The Chainsmokers, Guided by Voices and more music reviews

PHOTO: The Chainsmokers perform at XS Nightclub, Jan. 6, 2017, in Las Vegas.
David Becker/Getty Images

This week Canadian power-poppers The New Pornographers make a synth-driven return, The Chainsmokers release their full-length debut, Father John Misty explores societal tensions with his signature wit, indie-rock veteran Guided by Voices returns with a revamped line up, and Future Islands release a follow-up to their breakout album, “Singles.”

PHOTO: "Whiteout Conditions" by The New Pornographers.
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The New Pornographers’ “Whiteout Conditions” ****

“Whiteout Conditions” is the seventh album from Canadian power-pop collective the New Pornographers and it plays up the group’s synth-driven side while adding a bit of guitar crunch. This kind of mix of sonic gloss peppered with lo-fi elements creates a careful balance with A.C. Newman and Neko Case both really making some attention-grabbing turns. The Case-led “This is the World of the Theater” has some interesting bits of dissonance in its opening riff and then it bursts into a really effective bit of pop.

Throughout this album it as if A.C. Newman is trying to write bright, post-punk pop anthems with edge. “We’ve Been Here Before,” for instance, is full of thick keyboard textures and it’s also one of the most sonically abstract pieces the group has ever constructed.

“Whiteout Conditions” is also a particularly notable album in the band’s discography because it lacks Destroyer’s Dan Bejar whose distinctive contributions to the band used to offer up some strong highlights. Longtime drummer Kurt Dahle is also absent, having left the band in 2014. This also marks the band’s move to Concord after releasing their first six records on Matador.

At its essence, this is one of the most tightly-constructed records the band has ever offered, delivering an upbeat 11-track punch, anchored by the band’s mighty knack for hooks and their classic sense for putting together multipart harmonies. If Newman didn’t write such appealing songs with some unusual edges and turns, the band might sound too saccharine. But songs like the new-wave “Clockwise,” the twitchy “Juke” and the bouncy opener “Play Money” are full of enough fascinating elements to keep things grounded and extremely cool.

Like the rest of their albums, “Whiteout Conditions” shows the New Pornographers as ace crafters of dynamic, appealing and challenging pop. The greatness of this record is not a surprise. They have never disappointed.

Focus Tracks:

“This is the World of Theater” This track shows everything the band does well, putting curious lines like “Is it too late to live in your heart? / Too late to burn all your civilian clothes?” over an impossibly catchy melody.

“High Ticket Attractions” The big sound of this track makes it come off like vintage, synthesizer-fueled “college rock” from the early eighties. The production is delightfully hazy, as if they purposely didn’t make it quite as bright as it could have been, perhaps downplaying the shininess that the heavy synths would give the track with more polish. It’s important to maintain the indie-rock cred.

“Play Money” This is yet another rousing Case-led track, anchored by distortion-heavy riff, while maintaining the group’s signature pop sensibility. This track opens the album in the right way.

PHOTO: "Memories...Do Not Open" by The Chainsmokers.
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The Chainsmokers’ “Memories...Do Not Open” *1/2

The Chainsmokers made a big splash last year with two major hits. The Daya-assisted “Don’t Let Me Down” was a stunning specimen of modern pop, while “Closer,” with Halsey gave them a No. 1 hit, but was frankly a painfully boring retread that borrowed the melody of “Over My Head (Cable Car)” by the Fray so closely that they had to be given a writing credit. While “Don’t Let Me Down” was everything good that modern pop could be, “Closer” was a populist stab at uninventive and audience-pandering low-key EDM. Obviously, with the large chart success, the electronic duo are trying to repeat the success of “Closer,” so now their full-length debut is full of by-the-numbers pop that is neither groundbreaking or interesting.

To make things worse, they often work best with guests handling the vocals, but the duo of Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart are often left by their lonesome here, which is not a smart strategic move. Taggart is on slightly autotuned vocal duty and gives us weakly cheesy tracks like the forced “Break Up Every Night” and the forced “Paris.” The Chainsmokers by themselves are trying to force party jams but they lack charisma. Even with guests, they sometimes fall flat. “Something Like This” with Coldplay is a perfect example of the very wrong turn Chris Martin and company have been taking post “Viva La Vida.”

Emily Warren has better luck and boosts the set a little with “My Type” and “Don’t Say,” even if the songs still contain hackneyed EDM rises and the effects over Warren’s voice serve as an unnecessary distraction.

“It Won’t Kill Ya” with Louane offers up a bit of relief, recalling the excitement of “Don’t Let Me Down” and Jhené Aiko sounds appropriately at home on “Wake Up Alone.” On the flipside, the Florida Georgia Line collaboration “Last Day Alive” sounds like a digitally created beast that shouldn’t exist. It sounds like an end theme for a movie from the '80s, if said movie theme were composed by cyborgs.

The Chainsmokers can sometimes surprise, but mostly this album full of forced ballads without soul. The awkward narrative in “Honest” is meant to be tender but comes off like a diary entry from the road full of half-brags about being “on the radio.” The “whoa-oh-oh-ohs” don’t add anything of worth.

Considering the greatness of “Don’t Let Me Down” and the flawed but better “Banquet” EP, I wouldn’t have predicted the weakness of this record. Essentially the Chainsmokers have revealed themselves to be the American answer to the likes of David Guetta and Avicii, essentially living up to just about every negative stereotype of modern pop-flavored EDM. Too often this album is void of redeemable substance.

“Memories ... Do Not Open” for the most part sadly offers up some excellent advice with its title.

Focus Tracks:

“It Won’t Kill Ya” (Featuring Louane) This track is infinitely better than the rest of the album and plays up the duo’s strengths. They are better serving as back-up to others. Even the digital bass-breakdown really works. If they’d released a whole album of collaborations of this kind, this would be a very different and much more satisfying album.

“Wake Up Alone” (Featuring Jhené Aiko) Like “It Won’t Kill Ya,” this track plays decently and Jhené Aiko always sounds at home in the digital, electro realm.

PHOTO: "Pure Comedy," by Father John Misty.
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Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” ****

Sometimes it is hard to take Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) seriously when you see him perform. You get the feeling that he’s pulling something over on the culture with his sometimes bizarre image and his tendency towards interpretive dance, but then if you listen to his records you discover he’s one of the most bitingly sarcastic, classically skilled singer-songwriters we have working today. He’s a master at blending shtick and social commentary.

His latest album, “Pure Comedy” is more ambitious than his last effort, “I Love You, Honeybear,” with its sprawling 74-minute length. This album is a touch less punchy than its predecessor with more slow-burning ballads that contain sweeping orchestral rises. He still comes off like a stylistic heir to Loudon Wainwright III, with his cerebral, observational songs. The title track, for instance, is a six-minute reflection on the human condition, covering everything from childbirth to politics and religion.

These aren’t songs that can be easily covered during karaoke parties. He’s dealing with large issues on tracks like “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “When the God of Love Returns They’ll Be Hell to Pay.” He’ll throw in a sly, deadpan joke from time to time but he is saying many serious things about our culture as both a spectator and a commentator. He opens up a large can of worms on “The Memo” with the lines, “Just quickly, how would you rate yourself / In terms of sex appeal and cultural significance? / Do you usually like music like this? / Can you recommend similar artists? / Are you feeling depressed?/ But your feedback is important to us.”

There’s a lot to examine here. There are plenty of lines to pick apart. He is as much a smart-aleck philosopher as he is a songwriter. Most of these songs sound like thought-out lectures or short stories set to music. The 13-minute “Leaving LA” lampoons Los Angeles hipster bands seeking fame but then throws in lines like “It’s like my father said before he croaked / ‘Son, you’re killing me / And ‘that’s all, folks!’”

“Pure Comedy” won’t be for everyone, but it isn’t meant to be a populist record. It’s meant for deep listening from focused ears. If you aren’t the type of person who listens to words, you’ll miss a variety of wisdom and zingers within the confines of this set.

Focus Tracks:

“Pure Comedy” The album’s thesis statement. If you love this, you’ll love the whole record. It is deep-diving from the start and yet, from a songwriting perspective it is from a classic mold.

“Total Entertainment Forever” This is a more upbeat, acoustic strummer which touches on both commercialism and consumerism with a sharp tongue. There’s a dark happiness here as the horn section begins to swell.

“Leaving LA” 13-minute songs are rare and this one is a true opus, planted firmly in the middle of the record. Yes, Tillman can really tell a story.

PHOTO: "August by Cake" from Guided by Voices.
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Guided by Voices’ “August by Cake” ****

“August by Cake” is the best Guided by Voices album since 2014’s “Motivational Jumpsuit.” Of course, reading that, you’ll say, yeah, so what? It’s been only three years. For any other band, a three-year gap would be normal, but we’re talking about the work of Robert Pollard, who is indie rock's most prolific songwriters. So there have been quite a few records sandwiched into those three years. In fact, “August by Cake” is said to be the hundredth Pollard-related release since the early '80s.

This is a sprawling, more than 70 minute record containing 32 tracks. Most of these songs are one to two and a half minutes, but they maintain the kind of lo-fi charm that made classics out some of Pollard’s ’90s output. The fact that he’s essentially put together a new version of the band with some new and former members almost seems beside the point. GBV has always consisted of a rotating cast.

This album has Pollard’s delightfully ragged signature all over it, even if his voice cracks uncomfortably in the slightly uneasy “We Liken the Sun.” That being said, while in the classic line-up days, Pollard used to occasionally share vocal duties with former member Tobin Sprout. In this line-up you have songs from all five current members of the band, giving the set an unpredictable mixtape quality and setting it up as an unusual democratic outlier in the GBV discography. It helps that former and current member Doug Gillard has spent some time as Nada Surf’s second guitarist in recent years and the addition of singer-songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. into the fold is a welcome and unexpected surprise.

Even with the newfound diversity, Pollard still takes the lead on the most tracks. It’s a strange move when the band falls slightly off beat on “Keep Me Down,” but in every incarnation, this is a band that is often at its best at its least polished.

Even when these songs aren’t catchy in a conventional way, they still catch the ear with peculiar tempo switches or vocal turns. The sludgy jam on “Chew the Sand” is rich with textural touches.

Let’s hope this version of Guided by Voices can stay together for some time. This seems like a surprising rebirth for one of indie rock’s most challenging veteran acts.

Focus Tracks:

“When We Hold Hands at the End of the World” The beat slaps unusually, but this sounds like a lo-fi, vintage GBV song in all the best ways.

“Amusement Park Is Over” I’m not sure Robert Pollard gets the credit he deserves. This ballad rises and has a tune with a lot of interesting twists. Somehow this sounds simultaneously happy and mournful.

“Dr. Feelgood Falls Off the Ocean” This is another lo-fi nugget with an unusual beat and a swelling center.

PHOTO: "The Far Field," by Future Islands.
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Future Islands’ “The Far Field” ***1/2

On “The Far Field,” indie synth-pop outfit Future Islands continue where 2014’s “Singles” left off. Again, Samuel T. Herring’s distinctive and uniquely soulful voice takes center stage. This is a likable and satisfying follow-up to “Singles” that focuses on strong grooves. They also have some high-profile help here when Debbie Harry shows up on “Shadows” to sing beside Herring, which I guess speaks as much to their place in the current world as it does to their worthiness. Harry and Herring sound good together.

The thing that stands out the most about this record on the whole is how Herring’s voice is left alone when it comes to effects and echoes. On one section of “Beauty on the Road,” he is almost singing intimately into your headphones over the bouncy bass, drums and synths. In some ways, this band sounds like what would happen if a well-schooled soul singer was fronting the Cars. This is a bizarrely dreamy and intoxicating record at points and yet the band members still have plenty of growth potential ahead of them. Nothing here is quite as show-stopping as the “Singles” standout “A Song for Our Grandfathers,” even if this album is pretty much on the even side.

There is, however, the semi-damaged, forlorn energy from “Ancient Water” that captures attention in a key way and it becomes apparent that even when the hooks don’t immediately grab you, Future Islands are good establishers of mood. One gets the feeling that “The Far Field” will sink deeper upon repeated listens.

This is the work of a very unique band charting an unusual course through an alternative-pop landscape.

Focus Tracks:

“Ancient Water” Future Islands do their best when they mix strange touches with pop conventions. This sounds like a left-field eighties pop hit.

“Shadows” (Featuring Debbie Harry) Consider this a warm-up for the new Blondie record coming next month. Harry is in distinctive vocal form as the two singers trade a call and response. Harry’s presence is quite an endorsement.

“Through the Roses” Again Herring’s voice is really bare-sounding, but his thick vocal tone works this new wave-influenced ballad adding an unexpected tenderness.

Next week: New Music from Kendrick Lamar and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Bob Dylan, Aimee Mann, Nelly Furtado.

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