Album-art-for-The-Physical-World-by-Death-From-Above-1979 Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World

★★★★☆

Legendary Canadian dance punk duo Death From Above 1979 returns from a decade-long hiatus with The Physical World, the long-awaited follow-up to its 2004 debut LP You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.

After promoting the LP with a highly energetic performance of cymbal-crashing single “Trainwreck 1979″ on Letterman, drummer/singer Sebastien Grainger and bassist/keyboardist Jesse Keeler reveal The Physical World to the band’s ever-patient fan-base. Fueled by the same heavy, jumpy mechanics that drove DFA’s debut, The Physical World arrives with a refined accessibility, building on DFA’s signature dance punk by restating it, adding pop melodies, and experimenting with beeping electronic sounds. These punkenstein concoctions succeed in updating DFA’s sound and diversifying its already-unique sonic catalogue.

At the time of DFA’s debut, many were puzzled by the band’s combination of chaotically-paced dance punk and modern, mechanical noises, but many more were invigorated by it, resulting in a cult following. Sadly, a “secret UFC-style battle of egos” tore the band apart on its first tour as Death From Above 1979. While Grainger and Keeler worked on separate projects, DFA fans patiently waited for a second LP. In 2010, DFA announced a reunion and toured extensively throughout 2011. It took the duo three more years to write and produce its sophomore LP, and The Physical World doesn’t disappoint.

Right from the buzzing, robotic feel of its opening guitar riff, album opener “Cheap Talk” brings back the headbangers and earsplitting drum fills that propel DFA’s trademark haste. While it’s a flashy opener and successfully danceable number, “Cheap Talk” exhibits no qualities unique to itself. In fact, DFA leans on its tried-and-true style a bit too much on The Physical World, allowing a handful of tracks to become forgettable (“Always On,” “Crystal Ball”).

DFA’s use of its signature sound may be a tad overdone, but this Achille’s heel was used for a reason.

For a decade now, DFA fans have been clamoring for a follow-up LP to cult favorite You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, and a complete departure from that sound would certainly come as a shock to those fans. Still, a carbon copy of DFA’s debut would also disappoint. The duo remedies this musical dilemma with a poppy, melodic rendition of its classic sound, undoubtedly polished by producer Dave Sardy (Nine Inch Nails, LCD Soundsystem), who has displayed a knack for presenting glittering pictures of dirty objects.

Though much of DFA’s debut might be described as catchy by punk fans, none would consider it a “poppy” record. However, on The Physical World, DFA begins to blur the line between the violent, descending lead guitar licks of dance punk and the sugary, hook-centric choruses of pop punk. The most colorful line blur emerges in the handclap-peppered chorus of “White Is Red,” which is notable for its strumminess and pop sensibilities.

The pinnacle of DFA’s newfound pop tricks appears in Grainger’s melodically sung choruses.

In stark contrast to the sharp shouts of You’re A Woman, I’m a Machine, The Physical World’s choruses are crooned with striking pitch precision.

Grainger gives his most compelling performance on “Right On, Frankenstein!” a standout track for its manic energy. After an ear-worm chorus of “I don’t wanna die but I wanna be buried/Meet me at the gates of the cemetery/I’ll wait here ’til I’m ready,” DFA exposes a bass-heavy riff that dictates a song-closing jam, and is sure to please fans hoping for a glimpse of the DFA from the first record.

Of course, this DFA project would be incomplete without a sufficient helping of sonic experimentation. Grainger and Keeler squeeze this auditory detour into the end of The Physical World, which feels surprisingly apt.

DFA’s outlandish conclusion begins with “Gemini,” a grimy love song with a concise 2:25 runtime and a chaotic mold of driving dance punk, cartoony sound effects, and bubblegum lyrics, such as “24/7/Still believes in heaven/Raspberry lips/Never been kissed.” “Gemini” may be The Physical World’s most colorful tune, but isn’t necessarily its most experimental.

The most experimental song on The Physical World arrives in the form of its album-closing title track, which enters with a glitchy, electronic guitar solo which sounds nabbed from Daft Punk’s recycle bin. The experimentation continues throughout the track as DFA weaves its bleeping guitar into Grainger’s desperately cried verse, and concludes the song and album with a hazy piano outro, forcibly reminding listeners to stay on their toes with Death From Above 1979.

While experimentation may perplex some listeners, DFA’s sophomore LP reaches all its goals, both in fan-satisfying and sonic exploration. A boldly unconventional album, The Physical World‘s combination of DFA’s innate dance punk impulses and newfound pop sensibilities is sure to please old fans and new discoverers alike.

Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World tracklist:

  1. “Cheap Talk”
  2. “Right On, Frankenstein!”
  3. “Virgins”
  4. “Always On”
  5. “Crystal Ball”
  6. “White Is Red”
  7. “Trainwreck 1979″
  8. “Nothin’ Left”
  9. “Government Trash”
  10. “Gemeni
  11. “The Physical World”
Album-art-for-Loose-Ends-by-Francisco-The-Man Francisco The Man – Loose Ends

★★★½☆

Back in the ’90s, the shoegaze genre was as much a lifestyle as a musical aesthetic. Shoegazing was true to its name, more about sculpting a place to lose yourself than slashing guitar solos and rockstar heroics. With its daydream guitar tones, hypnotic melodies and the bruising combination of noise and pop, shoegaze was always on the precipice of reaching outside of a cult audience. LA-based quartet, Francisco The Man, is evocative of classic shoegaze while also capturing the immediacy of contemporary indie rock.

The band’s first LP, Loose Ends, is a memorable mash-up of gliding dream-pop, mesmerizing odysseys and snowballing guitars. For a first full album, it’s an uncharacteristically strong effort. That said, it does fall prey to a few pratfalls of a debut album.

Most problematically, Loose Ends feels at times like a training ground for finding the band’s true sound.

The band is as likely to hammer out power pop, a la Teenage Fanclub, as unspool into velvet-smooth krautrock epics that Bradford Cox would luxuriate over—but these hybrids feel like the work of two different bands.

Further, even at under an hour, the album needs a more shrewd editor to cut the fat. Nearly every one of the songs here overstays its welcome by at least a minute, and even if the self-indulgent outros don’t hurt these songs, they stagger the overall momentum.

Of the two musical identities that Francisco The Man vacillate between on its album, “In the Corners” is one of the strongest foundation rockers: a heavy-lidded chugger that builds a distinct sense of motion through its somersaulting bass line, while also establishing the acid-fried lyrical mindset through lines like “Poison in the water of my mind” and “With every word you disappear.”

“Progress” is even more visceral, a sugar rush in danger of crashing.

With its lunging snares, jettisoning bass line and gooey chorus resembling what one can only imagine Jonsi fronting a dream-pop band would sound like, Francisco The Man never sounds more confident and sure of its place as a band than on “Progress.”

“In My Dreams” is fully representative of the album’s worst issues. It’s one of two eight-plus minute songs on the albums and while it’s perfectly serviceable with its Yo La Tengo-esque freak-outs and its elliptical harmonies (huge shades of Deerhunter here), it’s too sleepy to be danceable, and too flimsy to be hypnotic. Cantino’s vocals function more as a Nyquil equivalent than the haunted Thom Yorke-style ambiance they seem to be striving for.

The other eight minute track, “I Used to Feel Fine”, makes a much better impression. Starting with a pneumatic pulse before hurdling into guitar work that would make Doug Martsch misty, the song is a monster. It’s less clear-headed about its lyrical aims, but it possesses an urgency that “In My Dreams” and the hazier side of the album is sorely missing. After pinging around for five minutes, it even dribbles off into a climax that feels like a noisier, more frazzled version of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanctism.”

Loose Ends is a promising debut, full of vivid guitar work and smart, weird songwriting, but it’s also the work of a band that needs more time to evolve.

Nearly every tracks sputter on for at least a minute longer than necessary. Though the album is sequenced to separate the more fleet-footed and introspective songs, it still feels discombobulated as a whole. Like the mystical vagabond in 100 Years of Solitude from which they took their name, Francisco The Man are never quite able to find their place.

Francisco the Man – Loose Ends tracklist:

  1. “You & I”
  2. “In the Corners”
  3. “Big Ideas”
  4. “Loaded”
  5. “In My Dreams”
  6. “It’s Not Your Fault”
  7. “Progress”
  8. “I Am Not”
  9. “I Used to Feel Fine”
  10. “It’s True, It’s You”
Album-art-for-Please-by-Sondre-Lerche Sondre Lerche – Please

★★★☆☆

Breakup songs are a staple in the music industry—but it isn’t often an artist tackles the subject of heartbreak for an entire album. Sondre Lerche’s third studio album Please holds the potential to be a record teeming with whiny, petty songs, blaming his (now) ex-wife of eight years for all the misery he’s experienced. However, while Lerche does explore different hardships of divorce, the upbeat energy and quirky lyrics on Please create an infectious album signature to this Norwegian singer/songwriter.

The cheery sounds of synthesizers and percussion variety on the album lead one to suspect a much happier message than is actually implied. It’s not until lyrics are involved that it becomes clear Lerche is addressing the entire emotional spectrum of divorce with Please. He reflects on the times he couldn’t imagine his life without his ex, the times he held on to what they had and refused to admit their relationship’s demise, and the bitter realization he was lucky to have had her in his life.

“Legends” sounds like it belongs on some teen rom-com movie soundtrack. If the lyrics are disregarded, the track could be the perfect song for a happy ending scene on the big screen. The cheery drumming and funky guitar in combination with Lerche’s youthful crooning leaves listeners feeling uplifted and eager to tackle the world (in that cliché empowered way that tends to accompany quirky, indie films). However, “Legends” will never be that happy ending song due to its lyrics—though it does provide an interesting twist to a break-up hit. Lerche sings, “Please disregard/My naked fate/I just realized/The takes are just too late/Can’t dish out in daylight/Can’t stare ourselves down/Can we maneuver honestly/When it comes swinging back around/Oh why/Oh why/Now I’ll never know what legends/We could be/Just me and you and you and me.”

While most of the album has a catchy, light-hearted feel, Lerche is quick to embrace the slower, more emotional songs when needed.

He experiments with the sounds of these slower songs, as well; he makes use of acoustic instruments in “Crickets,” but channels a smooth jazz tone a few songs later in “At Times We Live Alone.” One song Lerche will be wailing over the sounds of fast-paced drums and synthesized guitar riffs, and the next he will have switched over to a more organic sound using solely acoustic instrumentation. While the approach isn’t one typically taken, the end result is true to what Lerche is known to produce.

“Legends” is defining of Please. The album is full of equally catchy tunes, but still impressively expresses the hardships following a break-up. Judging from the song title, “Lucifer” has the potential to be dark and depressing, but instead possesses a transgalactic feel resulting from the use of bells, whispering guitar sections and airy vocalas. Lerche sings, “All I wanna do is strike a match/Set fire to you/I don’t mind it if we cannot speak/I don’t mind much if we can/When you’re with me I don’t understand/Why on earth we would ever speak again/Lucifer/I prefer the simple life/Although we’ll never be/Quite of this earth/Lucifer/I try so hard to capture you/I made a song and dance/The most natural event/Everybody lifts you up and down.”

Lerche could have easily made the album the emotional equivalent of a raincloud, or he could have even taken a more drastic approach and dedicated his songs to berating and blaming his ex-wife.

These approaches would have turned Please into a static album with little variety or depth. Except, he decided to include the good and bad sides of heartbreak throughout the entirety of his album, and his decision to do so helped turn Please into a multifaceted album exploring the complexities of getting over someone. Certain Top 40 pop stars should take notes from Lerche’s tactic and find classier ways of dealing with breakups (Ahem, Ms. Swift.) Lerche’s ability to create an engaging album from one single topic is a good indication that what is to come is likely to please and entice.

Sondre Lerche – Please tracklist:

  1. “Bad Law”
  2. “Crickets”
  3. “Legends”
  4. “At Times We Live Alone”
  5. “Sentimentalist”
  6. “Lucifer”
  7. “After the Exorcism”
  8. “At a Loss For Words”
  9. “Lucky Guy”
  10. “Logging Off”
Album-art-for-Chinese-Fountain-by-The-Growlers The Growlers – Chinese Fountain

★★★½☆

Self-dubbed beach goth band The Growlers don’t make the best first impression. The band’s sound is familiar—R.E.M.’s jangle by way of the flamboyant brooders of ’80s new wave, and the lo-fi scuzziness of ’00s indie rock—and it could regress without refinement into the dozens of bands melding the surf and the streets. However, with Chinese Fountain, The Growlers find an atmospheric sound that’s referential while still original and refreshingly cohesive.

With a penchant for magical realism, dripping romanticism, and an expansive musical palate that covers everything from dub to ’60s pop, the band’s fourth album demonstrates a nuanced, matured band that just needs to lyrically stretch its legs. The Growlers’ songwriting sometimes feels like a boring story written by a great author.

Singer Brooks Nielson repeatedly shows his ability to write a memorable line, but the lyrics are always in the service of the same three or four narratives.

Stage setter “Big Toe” sounds like a disheveled, decades younger version of The Walkmen with its rough shuffle and Nielson’s malted vocals. Though where The Walkmen trafficked in a gentlemanly edginess, The Growlers’ stomp feels ominous, evoking The Clash’s “London Calling.” That grime is only magnified by Nielson’s vocals, whose timbre encompasses everything from the croak of latter-day Bob Dylan to an asthmatic Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys.

Desperation seeps into Nielson’s voice on the lush seaside lope of “Black Memories,” which favorably recalls Santo & Johnny’s transcendent “Sleepwalk,” while he adopts a plainspoken sneer on the excellent “Chinese Fountain.” Buoyed by an angling riff, appealingly chintzy keyboards, and tight but never antiseptic production, “Chinese Fountain” is the best argument for The Growlers’ newfound audio fidelity. (This is the first album the band has recorded in a proper studio.)

“Dull Boy” similarly sounds full-bodied with its Real Estate-style afternoon lull and chunky chords that would feel at home on a Lee “Scratch” Perry record.“Going Gets Tuff” is even more strongly dub-influenced with its hiccuping melody and glittering chords. It’s also unexpectedly poignant as Nielson tells a story capable of doubling as a pep talk or working class poetry. Nielson sells colorful and unpretentious lines like, “Unsure of where I’m bound/So I sink another round,” with ease and grit.

The album mostly broaches familiar thematic territory—traumatic romances, weening for “the one”—but The Growlers mostly avoid the pratfalls of some of its contemporaries that ape its influences’ songwriting too faithfully.

It’s clear Nielson admires the courtship flourishes of ’60s pop—maybe a little too much—as nearly every song is about missing a flame or lamenting loose women.

Other rare times though, he tosses out dark humor like, “She’s got me at ten times my weight/In a vegetable state,” or, “The internet is bigger than Jesus and John Lennon/And nobody wants to know where we’re headed,” on “Black Memories” and “Chinese Fountain,” respectively.

It’s those bursts of personality that balance out the sometimes overwhelming dreary vibe of the album. Nielson’s stories of woe lacks self-awareness as the blame seems to always aim elsewhere and worse. The songs often loop around to the same myopic male romances plaguing the genre. This sameness seems all the more glaring considering how much verve and creativity Nielson has for turn of phrases elsewhere.

This issue is perfectly evident in the rippling “Rare Hearts” which features the lines: “Give the stars to the lonely city/Give the ocean to the country/I ain’t seen anything quite so pretty as a girl who loves me.” Those first two lines are wonderful—evocative and surreal, but also startling in their simplicity. The last line takes the band back to the same well that’s been dry for years.

If The Growlers can advance lyrical concerns beyond toxic relationships and life-saving romances, this group will fully become a band to be reckoned with. Until then, The Growlers will merely be another very good surf-rock band on the verge of greatness.

The Growlers - Chinese Fountain tracklist:

  1. “Big Toe”
  2. “Black Memories”
  3. “Chinese Fountain”
  4. “Dull Boy”
  5. “Good Advice”
  6. “Going Gets Tuff”
  7. “Magnificent Sadness”
  8. “Love Test”
  9. “Not the Man”
  10. “Rare Hearts”
  11. “Purgatory Drive”
Album-art-for-A-New-World-Wonder-by-Big-Black-Bird Big Black Bird – A New World Wonder

★★★★½

“We really try to make sure there is something on our set list for everyone,” explains Andrew Price, singer and bassist for Chicago rock quartet Big Black Bird. The band proves Price’s statement, made in a summer Q&A with the Chicago Tribune, true.

In a digital age with more bands than fans to hear them, the mixing and matching of styles becomes a necessary tool. Still, few artists blend genres as boldly and with as much respect for each individual ingredient as Big Black Bird. Keeping constant the distorted energy of ’70′s punk, Big Black Bird powers through a variety of styles on its independent sophomore LP, A New World Wonder, relentlessly and masterfully melding genres to create one-of-a-kind songs.

Before showing off its ability to play multiple styles at once, BBB lays a thoroughly detailed punk foundation for A New World Wonder. The strongest evidence of this appears in “Korea,” where Price takes a page straight from the Dead Kennedys’ book by singing from the perspective of a political dictator. The menacing lyrics “I am the king of all kinds of people/I get everything I want for free/…/and if you think you wanna find religion/There’s no room for God in me” are followed by an “oh yeah” chorus that conjures vivid Ramones images.

The true depth of BBB’s punk fandom is revealed on the crunchy jam “Whatever It Takes” with a chorus featuring well-supported background “oohs” straight from the Surf Rock Starter Kit.

Lyrically a simple love song, “Whatever It Takes” layers soft, ‘70s punk lyrics over the crisp distortion of ’80s punk, making it not only a sweet serenade, but also a celebration of 40 years of punk music.

Unfortunately, using punk as a common ground for stylistic experiments means using all aspects of punk, including flawed vocal performances. Price utilizes his smooth baritone range in BBB’s verses, but the thick instrumentation in these verses often overwhelms Price’s low notes, making lyrics difficult to distinguish (“Let It In, Let It Out,” “Kevin’s Song”).

While the clarity of specific lyrics may be tough to make out, clarity of emotion is abundant on A New World Wonder. Big Black Bird’s textural savviness is a constant upside to the LP. In the lush “Plastic Cover,” acoustic and electric guitars strum together creating a vibrant, earthy sound. A twirling lead guitar riff permeates the verse, preventing its soft, harmonized vocals from becoming boring. While lesser groups often flub on lofty tracks, BBB stays on par with backing vocals from new member Maggie Ok, adding yet another texture to the band’s palate.

While the band has clearly mastered the art of rock textures, Big Black Bird’s greatest strength lies in its mixing and matching of musical styles, which produces a fresh, insightful, and cohesive album.

Standout “Black Holes,” is a prime example, pouring the American folk rock melodies of the ’60s into the jarring, unapologetically dissonant chord progressions of ’90s grunge. Price closes the gap with poppy singing and the universal theme of hard work, reminding listeners “You can be anything you’d ever wanna be/if the pushing and the paperwork gets done.”

A New World Wonder concludes with its most intriguing and pleasing sonic experiment, “So Confusing.” A fingerpicked guitar opens the song, articulating defeated chords before falling into a lush, jazz rock-inspired groove. With a jumpy piano offering occasional, jazzy commentary, Price sings his tenor-range vocals more clearly than on any other track. Transitioning into (and out of) a distorted instrumental jam, BBB displays just how much ground it can cover in a single song, and how many styles play into its music.

Big Black Bird creates a varied, unique LP by linking a plethora of styles, and holding it all together with well-studied punk rock glue. The band plans to celebrate A New World Wonder with a September 26 Chicago show at Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., and there’s sure to be something on the set list for everyone.

Big Black Bird – A New World Wonder tracklist:

  1. “Let It In, Let It Out”
  2. “Gasoline Shortage”
  3. “Korea”
  4. “Dream On”
  5. “Uberman”
  6. “Kevin’s Song”
  7. “Hard To Believe”
  8. “Plastic Cover”
  9. “Shove You Out”
  10. “Black Holes”
  11. “Whatever It Takes”
  12. “So Confusing”
Album-art-for-El-Pintor-by-Interpol Interpol – El Pintor

★★★★☆

When a band member leaves, either on good terms or bad, how remaining members choose to respond can be debilitating. After losing bassist Carlos Dengler, Interpol’s fifth studio album El Pintor stands as a risky move. However, over the course of Interpol’s 10 years on the scene, the band’s grown well prepared for the ups and downs associated with an extended musical career. As a band previously solely rock-based, Interpol has opted for an album infused with poppier beats and noticeable synthesizers; the band creates a sound that has the potential to compete with indie bands currently soaring through Top 40 rankings.

Much like Kings of Leon and the Foo Fighters, a heavy guitar and percussion presence is notable throughout the entirety of El Pintor. Thanks to vocalist Paul Banks the resulting sound isn’t that of a Nirvana wanna-be band still trying to make it in 2014; instead, the album has a cool, laidback style, keeping listeners engaged for 10 tracks. While maintaining aspects of the sound that launched the band’s fame, Interpol incorporates the use of keys, synthesizers, and backing rhythms more so than in prior albums. The emergence of these sounds could, in part, be due to the time Interpol spent touring with U2 in 2011, or the nearly 4 year hiatus taken for the band to recoup.

Judging by the song title, “Same Town, New Story” might be assumed to be the typical “I hate my hometown and you all suck” track. Except, it’s much more thoughtful than an angst-filled song condemning the small-minded individuals we all know too well. Banks starts off, “He’s bound for glory/She found her winning man/So she stood by him/Through it all/And then she stood by him/She was pounding on the wall/It feels like the whole world/Is up on my shoulders/Feels like the whole world coming down/On me.”

Interpol took a leap of faith with El Pintor, potentially leaving loyal fans disappointed by the risks taken on this album.

The band’s previous sound puts more emphasis on guitar and bass to create a heavier rock sound—think Fall Out Boy and Green Day, but with a sophisticated twist. Turn On the Bright Lights (2002),  Antics (2004), Our Love To Admire (2007), and Interpol (2010) all have the same feel, genre wise; they’re rock albums with little experimentation beyond tweaking how the standard guitar, bass, and drum combination is manipulated. While El Pintor doesn’t sound like an expected product of Interpol’s, there’s still a quality to the music that’s identifiable as the band’s own. Mass amounts of bands have attempted—and failed—to comeback from a significant hiatus with a new sound, so it’s refreshing to hear Interpol willing to take risks while still channeling a sound fans will easily recognize.

However, no album is perfect, and El Pintor is no exception. Despite Banks’ powerful vocals,  he occasionally sings with an airy head voice, leaving listeners’ comprehension muddled. Though the vocal sound is likely done for aesthetic purposes, identifying when to redo a segment for the purpose of clarity could only serve to benefit Interpol on future records.

Each song on El Pintor has a unique characteristic or twist to it, whether it be the beat, the lyrics, or the use of a whammy bar. Rhythmically, the album is catchy and showcases sounds popular among today’s indie-rock bands, without losing Interpol’s personal touch. Though El Pintor isn’t exactly what fans might be expecting, the lyricism of the album is as thoughtful and catchy as it has been for the past 17 years.

Making a comeback is undoubtedly hard, especially after losing an integral band member of 13 years.

Difficulty only increases when deciding to incorporate new sounds into an album that dedicated fans could hate and dismiss. Despite its obstacles, Interpol takes risks with El Pintor, and while it might not be exactly what fans have built up, it’s packed with thoughtfully produced music sure to grow on anyone that gives it a chance.

Interpol – El Pintor tracklist:

  1. “All The Rage Back Home”
  2. “My Desire”
  3. “Anywhere”
  4. “Same Town, New Story”
  5. “My Blue Supreme”
  6. “Everything is Wrong”
  7. “Breaker 1″
  8. “Ancient Ways”
  9. “Tidal Wave”
  10. “Twice As Hard”
Album-art-for-Shadow-Slides-by-David-Vandervelde David Vandervelde – Shadow Slides

★★★☆☆

Chicago-based artist David Vandervelde’s third full-length album Shadow Slides reminisces on classic, psychedelic sounds of the ’70s, but perhaps too much so. Vandervelde creates a 10-track album far too similar to music produced in the ’70s for listeners to distinguish between Vandervelde’s own authentic sound, and sounds he mirroring from old hits. The lack of originality is likely to dupe listeners into believing Shadow Slides is the product of another artist from the past who’s attempting a comeback.

The use of a cassette recorder, rather than a computer, is an indication of the dedication Vandervelde has to his music. To make a slightly complicated explanation a short one, the technique known as “bouncing” was used to layer the vocals, guitar, and percussion heard on Shadow Slides. Each instrument, recorded separately, was recorded entirely in one go. What you hear on the album hasn’t been auto-tuned or adjusted in any regard, showcasing the talent Vandervelde possesses.

Vandervelde’s decision to produce tracks without a computer is admirable, and yet another similarity to music production of the past.

Understanding the manner in which Shadow Slides was produced provides an explanation for the instrument’s presence throughout the album. Since all major components are layered on top of each other, the volume of Vandervelde’s vocals, the guitar, and percussion are equally dominant. Due to that balance, there are times throughout Shadow Slides when guitar and percussion nearly overpower the vocals. While the layering of tracks works a majority of the time, moments where one aspect overwhelms the other can be jarring and distracting for listeners.

Though predominately an album of songs related to love and relationship conflicts, Vandervelde uses his lyrical talents to keep track after track refreshing, despite the common topic.

Though “One More Time” and “More Than God” are obvious songs about the bliss of love, more of Shadow Slides is reserved for the messy, bitter moments experienced toward the end of a relationship. Writing about those not-so-great moments isn’t unusual either, but Vandervelde approaches these occasions through a variety of sounds. He sounds sarcastic and harsh one song, then quickly jumps to a raw, frail sound.

“When You’re Not Around” has more of a taunting reasoning behind why one is better off alone than most breakup songs tend to reflect. Vandervelde sings, “When you’re not around/I have no responsibilities/I do what I want/When you’re not around/I’m gonna get drunk with my friends/Smoke a million cigarettes/… if I only do what I want you will run away.”

The snark of “When You’re Not Around” quickly dissipates to a raw plead in “Soon.” Vandervelde appeals to his ex-wife, whose five-year relationship with Vandervelde was largely influential on Shadow Slides, as he sings, “Soon you may find peace within your heart/Soon joy may come/Rest deep in your heart/Let not the fear consume/Let not desire control/Soon you will find peace with someone else/Soon joy will come/Rest in you.”

Shadow Slides is an engaging album for those who have become fed up with songs littered with auto-tuned and computer generated sounds, yearning for music that’s organic and untouched. Borrowing ideas can yield great results, but taking credit for a sound that’s been around for decades isn’t admirable or creative. Sure, Shadow Slides is a good album, and that’s clear to anyone who listens; however, attempting to make a profit off music that’s being played off as a new, innovative sound is foolish.

Vandervelde put forth so much effort to create an album similar to the music of the past that there’s little originality to be found throughout Shadow Slides. Channeling his own style in his music rather than duplicating other sounds would benefit his progression as an artist.

David Vandervelde – Shadow Slides tracklist:

  1. “Where You Are”
  2. “Strange Goodbyes”
  3. “When You’re Not Around”
  4. “Another Day”
  5. “One More Time”
  6. “No Good”
  7. “Slow Burn”
  8. “Soon”
  9. “More Than God”
  10. “Victory”
Album-art-for-Listen-by-The-Kooks The Kooks – Listen

★★☆☆☆

The Kooks is a band full of people who shouldn’t ever dance at parties. They know every lyric, memorized every step, and have practiced their swagger ad nauseam in the mirror, but no matter how well they go through the motions, they’re never going to be less awkward.

The band’s fourth album Listen is similarly a perfunctory, bloodless affair. Despite the benefit of the band’s distinct palate influenced by everything from ’90s New Jack Swing, to paisley psychedelia, Listen is painfully familiar.

Occasionally lumped in with the new movement of faux-indie heavy hitters like The Naked & Famous and Two Door Cinema Club, this british foursome is yet another band valuing hooks and catchiness over bona fide, compelling songs.

As a large swath of the indie landscape has leaned further into ’80s synth-pop and post-punk, The Kooks is defiantly old-fashioned, cribbing from the likes of mod-rock staples like The Jam, harmonic gymnasts like Archie Bell & The Drells, and the anything-goes spirit of the Madchester scene.

The Kooks broadcasts its influences early and often. Opener “Around Town” slinks with a rubbery bass line transported from Sly Stone’s reject pile, and gospel harmonies ripped from Primal Scream’s tie-dye fantasia, Screamadelia. “Westside” is even more blatant thievery, swiping the (already second-hand) plush ’80s filigree of Phoenix’s 2013 Bankrupt!

These references are just proof The Kooks don’t have material capable of standing on its own.

If The Kooks aspired to be a retro-rock band like Tame Impala, these musical nods may seem flattering, but instead all these flourishes just add up to wannabe rockstar fantasies.  The band writes from the perspective of the most clichéd rockstar: the dissatisfied narcissist who’s equally interested in the next skirt and the path to spiritual enlightenment.

The worst example of this self-indulgent navel gazing comes in the turgid “See Me Now,” which begins as a message to the singer’s dad before spiraling into a smug ego trip. “If you could see my smile/Would you be proud?/I’ve been in sticky situations/I fell in love with a girl who likes girls.” “Bad Habit” is equally dated with a musty Rolling Stones-like boogie peppered with a dose of misogyny and an ugly comparison equating “women” to “bad habits.”

“Forgive & Forget” is at least vaguely more danceable with a lurching backbeat and wurlitzer arpeggios beamed in from Earth, Wind & Fire. However, this relatively fluid groove highlights how much of nothing this band has to say about anything.

Other musical and lyrical detours fare from middling to excruciating.

“It Was London” dips its toes in politics, but stops before it’s ankle deep. “Down” is even more cringe-inducing at half R&B doo-wop and half stuttering indie-pop. One doubts Blackstreet hoped its legacy would be honored in an ad-lib that goes: “Down down, diggidy, da-down down, diggidy diggidy.”

The rest of the album is a blur with half-formed synth squiggles and guitar figures.

“Are We Electric” is blindingly cheesy; an initial “Off the Wall” homage that squanders its vintage synth tone for gibberish about being “electric.” “Sunrise” is more promising, a mixture of West African swaddle, a pirouetting guitar lead, and an interpolated strum of Archie Bell & the Drells’ immortal “Tighten Up.”

If the depreciation of songcraft is a consequence of constricting major labels looking for hits, or simply personal laziness, Listen showcases poorly written songs lacking sturdy spines. No amount of ornamental accoutrements or gussying up would make this album more substantive.

In the aforementioned “Forgive & Forget,” Luke Pritchard namechecks funk legends Sly & the Family Stone singing, “To people playing make believe/They say, ‘Can we get a little higher?’”

Whether or not they meant to psychoanalyze their own sound, there’s never a better mission statement than this line. The Kooks have long been playing a game of pretend, masking their incompetence with the tropes of other bands. The Kooks know how to put on a show, and the band certainly has plenty of toys to play with, but it’s clear throughout the album’s entirety that it’s all just an elaborate charade.

The Kooks – Listen tracklist:

  1. “Around Town”
  2. “Forgive & Forget”
  3. “Westside”
  4. “See Me Now”
  5. “It Was London”
  6. “Bad Habit”
  7. “Down”
  8. “Dreams”
  9. “Are We Electric”
  10. “Sunrise”
  11. “Sweet Emotion”
Album-Art-for-Manipulator-Ty-Segall Ty Segall – Manipulator

★★★★☆

Last year’s Sleeper was an indie, confessional album inspired by the multiple flat-lining relationships in Ty Segall’s life, including one with his estranged mother, and the passing of his father. After delving into what he described to be a “weird, intense time” in his life, who knew where Segall would go from there?

The answer is everywhere. The follow-up to SleeperManipulator feels like the album Segall was always meant to make. Stepping up his musical ability and channeling ’70s glam rock, Manipulator is a rambunctious compilation of sinfully good guitar solos, catchy falsettos, and psychedelic grooves that wastes no time in fleshing out the multicolored manias that inspire it, exploring the lines between normal and bizarre, and exploiting the playful side of garage punk.

From funky, bass-heavy harmonies that spiral into screeching guitars in “Tall Man Skinny Lady,” to the multiple thrash percussions thrown in “Feel,” to the interesting combination of violins and clean acoustics in closing track “Stick Around,” Segall has no problem letting every instrument shine, simultaneously crossing genre boundaries.

While Manipulator basks in the exploration of musical diversity, the album is nothing without the savviness of Segall’s signature fuzz petal.

Fuzz-infused tracks “The Crawler” and “It’s Over” succeed in showcasing Segall’s classic style of sweaty, blurry riffs, while creating an emotional urgency to feel every wild note and grasp every word Segall slurs.  “The Hand” is a long-lost classic that could have easily been featured on the soundtrack of a ’70s rock ‘n’ roll film, giving a nod to the guitar gods with a minute-long piercing guitar arrangement.

In addition to glorious chord progressions and the crazy spontaneity Segall throws track after track, the album manages to flourish through the lyrics. Segall displays intense progress from his past LPs’ lyrical content with more innovative storytelling and new recurring themes of freedom and characterization of society.

In “The Singer,” Segall steps off his fuzz petal and brings out his most infectious falsettos yet, creating a soaring track of trippy vocals that describe his musical muse—“I can hear the sound when my love is around/Whistling in the trees, it sits inside the base, when my love is around”—and strutting a painfully good guitar solo. In “The Feels,” an angsty song about a platonic relationship that has run its course, he sings, “Now when I look into your eyes/I realize they are the same as mine, just wanted to be free/And when we look into the skies/We’ll realize it just can’t be/We’ll never be free.”

Manipulator is exactly the kind of album Segall was destined to release after taking a walk down the serious lane.

There’s no doubt Segall embraces his “Ty Rex” persona and channels Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, and does whatever he’s been itching to do. Manipulator is self-expression at its best; there’s no real trend or pattern, only an evolution of 17 tracks that Segall has been waiting to let people hear, and feel.

Ty Segall – Manipulator tracklist:

  1. “Manipulator”
  2. “Tall Man Skinny Lady”
  3. “The Singer”
  4. “It’s Over”
  5. “Feel”
  6. “The Faker”
  7. “The Clock”
  8. “Green Belly”
  9. “Connection Man”
  10. “Mister Main”
  11. “The Hand”
  12. “Susie Thumb”
  13. “Don’t You Want To Know? (Sue)”
  14. “The Crawler”
  15. “Who’s Producing You?”
  16. “The Feels”
  17. “Stick Around”
Album-art-for-After-The-End-by-Merchandise Merchandise – After The End

★★½☆☆

Merchandise’s latest LP After The End is texturally gorgeous, but wallows in the same whiney, reverb-drenched apathy as every other self-indulgent, DIY indie act circulating the internet.

It’s been two years since Merchandise released its breakthrough sophomore album Children of Desire, and at this point, the band is confident in its self-made skin. The smooth, reverb-soaked instrumentals behind Merchandise’s tunes make it easy on the ears, but literally all of After The End’s textures feel soft, warm, and comfortable. With no sonic contrast whatsoever, the album fades almost immediately into the background, where its inoffensive textures linger contently.

Now at its new home, British label 4AD, Merchandise takes advantage of amenities like engineer Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Interpol, Grizzly Bear), who mixed the new LP.

With upbeat acoustic guitar strums and poppy lead guitar lines, After The End displays a strong R.E.M. influence (“Enemy,” “Little Killer”). Unfortunately, Merchandise forgoes the crisp electric guitars and crystal clear vocals that intensify R.E.M.’s soft sounds.

The grittiest texture on the album appears in the slightly-distorted, low lead guitar line that opens mid-tempo rocker “Green Lady,” accompanied by Middle Eastern-sounding strings that populate the LP. These strings add a unique texture, but only truly shine on opener “Corridor,” a glittery instrumental that wouldn’t sound too out of place on an early ’70s Pink Floyd album. Merchandise’s auditory fog becomes so thick that all sincerity is lost on listeners, and since the sincerity of non-professional musicianship is the very characteristic that makes indie music so appealing, the album suffers greatly.

Hindering  After The End further, Cox’s lazily muttered vocals weaken the album’s emotional impact. When he isn’t muttering something faux-poetic under his breath, he’s howling hyperbolically like a teenage hyena stuck in perpetual puberty. Cox’s vocals are moaned with an over-exaggerated agony sure to elicit eye-rolls from even the most sympathetic listeners. Though he often doubles his vocals with well-supported falsetto lines, Cox’s diction is practically nonexistent, making his lyrics completely unintelligible.

Lyrical themes on After The End are often indistinguishable, and the phrases that do emerge arrive cheesy and overcooked.

The unpoetic, bitter lines “Oh/You’re better off back in your place/on the dark side of the moon” spoil the semi-pleasant “Looking Glass Waltz.” Cox also peppers the album with a multitude of unnecessary “yeah”s and “oh”s, following lines that weren’t particularly expressive or emotionally strenuous.

Luckily, Cox’s baritone moan and vapid lyrics don’t permeate After The End completely; the upbeat “Telephone” acts as a silver lining with its catchy, jumping bass line. Unlike most of the album, “Telephone” works in a tightly regimented structure and wastes no time wandering aimlessly through directionless acoustic guitars and glittery synths. With the clearest singing on the LP, “Telephone” also breaks Merchandise’s cycle of dreary, non-melodic vocal groans.

“Telephone” promises the most potential of any song on the record, and it only works because its music is as unashamedly poppy as its lyrics.

The self-awareness displayed on “Telephone” offers a reason to continue checking out Merchandise releases. The simple, almost childlike lyrics “I wait and I wait and I wait by the telephone/and I call and I call and I call but you don’t” present undeniable honesty, proving that the band knows the strengths of its warm, hazy sound and, if it would stop trying to romanticize its lyrics, could produce a great pop rock record.

After The End‘s beautiful soundscape loses steam after just a few tracks, and its serene haze may fare better in an EP format, with just 5-6 songs. Switching to EP format would also help Merchandise cut songs like “True Monument” and “Little Killer,” which add nothing to the band’s sound and only lengthen an already arduous album.

While After The End unveils potential for Merchandise’s soft, warm glow, most of the album consists of odd odds and ends that don’t add up to a cohesive musical statement. It’s certainly sonically comfortable—so comfortable, in fact, that most listeners will forget it’s even playing.

Merchandise – After The End tracklist:

  1. “Corridor”
  2. “Enemy”
  3. “True Monument”
  4. “Green Lady”
  5. “Life Outside The Mirror”
  6. “Telephone”
  7. “Little Killer”
  8. “Looking Glass Waltz”
  9. “After The End”
  10. “Exile and Ego”
Album-art-for-Casey-Jack-by-Casey-Jack Casey Jack – Casey Jack

★★★½☆

Casey Jack, the newest member of Rough Beast label, is an underdog musician. After a long Chicago winter of songwriting, Jack returned to his hometown of Springfield, Missouri to compile his first album. Here’s the impressive part: Jack executed the entire recording and producing process alone (with just a little help on drums.) His work holds a certain dualism that many punk rockers only hope to attain in their music: Jack’s first batch of garage-punk songs have created a sound that exudes precise attention to detail, while simultaneously upholding grungy punk rock tones. The songs are a breath of fresh air in the modern punk rock world, and Jack’s individual style of rock ‘n’ roll goes down easy on his first self-titled LP. 

The instrumentation on this album is reminiscent of a gentler, punk Ty Segall song. Every guitar sound on the album holds a strong punk quality to it, but is a bit more contained and organized than Segall and his band. Jack’s fast-moving music satisfies many punk rock qualifications, although is not as aggressive as other well-known artists’ music. The infectious grungy beats move alongside vocals that radiate an I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, but the level of badass Jack portrays is slightly underwhelming. Jack’s impact is mellow, but the album as a whole still has punk rock running through its veins and would get a crowd moshing in an instant. 

Jack claims to have an obsession with detail, but is also devoted to crafting a raw, fuzzed out energy, mimicking early punk music.

Many artists attempt to find the perfect balance between these two musical qualities, but this harmony is where Jack excels. His mixture of clean musical components and a pure punk tonality complement each other like chocolate and peanut butter. Jack takes care to make sure no instruments overpower the album’s general sound, and all the guitars keep to strict melodies, planned out like a science experiment. Jack’s voice doesn’t waver off into unscripted runs or harsh sounding cries; his vocals aren’t the kind of rock vocals that get in your face and beg for participation.

He isn’t hoarse or scream-based like other punk artists, but the energy and the way Jack carries his voice is magically still full of punk attitude.

Jack’s lyrics achieve a similar dualism. He softly sings from his heart about how he wants to soothe a girl’s “pretty little mind” and “make her feel nice,” but the next minute he’s proclaiming a grungy anthem: “I’m not in love with the modern world at all.” Although these are two very different lyric flavors, Jack’s effort to make them contrast each other really shows how far he’s willing to go to perk up his listeners’ ears.

Jack’s success in his beginner status in the current punk world is the highlight of his powerful first step into a musical career. His bravery is setting a new standard for other emerging rockers, but Jack is simply getting started.

Casey Jack – Casey Jack tracklist:

  1. “I’m Alright
  2. “Not In Love With The Modern World”
  3. “Too Far Gone”
  4. “I Won’t Wait In Line”
  5. “Cool Kids”
  6. “Stay Away”
  7. “Maybe”
  8. “Home”
  9. “Halloween2012″
  10. “Return To Sender”
  11. “Terrible Things Always Happen In 3′s”
  12. “Fall”
Album-art-for-The-Time-Has-Come-by-Cassie-Ramone Cassie Ramone – The Time Has Come

★★★☆☆

Since her time as singer of beloved (and recently defunct) indie rock outfit Vivian Girls, and member of Woodsist jangle-pop band The Babies, Cassie Ramone has stood in the shadow of her influences. Most of the press surrounding Ramone has invoked vogue subcultures like C86, Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” and the K Records DIY scene, even as she has pushed to sculpt her own singular sound. The Time Has Come, Ramone’s first solo EP is—as yet—the most undiluted document of Ramone’s songwriting talents and personality. Unfortunately, this solo designation means Ramone lacks the usual primal force of a backing band to help carry her album, but also means she’s able to include head nods to past musical traditions like doo-wop vocal harmonies and the honeyed distortion of noise pop.

Signed to new home Loglady Records, Ramone takes full advantage of a smaller label and more intimate arena. The production on The Time Has Come sounds effortless to the point these songs could have been rattled off around a comforting campfire. However, this kind of sonic intimacy reveals a hollowness in Ramone’s songwriting. Her songwriting strengths never really derived from the lyrics. In fact, most songs from Vivian Girls were obscured in such a thick coat of reverb that lyrics from whole songs were completely inaudible. In the case when lyrics were coherent, they were often just innovations on classic ’60s pop structure.

Detached from the explicitly retro musical trappings of past projects, Ramone’s songwriting feels thin, all mid-tempo noise folk songs about the yo-yo nature of her relationships and her own relentless self-loathing.

As a whole, the melodies have a lackadaisical lilt to them even as the lyrics underpinning them warn of far darker concerns.

The pastoral “Hanging On” is bathed in gleaming reverb as Ramone sings, “You keep me hanging on/What can I do/Now the love is gone.” Despite its sunny exterior, she sounds utterly hopeless pleading for a flame to take her seriously again. The charging, self-destructive “I’m A Freak” similarly luxuriates in bummer vibes.  Resembling a less twee Kimya Dawson, Ramone rages, “I’m a loser/What a fucking loser/Don’t invite me home for dinner/Because I’ll make a scene,” before climaxing with a wobbly guitar solo.

The best analog for Ramone’s musical melancholia may be California surfer girl Bethany Corsentino of Best Coast, although there’s much less talk about cats, and Ramone is much more active in her frustration with the romances in her life. These demons feel wholly more nuanced than mere self-pity though.

Viewed as a statement, the EP feels like a cohesive attempt to find personal peace and shutter her own self-destructive impulses.

Demonstrating the full impact of her past depression, the first line of the album is even “Every day I thank the lord that I’m not where I was before.”

Though the album’s melodies feel spare and stripped-down, there are still glimpses of a raucous past. “I Don’t Really Wanna Go” steadily ramps up its contemplative strum until it whips up into a brief sandstorm, and the caterwauling “Joe’s Song” jerks back and forth between a flowing guitar pattern and what sounds like a roving AM dial.

In the materials leading up to the release, Loglady Records compares Ramone’s EP to “a contemporary take on what a modern day Karen Dalton record may sound like.” It’s a misleading comparison. Dalton is an outré avant-folk/country chanteuse with a warbling voice that could only be reasonably compared with Nina Simone. Ramone is a fairly typical folk singer, but she’s narrative through her music, and the press around her has been shrouded in a way that resembles some long lost cult legend.

Ramone’s music has the feel of a hidden treasure in plain sight.

In any other era, her music would be passed around in cloistered circles in whispered tones before her influence was dutifully exaggerated decades later. Instead, Ramone can have it both ways. She’s had “mainstream indie” success with the Vivian Girls through rapturous press reception, but also built a cultural mystique that’s entirely counterintuitive to her online exposure. In the past, she’s proven to be an exceptional songwriter in reconfiguring the music of the past, but while The Time Has Come looks to solidify Ramone’s cultish appeal, it lacks either the academic/primal rewards of Vivian Girls or the songwriting insight to make a lasting impact.

Cassie Ramone - The Time Has Come tracklist:

  1. “Song of Love”
  2. “The Time Has Come”
  3. “Joe’s Song”
  4. “I’m A Freak”
  5. “Hanging On”
  6. “I Don’t Really Wanna Go”
  7. “Sensitive Soul”
  8. “I Send My Love To You”