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
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
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
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
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
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
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.