If moonlight made a sound, this might be it. But it would be the sound of a shy moon: one who opts to cloak herself in clouds rather than wander baldly naked through the skies; whose muted light is dappled by still trees; a moon to whom we turn to see our grief reflected back. Although Joseph Tawadros can express the gamut of human emotions on his oud, he and his instrument’s dark timbre are supreme when at their saddest. This feeling never descends to the indulgent anguish of self-pity but rather is a blood-brother of beauty. It is a curiosity that the human face’s beauty is amplified by a smile but that of art is routinely intensified by sorrow. The elfin On the Flipside apart, Tawadros’ 16 compositions here add up to his gentlest, sparsest and saddest opus yet, as though he has finally found permission to let the showier displays of his phenomenal craft evaporate, leaving this kernel of pure sonic moonlight. Helping pare his music back to these silvery flecks are his brother James (percussion), Damien De-Boos Smith (electric guitar), Veronique Serret (violin, including a seven-string model dipping deep into viola range), James Greening (trombone) and Luke Howard (piano). JOHN SHAND
Paul Kelly and James Ledger
THIRTEEN WAYS TO LOOK AT BIRDS (Decca)
Singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and composer James Ledger’s second collaboration, which has just won the 2019 ARIA for Best Classical Album, is a delight. Thirteen poems about birds, from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale to Judith Wright’s Black Cockatoos, melt in and out of speech and song in a free-flowing, intimate style that makes both words and ideas glow. This is a studio recording of the live show that has been touring this year, and it is worth taking the time to sit down and read the poems as you listen, even if you don’t usually do poetry.
Ledger’s facility with acoustic instruments – the violin, cello and piano of the Seraphim Trio – shows through in his delicate string writing, against which the electric guitar sounds like an eerie “other”. Alice Keath’s vocals, banjo and percussion bring a rough, folky authenticity, and meanwhile Kelly puts the words across with a direct and wistful tone that is at times instantly reminiscent of that other Paul, Paul McCartney. There is a place between speaking and singing, between folk and art song, between verse and lyric, and this is where Kelly and Ledger are right now. It is a place where words can take flight. HARRIET CUNNINGHAM
IF WE EVER LIVE FOREVER (Bodan Kuma)
You know all about The Strokes. Although Longwave played alongside them as part of the downtown New York rock resurgence of the early 2000s, then was signed to the same major label, recorded albums with Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT) and John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead) – and even had Kristen Bell name-checking them as a favourite band – they’re not so well-remembered. After splitting in 2008, they’re having another crack. “Can’t go back to the old days,” frontman Steve Schlitz keens in Dreamers Float Away. But he and the band seem to do exactly that, anyway. On opener Before You Disappear the whammy bars and delay pedals are in full effect, while the rhythm section throbs along in wiry sympathy. The title track is the first of many songs to lay bare their longtime love of The Edge’s atmospheric, echo-laden guitar, while echoing their old Manhattan compadres Interpol in the furrowed-brow lyrical imagery and vocal delivery. Although the hiatus hasn’t resulted in any flab developing around their tightly wound playing, there remains a frustrating anonymity to their sound and you find yourself craving more thrills and spills _ or some cracks so the light can get in. BARRY DIVOLA
CHEAP QUEEN (Zelig/Sony)
Since emerging in 2018 with the Patricia Highsmith-inspired single 1950, King Princess (20-year-old Mikaela Straus) has cultivated a gently subversive queer persona – particularly via last year’s cult hit Pussy is God. “I’m your genderqueer, gay, proud garbage queen,” she recently announced to followers. An accomplished singer and multi-instrumentalist – she grew up performing improvised backing tracks at her dad’s recording studio in Brooklyn and turned down her first record deal at age 11 – Straus became the first signee to Mark Ronson’s Zelig Records. Her music, though, is considerably less edgy than this story and her ironic, hyper-sexualised alter ego would suggest. Debut album Cheap Queen is an easily digestible mix of synth pop, disco and neo-soul that will be familiar to Ronson devotees. Though Straus has an enviable ear for pop hooks, on the whole this genre-hopping exercise feels less like meaningful artistic engagement than a game of dress-ups. That said, it’s hard not to get a kick seeing this shaggy-haired star tote her Telecaster and croon to the adulation of her many female fans – a sly upending of pop tropes that hopefully, in time, she’ll bring to her songwriting. ANNIE TOLLER
Writer and author Barry Divola – who specialises in music, popular culture, food and travel – lives in Sydney, but his heart lives in New York.
John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award