This week singer-songwriter Pete Yorn releases his first solo album since 2010, indie-rockers Lucius deliver their sophomore effort, the late Jeff Buckley’s first recordings for Columbia see release, They Might Be Giants drop their third studio album in a year, The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon goes solo and 19-year-old Norwegian singer Aurora makes her debut. It is quite a week for new releases.
|Pete Yorn’s “ArrangingTime” ***1/2|
Pete Yorn’s first proper solo record in six years is his glossiest release to date. Immediately it is evident that this album (which is also his debut for Capitol Records) is intended to be a fully-realized crossover record. Between the many vocal effects heard throughout the record, the electronic beats and the heavy compression heard in spots, this album is meant to move Yorn beyond his standing as an adult-alternative darling. It has a good chance of succeeding.
The vocal effects on the more electronically polished tracks might get on the nerves of some fans. On “I’m Not The One” and “Summer Was A Day,” you are kind of left wondering if Yorn used the Beastie Boys’ fuzzy “Ill Communication” mic techniques as a starting template. “Lost Weekend” has the same feeling as well. However, that track is a bit of a disappointment. It has giant build, as if begging for something melodic, but all Yorn does with it is repeat his “straight out of suburbia” refrain in a deadpan fashion. It seems like a missed opportunity.
A better first single would have been the album’s closer, “This Fire,” which shows Yorn working at his songwriting peak. Like a handful of other tracks here, this song re-teams Yorn with R. Walt Vincent, with whom he made a number of remarkable records, including his classic debut, “Musicforthemorningafter” in 2001. This album feels like a new beginning in a way, partly because Yorn has been away for so long but lacks the eclecticism of his debut. I have a feeling this record is more likely to go down like his second album, “Day I Forgot,” an album which had some gems that saw their true realization later on Yorn’s live album, “Live From New Jersey.” Some of the songs here are muted by the studio effects.
Nevertheless, “ArrangingTime” shows a lot of what made Yorn succeed in the first place. When all systems are firing he can craft some really great tunes. This album may be a little below his best work but his intentions are definitely clear.
When he appeared back in 2001, I viewed him as an amalgam of the grunge era. He was part Evan Dando, part Eddie Vedder, part Stephen Malkmus and part J Mascis all rolled into one guy. Here, with the polish and his continuing growth as an artist, Yorn has pretty much shed those influences.
Let’s hope the strategy works and that “ArrangingTime” widens Yorn’s audience.
“This Fire” This is an epic, building ballad. Yorn gets some great lyrics in here that work well with the backdrop and all the surrounding elements. The concept of “killing yourself in slow motion” is something that sticks, especially when paired with the ethereal, slowly-drifting piano-line and the emergence of the kicking drum. This is one of Yorn’s best songs to date.
“Halifax” This is vintage Yorn. This hits the sweet spot hit by most of his singles up until this point.
“She Was Weird” This is one of the more successful tracks that uses technology to its benefit. It’s got a nice danceable rise that makes it ready for pop radio and the spacey keyboards add a dynamic sense of texture. This, too would have made a better single than “Lost Weekend.” It mines the same territory with greater success.
|Lucius’ “Good Grief” ***1/2|
On their follow-up to their 2013 debut, “Wildewoman,” Lucius deliver a challenging, quirky and aggressively theatrical set. “Good Grief” at times borders on being a bit garish and outrageous. The freak-out for instance at the end of “Gone Insane” can be a bit much and this album lacks a gently beautiful anthem to match the “Wildewoman” standout, “Until We Get There,” but leaders Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig still present their own sparky sense of unique showmanship. This is a bright and bouncy, new-wave-infused party. It may not have the high points of their debut, but it is an album brimming with the confidence of a band fully comfortable with the sound of their second record. This is not a slump after a triumph. It is growth.
Interestingly, the album is sequenced a little strangely. The single, “Born Again Teen,” with its '80s-flavored alternative flares is placed all the way at track nine. It would have made for a great opener. Similarly, track 10, “Better Look Back” would have fit at track two. Conversely, the slow-building opener, “Madness,” would have fit well towards the end of the record. I wouldn’t say the album is back-loaded, because throughout, quality-wise it is pretty consistent, but some fascinating choices have been made here than definitely go against the typical grain.
One gets the feeling that Wolfe and Laessig constantly want to challenge their audience. These songs are sugar-coated, but they often take some strangely exciting left turns. The fact that the two singers have chosen to twin each other in their appearance and often sing in unison also makes this a more interesting (and bizarre) presentation. If you’ve seen them perform live, it can be over the top, but that’s the idea. This is boisterous indie-pop taken to boomingly cartoonish diva levels. It makes the album a lot of fun if you are up for the ride and polarizing if you aren’t.
“Good Grief,” like its predecessor, shows Lucius to be an eccentric and gifted band. Both Wolfe and Laessig have exceptionally strong voices.
There is plenty of pop-crossover potential here. “Something About You,” for instance, seems like it could fit on pop radio even if the spacey synth solo near the beginning might scare a few people. But then again, maybe that’s the goal. Lucius are in a way delivering a fun-house mirror version of modern pop song-craft.
“Born Again Teen” This is a really spacey, freaky jam that is likely to be licensed in a number of places. In certain circles, this will also be a real party-starter.
“Better Look Back” This is another single-ready track that has the sort of joyous melodic twisting one usually finds on records by the New Pornographers. This song has a very soulful undertone as well.
“My Heart Got Caught On Your Sleeve” The first half of the record has almost a Broadway-ready quality in places. This softly-affecting ballad sounds like it should score a heartbreaking scene in a musical.
|Jeff Buckley’s “You And I” ***|
“You And I” is the latest Jeff Buckley archival release lovingly overseen and compiled by the singer’s mother, Mary Guibert. When Buckley drowned in 1997, he was in the midst of recording what would be his second proper studio record. The album was supposed to be his follow-up to his landmark debut, “Grace” and what he recorded ended up being released the following year as “Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk.” In the years since, Buckley’s legend has only grown. He was only 30 when he left this world, and his high, beautifully clear voice had an extremely unique vibrato in spots. As a writer he was soulful, but he was equally gifted as an interpreter as his famous cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” showed.
The tracks on “You And I” are essentially demos recorded just at the point when Buckley signed to Columbia. These songs are mostly covers and extremely stripped down in nature, giving us probably a close approximation of what it might have been like to see Buckley play an acoustic show in a coffee house or a café. There’s a looseness here, but at the same time, there’s something very bare, raw and unfinished about these recordings.
Buckley’s gifts as singer and a guitarist are firmly on display and yet at the same time, this album feels remarkably stark. When he belts out the chorus to Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” the lift and volume he presents feels like a breath of fresh air when contrasted with the song’s quiet build-up. This is a very sedate and subtle collection, but there are deep layers if you know where to look.
The jazzy textures and accents hidden in Buckley’s vocal performance of the Louis Jordan-popularized, “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying,” truly show the magnitude of his vocal skill and yet he remains at a somewhat conversational level. His version of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” is a kind of reinvention in the vein of his “Hallelujah” interpretation.
He covers Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight” and he covers the Smiths twice, handling both “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” and “I Know It’s Over.” But only on the blues standard “Poor Boy Long Way From Home,” does he really let it rip.
This album also only has two originals. One is a stripped down version of the title-track of “Grace,” the other is the mostly spoken-word “Dream Of You And I.”
This album makes the best of what it delivers but it remains a collection for super-fans only to fill in some gaps. Essentially what this record does is further cement the feeling of loss in Buckley’s absence. He was brimming with talent. He had an otherworldly sense about him when he performed. He had a great career ahead of him, but he was taken away too soon, thus leaving a puzzle for his loved ones and his fans to piece together only to guess what might have been.
Focus Tracks: “Everyday People” Again, the way Buckley sings that chorus gives this classic a real lift.
“Night Flight” Covering Zeppelin alone in an acoustic context can be a challenging task, but Buckley was definitely up to the task and delivers some challenging guitar-work as well. At points he unsurprisingly manages to summon a Robert Plant-style wail.
“Poor Boy Long Way From Home” This is an intriguing bit of blues with some nice slide-work. Again, here his guitar-skills shine as brightly as his vocal work.
|They Might Be Giants' “Phone Power” ****|
They Might Be Giants are in the midst of a creative renaissance. I’m not kidding! Three decades since their debut, they have just dropped their third studio album within less than a span of a year, with the release of “Phone Power,” which dropped as a “pay what you want” download on their website late last week. (There is also a physical option.) Last year’s “Glean” was a career high-point and that was followed up in December by a stellar kids’ album, “Why?”
“Phone Power,” like “Glean,” takes its roots from the newly restarted “Dial-A-Song” project. In the '80s and '90s, They Might Be Giants maintained a 718 number in Brooklyn that routed listeners to an answering machine and would play a different song every day. The new “Dial-A-Song” is Internet-based with a new song each week. “Phone Power,” appears for the most part to take its material from there. But John Linnell and John Flansburgh aren’t just throwing these songs together. There are some really well-constructed songs here. “I Love You For Psychological Reasons” and “Sold My Mind To The Kremlin” are gleaming, bright slices of power-pop with the duo’s razor-sharp, highly intellectual wit intact. Even purposely lo-fi experiments like the hip-hop influenced “Got Getting Up So Down” work quite well.
Not only does this album deliver a strong set of originals but it also includes the band’s radically reinvented, chugging, rock rendition of Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” which shouldn’t in principal work for a number of reasons but it does. The fact that Flansburgh changes the word “scrub” to “squirrel” is worth its own small chuckle. This was a song they originally did for the A.V. Club’s “A.V. Undercover Series.” (They previously put their excellent “Undercover” take on Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” on their 2011 compilation album, “Album Raises New And Troubling Questions.”
Let’s be frank. You don’t often see bands pass the thirty year mark and still maintain their original precision. As time goes on, Linnell and Flansburgh not only continue to build on what they started, they appear to still be getting more confident with every release.
MTV may not be playing their wacky videos anymore but with offbeat and humorously biting songs like “I Am Alone” and “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” it appears that the well-spring of creativity and silliness has a long way to go before it dries up.
They Might Be Giants are one of the greatest and most accomplished bands to come out of the “alternative” movement of the eighties and nineties. In 2016, in the midst of such a prolific spurt, it is nice to know that not much has changed and they are still very much at a peak.
“Bills, Bills Bills” As stated above, this goes against common sense but they give this song a really crunchy makeover with great success.
“Sold My Mind To The Kremlin” This is some madcap insanity at its best. It is really ridiculous stuff but it is truly excellent.
"It Said Something” Like 1992’s “The Statue Got Me High,” this is a great power-pop song about a mysterious outside power doing something odd. This is a thread in They Might Be Giants’ work. This song hits a high point when Flansburgh gets to sing the line “Set the monkeys free,” in the background.
|Brian Fallon’s “Painkillers” **|
The debut solo album from the lead singer of New Jersey’s own Gaslight Anthem suffers from the same problem as much of that band’s discography. “Painkillers” is full of heavy-handed and often forgettable songs that make Fallon sound like he was left in a room with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” for the entirety of his childhood.
That gruff delivery and those earnest songs with the “we have to get out of here” kind of world-weary tone scream like the work of a third-rate Springsteen tribute band. It isn’t like everything he has borrowed is from Bruce. “Steve McQueen” has echoes of early Dylan and “Mojo Hand” borrows a hint of Paul Westerberg, but “A Wonderful Life” sounds very much like an imitation of the boss as does the majority of the album.
The funny thing is, on The Gaslight Anthem’s last record, 2014’s “Get Hurt,” they were finally beginning to shed these influences that they wore like an albatross. They were finally heading towards their own unique sound. “Painkillers” then seems like a step backwards.
In wearing his influences so firmly on his sleeve, Brian Fallon doesn’t distinguish himself from the faceless troubadours you can hear play weekly at just about every open mic in New Jersey or New York. The sad thing is, he’s got potential. With different arrangements that don’t aim to deliver carbon-copies of his heroes, some of these songs may distinguish themselves. Brian Fallon may be playing to a core base of people in New Jersey, but he is a singer-songwriter who still needs to find his own voice. In the meantime, an album like “Painkillers” is derivative to the point of distraction.
“Steve McQueen” This is probably the best-written song on the record, with its catchy refrain of “British racing green.” Sure, it’s a clunky song about horse-racing, but it has its charms.
“Honey Magnolia” This song switches it up by being a piano ballad. Again, it still has that world-weary balladeer quality, but as a song it has a bit of promise.
|Aurora’s “All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend” (Deluxe Edition) ****|
The debut from 19-year-old Norwegian singer Aurora is a sonically chilled but vocally warm collection. Aurora is obviously taking her cues from everyone from Bjork to Imogen Heap and Kate Havnevik, but she has songs with an almost-classical-like sense of melodic intricacy. Opener, “Runaway,” for instance is a tremendously sweeping piece that makes most other pop sound playfully simple. Aurora’s voice, too, has a likable quality. It verges on the pixie-like delivery of Ellie Goulding, but when the choruses come around, she takes to opportunity to show her vocal prowess with often booming refrains.
“All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend” is an intelligent and well-written pop record that establishes Aurora as an emerging talent. “Running With The Wolves” and “Warrior” should both be a hits if they get the attention of the right people while “Winter Bird,” has a bewitching hypnotic quality. Fans of Florence + The Machine and Jesca Hoop will probably like this album a great deal, but Aurora is anything but derivative. She’s got her own unique spin, which means that she is distinguishing herself beyond these possible influences.
She often pairs elements of beauty with dark subjects. “Murder Song (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)” and “Under The Water” are both prime examples. That underlying willingness to explore areas that are sometimes not easy for causal listeners to digest gives her an appealing edge.
This album is pretty, strangely haunting and welcoming all at once. Aurora’s music is nuanced and compelling. “All My Demons Greet Me As A Friend” is a remarkably assured debut. If she continues at this pace, she will have an extremely rewarding career.
The deluxe version features a few acoustic versions, one original not found on the record and covers of both Oasis’ “Half The World Away” and the Nat “King” Cole-popularized classic, “Nature Boy.” All of these tracks positively add to the album.
“Warrior” This song needs to be a hit and has huge potential. Again, the Jesca Hoop comparison strangely holds, although this also sounds like it could have been in a “Hunger Games” movie as well. I suppose that speaks well for its licensing potential.
“Runaway” What a beautiful opening to this album. Even with its synths and subtle drum-machines, it still sounds vaguely orchestral. It also sounds like it is ready for a great a cappella interpretation.
“Running With The Wolves” If Fever Ray (or the Knife for that matter) explored more accessible material with gusto, the results might sound something like this track.
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