This week we have put the newbies at TWL to work with some stellar reviews on Owen’s emotive alternative folk, Michael Kiwanuka’s deeply political and soulful beats, Lawrence Arabia’s sad soft pop and Purple’s eclectic pop punk tracks.
Album Title The King Of Why’s
Label Wichita Recordings
Moments Of Sufjan Stevens / Bon Iver / Tallest Man On Earth
Stand Out Lost
The American midwest is a powerhouse of folk song and indie sensibility. In among the fabric of artists like Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver you’ll find the music of Owen’s Michael Kinsella inextricably woven into the landscape. Without losing any of his typically wry, lo-fi sound, Kinsella’s latest album The King Of Why’s steps up his production quality and is rich with sentiment and emotional release.
With artists like Kinsella, those with careers spanning decades, it’s always fascinating to sit down and listen to them develop over time like some kind of magical audio flipbook. Listening to his early work with American Football, you’ll find less of a transformation and more of a growing into himself as a musician and this shows particularly in his voice. With Bon Iver producer, S. Carey behind the desk at Justin Vernon’s April Base studios, it’s not surprising that it’s Kinsella’s voice here that absolutely shines on this record.
Album opener ‘Empty Bottle’ highlights this immediately with his weathered vocal lines beautifully tying together the clanging guitar chords and pounding drums. Why’s is littered with small intricacies in its instrumentation. The swelling brass lines of ‘The Desperate Act’, the floating chorus that bookends ‘Sleep Is A Myth’, the more involved guitar lines of ‘Settled Down’ and the Vernon-esque drums of ‘Tourniquet’; Why’s showcases a particular skill in its arrangement that makes for excellent repeated listening.
And while the arrangement might make for great listening, it’s the story Kinsella is telling through his art that truly makes Why’s one of his strongest releases. It’s refreshing to hear music that doesn’t centre around themes of failed relationships and young love, themes that overwhelmingly dominate contemporary music. Instead Why’s tackles problems of age and domesticity and acts as a means of catharsis for his worries over his role as a father and husband. ‘A Burning Soul’ is perhaps the strongest example of this, exploring the impact his father’s alcoholism had on his younger and current self. “I was raised by a blind man on fire who was raised to lip-sync in his church choir” are standout lyrics in what is ultimately a much less scathing piece that perhaps it would have been a decade ago, showing a maturity and understanding of a situation he can now find some sympathy with.
The King Of Why’s is, at the end of all things, a reassuring statement of a man who has achieved an emotional balance. There is joy behind the melancholy and there’s affection in his voice and in the rich instrumentation scattered throughout. Owen may be a fifteen-year long side project but with this record it shows no signs of coming to a close. If anything, the content and production signal just another chapter in a long and prosperous career and we look forward to making the journey with him as time goes on.
Artist Michael Kiwanuka
Album Title Love & Hate
Label Polydor/Interscope Records
Genre Retro-soul, RnB
Moments Of Bill Withers / Marvin Gaye / Leon Bridges / Otis Redding / John Newman
Stand Out Black Man In A White World
Michael Kiwanuka’s second album Love & Hate builds around the scaffolding left surrounding his last record, 2012’s Home Again, and follows an even earlier blueprint mapped out by voices like Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers. This time, dated jazz flute is replaced by tasteful strings and personal songs transcend to insightful social commentary as the UK’s Kiwanuka finds a voice that feels entirely his own.
Love & Hate takes cues from the ‘slave music’ of the South, remains deeply devoted to the R’n’B sound of the 60’s and 70’s and is layered with sophisticated production easily in the same calibre as Mark Ronson’s work on Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black. Wherever Love & Hate pays homage to someone, it never fails to maintain it’s own distinct sound. The producer to thank for the UK singer’s haze of retro funk bass, loose percussion, heart melting strings and nostalgic guitar is Danger Mouse, who has helped Kiwanuka’s unwavering loyalty to the soul greats translate to new found relevance.
Love & Hate is bold in every moment, from the formless, ten-minute intro track ‘Cold Little Heart’ to the dramatic strings present in the folds of every song. The production is truly stunning, lifted from the aisles of a dusty 60’s record store, sparkling with intricacies befitting a great year in music. ‘Place I Belong’ sways with social commentary and gliding strings. The subject matter and the old-soul voice that brings it to life makes Kiwanuka’s pop peers pale in comparison. ‘I’ll Never Love’ is a soft, close, electro leaning moment where as ‘Rule The World’ runs on warped guitar and hosts some of the most satisfying melodies on the album. The title track follows a steady percussive groove and opens up to a piping hot over driven solo and songs like ‘Falling’ and ‘One More Night’ feel contemporary and are deliciously melodic.
Kiwanuka’s commanding vocals could easily nestle in between the mega hits of Adele or Sam Smith should he choose. He chooses, however, to let the end of phrases trail off before they sound too over polished, and has the cool conversational style of a man making music deep from his heart.
The boldest, most striking track is ‘Black Man In a White World’. With a sparse bluesy gospel verse, handclaps and crunchy electric guitar pulsing around a painfully relevant chorus. What starts as a stripped back blues song completely transforms into a sweet old-school funk jam. For those of us too young to have caught icons like Marvin Gaye in his prime, Kiwanuka just about fills his shoes. As Kiwanuka sings of identity and peace with the timbre and tone of his influences who were doing the same fifty years ago, Love & Hate is weighted with poignancy; the resilient soundtrack for a troubling year in issues of equality and #blacklivesmatter.
Love & Hate is a beautiful album, and one that promises an exciting trajectory for Kiwanuka. The retro styles of another time meet the modern pallet of today’s R’n’B and the result is a thoughtful, authentic collection of songs. For a sophomore album it wisely leaves room for growth, suggesting that Kiwanuka still has many tricks left up his sleeves.
Artist: Lawrence Arabia
Album Title: Absolute Truth
Label: Flying Nun
Genre: Indie pop
Moments Of: The National / Mac Demarco
Stand Out: Another Century, The Palest Of Them All
Dividing his time between solo projects and frequent collaborations with Connan Mockasin, Lawrence Arabia has taken the time to produce his fourth solo album, Absolute Truth. Arabia is well known for his hit single ‘Apple Pie Bed’, which featured on television series Skins and won him an APRA award (similar to Australia’s Arias). His newest release will appeal to his long time fans, but may have trouble attracting a broad range listeners.
It’s inappropriate to label Arabia’s album, Absolute Truth as indie pop when he takes an array of elements from varying genres. His albums always display more strings and glimmers of groove and soul than what you’d expect to see on an indie pop record. This use of sonic contradictions sets Arabia apart from others in his genre.
In ‘I Waste My Time’, the intro evokes a sense of intrigue, and can be likened to Gotye’s eerie ‘Heart’s a Mess’. The listener is hooked by Arabia’s pairing of strings and odd electronic notes. At times Arabia sets himself up as a pitiful, submissive character. Perhaps there is a sense of whining and self-righteousness conveyed in his lyrics and soft vocal timbre. At times Arabia features minimal lyrical creativity, with phrases such as “I feel sad until you come home, baby” and “my heart is on the floor”. The audience feels empathy for Arabia but when this theme is carried out through the album with little depth, it becomes a bit monotonous.
‘The Palest Of Them All’ features some heavier guitar licks, evidently his years collaborating with Connan Mockasin has made an impression. The intensity of the static like sound wielded from the guitar cuts out the mildness of the Arabia’s vocals. This acts to differentiate the song from the other crooner-with-acoustic-guitar style tracks on the album. At times the track feels a little cliché with the inclusion of lyrics such as “look what the cat dragged in”. This cringe feeling is amplified when the phrase is repeated by the backing vocals, almost in a Doo Wop style.
‘Another Century’, combines indie pop while evoking retro themes with Arabia’s soft take on disco. The most groovy song on the record, this track has hints of harmonies mimicking the Bee Gees and 70’s disco synth. These elements are interrupted only by Arabia’s vocals and his modern take on the classic crooner.
Arabia’s record features hints of soul, disco and crooner vibes which acts to separate the album from other indie pop records. However, in terms of criticism, it’s hard to look past the little variation between songs on this album. There are a few tracks of interest but this isn’t an LP one can sit down and play right through.
Album Title Bodacious
Label Play It Again Sam
Genre Pop Punk
Moments Of Bikini Kill / Yeah Yeah Yeahs / No Doubt
Stand Out Minivan, Bliss, Feel The Low
Texan trio Purple follow up their self-released debut album with Bodacious, a polished sophomore record that effortlessly blends funk, punk, rock and pop influences.
The first track to be lifted from the album, ‘Backbone’ already hints at where this record is going, with drummer and singer Hanna Brewer taking the reins with wild yelps meeting pop melodies. Your head just about stops bouncing when then next song ‘Minivan’ kicks in with a ‘Hoo Ha’ chant that rings on throughout track. The bold funk guitar and punchy lyrics feel like a homage to Red Hot Chilli Peppers and mark a clean step up from the fuzzier rock that dominated their debut album 409.
There’s a change of pace with the third song ‘Bliss’, which starts off sweet, with a parred back drum beat and softer vocals. This definitely feels like the poppier side of the record and provides a nice contrast to the rest of the record. However, by the end of the track it has descended back into what sets Purple apart from other bands; Hanna’s abrasive shouts and unapologetic, joyously raucous guitar.
Moving into the next couple of tracks, the album slides off course slightly. The start of ‘Money’ is fairly formulaic – shouted verses interspersed with a catchy chorus, however it redeems itself when it breaks into something a bit more experimental towards the end. This is followed by ‘Medicated’, which works well musically with a powerful drum beat, but is let down by the lyrics. Compared to the rest of the album, they feel a bit teen angst.
The range of Hanna Brewa’s voice – which has peeked through on every track so far – is laid out in it’s full form on title track ‘Bodacious’. Flying between the softness, the screams, the shouts – everything is on display here, mirroring the varied influences that inform the music. Careening into track seven, ‘Pretty Mouth’ begins with a ska-inspired riff on the guitar before turning into something more complex, with femme punk lyrics like “You don’t see women like me as a contribution to society”.
Both ‘Birthday’ and ‘Geniva’ hark back to the garage band roots the band hold with their previous record 409, with a dirtier sound and guitarist Taylor Busby dominating the vocals. By the tenth track ‘Be Empty’ the record still shows no sign of slowing down, with sliding guitar riffs and screaming abound it flies through into the next equally good track ‘She Knew Me’.
Rather than winding down on the last song, the tempo is turned up again for ‘Feel The Low’. A stand out track on the album which, if you’re listening to the record in the intended order, leaves you wanting more. These three Texans know how to put together a record and Bodacious marks an evolution in their sound and confidence. There’s nothing left to do but to skip back to the first track and start again.