by Gregg Shapiro
On his exceptional debut album Blue Neighbourhood (Capitol), gay multi-hyphenate Troye Sivan – YouTube sensation, actor, singer/songwriter – comes off like a cross between Perfume Genius and a queer male Lorde. Sivan touches on serious subjects including faith and coming out, on this multi-hued disc, beginning with opener “Wild,” which sounds of the moment with its female choir chanting “wild.” The same holds true for “Bite”’s synth beats and snaps, as well as “Fools”’ `80s keyboard play. Sivan is joined by Broods on the thumpier “Ease,” co-written with the sibling duo. Fellow YouTube marvel Betty Who can be heard on the divine “Heaven.” Sivan is at his most Lorde-ly on “Youth” and “Talk Me Down” approaches Sam Smith territory. There’s really not a clunker to be found here and the deluxe edition, which features six more tracks, including the XXYYXX remix of “Wild” is the way to go.
Queer Icelandic-transplant John Grant’s second album Pale Green Ghosts was one the best albums of 2013 (if not the best). His 2010 solo debut Queen of Denmark was no slouch either. Grant’s new disc Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Partisan) is also something special, although it falls short of the brilliance of Pale Green Ghosts. Not as immediately accessible as its predecessors, the first couple of songs – the title cut and “Snug Slacks” — may take a few spins to get used to. Don’t be deterred because the rewards of “Down Here,” “Global Warming,” “Voodoo Doll,” “Geraldine” and “Black Blizzard” are plentiful. Grant also has a history of working with remarkable female artists – Sinead O’Connor can be heard on Pale Green Ghosts and also covered Grant’s song “Queen of Denmark.” On Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, Grant is joined by Tracey Thorn on the incredible “Disappointing” and Amanda Palmer on the difficult “You & Him.”
Language Barrier (Church Key/SugarQube) by Shirlette Ammons has the ability to wow listeners in precisely the same way that the Grant and Sivan discs do. Ammons, a true original, doesn’t sound like anyone else on this fantastic album. Whether she’s venturing into hip-hop (“Earth Intro Segue” or with German rapper Sookee on “Language Barrier Segue”), making the kind of punk that would make Sleater-Kinney jealous (“Earth Intro” with the aid of Indigo Girls) or leaving her mark on dance-funk (with Meshell Ndegeocello on “Dear Nora”), Ammons is resplendent. The combination of outstanding guest performers (Hiss Golden Messenger, Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah and Aurelia Meath of Sylvan Esso) and the sheer variety of the music, exemplified by “Aviator,” “On The Road” and “Travel Light,” should eliminate any potential barriers to enjoying the work of Shirlette Ammons.
Shearwater, a side-project led by Okkervil River’s Jonathan Meiburg, returns with the impressively new wavy Jet Plane and Oxbow (Sub Pop), easily an early contender for one of the best albums of 2016. Stylistic avenues and shifts aside, what’s really on display here is stellar musicianship (listen to “Backchannels” and “Wildlife In America”). But it’s hard to resist the call to dance to `80s-inspired tunes such as “Quiet Americans,” “Radio Silence” and “A Long Time Away,” as well as the Death Cab For Cutie meets Bowie of “Filaments.”
Queer Irish duo Zrazy (Maria Walsh and Carole Nelson) could (and should) write a book about their experiences in the music world. For example, Come Out Everybody, their 1997 domestic debut (a repackaging and re-ordering of their 1996 second album Permanent Happiness) arrived just as the major-labels’ interest in `90s queer music was peaking with acts such as Jill Sobule, Melissa Ferrick and others. Sadly, suits and execs have short attention spans and soon Walsh and Nelson were back to releasing their work on their own label. The Art of Happy Accidents (Alfi), Zrazy’s sixth album (and first in 11 years !), was worth the long wait. “You Make Me Happy” is proof positive that Zrazy hasn’t lost its singular touch, and is sure to put a smile on your face. Also recommended are “Down With Jazz,” “Snow,” “Heaven Is Here” and “Night Crossing.”