Twilight Sad’s fifth a sure bet against sophomore albums
Demob Happy — ‘Holy Doom’ THE GOOD: British alt-rock group Demob Happy loses a member but still cranks out a decent sophomore record. THE BAD: “Holy Doom” has weaker moments but holds together well. THE NITTY GRITTY: Take Queens of the Stone Age, Rival Sons, some glam overtones and a whole lot of hard-rock basics and you end up with Demob Happy. These boys aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they know how to make a loose and loud album work. Guitarist Mathew Renforth bailed shortly after the release of “Dream Soda,” the band’s 2015 debut, essentially leaving Demob Happy a power trio. It’s adjusted to the change without missing a beat or riff. From the stomping “Fake Satan” to the shuffling, hazy title cut, “Holy Doom” is an album big on classic rock posturing and sheer attitude. Thankfully though, the guys don’t fall into any sort of nostalgia trap, simply ripping off well-worn influences. The band puts a fresh coat of paint on the past, creating something vital. BUY IT?: Sure.
Dilly Dally — ‘Heaven’ THE GOOD: Canadian indie rock outfit Dilly Dally returns with a blistering second record. THE BAD: Take this one in small doses. THE NITTY GRITTY: I’m still a believer in ALBUMS. The format, a bunch of individual songs going together conceptually or even randomly, remains my favorite way to digest music both new and old. Singles only tell half a story. Playlists become background noise. Unfortunately, “Heaven” is an album in which the individual songs actually gain momentum when separated. Dilly Dally starts off strong with the punchy “I Feel Free” and weighty “Doom.” After that, though, a mid-tempo grungy fog rolls in, tracks melt into one another, and by time we reach drug anthem “Marijuana,” the album almost slips into self-parody. Separate the songs, though, and you notice this band’s strengths. Katie Monks is a tough-as-nails frontwoman using a higher-pitched voice to great effect. The guitars are crunchy. The rhythm section keeps these fuzzed-out anthems from spinning into oblivion. That aforementioned fog begins to dissipate. BUY IT?: Your choice.
Twilight Sad — ‘It Won’t Be Like This All the Time’ THE GOOD: Scottish indie rock group Twilight Sad comes back with its fifth after a five-year hiatus. THE BAD: No. THE NITTY GRITTY: Despite splitting with founding member and original drummer Mark Devine just before recording, Twilight Sad picked up right where it left off without missing a beat (pun intended). James Alexander Graham covers the lyrics in his distinct Scottish brogue while the band bashes away in the background. These mid-tempo mopey rockers are reminiscent of both mid-period Cure and fellow countrymen We Were Promised Jetpacks. Speaking of the Cure, Robert Smith is listed within the album’s credits, although I’m not sure exactly what the recent Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee did. It doesn’t really matter. If you loved these guys before, you’ll love them again. “All the Time” is an inspired, emotionally charged set of songs both aggressive and somewhat tender. Pessimistic and guitar-heavy one moment, hopeful and swirling the next, the record never stumbles into a predictable rut. BUY IT?: Surely.
Drop Mumford & Sons in favor of Phosphorescent, Jeff Tweedy
Mumford & Sons — ‘Delta’ THE GOOD: Meh… THE BAD: Keep going… THE NITTY GRITTY: British folk rock group Mumford & Sons further ditches the “folk” on its fourth album, which means a once sort-of forgettable group that at least SOUNDED unique — because of copious amounts of acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos — now comes off as even LESS distinct and MORE forgettable. My only reaction to “Delta” is an overwhelming sense of indifference. That, and the fact that 62 minutes is FAR TOO MUCH Mumford & Sons for one sitting. Seriously. Listen to “Delta” and you’d swear these guys want to be Coldplay. Tracks such as the cool and calculated lead single “Guiding Light” and syrupy sweet sing-along “Forever” try to be so pleasant and predictable, they immediately get sucked into the background, never demanding your attention again. So I guess if you actually dig the banality of adult contemporary radio (not too hard, not to soft — the perfect mix for your office), “Delta” is the record for you. BUY IT?: Probably not.
Phosphorescent — ‘C’est La Vie’ THE GOOD: Singer-songwriter Matthew Houck (stage name Phosphorescent) moves from Brooklyn to Nashville and releases his seventh studio effort (and first in half a decade). THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: There’s a sense of “calm” permeating most of “C’est La Vie.” The lead single “New Birth in New England” is breezy and bouncy enough to qualify as a catchy Dawes track or left-of-center Jimmy Buffet tribute tune. And while nothing else on the record sounds quite THAT joyous, the album still can’t shake its feel-good vibe (not a bad thing). Houck has done the folk-rock, semi-anonymous, singer-songwriter thing since the turn of the century. “C’est La Vie” doesn’t completely shake up that formula, but the move down south with all those pedal steel guitars definitely adds different colors to this musical palette. And those seeking something more heady will appreciate extended bits such as “Around the Horn,” a song resembling Tame Impala’s more accessible space-rock, or the swirling, hypnotic, instrumental “Black Waves/Silver Moon.” BUY IT?: Yes.
Jeff Tweedy — ‘Warm’ THE GOOD: Singer-songwriter and indie legend Jeff Tweedy releases his second solo album. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: The ex-member of Uncle Tupelo and current Wilco frontman gave us his first solo record, “Together at Last,” in 2017. It was an album that saw the man reacquainted with past Wilco tunes in an acoustic setting. “Warm” is different. This record’s material is all new; the work serves as a companion piece to Tweedy’s recently published memoir, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).” So “Warm” is a deeply personal album, exploring many of the same topics the book does (music, fatherhood, rehab, etc.). And even though this is not a strictly acoustic collection, there’s an intimacy and closeness that runs much deeper here than on any Wilco set. Tweedy also makes the songs spontaneous. Tracks such as “Don’t Forget” and “Let’s Go Rain” are very “in the moment,” with loose jams fast or slow, delicate or forceful. You’re getting to know a guy you thought you knew for decades. BUY IT?: Yes.
Robyn — ‘Honey’ THE GOOD: Swedish singer-songwriter and electronic chameleon Robyn comes back with her sixth album (the first in a LONG eight years). THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: She was strictly pop in the ’90s and early 2000s. However, Robyn discovered just being herself was better sometime around 2004. Since then, the singer’s music has transcended genres and smashed all expectations. If “Body Talk” brought us all to the party, “Honey” is a more intimate look at its flamboyant host. The beats are softer (but not weak), and the basslines and keyboard melodies dreamier. Robyn went through some personal turmoil over the past several years (a close friend died, and a long-term relationship ended before eventual reconciliation), and she threw all that pain into the music. So while “Honey” can set any late-night dance floor ablaze, it has plenty of substance as well. Whether it’s the slow build and burn of “Missing U,” the liquid rhythms carrying the day-glo title cut or Deee-Liteful ’90s throwback “Between the Lines,” “Honey” was worth the wait. BUY IT?: Yes.
Elle King — ‘Shake the Spirit’ THE GOOD: Singer Elle King dodges the sophomore slump on “Shake the Spirit.” THE BAD: There are some lesser moments but no outright disasters. The record seems a little scattershot, but King’s voice and style shine in most settings. THE NITTY GRITTY: Since King broke big with “Ex’s & Oh’s” four years ago, she’s experienced more than a few emotional ups and downs (sudden fame, marriage, divorce, etc.). “Spirit” finds the singer tossing all those emotions into the work. There are breakup songs, moments of both genuine depression and pure elation, and times when the singer simply is getting drunk. King always has melded different sounds and genres together, and that’s certainly the case on “Spirit,” another indie, R&B, country and rock mish-mash. The brash “Baby Outlaw” echoes old spaghetti western soundtracks. “Runaway” glides on cool, pre-Beatles vibes. The super-infectious “It Girl” wallows in naughty high school drama. The gospel-tinged “Little Bit of Lovin’” brings it all to an inspirational close. BUY IT?: Yes.
Lydmor — ‘I Told You I’d Tell Them Our Story’ THE GOOD: Danish electronic singer/songwriter/producer Lydmor (born Jenny Rossander) returns with an otherworldly epic. THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: Inspired by time spent in Shanghai with friends a couple of years back, “Our Story” finds the singer embracing club culture and experiences beyond her Copenhagen home. In press materials, Lydmor explained, “Considering I make electronic music, it’s quite a paradox that I have never been clubbing before I went to Shanghai.” Those nights spent dancing definitely affected the sound of “Our Story,” a much more direct and fierce collection than past efforts. However, the album isn’t just a night at a rave. It also works amazingly well as an electronic pop collection, echoing recent works by Chvrches, Purity Ring, Grimes and even some semi-vintage Imogen Heap. Sure, multi-layered rhythms carry the banging tracks, but at their core, songs such as “Money Towers” and “Nostalgia” are pop tunes, and damn fine ones, too. Lydmor’s merging of these two aesthetics simply clicks. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Latest from Art D’ecco, Dragon Inn 3, Teleman worth a spin
Art D’ecco — ‘Trespasses’ THE GOOD: Glam-rocker Art D’Ecco comes back with a confident second record. THE BAD: No issues. THE NITTY GRITTY: Hailing from the Pacific islands off the coast of British Columbia, “Trespasses” may as well be from Berlin circa 1976 or London five years prior to that. D’Ecco has nailed down prime ’70s Bowie and T-Rex, but there’s so much more here than those usual go-to influences. The guy doesn’t shy away from echoes of more pop-orientated acts from the sub-genre, people like the Sweet and Sparks. Sure, “Trespasses” has its cryptic, prog-leaning moments, such as epic closer “The Hunted.” However, most of the record is big on androgynous, danceable, New Wave ditties such as “Joy” and “Nobody’s Home.” D’Ecco conceived the album at his grandmother’s cottage while helping her cope with Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s nothing quaint or small town about these sounds. “Trespasses” is BIG on wobbly synths, razor-sharp guitars, thick back beats and a slightly sleazy urban vibe. What fun. BUY IT?: Yes.
Dragon Inn 3 — ‘Double Line’ THE GOOD: A Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin side project actually turns out a pretty decent synth-pop record. THE BAD: “Double Line” barely clocks in at 30 minutes, but that just leaves you wanting more. THE NITTY GRITTY: SSLYBY leader Philip Dickey recruited both his sister, Sharon Bowie, and his wife, Grace Bentley, for vocal and songwriting duties, and they all put together the record in on-again, off-again fashion over the past five years. The end result is a super-simple, highly infectious, feel-good mix of early Human League and prime Book of Love. It makes for an ’80s throwback that sounds amazingly fresh. Highlights include the swirling and romantic “Juliet”; the pulsating, robotic “Club Sauce”; and catchy (and over far-too-quickly) “Double Line Theme.” It’s ALL good though. Hopefully this won’t be it for Dragon Inn 3. Right now, the trio seems more “recording project” than proper band, but additional output from them wouldn’t be a bad thing. The album’s formula certainly is worth revisiting. BUY IT?: Sure.
Teleman — ‘Family of Aliens’ THE GOOD: British indie pop band Teleman comes back with its third. THE BAD: Some lesser tracks aside, I have no complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: The band takes its name (sort of) from Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann, who wrote melodies so insanely catchy that he gave the more famous Bach a run for his money almost every time. I guess that’s appropriate. Combining synthpop, ’80s new romantic, ’90s New Order and a hint of modern indie (there ARE guitars on this record too), Teleman delivers a breezy, seamless set with just the right amount of substance to keep the songs from simply floating away. “Cactus” rides a gentle funk. “Song for a Seagull” and “Sea of Wine” wrap up the listener in the most delicate, sweetest ear candy. “Always Dreaming” is slightly more unpredictable, recalling the progressive echoes of a group such as Field Music. The robotic “Submarine Life” resembles a dreamier take on Daft Punk. It’s a warm blend that rarely disappoints. BUY IT?: Sure.
Mass Gothic — ‘I’ve Tortured You Long Enough’ THE GOOD: Indie rock guy Noel Heroux delivers his second post-Hooray for Earth record as Mass Gothic. This time, he gets plenty of help from wife, Jessica Zambri. THE BAD: Good songs. Failed experiments. “Tortured” has both. THE NITTY GRITTY: When these two merge, the end result sounds like an amalgamation of that OTHER husband-and-wife duo, Mates of State; early Arcade Fire; and a touch of Bat for Lashes’ modern shoegaze. When they’re focused — like on the pumping synth-pop of “Keep on Dying” or the noisy, guitar-heavy (and still infectious) opener “Dark Window” — the pair delivers the goods. You’re grateful Heroux gave Zambri equal time within his creative space. Too bad much of “Tortured” isn’t quite as inspired, though. All too often, the duo gives into repetitive structures (the loopy title track) and a penchant for layered feedback and endless drones. Still, the record DOES make you curious as to what these two will accomplish on future releases. There are plenty of good ideas here. BUY IT?: Maybe.
The Kooks — ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’ THE GOOD: British indie rock group the Kooks comes back with its fifth. THE BAD: Playing it too safe? THE NITTY GRITTY: Despite making highly enjoyable records in the past, the Kooks never was a trailblazing or genre-defining band. Even in the early days, when the guys produced their most distinct music, the Kooks were seen by many (myself included) as a “poor man’s Arctic Monkeys.” That hasn’t changed. And unfortunately, as the band’s records grow in number, each one feels less interesting than its predecessor (a trap “lesser” bands fall into). “Sunshine” is a tight affair with a bunch of rock-solid, guitar-based indie pop tunes. Songs such as the snappy “All This Time” and Britpop-tinged power ballad “Picture Frame” are cool enough. However, there’s a definite formula at play here, and it’s hard to sustain for nearly an hour. “Sunshine” is a record better served in pieces before the sameness overtakes whatever good traits these songs have to offer. BUY IT?: Your call.
Cullen Omori — ‘The Diet’ THE GOOD: Ex-Smith Westerns frontman Cullen Omori returns with his second post-band effort. THE BAD: After a rather momentous start, “The Diet” falls into a mid-tempo malaise. Individual songs remain strong, but the record runs the risk of becoming a one-mood set. THE NITTY GRITTY: Pull apart the individual pieces, though, and you realize how accomplished Omori can be as an indie singer/songwriter. “The Diet” is painted in neo-psychedelic colors and framed within a jangle pop/early ’70s glam haze. One instantly detects echoes of Ziggy-era Bowie and prime T. Rex. Dynamic rockers such as “Four Years” and “Happiness Reigns” blur the lines between post-modern progression and classic AM radio pop. Slower and steady tracks such as “Millennial Geishas” harken back to Oasis during its bombastic late-’90s phase. “A Real You” is sunny and playful — a multi-layered, latter-day British Invasion dream. Yet, Omori takes these sounds and places them in settings all his own. And “The Diet” pushes the man further out of his former band’s shadow. BUY IT?: Yes.
Grab latest from the Struts, but steer clear of Electric Six, the Prodigy
The Struts — ‘Young & Dangerous’ THE GOOD: British rockers the Struts dodge the sophomore slump on “Young & Dangerous.” THE BAD: Just be sure to check your brain at the door. THE NITTY GRITTY: I should HATE this band; its warmed-over retro sounds shallow and highly derivative. “Bulletproof Baby” is a Slade rip-off if ever there was one. “Tatler Magazine” is a jokey take on upbeat Queen. “Who Am I” rides the same disco kick the Stones’ “Miss You” did all those years ago. But you know what? Sometimes you have to “embrace the stupid.” I mean, Mötley Crüe’s “Too Fast for Love” or Kiss’ “Destroyer” are both juvenile junk, but they CRANK! The same could be said for this new Struts. It’s all big hooks, sharp riffs, pounding backbeats and as much sweaty swagger as frontman Luke Spiller can possibly dish out. No innovation. No thinking involved. Just turn this sucker way up and go with it. “Young & Dangerous” is one hell of an infectious good time. BUY IT?: Actually — YES.
Electric Six — ‘Bride of the Devil’ THE GOOD: Goofy Detroit rock group Electric Six returns with its 14th (I was a taken aback by that number too) album. THE BAD: I must have missed a few releases along the way. No matter. The band’s music is just as disposable and shallow as ever. THE NITTY GRITTY: Now, you were NEVER meant to take these guys TOO seriously. Early hits “Fire” and “Gay Bar” were indicators of that. Electric Six is all about rockin’ the joint with over-the-top party records — music straight out of the new wave AND metal textbooks, and lyrics with tongues placed firmly in-cheek. New tracks such as Donald Trump takedown “Daddy’s Boy” and bad-girl anthem “Hades Ladies” keep the grand tradition going. The cover art stealing the original poster design from George Romero’s 1978 zombie epic “Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t hurt either. Know what you’re in for, adjust your expectations, and you might actually have a good time. Over-think matters, and the eye-rolls won’t stop. BUY IT?: Your choice.
The Prodigy — ‘No Tourists’ THE GOOD: British electronic outfit the Prodigy comes back with its seventh. THE BAD: If there’s one electronic act established in the ’90s that sounds stuck in that era, it’s the Prodigy. That being bad or good depends on you. THE NITTY GRITTY: “No Tourists” recalls past beats, grooves and aggressions, especially 1994’s “Music for the Jilted Generation” and the 1997 American breakthrough “Fat of the Land” (remember slamming around to “Smack My Bitch Up”?). Tracks such as “Light up the Sky” and “Timebomb Zone” hit all the expected notes — the foreboding bass lines, abrasive keyboards, pounding multi-layered beats, sped-up vocals, quirky samples and thin coating of noise spread over the top. Need something that recalls the goofiness of early bangers such as “Charly” or “Wind It Up?” The slightly warped “Boom Boom Tap” has you covered. One could classify “No Tourists” as a tight chunk of slightly dangerous retro fun. And since 10 tracks fly by in just under 40 minutes, you’re never bored. BUY IT?: Your call.
J Mascis — ‘Elastic Days’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/guitarist and Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis goes the folk-rock route (again) on another solid solo effort. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: Ever since Lou Barlow returned to Dinosaur Jr. in 2007, the band has become more of a democracy as opposed to its ’90s version, which saw Mascis calling all the shots. So if J wants to get a little “mellow,” he has to do it on his own. That’s why his solo records hail from a very different place. On “Days,” the drums don’t punch or kick quite as hard, the electric guitars don’t make your ears bleed, and both acoustic guitar and piano are much more prominent. However, these are Mascis songs through and through. From those slightly melancholy melodies to the distinct vocals, only the settings have changed. Given a little more volume, tracks such as “See You at the Movies” or “Drop Me” COULD belong to Mascis’ main band. But the treatments they get here are just as effective. BUY IT?: Yes.
Richard Ashcroft — ‘Natural Rebel’ THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter and former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft offers up his fifth solo effort. THE BAD: Same as it ever was? THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s tough to hate an Ashcroft album, but it’s also not easy to LOVE one. The man always delivers the dramatic hooks, sweeping strings and right amount of fierce guitar. His singing remains rich and expressive; Ashcroft always is the consummate frontman. However, calling his records formulaic is an understatement. “Rebel” is the first Ashcroft album without long-time producer (even going back to the Verve days) Chris Potter. But other than a slight uptick in tempo, you’ll barely notice the difference. “Birds Fly” and “Surprised by the Joy” are the token pop-rockers. “That’s How Strong” is the epic ballad. “Money Money” is the edgy slice of anger. We’ve been here before. The pattern is unchanged; the song remains the same. Thankfully, none of the new stuff is disagreeable. “Rebel” is a decent enough record. We’ve simply already heard it. BUY IT?: Your call.
Muse — ‘Simulation Theory’ THE GOOD: British alt-rockers Muse come back with a glossy eighth. THE BAD: On the one hand, this is the band’s first album in a while not bogged down by an oppressive concept. On the other hand, this record swings too far in the OTHER direction. THE NITTY GRITTY: The band teamed up with a bevy of producers and cranked out what is essentially a bunch of singles, now cobbled together in album form. So “Theory” feels a little over-produced and directionless. But there are still slamming moments here. Tracks such as “The Dark Side,” “Pressure” and “Something Human” are prime examples of Muse’s seamless, sparkling operatic pop/rock. Frontman Matt Bellamy’s vocals soar (as usual) while the band rides big rhythms and weaves layered synths right alongside the guitars. There are definite heavy ’80s influences here that go way beyond the “Stranger Things” style cover art. None of it is necessarily disagreeable, but these guys’ most inspired music is probably behind them. BUY IT?: Still … why not?
Christine and the Queens — ‘Chris’ THE GOOD: French singer/songwriter Heloise Letissier (she IS C&TQ) returns with her second international release. THE BAD: All good. THE NITTY GRITTY: “The Queens” moniker comes from the drag queens who used to back up Letissier at her early Paris gigs. The ensuing years found her progressing musically, personally, sexually, etc. The new album, simply titled “Chris,” now sees the artist shedding past personas while gaining both strength and more confidence as a musician. Letissier wants to put the boys in their place, and she’s completely unapologetic about it. The record itself is a mix of electronic, modern soul and indie pop. Letissier always releases her songs in both English and French. Take your pick. In the past, she’s toured with Marina and the Diamonds. Their styles are very similar — big melodies, popping beats, a dramatic vocal delivery and a hint of the sultry. Just unique enough NOT to cross over big time, “Chris” breaks boundaries and remains highly accessible at the same time. BUY IT?: Sure.
Peach Kelli Pop — ‘Gentle Leader’ THE GOOD: Female Canadian pop/punk outfit Peach Kelli Pop goes from a solo do-it-yourself project to a proper band on its fourth album. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: In the past, PKP always consisted of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Allie Hanlon … and pretty much no one else. Even touring band lineups shifted often. Now, PKP is a dedicated four-piece group, and it’s all the better for it. “Gentle Leader” easily is its most polished record to date. But that doesn’t mean the group has lost any spontaneity or fierceness. Here we get 10 tracks in just over 23 minutes, each one a razor-sharp slice of ear candy. Humungous hooks, jagged riffs, crashing backbeats, spunky harmonies — yeah, it’s just the good stuff. Punchy tunes such as “Hello Kittie Knife” and “Don’t Push Me” can’t help being both aggressive and too damn happy at the same time. When the band takes it a little easy, as it does on more tempered pieces such as “Parasomnia” and “King Size,” the rawness remains. BUY IT?: Definitely.
The Joy Formidable — ‘Aaarth!’ THE GOOD: Welsh indie rock trio Joy Formidable gets even more independent and more creative on its fourth. THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Aaarth,” the title a variation on the Welsh word for “bear,” is the band’s second record after leaving major label Atlantic. And it finds the group taking more musical chances while still retaining the fierce rock muscle it’s flexed since day one. Softer bits aside, songs such as “All in All” before it builds into a cacophony of thunder or the gently swirling “Absence,” “Aaarth” is a mostly heavy indie album blurring the lines between post-modern experimentation and metallic crunch. Guitarist/frontwoman Ritzy Bryan remains the band’s driving force and main focus, whether she’s leaning in close and whispering or shouting from across the room. A tense back-and-forth rhythm carries “The Wrong Side.” “What For” burns bright over crashing drums. “You Can’t Give Me” sneaks up from behind, with dramatic melodies eventually soaring over multi-layered riffs. As usual, it’s all full-bodied and razor sharp. BUY IT?: Yes.
White Denim — ‘Performance’ THE GOOD: Eclectic Austin, Texas, rock band White Denim regroups and re-energizes for its seventh. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Produced by their own damn selves in their very own space, “Performance” finds the band stretching out musically and having one hell of a good time doing so. The guys calmed down for a stretch, but no more. One now detects echoes of glam riding atop an authentic Southern funk/soul combination, all mixed up with touches of studio playfulness. Think Beck hooking up with the Black Keys while some early Bowie crackles in the background. It’s a trippy mix, yet “Performance” is more focused than you would expect; the songs are airtight poppers set against colorful backdrops. It’s the melding of two worlds — a band unafraid of experimentation and mind expansion that also understands the appeal of a good, old-fashioned party record. “Performance” exists for the brain AND body. So crawl into this space, and do whatever you feel. Think, move, devour. BUY IT? I would.
The Dodos — ‘Certainty Waves’ THE GOOD: San Francisco indie duo Dodos (vocalist/guitarist Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber) plugs in for its seventh. THE BAD: A slight shift in overall sound, but nothing BAD. THE NITTY GRITTY: The band’s core still leans toward the organic and acoustic, yet Long is more open to the electric on this set. “Waves” is much more abrasive and tougher-sounding than past records. Heavy? Not exactly, but certainly louder and multi-layered. Long makes his electric guitar sound like a bunch of different instruments across the top while Kroeber bangs, taps and kicks out a variety of world rhythms underneath. At times, “Waves” comes off like a stranger take on Vampire Weekend; Long never forgets that a great hook or sweeping melody can cut through jagged riffs and pounding beats. So the record works on a few levels. We’re given wildly experimental post-punk, math rock and indie pop all tossed together in the same hyper brew. It’s a tasty combination. BUY IT?: Surely.
Cloud Nothings — ‘Last Building Burning’ THE GOOD: Ohio indie rock group Cloud Nothings cranks out a visceral fifth. THE BAD: Other than wandering track “Dissolution,” which never seems to end, “Burning” is a focused affair with purpose. No real complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: After 2017’s slightly reserved “Life Without Sound,” Cloud Nothings brings all its forceful energy back for the new record. Frontman/guitarist and band mastermind Dylan Baldi is fed up and frustrated, screaming out hooks atop jagged riffs and crashing backbeats. (“I wish I could believe in your dream.”) That’s this band’s main strength. Even when it sounds as if matters are spiraling out of control and pent-up aggressions are exploding all over the room, the melodies break through the din. Tracks such as “Leave Him Now” and “Another Way of Life” display hardcore tendencies but remain guitar-based rock songs at their center. And since Cloud Nothings essentially started out as a Baldi solo project, “Burning” only continues the tightening and strengthening of the now proper band. BUY IT?: Yes.
Stellar sequels from Papercuts, Tokyo Police Club, Joyce Manor keep momentum going
Papercuts — ‘Parallel Universe Blues’ THE GOOD: California singer/songwriter/producer Jason Robert Quever releases his sixth as Papercuts. THE BAD: No. THE NITTY GRITTY: Over the past decade-and-a-half, Quever has given us indie pop sailing in and out of the realms of twee, dream pop, retro garage rock and jangle. “Parallel Universe” is no different. However, we wouldn’t want it to be, for Quever is a master at this stuff. Melancholy melodies spread across fuzzy atmospherics with the right amount of genuine rock noise to give the music a little muscle. Quever isn’t the most charismatic front man, but that only enhances the experience. His songs aren’t meant to set the room ablaze or get in your face. Instead, the layered guitars, occasional strings, swirling organs, gentle rhythms and reserved vocals wrap around the listener in a hypnotic, droning buzz you hope will never end. At the same time, the music is never dull or relegated to melting into the background. Dreamy and hazy? Yes, but also compelling. BUY IT?: Yes.
Tokyo Police Club — ‘TPC’ THE GOOD: After a brief hiatus, Canada’s Tokyo Police Club regroups and cranks out a lively fourth. THE BAD: Those expecting the year’s best album or radical shift in sound won’t find it here. “TPC” is simply the band being itself, business as usual, and that’s enough. THE NITTY GRITTY: Most of these 12 songs come complete with jagged riffs, crashing backbeats and a dedicated hook that’ll grab you immediately. The mix isn’t as clean as on past records, and there’s an intensity that isn’t normally here. The boys have recharged the batteries; their spark is back after a short separation. It’s tough to resist the pull of slamming bits such as “Hercules” and “Simple Dude.” And even when the band flirts with slower tempos, as it does on the swaying “Unseen” and the grand, sweeping closer “Daisy Chain,” the energy level doesn’t dissipate. Songs also avoid blending into one another; the album is varied and impulsive. Let’s hope the band keeps the momentum going. BUY IT?: Yep.
Joyce Manor — ‘Million Dollars to Kill Me’ THE GOOD: California punk group Joyce Manor releases its fifth. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: I hesitate to call these guys “pop-punk” even though their music is extremely melodic. Despite the hooks and harmonies, Joyce Manor retains a grittiness on all its records, which prevents it from becoming the next guitar-driven, commercial alt-radio darlings. It’s better than that. The band also accomplishes far more in 23 minutes than most do in 45. Every album seems to contain 10 quick, extremely focused tracks that grab hold immediately and never let up. “Million Dollars” follows this pattern. From the jagged opener “Fighting Kangaroo” to the more delicate “I’m Not the One” to the almost-pre-Beatles throwback “Silly Games,” Joyce Manor keeps the tunes BIG and the momentum constantly pushing forward. All the while, the lyrics bring the everyday into an interesting light. Familiar situations always are relatable but never mundane. You’ll be instantly craving another 10 tracks, but hey, “Keep ’em wanting more.” BUY IT?: Absolutely.
Happy New Year, everybody. Before diving into 2019, I’d like to look back at my 10 favorite spins from last year. Here are some titles you might have overlooked, with excerpts from their original reviews.
10. Joyce Manor — “Million Dollars to Kill Me” Joyce Manor keeps the tunes BIG and the momentum constantly pushing forward. All the while, the lyrics bring the “everyday” into an interesting light; familiar situations always are relatable but never mundane.
9. The Go! Team — “Semicircle” The record combines elements of garage rock and hip-hop, further enhancing both genres with a myriad of wobbly early ’70s samples, cheerleading squads, marching bands and super-syrupy pop hooks. This entire album is Insanely Catchy, finding its power within sing-song melodies across the top and thick-layered beats below.
8. Speedy Ortiz — “Twerp Verse” Fronted by guitarist/lyricist Sadie Dupuis, a woman blessed with a voice crossing Bettie Seveert’s Carol Van Dijk with early Liz Phair, Speedy Ortiz is a rare band whose music is complex and catchy at the same time. The players adore bizarre tempo changes, alternate guitar tunings and hazy atmospherics.”
7. Hop Along — “Bark Your Head Off, Dog” Musically, the group recalls amazing, female-fronted indie legends such as Madder Rose and Throwing Muses while embracing the more progressive-leaning elements of contemporaries such as Warpaint. Lyrically, Frances Quinlan tells wondrous stories both concrete and abstract.
6. Courtney Barnett — “Tell Me How You Really Feel” It’s a record that doesn’t try to match “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” and is all the better for it. The new album is slightly smaller in scope. Barnett allows us to get closer and peek inside her psyche. She embraces her mood swings and grows as a songwriter.
5. Neko Case — “Hell On” Case’s always stunning vocals remain the focus. Those golden tones tackle everything from the usual bits of alt-country to progressive rock with all of its quirky chord progressions and tempo changes. Regarding scope, this is easily her biggest album to date.
4. Shannon and the Clams — “Onion” Now under the guidance of producer and Black Key Dan Auerbach, Shannon and the Clams have stepped up its game, writing better songs while toning down the whole novelty aspect of its work.
3. Albert Hammond Jr. — “Francis Trouble” Here he finally completely steps out of the Strokes’ shadow. Every track is exquisitely constructed with his reserved yet powerful guitar prowess, soaring melodies (some of them reminiscent of the son’s brilliant father) and Hammond’s emotional abilities as a front man.
2. Sunflower Bean — “Twentytwo in Blue” Fronted by the determined yet charismatic Julia Cumming, the band plows through 11 focused, guitar-based indie gems big on memorable choruses and (at times) glam rock swagger. The songs grab you almost immediately, and repeat listens bring out charming, subtle nuances you may have previously missed.
1. Mitski — “Be the Cowboy” Japanese-American indie rocker Mitski isn’t afraid to turn pop structures and rock arrangements inside out and upside down. Not only are her songs good, but Mitski’s voice also is distinct — lovely in spots, unforgiving in others. Whatever the song needs, she brings.
Latest from Elvis Costello, Kristin Hersh make for welcome returns
Elvis Costello and the Imposters — ‘Look Now’ THE GOOD: Elvis Costello gets back to making albums and working with long-time collaborators the Imposters (the Attractions with a slightly different lineup). THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: The bulk of the material comes from a couple of abandoned musical theater projects and a handful of random songs written over the past decade. Other than three songs co-written with Burt Bacharach and one with Carole King, everything was penned by Costello alone. Since “Look Now” hails from different sources, it shouldn’t work as a cohesive album, yet it does. That’s probably because of the man reuniting with the Imposters. Costello hasn’t made a straight-up pop/rock album in about a decade, and this welcome return to form proves the 64-year-old still shines in this realm. Whether it’s the melancholy “Stripping Paper,” soulful rocker “Unwanted Number” or graceful “I Let the Sun Go Down,” Costello remains a master singer/songwriter. And the guy is always at his best when fronting a band — especially THIS band. BUY IT?: Yes.
Kristin Hersh — ‘Possible Dust Clouds’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter and Throwing Muses frontwoman (not saying “ex,” because they tend to reform now and then) Kristin Hersh is back with her 10th solo outing. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: When the woman flies solo, her records are usually lighter fare — intimate indie rock with definite shades of modern folk. “Dust Clouds,” on the other hand, possesses some genuine rock teeth. Right at the start, we’re smacked dead square in the mouth with the one-two, rough-and-ready punch of “LAX” and “No Shade in Shadow.” There’s a pronounced murkiness to these proceedings, with many songs drenched in fuzzed-out electric guitar haze. Hersh doesn’t shy away from lots of volume, and the songs benefit. Crashing drums play off grinding basslines below while grungy guitars boil over above. Hersh sounds ragged, spent and, at times, frustrated. Yet she doesn’t sound out of place while getting loud, low down and dirty. “Dust Clouds” ends up aggressive and truly exciting. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Echo and the Bunnymen — ‘The Stars, the Oceans & the Moon’ THE GOOD: British post-punk legends Echo & the Bunnymen come back with their 13th studio outing. THE BAD: Most of “The Stars” seems pointless. THE NITTY GRITTY: We get two new songs and 13 “re-workings” of old classics. Why? According to frontman Ian McCulloch, it’s to “make the songs better.” Better than what? The originals were just fine. That’s not to say these new takes are BAD, but again, I wouldn’t expect this from a band that returns every few years with a string of better-than-average new albums. Classic rock dinosaurs, not Echo & the Bunnymen, do stuff like this. So “The Stars” feels not only like a watery rehash but also a missed opportunity. The two new songs, “The Somnambulist” and “How Far,” find McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant in fine form. Eight more fresh tracks would have been much more satisfying than the stripped-down retakes of “Seven Seas” or “The Killing Moon.” BUY IT?: No. “The Stars” is for obsessive diehards only.
Animal Collective — ‘Tangerine Reef’ THE GOOD: Experimental indie rock outfit Animal Collective releases its 11th. THE BAD: “Reef” is a companion piece to a film. Pull the two apart, and both suffer. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Reef” is the band’s first album without principal songwriter Panda Bear. He’s still a member but wasn’t involved in this one-off collaboration with Coral Morphologic, an art-science duo comprised of a musician and a marine biologist. The record is meant to accompany a video project the duo made about coral reef conservation and climate change. So we have an ambient film score recorded live in the studio. Individual tracks run into each other, large sections of the music are essentially tuneless, and the entire work is painted with a sense of dread and foreboding. Panda Bear’s melodies are sorely lacking. However, “Reef” was never meant to be an indie pop album. It’s a combination of what the video needed and perhaps an unintentional look back at Animal Collective’s weirder early days. BUY IT?: Your choice.
Peter Bjorn and John — ‘Darker Days’ THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop/rockers Peter Bjorn and John come back with a lighter eighth (despite its “Darker” title). THE BAD: Nah. THE NITTY GRITTY: See the drawing of broken bones on the mostly black/gray cover art, and you might think the record is PB&J getting all philosophical, political or a little of both over noisy, abrasive and morose backdrops. OK, there might be echoes of ALL that buried within these 10 new tracks. However, this new collection finds the guys showing off their pop chops more so than on the last two or three offerings. Songs such as the bubbly “One for the Team” and regal “Living a Dream” are all about big melodies, sunny arrangements and keeping matters bright and tight. The band then tosses in a few more experimental bits. Toward its conclusion, “Days” gets slightly gloomy and more down-tempo. The moody “Silicon Valley Blues” and spaced-out “Heaven and Hell” bring some balance to the entire outing. BUY IT?: Yes.
We Were Promised Jetpacks — ‘The More I Sleep, the Less I Dream’ THE GOOD: Scottish indie rock group We Were Promised Jetpacks comes back more mature and ambitious after a four-year hiatus. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: The word that best describes “The More I Sleep” is “big.” Big, soaring melodies; full, rich arrangements; and epic bouts of drama — they all have a place here. The end result is a grand spectacle that proves the band is aging and progressing gracefully. A song such as the melancholy “Hanging In” or the stirring, slowly building title track wouldn’t have sounded out of place on past records. However, moments like those would have been a bigger shock to the system than they are here. One detects echoes of graceful Travis, early Radiohead and even soulful Doves. The band also finds that bittersweet spot between the down-tempo gloom and the guitar-drums clamor. This may be a more somber record that usual, but it’s by no means soft. The band remains a powerful outfit, too. BUY IT?: Yep.
New releases from For Esme, Laurel, Metric make for welcome additions
For Esme — ‘Righteous Woman’ THE GOOD: Canadian synthpop outfit For Esme makes you think while dancing on “Righteous Woman.” THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by Martha Meredith, For Esme offers up 10 frothy, forward-moving anthems dealing with feminism, equality, power and a little dreaming now and then. The strong messages are all there, but so are the liquid beats; “Woman” is a brilliant merging of two worlds. Disposable dance music that isn’t really disposable at all? Yes, pay attention.
Passion, purpose and even a subdued rage bubbling beneath all those ringing synths and infectious melodies belted out by a self-assured frontwoman fill punchy tracks such as “To Love,” “Small Talk” and “Modern Love.” And when the band pulls back the rhythms and Meredith finds herself singing sans big beats (“Secret Church” and “Asleep/Awake”), the music takes on a completely different form that’s just as mesmerizing. “Woman” ends up a balanced workout with rests in all the right places. BUY IT?: Yes. And go for the limited edition LP.
Laurel — ‘Dogviolet’ THE GOOD: After teasing us with a bunch of singles and EPs over the past half-decade, British singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Laurel Arnell-Cullen (stage name “Laurel”) finally delivers her first full-length album. THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: Known for recording her stuff in a bedroom studio, Laurel is a one-woman show that’s both tough and seductive. Her commanding voice can sound husky, ragged, smoky or somewhat flirtatious — whatever the song calls for.
Musically, one would expect something electronic (at-home productions often go that route). Yet, Laurel’s music leans toward something more organic and rock-based. Guitars are just as important as the keyboards. Think more Lana Del Rey or Florence and the Machine, and less Robyn or Lykke Li. Better moments include the stinging, in-your-face “Adored” and the more tempered, melancholy “Empty Kisses.” But “Dogviolet” contains very few wasted spaces. Laurel has sharpened her skills and developed her style on all those aforementioned singles, and the effort has paid off. The next one should be better still. BUY IT?: Surely.
Metric — ‘Art of Doubt’ THE GOOD: Canadian indie rock group Metric returns with its seventh. THE BAD: Nothing here. THE NITTY GRITTY: After leaning heavy on synths for the past couple of records, frontwoman Emily Haines and her crew have brought guitars back up front. The new songs still ride punchy, seamless rhythms, and keyboards add color, but “Doubt” rocks harder than recent efforts. That newfound muscle paired with some of the band’s strongest songs in a decade makes the new album easily Metric’s best since 2009’s “Fantasies.”
You would think 12 songs spread over 58 minutes would drag after a while. “Doubt” may sag slightly in a couple of spots, but overall, the album never wears out its welcome. Strong points include immediately commanding opener “Dark Saturday”; sprawling anthem “Now or Never Now”; driven, catchy, power-pop wonder “Risk”; and the graceful, swirling “Anticipate.” There aren’t many lesser moments at all. “Doubt” balances differing moods and tempos and never falls into a routine sameness. BUY IT?: Yes indeed.
Trio of singer-songwriters delivers emotional sequels
Laura Carbone — ‘Empty Sea’ THE GOOD: German indie singer/songwriter and ex-Your Youth frontwoman Laura Carbone offers up an emotionally charged sophomore solo album. THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: Many sounds and styles bubble to the surface on “Sea,” not to mention a fair amount of grit. The record is equal parts post-punk abandon, ’90s noise and Gothic pop. From the tumbling and crashing sway and swagger carrying “Nightride” to the shuffling, melodic grace making up “Tangerine Tree,” Carbone’s music is more than one voice or vibe. The bluesy “Who’s Gonna Save You” is painted with dread. “Lullaby” is eerily soothing. You get the idea. No two moments sound alike, and every setting feels genuine.
“Sea” also leaves you craving more. Carbone delivers a tight nine tracks in 34 minutes flat, all of it focused (even the seemingly reckless bits) and accomplished. In turn, the woman deserves more recognition here in the United States. This might just be the record making that happen. BUY IT?: Sure.
Marissa Nadler — ‘For My Crimes’ THE GOOD: Boston modern folk singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler offers up a gloomy yet lovely eighth. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Crimes” doesn’t hail from a happy place. ook at the cover art. Those shades of black and gray set the perfect tone for the music held within. Nadler sings of loves lost, past transgressions, and feelings of hopelessness. It’s bleak.
However, in its own way, “Crimes” could be considered cathartic. There’s real beauty in all this anguish; Nadler uses fragile and lilting melodies to carry all the pain. Songs such as “Lover Release Me” and “You’re Only Harmless When You Sleep” make you embrace the darkness. Sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment and just the right amount of echo on Nadler’s vocals only add to the record’s dreamlike quality. Ghostly harmonies and soft, weeping string arrangements enhance matters even further.
It’s no easy task making a down-tempo set NOT wear out its welcome. Nadler achieves just that on “Crimes.” We’ll even take another half dozen records just like it. BUY IT?: Yes.
Loretta Lynn — ‘Wouldn’t It Be Great’ THE GOOD: Country legend Loretta Lynn is back again … at the age of 86. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: When Lynn teamed up with Jack White for the “Van Lear Rose” album, that collection seemed the perfect swan song to a more than 40-year career. Lynn was making music on her own terms while creating something raw and authentic.
Well, that was 14 years ago, and apparently that WASN’T the end. Since then, Lynn started a five-album cycle produced by her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell, and Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. “Wouldn’t It Be Great” is the third of those planned five records.
Each album combines Lynn compositions both new and old, the singer backed by a traditional country outfit using not one drop of Nashville gloss. Lynn remains the master of her surroundings, whether belting out a honky-tonk scorcher (“Ruby’s Stool”), tear-stained ballad (“I’m Dying for Someone to Live For”) or swaying bit of blues (“These Ole Blues”). Those songwriting talents and that voice are far from finished. BUY IT?: Definitely.