It took Antony Hegarty four years to follow the breakthrough success of I Am a Bird Now with The Crying Light, but in terms of the internal thematic landscape of the songs, it feels light years ahead of its predecessor. Hegarty largely abandons issues of gender ambiguity here for a bruising, heartfelt examination of man and his relationship to nature, infused with a sense of deep spirituality and longing. Uncertainties be damned: his artistic leap pays off boundlessly. Keeping his musings eloquently grounded in supple arrangements that utilize woodwinds, strings, and his ever-prescient piano, these songs soar in their introspective wanderlust, guiding us with genuine awe into each question Antony spiels forth in his disarming, wounded voice. Alternating between languid yet beautiful ballads and swirling piano-pop shuffles, Hegarty keeps our interest as much for the subtle shades he adds to his fully-realized musical vision as his philosophical ruminations. As an artist, he may forever cloud himself in an aura of enigma, playfully sprouting double entendres with his clever songwriting and arrangements; yet with each project, he reveals multi-dimensional facets that are as intriguing as they are dazzling. Those willing to follow him ever-further down his own eccentric paths are assured to be as comforted and rewarded by what they find as they are challenged by what they hear.
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In many ways, Anti-Pop Consortium’s most bombastic album yet should’ve been their coldest and most inaccessible. It is dominated by battles between man and machine, flitting between the inaccuracies of the heart and the cool precision of their musical backing, but at no point are we decided on a winner. The rumoured conflicts that resulted in the group’s hiatus prior to recording Fluorescent Black probably didn’t help (though they seemingly turned out to be totally false), and the result is a restless, economic, smooth, and daring hip-hop record. Ballsy on “Volcano”, beautiful/violent on “Born Electric”, and fidgety beyond belief on “Capricorn One”, this is Anti-Pop Consortium at their most eclectic and unified, both musically and personally. Because these conflicts pervade so much of the whole, the entertainment factor is massive, and they are still leaders of the alternative pack.
It wasn’t supposed to work. It wasn’t even supposed to happen: following A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s 2007 debut, founding vocalists Robin and Lauren Daniels got sidetracked by personal matters and bassist Brice Hickey landed in the hospital with a broken leg. The finished product, recorded largely with replacement singers, squashed 22 tracks into a shape-shifting hour, populated by obscured hooks, half-formed ideas, and spare parts. All of which belies Ashes Grammar as a work of extraordinary beauty. Core players Ben Daniels and Josh Meakim oversaw the record like hawks and sculpted it into a floral dream-pop paradise designed to heighten the senses. Everything seems to have been drawn from a canon of sensual music, built according to a strangely fitting logic. Drums switch between an acoustic kit and a programmed bass thump from the Mille Plateaux school of 4 a.m. clubbing; shoegaze guitars morph and reappear from different angles; choral chants melt into melodic swoons sourced from who knows where. It’s a place of thrilling, almost limitless possibility, whose colossal length gives the impression that it has no boundaries. We’re meant to cross into it, drink in its aroma, and take the chance that its abundance of riches might really be glistening with sharp teeth.
What of interest can a 30-year-old band bring to the table on its 12th studio album? To a lot of Depeche Mode fans, Sounds of the Univere was a disappointment because it didn’t represent a logical progression from 2005’s Playing the Angel. For a globally popular band, though, Depeche Mode have rarely made the expected, path-of-least-resistance move. Instead of dismissing the meticulous, streamlined, analog synth production, though, why not embrace how eloquently it meshes the band’s earliest sonic tendencies with the emotional maturity and songwriting development of later years? “Wrong”, for example, was a brilliantly terse, tongue-in-cheek perversion of the band’s, and its fans’, doomy image. Just as impressive was the emergence of singer Dave Gahan as a songwriter nearly on par with old hand Martin Gore. Instead of loathing Songs of the Universe for not being another Playing the Angel or Violator, why not love it for what it brought to the table? And that was plenty.
A.C. Newman’s last solo album was aptly titled The Slow Wonder because it took a few listens to sink in. No such problem exists on Get Guilty, Newman’s insanely catchy follow-up. In addition to being instantly appealing, it’s also a top contender for the title of “Best Late Night Album” of the year. The album is the aural equivalent of an empty house as drummer Jon Wurster creates an open, uncluttered sound, especially on “The Palace at 4 a.m.” For pop lovers, there are too many moments of beauty to list on Get Guilty, but put the gorgeous string introduction to “Young Atlantis” right at the top. A New Pornographers album can’t come soon enough, but this near-classic will definitely hold listeners at bay for at least another year.