HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Christopher Taylor's debut full-length under this moniker is lovingly produced R&B with impassioned vocals and a pillow of sound that's both intriguingly unsettled and extremely pleasurable to the ear, even on first contact. Artists like Taylor and Lyla Foy, despite being mostly tsk-tsked at by the hoary indie rock blogosphere, represent the bedroom pop of the early part of this decade actually coming to fruition at last. Both artists explored the limits of the bedroom and chillwave concepts and moved on to higher-fidelity factions with what they'd learned, a path not dissimilar to what modern luminaries Merrill Garbus and John Darnielle did. Despite being a professionally recorded album with a presumably decent budget (given Taylor's track record working with bigger successes like Rhye), Tremors inherits the sense of emotional immersion that gives private demos their strange resonance in the first place. Unlike many of his peers, Taylor is also a superb singer and meticulously generates beautiful electronic backing for his complex songs, which are mostly quite subtle (excluding the tower-of-song chorus of "Artifice") but consistently striking and intelligent. It's an album that bears the mark of ambient music with its floating, ethereal qualities -- the pulsating "Lessons" is a bit like Music for Films with a catchy vocal melody laid over -- while also suggesting the stripped-back R&B of James Blake and How to Dress Well but, unlike those artists, actually bringing the songs and grooves home. That's because they're written and recorded as complete creations, but also because Taylor is simply a better, more guttural and expressive singer than almost anyone in the indie-R&B subfield right now; only Rhye's Milosh and Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas come to mind as stronger. It's easy to glance at Tremors and think you've heard it all before, but as with Foy's equally brilliant debut on Sub Pop, I feel it's a shame to overlook something that's such a work of refined craft and emotion even if it's not brazenly original. Besides, "The Wheel," "Bloodflows," "Fool," the erotically charged slowjam "Veto" and the stunning ear-bender "Lights" are the honest-to-god next level; they're as good as anything issued in this blue-eyed lonely-highway idiom, and it's hard to see how anyone could argue that the drab smartass Ariel Pink has more to show us. For one thing, Taylor seems to give a fuck.
Watt was half of the increasingly underappreciated Everything But the Girl. Though he and Tracey Thorn still appear to be happily married, they haven't released new music together since the magnificent Temperamental in 1999. While both have stayed busy, this is Watt's first solo album since prior to EBTG's formation. Those who know the duo primarily for their full-on embrace of dance music and urban loneliness will be surprised by how low-key this is -- it's a very calm singer-songwriter record in the vein of Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright. Then again, Thorn and Watt became known to begin with for their gentle, frothy pseudo-lounge music so for long-timers it's not as much of a stretch. Like his wife (both are outstanding prose writers as well) Watt writes good, incisive lyrics but his vocals don't have the character or bite of those luminaries (or Thorn's), though he does vaguely resemble Thompson at times. Not surprisingly, the album is strongest when it picks up the pace a little (as on the sharp, guitar-driven Lindsey Buckingham-like "Nathaniel"); generally it can most politely be characterized as a middling, folky exercise you don't necessarily have the urge to turn off. Too happy that Watt is making music again to get too upset about it being a bit dull.
Most Messed Up (2014)
RECOMMENDED * Thank goodness they got the rotten listlessness of the Grand Theatre records out of their system. But formerly one of the best bands in America, they now seem content to rest on the laurels of what's Expected. They roar and blast their way through twelve quick, raucous riff twangers, but the biggest clue to Rhett Miller's psychology these days comes at the very beginning, on the cynical, biting "Longer Than You've Been Alive," like Pet Shop Boys' "Young Offender" only pissed and pissed off. It's about being a washed-up (?) rock star on the road and making a career of it. The rest of the songs are about gettin' laid and gettin' drunk -- so in other words, Miller's primary interest at this point seems to be to pander to the people who go to Old 97's shows chiefly to get drunk and sling their beers in the faces of nearby introverts. (I digress.) These are the same people who thought that the band was selling out to Elektra when Miller's songs started to get stronger and stronger and the band's style became harder and harder to pinpoint. Only Murry Hammond still delivers the kind of murky power pop that made Fight Songs and Satellite Rides so valuable; the rest of the time, the band tries desperately to fit what they now perceive as being their "place." The songs are raw raunch & roll, but they're also really damned obvious, sometimes annoyingly so. Still, doing what's expected of you can deliver, and the acid in Miller's tongue can give this a pleasing New Adventures in Hi-Fi vibe at its best. Is it their best record in years? Sure. Is it their best since Elektra? Hell no -- I'll still take Blame It on Gravity, their last swipe at genre-loose fearlessness -- but it's certainly a step in the right direction for which I honestly thought it was too late.
I Never Learn (2014)
It's great to have Jewel back, dunno why she's traveling under an alias. But for real, this concept album about post-breakup stasis was purportedly influenced by Pacific Ocean Blue and Astral Weeks but ends up sounding more like Nico before the morning shot. It's less vivid and engaging than Lykke Li's previous work because it's necessarily so morose, while still being written and structured like a conventional pop record -- "Gunshot" is like a very tired "Paper Planes" -- and driven, like Wounded Rhymes, by big drive-by statements like "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone" (see: "Sadness Is a Blessing"). What has changed is that the pain in Li's voice is very much audible, so even if the music isn't particularly interesting your heart does go out to her. The tortured torch songs all run together except the big, floridly arranged "Heart of Steel" -- but even there, what we're hearing is the virtue of Wounded Rhymes extended more than any revealing, newly personal intimacy.
...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014)
RECOMMENDED * More power to one of the best and most consistent bands in the world for being able to do whatever the hell they want these days, and have a label willing to release it, but this diehard still misses Black Thought actually being given the chance to rap and ?uestlove writing rather than just producing. The concept is a tackling of hip hop bravado, street violence and self-destruction versus mainstream perception of same; it's tragic, dark, satiric, cerebral, and some would say just a little too easy. Musically, the Roots continue to push boundaries, which isn't what we'd once have expected from a Tonight Show house band, but like undun before it, it's muchly in the vein of their subtle, artistically adventurous adaptation of Langston Hughes' "Ask Your Mama," which they performed at Carnegie Hall in 2009. That's well and good, but is it shallow of me to miss a great band's pop sensibility? It is shallow, actually, and kind of cynical -- we always hope for great bands to reach the level of success where they can release an incongruous half-hour of intricate, close listen-rewarding high art with musique concrete interpolations from Michel Chion, and then when one actually survives at that level we snarl at it. So in essence, this is a record whose existence I love more than I love or even like the actual results, and I accept the hypocrisy inherent to that. But my goodness, the closer -- "Tomorrow," sung by R&B obscurity Raheem DeVaughn -- is wonderful, a beautiful and possibly sardonic ode to finding your angel with hopping pop bliss and a melody so simple and perfect you can't believe no one already wrote it. That's how we know this album isn't just a busy band being obtuse; they are still doing something special, we just haven't necessarily caught up.
Toumani Diabaté / Sidiki Diabaté
Toumani & Sidiki (2014)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * The Malian hip hop drummer Sidiki Diabaté is also a third-generation master of the kora, a 21-string harp associated with West Africa. This collaborative album made with his father Toumani, one of the most celebrated kora players on the continent, wonderfully captures the collision both performers enjoy exploring of Malian musical traditionalism and American jazz and blues. Fully instrumental and creating a rhythmic, melodic cushion of lively improvisation, it benefits from the palpable camaraderie between father and son. The results are offbeat and magical, with numerous striking grooves and enough depth and variance to make it a rich listen from start to finish. For pure musicality, it's hard to imagine a more immediate or accessible African album, and it rewards both background listening and careful attention.
Sharon Van Etten
Are We There (2014)
!! CAUTION !! * Having seen a few mesmerizing videos of Van Etten performing completely alone, it's astounding how dull her music becomes when weighted down with full performances and layers of studio slickness. Less is more, and on this record she just sounds like a hundred other airy singer-songwriters.
In Conflict (2014)
RECOMMENDED * Pallett's had a busy few years, arranging strings for Arcade Fire and helping them out with the score of the Oscar-nominated film From Agnes with Love. He's learned some things about big powerful impression-making from his fellow Canadians -- check "The Riverbed" -- and is now practically a de facto extra member of the band, an informal distinction once handed to one Brian Eno during his association with Talking Heads. And who should be here offering musical and vocal -- but surprisingly, not production -- input on Pallett's follow-up to Heartland but one Brian Eno? Seconds into In Conflict, we're reminded of what made Heartland such an indelibly appealing pop moment: Pallett's voice is godly, capable of generating almost involuntary emotional and physical reactions. He refines Heartland by shedding some of its frivolity and amping up the menace ("Song for Five and Six" is terrifying till it turns to disco; it's likely a yawn-inducing analogy, but "The Passions" is unmistakably his "The Overload") and making very clear what a virtuoso he is at crafting melodic tension and drama. Opener "I Am Not Afraid" is just about perfect, starting with the woozy morbidity of its words ("I'm never having children"... "I haven't had a smoke in years") but Eno's involvement is clearer on the title cut, the delectable prettiness of which is offset by Pallett's muscular, passionate singing. It's even catchy, and leaves you wanting more even at 4:14. Eno remains as startling a wizard with the synthesizer as ever, helping Pallett achieve his Björk dreams. Being a pop nut, I like it when he sounds like OMD ("The Secret Heaven") more than when his florid arrangements get so exhausting they resemble prog ("Chorale"), and Pallett's sensibility still gets tiresome to me at around the halfway point just like last time. Just as often, Pallett's orchestrations are enough to leave you wide-eyed and breathless, like on the intense and lovely "On a Path," and his vocals are consistently staggering. Spending time away and coming back, I hear the ferocity and sensuality on "Infernal Fantasy" and can appreciate the little things in "Soldiers Rock," like a prettied-up Clash song, but it's just too overwhelming in a sitting. Maximalism suits Pallett's voice, but he could reach farther with less of it.
High-drama ambient menace in search of film accompaniment. Weirdly unsettling.
The Moon Rang Like a Bell (2014)
Singer and flautist Nicole Miglis sounds like Björk at times (best example is the opening minute or so of "Down from the Rafters"), which is the major distinction of this politely spacey stuff from Gainesville. It's a pretty and clever record, clearly recorded by passionate pop devotees, but excessively long-winded and not really engaging at all. Exceptions: the admirably exotic Cocteau Twins vagueness of "[Animal]" and the sense of conflict, contrast and variance on the otherwise typical "Xtalk." Unlike most of these songs, those sound complete rather than just wispy and half-formed.
Divide and Exit (2014)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!! * This goofball -- Sleaford Mods' jubilant asshat punk rapper Jason Williamson -- is 44 years old, and expresses himself about as well as a perpetually dumped adolescent moron who listens to lots of Henry Rollins spoken word CDs and thinks everything he says (which is also everything he thinks) is hee-larious. Actual no-shit sentence from Wikipedia: "Sleaford Mods songs have been described as embittered rants about such topics as unemployment, criticism of modern working life, criticism of celebrities and pop culture, capitalism and society in general." Just repeat after me: 44 years old. Key lyric: "I just wanked in your toilet." 44.
Beauty & Ruin (2014)
RECOMMENDED * Remember that Simpsons where Marge gives Homer an extra birthday cake just so he can ruin it? Marge = Merge Records; Homer = Bob Mould. He's hip, he's cool, he's 54, but he's got an excuse, and it's fun to hear him fuck off on this decent guitar rock to which he's fully earned the right. Mould's history makes it especially weird that "Low Season" sounds like "Wonderwall" only grunge. The rest is nothing you don't expect, but plenty charming -- the best being the slow ones, the best slow one being "Let the Beauty Be."
Glass Boys (2014)
More guttural puffery. These are nice kids and they are telling another crafty high-concept story, this about how much Damian Abraham is coming to resemble the lead character of Vampire Weekend's "Giving Up the Gun." Succinctly: punk lives a longer time than it ever expects to, which has been true since before it had a name. Abraham's style is anathema to me; J. Mascis and the guy from the Tragically Hip (no, really) help out. Despite believing in my heart that I love punk rock I still can't hear the music in this (and I try, and I like Abraham very much as a person so far as I can tell). Maybe you can.
Sunbathing Animal (2014)
(What's Your Rupture?)
!! CAUTION !! * I hate to sound like the people who whined about how Turn on the Bright Lights was redundant so long as the master tapes of Unknown Pleasures existed, and I know I'm not saying anything that other people haven't already worn themselves out stating and rebuking, but I'm a grouch and I don't care and jesus fucking hell, go listen to Pavement. This band is smarter than they sound initially but I can't hear past their decision not to fuss with their sound more.
Emma Jean (2014)
(Truth & Soul)
RECOMMENDED * Compared to classic soul revivalists like Sharon Jones, Fields is quite idiosyncratic and sounds like this stuff still matters to him like he's a twentysomething rock & roller. Known around my way for being a Wilson, NC native who explodes on stage, known nationally for being so similar in stature and voice to James Brown that the producers of Get on Up hired him for some overdubbing, he's a terrific singer and writer and as much of a throwback as this is, the music is creatively arranged and original. The first half of this album is ridiculously strong, one show-stopper after another, enough to make you think crazy things like there's nothing wrong with doing new things in an old context, but then again, the record eventually winds around to sounding like a wonderful nostalgia festival. Which is great -- see Charles Bradley's Victim of Love to compare -- but Fields is so adept at operating as a full-fire working artist in a classic form that you wonder how close he came to pushing it all the way. Excellent words too, typically about the minutiae that passes between couples on the harder nights.
First Aid Kit
Stay Gold (2014)
RECOMMENDED * Sweden's half-invisible U.S.-derived folk revival goes on with these sisters whose twanging, melodic work with slight elements of dream-pop is a bit overly lush but provides some endearing vocals that show a touch of European baroque... and some outstanding songs, with personal and self-aware lyrics that cut deep. Check out the spectacularly driving "Heaven Knows," the sardonic and lost-soul beautiful "Waitress Song," the wistful title cut -- these two are in their early twenties but exhibit range and confessional maturity that goes beyond the stylistic surface of imitation you initially hear. I long for rawer production -- at times this sounds like a modern Nashville record -- but I can't object to much else.
RECOMMENDED * Soul dirge.
Reality Testing (2014)
I am sure I'm not the first to think "lo-NRG," so we'll skip that joke. "Begin to Begin" is pleasant blip bloop. "Jaded" sounds, as Amber pointed out, like "The Boy Is Mine." The rest is excessively polite as techno, not disagreeable as rainy background.
Deep Fantasy (2014)
Who let you past security!? No, really, not-bad Canadian punk whose only sin is just coming off kinda tired. Singer Mish Way has a terrific, throaty rock & roll voice; guitarist Kenneth William is too metal for me, and in turn the record is heavier -- in performance and production -- than I prefer the hard stuff to be, but you know me.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow
Sea When Absent (2014)
!! CAUTION !! * Annie Fredrickson is so overly practiced as a singer that she sounds like a sampler someone is tapping to generate notes. Philly's premier pseudo-shoegazers are led by guitarist and writer Ben Daniels, who runs the thing as a sort of ego extension that implies he's studied Fred Thomas' career extensively. The band has the twee thing down, at times recalling the candy-tooth pat prettiness of Polyphonic Spree or the Wondermints, but with Cocteau-ish aspirations. The songs are too weak to hold up the noodling or the production, and it's awkwardly clear how much of a drudge the thing was to put together. At best it sounds like Architecture in Helsinki without any sense of rhythm; at worst, Michelle Branch.
Brian Eno & Karl Hyde
High Life (2014)
RECOMMENDED * This collaboration has yielded more pop-like material than Eno's put his name on in some time, immersed in the marketplace with the rejuvenative help of Underworld's Hyde. "Cells & Bells" even has the diembodied vocals and alien pulse of a "Julie With..." but the jamming interplay of Hyde's guitar with the curious polyrhythms and Eno's signature faint-gloss keyboard effects is as often formless and annoying as crafty. Honestly Eno's Fripp collabs always put me off a little too, and while this record sounds like it could have basically existed in the same form 34 years ago, it's somewhat to its detriment that it relies so much on bare exercises in musicianship. Still a worthwhile extension from the old guard.
!! CAUTION !! * "Cake," a song about a woman's vagina that uses the title as in "eat it too" and also in a lot of talk about what's "on the menu," is what we call an overextended metaphor. At 4:45, it wears out every permutation of itself short of making some joke about Cake, the wanky '90s alternative band. "Foreign" is about having sex with a woman from a country that is not the United States; it includes a pun about going "down under" (according to Urban Dictionary, that means "Australia," a continent south of the Equator) and speculates that her amorous interests in him may in fact be a ploy to get a "vis." "Na Na" grabs the hook from "Fu-Gee-La" and takes it exactly nowhere. "Touchin, Lovin" grabs the hook from "Fuck You Tonight" but makes that "touch you tonight," among other things, and has Nicki Minaj briefly giving this drab nonsense a slight kick in the teeth. "Disrespectful" postulates that infedelity makes a lot of people pretty upset and features a backing choir of turkeys reinforcing this conclusion. "Foreign Remix" -- since when are we allowed to include both a track and its remix on the same record? -- has Justin Bieber because Trey couldn't afford any better Justin. There's a song called "SmartPhones." Trey Songz turned 30 this past month; happy birthday.
Strand of Oaks
!!!!! AVOID !!!!! * Oh my god, no way this isn't a joke. This is Jack Black, right? (I didn't say it was funny.) Over a Bryan Adams riff: "I found my dad's old tape machine / That's where the magic began." (That happened in Indiana, as Johnny Cougar would hasten to add.) Inspired to record this after a car wreck -- dude really digs singing about himself, as bros generally do -- he nevertheless announces that everything good has been made, which begs the question of why he must bother us with this garbage.
Manic Street Preachers
Keeping the faith with vaguely expired-sounding arena histrionics. Really dull, but that's kind of expected, right? File it between Brothers in Arms and that last Suede album.
[Heavy contributions from Amber Morris, who sat in on my last run through these albums, throughout this post.]