Laura Marling |
Semper Femina
(Rough Trade) | Rated: 9.5

Semper Fermina is as perfect a Laura Marling album as you could wish for.  From the first listen it is irresistible. An elegant, sophisticated musing on femininity which isn’t limited to the album’s title (translated roughly to “always a woman”).

Tracks like “Wildfire” see Marling pivot in a slightly different direction, singing as though on a soul record. “Don’t Pass Me By” uses a dulled drum machine, rather than real drums, and a plucked violin alongside electric guitar (following Marling debuting an electric sound on her last album Short Movie). Strings swirl on several tracks. Instruments are almost tangible, recorded in a way which makes them feel as though they’re leaping out of speakers. A listen on headphones is even more special, highlighting the intimacy of the recording.

Semper Fermina is produced by Blake Mills, who worked on the second Alabama Shakes album Sound & Colour and John Legend’s album Darkness and Light. Mills apparently had a list of artists that he wanted to work with, including Marling. Together they’ve delivered a delightful album.

Favourite track: “Wild Once”

The Shins | Heartworms (Aural Apothecary) | Rated: 8.5

Port of Morrow, The Shins’ fourth album, released in 2012, was praised for sole permanent member James Mercer being himself. Heartworms is more of the same. The album features some of the most autobiographical songwriting by Mercer yet.

“Mildenhall”, one of the four tracks released ahead of the album itself, documents through a folksy track Mercer’s early life living in Suffolk, while his father served in the US Air Force. In interviews ahead of the release, Mercer – now 46 years old with three daughters – has talked about being more nostalgic. Sharing the same name as the album, “Heartworms” is one of the best pop songs release by The Shins, displaying all the elements which has allowed them to deliver a fifth album: nostalgia, a nose for a great chorus, and James Mercer’s distinctive vocals.  

Favourite track: “Heartworms”

Tennis | Yours Conditionally (Mutually Detrimental) | Rated: 8

Every article ever written about Tennis highlights the fact that their first album was written on a ten month tour of the East Coast of America – by boat. The band have returned with a fourth album, written both on land and on sea (this time the Sea of Cortiz), inviting nautical introductions to reviews of this record.  

Previous records have enlisted Patrick Carney of the Black Keys and Jim Eno of Spoon to produce. Yours Conditionally is self-produced by husband-and-wife, Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore. Eno returns but only on mixing duties. The album is more subtle, but the better for it. “Modern Woman” an example of the understated pop, Alaina Moore repeating “All I want is comfort in a touch or a look”.  In their own words the “old timey backing vocals” on “Island Music” recall pop music from half a century ago, without sounding corny.

Moore’s voice isn’t ever bombastic, but is used in the right way, with production and instrumentation complimenting her vocals. The strongest track by far is “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar”, a sarcastic, melodic comment on the way female musicians are viewed.

Favourite track: “Ladies Don’t Play Guitars”

Circa Waves | Different Creatures (Virgin EMI) | Rated: 5

There are tracks to enjoy for anyone who is a keen fan of mid-2000s indie rock. Circa Waves’ last record featured a summer hit in “T-Shirt Weather”, a track which provided light relief in 2014, and could have topped the charts in 2004. The album opener on Different Creatures, “Wake Up”, has the same traits.

Their first full record was enough to carry them through playing O2 Academy gigs across the country, but any indie band who releases a warmly reviewed first album has to get over second album syndrome, ideally moving beyond daft couplets and singing about sunshine and girls. Circa Waves haven’t done that. If anything they’ve doubled down, playing to their base.

It’s the same path as that trodden by another Liverpudlian band – not The Beatles, but The Wombats. The first album, with “Moving to New York” and a scattering of fun indie tracks, was not followed up by anything that deviated much from that formula. The same path taken by The Pigeon Detectives, The View and many others, it’s commonly referred to as “landfill indie”. Circa Waves appear to have done the same here.   

Favourite track: “Wake Up”

New Tracks of the Week

Lorde: “Liability” – Taylor Swift squad member, top New Zealand export and David Bowie’s torch carrier releases a new song for the second week in a row. A slower affair, but an affecting one, with Lorde singing over a piano for much of the track.

Fleet Foxes” “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” – Chamber pop harmonies and Robin Pecknold’s voice make a return after a near six-year absence. Plenty of promise for their forthcoming LP.

Father John Misty: “Total Entertainment Forever” – Any track starting with the lyrics “Bedding Taylor Swift, Every Night Inside of The Occulus Rift” is worthy of attention, especially after Kanye West’s issues with mentioning her last year. Former Fleet Fox, Josh Tillman, releases another track ahead of his new album Pure Comedy, released in April.

And here’s the full Picks of the Week Playlist from Reaction

Follow the Picks of the Week playlist on Spotify, featuring tracks from albums reviewed this week.

Live Review: Hamilton Leithauser  | Village Underground | 7 March | Rated: ★★★★★

“I use the same voice I always had”

– “Sick as a Dog” (Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam)

Beginning with “Sick as a Dog” may have felt a low-key way to kick off a gig, until the song exploded into life, with Leithauser going for it, singing “I use the same voice I always had”. A neat way to start a concert with one half of a duo who have produced timeless albums, Leithauser brought his distinctive vocals to the record.

Following a debut album which glittered in places but didn’t hit the high points of the latter records released by his former band, The Walkmen, Hamilton Leithauser returned last year with a stronger, more charming record alongside Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend).  Leithauser played the entirety of the record without his recording partner, as well as three tracks from his solo debut to a packed Village Underground in Shoreditch.

Without his recording sidekick, Leithauser performed with members of White Rabbit and Spoon. Batmanglij is presumably continuing his progression into pop producer stardom, having produced for Frank Ocean, Carly Rae Jepson and Solange Knowles since leaving Vampire Weekend.  Despite Batmanglij’s absence, his presence was keenly felt, whether through the composition, or through his voice, recorded and used as backing in some tracks.

Drawing Leithauser’s vocals together with the nostalgia heavy production and composition of Batmanglij proved a hit. The album made Pitchfork’s top 50 albums of the year, with their review correctly highlighting that “it’s rare for collaborative albums between known entities to feel like equal reflections of both parties, but Rostam [and Leithauser] find a middle-ground in mutual longing for the past.” As with The Walkmen, the album hasn’t achieved major commercial success, but among the crowd at the renovated Victorian warehouse you got the sense that the albums of Leithauser and The Walkmen feature quite highly in each of the personal favourites list for most.

Taking the time to go into the backstory to “The Bride’s Dad”, Leithauser told the crowd about a wedding at which an uninvited father-of-the bride gave an unwelcome speech. He laughed recalling how everyone else at the wedding was shocked, whilst he, as a guest who didn’t really know the bride and groom, found himself wanting to applaud. The father of the bride was subsequently asked to leave, inspiring him to write a track from the perspective of the father-of-the-bride. It brought the track to life and was one of the few moments of interaction with the crowd. The standout track from the album, and of the evening, was “1000 times” – Leithauser’s yelping and howling through the infectious pop standard.

During the gig, Leithauser introduced “I Retired” from his solo-debut Black Hours, highlighting that it was written in the immediate aftermath of The Walkmen’s Peter Bauer announcing the band going on “a pretty extreme hiatus”. It was a brief glimpse into a the end of a band which seemingly drifted apart, rather than exploding.

While The Walkmen’s demise is much-lamented, Leithauser’s solo work, in particular this album, is something to be treasured. One of the lingering questions is whether this well-matched partnership will continue to release music together again.

The delicate album closer “1959” closed the set, missing a female vocal as on the recorded version. “One day I’ll stop to listen”, Leithauser sings on the final track – if you haven’t you really should.

See below for a playlist of all the tracks from the evening: