Sounds: Precious Moments

Sounds: Precious Moments

JENS LEKMAN — “Life Will See You Now”
THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop singer/songwriter Jens Lekman returns with a bold, colorful fourth full-length album.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Lekman diligently polished his songwriting craft over the past two years. After scrapping a potential follow-up to 2012’s “I Know What Love Isn’t,” the man embarked on the “Postcards” project that found him writing and releasing a new song each week for an entire year. In the end, that’s a LOT of practice, and that practice has paid off.
The new record is a luminous, layered pop triumph, boasting 10 tracks that find the man expanding his musical palette and embracing folk-pop, twee, disco and bossa-nova. This also is the first time Lekman worked with an outside producer, collaborating with Ewan Pearson (The Rapture, Ladytron). Again, fresh ears mean fresh sounds that encompass everything from Kings of Convenience to vintage Everything But the Girl. Tracey Thorn even shows up for a cameo on the charming “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel.”
BUY IT?: Yes.

TENNIS — “Yours Conditionally”
THE GOOD: Colorado indie rock duo Tennis (husband-and-wife Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore) come back with a breezy fourth.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The pair’s sparkling debut, 2010’s “Cape Dory,” was inspired by an extended sailing trip the two took after graduating from college. For “Yours Conditionally,” the couple got back on the boat for some sunny rejuvenation.
It must have worked. The new record is another divine collection of classic pop melodies combined with Moore’s slightly sardonic lyrical observations. You have to love the over the-top character plowing through “My Emotions Are Blinding” or the sarcasm permeating “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar.”
Musically, there’s a certain timelessness to these songs. One could accuse Tennis of being stuck in the land of “Pet Sounds” or “Odessey and Oracle,” yet the duo’s tunes retain an amazing freshness grounded in our current culture. Moore’s strong feminine vocals always lead us through tracks both precious and elegant. So even when some lyrics don’t “play nice,” the entire set remains graceful.
BUY IT?: Definitely.

GRANDADDY — “Last Place”
THE GOOD: Late ’90s/early 2000s indie rockers Grandaddy reform for album five.
THE BAD: Sequencing is a slight issue. “Last Place” is comprised of two distinct halves — the sunny, poppy beginning and the somber conclusion. MOST of the record’s best moments occur during the first half.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Considering what he was going through at the time of the recording process though, it’s amazing that songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jason Lytle churned out ANYTHING decidedly cheerful. After moving to Portland, Oregon, from rural Montana in order to save his marriage, the guy ended up getting divorced anyway.
But even the creeping depression and mundane days of middle age can bring about excellent pop tunes. Tracks like “Way We Won’t” and “Brush with the Wild” are further shimmering examples of the infectious stuff that held us captivated 15 years ago. And when the man slows down matters to a crawl, tunes such as the gorgeous “That’s What You Get for Gettin’ Outta Bed” keep us glued to lilting bits of melancholy.
BUY IT?: Sure.

Sounds: The Twang’s the Thang!

Sounds: The Twang’s the Thang!

OLD 97’S — “Graveyard Whistling”
THE GOOD: Texas alt-country and roots-rock band Old 97’s is still roaring on its 10th studio outing.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Some of its records are better than others, but the band has NEVER made a BAD album. And after almost a quarter-century of churning out authentic honky-tonk tinged rock ‘n’ roll, “Graveyard” proves frontman Rhett Miller and his boys aren’t slowing down anytime soon. The band doesn’t alter its formula one bit, but why would it? “Graveyard” is the usual mix of rousing drunken sing-alongs (“Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls”), introspective and moody down-tempo bits (“All Who Wander”) and a couple of tracks where Miller once again plays the boyfriend who can’t catch a break (“Jesus Loves You”).
Extremely tight without a bad track, “Graveyard Whistling” will satisfy long-time fans while giving newbies a decent set with which to discover Texas’ greatest bar band.
BUY IT?: Yep.

SON VOLT — “Notes of Blue”
THE GOOD: Alt-country and roots rock mainstays Son Volt return with a concise eighth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Last time, frontman and guiding spirit Jay Farrar led his crew through a laid-back set of rockabilly and country swagger (2013’s “Honky Tonk”). Four years later, the band leaves behind the Buck Owens “Bakersfield” influences and moves toward the Deep South.
Despite some quieter moments, such as the swaying opener “Promise the World” and the solemn “The Storm,” “Notes of Blue” is a much more plugged-in affair. Son Volt has never shied away from sheer volume and fuzzy distortion, and those elements certainly are present here. Stomping rhythms and crackling electric guitars carry tracks such as “Cherokee St” and “Lost Souls” — a little less Nashville, a little more swamp rock.
Yet Farrar paints “Notes” with many different SHADES of blue, lending his down-home drawl to all of the extremes while coating each moment with the right amount of mud and grit.
BUY IT?: Sure.

THE SHINS – “Heartworms”
THE GOOD: Pacific Northwest indie rockers the Shins return with an accomplished fifth after a five-year hiatus.
THE BAD: Nah.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The Shins is essentially singer/songwriter/producer/instrumentalist James Mercer and a small studio/touring band. Whether the other people are official members of the group probably changes daily. It’s been that way since 2012’s “Port of Morrow.” Mercer likes to call the shots. This is NOT a democracy.
Yet the guy has the songwriting chops it takes in order to call those shots. Band or not, the Shins concoct succinct catchy tracks boasting memorable tunes and semi-intricate yet uncluttered arrangements. Mercer possesses some progressive tendencies, but he never lets them overshadow a fantastic hook breaking out atop a live or even slightly synthetic backbeat (“Painting a Hole” is even more spacey than Mercer’s Danger Mouse collaboration Broken Bells).
Those craving the more down-home tones of 2001’s “Oh, Inverted World” will devour the semi-autobiographical “Mildenhall” or the rambling and rolling “The Fear.”
BUY IT?: Yes.

Sounds: Dancing in the Dark

Sounds: Dancing in the Dark

THIEVERY CORPORATION — “The Temple of I & I”
THE GOOD: Still held together by founders Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, Washington, D.C., DJ/producer/instrumentalist collective Thievery Corporation comes back with its ninth.
THE BAD: Like past releases, “Temple” is slick and addictive enough. However, is it wholly authentic? Dub, reggae, house, acid jazz, bossa nova — of course they’re all here. But is every individual genre the real deal or a semi-pale imitation? That determination is purely subjective.

THE NITTY GRITTY: Don’t strain yourself thinking about it too much, and “Temple” is still quite enjoyable. From Lou Lou Ghelichkhani’s charming warbling spread over the bouncy reggae punch of “Time and Space” to Elin Melgarejo’s more seductive delivery atop the spacey dub echoes of “Lose to Find,” bits of this record are downright dreamy.
And for those craving something more aggressive or politically charged, the thudding rhythms and cries for justice carrying “Ghetto Matrix” and “Fight To Survive” (both featuring vocals by long-time collaborator Mr. Lif) will suffice.
BUY IT?: Your call.

KID KOALA featuring EMILIANA TORRINI — “Music To Draw To: Satellite”
THE GOOD: Canadian DJ/producer/multi-instrumentalist Kid Koala (born Eric San) moves in a quieter direction.
THE BAD: Those hoping for another big dose of the guy’s mad turntable skills and banging beats won’t find it here.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Koala doesn’t even use his decks much, choosing instead to focus on cozy piano, warm synths, a dash of strings and only the sparsest beats. And then there’s Icelandic nymph Emeliana Torrini adding her soft melodic chirp to half the tracks; it’s the first time Koala worked extensively with any vocal collaborator. So if you were clamoring for HER next outing, “Satellite” should tide you over.
It’s a relaxing set eliciting a haunting yet pleasant atmosphere as opposed to something that demands your attention. Koala excels in these new surroundings, displaying yet another side to his (mostly) instrumental talents. Torrini’s voice also is the perfect, gentle complement to the man’s fragile underpinnings. It’s a musical match made in heaven … or deep space.
BUY IT?: Surely.

XIU XIU — “Forget”
THE GOOD: California indie experimental collective Xiu Xiu (still the brainchild of singer/songwriter Jamie Stewart) unleashes a dissonant 13th.
THE BAD: Xiu Xiu remains a polarizing act. You either embrace the insanity or you don’t. There’s no middle ground.
THE NITTY GRITTY: I tend to feel “unclean” after listening to a Xiu Xiu set. Stewart’s quivering vocals always sound like the man wants to stab you in the eye with a fork and he’s simply mustering up the courage to do so.
The backing tracks are either extremely loud and abrasive or very quiet and outright creepy. Electronic beats mix with live percussion, cold synths mesh with grinding strings, and bursts of noise break an uneasy tranquility. This is scary stuff.
However, some of “Forget” is also downright infectious. Tracks like “Wondering” and “Jenny GoGo” are some of the most melodic and danceable bits Stewart has produced in ages. A light at the end of the tunnel? Nah, he’s probably just drawing your attention away from that fork.
BUY IT?: Yep.

 

Sounds: Strong Conversions

Sounds: Strong Conversions

Surfer Blood —
“Snowdonia”
THE GOOD: Indie rockers Surfer Blood regroup after one member dies and another bails. They then get ambitious on album four.
THE BAD: No issues.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Dedicated to original guitarist Thomas Fekete, who succumbed to cancer about a year ago, “Snowdonia” is a cool combination of the band’s overtly melodic roots (simple yet steady tracks such as “Matter of Time” and “Frozen”) and more “progressive” tendencies (the complex yet still infectious “Six Flags in F or G” and the epic title track).
Frontman John Paul Pitts and his crew prove themselves very competent in BOTH settings. The expected hook-heavy splendor is a welcome return to form while the more elaborate arrangements show the band comfortable with experimentation. And these new directions never feel self-indulgent; those effervescent melodies always take center stage.
So perhaps “Snowdonia” is the group’s fine transitional record (“Here’s the new line-up. Welcome to our new era.”). It certainly gets us excited for the next one.
BUY IT?: Yep.

 

Japandroids — “Near To the Wild
Heart of Life”
THE GOOD: Canadian indie rock duo Japandroids (vocalist/guitarist Brian King and vocalist/drummer David Prowse) comes back with a searing third.
THE BAD: “Heart of Life” is much more polished and layered than the band’s first two records. Could it be an issue with long-time fans? Be prepared.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Many “firsts” here. The pair handled the writing process while living in separate cities, expanded their basic instrumentation (some keyboards) and experimented with overdubs. Don’t panic though. “Heart of Life” is no bid for the mainstream, yet some of the urgency that made the guys’ first two records so enthralling is sadly missing.
You still can’t deny the melodic thrust of songs like the title cut and hyper travelogue “North East South West.” The pair might stumble a bit during the more intricate bits, as they do on the epic “Arc of Bar,” but even that cut shows a glimmer of what can be improved upon over future records.
BUY IT?: Sure.

 

Elbow — “Little Fictions”
THE GOOD: British indie rock outfit Elbow gives us a fine seventh.
THE BAD: Nothing bad, but not a lot of progression here either. At this point, however, there doesn’t need to be. Elbow is a band that knows its strengths and plays them well.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontman/lyricist/guitarist Guy Garvey leads his crew through 10 accomplished tracks boasting interesting rhythmic shuffles; reserved, calculated electric guitars; warm flourishes of piano and the occasional orchestral arrangement that enhances the proceedings as opposed to slathering on the musical syrup. “Fictions” also rides an inherent “even keel” that’s never disrupted. Yet, ever-so-slight changes in mood and tempo assure a compelling listening experience.
Lyrically, Garvey doesn’t stray far from relationships and bits of introspection. However, those somewhat predictable subjects work in these settings. Whether it’s the intimacy of the gently swaying “Head for Supplies,” the atmospheric grace coloring “All Disco” or even the slight bump-and-grind carrying “Firebrand & Angel,” the music and personal observations blend perfectly.
BUY IT?: Oh yes.

Sounds: Dancing on the Fault Line

Sounds: Dancing on the Fault Line

SAINT MOTEL — “Saintmotelevision”
THE GOOD: Following its commercial breakthrough, the 2014 EP “My Type,” Los Angeles
indie pop band Saint Motel comes back with a bright, tight, second full-length album.
THE BAD: “Saintmotelevision” isn’t a game changer. Don’t expect innovation, just solid pop songs. And there’s nothing necessarily “bad” about that.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Co-produced by Lars Stalfors (Cold War Kids, Matt & Kim, Mars Volta), the album is one punchy, infectious track after another. The band’s hooks dance over solid backbeats and backdrops that find keyboards and guitars meshing beautifully. It’s tough to resist sing-song stompers such as “Destroyer” and “You Can Be You.”
And before you think the group is completely one-dimensional, the guys combine clever wordplay and classical pieces during “For Elise” and toss in the delicate, emotional closer, “Happy Accidents.” “Saintmotelevision” requires no heavy thought, just the ability to sing along with frontman A.J. Jackson or clap your hands. And if you find a smile plastered across your face from time to time, that’s cool too.
BUY IT?: Why not?

AUSTRA — “Future Politics”
THE GOOD: Canadian electronic outfit Austra (on record that’s strictly singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Katie Stelmanis) comes back with a third record both dreamier and considerably more serious at the same time.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Musically, “Future Politics” has softened the edges and liquefied its seamless rhythms. Danceable synth-pop concoctions such as the title track and “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” find Stelmanis’ rich vocals gracefully taking flight over whirling hypnotic backdrops; the overall effect is strong yet soothing.
Lyrically, Stelmanis was heavily influenced by the utopian possibilities found in science fiction while being confronted daily with the political mess gaining momentum just south of her border (our divided United States). It’s a juxtaposition that’s more harmonious than chaotic. Stelmanis discovers hope among the tension.
But with Austra, the MUSIC always is the focus. Stelmanis’ melodies and arrangements never lack elegance and an undeniable melodic thrust. You take the sweet right along with the powerful. “Politics” leaves this tradition wholly intact.
BUY IT?: Yes.

PORCELAIN RAFT — “Microclimate”
THE GOOD: Italian-born singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Mauro Remiddi comes back with his third full-length as Porcelain Raft.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After a huge burst of creativity earlier in the decade, Remiddi slowed down the creative process for the slightly more organic “Microclimate.” While the album is still based in the electronic, layered guitars and warm piano flourishes are much more prominent. Remiddi also seems more at ease showing off his songwriting chops; atmosphere no longer overpowers melodies.
Those craving another dose of dreamy indie pop need not panic though, for “Microclimate” is just as otherworldly as its predecessors. Only this time, it’s a little less Small Black and Tanlines and a little more “progressive,” as in spacey Sun Airway or even vintage Mercury Rev (dig the psychedelic overtones and grand melodies of “The Greatest View”). “Microclimate” may not be a BOLD step forward, but it’s a logical one; Remiddi refuses to stay in one place for very long.
BUY IT?: Surely.

Sounds: Complexities

Sounds: Complexities

FOXYGEN — “Hang”
THE GOOD: California duo Foxygen manages to stay together (the band thrives on inner turmoil) and releases an ambitious fifth.
THE BAD: With its elaborate arrangements and prog-rock throwbacks, “Hang” makes you work at times.
THE NITTY GRITTY: We get Philly soul (“Follow the Leader”). We look back at theatrical Elton John (“Avalon”). There’s glam-era Lou Reed (“Mrs. Adams”). How about some breezy A.M. radio country rock (“On Lankersham”)? You see where this is going.
Recorded with an honest-to-goodness orchestra, “Hang” takes us back about 45 years, to when albums were ambitious and singles were an afterthought. But just like many records from that era, this new album has moments of sheer brilliance AND bits that sound truly over-ambitious. For example, “America” is a bit of a slog at first. Spin it again, and you begin to appreciate the intricacies.
So you have to pay attention. Let “Hang” melt into the background, and the music begins to sound messy.
BUY IT?: Still…yeah.

THE FLAMING LIPS — “Oczy Mlody”
THE GOOD: Oklahoma indie rock legends Flaming Lips returns with a spacey 14th.
THE BAD: Like any other Lips experiment, “Oczy” requires a few spins before its subtleties fully sink in. Some patience please.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Oczy Mlody” is a Polish phrase meaning “eyes of the young.” Perhaps that’s why frontman Wayne Coyne is singing about wizards and unicorns. Or is it because the Lips are still hangin’ with Miley Cyrus?
Whatever the reasons, realize going in that “Oczy” is trippy, softer and very “otherworldly.” Kind of like 1999’s “Soft Bulletin” without the crashing drums and producer Dave Fridmann’s penchant for controlled distortion. Of course, Fridmann is here again. He simply keeps matters more “airy” this time.
The true beauty of “Oczy,” though, is that it works amazingly well as a whole. From the pastoral beauty of “The Castle” to the delicate pulsations carrying “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards To Kill,” the record whisks us away on a cloud of pure fantasy.
BUY IT?: Yeah.

CLOUD NOTHINGS — “Life Without Sound”
THE GOOD: Ohio indie rockers Cloud Nothings comes back with an even fifth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Still the brainchild of singer/songwriter/guitarist Dylan Baldi (the full band was a Baldi solo undertaking first), Cloud Nothings continues to crank out loud but melodic songs that possess both sharp teeth and a more sensitive side.
“Life Without Sound” came out of some abandoned sessions and more than a few re-starts, hence the almost three-year gap since the group’s last outing, 2014’s “Here and Nowhere Else.” The end result isn’t necessarily more polished, just more in tune with some of Baldi’s past work.
Despite the usual change in the producer’s chair (Sleater-Kinney/Los Campesinos/Blonde Redhead assistant John Goodmanson is this year’s choice), Baldi doesn’t feel the need to reinvent this band’s proverbial wheel. He’s quite content to offer a basic collection big on bold melodies, chunky guitars, crashing drums and uncluttered arrangements. Good songs in standard electric settings — we’ll take it.
BUY IT?: Yes.

Sounds: Warm Beats

Sounds: Warm Beats

JUSTICE — “Woman”
THE GOOD: French electronic duo Justice comes back with its third.
THE BAD: As the catalog builds, the music becomes less intense and arresting.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Back in 2007, the pair’s banging synthetic debut gave us something to groove to between highly anticipated Daft Punk releases. Since then though, the electronics have been turned down in favor of more organic elements (live instrumentation, guest vocalists, sweeping string arrangements, etc.). And while the guys put these sounds to very good use, the end results always feel too safe, contrived or even slightly disappointing.
“Woman” ends up being the duo’s modern disco album, a retro-fitted dance collection that often embraces traditional song structures. Too bad much of it resembles an evening’s “warm-up” as opposed to the pounding hedonistic climax. It’s only when the electronics and old tricks return to the forefront (as they do on the extended cinematic “Chorus” and the throbbing yet melodic “Heavy Metal”) that this set really grabs the listener.
BUY IT?: Your call.

THE XX — “I See You”
THE GOOD: British indie pop band the XX reshapes its sound on album No. 3.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: There’s been a lot of progress since the release of the group’s sophomore effort “Coexist” (2012). Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim (the delicate male-female back-and-forth up front) have grown as both vocalists and songwriters. But the real breakout star is producer Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx).
After releasing his brilliant solo effort “In Colour” (one of 2015’s finest albums), the guy now makes his layered sounds much more prominent. Samples, beats and ambient synths play a much bigger role on the new record, giving the XX a slight makeover reminiscent of Everything but the Girl’s discovery of house rhythms back in the mid ’90s.
Tracks like the brightly colored, punchy opener “Dangerous” and the moody yet funky lead single “On Hold” pull us in with emotional vocals delivered over finely crafted and varied backdrops. The end results are simply dreamy.
BUY IT?: You must.

TYCHO — “Epoch”
THE GOOD: California electronic artist Tycho (visual artist/multi-instrumentalist Scott Hansen) releases his fourth.
THE BAD: Not “bad,” just somewhat nondescript after a while.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Tycho’s music blurs genres. Electronic at its core, the work also boasts live drums and electric guitars that are just as important to the overall mix as the swirling keyboards. Tracks like “Glider” (an appropriate title indeed) and the title cut are seamless, soaring pieces boasting airtight beats, wraparound basslines and pulsating yet fragile (dare I say “soothing”) melodies.
So there are times when “Epoch” comes off as a heavier, more rock-centric take on new age or even light jazz (yeah, I went there). Not displeasing in the least bit. However, the excitement level isn’t exactly high. And after about 20 minutes, “Epoch” simply melts into the background. Some of these tracks wouldn’t sound out of place echoing through the halls of any random day spa.
Go in with the right frame of mind though, and “Epoch” can be sweetly hypnotic.
BUY IT?: Why not?

Sounds: Safety Dance

Sounds: Safety Dance

THE RADIO DEPT. —
“Running Out of Love”
THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop outfit the Radio Dept. comes back with its fourth full-length album and first in half a decade.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Lyrically, this album gets political (although it’s of course more Euro-centric), with the guys calmly and politely calling for a revolution. Tracks such as “Swedish Guns” and “Committed To the Cause” combine their angry rhetoric with funk-infused, even dreamy backdrops.
Musically, “Love” comes off like a melding of classic Madchester and ’90s dance (Happy Mondays and Saint Etienne anybody?), twee pop (Belle and Sebastian are tucked away in some of those melodies) and the best beat-heavy stuff from the 2000s thus far (kicking LCD Soundsystem and Royksopp grooves).
It’s a lethal and infectious combination, a rhythmic yet delicate affair (we’re not talking about jackhammer beats here) that will recall everything from the Stone Roses to Daft Punk. “Love” ends up being a feel-good record, even though it’s not really supposed to be. Ah, but that’s OK.
BUY IT?: Definitely.

GROUPLOVE — “Big Mess”
THE GOOD: Los Angeles indie pop outfit Grouplove gives us an infectious albeit predictable third.
THE BAD: “Big Mess” leaves me torn. The listener in me embraces the hooks and harmonies. My more critical side remains unimpressed. Grouplove has created more safe “radio friendly” modern rock that would blend perfectly with some Young the Giant, Walk the Moon, Saint Motel or, as it does on this very page, Two Door Cinema Club.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Don’t over-think matters, and tracks such as the hyper-sensitive “Enlighten Me” and the super-bouncy “Good Morning” pull you in immediately. You can tell the band is going for the ultimate party anthem on “Cannonball.” Grungy throwback “Heart of Mine” noisily sways back and forth. “Don’t Stop Making It Happen” is slick and seamless. See? Nothing completely disagreeable here. However, there’s nothing that distinct either. Still, the band is a hell of a lot better than Foster the People (but is that really a complement?).
BUY IT?: Your choice.

TWO DOOR CINEMA CLUB — “Gameshow”
THE GOOD: Irish indie pop group Two Door Cinema Club cranks out its third.
THE BAD: Same as they ever were? Perhaps.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Gameshow” finds the guys teaming up with producer Jacknife Lee (Elle King, Silversun Pick-Ups, Snow Patrol) just as they did on their last outing, 2012’s “Beacon.” And while the end results aren’t disagreeable, they’re hardly “outside the norm.”
Tracks like “Ordinary” and “Good Morning” (different than the aforementioned Grouplove tune) are punchy, glossy modern rockers in which synths and guitars mesh without clashing and we’re hit with enough hooks and riffs to keep us at least half-interested (not exactly high praise). The record never completely trips itself up (although the down-tempo “Invincible” can get cloying at times).
Still, Two Door Cinema Club is simply giving us another dose of what it’s already done twice before. Long-time fans may be satisfied, but past detractors won’t be converted. Maybe the band will shake things up next time (before we COMPLETELY lose interest).
BUY IT?: Whatever.

Sounds: Feb. 16, 2017

Sounds: Feb. 16, 2017

BIG BEATS AND GLORIOUS CLUTTER

SLEIGH BELLS —
“Jessica Rabbit”
THE GOOD: Brooklyn noise pop duo Sleigh Bells (vocalist Alexis Krauss and multi-instrumentalist Derek Miller) comes back with its fourth.
THE BAD: Sleigh Bells still hasn’t topped or even matched
its blistering debut (2010’s “Treats”). “Jessica Rabbit” is at least the CLOSEST it’s come to doing just that.
THE NITTY GRITTY: While the new album isn’t quite the jack-hammer to the brain that “Treats” was (and still is), the new songs surpass many of the offerings from “Reign of Terror” (2012) and the rushed “Bitter Rivals” (2013). The two spent a couple years working on these new sounds. The song-craft is more confident, especially in its willingness to expand Bells’ musical palette; the pair is adept at flirting with prog rock and R&B.
“Rabbit” ebbs and flows with great agility, exploring different moods and levels of abrasiveness without hesitation. Plus, many of these songs have the added bonus of great melodies at their core (dig “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” or “Baptism by Fire”).
BUY IT?: Yep

EMPIRE OF THE SUN — “Two Vines”
THE GOOD: Australian super-duo Empire of the Sun (Luke Steele of the Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of Pnau) regroups for its third.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Look at the cover art across the pair’s three albums, and the images resemble the posters of some flamboyant, big-budget fantasy film trilogy. Perhaps that’s meant to represent the sound of Empire — big, rich, flashy, otherworldly, soaring and evocative of a happy outcome.
“Two Vines” is a divine collection built with multi-layered harmonies, buzzing synths and steady, seamless rhythms. It’s a set where pretty much any cut could be a single, from the bouncy, feel-good vibes spread across tracks such as “Friends” and “Zzz” to the more delicate, heartfelt sways of “There’s No Need” and “First Crush.”
While the guys never stray too far from the styles of their other bands, the “melding” that occurs on every Empire album brings about something fresh and addictive. So prepare to be carried away.
BUY IT?: Yes.

WHITE LIES — “Friends”
THE GOOD: British indie
rock group White Lies gives us its fourth.
THE BAD: The band has yet to make a “great” album. However, “Friends” is a step in the right direction.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The new record certainly is more accomplished than 2013’s tepid “Big TV.” Yet, White Lies’ biggest problem remains its identity crisis. The boys always remind you of SOME OTHER BAND. Whether it’s the dark, urban nightlife escaping from a decade-old Interpol record; the rock-based pulsations that carried a Killers set; or a bold melody resembling some past Editors hit, White Lies constantly recalls the best bits from the outside work of others.
So no points for originality. “Friends” does score points for some pretty solid (and soaring) songs, however. Tracks such as “Take It Out on Me” and “Swing” boast memorable hooks galloping over thick, rich backing tracks. And the new set contains far more songs worthy of repeating as opposed to forgettable duds (unlike the aforementioned “Big TV”).
BUY IT?: Why not?

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Sounds: Feb. 9, 2017

Sounds: Feb. 9, 2017

RUSTIC ELECTRIC

DAWES — “We’re All Gonna Die”
THE GOOD: Los-Angeles folk-rockers Dawes release their fifth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This might be their best album yet. That claim is highly subjective, but I don’t ever remember a Dawes set sounding this focused. The melodies are bolder and brighter, and the arrangements are airtight. On more than one occasion, the lyrics spin compelling tales of everyday challenges along with human triumphs and tragedies. Tracks like “Less Than Five Miles Away” and “For No Good Reason” boast tiny, vivid vignettes starring lovers, criminals, the lonely, the forgotten and a host of other interesting players.
The only gripe long-time fans may have with “Die” is that the rock elements dominate the acoustic sounds this time. “One of Us” possesses genuine guitar bite. Swirling reggae organs add color to “Picture of a Man.” A pre-Beatle R&B swing lurks beneath the beat of “As If by Design.” Yet Dawes makes these slight alterations work extremely well within the already strong compositions.
BUY IT?: Definitely.

LEWIS DEL MAR — “Lewis Del Mar”
THE GOOD: Lewis Del Mar is a band, not a guy. Or more specifically, it’s a duo consisting of co-writers/producers/multi-instrumentalists Danny Miller and Max Harwood. This self-titled effort is their slightly flawed debut.
THE BAD: “Lewis” is a good start, but these guys are still carving out their own distinct style.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Conceived and recorded in and around the pair’s Rockaway Beach, New York, bungalow, the record is a multi-layered mix of lo-fi drums and beat-box loops, electric and acoustic guitars and “found sounds” (subways, ambient noise, random conversations, etc.) grabbed up around the five boroughs.
The tunes fall somewhere between indie rock and modern roots music. I’m detecting echoes of Red Hot Chili Peppers within the vocals and the slap-dash blues of G. Love and Special Sauce spread across the backing swagger. There’s a cool attitude running through these tracks (even the more angst-riddled ones such as “Loudy”) — just another day of jamming and kicking it in the sunshine.
BUY IT?: Your choice.

BON IVER — “22, a Million”
THE GOOD: Indie folk outfit Bon Iver (still the brainchild of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon) finally follows up its Grammy Award-winning sophomore effort, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” (2011).
THE BAD: Nothing, but keep an open mind.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The band’s music has come full circle. Bon Iver was an acoustic act musicians from other genres wholly embraced. Kanye West even sampled and gave its track “Woods” an almost complete makeover. So now, “22, a Million” finds Vernon and his crew using the electronic. The album is filled with unexpected samples, loops and icy affected voices (and saxophones).
The overall effect isn’t so much “Dylan goes electric” but rather a guitar-based band smashing all expectations and embracing dissonant sounds. Many reviewers are calling this record Bon Iver’s “Kid A,” and that’s not too far off the mark. It’s also a starkly personal set. Underneath all the studio reverberations, Vernon’s songs speak of conflict resolution, tragedies and opaque predictions — not exactly “switched-on fluff.”
BUY IT?: You must.

Sounds: Feb. 02, 2017

Sounds: Feb. 02, 2017

SUPER AWESOME ’90s DANCE PARTY

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service”
THE GOOD: 1990s hip-hop
legend A Tribe Called Quest regroups against all odds and makes one of the finest albums of the group’s career.
THE BAD: Phife Dawg died last year, so “We Got It” isn’t the beginning of the group’s next set of fantastic albums. It is the end.
THE NITTY GRITTY: But what a way to go out. Here we have a group refusing to rest on its laurels. Musically, this is hip-hop straight out of the golden age. It’s a sample-heavy turntable record boasting snippets of everyone from Elton John to Musical Youth to Willy Wonka. Lyrically, the work is firmly grounded in the present, politically charged and very intelligent.
Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and even Phife Dawg (most of the record was completed before his death) all sound re-energized, each vocalist delivering compelling verses before effortlessly passing the mic. And there isn’t a wasted second here — no superfluous links or skits. ATCQ means business.
BUY IT?: Yes.

THE ORB — “COW/Chill Out World”
THE GOOD: British electronic legend the Orb plugs in for its 14th album.
THE BAD: No complaints. Just realize that “COW” is very “chill” indeed.
THE NITTY GRITTY: 1990 — The KLF releases “Chill Out,” one of the finest ambient records of all time. 1991 — The Orb, headed by one-time KLF collaborator Alex Paterson, creates genre-defining, ambient house album “The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld.” Both sets become seminal electronic works.
If those two records came together and produced an inspired offspring, it would be “COW/Chill Out World.” Paterson had a hand in all this stuff, so why not? Meant to be taken as a whole, this new Orb album is a happy medium between tranquil environmental settings and more direct, beat-heavy music.
It’s a serene collection comprised of found sounds, offbeat spoken samples (an Orb tradition) and the occasional delicate yet powerful groove brought in to ensure that we don’t totally drift off (although falling asleep to this mix is divine).
BUY IT?: Yes.

ENIGMA — “The Fall of a Rebel Angel”
THE GOOD: German electronic outfit Enigma returns with its eighth outing (and first in eight years).
THE BAD: Same vibe. Different decade.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Back in the early 1990s, Enigma rode the “new age” wave straight up the pop charts with its Gregorian chant-filled sex romp “Sadeness (Part 1).” That sultry record helped open the floodgates for acts such as Deep Forest and Robert Miles, not to mention the mainstream acceptance of new-age superstar Enya.
Twenty-five years later, producer/composer/musician Michael Cretu remains the mastermind behind the Enigma project. And he’s still up to his tried-and-true techniques. Chants; throaty, purring female vocalists; delicate yet grinding backbeats; soft, cascading synths — all that fluff is here.
And on “Angel,” it’s still soothing, agreeable and even slightly hypnotic. But it’s also horribly dated. So if you want to hook up with your old high school girlfriend and relive that steamy night in your parents’ basement, this is the album for you.
BUY IT?: Your call. We’ve already been here.

Sounds: Jan. 26, 2017

Sounds: Jan. 26, 2017

Some Dance. Some Don’t.

THE NAKED AND FAMOUS — “Simple Forms”
THE GOOD: New Zealand indie pop outfit Naked and Famous comes back with a seamless third.
THE BAD: It’s hardly a great album, but there are many satisfying moments.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Simple Forms” finds the band playing it safe (the title really describes the record), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Female/male front team Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers are rather adept at leading their crew through a series of direct, no-nonsense, catchy pop songs in which the guitars and synths come together harmoniously over smooth beats.
Tracks such as ringing lead single “Higher” and the rolling “The Runners” are instantly fetching, reeling us in with soaring melodies and punchy rhythms. There’s nothing here you haven’t heard before, but not every album has to be a game-changer. Naked and Famous knows its capabilities and thrives within these comfortable surroundings. You’ll come back to “Simple Forms” after that first spin, even if it’s just for the next jog around the park. Feel-good stuff indeed.
BUY IT?: Sure.

THE ALBUM LEAF — “Between Waves”
THE GOOD: Multi-instrumentalist and producer Jimmy LaValle goes the “band” route on Album Leaf’s sixth outing.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Album Leaf always has been LaValle either working alone or with an ever-changing roster of musicians. “Between Waves” finds him sharing the spotlight with a more established group of people, and the record definitely has a more collaborative vibe because of it.
The band takes us through a mostly ambient affair (only three of the eight tracks have vocals). However, it’s not “ambient” in the strict electronic sense, but rather in a cool cascading non-intrusive manner. The rhythms are seamless, the melodies delicate. Beats combine with both keyboards and reserved guitars. Distant trumpets even add a little jazz to the mix.
It all adds up to a pulsating, slick affair, one that’s gentle but never outright weak. And when LaValle adds lyrics, we get a handful of very accomplished indie pop gems riding foamy waves of forward momentum.
BUY IT?: I would.

BANKS — “The Altar”
THE GOOD: California singer/songwriter Jillian Rose Banks (stage name simply Banks) comes back with her second.
THE BAD: There’s no sophomore slump here, but “Altar” is still not much of an improvement over 2014’s tepid “Goddess.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Banks’ music falls somewhere between indie pop and R&B, with its dark, churning beats firmly grounded in the urban mainstream. Yet, both the synths on top and her singing style fit nicely alongside any modern rock outfit. In the past, Banks toured with the Weekend AND hit the alternative charts, so she’s definitely blurring genres.
Too bad her records contain only fantastic highlights set against uninspired filler. She has yet to make a great ALBUM. “The Altar” continues in this mediocre vein. For every slamming, bouncing “Trainwreck” or “This Is Not About Us,” there’s a dull-edged “Mother Earth.” And after a while, a sort of sameness falls over the proceedings as songs melt together. Perhaps she needs more exciting material?
BUY IT?: Your call.

Sounds: Jan. 19, 2017

Sounds: Jan. 19, 2017

Slightly Trippy

LOCAL NATIVES —
“Sunlit Youth”
THE GOOD: California indie pop outfit Local Natives gets “sparkly” on its third.
THE BAD: For some, the band’s sound already shifted in the wrong direction, away from the early modern, folk-influenced stuff into more mainstream territories with synths and layered rhythms. “Sunlit Youth” continues that trend. Whether that’s “bad” or not depends upon
the listener.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/guitarist Taylor Rice leads his crew through a set of solid poppers. Brightly colored, rolling pieces such as “Past Lives” and “Masters” tumble across our ears on big world beats and jangly guitars. “Coins” is a stab at blue-eyed soul. The bittersweet “Dark Days” finds the boys sharing the spotlight with Cardigans frontwoman Nina Persson. “Sea of Years” is the big, bold closer that could serve as the perfect swaying climax to any Local Natives show.
It all adds up to an enjoyable, albeit somewhat predictable, album. You’ve heard the bulk of “Youth” in other places before. Still, good pop ain’t bad.
BUY IT?: Your choice.

ELEPHANT STONE — “Ship of Fools”
THE GOOD: Canadian psychedelic indie rockers Elephant Stone come back with their fourth.
THE BAD: No real complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Still fronted by vocalist/bassist/sitar player Rishi Dhir, Elephant Stone turned down the psychedelics (just a smidge) and turned up the pop sensibilities on “Ship.” No worries, though; the record doesn’t play it completely straight as the sonic soundscapes remain. The new album, however, is a little less Kula Shaker and a little more Oasis or even World Party (hey — it had a “Ship of Fools,” too).
More than a few tunes latch onto a seamless groove (“Where I’m Going”) or a huge melody (“Photograph”) and prove what we’ve suspected all along — that Dhir has just as much respect for classic pop as he does for the sounds of India. And when he combines the two, the end result can be hypnotic. “Ship” simply makes the music more accessible without taking it into dull or predictable territories.
BUY IT?: Surely.

JAMIE LIDELL — “Building a Beginning”
THE GOOD: British modern soul singer/songwriter Jamie Lidell comes back with his seventh.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Falling somewhere between the funky safe zone that was “Jim” (2008) and the noisy experimentation spread across “Compass” (2010), the smart, soulful “Beginning” is indeed just that. It’s Lidell’s first release since leaving indie electronic powerhouse Warp Records and his first work written and recorded after the birth of his son, Julian, the namesake of one of the set’s most jubilant, catchy tracks.
From the reggae-flavored “How Did I Live Before Your Love” to the gospel-tinged “Motionless,” the album is packed with both pure (and rather positive) emotion and honest performances. Lidell makes the electronic enhancements of past albums take a back seat to more stripped-down instrumentation. “Beginning” gives off a more spontaneous vibe.
This new (or classic?) attitude works extremely well for both the singer and the material, and everything comes together to make a big, beautiful noise.
BUY IT?: Yes.

Sounds: Jan. 12, 2017

Sounds: Jan. 12, 2017

BASHING ABOUT

CYMBALS EAT GUITARS — “Pretty Years”
THE GOOD: Long Island indie rockers Cymbals Eat Guitars come back with a more grounded (and maybe hopeful?) fourth record.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: With the
jittery wail of singer/guitarist Joseph D’Agostino way out in front, the band crashes and burns through tracks both focused and upbeat (“Have a Heart”) and more down-tempo and emotionally
frenetic (murky closer “Shrine”). And in order to keep things intensely interesting, “Pretty Years” covers all points in between these two extremes.
The overall style remains what we’ve come to expect, a brash and crunchy combination of ’80s post-punk (“Close” resembles an early Cure outtake), ’90s indie (Pavement vibes continue to run rampant) and a hint of the spaced-out and quirky (noisy bits a la Flaming Lips).
Lyrically, “Years” is less pessimistic than “Lose” was two years ago. However, D’Agostino remains cautious. We’re not out of the deep, dark forest just yet. So I guess that makes “Pretty Years” a damn fine transitional record.
BUY IT?: Yes.

THEE OH SEES — “A Weird Exits”
THE GOOD: San Francisco indie garage outfit Thee Oh Sees regroups (now boasting TWO drummers) and gives us a cosmic 12th.
THE BAD: Nope. Just be prepared for a not-so-predictable time. Keep a wide-open mind.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist and band founder John Dwyer leads his crew through an eclectic eight-song set featuring everything from simple stomping rockers (“Dead Man’s Gun”) to noise-infused drones (“Ticklish Warrior”) to fuzzy, psychedelic dreamscapes (“Crawl Out into the Fallout”). “Jammed Entrance” is a funk-infused instrumental (having two drummers is rather advantageous). Hazy, organ-soaked closer “The Axis” recalls the stoned splendor of Pink Floyd’s “A Saucerful of Secrets.”
“A Weird Exits” is that rare case in which a band decides to spread out musically and then actually pulls off nearly every experiment with flying colors. One is hard-pressed to find any huge missteps, and the album truly makes us hopeful for more wild sessions in the near future.
BUY IT?: Oh yeah.

WARPAINT — “Head’s Up”
THE GOOD: Female Los Angeles indie rockers Warpaint unleash their third.
THE BAD: Lead single “New Song” may have scared off some longtime fans. It’s a glossy, rhythmic tune that resembles HAIM as opposed to the group’s past progressive tendencies. But fear not — while there are some beat-heavy and/or “pop” moments on the new album, it’s mostly just Warpaint being themselves.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Songs such as “So Good” and “Above Control” bring back the non-traditional song structures, spaced-out settings, layered guitar work and fizzy psychedelics. In many instances, the ladies seem to latch onto bolder and tighter melodies. But they do that without sacrificing the half-dreamy, half-complex uniqueness that put them on the indie map almost a decade ago.
One could argue the band is doing a damn fine job of not falling into the trappings of delivering the same album over and over again. And “Head’s Up” is intriguing and accomplished enough to make us thoroughly optimistic for the NEXT set.
BUY IT?: OK.

Sounds: Top 10 of 2016

Sounds: Top 10 of 2016

THE TOP TEN

We’re back in the New Year, wrapping up our look at 2016’s 20 best albums. And now, THE TOP TEN.

10. DEERHOOF — “The Magic” (June)
Avante-rockers Deerhoof played it straight (about as straight as they can play it anyway) and delivered a wildly spontaneous (recorded in less than a week) and blissfully noisy set. “The Magic” ended up being just as fascinating as past releases (fun, too).

9. RADIOHEAD — “Moon Shaped Pool” (June)
The inspired pairing of British indie rock legends Radiohead and producer Nigel Godrich continues to amaze. Since its 1997 masterpiece “OK Computer,” the band has never worked with another producer or made a weak record. “Pool” was simply another disc that smashed all expectations.

8. THE RADIO DEPT — “Running Out of Love” (October)
Swedish dream-pop collective the Radio Dept. turned up both the electronics and the global politics on its fourth record. “Love” ended up a near-perfect melding of underground ’90s grooves, twee pop and modern bouts with computers (not to mention some calculated anger).

7. JOYCE MANOR — “Cody” (October)
California punks Joyce Manor churned out 10 very personal tracks in 25 minutes and left us emotionally drained at the end. Close friends died, junkies didn’t get better, relationships crashed and burned, and the riffs and melodies were all killer.

6. MITSKI — “Puberty 2” (June)
New York indie singer/songwriter Mitski grew up lyrically and stretched out musically on “Puberty.” Facing adulthood head-on and combining grungy rock with electronic and modern folk, she delivered an eclectic, stirring and concise set that left us craving more.

5. ANIMAL COLLECTIVE — “Painting with Animal Collective” (February)
Maryland indie pop/rock outfit Animal Collective went for crazy doses of instant gratification on “Painting.” Its usual mix of the weird and wonderful was left intact but with bigger and healthier pop sensibilities this time. Not a bad starting point for uninitiated newbies.

4. LORETTA LYNN — “Full Circle” (March)
The living legend (now 84) released her first album in a dozen years and verified that she’s STILL one of the most important and relevant voices in country music. Produced by Lynn’s daughter Patsy along with John Carter Cash, “Circle” proved more authentic than anything pouring out of Nashville today.

3. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — “We Got It from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service” (November)
One of the most talented hip-hop acts of the ’90s got back together and released one of its finest albums. With Phife Dawg’s death earlier this year, however, “We Got It” was not the beginning of a bold new chapter in Tribe’s story. It would be the bittersweet conclusion. But what an awesome climax.

2. THE AVALANCHES — “Wildflower” (July)
After keeping us waiting for 15 years, the Australian electronic duo finally gave the influential and memorable “Since I Left You” (2000) a proper follow-up. Expectations ran unreasonably high, but the pair did not disappoint with their unique, multi-layered sonic landscapes.

1. CASE LANG VEIRS — “Case Lang Veirs” (June)
Three women from the worlds of country and alt-folk blended their voices and songwriting capabilities flawlessly. Neko Case, K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs collaborated equally, with each member complementing the other two without dominating the proceedings. Here’s hoping this project gets a sequel soon.