January Album Review with Rae Morris, Hookworms, Camila Cabello and First Aid Kit

Last week we caught up with some albums we missed in 2017, but now the first review of new albums for 2018 – and what a start, with some excellent albums and one instant classic.

 

The debut album in 2015 from Rae Morris was a bit of an underrated treasure, with largely piano-driven songs and Morris’s lovely voice, although at times it all got a little over-dramatic. Working here with producer / writer Benjamin Garrett (aka Fryars), she’s upped her game with Someone Out There, a very strong follow up. It is more electronic than the debut, with echoes at times of more experimental artists such as James Blake – a song will move from a simple synth backing to an orchestral horn section within seconds. And Rose Garden is a beautiful but genuinely odd song. Yet the pop tunes aren’t ignored – “Do It” was online pop bible Popjustice’s single of the year for 2017, (although it’s not my favourite track here), and she still has the unique voice to rely on. She can sound almost Bjork-like at times, but can also belt it out or sound vulnerable and seductive too.  Really very good indeed. 9/10

 

We had mixed feelings about the last Hookworms album back in 2014. The combination of largely instrumental, driving, motoric and punk influenced rhythms, not too many tunes or significant vocals, and a general feeling of angst made it not exactly easy listening. Yet strangely enough I found it was great music to work to. But nothing in that, or their previous work, has quite prepared us for Microshift, their new album. It is simply tremendous.

Vocalist MJ who didn’t feature too much on The Hum turns out to have a great, emotionally charged voice, there are lovely tunes, the longer songs take complex twists and turns that all work perfectly, and despite the album being about grief apparently, the overall vibe is positive and hopeful. There are slower songs as well as the old driving rhythm section showing its power on some tracks.  Reference points? Perhaps early Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Yeasayer’s one great album, Foals, Friendly Fires, but it never feels derivative. (As a friend of mine said, the introduction to Negative Space won’t be much of a “beat the intro” challenge!)  This is an early call, I have only listened to it twice all the way through (but listened to the brilliant Negative Space about 8 times, I am slightly obsessed to be honest), but getting the feeling I did when I first played Arcade Fire’s Funeral – the sense that you’re listening to something very special. We’re hesitant about building expectations too much, but going with 9.5/10.

 

So January was full of surprises. Cuban-born Camila Cabello was part of a US X Factor-created girl group. She then left, and now solo, she was the second most listened to artist on Spotify last month! You may well know and hate (through familiarity) Havana, which was on the radio every ten minutes through most of 2017. Fair to say my expectations here were low. But actually, her debut Camila is not bad at all. Much of it is quite acoustic, with sparse instrumentation (but clever production), thoughtful and restrained, but with strong Hispanic-tinged pop tunes and a singer who has a genuinely good voice. Rather lovely at times, to be honest, and, you know what, Havana is a damn good pop song. An album  you can enjoy with your kids whatever age they are (unless they’re into death metal, I suppose. Or jazz). 8/10

(But I don’t think she is really playing her guitar in this video, you know).

 

In an average month, Ruins from First Aid Kit might well have been our favourite album. The Swedish sisters broke though when still in their teens, but in the last couple of years they appear to have grown up, including experiencing some personal romantic heartbreak, and perhaps as a result this is their best album so far.

They’ve always been very good songwriters, with the knack of  creating memorable tunes, but now we have more variation and toughness, as well as their usual country-pop sweet harmonies. Much of it is as lovely as ever, but more bite in the lyrics suits them well, and highlights such as the 50’s sounding Fireworks are clearly First Aid Kit songs - yet are different enough to add a new dimension this time round. It reminds me of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours at times – a smooth, clever and  glossy exterior, but with turmoil just below the surface. 8.5/10

PS  Fleetwood Mac is a better album than Rumours IMO….

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