Danny Brown - XXX Danny Brown – XXX

★★★★½

As far as rap name goes, Danny Brown might be the most innocuous of them all. Unlike Rick Ross, who borrows his name from coke dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross, the only people who share a name with the Detroit emcee are football players—American and English versions.

But when dropping the digital needle on his latest mixtape XXX, it’s obvious that Brown is anything but conventional. With a voice that lands somewhere between Aesop Rock and Jello Biafra, suffice it to say he has an unconventional style. In fact, before the he finishes his first bar on the opening title track, most listeners will likely write him off as some sort of gimmicky fringe act, not a serious MC.

Brown, regardless of any other subjective criticisms thrown his way, is undeniably weird.

It’s beneath these layers of quirks and oddities that Brown reveals his true gifts as a rapper: his eschewing of typical rap game swagger, focus on lyrics and establishing his thematic interests from track to track, and a derisive sense of humor delivered with his ferocious flow.

This last component might be the most intriguing. Tracks such as “Radio Song” are aimed squarely toward industry absurdities, and Brown isn’t above mocking those to adhere to them, chanting, “I got that income tax swag,” on the end of “Lie4,” a song about rappers who are prone to hyperbole when discussing their fiscal affairs.

Derision isn’t his only interest, however. Some of the album’s best moments come when Brown drops the attitude and delves into his own experiences. “Scrap or Die,” which flips the hook from Young Jeezy’s “Trap or Die,” details the days in which he’d strip houses of scrap metal and sell it to factories to get by. Although the subject matter may be more serious, this doesn’t stop Brown from riding a capriciously crafted beat, which has the bubbly drum patterns popular in today’s growing lo-fi hip-hop style.

Sometimes, Brown can be outright chilling in his lyrics, such as on the song “Monopoly.” It has an unruly, three-minute verse in which he growls things such as, “Nigga that’s bland, fuck you and ya mans/Smack you like a bitch nigga, that’s open hand,” and, “I done served fiends on they menstrual/Ain’t even had pads, stuff they panties with tissue!”

But just when you think he has a fondness for wickedness (like those rapscallions in Odd Future), Brown will come back with songs such as the infectious “EWNESW,” a clever and effortlessly likeable joint about regionalism in hip-hop, or “Bruise Brigade,” a shameless party anthem about swilling cheap beer, bolstered by one of the best one-liners to hit a track this year (“I’m higher than Swizz Beatz hairline”). What seems like a lack a focus is anything but; rather, Brown never wants the listener to feel comfortable. Guessing where he’ll go next is part of XXX’s appeal. There are truly few rappers as lively and engaging as Brown, if only because of his refusal to be normal.

Admittedly, it’s a shtick that might not last long. But for right now, XXX is one of the most compelling rap releases this year.

Danny Brown – XXX Tracklist:

  1. “XXX”
  2. “Die Like a Rockstar”
  3. “Pac Blood”
  4. “Radio Song”
  5. “Lie4″
  6. “I Will”
  7. “Bruiser Brigade”
  8. “Detroit 187″
  9. “Monopoly”
  10. “Blunt After Blunt”
  11. “Outer Space”
  12. “Adderall Admiral”
  13. “DNA”
  14. “Nosebleeds”
  15. “Party All the Time”
  16. “EWNESW”
  17. “Fields”
  18. “Scrap or Die”
GhostTown_LP_Jacket_PRINT.indd Owen – Ghost Town

★★★★☆

On Ghost Town, Mike Kinsella (aka Owen) has dramatically changed his sound into a more progressive-heavy-metal dubstep hybrid … gotcha!

At this point, we’re all pretty much expecting the same thing from Owen: some complexly arranged acoustic-guitar numbers that are pulled off with an almost childlike perfection. We’re expecting some slightly introspective lyrics with enough tongue-and-cheek wit to make us cringe and squirm with how close they get to crossing the line of being a guilty pleasure. This album doesn’t do any of that, as it does perfect dives instrumentally and merely treads water lyrically.

On Ghost Town, the addition of many more folk and string instruments on a majority of the songs helps break this album apart from just another acoustic-rock album from one of the Kinsella brothers. (Mike and Tim Kinsella have worked together in several Illinois-based acts such as Joan of Arc and Cap’n Jazz.) Also, the addition of these strings and folky arrangements give Owen’s classic acoustic “sad-bastard rock” (said as a die-hard Kinsella fan) a new, full-bodied taste. And the strings aren’t added as a last resort to make certain songs stick out from the others like some bands are forced to do when they run out of material.

From the first song, “Too Many Moons,” we hear a standard finger-picked acoustic-guitar diddy with Kinsella singing your standard Owen lyrics in a typical Owen fashion, but with small background strings slowly stirring in the background until about a minute into the song, the guitar and lyrics drop and the strings come in full force to the front of the song as the leading instruments. At this point, the listener realizes that the guitar isn’t the focus of the song as we’re used to. The strings are their own entity like in Cursive’s Ugly Organ. They are fully realized and a being all their own.

In addition to that, “Too Many Moons” also reveals one of Ghost Town’s new instrumental strengths to be the acoustic-guitar arrangements. They are produced individually, and even someone who isn’t an audiophile will be able to tell the difference in production style for each song with ease. This helps someone who isn’t the die-hard fan tell the songs from one another because this helps show each song’s individual flavor. Owen has taken the acoustic guitar ”silent shredding” style and brought a more flamenco touch to it, and it makes each riff zing a little bit harder than it normally would.

Ghost Town brings all of Owen’s strengths to the plate. It is like what Conor Oberst probably thought Cassadaga sounded like, or what it could have been, if it were less country and had loads more effort and originality put into it.

Lyrically, this album feels a bit redundant. There isn’t a single song that has a chorus that has the power that “Good Friends, Bad Habits” did, and definitely nothing worth singing along to with your friends. However, instrumentally this album is better than any Owen album to date, which is something the fans needed.

And honestly, did anyone really think Kinsella had anything more interesting to say about Chicago he hadn’t already said in an album called Ghost Town anyway?

Owen – Ghost Town Tracklist:

  1. “Too Many Moons”
  2. “No Place Like Home”
  3. “O, Evelyn …”
  4. “I Believe”
  5. “The Armoire”
  6. “An Animal”
  7. “No Language”
  8. “Mother’s Milk Breath”
  9. “Everyone’s Asleep in the House but Me”
russian_circles_empros Russian Circles – Empros

★★★★☆

Russian Circles’ Empros begins as a cloud-dappled sunrise and ends in a thunderstorm punctuated by an onslaught of lightning that pierces midnight skies like javelins thrown down from the gods. And actually, each track follows a similar pattern: a slow build and an explosive, orgasmic conclusion, followed by a simmering, distorted, sonic dénouement. With the six lengthy excursions contained in Empros (only the concluding cut, “Praise Be Man,” clocks in at less than five minutes), Chicago’s “instrumetal” auteurs explore a full range of dynamics, from the meditative and ambient “Schiphol” to the guitars-in-a-blender rawk onslaught of “309.”

Surprisingly, “Mládek” actually begins downright U2-esque, with its Edge-like jangly guitar introduction (think “Where the Streets Have No Name”), but by the time it’s done, the sound is reminiscent of being chopped apart by a gigantic industrial exhaust fan.  “Schiphol” starts by being meditative and ambient, but it quickly (if “after six minutes” can be considered quick) culminates in an orgasmic miasma of guitar shredding and monstrous drum propulsion. It resolves by constructing some leisurely spires of guitar feedback, and after a lovely refractory period, the song perfectly melds into the next adventurous excursion in “hammered by the gods” guitar rock. In other words, to understate things quite a bit, the electric guitar is rather key to the sound of Russian Circles.

On first listen, it’s no surprise that Brandon Curtis from Secret Machines produced this record, and Russian Circles can also be likened to their contemporaries such as fellow Chicagoans Disappears (although not as math-rocky), Austin’s Explosions in the Sky (although not as laid-back), Scotland’s Mogwai (although not as post-whatever) and Sacramento’s Hella. Hell, “Batu” even brings to mind the metal pounding of Tool (whom they’ve opened for in the past).

Likewise for “Schiphol,” which builds for three and a half minutes before kicking out the jams. In fact, if there’s one criticism of this record—with the exception of the kick-off cut “309,” which has a relatively brief introduction—all of the compositions seem to follow that silent then LOUD formula, punctuated at the end of each cut by the band trailing off into the nethersphere.

It would be nice to hear Russian Circles stop a cut on a dime from time to time, without fading out, and likewise it would be cool to hear them begin with the pedal to the metal more often.

The only track with vocals is “Praise Be Man,” the concluding cut, and given that, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s also their most Secret Machines-like. It starts slowly and quietly and vamps for almost three minutes before applying a thick layer of guitar sludge asphalt. But given that “Praise Be Man” is also the shortest track, compared with the other five compositions, it’s over too soon, despite the obligatory sonic settlement sinking in.

If all one had to go by were these six compositions, it would be clear that Russian Circles is one of those bands for which earplugs are a necessity if ever witnessing their live show. In addition, although the band has some antecedents with their sound, they are making music that stands on its own, and Empros is an engaging, compelling and propulsive listen from end to end.

Russian Circles – Empros Tracklist:

  1. “309″
  2. “Mládek”
  3. “Schipol”
  4. “Atackla”
  5. “Batu”
  6. “Praise Be Man”
Florence and the Machine - Ceremonials Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

★★★½☆

There’s a certain flow through Ceremonials that is distinguished and precise. This isn’t to say every song sounds the same, though. It’s just that the producers who put together Florence + the Machine’s latest release did a stellar job of connecting each piece flawlessly and smoothing out every potential interruption to its groove.

For this band to achieve such wide mainstream success last year might have been a compromise for both the public and the band. The style of Florence + the Machine is not typically heard on the radio, but some songs were so well produced that they deserved the limelight they earned. But the band doesn’t traditionally don a top-40 label. Its indie-pop energy is still a bit too obscure to be recognized by the public at large.

It must’ve been difficult to choose a first single and also easy to see how producers made the wrong decision by picking “What the Water Gave Me,” which was slow and slumpy. “Shake It Out” would have been a better fit, with its chantlike beat that has a much more appealing hook to it.

After the quick shot of brilliance in its start (a flash of piano with the words “And I had a dream …”), we really don’t get into it until after the lovely chiming intensity of “Never Let Me Go.” Tracks such as “Breaking Down” and “Lover to Lover” will tame listeners and inspire with their faster rhythms while “No Light, No Light” will attract a more mediating mood that will help the listeners understand what the band was going for. These songs could get you to the place where you dance like a fool simply because you are free. This is to be embraced.

Later, “Heartlines” represents an emotional journey as its poetry connects brilliantly with the music. The poetic wisdom continues with “All This and Heaven,” clearly the leader of the script along Ceremonials. It breathes, “And I will give all this and Heaven, too/I will give it all, if only for a moment/That I could just understand/The meaning of love.”

So to judge Florence + the Machine’s latest, it’s best to consider it the band’s recent contribution to indie music. And with that, it’s really not bad. At first listen, it will either be overwhelming or underwhelming, but listeners will be stunned by its dedication to its message on the second or third time around. This is especially true because the energy along Ceremonials asks for listeners to become accustomed to it.

It’s an acquired taste that is only strengthened toward the end of the album.

Critics might not like Ceremonials because they’re expecting to hear another “Dog Days Are Over” or “You’ve Got the Love.” But true Florence fans will understand that the new record fits right along with the intermediate work of 2009’s Lungs. It has no sure pop hits on the horizon, but this effort stays true to everything the band has worked for since its beginning. While the effort here wasn’t fully formed, at least Florence + the Machine still has its dignity.

 Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials Tracklist:

  1. “Only if for Night”
  2. “Shake It Out”
  3. “What the Water Gave Me”
  4. “Never Let Me Go”
  5. “Breaking Down”
  6. “Lover to Lover”
  7. “No Light, No Light”
  8. “Seven Devils”
  9. “Heartline”
  10. “Spectrum”
  11. “All This and Heaven Too”
  12. “Leave My Body”
Real Estate - Days Real Estate – Days

★★★★½

First off, Days is bliss. Anyone who says differently is wrong. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but not this time. Days is an unbelievably soothing and enjoyable album. It’s so unobtrusive one would be hard pressed not to like it. That’s it. As a matter of fact, don’t read the rest of this review.

New Jersey quartet Real Estate, led by singer/axeman Martin Courtney, has been on the scene for a couple of years now, gathering a good deal of hype. Days is its second album. The band boasts a one-of-a-kind aesthetic that uses shimmering, reverby guitars to create washy harmonies. It’s forehead-slap simple and at the same time untouchable.

Real Estate has honed and continues to hone, a bittersweet sound, big and passionate, with an eye for the past that is perhaps the nonpareil among its contemporaries. There are songs with words, and there are times when they would only cheapen the moment. The bucolic “Kinder Blumen” is the epitome of the melodic, warm feeling Days stirs.

Like a memory, Days has all the inexplicability, sentimental glow and missing details of the mind’s eye.

The one legitimate shot critics take at Real Estate is that it’s so fuzzy, so hypnotizing that it fails to elicit any lasting impression. And really, if that’s the worst to be said—that’s not bad at all. “All the Same” is a droning, seven-minute dreamer that eventually falls back on its own logic: “because the night is just another day.” Days is kind of like a novel if there were no conflict—or, if there were, only small trifles—just fleshed-out characters, scene and narrative. Hell, it’s a lot like the suburbs.

There are so many bad “suburban novels” in circulation today that when one hits below the belt (I’m not sure whether this has happened yet), sticking with the reader long after the first read or transcends its genre altogether—you’ll never forget it. What makes Real Estate’s little couplets wring the ol’ ticker is their simplicity. The dullness of lines such as, “See the cars out on 95/Cut through them like a sharpened knife,” has all the yearning of bad adolescent poetry, a life seen through car windows.

But when your life is concerned with banalities, those banalities mean everything. In “Younger than Yesterday,” Courtney says it himself: “It takes all summer long to write a simple song.” Rather than expatiate on a thousand little subjects or tackle a life’s scope in an album, Real Estate keeps Days obsessed with, well, the everyday. If it does tackle a lot, it’s many variations on a theme.

Real Estate – Days tracklist:

  1. “Easy”
  2. “Green Aisles”
  3. “It’s Real”
  4. “Kinder Blumen”
  5. “Out of Tune”
  6. “Municipality”
  7. “Wonder Years”
  8. “Three Blocks”
  9. “Younger Than Yesterday”
  10. “All the Same”
Mekons Ancient & Modern Album Art The Mekons – Ancient and Modern: 1911-2011

★★★★☆

Nearly three and half decades from The Mekons’ inception, the prolific British octet has dabbled in every genre from its roots in punk to American country, pop rock and English folk in its incredible 26-album discography. It’s been about four years since Natural, “the right gestation period for the Mekon animal,” said vocalist Sally Timms. The band returns with Ancient and Modern: 1911-2011, a shining example of manifold inspiration and aspiration.

Ancient and Modern plays out like a concept album, drawing parallels between the then and now, as the subtitle (1911-2011) suggests.

The album travels back in time a hundred years to England’s Edwardian era before the First World War and highlights historic events, such as the bombing of the L.A. Times building. The Mekons successfully gather inspiration from a century ago and make it valid in the modern age.

The album begins with lackadaisical acoustics in “Warm Summer Sun,” as it strums along with a sort of melancholic serenity into nightmarish visuals: “I look out on corpses, skeleton trees/an unimaginable hell in front of my eyes.” The second song quickly builds up momentum in the form of “Space In Your Face,” an energetic post-punk scorcher and one of the most easily accessible. These two first songs flow from lethargic to manic and demonstrate the album’s overall energy equilibrium.

“Geeshie” successfully captures the musical zeitgeist of the pre-WWI era. It summons images of elderly music halls and rickety pianos. Timms sings, “It is my intention to forget,” and, “Nothing happens twice,” an intriguing connection when compared with the album’s suggested theme of repetition in the cyclical nature of time.

The band’s ambitions culminate in the album’s grandiose, seven-minute title track, a concentration of theme and purpose. The three vocalists—Jon Langford, Tom Greenhalgh and Timms—team up for this divergent ballad spliced with spoken word and closed with a radiant and inspirational chant. It’s songs such as these that prove The Mekons are still paving their own way through the music world, and they’re better for it.

The Mekons’ Ancient & Modern is a solid, cohesive addition to a legendary band’s repertoire. Perhaps the two extremes of the album’s title would be more at home on a mobius strip than a straight timeline after all. Making music for a third of the century, The Mekons can say it better than most: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Mekons – Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 tracklist:

  1. “Warm Summer Sun”
  2. “Space in Your Face”
  3. “Geeshie”
  4. “I Fall Asleep”
  5. “Afar and Forlorn”
  6. “Honey Bear”
  7. “The Devil at Rest”
  8. “Arthur’s Angel”
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yelstin-Tape Club-Album Cover Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Tape Club

★★★☆☆

After three moderately successful full-length albums, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (SSLYBY for acronym or brevity lovers) decided to release a compilation record of songs included on earlier albums. That compilation is called Tape Club, but it’s not really a traditional compilation album. Although it does have its fair share of older SSLYBY songs, it also has a few new ones for hardcore fans to dig into.

Hardcore fans will probably eat Tape Club up because it is a very solid reflection of the band’s established style. Those unfamiliar with SSLYBY will find it to be a more traditional indie pop/rock outfit that isn’t particularly daring but that does have a knack for cute and catchy songwriting. Most of its songs are dreamy, mellow or laid-back and are fun to casually listen to but don’t really beg for thorough examination.

As with many compilation albums, the band’s style can seem all over the place. Although every song has clearly been written and recorded by the same band, there are some definite stylistic shifts between songs. Some earlier songs could easily be described as lo-fi pop, while others sound extremely smooth. Rougher songs such as “Lower the Gas Prices, Howard Johnson” clash a little with sweet and soft songs such as “New Day.”

Both styles have merits—and including both ends of the spectrum shows the band’s versatility and evolution over its career thus far—but ultimately the rougher, less-produced songs end up being easily the most enjoyable tracks on the album. Some of the more-produced songs are just too silky and harmless to really contain any meat or replayability, and the band is just much more likable and more honest when its music has a little fuzz or slightly off-kilter vocals.

Twenty-six songs are spread over Tape Club’s hour-and-10-minute running time, meaning that the average song length is just more than two and a half minutes long. This is an interesting stylistic decision to make, but it’s one that really works in the band’s favor. A lot of the album’s songs work well as short, sugary bits but would really drag if fleshed out into the more traditional four-minute pop song. The few songs that do last more than three minutes tend to be the weakest on the album, so the band probably made the right call in recording so many one- or two-minute jams. Because songs tend to be rather hit-or-miss, it also means that the miss songs pass rather quickly.

Deep down, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is a cute, harmless indie pop band, and Tape Club is an excellent reflection of what it’s about: being fun and lighthearted. It might be worth a listen if it’s your kind of music, but it isn’t going to be the sort of album that shocks, surprises or defies expectations. It’s just a cute, nice little album that passes quickly. And that’s fine.

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Tape Club tracklist:

  1. “The Clod and the Pebble”
  2. “Let’s Get Tired”
  3. “What’ll We Do (Demo)”
  4. “Song W+Song L”
  5. “Sweet Owl
  6. “Spinning Sea”
  7. “Tin Floor”
  8. “Lover the Gas Prices, Howard Johnson”
  9. “Go Upstairs”
  10. “Bigger Than Yr Yard”
  11. “Half-Awake (Deb)”
  12. “Not Worth Fighting”
  13. “New Day”
  14. “Coming Through”
  15. “Dead Right (Wilmington Demo)”
  16.  ”Can We Win Missouri”
  17. “Same Speed”
  18. “Cardinal Rules”
  19. “Chili Cook-Off”
  20. “Song 1000″
  21. “Phantomwise (Demo)”
  22. “Back in the Saddle (Demo)”
  23. “Yellow Missing Signs”
  24. “Letter Divine”
  25. “Bended”
  26. “Bastard of Rome”
Pepper_Rabbit_Red_Velvet_Snow_Ball Pepper Rabbit – Red Velvet Snow Ball

★★★½☆

Red Velvet Snow Ball, inspired by a cake-flavored snow cone, is L.A.-based Pepper Rabbit’s sophomore LP and a whimsical follow-up to its bubbly debut, Beauregard.

Originally from New Orleans, Xander Singh and Luc Laurent find inspiration from genres across the board. From David Bowie to Jamie Lidell, the experimental pop duo wanted to create an album to get lost in. Red Velvet Snow Ball is just that.

The duo’s dreamy psychedelic pop is catchy, bright and creatively layered with depth.

Never straying from the common pop backbone, Pepper Rabbit finds comfort in experimentation and seemingly never-ending swirls and twirls of sounds in an effort to create an atmospheric sound that will engulf the listener.

The harmonized vocals in songs such as “In Search of Simon Birch” and “The Annexation of Puerto Rico” resemble a breezy style similar to labelmate Grizzly Bear. The hopeful key progressions and ambient pop blends together, creating a technological hodge-podge. Yet the accompaniment of orchestral instruments adds a dash of folk, but it’s in a less-obvious manner than last year’s Beauregard.

The ukulele has been replaced by the keyboard as the front instrument backed up by nearly a dozen instruments including the horn, clarinet and synths, which Laurent learned by watching instructional YouTube videos after bringing home instruments from working at vintage music store.

“Allison” opens with an eerie carnival-like tune, like an abandoned carousel with its music stuck on repeat and distorted from age. It’s enchanting and subtly naïve. With repeated loops, minor distortion and echoed keys, “Allison” is a dreamy lullaby.

The sophomore slump is completely foreign to this art-pop duo.  Red Velvet Snow Ball is layered so meticulously to sound as if there were a dozen members of the band. Releasing two albums in the span of 10 months is a feat, but creating two charming and equally creative and distinct albums is downright impressive.

Album closer, “Tiny Fingers” has a beautifully entrancing innocence about it. Think fluffy clouds, bunny rabbits and rainbows. The high-pitched keys and eclectic array of bouncing melodies flow gracefully throughout the first half of the song until a basic bassline awakens the dream into a peaceful reality. It leaves the listener feeling warm, hypnotized and maybe even a little lovestruck.

Pepper Rabbit – Red Velvet Snow Ball tracklist:

  1. “Lake House”
  2. “Rose Mary Stretch”
  3. “Allison”
  4. “The Annexation of Puerto Rico”
  5. “Family Planning”
  6. “Murder Room”
  7. “In Search of Simon Birch”
  8. “Dance Card”
  9. “The Ballad of Alessandro Moreschi”
  10. “Tiny Fingers”
Wild Flag - Wild Flag Wild Flag – Wild Flag

★★★★½

Without question, one of the most anticipated indie releases of 2011 is the self-titled debut from a new band called Wild Flag. Given the quartet’s pedigree, it’s not hard to understand why. For those who have been oblivious to the buzz, the group features former Sleater-Kinney members guitarist Carrie Brownstein (also of IFC’s “Portlandia”) and drummer Janet Weiss (also half of Quasi and one of former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus’s Jicks). Also on guitar is Mary Timony of Helium semi-fame (although she was in seminal outfit Autoclave and has released some quality solo work of her own), and the band’s secret weapon is keyboardist Rebecca Cole from an act called the Minders (of not much fame, but affiliated with The Elephant Six Collective). All the members add vocals, although Brownstein takes the most leads, with a few going to Timony.

The brutal truth about Sleater-Kinney (which also included Corin Tucker, who now fronts her own band) was that for all the influence it carried as the natural all girl extension of the 1990s riot grrl movement, the band was never an “easy” listen. In fact, for the most part, it was just the opposite: It would come close to a pop hook or a lovely melody and go in the exact other direction, as if to confound the listener’s expectations. Make no mistake, Sleater-Kinney rocked passionately, but its sound was all about the tension and the abrasiveness, and the songs were never “there” enough to make one perfect record.

In stark contrast, the “girrrls” in Wild Flag are now embracing the pop song, exploding everyone’s preconceptions about what a post-riot girl outfit might sound like. Like all the best bands, Wild Flag is more than the sum of its parts, and while it looks like a marriage made in heaven on paper, on record, it’s even better than one might expect.

It doesn’t sound like the quartet is trying too hard. It sounds like they’re having fun, and it’s also a fun listen.

That’s not to say that they’re all “shiny happy” pop songs a la like-minded micro-indie supergroup All Girl Summer Fun Band. Indeed, there is a toughness to their delivery, and the tension that permeates cuts such as “Future Crimes” is undeniable.

The single “Romance” that kicks off the record sounds like a manifesto in some ways: “We love the sound, the sound is what found us, the sound is the blood between me and you,” Brownstein sings. Wild Flag has a chemistry that binds all the disparate elements together: the hiccupping lead vox of Brownstein, the backing harmonies that align with the current girl-group revival, the pulsing psychedelic keyboard parts that anchor the interweaving guitar parts, the hand-claps sprinkled liberally throughout the tracks. All of it works, and the band sounds like a well-oiled machine.

Although it begins with a classic-rock flourish seemingly inspired by Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” the Timony-led “Glass Tambourine” serves as a meditation on the delicacy of the counter-cultural movement of music. This is neither the “Green Tambourine” of The Lemon Pipers, nor is it the Black Tambourine proto-shoegaze assemblage destined for the influence category on the next-gen fuzz-pop masters. Nor is it Beck song “Black Tambourine” that may or may not have been an homage. Rather, it is a commentary on the delicacy of the music. Although on the surface it may sound tough and strong, the reality is, it could shatter just like any relationship (or band).

At the beginning of “Racehorse,” listeners could be forgiven for thinking they’re hearing a Led Zeppelin or Robert Plant cut, but Wild Flag throw in some Buzzcocks-like guitar lines a la “Noise Annoys” and once the vocals kick in, it’s clear they’re back in post-punk paradise.

If that’s really Timony on the lead vocals to “Something Came Over Me,” she’s never sounded so mature and self-assured. It’s telling that they have to “let the good times toll” before they can “let the good times roll.”  She’s saying that good and bad must take their toll before fun can be had, and that seems to be the real breakthrough of Wild Flag.

“Black Tiles”  finishes things off with an ascending and descending electric guitar line that sounds vaguely Middle Eastern, but it’s all Bawls-to-the-wall distorted guitar chords on the choruses.

Sonically, whether specifically inspired or an example of parallel evolution, there is a way in which the pivoting keyboard parts flesh out the sound of Wild Flag in a fashion similar to Chicago acts such as The Dials and Swiss Dots (formerly Telenovela). Without Cole’s keyboards, this could just as easily have been a Sleater-Kinney record without Tucker, and with the addition of Timony.

But of course, Wild Flag has discovered the power of pop and is not afraid to embrace it. Wild Flag is the summation of the girl-group legacy and the next sonic step for the remnants of the riot girl movement, even though they admittedly draw inspiration from musical history not limited to their punk and post-punk forebears.

Wild Flag – Wild Flag tracklist:

  1. “Romance”
  2. “Something Came Over Me”
  3. “Boom”
  4. “Glass Tambourine”
  5. “Endless Talk”
  6. “Short Version”
  7. “Electric Band”
  8. “Future Crimes”
  9. “Racehorse”
  10. “Black Tiles”
Deer Tick - Divine Providence Deer Tick – Divine Providence

★★☆☆☆

For a band familiar with covers and proud of its rendition of time-honored rock ‘n’ roll, returning to its hometown of Providence, R.I., to record its aptly titled fourth full-length (Divine Providence) seems like a perfect fit: a group that honors the past of rock would, naturally, honor its own past.

Since forming in 2004, guitarist/lead vocalist John McCauley’s Deer Tick has undergone extensive forming and reforming, but the band members are currently—and perhaps once and for all—McCauley, Ian O’Neil (ex-Titus Andronicus guitarist), Chris Ryan (bass and vocals), Rob Crowell (keyboard, saxophone and vocals) and Dennis Ryan (drums and vocals).

Changing the members of the band doesn’t seem to lead to Deer Tick maintaining distinction album to album, however. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Sonically, Deer Tick seemed to stake its claim with its debut War Elephant in 2007 without much intent of seeking new ground.

Through the first half of Divine Providence, Deer Tick plays to the sensibilities of a ragtag bunch of rowdy drunks (i.e. themselves) in a crowded barroom looking for music they could stomp and shout along to. By the end of the album, the mood changes and the album would have the same belligerent bunch sitting with slumped shoulders, looking quietly and introspectively into their beers.

The first three tracks on the album, “The Bump,” “Funny Word” and “Let’s All Go to the Bar,” strike a rockabilly chord that does less to make the group seem like a Skoal-spitting bunch of sleeveless rockers and instead like an indie-punk band trying to channel a raucous, alt-country vibe, which still doesn’t quite encapsulate Deer Tick.

Tracks such as “Clownin’ Around,” the strongest track of the album, and “Chevy Express” quickly derail this attempt at a short description of the group, which isn’t saying the band has an overly unique sound. They stay far within the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll, but they do like to hit several of its sub-genres throughout this album: alt-country, indie rock, rockabilly, indie folk and garage rock.

In “Clownin’ Around,” the album changes gears for the first time. More noticeably, the vocal responsibilities change, but more importantly, so does the band’s tone. Deer Tick leaves behind the beer-soaked thudding and grit and gives way to an eerie, emptying song—it might even be about John Wayne Gacy—exemplifying the band’s (albeit limited) range.

The album is somewhat front-loaded with feel-good rock and leaves on a note of melancholy, but that’s not necessarily to the detriment of the album. The mix of tracks gives the album some balance. However, the dispositions are so far opposite each other expressively that the transition into these songs feels somewhat abrupt. As far as ingenuity or musical invention, this album lacks it completely. For Deer Tick fans, however, that’s probably a good thing.

Deer Tick – Divine Providence tracklist:

  1. “The Bump”
  2. “Funny Word”
  3. “Let’s All Go to the Bar”
  4. “Clownin’ Around”
  5. “Main Street”
  6. “Chevy Express”
  7. “Something to Brag About”
  8. “Walkin’ Out the Door”
  9. “Make Believe”
  10. “Now It’s Your Turn”
  11. “Electric”
  12. “Miss K.”
Mayer-Hawthorne-LP-How-Do-You-Do-cover Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do

★★★★½

If listeners were to see Mayer Hawthorne before hearing his music, there are solid odds they would instantly begin to judge him. Considering his almost prototypical hipster clothing choices and his nerdy, suburban white-boy appearance, one might stop to wonder what over-done, 1980s-influenced electronic music he was trying to force into your ears, but that would be falling into the age-old trap of judging a book by its cover.

Hawthorne is not a hipster. His style is classic because his music and tastes are the same way. He’s an emergent artist whose music is rooted in the sounds of Motown with a flavor that never feels outdated. In effect, he’s the most soulful white boy to croon on a track since Justin Timberlake was still making music.

His first album, A Strange Arrangement (2009), is a solid recording that is great in some spots and good in most others, but while listening to it, it feels like something is missing. There’s lyrical content and tempo change-ups throughout, but there are just not enough deviations from his bread-and-butter soul-ballad style. Hawthorne has fixed this lack of sonic variety with his recent release and major-label debut, How Do You Do.

“Get To Know You” and “You’re Not Ready” sound like lost Marvin Gaye songs. “Finally Falling” fits firmly within the blue-eyed soul genre of music made famous by artists such as Hall and Oates.

“The Walk” is only missing Ed Sullivan’s stage and at least three backup dancers to complete the illusion it creates of being a 1960s soul classic. “Dreaming” is a pop-soul tune that feels a lot like something Brian Wilson would have crafted back in his heyday with The Beach Boys. “Hooked” is so Motown that you begin to wonder if Berry Gordy approved the song himself. “Can’t Stop” features a perfect cameo from Snoop Dogg at his smoothest, with Hawthorne reaching into the low end of his vocal spectrum and a groove that makes it feel like Teddy Riley produced it. There’s obviously something here for everyone.

In finally realizing that not only does Hawthorne write and sing his own lyrics, but also produces these smooth-as-butter tracks, it becomes clear he’s a talent that is poised to set the music world on fire.

With the success of last year’s soulful The Lady Killer from Cee-Lo Green and a renewed public interest in vintage style and sound because of the recent passing of Amy Winehouse, there is an obvious market out there for this album. Whether you’ve got a broken heart in need of mending, are deeply in love with a new flame, or just want some more quality soul music in your life, then there’s nowhere else you should turn.

Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do tracklist:

  1. “Get to Know You”
  2. “A Long Time”
  3. “Can’t Stop”
  4. “Dreaming”
  5. “The Walk”
  6. “Finally Falling”
  7. “Hooked”
  8. “Stick Around”
  9. “The News”
  10. “You Called Me”
  11. “You’re Not Ready”
  12. “No Strings”
La Dispute - Wildlife La Dispute – Wildlife

★★★★☆

On 2008’s Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, La Dispute offered some fairly standard post-hardcore that felt more like the band paying homage to its influences than standing on its own two legs. Since then, the quintet has refined its sound and found ways to make vocalist Jordan Dreyer’s spoken-word vocal style gel with the rest of the band.

Dreyer doesn’t write lyrics, but instead tension-fueled short stories that he delivers with a shouted desperation. Developing characters and scenarios in mere seconds, Dreyer executes them in a manner that borders on cinematic. The stories bring the listener into the midst of each situation, allowing a close proximity to the situations that have been constructed.

Dreyer’s ability to execute these elaborate stories is one of the biggest reasons why Wildlife is more effective than any of La Dispute’s previous works.

This is not to say that Dreyer is the only reason why Wildlife is a more successful album. Guitarists Chad Sterenburg and Kevin Whittemore have integrated a nuanced style that allows for quiet moment to be moodier without meandering while writing pounding riffs that are executed with higher proficiency and purpose. On tracks such as “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues,” they create rhythms that complement Dreyer while subtly blending their unique parts into one another.

As Wildlife moves toward its second half, it keeps from stagnating thanks to drummer Brad Vander Lugt’s unique and inspired approach to each song. Rarely using similar patterns, he grooves with bassist Adam Vass, showing how necessary an adept rhythm section is to a post-hardcore band.

It is toward the albums end when Wildlife offers up its three strongest tracks: “King Park,” “Edward Benz, 27 Times” and “I See Everything.” This three-song section is the high point for the group’s career, both musically and lyrically. It’s fitting that these three tracks take up nearly a third of the album’s runtime, as it is simultaneously the most enjoyable section of the album and also the most unnerving. Each song deals with subject matter more weighty than the next—a drive-by shooting, a schizophrenic son attacking his father and a mother recounting her seven-year-old son’s battle with cancer. On these tracks, La Dispute proves that quality art isn’t always the easiest to digest. Each song would have been a suitable album closer because they leave listeners drained by the time each reaches their conclusion.

At nearly an hour in length, Wildlife is a behemoth of an album. La Dispute stepped up its game and is now challenging fans to take that step along with them. While the album fumbles a bit at its start, once it settles into its groove it never lets up. If the tracklist were pared down, it could have been a perfect album, but there is no shame in merely writing the most arduous record of the year.

La Dispute – Wildlife tracklist:

  1. “A Departure”
  2. “Harder Harmonies”
  3. “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues”
  4. “Edit Your Hometown”
  5. “A Letter”
  6. “Safer in the Forest/Love Songs for Poor Michigan”
  7. “The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit”
  8. “A Poem”
  9. “King Park”
  10. “Edward Benz, 27 Times”
  11. “I See Everything”
  12. “A Broken Jar”
  13. “All Our Bruised Bodies and the Whole Heart Shrinks”
  14. “You and I in Unison”