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Music reviews: Courtney Barnett, Simian Mobile Disco, Loreena McKennitt and more

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INDIE ROCK Courtney Barnett

TELL ME HOW YOU REALLY FEEL (Milk!/Remote Control)

Courtney Barnett examines herself closely.

Photo: Pooneh Ghana

★★★★☆

The personal distortion that stems from success is a common topic on second albums, and it's no different on Courtney Barnett's follow-up to 2015's internationally acclaimed Sometimes I Just Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. On City Looks Pretty the Melbourne singer-songwriter laments that, post-touring, she's a stranger to friends and a friend to strangers, while the everyday vileness of internet comment culture is blowtorched by power chords and personal belief – "never change," Barnett bluntly tells herself – on I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch. But, as an artist who uses everyday interaction as a wellspring for her creativity, the change in Barnett's perceptions is deeply felt: the focus here is often insular, hitting a beautiful, bittersweet crescendo on the Crazy Horse-swell of Need a Little Time. Barnett examines herself closely, and when she now makes connections to the wider world on Nameless, Faceless she sees how casual misogyny can culminate in a woman's murder. The psychedelic undertow of Barnett's early singles has been supplanted by expressive guitar rock and, if there's less wonder here, the newfound certainty is striking. Her idiosyncrasies are invigorating. CRAIG MATHIESON

ELECTRONIC Simian Mobile Disco

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MURMURATIONS (Wichita Recordings)

★★★★☆

Simian Mobile Disco's impact on the dance music scene was palpable from their first album, and, 11 years on, their sixth studio record doesn't deviate from their inimitable soundscapes. The production duo of James Ford and Jas Shaw have taken their music from bloghouse into introspective electronica – not withholding that element of fun for which fans always return. Murmurations merges house, low-key electronica and spaced out production, plus a collaboration with celebrated Hackney-based vocal collective the Deep Throat Choir. The addition of this gospel element against the disjointed beats culminates on Hey Sister. Simian Mobile Disco's best work is always accompanied by female vocalists, the softness elevating the emotion in their production to new heights. It's exciting to see the duo return to making club-heavy music: Caught In A Wave and Boids vividly evoke memories of 3am warehouse parties – even if you've never attended one! Many electronic duos have withered away with the bursting of the EDM bubble, but Simian Mobile Disco continue to reinvent themselves, cementing their place as dance music's most influential producers of our time. Murmurations is just further proof of this. KISH LAL

INDIE ROCK Parquet Courts

Wide Awake! (Rough Trade/Remote Control)

★★★★☆

At first glance Parquet Courts seem the least likely band to seriously contemplate their place in a world gone mad. After all, they made their mark with 2012's sprawling slacker anthem Stoned and Starving, a propulsive marvel of a song about wandering around Queens while baked and famished. For their fifth album in eight years they enlisted Danger Mouse as producer, and while there's definitely now more funk in their punk – like Parliament butting heads with the Minutemen – it's a testament to their individuality that his fingerprints are not entirely clear. The title track is an incredible departure for the group: a chant-along thing fuelled by cowbells and congas, tumbling bass and guitars that alternate between wigged-out scribbles and Nile Rodgers-like scratching. Songwriters Austin Brown and Andrew Savage push themselves throughout, confronting big issues in interesting ways. Death Will Bring Change uses a bunch of 15-year-olds to call out the eponymous chorus; Total Football uses Dutch-style soccer fluidity as a metaphor for the advantages of collectivism. If that sounds too heady, it's not. On this, their most adventurous and personal record, Parquet Courts are growing up while getting down. BARRY DIVOLA

CELTIC FOLK Loreena McKennitt

LOST SOULS (Quinlan Road)

★★★½☆

If Enya and Clannad had not achieved international success, Loreena McKennitt would never have sold 14 million records. She would have remained a Canadian eccentricity: a Canuck Celt with a penchant for the mystical and literary. Here, once again, she explores the literary, with just the right level of ethereal mysticism, via versions of WB Yeats' The Ballad of the Fox Hunter and John Keats' Gothic ballad, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. McKennitt's overtly Celtic obsession is an acquired taste. Her tendency towards over-production (listen to the excessively heady mix of piano and strings on Ages Past, Ages Hence); her vocals, which hover between faux-operatic and intense folksiness (Lost Souls); her slavish desire to make everything sound Irish (the Isle of Man instrumental Manx Ayre, with its mix of harp, violin and cello, is turned into pure Irish folk). Add her commitment to a hippie view of the world (Spanish Guitars and Night Plazas), and she can, for some, be rather grating. For others this is the stuff of wonder and magic. In the broad spectrum that is Irish-Celtic music, McKennitt is at the Chieftains concert-hall end, rather than the raggedy pub exuberance of Planxty and The Pogues. BRUCE ELDER

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