The Catch-Up – 2020 (Part 2)

Miley Cyrus
Plastic Hearts

She’s been something of a singles artist in the last few years – standalone release Slide Away and lead single Malibu outshining anything on 2017 album Younger Now – but the promo for this year’s Plastic Hearts saw Miley Cyrus promise her most fully-realised record so far. Diehard fans of rock music might turn their nose up at Cyrus’ branding of Plastic Hearts as her leap into guitar solos and snarls (especially at the rate she takes on genres then throws them away), but the singer has proved in the run-up to this record and in the past too that she can hold her own with the best of them. Flawless covers of Blondie and The Cranberries saw eyebrows raised by anyone not paying attention to Cyrus’ career over the years, giving legs to the idea that maybe the twerking Wrecking Ball singer could pull off a full rock album. While the opening claim about probably not getting any radio airplay is taking the edgy rock image to levels of delusion – this is mega pop star Miley Cyrus after all – the musical direction Plastic Hearts takes is a welcome one. WTF Do I Know is a perfect opener to this record, thundering in with raspy, middle-fingers-up lyrics and guitar riffs – it’s high-energy but could still come from a rebellious Hannah Montana era (as Cyrus herself has joked about on Instagram). Prisoner featuring Dua Lipa and the Billy Idol-featuring Night Crawling are both stomping, cool slices of pop, the latter especially turning up the camp drama to fantastic effect. Much of Miley’s new ethos on this record is channeled through spirit rather than musically, nothing doing so better than lead single Midnight Sky. One of the best pop songs of the last few years, it’s a triumphant track about her free spirit and refusal to be attached to anyone while tastefully addressing her past relationships often splashed over tabloids. The rest of the record doesn’t really revisit the pure thrill and pulse-racing tempo of WTF Do I Know, but that’s not to say that the more toned down and mid-range tracks aren’t done extremely well. Plastic Hearts is surprisingly ballad-heavy, but while oftentimes that’s a death sentence for a pop album, the ones on this record are great. Angels Like You is a gorgeous show of vulnerability that could both be sung in stadiums and drunkenly belted in karaoke booths, while High and the title track’s western twangs provide a snapshot of how Younger Now’s country-lite should have sounded, steeped with appreciable raw emotion and wearing its influences on its sleeve. This album isn’t entirely the balls-to-the-wall rock stomper she promised, but Plastic Hearts is without a doubt the most authentic career step Miley Cyrus has taken in quite some time. Let’s hope it’s a direction she can stick to further down the line. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: Stevie Nicks, Hole, Kesha


Ariana Grande
positions

The healing purpose Ariana Grande’s music has in her life is well-documented. The machine-like speed at which she puts projects out feels as necessary to the singer’s own wellbeing as it is to the suits making money from said records. The balance between her super-personal lyrics, bop star sheen and R&B hues has proved a winning formula for her last handful of records, but 2019’s thank u, next saw her shed the genre-hopping pop star guise in favour of a record much more cohesive in sound, creating a vibe and atmosphere that felt so confined to that particular project instead of just Grande herself as an artist. This year’s positions aimed to do a similar thing, adding tasteful strings and using Grande’s layered vocals as part of the overall arrangement (instead of just her spotlighted lead melodies). The cumulative effect of the intra-album worldbuilding Grande did so well on Sweetener and the aforementioned thank u, next is expectation – listeners want a fully realised world of connected but still individual songs. While the sound on positions is indeed cohesive and actively tries something different compared to Grande’s previous records, it definitely doesn’t do such a thing as well as thank u, next. The previously mentioned switch up in sound is fantastic on opener shut up, which sees the singer call-and-response with herself against a gorgeous plucked string background. Elsewhere though, it sounds odd, sometimes even a tad childlike, something Grande herself has acknowledged (saying the Disney-like instrumental made her want to write the dirtiest lyrics possible to 34+35). Some of the vocal melody writing across Grande’s career has veered towards the decidedly uncomplicated, often sometimes (still endearingly) sounding rather nursery rhyme-esque. It’s a hit and miss mixture on positions, making songs like six thirty and just like magic feel elementary despite being two of the best and most notable tracks on the record. There’s also a clear discrepancy between the record’s title track and everything else on it – it’s the only one that feels like an easy choice for a single, and even more so it feels as though the song was especially written and cleanly produced for that exact purpose. Great as the song is, it feels like a jolt in the tracklist, ruining the mood and bringing the authentic nature of everything into question. Kinks in the new sound aside, if you’ve liked Grande’s work before there’s sure to be things to love on positions. off the table featuring The Weeknd and album highlight safety net with Ty Dolla $ign are up there with Grande’s most lyrically vulnerable songs, but she also has a lot of fun writing songs about her sex life that are sometimes tongue in cheek, always to the point. The obvious talking point is 34+35 (do the maths), but nasty excels as its catchy, more mature sister. The vocals are, of course, Grande-level flawless across the board, but my hair, which sees her deliver a whole verse in her signature whistle tone against a delectable soul beat is a new high. As a whole album, it might not be as well-received as Ariana Grande’s previous work, but positions is still a solid enough statement from one of today’s most important pop artists. • GJ

7/10

For fans of: Mariah Carey, Victoria Monet, Chloe x Halle


Bright Eyes
Down In The Weeds Where The World Once Was

It’s honestly surprising how little lasting significance that Bright Eyes’ comeback seems to have had. They’re the sort of vaunted, tentpole act whose influence can still be felt in emo and indie-rock today, and yet they seem to have fallen victim to the same truncated hype cycle that afflicts any number of buzz bands, regardless of stature. It’s understandable to an extent, given that Bright Eyes are very much an acquired taste with the density of Conor Oberst’s writing and the middle-brow presentation, and while that’s true here (perhaps to a somewhat excessive degree in a runtime just shy of an hour), Down In The Weeds Where The World Once Was can be an incredibly gripping album. A big part of that comes down to the sound, in which the folk-tinged indie base is greatly expanded on with climactic strings sections that sound absolutely gorgeous on Dance And Sing and Stairwell Song, and even a break for bagpipes on Persona Non Grata to match the solemn, funereal pace. On top of that, the production is really solid across the board, keeping the tastefulness that’s well within Bright Eyes’ wheelhouse, but not sounding overly tepid or drab. It’s an album that can hold onto its indie cred while still being big and ornate, and the sort of lyrical detail that Oberst puts into his writing – especially on the likes of Tilt-A-Whirl and Hot Car In The Sun that hit such a clear receptor for wonderfully small moments – keeps it firmly grounded at that level. He’s not averse from turning towards the obtuse in his word and thematic choice, which can slightly weigh down an already heavily packed album, but Down In The Weeds… on the whole feels like a natural continuation of Bright Eyes after almost a decade that keeps their best moments intact. It can be somewhat easy to see how it’s been passed upon, but it’s also worth another look just to see how deeply the talent and ability of this band actually runs. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Cursive, The Mountain Goats, Desaparecidos


Katy Perry
Smile

Even those not hugely plugged into Katy Perry’s career can testify that the Witness era was something of a hot mess. Declaring the album one of ‘purposeful pop’, Witness suffered from a vague concept, some really odd decisions (it’s easily Perry’s most lyrically questionable record, plus songs championing feminism and strong women are immediately mooted thanks to the Taylor Swift diss track) and most importantly, a complete lack of sparkle that made Perry the lovable, technicolour pop star everyone had a soft spot for. This year’s Smile wasn’t exactly a return to form, but it was a step in the right direction and admirable for how the scrutiny and subsequent soul-searching that comes with a ‘flop’ album is laid bare across the 12 tracks. Daisies is a super significant track in Perry’s discography in terms of her own personal narrative – rejecting her airplay-tailored lead singles for a soaring ballad that directly addresses the mental and emotional journey she’s been on in the last few years. This is the ethos for the majority of Smile as an album, which makes the realistic choice to let Perry’s effervescent persona shine through only in small doses. When it does come out, it’s a delight. The title track feels lovably kids party in the way that only Katy Perry could be without losing any credibility, while Never Really Over cements its place as one of the best pop songs of the last few years as Smile’s opener, funneling the singer’s talents through a more serene, sun-kissed lens while never sacrificing any of its glory. They’re without a doubt the highlights of the record, further hammering home Perry’s status as a singles artist (Harleys In Hawaii aside, including it on the album instead of snubbed pre-release single Small Talk is a baffling choice). Tucked and Champagne Problems are less overtly flashy but still channel fun, the former an attempt to up Smile’s danceability while the latter hints at extravagance in its instrumental while singing of finally feeling secure in a relationship. Other tracks on the record are more off-kilter when it comes to mood, EDM and trap influences carrying the more moody and downbeat Cry About It Later, Teary Eyes and Not The End Of The World (think Chromatica’s ‘dancing through the pain’ mantra but much less ambitious). Depending on how invested you’ve been in Perry’s career before now, these songs might just be catchy enough to snare you in for a revisit from time to time, but it’s not hard to be left cold by how little gleam there is. Smile is a surprisingly cohesive record sonically, though the overarching concept certainly helps with that. Sometimes it can feel a little too on the nose – Resilient sounds exactly how the title suggests – but this is Katy Perry we’re talking about, something here needs to be overblown. Thematically, Smile isn’t an album about the fun we’ve learned goes hand-in-hand with Perry – the happiness of the record comes in the serenity of self-acceptance, of going through hard times and coming out the other side. While it’s certainly a step up from Witness and a new emotional perspective is welcomed, a number of these songs are forgettable, which invites the question of whether Perry’s comfort zone of simplistic pop songs were the right medium to convey such deep feelings. • GJ

6/10

For fans of: Kesha, Selena Gomez, Kelly Clarkson


Little Mix
Confetti

Little Mix have been setting the standard for empowerment anthems for a very long time now, living and breathing the attitudes they sell in their music more so than many artists of the same ilk. They’re a group of incredibly talented women who still manage to maintain a level of complete unpretentiousness. These are girls who can be anything – glamorous red carpet starlets, bubbly girls complimenting you in nightclub toilets and feminist icons all in one. November’s Confetti saw a return to pure pop after a step towards more hip-hop, R&B and trap-influenced songs on 2018’s LM5. The lessons and influences learned from flitting between genres are interspersed into Confetti’s tracks when necessary, giving this record a real final-form feel. Sweet Melody is super dramatic, marrying hell-hath-no-fury lyrics with an ominously catchy “doo doo doo” refrain and a thundering dancehall beat chorus. The garage influences on Happiness help make it one of the best songs of Little Mix’s career, plus they really suit the overblown early 2000s-ness of If You Want My Love and the cutesy yet sexy Ariana Grande vibes of Nothing But My Feelings. The integration of all of Little Mix’s previous forays into other genres is seamless, but it’s the sparkly, more traditional pop that’s the absolute cream of the crop here. Break Up Song and Holiday are both sure to be a Little Mix staple for years to come for good reason, while A Mess (Happy 4 U) is irresistible, misjudged and ill-fitting bridge aside. Not A Pop Song is probably the biggest talking point on the whole record, boasting perfectly timed lyrics about puppets on strings and not doing “what Simon says” on their first post-Cowell album with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. Sugary gang vocals are played up tenfold while the band pick apart the misconceptions people still have around the genre of pop. It’s this level of realness that makes Little Mix as a prospect so easy to get along with. Cycling through genres would make for an inauthentic and inconsistent record with most artists, but everything they try has their own take on it and they sound like they’re having the most fun doing it (even if some moves don’t entirely land). Confetti is the best Little Mix have ever sounded both in terms of musical construct and vocal presence – the harmonies on this record are insane – and it’s a real shame that it’s become a retrospective swan song. Listening to these tracks knowing Jesy Nelson would no longer be a member of the band not even a month and a half after its release gives these feelgood songs a bittersweet new angle. That said, it’s a hell of a closing statement – not because Little Mix have set out to make one, but because they’ve honed all the best parts of themselves to make the most ‘them’ album possible. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, TLC


The Beths
Jump Rope Gazers

It’s easy to see where the appreciation comes from for The Beths from an outside perspective, but the velocity of it can be a different matter. Yes, this sort of ‘90s-leaning indie-rock has a lot of fans, and The Beths have always appeared as a very capable act within that scene, but not one that stands out all that much. That’s thankfully been rectified a bit on Jump Rope Gazers though, where there’s a lot more impactful likability to The Beths’ mumblecore romances, especially on the likes of the title track and Do You Want Me Now, where the vulnerability in Elizabeth Stokes’ voice is used to wonderful ability in swaying yearning and more uncertainty that’s writhing around behind the eyes. Of course, that’s wrapped in a pretty recognisable indie-pop package, where the little muscle this sound has is pushed aside in favour of mid-tempo shimmers and more spry and slightly scuzzier guitar passages like on Don’t Go Away. It has its feet firmly planted in the ‘90s, right down to Stokes’ voice, and while there’s a sense of safety in The Beths’ decision to root themselves that deeply within that era – a number of these songs could’ve come from any number of ‘90s power-pop bands without hesitation – they do it really well, pretty much across the board. It’s not exactly flipping the script when it comes to that approach, but nor is it trying to, and having The Beths play to their strengths is a good way to make Jump Rope Gazers a really solid collection of songs. It’s got that same warmth and authenticity that would usually come from rock in that era, and tapping into that leaves plenty to enjoy here. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Gin Blossoms, Bully, Diet Cig


Bloxx
Lie Out Loud

Summery indie records audibly feel like they’re beckoning August festival crowds to sing louder and dance harder even when they’re coming through speakers. Bloxx’s debut album Lie Out Loud from August boasts plenty of tracks tailor-made for live spaces, putting them in the environment they deserve obviously not a treatment they’ve been able to have in 2020. Ringmaster and lead singer Fee Booth has said that she writes songs with stadiums in mind, and while Wembley might be a bit of a stretch, plenty of these tracks would sound glorious on the Reading and Leeds Main Stage. Lie Out Loud drifts away from Bloxx’s more riff-driven indie of old, prioritising melody over anything else. This album is hook-laden from top to bottom, the title track capable of embedding itself into your brain for days. 5000 Miles is super catchy as well, really capturing the mind-racing yearning Booth sings of in its building verse/climactic chorus combo while sacrificing none of the fun. Some of the record’s lyrics can come off as slightly cringeworthy at times (you’re hoodwinked by Go Out With You’s funky sunkissed instrumental into singing its somewhat teen lothario words) and as a whole it feels as though a couple of songs could have been chopped. Lie Out Loud feels more like an amorphous mood of carefree, danceable tracks than defined songs for a lot of its runtime, which, as said before, works much more in an inaccessible (for the moment) live setting than a recorded one. This record isn’t making some grandiose statement or reinventing the wheel, but these songs radiate a sense of fun that we’ve all needed in 2020. There’s perhaps not much to separate Bloxx from their indie peers in such a saturated genrespace, but there’s plenty of time to grow and an opportunity give these songs the gig airing they deserve sooner rather than later. • GJ

6/10

For fans of: Vistas, Sea Girls, Anteros


Blaqk Audio
Beneath The Black Palms

Look, Blaqk Audio have been given plenty of chances to work, but that just never seems to happen. The merit of AFI’s Davey Havok and Jade Puget jumping over to gothic electro-pop has always seemed like a workable one on paper, but the cheapness and inability to do much with it that they’ve always displayed has been the crucial factor that’s always held them back. As for Beneath The Black Palms, it at least feels like something of an improvement, but the weaknesses holding Blaqk Audio back are still here in earnest. The shrill, canned EDM synths remain wedged in on Consort and Zipper Don’t Work, and while the overall product has been tightened up a bit more, it’s still a very thin sound that Blaqk Audio have as a whole. At best, there’s the punchy new wave of Tired Eyes that has a bit more gusto, but when the synths can feel so thinned out and there’s still clunkers like 1948 and Fish Bite that don’t need to be here, it’s hard to call this much of a success. At least Havok sounds a bit more enthused this time, and while the lyrics still aren’t the most substantive, he’s carried over his vamping presence more smoothly to ensure it all goes down slightly easier. But Blaqk Audio have consistently come across feeling like the embodiment of a thrown-together side-project, and Beneath The Black Palms hasn’t strayed away from that. There’s not much longevity here, and in the ideas it does bring to the table, they don’t hit with a lot of discernible punch, and that just compounds the notion that nothing here matters all that much in the long run. • LN

5/10

For fans of: Depeche Mode, Innerpartysystem, Kill Hannah


Ellie Goulding
Brightest Blue

Ellie Goulding’s slow journey away from her folk-pop roots into a more mainstream-friendly artist came to a disheartening standstill with this year’s Brightest Blue, where she managed to desperately follow trends and still stagnate in the space of one record. A tenuous concept record, Goulding states that the two ‘halves’ of this record feel like they were written by two different versions of her. It’s a shaky explanation of the choice to relegate almost all singles released in the lead-up to this record to bonus track status (an irritatingly trendy decision by artists of late), and the neat separation of the more on-the-pulse songs like the Juice WRLD-featuring Hate Me, Blackbear collaboration Worry About Me and Close To Me with Diplo and Swae Lee onto a second disc still feels like a cynical attempt to increase streams regardless. It’s funny, because what actually does end up on Brightest Blue proper is very difficult to sink your teeth into. Goulding has never been a particularly fun artist, the enjoyable aspects of her music being more the emotion she laces into her lyrics and delivery married with her unique sound and voice, but Brightest Blue’s onus on plodding, overblown song frameworks with absolutely no character whatsoever makes it a real chore to get through, with very little reward for doing so. Previous standalone single Flux, with its starker production and tasteful buildup is far and away the most memorable and likable track from the main tracklisting, its quality as a ballad driven home by just how minimalist it is compared to anything else here. Love I’m Given would join it in the upper tier if it didn’t feel so jarringly Adele, plus the desperately needed pace pickup and stuttering synths of Tides and fellow throwback title track seem to be funneled through the colourless mist surrounding this whole record, ultimately rendering them inaccessible. It’s easily the worst hit rate Goulding has for a record to date; even if we do delve into the second ‘half’ of Brightest Blue, it just feels like any other buzz-chasing nameless popstar taking any feature they’re offered in order to get their name on peoples’ lips. Before Brightest Blue, 2015’s Delirium felt like a step down from folk-pop wonder Halycon, but there was at least a unique take on more sanitised, chart-aimed output. Brightest Blue feels like a further step into artistic anonymity. Goulding is lucky that her unique voice prevents her from fading into any pop starlet lineup she may be placed into, but these songs certainly bring her dangerously, disappointingly close. • GJ

4/10

For fans of: Adele, Christina Perri, Bebe Rexha


Tallah
Matriphagy

Tallah have spent the best part of this year serving as the shorthand for many for what new nu-metal bands should strive to be in the modern day, with an emphasis on building up the darker, more menacing side that’s typically under the surface, but in the wider scene, doesn’t rise to the top all that much. They’re almost definitely a product of early Slipknot, especially in the hollow clatter of the percussion and generally heavier, rustier sound that’s a lot more violent and animalistic. Honestly, it’s been a while since anyone has replicated that sound to such a degree, which serves as both a strength and a limitation of Matriphagy, though more closely to the former. Yes, there’s a very clear sonic throughline here, even for those whose nu-metal knowledge doesn’t extend beyond Slipknot and Korn, but there aren’t many better wells to draw from, especially for Tallah’s narrative of a son being physically and psychologically abused by his mother who he cares for. As such, it’s a suitably heavy and wild listen, with the scratched-out production (and abundance of turntable work, pleasingly) really compounding a lot of the darkness that so regularly emanates from it, and Justin Bonitz having the manic, tortured vocal style that can be a little thin at times, but ultimately captures the malevolent spirit of what’s at the centre. It definitely helps that there’s a more contemporary metalcore slant placed on things too, in the vein of bands like Cane Hill where the blending is more seamless. Granted, Tallah aren’t quite to that level yet (and this is an album can run long, as well), but the component parts they have are already remarkably strong, to the point where the scrappy nature of it all is almost parallel to what drew attention to Slipknot in the first place. Nu-metal bands don’t sound this dangerous or vicious anymore, and to have Tallah actively seeking to rectify that is really something to celebrate. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Slipknot, Korn, Cane Hill


JARV IS…
Beyond The Pale

A project like this was always going to be on the cards for Jarvis Cocker. Those roots stem right back to Pulp and how they’d try to be a lot more than their Britpop peers, feeding into a couple of solo projects for Cocker in the 2000s, and now this, an attempt at Radiohead-esque abstraction fed through the filter of a ‘90s rockstar, a clear musical anorak and a pseudo-pop philosopher all at once. If that sounds like a total mess, that’s because it is, but it’s not impossible to eke out some charm from Beyond The Pale all the same. That’s mainly down to Cocker himself, with a shambling, half-formed vocal performance that’s kind of endearing when tied to a similarly half-formed lyrical style on Must I Evolve? and House Music All Night Long. He’s not got a great voice, but when he and some very prominently placed backing vocalists are the main focal points, particularly on the more call-and-response moments, it’s pretty well done for what it is. But that’s one element in a vacuum though; in reality, the entirety of Beyond The Pale reads in a very similar way to what Cocker does on it, namely shuffling along and chiming in when it deems necessary. It’s not an album with much momentum then, and despite only having seven songs, it can run a bit longer than it should, not helped by an instrumental canvas that’s placed way in the back where its effect is even further mitigated. It’s not an album that has much pop focus, and while that’s undoubtedly the point, it feels artificially difficult as a result, and that just makes for a listen where it’s a struggle to get much entertainment value from. Coupled with production that’s definitely dated in its callbacks to ‘90s house and electronic music, there’s clearly a vision here but it’s one that barely comes together, if at all most times. At least Cocker is a nice presence to have on it; that’s something good, if nothing else. • LN

5/10

For fans of: Ghostpoet, Jehnny Beth, Tricky


Ava Max
Heaven & Hell

While Sweet But Psycho was a massively successful and (arguably most importantly) acclaimed song, Ava Max as a pop star still feels like quite an anonymous entity. Heaven & Hell, her debut album and biggest statement as an artist in her career thus far has some temporary highs but still feels hidden by some kind of impalpable veneer. Heaven & Hell is a record designed for the dancefloor, pulsing beats and synths practically hitting you in the face when it comes to certain songs – EDM-tinged My Head & My Heart is sure to go off in a live environment, but the disco of Torn and OMG What’s Happening can get you dancing in your living room if you can’t wait til venues open again. Max’s vocals are objectively great, falsettos commonplace across the tracklist with a commandeering delivery. That said, pretty much everything else here doesn’t go far enough. Heaven & Hell is split into two halves, one representing heaven and the other, you guessed it, hell, but there’s not much sonic difference between the majority of tracks on this record to make that concept obvious. The lyrics on the record are steeped in cliches that really hurt its authenticity. The weak metaphor on Tattoo works with its sugary pop vibes (which Max sells impeccably), but vague feminist statements on You Give Love A Bad Name-ripoff Kings & Queens and attempted edge on Belladonna don’t even come close to the proficiency the music and vocals hint she has. Most inexcusable is So Am I, a song where Max self-proclaims herself to be a weirdo just like everyone else, but everyone knows any weirdo status you may have is made immediately moot the minute you announce it, probably loudly to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to roll (an image not particularly hard to conjure up with someone who’s made a half long/half bob haircut part of her brand by choice). With the earworms of Tattoo, Salt (a dramatic empowerment anthem that’s actually effective) and any number of dance anthems that are Drag Race lip-sync ready (cc: Born To The Night), Ava Max has any number of paths open to her to have a super successful career. To get to the level of a fully well-rounded artist though, going deeping with her writing concepts and allowing the real her to come out from behind basic metaphors needs to happen. • GJ

6/10

For fans of: Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, Sabrina Carpenter


Shawn Mendes
Wonder

He’s yet to put out a through-and-through great album, but Shawn Mendes has had a number of notable moments that show his potential as an artist. His 2018 self-titled record saw him steer away from more teenybopper track and into more of a multi-faceted writer, sweeping ballad In My Blood the biggest hint at something a bit more evolved and still the lasting highlight of the whole album. November’s Wonder aimed to do more of the same, acting as a canvas for Mendes to paint a vivid picture of how completely head-over-heels he is with girlfriend Camila Cabello in the most grown-up way possible. To his credit, Mendes will never try and write a whole album of the same instrumental framework (although his delivery might make it feel that way). Wonder has slinky R&B and big band moments alongside the more by-the-numbers radio ballads and soft rock, with big blasts of brass and swells of strings indicating what he was looking to get to in terms of scope. The title track and 305 do sweeping epic and cutesy pop more than competently, using the singer’s sometimes more anonymous talents productively. But Wonder is a record completely marred by its total lack of subtlety. The lyrics on this record are  inescapably boilerplate and positively dripping in sap, Mendes obviously unable to go two lines without some kind of declaration of how enamoured he is. He even goes as far as to act as though “only fools rush in” is a rarely-heard pearl of wisdom he just has to share (something most of his young fans probably will end up attributing to him, in all honesty). The instrumentation is often cinematic sounding, like the love he’s singing about is beyond anyone else’s comprehension. If it were subtle and not drowning in sickly lyrics, such a choice would work. Instead it feels naive (or smug, however you choose to look at it), plus it often doesn’t really work with Mendes’ voice (take Always Been You’s overblown brass stabs being blue-balled by his understated vocal or Teach Me How To Love and Piece Of You’s more Timberlake-like vibes being sung with next to none of the charisma they need. What’s frustrating on Wonder are the conversations Mendes dips his toe into before deciding they’re too murky and backing away. There are flecks of interesting words on this record about anxiety, gender stereotypes, the downsides of fame (particularly Monster whose Justin Bieber feature feels dead behind the eyes, not a good mix with Mendes’ lack of personality), but every single interesting diversion is stopped dead in its tracks by constant backsliding into lovelorn banality. Technically good vocals and passable song frameworks aren’t enough when you have nothing to actually say with them, and Wonder proves yet again that he only has potential to do something great. • GJ

4/10

For fans of: 5 Seconds Of Summer, Demi Lovato, Niall Horan


Eskimo Callboy
MMXX

Remember on Rehab just last year, when it seemed as though Eskimo Callboy might actually be growing up as a band? It seems naive to admit that there were even fleeting thoughts of that now, given that MMXX has effectively put them back to square one. Those feelings can pretty much be summed up by Hypa Hypa, the viral ‘sensation’ heading up this EP that seems to be testing the credentials needed for virality rather expertly, considering it’s the same electro-sodden metalcore imported from 2013 that’s been a staple of Eskimo Callboy from the beginning, and reverting back to the impressively stupid mould that could tip into insufferability in a hurry. To their absolute credit, they’ve got the chops to knock out a blockbuster chorus with the best of them on MC Thunder II (Dancing Like A Ninja) and Monsieur Moustache, but titles like that alone should be enough to convince that this is hardly something to actively admit liking, especially when Eskimo Callboy’s particular well has the blaring club synths and compressed scenecore production that can make this a real headache in a hurry. Hell, lyrics like these would make it easy to believe that they’re playing up the turnt fratboy persona as heavily as they can, all the more when Prism comes in as a tender acoustic closer that feels as though it’s tilting towards ironic emotionality above anything else. It’s not good, but that’s expected of Eskimo Callboy at this stage, and the fact they can dole out big, idiotic choruses at least makes them fit for purpose. It’s not a purpose that has any sort of weight or staying power, but that’s clearly not something they’re too pressed about addressing. • LN

4/10

For fans of: I See Stars, Abandon All Ships, Skip The Foreplay


Raging Speedhorn
Hard To Kill

It’s frankly amazing how well that Raging Speedhorn have held up, given that most of their best-loved material is close to being two decades old and felt decidedly out of the norm even then. But as heavy music has advanced, so has the appeal of Raging Speedhorn, to where a brand of Brit-metal coated with sludge and nu-metal actually has a lot of qualities to withstand the shifting ties. It’s an obvious benefit of having a sound with more to it than hitting the immediate zeitgeist, but even on Hard To Kill, it’s something that proves pretty rewarding indeed. None of this is even remotely revolutionary – the sound is exactly the sort that Raging Speedhorn have cultivated for themselves, as is the generally dour and destructive writing – but there’s a real power that courses through it, almost singlehandedly making this work. The production is genuinely great throughout, keeping the riffs heavy and the pace deliberate, while also allowing Andy Gilmour’s bass to offer a key low-end foundation on a track like Spitfire, and while Daniel Cook and Frank Regan aren’t all that distinguishable from each other on vocals, they’ve got the rawness and menace that matters most of all. As a very meat-and-potatoes metal album, Hard To Kill doesn’t do a whole lot wrong; maybe it’s a bit short and could use a few more ideas of its own to really fly, but Raging Speedhorn have done what they always do and have come out with another strong release. There’s not much about it to be deeply analysed, but it’s certainly worth a few spins. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Lamb Of God, Vision Of Disorder, Will Haven


Khruangbin
Mordechai

Anyone who’s given even a cursory listen to Khruangbin can tell they aren’t a ‘conventional’ band, but even that doesn’t scratch the surface of how deeply that runs. A base form that blends sand-scorched psychedelia with funk, soul and dub already stands fairly alone, but in further deviations into Thai and Middle Eastern music, and a full EP with soul singer Leon Bridges, it’s evident of a band for whom genre boundaries and delineations are pretty much a nonentity. But when everything is blurred that much, it can lead to something that’s pretty formless, which is probably the best way to describe Mordechai. There’s definitely something intentional there, given how the winding pace and acid-rock slither is incredibly pronounced, and how the bulk of the lyrics consist of abstract pieces and fragments, but it’s hard to find a way to connect all of that into an actively engaging listen. Beyond Laura Lee’s rounded bass, there isn’t a great anchoring presence, and for songs that are more minimalist in composition like If There Is No Question, they can wind away and never really leave an impact. Because of that, it’s pleasant enough to have on, but it’s not the sort of album that encourages more than that, even if it’s probably there. It’ll undoubtedly go down better with the established fanbase that Khruangbin already have, but for a first exposure to a band who already come across as difficult to gel with, this isn’t doing much to help. • LN

5/10

For fans of: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Pond, Real Estate


The Naked And Famous
Recover

Their debut record Passive Me, Aggressive You has earned them permanent places in the euphoric electronic indie hall of fame alongside bands like Grouplove and Phoenix, but this year saw The Naked And Famous continue to grow up, both musically and personally. Fourth album Recover turns up warm synth tones and home-like feelings – what would once be blares of technicolour exploding all over the place are now more refined, often descending into waves rather than huge blasts after atmospheric builds. Alisa Xayalith’s voice is able to carry soft and pretty melodies and still belt like she’s trying to be heard over fuzzy bass and frenetic synths, those and Thom Powers’ similarly chilled out qualities working together as well as ever. This comforting backdrop is the perfect setting for CHVRCHES-esque stomper Bury Us and glorious summer anthem Sunseeker, but also makes room for heaviness in the record’s lyrics. The title track is a gorgeous ode to healing, not only centred around the turbulent history of the band (and the broken down and rebuilt relationship between the two members) themselves, but Xayalith’s mother, who passed away when the singer was younger. Death has some of the best lyrics on the whole record, talking about a heavy topic in the form of a love song with an air of palpable serenity around it, while The Sound Of My Voice, one of the best songs on the album, addresses depression and the specific situation of the band from Powers’ perspective, a closing verse sung by Xayalith pulling the two back together and tying everything up beautifully (it was co-written by the late Scott Hutchison, making it all the more poignant). What Recover does so well is capture a rough time in The Naked And Famous’ history and turn it into a gorgeous, cohesive piece of art, without a doubt summing up the mantra of 2020. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: Passion Pit, Matt And Kim, Local Natives


The Lemon Twigs
Songs For The General Public

There’s a very noticeable expectation that can be immediately gleaned from The Lemon Twigs’ newest album, not only from how blatantly the ‘70s glam-rock throwback sound has been played to tap into a nostalgia wave that isn’t going anywhere, but also in the ego of the title and the presupposition of how far this sort of thing will take them. Obviously a position of hindsight can lend some insight into how that hasn’t particularly worked – this came out in August and barely did anything even then – but honestly, this is far from the worst representation of this sort of thing. It’s not precisely great either, especially in some fairly underwhelming writing that’s only really noteworthy when it hits its lows (see the closer Ashamed, which is a song literally trying to justify incest), but for what they’re trying to do, The Lemon Twigs at least have the roiling rockstar posturing that can make it work on Hell On Wheels. When both Brian and Michael D’Addario have vocal timbres not too far removed from Mick Jagger, there’s a certain amount of legitimacy that lends to these songs, and while there can be a bit of muddiness in the production, there’s an overall sense that they know what they’re doing when it comes to a workable, often faithful pastiche of glam-rock. It isn’t really more than that, and that’ll be what’s ultimately holding The Lemon Twigs back from making more conscious moves within a scene that’s packed with acts hitting these same beats, but there’s something a bit more likable on Songs For The General Public, if only to a marginal degree. It’s not enough to count that much, but it’s better than nothing. • LN

6/10

For fans of: The Rolling Stones, T.Rex, The Struts


Doves
The Universal Want

There can’t have been many people clamouring for the return of Doves in 2020, not when Elbow are still doing similarly more progressive, open-spaced indie better, and they haven’t even gone anywhere. That’s not really an opinion that’s changed based on The Universal Want either, an album that feels like a band who’ve conflated the notion of an increased ’maturity’ with a lack of direction or spark, and winding up with a pretty tepid listen on all fronts. It’s at least nicely produced, with the strings being soft and quiet but tastefully arranged, and the firm basslines and shimmering guitars being at least pleasant to have on. It’s a very open mix that fits with the general sense of liberation and freedom, which Doves proceed to extrapolate into a lot of songs that don’t feel very structured or propulsive, and that can really begin to meander in a hurry. There isn’t much memorability to this album besides from a couple of images on the likes of Carousels or Cathedrals Of The Mind, and when the pace only ever shifts very incrementally, it’s just not that interesting to get through, especially when Jimi Goodwin is trying to do his Guy Garvey impression in the vocals without as much passion or drive. Clearly Doves are of the mindset that this is far more sweeping and elegant than it actually is, and while the germ of that notion is easy to parse out among it all – the sense of scope here could actually have something to it with further application – it’s really just more fuel to the fire of this band being a poor man’s Elbow. • LN

5/10

For fans of: Elbow, Coldplay, The Verve


Love Fame Tragedy
Wherever I Go, I Want To Leave

The witty, intelligent lyrics of Matthew ‘Murph’ Murphy are often the highlight of The Wombats songs, and this July fans got an extra dose of his wordsmithery, albeit in a different package that we’re used to. His solo project Love Fame Tragedy saw Murph attempt to branch out musically with songs that were initially intended to be Wombats songs, ultimately earmarked for not being the right fit. Wherever I Go, I Want To Leave flits between pop and indie for the most part and being lead by The Wombats’ singer feels comfortable even if the musical backdrop doesn’t immediately scream his comfort zone. Self-deprecation and tales of hedonism and bad decisions are part and parcel of a Murph project, but this time around such stories are secondary to a much more personal and vulnerable perspective which is easy to appreciate. Despite Love Fame Tragedy’s lyrics being much deeper than Murph has ever been in his main project , the musical side of things doesn’t sit with the intimate nature of the record and its intention ultimately feels pretty confusing as a result. Wherever I Go… is very bloated with its 17 songs. A few tracks could slot nicely into a Wombats record – Backflip especially feels like a Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life version of Jump Into The Fog – but while the dash of experimentation does separate this project from Murphy’s day job, the scales are tipped too far, coming out slightly faceless after slaloming his way through different musical guises to often disappointing results. The run of Pills, Body Parts and Multiply are a bunch of bang-average pop tracks that could be by anyone, barely catchy enough to recall after the fact. In fact, a lot of leaps forward are marred by the songs falling flat or sometimes even being straight-up cringeworthy (Hardcore’s ‘rocking up’ of guitars and chorus of “you’re so hardcore / you make me want to start a band” just screaming of normies throwing the horns). The best parts of Wherever I Go… are where Murphy prioritises heart-on-sleeve lyrics and the creative expression. He really suits floaty synth backgrounds like what The Wombats veered towards on Glitterbug – they complement his vocal style and allow his lyrics to shine – which is why opener 5150 and unprecedented dreamy disco track Pink Mist are two real standouts. Piano-led dance track You Take The Fun Out Of Everything is definitely the most notable divergence from the singer’s norm, feeling like the abridged version of everything this album is trying to do in terms of experimentation and emotional ethos. Much of the rest of this album just consists of the aforementioned faceless pop or Wombats-indie under a different name (after multiple listens only business-as-usual My Cheating Heart and Honeypie, an amalgamation of dreaminess and indie are memorable). Ultimately, the first outing for Love Fame Tragedy is an overfull letdown – while it may have provided emotional and creative release for Matthew Murphy, not much of it is worth revisiting at all. • GJ

5/10

For fans of: The Wombats, Larkins, Blossoms


The Levellers
Peace

Though ostensibly a ‘classic’ band, The Levellers certain don’t present themselves as one. There isn’t the same reverence around them, though that’s probably be design considering how street-level their brand of folk-punk is, to the point where they’re effectively part of UK rock’s furniture to the degree where they can be genuinely easy to ignore. That can be pretty easy to explain, though – even besides their penchant for embracing Celtic folk which, on a purely commercial basis, isn’t shifting all that many units, but especially on Peace, there’s a bit of a broadness that definitely feels indicative of their age. For an album as explicitly political as this is designed to be, The Levellers paint with the wide strokes that give off the vibe of late-period U2, where the intent is positioned to hold more weight than the content itself. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen, and Peace can be a little flabby as a result when the band clearly want it to hit much harder. Still, unlike modern U2, The Levellers still feel driven sonically, and while they aren’t exact firebrands, there’s an unmistakable richness to their material, brought about by the fiddle and violin that buoy a deliberately old-fashioned sound. It operates in the same way as someone like Frank Turner might, tapping into real populism that can dull the damage of the blow, but still have it hit with force. That’s definitely the case on a song like Four Boys Lost, but in truth, The Levellers make it known regularly how deeply they are in their comfort zone, and how workable that still is for them. It’s nothing exactly special, then, but like most of The Levellers’ music, it does what it needs to fairly well. • LN

6/10

For fans of: U2, Frank Turner, The Alarm


LANY
mama’s boy

You know exactly what you’re getting into with a LANY album, but this year’s mama’s boy promised to deliver up classic LANY with a, um, cowboy twist. Thankfully, the trio haven’t gone full square-dancing yodellers on us, but stetsons and cowboy boots seem to be part of the furniture in 2020, at least thematically. LANY attempt to integrate a more close to home country feel to this record, the musical backing integral to such a choice. Organic instrumentation is favoured on this record instead of synth work. There’s a more intimate feel to these songs, and those infatuated by Paul Jason Klein and his trademark heart-on-sleeve yearnings will probably drift into crush-serenaded rom-com fantasies. you!’s music video sees LANY perform the track in a huge desert, exactly the kind of environments the instrumentals on this album are seeking to fill. Music aside though, it’s hard to pin down what the intention of mama’s boy is. Is it the ode to home and family that cowboy in la and if this is the last time try to sell it as, or the same old collection of love and heartbreak songs that fill up the majority of the album’s runtime? Is Klein selling himself as wholesome family man who knows how to treat a woman right (his words, not ours), or the brooding, bad news guy who wants his new girl’s dad and brother to hate him? For all mama’s boy’s talk about one concept, this record just feels pretty by-the-number LANY – even the synths creep back towards the back end. Any fans of LANY would probably find merit in a number of the songs deeper into this album, but it’s understandable why someone less invested wouldn’t find any new reasons to be so. • GJ

5/10

For fans of: flor, The Band CAMINO, HONNE


Point North
Brand New Vision

Going into Point North’s Brand New Vision, there’s the distinct feeling that they know they’re going against some difficult odds, given that they’ve chosen to frontload the album with their two big collaborations, presumably an attempt to curry favour early. It’s not a bad technique for a band so liberally pulling from the modern pop-punk playbook of unbreakably slick production, and both DE’WAYNE and Kellin Quinn do well on the title track and Into The Dark respectively, but as could probably be predicted, it’s not enough to stop Point North from falling into the same hole as so many others who’ve tried the same thing. Stylistically, they’re about as reliably banal as it comes; Jon Lundin has a pleasant voice that can dish out some pleasant hooks and melodies, and absolutely nothing more that would possibly get them to move further. To their credit, they aren’t suffocating in their mix to the same level as some, but they don’t rise above it either, and the whole thing culminates in what feels like an exercise in ticking boxes to hit a specific modern pop-punk benchmark that remains as nebulous as ever. Beyond those first two tracks, it’s hard to see what Point North have to offer beyond a slightly different of Waterparks, only without the fizzy energy or wit that can make that band good. In other words, it’s modern pop-punk; that in itself is both all the analysis and indictment that Brand New Vision needs. • LN

5/10

For fans of: Waterparks, Stand Atlantic, Sleeping With Sirens


HONNE
no song without you

Everyone can relate to plans being derailed due to 2020, but London pop duo Honne have had the fortune to have their plans changed positively. They inadvertently created a ‘lockdown mixtape’ which does reference the overt times we’re currently in sporadically, but is mostly stacked with sweet love songs. The title track’s cutesy melody with acoustic backing gives the feel of a busker or campfire singer – someone who can bust out into song spontaneously, but without any of the pretentiousness or eyerolls that usually accompany someone doing so. There’s a real softness and authenticity on this album – you believe every word on songs like loving you is so easy and want to wander round seeing the world in rose tints, animals and birds joining you in song as you go. HONNE know how to add a dash of magic to their songs too, their music dripping with mesmeric little motifs alongside the usual genre blend focal point. by my side has an understated melodrama to its piano/vocal intro that wouldn’t feel out of place in a musical. Beats, bass and brass dimension make you remember that you’re sat in your bedroom listening to a HONNE album eventually, but pretty twinkles of xylophones keep that dream alive on the track and throughout the album, while can’t bear to be without you’s instrumental break is spellbinding. no song without you feels like such a contained experience that not listening to the whole thing in full and in order solely for calming, escapist purposes feels wrong. Even if you did want to cherry-pick, these songs are so mellow that it’s difficult to even remember many specific ones outside of the experience of the whole project – only a select few songs will probably make it onto playlists. That said, there’s a lot to like about the experience itself – definitely one to be kept on the shelf until needs must. • GJ

7/10

For fans of: LANY, Bruno Major, joan


Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown
Pressure

If there’s any argument for how excitement is a non-factor in the longevity of revival-rock bands, the existence of Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown are as watertight as it comes. While there are bands doing it more egregiously than them, few have felt as unnecessary, as they continue to pump out old-fashioned bluesy, southern hard rock with any excitement or power replaced by the fleeting ‘thrill’ of familiarity. Pressure is their fourth full-length, and generally has them pulling off the exact same tricks with the exact same results. To say it’s dated is without question, but even compared to others in their lane, there’s an arthritic quality about Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown, in how they seem unable to lock themselves into a consistent groove, and unwieldy they can be because of that. The flat production doesn’t help whatsoever, nor does it cover the fact that Bryant really isn’t a good singer, as he tries to sound like a swaggering rockstar to every extent that his bleating will carry him. But because this is a classic rock throwback, he’s positioned as the main attraction, to the point where Larkin Poe’s Rebecca Lovell is almost completely inaudible on Crazy Days, and Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Parr serves no real purpose on Holdin’ My Breath. Beyond that, it’s just another one of these albums, where nothing interesting is said and, beyond a handful of riffs that cling onto some meagre standard of quality, it’s not said in an interesting way. In other words, Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown have churned out another album barely different from the last, just as they’ve been wont to do for their entire career. • LN

4/10

For fans of: Blackberry Smoke, The Temperance Movement, Joyous Wolf


Hurts
Faith

When Hurts released their debut in 2010, they seemed to get a lot of commercial attention and promotion for no apparent reason. It’s not like their moody synthpop / disco lento was a popular sound at the time, and considering they’d never peak that highly again in terms of a mainstream platform, it’s little wonder that their subsequent releases would only peter out further and further. It’s not hard to see why though; Hurts are generally decent but they aren’t a duo that command a lot of attention, and Faith really seems to stretch that concept far. In terms of sound and atmosphere, there’s always been a very dignified, sophisticated air to Hurts’ work, and the likes of Slave To Your Love and Somebody drawing such clear parallels to ‘80s synthpop and new wave (and singer Theo Hutchcraft sounding a lot like Bono) tends to keep that up here. That’s a pretty good fit for them honestly, though being more minimalist in execution does mean that piano ballads like All I Have To Give and Redemption are liable to drift, at least until their respective crescendos snap things back into place. It creates an off-balance feeling overall, where the sound isn’t as tight or refined as it could or should be, and where the overall lyrical conceit about finding light in the darkness and madness also comes across as a bit patchy. For as messy and overcomplicated as the clanking Fractured is, it’s a bold move to place early on in the album, and one which is never really matched again. It’s probably for the best, but maybe that would’ve helped Faith feel a bit more alert, rather than just pleasant but ultimately kind of stagnant. • LN

6/10

For fans of: U2, Editors, White Lies


Land Of Talk
Indistinct Conversations

When just a brief amount of research reveals that Land Of Talk have past connections to Arcade Fire, Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Besnard Lakes, it’s ludicrously easy to deduce what kind of band they are. This is a very arty, quintessentially Canadian indie-rock band that taps into a middle-brow listenership almost effortlessly, with a fair amount of acclaim from all the correct sources for doing so. The end result comes pretty much as expected to, with the hushed delivery of Elizabeth Powell over chalky indie-rock that’s listenable without being to exciting. That’s always been the problem with albums like this – there’s clearly talent behind them on a purely compositional basis, but it’s rare that they can stick the landing with how generally one-paced they are. At least the production is nice, focusing on the hollow guitars and bass that lend a complementary delicacy to the canvas behind Powell, and hers are the sort of lyrics that are perfectly suited to capture the vulnerability and tacit uncertainty that indie-rock of this stripe thrives on. It makes for a handy crossover for the Phoebe Bridgers / Soccer Mommy set, hitting the same notes almost entirely, and winding up averaging out the same result in the end. That is to say, for its audience, Indistinct Conversations will likely click exceptionally, but for those for whom this sort of thing has never really worked, Land Of Talk won’t be moving that dial whatsover. • LN

6/10

For fans of: Phoebe Bridgers, Lomelda, Grizzly Bear


The Hara
Play Dead

As coincidental as it probably is, it’s pretty appropriate that The Hara have such a similar name to The Hunna, with both being fairly underwhelming indie bands looking to jump on the alt-pop gravy train, and yielding pretty nondescript results. Their last EP We Are The Movement felt as though they were diving headfirst into that territory, and while Play Dead shows signs of improvement – which, for such a rapid follow-up, is definitely good – this is still a pretty messy listen. It’s hard to ignore just how bludgeoning and omnipresent the production is, turning what looks to be a more solidly established garage-rock sound into blasting blocks of noise that can really be unpleasant when paired with a drum tone that sounds as though it’s being played on a plastic tub. A song like Until It Happens manages to circumvent some of the less desirable effects that such a sound picks up, and that is notable, but on the whole, The Hara still don’t impress, especially when they look to split the difference between hollow Yungblud-isms and any number of faceless Britrock chancers. That especially manifests with writing that’s only noteworthy when it’s bad (see Off The Edge’s assertions of “You kill me everyday like I’m Kenny in South Park”), eventually reaching the point where The Hara just struggle to leave an impression once again. At least the glimpses of improvement are there on Until It Happens and the groove-driven Animals, but otherwise they’re still stuck trying to prove their worth with precious little to back it up. • LN

5/10

For fans of: The Hunna, Yungblud, Palaye Royale


(hed) p.e.
Class Of 2020

It’s somewhat unnerving to think that (hed) p.e. have been consistently releasing music since 1997, and among that time they’ve not amassed a whole lot that’s worthwhile. Yes, they’re somewhat of a deviation within the 2000s’ nu-metal reserves in that they’ve shown a bit more aptitude for wider genres, but when none of their work has aged particularly well and they’ve not moved ahead with the times convincingly at all, a new album largely just seems like another body for the pile. It almost seems too easy to deem Class Of 2020 a truly awful album, but it’s the obviousness of it all that stands out the most. For one, there’s not a lick of cohesion here, with Jared Gomes’ vocal styles rotating between nu-metal gurns, a reggae patois and the wimpiest attempt at death-growls put to record this year, all to deliver lyrics that flit between political and posturing with an almost asinine level of shallowness across the board. None of this feels cutting-edge or ‘genre-defying’, no matter what random sound (hed) p.e. land on at any particular moment, and it really only serves to prove how thinly they’re spreading themselves when almost all of their efforts end up this shoddy. An absolutely horrendous production job doesn’t help, with everything sounding smeared in sonic Vaseline to have no power or presence whatsover, but between lumpy alt-metal on Watch It Burn, some approximation of dub on Last Call, and a stab at brightness on Nothing Lasts 4ever that sounds borderline unmastered, there’s so little to hold on to in terms of quality. No Days Off maybe comes the closest with an okay rap-metal groove, but even that’s pushing it on an album as shriekingly incompetent as this one is. Chances are it’s already been ignored – after all, (hed) p.e. might as well be irrelevance personified nowadays – so let’s hope it stays that way. • LN

2/10

For fans of: Skindred, Trapt, Methods Of Mayhem


Dominic Fike
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Massive hit 3 Nights has had him earmarked as one to watch by publications for ages now, but it’s understandable why one wouldn’t get their hopes up for the rock, pop, R&B and rap blend many titles have been gushing over since the huge bidding war numerous labels had for his signature. Listening to What Could Possibly Go Wrong, his debut full-length record from July, and it doesn’t really feel like Fike has progressed much further than his Don’t Forget About Me demos from 2018. It’s clear that there’s been so much interest in him from suits because of how his disorganised approach to, well, everything, represents the what the ‘kids’ are into these days – these songs will probably rack up streams – but none of them feel like actual, fully-formed tracks. The edgy defence from fans could be that Fike rejects the traditional song format, but even after multiple listens nothing on this record can compare to 3 Nights; its basic idea may dry after a minute or two but it’s at least hooky enough to not be a total waste of time. The track lengths are huge reasons as to why What Could Possibly… fails. Fike never leaves himself enough room to really flesh out the ideas he has; a huge portion of the songs on this record don’t even break three minutes, leaving the singer whooshing through concepts like some kind of frenetic slideshow on 1.5x speed. The areas where he merges hip hop tropes with rock influences are the most interesting, but opener Come Here doesn’t even reach a minute and a half in length, the fuzzy haze disappearing just as it should be kicking in. The worst individual offender of this record’s bad decisions is Cancel Me, a song audibly prepared to laugh at any backlash it gets for its lyrical jabs about #MeToo and swastikas. What Could Possibly Go Wrong just feels like the musical version of throwing paint at a wall and seeing what happens. At the very least Dominic Fike needs to give his ideas time to breathe and refine them – with a lot of work we could have the beachy, genre-fusing innovations those behind him are insistent he can deliver. • GJ

4/10

For fans of: Kevin Abstract, Omar Apollo, Dijon


Aly & AJ
We Don’t Stop

Most people will know them for their Disney Channel career and “those who know, know” pop rock anthems back in the 2000s, but sisters Aly & AJ have garnered a cult following again in recent years for their slinky, oh-so-modern synthpop evolution. After an involuntary extended break from music thanks to label disputes and an album never seeing the light of day, 2017’s Take Me was the euphoric 80s synthpop of dreams, and the start of a real comeback and three-year artistic journey all in one. That journey is chronicled in We Don’t Stop, which compiles their 2017 EP Ten Years and the steady stream of singles that has been dropping since. You can really hear the evolution the sisters have had with this new era of their music across this album – the scream-til-you’re-hoarse wall of 80s gloriousness of the Ten Years EP, the more nuanced and layered Sanctuary EP songs and more dramatic duo Attack Of Panic and Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor. The more blissful, pure 80s tracks are the highlights of We Don’t Stop (Promises and Good Love especially) – the production of thudding beats with flitting synths and flowery ooh-ahh backing vocals really gel with the melodies, sung in anything from delicate, chilled cadences to speaker-shaking euphoric yells. Instantaneous choruses aside, there’s obvious craft that’s gone into these songs. Away from the sugar rush of Take Me, which is probably the most basically-written track on this record (relying on the catharsis of its refrain scream and musical break too heavily), there’s some real attention to detail on some of these songs – the synth buzz and cascade that punctuates Don’t Go Changing’s drum-heavy chorus and the sudden fuzz-out before Good Love’s final belt both two great, low-key moments on the album. Attack Of Panic and Joan Of Arc on the Dance Floor, the last two tracks both on the record and chronologically, mark a change. Moodier and more intent on making a statement, there’s more to be impressed by here, but not more to necessarily love. The former almost feels visceral, encapsulating the hell of a panic attack through whispers and pounds, while the latter is a full Eurodance club track funneled through a more despondent guise. While both feel necessary to showcase Aly & AJ’s depth as artists, nothing quite lives up to their more exhilarated 80s jams earlier in the record. With all these tracks collated, it’s hard to believe that some of these songs have been flying under the radar for so long. The sisters are clearly reinvigorated after a long period of forced inactivity – the fact that they put out the first single from their upcoming album just days after this compilation was released shows that Aly & AJ really don’t stop, and it’s time to stop sleeping on them in 2021. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: Carly Rae Jepsen, The Aces, Allie X


Tommy Lee
Andro

Surely this is what everyone wanted from a new Tommy Lee album, right? Especially all the long term Mötley Crüe fans who wanted to see their band’s drummer do what he does best, namely crappy electro-rap-rock that’s never calling back to any particular musical time period or movement, but still feels universally out of date. Suffice to say, he really isn’t in his comfort zone on Andro, given how so many of these compositions wind up in awkward middle grounds between trap and dubstep with none of the potential atmosphere of the former and all the clattering annoyances of the latter. It’s a very heavy production style that Lee goes for that really doesn’t flatter what he’s trying to get, especially when there isn’t a great deal of tunefulness that can be parsed out here; more often than not, these songs just end up collapsing in on themselves in really misshapen and obnoxious ways. The overstuffed guest list is just as uneven; Mickey Avalon and Killvein do decent work on Caviar On A Paper Plate and Leave Me Alone respectively, but then there’s the slimy flows of PAV4N which sound like an off-brand Professor Green on Ain’t Tellin’ Me Nothing, or Lukas Rossi who simply can’t sing on When You Were Mine. There’s the feeling of throwing so much together at such a high velocity that permeates across this album, where none of the resultant messes have been cleaned up or rearranged to make for something presentable. And when the bulk of this album occupies the same lyrical spaces as trap and SoundCloud rap but with far less personality or quality, it just ends up feeling like a complete mess. Without Tommy Lee’s name attached, this would dead on arrival, and even with it there, any sort of reasonable appeal is still an utter mystery. • LN

3/10

For fans of: Methods Of Mayhem, Deuce, Hyro The Hero


Headache
food for thwart

Towards the end of their run as a band, it wasn’t hard to notice that Lower Than Atlantis weren’t entirely in it. Live performances felt more by-the-numbers than they really should have done considering their reputation and stature as a live act, and as huge a loss as their breakup was to the British rock scene, it felt inevitable. Singer Mike Duce’s solo material under the Headache pseudonym not only shines a light on the super raw emotions he was feeling around that moment in time, but musically lets the electronic elements that were slowly seeping into latter Lower Than Atlantis records take the reins. On July’s food for thwart, the incredible ear for melody Duce has always had throughout his career shines against these more minimalist bedroom pop backdrops, the hip hop beats and synths providing a more neutral (yet still engaging) space for his unique vocals and lyrical storytelling. His writing style when it comes to words is often decidedly to-the-point and unflowery, which makes food for thwart’s lyrics about depression and existentialism potent ones, arguably more potent than if these stories were told through metaphor and poetry. The emotional effects of debt and constant exposure to conspiracy theories and bigoted takes on social media are laid bare on broke and church, while cheaper than therapy acts as a stream-of-consciousness cry for help. The rawness of the lyrical side of things fits well with the polished yet still inescapably intimate musical backdrop, providing a super personal snapshot into the head of one of British rock’s most talented songwriters. Although obviously not a full taste of Headache and some songs balance emotion, wit and catchy melodies better than others, food for thwart is a promising next step for Mike Duce, and anything he pours this much of himself into is sure to be compelling. • GJ

7/10

For fans of: Dan Lancaster, The 1975, Frank Ocean


Cory Marks
Who I Am

In all fairness, Cory Marks didn’t leave the best first impression. There wasn’t much about his breakthrough single Outlaws & Outsiders that was worth much beyond big, swaggering country-rock machismo, and the ear-pricking guest spot from Five Finger Death Punch’s Ivan Moody hinted at an artist following in the Brantley Gilbert mould of a country artist trying to pull out some fresh meat from the long-decaying corpse of post-grunge. And on an album with a title as conspicuously pyrrhic as Who I Am, that’s effectively exactly what this is, as another affirmation of surface-level outlaw livin’ conflates with rockstar posturing and the flood of country clichés for a pretty by-the-numbers album. It’s the sort of stuff that’s all been heard before – Good To Be Us and the title track alone feel like pretty comprehensive collections of all the tropes this sort of music has at its disposal – and when the tone of the album is so dour and dreary in its clear pulls from post-grunge, it’s not entertaining to listen to. At least Marks has a solid voice for what he wants to do, and pairing him with Lzzy Hale on Out In The Rain can make for a pretty effective ballad, but he’s not compensating for personality that both the writing and the instrumentation lack. It’s the sort of album that fades with remarkable haste, and beyond the moments like Outlaws & Outsiders that are too brazen to really ignore (though it does help that both Travis Tritt and Mick Mars work alongside Moody to boost that song’s star power considerably), Who I Am conveniently lacks any sort of identity. For all the outlaw bravado Marks attempts to extol, it doesn’t even feel that particularly dangerous; really, it’s just a marginally different flavour of playing the game. • LN

4/10

For fans of: Brantley Gilbert, Brothers Osborne, Danny Worsnop


Maya Hawke
Blush

Right now, music is probably the thing that Maya Hawke is known for least, behind starring as Robin in Stranger Things and being a member of a showbiz dynasty in its own right as the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. But like her Stranger Things co-star Finn Wolfhard, she’s making headway as a musician with a similar flair for the indie colouring her output on this debut album, only owing more to the earthy, slow-burning singer-songwriters tied to the ‘70s and ‘90s. Hawke does a really solid job at emulating that style as well; she’s got the sort of gossamer voice that has a lot of clarity and poise, and that translates to writing that has some really evocative quality and imagery to it on a track like Hold The Sun. The music itself feels like a fitting backdrop too, in touches of indie-folk and adult-alternative styles that are pleasant, if not tremendously dynamic, but with enough pliability to slide into indie-rock on Animal Enough and varying stripes of country on Coverage and Cricket. It’s an album for which pleasantness feels like its main factor; it really isn’t that exciting of a listen on the grounds of the sort of music it is, but when the composition and overall warmth feel so well-realised, and Hawke herself proves to be a fantastically competent presence behind the microphone, it’s not hard to see Blush scratching a certain itch at the right time. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but this is good stuff for the indie-folk crowd to give a listen to. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Fiona Apple, Angel Olsen, Tori Amos


Knifes
Proof Of Concept

The story behind Knifes is they formed from the road crews of Linkin Park, Slipknot, Fall Out Boy and numerous others, a narrative that, to many, seems to implicate some sort of tremendous talent simply through association. That isn’t necessarily true, of course, and while it’s handy to have names that star-studded to adorn their springboard, Knifes’ worth as a band is theirs to decide and theirs alone. That’s why to see Proof Of Concept being generally lackluster isn’t too much of a blow, though seeing quite how obvious it is does come a bit closer to that. There’s a very unpolished sensibility to Knifes’ sound, encompassing grunge, alt-metal and alt-rock in a way that’s too brusque to really resonate, and too shallow to offer more beyond some bludgeoning hooks that it does thankfully have. It feels like a new band just finding their feet, and without the elevated platform that Knifes have, there’d be a lot less attention paid to something like this. The writing doesn’t offer much, and neither do the instrumental progressions that can feel blocky and bottom-heavy, to where the Story Of The Year-esque touches of Disambiguation stand as the highlight, if only because there’s some punch and drive there. It’s not like Knifes are unlistenable, but they aren’t displaying any amazing talent either – especially in the case of vocalist Ben Young – and for what they are, that doesn’t really help. They’re already being paraded round as something of a novelty, and when they don’t even have the abilities to buck away from that or rise above it, it’s hard to see there being much staying power here. • LN

4/10

For fans of: Linkin Park, Silverchair, Our Lady Peace


Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Georgia Jackson (GJ)

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