Sigur Rós - Valtari
Icelandic maestros Sigur Rós return after a brief hiatus with Valtari (meaning 'Roller' in their invented language Vonlenska, or Hopelandic in English), the follow-up to Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust ('With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly'). Valtari is much more ambient and subtle, even by Sigur Rós standards, with wonderful drifting soundscapes and a quiet elegant complexity. Singer Jónsi is magnificent throughout, his delicate falsetto an ever-present 'other' instrument within the guitars, keyboards and strings that form the band's eclectic and often alien music. The early combination of Ég anda and Ekki Múkk serve as a great introduction as the start of the album builds to the mighty Varúð which transforms a slow melodic choral first-half into a crashing crescendo and back again with elegant precision. The drums/piano/strings combination across the five minute point is astonishing. This is followed by Rembihnútur, building in a similar way to vibrant chorus of Jónsi and curious industrial machinery. The title track is eight minutes of minimalism, wind chimes becoming strings and electronica, and the gorgeous closer Fjögur píanó is equally uncluttered. Not as vibrant as Takk but echoing the band's early work magnificently.
Top tracks: Varúð, Fjögur píanó and Ekki Múkk.
John Mayer - Born And Raised
Singer, songwriter, guitarist and all-round renaissance man John Mayer has returned to his Americana roots with new album Born And Raised. After a brief illness and a few early distractions to experiment with some badly-judged musical themes and ideas, Mayer is now back doing something slightly different and the result is his most focused album of his five album career so far. Grounded and honest Country-rock seems to be the best outlet for his talent. The opening trio of Queen Of California, The Age Of Worry and Shadow Days show the diversity of Mayer's song writing talents with the latter the most impressive of the three; a great mid-tempo Country-blues guitar fuelled song about life in the school of hard knocks. Speak For Me has echoes of Josh Ritter with acoustic guitars and delicate wordless lyrics and the bluesy love song Something Like Olivia is sublime. The mournful tones of If I Ever Get Around To Living change the tone before the trite Love Is A Verb shifts the album too far into the 'obvious'. Thankfully Mayer comes back strong with the brilliant storytelling of Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967 and the best song on the album, closer A Face To Call Home. Mayer's most complete and accomplished album to date.
Top Tracks: A Face To Call Home, Shadow Days and Something Like Olivia.
Mount Eerie - Clear Moon
The first of two albums from lo-fi indie band Mount Eerie in 2012, Clear Moon builds upon nearly ten years of ambling experimentation and living in the musician wilderness. Finally it looks as if Phil Elverum, formerly known as Microphones, has made a commercially acceptable collection of songs and musical interludes to form a connected work. Elverum's wistful, oddly distant and beautiful vocals (akin to Stephen Immerwahr from Codeine) are at the core of Clear Moon. From epic opener Through The Trees Pt. 2 and equally epic The Place I Live, complete with added female vocal at the end, to the dark mysterious title track and slow reflective Yawning Sky, this is atmospheric and absorbing music. Only the choral Over Dark Water breaks the ambient mould, with buzzing guitars and intertwined vocal arrangement, Lone Bell borrows from Death In Vegas and the light breezy House Shape is also impressive. Holding this together are a few perfectly placed instrumentals; two merely titled '(something)' and closer '(Synthesizer)'. At last, a well-formed album of songs and not just a random collection of ideas.
Top Tracks: The Place I Live, Over Dark Water and Lone Bell.
Admiral Fallow - Tree Bursts In Snow
Tree Bursts In Snow is the second album from Scottish quintet Admiral Fallow, following the band's impressive début Boots Met My Face (an album which deftly juxtaposes childhood innocence and shocking violence - see Subbuteo). This new album blends wonderful pop melodies with melancholy delivered by the cultural tones of Louis Abbott and the fragile voice of flautist Sarah Hayes (think Frightened Rabbit meets Belle & Sebastian). Opener Tree Bursts is a slow-burning six-minute introduction which builds into the second half as a wonderful arrangement of 'prog' piano/guitar and both contrasting vocalists. The Paper Trench and Guest Of The Government are brilliant pop songs, the former kicking off the chorus with 'Holy Moses and Holy cow...', and the latter mixing radio-friendly melodies with less-than radio-friendly (but superb) lyrics. Again Abbott and Hayes blend perfectly as required. The mid-tempo single Beetle In The Box is just as arresting, as is the epic Old Fools, with building guitars and strings, and Isn't This World Enough?? is a tongue-in-cheek slice of sing-along nu-folk which quickly turns into an end-of-night drunken lock-in. In the final third, The Way You Were Raised is stirring, Burn is a nostalgia-fuelled sprawling swirling ballad and closer Oh, Oscar is a downbeat ending. Proof that there are more strings to the collective Admiral Fallow bow.
Top Tracks: Guest Of The Government, Tree Bursts and Burn
Smoke Fairies - Blood Speaks
Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, aka Smoke Fairies, from Chichester now based in London via Vancouver, New Orleans and... Sidmouth, have discovered their talent for producing a unique blend of blues and folk with second album Blood Speaks. The duo have certainly built upon the success of Through Low Light And Trees and the Jack White backed single Gastown/River Song; consequently Blood Speaks is a more robust concept. Vocally, Blamire and Davies have a traditional folk quality, showcased on the opening songs Let Me Know and Awake; against the backdrop of more modern blues. This comes to the fore in The Three Of Us, with its glorious blend of budget thriller storytelling and sparkling guitars. Smoke Fairies are at their best when this polished, precise, almost operatic vocal is offset by gritty lyrics and hard-edged guitar-work. It all comes together for the epic title track, strangely unique in approach as it is neither blues or folk, from a wonderful acoustic/vocal opening to a more powerful vocal. In contrast Take Me Down When You Go is a perfect slow blend, like Pentangle backed by The Black Keys. The delicious vocals of Hideaway jump and dance against the more sinister morose music, another example of Smoke Fairies' sound working perfectly, and the closing pair of Version Of The Future and Film Reel create an oddly ethereal ending to the album. A promising follow-up.
Top Tracks: The Three Of Us, Hideaway and Take Me Down When You Go.
Top Tracks: The Three Of Us, Hideaway and Take Me Down When You Go.