Brian Wilson, Waxahatchee, Blues Traveler and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Musician Brian Wilson performs onstage during Brian Fest: A Night to Celebrate the Music of Brian Wilson at Fonda Theater, March 30, 2015, in Los Angeles.
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This week longtime Beach Boy Brian Wilson returns with a guest-filled solo album, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield releases her third record under the Waxahatchee moniker, the members of Blues Traveler collaborate with many unexpected guests, Todd Rundgren continues his electro-slide with his latest, globally conscious record, Iowa City rockers Younger pay tribute to the “RIOT GRRRL” past, hip-hop producer Mr. Green combines street musicians with famous hip-hop artists and Frank Black and The Catholics re-release every song they have ever made. It’s another really busy week.

PHOTO: Album review - Brian Wilsons "No Pier Pressure: Deluxe Edition."
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Brian Wilson’s “No Pier Pressure” (Deluxe Edition) ***

If Brian Wilson’s new album, “No Pier Pressure” proves anything, it is that he has not lost his knack for pristine vocal arrangements. As someone who thinks the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” is quite possibly the best album ever made, it is hard to deny Wilson’s power. Of course, on this album the material in general isn’t as strong as it was during the height of his Beach Boy fame, but that kind of lightning is hard to sustain.

“No Pier Pressure” is a guest-filled love letter of sorts to Wilson as a writer and an arranger, even if it is new material. It does get a little sleepy at times and it does offer a few awkward surprises. The Sebu-assisted “Runaway Dancer” with its flanged-out synths and house beat sounds a bit out of place, especially so close to the beginning of the record, but She & Him sound right at home on the bossa nova-flavored “On The Island.” Zooey Deschanel was meant to sing this brand of sunny, retro lounge music.

It’s nice to hear Wilson work with fellow original Beach Boy Al Jardine along fellow Beach Boys from other eras David Marks and Blondie Chaplin. One can’t help but take the inclusion of these three as a response to Wilson’s often stormy relationship with Mike Love, who as expected, is nowhere to be found.

Wilson even sounds at home singing alongside country singer Kacey Musgraves and Fun.’s Nate Ruess.

While this album is not particularly astounding, it proves that more than 50 years after he first hit the big time, Wilson remains one of pop’s most reliable craftsmen. If you appreciated the 2012 Beach Boys’ reunion record, “That’s Why God Made The Radio,” you should appreciate this album. It has the same echo-drenched, retro charm. It does sound a tad over-produced at times, but it still has its share of winners.

Focus Tracks:

“On The Island” (Featuring She & Him) This quick bit of martini-ready bit of sonic relaxation wouldn’t sound out of place on a She & Him record as Wilson takes a backseat to Deschanel vocally.

“The Right Time” (Featuring Al Jardine and David Marks) This collaboration with fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks is a warm and welcoming slice of soft-rock.

“Our Special Love” (Featuring Peter Hollens) Wilson’s collaboration with a cappella expert Peter Hollens is notable because of its vocal harmonies. When the instruments come in, they are a tad over-compressed, but still this song captures that classic Beach Boys sensibility.

Waxahatchee’s “Ivy Tripp” ****1/2

Singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield had a heavy task following up 2013’s masterpiece, “Cerulean Salt,” an album which held the number one spot on my annual list for that year. Thankfully, “Ivy Tripp” does not disappoint. It’s a completely different animal, but it shows the same kind of spark as its predecessor.

She’s moved up in the world, too, making her debut on the hugely respected Merge label. This album finds her upping the production values, while keeping the ramshackle appeal somewhat intact from her first two Waxahatchee records. Compared to just about anything on “Cerulean Salt,” “Under A Rock” sounds like a really bold, potential single, and “Poison” sounds downright massive. Still, many of these songs stay brief, as if momentary exercises in sound. As Crutchfield goes back and forth between stripped-down songs and ones with a full band, things remain interesting. The drum-machines and synths on “La Loose” for instance come as an interesting surprise, even coming a few songs after the opener, “Breathless,” which is firmly anchored by a heavily distorted organ.

Crutchfield fully believes in the power of the two-minute pop song. “The Dirt,” for instance sounds like a fuzzed-out answer to early-sixties jangle-pop, while “Stale By Noon” plays like a morose call-and-response lullaby.

“Cerulean Salt” may be still a better album, but only by a tiny hair. “Ivy Tripp” proves that that album’s effortless greatness was no fluke by nearly matching it. If you have never listened to Waxahatchee before, Crutchfield has now provided you with yet another collection you should hear. She’s one of the brightest voices in indie rock at the moment.

Focus Tracks:

“Bonfire” Like she did with the “Cerulean Salt” closer, “You’re Damaged,” Crutchfield saves the best track on the album for last. Beginning with a dose of radio static that morphs into guitar noise, the song quickly switches gears to become a softly stomping bass-led builder. It has a strong melody and it is highlighted with some shoegaze-esque bits of guitar distortion. At just under five minutes, it is also the longest track on the set.

“The Dirt” On this album, Crutchfield has a budding country twang in her voice on a couple tracks and even though this is a pretty straight-forward fuzz-pop song, there is a rockabilly core seething just underneath the surface. It almost sounds like a modern, grungy, post-Throwing Muses response to Tommy Roe’s 1962 hit “Sheila.”

“Air” This song has an anthemic kind of climb without trying. It maintains its rock roots and doesn’t sound much like what gets played on pop radio these days, but with its warm energy and its appealing chorus this is this album’s most perfect potential crossover single. It should at least get some play on Triple-A format radio stations.

PHOTO: Album review - Blues Travelers "Blow Up The Moon."
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Blues Traveler’s “Blow Up The Moon” **

In all honesty, it is really hard to tell what Blues Traveler intended with their latest album, “Blow Up The Moon.” Sure, John Popper’s virtuoso harmonica skills are always a plus, but the band has filled this album with a strange grouping of guests. No Blues Traveler fan has probably ever thought that a Blues Traveler song would sound better with one of the guys from ‘N Sync singing alongside Popper, but the title-track has JC Chasez. Do you want a little Hanson with your Blues Traveler? Probably not, but “Top Of The World” exists anyway. How about The Plain White T’s? Again, the two bands don’t particularly mesh well, but we still have “Nikkia’s Prom.”

Really this album is truly puzzling. Twenty years after their breakout, “Four,” Blues Traveler have paired themselves mostly with artists who don’t share much of a cross-section of the same fan-base. (Two songs with Bowling For Soup? Really?!) It is hard to tell what audience this album was intended to satisfy. Honestly, this doesn’t sound like a Blues Traveler album. The guests dilute the album to such a degree that this is more of a Blues Traveler-brand record. Was this intended to give them hits? There’s nothing here as indelible as “But Anyway,” “Hook” or “Run-Around.”

It doesn’t all fail. The band sounds good on the two songs where they are paired with Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez. To his credit, though Ramirez (who is the “Rome” in Sublime with Rome) is an extremely talented and versatile guy, and strangely adding a little faux-hip-hop and ska-funk to Blues Traveler’s blues rock actually works, even if “Vagabond Blues” brings to mind The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City."

The collaboration with Jewel, “Hearts Are Still Awake” might if she had been in the folk-country mode that made her landmark “Pieces Of You” record and not channeled her cooing pop-star side that later made “0304.”

Really, “Blow Up The Moon” is a bafflingly misguided record that will probably just leave fans frustrated. It’s an odd move considering that Blues Traveler used to be so reliable.

Focus Tracks:

“Castaway” (Featuring Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez) Interesting combining Blues Traveler with Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez makes this track sound like a more melodic, more ethereal, harmonica-fueled answer to 311. (I’m not joking.)

“Vagabond Blues” (Featuring Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez) Yes, the two collaborations with Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez provide the only section of this record that actually works. If they weren’t going to release a straight-forward Blues Traveler record, they should have released an entire record in this vein.

PHOTO: Album review - Todd Rundgrens "Global."
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Todd Rundgren’s “Global” **

On his latest album, “Global,” Todd Rundgren continues his electronic journey into the abyss. On his recent records he has reinvented himself, surrounding his songs with icy synths and crushing amounts of electronic compression. If you are expecting the classic songsmith who gave us “Hello, It’s Me,” you are in for a surprise.

Rundgren has long been a malleable shape-shifter, and often this side of him as worked as an asset. Who else can produce an album for Bad Religion one moment and temporarily sub for Ric Ocasek in a re-formed version of The (New) Cars the next. He’s survived because of his versatility, but the pose here just doesn’t work. “Evrybody” (yes, it is spelled that way) sounds like a modern (awkward) answer to his hit “Bang The Drum All Day,” only it is backed by the shrillest of drum-machines and has the lame chorus of “Evrybody! Clap your hands!”

You can tell by the tone of “Global” that it was aimed to be groundbreaking. Really, though, it frequently borders on being unlistenable. “Earth Mother” has the best intentions to be a Feminist/Civil Rights anthem with references to Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai, but Rundgren’s bellowing, “Can I get a shout-out for my sisters? / Can I get a shout-out for my girls?” combined with the cheap-sounding synth work and weird spaceship sounds undercuts the song’s serious message. Even more baffling, Rundgren is backed up on this song by Jill Sobule and Rachel Haden who are both usually reliable as well.

If “Global” fails, it is because it sounds like a bad parody of an EDM record. (The goofy “Looney Tunes”-style target on the cover doesn’t help, either.) The songs are also not among Rundgren’s strongest. It is nice to hear him experiment with new sounds but this album just does not work. He can do better.

Focus Tracks: “Soothe” This electro ballad is the closest to Rundgren’s best work on this album. “Fate” This song that equates fate to a card game also almost works, even if the synth-line sounds like an alarm clock.

PHOTO: Album review - Youngers "Younger."
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Younger’s “Younger” ****

This Iowa City trio consisting of Amanda Crosby, Sarah Mannix and Rachel Sauter delivers a tight 26-minute album that plays like a love letter to bands like Sleater-Kinney, Pony Up! and Bikini Kill. In fact, “Franny,” with its passage, “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood. / That girl is the queen of the neighborhood. / I want to be her best friend / I want to be your best friend” even with its serene vocal harmonies can’t help but be seen as a tribute to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” It’s a really appealing homage a testament to Kathleen Hanna’s legendary legacy. Given the fact that April 9th was declared “RIOT GRRRL!” day in Boston, her influence is hitting another peak. It’s nice to see newer bands picking up the torch.

This album, though brief, volleys from mellow to full-tilt on a dime, thus making it a continuously enthralling listen. When the vocals are softer, they are sweetly harmonized. During the album’s more punk-driven explorations, that serenity gives way to visceral, earnest shouting.

The straight-forward recording of this record, too is refreshing in the age of over-produced, over-modulated rock. From the very beginning of opener, “Streetrat,” you feel like you are in the room with the band. It feels like a real performance, which makes it even more thrilling when the song evolves into an Eastern-sounding surf-rock jam. Younger’s self-titled debut offers up equal doses of sugar and sludge. It also has the kind of back-to-basics nineties-style rock revivalism that still sounds evergreen and fresh in 2015. There’s something really appealing about three musicians fusing a garage-like rawness with appealing melodies. Is this album a tad too short? Yes. But its brevity leaves you wanting more. Younger is a band that should definitely be on your radar.

Focus Tracks:

“Like A Wave” This is a surly sludge-fest, packed with menacing undertones. When the guitars recede during the chorus to give way for a few melodic seconds, it cements the band’s ability to understand the benefits of sonic contrast. The track’s harder edges also accentuate and give a darker tinge to the tenderly sung bridge.

“I Got This” This is sweeping mass of guitar-fuzz and tension. Again, it has a melodic bridge with some feedback sound underneath it that sounds like a rickety wagon being pulled across a gravel road. This is woefully uneasy mosh-pit-ready material.

“The Switch” This song recalls The Breeders’ “Pod” era, with its catchy melody and ominous bass and guitar interplay.

Mr. Green’s “Live From The Streets” ****

Fresh from the high-point that his collaboration with Roots-Crew-associate Malik B., “Unpredictable” provided, hip-hop producer Mr. Green has returned a little more than a month later with another guest-filled record, “Live From The Streets.” This is a gritty collection, which combines Green’s stellar beat-work with raw rhymes and bits of street noise. It pairs rappers with a few street musicians as well.

There’s a freshness to this record. It doesn’t sound over-produced. The rhymes in particular sound live and uncut. When Raz Fresco drops his verses on “Step Into The Booth,” you feel the air around him and the sound that reverberates feels untouched and authentic. The nature of this album on the whole makes it come off as something extemporaneous and in the moment.

The cast of guests include many people you may have heard before and some you haven’t. Malik B appears on a couple cuts and other songs find Green working with heavyweights like Freddie Gibbs and KRS-ONE.

There are some cuts like the Lumin Hao and Bodega Bams-assisted “New Jack City Is Mine” which may be too rough for some listeners but in truth, no matter who guests, the focus of this album remains on Green’s beats. He has a very clear approach. Again, like “Unpredictable,” this album strips hip-hop back to its essence. “Live From The Streets” provides a vital listening experience, essentially taking the genre back to its roots. It isn’t quite the blowout that “Unpredictable” is, but if you enjoyed that record, you should pick this one up as well. This is a record about the everyday struggles to survive.

Focus Tracks:

“Superpowers” (Featuring Hakim Green, KRS-ONE and Mario Levis) KRS-ONE sounds unusually hoarse on this track, giving his verses and spoken-word passages somehow more gravitas. He gives a shout-out to his late Boogie Down Productions partner Scott La Rock and teams up once again with Channel Live’s Hakim Green, whom he discovered and championed twenty years ago. (If you’ll remember, KRS famously appeared on Channel Live’s classic hit “Mad Izm.”)

“If I Don’t Go To Hell” (Featuring Janice and Paceone) / “If I Don’t Go To Hell” (Remix) (Featuring Janice, Benefit and Jus Allah) This is two takes using the same beat anchored by an eerie, pitch-shifted banjo-strummed sample. The chorus of “If I don’t go to Hell, when I die, I might go to Heaven” gives the life and death struggles spelled out during the song’s rapped verses more power.

“Down In The Streets” (Featuring Kevin Brown, Malik B. and SUNWUN) This track feels like this album’s thesis statement as much as it feels like a bridge to “Unpredictable.”

PHOTO: Album review - Frank Black and the Catholics "The Complete Recordings."
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Frank Black And The Catholics’ “The Complete Recordings” ****

Between the years 1998 and 2006, in between stints with his band the Pixies, Frank Black recorded and released six albums with his band, The Catholics. The concept was simple. This was a back-to-basics rock approach with each album said to be recorded live to a two-track system. Sure, that would be an intimidating prospect for even most professional musicians, but with this band he managed to squeeze out a wide variety of sounds and styles. Thus, the band name most likely is a nod to the group’s inherent eclecticism and wide reach and not any sort of religious reference.

As these albums have strangely begun to fall out of print, every song on each album along with some unreleased and rare tracks have now been rereleased on a massive seven-disc boxed set. The catch is, the album orders have not remained intact. The songs are presented in alphabetical order! Interestingly, this still means the first song on the set is still the opener of the band’s self-titled debut, “All My Ghosts,” which here is presented without its original opening riffing on the theme to “Green Acres,” which was presumably cut to save some possible licensing fees.

This strange approach means a number of key changes. Firstly, while in album form, 1999’s “Pistolero” played better than 2001’s “Dog In The Sand,” the nature of the way the set is organized becomes a great asset in unifying these songs as one continuous work. Sure, you no longer have the epic one-two punch of “I Switched You” next to “Western Star” anymore and the two cover of Tom Waits’ “The Black Rider” that bookended the album “Black Letter Days” now sit uncomfortably side by side, but this arrangement allows different songs to pop. “I Will Run After You,” for instance on here shines a little better on this set somehow than it did on “Black Letter Days.”

While Frank Black’s Pixies material (where he was known as Black Francis) is still among his best, this set is packed with hidden gems. If you haven’t explored this music already, you should.

Focus Tracks:

“I Switched You” This set has well over a hundred songs, so picking just three is not an easy task. But this song is among the best he offers up from this era, beginning as an off-kilter blues and ending as an off-kilter punk pounder complete with his signature Pixies-esque caterwaul.

“Cold Heart Of Stone” This is a classic acoustic ballad that show’s Black’s tender side.

“All My Ghosts” This opener is still among his best and contains one of his best melodies to date, with or without the Pixies.

Next Week: New albums from The Wombats, Local H and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Death Cab for Cutie, Ludacris, The Prodigy and more.

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