September 2022 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

Madison Cunningham: Revealer
Verve Forecast, Tyler Chester, Mike Elizondo, Tucker Martine, prods.; David Boucher, Tyler Chester, Madison Cunningham, Justin Francis, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

This is a really good album. Only 25, Madison Cunningham is bursting with talent. Cunningham's most striking gift is as a guitarist, wielding her beloved Fender Jazzmaster, but she's an expressive singer and writes complex—and catchy—songs. She's been nominated for Best Album Grammys in both Americana and folk. I'd call her a kickass rocker at heart, though she's capable of exploring stiller waters.

Cunningham comes from an evangelical Christian family and grew up singing in church in Orange County, California. By now, you could safely call her music secular, about relationships, mostly. It's equally safe to say that this is an individual with a complicated personality that she's given to probing, maybe a little obsessively.

Cunningham the player is not a big improviser; she's a riffer and a builder of short, punchy lines and a texture freak— a tremendous amount of thought and gear-tweaking have gone into her guitar sound. On first listen, her breathy voice is insubstantial girlpop; listen again and you'll hear a supple instrument of broad emotional range. Her smart lyrics run the emotional gamut, too; coming from someone capable of biting sarcasm, a line like "Once your girl, I'm always your girl" (the pensive "Life According to Raechel") has a touching vulnerability and generosity. And she can sneakily quote another artist's lyrics—go ahead, find the line plucked from Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now."

It's impossible to pick out one or two best songs on Revealer; all 11 are on a pretty, sometimes very, high level. The album is beautifully recorded and mixed. Although most of the songs feature multiple, sometimes many, instruments, you can home right in on each one and hear every catch in Cunningham's voice. You owe it to yourself to check this woman's music out. Now.—Tony Scherman


Black Midi: Hellfire
Rough Trade RT0321 (CD, LP, download). 2022. Marta Salogni, prod.; Dani Bennett Spragg, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

With preorders of Black Midi's last album, Cavalcade, fans got a bonus EP (cleverly titled Cavalcovers) featuring the British outfit's renditions of songs by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, King Crimson, and Taylor Swift. The Swift was sincere, the Crimson precise, the Beefheart misguided. The choices (which can now be found online) provide a tidy cross section of the band: heavy, offbeat, and a bit cheeky. Those elements have added up better sometimes than others; it's not hard to picture the band barreling along almost out of control, tossing songs infectious and annoying as they hold on for dear life.

Hellfire, their third full-length, is by far their best yet, and in fact a hit from beginning to end. It's something of a concept album in the tried-and-true sense of rock operas that don't quite make sense. "Rock vignettes" might be closer to the mark, a set of character sketches in dystopic settings—the year 2163 is mentioned—where things are very definitely not good, touching on sports, military and farm life, violence, damnation and loneliness, ravers, two-steps and ballads. It might be seen as an ADHD bastard child of David Bowie's Outside, more mood than story, with enough precision in the playing to mask the vagaries in story.

And, perhaps also like the best rock operas, the story doesn't really matter. The trio (guitar, bass, and drums with added sax and percussion) explodes, with plenty of bombast, a combustion engine of heavy prog spiked with post-punk noise, pushed to the edge by producer Marta Salogni, who in the past has lent immersive presence to Bjîrk, M.I.A., and Animal Collective.

If you dig deep enough, it's actually quite funny. Otherwise, it's an audio virtual-reality video game designed to make the future rush by so fast you don't notice the hell of the present.—Kurt Gottschalk


Porridge Radio: Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky
Secretly Canadian (16-bit/44.1kHz stream, Qobuz). 2022. Dana Margolin, Tom Carmichael, Sam Yardley, prods.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

The four-piece band Porridge Radio started in Brighton, UK, in 2014, but it wasn't until their 2020 album Every Bad that they claimed their berth in the global indie scene. While that impressive record burst with fearsome emotions, this follow-up presents a wider spectrum of experience and more nuance in form and content. Still, that volcanic rage is always present, even when it's held below the surface.

Besides Dana Margolin's haunting voice, which drills into the listener's soul with its skittering shake, perhaps the band's most powerful weapon is its rhythmic subtlety. Margolin, the group's songwriter, certainly can't be called a melodist. "Back to the Radio" is typical for using only five notes and often just repeating a single pitch for long stretches. But the rhythmic enjambment of the lyrics propels that song forward along its triple-metered track. Likewise, in "Flowers," lines spiral endlessly into each other as in a Leonard Cohen poem.

A recurring theme of the album is discontentment. "Splintered" draws a ruthless parallel between breaking up with a toxic person and expelling a splinter from healthy flesh. Heartache is expressed as much through arrangements as through lyrics and delivery. Sam Yardley's blatant drum sound is a significant factor in creating transparent emotions. Session guests have their roles, too. "Jealousy" swells with agony with help from violinist Maria Marzaioli. "I Hope She's Okay 2" uses electric organ and Freddy Wordsworth's flugelhorn to evoke a weird emotional circus.

Porridge Radio has always inhabited the lo-fi quadrant of indie music; there's a DIY dullness and blurriness to the sound that might distress some audiophiles. Instead of wishing for a sonic brilliance that was never intended, try to take this music as it's offered, with its purposely unexalted, homespun sound.—Anne E. Johnson