Returning favorites deliver effective sequels
Suede — ‘The Blue Hour’
THE GOOD: British indie rock group Suede comes back with its eighth, and third since the 2013 “rebirth.”
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Produced by the legendary Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, U2, Foals), “Blue Hour” is Suede at its most dynamic and dramatic. Still the modern kings of mid-tempo glam-rock swagger, frontman Brett Anderson and the guys once again embrace layered atmospherics and grand string arrangements, using them to great effect against the standard guitar-bass-drums rumble.
Songs such as “Wastelands” and “Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You” are equal parts blue melancholy and glorious sunshine — sad yet hopeful at the same time. Savor this record; the payoff is worth the effort. The individual parts shine, but when put together, the songs become all the more effective. The album builds to an early crescendo, followed by a final downward spiral meant to send us drifting after all the thunder and lightning. The extended anthem “Flytipping” makes for the perfect nightcap. When the music’s over, the emotions linger.
BUY IT?: Yes.
James — ‘Living in Extraordinary Times’
THE GOOD: British indie legend James comes back with an accomplished 15th.
THE BAD: Not really.
THE NITTY GRITTY: At this point, the band could stick to the winning ’90s Britpop formula that helped bring about its biggest commercial success. Or, it could go off on weird tangents and be a bunch of crazy, middle-aged men. Better yet, how about a happy medium?
That’s where “Extraordinary Times” lands. Frontman Tim Booth and his crew still possess massive pop chops, and they slather them all over big, soaring, melodic bits such as “Coming Home (Part 2)” and “Better Than That.” Then you get the more experimental (but NOT self-indulgent) stuff, such as biting, aggressive opener “Hank” and the buzzing, crackling political rant “Heads.” Booth never gets TOO comfortable, and nor should you.
James isn’t afraid to pull its music in a myriad of directions. That’s why we keep coming back after all this time. Quality and unpredictability maintained for over 30 years — you have to respect that.
BUY IT?: Yes.
Paul McCartney — ‘Egypt Station’
THE GOOD: Legendary rocker Paul McCartney treats us to his 24th post-Beatles studio effort.
THE BAD: Hey, it’s a McCartney record. There are both brilliant tunes and lesser moments. Thankfully, we get more good bits than bad.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The main collaborator this time is pop/rock producer Greg Kursten (Adele, Sia, the Bird and the Bee), who brings a modern polish to the proceedings.
At 76, McCartney could be accused of falling into some nostalgic trappings. “Happy with You” is a snappy little acoustic ditty about contentment. “Confidante” is yet another tune about (probably) John. However, this slightly sappy stuff has always been one of McCartney’s many musical fortes.
Other tracks on “Station” find the man rocking out (“Come on to Me”), getting topical (“People Want Peace”) and tossing us a few ascending ballads (“Do It Now”). None of it is very surprising, yet none of it is cringe-worthy, either. “Egypt Station” is what it is — McCartney being McCartney. We’ll take it.
BUY IT?: Sure.
Trio of indie rock groups shimmer in new releases
Interpol — ‘Marauder’
THE GOOD: New York City indie rock group Interpol comes back with a semi-blazing sixth.
THE BAD: “Marauder” is the band’s best record in a decade, but it doesn’t come close to the quiet power of its first two ground-breaking masterpieces — “Turn on the Bright Lights” (2002) and “Antics” (2004).
THE NITTY GRITTY: Of course, those records were released when Interpol was an integral part of a New York indie revival/revolution that also included the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Walkmen and a host of others. Today, Interpol isn’t part of any scene in particular, unless there’s a specific category for survivors.
This time, the band hired Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, MGMT) to produce, and he guides the boys through a set that’s more straight-forward and up-tempo than usual. The record lacks in murky, moody pieces such as the classic “NYC.” So the worst you could accuse “Marauder” of being is slightly one-dimensional. But the songwriting is sharp, and the guys are tight. Nicely done.
BUY IT?: Yes.
Death Cab for Cutie — ‘Thank You for Today’
THE GOOD: Northwest indie rock group Death Cab for Cutie comes back with its ninth.
THE BAD: This is the band’s first full-length album without guitarist/producer Chris Walla. His presence is missed, but his absence is not entirely detrimental.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rich Costey (Muse, Foster the People, Frank Turner) handles production duties, putting a definite sheen on most tracks. Frontman Ben Gibbard wrote about 90 percent of the record. One detects a delicate, rhythmic influence held over from his Postal Service days spread underneath many of the tunes.
So “Thank You” ends up both ever-so-slightly beat-driven AND dreamy, with the songs gently wrapping their sweet melodies (some of Gibbard’s finest this decade) around the listener. There’s a mid-tempo warmth to cuts such as “When We Drive” and “You Moved Away.” Yet the songs also bring on that Northwest DCFC chill we’ve come to embrace after all these years. So “Thank You” shakes things up but still goes down smoothly.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
Spiritualized — ‘And Nothing Hurt’
THE GOOD: English prog/indie rock group Spiritualized comes back with a focused eighth.
THE BAD: Those longing for a return to the trippy days of 1997’s masterpiece “We Are Floating in Space” only will find distant echoes of all that weirdness. “Hurt” is a tighter affair.
THE NITTY GRITTY: That’s not to say frontman Jason Pierce (who also produces) and his crew play it completely safe. Tracks such as “On the Sunshine” and “The Morning After” add a little volume and spontaneity to an otherwise low-key set of songs. Pierce doesn’t give us outright ballads, though. Instead, we get meticulously crafted, multi-layered, down-tempo pieces that find ghostly choirs and sweeping orchestrations popping up in all the right places.
Pierce has mellowed over the past couple of records, probably because he learned to deal with some of his demons. No one can be the drug-addled eccentric psycho kid their whole life, and the same holds true for rock stars. “Hurt” may be far less strange, but it’s no less brilliant.
BUY IT?: Yes.
Nine Inch Nails shines as Gorillaz, Orbital serve tepid sequels
Nine Inch Nails — ‘Bad Witch’
THE GOOD: Nine Inch Nails’ ninth finds mastermind Trent Reznor taking some serious musical chances.
THE BAD: Six tracks in 30 minutes blurs the lines between EP and LP. Or does “Bad Witch” simply leave you craving more darkness?
THE NITTY GRITTY: If Reznor ever attempted to make a loose SOUL album, this might be it. The man plays copious amounts of saxophone within the mix, which detracts some power from the usual electronic buzz and hum. Some moments even find Reznor channeling his dearly departed friend and collaborator David Bowie. Smoky bits such as “God Break Down the Door” or the funky “Over and Out” wouldn’t feel out of place during that artist’s mid-’80s rhythmic period.
The affair also works seamlessly as a whole, jumping from the traditional NIN angst of “S— Mirror” to the aforementioned Bowie-isms to haunting instrumentals such as “I’m Not from This World.” It’s a record that feels both strikingly human and eerily detached all at once.
BUY IT?: Surely.
Gorillaz — ‘The Now Now’
THE GOOD: British virtual band Gorillaz comes back (already) with its sixth.
THE BAD: If last year’s “Humanz” had too many guests and not enough Damon Albarn out front, “Now Now” is the exact opposite. Now it’s 90 percent Albarn and a lack of fresh ideas. Maybe if we MERGE the two albums. Hmmmm…
THE NITTY GRITTY: There are some satisfying moments here. The slick electropop carrying “Humility,” the urban swagger of “Hollywood,” the simple beauty that is “Idaho” — they all work. Too bad other parts feel unfinished. “Lake Zurich” gets off to a funky start but fizzles. “Fire Flies” and “One Percent” are tepid, half-baked jams that would have once been B-sides.
Albarn has released a LOT of new music over the past half-decade — a Blur reunion record, a solo album and now two Gorillaz sets. Maybe it’s time to relax and recharge the batteries. Last year, I called the Gorillaz catalog one of diminishing returns. For the time being, it’s leveled off.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
Orbital — ‘Monsters Exist’
THE GOOD: British electronic duo Orbital (brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll) get together AGAIN for their ninth.
THE BAD: “Monsters” makes no bold leaps forward. Still…
THE NITTY GRITTY: The album could be considered a welcome return to form. Orbital first called it quits around 2004, just as the ’90s electronic golden age was shutting down for good. It reformed briefly around the turn of the decade, and then again last year. A series of live shows got the creative juices flowing, and “Monsters” is the result.
The proper set is a tight, nine-song opus that sees the brothers using their old tricks — multi-layered seamless beats and basslines, ethereal vocal loops, whirring hypnotic synths, and a clean and shiny mix. There’s also a bonus disc of “leftovers,” some of which are just as infectious as the main show.
The record’s only drawback is a lack of differentiation from the existing catalog. “Monsters” ends up an enjoyable run through familiar grooves, but maybe it’s just for the diehards.
BUY IT?: Your call.
Sequels take listeners in new directions
Father John Misty — ‘God’s Favorite Customer’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman takes his fourth album as Father John Misty in a new direction.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Released a mere 14 months after the 2017 epic “Pure Comedy,” “Customer” was written during a prolific two months Tillman spent holed up in a New York City hotel room. It also peels away some of the past’s pretentiousness. “Customer” probably is the closest we’re ever getting to Misty indie POP.
This is one tight affair, with 10 songs in just under 40 minutes. Practically every cut boasts a dedicated hook that grabs you immediately. One might even consider a tune such as “Mr. Tillman” — dare I say it — bouncy. Most of the time, a full band augments Misty, and not just guitars and drums but woodwinds, too. I’m not sure if the guy wanted to lighten the mood, but he certainly does just that during “Customer,” the man’s most easily approachable record to date.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
Dawes — ‘Passwords’
THE GOOD: California folk-rock group Dawes get somewhat political on its sixth.
THE BAD: “Passwords” is musically interchangeable with past albums. Still, long-time fans simply looking for their bi-annual fix should be cool.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Most bands have dabbled in world events since our 2016 presidential election and Brexit. Add Dawes to that conscientious list. Here, though, in typical mellow California style, the group tries to see matters from both sides and arrive at some sort of middle ground (“Declare no winners or losers/And forgive our shared mistakes”). Conflict resolution is key.
Arrangements are smooth and calculated. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith offers a fine and sometimes reserved voice throughout, with steady backbeats, tasteful guitar, pedal steel in all the right places, string flourishes for added color, etc. Both the musical direction and lyrics put “Passwords” literally in the middle of the road.
So, this will NOT be the most exciting record you hear this year. But that doesn’t mean the enjoyable set isn’t worth the effort.
BUY IT?: Your call.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever — ‘Hope Downs’
THE GOOD: After teasing us with a couple of solid EPs, Australian indie rock group Rolling Blackouts C.F. delivers its first full-length LP.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Listening to “Hope Downs,” one is immediately transformed back in time circa 1987. That is, IF you listened to music that mattered — I.R.S.-era R.E.M., jangly Go-Betweens, Replacements after it tightened up, fellow Aussies the Hoodoo Gurus and the decorative guitar prowess of the Church. All those elements get shoved into these contemporary tunes and sound FRESH again, especially if you’re a 15-year-old kid just discovering these dynamics. By the way, if that is the case, do your homework, go back and check out all of those aforementioned bands. You’re welcome.
In the meantime, the rest of us will relish in a modern group defying expectations and playing by its own rules. “Hope Downs” is both guitar pop bliss and slightly agitated, noisy jams. And Rolling Blackouts C.F. makes it all marvelous.
BUY IT?: Yep.
Artists from variety of genres turn out must-listen sequels
Parquet Courts — ‘Wide Awake!’
THE GOOD: New York indie rock band Parquet Courts comes back with a varied sixth.
THE BAD: The group turns in more than a few unexpected musical directions. Not “bad,” but be prepared.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Wide Awake” is a post-punk record with a social conscience. The band is fighting for its rights and yours, drawing attention to everything from class structures to violence in our city streets. Lyrically, it’s an album firmly grounded in 2018.
Musically, the guys unexpectedly hired Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Black Keys) to produce. He brings the chaos under semi-control. Classic influences run amok within a frenetic, eclectic blend that recalls only the coolest of record collections. Debut Devo, “London Calling”-era Clash, early Jam, Wire and the Buzzcocks at their absolute peak, a smattering of early ’80s West Coast punk — all those sounds come together during a set that can be either highly aggressive or surprisingly melodic (or both) at different points. Fascinating.
BUY IT?: You should.
King Tuff — ‘The Other’
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kyle Thomas (stage name King Tuff) switches gears (matures?) on his fourth.
THE BAD: The garage rock and party elements of past records are toned down. It’s not bad, but be ready for the shift.
THE NITTY GRITTY: These days, Thomas seems more concerned about the environment, our over-dependence on technology and real relationships as opposed to what to do with the weekend. Musically, he’s broadening his horizons too, experimenting with intimate mood pieces (the title cut), psychedelic bits carried by subtle country swaggers (“Thru the Cracks”) and multi-layered, Beck-like fits of funk (“Birds of Paradise”).
Thomas wants to create something bigger and more meaningful, and his progressions are off to a good start. The spirit behind “The Other” certainly is something worthy of expanding on in future releases. The man even keeps good company these days. Old friend and collaborator Ty Segall helps out on drums and backing vocals. Jenny Lewis makes an understated appearance. So come join the party — excuse me — gathering.
BUY IT?: Sure.
The Presets — ‘Hi Viz’
THE GOOD: Australian electronic duo the Presets shows us a great time on its fourth album (first in six years).
THE BAD: Shallow at points? You bet. However, there’s no bad in having nothing but a good time.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Hi Viz” plays less like a proper album and more like a hyper DJ set. Some songs follow traditional pop structures; others are designed strictly to make you move. The guys manage to avoid the dated trappings of electronic music in general. Nothing here feels out of place in 2018. And there are long stretches where the individual tracks mix into each other seamlessly. So if you’re downloading as opposed to picking up the CD or vinyl, go for the WHOLE EXPERIENCE.
Standout cuts include the immediately slamming opener “Knuckles,” funky “Downtown Shutdown,” graceful yet pulsating “Feel Alone” and densely packed, hypnotic “14U + 14ME.” There really isn’t a weak moment here; “Hi Viz” never languishes or loses its all-too-important momentum.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
Women soloists turn out must-have sequels
Eleanor Friedberger — ‘Rebound’
The Good: Former (assuming the group has actually broken up) Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger releases her fourth solo outing.
The Bad: Nah.
The Nitty Gritty: Friedberger wrote the record in Greece, where she currently resides, and named the album after a favorite hometown club. Stylistically, it’s a throwback to the gothic and romantic new wave records of the 1980s, with her echoing singers such as Alison Moyet, Shakespeare’s Sister and Tracey Thorn (found elsewhere on this page if you feel like checking out TWO new albums this week). “Rebound” is soulful indie pop built on electronics with just the slightest hint of jazzy overtones.
Not every song is a gem, but the album works incredibly well as a whole, as Friedberger bounces around among tempos and moods. You can casually drink in bubbly, mid-tempo stuff such as “The Letter” and “Everything” or groove to slightly more “down” tracks such as “Nice to be Nowhere.” Not a bad day at the beach or night at the bar.
Buy It?: Surely.
Tracey Thorn — ‘Record’
The Good: English singer/songwriter and ex-Everything but the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn comes back with a strong fifth solo set.
The Bad: Nothing.
The Nitty Gritty: Thorn’s past solo stuff is good, but “Record” is truly GREAT. She offers up a feminist album that finds the 55-year-old redefining her place in the world. She’s been a daughter, wife, mother and creative force and now remains tough as nails. When she sings, “And I fight like a girl,” you should feel genuinely threatened.
Musically, “Record” recalls the last couple of EBTG sets in spirit, with those beat-heavy albums that found the pair switching gears from indie jazz/pop to house music immediately after the Todd Terry remix of “Missing” set worldwide charts ablaze. “Queen” and “Dancefloor” recall New Order at its absolute peak. The extended “Sister” rides a rock-solid LCD Soundsystem-like funk. Big rhythms still intact, “Guitar” and “Babies” don’t shy away from melodic pop overtones.
The entire affair is intoxicating. “Record” is some of Thorn’s best work EVER.
Buy It?: Yes.
Natalie Prass — ‘The Future and the Past’
The Good: American singer/songwriter Natalie Prass gets tougher on her second.
The Bad: No gripes. However, expect more deep grooves and blue-eyed soul this time. Hey, that’s not bad.
The Nitty Gritty: The album’s title hails from the lyrics of “Hot for the Mountain,” an anthem for feminists, the oppressed, the bullied or whoever really needs it — “No we don’t hold back/Break down the door/We’ll beat a path.”
That’s the vibe spread over the entire album, yet another semi-politicized set written in the shadow of the 2016 presidential election. Don’t be fooled by Prass’ somewhat gentle vocal delivery. She’s mad, determined and not giving up.
Yet, she realizes you can’t be uptight all the time; one also needs to kick back and let loose. So, “The Future” also is a mostly upbeat affair, featuring tight indie pop with big, fat basslines and dedicated beats sneaking into the mix beneath the slick guitars and warm pianos. It’s a righteous blend.
Buy It?: Sure.
Female-fronted albums leave listeners wanting more
Speedy Ortiz – ‘Twerp Verse’
THE GOOD: New England indie rockers Speedy Ortiz release a confident third.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Fronted by guitarist/lyricist Sadie Dupuis, a woman blessed with a voice crossing Bettie Seveert’s Carol Van Dijk with early Liz Phair, Speedy Ortiz is a rare band whose music is complex and catchy at the same time. The players adore bizarre tempo changes, alternate guitar tunings and hazy atmospherics. Dupuis excels at painting vivid (sometimes foreboding) pictures and utilizing clever wordplay.
Throughout most of these songs though, just when you think the band is treading in some seriously self-indulgent waters, a glorious hook or riff will sneak up from behind and catch you off guard. Almost instantaneously, you’re taken from the incomprehensible to the infectious. Tracks like “Lucky 88” and “Alone with Girls” are prime examples of the band’s intellectual ear candy. And the more times you revisit “Twerp Verse,” the more often welcome surprises pop up; the album demanding repeat listens.
BUY IT?: Oh yeah.
Camp Cope – ‘How to Socialize and Make Friends’
THE GOOD: Female Australian indie trio Camp Cope dodge the sophomore slump with the deadly serious, extremely poignant and tough-as-nails “How to Socialize.”
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Singer/guitarist Georgia McDonald is fed up with indie rock dudes, uneven relationships, social injustices both big and small and a myriad of other stuff. And she brings all these frustrations to the table with much vigor and emotion. Like the lyrics in “Anna” say: “Just get it all out/Put it in a song.”
The vivid observations make the fuzzed out, slightly punk arrangements all the more visceral, even during several mid-tempo bits. Bassist Kelly Hellmrich and drummer Sarah Thompson make sure the energy level never wavers.
Musically, these women aren’t far removed from fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett. They give us a basic yet layered mix of guitar/bass/drums that falls somewhere between punk’s spontaneity and prog’s unpredictable tendencies. Some sounds and structures recall that other female indie powerhouse Warpaint.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
Soccer Mommy – ‘Clean’
THE GOOD: Soccer Mommy (Nashville singer/songwriter/guitarist Sophie Allison) releases a fresh and focused debut.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Barely in her 20s, Allison embraces a couple of different styles at the same time. First, her songs feel intimate, like a girl with a guitar quietly strumming in the corner and setting the mood at some neighborhood bar. But the tunes also possess a clear and definite edge. There’s an aggression rearing its not-too-ugly head at points, especially when the drums and bass kick in. That’s when we go from “folk night” to full-blown indie rock in all its ragged glory.
After pulling us in with the tranquil yet grainy “Still Clean,” Allison lets the rhythm section have a bash on the buzzing “Cool.” Later moments such as “Last Girl” and “Scorpio Rising” show off the woman’s pop chops; Allison bringing some big memorable melodies to the fuzzed-out proceedings. “Clean” is accomplished and concise, and definitely leaves you wanting more.
BUY IT?: Yes.
Solo projects, collective have much to offer
Phosphenes — ‘Find Us Where We’re Hiding’
THE GOOD: German collective Phosphenes (primarily producer Harry Starbuck and vocalist Julee Bee) gives us an otherworldly debut.
THE BAD: Pull apart the individual pieces, and you might think the record doesn’t have much to offer. However…
THE NITTY GRITTY: Take in “Find Us” as a whole, and the work is mesmerizing. Upbeat, frothy single “Girls Trip” almost feels out of place, since the remainder of the album sounds much more ambient and “chill.” Close your eyes, drift, and you won’t know where one track ends and another begins. The record is split between songs with traditional structures (sung in English, not German) and more placid, mysterious, instrumental bits.
The mix harkens back to late-period Cocteau Twins and many of those electronic male/female ’90s duos that were all the rage during the latter half of that decade (Olive, Hooverphonic, Mono, etc.). One also detects M83 during the wordless moments. Yet, “Find Us” feels fresh and contemporary, and the band leaves space in which to branch out in the future.
BUY IT?: Surely.
Lykke Li — ‘So Sad So Sexy’
THE GOOD: Swedish singer/songwriter and electronic artist Lykke Li comes back with her fourth.
THE BAD: It’s a definite shift that may alienate some longtime fans. “So Sad” is a far cry from her first couple of gloriously quirky records, particularly 2008’s “Youth Novels.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Yes, every artist SHOULD progress. Li, however, gives us a trap-influenced album, much of it co-written by collaborator Ilsey Juber (Shawn Mendes, Beyonce, Drake). Not exactly “edgy,” is it?
Cry “sell out” all you want, but the end results aren’t THAT dull. “So Sad” boasts 10 tightly focused tracks exploring relationships, heartbreak and perhaps a new beginning or two. Li’s conversion to this new style doesn’t feel forced; her voice still thrives in a more hip-hop/R&B-influenced setting. And she hasn’t gone full pop, at least not yet.
Li comfortably but carefully walks that fine line between the underground and the mainstream, giving those on both sides of the fence something to embrace.
BUY IT?: Your call.
Mitski — ‘Be the Cowboy’
THE GOOD: Japanese-American indie rocker Mitski comes back with a larger-than-life fifth.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Mitski possesses more than a few mad skills. First, she makes a point rather succinctly and economically. The majority of the songs on “Cowboy” hover around the 2-minute mark (14 tracks fly by in about 33 minutes). But she packs a lot of emotion in those brief moments.
Second, she’s not afraid to turn pop structures and rock arrangements inside out and upside down. You never know when a track is going to suddenly switch directions, get claustrophobic or burst wide open.
Third, she’s the consummate singer/songwriter. Not only are her songs good, but Mitski’s voice also is distinct — lovely in spots, unforgiving in others. Whatever the song needs, she brings. It could be the delicate sing-song of “Old Friend”; the cool funk carrying “Nobody”; the banging, synth-heavy “Washing Machine Heart”; or the stark intimacy painting “Two Slow Dancers.” The woman immediately rises to the occasion within any setting.
BUY IT?: Yes.
Chromeo – ‘Head Over Heels’
THE GOOD: Canadian electro-funk duo Chromeo comes back with a slick, star-studded fifth.
THE BAD: Progression? Hardly. Reliability? Hell yes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: These guys have a formula and stick to it. Chromeo has always been big into synth-heavy retro funk — ’80s throwbacks recalling Prince’s Minneapolis heyday, Rick James and a dash of Michael Jackson for the mall crowd. (Remember when kids hung out at the mall?)
But is it all genuine? Does that matter? Once the beats, basslines and goofy lyrics grab you, it’s all about switching off the brain, shutting up and dancing. Sure, tracks such as “Bad Decision” and “Room Service” may be shallow, but they’re also a lot of fun. And this time, the guys have vocalists including French Montana, the Dream and DRAM join the party. Legendary producers Raphael Saadiq (’80s) and Rodney Jenkins (’90s) also lend a hand or, should I say, groove.
Don’t over-think these jams, and “Head Over Heels” totally works. Totally.
BUY IT?: Sure.
Mobley — ‘Fresh Lies, Volume 1’
THE GOOD: Austin, Texas singer/songwriter/producer Mobley unleashes an ambitious project via “Fresh Lies, Volume 1.”
THE BAD: Not really.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Notice the “Volume 1” in the title. Mobley describes the work NOT as an album but as part of an ongoing “song cycle.” “Fresh Lies” will continue for an indefinite amount of time as the man continues to explore the central theme of his relationship (and the relationship of his ancestors and family) with our country at large.
On “Volume 1,” Mobley uses romantic/relationship tropes to describe the bigger picture. Musically, it’s a tight mix of soul and the electronic, with cool, catchy jams riding seamless beats and basslines while synths and harmonies fill in the gaps above. All of it creates a rich tapestry of indie pop/rock.
Mobley walks that fine line between the mainstream and the underground while never sounding contrived. Recalling everything from Gnarls Barkley to Mark Ronson to TV on the Radio, the music pushes forward and leaves us craving future volumes.
BUY IT?: Why not?
Gruff Rhys — ‘Babelsberg’
THE GOOD: Welsh singer/songwriter and former Super Furry Animals (has the group actually broken up?) frontman Gruff Rhys returns with an incendiary fifth solo effort.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The man has flirted with everything from straight indie rock to synth pop, his accomplished and fetching melodies shining through it all. “Babelsberg” continues that tradition, placing Rhys’ tunes in traditional pop/rock arrangements from circa 1969. There’s plenty of sweeping strings and regal horns amongst the tasteful guitars and steady, mid-tempo backbeats. Female back-up vocals add a graceful touch now and then, and opening cut “Frontier Man” even boasts a bit of Nashville country polish.
It all balances nicely against Rhys’ politically charged lyrics. The loose concept of “Babelsberg” is the man’s observations of a divided United States. Rhys peers from the outside and sees our “Drones in the City” and “Negative Vibes.” The messages sneak up from behind amid all the usual pleasantries. A cartoon Donald Trump even blends into the back cover artwork.
BUY IT?: I would.
SIREN SONGS FRANKIE COSMOS — ‘Vessel’
THE GOOD: Indie singer/songwriter and former Porches bassist Greta Kline (daughter of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) releases her third album as Frankie Cosmos.
THE BAD: “Vessel” feels a bit scattershot in spots; Kline is a better poet than pop singer. You get 18 tracks in about 34 minutes, some no longer than a single verse. Just go with it.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Kline can make the mundane deeply emotional and intriguing. Her voice, not often rising above a sort of purring coo, also gives the record a sense of intimacy. We peek at her innermost feelings even when the band is bashing away in the background. Her words also hail from urban settings, so that tiny voice probably can cut through the sounds of a speeding subway, too.
The woman can either be playful or deadly serious but never off-putting. “Vessel” often feels like you’re just hanging out at Kline’s apartment as she tells you about her day. That’s the charm of it all.
BUY IT?: Yes.
DEAR ROUGE — ‘Phases’
THE GOOD: Canadian electronic duo Dear Rouge (husband-and-wife team Drew and Danielle McTaggart) dodges the sophomore slump on “Phases.”
THE BAD: Enjoyable? Yes. But also “nothing NEW to see here.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Phases” is pretty formulaic. We get 10 slices of electronic-leaning indie pop with just enough guitar muscle to satisfy the “rock” people. Danielle McTaggart’s vocals guide the soaring hooks above the even-paced din below. Most of the record is “up” with a couple of token slower bits. Tracks such as “Live through the Night” and “Stolen Days” are catchy and driven enough to liven up your morning run or the side stage at whatever random music festival you choose.
It’s hard to find fault with this stuff other than the fact we’ve been down this road many times before, and yeah, we’ll go down it many more times in the future. Probably on the NEXT Dear Rouge album. Simply adjust your expectations accordingly and enjoy the ride.
BUY IT?: Your call.
MELODY’S ECHO CHAMBER — ‘Bon Voyage’
THE GOOD: French musician Melody Prochet finally releases her second album as Melody’s Echo Chamber.
THE BAD: Not really.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s been six long years since MEC’s self-titled debut (produced by Prochet’s boyfriend at the time, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala). Since then, the pair broke up, and Prochet suffered a near-fatal accident that pushed back the release of “Bon Voyage” for over a year.
Under those circumstances, you think the woman would play it safe musically. NOPE. The new album is wildly experimental, difficult to categorize and densely packed with a myriad of varying sounds. Singing in multiple languages and embracing more than a few eras, “Bon Voyage” attempts ALL things dreamy, flirtatious and infectious, and more often than not, it succeeds.
Bouncing amongst Deerhoof’s noisy melodic tendencies, Blonde Redhead’s multi-cultural peculiarities, and the classic charms of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Prochet touches upon everything from sunshine pop to garage rock to psychedelic freak-outs (often within the same song). You’ll uncover something new every time you play this record.
BUY IT?: Yes.
ARCTIC MONKEYS — ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’
THE GOOD: English indie rock mainstay Arctic Monkeys makes a radical shift on its sixth.
THE BAD: Nothing bad, but “Tranquility Base” is sure to be polarizing among long-time fans.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Musically, the record is closer to frontman Alex Turner’s side project, Last Shadow Puppets, than any previous Arctic Monkeys set. Comparisons to both David Bowie and Serge Gainsbourg are warranted, with the album a heady mix of psychedelic rock, glam, lounge, jazz and chilly dance beats. Guitars aren’t nearly as important this time; the rhythms, switched-on keyboards and piano dominate the proceedings.
Lyrically, Turner goes the sci-fi route, creating a fictional world of recreation and escapism on either our own moon or some distant planet. The guy suffered a period of writer’s block and had to do SOMETHING different. Sending us off planet Earth was the inspired choice. Combine these fits of fancy with the bold new musical direction and Arctic Monkeys challenge us at every turn. Shockingly, they pull it off.
BUY IT?: Yes.
JOHNNY MARR — ‘Call the Comet’
THE GOOD: Ex-Smiths guitarist (not to mention former member of Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse and the Pretenders) Johnny Marr offers his third solo record.
THE BAD: Not really.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Marr is not the strongest frontman, but having played alongside Morrissey, Bernard Sumner and Chrissie Hynde, he never had to be. However, he’s now a SOLO act. One would think the man’s understated vocals would be detrimental, but that hasn’t been the case. The breath and scope of “Comet” also proves Marr is gaining confidence in his role out front and center.
The record’s loose concept asks the question, “What would life be like in a place where everyone is kinder and more forward-thinking?” Like those of his contemporaries, Marr’s lyrics reflect the crazy political climate here in the United States and his native United Kingdom. Musically, we’re given a healthy dose of Marr’s magnificent melodies alongside his powerful, but never flashy, playing. At this point, the man could easily rest on his laurels. He refuses.
BUY IT?: Sure.
STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS — ‘Sparkle Hard’
THE GOOD: Indie rock legend and ex-Pavement mastermind Stephen Malkmus gives us his seventh with current band the Jicks.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Pavement was such an influential force throughout the ’90s, Malkmus probably will never fully escape that band’s shadow, even despite the fact that the Jicks has made music for twice as long. Thankfully, that doesn’t prevent the man from giving us a good reason to show up. He still has something relevant to offer two decades after the last Pavement record.
“Sparkle Hard” is lyrically timely, with Malkmus getting downright confrontational with some current events. Musically, it’s a mixed bag covering everything from raging guitar jams (“Bike Lane”) to ragged power pop (“Shiggy”). “Refute” swings by a smoky honky-tonk where Malkmus does a loose duet with fellow indie icon Kim Gordon. “Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels” closes the session with some weird prog vibes. Malkmus surprises us around every turn, his music never falling into long-term complacency or malaise.
BUY IT?: Surely.
Local musician and self-described broke, gleeful outsider Tom Flannery doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Flannery has made music since he was a teenager, when he wanted nothing more than to sound like the rockstars he looked up to. But the only person he has ever been able to sound like was Tom Flannery. It was upon this realization that he decided to write his own songs.
More than 10 albums later, Flannery continues to create his own unique music that strives to imitate no one. The Archbald resident recently went On the Record to discuss his recently released CD, which he created with fellow local musican, Bret Alexander.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to work in the music industry?
A: I always knew I wanted to write and record and perform my own songs. Making money at it is, thankfully, secondary.
Q: How has living in this area affected your music?
A: The ground you walk on becomes the building blocks for what you write. Woody Guthrie once said, “All you can write is what you see.” So it’s impossible for your own roots to not drive your own music.
Q: How would you describe your new CD?
A: “Tales from PA 6” is a series of vignettes, really. Little four-minute movies acted out with guitars and mandolins … with legal pads and pens. We plotted out a course from A to B, but that didn’t mean it had to be a straight line. There were loads of back roads, but we eventually got where we wanted to go. It was a true collaboration.
Q: Is this CD a divergence from your usual sound?
A: I think my sound has been pretty consistent over 10-plus records. Driven by acoustic instruments mainly. Mostly quiet noises but the occasional boom.
Q: What was it like working with Bret Alexander?
A: His talent is intimidating, but he isn’t. We’ve become friends and share much in common: The same world view, the same thoughts on work and family, the same thoughts on what constitutes good and what constitutes evil. We don’t disagree on much.
Q: Was it your first time working with him?
A: It’s our second release together. We recorded “Dupont Back Porches” in 2016. The response was very positive, and we thought, “Maybe it’s worth trying this again…”
Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an artist?
A: The good and the bad nuzzle up against each other nowadays. Technology is such that just about anybody with rudimentary technical skills can make a great-sounding record. It used to be it cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. Now you can make a record in your bedroom on your laptop for the cost of software and a good microphone. As a result, there’s TONS of music out there, and it’s all fighting against each other to be heard. So sometimes making new music is like climbing a mountain to punch an echo. But for me, and for Bret too, it’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. I couldn’t stop writing songs any more than I could stop blinking my eyes.
Q: Who are your biggest musical influences?
A: Pete Townshend and Woody Guthrie.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?
A: To remain vertical, employable and word-hungry.
LET’S EAT GRANDMA — ‘I’m All Ears’
THE GOOD: British female teenage synth pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma dodges the sophomore slump on the sweeping “I’m All Ears.”
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth have been friends since nursery school. And at the age most teenagers are thinking about acquiring that all-precious driver’s license, the pair were releasing their first critically acclaimed album, 2016’s “I, Gemini.”
One could say “I’m All Ears” is more mature, but that might do the record a disservice. Change happens quickly during those late teenage years. So now that the ladies are 19, they can’t help but have a more grown-up outlook. Check out the harried swagger carrying “Snakes and Ladders.”
On the whole though, “Ears” remains a stirring, synth-heavy album, moving from pulsating poppers such as “Falling into Me” to more ambitious anthems, such as “Cool & Collected,” seamlessly. It’s all very driven, catchy and, most importantly, English. LEG remain kids too cool to crossover, the American mainstream be damned!
BUY IT?: Yes.
THIEVERY CORPORATION — ‘Treasures from the Temple’
THE GOOD: Washington, D.C., electronic duo Thievery Corporation scratches out a cool companion piece to last year’s “The Temple of I & I.”
THE BAD: ALL of the material isn’t necessarily NEW, but that’s OK.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Treasures” is a heady combination of remixes, leftovers from the “I & I” sessions and new tracks. The collection leans heavy in reggae and dub, but there are a few bits of Europop and hip-hop, too. It all ends up an unpredictable mix tape capable of standing completely on its own merits, despite being connected to a prior release. This is NOT just a cash grab or disposable “lesser” album.
Guest vocalists include the in-your-face Racquel Jones, nuanced yet commanding Notch, and sultry and smooth-as-butter Lou Lou Ghelichakhani. Political in spots, dreamy in others, “Treasures” goes through more than a few hip-shaking mood swings before its conclusion. But ALL these jams are energetic and powerful in their own specific way. “Treasures” cooks.
BUY IT?: Yep.
STRANGE NAMES — ‘Data’
THE GOOD: Brooklyn electro-rockers Strange Names avoids the sophomore slump with “Data.”
THE BAD: Nah.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The self-produced album is an upbeat throwback to the skinny-tie sporting early ’80s. The guys hit that sweet spot where funky electric guitars and switched-on synthesizers co-exist in perfect neon harmony. And of course, everything rides a big, frothy backbeat. Place the band alongside contemporaries such as Yeasayer or vintage Aztec Camera, and neither comparison would be off the mark.
Tracks such as the seamlessly pulsating “People to Go,” the endlessly catchy “Circles” and the delicate, slightly melancholy “Head First” draw us in immediately. “Data” even revolves around a loose concept, the songs written from the perspective of aliens observing us from afar and collecting “data” about our planet. Play close attention, you’ll catch it. But the tunes still work if you ignore their framework.
BUY IT?: Surely. There’s barely an ounce of fat on this record, with 10 would-be singles leaving a feel-good impression in 35 minutes flat.
Hometown pride means a lot to Nanticoke-based band Send Request.
Images of parks, ice cream shops, diners and schools from across the Luzerne County town appear in the band’s most recent music video, “Falling to Pieces.”
“We wanted this video to showcase the places and people who made us who we are today,” the band wrote on its Facebook page. “This is where we call home.”
The pop-punk outfit comprised of Andrew Blank, vocals and guitar; Derek Holminski, guitar and vocals; bassist Aron Wood and drummer Jonathon Labenski, recently signed to SharpTone Records, which produces popular bands such as We Came As Romans and Miss May I.
The quartet recently went On the Record to discuss how the band came to fruition and its new album, “Perspectives,” which hits record stores Friday, Aug. 24.
Q: How did you choose your band name, Send Request?
Holminski: I was on Internet Explorer downloading Google Chrome, and in the bottom left corner it said “sending request.” I just dropped the “ing.” We ended up using the name by all of us writing five band names and mixing them up in a salad bowl. We drew each name and pinned them against each other tournament style, until Send Request won.
Q: What was the path that lead to the creation of Send Request, and how long have you been working together as a group?
Blank: We all went to the same high school. I was 16 and doing this cover band with Jon at the time but also sharing an interest with Derek about writing songs and touring. Ultimately, the cover band came to an end, and Send Request was created not long after that. Derek got in touch with Aron, and I got back in touch with Jon, and five years later here we are still riding the same wave. I can solidly say we have no plans to stop. Music is our passion.
Q: Do you perform outside of NEPA? If so, where have you toured, and how often?
Labenski: We make our way out of the Northeast occasionally. We have done a few shows in the Philadelphia area and the Allentown area. We have also had the pleasure of building a fan base in the Williamsport area. Throughout the years, we have also done shows in New Jersey and New York.
Q: Describe a Send Request live show. What do you hope for your audiences to experience while seeing you perform?
Wood: A Send Request live show in its purest form is best described as hitting up all your friends and just hanging out and having the best time you possibly can. As a band, we try to connect with our fans both on and offstage and are happy to say that we are friends with all of our fans new and old. Connecting through music is what we live for, and being able to meet all the amazing people we have through it makes it that much better.
Q: What do you enjoy about performing in and around NEPA? Has the music scene here affected your sound as a band?
Holminski: I mean, it’s always awesome to play in our home. Getting to see all the friends we have made over the years jam out with us is something extremely special. There isn’t much pop-punk in the area, so that is something we are definitely trying to change.
Q: Your album, “Perspectives” is coming out this month. What was the songwriting process like for this record? Do you have a favorite song on the album?
Blank: “Perspectives” is a conglomerate of different emotions all bundled into 10 tracks. Each song lyrically has a story that comes from personal experience, so the record almost feels like a diary to me. The songwriting process was slow, but I wanted everything to feel as natural and as relatable as it could be, and I’ve learned things like that take time, so I was patient and really let the songs write themselves in a way. I can honestly say I’m really happy with the album as a whole, so I can’t pick favorites when the whole thing is just that good.
Q: Has being signed with SharpTone Records affected your outlook for the future of the band?
Blank: If anything, it’s made us buckle down more. We want to be the best we can be, so we’ll just keep grinding.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add that you think people should know about Send Request or your upcoming record release?
Labenski: This new record is gonna hit really hard. All of it is emotionally driven, and that is definitely a different speed for this band. It is this band’s best work to date.
Find Send Request on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and www.sendrequestband.com
NAKED GIANTS — ‘Sluff’
THE GOOD: Seattle indie rock trio Naked Giants goes big on its debut.
THE BAD: “Sluff” is accomplished but flawed.
THE NITTY GRITTY: When these guys are focused, the end result is airtight, with brash, guitar-based rockers such as “We’re Alone” and the plucky title track. The songs break wide open with a nervous energy and copious amounts of volume. There’s a sense of fun permeating a number of cuts and a hidden sophistication lurking just beneath the surface — a classic rock/punk mish-mash that actually works.
Too bad the band occasionally goes off on tangents. “TV” is messy prog rock; “Slow Dance 2” offers an unnecessary bout of the blues. “Shredded Again” feels like extended acoustic wanking. It would be cool if these different sounds brought on more than just a change of pace. But all too often, they end up as missteps outside the comfort zone of a developing young band. Although, “Sluff” still leaves you with the impression that things will only improve on future records.
BUY IT?: Maybe.
NIHILIST CHEERLEADER — ‘Riot, Right?’
THE GOOD: Athens, Georgia, girl punks Nihilist Cheerleader bash out a ripping debut.
THE BAD: Nah.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Back in high school, I used to try to sneak out of mandatory pep rallies, but those teachers guarding the gymnasium doors were tough. “You’re gonna show your school spirit whether you like it or not!” Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.
So I can definitely get behind the name Nihilist Cheerleader, although these women scream about more significant political and social issues as opposed to the “Friday Night Lights” nonsense I tried to escape in the late 1980s.
Musically, they offer a blistering mix of garage punk noise (“I’m Fine,” “Bleach Boy”) and slightly subdued and melodic indie rock (“Drenched In,” “& She Takes It”). Frontwoman Flynne Collins and her crew are equally adept at both extremes. The album is always fuzzed-out and noisy but never stuck on any particular mood for long. Get angry or thrash about for fun. It’s all good.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
WAX IDOLS — ‘Happy Ending’
THE GOOD: California goth rockers Wax Idols confront mortality while moving forward on their fourth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Go all the way back to Siouxsie and the Banshees and you’ll find that goth bands usually progress slowly across albums, beginning in strident dark caves and eventually embracing at least SOME light. Their music tends to get bigger, more melodic and accessible in a good way. Wax Idols is following this very trajectory.
Thus far, “Happy Ending,” an album focusing on impending death and what comes after, is its most confident work. Frontwoman Hether Fortune is further developing as a commanding vocalist. The guitar work is bolder, the rhythm section more forceful. The record also displays the band’s ability to write compelling songs where dark overtones are only bolstered by the big pop melodies guiding them through the abyss. One hears echoes of everything from shoegaze to ’90s Britpop to post-punk. Dying rarely sounds this cool.
BUY IT?: Surely. And go for the limited-edition vinyl.