January Music Review – Dutch Uncles, Villagers, Joy Formidable, Milo Greene, Matthew E. White

Yes, it’s our first music review of the year, and a promising start to 2013.

Dutch Uncles, with their eponymous debut album, are already being called “this year’s Alt-J”, and tipped as potential Mercury Music Prize winners. It’s not hard to see why. Their music is complex, and hard to categorise – just like Alt-J. Reference points might be XTC and Talking Heads with even a touch of Prog Rock - they have a liking for 7/4 time signatures, tinckly key boards, xylophones and harmony vocals. Actually, there’s something about the harmonies that has a slight CSN&Y feel, although that’s not true of the music generally. I’m not sure they quite have the tunes that quickly emerged from the Alt-J strangeness, but if you like clever indie, its definitely worth a listen – may grow on me further but 7.5/10 for the moment.

The first album from Villagers, 2010’s Becoming a Jackal, was brilliant, introducing a new super-talented songwriter in Conor O’Brien. And the new album, Awayland, is just as good. Despite being a naturally introverted character, he’s a captivating live performer, and his strength is in poetic lyrics matched with often beautiful tunes within a folk-influenced, but dynamic and even edgy rock sound. Villagers are now more of a genuine band, which shows - there is perhaps a touch less quirkiness, although you will think your CD or stream is jumping during track 2 (it isn’t).

Awayland shows real progression, without losing what made the previous album so good. A couple of songs are really quite mainstream - “Nothing Arrived” is am apparently joyful pop-rock song that you can imagine a stadium or festival stage audience singing along with very happily. But the lyrics of that track and others remain enigmatic and often enthralling, and the music is still varied and clever. He also sings with a clarity that is very rare – no-one is going to say “I couldn’t work out the lyrics” on this album. Very impressive, and 8.5/10

Few bands have captured my affection in recent years like the Joy Formidable. Ritzy Bryan, the tiny blond axe hero, vocalist and songwriter is a true star. Wolf’s Law is their second full album, and it is in general a noisy pounding guitar rock album – not heavy metal, but pretty full-on rock, although Silent Treatment shows they can do more sensitive stuff. Otherwise it can be a little unrelenting in its attack, but if that’s your bag, you’ll enjoy this a lot, as I did. My main problem though is that the first two tracks I heard from the band, back in 2009, were Whirring and Cradle. And they are still the two strongest and most memorable songs they’ve written - there’s nothing on here quite up to that level of pure song writing excellence. But still a 7.5/10.

And now two quick-fire notes on interesting US artists.

Matthew E White is a white guy with significant facial hair who doesn’t sound like he looks! Brought up by evangelical missionary parents, he has travelled the world and clearly listened to a whole lot of different genres. There’s soul, jazz, rock, pop, gospel, world music in his new album Big Love – perhaps the more psychedelic offerings of Curtis Mayfield and his contemporaries would be the closest parallel. It’s not in my usual musical sweet-spot perhaps but a fascinating album – I really need to listen few more times, so it is highly provisional 7/10

Finally, after Haim were touted as the ones to watch in 2013, might they be upstaged by another Californian, harmony vocals, Fleetwood Mac (Rumours period), catchy pop-rock band? Milo Greene - a band, not a person, are a talented, multi-instrumental, 5-piece (one girl, four boys). Their debut album titled Milo Greene (what else) may just upstage the Haim girls. Real rockers (e.g. my wife) may reject this as “it’s all right but a bit dull, a bit MOR” – but there are strong songs here, like the vibrant 1957 and What’s the Matter. They’re ideal to be great film / advert / TV backing tracks and I thoroughly enjoyed the album. Perhaps even better in the summer, and worth an 8/10.

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