Karen O, Danger Mouse collaboration a must-have among new releases
Stephen Malkmus — ‘Groove Denied’ THE GOOD: Ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus gets weird on his eighth (and first without usual backing band the Jicks). THE BAD: You won’t get “Groove” on the first spin, but the album will win you over. THE NITTY GRITTY: Malkmus recorded the collection completely on his own, off and on, over the past decade. Instead of fronting a proper band, he chose to switch on synths, drum machines and laptops, and put those otherworldly sounds next to all his usual guitar stuff. The end result isn’t exactly “Malkmus goes trip-hop,” but rather a nod to early ’80s post-punk and minimalist New Wave. Tracks such as the robotic “Viktor Borgia” and the jittery, funky “Love the Door” are equal parts Kraftwerk, Wire and James Murphy. They’re somewhat retro but still timeless. Sonic elements found herein also remind us of when fellow indie pioneer Lou Barlow turned on the beats for Folk Implosion all those years ago. With new sounds in somewhat familiar territory, “Groove Denied” ends up a fascinating side step. BUY IT?: Sure.
Ex Hex — ‘It’s Real’ THE GOOD: Indie guitarist/vocalist Mary Timony’s classic rock project Ex Hex comes back with a solid sophomore effort. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: I remember Timony playing with her ex-band Helium on the side stage at Lollapalooza ’95. I was a huge fan of the noisy outfit. But after its set, my friends just stared at me in disbelief. Helium was an acquired taste. It was sonically weird and most times completely misunderstood. So it’s kind of unexpected that Ex Hex hails from practically the same place. This outfit has more in common with early Aerosmith and the Go-Gos than anything Timony ever did a couple of decades ago. Doesn’t matter. This heavy garage trash is just as powerful as her old stuff. It’s simply a different aesthetic, one that Timony is perfectly comfortable delivering. Songs such as “Tough Enough,” “No Reflection” and “Cosmic Cave” are forceful, catchy and endlessly crank-able. Spring has arrived. Top down. This album full blast. Now. BUY IT?: Yes.
Karen O and Danger Mouse — ‘Lux Prima’ THE GOOD: Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O collaborates with super-producer Danger Mouse, and the end results are pure bliss. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Lux Prima” is so much more than Karen O acting as the new lead vocalist of Gnarls Barkley or Broken Bells (although moments here vaguely resemble BOTH of those things). “Lux Prima” is completely its own thing with a unique vibe throwing together elements of ’60s psychedelics, ’70s soul and ’90s trip-hop. Danger Mouse makes the retro feel fresh again, while Karen O has never sounded more entrancing. The two give spacey atmospherics and traditional song structures equal time and importance, creating an experience delivering the best of both worlds. It’s an indie pop album in which you can’t help become completely absorbed. Whether it’s the pounding R&B of “Woman,” the extended trip taken on the title cut or the soft, gorgeous simplicity carrying “Nox Lumina,” both main players’ unique personalities mesh perfectly. BUY IT?: Absolutely.
Facets of American life on display in trio of albums
Son Volt — ‘Union’ THE GOOD: American alt-country/roots rock outfit Son Volt comes back with a politicized ninth. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: Founding member and frontman Jay Farrar has always flirted with protest music, songs about the working man and various shades of “Americana” since his days with Uncle Tupelo. So the lyrical direction of “Union” isn’t all that surprising, although there’s NO mistaking Farrar’s targets in songs such as “The 99” and “Lady Liberty.” The man has no love for our current presidential administration, and he’s more than happy to sing about his dissatisfaction. The album’s title is even a sly reference to how divided things are in 2019. Musically, “Union” is typical Son Volt. Focused, forceful rock tracks such as “Devil May Care” and “The Reason” have no problem saddling up next to softer (but no less powerful) country-flavored songs, such as “Rebel Girl” and the title cut. Farrar and his crew haven’t lost one ounce of authenticity across their 25-year existence. The music remains pure. BUY IT?: Surely.
Mercury Rev — ‘Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited’ THE GOOD: New York indie rock outfit Mercury Rev recreates a landmark album. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: In early 1968, singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry released her second LP, “The Delta Sweete,” a concept album about mid-20th-century life in the deep south. Commercially, the record was dead on arrival. Artistically, the work was a triumph and possibly the first alt-country album ever. Fifty-plus years later, Mercury Rev decided to revisit the whole thing, keeping most of the original track listing intact (only swapping out “Louisiana Man” for a rendition of Gentry’s signature tune, “Ode to Billie Joe”). The guys also hired a bunch of women to handle the vocals. You know them all. Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, alt-county fave Marissa Nadler, British indie mainstay Beth Orton and others take turns at the mic. Most of the new versions are dark and murky, like the swamplands where the stories take place. And the songs retain their original power and authenticity. BUY IT?: You must.
Craig Finn — ‘I Need a New War’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter and Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn releases his fourth solo outing. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: “I Need a New War” completes the man’s trilogy about the unsung heroes of American life — that is, average folks trying to navigate the pitfalls of everyday modern living. Just like the characters introduced throughout “Faith in the Future” (2015) and “We All Want the Same Things” (2017), the people here include unromantic office workers, bleary-eyed travelers, tired women with loser boyfriends and those who wonder when the hell the big party came to a crashing halt. Finn further differentiates his solo material from the exciting tales found on early Hold Steady records. However, his new stuff is no less fascinating. The guy knows how to tell a story lyrically, and he shows true empathy toward the players involved (thereby practically forcing us to do the same). Musically, Finn expands the backdrops to include angelic backup vocals and soulful Memphis horns. Sweet. BUY IT?: Yes.
One-man bands Telekinesis, Toro y Moi soar; Xiu Xiu sinks into musical madness
Telekinesis – ‘Effluxion’ THE GOOD: Telekinesis (singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Michael Benjamin Lerner) comes back with their (his) fifth. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: Lerner took his time and crafted a bright tight indie pop record recalling contemporaries such as Born Ruffians and Local Natives and even vintage Matthew Sweet and Wilco The other person I kept harkening back to throughout “Effluxion” was early 70’s studio/pop wunderkind Emitt Rhodes. Rhodes was doing everything on his own records almost 50 years ago. And the two men’s similar styles reach across the decades. But “Effluxion” is NOT a retro throwback. The record is fully grounded “in the now.” However, great intelligent pop knows no specific eras. It’s simply good music, and Telekinesis have created just that once again. The album also accomplishes a lot during its economical 31 minutes. There isn’t an ounce of fat on well-crafted catchy rockers like “Running like a River” and “Suburban Streetlight Drunk.” Lerner knows his stuff and is only improving with each subsequent release. BUY IT?: Yes.
Toro y Moi – ‘Outer Peace’ THE GOOD: Toro y Moi (singer/songwriter/producer Chaz Bear) throws a house party on his sixth. THE BAD: Yet another shift in direction, but Bear makes those work. Be prepared. THE NITTY GRITTY: After releasing 2017’s “Boo Boo,” Bear decided not to tour in the traditional sense. Instead, he spun DJ sets in various locations and wholly embraced club culture. That decision definitely influenced the music and production of “Outer Peace.” “James Murphy’s spinning at my house.” Here we get a 30-minute mix session; songs blending beautifully, creating a seamless set that pulsates in the beginning (“Fading” bangs), slows down across the middle (the melancholy “New House” is a warm welcome surprise), and picks up speed again for the conclusion (“Freelance” takes its frustrations out on the dance floor). “Outer Peace” isn’t very close to anything the man has given us before. Yet it’s still distinctly HIM. The set also breathes new life into the work just in time for Bear to kick off a second decade making music. BUY IT?: I would.
Xiu Xiu – ‘Girl with Basket of Fruit’ THE GOOD: Experimental indie outfit Xiu Xiu (California singer/songwriter Jamie Stewart and a revolving door of collaborators) returns with a confrontational eleventh. THE BAD: Where does the avant-garde end and self-indulgence begin? I asked that question a lot. THE NITTY GRITTY: Usually, a Xiu Xiu record will give the listener something to embrace amongst the madness. This time, “Basket of Fruit” immediately launches into the weird and abrasive strains of the title cut, and the din is truly fascinating. After a few more songs though, fascination turns into frustration. Stewart once again puts heaps of emotional baggage on display, but the backdrops are far too chaotic. We get some strange form of beat poetry spread over scratchy strings, synth squiggles, hammering rhythms and otherworldly noises. “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” almost brings the proceedings out of the proverbial ooze with better beats and fetching (yet still kooky) melodies, but that newfound momentum is soon squandered as the record plays on. BUY IT?: Not this time.
Rival Sons, Cherry Glazerr, Deerhunter rock the right way in sequels
THE GOOD: California rock group Rival Sons unleashes its sixth. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: I don’t like randomly tossing out the word “retro,” but that’s exactly what these guys have been doing for a decade now. And they bring the whole classic rock vibe better than practically anyone making records today. Frontman Jay Buchanan and his crew certainly sound more genuine than newcomers Greta Van Fleet. “Feral Roots” tweaks the formula just a little bit. The music is much more textured and reserved when a particular song warrants just that. The title cut is a prime example. The band isn’t afraid to unplug and stretch out sonically, allowing a tune to slowly gain momentum. “Feral Roots” cranks in spots, yet it’s also an album that carries you off to another place entirely. Rival Sons embraces the variety, jumping from the fierceness spread across “Sugar on the Bone” to the introspection of “Shooting Stars” without misplacing one precious guitar riff. BUY IT?: Surely.
Cherry Glazerr — ‘Stuffed and Ready’ THE GOOD: California alt-rock band Cherry Glazerr cranks up the guitars and frustration on its third. THE BAD: Not really. THE NITTY GRITTY: The band lost its synth player to solo projects last year, so Glazerr is once again an airtight power trio. No matter the lineup though, this is still singer/songwriter/guitarist Clementine Creevy’s show all the way. Here, she takes on some of the world’s problems but mainly gets introspective and tackles a bunch of her own. Creevy is not in a happy place, but her aggressions make the songs all the more engaging. Producer Carlos de la Garza (Bad Religion, Waters) returns and gives the album some much-welcome polish and gloss, but not so much that it becomes distracting. Some of Creevy’s melodies are left-of-center and creepy (“That’s Not My Real Life” and “Self Explained” elicit shivers). When set against a crunchy backdrop, dark tunes and brash guitars form a cool juxtaposition. This band is maturing, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. BUY IT?: Yep.
Deerhunter — ‘Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?’ THE GOOD: Georgia indie rock outfit Deerhunter changes things up yet again on its eighth. THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: A lot of jarring elements come together throughout this record, and the guys make it work. We have the Baroque harpsichord on “Death in Midsummer” playing against the icy synths found throughout the Gary Numan-like instrumental “Greenpoint Gothic.” The delicate, swirling “Element” is the polar opposite of the jagged bleakness carrying “Nocturne.” Then you have the insanely catchy “Plains.” Lo-fi drums lock in the grooves as guitars fight for space with low, rumbling pianos and eerie atmospherics. Producer Cate Le Bon helps the band paint all the multi-dimensional backdrops. On top of all this, frontman Bradford Cox offers a gray and rotting world view; the melodies may be pretty in spots but abandon all hope. The reserved chaos forms an album that only becomes more fascinating with repeat listens. Savor this one, and peel away its layers slowly. BUY IT?: Yes.
Pale Waves — ‘My Mind Makes Noises’ THE GOOD: After teasing us with a bunch of singles and an EP, British indie pop band Pale Waves offers up its first full-length album. THE BAD: Formulaic, but not terrible. THE NITTY GRITTY: Hailing from Manchester, the band formed about five years ago while its two female members (lead singer/guitarist Heather Baron-Gracie and drummer Ciara Doran) were attending college. A record deal soon followed, and then the band supported pop band the 1975 on an American tour. Now we have their first album — a tight, plucky, 14-song collection featuring guitars and synths blending seamlessly, big rhythms and Baron-Gracie singing in one of those ever-so-charming Northern British accents. The whole thing resembles a tougher English answer to America’s Echosmith. Tracks such as “Eighteen,” “Drive” and “One More Time” are pulsating, catchy bits of not-so-disposable modern pop. Somewhat routine? Maybe. But the record makes you curious as to what this band will do in the future. In other words, a pretty good start. BUY IT?: Your call.
Sharon Van Etten — ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ THE GOOD: American singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten comes back with a fifth effort that’s a LOT better than it should be. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Van Etten could sound distracted here, but quite the opposite is true. She put her music aside in order to pursue an acting career, a degree in psychology and, even more difficult, motherhood. One would think these new songs would lack passion or focus. They lack NEITHER. “Tomorrow” is both a very confident and varied album, with Van Etten bouncing effortlessly from something like the headstrong, driven “No One’s Easy to Love” to the more ethereal “Memorial Day.” Working with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Cloud Nothings, Best Coast), she also uses myriad sounds to complement the guitar-based stuff to which she’s grown accustomed. Keyboards, atmospherics and layered rhythms are not uncommon, nor do they sound out of place. Apparently, all those aforementioned outside pursuits were great influences as well. BUY IT?: Absolutely.
Ladytron — ‘Ladytron’ THE GOOD: British electronic outfit Ladytron returns with a pessimistic sixth (its first album in almost eight years). THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: The band went on hiatus in 2013, worked on a bunch of side and solo projects, and has now regrouped, energized and angry (“We are sirens of the apocalypse”). Many bands are these days. And while the new record isn’t overtly political, it carries the message that a lot of people out there are proverbially screwed over (or at least feel that way). Ladytron has never been particularly optimistic anyway, so this outlook isn’t exactly new territory. And for those who simply want to focus on the band’s slick vibe and melodies, you won’t be disappointed. Yes, the album is a tad heavier than usual, but those cascading synth lines and female harmonies are all completely intact. We get a highly enjoyable (and often danceable) set that reminds us how much we missed this band. Hopefully, the next album happens before 2027. BUY IT?: Yep.
Dido rides success in return while Royal Canoe, Broods falter
Royal Canoe — ‘Waver’ THE GOOD: Canadian indie pop outfit Royal Canoe comes back with a textured fourth. THE BAD: “Waver” works without breaking any particularly new ground; Royal Canoe embraces your standard combination of rock and electronic elements. THE NITTY GRITTY: For the uninitiated, the band sounds like a more straight-forward MGMT crossed with a more interesting Foster the People. Sprinkle some vintage Beta Band over the top. Perhaps a little Beck, too. You end up with an album that doesn’t resemble anything completely fresh, yet doesn’t feel like a pointless retread either. My favorite bits include punchy, crackling single “RAYZ” and the melodically hypnotic “77-76,” but none of the tracks necessarily falter (though some feel interchangeable). Moving forward, though, the band should avoid slipping into an all-too-comfortable rut. Its sound possesses room for expansion, and even the slightest future experimentation will make matters all the more colorful and interesting. We’ll see what happens. As for now, though, “Waver” isn’t bad at all. BUY IT?: Your call.
Dido — ‘Still on My Mind’ THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter Dido returns with her fifth album (and first in six years). THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: Dido’s voice is soothing but can still penetrate a tough beat. She’s best suited for the softer stuff but holds her own when riding a trip-hop rhythm. Her music is worthy of your attention but also works as background fill. She’s whatever you need her to be. Dido has been away. Did we miss her? Honestly, I’m not sure, but the new album made me glad she returned. A few forceful tracks aside (“Take You Home” and “Mad Love” are both seamless bangers), much of “Mind” is more sweeping and delicate. Dido works with her brother and Faithless founder Rollo Armstrong throughout most of the album, and that collaboration brings about an agreeable mix of electronic music and more organic modern pop. Nothing earth-shattering here. But with Dido, even the potentially mundane can be thrilling. Again, whatever you need her to be. BUY IT?: Sure.
Broods — ‘Don’t Feed the Pop Monster’ THE GOOD: New Zealand sister-brother duo Broods returns with its third. THE BAD: If the album’s title is a rallying cry against the formulaic, well … OOPS! THE NITTY GRITTY: There’s nothing disagreeable on the record, but there’s nothing all that memorable either. “Pop Monster” simply is a pleasant collection of electronic-leaning indie pop featuring little sister Georgia Nott on lead vocals and older brother Caleb Nott doing everything else. Better parts include slick opener “Sucker”; the melancholy, melodic “Why Do You Believe Me”; and the spunky, street-savvy “Old Dog.” The Notts collaborate with a bunch of outside producers and songwriters, so there’s a “hit factory” vibe to the whole thing. “Pop Monster” sometimes feels less like a proper album and more like a singles compilation. But when dealing with this polished aesthetic, that’s not a bad thing. This one’s custom-made for sunny morning commutes, a jog through the park or, later this year, a day at the beach. It’s good, somewhat disposable stuff you shouldn’t overthink. BUY IT?: Do what you feel.
Panda Bear — ‘Buoys’ THE GOOD: Animal Collective member Panda Bear (singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Noah Lennox) comes back with an intimate sixth solo record. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: Still a member of Animal Collective, Lennox wasn’t part of the group’s last record, “Tangerine Reef,” a one-off collaboration with a marine biologist. His absence is completely excusable though if he was working on “Buoys” instead. The new album strips away many of the electronics and psychedelic atmospherics of past works and shows the singer in a much different light. Lennox always put those otherworldly sounds to good use, but it’s cool hearing the man show off his pure pop chops as he delivers simple, echo-drenched compositions built upon shuffling acoustic guitars, minimal beats and sparse keyboard squiggles. Even though it’s sometimes coated in effects, Lennox’s voice is more front-and-center. During songs such as “Dolphin,” “Cranked” and “Master,” his lyrics and melodies are just as important as the overall groove. That’s not usually the case with Panda Bear records, but the shake-up works. BUY IT?: Yes.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium — ‘South of Reality’ THE GOOD: Prog-rock duo the Claypool Lennon Delirium returns with a way-out sophomore set. THE BAD: Know what you’re getting into. Imagine vintage Emerson, Lake and Palmer or King Crimson but with more sarcastic wit. “Reality” is NOT for everyone. THE NITTY GRITTY: The two main players are Les Claypool of Primus and Sean Lennon of about six other on-again/off-again projects (dude gets around). The two originally collaborated on a one-off record after touring together in separate bands. Now, the Delirium is more long-term. With Claypool playing bass throughout and singing half the songs, it’s sometimes difficult to separate CLD from Primus. However, Lennon makes sure the music goes in more cosmic directions. This is a loose space-rock record where Lennon’s psychedelic tendencies go toe-to-toe with Claypool’s distinct brand of funk and humor. The combination works; it’s an indie rock throwback to the days of “Tarkus” or “2112.” The album is lightly goofy in spots but quite enjoyable if you’re open to its vibes. BUY IT?: Sure.
Family Animals — ‘The End Is Mere’ THE GOOD: Scranton natives Family Animals enters its second decade together with the super-groovy “The End Is Mere.” THE BAD: Nah. THE NITTY GRITTTY: Once again, the Viola brothers and their buddy Frank have created something “unclassifiable.” “Mere” straddles many fences, takes more than a few left turns and smashes multiple genres in the process. “Push Play” kicks off the proceedings with a loopy bit of Ween-esque playfulness. From there, we plow through the Grateful Dead-like jam “Gimmie Jim-Jims,” neo-psychedelic buzz of “Nuclear Confusion,” stoned rocker “The Modern Life,” weird workout “Guitarbot 4000 and the Two Tongue Twins” and the melodic yet foreboding “A Speaker in Your Stereo.” The variety is trippy, the music all-encompassing. “Mere” is a deep, multi-textured mixed bag — a true headphones album that works best when savored as a whole. Trust me. You won’t be bored. BUY IT?: Definitely. And go for the CD — NOT the download. The Swims’ Brian Langan did the slick artwork.
Indie rock, alternative groups return with tepid releases
The Good, the Bad and the Queen — ‘Merrie Land’ THE GOOD: Indie rock supergroup the Good, the Bad and the Queen wasn’t a one-off after all. THE BAD: “Merrie Land” won’t win you over after one listen. This record requires some effort. THE NITTY GRITTY: Consisting of Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), Paul Simonon (the Clash), Simon Tong (the Verve) and percussionist Tony Allen, GBQ has returned after a 12-year hiatus to comment on a confused Brexit-era England. Switching superstar producers — Danger Mouse has been replaced by elder statesman Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex, Morrissey) — the band dishes out an amalgam of prog-rock and modern folk. It’s an ambitious mix, very moody and atmospheric. At different points, these tracks echo, bang and clatter, resembling everything from psychedelic country to demonic carousels. Darkness permeates the music. Despite danceable rhythms and some fierce guitar work, an eerie sense of foreboding reigns supreme. Then there are the somewhat complex arrangements. It takes a few spins to fully embrace this “Merrie Land.” BUY IT?: Sure.
The Dandy Warhols — ‘Why You So Crazy?’ THE GOOD: Portland, Oregon, alternative mainstay the Dandy Warhols returns with its 10th. THE BAD: Flawed? Of course! THE NITTY GRITTY: Even the band’s most rabid fans would probably agree that once you get past the first four albums, the Warhols’ catalog is extremely uneven and scattershot. Each record has its great alt-rock songs sequenced among long fits of uninspired experimentation and inexcusable self-indulgence. “Crazy” starts out strong but eventually slips into this usual trend. We have a genuinely good time with the groove-laden “Terraform,” folksy “Sins Are Forgiven,” swaggering “Small Town Girls” and ironic “Motor City Steel.” You’d be advised to STOP LISTENING after that though, for the record soon succumbs to loose jamming and an extended improvisational (I hope) piano piece that seems to serve no purpose other than to bring the collection up to a 40-minite running time. “Crazy” still ends up better than most of this band’s recent efforts, but its glory days remain at the turn of our century. BUY IT? Your call.
Weezer — ‘Weezer (The Black Album)’ THE GOOD: California alt-rock group Weezer returns with a tepid 13th. THE BAD: After the first four records in the catalog, there are no guarantees. Sometimes you get something really good (2014’s “Everything Will Be All Right in the End”). Sometimes you get, “What the hell was Rivers thinking?” (Looking at you “Raditude.”) Thankfully, “Black” falls somewhere in the middle. THE NITTY GRITTY: The new record is a cross between the recent crunchy goodness of 2016’s “White Album” and the far-too-slick pandering muck of 2017’s “Pacific Daydream.” So it’s a definite improvement over the last effort. Better bits include chugging lead single “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” bleak but melodic “Piece of Cake” and the super sarcastic and catchy “I’m Just Being Honest.” Too bad much of “Black” feels ultimately forgettable. Sure, the album is a step in the right direction, but the band still has a long way to go before creating something GREAT again. Never mind the genius of “Pinkerton” (1996). At this point, I’d settle for another “Maladroit” (2002). BUY IT?: Maybe.
Grab the latest from All Them Witches, Jon Spencer, Bob Mould for a good time
All Them Witches — ‘ATW’ THE GOOD: Nashville psychedelic rock group All Them Witches shakes up its lineup (a new keyboard player who has apparently ALREADY departed) and cranks out a fifth. THE BAD: These guys LOVE to adopt a spontaneous groove and get “jammy.” Controlled substances might make this stuff more agreeable if seven-minute guitar solos are not your thing. “ATW” is very loose and sprawling. THE NITTY GRITTY: But there’s something to be said for this dreamy noise. Opening garage basher “Fishbelly 86 Onions” and the thrashing, rolling “1st vs. 2nd” display the band at its most visceral, with throbbing hunks of classic rock bringing us to our knees. Deeper, darker moments such as “Diamond” and “Harvest Feast” are based more in space rock and even the blues. Swirling keyboards beneath long stretches of guitar are made more jagged by a steady stream of peaks and valleys. One could accuse this band of losing focus every now and then, but that comes with the territory. Progressive psyche is never succinct. BUY IT?: Why not?
Jon Spencer — ‘Spencer Sings the Hits’ THE GOOD: Blues Explosion frontman Jon Spencer cranks out his solo debut (it only took about three decades). THE BAD: “Sings the Hits” isn’t quite as crunchy or visceral as a Blues Explosion album, but it’s still great gobsmacking garbage. THE NITTY GRITTY: This solo outing is close to Spencer’s work with his core outfit and, thankfully, isn’t any more or less polished. The guy plugs in his electric guitar, turns the amp up to 10, stumbles across a microphone, and rants and raves against all the musical fakes and indie darlings out there. Of course, there aren’t any genuine “hits” in the traditional sense on this album; Spencer is much too spontaneous and uncontrollable for any of that charted nonsense. However, cuts such as “Do the Trash Can,” “Wilderness” and “I Got the Hits” pack a nasty punch. They’re all thunderous beats, distorted guitar riffs and Spencer preaching his unique version of rock ‘n’ roll. So crank this sucker and dance until you drop. BUY IT?: Yep.
Bob Mould — ‘Sunshine Rock’ THE GOOD: Indie legend Bob Mould sees 60 in his near future but shows no signs of slowing down on his 13th solo record. THE BAD: Not really. THE NITTY GRITTY: Working with Superchunk’s current rhythm section, Mould embraces the power trio format and delivers some of his catchiest songs since the ’90s days with Sugar. Don’t be shocked. Even when the guy was redefining genres during the ’80s with Husker Du, he was always a bit of a pop wunderkind. It has to be loud, but it must possess a memorable melody, too. Now “Sunshine Rock” comes with volume and hooks aplenty. Mould keeps matters tight and direct. Even the occasional bits of organ or string flourishes don’t detract from the basic power of “guitar, bass, drums.” An undeniable sense of optimism also permeates much of the album, with Mould refocusing his energies and embracing middle age. Yet, he still does that with more rock abandon than most kids a third his age. Amazing. BUY IT?: Surely.
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.