March Album Review – Kacey Musgraves, Courtney Marie Andrews, The Magic Gang & The Vaccines

In this month’s review, we have two US “country” woman with albums that aren’t traditional country, and two British indie bands.

We very much liked Courtney Marie Andrews’ breakthrough release last year, Honest Life, which followed several years of struggle for her as a session singer and itinerant performance. While that last album followed a folk / country template, her new album, May Your Kindness Remain, takes her into a more  country / soul bracket. That suits her excellent voice which can do both tender and belt-it-out blues, all with just a bit of that country twang.  The title track with a gospel backing chorus sets things up nicely, but the slow but heavily reverbed guitar solo that unexpectedly comes in half way through the track shows that Andrews likes to stir things up a bit.

There is an air of slight sadness to many of the tracks (and the lyrics), and at times, we missed the quieter, folkier side of Andrews, but there are some songs here that sound like instant classics (The Kindness of Strangers, for example) and this is another step forward for her generally. We would love to see her live too.  8/10

Kacey Musgraves is one of the more interesting female country artists to emerge in recent years. Her songs talk about drugs, tolerance, gender issues and so on, not in a preachy sort of way but certainly setting her aside from the country norm of guns, cars, drink and women who know their place. Some of her lyrics are simply brilliant too.

On Golden Hour, her new release, her vocals still have a sweet purity (not as much twang as Andrews, above) - you can hear every word. But here she seems to be singing more about her own feelings rather than the externally focused ‘short stories’ of her previous two albums. But the other big change is the general musical vibe; you would not identify this as “country” if you didn’t know her background. Opening track Slow Burn sounds a touch like Beck’s The Golden Age from his classic Sea Change, while High Horse is Shania Twain meets Daft Punk, and Rainbow is a piano ballad that the young Elton John would have been proud of.

None of it is “heavy” or difficult, this is pop/country/soft rock, but the song writing is top class and it is all rather lovely.  We first highlighted Musgraves here five years ago, before pretty much anyone in the UK had heard of her and its good to see talent has won through. This should see her crossing over into major not-just-country-music stardom.  8.5/10

Moving away from country women now, the album cover picture of The Magic Gang's eponymous debut looks like a bunch of trainee accountants on “dress casual” day, but they make fine indie guitar music. Much of the album consists of pretty simple (but effective) pop/rock songs, with catchy tunes and big choruses that you can already imagine the kids at Reading and Leeds singing along to. (Think of The Wombats but with a bit of the Cribs attitude and vocal style).

Then you get to track 7, Take Care, which uses a really unusual piano chord progression and could almost be an outtake from Surfs Up. These guys clearly have some real musical talent - they might be concealing that a little to help get the initial breakthrough, and we can’t blame them for that. There seems to be a rule now that only one UK indie band per year is allowed to break through in a big way (2014 was The 1975, 2015 Catfish, 2016 Blossoms, 2017 Sundara Karma … ) so it’s a tough genre to be operating in. But there is enough here to think that this might just be the first (very enjoyable) instalment in an interesting musical journey.  8/10

Combat Sports is the Vaccines fourth album and while there is no remarkable change of direction here, it is an enjoyable batch of guitar driven pop, indie and punk (of the tuneful non-threatening variety) songs. We’ve never really noticed Vaccines lyrics too much but there is some good stuff here. “I want to push your buttons but I don’t want to turn you on” is rather amusing, and features on Take It Easy, which has a touch of early Roxy Music about it, whilst maintaining the core of the Vaccines appeal – really good tunes. Nightclub sounds like Kaiser Chiefs and has a festival sing along chorus, but there is some subtlety too with the delicate ballad Young Americans. We’ve enjoyed all their albums to date but this might just be the best yet. Another 8/10

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