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”
Album-art-for-Chinese-Fountain-by-The-Growlers The Growlers – Chinese Fountain

★★★½☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Growlers - Chinese Fountain tracklist:

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

★★★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Black Bird – A New World Wonder tracklist:

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

★★★★☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpol – El Pintor tracklist:

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

★★★☆☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Vandervelde – Shadow Slides tracklist:

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

★★☆☆☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other musical and lyrical detours fare from middling to excruciating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kooks – Listen tracklist:

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

★★★★☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ty Segall – Manipulator tracklist:

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