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”
Album-art-for-Days-of-Abandon-by-The-Pains-of-Being-Pure-at-Heart The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon

★★½☆☆

Known for their often anthemic shoegaze, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s latest full-length may raise a few eyebrows. Days of Abandon through Yebo Music is a deviation from Pains’ soaring sound and lacks the power of Belong and their self-titled album.

Pains, often described as indie and noise pop, isn’t using effects pedals as a crutch on this one, and Kip Berman’s songwriting gives Days of Abandon emotional heft that’s been missing on previous records.

Berman lays all of his feelings out on the table, unobscured by shoegaze and pushed front-and-center by pop. The single “Simple and Sure” is an obvious example of this turn toward candor. Berman sings, “It might seem silly, but I’m sure/I just want to be loved, just want to be loved/It might be easy but I know/I simply want to be sure, just want to be sure.” Touching.

However, no amount of honesty breaks through lackluster instrumentals and a hum-drum album.

Berman, on vocals and guitar, alongside Pains staples Alex Naidus, bass, and Kurt Feldman, drums, are more than capable of putting out infectious, delightful records. Abandon just isn’t one of them. Jen Goma (A Sunny Day in Glasgow) and Kelly Pratt (Beirut, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Bright Moments) are featured on the record in a few bright spots like “Kelly” and “Life After Life.”

Art pop isn’t good just because it’s art pop, and while Pains aren’t the most heinous example of this trend, they’re an active participant in a wave of music that falls short of being interesting. “Eurydice” with its swirling blend of guitars, light vocals, and fuzzy synth and rhythms sounds like a lot of other songs, as does the ’90s-influenced “Beautiful You.”

Days of Abandon plays with the idea of dark lyrics accompanied by airy, breathy pop, but only “Until the Sun Explodes” is truly successful.

The bouncy pop number features a wall of synth and guitar sound, and it’s the only track that pairs dark subject matter with bright instrumentals while still being fun.

Holding up Days of Abandon as a paragon of artsy, fuzzy mediocrity isn’t to say that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart aren’t talented or unworthy of praise. The record just fails to make a noise. A lot of feeling and fervor was obviously poured into it, but all that emotion was lost in translation, and it leaves the listener feeling nothing at all.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon tracklist:

  1. “Art Smock”
  2. “Simple and Sure”
  3. “Kelly”
  4. “Beautiful You”
  5. “Coral and Gold”
  6. “Eurydice”
  7. “Masokissed”
  8. “Until the Sun Explodes”
  9. “Life After Life”
  10. “The Asp at My Chest”
Album-art-for-Pure-Adulterated-Joy-by-Morning-Parade Morning Parade – Pure Adulterated Joy

★★★½☆

Losing a bit of the spacey atmosphere explored in its debut and replacing it with more rock-oriented riffs, Morning Parade takes a comfortable step away from the past on next month’s Pure Adulterated Joy.

The Essex quintet stayed close to its original sound, however, still kicking out radio-friendly synth pop/alternative rock tracks that will once again reach a wide fan base. This is largely thanks to the band’s undeniable catchiness and singer/guitarist Steve Sparrow’s silky voice.

Pure Adulterated Joy is an entertaining album that bridges the gap between chart-topping hits and quality music—two things that don’t usually go hand-in-hand. The songs are fun, but still have the occasional lyrical message and show off quality musicianship.

Take the lead single, “Alienation.” The staccato screech of the keyboard drags you in as Sparrow’s vocals swoop in for the kill, giving the song some character. Morning Parade offers a valuable insight through the message it brings up, which is trying to find comfort amongst all the wrong in the world.

“Alienation” talks of progression from the past, which is emphasized in the chorus line, ”Everything you are, everything you were, everything  you’ve been is not everything you’ll be.”

Besides the lyrical content, there’s a constant attention to instrumentation. It’s clear that the five-piece stretches further than a simple brand of catchiness, and throws a lot of focus on diversifying the album with complex riffs and sequences. A lot of this is done through pianist Ben Giddings and lead guitarist Chad Thomas, both of whom are prominent in most every song.

“Car Alarms & Sleepless Nights” shows off both of the musicians, starting with Giddings’ tranquil piano over drummer Andrew Hayes’ groovy drums. Sparrow once again adds to the beauty with his swooning vocals, until the guitars come in like a punch to the face. Bassist Phil Titus teams up with Sparrow’s guitar to amplify the gritty riff, and Giddings contributes with one of his many guitar solos while shrieking sound effects are spewed about. The song ends with the quirky, meaningful line that shows the complicated relationship between Sparrow and the “parasite” in the song when he asks, “Would you piss on me if I were on fire?”

But Pure Adulterated Joy is not all smiles and chocolate. “Love Thy Neighbor” and “Autoinjector” stray from more radio-friendly songs like the title track and “Reality Dream,” which are more jovial than these powerful rock songs. ”Love Thy Neighbor” is the heaviest track on the album, driven a lot by Hayes’ spastic drums and Sparrow’s unexpectedly gritty vocals alongside robust guitar riffs and spontaneous beat drops, while “Autoinjector” has some of the same themes and some killer mini-solos courtesy of Giddings.

Still, Pure Adulterated Joy‘s most triumphant moments are the bright, atmospheric tracks that Morning Parade pulls off so perfectly.

The albums ends on “Culture Vulture,” the best song on the exceptional sophomore release. It is by far the most lyrically deep, dissecting all that is wrong in our backwards society that puts too much focus on money and the pursuit of attention, among a slew of other things. The chord progression and Sparrow’s vocal melody make for an emotionally stimulating track that makes you evaluate life, while lines like, “Everyone knows everyone and everybody’s goings-on/And everyone wants everyone to try to fuck to get along” are harsh realizations about a culture that cares about all the wrong things.

Morning Parade has hit the sweet spot with Pure Adulterated Joy. It exists at a perfect equilibrium between carefree songs that appeal to the masses and serious ones about real-world issues with empowering musicianship. Either way you look at it, it’s clear that Morning Parade has accomplished something great.

Morning Parade – Pure Adulterated Joy tracklist:

  1. “Shake The Cage”
  2. “Alienation”
  3. “Reality Dream”
  4. “Love Thy Neighbor”
  5. “Car Alarms & Sleepless Nights”
  6. “Autoinjector”
  7. “Sharing Cigarettes”
  8. “Seasick”
  9. “Pure Adulterated Joy”
  10. “Culture Vulture”
Album-Art-For-Positive-Distractions-Part-Two-By-Secret-Colours Secret Colours – Positive Distractions Part II

★½☆☆☆

Listening to Secret Colours’ Positive Distractions Part II feels like revisiting the ’60s—but not in a good way. It’s a continuation of Part I, released in February, containing six nostalgic, pop-psychedelic anthems.

The four-piece group based in Chicago has fun emulating that era of music; lead singer Tommy Evans and his band do an exemplary job of recreating the magic of the ’60s, but they’re not doing anything groundbreaking or original.

Sure, they’re walking down memory lane and playing music that listeners heard growing up. Evans’ Beatles-influenced vocals and the group’s retro, hippie sounds are authentic, but it’s too much imitation and not enough innovation.

The first song, “Into You,” has a nice, groovy bass line, a psychedelic-retro feel, and a subtle funk flavor mixed in. Despite that, the song collapses thanks to Evans’ juvenile lyrics.

He tries hard to seduce the ladies, singing, “You are into me/I am into you/Been into me/Been into you/And I like you.” Instead, he sounds like an awkward, acne-riddled ninth grader participating in a talent show at his high school and trying to get cool with the female crowd. On a positive note, Evans is straightforward and doesn’t pull any punches.

“I Know What You Want” is another straightforward pop ballad about falling in love. The track evokes imagery of the band performing in front of a small audience on a black and white television—or of The Beatles in crisp, pin-striped suites playing on the Ed Sullivan Show. That’s about it. While Secret Colours does a commendable job imitating that powerful vibe, “I Know What You Want” is a shameless rip-off of all the classic pop ballads from the ’60s and a sad slap in the face to the Beatles.

Secret Colours’ Positive Distractions Part II  doesn’t offer anything new, unique, or even remotely groundbreaking.

They’re better off being a ’60s cover band rather than wasting their time regurgitating a 50-year-old style with no innovation of their own.

However, in fairness, Secret Colours receive a lot of love and acclaim for staying true and committed in reproducing classic psychedelic pop. They rekindle that sound with energy and respect for the past.

But with the original, genuine, and timeless music of the ’60s—the stuff Secret Colours is copying and pasting into the 21st century—readily available on the internet, an album like Positive Distractions Part II offers nothing that is truly unique or worth your hard-earned cash.

Secret Colours – Positive Distractions II tracklist:

  1. “Into You”
  2. “I Know What You Want”
  3. “Mrs. Bell”
  4. “Heavy & Steady”
  5. “Quite Like You”
  6. “Positive Distractions”
Album-art-for-Here-and-Nowhere-Else-by-Cloud-Nothings Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

★★★★☆

It seems like the boys of Cloud Nothings are all grown up with their newest release, Here and Nowhere Else.

Produced and mixed by John Congleton (Modest Mouse, the Walkmen) and released by Carpark Records, Cloud Nothings’ third studio album hasn’t lost any steam. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Dylan Baldi, bassist TJ Duke, and drummer Jayson Gerycz are back with a hard-hitting, but sentimental record.

With its indie-rock, lo-fi, punk sound intact, the trio from Cleveland has successfully held onto its unpolished edge while still being vulnerable.

They bust the gate wide open with opening track “Now Hear In,” with a solid hook and their classically sloppy rhythms. Baldi repeats, “I can feel your pain, and I feel alright about it.” The vocals could be mistaken for The Strokes’, but their rough and fuzzy drum and guitar sound is pure Cloud Nothings.

The lyrics throughout the record aren’t exactly poetry, but they do the job.

Here and Nowhere Else is largely about the past and being pissed off, which is communicated better through Cloud Nothings’ fast and furious rock than with words. Rips “Just See Fear” and “No Thoughts” must be propelled by jet fuel, or maybe just a whole lot of angst.

“Pattern Walks” is a thrashing marathon of sound. The track starts out with disjointed rhythms and dissonant chords that eventually, steadily become cohesive, like a distance runner finding their pace. Baldi bellows, “I thought/I thought/I thought” amidst ripping drum riffs, a charging rhythm, and an airy guitar melody that goes on forever, but unfortunately ends too soon.

Cloud Nothings saved the best for last with “I’m Not Part of Me.” It’s a straightforward, no-holds-barred rock track with smatterings of sentimentality. It opens with a reflective Baldi singing, “It starts right now, there’s a way I was before/But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore/I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else/How to focus on what I can do myself.”

Much of the record is about reflection and growth. While the band has retained its powerful, punk, low-fi sound, it’s also gained maturity. In the final bouncing verse, Baldi sings, “Leave it all to memory of/what we did when were young and/now you could just leave me on my own/Oh, moving toward a new idea/You’re not what I really needed/You could just leave me on my own.” Cloud Nothings stand as a band packed with youthful irreverence while still being sentimental and honest.

With added propulsion, a dash of ethos, and unwavering aggression, Cloud Nothings’ Here and Nowhere Else once again proves that being pissed off can hurt so good.

Cloud Nothings- Here and Nowhere Else tracklist:

  1. “Now Hear In”
  2. “Quiet Today”
  3. “Psychic Trauma”
  4. “Just See Fear”
  5. “Giving Into Seeing”
  6. “No Thoughts”
  7. “Pattern Walks”
  8. “I’m Not Part of Me”