28 December 2014

Review Round-Up: June 2014

data Panik, etc.

If data Panik, etc. (Do Yourself In), the surprise fourth album from Scotland's most adorable revolutionaries, had appeared a decade ago, following the electropop left turn/dead end of 2001's Return to Central, its jittery angularity, neo-new wave bounce and gummy punk-funk grooves might have been, for once, right in step with a zeitgeist that they had unwittingly prefigured.  Instead, the '90s cult heroes' signature candy-coated agit-pop feels as gloriously iconoclastic as ever, and this unexpected return, more than making up for lost time, delivers a hook-stuffed, sugary shock to the system that's not so much cutesy as just plain, spunky fun. [A-]

Diamond Version

File under "things you didn't know you needed in your life": a dubby, pitch-dark industrial rendition of the hymn "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord"), sung by the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant.  The other voices (guests and samples) populating CI (Mute), the first LP from these German avant-techno auteurs, offer a barrage of repurposed corporate-speak soundbites – mostly (voicemail directories...pharmaceutical ad copy...Gillian Welch lyrics?) – which range from aptly, blankly menacing to über-ironic almost-gimmickry – but the duo's throbbing, jerkily syncopated machine funk is never less than pummelingly potent.  Sometimes it causes me to tremble.  [B]

Robyn and Royksopp
Do It Again

Those hoping for a re-up of Body Talk's instant-crush hyperpop magik may be let down: of the five cuts (35 minutes) comprising Robyksopp's Do It Again "mini-album" (Interscope), only the majestically punchy glitter-disco title track really satisfies on that score.  While "Every Little Thing" revives the Swede's less-heralded genius for heart-tugging balladry, the rest – one sinewy, acid-house Speak'n'Spell duet and two expansive slabs of sumptuous, swirling electronica (one instrumental, almost Reichian; the other a sneakily addictive epic of gracefulness and poise) – is more in Röyksopp's wheelhouse, and up there with the Norwegian duo's finest work.  [A-]

Ela Stiles
Ela Stiles
[A Cappella/Experimental]

Whether or not you're comfortable considering the spellbinding seventeen minutes of this Sydney-based singer's self-titled, purely a cappella debut release (Bedroom Suck) to be an album, there's no question it is something special: soothing and haunting, ancient and alien.  These seven songs – varying in length from twenty seconds to over ten minutes, yet still somehow unmistakable as songs; timeless expressions of universal experience – present Stiles as something like a Celtic Julianna Barwick (even though she's actually Australian), patiently weaving together tendrils of drone, devotional music and British Isles folk, refreshingly unbound by any recognizable tradition. [B+]

Taylor McFerrin
Early Riser

This Brooklyn producer/composer/multi-instrumentalist's music is subtler and, on the surface, less playful than his father, Bobby's, but it's just as colorful, idiosyncratic and inventive, casually blurring the lines between jazz, R&B, hip-hop and electronica.  His long-gestating debut, a natural fit on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, suggests he's also equally talented, handling every instrument himself on most cuts, and coordinating a diverse but simpatico cast of collaborators (Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Brazilian icon César Mariano – plus an understated turn from his pops.)  But Early Riser's most impressive feat is how impossibly warm, fluid and organic it feels despite all that legwork. [B+]

Jack White

As unpredictable and endlessly intriguing as White himself, Lazaretto (Third Man) is fairly overstuffed with both pathos and pastiche, often side by side.  It finds the impish, ineffable guitar hero/antiquarian, with a cast of dozens, at both his darkest and most playful, and generally following his abundant, aberrant whims – whether that means reviving mid-'90s rap-rock (Jon Spencer-meets-Chili Peppers style) on the unhinged title cut, scraping out back-porch country ballads alongside fiddler Lillie Mae Rische, lurching into searing, vengeful melodrama or hot-wiring Willie McTell's delta blues for the digital age, it's always well worth the puzzle. [A-]

Steve Gunn and Mike Cooper
Cantos de Lisboa

Part of the fun of RVNG Intl's FRKWYS series, which pairs artists with their senior influences, is imagining what a trip each installment must've been to make.  Envisioning, for instance, in-demand Brooklyn guitar-slinger (and Kurt Vile associate) Gunn and experimental cult hero Cooper (whose fantastic '70s folk-rockers were just reissued by Paradise of Bachelors) linking up in Lisbon to cut Vol. 11: Cantos de Lisboa, a breezily discursive six-string summit that settles in with some languid, intermittently vocal folk-blues but is unafraid to venture down decidedly weirder, noisier ambient alleyways as things warm up.


First released – on cassette, via mail order – in the titular year, now lavishly reissued (Cherry Red) with fifty (!) additional cuts furnished by the original compilers, C86 is, now more than ever, UK indie's Rosetta Stone.  Much like Nuggets, it captures a moment – this one ten years after, not before, the explosion of punk – when energetic amateurs were gleefully rescripting the parameters of guitar-based music, yielding – yes – ample tuneful, jangly (though only occasionally precious) indie-pop, but also tough'n'scraggly rock'n'roll, fuzzed-out proto-shoegaze and noise-pop, and surprising amounts of skronky, twitchy, experimental weirdness.  [B+]

Kishi Bashi
concert preview

K. Ishibashi's brilliant – terrifically good, but also, more specifically, jewel-like – new album is titled after (i.e. with) Aram Saroyan's minimalist poem Lighght (Joyful Noise).  Even with the (silently) gargle-inducing doubled consonants, though, that's probably underselling it: the sometime Jupiter One/of Montreal fiddleman traffics in only the most giddily buoyant of musical substances, with his swooping, ever-looping violin frippery and boyish, helium-laced falsetto both equally liable to zip into the stratosphere like a loosed balloon, while synths, harp and possibly a hurdy-gurdy flesh out the generalized syrupy gloss.  It's about the furthest thing from minimalist, packing in plenty of wispy folk and thumping electro-disco amongst the candy-coated indie-pop and flights of neo-classicist fancy, while hearkening frequently, unabashedly, to the sunny prog of Yes, Kansas (one thickly harmonized refrain, rather suggestively, repeats "carry on") and the Electric Ligh(or should that be Lighgh)t Orchestra.

La Roux
concert preview

Five long years later, and just in the nick of time for summer, here comes flame-haired electro-pop ice queen Elly Jackson – now actually the solo act everybody always mistook her for – bursting back on the scene and trading the crisp, clinical perfection of her earlier material for something a bit, well, bubblier.  Broadening the scope of her '80s dance-pop influences without abandoning her trademark laser synths – think Madonna and Wham, not just Erasure and Yaz – Trouble in Paradise (Polydor), due next month, doesn't quite pull a full Random Access Memories, but there's a human-after-all refreshingness, not to mention plenty of funky, decidedly Nile-y guitar licks, to atypically jaunty earworms like "Uptight Downtown" and "Sexotheque," while "Tropical Chancer" gets all Club Tropicana and "Let Me Down Gently," the earnestly brooding taster single, turns out to be pretty much a feint.

Evian Christ
concert preview

This young Brit isn't exactly the most prolific producer out there: his recorded output to date consists of two fifteen-minute EPs over three years, plus one short experimental ambient piece that's categorized on Discogs.com as "non-music."  But he more than compensates in terms of sheer sonic impact.  2012's Kings and Them EP wove hip-hop vocal fragments through disorienting, intoxicating cloud-trap vaporscapes, warm and spacious yet hard-hitting enough to induce Kanye West to tap him for a Yeezus production assist.  This year's Waterfall EP (Tri Angle) drops the sampled rap braggadocio but cranks up the intensity several-fold, putting a decidedly bleaker twist on the headrush maximalism of Rustie and Hudson Mohawke with brutally crushing artillery blasts and ping-ponging bleeps and skitters evoking a demonically possessed wind-up toy.

Young & Sick
concert preview

If the customary injunction against judging by covers might be relaxed when the same party – in this case, Dutch-born multidisciplinarian Nick Van Hofwegen – is responsible for both musical content and accompanying visuals, the fantastical, eye-catching cityscape adorning Young & Sick's self-titled debut (Harvest) merits some quick formal analysis.  The record, like the drawing, is cheery and stylized; vaguely urban but not remotely edgy; packed with quirky little details that are subsumed into a tidily composed whole, and, perhaps, just a tad monochrome (albeit definitely not in such a White Stripes-y way.)  Coincidentally or not, his past cover-art clients – Foster the People, Maroon 5, Robin Thicke – form an excellent set of reference points for the album's glossy, accessible blue-eyed pop-soul, although Y&S veers rather synthier, taking a more upbeat spin on the recent wave of moody indie electro-R&B.

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Of all the random recent additions to Sub Pop's rapidly diversifying portfolio, this has to be one of the weirdest:

an enigmatic, mask-wearing troupe of (allegedly) Voodoo-practicing villagers hailing (we are told) from the tiny town of Korpilombolo in far-Northern Sweden.  The very idea of signing to a record label seems like an impossibly mundane concept for such an ensemble, but then I guess even shadowy, self-mythologizing collectives of remote Scandinavian (oc)cultists have got to eat somehow.  They've already got one absolute corker of a shaggy, psychedelic, ambiguously ethnic rock record – 2012's infectious, heavy-grooving World Music – under their (bone-studded, reindeer-leather, etc.) belts, amply documenting their appeal even though it's probably a mere taster compared to what they get into as a live act. 

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The forthcoming self-titled debut (XL) from these UK newcomers – in particular, aptly-named lead track "The Heat" – vibes and breathes like a run-down resort town on a torpid, too-hot-to-move August afternoon: sweaty, seductive and a little seedy, with more than a whiff of nostalgia.  Sound design helps set the scene – the album opens with a radio DJ's brief invocation and a welter of police sirens; later we hear clinking bottles and the squeak of sneakers on blacktop – but the feeling's all there in the band's sultry, lazily strutting grooves, and you can take your pick of wistfully evocative aural referents: '70s slo-mo disco-funk and smooth, Bee Gees-style twinned falsettos; '80s soft-pop and styrofoam soul; hints of '90s G-funk and silky R&B crooning, all filtered through the past half-decade of post-dubstep electro-smarts.

Lust For Youth
concert preview

Over four albums in a little more than three years, Lust for Youth – the brainchild of Swedish-born, Copenhagen-based musician Hannes Norrvide; long a solo project but currently a trio – has traced a linear yet radical evolution, from the grimy, minimalist darkwave and lo-fi industrial noise of 2011's Solar Flare to the equally atmospheric but far brighter, almost unthinkably lush International (Sacred Bones).  The new album's sleek, shimmering synth-pop slots surprisingly comfortably alongside Norrvide's countrymen like The Embassy and Radio Dept., even gesturing toward the diffuse Balearic blissiness of Studio and Air France, though even as his vocals edge closer to the forefront of mix, they retain the blunt, dispassionate affectlessness favored by gothically-inclined electro-miserablists from New Order to Cold Cave.

Lee Fields
concert preview

Lee Fields cut his first '45 – a smoldering gospel-soul scorcher with a nimble, James Brown-style funk flip – in 1969, he's hardly looked back since; carrying on as a fervent funkateer and sweet soul belter through some mighty lean years before emerging as a central figure in the genre's late-'90s true-school renaissance.  Following several sides and one album for Desco – the Brooklyn-based, revival-catalyzing label co-founded by future Daptone helmsman Gabriel Roth – he's loosed a basically faultless series of LPs, backed by the Expressions, for off-shoot label Truth and Soul – most recently the superb, crisply arranged Emma Jean (named for his mother) – which present the North Carolina native as a deep soul gentleman in the tradition of Bobby Womack and Otis Redding: passionate but understated, with a richly-grained delivery less inclined toward excitable vocal fireworks than a slow, sure, gritty burn.

Fucked Up
concert preview

Glass Boys (Matador) scales back considerably from this Canadian punk troupe's previous sprawling, concept-heavy outings – notably, 2011's 80-minute, 18-song rock opera David Comes To Life – but its ten gut-punching tracks form no less of a furious, surging onslaught.  They find the band recommitting to the vital spirit of '80s hardcore – Pink Eyes' guttural, full-throttle howls are as viciously visceral as ever – but pushing forward sonically with dense, hyper-saturated production (Jonah Falco's drums are allegedly, outrageously, triple-tracked) and textural flourishes like "Warm Change"'s organ and fuzz-tone psych-out coda and the almost-buried, improbably beachy harmonies limning "Sun Glass."  The album comes across as a tender but conflicted love letter to their bygone youth and genre of origin – something like hardcore's answer to The Hold Steady.

Paramore/Fall Out Boy
concert preview

These bands both released debuts a decade ago via pop-punk proving ground Fueled by Ramen, summarily epitomized mid-'00s emo and, following a several-year hiatus, controversial line-up reshuffle and/or near-implosion, reemerged last year (like a phoenix, to cite one of Pete Wentz's more literal-minded title conceits) with arguably their most vital work yet.  Which makes this, the hideously named "Monumentour," both a nostalgia package for a certain demographic and also about as cutting-edge as arena rock gets 2014.  If Fall Out Boy's deliriously excessive Save Rock and Roll fell forgivably short of its cheeky billing, it sure had fun doing so – reveling in Queenly glam-prog excess with Courtney Love and Elton John along for the ride.  Paramore's utterly incandescent self-titled opus, meanwhile, remains nothing short of a masterpiece: a seventeen-song set with a dozen potential hit singles, packing in everything from ukulele interludes to gospel choirs – on delayed-reaction song-of -the-summer contender "Ain't It Fun" – to an extended doom-metal finale, all without feeling the least bit overblown.
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

17 July 2014

Review Round-Up: May 2014

Lily Allen

His fans may not like it, but Kanye's actually a pretty fair point of comparison for Lily Beatrice Rose Cooper née Allen.  Both are artists whose work is in consistent, complicated tension with their broader media-personality status; both are uncensored loudmouths, lightning rods for controversy, and outsized jumbles of vulnerability, arrogance and creativity.  Sheezus gives us all three off the bat in a title track portraying pop as a title fight, with Allen confiding her insecurities before summarily demanding the crown.  She means business too: perky electro-burst "L8 CMMR" is her shiniest, most radio-ready cut yet (notwithstanding the verses' come-lately auto-tune slather), and the sweetest, giddiest celebration of marital love since "Countdown" – naturally, from the author of "Not Big" and "It's Not Fair," the titular entendre is the highest praise possible.  Producer Greg Kurstin ensures a familiarly sparkly synth-pop sheen throughout, with enough sonic left-turns – Zydeco accordion and bottleneck blues on the "Faith"-riffing "As Long As I Got You"; soft-touch throwback R&B on the pisstaking "Insincerely Yours" and convincingly slinky sex jam "Close Your Eyes" – to maintain Allen's magpie reputation.  The singer's achilles heel, popwise, is also her most defining trait: her bent for unfiltered snarkiness, which rears its head increasingly as the album progresses, most troublingly on the mean-spirited, 'netizen-skewering wobble-step of "URL Badman" and the petulant class politics of "Silver Spoon."  As with Kanye, it can be tricky keeping track of which lyrical clunkers are deliberately dumb, in-character satire and which are merely failed attempts at wit.  The humor's appreciated, but – as Allen probably learned from the inane kerfuffle over this album's first preview video [see sidebar] – you can't be too subtle sometimes.

From her 2006 emergence as the first MySpace breakout star, visuals have always played a major role in Allen's output.  Not counting the nifty Nintendo-inspired lyric video for "L8 CMMR," Sheezus has spawned three promo clips to date:

"Hard Out Here"
Pop-rap parody qua feminist empowerment anthem: hardly groundbreaking, and certainly problematic (since when are ass and brains mutually exclusive?), but straightforward enough.  The clip extends the spoof and critique visually, juggling familiar rap-video tropes including, natch, a cadre of twerking booty dancers (also, a memorable skewering of "Blurred Lines"' mylar balloons.)  Light-hearted satire aside, with so much freighted imagery crammed into three minutes, it's little wonder folks got upset.

"Air Balloon"
An appealingly insubstantial nonsense jingle with gently loopy visuals to match: Allen in candy-raver chic, basking in the South African countryside, chilling with cheetahs among magic toadstools while the camera loops-the-loop into the stratosphere and beyond, eventually culminating in a Gravity-style free-float.

"Our Time"
A fully serviceable mindless party-time anthem that's also a gentle send-up of mindless party-time anthems; a point made only slightly more evident by the video wherein four separate Lily Allens (one wearing a hot dog costume) "enjoy" a sloppy night out in London (without ever leaving their taxi.)
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Do It Again

Those hoping for a re-up of Body Talk's instant-crush hyperpop magik may be let down: of the five cuts (35 minutes) comprising Robyksopp's Do It Again "mini-album" (Interscope), only the majestically punchy glitter-disco title track really satisfies on that score.  While "Every Little Thing" revives the Swede's less-heralded genius for heart-tugging balladry, the rest – one sinewy, acid-house Speak'n'Spell duet and two expansive slabs of sumptuous, swirling electronica (one instrumental, almost Reichian; the other a sneakily addictive epic of gracefulness and poise) – is more in Röyksopp's wheelhouse, and up there with the Norwegian duo's finest work.  [A-]

Sylvan Esso

This Durham-based duo – Amelia Meath of Mountain Man and Megafaun bassist Nick Sanborn – marry their infectious indie-pop playfulness (feistier than Feist; more toned-down than tourmates-to-be tUnE-yArDs) and fresh, crunchy DIY synth grooves (somewhere between The Blow and Purity Ring) with the urbane slinkiness of '90s girl-group R&B and the communality and casualness of kids' songs and sing-a-longs (they manage to interpolate both "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and Tommy James' "Hanky Panky" and without it seeming at all gimmicky.)  All told, it's a pretty lovable combination of things, and their self-titled debut (Partisan) is utterly swoon-worthy. [A-]

Nikki Nick

Merrill Garbus is a one-woman carnival, and Nikki Nack (4AD) is her wildest, thrillingest ride yet.  Seemingly nothing is off limits in her technicolor DIY-pop playground: she interpolates Busta Rhymes, Bill Haley, Jonathan Swift; impersonates Coco-Cola® (I think?); calls out life by name; conflates counting rhymes with civics lessons, bloody satire with bubblegum funk, diatribes with dance parties.  The sheer volume of musical information here – tribal chanting! fiddle tunes! field hollers! clattery junkyard drum circles! slinky showchoir R&B! lazers! – makes the album feel like a continuously erupting fountain of confetti, as delirious as it is disorienting. [B+]

Lykke Li
I Never Learn

Sweden's favorite dreamy, doomed romantic has spent much of her career fusing the nakedly intimate with the brazenly anthemic; little wonder, then, that her bleakest, sparsest record to date also boasts her biggest choruses yet.  I Never Learn (LL/Atlantic) pares back the singer's wall of sound, swapping handclaps for strummed acoustics (but retaining the strings and massive drumbeats) to yield something at once lush, spacious and majestically chilly.  Title notwithstanding, she's well-schooled in the classic pop art of misdirection: proclaiming "I'm never gonna love again" – in full-on, no-fooling powerballad mode – like it's the most joyous, triumphant sentiment imaginable. [A-]

La Sera
Hour of the Dawn
[Indie Pop/Rock]

While the first two LPs from "Kickball" Katy Goodman's solo(ish) guise were relatively restrained, dreamily downcast affairs, Hour of the Dawn (Hardly Art) warrants its title: it's easily the erstwhile Vivian Girl's liveliest, jauntiest outing yet; ideally suited for the fast-approaching summer.  Musically, at least – "The sun's gone away/die young; get replaced" is not an entirely unrepresentative lyric.  There's a gratifying newfound looseness and punky muscle to the album's bouncy surf jangles and power-pop jams – not to mention frequent, surprisingly blistering guitar solos – while Goodman's Zooey Deschanelish sweetness is tempered by just a hint of Corin Tucker wail. [B-]

Yellow Memories

This London-based Senegalese-Swedish soul sister is clearly a fervent disciple in the church of Baduizm, evoking Ms. Erykah in both her smoked honey pipes and gritty, simmering, Dilla-fied grooves.  Her sneakily addictive debut Yellow Memories (Eglo), though crafted in collaboration with a small army of forward-thinking producers (Floating Points, Oh No, Flako, Theo Parrish...), asserts a distinct identity within its musically omnivorous array of stripped-down jazzy funk, airy kalimba-kissed shuffles, multi-tracked a cappella canticles and, especially, the punchy polyrhythms of commanding, groove-hopping centerpiece "La Neta." [B+]

Tori Amos
Unrepentant Geraldines

Unrepentant Geraldines (Mercury Classics) is neither a conceptual opus nor a foray into classical or theater music.  But its ostensible return to "pop" still proceeds very much on Tori's terms, which means quirky, suite-like songs, slyly experimental arrangements, sumptuous piano ballads, willfully affected English diction and tangled, poetic ruminations on family, aging, relationships and contemporary politics refracted through art, history, fairy tales and mythological metaphor.  Like her spiritual and aesthetic predecessor Kate Bush, Amos has sacrificed precisely none of her restless, iconically idiosyncratic artistic ambition with middle age, and her vision hasn't felt this lucid or approachable in some time. [B]

Owen Pallett
[Indie Pop/Experimental]
concert preview

Owen Pallett's new album, In Conflict (Domino), is sumptuously orchestrated – we'd expect nothing less from a first-call arranger to the indie stars (and beyond) – but it's also the first time the loop-loving violinist has cut many of his basic tracks live with a band.  Synths and drums are as central to these dozen baroque-pop vignettes as are the strings and brass of the Czech Philharmonic (or Brian Eno's several choral cameos), and they lend the florid, ever-shifting backdrops beneath Pallett's increasingly magnificent tenor – he'd be equally thrilling as a church chorister or a Broadway belter – a dramatic urgency that underpins the album's title.  Thematically, Pallett trades his earlier work's self-reflexive fantasy realms for the boundless emotional topography and neurodiversity of real life: we get a poignant glimpse of our hero as a young, cosmically conscious sci-fi nerd, in thrall to "the terror of the infinite," and, later, a childless, gin-guzzling thirty-something cynic one only hopes isn't entirely autobiographical.

Daniel Avery
concert preview

Daniel Avery's phenomenally enjoyable debut album, Drone Logic (Phantasy Sound), got compared a lot to the Chemical Brothers when it came out last year – something you really don't hear enough in discerning electronic music circles – which nails its conspicuously accessible appeal, epic emotional scale, acid-soaked aesthetic and unabashedly Big (like they used to say) Beats.  Indeed, these tracks could've slotted easily into, say, the magnificent back half of Surrender.  But where the Chems are all-embracing, Beatles-besotted, pop-minded polyglots, Avery's much more of a purist: a classicist in construction – not a drop or build out of place – with an almost ascetic devotion to writhing acid synths lines, infinitely syncopated hemiolas and tech-house thump, limiting his vocal inclusions to the odd spoken phrase or two.  (Sometimes very odd: whatever the hell "water jump" is supposed to mean, Avery's deliriously deep, slurred intonation makes it downright anthemic.)

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Synthpop music slid, early this century, from cheesy '80s-throwback novelty to burgeoning revivalist subculture to mainstream, even dominant, cultural force, relatively free of "retro" baggage.  The not-dissimilarly once-dated "vintage" styles of electro-funk and slick, blue-eyed plastic soul (cf. the lately rehabilitated Hall & Oates) may be undergoing a similar shift in status, with everyone from Phoenix and Cherub to Mayer Hawthorne and Robin Thicke taking part.  Montreal's Dave 1 and P-Thugg have been it for over a decade now, and four albums in – White Women (Atlantic) drops next week – what was once unabashedly schticky now just plays like great pop: expertly crafted (the humorous but almost radically sincere opener "Jealous" should make Katy Perry, say, jealous indeed); lovingly packed with old-school reference points but still breezily modern-feeling; winkingly witty; utterly committed to a stylistically apt sensitive-loverman persona ("our love's too great to attenuate"), but no less genuinely seductive because of it.

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Especially compared to what we expect from Scandinavian women in their mid-20s, MØ – the moniker derives from Karen Marie Ørsted's initials, and sounds approximately like an apathetic cow – makes a curious kind of pop.  The hooks are there, on the Dane's debut No Mythologies to Follow (RCA), but they're the sort that wait for you to come to them rather of lunging out, over-excitedly, to snare you on first listen.  The production is synth-based, and generally danceable, but it's far from the bubbly, disco-derived electro-pop of, say, Robyn: it's denser, slinkier, a little bit murky, drawing heavily from trap and dubstep, combining with MØ's dusky, expressive vocals to suggest a more thugged-out crosspollination of Lana's smoldering neo-trip-hop and Lykke Li's mournful torch balladry.

Fear of Men/Pains of Being Pure at Heart
[Indie Pop]
concert preview

I'll confess: I was initially put off Fear of Men by the name, which, especially coupled with the album title Loom (Kanine), makes the British quartet seem way more angsty and post-punky and generally (gender-)troubled than their music actually sounds.  Granted, all that stuff's probably still there in the lyrics.  And you could hardly call them sunny – at best: blissfully bleak.  But Jessica Weiss has a voice like melted butter, the band absolutely nails that pristine, shimmery guitar and those haunting angelic plainsong harmonies (cf. Veronica Falls), and theirs is the prettiest, dreamiest indie-pop debut in some time.  Nothing to fear!  The headlining – and, likewise, painless – Pains... just dropped the super-duper-shiny Days of Abandon (Yebo) – amazeballs sample song title: "Masokissed" – which reconciles their debut's C86 giddiness with its successor's major-league alt-rock muscularity, upping the ante with utterly irresistible Cure-at-their-poppiest bounce and just a pinch of Lovelessy smear.

The Both
concert preview

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo are well-matched in wit, stature, and partiality to good old-fashioned pop/rock tunefulness (not to mention goofy videos), but they still seem like a fairly odd couple, less for stylistic reasons than energetic ones: Leo's scrappy, perennially excitable exuberance vs. Mann's wry, cucumber-cool dispassion.  Initially, The Both (SuperEgo) seems to tip the scales toward Mann's more reserved M.O. – Leo's presence doesn't, for instance, magically jolt her back into long-forgotten rock'n'roll mode (á la 1995's I'm With Stupid) – and, as often with her output, it takes a few spins to really reveal itself.  Just a few though, and ultimately it feels just like it should: an elegantly balanced collaboration, with Teddy's fingerprints abundantly evident on jaunty, deliciously hooky highlights like "Volunteers of America" and "Milwaukee" (whose video was partially shot at Boot & Saddle), in the album's mild political bent (particularly the lovely environmental protest tune "Hummingbird") and in the choice of a Thin Lizzy cover (the pensive "Honesty Is No Excuse" – also tackled recently by Cass McCombs) and plenty of sprightly, Lizzy-esque guitar solos.

Wye Oak/Braids
concert preview

After a draining two years of touring behind the well-received Civilian, Wye Oak songwriter/guitarslayer/frontwoman Jenn Wasner took a breather from her mainstay indie rock duo – and from six-strings altogether – with the fun, retro-leaning electronic pop/R&B side project Dungeonesse.  What then seemed like an unabashed (and delightful) lark turns out to be a significant signpost for the direction Wassner has now taken her main band on their new, fourth, full-length.  Shriek (Merge) fits somewhere vaguely between that outfit and the Wye Oak of old, but it still registers as a major, dramatic shift, recasting Wassner's subtle, emotionally potent songwriting and ever-more-evocative alto onto nuanced, layered electronic art-pop soundscapes that will impose even more improbable demands on their already intricate two-person stage setup.  It also makes them, suddenly, unusually apt touring partners for Montreal's Braids, whose stunningly lovely Flourish//Perish (Arbutus) traverses similarly delicate Kate Bush-via-Kid A territory; alternately lush, droning and jittery, with the added otherworldliness of Raphaelle Standell-Preston's breathy, fairy-like vocals.

Reigning Sound
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Greg Cartwright, rock'n'roll true believer and man of infinitely many bands (Compulsive Gamblers, Parting Gifts, Detroit Cobras...) got his gritty, stripped-down stomp on last year with the blistering on-record return of proto-neo garage punks the Oblivians, but the forthcoming Merge debut from his more rootsily-inclined Reigning Sound – that group's first outing in five years – finds his retro-rocking pendulum swinging hard in the other direction.  Shattered, despite the title, is a wonderfully warm, surprisingly polished ride – several cuts feature strings – blending country with organ-drenched, Stax-style R&B like only a born Tennesseean could (though Cartwright pays homage to his current home-state – and his label's – on funky country strut "North Cackalacky Girl") and generally hearkening to the peerless, pop-minded blue-eyed soul of the Rascals or, especially, fellow Memphian Alex Chilton's Box Tops.

Guided By Voices
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Magnet Magazine, publishing in Philly since 1993, have long trumpeted their endearingly objectivity-free adoration for all things Guided by Voices.  So it's no shocker in Gloomtown that they'd tap the Ohioan juggernauts to keynote their 21st birthday bash, alongside two bands – Jersey's Titus Andronicus and Florida's Surfer Blood – who surfaced during the magazine's several-year print hiatus but share its decidedly '90s-steeped sensibilities.  GbV, who likewise emerged from hibernation c. 2011 – and who should probably consider a subscription-based model themselves – earned a general best-post-reunion-effort consensus for February's Motivational Jumpsuit (it certainly takes best-title honors) but they've already moved on: the polar vortex-inspired Cool Planet (GBV Inc.) marks their sixth full-length since 2012 – at this rate, this new incarnation will eclipse the original's two-decade, sixteen-album run in just four more years.  It's a tad ballad-heavy, but still has its share of chirpy hits and glamtastic riffs, though tonight's lovefest will likely skew toward moldy oldies anyway.

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How do Michael Gira and his unrelentingly resurgent Swans follow up The Seer, the intimidatingly massive 2012 opus that Gira described as the culmination of all his musical efforts over the past three decades?  Well, certainly not by scaling anything back.  To Be Kind (Young God) is another double-disc behemoth, if anything even more extreme than the last.  Dark (to say the least), but far from monochromatic; its two uncompromising, utterly compelling hours encompass dread-steeped cosmic blues, furiously churning riffage, glacial death-folk dirges, nightmarish incantations, demented devil-horn funk (the surprisingly dance-punky "Oxygen") and endless, pummeling, primordial rhythms, with Gira spouting mystic declamations atop the maelstrom like an unholy composite of Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, and Lucifer.

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Slint occupy a weird place in the alt-rock cosmology: little heard during their brief initial lifespan ('86-'91), eventually elevated via murmur and myth to critical preeminence as secret forefathers of the 1990s indie rock movement, but it's still not like their name comes up all that often.  Which makes sense.  Spiderland (Touch and Go), the 1991 sophomore LP and swan song, now lavishly reissued, upon which their classic status essentially rests, is a pretty weird album: slow to reveal itself, seemingly instrumental in spirit if only because Brian McMahan's enigmatic, softly spoken narratives are mixed almost too low to register.  It's more exploratory than exclamatory; wending its dark, brooding way through oblique, quirky compositional avenues.  Those roads, starting from nearly nowhere (Louisville KY, geographically, but also the splintering tail-end shards of the '80s' hardcore and college rock demiverses) eventually seemed to lead almost everywhere in the ensuing decades of underground rock: slowcore, emo, math rock, doom metal, post-punk and most especially the fertile expanse of post-rock; the band's breadcrumb trail leading equally to the intricate jazzy restraint of Tortoise (who once counted Slint's David Pajo as a member) and the epic bombast of Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor!

A Minor Forest
concert preview

Following last week's visit from reunited/reissued/revered alt-rock harbingers Slint comes another band of resurgent '90s nonconformists who were among that Louisville group's most direct early influencees.  At once jagged and meticulous, this San Francisco outfit homed in on the mostly-latent traces of hardcore punk haunting Slint's ineffable, crudely cinematic proto-post rock.  They interspersed their knotty but somehow meditative guitar-work with episodes of overt aggression that made them an anomalously screamy outlier on Chicago post-rock hub Thrill Jockey (who reissued their two albums – 1996's awesomely named Flemish Altruism and 1998's Inindependence – for Record Store Day.)  The established pigeonhole is "math rock," but while they had (and presumably retain) the requisite technical dizziness, compositional instability and penchant for jokey and/or esoteric song titles – "Jacking Off George Lucas," "Putting the Gay Back in Reggae" – the term suggests a clinical dispassion that's decidedly absent here.

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The early buzz on ††† – the side project super-trio of The Deftones' Chino Moreno, fellow '90s alt-rock survivor Shaun Lopez (of the band Far) and the enigmatic Chuck Doom – linked the band to the murky, oft-mocked electronic semi-genre of witch house, but that connection is mostly limited to generalized gothiness and a commitment to using typographical daggers in place of the letter "T" – †hus, na†urally, no† a soli†ary †rack †i†le on †heir eponymous debu† (Sumerian) omi†s †ha† le††er.  (Incidentally, you can pronounce their name as "Crosses," although "the typographical daggers" would be way radder.)  What we get instead is a particularly palatable, moderately adventurous take on semi-heavy, semi-electronic industrial arena rock, a la mid-90s Depeche Mode or any-era Nine Inch Nails.  Now, where's the keyboard shortcut for a backward "N"?
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

19 May 2014

Review Round-Up: April 2014

And here's the reviews part of the equation.  Some really good stuff this month(s)!  It has felt like a bit of a slow start to the year, music-wise, but I think we're finally kicking into gear by now.  Some party bangers which are definitely gonna be in high rotation this #partysummer; some sweet sad softies, and a bit of everything in between.  As usual, starting off with a review from MAGNET; not necessarily my favorite of the bunch, but certainly nice enough, and my isn't that a lovely cover...

Ben Watt

As half of Everything But The Girl and then head of Buzzin' Fly records, Ben Watt was responsible for two of the '90s' most peerless electronic pop records and some of the '00s' finest deep house singles, comps and club nights.  Hendra, a sort of solo re-debut – technically, it follows 1983's North Marine Drive – has little to do with any of that; the more salient reference point would be the adult-contemporary folk-pop of EBTG's '80s work, minus the cocktail-jazz trappings.  The reliable through-line, certainly applicable here, is a commitment to smoothness, warmth and emotional resonance, in this case underscored musically by producer Ewan Pearson's subtle synth inflections and Bernard Butler's strikingly Knopfleresque guitar work.   Watt's voice may not be quite as preternaturally stunning as that of his partner, Tracey Thorn (whose is?), but it's eloquent and expressive, and fits beautifully with these ten unflinching, autumnal ruminations, character sketches, pastoral travelogues and reflections on loss: a scattering of ashes; a walk on sea-cliffs; portraits from memory; further inquiries into the ever-mysterious inner workings of the human mind and heart. [7.5/10]

originally published in Magnet Magazine

Bad Blood, Good Blood

Spencer Kingman's high, lonesome, hymnlike singing, gently frolicsome melodies, and spare, unfussy fingerpicking form some of the most strangely arresting – and straight-up loveliest – music you could hope to hear.  Spend some time, though, with the songwriter's debut LP, Bad Blood, Good Blood (Ethereal Sequence), and you'll notice some distressingly dark undercurrents beneath all that prettiness, with intimations of shadowy cults and mystical, historical violence.  And still greater mysteries: "Woke up with ketchup on my pants and face," runs one notable line.  Also: "How'm I gonna get this piano to play cards with me?" Now, who can't relate to that? [B+]

Old 97's
Most Messed Up

Old 97's are one of the great rock bands – no sub-genre qualifiers needed – of the last twenty years, and Most Messed Up (ATO) is, easy, the best on-record testament to that fact in well over ten.  They've probably earned the album's sorta-hokey, career-recapping opener (whose own lyrics express openly self-referential skepticism of self-referentiality – hmm), but it's everything afterward that demonstrates why, with the Dallas quartet's rowdiest set in ages getting them back in touch with their country-punk roots, and frontman Rhett Miller in loose-livin' "serial ladykiller" mode like we haven't seen, maybe ever. [A-]  
(now if they could only learn how to use an apostrophe...i'm totally not buying this explanation.)

Damon Albarn
Everyday Robots

Damon Albarn – rockstar, cartoon character, opera composer, pan-global musical collaborator and instigator – hunkers down in arguably his best, fondest guise for de facto solo debut Everyday Robots (Parlophone): as a singer of sweet, tender, wistfully resigned songs; the Country Sad Ballad Man.  The country in question being, of course, England, though this album downplays the Anglocentrism of kissing-cousin The Good, The Bad and the Queen, while retaining its lush, downcast electronic/acoustic moodscapes – jaunty African ukulele detour "Mr. Tembo" excepted – in favor of reaching toward a bruised, bedraggled, tech-addled, but still-beating Universal, on humbly personal terms. [B+]

Joan as Police Woman
The Classic

Joan as Police Woman plays by her own laws.  The NY singer-songwriter (think a weirder, gutsier Feist) may be taking her shot at retro-style soul on fourth album The Classic (PIAS), but it's hardly slavish or tradition-bound; as she asserts on one of several ambitiously epic cuts here: "I don't want to be nostalgic."  She's got a knack for confronting emotions – and melodies – from unpredictable angles; alternately piling on the organs, wah-wahs and leftfield metaphors (q.v. horny high-point "Holy City") and stripping it down, as with the title track's carefree, a cappella doo-wop (Reggie Watts beatbox!) or the lilting rocksteady closer. [B]

Ramona Lisa

If Arcadia (Terrible) was made in 1987 – and it totally could've been, by some esoteric art-pop auteur like The Blue Nile or Talk Talk... production by Eno or Sakamoto, vocals by Liz Fraser or Tracey Thorn... – it probably would've cost a few hundred thousand in a state-of-the-art studio.  Caroline Polachek recorded it in hotel rooms using MIDI plug-ins and her laptop's built-in mic.  I guess that's progress.  The Chairlift singer's woozy, carnivalesque synthetic pastorale works in the context of today's vaporwave and weirdo experimental R&B, but it'd be just as enticing – and strange – in any era. [A-]

...and bandname/artwork synergy brings us to...

Duck Sauce

The full-length bow from A-Trak and Armand van Helden's joking/not-joking partystarter DJ duo, entitled – what else? – Quack (Fool's Gold), is one of the most infectious party albums in recent memory – and certainly the silliest.  It's also a campy but undeniably heartfelt love letter to NYC dance culture, rooted in string-laden retro-disco and thumping, treble-heavy house – including the still-banging singles "aNYway" and "Barbra Streisand" – and spiked with salsa, doo-wop, MJ-esque soul-pop and Sugar Hill Gang-style hip-hop, all interlarded with ridiculous, birdbrained skits, one of which sums up the proceedings, aptly enough, as "acid house meets Elmer Fudd." [B]

Todd Terje
It's Album Time

When Norse disco god Todd Terje declares It's Album Time (Olsen), he doesn't just mean an extra-generous portion of his patented starry Eurodance floor-fillers.  Rest assured, the party's here – cherry-picked favorites from his beloved 12"s alongside amenably bubbly newbies like the euphoric "Oh Joy" – but he's gotta work his way to it, via assorted cosmic cine-schmaltz, Miami Vice funktasias, yacht-pop balladry (Bryan Ferry singing Robert Palmer, no less) and a truly inspired bit of muppet-samba goofiness (seems like he's been taking notes from buddy Lindstrøm re: cartoonishly proggy excess.)  Absolutely no less gonzo/corny/lovable than Random Access Memories. [B+]

Millie and Andrea
Drop The Vowels

Millie and Andrea is/are Miles Whittaker (of Demdike Stare) and Andy Stott, two principals among the abstract techno troublemakers at Manchester's Modern Love label.  Drop the Vowels finds the twosome running amok through a brittle, blown-out, post-industrial soundscape; bookended by queasy, clanking ambience but otherwise seething with innumerable frenzied, sawn-off breakbeats – erratic, jerry-rigged slabs of jungle, footwork, and syncopated quasi-house with only the rarest, sparest spikes of melody.  It's all about as vibrant and gleeful as you can imagine of an album that's also well represented by track titles like "Corrosive" and "Stay Ugly." [B+]

Christian Löffler
Young Alaska

This German producer's 2012 debut was a lush, verdant, tenderly organic thing that fully earned its pointedly non-electronica-ish title, A Forest.  Briefer but no less enchanted, Young Alaska (Ki) breathes even more warmth and melody into a similar palette of woody plinks and crinkles, mist-shrouded synths, gently thrumming grooves and the kind of ineffable, twinkling bell-tones patented by sleepytime house master Pantha du Prince, making particularly fine use of murmuring, sometimes nearly subliminal vocals.  It's as graceful and meticulous as the mounted, grayscale butterflies on the cover (Löffler's own design), but the exact opposite of colorless and dead. [A]


On his third Dial Records full-length, Berlin-based minimal meister Phillip Sollmann sidelines his moody, after-hours deep house for a starker if still magnificently slinky full-on foray into micro-techno.  Decay's durably thumping grooves are smooth, supple and very nearly lulling, but there's always a hint of unease: gorgeously rippling synths that never quite find resolution; eerily seductive swirls of melody; billowing atmospheres that toe the line between swaddling and smothering.  Occasional, slightly surreal spoken interjections (like Salvador Dali on the '50s gameshow "What's My Line?") augment the sense of drifting somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. [B-]


Bécs (Editions Mego) – we're told, rather unhelpfully, that it's pronounced "baeetch" – is the Austrian sound-sculptor's first full-length in five years and only his third since 2001's landmark Endless Summer, whose absorbing flirtations with warmly approachable harmonic and textural sensibilities he revisits here.  Not that it's anyone's idea of "pop," exactly, but it's just the sort of embodied, expansive ambient abstraction that's guaranteed to raise a smile as the days grow longer, dominated and defined by shimmering and surprisingly muscular guitars; earthy, blissed-out organ drones and (heavily distorted) piano as much as glitchy squalling and gauzy sheets of stippled static.  Surf's up! [B]


Inventions is both a safe bet and a somewhat unpredictable proposition: Matthew Cooper (aka Eluvium) and Explosions in the Sky's Mark T. Smith are each masters of atmospheric, deeply emotive instrumental music, but how exactly would their distinct modes of ambient/post-rock/what-have-you – Cooper's dappled drones; Smith's surging guitar-work – align?  The duo's unsurprisingly warm-sounding self-titled debut (Temporary Residence) favors an Eluvium-like gentleness and ease, though with an almost dizzying array of sounds – murmury subvocalizations, primeval drumbeats, thick shoals of white noise – that help stir up considerable motion and drama without resorting to full-on Explosions-style crescendi and bombast. [B-]

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper