5. Witching Waves – Persistence [Specialist Subject Records]
It starts with a stutter, a single stab of guitar, like a long-jumper leaning back as they prepare for the sheer burst of energy that is set to follow, then it crashes into action, an unravelling, a propulsion, a lurching, unstoppable release of energy, and it never slows down. There can have been few more relentless, bruising and thrilling records released than Persistence, the third album from the now largely Yorkshire based trio, Witching Waves. The follow up to 2016’s Crystal Castle, it felt like three years of pent-up tension unleashed, dragging the listener along with it as it battles to make sense the world upon which it has been unleashed.
At the heart of Persistence is a thrilling back and forth, guitarist Mark and drummer Emma trade vocals, the two voices parting and then re-uniting, each yelping urgently, as if undergoing a shared but subtly different catharsis. It’s equally matched in the instrumentation, the guitars are both intricate and frenetic, the drums primal and subtly complex, only the bass seems to provide any stability to latch onto. Whether plotting personal missives or taking wider swipes at a society that seems to have left a generation behind, Witching Waves pursuit of stability always feels like a fruitless one. While you can piece together fragments of their influences, nobody else sounds quite like Witching Waves, and on Persistence, they’ve never sounded more vital.
4. Martha – Love Keeps Kicking [Big Scary Monsters]
To paraphrase that one about the lemons, when the world gives you heartbreak, make records. That is exactly what Martha did on Love Keeps Kicking, the County Durham indie-punks third, and arguably most accomplished record to date. Their minds might wander, yet throughout the record Martha keep coming back to that pesky beating organ we all carry in our chests; it is there in opening track, Heart Is Healing, as guitarist Daniel sings, “this year blew my world apart, admin with a broken heart”, and it flutters in and out throughout the eleven tracks.
Sometimes the theme is obvious, Orange Juice is simply crushing, as drummer Nathan sings, “I diluted you, like ice in orange juice, I don’t know what do now”, in a voice so utterly charming you simply couldn’t imagine that was the case. Elsewhere though it isn’t so much romance on show, as that nagging feeling that the world is slipping away from sanity and into despair, lurching to the right, as they sing on The Void, “I spent my whole life running, from a darkness I can’t comprehend”. In the murky depth though, Martha don’t seem to wallow for themselves, instead they highlight the stories of the truly vulnerable, gave voices to the voiceless. From the troubled teens lost to the system on Mini Was A Preteen Arsonist, to the outcasts and wonderful weirdos on Wrestlemania VIII, featuring a suitably rambunctious guitar riff straight from a WWE ring entrance. Sure, life and love might be beating you down, yet Martha seem to offer a little dose of hope, something to hang onto, something that makes you want to keep kicking, love in the end finds a way.
3. Ezra Furman – Twelve Nudes [Bella Union]
“This is our punk record”, that was how Ezra Furman announced his new album, Twelve Nudes, and from the minute you hear the first chords of the opening track, Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone, it is a statement that barely needs saying. Recorded back in 2018, quickly, with alcohol and volume and nowhere to hide, Twelve Nudes couldn’t have been much more different to Ezra’s last offering, 2018’s Transangelic Exodus. If that record was a careful reaction, a “mind” record if you like, then Twelve Nudes is a guttural reaction, a howl of rage, as Ezra puts it, “it’s the sound of me struggling to admit that I’m not okay with the current state of human civilization”.
Twelve Nudes is an emotional reaction to the political landscape, a series of reflex reactions built from anger, fear and a desire to get something positive out of that. “The kids are just getting started, they’ve only just learned how to howl”, Ezra sings on the stunning torch-song Evening Prayer, a call to arms for the youth, and a warning to the political elite that they’re coming for them, “deliver that fire in the real world and tell them E. Furman sent you”. It’ll have you punching the air, tears streaming down your cheeks and wanting to make the world a better place, and it sounds great as well! It isn’t all politics and protest though, Ezra also finds time to visit the twin pillars of all his output, gender and Judaism; the former on the swooning pop outlier, I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend, the latter on the lo-fi clatter of Rated R Crusaders, an attempt to unpick the Israel/Palestine conflict and the refugees it has created, in slightly over two minutes of noise. Possibly the finest musical moment comes on the penultimate track, America, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek ode to his home country, with references to founding fathers, Mexican immigrants and slave-owners, all part of Ezra’s warped national anthem, for a country that’s lost its way. Twelve Nudes is a record that throughout seems to channel the truest meaning of punk, channeling anger into positivity, as Ezra sings at the album’s close, “what can you do but rock, rock and roll?“, and nobody does it with more energy and authenticity than Ezra Furman.
2. Jeffrey Lewis & The Voltage – Bad Wiring [Moshi Moshi/Don Giovanni Records]
Jeffrey Lewis by all accounts shouldn’t have been able to pull this off. How has he managed to craft a career out of being almost deliberately obscure? He writes songs about cult bands most people haven’t heard of, stories of parts of New York tourists don’t go to, normally at least one comedy song about some sort of animal, and somehow it just works. Not only that, eighteen years in he’s not just still releasing records, he’s releasing quite possibly the best record he’s ever made. Bad Wiring, Jeffrey’s collaboration with current backing band The Voltage, feels like a crowning moment, the point where his metamorphosis from lo-fi acoustic folkie into eclectic DIY-superstar was complete, with none of his lyrical impact lost along the way.
Bad Wiring is a wonderfully eclectic record, from LPs with its twitchy synth line and propulsive drums to the wistful Till Question Marks Are Told, and the almost motorik pulse of In Certain Orders. Lyrically too, it touches on a host of topics, from Maoism to record collecting, yet often as it loops through a variety of topics it comes back to themes of self-doubt, anxiety and the constant battle with our own emotions. Often it’s as the record seems to stop for musical breath that it slips into its own head, on the luscious Where Is The Machine, where Jeffrey repeatedly asks, “why can’t they fight feelings?”, or on the closing track, Not Supposed To Be Wise, a downbeat reflection on a world where, “everything is infinitely incompetent”. With both words and music in perfect order, Jeffrey Lewis did what he always does, followed his heart, stuck to his guns and created something unmistakably in his own image, which just happened to be exactly just what we wanted.
1. Black Belt Eagle Scout – At The Part With My Brown Friends [Saddle Creek]
It was only in September last year that Katherine Paul, the songwriter behind Black Belt Eagle Scout, announced themselves to the world with the sparkling debut album, Mother Of My Children. That acclaimed record touched on themes of community and identity, Katherine using her position as a radical indigenous queer feminist to explore loss, landscape and the attempts to remove those minority groups from their place at the table. Arriving just a year later, the follow-up, At The Party With My Brown Friends, in some ways expands on those themes, whilst also exploring new avenues, in more personal tales of human connection, love, desire and friendship.
The record kicks off with the title track, At The Party, a rolling guitar line eases you into the track before booming rolls of drums, and Katherine’s vocals enter, bright and airy with a hint of steel lurking underneath, as she emotes, “we will always sing”, summoning up the collective might of the allies; be they indigenous, Black or other POC, who walk with Katherine on the journey of life. It introduces the sound of the album perfectly, while Mother Of My Children, was an aggressive squall of sound, on At The Party With My Brown Friends Katherine seems to pull towards a more insular sound, with easy, delicate vocals, combining with cyclical guitar patterns and warm washes of keys. The result is a record that sounds both warm and ambitious, yet oddly unnerving, beautiful undeniably with just a hint of menace.
While everything here is presented through Katherine’s own eyes, shaped by her own experiences, more so than on her debut, there is a sense of the universal in the songwriting. Whether it’s Half Coloured Hair, which is a wonderfully to the point love song reflecting on how simple it can seem when it’s just right, or My Heart Dreams, which reflects on the empty space left by a relationship ending, and the hearts desire to fill it, “I wake up, I love you, screaming loudly, screaming softly too”. Particularly gorgeous is Run It To Ya, a tale of infatuation and compatibility, set to a stilted drum beat and stunning, wavering guitar lines, as Katherine sings, “when I see you, and I notice what a girl is in this moment”.
The record concludes on You’re Me And I’m You, a song ostensibly about the bond between a mother and a daughter, and its ability to hold two people together, “I am the one, the one she loves, no matter what, my heart becomes”. Like much of At The Party With My Brown Friends it feels direct, almost simple in its intent, and in the way that is breaks life down into those tiny moments that shape the human experience. At The Party With My Brown Friends is both a logical next step and a bold re-imagining, it is Black Belt Eagle Scout cementing their place as one of the most intriguing musical voices the world has to offer. This is Katherine Paul’s party, and we were all honoured with an invite.