DIIV – Is the Is Are

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DIIV – Is the Is Are

Released February 5th, 2016 on Captured Tracks

Is the Is Are, the second album from Brooklyn indie darlings DIIV, had a hard birth.  The difficulty boils down to the failings of the various band members, all of whom have issues with drugs.  A Bushwick denizen I know once told me that you could spot the members of DIIV all over the neighbourhood, and they were always strung out; certainly enough incidents have occurred that there is some truth to this bit of gossip.  The most high profile of course was the arrest of frontman Zachary Cole Smith along with his girlfriend Sky Ferreira, both of whom were nabbed for controlled substances (heroin and MDMA, respectively).  In addition to this, drummer Colby Hewitt left the band due to his own addiction to multiple drugs, and bassist Devin Reuben Perez made a series of over-the-top offensive posts on 4chan’s /mu/ board.  The band attempted a recording session in San Fransisco with former Girls frontman Chet White, but it was aborted before it was even fairly begun.

Things have quieted down for the band, to an extent.  The second album was finally recorded.  Smith went to rehab.  New drummer Ben Newman stepped in to fill Hewitt’s role and you’d never notice the difference.  Perez has learned, I suppose, the value of the anonymity granted by 4chan and learned to make his bizarre and disgusting statements under the Anonymous handle, or at the very least under some other tripcode.  Having come through the other side, the band should have put out a second album that transcends where they’d come from and amalgamated all of their experience into something truly great.

Is the Is Are is not that album.

My problem with Oshin, their debut album, was that it was basic indie rock with a ton of reverb thrown on top.  Critics and audiences responded well to it because it was familiar and a little haunting, just enough to make it feel like there was some edge to it.  Despite the big names Smith was throwing around during the lead-up to the release – Elliot Smith, Royal Trux, Can, Neu! – this record feels like a longer and more doubled-down take on the sound of Oshin.  It appropriates Joy Division’s ghostly atmosphere without retaining any of the heart; it strives for the milieu of the Stone Roses without having any of the stately psychedelic confidence.  The Krautrock references contain themselves mostly to a vague sense of motorik rhythms in the drumming; the experimentation of those late Seventies German bands is nowhere in sight.  In the end it’s a DIIV record, no more and no less, just one that’s a little longer than their debut.

If you like haunted-sounding, reverb-laden indie rock guitar lines, DIIV will be your thing.  With all of the controversy and struggle surrounding the band, though, you can be forgiven for asking for something more.

Tortoise – The Catastrophist

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Tortoise – The Catastrophist

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Thrill Jockey Records

Once upon a time Tortoise were one of the most important bands in popular music.  Let’s put scare quotes around “popular”, because let’s face it:  post-rock has never, aside from brief Godspeed-induced moments, been popular.  Still, arguments about popularity aside, Tortoise gave us two albums – Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT – that helped to shape and define the concept of post-rock as it now exists.  That was nearly two decades ago, though; Tortoise circa 2016 is on the tail end of three increasingly mediocre albums, and their major conceits – creaky drum machines, jazz splashes, Krautrock rhythms and trance-inducing funk grooves – are all things that their descendants have spun into cliche.  Recognizing this, perhaps, the band has chosen to widen their sound a little, to the point of adding vocals (very few vocals, of course, but something is more than nothing).  Unfortunately, the overall effect is one that is too little, too late; the world has passed Tortoise by, and releasing an incrementally different album in January is not going to change that.  It’s a decent enough album – stumbling wide-eyed into classic rock tropes to spruce up the surroundings as it does – but it’s not one that will be remembered by the time December rolls around.

Tindersticks – The Waiting Room

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Tindersticks – The Waiting Room

Released January 22nd, 2016 on City Slang Records

Tightly wound, evocative, spring-loaded songs with lush instrumentation and funky little grooves:  it’s a Tindersticks album, and a particularly good one.  Not as good as one of their big epics from the 1990s like Tindersticks, or Curtains, but a worthy addition to a pretty solid discography.  Then again, that’s also the biggest problem with The Waiting Room.  It’s a good Tindersticks album, and that’s it.  There’s no dynamic reach here, no sense of urgency or intensity.  It’s an album by a band that’s already proven that they can do this sort of in-the-pocket white funk by the barrel-load, so one might be tempted to ask what the hell the point is in 2016.  Sure, it makes a great background album; it’s both interesting and inoffensive, so it makes for a perfect cocktail record, but there’s nothing much of worth beyond that.  If you want perfection of form there are earlier Tindersticks albums; if you’re looking to reach out of the comfort zone and find something new, The Waiting Room is not that album.

NZCA Lines – Infinite Summer

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NZCA Lines – Infinite Summer

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Memphis Industries

Some have opined recently – in forums, at any rate – that the concept album is dead.  This rather bizarre pronouncement is typically preceded by a question, something along the lines of “What was the last concept album you heard?” and expounded upon by a legion of adolescent rockists talking about The Wall, and why no one makes albums like The Wall anymore, and about how this is somehow indicative of the general death of music at the hands of those awful soulless pop stars.

The problem here is that every one of these people expects their concept albums to sound exactly like The Wall: dreary, overly grandiose, weighted down with its Very Important Conceptualizations and dripping with self-indulgent notions of Art, notions that are seemingly inextricably tied with bluesy guitar solos and radio singles.  Thus, when an album like The Monitor, or Hospice, or good kid m.A.A.d. city comes along, their status as being a “concept album” is dismissed in these circles as they’re “too noisy”, or “too indie”, or “hip hop”.  The kids wearing t-shirts of their parent’s generation will never accept them because they didn’t live through the 1970s or they’re not beaten to death by Rolling Stone.

Infinite Summer is another one of those albums.  Michael Lovett, along with Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley and Sarah Jones of Hot Chip, has put together a science fiction story that has a lot in common with the sort of mystical concepts prog bands used to drown their albums in during the latter half of the 1970s.  The sun has grown to the size of a red giant, and the destruction of the world is imminent.  Half of the world, a sweltering urban jungle, has decided to give up and embrace the destruction; the other half believes that there’s still something worth fighting for and wants to figure out how to rebuild civilization into something lasting.  In true Matrix-style fashion, both sides have time to throw a gigantic rave.

The dismissal invariably occurs here because of the fact that this is a concept album built around synths, processed guitars, smooth vocals, and the legacy of Daft Punk.  It’s a relentlessly moving Europop-style album, and its disco bona fides mean it’ll never be accepted by the rockists as being a “true” concept album.  Granted, the idea kind of falls apart when everyone starts dancing despite the impending doom of the human species, but at the same time it works, given that it seems like the sort of thing the human race would do in it’s hour of destruction.  The tracks also get a bit same-y for something so conceptual, but there’s always something you can hang your hat on for the next listen, so each spin of the record brings you deeper into its folds.  That there are a lot folds here is testament to the trio creating it; it’s at once sweaty, romantic, and stylishly aloof, and in the place where these three meet is a great big heart beating for all of us.

Not every concept album needs to sound like The Wall, and Infinite Summer is infinite proof as to why.

The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum

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The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Jagjaguwar Records

Singles:

Golden Lion

The Montreal-based six-piece The Besnard Lakes have by now a rather lengthy history of putting out solid, if at times uninspired, new entries into the pop-prog canon.  A Coliseum Complex Museum is no exception.  The band mercifully dials back the song lengths that mired 2013’s Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO in a swamp of listener fatigue, cutting them down to a sort of fighting weight that they rarely have achieved elsewhere in their discography.  Stylistically it’s a throwback to their best album, 2010’s The Roaring Night:  “The Bray Road Beast” and “Golden Lion” could both stand beside such luminaries as “Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent Pt. 2” and “Last Train To Chicago” in relative ease.  In a way that’s both the ultimate strength and the ultimate drawback of the record.  It’s familiar and easy to slip into, like a pair of worn slippers, but they’re slippers that are starting to get a little thin in the sole, a little ratty along the sides.  The Besnard Lakes have proven that they can do this sort of thing easily, but now they need to think about changing it up a bit, or risk an ignominious stagnation.

Fat White Family – Songs For Our Mothers

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Fat White Family – Songs For Our Mothers

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Fat Possum Records

Fat White Family are a London band that likes to do two things:  first, get in your face and slay sacred cows in the name of being offensive (in order to get at the truth of things, of course); and second, hoover up every known drug in existence.  They’re sort of semi-legendary for both, even this early into their career.

Now neither of those things bothers me, per se.  I enjoy irreverence, and there aren’t many cows I consider sacred when it comes to music.  A similar band in this vein that I absolutely adore would be Future Of The Left.  The big difference between Fat White Family and Future Of The Left, however, is that FOTL isn’t the most utterly boring collection of tripe I’ve come across in months.

Songs For Our Mothers starts off promisingly enough.  “Whitest Boy On The Beach” is a fun, ramshackle kind of song that straddles the line of post-punk while urinating on it.  Unfortunately, everything that comes after moves along at a crawl, coming off as a collection of dirges by ruffians who are trying to shock you but end up just putting you to sleep instead.  I honestly fell asleep a couple of times listening to the album.  Not a good sign for a band that wants to get by on being provocative.

Ditch the opiates and try some crack next time, lads.  It’ll bring out your personality more.

Ulver -ATGCLVLSSCAP

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Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP

Released January 22nd, 2016 on House of Mythology

The Norwegian black metal band turned art-house experimental collective Ulver has gone even more out-there for their twelfth album.  Bored of the usual way in which they made albums, they embarked on an experimental series of live concerts that they branded “free rock”, in which they got up on various stages throughout Europe and jammed on whatever motifs came into their heads that night.  These live recordings were then culled and cut into shape by the band, further enhanced with noise and, on “Moody Stix”, samples of their older work.  The outcome is the ultimate ambient jam, not so much a collection of songs as a roadmap of their trip through Europe and the noise that came into their heads on any given night.  There is a freeing quality to the recordings that is remarkably free of the sort of formality one comes to expect from studio jams; the off-the-cuff nature makes for a series of aural hallucinations that move in and out of grooves as the group chooses.  “Cromagnosis” and “Om Hanumate Namah” are the best examples of the trance-like groove state the band would find themselves in, although the lysergic ambiance of “England’s Hidden” and “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible” evoke the same feeling without locking themselves into an outright beat.

Forget Explosions In The Sky:  ATGCLVLSSCAP is post-rock, in that it clears the space of anchors like structure and studio formality and sets the stage for something potentially new and exciting.

(And if you’re wondering, the title is an acronym referencing the twelve signs of the zodiac).

Megadeth – Dystopia

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Megadeth – Dystopia

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Tradecraft Records

Singles:

Fatal Illusion

The Threat Is Real

Dystopia

The addition of Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler and Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro to Megadeth’s lineup seems to have galvanized them.  Dystopia is, musically, the first Megadeth album since 2004’s The System Has Failed to really embrace the aggressive thrash sound that made them famous in the first place.  “Thrash” here is used a bit incorrectly, of course.  Thrash metal implies that there is some awe-inspiring complexity that goes along with the speed, a blend of punk fury and metal heroics.  The speed isn’t quite there and the riffs mostly chunk along rather than get knotty; all of this is perhaps forgivable for a band that is aging and that has repeatedly lost and then found its way again over the course of its career.

Less forgivable is frontman Dave Mustaine.  His lead guitar skills are as slippery and quicksilver as they ever were, but the moment he opens his mouth everything gets dicier.  His voice is aging awfully, for one thing.  His signature howl has been reduced to an old man’s croak, and that croak is spewing things that would be embarrassing if they weren’t so damnably cliche.  Mustaine has always been lyrically one to rail against authority in a tiresomely John Galt fashion, but on Dystopia this railing has been reduced to stuff you can find on any Tea Party web forum:  Obama is a dictator, an emperor with no clothes, and he’s letting in Muslims who will destroy America from within.  Why can’t we stand up to him?  Why do we not face down the forces that oppose American interests?  Wow Dave, Arabic singing before “The Threat Is Real”, gee, what are you trying to say, so subtle.  And so on and so on into boredom.  It lends every song a curiously turgid quality, which is undesirable given that the mainly bottom-end trawling guitar riffs already make them pretty stiff.  It’s pretty bad when I would actually prefer the self-help sobfest of St. Anger to this, since it actually had some life (beyond that trashcan snare) and I could relate to it more.

Still, as far as Megadeth albums go, it’s less bad than Cryptic Writings and Risk, so at least Dystopia has that going for it.

Chairlift – Moth

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Chairlift – Moth

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Columbia Records

Singles:

Ch-Ching

Romeo

Something, Chairlift’s second album, was a pretty solid record and a lot of fun.  On the strength of singles like “Sidewalk Safari”, “I Belong In Your Arms”, and the purely Eighties-biting “Amanaemonesia”, it got by on charisma and peppy synth work.  That was four years ago.  Since then, the world has become somehow even more inundated with bold, peppy synth pop.  CHVRCHES happened, and then happened again.  Chillwave pillars like Washed Out and Neon Indian became akin to cliches.  So when Moth was released today, it came out into a sea of similar albums by similar bands.

To it’s credit, the front half is loaded with good songs, from the agitated funk of “Polymorphing” to the twin-barrel singles “Romeo” and “Ch-Ching”.  Then “Crying In Public” happens and you’re left feeling uncomfortable and vaguely embarrassed, which I suppose brings out the idea behind the song but also makes you wonder why this lazily histrionic ballad wasn’t left in the 1987-marked bin it was discovered in.  The back half is yawning mediocrity except for “Show U Off”, which rediscovers the fun of the first four songs.  Then it ends on “No Such Thing As Illusion” and I’m trying and failing to come up with a reason to feel any sort of way about it; ambient balladry only works if there’s something to hang onto, and the walls of that song are smooth and blank.

Moth is one of those very common albums in popular music:  you’ll find yourself singing along to the singles on the radio even while the album itself gathers dust.

Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger

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Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Drag City Records

It’s 2016, and after eight years and fifty bajillion albums, Ty Garrett Segall is the undisputed master of modern psychedelic garage rock.  On his own he has classics like Melted to his name; Slaughterhouse, recorded with his touring band as the Ty Segall Band, is one of the most vicious rock ‘n’ roll albums you will ever hear; his work with Fuzz is some of the best stoner rock ever recorded.  Disciple/touring bandmate Mikal Cronin has gone on to stake a claim of his own, and his work with King Tuff brought Black Moon Spell to the next level.  He’s the guru of the noisy underground, and with good reason.

His last two proper LPs, however, seem to have been a transitional thing for him; they seemed searching, as though Segall was no longer sure of who he was or where he was going.  2013’s Sleeper was uncharacteristically subdued, favouring acoustic guitars and hushed songs over the thick fuzz and twisted weirdness of Melted or Twins.  Released a year later, Manipulator returned the volume but left out the bizarre out-there experimentation that characterized his early work.  It was also very straightforward, for Ty Segall:  it was a wall-to-wall collection of stately classic rock tropes lifted out of Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Bad Company, without much of the high-flying psychedelia.  It’s good stuff, but in the face of everything that came before both Sleeper and Manipulator feel staid, like what would happen if a normie tried to approximate Ty Segall.

Emotional Mugger brings him back around full circle to Melted again, returning the weird conceptual nature, the odd noises, and the sense of trippy dread while keeping the traditional structuring he explored on his previous two records.  The opening riff of “Squealer” shows that his old love of slathering his stuff in thick layers of goopy fuzz has returned; “Diversion”, “Mandy Cream”, and “Candy Sam” all continue in this vein.  “Emotional Mugger/Leopard Priestess” and “Baby Big Man (I Want A Mommy)” hearken back to the experimental vibe that he brought to albums like Hair and Reverse Shark Attack while keeping their feet planted in the earth.  “Squealer Two” is funky, adding wah into the fuzz-guitar mix to create something that sounds like David Bowie’s “Fame” as done by a severely drugged out Black Sabbath- which is to say that it rocks.  The only real missteps on the album are “Breakfast Eggs” and “W.U.O.T.W.S.”:  “W.U.O.T.W.S.” probably doesn’t need to be explained, as it’s the sort of weirdo run-down-the-radio-dial that sounds cool once and then gets skipped every time after; “Breakfast Eggs” has a nice rolling groove of a riff but the whole “Candy, I want your candy” line falls flat.  I get that it’s playing with a rock ‘n’ roll trope but it doesn’t succeed in subverting it so much as it revels too much in its overall cheesiness.

There is also an overall theme running through Emotional Mugger, about how modern existence and the overabundance of technology robs us of our emotional response to stimuli and overburdens us with information and experience, but to Segall’s credit it doesn’t interfere with the proceedings at all.  In the end, it’s a summation of everything that sets Ty Segall apart as an artist and a performer, and it sounds really great when you crank it up loud.