Forget everything you’ve read about Ariel Pink. His public persona has nothing to do with his music, which has never been more remarkable than it is on pom pom. “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” begins the album by approximating decades of children’s music, family VHS tapes and video game music into a multicolored parade of half-remembered sounds. On tracks like “White Freckles,” Pink taps into similar territory of outdated interstitial music and lyrics and sounds inspired by advertising, pouring his exaggerated lothario presence all over them and ending up with sticky-sweet concoctions that leave you feeling titillated and slightly nauseated. Nothing that could possibly be interesting gets thrown away in Pink’s world—“Lipstick” could be based on an adult contemporary jam you never learned the name of; “Nude Beat A Go-Go” is like a perved-up version of a Frankie & Annette movie theme song. This means there are a few tracks you’ll skip past, but it’s better to have the full Pink treatment, making pom pom feel more crucial than 2012’s somewhat cleaned-up Mature Themes. And the singles are killer. “Put Your Number in My Phone” is a new cheese classic in silk pajamas. “Black Ballerina,” like its precursor, Before Today’s “Round and Round,” is a sick roller rink jam, with a disjointed narrative flowing through. And “Picture Me Gone” takes Pink’s simmering Beach Boys influence into a gossamer synth ballad. So he’s kind of a creep. But pom pom is proof that for all his off-putting proclivities, Ariel Pink still makes some of the most fascinating and entertaining pop music around.
Cult of Youth’s self-described “post-industrial Pet Sounds” begins with the instrumental “Todestrieb,” its eerie synths and tribal drums setting a foreboding tone for the album. “Dragon Rouge’s” acoustic strums and Sean Ragon’s intoning vocals give the track the feel of a classic Church song or stripped-down Sisters of Mercy track, while additional touches like cello and orchestral percussion pump up the grandiosity. Elsewhere, the band plugs in and goes full-tilt, with B-52’s riffs and post-punk rhythms on “Empty Faction” and goth-jangle on “Gods Garden.” Ragon’s voice is used terrifically throughout, judiciously given echo to resonate or often without effect to let his throaty post-industrial growl run free without trampling over the gorgeousness of these tracks. He’s at his best screaming through the nocturnal desert scene set by “Down the Moon” or kicking up dust on the rollicking “No Regression.” Like Iceage’s recent Plowing Into the Field of Love, Cult of Youth’s Final Days successfully marries Americana to post-punk rooted in traditions of hardcore and industrial music. It’s an unholy union, and it’s awesome. Check out "Empty Faction" via Stereogum.
In between the albums Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan holed up in Garth Hudson’s Woodstock home with his band (that would be The Band), where the group tore through multiple recordings a day for the summer of 1967. Those recordings would not only provide the seeds of hit songs for other artists, they would go on to spawn The Band’s Music From Big Pink. Though a collection of these recordings was released in 1975, the entirety of this legendary fertile period had never been released until now. Vol. 11 of The Bootleg Series gives Dylan fans what they’ve dreamed of having. Running in chronological order, we start with the sweet “Edge of the Ocean,” a simple, rough-and-tumble recording that of a never-before-released song that represents the seedlings of Dylan and The Band’s momentous summer. We get early versions of “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere” with cool, scattershot lyrics about feeding cats. There’s an early take of The Band’s “I Shall Be Released” that is stunning in its shambolic simplicity. You can almost feel the room around which “Quinn the Eskimo” was recorded as the band casually rolls through the future Manfred Mann song. Some of the recordings can be a bit rough, sure. But listening through these recordings and finding your favorites is the next best thing to having been there yourself during these epic recording sessions. And the prime cuts from Vol. 11 taken together still represent the great lost Dylan album. For fans of Dylan and The Band—really, for all fans of music history—Basement Tapes Vol. 11 is an essential listen. Hear "Odds and Ends" via Rollingstone.
The Twilight Sad are masters of misery, plying heartbreak directly into their guitars on their stunning fourth album. “There’s a Girl in the Corner” is an epic breakup song, with James Graham’s repeating “she’s not coming back,” his Scottish brogue piercing through sheets of minor key noise. “Last January” is propulsive with a perfect layering of synths, displaying at how well The Twilight Sad have folded their recent new-wave leanings into their core noise-pop sound. The band also continue to show an uncanny ability to repurpose familiar influences like R.E.M., Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine and still come out with something fresh and enjoyable on tracks like “It Was Never the Same,” touching on these influences without being beholden to them, or letting Graham’s voice soar over a Suicide-style drum machine on the title track. The band has often been noted more for its atmospherics than hooks, but “Drown So I Can Watch” is one of their catchiest songs yet, with a relatively light, lilting melody that eases some of the downer mood. And they allow for more space on Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave than on previous albums, ending on a pair of spare, beautiful tracks. It’s the best thing they’ve done since their electrifying debut.
Tough Love finds the singer who made her name in the world of dubstep stretching further into pop environs, with help from the likes of Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), Miguel and Ed Sheeran. The Kate Bush-inspired title track that opens the album is already brighter and warmer than anything she has done before. The radio-ready but cool throbbing beats of “You and I” successfully split the difference between her “indie Sade” past and the pop horizon she now faces. Still, she’s really in her element amid the chilled out synths and digital handclaps of the sumptuous “Cruel.” Ware’s voice is in top form throughout, working wonders on the soulful “Say You Love Me,” amid gospel touches and a skittering beat. Her biggest issue is still somewhat anonymous lyrics, but the music and her voice always seems to make the most of them, driving home lyrics of heartbreak with a nuanced touch, while the tenuously sexy “Kind Of … Sometimes … Maybe” shows off her personality brilliantly, coming off as an update on Janet Jackson’s coy sensuality, filtered through Ware's old soul. Musically, Ware and her collaborators manage to move all over the map and make it seem like they’re travelling a straight line, keeping things rhythmically intriguing on tracks like the sultry “Sweetest Song” and even making room for a throwback disco track like “Want Your Feeling.” If it’s less cohesive than her debut, Devotion, it’s also a lot more fun, and perhaps more consistently rewarding. Tough Love should find Ware expanding her audience beyond the soul, electronica and indie fans who have already discovered her and into the pop realm without losing a shred of her estimable cool.