Album reviews: Placebo, Underworld, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and Chris Isaak
Placebo create lush and intricate reworkings of their hits, Underworld show why they deserve to be called godfathers of dance music, King Gizzard et al mix sweet and dark, and Chris Isaak piles up the gorgeous melancholy
I doubt even the androgynous Brian Molko and lanky songwriting accomplice Stefan Olsdal, the founding core of angsty alternative rockers Placebo, could ever have imagined celebrating a continuing career, so colourful in both quality and quantity, almost 20 years after releasing their debut album. Recorded in London in front of a studio audience, MTV Unplugged sees the duo, joined by an expanded band and special guest vocalists, strip back a career-spanning set list in a mesmerising performance. The title does this album very little justice: it’s far from a simple unplugging of instruments and knocking out a few acoustic versions on a piano. These are lush and intricate reworkings of their plentiful hits and show a band with their creative juices still flowing. Demonstrating just how solid their output has been over the years, all of the band’s seven albums are represented here, including two covers, Sinead O’Connor’s Jackie and Pixies’ Where is My Mind? It’s a performance of warmth and subtlety that few would have expected from Placebo at any time in their career.
Second Toughest in the Infants (remastered super deluxe edition)
When the trio of vocalist Karl Hyde, knob twiddler Rick Smith and DJ Darren Emerson released their 1994 classic Dubnobasswithmyheadman, it changed the landscape of electronic dance music forever. Two years later, no one expected Underworld’s follow-up to come anywhere close to equalling that landmark indie dance album, and of course, it didn’t. Second Toughest in the Infants went one step further and totally surpassed it. To celebrate its upcoming 20th anniversary, Hyde and Smith (Emerson departed after the band’s equally impressive third album Beacoup Fish) have remastered the album at Abbey Road Studios, and reissued it with a vast collection of demos, live tracks, remixes and unreleased material. From the epic 16-minute opener Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream of Love, an interlocking pattern of rhythmic techno, drum’n’bass and progressive house, to the buzzing distorted synth of Rowla and the frenetic breakbeat assault of Pearl’s Girl, Second Toughest was such a diverse and ambitious masterpiece that it didn’t even have space for what would become Underworld’s biggest hit single, the era-defining Born Slippy.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
Paper Mache Dream Balloon
Melbourne’s fuzzy space cadets King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard return with their second album of 2015, written and recorded inside an empty shipping container using only acoustic instruments. It’s their seventh in the space of five years. The scuzzy psych-garage seven piece are known for their lengthy sound explorations, but these 12 melodic neo-folk tracks feel tight and concise; nothing sounds hollow or throwaway. A lot of care and passion went into these many layers of raw simplicity. Thankfully, the King’s songcraft is as strong as ever and even with a switch to flute, harmonica and stand-up bass, they remain galaxies away from the Mumfords’ contrived folk. The relaxed late 1960s vibe begins with jazzy folk opener Sense, before the insanely catchy Bone steals all the best bits from The Small Faces. While the title track shares its chirpy pop harmonies with a children’s cartoon theme, there’s a hidden darkness looming under the sweetness throughout the album, such as on Trapdoor, which has a eerie weirdness to its boogie.
First Comes the Night
While not an out and out country record, First Comes the Night, the first album of original material in six years from throwback charmer Chris Isaak, mixes old-school rockabilly with traditional country. Recorded in Nashville with Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks), Mark Needham and Dave Cobb, one of the city’s hottest alt-country producers, it continues travelling in the same direction that Isaak first embarked on when he recorded 2011’s retro covers album Beyond the Sun at the storied Sun Studio in Memphis. With his Orbison-esque croon recorded in live takes and using little computer wizardry, Isaak intended this to be an album full of real performances. On these 12 emotional songs of heartbreak and longing, the 59-year-old singer-songwriter certainly sounds in the groove, his smooth natural tones infusing the swagger of Presley with the soul of Cash, as twangy lonesome guitars bleed with a soothing melancholy.