July Album Review – the Maccabees, Stornoway and Lianne La Havas

July is a bit of a thin month for new album releases, and the one we have been most looking forward to, the Maccabees, was only released yesterday, so bear in mind these are very much first impressions from three listens on Spotify, mainly via my laptop (not the best way to get the full sonic effect, to be honest). Marks To Prove It is the London band's fourth album, and the title is meaningful - it has been a tortuous process apparently to get this to point of release, taking them two years working in a studio in urban Elephant and Castle in South London.

Now some bands, like Arctic Monkeys or Arcade Fire, seem to spring out of nowhere fully-formed, and whilst they refine their sound, they obviously have their own identity from day one. Not so the Maccabees. You still feel a little that they are trying to work out quite what they are, even after almost ten years together and four albums. And actually, here, the Arcade Fire comparison is apt - The Suburbs is perhaps the closest reference point to this album, and the Maccabees are now in that league, rather than competing with the Courteeners or the Cribs.

Yet that uncertainty is also their strength - there is an air of tension to the music, and it does not really fall neatly into any of the indie / dance / rock boxes and sub-genres. This album is definitely their most mature, not surprising as the guys are pushing 30 now, less anthemic than Wall of Arms, less dance influenced than Given to the Wild. This is more reflective, intimate, and at times surprisingly downbeat, with ballads, lots of piano as well as the usual guitars on several pretty full on ‘rock’ tracks. What it definitely is, though, is emotionally engaging, thoughtful, with depth but without pretensions. Based on two listens, this is a contender for album of the year, but it will take a little time to really get to grips with it, I suspect. 9/10

Given the lack of July releases, we will cheat with this one, Stornoway with Bonxie. It was released earlier this year, but I only got hold of it recently. Their two previous albums both featured in our "best of the year" top 30s, and it looks likely that this one will too. Initially, they were pigeonholed in the "nu-folk" or indie-folk category, with acts such as the Mumfords or Noah & the Whale, but this album sees then move slightly towards more mainstream indie-pop. But it is a subtle change, and not one that will cause their fans as much pain as the Mumfords losing their banjos on their latest! The "folk" element comes from the crystal clear vocals, great harmonies and lyrics that often refer to the natural world (songwriter Brian Briggs has a PhD in Ornithology!)

This is a band who are rarely downbeat, although there is a attractive sense of nostalgia and wistfulness that comes through at times. This album though has a wider sound than their previous two, and the general feel and instrumentation on many tracks is closer to the top echelon of quirky indie bands like Mystery Jets or British Sea Power than to anything discernibly folk. It has a good variation of pace and style, whilst all still sounding like Stornoway - it all adds up to another very good album that is impressive, enjoyable and rather lovely - 8.5/10

Lianne La Havas has a gorgeous, warm, soul-tinged voice, is stunningly attractive, friends with Prince, and seems to be a really nice person too. Her second album, Blood, is very much what that description might suggest to you, in the main anyway. A little more laid back, more soul and less rock than Adele or Emilie Sande, she is in the same general musical area as Sade or Jessie Ware.

Her English / Jamaican / Greek heritage is more exotic than much of her music, which whilst very pleasant, can fall back into that smooth pop soul background music vibe you hear at the hairdressers or wine bar. Just occasionally, we get a glimpse of something more interesting, as on Never Get Enough or Grow, which combines touches of dubstep and an acoustic Laura Marling sound. I'd like more of that, although some critics have objected to the more unusual aspects of the album. Anyway, perhaps I'm sounding more critical than I mean to be - it is an enjoyable listen, and her voice is lovely. Let's say a 7/10.

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