OFFA REX — ‘The Queen of Hearts’
THE GOOD: Indie folk/rock outfit Offa Rex offers up its sparkling debut (sort of).
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Offa Rex is less a proper band and more a merging of two established acts — Pacific Northwest indie rock mainstays the Decemberists and English folk singer Olivia Chaney. “Queen of Hearts” is a covers album, drawing most of its material from traditional British+ folk songs. Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy handles vocals on two tracks, Jenny Conlee’s accordion takes us through a brief medley of rockin’ jigs, and Chaney is out front for the remainder.
“Hearts” ends up a precious combination of divine storytelling, rustic folk rock and charming baroque pop. Highlights include the romantic longing of the title track, the graceful sway carrying “Bonny May” and the heavy-metal buzz coloring “Sheepcrook and Black Dog” (Uriah Heep would approve). Yet EVERY moment here is emotionally charged and memorable, making a timeless songbook that rings just as true today as it did a couple of centuries ago.
BUY IT?: You must.
IRON & WINE — ‘Beast Epic’
THE GOOD: South Carolina singer-songwriter Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) gets back to basics (and sub pop) on his sixth.
THE BAD: Depends…
THE NITTY GRITTY: On the one hand, it’s great to hear Beam ditching most of the gloss, those sweeping orchestrations and subtle electronics that dominated his work while he was on the Warner Bros. roster. On the other hand, without all the bells and whistles, “Epic” can be quite a slog at times.
Here’s the problem. Beam’s music has always been authentic, but it’s never been quite as compelling as that of a lot of his modern folk/rock peers (Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Tallest Man on Earth, Band of Horses, etc.) And in its stripped-down form, that drawback only intensifies.
There’s a certain “sameness” running throughout “Epic.” Pay close attention or the songs blur together. Put forth an honest effort though, and you’ll bump into some lovely and fragile melodies and the occasional fascinating character.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
FRANKIE ROSE — ‘Cage Tropical’
THE GOOD: Singer-songwriter (and ex-member of Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls) Frankie Rose comes back with her fourth solo outing.
THE BAD: “Cage Tropical” is more about mood and less about great individual songs. However, the vibe draws you in immediately.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rose continues to flaunt her love of all things new wave — shimmering keyboards; seamless drum beats; stark, precise guitars, etc. And as usual, she tosses those elements in a brew alongside classic ’60s pop sensibilities; girl group harmonies and the right amount of echo add body and boldness to all the flavors. What’s different this time is the “tropical” part.
Now, this is NOT a record brimming with island rhythms, steel guitars or reggae grooves. However, there is a sunny, beach-like quality to the whole affair, like a breezy, carefree afternoon and evening including the most gorgeous sunset. Tracks like the title cut and “Red Museum” are upbeat, somewhat mysterious and take you to a better place.
BUY IT?: Yes.
ORDINARY AVERAGE GUYS BECK — ‘Colors’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Beck releases his 10th official full-length album.
THE BAD: Usually a trailblazer (or at least very unpredictable), Beck gives us nothing but a decent pop/rock collection this time. But is it too normal?
THE NITTY GRITTY: Working with one of his ex-touring guitarists who just happens to be super-producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia, Bird and the Bee), Beck painstakingly crafted 10 tracks that blur the line between retro and modern pop. All of it is very tight, rhythmic and catchy. One hears echoes of everyone from the Beatles to Bruno Mars.
“Colors” ends up sunny and satisfying. The burning question though is whether the album be as effective 10 or 15 years from now. We’re talking about the man who made “Odelay” (1996) and “Sea Change” (2002), both highly influential works whose reach is still being felt today. Even 2014’s “Morning Phase” was an unexpected triumph. “Colors” is simply a “lesser effort” from (this time) a follower, not a leader. Yet it still cooks.
BUY IT?: Sure.
WEEZER — ‘Pacific Daydream’
THE GOOD: Alt-rock mainstays Weezer come back with a sunny 11th.
THE BAD: I personally love Weezer, so it’s painful when I HATE one of their albums. Read on…
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rivers Cuomo and company have made some clunkers. 2008’s “Weezer (the Red Album)” saw Cuomo let OTHER members of the band write songs as well. Bad idea. 2009’s “Raditude” was a blatant play for mainstream success. Boring idea.
Thankfully, after those two dreadful misfires, the band recovered over its next three releases. None touched the glory days of “The Blue Album” (1994) or “Pinkerton” (1996), but at least the guys were getting back on track.
Now, regrettably, “Pacific Daydream” feels like another glossy attempt at courting the pop market. Those glorious Cuomo hooks remain intact (for the most part). However, the guitars are too tame, the backbeats too calculated. That grand emotional pull also is muted. You might somewhat enjoy this music, but you’ll never truly RELATE to it. Weezer usually isn’t this “average.”
BUY IT?: Your choice.
U2 — ‘Songs of Experience’
THE GOOD: Irish rock legends U2 give up their 14th.
THE BAD: Not “bad,” just “meh.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Ask anybody what U2’s “golden age” was ,and you’ll get one of two answers: the rock-based, socially conscious ’80s or the more experimental and rhythmic ’90s. NOBODY ever says the 2000s. The last U2 album that could be considered an event was 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Since then, it’s been a ho-hum fight for relevancy.
“Songs of Experience” is now the fourth album in a row that has some genuinely good moments but lacks staying power. You can groove to “You’re the Best Thing about Me,” and “13 (There Is a Light)” is low-key and very emotional. The Syrian refugee song “Red Flag Day” comes complete with a catchy melody and cloying lyrics.
The politically charged “American Soul,” however, is laughably bad. Bono decided to delay the album’s release so the band could comment on the world at large. Too bad they’re not angry young men anymore.
BUY IT?: Your call.
Welcome back to the countdown. As the holiday season becomes a warm and cozy memory, we revisit last year’s absolute finest albums.
10. ZOLA JESUS — ‘Okovi’ (September)
Singer/songwriter/producer Zola Jesus turns personal turmoil into something sounding more hopeful for the future. A primarily electronic album with genuine human warmth, “Okovi” is her best collection of songs in quite some time.
9. ROGER WATERS — ‘Is This the Life We Really Want?’ (June)
Pink Floyd meets Radiohead as the legendary songwriter teams up with brilliant producer Nigel Godrich. Waters gets angry at the world and proves he will not fade away quietly like so many rock dinosaurs that were once his contemporaries.
8. CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG — ‘Rest’ (November)
Combining personal tragedy with dance grooves and bright pop melodies is no easy task. Gainsbourg pulls it off flawlessly, with the songs never sounding contrived or hollow. We share her pain, and we love it.
7. THE NATIONAL — ‘Sleep Well Beast’ (September)
Expansion and experimentation can go one of two ways — the music sounds confident and inspired or self-indulgent and hackneyed. “Beast” is the former, an album featuring an accomplished band unafraid to take chances. Timely now, timeless later.
6. ARCADE FIRE — ‘Everything Now’ (July)
One of the more “polarizing” albums on the list, “Now” sees the Canadian indie rockers continuing their quest for the ultimate groove. Flipping LCD Soundsystem for Daft Punk, the band builds upon “Reflektor’s” (2013) beats while alienating a few fans. Open your mind and body to it, though, and “Now” is divine.
5. TEMPLES — ‘Volcano’ (March)
Majestic pop sparkling beneath bright, unending rays of sunshine, trippy psychedelic overtones coloring Baroque rock in shades of red and blue, ear candy sweet enough to plunge you into a deep, dreamy haze — it’s heavy, man. It’s Temples’ “Volcano.”
4. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM — ‘American Dream’ (September)
Don’t call it a comeback. Yes, LCD Soundsystem broke up, but James Murphy was always here in spirit. His influence never diminished; his collaborations with others always were worthwhile. It’s nice to have the real deal back together, though. Our dull nights will be lively again. Now dance, you fools!
3. THE XX — ‘I See You’ (January)
Low-key British indie rockers the XX put their producer Jamie XX to more prominent use, and now their melancholy songs pack an even greater emotional punch. “I See You” never seeps into the background. These subtle sounds command your attention at every turn.
2. ST. VINCENT — ‘Masseduction’ (October)
Annie Clark (St. Vincent) teams up with writer/producer Jack Antonoff and flirts with more blatant pop sensibilities. Despite that shift, she’s still just as weird as ever. Smashing together bits of glam, synthpop, heavy rock, new wave and whatever else sticks, Clark keeps us guessing and enthralled.
1. OFFA REX — ‘The Queen of Hearts’ (July)
Two distinct artists manage to complement each other harmoniously without overshadowing one another. Indie rock storytellers the Decemberists and British folk singer Olivia Chaney give us a night of traditional songs with a modern twist, and keep the entire affair wholly authentic.
THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2017 – PART ONE – THE BOTTOM TEN
We do this every year ’round this time—looking back at the 20 albums that mattered most over the past 12 months. So before the big ball drops this weekend, let the countdown begin.
20. BLACK LIPS—‘Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art’ (May)
The Georgia psyche-rockers forgo high-profile producers this time in favor of working with Sean Lennon and end up creating a noisy, freaky pile of swamp rock. It’s ugly and enticing at the same time.
19. SAINT ETIENNE—‘Home Counties’ (June)
The British synth-rock/Britpop legends take us on a trip through suburban London. A concept focusing on the mundane, “Home Counties” is anything but. Retro dance grooves and charming melodies rule the neighborhood.
18. DAN AUERBACH—‘Waiting on a Song’ (June)
Singer/songwriter/Black Key Dan Auerbach gets together with a bunch of legendary friends while ditching the blues in favor of direct and polished pop/rock. The end results make us smile.
17. THE SHINS—‘Heartworms’ (March)
Are the Shins still a proper band, or is that name now simply a front for singer/songwriter/producer James Mercer? Does it matter? “Heartworms” proves the compelling songs remain intact regardless of lineup. Glad they’re (he’s?) back after a half-decade of distractions.
16. OLD 97’S—‘Graveyard Whistling’ (February)
You have to respect experience and authenticity. Even after a quarter-century together, Old 97’s remain the best damn southern bar band in the country. Toss some sawdust on the floor and embrace these alt-country anthems brimming with blood, sweat and beers.
15. TENNIS—‘Yours Conditionally’ (March)
Colorado husband-and-wife indie rock duo Tennis goes back to its breezy beginnings, creating something simple yet exquisite. Not since 2010’s “Cape Dory” have the couple felt this relaxed while still delivering divine melodies and caustic wit.
14. JAY-Z—‘4:44’ (June)
When he keeps things close to home, Jay-Z shines. After the glossy misfire “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” the rapper proves he can hold his own within an ever-changing hip-hop landscape by delivering music that stays true to the genre. “4:44” is lean and mean, as it should be.
13. NEW PORNOGRAPHERS—‘White Out Conditions’ (April)
The Canadian indie rock supergroup never fails to deliver BIG guitar-pop hooks. Add the one-two punch of A.C. Newman and Neko Case out front, and the tracks pack vocal charisma too. One could accuse “Conditions” of
being predictable, but why tamper with a formula that works so well?
12. FUTURE ISLANDS— ‘The Far Field’ (April)
The Baltimore outfit gains momentum on its fifth, a tight study in post-punk and new wave that rivals the modern
masters of both genres. “Far Field” contains more well-executed gems than most albums. Not an ounce of energy or second of time is wasted.
11. SYLVAN ESSO—‘What Now’ (April)
Artists within the modern folk world aren’t supposed to make underground dance records that are actually GOOD. Sylvan Esso didn’t get that memo. “What Now” smashes all boundaries and expectations.
Next week, we cover this past year’s best ten.
HEAVY HITTERS UP FRONT. STAR PRODUCERS IN BACK.
FOO FIGHTERS — ‘Concrete and Gold’
THE GOOD: American rock mainstays Foo Fighters are back with their ninth.
THE BAD: There’s no such thing as a BAD Foo Fighters album, but there are no totally awesome ones either. “Concrete and Gold” fits comfortably in the catalog without making too many waves.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Working with producer Greg Kurstin (the Bird and the Bee, Adele, Sia), Dave Grohl and the boys crank out their finest melodies in quite some time. Tracks such as “Make It Right” and “The Line” pack a mighty punch while sucking us in with truly infectious tunes.
Kurstin also helps the band expand its musical palette a little. “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” becomes a rousing sing-along. “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)” is an effective, genuine ballad. “Dirty Water” feels like a study in light and shadow. Guests ranging from the Kills’ Alison Mosshart to Paul McCartney show up without hogging the spotlight. “Concrete” remains your standard Foo fare — loud, crunchy and reliable.
BUY IT?: Sure.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE — ‘Villains’
THE GOOD: The American rockers get funky on their seventh.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Villains” finds the guys working with “Uptown Funk” producer Mark Ronson, and one definitely picks up on his rhythmic presence. Don’t panic; he doesn’t turn frontman Josh Homme and company into a disco outfit (although this band could pull that off), but he does tighten up matters and make the beats much more prominent.
From the pure rock swagger of lead single “The Way You Used To Do” to the slightly progressive yet in-the-pocket, funky-as-hell “The Evil Has Landed,” the band takes us on a wildly unpredictable trip. Somehow, it stretches musically and lets the songs go off in unexpected directions (many blowing well past the 5-minute mark) while still giving us something infectious and accessible. That’s a delicate balance not easily attained. Yet, it happens all throughout “Villains,” a brash rock record unafraid to step outside straight anticipated lines.
BUY IT?: Yes.
LIAM GALLAGHER — ‘As You Were’
THE GOOD: After being the bad-boy frontman for both Oasis and Beady Eye, British singer and sometimes songwriter Liam Gallagher gives us his first proper solo album.
THE BAD: Gallagher may have been the star out front, but what made his most famous former band great were his brother’s songs. Without Noel Gallagher, “As You Were” sometimes comes off as a half-baked Oasis set.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Still, the record has its charms. Liam Gallagher teamed up with a few writers, the most prominent being Greg Kurstin (the Bird and the Bee, Beck, Pink). So the material IS good, and it’s tough to resist the combination of that voice and big hooks on tracks such as the raucous “Wall of Glass” and the delicate “For What It’s Worth” — solid pop-rock indeed. Very majestic and very British.
There are a couple of duds along the way, but the bright spots outnumber the forgettable bits. So let’s just call “As You Were” an accomplished first try and leave it at that.
BUY IT?: Your call.
MEATY BEATY BIG AND BOUNCY ARCADE FIRE — ‘Everything Now’
THE GOOD: Canadian indie rockers Arcade Fire go for big beats again on their fifth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: 2013’s “Reflektor” found LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy producing and taking the band into multi-layered rhythmic territories, almost turning them into a different outfit. “Everything Now” continues the danceable trend, swapping out Murphy for Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter.
The social commentary still is present, with the band hyper-critical of consumerism, corporations, the constant instant gratification of the digital age, etc. Set against slightly synthetic backdrops, the irony is never lost. Every participant “switches on.”
While the album has a couple minor misfires (the dippy reggae carrying “Chemistry” never feels wholly authentic), “Everything” ends up another triumph for the band. It also proves the grooves that made “Reflektor” so damn infectious were no fluke. From the buzzing sing-along “Creature Comfort” to the liquid late-night funk on “Electric Blue,” the record frees the mind and body for a good time that still makes you think.
BUY IT?: Surely.
BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE — ‘Hug of Thunder’
THE GOOD: The Canadian indie rock collective coordinated by Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning — and boasting collaborators from other “North of the Border” bands (Metric, Stars, Feist, etc.) — comes back with its fifth album and first in seven years.
THE BAD: Like other BSS sessions, “Thunder” has peaks and valleys. Don’t expect a tight affair.
THE NITTY GRITTY: With song titles such as “Stay Happy” and “Gonna Get Better,” the band might be too damn cheerful for its own good. But it’s always been that way, going for an uplifting experience during unpredictable times of turmoil. Even the politicized moments are never “super heavy.”
BSS could be the less hippy-dippy take on the Polyphonic Spree or the more jubilant version of that other Canadian super-group, New Pornographers. Yet they’re also not afraid to visit more serious places such as the heartfelt and imploring “Please Take Me with You.”
Its title appropriate, “Thunder” ends up another BIG record that surrounds you with colorful arrangements and bold melodies.
BUY IT?: Yes.
THE WAR ON DRUGS — ‘A Deeper Understanding’
THE GOOD: Philadelphia indie rock outfit the War on Drugs jumps to a major label (Atlantic) and delivers an epic fourth.
THE BAD: Ten tracks in 66 minutes feels like a slog at times. Simply hope for the best during the parts that drag.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Adam Granduciel still is the brains behind the whole operation. It’s HIS vision that comes to life during these painstaking sessions, as “Understanding” is a study in slowly building, multi-layered studio craft. Whether it’s the sparkling, jangly “Holding On” or the extended intricate jams coming together as “Thinking of a Place,” Granduciel is a master at building large spaces in which we can’t help but become lost.
“A Deeper Understanding” is exactly that — a collection of songs that may not immediately grab hold. However, one discovers their many engaging nuances hidden beneath the surface upon repeat encounters. You must take your time and embrace the music slowly. The effort is well-worth it.
BUY IT?: Yep.
GRIZZLY BEAR — ‘Painted Ruins’
THE GOOD: Brooklyn indie rock outfit Grizzly Bear returns with its fifth album (and first in five years).
THE BAD: Just like the band’s previous sets, “Ruins” won’t grab hold immediately. You must give the record a few spins, pick it apart slowly and notice all its nuances gradually. It’s not “bad” — it just takes a little work.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Bassist Chris Taylor once again handles production duties as subtle changes occur on “Ruins” with the guys continuing their logical progression. The beats are more pronounced this time, the melodies bolder. Arrangements still bring together layers of cinematic sound with changes in tempo; that combination of gentler indie pop and prog-rock bombast stays intact.
Frontman Ed Droste guides the tunes (sometimes gentle, sometimes soaring) over backdrops that either seamlessly glide or boldly march forward. Keyboard flourishes add splashy bits of color at times combine with sharp guitars to bring about all-encompassing, multi-dimensional settings. Honestly, Grizzly Bear has never made an album this INVITING before. It’s gorgeous stuff.
BUY IT?: Sure.
THE DEARS — ‘Times Infinity Volume Two’
THE GOOD: Canadian indie rockers the Dears come back with their seventh album.
THE BAD: High concept? A SEQUEL? Not necessarily.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Recorded at the same time as its predecessor (“Volume One” came out in 2015), “TIV2” simply is another Dears collection on its surface. The husband-and-wife team of vocalist/guitarist Murray Lightburn and keyboardist/vocalist Natalia Yanchak leads its crew and churns out a smart mix of dark, lyrical imagery and delicate, haunting melodies. It’s damn near impossible to avoid comparisons to the Smiths. Echoes of groups such as Elbow and Stars also are not far behind.
Whether you recall “Volume One” or never even heard it is irrelevant. “Volume Two” is exquisite, stirring and soulful all on its own. From the guitar pop bliss slathered over “Of Fisticuffs” to the Baroque strains and delicate strings coloring “I’m Sorry That I Wished You Were Dead” to the cloudy gray enveloping the somber “End of Tour,” the new record is an emotional tour-de-force — as expected.
BUY IT?: Yep.
THE NATIONAL — ‘Sleep Well Beas’
THE GOOD: Ohio indie rockers the National return with a sprawling seventh album.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: At its core, “Beast” is standard National fare. Frontman Matt Berninger wraps all the distinct melodies in his warm baritone. The moody, guitar-soaked backdrops remain steady, always drenched in shadows and fog.
Yet, this time, the guys allowed themselves the luxury of working within their own studio for some of the sessions and experimenting. Different sounds weave their way into the murky tapestry. The occasional drum loop or synth burst adds color. Some understated and intimate orchestral arrangements bring a much-appreciated warmth. Tempos and emotions run the gamut from frazzled and rollicking (“Turtleneck”) to tempered and introspective (“Dark Side of the Gym”).
Twelve tracks clock in at almost an hour, but the album never feels stagnant or bloated. The band keeps the proceedings unpredictable, and the writing as always is very assured. “Beast” ends up another gem in an already accomplished catalog.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
CALVIN HARRIS — ‘Funk Wav Bounces Volume 1’
THE GOOD: Scottish DJ/producer Calvin Harris gets funky on his fifth.
THE BAD: Where do I begin?
THE NITTY GRITTY: I apologize if personal taste creeps into a review that’s supposed to be completely objective, but Calvin … WTF? I used to love your records — EDM/techno hybrids with cheeky lyrics and goofy, squiggly keyboard riffs. You brought a sense of fun to the underground.
A couple of albums ago, though, guest vocalists started dominating the tracks. But at least they were people like Dizzee Rascal, Florence Welch and Haim. And that infectious “bounce” was always present. Irresistible stuff.
“Funk Wav” now finds the likes of John Legend, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj joining the party, dragging the music way too far into the mainstream. Predictable R&B also compromises the straight-up electronic vibe. So we get an album just as BORING as a “Now That’s What I Call Music” compilation. No spark. No adventure.
BUY IT?: No. Now let’s never speak of this again.
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM — ‘American Dream’
THE GOOD: James Murphy and company come out of semi-retirement for their fourth album.
THE BAD: “Dream” could seem difficult. In spots, it’s definitely LCD’s most “down” record. HOWEVER, stick around and let it spin. This extremely hypnotic concoction WILL grow on you.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Murphy still delivers the beat-driven goods, a steadily streaming combination of post-punk, house and funk. He’s not afraid to let a track slowly build and completely devour your consciousness. You don’t dance to a song like “How Do You Sleep.” You let its dark mood, bold beats, wraparound basslines, thumping synths and echo-drenched vocals carry you away to places both beautiful and dangerous.
And those trips happen again and again throughout “Dream.” It could be the silly flippancy of the house-rocking “Emotional Haircut” or the dead-serious, slow-burning Bowie requiem “Black Screen.” Doesn’t matter. Murphy wants the journey to not only last but also remain compelling until the final thump sputters into oblivion. He succeeds.
BUY IT?: YES!
CULTS — ‘Offering’
THE GOOD: New York indie pop duo Cults (vocalist Madeline Follin and “everything else” guy Brian Oblivion) comes back after four years with its third.
THE BAD: “Offering” isn’t as distinct as its predecessors. At first, much of the record slips into the background.
THE NITTY GRITTY: One has to give “Offering” a fair shake though; repeat spins bring out many of the songs’ subtle charms. Things such as the psychedelic, whirring organ underneath “With My Eyes Closed” or the carnival vibes coloring the swaying “Natural State” have to sink in gradually.
Strip away the atmospherics, though, and “Offering” becomes a case of style over substance on more than a few occasions. That’s the biggest drawback. What may be a dreamy collection capable of lifting you above the clouds isn’t necessarily a great collection of SONGS. Despite its occasional shortcomings, though, Cults remains a duo with something to offer. Here’s hoping the pair reignites the original spark on a more fleshed-out effort next time.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
JOYWAVE — ‘Content’
THE GOOD: Upstate New York indie pop/rock outfit Joywave releases its second proper full-length album.
THE BAD: Too generic?
THE NITTY GRITTY: One advantage “Content” has going for it is the sequencing. Right from the very beginning, we’re hit with formulaic, radio-friendly synth/guitar mashups. Thankfully, as the album plays on, the music becomes more distinct. The songs stop melting together. The highlight definitely is the multi-dimensional and sprawling “Going To a Place.”
Still, nothing here exactly leaps out of your speakers or headphones. “Content” is the kind of stuff you listen to while you’re doing something else — running, commuting, cleaning out the garage. It’s catchy background music you may or may not come back to at some point after that first spin. Joywave. Sir Sly. Saint Motel. Yawn. Rinse. Repeat.
BUY IT?: Your call. “Content” isn’t terrible, but these guys were better when the beats and electronics were more front and center. During the band’s EP and mixtape days, it was all about a groove, and the music was far more memorable.
Baio — ‘Man of the World’
THE GOOD: Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio releases his second proper solo album.
THE BAD: There IS another VW album in the works. It can’t happen quickly enough. Side projects are a pale substitute.
THE NITTY GRITTY: You can tell Baio is one half of a rhythm section. The guy knows his way around a melodic hook and snappy riff. Yet the focus of his work always seems to be the beat or drive beneath the stuff above.
“World” finds most of its songs interconnected. Keep them together, and the record flows amazing well. Pull them apart, and a few tunes seem incomplete. Musically, we run the gamut from bouncy bits (“The Key Is Under the Mat”) to more laid-back, writhing pieces (“Dangeroue Anamal”).
Lyrically, “World” is heavier than 2015’s “The Names.” Baio tackles climate change, politics and his Trump-supporting first cousin Scott Baio (“Shame in My Name”). Sometimes the messages seem heavy-handed against the bubbly backdrops, with the elements not quite gelling. But “World” still clicks overall.
BUY IT?: Sure.
EMA — ‘Exile in the Outer Ring’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Erika Michelle Anderson (EMA) revisits her South Dakota roots while painting a bleak picture of the Midwest today.
THE BAD: “Outer Ring” is not an easy listen, but’s it’s worth the effort.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Welcome to an existence riddled with apathy, poverty, substance abuse, no direction and absolutely NO future. The singer purrs time and again throughout the subdued “Down and Out,” “But what are you hoping for?”
EMA has a knack for making ugly records, and “Outer Ring” is no exception. Lyrically, we’re dealing with all those aforementioned daily obstacles. Musically, we’re slammed with an abrasive combination of ragged pop and industrial noise. Guitars are important, but the banging beats and buzzing, droning synths always dominate. EMA isn’t exactly screaming in your face, but you can feel every character’s frustration and hopelessness, even during the more somber bits.
“Outer Ring” drags you into the dirt and never lets up. Proceed with caution, and don’t let those slick melodies fool you.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
WATERS — ‘Something More’
THE GOOD: Waters, the Van Pierszalowski solo project that eventually morphed into a proper band, comes back with its third.
THE BAD: “Something More” could be polarizing to the band’s fans. The more records the group makes, the “safer” the music gets.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Listening to the new album, you get the feeling that Pierszalowski and his crew want to be Weezer (they even namedrop Cuomo and company during the playful “Second Guessing”). That’s not necessarily a “bad” thing, but it could be off-putting to those who wholeheartedly embraced the weirdness of 2011’s “Out in the Light.”
“More” plays it straight — 10 tight indie pop/rock songs in 35 minutes. It’s tough to resist the sheer catchiness of tunes such as lead single “Hiccups” and the slick title track. If you can forgive the predictability of the whole affair, you’ll want to devour these hooks and riffs time and time again. If you can’t, you might get bored rather quickly.
BUY IT?: Despite its faults, that’s still a yes.
WALRUS — ‘Family Hangover’
THE GOOD: Nova Scotia indie rockers Walrus offer up an impressive, ambitious debut.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: You can tell these guys are all about the studio, hunkering down and creating complex yet melodic modern indie rock. Those who embrace current bands such as Besnard Lakes, Mew, Suuns and Grandaddy now have another act to adore.
Fronted by Justin Murphy, a guy who sings below a falsetto but still in a higher register, Walrus churns out a mix of psychedelic jangle pop and heavier rock, with thunderous backbeats crashing behind floating guitars and majestic keyboards. Trickery is kept to a minimum (this stuff could probably be easily recreated live), although the boys aren’t above a little tape manipulation now and again.
Tempos and song structures change often, the album never staying in one emotional spot for too long. Just about every experiment succeeds with flying colors. And this band is just getting started. So take heed gentlemen — expectations for the next one already are running high.
BUY IT?: Yes.
BEACH FOSSILS — ‘Somersault’
THE GOOD: Brooklyn indie rock outfit Beach Fossils regroups and returns after four years with its third.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Further shedding his humble Captured Tracks Records beginnings, frontman Dustin Payseur is making sure his crew is a little less lo-fi and a tad more ambitious (smart, intimate string arrangements always are a nice touch).
“Somersault” ends up a jangly, intelligent pop collection in the grand tradition of classic bands such as the Ocean Blue or Mighty Lemon Drops and contemporaries such as Real Estate and the Drums. The arrangements are smooth, the harmonies good and tight. And the album possesses an incredible flow from cut to cut, taking us on a dreamy journey that’s delicate for the most part but thunderous when it needs to be.
BUY IT?: Yes. One gets the feeling that Payseur is only beginning this logical progression, with things getting better all the time. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another four years for the next chapter.
The first live show never goes as planned for most bands.
But when the guys in Tunkhannock-based group King Kidding took the stage for the first time in July 2016, at a now-defunct Carbondale venue, their nerves were nowhere to be found.
“I remember spending the two hours leading up to the show trying desperately to figure out how the PA system was supposed to work,” guitarist and vocalist Michael Wintermute explained. “Unlike many venues, there was no one to run sound and no one to even explain how the house system worked. It seemed like an absolute miracle, but we got the system running — albeit one step away from being electrocuted. By then, the nerves of playing our weird music for the first time were gone, and we had a great time just shredding the stage.”
The group — which also includes Kyle Shupp on guitar, Sean Hadley on drums and Tim Husty on bass — came together in 2015 after several other collaborations among the four of them. Now, the quartet focuses on writing music and performing in the Northeast Pennsylvania music scene.
Q: Where did your band name come from?
Michael Wintermute: The band name came from an explicit text message that was autocorrected to “You’ve got to be fw king kidding me.” Mike’s wife, Amanda, noticed that “King Kidding” has a nice ring to it.
Q: What is the process like for writing your music?
MW: We work with the running idea of the “King Kidding Machine.” We believe that if we all earnestly and genuinely contribute our slice of the pie to the King Kidding Machine, a King Kidding song will always be the result. Mike has come to the band with blues songs, punk songs, folk songs, etc., but they all end up with the King Kidding texture. The most important aspect of our writing is that nothing is off-limits. We believe that if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And if it does, it does. We try to keep band politics, emotions and preferences out of it. That way, we aren’t speaking or acting for ourselves, but for King Kidding.
Q: How have you changed as musicians over the years?
Kyle Shupp: When I was younger, I was definitely more closed-minded creatively. Being able to play with such great friends and musicians has expanded my mind exponentially. Beyond that, King Kidding has taught me how to play more than just the notes in music. It feels great to play music of any kind to a crowd, but there’s no feeling quite like performing your own songs to people that are willing to take a ride on the sonic roller coaster with you.
MW: My philosophy is that you aren’t an artist if you aren’t changing. I just constantly search for new sounds and constantly encourage any off-the-wall idea that I can, because really amazing things are born from that.
Q: Have you faced any major challenges as a rising band?
MW: The biggest challenge we faced was trying to make music that is different but familiar. We want people to feel excited by our music, but we don’t want them to feel like we’re showcasing our talents or being weird just to be weird. We feel a strong connection to music that twists and turns in ways that make the mind wander, and we are honored just to think we may have a way to add to that whole philosophy.
Q: What are your future goals for the band?
MW: We’ll have our album completed by the end of 2017. Then we plan on taking some time off to focus on booking and writing new material. We’ve spent the better part of 2017 touring the valley, and we’d like to focus on areas just beyond our region in the future.
Q: Do you have anything else you’d like to add that is important for people to know about the group?
MW: Above all, we are trying to create something that’s never been done before, and we’re trying to inspire people to look at music in a way they’ve never looked at it before.
PORTUGAL THE MAN — ‘Woodstock’
THE GOOD: Portland indie rockers Portugal the Man shake things up again on their eighth.
THE BAD: The bouncy “Feel It Still” is a genuine hit. Long-time enthusiasts are crying “sell out.” That’s a matter of opinion. I say, “You should have seen this coming.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: After all, the band signed to a major label, Atlantic, a couple of records ago. And last time around, on “Evil Friends,” the guys recruited Danger Mouse to handle production duties. So why not go all the way on “Woodstock?”
Originally, the band was making an album called “Gloomin’ and Doomin’” with former Beastie Boy Mike D. Most of that project was scrapped in favor of “Woodstock’s” party vibe. So now we get a breezy (albeit somewhat topical) mix of drum loops, snappy sing-alongs and a hint of the psychedelics from past records. Still, what may be disagreeable to some is NOT a bad collection. Frontman John Gourley and company give us enough good vibrations to make us want more.
BUY IT?: Sure.
JEFF TWEEDY — ‘Together at Last’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy finally gives us a proper solo album (sort of).
THE BAD: Could “Together” only be for Tweedy “completists?”
THE NITTY GRITTY: After making music with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco and a bevy of side projects for almost three decades, Tweedy is at the point in his career where he’s taking time to look back and revisit. “Together” is supposedly the first in a series of intimate acoustic offerings exploring past hits and deep tracks.
Most of this album comes from the Wilco catalog. Tweedy leans in close, his gentle voice accompanied by little more than his acoustic six-string. It’s during these treatments that the songs have to stand completely on their own merits with no full arrangements (rock, pop or county) to hide behind. Whether it’s the gray-colored misgivings spread over “Ashes of American Flags” or the hopeful musings chugging throughout “Dawned on Me,” the material shines.
BUY IT?: Your choice. Personally, I still prefer the full-band versions.
SHOUT OUT LOUDS — ‘Ease My Mind’
THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop/rock outfit Shout Out Louds is back with its fifth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: If anything, this band is reliable. The formula doesn’t change much from record to record. You know exactly what you’re going to get. And in this case, that’s perfectly acceptable.
SOLs always comes through with bright, splashy, intelligent pop songs. Check out “Paola” and tell me the tune doesn’t immediately suck you in with its jangly guitars, bouncy rhythm and big melodies. You can’t help but love this stuff.
And while EVERY track might not be immediately memorable, there are enough sparkling bits on “Mind” to make plenty of return trips inevitable. From the male-female interplay between frontman Adam Olenius and keyboardist Bebban Stenborg on “Porcelain” and “White Suzuki” to Stenborg’s semi-smoldering lead on the title track to Olenius handling the soaring chorus of “Angel,” it all works flawlessly.
If the group feels the need to offer a smart collection every few years, we’ll gladly accept.
BUY IT?: Surely.
GIRL POWER DIET CIG — ‘Swear I’m Good at This’
THE GOOD: The New Paltz, New York, indie pop/punk duo Diet Cig (female vocalist/guitarist Alex Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman) gives us a blistering full-length debut.
THE BAD: Sometimes the record feels like a collection of demos. A few tracks are little more than one verse, clocking in at about 70 seconds. You want the story to reach a logical resolution. That doesn’t always happen.
THE NITTY GRITTY: When everything falls into place though, Diet Cig can create powerful, angst-riddled music. Tracks such as building opener “Sixteen” and frustrated yet infectious closer “Tummy Ache” focus on young-adult concerns without trivializing them. If Luciano has a bad day, she can turn that turmoil into fist-pumping anthems built upon Bowman’s tight, crashing rhythms; searing, slashing guitars; and melodies that are half blazing hooks and half not-so-quiet desperation.
So while “Good at This” is certainly flawed, it remains a worthy first try that leaves us hopeful for an even brighter future.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
HAIM — ‘Something To Tell You’
THE GOOD: California indie pop/rockers Haim obliterate the sophomore slump on their follow-up to 2013’s bubbly debut “Days Are Gone.”
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The ladies bring back those airtight harmonies and solid grooves that made us all take notice four years ago. Flawlessly blending everything from ’70s soft rock to ’90s R&B to modern indie rock, the Haim sisters offer up a mix equaling appealing to a 55-year-old Fleetwood Mac enthusiast and a jaded college freshman. They also sound completely relaxed and confident while doing it. That’s not easy.
“Something” is another accomplished collection showing off Haim’s singing and songwriting chops. Is it slick? Hell yeah. But you won’t mind the gloss. The studio polish only enhances catchy gems such as “Little of Your Love” and “Found It in Silence.” Each song carries its own vibrant personality and soulful strut; the music is custom-made for a glorious, sunny day. Even the somber closer “Night So Long” isn’t a complete downer.
BUY IT?: Surely.
TORI AMOS — ‘Native Invader’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/pianist Tori Amos comes back with a varied and topical 15th.
THE BAD: Pretty much every Amos record is an epic. Prepare to invest over an hour of your time. It’s only “bad” for the casual fans out there.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Yet, Amos also has a knack for keeping her lengthy works from slipping into repetitive ruts. She always brings on a variety of emotions, tempos and instrumentation. Every record becomes a mixed bag. “Invader” is no exception.
Just like everyone else in 2017, Amos gets political and environmentally conscious here. However, even when the messages aren’t so subtle, the subtext rarely overshadows the power of Amos’ melodies and arrangements. And there are some whoppers here. From the intensity building throughout “Cloud Riders” to the heavy sway carrying “Bang,” the drama never ends.
“Chocolate Song” gets clunky, and “Russia” is about as subtle as a smack in the teeth, but no Amos collection is perfect. Thankfully, “Invader” remains powerful and compelling from start to finish.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
ALT-J — ‘Relaxer’
THE GOOD: British indie rock outfit Alt-J releases its third. I guess that’s “good” for established fans.
THE BAD: I nodded off there for a second.
THE NITTY GRITTY: That’s this band’s biggest problem. For all its banging rhythms, multi-layered atmospherics, vocal twitches courtesy of frontman Joe Newman and wild mood swings, Alt-J can’t seem to make music that’s inherently INTERESTING. The lyrics are forgettable, the melodies lackadaisical. And these regrettable conditions don’t seem to change much from record to record.
“Relaxer” is simply another gloomy collection that drifts out of focus and seeps into the wallpaper. This time, the lads added some subtle string arrangements and female guest vocals courtesy of Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell. These touches make tracks like “3WW” and “Pleader” kind of sweet; you almost want to revisit them. But when the band attempts injecting some much-needed life into the party, we get the proto-punk stupidity of “Hit Me Like That Snare.” You can’t win with these guys.
BUY IT?: Meh…probably another Alt-J worth skipping.
PHOENIX — ‘Ti Amo’
THE GOOD: French indie pop/rockers Phoenix come back with a colorful, multi-lingual sixth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Recorded in the band’s native country during a time of terrorism and social unrest, “Ti Amo” feels like one big, warm, fuzzy safe space. And that’s not a bad thing. While many indie rockers are confronting issues head-on, Phoenix chose instead to hit the dance floor while taking us on a whirlwind trip across Europe. It also creates a set that’s distinctly Phoenix while not strictly repeating any past work — a logical, refreshing progression.
Tracks such as “Tuttifrutti” and “Goodbye Soleil” are built on irresistible galloping grooves and overstuffed pink, fluffy melodies. More delicate bits, such as “Fior Di Latte” and “Via Veneto,” are swaying, synth-based swatches of new wave that are both hypnotic and painfully romantic.
“Ti Amo” makes it OK to simply feel good again. Close your eyes. Become lost in the streamlined flow of it all. Dance. Smile. It’s a beautiful day.
BUY IT?: Yes.
BLEACHERS — ‘Gone Now’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Jack Antonoff releases his second effort as Bleachers.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The first Bleachers record, 2014’s “Strange Desire,” sounded different from Antonoff’s work with Fun; we heard a bit LESS pop and a little MORE rock. “Gone Now” sees some of Fun’s bubblier elements creeping back into the mix. The beats are more important, the guitars less so. Keyboards and horns are more prevalent. And those bold singalongs for which the guy is known play a bigger role this time. Throw in a few random spoken-word samples and “Gone Now” becomes a lot of fun (pun intended).
At the same time, though, it’s an album with recurring musical themes and reprises, making for a bold and complex structure. Antonoff wants us to smile and clap our hands (the rhythms and melodies sweep you away), but he’s also hoping we’ll think a little too. The trip is so vibrant though, you won’t mind putting in the extra effort.
BUY IT?: Yes.
RANCID — ‘Troublemaker’
THE GOOD: Bay area punk legends Rancid remain loud and livid on their ninth.
THE BAD: Tim Armstrong and crew aren’t angry young men anymore, Rancid being a cohesive unit for over a quarter century now. But they’re now pissed-off middle-aged dudes. That has to be legit enough for you.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Thankfully, the guys aren’t aging gracefully. Rancid is one of a handful of punk bands that remain both relevant and potent decades into their careers. Bad Religion (another strong punk mainstay) guitarist Brett Gurewitz produces “Troublemaker,” a loud, melodic mix of blue-collar and political anthems played either fast and hard (“All American Neighborhood”) or straight down a rock ‘n’ roll middle ground (“Bovver Rock ‘n’ Roll”). Of course, we get a few pumping ska-flavored cuts (“Where I’m Going”) as well.
Sure “Troublemaker” may be a little predictable. However, Rancid does what it does so well (and often better than its younger peers), so the guys don’t need to re-invent themselves. We wouldn’t want that anyway.
BUY IT?: Yep.
311 — ‘Mosaic’
THE GOOD: Nebraska alt-rockers 311 return with their 12th.
THE BAD: It might as well be their sixth, 10th or 20th.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Sorry, I’m a “casual fan.” Every album seems to have two cuts for which I go absolutely bonkers, along with a dozen other tracks that sound like pale imitations of those two awesome songs. C’mon, 311 enthusiasts, admit it. These guys have made slight variations on the same album for over two decades now.
You get that infectious mix of hard rock, reggae, ska and funk — party music filled with declarations of good vibes and daily affirmations. This time, the best songs are right up front: smooth, swirling single “Too Much To Think” followed by the more progressive, classical-tinged “Wildfire.”
Too bad “Mosaic” feels stuck on repeat about 10 songs in (and you still have another seven tracks to go). Definitely flawed and predictable, “Mosaic” could have used a slight trim. Maybe take this one in small doses.
BUY IT?: Your call.
FAMILY ANIMALS — ‘Don’t Expect a Climax’
THE GOOD: Scranton indie rockers Family Animals come back with an unpredictable third full-length album.
THE BAD: It’s not bad, but expect a record that’s all over the proverbial musical map.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Brothers Anthony and Jesse Viola and their buddy Frank DeSando bookend “Climax” with a pair of extended prog-rock pieces recalling ’70s outfits such as Nektar, Klaatu and Lighthouse (if they fired the horn section). Tight harmonies, swirling bits of organ, varying tempos, violent mood swings — it’s heavy, man. Yet the guys pull it off without sounding pretentious. After “Category 5 Sexplosion” closes, you WANT to move forward.
That’s when you’re greeted with the ska-tinged frolic of “Fun Loving Song,” the rollicking “Face Off” and a host of other tracks digging up sounds as disparate as early Red Hot Chili Peppers to prime Screaming Trees. Yet Family Animals continues to blaze new trails (as opposed to just soaking up grooves from the past 45 years).
The boys refuse to be pigeonholed. “Climax” is a trippy experiment that rarely falters.
BUY IT? Yep.