By Spencer. This week, we look at some late summer music picks that veer toward the more contemplative side. Michael Kiwanuka, Lisa Hannigan, and Haley Bonar bring us singer/songwriter fare with a serious side, while Glass Animals and Margaret Glaspy more than deliver on the fun.
Michael Kiwanuka – Love And Hate: Michael Kiwanuka’s debut, Home Again, was my favorite album of 2012, and since then, my affection for it has only grown; it’s one of the go-to albums in my vinyl collection, thanks to its pitch-perfect recreation of classic 60s soul. But when you’re known primarily as a vintage throwback artist, how do you move forward? Kiwanuka found the obvious answer in plain sight, skipping ahead a decade on his ambitious follow-up, Love And Hate. It’s a masterful blend of 70s R&B and folk, drawing upon the sounds of Bill Withers, Otis Redding, and Curtis Mayfield—with a few dashes of solo-era Lennon & McCartney for good measure. The real surprise, though, is the prog rock flair he shows on tracks like the epic ten-minute opener, “Cold Little Heart,” which spends its first five minutes building and building like the encore at a Pink Floyd concert. And Kiwanuka is feeling a little more political on this outing, too, singing on the timely topic of racial alienation on “Black Man In A White World”—but always from his own deeply personal perspective. (Kiwanuka hails from North London, the son of Ugandan refugees). It’s an album of broad ideas, as the title suggests, but it also feels deeply introspective at all times, voicing Kiwanuka’s own doubts and emotions more than it ever attempts to observe the world outside. Produced with skill by Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse, it’s already been nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize, and you can expect to see it on many a tastemaker’s year-end list come December—mine included.
Michael Kiwanuka – “Black Man In A White World”
Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being: British Afropop breakout stars Glass Animals are back with their sophomore effort, and it’s getting the kind of buzz that their infectious 2014 debut, Zaba, really deserved but never received. That’s a shame, because Zaba was definitely the superior album. But How To Be A Human Being, eye-rolling title aside, does a nice job carrying the ball forward. In its first half, it picks up right where the band left off, with tight pop songs backed by busy, jungle-inspired percussion. Normally you want a band to attempt some kind of artistic evolution, but the thing is, that’s where this new album starts to lose a little steam, taking some ill-advised steps into overprocessed hip-hop sounds on its back half. Still, there’s no denying that this is a fun pop record with just enough substance to keep both your feet and your mind happy.
Glass Animals – “Youth”
Lisa Hannigan – At Swim: Irish songstress Lisa Hannigan has been quietly putting out superb indie folk for almost fifteen years now—first as a backup vocalist and instrumentalist on Damien Rice’s O and later as a solo artist in her own right. On her third record, At Swim, she sounds a little less folk and a little more modern. More than a few of these melodies sound suspiciously like Radiohead songs—and I mean that as a compliment. Piano and strings combine with playful percussion to decorate a musical space that keeps things from getting sleepy, while smartly giving plenty of room for Hannigan’s shimmering voice to roam freely. Here’s hoping that after years of being overlooked, this one is the album that finally brings her the spotlight she deserves.
Lisa Hannigan – “Undertow”
Margaret Glaspy – Emotions And Math: If you can compare Margaret Glaspy to anyone—in spirit at least—it might be Liz Phair. Maybe that’s an unfair comparison, because lyrically, she doesn’t dip nearly as deep into the well of girl power or anti-male resentment as Phair. But that sense of rebelliousness and brutal honesty is all over her music, a collection of blues-driven grunge-lite rock that sounds like it could have been conceived in the mid-90s or maybe the late-70s, depending on your perspective. And while her guitar work is impressively biting, it’s the vocals that really bare teeth, spewing forth from a deceptively innocent-looking face to paint a picture of a woman deeply fixated on all her own personal contradictions. “Counting all the days ’til you’re back / Shivering in an ice-cold bath of emotions and math,” she sings on the title track, and when she adds that “I’m a woman acting like a kid / A skinny mess that’s breathless from telling you / All the things I’m gonna do,” you understand just how hard she struggles to understand herself. Which is to say, it’s a pretty compelling window into what it’s like to be a complicated woman. Or, you know, a typical human being.
Margaret Glaspy – “Emotions And Math”
Haley Bonar – Impossible Dream: It’s hard to put Haley Bonar in a box. At her core, she’s a traditional singer/songwriter with an extra dose of lyrical spunk. But for the first time, her sound is expansive enough to strike a chord on Impossible Dream, a stinging concoction of shoegaze, girl punk, and 80s new wave that lingers in your blood. Lyrically, she’s got a self-deprecating attitude that puts her in good company with the likes of Courtney Barnett (or, for that matter, Margaret Glaspy). But her sounds are prettier and more diverse, putting less emphasis on clever wordplay and more on melody and emotion. Check out the opener, “Hometown,” a track full of defiance and vulnerability hiding beneath a hell of a catchy tune.
Haley Bonar – “Hometown”