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.
For some bands, the weight of an estimable catalog can sometimes feel like a burden, and working with the same collaborators for years on end can be stifling. So artists turn to new projects for those ideas that don’t fit into the ideals of their main gig, or just to take a break. Like Thom Yorke indulging his dubstep fetish with Atoms for Peace, Electric Wurms sees psych-pop arena-fillers The Flaming Lips (that is, the band’s singer/songwriter, Wayne Coyne, and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd) have stepped away from the Lips for this collaborative EP (along with the modern prog band Linear Downfall) of acid-trip jams. It’s not much of a departure from the Lips sound, but there’s a freewheeling feel to this mini-album that’s been missing of late from the Lips’ increasingly difficult albums. Unexpected sounds gurgle out of every pore of songs like their cover of Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise,” yet create a kind of cosmic, atmospheric beauty. Rock-based psychedelia that grounds songs like the insane “Transform!!!” and keep them (or you) from becoming completely unmoored. Musik Die Schwer Zu Twerk may scream “for fans only” on paper, but, as always with these guys, something that at first seems like a one-off ends up feeling well-considered and rewards repeat listens, given Coyne’s whimsical production and the obvious chemistry (in more ways than one!) that these guys generate. Really cool little release from Wayne Coyne and his Heady Fwends.
FKA Twigs is the stage name of singer/songwriter Tahliah Barnett, who together with a team of some of the best producers working in pop music (Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes, Clams Casino and Paul Epworth of Adele/Coldplay fame, among others) come up with one of the most brilliant debut records of 2014. What at first sounds like icy, alien R&B ends up feeling amorous, empathetic and intriguing to no end. Songs like “Lights On” at first sound not so out-of-time, fitting in nicely with the adventurous alt-soul stylings of The Weeknd or current Beyonce, but the songs are continuously chewed up and breathed back out into wondrous concoctions that bear little resemblance to anything else out there. Vocally, Barnett calls to mind someone working to effect change within the mainstream like Aaliyah once did as much as she does weirdos like Yma Sumac and Bjork (especially on the bold “Preface”), her airy voice warping into new dimensions yet latching onto reality on the touching “Two Weeks” and suddenly coming through clear as day as she pleads with sexual abandon through classic soul phrasings for a would-be lover amid analog-sounding robotic textures. As much as FKA Twigs is a product of a time in which introspective artists who allow for empty space to permeate their music are the norm, from The XX to How to Dress Well and James Blake, Barnett’s music feels more fun to listen to and not at all dreary, even if mostly downtempo. “How would you like it if my lips touched yours?” she suddenly entreats in the laser-streaked “Hours” and it’s hard not to think of some fantastical Janet Jackson comeback. “Video Girl” is more direct, asking “is she the girl from the video?” (Barnett has a background as a backup dancer in music videos) as Barnett goes on to prove she’s a lot more than that through stunning lead and layered vocals while the song’s lush, post trip-hop music sways and lurches sensuously. But “Pendulum” will no doubt be her entrÃ©e to most audiences, as the Epworth production literally knocks on your door with its stuttering beat and introduces a girl capable of delivering a Prince-level combination of heartache and confidence while keeping sly pop hooks on the backburner right until they’re ready to sizzle. It makes you happy to be listening to pop music in this day and age when something so exciting as this will bubble to the top.
Producer David Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) ends up being the perfect collaborator for Austin’s Spoon on their excellent eighth album. His unmistakable stamp helps the drums explode on rock stomper “Rent I Pay”; he augments the band’s lean indie funk-rock sound with harps and synths on the lovely “Inside Out”; and “Do You’s” loopy spaceiness helps make it the best Britpop song that never was, like late-era Blur on a country kick. Of course, none of the album’s majesty would be possible without the band itself, who co-produce (along with early producer Joe Chiccarelli) and write some of their catchiest tunes to date, and that’s saying something, given that this is the band responsible for earworms like “The Way We Get By.” The band stretches itself to the limits here without straying too far from its core appeal, as songs like the slinky, dark “Outlier” sound unlike anything in the band’s catalog but (pardon the pun) don’t stick out in a bad way. The melodies and arrangements are ace throughout, and frontman Britt Daniel becomes more versatile, engaging in a kind of beatnik singspeak on “Let Me Be Mine” while still unleashing those great, sandpapered pipes to their fullest potential on the chorus of “Do You.” It adds up to one of the best-ever releases from one of the solidest bands in indie rock, a total triumph and utterly welcome return. Spoon will be playing live at Amoeba Hollywood Wednesday Aug. 6 at 6 p.m.!
Shabazz Palaces 2011 release Black Up is undoubtedly one of the best, most exciting hip-hop releases of the new millennium. So we waited with bated breath for this second release from Ishmael Butler (one of '90s alt hip-hop greats Digable Planets) and Tendai Maraire, and Lese Majesty does not disappoint. The album is a sweltering blur of chilled-out beats, sparkling synthesizer tapestries and spacey rhymes that echo through your head. The 18-track album has a prog-like massivity to it, making it fun to get lost in—you can listen to Lese Majesty three times in a row on repeat and never get sick of it, nor will you fail to discover something new. But if you need a good entry point into their weird, wonderful world, I'd recommend the bizarrely catchy beats that hook you in "They Come in Gold" or the funny and fast-paced "#CAKE," with its layers of vocals and strange diversions. Now all I'm gonna do with the rest of my day is eat cake and listen to Shabazz Palaces. I wish! Back to work ... but honestly, this is one of the best things anyone's put out this year. Shabazz Palaces play Amoeba SF tonight at 6 p.m.!