February Album Review (part 1) – Beck, the Temples and Angel Olsen

Our first album review of the year – as there wasn’t much going on in January - and we’ve got some  good ones...

Beck is one of the most interesting artists of the last 20 years. His stoner, oddball, thieving magpie multi-influenced first album made him an overnight star with the huge hit ‘Loser’ . Successive albums covered folk, hip-hop, dance, funk, country styles... but my favourite of them was Sea Change, a 2002 break-up album with beautiful songs like The Golden Age (used to great effect in Sex and the City, you might remember – do look it up if you don’t know it. Just gorgeous). His first new album for 6 years, following some problem with a back injury, is Morning Phase.  It is Sea Change it most resembles of his previous works, (the first real track after a brief instrumental could almost be Golden Age part 2, and is just as lovely)  although without quite the air of sadness and melancholy, and perhaps more interesting variation in the songs.

Without ever sinking into blandness, these are in the main lovely, fairly ‘traditional’ singer-songwriter pop songs, many with a strong acoustic feel, some featuring multi-tracked Beach Boys or CSNY type harmony vocals, and sparing but effective use of electronics and strings, even a banjo. I’m even getting a bit of an early Moody Blues vibe here and there. Beautifully produced, it sounds great even streamed via NPR and my PC, and I imagine on a decent hi-fi it will be stunning. Beck fans will be happy, but this could get him a whole new more mainstream audience. If a couple of tracks get traction as ‘singles’ this could be a huge Rumours / Brothers in Arms crossover rock / AOR mega seller.  Excellent stuff and a 9/10.

From an established artist to Sun Structures, a debut from Temples, a band from Kettering (a mid-sized town in the East Midlands of England, and NOT exactly Hitsville UK). That might be relevant because one wonders whether these boys have heard any new music since the mid 70s? But they’ve managed a clever trick here. This sounds energetic, vibrant and somehow contemporary – yet is firmly rooted in late 60s and early 70s psychedelic rock, through the Zombies, Traffic and Jefferson Airplane  to Tyrannosaurus Rex and Bowie and the beginnings of glam.

They actually use sitars – haven’t heard those for a while – and lots of echo-y vocals, which does make the whole thing a bit of a retro feast. But there are some very strong songs here, with catchy tunes (unlike some of those much earlier bands perhaps)! And with the Shelter Song, they have one of the best tracks I’ve heard for ages. There are a few dull spots too, and they might need to add something that is a little more them, if you know what I mean.  But overall, a good debut and one which should see them moving up the bill at this summer’s festivals. And seeing where they take this next will be fascinating. 7/10

Moving from the UK to the USA now, we couldn’t leave you without a female artist. Angel Olsen is not what you might expect from appearances. She looks like a sweet little singer-songwriter – perhaps another Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Swift or Lucy Rose. But you don’t call your album ‘Burn your fire for no witness’ (I have no idea what that means) or the first track “Unf**ktheworld” (without my asterisks), if all is sweetness and light in your world. Olson’s overall style is much more in the ‘serious artist’ Joni Mitchell, Laura Marling or Leonard Cohen camp, with her alt-country folk-punk songs, although she has a much better voice than Cohen!

Some songs just have her guitar as accompaniment, whilst other get into quite a Velvet Underground groove with a strongly rhythmic rock backing. Whilst many of the songs are not at all difficult listening musically (they have tunes), you always get the sense of a very interesting intelligence and emotional palate sitting behind them. The music stands up well in its own right, I should emphasise, as someone who personally puts that above lyrics every time, but this will appeal most to those who enjoy getting to grips with the meaning of songs as well. Impressive, and the sort of album that will gather at the very least a strong cult following.  A grower too, I suspect. 8/10

More tomorrow

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