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The Album Cycle: New releases reviewed from Xiu Xiu, Ed Sheeran, Sleaford Mods & more

Every Friday, ‘The Album Cycle’ reviews a handful of new releases.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK

Xiu Xiu – Forget

Prolific avant-pop veterans Xiu Xiu are constantly challenging themselves and transforming their sound with each album. Their 2016 release, Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, showcased re-interpretations of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to Twin Peaks, while their previous album, Unclouded Sky, ditched their usual industrial grittiness for folk tranquility. Now Xiu Xiu take another unexpected step with Forget, their 13th studio album, executing an accessible, pop-orientated record without forfeiting their experimental tendencies.

Forget moves through a vast array of moods from exuberant optimism to self-deprecating melancholy, maintaining a consistent sound pallet of dark-distorted-metallic noises, fuzzy synths and high-pitched rings. It’s a mix that would normally make you squirm but, in this setting, it all works.

Xiu Xiu sign off the album with the most unconventional track on the album, ‘Faith, Torn Apart’, which transports listeners to a funeral service as frontman Jamie Stewart sings about death while resonant church bells and organ-like synths haunt the background. Writer and performance artist Vaginal Davis takes on the deceased persona as if it were her funeral and recites a poem written by Stewart, which was inspired by photos of young women he screenshotted for a social project.

In regards to the album title, Forget, Stewart explains, “To forget uncontrollably embraces the duality of human frailty. It is a rebirth in blanked out renewal but it also drowns and mutilates our attempt to hold on to what is dear.” Forget serves as a reminder of how individuals deal with painful experiences while also exhibiting the triumph of overcoming and forgetting heartache. – Jess Fu

XIU XIU

Ed Sheeran – ÷  

Running out of musical ideas almost as rapidly as he runs out of mathematical symbols to name his albums after, the world’s favourite garden-gnome-turned-popstar Ed Sheeran returns. Just as X expanded Sheeran’s musical palette further into hip hop and full blown, multi-producer pop production (moving forward from the scruffy acoustic charms of his debut, +) Sheeran amps up his sound further here, aiming for something grand, anthemic and arena-filling. The low-fi acoustics and sub-par rapping he previously so adored are replaced by a slick essay of a variety of pop styles which dominated the charts around a decade ago.

Glossiness suits Sheeran fine in general (despite his boy-with-guitar image his slight songs often benefit from a full production), but so much here is out of time (see the cheesy stiffness of ‘Shape of You’, ostensibly written for Rihanna but roughly a million miles from anything she’s done since before Good Girl Gone Bad) and laced with so much lazy sentimentality that it’s almost impossible to believe this is the work of a still young man. Nowhere is this more obvious than ‘How Would You Feel (Paean)’, a cloying ballad layered in piano, strings and backing vocals so middle of the road that it borders on self-parody. Sheeran has always occupied a square space in the pop world, but ÷ ends up being so reductive, and quite simply dull, that it’s hard to understand what he and his team actually had in mind when they headed into the studio. – Pete Douglas

Jay Som – Everybody Works

At the risk of taking the genre ‘dream pop’ way too literally … imagine you dreamed the perfect early-90s high school / indie / slacker coming-of-age movie, and that the dream was so detailed and vivid the movie even had its own original dream soundtrack. That’s the vibe I get from this new Jay Som album, though it’s probably just me, since Melina Duterte, the Oakland musician who wrote and recorded the whole thing in her bedroom, wasn’t even born until 1995. While every song on Everybody Works could be the work of a different dream band – whether it’s the ‘80s Cocteau Twins swoon of ‘Remain’ or the helium grunge of ‘1 Billion Dogs’ or the funk-inflected shoegaze moments on ‘One More Time Please’ – they’re all channelled through the same hazy filter; the result is like a perfect mixtape that’s slipped through from some alternate universe cloud planet where it’s still 1992. – Calum Henderson

Sleaford Mods – English Tapas

Sleaford Mods experienced a boost in profile following the release of their 2015 album Key Markets. That was when the band was described by Iggy Pop as “undoubtedly, absolutely, definitely the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band”, when they were dubbed by the press “the sound of Brexit Britain” (a moniker they perhaps understandably bristled at), and when singer Jason Williamson gained notoriety for being unceremoniously relieved of his Labour Party membership for abusing an MP on Twitter. For their fourth full length album the Nottingham duo move on up in the indie world to new label Rough Trade, but it doesn’t change their basic aesthetic: Andrew Fearn delivers stark bass and drum beats over which Williamson spits clever and profane verses about life in austerity-era Britain.

What has changed is the sharpness of the band’s attack – Fearn’s musicianship is better and more varied than ever, to the point that his music almost grooves at times, and Williamson is on fire throughout, combining his stream of consciousness political rants with funny and absurd asides, creating an internal world he then proceeds to rip apart in disgust. Like other oddball, British-centric artists through history – from Ian Dury, The Happy Mondays through to The Streets – Sleaford Mods are steeped in their local culture, yet articulate their concerns so effectively that their rage and humour is universal. When Williamson sings of “going down like B.H.S.” (British Home Store – a recently liquidated British department chain) or of scouting the local Spar for more lager, it matters little that the detailed references don’t make sense to non-Brits, and the closer ‘I Feel So Wrong’ is something previously unthinkable – a reflective ballad where Williamson sings the whole time. It’s a compelling, funny and extremely human record, and by its close it’s hard not to wonder if Iggy might be right. – Pete Douglas


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