Album Picks: Grizzly Bear, James Iha, Allah-Las, How to Dress Well, Plus More Albums Out Today

Posted by Billy Gil, September 17, 2012 05:23pm | Post a Comment
Grizzly BearGrizzly Bear – Shields

One of the year’s finest rock albums comes with Grizzly Bear’s Shields, improbably even even more consistent album than 2009’s excellent Veckatimest. Beginning with the soft explosion of “Sleeping Ute,” in which Daniel Rossen sings of his “wanderings dreams” amid regal electric guitars, fluttering synths and acoustics, Chris Taylor’s grounding basslines and Chris Bear’s dynamic drumwork, Shields continues through a back-and-forth between the more immediate pop thrills of Veckatimest and more ambient feel of their older material. “Speak in Rounds” has the same sort of glorious harmonies we heard on “While You Wait for the Others” but with more rock propulsion than the band usually employs. Meanwhile, tracks like the wordless “Adelama” and slowly shuffling “The Hunt” highlight their placid side. But Shields is also a progression of their sound in addition to a refinement of it. “Yet Again” scales back the grabbiness of an older song like “Two Weeks” for a lushly expansive take on the rock single, perhaps showing some influence from Radiohead, with whom they toured a few years back in a dream bill. Similarly extended and confident, “A Simple Answer” is one of Daniel Rossen’s finest showcases to date, building on his typically mysterious melodies to a gratifying, grandiose chorus. An addictive listen, it’s easy to lose yourself in the layers of Shields and find something newly impressive each time.
james ihaJames Iha – Look to the Sky
Anyone who’s been a big Smashing Pumpkins fan knows the pleasures the Pumpkins’ “George Harrison” could bring with his subtle guitarwork and gorgeous songs like “Go,” “Blew Away” and “Take Me Down.” Fourteen years after his first solo album released while still in the Pumpkins, James Iha is back with a fuller sound that capitalizes both on his folky Neil Young-inspired leanings and his ability to create spectral space rock soundscapes. Both qualities are in full flair on the beautiful “To Who Knows Where,” which features a typically beautiful Iha chorus and an awesome space-folk breakdown in the middle. Classic Pumpkins fans can find plenty to sink their teeth into in songs like “Gemini,” which moves from eerie folk to swoony big-chord rock. Elsewhere, he breaks from his past more decisively, as on the ’60s by way of ’80s pop “Till Next Tuesday” and the addled blues of “Appetite,” moments that show Iha has more tricks up his sleep than at first appears. Some of his folkier tracks veer toward sappy, but Iha’s smart production, learned from the interim years of producing for acts like Cat Power and Isobel Campbell as well as various remixes, usually saves things with orchestral flourishes and surprises like the twinkling synths that pop up at the end of the Karen O duet “Waves.” It’s an assured work that speaks to the talents of Iha as a guitarist, producer and songwriter who knows how to paint wonders from a modest palette.

allah-las albumAllah-Las Allah-Las

L.A. ruffians Allah-Las have been working on their debut record for some time now, and the work shows as Allah-Las feels like some lost treasure dug up from the sand and polished to a perfectly faded sheen. They come out of the beach cave with one of their nastiest, most memorable songs, with singer Miles Michaud, sounding like a less raspy Reg Presley of The Troggs, singing “I’m gonna get you girl” with irresistible finality. The Allahs know the power of simplicity, as the three-chord stomp of “Busman’s Holiday” provides another of the album’s most notable pleasures. This and the fact that the band doesn’t try to ape any particular bands helps their sound go down nicely. Rather, they borrow bits of British invasion, surf rock, Nuggets-style garage rock and ’80s paisley underground and sound more like a band of those genres birthed today — no “groovy” attempts at ’60s nostalgia, though they nail a hazy take on the kind of instrumental surf rock The Ventures produced on “Sacred Sands.” Any complaints one might have are alleviated by the warm good-times vibe (not to mention hooky guitarwork) provided by the Allahs. You want to hang out in their sepia-toned photographed with them.

how to dress wellHow to Dress Well – Total Loss

An album about grief that can also be read as a colossal breakup record, How to Dress Well’s follow-up to his acclaimed Love Remains still feels intimate and bedroom-made, with some production improvements necessary to make the emotions of the “Purple Rain”-esque “Talking to You” and the beats of “& It Was U” come through even harder. Total Loss makes for a thoroughly engrossing listen as it weaves Tom Krell’s heartfelt falsetto through reverb-laden loops, every song feeling like that ethereal moment in the chorus of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” where time stops still as that breathy vocal drenches everything in sadness.

Also Released This Week:

dinosaur jr. i bet on skyDinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky

Dinosaur Jr. have been on a tear since reuniting in 2005, releasing now three albums, rather than touring just on old hits. Whereas Beyond and Farm seemed intent on creating the same sort of body-realigning noise of their older albums, I Bet on Sky highlights the band’s more sensitive material. “Can I walk alone? … How far should I go?” J Mascis sings on the beguiling “Stick a Toe In,” a striking reminder that Mascis is as strong a songwriter as he is a shredder. “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” uses its guitars to texture a song-first composition, while “I Know it So Well” surprises with bluesy swagger and wah-wah guitar fun. Lou Barlow turns in a couple of the album’s most tuneful tracks, “Rude” and “Recognition.” They still unload plenty of guitar noise, like on the solos of “Watch the Corners,” but I Bet the Sky is also a nicely rounded album and shows there’s more to Dinosaur Jr. than guitar theatrics.

band of horses mirage rockBand of Horses – Mirage Rock

“Better things come to those who wait,” Ben Bridwell sings with particular snarl on “Knock Knock,” the opening track of Mirage Rock. Fans have been waiting a few years for an album as strong as the band’s first two, and they’ve gotten it with Mirage Rock. Rock ‘n’ roll producer Glyn Johns brings out some welcome rawness from the band, going full Allmans/Skynard style on “How to Live.” The detailed, dynamic and beautiful “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” shows greater patience in the band’s songwriting, offering rewards within its sweet harmonies and subtle shifts. “A Little Biblical” is a welcome new entry to the band’s canon of anthemic arena-rockers, but perhaps the most striking is a song called “Dumpster World,” which moves from an America-style forlorn ballad to a big rocker with sarcastic, anarchistic lyrics — “Don’t pick up that trash/Put more of it on the ground.” That loose, scrappy energy helps pick up some of the album’s less memorable tracks, while their willingness to take a few chances helps keep things lively — following a jangly but low-key ballad like “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” with the Sonic Youth-inspired “Feud” and then a beautiful country ballad like “Long Vowels” is a masterstroke of gutsy pacing. Mirage Rock finds Band of Horses sounding hungry again.

kanye westG.O.O.D. Music [Kanye West et. al.] – Cruel Summer

If you thought Kanye West’s label showcase would be a forum for the rapper, producer and hip-hop mogul to premiere some new production tricks, you’d be right — just listen to the insane, epic and seemingly anti-commercial sounds of the surging “Mercy,” featuring Big Sean, Pusha T and Ghostface Killah. But, like Watch the Throne, his full-album collaboration with Jay-Z, it’s also a chance to loosen up without having to fully shoulder the expectation set by his solo output (and his ego). An awesomely weird track like “Mercy” is preceded by the deceptively tossed-off sounding “Clique,” with Jay-Z and Big Sean having a little fun rapping creatively over minimalist production. “New God Flow” fulfills West’s need for at least one big religiously posturing track per album, and “Cold” sees some of West’s most aggressive rapping, including this succinctly put challenge: “If you think you could do it better than me, then you do it.” The non-Kanye songs have their appeal, as well, as on the appropriately faded sounding “Higher,” featuring The-Dream; and the fun, hard-hitting “Sin City,” featuring a pack of artists, including John Legend, singing and rapping over a big beat and sheets of synthesizer. West can’t help be the star of his own show, though, coming back in with what can only be described as a megaballad: “The One,” pairing gospel chords and Marsha Ambrosius’ warm vocal hook to a huge drumline intro and rapping from 2 Chainz, Big Sean and West, who says “Best way to describe my position is at the helm.” Thankfully, he steers Cruel Summer to shimmering waters.

the killers battle bornThe Killers – Battle Born

After the self-described “playful” sound of their last album, Day & Age, and time off for solo albums, The Killers are back in full anthem-rock mode on Battle Born. Brandon Flowers is at his most divaesque on “Flesh and Bone,” like the spawn of Bruce Springsteen and Alison Moyet. “Runaways” finds the band performing U2-style high-drama romanticism, a more grown-up version of the kind of thing they did years ago with songs like “Mr. Brightside.” Production from high-profile producers like Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois and Brendan O’Brien give The Killers the glossy sheen they’ve always leaned toward but shied away from completely embracing in the past, and they sound at home now with that added aural warmth. It certainly is fun to hear them take on the hair band power-ballad on “Here With Me,” co-penned by Travis’ Fran Healy. They throw fans of their post-punk side a bone with some of the guitarwork on “A Matter of Time,” though the “it was the light, it was the moon” drama of the rest of the song leans it away from Joy Division and more toward Bonnie Tyler. However, Bonnie Tyler is awesome, and The Killers shouldn’t be dismissed for embarking on the dude-diva-rock track on Battle Born. “Deadlines and Commitments” seems to find unlikely yet fitting inspiration in Kate Bush, and the irresistible teenage jam “Miss Atomic Bomb” is kind of like “Bette Davis Eyes” from the male perspective, complete with “Mr. Brightside” reffing guitar lines. It’s clear The Killers are fighting to win back listeners with the heartstring-strumming Battle Born.

Relevant Tags

Grizzly Bear (7), James Iha (1), How To Dress Well (9), Allah-las (27), Dinosaur Jr. (7), Band Of Horses (12), Kanye West (40), The Killers (0)