Rock

Fresh Air (CD)

The last two years have seen artists like Ariel Pink and Julia Holter step away from their roots of making ultra low-fi albums, instead turning to more polished, carefully produced tracks. As these avant-pop weirdos of the highest degree move into new directions, Homeshake's Fresh Air fills the void that they left. Previously part of Mac DeMarco's band, Peter Sagar split to focus on his solo career as Homeshake. Crafting cartoon sounds, digital bare synth riffs, and R&B vocals, Fresh Air deviates from the indie rock vibe of his previous albums and goes into full funk deepness with riffs trying their best to sound like George Clinton jamming out on a children's Casio. Homeshake removes the corny stigma from "smooth" as his complex, artsy take on funk is taken into mellow depths that feel like a contact high upon first listen. "Khmlwugh" opens up with tinny, drum machine samples with synths that sound like they're being processed through a Commodore 64. When Sagar's vocals come in, his calm, cracking voice is almost antithetical to R&B virtuosity, but it works perfectly to create a psychedelic, computerized landscape. And as quickly as the song starts, it suddenly ends on a minute long drone that sounds more like Terry Riley than Parliament. "Call Me Up" gets as close to the private press, electronic weirdos of the '80s than anything else on the album. The instantly catchy melody is perfectly suited to the raw, unprofessional audio quality and creates a hypnotic jam that feels like a stoned, late-night drive. It's strangely sexy and romantic, but almost too crazy to be a mood setter. Homeshake is the perfect continuation of the future-looking, groundbreaking electronic artists who created unique worlds and sounds with the bare minimum equipment. Spacey and crazy.

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Life Without Sound (CD)

Thanks to the addition of a second guitar, Cloud Nothings have moved from the sound of a youthfully explosive power-trio to a more focused and thickened wall of guitar. Album opener "Up To The Surface" starts with a lonesome piano line, but quickly builds to a Strokes-y strut, with its staccato guitar strumming and mid-tempo driving beat. Unlike the Strokes though, Dylan Baldi's vocals are less detached, downtown cool, and more suburban, longing angst. "Enter Entirely" is an indie chugger with catchy, fuzz guitar, while the band turns ferocious with songs like "Darkened Rings" and album closer "Realize My Fate," which starts with shimmery, vibrato-ed guitar, but is led, via the marching drum beat, into an apocalyptic descent, with much guitar weeping and gnashing of strings.

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All These Countless Nights (CD)

Filled with emotion, sincerity, and exquisitely polished alt-rock melodies, Deaf Havana’s All These Countless Nights is an evolution for the band. The band doesn’t shy away from themes of heartbreak, heavy drinking, and regret; frontman James Veck-Gilodi lets the raw vulnerability of his lyrics shine through. Yet, in spite of the sometimes challenging subject matter, this is far from a downer of a record. The songs are earnest, hopeful, and catchy, and the album as a whole is rock solid.

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Hang (CD)

On Foxygen's Hang, the Westlake Village duo dive into soul and sunshiney '70s rock to create complex yet catchy indie pop gems. Opener "Follow the Leader" will instantly transport you to a funkier time, with swelling strings, ebullient horns, and ultra-confident vocals. Four tracks into the album, the band swerves into lilting '60s crooner territory with "America." This is a polished, sophisticated, eclectic excursion you'll never want to take off your turntable.

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Apocalipstick (CD)

When this trio of fresh faced weirdos popped into the scene four years ago with their first album, Haxel Princess, it felt like a fresh change from the garage sound of Burger Records. Their blend of psychedelic humor, punk attitude, and anime kawaii cuteness all wrapped in the feel of the '90s indie rock scene was unlike anything else. While band leader Clementine Creevy still writes the songs and leads the direction of her dreamy rock group, old bandmates Hannah Uribe and Sean Redman have split to pursue other projects. With the new addition of drummer Tabor Allen and synth guru Sasami Ashworth, Cherry Glazerr have lost the low-fi atmosphere and hit hard with a sophisticated, beautifully produced sophomore endeavor. Dropping the joyous, California rock expected from a group that emerged from its garage scene, Apocalipstick feels like the real Los Angeles: smoggy, bad trends, annoying strangers, and oppressive sunshine. It's a sponge soaked in tears, bad memories, and bad vibes that's represented perfectly with distorted guitars and drums right out of a skate punk track. From the opening dirge of "Told You I Would Be with the Guys," there's a sense of existential dread that was never apparent on their first album. It's a strange feminist manifesto about finding strength and solidarity with other women, but this comes with the uncomfortable realization that she has a dependency on men. "Nuclear Bomb" gives Ashworth, the synth player, a chance to show off some great harmonies as Creevy tears through the song. It fits perfectly with the self-loathing, destructive perspective of the song's fierceness. But Cherry Glazerr's new direction is embodied no better than on "Nurse Ratched." The track, named after the terrible nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is bitter and almost violent, without a single ray of sunshine in this bleak landscape. If anything, Apocalipstick feels optimistic in the sense that the world of Los Angeles rock might be going into weirder directions. A perfect soundtrack for strange times.

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The Wave (CD)

Since Keane announced their hiatus in 2013, their brand of tragic pop has been missed. Try listening to their seminal hit "Somewhere Only We Know" without getting emotional with all its baroque beauty. Lead singer Tom Chaplin's first album,The Wave, comes from an emotional place itself. Famously, he battled a cocaine addiction in the mid-2000s, and relapsed in the anticipation leading up to his first solo album. But The Wave feels like a victory in the wake of that type of terror and horror. If you miss the forward-thinking and simultaneously nostalgic Brit-pop sound of 1995, this album sounds like a spiritual successor. The Wave has a lovely production with luscious string parts and drums that are as elegant as Hal Blaine's famous drumming on The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. The lead single, "Quicksand," opens with a small orchestra playing thick harmonies against a twinkling piano. Chaplin sings about being beaten, worn and exhausted by the world, but sees optimism at the end of the tunnel. He smoothly croons that there's victory and happiness to be had in small failures, and that you can eventually find success, even in your darkest moments. "Hardened Heart" comes from a similarly optimistic viewpoint, unfortunately born out of sadness. In a quiet intro, he questions how he made it to this point and how he maintains his existence in this world, and then the song hits a crescendo that feels like happiness made into soundwaves. There's a type of fragility in his vocal bravado that is almost on par with similarly introspective albums like Frank Sinatra's famous September Of My Years. With his upcoming Los Angeles performance at the El Rey Theater in February, The Wave is a perfect way to feel the spiritual connection and power of his music.

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Reflection (CD)

At 68, Brian Eno constantly takes incredible leaps and new experimental risks with every album. It only makes sense that one of the godfathers of electronic music has been making some of his most forward-looking music since signing to the similarly forward-looking Warp Records. The Ship's structure was somewhere between dream pop and ambient poem and his collaborations with Underworld's Karl Hyde recalled the Afro-future sound of his experiments with David Byrne. Reflection continues his fascination with sculpting ambient music in surprising ways that feel like a completely different experience with each album. His previous ambient albums were created through various methods including tape loops, manipulation, and computers or through his famous "Oblique Strategies" cards. Reflection is the recorded version of his new ambient music and visual app for iOS and AppleTV that creates a constant stream of sound and sonic serenity. This version made for CD and vinyl represents one of the possibilities the app can create through various algorithms. This is all very heady and out-there stuff for one of the most peaceful and meditative albums in recent years. Unlike some of his prior ambient works that required you to almost not listen and to let it create an acoustic soundscape for you to inhabit, Reflection has a thicker, heavier sound that is like a thunderous wall of organ ambiance. It shifts somewhere between computerized drone and church organ as the heavy bass creates a zone of clear thoughts and angelic sound. It's anti-chaos that can make you stop and really calm down in our increasingly insane world. After the dire nightmare that was 2016, it's wonderful to have the first major album of the year be as contemplative and relaxing a listen as this.

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Atomic [OST] (CD)

Mogwai – the Scottish purveyors of contemplative, swirling, cinematic instrumentals – have certainly found an extracurricular niche scoring diverse projects such as the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain, and French TV series Les Revenants. Their latest album, Atomic, is a re-recording of their soundtrack to the Mark Cousins' Hiroshima documentary for the BBC, Storyville - Atomic: Living In Dread & Promise. More of an art-piece than a documentary, Storyville deals with the horror, fear, innovation, and hope surrounding the events of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb with images and moods as opposed to a structured narrative. Mogwai’s Atomic matches the film’s contrasts at every turn with their trademark shifts from shimmering minimalism to grand noise-oriented rock, sometimes in a sinister vein. The dualities of the modern world – innovation and obliteration – are heard in these revelatory shifts. 

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Three (CD)

On Three, Phantogram have perfected their unique combination of gritty electronica and earworm indie pop. The duo draws inspiration from hip-hop, soul, and electro to create truly dynamic songs like the seductive, defiant “Run Run Blood” and the infectious “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.” The music may be buoyant, sometimes startling, and always catchy, but the lyrics often do an about-face into darker themes of failed romance, power dynamics, and addiction. If you’re looking for a little more danger on the dancefloor, Phantogram deliver.

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Calico Review (CD)

The Allah-Las’ Calico Review is like the soundtrack to a 1950s California beach movie: easygoing and breezily cool, with just the slightest hint of rock ’n’ roll danger. The guitars flirt with surf rock tendencies, the vocals drift into psych territory, and the songs have that relaxed, shambolic garage rock influence. The album was recorded on the same soundboard used by the Beach Boys for Pet Sounds, which makes sense as Calico Review shares many of those sunny harmonies, but with a contemporary edge and a darker undercurrent. On this latest LP, the beach meets the Los Angeles streets and the Allah-Las prove once again that they’re one of the finest purveyors of modern psych/garage.

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