Statler: Well, it was good.
Waldorf: Ah, it was very bad.
Statler: Well, it was average.
Waldorf: Ah, it was in the middle there.
Statler: Ah, it wasn’t that great.
Waldorf: I kind of liked it.”
-‘The Muppet Show’.
I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries. I buy music for the CD & Vinyl collections, and also run the Libraries’ Wellington Music Facebook page). My Music Specialist colleague Sam, and Fiction Specialist (and avid music fan) Neil, join me every month to cast an eye over the new material we have been buying for the music collection at our CBD Te Awe library. We pick out some interesting titles across a range of music genres, and try to limit our reviews to a few lines only. Can we encapsulate an entire album in just a couple of lines? [Ed. This is probably unlikely at this point]. Do we actually know anything about new music? Or, are we just too old to understand what most of this is banging on about? [Ed. This is more than likely]. Read on to find out…
Messy / Dean, Olivia
Mark Says: ‘Messy’ is the debut album from East London’s Olivia Dean, another graduate of the famed Brit School. The hazy bedroom pop of vocoder opener ‘UFO’, perhaps gives the album a bit of a lo-fi expectation, but the rest of the album is very polished production wise, perhaps a little too much in places. Shades of Motown, the retro soul of Joss Stone, and the production & vocal techniques that reference a lot of 2010’s Neo-Soul, with some smokey Jazz touches. She has a great voice, and it’s mature-confessional-pop of the highest order. Some dead spots may mean it works better as a long EP than a full album.
Sam Says: ‘Messy’ may be Olivia Dean’s first full-length offering, however it displays a sense of musical versatility and vision that could easily be attributed to a more experienced artist. Released earlier this year, the album has already made waves in the UK scene and has even been shortlisted for the 2023 Mercury Prize. Musically, it is firmly rooted in the stylings of neo-soul, with a highly tangible sense of mainstream appeal. In saying that, Dean’s boldly creative approach comfortably sets her apart from many of her contemporaries. Containing twelve tracks over a mere thirty-five minutes, despite its title, ‘Messy’ is a neat and concise affair, with little room for filler. It will be interesting to see where Dean leads as her career develops.
Calling / Cherise
Mark Says: More mellow Neo-soul from Cherise, with her debut album ‘Calling’. Lot’s of vintage soul & Pop-Jazz stylings in the Corrine Bailey Rae/Lianne La Havas mould. She has already collaborated with Gregory Porter & featured on ‘Blue:Note Reimagined II’, reinterpreting Norah Jones’ Sunrise, along with appearing on Downton Abbey: A New Era, and on its companion soundtrack, covering Ethel Waters’s Am I Blue?. Fun & nostalgia, are the themes on this promising debut.
To be cruel / Khanate
Sam Says: Khanate was formed as a drone-metal supergroup over twenty years ago featuring members of legendary heavy experimental acts Sunn O))) and OLD. They forged an impressive discography throughout the 2000s before disbanding near the end of the decade. Now almost fifteen years later they have made a return with their fifth studio album, entitled ‘To Be Cruel’. Featuring thick layers of guitar drones/feedback, thunderous drums played at glacial-paced tempos and tortured vocals, ‘To Be Cruel’ certainly lives up to its name with its intentionally ugly, oppressive atmosphere. The album contains three tracks spread across an hour, giving it space to revel in its own darkness. A truly harrowing listen that will appeal to those who enjoy a bit of discomfort within their music.
Prestige / Girl Ray
Mark Says: For ‘Prestige’, their third album, London indie trio Girl Ray abandon their C-86-style indie pop and bring the disco ball back for a homage to queer dance-pop, full of infectious grooves and cheesy synth lines. The concept was that they imagined themselves as the house band at an imaginary nightclub called ‘Prestige’. A bit like if Tracy Thorn’s band Marine Girls had made an 80s club album.
I am not there anymore / Clientele
Mark Says: The Clientele are a UK indie-pop guitar trio fronted by singer/guitarist Alasdair MacLean. They have been around since the 90s, more successful in the US than most UK, as they are signed to Superchunk’s Merge label. Latest album, ‘I am not there anymore’, is more of an experimental pop/psychedelic pop mix with warm pastoral, summery songs, taking their influence from Donovan, The Zombies, The High Llamas & 60s psych. Gentle songs about love & loss pull through threads of an autumnal elegiac nature. Acclaimed by critics as their best and most ambitious album this will no doubt make plenty of Best of 2023 lists.
Sam Says: Having been in existence for over three decades, enigmatic British indie-rockers Clientele return in 2023 with their seventh full-length effort, entitled ‘I am Not There Anymore’. Having been in production for over three years, it is a work of large proportions, with much to digest and enjoy over the nineteen tracks spanning a little over an hour. Instrumentally, it draws from a wide palette, featuring subtly lush string and horn arrangements alongside an assortment of acoustic instruments and electronic percussive loops, giving it a feel that seems nostalgic to both 1960s pop and 1990s alternative music. The writing is thoughtful and varied, with the more typical songs being broken up by intriguing experimental interludes. All this makes for an overall weighty, yet thoroughly engaging listen.
Black rainbows / Rae, Corinne Bailey
Mark Says: For the outsize influence she’s had on the template of the Neo-Soul genre it would be easy to assume a prolific discography, but this is only Corinne Bailey-Rae’s 4th album over the course of a 17 year career. Now on an indie label, it’s been hailed as a bit of an artistic renaissance, apparently inspired by an exhibition on Black history by artist Theaster Gates in the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago that she attended. Gone are the patented soul trappings, instead the album delivers a multi-genre stew of electric guitars, jagged electronics, funky future R&B, squally saxophones and distorted vocals, delivering up a politically bent conceptual howl at the injustices perpetrated on black people. Having begun her music career in an all-girl punk band, this seems very much a personal return to an artistic core.
The harmony codex / Wilson, Steven
Sam Says: Steven Wilson is well regarded as one of the most prolific and influential figures in modern progressive rock. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he forged successful careers with several musical entities (most notably prog-rock/metal titans Porcupine Tree), while in more recent years he has put more focus into his solo work. Having shifted into a more pop-oriented direction on his last two efforts, his seventh album ‘The Harmony Codex’ sees him highlighting all parts of his career, reclaiming his more complex progressive creative tendencies, whilst retaining the more accessible elements of his recent work. As with any Wilson-related release, the production is fantastic, with rock instrumentals and lush electronics melding together in a cohesive way. Overall, ‘The Harmony Codex’ is a creatively comfortable and mature work and will easily appeal to fans of Wilson’s previous work in its various forms.
Ebony Lamb / Lamb, Ebony
Mark Says: Local star Ebony Lamb (of Eb & Sparrow) strikes out on her own with her debut solo album on Nadia Reid’s label Slow Time Records. A smooth, warm, intimate, analogue sounding production expands the sound palette and lyrical themes of her previous band, who amicably parted ways in 2018, after an EP & 3 full-length albums. Impressionistic songs are built around jazzy psych-folk and moody alt-country, delving into coping with the complexities of relationships between friends, parents and children, the shifting uncertainty of the modern world and the strength of connections. Reminded me a bit of the latest Mitski album in places. A great leap forward artistically, and obviously just the beginning of her new music journey.