Arctic Monkeys, The Car ★★★★☆
When Arctic Monkeys moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, seemingly to hang out more with their stoner rock buddy Josh Homme, their future appeared to entail albums full of crunchy, FM-friendly guitar riffs, and Stateside superstardom. Such began to arrive with 2013’s AM, where the mid-twentysomething Yorkshiremen deftly modernised their indie-rock sound with chart-topping transatlantic success.
With 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino came a drastic left-turn, as singer/songsmith Alex Turner switched to writing on piano, and served up a cripplingly self-conscious anti-consumerist sci-fi concept album – a thrillingly Bowie-esque transformation, except its frigid grooves left fans confused, wishing the band had stayed put outside a Sheffield chippie.
Many hoped for a return to their roots on this seventh Monkeys long-player, but Turner has already smirkingly confided that he even donned motorbike boots while writing to try and get some riffs flowing, to no avail.
There is, however, much more to love about The Car, which introduces opulent orchestration, synths and extraordinarily FX’d guitar for an ambitious postmodern cocktail of lounge-funk and chamber-pop, foregrounding Turner’s chewily matured croon which often soars up into Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto.
Though the 36-year-old refusenik star has now relocated to London and Paris, this record couldn’t be more LA if it was co-scripted by Raymond Chandler, or indeed produced by David Axelrod, the late-60s auteur whose blend of strings and slo-mo beats plainly influenced stately opener There’d Better Be A Mirrorrball, and the smoochy Jet Skis On The Moat.
The latter’s “shot in CinemaScope” lyric is just one of countless movie references. Hello You opens, bafflingly: “Lego Napoleon movie written in noble gas-filled glass tubes underlined in sparks – I’ll admit it’s elaborate for a waking thought.” It later infers a “long goodbye”, evoking Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s 1973 Chandler adaptation, and the listener may often feel like Marlowe, stumbling through a faux-epic Hollywood soundscape, littered with failed silver-screen dreams and seedy dysfunctional romance.
Crucially, though, The Car feels warmer and more soulful than its predecessor, in its orchestral sweep not dissimilar to Turner’s first side project as The Last Shadow Puppets, 2008’s The Age of the Understatement. As such, it may be more a solo album than an Arctic Monkeys record, but it’s a very good one nonetheless. Andrew Perry
Nick Hakim, COMETA ★★★★☆
The music of US singer-songwriter Nick Hakim exists in the hazy intersection of folk, electronica and funk. If pushed I’d call it lo-fi experimental indie rock: it’s woozy but intricate and overlain with soft, whispered vocals.
Hakim’s third album COMETA takes his title from the Spanish word for “kite” because the Brooklyn-based singer has fallen in love. He sees a kite as a symbol for elevation in his personal life. The album is thus a collection of romantic songs that explore various iterations of love: love for his community and for himself but mainly love for his unnamed partner. The album is infused with imagery about floating and gravitating towards a happy orbit. As he sings in Happen, “A supernova exploded and changed my world.”
Not that it’s a particularly easy listen. Ani, the first of its ten tracks, opens with a wonkily-tuned guitar and multi-tracked backing vocals that seem designed to disorientate. It comes as a relief when the drums kick in at 30 seconds and the song settles into a structure. But about two-thirds of the way through we’re greeted by an elongated bray that sits somewhere between a Sly Stone-like falsetto yelp and a baby launching a full-throttle scream. Thankfully, things settle down after this.
Many of the subsequent songs channel Prince at his most minimal, both in terms of the sound – subtle, stripped-back funk – and the libidinous lyrics. Feeling Myself features the lines: “I love being your heart-shaped guitar / I love the way you play me / You’ve got my tongue out of my mouth / I’m addicted to loving you.” During the song Only One he tells us that he loves the way “she wraps around me when she makes love to me.” There are pleas too. On eighth track Something he sings, “Please just take me as I am / I’m not perfect.”
Throughout, the music remains a bit distant. It’s as though Hakim, despite all he feels, is making a comment on the otherworldly and ineffable nature of love. Like a kite itself, love doesn’t stay still. It floats, moves and pulls you in different directions. Just like this collection of songs. James Hall
Robyn Hitchcock, Shufflemania! ★★★☆☆
Hitchcock first emerged in his early twenties as the leader of Cambridge’s The Soft Boys, from the off assuming a separatist stance from rock’s mainstream drift as, in the face of punk’s ham-fisted DIY crusade, he espoused a return to the surrealism and musicianly adventure of late-60s psychedelia. Early song titles such as Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out and (I Want to Be an) Anglepoise Lamp certainly tallied with a picture of him as someone doing his own thing at the margins.
Like his out-there heroes (think Captain Beefheart; Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett), Hitchcock has remained an oddball outsider ever since, with occasional fluctuations of credibility thanks to lionization from far-flung admirers who’ve somehow come upon his works of cracked genius and fessed up to his influence, such as the emergent REM, whose guitarist, Peter Buck, has been an intermittent collaborator.
As with many furiously prolific artists, the pandemic occasioned his longest-ever gestation period of five years before delivering this, approximately his 22nd solo album. Now 69 and living in hipster East Nashville, his creativity was initially piqued by a Christmas ’19 visit to the Ancient Palace of Quetzalcoatl in Tulum, Mexico, which sparked the sitar-y strum, The Feathery Serpent God, in its honour. In 2020, he experienced a psychological hernia which he says “resulted in 10 sub-personalities bursting through from my subconscious”. The album put[s] them into words.
The ensuing flow of songs were then duly embellished via digital pinging during lockdown, with contributions from guests including Johnny Marr, Sean Lennon and a couple of former Soft Boys.
Most strikingly, on the concluding One Day (It’s Being Scheduled), our leftfield hero comes on like Sean’s dad, for his own self-penned take on John Lennon’s Imagine. With urgency and no little melodic aplomb, he dreams of a world where “the human race will not be run by bullies” and “the engineers will come and start up your machine”, before concluding, with characteristic eccentricity, “don’t hold yer breath – it’s being scheduled”.
An English one-off, in fine voice. Andrew Perry
Loyle Carner, hugo ★★★★☆
The London-born MC Loyle Carner made a name for himself with his 2017 debut of mellow, hip-hop beats and sentimental lyrics about everything from looking after his mother to cooking his imaginary sister pancakes for breakfast and his late step-father’s death. His next album Not Waving, but Drowning cemented itself as a UK favourite, climbing to number three in the charts. Carner’s willingness to be vulnerable has always been part of his appeal, but hugo feels like something of a breakthrough – because, for once, he’s angry.
His usual soft flow feels tighter, spitting out politically-charged lyrics confronting racism and social issues interspersed with samples of poet John Agard’s Half-caste and an activist’s speech addressing knife crime. It’s confronting, but it works, with the 28-year-old’s natural kinetic skill helping to weave each track together in a satisfying storytelling process.
He also delves deeper into self-examination, including his relationship with his estranged father, his own experience having a son, and grappling with feeling trapped in the cycle of life. The first single, Hate, clashes snappy percussion and resonant piano with intimate, conflicting lyrics, while the more melancholic Homerton slows the pace with raspy guest vocals from Olivia Dean and Jnr Williams. Musically, the album shifts between ambient broken beats and groove-fuelled neo-soul, as well as playful, jazz-tinged melodies, like those in Plastic.
No tracks are particularly surprising from a production point of view, but it’s the affecting lyrics which have always been Carner’s strength. Take Nobody Knows (Ladas Road), where sentimental rap over a gospel choir and bluesy riffs creates a powerful modern anthem. The newfound sharpness in Carner’s delivery has brought a much-needed grit to this album – it’s exciting. Chiara Wilkinson
Dry Cleaning, Stumpwork ★★★★☆
“Should I propose friendship?” is Florence Shaw's half-drawled musing on Anna Calls From The Arctic. The opening track to London's Dry Cleaning sophomore album Stumpwork is a dreamy, dazed slab of surrealist garage-jazz-rock. Friends or not, on Don't Press Me Shaw warns Don't touch my gaming mouse, you rat!
Her delivery is gamine and dry, within the realms of both Wet Leg and Jarvis Cocker’s louche quirkiness. She is a dab hand at innuendo-laden storytelling that meanders through tabloid headlines, double entendres and quick-witted takedowns. Her trippy, disjointed revelations (“I will risk slow death for Chinese spring roll”) were mostly improvised during recording.
New Long Leg was built from copious notes Shaw had scribbled to herself, during a period when she’d just broken up with her boyfriend. On Stumpwork, there’s a greater confidence to her delivery, which seems even wilder and weirder. The fatigue she’d felt, newly entering her 30s, when she was navigating their debut emanated from the expectations on her to prioritise potential motherhood and domesticity. On Stumpwork, Shaw gives the finger to all that, leaning into dark humour more so than the dourness of their debut. The ambling oddness of Shaw’s lyrics make sense when heard while walking through the urban environment. Shaw was taking long walks through flea markets and the streets of London, thinking and observing as she conjured up ideas.
The band recorded at Wales’ Rockfield Studios, where their debut album was knocked together with a sense of pandemic-lockdown urgency in two weeks. Producer and long-time PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish (Aldous Harding, Eels) returned, too. The formula worked on last year's impressive debut New Long Leg, except that they had the luxury of time for Stumpwork.
The foot-tap percussion and metallic, layered strum of guitar on Kwenchy Kups nods to PJ Harvey's sparser Parish-partnered ballads. But this album, for all its punk-surfer-art rock references, is purely Dry Cleaning. Shaw, guitarist Tom Dowse, drummer Nick Buxton, and bassist Lewis Maynard were fresh from touring New Long Leg, gelling as a four-piece within the immediate feedback loop of touring. The confidence they gained is tangible in the deeper, moodier textures: the wucka-wucka ooze of bass and bursts of fuzzy riffs on Hot Penny Day, or the noodling, reverb-soaked ambience of Driver’s Story that sits sonically between Sonic Youth, Pavement and Lush. Then, there's a cleaner, surfer garage vibe to Conservative Hell, in which we wonder what did happen to Shaw's Kindle in Edinburgh? The spangly echo of twin guitar loops and a distant, swampy saxophone is so intoxicating, the story just fades into the ether.
This sprawling, tender lucid dream of an album morphs into various shapes: angular and jagged, lush and distorted, Twin Peaks-esque surrealism, wistful and surrendering. Whether Shaw is proposing friendship or not, Stumpwork offers us more than enough. Cat Woods
Carly Rae Jepsen, The Loneliest Time ★★★★☆
So far, 2022 is shaping up to be a year of musical dichotomies. Maggie Rogers found ‘feral joy’ on Surrender, Beyoncé’s Renaissance managed to make listeners wiggle even while reminding us of the crushing weight of capitalism, and now, via The Loneliest Time, Carly Rae Jepsen sounds as if she’s singing about the many stages of heartbreak from a hairbrush at the best sleepover of her life. Frankly, whether you’re single and happy, taken and quite content, or miserably more alone than ever, each of The Loneliest Time’s 13 tracks has the stuff to make one feel as if they, too, got an invite.
“So I’ve been trying hard to open up,” the Canadian singer-songwriter - who broke through with the viral hit Call Me Maybe in 2012 – confides straight away on Surrender My Heart. A contemplative Jepsen wastes no time informing us she’s seeing someone. For one, a therapist, but also a new lover who she’s struggling to “soften up,” for. Her lyrics are simple, sure, but here they reflect a certain self-awareness one doesn’t always possess in the throes of grieving a breakup. Better yet, it remains consistent throughout as she vacillates between resignation (Beach House, a cynical good time) to hope (the funk-laden Sideways) to…well, as Rogers put it, a sort of feral joy (Joshua Tree, a mellow ode to California).
Autumn is known to be the season for change, thus, its release date – the peak of season characterised by its visible transitions – feels intentional. As a record, Time isn’t just a sonic heart-swell for listeners, it’s the latest shift for a singer-songwriter who seems as if she’s constantly stretching toward the most whole version of herself. And accompanied by dancey beats and post-breakup proverbs that ring so terribly true, healing isn’t easier, but it’s certainly made a little more fun. Pass the brush, Ms. Jepsen. Audra Heinrichs
Tegan and Sara, Crybaby ★★★★☆
Tegan and Sara are workhorses. Crybaby marks their 10th album in their 25 year strong career. It’s no small feat; we’ve seen artists that employ their signature confessional indie-pop disappear into dust after a few albums or break out singles, never to re-appear.
For Tegan and Sara, their prominence in the underground lasted years before they reached mainstream success. Many view The Con, their first record to chart as their masterpiece and following albums Sainthood and Heartthrob reached gold status in North American territories (the latter reached the UK top 40 in its first week).
2019’s Hey, I’m Just Like You was released in the belly of an indie-pop resurgence that unmistakably influenced by them, especially amongst their queer fans-cum artists who related to the band’s musings on the joys, fear and hope that comes with that identity – think Muna, Shamir and Shura, who all appeared on 2017’s The Con covers album
Though the twins are in their 40s, Crybaby deals with the emotions that made them relatable amongst the fans they made who were in their teens in the mid 00s: emotions that are often relegated to supposedly fleeting but intense adolescence. High School, the semi-autobiographical TV adaptation of their queer adolescence has just been released and acts as an apt accompaniment to Crybaby.
It’s in the name of the album’s urgent desperate opener I Can’t Grow Up; Faded Like A Feeling is tender and withdrawn – the perfect soundtrack for a sad scene in a high school Netflix drama. Take Under My Control: the perceptive refrain goes “I should start working on myself again / get these feelings that I feel within / under, under my control” alongside bopping, bright pop composition.
Though it is a sound that Tegan and Sara have owned for so long, John Congleton takes that to a new dimension; his unique ability to marry poppy hooks with indie rock sensibilities has made him one of the most sought-after producers for artists that sit between these genres.
Crybaby doesn’t depart from the roots that made them successful. At times, you can mistake the album for sounding like a compilation of their previous work. I Can’t Grow Up sounds so close to Back In Your Head for example. At best, its familiarity is warm and inviting for seasoned fans; for some it will feel lazily identical and lacking in ambition. But it’s an overwhelmingly powerful and energetic musing on the never-ending anxieties and strain of life that don’t leave just because you enter adulthood – exactly what keeps their fans coming back. Michelle Kambasha