Yeah, alright, June and July are two months, but because they’re fairly slow for album releases (and absolutely not because we’re a bunch of procrastinating slackers who didn’t get through the June reviews until midway through July), we thought we’d roll them both into one. Here’s a summary of 2016’s summery releases:
Amber Arcades – Fading Lines
Y’know, it’s meant to be summer but here in Scotland the closest I’m getting to that is closing the curtains and playing Fading Lines by Amber Arcades on repeat. If sunbathing to music (tunebathing?) could provide a tan I’d be a pretty dark shade of brown by now thanks to this wonderful record. Fading Lines is an album to treasure, to unpeel the layers of each track and discover melodies and textures that seem perfectly designed to melt into your consciousness. Shimmering seems to obvious a word for this kind of dreamy guitar pop but obvious or not, it’s the right word. Delve into Fading Lines as soon as you can and make it your summer companion. Oh…and remind me to open the curtains again one day.
Band of Horses – Why Are You OK
An unfortunate byproduct of being obsessed with small labels and obscure bands is that you’re often out of touch with what’s going on in the mainstream. Band of Horses, one of those bands I always think of as someone The Observer might cite as ‘ones to watch’, are actually now on their fifth album, and I’m not sure why I keep ignoring them as I like pretty much everything I’ve heard from the South Carolina folk/indie group.
There’s a real simplicity to songs like ‘Whatever, Wherever’ and the beautiful closer ‘Even Still’, while the Southern rock comes to its catchiest with new single ‘Casual Party’.
While never being complex or even overly original, Why Are You OK cements a sound the band can call their own.
Big Deal – Say Yes
Big Deal threatened to live up to their name in 2013, with slots supporting the likes of Depeche Mode and someone at 6 Music seemingly very fond of them. June Gloom was one of my favourite albums of that year, but it’s been a quietish three years for the mixed-sex, mixed-nationality indie foursome who have drip-fed us EPs and bits and pieces prior to the release of this, their third album.
And it’s a much more angst-ridden, soul searching album than the generally romantic hunky-doriness of their last. Shades of June Gloom remain in ‘Saccharine’ and ‘Don’t Forget’, while ‘Veronica’ cherry-picks the best of what they do and arranges it into an epic of nearly six minutes. Alice Costelloe sounds less innocent and more scarred and weary these days, as she sighs lines like “and what song could I sing to make you understand?” KC Underwood’s backing vocals are reassuring rather than harmonising, with the band perhaps peaking on the yearning eightiesy track ‘Lux’.
Another fine effort from an underappreciated band.
The Bouncing Souls – Simplicity
Once seemingly the support band for any punk act big in the late ’90s, The Bouncing Souls have carved out a longevity of their own with their distinctive brand of Offspring-meets-Dropkick Murphys shoutalong East Coast punk.
Now on their tenth album, their formula of group-roared chorus, infectious three-chord punk and liberal smatterings of ‘heys’ and ‘whoas’ has never changed much, and if you like it, you’ll like this, basically.
Personally, their very poppy, emotional efforts like ‘Satellite’ and ‘Gravity’ have always sounded more naff than catchy to me. I’d much rather they stuck to the vigour of ‘I Wanna Be Bored’ and the angst of ‘Rebel Song’, while ‘Up To Us’ provides a rousing and thought-provoking finale.
Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate
Descendents albums have become like those ‘7 Up’ documentaries where we return to their subjects’ lives at set intervals and discover what they’re up to. Since 1987, we’ve been given once-a-decade snapshots of what’s vexing Milo Aukerman and his band of aging punkers. These days, it’s not so much girls, cops and his parents as his kids’ medication (‘Limiter’) and his own intolerance to greasy grub (‘No Fat Burger’ being a fantastic quinquagenarian’s response to his teenage self’s ‘I Like Food’ a full 35 years ago).
Whether 15 or 50, Descendents have never been cool, but they’ve always been brutally and often uncomfortably honest. Aukerman is not so much self-depreciating as self-savaging on tracks like ‘On Paper’ (‘I’ve got the charm of a murdering serial raper’), and there seems to be a nod to Black Flag’s ‘Room 13’ with the chant of ‘keep me alive’ in ‘Full Circle’.
It’s fast and furious as ever, with 16 tracks wazzed out in just over half an hour (21 in a little more if you get the deluxe edition), Aukerman’s vocals still bratty rather than curmudgeonly, and the rest of the band as tight as they’ve always been. ‘Beyond The Music’ in particular is a reminder of just how well they do, and always have done, melodic hardcore.
Heliotropes – Over There That Way
New York alt-rockers Heliotropes have transformed from all-girl to merely female-fronted, as Jessica Numsuwankijkul tones down some of the scuzz and psychedelia of their 2013 debut A Constant Sea to bring us a refined and poignant follow-up.
A military theme runs through the album, with songs like ‘War Isn’t Over, the refrain of ‘war child’ in Dardanelles Pt. 2, and the elegiac closer ‘Goodnight Soldier’. The acid rock tinge is still there in tracks like Dardanelles Pt. 1, while the male vocals add a touch of Nick Cave-like gravitas to the excellent title track.
Wholesale changes, with waltzing melodies often replacing acerbic jams, but commendable progress in this lads vs. lasses duel.
It’s Not Night: It’s Space – Our Birth is but a Sleep and a Forgetting
Some bands are summed up by their name, and It’s Not Night: It’s Space certainly fall into this category. As a moniker, it’s a complex mouthful that leaves you confused and intrigued, and the music behind it is experimental and futuristic, liberally laced with intergalactic gurgling guitars and undulating bass.
The crackly opener ‘Nada Brahma’ is a scene-setter scattered with archived soundbites a la Public Service Broadcasting, and leads into a doom-laden assault on the senses in ‘The Beard of Macroprosopus’.
Tracks like the grandly named ‘Across the Luster of the Desert Into the Polychrome Hills’ and ‘Starry Wisdom’ have an almost bluesy rock buried in their sludgy quagmire, although the latter may fool you with its spiky, angular opening.
I’d be lying if I said the album held my interest throughout, with some parts a little too dragged out as we get onto the fifth and sixth tracks, but it’s a bold experiment from the New York trio and one that certainly has moments that hook you into its soundscapes.
Minor Victories – Minor Victories
‘Supergroup’ is rarely a word that sets my pulse racing, but with members of Mogwai, Slowdive and Editors involved in the venture, the fruition of Minor Victories is something of a hipster’s fantasy.
Elements of all three bands are audible too, with the experimental soundtrack-suitable notes of Mogwai on offer in ‘Folk Arp’, the dreamlike lull of Slowdive especially notable in the final two tracks, and the driving riffs of Editors commonplace throughout.
Comfortably the best track is ‘Scattered Ashes’ though, with Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell’s voice perfectly complemented by guest vocalist James Graham from the Twilight Sad in a heart-wrenching song of grieving, for some reason given a video featuring duelling bionic cats.
PAWS – No Grace
Glaswegians PAWS leave the janglier lo-fi of their earlier work behind and go all out punk for their third album, which boasts production from Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus. It’s neat and wholehearted without being sugary sweet, allowing PAWS to showcase their melting pot of melody and muscle.
Much of No Grace actually seems to be about being a band, thus leading to music about creating music. You could call that post-modernism if you were being pretentious, but I’d just call it very real and honest, with the power and pace of the likes of ‘Glid the Lily’ and ‘Gone So Long’ intertwining with the raw fatigue of ‘N/A’.
PAWS put everything they’ve got into their work (to frontman Phillip Taylor’s detriment perhaps as he recently had to cut the band’s tour short due to damaging his vocal chords), and the result is a half-hour blast of infectious loser rock laced with true Brit grit.