Music Reviews: The Latest From The Wombats, Local H, Eels, Tyler The Creator and More

PHOTO: Rapper Tyler, The Creator performs onstage during the 2015 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club, April 11, 2015, in Indio, Calif.
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This week British band The Wombats lean into their pop and dance-driven side on their third album, grungy rock duo Local H make a tremendous return, Eels release their second live offering, rapper Tyler the Creator drops his album early as a quick surprise while his Odd Future clique-mate Earl Sweatshirt releases the physical version of his latest album and singer-songwriter Greg Holden makes his major-label debut. If you want to know more about this week’s releases, keep reading!

PHOTO: The Wombats "Glitterbug"
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The Wombats’ “Glitterbug” (Deluxe Version) ***1/2

On their third album, “Glitterbug,” Liverpool band The Wombats up their dance-pop quotient. While their last record at its best and brightest recalled the Brit-pop peaks of the nineties, this album is firmly aimed at the pop charts, with the “Glitter” in the album’s title accentuating this aspect.

There’s nothing on here that quite matches the extraordinary “Jump Into The Fog” from their last album “This Modern Glitch,” but it still offers a pretty stellar set of songs and it walks quite a tightrope. These tracks gleam and they are glossy, but they don’t sound over-produced. While this album seems to casually flirt with subtle hints of Autotune, for the most part vocalist Matthew Edward Murphy’s vocals sound very natural, while singing over infectious, carefully honed ear-candy.

This album also hits a nice middle-ground. This is a very polished dance record and yet the Wombats remain very much a rock band, complete with unpredictable guitar freak-outs and huge punches of adrenaline. So, many of these songs end up sounding like large stompers but they don’t have that forced quality you often hear on radio pop. “The English Summer” for instance would oddly sound appropriate in both the club and the mosh-pit. Really, this is just the latest version of “new-wave,” combining elements of punk and dance music in equal measure. It’s a balance Blur often achieved effortlessly. It’s nice to see the next generation getting this mix right.

On “Glitterbug,” The Wombats are begging radio to give them the attention they deserve. This is the record that could potentially lead to rock getting attention from “Top 40” radio again. This band offers up smartly written pop in a bright, rock package. Of course, with that balance they could potentially alienate fans on both sides of that spectrum, but it is a risk worth taking.

The deluxe edition includes two bonus tracks including the excellent “Sex and Question Marks,” a track that sounds like an odd love – child of the Cure and Blink 182.

Focus Tracks:

“Be Your Shadow” This is a gleaming slice of eighties-style dance-pop as Murphy sings in a loving tone the words, “Kiss me with your fist. / It’s alright. / Wrap your hands around my throat, I won’t mind.” Equating love to violence can be truly dangerous, but wanting to be around someone can seem suffocating sometimes, so I believe I understand the metaphor.

“The English Summer” Mentioned above, this track displays a rawness I wish more of the album possessed.

Greek Tragedy” With its slamming electro-beat and its glittering synth-line this is a hit waiting to happen.

PHOTO: Local Hs "Hey, Killer"
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Local H’s – “Hey, Killer” ****

“Hey, Killer” is not only Local H’s eighth proper studio album, but it also their first batch of originals since front-man Scott Lucas was brutally attacked and mugged while on tour in Russia in 2013. He was choked during the attack and his vocal cords were damaged. Thankfully he has recovered and so there is a sense of relief found in this album’s mere existence.

If you don’t know Local H, the duo originated in the late ‘80s in Zion, Illinois. First Lucas was paired with drummer Joe Daniels who took the band through their biggest albums, including 1996’s “As Good As Dead,” which spawned the alternative rock radio hits “Bound For The Floor” and “Eddie Vedder” ) and then from 1999-2013 Brian St. Clair took Daniels’ place. This album marks the proper full-length debut of new drummer Ryan Harding, although he also appeared on an inspired sludge-rock cover of Lorde’s “Team” that the duo released last year and the collection of covers from which it was spawned.

If you loved Local H’s material in the ‘90s and beyond, Lucas and Harding have continued the tradition well. After all, Local H were showing that a guitarist and drummer could play without a bass player and pack a lot of power long before the White Stripes, Death From Above 1979 and Japandroids also made use of the formula.

“Hey, Killer” is the kind of bristling reminder of the way rock records sounded at the peak of the grunge era, when rock records were actually extremely hard-edged and packed a lot of sonic muscle. Not to say that there aren’t a lot of records like that still these days, but many of the nineties titans have since muted their sounds. Lucas and Harding attack with full force still and for his part Lucas has saved his attempts at other sounds for his side-band, Scott Lucas & The Married Men. Local H is still about pure, unadulterated rock. Opener, “The Last Picture Show In Zion” makes that explosively clear.

With titles like “John The Baptist Blues,” “Gig Bag Road,” “Freshly F*****” and “The Misanthrope,” this album offers up some gnarly, greasy hard-edged riffs. Local H have continued to make quality records over the years but, nevertheless, “Hey, Killer” sounds like a mighty rebirth. It’s a powerful restatement of purpose that deserves your full attention.

Focus Tracks:

“One Of Us” This ballad is post-Nirvana rock at its finest with one of Lucas’ best melodies to date.

“Mansplainer” I’m not sure what the title means. (Explaining men?) But this song would fit in with their grunge-era singles seamlessly. This is classic Local H.

“Age Group Champion” This title makes me think of children playing sports and this is another potential single with some minor-key introspective edges.

PHOTO: Eels "Royal Albert Hall"
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Eels’ “Royal Albert Hall” ***1/2

On this live set recorded at the famous British venue, Eels go through their discography picking and choosing a very choice set. Truth be told, this is their second live offering and this set is actually a tiny bit less impressive in comparison to 2006’s “Eels With Strings,” which was recorded at New York City’s Town Hall. Still, longtime fans will find aspects to enjoy here. The set is at its best when it picks up the tempo. The upbeat, semi-rockabilly-flavored reading of “I Like Birds” from 2000’s “Daisies Of The Galaxy” serves as a high point.

This is an enjoyable set, but one wishes the energy level was a bit more uniform. Too often, front-man E (Mark Oliver Everett) sounds way too down to possibly be enjoying himself. This is a running joke in his tongue-in-cheek banter with the audience, as he announces “Here’s another one. Don’t worry. It’s also a bummer,” at the beginning of “My Timing Is Off.” At times, it seems like too much of this set focuses on E’s gentler, more orchestral tendencies when it should be more of a celebration. This is a minor complaint, though, since no one else quite writes sad songs on his level.

The version here of “Last Stop: This Town” robs the song of its original punch and, arrangement-wise, this version sounds a lot like the backing for Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is The Deepest.”

Throughout the set, E shows himself to be witty and darkly humorous, as expected. If this set has a main weakness, it is that spread across two discs and a DVD it misses some of the band’s best work. I’d imagine he’s sick of playing “Novocaine For The Soul” and perhaps “Fresh Blood” got accidentally tainted by its use as the theme for HBO’s recent series “The Jinx” about Robert Durst, but where are “Cancer For The Cure,” “Mr. E.’s Beautiful Blues,” “I Need Some Sleep” “Rotten World Blues,” “Saturday Morning” or “Peach Blossom?” I guess with 12 proper Eels studio albums, it is hard at this point to get the perfect live set together. But did E really have to cover “When You Wish Upon A Star” or Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You?” He’s got enough worthy songs of his own that he no longer needs covers.

Two things strike me after listening to “Royal Albert Hall.” One, “It’s a Motherf*****” is still a really, truly beautiful song in spite of its title and “Flyswatter” and “The Sound Of Fear” both sound tremendous when played on the venue’s famous, massive pipe organ. This may not quite be Eels’ best live album, but it still well worth admission. E still leads an extremely reliable band.

Focus Tracks:

“Fresh Feeling” This single from the album “Souljacker” gets an upbeat, rocking reading and it opens up the song’s funky potential.

“My Beloved Monster” This song from the band’s debut that was also made famous by the “Shrek” movies gets a warm, slightly country-flavored reading.

“I Like Birds” I wish more of the set had this much energy. This is a beautifully executed rendition of the song. The studio version is tender, silly and intimate. Rocking it out gives it muscle.

PHOTO: Tyler the Creators "Cherry Bomb"
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Tyler The Creator’s “Cherry Bomb” **1/2

Remember a few years back when Tyler The Creator and Hodgy Beats arrived on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and delivered a mosh-pit-ready, game-changing rendition of “Sandwiches?” I do. I still remember every bit of that performance and yet when I bought Tyler’s album, “Goblin,” I was sorely disappointed. It just didn’t capture that same driving dynamic and Tyler came off like a truly obnoxious and immature figure mired in both self-loathing and disdain for the world in general.

“Cherry Bomb” is his fourth record, and it dropped this week as a surprise on iTunes and Amazon. Tyler still is out to shock, throwing around graphic and causally homophobic language from time to time seemingly with the sole purpose of getting at his critics’ goats. The problem with his confrontational style is that he seems to be confrontational merely to be confrontational. If you take an album like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” (which currently sets the high bar for hip-hop albums this year) it sets forth controversial concepts with a purpose. At this point, Tyler still lyrically hasn’t found a deeper purpose and still aims to shock for shock’s sake. Too often, he still just sounds like he’s complaining about people who don’t like him.

Musically, on the other hand, “Cherry Bomb” shows some interesting sides emerging. It’s pretty obvious that he is highly influenced by the work of N*E*R*D* since many of his beats sound like the Neptunes being played through a nightmarish filter. There’s a hardcore energy to “Deathcamp” and “Pilot,” “Run” and the title-track all have a drum-n-bass-style backing, although all three tracks seem to be mastered past the fuzzy, distorted breaking-point.

“Find Your Wings” is surprisingly jazzy, showing an emerging musical maturity on Tyler’s part. This musical edge is clearly at odds with his lyrical approach.

On “Smuckers,” he says, “I clearly don’t give a f***.” This might be what Tyler thinks his lyrical thesis-statement should be, but in truth, the growing complexity of his backing tracks seems to say the opposite. While it is all too easy to deride Tyler for his worst tendencies (and yes his weaknesses hinder his work substantially) it also worth watching his interview this past week that he did with Tavis Smiley on Smiley’s PBS program. On that program, he comes off as a forward-thinking artist who wants to journey outside of the box. With “Cherry Bomb,” that side of him begins to show through better than before, but he still has to find the right balance. “Cherry Bomb” isn’t an important, groundbreaking record, but it shows some potential in Tyler. Once he finds real purpose and stops doing battle with his id, he might end up being onto something. Until then, he will continue to be an alienating force without much appeal.

Focus Tracks:

“Find Your Wings” The jazz section that begins this track is glorious.

“Okaga, CA” This extended closing track shows Tyler’s psychedelic side emerging and it brings to mind a slightly less-focused answer to the experimentation heard on Childish Gambino’s 2013 album “Because The Internet.” This is particularly true on the latter half of the track.

PHOTO: Earl Sweatshirts "I Dont Like Sh*t: I Dont Go Outside: An Album By Earl Sweatshirt"
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Earl Sweatshirt’s “I Don’t Like S***, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album By Earl Sweatshirt” ****

Tyler the Creator’s fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt also released an album this week. Actually, to be more accurate, “I Don’t Like S***,” was actually released digitally near the end of March and released physically this week. It follows up the 21-year-old’s 2013 album “Doris” and shows him to be one of the most lyrically gifted and thought-provoking members of the crew.

This album’s 10 tracks clock in at under a half-hour and it proves to be a thought-provoking inward-looking journey as Earl contemplates his troubles and mourns the death of his grandmother with a glass of wine in his hand. As he discusses scuffles with the police and relationship problems on “Mantra,” he has the determination of a slam-poet.

“Grief” handles addiction and panic attacks while “DNA” reflects on mixing “a fifth of whiskey” with a “stomach full of drugs and s***.” This album overall isn’t an easy listen due to its frankness and some people who might take issue with Tyler’s album “Cherry Bomb” might also take similar issues with this record, but this is a much more focused effort with a clear point of view.

On quick tracks like “Huey,” “Off Top,” and “Inside,” he marries his nonchalant vocal tone with a flow that seems to come out of him as if it is something in dire need of being released. This album is a sparse, darkly lit exercise in rhyme and lyrical expression. This is some truly gritty material and while Earl seems to using his rhymes to work out some issues, he is emerging as one of the most interesting newer voices. This record is definitely not for everyone, but if you are up for it, it has some serious pull. This past week Kendrick Lamar tweeted that he thought Earl was one of the best rappers currently in the game. It’s easy to see why.

Focus Tracks:

“Faucet” This song’s gentle, yet scratchy beat has a smoothness that leaves an impression. Earl sounds as lost as he sounds determined as he lets all his thoughts spew across the tracks.

“Off Top” Part of this track sounds so effortlessly off-the-cuff that you wonder if it started as a tight freestyle.

"AM // Radio” (Featuring Wild) Over a sparse organ-driven beat, Earl and Wild bust inward-facing rhymes. Again, Earl’s low-key vocal tone provides nice contrast with the tightness of his flow.

PHOTO: Greg Holdens "Chase The Sun"
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Greg Holden’s “Chase The Sun” ***1/2

New York-based, British singer-songwriter Greg Holden ended up with a great deal of success by co-writing Phillip Phillips’ hit song “Home” a couple years back. This move launched him into the big leagues. If you haven’t heard his 2012 album, “I Don’t Believe You,” it is recommended listening.

“Chase The Sun” is his major-label debut, having signed to Warner Brothers. Before signing, on his indie-releases, he offered up a tender brand of folk with pop appeal. That hasn’t changed. He’s still somewhere on the scale between Damien Rice and Ed Sheeran. One’s biggest fear when one notices an artist like Holden has been picked up by a major is that his formula will be altered. Holden’s producers Greg Wells and Eric Valentine knew exactly what they were doing here since this record does not have the gloss, the sheen or the ghost of auto-tune often found on records targeted for radio. Holden is wisely left to his own devices, giving the album a refreshing feeling of authenticity even it does occasionally offer that same anthemic stomping feel that record labels like to hear in “hit” songs. But that’s just the kind of songs that Holden writes and his compositions tend to be full of heart and importance.

Holden likes to tell stories. His 2011 song “The Lost Boy” was famously used in an episode of “Sons Of Anarchy” and reached No. 2 in the Netherlands. He writes these inspirational, soaring tomes quite well, with the kind of choruses that would make even hardened, skeptical cynics want to listen.

There’s an overwhelmingly admirable sense that Holden wants his music to lead to goodness in the world. Single, “Hold On Tight” urges listeners by saying, “Don’t take your life for granted,” adding, “I’m gonna hold on tight to what I’ve been handed,” while “Give It Away” expounds on the benefits of helping others with charity while freeing one’s self of material goods. “A Wonderful World” has environmentalism built into its message. It would all sound very preachy if it didn’t sound like he truly meant every word. This sincerity means that even though this is an album thick with songs that are essentially social commentaries, the results are not as awkwardly heavy-handed as you might assume. Holden is a winning writer who understands his craft. Even though he’s mining the same terrain as many other current singer-songwriters, he’s the kind of writer and performer you want to see succeed.

Focus Tracks:

“Free Again” This admittedly sounds like the kind of song a label would possibly demand would be added to an album with its bellowing “oh-oh-oh” refrains and its catchy chorus, but it works. This possible break-up song finds Holden singing gleefully, “The chain is broken and I am free again.”

“Boys In The Street"This is a folk song about a father coming to terms with his son “kissing boys in the street.” At the beginning of the track, the father has an extremely homophobic attitude, but as the song progresses and his son gets a little older, he becomes slowly more accepting. Holden tells this story in a very moving way.

“Go Chase The Sun” This piano-led number possesses a gentle, delicate quality. It is here where the Rice comparison seems apt.

Next Week: New albums from Alabama Shakes, They Might Be Giants, Built to Spill and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from Brian Wilson, Waxahatchee, Blues Traveler and more.

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