October (?) Music Review – Nothing But Thieves, Julia Holter, Grimes and Deerhunter

I realised this week that we haven’t run a music review for some time, so let’s put that right today, starting with Essex rock band Nothing But Thieves and their eponymous debut album . Last year it was Royal Blood who broke through with a derivative but highly enjoyable “rock” album, and this looks likely to do something similar for the Essex band. The influences are clear – Queen, Muse, and the Chilli Peppers in the rockier songs, then Radiohead and Jeff Buckley when things get more reflective.

Singer Conor Mason has a truly great rock voice, which he can deliver live too, doing the full-on Mercury / Bellamy thing as well as the more sensitive Buckley / Yorke stuff too. Wake Up Call is all over Radio One, with its big tuneful chorus and aching falsetto vocals, whilst I had to check that epic ballad Lover Please Stay wasn’t a Buckley cover. (It is not – I was thinking of Lover, You Should’ve Come Over). The album has received mixed reviews, with some unable to get past the lack of real originality here, but we’re with those who focus on the vocals, the tunes, and the sheer enjoyment factor. 8.5/10

Now to an artist who has rarely been described as lacking originality. Julia Holter’s previous three albums have combined moments of beautiful pop tunefulness with distinctly weird “modern classical” interludes (try Our Sorrows from 2012 album Ekstasis if you want a taste of what we mean). But Have You In My Wilderness is her most conventional album to date, and whilst it is still interesting and varied, it takes her into more classic indie singer songwriter territory. She has the ability to write tunes that are quirky but memorable, and her classical background means that the use of different instruments and sounds is way beyond your normal rock artists.

However, that complexity is lightly applied here; it is an intimate and airy sound for most of the album, with clear vocals and at least vaguely comprehensible lyrics. It is hard to think of clear parallels; at times it could be Suzanne Vega, at others Beth Orton, maybe St Vincent, Feist ... she is a true original really. I can see some people finding this too contrived and not quite “pop” enough but I’m with those who are hailing it as one of the albums of the year. 9/10

Why is it that most of the really interesting solo artists are women at the moment? Apart from Jack Garrett, the young men, even the best like Hozier, are not exactly pushing the musical bounds. Yet on the female side we have Angel Olsson, Laura Marling, EMA, FKA Twigs, Holter, Joanna Newson and many others who are doing really original work. Even at the poppier end, Beyonce, Tayloy Swift, Lady Gaga are way ahead of any male equivalents in terms of creativity and originality, we’d argue.

And right up there is Grimes (Clare Boucher to her friends). The Canadian created a real stir with her bedroom recorded breakthrough album Visions in 2012, full of electronics, samples and beguiling, haunting tunes. Now she’s back with Art Angels. To be honest, I am writing this whilst I listen to it for the first time so it is pretty hard to judge clearly. But I think we can say that its distance from Visions, and its huge range of styles and sounds is going to irritate a lot of people. Yet it is quite possibly a work of genius. Or madness. Or both.

The short opening track has a pseudo classical orchestral section going into a Kate Bush type piano ballad, then some electronic white noise at the end, all within less than two minutes. Her street-cred fans will find the next track California uncomfortably Swift or Perry-like. Remix a little and it could be a top ten hit. Following that we have SCREAM, a dance-screamo-metal-backed showcase for Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes to give us around 10,000 words very rapidly in her native language. Then single Flesh Without Blood which is back to the poppier sound which has divided fans of her previous work. There is so much going on here, so it really is not an ideal album to review on one or two listens, but if this works for her – and I hope it does – it will bring in a wider, more conventional fan base whilst showing enough weirdness to keep the old fans happy. I hope it does succeed, because I think she is just brilliant. A somewhat hedging our bets 8/10 for now. Could grow into more.

Finally, a quick look at Deerhunter with their latest, Fading Frontier. A US indie-rock band who have been a cult success up to now, but with this album might just follow The National and breakthrough into main-stage indie leadership. This is a collection of strong and interesting songs, a little bleak at times – main man Bradford Cox has had his problems, including a car crash last year, but there is a positive spirit here, as well as some beautiful tunes and subtle musicianship. The chiming guitars and harmonies on Breaker are gorgeous, and as an ex bass player myself, I love the way that instrument drives several of the songs (like Living My Life). 8.5 / 10

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