This Month's Picks

In A Dream (CD)

The Juan MacLean

Post hardcore guitarist turned electronic musician John Maclean teams up with post LCD Soundsystem vocalist Nancy Whang to release In A Dream. The record has an immediate dancability indicative of any DFA release. However, the pedigree between these two lends a familiarity that gives the record a certain timelessness. During the last days of LCD System Nancy Whang was asserting herself as a creative force in that group. With the dissolving of LCD Soundsystem, Nancy has turned it way up as the prominent vocal feature on Maclean’s record. Maclean churns out some killer pop-disco synth bangers, while Whang keeps the hooks coming. The single “A Simple Design” highlights the partnership that Whang and Maclean have, and leaves hope for a new definitive duo for the DFA label.

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Encyclopedia (CD)

The Drums

Conceived by its members as the fusion between a synth take on The Sound of Music and amelodic No Wave, The Drums craft compellingly tumultuous music on Encyclopedia. Thrilling opener “Magic Mountain” is about as far from The Drums’ first album and its sunny Cure-at-the-beach vibe as you could get, its highwire vocal doing battle against fraught guitars and theramin. You can hear that Sound of Music thing on songs like “I Hope Time Doesn’t Change Him,” a girl-group-style ode to drifting apart with shooting-star synthesizers and misery-laden guitars. “Kiss Me Again” feels a bit like The Drums’ earlier work, particularly the more frantic Portamento, but the newness comes in how adventurous founding members Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham allow themselves to be melodically while remembering how great they are at writing hooks like “kiss me again” sung out into infinity. Encyclopedia is definitely more of a bummer record, but there are some really nice classical melodies buried under the mopeyness and experimentation—“Break My Heart” is a great Brian Wilson-style lament, even as it slowly struts off the pier. And when they go full force on the “Face of God,” it’s like a surf song about a tidal wave, as its vocals suggest tragedy and its bassline and synths creep too far upward to tingle at the back of your neck. It’s like the aural equivalent of losing your innocence and becoming bitter, reminiscent of Weezer’s evolution from The Blue Album to Pinkerton, full of catchy tunes that are chewed and spit out. So Encylopedia stings a little, but in a good way.   

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Genre: Rock

Mean Love (CD)

Sinkane

Brooklyn based Ahmed Gallab’s third full-length album, Mean Love, is soul-funk genre bending pop record. With the tracks are loosely based on the meditation of love gone wrong, Sinkane uses all manner of instruments and genres to weave this piece together. The result being his most experimental and pointed release yet. The multi-instrumentalist’s vocals wash over thick bass lines in the '80s soul inspired single “Hold Tight.” “Galley Boys,” is done with an almost country island pedal steel vibe. One highlight is with the track “Omdurman.” The album's brightly hymn-like closer has the communal reminiscence of the work that Gallab did as the musical director of William Onyeabor tribute The Atomic Bomb! Band.

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Innerworld (CD)

Electric Youth

Electric Youth broke out in a big way with “A Real Hero,” a song that came to define the sound of the film Drive and its corresponding soundtrack. The duo double down on that impossibly romantic synth sound on Innerworld, their long-awaited debut album. That slow-burning pulse is back in songs like “Innocence,” perfectly capturing the romantic ideal of first love with synthesizers that at first sparkle like eyes being rubbed awake and then dazzle with gentle orchestration. Subtly enough referencing the soundtrackers of ’80s proms like Yaz and Alphaville, Bronwynn Griffin’s breathy voice sometimes floats by as a dream and other times catches onto a lighter-waving sentiment, like “we are the youth, we like to sing” (on “WeAreTheYouth”). Though Electric Youth may lack a bit for originality, Innerworld pretty skillfully avoids sameyness by appealing to current Europop-indebted dance music on tracks like “Runaway,” though they’re at their comfortable best on songs like “Without You,” building from their favored digital throb into a lovable freestyle couple. Griffin and her partner, Austin Garrick, have been a couple since the 8th grade, and thus their ability to make every synth stab feel like a dizzying first crush rings authentic. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard some of the sounds here before, or that they even include the three-year-old “Real Hero”; Innerworld’s swoony romanticism makes you feel like it’s the first time.

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Ebb & Flow (CD)

Judith Owen

Owen writes songs that are emotional and timeless, recalling the golden age of avant-storytellers like Joni Mitchell & Elton John in their heyday, effortlessly combining jazz, folk, and rootsy rock into an exquisite blend of classic songwriting and musicality. The Welsh singer's technically gifted piano playing and strong, smooth, smokey voice ensure a musical experience of exceptional quality and depth as she directs a truly all star band of session players (Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel) through her repertoire. Fans of Carole King and Joni Mitchell will find not an imitator but a new and growing voice making good on that legacy.

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Genre: Rock

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Season One (DVD)

Emmy-winning action-comedy that calls to mind cop sitcoms of yesteryear with a few modern twists. Cult comedians like Joe Lo Truglio and Chelsea Peretti help make it extra special.

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Syro (CD)

Aphex Twin

In a rare double-blessing, the last two years have given us not only a new album by My Bloody Valentine but another artist iconic of the ’90s, Aphex Twin. Syro plays as a collection of just about everything Richard Davis James does best, fusing jungle beats to gorgeous ambient tapestries on stunning opener “Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix],” taking us through dense synth explorations on tracks like the 10-minute “Xmas_Evet10 [120][Thanaton3 Mix]” and vibing off hip-hop and synth funk on “Produk 29 [101].” Vocals appear now and then (from James and his family), offering skewed, incomprehensible chatter that adds to the liveliness of “Produk 29 [101]” and giving “Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix]” its grabbing human element, pulling you into the rest of the album. Though he used some 138 pieces of equipment and shifted his set up every few minutes while recording Syro, that seems to have had an energizing effect on James, and the result is a sharp, if varied piece of work that hangs together beautifully, flowing from scenic but heady pieces like “4 Bit 9d Api+E+6 [126.26]” to hard-hitting bass tracks such as “180db_ [130].” There aren’t many shocking moments on Syro like, say, “Come to Daddy’s” shrieking wail, nor does it push listeners to their extreme limit like the challenging Drukqs did, but accessibility doesn’t mar Syro. Rather, even despite their straight-off-the-hard-drive titles, tracks like “Papat4 [155][Pineal Mix]” are really breathtaking pieces of music, designed for immersion rather than to filter listeners out. Just like m b v, we had no right to expect Syro would be this good, much less that it would be released at all, which makes it all the better. Simply put, it’s one of the most instantly enjoyable collections of music James has ever released.

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Black Moon Spell (CD)

King Tuff

When King Tuff released his breakthrough self-titled album in 2012, he came off as a successor to T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, alone and stoned in his room and writing perfect power-pop gems. But like Bolan before him, who started with a few English folk albums before going glam, King Tuff aka Kyle Thomas seems to have set his sights higher this time around, filling out the sound with full-bodied heavy rock riffs and pushing his nasal wail into a wolf’s howl. Like King Tuff’s “Anthem,” “Black Moon Spell’s” big fat riff sounds pulled out from the ether, like it was always there, judging by the way it nestles into your skull. “Rainbow’s Run” calls to mind another garage-rock luminary, Ty Segall, in the way it takes a simple glam structure and pours acid all over it, impossible distortion and flailing solos flying off the edges. Though there’s a winking hair-metal touch to Black Moon Spell, songs like “Headbanger” (complete with demonic opening) don’t stray so far from the glam-garage foundation that it’s jarring—and Thomas’ voice is too cartoonish and the songs are too damn catchy to really scare off any garage kids, anyway. Even a song called “Demon From Hell” is more fey and punk than hellish, despite pushing the sound into the red. If there’s one thing Black Moon Spell is, it’s a great guitar album, as songs like “Eyes of the Muse” prove, starting with a ’70s AM radio gold jangle and moving into psychedelic, searching riffs, while Bobby Harlow’s production practically places the drums in your living room. There hasn’t been a better album released this year to play air guitar and drums to than Black Moon Spell.

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Genre: Rock

Chinese Fountain (CD)

The Growlers

The Growlers had previously announced their fourth album would be “more grown up, well polished.” Would our rabble-rousing O.C. kids who were Hung at Heart on their last album ditch the garage for something mature? The answer is a half-yes. On Chinese Fountain, the band successfully adds new elements to their sound while retaining their core garage-rock appeal. After throwing their fans a few bones with the saloon jangle of “Big Toe” and heartbreak rock of “Black Memories,” the title track introduces swirling synths and funk guitars to the mix, a bid at stadium rock ‘n’ roll although still with a nice grit to it and non sequiturs about our retro-obsessed yet technologically saturated society (“even disco seems pop”; “every little kid wants a computer in his pocket”; “the Internet gets bigger than Jesus and John Lennon”). These prove welcome additions to their sound, as the band gives a light reggae touch to “Dull Boy” and makes nods to ’80s bands like Blondie, The Cure and the Pixies (on the surging “Good Advice”). Brooks Nielsen’s vocals and lyrics, in particular, feel improved, as Nielsen proves he has more to say than the average SoCal garage dude—“that ain’t a home; it’s a furnace in need of some matches” he sings weerily on “Magnificent Sadness,” while “Good Advice” suggests, “there’s nothing as depressing as good advice, nobody wants to hear how to live their life.” It may not be quite as cohesive as some of their other work, but Chinese Fountain finds the band in top form, nonetheless. Maybe maturity ain’t such a bad thing after all. 

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Genre: Rock

Tribal (CD)

Imelda May

The overall brassiness of rockabilly lends itself very well to Dublin’s Imelda May. It is always a dicey proposition to attempt to reclaim a genre of a bygone era. Luckily Imelda May seems to have good intentions. Well, maybe not good intentions…but this is no cheesy throwback or retro cash grab. On her fourth record, Tribal, May seems to have perfected her blend of contemporary rockabilly, new wave and straight-ahead bad-ass pop. The dozen tunes written by May and her husband (and guitarist) Darrel Higman swing from genre to genre with ease. From the high octane "Tribal" to the dreamy '50s malt shop inspired "Little Pixie" to the downright sleazy blues of "Wicked Way," this effortless cohesion is maintained solely by Imelda’s rockabilly sensibilities. All of which leads the listener to get a sense of the importance of the tribe to which she is referring.

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Genre: Rockabilly