing on the cake comes in two collaborative hip-hop crossovers that really brighten up this record. ‘Coming Back’ is absolutely outstanding – one of the best songs Blake has ever made – pairing up with fellow alt-R&B sensation SZA. The two bounce each other with supreme chemistry, and there is this insane arpeggiated synth line that creeps in and out that just sends shivers down my spine. ‘Frozen’ is another strong highlight which starts off as a James Blake song and then flips halfway through into a hip-hop banger with an excellent takeover verse from rapper JID. Being so wrapped up in their own melancholy can be a double-edged sword, but I’ll be damned if James Blake isn’t one of the most interesting producers, sound designers and song-crafters in pop music right now, and I’d also love to hear a full on hip-hop record with lots of collaborators someday.

LANA DEL REY – Blue Banisters
[Art Pop, Soft Rock – USA – Polydor/Interscope]

We all know that Lana Del Rey’s 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell is a total masterpiece – Del Rey’s most assured, heartfelt, personal and daring record to date that really provided a sea change for the pop superstar. The critical success of this record allowed Del Rey to earn final cut and do whatever they wanted, entering a prolific phase announcing more new records than can possibly come to life. After a huge misstep with the spoken word nonsense of Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass, Lana then announced a subsequent FOUR albums, but ended up releasing only two in 2021, this one and Chemtrails Over The Country Club just a few months prior.

I was very excited for both of these records as they were preceded with very strong singles and an air of wild excitement where you never know what Lana Del Rey is going to do next, in what seems like a total defiance of what the record label or their PR team would likely ever advise. Sometimes this has come out in negative ways too, with some cringeworthy attempts at political posts, as well as the abysmal cover art reveal for Blue Banisters that was thankfully scrapped. These events subsequently lead to Del Rey deleting themselves from all social media right before the release of this record, leaving us in bewilderment looking at an artist who is more unhinged and vulnerable than ever. This awkward feeling translates into both of Del Rey’s albums of 2021, both of which feel as confused and insecure as their narrator.

My opinion of Blue Banisters is so similar to my thoughts on Chemtrails that this could easily be a review of both records in one. Blue Banisters has some incredible songs – some of Lana’s very best – as well as some tragic misses. Lead single ‘Arcadia’ is absolutely astonishing. Del Rey’s voice seems to be getting better and stronger and this is such a powerhouse performance that even the piano and strings on the song feel almost inconsequential, like a window minimised into the background. From the delicate verses, “My body is a map of L.A.” through to the soaring chorus, Lana Del Rey knocks out this powerful, yet sad and vulnerable vocal that stretches that iconic voice further than ever before. It’s a total throwback to the lounge-crooner-pop of the ’70s and ’80s that is so expertly constructed. And just for the LOLs, this gentle piano ballad concludes with an Ennio Morricone sampling booming bass subwoofer swallowing trap beat, as if Clams Casino just hijacked the record out of nowhere. Again, everything about this exceptional track is just completely unhinged. It feels like Del Rey could just collapse into tears at any moment, yet pulls through to deliver a knockout performance, sounding like the kinship of Isabella Rossellini’s troubled character Dorothy Vallens singing at a seedy jazz club in the film Blue Velvet.

And yet, Blue Banisters also hosts what could be the worst Lana Del Rey song of all time, ‘Dealer’. This barely-even-a-song duet with the dull as dishwater British pop artist Miles Kane feels like it was recorded drunkenly in a hotel room, with Lana Del Rey screaming “I DON’T WANNA LIVE” like a cat whose tail has been trod on. It’s a mixed bag, but fortunately there are enough highs to warrant a listen if you are a long term fan. ‘Text Book’, ‘Cherry Blossom’ and ‘Sweet Carolina’ in particular are all winners. Yet I am starting to fear that the consistency and quality control found on Norman Fucking Rockwell may have just been a fluke, because it feels like Lana Del Rey has this inability to edit and tighten up oneself. I’d sooner have had one strong album than two lopsided records released in 2021; but I have to admit I still get this sick voyeuristic thrill thinking about what on earth Lana is going to do next… Car crashes and all.

KAYO DOT – Moss Grew On The Swords & Plowshares Alike
[Avant-garde Metal – USA – Prophecy]

Navigating Kayo Dot’s vast and complex discography is a real saga of versatile sounds and styles, but this latest effort feels like Toby Driver’s brilliant brainchild is coming full circle. Moss Grew On The Swords & Plowshares Alike has assembled the original recording line-up of Kayo Dot’s legendary previous incarnation maudlin of the Well. Fans of both will know that some of the same players have drifted in and out over the years, and the two acts feel like different sides of the same coin. Moss rediscovers some of the heavier avant-prog-metal sounds that defined motW and early Kayo Dot works, whilst also bringing along some of Driver’s recent foray into synthwave and gothic rock too. This is a welcome fusion that brings old and new sounds together as one, and not at all repeating past sounds and ideas.

Whilst I certainly can’t say that Moss measures up to the highly influential maudlin masterpiece 2003 double album Bath / Leaving Your Body Map, or even those first two Kayo Dot albums, Moss is certainly their strongest work since 2013’s Hubardo. Driver and ensemble present something ambitious and challenging as always, but find a surprisingly linear narrative path in these compositions, being driven by strong escalating rhythms. Many of these songs start with a relative bang and even as they stretch towards nearly ten minutes in length, constantly feel like they are marching forward and taking you on a journey. Opener ‘The Knight Errant’ is almost a little misleading – instrumentally very interesting, but sadly the screamed vocals (which I think is provided by Jason Byron) feel a little tired and distracting. Fortunately this track does pick up towards its conclusion and boasts a fantastic balance of astral guitars, gothic synths and very dynamic drum-play. Thankfully, second track ‘Brethren Of The Cross’ feels more accomplished, with a far better and more compelling lead vocal from our familiar narrator Toby Driver. Once again, the drums here are outstanding and really narrate the body of the song, building a superb escalation in tension with epic, dramatic guitar lines. ‘Void In Vertigo’ pairs back the metal influences and sounds like a brilliant ode to The Cure’s Disintegration sound, boasting superb gloomy post-punk bass guitar and dominating synths, again using the near ten minute run time to keep piling up layers, ideas and dynamics. A (sort of) chorus about reaching the top of a mountain adds a dash of prog-rock’s grandeur as glistening synths and roaring Queen-esque guitar licks swarm this song’s conclusion.

Moving into this opus’ second half, ‘Spectrum Of One Colour’ adds some of the liveliest and wildest drumming yet, with some superb twanging bass, but the frenzied vocals again feel distracting with some awkward phrasing. ‘Get Out Of The Tower’ is an example where everything comes together so well, and is easily the most frantic track that throws back to motW and early Kayo Dot’s most sonically extreme moments. Driver sounds maniacal and impassioned over eerie jazz inflecting guitars that rise and fall in intensity, which also carries over into the agonised screams throughout ‘The Necklace’. Chaos reigns on the thirteen minute closer which finally dives fully into the extreme metal riffing, blasting drums and growled vocals that this record had been hinting towards. Aside from a few spotty and awkward moments, Moss is largely one of Kayo Dot’s most accomplished and focused efforts – one that will really reward repeat listens. Kayo Dot know exactly how to push genre boundaries, surprise and challenge their audience, and here they do it whilst sounding completely at home in their own sound and mythology.

LIL UGLY MANE – Volcanic Bird Enemy & The Voiced Concern
[Neo-Psychedelia – USA – Self-released]

First of all… How great is this album cover! I mean wow, there is a lot to unpack right there, but it is glorious! Secondly, I don’t really know how to explain Lil Ugly Mane to newcomers without offering up a full crash course but I will give it a try… Essentially, Lil Ugly Mane (alias of US musician and rapper Travis Miller) broke out with a contemporary cult classic album Mista Thug Isolation back in 2012, which did have some abstract production and lyrical ideas, but was firmly routed in hip-hop. After the buzz around this album, Miller shied away from the public eye and started self-released very strange, lengthy album projects that largely left the realm of hip-hop, collecting so many different subgenres along the way that nowadays Miller’s body of work can’t really be talked about casually and requires about twenty asterisks and lengthy music discussion. But it is very much a rabbit-hole worth exploring… Oh shit, did I just mansplain Lil Ugly Mane to you!?

The fantastically titled Volcanic Bird Enemy & The Voiced Concern is the first album of new material under the Lil Ugly Mane name since 2015, however Miller has been prolific working under other aliases, most notably Bedwetter and even the black metal project Vudmurk. Using Bandcamp as a creative hub, it’s clear that Miller is busy working away in their own headspace making lots of music encompassing many genres with little regard for commercial and critical success, just putting stuff out there and then moving onto the next project. So what is the sound of this new record like!? Do we get hard hitting stoner hip-hop? Slabs of abstract noise? Lo-fi black metal!?… Oh actually, it’s a pretty chill psychedelic dream-pop album, kinda. Miller’s husky voice on this record takes on a half-spoken-half-sung style and at times gives me early Eels vibes. ‘Discard’ is a beautifully relaxed guitar driven song with some really nostalgic turntable scratching worked in to give it a real ’90s feel, whilst ‘Headboard’ verges into dreamy MBV inspired shoegazy dreamscapes. The album concludes with the wonderful jangly guitar gem ‘Porcelain Slightly’ which has an old school Beck vibe.

After a series of very menacing and abrasive records of sonic headfuckery, it’s a real nice surprise to hear Miller feel at peace and make a really pretty, vibey, spaced out and blissful record through and through. I can’t say I like every track here, but it has some strong highlights, a consistent vibe and flavoursome production, even if it doesn’t go nearly as hard as on previous records. Miller reinvents their sound faster than you can say “Ulver”, but it doesn’t matter when their work rate is incredibly consistent and well conceived. Lil Ugly Mane and Miller’s other aliases are proving to be an exciting plethora of sounds for eclectic music heads, sprawled out beautifully across Bandcamp’s vast creative playground.

MARISSA NADLER – The Path Of The Clouds
[Folk, Dream Pop – USA – Sacred Bones / Bella Union]

US folk singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler has amassed a large labyrinthine discography of solo and collaborative works and has been one of those artists I’ve enjoyed over the years and seen live, but only casually dipped in and out of their studio works here and there. Nadler’s second album of the year has really grabbed me and stopped me in my tracks though. On The Path Of The Clouds, Nadler has recorded with producer Seth Manchester, who has recently helmed the astonishing new Lingua Ignota record, and though a very different and gentler vibe, Manchester has assembled a weighty and earthy production that elevates Nadler’s sounds and compositions. Nadler’s own Bella Union label boss and former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde performs on many of these tracks in what definitely adds to a very dreamy, reverby and full bodied warm sound.

Though clouds are the driving theme of the record, there are frequent references to being underwater as well (both the music videos for ‘Bessie, Did You Make It?’ and naturally ‘If I Could Breathe Underwater’ feature Nadler underwater) and to me many of the songs here sound and feel like floating and drifting. The title track’s lush sonic expanse creates this bed of flute and heavenly plucked strings for Nadler’s vocals to soar atop of. ‘Elegy’ is a huge yet understated gem that really does reach for the clouds as Nadler’s vocals really push towards the skies. Late album cut ‘Storm’ really finds a wonderous meeting point between folk and dream-pop with elegant soundplay and these genre fusions really feels like this album’s biggest strength. The Path Of The Clouds could make for an interesting double bill pairing with Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine’s latest record A Beginner’s Mind as their album was inspired by horror films paired with wonderous chamber folk, whilst Nadler finds a contrast between dark lyrics inspired by true crime novels and dreamy folk balladry. It really has been an incredible year for heartfelt soul-searching folk music and Marissa Nadler has brought another real treasure to the table.


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