Pop/Rock Record Reviews September 2022

Madison Cunningham: Developer

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

It’s a really good disc. At only 25 years old, Madison Cunningham is overflowing with talent. Cunningham’s most striking gift is as a guitarist, wielding her beloved Fender Jazzmaster, but she is an expressive singer and writes complex, catchy songs. It was nominated for Best Album at the Grammys in both Americana and Folk. I would call her a kickass rocker at heart, although she is capable of exploring calmer waters.

Cunningham comes from an evangelical Christian family and grew up singing in church in Orange County, California. Now you can safely call her secular music primarily about relationships. It’s equally safe to say that this is an individual with a complicated personality that she has a habit of probing, perhaps a bit obsessively.

Cunningham the Gambler is not a great improviser; she’s a riffler and creator of short, punchy lines and a freak of texture – an enormous amount of thought and rig tweaking has gone into her guitar sound. On first listen, her breathy voice is insubstantial girlpop; listen again and you will hear a flexible instrument with a wide emotional palette. His clever lyrics also run the emotional gamut; Coming from someone who can bite sarcasm, a phrase like “Once your daughter, I’m always your daughter” (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 from Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

It’s impossible to choose one or two best songs on Developer; all 11 are at a pretty, sometimes very, high level. The album is beautifully recorded and mixed. Although most songs feature multiple, sometimes multiple, instruments, you can focus on each one and hear every take in Cunningham’s voice. You owe it to yourself to check out this woman’s music. Now.-Tony Scherman

Noon Black: Hellfire
Rough Trade RT0321 (CD, LP, download). 2022. Marta Salogni, prod.; Dani Bennett Spragg, P.Eng.
Performance *****

With pre-orders of Black Midi’s latest album, Cavalcadefans received a bonus EP (aptly 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 picks (which can now be found online) provide a tidy cross-section of the band: heavy, quirky, and a bit cheeky. These elements sometimes added up better than others; it’s not hard to imagine the band racing almost out of control, churning out infectious, boring songs as they hold on for life.

Hellfire, their third album, is by far their best yet, and a hit from start to finish. It’s kind of a concept album in the tried-and-true sense of rock operas that don’t really make sense. The “rock vignettes” might be closer to reality, a series of sketches of characters in dystopian contexts – the year 2163 is mentioned – where things are most certainly not going well, touching on sports, military life and to the farm, to violence, to damnation and loneliness, to ravers, two-steps and ballads. He could be considered an ADHD bastard child of David Bowie Outsidemore atmosphere than story, with enough precision in the game to hide the vagaries of the story.

And, perhaps also like the best rock operas, the story doesn’t really matter. The trio (guitar, bass and drums plus sax and percussion) blasts, with great emphasis, a heavy prog combustion engine studded with post-punk noise, pushed to the extreme by producer Marta Salogni, who in the past has lent an immersive presence to Bjîrk, MIA and Animal Collective.

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


Boiled radio: Water slide, diving board, ladder to the sky
Secretly Canadian (16-bit/44.1 kHz stream, Qobuz). 2022. Dana Margolin, Tom Carmichael, Sam Yardley, productions.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

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 place on the global indie scene. While this awe-inspiring record burst with fearsome emotions, this follow-up features a wider range of experiences and more nuance in form and content. Yet this volcanic rage is still present, even as it unfolds beneath the surface.

Besides Dana Margolin’s haunting voice, which pierces the soul of the listener with its jerky tremor, the band’s most powerful weapon is perhaps its rhythmic subtlety. Margolin, the band’s songwriter, certainly can’t be called a melodist. “Return to the radio” is typical for using only five notes and often repeating a single pitch for long periods. But the rhythmic crossover of the lyrics propels this song forward along its three-meter track. Similarly, in “Flowers”, the lines wind endlessly into each other like in a poem by Leonard Cohen.

A recurring theme on the album is discontent. “Splintered” draws an unforgiving parallel between breaking up with a toxic person and expelling a shard of healthy flesh. Heartache is expressed as much through the arrangements as through the lyrics and delivery. Sam Yardley’s blatant drum sound is an important factor in creating transparent emotions. The guests of the session also have their role. “Jealousy” swells in agony with the help of violinist Maria Marzaioli. “I Hope She’s Okay 2” uses electric organ and Freddy Wordsworth’s flugelhorn to evoke an eerie emotional circus.

Porridge Radio has always inhabited the lo-fi quadrant of independent music; there’s a DIY dullness and fuzziness to the sound that might unnerve some audiophiles. Instead of wishing for a sonic brilliance that was never intended, try to take this music as it is offered, with its deliberately un-exalted, homemade sound.Anne E. Johnson

Virginia F. Goins