Simon Says: Then Five Come Along At Once [Album Round-Up]

on Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Words: Simon Opie

Yes that’s right, just like buses 2014 bursts into life with five albums worth checking out so straight to business with some mini reviews - including the return of The Black Keys and side projects from members of Super Furry Animals and Black Mountain.

Gruff Rhys – 'American Interior'

I was recently involved in a Facebook string that started by proposing that the Super Furry Animals’ five album sequence ending with 'Hey Venus!' is the 00’s decade’s all time best five consecutive albums. Who’s to say that’s not right? (Well, quite a lot of people did try actually.) Anyway, SFA’s frontman Gruff Rhys has been occupied with a rather distinctive solo career in this current decade.

'American Interior' is his second concept-based album that is also a film and it’s really rather good. Based on a story of a nineteenth century welsh pioneer exploring the US and connecting with native American tribes, it is both unusual and strangely engrossing. In parts reminiscent of Peter Buck’s (from REM) Baseball Project, it features quite conventional song formats with just enough twist. It’s thoroughly entertaining.

Must hear: 'American Interior', 'Year Of The Dog'
Rating: 3.5/5

The Black Keys – 'Turn Blue'

When people ask if I like The Black Keys, generally I say I used to. I don’t think this album is going to change that response but it is a bold attempt to colonise new ground. Continuing the partnership with Danger Mouse as producer it certainly moves along at a brisk pace, but maybe it leaves too much of the history of the band too far behind. There isn’t even any guitar playing to speak of until the 10th and penultimate track, and track 11 is the first to feature Pat Carney’s familiar and welcome thump. But it certainly deserves commendation for bravery.

Must hear: 'In Our Prime', 'Gotta Get Away'
Rating: 3/5

Pink Mountaintops – 'Get Back'

This is Stephen McBean of Black Mountain's other band. He is a major talent who I think deserves far greater recognition, and his discography is quite stunningly good. 'Get Back' is no exception, being a gritty, rock and roll observation on modern life, getting oh so slightly older and the corrosive effects of responsibility. I’m sure The Hold Steady will understand those sentiments. It’s done with equal mixtures of grace and rebellion and reinforces McBean’s status as one of rock music’s most authentic voices.

Must hear: 'Ambulance City', 'Sell Your Soul', 'The Last Dance'
Rating: 4/5

The Hold Steady – 'Teeth Dreams'

The Hold Steady have been anything but in recent years as their output has seen a steady decline from the heady heights of 'Separation Sunday' and 'Boys And Girls In America'. 'Teeth Dreams' just about arrests the fall from grace with a nice development of their sound seemingly due to the addition of a second guitarist, Steve Selvidge, to the band.

The extra dimension allows the songs more breathing space and steers them gently away from stadium rock territory. Under the circumstances this is probably the best album that The Hold Steady could have made – and that’s the most anyone could ask.

Must hear: 'On With the Business', 'Almost Everything'
Rating: 3/5

Swans – 'To Be Kind'

Michael Gira certainly matches Stephen McBean in the talent stakes and I would rate him a true genius whose output stretching back to 1983’s 'Filth' has been consistently outstanding. 2010’s Swans comeback album 'My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky' was magnificent and although 2012’s 'The Seer' wasn’t my favourite Swans album, 'To Be Kind' is absolutely right on the money.

The new album has an intensity and spirit of adventure that makes its 10 tracks and almost two hours of music an utterly compelling listen. The core of the album might be the 34 minute long 'Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture' but there’s no wasted effort throughout the collection of visceral, mostly love songs. Beautifully engineered and recorded by John Congleton, this is quite awesomely good.

Must hear: 'Oxygen', 'To Be Kind', 'A Little God In My Hands', 'Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture'
Rating: 4.5/5

Find more from Simon at @nxgater.

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