Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer

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Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer

The Massachusetts indie rock band got a lot of listeners on the strength of their debut, 2013’s Major Arcana.  Foil Deer doesn’t change the formula much, but in this case it’s definitely one of those “avoiding fixing if not broken” deals.  As it was before, the band comes off on the surface like they’re another group dealing in crunchy 90s guitar nostalgia and recycled slacker ideology.  Beneath that initial impression, however, Sadie Dupis’ lyrics reveal a depth of unease, sadness, and humor that a lot of the aforementioned 90s bands would have killed to possess.  The first verse of the best track on here, “The Graduates”, bears this out:  “We were the French club dropouts / But we never got excused from class / The secretary must have been high / To turn a blind eye on us sneaking out back / And we were pregnant on the balcony / And you caught me with a cigarette / I never put the thing on my lips / Just crushed it and spit on where I laid it to rest”.  Don’t let the high school references fool you, though – “The Graduates” is a song about crushing on your friends in general, and was written specifically about Dupis’ now-boyfriend Dylan Baldi, he of Cloud Nothings fame.

The problem with basing interesting song writing around 90s alt-rock/grunge nostalgia, of course, is that it becomes hard to separate the tracks after a while, since they’re constructed out of the same distorted power chords and thundering drums we’ve been listening to since 1992.  Given some time to pick it apart, however, Foil Deer reveals itself to be one of the better alt-rock retreads to come out recently.  This sounds like a backhanded compliment, and it is.

The Sonics – This Is The Sonics

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The Sonics – This Is The Sonics

The last time Tacoma, WA band The Sonics were recording music, the Beatles were just discovering sitars and LSD.  This is a band old enough to have its members shipped off to Vietnam, which saxophonist Rob Lind actually did.  The others found jobs or went to college; the actual band was dead by 1968, although the in-name-only touring band would continue until 1980.  They became retroactively famous for tracks like “Maintaining My Cool” (which was featured on one of the Nuggets comps) and “The Witch”; their name has been bandied about every time screeching garage rock is making a new name for itself – 1977, 2001, the San Francisco psych-garage scene.

With such continued interest, and a revival in the original band playing live, a new album was perhaps inevitable.  Reunion albums are always a chancy thing – for every No Cities To Love there are a thousand Indie Cindys.  This Is The Sonics, though, is the real deal – this is an album that sounds as though no time at all has passed in the intervening forty years.  Despite the advanced age of the players – they’re all over 70 now – there is no compromise to be found here.  The Sonics are playing garage rock the only way they know how – fast, lewd, distorted, and shot through with dirty blues and early, primal rock and roll.  The material threatens to feel dated but never does, and the deciding factor is absolutely the volcanic force with which the band plays, a force that should send half the San Fran scene back to their scuzzy garages to regroup.

Mikal Cronin – MCIII

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Mikal Cronin – MCIII

Sometime Ty Segall associate and power pop pusher Mikal Cronin proved himself an expert at writing big hooks in songs that felt familiar without being derivative on MCII.  That album has a permanent place on my phone, largely because even if it wasn’t there the songs would be popping up into my head on a constant basis.  MCIII doesn’t have that same quality.  While the album is still full of songs that are very recognizably Mikal Cronin songs, they don’t have the same sense of ease in conveying giant hummable melodies.  The proceedings of MCIII seem darker, more depressed, and infinitely less sure of themselves.  Right from the beginning of “Turn Around”, the sound comes off as muddier; Cronin sings at the same basic volume as he does on MCII, but here he struggles to be heard over the large, enveloping middle that has arisen out of the production.The rest of the first side follows suit, with a hesitant Cronin struggling for space with the rest of the instruments, while those instruments muddle along in an unexciting fashion.  The second half, with its numbered conceit, improves marginally; here he adds piano and strings into the mix, which has the effect of livening up the tracks.  The same problem with burying the hooks occurs, however, and in the end it’s just as unsatisfying as the first side.  Even a surefire winner like “iv) Ready” falters from the odd reticence that mars the album.  MCIII is, compared to the majority of pop albums released, a decent enough album, but in direct comparison to is predecessor it falters significantly.

Spring Roundup, 2015

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For those albums I’ve been too busy to get to in the first third of 2015, an accounting, or at the very least a terse quip.

Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin  

A rather different and not altogether unsatisfying followup to 2013’s Some Say I So I Say Light

Jeff The Brotherhood – Wasted On The Dream 

Weezer without the charm, early heavy metal without the bite, it just makes me miss Be Your Own Pet all that much more.

Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empires 

Noise for people who need structure.

Twin Shadow – Eclipse 

He was always a weenie.  Now he’s a weenie with major label money.

Hey Rosetta! – Second Sight 

Much like a big bubble of pop, shiny on the surface but vanishes into air if you look at it the wrong way.

Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass 

It’s pleasant enough but I don’t get the high praise and hoopla behind it.  Maybe like Andrew Bird if Andrew Bird was an inoffensive little major label folkie.

Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat 

Evolved grindcore, which is to say it’s what I expect out of a Napalm Death album.

 A Place To Bury Strangers – Transfixiation

The former Loudest Band In New York just doesn’t seem as loud or as vital anymore.

Screaming Females – Rose Mountain 

A progression but not a peak, the sound of a band trying to find its way forward.

The Pop Group – Citizen Zombie 

As I said weeks earlier, not every halfway-famous band from the 1980s needs to keep putting out records.  Sometimes you should just let your legacy stand on its own.

Built To Spill – Untethered Moon 

That dictum doesn’t apply to bands from the 90s, though, as many indie darlings of that time – Dinosaur Jr., Superchunk, Pinback, et al. – seem to have figured out the knack of being consistently great.

Dutch Uncles – O Shudder 

Nice enough pop rock, but the singer’s voice makes me want to gargle razor blades.

Echo Lake – Era 

Moving, euphoric, and pretty much exactly like their first album.

Lady Lamb – After 

Quirky indie rock with enough gain on the guitars to give it some heft.  Surprisingly good.

Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood 

Like Tobias Jesso, Jr, Matthew E White is a reborn Seventies piano man looking to channel heartbreak into soaring pop.  Unlike Tobias Jesso, Jr, Mr. White can do more than just plunk rote chords on his chosen instrument.

Cannibal Ox – Blade Of The Ronin 

Fourteen years later, and this is what we get.  I guess I know how Guns ‘n’ Roses fans feel.

It’s Been One Whole Decade

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One of my favourite albums on this Earth was released ten years ago today, May 3rd, 2005.  Separation Sunday is an album for poets and lovers, an album that really brings to attention what a songwriter Craig Finn is.  His songs are about growing up sketchy in the Twin Cities, songs full of skaters, punk rock, drugs, late-night parties, and the peculiarly Catholic sense of redemption that he peppers these tales with.

In honour of this milestone, enjoy my guide to the band, posted here: When We Hit The Twin Cities

And follow it up with the review of their latest album, Teeth Dreams, found here:  Teeth Dreams

Hold steady!

Blur – The Magic Whip

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Blur – The Magic Whip

There are days I feel sort of sorry for Damon Albarn.  Yes, he’s had an astounding string of success, built upon being the driving force behind not only the premier British rock band of the 1990s, but also, with Gorillaz, the best cartoon hip hop group of what is an admittedly small grouping.  Still, his success in the American market began with a snarky joke and the image of his day-job band there is indelibly linked with it.  “Song 2″, from 1997’s self-titled album, is a parody, a song that takes the piss out of muscular American grunge rock.  It was also a massive hit, forever making Blur the “Woo Hoo Song” band in the minds of the Great Unwashed.  Despite the classic albums they’ve released, the crowds keep chanting for “Woo Hoo”.

Blur also marked an end-point for the band.  They would release two more albums, neither of which were quite as good as their 1993-1997 output.  13 would find them following the rest of the alternative rock movement into light electronica, and 2003’s Think Tank found them beholden to Albarn’s expanding musical horizons and his preoccupation with hip hop and Gorillaz.

The Magic Whip, though, sets the clock back in a rather satisfying way.  Blur stepped away from their heritage by embracing the lo-fi sounds of the American indie movement; The Magic Whip finds its way back to the days of Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape.  Part of this is the return of guitarist Graham Coxon, who left the band a week into the Think Tank sessions.  His presence adds a leavening effect to Albarn’s kaleidoscope of influences, which are also toned down appreciably.  The samples and synths used here are much more subtle than they were on the previous two albums, allowing the songs to breathe and the peculiar melodies – always the band’s strongest feature – to shine through.  Coxon’s guitar work plays off of these incorporated sounds beautifully; it’s an amazing thing to hear a burbling, grinding low-end synth, and then to hear Coxon’s familiar strum comes trundling out of it.  It’s those sort of moments that their best work was based off of, and The Magic Whip holds its own amongst those works.  While it feels a trifle long (a few too many mid-tempo exercises) and it’s not as coherent as, say, Parklife, it’s a welcome return from a band whose goodwill had very nearly run out.

Now featured on Seroword.com

Moon Duo – Shadow Of The Sun

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Moon Duo – Shadow Of The Sun

Moon Duo – a side project of guitarist Ripley Johnson, more known as a member of San Fransisco psych-rockers Wooden Shjips – have, on their fourth album, settled into a serious groove.  They play psychedelic rock, marry it to a motorik beat, and stir a whole lot of post-punk/New Wave tone throughout.  It’s an interesting mixture, even if it’s the same kind of music they were putting out in 2010; the old maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly applies to Moon Duo circa 2015.  If you’re into lysergic guitar solos, pre-cheese New Wave, or if the concept of a Feelies that came of age in Haight-Ashbury era San Francisco appeals to you, Moon Duo are the band you’re looking for.

 

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

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Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Boys & Girls was a blast from the past, a reaffirmation of soul music and a vehicle for the impressive pipes of singer Brittney Howard.  It found the neat balance between being a critical darling and achieving a wide-ranging mass appeal, and in doing so it set the band up for that most awkward of situations:  the Eagerly Anticipated Follow-Up Album.

Typically, such an album sees the band looking to expand on it’s sonic pallette;”Look at us!” it screams, “we aren’t just about (blistering blues rock, Stax Records soul, Janis Joplin without the crippling addictions)!  Check out what we can also do!”  Then the band will normally fire in all directions at once, trying a little bit of everything to prove that they have staying power.  Sound & Color is that album.  Sure, they still have all of the above-mentioned elements – they’ll never escape their roots – but they add shade, gradient, and at one point something that seems to approximate punk rock.  There are some downright funky moments – the solid groove underpinning “Don’t Wanna Fight” for one – and some oddly psychedelic moments as well, as on the ever-evolving “Future People”.  The drawback to this, of course, is that there’s very little coherency beyond Howard’s artillery-fusillade of a voice.  Each song goes off in a different direction and it’s very easy to get distracted mid-way through.

That said, despite the fact that it took me three attempts to get through the album from beginning to end, it’s well worth the effort.  The band is tight enough that you could easily be fooled into thinking that they were on album number ten, and Howard’s voice is, as always, a juggernaut of emotional resonance.  A fine sophomore effort, if a typical one.

The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

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The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

John Darnielle and his band The Mountain Goats have had a history of meandering down whatever road strikes his particular fancy at the time – remember the album that was built around Bible verses? – but on Beat The Champ he tackles a subject not often looked at outside of awful nu-metal cheese:  professional wrestling.

Music about wrestling is typically aggressive and hyper-masculine, designed primarily to get fourteen year-olds with too much testosterone amped up to watch muscled men drive each other into the mat.  No one has ever accused John Darnielle of being aggressive or hyper-masculine, and so Beat The Champ takes a different approach, highlighting the poignancy, the loneliness, the sordid history, and the justice.  “The Legend of Chavo Guererro is about the wrestler, sure, but it’s also about Darnielle “lying on the floor…bathed in blue light” watching his hero win and claim the justice he could never claim from his abusive stepfather.  “Southwestern Territory” follows a wrestler driving post-match, thinking of all of the things he’s lost; “Choked Out” talks about the violence inherent in wrestling while its protagonist claims that “everyone has their limit / No one’s found mine yet”.  That breaking point is found in “Heel Turn 2″, where the titular character finally snaps and does the heel turn – complete with the tears from his fan club president.  The newly minted heel cries out that he doesn’t want to die in here, which finds its echo a couple of songs later on “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan”, which recounts the story of King Kong Bruiser Brody, who was stabbed in a locker room after a match in Puerto Rico.

It’s not all a return journey through the sad landscapes of The Wrestler, though.  “Choked Out” and “Werewolf Gimmick” both burn with an intense fire, bringing the clenched-fist testosterone of wrestling to light without devolving into being ham-fisted.  It’s more often exhilarating than it is wistful or nostalgic, and as such it’s a more than fitting soundtrack for its subject matter.  Not every Mountain Goats album takes it to the mat, but Beat The Champ is one that does, track after track, everytime.

 

The Monochrome Set – Spaces Everywhere

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The Monochrome Set – Spaces Everywhere

This honestly sounds like The Walkmen got back together and made the decision to create deliberately bad music.

I gather that this is another one of those bands that had some minor success around the time I was born that decided to get back together and make more albums.  Just as a public service announcement, not everyone should do that.