Category Archives: New Releases, 2011

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 Loud Planes Fly Low is too withdrawn to match their best, but no matter The Rosebuds’ future, they’ve left us this song for all our break-up playlists.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.


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.



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’ 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 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“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 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.



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 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.



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 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, 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.

Add some music to your day #4: New releases, April 2011

April’s shopping bag: old new wavers, new old-schoolers and Radiohead’s latest curio.

COLD CAVE – Cherish The Light Years you’re clued in – hardcore poster boy Wesley Eisold has become a vampire! – the band name does a fair job of describing the LP’s content. As if sired by sundry black-clad netherworlders, it’s starkly beautiful, glowering and spacious-but-mammoth-sounding. This stuff’s always compelling in its basic state. Ever since Scott Walker’s sepulchral baritone put the rock into baroque there’s been a steady stream of pale-faced men overcompensating for their 98 lb. frames, and although I’m sure none of Bowie, Iggy, Curtis, Murphy, Eldritch or Cocker would ever talk back to mother with that voice, somehow it always sounds terrific married to the right backing tracks. These’ll do. Eisold’s sneaky pop streak keeps Cherish The Light Years hopping. Half the songs sound like lost singles from one of DJ Lazarus’ darkwave club nights: the bellowing opener “The Great Pan Is Dead,” the Faint-biting “Icons Of Summer,” and a pair of ridiculously titled tunes (“Alchemy And You” and “Villains Of The Moon”) that do the muscularly danceable spirit of New Order’s Brotherhood­ proud. While we’re sifting through the time capsule, my absolute favourite has to be “Confetti,” a spectacularly baleful homage to Depeche and 4AD both, dropping a magnificently anguished, cod-Bowie vocal over a pulsing bed of electro-tom fills, crystal-clear guitar figures and cascading synths. It’s shamelessly retrograde, even sporting a perfectly gothic yearbook quote-as-hook: “It’s important that evil people look good on the outside.” Favourite song of the month – or 1986 – right here.


DURAN DURAN – All You Need Is Now record Andy Taylor probably figured they didn’t have left in them. All You Need Is Now is overgenerous, not flinty. Must be nice to think you’ve a surplus of songs 13 albums into your career. Even Rio was only about 45 minutes long. The hour-long run time affords opportunity to skeet shoot the weaker tunes, but aside from a lame Mark Ronson house track with a bleating Le Bon-Ana Matronic duet and one of those we’re-logged-in-and-turned-on mid-life crisis things, there’s precious little to get upset about. Among the many uptempo, could-be singles, “Too Bad You’re So Beautiful” has an immensely satisfying verse melody, “Girl Panic!” is as agreeably swishy as any of the debut album’s 45s, and the hustling disco bounce of “Being Followed” mines moody Euro verse/sunlit chorus duality with great skill. The six-minute “The Man Who Stole A Leopard” doesn’t hide its “The Chauffeur” genesis, but its execution is admirable. Nick Rhodes and original Duran singer Stephen Duffy made a good record together about a decade ago, which sparked fan talk about how the new romantic vibe still suited the band, if only they had the conviction to try it out under the Duran banner. They’ve done that here. The record’s slightly form-over-content – Andy’s buzzing riffs are missed; Roger’s metronomic fills are in short supply, producer Ronson’s layering is pushy in spots – but the enthusiasm is infectious. Easily surpassing expectations at this advanced stage, no Duran fan should pass this by; most new wave enthusiasts will find some treasure within.


HOLY GHOST! – Holy Ghost!

In the wake of LCD’s retirement, DFA’s poured its faith into Holy Ghost!, and while I don’t hear them as being wittily ironic enough to challenge James Murphy’s defunct band on an intellectual scale – lyrically, anyway – everybody knows stiff-backed Italo disco-cum-new wave lifts indie kids out of their chairs four times out of five. “Hold On,” an old single recalled to give the LP a boost, benefits from Murph’s co-prod, sporting a dirty serrated synth loop and lightly phased keyboards straight out of CHIC’s “Everybody Dance.” It’s addictive. So is “Wait & See,” the live opener – pristine, John Hughes flick-worthy pop tricked out with an octave-bounding bass line, buoyant synth pad hits and a wordless, boy band refrain. If the song were a cheerleader, you’d call it Muffy or Buffy. It sounded dead brilliant in concert; it’s nearly as irrepressible on record. Throughout, the candy floss superficiality is extremely agreeable, but sameyness lurks. There are other bass lines, dudes. Holy Ghost! isn’t quite as inventive as the first Sally Shapiro record – still my favourite Italo throwback – but after all the great-sounding carbon copies, there’s an amazing curveball tacked on at album’s end: “Some Children” leaves the ghosts of Bobby Orlando and Baltimora behind for a deeper dig into the crate o’ soul, blending a youth choir and yacht rocker Michael McDonald (!) into a confection every bit as clever as the old-school woody boogie Hercules And Love Affair crafted a few years ago. With a few caveats, Holy Ghost! is genuine boombox bounty.


SPOONS – Static In Transmission like the new Duran album – hell, somewhat like the newish OMD too – a way back playback comprising old tropes given a spit shine: lots of keybs and popping bass lines, and a very familiar singer taking camp followers all the way back to 1986. It’s a shame none of these period recalls ever dial the clock back an additional three-to-five years, when these bands were flirting with greatness, not painting by numbers. For not the first time, and I suppose not the last, the artist presents an album in search of the perfect single, 10 four-minute, radio-friendly ditties with lots of surface charm but of variable wattage. I’d give in to the easy joke implied by the album’s title, but Spoons – just Gordon Deppe and Sandy Horne this time around – are such sweethearts I’d rather highlight the better efforts: Deppe’s “Imperfekt,”  “Breaking In” and “End Of Story” are slick and punchy, and Horne leads a breezy summertime keeper in “Escape.” The songs are grounded by a few too many fat saw-wave synth leads and flat drums to buck the nice-guys-finish-in-the-middle-of-the-pack trend. Good to have ‘em back though: I’ve caught Spoons in concert a few times, and if you can get out to a show I guarantee a quality night out.


RADIOHEAD – The King Of Limbs“Codex” and “Lotus Flower” are smashingly beautiful recordings, and I like a few others too, but The King Of Limbs is really just a functionally decent, minor record from a major band, and historical recollections will be reduced to a few comments about the curious lengths the band took to protect that mediocrity by cleverly controlling the fanfare surrounding its release. Not a starter record for the uninitiated, but the second side’s a pretty decent reminder of how production and arrangement can fluff up second-drawer songs. Just once I’d like to see what these guys would come up with if we put them on a desert island without Pro Tools and Nigel Godrich. New Order and Smiths covers?



Sort of like the Brewis brothers’ Field Music and The Week That Was projects rolled into a one-man band, with emphasis placed on synths, not guitars. There’s a lot to like here, from the angular, almost architectural rhythms that support and eventually consume “Tracers,” to the expansive, sky-wide pop of “Raw Spectacle” and “Miscalculations.” The steady-as-she-goes equipoise of Graham Van Pelt’s approach keeps indulgence at bay – tasteful refrain abounds – although it also straightjackets his brightest pop song, “Spectre.” As a sound painting, “Spectre” is a lovely, soaring thing. It also needs a live drummer’s gristle. Could be a concert revelation waiting to happen. Generally speaking, an intelligent, crafty, nearly-there record, where the only fault is an overly measured gait.

Add some music to your day #3: New releases, March 2011

This month in the shopping bag: Girls, Girls, Girls. That’s my Mötley Crüe reference for the year.

LYKKE LI – Wounded Rhymes

This isn’t the first record to detail the reciprocal connection between joy and pain, but it’s a very good one, a lustrous – and lusty – record that brings to mind the writer Nik Cohn’s memorable description of Pet Sounds: “sad songs about loneliness and heartache; sad songs even about happiness.” That’s a telling interpretation, because even if there are a couple of places where Wounded Rhymes’ rainy day purview approaches the Spectorian-Wilsonian wall of woe, they’re only half of the story. The thematic centrepiece is “Sadness Is A Blessing,” which addresses the resiliency of youth over a “Be My Baby” heartbeat, with a gorgeously erotic vocal drag on the line “the only lover I’ve ever known,” and a clever bit of lyrical dexterity in the chorus. By following the titular phrase with “sadness is a pearl” instead of the expected “sadness is a curse,” you realize Li’s motored past the first four stages of coping, straight on into acceptance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt could’ve used this in (500) Days of Summer. “Silent My Song,” which sounds massive despite its spare instrumentation, offers more of the same. The production and economy of arrangement by PB&J’s Bjorn Nittling lavishes every bawdy lyrical urge with ravishing sound; even the cage-rattlers (“Youth Knows No Pain,” “Get Some”) that come out swingin’ with percussive “I Want Candy”-like clangour aren’t particularly angry: they’re rapturous, defiant, determined. So, if acceptance is the one state you’d prefer to meet in a dark alley, Wounded Rhymes is your ticket back to the light. Or, hell, as the artist herself puts it: “That must mean I’ll live again/And get back what I gave my men/Get back what I lost to them.”


PJ HARVEY – Let England Shake

“Soldiers fell like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief” isn’t regular fare for a lead single’s opening verse, but that’s how “The Words That Maketh Murder” typifies Let England Shake’s treatise on combat’s grisly horrors and the dull aftershock that clings to a nation’s psyche. PJ’s time-travelled back to The Great War’s disastrous Gallipolli Campaign, with unsettling, unflinching imagery informing each of England’s songs. From the army bugler almost trampled underfoot in “The Glorious Land” to the villagers diving into the sewage-infested rivers to escape the carnage in “Written On The Forehead,” Harvey’s characters are drawn right at the life-altering moment of realization. England isn’t a full play; it’s almost like a collection of final acts. Harvey’s method masterstroke is in pitching her voice so close to trilling, sing-songy blitheness, and matching it to melodically catchy – even breezy – music. The foot soldier’s jingoist mentality is a mass delusion – just ask the poor Vietnam sap in Stevie Wonder’s similarly scathing “Front Line” – and by delivering England’s vignettes without a hint of harangue, Harvey leaves you to retch as you will.


ANNA CALVI – Anna Calvi

Vividly dramatic accompaniment for the RKO studios B-movie playing in your head. A motel crime scene, a cop on the take, a shifty femme with a gold-plated cigarette lighter, sweltering air you could cut with a letter opener. I was surprised to learn Calvi’s English, as so many of the sensory cues seem drawn from American potboiler fiction, with a twist of David Lynch’s noirish phantasms. But I hear a little “Down By The Water”-period PJ Harvey too (Peej associate Rob Ellis co-produced). It’s a stone gas, honey. Anna Calvi starts with a motionless, lick-heavy instrumental, a pretty bold call for a debut album from a young singer, but then, assertiveness is an element of style throughout. Although the music doesn’t recall The Banshees in the slightest, Siouxsie’s theatrical grandeur looms large in Calvi’s strong, flexible vocals. Consider the roiling “Suzanne And I” and the cinematic “First We Kiss” end credits-calibre songs. “Love Won’t Be Leaving” is the triumphant, epic closer, with Calvi’s coiled, expressive guitar playing to the fore. Can’t wait for the movie.


OH LAND – Oh Land

Time’ll tell whether the #184 Billboard chart placing means the world’s not ready for a “supermodel pop” sub-genre, but Oh Land steals marginally ahead of standard-issue Kylie in the “thrush pop” category (I’m just making these up as I go) by virtue of alluringly active vocal melodies, and thematic concerns that forego simple love-me-dos for dreams, hopes and categorical dismissals of bad friends. So forgive this ex-Royal Swedish Ballet student for having the best cheekbones in pop since a-Ha, and feed off the solid electro of “Human,” “Voodoo” and the Goldfrapp-like “Sun Of A Gun.” The undercard slot on OMD’s recent North American tour placed Oh Land before a hypothetically simpatico audience, but in such company her songs tended to float like butterflies while the headliner’s stung like bees. Curiously, YouTube’s full of clips showing the unusual arrangements in a different light: less reliant on beds of synth, there’s a twitchy Bjork influence Oh Land could push if she wanted to confound everybody. Supermodel Bjorkpop?

Add some music to your day #2: New releases, February 2011

This month in the shopping bag: the kids are alright, the return of 2008’s band-of-the-year, and the English are eating themselves again.


All Pop Rocks ‘n’ Coke and Michael Kelso throwing the devil’s horns, or, less impressionistically: woozily high-pitched vocals over pillowy classic rock, spiked with declamatory guitar lines recalling the taffy tang of T. Rex (not to mention David Bowie’s own playing on Diamond Dogs). Dye It Blonde’s emotional gravitas is somewhere below heavy-hitting, but its best songs are affecting anyway. Maybe it’s in the way these guys – the eldest is barely legal, by the way – pump up their songs with tempo changes (“All Die Young,” “Dance Away”) or where-have-I-heard-that post-chorus guitar hooks (“Weekend,” “Still New”). Maybe it’s the redemptive quality of something normally defaulting to masculine softened by the youthfully wan singing. Blonde’s time capsule qualities don’t exactly scream sound of tomorrow, but the tracks are so pleasingly layered I found lots of little treasures while trying to figure it out. The only trick these Smiths left out is glammy handclap accompaniment. You may find yourself supplying your own.


CUT COPY – Zonoscope

Dan Whitford’s preference for trad song structure over cycling hooks is one reason Cut Copy look to have the legs to run awhile. For all the things Zonoscope could have been – a two-dimensional commercial sellout; an In Ghost Colours clone; a well-intentioned bummer – the most encouraging thing about its near-excellence is the clear sense of upward development: stronger lyrics, deeper arrangements, increasing mastery of form. CC blew a lot of ammo with last summer’s pre-LP single, the amazingly assured, giddily expansive “Where I’m Going,” and still more with “Take Me Over” in November, but there’s a lotta gold in Zonoscope’s hills, including the ab fab “Alisa,” the soaring successor to Colours’ “Unforgettable Season.” One saber-rattling, sugar-rush rocker per LP shouldn’t be enough when CC does ‘em so well, but we’ll make do when they’re this good. Zonoscope’s club-friendly bookends ply Whitford’s build/breakdown/release paradigm with the same assurance as their 2008-09 live shows, which bodes well for this year’s tour: I don’t know how 15 minutes of “Sun God” will play live (what’s with everyone trotting out sitcom-length epics this winter?), but I’ll be waving my arms in the air like I just don’t care. Cut Copy’s in pretty heady space after three LPs, with the discog already sounding like one of the all-time great dance-rock mixtapes. And there’s the feeling they’re only getting warmed up.



As an anthropological experiment of sorts, I waded into this critically derided LP as a staunch appreciator of its musical antecedents and came away from it understanding said critical majority’s misgivings. And my wallet thinks I should be disciplined for throwing away 15 bucks. That said, I hit repeat on four songs, so Ritual must be doing something right part of the time, yeah? Old rope about the sincerity of imitation aside, those four songs have exactly what I miss in recent work by the bands White Lies are hated for loving, so what’s wrong with that? I mean, don’t people have “types” they date?

Add some music to your day #1: New releases, January 2011

Another January’s consigned to the scrap heap of history, and here are a few impressions about records we bought (and got ’round to playing). Included: two mild disappointments and one that looks good for the year-end top ten.

TENNIS –Cape Dory

With such proliferation of young marrieds in indie pop groups, Tennis’ quirky back story of rendering coastal sailboating adventure into song oughtta beguile for precisely one album’s worth of P.R. Cape Dory’s rudimentary guitar pop is attractive and sprightly, the proceedings lightly kissed with reverb and tingling ride cymbals. Throwback tempos and time signatures (‘50s doo wop on “Pigeon,” fairground waltz on “Bimini Bay”) abound: with a little more high end this would have been a Sarah Records band 15 years ago. But the twee summertime vibe is undermined by Wife’s furry, adenoidal vocals  – I do like some of the girl groupisms, and the melodies are fine, but her limitations – or the poor vocal miking, or a combination of both – really keep Cape Dory anchored. Husband does what he can to enliven an uptempo pair near album’s end – “Seafarer” and “Baltimore” – but as soon as his betrothed starts breathing her sweet nothings, the spell sours. Seasick, yet still docked.


BRITISH SEA POWER – Valhalla Dancehall

Hopefully this is BSP’s fallow period and not a sign of terminal decline. Their blandest “proper” album, Valhalla Dancehall is, qualitatively, everything in wrong amounts: too much dynamic compression, too many songs, too little breathing room. Most damningly, there ain’t a winning single in the package. Pre-LP single “Living Is So Easy” was okay, but ultimately proved a red herring, its synth ‘n’ shuffle rhythm unrepeated during the album’s other 57 minutes, which more-or-less tread familiar ground. BSP’s itchy, loose-limbed verve  is still evident in the playing (and I love the powerful “Mongk II”), but whereas BSP’s best work smacks of fresh air and open skies, Dancehall‘s numbingly dense, and it buries the vocals. It’s nice to have preferred lead singer Scott “Yan” Wilkinson restored to prominence after a scaled-back contribution to ’08’s Do You Like Rock Music?, but his yelp is missing some of the emphatic oomph that powered “Childhood Memories,” “Waving Flags” and other stalwarts of yore.  With its clumsily crude chorus destined to draw daytime radio bans (“over here, over there, everyfuckingwhere”), second single “Who’s In Control?” asks a tough question. Who indeed, lads?



One long Sunday morning comedown record, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Kaputt’s shivery, end-of-the-‘70s production sheen overcomes the record’s only potential cul-de-sac: samey song tempos (mid) and static basslines (no scales, all heartbeats). Then I realized I’d been hypnotized. Drizzling sax and flute over the glassy grooves like the second coming of Wild Bill Moore’s exploratory What’s Going On riffing, Kaputt conjures a twilit sky from atop the Love Boat with the house band playing disco jazz below deck. Superficially, sure, it’s a yacht rockish paean to pre-MTV American AM radio, but Dan Bejar’s masterstroke is in identifying the sucker punch hallmark of great disco records from the preceding half-decade: regret and longing trussed up in a Cinderella-like desperation to make it to the ball on time. Nostalgia infuses the fat, held, synth notes and gingerly enunciated lyrics, Bejar’s disenchanted kitten voice pawing at the silk curtains obscuring his protagonist’s voyage from hedonistic young gun to sage mage. (Really. That’s what I got.) The final song might be the umpteenth example of how hard it is to write a great 11-minute song (ask British Sea Power, they tried it earlier this month). But eventually Bejar rouses himself and sends the last revellers home. Too mellow to be a dance record, too shifty to soundtrack romance, Kaputt is a terrific, sturdy, headphones album of intelligence and craft. Recommended songs? Nearly all of ’em.