Soaking up the suds with James Crane
Oh, Weyerbacher, I love you. I love you so much. I know I drink other beers from time to time … or a lot. They’re delicious, and I’ve said as much, but it always has been you that I come back to.
Sure, you’ve always been a bit heavy-handed, but I happen to like heavy-handed. I like how you’re not afraid to be in charge and do what you want with my taste buds. I have no complaints.
Weyerbacher is well known for its big beers. They’re heavy and alcoholic but generally balanced in their own right. The alcohol usually makes no attempt to hide itself, but the Easton-based brewery plays off that alcoholic burn, adding complementary flavors that are just as strong. This is very true of Weyerbacher’s Merry Monks and Blithering Idiot, two beers I’ve been drinking for years now. Their allure has diminished in my eyes.
Weyerbacher actually has made beers longer than I’ve been allowed to drink legally. In fact, the brand recently turned 21 and celebrated by making its 21st Anniversary ale.
It might be the brewery’s birthday, but I’m the one who seems to be getting the presents. This beer promises to be everything I love. First, it is a stout with cocoa and vanilla, which alone would be enough to garner my attention. Then it added some very special words: bourbon barrel-aged.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a barrel-aged beer I didn’t like, especially bourbon barrel-aged. I feel like I could just find a good barrel and chew on it and I’d be happy. That smoky, charred, alcoholic flavor is like nothing else. It makes me reevaluate the benefits of having splinters in my tongue.
This one poured darker than coffee with a finger’s worth of mocha-colored head. Leaving some light lacing all the way down the glass, it was beautiful and thick, promising a great mouth feel. The brew smelled of roasted malt, vanilla and alcohol. Once it warmed up a bit, notes of caramel and bourbon became apparent, which played well with the alcoholic burn.
The taste was everything Weyerbacher said it would be and nothing more. 21st Anniversary delivers exactly what it promises, with roasted malt stout up front. After the swallow, the flavors linger on the tongue and evolve. The bourbon and caramel slide up and give it a nice, alcoholic, sweet taste. The vanilla is a huge part of that. Then it’s all smoke and bitter roast, with roasted notes that linger a long while and slowly dissipate into the taste of a smokey cigar.
This beer is big, boozy and satisfying. If I needed an example to remind me of why I’m in love with Weyerbacher, this would do it. As I finished the bottle, the hazy warmth of it all set in, making me feel vaguely happy, satisfied and comforted. If a beer cuddle was a thing, this would be it. It slides down the throat like liquid happiness, with the stout’s smoothness and creaminess
taking away any alcoholic burn. This makes it easier to drink than it should be, but the
richness keeps it from going down too quick. With a beer like this, it’s not really necessary to drink too many.
Weyerbacher, I’m all yours. I might still drink other brews, but you’re the one for me. Call me sometime.
With David Falchek
Turn to Piedmont region’s fizzy brachetto for a Tasty, low-alcohol treat
Brachetto, a red grape from Italy’s Piedmont region, makes a middling red wine but really shines when it puts on some bubbles.
As a red wine with no bubbles (or a still wine), brachetto d’aqui isn’t bad. If you find one, it smells of roses and red fruit and has a nice flavor and texture. But it is simple, showing little in the way of tannins, structure or acids.
Italy — and the Piedmont — have plenty of great red wines at a variety of prices. Why bother to make a mediocre one?
It was someone’s genius, a generation ago, to make a low-alcohol brachetto and zap it with some carbonation. It sounds like a cheap route to get some attention, but the bubbles seemed to lift even more fruit and floral notes from the grape. Add a touch of sweetness and you can’t go wrong.
In Italy, the term “frizzante” means a drink has some bubbles but at a low-enough pressure to take just a standard cork or screw cap and bottle. A spumante has more pressure and bubbles and therefore comes with a cage cap and heavy glass, like a conventional sparkling wine, that pops when you open it. You see brachetto in both styles.
For a decadent pairing, go for a Gertrude Hawk black raspberry Smidgen and a sparkling brachetto. Fruit tarts or berry pastries make for good pairings as well. Sweet wines can take the place of dessert.
Banfi’s Rosa Regale brought a lot of attention to this style even though it fails to mention brachetto on the front label of its fluted bottle. Banfi probably doesn’t want fans to know they could go out and find similar styles of wine at a lower price. Still, Rosa Regale is a benchmark for sparkling brachetto. It jumps out of the glass with smells of roses and strawberries, and the flavor brings in some ripe berry and white pepper character. While it goes in with a strong suggestion of sweetness, Rosa Regale finishes clean and balanced, inviting the next sip and making it appealing to many dry-wine drinkers. $22. **** 1/2
For those who might enjoy an even sweeter version, Bersano Brachetto d’Aqui is ripe and sweet from beginning to end. With an almost imperceptible level of alcohol, it pours into the glass like bubbly grape juice. Even the foam is purple. The flavor is raspberry and strawberry with ripe, sweet flourishes all the way through. $14. *** 1/2
Fizz 56 Brachetto has ripe blackberry and cranberry with an edge of caramel. It’s a special-order wine in Pennsylvania, so you may see it in restaurants or in supermarkets. $14. ***1/2
Sparkling brachetto offers a tasty, low-alcohol treat, ideal for brunches or as a fun dessert in itself.
GRADE: Exceptional *****, Above average ****, Good ***, Below average **, Poor *.
David is the executive director of the American Wine Society and reviews wines each week.
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.
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.
Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
Happy New Year, everyone!
I’m sure you’re knee-deep in resolutions to make a better you. I’m all for it. Run that marathon. Eat better. Learn krav maga. Kick all the ass and take all the names. Go ahead and be that best possible version of yourself. Hip-hip-hooray and all that. I wish you luck, since the deck is stacked against you.
What do I mean? It’s almost criminal that the new year starts in January. You’re expected to make all these wondrous self transformations in the midst of the coldest and darkest part of the year. December isn’t much better, but at least it has all those festive holidays. What does January have? Well, after New Year’s Day, just the ever-present possibility of snow, long nights and short days. Sure, have fun with that.
Of course, I’ve restarted my efforts on the requisite number of pushups and all that. The endorphins are great. But I’ll sip some strong brews to pass time this month as well. This is the perfect time of year for something big and warming at the end of the day, and preferably something thick and chewy. It’s like the comfort food of alcohol.
For me, normally this means a stout, barley wine or something else of that type with dark, thick character. This week, however, I stick with my old fallback: an IPA. The heavy hops are like an alcoholic lullaby for my soul that I have trouble ignoring. This particular brew, Gus by Full Pint brewing, promises an 8 percent ABV, exactly what I want.
The pour was beautiful with a lovely, hazy, golden orange and copious bubbles that continued to surge upward, providing bountiful carbonation. The head was the real prize winner, however. It must have been a full two fingers’ worth of foam, and it never really dissipated. Thick lacing lined the glass all the way down. It was quite impressive.
Pine tree makes up the biggest part of the scent. Whatever hops are in there smell like a distant cousin of pine needles and sap. Then there are the chlorophyll-filled scents of fresh-cut grass and other floral-type notes. Orange-like citrus brightens it up, while some biscuity malt keeps it grounded.
The taste certainly is IPA through and through, though it’s more pine and sap than bitter. The bitterness shows up at the end to round it out, however, accompanied by some black pepper and held together by the caramel-malt backbone. Even the bitter is citrusy, though, like a grapefruit. A slight bit of alcoholic burn turns up at the end, just enough to remind you that you are drinking a boozy beer.
Gus isn’t super unique, but it is quite good. A smooth drink, it goes down quite well, which is great for a beer of this caliber. It lays nicely on the tongue and is delightfully warming, with the hops providing that nice, sedating effect of an IPA.
This is a great brew to sip before bed, almost like the alcoholic equivalent of a cup of chamomile tea. Gus does everything I want it to and does so tastily. I think I’ll go to sleep now. I can get back to those resolutions tomorrow.
THE BEST OF 2016
As 2017 inches ever so closer, it’s time to look back and count down the 20 albums that mattered most over the past 12 months.
20. THE LONDON SUEDE — “Night Thoughts” (January)
The Britpop legends continued the comeback that started with 2013’s “Bloodsports” by releasing a record that was even more intriguing and ambitious. “Night Thoughts” ended up being one of the finest albums of a career we thought was over a decade ago.
19. PETER BJORN AND JOHN — “Breaking Point” (June)
The Swedish indie pop band recovered with an album that was its most accomplished since what many consider the group’s career peak, 2006’s “Writer’s Block.” “Breaking Point” found the boys rejuvenated. The songs were their best in quite a while.
18. SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS — “SVIIB” (February)
The most bittersweet entry on the list, “SVIIB” would be this indie duo’s final release. The album was completed shortly before multi-instrumentalist/producer Benjamin Curtis’ sudden death because of lymphoma. The record did, however, find the band going out on a very high note.
17. THERMALS — “We Disappear” (March)
The Oregon indie rockers continued to keep things short and sweet, delivering another loud, punchy and, most importantly, catchy collection of terse tunes and fiery deliveries. And even though the band didn’t necessarily break new ground on “Disappear,” it captivated us all by doing what it does best.
16. DAWES — “We’re All Gonna Die” (September)
California folk/rock outfit Dawes always made honest albums, blending indie rock with elements of roots music and modern country effortlessly. “Die” just happened to be its most satisfying and tightest roster of songs so far this decade.
15. CRYSTAL CASTLES — “Amnesty” (August)
Canadian electronic duo Crystal Castles almost imploded shortly after the release of 2012’s “III.” Vocalist Alice Glass split with producer Ethan Kath over the usual pesky “creative differences.” Kath later found vocalist Edith Frances, and the end result was the wickedly compelling “Amnesty.”
14. PORCHES — “Pool” (February)
New York synth-pop outfit Porches dodged the sophomore slump with an album recorded in leader Aaron Maine’s apartment. More “intimate” than most electronic albums, “Pool” was a tidy affair with acoustic tendencies placed within switched-on settings. This juxtaposition of sensibilities simply clicked.
13. MARISSA NADLER — “Strangers” (May)
New England modern folkie Marissa Nadler continued to dazzle us with her stunning voice and candid songwriting. “Strangers” held very few surprises but further displayed the woman’s genuine talents, giving us stark performances without an ounce of gloss in the process.
12. BLEACHED — “Welcome the Worms” (April)
Another dodge of the sophomore slump, this time with the California Clavin sisters and crew giving us an album equally aggressive and infectious. The melodies might have forced you to call this concoction “pop punk,” but that assessment would have been unfair.
11. SANTIGOLD — “99 Cents”
Musically, this record was all over the map. Santigold co-wrote the entire album herself, and “99 Cents” embraced everything from pure pop to electronic to hip-hop to R&B. A highly unpredictable undertaking, the set was worth far more than its title implied.
Uh-oh. Out of room. Come back next week (and next year) and we’ll go over the top ten.
LADY GAGA — “Joanne”
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Lady Gaga turns 30, ditches most of the theatrics (no meat dress this time) and releases a stripped-down fifth album.
THE BAD: No real gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: 2013’s “Artpop” may have been too pretentious for its own good. While the record had its fantastic moments, the concept sometimes overshadowed the music. Now “Joanne” (named after a late aunt who died about a decade before Gaga was even born) finds the singer tackling a multitude of genres with a bevy of producers (Mark Ronson serves as “executive producer”). However, the songs and the woman’s vocal abilities always take center stage.
Even a slew of high-profile guests stars (everyone from Beck to Brian May) can’t steal away the spotlight from these raw vocal performances. Whether it’s the country-tinged ballad “Million Reasons” or the stomping and soaring “Dancing in Circles,” the songs are direct, crisp and packed with emotion. And the album’s mood swings from jubilant (“A-Yo”) to somber (“Angel Down”) keep things unpredictable.
BUY IT?: Surely.
REGINA SPEKTOR — “Remember Us To Life”
THE GOOD: Russian-born singer/songwriter Regina Spektor comes back with her fifth major-label album.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Guided by British composer/producer Leo Abrahams (Frightened Rabbit, Wild Beasts) and recorded with a full orchestra, “Life” is a lush affair. Yet it features many instances of that bubbly brand of Spektor pop — feisty vocals guiding bold melodies that bounce over cruising rhythms. Bright bits such as “Older and Taller” and “Small Bills” pull you in immediately and never let go.
Much of the album, however, is more subdued and serious; mid-tempo pieces find Spektor and her piano placed against a backdrop of warm, sweeping strings. Those are the most memorable moments. Songs like “The Light” with its graceful ebb and flow or the brash and ever-shifting epic, “The Trapper and the Furrier,” show off her stirring vocal abilities (minus the silly yet charming chirps and quirks of records past). “Obsolete” is a sumptuous study in sadness and loss.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
THE PRETENDERS — “Alone”
THE GOOD: Post-punk indie legends the Pretenders are back with their 11th (and first in eight years).
THE BAD: Not necessarily “bad,” but this time, the “Pretenders” are essentially songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Chrissie Hynde and the musicians she happened to play with in the studio. (Remember “Packed” in 1990?)
THE NITTY GRITTY: And since Hynde is working with producer Dan Auerbach, “Alone” often sounds like a later Black Keys album for which Hynde happens to supply all the lead vocals.
Still, at 65, Hynde’s songwriting and voice both remain strong. Auerbach helps add some jagged textures to even the gentler tunes, giving the entire record a much-welcome realism that’s painted in both light (the sharp title track and growling “Chord Lord”) and shadow (the cloudy “Let’s Get Lost” and moody “Blue Eyed Sky”).
The ballads aren’t syrupy. The rockers don’t reek of desperation. And even the keyboard-colored, pop-infused closer “Holy Commotion” doesn’t come off as forced. Hynde and Auerbach made a damn fine record.
BUY IT?: Sure.
ROCKIN’ THE BACK YARD
CHRIS FARREN — “Chris Farren Can’t Die”
THE GOOD: Fake Problems frontman/guitarist Chris Farren stays busy while his band is in limbo (Broken up? Resting? Who knows?).
THE BAD: The mix is “lo-fi,” but that’s part of the album’s D.I.Y. charm.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Farren recorded some of “Die” in his Naples, Florida, home and some in Iceland (talk about your diverse locations). The end result is a tight, 11-song collection that draws influences from emo, indie rock and a splash of modern folk. One detects echoes of early Jimmy Eat World, mid-period Ben Lee, Bright Eyes album tracks and even the serious, country-tinged bits from the classic Beat Farmers catalog.
Tracks such as “Brighter” and “Say You Want Me” are near-perfect pieces of infectious guitar pop — feel-good sing-alongs with uncluttered arrangements and BIG melodies. But the same can be said for most of the set; Farren is perfectly content using his songwriting abilities to deliver simple pleasures without stepping into self-indulgent progressive territories. As it should be.
BUY IT?: Sure.
CONOR OBERST — “Ruminations”
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk) releases his seventh solo outing.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After retiring Bright Eyes, Oberst returned to his punk outfit, Desaparecidos, for a reunion album (2015’s blazing “Payola”) and tour that was cut short because of health issues (laryngitis and nervous exhaustion). Oberst suddenly found himself recuperating and facing an Omaha, Nebraska, winter alone. And that’s when the songs came pouring out of his pen, creating a reflective collection of tunes begging for intimate treatments.
So Oberst recorded the entirety of “Ruminations” in about three days’ time, self-producing the effort and going about it all alone (the only accompaniment is the man’s acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica). The end result is an emotionally raw collection in which the personal observations and delicate melodies are set against a stark, secluded backdrop. A perfect record for the dead of winter, “Ruminations” feels cold and gray but with an occasional ray of bright sunshine penetrating the gloom.
BUY IT?: Yep.
KINGS OF LEON — “WALLS”
THE GOOD: Tennessee
rockers Kings of Leon return with their seventh.
THE BAD: Tennessee
rockers Kings of Leon return with their seventh?
THE NITTY GRITTY: I’ve come to the conclusion that these guys are popular simply because they’re so damn predictable, kind of like Journey in 1981. “Walls” has its share of catchy tunes boasting seamless rhythmic thumps, big guitar riffs and frontman Caleb Followill’s slight southern drawl. But is that enough? You can just hear this stuff pouring out of the nearest barroom jukebox.
It may be difficult to ignore the sheer rock “power” of driven cuts such as “Waste a Moment” and “Around the World,” but it’s tough to fully embrace this carefully crafted noise too. “Walls” eventually blends into the background, sounding close enough to “Come Around Sundown” (2010) and “Mechanical Bull” (2013) to make all these records interchangeable. Even somber moments such as the title track and “Over” lack any true grit, and thereby ring emotionally hollow.
BUY IT?: Same drab posturing, different year. Whatever.
FUZZED OUT AND FIZZY
WILD BEASTS — “Boy King”
THE GOOD: British indie rockers Wild Beasts come back with a funkier fifth.
THE BAD: The music is less intriguing, while the lyrical concept can be overbearing. This record is good but flawed.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The guys attack masculinity, or at least “masculinity run amok.” And with song titles like “Tough Guy,” “He the Colossus” and “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis,” the message is hardly subtle.
There’s a musical shift too. The guitars take a backseat to more prominent electronics and bigger rhythms. “Boy King” remains a rock album at its core, but a song such as “Get My Bang” sounds less like Clinic or Liars (past resemblances) and more like ’90s-era Prince.
One definitely has to approach this challenging record with fresh ears and a tolerant attitude. Only time will tell if “Boy King” is a good move or not. The band either will build upon these sounds next time around, or this album will end up that strange misfire in the catalog.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
BAD SUNS — “Disappear Here”
THE GOOD: Los Angeles-based indie rockers Bad Suns dodge the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: “Disappear Here” won’t shake up any established rules. However, it doesn’t need to.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Sometimes you crave a tight record with momentous backbeats, decent riffs and big hooks. No frills, nothing else. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong that, especially if you latch onto a set that’s done CORRECTLY.
“Disappear” is that set. Guided by vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Christo Bowman, Bad Suns pulls us through 13 cuts of varying tempos and attitudes, each one a potential single and semi-epic slice of guitar pop. With its rolling rhythms and soaring chorus, the driving title cut launches this session with great confidence. From there, it’s neither uphill nor downhill, just strong songs bursting fourth on an even keel.
Personal favorites include the equally infectious “Heartbreaker” and the more delicate and cascading “Swimming in the Moonlight.” After a while though, singling out individual tracks becomes irrelevant, because they all carry a certain straightforward, simple charm.
BUY IT?: Surely.
THE GOOD: San Diego post-punk indie outfit Crocodiles gives us its sixth.
THE BAD: “Dreamless” is solid but doesn’t break new ground within the catalog.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by singer/guitarist Brandon Welchez, Crocodiles continues to recall much of what was great about the 1980s — namely the noisy, deadpan, Gothic grooves kicked out by the likes of Love and Rockets or the Jesus & Mary Chain. This time, the lively yet sinister “Maximum Penetration” even conjures up the Madchester beats of Happy Mondays (never a bad thing).
So what the guys lack in originality they more than make up for in cruising (if not slightly spooky) jams worth cranking a few times. “Dreamless” is a record that works best after sunset, whether your current setting is a lonely, remote farmhouse or a run-down dwelling on the wrong side of town. While we’ve heard these sounds before, a wild unpredictability still permeates the songs. A jagged edge here, a hint of danger there; yeah, we like that.
BUY IT?: Yep.
WILCO — “Schmilco”
THE GOOD: Chicago-based indie rockers Wilco give us a subtle 10th.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: In 1971, Harry Nilsson released “Nilsson Schmilsson.” Now Wilco offers up “Wilco Schmilco,” a mostly acoustic affair recorded during the same sessions as last year’s “Star Wars.”
“Schmilco” is divine in its simplicity, an intimate set that finds frontman Jeff Tweedy writing about his childhood and formative years, sometimes gazing back fondly, sometimes zeroing in on past insecurities. The songs are very direct; the guys being spontaneous — playing it loose but “together” — replaces any prominent studio experimentation on past efforts.
Wilco feels comfortable in its current surroundings (maybe too comfortable); some songs turn into rambling jams giving off carefree vibes (even when the subject matter isn’t so cheery). It’s almost like stumbling in on a rehearsal session that’s going extremely well, one where all the pieces gel effortlessly while creating an instantly enjoyable album with moments that can never be replicated.
BUY IT?: I would.
THE PIXIES — “Head Carrier”
THE GOOD: Indie legends the Pixies return with their sixth full-length album.
THE BAD: Original bassist and female vocalist Kim Deal is NEVER coming back. Touring
bassist Paz Lenchantin, who has some mighty big shoes to fill, officially replaced her. Is she up to
THE NITTY GRITTY: Working with new producer Tom Dalgety (Royal Blood, Ghost), “Carrier” feels like a completely fresh start for the band. Too bad the relaunch is far less exciting than this seminal group’s past.
While the new record is still better and more coherent than 2014’s “Indie Cindy” (an album that was simply three EPs all smashed together), a lot of the sharpness and potential danger of the band’s classic period is sorely lacking. “Carrier” feels too damn safe. Even “All I Think About Now” resembles a watered-down “Where Is My Mind.”
Still, “Carrier” boasts more than a few good songs. Perhaps “Doolittle” (1989) or “Bossanova” (1990) can never be topped. So I suggest adjusting your expectations accordingly.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
GREEN DAY — “Revolution Radio”
THE GOOD: California pop-punks Green Day release their 12th album overall and first as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
THE BAD: Not “genuine” enough for some? Maybe.
THE NITTY GRITTY: These guys still come off as angry young men even if they have next to nothing to be angry about anymore. Rock has been very good to their bank accounts indeed. But “Revolution Radio” strikes all the right chords in all the right places. Billie Joe Armstrong and the boys get political without getting TOO specific, get angry without becoming TOO aggressive and get good and loud without sounding TOO disjointed.
So “Revolution Radio” ends up a tight rock album that’s all about an endless barrage of hooks. Tunes such as the title cut and “Say Goodbye” are big on soaring choruses. “Troubled Times” is gorgeous, mid-tempo melodrama. “Too Dumb To Die” is so sing-song it resembles the nursery rhyme “This Old Man.” You get the gist. Dig the surface. Don’t delve too deep.
BUY IT?: Sure.
Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
I know I’ve been on a bit of a spree here with the pumpkin, and I promise this is the last one this year. It’s just, well, Thanksgiving is almost here and, while this likely will garner a not-so-positive response, I might just love the pumpkin pie more than the turkey. Most of the time, I don’t even bother with any sort of whipped topping. I don’t want anything to mask that pumpkiny goodness. My only regret is that it comes at the end of the meal, after I’ve already stuffed myself with so many other things.
Sadly, however, Thanksgiving also seems to mark the end of pumpkin season. It just doesn’t feature so prominently in the following holidays. Once that leftover pie disappears, you’re pretty much done for the year. Sure, I could bake a pumpkin pie any time. Nothing is stopping me from having some for Christmas, or even on the Fourth of July, for that matter. But I most likely will just pine for one instead.
This means I’m going to get as much pumpkin in me as possible until pumpkin season ends this week. Thankfully, I haven’t even scratched the tip of the iceberg that is pumpkin beers. I regret I can only try so many. This week, I picked up a six-pack of Lancaster Brewing’s Baked Pumpkin Ale. It’s going to be my pie appetizer this week.
The color was a shade of amber not uncommon for pumpkin beers. A half-finger’s worth of white foam topped it. The head wasn’t big, but it lingered on top of the glass for the duration of the drink. A decent amount of bubbles ran through the liquid, promising decent carbonation. It certainly was a looker.
Caramel malt was very up-front in the nose. All the spices came right after that. Then all the usual suspects showed up. Cinnamon and nutmeg are very present with some clove backing them up. The malt transitioned into a graham cracker scent that really was quite pleasing. There also was a bit of vanilla.
To be honest, the one thing I didn’t really catch a lot of was pumpkin. It was more like a supermarket pumpkin pie, with the scent of spice and filler taking over. I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing, but it does put it in a certain category.
The taste certainly wasn’t any big surprise. It followed the scent pretty well. The crust was right up front with tons of malt and graham. Next up are all those aforementioned spices and vanilla. Some pumpkin held it together, but it was by far not the more prevalent flavor. There also was caramel and a finish not unlike honey. That’s not to say that the beer is overly sweet. It was well-balanced in that aspect.
There isn’t anything that really stands out about this one. It was a good beer and pretty much what I wanted. It did have an ABV of 7.5 percent, which was nice, but there still are stronger ones out there. It’s solid, but it’s not rewriting any history. Then again, I don’t want my pumpkin pie to taste like anything other than pumpkin pie. So I’d call that a win.
CRYTSAL CASTLES — “Amnesty”
THE GOOD: Heavy electronic outfit Crystal Castles comes back with an abrasive (of course) fourth.
THE BAD: Usually the group’s music is very confrontational. This time, many of the confrontations took place behind the scenes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontwoman Alice Glass left over personal and creative differences with long-time partner/producer Ethan Kath. The break-up was ugly, and many thought Crystal Castles was done. However, Kath replaced Glass with new vocalist Edith Frances. The two female voices are close, and casual fans won’t even notice the difference. Only time will tell if Edith shares Alice’s penchant for outrageous on-stage behavior.
Musically, “Amnesty” doesn’t exactly play it safe. However, it does feel tamer than past releases. Yet, the record still packs a mighty punch, with music built upon pounding beats, screaming synths, buckets of distortion and an overall vibe exhumed from the darkest places imaginable. Even more delicate pieces (and there aren’t many), such as the swirling “Sadist,” send a sense of dread running up your spine.
BUY IT?: Oh yes.
M.I.A. — “Aim”
THE GOOD: British rapper/singer/songwriter/producer M.I.A. comes back with her fifth.
THE BAD: M.I.A. claims “Aim” will be her last album. While sad, maybe that’s how it should be.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The new record is much less confrontational than past efforts. One finds politics spread throughout the deluxe edition’s sprawling 17 tracks, but not as much anger. The production also sometimes lacks “punch.” So even though “Aim” remains a worthy effort, it’s the artist’s least-exciting set. Is it better to quit now before sliding further down a slippery slope? Possibly.
A bunch of producers lend their styles to the proceedings (Blaqstarr, Diplo, the Partysquad and Skrillex to name a few). So the album either lacks focus OR plays like a pretty awesome mix tape. That depends on the listener. However, there still are enough banging jams on this thing to warrant a purchase, or at least make us hope M.I.A. has a change of heart about quitting.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
PHANTOGRAM — “Three”
THE GOOD: New York indie duo Phantogram (vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and vocalist/guitarist Josh Carter) comes back with its third.
THE BAD: No real gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Phantogram’s profile grows all the time, so it’s only logical that it vies for a little mainstream success. This time, the duo recruited producer Ricky Reed (Pitbull, Robin Thicke, Meghan Trainor) for some help behind the boards. “Three” doesn’t come off like a sell-out, however. In fact, the new record is more compelling than 2014’s “Voices” (the low point in Phantogram’s catalog).
Tracks like shuffling lead single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and the reserved yet gritty “Cruel World” boast enough big beats, noisy samples and trip-hop flashbacks to squelch any jaded listener’s low expectations.
The collection also retains its momentum. Even the murky “Barking Dog” or the somber “Answer,” with its warped piano squiggles and delicate street beats, don’t slow down matters much. And the record ends on a high note with the bashing “Calling All.”
BUY IT?: Actually, yes.
Soaking up the suds with James Crane
Go ahead, step outside. Put up your ear to the wind, and you’ll hear it. Your skin very well might tingle in anticipation, as if something you’ve waited for is creeping ever nearer. It like an old friend, or perhaps a lover from a past life coming to call you home. It’s comfortable like a warm blanket or an old pair of shoes.
All the same, it’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than all of us. It’s ancient and looming, promising to be here long after we’re gone. You know it deep in your bones. Its presence is undeniable; its force is irresistible. When it comes calling, you will succumb, perhaps with trepidation, but ultimately, it’ll carry you away into its cosmic bliss.
We’re approaching pumpkin event horizon.
OK, so maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Really, I’m just still excited for my pumpkin beers. While drinking enough of them might give you glimpses of the vast cosmic bliss I just spoke of, having one or two still makes me pretty happy. I know the naysayers will find 1,000 reasons we aren’t supposed to be fans of pumpkin beers, but come on. They never did anything to you. There is no reason to hate on them so much.
If you read my last column, you’ll realize I’m on a little bit of a pumpkin beer streak. Stoudts Pumpkinfest kicked off the party in my mouth. This week, it continues with Alewerks Pumpkin Ale. It was fun to drink with the last beer still so fresh in my mind. While they were both pumpkin beers, there was a good deal of difference between them. For starters, Stoudts was a lager, while Alewerks is an ale. It didn’t end with the yeast, however.
The brew poured a lovely, murky shade somewhere between amber and orange. It wasn’t just the color that was reminiscent of pumpkin flesh, either. The scent definitely carried a good deal of malt and spice. Pumpkin also was quite prevalent as well. And I don’t just mean the seasonings usually associated with the gourd. It smelled just like fresh roasted pumpkin, or the unadulterated puree right out of the can. Alewerks must have used a good amount of it to get that scent.
The taste confirmed that suspicion. Pumpkin was in no way an afterthought. It led from the front, proudly displaying its vegetable nature. This expertly paired with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and sugar. These ingredients were used in proper proportion, the spices serving to enhance the pumpkin as opposed to covering it up. There also were slightly sour notes as well as vanilla and caramel, though the caramel was not a prevalent as it was in the Pumpkinfest.
The taste did a great job at covering up its 7.4 percent ABV. This brew certainly was a little bit stronger than it let on. Another great side effect of using real pumpkin was its body. The puree gave it a great velvety feel that made it quite pleasing to drink. Alewerks Pumpkin might have been the most pumpkiny pumpkin beer I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink. While it didn’t bring about cosmic-level happiness, it did lead to soft contentment tinged with glee. If that sounds like the type of thing you’re into, grab yourself this beer. It’s the best advice I have to give.
WYE OAK — “Tween”
THE GOOD: Baltimore indie duo Wye Oak (multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack) comes back with its fifth album (sort of).
THE BAD: “Bad?” No. “Non-traditional and experimental?” Yes. Be prepared.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Tween” falls somewhere between an EP and an LP, a collection of eight outtakes from the band’s previous two records, “Civilian” (2011) and “Shriek” (2014). And what a varied collection it is. From the opening ambient piece, “Out of Nowhere,” to the synth-colored, beat-heavy, catchy goodness spread across “If You Should See” to the droning yet divine “Better (for Esther),” “Tween” is a bunch of songs that comes together far more harmoniously than it should.
If time travel were possible, the record also could serve as bridge between “Civilian’s” folk-leaning indie rock and “Shriek’s” heavier electronic tendencies. Even though that original transition wasn’t jarring to begin with, “Tween” now makes it smoother and even MORE logical after the fact.
BUY IT?: Yes. Outtakes aren’t usually this consistently good.
OKKERVIL RIVER — “Away”
THE GOOD: Texas indie rockers Okkervil River return with their eighth.
THE BAD: Prepare for another shift in direction. Not necessarily “bad” though.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Away” plays more like a solo record from frontman Will Sheff as opposed to a proper band album. We also hear more modern folk and reserved jazz this time.
Sheff wanted to get away from the narrow pop/rock aesthetic tried on 2013’s “Silver Gymnasium.” He also dealt with some band members jumping ship and the death of his grandfather. So “Away” is a very introspective and somber work, recorded spontaneously and intimately in less than a week’s time.
“Okkervil River R.I.P.” is the work’s launching piece; Sheff closes one chapter in his professional life before opening another. The rest of “Away” only flirts with sounds from the past; the singer/songwriter instead chooses to embrace outside influences. At its core, “Away” remains an indie rock set. However, acoustic, jazz and classical sounds dominate; the overall effect is both unexpected and refreshing.
BUY IT?: Yes.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART — “Signs of Light”
THE GOOD: West Coast indie outfit Head and the Heart jumps to Warner Bros. for its third.
THE BAD: “Light” is formulaic, folk-tinged indie rock (the band will never win an award for innovation), but it’s also a tight and deeply satisfying record.
THE NITTY GRITTY: If you want a no-nonsense collection of good guitar-based pop songs, here it is. Tunes like “False Alarm” and “Library Magic” boast robust melodies and rich harmonies, all of them built upon foundations that either rock steadily or gently sway on a bed of acoustic guitars. Producer Jay Joyce (Cage the Elephant, Halestorm) also gives the album a nice sheen, further enhancing the compositions.
One can’t help but make comparisons to bands like Lumineers or Mumford & Sons. And for some, visiting those safe territories may be a turn-off. Still, there’s no denying the album’s overall charm. Changes in mood and tempo also keep the fixed collection from slipping into monotony.
BUY IT?: Sure.
Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
Haters gonna hate, am I right?
At some point over the last few years, it’s become cool to talk smack on pumpkin spice. Granted, its proliferation might be a little bit ridiculous (pumpkin spice hand soap, anyone?), but it’s for good reason. Pumpkin spice is delicious. It always has been since the dawn of time and will continue to be so long after all its opponents are in the ground and no one remains to remember their existence. Pumpkin spice perseveres. You do not.
I’m sure there are some of you right now silently mouthing your resistance. At least one is whining about how so many pumpkin products don’t even contain an iota of the orange gourd. To you I say the following: I don’t care. If the pumpkin beer I am drinking contains nothing but malt and old, chewed bubblegum, I don’t care. It’s delicious. I’m going to keep drinking it.
Don’t you take this away from me.
If you haven’t caught on yet, this week I am drinking a pumpkin brew, Stoudts Pumpkinfest Lager. While many pumpkin beers rely solely on the spice mixture to give them that pumpkin pie feel, this one promises real roasted pumpkin in the mix. For anyone who ever made a pumpkin pie from real pumpkin, you know what a time-consuming and labor-intensive project this is. Stoudts must really care about us.
The pour had a beautiful amber color with a copious two fingers’ worth of head sitting on top. It managed to leave lacing down the entirety of the glass. The scent was as pleasant as the sight. There was ample malt in the nose, making this brew reminiscent of the Marzen I drank for my last column. It also had the familiar scent of lager yeast. This paired delightfully with the smell of roasted pumpkin and spices such as clove and cinnamon. Everything was as it should be.
The taste brought forth everything in the scent and then some. It tasted as malty as an Oktoberfest brew, exhibiting the qualities of my favorite type of lager. It was heavy with cereal, and the caramel malt provided the experience of pie crust. This mixed with a good amount of spice, heavier on astringent cloves than sugar. This was a great direction to take, as it gave it pumpkin pie flavor without too much sweetness. The roasted pumpkin also came through, giving the brew its dose of authenticity. A bit of hops in the back end finished it off.
One of the great things about this brew is how drinkable it is. At 4.5 percent ABV, this one could qualify as a session beer. It isn’t going to hit you too terribly hard. Some other pumpkin brews out there tend to be really big in character and very dessert-like. They are great on their own accord, but you don’t want to drink too much of them in one sitting. This one is light enough in body and alcohol content to go down easy for a while.
Look, pumpkin pie is right around the corner. You know you’re waiting for it. If you can suspend your all-so-trendy pumpkin hate, grab a pumpkin brew to hold you over. Stoudts Pumpkinfest, a great mash-up of pumpkin and a Marzen-style lager, is a good choice.