School is back in session, and for University of Scranton student musicians and singers, their upcoming performances make for teachable moments with the greater community.
The fall schedule features a variety of U of S ensembles, bands and choirs teamed up with nationally renowned music professionals for a slate of free concerts open to the public.
Cheryl Boga, conductor and director of performance music at the university, said she strives to bring in not just great guest performers but also artist-teachers who can impart wisdom to the young soloists and players.
Cheryl Y. Boga
“One of the things I do is look over the long term — not just a season, but over the four years my students will be here,” Boga said. “My philosophy for the program is really one of (acknowledging that) these are the students that are going to make sure live music is supported in communities, our schools and our country, so how do we give them a background of real understanding and appreciation of great music and what it takes to make it?”
In addition to the student recitals, the season’s highlights include concerts that cover a variety of musical genres and bring in talented music professionals, one of whom — trumpet soloist and sideman Jumaane Smith — has a “long and storied history” with U of S, Boga said.
Smith was a member of the bands for crooners Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr. and also performed with pop stars including Stevie Wonder, Justin Bieber, Natalie Cole and Alicia Keys. Locally, Smith gave his talents to the U of S as a composer for its concert band and mixed choir, a teacher for brass seminars, conductor and soloist.
“It’s so delightful to see the amazing professional he has become,” Boga said. “His contributions here at Scranton have been unending at every stage of his career.”
Later in the season, guest soloist Kenny Rampton, a member of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the trumpet voice on “Sesame Street,” will join the U of S Jazz Band for a concert and offer a free master class to students plus amateur and professional musicians 16 and older. With touring credits that include the Ray Charles Orchestra and Matchbox Twenty, Rampton’s expertise spans multiple styles.
Sherrie Maricle and the all-female DIVA Jazz Orchestra also will offer a public master class in addition to a performance that showcases their history as one of the longest-existing professional big bands in the country.
“Sherrie is just wonderful, and she’s led clinics on rhythm for Scranton brass,” Boga said. “She is a gifted and committed teacher, a spectacular drummer and runs a hell of a band. For us to be part of their 25th anniversary tour, coming off amazing venues like the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, I still kind of can’t believe we’re going to present them.”
U of S also will mark the 50th year for its annual Noel Night concert, which invites alumni to return and rehearse to be part of the show, Boga said.
“It’s kind of the kick-off for Christmas season for us, musically,” she explained. “It has always been University of Scranton’s gift to the community. We open the doors well over an hour early for seats and have started prelude music for a full hour before the concert even starts because of all the people sitting there.”
Noel Night focuses exclusively on sacred music and also includes remarks from university leaders and readings of the nativity narrative, which students have dubbed the “Peanuts” speech since Linus made it famous in the animated classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Providing a well-curated concert season that also is presented free is crucial not only to musical students but to the public, Boga noted.
“The arts are our nation, our world. It’s both a mirror and a window,” she said. “They’re a way to reflect back who we are and who we want to be on every level, from a small community to a wider circle. Music is important to understanding and expressing, acts as a catalyst and spurs communication. Everybody is part of this process.”
Cheryl Y. Boga
Nathan Carter wants to spread his music across the globe.
Raised in an Irish family in Liverpool, England, the country singer already has a large fanbase in Ireland and now is on his first tour of the United States and Canada, which includes a stop in Scranton. Carter will take the stage Thursday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave.
“I’m just going to be introducing myself and my music to anyone who have never seen me before,” he said during a recent phone interview from Ireland.
Tickets are $45 to $75 and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 570-344-1111 or online at scrantonculturalcenter.org. With Carter’s six-piece band — including fiddles, whistles, accordion, drums, bass and guitar — music fans can expect to hear old Irish songs, folk songs and traditional Irish music. The set also includes ballads and some popular music, such as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and a tribute to the late Glen Campbell.
“It’s a mix of Irish songs and current songs that people can sing along to,” Carter said.
Joining him on tour is Chloë Agnew, who became one of the original members of Irish music group Celtic Woman at age 14 and launched a solo career in 2013. She will perform big ballads and classics as well.
“She’s been doing her own thing for a while, and we’re excited to have her on the tour,” Carter said, adding he and Agnew will perform some duets.
Carter started his journey to the stage young, learning to play the accordion and sing as a child. After many performances for family, friends and anyone who would listen, Carter began to compete. By 12, he had won All Ireland medals for singing and playing the accordion. Soon after, he joined the Liverpool Ceili band, playing accordion and piano. Solo performances soon followed in Liverpool and Ireland.
Carter became the first country act to hit No. 1 on the Irish charts after Garth Brooks — several of Carter’s singles reached that spot — and his videos garnered more than 1 million hits on YouTube. He’s appeared on Irish television shows and hosts his own talk show, “The Nathan Carter Show.”
While he’s busy overseas, his tour serves as a way to gain a following with new fans in a new place. Starting over can be daunting, but Carter is just doing what he loves.
“I’m just looking forward to giving the audience a great show and entertaining them,” he said. “I don’t call what I do a ‘job,’ because it’s not a job to me. I love what I do, and I’m really blessed.”
If you go
What: Singer Nathan Carter
When: Thursday, Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave.
Details: Tickets are $45 to $75 and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 570-344-1111 or online at scrantonculturalcenter.org.
WHERE WERE YOU IN ’92?
SAINT ETIENNE — ‘Home Counties’
THE GOOD: English indie pop outfit Saint Etienne enters a second quarter-century together with its ninth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Home Counties” is a loose concept album (aren’t they all?) focusing on stories and characters from the suburbs directly surrounding London. Here the inhabitants have a love-hate relationship with their environment — comfortable, yes, but also mundane. The songs reflect feelings of both familiarity and frustration. (I would imagine suburban life in the United Kingdom is pretty much like it is here except the houses sit closer together.)
Musically though, “Counties” is your typical breezy Saint Etienne album, the backdrops switching effortlessly between club beats and vintage pop circa 1970. The crackling basslines of “Unopened Fan Mail,” the semi-Baroque strains running across “Take It All In,” the funky thrust of “Out of My Mind” — all of it paints such vivid settings. Frontwoman Sarah Cracknell remains the most charming of narrators through it all with her wispy vocals still divine yet unassuming.
BUY IT?: Yes.
CHARLATANS UK — ‘Different Days’
THE GOOD: England’s Charlatans survives the passing of its long-time drummer Jon Brookes and regroups for a strong 13th album.
THE BAD: One could accuse the band of being stuck in “almost” the same place since its breakthrough debut, “Some Friendly,” way back in 1990. The formula remains intact, yet the tunes still satisfy.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Some high-profile fellow Brits make appearances here, including living legends Johnny Marr and Paul Weller. New Order’s Stephen Morris and the Verve’s Pete Salisbury handle drumming duties. Yet “Days” remains typical Charlatans (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Frontman Tim Burgess leans in for his cool, hazy lead vocals while the band churns out killer grooves that blur the lines between ’60s psychedelia and ’90s underground house. Better moments include the murky, haunting “Solutions”; the forward motion of “Not Forgotten” (a funky throwback to the band’s late ’90s heyday); and the delicately swaying, highly infectious “There Will Be Chances.” It all works; the band still is relevant in its comfortable surroundings.
BUY IT?: Sure.
RIDE — ‘Weather Diaries’
THE GOOD: Britpop/shoegaze act Ride comes back with its fourth album overall and first in 21 years.
THE BAD: Adjust your expectations. “Weather” is NOT a game changer or some massive, redefining comeback for the band. However, it IS a very good album that finds the boys succeeding at most everything attempted.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Ride’s varied ’90s catalog saw the group experimenting with everything that was happening almost three decades ago. 1990’s “Nowhere” was one of shoegaze’s genre-defining records. “Going Blank Again” (1992) found more traditional rock elements sneaking into the mix. “Carnival of Light” (1994) was a psychedelic/Britpop hybrid. 1996’s “Tarantula” was the forgotten gem released after the band’s initial break-up and then deleted almost immediately.
Now “Weather Diaries” revisits what made each past album great while updating those styles. The trippy “Lannoy Point” comes together over a swirling groove. “Home Is a Feeling” finds a lilting melody combining with brash guitars. “White Sands” takes its time running across multi-layered changes in mood and tempo. All is fine.
BUY IT?: Yep.
K. FLAY — ‘Every Where Is Some Where’
THE GOOD: Illinois singer/rapper K. Flay (born Kristine Meredith Flaherty) dodges the sophomore slump with a genre-bending winner.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: After a failed start with RCA and independently releasing a critically acclaimed debut, K. Flay now finds herself at Interscope. However, “Every Where” is hardly a major-label bid for the mainstream.
Lyrically, Flay likes her sex, drugs and other nocturnal pastimes. Musically, we’re smacked upside the head with a cool mix of streamlined dance pop, grisly guitar-driven alt-rock and seedy, hip-grinding hip-hop. Flay flanks it all with a not-so-pretty, bad-ass rock ‘n’ roll attitude. It’s a razor-sharp combination that never lets up.
From the flirtatious “High Enough” to the aggressive “Black Wave” (“Don’t test me!”), Flay doesn’t let her vulnerability completely rise to the surface. And she doesn’t exactly sound susceptible while singing “The President Has a Sex Tape.” Treat her right or you’ll live to regret it. Ignore this album and you’ll regret that too.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
BONOBO — ‘Migration’
THE GOOD: Electronic artist Simon Green (aka Bonobo) comes back with an accomplished sixth.
THE BAD: No gripes.
THE NITTY GRITTY: On the surface, “Migration” might seem like just another down-tempo or ambient techno album — a mostly instrumental set with a handful of guest vocalists showing up on a few tracks to add a little electro-pop flavor.
And yet, “Migration” works extremely well as a cohesive work while not falling into the more common trappings of its genre. First of all, while the songs with vocals are refreshing, they’re not the stand-out tracks here. Green’s twisting-and-turning instrumental bits are just as compelling. The steady synths across “Outlier” wash over you. The majestic vocal samples on “Figures” are divine.
Second, the record never wears out its welcome. Despite being over an hour long, there’s a cool ebb and flow to the whole affair. Just when matters get all-too-dreamy, Green snaps us back to attention with a sharp-focused rhythm. And yet we never completely leave this “otherworld” until the music’s over.
BUY IT?: Yes.
NITE JEWEL — ‘Real High’
THE GOOD: California singer/songwriter Ramona Gonzalez (stage name Nite Jewel) embraces your best night out circa 1995 on her fourth full-length album.
THE BAD: Sequencing? The second half of the record kind of crawls. However, that could be the late-night “come down” after some heavy partying.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Real High” plays like the perfect cross between early ’90s new jack swing and Todd Terry-remixed Everything but the Girl. The R&B influences hail from the mainstream, but the record is still innovative enough for the underground. Add a few Euro-flavored echoes deep within these mixes, and the tracks become even more exotic.
From the breezy shuffle carrying “Had To Let Me Go” to the modern poppy bounce lifting “The Answer,” both the record’s grooves and melodies are highly infectious. The songs take hold, and once you’re locked in their rhythm, there’s no escape. Gonzalez also possesses the perfect voice for her own material; it’s slightly flirtatious but always commanding. She’s strong yet fun — the perfect date.
BUY IT?: Surely.
THE MOONLANDINGZ — ‘Interplanetary Class Classics’
THE GOOD: British “band” the Moonlandingz delivers a totally trashy and completely danceable debut.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The music is damn near undefinable, but so is the group itself. A melding of art collective the Eccentric Research Council, band members from Fat White Family and producer/musician Sean Lennon, Moonlandingz gives us a record combining Gothic pop, psychedelic disco, noisy garage rock and androgynous glam. It’s outrageous music to accompany the group’s equally outrageous stage shows.
Strange collaborations include Yoko Ono wailing away with the Human League’s Philip Oakey on the corrupt dance-floor anthem “This Cities Undone.” Randy Jones, the Village People’s original cowboy, guests on the sleazy “Glory Hole.” Slow Club’s Rebecca Taylor adds haunting vocals to the disturbingly beautiful “The Strangle of Anna.”
Add occasional blasts of switched-on techno or surf guitar, and these multi-layered soundscapes get even weirder. Time will tell if this is the beginning of a long-term cunning collaboration or a one-off oddity. I’m hoping for the former, not the latter.
BUY IT?: Yes.
!!! — ‘Shake the Shudder’
THE GOOD: California dance-punks !!! crank out their seventh full-length album.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontman Nic Offer and his crew continue to revel in their world of decadent funk, groove-heavy rock and steamy, sweaty disco. One song here sums up the band’s attitude since its 2001 inception — “Dancing Is the Best Revenge.” Doesn’t matter what authority, politicians or the world at large throws at you. Boogie your ass off and all will be fine. “Shake the Shudder” is simply the latest bunch of songs in an ever-expanding, pounding playlist that cracks and booms long into the night.
The beats never stop, and their tempos don’t change all that much. However, the slick stuff spread across the top keeps the record from getting stuck in “repeat” mode. So whether it’s the childish electronics on “What R U Up 2day” or the reserved melodic thrust carrying “Imaginary Interviews,” these slabs of pure depravity should keep you moving for a long time to come.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
THE CHAIN GANG OF 1974 — ‘Felt’
THE GOOD: Indie pop singer/songwriter Kamtin Mohager (stage name CGof1974) gives us his fourth.
THE BAD: Too formulaic.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Mohager was never exactly blazing new trails on any past records; each collection is a throwback to alternative synth-heavy rock circa ’84 (as opposed to the ’74 moniker). The guy proved himself very adept at dishing out memorable hooks atop airtight backdrops where guitars and keyboards meshed harmoniously over solid backbeats. Agreeable snappy stuff.Produced by the Naked and Famous’ Thom Powers, “Felt” is more of the same. However, the new album leans in a more dedicated pop direction, so some of the music’s uniqueness is now sorely lacking. Mohager still churns out decent songs though. Personal favorites include steadily flowing goodies such as “Wallflowers” and “Looking for Love.” However, “Felt” slips into mediocrity pretty quickly. Maybe the next collection will be better.
BUY IT?: Meh…Spotify will do. Besides, there’s no CD on this release. You have to make the great leap from download to vinyl if you want a physical copy.
LORDE — ‘Melodrama’
THE GOOD: New Zealand pop sensation Lorde comes back after a long hiatus with an ambitious sophomore effort.
THE BAD: Nope. “Melodrama” was worth the wait.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Whether the 20-year-old ever shakes up the mainstream again with a song as big as “Royals” is irrelevant. Lorde now has two solid albums under her belt, and “Melodrama” proves she can run with a concept as well. Teaming up with Jack Antonoff (Fun., Bleachers) and a bevy of other producers, Lorde offers a record that embraces solitude.
Lorde wrote the songs during a time of upheaval many people her age experience. She broke up with a longtime boyfriend and later moved out of her parents’ house. Inspiration came from being really “alone” for the first time. From the beat-heavy breakup of “Green Light” to the intimate revelations spread throughout “Liability” to the emotional intensity coloring “Supercut,” the album paints a vivid picture of turmoil and growth. It’s musically multi-faceted, too, ranging from banging electronics to reserved ballads.
BUY IT?: Yes.
FEIST — ‘Pleasure’
THE GOOD: Canadian singer/songwriter Feist returns with her fifth album and first in six years.
THE BAD: Depends upon your expectations. Those craving another breezy pop gem like “1 2 3 4” aren’t going to get it.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Pleasure” is a raw, intimate affair built with stripped-down arrangements. Feist confronts her inner demons while getting reacquainted with bare-bones indie rock, modern folk and even a touch of the blues.
One can detect echoes of P.J. Harvey across the “plugged-in” moments and strains of Cat Power during the quieter bits. “Pleasure,” however, is distinctly Feist. Even when she sounds defeated, her warm voice is unmistakable and her breathy, unassuming delivery always welcome.
This time, that voice is accompanied by ghostly harmonies, spontaneous guitar, distinct bits of keyboard that sound either majestic or playful, rudimentary drumbeats and lo-fi atmospherics stolen from the world outside. The end result sounds very impulsive at first, but repeat listens bring out the songs’ deliberate brilliance.
BUY IT?: Surely.
SHERYL CROW — ‘Be Myself’
THE GOOD: On her 10th set, singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow revisits her ’90s rock heyday.
THE BAD: No big problems.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Be Myself” finds Crow bringing back producer Jeff Trott, whom she worked with during the ’90s and early 2000s. So that slight country detour taken on 2013’s “Feels Like Home” (which wasn’t all that genuine anyway) has been abandoned. Although, those still craving a little Southern swagger will find it on the charming “Rest of Me.”
For the most part, “Myself” is a down-to-earth, gutsy, guitar-fueled Crow album in the tradition of her self-titled effort (1996) and “The Globe Sessions” (1998). Yeah, we’ve been here before. But when the woman turns on her self-assured attitude, it’s tough to resist that confident voice belting out those slick melodies.
Pick any track — the flirtatious “Roller Skate”; the melancholy “Strangers Again”; the low-burning, infectious “Alone in the Dark” — they’re all good. Crow doesn’t break new ground on “Be Myself,” but she does deliver the pop/rock goods.
BUY IT?: Why not?
Scranton hip-hop artist Danny Griffith, who performs under the moniker 10griffy, recently released his first full-length album, “Lucid Conscience Vol. 1.”
He will be attending music production school Icon Collective in Burbank, California, this fall.
Griffith, who’s up for song of the year and best hip-hop act at this year’s Steamtown Music Awards, went On the Record to discuss his sound and his process.
Q: How did you first get involved in music?
A: I always took a pretty deep interest in music growing up, and I started playing guitar seriously when I was like 14, and then about a year and a half ago I got my hands on some production equipment and started producing music, and that led to recording, and it just changed everything for me.
Q: Where does the name 10griffy come from?
A: It’s like a play on words with Ken Griffey Jr. I grew up around baseball a lot, and I just think he’s a great baseball player and it’s a good, funny play on words.
Q: What is your process for writing music?
A: I mean, it could start a lot of different ways. Sometimes I have, like, a melody in my head, sometimes I have, like, a song idea, something to write about, but it always starts with the beat first. I like to write the beat first and then write over it so I have a perfect feel for what I’m working with, and making the beat could start with some drums, it could start with a cool guitar riff I’ll play, anything.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a musician?
A: I’d say really just getting people to take it seriously and getting the music to people’s ears, like genuinely. — not forcing it down their throats with a bunch of Facebook posts because that’s not gonna build your image. Just genuine networking I find is the hardest part, so I try to slowly but strongly build up a fan base one by one.
Q: What are the future goals for your music?
A: Definitely to make a career out of it. I’m going to a music production school (Icon Collective) this fall, I’m moving out to Burbank, California, and I’ll be working out there. I have no clue where that’ll take me, but that’s the music business I guess.
Name: Danny Griffith
Started: January 2016
Based out of: Scranton
Genre: Psychedelic hip-hop
For fans of: Mac Miller and Tame Impala
Online: For more information and to hear his music, visit 10griffymusic.com
— paul capoccia
MEAT WAVE —
THE GOOD: Chicago punks Meat Wave return with a crashing, banging third.
THE BAD: “The Incessant” loses focus across its final third (the droning, drunken “Birdland” brings matters to a halt), but that’s not enough to crash the entire affair.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Thankfully, most of the album is an aggressive set born of frustration and built on pounding drums and slashing guitars. Recorded by the legendary Steve Albini (Breeders, Nirvana, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), “The Incessant” kicks into high gear with terse quick tracks such as “To Be Swayed” and “Run You Out” before the band smashes its way into more complex territories.
From there, the trio offers the slightly spooky yet still forceful “No Light.” Then there’s the jagged, post-punk title track (image the Strokes slamming into some vintage Husker Du). “Killing the Incessant” ends the record with an enormous thunderclap.
The album ends up showcasing that Meat Wave is NOT a one-note act. The music either breathes or burns itself out in an instant.
BUY IT?: Sure.
THE DRUMS — “Abysmal Thoughts”
THE GOOD: New York indie rock outfit the Drums comes back with a layered fourth.
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Frontman Jonathan Pierce is now the only remaining original and permanent member of the band. However, the Drums’ aesthetic hasn’t changed all that much. The band (the guy?) still churns out a mix of post-punk and surf rock, bringing together ’60s garage elements, the gothic ’80s and today’s do-it-yourself indie pop.
“Thoughts” also feels more experimental than past efforts. Tracks such as the haunting, slowly rising opener “Mirror” and the slightly soulful “Your Tenderness” use the standard Drums penchant for echo very effectively while delivering melodies more complex than usual. Pierce uses varying tempos and falls victim to fluctuating mood swings, ensuring the record never stays in one sonic place for too long (a slight drawback on earlier efforts).
Time will tell if the guy can keep this momentum going as a probable solo act. For now though, the act is on very solid musical ground.
BUY IT?: Yes.
WAVVES — “You’re Welcome”
THE GOOD: California garage punk act Wavves leaves Warner Bros. and releases a sixth album by its own damn self.
THE BAD: Stuck on repeat?
THE NITTY GRITTY: Wavves keeps to the formula. That is, slightly obnoxious but always catchy straight-forward, guitar-drenched rock songs. What could go wrong? Frontman Nathan Williams and his crew crank out a dozen jams that either do the quiet-loud-quiet-loud thing or simply stomp all the way through.
Tunes such as “Million Enemies” and “Stupid in Love” smack us across the teeth with big riffs and sing-along hooks. That’s never disagreeable. Then a couple of tracks dip their toes into “weirder” waters, such as the fractured doo-wop of “Come to the Valley” and the cloying, wobbly closer “I Love You.” For the most part though, Wavves keeps it tight and loud.
The group is going to have to take a step forward at some point, but that doesn’t happen on “You’re Welcome.” Maybe next time. For now, you get an engaging record, albeit one that’ll sound more than a little familiar.
BUY IT?: Your call.
ORILLAZ – “Humanz”
THE GOOD: Cartoon band and long-time Damon Albarn (Blur) project Gorillaz comes back with a fourth proper album and first in seven years.
THE BAD: The Gorillaz catalog is one of diminishing returns. “Humanz” is fine, but continues this downward trend.
THE NITTY GRITTY: When Albarn started putting this record together in late 2015, he told all collaborators to imagine a world after Donald Trump wins the U.S. Presidency. Prophetic? Well at the time, a lot of people didn’t see it actually happening. So, the entire vibe of “Humanz” is a rebellious doomsday house party thing; not overtly political, but subtle jabs against the new establishment are certainly here.
Too bad the record feels extremely scattershot; some collaborations working much better than others. And all too often, Albarn himself slips too far into the background. Still, highlights include the slick Kelela contribution “Submission,” the heart-wrenching Benjamin Clementine piece “Hallelujah Money,” and the dark damaged funk of “Sex Murder Party.”
BUY IT?: Sure … and spend the extra couple of bucks on the deluxe edition if only for the super strange Carly Simon appearance.
PICK A PIPER – “Distance”
THE GOOD: Canadian electronic artist Brad Weber (AKA Pick a Piper) travels the world, finds inspiration and creates “Distance.”
THE BAD: No.
THE NITTY GRITTY: A sometimes-collaborator with electronic/dance artist Caribou, Weber now fronts his own collective with a couple of musician buddies and a handful of guest vocalists. “Distance” is a nine-song travelogue that’s half vocal and half instrumental. The beats and atmospherics always take center stage as the man leaps between synth-based indie pop tunes and more ambient rhythmic pieces.
“Distance” finds a nice balance between the two extremes; the record is an incredibly coherent whole with a seamless flow. The collection also slips into a happy medium between aggressive dance floor bangers and more delicate chillwave. You won’t get stressed, but you won’t drift off either. From the swirling choruses on “Geographically Opposed” to the tribal female chants decorating “Flood of My Eyes” to the pulsating bounce carrying “January Feels Lost,” one gets swept up in the colorful and throbbing surroundings.
BUY IT?: Sure.
FUTURE ISLANDS – “The Far Field”
THE GOOD: Baltimore synth-pop/indie rock outfit Future Islands come back with a confident fifth.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Their formative years behind them, Future Islands broke out big time three years ago when the band’s performance of “Seasons” on the Late Show with David Letterman became an internet sensation. All of a sudden, fortunes changed for the better while the guys were touring for what was already their fourth album.
So where do you go from there? “The Far Field” keeps the momentum pushing forward. Frontman/lyricist Samuel T. Herring and his crew deliver a tight record filled with confident compositions that continue to blur the lines between new wave and post-punk. One can detect the New Order influence within the backbeats and basslines, traces of O.M.D. spread across the keyboards, and big dramatic melodies in the tradition of Doves or Editors on top of it all. Toss in one duet with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and the evening is complete.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
THURSTON MOORE – “Rock ‘n’ Roll Consciousness”
THE GOOD: Ex-Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore plugs in for his fifth solo outing.
THE BAD: Nothing.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Since Steve Shelley is still playing drums for the guy, Moore’s solo stuff doesn’t sound all that different from SY. The biggest dissimilarity is a lack of distinct female vocals from Kim Gordon (Gordon and Moore divorced a few years ago).
Yet, on “Consciousness,” Moore further distances the new music from his past band work by stretching out and showing off his true guitar chops. The new album just clocks in at 40 minutes but only contains five songs; Moore and second guitarist James Sedwards playing off one another like a distorted indie rock take on the Allman Brothers.
Tracks like the slightly aggressive and shuffling “Cusp” and the layered haunting “Smoke of Dreams” find the man in fine voice and even better playing mode. “Consciousness” even occasionally creeps into psychedelic territories while delivering standard SY guitar tunings and sporadic blasts of noise.
BUY IT?: I would.
ROGER WATERS – “Is This The Life We Really Want?”
THE GOOD: Ex-Pink Floyd vocalist/bassist/composer Roger Waters unleashes his fifth solo outing.
THE BAD: Not this time.
THE NITTY GRITTY: So this just happened. Waters, the driving force behind one of the most innovative progressive rock acts ever, worked alongside Nigel Godrich, long-time producer and “sixth member” of arguably the most influential band on the planet today. Pink Floyd meets Radiohead. Is your mind blown yet?
The background broadcasts and string arrangements bring back “The Wall.” The guitar riffs and swirling synths recall “Wish You Were Here.” The grooves and basslines are one half “Meddle,” one half “Hail to the Thief.” The icy atmospherics and sense of paranoia harken back to “OK Computer.”
And then there are Waters’ politics. The man, disgusted with the current world view, isn’t pulling any punches. The title track even opens with an unflattering interview clip from Trump himself. It all adds up to one of this year’s most compelling listening experiences. What are you waiting for?
BUY IT?: Of course.
CHUCK BERRY – Chuck
THE GOOD: Announced on his 90th birthday last year and released a few months after his passing, “Chuck” is the final bow for one of rock and roll’s founding fathers — Chuck Berry.
THE BAD: “Chuck” doesn’t equal the man’s 1950s Chess Records work (few things in this universe do), but this new album remains a fitting testament to Berry’s legacy.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Backed by his grown children and members of his own Blueberry Hill Band, Berry plows through ten tracks ranging from standard rockers in the great CB tradition (“Big Boys”) to poignant bluesy reflections on one’s own mortality (“Darlin”) to progressive groove-laden fare (“She Still Loves You”).
Even the slight missteps (yet another sequel to “Johnny B. Goode” titled “Lady B. Goode”) cook; the entire album oozes energy and authenticity. And despite his age at the time of the sessions, Berry‘s voice was still rich, his guitar playing still razor sharp. Most guys aren’t relevant right up to the very end. Chuck was (and remains so).
BUY IT?: Yes.
Tall Tall Trees – “Freedays”
THE GOOD: Banjo player Mike Savino (stage name Tall Tall Trees) offers up his first proper solo record.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Don’t let “banjo player” make you think this is a bluegrass collection in the tradition of Flatt & Scruggs or even Roy Clark (not that either of those would be bad). Savino is actually a savvy singer/songwriter combining traditional acoustic elements with loud bursts of indie pop and a hint of the electronic. The guy may be a solid string player, but he knows his way around drum loops too.
“Freedays” ends up a multi-dimensional collection of melodic atmospheric tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place in both a tranquil forest or during an urban after-party. Think Liam Finn hanging with Dr. Dog while some Besnard Lakes fills in the background. Tunes like the slowly building and infectious “Backroads” and the space-age doo-wop ballad “So Predictable” draw us in with their subtle charms and impulsiveness. Every track offers something a little different.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
Father John Misty – “Pure Comedy”
THE GOOD: Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman offers up his third album as Father John Misty, and it’s epic.
THE BAD: The record will test your patience. Thirteen-minute songs about disposable artists and childhood trauma tend to do that.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Two years ago, the man gave us the mostly autobiographical “I Love You, Honeybear.” Now he turns his attention outward, dishing on such hot-button topics as politics, the environment, technology and war. While the man’s intentions are certainly noble, the delivery can be overly dramatic at times.
“Pure Comedy” often feels like chamber folk: Misty’s tunes acquiring a sameness about halfway through. Even the occasional regal horn arrangements and orchestral flourishes can’t make matters much more diverse. Misty wants you paying attention to the lyrics, all of his pain and all of our problems.
So whether it’s the carbon emissions smothering “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” or the clashing ideologies of “Two Wildly Different Perspectives,” prepare for some passionate diatribes.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
Fleet Foxes – “Crack Up”
THE GOOD: Seattle-based folk-rockers Fleet Foxes come back after a six-year hiatus with a sprawling third.
THE BAD: Just like their ex-drummer Josh Tillman (found elsewhere on this page), Fleet Foxes spreads its musical wings, exploring very progressive territories and complex arrangements. “Crack Up” puts you to work.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Yet the effort is well worth it. Give this record a fair shot; the more you listen, the better it gets. Those all-encompassing harmonies remain intact and there are times when the lilting melodies wash over your senses. However, the usual tranquility is set against intricate string quartets, constant shifts in mood and tempo, echoes of modern classical and jazz, and more than a few complex lyrical narratives. Vocalist Robin Pecknold gets highly critical of both his surroundings and inner demons.
In one word, “Crack Up” is big. You can tell the guys put a lot of effort into these epics. And you’ll have to pay rapt attention in order to engage with every subtle nuance and layer.
BUY IT?: Yes.
THE NOISE WE LOVE
ALL THEM WITCHES – Sleeping Through the War
THE GOOD: Nashville rockers All Them Witches return with a fuzzed-out crankin’ fourth.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: It’s tough to pigeonhole these guys (never a bad thing). At any point, they may give you low burning hazy psychedelic stuff (“Bulls”) or off-the- cuff disposable thrashy blues-rock (“Don’t Bring Me Coffee”).
Frontman/bassist Charles Michael Parks Jr. and his crew have studied their Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix records. Yet they’ve probably digested a fair amount of Butthole Surfers, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Nirvana along the way, too. Perhaps there are even a few early Flaming Lips collections stashed in their past.
These guys are mighty ambitious, creating a near-perfect melding of indie rock, progressive bombast and just a pinch of very early heavy metal. “Sleeping” ends up a rumbling and raucous feast for the senses; boasting more than a few extended jams that blast you far into deep space. Crazy, man.
BUY IT?: Yeah.
NAM WAYNE – Nam Wayne
THE GOOD: Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Nam Wayne (the moniker can also refer to the guy’s full band) finally unleashes his first album.
THE BAD: Nah!
THE NTTY GRITTY: He actually recorded this set during a blistering week-long session way back in 2005.
However, various circumstances, including the man’s own perfectionism, prevented its release until now. You would think that a record twelve years in the making would sound ultra-progressive or polished. Thankfully, that’s not the case. “Nam Wayne” is a super-tight, echo-drenched 30-minute trip into a land of noisy garage rock and lo-fi aesthetics. One detects the classic influence of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and the more recent clatter of Black Lips or Cage the Elephant.
Wayne handles everything from tossed-off throbbing love songs (“Friend Crush”) to relevant political rants written under President Bush but released under President Trump (“Decade of Darkness”). And then there’s the unadulterated melancholy on the traditional cover of “Wild Mountain Thyme” that somehow doesn’t sound out of place. It’s all good.
BUY IT?: Surely.
THE BLACK ANGELS – Death Song
THE GOOD: Texas garage-psyche rockers Black Angels come back with a fifth.
THE BAD: Black Angels albums are somewhat interchangeable. You know what you’re gonna get. But the heady formula isn’t disagreeable … yet.
THE NITTY GRITTY: The band took its name from the Velvet Underground track “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” so this album’s title brings it all home. Frontman Alex Maas and his crew churn out yet another set of loud foggy droning jams that blur the lines between prog rock and garage band punk. “Comanche Moon” sways back and forth as it bangs and crashes. “Medicine” is all about psychedelic forward momentum. Delicate closer “Life Song” veers into pre-“Dark Side” Pink Floyd territory.
The guys work with different producers on every album. “Death Song” is Phil Ek’s (Built to Spill, Fleet Foxes) turn to capture all the noise that fits. He does a great — albeit not very distinct — job (again, Black Angels albums can melt into each other). So good trippy stuff all around. Dig it.
BUY IT?: Sure.
GO FEVER – Go Fever
THE GOOD: Austin indie rockers Go Fever offer up a superb debut full-length.
THE BAD: Nope.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Go Fever is actually three Texas boys fronted by Australian vocalist/lyricist Acey Monaro. Blessed with a charming but not overpowering accent, Monaro sounds like a cross between a slightly rougher Neko Case and a less polite Sonya Aurora Madan (Echobelly).
She’s the perfect vocal complement to all the banging below; the guys churning out a mix of rock, pre-Beatle pop, surf and just a dash of Tex-Mex by way of classic Sir Douglas Quintet. It’s a sound that’s distinctly Southern, yet completely separate from the various musical hubs in Tennessee or the Georgia swamps.
Vintage organs ring out alongside buzzing guitars over rock-steady backbeats. Monaro’s melodies across the top are exquisite yet possess genuine rock teeth. It’s a divine dusty (and danceable) concoction that should sound equally great in a beer-soaked Dallas roadhouse or hip Boston draught house. Distinct well-crafted pop knows no boundaries.
BUY IT?: Definitely.
MOTHER MOTHER – No Culture
THE GOOD: Canadian alt-rockers Mother Mother unleash their sixth.
THE BAD: So glossy. So calculated. So boring.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Co-produced by Brian Howes, a guy who’s worked with the likes of Skillet, Puddle of Mudd and Nickelback (asleep yet?), the new record is catchy and tight. Try to resist the ooey-gooey sing-song chorus of “Love Stuck.” The backbeats kick, the guitars growl and the harmonies are slick. What’s not to love?
Plenty! “No Culture” goes down like a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Yes, I just compared this record to a snack chip. The music may feel great in the moment, but all is instantly forgotten once the CD or Spotify stream clicks off. Just like so many empty calories, there’s no real substance here.
From the teenage rebellion running through “Back in School” to the heartbreak sprinkled atop “The Letter,” pretty much every song is a cliché. Plus the melodies and arrangements are utterly predictable. Textbook “safe” modern rock.
BUY IT?: No way. Life’s too short for insignificant music.
PORT CITIES – “Port Cities”
THE GOOD: Canadian alt-pop outfit Port Cities release their long-awaited (up North, anyway) debut.
THE BAD: Slick? You betcha. At times, you might feel as if you slipped into a Lady Antebellum set by mistake (never a good thing).
THE NITTY GRITTY: The group is comprised of three singer/songwriters (Dylan Guthro, Breagh MacKinnon and Carleton Stone) who already had established solo careers in their native country. Now, they’ve come together to offer up a polished blend of country, modern folk, rock and pop. The album ends up a tight collection of decent songs, cozy melodies and airtight harmonies.
At the same time though, the tracks come off as too precise, too polished. “Port Cities” was produced by Gordie Sampson, a Nashville songwriter who’s penned tunes for the likes of Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton and Rascal Flatts. So maybe the lack of authenticity here is his fault. I don’t know. What I do know is that the record morphs into “pretty background music” all too quickly.
BUY IT?: Skip it.
ERASURE – World Be Gone
THE GOOD: British synth-pop legend Erasure (producer/composer/instrumentalist Vince Clarke and vocalist Andy Bell) kicks off a fourth decade together with its 17th album.
THE BAD: Expect great pop, not great innovation. The formula dominates.
THE NITTY GRITTY: But why change? When the duo first came together back in 1986, synth-pop acts were very prevalent. Now, not so much. So Erasure is a survivor. And as long as Andy Bell’s voice is strong (it is) and Clarke can churn out those divine melodies (he does), we’ll still show up every few years.
“World Be Gone” gets political in spots. What album doesn’t in the era of Brexit and Trump? But even the heavy handedness of “Oh What A World” doesn’t come across as confrontational when its harsh accusations are set against a lilting Clarke tune.
Then there are the usual dance floor bangers like lead single “Love You to the Sky” and the warm and soothing bits such as “Still It’s Not Over.” Predictable, but still great.
BUY IT?: As usual…yes.
TEEN DAZE – Themes for Dying Earth
THE GOOD: Canadian artist Teen Daze (Jamison Isaak) returns with a very ambient and collaborative fifth.
THE BAD: Not bad but definitely a case of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Don’t play “Earth” until you can devote the better part of an hour to it.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Isaak takes us through a very personal set that’s one-half sparkling electronic pop and one-half down-tempo tranquility. After traveling the world, the man got back to nature in order to give us something very green and hopeful within our uncertain environmental future. At this moment, the record plays like an invigorating yet relaxing walk through the forest on a perfect sunny spring day.
Tracks like the crisp clean “Cycle” and the fragile yet inviting “Lost” (featuring soothing guest vocals from Nadia Hulett) find haunting melodies riding tempered rhythms. Instrumentals such as the stirring “Dream City” and the layered M83-esque “Cherry Blossoms” are non-intrusive bits of audible bliss.
BUY IT?: Surely.
CAVEGREEN – Vita Lucida
THE GOOD: Pacific Northwest electronic duo Cavegreen switch on their first full-length.
THE BAD: No complaints.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Comprised of multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Murray and lyricist/vocalist GianLuca Bucci, Cavegreen makes synth-driven music that remains firmly grounded in nature and, as their bio states, “an ongoing interest in the ancient and modern philosophical traditions of the earth.”
But this isn’t one of those budget world music CDs your mom bought at the grocery store. No, Cavegreen remind us of everyone from ‘90s synth-duo Olive to modern one-man acts like Porcelain Raft. Plus, there are more organic elements buried not so deep within some of these tracks; distant echoes of vintage Beth Orton or even more recent Tennis. And does anyone recall Tennessee’s Venus Hum?
All these sounds combine to give us a heady mix of plugged-in melodies and dreamy atmospheres recalling woods washed clean by a spring shower or a cool clear mountain stream at dusk. And Bucci’s fragile quivering vocals are the perfect complement to Murray’s cascading backdrops.
BUY IT?: Yes.
DEPECHE MODE – Spirit
THE GOOD: British synthpop legend Depeche Mode comes back with a highly politicized fourteenth.
THE BAD: While “Spirit” may be very potent lyrically, it’s somewhat lukewarm musically.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Since 1997’s “Ultra,” the band has been a trio releasing an album and touring the world behind it every four years like clockwork. Here in the States, that cycle coincides with the year we either swear in a new President, or at least re-inaugurate one.
This time, the new record embraces the current unrest; “Spirit” was written and recorded in the era of Brexit and our own wacky presidential election. Martin Gore writes and Dave Gahan sings about our de-evolution (“Going Backwards”) and complacency (“Where’s the Revolution”). The corporate greed running through “Poorman” feels like the second coming of “Everything Counts.” “Fail” ends the record in a fit of frustration.
Too bad the musical style on the album sometimes feels like a rerun. 2017 can sound an awful lot like 2005, 2009 and 2013 all over again.
BUY IT?: Your choice.
BLONDIE – Pollinator
THE GOOD: American new wave legends and Hall-of-Famers Blondie come back with their eleventh.
THE BAD: The record loses some of its drive across the second half, but remains a massive improvement over 2014’s scattershot “Ghosts of Download.”
THE NITTY GRITTY: Usually when a band uses outside collaborators and writers, that’s a sure sign the “well is running dry”; the end results tepid at best. However, the outside help in this case may have been just what Blondie needed in order to churn out that great new wave record we all knew was still there.
Joan Jett swings by to add harmonies to the Debbie Harry/Chris Stein original “Doom or Destiny.” Johnny Marr pens the haunting and super-infectious “My Monster.” Other songwriting assistance comes from the likes of Sia, the Strokes’ Nick Valensi and TV on the Radio’s David Sitek. No partnership sounds out of place; the album never shedding a certain consistency. Plus, despite turning 72 this summer, Debbie Harry remains a captivating force out in front.
BUY IT?: Yes.
THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN – Damage and Joy
THE GOOD: Scottish indie duo JAMC (actually forever feuding brothers Jim and William Reid) return for their seventh proper album and first in almost two decades.
THE BAD: Some tracks are re-recordings of songs originally found on side projects and solo efforts. But those are only “repeats” for the absolute completists.
THE NITTY GRITTY: “Damage” ends up a standard JAMC set — catchy melodies on the upbeat tracks, thick stoner vibes on the slower bits, layers of guitar feedback and distortion (a little less than the old days), and the occasional female guest adding some much welcome vocal interplay. Visitors this time include the lovely Isobel Campbell (formerly of Belle & Sebastian) and the Reid’s younger sister Linda Fox.
As usual, there’s also plenty of deadpan sarcasm and cheeky shock value within the lyrics. Whether it’s the false patriotism painted across “Los Feliz (Blues and Greens)” or off-handed Kurt Cobain murder theories on “Simian Split,” the Reids love making us snicker.
BUY IT?: I would.