Albums of the week: Franz Ferdinan, MGMT and Ezra Furman

Franz Ferdinand - Always Ascending
(Domino)

****

In the five years since their last album, Franz Ferdinand have lost one member, guitarist Nick McCarthy, and gained two more. Alex Kapranos’s distinctive croon and biting lyrics are still front and centre, however, so existing fans will remain in familiar territory. There are more keyboards than usual thanks to new

addition Julian Corrie and, with the help of French dance producer Philippe Zdar, the band are as capable as ever of making indie rock that moves the feet. This is true on the electronic groove of Feel the Love Go and the title track. On The Academy Award, a dig at selfie culture, and Huck and Jim, which is unenthusiastic about America, they stray towards novelty, but there’s plenty to please those who’ve stuck with them long-term.

by David Smyth

MGMT - Little Dark Age
(Columbia)

****

MGMT’s arrival on to a 2007 music scene drenched in MOR indie was a breath of fresh air. Their synth-laden, electro-indie pop soared, earning Oracular Spectacular platinum sales and an army of fans. Their decision to change direction soon after was a baffling one. Dense, over-indulgent psychedelia replaced catchy electro melodies, and fans walked away.

This album, therefore, comes as a wonderful surprise as the band return to the sound that brought them to prominence 11 years ago, albeit a slightly darker and mysterious one. Weird, dream-like synths underpin energetic, vintage-sounding narratives, such as the title track and the gloriously enigmatic When You Die. Eighties-sounding She Works Out Too Much and TSLAMP wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtracks to Stranger Things or Black Mirror’s San Junipero.

by Elizabeth Aubrey

Ezra Furman - Transangelic Exodus
(Bella Union)

*****

There was an almost-coming-a-part-at-the-seams quality to Ezra Furman’s last couple of albums. The tunes were playful (garage rock for the most part), the lyrics often hilarious, but the howling rasp in his voice suggested real pain. With Transangelic Angels, the Chicago singer-songwriter has well and truly come apart — which is to say, everything has come together spectacularly.

He calls this his “Queer Springsteen” album: Furman is a bisexual, gender-fluid, practising Jew who recently started performing in lipstick and dresses. But this is a road trip in the escapist traditions of Born to Run, albeit retooled for Donald Trump’s America. The band sound great, stretching themselves between dulcet electro and clattering rockers, and it’s all underpinned by a madcap sense of urgency.

by Richard Godwin

The Wombats - Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life
(Kobalt)

****

An indie band trying to be a pop group, or a pop group trying to be an indie band? It was always hard to tell with The Wombats, purveyors of endlessly jaunty anthems. Either way, you have to admire their staying power. On their fourth album, Matthew “Murph” Murphy has toned down some of the more excitable tendencies without abandoning the tunes.

Recently married and having relocated to LA, the 33-year-old frontman has perhaps decided it’s time for The Wombats to grow up a bit. Murphy’s melodic capabilities scale new heights on a revelatory set of songs that reference life in California (I Only Wear Black) as well as ongoing anxiety issues (Out of My Head). Anyone immune to whimsy and wordplay may struggle with the lyrics, but it’s their loss.

by Andre Paine

The Transports - A Tale of Exile and Migration

***

The Transports was a ballad opera composed by Peter Bellamy in 1977, and its recording with June Tabor, Martin Carthy and Norma and Mike Waterson was a landmark in British folk music. Last year it was staged by some of today’s luminaries — The Young’uns, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell and others — in an acclaimed revival.

Here is the new recording of these poignant songs about the first transportation of convicts to Australia in 1788 which, of course, has resonance today. The story is narrated by Matthew Crampton, and the stripped-down folk arrangements let the songs ring clear. New song Dark Water, by Sean Cooney, is about a Syrian refugee. More of this would lift it to another level.

by Simon Broughton

Julia Biel - Julia Biel
(Rokit Records)

****

Singer and pianist Julia Biel is an enigma, a London treasure hiding in plain sight. It’s anyone’s guess why the award-winning frontwoman of Brixton collective Soothsayers hasn’t hit the big time; her third solo album confirms her knack for penning smart, intimate songs and delivering them in a voice both crystalline and dreamy.

There’s a bittersweet quality to tracks such as Something Beautiful, a tale of a relationship breakdown sung to soft keys and keening violin; Dead Slept Rough, with its clever instrumentation by Idris Rahman, simmers with heartfelt anger. From love and loss to joy and pain, Biel runs the gamut. Perhaps too personal for harsher spotlights, this is still a total delight.

By Jane Cornwell