Music reviews: Olivier Chaney, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Foxing, the Beths and more

FOLK Olivia Chaney

SHELTER (Nonesuch)

Olivier Chaney: songs as light as gossamer.

Olivier Chaney: songs as light as gossamer.


Olivia Chaney comes out of that glorious, rarefied​ folk tradition which produces songs that are as light as gossamer and as delicate as flower petals, and that includes musicians like Nick Drake and Jane Siberry​. Chaney is classically trained, and consequently her vocal beauty is defined by a crystal-like clarity which recalls, but never imitates, Joan Baez​, Sandy Denny and Joni​ Mitchell. This gorgeous collection, written in a cottage high on the Yorkshire moors and produced in New York by Thomas Bartlett (Sufjan​ Stevens, Glen Hansard and Julia Stone), is characterised by a shining simplicity: just vocals, piano and guitar in settings that seem to glow with warmth, and lyrics that are imbued with poignant images of the natural world. There are eight Chaney compositions – of which the title track is heartbreakingly beautiful – and a nod to her classical background with Henry Purcell's O Solitude, plus a sensitive reinterpretation of the Everly​ Brothers' Long Time Gone. This album is dense with metaphor and characterised by a soaring, unswerving originality. Thematically it is a reflection on the complexity of modern life and the desire for refuge from the travails of the world. BRUCE ELDER




How to explain the world of Liz Stokes? Well, the singer-guitarist of this New Zealand four-piece falls hard and falls often, then she writes whip-smart indie pop songs that leave you with aching ankles from tapping along, and that then send you back to your record collection as you realise it's been way too long since you listened to the Hummingbirds, the Primitives and Bettie​ Serveert​. "There's something about you I want to risk going through," Stokes trills on the title track, via a rollercoaster melody and a sugar-rush of fuzzy guitars. This music may not be rocket science, but it's fiendishly difficult to make it stand out from the crowd like this. It helps that the Beths are not afraid to pack three great tunes into one song, and that they know when to step on their overdrive pedals and when to lay off. But their secret weapon is Stokes, who exhibits a guilelessness and winning self-deprecation that puts her somewhere along a line between Courtney​ Barnett and '90s cartoon icon Daria. "This stays in the room, don't take it with you," she warns at the beginning of Not Running. Then she bares it all. That is her power. BARRY DIVOLA​

POP Gilbert O'Sullivan​



In the early 1970s, Gilbert O'Sullivan​ was more popular than piano-balladeer rival Elton John. But Elton ascended like a rocket man, and O'Sullivan's​ career fell to Earth (except in Japan). O'Sullivan​ was always daggier​ and more maudlin than Elton, but he was a thoughtful songwriter: Alone Again (Naturally) was both mild-mannered and an emotional kick in the teeth. Here O'Sullivan​ does the indie cred comeback record a la Johnny Cash, the album produced by Ethan Johns who also produces acoustic-based albums by more modern acts like Laura Marling​ and Boy & Bear. Johns keeps the sound of the album faithful to the warmth of early 1970s piano pop, and O'Sullivan​ presents a strong set of songs. The standout is I'll Never Love Again, which features sweet orchestration, witty lyrics and Great American Songbook​ deftness. Elsewhere on the album O'Sullivan​ excels at jaunty, somewhat twee tunes, with names like Dansette​ Dreams and The Mind Boggles, and melodies that Paul McCartney wouldn't mind stealing. In one sitting it's all a bit much, but that was also true of O'Sullivan's​ music in 1972. This is the rare comeback record that is as good as the old stuff. TIM BYRON

CLASSICAL Calvin Bowman



This double album of art songs by Melbourne composer, pianist and organist Calvin Bowman is sometimes revelatory and always absorbing. It contains 56 world premiere recordings of his miniatures, beautifully sung by soprano Sara Macliver​, tenor Paul McMahon and bass-baritone Christopher Richardson. Ian Munro and Bowman share the piano accompaniment, sometimes together, as in the delightful setting of The Sea Boy by Walter de la Mare (a poet much represented here, along with Hilaire​ Belloc). Bowman paints with a delicate palette: sparing and subtle, but almost always effective and evocative. The opening song, Silver, shows what a fine colourist he is, not to mention being achingly tender (Now Touch the Air Softly), poignant (Tune for Swans) and jauntily witty (The Dodo). The title comes from his song cycle of nine poems by the irresistible Michael Leunig​: quirky words and music that pack a psychological punch. Macliver​ is ravishing, especially in her pure, sweet higher register, while McMahon and Richardson share her intimate understanding, singing expressively, sensitively and with clarity. It's wonderful to keep the lieder legacy alive. BARNEY ZWARTZ​

JAZZ James Muller



Having been party to exceptional live recordings by the Steve Hunter Band and the Subterraneans among others, Australia's slipperiest​ jazz guitarist, James Muller, here makes a live one of his own, telling us in the liner notes that, despite all the sessions, he's never been a comfortable studio animal. Certainly his most incendiary playing has occurred in concert, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that he attains his ultimate incandescence when not bearing responsibility for leading the band. For this album Muller shipped an audience into an Adelaide studio to combine the live buzz with audio precision. His colleagues are alto saxophonist Will Vinson​, bassist Sam Anning​ and drummer Ben Vanderwal​, with whom Muller feels an urge to unleash his inner bebopper: Monk's Evidence and Bird's Scrapple​ from the Apple nestle in a repertoire fleshed out with Lennie Tristano​, Jerome Kern and three of his own tunes. The guitarist opts to keep his sound clean and singing, where I've always like it when he flirts with a little dirt and danger. Did he capture the uninhibited performances he sought? Not entirely, but he did lay down a convincing straight-ahead jazz album. JOHN SHAND

NEARER MY GOD (Cooking Vinyl)

It's been three years since the St Louis band's last set, and much has changed since then. They lost a bassist and found a new sound on this, their third record: one that's sure to polarise fans of their more straight-up emo-tinted indie-rock. Taking cues from the likes of Brand New and Sorority Noise, Nearer My God shows a new depth, funkiness​ and grand ambition in the band, and for the most part it's executed well. Opener Grand Paradise announces this, at once majestic and broody; Gameshark​ is tense and fast-paced, the band really flexing their sonic muscles, with great delivery from versatile front-man Conor Murphy. The big picture is tempered with more gentle moments like Slapstick, which flourishes with samples and inspired percussion. When bassist Josh Croll left last year, many wondered if it would in fact be the end of the band. Instead, it has marked a new phase for Foxing, and it's fitting that they're dreaming big three albums deep. Whether old fans are going to warm as fast to this set remains to be seen, but they stand a good chance of landing a whole new audience with it. BRONWYN THOMPSON

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