The Flaming Lips: Oczy Mlody ****
The xx: I See You ***
Half Japanese: Hear The Lions Roar ***
These are crazy mid-life crisis times for The Flaming Lips. On the one hand, their effervescent, inventive frontman Wayne Coyne has taken to collaborating with wannabe bad girl pop stars Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus (the latter on her most recent album Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz), pulling both of them over somewhat to the weird side. Meanwhile, the band have retreated from the euphoric indie pop of their most successful albums back to their experimental psychedelic roots.
This follow-up to their actually quite beautiful 2013 album The Terror boasts an eye-watering day-glo cover and is accompanied by a typically opaque press statement “explaining” that the Polish language title – picked out of a second hand paperback – refers to a new (fictional) party drug.
So far, so batshit. Some of the music was debuted at yoga classes in their native Oklahoma City – which is not such a crazy idea when you hear the opening ambient instrumental title track. The entire album is more of
a fluid suite, lacking the pop foundation of previous works but influenced by futuristic hip-hop production techniques to create a truly 21st century psychedelia. Best just to lie back and enjoy the trip, picking out scenic features such as the lonesome twanging guitar and light, pattering martial beat on Galaxy I Sink.
Yet for all its spaced-out serenity, Oczy Mlody is as undeniably indulgent as anything the Lips have ever laid claim to. Fairytale and mythological references abound but One Night While Hunting For Faeries and Witches and Wizards To Kill is considerably less OTT than its title might suggest, being a moody, low-key electro ballad with muted vocals.
The larger than life Coyne is more elusive here, his eerie, multi-tracked vocals floating in the cosmic ether of There Should Be Unicorns. He sounds frail and beseeching on How – until you tune in to the lyric: “back when we were young we killed everyone if they f***** with us”. It’s not the only glimpse of a dark underbelly to this band known for the childlike wonder of their shows.
Former child star Cyrus rounds off this strange, immersive trip with yearning guest vocals on the woozy mantra We A Family before it is time to re-adjust the dial to the cold light of day.
The xx sound similarly blissed-out on their third album but theirs is a far less intriguing trip. I See You begins with a brass fanfare and an understated funky groove but soon settles into their usual delicate mellowtronica, flowing freely with wispy expressions of devotion, vulnerability and romantic angst. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim are indie crooners with a nicely natural ache but the uniformity of pace and pitch makes this pleasant but unspectacular background music punctuated by one marginally livelier synth pop number, On Hold.
Jad Fair also sticks with what he is best at on Half Japanese’s 18th studio album – yet after more than 40 years occupying the DIY underground, his instinctive indie garage pop still sounds fresh and spontaneous. Hear The Lions Roar is more finessed – and frankly listenable – than some of his previous efforts. The Preventers conjures up a crack team of gonzo sci-fi superheroes, Of Course It Is combines garagey Motown-inspired rhythm with the impishness of early REM and there is a carefree confidence to the dub reggae inflections of On Top and the rootsy rambunctious rock’n’roll of It’s Our Time.
Sibelius: In the Stream of Life ****
It’s often said that Sibelius’ songs represent an embarrassment of riches, such is the opulence and scope of their expressive language. That sensation is multiplied when such delights as Black Roses or the modernistic The River and the Snail are further enriched by orchestral accompaniment, in most cases by composers other than Sibelius himself. It’s what gives this trenchant disc by the Bergen Philharmonic under Edward Gardner, with soloist Gerald Finley, such warm, colourul exuberance. At its heart are the seven songs of In the Stream of Life, moodily orchestrated by fellow Finn, Einojuhani Rautavaara, over which Finley’s baritone casts a magical spell. Other gems range from the exotic bloom of The Diamond on the March Snow and hymn-like simplicity of Hymn to Thaïs to the restful acceptance of Come Away, Death. Gardner spotlights the sensitivity of his orchestra in the instrumental Oceanides and Pohjola’s Daughter.
Morten Schantz: Godspeed ****
Danish keyboard player Morten Schantz has re-united with long-standing collaborators Marius Neset on tenor and soprano saxophone and Phronesis drummer Anton Eger. This album under Schantz’s own name reflects the energy of their previous band, JazzKamikaze, but combines more ambitious arrangements, richly coloured by Schantz’s fearsome arsenal of synths and keyboards, with a gleefully unfettered muscularity that pervades much of the recording.
Book-ended by Neset’s tenor sax over keyboard drones in Silence in the Tempest Parts 1 & 2, the interplay between Neset’s soprano sax and Schantz’s squalling synth carries echoes of Weather Report in the title track and in Ceasefire, and the energy is cranked up further by Eger’s drumming. The chimes of Growing Sense develop into a joyful climax, while the tempo gets notched up again for the rapidly shifting soundscapes and syncopated handclaps of Martial Arts.