Long Beach’s Avi Buffalo comes back after four years with a great new album, At Best Cuckold. Opening track “So What” reveals gleaming guitars and casually brattiness that shows Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg and his band cleaning up some of the psych clutter from their still excellent debut in favor of a streamlined sound, but they’re still weirdos at heart. Serpentine lullaby “Memories of You” softly jangles with country-rock guitars, proggy touches and funny lyrics like “bitch I’m on fire…I’m a cheeseball on fire.” It speaks to the band’s ability to reference classic bands while putting out their own vibe. It’s hard to pull off a “Here Comes a Regular”-style vulnerable acoustic-guitar song like “Two Cherished Understand,” and Avi Buffalo does it by keeping it short, sweet and ultimately unique. Part of that uniqueness comes from Zahner-Isenberg’s way with a non sequitur—“I ran over two dogs, then I ate them after,” he admits amid a fizzy Western backdrop on “Think It’s Gonna Happen Again.” And he gives the best breakup line of the year on “Oxygen Tank,” singing, “A man carrying an oxygen tank is gonna come kill me and my family too if I don’t stop seeing you.” The Flaming Lips comparison still haunts them a bit, yet these songs still have personality for days, so who cares, ultimately. “These birds seem so fucking free/they're nothing compared to me” Zahner-Isenberg sings faux-sweetly on “Overwhelmed With Pride,” and it’s tough not to believe him. Avi Buffalo will be at Amoeba SF Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. and Amoeba Hollywood Sept. 17 at 6 p.m.
Half Japanese’s legacy as detuned-guitar weirdos that inspired legions of other important bands is more than solidified at this point. But thankfully, the band has decided to record a new album, their first in 13 years, to go along with their recently announced Neutral Milk Hotel tour. And let’s just say it’s far from a fiasco. Overjoyed is brilliant, teaming with the energy of a band half the age of the Fair brothers. “In its Pull” establishes the band’s core appeal of sing-spoken vocals over a straight-ahead rock beat and guitars that vacillate between Stones riffs and atonal fuckall chords. “Meant to Be That Way” sees the band engaging in squealing, No Wave-style guitar sounds, but they’re pretty reined in, used in the service of creating a potent post-punk groove. “Brave Enough” might be the band’s best pop song yet, full of jangling island guitars, bongo drums and lyrics like “Come on! Let’s do it!” Yet the whole thing is lovably strange, too, a special freak-pop gem that only Half Japanese could produce. That moment of accessibility speaks to how listenable Overjoyed is throughout, even while the band is spitting distorted vitriol into their mics (“Do It Nation”) or singing with only the faintest hint of a melody (“Shining Star”)—these songs are still hooky at their core and a lot of fun to listen to. There’s also a wonderful positive energy to the album that doesn’t feel forced. A song like “Overjoyed and Thankful” might be ironic, but it doesn’t really matter, as its torn-apart rock ‘n’ roll still brings a smile to your face. And “The Time Is Now” is irrepressibly life affirming and musically quite pretty, with shimmering, jazzy guitar lines. “Don’t ever get stuck with that stupid word ‘why’; I never have liked that word,” they sing nakedly on “The Time Is Now.” To borrow a line from the song, the long-awaited Overjoyed puts a few more rainbows in our blue sky.
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.