New Music: September 2021 - Curated by Sharon O'Connell

Energetic punk, reflective soul and a thrilling take on alt-rock feature in Sharon O'Connell's latest pick of standout albums for the dCS Edit

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Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine - A Beginner's Mind

Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine's collaboration puts an intriguing spin on the well-established albums inspired by films genre, and offers further proof of the strong relationship between art and music. GRAMMY-nominee Stevens is no stranger to interpreting one art form with another - he took lyrical inspiration from US outsider artist Royal Robertson for his Age of Adz album, and has also written orchestral scores for ballet. De Augustine, meanwhile, is a visual artist and, like Stevens, a singer/songwriter of sweet, slightly folkish alt-pop that emits a melancholic glow.

For A Beginner’s Mind, Stevens and De Augustine spent a month together in a writing session, and the movies they watched to unwind soon became their source of inspiration. The album’s songs are nothing like direct interpretations of the cinematic creations, though - more loose jumping off points for thoughts and emotions. Neither ‘You Give Death A Bad Name’ nor ‘Cimerrian Shade’, inspired by Night Of The Living Dead and Silence Of The Lambs respectively, play to expectation: the former is a work of glittering, only faintly spooky wyrd folk, the latter a pastoral number with finger-picked guitar and piano that suggests memories of long lost love. The fact that these songs' titles and styles give no clue as to their inspiration is part of their appeal.

Out now. Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Low - Hey What

The last record from this Minnesota band delivered something of a shock. Produced by BJ Burton, who worked on Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Low’s 2018 release Double Negative saw melodies and rhythms broken apart and piled on top of one another in textured layers.

For Low's 13th album, married couple Alan Sparhawk (guitar) and Mimi Parker (drums), together with Burton, have taken this process to an exhilarating, static-spattered extreme: guitar parts are chopped and screwed, played backwards or malevolently swarm in their seeming dozens; beats fall as ominous, mechanical clangings and chatter in metronomic panic, low-end noises blow out in frazzled fractals, and spaces between sounds erratically expand and contract. It’s not chaos, but a strikingly dynamic, carefully engineered construction. Rather than being ugly or cacophonous, these decompositions are starkly beautiful and soaked in emotion.

Opener ‘White Horses’ delivers an abrasive, electronic wallop that Sparhawk’s and Parker’s (undistorted) voices cut through like a shaft of light through a storm cloud, while on ‘Hey’, the warm, amniotic throb of synths beneath multi-tracked vocals gradually gives way to a single-note drone and Parker’s hushed, one-word incantation. Though its songwriting DNA is (largely) intact, Hey What recalls the glitchy noisescapes of Clark and 100 Gecs. It’s not only a bold, brilliant move for Low, but a welcome jolt to alt-rock orthodoxy, too.

Out now. Label: Sup Pop

Jordan Rakei - What We Call Life

Like Sam Smith before him, Jordan Rakei was first thrown into the spotlight by Disclosure, in his case with a feature on the electronic duo's 2015 track ‘Masterpiece’. The London-based New Zealander has since made waves as the producer, singer and writer of his own neo-soul songs.

With his fourth full-length, Rakei brings what he learned in therapy about his early childhood, his anxieties and fears, family and intimate relationships into his music in a transparent and vulnerable way. All that is brought to the fore in the opening track, ‘Family’, which echoes Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Love & Hate’ in its gently insistent backbeat, and in the sombre, slow-wheeling ‘Clouds’, where the author considers his mixed-race heritage against the backdrop of #BlackLivesMatter.

As you’d expect, the overall mood is reflective, Rakei’s voice – sweet, high and with a slightly tremulous quality, recalling both Marvin Gaye and a less doleful James Blake – the anchor for elegant arrangements of acoustic and electric instrumentation, treated with effects and bitten by grooves. There’s a touch of West Coast psychedelic soul on ‘Runaway’, but something darker and Radiohead-like in ‘Brace’, while the spirits of Talk Talk and Scritti Politti hover over rapturous closer ‘The Flood’. Here, dulcet orchestrations and euphoric beat patterns deliver not devastation, but the release of self-discovery.

Out now. Label: Ninja Tune

Amyl and The Sniffers - Comfort To Me

"Honest things and raw things should be appreciated," is this Melbourne quartet’s ethos, as summed up by their singer, Amy Taylor. It’s long been their touchstone – they cranked out their debut EP in just 12 hours, from writing to self-release – and those qualities remain central to their second album. It’s both an extension of their 2019 debut, a rowdy hybrid of punk and Australian pub rock, and an expansion, musically and lyrically. Alongside recurrent inspirations like AC/DC, Motörhead and Rose Tattoo, modern US hardcore has made its mark, and on ‘Guided By Angels’, the Sniffers hit a moody groove reminiscent of Joy Division.

Taylor has always been a candid, no-nonsense writer whose lyrics often have a socio-political edge but here, they underline her vulnerability as much as her fearlessness. ‘Freaks To The Front’ is equally a demand for freedom and a celebration of the thrill of loud, live music, while the ominous, prowling ‘Knifey’ addresses the fact that half the population feels unsafe walking alone after dark. In ‘Hertz’, though, Taylor’s insecurities about a relationship edge into the picture of a countryside escape. This album isn’t the sound of a band tamed, simply one in control of its own exhilarating lifeforce.

Out now. Label: Rough Trade

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