|Hold Your Head||Chimera|| |
|Karla||Rotten Thing To Say|| |
|What Makes a Good Man||The Glorious Dead|| |
|Sharp Practice||Violent Waves|| |
|Mexican Institute Of Sound|
|Still Standing||New Day Dawning|| |
|Electric||In Limbo|| |
While whimsical, female-voiced electronic pop was all the rage when Purity Ring's debut album Shrines was released, the duo still managed to stand out from the crowd. While their sweetly chilly sound falls somewhere between Grimes' intricate quirks and the rhapsodic wordplay and sensuality of Braids, Purity Ring's individuality comes from the equal partnership of Megan James' girlish vocals and unusual lyrics, and Corin Roddick's playful electronic soundscapes. Shrines makes good on the promise of the songs the duo previously issued online, which remain highlights: "Fineshrine" may still be the quintessential Purity Ring song, with James entreating the listener to "cut open my sternum and poke" as Roddick's backdrop flits between gentle and ominous; many of James' songs are focused on the body, treating it with almost spiritual wonder as on the dark, Crystal Castles-like "Belispeak." Meanwhile, "Ungirthed" remains a showcase for the duo's fascination with ultra-bright electronic tones that add to Shrines' largely, if deceptively, innocent feel. These songs and "Amenamy" and "Obedear" could be from the soundtrack to some fantastical anime series yet to be written, but just when the album threatens to become a little too sweet and samey for its own good, Roddick and James reveal new levels to Purity Ring's sound. "Lofticries"' more sophisticated melody and "Cartographist"'s eerie atmosphere and fractured beats hint at a depth that should serve the duo well. As it stands, Shrines is a fine debut, full of lighter-than-air synth pop that manages to be dark, sparkling, innocent, and knowing all at once.
Heather Phares, Rovi
Following a pair of phenomenal albums from Adrian Younge -- the Black Dynamite soundtrack and Venice Dawn's Something About April -- the label wing of indispensable music publication Wax Poetics rolls on with soul singer and taxidermy enthusiast Kendra Morris. Like Younge, Morris is infatuated with late-'60s and early-'70s psychedelic R&B and funk, and a little rock is added to the mix with help from producer/guitarist Jeremy Page and a steady backing band (which includes the rhythm section from Page's That Handsome Devil). Morris recorded burning, tripped-out Pink Floyd and Metallica covers, and she performed Funkadelic's "I'll Bet You" with legendary Detroit session guitarist Dennis Coffey. The third song is what's in her wheelhouse. In fact, considering her elegantly gusty style, she recalls Parliament/Funkadelic associate Ruth Copeland; some of these songs would not be out of place on either one of Copeland's Invictus albums. Most compelling of all is "Concrete Waves," with deceptively confrontational verses over a tiptoeing backdrop that ramp up into a creepy, spell-casting chorus. When it comes to "If You Didn't Go," parallels aren't as easy to draw; as an instrumental, it might be considered easy listening soul, but Morris projects an affecting feather-light melody that sounds utterly singular. A couple of relatively modern-sounding, borderline MOR songs lack the sting present in the more haunting material. That Morris refers to herself as a banshee seems accurate, though she's too controlled to wail. Anyone who values Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, Raphael Saadiq's Stone Rollin', or Alice Smith's For Lovers, Dreamers & Me should check this.
Andy Kellman, Rovi
Wild Nothing's excellent debut album Gemini had a homemade, slightly wonky feel that gave Jack Tatum's take on '80s new wave pop a human touch. (Also, it included the brilliant single "Summer Holiday.") For the follow-up Nocturne, Tatum headed to the Rare Book Room to work with producer Nicolas Vernhes, and together the two crafted an album that takes Wild Nothing's sound out of the bedroom, dresses it in fancy clothing, and manages to be just as impressive. The overall sound of the album is much more layered and smooth; Tatum's bathed-in-warm-reverb voice is even lower in the mix, the guitars chime and ring but are rarely spiky, and the keyboards are more atmospheric than before. Another change on Nocturne is the live drums, which give the sound a boost in energy and power. While Gemini's drum machines were fun, they sometimes got in the way of the songs with their sometimes-cheesy retro-ness. No more of that for Tatum, this a meticulously crafted album that's the product of a pro studio and a seasoned producer. And while that's an approach that can often sink an album (and a career), in this case it works really well. The album's richly textured sound is a perfect match for the kind of relaxed and tuneful songs that dominate, Tatum and Vernhes focus the songs emotionally and sonically into an overall package that sounds lovely and has some real depth. There's no "Summer Holiday" this time out, but all the record's 11 songs are deeply memorable with subtle and long-lasting melodies. Some, like the jangly love song "Only Heather" or the string-filled and beautiful "Shadow," sound like hit singles, the rest are just great songs. A few even provide some surprises: "Through the Grass" is a positive sweetheart of a ballad featuring some nimbly picked acoustic guitar that conjures up memories of early Aztec Camera, "Paradise" is a big pop song that could be slotted into the climax of a John Hughes movie with a graceful ease. The album is much more Echo & the Bunnymen than it is Crocodiles, more Mirror Moves than Talk Talk Talk, but it doesn't suffer for it. Instead, thanks to the high level of Tatum's songs and the sound he and Vernhes create, it's just the kind of album that could connect with lovers of slick, catchy pop with real humans behind the controls.
Tim Sendra, Rovi
The Heavy's third studio album, 2012's The Glorious Dead is a bombastic acid rock, funk, and blues-soaked album that sounds like the illegitimate offspring of the Black Keys and Gnarls Barkley. In that sense, it builds nicely upon the Heavy's previous work and should please fans of the band's quirky take on rootsy soul-influenced music. Showcasing singer Kelvin Swaby's trademark rough, nasally yawp, the Heavy seem to love building songs around riffs of low-end electric guitar twang, booming basslines, and wickedly boneheaded, backwoods drumbeats. They also punctuate these sweaty, red-eyed arrangements with bursts of trombones, trumpets, strings, and backing vocals. The band kicks things off with the horror movie-inspired zombie-gospel number "Can't Play Dead," featuring Swaby doing his best swamp blues-style shout over a fuzzed-out electric guitar riff and plodding blues-rock beat backed by what sounds like a choir of female divas. It's a grand moment of over the top rock that perfectly sets the tone for such similarly exuberant and soulfully campy moments as the marching band funk of "Big Bad Wolf" and the driving, James Bond theme-sounding "Don't Say Nothing." Elsewhere, the Heavy delve into various punk, dance, and blues-influenced sounds including the manic garage rock meets mariachi band anthem "Just My Luck" and "What Makes a Good Man?," which splits the difference between the retro hip-hop soul of Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and "Discothèque"-era U2.
Matt Collar, Rovi
Politico, the fifth full-length album by Mexican Institute of Sound (producer and songwriter Camilo Lara) is an album that almost wasn't. In 2011, an enormous amount of the explosive C4 was discovered next door to Lara's residence -- it was set to be detonated; by whom and for what purpose was never determined. In a recent interview, Lara said that he didn't deliberately set out to go into politics, but that politics had come to his house. These 13 songs, composed and assembled by Lara, address the chaos, destruction, tragedy, and violence that have become all-too-familiar elements in Mexican lives. Politico is a statement in the same way that the Clash's Sandinista! or the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks were, but it isn't nostalgic. Nor is it sonically similar to either. Longtime fans of MIS may have some initial issues because there are vocals on almost every tune. But not only do they not they detract from the set's appeal, their urgent expressions add to it. While the topical nature of these songs is undeniable, it doesn't mean this isn't a fun record. Quite the opposite. Lara isn't didactic in his lyrics; these are personal observations, and in that way, carry more weight than slogans. His unique compositional style makes them musically irresistible, and compelling. He uses Mexico's and Latin America's folk forms -- cumbias, descargas, sons, corridos, mariachis, bandas, rancheras, cha-chas, rhumbas, pachangas, and more -- and hard welds them to slamming beats, layered melodies, and infectious keyboard grooves, all via a staggering yet organic-sounding mélange of samples from rock & roll, hip-hop, funk, house, disco, techno, etc. Check the wild marimba samples that introduce the melody to "Tipo Raro," which originally appeared in the film Made in Mexico. Lara retains the melody throughout, but busts it from its context; he runs head-on into multi-tracked Farfisa organs, a deeply distressed beat, four-on-the-floor loops, rapping, and a brittle bassline that fires directly from the center. "Especulando" is a driving, funky electro jam. "Es-Toy" uses accordion and darkly tinged double trombones (à la Willie Colón), a pulsing organ, and chanted vocals. Despite its skittering dance beat and its mariachi horns, "Más" is pure, frenetic punk rock. Politico is easily the most sophisticated record in the MIS catalog. This is political music without apology; it's also frenzied dance party music that's virtually peerless.
Thom Jurek, Rovi
Tunes from the Roys' debut album, Lonesome Whistle, were still riding high on the bluegrass charts more than a year after its release. The songs on New Day Dawning should do just as well, and this time out, most of them were written by Lee and Elaine. Every note here is played and sung with joy and the uplifting quality of their debut is still in evidence here. The title track reminds listeners that no matter how dark the clouds get, the sun will always rise in the morning. Elaine sings lead on this sprightly pop/bluegrass tune with Randy Kohrs supplying uplifting Dobro fills throughout. The album has two songs about funerals, but they avoid becoming maudlin with their understated delivery. "Daddy to Me" tells the story of a father's passing, with friends and family painting the picture of a good man who led a full, rich, honorable life. "Grandpa's Barn" paints a portrait of an old man's life by listing some of the things he treasured -- a white Cadillac, an eight-track player with a Johnny Cash album in it. Lee's vocals on both tracks are full of the understated emotion that marks all great country singers. Elaine sings lead on "Still Standing," the record's most traditional track, a bluegrass rave-up that celebrates the end of a bad relationship and the promise of better things to come. The band is in full flight throughout, with Kohrs' Dobro and Andy Leftwich's fiddle particular standouts. The record is a tad short at 24 minutes, but the Roys fill every second with plenty of heart and soul and their close harmonies remain a thing of beauty.
In Limbo, the title of TEEN's full-length debut, reveals that the band is nothing if not self-aware. Fronted by former Here We Go Magic member Teeny Lieberson, the group has sonic ties to many of its other female-driven contemporaries; while shades of the Vivian Girls' girl group-fueled noise pop, the tribal electronics of Telepathe, and Warpaint's psychedelic vistas can be heard on this set of songs, TEEN have an in-betweenness that ends up making them unique. Similarly, over the course of In Limbo, the band is often caught between making the perfect pop song and reaching for expansive bliss. The album's first half shows they have the pop side nailed: "Better" kicks things off with Lieberson's jubilant insistence that she'll "do it better than anybody else," and her slightly rough alto and unabashed confidence -- something in short supply among 2010s indie rockers of either gender -- are fresh and rousing. On "Come Back"'s slightly kitschy exotica-pop, she sings "Look at me, I'm a prize," while sitting on her doorstep waiting for her lover's return, and this mix of boldness and vulnerability echoes artists like Liz Phair, Karen O, and Chrissie Hynde in spirit if not in sound. Meanwhile, "Electric"'s frosty dance-punk pays homage to foremothers like the Mo-dettes and Romeo Void. In Limbo boasts a fuller, more varied sound than TEEN's debut EP, Little Doods, and the group enlisted Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom to flesh things out. His support and influence becomes felt more and more as the album unfolds, especially on "Charlie," a girl group slow dance number shot into the stars, and on the ultra-psychedelic "Why Why Why," a piece of cosmic sprawl that also recalls Kendra Smith's projects in the early and mid-'80s. By the end of In Limbo, Lieberson and crew have sacrificed some of their distinctive spunk for "Roses & Wine" and "Fire"'s transcendent grooves and harmonies, which are undeniably lovely but perhaps less intriguing than what came before them. At the very least, In Limbo shows that the band can do a lot of things well, and while this set of songs isn't exactly scattered, TEEN's ambitions lead them to be less cohesive than they might have been had they picked one direction and stuck with it. Still, having too many enticing options on where to go next isn't a problem troubling too many bands, and hearing TEEN caught in the middle of them is one of In Limbo's many pleasures.
Heather Phares, Rovi