Album Reviews: Ty Segall, Clairo

Every week we guide you through the biggest albums, to help you decide what you should be streaming. This week: umpteenth release from a cult psych rocker, and luminous sad-pop from viral Massachusetts…

A ten month gap between studio albums is nothing these days, but for San Francisco’s Ty Segall it’s practically a lifetime. This is the man who managed to put out three LPs and umpteen singles in 2018, so the psych-rock guitar whizz is nothing if not prolific.

But for First Taste, his 14th solo record since 2008 no less, the guitar has been put aside, and instead he has set himself the challenge of creating music with unfamiliar instruments. The result is certainly his most experimental to date, but it’s not always the easiest of listens. The title feels ironic: this is not the place for newcomers to start.

On some its best moments, First Taste carries over the Black Sabbath heft and Tame Impala melodies, but the new element here is a dive into Fun House-era Stooges noise rock, an eardrum-cracking mix that renders the likes of ‘Whatever’ and ‘I Worship the Dog’ as near impenetrable. The attitude of these tracks take the same cues as Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR, but lacks the feeling of being overwhelmed that makes that album such a powerful experience.

Luckily, each of these headache-creating nightmares is followed by the album’s sweetest moments. The acapella ‘Ice Plants’ follows the psychedelic pile driver of ‘Whatever’ and, despite some bizarre lyrical imagery (“Say hello to the oranges that used to be my driveway”) and the fact it sounds like the Fifth Dimension being played in the wrong key, comes as an enormous relief. The same can be said of ‘The Arms’, a gorgeous mandolin-assisted little number that features an actual melody at its core.

Segall’s brand of psychedelia and the sheer number of records he puts out keeps him at music’s fringes and the divisive nature of First Taste is unlikely to change that. The experimental nature of the music here is impressive, but quite why you’d want a second dip without the help of mind-altering drugs is hard to ascertain.

With a clutch of early singles and plenty of buzz on social media, lo-fi indie popper Clairo (aka Massachusetts native Claire Cottrill) has already amassed a bigger following than Seagall before hitting the age of 20. A viral sensation thanks to the homemade video for ‘Pretty Girl’ (37 million views at time of writing) released two years ago might make her easy to dismiss, but any concerns that she’s yet another short lived YouTube star are quickly scuppered by her impressive debut album Immunity.

There’s definitely a bigger sense of scale here, but beneath the glossy, epic pop surface lies the beating heart of a young woman with ideas and thoughts to burn. Adolescent self-doubt and anxiety are perfectly captured in the straightforward song craft on display, asking “Is it alright to feel this way so early?” (‘Softly’) to dealing with the minefield of unrequited love in your teens (“It’s so confusing,” she sighs on ‘Impossible’). As it happens, the deeply personal nature of her lyrics make the tracks feel universe, in the same way that great coming-of-age movies speak to anyone who’s ever been young.

But while Clairo is the star, the real trump card is ex-Vampire Weekend-er Rostam Batmanglij, on board as producer and co-writer. Cottrill has said that Rostam worked with her to “expand” the songs for the album, and that can be heard from the very first notes on opener ‘Alewife’, which sweeps in with reverb-drenched piano rolls and clattering drums making everything enormous. It should sound worryingly like Imagine Dragons, but Clairo’s early XX, almost mumbling singing style alongside it ensures that there’s still an emotional punch at the bottom of it.

Elsewhere, Batmanglij sticks to the old ABBA model of marrying lyrical confusion and heartbreak to joyful instrumentation. ‘North’, in particular, is euphoric, chasing after a nervy lover over a strong melody powered by Pavement-esque guitars. ‘Bags’ and ‘Softly’ repeat the trick over late-90s beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a TLC record, but there’s no doubt that the best is saved for last: the one-two punch of ‘Sinking’ and ‘I Wouldn’t Ask You’, both of which tackle the ill health that has affected her young life thus far. “Does it make me weak?” she asks candidly on the former, her voice sounding clear and strong for the first time. The latter continues the theme before breaking out into a more positive final minute or so, children’s choir backing her call that “we’ll be alright”. These two tracks make for an extraordinary ten minutes of modern pop music.

The only real mis-steps occur with auto-tune on tracks like ‘Closer to You’, masking and muddying the emotions conveyed on the album’s finer moments. While Clairo might not quite have the hooks of Sigrid or the experimentation of Lykke Li, if she can continue to deliver songs of substance likes these as she grows, we could have something very special here.

First Taste by Ty Segall: 3/5

Immunity by Clairo: 4/5

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