Changing LightMirah’s fifth album proper continues the chamber- folk, rock/pop sound that she has been nurturing and refining since her 2004 album “C’mon Miracle”. This is also -deep breath -- a break-up album but queer-identifying Mirah seems more inclined toward the very grown-up, conscious uncoupling of Gwyneth than that of, say, Fiona Apple. But saying that would also be doing this collection a massive disservice. “Changing Light” continues to showcase Mirah’s supreme knack of writing songs that charm and bewitch, and glorious melodies that have been a constant link through all of her solo work, but this time she really does mean business. Competing with the likes of the recent incarnation of Tegan and Sara as androgynous eighties prom sound-trackers and omnipresent recluse Sia, there’s a big and brilliant power ballad included here. It’s unexpected, not cynical in the slightest and conveys Mirah’s constant refusal to be pigeonholed into one, tidy category. She is making music now that is put together with staggering precision and beauty.

The opening of “Changing Light” is undeniably strong and assertive and, while not exactly front-loaded, it does set the bar extremely high for the remainder of the album. ”Goat Shepherd”, with its Spectoresque drum intro, thunders in this accusing and extrovert album opener. Guitars and drums bolster Mirah’s incredulous concern ‘said the Shepherd to the Goat, what is this feeling in my throat? So this is anger? I’ve never known her -- she took over’. “Oxen Hope” is one of the best examples of Mirah’s ability to shapeshift and try on sonic cloaks which would normally be taboo within the genre. Electronic clatter, elegant but persistent, and unexpected auto tune caress Mirah’s vocals which, on this stand-out track, mourns the loss of eternal optimism; ‘did you know you’d struck the final blow to my oxen hope?’ “Turned The Heat Off” follows, the power ballad in question, and  it crashes and glides its way through into the irresistible pop chorus before descending into delectable strings and a falsetto warmth that marks new territory for the singer; she succeeds effortlessly. Subtle strings continue through to “Gold Rush” and build to a full orchestra in the melodramatic and expansive final minute; a cello solo and yearning tone lead to an exquisite experience.

Maybe sensibly, the sumptuousness established in the early part of “Changing Light”  drops away for the middle part of the album with “Fleetfoot Ghost” and the rambunctious “I Am the Garden” being rawer, and stripped back acoustic examples of the core Mirah sound, but lacking the bite, maybe, of her earlier work. The excellent “No Direction Home” pulls the album back on track with its solitary brass opening, r’n’b backing vocals behind tight economic melodies and a great understanding of space and drama. “24th Street” is a plain speaking, humorous, recollection of how bad behaviour becomes second nature during the final hours of a long-term relationship. Closing tracks “LC”, a tribute to the healing power of Leonard Cohen set in a near accapella choral-like interlude, and “Radiomind” are downbeat and minor and somewhat stranded from the solidly cohesive sound preceding it.

Relationship albums that come out this genre are usually easy to relate to and obvious; an all-encompassing weepie, histrionic angry interludes, self-love, self-loathing and nostalgia combined to make an overture to torment and rebirth. “Changing Lights” doesn’t feel like any of these things but these areas are, indeed, all covered. Mirah recounts her experiences in an even and indeed passionate way, lyrically she can be obtuse here and it would on occasion be a relief and a thrill to hear her disconnect from the sense of control and really let rip. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a fourth album in what feels like the natural end of a sonic trilogy. From the buzzy lo-fi indie pop and snark of “You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s LikeThis” which she debuted with in 2000 through to the ever more polished and sweeping sound of her work over the last decade, it does feel as though she has possibly peaked here with this sound. This album perhaps doesn’t expose her in the way one might have expected, considering its personal nature, but she continues to be one of the most thoughtful and surprising singer songwriters to come out of American over the last decade and “Changing Light” is Mirah’s most accessible and admirable release so far.

And last but not least from the Riot Squad, we have John Preston’s Top 5 albums from 2012.  Starting tomorrow, you can find out what some of the artists we’ve reviewed this year have been listening to.  Of course, I’m not going to tell you who’s contributing yet; you’ll have to visit the website over the next couple of weeks for that.

 

Fiona Apple -- “The Idler Wheel…”Product Details

Her best album of 4, Fiona Apple is a true original; a breath taking talent and completely, criminally overlooked in the UK. You can change this; buy this outstanding albeit challenging (worth it though, believe me) CD and show her the respect and love she deserves for continuing to make songs as brave, bare and uncompromising as she has here. You’re not worthy of course and she’d rather spend a weekend with her piano and dog than share a beer with a hipster like you but you won’t find a better singer songwriter to fall head over heels with. Listen to ‘Regret’ and be quietly, hopelessly terrified and then just surrender.

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra -- “Theatre is Evil”Product Details

Charismatic, tireless, controversial and forever ‘on’; Amanda Palmer’s fan-funded, 16 track opus is a thumping and relentless feel good(ish) blast. The chamber pop strings and piano of “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” has, on the whole, been traded in for massive 80’s synths, rock guitars, thuggish pop choruses and has an energy and vitality that nothing else I’ve listened to this year comes close to matching. This is probably best demonstrated in the garish, hysterical and euphoric “Do It with A Rockstar” video where all of these elements collide beautifully. My go to choice to blow the morning blues away when you’re still half asleep and making your way into work on a rainy Thursday morning; it may be a cliché but play this one LOUD!

Brandy – “Two Eleven”Product Details

In 2004 Brandy released what was probably her most consistent and cohesive album, “Afrodisiac”. Crucially it was also one of the last top notch productions that RnB superstar Timbaland (and Missy Elliott’s musical soul mate) was responsible for before his, and also RnB’s, decline. He went on to produce Miley Cyrus and New Kids on The Block and Mary J Blige was produced by Eurotrance cheese maker RedOne and autotune replaced real vocals. Brandy resisted jumping on this ill-conceived bandwagon and has now returned with a heartfelt, beautifully sung, sleek and modern RnB album. Timbaland isn’t around this time but Frank Ocean and Bangladesh are and they really do provide Brandy with a sound-scape that enables her to fly.  Check out the Lykke Li-sampled, dancehall-incorporating and completely bonkers “Let Me Go” if any further proof is needed. So along with new comers such as Dawn Richard and Solange, things are thankfully moving forward again in a very positive, new direction within the RnB genre.

Lana Del Rey – “Born To Die Paradise Edition”Product Details

When one of the most intriguing and original pop stars of the last ten years debut album didn’t quite deliver the goods as expected in the wake  of her destined to become classic single “Video Games”, the disappointment was palpable. Lana Del Rey has more than redeemed herself however on this re-release featuring 9 (on the ITunes version) new, very high quality songs which ditches some of the kitchen sink production mistakes of the original album and replaces them with a warmer but, importantly,  even more desolate sound. “Ride” demonstrates that vocally and songwise Del Rey is no one-trick pony and possesses enough personality and pathos to carry a big song in a way that her contemporaries may struggle with. America’s new sweet heart.

Rachel Zeffira – “The Deserters”Product Details

Released at the beginning of this month, this is a late comer but without doubt an essential release which you will thank me for tracking down. This is beautiful, ornate and soothing music of the most other-worldly kind and also the most seasonal (as in winter not Christmas) of my picks. Last year I included Cat’s Eyes on my Top 5 and Rachel Zeffira is one half of that duo so it’s nice that this album, which has the DNA of that debut but mixed with something altogether more spectral, has proved that she can stand alone and make an album which sounds unlike anything else I’ve heard this year.

Product DetailsThis collection of mainly new songs is part of the Paradise edition (reissue) of Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” album released earlier this year. When I reviewed this album in January I wrote with disappointment about how, after the initial promise of the incredible “Video Games”, the album was samey and, well, a bit dull. I’m pleased to say that these 8 songs come closer to fulfilling the decaying American dream world aesthetic that she has been flirting with since her invention of Lana Del Rey.

The clunky themes that tended to weigh down “Born To Die” still feature in every track here (the pale moonlight, daddies, diamonds, party dresses, drugs, drinks, Elvis and of course death) but with very subtle shading here and there they become less cumbersome as the massive sweep and power of the music and Del Rey’s performance itself utterly convince and take over. Much of this, I’m guessing, is down to a change in producers; Emile Haynie who was in charge of the majority of the original album only has 2 co-productions here and subsequently the noisy but hollow hip hop influence is less obvious. Two brilliant cases in point are the Rick Rubin-produced first single “Ride” and the Rick Nowels-helmed “American”. Both of these feature impassioned vocals (particularly “Ride” with Lana almost howling the ‘I’m sick and tired of feeling fucking crazy’ line) and a warmth and Americana nostalgia that, although not as other worldly as “Video Games”, signifies a move towards something more substantial and moving. “Bel Air” is a further progression sonically with the piano keeping a waltz time,  Del Rey seeing gargoyles and a sample of a noisy kids playground (a trick used with more subtlety by Fiona Apple a couple of months back); it defines the concept of ‘cinematic’ music and is quite beautiful.

The thundering “Gods and Monsters” is the most self possessed vocal performance here and lyrically either the most irritating or Meta depending on how much the Del Rey mythology/invention convinces you, but it is hard to deny its power; ‘In the land of Gods and Monsters, I was an angel, looking to get fucked hard. Like a groupie incognito, posing as a real singer; life imitates Art’. This may just be Lana getting her own back on her record label after the original lyrics of “Born To Die” were changed from ‘fuck me hard in the pouring rain’ to ‘kiss me hard’; who knows. Maybe she goes a little too far in her revenge with “Cola” though, lyrics like ‘my pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola’ are just embarrassingly and pointlessly attention-seeking (after “Diet Mountain Dew”, her second unsuccessful attempt at a song referencing popular carbonated beverages) and “Body Electric” neatly collects all her key phrases in one song bordering on self-parody and is one of the few mis-steps here.

Yayo” is an oddity, originally featured on Lizzie Grant’s now-withdrawn debut album this has been re-recorded as a seemingly structureless song (it does in fact have a definite structure) with Del Rey amping up her bleary-eyed, drugged-out Monroe persona; it doesn’t really work as well as the original recording, oddly enough, but it is a brave decision to introduce something less obvious. “Blue Velvet” is a great cover and my goodness this could have been disastrous; brilliant retro strings burst in before the whole things plunges into Prince-like slow motion beats and Lana does her best Isabella Rossellini impersonation.  It’s fascinating to think that so many listeners will have never heard the original, this version being their first exposure to this truly iconic song.

So if you cherry pick from the original album (“Radio”, “Without You”, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” for starters) and lose 1 or 2 tracks from this new batch you actually do end up with one of the best and most original pop albums of the year. After initially threatening to retire musically and work in the film business, Lana Del Rey has confirmed that a second album (third if you include this) will be released and in describing her vision for it (stacked up a capellas, a full orchestra and lots of space apparently) she appears to be someone who fully understands the artistry (or lack of, depending on your view point!) of what they’re doing. But once she has collaborated with David Lynch, the definitive reference point of all of her work, then I for one will be satisfied and she can then put her Audrey Horne, red saddle shoes away in relative peace.