Animal Collective — ‘Tangerine Reef’ THE GOOD: Experimental indie rock outfit Animal Collective releases its 11th. THE BAD: “Reef” is a companion piece to a film. Pull the two apart, and both suffer. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Reef” is the band’s first album without principal songwriter Panda Bear. He’s still a member but wasn’t involved in this one-off collaboration with Coral Morphologic, an art-science duo comprised of a musician and a marine biologist. The record is meant to accompany a video project the duo made about coral reef conservation and climate change. So we have an ambient film score recorded live in the studio. Individual tracks run into each other, large sections of the music are essentially tuneless, and the entire work is painted with a sense of dread and foreboding. Panda Bear’s melodies are sorely lacking. However, “Reef” was never meant to be an indie pop album. It’s a combination of what the video needed and perhaps an unintentional look back at Animal Collective’s weirder early days. BUY IT?: Your choice.
Peter Bjorn and John — ‘Darker Days’ THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop/rockers Peter Bjorn and John come back with a lighter eighth (despite its “Darker” title). THE BAD: Nah. THE NITTY GRITTY: See the drawing of broken bones on the mostly black/gray cover art, and you might think the record is PB&J getting all philosophical, political or a little of both over noisy, abrasive and morose backdrops. OK, there might be echoes of ALL that buried within these 10 new tracks. However, this new collection finds the guys showing off their pop chops more so than on the last two or three offerings. Songs such as the bubbly “One for the Team” and regal “Living a Dream” are all about big melodies, sunny arrangements and keeping matters bright and tight. The band then tosses in a few more experimental bits. Toward its conclusion, “Days” gets slightly gloomy and more down-tempo. The moody “Silicon Valley Blues” and spaced-out “Heaven and Hell” bring some balance to the entire outing. BUY IT?: Yes.
We Were Promised Jetpacks — ‘The More I Sleep, the Less I Dream’ THE GOOD: Scottish indie rock group We Were Promised Jetpacks comes back more mature and ambitious after a four-year hiatus. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: The word that best describes “The More I Sleep” is “big.” Big, soaring melodies; full, rich arrangements; and epic bouts of drama — they all have a place here. The end result is a grand spectacle that proves the band is aging and progressing gracefully. A song such as the melancholy “Hanging In” or the stirring, slowly building title track wouldn’t have sounded out of place on past records. However, moments like those would have been a bigger shock to the system than they are here. One detects echoes of graceful Travis, early Radiohead and even soulful Doves. The band also finds that bittersweet spot between the down-tempo gloom and the guitar-drums clamor. This may be a more somber record that usual, but it’s by no means soft. The band remains a powerful outfit, too. BUY IT?: Yep.
New releases from For Esme, Laurel, Metric make for welcome additions
For Esme — ‘Righteous Woman’ THE GOOD: Canadian synthpop outfit For Esme makes you think while dancing on “Righteous Woman.” THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by Martha Meredith, For Esme offers up 10 frothy, forward-moving anthems dealing with feminism, equality, power and a little dreaming now and then. The strong messages are all there, but so are the liquid beats; “Woman” is a brilliant merging of two worlds. Disposable dance music that isn’t really disposable at all? Yes, pay attention.
Passion, purpose and even a subdued rage bubbling beneath all those ringing synths and infectious melodies belted out by a self-assured frontwoman fill punchy tracks such as “To Love,” “Small Talk” and “Modern Love.” And when the band pulls back the rhythms and Meredith finds herself singing sans big beats (“Secret Church” and “Asleep/Awake”), the music takes on a completely different form that’s just as mesmerizing. “Woman” ends up a balanced workout with rests in all the right places. BUY IT?: Yes. And go for the limited edition LP.
Laurel — ‘Dogviolet’ THE GOOD: After teasing us with a bunch of singles and EPs over the past half-decade, British singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Laurel Arnell-Cullen (stage name “Laurel”) finally delivers her first full-length album. THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: Known for recording her stuff in a bedroom studio, Laurel is a one-woman show that’s both tough and seductive. Her commanding voice can sound husky, ragged, smoky or somewhat flirtatious — whatever the song calls for.
Musically, one would expect something electronic (at-home productions often go that route). Yet, Laurel’s music leans toward something more organic and rock-based. Guitars are just as important as the keyboards. Think more Lana Del Rey or Florence and the Machine, and less Robyn or Lykke Li. Better moments include the stinging, in-your-face “Adored” and the more tempered, melancholy “Empty Kisses.” But “Dogviolet” contains very few wasted spaces. Laurel has sharpened her skills and developed her style on all those aforementioned singles, and the effort has paid off. The next one should be better still. BUY IT?: Surely.
Metric — ‘Art of Doubt’ THE GOOD: Canadian indie rock group Metric returns with its seventh. THE BAD: Nothing here. THE NITTY GRITTY: After leaning heavy on synths for the past couple of records, frontwoman Emily Haines and her crew have brought guitars back up front. The new songs still ride punchy, seamless rhythms, and keyboards add color, but “Doubt” rocks harder than recent efforts. That newfound muscle paired with some of the band’s strongest songs in a decade makes the new album easily Metric’s best since 2009’s “Fantasies.”
You would think 12 songs spread over 58 minutes would drag after a while. “Doubt” may sag slightly in a couple of spots, but overall, the album never wears out its welcome. Strong points include immediately commanding opener “Dark Saturday”; sprawling anthem “Now or Never Now”; driven, catchy, power-pop wonder “Risk”; and the graceful, swirling “Anticipate.” There aren’t many lesser moments at all. “Doubt” balances differing moods and tempos and never falls into a routine sameness. BUY IT?: Yes indeed.
Trio of singer-songwriters delivers emotional sequels
Laura Carbone — ‘Empty Sea’ THE GOOD: German indie singer/songwriter and ex-Your Youth frontwoman Laura Carbone offers up an emotionally charged sophomore solo album. THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: Many sounds and styles bubble to the surface on “Sea,” not to mention a fair amount of grit. The record is equal parts post-punk abandon, ’90s noise and Gothic pop. From the tumbling and crashing sway and swagger carrying “Nightride” to the shuffling, melodic grace making up “Tangerine Tree,” Carbone’s music is more than one voice or vibe. The bluesy “Who’s Gonna Save You” is painted with dread. “Lullaby” is eerily soothing. You get the idea. No two moments sound alike, and every setting feels genuine.
“Sea” also leaves you craving more. Carbone delivers a tight nine tracks in 34 minutes flat, all of it focused (even the seemingly reckless bits) and accomplished. In turn, the woman deserves more recognition here in the United States. This might just be the record making that happen. BUY IT?: Sure.
Marissa Nadler — ‘For My Crimes’ THE GOOD: Boston modern folk singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler offers up a gloomy yet lovely eighth. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Crimes” doesn’t hail from a happy place. ook at the cover art. Those shades of black and gray set the perfect tone for the music held within. Nadler sings of loves lost, past transgressions, and feelings of hopelessness. It’s bleak.
However, in its own way, “Crimes” could be considered cathartic. There’s real beauty in all this anguish; Nadler uses fragile and lilting melodies to carry all the pain. Songs such as “Lover Release Me” and “You’re Only Harmless When You Sleep” make you embrace the darkness. Sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment and just the right amount of echo on Nadler’s vocals only add to the record’s dreamlike quality. Ghostly harmonies and soft, weeping string arrangements enhance matters even further.
It’s no easy task making a down-tempo set NOT wear out its welcome. Nadler achieves just that on “Crimes.” We’ll even take another half dozen records just like it. BUY IT?: Yes.
Loretta Lynn — ‘Wouldn’t It Be Great’ THE GOOD: Country legend Loretta Lynn is back again … at the age of 86. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: When Lynn teamed up with Jack White for the “Van Lear Rose” album, that collection seemed the perfect swan song to a more than 40-year career. Lynn was making music on her own terms while creating something raw and authentic.
Well, that was 14 years ago, and apparently that WASN’T the end. Since then, Lynn started a five-album cycle produced by her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell, and Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. “Wouldn’t It Be Great” is the third of those planned five records.
Each album combines Lynn compositions both new and old, the singer backed by a traditional country outfit using not one drop of Nashville gloss. Lynn remains the master of her surroundings, whether belting out a honky-tonk scorcher (“Ruby’s Stool”), tear-stained ballad (“I’m Dying for Someone to Live For”) or swaying bit of blues (“These Ole Blues”). Those songwriting talents and that voice are far from finished. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Dirty Projectors — “Lamp Lit Prose” THE GOOD: Brooklyn indie outfit Dirty Projectors brings us a lively eighth. THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: DP mastermind vocalist/guitarist David Longstreth is in better spirits this year, especially after 2017’s darker and more introspective self-titled record. Sure the guy sings of senators while going the political route during “That’s A Lifestyle.” But he also manages to name-drop Julian Casablancas when telling us of a new girl who’s a real “Break-Thru.” The guitar riff on that track is super-jazzy and infectious, too.
“Lamp Lit” ends up a myriad of flavors (Longstreth utilizing strings and horns more than usual) and much welcome vocal guests from Syd and Haim. The album feels like a party in spots but never comes off as one-dimensional. When things quiet down, the simple melodic beauty of “Blue Bird” can be heartbreaking and the tranquility of closer “(I Wanna) Feel It All” brings us home with a sense of calm. It’s a tiring but highly enjoyable journey. BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
Still Corners — “Slow Air” THE GOOD: London dream-pop duo Still Corners come back with a moody (of course) fifth. THE BAD: “Slow Air” is more about an overall dramatic vibe as opposed to individual songs. A certain sameness becomes apparent around the record’s midpoint. But the band still makes it work. THE NITTY GRITTY: Tessa Murray remains a commanding presence, even when her voice rarely rises above a distant dull roar. And the songs themselves are all mid-tempo burners, coated with a little more guitar than usual. So “Slow Air” ends up a collection of smoky stuff that sounds best around midnight.
It’s hardly the blues, but there are definite shades of blue. The occasional bouts of ambient noise and echo only enhance the dreamy experience. And when Murray and multi-instrumentalist/producer Greg Hughes hit us with a succinct melody, their pop sensibilities also shine through. It’s tough to deny the infectious power and drive of a track such as “Black Lagoon” or “Dreamlands.” BUY IT?: Sure.
Anna Calvi — “Hunter” THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi switches things up on her long-awaited third. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Her first new music in four years finds Calvi changing outlooks but not necessarily musical directions. Her guitar playing remains varied, unpredictable and, in spots, truly stunning. This time, her vocals resemble a cross between P.J. Harvey’s more delicate side and prime Siouxsie Sioux.
However, a sweeping and dramatic ballad such as “Swimming Pool” or the intimate strains of “Eden” may have felt out of place on past records. The entirety of “Hunter” isn’t quite as visceral as her earlier work. But the set isn’t soft by any means. Calvi can still burn with the best of them; stinging bits such as “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Body” and “Alpha” bring a definite rock swagger and sexual drive to the proceedings.
Calvi has never been this open, honest and, in some instances, vulnerable before. This newfound intimacy works, and one can only hope it crops up again on future releases. BUY IT?: Yes.
Suede — ‘The Blue Hour’ THE GOOD: British indie rock group Suede comes back with its eighth, and third since the 2013 “rebirth.” THE BAD: No complaints. THE NITTY GRITTY: Produced by the legendary Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, U2, Foals), “Blue Hour” is Suede at its most dynamic and dramatic. Still the modern kings of mid-tempo glam-rock swagger, frontman Brett Anderson and the guys once again embrace layered atmospherics and grand string arrangements, using them to great effect against the standard guitar-bass-drums rumble.
Songs such as “Wastelands” and “Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You” are equal parts blue melancholy and glorious sunshine — sad yet hopeful at the same time. Savor this record; the payoff is worth the effort. The individual parts shine, but when put together, the songs become all the more effective. The album builds to an early crescendo, followed by a final downward spiral meant to send us drifting after all the thunder and lightning. The extended anthem “Flytipping” makes for the perfect nightcap. When the music’s over, the emotions linger. BUY IT?: Yes.
James — ‘Living in Extraordinary Times’ THE GOOD: British indie legend James comes back with an accomplished 15th. THE BAD: Not really. THE NITTY GRITTY: At this point, the band could stick to the winning ’90s Britpop formula that helped bring about its biggest commercial success. Or, it could go off on weird tangents and be a bunch of crazy, middle-aged men. Better yet, how about a happy medium?
That’s where “Extraordinary Times” lands. Frontman Tim Booth and his crew still possess massive pop chops, and they slather them all over big, soaring, melodic bits such as “Coming Home (Part 2)” and “Better Than That.” Then you get the more experimental (but NOT self-indulgent) stuff, such as biting, aggressive opener “Hank” and the buzzing, crackling political rant “Heads.” Booth never gets TOO comfortable, and nor should you.
James isn’t afraid to pull its music in a myriad of directions. That’s why we keep coming back after all this time. Quality and unpredictability maintained for over 30 years — you have to respect that. BUY IT?: Yes.
Paul McCartney — ‘Egypt Station’ THE GOOD: Legendary rocker Paul McCartney treats us to his 24th post-Beatles studio effort. THE BAD: Hey, it’s a McCartney record. There are both brilliant tunes and lesser moments. Thankfully, we get more good bits than bad. THE NITTY GRITTY: The main collaborator this time is pop/rock producer Greg Kursten (Adele, Sia, the Bird and the Bee), who brings a modern polish to the proceedings.
At 76, McCartney could be accused of falling into some nostalgic trappings. “Happy with You” is a snappy little acoustic ditty about contentment. “Confidante” is yet another tune about (probably) John. However, this slightly sappy stuff has always been one of McCartney’s many musical fortes.
Other tracks on “Station” find the man rocking out (“Come on to Me”), getting topical (“People Want Peace”) and tossing us a few ascending ballads (“Do It Now”). None of it is very surprising, yet none of it is cringe-worthy, either. “Egypt Station” is what it is — McCartney being McCartney. We’ll take it. BUY IT?: Sure.
Interpol — ‘Marauder’ THE GOOD: New York City indie rock group Interpol comes back with a semi-blazing sixth. THE BAD: “Marauder” is the band’s best record in a decade, but it doesn’t come close to the quiet power of its first two ground-breaking masterpieces — “Turn on the Bright Lights” (2002) and “Antics” (2004). THE NITTY GRITTY: Of course, those records were released when Interpol was an integral part of a New York indie revival/revolution that also included the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Walkmen and a host of others. Today, Interpol isn’t part of any scene in particular, unless there’s a specific category for survivors.
This time, the band hired Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, MGMT) to produce, and he guides the boys through a set that’s more straight-forward and up-tempo than usual. The record lacks in murky, moody pieces such as the classic “NYC.” So the worst you could accuse “Marauder” of being is slightly one-dimensional. But the songwriting is sharp, and the guys are tight. Nicely done. BUY IT?: Yes.
Death Cab for Cutie — ‘Thank You for Today’ THE GOOD: Northwest indie rock group Death Cab for Cutie comes back with its ninth. THE BAD: This is the band’s first full-length album without guitarist/producer Chris Walla. His presence is missed, but his absence is not entirely detrimental. THE NITTY GRITTY: Rich Costey (Muse, Foster the People, Frank Turner) handles production duties, putting a definite sheen on most tracks. Frontman Ben Gibbard wrote about 90 percent of the record. One detects a delicate, rhythmic influence held over from his Postal Service days spread underneath many of the tunes.
So “Thank You” ends up both ever-so-slightly beat-driven AND dreamy, with the songs gently wrapping their sweet melodies (some of Gibbard’s finest this decade) around the listener. There’s a mid-tempo warmth to cuts such as “When We Drive” and “You Moved Away.” Yet the songs also bring on that Northwest DCFC chill we’ve come to embrace after all these years. So “Thank You” shakes things up but still goes down smoothly. BUY IT?: Yeah.
Spiritualized — ‘And Nothing Hurt’ THE GOOD: English prog/indie rock group Spiritualized comes back with a focused eighth. THE BAD: Those longing for a return to the trippy days of 1997’s masterpiece “We Are Floating in Space” only will find distant echoes of all that weirdness. “Hurt” is a tighter affair. THE NITTY GRITTY: That’s not to say frontman Jason Pierce (who also produces) and his crew play it completely safe. Tracks such as “On the Sunshine” and “The Morning After” add a little volume and spontaneity to an otherwise low-key set of songs. Pierce doesn’t give us outright ballads, though. Instead, we get meticulously crafted, multi-layered, down-tempo pieces that find ghostly choirs and sweeping orchestrations popping up in all the right places.
Pierce has mellowed over the past couple of records, probably because he learned to deal with some of his demons. No one can be the drug-addled eccentric psycho kid their whole life, and the same holds true for rock stars. “Hurt” may be far less strange, but it’s no less brilliant. BUY IT?: Yes.
Nine Inch Nails shines as Gorillaz, Orbital serve tepid sequels
Nine Inch Nails — ‘Bad Witch’ THE GOOD: Nine Inch Nails’ ninth finds mastermind Trent Reznor taking some serious musical chances. THE BAD: Six tracks in 30 minutes blurs the lines between EP and LP. Or does “Bad Witch” simply leave you craving more darkness? THE NITTY GRITTY: If Reznor ever attempted to make a loose SOUL album, this might be it. The man plays copious amounts of saxophone within the mix, which detracts some power from the usual electronic buzz and hum. Some moments even find Reznor channeling his dearly departed friend and collaborator David Bowie. Smoky bits such as “God Break Down the Door” or the funky “Over and Out” wouldn’t feel out of place during that artist’s mid-’80s rhythmic period.
The affair also works seamlessly as a whole, jumping from the traditional NIN angst of “S— Mirror” to the aforementioned Bowie-isms to haunting instrumentals such as “I’m Not from This World.” It’s a record that feels both strikingly human and eerily detached all at once. BUY IT?: Surely.
Gorillaz — ‘The Now Now’ THE GOOD: British virtual band Gorillaz comes back (already) with its sixth. THE BAD: If last year’s “Humanz” had too many guests and not enough Damon Albarn out front, “Now Now” is the exact opposite. Now it’s 90 percent Albarn and a lack of fresh ideas. Maybe if we MERGE the two albums. Hmmmm… THE NITTY GRITTY: There are some satisfying moments here. The slick electropop carrying “Humility,” the urban swagger of “Hollywood,” the simple beauty that is “Idaho” — they all work. Too bad other parts feel unfinished. “Lake Zurich” gets off to a funky start but fizzles. “Fire Flies” and “One Percent” are tepid, half-baked jams that would have once been B-sides.
Albarn has released a LOT of new music over the past half-decade — a Blur reunion record, a solo album and now two Gorillaz sets. Maybe it’s time to relax and recharge the batteries. Last year, I called the Gorillaz catalog one of diminishing returns. For the time being, it’s leveled off. BUY IT?: Your choice.
Orbital — ‘Monsters Exist’ THE GOOD: British electronic duo Orbital (brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll) get together AGAIN for their ninth. THE BAD: “Monsters” makes no bold leaps forward. Still… THE NITTY GRITTY: The album could be considered a welcome return to form. Orbital first called it quits around 2004, just as the ’90s electronic golden age was shutting down for good. It reformed briefly around the turn of the decade, and then again last year. A series of live shows got the creative juices flowing, and “Monsters” is the result.
The proper set is a tight, nine-song opus that sees the brothers using their old tricks — multi-layered seamless beats and basslines, ethereal vocal loops, whirring hypnotic synths, and a clean and shiny mix. There’s also a bonus disc of “leftovers,” some of which are just as infectious as the main show.
The record’s only drawback is a lack of differentiation from the existing catalog. “Monsters” ends up an enjoyable run through familiar grooves, but maybe it’s just for the diehards. BUY IT?: Your call.
Father John Misty — ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman takes his fourth album as Father John Misty in a new direction. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Released a mere 14 months after the 2017 epic “Pure Comedy,” “Customer” was written during a prolific two months Tillman spent holed up in a New York City hotel room. It also peels away some of the past’s pretentiousness. “Customer” probably is the closest we’re ever getting to Misty indie POP.
This is one tight affair, with 10 songs in just under 40 minutes. Practically every cut boasts a dedicated hook that grabs you immediately. One might even consider a tune such as “Mr. Tillman” — dare I say it — bouncy. Most of the time, a full band augments Misty, and not just guitars and drums but woodwinds, too. I’m not sure if the guy wanted to lighten the mood, but he certainly does just that during “Customer,” the man’s most easily approachable record to date. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Dawes — ‘Passwords’ THE GOOD: California folk-rock group Dawes get somewhat political on its sixth. THE BAD: “Passwords” is musically interchangeable with past albums. Still, long-time fans simply looking for their bi-annual fix should be cool. THE NITTY GRITTY: Most bands have dabbled in world events since our 2016 presidential election and Brexit. Add Dawes to that conscientious list. Here, though, in typical mellow California style, the group tries to see matters from both sides and arrive at some sort of middle ground (“Declare no winners or losers/And forgive our shared mistakes”). Conflict resolution is key.
Arrangements are smooth and calculated. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith offers a fine and sometimes reserved voice throughout, with steady backbeats, tasteful guitar, pedal steel in all the right places, string flourishes for added color, etc. Both the musical direction and lyrics put “Passwords” literally in the middle of the road.
So, this will NOT be the most exciting record you hear this year. But that doesn’t mean the enjoyable set isn’t worth the effort. BUY IT?: Your call.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever — ‘Hope Downs’ THE GOOD: After teasing us with a couple of solid EPs, Australian indie rock group Rolling Blackouts C.F. delivers its first full-length LP. THE BAD: No gripes. THE NITTY GRITTY: Listening to “Hope Downs,” one is immediately transformed back in time circa 1987. That is, IF you listened to music that mattered — I.R.S.-era R.E.M., jangly Go-Betweens, Replacements after it tightened up, fellow Aussies the Hoodoo Gurus and the decorative guitar prowess of the Church. All those elements get shoved into these contemporary tunes and sound FRESH again, especially if you’re a 15-year-old kid just discovering these dynamics. By the way, if that is the case, do your homework, go back and check out all of those aforementioned bands. You’re welcome.
In the meantime, the rest of us will relish in a modern group defying expectations and playing by its own rules. “Hope Downs” is both guitar pop bliss and slightly agitated, noisy jams. And Rolling Blackouts C.F. makes it all marvelous. BUY IT?: Yep.
Artists from variety of genres turn out must-listen sequels
Parquet Courts — ‘Wide Awake!’ THE GOOD: New York indie rock band Parquet Courts comes back with a varied sixth. THE BAD: The group turns in more than a few unexpected musical directions. Not “bad,” but be prepared. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Wide Awake” is a post-punk record with a social conscience. The band is fighting for its rights and yours, drawing attention to everything from class structures to violence in our city streets. Lyrically, it’s an album firmly grounded in 2018.
Musically, the guys unexpectedly hired Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Black Keys) to produce. He brings the chaos under semi-control. Classic influences run amok within a frenetic, eclectic blend that recalls only the coolest of record collections. Debut Devo, “London Calling”-era Clash, early Jam, Wire and the Buzzcocks at their absolute peak, a smattering of early ’80s West Coast punk — all those sounds come together during a set that can be either highly aggressive or surprisingly melodic (or both) at different points. Fascinating. BUY IT?: You should.
King Tuff — ‘The Other’ THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kyle Thomas (stage name King Tuff) switches gears (matures?) on his fourth. THE BAD: The garage rock and party elements of past records are toned down. It’s not bad, but be ready for the shift. THE NITTY GRITTY: These days, Thomas seems more concerned about the environment, our over-dependence on technology and real relationships as opposed to what to do with the weekend. Musically, he’s broadening his horizons too, experimenting with intimate mood pieces (the title cut), psychedelic bits carried by subtle country swaggers (“Thru the Cracks”) and multi-layered, Beck-like fits of funk (“Birds of Paradise”).
Thomas wants to create something bigger and more meaningful, and his progressions are off to a good start. The spirit behind “The Other” certainly is something worthy of expanding on in future releases. The man even keeps good company these days. Old friend and collaborator Ty Segall helps out on drums and backing vocals. Jenny Lewis makes an understated appearance. So come join the party — excuse me — gathering. BUY IT?: Sure.
The Presets — ‘Hi Viz’ THE GOOD: Australian electronic duo the Presets shows us a great time on its fourth album (first in six years). THE BAD: Shallow at points? You bet. However, there’s no bad in having nothing but a good time. THE NITTY GRITTY: “Hi Viz” plays less like a proper album and more like a hyper DJ set. Some songs follow traditional pop structures; others are designed strictly to make you move. The guys manage to avoid the dated trappings of electronic music in general. Nothing here feels out of place in 2018. And there are long stretches where the individual tracks mix into each other seamlessly. So if you’re downloading as opposed to picking up the CD or vinyl, go for the WHOLE EXPERIENCE.
Standout cuts include the immediately slamming opener “Knuckles,” funky “Downtown Shutdown,” graceful yet pulsating “Feel Alone” and densely packed, hypnotic “14U + 14ME.” There really isn’t a weak moment here; “Hi Viz” never languishes or loses its all-too-important momentum. BUY IT?: Yeah.
Eleanor Friedberger — ‘Rebound’ The Good: Former (assuming the group has actually broken up) Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger releases her fourth solo outing. The Bad: Nah. The Nitty Gritty: Friedberger wrote the record in Greece, where she currently resides, and named the album after a favorite hometown club. Stylistically, it’s a throwback to the gothic and romantic new wave records of the 1980s, with her echoing singers such as Alison Moyet, Shakespeare’s Sister and Tracey Thorn (found elsewhere on this page if you feel like checking out TWO new albums this week). “Rebound” is soulful indie pop built on electronics with just the slightest hint of jazzy overtones.
Not every song is a gem, but the album works incredibly well as a whole, as Friedberger bounces around among tempos and moods. You can casually drink in bubbly, mid-tempo stuff such as “The Letter” and “Everything” or groove to slightly more “down” tracks such as “Nice to be Nowhere.” Not a bad day at the beach or night at the bar. Buy It?: Surely.
Tracey Thorn — ‘Record’ The Good: English singer/songwriter and ex-Everything but the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn comes back with a strong fifth solo set. The Bad: Nothing. The Nitty Gritty: Thorn’s past solo stuff is good, but “Record” is truly GREAT. She offers up a feminist album that finds the 55-year-old redefining her place in the world. She’s been a daughter, wife, mother and creative force and now remains tough as nails. When she sings, “And I fight like a girl,” you should feel genuinely threatened.
Musically, “Record” recalls the last couple of EBTG sets in spirit, with those beat-heavy albums that found the pair switching gears from indie jazz/pop to house music immediately after the Todd Terry remix of “Missing” set worldwide charts ablaze. “Queen” and “Dancefloor” recall New Order at its absolute peak. The extended “Sister” rides a rock-solid LCD Soundsystem-like funk. Big rhythms still intact, “Guitar” and “Babies” don’t shy away from melodic pop overtones.
The entire affair is intoxicating. “Record” is some of Thorn’s best work EVER. Buy It?: Yes.
Natalie Prass — ‘The Future and the Past’ The Good: American singer/songwriter Natalie Prass gets tougher on her second. The Bad: No gripes. However, expect more deep grooves and blue-eyed soul this time. Hey, that’s not bad. The Nitty Gritty: The album’s title hails from the lyrics of “Hot for the Mountain,” an anthem for feminists, the oppressed, the bullied or whoever really needs it — “No we don’t hold back/Break down the door/We’ll beat a path.”
That’s the vibe spread over the entire album, yet another semi-politicized set written in the shadow of the 2016 presidential election. Don’t be fooled by Prass’ somewhat gentle vocal delivery. She’s mad, determined and not giving up.
Yet, she realizes you can’t be uptight all the time; one also needs to kick back and let loose. So, “The Future” also is a mostly upbeat affair, featuring tight indie pop with big, fat basslines and dedicated beats sneaking into the mix beneath the slick guitars and warm pianos. It’s a righteous blend. Buy It?: Sure.
Female-fronted albums leave listeners wanting more
Speedy Ortiz – ‘Twerp Verse’ THE GOOD: New England indie rockers Speedy Ortiz release a confident third. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by guitarist/lyricist Sadie Dupuis, a woman blessed with a voice crossing Bettie Seveert’s Carol Van Dijk with early Liz Phair, Speedy Ortiz is a rare band whose music is complex and catchy at the same time. The players adore bizarre tempo changes, alternate guitar tunings and hazy atmospherics. Dupuis excels at painting vivid (sometimes foreboding) pictures and utilizing clever wordplay.
Throughout most of these songs though, just when you think the band is treading in some seriously self-indulgent waters, a glorious hook or riff will sneak up from behind and catch you off guard. Almost instantaneously, you’re taken from the incomprehensible to the infectious. Tracks like “Lucky 88” and “Alone with Girls” are prime examples of the band’s intellectual ear candy. And the more times you revisit “Twerp Verse,” the more often welcome surprises pop up; the album demanding repeat listens. BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
Camp Cope – ‘How to Socialize and Make Friends’ THE GOOD: Female Australian indie trio Camp Cope dodge the sophomore slump with the deadly serious, extremely poignant and tough-as-nails “How to Socialize.” THE BAD: No. THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/guitarist Georgia McDonald is fed up with indie rock dudes, uneven relationships, social injustices both big and small and a myriad of other stuff. And she brings all these frustrations to the table with much vigor and emotion. Like the lyrics in “Anna” say: “Just get it all out/Put it in a song.”
The vivid observations make the fuzzed out, slightly punk arrangements all the more visceral, even during several mid-tempo bits. Bassist Kelly Hellmrich and drummer Sarah Thompson make sure the energy level never wavers.
Musically, these women aren’t far removed from fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett. They give us a basic yet layered mix of guitar/bass/drums that falls somewhere between punk’s spontaneity and prog’s unpredictable tendencies. Some sounds and structures recall that other female indie powerhouse Warpaint. BUY IT?: Definitely.
Soccer Mommy – ‘Clean’ THE GOOD: Soccer Mommy (Nashville singer/songwriter/guitarist Sophie Allison) releases a fresh and focused debut. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: Barely in her 20s, Allison embraces a couple of different styles at the same time. First, her songs feel intimate, like a girl with a guitar quietly strumming in the corner and setting the mood at some neighborhood bar. But the tunes also possess a clear and definite edge. There’s an aggression rearing its not-too-ugly head at points, especially when the drums and bass kick in. That’s when we go from “folk night” to full-blown indie rock in all its ragged glory.
After pulling us in with the tranquil yet grainy “Still Clean,” Allison lets the rhythm section have a bash on the buzzing “Cool.” Later moments such as “Last Girl” and “Scorpio Rising” show off the woman’s pop chops; Allison bringing some big memorable melodies to the fuzzed-out proceedings. “Clean” is accomplished and concise, and definitely leaves you wanting more. BUY IT?: Yes.
Phosphenes — ‘Find Us Where We’re Hiding’ THE GOOD: German collective Phosphenes (primarily producer Harry Starbuck and vocalist Julee Bee) gives us an otherworldly debut. THE BAD: Pull apart the individual pieces, and you might think the record doesn’t have much to offer. However… THE NITTY GRITTY: Take in “Find Us” as a whole, and the work is mesmerizing. Upbeat, frothy single “Girls Trip” almost feels out of place, since the remainder of the album sounds much more ambient and “chill.” Close your eyes, drift, and you won’t know where one track ends and another begins. The record is split between songs with traditional structures (sung in English, not German) and more placid, mysterious, instrumental bits.
The mix harkens back to late-period Cocteau Twins and many of those electronic male/female ’90s duos that were all the rage during the latter half of that decade (Olive, Hooverphonic, Mono, etc.). One also detects M83 during the wordless moments. Yet, “Find Us” feels fresh and contemporary, and the band leaves space in which to branch out in the future.
BUY IT?: Surely.
Lykke Li — ‘So Sad So Sexy’ THE GOOD: Swedish singer/songwriter and electronic artist Lykke Li comes back with her fourth. THE BAD: It’s a definite shift that may alienate some longtime fans. “So Sad” is a far cry from her first couple of gloriously quirky records, particularly 2008’s “Youth Novels.” THE NITTY GRITTY: Yes, every artist SHOULD progress. Li, however, gives us a trap-influenced album, much of it co-written by collaborator Ilsey Juber (Shawn Mendes, Beyonce, Drake). Not exactly “edgy,” is it?
Cry “sell out” all you want, but the end results aren’t THAT dull. “So Sad” boasts 10 tightly focused tracks exploring relationships, heartbreak and perhaps a new beginning or two. Li’s conversion to this new style doesn’t feel forced; her voice still thrives in a more hip-hop/R&B-influenced setting. And she hasn’t gone full pop, at least not yet.
Li comfortably but carefully walks that fine line between the underground and the mainstream, giving those on both sides of the fence something to embrace. BUY IT?: Your call.
Mitski — ‘Be the Cowboy’ THE GOOD: Japanese-American indie rocker Mitski comes back with a larger-than-life fifth. THE BAD: Nothing. THE NITTY GRITTY: Mitski possesses more than a few mad skills. First, she makes a point rather succinctly and economically. The majority of the songs on “Cowboy” hover around the 2-minute mark (14 tracks fly by in about 33 minutes). But she packs a lot of emotion in those brief moments.
Second, she’s not afraid to turn pop structures and rock arrangements inside out and upside down. You never know when a track is going to suddenly switch directions, get claustrophobic or burst wide open.
Third, she’s the consummate singer/songwriter. Not only are her songs good, but Mitski’s voice also is distinct — lovely in spots, unforgiving in others. Whatever the song needs, she brings. It could be the delicate sing-song of “Old Friend”; the cool funk carrying “Nobody”; the banging, synth-heavy “Washing Machine Heart”; or the stark intimacy painting “Two Slow Dancers.” The woman immediately rises to the occasion within any setting. BUY IT?: Yes.
Chromeo – ‘Head Over Heels’ THE GOOD: Canadian electro-funk duo Chromeo comes back with a slick, star-studded fifth. THE BAD: Progression? Hardly. Reliability? Hell yes. THE NITTY GRITTY: These guys have a formula and stick to it. Chromeo has always been big into synth-heavy retro funk — ’80s throwbacks recalling Prince’s Minneapolis heyday, Rick James and a dash of Michael Jackson for the mall crowd. (Remember when kids hung out at the mall?)
But is it all genuine? Does that matter? Once the beats, basslines and goofy lyrics grab you, it’s all about switching off the brain, shutting up and dancing. Sure, tracks such as “Bad Decision” and “Room Service” may be shallow, but they’re also a lot of fun. And this time, the guys have vocalists including French Montana, the Dream and DRAM join the party. Legendary producers Raphael Saadiq (’80s) and Rodney Jenkins (’90s) also lend a hand or, should I say, groove.
Don’t over-think these jams, and “Head Over Heels” totally works. Totally. BUY IT?: Sure.
Mobley — ‘Fresh Lies, Volume 1’ THE GOOD: Austin, Texas singer/songwriter/producer Mobley unleashes an ambitious project via “Fresh Lies, Volume 1.” THE BAD: Not really. THE NITTY GRITTY: Notice the “Volume 1” in the title. Mobley describes the work NOT as an album but as part of an ongoing “song cycle.” “Fresh Lies” will continue for an indefinite amount of time as the man continues to explore the central theme of his relationship (and the relationship of his ancestors and family) with our country at large.
On “Volume 1,” Mobley uses romantic/relationship tropes to describe the bigger picture. Musically, it’s a tight mix of soul and the electronic, with cool, catchy jams riding seamless beats and basslines while synths and harmonies fill in the gaps above. All of it creates a rich tapestry of indie pop/rock.
Mobley walks that fine line between the mainstream and the underground while never sounding contrived. Recalling everything from Gnarls Barkley to Mark Ronson to TV on the Radio, the music pushes forward and leaves us craving future volumes. BUY IT?: Why not?
Gruff Rhys — ‘Babelsberg’ THE GOOD: Welsh singer/songwriter and former Super Furry Animals (has the group actually broken up?) frontman Gruff Rhys returns with an incendiary fifth solo effort. THE BAD: Nope. THE NITTY GRITTY: The man has flirted with everything from straight indie rock to synth pop, his accomplished and fetching melodies shining through it all. “Babelsberg” continues that tradition, placing Rhys’ tunes in traditional pop/rock arrangements from circa 1969. There’s plenty of sweeping strings and regal horns amongst the tasteful guitars and steady, mid-tempo backbeats. Female back-up vocals add a graceful touch now and then, and opening cut “Frontier Man” even boasts a bit of Nashville country polish.
It all balances nicely against Rhys’ politically charged lyrics. The loose concept of “Babelsberg” is the man’s observations of a divided United States. Rhys peers from the outside and sees our “Drones in the City” and “Negative Vibes.” The messages sneak up from behind amid all the usual pleasantries. A cartoon Donald Trump even blends into the back cover artwork. BUY IT?: I would.
SIREN SONGS FRANKIE COSMOS — ‘Vessel’ THE GOOD: Indie singer/songwriter and former Porches bassist Greta Kline (daughter of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) releases her third album as Frankie Cosmos. THE BAD: “Vessel” feels a bit scattershot in spots; Kline is a better poet than pop singer. You get 18 tracks in about 34 minutes, some no longer than a single verse. Just go with it. THE NITTY GRITTY: Kline can make the mundane deeply emotional and intriguing. Her voice, not often rising above a sort of purring coo, also gives the record a sense of intimacy. We peek at her innermost feelings even when the band is bashing away in the background. Her words also hail from urban settings, so that tiny voice probably can cut through the sounds of a speeding subway, too.
The woman can either be playful or deadly serious but never off-putting. “Vessel” often feels like you’re just hanging out at Kline’s apartment as she tells you about her day. That’s the charm of it all. BUY IT?: Yes.
DEAR ROUGE — ‘Phases’ THE GOOD: Canadian electronic duo Dear Rouge (husband-and-wife team Drew and Danielle McTaggart) dodges the sophomore slump on “Phases.” THE BAD: Enjoyable? Yes. But also “nothing NEW to see here.” THE NITTY GRITTY: “Phases” is pretty formulaic. We get 10 slices of electronic-leaning indie pop with just enough guitar muscle to satisfy the “rock” people. Danielle McTaggart’s vocals guide the soaring hooks above the even-paced din below. Most of the record is “up” with a couple of token slower bits. Tracks such as “Live through the Night” and “Stolen Days” are catchy and driven enough to liven up your morning run or the side stage at whatever random music festival you choose.
It’s hard to find fault with this stuff other than the fact we’ve been down this road many times before, and yeah, we’ll go down it many more times in the future. Probably on the NEXT Dear Rouge album. Simply adjust your expectations accordingly and enjoy the ride. BUY IT?: Your call.
MELODY’S ECHO CHAMBER — ‘Bon Voyage’ THE GOOD: French musician Melody Prochet finally releases her second album as Melody’s Echo Chamber. THE BAD: Not really. THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s been six long years since MEC’s self-titled debut (produced by Prochet’s boyfriend at the time, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala). Since then, the pair broke up, and Prochet suffered a near-fatal accident that pushed back the release of “Bon Voyage” for over a year.
Under those circumstances, you think the woman would play it safe musically. NOPE. The new album is wildly experimental, difficult to categorize and densely packed with a myriad of varying sounds. Singing in multiple languages and embracing more than a few eras, “Bon Voyage” attempts ALL things dreamy, flirtatious and infectious, and more often than not, it succeeds.
Bouncing amongst Deerhoof’s noisy melodic tendencies, Blonde Redhead’s multi-cultural peculiarities, and the classic charms of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Prochet touches upon everything from sunshine pop to garage rock to psychedelic freak-outs (often within the same song). You’ll uncover something new every time you play this record. BUY IT?: Yes.
ARCTIC MONKEYS — ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ THE GOOD: English indie rock mainstay Arctic Monkeys makes a radical shift on its sixth. THE BAD: Nothing bad, but “Tranquility Base” is sure to be polarizing among long-time fans. THE NITTY GRITTY: Musically, the record is closer to frontman Alex Turner’s side project, Last Shadow Puppets, than any previous Arctic Monkeys set. Comparisons to both David Bowie and Serge Gainsbourg are warranted, with the album a heady mix of psychedelic rock, glam, lounge, jazz and chilly dance beats. Guitars aren’t nearly as important this time; the rhythms, switched-on keyboards and piano dominate the proceedings.
Lyrically, Turner goes the sci-fi route, creating a fictional world of recreation and escapism on either our own moon or some distant planet. The guy suffered a period of writer’s block and had to do SOMETHING different. Sending us off planet Earth was the inspired choice. Combine these fits of fancy with the bold new musical direction and Arctic Monkeys challenge us at every turn. Shockingly, they pull it off. BUY IT?: Yes.
JOHNNY MARR — ‘Call the Comet’ THE GOOD: Ex-Smiths guitarist (not to mention former member of Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse and the Pretenders) Johnny Marr offers his third solo record. THE BAD: Not really. THE NITTY GRITTY: Marr is not the strongest frontman, but having played alongside Morrissey, Bernard Sumner and Chrissie Hynde, he never had to be. However, he’s now a SOLO act. One would think the man’s understated vocals would be detrimental, but that hasn’t been the case. The breath and scope of “Comet” also proves Marr is gaining confidence in his role out front and center.
The record’s loose concept asks the question, “What would life be like in a place where everyone is kinder and more forward-thinking?” Like those of his contemporaries, Marr’s lyrics reflect the crazy political climate here in the United States and his native United Kingdom. Musically, we’re given a healthy dose of Marr’s magnificent melodies alongside his powerful, but never flashy, playing. At this point, the man could easily rest on his laurels. He refuses. BUY IT?: Sure.
STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS — ‘Sparkle Hard’ THE GOOD: Indie rock legend and ex-Pavement mastermind Stephen Malkmus gives us his seventh with current band the Jicks. THE BAD: No. THE NITTY GRITTY: Pavement was such an influential force throughout the ’90s, Malkmus probably will never fully escape that band’s shadow, even despite the fact that the Jicks has made music for twice as long. Thankfully, that doesn’t prevent the man from giving us a good reason to show up. He still has something relevant to offer two decades after the last Pavement record.
“Sparkle Hard” is lyrically timely, with Malkmus getting downright confrontational with some current events. Musically, it’s a mixed bag covering everything from raging guitar jams (“Bike Lane”) to ragged power pop (“Shiggy”). “Refute” swings by a smoky honky-tonk where Malkmus does a loose duet with fellow indie icon Kim Gordon. “Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels” closes the session with some weird prog vibes. Malkmus surprises us around every turn, his music never falling into long-term complacency or malaise. BUY IT?: Surely.