January Album Review – Courtney Marie Andrews, The XX, Sundara Karma, Julie Bryne

January tends to be a slow month for new albums, and it has to be said that the whole concept of albums is hanging on by the skin of its increasingly vinyl teeth. But here are a few goodies this month to tell you about.

Courtney Marie Andrews is only 26 but has been on the road as a struggling musician and backing vocalist (and occasional bar-tender)  for ten years, but Honest Life looks like it will take her into a more comfortable life as a successful musician. The music is reflective country-folk-pop, with pretty simple arrangements generally, using piano, violins, pedal steel and guitar. It is very pleasant background music but is taken into another league by the honesty, directness and emotional truth of her lyrics, which somehow avoid sounding too depressing yet deal with isolation, sadness, dodgy relationships and the eternal truths of why life can be difficult. Joni Mitchell keeps coming to mind, although I must say I prefer Andrews’ pure and lovely voice to Mitchell’s. Emmylou Harris and even Gram Parsons are other worthy comparators – yes, she might just turn out to be that good. Very affecting and rather beautiful. 8.5/10

 

The XX emerged from nowhere in with an eponymous debut in 2009 that sounded like nothing else and influenced a whole generation of musicians and producers. The minimalist, moody, nocturnal sound, breathy vocals, dance influenced but not dance, with a hint of hidden passions... it was beguiling and original and sold millions. Their 2012 follow-up was more of the same, but with I See You, they are not surprisingly trying something a little different. So this is a more varied but still very dance-based but pretty chilled, perhaps also influenced by the success Jamie XX had with his eclectic solo album. At times, it veers into Clean Bandit pop territory, and to be honest at this moment I prefer their previous albums. But this may well to be a grower based on my three or four listens, so let’s applaud the band for looking to move forward rather than just revisit past glories. 7.5/10

 

Sundara Karma are a young (21-ish) indie band from Reading, home of the annual best rock festival in the world but not to many great bands, ironically. Might this debut – Youth Is Only Fun In Retrospect (how true) indicate a band who could go on to top the bill one day? Well, maybe. Indie is very unfashionable today but this is a very promising album, which will appeal to the devastated fans of the Maccabees (split up) and Bombay Bicycle Club (on a break). It is more sophisticated than Catfish and the Bottlemen, the last indie breakthrough band, and both less varied and pretentious than The 1975. Strong tunes and a fair degree of variation across the album – very enjoyable indeed.  8.5/10

 

Julie Byrne shares some of the qualities of Courtney Marie Andrews (above) but with the focus on the “folk” rather than country influences on her new and second album, Not Even Happiness. The Seattle singer-songwriter has a nomadic back-story and a breathier voice than Andrews but the overall feel of these gentle, contemplative but engaging songs bears some resemblance. She is a talented finger-picking guitarist, and this is elegant, calming but warm music – think Nick Drake, Bon Iver’s first album, Laura Marling in her quieter moments, or even Sandy Denny.  8/10

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