Category Archives: Record Reviews

Add Some Music To Your Day #17: The Unbreakable Lightness of Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey’s first vocal pop album since 1996’s Ether brings this writer out of blogging semi-retirement. 

TOM BAILEY – Science Fiction (Mikrokosmos)

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Evidently an inveterate escape artist, Tom Bailey‘s habitually painted himself into corners as a means of aesthetic expression. From binning the safety-in-guitars first iteration of Thompson Twins and recording the resultant hit-bound album on a single synthesizer, to trading out the tattered-but-still-marketable Twins banner for an obscure new name while making his best record in a decade, to a post-millennial drift through largely voxless crypto-ambient dub and world music of increasingly vivid melodicism, his restive cycles have become canon. Tom’s car is always revving in the drive, and he’s always tracking different colours on the map.

That Bailey’s parked back on planet pop is fan manna, and his new vehicle – a tour-plus-album model – is a resounding gift to one of pop’s great forsaken fan bases. Thompson Twins fans never resigned, they just lost a cause to rally around, creating a fascinating socio- and musicological profile of people with formidable knowledge of the work and the environment in which it thrived, but scant interest in either the work’s spiritual descendants or today’s simpatico alternative/indie music community. Without the artiste’s involvement in upholding, promoting or refining the brand, the band’s possibly had fewer champions than any major act I can think of from the past quarter century. Or put it this way: Thompson Twins fans descended upon Bailey’s 2014’s pop tour like a pack of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts.

This goes a way towards explaining why Tom Bailey concert crowds are so cozily convivial. I’ve seen shows in a half-dozen different towns the past four years and the vibe’s always like a high school reunion, only without the tension. Oh, and if the Bailey Unbreakables are looking for a new cause to rally around, it leaps off the grooves of Science Fiction, a charming and inventive “adult alternative” album (I think that’s what they call them) that’s also among the best synthpop records in ages.

Whether by necessity or bloodymindedness, Science Fiction was evidently stitched together by humble means – a laptop, some plug-ins, a place to sit – which contributes mightily to the tight weave informing each of its 10 tracks. With Bailey playing every note and singing most of them too, Fiction approaches the kind of performance unity once reserved for early Prince albums or Pete Townshend Who demos. There’s a propriety in the performances that borders on the academic (no Steve Stevens guitar rampages, in other words), while also revealing the build quality to be first-rate: the transitions are just fantastic, with beautifully organic, song-serving sequences pitched way above the I.Q. of current chart pop, which often seems frenzied and pushy. Indeed, Fiction glides in like it’s already cased the joint and knows where all the goodies are buried.

And the goodies! Classic Thompson Twins records were deep on details, and Fiction‘s more of the same.

Bailey thinks like an orchestra percussionist regardless of the instrument he’s playing – watch his hands in concert- with no hard stabs of sound; instead, he offers angular dabs of rhythmic texture (the chatty synths in What Kind Of World, the aqueous bass taps in If You Need Someone, the slack guitar grounding Bring Back Yesterday’s verses) which creates bursts of momentum without disturbing the volume. There’s a lot of movement within the arrangements, too, as he seldom lets a new verse or chorus go by without fillips: on the hypnotic Feels Like Love To Me, Science Fiction’s prettiest song, quiet dub patterns turn choppy, a promising flourish of guitar chords appears but once, the marathon outro toys with all sorts of open vowel sounds (“WHOAA-ooh-whooaah, whooah-oh-aaah” is my favourite – and no, I’m not kidding). Layered momentum helped Thompsons singles really work as dance remixes: even his melodies have a heartbeat.

The vocals also experiment with cadence and texture. Again, Feels Like Love To Me shines: a two-bar rest between the verses’ first couplet disappears in the second pair, while an unpaired fifth line tumbles out just before the chorus. Ship Of Fools works a similar temporal feint with mere two-line verses. Lead single What Kind Of World deploys a Spanish-language hook as a recurring rhythmic motif. (In a passage of meta Bailey bliss, the Spanish hook locks into a brief stepwise dance with the chatty synth from the intro, but Tom plays alternate notes as he’ll often do in concert solos. The effect is mesmerizing). The beguiled hopeful in Shooting Star sings in a softened, higher pitch that even briefly resembles Chris Martin; the vexed lover in Blue sounds twice as old, as Bailey reveals a heretofore unheard huskiness at the bottom of his range. Coupled with the descending piano line, Blue recalls a Bowiesque brand of glam.

And the “whoa” is to Tom Bailey as “yeah” is to Paul Buchanan or “hee” is to Michael Jackson. They appear everywhere, and they are welcome to stay awhile.

 

Science Fiction’s loaded with upper-echelon Bailey songs, and each has something memorable: the glorious chord switcheroo under Science Fiction’s middle-eight (“I’d like to make you mine, but you’re travelling in time…science fiction” – is that my favourite passage on the record?); the massive klaxon-like guitar swell in What Kind Of World’s later breaks (is this an AmpliTube plug-in, Tom?); Shooting Star’s grinding, upward momentum after the last round of choruses; the sunny ring modulation effect on Feels Like Love To Me’s backing vocals; Blue’s resigned “sleep all day, lie awake all night” reality check (my favourite couplet); Ship Of Fools’ nods to Storm On The Sea’s sway and Alannah Currie’s percussion fills. There’s so much to dig in these tracks, and the work is all play.

If You Need Someone merits special attention, as a delightfully unexpected dive into the zeitgeist from around the dawn of the Thompsons’ recording career. One of the best things about watching old episodes of CHiPs on DVD is listening to Alan Silvestri’s disco-based scores. With its unusually long title sequences, Silvestri was tasked with composing proper song-length themes to run along sun-drenched establishing shots of kids, dames or Ponch ‘n’ Jon rollerskatin’, skydivin’, windsurfin’ or cruisin’. If You Need Someone is that kind of song. It’s also the kind of song Alan Palomo was making at the time of his 2009 debut as Neon Indian (Psychic Chasms), gloriously bent synthpop that sounded like theme music for an early ‘80s Saturday morning kids’ science program. If You Need Someone’s hopscotch skipping melody is among the friendliest puppies Bailey’s ever raised, featuring another obscenely facile transition into chorus, a glorious and obviously necessary (!) walking bassline, a Latin percussion break in case Bobby Orlando’s listening at the console with remix notes, and the breeziest Bailey lead vocal this side of Rock This Boat. The result’s so breezy you wonder whether he’s being disingenuous, because a lot of Fiction’s lyric themes deal with anxiety and uncertainty, although I think this one is simply a balm for wishful souls. I don’t think it’s my favourite song on the record (at least not today; the list changes daily), but it’s the one I wanted to write about the most.

Science Fiction would have made a great follow-up to 1985’s Here’s To Future Days. Stylistically it hews closest to the post-Joe Leeway Twins period of Nothing In Common through the more sedate Queer tracks, fine work which lost a little lustre after Babble’s scorched-earth effect on the catalogue. Fiction thus avoids the big-tent MTV panorama of the Alex Sadkin-Nile Rodgers albums, which have rightfully ascended to iconography even as some of their accoutrements would seem like pastiche were they deployed today. Given its laptop origins, Fiction’s tunes have been buffed up for concerts (tellingly, the first three Fiction songs to graduate to the 2018 setlist have Alice Offley on electric bass for dynamic heft), which begs the question of what Fiction might sound like with a modern-but-simpatico figure like Paul Epworth in the co-producer’s chair (I fantasized about Tony Visconti, briefly considered Mark Ronson, shuddered at Greg Kurstin). One might even wish for an occasional surge of sinister audacity, along the lines of 1991’s The Saint or 1993’s Drive, because that’s sort of where things trailed off 22 years ago. I think that’d be too much ground to cover for this particular survey. In the final analysis, he’s given us a great pop record. It’s anyone’s guess where Tom Bailey heads next, but remember this: the car is always revving in the drive.

 

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Add some music to your day #16: Four Very Important Records (June 2012)

Four personally significant new records dropped in a three-week stretch near the end of spring 2012, sort of my musical equivalent of a solar eclipse. No small potatoes, these. Ex-Blue Niler Paul Buchanan is my favourite singer from the 1980s. Saint Etienne is my favourite band since 1990. I think Beach House made the best record of 2010. And you might’ve heard I like The Beach Boys. There’s little stylistic common ground among the four, but together they created a sort of dream vortex of previous champions aiming to soundtrack summer 2012. How’d they do?

New records are like the new T.V. season or a new year of school: eventually they’ll be bunched together in a body of work or experience, but in the moment they’re disproportionately important. Evaluation’s not an exact science, especially from such a cramped perspective, but one thing’s certain: a good record from a pet favourite is a sigh of relief and a bad one’s an affront. Sometimes new records make me nervous.

PAUL BUCHANAN – Mid Air

Paul Buchanan once said five albums would make a good career; 28 years after The Blue Nile’s first, he’s made his marker, and Mid Air’s finally cast Buchanan in the role he was born to play – saloon singer. Playing both halves of the Sinatra-Bill Miller combo, Mid Air‘s lo-fi execution sacrifices cinematic TBN flourishes for aching immediacy, removing Buchanan from the pigeonhole of his band’s box and into the realm of anyone who ever ruminated over simple piano chords in a backstreet dive. Unsurprisingly, it’s awfully affecting: haunting and haunted, and the closest spiritual companion to the magnificent pair of ‘80s TBN albums as we’re likely to get. Several of TBN’s best songs eschewed drums (notably, “Easter Parade,” “Regret,” “From A Late Night Train,” “Family Life”), but this record’s hush goes deeper, past the bridge and over the hillside into extreme reflectiveness. That’s not to say Mid Air is close to AWATR or Hats in scale or song. But it restores Buchanan to his rightful place as a real go-to when chips are down. The voice still creaks while it searches for the higher notes, and wraps beautifully around the simplest of phrases (a disastrous “tear stains on your pillow/I was drunk when I danced with the bride/Let it go” denouement; a knowing “life goes by and you learn/how to watch your bridges burn” shrug). It’s anyone’s guess where art and life intersect with Buchanan, but that’s what makes his sketches ring with everyman wisdom and wry regret. Primarily a guitarist in his band’s day, Buchanan’s reliance on piano further eases Mid Air onto terra firma (heck, there’s even a touch of distant trumpet, just like the old days), but it’s a double-edged knife that leads to my only plaint: ex-communicated Niler Paul Joseph Moore might’ve worked magic with these brief songs (only one over 2:57), a few of which seem built for longer, fuller arrangements and suffer for lack of same (Buchanan’s instrumental skills are purely workmanlike; his chordings can be choppily rudimentary). But Mid Air is generous with displays of his innate songwriting genius, even if it’s held to a modest scale. “Mid Air,” “I Remember You,” “Wedding Party,” “My True Country” and “After Dark” aren’t run-of-the-mill voice-and-piano bedsit musings. They are wonderful, they are proof a Paul Buchanan exists.

 

THE BEACH BOYS – That’s Why God Made The Radio

Nothing that’s come out of the Brian Wilson camp since Carl’s death seemed possible in 1998. Back in 2004, the SMiLE album/tour was the cherry atop an impressive six-year solo run, but he’s still defying best-before dates eight years later. Here, on the eve of his 70th birthday, The Beach Boys have released their first record in 20 years, the first with Brian’s involvement in 27, the first with him at the helm in 35.

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There’s no template for how a new record by a rock band with an average age of 68 is supposed to sound, but what I do know is That’s Why God Made The Radio is better than the ones The Beach Boys were making when they were pushing 40, with a significantly greater degree of creative health and spirit. Admittedly such things matter more to long-time fans than new converts or the casually curious. I’m not recommending Radio to newbies. But to the beleaguered diehards, the thrill doesn’t end with the act of purchasing the product: Songs still matter to head Boy Brian, and he’s supplied six really good ones. They begin and end the album – which leaves a prolonged sag in the middle – but judicious iPod planning left me shaking my head in happy wonder. The title track may be more arrangement and performance than song, but it’s spectacular on those first two fronts, a brilliant stroke as lead single, because it both sounds like a post-surf/car Beach Boys song ought to and like nothing else on radio in years (except, maybe, Grizzly Bear’s three-year-old “Two Weeks”): unashamedly sumptuous and wonderfully well-sung. I think it belongs in the canon. Second single, the relatively spartan “Isn’t It Time,” surprisingly steers clear of imitation: although its lyrics are throwback, the ukulele-as-lead instrument and neat octave-doubling harmonies are new wrinkles in the Beach Boy sound. Radio closes with a sequence that’s earned a lot of attention and admiration, a three-song suite that hearkens back to a later California sound, the ‘70s singer-songwriter domain of Newman, King, Dennis Wilson et al, albeit with superb, fully integrated BB harmonies. Maybe it’s what The Beach Boys might’ve sounded like in the late-’70s if it hadn’t all gone tits-up. “From Here To Back Again” features the evidently ageless Al Jardine on lead, a delicate two-part song with a jaunty whistling tag; “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” are Brian showcases of a piece with a couple of tracks from That Lucky Old Sun – unhurried reveries on aging, loss and loneliness which might seem unusual for a Beach Boys record if you recall the forced jollity of their “adult” albums, but not so much with Pet Sounds or “In My Room” considered. While it’s jarring to hear Wilson sing lines like “sometimes I realize my days are getting on,” “sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say” and “summer’s gone, it’s finally sinking in,” the frail beauty of his weathered tone, the deep swells of support from the backing vocals and strings, the hypnotic drag of the sun-speckled music are the surest signs of genius still lurking in his compositional bag. Throughout Radio, the sound is great. Jardine, Wilson and Bruce Johnston fill the middle range admirably. Mike Love doesn’t get a lot of lead here, and when he does it’s on ballads, which minimizes creeping nasality. Brian’s live band plays on most of the tracks, although only Jeffrey Foskett sings, taking the high tenor and falsetto “Brian” parts. He fits. That Radio’s saggy portion shows fallibility hardly matters – the fact I’m thinking critically about a new Beach Boys album 42 years after the release of the song that lends its name to this column (“Add Some Music To Your Day,” geddit?) is one of the great events of this summer.

 

BEACH HOUSE – Bloom

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Beach House’s Bloom is more a refinement than Great Leap Forward, but now they’re on fire. The sharpest songs have a new and thrilling pop bite atop the expected glazy force, and Alex Scally’s single-note guitar style has edged into Disintegration territory, meaning anything they’re considering for a single or T.V. show appearance sounds positively mesmerizing. The new approachabiity is a rare treat, a kind of tangibility most of their dream-pop peers can’t touch. Bloom’s incandescence sounds great, but the songs hold up, too. “Lazuli” dazzles for every one of its 302 seconds, from the frayed, square-wave organ arpeggio intro to the beautifully staggered three-part contrapuntal vocal built into the last two minutes. Phenomenally grand but outfitted with a few inspired stripped-down breaks, swooning but cool, it’s a surefire finalist for my favourite song of the year. “Wishes” and “Myth” are nearly as good, superhero flick-sized walls of sound peaking with what’s becoming Victoria Legrand’s go-to move: the one-line lyric bridge that speaks of some unimaginable sadness (“one in your life, it happens once and rarely twice,” “or let the ashes fly, help me to name it, help me to name it”), either preceding or following searing, effect-heavy guitar passages that suck the air out of your chest. Bloom never hurries to the payoff; tension abounds in delayed choruses and suspended breaks. I suppose you could call Bloom’s songs a little samey – an accusation you might level at Disintegration or a Cocteau Twins record, too – but the bits that poke through the haze, a bristling solo or one of those torrid vocal bridges, dazzle and amaze. I get wistfulness from Bloom, but I bet it soundtracks euphoric love and bruised despair just as well. Simply put, this is an uncommonly great band at a new peak. Is it the best band in the world right now?

 

SAINT ETIENNE – Words And Music By Saint Etienne

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It shouldn’t register as a surprise to anyone in the know that Bob Stanley – in his other professional life, away from co-helming what is, for my money, the best damn pop band of the past 22 years – will publish a book on pop history next year. As Saint Etienne’s once prodigious work rate slowed in the middle of the last decade, Stanley returned to rock writing, regularly contributing pieces to Mojo, The Guardian and Pitchfork among others, showing the same archivist zeal that’s always tugged at the skirt of Et’s modern dance pop. What might be surprising, however, is how the newest Etienne LP – their first in seven years – functions as a totally serviceable introduction to the band for those who might only have a remix or two on their iPhone. Words And Music By Saint Etienne – a concept album about the age-defying emotional connection forged between artist and fan – is sometimes so damn good it gives me goosebumps. Of a piece with any Etienne record since 1994’s Tiger Bay, Words And Music is chock-a-block with floor-filling uptempos in all sorts of intriguing shades, no doubt aided by cannily chosen production hands (Tim Powell, Richard X, Nick Coler, Rob Davis and honorary Et Ian Catt), but the vision remains Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell’s. Referential songs about record collecting, DJs, gig-going and the centrist vibe regarding music as the most emotionally rewarding of all art forms might be gratingly cute in other hands, but Etienne set the emotional tone brilliantly with a mostly spoken-word opener “Over The Border,” which is one of the most intelligent things they’ve ever done, because it frames the following 40 minutes as a record about loving music for people who love music. Etienne’s played this card before (“Join Our Club,” “Clark Co. Record Fair”), but even without that knowledge, Words And Music is still a gas. Shades of chugging Italo, bright house, Philly disco and Baelaeric stompers abound, but the biggest surprise for vet fans might be “When I Was 17”’s indie guitar bounce. It wears extremely well. As they did on 2005’s Tales From Turnpike House, Etienne apply some thickening agents to Cracknell’s increasingly feathery singing – a great idea then and now. Longtime pal Debsey Wykes pops in to harmonize on the terrific “Haunted Jukebox,” and Brit disco chanteuse Tina Charles guests on three numbers, including “Answer Song,” which is one of the best songs they’ve ever done, a pop-soul tune Bacharach might’ve written had he started a few decades later, with a whomping string hook riding over a churning electro groove, and a gamine sexual/sensuality that explodes in the sky-punching chorus. Taking a cue from Smokey Robinson, the song’s title employs a time-tested pop music trope to deliver its more universal message of romantic longing, which is ultimately what both music in general, and Words And Music in particular, are about: as one-hit wonder Stardust put it in 1998, “music sounds better with you.”

All in all, that’s a heckuva good batch of records. Summer’s sounding better already.

Add some music to your day #15: New stuff, May 2012

Thoughts on new music from May, wrapped up in a tidy package. I bet these people don’t get much direct sunlight.

DYLAN ETTINGER – Lifetime Of Romance

Variations on The Human League circa Fast Product: dour synthesizer music twisted into recognizable form via a sneaky pop streak. At its best (“Disparager,” “Arco Iris”), Lifetime Of Romance grooves – not by being especially clubby or danceable, but by possessing a rhythmic centre that holds the fort while Ettinger lobs sore-throated, son-of-Todd Baechle wails into the abyss. Nobody’s idea of a gifted singer, Ettinger’s brief stanzas – verses as mantras, really – are another instrument in the mix, towered over by mountains of reverb and Moog bursts, but they’re hardly throwaway, and occasional detours into falsetto are startling and even a little amusing. There’s an urgency in the vocals that’s hard to dislike, which is sort of how I feel about Lifetime Of Romance in general: it’s dark music – think those fiery orange/red/purple Manhattan skies Spider-Man swung through in the ‘60s Ralph Bakshi cartoons – but it’s got a brawny energy that belies the initial impression of cold stasis. “Maude” embodies this best: icy pads hover for four minutes with guest saxophone providing a rattling human counterpoint to Ettinger’s burbling synthscape, before a creaky “Nightclubbing” CompuRhythm pattern refocuses the song for the second four-minute segment, an anguished Disintegration-like essay on sundered domesticity.

 

KILLING JOKE – MMXII

Here’s the force of nature that is Killing Joke, back for a second helping with the reconstituted original lineup and firing on every damn cylinder. The Mayan calendar tolls for Jaz Coleman as Ragnarok did 30 years prior; whether that leads to tomfoolery this time ‘round (read: band-splintering skedaddling to Iceland to escape the maaaadness) only time’ll tell, but while we wait, enjoy this doomsday soundtrack. Loads of good stuff here. In an era marked by stifling compression on hard music, top-dog mixing here grants all sorts of room for the arrangements to roam. Every major facet of the complex Killing Joke sound’s accounted for: ominous dub-throb, galloping dance-punk, metallic brawling, even a healthy return to Brighter Than A Thousand Suns-style synthpop. It’s not scattershot variety for variety’s sake, either: MMXII plays like a custom-built festival bill of likemindeds edited down to an invigorating 50-minute highlight package. Coleman adapts his singing accordingly: I haven’t heard his ice-cool “Love Like Blood” croon so much in years, but it sounds terrific amid the sphincter-clenched punk yowls and full-throated bellowing. Whatever he takes for sore throats, I want. My own preference for “Pssyche”/”Bloodsport”-styled dance music is covered by “Rapture,” “Colony Collapse” and “Trance,” excellent tunes in varying rhythmic settings (piledriving, swinging and chugging, respectively); those with a yen for sprawling, half-speed Joke are well served by great album bookends in “Pole Shift” and “On All Hallow’s Eve.” Joke’s politics are all over the record: “FEMA Camp” essays rumoured American-based internment camps for high-risk citizens; several songs outline environmental failings and technological overreliance in the face of stiff corporate rule. The lyric sheet’s filled with URLs for further reading. That the links will evolve or disappear entirely over time encapsulates the Joke conundrum: learn and act now or surrender this toe-hold. MMXII’s grim and critical outlook isn’t rounded out by scepticism – “marvel at the mysteries of quantum immortality” and “bring gifts and spirits, good wine…light up the graveyards to show how much we all care” sound like words by those who intend to dance around the bonfires while they wait out the apocalypse. That glimmer of sunlight delivers MMXII from the stigma of single-minded browbeating. All in all, a vivid, arresting album.

 

LIONESS – The Golden Killer

The two guys wear full face-covering skulls onstage, which is impressively ludicrous. I don’t mean to laugh at Lioness because it’s possible they’re dead serious about this, and I started listening to pop in an era defined by Adam Ant’s “ridicule is nothing to be scared of” mantra. Still, #Lulz. Compelling in controlled amounts, the music of Lioness more-or-less picks up where controller.controller left off in 2006 (Jeff Scheven and Ronnie Morris were members): regimented, vigorous death-disco that sounds great if you walk in halfway through one of their support slots with other stuff on your mind, but lacks the creative panache to withstand the rigors of an LP. It’s not like I can pick out any rotten songs, but The Golden Killer has as much variety as a steakhouse’s prix fixe menu after last seating. The girl singer makes an impressive sound – lion on a hot tin roof – which is I imagine much easier without wearing a skull.

 

CRAFT SPELLS – Gallery

A mildly disappointing EP that seeks to add a little punch to Idle Labor’s pastel-hued Factory Records post-punk, but doesn’t quite have the songs to finish the transition of power. Among the moves:  Justin Vallesteros no longer sounds like Ian Curtis at the other end of a long tunnel – he’s got a better voice than most of his Captured Tracks brethren and he’s wisely pushed it up in the mix. And even though the bass playing’s less propulsive than it was on Idle Labor, the momentum’s earned back with everything else in crisper colours. Although attractively dreamy, Gallery is also a little lazy (consider “Still Left With Me”’s overreliance on an unadventurous riff, and the next track’s very similar chorus melody). The clear highlight – the aptly named “Burst” – mixes thrusting bass, chiming guitars, a direct drum attack and a beachy vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on New Order’s Technique. (No chorus, either, and I didn’t notice ‘til about the fifth time through. Nice one.) But for all the careful cropping and composition, Gallery’s edges have curled up in the sun.

Add some music to your day #14: New stuff, March-April 2012

Thoughts on new music from March and April, wrapped up in a tidy package. Tough times for some dependable vets (unless your name is Tindersticks).

TINDERSTICKS – The Something Rain

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Music for nights of solitude – not of the forlorn variety, but more for those occasions when there’s no hurry to get any place and it can warm you like a fuzzy blanket while long shadows play across the apartment walls. Something like The National, but more soulfully cinematic and instrumentally varied, with shards of sax, twinkling glockenspiel and keening violins complementing trad rock tools to build mid- and crawl-tempo set pieces about disorientation and disappointment. “Show Me Everything” – not the first song to lift the classic guitar line from Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” (hello, “Thieves Like Us”) – and “This Fire Of Autumn” exemplify The Something Rain’s deft restraint, with each instrument, including Stuart Staples’ voice, woven into a fluid mass, determined but mostly absent of typical rock accents. These songs have momentum, and eventually steam up the windows, but the thing is you never see the switch being thrown. Nice work, you magicians. “Come Inside” is gorgeous and it knows it, hovering for nearly eight hypnotic minutes, a reminder of mood music’s supreme purpose: to enhance what’s already in play. At hush level, its gentle gait might even be described as a balm, a noble trait in any good sad song. It works even better on loop play (trust me, there are worse ways to spend 23 minutes). Here’s one of my favourite phrases: A very fine record by a veteran band on good form.

 

TRUST – Trst

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I’m thinking I ought to get a Maya Postepski app for my phone. She’s got unimpeachable taste in the bands she drums with, anchoring some awfully good, dark synthpop in the past couple of years. I saw Trust open for Washed Out in 2010, and although the vibe was great, the songs choked in deadpan gothic squalor. On this duo’s first LP, Trst, that problem’s been rslvd. Cavernously reverbed yet thoughtfully gated, good melodies ooze over Postepski’s clipped beats, mostly via bell-like synths , thickly whooshing pads and the Vincent Price-with-a-mouthful-of-marbles vocal stylings of Robert Alfons, who manages to sound like the creepiest cryptkeeper since Peter Murphy, without actually tipping over into stagey ridiculousness. He’s only decipherable part of the time – so Murph’s got him beat there – but crucially, he’s got range, often stepping out of baritone murk and into the kind of light where most vampires fear to tread. The peppy, driving “Dressed For Space” and hypnotic “Bulbform” sound awfully energized with that filthy-sounding lisp. The record wraps with its best track, “Sulk,” which restates the band’s strengths: pretty gusts of atmos, monophonic melodies, a vampire singing on the edge of sunlight, a metronomic beat and sympathetic mixing from Damien Taylor, who recorded Postepski’s other band, Austra. I’m a fan.

 

MAGNETIC FIELDS – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea

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A misfire, Stephin Merritt squeezing into an old pair of pants but not exactly squeezing out sparks. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is a wet fart despite a return to the keyboard arrangements and tinkity pinkety rhyme patterns that marked the Mags’ peak performances from a good dozen years ago. “Born For Love,” “I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies” and “I Don’t Like Your Tone” are all fine, typical Merritt vehicles, dependably bittersweet and sonorously sung, with enough funhouse play to keep the record bobbing above the surface. Unfortunately, eight of Sea’s songs – half the LP – are sung by Shirley Simms, and they quash momentum every time. They’re lighter in tone and dumber in lyric content; damningly, it’s all I can do to not think of The Fountains Of Wayne’s smirking, feckless tropes, and I stopped buying records by those nerds years ago. Merritt’s “Andrew In Drag” is an undeniable bullseye, though. Make sure you hear that one.

 

THE SHINS – Port Of Morrow

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It takes work to get into Port Of Morrow. It’s neither as immediate nor as sparky as peak Shins, and maybe this can be attributed to James Mercer diverting some of his song stock to Broken Bells in 2010, and to a band overhaul that left him last Shin standing. It’s a solo record in all but name. But it’s also been five years since Wincing The Night Away, and Mercer’s tied to Sony Columbia, where beans are doubtless being counted. Essentially a collaboration between Mercer and producer/multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin (ex-Shins appear on four tracks), Morrow’s downbeat, reflective cast still affords a small clutch of lovely, winding melodies and wonderful singing (“Bait & Switch” and “40 Mark Strasse” are noteworthies), but it’s only a moderate yield considering how much time Mercer’s had to create and craft. I’ll concede this could be a grower if you’ll concede I may not be in a rush to find out for myself.

 

TANLINES – Mixed Emotions

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Credit Tanlines with an imaginative aesthetic that mixes spare synth lines and serrated, highlife guitar with dominant, polyrhythmic percussion tracks for a fresh take on confessional indiepop. The singing is equally uncommon: unusual phrasing and accenting on lyrics that make a meal out of line repetition – it might be borrowed from South African pop, if I had to hazard a guess (these guys are white Brooklynites). Whatever, the admixture’s really quite attractive and listenable. On the negative side of the ledger, that staunch approach to song arrangement leaves the first half of Mixed Emotions sounding awfully samey; it’s a little counterintuitive to leave the best melodies to the back end. But some of those really stick: “Not The Same”’s gritty choruses, “Rain Delay”’s encapsulation of the pretty stop/start tension Tanlines are going for, and “Cactus”…well, that one’s absolutely gorgeous, possessed of a passage sure to rank among my favourite 79 seconds of the musical year. A flawed record, then, but one of occasional excellence. (And ahoy the Pet Sounds-lovin’ nod, found in “Lost Somewhere”’s big bite out of “I Know There’s An Answer”’s chorus.)

 

PAUL WELLER – Sonik Kicks

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Never having been a fervent Jam acoloyte – Paul Weller’s melodies were seldom as sharp as his fashions – I’m not the ideal candidate for whatever he’s hawking. But sometimes you walk into your local shop and a shiny cover catches the eye before the brain has a chance to remind you what the ear’s long known. (I snagged the current Mojo with the Weller cover before I left, too. Clearly I can’t be trusted with an excess of cash.) Sonik Kicks is fairly named. That bluff voice – a roughened croon always on the verge of a nasty snarl – is well intact, and the musical setting – gnarled post-punk with strong electronic shading – is active and physical. As ever with this guy, it’s the melodies that ground the flight. They service the song but seldom startle or amaze. Simon Dine’s the collaborator: Mojo informs me he builds the frames and Weller brings the paint, which might be straightjacketing the proceedings, given how vertical most of Sonik Kicks is. Some nice work across the usual panoply of Weller styles (“Kling I Klang” bashes and bangs, “That Dangerous Age” shimmies and bops, “Be Happy Children” deftly reasserts his capable embrace of white soul) neither rescues this record from the Not Bad But… pile nor guarantees my patronage next time around.

Add some music to your day #13: New stuff, January-February 2012

Thoughts on new music from January and February, wrapped up in a tidy package. Four of these will be on the year-end Top 25.

CHAIRLIFT – Something

The first Chairlift LP had one absolutely delightful art-pop number (“Evident Utensil”) and some nice second bananas, but still I bundled these guys with the likes of Captain, Go! Team, Black Kids and other pan flashes: briefly intriguing pretenders destined for shuffle play purgatory. But Something is something else – an unexpected Great Leap Forward into superior songwriting and all the relevance that attends it. Chairlift, down to a girl-boy duo with studio assistance, is still mining glistening ‘80s-biting dream pop, but nearly every song on Something has a moment – a winning chorus, a dramatic payoff, a lovely sound design – that lofts the band past the middle-of-the-pack and into the upper echelon of the newish new wave we’ve been listening to for half a decade. It helps that Caroline Polachek has a lovely, flexible voice and the brief to keep the lyrics audible. But the music’s got a lot of hustle, too:  “I Belong In Your Arms” sounds like a breezy 45 from about 1984; “Sidewalk Safari” churns over wobbly, interweaving melodic lines; “Met Before” kitchen sinks stately keys and heavily reverbed girl-group vocals over thudding Californian garage rock. On a cooler tip, “Frigid Spring” is delectable, a watercolour of breathy coos, twinkling keys and acoustic washes, heir to the debut album’s promisingly arty singles. Recall that “Bruises” was an iPod Nano jingle in 2008; Something debunks hipster taint with surpassingly strong material.

 

PORCELAIN RAFT – Strange Weekend

One of the most stimulating efforts I’ve heard from the endless pack of studio rats masquerading as bands, Porcelain Raft’s appeal lies in massed layers of trebly, kaleidoscopic sounds morphing into warm whorls of psychedelic dream pop, with some spectacularly beautiful results. Strange Weekend – the first solo album from 39-year-old serial collaborator Mauro Remiddi – is one of those relatively rare treats where the artist attains impressive conceptual cohesiveness through playing everything himself, filtering ostensibly rock-based instrumentation through the mix with cleverly deconstructionist flair. Especially whatever the hell he’s using for rhythm beds! The drum patterns are chopped, pureed and liquefied, but never at the expense of the momentum which drives and anchors Weekend’s swooningly appealing singles “Put Me To Sleep” and “Until You Speak From Your Heart.” Remiddi seems to have tapped into a sort of nostalgic prettiness despite the clatter – an old trick Thomas Dolby mastered on The Golden Age Of Wireless­ – but some of the more graceful passages (“Is It Too Deep For You?” and especially “Backwords”) recall Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s woozy stateliness. Dolby and OMD were terrific at invoking old grandeur through modern synthetic means, and the best moments of Strange Weekend repeatedly get there. Remiddi’s singing voice, which ranges from a harsh, Bolanesque lisp to a thin, keening tenor, is suited to both the material and the sibilant mix. On the closing “The Way In” there’s even a stab at Brett Anderson-scale ballad singing over appropriately melancholic strums and whooshes. This guy’s a great architect.

 

AIR – Le Voyage Dans La Lune

On the one hand, from the perspective of sound and intent, a moderately encouraging step away from the soporific, airbrushed fussiness that dominated the records they made in 2007 and 2009. On the other hand, from the perspective of songs and execution, a discouraging affirmation of Air’s enduring staleness. I was in the record store the week before this came out when some guy told his friend, “I’m really nervous about the new Air record.” You may recall Air occupying an exalted space in people’s minds a dozen years ago, riding a wave of otherworldly early singles, a dizzyingly grand debut album and a darkly affecting soundtrack LP. But now the disappointments outnumber the triumphs, and all the weaker records have come in succession. La Voyage Dans La Lune, an imaginary soundtrack to a century-old silent film, is a well-intentioned bummer. In reaching back for the feel of old glories, but failing to deliver anything you might remember an hour after playing it, Air’s bag is no longer worthy of such record-store hand-wringing. It’s always a downer to realize the goodwill’s spent, isn’t it.

 

FIELD MUSIC – Plumb

Fervidly inventive yet frustratingly fitful, Plumb’s hooks race by like samples from the golden age of T.V. show theme writing, dangling earworms long enough to capture attention but not to pay the pleasure zone. That flaw undermines the nicely shaped narrative, great sound (“significantly less compression and limiting than most contemporary records,” boasts the liner) and deep well of creative mojo. Plumb’s both too taxing and too brief: 35 minutes is a long time to absorb ideas whizzing by at warp speed; conversely, few of Plumb’s 15 fragmented tunes can stand on their own. Despite attention spans shaved to fractions of what they were in simpler times, pop music’s digestibility – not advertising jingle pop nor T.V. theme pop – is still founded on hook deployment. On Plumb? Well, how many unresolved notions comprise “Choosing Sides”? The brilliance of, say, SMiLE, is that while it’s built on modular arrangements it also sparks cognitive enjoyment through repetition and recurrence. But Plumb comes like lightning. In spite of themselves, a few songs are written to completion anyway, and are pretty affecting, whether lyrically (social exclusion brought about by careless time management in “Sorry Again, Mate”) or musically (the gorgeously searing strings that fill “From Hide And Seek To Heartache” to bursting). I’m buying the next Field Music record because I believe, I believe, but I think they shoot themselves in the foot about a dozen times on Plumb.

 

GRIMES – Visions

I’ve read she digs Animal Collective and it shows on Visions, which is surprisingly organic for a record built on brief, recurring melodic phrases. Not that the loops are so deft you don’t realize what’s going on, but the burbling synth-plus-beats work is fresh and invigorating throughout. Although live performances occasionally veer into twee ether, she holds it together as a vocalist here too, despite a delivery that essentially kills at least half the words before they reach the mic. Thus, it’s not so much an impediment as an artistic statement. Allowing for the featherweight vocals, the heavy lifting’s left to the music, which is tight and clubby, sometimes hinting at late-’80s chart cheese (“Oblivion”), sometimes nodding at Eurodisco narcotism (“Be A Body”), sometimes evincing the queasy otherness Lynch, Badalamenti and Cruise might’ve dreamt up for Twin Peaks if its time had come 20 years later (“Symphonia IX [My Wait Is U]”). Mostly, though, Visions retains an elemental approachability despite its animated idiosyncrasies, which is the best of both worlds for Grimes. A little like good AnCo, genuine pop moments appear throughout, long enough for some listeners to connect the dots and possibly hear things that aren’t really there. Is that why it’s called Visions, Claire?

 

FRANKIE ROSE – Interstellar

A lovely – and sometimes dark – album that reminds me somewhat of last year’s Miracle Fortress set, both of ‘em sparkling recordings that forestall most knee-jerk retro tags despite their reliance upon cozily familiar instrumentation. Icy synths, syncopated drumbeats and chorused guitars abound, but their deployment’s what makes Interstellar glow. Frankie cushions her modest voice with close harmony double-tracking that occasionally suggests Dolores O’Riordan purring in neutral. It’s a pleasant sound that works wonders on the peppy “Daylight Sky,” which cleverly trades that vocal approach off and on with a similar close-harmony synth melody, or on “Pair Of Wings,” which bursts into M83-like Technicolor over its final minute. Interstellar’s songs won’t smack you over the head with the kind of tension-releasing middle eights that’d cost Smokey Robinson any sleepless nights: a few songs somehow reach the three-minute mark without any real resolution. But nervy tunes like “Night Swim” and “Moon In My Mind” are so dynamically solid you don’t notice unless you’re listening for it. A classy effort that’ll probably fly under the radar but oughtta reward every pair of ears it graces. And I’ll bet this sounds great under a starry September sky.

Add some music to your day #9: New releases, September 2011

September’s shopping bag: a lot of quality cats with previous year-end top 10 albums weigh in. Some months you’re happy to have functioning ears.

THE ROSEBUDS – Loud Planes Fly Low

A record written, recorded and released during the dissolution of a marriage, a tricky proposition when the principal band members are the couple in question, which understandably informs and even cripples the heretofore sweeter and fresher Rosebuds. In the words of the opening song, “diluted and faded, still safely there.” Aside from the choppy, seething “Woods,” it’s all pretty morose, rather pretty but stolid, as though Ivan and Kelly are going out of their way to be polite in front of the in-laws. What they’ve committed to tape’s admirably convivial. Kelly’s dreamy “Come Visit Me” suggests there’s desperate paddling beneath the calm surface: “I want to feel something way out here/I need something to happen now, even if it fucks me up” is pretty direct for this duo. Less bald but just as sad, “Limitless Arms” is shiveringly gorgeous, maybe the best song of Rosebuds’ distinguished career. Ivan hasn’t much to say after a perfunctory verse, cooing “I feel like I’m reaching out for the last time” for the better part of three minutes. In this setting, it’s poetry. Loud Planes Fly Low is too withdrawn to match their best, but no matter The Rosebuds’ future, they’ve left us this song for all our break-up playlists.

 

THE DRUMS – Portamento

Spindly indie of occasionally great beauty and pop attack. Considering the singer’s capacity to annoy, were his lyrics more incisive and the guitar work more flamboyantly creative, The Drums would be closer to The Smiths than you thought possible. But they’re a bit of a mess right now – one of the guitarists quit and everyone else has flipped instruments. The shifts’ve taken a toll on Portamento. On a case-by-case basis the songs are fine, but there’s a shortage of the explosive dynamics that characterized the debut. The result – smaller, more pessimistic, radio unfriendly – is the kind of record that landed a lot of second-division indie bands in label hot water 30 years ago (Comsat Angels and The Sound come to mind). But as a grumpy exegesis on romantic, spiritual and personal disappointment, Portamento’s worth the dime and time for the bought-in:  “What You Were” and “I Don’t Know How To Love” are brilliant, as good as anything on The Drums; “Money” is great hangdog inadequacy set to nervy C86-bounce, with layers of that smirking vocal stacking that drove the haters bananas last year.

 

NEON INDIAN – Era Extraña

Although I’ll miss Psychic Chasms’s cosmic farts and bleeps and may forever wonder whether Alan Palomo might’ve done even more with the bonkers blueprint, he’s done the smart “career” thing, seizing on a little bit of notoriety (Fallon, blog love) to fashion a good old-fashioned synthpop band record (and a top 75 US album to boot). Props for a fully integrated sound as well; but for a couple guest turns, Palomo plays most everything you hear. When it works – “Polish Girl,” “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” and the gorgeously downcast “Fallout” – it fulfills the promise of last year’s surprisingly refined OMD-meets-Yellow Magic Orchestra “Sleep Paralysist” standalone. When it doesn’t – the sandblasted stab at rock in “The Blindside Kiss” – it’s bad idea jeans.  There’s still plenty of analogue squiggling built into his (now) classically pop-structured tunes, but if Palomo’s committed to this trad approach he may want to bump his vocs a little higher in the mix. The lyrics – on Era Extraña, reflecting a lonely work winter spent in Finland – aren’t throwaway and shouldn’t be buried. Extraña is very good – if not quite equal to Chasms – and represents an important developmental move into the indie big leagues. Long may Palomo bleep and bloop.

 

ST. VINCENT –Strange Mercy

Less immediately gratifying than previous records – and immediately disfigured by the abominably self-conscious opening tune – Strange Mercy doesn’t rewrite the rulebook so much as it rearranges the furniture:  less emphasis on bewitching vocal stacks, more rope for strangled guitar textures, that sort of thing. The credits reveal some hired hands behind the Vincent facade – but it’s still the Annie Clark show, her placid singing style masking querulous lyrics, the harrumphing left to angular guitar bursts. The band lets loose once in a while – “Hysterical Strength” and “Cruel” get let off the leash for little runs – but the milky production does nothing for me at lower volumes, all smooth contouring, like IKEA office furniture designed by Apple. “Surgeon,” “Cheerleader” and “Champagne Year” are three good songs not too badly done in by the sound. But they’d be even better with a little blood on the teeth.

 

GIRLS – Record 3: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

I worry for the guy’s state of mind, but the fact is Girls is still batting a thousand after three releases in 24 months – sad records of regret and resignation – wherein the arrangements are moving further away from buzzing indie terra firma toward a kind of kitchen sink drama largely enabled by the studio duo of Chris Owens and Chet White’s increased instrumental and recording sophistication. “Vomit,” for instance, is a depressive stunner that turns its limited lyric into hypnotic gold by means of repetition and dynamic fortitude – at seven minutes it takes after Album’s “Hellhole Ratrace” – but never cracks its hair-trigger control, which makes the post-track silence at song’s end all the more chilling. “Forgiveness” is maybe even better: “Nothing’s gonna get any better if you don’t have a little hope, if you don’t have a little hope in your soul” is about as simplistic as Conan’s speech on cynicism on his final Tonight Show, and hits as true, especially coming after 30-odd minutes of woe betidings. Uncomfortably confessional yet encouragingly mulish. Father, Son, Holy Ghost isn’t easy to take – at least one play fell flat on its face when I just wasn’t in the mood – but barring a few forced, upbeat misfires, Owens is building an amazing, morose songbook.

Add some music to your day #8: New releases, August 2011

August’s shopping bag: several bands with pretty crappy names make pretty good records. And Kate Bush  – good name, crappy record.

ARCTIC MONKEYS –Suck It And See

Yesterday’s punky thrust is today’s rumbly rock, but this sanded down Monkeys marks a nice developmental step, and may be their best LP yet. Alex Turner’s blown some of Last Shadow Puppets’ softer airs into the Monkey balloon: “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala,” “Piledriver Waltz” and “She’s Thunderstorms” are nowhere near as frantic as their titles suggest. The wallop’s left to the lyric page, where Turner seldom disappoints. The advancement into melodic rock seems organic enough. This deep into their career The Jam – like the Monkeys, formerly brazen, chart-topping UK youth – were recording soul covers, about to down tools. Without a trace of similar identity clashes, the Monkeys’ bag is humour, bile and poignancy set to increasingly expressive tunes. I miss the edge a little, though.

 

KATE BUSH – Director’s Cut

Legend has it John Entwistle re-recorded songs he’d written for The Who out of boredom and pique. I find that pretty amusing. Quite why the great Kate felt overhauls were necessary in her life escapes me, but that’s what Director’s Cut comprises. Kate’s declared war on treble. Applying a serious low-pass filter to several key The Sensual World tracks and most of The Red Shoes’ first side, Cut sounds like an old cassette playing without the pressure pad. Or the mumbly adults in Peanuts. And this, from one of pop music’s great audio explorers and banshee wailers. Gated, late-‘80s drum tracks might’ve been the impetus for change, but switching out one dated production touch for another (AutoTune in “Deeper Understanding”) doesn’t smack of common sense. In Cut’s losing defence, “This Woman’s Work” and “Moments Of Pleasure” fare reasonably well – the songs’re indestructible, evidently – while “The Red Shoes” retains much of its pluck. Not so “The Sensual World” (retitled “Flower Of The Mountain” here), which is the deadest-sounding recording I’ve heard all year. Generally, Bush’s singing is warmly affecting, a maturing gift that promises to be heard from again later this year (!) on a new set that hopefully leaves past glories the fuck alone.

 

PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – Belong

Winsome indie-pop, sort of like The Cure in “Just Like Heaven” mode (“My Terrible Friend,” if you need proof). When Pains dial down the synth, Belong veers towards ‘90s alt, albeit with wide-eyed yearbook-quote sentiments, which makes them come off like 15-year-olds.  Some of it’s awfully jejune – “she was the heart in your heartbreak, she was the miss in your mistake” – but every so often, the music turns more insistent, and that’s the best stuff. “Even In Dreams” buzzes along like Ultra Vivid Scene’s slightly sinister tick-tock shoegaze, while “Strange” – absolutely the best and most commanding Pains song to date – never breaks out of its stiff-backed drum, double-timed guitar strum, while Kip Berman nuzzles his object of affection with wistful us v. them couplets.  As a paean to nerd love, it’s pretty and affecting.

 

CULTS – Cults

There’s a fizzy indistinctness to Cults that recalls this year’s Smith Westerns record, although these production touches hearken back further than ‘70s suburbia, all the way to girl-group pop’s toothpaste charms. It’s a nice, smart-dumb, summer record. The twinkly, heavily reverbed instrumentation – light on rhythmic grit, but laced with glockenspiel and tack piano-type sounds – is unremittingly bright and goes a long way towards obscuring the lyrical pessimism. The pluckily artless singing does too. On the terrific “Walk At Night” she sings of escape from home, bright lights and emotional deceit over a plinking swirl reminiscent of the opening bars of Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime”, only with such blitheness you picture taffeta instead of bruised knees. So, Cults is a bit of a ruse, something made more apparent by the band’s dark videos (they’re both NYU film students).

 

HORRORS – Skying

About 40 years ago the UK label Pickwick footed the bill for a weird series of cash-grab LPs aimed at the youth pop market, wherein hack studio players re-recorded chart hits for budget compilations. As a form of rights circumvention, it’s not as though the practice ever disappeared: Dancing With The Stars does it today. If ABC ever wants to up the ante for a new wave-themed episode, I’ve got the house band for them. Skying could be the next instalment in Rhino’s Postpunk Chronicles, only with Horrors playing original songs wearing various shades of Comsat Angels, The Teardrop Explodes, The Chameleons and Simple Minds. And doing a bang-up job. At this point in the year I’ve pretty much given up on hearing anything new, so it might as well be good pastiche. Throughout, the band’s grasp of dynamics is excellent:  nervy (“Endless Blue,” “Moving Further Away”), stomping (“I Can See Through You”) or stately (“Still Life”), the sound and presence of Skying crackles with a ballsy sprawl melding chart ambition and record-collector wonk. It seems like a mainstream record only because the sound’s so familiar. But after playing spot-the-reference for 50 minutes, I’d like to note the only nod to Joy Division – seemingly every other band’s go-to influence – is the drummer’s Ian Curtis bowl cut. He also plays more ride cymbal than anyone I’ve heard in ages. Best record of the summer.

Add some music to your day #7: New releases, July 2011

July’s shopping bag: a screaming punk, a soulful hunk, and three chillwavers trying not to flunk.

FUCKED UP – David Comes To Life

 Shatteringly loud-but-brilliantly mixed avant-punk that’s stuffed with so many brightly melodic possibilities it’s hard to figure why this record’s filed under hardcore…until the singer woofs all over the proceedings. Fucked Up is Damian Abraham’s band, so no one’s gonna tell him off. But the disconnect between the music and the voice is ridiculous. The omnipresent, bellicose screaming – a technical achievement, to be sure – obscures the high-minded lyrics. The 78-minute run-time borders on masochistic. Some get off on a wall of roar. Not me.

 

RAPHAEL SAADIQ – Stone Rollin’

https://i1.wp.com/media.avclub.com/images/media/musicalwork/5565/raphael-saadiq-stone-rollin-cover_jpg_150x1000_upscale_q85.jpgIn his enthusiasm nay drive to emulate some of soul’s great multitaskers – men who wrote, sang, played and produced their own records (Stevie, Marvin, Smoke, Sly), he’s playing in awfully deep water. Pleasant but not especially inspired pastiche, the sound is better than the songs, which too often try getting by on predictable melodic phrases and a crippling disregard for middle eights. He’s painted his vocals into a corner, too: gasping out short, punchy phrases like an elementary schooler slapping at a tether ball. It takes moxie to take on a decades-old genre stuffed with songs that survived the cull of time to become cultural standards. Sharon Jones faces the same challenge, and gets across more authentically. I love soul, and Saadiq’s got it, but maybe he should enquire into whether Holland-Dozier-Holland is still writing for hire.

 

TORO Y MOI – Underneath The Pine

https://i2.wp.com/www.noripcord.com/files/imagecache/cover-image/files/albumreview/cover/toro-y-moi-underneath-the-pine-575x575.jpgThree kinds of music on offer from Toro Y Moi’s second LP: cruise ship lounge funk (“New Beat,” “Still Sound”), hazy summertime froth (“Got Blinded,” “How I Know”) and more of the debut album’s hushed, elaborate chillwave. The first type is excellent, with subtle, jazzy organ interplay softening the funk edge like Billy Paul might’ve done without the Philly strings. The second is pretty good, with whispering, high harmonies adding an appealing sheen to the breezy, ’60s sunshine pop. The third is a minor developmental uptick from 2010’s so-so Causers Of This – the music sounds great (“Divina” could be a mid-period Air track with that fab drum-bass guitar sound) although it rarely grabs you. I get the impression Chaz Bundick is outgrowing his early musical trappings: the aforementioned first two styles suggest routes that could pay off handsomely once he commits.

 

JOHN MAUS – We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

https://i2.wp.com/www.collapseboard.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/John-Maus-%E2%80%93-We-Must-Become-The-Pitiless-Censors-Of-Ourselves-Upset-The-Rhythm-150x150.jpg“Pussy is not a matter of fact,” and I suppose one could say the same of Maus’ credentials as a songwriter. Empirical statements aside, Maus would never have worked the Brill Building with one-line song texts like that, nor would his looped-passage-extended-to-song-length approach have landed gigs with Ellie Greenwich, either. But he is a madcap audio alchemist, whose murky, gothic, analog synthpop holds no small charm for those so disposed. The viscid, vampiric sensuality is rather alluring. As a singer he is ridiculous. Chest-voice bellowing swathed in long-decay reverb, the kind of sound you might create in an empty underground parkade. Censors is a gauzy, oddball, Halloween romp with the structural backbone of an Ariel Pink record, but it succeeds on those wiles, whether evincing a Miami Vice death scene vibe (“Cop Killer”) or a heroic, you-‘n’-me-‘gainst-the-world-babe stance (“Believer”). The grainy, mid-‘80s, station ID song intros often recall the first Neon Indian record. The most normal-sounding song, a hauntingly dark piano ballad called “Hey Moon,” is an obscure modern cover that wouldn’t be out of place on a Peter Murphy record. Grimly fiendish.

 

WASHED OUT – Within And Without

Contrary to the John Maus record, Washed Out’s Ernest Greene ditched the lo-fi  for perfumed silk sheets (and check out the cover pic, poached from a Cosmopolitan ish), and until fatigue sets in around minute 25, I figure the abdication’s been a good idea. Chillwave adherents and Bryan Ferry acolytes alike should dig Within And Without: unhurried tempi, supremely euphonic synth washes and a murmured vocal buried deeper than a secret. I really like the first batch of songs, especially the sporty pair of “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati.” I have no idea what they’re about. I’ll have to hit a lyric search engine; they’re usually about 70 per cent right. What’s missing from Within is the giddy gaucheness of “Belong,” or the dead-cool funk base of “Feel It All Around.” It’s a little too smoov (for you Roxy fans: really, is “Avalon” as great as “Virginia Plain”? No, it’s not). But Greene’s fattened up his setlist considerably, successfully stepping around the received wisdom about chillwave auteur lifespans. He can surely roll, if not exactly rock.

Add some music to your day #6: New releases, June 2011

June’s shopping bag: Bought a pile of new records while on holiday. It’ll take all summer to work through them.

JUNIOR BOYS – It’s All True

https://i2.wp.com/treblezine.com/reviews/albumcovers/JuniorBoysItsAllTrue.jpgJunior Boys’ charms generally outweigh their chief shortcoming – namely, that they don’t write songs (go ahead, try singing something other than “Hazel” or “In The Morning”) – because Greenspan’s a good singer and the JB groove style (implied over explicit, nearly every time) fosters some seriously polyrhythmic dancefloor contortions. The records sound great. Still, I always get the sense they’re making it up as they go along, cut ‘n’ pasting fragments together until they find an outro. Wonder how much tape splicing they’d’ve done in the days before Pro Tools. Lots, I bet. But when they’re on form, watch out: meandering or not, “You’ll Improve Me” and “Itchy Fingers” are remix-ready floor fillers, and the dizzy echo orgy at the end of “Second Chance” is some kind of stirring. “Playtime” is as moody as film music, another in JB’s long line of narcotic time-outs. The brittle, supersized “Banana Ripple” sounds like a standalone single tacked on as a reissue bonus track, but it salvages True’s slightly undercooked final third.

 

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE – Codes And Keys

With the whitest man in indie at the helm I never expected something as boss as the groovy Neu!-stomp of “Doors Unlocked And Open,” but I’ve played it a lot and it’s wearing well. DCFC never nursemaided me through any O.C.-type tribulations, so I’m not weepy over the abandonment of a classic Cutie sound; the fleshier production and fatter textural presence of Codes And Keys are welcome touches that put a few tufts of chest hair on that weedy, Eng Lit professor’s voice of Gibbard’s. He seems less needy now. Of course, he also married up. Cross that off the bucket list. Side one’s where the action is, where grasp meets reach: the title track’s thumping piano and orchestral dolour, the nagging guitar riff and helicoptering vocal eruptions running through “You Are A Tourist,” the unhurried Another Green World-like intro into “Unobstructed Views.”

 

THE CARS – Move Like This

https://i2.wp.com/media.avclub.com/images/media/musicalwork/5561/Cars-Move_Like_This_jpg_150x1000_upscale_q85.jpgAfter a long hibernation, the best summer stock band since The Beach Boys takes a spin down reunion road, delivering one stone gem (“Sad Song”) and enough personable second-drawer nuggets to make the wait worthwhile. Apart from the grin-inducing Pavlovian response to old gulpy floating them lyrical airballs over that choppy, all-American new wave bounce, Move Like This does suffer a bit for the big hole left by Ben Orr’s death (cancer, 2000): namely, the helium element his lovely, crushed croon brought to those thick vocal harmony stacks. Still, Ric Ocasek remains a force of nature, with loads of good song ideas brought at least halfway to fruition through sensibly simpatico production and a snappy vibe that eschews the band’s occasional experimental streak of yore for immediate thrills. Pitched halfway between the airbrushed pop of mid-80s Cars or “Emotion In Motion,” and the engaging but dressed-down rock of Ocasek’s later solo oeuvre, Move Like This could stand a little more song sculpting: the half of the album produced by Jacknife Lee (including “Sad Song,” “Blue Tip and “Hits Me”) is a mite more vivacious than the band’s self-prods. But you know, these guys bounced before anyone said scram, and the timing of their re-emergence is peachy.

 

ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI – Moment Bends

Moment Bends starts promisingly but by the end of the record I wanted to throttle these guys. I think the brief was to create mainstream songs with as little instrumental ornamentation as possible, but the hollowness is maddening. There’re five people on the back cover. I want to make a joke about Australians and light bulbs. Three of the first tunes are serious replayables, throwback synthpop of various ‘80s colours, featuring neat, fat keyboard leads and keeper vocal melodies, but the remainder plays like a band running over budget and out of time. Moment Bends loses the bet where minimalism covers barrenness.

 

FRIENDLY FIRES – Pala

https://i1.wp.com/www.absolutepunk.net/geek/gars/images/1/2/5/0/5/3150x150_artwork_friendly_fires_pala.jpgStrobe-light intensity keyboard pop that’s more clotted than kinetic, a shortfall they might’ve addressed with a single, proper outside producer. Friendly Fires’ take on synthpop – especially the fast songs – largely shuns vintage sounds and playable arrangements for stuttering, chopped-up beds of keyboards that occasionally overwhelm: I almost tossed “Live Those Days Tonight” and “Blue Cassette” overboard due to excessive chatter. No flies on the spectacular “Hurting,” though, which lights the sky like a full moon bursting through cloud cover and maintains its star turn for five minutes of superballing house squibs, Ed Macfarlane’s Daryl Hall-like tenor-into-falsetto lead, and a no-quit chorus worthy of early MTV. Delirium on ‘roids, and the best song they’ve given us yet. I can’t hear many of Pala’s songs passing the singer-with-guitar litmus test, but the sheer effort expended upon keeping “True Love,” “Chimes” and “Hawaiian Air” from collapsing is worth a huzzah or two.

Add some music to your day #5: New releases, May 2011

May’s shopping bag: one I couldn’t get enough of, and two I may send to the same storage room as the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the first Indy Jones flick.

TV ON THE RADIO – Nine Types Of Light

Cue another round of twitchy art rock and witchy Macbeth singing voices. Second verse, same as the first. TVotR remind me of bands like The Doors, The Cars, The Ramones: good, yes, but stuck in a moment they just can’t get out of. The new TVotR opens with the gang sounding exactly like The National for all of about 90 seconds, before resuming their appointed rounds. But Nine Types Of Light sports no adrenaline rush to match “Wolf Like Me” and no barnstorming funk to rival “Golden Age.” There’s a nice mid-album peak:  the elegiac “Killer Crane” actually sounds like a sunrise to me, and lead single “Will Do”’s an affecting, melodic, straightforward love song. Both sound great. But by the time the record winds down with “Caffeinated Consciousness”’s grinding, lazy, two-chord “Guns In The Sky” verse melody, Nine Types has mouldered as often as its smouldered. Not as good as previous efforts.

 

AUSTRA – Feel It Break

https://i1.wp.com/media.avclub.com/images/media/musicalwork/5571/Austra__jpg_150x1000_upscale_q85.jpgGloomy, taut synthpop in a darkwave vein, delivered with impressive reserve considering tools at leader and singer Katie Stelmanis’ disposal.  In more than one way Feel It Break reminds me of Eurythmics circa Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), itself a terrific artefact of similar atmospherically melodic starkness. The opera-schooled Stelmanis stacks coolly controlled vocal tracks with crackling energy and harmonic invention, but the surgical preciseness of her vibrato-filled leads is what’ll catch the ear. Aren’t we lucky she digs synths? One of Break’s lesser lights (throbbing club track “Beat And The Pulse”) got all the early notices due to a NSFW video, but there’re several stronger songs on tap: “Hate Crime,” “The Villain” and “Shoot The Water” form a 12-minute, mid-album stretch as good as anything I’ve heard all year, and the slinky, twinkling “Darken Her Horse” has all the icy hauteur of early Goldfrapp, or even mid-period Banshees. Beautifully recorded and nicely paced, the first full-length Austra feels like that distant rumble of thunder, portending something bigger that stays on the mind until the rain explodes the cloud cover. It’s the record I’ve returned to most often in the first half of 2011.

 

FLEET FOXES – Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes was a band many were compelled to listen to once, in the wake of critical ejaculate spattered so far and wide it made you mute the world around you when “White Winter Hymnal” came on the radio. You know, just in case. (Me, I’ve got that weak-in-the-presence-of-intricate-harmony-singing thing going, too.) Now, pastoral throwbacks are as much of a challenge for me as Trans is for CSN&Y fans, but good songs sometimes trump mundane idioms. Happens a few times here. While there’s nothing as gorgeous as the first LP’s “He Doesn’t Know Why,” Helplessness Blues does sport the robust “Lorelai,” which soars and sparkles like My Morning Jacket’s “Golden,” even as it borrows a little too liberally from Dylan’s “4th Time Around.” (Copyists abound in every arena, see.) In the interests of disclosure: “Sim Sala Bim,” The Plains/Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine/An Argument” have been on repeat, too. But the rest of Blues is slipping from memory.