Onetime Sufjan Stevens collaborator and now a formidable art-pop songstress in her own right, My Brightest Diamond (aka Shara Worden) pushes her songs further into accessibility with This Is My Hand. The sound of the record finds Worden singing over playful orchestrations, wielding her operatically trained voice slowly like a great and powerful weapon. “Pressure” begins with a drumline cadence and marching band horns, drawing soul out of her sometimes austere vocals and layering them over the song’s sexy strut “Before the Words’” huge, propulsive drum beat and jazzy bassline pair nicely with her hauntingly cooed vocals. Though she mines gold at playing the witchy vamp, it’s great, too, when she climbs out of her shell. “I am a lover and a killer” she sings with growing ferocity over a muscular groove on “Lover Killer,” finding inspiration in Prince and kinship in St. Vincent. “This is what love feels like!” she sings before unleashing a desperate wolf cry in “I Am Not the Bad Guy,” with a throbbing menace reminiscent of Radiohead, or a more friskier version of Third-era Portishead. Tracks with more open space, like “Looking at the Sun,” offer a chance for her divaesque vocals to come through beautifully, even as her words are foreboding (“wrestling with a double mine like two horses pulling both sides,” she sings creepily over Disney-level orchestration). “You never know minute to minute where I’m going” she sings tantalizingly on “Shape.” True. But that’s what makes listening to This Is My Hand so thrilling.
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.