Each fortnight, leading music journalist John Earls goes deep on new releases, examines the latest vinyl issues and talks to the makers of the best new albums.
STAR PLAYERS: Talking to the makers of the best new albums
This week: Gary Numan
An innovator ever since Are 'Friends' Electric? stormed to No 1 in 1979, Gary Numan is now at the forefront of a darker, brooding electronic rock. Having told of a near-future planet on his previous album Savage, Gary wanted new LP Intruder to be equally honest about climate change. And then the pandemic happened... Gary reflects on his prophecies with us.
What was the initial inspiration for Intruder?
It was quite simple: If the Earth could speak, what would it say? I wondered if it would feel angry, bitter or disillusioned at what we've done to it. More importantly, I wondered if it would want to fight back and, if so, how it would do it.
Bearing that in mind, how did you feel when Covid struck?
As a concept, Covid was already there in the record. It was strange how it fitted in so seamlessly. A virus is nature's answer to a lot of problems, so it had seemed an obvious way for Earth to fight back. What was really strange was how politicised our response to it became, especially when Trump was still doing his thing. The virus got caught up in his way of dealing with everything, so that wearing a mask became a political statement.
With Savage and now Intruder, you've become one of music's most vocal presences about climate change. How do you view Greta Thunberg?
She's extraordinary. She's such a mine of fantastically brutal information. For someone so young to effectively become the voice of saving the planet, it's a shocking indictment of the powers that be. None of them are seen as saviours of the planet - that young woman is.
Savage reached No 2. Are you hoping to go one better with Intruder?
I don't write my songs to cross over anymore. I did that in the terrible middle years of my career in the late '80s, and didn't get myself back on track until Sacrifice in 1994. But, yeah, the pressure is enormous. I'm really happy I haven't compromised or changed anything to get radio play, which I used to try to do. I've just tried to make a record I can be proud of, which I've tried ever since Sacrifice. Realistically, I'll be happy if Intruder goes Top 10, but the chart position really shouldn't matter. That's what I tell myself, at least rationally!
After so long making music, do you have a good routine for making albums?
You'd think so, but my working methods are really amateurish. I don't know why, but it has to be really stressful before I get the best out of myself. I often start albums later than I should. I keep putting the time to start them back, even though I know once I finally try to knuckle down, it'll be six months before I really get going. It's a very emotional journey, with a few good days surrounded by a lot of less good days. It's a serious business, because I have to try to stop my fragile self-confidence crumbling a lot. Usually, it's not much fun for a month, followed by a day of amazing.
How much are you looking forward to getting back out on tour?
Oh, getting back on stage will be so huge. I really miss that passion, both of being on stage and hanging out with friends in the band. It's the life I've chosen, of having adventures away from the real world. Having it taken away from me, a whole chunk of my life has gone.
Intruder is out on May 21. Pre-order Intruder here
Release The Tracks - the best of the new albums released in the next fortnight
By now, it's brilliantly impossible to predict what a new Paul Weller album will sound like. Fat Pop resembles a greatest hits of his solo career, in that all the various Wellers of the past 45 years are here: The Jam's anger, The Style Council's smooth funk, the stately ballads of the Wild Wood era. And, because it's Paul Weller, there are new moves too. You'll probably know the Ian Dury-gone-disco of first single Cosmic Fringes. He also moves into raggedy blues, while The Pleasure combines the whole lot in one stunning move. Order Fat Pop here
Speaking of raggedy blues, virtually all The Black Keys albums sound like lost blues classics. The twist on the duo's new album Delta Kream is that it really is a blues covers set. Tackling songs by RL Burnside, David Kimbrough and John Lee Hooker, the familiar gnarly guitar solos and intense hollering mean it could easily be the Keys' own work. Order Delta Kream here
Named after her father's release from prison after a long fraud sentence, St Vincent's new album Daddy Home is a return to her indie roots after Masseduction's slick pop. It's good to hear Annie Clark break her guitar out again, though a lot of the album resembles Lana Del Rey's vintage glamour. You're unlikely to hear a better summertime harmony ballad than At The Holiday Party all year. Order Daddy's Home here
Alongside his comedy, Matt Berry is a prolific pop-progger. The Blue Elephant is the Toast Of London star's eighth album in a decade, and his most commercial. There are still some sneaky sinister undertones familiar from his previous albums, but mostly it's breezy, infectious pop with more of a funk heft than before. Order The Blue Elephant here
Although they've only made eight albums in 35 years, it's bizarre that The Chills aren't more widely recognised for their literate acoustic pop like Teenage Fanclub and fellow New Zealanders Crowded House. Last year's documentary The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps started to open the public's eyes to their singer's intricate songs, and the band capitalise on the attention with a typically beautiful set which does the simple things perfectly. Order Scatterbrain here
Leading the way in May 21 releases, Gary Numan says he doesn't mind if Intruder doesn't match the No 2 peak of his previous album, Savage. That seems unlikely. Even though Gary started writing it before the pandemic, Intruder's themes about Earth cleansing itself of mankind make it the first great coronavirus concept album. The songs are more approachable than the theme, but it's typically uncompromising, brilliantly brutal music. Order Intruder here
Gruff Rhys' seventh album Seeking New Gods began as a concept record about North Korean mountain Mount Paektu, because of course it did. It's mutated into a reflective work, shot through with the Super Furrys leader's typical empathy and huggable tunes. All forms of pop and human life are within. Order Seeking New Gods here
After recent covers albums dedicated to The Police and Olivia Newton-John, Juliana Hatfield returns with much darker fare. Lyrically, Blood is an excellent summation of modern psychology and trying to find a way through a rapidly changing cultural landscape - and it comes wrapped in the grunge icon's typically infectious buzzpop melodies. Order Blood here
Anyone expecting Lambchop to still be making hazy alt-country will be surprised by Showtunes. As the name implies, Kurt Wagner is closer to Cole Porter than Mercury Rev here, but the psychedelic keyboards and Kurt's more familiar Tom Waitsian rumble mean Showtunes is way more experimental than old-fashioned romance. Order Showtunes here
LET THE RECORDS SHOW: Going behind the myths about vinyl
This week: Why are some albums pressed at 45rpm?
While we're all used to heavyweight vinyl meaning many LPs are now double albums, one underused idea is pressing albums at 45rpm.
Because you can fit less music on 45rpm vinyl, it rarely happens. But 45rpm does sound better - it's one reason the great 7" singles sound so much greater on vinyl. The rise of the 12" single and extended remixes in the early '80s also coincided with improved technology in cutting lacquers at vinyl pressing plants. It's one reason why 12" singles were always pressed on 45prm, rather than the 33rpm speed of LPs.
The reason 45rpm is better is because the higher the rpm, the larger the grooves. This doesn't matter at the start of a record but, as it narrows towards the centre label, there's a greater chance of distortion and loss of high frequency sounds. This particularly affects dance music, giving a loss of, well, groove as cymbals start to sound wonky at 33rpm.
With vinyl collectors being used to 33rpm, it can be disconcerting faced with an album pressed at 45rpm, such as Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer or The Specials' first two albums, repressed at 45rpm in the recent 2 Tone reissues.
There's also cost, of course: pressing at 45rpm would mean most of those heavyweight 2LP sets would become 4LPs. But, as with the deluxe 45rpm pressing of Fontaines DC's A Hero's Death album, as an occasional treat, 45rpm LPs are brimful of passion.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Unearthing hidden treasures on the Vinyl Whistle shelves This week: Paul Weller - Paul Weller Order Paul Weller here
As his new album Fat Pop implies, Paul Weller is too much of a futurist to be as concerned about reissues than most artists with such a wondrous back catalogue.
Even getting hold of Wild Wood on vinyl can be a mission, so tracking down relative obscurities like Weller's self-titled solo debut can be really trying. Best to snap up this sumptuously packaged edition of the 1992 set while you can, complete with a photo booklet.
The story of how Weller nearly walked away following the long fade of The Style Council has been well told. What's still remarkable 29 years on is just how determined Weller sounds, the strident Uh Huh Oh Yeh blasting away the cobwebs, while Into Tomorrow was a belligerent memo to self not to repeat the past. Throw in some gentler Steve Winwood-style pastoral ballads pre-figuring Wild Wood and it's an undervalued important rebirth in Weller's career.