Hanni El Khatib makes garage rock worth getting excited about on his second album, Head in the Dirt . Thanks to economical songwriting and deft production from The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Head in the Dirt doesn’t overreach nor does it fail to deliver the goods, 11 quick and dirty garage pop songs with only the necessary flourishes, like the surging electronics that deceptively open the album on the title track, which quickly moves into a blues romp. Single “Family” takes Sister Sledge’s lyrical concept and applies it to punk-fueled hard rock that should please any Black Keys or White Stripes fan. El Khatib’s songs possess a certain machismo, singing he’ll pray for a “Skinny Little Girl” or painting himself as an outlaw in reggae-rocker “Nobody Move,” but he also gets tender for a girl in “Penny,” an irresistible bubblegum ditty that nicely breaks up the broin’ down. The album ain’t exactly loaded with poetry, but El Khatib is often at his best being off-handed about the songs, as straight-ahead rockers like “Pay No Mind” and “Sinking in the Sand” will attest. Sometimes you just need to get your rocks off, and Head in the Dirt makes that remarkably easy.
Small Black’s lush Limits of Desire proves there’s more to the Brooklyn band than the limiting chillwave genre would suggest. Much as chums and genre-mates Washed Out and Toro y Moi did with their sophomore albums, Limits of Desire finds them significantly upping the ante, coming across like vintage U2 after taking muscle relaxers on opener “Free at Dawn,” with all of the epic melodicism and none of the melodrama that that implies. “Canoe” is brilliantly catchy with a high cooed melody and battling synths, bearing some resemblance to M83 but, you know, chilled out. “No Stranger” introduces a light dance beat, pushing the vocals further toward the front of the mix and giving Small Black one of their best singles yet. The reason it works is that while a song like “Sophie” might be your perfect poolside jam for the summer, it doesn’t aim to be just that. Particularly in the way “Sophie’s” romantic sophistication dissolves into whispered nothings that lead into the danceable “Breathless,” Small Black have a knack for elegant pacing and delivering the jams, while making it all sound effortless. Limits of Love is putting in an early bid for the perfect summery pop album of 2013.
The title of Talib Kweli’s latest album might imply a heady, political rap opus, and it is in some regards. But it’s also a fun, hook-oriented album that teams the intellectually charged rapper with a smart team of young guns — Miguel, Kendrick Lamar, Curren$y and Busta Rhymes all make appearances, making up a sort of squadron of critically acclaimed performers both novice and veteran. He’s as apt here to spit flow as quickly as possible and encourage those around him to speak up (“Human Mic”) as he is to engage in a sexy, Marvin Gaye-inspired hip-hop/soul ballad (“Come Here,” featuring the great Miguel) or get into story-heavy tales (the awesome “Hamster Wheel”). Producer Oh No (of duo Gangrene) provides a bevy of psychedelic beats, while S1 produces the syrupy “Push Thru,” teaming Kweli with Lamar, Curren$y and Glen Reynolds for a laid-back jam that allows Kweli the opportunity to work with artists he’s surely inspired. Prisoner of Conscious doesn’t approach the classic-level flow of Kweli’s classic Quality debut or Black Star collaboration with Mos Def, but it reestablishes him as a talent able to shift with the times whose quick flow and brainy vocabulary hasn’t dulled a bit.
With a new second lead singer in Dawn Joseph (though N’Dea Davenport still contributes to several tracks), The Brand New Heavies appear somewhat brand new to their fans once again. Luckily, this change isn’t a bad thing. The band still kicks in hard, on the opening title track, spinning looped, funky sounds. Davenport helps kick things off on “Sunlight,” a disco-flavored track in which Davenport eases into the song and belts only when she needs to, letting the emphasis remain on the band’s studied interplay and those lush soul strings. Forward continues delivering jam after jam, with the aptly titled “Do You Remember” drawing up fond memories of ’70s radio disco and funk, “A Little Funk in Your Pocket” providing easy-listening bliss and the horns come on strong for the funktastic “The Way It Goes.” Longtime fans of the band and acid jazz won’t be disappointed by the Heavies’ first album in six years.
The Haxan Cloak’s Excavation is an aptly named trip into the other side of the human ego. It takes listeners on a dark ride, requiring several listens for its movements to sink in and rewarding the patient with a unique listening experience. Starting with deep bass drum hits on “Consumed,” it moves into the two-part “Excavation,” which at first feels like travelling at the deepest part of the ocean, drumless and with little light let in, but deep sonar blasts of bass, heartbeats and backward sound guide us as if we’re seeing the unseen. Part two opens the chasm a bit, with squelching beats you could almost dance to, were they not so brutal and irregular. “Mara” sounds like the exact moment the protagonist finds the body in film noir or a horror film, built on unseemly strings and a door-slamming beat. The two-part “The Mirror Reflecting” gets even deeper, with a beautifully decayed last quarter, and the nearly 13-minute “The Drop” actually finds The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic at his most open and easy to follow, with melodic synths that sound like a synth-pop song slowed to quarter-speed. Though it provides few easy entry points and demands much of its listener, The Haxan Cloak’s Excavation is a worthwhile journey, even just to say you made it to the other side.
Mice Parade and main man Adam Pierce have gone through so many guises over the years, the band is like a consistently erupting volcano, always creating new ground. That continues on their latest release, Candela , on which Pierce and his cohorts augment their indie rock with bits of afrobeat-inspired percussion (“Currents”), flamenco guitar (“Candela”) and Latin rhythms (“Las Gentes Interesantes”). Mice Parade are also often at their most inspired when they trim the hedges, as the simplicity of “Listen Hear Glide Dear’s” swooning shoegaze or “This River Has a Tide’s” paired groaning chords and floral guitar lines can attest. Of course, their weirdest moments also draw gasps, such as the metallic jazz explosion in the final passage of “Pretending.” But with Candela ’s relatively reined-in approach, Mice Parade’s adventurous genre-hopping and globe-trotting as able to land on appreciative ears. Provided listeners are willing to go along for the ride, Candela delivers a mind-opening experience.
The Gentlemen of the Road Edition of Mumford & Sons’ hit album Babel offers fans a recorded version of how the band is best heard: live. The Road to Red Rocks collection on the second disc of the set (as well as on its included DVD) was recorded entirely at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Colo., allowing fans the experience of being at one of Mumford & Sons’ shows, and the feelings of community and exuberance that come along with it. The recording sounds great, buoyed by cheers and claps that sound as much a part of the music as the band’s soaring harmonies and rumbling folk-rock. Vocally, Marcus Mumford occasionally runs himself ragged, which is sort of the point with M&S — the weariness and desperation in his voice makes the songs feel as though they’re sung in character, and fans can feel as though he’s living the things he’s singing instead of merely describing them. A rousing version of Babel ’s “Below My Feet” and a rollicking version of Sigh No More ’s “Roll Away Your Stone” qualify as standouts, with the latter feeling like a gospel revival taking place in a saloon. Also not to be missed is how the spare first half of “Awake My Soul” leads into its Fleetwood Mac-style roaring second half. By the time they play closing hits “I Will Wait” and “The Cave,” you’ll be hard-pressed not to cheer and sing along with the audience to the band’s triumphant anthems.
Lights is Toronto-based synthpop siren Valerie Poxleitner. Usually she croons captivating and futuristic pop creations that soar sweetly through gritty back alleys of distorted dubstep and blown-out chillwave. But for Siberia Acoustic she reinterpreted 10 songs from her previous release, Siberia , presenting them stripped down with only an acoustic guitar. She also invited a few special guests, including Owl City, Max Kerman of Arkells and Coeur de pirate.
Jared Leto is back with a new 30 Seconds to Mars record, and this time he’s getting conceptual. The four notions that make up the album title factor into the album itself, with four segments, each given its own interlude and mood. Leto goes full-throttle in the “lust” portion, imbuing “Up in the Air” with a sexual longing, while musically the band continues to experiment with electronic beats and synthesizers, landing the song somewhere between Depeche Mode, Lady Gaga and Panic! At the Disco. Leto and co. would like to take new wave doom and gloom to the arena, much as Muse did with their latest record. If the guyliner set is willing to follow, 30 Seconds to Mars should have a huge hit on their hands with Love Lust Faith + Dreams .
With James Williamson back on guitar, who helped develop the iconic guitar sound found on the band’s classic Raw Power album, and raw production to match, Ready to Die feels like the Iggy & the Stooges reunion album fans have been hoping for. It’s clearly modeled after Raw Power , the band’s raucous third album, with acidic opener “Burn” replacing “Search and Destroy” and “Sex and Money’s” dirty groove calling to mind “Gimme Danger’s” acoustic menace. Purists may gripe at this or that; the “I want it!” calls in the background of “Sex and Money” are cheesy, but Fun House -era saxophonist Steve Mackay and Williamson’s insistent riffs, which dig further into you with each subsequent spin like a dirty hook, obliterate most of the issues listeners may take. Simple, thickheaded songs like “Job” and “Gun” pretty much sound great depending on how loudly you play them, despite unfortunate lyrics, while the ballads leave plenty to be desired — Iggy Pop’s take on Serge Gainsbourg’s vocal stylings sound awkward in this framework. Ready to Die sounds best when it looks back; the sentiment of the title track is as macabre as Stooges classics like “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” giving Williamson, Mackay, original drummer Scott Asheton and Mike Watt, who fills in on bass for the deceased Ron Asheton, the chance to get nasty like it’s 1970. At its best, on songs like the grimy “Dirty Deal,” Ready to Die will give fans the dose of Stooges madhouse rock ’n’ roll they’ve been clamoring for.
It’s been nine years since underground rap legend R.A. The Rugged Man released his debut album (or his third, counting his two independently released albums), but Richard Andrew Thorburn hasn’t allowed age to dull his flow. If anything, he sounds more invigorated than ever on tracks like “Holla-Loo-Yuh,” in which the 39-year-old, accompanied by Tech N9ne and Krizz Kaliko, raps circles around MCs half his age. Just to drive that point home, “The People’s Champ” paints R.A. as the rap Rocky, with lyrics like “these other artists, I’m above ’em even if I’m under the ground.” R.A. may never get his due from mainstream rap fans, but Legends Never Die proves hip-hop success should be measured by standards, not dollars.
The Handsome Family’s 10th album is a sort of musical menagerie. The husband-and-wife Americana duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks consider the qualities mythical, personified and real about various members of the animal kingdom. Rennie Sparks’ lyrics paint vivid detail, describing tentacles coming out of the sea in the swinging “Octopus” or the descent into madness in “Woodpecker,” while Brett Sparks’ deep and warbling voice makes some of the more magical lyrics, such as “the butterflies and eels, they have always heard the ringing of the bells that echo through the Earth” (from the bucolic “Eels”), feel like ancient fables. Musically, they weave various strands of Americana, touching on classic country in “Owls,” which features stunning steel guitar, while their voices harmonize gloriously on the mandolin-laced “Woodpecker.” It’s music you have to pull up a chair to listen to, but paying close attention reveals layers of detail about the human condition. Wilderness reminds us we’re animals, after all.