New Music Through Old Ears: Singer/songwriter focus

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It’s singer/songwriter week, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out new releases from pop golden boy Ed Sheeran, guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan, Sydney chanteuse Rosanna Mendez and British beardie Rag’n’Bone Man.

New Album from an Old Artist

Ed Sheeran: Divide

You all know Ed Sheeran, right? Redheaded bloke, quirky sort of style, almost got his face chopped in half by a pissed princess and also one of the biggest selling artists of the new millennium. Since the release of debut album Plus (+) in in 2001, Sheeran has managed to build a reputation as one of the nicest guys in rock, and recently became the envy of millions when he took the chance to smack Justin Bieber in the face with a golf club.

Sophomore album Multiply (of x if you prefer) was released in 2014 and quickly went to number one on charts around the world, driven by the massive success of singles including Sing, Thinking Out Loud, Bloodstream, Photograph and Don’t. With success came money and Sheeran was named by Forbes as one of the highest earning artists of 2015, with estimated earnings of $US57 million. 

After a self-imposed media blackout, Sheeran took the slightly unusual approach of releasing two new singles simultaneously in January 2017: Castle on the Hill and Shape of You. Fortunately, this gamble paid off, with both songs jumping to the top of the charts, setting up new album Divide for success. And succeed it has, racking up huge first week sales in both the UK and U.S. and challenging Adele for the title of "most popular British singer in the world".

From a musical perspective, Divide (÷)  doesn’t really hold a lot of surprises, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad album. In fact, fans of Sheeran’s acoustic pop-rock stylings will find much to like on Divide, particularly when he's singing about real people. Songs like Galway Girl and New Man vividly paint a portrait of real, flawed humans, and it is this songwriting ability that sets Sheeran apart from contemporaries like Shawn Mendez and Charlie Puth.

Standout tracks: Castle on the Hill, New Man, Supermarket Flowers

Sample Lyric: ‘He wears sunglasses indoors in winter at nighttime.’ (New Man)

Verdict: 8/10 – the soundtrack of the next year of commercial radio 

New Album from a New Artist

Rag’n’Bone Man: Human

Known to his parents as Rory Graham, Rag’n’Bone Man was born in Uckfield, East Sussex (one of the best town names in the UK, along with Scunthorpe) in 1985. Starting his musical career at 15 as the MC of a hip-hop group, his stage name was inspired by classic British sitcom Steptoe and Son, remade in the U.S. as Sanford and Son. Because who doesn’t love a hoarder?

Flirting with Blues but still working in the Hip-Hop realm, Rag’n’Bone Man released his first EP Wolves in 2014. This was followed in 2015 with the Disfigured EP, which started to build momentum off the back of single Bitter End, which received significant airplay on the BBC. An updated version of that track appears on Human, one of the standout tracks on this distinctive album.

With his thick beard and copious tattoos, Rag’n’Bone Man looks more like a roadie for Metallica than a sensitive artist. But sensitive he is, as evidenced by tracks like Innocent Man and Ego, which elegantly capture what it is to be a man in 2017. The sparse production and almost a cappella approach add weight and resonance to the songs, with Human at times sounding like the soundtrack to an impending apocalypse.

At this point, it is difficult to predict where Rag’n’Bone Man will go from here. He’s a talented songwriter with a distinctive voice, but his songs have a tendency to blur into one another and listening to the album in one sitting is slightly heavy going. Although I should say, the songs do come into clearer focus and improve upon subsequent listens — the sign of a good album.

Standout tracks: Human, Skin, Bitter End

Sample Lyric: ‘Don’t hide behind me. You’re strong enough to face the fall.’ (Love You Any Less)

Verdict: 9/10 – different from anything else you will hear this year

New Album from a New Artist

Quinn Sullivan: Midnight Highway

It’s fair to say that Quinn Sullivan can play the guitar really well. One might even refer to him as a virtuoso, if one were prone to that sort of thing. Of course, playing the guitar really well doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great album, as anyone who has listened to AC/DC’s Flick of the Switch recently will know.

Mentored by Buddy Guy and having shared the stage with such luminaries as Eric Clapton, BB King and Joe Bonamassa, Sullivan certainly has earned his guitar bona fides. Hel was also invited to play on the Experience Hendrix tour, with original Hendrix bassist Billy Cox, which should give you an idea on how good his chops are. Oh ... and did I mention that he’s only 17 years old? I know it’s never a good idea to compare yourself to prodigies, but I could barely compose a sentence when I was 17.

Midnight Highway is Quinn Sullivan’s third album, recorded in Nashville with producer Tom Hambridge and sees Sullivan pick up more of the songwriting duties than previous albums. The result is a surprisingly mature disc that relies more on collaboration than solo guitar noodling. This is not to say that a bit of restraint wouldn’t go astray on a couple of tracks, but that is purely personal taste; I know some people who would absolutely love the high-speed riffing that appears sporadically across the album.

In addition to the original tracks on Midnight Highway is a faithful cover of the Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps — a tribute to Sullivan’s love of the iconic band. With his entire life ahead of him, this won’t be the last time you’ll be hearing about Quinn Sullivan.

Standout tracks: She Gets Me, Buffalo Nickel, While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Sample Lyric: ‘Don’t hide behind me. You’re strong enough to face the fall.’ (Love You Any Less)

Verdict: 7/10 — if you love Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen or Eric Gales, this album is for you

Ch-check It Out

Rosanna Mendez: Mood Swings

Sydney-based singer-songwriter Rosanna Mendez is nothing if not prolific. Writing over 100 songs a year, Mendez has been honing her craft since her 2010 debut album Personal Effects. Splitting her time between Sydney and Texas, Mendez has built up a strong independent fan base both in Australia and internationally, driven by her soulful voice and deeply personal lyrics.

Produced by Sean Carey of Church Street Studios, Mood Swings showcases Mendez beautiful voice and songwriting skills, particularly on tracks like Father and Killing for Gods. This is also an album that improves with multiple airings and there’s a good chance that your favourite track will change from one listen to the next.

With hints of Sarah McLachlan and Lucinda Williams, Mendez often takes a storytelling approach to her songs, revealing the flaws that lurk behind the façade of an outwardly perfect life. With singers like Arianna Grande and Meghan Trainor pumping out disposable trash written by some faceless "hit factory", it’s great to see a real singer-songwriter forging her own path.

Standout tracks: Killing for Gods, Father, New Order

Sample Lyric: ‘What if the sight you gave me only made you blind?’ (Father)

Verdict: 8/10 — a beautiful album from a talented performer

Enjoy what you've just read? John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: Europe.

Damnation's Flame is now also available in the IA store. Free postage!

You can follow JT on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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