Every week we guide you through the biggest albums, to help you decide what you should be streaming. This week: Californian folk via Syria, dance music to cuddle to, and “sad bangers” from a pop superstar…
With her 2017 self-titled debut, Bedouine’s Azniv Korkejian marked herself as one of the most distinctive voices in modern folk. Her simple, string-assisted songs of longing and her relaxing burr of a voice hid a fascinating blend of influences, having decamped to California from Syria.
Korkejian’s first album was gorgeous, but like many debuts it felt like a collection of songs rather than a body of work, which is something that her more confident sophomore effort addresses with ease. On Bird Songs of a Killjoy, she puts that wonderful album title to work, exploring themes of freedom, loss and sadness poetically described with rich images of flora and fauna. “Don’t have much to say, I just trade the day for the dark,” she sighs on ‘Sunshine Sometimes’, longing for a lover she nicknames Wildflower. Similarly on opener ‘Under the Night’, she finds herself missing “your night sky, black and tired” and looks to run “faster than the clouds on a windblown dawn.” With a total of three songs including the word ‘bird’ in the title, these are themes that binds the album perfectly.
Despite the lyrical treasure that runs over on …Killjoy, musically the record can feel a little disappointing on first listen. As perfectly produced as tracks like ‘Bird’, ‘Matters of the Heart’ and ‘One More Time’ are—with those light strings washing in over the intimately recorded guitar picking, providing support without pomp or circumstance—it’s occasionally hard to see much forward movement from the previous record.
That’s where tracks like ‘Echo Park’, ‘Tall Man’ and, best of all, ‘Dizzy’ step forward, less soothing than other tracks (despite the presence of Korkejian’s sweeter take on Leonard Cohen’s voice), with arrangements left-of-centre and woozy. In these moments, the album clearly recalls the psychedelic folk coming out of the West Coast in the dying days of the 1960s: darker, more emotionally complex and willing to take risks. The album’s delightful, but these are the most exciting indications of where Korkejian could be heading next.
While Bedouine is breaking through the fringes, one man who does not suffer from a lack of ubiquity is uber-producer Mark Ronson. Last time we saw him, he was enjoying the fruits of globe-swallowing hit single Uptown Funk, and its 70s inspired parent album, 2015’s Uptown Special.
After the party we find him coming down on Late Night Feelings, which he describes as a collection of “sad bangers”. In the wake of a difficult time for the DJ, including a well-publicised divorce, the record finds Ronson searching the depths of his soul, exploring melancholia and complex emotions over a hard-hitting modern pop production. Like all Ronson solo albums, it’s a mixed bag depending entirely on the quality of his guest stars, who fluctuate wildly in how successfully the capture the mood the producer is trying to get across.
There are moments on here that easily equal his very best work: Lykke Li is his perfect partner here, cropping up on ‘2AM’ and the swooning title track, The Last Artful, Dodgr’s hip hop turn on ‘Truth’ sets the record into a higher gear, and the Angel Olson-assisted ‘True Blue’ could be a Tango in the Night-era Fleetwood Mac offcut. Best of all, proving once and for all that Ronson is the king of singles, ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’, captures his aim perfectly, with a genuine soaring chorus and powerhouse vocals from Miley Cyrus.
In weaker moments, however, the 80s style production (why does everyone seem to think the 80s were the only decade that produced great pop music?) is generic, while vocalists such as Camila Cabelo and a heavily-autotuned Ilsey fail to stand out against the other powerful women around them.
Unlike Mark Ronson, Hot Chip are a band with previous when it comes to emotional pop. Now, after 2015’s meditative Why Make Sense?, they return with the more upbeat and immediate A Bathfull of Ecstasy.
Aside from being cheeky and provocative, the title points towards the optimistic sounds found within, every bit as bright and colourful as the artwork designed by Jeremy Deller. In fact, it’s such a confident, positive album, there’s even a track called ‘Positive’, which reminds us the difference a little kindness can make to our fellow man—a good indication of Hot Chip’s present headspace.
It’s also their most diverse album to date: tracks like vibrant opener ‘Melody of Love’, ‘Clear Blue Skies’ and ‘No God’ feel like euphoric house explosions from late 90s Ibiza; ‘Echo’ and ‘Positive’ ring out with Phoenix-style indie synths; while ‘Spell’ brings 80s bouncy basslines to the party that Grace Jones would be proud of. They’re not quite the dancefloor bangers of ‘Over and Over’ or ‘Ready for the Floor’, but they certainly feel good all the same. Quieter moments like the thoughtful ‘Hungry Child’ help to stop it all getting a bit overwhelming, with a longing that represents a welcome change of pace.
And of course, Alexis Taylor’s voice is as achingly emotional as ever, grounding the neon fantasies perfectly. The XX might have perfected Hot Chip’s “crying on the dancefloor” sound, but A Bathfull of Ecstasy is proof incarnate that these pop masters still have something to say in our troubled times.
Bird Songs of a Killjoy by Bedouine: 4/5
Late Night Feelings by Mark Ronson: 3/5
A Bathfull of Ecstasy by Hot Chip: 4/5