White Denim — ‘Performance’ THE GOOD: Eclectic Austin, Texas, rock band White Denim regroups and re-energizes for its seventh. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Produced by their own damn selves in their very own space, “Performance” finds the band stretching out musically and having one hell of a good time doing so. The guys calmed down for a stretch, but no more. One now detects echoes of glam riding atop an authentic Southern funk/soul combination, all mixed up with touches of studio playfulness. Think Beck hooking up with the Black Keys while some early Bowie crackles in the background. It’s a trippy mix, yet “Performance” is more focused than you would expect; the songs are airtight poppers set against colorful backdrops. It’s the melding of two worlds — a band unafraid of experimentation and mind expansion that also understands the appeal of a good, old-fashioned party record. “Performance” exists for the brain AND body. So crawl into this space, and do whatever you feel. Think, move, devour. BUY IT? I would.
The Dodos — ‘Certainty Waves’ THE GOOD: San Francisco indie duo Dodos (vocalist/guitarist Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber) plugs in for its seventh. THE BAD: A slight shift in overall sound, but nothing BAD. THE NITTY GRITTY: The band’s core still leans toward the organic and acoustic, yet Long is more open to the electric on this set. “Waves” is much more abrasive and tougher-sounding than past records. Heavy? Not exactly, but certainly louder and multi-layered. Long makes his electric guitar sound like a bunch of different instruments across the top while Kroeber bangs, taps and kicks out a variety of world rhythms underneath. At times, “Waves” comes off like a stranger take on Vampire Weekend; Long never forgets that a great hook or sweeping melody can cut through jagged riffs and pounding beats. So the record works on a few levels. We’re given wildly experimental post-punk, math rock and indie pop all tossed together in the same hyper brew. It’s a tasty combination. BUY IT?: Surely.
Cloud Nothings — ‘Last Building Burning’ THE GOOD: Ohio indie rock group Cloud Nothings cranks out a visceral fifth. THE BAD: Other than wandering track “Dissolution,” which never seems to end, “Burning” is a focused affair with purpose. No real complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: After 2017’s slightly reserved “Life Without Sound,” Cloud Nothings brings all its forceful energy back for the new record. Frontman/guitarist and band mastermind Dylan Baldi is fed up and frustrated, screaming out hooks atop jagged riffs and crashing backbeats. (“I wish I could believe in your dream.”) That’s this band’s main strength. Even when it sounds as if matters are spiraling out of control and pent-up aggressions are exploding all over the room, the melodies break through the din. Tracks such as “Leave Him Now” and “Another Way of Life” display hardcore tendencies but remain guitar-based rock songs at their center. And since Cloud Nothings essentially started out as a Baldi solo project, “Burning” only continues the tightening and strengthening of the now proper band. BUY IT?: Yes.
Stellar sequels from Papercuts, Tokyo Police Club, Joyce Manor keep momentum going
Papercuts — ‘Parallel Universe Blues’ THE GOOD: California singer/songwriter/producer Jason Robert Quever releases his sixth as Papercuts. THE BAD: No. THE NITTY GRITTY: Over the past decade-and-a-half, Quever has given us indie pop sailing in and out of the realms of twee, dream pop, retro garage rock and jangle. “Parallel Universe” is no different. However, we wouldn’t want it to be, for Quever is a master at this stuff. Melancholy melodies spread across fuzzy atmospherics with the right amount of genuine rock noise to give the music a little muscle. Quever isn’t the most charismatic front man, but that only enhances the experience. His songs aren’t meant to set the room ablaze or get in your face. Instead, the layered guitars, occasional strings, swirling organs, gentle rhythms and reserved vocals wrap around the listener in a hypnotic, droning buzz you hope will never end. At the same time, the music is never dull or relegated to melting into the background. Dreamy and hazy? Yes, but also compelling. BUY IT?: Yes.
Tokyo Police Club — ‘TPC’ THE GOOD: After a brief hiatus, Canada’s Tokyo Police Club regroups and cranks out a lively fourth. THE BAD: Those expecting the year’s best album or radical shift in sound won’t find it here. “TPC” is simply the band being itself, business as usual, and that’s enough. THE NITTY GRITTY: Most of these 12 songs come complete with jagged riffs, crashing backbeats and a dedicated hook that’ll grab you immediately. The mix isn’t as clean as on past records, and there’s an intensity that isn’t normally here. The boys have recharged the batteries; their spark is back after a short separation. It’s tough to resist the pull of slamming bits such as “Hercules” and “Simple Dude.” And even when the band flirts with slower tempos, as it does on the swaying “Unseen” and the grand, sweeping closer “Daisy Chain,” the energy level doesn’t dissipate. Songs also avoid blending into one another; the album is varied and impulsive. Let’s hope the band keeps the momentum going. BUY IT?: Yep.
Joyce Manor — ‘Million Dollars to Kill Me’ THE GOOD: California punk group Joyce Manor releases its fifth. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: I hesitate to call these guys “pop-punk” even though their music is extremely melodic. Despite the hooks and harmonies, Joyce Manor retains a grittiness on all its records, which prevents it from becoming the next guitar-driven, commercial alt-radio darlings. It’s better than that. The band also accomplishes far more in 23 minutes than most do in 45. Every album seems to contain 10 quick, extremely focused tracks that grab hold immediately and never let up. “Million Dollars” follows this pattern. From the jagged opener “Fighting Kangaroo” to the more delicate “I’m Not the One” to the almost-pre-Beatles throwback “Silly Games,” Joyce Manor keeps the tunes BIG and the momentum constantly pushing forward. All the while, the lyrics bring the everyday into an interesting light. Familiar situations always are relatable but never mundane. You’ll be instantly craving another 10 tracks, but hey, “Keep ’em wanting more.” BUY IT?: Absolutely.
Happy New Year, everybody. Before diving into 2019, I’d like to look back at my 10 favorite spins from last year. Here are some titles you might have overlooked, with excerpts from their original reviews.
10. Joyce Manor — “Million Dollars to Kill Me” Joyce Manor keeps the tunes BIG and the momentum constantly pushing forward. All the while, the lyrics bring the “everyday” into an interesting light; familiar situations always are relatable but never mundane.
9. The Go! Team — “Semicircle” The record combines elements of garage rock and hip-hop, further enhancing both genres with a myriad of wobbly early ’70s samples, cheerleading squads, marching bands and super-syrupy pop hooks. This entire album is Insanely Catchy, finding its power within sing-song melodies across the top and thick-layered beats below.
8. Speedy Ortiz — “Twerp Verse” Fronted by guitarist/lyricist Sadie Dupuis, a woman blessed with a voice crossing Bettie Seveert’s Carol Van Dijk with early Liz Phair, Speedy Ortiz is a rare band whose music is complex and catchy at the same time. The players adore bizarre tempo changes, alternate guitar tunings and hazy atmospherics.”
7. Hop Along — “Bark Your Head Off, Dog” Musically, the group recalls amazing, female-fronted indie legends such as Madder Rose and Throwing Muses while embracing the more progressive-leaning elements of contemporaries such as Warpaint. Lyrically, Frances Quinlan tells wondrous stories both concrete and abstract.
6. Courtney Barnett — “Tell Me How You Really Feel” It’s a record that doesn’t try to match “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” and is all the better for it. The new album is slightly smaller in scope. Barnett allows us to get closer and peek inside her psyche. She embraces her mood swings and grows as a songwriter.
5. Neko Case — “Hell On” Case’s always stunning vocals remain the focus. Those golden tones tackle everything from the usual bits of alt-country to progressive rock with all of its quirky chord progressions and tempo changes. Regarding scope, this is easily her biggest album to date.
4. Shannon and the Clams — “Onion” Now under the guidance of producer and Black Key Dan Auerbach, Shannon and the Clams have stepped up its game, writing better songs while toning down the whole novelty aspect of its work.
3. Albert Hammond Jr. — “Francis Trouble” Here he finally completely steps out of the Strokes’ shadow. Every track is exquisitely constructed with his reserved yet powerful guitar prowess, soaring melodies (some of them reminiscent of the son’s brilliant father) and Hammond’s emotional abilities as a front man.
2. Sunflower Bean — “Twentytwo in Blue” Fronted by the determined yet charismatic Julia Cumming, the band plows through 11 focused, guitar-based indie gems big on memorable choruses and (at times) glam rock swagger. The songs grab you almost immediately, and repeat listens bring out charming, subtle nuances you may have previously missed.
1. Mitski — “Be the Cowboy” Japanese-American indie rocker Mitski isn’t afraid to turn pop structures and rock arrangements inside out and upside down. Not only are her songs good, but Mitski’s voice also is distinct — lovely in spots, unforgiving in others. Whatever the song needs, she brings.
Latest from Elvis Costello, Kristin Hersh make for welcome returns
Elvis Costello and the Imposters — ‘Look Now’ THE GOOD: Elvis Costello gets back to making albums and working with long-time collaborators the Imposters (the Attractions with a slightly different lineup). THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: The bulk of the material comes from a couple of abandoned musical theater projects and a handful of random songs written over the past decade. Other than three songs co-written with Burt Bacharach and one with Carole King, everything was penned by Costello alone. Since “Look Now” hails from different sources, it shouldn’t work as a cohesive album, yet it does. That’s probably because of the man reuniting with the Imposters. Costello hasn’t made a straight-up pop/rock album in about a decade, and this welcome return to form proves the 64-year-old still shines in this realm. Whether it’s the melancholy “Stripping Paper,” soulful rocker “Unwanted Number” or graceful “I Let the Sun Go Down,” Costello remains a master singer/songwriter. And the guy is always at his best when fronting a band — especially THIS band. BUY IT?: Yes.
Kristin Hersh — ‘Possible Dust Clouds’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter and Throwing Muses frontwoman (not saying “ex,” because they tend to reform now and then) Kristin Hersh is back with her 10th solo outing. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: When the woman flies solo, her records are usually lighter fare — intimate indie rock with definite shades of modern folk. “Dust Clouds,” on the other hand, possesses some genuine rock teeth. Right at the start, we’re smacked dead square in the mouth with the one-two, rough-and-ready punch of “LAX” and “No Shade in Shadow.” There’s a pronounced murkiness to these proceedings, with many songs drenched in fuzzed-out electric guitar haze. Hersh doesn’t shy away from lots of volume, and the songs benefit. Crashing drums play off grinding basslines below while grungy guitars boil over above. Hersh sounds ragged, spent and, at times, frustrated. Yet she doesn’t sound out of place while getting loud, low down and dirty. “Dust Clouds” ends up aggressive and truly exciting. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Echo and the Bunnymen — ‘The Stars, the Oceans & the Moon’ THE GOOD: British post-punk legends Echo & the Bunnymen come back with their 13th studio outing. THE BAD: Most of “The Stars” seems pointless. THE NITTY GRITTY: We get two new songs and 13 “re-workings” of old classics. Why? According to frontman Ian McCulloch, it’s to “make the songs better.” Better than what? The originals were just fine. That’s not to say these new takes are BAD, but again, I wouldn’t expect this from a band that returns every few years with a string of better-than-average new albums. Classic rock dinosaurs, not Echo & the Bunnymen, do stuff like this. So “The Stars” feels not only like a watery rehash but also a missed opportunity. The two new songs, “The Somnambulist” and “How Far,” find McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant in fine form. Eight more fresh tracks would have been much more satisfying than the stripped-down retakes of “Seven Seas” or “The Killing Moon.” BUY IT?: No. “The Stars” is for obsessive diehards only.
Animal Collective — ‘Tangerine Reef’ THE GOOD: Experimental indie rock outfit Animal Collective releases its 11th. THE BAD: “Reef” is a companion piece to a film. Pull the two apart, and both suffer. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Reef” is the band’s first album without principal songwriter Panda Bear. He’s still a member but wasn’t involved in this one-off collaboration with Coral Morphologic, an art-science duo comprised of a musician and a marine biologist. The record is meant to accompany a video project the duo made about coral reef conservation and climate change. So we have an ambient film score recorded live in the studio. Individual tracks run into each other, large sections of the music are essentially tuneless, and the entire work is painted with a sense of dread and foreboding. Panda Bear’s melodies are sorely lacking. However, “Reef” was never meant to be an indie pop album. It’s a combination of what the video needed and perhaps an unintentional look back at Animal Collective’s weirder early days. BUY IT?: Your choice.
Peter Bjorn and John — ‘Darker Days’ THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop/rockers Peter Bjorn and John come back with a lighter eighth (despite its “Darker” title). THE BAD: Nah. THE NITTY GRITTY: See the drawing of broken bones on the mostly black/gray cover art, and you might think the record is PB&J getting all philosophical, political or a little of both over noisy, abrasive and morose backdrops. OK, there might be echoes of ALL that buried within these 10 new tracks. However, this new collection finds the guys showing off their pop chops more so than on the last two or three offerings. Songs such as the bubbly “One for the Team” and regal “Living a Dream” are all about big melodies, sunny arrangements and keeping matters bright and tight. The band then tosses in a few more experimental bits. Toward its conclusion, “Days” gets slightly gloomy and more down-tempo. The moody “Silicon Valley Blues” and spaced-out “Heaven and Hell” bring some balance to the entire outing. BUY IT?: Yes.
We Were Promised Jetpacks — ‘The More I Sleep, the Less I Dream’ THE GOOD: Scottish indie rock group We Were Promised Jetpacks comes back more mature and ambitious after a four-year hiatus. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: The word that best describes “The More I Sleep” is “big.” Big, soaring melodies; full, rich arrangements; and epic bouts of drama — they all have a place here. The end result is a grand spectacle that proves the band is aging and progressing gracefully. A song such as the melancholy “Hanging In” or the stirring, slowly building title track wouldn’t have sounded out of place on past records. However, moments like those would have been a bigger shock to the system than they are here. One detects echoes of graceful Travis, early Radiohead and even soulful Doves. The band also finds that bittersweet spot between the down-tempo gloom and the guitar-drums clamor. This may be a more somber record that usual, but it’s by no means soft. The band remains a powerful outfit, too. BUY IT?: Yep.
New releases from For Esme, Laurel, Metric make for welcome additions
For Esme — ‘Righteous Woman’ THE GOOD: Canadian synthpop outfit For Esme makes you think while dancing on “Righteous Woman.” THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by Martha Meredith, For Esme offers up 10 frothy, forward-moving anthems dealing with feminism, equality, power and a little dreaming now and then. The strong messages are all there, but so are the liquid beats; “Woman” is a brilliant merging of two worlds. Disposable dance music that isn’t really disposable at all? Yes, pay attention.
Passion, purpose and even a subdued rage bubbling beneath all those ringing synths and infectious melodies belted out by a self-assured frontwoman fill punchy tracks such as “To Love,” “Small Talk” and “Modern Love.” And when the band pulls back the rhythms and Meredith finds herself singing sans big beats (“Secret Church” and “Asleep/Awake”), the music takes on a completely different form that’s just as mesmerizing. “Woman” ends up a balanced workout with rests in all the right places. BUY IT?: Yes. And go for the limited edition LP.
Laurel — ‘Dogviolet’ THE GOOD: After teasing us with a bunch of singles and EPs over the past half-decade, British singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Laurel Arnell-Cullen (stage name “Laurel”) finally delivers her first full-length album. THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: Known for recording her stuff in a bedroom studio, Laurel is a one-woman show that’s both tough and seductive. Her commanding voice can sound husky, ragged, smoky or somewhat flirtatious — whatever the song calls for.
Musically, one would expect something electronic (at-home productions often go that route). Yet, Laurel’s music leans toward something more organic and rock-based. Guitars are just as important as the keyboards. Think more Lana Del Rey or Florence and the Machine, and less Robyn or Lykke Li. Better moments include the stinging, in-your-face “Adored” and the more tempered, melancholy “Empty Kisses.” But “Dogviolet” contains very few wasted spaces. Laurel has sharpened her skills and developed her style on all those aforementioned singles, and the effort has paid off. The next one should be better still. BUY IT?: Surely.
Metric — ‘Art of Doubt’ THE GOOD: Canadian indie rock group Metric returns with its seventh. THE BAD: Nothing here. THE NITTY GRITTY: After leaning heavy on synths for the past couple of records, frontwoman Emily Haines and her crew have brought guitars back up front. The new songs still ride punchy, seamless rhythms, and keyboards add color, but “Doubt” rocks harder than recent efforts. That newfound muscle paired with some of the band’s strongest songs in a decade makes the new album easily Metric’s best since 2009’s “Fantasies.”
You would think 12 songs spread over 58 minutes would drag after a while. “Doubt” may sag slightly in a couple of spots, but overall, the album never wears out its welcome. Strong points include immediately commanding opener “Dark Saturday”; sprawling anthem “Now or Never Now”; driven, catchy, power-pop wonder “Risk”; and the graceful, swirling “Anticipate.” There aren’t many lesser moments at all. “Doubt” balances differing moods and tempos and never falls into a routine sameness. BUY IT?: Yes indeed.
Trio of singer-songwriters delivers emotional sequels
Laura Carbone — ‘Empty Sea’ THE GOOD: German indie singer/songwriter and ex-Your Youth frontwoman Laura Carbone offers up an emotionally charged sophomore solo album. THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: Many sounds and styles bubble to the surface on “Sea,” not to mention a fair amount of grit. The record is equal parts post-punk abandon, ’90s noise and Gothic pop. From the tumbling and crashing sway and swagger carrying “Nightride” to the shuffling, melodic grace making up “Tangerine Tree,” Carbone’s music is more than one voice or vibe. The bluesy “Who’s Gonna Save You” is painted with dread. “Lullaby” is eerily soothing. You get the idea. No two moments sound alike, and every setting feels genuine.
“Sea” also leaves you craving more. Carbone delivers a tight nine tracks in 34 minutes flat, all of it focused (even the seemingly reckless bits) and accomplished. In turn, the woman deserves more recognition here in the United States. This might just be the record making that happen. BUY IT?: Sure.
Marissa Nadler — ‘For My Crimes’ THE GOOD: Boston modern folk singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler offers up a gloomy yet lovely eighth. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Crimes” doesn’t hail from a happy place. ook at the cover art. Those shades of black and gray set the perfect tone for the music held within. Nadler sings of loves lost, past transgressions, and feelings of hopelessness. It’s bleak.
However, in its own way, “Crimes” could be considered cathartic. There’s real beauty in all this anguish; Nadler uses fragile and lilting melodies to carry all the pain. Songs such as “Lover Release Me” and “You’re Only Harmless When You Sleep” make you embrace the darkness. Sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment and just the right amount of echo on Nadler’s vocals only add to the record’s dreamlike quality. Ghostly harmonies and soft, weeping string arrangements enhance matters even further.
It’s no easy task making a down-tempo set NOT wear out its welcome. Nadler achieves just that on “Crimes.” We’ll even take another half dozen records just like it. BUY IT?: Yes.
Loretta Lynn — ‘Wouldn’t It Be Great’ THE GOOD: Country legend Loretta Lynn is back again … at the age of 86. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: When Lynn teamed up with Jack White for the “Van Lear Rose” album, that collection seemed the perfect swan song to a more than 40-year career. Lynn was making music on her own terms while creating something raw and authentic.
Well, that was 14 years ago, and apparently that WASN’T the end. Since then, Lynn started a five-album cycle produced by her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell, and Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. “Wouldn’t It Be Great” is the third of those planned five records.
Each album combines Lynn compositions both new and old, the singer backed by a traditional country outfit using not one drop of Nashville gloss. Lynn remains the master of her surroundings, whether belting out a honky-tonk scorcher (“Ruby’s Stool”), tear-stained ballad (“I’m Dying for Someone to Live For”) or swaying bit of blues (“These Ole Blues”). Those songwriting talents and that voice are far from finished. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Dirty Projectors — “Lamp Lit Prose” THE GOOD: Brooklyn indie outfit Dirty Projectors brings us a lively eighth. THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: DP mastermind vocalist/guitarist David Longstreth is in better spirits this year, especially after 2017’s darker and more introspective self-titled record. Sure the guy sings of senators while going the political route during “That’s A Lifestyle.” But he also manages to name-drop Julian Casablancas when telling us of a new girl who’s a real “Break-Thru.” The guitar riff on that track is super-jazzy and infectious, too.
“Lamp Lit” ends up a myriad of flavors (Longstreth utilizing strings and horns more than usual) and much welcome vocal guests from Syd and Haim. The album feels like a party in spots but never comes off as one-dimensional. When things quiet down, the simple melodic beauty of “Blue Bird” can be heartbreaking and the tranquility of closer “(I Wanna) Feel It All” brings us home with a sense of calm. It’s a tiring but highly enjoyable journey. BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
Still Corners — “Slow Air” THE GOOD: London dream-pop duo Still Corners come back with a moody (of course) fifth. THE BAD: “Slow Air” is more about an overall dramatic vibe as opposed to individual songs. A certain sameness becomes apparent around the record’s midpoint. But the band still makes it work. THE NITTY GRITTY: Tessa Murray remains a commanding presence, even when her voice rarely rises above a distant dull roar. And the songs themselves are all mid-tempo burners, coated with a little more guitar than usual. So “Slow Air” ends up a collection of smoky stuff that sounds best around midnight.
It’s hardly the blues, but there are definite shades of blue. The occasional bouts of ambient noise and echo only enhance the dreamy experience. And when Murray and multi-instrumentalist/producer Greg Hughes hit us with a succinct melody, their pop sensibilities also shine through. It’s tough to deny the infectious power and drive of a track such as “Black Lagoon” or “Dreamlands.” BUY IT?: Sure.
Anna Calvi — “Hunter” THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi switches things up on her long-awaited third. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Her first new music in four years finds Calvi changing outlooks but not necessarily musical directions. Her guitar playing remains varied, unpredictable and, in spots, truly stunning. This time, her vocals resemble a cross between P.J. Harvey’s more delicate side and prime Siouxsie Sioux.
However, a sweeping and dramatic ballad such as “Swimming Pool” or the intimate strains of “Eden” may have felt out of place on past records. The entirety of “Hunter” isn’t quite as visceral as her earlier work. But the set isn’t soft by any means. Calvi can still burn with the best of them; stinging bits such as “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Body” and “Alpha” bring a definite rock swagger and sexual drive to the proceedings.
Calvi has never been this open, honest and, in some instances, vulnerable before. This newfound intimacy works, and one can only hope it crops up again on future releases. BUY IT?: Yes.
Suede — ‘The Blue Hour’ THE GOOD: British indie rock group Suede comes back with its eighth, and third since the 2013 “rebirth.” THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: Produced by the legendary Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, U2, Foals), “Blue Hour” is Suede at its most dynamic and dramatic. Still the modern kings of mid-tempo glam-rock swagger, frontman Brett Anderson and the guys once again embrace layered atmospherics and grand string arrangements, using them to great effect against the standard guitar-bass-drums rumble.
Songs such as “Wastelands” and “Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You” are equal parts blue melancholy and glorious sunshine — sad yet hopeful at the same time. Savor this record; the payoff is worth the effort. The individual parts shine, but when put together, the songs become all the more effective. The album builds to an early crescendo, followed by a final downward spiral meant to send us drifting after all the thunder and lightning. The extended anthem “Flytipping” makes for the perfect nightcap. When the music’s over, the emotions linger. BUY IT?: Yes.
James — ‘Living in Extraordinary Times’ THE GOOD: British indie legend James comes back with an accomplished 15th. THE BAD: Not really. THE NITTY GRITTY: At this point, the band could stick to the winning ’90s Britpop formula that helped bring about its biggest commercial success. Or, it could go off on weird tangents and be a bunch of crazy, middle-aged men. Better yet, how about a happy medium?
That’s where “Extraordinary Times” lands. Frontman Tim Booth and his crew still possess massive pop chops, and they slather them all over big, soaring, melodic bits such as “Coming Home (Part 2)” and “Better Than That.” Then you get the more experimental (but NOT self-indulgent) stuff, such as biting, aggressive opener “Hank” and the buzzing, crackling political rant “Heads.” Booth never gets TOO comfortable, and nor should you.
James isn’t afraid to pull its music in a myriad of directions. That’s why we keep coming back after all this time. Quality and unpredictability maintained for over 30 years — you have to respect that. BUY IT?: Yes.
Paul McCartney — ‘Egypt Station’ THE GOOD: Legendary rocker Paul McCartney treats us to his 24th post-Beatles studio effort. THE BAD: Hey, it’s a McCartney record. There are both brilliant tunes and lesser moments. Thankfully, we get more good bits than bad. THE NITTY GRITTY: The main collaborator this time is pop/rock producer Greg Kursten (Adele, Sia, the Bird and the Bee), who brings a modern polish to the proceedings.
At 76, McCartney could be accused of falling into some nostalgic trappings. “Happy with You” is a snappy little acoustic ditty about contentment. “Confidante” is yet another tune about (probably) John. However, this slightly sappy stuff has always been one of McCartney’s many musical fortes.
Other tracks on “Station” find the man rocking out (“Come on to Me”), getting topical (“People Want Peace”) and tossing us a few ascending ballads (“Do It Now”). None of it is very surprising, yet none of it is cringe-worthy, either. “Egypt Station” is what it is — McCartney being McCartney. We’ll take it. BUY IT?: Sure.
Interpol — ‘Marauder’ THE GOOD: New York City indie rock group Interpol comes back with a semi-blazing sixth. THE BAD: “Marauder” is the band’s best record in a decade, but it doesn’t come close to the quiet power of its first two ground-breaking masterpieces — “Turn on the Bright Lights” (2002) and “Antics” (2004). THE NITTY GRITTY: Of course, those records were released when Interpol was an integral part of a New York indie revival/revolution that also included the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Walkmen and a host of others. Today, Interpol isn’t part of any scene in particular, unless there’s a specific category for survivors.
This time, the band hired Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, MGMT) to produce, and he guides the boys through a set that’s more straight-forward and up-tempo than usual. The record lacks in murky, moody pieces such as the classic “NYC.” So the worst you could accuse “Marauder” of being is slightly one-dimensional. But the songwriting is sharp, and the guys are tight. Nicely done. BUY IT?: Yes.
Death Cab for Cutie — ‘Thank You for Today’ THE GOOD: Northwest indie rock group Death Cab for Cutie comes back with its ninth. THE BAD: This is the band’s first full-length album without guitarist/producer Chris Walla. His presence is missed, but his absence is not entirely detrimental. THE NITTY GRITTY: Rich Costey (Muse, Foster the People, Frank Turner) handles production duties, putting a definite sheen on most tracks. Frontman Ben Gibbard wrote about 90 percent of the record. One detects a delicate, rhythmic influence held over from his Postal Service days spread underneath many of the tunes.
So “Thank You” ends up both ever-so-slightly beat-driven AND dreamy, with the songs gently wrapping their sweet melodies (some of Gibbard’s finest this decade) around the listener. There’s a mid-tempo warmth to cuts such as “When We Drive” and “You Moved Away.” Yet the songs also bring on that Northwest DCFC chill we’ve come to embrace after all these years. So “Thank You” shakes things up but still goes down smoothly. BUY IT?: Yeah.
Spiritualized — ‘And Nothing Hurt’ THE GOOD: English prog/indie rock group Spiritualized comes back with a focused eighth. THE BAD: Those longing for a return to the trippy days of 1997’s masterpiece “We Are Floating in Space” only will find distant echoes of all that weirdness. “Hurt” is a tighter affair. THE NITTY GRITTY: That’s not to say frontman Jason Pierce (who also produces) and his crew play it completely safe. Tracks such as “On the Sunshine” and “The Morning After” add a little volume and spontaneity to an otherwise low-key set of songs. Pierce doesn’t give us outright ballads, though. Instead, we get meticulously crafted, multi-layered, down-tempo pieces that find ghostly choirs and sweeping orchestrations popping up in all the right places.
Pierce has mellowed over the past couple of records, probably because he learned to deal with some of his demons. No one can be the drug-addled eccentric psycho kid their whole life, and the same holds true for rock stars. “Hurt” may be far less strange, but it’s no less brilliant. BUY IT?: Yes.
Nine Inch Nails shines as Gorillaz, Orbital serve tepid sequels
Nine Inch Nails — ‘Bad Witch’ THE GOOD: Nine Inch Nails’ ninth finds mastermind Trent Reznor taking some serious musical chances. THE BAD: Six tracks in 30 minutes blurs the lines between EP and LP. Or does “Bad Witch” simply leave you craving more darkness? THE NITTY GRITTY: If Reznor ever attempted to make a loose SOUL album, this might be it. The man plays copious amounts of saxophone within the mix, which detracts some power from the usual electronic buzz and hum. Some moments even find Reznor channeling his dearly departed friend and collaborator David Bowie. Smoky bits such as “God Break Down the Door” or the funky “Over and Out” wouldn’t feel out of place during that artist’s mid-’80s rhythmic period.
The affair also works seamlessly as a whole, jumping from the traditional NIN angst of “S— Mirror” to the aforementioned Bowie-isms to haunting instrumentals such as “I’m Not from This World.” It’s a record that feels both strikingly human and eerily detached all at once. BUY IT?: Surely.
Gorillaz — ‘The Now Now’ THE GOOD: British virtual band Gorillaz comes back (already) with its sixth. THE BAD: If last year’s “Humanz” had too many guests and not enough Damon Albarn out front, “Now Now” is the exact opposite. Now it’s 90 percent Albarn and a lack of fresh ideas. Maybe if we MERGE the two albums. Hmmmm… THE NITTY GRITTY: There are some satisfying moments here. The slick electropop carrying “Humility,” the urban swagger of “Hollywood,” the simple beauty that is “Idaho” — they all work. Too bad other parts feel unfinished. “Lake Zurich” gets off to a funky start but fizzles. “Fire Flies” and “One Percent” are tepid, half-baked jams that would have once been B-sides.
Albarn has released a LOT of new music over the past half-decade — a Blur reunion record, a solo album and now two Gorillaz sets. Maybe it’s time to relax and recharge the batteries. Last year, I called the Gorillaz catalog one of diminishing returns. For the time being, it’s leveled off. BUY IT?: Your choice.
Orbital — ‘Monsters Exist’ THE GOOD: British electronic duo Orbital (brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll) get together AGAIN for their ninth. THE BAD: “Monsters” makes no bold leaps forward. Still… THE NITTY GRITTY: The album could be considered a welcome return to form. Orbital first called it quits around 2004, just as the ’90s electronic golden age was shutting down for good. It reformed briefly around the turn of the decade, and then again last year. A series of live shows got the creative juices flowing, and “Monsters” is the result.
The proper set is a tight, nine-song opus that sees the brothers using their old tricks — multi-layered seamless beats and basslines, ethereal vocal loops, whirring hypnotic synths, and a clean and shiny mix. There’s also a bonus disc of “leftovers,” some of which are just as infectious as the main show.
The record’s only drawback is a lack of differentiation from the existing catalog. “Monsters” ends up an enjoyable run through familiar grooves, but maybe it’s just for the diehards. BUY IT?: Your call.
Father John Misty — ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman takes his fourth album as Father John Misty in a new direction. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Released a mere 14 months after the 2017 epic “Pure Comedy,” “Customer” was written during a prolific two months Tillman spent holed up in a New York City hotel room. It also peels away some of the past’s pretentiousness. “Customer” probably is the closest we’re ever getting to Misty indie POP.
This is one tight affair, with 10 songs in just under 40 minutes. Practically every cut boasts a dedicated hook that grabs you immediately. One might even consider a tune such as “Mr. Tillman” — dare I say it — bouncy. Most of the time, a full band augments Misty, and not just guitars and drums but woodwinds, too. I’m not sure if the guy wanted to lighten the mood, but he certainly does just that during “Customer,” the man’s most easily approachable record to date. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Dawes — ‘Passwords’ THE GOOD: California folk-rock group Dawes get somewhat political on its sixth. THE BAD: “Passwords” is musically interchangeable with past albums. Still, long-time fans simply looking for their bi-annual fix should be cool. THE NITTY GRITTY: Most bands have dabbled in world events since our 2016 presidential election and Brexit. Add Dawes to that conscientious list. Here, though, in typical mellow California style, the group tries to see matters from both sides and arrive at some sort of middle ground (“Declare no winners or losers/And forgive our shared mistakes”). Conflict resolution is key.
Arrangements are smooth and calculated. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith offers a fine and sometimes reserved voice throughout, with steady backbeats, tasteful guitar, pedal steel in all the right places, string flourishes for added color, etc. Both the musical direction and lyrics put “Passwords” literally in the middle of the road.
So, this will NOT be the most exciting record you hear this year. But that doesn’t mean the enjoyable set isn’t worth the effort. BUY IT?: Your call.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever — ‘Hope Downs’ THE GOOD: After teasing us with a couple of solid EPs, Australian indie rock group Rolling Blackouts C.F. delivers its first full-length LP. THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: Listening to “Hope Downs,” one is immediately transformed back in time circa 1987. That is, IF you listened to music that mattered — I.R.S.-era R.E.M., jangly Go-Betweens, Replacements after it tightened up, fellow Aussies the Hoodoo Gurus and the decorative guitar prowess of the Church. All those elements get shoved into these contemporary tunes and sound FRESH again, especially if you’re a 15-year-old kid just discovering these dynamics. By the way, if that is the case, do your homework, go back and check out all of those aforementioned bands. You’re welcome.
In the meantime, the rest of us will relish in a modern group defying expectations and playing by its own rules. “Hope Downs” is both guitar pop bliss and slightly agitated, noisy jams. And Rolling Blackouts C.F. makes it all marvelous. BUY IT?: Yep.
Artists from variety of genres turn out must-listen sequels
Parquet Courts — ‘Wide Awake!’ THE GOOD: New York indie rock band Parquet Courts comes back with a varied sixth. THE BAD: The group turns in more than a few unexpected musical directions. Not “bad,” but be prepared. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Wide Awake” is a post-punk record with a social conscience. The band is fighting for its rights and yours, drawing attention to everything from class structures to violence in our city streets. Lyrically, it’s an album firmly grounded in 2018.
Musically, the guys unexpectedly hired Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Black Keys) to produce. He brings the chaos under semi-control. Classic influences run amok within a frenetic, eclectic blend that recalls only the coolest of record collections. Debut Devo, “London Calling”-era Clash, early Jam, Wire and the Buzzcocks at their absolute peak, a smattering of early ’80s West Coast punk — all those sounds come together during a set that can be either highly aggressive or surprisingly melodic (or both) at different points. Fascinating. BUY IT?: You should.
King Tuff — ‘The Other’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kyle Thomas (stage name King Tuff) switches gears (matures?) on his fourth. THE BAD: The garage rock and party elements of past records are toned down. It’s not bad, but be ready for the shift. THE NITTY GRITTY: These days, Thomas seems more concerned about the environment, our over-dependence on technology and real relationships as opposed to what to do with the weekend. Musically, he’s broadening his horizons too, experimenting with intimate mood pieces (the title cut), psychedelic bits carried by subtle country swaggers (“Thru the Cracks”) and multi-layered, Beck-like fits of funk (“Birds of Paradise”).
Thomas wants to create something bigger and more meaningful, and his progressions are off to a good start. The spirit behind “The Other” certainly is something worthy of expanding on in future releases. The man even keeps good company these days. Old friend and collaborator Ty Segall helps out on drums and backing vocals. Jenny Lewis makes an understated appearance. So come join the party — excuse me — gathering. BUY IT?: Sure.
The Presets — ‘Hi Viz’ THE GOOD: Australian electronic duo the Presets shows us a great time on its fourth album (first in six years). THE BAD: Shallow at points? You bet. However, there’s no bad in having nothing but a good time. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Hi Viz” plays less like a proper album and more like a hyper DJ set. Some songs follow traditional pop structures; others are designed strictly to make you move. The guys manage to avoid the dated trappings of electronic music in general. Nothing here feels out of place in 2018. And there are long stretches where the individual tracks mix into each other seamlessly. So if you’re downloading as opposed to picking up the CD or vinyl, go for the WHOLE EXPERIENCE.
Standout cuts include the immediately slamming opener “Knuckles,” funky “Downtown Shutdown,” graceful yet pulsating “Feel Alone” and densely packed, hypnotic “14U + 14ME.” There really isn’t a weak moment here; “Hi Viz” never languishes or loses its all-too-important momentum. BUY IT?: Yeah.
Eleanor Friedberger — ‘Rebound’ The Good: Former (assuming the group has actually broken up) Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger releases her fourth solo outing. The Bad: Nah. The Nitty Gritty: Friedberger wrote the record in Greece, where she currently resides, and named the album after a favorite hometown club. Stylistically, it’s a throwback to the gothic and romantic new wave records of the 1980s, with her echoing singers such as Alison Moyet, Shakespeare’s Sister and Tracey Thorn (found elsewhere on this page if you feel like checking out TWO new albums this week). “Rebound” is soulful indie pop built on electronics with just the slightest hint of jazzy overtones.
Not every song is a gem, but the album works incredibly well as a whole, as Friedberger bounces around among tempos and moods. You can casually drink in bubbly, mid-tempo stuff such as “The Letter” and “Everything” or groove to slightly more “down” tracks such as “Nice to be Nowhere.” Not a bad day at the beach or night at the bar. Buy It?: Surely.
Tracey Thorn — ‘Record’ The Good: English singer/songwriter and ex-Everything but the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn comes back with a strong fifth solo set. The Bad: Nothing. The Nitty Gritty: Thorn’s past solo stuff is good, but “Record” is truly GREAT. She offers up a feminist album that finds the 55-year-old redefining her place in the world. She’s been a daughter, wife, mother and creative force and now remains tough as nails. When she sings, “And I fight like a girl,” you should feel genuinely threatened.
Musically, “Record” recalls the last couple of EBTG sets in spirit, with those beat-heavy albums that found the pair switching gears from indie jazz/pop to house music immediately after the Todd Terry remix of “Missing” set worldwide charts ablaze. “Queen” and “Dancefloor” recall New Order at its absolute peak. The extended “Sister” rides a rock-solid LCD Soundsystem-like funk. Big rhythms still intact, “Guitar” and “Babies” don’t shy away from melodic pop overtones.
The entire affair is intoxicating. “Record” is some of Thorn’s best work EVER. Buy It?: Yes.
Natalie Prass — ‘The Future and the Past’ The Good: American singer/songwriter Natalie Prass gets tougher on her second. The Bad: No gripes. However, expect more deep grooves and blue-eyed soul this time. Hey, that’s not bad. The Nitty Gritty: The album’s title hails from the lyrics of “Hot for the Mountain,” an anthem for feminists, the oppressed, the bullied or whoever really needs it — “No we don’t hold back/Break down the door/We’ll beat a path.”
That’s the vibe spread over the entire album, yet another semi-politicized set written in the shadow of the 2016 presidential election. Don’t be fooled by Prass’ somewhat gentle vocal delivery. She’s mad, determined and not giving up.
Yet, she realizes you can’t be uptight all the time; one also needs to kick back and let loose. So, “The Future” also is a mostly upbeat affair, featuring tight indie pop with big, fat basslines and dedicated beats sneaking into the mix beneath the slick guitars and warm pianos. It’s a righteous blend. Buy It?: Sure.
Female-fronted albums leave listeners wanting more
Speedy Ortiz – ‘Twerp Verse’ THE GOOD: New England indie rockers Speedy Ortiz release a confident third. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by guitarist/lyricist Sadie Dupuis, a woman blessed with a voice crossing Bettie Seveert’s Carol Van Dijk with early Liz Phair, Speedy Ortiz is a rare band whose music is complex and catchy at the same time. The players adore bizarre tempo changes, alternate guitar tunings and hazy atmospherics. Dupuis excels at painting vivid (sometimes foreboding) pictures and utilizing clever wordplay.
Throughout most of these songs though, just when you think the band is treading in some seriously self-indulgent waters, a glorious hook or riff will sneak up from behind and catch you off guard. Almost instantaneously, you’re taken from the incomprehensible to the infectious. Tracks like “Lucky 88” and “Alone with Girls” are prime examples of the band’s intellectual ear candy. And the more times you revisit “Twerp Verse,” the more often welcome surprises pop up; the album demanding repeat listens. BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
Camp Cope – ‘How to Socialize and Make Friends’ THE GOOD: Female Australian indie trio Camp Cope dodge the sophomore slump with the deadly serious, extremely poignant and tough-as-nails “How to Socialize.” THE BAD: No. THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/guitarist Georgia McDonald is fed up with indie rock dudes, uneven relationships, social injustices both big and small and a myriad of other stuff. And she brings all these frustrations to the table with much vigor and emotion. Like the lyrics in “Anna” say: “Just get it all out/Put it in a song.”
The vivid observations make the fuzzed out, slightly punk arrangements all the more visceral, even during several mid-tempo bits. Bassist Kelly Hellmrich and drummer Sarah Thompson make sure the energy level never wavers.
Musically, these women aren’t far removed from fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett. They give us a basic yet layered mix of guitar/bass/drums that falls somewhere between punk’s spontaneity and prog’s unpredictable tendencies. Some sounds and structures recall that other female indie powerhouse Warpaint. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Soccer Mommy – ‘Clean’ THE GOOD: Soccer Mommy (Nashville singer/songwriter/guitarist Sophie Allison) releases a fresh and focused debut. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Barely in her 20s, Allison embraces a couple of different styles at the same time. First, her songs feel intimate, like a girl with a guitar quietly strumming in the corner and setting the mood at some neighborhood bar. But the tunes also possess a clear and definite edge. There’s an aggression rearing its not-too-ugly head at points, especially when the drums and bass kick in. That’s when we go from “folk night” to full-blown indie rock in all its ragged glory.
After pulling us in with the tranquil yet grainy “Still Clean,” Allison lets the rhythm section have a bash on the buzzing “Cool.” Later moments such as “Last Girl” and “Scorpio Rising” show off the woman’s pop chops; Allison bringing some big memorable melodies to the fuzzed-out proceedings. “Clean” is accomplished and concise, and definitely leaves you wanting more. BUY IT?: Yes.