As El Perro del Mar, Swedish songwriter Sarah Assbring slowly developed from the Kate Bush-evoking chamber indie of her earliest singles into a more layered pop sound, gradually employing more electronic elements as the years rolled on. With Pale Fire, she expands on the reference points of house, dub, and disco production that characterized her glowing 2009 album, Love Is Not Pop. The album keeps up the shattered drama that's colored all of El Perro del Mar's work from the start, with depressive undertones bubbling below the synthy sounds and Assbring's softly gliding vocals driving home an understated hopeless feel in even the most upbeat songs. Things stay dark but never cross the line into morbidity. More so, Assbring has been down so long it must look like up by now, especially with otherwise lively productions like "Hold Off the Dawn" latched around lyrics like "Ain't no need to talk about the future, baby" and "Is there a way to hold off the dawn? It's just another day." Space drums and a slinky rhythm section distract from the heavy mood, but it's still there. Some of the dubby basslines ("Love in Vain") and brash synth sounds ("Home Is to Feel Like That") from the last album carry over, but the strength of Pale Fire comes in the new terrain the album explores. Album centerpiece "Walk on By" throws back to 1991 with cloistered radio R&B bass, wobbly spoken word samples, and a legitimate new jack swing drum track that pushes the song along to the MIDI horn section of the chorus. The song wouldn't sound out of place on a mixtape with "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega or similar backward-looking sounds by her trip-hop-enthused contemporaries like Sky Ferreira. The minimal deep bass pulse of "I Was a Boy" paints a more skeletal picture from the same palette, and highlights some of the similarities between El Perro del Mar and the more boisterous output of fellow Swede Robyn. The various shifts in style can make Pale Fire a somewhat uneven affair at times, but at their best, the songs capture some of the same insular magic of Arthur Russell's bedroom disco moments or Brenda Ray's gloriously disjointed dub reworkings. While a more focused production ethic might have made for a more consistent album, Pale Fire still goes places the last album never dreamed and hopefully opens doors for even more drastic developments to come.
Fred Thomas, Rovi
Gary Clark, Jr. has been hailed by a number of critics as "the New Hendrix," which seems to be the fate of any guitarist who combines blues and rock styles at a considerable volume (particularly if they cover "Third Stone from the Sun"). While that's a blurb that may look good in Clark's press kit, it rather misses the point; Clark isn't a visionary, game-changing artist like Hendrix, but instead he's a canny singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist who has learned from the past and present, fusing them into a style that's distinctive and exciting if not necessarily revolutionary. Warner Bros. is also pitching Blak and Blu as Clark's "groundbreaking debut album," when in fact it's just his major-label debut, with four indie releases preceding it, making the confidence and ambition of this set a bit less remarkable. But if Gary Clark, Jr. isn't likely to change the way we look at rock & roll or rewrite the aesthetic of the electric guitar, he "is" one of the most interesting talents to come out of the contemporary blues scene in quite some time. On Blak and Blu, most of Clark's tunes are solidly rooted in the blues, but he's also folded in hearty servings of hard rock, funk, retro-soul, and even a dash of hip-hop, and the way he lets the flavors mix is a big part of what makes this album work so well. There's an undertow of Northern Soul on the dance-friendly opener "Ain't Messin' Round," "Travis County" is a no-frills rocker that recalls the Stones in fifth gear, "The Life" finds Clark moving back and forth between singing and rapping in a streetwise tale of drug addiction, "Numb" recalls the punk blues attack of the Black Keys and the White Stripes in its fuzzed-out blast, and the title cut samples both Gil Scott-Heron and Albert King as Clark melds conscious themes with blues backdrops. While the typical modern-day guitar hero goes out of his way to throw his dexterity in your face at every turn, here Clark shows off a tougher and more primal style, and though his chops are certainly good, he keep his solos concise and his attack muscular throughout. And if his songwriting is a bit uneven, he has an inarguable talent with both lyrics and melodies, and he's a good-to-great singer, sounding soulful and honest on every cut. Blak and Blu's production (by Rob Cavallo and Mike Elizondo in collaboration with Clark) is too polished and processed for its own good, but if this album isn't likely to change your life, it will make an hour of it a lot more interesting, and there's no arguing that Gary Clark, Jr. is a talent strong enough to match his record company's hype.
On 2011's Trust Now, Prince Rama honed itself down to the duo of Taraka and Nimai Larson with engineer and sometime-guitarist Scott Colburn. The end result was a witchy, neo-gothic, psychedelic dance music full of tripped-out jams and quasi-mystical kookiness that worked its loopy magic from beginning to end. On Top Ten Hits of the End of the World, the Larsons try to tighten it up and make it conceptual: PR claim to cover the "pop hits" of ten imaginary bands that died during the apocalypse via channeling them. (The paper booklet even has the scent of basement mold to add to to the vibe.) The fake band names are amusing: the Guns of Dubai, Rage Peace, Taohaus, Hyparxia, etc. The "songs" on Top Ten Hits aspire to a peyote-induced vision that melds Bananarama, latter-year Siouxsie & the Banshees, and Hayzee Fantayzee, with a little Kajagoogoo and late Zodiac Mindwarp thrown in for kicks. Prince Rama already own a sprawling musical language: a Brooklyn-baked, acid-drenched "jam band" style that eschews the predominance of traditional guitar- and drum-based aesthetics in favor of tribal digi-drums, layers of Casio presets, orgiastic roto-toms, analog synths, and enough reverb and digital delay to disorient a monk in deep meditation. The jittery, "So Destroyed," with its multivalent drum loops, organ vamps, and memorable chanted melody is a contender. Likewise their attempt at Bollywood on "Radhamadhava," contains a certain naive charm.
Thom Jurek, Rovi