London Grammar are back with Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, Sufjan Stevens and three friends team up for Planetarium and Chicago melodic hardcore outfit Rise Against release Wolves.
It’s easy to forget how prodigious Ani DiFranco’s output has been — it often seems she is taken for granted — but it is hard to forget how purposeful and political that music has been, each album as urgent as the one before.
While her 20th studio album, Binary, is softer and slower than previous works, she continues her humanist social commentary, singing about feminism, politics and being in love but with more maturity than ever before.
Binary was written before the 2016 election but many tracks foreshadow the state of modern America. She sings about teaching non-violence with Pacifist’s Lament and issues a rallying cry for reproductive rights in Play God. And she continues to surprise and delight with songs about the confusion and hedonism of desire. The atmospheric Zizzing, featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, is a particular highlight. This merging of politics and humanity is as thought-provoking as it is moving.
Hannah Reid, Dan Rothman and Dot Major, aka London Grammar, first came to prominence in 2013. Their album, If You Wait, was a critical and commercial success. It went on to sell more than two million and led to awards, including an Ivor Novello. So it’s fair to say that expectations are high for their sophomore album.
It opens with Rooting For You, which is solely Reid’s haunting and distinctive voice for the first half before a sparse musical accompaniment is introduced.
This sets the tone for the record with its gentle beats, swooning synths and otherworldliness. Oh Woman Oh Man has one of the album’s strongest choruses and most likely will do well on radio.
The title track is a piano-led ballad full of contemplation and soul-searching. It may take some time to absorb this collection — it’s not immediate to the ears — but what unfolds is beautiful and cinematic.
Rise Against have provided us with some of the more recognisable punk rock tracks over the last 15 years, from Prayer Of The Refugee through to the more acoustic songs Swing Life Away and Hero Of War. Those tracks and the albums that contained them (including 2004’s Siren Song Of The Counter Culture) were more overtly political than recent offerings — including Wolves. This must be a conscious move, but it seems a shame that they have toned down their political content — especially in the era of a Donald Trump presidency and terror threats.
Politics aside, this album is musically tight. They blast through the songs in no time at all, with tracks such as The Violence sure to get circle pits moving at their gigs as singer Tim McIlrath delivers his usual distinctive vocals.
Planetarium started life as a live project between four obscenely talented musicians: singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, The National’s guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner, modern-classical composer Nico Muhly and drummer and producer James McAlister. Now released as a 75-minute concept album on 4AD, the sound owes a lot to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in more than just its subject matter. Stevens’ angelic vocals and the presence of seven trombones throughout give an ethereal, almost biblical amount of pomp and power.
As a live project, it must be awe-inspiring. But on record it sounds a little too big to find a soul. There are exceptions, of course: Venus bounces along like a sleepy version of Yeasayer’s hit O.N.E., Saturn’s house beat and pop sensibilities shake the listener out of hypersleep in the album’s middle, and record closer Mercury is a piano-led, cinematic masterpiece. Yet it is telling that those songs have already been released as singles.
The universe has moments of staggering beauty and stunning complexity but, on balance with its size and scope, those moments are few and far between. Unfortunately, the same could be said of Planetarium. There are a few great tracks in there, but too much of it feels like hollow, empty space.
For their sixth album since forming in 2006, the trio said they have tried for a new direction. On tracks such as You Look Good they have achieved this, as it is an uptempo rocker complete with horns. That said, regular fans won’t be disappointed as the harmony-based pop for which they have become synonymous still shines through.
The polished sound is still there and the Nashville flavour is unmistakeable, despite the album being written in Florida and California. No one who has followed the band’s career will be too surprised they have another sales success on their hands.