Coming off their work on Dntel's beautiful This Is the Dream of Evan and Chan, Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard team up again for their full-length debut as Postal Service, Give Up. Instead of covering that EP's territory again, with this album the duo crafts a poppier, new wave-inflected sound that recalls Tamborello's work with Figurine more than Dntel's lovely subtlety. However, Ben Gibbard's famously bittersweet vocals and sharp, sensitive lyrics imbue Give Up with more emotional heft than you might expect from a synth pop album, especially one by a side project from musicians as busy as Tamborello and Gibbard are. The album exploits the contrast between the cool, clean synths and Gibbard's all-too-human voice to poignant and playful effect, particularly on Give Up's first two tracks. "The District Sleeps Alone" bears Gibbard's trademark songwriting, augmented by glitchy electronics and sliced-and-diced strings, while "Such Great Heights"' pretty pop could easily appear on a Death Cab for Cutie album, minus a synth or two. Despite some nods to more contemporary electronic pop, Give Up's sound is based in classic new wave and synth pop, at times resembling an indie version of New Order or the Pet Shop Boys. Songs like "Nothing Better," a duet that plays like an update on Human League's "Don't You Want Me?," and the video-game brightness of "Brand New Colony" sound overtly like the '80s brought into the present, but the tinny, preset synth and drum sounds on the entire album recall that decade. Sometimes, as on "Recycled Air" and "We Will Become Silhouettes," the retro sounds become distracting, but for the most part they add to the album's playful charm. The spooky ballad "This Place Is a Prison" is perhaps the most modern-sounding track and the closest in sound and spirit to Gibbard and Tamborello's Dntel music. The crunchy, distorted beats and sparkling synths recall both This Is the Dream of Evan and Chan and Björk's work; indeed, this song, along with the "All Is Full of Love" cover Death Cab included on their Stability EP, could be seen as an ongoing tribute to her. Overall, Give Up is a fun diversion for Tamborello, Gibbard, and their fans. It doesn't scale the heights of either of their main projects, but it's far more consistent and enjoyable than might be expected. [The Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition was released with 15 bonus tracks, including the previously unreleased "A Tattered Line of String" and "Turn Around."]
Heather Phares, Rovi
The ever prolific John Dwyer isn't the kind of guy to let the grass grow between his toes and his band Thee Oh Sees release albums the way they used to -- one a year with singles in between. The 2013 entry in their extensive catalog, Floating Coffin, is a weird one. Not because it is experimental, psychedelic, or full of lo-fi wildness; any one of those things would be par for the course. What makes this record weird is that there isn't really anything weird about it. From beginning to end it's a hard-rocking, heavy album with heavy drums, heavy guitars, and a knockout punch that not many of their songs have had before. It's still based in basic garage punk mania and Dwyer's voice is still a yelpy, electric thing (though a much calmer here), but there's a solid, no-nonsense approach to the album that is as successful as it is shocking. Once you get past how simple the sound is, and how clean and clear everything is, you can let the songs sink in. Dwyer has written a batch of songs that aren't immediately hooky in the way past efforts have been, but the power and control of writing fits that of the music perfectly. Whether rocking out hard as nails on tracks like "Tunnel Time" and "I Come from the Mountain," slowing it down to a metallic creep on "Strawberries 1+2," or letting the song unspool slowly like on the Wipers-y "No Spell," there's a clarity to the music that is impressively immediate. A couple songs might even sound good on a movie soundtrack, like the Brigid Dawson-sung rave-up "Maze Fancier," and that's not something one could have said about much of their previous work, as good as it was. Only the closing outer space doo wop of "Minotaur" breaks the spell a bit, but by then the heaviness has sunk in fully and a little break is just right. It may just be another one-shot experiment for Thee Oh Sees, and their next album might be a dubpunk concept album, but Floating Coffin will stand as a successful foray into the world of straight-ahead, heavy-rocking, non-weird alternative indie rock.
Tim Sendra, Rovi
Improviser and composer Colin Stetson's solo work is characterized by dense sheets of saxophone/woodwinds that present a similar approach as loop-based music while being recorded in single live takes with no overdubs. This unique and challenging discipline calls on elements of jazz, modern composition, and even aspects of repetition and textural drone found in certain branches of electronic music and noise. With New History Warfare, Vol. 3, Stetson explores scorched landscapes and heavenly scenes alike with his stylized playing. He spent time collaborating with Bon Iver, and singer Justin Vernon returns the favor and contributes his signature falsetto vocals to four songs here -- these vocals are the only overdubs on the album, though detailed production by Ben Frost would lead listeners to believe otherwise.
Fred Thomas, Rovi
Though the Thermals have explored different avenues on their albums, all roads inevitably lead back to their punk roots. Even 2010's Personal Life, with its handful of relatively subdued tracks that feel something like late-'90s indie or proto-dance rock, still had backbones of messy punk filtering the group's shy dabbling with new forms. Sixth album Desperate Ground undoes much of that dabbling, stripping the songs down to their rawest elements and offering mostly quick bursts of the type of melancholic punk energy that began the Thermals' accidental career over ten years beforehand. Tracks like the furious album-opener "Born to Kill" and "Where I Stand" recall the blown-out, back to basics of 2003 debut More Parts Per Million, though the production outgrows that album's distorted, four-track cassette beginnings. Vocalist/guitarist Hutch Harris' distinct articulating howl is in fine form here, and more spirited than on the band's previous few albums. Many considered 2006's politically charged The Body, The Blood, The Machine to be the Thermals' breakthrough moment, largely due to its direct lyrics defiantly challenging Bush-administration era warmongering and the religious right. Much as that album drove home its themes without forgetting to marry them to captivating punk sounds, Desperate Ground similarly sees Harris offering repeating ideas about humankind's inherent struggle with its own nature, with lyrics centering around harrowing journeys, war, battles, and forging lonely paths coming up repeatedly over Buzzcocks-esque riffs. As the group rounds out their first decade, both their musical and lyrical ideas seem sharper, more mature, and more considered. "You Will Find Me" and "Our Love Survives" sound not just confident, but resilient in their belief in long term love, however difficult that belief comes. The huge accomplishment of Desperate Ground is this ability to grow up some without slowing down; but quite the opposite, the Thermals return to form with this scrappy collection, blazing through serious topics but never dropping the tempo long enough to get overwrought or self-indulgent.
Fred Thomas, Rovi
Ride Your Heart is the debut album from Los Angeles duo Bleached. Sisters Jennifer and Jessie Clavin produce a vintage punk rock sound, with plenty of melody and attitude, capturing a Californian spirit along the way. Ride Your Heart features the infectious rumble of single "Next Stop.", Rovi
It often seemed like virtually every 2010s indie band was just as able with sequencers and synths as they were with guitars and drums. Hands, which began as the project of Geoff Halliday and Ryan Sweeney, was no exception, and the dense electro-rock on their debut album, Synesthesia, owed as much to the gleaming sounds of Phoenix and Hot Chip as it did to the keyboard-heavy sounds of dance-punk forerunners like Hot Hot Heat. Throughout these songs, the bandmembers prove they're nothing if not self-aware: "Kinetic"'s name is a one-word description of their approach, although the actual song's dub-influenced bassline and reverb-laden production make it one of the more meditative tracks here. Hands also cleverly top-load the album with some of their most winning songs, from the agreeable opener "Trouble" to "Brave Motion"'s breezy pop to the slightly darker territory of "Videolove," which suggests something grittier than might be expected in lyrics like "Maybe I'll walk home/Maybe I'll tie off." At times, Synesthesia falls short of the brainy synth rock bliss Hands aim for, and while their songs are almost unfailingly bright and fizzy, they're not always especially distinctive. Still, even the least memorable tracks will make lots of listeners bob their heads whether they want to or not, since Hands' rhythms are so insistent and songs such as "Elegant Road" reveal a formidable way with sticky choruses. Synesthesia's most interesting songs, like the equally weird and catchy "The Game Is Changing Us" and "Lonesome Body," which puts the band's rock leanings at the forefront and suggests an inspired meeting between Battles and Yeasayer, hint that Hands are on their way to creating a niche for themselves in an overpopulated style.
Heather Phares, Rovi