Rock

1000 Palms (CD)

Power-pop band Surfer Blood are back with a third album that finds the Flordians maturing without losing their hooky edge. The trampolining melodies of songs like “Grand Inquisitor” are reminiscent of similarly classy pop acts like XTC, while the band’s sparkling guitar lines and throaty vocals bring to mind post-punkers like The Feelies. Surfer Blood pull off power ballads easily (no easy feat) on tracks like “I Can’t Explain,” where guitars streak around like shooting stars behind a pensive melody, and “Saber-Tooth & Bone,” a spacey, ’50s-style tune given a new-wave twist. Though Weezer isn’t the fairest point of comparison, fans of that band’s classic work should love Surfer Blood, especially on songs like first single “Dorian,” with intricate guitarwork and a snaking melody that wind their way into your head. Hook-laden rock ‘n’ roll with brains ain’t an easy thing to find, and Surfer Blood deliver it in spades with 1000 Palms.

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Dark Bird Is Home (CD)

The Tallest Man on Earth aka Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson can make the most seemingly typical thing—a white guy with an acoustic guitar—sound extraordinary, thanks to his earnest voice and unbridled passion. On his fourth album, Matsson takes another cliché—the road- and world-weary album that follows the breakthroughs and touring—and makes it work like a charm, adding additional players and generous instrumentation to the fold. The full-band sound, with jangling guitars, tambourine, mandolins, woodwinds and ethereal choral harmonies, makes the darker lyrics go down smoothly ("I'm sure I'll sleep when all this goes under/but now, will I sleep alone?" he sings on “Darkness of the Dream”). It’s a balancing act: When Matsson sings of “all this fuckin’ doubt” in a cracking voice on the glorious “Sagres,” declaring “I could drink until I sleep through all the scarier times,” the sentiment is tempered by holiday orchestration that, vice versa, could sound treacly on its own. Matsson’s directness is appreciable; “What if we never see through cryin’?/Tomorrow’s wailin’ alone,” he sings on “Fields of Our Uncertainty,” and though he never answers that question, he seems at peace with the uncertainty. Dark Bird is Home may be lyrically gloomy, but its festive instrumentation and surfeit of passion offer comfort to anyone who takes his words to heart.

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Wilder Mind (CD)

Recreating yourself isn’t easy when you’re one of the biggest bands on the planet. But Wilder Mind sees Mumford & Sons successfully shift from “Civil War”-style folk rock to a more wide-reaching rock sound boosted by synthesizers and light orchestration. It’s a similar feat that Kings of Leon pulled when it added ’80s guitars to its Southern Rock or how Killers looked to Springsteen for inspiration. Songs like “Tomkins Square Park” and the title track offer spacious grooves for Marcus Mumford’s never-better vocals to emote over, while “The Wolf” goes full throttle with huge, crunching guitars. Touches of synthesizer wriggle their way into songs like “Snake Eyes,” which moves from a spare, heartfelt opening into a swift gallop. Mumford’s voice sounds wearier (and better) than it did on 2012’s Babel, which suits his lovelorn lyrics well, and he’s learned how to rein it in for maximum impact on tracks like the anthemic “Believe,” giving Bon Iver a run for his money. Not all Mumford & Sons fans will like the changes the band have made, but in doing so, Mumford & Sons have proved themselves to be a better, more interesting band than their detractors have given them credit for, risking it all for a more layered, produced sound when they really didn’t have to. For those who miss the old style, the album’s second half offers folksier tunes like the lovely “Cold Arms.” With Wilder Mind, Mumford & Sons have gotten wilder indeed, and they’re all the better for it.

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Who Is The Sender? (CD)

The melody that is at the heart of Bill Fay is one of resounding hope shrouded in melancholy. His records from the '70s blend elements of baroque pop, polished canyon folk and spirituality so delicately that the melodrama is all but completely washed out. In 1971’s Time of the Last Persecution particularly he excavated yearning, loss, and overall faith with a such blunt edged instrument that at first listen it is merely a throwaway folk rock record. A deeper listen, however, proves it to be masterful. It is that simplicity and nuance that has earned him a following of modern songwriters such as Jim O’Rourke, Jeff Tweedy, and Nick Cave. After his critically acclaimed return, Life Is People, in 2012, Fay releases his follow up Who Is The Sender?. Now in his mid seventies his oft used soft-spoken execution and world weariness comes off as almost prophetic, certainly larger than life. Who is the Sender? is above all a meditation on expression. Who is the sender in which he (Fay) is the vessel for the message? A thought which continues to reveal layers of itself throughout the record. Tracks like “War Machine” and “Order of The Day” represent the fire and drama that Fay still has burning inside of him, but instead of expressing that anger he has transformed it into an acceptance of the inevitable. Which is by no means apathetic, he is sublime in his forcefulness. With that anger and fury comes overwhelming sadness. The sadness remains so repentantly tortuous that you can hear religion in his voice. In fact you only need to hear the title of “Bring It on Lord” to know that he has come to some sort of crossroads with his spirituality. Once you hear the spiritual message that was sent through him, you will know that Bill Fay is every bit as hopeful and human as he ever has been.

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Untethered Moon (CD)

If you thought Built to Spill’s first album in six years would be some somber collection reflecting the band’s elder statesman status, think again. Untethered Moon roars right out of the gate, on “All Our Songs.” Doug Martsch lives up to his indie guitar hero mythos with fluttering space cowboy licks and cosmic solos, singing lines in a creeping whisper that could be self-deprecating or sarcastic, but it’s tough not to feel a thrill when he sings, “rock and roll will be here forever.” “New Zoo” builds on that momentum, as new guns Steve Gere (drums) and Jason Albertini (bass) prove their meddle with a steadily building groove over which Martsch drapes intricate guitar lacework, opening up into an R.E.M.-inspired melody. There’s a sense of futility to Martsch’s lyrics that can be funny at times or a drag at others—one song is called “Some Other Song”—but the irony is that Untethered Moon brims with energy and melodic ideas (for the record, “Some Other Song” is one of the album’s catchiest tunes). However exhausting the journey may be playing with the same band for more than 20 years, it’s clearly refined Martsch’s craft to the point that Untethered Moon feels effortless and powerful.

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Sound & Color (CD)

Alabama Shakes’ meteoric rise thankfully hasn’t tarnished what made them special to begin with. Sound & Color is an assured follow-up to Boys & Girls, further defining the band’s garage-blues sound without just relying on singer/guitarist Brittany Howard’s explosive voice to carry the show. The title track features some gorgeous harmonies and orchestral touches that start the album off in a classy way. But Sound & Color quickly proves gritty, as Howard’s banshee wail rips open first single “Don’t Wanna Fight.” “Dunes” is a deep, weird Beatlesesque track that finds Howard struggling to maintain her identity among rising fame (this one has “fan favorite” written all over it). Although it’s pretty obvious how powerful Howard’s voice can be, it reveals new shadings across the album, vacillating between a sweet coo and penetrating cry on the celestial funk of “Future People” and curling into a wild croon and big belt on “Gimme All Your Love.” About that voice—it’s impressive for sure, and Howard and co. have figured out when and where to unleash it, marking the biggest improvement the band has made. When the band does let loose on tracks like garage burner “The Greatest,” the results are all the more sublime. It’s rare when a band can capitalize on hype without succumbing to it as Alabama Shakes have; rarer still that they can avoid the sophomore slump with such aplomb. Alabama Shakes succeed with flying colors on their second outing.  

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Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper (CD)

The new album by Panda Bear is perhaps his most accessible yet. This is not to say the music isn’t as strange and unique as anything he’s done. “Boys Latin’s” brilliant vocal pastiche gets stuck in your head but keeps your mind swimming. “Crossword” is heartfelt and gorgeous, along the lines of Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” “Come to Your Senses” swirls with slithering, shaking sounds, but percolating guitars and synths carry strong melodies to take you through it. “Principe Real” is like Wonderland funk, bouncing on handclaps and cartoonish organs. And “Tropic of Cancer” is a Beach Boys-inspired oceanic ode that crests on beautiful harp and digital whispers. While Panda Bear’s work has always been inspiring, Grim Reaper sheds 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.

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Brill Bruisers (CD)

The New Pornographers are back in a big way with Brill Bruisers. While the band’s past couple of outings have struggled to match the energy of their roof-burning early work, Brill Bruisers comes roaring out of the gate right away with AC Newman’s School House Rock-style title track. Neko Case takes the lead on a few sublime tracks, like the scenic “Champions of Red Wine,” while Destroyer’s Dan Bejar’s songs carry just that right amount of oddity to make the whole album a bit more magical, as on the swirling new wave of “War on the East Coast.” Songs like “Family Fools” are some of their best Fleetwood Mac-style aural dreamscapes of layered vocals and lush synths, and gorgeous harmonies abound, as on the pretty “Backstairs.” Occasionally New Pornographers fall into the trap of their songs being more clever than emotional, but even still, those songs keep you interested by finding new ways to approach the same old power-pop, using vocal aerobics on “Hi-Rise” and giving a lovely sentiment some quizzical melodicism for added depth on “You Tell Me Where.” It’s perhaps their strongest work since high-water mark Twin Cinema, a return-to-form that longtime fans will no doubt find to be a perfect end-of-summer gift from the gods.

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Strangers To Ourselves (CD)

It’s been eight years since the last Modest Mouse album, so forgive Modest Mouse if they have a lot to say. The sprawling, 15-song Strangers to Ourselves has a lot to offer both fans who’ve been with Modest Mouse’s since the ’90s and those newer to the fold. The soft opening of the title track actually feels quite revolutionary in the band’s catalog, wearily beautiful in its dreaminess. Single “Lampshades on Fire” feels closer to classic Modest Mouse, a stomping singalong that sounds downright gleeful in its cutting social commentary on how we’re screwing up our planet—“Well we’re the human race/We’re goin’ to party out of this place.” The more somber, mature-sounding tracks still pack snarls and growls and song titles like “Shit in Your Cut.” The band stretches into new territory on songs like “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996),” whose digital beat, suggestive lyrics and vocal manipulation makes it sound like the band is collaborating with The Knife, or, more simply, on the ragtime-style “Sugar Boats” and new-wave ballad “Wicked Campaign.” Even when they’re being more predictable, Strangers to Ourselves is still a lot of fun to listen to, laying interesting percussive elements and spiderlike guitarwork into single-worthy post-punk jam “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box,” while the more subdued songs, like “Pups to Dust,” are worthwhile for Isaac Brock’s ever-remarkable voice and lyrics, which move from folksy to obtuse and obscene at the drop of a hat. After such a long hiatus, it’s wonderful to hear them still in fine form and doing what they do best.

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No Cities To Love (CD)

It’s tough to come back after a nearly decade-long hiatus, especially after your band’s best album (the combustible The Woods). But Sleater-Kinney succeed with aplomb on No Cities to Love, which scales back on Woods’ volume without dialing down the ferocity. Cities roars right out of the gate on “Price Tag,” as Corin Tucker gives a scathing indictment of American greed over Carrie Brownstein’s tuff gnarled riffs. Janet Weiss also gives a typically dynamic performance, switching between off-kilter punk-funk and straightforward rawk on “Fangless” and giving “No Anthems” and “Gimme Love” their pounding swagger. There’s a sense that Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss are growing comfortable with one another again, and appropriately, No Cities to Love is curt at 10 songs (thankfully trimmed of any fat whatsoever, really). When the trio fits together perfectly, as on “Surface Envy,” it’s a marvel to behold, its acidic riffs swaying and bursting at the seams while Tucker gives her band a worthy rallying call (“We win, we lose, only together do we make the rules”). Decidedly, No Cities to Love is yet another win for the returning rock titans known as Sleater-Kinney. 

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