BIG BEATS AND GLORIOUS CLUTTER
SLEIGH BELLS —
THE GOOD: Brooklyn noise pop duo Sleigh Bells (vocalist Alexis Krauss and multi-instrumentalist Derek Miller) comes back with its fourth.
THE BAD: Sleigh Bells still hasn’t topped or even matched
its blistering debut (2010’s “Treats”). “Jessica Rabbit” is at least the CLOSEST it’s come to doing just that.
THE NITTY GRITTY: While the new album isn’t quite the jack-hammer to the brain that “Treats” was (and still is), the new songs surpass many of the offerings from “Reign of Terror” (2012) and the rushed “Bitter Rivals” (2013). The two spent a couple years working on these new sounds. The song-craft is more confident, especially in its willingness to expand Bells’ musical palette; the pair is adept at flirting with prog rock and R&B.
“Rabbit” ebbs and flows with great agility, exploring different moods and levels of abrasiveness without hesitation. Plus, many of these songs have the added bonus of great melodies at their core (dig “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” or “Baptism by Fire”).
BUY IT?: Yep
EMPIRE OF THE SUN — “Two Vines”
THE GOOD: Australian super-duo Empire of the Sun (Luke Steele of the Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of Pnau) regroups for its third.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Look at the cover art across the pair’s three albums, and the images resemble the posters of some flamboyant, big-budget fantasy film trilogy. Perhaps that’s meant to represent the sound of Empire — big, rich, flashy, otherworldly, soaring and evocative of a happy outcome.
“Two Vines” is a divine collection built with multi-layered harmonies, buzzing synths and steady, seamless rhythms. It’s a set where pretty much any cut could be a single, from the bouncy, feel-good vibes spread across tracks such as “Friends” and “Zzz” to the more delicate, heartfelt sways of “There’s No Need” and “First Crush.”
While the guys never stray too far from the styles of their other bands, the “melding” that occurs on every Empire album brings about something fresh and addictive. So prepare to be carried away.
BUY IT?: Yes.
WHITE LIES — “Friends”
THE GOOD: British indie
rock group White Lies gives us its fourth.
THE BAD: The band has yet to make a “great” album. However, “Friends” is a step in the right direction.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The new record certainly is more accomplished than 2013’s tepid “Big TV.” Yet, White Lies’ biggest problem remains its identity crisis. The boys always remind you of SOME OTHER BAND. Whether it’s the dark, urban nightlife escaping from a decade-old Interpol record; the rock-based pulsations that carried a Killers set; or a bold melody resembling some past Editors hit, White Lies constantly recalls the best bits from the outside work of others.
So no points for originality. “Friends” does score points for some pretty solid (and soaring) songs, however. Tracks such as “Take It Out on Me” and “Swing” boast memorable hooks galloping over thick, rich backing tracks. And the new set contains far more songs worthy of repeating as opposed to forgettable duds (unlike the aforementioned “Big TV”).
BUY IT?: Why not?
DAWES — “We’re All Gonna Die”
THE GOOD: Los-Angeles folk-rockers Dawes release their fifth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This might be their best album yet. That claim is highly subjective, but I don’t ever remember a Dawes set sounding this focused. The melodies are bolder and brighter, and the arrangements are airtight. On more than one occasion, the lyrics spin compelling tales of everyday challenges along with human triumphs and tragedies. Tracks like “Less Than Five Miles Away” and “For No Good Reason” boast tiny, vivid vignettes starring lovers, criminals, the lonely, the forgotten and a host of other interesting players.
The only gripe long-time fans may have with “Die” is that the rock elements dominate the acoustic sounds this time. “One of Us” possesses genuine guitar bite. Swirling reggae organs add color to “Picture of a Man.” A pre-Beatle R&B swing lurks beneath the beat of “As If by Design.” Yet Dawes makes these slight alterations work extremely well within the already strong compositions.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
LEWIS DEL MAR — “Lewis Del Mar”
THE GOOD: Lewis Del Mar is a band, not a guy. Or more specifically, it’s a duo consisting of co-writers/producers/multi-instrumentalists Danny Miller and Max Harwood. This self-titled effort is their slightly flawed debut.
THE BAD: “Lewis” is a good start, but these guys are still carving out their own distinct style.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Conceived and recorded in and around the pair’s Rockaway Beach, New York, bungalow, the record is a multi-layered mix of lo-fi drums and beat-box loops, electric and acoustic guitars and “found sounds” (subways, ambient noise, random conversations, etc.) grabbed up around the five boroughs.
The tunes fall somewhere between indie rock and modern roots music. I’m detecting echoes of Red Hot Chili Peppers within the vocals and the slap-dash blues of G. Love and Special Sauce spread across the backing swagger. There’s a cool attitude running through these tracks (even the more angst-riddled ones such as “Loudy”) — just another day of jamming and kicking it in the sunshine.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
BON IVER — “22, a Million”
THE GOOD: Indie folk outfit Bon Iver (still the brainchild of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon) finally follows up its Grammy Award-winning sophomore effort, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” (2011).
THE BAD: Nothing, but keep an open mind.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The band’s music has come full circle. Bon Iver was an acoustic act musicians from other genres wholly embraced. Kanye West even sampled and gave its track “Woods” an almost complete makeover. So now, “22, a Million” finds Vernon and his crew using the electronic. The album is filled with unexpected samples, loops and icy affected voices (and saxophones).
The overall effect isn’t so much “Dylan goes electric” but rather a guitar-based band smashing all expectations and embracing dissonant sounds. Many reviewers are calling this record Bon Iver’s “Kid A,” and that’s not too far off the mark. It’s also a starkly personal set. Underneath all the studio reverberations, Vernon’s songs speak of conflict resolution, tragedies and opaque predictions — not exactly “switched-on fluff.”
BUY IT?: You must.
SUPER AWESOME ’90s DANCE PARTY
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST — “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service”
THE GOOD: 1990s hip-hop
legend A Tribe Called Quest regroups against all odds and makes one of the finest albums of the group’s career.
THE BAD: Phife Dawg died last year, so “We Got It” isn’t the beginning of the group’s next set of fantastic albums. It is the end.
THE NITTY GRITTY: But what a way to go out. Here we have a group refusing to rest on its laurels. Musically, this is hip-hop straight out of the golden age. It’s a sample-heavy turntable record boasting snippets of everyone from Elton John to Musical Youth to Willy Wonka. Lyrically, the work is firmly grounded in the present, politically charged and very intelligent.
Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and even Phife Dawg (most of the record was completed before his death) all sound re-energized, each vocalist delivering compelling verses before effortlessly passing the mic. And there isn’t a wasted second here — no superfluous links or skits. ATCQ means business.
BUY IT?: Yes.
THE ORB — “COW/Chill Out World”
THE GOOD: British electronic legend the Orb plugs in for its 14th album.
THE BAD: No complaints. Just realize that “COW” is very “chill” indeed.
THE NITTY GRITTY: 1990 — The KLF releases “Chill Out,” one of the finest ambient records of all time. 1991 — The Orb, headed by one-time KLF collaborator Alex Paterson, creates genre-defining, ambient house album “The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld.” Both sets become seminal electronic works.
If those two records came together and produced an inspired offspring, it would be “COW/Chill Out World.” Paterson had a hand in all this stuff, so why not? Meant to be taken as a whole, this new Orb album is a happy medium between tranquil environmental settings and more direct, beat-heavy music.
It’s a serene collection comprised of found sounds, offbeat spoken samples (an Orb tradition) and the occasional delicate yet powerful groove brought in to ensure that we don’t totally drift off (although falling asleep to this mix is divine).
BUY IT?: Yes.
ENIGMA — “The Fall of a Rebel Angel”
THE GOOD: German electronic outfit Enigma returns with its eighth outing (and first in eight years).
THE BAD: Same vibe. Different decade.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Back in the early 1990s, Enigma rode the “new age” wave straight up the pop charts with its Gregorian chant-filled sex romp “Sadeness (Part 1).” That sultry record helped open the floodgates for acts such as Deep Forest and Robert Miles, not to mention the mainstream acceptance of new-age superstar Enya.
Twenty-five years later, producer/composer/musician Michael Cretu remains the mastermind behind the Enigma project. And he’s still up to his tried-and-true techniques. Chants; throaty, purring female vocalists; delicate yet grinding backbeats; soft, cascading synths — all that fluff is here.
And on “Angel,” it’s still soothing, agreeable and even slightly hypnotic. But it’s also horribly dated. So if you want to hook up with your old high school girlfriend and relive that steamy night in your parents’ basement, this is the album for you.
BUY IT?: Your call. We’ve already been here.
Some Dance. Some Don’t.
THE NAKED AND FAMOUS — “Simple Forms”
THE GOOD: New Zealand indie pop outfit Naked and Famous comes back with a seamless third.
THE BAD: It’s hardly a great album, but there are many satisfying moments.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Simple Forms” finds the band playing it safe (the title really describes the record), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Female/male front team Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers are rather adept at leading their crew through a series of direct, no-nonsense, catchy pop songs in which the guitars and synths come together harmoniously over smooth beats.
Tracks such as ringing lead single “Higher” and the rolling “The Runners” are instantly fetching, reeling us in with soaring melodies and punchy rhythms. There’s nothing here you haven’t heard before, but not every album has to be a game-changer. Naked and Famous knows its capabilities and thrives within these comfortable surroundings. You’ll come back to “Simple Forms” after that first spin, even if it’s just for the next jog around the park. Feel-good stuff indeed.
BUY IT?: Sure.
THE ALBUM LEAF — “Between Waves”
THE GOOD: Multi-instrumentalist and producer Jimmy LaValle goes the “band” route on Album Leaf’s sixth outing.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Album Leaf always has been LaValle either working alone or with an ever-changing roster of musicians. “Between Waves” finds him sharing the spotlight with a more established group of people, and the record definitely has a more collaborative vibe because of it.
The band takes us through a mostly ambient affair (only three of the eight tracks have vocals). However, it’s not “ambient” in the strict electronic sense, but rather in a cool cascading non-intrusive manner. The rhythms are seamless, the melodies delicate. Beats combine with both keyboards and reserved guitars. Distant trumpets even add a little jazz to the mix.
It all adds up to a pulsating, slick affair, one that’s gentle but never outright weak. And when LaValle adds lyrics, we get a handful of very accomplished indie pop gems riding foamy waves of forward momentum.
BUY IT?: I would.
BANKS — “The Altar”
THE GOOD: California singer/songwriter Jillian Rose Banks (stage name simply Banks) comes back with her second.
THE BAD: There’s no sophomore slump here, but “Altar” is still not much of an improvement over 2014’s tepid “Goddess.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Banks’ music falls somewhere between indie pop and R&B, with its dark, churning beats firmly grounded in the urban mainstream. Yet, both the synths on top and her singing style fit nicely alongside any modern rock outfit. In the past, Banks toured with the Weekend AND hit the alternative charts, so she’s definitely blurring genres.
Too bad her records contain only fantastic highlights set against uninspired filler. She has yet to make a great ALBUM. “The Altar” continues in this mediocre vein. For every slamming, bouncing “Trainwreck” or “This Is Not About Us,” there’s a dull-edged “Mother Earth.” And after a while, a sort of sameness falls over the proceedings as songs melt together. Perhaps she needs more exciting material?
BUY IT?: Your call.
LOCAL NATIVES —
THE GOOD: California indie pop outfit Local Natives gets “sparkly” on its third.
THE BAD: For some, the band’s sound already shifted in the wrong direction, away from the early modern, folk-influenced stuff into more mainstream territories with synths and layered rhythms. “Sunlit Youth” continues that trend. Whether that’s “bad” or not depends upon
THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/guitarist Taylor Rice leads his crew through a set of solid poppers. Brightly colored, rolling pieces such as “Past Lives” and “Masters” tumble across our ears on big world beats and jangly guitars. “Coins” is a stab at blue-eyed soul. The bittersweet “Dark Days” finds the boys sharing the spotlight with Cardigans frontwoman Nina Persson. “Sea of Years” is the big, bold closer that could serve as the perfect swaying climax to any Local Natives show.
It all adds up to an enjoyable, albeit somewhat predictable, album. You’ve heard the bulk of “Youth” in other places before. Still, good pop ain’t bad.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
ELEPHANT STONE — “Ship of Fools”
THE GOOD: Canadian psychedelic indie rockers Elephant Stone come back with their fourth.
THE BAD: No real complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Still fronted by vocalist/bassist/sitar player Rishi Dhir, Elephant Stone turned down the psychedelics (just a smidge) and turned up the pop sensibilities on “Ship.” No worries, though; the record doesn’t play it completely straight as the sonic soundscapes remain. The new album, however, is a little less Kula Shaker and a little more Oasis or even World Party (hey — it had a “Ship of Fools,” too).
More than a few tunes latch onto a seamless groove (“Where I’m Going”) or a huge melody (“Photograph”) and prove what we’ve suspected all along — that Dhir has just as much respect for classic pop as he does for the sounds of India. And when he combines the two, the end result can be hypnotic. “Ship” simply makes the music more accessible without taking it into dull or predictable territories.
BUY IT?: Surely.
JAMIE LIDELL — “Building a Beginning”
THE GOOD: British modern soul singer/songwriter Jamie Lidell comes back with his seventh.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Falling somewhere between the funky safe zone that was “Jim” (2008) and the noisy experimentation spread across “Compass” (2010), the smart, soulful “Beginning” is indeed just that. It’s Lidell’s first release since leaving indie electronic powerhouse Warp Records and his first work written and recorded after the birth of his son, Julian, the namesake of one of the set’s most jubilant, catchy tracks.
From the reggae-flavored “How Did I Live Before Your Love” to the gospel-tinged “Motionless,” the album is packed with both pure (and rather positive) emotion and honest performances. Lidell makes the electronic enhancements of past albums take a back seat to more stripped-down instrumentation. “Beginning” gives off a more spontaneous vibe.
This new (or classic?) attitude works extremely well for both the singer and the material, and everything comes together to make a big, beautiful noise.
BUY IT?: Yes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE VEILS — “Total
THE GOOD: New Zealand indie outfit the Veils comes back with an ambitious fifth.
THE BAD: Expect a definite shift in direction. It also takes a few spins for “Total Depravity” to unleash its total power.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This time, passionate guitarist/songwriter/frontman Finn Andrews collaborated with El-P of Run the Jewels fame extensively, thereby giving “Depravity” a much harder edge than past efforts. It’s certainly light years away from the Gothic-leaning pop of 2004 debut “The Runaway Found.”
The album also is very dramatic; intense vocal performances add impenetrable darkness to tracks such as clamoring lead single “Axolotl” and the foreboding “Here Come the Dead.” Yet, lighter touches (the sparkling female back-ups on “Do Your Bones Glow at Night” and the soaring melodies coloring “A Bit on the Side”) also sprinkle the album, making the overall effect much more multi-dimensional. All the while, Andrews never lets up on his own vocal intensity.
BUY IT?: Despite the shake-ups (or maybe because of them), yes.
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS —
THE GOOD: Legendary Australian indie outfit Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds comes back with a mournful 16th.
THE BAD: “Skeleton Tree” is not the breeziest of albums.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Albums from Cave never are really “up” affairs. However, “Tree” is even more somber than usual. During its conception, Cave’s 15-year-old son fell off a cliff and died, so it’s no wonder that “Tree” explores love, loss and grief as its three central themes.
Musically, the album sounds less like a rock collection and more like a poetry reading. Many of the tracks find Cave reciting the lyrics within half-spoken melodies over ambient backdrops comprised of loops, layered noises and instruments played in non-traditional ways. It’s only when we get around to the final few cuts that the melancholy melodies swoop in and bring real tears to our eyes.
BUY IT?: Yes, but expect to make somewhat of an effort slogging through this one.
STILL CORNERS —
THE GOOD: London electronic dream-pop duo Still Corners (vocalist Tessa Murray and songwriter/producer Greg Hughes) leaves Sub Pop and self-releases a pulsating third.
THE BAD: As usual, overall atmosphere overshadows individual songs. You don’t go into a Still Corners record expecting stuff that would be truly memorable outside of its spaced-out, ethereal settings.
THE NITTY GRITTY: During the first handful of tracks, “Blue” puts the beats out in front more so than usual. Cuts such as “Lost Boys” and “Crooked Fingers” are very direct; rhythms establish them as tight bits of synth pop.
As the record plays on, the duo brings back the murkier, haunting style we’ve come to expect. “Down with Heaven and Hell,” for example, swirls around and washes over the listener like a slice of classic Cocteau Twins. These echo-drenched, wispy reverberations then stick around, meshing with the driving spirit of “Dreamhorse” and the urban vibe spread over “Night Walk”; the overall effect places us halfway between reality and fantasy.
BUY IT?: Sure.