What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
When The Decemberists released their album The King Is Dead in 2011, they pulled out the surprise of the decade upon their sea-shanty-come-folk-tunes claiming the number #1 spot on the Billboard 100. The bookish Portland five-piece celebrated that success by taking a hiatus. Four years later, they give us their seventh album What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World.
Colin Meloy spent the time between records writing a series of children’s books (the Wildwood series), so he takes the opportunity to indulge more adult material when he sings of cunnilingus during the uptempo romp of Philomena. It’s not all tongue between cheeks for Meloy though as he puts aside his often verbose posturing to comment on life’s frailty on 12/17/12, a song he wrote in response to Obama’s speech following the Newtown school shootings.
The tales are more direct this time for The Decemberists with Make You Better being a love song that’ll get the feet moving, and The Singer Addresses His Audience is a heartfelt letter to the faithful fans. Even when Meloy is at his most wordy during Cavalry Captain, he wraps it in a punchy horns and the indie go-to drummer of the moment John Moen’s rock solid beat.
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a welcome return from The Decemberists. It is amongst the most ‘simple’ of records the band has made, and while this gives it much immediacy, it does fall just short of the high watermark they set with 2006’s The Crane Wife and 2009’s The Hazards Of Love.
Mark Ronson has put together an unusual collection of steamy, jazz-infused tracks on his latest venture, Uptown Special. In fact, it’s hard to believe that this album was recorded this decade, with its cheesy synths and funk guitar that would fit in well anywhere from the ’70s to the ’90s.
While Uptown Funk has proven ripe for commercial success, the rest of the album is not quite so formulaic. Though repetitive lyrics and themes are evident throughout the album, the musical styles are temperamental, changing from track to track. Feel Right is perhaps the most unusual and energetic song, featuring a stunning performance by Mystikal as MC, with seemingly endless sass.
Leaving Los Feliz also embarks on a clever lyrical motif that sets a club scene and creates a sense of continuity, which is maintained over three tracks starring the almost unrecognisable vocals of Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow. Meanwhile, Ronson’s collaborations with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker add colour, but sometimes the echo on Parker’s vocals can cause the tracks to drag.
Uptown Special transports the listener to another decade of dance and dreaming, but its strange mix of tracks leaves the album feeling slightly lopsided.
The Pale Emperor
For his ninth album, Marilyn Manson has partnered up with composer Tyler Bates (Californication, Guardians Of The Galaxy, 300, Salem) and stripped everything back to the bone. Instead of industrial rock textures, there are guitars that alternate between brash, bashy chords and lowdown lonesome melodies straight out of ’80s goth rock. Manson’s voice continues to shift through a variety of characterisations, but there’s something about this one that feels more vulnerable and damaged, and maybe closer to who he really is underneath the makeup and imagery.
This is an album that demands attention and to be listened to all the way through, but the first four songs in particular are a hell of a suite on their own, bookended by Killing Strangers and The Mephistopheles Of Los Angeles – both of which feel like they could’ve come from some alternate universe version of David Bowie’s The Next Day – and with the driving Joy Division-like rhythm of Deep Six and The Birthday Party-ish hangover soundtrack of Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge. Cupid Carries A Gun is another standout, which offsets stacked Manson vocals with eerie acoustic guitars and a drum beat right out of ‘70s glam. The Devil Beneath My Feet is also informed by this glam aesthetic. It’s something Manson has incorporated in the past (Mechanical Animals was loaded with it) but in this dirtier, looser context it feels fresh.
It felt like Manson was searching a little during recent albums, not quite able to locate and settle in to wherever it is he belongs. On The Pale Emperor, and with Tyler Bates as a collaborative influence, he’s found a place that feels unforced and fully realised. You’re not supposed to be putting out one of best albums of your career when you’re this deep into it, but that’s what Marilyn Manson has done.
Music Industry 3. Fitness Industry 1.
For a while there, it was looking as though Glaswegian post-rock outfit Mogwai had reached their creative peak. The quintet, who have long reigned as instrumental rock overlords, were suddenly sounding depleted of ideas. Stagnation was creeping in up until the release of last year’s Rave Tapes, which saw a reinvigorated Mogwai experimenting with a broader spectrum of synth sounds, krautrock influences and electronic textures.
As a counterpart to the album, Music Industry 3. Fitness Industry 1. offers three new tracks recorded during the sessions that produced Rave Tapes, alongside a trio of remixes. Leading out the EP is Teenage Exorcists, with its mix of everything you’d least expect from Mogwai: a distinct pop sensibility, infectious chorus, and some My Bloody Valentine-esque vocals all packed into a neat three-and-a-half minutes. The other two originals, History Day and HMP Shaun William Ryder, are a little underwhelming in comparison.
For a band that’s built a reputation on creating epic instrumental soundscapes, the unlikely pop-inflected jam of Teenage Exorcists opens up some interesting avenues. Only time will tell if Mogwai will continue down this path.
Longtime Alkaline Trio drummer Derek Grant has become the last member to release work under his own name with Breakdown, an album that shows off musical chops that were once hidden behind the kit.
All the instrumentation on the album is performed by Grant, who competently handles the duties of guitar, bass, drums and piano. His voice is more than capable, and has a soft quality that works alongside the stylistic dynamics of the record.
Breakdown is a standard rock record that also shows elements of country and even ’80s new wave on tracks such as Waiting For The End Of The World. However, while the songs are reminiscent of classic songwriters such as Petty, Springsteen and Dylan, they seem to lack depth. The record is centred around heartbreak and divorce, but fails to hit the emotional marks that it should be.
Songs such as Got A Feeling and Lucy recall Alkaline Trio, with a lot of the softer tracks presented in a similar way to their acoustic album, Damnesia.
Breakdown is an interesting debut that shows off qualities from Derek Grant that aren’t on display in his other projects, but the album lacks the depth to keep you coming back.
Six Strings That Drew Blood
Rowland S Howard cut his teeth as Nick Cave’s right-hand-man before going on to forge a reputation for himself with Crime & The City Solution and These Immortal Souls. This two-disc collection Six Strings That Drew Blood collects over 30 of the tunes that capture the influence of an artist that was still making music up until he succumbed to liver cancer.
The song that Howard is best known for the tune, Shivers, that he wrote when he was 16 years of age. The tune came to became an Australian classic when The Boys Next Door released it as a single and has maintained legendary status despite The Screaming Jets trying to erode some of its allure with their flaccid take on it. Shivers is presented here from a performance by Howard and his band on Studio 22 in 1999.
There are selected moments from The Birthday Party included, but it is the sinister version of Some Velvet Morning with Lydia Lunch that gives rise to Howard’s deep timbre. Howard’s brief stint in the gothic blues outfit Crime & The City Solution is briefly represented by Marry Me (Lie! Lie!) and I Ate The Knife, but it is the songs from These Immortal Souls that are possibly the pinnacle of Howard’s output.
Six Strings That Drew Blood reinforces how important Howard has been in underground Australian music from his punk roots through to his criminally overlooked solo material. As good as the compilation is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as Howard is concerned.