Album-art-for-Own-Your-Own-Love-Again-by-Jessica-Pratt Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again

★★★★☆

Jessica Pratt’s debut album On Your Own Love Again sounds like the result of teenage heartbreak. A lovesick Pratt even stands over a fire escape on the cover of the album. She mopes, befriends a guitar, and creates On Your Own Love Again. The album is teeming with strong guitar chords, stark vocals, and an unnerving lilt in both. Though her voice reaches a shrill point at certain times, the emotionally raw lyrics compensate.

The album was recorded on a four track recorder in Pratt’s own home, but the sound remains crisp and refreshing. It’s like Pratt could be a talented busker encountered on a commute home. The album itself surprisingly doesn’t have a lo-fi feel, but remains intimate through its confessional and anecdotal lyrics. It’s polished, but not to the point of obvious studio refinement. On Your Own Love Again is emotive and messy, lending a memorable charm.

This is no longer the hesitant songwriter heard in Pratt’s self-titled EP; this is the older, world-weary, adult version.

Pratt’s grating voice is initially difficult to take in, but once she begins to stroke her guitar, it all makes sense. Her unnerving, delicate drawls are reminiscent of Nico, but the pitch of her voice is the opposite. Pratt’s tone is unique and unadulterated, threatening to break at any moment.

The album’s first single, “Back, Baby,” demonstrates Pratt’s talent. The ambiguous tension in the song seeps through twangy, jilted guitar strums with accented lyrics. The track wouldn’t be out of place playing near a cliched sunset, with Pratt moping on a sandy beach. Her work mourns her lost relationships, but she does not feel guilty—it is the other person’s loss.

Pratt has no time for self-pity. Instead, she picks up a guitar and lets it tell the story.

The album carries an edge, with Pratt’s characteristic jeering and vocal hardness. She’s at her best in “The Game That I Play,” where she addresses romance, her siren voice condemning those of a lighter heart. For Pratt, it might be more appropriate to say that the voice is mightier than the sword: she addresses the subjects of her songs with rigor and power.

It would be easy to call Pratt’s album twee. At certain points, her voice grows irritating and unbearable. In the last few tracks of the album, Pratt’s woe becomes unbelievable the whinier she grows. However, these helpless pleas are the same caliber of folk lords’ Conor Oberst and Elliott Smith—a learnt effect. Pratt often takes cues from other folk artists a bit too far. Mitski and Angel Olsen serve the same appeal as Pratt: a heartbroken, sad woman strums a guitar. There is very little room for invention in this certain aesthetic, but Pratt has mastered it just the same.

The album’s most striking feature is its lyrics. This is where the sound’s derivative quality is forgiven. Pratt’s lyrics are intimate and personal, like she’s making musical diary entries. She is sharp, conniving, and most of all, powerful in her lyrical prose. It allows her to create better, more fulfilled songs that may have been lacking in original sound.

Pratt’s talent certainly matches the founding artists of folk, but it appears that it is easier to live in Joni Mitchell’s shadow than to step out of it. The album is derivative, but not in an unpleasing way. On Your Own Love Again is another folk buzz record, but Pratt’s honest lyrical anger stands out.

Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again tracklist:

  1. “Wrong Hand”
  2. “Game That I Play”
  3. “Strange Melody”
  4. “Greycedes”
  5. “Moon Dude”
  6. “Jacquelyn in the Background”
  7. “I’ve Got A Feeling”
  8. “Back, Baby”
  9. “On Your Own Love Again”
Album-art-for-The-Deepest-Lake-by-Dengue-Fever Dengue Fever – The Deepest Lake

★★★☆☆

Dengue Fever is a Los Angeles-based psychedelic band full of the assumed white boys—with the exception of Cambodian lead singer Chhom Nimol, that is. The band’s gimmick is its lyrics sung in both Khmer and English. Her language switch-ups sneak and snake through each other, illustrating the album’s form with impeccable detail. Nimol is the star of The Deepest Lake, with trippy surfer tones molding to her vocals.

This new album calls back to Dengue Fever’s earliest albums in which Nimol sang exclusively in Khmer. Language is an important part of The Deepest Lake. The album’s messages are communicated concisely through sonic details—the lyrics would sound uncomfortable in any language other than Khmer, in fact. This allows emotional, earnest tracks like “Taxi Dancer” to mingle with the chanting, pounding sounds in songs like “Rom Say Sok.” The foreign dialect isn’t meant to alienate the listener, rather, it exists to draw them in.

Language is just another instrument for Dengue Fever—it’s played, and it’s played well.

The natural sexuality of Nimol’s vocals is played up on the album, but it grows dull and repetitive after a certain point. One can only chant Khmer so many times. Near the end of The Deepest Lake, the songs nearly blur together in their similarity. This isn’t to say that these songs aren’t good, but they aren’t nearly as distinguished and engaged as the first half of the album.

Still, The Deepest Lake has multiple notable tracks. The slow, grinding rhythm and hypnotic beat of “No Sudden Moves” is undeniably the most immersive of the album. Seductive and wily bits, snared in smooth chords and suggestive sounds make the track a standout. However, as venereal as this album remains, it isn’t a shameful kind of suggestive, but more of a wry, self-assured bent of confidence in the sensuality of the work. Nimol proves to be a musical femme fatale of sorts with this album, singing dramatically and whole-heartedly.

Dengue Fever consists of five men and a goddess. The Deepest Lake returns to the band’s Khmer roots, allowing Nimol a sense of divinity and otherworldliness. Regardless of the latter half’s lack of definition, The Deepest Lake is a solid project. The lush, sultry beats are exemplified by Nimol’s vocal range, and her talent is equally highlighted by the grinding, surfer-esque melodies. Dengue Fever achieves music depicting the feminine divine—it remains so dreamy and utterly female.

Dengue Fever – The Deepest Lake:

  1. “Tokay”
  2. “No Sudden Moves”
  3. “Rom Say Sok”
  4. “Ghost Voice”
  5. “Deepest Lake on the Planet”
  6. “Cardboard Castles”
  7. “Vacant Lot”
  8. “Still Waters Run Deep”
  9. “Taxi Dancer”
  10. “Golden Flute”
Album-art-for-What-a-Terrible-World-What-a-Beautiful-World-by-The-Decemberists The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

★★★½☆

Colin Meloy—lead singer and mastermind of the prolific Decemberists—used to be focused on the characters and the worlds constantly streaming through his head, like a modern, musical Tolkien.

Now, with the newly released What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, he seems to be looking increasingly outward before chewing ideas over internally. Rambling tales of Chinese trapeze artists and vengeful, orphaned sailors have given way to more present reflections on fame, family, and tragedy.

This latest installment still sounds like the Decemberists (how could it not, with Meloy’s distinctive vocals and the old-timey-forest vibe that accompanies nearly every song?), and it contains more hits than misses, but it somehow fails to feel like a cohesive album. What’s worse, it lacks that fundamental, joyous spark that makes even the darkest Decemberists song an entertaining ride.

“Philomena” is perhaps the only track on What a Terrible World that feels like something from the band’s heyday.

Like an outtake from Rocky Horror Picture Show, the song begins with sickly sweet “ooh”s and “ahh”s before Meloy dives into the perspective of a horny (and sexually generous) teenager who just wants to go down on his girlfriend.

Other tracks are too vague to be considered proper stories, but nonetheless have the exuberant heft of a good Decemberists song: “The Wrong Year,” which could have replaced “Make You Better” as the lead single; “Easy Come, Easy Go,” with its ominous, gather-’round-the-fire melody; and the closing track, “A Beginning Song,” that feels at once painfully vulnerable and elated, like standing on the precipice of a life-changing moment.

And, in the spirit of vulnerability, What a Terrible World sees Meloy reflecting on the outside world more clearly than ever. In the opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience” (which Meloy says is not directly from his perspective), he contemplates the balance between making art for oneself and rewarding fans’ loyalty, singing, “We know you built your life around us/…/But we had to change some.”

He strips down even further on “12-17-12.” A response to the Sandy Hook shooting, the simple, strumming song is addressed to Meloy’s son, who was in first grade at the time of the tragedy. “What a gift, what a gift you can give me,” he sings, “Here with my heart so whole while others may be grieving/Think of their grieving.” In a final plea for understanding, the song ends on the line that inspired the album title: “Oh, god, what a world you have made here/What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”

With such potent ideas springing from the album’s best moments, other tracks—such as “Lake Song,” “Carolina Low,” “Cavalry Captain,” and “Better Not Wake the Baby”—seem unnecessary or simply misplaced (the latter’s brash harmonica makes it sound like an outtake from the previous Decemberists album, The King is Dead). None of these tracks are bad, per se, but for an album so long in the making, What a Terrible World has a lot of fat left untrimmed.

Of course, The Decemberists at their worst still make music at its best. Creativity like theirs has to be held to a higher standard, and though What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World will likely be one of the best albums released in 2015, it’s a bit of a disappointment to fans who’ve waited four long years for their fix of nerdy, fantastical, fun Decemberists.

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World tracklist:

  1. “The Singer Addresses His Audience”
  2. “Cavalry Captain”
  3. “Philomena”
  4. “Make You Better”
  5. “Lake Song”
  6. “Till the Water’s All Long Gone”
  7. “The Wrong Year”
  8. “Carolina Low”
  9. “Better Not Wake the Baby”
  10. “Anti-Summersong”
  11. “Easy Come, Easy Go”
  12. “Mistral”
  13. “12-17-12″
  14. “A Beginning Song”
Album-art-for-Viet-Cong-by-Viet-Cong Viet Cong – Viet Cong

★★½☆☆

It’s perplexing, at first, to classify the type of music played by Canadian rockers Viet Cong. The quartet combines the abrasive instrumentation of industrial rock, the extensive layouts of ambient music, and the minimalism of lo-fi recording. These elements, however, are mixed to varying degrees of success. Viet Cong’s self-titled debut presents an ambitious group of creative rockers intent on melding the unmeldable, but the LP becomes inaccessible with gratuitous repetition, poor vocal delivery, and unusual recording conditions.

Solemn opener “Newspaper Spoons” begins the album with drummer Mike Wallace’s abrasive, militant pounding. Viet Cong initiates listeners into its lo-fi rock cult, relentlessly chanting, “Writhing violence/Essentially without distortion/Quiet, silent/Vanishing into the boredom.” The song does its best to draw listeners into Viet Cong’s industrial production, but with no change in dynamics or tempo, falls short of the grandiose introduction it aspires to be.

Viet Cong aims to create spectacles  with the broad layout of ambient music, but that layout thrives on texture-layering, a method completely ignored on Viet Cong. Often, all four band members enter at once, leaving nothing to listeners’ imaginations.

The absence of careful texture construction leaves Viet Cong with an excess of time on its hands, resulting in a chronic overuse of repetition. Garage rock number “Bunker Buster” repeats a minimal, two-note guitar riff for its entire intro, wearing the song thin before vocals even arrive. With only about sixty seconds of actual musical material, the six-minute song spends most of its time rehashing already-simplified riffs.

Repetition hinders most on the hellishly tedious “March of Progress.” Mechanical keyboards cut through the track, droning the same note for nearly three minutes. Bright, celebratory keys arrive toward the end of the track but the party arrives too late; the excitement is long gone.

Like much of the arduous album, “March of Progress” marches towards its own end but finds no prize when it gets there.

When Viet Cong’s ramshackle riffs finally topple, the band falls on singer/bassist Matt Flegel’s apathetic vocals, most of which come slightly distorted. Vocal distortion is not inherently malicious, but when paired with sloppy diction it makes lyrics difficult to distinguish (“Pointless Experience,” “Bunker Buster”).

By the time Viet Cong reaches eleven-minute closer “Death,” vocals have become just another blurry tool for Viet Cong. After four minutes of Flegel’s uninspired mumbling and four more of aimless, instrumental wandering, the band launches into a hurried coda. As Flegel cries his lyrics with increasing frenzy, it becomes apparent that he’s channeling Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic conclusion of “The End.” While Flegel’s vocals are just as frantic as Morrison’s, his execution is much less precise and his ending is nowhere near as impactful.

Performance is paramount, but some of Viet Cong’s shortcomings may also be attributed to bizarre recording conditions. The band recorded its debut in a barn-turned-studio. The unusual space both helps and hinders the final product. Its closeness keeps all four band members tightly bundled and jamming together, but its lack of traditional recording processes makes for low sound quality.

Lo-fi recording isn’t necessarily problematic, but when sound quality decreases, emotional quality must increase. Viet Cong‘s emotional quality can’t increase though, because its stubborn “less is more” attitude inhibits not only sound quality, but also vocal melodies, lyrics, and instrumentation. Without these elements to hold listeners’ ears and minds, the LP limps lifelessly for much of its duration.

Still, the experience of recording an entire album in a barn will strengthen any band’s ability to play as a unit. Viet Cong frequently makes sudden rhythmic changes and though the changes are jarring, they’re also impressive. All four members pivot flawlessly in unison, a tough feat for such awkward, immediate transitions.

Viet Cong’s first full-length may not have made the mark it meant to, but it did introduce the world to a batch of zealous young musicians. Their wayward attitude, the absolute refusal to play by the rules or follow norms, should be encouraged as it is exactly what makes rock music liberating. Think of this LP as a happy mistake, a shaky first step towards the auditory dystopia Viet Cong aims to create. A failed experiment is the most important tool in a rock band’s toolbox because it exposes that band’s strengths and weaknesses, providing a platform from which to start.

Viet Cong – Viet Cong tracklist:

  1. “Newspaper Spoons”
  2. “Pointless Experience”
  3. “March of Progress”
  4. “Bunker Buster”
  5. “Continental Shelf”
  6. “Silhouettes”
  7. “Death”
Panda-Bear-Meets-The-Grim-Reaper-Cover Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

★★★★½

Noah Lennox, otherwise known as Panda Bear, is most often recognized as 1/4th of the experimental pop outfit Animal Collective. The sweeping harmonies and cryptic lyrics of the band’s eclectic discography are ever-present on his new release, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper (stylized as PBVSGR). The album celebrates change more colorfully than his first release in 2004, Young Prayer. Garbled electronic dance jams, stunning piano and harp loops, and dissonant electronic noise (as well as a dog howl here and there), make for an album of light industrial noise and twinkles of ascending frequencies.

The first track, “Sequential Circuits,” introduces the album with sparse instrumentation, a quality maintained through the album’s entirety. Immediately, Sonic Boom’s production is evident and comparable to 2011′s release Tomboy, except the soaring reverb is now wet and percussive. Lennox creates his own “call and response” harmonies on this track, which gives the listener the impression there are a few more people behind the recording, almost reminiscent of The Beach Boys, which Panda Bear is often compared to, gathering around a single microphone.

The first single off of the album, “Mr. Noah,” is somewhat reminiscent of late ’90s hip-hop meshed with an overblown Black Moth Super Rainbow-esque synth. With lines like, “This dog got bit on the leg,” and, “Don’t want to get out of bed/Unless he feels like it’s justified,” listeners can feel his malaise resonating. At the end of each vocal line of the verse Lennox sings in ascending and descending half steps. This small addition to the melody opens up the entire track to the rising and falling expressed in the lyrics.

Following the instrumental interlude “Davy Jones’ Locker,” the track “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” has a nice Caribbean beat, but the song doesn’t really go anywhere. At a little over 3 minutes, the track seems a bit drawn out with its woozy repetition and schoolyard play song. Although there are transitions, it just doesn’t feel like it moves. Lackluster, but not a bad song.

“Boy’s Latin” is a just a driving celebration of life.

Despite extreme repetition, the use of bouncing octave vocals fills the song out and makes quick work of the 4:14 minutes. A testament to what can be done with simplicity and redundancy, the “call-and-response” effect fills out any empty space. The departure from Lennox’s quintessential reverb-soaked vocals to a chanting and organic delay on this song dispels the claim some have about “vocal effects masking ability”—Lennox has one of the most impressive vocal ranges in alternative music today.

On “Tropic of Cancer” he channels Scott Walker, crooning lines like, “When they say he’s ill/Laughed it off as if it’s no big deal,” alluding to the mourning of his father. The track seems to be the most direct and honest attack at living up to the latter half of the album title.

After an instrumental, a beautiful electronic-infused sampled piano ballad, and the only true “dance jam” on the album, “Principle Real,” twists through a phaser with a pulsing synth, characteristic of the late 80’s. Although it never really builds and drops, the song swoons, with the addition and reduction of sparse percussion and layered doppler-like synths. The track ends with the repetition of, “You’ll trip again/You’ll trip up again/You’ll get up again,” almost as a positive-self reinforcement that good times come and go.

“Acid Wash” could play over the rolling credits of a historically accurate musical circa 1850, disregarding the experimental warped electronics. With an opening that sounds like a Top-40 station blurb, it somehow seemingly transitions to a triumphant march—an appropriate way to conclude an album with sounds ranging from the sharp and ugly to the horrifyingly beautiful.

Even with it’s slow moments, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper manages to capture everything listeners want from an album: recognizing the melancholy we all feel and celebrating everything that comes with living through it.

Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper tracklist:

  1. “Sequential Circuits”
  2. “Mr Noah”
  3. “Davy Jones’ Locker”
  4. “Crosswords”
  5. “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker”
  6. “Boys Latin”
  7. “Come to Your Senses”
  8. “Tropic of Cancer”
  9. “Shadow of the Colossus”
  10. “Lonely Wanderer”
  11. “Principe Real”
  12. “Selfish Gene”
  13. “Acid Wash”
Album-art-for-The-Pale-Emperor-by-Marilyn-Manson Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor

★★★★☆

Marilyn Manson has been challenging audiences with his abrasive hybrid of shock rock and industrial metal since the mid-90s, but until recently his gothic aesthetic and Satanic-esque lyrics were filtered through major record label Interscope. In 2009 however, Interscope dropped Manson due to low sales of his seventh album, The High End of Low. Free from major label confines and allowed to run wild on his vanity label Hell, etc., Manson’s next release was 2012′s Born Villain, an album laced with so many Biblical allegories and Shakespearean references that even his own fan-base had trouble keeping up.

Three years later, Manson has regained the quality that made him an icon: the balance between envelope-pushing lyrical concepts and the simple boldness of heavy metal. By delivering some of his most unique songs to date with lyrics that are both poetic and accessible, The Pale Emperor epitomizes the best of the band’s post-2000 sound.

Lead single “Third Day of A Seven Day Binge” delivers straightforward, no bullshit Manson with a deliberate pace set by drummer Gil Sharone and grounded by Twiggy Ramirez’s signature sludgy bass, recreating the confidently dirty strut of Manson classics like “Dope Show.” “Third Day” reminds listeners of the intellect behind the mess with insightful lines like, “I can’t decide if you wear me out or wear me well/I just feel like I’m condemned to wear someone else’s hell.”

Lyrics are the crux of any Manson album. No record of his would feel complete without an outward rejection of organized religion, and “The Devil Beneath My Feet” fills that flawlessly with bold lyrics, “I don’t need a motherfucker looking down on me/Motherfucker looking down on me.” Although it doesn’t appear until more than halfway through The Pale Emperor, “The Devil Beneath My Feet” is the first track to feature prominent profanity.

While the lack of swearing in the first half of the LP is an anomaly for the self-proclaimed God of Fuck, it proves that Manson’s poeticism can stand on its own, without the crutch of excessive cursing.

The recently rediscovered balance in Manson’s lyrics have lead to some of his most unique songs, including “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles,” The Pale Emperor‘s most memorable track. The impact of repeated line, “Are we fated, faithful, or fatal?” grows as Manson’s voice gradually progresses from a scratchy quiver to a hard-hitting scream.

The acoustic version of “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles,” titled “Fated, Faithful, Fatal,” unearths the self-pitying line, “I’m feeling stoned and alone like a heretic/and I’m ready to meet my maker,” exposing the humanly vulnerable side of Manson that make his scratchy screams so damn relatable. Meanwhile, the main version bellows this admission of weakness over head-banging distortion, turning a moment of emotional frailty to an opportunity for catharsis. The liberating chorus is followed immediately by Manson’s restrained, disdained delivery of the repeated lyric, “Lazarus got no dirt on me.” This bold transition makes the track a standout, even among Manson’s two-decades-long catalog.

The Pale Emperor concludes its goth rock regime with “Odds of Even,” a heart-wrenchingly honest song of self-reflection centering around the line, “My dagger and swagger are useless in the face of the mirror when the mirror is made of my face.” Besides demonstrating Manson’s deft wordplay, these soul-bearing lyrics make “Odds of Even” a satisfactory closer, and are even more powerful in the acoustic version, titled “Day 3.”

With powerful tracks both acoustic and electric, The Pale Emperor solidifies the band’s ability to produce high quality Manson albums without the filter of a major label. By demonstrating the best of Manson’s sound with distinctive tracks and balanced lyrics, the album is destined to become a fan favorite.

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor tracklist:

  1. “Killing Strangers”
  2. “Deep Six”
  3. “Third Day of A Seven Day Binge”
  4. “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles”
  5. “Warship My Wreck”
  6. “Slave Only Dreams To Be King”
  7. “The Devil Beneath My Feet”
  8. “Birds of Hell Awaiting”
  9. “Cupid Carries A Gun”
  10. “Odds of Even
  11. “Day 3″
  12. ” Fated, Faithful, Fatal”
  13. “Fall of The House of Death”
Album-art-for-Moonlight-by-Hanni-El-Khatib Hanni El Khatib – Moonlight

★★★☆☆

The album artwork for Hanni El Khatib’s Moonlight features an angry fist strangling a helpless serpent, but the music behind this dark imagery isn’t nearly as thrilling. Following his 2013 breakthrough sophomore LP Head in the Dirt, the LA singer/songwriter aims to chill listeners’ bones with a batch of ominous, sexually-themed alt-rock jams, but fails to maintain that atmosphere by misusing both vocal and instrumental textures.

A crunchy, overdriven guitar sound runs throughout the LP. This repetition creates a sense of cohesiveness, but diminishes the dangerous atmosphere Khatib tries so desperately to cultivate with Moonlight’s extraneous distortion and redundant sexual themes. A variety of other instruments appear, but rarely make musical statements of their own, acting instead as simple layers of texture. Moonlight’s drums pound out a familiar, overused groove while one inoffensive, barely noticeable bass tone thumps dully throughout the album, blindly following whatever notes the guitar happens to be playing.

One exception to Khatib’s barrage of boring bass lines is “Chasin’,” which features a bass figure that possesses more agility and character than any other on Moonlight.

Still, this one glimmer of boldness cannot hope to outweigh tedious melodic and rhythmic repetitions, an anticlimactic chorus, and an abrupt ending that fails to bring any closure to the scattered song. The track’s worst offense, though, is its misuse of horns as a textural tool. While the instrumentation succeeds in colorizing Khatib’s murky swamp of guitar noise, the horns contribute little more to the song as a whole, save for the annoying two-note hook occurring after every couple of lyrics.

Khatib’s singing is consistently drifty, even in rock songs that call for a commanding, direct delivery. With this approach, Khatib moans and groans his way past opportunities for liberating sex-rock anthems (“Melt Me”).

Memorable melodies are few and far between on Moonlight, due to an overdone reverb treatment on all of the album’s vocal performances. Khatib relentlessly drenches his voice in reverb, squeezing individuality from each Moonlight tune like a fist choking the life out of a snake. These whispery, double-tracked vocals feel dark and foreboding at first, but lose their frightening effect with frequent use (“The Teeth,” “Worship Song (No. 2)”).

This overdone sense of peril extends to Hanni El Khatib’s lyrics, which generally center around dangerous sexual situations.

Unfortunately, these scenes are presented blandly, and the absence of sensory imagery in Khatib’s lyrics only underlines the lack of variety in his subject matter. Moonlight’s album-opening title track features flavorless lines like “I’ll pull you up just to track you down/and I’ll wipe your tears so you won’t drown/I lift you high and let you go/I hold on tight until I feel your soul,” and continues similarly for much of the LP.

Luckily, “Mexico” breaks the cycle of Khatib’s unvaried verses about dark sexual experiences, showcasing poetic lyrics like “There’s a certain time of day when light bleeds through the sky/If it burns you up, the ground below you feels electrified.” “Mexico” stands out as the best-crafted song on the album and its chorus brings much-needed variety to Moonlight, in terms of both rhythm and instrumentation. Over a punchy staccato rhythm, tense orchestral strings amplify the dissonance of the thundering guitars and explosive drums before transitioning into a quiet, pensive verse.

The attention to detail in “Mexico” isn’t limited to dynamic transitions, though. When tension begins to build up during the lyrics “A piece of you wants me to disappear/but for now I’ll stay right here,” Khatib cleverly switches from a minor chord to a major chord halfway through the line, strengthening the line’s emotional impact. With its unique lyrics and masterful song-craft, “Mexico” seems to belong to a different album entirely.

Still, even “Mexico” cannot escape Khatib’s tendency to end songs with last minute, out-of-the-blue tempo changes that last only a few seconds. Seemingly random bits and pieces of musical noise often appear in the intros and outros of Moonlight, perplexing listeners, pulling them out of Khatib’s midnight rock affair and inhibiting his attempted atmosphere from ever fully solidifying.

Moonlight delivers a batch of incongruent snippets that fall short of adding up to the sleek, treacherous image Khatib strives to create. Though a few enjoyable moments shimmer in the blackness, the album ultimately fails to illuminate Khatib’s vision.

Hanni El Khatib – Moonlight tracklist:

  1. “Moonlight”
  2. “Melt Me”
  3. “The Teeth”
  4. “Chasin’”
  5. “Workshop Song (No 2)”
  6. “Mexico”
  7. “Servant”
  8. “All Black”
  9. “Home”
  10. “Dance Hall
  11. “Two Brothers”

 

Album-art-for-The-Planet-by-Young-Ejecta Young Ejecta – The Planet

★★★☆☆

Young Ejecta creates a mini-album teeming with ethereal whirls and methodical thumping beats. The Planet is the follow-up to the band’s 2013 debut, Dominae. The duo doesn’t stray far from the enchanting sound and funky lyrics that spurred favorable reviews of its first album, but Young Ejecta’s success is stunted by a lack of vocal clarity.

Despite having to change its name due to copyright issues, Young Ejecta’s new album maintains the femininity and youthfulness present in Dominae, while creating an intergalactic sound brimming with refined beats, and interwoven with varying degrees of resonance. Electric keyboards run throughout much of The Planet, giving the album a futuristic vibe, supported with breathy vocals. Leanne Macomber, vocalist for both Young Ejecta and Neon Indian, uses the velvety tones of her voice to give her performance an airy, carefree vibe that oozes atop the precisely layered pulsing bass strums and electric keyboard pings, all without trying too hard.

While Macomber’s vocals take the 6-track album beyond the chant-like vocals that seem to litter the genre of electric pop, producer Joel Ford, of Oneohtrix Point Never and Ford & Lopatin, mixes The Planet to create a unity of sounds that ebb and weave, transfixing listeners. Macomber and Ford are both veterans of the music scene that have been given the opportunity to produce music for a number of different side projects. This combined experience offers the duo the chance to explore its sound and hone in on one vibe alone, which translates on The Planet with an icy feel as the angelic beats echo out over one another.

Album opener, “Into Your Heart” begins with Macomber’s silky singing alongside subdued keys, almost whispering under the lyrics. As the song progresses, the prominence of cool synth beats crescendos, enhancing the track’s message as the chorus is introduced. When Macomber sings, “Don’t push me away/I can dive into your heart/Tell me I can stay here in your heart/Don’t go away/Know that I am coming/Coming into your heart/Don’t dance away,” the light and airy beat brings an interesting paradox to a heartfelt song urging its listeners to accept Macomber’s love.

Much of The Planet is presented in the same manner; luscious beats and smooth vocals create a “chill” vibe, while the lyrics suggest a more heady meaning behind the album.

“All Day” makes use of a nightingale metaphor and includes actual sound clips of birds chirping and flapping their wings as one of the many layers of the song. The persistent beat, a subtle dun-dun, is subdued and mellow throughout the verses, giving weight and focus to the lyrics, “Don’t be silly old boy/That’s what I’m here for/I’m gonna follow you any place/I’m like a nightingale/I’m from deep space/I can just fly away/But I stay.” Cymbals whisper and begin oscillating as electric keys are introduced during the chorus and continue to crescendo and decrescendo as the lyrics are sung.

The Planet has all the elements needed to please dedicated fans and first-time listeners. The funk and spirit of electric pop isn’t lost; however, the brash lyrics spewed by Macomber are the real spunk needed for the album. The lyrics and tones in The Planet are evidence of Young Ejecta’s potential, but the moments when Macomber’s breathy tone becomes muffled and difficult to understand are when the album falls. It doesn’t make sense that the duo would put considerable effort into perfecting the essence of The Planet and not take the time to address a simple fix. A few additional sessions in the recording booth could have elevated Young Ejecta’s second album from all right to enchanting.

Young Ejecta is still a new and developing duo, but Macomber and Ford have the talent and potential to create meaningful music with a snappy twist. Amping up The Planet’s successful aspects and addressing what’s holding it back becomes the perfect opportunity for the band to flourish.

Young Ejecta – The Planet tracklist:

  1. “Into Your Heart”
  2. “Welcome To Love”
  3. “All Day”
  4. “Recluse”
  5. “Your Planet”
  6. “What You Done”
Album-art-for-SUCKER-by-Charli-XCX Charli XCX – SUCKER

★★★★☆

Breaking into the American Top 40 can be hard for international artists, but with hit “Boom Clap,” and a feature on Iggy Azaela’s “Fancy,” English pop artist Charli XCX has been consistently on familiar rotation. Her radio presence and performances at award shows like the AMAs and VMAs have helped sustain buzz about her third studio album, SUCKER. Packed with boisterous beats layered over catchy lyrics, the album seamlessly merges sounds of ’80s punk-rock and pop in 13 tracks. Though at times lyrically repetitive, SUCKER serves as a soundtrack for the stereotypical 2014 rebellious teenager, and generates a rowdy mash of pop-punk sounds, enhancing the passionate undertones of the album.

Pulsing electro-pop elements mesh with aggressive rock sounds to create a jarring, brash album that’s fitting for a rambunctious audience. “Break the Rules” opens with distorted guitar playing, creating a scratchy tone before Charli XCX begins singing, “Electric lights/Blow my mind/You’d feel all right/Never stop it’s how we ride coming up until we die.” The guitar amplifies as low, pounding drums are introduced and throbbing techno music ensues, drops, and is replaced by altered brass instruments ringing out over rumbling bass.

Much of the album makes use of taunting lyrics layered over gritty guitar and drums or energetic trills and bings for ’80s-inspired pop sounds.

With help from Weezer, John Hill, and Stargate, a cohesive sense of disarray spans all 13-tracks and makes SUCKER’s chaotic sound work.

Though the album had an earlier intended release date, Charli XCX took to twitter following the success of “Boom Clap” to explain to her fans that she wanted to give SUCKER proper attention before it was released. Some questioned the decision wondering whether it wouldn’t be best to release the album with the single’s success, but the decision might have been pretty smart. Just look at all the appearances Charli XCX has been making recently. She’s been spending the months prior to SUCKER’s release promoting the album by performing at an array of festivals and awards shows, dropped an additional four singles, and filmed their respective music videos. Pushing the release of SUCKER back might have annoyed a few fans, but Charli XCX was able to inspire prolonged anticipation.

“London Queen,” Charli XCX’s version of a “coming-to-America” track, opens with drum snares before bursting with crashing guitars and aggressive drums. Layered over chanting lyrics, “When I’m driving on the wrong side of the road/I feel like JFK you know/I never thought I’d be living in the USA/Doing things the American way,” the track explodes at a fast-pace with sporadic sounds of clapping hands and stomping feet, while maintaining a lively, pop tone.

The entirety of SUCKER is jarring and brash, but the lyrics and well-layered tone of the album make it catchy rather than distracting.

An “I don’t care” attitude blankets SUCKER. Whether the subject be break ups, experiencing America, or selfishly going about life, the album doesn’t skip over the messy or controversial bits. At one point, Charli XCX attempts an anthem encouraging youthful recklessness in “Die Alone,” a song that might blare from car windows during summer nights with lyrics, “Climb to the top/Jumping like we’re about to fly/No one’s living/’Bout to blow this ceiling/When we turn it up to 10/Wake up in the morning/Gonna do it all again.”

That adventurous outlook is mirrored in the gaudy and outrageous “Gold Coins,” where she sings about offshore bank accounts and escaping into the night in a private jet. When she sings, “Gold coins everywhere/Dollars up in the air/It’s a billionaire’s love affair/Gold coins out the window/Money pours like the rain fall/and I spend it like I don’t care,” it’s difficult not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the lyrics, yet you still might find yourself mumbling them hours later.

The irresponsible, and at-times messy, themes of SUCKER might alarm some, but Charli XCX’s third album functions as a real representation of young-adults frustrated with mediocrity and societal pressures. They drink until they black-out, they smoke to forget, and they make regrettable choices, and SUCKER embraces this irresponsibility with catchy hooks and lyrics. The album’s take on growing up is one inevitably appreciated.

Charli XCX – SUCKER tracklist:

  1. “Sucker”
  2. “Break the Rules”
  3. “London Queen”
  4. “Breaking Up”
  5. “Gold Coins”
  6. “Boom Clap”
  7. “Doing It”
  8. “Body Of My Own”
  9. “Famous”
  10. “Hanging Around”
  11. “Die Tonight”
  12. “Caught In the Middle”
  13. “Need Ur Love”
Moritat-album-art Moritat – High Plus Tight

★★★½☆

Ever heard the expression “swept under the rug”? Usually it refers to things to be forgotten—or that we want to forget. Confrontations and regrets, these are the things reserved for making neighbors with the hairballs and dust-bunnies. But Chicago-based band Moritat lifted up the rug to discover something that was never meant to be swept away: a time capsule of themselves, an early EP they thought was lost.

While moving out from an old apartment, the band found a CD long lost under the living room carpet. Written in neon marker were the words “HIGH PLUS TIGHT.” When they played the CD, they rediscovered songs that were once thought lost, then deftly transformed those early tracks into a lofty collection of edgy, avant garde indie pop in the new EP High Plus Tight.

A handful of years ago, roommates Venus Laurel, Konstantin Jace, and Corey McCaffertey formed Moritat, storing some early recordings on an ancient relic known as a “CD.” Shortly after the songs were recorded, their apartment was robbed. Everything, including their gear, laptops, instruments, and personal belongings, were cleared out by the marauders of musical exposition.

It was a sad chapter for Moritat, but the band was not deterred from its dream of creating together. Moritat moved on from the burglar episode and released its freshman effort Chill Blazin (produced by Brian Deck of Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine fame)  to critical acclaim. After the rediscovery of its early recordings in 2013, Moritat went to work refining the ideas from that once-lost CD.

Those ideas, literally pulled from under the rug, are eloquently and uniquely crafted on High Plus Tight.

The sparkling EP hosts sweeping guitars drenched in thick reverb and hauntingly pained vocals that even Justin Vernon would applaud. Sonically, it recalls something between Kylie K and Kimbra—though not as driving and rock-centric as the former, and certainly not as poppy as the latter—but Moritat manages to carefully construct a niche for its sound, what the band dubs “avant pop.”

The first single, “Visits,” is an excellent introduction to the EP and to Moritat itself. Reminiscent of a Bon Iver song with a pop beat, “Visits” finds a groove composed of synth dance beats and a mystical, thought-provoking lyrical melody. The lyrics call out, “Part of me, part of you, parts of you, out of touch out of tune, mysteriously someone said/The moon, visits the house of Jupiter.” The lyrics, like the music, find a great balance between  pop pandering and the unapproachable seriousness of indie.

Moritat mixes its own brand of creative minimalism, with just enough danceable pop, landing on a musical plane where haunting and happy co-exist.

“Glass Door” is another of the EP’s most solid tracks. Easily the edgiest of the collection, “Glass Door” features an almost uneasy and angry crunched guitar tone, adding to the intensity of a song that almost has to be about trust issues. “I’m in my mind, I’m running out of my head/I’m in my mind, I see you two making the heartache,” sings Laurel, only adding to the building tension of the song. Together, “Glass Door” and “Visits” are a good indication of what Moritat is capable of on this EP.

High Plus Tight is a solid follow-up (and simultaneous throwback) effort from Moritat, with an excellent backstory that only adds to the great mythology of this record. The EP is an enticing entry point to introduce listeners to a promising Chicago band. Some things may be best left under the rug, but High Plus Tight is not one of them.

Moritat – High Plus Tight tracklist:

  1. “Visits”
  2. “Starry B”
  3. “We’d”
  4. “Lond”
  5. “Glass Door”
  6. “The Lips, They Move”
Album-art-for-Descensus-by-Circa-Survive Circa Survive – Descensus

★★★½☆

Circa Survive has been entrancing and perplexing fans for a decade, and it does no different with it’s fifth studio album, Descensus. Aspects of former albums are interwoven into a 10-track album that experiments with its sound without ranging too far away from the familiar. Descensus teems with intricate instruments and revelatory lyrics all while tackling a much heavier tone creating an album showing Circa Survive’s growth as a band that will please long-time fans.

The Philadelphia based band, formed in 2004, creates a sound noticeably heavier than on previous albums. An array of frantic guitar and pounding drums thunder out over vocalist, Anthony Green’s, complex lyrics in album opener “Schema.” Easily the heaviest song on the album in terms of sound, “Schema” makes use of sporadic guitar playing, similar to that of Pink Floyd, as Green wails, “Pull out your teeth / There’s nothing left / At all / Immediately I feel relief from dragging this vessel around / Exit the stage you keep sleeping in a cold white room.”

As “Schema” rumbles, “Child of the Desert” creates an equally heavy song but by use of different instrumentation techniques. The album opener is immense via percussion’s role in the song, while “Child of the Desert” uses the guitar’s intricacy to create a very rushed and angsty tone.  Descensus takes a turn to a sound more fluid, but still invoking a heavy sense following the minute solely instrumental track, “Who Will Lie With Me Now.” The drums flow fluidly as they softly bounce over the crooning guitar, Green heard “oohing” in the background creating a melancholy, withdrawn quality to song that breaks the previously heavy tone of the album.

Though Descensus has elements fans aren’t accustom to hearing from Circus Survive, the band doesn’t stray far from rhythms and chords fans won’t have trouble identifying from previous albums.

The ambiguous, yet insightful, lyrics signature to the past four albums are also included in Descensus, an element both long-time and new fans will appreciate.

Green hauntingly wails during the 6-minute ballad, “Nesting Dolls,” a song that makes minimal use of percussions, relying on subdued guitar playing and Green’s vocals to get the message of the song across. The shift in sound, following shortly after “Who Will Lie With Me Now,” is one of a broken and exposed man as Green sings, “You shouldn’t stay / We’ll never change / And I can’t recognize you at all / Nothing’s the same / It’s all been arranged in a way / Keeping me out / I don’t want to feel like this ever ever ever ever again.”

That brokenness reflects the self-proclaimed dark time in Green’s life that can be attributed to the heavier tone of Descensus. A tone that’s easy to located on the album, but one that gives Circa Survive a variety in sound it hasn’t attempted before. Being around for as long as Circa Survive has could result in complacency and the band’s decision to stick with sounds that are sure to please listeners, but Descensus’ unexpected sound paired with moving lyrics echoing Green’s struggles and frustration create a captivating fifth studio album.

Circa Survive – Descensus tracklist:

  1. “Schema”
  2. “Child of the Desert”
  3. “Always Begin”
  4. “Who Will Lie With Me Now”
  5. “Only the Sun”
  6. “Nesting Dolls”
  7. “Quiet Down”
  8. “Phantom”
  9. “Sovereign Circle”
  10. “Descensus”
Album-art-for-Believer-by-Megafortress Megafortress – Believer

★★★★☆

Art that focuses on identity doesn’t usually lend itself to ambiguity, especially not when spirituality is directly explored. Ironically, the representation of spirituality—an extremely personal and quiet growth—usually relies on grand pronouncements and bold gestures, rather than prolonged intimacy or uncertainty. Megafortress’ Believer doesn’t feel the need to give answers to its insinuated questions, which are never actually directly posed. Rather, Believer feels like one winding meditation on the artist’s own insecurities about mortality, the state of his soul, and the unknown—or specifically, settling with what can only be unknown.

That confidence in exploring such daunting questions and the schizophrenia of sounds on display is sometimes the album’s greatest strength, even as it threatens to spiral into self-indulgence. The debut album of New York-based sound sculptor, Bill Gillam, who goes by the moniker, Megafortress, is an album that traffics in musical contradictions and unlikely sonic choices that lead to a more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding work.

There isn’t one musical through line in the album, but, paradoxically, it’s nearly always cohesive.

The sound veers from cool-to-the-touch electronica, to abstract orchestral suites, to operatic dirges that are best comparable to Talk Talk and Robert Wyatt’s unimpeachable stretch of ’70s albums.

“Beginner” announces the album with regal and contemplative bassoons, pointing to Sufjan Stevens’ dalliance with classical music, The BQE. Except that’s immediately thrown for a loop as the following “Live In Grace” languishes in monochromatic midi tones and Gillam’s dulcet vocals, which are weirdly reminiscent of Pedro the Lion here.

Elsewhere, the painfully beautiful “Believer” aims for transcendence with its trembling horns, “Bogota” flirts with avant-jazz noodling, and “Murderer” thaws alongside its narrator’s cosmic/personal musings.

If there’s one cohesive sonic theme here, it’s the presence of woodwinds, which snap the permeable atmosphere back into a place of lucidity as the album can become oppressively intimate and lonely. The variety of brass instruments and mechanical synths add to this palpable paranoia, but intriguingly, Gillam’s voice is his most expressive tool in defining the mood.

Echoing the personal uneasiness and uncertainty about his place in the world, Gillam gives the narrator of “Fear” an alternating reediness and an overwhelming swell.

Against the swirling woodwinds and upright bass, Gillam spaces out each word with weight to be purposefully ambiguous. “Believer” is more conventionally articulate as Gillam grapples with death in a smooth gliding voice singing, “I won’t be afraid, I will be okay with all these white faces.”

But with all of this variety, the pacing does sometimes seem too anxious, like Gillam was too restless to settle on one or even a dozen tones. “Leroy In Tongues,” for instance, is a nightmarish whirl of pitch-shifting vocals and haunting drones that can either be seen as a thematic rock bottom in context of the rest of the album, or a sluggish mood-ruining grind.

“Pilot,” as well, awkwardly shifts from naturalistic field recordings of pelicans to canned drums and sludgy Nine Inch Nails-styled atmospherics. Even then though, these transitions heighten the air of unpredictability that surrounds the album even if they test patience in a complete listen of the album.

These experiments would be outright failures in the hands of less accomplished artists, though. Where a more impulsive or less fastidious artist may have edged these songs into self-parody, Megafortress brings such patient gravitas and honesty to this material that it never sounds like reaching or strained performance.

Rather, it’s a challenging journey through the highs and lows of personal understanding. The album isn’t afraid to end in a place that feels unresolved, and is all the better for it. By the end, the narrator of the album is at peace even if it’s coming from a place of sheer submission to the frustration of the natural order of the universe. All Gillam can do is catatonically repeat, “She had no worry, and that amazed me.”

Megafortress has made one of the most conceptually and musically ambitious albums of the year. By refusing to stoop to easy answers or emotional didactics, Megafortress may polarize some listeners, but he’s created an album that never truly shows its core, but always reveals new mysteries.

Megafortress - Believer tracklist:

  1. “Beginning”
  2. “Live In Grace”
  3. “Fear”
  4. “Never Becomer”
  5. “Believer”
  6. “Murderer”
  7. “Bogota”
  8. “Leroy In Tongues”
  9. “Pilot”
  10. “Long Hair”