Music Reviews: Alabama Shakes, They Might Be Giants, Passion Pit, Wire and More

PHOTO: Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performs onstage during day 1 of the 2015 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival on April 10, 2015 in Indio, Calif.
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This week, soul band Alabama Shakes release their second record, legendary Brooklyn alt-rockers They Might Be Giants release their 17th album, electro-glitch-pop project Passion Pit releases a third full-length, Idaho fuzz-rockers Built To Spill make a comeback after a six year break, buzz band Speedy Ortiz make a huge splash, influential art-rock band Wire drop a new album and highly experimental electronic artist Squarepusher continues to push boundaries. There is a lot to be excited about in music at the moment.

PHOTO: Alabama Shakes "Sound & Color"
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Alabama Shakes’ “Sound & Color” ****

If Alabama Shakes’ 2012 debut, “Boys & Girls” established the band’s awe-striking soulful sound, their second record “Sound & Color” pushes them even further. While their back-to-basics approach still remains a centerpiece of their sound, this record finds them further stretching, blending elements of jazz and psychedelic rock into the mix.

At the center, of course, is front-woman Brittany Howard, who is an undeniably distinct force. Her howl packs the kind of emotion you used to hear classic R&B of the past. With her at the helm, this band often feels like a grungy bar-band update on the sounds that Stax Records made famous. This is earnest soul music and at the same time it goes hand-in-hand with the music of people like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley.

While “Boys & Girls” was relatively straight-ahead, “Sound & Color” has a risky and eclectic feel which not only pays off, but also makes the record a bit of a shape-shifting marvel. “Gemini” is some otherworldly, woozy space-funk with some acid-rock edges, while “The Greatest” is a slice of blisteringly raw rockabilly-punk. “This Feeling” and “Guess Who,” on the other hand, are mellow, tender-exercises that somehow find some sort of sonic middle-ground between Minnie Riperton and Macy Gray.

In the end, “Sound & Color” shows this band to be stunningly versatile. Their first album was a mere warm-up in comparison and this record might have some bizarre detours to some, but frankly if they keep going at this level, years down the line they will be considered among the greats. This is a gutsy collection that puts its intentions firmly on the table.

Focus Tracks:

“Gimme All Your Love” This is a beautiful ballad and one of the two songs they performed on their recent appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” At the 2:12 mark the song gets extremely quiet. Watching their SNL performance, you could have heard a pin drop in the studio during this section and the recorded version maintains that sense of integrity.

“I Don’t Want To Fight” This is the other song they performed on SNL and it showcases an extension of the kind of funky soul they exhibited on their first record, except it has a notable, darkly groovy undertone. Howard’s scream at the beginning of the song alone is a truly remarkable display of her power as a performer.

“Dunes” This song is the first true indication that this album is going to be a bit of a departure from their first effort, but it is full of the kind of psychedelic goodness that gives it a classic sound. I want to listen to this song on vinyl.

PHOTO: They Might Be Giants "Glean"
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They Might Be Giants’ “Glean” ****1/2

In the 1980s and '90s, They Might Be Giants had a local 718 number in Brooklyn. When you called it, a machine would pick up and play you a song. This was known as They Might Be Giants’ “Dial-A-Song” number. Being a teenage Brooklynite, I called it from time to time during my high school years. (It was a local call, back when such a distinction mattered.) Usually the band seemed to use this as a place to put either early demos or songs that didn’t make albums. In any case, it was always a worthwhile phone call.

They Might Be Giants’ 17th album “Glean” in a way commemorates the re-launch of “Dial-A-Song,” which has re-emerged as a website. For the last 15 weeks, the site has been dropping videos for new songs. These new songs make up the album. Honestly, it is one of the best and most focused John Linnell and John Flansburgh have released in quite some time. No, they have never released a bad, poor or even merely satisfactory album, but this record makes both 2011’s “Join Us” and 2013’s “Nanobots,” which are both great records in their own right seem like practice exercises leading up to this record. This isn’t surprising since “Join Us” was their journey back into adult-hood after doing a series of (also excellent) kids records.

What makes "Glean” stand out is that it feels very much like it is connected to the earliest parts of the duo’s career. The drunken disappointment felt in “Answer” after a life of letdowns in the face of a possible rebound feels like a follow-up of sorts to their divorce classic, “They’ll Need A Crane” from 1988’s “Lincoln.” Similarly, the tone and the jittering music on “Unpronounceable,” recalls that album’s opener “Ana Ng."

There's also a somewhat continuous narrative thread on this album that aims to erase memories of relationships gone wrong. “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” is an obvious influence, particularly on “Erase” and the jazzy work-up, “Let Me Tell You About My Operation.” Elsewhere, the Johns celebrate mundane existence on “I Can Help The Next In Line,” find drama in arguments on both “End Of The Rope” and “Madam, I Challenge You To A Duel” and chronicle stories of men not living up to their perceived potential on “I’m A Coward” and “All The Lazy Boyfriends.” In many ways, this is a concept album about relationships, why they fail and humans merely puttering around the Earth trying to understand each other’s intentions. The goal is happiness and yes, happiness can come from forgetting one’s troubles, but ultimately is that really the best way to handle such turmoil?

On “Glean,” They Might Be Giants deliver a sharp, snarky, thought-provoking collection that one could argue questions the human condition and how we deal with each other. These complex ideas are wrapped in tightly-constructed power-pop songs that are bound to stick with you for some time. In short, “Gleam” is probably one of their top five best albums to date, and it should be mentioned in the same sentence as “Lincoln,” “Flood” and “Apollo 18.” Few bands are still this sharp more than thirty years in, but one gets the feeling they could make records like this for at least another thirty. "Glean” reaffirms the fact that They Might Be Giants are still the quirky, highly intellectual titans of indie rock.

Focus Tracks:

“Unpronounceable” This is a textbook example of the kind of new-wave power-pop that has become the band’s signature. The best moments come when the tracks mysteriously glitches and statics out as if the record needle is jumping.

“Madam, I Challenge You To A Duel” Here the duo capture a classic pop element somewhere between the late-period Beatles and Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy.” The song is just barely over two minutes but it more than leaves a lasting impression.

“Erase” This is a gloriously silly song about erasing mistakes and memories. It’s a sunny-sounding song with unapologetic dark lyrics. Again, this is vintage TMBG.

PHOTO: Passion Pit "Kindred"
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Passion Pit’s “Kindred” **1/2

Michael Angelakos releases his third full-length Passion Pit album this week and it showcases just the kind of electro-tinged glitch-pop you’d expect. He long ago proved he could put together a tight arrangement, and if you weren’t a fan before, the same issues will bother you during this cycle. Angelakos specializes in anthemic pop of the most sugary variety. These are upbeat emo anthems with his voice bending and shifting in and out of falsetto. Depending on your tastes, this could potentially make you wince a few times, but at the same time, there are legions of fans who love this work.

“Kindred” offers up wide range of sounds. Often times it sounds too busy for its own good while there are moments that work. “Where The Sky Hangs” in particular sounds like it was crafted with an early-eighties “Lite FM” template in mind. Angelakos approaches this sound without a wink of irony. While “All I Want” is a glowingly poetic number where Angelakos sings, “When we wake up, you engulf me in your love.”

There’s a sense while listening to “Five Foot Ten” with all its electronic blips and bloops that this exactly the kind of pop the hardcore techno fans feared would be produced if electronic music was fully adopted by the mainstream. Hearing warped glitches and cut up sounds on this song feels as disconcerting as the first time you heard those “bass-drops” in Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.” (Note: This song does not possess that song’s appeal.) To some this will feel like obvious technological progression. To others, it will be sacrilege. The music of Passion Pit isn’t as cloying as say Owl City’s pop-adoption of The Postal Service’s sound, but still to some this album will be a very polarizing listen.

If you are open to it, though, “Kindred” can be a warm record with songs with an uplifting message. Angelakos was diagnosed as being bipolar when he was 18 and has been very public about raising awareness of his condition. So much of this album feels like a note to his wife, family and friends for their love and support.

In comparison with 2009’s “Manners” and 2012’s “Gossamer,” “Kindred” is a much glossier sounding record. Where its predecessors kept some spare hint of indie-rock edge intact, this record has much more emphasis on the pop side of the act’s sound. That slight contrast proved beneficial in the past. If you found Passion Pit’s sound to be difficult before, this album won’t win you over, especially on the vocoder-assisted closer “Ten Feet Tall II.” Also, in general, throughout the majority of the record, there seems to be way too much going on sonically speaking, thus creating an overall feeling of aural fatigue. Still, in spite of this being a potentially a difficult listen, you can’t help but admire Angelakos for his ambition and his intentions. If this album’s liner notes by Harlem Shakes’ drummer Brent Katz are any indication, he’s someone who holds his friends in high regard.

Focus Tracks:

“All I Want” This song is admittedly unmistakably twee, but it also has a bit of sweetness. It also is one of the least busy-sounding tracks on the record.

“Where The Sky Hangs” Like “All I Want” it sounds tender and it also is among the record’s most restrained tracks.

“Dancing On The Grave” If you can get past Angelakos’ falsetto, this is actually a really satisfying dark lullaby of sorts.

PHOTO: Built To Spill "Untethered Moon"
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Built To Spill’s “Untethered Moon” ****

Eight albums in and 22 years since their debut, what I’m guessing is your favorite band from Idaho continues churning out the heavy indie rock they do best. Amazingly Built To Spill are still signed to Warner Brothers making them one of the few grungy bands from the nineties still maintaining a major label deal and from the sound of things, the label bosses thankfully don’t seem to be interfering looking for a “hit.” Built To Spill get by on their tremendous cred and the fact that Doug Martsch with his Neil Young-esque vocal delivery and his tremendous guitar-shredding skills can still craft some of the catchiest and often most beguiling rock songs. In essence, Built To Spill are like a heavier, more cohesive and tuneful answer to Modest Mouse with a little Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. thrown in for good measure. Unlike their last two records, “There Is No Enemy” and “You In Reverse” this album keeps the jamming to a minimum. Whereas those albums were packed with six-minute rockers, besides the eight-minute closer, “When I’m Blind” and the six-minute opener, “All Our Songs,” this record keeps its songs at a tight, manageable level. This sometimes comes as a shock. The quick ballad “Horizon To Cliff” feels like it has a lot of steam left in it when it abruptly fades.

In the tighter confines of a three or four minute song, Martsch shines. It isn’t that he doesn’t on longer tracks, but hearing the shorter ones makes me wonder what would happen if the band set a three-and-a-half minute limit and just recorded a whole bunch of shorter songs. “Another Day” for instance has an explosive nature it might have lost had it been longer. The same goes for the tempo-shifting “Living Zoo” which somehow recalls both The Long Winters’ “Fire Island, AK” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' “Pin” before launching into a guitar-line which brings to mind Dinosaur Jr.’s cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”

This may be Built To Spill’s first new album in six years and they may have a slightly different line-up than before, but this feels like another extremely strong entry in their discography. Time has thankfully not changed them and they remain masters of their craft.

Focus Tracks:

“Another Day” If you are like me, this brief rocker will have you hitting the repeat button time and time again. It gets really interesting when during the solo it seems to take an unexpected right turn and deconstruct itself.

“When I’m Blind” At 8:24, this is the longest song on the record. It also closes the record with one of the most awesomely weird guitar solos the band has ever recorded.

“Living Zoo” As mentioned above, this sounds like a future concert set staple.

PHOTO: Speedy Ortiz "Foil Deer"
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Speedy Ortiz’s “Foil Deer” ****1/2

Not long ago, Sadie Dupuis was prepping a poetry MFA and teaching Freshman Writing at The University Of Massachusetts, Amherst. A few months ago, she and her band found themselves at South By Southwest with comedian Hannibal Burress sitting in on drums.

The "Pioneer Valley” and the towns around Amherst, Massachusetts have a long, storied history of indie rock. J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. set up base there. The Pixies were formed when Black Francis and Joey Santiago met at U-MASS. Northampton was a second home to Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and the music of Speedy Ortiz plays up to traditions of these bands. In 2015, they really stand out in a very good way. In 1995, they would have been huge.

"Foil Deer” continues where 2013’s “Major Arcana” left off. The band favors unsettled, minor-key guitar-lines that occasionally show brighter glimpses of power-pop embedded deep within their core. Speedy Ortiz recall the Fort Apache-era boom of the nineties alt-rock era. A track like “Zig” is thick with sonic dissonance conveying an unsettled feeling that pairs well with Dupuis’ often cryptic lyrics.

This is the most beautifully unkempt record rock fans could want. The contrast between the worn, twisted guitar lines and Dupuis’ sweetly sung, deeply compelling lyrics make Speedy Ortiz a band you definitely should know at the moment. Twenty years ago, during the peak of grunge this album would have been huge and had several Top 40 hits. Today, it’s a refreshing reminder that records like this are still being made.

Focus Tracks:

“The Graduates” This bummed-out reflection on school is particularly fascinating considering Dupuis’ history as an educator. It also showcases one of the most accessible tunes on the record. Also, at the beginning there seems to be the fuzzy ghost of a possible synth line hidden in the mix.

“My Dead Girl” There’s an energy reminiscent of Throwing Muses/Kristin Hersh during the verses, with a low-key Veruca Salt-esque chorus. It makes for a winning combination.

“Homonovus” A Nirvana-esque shouting chorus meets a low-key, chilling verse section that recalls Liz Phair’s “Exile In Guyville.” Is Dupuis singing about some sort of human zoo or a nightmarish vision of domesticity? She dryly asks, “Isn’t it a charmed life grinning under harsh light?” Yes, this is quite biting.

PHOTO: Wire "Wire"
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Wire’s “Wire” ***1/2

Self-titling an album 38 years into your career is an odd move, but that’s exactly what the members of Wire have done with their latest album. Since their 2003 comeback, these original punks have come back in a big way, hitting a peak with their 2013 album “Change Becomes Us.”

This album is mostly on the mellow side so it isn't “punk” in the most traditional way. But it still comes out of a very experimental “art school” kind of approach. One gets the feeling that the same environment that produced Wire also produced bands like Joy Division/New Order and The Fall.

Colin Newman sings at a near-whisper throughout the majority of the record which actually adds a sense of menace to a track like the opener, “Blogging,” which tries to summon your inner-technophobe somehow without being too heavy-handed. Wire’s music as of late has had a lurking subtly to it. In volume, they might not be all that “punk” but they are very much so in approach.

There's a glorious murkiness to this record on songs like “In Manchester” and the pleasantly melodic “Swallow.” You can hear plenty elements that they originated that have been adopted over the years from everyone from Blur to Suede to Bloc Party. Elastica even famously got into trouble for nicking the riff from Wire’s classic "Three Girl Rhumba” and using it in their hit, “Connection.” In all truth, Wire remains a very important band whose members perhaps do not get their due. They continue to show themselves as one of the correct bridges from punk to synth-y new-wave onto the beginnings of what ended up being known as “Brit-pop.” It is amazing that they are still around and on this self-titled effort they continue to amaze and grow as artists. While this isn’t quite as affecting as their last album, it is a more than worthy entry into their catalog.

Focus Tracks:

“Swallow” Quite simply, this is the most beautiful and most atmospheric song on the record. Its sonic beauty is contrasted nicely with its ear-catching, cryptically political lyrics.

“Octopus” This sounds like something that would have fit well on an early Cure record. (Think of early Robert Smith classics like “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” “M” or “Primary” and you’ve got the idea.)

“Harpooned” This epic closer is one of the few times this album actually flexes some truly sludgy rock muscle with excellent results. It crushes everything in its path.

PHOTO: Squarepusher "Damogen Furies"
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Squarepusher’s “Damogen Furies” ***1/2

Like Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James, Squarepusher’s Tom Jenkinson is seen as someone who pushes electronic music forward to its limits. Let’s be fair, though.

Comparing Jenkinson’s work to what passes for “EDM” these days is like comparing hardcore thrash to pop-punk or “free-jazz” to easy-going big-band music. His work is often as beautiful as it brutal. His records usually tend to alternate abusively propulsive beats with softer, more sedate cues. His latest album, “Damogen Furies” is the proper full-length follow-up to 2012’s “Ufabulum” and its eight tracks focus very heavily on his beat-work. To call this advanced listening, unsuitable for the timid is a bit of an understatement. For listeners used to radio pop, this album will most likely come off like ear-melting cacophony. But it is a challenge worth accepting.

When he goes full-throttle, it almost seems like there is no tempo-limit for Jenkinson as the beats whirl almost completely off the track. I’d love to get an accurate BPM-reading on something as manic as “Rayc Fire 2” or the battering closing portion of “Baltang Arg." As is the case with Aphex Twin and Autechre, Squarepusher’s tracks often appear to be named in cryptic codes as opposed to traditional titles. On some level this makes sense since all three acts aren’t known for making music that is anything close to traditional. In fact, all three specialize in music that has a digitally damaged quality, evoking images of a chronic dystopia. Both “Kwang Bass” and “D Frozent Aac” here begin somewhat traditionally and then devolve into what sounds like an Atari-fueled laser-beam fights. This is drum’n’bass essentially given free-range in the rawest sense. At the same time it leaves you dizzy, it also leaves you in awe as if it has smacked you awake from a deadly sound sleep. At times, this feels like a response to Daft Punk’s “Tron: Legacy” score with exponentially multiplied intensity. Once again, like most of Squarepusher’s past work, this album is not for mere novices.

Focus Tracks:

“Stor Eiglass” This is the most conventional, cleanest sounding track on the record, sounding at the beginning like a tweaked-out remix of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” (For those of you keeping score, that’s the second time I’ve mentioned “Just Like Heaven” and my third Cure reference in this week’s batch of reviews. Amazing! They’ve had a wide influence and yet they still aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Go figure.)

“Baltang Ort” This is an atmospheric synth ride, punctuated by drum punches before it launches into full battle mode.

“Exjag Nives” This track alternates between lush serenity and measured chaos. It’s kind of a middle point somewhere between drum’n’bass and dub-step.

Next Week: New music from Blur, Zac Brown Band and more.

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