Album-art-for-Stay-Gold-by-First-Aid-Kit First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

★★★★☆

Folk duo First Aid Kit holds nothing back in showing off its new, glossy production style on its third album, Stay Gold.

The duo, consisting of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, brings its autobiographical storytelling and thought-provoking bluntness back to the table, but this time with pop sensibilities, razor-sharp production value, and a slew of new instruments. Also returning  are the sisters’ tight vocal harmonies, now disappointingly muffled by the weight of the extra instrumentation.

As the opening track and lead single, “My Silver Lining” could serve as a mission statement for Stay Gold. A song of encouragement, “My Silver Lining” advises listeners to “try to keep on keepin’ on” when the world is at its worst. Lead singer Klara Söderberg transforms this simple concept into a relatable folk-pop single with admissions of her own self-doubt, telling listeners, “I’ve woken up in a hotel room/My worries as big as the moon.” The song contains the earnest lyrics of First Aid Kit’s previous material, gracefully infused with a string arrangement.

While previous efforts were acoustic guitar-centric, Stay Gold expands on that sound, introducing strings (“My Silver Lining”), piano (“A Long Time Ago”), and flute (“The Bell”). While these instruments give character to their respective songs, they don’t make any notable musical statements. They’re used as a means to add texture, and they meet that end, but the melodies they play are unimaginative, making much of Stay Gold feel tedious.

Though increased production value often signals the decline of a band’s initial, character-defining quality, there is no such absence on Stay Gold.

The blistering honesty that listeners have come to expect from First Aid Kit is alive and well in songs like “Heaven Knows,” in which Söderberg scolds a friend who has allowed his religion to overshadow his personality. The song’s confident, jumpy vocal lines mock the salvation for which Söderberg’s friend relentlessly seeks and reflect her dismissive attitude toward religion.

Stay Gold‘s title track elevates the basic idea of “nothing good can last” to an ominous folk anthem. In its chorus, “Stay Gold” questions whether pure intentions are enough to withstand life’s trials, asking, “What if to love and be loved’s not enough?/What if I fall and can’t bear to get up?/Oh I wish for once, I could stay gold.”

First Aid Kit’s thoughtful twists on common themes are a continuous upside to Stay Gold. “Cedar Lane” laments lost futures, but has a persistent hope that “something good will come out of this.” In “Shattered & Hollow” and “Fleeting One,” Söderberg ruminates on how touring has affected her relationships. The pictures painted aren’t cheery, but both endorse the idea that a life in flux is better than stagnant safety.

With its unforgiving frankness and new, unique instrumentation, Stay Gold presents fresh takes on classic folk themes.

While the new instruments add little more than texture, their predictability is a small flaw in comparison to the duo’s lyrical achievements. With its third LP, First Aid Kit proves that a step towards pop is not always a step away from sincerity, and that some things really can stay gold.

First Aid Kit – Stay Gold track list:

  1. “My Silver Lining”
  2. “Master Pretender”
  3. “Stay Gold”
  4. “Cedar Lane”
  5. “Shattered & Hollow”
  6. “The Bell”
  7. “Waitress Song”
  8. “Fleeting One”
  9. “Heaven Knows”
  10. “A Long Time Ago”
Album-art-for-Upside-Down-Mountain-by-Conor-Oberst Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

★★★★☆

If Bright Eyes had never existed (or, at least, never released I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning), would Conor Oberst have a following? It’s questionable.

Oberst is 34 years old, and has finally stopped pseudo-nihilistically singing about the depressing difficulties he’s faced throughout all the masks he’s worn, all the way from angst-ridden teenager to a feeble attempt as a prophet.

Flickers of emotional stability flash through on Upside Down Mountain, such as in “Hundreds of Ways,” where he sings, “There are hundreds of ways/To get through the day.” It’s a good start, right? Oberst has signed to Nonesuch Records to release the solo album, which features Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris.

Vocally, Oberst has never been stronger. His trembles are no longer timid, but refurbished and self-assured—without the pretension found on The People’s Key (2011).

Either he’s outgrown his own obstinacy and inability to see past his own nose, or he realized that’s not how records sell.

Upside Down Mountain is Oberst’s first solo release in five years—much more subdued and refined than his self-titled Conor Oberst (2008). Upside Down Mountain is an appropriate second step following the self-titled LP, if not a few leaps. He’s more polished through his lyrics and melody.

The opening song, “Time Forgot,” seems to set the tone for the album, illuminating the growing pains Oberst went through during the transition from angst-ridden and drug-addicted “rock” artist to married, closer-to-40-than-20-year-old.

And even though it’s nearly impossible to tell what the hell Oberst is singing about (for the most part), in the second track, “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” you can’t help but sway and sing along with the back-up vocals by Johnathon Wilson—who’s also responsible for playing the guitars, bass, drums, percussion, and keyboards—basically everything other than what Oberst does: sing cryptically beautiful lyrics that make the heart a little heavier with each listen.

The third track, and perhaps the most pertinent, is the solidifying piece of evidence that Oberst has, in fact, grown up. He croons, “Don’t look so forlorn, Don’t you look so scared/Don’t get so upset/This world was never fair.”

It’s hard to imagine that this is the same man who once sang about the unjust realities of the world in “A Perfect Sonnet.”

Even more spectacularly, Oberst tremors, “Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be/I hope I am forgotten when I die.” He’s no longer singing about the desire to be remembered as something—anything—but accepting his own humanity and mortality.

Of course, with lines such as, “Freedom is the opposite of love/You’ll never keep it through the paranoia,” on “Lonely At the Top,” the young, wide-eyed Oberst shines through, just long enough to remember where he’s been and how far he’s come.

Upside Down Mountain is far better than anticipated. But, painfully true, Oberst’s hamartia is his own past; it’s impossible to associate the legendary Conor Oberst with anything other than Bright Eyes.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain tracklist:

  1. “Time Forgot”
  2. “Zigzagging Toward the Light”
  3. “Hundreds of Ways”
  4. “Artifact #1″
  5. “Lonely at the Top”
  6. “Enola Gay”
  7. “Double Life”
  8. “Kick”
  9. “Night at Lake Unknown”
  10. “You Are Your Mother’s Child”
  11. “Governor’s Ball”
  12. “Desert Island Questionnaire”
  13. “Common Knowledge”
Album-Art-for-Flies-In-All-Directions-by-Weatherbox Weatherbox – Flies In All Directions

★★★☆☆

“You heard I was a nice boy/Well, you didn’t’ hear it from me/And I want to keep a hoodie head/Nice to meet you/Now go away/I want to be alone/It’s such a nice day,” singer/songwriter Brian Warren warns in “Pagan Baby,” the opening track of his newest LP, Flies In All Directions.

Under the emo-punk rock moniker Weatherbox, Warren is gritty, grimy, and outspoken. Flies In All Directions is a fascinating record thanks to Warren’s crude and biting lyrics, but musically, the record is limited.

Armed with 13 melodic and gloomy tracks, Warren takes his listeners on an emotional roller coaster ride, giving them a taste of his highs and lows in “Pagan Baby,” presenting his political viewpoints in “The Fresh Prints of Bill Ayers,” and refusing to go mainstream in “Radio Hive.”

Most of the songs are driven by the stripped down, punk-rock basics—guitar, drums, and bass—which Warren spices up with ever-shifting time signatures. But he does a better job of crafting his lyrics than writing songs, which recycle the same handful of tricks.

Warren brilliantly uses feel-good melodies to mask his dark, mocking lyrics.

In “Radio Hive,” he sings with defiance, “I want to write the dying, something grim/Such a disgustingly evil song (it makes the devil sing along)/Everyone says I’ve got to be something good, something better/Everyone says my head is stuck in the mud/But I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” Despite the outspoken lyrics, listeners could easily find themselves moshing along to the punchy, pop-punk melody.

Warren takes his cynical, almost sadistic tone even further in the climatic track, “Love Me a Good Microcosm.”

The acoustic piece begins with Warren wondering about the afterlife. “Oh, wonder it would be like/to believe in the afterlife/I’d probably smile every time I sang/I’d probably gun around town shouting some obscure, ancient man’s name/Oh, I don’t believe in the afterlife/I believe there is a thing called a gun, and there are things called knives/I believe they can destroy everything that you are inside.”

That track suddenly mutates into a hideous, slimy song with a friendly guitar chord slithering harmlessly while Warren’s calm, cold-hearted lyrics bite to the core.

Warren is reminding people, in his seemingly gentle way, to pull their heads out of the clouds. Let’s get back to reality and believe that assault weapons can kill us. Warren is like a ninja; he quietly and bluntly tells his listeners to shove this whole “afterlife” shit up their asses. And that’s what makes this song so brutal and worthwhile to hear.

“Love Me a Good Microcosm” sums up everything that Flies In All Directions is about. Warren channels his intense emotions, angst, and personal beliefs into cold, nonchalant lyrics sung sarcastically and carefree. However, his songwriting skills are weak. After a while, you want to throw your headphones down. The same hooks and melodies are used over and over, making it hard to distinguish any of the tunes.

Despite those glaring flaws, Warren is an exceptional and talented lyricist. Flies In All Directions is a rare album these days; Warren’s words erupt from the speakers, spewing grisly, yet charming, critiques at society.

Weatherbox - Flies In All Directions tracklist:

  1. “Pagan Baby”
  2. “Bring Us the Head of Weatherbox”
  3. “The Fresh Prints of Bill Ayers”
  4. “Bathin’ In The Fuss”
  5. “Radio Hive”
  6. “The Devil and Whom?”
  7. “Dark All Night for Us”
  8. “Drag Out”
  9. “The Drones”
  10. “Ghost Malls”
  11. “Kick-Flips”
  12. “The Last White Lighter”
  13. “Love Me a Good Microcosm”
Album-art-for-Funeral-Sky-by-Reuben-and-the-Dark Reuben And The Dark – Funeral Sky

★★★★★

Hold off on puns about sandwiches in the shadows when mentioning Reuben and the Dark’s masterful debut album, Funeral Sky. The folk record is a striking collection of anthems and dirges fueled by the indelible chemistry of frontman Reuben Bullock and his brother and percussionist, Distance Bullock.

The Calgary four-and-sometimes-five piece—multi-instrumentalists Shea Alain and Scott Munro in addition to the Bullock brothers—have all of the soul of Britain’s Sam Smith and the hit-making potential of Imagine Dragons (though Reuben and the Dark is profoundly less annoying.)

Funeral Sky has some heavy hitters in its corner. The record is produced by the UK’s Chris Hayden (Florence & the Machine) and Canada’s Stephen Kozmeniuk (Madonna, Nicki Minaj) and mixed by Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele). The layered, intricate harmonies and repetitive, infectious lyrics prove that this group is not messing around with its debut.

Rueben’s throaty, masculine vocals give the indie record sex appeal and add earnestness and honesty to the simple, but snappy lyrics. Lines like, “It’s quite a sight for my sore eyes”; “Said I don’t wanna die in the middle of a city/So they wrote it on my headstone”; and “How my lungs became eels became eyes” from the relentless single “Rolling Stone” demonstrate RATD’s lyrical approach—a blend of poetry and turns of phrase that creates a feeling more than a traceable story.

“Rolling Stone” has the same soaring, relentless acoustics of early Mumford and Sons, before they became frat favorites.

Each track is in perpetual motion (notably the charging “Can’t See the Light”), even the heart breakers like “Standing Still” and “Shoulderblade.” In the latter, exposed acoustic instrumentation is peppered with horns. Reuben croons, “I’m trying not to try, but this fire is here before you/…/but you cut like a cold shoulderblade/and hide your love inside my head/and tie my hands behind my back.” In this track and throughout the record, Reuben is nothing without “the Dark.” The group’s impeccable vocal harmonies yank on the heartstrings as they sing, “Call me out.”

In fact, the whole album is a potential exercise in holding back tears.

RATD’s unique blend of folk, soul, blues, and bluegrass makes for an emotive and grounded sound. The banjo-tinged “A Memory’s Lament” is about being with a person who can’t handle heavy burdens, a more obvious story line than what is commonplace on Funeral Sky.

It opens with, “I wrote a song for the ones I remember/A memory’s lament all the lovers I have met/I wrote a song for the ones that I forget/And take these dreams from me, I don’t need an easy way now.” Reuben is joined for a resounding chorus of, “Well, I buried my brother/I buried my lover/I buried my head in hands.”

“A Memory’s Lament” is a powerful, unique track that shifts gears without being jarring, incorporating a heavy, slow drum line and entrancing sustained notes from a horn. It’s these simple additions that make already great songs unforgettable.

Funeral Sky feels timeless while still sounding new. Reuben and the Dark has showed its hand and revealed that it has an uncommon mix of raw power, talent, and chemistry. Whatever “it” is, these guys have it.

Reuben And The Dark- Funeral Sky tracklist:

  1. “Bow and Arrow”
  2. “Devil’s Time”
  3. ”Rolling Stone”
  4. “Shoulderblade”
  5. “Standing Still”
  6. “Marionette”
  7. “A Memory’s Lament”
  8. “The River”
  9. “Can’t See The Light”
  10. “Funeral Sky”
  11. “Black Water”
Album-art-for-Memory-Palace-by-Stone-Cold-Fox Stone Cold Fox – Memory Palace

★★★★½

On its debut LP Memory Palace, indie rock band Stone Cold Fox creates a sound that is both cohesive and varied. Memory Palace has a largely upbeat feel, broken up by a handful of retrospective moments.

Infusing poppy rock songs with introspective storytelling, the band sounds like a Bob Dylan-fronted version of the Killers. It injects indie rock with a heartfelt folkiness, creating an atmosphere that is both upbeat and organic.

Singer/songwriter Kevin Olken Henthorn lends a spacey, futuristic feel to the band’s sound with his thin, airy voice. Those vocals, however, are not always high enough in the album’s mix to be audible over the lively guitars and keyboards. Memory Palace features additional vocals by Madeline Mondrala, who sings on a handful of tracks, taking over lead vocals only on the punky dance tune “January.” The contrast of male and female voice expands their palate of textures and plays a major role in Stone Cold Fox.

The band creates a seemingly endless array of moods with only basic rock instrumentation.

Memory Palace begins with “Sold,” a song about identity crisis with an uplifting twist: it’s an ode to self acceptance. Henthorn asks listeners to “Take a look in the mirror/and this is who you are,” but is also encouraging with lyrics like, “Take a drag to make it clear/Yeah, you made it here this far.” Mondrala offers a thoughtful coda, closing the song with the conclusive line, “And everything I’m searching for is only in my mind.”

Insightful storytelling skills set Stone Cold Fox one notch higher. While many songs only tell stories from the narrator’s perspective, the tunes dig into the motivations and ambitions of each character.

“Seventeen” tells the story of a teenage runaway desperate to escape her overwhelming boredom. Meanwhile, the narrator of “Time’s Up” analyzes his mental state by questioning a summer lover. Memory Palace’s title track tells the story of a man searching for himself, clearing his mind on a beach. In the chorus of “Memory Palace,” Henthorn invites listeners to spend time analyzing themselves, suggesting that they “take the time now and find your mind.” Stone Cold Fox presents Memory Palace as a peaceful place to calmly reassess one’s goals in life.

While the storytelling is impressive, variety is arguably the band’s greatest strength.

Stone Cold Fox ruminates on optimism (“Sold”), identity (“Graduation”), and loneliness (“Spider and the Fly”). But “Adaptation,” a melancholy love song, is Memory Palace’s hidden gem, taking a critical look at the pitfalls of the modern relationship and how one can endure them. Stone Cold Fox emphasizes the desperation of the line, “All I need is a day without goodbyes” by slowing down to a dramatic half-time rhythm.

Rhythm is a driving force for many Memory Palace songs, making the band’s rhythm section a crucial part of the record. This importance is most apparent on “Reprise,” an instrumental featuring bassist Justin Bright and keyboardist Ariel Loh. Afterward, “Spider and the Fly” paints a dreary picture of a man contemplating loneliness before building to the slow, instrumental march that ends Memory Palace with a satisfying sense of closure.

While much of the musical world is governed by singles, Stone Cold Fox shows that an audience can still be grasped for a full 40 minutes. Memory Palace is an uplifting reminder of how rewarding the full album experience can be if we can simply find the time. If we do, the album may take us to a place like Memory Palace, where we can finally find our minds.

Stone Cold Fox – Memory Palace tracklist:

  1. “Sold”
  2. “Seventeen”
  3. “Time’s Up”
  4. “Darling Darling”
  5. “Graduation”
  6. “Memory Palace”
  7. “Adaptation”
  8. “January”
  9. “Reprise”
  10. “Spider and the Fly”
Album-art-for-Sick-Hyenas-by-Sick-Hyenas Sick Hyenas – Sick Hyenas

★★★☆☆

On their first American release, Hamburg, Germany-based punk band Sick Hyenas serves up 11 short and hard-hitting tunes that could collectively serve as a recap of American punk’s common themes, sounds, and attitudes.

While their songs are similar enough to create a sense of community, the band may take that concept a bit too far on its self-titled record. Sick Hyenas exhibit a deep knowledge of the ins and outs of punk, but don’t show a variety of other influences, resulting in a fun, but stagnant record.

The slightly distorted vocals that have become a standard for Chicago punk music are a defining characteristic for Sick Hyenas. The vocals are presented with frantic energy, but they also come with a lazy diction that often makes the lyrics difficult to distinguish. When they are audible, however, they showcase a sharp sense of punk lyricism, using many of punk’s staple themes, including growing up (“Oh Mother”), women as a source of self-esteem (“Hoe”), and paranoia (“Radar Eyes”).

Much of Sick Hyenas’ LP seems to be an homage to the classic ’70s punk sound, juxtaposing moderate tempo love songs with quick-paced headbangers. Perhaps the best example of this juxtaposition can be found on “Howling Rags,” which is highly reminiscent of Ramones classics such as “Rock n Roll Radio” and “Pinhead.”

The influence, unfortunately, seems to stop at recognition.

Sick Hyenas are eager to show us how well they listen to classic punk acts like the Ramones and the New York Dolls, but do little to expand on that sound.

The songs on Sick Hyenas alternate between up-tempo rockers and mid-tempo rockers, blindsiding listeners with a nonstop, homogenous blur of angst.

Hyenas also take cues from ska and surf punk bands, but that influence appears almost exclusively in the guitar parts. From the ringing chords that introduce “Oh Mother” to the feedback emanating from the apocalyptic outro of “Wicked Sin,” the guitar on Sick Hyenas is easily its most enjoyable facet. While the songwriting lacks variety, the characteristic riffs played throughout the LP keep it interesting.

The band plays impressively tightly as a unit, especially considering how many of their songs are driven by off-beat rhythms. The riffs on “Surf’N Blood” in particular are as abrasive and creative as they were surely intended to be, but the abrupt changes in rhythm make it a disorienting number.

Sick Hyenas’ debut LP is a cohesive record that shows how well-informed the band is in the ways of punk rock, but doesn’t exhibit anything unique outside of its remarkable punkiness. Though solid musicianship and a devil-may-care attitude play key roles in this album’s character, there’s not much else underneath.

Like a skeleton emerging from a banana peel, Sick Hyenas have arrived in America as a bare-bones punk outfit, hellbent on reiterating the successful themes and sounds of the past.

Sick Hyenas – Sick Hyenas tracklist:

  1. “Handle Song”
  2. “Surf’N Blood”
  3. “Hoe”
  4. “Oh Mother”
  5. “Texas Cowboy”
  6. “Wicked Sin”
  7. “Radar Eyes”
  8. “Ginsberg”
  9. “Howling Rags”
  10. “Le Sac”
  11. “Honolulu Nights”
  12. “Weather of Death”
The-Shilohs-The-Shilohs-album-cover The Shilohs – The Shilohs

★★½☆☆

If John Lennon were still alive, he would either be amused or annoyed with the Shilohs’ new, self-titled album. The Vancouver-based, four-piece wonder has concocted a 12-track tribute record to the Beatles and other ’60s pop bands, though perhaps not intentionally.

Lead singer Johnny Payne’s vocals are so good, you might think Lennon himself has risen from the grave and is singing again after 30-plus years. The Shilohs has a chill, retro, laid back tone, but it’s unimaginative, to say the least. Not only are the Shilohs copying the ’60s with little innovation, but each track is so similar that the album easily grows stale.

Most tracks contain soft-tempo, guitar-driven anthems that explore falling in love and modern relationships. The record doesn’t require listeners to use their cerebrum or delve into the lyrics, which only go knee-deep. On “Strange Connections,” a quirky, love/hate anthem with slow, crunching guitars, soft drums, and slinky bass lines, Payne croons, “I don’t want to play the game anymore/I don’t want to play these games in love anymore/The dogs will howl and waves will roll over on me/Call me or don’t call me.”

Although The Shilohs is fun to listen to, the band is not offering anything new or original. They keep regurgitating the same notes and melodies, over and over again.

“Days of Wine” starts off with eerie feedback before descending into another catchy pop tune. This time, it sounds like the whole band is singing, “The conversation was easy/You put your head on the wall/That was the days of wine/Which had no resolve/You and I are much alike/You talk too much/You talk too much too.” But, like the other tracks on the album, it’s got a mellow, ‘60s pop vibe and Payne sounding off like John Lennon.

But even if they sound like a broken record, at least in this case the four-piece group sound like they are having a good old time recreating those nostalgic melodies that everyone likes to hear once in a while.

The Shilohs have figured out their listeners. The Beatles will never fade away in pop music; even a hundred years from now, they will always relevant. Payne recreates Lennon’s vocals and soars in a tone that’s somehow innocent and seductive at once. He sings like an angel spreading his wings and flying toward the ivory gates of heaven. Payne’s voice is so angelic and timeless that just like the Beatles, it’s never going to go out of fashion. Not only are the Shilohs going to be playing in front of hipsters, but possibly baby boomers who will manage to wiggle their hips and tear up as they hear those classic tunes from their teenage years.

So, would John Lennon be amused or annoyed by The Shilohs? It’s hard to say because the Shilohs obsession with ‘60s pop prevents them from thinking outside the box. But the genuine sincerity to play and sing like their exuberant idols is hard to ignore; they are not inventing a new dish, but recreating a popular recipe that has been tested time and time again.

The Shilohs – The Shilohs tracklist:

  1. “Student of Nature”
  2. “Ordinary People”
  3. “Champagne Days”
  4. “Sister Of Blue”
  5. “Strange Connections”
  6. “Folks On Trains”
  7. “Palm Readers”
  8. “Porch Light”
  9. “Bless Those Boys”
  10. “Down At The Bottom Of Bottomland”
  11. “Queen Light Queen Dark”
  12. “Days Of Wine”
Album-art-for-Easy-Victim-Charitable-Deceptions-by-W-C-Lindsay W.C. Lindsay – Easy Victim, Charitable Deceptions

★★★★☆

Despite being raised in a punk-driven community, William Charles Lindsay grabbed on to electronic music at a young age and has stuck with it ever since. By merging his initial love with influences from his upbringing in Philadelphia, W.C. Lindsay has raised the bar with his debut full-length Easy Victim, Charitable Deceptions.

The album, released via the charity label Big Footprint Records, is brimming with clever tricks. It’s astonishing how many radically different genres are explored from track to track. Whether it’s a brisk rap over catchy beats or an emotional holler paired with guitars and drums, Lindsay covers an overwhelming amount of ground on this fantastic LP.

The album starts where Lindsay’s musical interest did—with a fun, electronic song. “Into the Night” is a standard pop song on a lot of levels, but Linday’s unique vocals set it apart. His delivery is passionate and bold, creating an attractive contrast with the shimmering synth. It’s even better at the end, when he takes on his rap persona and progressively builds up to one of his signature yells.

Despite what listeners might think based on this song and the subsequent, beat-heavy “Kids These Days,” Lindsay is far from caught in the realm of electronic music. Following the first two songs, “Slowly, So Sweet” is a folky ballad that focuses more on Lindsay’s shaky voice and group harmonies. It sounds like a pop spin on The Lone Bellow, even coming close to matching the emotion behind Zach Williams’ singing.

He goes a step further on songs like “Finally Learning the Language” and “Grow,” two full-on rock songs with dense drums and crunchy bass, courtesy of Richard Straub and George Legatos, respectively.

The band is capable of seamlessly crossing over to any genre it wants.

But Easy Victim, Charitable Deceptions is more than just a clusterfuck of styles. No matter what genre Lindsay is occupying, he proves time and time again that lyrics are important to any classification of music. “Tree” is an exceptionally heartbreaking song about the disappointing reality of life. Lindsay sings, “This is the spot where a waspy old wife will grow old and grow tired of routine/But she’ll bury it deep down beneath a cookie-cutter smile because that’s the way she wants to be perceived.”

By placing focus on every aspect of the music and showing off his ability to change styles in an instant, Lindsay proves his mastery of songwriting far outreaches his years in the industry.

He brings it all together at the end of the album in “Hum & Roar,” the epic maelstrom of noise that leads up to the closing track. The song has a folky feel with an acoustic guitar, but the drums and bass of a rock song. Lindsay’s lyrics have a hip hop flow at times, with a focus on the story of his childhood lover, emphasizing how hearts change and love fades.

Easy Victim, Charitable Deceptions ends on an electronic reprise of “Hum & Roar” that rides on the energy of the previous song. “Ungrow” is mainly instrumental, closing the accomplished album with a faint buzz and a feeling that all of the hardships explored in the songs are now at ease.

W.C. Lindsay has crafted an unclassifiable album that spans a multitude of genres, and he rocks the diverse styles better than many musicians who focus on them individually. His debut is a fun, yet emotional listen, but above all else, it’s a true songwriting masterpiece.

W.C. Lindsay – Easy Victim, Charitable Deceptions tracklist:

  1. “Into The Night”
  2. “Kids These Days”
  3. “Slowly, So Sweet”
  4. “Kelsey”
  5. “Oregon”
  6. “Grow”
  7. “Hard Youth, Hardly You”
  8. “Little Ghost”
  9. “Finally Learning the Language”
  10. “Tree”
  11. “Hum & Roar”
  12. “Ungrow”
Album-Art-for-Sonder-by-Belly-Up Belly Up – Sonder

★★★★½

Belly Up, aka Adam Kowalczyk, churns out an incredible, mostly guitar-driven techno fest with his debut album, Sonder. The record is a work of art with a mishmash of electrifying drum and bass beats, energetic guitar rhythms, and a hint of acid jazz.

But that’s the just the beginning; Sonder is a beautiful collage of rich electronic instrumentals that hearken back to the days when a robust fusion of jazz, electronica, and rock music was at its peak.

It starts off with a computer-generated voice introducing the album: “Hello, my name is Kiss/Complete auditory integration system/I will be walking you through Sonder/I hope you enjoy your time here.” Belly Up uses the A.I. to share a more intimate and musically spiritual moment with its listeners. Kiss reappears randomly in a couple of songs, like “Rug Beats,” saying, “Pause/Listen to the sound of my voice/And follow my instructions/Just breathe, inhale…exhale.” Its instructions are set against a soft piano interlude, evoking a chill, laid-back vibe.

“Alley Almonds” is a classic electronic rock track with a spunky drum and bass line gelling well with the crunchy guitar riffs. The next track, “Arbitrary Art Deco Addition,” is one notch higher, with well-crafted, improvisational guitar melodies; fast, old-school drum and bass beats; and a lush soundscape that will remind avid jazz-rock buffs of Richie Kotzen’s famous album, The Inner Galactic Fusion Experience.

“Arbitrary Art Deco Addition” is a 3-minute piece that focuses on letting the instruments coexist gloriously. And if that song shows its elegance, “Sky Bagel” displays Belly Up’s ambition of concocting a colorful, yet heady cocktail of jazzy guitar chords, a double layer of vibrant keyboard notes, and noisy break beats chugging along.

Both “Alley Almonds” and “Arbitrary Art Deco Addition” will put fans of unbelievable bass maestro Adam Nitti and legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny in a blissful state of mind.

The slick songwriting and delightful melodies ease the burden of day-to-day life. There’s no instrument that overwhelms the others, no unnecessary lyrics, and none of the cheesy, Euro-techno auto tune that plagues too much of modern music.

“Sky Bagel” is a schizophrenic anthem with hard-hitting beats in the background juxtaposing the soulful guitar rhythms. Think of a DJ spinning those beats while Metheny rocks out with his guitar. Other tracks are influenced by nu jazz, like “Orange Peel Puddle,” whose chill wave soundscape complements Belly Up’s signature guzzling break beats.

Despite Sonder artfully touching on the jazz rock and electronic scene, it’s not a flawless piece of work. The break beats programmed into most of the songs become a little stale by the end of the album. Belly Up wisely restrains Kiss and doesn’t allow the robotic voice to become a nuisance. However, “Caution” is the most useless track on the album. Kiss spits out random binary code, which becomes quite irritating. The song doesn’t make sense and the monotone will definitely give some listeners a headache.

Still, Sonder should be applauded for providing an insanely rich musical mosaic of electronica, rock and roll, and jazz that has beaten a hasty retreat in recent years. Hopefully, Belly Up will inspire the next generation of musicians to pursue a fresh wave of fusion.

Belly Up – Sonder tracklist:

  1. “Welcome”
  2. “On Command”
  3. “Everywhere Trees”
  4. “Alley Almonds”
  5. “Arbitrary Art Deco Addition”
  6. “808′s and Hipshakes”
  7. “Different Lefts”
  8. “Orange Peel Puddle”
  9. “Sonder”
  10. “Leg Triangle”
  11. “Sky Bagel”
  12. “Gol’feesh”
  13. “No Rose”
  14. “Rug Beats”
  15. “Caution”
  16. “Cognative Dissonance”
Album-art-for-Rented-World-by-the-Menzingers The Menzingers – Rented World

★★★★☆

The opening track, “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore,” says it all. The Menzingers are another year older and another year wiser with their fourth album, Rented World. The record is a solid follow-up to the much-lauded On the Impossible Past. It’s crisp, thrashing, and a little melodramatic, but hey, quarter-life crises are tough.

While staying true to their “bands that say whoa” reputation, vocalist and guitarist Greg Barnett, vocalist and guitarist Tom May, bassist Eric Keen, and drummer Joe Godino admit they’ve done wrong on the aforementioned opener.

The Menzingers lament, “Whoa baby, baby, I’ll be good to you/I don’t wanna be an asshole anymore/…/I won’t lie no more about where I’ve been/And I won’t pry no more over the people that you’re hanging with/…/I don’t wanna be an asshole anymore.” Their confession starts Rented World off with a bang.

The foursome from Scranton is remarkably vulnerable throughout the record.

They throw out lines like, “I want to chew up my dinner and spit it in your face” (“In Remission”) and “I am only bad news, news for you” (“Rodent”) in such quantities that they almost seem cavalier as opposed to Barnett and May dry-heaving emotional bile.

“When You Died” offers up sparse acoustic instrumentals and profoundly sad, thoughtful lyrics: “Where do people go when they die?/How do you keep them alive?/How do you make sure that something like this won’t ever happen again?/Not to any other friends.” The blunt songwriting throughout the record gets to the point. The Rust Belt punks have cut the gain and turned up the feeling.

Rented World is likely The Menzingers’s most musically unshakeable record to date. Heavy breakdowns in tracks like “Sentimental Physics” are reminiscent of the heavier jams on Weezer’s self-titled record, like “The Blue Album.” A mesmerizing three-note guitar riff in “Where Your Heartache Exists” doesn’t need to beg for attention because it grabs it immediately. The track exemplifies the record’s cleaner sound in comparison to the Menzingers’ previous work, as well as the foursome’s self-aware and often self-deprecating edge.

A few years older and freshly ironed, the boys from Scranton seem to have been through a lot. Rented World is what the Menzingers sound like with ties on.

The Menzingers – Rented World tracklist:

  1. “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore”
  2. “Bad Things”
  3. ”Rodent”
  4. “Where You Heartache Exists”
  5. “My Friend Kyle”
  6. “Transient Love”
  7. “The Talk”
  8. “Nothing Feels Good Anymore”
  9. “Hearts Unknown”
  10. “In Remission”
  11. “Sentimental Physics”
  12. “When You Died”
Album-art-for-Pop-Psychology-by-Neon-Trees Neon Trees – Pop Psychology

★★☆☆☆

It’s no secret that Neon Trees are high among the rulers of modern pop rock. Between “Animal” (2010) and “Everybody Talks” (2012), the Utah quartet has been heavily played by radio stations and sought after for commercials since its breakthrough opening tour with The Killers in 2008.

Though the band rapidly gained attention following its official debut Habits, and still continues to bring in perpetually larger crowds, it’s been on a disappointing musical decline since its initially unique take on pop rock.

Habits was fun and full of experimental guitar phrases, delivering a catchy set of enthralling songs that was game-changing for modern pop rock. Sadly, 2012′s Picture Show didn’t follow suit, losing the novel songwriting found on its past work and edging more toward unadorned melodies and simpler riffs.

It’s clear, after the release of their third LP, Pop Psychology, that the visionary insight Neon Trees had starting out is now entirely gone.

The band that was once praised for bringing a new spark to a genre that’s hard to break ground in has fully devolved to a sad shell of its former self, focusing entirely on puking out Top 40 hits.

The entire album is littered with obnoxious hand claps and repetitive vocal melodies, obviously cashing in on marketable kitsch and not what made them likable to begin with.

The ’80s-inspired dance rhythms and riffs worked on Picture Show, so naturally they were emphasized tenfold on Pop Psychology. “Text Me In The Morning” starts with overused claps and a minimalistic guitar riff over an equally tired drum line. The chorus is even worse, not even attempting to hide that it plays off of “Everybody Talks.” The shallow lyrics take the mediocre song down to a whole new level, proving Neon Trees has completely lost its roots.

The shift from engaging, prominent guitar parts to boring keyboard and bass sections is a major mistake, and one that absolutely kills the album.

In the band’s earlier days, guitarist Chris Allen played a much larger role. His riffs controlled most of the songs, and rather than being used for subtle background noise and a few chords in the choruses, his playing sat alongside singer Tyler Glenn.

“Living In Another World,” though it still falls far behind Habits, is one of the better songs thanks to Allen’s larger role. Ironically, Glenn sings here, “Four chords and a beat keep me alive”—that’s obviously the case on most of the album, but “Living In Another World” is almost the only song that goes beyond four chords and a beat. Allen also has a fantastic guitar solo in “First Things First,” which is the only good part of that song, proving that leaving more room for Allen’s guitar to shine would have vastly improved the album.

That’s the feel for the majority of Pop Psychology: It could have been done better.

Neon Trees’ track record shows skill, but it feels like the group is holding back in an attempt to be more appealing to the masses. “Unavoidable” brings in drummer Elaine Bradley on backup vocals for her second duet to date, which is an interesting change of pace, since she and Glenn have compatible voices, but the song flops because of its unimaginable musicianship and repetitive feel. Even “Sleeping With A Friend,” the album’s first single, is dull and colorless, losing itself in a techno haze when it could have sounded better as a rock song.

The only genuinely good song is “Voices In The Hall,” which is the only one that ties in to the album title inspired by Glenn’s therapy sessions following the 2012 tour for Picture Show. The lyrics are mournful and Glenn sounds passionate as he sings about a lost lover who he claims is still not gone. The synth is used well for once, creating a distant, nostalgic feeling. It’s almost solely Glenn and a moody keyboard, making for an emotional ride when he claims, “Every night when I’m alone, I can hear your voices in the halls.”

Pop Psychology is decently catchy, but is sacrifices vital elements that made Neon Trees’ past work listenable in exchange for more repetitive, simple songs that might get more radio play. Old fans will be stuck saying the painfully truthful line from “I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends)”: “They never like the music, they bitch about how cool it used to be.”

How cool it used to be, indeed. It’s been a fun ride, but this looks like the death of one of pop rock’s most promising bands.

Neon Trees – Pop Psychology tracklist:

  1. “Love in the 21st Century”
  2. “Text Me in the Morning”
  3. “Sleeping with a Friend”
  4. “Teenager In Love”
  5. “I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends)”
  6. “Unavoidable”
  7. “Voices in the Hall”
  8. “Foolish Behavior”
  9. “Living In Another World”
  10. “First Things First”
Album-art-for-ATLAS-by-Owls-of-the-Swamp Owls of the Swamp – ATLAS

★★★☆☆

Pete Uhlenbruch, the man behind the moniker Owls of the Swamp, populates ATLAS with charming poetics. Though the record offers an enjoyable ticket down a floating, earthy rabbit hole, Owls of the Swamp’s latest release is sometimes bogged down by its own passivity and veers into lackluster lands.

However, much of ATLAS is the stuff of fantastic dreams. Uhlenbruch’s imagery evokes feelings of impermanence and the timeless effort to find, maintain and harbor love. His guitar playing is gentle and places a strong emphasis on subtle shifts in tone in a mode similar to Nick Drake or Iron & Wine.

Those understated and sometimes unexpected key changes give an impression of utmost melancholy. On “Shelter,” Uhlenbruch sings in an almost-whisper and waxes poetic about the process of constructing a protective place with his nameless other. “Last night I dreamed a dream/of smoke in the distance and ash on the wind,” he sings to close the track, projecting his shaky beliefs about resisting the elements for the long term.

On “Going Home,” Ulhenbruch muses about his lost map and lost compass, overwhelmed by how far he feels from “home,” his elusive final destination. He tries to operate by the light of the moon when all else fails. The sorrowful plucking that draws the curtain on “Going Home” contains a meager tinge of silver lining.

The overarching theme of journeying that is omnipresent on ATLAS is one that the writer seems to be both romanticized and cursed by. Ulhenbruch’s album is defined by this dichotomy. On “Water Song,” he admits, “I’m both part of the ocean and part of the sky/…/I’m part of the day and I’m part of the night/…/I bring both pleasure and pain.”

Owls of the Swamp does almost too good of a job exploring whether or not the journey is the destination, whether the magic that the unattainable holds is meant to be understood.

Ulhenbruch seems poised between the fear of knowing the truth and a wicked passion to never stop pursuing his next station.

While much of ATLAS is made pleasant by touches like the male-female vocal dynamic and the lulling rhythmic pace, it’s difficult to say that the album is particularly exciting. Owls of the Swamp builds an elegantly simple sound, but too often, moments meld together to become indistinguishable from others. This winding at-ease-ness can lead listeners’ interest astray and into some boring territory.

The natural world that Uhlenbruch constructs with wild words and atmospheric instrumentation feels a bit like the still but charged air that accompanies a storm. It’s hard for the listener to tell whether the bad weather has been braved or is only about to begin.

Owls of the Swamp – ATLAS tracklist:

  1. “The Hypnotist”
  2. “Garden”
  3. “Closer Now”
  4. “Shapeshifter”
  5. “The Fall”
  6. “Shelter”
  7. “Restless”
  8. “Water Song”
  9. “Going Home”
  10. “Grandfather Clock”