Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There

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Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There

Way way back in the 1980s – 1990, actually, but who’s keeping score? – indie shapeshifters Yo La Tengo released an album called Fakebook which was, as the name implies, a collection of covers and old Yo La Tengo songs that were reworked to fit alongside them.  It was a high point in the band’s early catalog, and twenty-five years later they’ve returned to the concept for another go-around.  Stuff Like That There reproduces the structure, putting covers alongside reworkings of old songs.  Out of the nine featured covers, the only two that are likely to be named by the general populace is Hank William’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love”.  This time around, however, the vibe is considerably laid back, featuring gentle, acoustic versions that are suited for playing on the porch, or around a campfire under a stretched-out spray of stars.  Everything here is very quiet but suffused with deep meaning courtesy of Georgia Hubley’s warm, expressive voice; like Low, they’re able to get a lot out of relatively little on Stuff Like That There.  The album also marks the return of guitarist Dave Schramm, who was a fixture in early Yo La Tengo and played on Fakebook.  Schramm takes over the leads, leaving longtime guitarist Ira Kaplan to take on a strictly rhythm role, and the effect is pronounced.  Typically, a Yo La Tengo album would feature odd, angular guitar work courtesy of Kaplan; Schramm is a much gentler, more Jerry Garcia-influenced guitarist, and the leads he glides on here are much more suited to the material.

If you ever wanted a mostly-covers Yo La Tengo album where everything sounds like a bunch of people sitting around a campfire approximating the Dead, then Stuff Like That There is going to be right where you want it to be.  Otherwise it’s just another addition into the lengthy Yo La Tengo catalog, and not a particularly essential one at that.

Beach House – Depression Cherry

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Beach House – Depression Cherry

I did not like Beach House prior to Bloom, their critically acclaimed 2012 album.  Many people did, but I did not count myself among them.  In an era where chillwave was becoming an actual thing, Beach House circa Devotion or Teen Dream seemed too chill for me, a chillness that threatened to lapse into coma at any point.  It was dream pop deep into the dream, and at the time I was looking for something more visceral, more raw, and more alive.  Bloom, however, caught my ear instantly.  Maybe it was being in a state of constant exhaustion by 2012, or maybe it was the fact that the duo sharpened their hooks so that they were too brilliant to be ignored.  Either way, it was my gateway into the world of the Baltimore band, and each previous album revealed it’s slow-burn charms to me afterwards.

Depression Cherry does not have the way with hooks that Bloom did.  That is not to say that it is not possessed of it’s own way with catching the listener’s ear, at all.  “Sparks”, “Space Song”, and “PPP” all have backbones that will linger in your consciousness long after you’ve given up on sleep for the night.  “Wildflower” has the gentle field of relaxation at it’s heart that characterized the best parts of Teen Dream.  It’s just that, when it comes down to the final reckoning, if Bloom had not existed and the band had gone from Teen Dream to Depression Cherry I would still likely not be a fan of the band.  It has much more in common with their previous efforts than with the radio-ready work of “Myth” or “Other People”.  Now, post-Bloom, I can appreciate the subtle textures they weave into the songs:  the insistent woodpecker-like percussion on “Bluebird”; the oddly distorted guitar hook on “Sparks”; the pulsing synth punctuation that carries out the album on “Days Of Candy”; the chord progression that characterizes “Levitation”, where it sounds at first like they’ve struck a “wrong” chord and then you realize that it’s actually the only chord that makes sense.  Bloom was all about shoving these aspects in your face; Depression Cherry brings them back into the fold, where you can discover them, or not, at your leisure.

Depression Cherry is a solidly Beach House album, and it makes for a perfect demarcation of where Beach House stands:  not experimental enough to be Broadcast, too upbeat to be Low, occupying a middle ground that is squarely their own.

Destroyer – Poison Season

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Destroyer – Poison Season

It’s been a long, long time since City Of Daughters, the first of Dan Bejar’s Destroyer albums to achieve wider distribution and recognition.  Back then, in those heady days of 1998, he was the poet laureate of drinking in the park, a dissolute and languid lover scribbling guitar sketches of love for various women and hatred for the record industry.  Since then he’s found a permanent place as the resident poet of the New Pornographers and slowly grown his image, developmentally and chronologically.  He switched the mickey-in-a-paper-bag for fine bourbon, the ripped jeans for a crisp white linen suit, and the song-sketches for fully-realized instrumental smorgasbords.  The density of his poetry developed alongside; by the time Destroyer’s Rubies came along in 2006, he was the poet laureate of the modern singer-songwriter.

Then came 2011 and Kaputt.  At first the concept seemed absurd:  it was an album deeply indebted to disco rhythms and the sounds of the early 1980s.  It was, as both detractors and champions pointed out, the purest expression of yacht-rock that you could find.  Despite its dubious influences, it worked amazingly well, garnering stellar reviews and numerous spots on year-end lists.  The wider fame generated by the success of Kaputt also made Bejar more uncomfortable; having spent fifteen years taking potshots at the record industry,being caught up in it proved to be just as depressing as he’d imagined.  This discomfort with the trappings of newfound fame explains both the four-year wait for Poison Season  and the change in sound.

Poison Season is not a yacht-rock album.  It is not a post-disco album.  It is not a pop album, although Kaputt was never a strictly pop outing either.  Instead, Poison Season is both a return and a progression.  It’s a return to the sprawling singer-songwriter, the man in the open-chested white suit tickling the piano and singing literary songs of chasing lovers and lives.  At the same time it’s much more than that.  The sheer amount of instruments on any one given track can be overwhelming at times.  It’s not just Bejar and a piano – it’s the piano, the strings, horns, dollops of full-throated saxophone, and a bit of guitar layered in for texture.  On the two rockier tracks – “Dream Lover” and “Times Square” – it sounds uncommonly like the E Street Band before they left Asbury Park for the wider sounds of America.  There’s a whiff of “Rosalita” and “Incident On 57th Street” here and there, although the Boss never went as fully chaotic as Bejar allows his band to go here.  There are moments – like on the end of “Hell Is An Open Door” – where the songs descend into a maelstrom of instruments, furiously playing off of one another like a hurricane of sound.  In the middle of it all, Bejar’s voice brings everything together, the anchor for the yacht in the middle of the fury.

If Kaputt was a (relatively) sunny album, a daytime album, Poison Season is the nighttime album.  The yacht has docked and Bejar and Co. are playing on the beach to a crowd of well-heeled degenerates looking to party genteely until dawn.  When dawn comes, it’s a surprise; “Oh shit, here comes the sun,” he gasps in surprise on the sax-drenched “Dream Lover”, and it’s a change from his previous embrace of the all-night escapade on “Here Comes The Nighttime”, from This Night.  This is not an isolated self-reference, either; as usual, Bejar peppers his lyrics with backlinks to previous songs from ThiefThis Night, and Your Blues.  If you think you’ve heard a line before, you probably have, and it comes across as usual as a wink-and-nod to the people that have stuck with him across the wide gulf of years that separate drinking in the park from drinking at an open bar on a private beach.

If there’s a line that can sum up the feelings brought about by Poison Season, it’s “Bitter tears, bitter pills / it sucks when there’s nothing but gold in those hills”, from “Girl In A Sling”.  That is to say, it may suck for Bejar to be cursed with a sense of style and flair that has proven popular, but for me listening it’s nothing less than triumphant.  Destroyer will likely continue to be a popular unit, regardless of Bejar’s feelings on the matter, and for the rest of us that’s quite alright.

 

Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION

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Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION

There are few artists that screamed “One Hit Wonder” quite as much as Carly Rae Jepsen did in the wake of her ubiquitous mega-hit, “Call Me Maybe”.  Whether or not there were other good songs on her first album was beside the point; “Call Me Maybe” conquered the world in short order, and there was little that Jepsen could have done to prevent any followup from being a disappointment.  It’s a story that has played out countless times before, starring any number of now-forgotten singers who graced the charts and the yearly dance compilations before fading into obscurity.

E-Mo-Tion isn’t a disappointment, per se.  Lead single “I Really Like You” may not be the stratosphere dance-floor call that “Call Me Maybe” was, but it’s a perfectly good pop single.  It’s the rest of the album, however, where Jepsen shines – by not shining much at all.  Most of these songs – a solid collection of dance-pop bliss that draws from both the 80s and from contemporary club ideas – are made stronger by the fact that Jepsen blends herself into them, another player in the service of the beat.  A more egocentric diva would have ruined these tracks, by mixing their voice to be twice as loud as anything else, by spewing melisma over everything, by trying too hard to be the newest club-ready Arethra Franklin.  There is much more subtlety to Jepsen’s approach; this is a singer serving the dancefloor, rather than the other way around.  In the battle of diva egos, Jepsen loses, but in doing so she makes the songs she’s singer all the stronger.  In doing so she makes an honest-to-god record, as opposed to a showcase for her voice, and it’s a refreshing stance to take.  Whether or not she tops “Call Me Maybe” is irrelevant, because E-Mo-Tion makes it sound like Carly Rae Jepsen is having fun regardless.  What more can you ask for in pop music?

The Sword – High Country

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The Sword – High Country

Legacies are tricky things for bands to maintain.  Styles change, viewpoints go in and out of fashion, and there are bands (like The Who) that seem to swing on a continuous pendulum between being cool and being what my mother once called “fogey rock”.  Some groups, like the Stones or the Boss, avoid having to keep up with their legacies simply by never stopping the active musical phase of their career.  Some groups, however, cast such a wide net of influence that their presence can be felt in a distributed network of power, divided out over a legion of bands who reinforce and reproduce their sound.  If Foucault had ever written about rock ‘n’ roll bands, he would have been fascinated with the legacy of Black Sabbath.

There are whole genres of music dedicated to the output of the Birmingham hard rock pioneers.  “Doom Metal” is just another way of saying “we play the slower Sabbath songs with deeper distortion on the guitars.”  “Stoner Rock” is just another way of saying “we play the faster Sabbath songs and you can pry our tube amplifiers away from our cold dead hands.”  This is not to say that bands within those genres can transcend their influences and become something greater; Sleep began as a band of blatant Sabbath worshippers and ended up as #2 in the stoner/doom pantheon.  Queens Of The Stone Age began with fusing their love of Sabbath riffs with clipped, breezy desert phrasing and ended up being every rockist’s go-to band of choice.

Then there’s The Sword.  The Texas band has been blazing a trail of their own for several years now, getting on to most people’s radars with their well-regarded third album Warp Riders and then keeping the Sabbath Dream alive by peaking on the Billboard 200 at #17 with 2012’s Apocryphon.  This sort of success tends to bring a band like The Sword to a crossroads:  you can either continue to double-down on the Tony Iommi riffs or you can try to diversify.  There are problems with both – contempt through familiarity vs. alienating your fanbase for potentially little growth – and that’s probably why the band uses High Country to walk a line between doing both.  The album is largely Sabbath-inspired hard rock riffs, but there are moments here and there where different moments of the 1970s surface.  It boogies in places.  There are flourishes of psychedelic rock.  Rather than being a rote re-do of the sludge-metal heroics of Warp RidersHigh Country dials up some Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult and proceeds to party.  It’s a sunnier and more open album than their previous efforts, and while it’s still indebted to the ghosts of the Seventies, it’s a path for progress that doesn’t require completely reinventing the band from the ground up.  Thus, while it doesn’t quite achieve the heights of the past, it’s also much better than it could – should – have been.  It sets the band up well to transcend the doomy Sabbath influence and forge something more lasting toward the stoner/doom canon – something like Sleep, or QOTSA, or even something like fellow Texans …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead:  a mix of discrete influences that becomes something new.

Barrence Whitfield & The Savages – Under The Savage Sky

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Barrence Whitfield & The Savages – Under The Savage Sky

If the late 2000s and the 2010s have proved anything, it’s that good old-fashioned garage rock seems resistant to the vagaries of time.  The late 1960s and the early 1970s – whether it’s the retro-funk/soul of an act like the Honeybears or the raw, amphetamine proto-punk revival of Ty Segall – have proved to be a continually fertile source for people who are nostalgic for a time they never lived through.  Barrence Whitfield and the Savages fall under the former, fusing old-school R&B, Stones-esque garage music, early funk, and Motown soul into a compressed nugget of Nuggets.  This is pure rock ‘n’ roll, free of toxic adolescent angst, radio-chasing pop blandness, and cutting-edge trend chasing.

There may be some out there who remember Whitfield from his first decade, running from 1984 to 1995, where he traded in pretty much the same stuff he’s got on display here.  His hiatus ended in 2011; since then he’s put out three albums just like Under The Savage Sky, cloaked in nostalgia and dripping with raw, crunchy attitude.  The only misstep is “Angry Hands”, which sounds too close to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” to be entirely comfortable.  Otherwise this is a solid collection of retro-rock that hits all the right notes.  While it doesn’t break new ground, it also doesn’t really have to.  Certain sounds, while they may not be chart-topping, are timeless; the sound that Whitfield has staked his name on is one such.

The Bohicas – The Making Of

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The Bohicas – The Making Of

The making of what?  The album?  The title references the making of itself?  What in the name of all that is holy does that even mean?

It doesn’t matter.  Let’s talk about what does matter:  the utter mediocrity on display on this English indie band’s debut album.

The album starts off promisingly enough.  “I Do It For Your Love” kicks out a riff that recalls early Cars in all their stiff glory.  Then Dominic McGuiness starts singing and it all falls down.  He is easily the most uninspired frontman I’ve heard in weeks.  The music on display is at least muscular, if rather generic.  It’s equal parts Strokes and Strokes wannabes – that is to say, it’s largely indistinguishable from everything else on alternative radio.  Is it the Kaiser Chiefs?  Two Door Cinema Club?  The Vaccines?  No, it’s the Bohicas!  If McGuiness had anything approaching a personality he might have been able to sell these songs, given that there’s nothing terrible about them.  Unfortunately, McGuiness has the personality of the singer of the local bar band, making The Making Of into a muddle of half-realized anthems, stock riffs, and generic alterna-vocals with lyrics that could be easily interchanged between songs without making anything confusing.

I guess it fits well on the radio to break up Mumford & Sons and Coldplay, but I’ll be damned if I know why anyone would seek out and listen to the album more than once.

 

AFX – orphaned deejay selek 2006-2008

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AFX – orphaned deejay selek 2006-2008 (EP)

Honestly, the breakbeats on “oberheim blacet1b” were enough to convince me.  Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2 was a rather mediocre collection of the usual abrasive art-noise; orphaned deejay selek is more abrasive art-noise, but it’s abrasive art-noise that you can sort of dance to.  Richard D James has always been at his sharpest when he’s welded himself to a beat, although his bizarrely mutant ideas of what constitutes a “beat” tend to stretch definitions beyond all recognition.  AFX is, of course, the particular artist label that brought the bouncing acid-rave of the Analogue Bubblebath series as well as the searing style of drill n bass on Hangable Auto Bulb, so the fact that it approaches the neighbourhood of club-readiness is probably not all that surprising.

The man promised that he had over a decade of music simmering, waiting to be released, and the third installment in that promise is as good as anything he’s ever released under the AFX moniker.  It’s further proof that he never fell off, but just went away for a while; now he’s back, and the acid flows freer than ever.

Briana Marela – All Around Us

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Briana Marela – All Around Us

Seattle folkie Briana Marela has a keen interest in being a less experimental type of Bjork – someone who’s into expansive songscapes and floating, bouyant melodies, but who isn’t down with all that weirdness.  Her songs are like the tides of the Pacific Ocean: they come in full force, crashing with salt and chill and wonder, and recede so that all you can hear is the ringing in your own ears (a ringing acted out admirably by the impressive amounts of reverb slathered on Marela’s vocals).  They are interesting as a straightforward take on the aforementioned Icelandic singer-songwriter’s style, but they fall apart when you look to the lyrics.  A lot of it can be charitably described as “insipid”.  The second verse on opening track “Follow It” says “You could try your best at it, / And never get noticed / Without putting in the hours / Show them that you really want it / If fame looks the other way, doesn’t mean everything is lost / If you see another way, follow it wherever you are.”  Thanks for that Briana, it’s always so fascinating when people put inspirational quotes they’ve mined from their diaries into songs.  “Friend Tonight” features some lines that are best left for adolescent poetry scribbled into notebooks between chemistry notes:  “I don’t belong caught in the crowd / I’m feeling lost and left out / Till your stare takes me aside / You can’t help but know why / I can almost feel your touch / There are still sparks between us.”  When it comes to this sort of music, lyrics are the make-or-break point, and Marela unfortunately breaks it here.  She makes decently average off-kilter folk-pop, though, so someone should partner up with her, if only to tell her a simple “yes or no” to her lyrical choices.

The Telescopes – Hidden Fields

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The Telescopes – Hidden Fields

The British psychedelic band’s eighth album is a flurry of distorted noise, with a stomping beat edging itself out of the maelstrom once in a while.  It’s nothing to write home about – it certainly holds no candle to Lightning Bolt’s excellent Fantasy Empire – but it serves a certain niche purpose for those who are incapable of listening to anything that isn’t clipped out into the red for miles.  They’re very good at what they do, but what they do isn’t that much different from the psych-noise back or from their own material.  Each track functions in largely the same way:  a wash of noise, some guitar-borne feedback, drums and maybe the whispers of some words out of the fog before they duck quickly back under again.  The tempo is kept to the lumbering side of the dial, and while they’re all effective stompers they never deviate from it, and thus by the time the fifteen minutes of “The Living Things” has finished, boredom has set in.  Decent enough stuff, but largely inessential.