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.
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.
Music inevitably lives with us as we experience our daily lives. Matthew Cooper makes music as Eluvium that seems to make the mundane more epic, the insufferable peaceful. His ambient washes of sound never feel smothering; rather, they are canvases of sound that open up new possibilities. The organ drones of “Don’t Get Any Closer” feel like a pan-religious ceremony. “Warm” lifts off from there and sends us through the clouds with angelic tones. “By the Rails” pulls us back in from drifting away with its heartbeat throb. Though Eluvium’s music favors drawn-out, slow-motion movements, there’s an emotional push-and-pull at its core that keeps it interesting as well as soothing, and Nightmare Ending is immaculately paced, such as the way the nearly nine-minute, more obscure “Unknown Variation” is followed by the short and straightforward piano piece “Caroling” — either piece might have fallen flat, if not for the other’s presence. Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo’s voice also makes a welcome appearance here on album closer “Happiness,” which will bring wide smiles to any fan of either (or both) acts. Why Cooper chose to title his latest album Nightmare Ending is anyone’s guess. It’s like a beautiful dream throughout.
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.
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.
It’s tough to think of a Big Country record without late frontman Stuart Adamson, but with The Alarm’s Mike Peters at the helm, whose big voice doesn’t approximate Adamson’s warmer tones but still does the band justice, Big Country turn in a fine album that should appeal to fans who’ve stayed with the band over the years. Songs like “Hurt” feature loose, crisp production while Peters sings “no one can hurt you now,” both inspirationally and melancholically, and it’s hard not to think of Adamson, who hung himself after years of depression and alcoholism. Whether it’s a paean to their dearly departed frontman or otherwise inspirational ode, it works, given Peters’ spirited performance and the band’s delicate instrumentation, save for a blistering solo reminiscent of classic Big Country, in which the band made their instruments sound like bagpipes through heavy production. While Adamson is missed, The Journey gives hope and energy to the surviving lineup of Big Country, and new songs to pull from while touring beyond their 30-year discography.
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.
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.
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.
Victoria "Little Boots" Hesketh is a thinking woman's electropop diva -- not brassy or ridiculous enough to be Kylie or Gaga, not indie or artsy enough to be Cat Power or Bjork, but just that right level of girlish sass, disco sophistication and British self-deprecation to be the next St. Etienne (not to say Donna Summer). She made a big splash in 2009 and then inexplicably faded from view. Now after some years of regrouping (and DJing), she's back with a moodier, housier record, produced by the DFA's Tim Goldsworthy. Her new sound is simpler, dancier and darker, and the change is for the better -- it lets her elegant melodies and airy choruses shine through, with a propulsive low-end and a Chicago soul clap driving them along. The tunes are lovely, timeless meditations on fantasies of escape ("Motorway"), dancefloor seduction ("Beat Beat") and rejuventating a frayed relationship ("Strangers"). They're mostly about the night life. A great, cohesive record that's equal parts dancefloor honey and lyrical liqueur; beat connoisseurs will feel it and hopefully that elusive legion of fans will give it the box office it deserves.
Like the xx, this London trio achieves dark, emotional grandeur through meticulously minimal atmosphere and captivating lyrical poetry. But you'd never mistake one for the other -- where the xx are painfully cold and reserved, Daughter create swirling beauty and yearning soul fire, especially Elena Tonra's sweetly heartbroken vocals, which will resonate with fans of Kate Bush or Mazzy Star. Guitarist Igor Haefelli is a master of dark, painterly composition, setting each mood with skillfully placed drones and chimes, and percussionist Remi Aguillela keeps the fragile energy flowing. This full-length for 4AD follows up a couple of well-received EPs, and it's a knockout statement that will surely stand as one of the year's best.