The March indie review: What were the best releases?
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
A review of the best indie released in March 2021. Featuring Lana Del Rey, Kings Of Leon, Arab Strap, NewDad, Black Honey and Maximo Park.
The music has come thick and fast this month with a host of big indie releases to digest. Afraid you've missed anything? Here's a look at the best indie releases from the past month.
First up is Arab Strap, the Scottish indie rock duo featuring vocalist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton. They've gained a cult following over the past 26 years for their incredibly unique brand of speak-sing, Scottish accented indie rock. In March they returned with their seventh studio album and it was a really addictive listen.
Lockdown in the music world brought many surprises. One that wasn't expected was the comeback of the Falkirk band and their first album in 16 years, As Dark As Days Get. A slight confession, on first listen Aidan Moffat's singing style started to grind my gears, but after a few listens I came to see it as a truly stunning effort. The reason for that is its wry style, eeriness and the distinctive tales of downtrodden and sinister characters. After a few listens it was one I simply couldn't get enough of it!
The production on the album from Malcolm Middleton is bleak and dark, bringing together elements of folk, baroque, post-punk and even jazz. He's really right on the money here. Moffat’s lyricism will have you smiling when he doesn’t have you intensely encapsulated. The two come together like a dream for one of 2021's most surprisingly successes.
I particularly liked the ominous horror style of ‘The Turning of Our Bones’ and the cry confessions on ‘Tears On Tour’. The way link the hostility of immigrants to that of foxes on ‘Fable of the Urban Fox’ made for a fantastic listen and, finally, the penultimate climax of ‘Sleeper’ eerily set the scene of a man on a train journey to an early grave to great effect.
Rating - 9/10
Best three tracks - The Turning Of Our Bones, Sleeper, Fable of the Urban Fox
Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey released her seventh studio album Chemtrails Over the Country Club on 19 March. It was the follow up to 2019's brilliant Norman F***ing Rockwell and - like her previous effort - it was another record I couldn't get enough of.
Over the past decade, Lana has built a profile for her themes of 50s nostalgia, romantic longing and California escapism. There really isn't anyone like her and the new album proves exactly why that is the case.
'White Dress' is a stunning opener. It's a gentle piano ballad, Lana nostalgic for when she was working as a waitress in Orlando, listened to jazz, Kings Of Leon, and "White Stripes when they were white-hot, listening to rock all day long".
It was a simpler time where she "felt free 'cause I was only nineteen". The "white dress" representing purity before fame took over her life. Her voice is also on point too. The whispery, croaked vocals really make the hairs rise and it's hard to imagine a more impactful introduction.
Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a far more stripped-down album than Norman F***ing Rockwell, featuring subtler Americana and folk tendencies. It's perhaps less dramatic than previous efforts, but the power of her hooks, nostalgic imagery and stunning voice creates a sublime album from start to finish. It's one you'll quickly fall in love with.
Lana doesn't overcomplicate things over the record and that's definitely part of the appeal. Having read many of the reviews, some critics and fans believe this new album to still be in the shadow of her 2019 release Norman F***ing Rockwell. I'll go against the grain and say it was a far more enjoyable and cohesive record.
One of the reasons is the length. At 45 minutes, you leave the album wanting more, blown away time and again by the sublime brilliance on offer from tracks like 'Let Me Love You Like A Woman' and 'Wild At Heart', two songs which rally against the L.A. lifestyle.
Chemtrails Over The Country Club is also 22 minutes shorter than her previous release and, for me, timing and flow are so important to maintaining the focus of an album, so she gets big props for that!
Ten years into her career, Lana just keeps getting better and better. The 35-year-old singer evokes a certain uniqueness to her nostalgic style, an absolute class act in a league of her own in the pop world.
With the next album Rock Candy Sweet already announced for release in June, let's hope she can continue that consistency. She's already given us one of the best albums of 2021.
Rating - 9/10
Best three tracks - White Dress, Let Me Love You Like A Woman, Wild At Heart
Kings Of Leon
In all honesty, despite a strong February, I didn't exactly go into March with the greatest of expectations for new music releases. With the musical output seemingly lacking, and bands like The Snuts delaying their album releases 'til April, I frantically began looking around for something new to listen to. In doing so I reluctantly turned to the new Kings Of Leon record; When You See Yourself.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a hater of the band at all. I'm just one of these hipster types who prefers their earlier work. Album release day immediately confirmed my biases to be true. I put their eighth (!) album on and simply couldn't get into it at all.
After my premature abandonment, I thought it was only fair to dive back in and give When You See Yourself a proper chance. Fearing I'd judged it too soon, I gave the Followill boys the benefit of the doubt and put the new album on again several days later. That proved to be a very wise choice indeed.
What's clear from the off is that this is their most mature and melancholic album to date. However, it does lack the anthems and charisma of old. Instead, they try to make up for this with added heart and subtlety (the lack of which had put me off them a decade prior).
The album's unlikely to win over many of the fans who abandoned the band once they'd cleaned up their sound and visited the barbers in 2007, but it will certainly please those who have enjoyed their last two or three albums. Personally speaking, my initial reaction was slight disappointment and longing for the rock 'n' roll band of the past. Undoubtedly this will be exactly the same reaction many others will have, wondering where the punch has gone. Why is it so hard to let go?!
Played in the background, it's a pleasant listen for the most part, with great production, subtlety and a more melancholic mood. Though, when focusing just on this record, there are points where the genericness of some of the tracks do get exposed and you're counting down the seconds for the end of the song. The 51 minute run time doesn't help in this regard either. Neither does the vagueness and banality of many of Caleb's lyrics which results in less memorable moments than previous albums.
Kings Of Leon will divide opinion, but there's still plenty here that showcase the talents of the band, particularly tracks like 'When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away', 'The Bandit', 'Claire & Eddie' and 'Fairytale'. Just don't give this a listen if you're expecting a pick me up or you're wanting some Friday sounds.
There is blandness and a lack of punch throughout (tracks like '100,000 People', 'Supermarket' and 'Restless Golden Age' suffer from this). It got better the more I listened, but in a few years time I highly doubt the band will be talking about this record or playing songs live from it.
Check out my full review in the 'Are Kings of Leon still worth listening to?' feature from earlier in the month.
Best three tracks - The Bandit, Fairytale, Claire & Eddie
The North East band are a rare thing in 2021; an indie band who made their name mid-2000s and are still producing brilliant music!
Almost 16 years from their debut A Certain Trigger, Maximo Park released their seventh studio album; Nature Always Wins. For a band from that era to make it this far is worthy of applause for a start.
Thankfully Nature Always Wins is such an easy album to fall in love with, delivering a brand of infectious pop hooks and clever indie rock that is lacking in today's day and age. Bands of their era either experiment beyond recognition or give us a watered-down version of their older material, so it's definitely welcomed when one finds a middle ground between the two.
The start of this album flows brilliantly from track to track. The catchy, toe-tappers have so much style and depth to ensure there isn't a dull moment. 'Versions of You' has a certain uplifting melancholy, whilst lead single 'Baby, Sleep' harps back to the band of old, a song frontman described as a "light-hearted look at the surreal nature of sleep-deprivation, and the way it distorts normality in a capitalist society." 'Placeholder' is a jangly indie-pop number which, again - only four tracks in - shows the bands versatility.
My favourite track on the record is easily the fifth track 'All of Me', a delightful synthpop hook with warmth in abundance; "this song is where you belong/ this is all of me/ if I can’t include you / if art is apart / well then I disagree". This song - which has echoes of Mystery Jets 2016 hit 'Bubblegum' - just grabbed me from the off and had us completely won over with this album despite not even being halfway through.
You may associate Maximo Park with more guitar-friendly times when indie outcasts were being encouraged out of the underground, but Nature Always Wins is a seriously immediate album that deserves your attention. It'll remind you of why you loved them in the first place.
You can check out more of my thoughts on the record in my Maximo Park: Nature Always Wins review.
Rating - 8/10
Best three tracks - All Of Me, Partly of My Own Making & Baby, Sleep
NewDad are an alternative indie rock band from the West Coast of Ireland. They first entered my radar last week and I've been digging their sound ever since. After a quick browse on 'The Indie List' on Spotify, I came across 'Slowly' and was immediately impressed.
A couple of days later, the same song was played on Lauren Laverne's BBC 6Music Breakfast show. At this point, my interest turned to intrigue and I was eager to learn more about them. This, of course, led me to their new EP Waves.
The Galway fourpiece describe themselves as a band who bring "sombre themes to life with their easy-going sound, raw vocals and thrumming backing". The new EP is a fantastic listen, full of dream-pop, shoegaz-y songs that can be explosive and melancholic in equal measure.
The moody 'Drown' is a great introduction to the record, whilst 'I Don't Recognise You' has a proper 90s indie rock emo vibe, a style which saw a revival last year through artists like Soccer Mommy and Beabadoobee. Closer 'Waves' begins sleepy/dreamy before a sweet and heavenly shoegazed chorus. It's just a delightful EP from start to finish!
Rating - 9/10
Best three tracks - I Don't Recognise You, Waves, Slowly
Black Honey are a four-piece indie rock band from Brighton who've just released their second album Written & Directed. The new record features 10 songs over 30 minutes, the sound of a band wasting no time getting to the point!
What's clear from the off is just how accessible a record this is, especially the opening few tracks which were as fun and care-free as I've heard this year.
Opener 'I Like The Way You Die', which was written with The Libertines' Carl Barat, is an alternative/blues-rock anthem with sass in abundance. 'Beaches' is another highlight, an attitude-filled blues-rock toe-tapper, whilst 'Back of the Bar' is a sugary indie-pop track full of romantic nostalgia.
There are big hooks, explosive rock anthems and Latin-fused moments. A really enjoyable half-hour.
Rating - 8/10
Best three tracks - I Like The Way You Die, Run For Cover, Beaches
Best and worst releases
Choosing a favourite release was a hard task this month. I'll go for Lana Del Rey's new record. Just a sublime, stripped-down record. Running her close was NewDad, a band I can't wait to hear a full-length release from. I had their Waves EP on four times the first day I heard it and am still seriously vibeing with it!
As for worst - as if you had to guess - it has to be Kings Of Leon's latest album. As much as I try, I really struggle to engage with their sound these days. For how well-produced When You See Yourself is, there just seems to be something missing and I can't let go of how much of a different band they are to the rawer, rock 'n' roll one that broke through in the early 2000s!
Did you agree or disagree with any of the above? Feel free to agree or berate me @BFloodlights.
Want to be kept in the loop with new, regularly updated indie tunes? Check out the 2021 Blinded by the Floodlights indie recommendations playlist.