This Month's Picks

Clark (CD)

Clark

Chris Clark has been releasing impressive music under his surname throughout the 2000s, so it’s a curious thing that he gives his latest album the self-titled treatment. Oftentimes, that move can be construed as a redirection of sound, or a renewed bid for attention. In Clark’s case, it signifies perhaps his strongest work to date. Beginning with the throbbing “Winter Linn” and moving into the high-minded, melodic “Unfurla,” Clark immediately hits hard and keeps you engaged for the duration of its 47 minutes. From “Unfurla’s” horror movie synth stabs, the creeping “Banjo” and the stormy “Sodium Trimmers” to the scenic “Strength Through Fragility,” whose piano lines seem to wash into the sea, Clark incorporates a variety of highly evocative sounds. His ability to weave these sounds into the mix while keeping his work eminently listenable is part of what makes it so special. As you dig further into Clark, more dynamic pieces like “The Grit in the Pearl” and the extended and simply marvelous “There’s a Distance in You” grip you with their dynamism. Though he’s not reinventing the wheel soundwise, Clark is an incredibly strong album that does re-establish Clark as a singular talent in the world of electronica.

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Underneath The Rainbow (CD)

Black Lips

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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Genre: Rock

pom pom (CD)

Ariel Pink

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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Genre: Rock

Salad Days (CD)

Mac DeMarco

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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Genre: Rock

The Future's Void (CD)

EMA

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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Genre: Rock

Iceman (DVD)

Donnie Yen is a Ming Dynasty palace guard, wrongly accused of murder and hunted by three vengeful brothers. All four are accidentally buried, frozen at the height of battle. 400 years later, they are defrosted and resume their mortal struggle while also adjusting to modern-day life.

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Down To Earth (CD)

Flight Facilities

With the help of some ace vocalists, Aussie producer duo Flight Facilities have a seductively cool debut album on their hands. Singer/songwriter Emma Louise sells the soft and sensual “Two Bodies.” “Comedy Bang Bang’s” Reggie Watts proves a soulful crooner on the groovy “Sunshine.” The whistling, beat-driven “Stand Still” leaves you doing anything but, while singer/producer Stee Downes helps the duo remake adult contemporary synth-funk on “Hold Me Down.” The non-vocal tracks are just as sweet, with found recordings serving to add a dose of drama to the duo’s silky synth sounds. Flight Facilities could go further to distinguish themselves, but what they do, they do very well. And songs like “Crave You” have a lot of personality—pop singer Giselle pines away, “Why can’t you want me like the other boys do? They stare at me, while I stare at you,” over the duo’s jazz-inspired production. Consistently engaging and immaculately made, it’s a project that ultimately soars.

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In Bardo (CD)

White Arrows

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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Genre: Rock

Cosmic Logic (CD)

Peaking Lights

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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Genre: Rock

Girlpool (CD)

Girlpool

L.A. duo Girlpool pack more smarts and attitude into 15 minutes than most bands do in a lifetime on their debut, seven-song EP. They touch on great female-fronted rock bands of yore like The Slits, Young Marble Giants, The Breeders and Bikini Kill without being beholden to any of them. What comes out is a sort of minimalist, playfully feminist record about girls who don’t put up with shit—they’ll punch a dude for talking out of both sides of his mouth, as they sing on the seething “Jane,” or call out a guy for being a superficial baby, on “Blah Blah Blah.” Some of their work is really beautiful, too, like the sparkling “Plants and Worms,” relying on Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker’s bass and guitar interplay and unison vocals. Though some of the lyrics fall into clunky territory (“Slutmouth’s” “I don’t wanna get fucked by a fucked society”), their lyrics mostly work well by being direct yet uniquely stated, undercutting typical archetypes on the same song (“I don’t really care to brush my hair … I go to school every day, just to be made a housewife one day”). Girlpool mostly seem like they don’t care what you think of them—they’re clearly unstoppable, anyway. This EP promises great things to come from Girlpool.

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Genre: Rock