This next batch of album reviews is perhaps the most mixed bag yet genre-wise and there’s also the biggest range of scores given out yet… Read on to find out what I thought of them!
Paramore – After Laughter
Paramore are never a band I’ve paid that much attention to – pop punk has never been my forte. However, upon hearing their comeback single ‘Hard Times’ earlier this year, my interest was piqued; this is not the same Paramore. While elements of their punky past still remain, the music is now far poppier and littered with nods to classic bands like Blondie and Tom Tom Club. The album that ‘Hard Times’ brought forth, ‘After Laughter’, very much follows this trend of less punky, more poppy.
The album opens with a triple hit of incredibly catchy pop songs – ‘Hard Times’, ‘Rose-Colored Boy’ and ‘Told You So’, and the juxtaposition between Hayley Williams’ harder vocals and the light, clean guitars is one that works beautifully. While the lyrics are at times quite cliché (see ‘Fake Happy’) the instrumentation is often enough to distract from it, though on the chorus of ‘Fake Happy’ the sudden burst of guitars after the synth-laden verses seems rather out of place. Slower numbers like ‘26’ showcase the wonderful sincerity of Williams’ vocals and while the album loses a bit of steam in the second half, the surprisingly experimental ‘No Friend’ is a real departure. The near-inaudible spoken word verses read by Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou over an unexpectedly intense instrumental give something completely different to the rest of the album, and it’s a style I’d love to see the band pursue more.
‘After Laughter’ doesn’t break much new ground musically, but the collection of genres and styles showcased over this album is a hugely interesting move for Paramore. This feels like a band in transition, at times not quite sure which direction they’re going in, but when they hit the mark magic happens – this album seems to shine the most when it ditches the guitars almost completely (the closer ‘Tell Me How’, for example). ‘Hard Times’ might just be the pop song of the year. If you’re looking for an album of easy, singalong pop songs with a little hint of that emo-pop-punk style that made Paramore famous, you’ll find nothing better than this album.
Pumarosa – The Witch
I first discovered Pumarosa when they supported Shura back in December of 2015. Back then, they only had one single: ‘Priestess’, a seven minute, slow-burning dance track that came out of nowhere and generated a huge amount of hype. Rather than rushing into anything, Pumarosa have spent the best part of two years working on their debut album, dropping the odd single along the way. The wait was so, so worth it.
Something that will immediately catch the ear of the listener from the opening track ‘Dragonfly’ onwards is that this album sounds live – even with its highly layered instrumentation, the bass and drums sound practically like they’re in the room with you. Not an ounce of the band’s powerful live energy has been lost in the recording process. Expert mixing on expertly crafted songs. The guitars through this album sound incredibly lush as well – all through ‘Honey’ they are a particular joy to listen to.
Title track ‘The Witch’ descends into a jazzy, discordant, slightly ‘Blackstar’-esque outro that is unbelievably intense – this intensity is crucial to what made the band’s debut single so special and it certainly hasn’t been lost on the album, reaching a fever pitch in the climax of the brilliant ‘Lion’s Den’, a song I’ve been eager to hear on record since I first saw them live. This track sounds like it could have been recorded for Portishead’s ‘Third’, and while a certain ring of Portishead runs all through ‘The Witch’ (frontwoman Isabel Munoz-Newsome even sounds a little like Beth Gibbons at times), this is by no means a tribute album. ‘Lion’s Den’ is one of the best tracks of 2017 so far, and it’s not the only track on this LP in contention for that list.
After ‘Lion’s Den’ the album shifts into a slightly more upbeat gear with the more straight alt-rock ‘My Gruesome Loving Friend’, followed by ‘Red’ which has such a wonderful, ethereal release in its chorus. This is an expression of joy after the massively intense first half of the album. This lighter mood continues into ‘Barefoot’ before we descend into darkness again for closing tracks ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Snake’.
Pumarosa’s ‘The Witch’ is an absolute stunner of a debut album – it’s daring, it’s unique, it’s better than what many bands who have been around for decades could hope to release. It is damn-near impossible to pigeon-hole into a genre. It’s phenomenal. This is, without a doubt, one of the best albums of the year so far. In fact, it may just be the best.
Harry Styles – s/t
If you’d told me when I started this blog that at some point I’d be reviewing a Harry Styles album I would have probably laughed, but much like the Paramore album reviewed above, my interest was very much piqued upon hearing Harry’s debut solo single ‘Sign of the Times’. While it was nothing ground-breaking on a large scale, for a boyband member to release something so outlandishly different to not only the modern pop music scene but also to his own previous work as a member of One Direction is truly daring – and it appears to have worked.
A range of influences are displayed over this solo album, from slightly more psychedelic tracks like ‘Meet Me In The Hallway’ to some seriously 60’s-esque sounds on ‘Carolina’, which sounds like something Donovan might have come out with if he’d started his career now. ‘Two Ghosts’ and ‘Sweet Creature’ are a little weaker – fairly standard guitar-based pop ballads – but the mid-album sag is quickly remedied by ‘Only Angel’, a song that sounds like a modern imagining of some of the Rolling Stones’ poppier hits. This rock theme continues on ‘Kiwi’ and while again these tracks are nothing ‘new’, to hear something that sounds like this on a modern, highly mainstream pop album is unbelievably refreshing.
‘Ever Since New York’ is an incredibly well executed acoustic pop track and a definite highlight of this album. What strikes me about this track and this album overall is that in a world of highly produced, synthetic pop, here we have an album where everything sounds very natural and real. This could have been recorded live by a band in a room for all I know – there’s not too much going on other than the basics, and that’s most definitely a good thing.
While the musical influences for a lot of these songs are clear as crystal, Harry Styles has somehow released a solo album that can be equally enjoyed by pop and indie fans alike – there’s still a big pop undertone to a lot of this album, but there’s so much else going on that it holds your attention far longer than a standard collection of pop tracks. I can’t overstate how pleasantly surprised I am by how good this album is. If Harry did indeed write this album without too much help from producers, we could be witnessing the birth of a fantastic new talent out of the ashes of a highly manufactured pop band.
Aldous Harding – Party
Since being discovered busking in the streets of New Zealand, Aldous Harding has worked her way up the ladder and she’s now signed to 4AD for the release of her sophomore album ‘Party’. From the opening track ‘Blend’ the scene for the album is set, though this track (along with the following track ‘Imagining My Man’) demonstrates one of the few uses of percussion on this album – this sparsity of percussion and instrumentation in general is key to the soundscape of ‘Party’.
What makes ‘Party’ special is its commitment to slow burning, strikingly minimalistic tracks. Every instrument and harmony on these songs feels perfectly placed to elicit emotion and a certain mood. Real care has been put into this album, and the slowly building harmonies and intensity in the album’s title track is a definite highlight, though these stunning harmonies can be found dotted all over this LP. This album isn’t necessarily an easy listen; the dark, often uncomfortable folk requires some effort on the part of the listener, but patience is rewarded with true beauty.
It’s difficult to pick highlights when every track is of such consistent quality, but ‘Horizon’ and ‘The World Is Looking for You’ are particularly brilliant. Fans of Sufjan Stevens, PJ Harvey and perhaps even Björk will find something to love on ‘Party’, and while you can tell Aldous Harding has been influenced by artists like these, there is something remarkably unique about her vocal style and minimalistic arrangements that keep the listener coming back to this album again and again. You’ll hear nothing quite like it this year.
Kasabian – For Crying Out Loud
Returning for their sixth album ‘For Crying Out Loud’, Kasabian have been around the block a few times now. While the album’s artwork is truly bizarre, the music found inside is exactly what you’d expect, and your opinion of that depends entirely on whether you’re a Kasabian fan or not.
This album starts strong with ‘Ill Ray (The King)’ and the grower of a hit ‘You’re In Love With a Psycho’, but these tracks and the album as a whole don’t really bring anything new to the Kasabian table. A lot of the tracks here sound very much like material the band has released before – ‘Twentyfourseven’ and ‘The Party Never Ends’ could have easily been on the band’s fourth album ‘Velociraptor!’, for example.
That’s not to say this isn’t enjoyable, of course. There are some definite highlights on ‘For Crying Out Loud’ – as well as the aforementioned opening tracks, ‘Good Fight’ is a classic fun Kasabian track and while ‘The Party Never Ends’ isn’t groundbreaking, it’s nice to hear a bit more of the moody Kasabian we heard on ‘I Hear Voices’. There’s also a disco vibe running through a few of these tracks, and while that isn’t the most natural direction for Kasabian to be moving in at least they’re experimenting.
If you’re a Kasabian fan and looking for more of the same, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not a fan, you’ll find nothing different to win you over here.