Rock, December 2021

hfnalbum.pngBilly Bragg
The Million Things That Never Happened
Cooking Vinyl COOKCD802; LP: COOKLP802

They say the more you learn the less you know – or maybe that should be 'the more you keep enquiring'. Billy Bragg seems to think so, drolly describing the Internet as 'heroin for autodidacts'. And while he emerged in the '80s playing a pithy, politically charged punk-folk style, now he is more circumspect: 'Lonesome Ocean' finds him searching for resolution, or at least hope. There are country rock flavours and hints of mid-'60s electric Dylan, with Bragg's accent veering from Essex to Texas. He criticises heartless libertarianism on 'Freedom Doesn't Come For Free', and offers a positive alternative on the stoic, rough-hewn piano and mellotron ballad 'I Will Be Your Shield', which is one of his most affecting creations. MB


City Slang SLANG50366; LP: SLANG50366LP

Over the last 20 years, the Danish band have developed their characteristic approach of imaginative vocal arrangements over an intricate, shifting base of electric and acoustic instrumentation, from short songs to orchestral works. Here they strip back to electronics, keyboards and strings, producing their most accessible, poppiest set to date. Casper Clausen, joined by guest singer Karen Beldring, relishes this space, singing sweetly on the ballad 'Hold Me Close When You Can', while the lengthy closer 'Abent Sar' starts off with his falsetto over spacey keyboards before being transformed into a dance floor banger. MB


Howlin Rain
The Dharma Wheel
Silver Current SC47CD; LP: SC47

Gram Parsons coined the phrase 'Cosmic American music' to describe the mix of country and psychedelia played by The Flying Burrito Brothers in the '60s, and it's a good fit for West Coast combo Howlin Rain. Guitarist Ethan Miller has a seasoned, timeless voice and his songs hark back to the era of Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, but with a vision of the future where synths and his own unhinged guitar solos take flight alongside fiddle and pedal steel. The 16-minute title track opens with radiant piano lines and vocal harmonies before gearshifting into a clavinet groove (like the funky part of Pink Floyd's 'Echoes') and resolves in an epic finale. MB


Vanishing Twin
Ookii Gekkou

Ookii Gekkou is Japanese for 'big moonlight' and Vanishing Twin's third album occupies a strangely-lit dreamworld where nothing is quite as it seems. On 'Zuum', vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Cathy Lucas adds to the uncanny atmosphere, cooing rhetorically, 'Who am I? Do I want a human head?' over wobbly bass synth and sparse guitar chords. Their music overlaps stylistically with Broadcast and Stereolab, with hints of 1950s Exotica and retro-futurist sci-fi sounds, like arcade game bleeps and vocoders. But even at their most experimental they always display a light touch, particularly Valentina Magaletti's deft snare rolls and kit patterns. MB