Somehow it’s already March and racks everywhere are flooding with new releases and reissues. This week, amongst other things, we’re looking at a triumphant return, an album recorded live with 20 session musicians, and a trio of reissues from a post-Britpop band… 

Cornershop

Cornershop – England Is A Garden 
8/10

Despite this being Cornershop’s first regular album for 11 years, there’s no evidence of the struggles to make fresh music the duo discuss elsewhere this issue. Instead, England Is A Garden has the same brave, go-anywhere spirit as When I Was Born For The 7th Time and Handcream For A Generation. The consistent thread is a defiance, both musically and lyrically, with a fabulously sleazy feel to I’m A Wooden Soldier and No Rock: Save In Roll made all the stronger by Tjinder Singh’s typically understated delivery. The determinedly pop spirit is also present in Everywhere That Wog Army Roam, making Singh’s cautionary tale of police harassment all the more unsettling when told over Archies-style cartoon pop. Ironically for a record that’s taken its time to be made, England Is A Garden works because this is pop music that sounds so effortless.

Traditional Techniques

Stephen Malkmus – Traditional Techniques
8/10

After his brief foray into electronic music, via 2019’s Groove Denied, Stephen Malkmus continues his voyage down roads less travelled on his latest album. It’s one that is again without his band the Jicks and finds Malkmus continuing to steer clear of the indie alt-rock that many know and love him for. This time, he’s making what is referred to as “new phase folk music for new phase folks”.

The guitar returns to his palette this time, but the tones around it continue to feel like new explorations: there’s an Eastern flair to the gently plucked opener ACC Kirtan, which begins the album in a heady, immersive and subtly enveloping way. This style appears on tracks such as Shadowbanned too, which also manages to squeeze in some electronics and flute to create a kind of twisted Middle Eastern folk music. There’s also heavy lashings of pedal steel – as on the quietly sweeping and country-tinged Signal Western – and woodwind elsewhere too, alongside some more stripped-back moments when Malkmus’ distinctive voice is supported largely by soft acoustic guitar.

It’s a record that is serene and minimal, but it’s also ambitious and broad, containing some of Malkmus’ most pleasingly distinct music post-Pavement. For those hoping for a record teeming with fuzz guitar and wonky melody, you may be let down, but if you’re enjoying following Malkmus on his current winding and unpredictable path, it’s yet another rewarding sidestep on that journey.

US Girls

US Girls – Heavy Light 
7/10

Hitting play on Meg Remy’s latest, and seventh, release you would be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally put on an Al Green record. 4 American Dollars possesses such an immediate and rich warmth in its tone that it feels like being transplanted back into the golden age of 1970s soul. The recording approach that Remy has taken for the album is also one that mirrors the methods used during that time – it was recorded live with 20 session musicians, including E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons. However, a throwback album this isn’t.

Whilst rooted in classic songcraft, the album unfolds in a more contemporary fashion, as Remy delves deep into personal introspection – often accompanied by piano and subtle yet sweeping accompaniments. Advice To Teenage Self perhaps most perfectly captures where Remy is at right now, mining her past and life for reflection and perspective. This applies to some of the songs, too – with three tracks being reworked and previously released songs: Statehouse (It’s A Man’s World), Red Ford Radio and Overtime. The original woozy lo-fi pop charm of Statehouse (It’s A Man’s World) from 2011 is turned into a more polished and fleshed-out number, as choral-like vocals and a Ronettes drum beat coalesce over a wash of noise before it dies in under two minutes. It’s this approach that feels emblematic of the album as a whole, less a rebirth or revolution and more a considered evolution of her past self.

Moby

Moby – All Visible Objects
7/10

It has got to be frustrating being Moby: Dance guru, gifted writer, photographer, vegan restaurant owner, festival curator and creator of 16 studio albums, but when faced with another release, all anyone thinks is it’ll never do as well as Play. Then again, maybe it’s not so bad; he doesn’t need the money after all. For the last 10 years, he’s been donating all music profits to animal and human rights organisations. Lead single Power Is Taken, featuring a preachy vocal loop of Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro, suggests that All Visible Objects might be an uphill struggle, but the majority of the rest features the signature Moby sound of euphoric synth pads, four to the floor beats and any number of yearning vocal samples. Listeners can relax, knowing they’re in safe hands.

Disq

Disq – Collector
8/10

The best slacker album in at least 20 years, the Wisconsin five-piece do a better job of sounding like Pavement than Stephen Malkmus has in a long while. Although Daily Routine and Trash are perfect careless rock, there’s a whole lot more going on here than just Juno fantasies. Collector also encompasses Weezer power-pop, Beck funk and, on I Wanna Die, the type of arrestingly powerful ballad that would be hailed as a late-period masterpiece if Neil Young released it. Isaac deBroux-Slone and Raina Bock’s lifelong friendship has honed Disq’s deceptively taut playing, but their other recent recruits have added intrigue, too: guitarist Logan Severson’s Gentle twinkles brightly among the grunge. If Disq can keep it together among all their numerous side-projects, they could become something truly special.

Embrace

Embrace – The Good Will Out/Drawn From Memory/If You’ve Never Been 
7/10

Striding confidently into the gap left by The Verve’s implosion, Embrace’s debut was one of the great post-Britpop albums, with strong ballads everywhere you look. It lived up to the hype, and the likes of Fireworks and All You Good Good People remain essential singalongs. The cartoon artwork hinted the band wanted to vary the mix second time around on Drawn From Memory, with guitarist Richard McNamara taking over vocals on quirky, Gomez-ish lead single Hooligan. The musical adventurousness baffled the public, and third album If You’ve Never Been tried far too hard to repeat the terrace anthem formula. It remains easily Embrace’s worst record to date. Finally back on vinyl after over 20 years, the first two are well worth investing in; while If You’ve Never Been is strictly for collectors.

Manchester Calling

Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – Manchester Calling
8/10

Initially intended to be a double album in honour of The Clash’s London Calling, the former Beautiful South singers’ fourth joint record shakes up their trademark wry storytelling pop. Producer Dub Phizix adds a ska energy to New York Ivy, while House Party 2 has a mellow trance keyboard under Abbott’s tale of a has-been popster on the prowl. Even the songs on familiar territory are twisted, with Heaton’s daughter Maisie a great new foil on the terrible clubbing saga The Outskirts Of The Dancefloor. At its core, Manchester Calling remains sumptuous pop music with a lyrical eye for detail. But, with regular producer John Williams also varying the template, Manchester Calling is a pair triumphing outside their comfort zone.

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