Father John Misty’s fearless second record builds on his folk-rock sound with orchestral touches, genre diversions and direct, conversational lyrics that cut through singer/songwriter clichÃ©s. The title track introduces Beatlesesque melodies and weeping steel guitar to prepare you for the scope of the record. J. Tillman starts going into crooner mode with the spectacular “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” his crushed-velvet vocals singing over a sweeping, country-symphonic arrangement, but his lyrics nicely keep the romanticism from getting too gooey (“I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”). “True Affection” takes a sharp turn into MIDI-electro-dream-pop, with some Fleet Foxes-style harmonies keeping things grounded in Tillman’s wheelhouse. “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” takes another turn, this time into Velvets-third-album twinkling indie pop, while Tillman calls out an airheaded groupie (“She says like, literally, music is the air she breathes,” he sings hilariously). Tillman’s lyrics work so well because of their specificity—you feel like you’re watching him break hearts at a local bar when he sings “Why the long face? Blondie, I’m already taken,” over a sultry Southern sway on “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow.” Such subject matter could read as self-serving, if not for the album’s more self-effacing tracks, like “The Ideal Husband,” in which Tillman admits various wrongdoings, petty or otherwise, over nervy rock ‘n’ roll; or “Bored in the USA,” a piano ballad that seems to mock Tillman’s own first-world problems of alienation and dullness (“Save me, white Jesus!” is an awesomely cutting exclamation). Tillman’s refusal to do anything in a typical way while still keeping the music highly polished helps I Love You, Honeybear to never feel indulgent. Rather, it’s an extraordinarily giving album, as Tillman’s honesty and strength as a songwriter and performer has grown immeasurably. It’s easily one of the best albums of the year thus far.
These nocturnally minded Australians set themselves apart from post-punk pack with creeping, atmospheric songs that seem to exist in a netherworld between sleep, dreaming and waking life. Songs like “You I Never Knew” lurch forward with jangling guitars and pounding beats before resting back into woozy, cloudy textures, on tracks like “Pay for Strangers.” Definitely a band to watch for 2015.
I had never checked out Title Fight before, but they go lighter on the emo and heavier on the shoegaze on their new album, coming up with a surprisingly winning combination. Tracks like “Chlorine” find sweet melodies doing battle with Sonic Youth-style mangled chords, while moody basslines on songs like “Hypernight” and power-pop arrangements on tracks like “Mhrac” call to mind elements of The Pixies. The band’s watery, textured guitar playing makes for pleasant listening on the plaintive “Your Pain Is Mine Now,” but the band can still deliver a dose of the good ol’ screamo-style singing on “Rose of Sharon,” placing them in the same boat as bands who’ve similarly paired picturesque guitarwork with corrosive singing and driving beats, like Fucked Up and Deafheaven. Fans may have to get used to the more impressionistic style they use here, employing Chapterhouse and Swervedriver as influences as much as Jawbreaker or Rites of Spring. But those who are willing to evolve with the band will be rewarded with a perfect marriage of pulse and shimmer, on songs like standout “Liar’s Love.” And those of us new to Title Fight have a much-needed dose of gorgeously loud music on our hands with Hyperview.
Jessica Pratt’s voice is something special, a breathy, elfin coo that calls to mind Marc Bolan’s spirited yelp as well as Vashti Bunyan’s inward-facing whispers, channeled through Pratt’s own wry, observational tone. “I see you standing wasted alone in my mind,” she sings directly on opener “Wrong Hand,” but such a line doesn’t feel bitter coming from Pratt’s mouth, as if it’s a gentle warning rather than a harsh truth. “People’s faces blend together like a watercolor you can’t remember in time,” she sings with precision at the outset of “Game That I Play.” Her guitar playing feels nimble yet immediate, leaving in missed notes in the one-take-sounding, stark and lo-fi “Strange Melody,” while her intriguing fingerings and tunings seem to draw inspiration from Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, though the way she contorts her voice from a floating, teetering high register to a disconcerting low feels entirely unique. The songs themselves are allowed to meander, though never indulgently; rather, On Your Own Love Again feels exceptionally well edited, its serpentine arrangements remaining relatively coiled. “Game That I Play” manages to sneak in a stunning second movement while keeping the song trim at just over four minutes. And she doesn’t overstay her welcome. At just more than half an hour, Pratt ends her second album leaving you wanting more, turning over her curious phrases and mystical voice to uncover their secrets, especially on one of the album’s final and best songs, “Back, Baby”—its pensive breakup lyrics like “your love is just a myth I devised” sting softly amid loping, seaside acoustic guitar. On Your Own Love Again is gorgeous through and through, and it’s easily one of the best albums of this early new year.
In the latter half of their career, Belle & Sebastian have consistently tried to balance the desire to appeal to a wider audience with more outward-facing pop songs alongside the bookish indie pop that netted them a cult of worshipping devotees in the first place. They’ve never done it quite as successfully as they have here on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. Opener “Nobody’s Empire,” with its marching beat, glowing synths and gospel choir backup vocals comes off like a statement of purpose: This will be a richly produced pop album (courtesy of Ben H. Allen III, who’s worked both with the indie-pop elite and hip-hop artists), so gear up. The band comes up with one of its most radio-ready singles to date on “The Party Line,” a disco-rock track with typically clever lyrics and a booming synth riff that won’t quit. The best Stevie Jackson-led song in years comes on the bittersweet beatnik funk of “Perfect Couples.” “Play for Today” is synthy and light, with ace guest vocals from Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny. And it’s safe to say Belle & Sebastian have the only ABBA-esque synth-pop track that name-checks Sylvia Plath. But Belle & Sebastian want to do more than make us dance. Several tracks hue closer to their ’90s incarnation while still retaining the fuller production present on the album’s more immediate moments. The European folk-flavored “The Everlasting Muse” is rich with mandolin, horns and clap-along breakdowns. The slow-rolling, string-laden “Ever Had a Little Faith” is reminiscent of early B&S highlight “The Boys of Track and Field.” And Sarah Martin gets to sing lead on both the swoony “The Power of Three” and rollicking “The Book of You,” with some ripping guitarwork to boot. So it’s not the introverted Belle & Sebastian of yore. But this edition of Belle & Sebastian manages to help them evolve without losing what made them special. It’s a win-win for fans new and old, on one of Belle & Sebastian’s best albums in years.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper has us in heaven. It’s Noah Lennox’s most accessible album thus far, yet it’s as strange and unique as anything he’s done. I first heard “Boys Latin” on edibles in Joshua Tree at his excellent show at Pappy & Harriet’s with Peaking Lights, and that rainbow vocal pastiche has been swimming through my brain ever since. The other single, “Mr Noah,” is more of a grower, but I love the way its groans into life and pulsates like a live animal. You’ve got songs like “Principe Real,” which is like this Wonderland funk track, bouncing on handclaps and cartoonish organs. A lot of the in-between songs are as beautiful as you might guess. “Crossword” is heartfelt and gorgeous, along the lines of a certain song he wrote for Animal Collective, “My Girls.” “Come to Your Senses” swirls with slithering, shaking sounds, but percolating guitars and synths carry strong melodies to take you through it. And “Tropic of Cancer” is a Beach Boys-inspired oceanic ode that crests on beautiful harp and digital whispers. Panda Bear’s work has always been inspiring, but Grim Reaper sees Lennox shedding any kind of shyness present in his previous releases. It’s a beautifully made, all-embracing piece of experimental pop music, and one of the best releases of early 2015.