THE INTENSITY VARIES
STAGNANT POOLS — Geist
THE GOOD: Indiana indie duo Stagnant Pools (brothers Bryan and Douglass Enas) give us a fiery, spontaneous second effort.
THE BAD: It takes a while for Geist to sink in — what seems one-dimensional at first sounds more fully realized later. Give it a fair shot.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After releasing their first album, Temporary Room, two years ago, the brothers were rightfully compared to a lot of noise-infused acts like Joy Division, Sonic Youth and especially the Jesus and Mary Chain. Those feedback-heavy elements are certainly present on Geist.
However, there’s now another vibe running through this wicked live-to-tape album that was completely recorded and mixed in the span of about five days. I was reminded of the better American rock bands that were an offshoot of the grunge movement almost 25 years ago — rough-around-the-edges outfits like Screaming Trees, Paw and Jawbox. There’s a very effective “murkiness” flooding Geist; a fresh take on some long dormant sounds.
BUY IT?: Sure.
REIGNING SOUND — Shattered
THE GOOD: North Carolina indie rockers Reigning Sound come back sharper after a five-year hiatus.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/guitarist/songwriter Greg Cartwright has always been the one constant in this band of revolving-door musicians; a slave to the garage-rock ethos since long before garage rock was the “new” thing at the turn of our century. Back in 2001, the White Stripes and the Strokes got the glory. Cartwright was just as authentic.
Subsequent years and releases have seen more roots and country elements sneaking their way into the tunes, but Cartwright has never sacrificed rawness. Shattered finds the band with a fresh lineup and a sound that’s equal parts contemporary (Wilco and Jack White) and a throwback to our distant blues/rock past (Canned Heat and Country Joe & the Fish). There’s even a dash of Memphis soul sprinkled over a few cuts.
Ballad (“I’m Trying”) or forceful rocker (“North Cackalacky Girl”) — Reigning Sound tackles them both with equal skill and passion.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
THE LAST INTERNATIONALE — We Will Reign
THE GOOD: Politically charged New York rockers the Last Internationale unleash a blazing debut.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This down-and-dirty power trio consists of newcomers Delila Paz and Edgey Pires, along with veteran drummer Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave). And while their music may not be quite as incendiary as RATM’s, there’s still a lot of fire (and a definite agenda) in tunes like “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood” and “Killing Fields.”
Musically, Reign is straight-forward rough-and-tough blue collar rock ‘n’ roll — no frills, no B.S. The band, along with veteran producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, the Offspring), gives this lean, mean album plenty of muscle. The brazen bits show their razor-sharp teeth, while the more delicate pieces roll around in a nice bluesy swagger. Paz is already a fierce bad-ass rocker chick and the band itself is airtight.
BUY IT?: You must. We Will Reign is one of this year’s finest debuts.
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?
NoNoNo — We Are Only What We Feel
THE GOOD: Swedish trio NoNoNo delivers a bouncy debut full-length.
THE BAD: Feel is catchy, but incredibly hollow.
THE NITTY GRITTY: We essentially have two producers and a female vocalist conjuring up modern indie pop in the sing-song folksy half-acoustic, half-electric tradition of contemporaries like Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. This is the stuff wholly embraced by editors who cut movie trailers for teen flicks, ad men pitching ideas to cell phone companies and modern rock radio programmers who like to keep it dull and not too “edgy.”
You get by-the-numbers feel-good fluffy music that sets your toes-a-tapping and turns your brain to mush. The trio actually scored a genuine hit last fall with the joyfully whistling “Pumping Blood” (included here). Feel is nine more tracks cut from the same cloth — infectious little stompers that bleed into one another after about 15 minutes. Nothing disagreeable, but nothing very memorable either.
BUY IT?: Whatever.
BISHOP ALLEN — Lights Out
THE GOOD: Brooklyn indie rockers Bishop Allen return with their first proper record in five years.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Lights Out works on different levels. On the surface, it’s a damn infectious indie pop record. Songs like bright opener “Start Again” and the slightly melancholy “Good Talk” are built with decent beats and better melodies.
Listen again and complexities begin to bubble to the surface. Lights Out is much more varied than you initially thought. Amongst all the sheer pop bombast are tunes like “Black Hole” and “Shadow;” gentler emotional moments made even more distinct by Darbie Nowatka’s female vocals. Tracks such as “Hammer and Nail” and “Bread Crumbs” dial up the album’s quirky elements; nothing wrong with these off-center rhythms and weird lyrical images.
It all adds up to a mostly upbeat collection that can enhance your next intimate get together, Sunday morning lay-about or headphones session. Lights Out is worthy of your undivided attention yet doesn’t demand it.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
PHOX — Phox
THE GOOD: Wisconsin indie pop outfit Phox releases a decent debut.
THE BAD: The set loses momentum around its middle and never fully recovers. This is definitely a record of highs and lows.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Led by the low-key yet charming Monica Martin, Phox could cozy up to other modern folk-influenced acts like Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. They certainly use enough acoustic guitars and banjos to warrant the comparison. But Phox also injects a healthy dose of twee into their sound, recalling European female-fronted acts like the Concretes and Camera Obscura.
Intentional or not, this band defies simple categorization and that keeps things interesting. While floating through this eponymous debut, one experiences many flavors, from the gently rolling “1936” to the intensely melancholy “Laura” to the more monumental “Raspberry Seed.”
BUY IT?: Give Phox a shot. Though not flawless, the record finds the band establishing an almost “international” style and laying the groundwork for even better releases further down the road.
LANA DEL REY — Ultraviolence
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Elizabeth Grant (stage persona Lana Del Rey) gives us a dramatic third album.
THE BAD: In essence, Ultraviolence is a “downer.” But there’s no denying the album’s overall quality and uniqueness.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Del Rey is a woman on a downward spiral, obsessed with bad relationships, the seedy underbelly of urban living, drugs and ultimately death. Most tracks are slow to mid-tempo explorations of these “indulgences” sung in Del Rey’s unaffected contralto.
Mostly produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Ultraviolence plays like a modern blues collection filtered through a thin layer of Hollywood gloss, not completely authentic but still gritty and grainy. One could compare the record to Cat Power’s more haunted works or the stripped-down bits of a Bat for Lashes collection.
Tracks like the title cut and “West Coast” keep things good and gloomy even when the tempos shift slightly upward. The retro fitted “Brooklyn Baby” is strictly for the East Coast hipster in all of us.
BUY IT?: Still … definitely.
ROYKSOPP AND ROBYN — Do It Again
THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop queen Robyn teams up with Norwegian electronic duo Royksopp (again) and the end results are nothing short of hypnotizing.
THE BAD: Do It Again falls into that “feels like a side project” trap. But it’s a damn accomplished side project.
THE NITTY GRITTY: These two not-so-disparate acts worked together before on each other’s albums so they were already past the awkward “getting acquainted” phase. But since those past collaborations were always limited to a cut or two, Do It Again really allowed all involved to stretch their collective creativity.
Tight cuts like the thumping title track and the more flirtatious (OK, robotic and sex-crazed) “Sayit” are textbook examples of pristine electronic pop. Longer pieces such as “Monument” and “Inside the Idle Hour Club” are more serious, introspective and seductive in a different way — the works fragile and dreamlike.
BUY IT?: Yes! A full album would have been better, but this 35-minute EP is a pairing that should be savored.
LA ROUX — Trouble In Paradise
THE GOOD: British electronic duo (now solo act) La Roux is back with their (her) sophomore record.
THE BAD: That’s right. Producer Ben Langmaid has left the building, leaving songwriter/vocalist Elly Jackson to go it alone — not that it makes much difference. The new music on Paradise is still slick, catchy and danceable. But was it worth a five-year wait?
THE NITTY GRITTY: That could be Paradise’s biggest problem. So much stuff has happened musically since “Bulletproof” was a hit, you sort of forgot about La Roux. Your inner critic may feel somewhat shortchanged by the new record after the long gap since Jackson’s debut.
In the end, Paradise is just a modern synth-pop record. Good? Yes. Amazingly innovative? Hardly. Tracks like “Cruel Sexuality” and “Silent Partner” are seamless and solid, built with airtight rhythms and big melodies. No bad cuts here, but no great ones either. One will want to visit Paradise without staying too long.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
Torch Song Trilogy
THIEVERY CORPORATION — Saudade
THE GOOD: Electronic duo Thievery Corporation (Rob Garza and Eric Hilton) unleash something much more organic than usual.
THE BAD: Saudade is fine, but not nearly as exciting as other TC records.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Here the guys totally embrace the bossa nova. They’ve flirted with elements of this seductive jazzy Brazilian genre before, but this set takes that admiration to a whole new level. Ninety-five percent of the instrumentation is traditional — Spanish guitars, strings, layers of live percussion, etc. They’ve recruited a bevy of female vocalists to purr and coo in our ear, recalling the inimitable style of Astrud Gilberto. The electronics are practically nonexistent. Lyrically, politics are never mentioned.
TC has actually pulled off this radical musical experiment. Saudade is a warm and inviting set. However, the genre hopping and unpredictability of recent collections is sorely missed.
BUY IT?: Your call. Saudade is pretty enough, but the record blends into the background, becoming nothing more than the perfect soundtrack for your next dinner party.
JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN — The Classic
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Joan Wasser returns with her fourth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Wasser has always blurred the lines between the disparate genres of indie rock and modern R&B. Her roots are in indie, having spent the 90s as electric violinist for Boston faves the Dambuilders. But when it was time to finally sing, her voice came out with a lot of soul.
Any JAPW album has its share of complex arrangements (even dipping a toe in the jazz pool), rough-around-the-edges guitar, brash horn sections, and Wasser’s rich vocal treatments. The Classic is no exception. And as usual, the woman isn’t afraid to let the songs spread out and go wherever they please.
“What Would You Do” begins life loudly before morphing into an intimate one-woman show. “Good Together” is the exact opposite; a resonant low-burning piece that later spins into chaos. “Shame” is powerful (and danceable) driven soul; “Ask Me” a dose of dusty reggae.
BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
WHITE HINTERLAND — Baby
THE GOOD:American singer/songwriter/pianist Casey Dienel gives us her third under the moniker White Hinterland.
THE BAD: Baby isn’t a breezy listen. Dienel challenges her audience throughout this somewhat jagged set. Not “bad,” but be prepared.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The woman flirts with modern R&B and even jazz overtones on some of these cuts. Dienel bounces between stark intimate performances (just her and the 88 keys) and more fully produced and abrasive electronic-leaning tracks. Sometimes Baby is reminiscent of early Fiona Apple. Other times it spins off into weirder Bjork territories. Luckily for Dienel, she’s equally competent in either setting.
Better moments include the rhythmic yet dreamlike “Ring the Bell” (a throwback to 2010’s more fragile Kairos), the red-hot sexually charged “Metronome” and the memorable “Wait Until Dark” which finds the singer alone and at her most vulnerable. Dienel spikes certain performances with genuine emotional chaos, all the while turning up the drama to make the proceedings even more riveting.
BUY IT?: Yes.
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 diamond city. Send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
JACK WHITE — Lazaretto
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/guitarist Jack White returns with his second solo outing.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: All throughout his days with the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather (those latter two bands are still together in some form), White has always done so much with just the basics. Blues with a definite rock slant is at the heart of the man’s work; White is an accomplished guitarist who keeps his playing pure as opposed to flashy.
Lazaretto is the guy’s first record without a succinct direction, but he manages to hold the set together and make it work. Instead of just focusing on the thunderous garage rock of the Stripes, or the raw male-female vocal interplay from the Weather, or even the folk and country flirtations that seep in on many occasions, Lazaretto combines all of these sounds to become a varied collection that rarely stumbles. The music seems to guide White this time, as opposed to the other way around.
BUY IT?: Yes.
FIRST AID KIT — Stay Gold
THE GOOD: Swedish duo (and sisters) First Aid Kit sign to a major label (Columbia), unleash their sparkling third album and offer up their most ambitious stuff yet.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s funny (or sad when thinking about the pathetic state of mainstream country these days), but one of the most authentic and American sounding records this year will be Stay Gold — written and recorded by two young ladies from Sweden and produced by indie rock workhorse Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Tilly and the Wall, etc).
Once again, the sisters bring on their airtight and lilting harmonies over a steadily chugging backdrop of acoustic guitars, weeping pedal steels and glistening autoharp. The arrangements are fuller this time out, occasional orchestral elements adding color, but the basic aesthetic is still the same. First Aid Kit remains two girls singing about love, heartbreak, family and home; the music pure and relatable. And it’s all oh so good!
BUY IT?: You must.
THE ANTLERS — Familiars
THE GOOD: The Brooklyn indie rockers are back with a subdued fifth.
THE BAD: Be warned. Familiars is all about mood and texture; a low resonating album that builds oh-so-slowly.
THE NITTY GRITTY: But that moodiness is also the record’s greatest strength. While frontman Peter Silberman’s songs are good, they’re par for the course in the indie rock world. What sets them apart is the presentation. Familiars ends up being one of the most hauntingly striking records that’s come about in quite some time.
Smoky guitars and foggy piano combine with the most integral solo trumpet found in a rock band since the heyday of Cake. The rhythms are tight but never intrusive. Silberman’s vocals blend with the backdrops while not fading completely into them. It’s a noteworthy effect; all parts perfectly equal.
Familiars doesn’t have any weak moments, but the album peaks in the middle. Tracks like the mildly churning “Intruders” and the always escalating “Revisited” find the band at their most inspired.
BUY IT?: Yes.
TUNE-YARDS — Nikki Nack
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/performance artist Merrill Garbus brings her quirky brand of indie pop to a third full-length.
THE BAD: Expect the unexpected. Not “bad,” just a warning to those who can’t look outside traditional song structures or instrumentation.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Armed with a ukulele and a liberal agenda, Garbus creates rousing stomping sing-a-longs, children’s songs with a savage satirical wit and introspective bits where indie rock and tribal rhythms merge.
This time, Garbus went to Haiti for inspiration and came back with an underground version of Paul Simon’s the Rhythm of the Saints. The record feels that ambitious — certainly the most determined Tune-Yards set so far. One easily becomes wrapped up in the unrestrained shouts punctuating the infectious “Water Fountain” or the jingle-jangle pop embedded deep within the banging “Left Behind.” An odd moment like “Why Do We Dine on the Tots” adds even more flair to an already flamboyant collection.
BUY IT?: Be adventurous. Go for it!
CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH — Only Run
THE GOOD: Philly indie rockers CYHSY return with a haphazard fourth.
THE BAD: Only Run is a record of extreme highs and lows.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After some drastic line-up changes, founding member and frontman Alec Ounsworth seems to be the last man standing. That’s probably fine with him. The guy’s now free to move in any whimsical direction he chooses.
That freedom is both a blessing and a curse on Only Run. On the one hand, we get an eclectic unpredictable set boasting some good music. On the other hand, the lack of direction makes a few moments feel half-baked or ill conceived.
Ounsworth also seems to be suffering an identity crisis. He could be a new Radiohead (“Beyond Illusion”). With producer Dave Fridmann behind the mixing board, our boy can’t help but echo MGMT (the title cut). When Matt Berninger of the National shows up, Ounsworth seems to be channeling … well … The National.
BUY IT?: Your call. Run is good, but far from flawless.
THE DONKEYS — Ride the Black Wave
THE GOOD: San Diego indie rockers the Donkeys embrace the sun and surf on their fourth.
THE BAD: Wave isn’t a tight affair; the record more about mood than tight songwriting. It also practically demands you simply “go with the flow.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Laid-back and steady opener “Sunny Daze” sets the tone. Here the central character contemplates a life change, but you can tell he’s perfectly content to stay sun-baked, buzzed and right where he is. From there we move onto the honky-tonk tinged “I Heart Alabama,” sitar-laced instrumental “Imperial Beach,” and darker yet melodically appealing title cut.
There are times when these guys come off as the ultimate cross between slightly noisy indie aesthetics and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. Wave possesses an almost hypnotic ebb and flow, with the individual parts creating a greater whole capable of transporting you far away — but without that dippy Jack Johnson aftertaste.
BUY IT?: Sure. Summer will be over soon, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN — Meteorites
THE GOOD: British indie legends Echo and the Bunnymen remain enchanting after 35 years of on-again, off-again music making.
THE BAD: Their twelfth proper album Meteorites is good, but it further proves the band’s best days are behind them.
THE NITTY GRITTY: For awhile now, the group has been down to just its two core members — primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Ian McCulloch and lead guitarist Will Sergeant. There hasn’t been a permanent rhythm section for years. These guys are like the alternative version of The Who, being a proper band in name only.
Meteorites ends up a pleasant collection. Driven tunes like “Explosions” and “Lovers on the Run” recall the more accessible moments from the band’s mid-80’s heyday, but never quite match the memorable strains of a “Killing Moon” or “Lips Like Sugar.” At least they’re giving it a respectable effort.
BUY IT?: Your choice. Long-time fans will be satisfied. Newbies should seek out the classics.
BOB MOULD — Beauty and Ruin
THE GOOD: Ex-Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould continues his blistering solo career with another indie powerhouse.
THE BAD: Not much progression, but Mould’s tried-and-true formula hasn’t worn out its welcome.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This is Mould’s second consecutive album with his current rhythm section, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster. The last time the man was part of an indie trio this strong, it was the aforementioned Sugar. That’s probably why 2012’s Silver Age and this new record come gloriously close to the melodic intensity of the original pair of Sugar albums from two decades ago.
Beauty and Rain finds the guys turning up the distortion, punching up the rhythms and spreading some infectious tunes over the top of songs that would still work if only backed by acoustic guitar. Once again, that’s why the collection works so well. The songs are that good. We’re glad the works are loud and crunchy, but they don’t need to be.
BUY IT?: Yes.
MORRISSEY — World Peace Is None of Your Business
THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter and ex-Smith Morrissey gives us his tenth proper solo disc and first in half a decade.
THE BAD: It’s a Morrissey album, plain and simple. You either embrace his genius or find his world outlook too damn morose.
THE NITTY GRITTY: World Peace is solid. It’s not the man’s best, but a very good chapter in the expansive catalog. Produced by Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, the Shins), the record finds Morrissey delivering his usual brand of dramatic melodic indie pop, all while painting vivid, sarcastic and often critical pictures with his lyrics.
This time he takes on those who cause animal suffering (“The Bullfighter Dies”), politicians (the title cut), family traditionalists (“Kick the Bride Down the Aisle”) and a host of other usual targets. We’ve been here before so we should know what to expect. Thankfully, World Peace is so finely crafted, you don’t mind being dragged into this guy’s pit of despair yet again.
BUY IT?: Sure.
MOVE TO THIS
CHROMEO — White Women
THE GOOD: Funky Canadian duo Chromeo returns with their fourth and best yet.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The overall vibe of Chromeo’s records may have shifted since the 2004 debut She’s In Control, but there have been constants, too. A great beat always rules over (or under) their music and there’s always an infectious sense of fun running through their songs. As the band has moved forward, those songs have only gotten better.
White Girls really comes together as an awesome party disc, whether you’re in the middle of a raging bash or not. The songs ride airtight dance and disco beats, chugging rhythm guitars, the occasional sweeping string section and badass funk-infused basslines. Yet the compositions are so accomplished both lyrically and melodically, they transcend being just “retro kitsch.” Chromeo doesn’t shy away from bringing back the flavors and colors of the 70s and 80s, but their music remains thoroughly modern at the same time.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
HUNDRED WATERS — The Moon Rang Like a Bell
THE GOOD: Florida electronic outfit Hundred Waters dodges the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: Bell is a slow burn; give it a fair chance to grow on you.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Upon the first spin, you may be wondering exactly what this outfit is doing. Bell is extremely textural and a little too tranquil in spots. Remove the more pronounced beats and one could imagine this record echoing through the hallways of a day spa.
On the surface, the band seems all about the mood as opposed to individual songs. Tracks melt into one another, not one more distinct than the next. Listen a couple more times though and the pieces begin to truly sink in with the set redeeming itself. Cuts like “Innocent” and “Xtalk” end up delectable slices of electronics-infused indie pop — the vibe of Sigur Ros melding with the distinct vocals of frontwoman Nicole Miglis, traces of M83 and Bjork clanging deep within the mix.
BUY IT?: Sure.
LUST FOR YOUTH — International
THE GOOD: Swedish electronic artist Hannes Norrvide (stage moniker Lust for Youth) is back with his third and most accessible yet.
THE BAD: Nothing (unless you dislike more accomplished melodies and unmistakable flirtations with vintage synthpop).
THE NITTY GRITTY: Norrvide isn’t ready to progress beyond 1988 just yet. Here, the man steps into the light and fully embraces stuff that didn’t feel too out of place on the dance floor all those years ago. This record is more willing to lighten up, if only slightly.
One hears echoes of early Human League mixing with shades of Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. Norrvide doesn’t shy away from traditional song structures and, while the man may not possess the strongest singing presence, his vocal shortcomings are all part of the somewhat gloomy charm.
Tracks such as “Illume” and “New Boys” come complete with engaging melodies and well-defined multi-layered rhythms. The spoken word piece “Lungomare” is more delicate, even hypnotic — a nice throwback to OMD’s formative years.
BUY IT?: Surely.
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.