Liars, Mess: The latest from Liars, a band who fit in everywhere and nowhere. Andrew Parks says:
As demented as the Liars discography is, nothing will prepare you for Mess‘s opening gambit “Mask Maker,” a head-scratcher that starts with Andrew pitch-shifting nonsensical phrases like “take my pants off” and “smell my socks.” The story behind the song is simple: Andrew had a 24-hour trial version of voice manipulation software, so he went the free-association route over a shimmering dance beat. Nothing more, nothing less. The rest of the record maintains the same fast-and-loose mood, from the minimal trance melody that carries the brittle balladry of “Can’t Hear Well” to the trash-compactor keys that help “Vox Turned D.E.D.” elbow its way right onto permissive dancefloors.
Future Islands, Singles: The band that charmed Letterman shows they’ve cracked synthpop’s secret code. If you haven’t already, be sure to read Al Shipley’s profile of the band. [Buy it from the band here.] Geeta Dayal says:
We often forget, looking back now, that the brittle beats and cool electronic textures of synthpop were often paired with rich, expressive voices, and Future Islands benefit hugely from the dramatic voice and undeniable charisma of lead singer Samuel T. Herring. Herring follows in a long line of great synthpop vocalists, like Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, Phil Oakey of the Human League, Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran and Marc Almond of Soft Cell. (Herring also, curiously, sounds a bit like Glenn Danzig, in the terrified urgency of his voice, which sometimes borders on a punkish growl.)
The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams: Craig Finn and co.’s latest isn’t their best, but there are some keepers. Stephen M. Deusner says:
Writing in Memphis and recording in Nashville with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Evanescence), the band has buffed away many of its remaining eccentricities, leaving a capable if workmanlike unit. The guitars are swathed in just enough reverb to dull their impact on opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and wan closer “Oaks.” As a result Teeth Dreams sounds too polite, with little of the Freudian anxiety implied by the album title (a David Foster Wallace reference).
Various Artists, A Tribute to Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One: Built to Spill, Langhorne Slim, Dawn Landes and others take on Dylan’s most confusing era. Wayne Robins says:
Because Dylan himself set the bar so low, the 17 songs, done by artists who may have discovered Dylan during that era, aren’t burdened by the reverence and awe of previous tributes. A sense of freedom and discovery is audible from the start, on Langhorne Slim and the Law’s “Got My Mind Made Up,” which they attack as if it were their own signature roadhouse tune. Built to Spill finds treasure in the inscrutable “Jokerman.” Reggie Watts gives a straight and touching neo-soul cast to “Brownsville Girl (Reprise)”; Craig Finn of the Hold Steady finds the sweet spot between Southside Johnny and Gaslight Anthem on “Sweetheart Like You.”
The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring: The Bad Plus take on their obvious next-level project: playing a big version of a big-canvas classical item. Seth Colter Walls says:
There are a few intriguing innovations in this arrangement. For instance: The very last seconds of the album show that you can’t expect a jazz power trio to turn down an opportunity to embellish a climax. And in the beginning, pianist Ethan Iverson plugs in with some digital-programming. (The scratchy detuning in parts of this movement may bring to mind some of the earliest recordings of the Rite.) Mostly, though, Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson have their hands full in doing justice to Stravinsky’s pile-up collision of various melodic and harmonic ideas.
Ages and Ages, Divisionary: The Portland group’s latest sounds like a choral-folk pep squad. Annie Zaleski says:
Despite its solitary genesis, Divisionary skillfully folds in the strengths of everyone in the band. The vocal and rhythmic assists from keyboardist Becca Shultz, and percussionists Annie Bethancourt and Sarah Riddle give Divisionary its strong flavor — whether it’s Mates Of State/New Pornographers-style indie-pop (“Light Goes Out”), rugged power-pop (the classic rock-influenced “The Weight Below”), swooning orchestral music (the kaleidoscopic psych rocker “Over It”) or stylistic pastiches (the ’60s folk-rock-meets-Broadway standout “Ante Up”).
Jimi Goodwin, Oldulek: The Doves frontman makes the most of going out on his own. Andrew Mueller says:
Oldulek is not some act of petulant self-indulgence intended to alienate anyone who might have thought fondly of Doves’ pastoral indie. “Oh! Whiskey,” the most obvious highlight of Oldulek is a clear enough descendant of Doves’ “Kingdom of Rust.” Similarly, there is evidence of shared DNA between Doves’ janglier moments ¬— “Winter Hill,” say —¬ and the likes of “Lonely at the Drop.”
Polar Bear, In Each And Every One: They’ve won over punk, math-rock and experimental noise fans, as well as the avant-jazz cognoscenti, and their fourth LP is their most intriguing to date. Sharon O’Connell says:
In Each And Every One, their fourth album, is their most intriguing to date, due partly to the fact that rather than playing together in the studio, each member was in a separate room with headphones and Rochford — as both bandleader and producer — manipulated the results. The results are obvious from sublime first track “Open See,” which rolls out on an expanse of billowing synth drone, electronics and understatedly mournful sax. There’s a seductive airiness in play throughout — whether on the skittishly percussive and aptly titled “Be Free”; on “WW,” where anxious skronk is set against an illbient backdrop; or on moodily elegant closer “Sometimes,” which marks out a territory where Miles Davis might chew the fat with John Carpenter and Vessel.
Johnny Cash, Out Among the Stars: Lost Johnny Cash record mostly recorded in 1984 but mercifully free of most of the production trappings of the era. The album was rejected by the label, and the master tapes sat untouched until recently, when they were uncovered by Cash’s son John. Cash’s voice is strong, and if this isn’t exactly essential, it’s still an interesting glimpse at a rocky period of Cash’s creative life.
Tony Molina, Dissed & Dismissed: One of my favorites of the year. Tony Molina is a veteran of several Bay Area bands, most notably, the unjustly-overlooked Ovens. Dissed burns through 12 songs in 12 minutes, all of them swaddled in fuzzy guitars, Molina’s plaintive tenor front-and-center. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Underachievers, Lords of Flatbush: 2013 mixtape from the Brooklyn rap duo gets a more official release. Combo of menacing electronic production with tough, tenacious rapping.
Prince Fatty vs. Mungo’s HiFi, Prince Fatty vs. Mungo’s HiFi: I’ve been a fan of Fatty since his excellent work on the first Hollie Cook record. He delivers dub and roots productions that sound like they could have been recovered from the vaults of the Black Ark. Other producers try for this but come up short — Fatty makes it seem easy. This is a terrific batch of roots and dancehall sure to please fans of classic reggae. RECOMMENDED
Withered Hand, New Gods: UK songwriter Dan Wilson’s second outing as Withered Hand delivers brisk, folk-based indie rock, with a focus on Wilson’s literate, narrative songwriting style. The songs are tender and earthy, sounding at times like a slightly poppier Vic Chesnutt, if you can imagine such a thing.
Problem & Iamsu!, Million Dollar Afro: Collaborative mixtape first released in February gets a proper release. The production here favors icy, doomy ratchet, and California rappers Iamsu! and Problem fill the empty space with drawling, laid-back rhymes, most of them about trying to hook up.
Sage the Gemini, Remember Me: Debut from West Coast rapper boasts super-minimal production and unfussy rhyming; “Gas Pedal” consists of little more than a blinking synth line and Sage’s ambling, laconic delivery. There are vague hints of the classic sound of California hip-hop throughout, but this is mostly sparer and less forceful.
Shakira, Shakira.: Shakira’s 10th album runs the stylistic gamut, from cotton-candy dance tracks like opener “Dare (La La La)” to booming, forceful rockers, like the Rihanna-featuring “Can’t Remember to Forget You.”
Sleeper Agent, About Last Night: This band was scrappy and punky on their debut; the edges have been sanded somewhat on the follow-up. They seem to be eyeing the territory between rock and pop staked out by Paramore, but lead vocalist Alex Kandel has a big, booming voice that, at times, recalls Erika Wennerstrom from Heartless Bastards.
Until the Ribbon Breaks, The Other Ones: Four-song EP from hotly-tipped UK producer that veers from straight-ahead dance music with soulful vocals to moodier, breathier, more atmospheric numbers. This seems fine.
Various Artists, Screaming Gospel Holy Rollers: Obviously, this is incredible. Rip-roaring, fast-moving, heart-racing classic gospel music. Every song on here is a roof-raiser — the full-choir backing vocals make the choruses feel delirious and euphoric, and the vocal melodies are clear predecessors to ’60s soul and R&B. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Hew Time, Hew Time: An all-drumming record that boasts an impressive roster: Dale Crover of the Melvins, Coady Willis from Melvins and Big Business, and Joe Plummer, who’s played with Modest Mouse, The Black Heart Procession and the Shins. The results? Drummy! But also surprisingly melodic. Rather than kicking up some kind of percussive frenzy, the group instead focuses on building mood, writing songs that pulse rather than annihilate.
Various Artists, Rock It, Don’t Stop It: Another winner. This one compiles independent rap singles from 1979 – 83. All of them follow the “Rapper’s Delight” model; each one is based around a classic disco or funk single, and each is brisk and crackling and electric. RECOMMENDED.
Mr. Littlejeans, Pocketknife: Languid electropop from Monica Birkenes. Birkenes is from Norway, and you can definitely hear that Scandinavian pop savvy in these songs, though her music is a bit icier and more remote than some of her peers.