Coy, tentative, coquettish, uncertain, yet utterly overwhelmingly wonderful. The debut from American songwriter Lucy Dacus, 2016’s No Burden, was a disarmingly sweet and vulnerable entrance into the world of not-folk. She bared all and you wanted to hold her and keep her safe from the shitty world that is.
Third album in, and she’ll be just fine, thank you.
Home Video is a stunningly confident collection of songs from the artist, recalling Liz Phair without the antagonism (not an insult, by the way), Kate Bush without the full flamboyancy, while still displaying a soft inside, a nostalgic goo and a crunchy shell. The record, arguably her finest and one of the finest released in 2021, is a straight-ahead sweet pop selection of left-of-centre songwriting. Out of her shell and into the next stratosphere, Dacus is still as huggable as she originally was, but also deserving some high-fives along the way.
— Mike Bell
New Long Leg
“Things come to the brain,” frontwoman Florence Shaw deadpans on this debut album by South London quartet Dry Cleaning, then shares some of those things: “I just want to tell you I’ve got scabs on my head. It’s useless to live. I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours.”
New Long Leg is a startling, unpredictable and frequently funny record for many reasons; most notably for Shaw’s blank yet withering way she speak-sings (sounding like Apple’s Siri in British condescension mode) and the fractured logic of her non-sequitur lyrics. Yes, comparisons to Mark E. Smith would be apt.
Shaw’s bandmates invigorate her wordplay with post-punk fantasia: bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton lay down driving, dubby rhythms that split the difference between Joy Division and Young Marble Giants, while catchy, angular riffs pour out of guitarist/keyboardist Tom Dowse, bringing a lot of musicality to the proceedings.
An audacious opening gambit, although I can’t help but wonder: what does Dry Cleaning do for an encore that will be this fresh and original?
— DAVID VEITCH
The Devil’s Playground
After 16 months of tribulation, including recurring pandemic shutdowns of his much-loved Mikey’s Juke Joint and a fire that claimed his Turner Valley home, the sun is finally shining for songwriter and sax king Mike Clark with the release of Devil’s Playground. The album’s 10 songs breeze in with the Clark-penned Cruisin’ followed by a jaunty take on Allen Toussaint’s classic Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley. That sets the tone for an album that is almost stubbornly upbeat, as if to finally kick the crap outta, well, crap.
Michael Emerson of Tommy Castro & The Painkillers spreads deft production, thick and rich, over the songs, augmenting Clark’s originals and tunes by Mark Knopfler and Little Feat’s Paul Barrere among others. Lovely, lilting organ and, of course, super-sized horns step out and then lay back amongst soulful guitar and vocals. A highlight is the album’s closer, a cover of Ralph Boyd Johnson’s Water to the River, which wraps up the album in the style to which it’s become accustomed.
— Mary-Lynn Wardle
Of Declan O’Rourke’s previous two records, one reimagined his songs for a 50-piece orchestra; the other was a song cycle about the Great Irish Famine played by some of the top names in Irish traditional music.
The Dublin singer-songwriter’s eighth and latest refrains from such bold strokes, opting instead for the power of personal stories, intimately told. Longtime fan Paul Weller produces and aims for simplicity, occasionally complementing Rourke’s acoustic guitar and his deep, expressive brogue with a string quartet, organ, piano and vibes. (Fans of Weller’s 2018 LP True Meanings might recognize the approach.)
The lovely, unfussy arrangements are well-suited for songs in which O’Rourke describes a family reuniting for a funeral (the title track), mulls the tension at the heart of many father-son relationships (Zeus and Apollo), takes stock of his childhood dreams (In Painters’ Light), reflects on the struggles of his friends (The Harbour, Andy Sells Coke), and embraces experiences shared across many generations of a family (The Stars Over Kinvara).
He even makes his anti-war songs personal, with Have You Not Heard the War is Over noting, “every flag looks the same, least to dead men and women and children,” and Olympian recounting the harrowing yet heroic story of Yusra Mardini, a member of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team at the 2016 Summer Games.
On the surface, Arrivals may seem like a pared-down record for O’Rourke, but melody, wisdom and humanity are certainly in abundance here.
— DAVID VEITCH
The Golden Casket
We want that release.
We want the freedom that we took for granted, and we want to feel it expressed by those who were maybe a little more controlled or, not staid, but focussed, pre our past situation.
Holy hell, veteran alt-rock outfit Modest Mouse have gone all in, with their post(?)-pandemic release The Golden Casket, a cordially aggressive stack of tracks, that provide that streaker-esque secondary outlet, where we can watch, amused, and diving hard into the world we’re escaping, the digital world we escaped into. When we were escaping from.
MM will give you the guidance, an outlet, an escape and an expression of defiance and acceptance. Wonderful stuff.
— Mike Bell
(Main photo courtesy Ebru Yildiz.)