This week, '90s alt-rock group Bush releases its seventh album; The Shins release their first album in five years; The Magnetic Fields release a 50-song collection in honor of leader Stephin Merritt’s 50th birthday; British folk singer Laura Marling delivers an entrancing new album; defining anti-folk singer Cindy Lee Berryhill returns after a 10-year absence; and Elliott Smith’s “Either/Or” gets an expanded and remastered edition.
|Bush’s “Black and White Rainbows” ****|
Since Bush re-formed to release “A Sea of Memories,” in 2011, the group has shown a newfound sense of determination. That album and its 2014 follow-up, “Man on the Run” both hold up well within the group’s discography. Now Bush's seventh album, “Black and White Rainbows,” stands as one of the most melodic albums the group has ever released. This album finds Gavin Rossdale handling both songwriting and production duties, displaying his obvious sense of purpose. It’s an album with pop appeal that doesn’t sell out or betray the group’s grunge-era legacy.
Sure, sometimes his lyrics let him down, like on the opener, “Mad Love,” with its chorus, “Still got mad love for you baby,” or on the well-meaning but heavy-handed, environmental-themed “Sky Turns Day-Glo.” But then you hear a perfect song like “Water,” which is everything a Bush song should be at this point. “Nurse,” also has a vintage Bush feel.
If you are a fan of the band’s more electronic side that they showcased on their third studio album, “The Science of Things,” you’ll enjoy “Ray of Light” or a number of other songs here, as well. This 15-track set is perhaps the most sonically diverse albums of the band’s career. It is almost as if the group set off to focus on all of their truest strengths. It is too bad alt-rock radio no longer really exists on a large scale. This album would be stacked with ace-level singles.
If you are one of those people who derides the band for aping Nirvana, I would say that the comparison has rarely really stood up, with the brief exception of their Steve Albini-assisted “In Utero,”-style, awkward posturing on “Razorblade Suitcase.” By now, Bush has long been its own band. “Black and White Rainbows” fully cements the troup's comeback. While in the past Rossdale has often been known to bark out lines in a lyrical list, here he really sings and lets the songs soar. This is a remarkably cohesive set.
“Water” As I said above, this song is truly perfect. It’s a slow-burning ballad with dark undertones that will have you hitting the repeat button. It’s a commanding and compelling song.
“Nurse” Had this song been released in the '90s, it would have been a “modern-rock” staple, with its chorus of “I have fallen into you. / I need a nurse to get me through.”
“People at War” This powerful, echo-drenched closer is the closest this album gets to a true pop song, with its clean, synth-heavy production and slight vocal effects, but it also sounds like a possible pop-crossover hit. The guitars are turned down until the song’s bridge when they slowly make their presence known.
|The Shins’ “Heartworms” ***1/2|
The Shins’ fifth album, “Heartworms,” isn’t quite the easy slam-dunk you’d expect. It doesn’t have a song quite as memorable as “New Slang” or as majestically haunting as “Phantom Limb.” Instead it finds James Mercer exploring a variety of unusual sounds. Sometimes the results are interesting like on the whimsical, “Fantasy Island,” and sometimes they are weird and a bit off-putting like on the downright bizarre “Painting a Hole.”
This is an oddball record even by Mercer’s standards, and he has always been one to take chances. After the success of Broken Bells, his side project with Danger Mouse, you can hear that synths are taking a much more upfront position in these songs, from the weirdo lounge vibe of “Rubber Ballz” to “Dead Alive,” which sounds a bit like the Zombies, had they been given a bit of an electro influence. “Cherry Hearts” also has an unexpected synth-pop bounce.
You could say that the title track, along with “So Now What,” (which originally appeared in Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here” three years ago) and “The Fear” end the album on a high note, making this a bit of a back-loaded offering.
Mostly, though, this record just continues to show James Mercer as a fascinating (if not slightly mysterious) songwriting force. The musicians he brings along with him on each recent Shins record may be different, but there is still a solid through-line in the discography. Mercer remains as a driving force.
“Heartworms” may get better with each successive listen as you get more and more used to its initially questionable edges. Then again, no matter how you slice it, this is still too strong a record to be named after a disease that kills dogs.
“So Now What” The strongest track here is still this song that is three years old. Of course, this song plays to Mercer’s strong suits better than some of the other tracks here. It is a soaring offering that brings to mind the same energy as “Simple Song,” the key standout from 2012’s “Port of Morrow.”
“Half a Million” This is grungier, bouncier and more pop-driven than you’d expect from the Shins, bringing to mind a New Wave-minded answer to Weezer, or even more accurately, perhaps even the Rentals. Of course I suppose that Mercer and Cuomo aren’t that far removed from each other as craftsmen.
“Heartworms” This is a well-constructed song, which would probably even sound better with a stripped-down acoustic arrangement. It has many tuneful turns throughout its course.
|The Magnetic Fields’ “50 Song Memoir” ****|
In honor of his 50th birthday, The Magnetic Fields’ mastermind, Stephin Merritt, decided to celebrate by releasing a song denoting every year of his life. This album covers up until 2015 and is spread across five discs that are roughly a half-hour each.
Most of these songs hover around the three-minute mark, and yet Merritt is able to fill many of them with a surprising amount of lyrical detail and wit. It is almost as if each song is its own chapter. You get a glimpse into his childhood. His first band supposedly made “the Shaggs sound like Yes.” Merritt even touches on what it was like to come of age as a gay man right at the dawning of the AIDS crisis of the early '80s.
This is a well-planned, well-executed set full of dark humor and sarcasm. Detailed narratives like “’93: Me and Fred and Dave and Ted” are destined to become camp classics, and throughout the set, Merritt’s occasionally cartoonish, deep-voiced delivery emphasizes his points.
Lots of topics are covered from Tetris addiction to disco crazes. Isaac Asimov gets a name drop on “78: “Blizzard of ’78,” while Merritt pays tribute to an Edith Wharton classic on “’88: Ethan Frome.” We listen to Merritt’s life in brief glimpses, through the ups and downs. He gives us little life nuggets, such as when he momentarily slips and has a one-night stand with an ex or warns you that “You Can Never Go Back to New York.”
Like the epic 1999 release “69 Love Songs,” this record is an impressive offering, with his longtime bandmate (and manager) Claudia Gonson giving some notable support. Of course the only real thing to complain about with this record is its presentation. It’s only two and a half hours, but it is spread across five discs. No doubt this was so it mirrored the vinyl, but it would have fit nicely on two discs in CD form. That’s a bit of a waste of resources.
Nevertheless, “50 Song Memoir” delivers on its promise and brings out the best qualities of Stephin Merritt’s work.
“’04: Cold-Blooded Man” In a different light, this would be a potential pop hit. It also finds Merritt nearly using the upper register of his voice. He’s singing in a way that emphasizes the song’s melody. He almost has a Morrissey-like energy here.
“’70: They’re Killing Children Over There” An early childhood trip to see a Jefferson Airplane concert is highlighted by speech by Grace Slick. This puts the Vietnam War in full view. Although Merritt was extremely young at the time, the experience made an impression.
“’76: Hustle ‘76” This is a hilarious send-up of disco, delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
“’68: A Cat Called Dionysus” As a young child, sometimes it isn’t easy to develop a good relationship with the family cat.
|Laura Marling’s “Semper Femina” ****1/2|
If you’ve heard Laura Marling’s albums before, “Semper Femina” (her sixth album) won’t let you down. This is a collection of mature folk songs with some jazzy textures. In some ways this Blake Mills-produced effort s a good updated counterpart to Joni Mitchell’s classic “Blue,” with Marling allowing her voice to shimmer across intimate textures on tracks like “Always This Way” and “The Valley.”
These nine tracks feel a tad long, and yet Marling knows exactly how to pull listeners into the songs. There are plenty of soft textures here, but they are never sleepy or boring. The walking bass and the drumbeat that open up the aptly-titled “Soothing,” are thick with mystery and sophistication. In a way, the track sounds like something from the most organic aspects of Zero 7.
Marling's British accent emerges quite strongly on “Wild Once,” giving her delivery a delightful, stately quality. Marling’s voice has always sounded much older and more worldly than her actual age, but now at 27, she’s fully grown into her voice. And, while this record is subtle in spots, it showcases all of her best qualities as a writer and a performer. All the quiet details on display on “Nouel” should be enough to place her at the very front of the current folk scene.
When she adds a little fuzz on the closer, “Nothing, Not Nearly,” it works. The distorted accents add another layer to the impressive performance.
“Semper Femina” is the work of a singer at the top of her ability. This is a timeless record that plays like a throwback to the original vinyl age. Marling is an ace at constructing powerful songs that will slowly and casually envelope those listening.
“Wild Once” The half-spoken nature of this song along with its built-in, backward-looking wisdom give this track an otherworldly tone. Also, the details in the guitar work are worth your attention.
“Soothing” This slow-building number will take hold of you immediately. If it doesn’t, this record on the whole probably isn’t for you.
“Wild Fire” This is Marling getting in touch with her inner Van Morrison as she brings a soulful energy to her brand of folk.
|Cindy Lee Berryhill’s “The Adventurist” ****|
Cindy Lee Berryhill has been releasing records since the '80s and “The Adventurist,” her first album in a decade, is a solid offering that shows why she was one of the original and defining forces of the “anti-folk” movement. Her songs here are entrancing and compelling, while maintaining a winking sense of humor and a bit of casual quirkiness.
“Contemplating the Infinite in a Kiss,” for instance, is packed with appealing nuance. Of course, there’s also a whimsical, nostalgic quality at work here. Part of the reason for the 10-year break between Berryhill's records was the illness of her husband, music journalist Paul S. Williams, who suffered a brain injury in the mid-'90s that eventually led to early-onset dementia. This is her first record since Williams’ 2013 death.
There’s a sense of worldliness in Berryhill’s delivery. The title track alone fits its encompassing title. There’s a freeing sense throughout this album that new terrain is meant to be conquered while Berryhill maintains an attitude that is all her own.
The opening, spoken-word intro on “Thanks Again” is mighty and commanding, while “Horsepower” has a strikingly unique sense. This record, throughout its 14 tracks maintains a strong quality. Berryhill sounds hungry. This record sounds like something she’s been quietly constructing over the last decade. It is the work of an artist who still feels like she has something to prove and not that of a coasting veteran. Of course, in the span of 30 years, she has only released seven records and she’s still a cult hero and not a big name. That should change.
“The Adventurist” is a fascinating record, packed with personality. The disc gives Berryhill’s career an effective and strong restart after a considerable break. It's greatly evident even after a just an initial listen that this album deserves a much wider audience.
“I Like Cats/You Like Dogs” This playful ode to cat people and dog people is immediately appealing. It’s also remarkably catchy while playing with a timeless dichotomy.
“Gravity Falls” There’s a warmth to this record, even when Berryhill is backed by a low-key orchestra. Again, she’s got a very strong sense for tunes that stick, while still delivering her words in a semi-nudging tone.
“Contemplating the Infinite in a Kiss” When you kiss the right person, time stops. This is at its core a masterful analysis of that moment moment when you feel like you have found that person.
|Elliott Smith’s “Either/Or” (expanded edition) ****1/2|
In Elliott Smith’s discography, “Either/Or” marks the point where he was about to strongly hit the mainstream. After all, his standout “Between the Bars” was featured in the film “Good Will Hunting” alongside his Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery.” This was the last of his lo-fi records, before a deal with Dreamworks gave him a significant production boost.
I’ve long thought his Dreamworks debut, “XO,” was a slightly superior record when compared to “Either/Or,” but that’s mainly because of said production boost. This expanded reissue of “Either/Or” also offers a much-needed remastering that effectively cleans up the record’s sound and gives it a jolt. This allows classics like “Say Yes,” “Ballad of Big Nothing,” “No Name #5,” “Alameda” and “Angeles” to really shine in ways they didn’t before.
This reissue in honor of the album’s 20th anniversary adds five live cuts, three rare cuts and an early version of “Bottle Up and Explode!” which would arrive on “XO” a year later. The most remarkable thing about this album and all these bonus features is how fresh they still sound in 2017. Smith was a quiet legend. He is someone whose presence is greatly missed. In the live version of “Pictures of Me” he channels the menace found on the studio version into a playful and almost quirky romp.
Generations of singer-songwriters will be influenced by this powerful record, and it is plain to see why that is the case. At his core, Smith was a true craftsman who was able to pack his songs with a palpable amount of pain. No doubt, people will still be discovering his work in another 50 years. It’s still a shame he lost that Oscar.
Here’s hoping they give “XO” the same treatment next year. His catalog on the whole deserves such reverence. Nearly 14 years after his death, his legacy still casts a mighty shadow.
I’m guessing anyone reading this would be familiar with this album. So for this section, I’m going to focus on the bonus material.
“Angeles” (live) The five live tracks here were recorded at a July 1997 concert in Olympia, Washington, and this live take of “Angeles,” captures the song’s tight tension as Smith delivers it with a nearly whispered sense of urgency.
“Bottle Up and Explode!” (alternate version) This early alternate version of the song is vastly different from the “XO” reading. It is also coated in synths. When comparing the two versions side by side you can get a brief window into Smith’s songwriting process.
“New Monkey” (keys) This is a 42-second instrumental take on the b-side, “New Monkey,” delivered on an organ. It sounds like playful, carnival fun, and it is kind of a shame that Smith didn’t do the whole thing like this. It shows that even though he had a reputation for writing sad songs, there was often joy hidden in Smith’s song structures. You can find the full version on the 2007 compilation “New Moon.”
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