February Album Review – Car Seat Headrest, Carlile, Gauthier, Don Broco and Alele Diane

While January saw a couple of stunning and unexpected albums hit our ears, February has been a month for more considered and established female artists to release excellent albums. In a couple of cases, that means career best work.But let's start with a young man ...

Car Seat Headrest is basically a rather eccentric chap called Will Toledo. But his quirky low-fi indie-pop is getting a much wider audience than when he started out literally recording tracks in his bedroom, not many years ago.  With his new album, Twin Fantasy he shows that he is a talented songwriter, capable of strong melodies, interesting dynamics, and witty, cynical lyrics with an eye for detail (a little like the wonderful Courtney Barnett).  We loved Teens of Style in 2015 which made it into out end of year top 20, and this may well do the same. It is actually a remake with full band of an album he released digitally in 2011 before he was widely known. It includes a 13-minute opus and is apparently a “song cycle” about the young Toledo’s obsession with an unnamed man. But it never gets boring – this should take him to another level of fame. 8.5/10

 

Brandi Carlile straddles folk, country, rock and blues, her performance of The Story is one of THE great shivers-down-the-spine vocals of the last twenty years, and her gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in late 2016 was one of the best I’ve attended for many years. She is a great live performer, has a stunning voice, and is a very good guitarist and songwriter. Her cover versions are often brilliant – check out a few on YouTube for a treat.

By The Way I Forgive You is her sixth album and another that is very enjoyable, but I just wonder if the production is quite right. So listen to this track on the video below – if you are a parent, you’ll do well to get through this simple acoustic version without a lump in your throat. Now listen to the album version on Spotify. Just doesn’t quite do it, does it? The emotional heft has gone. On other tracks, the orchestral arrangements don’t really add to that stunning voice, for me anyway. But that all sounds too negative, so be assured, these are generally strong songs, and if you love her voice you will forgive a few mis-steps -  7.5/10

 

Members of Don Broco come from Bedford in the east of England, that hot-bed of fairly heavy alt-rock / metal … Actually, they appear to be the only “famous” musicians ever from the town. The band has grown steadily in popularity and Technology, their third album, is likely to secure their position as one of the leading UK rock acts, along with Bring Me The Horizon, You Me At Six, etc, particularly on the live circuit. Vocals are generally growly rather than screamy, there are plenty of big riffs and decent tunes, and apparently there are political aspects to the lyrics, but we didn’t particular notice. Nothing to change the world but if you like this sort of thing, you won’t be disappointed, and they’ll go down well at Reading Festival in August!   7/10

 

Now for something very different. Mary Gauthier is a highly respected American singer-songwriter, known for her honesty and autobiographical songs. With Rifles & Rosary Beads, she has created a classic that is both impressive and important. It grew out of the Songwriting With Soldiers project, which brings US war veterans together with songwriters to tell their stories. Thousands of veterans – and not just from the US – commit suicide every year, after their service experiences.  So the lyrics here are perhaps the most important part of the work, dealing with themes such as the difficulty for veterans to come back to normal life after battle. But the music is excellent too, Gauthier’s clear, strong voice playing out with tough country-rock backing that goes perfectly with the lyrical threads.  You can listen to this perfectly well as background music – and enjoy it – but it repays your attention if you focus more closely. Excellent. 9/10

Finally, after Gauthier and Carlile, another North American woman, Alela Diane, whose fifth album Cusp showcases another gorgeous voice, perhaps the purest of all featured here today. Alela Diane could sing anything from Schubert to the Stones and always sound great. Her musical style is also hard to categorise – is it pop? Folk? Americana? Modern classical? She is also a hugely underrated songwriter, and on this album, she addresses issues of motherhood, using mainly piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment. While I need to listen a few more times to really assess it, on the basis of a couple of listens, it certainly seems beautiful, soothing and yet involving too.  8.5/10

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