Reviews Column 55: Art-rock

Few musicians have forecast the future with such accuracy as John Foxx, who was expressing his desire to be a machine in 1976, as the original Ultravox! (complete with exclamation mark) invented post-punk even before punk had finished saying its piece.

He then pretty much invented synth-pop too, going on to a durable solo career which barely troubled the mainstream but proved inordinately influential outside it. His Ballardian visions of a post-apocalyptic dystopia have been borrowed and recycled by artists in almost every genre with a brain. Now prolific again, Foxx is soon to release a retrospective and an “architectural” album. There’s also the Ghost Harmonic album Codex (Metamatic), a collaboration with regular ally Benge and violinist Diana Yukawa. It’s an experiment in what happens when a classical musician is asked to play off and against echoes, loops, analogue synths, effects and “the spaces in between notes”. It’s subtle, ambient, broody and elegantly beautiful.

Also wordless, but more conventional, is Alone (Cranktone Entertainment), the second in 18 months from Supertramp guitarist Carl Verheyen. This solo acoustic set is mostly covers (Beatles songs including In My Life and Norwegian Wood, Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Street, jazz standards), often improvised on the day. Verheyen’s skill is undoubted, but you could be forgiven for mistaking much of this for inoffensive elevator music. His gentle Goodbye Yellow Brick Road will set you on your feet again.

Love Songs For Robots (Domino) might sound like the title of a John Foxx out-take but in fact it’s the fifth album from Polaris prize-winning Quebecois star Patrick Watson. He’s been compared to everyone from Pink Floyd to Jeff Buckley, and described as chamber-pop cabaret and “the epitome of art rock” (something the Canadians do naturally). In truth this is a strangely subdued, whispery offering. His falsetto’s restrained, and most tracks glide forlornly, rather than jolt. He sounds enervated.

Hannah Cohen has more pep to her songs of broken-heartedness, as her second album Pleasure Boy (Bella Union) pulses with witchy charisma. The Californian ex-model and daughter of jazz drummer Myron Cohen sounds like what might happen if Lana Del Rey were produced by Robert Fripp. In fact she’s produced by Doveman (David Byrne, The National), who evokes Angelo Badalamenti with his taste for staccato synth stabs. Keepsake and Fake It suggest a torch singer from 22nd century Mars.

Already a 21st century cult sensation is Father John Misty, whose psychedelic-folk concept album I Love You, Honeybear (Bella Union) is emotionally challenging and lyrically caustic. The alter ego of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, the irreverent reverend is shockingly frank about his marriage, delivering awkward drama. On Bored In The USA, he adds an unsettling canned-laughter track, mocking his own confessions. It’s an impishly prog moment.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.