Psych pop duo Peaking Lights get somehow both more personal and further out there on their latest release. “Telephone Call” sees singer Indra Dunis leading an alien dance party, singing “telephone call from space, calling all the human race” over a fat, dubby groove, while “Hypnotic Hustle” seems to create a new, interdimensional dance. But, like Lucifer ’s stunning “Beautiful Son,” about Dunis and bandmate/husband Aaron Coynes’ newborn, some of Cosmic Logic ’s best tracks aim for the terrestrial. “Everyone and Us” hides quiet reflection in its funky synth bassline, and the irresistible “New Grrrls” tells of the struggles of being a working mom, from the perspective of an indie rock star (“Can’t stop to be just a mom/The choice to stay at home is gone/Worker, lover, mother, wife/Gotta do it all in this life”). Dunis’ untrained voice will be a barrier for some, but her plainspoken lack of affectation also helps ground these songs and keep them from drifting off into the ether. Listen to Cosmic Logic and enter an interstellar dance party with Peaking Lights.
Folk artist Strands of Oak (aka Timothy Showalter) makes a huge leap on his latest record, HEAL . Facing marital woes after extensive touring, Showalter spins his emotional turmoil into rock gold, eschewing the more folk-based sound of his earlier material for a huge, all-embracing rock sound. You’d be forgiven for thinking those riffs on opener “Goshen ’97” sound like Dinosaur Jr.—that is Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis shredding away while Showalter unleashing his wavering croon in an ode to teenhood (“I was lonely, but I was having fun!” he cries). Showalter has made a pop record in the same way Bruce Sprinsteen does, pairing a huge drum sound and synthesizers with emotionally naked lyrics on songs like the title track (“I spent 10 long years feeling so fuckin bad/I know you cheated on me, but I cheated on myself” he sings through gritted teeth) or the hooky, Stevie Nicks-inspired “Same Emotions.” But even with Showalter’s newfound pop fixation, these are at their heart folk songs, confessional tunes that could be played on acoustic guitar and would still sound great. He pours his heart out in songs like “Shut In”—“I lose my faith in people, why even take the time?” he sings in relatable self-pity, despite the song’s huge sonic impact—and on “JM,” he crafts a sweeping tribute to the late Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and The Magnolia Electric Co. that manages to feel both intimate and epic. While HEAL is not a small-sounding record by any stretch of the imagination—in fact, Showalter is wholly dedicated to creating a massive sound here—these are still songs that cut to the core, reserving the noise until just the right moment. His fans should be able to see that, while he’ll be snapping up plenty of new ones with HEAL who will wonder what they’ve been missing all this time.
Bloodshot Records is a biggie in the indie music world. The Chicago based label has represented such various artists like Neko Case, Old 97s, The Sadies, the Gore Gore Girls, and Ryan Adams, that referring to them as "varied" might be a bit of an understatement. Now twenty years since their inceptions, respect is being paid by an even LARGER variety of artists like Shakey Graves, Andrew Bird, Chuck Ragan, The Minus 5, and Superchunk in a variety of tribute tracks representing the diversity and wide catalog of music that has been birthed out of Bloodshot Records. Not just a mere tribute, but a true letter of love to one of contemporary music's most eclectic and influential labels.
Black Lips have never made a bad record—actually, they’ve all been great—but they’d definitely cleaned up a bit on their last couple of albums. Thankfully, that hasn’t meant they’ve gone soft—their songwriting chops have just become more apparent, and Underneath the Rainbow continues that trend, a worthy successor to 2011’s excellent Arabia Mountain . Whereas Mark Ronson lent a sprinkle of pop sheen to that album, The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney is at the helm here, giving the hippieish Lips a leather-and-denim feel that suits them a little better, on songs like the glammy “Funny,” bluesy “Boys in the Wood” and 007-riffing “Do the Vibrate.” Given that general feel, their dabbles in cowpunk make the most sense on this album, resulting in some of its best songs, like “Drive by Buddy,” a whiskey-soaked jangler that nods to bands who’ve followed in the Lips’ wake like FIDLAR. That same feel informs the delightfully tasteless “Dorner Party,” a catchy outlaw song that seems to be written from the point of view of killer and cop foe Christopher Dorner. Even with the fuck-all sneer here of songs like “Dorner Party,” Underneath the Rainbow has some of the band’s prettiest melodies—not something the Black Lips are typically known for. “Waiting” is, dare I say, gorgeous, with an acoustic jangle and desert melody, and album closer “Dog Years” is crustily romantic—“you blew smoke into my twinkling eyes” they sing-speak over a Velvets-style riff, continuing “my pulsating retinas staring back at you like some cutting edge piece of technological equipment, I knew you were the one.” Sweet. If you’re a fan, the album is a great reassertion of their sound and aesthetic, and if you weren’t in love before, Underneath the Rainbow could be the album to change that.
If you like post-punk music at all, your favorite new band will probably be Merchandise. With a bit of Pulp’s swagger, the Cure’s emotional yet economical guitarwork and the dramatic grandiosity of Morrissey’s solo work, Merchandise nail every nuance on their new album, After the End . Big, shimmering chords on “Enemy” announce their arrival with the kind of bravado that leaves you a little breathless, incredulous that this isn’t a song or band you’ve heard before. Singer Carson Cox’s throaty tenor fills the space that isn’t carved out by his bandmates nicely, on ballads like the stunning “Life Outside the Mirror.” It’s a solid listen, but After the End particularly shines on its singles, like “Little Killer,” the riff of which is catchy enough to leave you tracking back again and again to get that feeling all over again. While After the End is an immensely enjoyable album, the elephant in the room is that, however immaculately made, it’s not the most original thing you’ve ever heard—“Green Lady” is great, with its stuttering beat, big guitar riffs and sure, why not, some sitar, but it could easily be a Morrissey outtake. No matter. Originality will come in time. For now, Merchandise reach a very specific itch, that youthful feeling of discovering a new favorite band who just flat out gets it. No trickery, nothing too out of the ordinary, just some of the best pop music you’ve heard in ages.
It’s a gutsy move to call your album Singles , but in the case of Future Islands, their fourth album and first for 4AD, it’s appropriate. The album is packed with songs that are both immaculately written and catchy as hell, as Future Islands mine new wave and pop-rock for all they’re worth. Just as lead singer Samuel Herring’s dynamite performance style and swingin’ dance moves have won people over (David Letterman, famously), the band gives it their all on songs like “Seasons (Waiting On You).” Herring’s emotional, throaty tenor, which can warp into a growl in an instant, is given the perfect backdrop of stargazing new-wave rock that should bring together fans of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to The Cure to The Killers with lighter-waving glee. The synths of “Spirit” bring up memories of B-Movies “Nowhere Girl,” but Herring’s unique voice keep Future Islands from ever veering into purely nostalgic territory. “A Song For Our Grandfathers” is dreamy yet packs an emotional punch. Herring seems to get more and more insistent over the sprightly “Light House,” almost completely out of step with the band, yet it works so much better than it would have if he played it straight, getting in your face and making it impossible to merely have the song on in the background. On “Like the Moon,” a sexy, pulsating groove gives Herring the chance to kill it vocally, crooning romantically. But his best vocal performance comes next, on “Fall From Grace”—over a simple waltz, Herring goes deep into the bowels of his voice to deliver a performance somewhere between Tom Waits, The National’s Matt Berniger and a black metal singer. Charisma like his doesn’t come around all the time, and as a band, Future Islands are smart enough to stay out of the way while crafting terrific songs that stand on their own. Before you know it, you’ve listened to Singles like five times and still can’t wait to hear it again.
Renee Fleming has long been an iconic figure among the American opera scene with her distinct voice and virtuosity. But since her iconic take on the national anthem at Super Bowl XLVIII earlier this year, those who've never listened to the music of Puccini, Strauss or Copland are suddenly clamoring for more. Now, the famous soprano wants you get cozy with a hot cup of cocoa, a warm sweater, and a fireplace with some of the most resplendent takes on classic Christmas songs. With classic torch-like performances and smooth as ice arrangements, Christmas in New York assures its place in contemporary Christmas collections among names like Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Burl Ives.
Forget everything you’ve read about Ariel Pink. His public persona has nothing to do with his music, which has never been more remarkable than it is on pom pom . “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” begins the album by approximating decades of children’s music, family VHS tapes and video game music into a multicolored parade of half-remembered sounds. On tracks like “White Freckles,” Pink taps into similar territory of outdated interstitial music and lyrics and sounds inspired by advertising, pouring his exaggerated lothario presence all over them and ending up with sticky-sweet concoctions that leave you feeling titillated and slightly nauseated. Nothing that could possibly be interesting gets thrown away in Pink’s world—“Lipstick” could be based on an adult contemporary jam you never learned the name of; “Nude Beat A Go-Go” is like a perved-up version of a Frankie & Annette movie theme song. This means there are a few tracks you’ll skip past, but it’s better to have the full Pink treatment, making pom pom feel more crucial than 2012’s somewhat cleaned-up Mature Themes . And the singles are killer. “Put Your Number in My Phone” is a new cheese classic in silk pajamas. “Black Ballerina,” like its precursor, Before Today ’s “Round and Round,” is a sick roller rink jam, with a disjointed narrative flowing through. And “Picture Me Gone” takes Pink’s simmering Beach Boys influence into a gossamer synth ballad. So he’s kind of a creep. But pom pom is proof that for all his off-putting proclivities, Ariel Pink still makes some of the most fascinating and entertaining pop music around.
Like 2012’s Oceania , Monuments to An Elegy returns to the trademark Pumpkins sound. The difference this go round is you no longer get the sense of Corgan overreaching. Having shook up the lineup yet again, this incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins includes guitarist Jeff Schroeder and Tommy Lee. Now, Lee may not be as inventive a drummer as Jimmy Chamberlin, but his presence is definitely felt bolstering the melody throughout this half hour of new tunes. Standouts include the opener “Tiberius,” the synth heavy “Dorian,” and the savage closer “Anti-Hero.” The most important distinction is Monuments to an Elegy is not a re-imagining of the glory days of the Pumpkins. These songs are newer. They are pop-tinged and really focus on what Corgan has known best all along. Hooks. As he puts it in “Drum + Fife” “I will bang this drum ’til my dying day.”
Amid all the reunions of ’90s bands, Pavement’s was an anomaly—no new material, just some shows, a best-of release and then kaput, all within the year 2010. That’s perhaps a good thing, since it gives people a chance to focus on frontman Stephen Malkmus’ work both solo and with the Jicks, which has been largely excellent—and underrated. Wig Out at Jagbags finds Malkmus and co. loose and having fun, but still writing solid songs that stick. After a couple of jammy numbers, the album picks up with the poppy “Lariat,” which funnily seems to call out Malkmus’ own fan base (“we grew up listening to music from the best decade ever!” he sings at the conclusion). Alt-rock revivalism gives way to a piano-led rock ballad on “Houston Hades.” “Rumble at the Rainbo” finds the band poking fun at its own elder status within the underground community—“come and join us in this punk rock tune/come slam dancing with some ancient dudes,” Malkmus sings. The more improvy numbers might lose some people, even if relistening to Pavement finds as much emphasis on exploration as melody, but they always come back with a catchy tune—“Chartjunk” features horns and Malkmus playing a not-jokey guitar solo, and seeming to enjoying every minute of it; “Independence Street” is a Velvets-esque, dry ballad; and “Surreal Teenagers” closes the album on an energetic high. With an album as fun to listen to as Wig Out at Jagbags, we’ll let Malkmus close the book on Pavement and move into a new era.
Back in 2008, Gov’t Mule played an epic three-hour gig at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on Halloween night. That night the jam band performed a setlist comprised entirely of Pink Floyd covers. Not that it is surprising that Warren Haynes and his cronies would do a tip of the hat to Floyd per se, but to set up archival releases showcasing those efforts? A whole new thing. As the first entry in a newly launched archival campaign, Gov’t Mule is releasing Dark Side of the Mule, the full show from 2008 in Boston, wonderfully mixed and mastered to capture the band's essence. It will be released on CD, as well as a deluxe three-CD/DVD combo and as a double-vinyl edition. These archival releases aim to highlight the band's evolution as well as a catalog of their influences. And with nearly 300 songs in their live repertoire alone, you can be sure there is a lot more where that came from.