Album-art-for-Tough-Love-by-Jessie-Ware Jessie Ware – Tough Love

★★★½☆

Jessie Ware’s second studio album Tough Love is just as the title suggests, an exploration of love at its best and worst moments. Channeling the more progressive sounds of today’s pop music, Tough Love holds an authenticity because of Ware’s angelic vocals. Layered over synth pop beats, the 11-track album displays Ware’s talents as a singer/songwriter by showcasing her ability to dedicate an entire album to one topic, incorporating sounds identifiable with Top 40 hits—all without making a clichéd pop album. The sincerity of Ware’s vocals transfix her listeners as her lyrics ooze with sentiment and affection.

Much of Tough Love makes use of ringing and binging computer generated sounds blended with the keyboard heavy foundation of the album’s 11-tracks. Combined, the sounds mimic snapping or stomping, with an added intergalactic magic. The polished pop music enhances the real highlight of the album—Ware’s vocals.

Ware’s singing is strong; one moment she’s wailing high, clear notes, and the next she’s crooning velvety low notes that propel her songs beyond the norm.

Ware takes potentially overdone concepts of love and uses the clarity of her voice to enhance her songs beyond what the lyrics are expressing with her uniquely, simplistically genius love song equation. You get what Ware is feeling, not because the lyrics are telling you, but because her voice has the ability to convey what the lyrics aren’t able to. In “You & I Forever,” Ware shows frustration when she cries out, “Don’t wanna start the thought of you and I forever/Sometimes you’ve gotta push to start/Then we’re gonna go until the wheels fall off/Can you see it/It’s forever.” The lyrics alone get the point across, but Ware’s humming during the pauses between lyrics, and her escalating powerful voice is what’s most effecting as she climbs her begging with the progression of the song.

Even mixing up the topic of “love” songs on the album risks the result of lyrics riddled with clichés and seemingly forged babbling. Ware makes sure her album is neither of those things by eliciting help from artists like Sam Smith, Kid Harpoon, Blood Orange, Dave Okumu, and Ed Sheeran during the production of Tough Love. The one acoustic-based song on the album, “Say You Love Me,” was a song Ware and Sheeran wrote and produced together. The song sneaks in occasional electric keyboard for a poppier beat as Ware hauntingly sings, “Just say you love me/Just for today/Don’t give me time/Cause that’s not the same/I want to feel burning flames when you say my name/I want to feel passion flowing into my bones/Like blood through my veins.” The track quickly transitions from acoustic guitar to an impassioned choir echoing Ware as she wails the song’s chorus and adopts the most emotionally vulnerable tone on Tough Love.

 Tough Love could have been another pop album lacking necessary emotional value and littered with insignificant beats layered over one another to create a “pop” sound. However, the album mixed and layered with the intention of emphasizing, rather than masking, Ware’s vocals. She crafted an album that showcases the potential for compelling work in her artistic future.

Jessie Ware – Tough Love tracklist:

  1. “Tough Love”
  2. “You & I Forever”
  3. “Cruel”
  4. “Say You Love Me”
  5. “Sweetest Song”
  6. “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe”
  7. “Want Your Feeling”
  8. “Pieces”
  9. “Keep On Lying”
  10. “Champagne Kisses”
  11. “Desire”
Album-Art-for-Rip-This-by-Bass-Drum-Of-Death Bass Drum Of Death – Rip This

★★★½☆

Bass Drum of Death has built a following by unabashedly gut-punching listeners with high-energy rock that refuses to conform. The band’s new album Rip This uses the same formula to conjure up memories of raw, early Nirvana or Mudhoney; music that overpowers crowds and creates furious swells of energy; but it also represents an unfamiliar shift for BDOD.

While Rip This still brings the familiar energy that drives BDOD’s fanbase, the streamlined production and experimentation with its sound on this new record also represent BDOD’s unrelenting desire to enter the mainstream market. Only one year removed from the self-titled album, Rip This finds BDOD more focused on creating a clean and polished product to reach beyond its current fanbase. Think of Rip This as your punk neighbor kicking in your door, but offering you milk and cookies.

For the uninitiated, the Mississippi-born Bass Drum of Death was originally the one man project of John Barrett, who used the driving rhythms of his drum to push the energy of his shows. Barrett’s music was identified by its unrelenting assault on the ears, with crunchy guitars always cranked to level 10 and drums that did nothing but continue the attack. Recently expanded to include new members Len Clark and Josh Hunter on guitars, BDOD’s new record Rip This does not stray far from the energy and passion of its self-titled LP. The new album pulls even more veracity and authority from not only the powerful drums, but also hammering guitar riffs filling each song.

From the opening track “Electric” it’s clear the band draws on equal parts classic punk and contemporary rock with what else, but big, driving, heavy drums.

The groundwork for Rip This was laid while BDOD was on tour with Unknown Mortal Orchestra over the past year.  BDOD chose UMO bassist Jacob Portrai to produce the record, an indication the band wanted to, per their press release, make “an unapologetic rock album for people outside their normal fanbase.” The band introduced the new record by releasing single “Left For Dead” and setting up tour dates all over the United States.  The choice of “Left For Dead” is an excellent introduction to Rip This as it deftly blends the dirty punk of early BDOD, with the cleaner production tones of this record. While some of the credit is likely due to Portrai, the tighter production of Rip This is more likely due to the precarious position of the band on the verge of mainstream acknowledgment with a desire to bridge any gaps.

“Everything’s The Same” has a lighter sound reminiscent of The Cure. According to Barrett, the band wanted to play with some loud-quiet-loud versions of songs, as opposed to the normal cranked output. This particular effort is a good indication of what Barrett was shooting for, and while definitely a reach for BDOD, a well-crafted tune that still fits on an otherwise ripping album.

“Burn’s My Eye” is much more distinctly BDOD. With an eye on punk influences, “Burn’s My Eye” is a song with buzzing guitars that sees right through the heart of the record, and could stand proudly next to the Ramones’ tunes of the early ’80s.  ”Out For Blood” is another indication of exactly where BDOD wants to be, with a pulsing drum line, powerful slap-backed vocals on top crashing guitars, and Barrett’s screamed lyrics, “I’m coming round and I’m out for blood.”

Bass Drum of Death claims to have “transformed rooms full of normally too-cool-to-rock indie crowds into a mob of sweaty, stage-diving maniacs.”

Rip This may not recreate the wheel in terms of cutting edge or creative masterpieces, but it is a record that honors BDOD’s roots, with tighter production and some timid experimentation, attempting to push the band into mainstream conversation. The energy of Rip This is contagious and will rip into ears just the way the band intended, with scorching guitars, reverb-drenched vocals and the familiar thump of Bass Drum of Death, ready to kick down doors.

Bass Drum Of Death – Rip This tracklist:

  1. “Electric”
  2. “Left For Dead”
  3. “For Blood”
  4. “Everything’s The Same”
  5. “Sin is in 10″
  6. “Black Don’t Glow”
  7. “Burn’s my Eye”
  8. “Lose My Mind”
  9. “Better Days”
  10. “Route 69 (Yeah)”
Album-Cover-for-The-Vaselines-V-for-Vaselines The Vaselines – V for Vaselines

★★★½☆

Alternative rock/indie pop act The Vaselines is back with its junior album V for Vaselines, and bound to grab first-time listeners by the collar and lure them in with agile, melodious sounds. The album, written by innovative lead singers Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, features melancholy themes and calm vocals, producing the smoothest rock ‘n’ roll. Though The Vaselines had a rocky, uncertain beginning and lengthy history, Kelly and McKee continue to surprise fans. V for Vaselines exposes the sensitive sides of these artists through passionate lyrics, showcasing the intense chemistry between the two talented musicians, hopefully persuading The Vaselines to stay in the music industry this time.

Hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, The Vaselines came together in 1986, put out its first record Dum-Dum in 1989 on 53rd and 3rd Records, and proceeded to break up that same week. Though, the Vaselines are undoubtedly intriguing—even Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain described Kelly and McKee as his “favorite songwriters in the whole world” and covered three of the band’s songs. Flash-forward to 2014 with the fresh lineup, including Kelly and McKee, guitarist Scott Patterson, bassist Graeme Smillie, and drummer Michael McGaughrin, and there’s a group that, despite differences, can come together and create titillating music.

V for Vaselines features condensed drums and hazy guitars, authenticating a punk energy sure to make listeners bob their heads and practice their air-guitar skills.

Correspondingly, the lonesome bass and expressive, intertwining vocals of Kelly and McKee make for a poignant album. The lyrics give off the same kind of sentiments, with plenty of “love gone wrong” tracks, including duet songs “Crazy Lady” and “Single Spies.” These specific tracks are great to listen to during low-points and after terrible break-ups because Kelly and McKee share themselves through their voices, and it’s clear they’ve been through similar events. On “Single Spies,” one of the more direct songs on the record, Kelly and McKee sing, “Stop denying that it meant nothing/You’re lying,” followed by a suave, easy-going guitar solo.

There’s certainly a Ramones feel to a lot of the tracks that give off a fast, punky ambiance, though many revert back to sitting-alone-in-your-room-and-wishing-your-love-life-didn’t-suck tones. This makes for a great mix of distressed, powerful, and sometimes-radiant music.

“False Heaven” is about a relationship falling apart. McKee has the lead while Kelly’s voice blends perfectly in the background, followed by a soft, crisp guitar solo. McKee’s vocals are so charming, though her range is put to test with lower notes, but she passes undeniably. This track and others such as “Single Spies” confirm the overall maturity the band gained over the past couple decades. The band begins to stray away from the fast-paced vocals and hard drums showcased back in 1989′s “Dum-Dum.” As McKee and Kelly grew older and wiser, their musical outlooks did too.

It’s no surprise V for Vaselines’ lyrics translate as witty, as audiences have consistently been charmed by the band’s seductive sound and entertaining stage banter.

On “Number One Crush,” Kelly and McKee simultaneously sing, “Brains exploding/Emotion overloading/Being with you/Kills my IQ.” This cheeky attitude adds a sense of weariness to the lyrics, which is seen more notably on the album’s closer “Last Half Hour,” with chorus lyrics, “Final curtain/End of the show.” This doesn’t come off “lazy” per-se, but it was almost predictable, which subtracted from the final impressions of the album.

V for Vaselines’s surfy, intoxicating sound makes an amazing impact on first-time listeners, and promises hope for delighted older fans as they reminisce on why they enjoy The Vaselines so much. There are significant differences comparing the band’s older sound to the new and improved, which is inevitable. This shift can either harm or help them, and in this case, The Vaselines’ aged sound can only get better from here.

The Vaselines – V for Vaselines tracklist:

  1. “High Tide Low Tide”
  2. “The Lonely L.P.
”
  3. “Inky Lies”
  4. “Crazy Lady
”
  5. “Single Spies
”
  6. “One Lost Year”
  7. “Earth Is Speeding”
  8. “False Heaven”
  9. “Number One Crush
”
  10. “Last Half Hour”
Album-Art-for-Meatbodies-Meatbodies Meatbodies – Meatbodies

★★★★☆

Self-described as “heavygroovy” with a hint of ’60s psychedelic rock, Meatbodies is the creation of Los Angeles-bred vocalist Chad Ubovich. Meatbodies, previously Chad and the Meatbodies, began as a project for Ubovich to work on between touring with acts such as Mikal Cronin and FUZZ. Then, in 2013, after In the Red records got its hands on Ubovich’s noisy, thrashy guitar tones, Chad and the Meatbodies became Meatbodies and began working on its first LP. This self-titled debut proves there’s a certain fire backing the band’s unique sound, which mixies rock ‘n’ roll with authentic surrealism, and might hypnotize listeners to point of absentmindedly setting the album on repeat.

Meatbodies is heavy with a lack of boundaries and vibrant Jimi Hendrix influence. The album’s strong, modern garage-punk sound offers listeners a sense of how the room might feel at a Meatbodies show, with caved in walls and layers of mysterious strangers’ sweat smeared through the crowd.

The album features notable sonic contrast, using messy vocals and crunchy guitars alongside lots of bass guitar heaviness to add a certain layer of creaminess.

Though it’s nearly impossible to understand what exactly Ubovich is saying/yelling/singing, that’s typically expected of a record like this because of the culture and roots the band is trying to follow. This type of rock music expresses pain and anger, and Meatbodies does it really well. The hooks and riffs are rightfully placed, and while all the songs unite as a powerful album, they are each incredibly strong individually and could succeed as singles.

Splintering, fuzzy guitar solos are definitely Meatbodies’ “thing” and will cause listeners to experience a painfully beautiful headache.

Though Ubovich was seen as a sideman during most of his career, he proves with the upcoming Meatbodies LP that he knows where rock music has been and where it’s going. He even had help from the one and only Ty Segall, who released some of Ubovich’s self-recorded songs on tape for GOD? Records. This overwhelming amount of potential showed Ubovich’s fans, and the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll world, what Meatbodies has to offer.

Meatbodies gives listeners a darkly lit, hot, groggy basement feel with its thick and harmonious sound. Generally, with covert rock albums such as this one, there isn’t much concern with production value and mixing. Contrarily, Meatbodies has some of the clearest, crispest logging of 13 fuzzy tracks humanly possible, thanks to studio master Eric “King Riff” Bauer and Chris Woodhouse, who put the final touches on the lawless record.

Tracks such as “Disorder” and “Wahoo” are fuzz-infused and reverb heavy, while others like “Plank” and “Dark Road” slow down the tempo and give the album a good mixture of hectic and peaceful.

No matter the amount of blur or sultry in Ubovich’s voice, it’s easy to notice the emotional loneliness and passion emanating from each track.

The way Meatbodies is presenting itself to the rock ‘n’ roll world today is contemporary, but doesn’t lack a commitment to old school influences. Catch Meatbodies on tour this October and November with Hunters and Purling Hiss. This up-and-coming rock act isn’t one to miss.

Meatbodies – Meatbodies tracklist:

  1. “The Archer”
  2. “Disorder”
  3. “Mountain”
  4. “HIM”
  5. “Tremmors”
  6. “Plank”
  7. “Gold”
  8. “Wahoo”
  9. “Two”
  10. “Off”
  11. “Dark Road”
  12. “The Master”
Album-art-for-Cosmic-Logic-by-Peaking-Lights Peaking Lights – Cosmic Logic

★★★½☆

Peaking Lights, the husband and wife duo of Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis, has churned out a consistent flow of synthy pop sounds for three straight albums. As the Bay Area psych pop duo returns with its fourth album Cosmic Logic, the band has developed a focused precision, crafting 11 crisp, new tracks. Packed with a contrasting spectrum of sounds, the album isn’t conventionally cohesive, but this works in Peaking Lights’ favor; the funkadelic album is like a musical gift from the cosmos. 

Unlike the band’s 2012 release Lucifer—featuring just two of eight songs under 6 minutes long—Cosmic Logic’s  instrumentation is completely stripped down. This scaling back is not done in an acoustic way, but rather a minimalistic way. Coyes and Dunis first form a strong base with tinny drum lines and shimmery disco beats, and continue on with light bass atop Dunis’ dreary yet melodic vocals for a strong final product.

The drums on the album offer varied sounds coming together for an exciting earful of textures and tones.

Rhythms reminiscent of electronic, house, salsa, and disco all fit into beautifully produced and executed songs on Cosmic Logic. With a large emphasis on futuristic techno, there’s a lot packed into the album, but the ambitious songs flow out agreeably. “Breakdown,” a single from the album, involves techy pops of clear sounds ranging from short, scratchy tickers to high-pitched Casio tones. The music become denser and even more electronica in tracks like “Dreamquest,” with an entire middle section of a loud interlude of only tweaking blips and a deep drum beat. The track’s simplicity makes it stand out as the least layered and beautiful section of the album.

Lyrically, Peaking Lights seems to be well aware of the tricks of formulating undeniably catchy songs. The song “New Grrrls” rings in with a joyous, Bee Gees-inspired disco beat as Dunis croons “Get up, get down/A new girl’s come to town.” Although Dunis’ vocals aren’t energetic and sound somewhat deflated, the smooth, computerized layering gives her voice the life it needs to make the already-luminous album gleam even more.

Any loose ends in the flowy, dreamy tones of Lucifer have been tightened up on Cosmic Logic; the band is pushing itself into braver, livelier territory than before.

Peaking Lights is literally exploring new ground, too, as the band recently built a Los Angeles studio where Coyes engineered and produced the new album himself, and Matt Thornley of DFA Studios (and former member of LCD Soundsystem) handled mixing the album.

The resulting record features a certain high quality yet alienated pop sound, which is, as Coyes puts it, “… based on an idea of ‘Fucked Modern Pop,’ but exactly what that is, we don’t know … we’re still trying to figure that out.”

Peaking Lights – Cosmic Logic tracklist:

  1. “Infinite Trips”
  2. “Telephone Call”
  3. “Hypnotic Hustle”
  4. “Everyone and Us”
  5. “Little Light”
  6. “Dreamquest”
  7. “Eyes to See”
  8. “Bad With the Good”
  9. “New Grrrls”
  10. “Breakdown”
  11. “Tell Me Your Song”
Album-art-for-A-New-Testament-by-Christopher-Owens Christopher Owens – A New Testament

★★★☆☆

Despite the moniker A New Testament, which hints at an embrace of faith and a heavy influence of gospel music, former Girls’ ringleader Christopher Owens’ second solo album is less about devotion to a higher power than absolute commitment to a new relationship. This could energize or weaken an artist depending on the songwriter, and for Owens, it’s certainly the latter.

Owens’ songwriting sometimes reaches the same emotional heights, or more accurately, pits of his previous songwriting, but he’s fallen victim to the “Justin Timberlake Syndrome.” For decades, Timberlake dashed off singles that burst with sensuality—with Timberlake slipping from sweet coos to sinister come-ons in seconds—but that seemingly all changed after the release of last year’s two 20/20 Experience LP’s. Those dual albums retained the previous albums’ formal chops, but replaced Timberlake’s trademark eroticism and edginess with a gooey sentimentality that was unbecoming and frankly, repetitive and shallow.

This same issue hurts A New Testament, an immaculately produced and written record, thanks to Owens’ wittiness and knack for writing roots country, but lacks either the emotional complexity or intensity that originally heralded Owens as such an enchanting persona.

Owen’s time in Girls and parts of 2012’s Lysandre teased out an affinity for “Golden Age” country, but A New Testament fully embraces the bellowing twang and emphatic songwriting of artists like George Jones and Merle Haggard. “Nothing More Than Everything To Me” is a honky-tonk sock-hop, all willowing pedal steel and rockabilly swing, while “Key To My Heart” is buoyed by an aching pedal steel, a staggered delivery, and familiar, almost stock Americana imagery.

“It Comes Back To You” similarly floats an angelic pedal steel over acoustic strums, but falls flat in its repetitive bromides about karma.

While there’s no doubt Owens gathered this knowledge the hard way, it doesn’t enhance the message of the songwriting, and more troublingly, Owens doesn’t have the pipes or vocal delivery to transcend the plainness. If anything, these songs only draw comparison to Owen’s previous chronicles of drug abuse and miserabilism.

As often as the metaphors and imagery feel forced, they also double as a method of lyrical subversion. Haggard has written songs like “Keys To My Heart,” but Owens has a surreal self-destructive streak, which lead to lines like “So much love/I might overflow,” even while working within the framework of country. These knowing winks come in spurts though, overshadowed by antiquated country/gospel sentiments.

The arrangements similarly undermine these tropes, striking a middle ground between Paul Simon and traditional gospel and country.

“My Troubled Heart” nods to George Michaels “Faith” with its opening frantic strums, before it’s reined in by a traditional organ, choir, and brittle guitar harmony. “Overcoming Me” is even better, an undulating ballad lulled along by a xylophone, guitar, and organ that give the impression of literally tugging Owens out of his depression. These moments are musical oases in a record content with just going in one ear and out the other. It’s always pleasant, but rarely fully engaging.

There are still glimpses of the slyly observational songwriting which first made Owens such a revelation when he first emerged with the nakedly vulnerable “Lust For Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace,” but they’re largely buried in both songwriting and arrangements conflicted between direct storytelling and genre trappings.

The album as a whole is admirably restrained, but just as accusations of slightness were leveled at Lysandre, A New Testament feels distressingly restrictive in its scope even as it ventures into uncharted melodic territory. Owens, like the aforementioned Timberlake, shouldn’t have to sacrifice his happiness for his art, but without the fire and verve that characterized his earlier output, Owens is just another songwriter battling a mid-life crisis with a musical detour.

Christopher Owens – A New Testament tracklist:

  1. “My Troubled Heart”
  2. “Nothing More Than Everything To You”
  3. “It Comes Back To You”
  4. “Stephen”
  5. “Oh My Love”
  6. “Nobody’s Business”
  7. “A Heart Akin the Wind”
  8. “Key To My Heart”
  9. “Over and Above Myself”
  10. “Never Wanna See That Look Again”
  11. “Overcoming Me”
  12. “I Just Can’t Live Without You (But I’m Still Alive)”
Album-art-for-Voir-Dire-by-Minor-Characters Minor Characters – Voir Dire

★★★½☆

There is no easy way to listen to Minor Characters’ new album—and that’s a good thing. On paper (or digital ether, as it were) this album should be an easy listen as it has 13 songs with exceptional rhythms, magnetic harmonies, and heartfelt lyrics. In reality, Voir Dire reaches deeper than a formula typical for a newer rock band will bear, and begs a second listen, as well as a third—possibly a tenth.

The band’s first full-length is more mature lyrically and technically than expected of a debut, though having two EPs chockfull of vintage-inspired earworm tunes doesn’t hurt the Chicago trio’s track record. The album begins with a slow, jangling guitar, soon joined by a simple yet evocative wish: “I wanna know my neighbors/…/Like it was in the ’90s.” Within the first 10 seconds, vocalist and guitarist Andrew Pelletier acknowledges a rift in local discourse everywhere, which has grown in less than one generation. In “Neighbors,” he expresses a need to return to a time of connection to real members of the community, rather than the faceless, remote individuals we meet by staring at a screen.

Truly, the overall theme of Voir Dire seems to be a desire to connect with those nearest to us in earnest—as the Latin expression implies—with no interest in reaching far-flung audiences who are invariably removed from current dialogue.

The record boasts slick-yet-murky guitars, pounding drums, rumbling bass, silky piano, and sing-along vocals inspired by ’60s singer-songwriters such as Simon and Garfunkel, and Cat Stevens. Pelletier, along with guitarist and vocalist Shelby Pollard, bassist Adam Wayne, and James Ratke—the band’s now former drummer, have created a much needed album of 13 diverse songs that each follow an arc of genuineness. The rollicking single “Berlin Wall” has chiming guitar distortion and magnetic “ooh-oohs” that wobble, illustrating the political and literal instability of the real Berlin Wall as Pelletier croons, “revolution’s so predictable.”

Offbeat drums create a haze that surrounds “Sparrow/Hollow,” though the sound is habitually permeated by grouchy guitar parts and sporadic dissonant sounds that move to the sway of an ambivalent bird avoiding a telephone pole. The centrifugal tone may cause motion sickness, but it’s prescribed to shy wanderers who seek a confidant. To that point, the isolation in Pelletier’s solo performance of “To Young America” indicates a call to Millennials who may understand his quiet pleas.

Indeed, the complexities of the music and lyrics of Voir Dire invite listeners to lend an earnest ear and judge by intention and not by action. In a landscape that has long been weighed down by insincere music, talent, and ideas, Minor Characters offers a rare musical respite that is pure and real.

Minor Characters – Voir Dire tracklist:

  1. “Neighbors”
  2. “Broadway Bow”
  3. “Berlin Wall”
  4. “A Lovely Reception”
  5. “White Handkerchiefs”
  6. “Pigs”
  7. “Sparrow/Hollow”
  8. “Rosalie”
  9. “So Weird”
  10. “To Young America”
  11. “Hush”
  12. “Weatherman”
  13. “Broken Horses”
Album-art-for-Orphan-by-Empires Empires – Orphan

★★★★☆

The first listen of a band’s career-defining album is a rare, phenomenal, unsurpassable experience.

Such is the case with Empires’ latest LP Orphan, which finds the band taking a step away from grittier rock tracks and throwing focus on a more synth-heavy sound. The seamless genre transition is astounding and, with the help of producer John Congleton, makes for the group’s most powerful and ambitious record to date.

After releasing Howl in 2008, Empires gained recognition in 2010 when it make its way to the final four of Rolling Stone‘s “Choose The Cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.” Since then, the band has continued its climb to the top by playing Lollapalooza in 2012, and making a TV debut on Letterman.

It’s been a long time coming for this bunch of Chicagoans, but it seems as though they’ve finally hit the sweet spot.

From the unit’s fuller, redefined sound to singer Sean Van Vleet’s beautiful exploitation of his vocal range, it’s clear from the get-go almost nothing has been borrowed from Empires’ past two albums. While the album opener “Silverfire” is the closest to the band’s past work, the changes in tone and skill are obvious. Van Vleet growls his newfound Berninger-esque drawl over an energetic ensemble with calm confidence, building up to belt out his phenomenal high notes as the song transforms into an uplifting anthem. Though the track is one of the most conservative songs in regards to experimentation, it’s a fun intro to a stellar album.

Immediately following the soft fadeout of the first song, the title track starts with a retrograded synth and electronic drum kit, showing the first signs of the electronic foray to come. “Orphan” is the polar opposite of old Empires—in a good way. The song flows at a mellow tempo with Van Vleet singing falsetto, contrary to the group’s old style of faster-paced rock songs, but evolves into a contagious dance song in the chorus. The gloomy synths brighten up to embrace shimmering guitar for a singalong with a catchy pop rhythm.

Orphan shows enormous musical and lyrical growth for Empires.

The shrill synth in “Glow,” the explosive transitional guitar solos in the National-heavy “Shadowfaux,” the serene, minimalistic beauty of “Lifers”—all make for an entertaining trip from start to finish.

Additionally, Van Vleet (the band’s sole lyricist), has stepped up his game both vocally and lyrically. As if the group’s instrumentals weren’t infectious enough, Van Vleet takes each song and makes it a hit with his rich, soaring vocals.

“Stay Lonely,” for example, is his vocal hoorah, topping off his range with an emotional roar toward the end. The song has a dark vibe until Van Vleet starts yelling in a higher register, creating a rigid dichotomy between verse and chorus. His fervent voice contrasts wonderfully with the bright bells in the chorus, making it one of the best songs on the album.

Lyrically Van Vleet’s best performance comes in “Please Don’t Tell My Lover,” which also features incredible vocals and a catchy guitar riff. The song comes across as quirky due to the danceable instrumentals, but has a darker story as he tells of his secret disdain for his lover, who he hopes doesn’t find out his true feelings.

Empires has undergone a vibrant metamorphosis since its debut LP in 2012, which has played in its favor. The resulting cultivation of styles shows immense maturation for Empires, marking the pinnacle of the band’s career thus far.

Empires – Orphan tracklist:

  1. “Silverfire”
  2. “Orphan”
  3. “Hostage”
  4. “Shadowfaux”
  5. “Honeyblood”
  6. “Lifers”
  7. “How Good Does It Feel”
  8. “Please Don’t Tell My Lover”
  9. “Stay Lonely”
  10. “Glow”
  11. “Journey Kid”
Album-art-for-This-Is-All-Yours-by-alt-J Alt-J – This Is All Yours

★★½☆☆

British experimental indie rock band Alt-J has succeeded in generating a cyclone of anticipation around This Is All Yours by releasing three powerful songs as a preview. These teaser tracks, “Every Other Freckle,” “Left Hand Free,” and “Hunger Of The Pine,” are thick with the type of energy found on the band’s Mercury Music prize-winning first album An Awesome Wave. However, listeners may find themselves wanting and expecting more as they fully tear into the band’s imperceptible, mild, and somewhat muted second album.

Completing the album without bassist Gwil Sainsbury, the trio successfully spreads an ominous coating of its dark sound evenly over the album; each song rings with the band’s familiar haunting tones and experimental rhythms. Heavy use of minor guitar chords and chilling, harmonious vocals from lead singer Joe Newman are a reminder of how easily the band is able to smoothly fling itself across a unique sound spectrum to entice listeners.

Unfortunately, the only songs that really pack the kind of upbeat punch Alt-J mastered on its first album are the ones released as singles, leaving the rest of This Is All Yours to be swept into the dustpan.

It’s obvious Alt-J has taken a more refined production route than in the past, but confusion arises when certain songs, like “Choice Kingdom” and “Pusher,” are hushed to the point the volume is put into question—is the song even playing? “Leaving Nara” actually holds complete silence during the entire last minute. Any of the more reclusive songs on the album might be used as a lullaby to rock a baby to sleep; it seems Alt-J is intentionally holding back the volume for a gentle feel.

In addition to faint instrumentation, the album’s lyrics are hardly decipherable. Although Newman is known for his style of mutter-singing his own half-formulated language, it isn’t clearly stressed on this album, nor would it be enough to make those dustpan songs catchy. However, in the few grabbing singles, Newman and his bandmates deliver lyrics as intricate and relevant as ever before.

One of the darkest songs of the album, “Hunger Of The Pine,” includes lines from French poet Alfred de Musset’s poem “L’espoir en Dieu (Hope in God)” during the refrain, “Une immense espérance a traversé la terre/Une immense espérance a traversé ma peur,” which translates to “A great hope has traversed the earth/A great hope has crossed my fear.” The depth of these lyrics further acknowledge and praise Alt-J’s habitual choice of writing songs that don’t just skim the surface in content. Unfortunately, most of the tracks only stimulate an inability to understand what Newman is saying, leaving listeners feeling left out.

Aside from the five redeemable songs, the album is a poor pairing of obscure lyrics with music that could be used in any sleep-inducing playlist.

There isn’t anything wrong with calmer and quieter songs, but the disappointment of this album lies in expectations; it only seems logical for Alt-J to step up its combination of bold, complex rhythms and upbeat melodies to deliver a strong album to follow its impressive first record.

Alt-J – This Is All Yours tracklist:

  1. “Intro”
  2. “Arrival in Nara”
  3. “Nara”
  4. “Every Other Freckle”
  5. “Left Hand Free”
  6. “Garden of England”
  7. “Choice Kingdom”
  8. “Hunger Of The Pine”
  9. “Warm Foothills”
  10. “The Gospel Of John Hurt”
  11. “Pusher”
  12. “Bloodflood pt.II”
  13. “Leaving Nara”
  14. “Lovely Day (Bonus Track)”
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”