You’d have to have undergone an optimism bypass operation not to get excited about March’s releases, with fine new albums from the likes of Sigrid, Stella Donnelly and American Football, with wych elm, Tamu Massif, The Desert and Sugar Horse repping Bristol spectacularly.
Sugar Horse – DRUJ
Self-release | OUT NOW
“The sound of three socially-inept humans soundtracking your disappointing transition into adult life, drawing on their shared love of self-destructive behaviour and cognitive dissonance to create incoherent pop songs drowned in bleak soundscapes and visceral rhythms.” This is how Sugar Horse invite listeners to make their acquaintance – and darkness and gloom hold considerable weight on the Bristol trio’s new EP, Druj. While titles like ‘Your Degree Is Worthless And Your Parents Aren’t Proud Of You’ or ‘I Liked You Better Before You Went To Art School’ might trick you into thinking this is another Millennial indie/art-pop band, Sugar Horse’s music is, actually, a compelling dive headfirst into shoegaze and experimental 90s rock, with guitars that create a lacerating wall of sound and squealing vocals. Guia Cortassa
The Desert – WINNING YOU BACK
Funnel Music | 8th March
With an aptitude for merging dark-folk influences with a haunting electronic ambience, The Desert have solidified their place within Bristol’s music scene as one of the most outstanding trip-hop acts that the city has to offer, and their second EP only enhances their reputation.
A spell-binding masterpiece that rivals some of the most renowned names in the genre, Winning You Back flows through a delicate journey of lost love and self-rediscovery, blending the incredibly vulnerable vocals of Gina Leonard with heart-wrenching synths courtesy of producer Tom Freyer. The record’s ethereal balance of fragility and hope is its most remarkable feature, most evident throughout ‘Bitterness’ as it lays bare the reality of confronting and accepting heartbreak, and letting go of pain in search of something new. Kelly Ronaldson
STELLA DONNELLY – BEWARE OF THE DOGS
Secretly Canadian | 8th March
A debut album of strident, striking potency, Beware of the Dogs sees Stella Donnelly firmly at the helm, with her characteristic, captivating charm. Following on from her breakthrough solo EP Thrush Metal, the sound here carries itself with a greater assurance, reflecting the time Donnelly took during the album’s creation to “take stock” of everything after relentless touring and rapidly-spreading acclaim off the back of the EP. For this record, the Fremantle-based musician enlisted a bunch of her friends to complete the band, this core familiarity imbuing the album with a tangible dynamism and the fuller sound complementing Donnelly’s compositions perfectly.
Lyrically, Beware of the Dogs bears Donnelly’s particular, wry demeanour as she astutely balances sharp wit alongside stark vulnerability, purveyed via her soaring vocals. On ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, a track that also featured on her previous EP, Donnelly poignantly addresses – with a gut-wrenching rawness – the culture of victim-blaming sexual assault survivors. While opening track and lead single, ‘Old Man’, sees Donnelly confront the track’s creeping namesake with compelling defiance.
Throughout the record, Donnelly’s vocal dexterity is sublime as she offers chirruping vibrato on ‘Lunch’, the piercing high-notes of ‘Watching Telly’, or dulcet crooning on ‘Mosquito’ – all delivered with her distinctive sprightly tone, accompanied by glistening guitar refrains and velvety melodies. And it is this way in which she simultaneously presents visceral fragility, a sense of playfulness, and unflinching poise that makes Donnelly’s music so undeniable and enchanting. Kezia Cochrane
HELADO NEGRO – THIS IS HOW YOU SMILE
RVNG Intl | 8th March
If, like me, you consider steel drums to be the most joyful instrument on the planet, then you’ll probably concur that Roberto Carlos Lange’s ability to make them resonate with sweet melancholia on ‘Imagining What To Do’ neatly sums up the rich and sumptuous experience of This Is How You Smile. On one hand, you could let the album gently wash over you: ‘Please Won’t Please’ the soundtrack to those Sunday ‘Well, if you’re having a Bloody Mary I will too’ scenes. ‘Seen My Aura’ filling the sky at sun-kissed summer roof-top parties, where your friends are as happy and carefree as you’ve ever seen them…
Or, if your space allows for more contemplation, you can soak up the tender ruminations on family, friends, love and self that course through this record: “Take care of people today, hold their hand, call them up if you, wanna say: ‘Hey’…” is a message that feels just as good as that sun-kiss or Bloody Mary. Dave Rowlinson
HAND HABITS – PLACEHOLDER
Saddle Creek | 8th March
Listening to Hand Habits while telling my three-year-old to stop ferreting around in his pyjama bottoms for the tenth time in eight minutes has a certain synchronicity. The comparisons between Meg Duffy’s second album and the aforementioned habits of certain exploratory hands don’t stop there. The tracks offer anything from rather close scrutiny of personal matters, to seeking comfort and reassurance. Kevin Morby, for whom Duffy played guitar, correctly described Hand Habits’ sound as like a warm bath. It’s melodious alt-folk, Americana that could make America great again – without sporting a stupid red hat. Title track, ‘placeholder’ contemplates accepting second-best in life, yet Duffy’s guitar solos on ‘jessica’ and ‘can’t calm down’ (the calmest song you’ll ever hear about not being calm) are especially majestic. Jon Kean
SIGRID – SUCKER PUNCH
Island Records | 8th March
Waiting for Sigrid Raabe’s debut album has felt much like the run-up to Shura’s; a real-deal pop artist dangling elusive treasure for more than two years. There’s risk of not delivering when the time comes – but Sigrid’s outdone herself. Sure, the inclusion of pop behemoth ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ and her UK top 10 hit ‘Strangers’ in the tracklist was always going to provide a safety net. These tracks, however, don’t necessarily eclipse a host of thrilling, fresh material. ‘Basic’, ‘Never Mine’, ‘Sucker Punch’ and ‘Mine Right Now’ are all immediate earworms: a sugar rush of snap-clap synths and the Norwegian artist’s zesty vocal whoops. Some trite lyrics and a misstep on normcore-pop track ‘Don’t Feel Like Crying’ notwithstanding, Sucker Punch is an absolute triumph. Charlotte Krol
ROYAL TRUX – WHITE STUFF
Fat Possum | 8th March
To me, Royal Trux always sounded like what might happen if you asked people who’d never heard rock’n’roll to form a band based on what they’d picked up from reading Lester Bangs articles while high; all the tropes were present, but in a frighteningly, fantastically, fucked up way.
Thankfully, the same is also true of their first album in 19 years. White Stuff is one of Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema’s more “tuneful” records, but it still makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The paranoid skronks of ‘Every Day Swan’ and ‘Year of the Dog’ terrify me. They are my favourite tracks. Oh, and ‘Get Used to This’ has Kool Keith on it, for some reason.
Album of the year? Fucked if I know. But, yeah. Maybe. Thomas Hannan
KAREN O & DANGER MOUSE – LUX PRIMA
BMG | 15th March
Opening with ‘Lux Prima’ (first light) and closing with ‘Nox Lumina’ (night light), Lux Prima, delivers a liberating landscape from two luminescent alchemists. Lush textures, romantic string sections and Karen O’s soaring vocal range lace this record with warmth, indulgence and weightlessness. Early single, ‘Woman’, is a feisty and powerful mid-album interlude, while lighter cuts ‘Turn The Light’, with its funky bassline, and the softly crackly ‘Reveries’ tell of daydreams, intimacy and adventure. This album was created without boundaries and expectations, and nowhere does that liberating creative process shine brighter than on closing track, ‘Nox Lumina’. It’s wistful and cinematic, otherworldly and experimental. “Everytime I close my eyes, someone else’s paradise” Karen O sings. In Lux Prima, the pair have created a paradise of their own. Katie Thomas
CHAI – PUNK
Heavenly | 15th March
CHAI’s infectious blend of electro-pop is on par with dance-punk legends The Julie Ruin in their latest effort Punk, both from a musical perspective and through their unquestionable ability to overturn expectations. Merging the kawaii influence and positivity of their debut album, Pink, with a powerful and unapologetic feminist standpoint, the Japanese four- piece solidify their concept of self-expression and perfect imperfection without holding anything back.
While the synth-fuelled ‘GREAT JOB’ discusses the holistic and therapeutic nature of cleaning, defiant tracks such as ‘I’m Me’ and ‘Fashionista’ expresses an urge to break away from societal expectations. Later, ‘Feel the BEAT’ pays homage to their earlier indie-rock roots, but the atmospheric dance beats of ‘FUTURE’ steal focus towards the end, combining dream-pop influences with a natural optimism. Kelly Ronaldson
wych elm – RAT BLANKET EP
Post Mortem | 22nd March
With seven songs in fifteen minutes, Rat Blanket, the debut EP by Bristol’s wych elm is focused and refreshingly concise. Opener, ‘Monkey Jaw’ lurches and squeals its way into the appropriately raw, sore ‘Help Me’. ‘Susan Smith’ and ‘Greasy Fringe’ drip with grisly guilt. The rhythm section rumbles ominously. Appropriately for a band named after the native British species of elm, ‘1983’ ends with the bass line from The Cure’s ‘A Forest’.
On ‘School Shooter’, they sing, “My brain is filled with sludge and drugs.” There’s something densely substantial and intoxicating in their viscous, treacly grunge. With a coarse-grained slacker abrasiveness, Rat Blanket is a riot of Babes In Toyland, Veruca Salt, Bikini Kill, L7, The Breeders and Nirvana – a disturbance you can’t help but endorse. Jon Kean
JENNY LEWIS – ON THE LINE
Warner Bros. Records | 22nd March
The last time we heard from Jenny Lewis, she was joining forces with Tennessee Thomas and Erika Forster for 2016’s brilliant NAF record. It’s always good to have her back, with new record On The Line featuring ex-Beatle/ex-Thomas The Tank Engine star Ringo, and Beck. Apparently Jenny’s keen to ‘shed the rainbow’ from The Voyager, and we’re in – we’re all in – if that’s responsible for the gorgeous ‘Dogwood’, where Lewis’s alt-country vocals are beautifully accompanied by lo-fi piano. Unfortunately ‘Red Bull & Hennessy’, with its Fleetwood Mac vibe, is just… okay-ish. Still, whilst long-time fans may miss the Watson Twins, or something about foxes portions, ‘Rabbit Hole’ will stick in your head for weeks. And that’s almost enough for us. Simone Scott Warren
AMERICAN FOOTBALL – LP3
Big Scary Monsters | 22nd March
Whilst American Football’s eponymous nineties debut channelled devastating emotional fits derived from post- break up adolescence and late-night bouts of existential ennui, LP3 is continually bleaker and more mature by comparison, like the aftermath of a cold, hard winter alone – or twenty years where not a lot has changed – seasoned by regrets, passing days and shouldered blame.
The twinkling intro to lead single ‘Silhouettes’ sets the tone well, and insists on drawing tears by the time Kinsella laments, “Oh, the muscle memory / continue to haunt me” over the pains of infidelity.
If you regard second-wave emo as a genre that set the (music) world on fire, then LP3 seems to acutely trace the path of its fading embers with serene, stylistic beauty. Harriet Taylor
JAYDA G – SIGNIFICANT CHANGES
Ninja Tune | 22nd March
In the same year that Jayda Guy completed her Masters, she also finished her debut album. Structured like a scientific essay, she weaves field recordings amongst ‘Orca’s Reprise’ and significant speeches about the protection of whales on ‘Missy Know What’s Up’ with fascinating results. But, as ever, Jayda deals best in euphoria, as seen on the joyfully-hypnotic ‘Sunshine In The Valley’. “Hey you, I see you with your phone, looking at Instagram. This is the dancefloor baby, this is where you’re supposed to get down,” we’re playfully told on ‘Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking On The DF)’. Inspired by the club-dwelling “row of guys just standing there, not dancing, just staring”, it’s impossible to picture anyone not intoxicated by Significant Changes and remaining still in its wake. Lee Wakefield
IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE – DOKO MIEN
Merge Records | 22nd March
Essential live, Ibibio Sound Machine kick off their third album with all the vivacity of their in-the-flesh shows – the horn‘n’synth-led Afrofunk of ‘I Need You To Be Sweet Like Sugar’ precedes the outright disco of ‘Wanna Come Down’ and the high-energy electro of ‘Tell Me’. Such a hyperactive approach could exhaust over a whole studio album, so ISM punctuate Doko Mien with subtler pleasures, from the anthemic electronic spiritualism of ‘I Will Run’ to some cool, jazz-flecked desert blues.
Throughout, frontwoman Eno Williams’ vocal switches between the English language of her birthplace and the Nigerian Ibibio of her formative years, a fusion of the sort that characterises the diverse spirit of Doko Mien, giving it legs beyond only the dancefloor or well-trampled festival field. Nick Mee
Tamu Massif – LITTLE DEATH SUMMER
Chiverin | 29th March
Want a suite of tunes to soundtrack winter giving way to the restless, budding energy and welcome warmth of spring? Tamu Massif’s debut album, Little Death Summer ought to do the trick. It twitches and glitches with start-stop samples, like a landscape that’s about to burst into vibrant colour. His vocals rasp hot breath that melts the final chills of the cruellest months.
You’ll be checking on the state of your festival wardrobe as you feel the bass beat for ‘Senses’ through your bare feet. ‘Get Some Sleep’ will undoubtedly be your neighbours’ favourite new song, whether they like it or not. Similarly, the washing synths of ‘Carapace’ will surely coax you back out of your shell. The stand-out track is ‘FEELGOOD’. Clue’s in the name. Jon Kean
OHTIS – CURVE OF EARTH
Full Time Hobby | 29th March
Curve Of Earth is the incredibly honest debut album from Ohtis. Sculpted from frontman and songwriter Sam Swinson’s remarkable and painful personal experiences – an upbringing in a fundamentalist evangelical cult, time in and out of rehab battling heroin addiction, a friend’s fatal overdose – the collection of songs are as darkly melancholic as they are gently uplifting. There’s a wit and knowing-smile underlying everything Swinson does with the darkly upbeat ‘Rehab’, almost reminiscent of undeniably contagious early Noah And The Whale, offering a catchy, country-pop take on an incredibly difficult subject. ‘Running’ too offers a timeless, breezy Americana ditty on another heavyweight topic, forging links with others on the fringes of society. The eight-track LP paints a picture of hope, through examining the bleakest moments. George O’Brien