LONE LADIES —
JENNY LEWIS — The Voyager
THE GOOD: Indie singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis is finally back.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s been six years since Lewis’ last solo outing and four since her collaboration with Jonathan Rice. Last year saw a Rilo Kiley rarities collection (that band now officially and sadly defunct), but new music from the indie goddess is more than welcome.
Produced by Ryan Adams, The Voyager is easily the slickest record in Lewis’ solo catalog. Rabbit Fur Coat (2006) and Acid Tongue (2008) both leaned heavily in the realm of alt-country and modern folk — rock albums at their core but with a dominating homespun charm. This new record is more straight-forward indie pop and the closest Lewis has ever come to her past in the aforementioned Rilo Kiley.
Adams’ precise production helps make confident tunes like “Head Underwater” and “Just One of the Guys” cool and breezy, but the end results never feel over-produced. We end up with a simmering West Coast collection that rarely falters.
BUY IT?: Surely.
SINEAD O’CONNOR — I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss
THE GOOD: Indie legend and Irish bad girl Sinead O’Connor is back with her tenth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: If 2012’s How About I Be Me (And You Be You) was seen as the singer/songwriter’s return to form, I’m the Boss is its logical follow-up. When taken together, both records find the quality of O’Connor’s work on an upswing.
Lyrically, O’Connor breaks away from the politics and social causes (for the most part) and focuses on her (or someone’s) sexuality, relationships and life experiences. Musically, the set is the usual mix of cathartic pop, slightly funky pieces and gentle yet stirring moments. The new album has more teeth though; O’Connor not holding back the raw emotion on jagged cuts like “The Voice of My Doctor” and “Take Me to Church.”
BUY IT?: Yes. More than 25 years into a truly eclectic career, the woman still possesses one of the most haunting and seductive female voices on the planet.
KAREN O — Crush Songs
THE GOOD: Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O offers up a solo record.
THE BAD: Practically an album of finished and unfinished demos, Crush Songs is a very off-the-cuff intimate affair. Don’t expect a fully realized studio effort.
THE NITTY GRITTY: According to the liner notes, O wrote and recorded these songs in private when she was “crushing a lot.” So there’s a sense of urgency, perhaps getting the tunes on tape before the current crush dissipated and all of the emotion disappeared. Most of the tracks are lo-fi studies of just O and her acoustic guitar, yet some boast rudimentary drum machines, echo and double-tracked voices. A couple even sound finished to the point that they would probably make decent YYY cuts (“Day Go By” has definite potential).
In the end though, Crush Songs feels messy and self-indulgent —compelling only to those rabid fans that must hear absolutely everything this woman has ever recorded
BUY IT?: Meh … only obsessive Yeah Yeah Yeahs people need apply.
PHASED IN AND
CYMBALS EAT GUITARS — Lose
THE GOOD: New Jersey indie rockers Cymbals Eat Guitars bring the noise on their third full-length.
THE BAD: The guys make you work for it. Lose is good — maybe even great — but it takes a few spins to fully sink in.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After some line-up changes, CEG now feels more like an actual band and less like a group of temporary players subject to the whims of vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Joseph D’Agostino. Lose is more cohesive than the first two records.
Bringing in elements of loud shoegaze, early Pavement and sprawling Built to Spill, the guys make a big noise that falls somewhere between post-punk’s sloppy urgency and progressive rock’s intricate unpredictability. Some tracks like soaring opener “Jackson” twist and turn, unafraid of changing textures and tempos, while others such as “XR” spit fire and get to the point. “Child Bride” is achingly tragic. “Chambers” gets down after dark. Who knows what’s next?
BUY IT?: Yes. If nothing else, Lose remains intensely interesting.
GRACES DOWNFALL — Change Adjust Continue
THE GOOD: NEPA’s own Graces Downfall releases their third full-length.
THE BAD: Fresh? Exciting? Maybe not.
THE NITTY GRITTY: OK, these guys are tight. The band fires off a scorching mix of what used to be “alternative” with a fierce layer of metal over the top. I suspect there are probably more than a few Staind, Tool and Papa Roach CDs lurking in these dudes’ old music collections.
But that’s the problem. GD is everything you hated about the late 90s and mainstream aggro-rock in general. Nothing here is as bad as … say … Puddle of Mudd, but it’s hard to take the heavy-handed social commentary of an angst-riddled song like “Scranton” seriously. And closing cut “Leah” is easily the most cloying ballad about a kid since Creed’s “With Eyes Wide Open.” Her smile so perfect/Without a tooth.
BUY IT?: I know the band has legions of local fans … so support them if you must. The rest of us will just move on and never speak of Change again.
ROYAL BLOOD — Royal Blood
THE GOOD: British duo Royal Blood studies the basics on their tough debut.
THE BAD: Nothing “bad” — just old fashioned blues-based rock ‘n’ roll. No innovation, but the record cranks.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Following other modern “revival” acts such as Wolfmother and Rival Sons, Royal Blood is simply the latest English collective supposedly saving “real” rock. You get a mix of those aforementioned acts along with some Raconteurs/Dead Weather Jack White-type stuff and a sprinkle of the Black Keys.
All the songs come in around three minutes so there’s no room for elaborate solos or progressive posturing. Tunes like “Out of the Black” and “Careless” make their point and get out of the way for the next blast of power-packed rocket fuel. Vocalist/bassist Mike Kerr cites Queens of the Stone Age as a major influence and you can hear that. Royal Blood is crunchy and tight, but also melodic in all the right places.
BUY IT?: Sure. The album may be flawed but it leaves us wanting more.
NOISE FROM THE SHADOWS
SPOON — They Want My Soul
THE GOOD: After taking time off to recharge their batteries, Texas indie rockers Spoon return with a rock solid eighth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontman/songwriter Britt Daniel and his crew could take their blend of no-nonsense soulful rock with its airtight rhythms and bruised guitars, make the same album over and over again and not too many people would complain. Their stuff always turns out sneakily intelligent and incredibly infectious.
Perhaps the secret to Spoon’s longevity though is the fact they could keep making the same record, but don’t. Every jewel in the catalog has its own unique twist. On Soul, the band sounds more aware (proud?) of its identity than ever before. Songs like “Knock Knock Knock,” “Let Me Be Mine” and the title cut buzz and hum like a well oiled machine yet still retain a slightly dangerous spontaneity. This train can spin off the rails at any time, but we’re still grooving.
BUY IT?: Oh yes.
INTERPOL — El Pintor
THE GOOD: New York indie rockers Interpol have regrouped and now offer their fifth.
THE BAD: The band has yet to top their first two records (2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights and 2004’s Antics). El Pintor also doesn’t, but it’s a step in the right direction and comes in at a not-too-distant third.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Now a trio, the band took time off after touring behind their weakest, 2010’s maudlin self-titled effort. They sound re-energized. While El Pintor doesn’t reek of innovation or much progression, the songs are certainly better.
There are moody bits harkening back to the band’s haunting debut; slow burns like “Breaker 1” and “Twice and Hard.” For the most part though, the set is big on jagged guitars and rhythms stacked with forward momentum. Cuts like “All the Rage Back Home” and “Everything Is Wrong” retain the dark atmosphere, but also pack on the forceful backbeats and killer hooks.
BUY IT?: Yes. Then dig in deep or just enjoy the ride.
DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979 — The Physical World
THE GOOD: Canadian dance/punk duo DFA79 (drummer/vocalist Sebastien Grainger and bassist/keyboardist Jesse F. Keeler) return with a blistering sophomore effort.
THE BAD: Ten years is a long time to wait for a second album. Expectations may be too high.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The guys broke up due to “creative differences” after touring for 2004’s genre-bending You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. The two later shook hands in 2011, played some shows and finally got around to recording the Physical World with producer Dave Sardy (Cold War Kids, Nine Inch Nails, OK GO).
We get 11 fiery anthems in 36 minutes, with the record’s sequencing frantic and leaving little room to breathe. Tracks like “Right On Frankenstein” and “Gemini” blur the lines between punk and the electronic, garage rock and even nu metal. The duo madly jumps amongst the varying styles with wicked abandon. The end result is punchy, loud and catchy — not necessarily a bold step forward, but it gets the job done.
BUY IT?: Sure.
FLIGHTS OF FANCY
BLEACHERS — Strange Desire
THE GOOD: Jack Antonoff, mastermind of Fun, starts a new band and calls it Bleachers.
THE BAD: Fun isn’t finished, so it’s difficult to look at Strange Desire as little more than an accomplished side project. Maybe forget all the “band parameters” and just go with it?
THE NITTY GRITTY: The album’s first half isn’t all that different from a Fun set with Antonoff churning out tight catchy indie pop anthems like the seamless “Rollercoaster” and fist-pumping sing-along “I Wanna Get Better.”
The second half of Strange Desire finds our boy stretching beyond previous boundaries, collaborating with the likes of electronic pixie Grimes (the liquid “Take Me Away”) and legendary avant-garde artist Yoko Ono (the ghostly “I’m Ready to Move On/Wild Heart Reprise”).
Antonoff ends up creating something miles apart from Fun and yet this new music somehow complements the work of his already established band. Longtime fans will find themselves challenged in spots, but they should all discover much to embrace.
BUY IT?: Sure.
BASEMENT JAXX — Junto
THE GOOD: British electronic duo Basement Jaxx (DJ’s/producers/composers Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton) are back with their seventh full-length (and first in five years) Junto.
THE BAD: A Basement Jaxx record has never sounded this “safe.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: The first half of Junto finds the guys stuck in a dance-pop rut, cranking out a half dozen house cuts with textbook rhythms and interchangeable guest vocalists taking the leads.
The second half sees the boys getting more adventurous so there is some recovery. Cuts like the off-center and cheeky “Buffalo” and the stomping exotic “Mermaid of Salinas” recall some of the more lively jams from earlier triumphs Rooty (2001) and Crazy Itch Radio (2006). But even those vast improvements might be too little, too late. Junto puts you in an indifferent mood early on, like being trapped at a party that just isn’t happening. Maybe dive into the record’s second half first?
BUY IT?: Your choice. Hopefully the next set will be more exciting.
LETTING UP DESPITE GREAT FAULTS — Neon
THE GOOD: Texas-based indie dream-pop outfit Letting Up Despite Great Faults returns with their ethereal third full-length.
THE BAD: A handful of the songs feel half-cooked — petering out before reaching their final glorious destination. After awhile though, Neon becomes more about an overall vibe anyway, with the individual parts forming a much greater whole.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontman and founder Mike Lee keeps things beat-driven but airy. Annah Fisette adds more Technicolor to the proceedings by offering up female vocals of which Lee can play off; the two voices ending up somewhere between the Postal Service and vintage Book of Love.
One detects shades of early Cure during the faster jagged bits and snippets of mid-period New Order within some of the basslines. Then you have the obligatory comparisons to contemporaries like M83 and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
The entire brew becomes something very retro, melodic, rhythmic and hypnotic. So dance or drift — the choice is entirely yours.
BUY IT?: Sure.
THE INTENSITY VARIES
STAGNANT POOLS — Geist
THE GOOD: Indiana indie duo Stagnant Pools (brothers Bryan and Douglass Enas) give us a fiery, spontaneous second effort.
THE BAD: It takes a while for Geist to sink in — what seems one-dimensional at first sounds more fully realized later. Give it a fair shot.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After releasing their first album, Temporary Room, two years ago, the brothers were rightfully compared to a lot of noise-infused acts like Joy Division, Sonic Youth and especially the Jesus and Mary Chain. Those feedback-heavy elements are certainly present on Geist.
However, there’s now another vibe running through this wicked live-to-tape album that was completely recorded and mixed in the span of about five days. I was reminded of the better American rock bands that were an offshoot of the grunge movement almost 25 years ago — rough-around-the-edges outfits like Screaming Trees, Paw and Jawbox. There’s a very effective “murkiness” flooding Geist; a fresh take on some long dormant sounds.
BUY IT?: Sure.
REIGNING SOUND — Shattered
THE GOOD: North Carolina indie rockers Reigning Sound come back sharper after a five-year hiatus.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/guitarist/songwriter Greg Cartwright has always been the one constant in this band of revolving-door musicians; a slave to the garage-rock ethos since long before garage rock was the “new” thing at the turn of our century. Back in 2001, the White Stripes and the Strokes got the glory. Cartwright was just as authentic.
Subsequent years and releases have seen more roots and country elements sneaking their way into the tunes, but Cartwright has never sacrificed rawness. Shattered finds the band with a fresh lineup and a sound that’s equal parts contemporary (Wilco and Jack White) and a throwback to our distant blues/rock past (Canned Heat and Country Joe & the Fish). There’s even a dash of Memphis soul sprinkled over a few cuts.
Ballad (“I’m Trying”) or forceful rocker (“North Cackalacky Girl”) — Reigning Sound tackles them both with equal skill and passion.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
THE LAST INTERNATIONALE — We Will Reign
THE GOOD: Politically charged New York rockers the Last Internationale unleash a blazing debut.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This down-and-dirty power trio consists of newcomers Delila Paz and Edgey Pires, along with veteran drummer Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave). And while their music may not be quite as incendiary as RATM’s, there’s still a lot of fire (and a definite agenda) in tunes like “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood” and “Killing Fields.”
Musically, Reign is straight-forward rough-and-tough blue collar rock ‘n’ roll — no frills, no B.S. The band, along with veteran producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, the Offspring), gives this lean, mean album plenty of muscle. The brazen bits show their razor-sharp teeth, while the more delicate pieces roll around in a nice bluesy swagger. Paz is already a fierce bad-ass rocker chick and the band itself is airtight.
BUY IT?: You must. We Will Reign is one of this year’s finest debuts.
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?
NoNoNo — We Are Only What We Feel
THE GOOD: Swedish trio NoNoNo delivers a bouncy debut full-length.
THE BAD: Feel is catchy, but incredibly hollow.
THE NITTY GRITTY: We essentially have two producers and a female vocalist conjuring up modern indie pop in the sing-song folksy half-acoustic, half-electric tradition of contemporaries like Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. This is the stuff wholly embraced by editors who cut movie trailers for teen flicks, ad men pitching ideas to cell phone companies and modern rock radio programmers who like to keep it dull and not too “edgy.”
You get by-the-numbers feel-good fluffy music that sets your toes-a-tapping and turns your brain to mush. The trio actually scored a genuine hit last fall with the joyfully whistling “Pumping Blood” (included here). Feel is nine more tracks cut from the same cloth — infectious little stompers that bleed into one another after about 15 minutes. Nothing disagreeable, but nothing very memorable either.
BUY IT?: Whatever.
BISHOP ALLEN — Lights Out
THE GOOD: Brooklyn indie rockers Bishop Allen return with their first proper record in five years.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Lights Out works on different levels. On the surface, it’s a damn infectious indie pop record. Songs like bright opener “Start Again” and the slightly melancholy “Good Talk” are built with decent beats and better melodies.
Listen again and complexities begin to bubble to the surface. Lights Out is much more varied than you initially thought. Amongst all the sheer pop bombast are tunes like “Black Hole” and “Shadow;” gentler emotional moments made even more distinct by Darbie Nowatka’s female vocals. Tracks such as “Hammer and Nail” and “Bread Crumbs” dial up the album’s quirky elements; nothing wrong with these off-center rhythms and weird lyrical images.
It all adds up to a mostly upbeat collection that can enhance your next intimate get together, Sunday morning lay-about or headphones session. Lights Out is worthy of your undivided attention yet doesn’t demand it.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
PHOX — Phox
THE GOOD: Wisconsin indie pop outfit Phox releases a decent debut.
THE BAD: The set loses momentum around its middle and never fully recovers. This is definitely a record of highs and lows.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Led by the low-key yet charming Monica Martin, Phox could cozy up to other modern folk-influenced acts like Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. They certainly use enough acoustic guitars and banjos to warrant the comparison. But Phox also injects a healthy dose of twee into their sound, recalling European female-fronted acts like the Concretes and Camera Obscura.
Intentional or not, this band defies simple categorization and that keeps things interesting. While floating through this eponymous debut, one experiences many flavors, from the gently rolling “1936” to the intensely melancholy “Laura” to the more monumental “Raspberry Seed.”
BUY IT?: Give Phox a shot. Though not flawless, the record finds the band establishing an almost “international” style and laying the groundwork for even better releases further down the road.
LANA DEL REY — Ultraviolence
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Elizabeth Grant (stage persona Lana Del Rey) gives us a dramatic third album.
THE BAD: In essence, Ultraviolence is a “downer.” But there’s no denying the album’s overall quality and uniqueness.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Del Rey is a woman on a downward spiral, obsessed with bad relationships, the seedy underbelly of urban living, drugs and ultimately death. Most tracks are slow to mid-tempo explorations of these “indulgences” sung in Del Rey’s unaffected contralto.
Mostly produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Ultraviolence plays like a modern blues collection filtered through a thin layer of Hollywood gloss, not completely authentic but still gritty and grainy. One could compare the record to Cat Power’s more haunted works or the stripped-down bits of a Bat for Lashes collection.
Tracks like the title cut and “West Coast” keep things good and gloomy even when the tempos shift slightly upward. The retro fitted “Brooklyn Baby” is strictly for the East Coast hipster in all of us.
BUY IT?: Still … definitely.
ROYKSOPP AND ROBYN — Do It Again
THE GOOD: Swedish indie pop queen Robyn teams up with Norwegian electronic duo Royksopp (again) and the end results are nothing short of hypnotizing.
THE BAD: Do It Again falls into that “feels like a side project” trap. But it’s a damn accomplished side project.
THE NITTY GRITTY: These two not-so-disparate acts worked together before on each other’s albums so they were already past the awkward “getting acquainted” phase. But since those past collaborations were always limited to a cut or two, Do It Again really allowed all involved to stretch their collective creativity.
Tight cuts like the thumping title track and the more flirtatious (OK, robotic and sex-crazed) “Sayit” are textbook examples of pristine electronic pop. Longer pieces such as “Monument” and “Inside the Idle Hour Club” are more serious, introspective and seductive in a different way — the works fragile and dreamlike.
BUY IT?: Yes! A full album would have been better, but this 35-minute EP is a pairing that should be savored.
LA ROUX — Trouble In Paradise
THE GOOD: British electronic duo (now solo act) La Roux is back with their (her) sophomore record.
THE BAD: That’s right. Producer Ben Langmaid has left the building, leaving songwriter/vocalist Elly Jackson to go it alone — not that it makes much difference. The new music on Paradise is still slick, catchy and danceable. But was it worth a five-year wait?
THE NITTY GRITTY: That could be Paradise’s biggest problem. So much stuff has happened musically since “Bulletproof” was a hit, you sort of forgot about La Roux. Your inner critic may feel somewhat shortchanged by the new record after the long gap since Jackson’s debut.
In the end, Paradise is just a modern synth-pop record. Good? Yes. Amazingly innovative? Hardly. Tracks like “Cruel Sexuality” and “Silent Partner” are seamless and solid, built with airtight rhythms and big melodies. No bad cuts here, but no great ones either. One will want to visit Paradise without staying too long.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
Torch Song Trilogy
THIEVERY CORPORATION — Saudade
THE GOOD: Electronic duo Thievery Corporation (Rob Garza and Eric Hilton) unleash something much more organic than usual.
THE BAD: Saudade is fine, but not nearly as exciting as other TC records.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Here the guys totally embrace the bossa nova. They’ve flirted with elements of this seductive jazzy Brazilian genre before, but this set takes that admiration to a whole new level. Ninety-five percent of the instrumentation is traditional — Spanish guitars, strings, layers of live percussion, etc. They’ve recruited a bevy of female vocalists to purr and coo in our ear, recalling the inimitable style of Astrud Gilberto. The electronics are practically nonexistent. Lyrically, politics are never mentioned.
TC has actually pulled off this radical musical experiment. Saudade is a warm and inviting set. However, the genre hopping and unpredictability of recent collections is sorely missed.
BUY IT?: Your call. Saudade is pretty enough, but the record blends into the background, becoming nothing more than the perfect soundtrack for your next dinner party.
JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN — The Classic
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Joan Wasser returns with her fourth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Wasser has always blurred the lines between the disparate genres of indie rock and modern R&B. Her roots are in indie, having spent the 90s as electric violinist for Boston faves the Dambuilders. But when it was time to finally sing, her voice came out with a lot of soul.
Any JAPW album has its share of complex arrangements (even dipping a toe in the jazz pool), rough-around-the-edges guitar, brash horn sections, and Wasser’s rich vocal treatments. The Classic is no exception. And as usual, the woman isn’t afraid to let the songs spread out and go wherever they please.
“What Would You Do” begins life loudly before morphing into an intimate one-woman show. “Good Together” is the exact opposite; a resonant low-burning piece that later spins into chaos. “Shame” is powerful (and danceable) driven soul; “Ask Me” a dose of dusty reggae.
BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
WHITE HINTERLAND — Baby
THE GOOD:American singer/songwriter/pianist Casey Dienel gives us her third under the moniker White Hinterland.
THE BAD: Baby isn’t a breezy listen. Dienel challenges her audience throughout this somewhat jagged set. Not “bad,” but be prepared.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The woman flirts with modern R&B and even jazz overtones on some of these cuts. Dienel bounces between stark intimate performances (just her and the 88 keys) and more fully produced and abrasive electronic-leaning tracks. Sometimes Baby is reminiscent of early Fiona Apple. Other times it spins off into weirder Bjork territories. Luckily for Dienel, she’s equally competent in either setting.
Better moments include the rhythmic yet dreamlike “Ring the Bell” (a throwback to 2010’s more fragile Kairos), the red-hot sexually charged “Metronome” and the memorable “Wait Until Dark” which finds the singer alone and at her most vulnerable. Dienel spikes certain performances with genuine emotional chaos, all the while turning up the drama to make the proceedings even more riveting.
BUY IT?: Yes.
Mike Evans is a super cool radio guy who doesn’t mess around when it comes to music. Sounds appears weekly in electric city and diamond city. Send email to: email@example.com.
JACK WHITE — Lazaretto
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/guitarist Jack White returns with his second solo outing.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: All throughout his days with the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather (those latter two bands are still together in some form), White has always done so much with just the basics. Blues with a definite rock slant is at the heart of the man’s work; White is an accomplished guitarist who keeps his playing pure as opposed to flashy.
Lazaretto is the guy’s first record without a succinct direction, but he manages to hold the set together and make it work. Instead of just focusing on the thunderous garage rock of the Stripes, or the raw male-female vocal interplay from the Weather, or even the folk and country flirtations that seep in on many occasions, Lazaretto combines all of these sounds to become a varied collection that rarely stumbles. The music seems to guide White this time, as opposed to the other way around.
BUY IT?: Yes.
FIRST AID KIT — Stay Gold
THE GOOD: Swedish duo (and sisters) First Aid Kit sign to a major label (Columbia), unleash their sparkling third album and offer up their most ambitious stuff yet.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s funny (or sad when thinking about the pathetic state of mainstream country these days), but one of the most authentic and American sounding records this year will be Stay Gold — written and recorded by two young ladies from Sweden and produced by indie rock workhorse Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Tilly and the Wall, etc).
Once again, the sisters bring on their airtight and lilting harmonies over a steadily chugging backdrop of acoustic guitars, weeping pedal steels and glistening autoharp. The arrangements are fuller this time out, occasional orchestral elements adding color, but the basic aesthetic is still the same. First Aid Kit remains two girls singing about love, heartbreak, family and home; the music pure and relatable. And it’s all oh so good!
BUY IT?: You must.
THE ANTLERS — Familiars
THE GOOD: The Brooklyn indie rockers are back with a subdued fifth.
THE BAD: Be warned. Familiars is all about mood and texture; a low resonating album that builds oh-so-slowly.
THE NITTY GRITTY: But that moodiness is also the record’s greatest strength. While frontman Peter Silberman’s songs are good, they’re par for the course in the indie rock world. What sets them apart is the presentation. Familiars ends up being one of the most hauntingly striking records that’s come about in quite some time.
Smoky guitars and foggy piano combine with the most integral solo trumpet found in a rock band since the heyday of Cake. The rhythms are tight but never intrusive. Silberman’s vocals blend with the backdrops while not fading completely into them. It’s a noteworthy effect; all parts perfectly equal.
Familiars doesn’t have any weak moments, but the album peaks in the middle. Tracks like the mildly churning “Intruders” and the always escalating “Revisited” find the band at their most inspired.
BUY IT?: Yes.
TUNE-YARDS — Nikki Nack
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/performance artist Merrill Garbus brings her quirky brand of indie pop to a third full-length.
THE BAD: Expect the unexpected. Not “bad,” just a warning to those who can’t look outside traditional song structures or instrumentation.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Armed with a ukulele and a liberal agenda, Garbus creates rousing stomping sing-a-longs, children’s songs with a savage satirical wit and introspective bits where indie rock and tribal rhythms merge.
This time, Garbus went to Haiti for inspiration and came back with an underground version of Paul Simon’s the Rhythm of the Saints. The record feels that ambitious — certainly the most determined Tune-Yards set so far. One easily becomes wrapped up in the unrestrained shouts punctuating the infectious “Water Fountain” or the jingle-jangle pop embedded deep within the banging “Left Behind.” An odd moment like “Why Do We Dine on the Tots” adds even more flair to an already flamboyant collection.
BUY IT?: Be adventurous. Go for it!
CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH — Only Run
THE GOOD: Philly indie rockers CYHSY return with a haphazard fourth.
THE BAD: Only Run is a record of extreme highs and lows.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After some drastic line-up changes, founding member and frontman Alec Ounsworth seems to be the last man standing. That’s probably fine with him. The guy’s now free to move in any whimsical direction he chooses.
That freedom is both a blessing and a curse on Only Run. On the one hand, we get an eclectic unpredictable set boasting some good music. On the other hand, the lack of direction makes a few moments feel half-baked or ill conceived.
Ounsworth also seems to be suffering an identity crisis. He could be a new Radiohead (“Beyond Illusion”). With producer Dave Fridmann behind the mixing board, our boy can’t help but echo MGMT (the title cut). When Matt Berninger of the National shows up, Ounsworth seems to be channeling … well … The National.
BUY IT?: Your call. Run is good, but far from flawless.
THE DONKEYS — Ride the Black Wave
THE GOOD: San Diego indie rockers the Donkeys embrace the sun and surf on their fourth.
THE BAD: Wave isn’t a tight affair; the record more about mood than tight songwriting. It also practically demands you simply “go with the flow.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Laid-back and steady opener “Sunny Daze” sets the tone. Here the central character contemplates a life change, but you can tell he’s perfectly content to stay sun-baked, buzzed and right where he is. From there we move onto the honky-tonk tinged “I Heart Alabama,” sitar-laced instrumental “Imperial Beach,” and darker yet melodically appealing title cut.
There are times when these guys come off as the ultimate cross between slightly noisy indie aesthetics and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. Wave possesses an almost hypnotic ebb and flow, with the individual parts creating a greater whole capable of transporting you far away — but without that dippy Jack Johnson aftertaste.
BUY IT?: Sure. Summer will be over soon, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN — Meteorites
THE GOOD: British indie legends Echo and the Bunnymen remain enchanting after 35 years of on-again, off-again music making.
THE BAD: Their twelfth proper album Meteorites is good, but it further proves the band’s best days are behind them.
THE NITTY GRITTY: For awhile now, the group has been down to just its two core members — primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Ian McCulloch and lead guitarist Will Sergeant. There hasn’t been a permanent rhythm section for years. These guys are like the alternative version of The Who, being a proper band in name only.
Meteorites ends up a pleasant collection. Driven tunes like “Explosions” and “Lovers on the Run” recall the more accessible moments from the band’s mid-80’s heyday, but never quite match the memorable strains of a “Killing Moon” or “Lips Like Sugar.” At least they’re giving it a respectable effort.
BUY IT?: Your choice. Long-time fans will be satisfied. Newbies should seek out the classics.
BOB MOULD — Beauty and Ruin
THE GOOD: Ex-Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould continues his blistering solo career with another indie powerhouse.
THE BAD: Not much progression, but Mould’s tried-and-true formula hasn’t worn out its welcome.
THE NITTY GRITTY: This is Mould’s second consecutive album with his current rhythm section, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster. The last time the man was part of an indie trio this strong, it was the aforementioned Sugar. That’s probably why 2012’s Silver Age and this new record come gloriously close to the melodic intensity of the original pair of Sugar albums from two decades ago.
Beauty and Rain finds the guys turning up the distortion, punching up the rhythms and spreading some infectious tunes over the top of songs that would still work if only backed by acoustic guitar. Once again, that’s why the collection works so well. The songs are that good. We’re glad the works are loud and crunchy, but they don’t need to be.
BUY IT?: Yes.
MORRISSEY — World Peace Is None of Your Business
THE GOOD: British singer/songwriter and ex-Smith Morrissey gives us his tenth proper solo disc and first in half a decade.
THE BAD: It’s a Morrissey album, plain and simple. You either embrace his genius or find his world outlook too damn morose.
THE NITTY GRITTY: World Peace is solid. It’s not the man’s best, but a very good chapter in the expansive catalog. Produced by Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, the Shins), the record finds Morrissey delivering his usual brand of dramatic melodic indie pop, all while painting vivid, sarcastic and often critical pictures with his lyrics.
This time he takes on those who cause animal suffering (“The Bullfighter Dies”), politicians (the title cut), family traditionalists (“Kick the Bride Down the Aisle”) and a host of other usual targets. We’ve been here before so we should know what to expect. Thankfully, World Peace is so finely crafted, you don’t mind being dragged into this guy’s pit of despair yet again.
BUY IT?: Sure.
MOVE TO THIS
CHROMEO — White Women
THE GOOD: Funky Canadian duo Chromeo returns with their fourth and best yet.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The overall vibe of Chromeo’s records may have shifted since the 2004 debut She’s In Control, but there have been constants, too. A great beat always rules over (or under) their music and there’s always an infectious sense of fun running through their songs. As the band has moved forward, those songs have only gotten better.
White Girls really comes together as an awesome party disc, whether you’re in the middle of a raging bash or not. The songs ride airtight dance and disco beats, chugging rhythm guitars, the occasional sweeping string section and badass funk-infused basslines. Yet the compositions are so accomplished both lyrically and melodically, they transcend being just “retro kitsch.” Chromeo doesn’t shy away from bringing back the flavors and colors of the 70s and 80s, but their music remains thoroughly modern at the same time.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
HUNDRED WATERS — The Moon Rang Like a Bell
THE GOOD: Florida electronic outfit Hundred Waters dodges the sophomore slump.
THE BAD: Bell is a slow burn; give it a fair chance to grow on you.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Upon the first spin, you may be wondering exactly what this outfit is doing. Bell is extremely textural and a little too tranquil in spots. Remove the more pronounced beats and one could imagine this record echoing through the hallways of a day spa.
On the surface, the band seems all about the mood as opposed to individual songs. Tracks melt into one another, not one more distinct than the next. Listen a couple more times though and the pieces begin to truly sink in with the set redeeming itself. Cuts like “Innocent” and “Xtalk” end up delectable slices of electronics-infused indie pop — the vibe of Sigur Ros melding with the distinct vocals of frontwoman Nicole Miglis, traces of M83 and Bjork clanging deep within the mix.
BUY IT?: Sure.
LUST FOR YOUTH — International
THE GOOD: Swedish electronic artist Hannes Norrvide (stage moniker Lust for Youth) is back with his third and most accessible yet.
THE BAD: Nothing (unless you dislike more accomplished melodies and unmistakable flirtations with vintage synthpop).
THE NITTY GRITTY: Norrvide isn’t ready to progress beyond 1988 just yet. Here, the man steps into the light and fully embraces stuff that didn’t feel too out of place on the dance floor all those years ago. This record is more willing to lighten up, if only slightly.
One hears echoes of early Human League mixing with shades of Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. Norrvide doesn’t shy away from traditional song structures and, while the man may not possess the strongest singing presence, his vocal shortcomings are all part of the somewhat gloomy charm.
Tracks such as “Illume” and “New Boys” come complete with engaging melodies and well-defined multi-layered rhythms. The spoken word piece “Lungomare” is more delicate, even hypnotic — a nice throwback to OMD’s formative years.
BUY IT?: Surely.
A HAPHAZARD NIGHT OUT
DAMON ALBARN — Everyday Robots
THE GOOD: Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn releases his first proper solo effort.
THE BAD: Flat? A little bit.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Blur was one of the 90s finest British bands. Albums like Parklife (1994) and Great Escape (1995) were catchy eclectic slices of European life, completely accessible yet adventurous. Then Albarn became a key player in electronic collective Gorillaz whose trailblazing albums blurred the lines between rock, rap, world and dub.
Everyday Robots brings in elements from both of those dissimilar catalogs, but things get lost in translation. It never quite reaches the melodic and satirical highs of Blur or the bass-heavy rhythmic lows of Gorillaz. More compelling moments include the happy-go-lucky stomper “Mr. Tembo” and the eerie introspective “Hollow Ponds.” But too much of Robots feels like a shallow pairing of acoustic elements with modern soul, recalling yet another past Albarn project — The Good, the Bad and the Queen (2006). But even that original album felt more fleshed out.
BUY IT?: Your call.
CHERUB — Year of the Caprese
THE GOOD: Nashville R&B/electro-pop duo Cherub gives us their major label debut.
THE BAD: Plenty.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The guys have a legitimate hit on their hands with lead single “Doses and Mimosas,” a two-year-old track that went viral and is currently being reworked by Columbia (the major) to modern rock radio. It’s a funky jam, equal parts fresh soul and electronic mayhem. Too bad it’s also Caprese’s best moment.
I was hoping the cut would prepare us for better things. Nope. Caprese ends up being a sophomoric study in sex, drugs and sweating all night at the club. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a collection of this sort shouldn’t be … dull. Cherub can come off like a misguided Justin Timberlake pleading for indie-cred. And by the time we reach a laughable ode to exotic dancers called “Strip to This,” it’s difficult to take these guys seriously.
BUY IT?: Why would you? Besides, Calvin Harris and Chromeo are still much better at this sort of thing.
TOM VEK — Luck
THE GOOD: British multi-instrumentalist and all-around studio geek Tom Vek gives us his third.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It took six years for Vek to complete his second album, but only three to make Luck. I get the feeling he’s a guy that holes up in his studio and just experiments, working slowly and seeing where the songs take him. New records only happen when there are enough satisfactory “mistakes” to warrant an album.
Despite the unpredictability of it all (or maybe because of it), the end results rarely disappoint. Vek makes electronic-based indie pop tunes with strong rhythms, quirky keyboard arrangements and just the slightest post-punk attitude to toughen up the proceedings. He isn’t blessed with the best singing voice or range, but those shortcomings only add to the divine grittiness of the entire mess.
Tracks such as “Ton of Bricks” and “You’ll Stay” plod along with a buried but effective funk and melodies slick enough to get the job done.
BUY IT?: Sure.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE IS NOT SO STUPID
OLD 97’S — Most Messed Up
THE GOOD: Dallas alt-country indie rockers Old 97’s celebrate two decades together with a blistering tenth studio effort.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Any album from their catalog provides a hearty dose of heartbreak, irony, blood, sweat and beer. The earlier records may lean more toward the traditional side, but Old 97’s have always found that perfect boozy blend of country and power pop — songs with a homegrown vibe, but just enough rock bite to give them a necessary roughness.
Most Messed Up continues the tried and true tradition. It’s a ragged collection celebrating one night stands in honky-tonks and hotel rooms, too much whiskey and the dirty dusty glory of the open road. “Longer than You’ve Been Alive” is the coolest and most vivid song about touring in decades. “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” is just as rambunctious as you want it to be. “Wasted” reminds us the guys still have heart.
BUY IT?: Yep. This one’s damn near perfect.
CONOR OBERST — Upside Down Mountain
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter and ex-Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst is back with another solo turn.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Mountain is the guy’s first record since the end of Bright Eyes, with previous efforts released around that other outfit’s schedule. It’s also the 34-year-old’s first complete set after becoming a settled down married man, so his attitudes and outlook have shifted. He probably couldn’t have written a song like the totally endearing “You Are Your Mother’s Child” a decade ago.
Overall though, Mountain isn’t that different musically from the man’s past work. He still cranks out ringing folk-tinged rockers like “Zigzagging toward the Light” and “Kick,” painting each tune with either a bit of pathos or good humor depending upon the situation. More intimate moments such as “Lonely at the Top” and the aforementioned “Mother’s Child” further display the power and charm of his quivering vocals, with his unique personality sometimes found in his singing as opposed to his lyrics.
BUY IT?: Sure.
THE BLACK KEYS — Turn Blue
THE GOOD: Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney bring on a moody eighth.
THE BAD: Prepare for a change in tone. Not necessarily “bad.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: 2014 is slowly becoming the year of the “personal break-up album.” Not unlike recent turns by Coldplay and Lykke Li that found inspiration in lovers splitting up, Blue was partially influenced by Auerbach’s tumultuous divorce proceedings. The new album is also the Keys’ attempt at expanding their tried-and-true blues-rock formula and making a psychedelic headphones record.
On both fronts, Blue doesn’t fail, but don’t go in expecting a dozen new tracks like “Girl Is on My Mind” or “Lonely Boy.” Expansive, slow-building and spacey opening cut “Weight of Love” feels more like an Air song before the guitars begin to take over. “It’s Up To You Now” starts out riding a Bo Diddley shuffle before exploding into a cosmic jam. “In Our Prime” is more reflective than most anything the boys have done before.
BUY IT?: Still…absolutely.
IT’S LOUD IN HERE
CLOUD NOTHINGS — Here and Nowhere Else
THE GOOD: Cleveland indie rockers Cloud Nothings improve on their fourth.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Dylan Baldi and his crew further distance themselves from the humble beginnings of what was essentially Baldi’s bedroom/MySpace project. If there were any past doubts that Cloud Nothings were a real band, Nowhere Else should put those concerns to rest.
Solid melodies are spread all over this thing, but what’s more important is that the three guys are coming into their own, playing together and complementing each other. Still, the new album isn’t exactly a tight affair — far from it.
These songs are packed with nervous energy and a sense that things can go awry at any second. Tunes like “Just See Fear” and rollicking closer “I’m Not Part of Me” (the best is saved for last) cast shadows over that fine line between punk abandon and progressive indie rock. What we have is a brilliant study in controlled chaos.
BUY IT?: Yep.
THE PIXIES — Indie Cindy
THE GOOD: Indie legends the Pixies return with their first full-length in 23 years.
THE BAD: This reunion record cannot be expected to live up to the band’s enormous legacy.
THE NITTY GRITTY: You had to be there. The Pixies shook up a rock world dominated by aging dinosaurs and hair metal, circa 1987. Before their first split in 1992, the group released one EP and four LPs that are still considered one of the few near-perfect catalogues in rock.
Indie Cindy is an excellent indie rock record, but it’s not an excellent Pixies record. There’s a distinction. First of all, Kim Deal picked up her bass and left. She’s not here and Deal was an extremely integral part of the original equation. Second, Black Francis seems afraid to leave his comfort zone. The Pixies used to make dangerous records, game changers that shattered everyone’s expectations. Perhaps time has simply made everyone’s expectations too damn high. It’s a tough call.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
THE HORRORS — Luminous
THE GOOD: British indie rock chameleons the Horrors return with their fourth.
THE BAD: No real problems.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The Horrors are that rare band capable of radically changing their style without sounding desperate. The metamorphosis is a natural progression, a step in the right direction. Play the gothic garage noise on 2007’s Strange House and then the new record and you won’t think it’s the same group. Luminous is the first time The Horrors haven’t radically changed their sound since the last outing (it’s somewhat close to 2011’s Skying), but the new set still pushes forward.
This is their “spaced out rhythmic rock” album; songs filled with guitar flourishes and swirling keyboards and grooves that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Madchester classic circa 1990. “Chasing Shadows” kicks us off with a slow build before launching into a chugging churning Stone Roses-infused indie anthem. Then it’s all hooks, grooves and colorful neo-psychedelic textures. Not a bad way to spend the better part of an hour.
BUY IT?: Sure.