Album reviews: Miles Kane, James, Amanda Shires, Mac Miller, Helena Hauff

All of this week's album reviews

Miles KaneCoup de Grace

★★★★☆

Miles Kane is back, in case you didn’t hear, with a belter of a record: Coup De Grace (French for “The Final Blow”), his first solo LP in five years.

Following on from two previous solo albums plus 2016’s Everything You’ve Come To Expect by The Last Shadow Puppets – a project with Arctic Monkeys frontman/his best mate Alex Turner – the 32-year-old musician has made something of a breakthrough with this latest work.

It’s loaded with nods to punk, psychedelia and classic rock, from Marc Bolan to The Beatles, The Fall to The Damned, and blasts through 10 tracks with a wild energy that wasn’t so present on his other two solo records Colour of the Trap (2011) and Don’t Forget Who You Are (2013).

That aforementioned punk influence stems largely from tours with The Last Shadow Puppets, when the band would cover The Fall’s “Totally Wired”. Opener “Too Little Too Late” is a frenzied, Buzzcocks-style track with a sizzling guitar riff and Kane’s snarling delivery. Barely giving you time to pause for breath, it swaggers into “Cry On My Guitar” which stars unmistakable Marc Bolan influences and shows off Kane’s vocal dexterity as it switches from a punk growl to a keening shout. “The Wrong Side of Life” appears to have benefited from Kane’s co-writing sessions with Jamie T.

He’s clearly had fun, which shines through in the flamboyance of his singing style, along with additional touches like the video for “Cry on my Guitar” where he is body-slammed countless times around an apartment by wrestling legend Finn Balor (the album is named after his signature move).

This record is something of a “breakup” album for Kane, who, in his own words, went “a bit Adele” after splitting with his girlfriend last year. In the beginning of his video for “Loaded” he also looks battered and bruised, clearly wanting to express what feels like a physical beating as a relationship ends.

“Loaded” itself is an album standout: the verses are delivered in a staccato style that recalls Paul McCartney on “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. He sings the lonely remark: “My baby’s always threatening to leave” as he documents that breakdown, managing to pack a lot of emotion into that sparse chorus.

The title track is ridiculously catchy and gunning for a fight: it bounds into the room swinging its fists – “c’mon then” – showing off all of Kane’s irrepressible swagger before the record spirals into this maelstrom of an outro, led by the punch of the bass.

Meanwhile, “Killing The Joke” sounds as though it could have been a bonus track off Arctic Monkey’s latest record Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino, with its sprawled structure, spacey synths and Kane’s self-effacing, melancholic lyrics. As a solo artist Kane has often been subject to what could be considered “over-criticism”, with some appearing to believe his success is down to the help of his more famous friends, without thought for how fruitful that relationship has also proven for the likes of Turner – who appears to share similar influences on his band’s latest record.

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Closing with “Shavambacu”, Kane sneaks in a few more Bond references with the twang of the guitar and his sultry, whispering intro, which leads in turn to lilting notes on the piano and a snap of his fingers – you can practically picture Sean Connery lounging by the pool in Goldfinger. The chorus is slightly silly, in an endearing way – think The Beatles’ “When I’m 64” only with a little more je ne sais quoi. Coup De Grace is Kane’s best work to date: punchy, cohesive and lots of fun. Roisin O’Connor

Amanda ShiresTo The Sunset

(Getty

★★★★☆

Optimism and hope aren’t things one would necessarily associate with country and Americana music. Amanda Shires is steeped in the latter – she grew up in Texas predominantly playing the fiddle, and has been a key member in numerous notable bands from that scene, such as 400 Unit and the Texas Playboys – but for several years has been ripping up the rulebook and subverting established norms, garnering acclaim and awards along the way. To The Sunset is the culmination of all this, a beacon of brightness she hopes will illuminate some of the darkness currently plaguing the world.

Musically progressive, it’s Shires most ambitious work to date; nasty, stomping Southern rock sits next to poppier fare and several moments of quiet introspection. Determined to make everything heavier, she ran her fiddle – and occasionally her voice – through a pedal board, unlocking new ideas and sounds that she and producer Dave Cobb poured liberally over all ten tracks. And the grittiness matches the subject matter. “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” is a dramatic tale of small-town suicide, while “Break Out the Champagne” is partly inspired by the time Shires’s plane lost an engine mid-flight and flirted with disaster.

Shires is equally adept at romance, yearning and exploring the private demons that torment the downtrodden of blue collar America. Her characters often find themselves in desperate situations, and yet she renders them heroic, strivers saved by love and family, believing in a better future to come. Often, her songs turn on one, razor sharp observation or hidden detail: “Maybe what’s missing isn’t what should be found,” she asks cryptically on “Eve’s Daughter”, a song about moving from town to town, in search of something that remains tantalisingly out of reach.

It’s the kind of universal feeling Shires articulates so well, and her attempt to bring a fractured society a little closer together. Derek Robertson

James – Living in Extraordinary Times

★★★★☆

Somehow, over 35 years, James has managed to sound consistently fresh while always keeping their identity. Living in Extraordinary Times, their 15th record, marks another high for the Manchester band, seeing them experiment with sounds and bring modern politics into the lyrical equation.

Opening track “Hank” immediately takes shots at the media and the Trump administration’s “white fascists in the White House”. With heavy drums and vocals all over the spectrum, the track makes for a brazen beginning. And while nothing else comes close to sounding quite so odd, singer Tim Booth goes back to similar lyrical themes multiple times throughout the record. “Heads,” for instance, sees him touch on “fake news” and “the white American dream”, all over thick, pulsating drums.

Those drums are, as always, enticingly danceable (perhaps slightly overwhelming at times), the percussion being consistently excellent on the record, as are the trumpets. The intoxicating mixture is particularly life-affirming on “Better Than That” and “Many Faces”, both of which have the same momentum and levity as James’s best anthems.

There’s more classic James to be heard on “Coming Home Part 2”, filled with musical ideas and with a killer chorus (the track only acts as a sequel to 1989’s “Come Home” in name). Stadium packers also make an appearance, “Leviathan” sounding particularly good, Booth borrowing from U2, while “Extraordinary Times” has a sweeping chorus.

Living in Extraordinary Times marks a band still working at their full capacity, bringing new ideas and sounds while retaining what inherently makes James James – big choruses, danceable tracks, and timely lyrics. While some tracks are on the long side, how can you blame them getting carried away? Jack Shepherd

Deaf HavanaRituals

★★★☆☆

Long gone are the days when Deaf Havana were screaming down a microphone. Ever since singer Ryan Mellor quit the band, the remaining members have strolled down pop avenue, and with Rituals – their latest record – it sees newly-designated singer James Veck-Gilodi borrow from The 1975’s handbook to create their most pop-orientated (and least rock) record yet.

Starting with the choral “Wake”, the group blast into “Sinner” and “Ritual”, two singles featuring huge choruses ready-made for Radio 1, produced with a bubblegum quality that’s so sickly sweet fans of their first record will run a mile.

The song titles were reportedly decided by Veck-Gilodi before the music was written and the tracklist reads like a Christian concept album, both the lyrics and sounds taking inspiration from Church. On “Hell”, a synthesised organ is introduced, while on the “Holy” the lyrics concern demons, guilt and regrets (sung over what initially sounds like a Calvin Harris song).

As things go on, Rituals gets gradually more experimental. Ignoring the diabolical “Saviour”, which sounds like a hundred other Nashville-based bands song (featuring the chorus: “Thinking I could save you, I’ll never be your saviour”), the results are much more interesting on the second half.

“Fear” takes queues from The XX with its reverb guitar (although there’s a massive pop-chorus once again), while “Evil” turns things down a notch with heavily detuned vocals being sung over what’s basically a meditation CD. “Heaven” continues to strip things back slightly, a slow build that has some well earnt choral singers towards the end.

By the time the last track “Epiphany” comes around, with Veck-Gilodi singing about taking his family to Church, you can feel pretty worn out by the religious imagery and huge choruses. Jack Shepherd

Mac MillerSwimming

★★★★☆

Malcolm James McCormick, best known under rapping pseudonym Mac Miller, is back with his fifth record in seven years.

It’s a languid breakdown of the headlines he found himself a part of in recent years thanks to a high profile breakup with singer Ariana Grande and ensuing drink-driving arrest. Instead of delving into his past, however, Swimming is a hot lap of a record through which he firmly turns his eyes to the future.

“Everything’s different, can’t complain,” the Pittsburgh musician raps on “Hurt Feelings”, a song throbbing with resilience in the face of bad decisions, emblematic of why Swimming is a breath of fresh air. Here, Miller blends his persona with his extensive knowledge of music (he produces other artists’ records in his spare time) to often impressive degrees.

“What’s the Use” serves as pumping proof of the fact, an expertly-produced track that doesn’t so much wear Miller’s influences on his sleeve than stitch them on (think Outkast meets Thundercat via A Tribe Called Quest). Its irresistible bass line will be coursing through your veins for days.

“I’ve got all the time in the world, now I’m just chilling,” he sings, his lyrics matching the album’s confidently unhurried demeanour.

Whether it’s Miller acknowledging his temper (“Wings”) or the pitfalls of fame (“Small Worlds”), this is deeply personal material that’s as impressive if not as game-changing as anything esteemed rap figures Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino have produced in recent years. Miller has turned his anguish into one of the year’s most disarmingly pleasant records. Jacob Stolworthy

Helena Hauff - Qualm

★★★★☆

Few live DJ sets deliver as much intensity as those of Hamburg-born DJ Helena Hauff. Whether it be the bombast of strobes, the rawness of frenetic old-school acid house rave or the sharpness of drone-tinged industrial grit, a DJ set by Hauff is certainly an assault on the senses. Her latest album, Qualm, the follow up to 2017’s four-track EP Have You Been There, Have You Seen It, is her closest attempt yet to capturing the brilliance of her live set – it’s also unashamedly retro.

Growing up in Hamburg, Hauff was a child of the 1990s and an ardent fan of grunge, punk and rock, following bands like Nirvana via MTV and discovering the records of the Stooges through charity shop mixtapes. Later, she found trance and dance and started to listen avidly to renowned British trance band, Loop.

Between all these manifold influences, Hauff found her own unique style as she worked her way through various residencies and numerous collaborations both in her hometown and throughout Europe, experimenting with a wide array of sounds and styles. A constant in Hauff’s work, however, has always been her desire to remain true to the 1980s and 1990s sounds that inspired her.

The retro sound Hauff favours is evident throughout Qualm, but perhaps most notably on the uncanny, neo-gothic leanings of ‘Entropy Created You and Me’. With electronic effects sounding somewhere between Pac Man 1981 and Moon Safari-era Air. It’s a weirdly captivating listen. As is ‘Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg’ with its unlikely and unsettling combination of light 1980s synths with ultra dark drone.

The tendency to over-produce that is prevalent in so much dance music of late is happily avoided; in fact, the attraction of Qualm is often in its simplicity and its desire to create something with a more infectiously raw, cerebral quality. Much of this album is Hauff returning to her original modus operandi of her simply jamming on drum machines – ‘The Smell of Suds and Steal’ being a particularly good example. The aim, as the DJ herself put it, was “trying to create something powerful without using too many instruments and layers”, and for the most part, Qualm does just this.

Qualm vividly reflects the great expanse of Hauff’s DJ sets which span acid, electro, EDM, techno and post punk. Whilst it might sound like an overwhelming combination, it never is as the genres are given their own space to breathe and develop. Title track ‘Qualm’ is a shimmering electronic 1980s retro delight, as is its brilliant sister track “No Qualms”, which has added depth through drum machines and drone.

Hauff’s success has grown steadily over the years, helped along by a BBC Radio 1 Residency, numerous awards and varied high-profile collaborations. Qualm may just be the album to solidify her position as one of the most exciting DJs in the world at present, as Hauff continues to carve out her very own unique, innovative position in an often cluttered electronic dance landscape. Elizabeth Aubrey

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