A HAPHAZARD NIGHT OUT
DAMON ALBARN — Everyday Robots
THE GOOD: Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn releases his first proper solo effort.
THE BAD: Flat? A little bit.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Blur was one of the 90s finest British bands. Albums like Parklife (1994) and Great Escape (1995) were catchy eclectic slices of European life, completely accessible yet adventurous. Then Albarn became a key player in electronic collective Gorillaz whose trailblazing albums blurred the lines between rock, rap, world and dub.
Everyday Robots brings in elements from both of those dissimilar catalogs, but things get lost in translation. It never quite reaches the melodic and satirical highs of Blur or the bass-heavy rhythmic lows of Gorillaz. More compelling moments include the happy-go-lucky stomper “Mr. Tembo” and the eerie introspective “Hollow Ponds.” But too much of Robots feels like a shallow pairing of acoustic elements with modern soul, recalling yet another past Albarn project — The Good, the Bad and the Queen (2006). But even that original album felt more fleshed out.
BUY IT?: Your call.
CHERUB — Year of the Caprese
THE GOOD: Nashville R&B/electro-pop duo Cherub gives us their major label debut.
THE BAD: Plenty.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The guys have a legitimate hit on their hands with lead single “Doses and Mimosas,” a two-year-old track that went viral and is currently being reworked by Columbia (the major) to modern rock radio. It’s a funky jam, equal parts fresh soul and electronic mayhem. Too bad it’s also Caprese’s best moment.
I was hoping the cut would prepare us for better things. Nope. Caprese ends up being a sophomoric study in sex, drugs and sweating all night at the club. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a collection of this sort shouldn’t be … dull. Cherub can come off like a misguided Justin Timberlake pleading for indie-cred. And by the time we reach a laughable ode to exotic dancers called “Strip to This,” it’s difficult to take these guys seriously.
BUY IT?: Why would you? Besides, Calvin Harris and Chromeo are still much better at this sort of thing.
TOM VEK — Luck
THE GOOD: British multi-instrumentalist and all-around studio geek Tom Vek gives us his third.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It took six years for Vek to complete his second album, but only three to make Luck. I get the feeling he’s a guy that holes up in his studio and just experiments, working slowly and seeing where the songs take him. New records only happen when there are enough satisfactory “mistakes” to warrant an album.
Despite the unpredictability of it all (or maybe because of it), the end results rarely disappoint. Vek makes electronic-based indie pop tunes with strong rhythms, quirky keyboard arrangements and just the slightest post-punk attitude to toughen up the proceedings. He isn’t blessed with the best singing voice or range, but those shortcomings only add to the divine grittiness of the entire mess.
Tracks such as “Ton of Bricks” and “You’ll Stay” plod along with a buried but effective funk and melodies slick enough to get the job done.
BUY IT?: Sure.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE IS NOT SO STUPID
OLD 97’S — Most Messed Up
THE GOOD: Dallas alt-country indie rockers Old 97’s celebrate two decades together with a blistering tenth studio effort.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Any album from their catalog provides a hearty dose of heartbreak, irony, blood, sweat and beer. The earlier records may lean more toward the traditional side, but Old 97’s have always found that perfect boozy blend of country and power pop — songs with a homegrown vibe, but just enough rock bite to give them a necessary roughness.
Most Messed Up continues the tried and true tradition. It’s a ragged collection celebrating one night stands in honky-tonks and hotel rooms, too much whiskey and the dirty dusty glory of the open road. “Longer than You’ve Been Alive” is the coolest and most vivid song about touring in decades. “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” is just as rambunctious as you want it to be. “Wasted” reminds us the guys still have heart.
BUY IT?: Yep. This one’s damn near perfect.
CONOR OBERST — Upside Down Mountain
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter and ex-Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst is back with another solo turn.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Mountain is the guy’s first record since the end of Bright Eyes, with previous efforts released around that other outfit’s schedule. It’s also the 34-year-old’s first complete set after becoming a settled down married man, so his attitudes and outlook have shifted. He probably couldn’t have written a song like the totally endearing “You Are Your Mother’s Child” a decade ago.
Overall though, Mountain isn’t that different musically from the man’s past work. He still cranks out ringing folk-tinged rockers like “Zigzagging toward the Light” and “Kick,” painting each tune with either a bit of pathos or good humor depending upon the situation. More intimate moments such as “Lonely at the Top” and the aforementioned “Mother’s Child” further display the power and charm of his quivering vocals, with his unique personality sometimes found in his singing as opposed to his lyrics.
BUY IT?: Sure.
THE BLACK KEYS — Turn Blue
THE GOOD: Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney bring on a moody eighth.
THE BAD: Prepare for a change in tone. Not necessarily “bad.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: 2014 is slowly becoming the year of the “personal break-up album.” Not unlike recent turns by Coldplay and Lykke Li that found inspiration in lovers splitting up, Blue was partially influenced by Auerbach’s tumultuous divorce proceedings. The new album is also the Keys’ attempt at expanding their tried-and-true blues-rock formula and making a psychedelic headphones record.
On both fronts, Blue doesn’t fail, but don’t go in expecting a dozen new tracks like “Girl Is on My Mind” or “Lonely Boy.” Expansive, slow-building and spacey opening cut “Weight of Love” feels more like an Air song before the guitars begin to take over. “It’s Up To You Now” starts out riding a Bo Diddley shuffle before exploding into a cosmic jam. “In Our Prime” is more reflective than most anything the boys have done before.
BUY IT?: Still…absolutely.
IT’S LOUD IN HERE
CLOUD NOTHINGS — Here and Nowhere Else
THE GOOD: Cleveland indie rockers Cloud Nothings improve on their fourth.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Dylan Baldi and his crew further distance themselves from the humble beginnings of what was essentially Baldi’s bedroom/MySpace project. If there were any past doubts that Cloud Nothings were a real band, Nowhere Else should put those concerns to rest.
Solid melodies are spread all over this thing, but what’s more important is that the three guys are coming into their own, playing together and complementing each other. Still, the new album isn’t exactly a tight affair — far from it.
These songs are packed with nervous energy and a sense that things can go awry at any second. Tunes like “Just See Fear” and rollicking closer “I’m Not Part of Me” (the best is saved for last) cast shadows over that fine line between punk abandon and progressive indie rock. What we have is a brilliant study in controlled chaos.
BUY IT?: Yep.
THE PIXIES — Indie Cindy
THE GOOD: Indie legends the Pixies return with their first full-length in 23 years.
THE BAD: This reunion record cannot be expected to live up to the band’s enormous legacy.
THE NITTY GRITTY: You had to be there. The Pixies shook up a rock world dominated by aging dinosaurs and hair metal, circa 1987. Before their first split in 1992, the group released one EP and four LPs that are still considered one of the few near-perfect catalogues in rock.
Indie Cindy is an excellent indie rock record, but it’s not an excellent Pixies record. There’s a distinction. First of all, Kim Deal picked up her bass and left. She’s not here and Deal was an extremely integral part of the original equation. Second, Black Francis seems afraid to leave his comfort zone. The Pixies used to make dangerous records, game changers that shattered everyone’s expectations. Perhaps time has simply made everyone’s expectations too damn high. It’s a tough call.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
THE HORRORS — Luminous
THE GOOD: British indie rock chameleons the Horrors return with their fourth.
THE BAD: No real problems.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The Horrors are that rare band capable of radically changing their style without sounding desperate. The metamorphosis is a natural progression, a step in the right direction. Play the gothic garage noise on 2007’s Strange House and then the new record and you won’t think it’s the same group. Luminous is the first time The Horrors haven’t radically changed their sound since the last outing (it’s somewhat close to 2011’s Skying), but the new set still pushes forward.
This is their “spaced out rhythmic rock” album; songs filled with guitar flourishes and swirling keyboards and grooves that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Madchester classic circa 1990. “Chasing Shadows” kicks us off with a slow build before launching into a chugging churning Stone Roses-infused indie anthem. Then it’s all hooks, grooves and colorful neo-psychedelic textures. Not a bad way to spend the better part of an hour.
BUY IT?: Sure.
LADY SURVIVORS — PART ONE
LA SERA — Hour of the Dawn
THE GOOD: Ex-Vivian Girl Katy Goodman gets happier on her third outing as La Sera.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Hooks and harmonies. That’s all Hour of the Dawn is … and it’s glorious. Goodman said she wanted the record to sound like “Lesley Gore fronting Black Flag” and, to a certain extent, it does. Produced by the band’s new guitarist, Todd Wisenbaker, this is textbook power pop with bite.
Tracks like “Losing in the Dark” and the title cut are blatantly catchy and direct — pristine melodies combining with generous portions of guitar noise. “Summer of Love” is a pre-Beatle throwback. “Fall in Place” is coated with a shiny layer of jangle pop. “Storm’s End” closes the album with some spooky surf.
For the first time, La Sera feels like an actual band, as opposed to a side project or solo record released under some mysterious moniker. Goodman is moving forward at a break-neck pace and her future looks bright.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
SHARON VAN ETTEN — Are We There
THE GOOD: Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten returns with a rich, honest and confident fourth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This time Etten is fully in charge — There being self-produced with some assistance from veteran studio guy Stewart Lerman (Antony and the Johnsons, Marshall Crenshaw). Here she explores both the emotionally rich and the mundane and does it all with great dramatic flair — the woman an expert at turning little everyday experiences into something quite memorable.
Musically, Etten brings in the soul of Joan Osborne, PJ Harvey’s abrasiveness and a touch of modern folk, not unlike that of fellow contemporary indie singer Marissa Nadler. The songs are multi-layered and each spins off in a different direction. “Taking Chances” rides a tight groove, while “Your Love Is Killing Me” builds in frustration until the jagged guitars take over. “I Love You But I’m Lost” and “Break Me” wander about (affairs of the heart are unpredictable) yet still sound self-assured.
BUY IT?: Yep.
TORI AMOS — Unrepentant Geraldines
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/pianist Tori Amos gets back to doing what she does best.
THE BAD: No big surprises. If you already dislike her stuff, the new record won’t win you over.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After 17 very prolific years and 10 proper studio albums, Amos was hitting the point where standard efforts were being outnumbered by live albums, holiday offerings and bold flirtations with other (mostly classical) genres. Geraldines is the singer’s first straight-up indie rock disc since 2009’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin.
As the artist enters her 50s, she’s mellowing ever so slightly. Amos can still be critical of religion and politics and still explore a woman’s sexuality, but a lot of her “angst” is dissipating. She’s in a happier place these days. Geraldines is exciting, but not nearly as confrontational as the woman’s earlier work.
Be warned. Some passion has been replaced by more pleasant sounds, but the record is solid and varied enough to show off Amos’ talents without ever dragging.
BUY IT?: Sure.
COLDPLAY — Ghost Stories
THE GOOD: England’s current favorite sons are back with their sixth.
THE BAD: Ghost Stories is possibly their weakest yet.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The boys have called this their “breakup album;” the record essentially about a relationship (not the band) coming to an end. Since frontman Chris Martin recently split with wife Gwyneth Paltrow, I guess it was bound to happen. Ghost Stories is kind of a downer; the songs are soft and murky, mid-tempo and somber.
That’s not to say there aren’t some decent tunes along the way. Tracks like “Ink” and “Another’s Arms” have a definite melodic pull. You can almost see a stadium full of swaying people, their cell phones lit up and raised high over their heads. But the closest we get to a genuine Coldplay anthem is the hopping “A Sky Full of Stars.” Other than that, the guys keep it stripped down and intimate.
BUY IT?: Your call. Ghost Stories is probably only for the rabid fans.
BLONDIE — Ghosts of Download
THE GOOD: Alt/punk/indie pop legends Blondie are back with their tenth.
THE BAD: Ghosts is a very mixed bag.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The record comes with a bonus “Greatest Hits” disc. But these tracks are re-recorded, awful and, since the band’s entire catalog is still in print, completely pointless. So don’t bother with Deluxe Redux.
As far as the “new” album goes, Ghosts feels very pre-programmed and uninspired. And by the time the wretched cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” shows up, you may wonder “what’s the point of all this?”
At age 69, Debbie Harry’s voice is thinning out, so there’s quite a bit of “enhancement.” Clem Burke remains a fierce drummer, but he’s drowned out quite a few times by electronic beats. Chris Stein still writes a catchy song, but nothing here reaches the level of “Dreaming” or “Sunday Girl.” We end up with a mediocre record that only hints at the greatness that was once ever-present.
BUY IT?: I wouldn’t.
YOUNG MAGIC — Breathing Statues
THE GOOD: Brooklyn-based duo Young Magic brings on their second.
THE BAD: Statues is all flash and very little substance.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Australian producer Isaac Emmanuel and Indonesian-born singer Melati Malay became yet another faceless electronic duo (Still Corners, Purity Ring, Niki & the Dove, etc.) when they released their debut, Melt, two years ago. That album’s title was appropriate as its tracks possessed the power of blending together, forcing the listener to focus on the record’s overall atmosphere as opposed to the individual parts.
Statues continues in the same vein. Emmanuel is extremely accomplished at creating a vibrant, hypnotic and vivid setting. The electronic bangs and squiggles move forward while reaching back to the formative days of trip-hop and ambient techno. Malay’s glistening vocals add a touch of the slightly seductive.
Strip away all the layers and studio polish though and the songs themselves ring hollow. Breathing Statues ends up a multi-colored backdrop as opposed to a commanding presence.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
SNAP! CRACKLE! INCREDIBLE POP!
THE COLOURIST — The Colourist
THE GOOD: California indie poppers the Colourist blast out a very enjoyable debut.
THE BAD: Hardly innovative, but who cares?
THE NITTY GRITTY: Solid backbeats, slick riffs, big hooks, tight harmonies — over and over again. That’s all this album is and all it needs to be. Fronted by the fun flirtatious male-female vocal interplay of Adam and Castilla and Maya Tuttle (also of Paper Thin Walls), The Colourist churns out one infectious ditty after another — 10 rockers and one ballad that lodge themselves in your grey matter after just one spin.
Tracks like “Wishing Wells” and “Yes Yes” are seamless slabs of ear candy not unlike the music of Canada’s Stars and fellow Californians Echosmith. The feel-good vibe emanating from this set is off the charts. “Little Games,” already hijacked by AT&T for a Nokia Lumia 1020 commercial, may be the album’s FIRST single but just about EVERY cut is a potential single. The Colourist is that tight and well executed.
BUY IT?: Yep.
ST. VINCENT — St. Vincent
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/guitarist Annie Clark (stage name St. Vincent) returns with an amazing fourth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Clark comes from the worlds of jazz, progressive rock and the Polyphonic Spree (an early gig). But you wouldn’t automatically get that if you listened to any of her solo albums. Then again, you hear some of those influences upon listening a second or third time. That’s the beauty (and angst) of a St. Vincent album — both the sheer unpredictability and undeniable high level of quality of the music.
The new record is rife with alien electronic squiggles, unique yet understated guitar work and Clark’s vivid (and slightly disturbed) lyrical paintings. No two tracks sound alike, yet they all possess a few key elements. The rhythms grab hold and never let go, even when slightly buried in the mix. Clark’s arrangements are complex yet never inaccessible. The woman’s sense of melody is impeccable.
BUY IT?: Yes. And then grab the rest of her accomplished catalog.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART — Days of Abandon
THE GOOD: New York indie pop outfit Pains of Being Pure at Heart deliver a slick third.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/songwriter/guitarist Kip Berman and his crew have never hid their influences and have always done “retro” well. The first two albums have the 80’s underground pop scene spray-painted all over them in various shades of black.
Days of Abandon continues that tradition, yet it comes from an era right before Nirvana’s Nevermind changed the “alternative” landscape forever. From 1988 thru the summer of 1991, British bands dominated our indie consciousness. New Order and Depeche Mode ruled the day. Lesser acts like Mighty Lemon Drops and Inspiral Carpets added more guitars to the mix yet still wallowed in English melancholy.
Abandon would have fit right into that whole scene seamlessly. The songs simmer with steady beats, whirring synths, jangly guitars and soaring melodies — rock with a hint of the electronic to blur the lines among genres.
BUY IT?: Oh yes.
BLOWING YOUR MIND
WILD BEASTS — Present Tense
THE GOOD: British indie rockers Wild Beasts shake things up again on their fourth.
THE BAD: Tense puts you to work, but it’s worth the effort.
THE NITTY GRITTY: You never know what to expect from this band, other than very accomplished records. Here, the electronics are more up front and there are hints of blue-eyed soul a la vintage Roxy Music (not to mention some overtly sexual observations lyrically). The dominant synths and vocalist Hayden Thorpe’s quivering alto even causes one to hear slight echoes of a more grounded Hot Chip.
And the guys remain sophisticated in their new surroundings, pulling off musical experiments with flying colors time and again. They carry us though the crass-yet-funky ambivalence spread over “Wanderlust” to the slick moves on “Mecca” to the punchy optimistic R&B of “A Simple Beautiful Truth” without hesitation or incident.
BUY IT?: Yes. And don’t be afraid to delve into their divine back catalog, too.
COLOURMUSIC — May You Marry Rich
THE GOOD: Oklahoma indie outfit Colourmusic gets real spacey on their third.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Founded 10 years ago by an American named Ryan Hendrix and British-born Nick Turner, Colourmusic have always experimented with psychedelic textures and strange subject matter; the band’s name is based upon Isaac Newton’s theory of color and sound. May You Marry Rich is a natural progression for the group, but if you’re a “newbie,” the first word that will come to mind upon hearing the record is “shoegazing.”
The album is a direct throwback to the late 80s/early 90s heyday of bands like My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Spacemen 3. Thumping rhythms, droning guitars, occasional bursts of feedback and a hint of the electronic all combine with understated-yet-hypnotic vocal deliveries to create a truly subdued and spaced-out experience. Better songs include the driven “Dreamgirl ‘82” and slowly building “Satyricon.” Individual cuts don’t really matter though. The entire set forms one huge, gratifying mind-meld.
BUY IT?: Yes.
PAPERCUTS — Life Among the Savages
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/producer Jason Quever (and whoever happens to be playing with him these days) offers up his sparkling fifth as Papercuts.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Recorded mostly in his San Francisco home studio, Savages is a multi-layered wispy collection combining elements of jangle pop, folk rock and even ethereal shoegazing. Quever plays the role of a modern day Emitt Rhodes, painstakingly crafting melancholy-drenched bits of hypnotic indie pop; tunes that are equal parts raw emotion and startling intelligence.
The record kicks off with the immediately fetching one-two punch of “Still Knocking at the Door” and “New Body” and closes with the hauntingly beautiful (and otherworldly) “Tourist.” In between, the album waxes and wanes through songs both ambitious (“Staring at the Bright Lights”) and deceptively simple (“Easter Morning”).
Some tracks are more memorable than others, but Savages comes together brilliantly as a whole. The entire experience engulfs the listener and plays with the listeners overall perception.
BUY IT?: Infectious and far out? Definitely.
QUITE A PARTY!
KAISER CHIEFS — Education Education Education and War
THE GOOD: British indie rockers Kaiser Chiefs get more determined on their fifth.
THE BAD: No KC album is perfect, but Education is one of their more consistently good sets.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Whether the lads are exploring the plight of the working masses circa 1925 (“The Factory Gates”) or the futility of war today and beyond (“Cannons”), they always manage to do it with solid backbeats, churning guitars, moody keyboards and stirring melodies. Education is a somewhat cinematic record; just about every cut telling a story or at least setting a vivid scene.
Produced by Ben H. Allen III (Deerhunter, Animal Collective) and recorded in Atlanta, Georgia (odd for Britpop dudes), the album finds the guys bursting with bold, new outlooks in unfamiliar surroundings. If that’s what they were going for, it certainly worked. Some experiments feel overly ambitious (a brief dramatic reading from actor Bill Nighy?) but, thankfully, what works heavily outweighs what doesn’t.
BUY IT?: Surely.
THE WHIGS — Modern Creation
THE GOOD: Georgia garage rockers the Whigs come back with a driven dusty fifth.
THE BAD: Depends upon your cravings. Innovation? Not here. But Modern Creation is a damn good straight forward rock album.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Creation isn’t as polished as past Whigs releases and that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. There’s a well-defined spontaneity to the proceedings. The songs feeling like they were all committed to tape over a frenetic three-day weekend. Actually, the liner notes inside the CD read, “Recorded like real men in a rock band in a warehouse through an old Neve console.” I believe it.
Cuts like rolling lead single “Hit Me,” country-tinged “Too Much in the Morning” and the heavily swaying “I Couldn’t Lie” grab us without frills or studio trickery, just good old-fashioned riffs and hooks. Creation is a study in the basics that never becomes boring. That’s due to the songs themselves. Some are better than others but there isn’t a true clunker in the bunch.
BUY IT?: Yep.
THE GREAT PARTY — New Laws
THE GOOD: Scranton natives the Great Party get serious on their debut full-length.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: I remember reviewing their 2012 self-titled EP and thinking “intelligent party music” — comparisons to the likes of the B-52’s and Architecture in Helsinki were inevitable. Now, the band offers us New Laws and a change in attitude.
The tunes are more focused, more sedate. The vocal trade-offs between Michael and Rosaleen Eastman feel like a smoother version of Matt and Kim, and when Rosaleen’s keyboard flourishes take off, you can’t help but recall early Mates of State. One can detect distant echoes of Magnapop on the more abrasive moments (“Don’t Be Silly”) and contemporaries like !!! once the funky bits fully kick in (“Family”).
Every track has its own personality. You never know what’s coming next, whether it’s the flirtatious vibes coating “She’s Unbelievable” or the melodic heartbreak covering “Marionettes.” We’ve gone from frat party to hipster cocktail party and it’s still GREAT.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
NEIL FINN — Dizzy Heights
THE GOOD: New Zealand singer/songwriter Neil Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) releases his third solo effort.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Finn hasn’t released a solo record in 13 years, but he’s been busy over the past decade. Crowded House got back together, Finn and his wife Sharon formed the band Pajama Club and there were collaborations with brother Tim and son Liam. This guy isn’t resting on his laurels.
And at 55, he’s continuing to challenge both himself and his audience. Dizzy Heights not your standard “aging rocker” collection. Produced by Dave Fridmann (MGMT, Flaming Lips), the new disc bounces from swirling R&B (“Impressions”) to direct power pop (“Flying in the Face of Love”) to introspective multi-dimensional soundscapes (“White Lies and Alibis”) and back again. The record never stuck in a rut.
Heights is also a family affair with wife Sharon on bass and sons Liam and Elroy taking up guitar and drum duties respectively. Brother Tim must have been on holiday.
BUY IT?: Sure.
LIAM FINN — The Nihilist
THE GOOD: New Zealand singer/songwriter Liam Finn gets wild and beat-happy on his third.
THE BAD: Not “bad,” but The Nihilist makes you work for it. Prepare to give this one a couple of spins before its power and intricate subtleties sink in completely.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This is a varied set that flows from the ragged and noisy (title cut) to unabashed catchy pop (“Helena Bonham Carter”) to feelings both sedate and hypnotic (“Miracle Glance”) without effort. Finn never stays within a stylistic box for too long — experimentation and expansion are his two ruling philosophies.
But the album’s second half really finds Finn embracing his rhythmic inner beast. Cuts such as “4 Track Stomper” (that title is completely appropriate) and “Wrestle with Dad” (a challenge to Neil perhaps?) possess an energy that fully takes over the room. And if you still crave a little straight-forward riff-heavy rock, “Wild Animal” will do the trick.
BUY IT?: Yes. The Nihilist proves itself a divine indie study in unpredictability.
S. CAREY — Range Of Light
THE GOOD: Bon Iver drummer and (sometimes) vocalist Sean Carey continues his solo career with a second full-length.
THE BAD: Carey’s stuff is definitely not for everyone, especially those who already think Bon Iver’s music is far too low-key. To say Light is “subdued” is an understatement.
THE NITTY GRITTY: If you want to come along for the ride though, the trip will be both tranquil and enlightening. Carey paints pictures within his songs. One can almost see the tree-covered mountain ranges in the distance or the desert as the sun sets along its rough terrain.
“Fire Scene” and “Alpenglow” are intimate performances both fragile and earnest. “The Dome” overflows with homespun charm. “Crown the Pines” is a rare semi-frantic moment, sharp strings adding a splash of drama. The mood is consistent, yet each track is unique. A lesser artist would let all these pieces bleed into one another. In Carey’s hands, each song feels like a new dawn.
BUY IT?: Why not?
DIGGING IN THE DIRT
BLACK LIPS — Underneath the Rainbow
THE GOOD: The Georgia garage rockers embrace pre-Beatle vibes on their seventh.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Even though they never outright switch styles, the Lips put a fresh coat of paint on a well-worn formula every now and then. Rainbow is their rockabilly and roots rock set. The British Invasion is pretty much ignored and those drug-addled jams so prevalent on past efforts (especially 2009’s 200 Million Thousand) have been significantly tightened.
“Drive By Buddy” is a howling Memphis rocker. “Boys in the Wood” trudges through southern swamps completely snookered on moonshine. “Do The Vibrate” is a stinking slab of ominous fun that would fit on a scratchy old Cramps album. “Waiting” stomps with a healthy dose of Blackboard Jungle juvenile delinquency.
Clad in leather and encompassing all things naughty from Gene Vincent to the Ramones, Rainbow ditches school, trashes the malt shop and does the nasty in the back seat of a white T-Bird parked along a dark country road.
BUY IT?: Yep.
HOWLER — World of Joy
THE GOOD: Minneapolis garage rockers Howler offer up a crashing sophomore effort.
THE BAD: At times, Joy feels like it’s all volume and little substance.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The band yowls and tears through 10 songs in just under 30 minutes; ripping pieces like the jagged “Drip” and super sarcastic “Don’t Wanna.” Elements of punk slide in next to Midwest 60s garage and every once in a while, the band gets ambitious and spreads some psychedelics over the top.
There’s a genuine excitement running through these cuts; a youthful exuberance that makes the album feel like it was completely cranked out in a solitary sweaty Saturday afternoon. However, that spontaneity could be a detractor, too. Some of these tunes feel “undercooked.” Joy loses its distinctiveness after awhile. Still, getting back to basics isn’t a bad philosophy and it’s tough to resist the album’s sometimes sinister undertones.
BUY IT?: That’s your call. Joy is good, but shouldn’t be considered “mandatory listening.”
TOKYO POLICE CLUB — Forcefield
THE GOOD: Canadian indie rockers Tokyo Police Club are back after a three-year hiatus with their third.
THE BAD: TPC haven’t made a GREAT album yet. Forcefield also isn’t that album … but it is VERY GOOD.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Forcefield is also the band’s most direct pop record yet. The guys are embracing their hook-laden tendencies and just trying to have a good time. Even the ambitious eight-minute opener “Argentina Parts 1, 2 and 3” doesn’t feel out of place on this mostly breezy affair. In fact, that track is one of the album’s highlights as opposed to some self-indulgent epic that could have brought the whole thing crashing down in a ball of “progressive” fire.
Other cool moments include catchy numbers such as “Hot Tonight” and “Beaches” — tunes that bounce around the room without a hint of unnecessary “greater ambition.” Forcefield ends up feeling slightly goofy on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you’ll realize these songs are actually quite good.
BUY IT?: Why not?
Mike Evans is a super cool radio guy who doesn’t mess around when it comes to music. Sounds appears weekly in electric city and DC. Send email to: email@example.com
WYE OAK — Shriek
THE GOOD: Baltimore based duo Wye Oak switch on for their fourth.
THE BAD: Nothing negative, but be prepared for a slight musical shift.
THE NITTY GRITTY: For the past half-decade, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have added copious amounts of distortion and electric guitar noise to their unique brand of modern folk-rock. Their albums were never exactly “loud,” but the tunes could hardly be considered sedate. Plus the electric and acoustic elements were always equally important.
Shriek finds the two adding more electronic sounds to the mix. The guitars are still intact, but there’s also a healthy dose of synthesizer squiggles too. And while that description may seem off-putting at first, the two use these new vibes to take their music to places it’s never been before. Cuts like “Sick Talk” and the title track become shimmering examples of Wye Oak’s already intelligent pop thrust against somewhat familiar backdrops with exciting new colors.
BUY IT?: Yes. Shriek is a logical and welcome progression.
SUZANNE VEGA — Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega is back with her eighth full-length and first in seven years.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Queen of Pentacles comes off like a concept album, but it’s not. The songs actually came from bits and pieces of melodies and lyrics Vega collected over the years. She finally got around to polishing and honing all these elements over the past 18 months, working with guitarist/producer and longtime David Bowie collaborator Gerry Leonard.
Despite its disparate foundations, Pentacles ends up sounding much more cohesive and accomplished than it should. Vega has put together a gripping indie pop collection boasting songs that are whimsical (“Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain”), dead serious but engaging (“Song of the Stoic”) and genuinely inspirational (“Horizon”).
We’ll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of Vega’s debut album next year. Pentacles proves that the woman is far from finished as she enters her fourth decade in the biz.
BUY IT?: Sure.
EELS — The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett
THE GOOD: Eels come back with their (his) eleventh set.
THE BAD: Everett’s depressed again.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Everett once guided Eels with a sarcastic wit and loopy rhythms. Early albums were sometimes gloomy (the guy does gloom really well), but they were also balanced with funky cuts drowning in cool beats, jagged guitar and lyrical irony.
Lately though Everett always seems to be “down.” His girlfriend left him, an old acquaintance died, someone stole his little red wagon — whatever. Cautionary Tales barely rises above a dull roar. The man mopes during most of it. Granted, there are some truly inspired moments (always are). “Lockdown Hurricane” meshes melancholy with disaster. “Kindred Spirit” is a breakup song attached to a ray of hope. “Where I’m From” feels like the carefree old days.
BUY IT?: Your choice. But if you’re a die-hard fan, spend the extra dollar and get the “deluxe edition.” You’ll receive a bonus disc with six extra songs and six radio station performances.
Opening this week
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron
No, it’s not a remake of the 1981 John Belushi comedy of the same name. Instead, Neighbors aspires to be a much funnier Belushi comedy: Animal House. In this R-rated comedy, a couple (Rogen, Rose Byrne) with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after they are forced to live next to a fraternity (Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The Plus: The genre. From The Hangover ($277 million) to Project X ($100 million) to Horrible Bosses ($117 million) to Ted ($218 million) to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa ($102 million), American moviegoers love their Hard-R comedies. Here, Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Five Year Engagement) directs Rogen (This is the End), Efron (That Awkward Moment), Byrne (Insidious: Chapter 2), Franco (21 Jump Street) and Mintz-Plasse (Kick Ass 2). The Minus: The odds. From The Change-Up ($37 million) to 21 & Over ($25 million) to Movie 43 ($8 million), American moviegoers are finicky when it comes to their Hard-R comedies. Rogen is certainly no stranger to finicky audiences (Paul, The Guilt Trip).
Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara
In this R-rated comedy, a prominent chef (Favreau) loses his restaurant job and starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise and estranged family. The Plus: The player. Years ago, before he become an A-List director following the blockbuster success of Iron Man, Jon Favreau found H’Wood renown co-writing and co-starring in the indie comedy Swingers with Vince Vaughn. Chef looks to be a back-to-basics return for this player. Here, he’s enlisted help from Vergara (ABC’s Modern Family), Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man 3), Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Dustin Hoffman (Little Fockers). The Minus: The odds. Favreau also had a hand in writing the painfully unfunny Couples Retreat, which should’ve been called Couples: Retreat!
The Other Woman
Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann
** — Woman of Ill Repute
Despite some winning femme fatales, er, pratfalls, The Other Woman comes on to us aggressively, but just doesn’t have enough feminine wiles to make audiences fall head over heals with the end results. In this PG-13-rated comedy, three women (Diaz, Mann, Kate Upton) team-up to plot mutual revenge on their three-timing SOB of a husband/boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). It appears that most of the adult comedy bits have been spayed so that the movie warrants a more general audience-friendly PG-13 rating … because teens are obviously the target demographic for comedies about a three-timing married man and the mostly middle-aged women left in his wake. Based on the boffo box office of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa, the decision to go soft should’ve gotten the flick retitled Bad Decision. Now, it just plays out like thinly veiled knock-off of First Wives Club.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone
**1/2 — 2 Webbed Feet
Though it should’ve been an outright Spectacular Spider-Man, the supposedly Amazing second adventures of our friendly neighborhood web crawler end up to be occasionally entertaining but entirely too screen-burstingly busy. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man (Garfield) run the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him and his loved ones (Stone, Sally Field). It’s so ironic how Marvel Studios is planning a TV series around Daredevil but Sony, in its bid to spin Spidey’s web into an Avengers-sized franchise, gives this deuce enough story for a full network run. Not that it’s boring, mind you! The CGI swings and connects, the fight sequences shoot and score and some of the moments (dramatic and comedic) evince a strong bite. It’s the tone overall that falls down the waterspout, however. Chock full of supporting characters bound for their own features and plotlines threading into future installments, all of the world-building can’t help but wash the spider out of his own sequel. Hiring Andrew Garfield: That’s the one thing this reboot of a classic comic book gets letter perfectly right. He nails a ridiculously beloved fictional character that’s inhabited comic readers’ hearts and minds to the same extent that Daniel Day-Lewis channeled a living breathing American forefather in Lincoln … if only the production got mounted a decade earlier. Based on Marvel Studios’ successful formula (Spider-Man might be a Marvel comic, but the rights are owned by Sony), everybody’s rushing to create a supergroup brand of their own a la The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows the signs of studio tinkering along the lines of “We’re gonna do this so you gotta include that.” Beyond this, there are some screenwriting grievances. With an acclaimed package deal of writers (Star Trek Into Darkness’s Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtman) plus one additional scribe (Jeff Pinker), the voices of these separate cooks show through. The patchwork of scenes are inconsistent (Garfield’s scenes with Stone and Field shine with an authenticity while his interactions with villains play out archly laughable like this was a Saturday morning cartoon). Still, it’s an improvement upon its predecessor, despite the padding. Hell, even a buffet has some standout dishes.
Heaven is For Real
Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly
** — Heaven Can Grate
A small screen message movie trying to put on its big boy pants for the big screen, Heaven is For Real puts forth a message worth ruminating about even if the story feels like it just came off of a greeting card rack. In this PG-rated drama, a small-town pastor (Kinnear) must find the courage and conviction to share his son’s life-changing near-death experience with his congregation. The family sings hymns together in the car. The parents say just the right things at the right times and are still madly in love with each other. The son looks as impossibly cute as a Gerber Baby. The father won’t take money for services provided to cash-strapped clients. His best friend quips one-liners when things get too heavy. Yep, it’s a formulaic feel-good story. Even if it unapologetically aims itself squarely at the Christian demographic, the movie’s talking points smartly prove universal (the book it was based on, after all, became a universal bestseller). Also, the story earns brownie points for boldly flying in the face of conventional Christian doctrine, raising further spiritual questions about the afterlife more than preaching scripture down to audiences. Still, despite the best efforts of a great cast trying to act their way around stale dialogue, Heaven is For Real plays out like a sermon that’s way too polished to be a truly effective thought-provoker. Oh, real life comes complete with comic relief, but it’s rarely on cue and never obligatory. People need to relate — not wonder how their lives can look like a Norman Rockwell painting, too.
Paul Walker, RZA
**1/2 — Escape from New Yawn
Propulsive and explosive but not quick witted enough, late actor Paul Walker’s penultimate adventure moves fast and furiously but still manages to come across as slow witted. In this PG-13-rated crime thriller, an undercover Detroit cop (Walker) navigates a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by a containment wall in order to bring down a crime lord (RZA). The story unapologetically embraces preposterousness at an automatic clip. Still, some of the sequences hit moviegoers like a ton of Brick Mansions, especially those involving free running fisticuffs. Sadly, however, all involved don’t think twice about including poorly edited filmic tricks like jump shot editing in lieu of continuity. Despite knowing exactly what it is, this “Slam Bam Thank You, Ma’am” actioner gets average results because it holds back. It should’ve been built like an R-rated Brick Craphouse. With a set-up this ludicrous, this flick needed to be funnier, ballsier, and out-and-out crazier like the flick it’s based on, Escape from District 13.
LANTERNS ON THE LAKE — Until the Colours Run
THE GOOD: British indie act LOTL gives us a somber sophomore effort.
THE BAD: Until the Colours Run was recorded while the band was in both personal and financial turmoil and those difficulties rise to the surface.
THE NITTY GRITTY: But this is also a case where the “bad” works for the art. Vocalist/lyricist Hazel Wilde and her brood take us through dark, twisting caverns where gothic pop and modern folk intertwine. Echoes within these songs recall paths we’ve taken before, like mid-period Siouxsie and the Banshees, early Cocteau Twins and lilting Loreena McKennitt.
The band carries us from the warmth and forward momentum of songs such as “Another Tale from Another English Town” to the icy chill of more subdued pieces like “The Ghost That Sleeps in Me.” The music also has a timeless quality. The album harkens back 25 years to the golden age of shoegaze but could still cozy up to the latest Bat for Lashes release.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
SLEEPER AGENT — About Last Night
THE GOOD: Kentucky indie pop/rockers Sleeper Agent avoid the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: The record is what it is. And that is …
THE NITTY GRITTY: … a decent collection where solid backbeats carry big riffs and bold synthetic countermelodies. Alex Kandel is your typical rock frontwoman, combining strains of sexuality with huge fist-pumping hooks. In other words, you’ve heard this record hundreds of times before.
Thankfully though, what the band lacks in innovation, they more than makes up for in well-crafted songs. It doesn’t take long for semi-aggressive tunes like “Be Brave” and “Take It Off” (even the titles are clichés) to grab hold and make you pay attention. And lighter moments such as “Lorena” and “Shut” give the album balance and much needed added textures.
Sleeper Agent is a band that gets away with sticking to a formula. Digging in and going through the motions may get old later, but it’s fine for now; About Last Night an agreeable set.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
EMA — The Future’s Void
THE GOOD: South Dakota (that’s a rarity) electronic indie artist Erika M. Anderson (stage name EMA) gets paranoid on her second album.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s a sign of the times. These types of records seem to be commonplace; albums about the mistrust of encroaching technology, the loss of human contact and the foreshadowing of artificial intelligence. Anderson recorded huge chunks of this album at home; Isolation worked to her advantage. And because of her close surroundings, the more intimate moments seem to work best.
More delicate bits such as “Cthulu” and “Dead Celebrities” (which sort of interpolates “Taps”) sound hollow and eerie, sending a chill down your spine. But the girl isn’t afraid of sheer volume either. “Satellites” and “Neuromancer” growl with genuine industrial bite while maintaining focused melodies. “When She Comes” even finds Anderson shining in morose “pop” mode.
The Future’s Void ends up a collection of mood swings, making it all the more enticing and unpredictable.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
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.