Music Reviews: The Latest From Against Me!, Young The Giant, Mogwai and More

PHOTO: Winter Olympic gold medalist Shaun White is seen in this Aug. 21, 201 file photo taken in New York City.
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This week, we will examine the latest album from punk outfit, Against Me!, we'll go over Young The Giant's appealing second record, we'll get a lesson on instrumental atmospheres from Mogwai, hear the latest from art-rockers Warpaint, listen to snowboarder Shaun White's new band, Bad Things and review the long-awaited return of Elizabeth & The Catapult. The 2014 release schedule is finally taking off and it's time to see what is worth your time and money this week!

PHOTO: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" by Against Me!
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Against Me!'s "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" ****

In 2012, lead singer Tom Gabel announced he was transgender and was going through the process of gender-reassignment, changing his name to Laura Jane Grace. "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" is a biting, enthralling, personal record about Grace and her experiences. If you are an old-school Against Me! fan and are expecting the changes to affect the band's sound, you have nothing to worry about. They are still delivering hard-edged, heavily-charged, Clash-influenced punk. This is a 28-minute wallop of a record. No doubt, this stands as a token of Grace's bravery in accepting herself. Considering this is also one of Against Me!'s strongest albums to date, hopefully fans will embrace Grace with open arms. She stands as one of the few transgender rock stars. The fact that she is approaching the topic head-on, makes this a unique and important record.

Focus Tracks:

"Transgender Dysphoria Blues" The title track sets off the set with a punk-driven stomp. "Our tells are so obvious," Grace sings, "Shoulders too big for a girl. / Keeps you reminded, / Helps you remember where you come from." Not only is this a top-notch, full-throttle number, but it openly discusses the stigma that Grace must now encounter on a day-to-day basis from people who don't (or don't want to) understand. To say that this is a bold way to approach the elephant in the room is an understatement.

"Drinking With The Jocks" This is a hardcore ode to Grace's former life of hanging out with the boys, and trying to blend in with their masculine posturing and their casual stabs at homophobia and misogyny. This is a snarling attack track against the people who probably now are afraid to approach Grace, while at the same time, it's a eulogy for Grace's former, confused masculine self, trying to deal with feeling different on the inside. Grace shouts, "There will always be a difference between me and you!"

"Black Me Out" The album's closer is one of its most melodic numbers, but it's a kiss off to all those who don't accept Grace. It's a bold goodbye perhaps to former friends who have turned on her. Perhaps this is also inspired by fans who haven't embraced the change. In pure punk tradition, she doesn't care if you like her. She is how and who she is.

"True Trans Soul Rebel" This is a pop-driven stomper with an infectious tune about getting dressed up and "walking the streets" where Grace asks, "Does God bless your trans-sexual heart?" Like most of the rest of this album, this song is an anthem asking for acceptance, but not relying on getting it. Grace throughout the record is effectively saying, "Here I am, I hope you still will love me, but if you don't, I'm moving on."

"Dead Friend" The way this song fits in isn't openly clear since it seems to be a number about a girl who "fell in love with the boy she kissed in the casket." Whether or not there are references hidden about Grace's life within the context, this is an infectious number. In any case, this song fits because it is about endings, new beginnings, dashed hopes and new horizons. This is also a possible single and it stands as one of the record's highlights.

PHOTO: "Mind over Matter" by Young the Giant.
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Young The Giant's "Mind Over Matter" ***1/2

California's Young The Giant set off to be a bigger band on their second album, "Mind Over Matter." The production from Beck-associate Justin Meldal-Johnsen and the mixing from Rich Costey highlight the amount of vocal skill possessed by vocalist Sameer Gadhia while at the same time, making the music behind him sound slightly more homogenous. This is a record aimed firmly at radio success. Its clean sound is meant to build on the success of the band's singles, "Cough Syrup" and "My Body" from their first record. They are primed to be indie-rock's next big cross-over success, like a weird cross between Vampire Weekend and Coldplay. The fact that this production and sound-boost also kind of blurs the lines and muddles who Young The Giant ultimately are, doesn't take away from the fact that there are actually a number of strong tracks here. If this album does take off on the charts, it deserves to in a number of ways. "Mind Over Matter" is a winning record, even if in places it lacks personality or distinction. This is a record made by an extremely promising band still trying to zero in on its core.

Focus Tracks:

"Slow Dive" / "Anagram" The opening intro and second track blend into each other so well that they should be considered one continuous piece. On "Anagram," a sparse, rhythmic guitar refrain bursts into a bright chorus. Give "Anagram" a listen and if you like what you hear, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the record.

"Crystallized" "Crystallized" marries bright, loud guitars with eighties synths and an infectious chorus. This is a single and it announces itself with hand-clapping glee. It's radio-ready candy waiting to be embraced.

"Firelight" A warm, slightly alluring soft number, "Firelight" shows a more intricate, intimate side not all that different from Andrew Bird's best work. But there's a slight psychedelic edge to the winding melody. It's nice to hear the scope taken down a few notches. When the beat comes, approximately three minutes in, it just adds to the track's enveloping grasp.

"In My Home" Another bright, fuzz-filled rocker, engineered to induce cheers, "In My Home" is still an infectious, hook-driven confection. It's vaguely inspirational refrain of, "I know I was born for this. / I dreamt of it every night in my home," should win over some fans.

"Eros" This bouncy, funky number is a call-and-response gem that effectively fuses Vampire Weekend's more Afro-centric influences with the ska-flavored pop of the Police. It sounds somehow both timeless and current. Yes, it is highly polished, but it uses the sheen in its favor.

"It's About Time" This track's hard-rock posturing blossoms into a densely-woven tune upon repeated listens. It is an interesting single choice showing a different and more aggressive side of the band. Upon repetition, I can view the track as a highlight.

PHOTO: "Rave Tapes" by Mogwai.
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Mogwai's "Rave Tapes" ****

Scottish instrumentalists, Mogwai have been making records now for 17 years and they understand sonic texture like nobody's business. "Rave Tapes" is their 11th full-length album (12th if you count their 1998 remix disc) and like the rest of their work, it shows that they know when to remain lush and when to pump up the rock element. This record proves why a band of this nature (with little pop potential) still maintains a sizable fan-base of music lovers and film-score junkies alike.

Focus Tracks:

"Simon Ferocious" Sounding like an even cross between William Orbit and Explosions In The Sky, this track brings a warm electronic glow while still fully rocking. It's wonderfully fuzzy and buzzy.

"Repelish" This is one of the rare tracks with a vocal element. Drums, organs, synths and a guitar play in back of a voice talking about subliminal messages in Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven." The instruments nearly cover the spoken bit, as if to make it subliminal in itself. This track begs to be repeated in order to understand what the voice is saying behind the instrumentation.

"Heard About You Last Night" The album's opener is a ringing combination of the band's textural soundscape explorations. This is a more electronic leaning album than 2011's "Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will," and it is also a tad more subtle. Fans of chilled groups like múm and Carbon Based Lifeforms should pay close attention.

"Master Card" When Mogwai decide to rock out as they do here and on "Hexon Bogon," they prove that they can be just as enthralling when they turn up the distortion as they are when they wallow in a field of synths.

"Blues Hour" Another rare vocal track, "Blues Hour" is a piano-driven, six-minute journey in sound. Again, the approach is hushed and the sung vocals are kept at an intimate near-whisper. It's as eerie as it is alluring.

PHOTO: "Warpaint" by Warpaint
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Warpaint's "Warpaint" *1/2

Sometimes you come across a record you want to really like but you can't. Sadly, such is the case with Warpaint's second, self-titled record. The problem with the new album is that it just sits there, as if they went into the studio, without much guidance and without much material, turned on the machines and just went. There are a couple of moments of clarity, but for the most part the band members just seem woefully adrift.

A track like "Go In" tries to be alluring but just ends up sort of sluggish and tuneless, substituting effects for substance. "Disco // Very" is a groundless funk jam that gets strangely repetitive. It's a mass of girlish screams and half-singing over a disco-ish rhythm. "CC" aims to have a threatening feel, but it ends up being just a dull, droning exercise. "Biggy" takes a promising electro-groove and pairs it with a half-done vocal. It ends up too repetitive for its own good even if the groove has a bit of drive. Throughout the record, it seems like dissonance is a goal, and that can be done well. It was done well at times on "The Fool," but here the elements tend to clash more often than they maintain cohesion. At other times they are merely sitting still. This is a record that will bore you if it doesn't grab you. Considering Warpaint's potential, this is indeed a disappointment.

Focus Tracks:

"Hi" There are a couple tracks on here worth highlighting. "Hi" is given some lift from a sly beat, giving it a touch of trip-hop psychedelia that I wish had been more present on the rest of the record. The beat itself at least gives the song a much-needed backbone.

"Keep It Healthy" This is the most fully formed track on the record and the only song with an effectively catchy tune. If more of the record possessed this kind of clarity, this would be a very different review. The guitar-line is effectively intricate, with an attention to detail not heard elsewhere. It just shows that the rest of the album needed more time to bloom. Here's hoping for a rebound with album number three.

PHOTO: "Bad Things" by Bad Things.
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Bad Things' "Bad Things" ****

First thing is first. Bad Things features "The Flying Tomato," Olympian Shaun White on guitar and perhaps White's high profile helped the band secure a deal with Warner Brothers and high profile production and mixing from seasoned pros Rob Schapf and D. Sardy respectively. But, if you forget White is in the band and you just listen to the record for what it presents, it proves that Bad Things (in spite of their unimaginative name) are a pretty decent band. Lead singer, Davis LeDuke has enough flair to carry the songs and the band can deliver a strong set of tunes. They possess a bit of a power-pop edge that can carry them past their lesser peers. It makes sense stylistically bassist, Jared Palomar used to be in Augustana. He's in a better band now.

Focus Tracks:

"Caught Inside" Fans of Imagine Dragons and the Fray should listen to this well-done, anthemic creeper. It is similar to the work of both bands but far bests them. Maybe it is the winding melody or the layered, semi-shouted chorus, but this track hits all the right places.

"Lost Feeling," Garage-rocker, "Lost Feeling" with its guitar and organ blend wouldn't sound out of place on a modern equivalent of a "Nuggets" compilation. This is a go-go dancing-ready groove with a surprising level of edge.

"Vices" The album's key single, this is a mighty track which could end up being a ubiquitous rock jam if it were to get licensed in key places. This is a prime example of how you can maintain a bit of authentic coolness while still playing to the modern mainstream audiences. Here, Bad Things have found a nice balance.

"Lonely Eyes" "Lonely Eyes" sounds like it is from the early part of the last decade in the best way possible. It sounds like an even cross between the first albums by the Strokes and the Stills. I never would have thought of this appealing sound as retro, but in truth, as time goes on it has gotten to be more of a rarity.

"Say It Again" Another, key track, "Say It Again" takes the fast rhythms heard elsewhere on the record and spikes them with a spacey keyboard part. Again, fusing a garage-y sound with an arena-ready drive, the band has another winner on their hands.

PHOTO: "Like It Never Happened" by Elizabeth & The Catapult.
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Elizabeth & The Catapult's "Like It Never Happened" ****

It has been four years since Elizabeth Ziman's last album under the name Elizabeth & The Catapult but her songwriting chops haven't lost any bite. Like her impressive album, "Taller Children," "Like It Never Happened" contains some smartly-written, tightly spun tunes. If anything, this latest record sounds simultaneously looser and more sophisticated than its predecessors. As a fan of both "Taller Children" and "The Other Side Of Zero," I can safely say that this is Ziman's strongest and most confident release. It's a vital and fresh sounding record that is instantly satisfying.

Focus Tracks:

"Like It Never Happened" With its gymnastic vocal approach and its brunch-ready orchestration, the album's title track sounds effortlessly like both Jonatha Brooke and Suzanne Vega. In a mere two minutes and forty-three seconds, Ziman paints a vivid sonic picture. It's a bright, booming piece of work and it is well-produced, too. It sounds like Ziman is playing in a large room and as if every tiny bit of echo and reverb is perfectly placed. The tune is quite elastic as well, with a glowing bombastic quality.

"Shoelaces" "Shoelaces" is punkier and edgier than anything on either "Taller Children" or "The Other Side Of Zero." Always a strong songwriter, Ziman has a new sense of urgency. Everything is packing a more relentless punch than before.

"True Love Will Find You In The End" A jazzy reading of the often-covered Daniel Johnston classic, Ziman gives the song a level of stateliness Johnston probably wouldn't have anticipated when he was recording his home-made original version. It's a wonderfully sweet song.

"Please Yourself" As I have said before, throughout the record, the use of reverb and echo is taken to nearly scientific levels. "Please Yourself" is a gloriously put together piano track. It's an appealing song and it could have been given a very straight-forward reading, but Ziman and her cohorts give it the kind of echo-drenched treatment that makes you sense where the instruments might be in the room. The piano sounds so close and yet there's a keyboard part placed above it that sounds like it may be further off. As the song continues, Ziman's voice seemingly gets pushed further into the stratosphere.

"Sugar Covered Poison" This is a snarky, Broadway-ready cabaret-style romp. If you recall "Momma's Boy" from "Taller Children," this is in the same camp. This is quirky, New York songwriting at its best. (A fascinating side note: For some reason this track is not listed on the back cover of the album, but it is there.)

Next Week: We'll listen to and review new albums from Dum Dum Girls, singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell and more.

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