Rhiannon Giddens | Freedom Highway (Nonesuch) | Rated: 9
What a voice. If you haven’t had chance to hear Rhiannon Giddens before, you must. Start with her performance on Jools Holland’ Hootenanny Performance (Up Above My Head). Giddens possesses a voice of extraordinary power.
The roots singer’s second album deals with race at a time when America is divided, using folk (with several other influences and styles) as the vehicle for her protest. Rather than use her voice to bludgeon the listener, Giddens knows just when to tone it down, as on the album’s second track “The Angels Laid Him Away”.
There’s plenty to admire on the record aside from Gidden’s voice, the musicianship is excellent (especially the brass on “Hey Bebe”). The only let-down on the album is the misjudged rap verse on “Better Get It Right The First Time”, breaking the coherence of the record.
Unlike her first album this album is mainly penned by Giddens, aside from the album highlight “Freedom Highway”, a cover of the Staple Sisters classic. There are few finer singers in the world recording music. This is an excellent second album.
Favourite track: Freedom Highway
Dirty Projectors | Dirty Projectors (Domino Records) | Rated: 8
Towards the end of the emotional chaos of Dirty Projectors, the excellent track “Cool Your Heart” bursts into life. The track was co-written with Solange Knowles with a guest spot from D∆WN. It’s one of the best pop songs of the last twelve months and is a clear highlight. What leads up to it is one of the most astonishingly personal records of recent times.
Dirty Projectors as a band has seen itself take many forms, with several members joining and then leaving. This latest release feels as close to a Longstreth solo record as it possibly could, yet does everything it can to reaffirm that this is both a continuation of the group, that it’s his project and that he will continue to use the name Dirty Projectors, doubling down and using the bands title for the album name as an act of defiance. At times on the album Longstreth even uses samples from older tracks, including the beautiful “Impregnable Question” from the previous Dirty Projectors Album.
That appears on the other standout track on this album, twisted and slowed down on the heartbreaking “Keep Your Name”. Ben Ratliff, the former New York Times reviewer, in his book Every Song Ever talks about slowness in records giving the listener “music made stronger by a more privileged relationship with the senses”. This isn’t a plodding traditional ballad however, Longstreth has slowed down his singing digitally, making it deeper and making the song all the more harrowing, jolting back to full-speed midway through. It’s a remarkable track, including the following devastating lyric, aimed at his ex-girlfriend and bandmate Amber Coffman:
“What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame.”
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That lyric is one of the more cutting examples, (most of the album is apparently written about his breakup from Coffman). She has, since leaving Dirty Projectors, appeared on a Major Lazer single and has an album coming out under her own name, the lead track of which similarly deals with the end of a relationship.
Longstreth has spent time with Kanye West, and manages to reference him on “Up in Hudson”. The implications of his time spent around West are clear on his record, as they were on Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, released last year. There’s plenty of vocal distortion. Auto-Tune joins in. There are huge beats at times, notably on “Death Spiral”. Changes in tempo are regular. These are not bad things, but when Longstreth sings about an 808 drum machine on Winner Takes Nothing, you can’t help but be reminded of Kanye’s love-it-or-hate-it album 808s and Heartbreaks, which saw the rapper use Auto-Tune and sing about the end of his relationship.
The record is difficult at times to listen to lyrically, musically for some, and long-time Dirty Projectors fans may feel it’s a complete departure, with a greater focus on electronic instruments than in previous release. Longstreth has written with such intensity about the relationship at points that you feel too close to what has clearly been a painful time in his life. It’s not Blood on the Tracks level heartbreak, but as near as a modern musician has come. Ultimately, it’s worth your time.
Favourite track: Cool Your Heart
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard | Flying Microtonal Banana (Heavenly Recordings) | Rated: 8
A mature eighth album from the wonderfully named Geelong band (their first was only released in 2012!). Hypnotic at times, it can be break-neck in speed, and sheer ecstasy at points, most especially with “Billabong Valley” a song almost straining at the leash to get faster. The only downside is their repeated use of a Zurna, a Turkish Horn, which almost seems forced into the tracks, rather than complementing them.
The band have ditched the fuzziness of earlier records and Stu Mackenzie’s vocals are much clearer, to great effect. Known for high-energy live shows, the band seem to be only getting more prolific, planning to release a further four albums this year. There is plenty to enjoy here until then.
Favourite track: Billabong Valley
Dams of the West | Youngish American (30th Century Records) | Rated: 6
When The Strokes bandmates started releasing their own records there was great attention paid to the quality of them. With Vampire Weekend’s members, of which Dams of the West singer Chris Tomson is one, there has been less fanfare. Rostam (producer) has released a few singles and a brilliant co-written album with former Walkmen singer Hamilton Leithauser. Chris Baio (bassist) has released The Names, with the excellent track “Sister of Pearl” and Ezra Koenig (singer) has appeared on a number of tracks as a guest.
Given the interesting and varied use instruments on Vampire Weekend records, you’d be forgiven for expecting adventurous music here. Ultimately it’s a fairly straightforward, fun listen. Thomson’s debut is by no means a bad album, but, after a few listens the tracks do tend to merge into one. It’s a solid record, but not a remarkable one by any stretch. Tracks like Tell the Truth and Death Wish are highlights.
Favourite track: Tell the Truth
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And here’s the full Picks of the Week Playlist from Reaction