Albums: Ash still making triumphant records; James Bay the sound of the summer
There's often a trepidation when bands of a certain vintage announce new material, with concerns over a misguided change of direction or an unimaginative regurgitation of the tried-and-tested old formula. But there is nothing to fear on Islands, the seventh studio album from Downpatrick natives Ash, which grafts a healthy dose of the old on to the new. Fans of Trailer and 1977-era Ash will have their cockles warmed by the punk-infused Buzzkill, while Confessions In The Pool offers a slice of indie disco. There are flavours of Weezer and the Arctic Monkeys, but the overall sound is unmistakably Ash – out on their own, still making triumphant records.
It's been three years since James Bay crashed on to the music scene with his debut album Chaos and the Calm and single Hold Back The River, which seems to have been just about everywhere ever since. The crooner for the hipster generation has now released his second studio album and has stepped away from the acoustic guitars and into a room of mellow soul and rousing gospel voices. Wasted on Each Other opens up with a dirty guitar riff, his distinctive smooth soul sound soars over the top. Pink Lemonade is going to be summer radio fodder, with a light beat, 1980s-style pop rock guitars keep the track fizzing. Wanderlust is a grower, there is more than a hint of Fleetwood Mac lurking under the melody. Bay is growing as an artist and within the constraints of Electric Light he has embraced his influences. If you are looking for a eclectic piece of fun this is it. It should certainly be on your soundtrack to this summer.
Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks
At 51, deep into his career, Stephen Malkmus is still untangling the secrets of songwriting while toying with the listener, unleashing fresh barrages of lyrical non-sequiturs and lexical contortion. And on this seventh record since his old band Pavement split in 1999, the California-born Portland resident teases many a cryptic verse, bolstered by ever-catchy hooks, glam-rock detours and the intricate guitar noodling that Jimi Hendrix and Television records first drew from the young Malkmus. Now an underground indie-rock elder, harnessed to the Jicks for over 15 years, the dissenter in Malkmus also emerges on Sparkle Hard. That is most obvious on Bike Lane, when he juxtaposes middle-class self-congratulation with the high-profile tragic death in police custody of a black Baltimore man Freddie Gray three years ago. Malkmus is later joined by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon for the countrified stomp of Refute, a playful meeting of incorrigibly creative minds, as this highly rewarding album nears its close.
Tell Me How You Really Feel
Courtney Barnett's 2015 debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was an instant slacker rock classic, so fans of that one will be delighted to know her second solo record sings very much to the same tune. Slow burning opener Hopefulessness is perhaps a signal of her growing ambition, taking a simple Yo La Tengo-esque hook and building it to, if not epic, then at least noticeably more dramatic proportions than we'd naturally associate her with. But though it's similarly docile in tempo to that first album, Barnett's follow-up does lack some of the comic cynicism of the likes of Elevator Operator or Depreston. That's not to say it's without its sharp edges: Nameless, Faceless is a withering riposte to those who might scoff at the #MeToo movement. Closer Sunday Roast couldn't really be a more apt microcosm of what you get with Barnett; perfectly capturing that lazy-thoughtful, shades-on-indoors, lunchtime-after-the-night-before vibe she's perfected to an art.
Part Of The Light
With musicality as rich and elegant as his second name, Ray LaMontagne's seventh album Part Of The Light is an exciting wander through several genres. From soul to folk to rock, via a few tracks that sound a little Beatles and Bowie-esque, the Grammy-winning American singer-songwriter has produced a small but mighty collection that only gets better as you tick off each track. LaMontagne's gravelly vocals stand up against the whining guitar riffs and seductively soul-scouring sounds of stand-out track As Black As Blood Is Blue, which conjures images of being in a sweaty, swaying gig venue – in the best possible way, of course. Let's Make It Last offers up a more tuneful, harmonic and ethereal vibe, while No Answer Arrives is a track reeking of old-school rock influence, framing LaMontagne's weathered but wonderful voice. Rousing, emotive, chunky closer Goodbye Blue Sky will have you reaching to press play and listen to it all over again, right away.