Tag Archives: Beach Boys

In concert: The Beach Boys (Darien, NY; June 29, 2012)

Showing the moves that got them The Monkey’s Uncle: The Beach Boys at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, June 29, 2012.
Note: click on all images to enlarge

I saw The Beach Boys again Friday night, a pokey, four-hour-drive-plus-one-international-border crossing from home. That’s dedication. I was either too young or too ignorant to see the band before a lineup featuring Brian Wilson and Al Jardine had to be billed as a reunion, and this 50th anniversary shebang might be the greatest mulligan I’ll get in my lifetime of attending concerts.

I wrote 2,000 words on the Toronto show last week; I’m not about to do that again. This second show – at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center near Buffalo – reaffirmed everything I wrote earlier, so I’ll direct you to that review for a more typical blow-by-blow account.

There were a few differences between the shows. Four songs were switched out for three recent set additions, including a pair from the tag end of the 1970s, which isn’t a bad idea because the Beach Boys were still charting minor hits in those days and I’m all for a balanced overview. The Boys should be commended: the song list for this tour’s cleared 60, with around 48 played each night. Every week there’s something tested at soundcheck and added to the rotation. But on the other side of the ledger, Mike Love did a seamy bit of shilling I’d read about online: buy nine copies of the new CD, get an band-autographed tenth. He didn’t mention this in Toronto, and I’m betting it’s because Canadian sales wouldn’t do squat for their spot in the Billboard 200.

 

The Darien crowd was in a terrific mood, all lusty cheers, singalongs, booty-bumpin’. There are certainly people at these shows who hadn’t heard of David Marks six months ago, or will never hear The Wondermints’ Bali. But hey, you try figuring out which demographic’s most responsible for the peal of delight that surges like a tidal wave as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” segues from “Sloop John B.” Does it matter? It’s the sound of every person in the joint in a state of rapture. The songs move you, whoever you think you are. Years ago, Sean Lennon, a kid who’d know something about great rock bands, said “I can’t be depressed if I listen to The Beach Boys.” Damned if he isn’t right. There are indeed places you can go to lock out all your worries and your fears, as the old song goes. A Beach Boys concert is one such place.

Brian did well on “Good Timin’,” one of those recent set additions. He had a good night, slightly better than in Toronto – more patter and body language, more involved during his Fender encore, often very clear in the blend, about equal on his leads. Bri band stalwart Taylor Mills flew in from Texas to catch a show and lend a little shimmer to “Marcella.” Brian told the audience a cute, misleading story about her – not that any of us realized it at the time, but I swear he’s still got that mischievous imp about him. I worry these three-hour shows are too much for Brian, but even though he looks spent by the end-of-show bow, he works hard on his leads, and I think he’s learned a lot about performance in the past 12 years, pacing himself accordingly. And he gets the loudest cheers. I always think of David Leaf’s line about Tinkerbelle, and if Leaf’s right, the crowd’s doing the auteur a lot of good.

The Beach Boys have got game. Consider: no other performer’s drawing from a deeper, greater song list; the backing band’s gorgeously panoramic performances and the front line’s superb singing’ll take your breath away; on any given night you’re hearing 25 or 26 Top 40 hits. All bases are covered. It’s the best satellite radio station you’ve never heard. Hey Mike, this is the travelling jukebox you’ve always dreamt of.

 

“Kokomo” is awful, though, the one moment during my shows when the spell shatters. It’s charmless, hack pastiche, but damnit, they hold it back ‘til the encore. It gets a huge roar of approval when it’s mentioned earlier in the set during one of Love and Bruce Johnston’s scripted routines. But it flounders in this company, dull and hollow until the chorus briefly sparks to life. The funny thing is, with all this authentic Beach Boys sound flying out of the PA for nearly three hours, this band can’t seem to make it sound much like a Beach Boys song. Ain’t that ironic?

 

Sometimes I think this tour’s happened as some kind of karmic restitution for years of squandered talent, litigious ridiculousness and awful hats. But the same stubborn resistance to terminal implosion likely paved the way for 2012’s unlikely and remarkable resurgence. The Beach Boys were like the hydra: cut up one band and three touring factions took its place. As years sped by, every Boy maintained his performing chops, one of them formed a phenomenal live band, a marketing hook appeared on the horizon, and suddenly, this: a Beach Boys all-star team for the ages.

A few years ago some friends – discriminating music fans – suggested we catch a Beach Boys show, but when I warned them they’d be entering a Wilson-free zone they backed out. Some need the assurance of authenticity to embrace an experience. This was the time to go, then, a golden opportunity to catch a Mount Rushmore-calibre pop band on extraordinary form. A Toronto paper mused, “The Beatles aren’t going to tour any time soon – in the realm of pop music, this is as good as it gets.”

Yup.

When this tour wraps, how will you take your Beach Boys? I’d never miss a Brian Wilson solo concert, travel logistics notwithstanding. He’ll take the bulk of this band with him. And it feels like family, y’know? I’d never miss an Al Jardine show either, although I wouldn’t pay as much. A Mike Love-Bruce Johnston show remains the last option, although it boasts two excellent players featuring in this reunion band: John Cowsill, who plays the drums like Animal from The Muppet Show, and guitarist-singer Scott Totten. I think most fans would prefer this reunion group keeps. Been a lot of PR on harmony and bygones and legacy this year, but Love is a road warrior and he’s already booked some Wilson-less South American dates for October. Will Jardine be there? Will Marks? A Beach Boys band with everyone save Wilson could still be an excellent proposition, would feel as though lessons were learned, should be the logical route. If the ball’s in Love’s court – and legal records suggest it is – he’s at a crossroad: how does he avoid fucking with the formula?

On the long drive home I thought about all these things, but mostly I considered myself lucky to have caught this band for a second time in 10 nights, confirming their excellence wasn’t a fever dream or indiscriminate fan worship. There must be ‘bout a million ways to add some music to your day, and this goes to the top of the list.

And now, a little Beach Boys Darien Lake photo dump, followed by the setlist:

Taylor Mills flew in from Texas to join the band on “Marcella” … and learn she recently had a baby. You know something we don’t, Brian?

Mike struggles with the first line from “Be True To Your School” every. single. show.

The ever-evolving setlist’s given Marks a star turn coming out of intermission: “Pet Sounds” pleases the chin-stroking Brianistas and eases the crowd into the second set. Note Mike D’Amico sitting in on drums.

The “Add Some Music To Your Day” segment’s become a heck of a photo op at shows. Someone’s got to ride gain on Jardine, though: at both Toronto and Darien he nearly blew the PA upon taking the mike from the much softer-voiced Johnston.

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In concert: The Beach Boys (Toronto; June 19, 2012)

The Beach Boys at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, June 19, 2012. The 48-song set included 26 U.S. Top 40 hits.
Note: click on all images to enlarge

The first seating section to sell out had been the one on Brian Wilson’s side of the stage; ticket touts outside the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre weren’t even offering them as game time approached for The Beach Boys’ Toronto concert (Tuesday, June 19). It’s probably the same at every stop on this massive North American tour. Spin it however you want – new album, milestone anniversary, all surviving members from the glory days reunited – the truth is Wilson’s both steak and sizzle here, at least for the fans with money to burn.

Brian’s rarely been a Beach Boy since 1986, which is both mortifying and pathetic. I can’t think of a comparable instance – not even Floyd without Waters – of a big-tent rock band sputtering along without its engine like this one has. Wilson’s tragic personal life dogged the band and imperilled its legacy long before he left, a cruel fate considering all he contributed to the cause. But even as he turned an unlikely late-‘90s comeback into a full-fledged solo career of intermittent brilliance and immense goodwill, his erstwhile bandmates  – particularly those still operating under the brand name –became easy punchlines. And that’s a shame, too, because it’s not as though these guys lost their chops – Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine are pros, comfortable at any venue ranging from casino halls to football stadia. That should’ve been enough – it is with practically every other act of similar vintage – but the perception of The Beach Boys has ever been complicated by factionalism. Love, Wilson and Jardine have all toured the songbook separately since 1999, with legal guttersniping practically an annual event.

The Fab Five: Brian Wilson, David Marks, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston.

But this might be the least dysfunctional The Beach Boys have been in about 45 years. Just in time to salvage some eleventh hour self-respect for the band, (“There’s lifespan involved here,” Love recently told Rolling Stone), Wilson helmed a pretty good comeback record that made #3 in the U.S. earlier this month, and everyone’s reconvened in front of just about the best backup band imaginable in order to do justice to one of the rock era’s best, deepest and most important song catalogues.

The result – for 33 shows and counting- is a staggering document of glorious sound and singing, best-in-class bundles of joy and wonderment springing from the golden age of the pop single, when every hook and chorus meant business, and when The Beach Boys went hammer-and-tong against the best Motown and British Invasion acts, none of which were slouches, and matched or bested them all.

In concert Tuesday night, the impact of their song selection was dizzying. Toronto opened with a six-song medley in 12 minutes. That’s a lot of staple-of-AM-radio choruses hurtling by before you’ve checked whether your drink is safely protected from shuffling feet. Early Beach Boys records were engineered so that something happened every 15 seconds or so, and Wilson could also be ruthless with the endings of his songs – the chorus or tag repeated once before a quick fade. The fact these songs are so recognizable, so punchy and bright, so packed with melodic derring-do, and coming so damn quickly at you is, in fact, breathtaking.

And after that sixth song, Love – ever the wisecracking emcee – announced the band would “like to take an intermission, followed by a nap.” I mean, har-har, but point taken, y’know?

Authenticity is the watchword on this tour. Behind the original voices are the instrumental choices that stoked the original records, including French horn, baritone sax, ukulele, vibes and lots of tambourine. 14 singers and musicians leave the songs sounding impressively full and familiar.

Several times the band plunged into themed fusillades that dared you to guess the next number, only to strike up the answer while you were still rifling through your internalized discography: cocksure car songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down” and “I Get Around”), sun-splashed surf tunes (“Catch A Wave,” “Hawaii,” “Don’t Back Down” and “Surfin’ Safari”), Pet Sounds in miniature (“Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”), and one sequence about women that may or may not have been intentional, but struck me as brilliant either way (“Surfer Girl,” “Wendy,” “Marcella,” “Then I Kissed Her,” and “Kiss Me, Baby”).

That “women” sequence spoke volumes about this reunited gang’s strengths. “Surfer Girl” gave Wilson his first solo lead of the night, on the bridge that announced his heartrendingly tender ballad voice to the world in July 1963. Feathered by age, its plaintive quality remains (and sounds a helluva lot better than it did in the late-1970s, to name a point in history), and Brian won the crowd’s first standing ovation. On “Wendy,” Love’s resonant lower register sparkled in the stacked harmony arrangement – he’s lost some power in his natural tenor range, but still lines the bottom like no one else has ever done in service of a Beach Boys tune. “Then I Kissed Her” was Jardine’s first lead in the set. His splendid voice, easily the best-preserved of the bunch, soars with the crackling energy he always brought to Beach Boys records. Marginalized since 1998 – isn’t that infuriating? – Jardine’s had to make do with smaller, mostly west coast bookings, but his fantastic performance is exactly what the Love-Johnston touring faction has been missing all these years. More than any other original voice, bar perhaps Love’s bass, Jardine’s makes the blend work. And that blend could hardly sound better than it did on the closing song in this sequence, the stunning, all-hands-on-deck “Kiss Me, Baby,” with its explosively rangy choruses and spectacular a cappella ending. I had my hands cupped behind my ears for that one, doing whatever I could to intensify the thrill. Another lengthy ovation. These guys were tossing gems around like there was no tomorrow.

VIDEO: “Help Me, Rhonda,” from the June 19 Toronto show:

The nine-man backing unit (sometimes 10; Nick Walusko was absent) is tremendous. It’s not the first time The Beach Boys have benefitted from a great live band. As a smaller, more-or-less self-contained unit, they earned Rolling Stone’s band of the year nod in 1974 despite not even releasing a new record. But this lineup, 80 per cent of it Wilson’s support act for the past dozen years of victory laps, will reproduce the old Capitol records note-for-note and feel-for-feel, which affords a best-case scenario for the Boys, who’ve largely become a band of singers. (Each of Wilson, Jardine and Johnston play instruments, but received wisdom has them pretty low in the mix, the better to maintain precious clarity.) With Wilson on board for this tour, it was a relief to learn earlier this year his band would provide the bulk of the backing. Rock music’s first true studio rat, Brian probably never jived with the inadequacies of sound reproduction on the road. This band plays the songs as he arranged them to be heard. (It’s not for nothing Brian employs a full-time percussionist on the road: Beach Boys records possibly feature the least amount of cymbal work in the rock idiom. It’s all about sound.) He’s enjoyed that luxury on all his own tours; now, hearing that band behind these voices must be immensely gratifying.

Among the players, Jeffrey Foskett is the superglue, almost a Brian-Carl amalgam. He’s been Brian’s right-hand man since 1999, safety-netting Brian’s leads at first, but eventually taking the falsetto parts in the arrangements. On stage, Foskett’s is the clearest voice besides the Boys themselves, and he’s singing the most identifiable part of any classic Beach Boys song. Challenging gig, but he is equal to the task. Given one lead vocal in the set – “Don’t Worry, Baby,” no less – he nails it. Keyboard and vibes man Darian Sahanaja, another key player in the Wilson camp, sings “Darlin’,” and it is wonderful. With so much strength in the wings, you wonder how much of the blend comes from Foskett, Sahanaja, et al. The answer, of course, is it doesn’t matter as much as it might, because each of the Boys is right on top of the blend, and almost always on his mark. Johnston sounded weak on the “Wendy” bridge, but did a bang-up job on the delicate “Disney Girls (1957).” Brian fluffed a couple of first verse lines, but, again: the blend, the blend. If anything, those imperfect moments served to remind one of just how good this crew really is.

David Marks is on this tour, let’s not forget that. It’s a great feel-good story on a feel-good-tour in a feel-good year. Marks was the forgotten man in Beach Boys lore, although he’s there if you look closely enough. He’s sitting on the hood of the car on the first Beach Boys album jacket. He played on the first five LPs before quitting in summer 1963. He joined Love’s Beach Boys touring band for 21 months in the late ‘90s. He’s been around, see. But now he’s on the front line, positioned between Brian and Mike, playing excellent, rugged, electric leads. In Toronto he sang “Getcha Back,” a top 30 single released more than 20 years after he’d left the group. Sometimes on this tour he sings “Hawaii.” On both songs, his everyman huskiness sounds closer to Dennis Wilson’s singing than any of his bandmates’. And they say you can never go back home. Welcome home, David.

Speaking of going home: late in the show there was a tribute segment to the departed younger Wilsons. Rogueish anti-hero Dennis and peacekeeping angel Carl were represented by isolated lead vocals from their respective signature ballads (“Forever,” “God Only Knows”), matched to live backing by the Boys and band, as video clips played across the screen upstage. I imagine it’s more a sop to the dedicated fan than the casuals: I found the gesture affecting, but it did slow the momentum some, and there were accounts of some concertgoers mistaking this for an Impending John Stamos Appearance.

The barefoot contessa: as far back as 1964’s “Beach Boys Lost Concert” video, Love’s had trouble keeping his shoes on.

It was a show of moments, snapshots of this band’s convoluted history and personal politics: the Boys gathered around Brian’s white baby grand for “Add Some Music To Your Day,” like they did while learning their parts in the ‘60s; Mike and Bruce’s practiced slapstick routine, to the exclusion of the other members; Al signing record jackets and shaking hands at the end of each set, as he is probably accustomed to on his modest touring circuit; Brian bolting from the stage as each set sounded its final note; David taking the solos once Carl’s domain; Brian leading the band through the tricky “Heroes And Villains,” surely one of the most complex songs to trouble the upper reaches of the pop charts; Brian strapping on his Fender bass for “Barbara Ann,” surely one of the most airheaded songs to trouble the upper reaches of the pop charts; the giddy, extended outro to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” a genius rock song concocted during the early days of Beatlemania, a call to arms back then, and a clarion call to summer ever since, that brilliant falsetto wail inciting the entire crowd, about 15,000 strong, to move in unison, to sing, to stamp feet, to snap smartphone pics, to SMiLE.

Sure, this tour won’t give you but a few moments from Wilson’s jaw-droppingly brilliant 1966 output, when he tapped into a higher plane of compositional creativity, only to lose his nerve and resolve in the face of intramural confrontation. We’ll never know what he was capable of, but we do know what he accomplished. He, and his brothers and cousin and school friend and neighbour and surf music peer, the guys who made up The Beach Boys’ 1960s lineups.

In the final analysis, this show really has something for every stripe: the casual fan, the rock music buff, the curious younger crowd, the diehards – we’re all treated to the best-possible representation of Beach Boys songs (and they played so many! 48 songs in two hours, fifty minutes!), with the first Wilson-Love-Jardine-Johnston package in ages.

All heroes, no villains: John Cowsill, Darian Sahanaja, Paul Mertens, Jeffrey Foskett, David Marks, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Scott Totten, Mike D’Amico, Probyn Gregory, Nelson Bragg, Scott Bennett.

Is it the last hurrah? Don’t know. By Labour Day each of the Boys save Marks will have turned 70. Rock music’s a relatively young creative idiom; its frontiersmen are still establishing the lifespan for bands with the will to go on. But this can’t help feeling like that gorgeous sunset breaking through the clouds after an unsettled day of thunder and lightning, calm after turbulence, the last thing you see before the onset of night. Against some awfully long odds, this Beach Boys show has us basking in that sunset glow.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BONUS VIDEO: One Toronto fan’s fantastically blissed-out reaction to “Then I Kissed Her.”


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.