Owl John (Atlantic)
A debut solo project by Frightened Rabbit frontman John Hutchinson, this may come as a bit of a surprise to those who got into the band’s last album with its anthemic, arena-friendly hybrid of The Hold Steady and Big Country. Not that there aren’t tracks that fit that bill, Two, the slow-building, air-punching Good Reason To Grow Old and the U2 meets REM echoes of Red Hand all tick the same boxes and adopt a similar hollow, echoey production, but opening number Cold Creeps, with its Joy Divisionish lengthy ambient treated guitar intro, revered vocals and rumbling percussion, immediately tells you this is music from another warren. The impression’s compounded with the clanking percussion, slow march rhythm and gnarly, blues guitar intro snarls of Hate Music’s venomous attack on the industry cycle sounding more like something off Pink Floyd. Likewise the Gabrielesque synths and industrial air to Don’t Take Off The Gloves with its shouts of ‘hey’ and the treated piano, puttering circular drum pattern and fuzzed over vocals of the closing Stupid Boy which addresses his disconnect from his new home in L.A.
The remaining tracks dial things down somewhat, Sounds About Roses a rippling, stripped back (but gradually building) bleak ballad that exposes Hutchinson’s raw nerves and defiantly Scottish accent, Ten Tons Of Silence transforming from an sparse, unsettling dank and leafy folk mood into a pulsing electronics crackling creature evoking Tubular Bells era Mike Oldfield while, one of the standouts, the no less emotionally sober, loneliness-themed Los Angeles Be Kind is a swelling stadium swayer with a Celtic anthem core. Hoots mon, indeed.
Coming Home (Renegade Maverick)
As their name might suggest, the Belfast trio are partial to a touch of Bruce in their stadium-friendly guitar-rock, throwing in splashes of Petty and REM filtered through the commercial alt-country influences of the likes of Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift signalled by the inclusion of banjo and mandolin. From this, you can pretty much surmise that they come loaded up with ringing guitar riffs, crowd-friendly hooks and choruses, the band wasting no time laying out their stall with the opening Calling You, frontman Tristan Harris revealing a dusty, wounded heart voice. The Pettyish Break The Chains follows suit, the band continuing the momentum with the Keith Urban feel of Still Coming Home To You and the punched up, rocking Highway To The Lost & Found which has more than a hint of Jason and the Scorchers to its blazing trail.
The country aspects take more of a back seat in the final stretch, Label Girl and Shadows On The Wall more in tune with staple swaggering American bar band rock (the latter even has a blueprint guitar solo), a rather dull REM-aping Man On The Moon giving way to the seven minute Return To The Moon which regroups and sees the album out in suitably big music epic manner. I don’t think they have sufficient individuality to break into the major leagues, but there’s more than enough here to command a decent, loyal following.
The band name of Brooklyn-based singer Michael Grubbs, this is the sort of radio-friendly piano-led pop that regularly crops up on American TV series, indeed, he’s a veteran of One Tree Hill episodes. That he cites Billy Joel and Elton John among early influences won’t raise many eyebrows when you hear the likes of All It Takes Is A Little Love with its whistling, clattering drum pattern and swathe of background voices, Through The Night’s steady synth-backed rhythm, the infectious clanky pop Wake Up (Lily, I Love You…), arms-linked anthemic crowd rouser Always And Forever, the Queen touches of Homeland and the big theatrical ballad drama of Anhedonia. There isn’t the necessary hit single here to gain him the necessary breakout attention (though a hi-nrg Salvation might go down well in 80s retro Eurodisco gay clubs), but there’s certainly plenty to start getting his name known.
As befits their name, Simon Nelson and Alice Hubley head up a math-pop quintet who share an affinity for weedy metronomic synth rhythms, Krautrock grooves and 60s avant garde pop. Rather optimistically, the PR blurb likens them to a cocktail of Love, the United States of America and Stereolab, none of whom they’re worthy of being mentioned alongside in the same chapter, let alone sentence. That said, while limited of range, Hubley has the sort of attractive matter-of-fact semi-spoken delivery you would have once heard in the psychedelic musical dance club sequences of 60s B-movies (at her best here on Walkaway and the Shangri-Las influenced Our Ghosts) while Nelson provides reedy nasal vocals for the toybox pop death of boyhood themed Lookout Mountain Drive and the instrumental pop-in-court sounds like the soundtrack to some forgotten kids 70s puppet space series. One of the synonyms for oscillation is vacillation, and as such you can probably take it or leave it.
The Seasons of Love (Reveal)
A New York power pop combo masterminded by Dave Derby, this is melodic, bright and bouncy with a wealth of brass flourishes, special guests Joan Wasser and Lloyd Cole (who sharing lead vocals on Beautiful Disguise), Tanya Donnelly providing back-ups on several others and guitar contributions from Cole’s son Will and Doug Gillard from Guides By Voices. To be honest, too much of its bristling sweetness and choppy, jaunty pop can prove a little wearing and a couple more less excessively arranged ballads like Playing With Fire (and the piano intro to The Night Is Your Only Friend) or the darker prowl of Thin might have alleviated the overstuffed feeling and relentless sunnyness.
The No-Hit Wonder (Bloodshot)
Back when he was starting out, the Mississippi born singer-songwriter's name used to crop up in the same sentence as Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst. That was in 2002, since when, despite consistently good albums, his name’s largely dropped out of the Americana lexicon. However, his Bloodshot debut, Mutt, got people talking again and the follow-up should boost the chatter considerably.
Referenced alongside Springsteen, John Mellencamp, John Prine and Dylan, he has a sharp pen and sucking on an ashtray sort of voice, his solid alt-country-punk braced with a strong melodic core and plenty of catchy riffs and hooks.
Joined by Jason Isbell on harmonies, with its twangy guitar and honky tonk piano You Make Me is a cracking opener to a set of 11 songs that’ll have the feet heading for the dance floor and the hands reaching for the beer glass. He’s not averse to the occasional ballad, evidenced here with the mid-tempo, lyrically disarming The Only You (“when she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be”), a moody desert parched All I Got And Gone and the closing, Prine-like acoustic steel string The Meantime Blues, but it’s when he turns up the punch that he’s at his most immediate.
Cases in point here include the kick-along title track tribute to workhorse jobbing musicians who never get the recognition they deserve on which he’s joined by the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge , a rockabilly Sour Mash with Scotty Moore-styled rock n roll guitar licks courtesy of Tim Easton, piano and pedal-steel laced honky tonker All The Rivers In Colorado featuring Caitlin Rose, Daddy Was A Songwriter which imagines Johnny Cash singing zydeco boogie and, again featuring Isbell, a country swaggering The Highway Home. And, just to ring the changes, C’Mon Shadow has him taking up ukulele for a vaudeville strum.
As the guest contributions show, he’s earned the admiration and respect of his peers. It’s well past time he earned yours too.
Long Road Home (Nusic Sounds)
Sitting out the McBusted venture, Simpson wisely (though his bank manager may feel differently) opts to focus on his second solo album, a worthy successor to Young Pilgrim which saw him venturing more into acoustic melodic pop after exorcising his rock ambitions with Fightstar. This is rather less stripped down, but still bursting with acoustic based folksy pop, liberally festooned with catchy hooks, infectious melodies and punchy choruses.
Kicking off with the shuffling, multi-harmony McCartneyesque title track and the bustling Comets, it’s apparent just how far he’s come vocally since the days of What I Go To School For, even if the latter does borrow the ‘hey’ shout off the Lumineers. Winter Hymns switches approach for a simple strummed acoustic number, sympathetically laced with strings, a mood revisited for the woodwind tinted Still Young that nods to early S&G. There’s even a hint of CS&N to the harmonies of piano backed mid-tempo ballad Emily.
Otherwise, the musical tone is generally upbeat, solidly represented by the likes of Ten More Days, Blood and, hinting at past rock excursions, Haunted before the album ends on the intricately arranged acoustic-orchestral Another Year, a track that firmly draws a line in the sand between the memories of his boyband youth and the man he has become.