Progress can come from influence, but it cannot come from swindling or exploiting a demographic always clamouring for the same few chords. Amplified to near-perfection by Led Zeppelin, commercialised by the shaky efforts of KISS and finally bludgeoned to a pulp by Greta Van Fleet. Let the cycle continue, it’s a jungle out there, as Randy Newman once said. The dead-horse beaters proclaim their debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army as a droning bit of snobbery that conducts itself about as well as one would expect of a band dressed up as the next group to pipe cash out of rock and funnel in generic witticisms that’ll make listeners clamour for better music that is, thankfully, readily available.
It was Lester Bangs that said the ultimate sin is for an artist to have contempt for the audience. But Black Country, News Road’s tracks and the meaning behind them, their image and style, are birthed through that wry and knowing scorn. It is not real. A smokescreen for an activity like no other. They have taken the word of Bangs and twisted it to their own satisfaction. For the First Time acknowledges that somewhat, as did their Never Again EP. This contentment with confusing or enticing an audience with new waves of music that were never explored because everyone else thought it was a dead end. Ants From Up There is that next dead end, with the band trying their best to detail new ideas and strange inventions, all with a fake status of belittling their audience.
Inevitably overshadowed by the death knell of Blackstar, David Bowie’s discography that preceded his final piece and followed Let’s Dance is a misty place. They aren’t all that talked of, never the favourite on any list. That is understandable, nobody is clamouring all too much for another Heathen, but the long lapses in new material and the breaks between do showcase new eras of Bowie’s work. The Next Day offers up his steadiest and most interesting record since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and far exceeds the farewell tone of his Blackstar release. That is more through the quality, variety and feeling around his return than anything else, although the spirited, soulful tracks help too.
Controversial or even redundant it may be to follow the argument that Johnny Marr is a better singer than Morrissey, there is still a glimmer of interest in thinking that way. His live covers of songs from his tenure in The Smiths usually sound quite good, but that may be because of his guitar work. He is certainly the last great guitarist of his generation and that skill has not wavered. The guitar work, not the lyrics. Two very different ballparks for the one-time Talking Heads collaborator. His solo outings have been a mixed bag of indie rock and jangle pop, with a knack for both but a focus for neither plaguing his albums with the general ups and downs expected of someone finding their feet, not of someone who was the lead guitarist in The Smiths. Fever Dreams Pts 1 – 4 at least allows for another album of Marr’s experimentation and instrumental talent.
Anger in music is a useful tool for those wanting to either make a statement or fight back at something they feel wronged by. Johnny Cash’s outcry over his record label failing to push his tracks to a wider audience left us with the great Chicken in Black, and Yard Act’s disgust at gentrification of a culture gives The Overload that perfect level of anger that charged some of the greatest albums around. It is hard to believe that The Overload is a debut album when singer James Smith sounds like a seasoned, riled-up vocalist with his head in his hands at the state of the world around him. Adapting that to twelve songs gives an overwhelming bit of creativity that overloads The Overload.
Stoned, smoked and waking up with little care for it all, latest track Small Town Syndrome from Forgetting the Future has that smart wordplay always associated with the band. Their singles have always been an exciting addition to the alternative rock scene, with Latch a delightful release still lingering on the mind a year on. The latest single, Small Town Syndrome, is everything you could want from an alternative rock track.
Letting any powerful voice open a track is a strong move. Wallis Bird knows that as they plant their lyrical impressions in the opening moments as best they can. The Power of the Word relies predominantly on the slow build of its instrumental works. They are deployed here not to steal the show but to support some excellent lyrical waxing. Those Janis Joplin comparisons are inevitable but do give Bird a blues-like soul to her enviably great writing.
Magnificent orchestral numbers are not to be associated with the man who once sang of wanting to burn down the house, but David Byrne is a jack of all trades. He is the type of character to bust a move, fire out Road to Nowhere in all of its fascinatingly nonsensical forms, and subsequently bridge his way into the works of charming and sophisticated compendiums of grand music. The Forest is not just a surprise because of its quality, but because of its lack of fanfare. Byrne is born under punches, but, strangely, his 1991 effort is not as quick to be played or purchased as some of his finer works.
It is not until the second rendition of Don’t Let Me Down, an underappreciated B-Side masterclass of The Beatles’ back catalogue, that Get Back (Rooftop Performance) comes into its own. That realisation is toward the end of the album, and it makes for an enchanting second listen, once all the background chatter and bandmate banter is exposed that much better. More than just a tie into The Beatles: Get Back, and thankfully so. Not quite the nine hours of content Peter Jackson provided with his three-part Disney+ miniseries, but a remastering of mistake-riddled songs that have become endearing because it marked the final live performance of The Fab Four.
The beat goes on for Fickle Friends, whose latest album, Are We Gonna Be Alright?, gives the Brighton-based rock band a foot on the ladder for best of the year. It may have just started, but it’s never too early to seek out albums, tracks and artists worthy of those end of year lists. Fickle Friends are just that, and the twelve tracks they offer on their sophomore album is a sincerely great and unique effort. A deluge of work for the indie genre has made it a bin of ideas and hopeless hopefuls pinning their efforts and desires on songs about lust, anger and angst. Few have managed to navigate it all that well, but Fickle Friends make easy work of it with a confident second album.