Cold War Kids - Mine Is Yours album cover Cold War Kids – Mine Is Yours

★★☆☆☆

So the Cold War Kids sold out. At least that seems to be the narrative. It seemed too good to be true: a band from Long Beach, Calif. laden with Salinger references, pounding slightly out-of-tune pianos, railing against women and God and law. Nathan Willet’s nasal vibrato led a ragtag band into the breach. Its tales of dysfunction, its instability was its beauty. With Mine Is Yours something is now right with it and the result is oh so wrong.

When Cold War Kids embarked on its first nationwide tour in 2007 a poet would read a few words before each set. On “Robbers” the tacit Matt Maust would shine a flashlight, illuminating the faces of the audience, Willett and Jonnie Russell would ram shoulders on an almost empty stage. Now it all seems painfully out of place.

In Mine Is Yours, Cold War Kids have gone from monochrome to “Royal Blue,” the latter being its most concerted attempt at pop on the album.

Yes, Cold War Kids is singing pop songs. But they’re not even good Pop songs. “Royal Blue” isn’t a terrible track, but something about Nathan Willett abandoning his heart-wrenching howl and trying to sing sweetly is like Morrissey singing Metal. Listeners want abusive daddies, no chance of recovering and love and hate tattooed on knuckles. It doesn’t take but the first song of the album to realize something is amiss. “Mine Is Yours” features electronic, tape-delayed, Bono-esque wailing with too much reverbaration. Call it conservative, but if one can somehow stomach the forty-five minute leviathan that follows, they deserve a medal.

Listeners want nothingness; the sparse, ragged edges and hard-luck stories. They want those lovable chroniclers of the dregs. Songs about human cruelty are preferred over songs about date nights. “Finally Begin” ends like The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You.” Is this some kind of elaborate joke? “Louder Than Ever” is also reminiscent of the pop rock stuff that was on the radio more than a decade ago.

Cold War Kids used to be raw.

It only hurts so much because we know what the band is capable of. The epitome of that classic Cold War Kids sound is the guitar solo on “We Used to Vacation;” a bitter, arrhythmic and slightly out of tune maniacal flailing. Its imperfection made it that much more real. There were, at the very most, four elements to each song on Robbers & Cowards. Mine Is Yours features that same band stagnating in artificial, and perfectionist air with multiple-part arrangements and arena-ready anthems.

Now it’s Willet’s mom “going out with (his) best friend’s Dad.” “Sensitive Kid” features heavily-filtered drums, synthesizers and just about no lyrical depth saying, “Don’t call me the sensitive kid.” The song also features a totally contrived anthem like sing-along at the end “I can’t tell you why/ I shoulda known it/ Sensitive kid started acting like a grownup.”

Willett talked with Rolling Stone about a desire to evolve like R.E.M. into a more accessible and yet profoundly influential band. If that’s not a confession that Cold War Kids abandoned its guns for commercial success, what is?. It’s possible this is just a phase. Maybe the band had a little identity crisis like an adolescence. But this is its third full-length album, and someone’s mind needs to be made up.

When “Audience” dropped, like, yesterday, things were looking optimistic. Now that EP seems like a disclaimer or an apology ahead of time.

Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean album cover Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean

★★★★☆

It’s amazing how much Sam Beam’s music as Iron & Wine has evolved over the years. Each album to the next has signified a stylistic leap. His debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, is as lo-fi as it gets. Listening to his latest record, Kiss Each Other Clean, it’s hard to believe the same guy is making this music.

With songwriting closer to ’70s pop and soft rock and even more dense instrumentation than The Shepherd’s Dog, this may be his biggest leap yet.

The opening track, “Walking Far from Home,” released as a single late last year, welcomes new listeners who may have discovered him on the Twilight soundtrack. It’s a simple pop song, but Beam constantly changes the rhythm and instrumentation as the verses and chorus repeat. It opens with a distorted organ under as he establishes the main theme, the organ drops and is replaced with piano and vocal oohs, drums and vibes chime in, then strings, and with each turn the background vocals change, new layers are put in place and/or removed, and despite the repetitiveness of the song at its core, it stays interesting the whole time.

From then on it’s a more challenging affair. Although a couple tracks fall a little flat, much of Kiss Each Other Clean is a success for the same reasons: It starts with a good, simple song and then Beam adds a perfect tapestry of instrumental compliments from his now seemingly infinite collection, weaving them in and out with such taste and attention to detail.

Only rarely does it seem like Beam is stretching to achieve something out of reach or compensating for weak writing with production.

Some songs shift so much the beginning theme is hardly recognizable. “Monkeys Uptown” starts in a similarly psychedelic rock manner as “White Tooth Man” from The Shepherd’s Dog, then all of a sudden you reach the end and it’s basically a Stevie Wonder funk jam with vintage synths. Such experimentation would beset most songwriting, but not Sam Beam’s. Every bit of it works in his favor.

The more eccentric pieces are offset with some tunes that keep the layers to a minimum and dazzle with their natural beauty. The best one-two punch comes in the center of the album. “Rabbit Will Run” is a dark song, quietly epic, that manages to use toy whistles a couple times before dropping out and introducing a jazzy jam with some wonderful flute that actually understays its welcome. It is followed by the stunning “Godless Brother in Love,” which uses strictly acoustic instruments, recalling the simple elegance of the tracks on Our Endless Numbered Days while fitting into the rest of the album.

The album closes with “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me”—another epic piece. What could be described as a clash of Radiohead’s “Electioneering” and My Morning Jacket’s “Dondante,” the track opens with a fast shuffle beat, replete with horns and closes with a half-time coda that is easily the hardest and heaviest thing Beam has put to tape.

This will be a challenging listen for most fans and will likely split opinions. Even fans of The Shepherd’s Dog may struggle to connect with these songs initially. He’s definitely stepped out of his element. The songs aren’t quite his best nor are they his most unified set, but there’s a clear underlying brilliance throughout. Kiss Each Other Clean is close to being another Iron & Wine masterpiece, but misses slightly. At the end of the day, Sam Beam may not have created the album of the year, but he still has the best beard.

Kiss Each Other Clean Tracklisting

1. Walking Far from Home

2. Me and Lazarus

3. Tree By the River

4. Monkeys Uptown

5. Half Moon

6. Rabbit Will Run

7. Godless Brother in Love

8. Big Burned Hand

9. Glad Man Singing

10. Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me

Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde Album-Cover Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde

★★★★☆

Those who are standing vigil over the Ganges awaiting the reincarnation of George Harrison or are members of The Redwalls’ search party would do well to procure the new one from these boys post-haste. The buzziest of Chicago’s many buzz bands, Smith Westerns have lived up to their much lauded promise on Dye It Blonde, their first proper release for the once-again-relevant Fat Possum Records after reissuing their HoZac debut full-length last year.

Singer Cullen Omori, brother and bassist Cameron and guitarist Max Kakacek formed Smith Westerns in 2007 and have recently added a regular drummer, Hal James.

It’s hard to believe these Northside College Prep grads are all below the legal drinking age—there’s a musical maturity here that would put most thirty-somethings to shame.

Although they wear their influences on their sleeves (glam-rock like T. Rex and Sweet, ’90s Brit-pop like Suede and Teenage Fanclub), the songs are strong by themselves, and one never gets the sense they are just cut and paste pastiche plagiarizers.

In fact, Smith Westerns are another quartet representing the Great White Hope that something new and entertaining can be crafted from that staid rock stereotype of guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Anyone that says rock is dead should take this record for a spin.  Sure, maybe it’s been done before, but when there is so much youthful exuberance in these grooves, it’s hard to rain on their parade.

It’s not a perfect record by any means, the tracks become a bit samey after repeated listens, and the lyrics don’t avoid clichés: “I’ll take the long way home/Is there nothing else I should know?” Cullen sings on “Fallen In Love,” “You’re not the girl I used to know” he adds on the ambitiously entitled “Imagine Pt. 3.” And, the bridge of “Weekend” gets a, “Na na na/A girl like you.”

However, the strength of the soaring melodies and richly baroque instrumentation coupled with their boisterousness more than makes up for this minor quibble. The lavish production helps too—veteran producer Chris Coady (Beach House, TV On The Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) serves as the Phil Spector on Dye It Blonde.

It’s clear the lo-fi reputation from their first singles and debut record was more a necessity of recording in guitarist Kakacek’s basement than a stylistic choice, for Dye It Blonde is all high fidelity, all the time.

Smith Westerns imagine a world where Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne had traded in his Lennon-McCartney fixation and instead focused on Harrison, the quiet Beatle who was the first to release a critical and commercial masterpiece, All Things Must Pass.

Smith Westerns made their initial mark by opening for Chicago up-and-coming duo White Mystery and have recently opened for MGMT, Florence + the Machine and WAVVES, and despite a lackluster “deer in the headlights” live performance while opening for Belle and Sebastian last fall, they have clearly justified the buzz they’ve generated with Dye It Blonde.

Dye It Blonde Tracklisting

  1. Weekend
  2. Still New
  3. Imagine Pt. 3
  4. All Die Young
  5. Fallen In Love
  6. End of the Night
  7. Only One
  8. Smile
  9. Dance Away
  10. Dye the World
Braids – Native Speaker

★★★½☆

Upcoming talents Braids’ full-length debut features seven experimental pop tracks guaranteed to intrigue. Native Speaker is most definitely the resultant of listening to Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and, even more so, Feels.

Although they wear this influence on both sleeves, Braids is far more than just AC with female vocals. Their sound is driven by live guitars and percussion with plenty of added effects and layers.

Peering through the dense mass of sound are the wonderfully quirky and melodic vocals of Raphaelle Standell-Preston (also from Blue Hawaii). Sometimes she emulates the weirdness of Avey Tare, but her lyrics are far less bizarre. She can evoke the work of Marnie Stern or Björk, but she also has a light, pretty timbre closer to the indie pop singers.

Opener “Lemonade” calls upon the spirit of Avey Tare and Panda Bear. The intro recalls “In the Flowers,” a delicate guitar line with delay peers through and a tribal drum beat kicks in along with Raph’s  instantly captivating vocals. It’s not long until Braids turn the attention away from the standout influences and onto the wealth of texture and melody they can provide.

Braids give a lot of space for the songs to breathe. Songs are constructed and deconstructed slowly.

Although each track has plenty of beauty and verve, the tracks end up meandering more than they should. To pull another Animal Collective reference, a lot of these tracks do what they did on “Daily Routine.” However, instead of being a one-time, cascading coda of shimmering splendor, it’s a reoccurring procedure that lags. For example, “Glass Deers” takes more than a minute and a half to start developing into something tangible, and even when the vocals and instrumentation kick in it takes almost another minute to get going. When it gets going it is really nice; it’s just a shame it takes so long to get there. A similar thing happens in the following number, the title track. Due to such languid development, both tracks reach the eight-minute mark when they could have easily fit into six.

After paying homage to their idols and wandering about, the group really comes into their own in the final three tracks. “Lammicken” takes Raph’s Björkian wail to a whole other level atop a swirling maelstrom of sound; “Same Mum” is an up-tempo number with a guitar riff that would have fit right in on Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, at once playful and gorgeous; and the album closes with instrumental number “Little Hand” which does the slow build technique in a much more practical and satisfying way. As the track slowly builds to a mild climax point, the immediately memorable guitar line and wash of sound surround the listener for a short while and lay them down gently. The satisfaction from these tracks attest to the potential of this band and the likelihood of future success.

Native Speaker is definitely the album we should be discovering after first being blown away by their sophomore record—something like Grizzly Bear’s Horn of Plenty, only this one is better. Fortunately, this says more about the quality of their future efforts than the lack of quality of this one. It’s still a strong record, but there is noticeable room for development. Nevertheless, the hype is there now and Braids will probably see some present critical and commercial success.

Cage the Elephant - Thank You, Happy Birthday album cover Cage The Elephant – Thank You, Happy Birthday

★★★½☆

As far as band names go, Cage The Elephant is the perfect moniker to describe the experience one has when listening to, or seeing, this band. It’s a beast that, on its debut in 2008, showed us what a healthy mix of punk and old Kentucky blues could do. It was riveting, sweaty, loud and, most importantly, did not disappoint.

With round two at the ready, Cage The Elephant goes bigger as it tries to impress with much more emphasis on in-your-face riff heavy rock. What we get are stadium-sized tunes and a band that’s done with the small time.

On the one hand, Thank You, Happy Birthday is as close to punk rock as Elephant has been thus far. “Sell Yourself” is out of its mind with Stooges-like moans and groans in the vocals as its chaotic rhythm is punctuated by punk sarcasm and screams. It’s quite the homage to the late ’70s with driving drums and jagged guitars.

Matt Shultz rages on being anti-everything, shouting against T.V. and conformity as the band pummels through a series of ringing bridges and loud moshing distortion. In the same vein, both “Sabertooth Tiger” and “Japanese Buffalo” give and give with an unflinching aggression that’s brilliant. That’s the kind of energy that gave this band a place in music, and it’s only been pushed further here.

On the other hand, Happy Birthday is equally a modern rock album, pitching much of its previous down-home sound for one with more radio familiarity. “Right Before My Eyes” is a considerably milder track, taking a standard rock formula approach. In earnest they work in the grit and honesty, and at best it feels comfortably radio-friendly.

Keeping the band straight in its  stab at wider appeal are tracks like opener “Always Something,” an adulterous track about sneaking around. It is quite devious with a slick bassline and catchy UK-inspired riffs. On the introspective side, album closer “Flow” gives listeners seven minutes of creative acoustic-based roots rock. There’s a heart lying below the aggression, as the album drifts off calmly.

What pulls Happy Birthday together is simple. Cage The Elephant has found a way to mesh the varying styles thanks to its penchant for using strong blues rhythms as the backbone for everything it does.

It’s this that keeps Happy Birthday grounded, and while the album takes the band through some new ideas, it isn’t that far from home for them. Those new ideas however give listeners a creative push forward that develops the still very fresh band.

It’s obvious Cage The Elephant is looking to step up in the music world. To its advantage, the sophomore slump does not apply here, and it sounds as though the band may get its wish. Ultimately Cage The Elephant wants what all bands want — recognition, and it’s out to get more of it. Happy Birthday gives them the momentum, now they just have to figure out what to do with it.

Thank You, Happy Birthday Tracklist

  1. “Always Something”
  2. “Aberdeen”
  3. “Indy Kidz”
  4. “Shake Me Down”
  5. “2024”
  6. “Sell Yourself”
  7. “Rubber Ball”
  8. “Right Before Your Eyes”
  9. “Around My Head”
  10. “Sabertooth Tiger”
  11. “Japanese Buffalo”
  12. “Flow”
Tennis - Cape Dory album cover Tennis – Cape Dory

★★★★½

Critics normally can’t help but pity a band that jumps on the bandwagon at the last second. Late additions to a movement are usually ignored, and such was the plight of many bands coming into the surf-rock uprising.

Bands like Beach House, Best Coast and Wavves capitalized on beach influences, each seeming to take a different spin on sun-soaked Gidget tunes. Beach House took on the ambient side of things with Teen Dream, exploring the most sparkling of dream pop. Best Coast and Wavves took a cheekier approach, with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino becoming the sweetheart of the underground and Wavves making a stellar comeback from a career-shattering on-stage breakdown at Spain’s Primavera Sound Festival in 2009.

The 1950s genre is a successful and seemingly exhausted revival. And just as the outpour of nostalgic beach jams began to slow, the surfing arsenal made room for another addition.

While most newly married couples spend their time worrying about finances, Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore made a bold move by taking their sailboat on an eight month trip up the Atlantic coast. Both classically trained musicians, the duo turned to music to preserve memories of their trip and essentially stumbled into becoming a band.

The chronicles of their adventures eventually became their sweet, ’50s girl-group inspired debut album Cape Dory. Shifting between light and lovely to intimate and listless, Cape Dory is the perfect soundtrack to their quasi-honeymoon, capturing the loneliness of the sea and the excitement of new love and sights.

Moore’s delicate soprano is never overshadowed by a rather simple backing or largely simple guitar work, with minimal percussion elements, from Riley. This allows Moore to stay purposefully understated, but still have a presence among swirling beach sounds. Riley is a champion of signature jangly sand and surf guitar sound and is accompanied by little else besides a quietly weeping Wurlitzer organ.

The set up itself adds to Tennis’ intimacy, as the duo make no attempts to be a bigger sound than they really are like other big-band duo’s such as the Black Keys and Dodos. They have a simplistic and unflustered sound that is more inspired and unpolished.

“Marathon” is the first-time-through favorite with its soaring choruses of “ooh”s and a simple functioning bassline hammered out on the organ repeatedly through the song. It is the lighthearted and catchy songs that become the most memorable tracks from Cape Dory.

“South Carolina,” “Long Boat Pass” and “Baltimore” take on the same kind of bounciness and are largely responsible for the immediate accessibility of the album. A different kind of draw lies in the slower, aching gems like “Bimini Bay” and the self-reflective “Waterbirds.” Here, Riley cuts loose and waxes poetic with his guitar.

Tennis has been quoted saying that its only inspiration comes from life at sea. One can only hope that they return soon. Cape Dory was minted unexpectedly by newly christened artists and maybe its sporadic nature makes it a once-in-a-lifetime piece of work. Let’s just say that there are plenty of fingers crossed that life on the road for Tennis’ upcoming tour will be as enchanting as seafaring.

Cape Dory Tracklisting

  1. Take Me Somewhere
  2. Long Boat Pass
  3. Cape Dory
  4. Marathon
  5. Bimini Bay
  6. South Carolina
  7. Pigeon
  8. Seafarer
  9. Baltimore
  10. Waterbirds
Social Distortion Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes Album Cover Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

★★★★☆

Following up on its sixth studio album Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Social Distortion returns to the studio to record and bestows upon the teeming masses a gift from God.

The wait (nearly four years) has been worth it as Social Distortion lines up a number of rock hard tracks on an album fit for a king. Mike Ness and the boys kick serious ass in unmatched style, grinding out the latest spat of awesomeness, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. With Ness behind the microphone (and the controls), Social Distortion’s latest contribution to the world of punk music doesn’t hold back and makes a statement like no other.

Ness wears the producer hat for the first time, retiring  Social Distortion to a Burbank studio to run together Rhymes. The band’s sound is wrapped neatly in a traditional rockabilly/punk package with a toe dipping in the realm of the Rolling Stones and old-timey country music. This makes for a masterful take on punk music – robbing banks and creaming young girls’ frilly pink panties.

Social Distortion opens the album with sheer panache. Heating the tracks up with the instrumental “Road Zombie,” the song paves the way for a face-smashing album with this rockabilly anthem. By the end of this two-plus minute song, ears are warm and the mind is frothing for what is next to come.

The follow-up comes in the form of a Stones-like musical cavalcade called “California (Hustle and Flow).”  Jam-packed with gospel singers in the background and a handful of down right delicious guitar riffs, the song is one of a few on the album with such flair. In a recent interview, Ness says, “It started out as pretty much a roots rocker, ended up morphing into kind of a tribute to the Stones.”

“Can’t Take it with You” holds true to the same sound as the Stones and gives the soul something to grasp to that isn’t just your run-of-the-mill punk music.

Paying homage to the 1930s gangster, the band puts together a song drifting into the world of holdin’ folks up and keeping company with pimps and whores in “Machine Gun Blues.” It’s a fast-moving treasure map of days when all men, women and kids should get out of the way of a fine dressed man sporting a pin stripe suit, spats and a Tommy Gun.

Even as a mainstay in the punk community, Ness and crew manage to slide a couple of ballads on the album. “Bakersfield” speaks of being on the outs and trying to get back in. Ness hopes for a “California king bed” when he gets back into town so he has some place to rest his head (long road trips can weigh heavy on the soul). Social Distortion pays homage to old school country music legend Hank Sr. in a brooding cover of “Alone and Forsaken.” Ness also shows his prowess as a crooner on “Writing on the Wall.”  Visions of a teenage Social Distortion wooing young girls in the crowd comes to mind as Ness wisps over closing lyrics, “oooh, I can’t let go.”

Social Distortion worked the entire album together flawlessly. With Ness as the full-on producer, he has all the ammo he needs to help shoot the music scene full of holes. Even though the wait seemed like an eternity, there is no comparison from the rest of the industry when Social Distortion puts its music on wax.

Punkers both young and old will forever hold this band with special regard. As long as the boys continue to rock the pants off the rest of the world, Social Distortion will always have a home in the punk world and Southern California.

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes Tracklist

  1. Road Zombie
  2. California (Hustle and Flow)
  3. Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
  4. Diamond in the Rough
  5. Machine Gun Blues
  6. Bakersfield
  7. Far Side of Nowhere
  8. Alone and Forsaken
  9. Writing on the Wall
  10. Can’t Take It With You
  11. Still Alive
Clive Tanaka y Su Orquesta - Jet Set Siempre No 1 album cover Clive Tanaka y Su Orquesta – Jet Set Siempre No. 1

★★★★½

It begins with static—the sound of rain falling, hints of stroboscopic synth, the plucking of a bass. A vocoded voice emerges from the sound, “I’ve been watching you babe, all night,” and we’re launched into Jet Set Siempre No. 1; a strange and glamorous romp into disco obsession followed by a slower, contemplative reflection. The album is divided accordingly; four songs are “For Dance,” four “For Romance.”

If you follow the instructions, “All Night, All Right” is the triumphant disco opening. “The way you move you body/It’s just right,” Clive Tanaka—we’ll call him that—seems to be having fun making the music, it’s disarming and lets you enjoy yourself without thinking too hard about it. At times it’s reminiscent of late nineties electronica, acts like Fatboy Slim.  Jet Set Siempre No. 1 carries a euphoric and nostalgic glow, taking on the terrible life machine with childhood innocence.

This is the part of the review where the artist’s actual name, age and history are listed. That’s great except no one knows anything, he seems sworn to secrecy. There’s speculation, given the vocoder, his surname, along with the Japanese URL and characters on his homepage that we’ve been sent these sounds by way of the rising sun. Then again, this holds about as much credence as the album being Daft Punk’s side-project. Clive Tanaka y Su Orquesta has remained incognito in an era of information overexposure.

Released exclusively on cassette this last March, Jet Set Siempre no. 1 has made waves recently with Youtube interpretations of “Neu Chicago.” What that song has to do with Chicago, doesn’t matter. It should be a hit. The lyrics are maddeningly simple and sparse, “Don’t you try to lie/I see the longing in your eyes,” but the effect works, I dare you not to sing along by the end, especially when he drops the vocoder on “That someone is me.” It’s one of these rare pop songs stuck in an indie body. The intention is sweet, rather than ironic.

Side B opens with “Skinjob,” (likely a reference to Blade Runner) with its jazzy bass-line and cool guitar reflections—music to plan a heist to. “The Fourth Magi” begins as a chocolaty seventies love sequence and ends as a hopeful electronic fugue. The apparent namesakes of the songs are as wildly eclectic as the sound they embody.

I would feign say the album’s corny but some of the lines are shamelessly tacky. Then again, so is the band name.  It’s all a little tongue-in-cheek, which, if you let it, only adds to the charm. Clive Tanaka y Su Orquesta combine steel drums with synthesizers; vocoder with electric guitar, it’s a big, lo-fi sound. “I Want You (So Bad)” bursts at the seams with dancefloor space and yet no single element overwhelms the others, a guitar solo writhes under a funky electro beat. The sound is tropical, heartfelt and infectious.

What Jet Set Siempre no. 1 is not is oppressive; it’s a soundtrack for getting work done or dancing in front of the mirror in your room. Depending on how loud you’re listening, it’s unobtrusively ambient or addictively danceable. The transitions between songs are so seamless it has the feel of a continuing story; the album plays both DJ and setlist. To this effect, we don’t want to go home when it’s all over.

“Lonely for the High Scrapers” is the optimistic ending, repeating the lyrics “You’re not the only one,” over and over—benediction to an album themed on unrequited love. With its prolific use of vocoder, reverb and trance keyboards, very little acoustic is heard throughout the entire album.  Jet Set Siempre no. 1 comes and goes like a dream; as swiftly as we feel the urge to dance, it ends leaving us wondering what we’ve just experienced, why this longing feeling.

Jet Set Siempre No. 1 Tracklisting

  1. All Night, All Right
  2. I Want You (So Bad)
  3. Neu Chicago
  4. Brack Lain
  5. Skinjob
  6. International Heartbreaker
  7. The Fourth Magi
  8. Lonely for the High Scrapers
Drive-By Truckers - Go-Go Boots album cover Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots

★★★½☆

Drive-By Truckers are bringing it all back home, sweet home. Channeling its native Muscle Shoals sound, the band paints that swampy Alabaman intersection of Soul and Country music lore. Eddie Hinton, a guitar legend of the local sound who passed away in 1995, serves as a muse to the album. Go-Go Boots features two Hinton covers, the first time Drive-By Truckers has tackled unoriginal material on a studio release.

Go-Go Boots is dirty, brooding and thoughtful Southern rock.

The band has abandoned overproduction in favor of a raw, wholesome and warm vintage sound. The guitars are imbibed with raunchy slides and heart-wrenching fire. The banjoes are plucked in a corner, behind the spoons. Each song on the album has the feeling of a live, one-take performance, the genius of Hinton’s production.

In a nation plagued by lifeless “beers and tears” pop country music (that sounds more like a parody of itself than a subsistent genre) Drive-By Truckers has a refreshingly down home sound. This is honest, for the most part, upbeat honky tonking. One can’t help but do a little ho-down along to the sticks of “Cartoon Gold.”

Drive-By Truckers have garnered the critical title “Alternative Country.” Though it may be cringe-worthy, what else do you call something that isn’t mainstream and yet undeniably country music? This is a band that first garnered renown in 2001 for their work Southern Rock Opera chronicling the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Both bands sweat native pride with an ear for long-form ballads of the common man, but the difference is there’s no sentimentality with the Drive-By Truckers. The truth, no matter how ugly, is the unerring palette of the Truckers.

Lead singer Patterson Hood pours his bleeding heart out in “The Fireplace Poker,” a dynamic performance worthy of note. The lyricism is old-timey and frank. His husky, Southern drawl lends itself to the sweaty feel of Go-Go Boots. The understated harmonica beneath his whine paints a bleak night sky, viewed from a country porch.

This is wide-open music, imbibed with the surreal Alabaman landscape of swamp-moss and cotton plants.

The most stellar moments on the album are in the troubled, dystopian invocations of Southern Gothic. Mike Cooley calls “Used to Be A Cop” a tale “of paranoia and suspense.” It doesn’t pull any punches, “I had a car but the bank came and took it/ Payin’ for a house that that bitch lives in now.” The characters are at times frighteningly real, capable of unspeakable cruelties and somehow never beyond sympathy. We might all know the kid from the titular track that, “Got some girl pregnant when he was sixteen/Workin’ for McDonalds, pumpin gasoline.”

“Everybody Needs Love,” one of the Hinton covers, infers just what it says. It’s a little uninspired, if not altogether tired statement of a song. There’s an invariable backbeat to each track on the album, everything’s got a little ramble-tamble, which is addictive but numbing. Sometimes you just want them to slow down, to dwell on the complex issues they present; murder, gun-ownership, rape and cuckolding to name a handful. On each of the songs, narrative is constructed plainly by the singer with reckless abandon toward exposition. What was the protagonist shooting at in “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” that was “all too real” to the point he can’t go on?

Go-Go Boots ends with the crescendoing, reverend gospel of “Mercy Buckets,” where Hood promises, “I will be your saving grace.” This is unashamed Americana, fearlessly parading our roots. Unfortunately, the antiquated nature of the music has kept it all but nostalgiac in our country and the band is actually more beloved among European audiences. While the album never achieves something magical, suffice to say it is dirty, sexy and everything we like to idyllically envision about the South.

Go-Go Boots Tracklisting

  1. I Do Believe (3:33)
  2. Go-Go Boots (5:38)
  3. Dancin’ Ricky (3:28)
  4. Cartoon Gold (3:15)
  5. Ray’s Automatic Weapon (4:27)
  6. Everybody Needs Love (4:38)
  7. Assholes (4:41)
  8. The Weakest Man (3:21)
  9. Used To Be A Cop (7:05)
  10. The Fireplace Poker (8:16)
  11. Where’s Eddie (3:03)
  12. The Thanksgiving Filter (5:37)
  13. Pulaski (4:26)
  14. Mercy Buckets (5:24)
Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will album cover Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

★★★★☆

Mogwai make music as the moon and sun trade places in a bleak midwinter midnight, marshy reeds frozen stiff bend blithely beside the glaciated shore, and the frozen skins of water slowly revolve in fractal patterns, with accents of oily slickness producing rainbows of agate.

This is a record that begs for the isolation tank treatment. Listeners would do well to close out the world and let the sound envelop them, for these 10 compositions wash beautifully across one’s ears like a gentle tide composed of all the elements of creation that ever were, are, or shall be. Those elements include music, of course; to be sure, there are echoes of sounds and songs that have come before, but this Glaswegian quintet have crafted something new from the vestigial limbs of their forefathers, and the results are majestic and compelling.

Mogwai offer electric guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, but the parts are so complex and so richly layered they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Like the surface of a calm sea, the album is deceptively simple and placid at first glance, but if properly immersed in the listening process, the complexities abound. How else can one explain the hidden rhythmic intricacies, the rippling musical signatures that weave throughout the songs? It’s criminal to refer to these recordings as songs, really:  they are more meditations than songs.

Mogwai offer electric guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, but the parts are so complex and so richly layered they add up to more than the sum of their parts. In addition, there are flourishes of complexity interwoven through each track:  it could be a syncopated rhythm or bubbles bursting in a bong (“How To Be A Werewolf”), or a synthesized violin veering over power chords (“Too Raging To Cheers”).Just when the listener believes the compositions are grandiose enough and come with enough layers of instrumentation, Mogwai add on more.

The recorded works here build on the groundwork laid by minimalist guitar pioneers Pell Mell in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and their electronic antecedents from the ’70s, krautrock crusaders Kraftwerk (“Mexican Grand Prix” is reminiscent of their classic Autobahn). “Rano Pano” takes the ominous introduction to The Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way” and jams on it, as if to salute the late George Harrison. The guitars, keyboards, submarine sonar-pinging keyboards and the drums pounding like rain on a tin shack seem to say, “Please, don’t you be very long, George, for I may be asleep” when he returns in his next life.

Although it stands on its own, this is not music composed in a vacuum and thus features some  reflections of the current  environs. There’s the soundtrack experimentation of Sonic Youth (“You’re Lionel Richie”), the anthemic ambition of Radiohead (“Letters To The Metro”) and the delicate sonic symphonies of Stereolab (“White Noise”). Throughout there are also echoes of the instrumental artistry of Explosions In The Sky and Black Moth Super Rainbow..

While not entirely instrumental, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will might as well be, for the one piece with true vocals has them processed and distorted in such a way as to make them almost indecipherable (so much so that the vocal track might as well be a clarinet). But  this instrumental music triggers the philosophical question: Is lack of vocals a cop-out? Is Mogwai stepping up to the precipice but refusing to make the grand leap by not attaching some literal meaning to its compositions, and not taking that giant step by trying to fit vocals into their multi-layered instrumental mix? And if they had vocals over the top of these ten tracks, could they be the next Radiohead? Perhaps yes, but that misses the point. These “songs” don’t need vocals; there is so much happening musically in each track that no listener will miss them; they are complete as they are.

Just as he did with AC/DC for Maximum Overdrive and The Ramones for Pet Sematary, one hopes that Stephen King will select these Scots for his next soundtrack. If not, if there is such a thing as a post-rock revolution, then Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will should be the soundtrack to its Koyaanisqatsi.

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will Tracklisting

  1. White Noise
  2. Mexican Grand Prix
  3. Rano Pano
  4. Death Rays
  5. San Pedro
  6. Letters to the Metro
  7. George Square Thatcher Death Party
  8. How to Be a Werewolf
  9. Too Raging to Cheers
  10. You’re Lionel Richie
British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall

★★★☆☆

Nowhere on Valhalla Dancehall is there music that sounds like a mythical Scandinavian dance party. It’s none of those words at all. In fact, there is little here that indicates any change in British Sea Power’s usual formula. This comes as a surprise after 2009’s Man of Aran OST and 2010’s Zeus EP, both showcasing alternate sides to the band and promising a more experimental and fully-fleshed full-length.

The album opens with a poppy number about the cut protests in the UK, which wouldn’t be too bad of a song if the lead riff had an actual melody and the chorus wasn’t absolutely awful. Complete with chanting behind vocalist Yan singing “over here, over there, over here, every-fucking-where,” it’s unfortunately in this way that “Who’s in Control” makes itself the most immediately memorable track on the whole album. Luckily, “We Are Sound” immediately turns things around, starting a string of solid tracks representing the various facets of the group’s style. “Georgie Ray” is a slow-burning ballad and “Stunde Node” is a short post-punk powerhouse leading into highpoint “Mongk II,” a buzzing remake of “Mongk” off the Zeus EP.

British Sea Power so obviously aims to be epic that they often forget what it means to write a good song.

These guys want to sound huge. They want to write a powerful melodic rock song like U2’s “Beautiful Day.”  The problem is they try too hard. This is why British Sea Power will likely never stand among contemporary greats such as Arcade Fire and Radiohead. Those bands are huge, but their material sounds so natural. Every song starts with a great tune and they build from there. Valhalla Dancehall often sounds like the band started with their effects pedals on and they just went into it hoping that the song would follow. British Sea Power so obviously aims to be epic that they often forget what it means to just write a good song.

This has never been so apparent as in the back end of the album. The sprawling eleven minutes of “Once More Now,” whose title is more a cue for the band than what the listener will say when it’s done, is a decent track stretched out in order to create something grand (it isn’t). This is made worse with the inclusion of “Cleaning out the Rooms,” again from Zeus, which does exactly what the band aims to do here but in four fewer minutes. Preceding it is the short, raucous punch of “Thin Black Sail.” This song sounds terribly out of place, thrown in there for the sake of diversity and forcing the sense of urgency they had on their debut to make up for the languid tracks surrounding it. The album does however end on what may be the best track: “Heavy Water.” Though clearly another nod to U2, its steady beat, guitar swells and passionately crooned vocals actually outdo anything Bono & Co. have recorded in the past decade. It’s quite moving.

At 14 tracks and 60 minutes long, they could stand to trim some of the fat. Removing some of the unnecessary later tracks and meandering a bit less elsewhere would render a pretty good album. The tones are well thought out and though there is nary a standout hook or riff to be found amidst the billowy reverb, the lyrics and performances usually do enough to sustain interest.

British Sea Power was poised to be a unique force when they released The Decline of British Sea Power. 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music earned them a Mercury Prize nomination, but still suggested there was more in them. Maybe there really wasn’t. So the question is do you like Do You Like Rock Music? If so, you’ll probably like Valhalla Dancehall.

Valhalla Dancehall Tracklisting

  1. Who’s In Control
  2. We Are Sound
  3. Georgie Ray
  4. Stunde Null
  5. Mongk II
  6. Luna
  7. Baby
  8. Life Is So Easy
  9. Observe the Skies
  10. Cleaning Out the Rooms
  11. Thin Black Sail
  12. Once More Now
  13. Heavy Water
The Decemberists - The King Is Dead album artwork The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

★★★★☆

Front-man Colin Meloy may be a Smiths fan, but don’t be convinced the title, a play on The Queen Is Dead, is another Decemberists album inspired heavily by English musicians.

In the past, the quintet innovated ’60s English folk into a new genre called ork-pop, and in the last few albums have blended Sabbath-esque oeuvres for a sound that nearly resurrected Jethro Tull. But, The King Is Dead brings the Portland, OR band back stateside, enlisting singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck to polish a different sound, or “The turning of a season,” as Meloy describes it in the opening lines of “Don’t Carry It All.”

Following 2009’s The Hazards of Love—complete with an overture, explicit storyline and dozens of sonic crashes and booms, The King Is Dead is a departure that pumps fresh air in the music with quiet songs and slow tempos. Meloy introduces a harmonica to the band’s bevy of instruments, and brings Jenny Conlee’s accordion back—a sound that’s been minimized in recent albums.

Buck’s guitar is prevalent in songs including “The Calamity Song,” “This is Why We Fight” and the album’s first single, “Down By the Water,” and bridges the band’s new sound with their alternative roots—another hat-tip to the members’ American influences. The band also brings together the different sound with Fleetwood Mack-ian acoustic progressions and recurring beck-and-calls between Meloy and Welch. “Rise to Me,” “Dear Avery” and twin ditties “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” carve out quiet acoustics for strolling afternoons, while “Rox In a Box” and “All Arise!” reach out to the more playful sounds of fiddles and Chris Funk’s pedal steel guitar.

An album with a mostly Americana sound, The King Is Dead is a world away from anything the band has released in its decade-long existence, but it’s not hard to distinguish that it’s the same band that released The Tain and “The Rake’s Song.” Some remnants of the Decemberists sound and Meloy’s signature narrative songwriting are still there.

Like some of the band’s songs whose dark lyrics are set to upbeat tempos (e.g. “Culling of the Fold,” “We Both Go Down Together”), “Calamity Song” trips lackadaisically through lyrics of the apocalypse while Meloy coos “ahh-ooh” along drummer John Moen’s rim shots.

“This Is Why We Fight” brings electric guitar in with banjo, accordion and harmonica, and comes through as the rocker on the album, but with lyrical maturity beyond trapeze artists and military wives.

The King Is Dead is a cut above what the quintet has released before, yet their musical and lyrical maturity doesn’t stop them from continuing to explore genres. The Decemberists are a renaissance band, and they transition with ease from prog-rock, brought to life by multiple drums and guitars, to country music seemingly found in the Virginia backwoods.

The King Is Dead Tracklisting

  1. Don’t Carry It All
  2. Calamity Song
  3. Rise To Me
  4. Rox In a Box
  5. January Hymn
  6. Down By the Water
  7. All Arise!
  8. June Hymn
  9. This Is Why We Fight
  10. Dear Avery