Chris Stapleton, Blondie, Mac DeMarco and more music reviews

PHOTO: Chris Stapleton performs during the Tortuga Music Festival at the Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, April 8, 2017, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Tim Mosenfelder/FilmMagic/Getty Images

This week Blondie returns with a new album, country breakout star Chris Stapleton drops a new set, indie-rock performer Mac DeMarco continues his career, nineties outfit the Afghan Whigs release their second offering since their comeback, shoegaze legends Slowdive release their first album in 22 years, Dishwalla return with a new lead singer and post-hardcore group At the Drive-In release their first album in 17 years.

PHOTO: Blondie - "Pollinator"
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Blondie’s “Pollinator” ***1/2

Blondie’s 11th album is also their fifth since returning with their 1999 effort “No Exit,” and it is also one of their most consistent and enjoyable sets since they came back, with numbers like “Long Time” and “Already Naked” recalling the band’s earlier work. “Fun” has a disco-funk sound reminiscent of “Heart of Glass,” while the horn-section on the slamming “Love Level” brings to mind “The Tide is High.”

This isn’t an album without bizarre moments. “Best Day Ever,” a song co-written by Sia and the Strokes’ Nick Valensi has a part where Debbie Harry is perhaps being purposely dissonant with her vocal line. Of course, Harry is still the star and main draw of Blondie, maintaining the same energy that fueled the band’s music more than forty years ago. With Chris Stein and Clem Burke she has kept the flame of Blondie lit and relevant well into the 21st century.

Harry unsurprisingly pairs nicely with Joan Jett who guests on “Doom or Destiny,” The band covers Charli XCX’s “Gravity,” effectively, which doesn’t shock considering the likelihood that Charli XCX grew up on the music of Blondie. Their take on Johnny Marr’s “My Monster” just proves Marr’s agility as a songwriter. Laurie Anderson shows up on the wonderfully moody and atmospheric hidden CD bonus track, “Tonight” It’s evident that the members of Blondie have chosen their collaborators well.

There’s a strange effect on Harry’s voice on “When I Gave Up on You,” but it doesn’t fully distract from the song being a strong ballad.

For the most part, “Pollinator” shows Blondie doing what Blondie has always done best and a few of these songs should be considered key tracks in their discography and be given the same kind of love as their 1999 hit “Maria.” In 2017 the music of Blondie still sounds remarkably the same as it did four decades ago. Given the right chance, “Pollinator” has strong hit potential.

Focus Tracks:

“Long Time” This is a classic Blondie song in the vein of “Dreaming.” It’s a killer piece of bright dance-pop that finds them directly in their wheelhouse. The song was co-written by Harry and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes.

“Already Naked” This is another high quality number that will immediately stick with you in a classic sort of way.

“Doom or Destiny” (Featuring Joan Jett) Debbie Harry plays up her CBGB’s punk pedigree with this hard-hitting, synth-assisted number. She and Joan Jett sound like they are really enjoying singing together.

PHOTO: Chris Stapleton - "From a Room: Volume 1"
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Chris Stapleton’s “From a Room: Volume One” ****

On his brief, brisk follow-up to his successful 2015 album, “Traveler,” Chris Stapleton continues to impress. Right from the start of this nine-song set it is evident why Stapleton has made a splash. He’s equal parts vintage country troubadour and Southern-Rock renegade. His songs have appeared on a number of other artists’ albums but in his own voice one can tell that his work takes on new resonance.

Tracks like “Broken Halos” and “The Last Thing I Needed, First Thing in the Morning” play with well-worn country topics, but they sound genuine and have real heart. He didn’t write the latter track but he gives it the same sense of care as the ones he did. As a performer and writer he isn’t merely checking off boxes to gain an audience. His craft is obviously focused and honed.

“Second One to Know” is some lightning-hot blues while “Either Way” has a hushed quality before it bursts into a highly soulful number. He brings down the house on the fiery and emotional, “I Was Wrong.”

Really the key to Stapleton’s appeal is his sonic diversity and the honesty in his songs. He isn’t simply a run-of-the-mill country singer. He can rock out or deliver something as deeply earthy as “Without Your Love,” which given the right interpretation could be translated into a killer R&B ballad.

If you didn’t jump aboard for “Traveler,” “From a Room: Volume 1” should grab your attention. The hype around Chris Stapleton is fully justified. At just over a half-hour, this set may be a little on the short side but it leaves you wanting more. Hopefully there will be a second volume.

Focus Tracks:

“Without Your Love” This is smooth, but it also has a very soulful quality that really gets under your skin. With each spin, you will likely discover a new layer to its composition.

“Death Row” A haunting piece of blues that captures a sense of isolation and desperation. A dying man’s last requests before he meets his fate.

“Broken Halos” Stapleton begins the album with this moving anthem for the fallen and troubled trying to find a way to “shine” once more.

PHOTO: Mac DeMarco - "This Old Dog"
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Mac DeMarco’s “This Old Dog” *1/2

There might be some who are swayed by Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco, but honestly with “This Old Dog” he isn’t doing anything particularly noteworthy, compelling or interesting. Sure, between his last effort, “Another One” and this one he learned to tune his guitar a little better so that it doesn’t sound quite as twisted and warped and he has added some canned electro-bossa nova beats into the mix, but when he sings every song in a wispy, whispery mutter it makes most of this record sound like a karaoke experiment gone wrong.

It is evident from the title-track that he is aiming for deepness. He obviously listened to Beck’s “Sea Change” and thought, “Well, I can do that.” He apparently can’t. While minor hints of interesting elements are there, throughout this set, DeMarco’s execution is just so lifeless.

The percussion effect on “Baby You’re Out” sounds like the work of a ten-year old playing with a low-budget Casio keyboard, while the laid-back groove of “One More Love Song” sounds like it should be interrupted by someone saying, “Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line for the next available representative.”

“Sister” is an attempt at a heartfelt lullaby ballad but again, DeMarco’s half-hearted mutter doesn’t do it any favors. “Dreams of Yesterday” sounds like a horrendous fun-house-reflection answer to Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” “For the First Time” sounds like he is angling towards Barry White territory and missing it by a mile. “Moonlight on the River” is a listless seven-minute track that devolves into a messy jam.

There are glimmers of hope. “One Another” is close to decent and the closer “Watching Him Fade Away” is perhaps a passible sequel to the album’s opener, “My Old Man.” Putting DeMarco’s father-issues aside, the couple of times this album works, it merely doesn’t offend. It never impresses. Mostly this is the kind of music designed for those who use words like “chill-ax” in every day conversation. This is laid back music for people fooled by false illusions of depth. There is very little here.

Yes, this doesn’t sound particularly like anyone else. As I have probably said before, just because something is different, doesn’t mean it is necessarily good. DeMarco’s got his legions of fans and a number of champions in the indie-rock press but to many, a record like “This Old Dog” will be hard to take seriously. Even with all the hype in the world, it plays like an awkward, hipster-baiting spin on “lite” radio singer-songwriter balladry without adding anything worth remembering.

Focus Tracks:

“One Another” This song has a decent, but you get the feeling that Jack Johnson could do this better justice in cover form.

“Watching Him Fade Away” This kind of sounds like an effortless afterthought, but it works because it isn’t over done and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

PHOTO: The Afghan Whigs - "In Spades"
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The Afghan Whigs’ “In Spades” **1/2

After jumping back into action quite effectively with 2014’s “Do to the Beast,” the Afghan Whigs sort of stumble with the uneven “In Spades.” The center of the album is of course Greg Dulli’s soulful croon which is put to good use on both the bizarre, jumpy-ballad opener “Birdland” and on the solid piano-led “Demon in Profile,” but elsewhere the album gets a little on the murky, half-baked side. The band has usually done their best work rocking out, but the electro-dance-funk of “Arabian Heights” sounds a bit too streamlined for its own good, especially during the verses. The same can be said for “Copernicus” which in spite of its hefty intensions comes off surprisingly empty.

The album works best when the band embraces balladry and mature sophistication like on “Oriole” and “The Spell.” This is a sonically ambitious record that sometimes hits its mark and sometimes misses by a longshot. The more unhinged Dulli’s voice gets, the better the song. When he fades into the background of the grooves, as he does a few times here, the momentum frequently gets lost.

“Light as a Feather” has a nice groove, but it doesn’t quite rise like it should until the second verse when Dulli raises his voice.

“In Spades” isn’t necessarily a bad record, but in places it is a misguided one that still occasionally shows the band’s strengths. The gospel-blues of “I Got Lost” shows that Dulli and company can still create a stir, but is anything on here particularly indelible? Not so much. Too often this album captures a mood well but doesn’t provide any real hook. It doesn’t quite pop in quite the way it should.

Focus Tracks:

“Demon in Profile” In a way this kind of sounds like a pensive number in the same vein as some of Spoon’s recent work. This is easily the album’s biggest and most immediate highlight with Dulli putting his skills to great use.

“Oriole” Another thought-provoker, this track makes nice use of an orchestra and a building energy.

“I Got Lost” A piano-driven prayer of sorts. This has some decent lift.

PHOTO: Slowdive - "Slowdive"
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Slowdive’s “Slowdive” ****

Breaking a 22-year silence, shoegaze/dream-pop titans Slowdive return with an expansive and enveloping eight-song set. From the opener, “Slomo” it is evident that this was a worthy endeavor. Of course that feeling is firmly cemented once you hear the immediately grabbing, “Star Roving,” with the one-two vocal chemistry of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell firmly intact beneath a stirring haze of guitars. Halstead and Goswell have always worked well together, whether on Slowdive’s classic work like 1993’s “Souvlaki” or on their later Mojave 3 work. The bond remains strong. “Don’t Know Why” volleys from a fast, insistent rocker to more ethereal territory, while “Sugar for the Pill” is a warm, slow-burner. “Everyone Knows” has some appealing drive. As the album presses on, it becomes evident that this is the kind of record that will gain more resonance on repeated listens. The dreamy hush of “No Longer Making Time” is beautiful and haunting and that remains to be true when the guitars swell to a wail. The same could be said about the quieter elements of “Go Get It” or the mannered, thought-provoking piano-led climb of “Falling Ashes.”

Yes, this is a different beast than their previous records, but it is a fitting addition to their discography. This may only have eight songs, but each track is a well-placed, well-constructed number. Like My Bloody Valentine’s “m b v,” which arrived 22 years after their classic album, “Loveless,” with this self-titled offering, Slowdive have done their legacy proud. This isn’t necessarily an easily-digestible record, but once you let it sink it, it is a strong piece of work.

Focus Tracks:

“Star Roving” A warm whoosh of a song that will instantly take you back to the ideals of the shoegaze and dream-pop sub-genres.

“Everyone Knows” This is another really strong keeper as Goswell’s dense vocal harmonies get drenched with a wall of guitars.

“No Longer Making Time” This track makes excellent use of textural variation. The verse-section guitar- riff will sink into your eardrums in all the right ways.

PHOTO: Dishwalla - "Juniper Road"
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Dishwalla’s “Juniper Road” ***

You remember Dishwalla from their 1995 breakout single, “Counting Blue Cars” with its chorus, “Tell me all your thoughts on God / Cuz I’d really like to meet her.” Their album “Pet Your Friends” spawned a couple other smaller singles and the band continued on until 2005’s self-titled record. Now, twelve years later they return with “Juniper Road.”

A word of warning. Original vocalist J.R. Richards, whose singing and lyrics were a big part of their sound has left the band, having been replaced by Justin Fox. In a way that makes “Juniper Road” sound like the work of a completely different band. This change might leave some fans of the band’s previous work disappointed.

As the band volleys from Indian-influenced rockers and mid-tempo ballads, it is evident that Fox actually brings some new energy to the fold. While “Sirens” charges into near Chris Cornell territory, the anthemic, occasionally charging piano-ballad “Give Me a Sign” quickly follows behind. It becomes shocking that these songs come from the same source. That cycle repeats on the Verve Pipe-esque “Mazelike Garden” and the acoustic ballad “Miles Away.”

It turns out the addition of Fox helps the band. Sure, this album won’t probably drastically change Dishwalla’s standing. It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but given the right attention it could give the band a couple more possible hits, thus giving them a deserved rebirth.

Again, since Fox is a very different vocalist from Richards, this might not be immediately identifiable as the work of Dishwalla, even if the majority of the core of the original band remains intact. Once you wrap your head around that change, this album’s gifts will be more readily heard.

“Now I Know” has some authoritative drive and “Here for You” has the kind of lifting quality you often find in current pop-rock hits. If you scan again through “Pet Your Friends,” you’ll find that they were always a more eclectic band than the success of “Counting Blue Cars” might have indicated.

“Juniper Road” is a decent offering that could lead to newer opportunities for Dishwalla. They’ve continued with their legacy admirably long after achieving brief buzz-bin status. They still offer up hard-edged alt-rock with lyrics with vaguely spiritual allusions.

Focus Tracks:

“Miles Away” An effective acoustic ballad which sounds like a low-key alt-rock hit waiting to happen.

“Give Me a Sign” Taking cues from “Counting Blue Cars,” it’s hard to tell if Fox is singing about the love of a woman or some sort of deity. Perhaps he’s singing about both in a playful lyrical blend. Nevertheless, this song has a surprising level of fortitude.

“Mazelike Garden” This sounds like a lost alt-rock radio staple from 1996 or 1997. I mean that in the best way.

PHOTO: At The Drive-In - "in-tera-li-a"
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At the Drive-In’s “in•ter a•li•a” ****

17 years after their last proper record, At the Drive-In have burst back into action with the chaotic and intense “in•ter a•li•a.” In the years away from ATDI, the members split into the Mars Volta and Sparta respectively with admittedly mixed results. Of course, maybe those bands don’t work as well because At the Drive-In is like two fronts meeting and causing a massive thunderstorm. That magic is still felt.

There’s manic energy embedded in “Governed by Contagions” and “Tilting at the Univendor.” There’s something appealingly unpredictable about the construction of these songs and yet the hardcore-fueled sonic insanity may not be for everyone, but such tempo-shifts and unabashed volatility made “One Armed Scissor” a bona fide alt-rock radio hit back in 2000.

To some, “in•ter a•li•a” will be unapologetically brutal, but if that is the case, this album wasn’t meant for you. Listening to “Holtzclaw” it becomes apparent that the band has actually become more melodic over time. The Mars Volta was at its best a more nuanced band at times, allowing Cedric Bixler-Zavala to sing more tuneful fare like “The Widow.” Where the earlier ATDI material was full of blistering screams, here Bixler-Zavala is able to put those improved singing chops to work on songs like “Ghost-Tape No. 9,” adding a layer to the band’s sound. It may be more tuneful, but the undeniably destructive quality of the band’s sound still remains intact.

Fans who jumped aboard on the success of “Relationship of Command” may have mixed feelings about the way the band has changed in the years since, but they should be allowed to grow and this is a real monster of an offering, full of post-hardcore mayhem. It is a welcome return.

Focus Tracks:

“Tilting at the Univendor” This combines a rambling vocal attack with an accessible backdrop resulting in a suitable and appealing clash of sounds. At first this might seem like a lot to take in, but the more you listen to it, the more it gels together.

“Governed by Contagions” This is exactly the kind of elastic sonic-pounding that fans of ATDI should expect. The tempo-shifts will keep you guessing as you are shouting along.

“Holtzclaw” This punk-driven workout makes the most of a palpable sense of tension as it describes some sort of religious ceremony. There’s a fitting sense of tension that suits the repeated yells of “Church ain’t over ‘til they put the snakes back in the bag!”

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