THIS week’s album reviews from The Courier-Mail (ratings out of five stars):
Fear and Saturday Night (Lost Highway)
Texan singer-songwriter Bingham’s fifth album starts out with this: “I’ve been carrying my trouble/In this pack strapped to my shoulder/Ever since I was a baby/I’ve been running from everything you know …’’
It’s a story of restlessness and perseverance against the odds, a tale familiar enough to anyone who’s ever dipped into Texan writers like Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Joe Ely, Guy Clark and Steve Earle.
Bingham sings in a warm yet gritty voice that reflects the hard times and sometimes hard-bitten characters of his songs.
He knows about that world, losing his mother young and father to suicide, making his own way from the age of 17, working for a rodeo company, sleeping on couches, in the truck or camping out, no place to call home. Music was his way out of there, first playing bars and roadhouses where people were out for a good time or a fight and no one listened to the lyrics.
They are listening now though. Those early experiences instilled the kind of resilience that’s needed to survive in the often brutal music business, as well as enough fuel for a lifetime of songs.
While Bingham had an early taste of success with his song The Weary Kind, featured in film Crazy Heart, Bingham has settled into the kind of career that can ride the inevitable peaks and troughs.
Previous album Tomorrowland had a tougher rock flavour with songs speaking up for the people doing it tough during recession. Fear and Saturday Night is at times more personal and occasionally almost contented, perhaps the outcome of living with his wife in a van in the Californian mountains without phone, electricity or neighbours.
Until that point Bingham had spent most of his life on the move or on the road and the change does him good. Here he throws his cards on the table with a generation of American songwriters from the top shelf like Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle.
He still keeps the electric guitar plugged in, from the lacerating blues throb of Top Shelf Drug to the goodtime Tex-Mex swing of Adventures of You And Me and the earthy growl that is Radio.
Broken Heart Tattoos is addressed to an unborn child (“yet to be scarred with tattoos’’), Island in the Sky considers better times ahead; Snow Falls in June and Darlin’ are love songs in sublime country-rock settings.
My Diamond is Too Rough makes a statement, presumably in reply to those who say he should knock some rough edges off his music: “People they tell me to give up and go on home/But to have no home to go to is something they’ll never know/I never let this world get too heavy on my shoulder/Cause my diamond always will pull the weight that I’m under.’’
These are songs of hope that wouldn’t be out of place on Bruce Springsteen’s The River.
Looks like Bingham has found a home and a measure of peace at last, but the diamond, happily, remains in the rough.
THE POP GROUP
Citizen Zombie (Recon)
Brits The Pop Group were never that: the title is sarcastic, and with two albums between 1978 and 1980 they made a bracing and sometimes brilliant avant-noise. Most of the members went on to have musical careers in a variety of guises but the band reformed for shows in 2010 and now this first album of new material in 35 years. There is actually the hint of a little more “pop’’ this time, although anything approaching the conventional is rapidly deconstructed into oblique shapes designed to send radio programmers into nervous breakdown. They work with producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Cee Lo Green) but the results are spiked with all the tensions they can muster. Mad Truth and S.O.P.H.I.A. are both nimble and danceable, funky ‘80s disco played out under a broken mirror ball, but elsewhere it’s mostly uneasy listening: thunderous fuzz guitar interspersed with industrial percussion
on The Immaculate Deception. Even when they get almost pretty (Age of Miracles), they still aim to mess with your head. Not for the faint of heart.
Music of Unity and Peace (Deutsche Grammophon)
Taizé is an ecumenical monastic place of meditation and music in France, founded in 1940 as a haven for World War II refugees by Swiss-born Brother Roger Schütz who knew the power of prayer and music, singing in particular, to transform lives caught in the horrors and terrors of war and conflict. Today young people flock there for its peace and tranquillity, blending their voices in harmony with those of resident monks, as this CD demonstrates. Paris-based Jacques Berthier (1923-1994) composed most of the disc’s hymns in a repetitious style that facilitates assimilation. Veni, Sancte Spiritus, Seigneur, ouvre mes lèvres — Psalm 14, Bless the Lord — Psalm 103), Jesus le Christ and others proceed with fluid ease, solo voices alternating with the group, and solo instruments adding spice to the mix. Taizé community items, plus Gospodi pomiluj from Russian Orthodox Liturgy, and Psalm 63 by the great Joseph Gelineau are welcome inclusions. Taizé, begun amid hatred in a war-torn world, is needed now more than ever.
Saltwater Cowboy (Independent)
Cullen, once of blues-fired Brisbane rockers The Daybridges, has taken a more acoustic road in the past few years, but he still has an edge to his voice and lyrics. Leaky Boats ponders the fate of ill-fated refugees, accompanied by fiddle from Michael Patrick of The Company and banjo from Ben Salter; Harvester of Sorrow takes the view of a farmer doing it hard in the cycle of drought and flood: tough; Broome springs from people Cullen met working among Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley. Cullen’s years working in the Noosa Longboards store shine through in the shimmering surf guitars of the title tune and Blue Saltwater Son, inspired by the local legends of the Noosa break. Other stories come from close to home; the vivid memories of First Kiss; the intense emotions released by the rollicking
, Pogues-go-surfing treatment of Last Dance, dedicated to a friend who died in a surf accident. A record that sounds great in the car whether heading home with sunburn and cracked lips or by the fire dreaming of summers to come.
Piece by Piece (RCA/Sony)
I love pop music as much as anyone: Phil Spector. The Four Tops. Carole King. The Beatles. While pop often deals with the familiar, a sentiment, a chord progression, an arrangement, it doesn’t have to do so to the point of banality. She Loves You and (Reach Out) I’ll Be There felt thrilling and different the first time I heard them and somehow they still do. Great pop music, of any era, can do that. But American Idol grad Clarkson mostly misses the mark here, where so much of the soundscape feels like it has been done ad infinitum. Clarkson has vocal power but here it is mostly secondary to the sheen of modern pop electronica, and contributions from proven hitmakers like Sia and a vocal duet with John Legend don’t overcome the predictability. Clarkson only figured in writing three tracks, a mistake since the strongest thing here is the Clarkson co-written title tune. Two other Clarkson credits are relegated to Deluxe Edition status, which is weird, since the R & B groove of Bad Reputation is also better than most of the other material here.
Rebel Heart (Universal)
I could not care less about Madonna’s celebrity status, business acumen or falling down the stairs. What I care about is good songs, and Rebel Heart has more of those assembled in one place than she has managed in years. It opens with Living For Love, an electro club classic that will have hips shaking under mirror balls the world over. Holy Water
is another of Madonna’s sexual meditations, employing religious metaphors. Collaborators include Kanye West on Illuminati, another infectious club anthem, which finds Madonna’s eyebrow-raised sense of humour at its best amid a torrent of pop culture references. Rapper Nas appears on Veni Vidi Verci (“I came, I saw I conquered’’). As ever, even with a long roll call of producers and guests, Rebel Heart sounds just like Madonna, which is what puts her above the passing parade of pop wannabes. They come, they go, Madonna’s still here. Nineteen tracks and 70 minutes is a lot from an artist usually best enjoyed over three minutes but, as she does whenever the stakes are high, she plugs into the pop pulse and reminds us: dance, you’ll feel better.
Individuals (Feel Presents)
How do you follow up a five-star classic? The Sunnyboys gave it a red-hot go with this second album. Like its predecessor it was produced by Lobby Loyde, but the band were never happy with the final result after mixing was completed in the US. This reissue features newly discovered early mixes for most of the songs. Apart from the undoubted quality of lead singer/guitarist Jeremy Oxley’s voice and material, what is striking now is how sparkling and undated the music sounds. The lyrics reflect the loneliness and dislocation Jeremy was feeling after moving to Sydney and in the cool light of day we can see that this album was under-appreciated; the sophistication the band was developing
on songs such as Individuals and Leaf on a Tree, the powerful emotions and jaw-dropping vocal performances on No Love Around and Pain. Would people be excited if a new band dropped this record right now? You bet. The reissue features bonus live tracks from a radio broadcast including a blazing take on I’m Shakin’. Also reissued: the last album by this line-up, Get Some Fun.