Album-art-for-Tweens-by-Tweens Tweens – Tweens

★★★★☆

“Your sweetness is killing me/Mean, mean/I want you to be mean/I want you to be mean to me,” shouts Bridget Battle, frontwoman of trash-pop trio Tweens. “Be Mean” is from the Cincinnati threesome’s precocious debut album with Frenchkiss Records. The self-titled full-length touts a collection of party jams oozing with teen melodrama and a whiney but tough sound.

Tweens, with Battle on vocals and guitar, Peyton Copes on bass, and Jerri Queen on drums, have toured with The Breeders and the Black Lips, and have honed in on their catchy, defiant tone. With punk-kissed pop songs about boys, wanting to stay out late, and crying in bathroom stalls, Tweens sounds like the girl band everyone wanted to start in high school.

Battle laments, “I’m too young to be this tired,” in album opener “Bored in this City.” It’s a gateway into a world of mean boyfriends and having a curfew. Bay Area punks The Donnas, The Trashwomen, and the Bobbyteens are obvious influences in Tweens’ fast, fuzzy, dirty beach rock. The record is earnest and punchy, track after track.

Tweens is propelled by Battle’s take-no-prisoners persona.

A real man-eater on the whole, she plays several parts: the classic crush-ee (“Hardcore Boy”); the apathetic, unsentimental hook up (“Girlfriend”); and the bored, frustrated partner (“Be Mean”) all with palpable honesty. It’s every archetypal “girl” role, only with twice the edge.

Lyrics like, “Hey, hardcore boy/Oh boy/I don’t want any other,” in the jam “Hardcore Boy,” and, “Hey momma, don’t you wait up for me/Hey Momma, tonight is calling me,” in “Don’t Wait Up” hold up the group’s irreverent but sincere perspective. Their teen-centered punk, despite not actually being tween-aged, isn’t a gimmick. Rough and tumble, childish but not naïve, Tweens’ debut record is like a fun walk through an old yearbook.

Taking a slower pace, “Stoner” is the album’s instrumental interlude. The bass-heavy slow rocker speaks volumes despite not having any vocals, then picks up into a headbanger. It’s essentially the background music for a teen-movie party montage. The noteworthy “Want U” stands out as the ballad of the album. It’s a somber, doo-wop-influenced crawl propelled by Battle’s sweet vocals, electronic fuzz, and guitar strums that reveals the softer side of Tweens.

Tweens’ sound feels fun and familiar, like a former playmate’s cooler, older sister. The record is energetic, messy, aggressive, and free—like how most hoped they’d remember their adolescence. Tweens provokes angsty teen nostalgia regardless of whether or not one has ever dated a boy with a motorcycle or gotten a tattoo without permission.

Tweens – Tweens tracklist:

  1. “Bored in this City”
  2. “McMicken”
  3. “Be Mean”
  4. “Rattle + Rollin’”
  5. “Stoner”
  6. “Don’t Wait Up”
  7. “Hardcore Boy”
  8. “Girlfriend”
  9. “Forever”
  10. “Want U”
  11. “Star Studder”
Album-art-for-Ghetto-Ghouls-by-Ghetto-Ghouls Ghetto Ghouls – Ghetto Ghouls

★★★☆☆

On their self-titled debut, Ghetto Ghouls manage to sloppily smudge the line between form and content.

Slouching purposefully, Ghetto Ghouls characterizes itself in a manner similar to bands like the mid-2000s Bananas, concerned with documenting an energy and a feeling rather than cultivating an attractive and approachable surface.

The band’s lo-fi brand of garage-punk comes off as such with equal dues paid to the tonal choices of the musicians—scratchy guitars, tinny drums, and micro-filtered vocals—as well as the song structures themselves.

Crafting a fun, fast and loose sound, Ghetto Ghouls pull off an at-ease-ness that coaxes the listener into a space that’s care-free, but not without its jagged edges.

On “Simple C,” the album’s closer, vocalist Corey Anderson slurs his way through the verses as if he’s already a couple of drinks deep and signaling for another.

But he collects himself for a wild roar on the choruses, ruminating on the line, “Simple minds in simple times,” prices he may or may not be willing to pay, and whether he should stay or go. This kind of pulled-apart approach crops up once or twice on the album and makes for a nice break from the fast-paced tempo of Ghetto Ghouls without a shift in volume or style.

More often, the vocal performance rides on one or two lyrics ratcheting up or downshifting between varying degrees of unintelligible—but infectious and animalistic—growling. This approach feels like a better match for the unkempt instrumentation.

On “Living Alone,” the orations ramble simply between upset and surly iterations of, “I’m living alone/and nobody’s home/I don’t know what to do/I don’t know what to do.” Straightforward, but, really, what else needs to be said? This same template is applied to “It’s So Cold,” a simple notion to be sure, but one that rings true nonetheless.

Some of the progressions, while overall pretty listenable, can come off as similar, songs blending into each other with little variation. This sometimes leaves Ghetto Ghouls resting on the border of uninteresting.

The flip side of this criticism is that Ghetto Ghouls build a mostly consistent, frenzied approach that allows the band to back up the rawness of its sound. Where musicians—even of the maddeningly lo-fi variety—will oftentimes avoid peaking or maxing out volume in the interest of preserving a degree of sound quality, Ghetto Ghouls smash this norm and own it, folding it into the sharp, spiky mix that is their sound.

Elements of Ghetto Ghouls’ debut full-length are a bit run-of-the-mill. The band’s energy carries through the record, and while there’s a sense of similarity or repetition for certain stretches of it, a 23-minute album doesn’t leave too much room for the listener to become tired.

The band keeps the outing light-hearted and bouncy, allowing for an easy listen that still manages some inspired segments. It would be wrong to see this band live anywhere but a crowded, sweaty basement. If you happen to be spinning Ghetto Ghouls and suddenly become concerned that your speakers are blown, don’t worry—it’s just the band.

Ghetto Ghouls – Ghetto Ghouls tracklist:

  1. “Peepshow”
  2. “Gimme a Gun”
  3. “My Hands”
  4. “Psycho”
  5. “Atomic Bomb”
  6. “Living Alone”
  7. “It’s So Cold”
  8. “SGO”
  9. “Roofshit”
  10. “Pigs”
  11. “Yellowskies”
  12. “Simple C”
Album-art-for-Dark-Arc-by-Saintseneca Saintseneca – Dark Arc

★★★★½

Saitnseneca brings simultaneously novel and familiar songs on its newest release, Dark Arc. Channeling everything from Neutral Milk Hotel, to Bob Dylan, to the Violent Femmes, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Zac Little, along with Maryn Jones, Steve Ciolek, and Jon Maedo, crafts both a sad and blissful album largely about loneliness.

Dark Arc defines the space between light and dark with poetic lyricism and unique folk instrumentation coupled with pop, post-punk, and psychedelic elements.

Intitially recorded in a friend’s attic, the album pushed the four-piece to an entirely different level musically. Saintseneca utilizes a wide range of esoteric acoustic instrumentation, including balalaika, mandolin, dulcimer, Turkish Baglama, floor percussion, and flute intermingled with synthesizers and electric guitars, a blend it honed performing alongside bands with louder sounds in DIY house shows.

It’s a mesmerizing mix that begets a wide spectrum of emotion, and the sensation that one is listening to The Shins, Vampire Weekend, Velvet Underground, Band of Horses, The Beatles, and The Cure all at the same time.

Saintseneca sets feelings of solitude and dejection against bubbling pop in “Happy Alone.”

Little sings, “I’m not one to be three-fourths sore/When I crave a split lip I get it quick/And I’ll be alone, happy alone,” over their version of romantic post-punk before an all-band chorus of, “Happy alone.” They keep this juxtaposition up with a fun, peppy folk-rock track called “Visions” that tells a tale of seeing visions, spirits, and how people can become ghosts. The eerie story is set up against a fast-paced, foot-stomping acoustic jam.

The other side of that coin is the sweet, sad, and short track “So Longer,” one of the more obvious dirges on Dark Arc. Over a simple, sparse melodic line, Little sings, “How I long to reek of the stink inside your house/How I long to wreak all the havoc in your dreams.” In “Only the Good Die Young,” Saintseneca demonstrates its impeccable ability to build tracks, opening with a simple line, and piling on synth melodies and percussion for choruses of, “If only the good ones die young/I pray for corruption come/swift like a thief in the night.”

Closing track “We Are All Beads On the Same String” is a testament to the power of poetry set to a simple, steady bass line.

Little croons, “Don’t you let me down again/Don’t you let me down again/Don’t you let me down so gently.” It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and leaves Dark Arc on a less than cheerful note, but it speaks to another form of loneliness; the loneliness of being disappointed and left as opposed to never having anyone in the first place.

While not a “feel-good” record, Dark Arc contains joy in equal measure to its undeniable melancholy. Saintseneca’s familiar but complex folk-punk sound creates love, romance, and lightness in an album with tracks called “Blood Path” and “Fed Up With Hunger.” They openly embrace the dark and lonesome aspects of the human experience alongside feeling bright and warm. Saintseneca’s record is nuanced and creative, and lives on the bridge between light and dark, possibly the bridge it’s referencing with a name like Dark Arc.

Saintseneca – Dark Arc tracklist:

  1. “Blood Path”
  2. “Daendors”
  3. “Happy Alone”
  4. “Fed Up With Hunger”
  5. “::”
  6. “Falling Off”
  7. “Only the Good Die Young”
  8. “Takmit”
  9. “So Longer”
  10. “Uppercutter”
  11. “:::”
  12. “Visions”
  13. “Dark Arc”
  14. “We Are All Beads On the Same String”
Album-art-for-Singles-by-Future-Islands Future Islands – Singles

★★★★☆

Despite its name, Future Islands is very much a thing of the past.

The Baltimore trio borrows everything from the iconic ’80s synth-pop era and adds a modern twist, namely in the form of singer Samuel T. Herring’s husky, ardent vocals. Musically, the group is a replica of the somewhat hackneyed scene, but Herring pushes it through to success with his unique flair.

That’s not to say that keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and guitarist/bassist William Cashion are dismissible, as they do a good job of setting the tone of the songs, but they typically fall behind a bit and become backup music.

This subtle combination is why Singles, Future Islands’ fourth LP, is a cut above the rest. The group’s impassioned TV debut on David Letterman earlier this month is more than proof of its skills, but the album gets even better than the jaw-dropping, dance move-inspiring performance that attracted a plethora of new fans and amped up expectations for old ones.

The three-piece played its lead single “Seasons (Waiting On You),” which is also the first track on the album. It’s catchy and fun, but the real appeal comes when Herring kicks off into his lively, intoxicating spectacle. His vocals are thick and throaty, coexisting wonderfully with the feathery musicianship. The unimpressive lyrics are the only downfall of the singable track—and for some other parts of the album—but that is made irrelevant by the music’s charm.

Herring further proves his talent as he travels between his higher vocals and a comely, low grumble. A lot of the songs have this contrast, making the riveting, soulful parts all the better.

“Back in the Tall Grass,” which also has catchy bass and synth riffs, shows the singer’s flexibility as he transforms the song from a mellow jam to a vibrant hit. The nostalgic lyrics are enhanced by the surreal scene Welmers and Cashion set up with simple drums and shimmering synths, creating a dream-like feel that traces back to the innocence of early childhood. The climax comes as Herring sings, “You look like a rose/especially a long way from home,” showing us the first glimpse of the vocal mayhem to come later in the song.

As Singles progresses, the band gets more passionate and bold.

“Light House” is fiery while still maintaining the dancey aspect of all of the other songs, and despite the misleading intro to “Like the Moon,” that song, too, is an explosive masterpiece.

This perpetual improvement upon the previous song hits its peak on the second-to-last track, “Fall From Grace.” It’s the best example of Welmer and Cashion’s skills as songwriters, and Herring’s startling vocal versatility blows the rest of the album out of the water.

At the end of the first verse comes an epic, guttural scream by the previously composed singer as the music explodes into a cacophonous mess, regaining control as soon as it’s over. The outbreak comes as a surprise, and is uncharacteristic of the genre, but it’s one of the highlights of Singles and should have been toyed with more. Later in the song, another new element appears: a gritty guitar solo by Cashion, a feature that would have complemented other tracks as well.

Future Islands show that the ’80s are not dead, and in fact can be done better than the original pioneers did themselves. Singles manages to be invigorating and emotional while still remaining beautiful and keeping calm, setting it apart as the band’s magnum opus.

Future Islands – Singles tracklist:

  1. “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
  2. “Spirit”
  3. “Sun in the Morning”
  4. “Doves”
  5. “Back in the Tall Grass”
  6. “A Song for Our Grandfathers”
  7. “Light House”
  8. “Like the Moon”
  9. “Fall From Grace”
  10. “A Dream of You and Me”
Album-art-for-Cope-by-Manchester-Orchestra Manchester Orchestra – Cope

★★★★½

Manchester Orchestra has been at the top of its game since day one.

Consistently powerful and bold, while still showing the occasional soft side, the veteran five-piece has picked up a cult following thanks to its relentless energy and inventive songwriting.

For its fourth studio album, the band set out with one goal in mind: to release “something that’s just brutal and pounding you over the head every track,” according to lead singer/guitarist Andy Hull.

They bashed the nail on the fucking head, that’s for sure.

Cope is the incessant brainchild of Hull and Co. that blazes through its feverish tracklist in under 40 minutes, never easing up or undermining expectations.

The beast of an album starts with the first single, “Top Notch.” From the beefy opening chords to the Daisy-era Brand New guitar squeals, the song brings the intensity to an all-time high as soon as it kicks off. Hull’s signature, shrill warble is backed by robust instrumentals as he fluctuates between his clean wails and gritty roars. Musically, the song is relatively simple, but packs an emphatic punch.

Cope continues on this path of mass destruction while still maintaining the light, airy feel that creeps into a lot of Manchester Orchestra’s songs, namely due to the catchy melodies and singable hooks characteristic of the band.

“Girl Harbor” epitomizes the perfect relationship between the turbulent and feathery aspects that are toyed with throughout the record. The light-hearted verses clash with the monumentally tenacious chorus, while Hull’s brisk vocals are countered by overdriven guitars and assertive drums.

“Every Stone” and “Choose You” go much the same, both walking the line between heavy and vivacious in a way that only Manchester Orchestra has been able to perfect.

This juxtaposition, plus its ability to fully commit to either style, is Manchester Orchestra’s unique charm. The seasoned group has had time to build upon the past, to refine and discover its perfect sound, and seemingly, this is it.

The heady music is invigorating and addictive, both emotionally and mentally.

Lead guitarist Robert McDowell, keyboardist Chris Freeman, newly acquired bassist Andy Price, and drummer Tim Very back up Hull with exponential skill as the band continues to release near-perfect record after near-perfect record.

One of Hull’s most passionate performances on Cope is in “The Ocean,”  which is also highlighted by potent and compelling instrumentals. The epic chorus hits harder than most with an unmatched catchiness as he cries out, “I give it to the ocean,” altogether creating one of the stand-out tracks on LP No. 4.

The band only regresses to a calmer state in “Indentions,” which likens itself more to the band’s first album, I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, than this set of heavy-hitters. Despite the upbeat feel, the lyrics are forlorn and emotional, especially as Hull sings, “I won’t leave indentions of me/I won’t leave intentionally,” as the song surprisingly explodes into cacophonous thunder. Toward the end, it bulks up with unimaginable layers of distortion and vocal harmonies, then goes into a brief guitar solo before it fizzles out.

The album ends fittingly on the title track, which is a slow, gargantuan song overflowing with gritty guitars and O’ Brother-esque ferocity. This is typical of Manchester Orchestra, a band that cares a lot about the flow of an album and always ends on an epic high note. Hull’s passion is evident when he bites hard on the last lines of the pre-bridge: “And I hope if there is one thing I let go/It is the way that we cope.” Closing on a feedback-heavy guitar squeal, Cope ends in a thunderous roar that solidifies its place as one of the best albums of the year so far.

Manchester Orchestra is and always has been one of the best bands in the alternative rock scene. Donning a more aggressive attitude than usual, the group set out to fill a hole no one realized existed in the rock scene until after Cope had already filled it to the brim.

Manchester Orchestra – Cope tracklist:

  1. “Top Notch”
  2. “Choose You”
  3. “Girl Harbor”
  4. “The Mansion”
  5. “The Ocean”
  6. “Every Stone”
  7. “All That I Really Wanted”
  8. “Trees”
  9. “Indentions”
  10. “See It Again”
  11. “Cope”
Album-Art-for-Elite-Lines-by-Faces-on-Film Faces on Film – Elite Lines

★★★★½

Great artists are made by taking risks. They will either mesmerize their audience or piss them off completely. Faces on Film’s new album Elite Lines brilliantly captures different genres of music ranging from cathartic indie-rock to experimental, pop kitsch.

An artist who has the audacity to make challenging pop music, something you don’t listen to on the radio every day, should be commended.

Talented singer/songwriter Mike Fiore, under the moniker Faces on Film, entices and provokes his listeners by drawing on different types of rhythms, classic guitar solos, rich bass lines, and irregular song structures.

Fiore is also a master in seducing or charming you (your choice) with his intense, passionate voice.

On the first track “Percy,” he sounds creepy and desperate as he croons, “I heard some say to you/Her song… say/Give/Some say, for days, heart of gold/But you didn’t say/Search alone/So maybe you and me/We/Girl/Search, search, search, search, search.” His desperation is riveting. Fiore comes off as awkward, creepy, and nonsensical as his slow and hollow voice stresses every word, making it hard to ignore him.

“Percy” is a brilliant track partly because it creates a sort of sexual tension. The lyrics are open-ended. Is he fantasizing about that woman? It’s hard to say. Fiore speaks more clearly with his music than his lyrics.

He ingeniously tosses the typical verse-chorus-verse structure out the window on “Percy,” shaking it up with polyrhythmic jungle beats rumbling in the background, using the entire band to fill the rich, melodious chorus with expanded beats, playing a sliding guitar solo, and broadening the depth of the song with lush synth notes.

He throws you off once again with the title track, a vibrant, acoustic guitar-driven song.

It’s a less-than-two-minute instrumental piece, but it leaves a lasting impression. Fiore takes a simple guitar melody, expands on it, enriches it with colorful notes, polishes it, and then with loving fingers sticks into your head, where it stays lodged long after the music dies away.

Describing “Percy” and “Elite Lines” doesn’t do justice to the album, not even close. Elite Lines can, in some ways, be compared to Miles Davis’ The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. Fiore rips apart mainstream pop music and creates new songs that are dynamic, unconventional, and challenging. It spills with complex emotions, uncompromising creativity, and brilliant imagination that for once breaks the norm of how songs are written. Already, Elite Lines is one of the best albums of the year so far.

Faces on Film - Elite Lines tracklist:

  1. “Percy”
  2. “Elite Lines”
  3. “The Rule”
  4. “Your Old One”
  5. “Bad Star”
  6. “Heartspeed”
  7. “Daytime Nowhere”
  8. “Rake the Dust”
Cover-art-for-Positive-Distractions-Part-I-by-Secret-Colours Secret Colours – Positive Distractions Part I

★★½☆☆

Secret Colours are flexing their psychedelia at just the right time. In today’s indie/alternative landscape, the rebirth of ’60s psychedelic  and Britpop is at a high, with groups like Tame Impala and Foxygen proving the genre is alive and well.

And although not for everyone, psych-rock like that of Secret Colours’ new release takes the past and repurposes it for the present.

Secret Colours, having released their self-titled debut in 2010 and their sophomore effort Peaches in 2013, have consolidated from a six- to four-piece, shedding some skin for a “leaner, meaner” sound.

Here on Part I of their Positive Distractions album (Part II is to be released later in the spring) is a mixture of sounds ranging from late-career Beatles to modern influencers like Kurt Vile and Christopher Owens.

These are lofty comparisons, but Secret Colours don’t reach the same levels of mastery.

The highlights of the short, six-song release fall in the middle. The first single, “It Can’t Be Simple,” is one of Positive Distractions I’s strongest tracks, lending from the page of Britpop itself. A catchy hook is surrounded by a defined organ cornerstone and a funky bass line, crescendoing and falling out at just the right times to create a dynamic and fluid track.

“Take it Slow” is the strongest song on Positive Distractions I, starting with a flanged guitar and a hazy, relaxed vocal line and strong sense of itself. The track could easily fit on Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo—a soft, but solid psych-infused strum-along that belongs on the soundtrack to a weekend afternoon walk.

The rest of the album, though, suffers from expected stereotypes of the genre and a general lack of excitement or dynamism. Perhaps, in their aims as a musical ensemble, that is precisely what Secret Colours are trying to achieve, but it just seems a little too complacent on tracks such as “Get to the Sun” and “Rotten Summer.”

This dictionary definition of a retro style feels a little too uninspired.

Secret Colours know how to make a certain type of record, and they aren’t bad at it, but there’s nothing novel being brought to the table.

Positive Distractions I has its strengths as a traditional rock or psych record, but doesn’t do too much to stand out individually in the sea of reverb and smoke that we as music listeners are attempting to cross, serving more as doldrums  than lighthouses. The album is stronger, bigger sounding than their last release, Peach, but still lacks a certain originality in sound and in theme that propels it to another, more standalone level.

Secret Colours - Positive Distractions I tracklist:

  1. “City Slicker”
  2. “It Can’t Be Simple”
  3. “Take It Slow”
  4. “Monster”
  5. “Get to the Sun”
  6. “Rotten Summer”
Album-art-for-Say-Yes-to-Love-by-Perfect-Pussy Perfect Pussy – Say Yes to Love

★★★★½

Say Yes to Love, the hopeful-by-way-of-drowning-irony title of Perfect Pussy’s debut full-length record, eloquently captures the sentiments reflected on its eight-track, thrashing barrage.

Staggering confidently from noise-rock to punk, Say Yes is many things in many moments. Vocalist Meredith Graves’ bark overlays manic progressions with a kind of can’t-be-fucked-with honesty.

Her inflections are not overt, but the real magic of her performances lies in the nuances of her relentless delivery. The way she stretches her words to match the punctuating stop-and-go syncopation on “Work” welcomes the listener into a mind that sounds like it’s floundering in desperation.

We’re alternately coddled and violently shaken by the band’s ability to swing back and forth between feedback-coated riffs that are reduced to a slippery catchiness and all-out, vertigo-inducing volume.

Even in the more tender opening of “Interference Fits,” the second single on Say Yes, there is something in the delivery of the lyrics, the way a tambourine colors the insistent, rolling pacing of the rhythm, and the tasteful wailing of the guitar that strikes a deep chord.

Perfect Pussy is surefooted and deliberate in its angst. Full of hell and dripping with attitude, there is a relatable quality to the in-your-face delivery that makes the abrasive, discordant rock meaningful if you’ve ever just had it. Graves’ double-tracked vocals creep up in a few different places; mismatched musings spew from each ear on the end of “Interference Fits” after she begs an answer to the question, “Since when do we say yes to love?”

It’s a kind of sloppiness that maintains its composure, never trashy or over the top–the listener believes in Perfect Pussy’s on-the-verge-of-losing-it motif.

Say Yes wastes little time in its 22-minute duration. The band carves out space for texturing in the form of long-winded noise interludes, like the one that makes up the majority of “Advance Upon the Real.” The silence is tinted with slight mechanical insinuations—it’s a brief repose from the aural assault for the band and listener to regain their balance as they find footing on the last plateau before being overrun with the noisy fuzz of the album’s unsettling closer, “VII.”

Say Yes is like an embrace of the Steppenwolf, an intimidating pleasure that doesn’t hesitate to stare you down while offering itself.

Expanding on the sound that caught many by surprise on its fiery demo, I have lost all desire for feeling, Perfect Pussy has cemented  its inability to be tamed. Though Say Yes to Love sounds cleaner, the tidying up seems to only have made room for a more thorough unleashing of feeling. The battery is drained, but has never been more primed for a charge.

Perfect Pussy – Say Yes to Love tracklist:

  1. “Driver”
  2. “Bells”
  3. “Big Stars”
  4. “Work”
  5. “Interference Fits”
  6. “Dig”
  7. “Advance Upon the Real”
  8. “VII”
Album-art-for-New-Gods-by-Withered-Hand Withered Hand – New Gods

★★★½☆

Sharp-tongued, hazy like a wavering mirage, and touting honed wit, Dan Wilson returns with the sparkly New Gods, his first release as Withered Hand since 2009′s Good News.

Cleaner, more streamlined, and a tad less cockneyed than he let across on Good News, New Gods doesn’t oversee a strikingly different territory than its full-length predecessor, but paints a more reflective and thoughtful image of the wordsmith behind all the witty phrasing and charming–if not a tad frustrating–contradictory sentiments.

Wilson spends a good bit of breath on New Gods constructing what feels like a more jaded persona than the one we met on Good News. ”Though I try and I try it’s not real to me/This life is not what you thought it would be/I put my hand in my pocket and forgot about the travel pussy/Another flower on the coffin of monogamy,” he strains out in a mouthful on “Love Over Desire.”

Earlier in this same track, Wilson deals with a seeming hesitation about leaving, as if he is ironically chanting the song’s title over its chorus, reveling in a reality he feels is unavoidable, one that overshadows the idealist in him who wants love to tower over doubt.

Moments like this reveal a shift in perspective on New Gods that shows Wilson has gotten on a few years in his mind.

There’s a very gaping kind of quality to the entire album. Wilson stretches his voice earnestly in a mirroring of Neil Young’s timbre melded with some time spent in a lower register, lightly reminiscent of Kurt Vile or James Mercer in his fuller moments–especially on “Black Tambourine.”

Passages like the beachy verses in “Fall Apart” call to mind a lax, Built to Spill range of sound. They inspire a pleasurable agoraphobia, drawing the listeners toward thoughts of country roads, empty fields, and wild expectations: “Come on come on/I’ll fall apart…you said it’s nothing but to me it felt like everything aligned/Put your hand in mine/I’ll still remember the first time,” he chants on the upbeat but nostalgic chorus.

On the opener, “Horseshoe,” Wilson shows his familiarity with crafting ambience and making his sometimes run-of-the-mill progressions and melodies pop out to a more memorable degree than they might in a less fleshed out recording. The allusions to death, boxing, and confronting what we want to run from packs this track with one of the biggest punches on the album.

The majority of songs on New Gods are mostly sweet to the ear and manage to stick, even if their hooks aren’t completely apparent or groundbreaking.

“I could get behind you/and in the morning we’d be mourning our youth/Sometimes it doesn’t do to do,” Wilson pines on the album’s title track. And later, “New gods for this ungodly man,” a proof of transition? Or another observation of lost innocence, a sad reflection? These contradictions seem natural, and Wilson’s allows us to wonder but primes the listener for either answer to be true.

On “New Gods,” Wilson grants himself a little more rope to skirt the melody vocally, stretching his phrasing and delivery to color the tune while a twangy, single-note guitar plucks along, tracing the melody that his words pleasantly skim across.

This kind of syncopation helps bring a roundness to the recordings; the backing players and arrangements thicken the simple songs. Where Wilson’s harmonies might come off a bit colorless, the coppery-folk tone lent by the harmonica on “Life of Doubt” or by the horns on the ending of “Between True Love and Ruin” pull the tracks up by their boots so they don’t lull so much.

New Gods comes across as a fully-formed follow-up record that exhibits change and growth in the artist behind its conception. Fans of Wilson’s solid brand of alternative-folk will be pleased to hear the mantles of greats like Neil Young or Van Morrison upheld reasonably well in this introspective sophomore effort, but for many, the record could require some time for growth.

Withered Hand – New Gods tracklist:

    1. “Horseshoe”
    2. “Black Tambourine”
    3. “Love Over Desire”
    4. “King of Hollywood”
    5. “California”
    6. “Fall Apart”
    7. “Between True Love and Ruin”
    8. “Life of Doubt”
    9. “New Gods”
    10. “Heart Heart”
    11. “Not Alone”
Album-art-for-World-of-Joy-by-Howler Howler – World of Joy

★★★★☆

Jordan Gatesmith croons, “I don’t want to be rich, or famous no more,” in “Here’s The Itch That Creeps Through My Skull.” The Smiths-inspired ditty hails from Howler’s second studio album, World of Joy with Rough Trade Records.

The indie-rock group from Minneapolis, Minn. is composed of Gatesmith on lead guitar and vocals, Ian Nygaard on guitar, Max Petrek on bass, and new addition Rory MacMurdo replacing Brent Mayes on drums.

World of Joy is more poppy than their previous album, America Give Up, but still sports their characteristic 1960s-inspired, reverb-drenched, punk-pop sound. It’s a fun, silly punk album with smatterings of outright pop songs, attempts at blues, psychedelics, and noise, and one track inspired by both the Smiths and Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

World of Joy is a mixed bag, but it’s a great time.

The album is self-referential, with a track about Nygaard getting sick and going to the hospital on almost every tour (“Drip”) and one inspired by a bar, album opener “Al’s Coral.” One of the first songs written for the album, it’s Howler’s crack at its own dive bar song. With a cowbell tap intro, “Al’s Coral” has a classic American rock sensibility and a cock-rock vibe borrowed from Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

The actual Al’s Corral that inspired the fun, danceable track is a decked-out American dive bar the foursome visited in St. Paul, Minn. that featured motorcycles, leather jackets, and Thin Lizzy playing on the jukebox. The song is evocative of that spirit, with Gatesmith chanting, “Freedom is never free, and that’s a guarantee,” over playful guitar picks and ringing cymbals.

Title track “World of Joy” is Howler’s rendition of psychedelic-noise music. In a spark of genius from Gatesmith and Nygaard, the members of Howler switched instruments; Gates plays drums and Nygarrd is on sitar. (Granted, it’s nearly impossible to tell that it’s a sitar because it’s been put through a number of noise pedals.) High-pitched vocals stand out from those on the rest of the album, repeating, “World of joy,” and the additional effects are evident, but the track never loses its fast, punk pace.

World of Joy serves as a tribute to the foursome’s love of rock-n-roll music that would play from a jukebox in a beer-addled, liquor-sloppy Minneapolis bar like The Replacements, The Smiths, and of course, Thin Lizzy.

Goofy track “Don’t Wanna”‘s refrain of, “Well you don’t have to be a punk if you don’t want to/You don’t even have to date boys if you don’t want to/You don’t have to be fooled twice if you don’t want to/You don’t have to listen to me if you don’t want to,” is where Howler shows its hand.

The track is a parody song of sorts, calling upon the tradition of the classic punk, you-don’t-have-to and the-system-can-suck-it songs. ”Don’t Wanna” is tongue-in-cheek, funny, and catchy as all get out with its poppy guitar riff and plugging rhythmic line.

World of Joy stays true to its name—it’s a pleasurable hodge-podge of genres, tones, experiments, and levels of sincerity that brings both glee and ennui from every angle.

Howler- World of Joy tracklist:

  1. “Al’s Coral”
  2. “Drip”
  3. “Don’t Wanna”
  4. “Yacht Boys”
  5. “In the Red”
  6. “World of Joy”
  7. “Louise”
  8. “Here’s the Itch that Creeps Through My Skull”
  9. “Indictment”
  10. “Aphorismic Wasteland Blues”
Album-art-for-Rooms-of-the-House-by-La-Dispute La Dispute – Rooms of the House

★★★★½

La Dispute has embarked on a new artistic venture, this time stepping back from the broad subject matter of 2011’s Wildlife and focusing on aspects of everyday life.

The Grand Rapids, Mich. five-piece is known for the stories it tells, the raw emotion it employs, and the groundbreaking musicality that always accompanies its poetic singer Jordan Dreyer. Rooms of the House, which sheds light on crumbling relationships and the sentimental connection attached to objects from the past, is no exception to this trend.

In order to get into the mindset that accompanies this experience, the band holed up in a secluded cabin in Michigan for a month to focus on writing, also cutting ties with long-time label No Sleep Records to start its own label, Better Living.

So with the freedom of independence and a unique idea, La Dispute set out to convey its vision.

Starting off with the tragic tale of a wife and family separated from their husband and father during the infamous 1956 tornadoes in Hudsonville, Mich., Rooms of the House crashes down with the band’s characteristic vigor.

The song, titled “HUDSONVILLE MI 1956,” paints vivid pictures through lyrical and musical imagery, shifting between robust and toned-down instrumentals as the scene changes from mid-storm action to fits of worry.

The album opener introduces one of many personal stories and gives the overarching theme of the release with the lyric, “There is history in the rooms of the house.”

Much of the album continues the same way, reaching back to the power of La Dispute’s debut LP Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair while incorporating the real-world storytelling elements of Wildlife.

Heavy-hitting first single “Stay Happy There” finds Dreyer longing for reconciliation with a love that is failing, conveying that hopeless feeling through hectic instrumentals and yearning lyrics. He screams, “But doesn’t it seem a bit wasteful to you/To throw away all of the time we spent/Perfecting our love in close quarters and confines?” The narrator imagines the turmoil around them in images that are revisited throughout the album, like the reoccurring gesture of placing coffee on the stove or the storm touching down in Hudsonville.

“First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice” has the same brawny feel musically and has an equally heart-breaking story, where the character desperately falls through the ice over a frozen lake in an attempt to awaken the feelings of his lover, making her contemplate how she would react if he died.

La Dispute does an amazing job of creating these contagious worlds that place the listener in the middle of it all, forcing them to live in the emotions of the characters.

This is thanks to the genius of the instrumentalists as well as Dreyer, including guitarists Chad Morgan-Sterenberg and Kevin Whittemore, bassist Adam Vass, and drummer Brad Vander Lugt. The band’s intense, quick pace contributes to the unrefined passion of the songs, and its ability to abruptly shift gears to match the lyrics reinforces the setting of the stories.

Even though most of the album goes along the same post-hardcore style, the best songs on Rooms of the House are the novel mellow ones, namely “Woman (in mirror)” and “Woman (reading).” These liken more to the La Dispute’s early experimental, poetry-driven EPs Here, Hear. I, II & III.

“Woman (in mirror)” is the one of the most beautiful songs the band has released to date, stripping down to soft guitars and subtle drums to accompany Dreyer’s clean, melodic vocals, while “Woman (reading)” has the best of both worlds as it starts much the same and ends on an epic crescendo into the hardcore style the band is known for.

In the last song, “Objects in Space,” the mood regresses to a lost, melancholy hum.  The calming song depicts dozens of objects and their sentimental value as the narrator, pondering his past, uses them to create a monument of his life that moves throughout the rooms of his house, eventually being stored away in boxes. Dreyer epitomizes the restlessness of the scene by stating, in an apathetic tone, “And I sat there for hours, in the living room first/Then in the dining room, moving things around/Picking things up and seeing where they took me.”

La Dispute has created yet another masterpiece with Rooms of the House. Through the emotional stories it tells and the wide range of feelings it perfectly represents, the pictures it paints and the ingenious relationship between poetry and music, La Dispute’s members prove once again that they are proper artists in every sense of the word.

La Dispute – Rooms of the House tracklist:

  1. “HUDSONVILLE MI 1956″
  2. “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice”
  3. “Woman (in mirror)”
  4. “SCENES FROM HIGHWAYS 1981-2009″
  5. “For Mayer in Splitsville”
  6. “35″
  7. “Stay Happy There”
  8. “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963″
  9. “Woman (reading)”
  10. “Extraordinary Dinner Party”
  11. “Objects in Space”
Album-Art-For-The-Private-World-Of-Paradise-By-Wake-Owl Wake Owl – The Private World of Paradise

★★½☆☆

Warning: Wake Owl’s debut album, The Private World of Paradise, is a straight-up snooze fest. Singer and songwriter Colyn Cameron, along with producer Richard Swift, concocts an incredibly insipid record that sounds lame and nauseating, with unmemorable tunes, an overall lethargic feel, and mushy, unimaginative themes like dysfunctional relationships.

In fact, most of the songs on The Private World of Paradise—barring the outstanding final three tracks—sound like they came straight from a plodding, mopey hell.

The album meshes synth-pop with indie rock that ostensibly is supposed to sound upbeat, atmospheric, and retro. Instead, it sounds like a gooey, sticky kitsch of uninspiring ballads that will make you sick to your stomach.

The first track, “Days in the Sea,” sets the tone for the next seven tracks on The Private World of Paradise. It has rich melodies, strong harmonies, and colorful guitar notes, but they sound slow, monotonous, and depressing. Cameron knows how to play music, but his singing will test your patience.

Remember Radiohead’s sixth album, Hail To The Thief? Every song was good, except it got irritating when Thom Yorke wouldn’t shake up his vocals. His famous tenor voice got pretty stale by the end of the album. It’s the same with Cameron—his neat vocals stay neat long enough to put anybody to sleep.

Fortunately, he changes his tone a bit on “Oh Baby” when he abruptly calls out his ex-girlfriend: “I fucked with your mind, silly girl.” In a rare moment of non-serenity, Cameron’s angry tone captures your attention, if only for a split second. “Oh Baby” contains a catchy, guitar-driven melody with a ’70s vibe, but Cameron moping about his previous relationship really kills the song, and the quick flash of actual emotion isn’t enough to save it.

There is some musical redemption in The Private World of Paradise, though. The last three tracks are outstanding, experimental masterpieces.

“Untitled” is a psychedelic-infused ballad, where Cameron’s vocals sound more mechanical and loopy. “Desert Flowers” is a bass-driven, ambient anthem, a softer version of the marching band performing at the pep rally. Both songs’ unique melodies and sophisticated electronics show Cameron’s ability to think outside the box.

The last song, “Candy 2,” drives home that point. It contains a diverse array of rhythms rumbling along with simple, melodious synth notes. Meanwhile, a loop of someone chanting plays in the background. “Candy 2″ offers more depth, as a melancholic violin tune that you might hear in an old movie adds another solid layer and a more vibrant atmosphere to the song.

Why Cameron couldn’t incorporate these unique sounds into the first seven tracks of the album is a mystery. The Private World of Paradise meanders in this unforgivable maze of superficial, indie-pop kitsch for far too long.

It doesn’t help that Cameron focuses on clichéd themes like love, life, and loss in relationships. For once, can’t there be an album about brain-eating aliens and giant monsters roaming the countryside? Despite what its title would suggest, The Private World of Paradise is no walk in the Garden of Eden.

Wake Owl – The Private World of Paradise tracklist:

  1. “Days In The Sea”
  2. “Candy”
  3. “Letters”
  4. “Vacation”
  5. “Kid”
  6. “Buffalo”
  7. “Oh Baby”
  8. “Madness Of Others”
  9. “Untitled”
  10. “Desert Flowers”
  11. “Candy 2″