This Month's Picks

A Tribute To Michael Been (CD)

The Call

After 20 years, Santa Cruz rockers The Call reunited at The Troubador in Los Angeles to put on an incredible show while paying tribute to front-man, Michael Been, who died of a heart attack in 2010. Been’s son Robert Levon Been (bassist and singer of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) led this emotional performance by stepping into his father’s role and playing along with surviving members Tom Ferrier, Jim Goodwin and Scott Musick. With fourteen songs and an unforgettable performance by Robert and the band, highlights include “Let The Day Begin,” “The Walls Came Down” and “I Still Believe.”

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Genre: Rock

Primus & The Chocolate Factory With the Fungi Ensemble (CD)

Primus

Les Claypool and the original mid '90s lineup of Primus reunite to take on childhood! More precisely Primus pays homage to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Primus & the Chocolate Factory is a terrifying psychedelic nightmare wrapped in childhood wonderment and sugar coated with joy, much like the 1971 masterpiece. To ring in 2014 Primus played a hometown show with a rollicking classic set followed by a cover set of the soundtrack of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The show featured Claypool donning full Wonka attire, a magical set of lollipops and mushrooms, Oompa Loompas and a Glass Elevator. They even sold limited chocolate bars all named after Primus tunes! Life changing. Now they have taken that magic and distilled it into the release Primus & the Chocolate Factory. The track listing is almost directly identical to the order the songs play out in the film. It opens with “Hello Wonkites” which is an introduction more fitting than the “Pure Imagination” medley. Aided by Critters Buggin percussionist Mike Dillon, the zip-bang drum work of Tim “Herb” Alexander gives the whole recording a topsy-turvy progressive feel. The guttural “Candy Man” begins and we get a full sense of what type of Wonka Claypool really is (imagine Gene Wilder fronting The Residents.) The freaky conductor on this boat ride fades in and out vocally through the “Oompa Loompa” refrains and the less than hopeful “Pure Imagination.” The whole journey leaves the listener like the proverbial Veruca Salt wanting More! Now!

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Genre: Rock

Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper (CD)

Panda Bear

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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Genre: Rock

Brill Bruisers (CD)

The New Pornographers

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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Genre: Rock

Strangers To Ourselves (CD)

Modest Mouse

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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Genre: Rock

Yawn Zen (CD)

Mndsgn

Luscious, mind-bending synth music comes to us from Mndsgn, the latest signee of the ubercool Stones Throw Records. Taking synth-funk jam “Message From the Stars” by The Rah Band and filtering it through a cavalcade of analog effects on “Txt,” Ringgo Ancheta creates a new cult classic of his own. Tracks like “Homewards” sprawl out on chilled out beats and landscapes that sound like they’ve had acid sprayed across them, gently disintegrating over you like melting ice cream. It’s not all dayglo synth jams though, as some of Yawn Zen’s dark corners are equally intriguing, like “Sheets,” with an introspective vocal that gets chopped up by a death-march lo-fi beat, and “Frugality’s” strange, spaced-out gurgling sounds. Trippy and odd yet lively and playful, Yawn Zen makes for a magical introduction to an intriguing new artist in the Stones Throw fold

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Genre: Hip Hop

No Cities To Love (CD)

Sleater-Kinney

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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Genre: Rock

Uptown Special (CD)

Mark Ronson

Uptown Special picks up where the funk and soul of the (now seemingly long) past left off: fuzzy guitar, crunchy keyboards, punchy horns, and funky bass make an album that is jamming, and I mean jamming like roller skating in a tracksuit while rocking a gold chain on a neon lit city street.

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Genre: Rock

Rebel Heart (CD)

Madonna

Faithful Madonna followers, rejoice. Rebel Heart is the return to form we were hoping for. It’s a classic Madonna album that keeps up with modern trends without chasing them in the way MDNA did, calling to mind Like a Prayer-era Madonna in the way it commands the dance floor. “Living For Love” is her best single in years, as Madonna delivers a confident lead vocal over a gospel-infused Diplo house production. On powerhouse “Iconic,” Madonna steps into the ring with a Mike Tyson intro and delivers some inspiring lines that move into a huge chorus of pounding beats and funhouse synths. She still courts controversy, of course. “Devil Pray” sees Madonna reciting a laundry list of intoxicants. “Illuminati” has her turning a favorite hip-hop subject into a nasty club banger that calls out everyone from Lady Gaga to Oprah. “Unapologetic Bitch” takes its vocal cues from Beyonce and M.I.A. and sees her delivering kiss-off lyrics over swaying dubstep that can’t help but read as missives to ex-husband Guy Ritchie (“You never knew how much you loved me ‘til you lost me, did you?”). It doesn’t always work—Nicki Minaj barely saves the jarring “Bitch I’m Madonna”—and there are some throwaways here and there that could’ve been trimmed for length. But it’s great to hear her being a firebrand once again, experimenting and trying different things out. With Rebel Heart, Madonna proves that musically speaking, she’ll never go gentle into that good night—she’d rather flip us off, have a good laugh and entertain us all the while.

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Genre: Rock

Short Movie (CD)

Laura Marling

At only 25, Laura Marling is releasing her fifth album, following 2013’s excellent, Mercury Prize-nominated Once I Was an Eagle. Like that album, Marling expertly details relationships and breakups on Short Movie, only there’s more variety here—sometimes she’s playing wistful acoustic dreamscapes a la Joni Mitchell, other times she lets loose with snarling attitude like a young Chrissie Hynde. She delivers medieval kiss-offs to a caustic relationship over majestic guitar playing and ambient guitar noise on “Warrior” (“I can’t be your horse anymore/You’re not the warrior I’ve been looking for”); immediately following, the rockier “False Hope” describes urban loneliness in detail. Tracks like “Walk Alone” explore the nuance in Marling’s exquisite voice, while “I Feel Your Love” and “Strange” approach bluegrass and spoken-word delivery from a unique standpoint. “Do I look like I’m fucking around?” she asks on the alluring yet slightly menacing “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down.” The answer’s no—whatever Marling tackles on her remarkable fifth album, she does so capably, transforming her demons into songs that cut to the heart.

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Genre: Rock