Rock

Different Every Time: Ex Machina / Benign Dictatorships (CD)

It’s tough to make a compilation album for an artist as idiosyncratic as Robert Wyatt and have it make any sense, much less make it enticing to new and established listeners. Different Every Time gets the job done by splitting things up—one disc houses highlights from across Wyatt’s career, including some of his time in Soft Machine and Mole Machine, whereas disc two has collaborations new and old. It might seem strange to begin with the 18-minute, serpentine Soft Machine track “Moon in June” (from their iconic Third album), but the prog-rock jam perfectly introduces Wyatt’s penchant for making adventurous music that still pleases the ear, setting the stage for countless artists to follow (see Radiohead, Flaming Lips, Tame Impala, too many others to name). Mole Machine’s “Signed Curtain” calls out its movements as they’re happening (“this is the chorus, or perhaps it’s the bridge?” Wyatt sings in his inimitable falsetto). Wyatt’s solo material veered further into jazz, jazz-rock and jazz-fusion territory, always with a sense of singularity that precludes it from being mistaken for any other performer. From “A Last Straw’s” spirited scatting to “Yesterday Man’s” heady psychedelia, “The Age of Self’s” grooving synth-pop and “Cuckoo Madame’s” cascading layered vocal (which whould set the stage for his collaboration with Bjork, “Submarine,” included on disc two), there is a simply stunning amount of variety here. That gets amplified on disc two, with collaborators as diverse as Hot Chip, Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, jazz trumpeter Mike Mantler and avant-garde composer John Cage. Throughout, Wyatt’s earnest, naked vocals and style, ancient in inspiration and forward-looking in execution, remain the through-line. As Wyatt’s solitary vocal sings freely through his closing collaboration with John Cage, “Experiences No. 2,” we feel as though we’ve gone through a series of visions by a true seer of music.

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Wasted Years (CD)

OFF! seemingly came together out of necessity for its musicians, who came up in legendary punk and hardcore bands (Redd Kross, Black Flag, Rocket From the Crypt, Hot Snakes and Burning Brides) and perhaps needed a new outlet. Accordingly, OFF!’s sound is unrelentingly furious, packing legions of hardcore hooks into minute-long bouts.  Sooner or later, though, they’d have to go a bit further, and Wasted Years is the sound of OFF! expanding things without losing the immediacy that has made their work so compelling. After a couple of good ol’ quick bangers, the album digs into some Black Sabbath-style dark riffery (“Legion of Evil”), complex, metallic screeds (“No Easy Escape”) and a song that actually breaks the two-minute mark, the catchy “Hypnotized.” Rather than being banged out as quickly as possible, Wasted Years’ songs sound whittled away until only the core elements remain—“Death Trip on the Party Train” doesn’t need to be a second longer to tunnel its way into your brain. The album is also remarkably consistent, as each of its 16 songs stand out, with second-half standouts like “I Won’t Be a Casualty” and “Time’s Not On Your Side” (Key line: “There’s a 2x4 in my hand slicing my eyes!”) maintaining interest throughout. At this point, OFF! stands with any of its members’ previous bands as a hardcore punk band for the ages.

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Plowing Into The Field Of Love (CD)

Danish band Iceage do away with the heavy post-hardcore distortion on their latest release, but if anything, Plowing Into the Field of Love finds the band fiercer than ever—just from that title alone, we know this isn’t going to be a gentle affair. The country jangle behind “The Lord’s Favorite” shows you what to expect from this new era of Iceage—acoustic guitars are strummed as if trying to knock dust from the strings, drums gallop and thrash like wild horses and pianos plink eerily out of step in the background. Singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt channels none other than Patti Smith in his wordy desperation in extended tracks like "On My Fingers," though his bark and bite on “How Many” has the feel of their earlier work, with a side helping of the (relative) restraint they’ve shown here. From rumbling Western hardcore (“Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”) to acoustic death marches (“Cimmerian Shade”), Plowing is unendingly bleak, save for the nighttime croon of "Against the Moon," which lyrically manages to make pissing in public sound romantic. You occasionally wish for a melody to lighten the mood, but Iceage have never been compromising before, so why start now? The joke’s on anyone who looks for a “mature” Iceage; Plowing Into the Field of Love sounds like it was made by a band of undead outlaws, and that’s just how it should be.

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Skeletal Domain (CD)

Twelve studio albums and a twenty-five year career hasn't diluted or dulled Cannibal Corpse into schlocky and anemic metal. "Kill or Be Killed" and the title track are sonic walls of vocals straight from the gut, crazed drumming and long wild guitar riffs that make you know Cannibal Corpse aren't just the granddads of death metal, but the the reigning kings of metal who are prepared to up the ante with the grimiest and darkest metal to penetrate your soul. This is music that'll rip your face off, gouge out your eyes and smash your skull in. And you'll love it.

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Underneath The Rainbow (CD)

Black Lips have never made a bad record—actually, they’ve all been great—but they’d definitely cleaned up a bit on their last couple of albums. Thankfully, that hasn’t meant they’ve gone soft—their songwriting chops have just become more apparent, and Underneath the Rainbow continues that trend, a worthy successor to 2011’s excellent Arabia Mountain. Whereas Mark Ronson lent a sprinkle of pop sheen to that album, The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney is at the helm here, giving the hippieish Lips a leather-and-denim feel that suits them a little better, on songs like the glammy “Funny,” bluesy “Boys in the Wood” and 007-riffing “Do the Vibrate.” Given that general feel, their dabbles in cowpunk make the most sense on this album, resulting in some of its best songs, like “Drive by Buddy,” a whiskey-soaked jangler that nods to bands who’ve followed in the Lips’ wake like FIDLAR. That same feel informs the delightfully tasteless “Dorner Party,” a catchy outlaw song that seems to be written from the point of view of killer and cop foe Christopher Dorner. Even with the fuck-all sneer here of songs like “Dorner Party,” Underneath the Rainbow has some of the band’s prettiest melodies—not something the Black Lips are typically known for. “Waiting” is, dare I say, gorgeous, with an acoustic jangle and desert melody, and album closer “Dog Years” is crustily romantic—“you blew smoke into my twinkling eyes” they sing-speak over a Velvets-style riff, continuing “my pulsating retinas staring back at you like some cutting edge piece of technological equipment, I knew you were the one.” Sweet. If you’re a fan, the album is a great reassertion of their sound and aesthetic, and if you weren’t in love before, Underneath the Rainbow could be the album to change that.

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Pom Pom (CD)

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.

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Salad Days (CD)

Mac DeMarco wrongly gets called “slacker rock.” At only 23 he’s releasing his third album, and it’s one of the best things we’ve heard all year. The title track is a swaying, gleefully glum blues track, its charming, singalong quality masking some quarterlife crisis (“Always feeling tired, smiling when required/write another year off and kindly resign,” suggesting some darkness behind DeMarco’s goofy grin). “Brother” features DeMarco sumptuously singing while milky guitars dance beneath the surface. It’s one of the loveliest tunes he’s ever produced. Songs like “Goodbye Weekend,” with its woozy, intoxicating guitar line and lovely jazz tones, speak to what a strong songwriter DeMarco has always been beneath it all. And while he’s all the better for ditching some of the affectations he sported on the still-great Rock and Roll Night Club in favor of a streamlined sound he’s dubbed “jizz jazz,” DeMarco can still pull some conceptually striking songs, like “Passing Out the Pieces,” which uses heavily effected harpsichord and booming synth-bass to create miraculous millennial psychedelia, pulling in some of the good ol’ Beatles/Kinks/Beach Boys influence he’s seemed to (probably smartly) avoid showing thus far in his career. Salad Days shows DeMarco to be a classical songwriter with the ability to turn an amiable, if not immediately memorable, voice and intricate yet mangled guitarwork into tunes that pull at you in unexpected, emotional ways. So he can’t be bothered to shower or cut his hair—we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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The Future's Void (CD)

EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints was the terrifically auspicious art-pop debut by Erika M. Anderson aka EMA. Any question as to whether she could replicate its success or even top it is quickly silenced as we listen through her follow-up. The Future’s Void is bigger, bolder and more affecting all around. It’s also a lot more fun, as it seems Anderson has taken a young lifetime of growing up listening to KROQ and made those formative influences into something truly fascinating. She swings big on songs like opener “Satellites,” coming off like a millennial successor to PJ Harvey, with all of the fury and inventiveness that would suggest. She also dabbles in sunny SoCal power-pop (“So Blonde”), touches on Depeche Mode-style emotional synth-pop (“Cthulu”) and writes ballads that don’t suck (“3Jane,” which draws its power from a simple “Be My Baby” beat, droning pianos and Anderson’s world-weary vocals). The biggest improvement here is Anderson’s vocal ability and overall presence, as she tears her voice to shreds in the choruses of “So Blonde.” She comes off like a female Trent Reznor on the aptly titled “Smoulder” and really makes us feel on “3Jane,” even as she throws in a cynical line like “it’s all just a big advertising campaign.” It’s sometimes tough to know exactly what she’s getting at, given The Future’s Void’s wild turns, but taken as a whole, it’s an incredibly strong piece of work. Its fragmentation seems to be part of the message. If the future’s void, we can be whatever we want.

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In Bardo (CD)

White Arrows do an admirable job of balancing their pop ambitions with their innate record-store-geek weirdness on their sophomore album, In Bardo. We get tracks like “We Can’t Ever Die,” a blast of arena-ready anthemic rock, and “Can’t Stop Now,” which features U2-style shivery guitars and big fat chorus. But their first single “Nobody Cares” is also proudly strange, with Nintendo noises, pitch-shifted vocals and all sorts of other crazy noise, moving from being pleasant and enjoyable to unique and hard to shake. And “Get By” balances its hip-shaking rhythms with sonic saturation and wailing guitars. They lose a bit of the globe-trotting vibe from first album Dry Land is Not a Myth, but the focus here is on quality songs, as In Bardo has them in spades.

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Cosmic Logic (CD)

Psych pop duo Peaking Lights get somehow both more personal and further out there on their latest release. “Telephone Call” sees singer Indra Dunis leading an alien dance party, singing “telephone call from space, calling all the human race” over a fat, dubby groove, while “Hypnotic Hustle” seems to create a new, interdimensional dance. But, like Lucifer’s stunning “Beautiful Son,” about Dunis and bandmate/husband Aaron Coynes’ newborn, some of Cosmic Logic’s best tracks aim for the terrestrial. “Everyone and Us” hides quiet reflection in its funky synth bassline, and the irresistible “New Grrrls” tells of the struggles of being a working mom, from the perspective of an indie rock star (“Can’t stop to be just a mom/The choice to stay at home is gone/Worker, lover, mother, wife/Gotta do it all in this life”). Dunis’ untrained voice will be a barrier for some, but her plainspoken lack of affectation also helps ground these songs and keep them from drifting off into the ether. Listen to Cosmic Logic and enter an interstellar dance party with Peaking Lights.

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