By Gregg Shapiro
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, who can be heard on Pale Green Ghosts, also covered Grant’s song “Queen of Denmark.” On Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, Grant is joined by Tracey Thorn on the incredible “Disappointing,” and by Amanda Palmer on the difficult “You & Him.”
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,” with its synth beats and snaps, as well as for “Fools” and its ’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. [Editor’s note: Sivan performs on March 17 at House of Blues in Houston.]
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 music exemplified by “Aviator,” “On the Road,” and “Travel Light,” should eliminate any potential barriers to enjoying the work of Shirlette Ammons.
Openly gay male hip-hop acts were unthinkable just a few years ago. Sure, there were deeply indie underground acts such as Tori Fixx, Tim’m T. West, Johnny Dangerous, and Rainbow Flava, to mention a few, but their crossover appeal had limitations. In recent years, artists such as Big Freedia, Cazwell, and Frank Ocean have kept the floodgates open, allowing for performers such as Le1f to make full-length debuts like Riot Boi (Terrible). You have to give Le1f credit for giving the album the title he did—as if to declare that now that riot grrrls have been sanitized for public consumption, gay rappers can’t be far behind. Like the aforementioned Ammons, Le1f is comfortable incorporating a variety of elements into his sound and style, with standout tracks such as “Water,” “Taxi,” “Change,” “Rage,” “Koi,” and “Umami,” being the best examples.
Heartache City (cocorosiemusic.com), the new disc by freak folk/electro duo CocoRosie (Casady sisters Sierra and queer Bianca), is as accessible as a CocoRosie disc gets. The colorful balloons and scary clown costumes on the cover are indicative of what’s inside. “Lucky Clover,” “Forget Me Not,” “Un Beso,” the folk-blues of “Big & Black,” and even the spoken-word fantasias of “Lost Girls” and “Tim & Tina,” should appeal to longtime fans as well as those looking for a musical experience out of the ordinary.
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 (the 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.”
Queer U.K. trio Mr. Strange (featuring Mr. Stench, Mr. Stirling, and of course, Mr. Strange) cites influences as vast as Lady Gaga and Nine Inch Nails. After listening to Electric Pornography (mrstrangemedia.com), you might want to add Queen and early Ministry to that list. Mr. Strange makes old-school electro/industrial (remember those genres?), and it’s kind of refreshing. Electrifying tracks include “Do It Like Pete Burns,” “Stormtrooper in Drag,” “Deviant Ritual,” and “Tension.”
Emily Wells’ Promise (Thesis + Instinct) lives up to and exceeds the promise of her 2012 album Mama. A multi-instrumentalist known for her violin skills, Wells delivers an album of dreamy chamber-pop that should be sipped slowly like a hot beverage. Theatrical, bordering on the operatic (listen to “Los Angeles”), the album is at its most accessible on “Pack of Nobodies,” “Antidote,” “You Dream of China,” “Come to Me,” and “Richard.”
If the above-mentioned Wells has a flair for the operatic, then the theatrical bent of The Random Hubiak Band’s The Bleached Bones of Titans (reverbnation.com/therandomhubiak) is more ’70s show-tune-y. Still exhibiting a strong Billy Joel influence, prolific front-man Rand Hubiak is a confident-enough songwriter to include a three-part song-cycle—“Jaffa I: Naked on the Rocks,” “Jaffa II: Stoned at the Gate,” and “Jaffa III: Erased by Time and Sea”—as the disc’s centerpiece.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.