SIR SLY – Don’t You Worry Honey
THE GOOD: Los Angeles indie pop trio Sir Sly comes back with their second.
THE BAD: Did the band dodge the sophomore slump? Perhaps, but they also made a record VERY SIMILAR to 2014’s “You Haunt Me.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: But what could we expect? Sir Sly is yet another generic rock/electronic hybrid churning out “safe” stuff for movie trailers aimed at teens, video game soundtracks, and commercial alternative radio stations too damn complacent to take a chance on anything genuinely innovative.
Joywave. Saint Motel. X Ambassadors. Sir Sly. It’s all the same musical twaddle. A melody grabs you here; a beat pushes you there. But nothing sticks. “Honey” could be a decent jogging record or i-Phone album for those long subway commutes (oh wait — we don’t do that here in NEPA). Other than that though, the set just gets lost in the Spotify shuffle.
BUY IT? Download if you must. But skipping it altogether won’t leave a gaping hole in any collection or playlist.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – The Echo of Pleasure
THE GOOD: New York indie pop outfit PBPH come back with a mature fourth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: PBPH is essentially a Kip Berman solo outing on this record. He’s getting older; his life in transition. Berman is now married with a kid. The songwriting and spirit of the whole affair reflects these changes.
Still, “Pleasure” remains another sparkling ’80s throwback from a guy who knows how to crank out a satisfying bouncy pop song. This time though, the arrangements are more complex; layered keyboards and neon guitars weaving their way in and out of the mix. In strict retro terms, it’s less Depeche Mode and more Psychedelic Furs.
Everything clicks from the swirling “My Only” to the energetic “When I Dance with You.” Female vocalist/keyboardist Jen Goma helps out on harmonies again. When she takes the lead on “So True,” one hears echoes of New Order side project the Other Two. Good stuff all around.
BUY IT?: Yes.
TORO Y MOI – Boo Boo
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/producer Chaz Bear (stage name Toro Y Moi) offers up his fifth.
THE BAD: “Boo Boo” is another “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” record. The entire affair (especially the first half) flows amazingly well; the individual pieces complementing each other perfectly. Separate the songs though and some can’t stand on their own.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Boo Boo” is less “chill” and more indie pop. Bear continues to gain confidence as a frontman and has further embraced traditional song structures. Tracks like the easy-going melancholy funk jam “Mirage” and the cozy rhythmic sunshine that is “Girl like You” feel effortless; music made for spur-of-the-moment carefree Saturday afternoons. And as the sun sets, we sway to the swirling yearning spread over “You and I.”
“Boo Boo” finds that balance between the ambient and the focused. The music wraps around the listener like a warm blanket yet always maintains that all-important groove.
BUY IT?: Your call.
WASHED OUT – “Mister Mellow”
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/producer/chillwave artist Ernest Greene (professional moniker Washed Out) flips labels (now it’s hip-hop outlet Stones Throw) and comes back with his third, the audio/visual “Mister Mellow.”
THE BAD: A little more music would have been nice. “Mellow” clocks out at about 29 minutes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Buy the physical release, and you get a CD and a DVD. The music on both is identical; the DVD simply complementing the tunes with a bunch of makeshift cut-and-paste videos. It’s a cool addition, but the enhancement isn’t completely necessary.
The tracks end up the usual blend of electronic pop and “chill” aesthetics. Although more pronounced disco beats enter the mix now and again. Half the tracks possess traditional structures, the other half are brief “links” and spoken word bits. The entire album flows seamlessly; its mood shifting in places but never outright changing. Close your eyes and drift (don’t need the DVD if that’s your preference) or move to this steady stuff. Either option works.
BUY IT?: Yes.
PVRIS – “All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell”
THE GOOD: Massachusetts alt-rockers Pvris (pronounced “Paris”) come back with their second.
THE BAD: Not much to embrace here.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by female vocalist/guitarist Lynn Gunn, Pvris began as a metal band, but as they progressed, pop and electronic elements began seeping into the tunes. So we now have a concoction that sort of resembles vintage Evanescence crossed with current Paramore and about 35 other nameless bands that up end on the Vans Warped Tour every summer. This stuff is kind of engaging in spots, but otherwise mostly cloying, forgettable and downright dull.
I was suckered in by the rhythmic bounce of catchy single “What’s Wrong” and soon realized that the rest of the album was a pale imitation of that stand-out track. “All We Know of Heaven” is mostly textbook overly dramatic, heavy alt-rock with some decent beats buried beneath the din. After a while, it’s all just so tedious.
BUY IT?: Oh no.
ZOLA JESUS – “Okovi”
THE GOOD: American singer/songwriter/producer Nicole Hummel (stage name Zola Jesus) comes back with her fifth, and strongest in quite some time.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Okovi” is a case of beauty created out of tragedy. Since 2014’s “Taiga,” Hummel saw some of her closest friends grapple with death (disease and attempted suicide) in addition to the singer herself visiting some gloomy personal places. One could view this new record as a walk toward the light.
For “Okovi” brings together its dark past with a sense of hope for the future. The arrangements are stirring; the singer using a small string orchestra to great dramatic effect. The synthetics often take a back seat to more organic elements. However, when the beats do kick in they are all the more effective. The melodies on top are bolder this time too; Hummel’s singing strong and assured over waves of both delicate splendor and harsh distortion. It’s rare when what is essentially an electronic album feels this “human.”
BUY IT?: Yes.
BULLY – “Losing”
THE GOOD: Nashville alt-grunge rockers Bully obliterate the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Alicia Bognanno is not just the woman in front of this band. She also writes, produces and engineers the entire affair. Make no mistakes — Bully is HER show. After releasing a somewhat polished debut on Columbia, 2015’s “Feels Like,” Bully has jumped over to indie mainstay Sub Pop (probably a better fit for the band’s aesthetic).
“Losing” is a much more harried affair than its predecessor. The mix is raw; the angst factor cranked up. The buzzing guitars sound like vintage Breeders. Bognanno’s ragged vocals resemble Bettie Serveert’s Carol Van Dijk if that singer chain-smoked two packs of cigarettes after pummeling her boyfriend.
The melodies are important and the hooks are certainly present. However this time, it’s more about their delivery and the fits of frustration behind it. “Losing” is both spontaneous and relentless; a record that could explode at any second. Embrace that urgency.
BUY IT?: Yes.
PRIMUS – “The Desaturating Seven”
THE GOOD: California indie rockers Primus get weirder than usual on their ninth.
THE BAD: Primus are going through their “covers and/or concept albums” phase. Be wary.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Last time it was an album reinventing the songs from 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Now, it’s a rock opera of sorts based upon the children’s book “The Rainbow Goblins.”
Their absurd mix of rock, funk, metal and prog remains intact, as does the tight musicianship. Bassist/frontman Les Claypool and original drummer Tim Alexander play off one another flawlessly, thereby re-forming one of the greatest current rhythm sections in rock. Guitarist Larry LaLonde is no slouch either; his playing highly intricate and innovative.
However, the album becomes bogged down by its concept. The arrangements are overly ambitious; the melodies far too complex in spots. Primus ends up in strange half-baked King Crimson territories. Listening with a critical ear proves difficult. Maybe this stuff is better when you’re stoned.
BUY IT?: Unless you’re an absolute Primus/Claypool fanatic, NO.
BATTLEME – “Cult Psychotica”
THE GOOD: American singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Matt Drenik (stage name Battleme) returns with a blazing fourth.
THE BAD: “Cult Psychotica” gets “jammy” in spots. Don’t expect a tightly crafted set. This one goes for volume and spontaneity. Nothing “bad” about that.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Recorded in Drenik’s own Portland, Oregon studio during frenzied sessions that took about a week to complete, “Psychotica” possesses a unique urgency that draws us into the party immediately. The fiery “No Truth” hits the ground running, and from there, Drenik barely lets us catch our collective breath.
Whether it’s the crashing “Hot Mess” (which eventually crashes and BURNS) or the steady funk rolling beneath “Misfit Honey Bear,” Drenik maintains a happy medium between classic rock swagger and modern rock bombast. You hear trashy Brownsville Station but one also detects the rhythmic tendencies of the Rapture. The messiness of prime early Alice Cooper echoes underneath while the Black Angels’ brashness rings across the top. It all works.
BUY IT?: Sure … and then CRANK it.
MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA – A Black Mile to the Surface
THE GOOD: Atlanta, Ga. indie rockers Manchester Orchestra give us an epic fifth.
THE BAD: No genuine gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Songwriter/guitarist/frontman Andy Hull is the only original member left standing. On “Black Mile,” a record inspired by the old mining town of Lead, South Dakota, he conjures up widescreen multi-faceted sounds that feel like a cross between Silversun Pickups and more folk-based stuff such as Band of Horses or early Mumford & Sons (minus all the banjos). And when layer upon layer of voices begin chiming in, a smattering of Sigur Ros enters the mix too.
“Lead, SD” booms to a roaring climax. “The Alien” draws us in on gently flowing and ghostly melodies. “The Wolf” brings in tumbling beats and ominous guitars creating a darker more dangerous mood. Every piece is interconnected; “Black Mile” almost crashing beneath its own weight. Thankfully, Hull never lets that happen. The songs themselves are never drowned out by its own complicated settings.
BUY IT?: Yes.
DEATH FROM ABOVE – Outrage Is Now
THE GOOD: After dropping the “1979” from their moniker, Canadian dance/punk duo Death From Above (multi-instrumentalist Jesse Keeler and vocalist/drummer Sebastien Grainger) come back with their third.
THE BAD: No worries.
THE NITTY GRITTY: I only say “dance” punk because the rhythms under the searing guitars have always been so thick and penetrating. They’re just as important to the whole mess as the din above. Those driving beats blast away once again on “Outrage.”
Only now, the riffs and melodies on top seem sharper. Keeler and Sebastien are getting older; the once angry 20-somethings have hit their 40’s. And while age could be a detriment to some, it’s making music from the DFA universe much more satisfying. Tracks like “Freeze Me” and “Nvr 4Evr” pull you in with their dedicated hooks; the song craft is strong. Other cuts such as “Caught Up” and “Statues” find a heavy almost aggressive FUNK springing up in all the right places; very punchy, very contagious.
BUY IT?: Sure.
BLACK KIDS – Rookie
THE GOOD: It took almost a decade, but Florida indie pop outfit Black Kids finally release their second album.
THE BAD: “Rookie” is good but not exactly the trailblazing comeback after a nine-year hiatus. Commercially, it could be a case of “too little, too late.” How many people in the room actually remember “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You?”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Listen to “Rookie” strictly on its own merits though, and you’ll enjoy it. Black Kids are still flashing back to 80’s college radio. The first half of the record boasts fine examples of retro jangle pop; melancholy tracks like “In a Song” and “V-Card” harken back to long-cherished album cuts from R.E.M.’S IRS days or the Smiths.
“Rookie’s” second half finds more prominent beats sneaking into the songs. From the disco trash slathered all over “Natural Born Kissers” to the naughty party anthem “Obligatory Drugs,” the band stops taking themselves too seriously and shows us a good time.
BUY IT?: Sure.
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.