In the first in a new series for the dCS Edit, music journalist Sharon O'Connell selects four standout albums from June 2021 - including a meditative debut from Greentea Peng and a long-awaited release from celebrated singer-songwriter Liz PhairTags: Music,
Musically speaking, there are two John Grants: the piano balladeer with the sonorous baritone, who draws on The Carpenters and ABBA’s melancholic core, and the vintage-synth geek who adores Cabaret Voltaire and Devo. From his second album onwards, the weighting has tended to tip one way or the other but with his latest release, Grant has struck an almost perfect balance. This can largely be credited to producer Cate Le Bon, who’s proven her talent for mixing euphony and oddness on her own avant-pop records.
The album's 12 songs provide rich ground for exploration both sonically and lyrically. They shift between plush, cinematic melodicism – notably on the title track and the slow-mo 'County Fair' – and electro-pop/post-punk experimentation (a Wire-ish 'Rhetorical Figure' and the squelchy, comically rude 'Your Portfolio'). Lyrically, Grant’s autobiographical drive is at full throttle, though he’s dialled down the dark, sardonic humour and self-deprecation. And while the pain of his strict religious upbringing and feelings of shame attached to his queerness are still in play, politics proper take centre stage on 'Your Portfolio' and 'Billy', which respectively address society’s worship of money and power, and the damage done by narrow definitions of masculinity. Boy From Michigan could have been push/pull in terms of style but instead, it's a compelling set piece.
Released June 25. Label: Bella Union
Any band that takes its name from an Angela Carter short story is making a very particular statement, and so it is with London quartet Wolf Alice. Implied are dark (melo)drama, vivid alternative worlds and a kind of self-conscious artistry - all boxes ticked to some degree on their second album, Visions Of A Life, which won the 2018 Mercury Prize. Ambition (often something of a dirty word in indie guitar-rock circles) is also suggested, and Blue Weekend is certainly unembarrassed on that front.
It’s not that the sound breaks any new ground; sonically, it’s a very '90s hybrid of shoegaze and post-grunge, with a dash of punk (on the angry 'Play The Greatest Hits') and top notes of glossy '70s pop - 'Lipstick On The Glass' and 'Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love') recall Kate Bush and ABBA respectively. But singer Ellie Rowsell’s lyrics are convincing in their chronicling of the angst and exhilaration of life as a sensitive, late 20-something, and the band’s confidence carries the likes of 'How Can I Make It OK', a darkly polished standout of cliff-top intensity.
Out now. Label: Dirty Hit / RCA
Aria Wells’ debut EP, Sensi, caused quite the buzz in 2018: its almost hallucinatory blend of laid-back soul and deep house, with woozy electronic effects and whacked-out beats, suggested an exciting new talent. Now, the first full-length from the Londoner with the intriguing alias delivers fully on that promise.
With her band The Seng Seng Family and producers including Mala, of first-gen dubstep duo Digital Mystikz, Wells has dialled up the dubby production and brought out the reggae highlights in both her writing and vocals. She freestyled many of these 18 songs, which adds to their loose, hypnotic feel: particularly transportive are 'Kali V2' (a reworking of 2018’s 'Kali V1') and 'Dingaling'. With 'This Sound', however, she throws back to The Slits’ perky 'Typical Girls', while elsewhere the spirits of Erykah Badu, The Internet and Dawn Penn hover. The set was recorded at 432 Hz, which is a semitone below the music-industry standard and claimed by some to be 'nature’s tuning'. Frequency aside, Man Made is every bit as seductive as it is meditative.
Out now. Label: AMF / Universal
Eleven years is a long time between albums – time enough for everyone to have forgotten about you twice over. That is, unless your debut transgressed on the multiple levels that Liz Phair’s did. Landing at grunge’s peak, in 1993, Exile In Guyville was unapologetic in its self-confidence, sexual frankness and candid judgments passed on its author’s indie-rock milieu. There were further albums, most recently 2010’s wide-ranging Funstyle, but nothing of quite the same potency.
Soberish – a term that refers not to intoxication status so much as striking the right balance between focus and creative loosening – is a welcome reengagement with Phair’s savvy and emotional generosity. The songs are less brash than on her breakthrough and have a relaxed and fat-free Cali-pop bent, with echoes of Carole King and Sheryl Crow. But if she now has less to prove (on 'Dosage', she wryly describes herself as a “well-worn book”), then lines like “There are so many ways to f*** up a life; I try to be original” ('Good Side') prove that there’s been no personality transplant. Phair’s honesty, which burns hardest in the heart-on-sleeve 'Lonely Street', may take a different form in 2021, but it's no less fearless for that.
Out now. Label: Chrysalis