PEARL CHARLES: Magic Mirror (Kanine)
Verdict: Feel-good Californian pop
WHY DON’T WE: The Good Times And The Bad Ones (Atlantic)
Verdict: Catchy boy-band harmonies
PASSENGERS: Songs For The Drunk and Broken Hearted (Cooking Vinyl)
Verdict: Pithy character studies
The start of a new year is traditionally the time to pinpoint pop’s up-and-coming names. And despite a pandemic that has wreaked havoc with the touring circuit and club scene, fresh voices are still making themselves heard, with live streams and new albums.
One rising star to watch is Los Angeles singer-songwriter Pearl Charles, whose second album, Magic Mirror, is a feelgood stroll through some classic American styles, including country-soul, 1960s pop and 1970s rock. Out today on independent label Kanine, it’s a record to banish the blues.
Charles, 29, isn’t a complete newcomer. The former music student cut her teeth with LA country duo The Driftwood Singers and drummed with garage-rock band The Blank Tapes before turning solo in 2012. She has since toured with Father John Misty and Best Coast, anchoring her music firmly in American indie rock.
Young guns: Singer-songwriter Pearl Charles
Magic Mirror is more mainstream, despite a penchant for bittersweet, inward-looking lyrics. It shifts the dial away from the indie underground towards smoother West Coast sounds.
Opening track Only For Tonight is misleading, musically at least. Like Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, it’s an homage to Abba’s Dancing Queen, suggesting we might be in for an album of glitter-clad disco tunes. But what follows is generally softer and more introspective.
Magic Mirror charts her progress from adolescence to adulthood. She questions her own artistic credentials on Imposter, and tackles the fear of moving on from the dying embers of an old relationship on What I Need.
The title track, an Elton-esque piano ballad, finds her wondering whether she’s simply becoming too self-absorbed. She may have a point — but as a dyed-in-the-wool Californian singer-songwriter, a certain amount of soul-searching comes with the job description.
As the album approaches the finale, the mood changes. Sweet Sunshine Wine, spiced with harpsichord and honky-tonk piano, tells of a carefree summer romance. Even lockdown love comes at a price, though, and the album ends on a reflective note rather than a fairytale one.
‘We’re closer to the edge right now than we’ve ever been,’ she sings on As Long As You’re Mine, a ballad inspired by blues musician Bonnie Raitt. ‘Summer fun feels a long way away right now,’ says Pearl. ‘But we can still dream.’ On Magic Mirror, she’s doing just that.
n WHEN they emerged five years ago, all chiselled jawlines and just-so haircuts, American quintet Why Don’t We seemed like a throwback to the boy bands of a bygone era.
The boys in Why Don’t We
Their shiny bubblegum pop owed more to NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys than it did to later outfits such as One Direction and South Korea’s BTS. The LA-based group’s second album comes with typically mind-boggling social media statistics — three billion global streams to date; ten million followers online — suggesting that the UK may be about to fall under their spell. They can certainly sing (some of the harmonies here are sublime) but it’s also easy to spot the growing pains as they strive to show a more adult side.
The band, aged between 19 and 22, co-produced The Good Times And The Bad Ones and had a hand in the writing. Daniel Seavey, 21, and Corbyn Besson, 22, contribute keyboards, guitar and bass. There’s an attempt to broaden WDW’s artistic palate, even if their new, rockier influences often feel bolted on.
Like any good pop album, it’s front-loaded with its catchiest songs. Fallin’ (Adrenaline) samples its thunderous drum roll from Kanye West’s Black Skinhead, and Slow Down leans heavily on the Smashing Pumpkins single 1979.
Amid the tales of youthful crushes, there’s an attempt to tackle something deeper on Be Myself, an excellent song that addresses mental health with sensitivity. And the ballad Stay ends the album with a falsetto flourish.
n SINGER-SONGWRITER Mike Rosenberg — aka Passenger — was due to release his new album last May. Postponed because of the pandemic, it has now been revamped, with tracks added to reflect a changed world.
The former busker from Brighton, best known for his 2012 hit Let Her Go, penned some material in the aftermath of a break-up, but his strongest songs are his vivid character sketches.
His thoughtful lyrics are set to a folk-rock backing. Sword From The Stone, written in quarantine for an ex-girlfriend, is hackneyed, but Remember To Forget (about an irritating barfly) and Suzanne (an older woman reflecting on better days) are well observed. Holding out hope for the future, London In The Spring is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures.
Gwen reintroduces herself
Gwen Stefani has been taking detours into country music with fiancé Blake Shelton, and dance with Mark Ronson and Dua Lipa, but the Californian returns to her ska and reggae roots on new single Let Me Reintroduce Myself.
Christmas songs aside, it’s her first solo offering in five years, and its bass-heavy beats bring her back to her formative years with No Doubt.
‘The idea was to write a song with a nostalgic feeling, going back to where I started,’ says Gwen (right).
Gwen Stefani has been taking detours into country music with fiancé Blake Shelton, and dance with Mark Ronson and Dua Lipa, but the Californian returns to her ska and reggae roots on new single Let Me Reintroduce Myself
Two more tracks — When Loving Gets Old and Cry Happy — have also been recorded in quarantine, suggesting her fifth solo album should arrive this year.
The Kings Of Leon are also back. Unlike their peers The Killers and The Strokes, both of whom made albums last year, the Nashville rockers put theirs on hold and are now releasing When You See Yourself this March. Two new songs contain hints as to what we can expect.
The first, The Bandit, indicates hard-rocking business as usual, but the second, 100,000 People, is more intriguing, with philosophical lyrics, dreamy electronics and a lyrical nod to the Rolling Stones song You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
And female singers Vagabon and Courtney Barnett have teamed up to lend some Everly Brothers-like harmonies to an entrancing cover of U.S. folk singer Tim Hardin’s 1965 standard Reason To Believe, once a hit for Rod Stewart.