Rock

Colors (CD)

Much has been made of Beck’s Grammy win for Album of the Year with 2014’s Morning Phase, his downcast collection of folk-rock slow burners and spiritual successor to Sea Change. Yes, it can be agreed upon that the award seemed ludicrously overdue for one of the most creative and influential forces in all of pop music from the '90s onward. But did that album truly merit the distinction, over Beyonce no less? Did Kanye West have a point after all? Do you even care about the Grammys?

 

Beck is nothing if not consistently (re)inventive, and true to chameleonic form, abandons both the style and substance of that wildly successful album completely. You won’t find any ruminative folk dirges or melancholy Americana here. With a sound that matches its title, Colors is a collection largely made up of upbeat, party-minded pop music, produced with a 21st century sheen that would easily slot any of these tunes between radio favorites such as Maroon 5 or Foals. Even the song titles reflect Beck’s unselfconscious sense of jubilance: “Up All Night,” “I’m So Free,” and, quite simply, “Wow.” Yet this isn’t some spur of the moment sugar rush by the 47-year old songwriter. Colors has been gestating for quite some time now, with sessions beginning as far back as 2013; lead-off single “Dreams” was released in June of 2015, just a few months removed from that would-be contentious Grammy win.

 

“Dreams” serves as the album’s clearest sense of purpose, with sharp electric guitar stabs, a propulsive dance beat, and an almost millennial whoop-y wordless refrain. Beck glides between his natural register and capable falsetto over an unabashedly crowd-pleasing melody, yet at five minutes long, incorporates plenty of sonic quirks and studio wizardry into the mix. The neon dance floor-ready exuberance hinted at here is increased on “Up All Night,” elsewhere the Beatles-by-Britpop bounce of “Dear Life” is contrasted to the downright goofiness of “Wow,” which melds nonsensical slack-rap to sunny Coachella-rock choruses, and functions as the most audacious Beck song since “Hell Yes.” Colors is a complete left turn from Morning Light, sounding a little like previous releases while simultaneously sounding like nothing he’s ever put out before. In short, it’s the most Beck-like Beck album you could expect.

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Thrum (CD)

Joe Henry’s gift for sparse, lovely American-tinged songs is front-and-center on his latest, Thrum. The songs are languidly paced, rooted in another slower time, where bluesmen rambled country roads and made deals with the devil to become artistic greats. This is the lineage from which Henry seemingly descends. Yet, there’s a complexity to his songs, both lyrically and melodically, that gives his work real staying power. Thrum is a quietly lovely gut punch.

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Pinewood Smile (CD)

The Darkness create a type of hard rock we desperately need. Instead of the garage scene that takes their aesthetic and sound from the world of beat-up, proto-punk 45s found in discount bins, The Darkness are the mixed-up and unholy spiritual successors to both Cheap Trick and Iron Maiden with songs that are poppier and catchier while splitting your head in two. Their fifth album, Pinewood Smile, might be their most polished album yet with pitch-perfect production by Grammy-winning producer Adrian Busby, but they still don't sacrifice any of their fiery energy. To have an album this bold and loud in 2017, as music has gotten calmer and softer, feels like a reaction to the current state of pop itself. Lead singer Justin Hawkins even says that the album was made deliberately chaotic and wild, otherwise "the last bastion of cultural sensibility will fall and our airwaves will be polluted by meaningless pop purveyed by arseholes and morons." Though "All The Pretty Girls" has the elements of a classic, there's something beautifully reckless and ear-shattering that adds a dimension of insanity to the track. At its core, the song is pure power pop, like what your parents could've listened to, but in today's musical landscape it feels like a middle-finger to the establishment. Justin Hawkins screeches into a mic so powerfully, especially during the chorus, that it would even give Bruce Dickinson's legendary howl a run for its money. "Solid Gold" feels more like '70s AM Gold than rock from today, which is probably due to the addition of Rufus Taylor, son of Queen's Rod Taylor, who bangs on the drums like he's in a Foghat cover band. But it feels like an authentic callback to the '70s, not some weirdo novelty act. The Darkness is the real deal that makes rock feel like ROCK, down to the banging electric guitar solos and riffs to pound beer to. Drop this on your turntable, spark one up, and get in for the ride this album is going to take you on.

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Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights (CD)

White Buffalo returns with Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights, a slow and sad but ultimately intriguing new LP. Lead single “The Observatory” hits all the right notes, opening with a simple strummed guitar melody and frontman Jake Smith’s timeless, deeply-timbered voice, his lyrics exploring themes of common ground and disconnection. The album treads similar territory, delving into topics of relationships, loss, and transcendence. It’s a strong, evocative record and a wonderful showcase for Smith’s incredible voice that seems to leap off the LP and into the room.

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As You Please (CD)

Citizen’s As You Please is a welcome throwback to the golden era of emo and alt-rock. Missing the aggression, melancholy, and dark melodies of the best of the genre? Sick of upbeat poppy choruses that sound tailor-made for the Hot Topic webstore? This album is for you. Forceful, intense, but extremely enjoyable, As You Please hits that sweet spot between nostalgia and innovation.

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Country Hustle (CD)

Somehow, Jeb Loy Nichols traverses the seemingly incongruent genres of reggae and country with ease, touching on any and all overlapping styles between the two, such as soul, blues, funk, etc. Country Hustle is his tenth release since Nichols began his solo career 20 years ago, and makes its claim for the greatest yet. There’s a tape hiss that permeates the record and makes it sound like a long-lost artifact from yesteryear, along with these tunes imbuing a classic funky style indebted to the soul heroes of the '60s and '70s. The minimal, psychedelic cover of Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” has to be heard to believed, with a skeletal drum machine beat, hazy synths, and dubby production bringing to mind something William Onyeabor might have drafted. There ain't anything else out there quite like this.

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Relatives In Descent (CD)

With Relatives In Descent, Detroit post-punks Protomartyr have made an angular, intense, and ominous record — in sum, it’s perfect for our times. The band takes an unflinching look at modern civilization, serving up their observations with intelligence, admonishment, and more than a little darkness. Which isn’t to say the LP is preachy; no, Protomartyr are much too smart for that. Their lyrical daggers dig deeper. Danger churns beneath the driving guitars and steely melodies, danger that’s sorely lacking in the recycled tropes of most modern post-punk bands. Protomartyr are the real deal.

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This Sweet Old World (CD)

Originally released in 1992, this year’s take on Williams’ alt-country classic This Sweet Old World is more than just a reissue; the Grammy-winner has completely rerecorded the LP for its 25th anniversary. As a bonus, Williams throws in four immensely enjoyable extra tracks from her early career. Williams’ gravelly, evocative voice brings a new sense of atmosphere to these familiar songs. Listening to the LP is a transportive experience, not just back to the early ‘90s, but back to old loves, dusty roads, and lost chances. Fans will dig this special release.

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Sky Trails (CD)

The Croz is back! Kicking off his solo career with the legendary 1971 album If I Could Only Remember My Name, a beautiful tapestry of psychedelic folk that sounds almost baroque, his solo output slowed down to about an album a decade. But the elusive hippie has gotten incredibly prolific in the last few years since teaming up with his formerly estranged son, James Raymond, who also produced this album. In a complete change from his expected folkie sound that goes as far back as The Byrds, David Crosby channels his inner R&B artist for a smooth jammer that feels more like Bobby Caldwell than the mustachioed Crosby. The Croz drops the small rock ensemble for a larger group of jazz trained musicians who spice up his music with an unexpected dose of fusion and experimentation. The absolute banger title track sounds like no Crosby song you've ever heard before. Opening with a funky organ riff, his beautiful voice sounds strangely ethereal with a band like this. Its catchy beat and riff owes more to '70s soul than it does to the '60s, and it works in a strange, mysterious way as the sound has a spacey vibe to it. "Curved Air" opens up with a beautiful bossa nova-ish riff that shows off Crosby's talent as an acoustic guitarist, but then the early '90s synth bass riff is almost a shock when it comes in. The jazz harmonies of the accompanying piano also add a dimension and depth to the song that makes it feel truly mind melting, despite the peaceful lyrics and harmonies chiming out of Crosby's voice. Sky Trails is proof that the great artists of the '60s don't need to be stuck in the past to create interesting music. David Crosby manages to make an album that sounds equally archaic and futuristic in a zen hodge-podge that's perfect for late night listens.

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The Desaturating Seven (CD)

Drawing on a 1978 children’s book by Ul de Rico, The Desaturating Seven is a concept album that deals with a group of goblins who drain the color from rainbows to fill their insatiable appetites. As bizarre and fantastical as this premise is, it is only fitting for a band that has found great success with their strange blend of funk and heaviness, as well as offbeat sense of humor. The Desaturating Seven finds Primus venturing into proggier pastures, with multi-part suites and Rush-like interludes working their way into the band’s signature formula. The album takes cues from King Crimson’s Discipline as well, with angular guitar lines and groovy use of complex time signatures abound. However, by and large this is the same group you know and love, with Les Claypool’s distinctive lead bass playing and carnie-through-a-CB-radio squawk front and center. The Desaturating Seven is a convincing argument for totally making “Goblin Rock” a thing.

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