The Soft Moon – Zeros
Slightly more pop than his first release but still dark enough to scare off the uninitiated, the second album from The Soft Moon improves upon Luis Vasquez’s one-man goth factory sound with a bit more muscle and increased emphasis on hooks and (somewhat) intelligible vocals. Vasquez’s sound — one part Dario Argento soundtrack, one part post-punk mastery — remains relentlessly bleak throughout Zeros, creating a sort of shut-in listening experience during which no light enters or escapes. The result isn’t alienating though; rather, Vasquez carefully builds the album up and keeps it chugging smoothly, from an almost M83-like synth-epic opening, to the short ‘n’ creepy “Machines,” to the title track, the first song we get of several that fulfills the promise of his earlier work. The title track and “Insides,” which immediately follows, sees Vasquez allow his voice to step out of the shadows a bit as he gives an impassioned scream in the title track’s buzzing climax, and on single “Insides,” he sings a discernable yet ghostly melody over a Pornography-era Cure backdrop of a looping guitar riff and bassline and mechanical beats. That breathy whisper that opens the song grabs you, but Vasquez seems to know he can’t offer only atmosphere forever, and his singing, emotional and buried, is a highlight across Zeros when it pops up. On “Dire Life,” which revs its synths before kicking off with a yelp, Vasquez drives listeners down a grim autobahn. Even better is “Want,” in which Vasquez cries “I want it…you have it” over clattering, afrobeat-esque drumwork that sounds like nothing else he’s done. It’s touches like this that keeps Zeros from being a one-note album, and though he doesn’t completely step out from the shadow of his influences, on Zeros Vasquez comes dangerously close, while scratching a very specific itch for immaculately constructed goth pop.
Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill
LP $76.98 (Out 11/19)
Neil Young’s first album of new material with Crazy Horse in nearly a decade is, true to its name, a psychedelic tour-de-force. The two-disc album splits its time between expansive epics — the life-story-as-song of “Ramada Inn,” the uplifting “Walk Like a Giant” — and relatively bite-sized songs, like the “Cinnamon Girl” style bashing of the title track, which gets a thorough wash through the phaser-cycle (for any guitar geeks) and comes out gleaming. The relatively tossed-off Americana, released earlier this year, in which the band worked through standards, garage-rock style, spoke nothing of what they’d do here. Psychedelic Pill sounds warped in from another time, in the best way possible. It’s the two-disc opus the band never produced in its heyday — which itself may have to be reconsidered, given the energy, scope and power of what they’ve done in 2012.
Savages – I Am Here EP
Vinyl 12" $10.98
It’s a ballsy move to release a four-song live EP before your first full-length album comes out — leave it to all-female post-punk group Savages to pull it off. On the strength of their live shows and first double A-side, “Flying to Berlin/Husbands,” the group has garnered substantial hype to justify this release, and for anyone who hasn’t gotten to see the London band live or experience more than just those two excellent songs, this release, recorded live in Nottingham and Bristol, is a treat. “City’s Full” erupts with spacey, metallic disco. “Give Me a Gun” sounds a bit like the late, great Electrelane with more muscle, updating the punk-funk sound of bands like ESG and Delta 5 with visceral attack. But the song also features an extended spacey passage breaking up the sound, before frothing over with noise again. Singer Jenny Beth’s voice gets high and insistent on “I Am Here,” and the set ends with a tear through “Husbands,” showing how the song’s desperation spills over live. It’s a powerful opening statement for a band just warming up.
Killing Joke – MMXII
Goth and industrial pioneers Killing Joke may be on their 15th studio album and 34th year of existence, but they haven’t slowed down; in fact, they’ve released one of their finest albums to date with MMXII. From its outset, MMXII rocks fast and furious, making the most of Jaz Coleman’s cutting vocals and the instrumental chemistry of its founding members, all once again in the band, for the second album in a row after 2010’s Absolute Dissent. The mood is heavy in songs like “Colony Collapse,” whose industrial-electo touches help the song drill its riffs into you, while Coleman’s vocals soar overhead. The mellowed-out “In Cythera” is an absolute highlight in the band’s catalog, showing how powerful Killing Joke can be when they turn down and streamline their sound. It’s an album that should please longtime fans of the band, touching on many phases of their career, while sounding pretty current, as they’ve made an album stronger than that of many younger bands whom they’ve influenced, either directly or indirectly. 2012 probably won’t produce the apocalypse, but MMXII finds the band soundtracking our time as if it’s coming tomorrow.
The Velvet Underground & Nico 45th Anniversary Edition
CD (one-disc) $10.98
Deluxe Edition CD (two-disc) $25.98
Super Deluxe Edition CD (six-disc) $89.98
The 45th Anniversary Edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico presents the legendary album both in mono and stereo form (in the Deluxe and Super Deluxe Edition), with mono still hitting like a ton of bricks 45 years alter and stereo allowing for some of those curling riffs and other details to emerge from the din. Both listening experiences have their merits, as listeners and critics have had years to compare the two. But this edition also adds alternate takes, such as a single-voiced “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” in which Nico’s atonal call comes out even clearer like a church bell, missing the eerie doubled vocal that marks the original. “European Son” comes in a longer version that seems twangier than the original. “Heroin” has an even rawer version, while an alternate mix of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” drops some of the reverb from Nico’s voice, highlighting the song’s radio-ready quality that is somewhat obscured in the original. Mono single versions of several songs serve to trim off some of the songs’ eccentricities. On the Super Deluxe Edition: A remastered version of Nico’s Chelsea Girl makes the stark album sound louder and fuller on the set’s third disc. The fourth disc includes a session recorded at Scepter Studios that sees small variations on the originals, and includes outtakes and rehearsals as well. The fifth and sixth disc consist of a set performed at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio, starting off with a nearly half-hour version of rarity “Melody’s Laughter,” full of eviscerating noise, and ending with another half-hour rarity, “The Nothing Song.” Whereas with nearly every other band, studio outtakes and live sessions wouldn’t be much to crow about, with the Velvet Underground there’s so much that’s indispensible even from outtakes that every bit of recorded sound from the band’s short run deserves to be heard, if not pored over. For fans of the band, a set like this presents the most complete way to experience one of the best and most important albums of our era.
The Coup – Sorry to Bother You
The Oakland group’s sixth album finds the group very much alive after six years of silence, perhaps reenergized by their involvement in the Occupy movement. The always-political but never unfun group’s latest is almost cartoonishly bright, full of swinging live beats, cheerleader-esque chants, kazoos and other fun to ease their political-leaning messages. Tracks like “The Magic Clap” and “Strange Arithmetic,” which sound grafted from bits of Adult Swim and The Nation. Sorry to Bother You sounds like the party record of the election, with the message seeming to be, everything right now is as screwed up as a bad trip.
Cody ChesnuTT – Landing on a Hundred
Landing on a Hundred is as soulful an album as Cody ChesnuTT has released, embracing gospel-rock in opener “Till I Met Thee.” But the dynamic ChesnuTT remains ever-flexible on Landing on a Hundred, as well, taking his vintage guitar (and country-size ego) across Africa on “I’ve Been Life.” But ChesnuTT’s personality is part of what makes his music so distinctive. “I used to smoke crack back in the day,” ChesnuTT starts on “Everybody’s Brother,” in which he recounts his mistakes and triumphs before declaring “there’s no turning back.” He pulls off singing of love beyond the superficial on the sort of cheesy “Love is More Than a Wedding Day,” and a couple of tracks, “Under the Spell of the Handout” and the especially funky “Where is All the Money Going,” ask tricky political questions you don’t see coming from ChesnuTT. The detail and edge he offers musically and lyrically across Landing on a Hundred lift the proceedings beyond typical soul, achieving the sort of transcendence he sings of on that first track.
Menahan Street Band – The Crossing
Menahan Street Band’s instrumental wonders continue on their second album, The Crossing. The band seemingly creates soul and funk backbeats out of thin air that sound like they’ve been sitting, waiting in the bargain bin for some lucky digger to find. They touch on jazz with the horns and slow waltz of “Three Faces” before breaking into a blaxploitation soundtrack jam. “The Crossing” pairs its dark soul organs and horns with fragile acoustic guitar work and a hip-hop beat. “Light’s Out” practically begs for Jay-Z’s voice, as its horns call out for a response, but its strings and subtle funk guitar work the hip-hop beat until fruition. As the band includes members of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Antibalas and others, The Crossing can sometimes sound like a Dap-Kings album without Sharon Jones, but the lack of a vocalist makes for more attention given to the instrumentalists as well as the production, which wraps everything in delectable analog warmth. It’s the craft that counts here, not the personality, and for timeless soul music that gets every detail and emotion down, Menahan Street Band nail it.
Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory
Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird’s latest album continues his tradition of producing intricate yet immediate, lost-in-your-head melodies. Hands of Glory is as rootsy an album as Bird has produced, from the fiddle-laden “Spirograph” to the twangy “Railroad Bill,” but he has a way of turning Americana tropes on their head, building plucked strings into a mythical tale in “Something Biblical.”
Wreck-It Ralph Soundtrack
Wreck-It Ralph appropriately loads up on big electronic noise for the soundtrack to an animated film about a video game character rebelling against his fate as a villain, featuring Owl City, novelty-song heroes Buckner & Garcia, Kool & the Gang, Japanese girl group AKB48, Skrillex, Rihanna and a score by Henry Jackman.