SWITCHED ON D.I.Y.
BLONDFIRE — Young Heart
THE GOOD: Los Angeles indie pop duo Blondfire returns with a sensational second.
THE BAD: Young Heart feels fluffy (this is NOT a deep album), but there’s nothing wrong with an occasional blast of the shallow yet infectious.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The brother-and-sister team of Bruce and Erica Driscoll create danceable anthems where the synthetic and organic meld together harmoniously; synths and guitars never clashing over thick rich beats. Erica handles vocal duties and is the seductive face of the group, while Bruce takes care of producing. The two also spent some of their formative summers in Brazil, so there’s a touch of bossa nova buried deep within a few choice cuts.
Imagine Metric without the social commentary, plus a hint of classic wispy Saint Etienne. That’s Blondfire. Tracks such as the title cut and “Waves” are bubbly and carefree, yet fierce enough to demand your attention while ensuring the grooves underneath remain locked in place. The melodies on top never fail to captivate either.
BUY IT?: Yes.
TYCHO — Awake
THE GOOD: Ambient artist/producer Scott Hansen (stage name Tycho) comes back with his fourth full-length study in rhythmic sounds.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: On Awake, Hansen manages to accomplish something many electronic artists simply can’t — combining live drums and electric guitar with synths and computers and having an end result that doesn’t sound forced or unharmonious. In his hands, a “new age band” musically stimulates and satisfies.
That’s precisely what Awake feels like — New Age music with a more pronounced backbeat. Tracks like the title cut and “L” are swirling instrumentals that carry you off to peaceful gardens or hidden lagoons while bringing along a rhythmic thump to keep you from dozing. Hansen knows when to work a melody or let a hypnotic bass line take over. The man also makes it difficult to tell where the synthetic ends and the organic begins. And eight cuts in 37 minutes means just enough funky tranquility to leave you feeling rejuvenated.
BUY IT?: Yep.
METRONOMY — Love Letters
THE GOOD: British electronic indie outfit Metronomy switches on for their fourth.
THE BAD: No complaints. Just realize these guys (and girl) never stay in the same spot. Every album finds them shaking up the formula.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Love Letters barely builds beyond a dull roar. The group constructs steadily clicking electro-pop pieces with stark delicate arrangements. There’s a bit of Talking Heads’ unmitigated frankness, mixed with the minimalist vibe of early Kraftwerk. When the female back-up vocals kick in, we’re immediately transported back to M’s Official Secrets Act album circa 1980.
The hypnotic instrumental “Boy Racers” goes back even further; live drums and synthetic riffs recalling those quirky Moog records from the early 70s. The track would feel right at home on a Hot Butter or Perrey-Kingsley collection. On the rare occasion that a full-on band presents itself, as during “The Most Immaculate Haircut,” a Morrissey comparison becomes completely warranted.
BUY IT?: Yes. Love Letters is an excellent mixed bag.
ROCK THE NIGHT
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS — Unvarnished
THE GOOD: Joan Jett still rocks after almost four decades.
THE BAD: Nothing. Unvarnished is lean and mean.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Take out some of the more mature lyrical references (the 55-year-old Jett can’t help but sing about her own mortality a few times) and this record could have been released 30 years ago. Writing again with longtime collaborator Kenny Laguna, the two make sure Unvarnished overflows with classic punk-infused rockers like “Make It Back” and “Bad as We Can Be,” blazing cuts so infectious you’ll be hand-clapping along and humming them for weeks.
Even closing ballad “Everybody Needs a Hero” grows on you after a couple of spins; what seemed a misfire at first proves itself worthwhile. Jett’s spirit is undaunted; her energy level undiminished. Unvarnished ends up fierce, flirtatious and a lot of fun. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be?
BUY IT?: Yes. And hear some of it LIVE tonight (April 17) as Jett heats up Rock 107’s 34th Birthday Bash at the Woodlands.
THE CHAIN GANG OF 1974 — Daydream Forever
THE GOOD: Los Angeles-based one-man act Chain Gang of 1974 (songwriter/musician Kamtin Mohager) returns with his third full-length and major label debut.
THE BAD: Daydream is an album where the overall vibe is more appealing than the individual songs, at least at first. You have to warm up to this one.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Mohager creates something that’s one part synthpop, one part indie rock; better 80s elements crashing into the D.I.Y. ethic of today. Cuts like “Sleepwalker” (introduced earlier to fans through Grand Theft Auto V) and “Lola Sunshine” are danceable, yet display real rock bite once those jagged riffs kick in. “Witch” is more fragile, even slightly hypnotic. “Death Metal Punk” wallows in frustration.
Daydream is a decent collection. Start pulling these songs apart though and many of them ultimately feel forgettable. Peel away all the production and their bare essence seems average at best.
BUY IT?: Your call. Mohager’s past efforts were more satisfying. Maybe the next record will be better.
SKATERS — Manhattan
THE GOOD: New York indie rockers Skaters embrace their hometown on an abrasive debut.
THE BAD: Manhattan is an NYC record but it never reaches the gritty authenticity of collections like Lou Reed’s New York (1989) or the Strokes’ Is This It (2001).
THE NITTY GRITTY: This is a “glossy” Manhattan; dangerous and unpredictable but that pesky M&M Store still stands on Times Square. Some members of the band were bartenders witnessing enough fodder for short stories, and that’s essentially what the record is, a collection of night tales dealing with everything from strung-out junkies (“Deadbolt”) to the pitfalls of dating (“I Wanna Dance But I Don’t Know How”).
The songs are punchy, catchy, to-the-point bits of punk-infused indie rock. Most tracks are strong yet there are a few territories these guys should never visit again (the polished hardcore of “Nice Hat” comes to mind). But Skaters haven’t been together THAT long. The band is still finding its way.
BUY IT?: Sure. Despite its shortcomings, Manhattan remains a promising debut.
YELLOW OSTRICH — Cosmos
THE GOOD: Brooklyn outfit Yellow Ostrich are back with a more accessible third.
THE BAD: What started out as an experimental side project of vocalist/guitarist Alex Schaaf is slowly morphing into a more straightforward indie rock vehicle. That’s only “bad” if you were hoping the guys would stay completely “out there.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Thankfully, the songs are good enough to justify the slight shift in direction. Schaaf and his crew still dabble in the strange, but tracks like “Neon Fists” and “How Do You Do It” are built upon definite grooves and boast succinct melodies. “In The Dark” keeps it spacey while “You Are the Stars” rumbles to a crashing climax. Melancholy closing cut “Don’t Be Afraid” even borders on the beautifully sublime.
Cosmos strays off the beaten path but never feels bloated or directionless. Then again, the band’s past two albums didn’t come off that way either; Yellow Ostrich is always creating music (weird or not) with a sense of purpose.
BUY IT?: Yep.
ELBOW — The Take Off and Landing of Everything
THE GOOD: British progressive indie rockers Elbow deliver a finely crafted sixth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: When it comes time to play this record, give yourself a solid uninterrupted hour, slide on some headphones and just drift. Everything is an album that takes its time getting to some logical conclusions, but never grows tiresome.
For the past couple of years, frontman and lyricist Guy Garvey has split his time between Manchester, England and New York City; forming a loving bond with Brooklyn. So Everything ends up being an album of life changes, new outlooks and shifts in direction (at least lyrically).
Musically, the record is a “slow burner.” Melodies and rhythms form and come together casually, and there are moments of sheer (if subdued) brilliance. Opening track “This Blue World” creeps in with a deep undeniable melancholy. “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” makes mundane air travel catchy and agreeable. “My Sad Captains” turns loss into grace and beauty.
BUY IT?: Yes.
DEAN WAREHAM — Dean Wareham
THE GOOD: Ex-Galaxie 500 and Luna frontman Dean Wareham releases his solo debut.
THE BAD: No problems.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It only took the guy slightly over a quarter century, but Wareham has finally made himself the absolute center of attention. And while the new record doesn’t sound exactly like an older Luna one, it’s pretty close in both style and substance. Dean is Dean; the soft-around-the-edges unassuming vocal delivery (this time with an occasional falsetto), the smooth effortless melodies, the spaced-out guitar licks — they’re all present. His wife Britta Phillips is back on bass too (so half of Luna is here anyway).
Produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket fame, the set opens with the delicate jangle pop of “The Dancer Disappears” running directly into the more aloof and pretty “Beat the Devil.” These two cuts set the mood for the rest of the album; Wareham shifting with ease between bright sophisticated indie pop and shadowy moody pieces. All is good.
BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
SAME OLD. SAME OLD.
311 — Stereolithic
THE GOOD: Nebraska rockers 311 are back with their 11th.
THE BAD: These guys have been remaking the same album over and over again for decades.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The formula never wavers. Musically, you get a blend of nu metal, hip-hop, reggae and creative jamming. Lyrically, it’s a mix of social observations, funky psychology of the “you can make it if you try” ethos, and a couple of love songs tossed in for the female fans. Nick Hexum sings. SA Martinez raps. The rhythms are dead center in the mix. The guitar riffs are catchy. And some spaced-out atmospherics weave their way in making this stuff 10 times more satisfying if you smoke a bunch of weed before pressing “play.” Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Stereolithic is the new album. But it might as well be Soundsystem (1999), Evolver (2003) or Uplifter (2009). I probably wrote this same exact review six times already when covering the guys’ past efforts.
BUY IT?: Meh … whatever. Longtime fans already own it. Past detractors shouldn’t care.
WE ARE SCIENTISTS — TV en Francais
THE GOOD: New York indie rockers We Are Scientists are still plugging away after five albums.
THE BAD: These guys are on autopilot.
THE NITTY GRITTY: At first, the boys were at least trying to take some existing sounds and formulas and mix them up, creating something copied but at least enticing. Jittery anthems like “It’s A Hit” and smoother pieces such as “After Hours” were memorable slabs of indie pop that bended the rules of post-punk, garage and math rock.
Ever since 2010’s Barbara though, WAS refuse to leave their comfort zone. I’m even the group’s European cult following is beginning to yawn. “What You Do Best” kicks the record off on a high note. “Don’t Blow It” boasts one of the band’s finest melodies ever. However, too much of TV feels like an extended study in “been there, done that.”
BUY IT?: Your choice. TV is the kind of album you sort of enjoy ONCE before completely forgetting about it.
FOSTER THE PEOPLE — Supermodel
THE GOOD: California indie rockers Foster the People give us their sophomore album.
THE BAD: Slump?
THE NITTY GRITTY: We’ve seen this all before. A band comes out of nowhere with an “internet sensation” (the gun-happy hipster anthem “Pumped Up Kicks”). Then they’re immediately courted by a major (Columbia), the guys play some key festivals, and the track crosses over onto Top 40 radio. But that key question always looms – can they do it again?
Remember Lit? Eve 6? Crash Kings? The Dirty Heads? Okay, Foster the People is better than all of those bands but I don’t see “Pumped Up Kicks” happening again. So what do we have here MUSICALLY?
Supermodel is a radio-friendly, sometimes-catchy, somewhat scathing look at capitalism and our cynical modern world. It’s a record that could be appealing at times, but is mostly dull. In fact, it’s always a bad sign when the singles are the best tracks. Here, those happen to be “Coming of Age” and “Best Friend.”
BUY IT?: I don’t care.
NENEH CHERRY — Blank Project
THE GOOD: Modern R&B/hip-hop pioneer Neneh Cherry is back with her first solo album (fourth overall) in almost two decades.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Growing up in the diverse landscapes of Sweden, London and New York, and always flirting with the mainstream but never succumbing to it, Cherry seemed to some a one-hit wonder breaking out big-time in 1989 with the club anthem “Buffalo Stance.” But there’s so much more to her work, collaborations over the years ranging from punk to jazz.
Cherry just turned 50 and those creative juices that know no boundaries are still flowing. Blank Project is the singer’s most stark work to date; an intimate collection partly inspired by the death of her mother five years ago. Accompanied by bare drums, basslines and only the most basic of synths, Cherry is front-and-center in a collection that’s sometimes fragile (“Across the Water”) and sometimes completely funky (“Weightless”). She’s redefined, rejuvenated and more than relevant.
BUY IT?: Yes.
CEO — Wonderland
THE GOOD: Swedish electronic artist Eric Berglund (stage name CEO) dodges the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: No complaints, but one should expect a sonically diverse album. Keep your ears and your mind open.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Once a member of electronic duo the Tough Alliance, CEO now calls all the shots, and more importantly, brings an unabashed sense of melody to everything he does. Bouncing between frothy digital pop tunes and moody ambient soundscapes, Wonderland visits some dark places. However, there are moments of pure bliss so sugary sweet they’ll make your teeth hurt. Tracks like “Whorehouse” and “Mirage” may spell trouble lyrically, but their hooks and rhythms send you sailing into euphoria.
And there’s no crash. From start to finish, Wonderland lives up to the imaginary nature of its title, even when the trip gets a tad bumpy; CEO our good-natured but sinister tour guide. And don’t you cop out cause there’s no return/I’ll hold you as the dreams give in and bridges burn.
BUY IT?: Surely.
BECK — Morning Phase
THE GOOD: Beck is back with his first full-length studio effort in six years.
THE BAD: Those hoping for something grounded in hip-hop, funk, the electronic or anything remotely “danceable” will have to keep hoping until next time.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Morning Phase feels like a more optimistic version of Sea Change (2002). The self-produced collection finds the musical chameleon wallowing in folk rock, alt country and sophisticated pop. There isn’t a drum loop or sample anywhere in the mix.
However, the songs themselves are some of the strongest the man has penned in years (if not ever). Tracks like “Morning” and “Blue Moon” are stirring pieces that catch us off guard with their melodic subtleties and lyrical nuance. Listen once and they’re gorgeous. Listen twice and you realize how densely layered they are.
Morning Phase will be difficult to match, but you know Beck will do just that. And who knows what that follow-up will be stylistically? With this guy, that’s always the exciting part.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
by Mike Evans
CHANGE OF SCENERY
XIU XIU — Angel Guts: Red Classroom
THE GOOD: California-based avant-garde indie group Xiu Xiu creates an ugly record.
THE BAD: Proceed with a very open mind or don’t bother.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The press release I received with this CD is disturbing enough. Xiu Xiu mastermind Jamie Stewart recently relocated from North Carolina to a dangerous section of L.A.; the guy is now living near “a park divided among four gangs, a lake routinely dragged for bodies and a building wherein two infant skeletons were recently uncovered.” Inspirational!
The record takes its title from a Japanese erotic noir film, and the songs’ subject matters include violent sex, physical harm, criminality and racial tensions. Tracks like “Black Dick” and “Stupid in the Dark” are hardly heartfelt love ballads.
Musically the album sounds evil; white noise, ambient textures that border on the aggressive, industrial rhythms and Stewart’s gut-twisting vocal style all combine to build a filthy impenetrable wall of sound. Take a shower when it’s finished.
BUY IT?: The musically adventurous MUST.
PHANTOGRAM — Voices
THE GOOD: Electronic-based indie pop duo Phantogram finally releases their second.
THE BAD: Four years is a long gap between a debut and a sophomore effort. Was Voices worth that wait? Um …
THE NITTY GRITTY: On the surface, Voices is a very enjoyable album — a slick blend of guitars, synths, danceable rhythms and Sarah Barthel’s rich yet airy vocals. The duo walks that fine line between rock and dance, constantly blurring the boundaries between the two disparate worlds during catchy to-the-point gems like “Fall in Love” and “Howling at the Moon.”
Hold the new record up against 2010’s Eyelid Movies though and it can feel like “more of the same.” One could argue the two aren’t tampering with a working formula. But Voices lacks true distinction. The songs may be solid but few are truly memorable. So where will a third album will go? Hopefully, someplace slightly riskier.
BUY IT?: Despite its shortcomings, yes. Sometimes a halfway decent pop set is all you need.
GARDENS AND VILLA — Dunes
THE GOOD: California-based indie pop band Gardens & Villa travel to the frozen lakes of Michigan to record their second album.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Produced by Tim Goldsworthy (Cut Copy, Hercules & Love Affair), Dunes sees the band bursting creatively in new surroundings. The end result is a record where guitars and synths co-exist equally and harmoniously, most tracks ride a solid groove, and vocalist Chris Lynch has grown more confident as a front man, even pulling off a soulful falsetto now and again. Constant touring since the release of the band’s 2011 debut has also tightened up this outfit.
Tracks are both forceful and funky (the seamless “Colony Glen” and super cool “Bullet Train”) or reserved and introspective (“Chrysanthemums”). The former combination thankfully outnumbers the latter, but the boys are just as comfortable in both settings. And Dunes really comes together as a whole when bouncing amongst varying moods and tempos; the set never stuck in a rut.
BUY IT?: Yes.