Ray LaMontagne, Nada Surf, Loretta Lynn and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Ray Lamontagne - "Ouroboros"
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Ray LaMontagne’s “Ouroboros” *****

Ray LaMontagne follows up his incredible 2014 psychedelic workout, “Supernova,” with an album that is equally if not more staggering in scope. “Supernova” was made with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in the production chair, while “Ouroboros” was made with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Both these records show LaMontagne stretching himself to experimental limits, which is good because as a singer-songwriter in the adult-alternative realm, this move into more ethereal and harder-edged territory keeps him from evolving into something mellow and bland. LaMontagne obviously wants to keep things fresh and he certainly does. He’s created a classic album.

The eight tracks on “Ouroboros” are for the most part, elongated jams, from the opening build of “Homecoming” through the end of “Wouldn’t It Make A Lovely Photograph.” “Hey, No Pressure” and the visceral “While It Still Beats,” LaMontagne packs a surprising amount of punch, while the airy “In My Own Way” has a lift similar to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” With this album, LaMontagne and James have created an organic album that is cinematic in scope with nods to prog-rock and hard-rock influences from the Seventies. If Rodriguez of “Searching For Sugar Man” fame went on a modern psychedelic sonic bender, it might sound something like this record.

“Ouroboros” puts mood over concerns for a hit single. The strategy works quite well. Its softer moments have a vibe similar to Beck’s “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase.” In fact, there is a clear argument here that Ray LaMontagne’s next record should probably have Beck behind the boards.

This is a wonderfully trippy album with a vintage feel. It is the kind of record that is meant to be played on vinyl. It’s the kind of record many people probably think is no longer made. This is an album that is also meant to be heard from front to back. Ray LaMontagne, in his quest to shift around his sound has made the best album of his career and the strongest album of this still young year. “Ouroboros” is a massive, moody, exciting record possessing great musical depth. It’s a marvel.

Focus Tracks:

“Hey, No Pressure” This song is a sleazy bluesy workout of the best sort. Had this topped the charts in 1976, it would be a classic-rock staple today. The woozy b-section of the song just adds another appealing layer.

“While It Still Beats” This track is a remarkably sludgy piece of work, with a psychedelic energy that sounds like an angry, grungier answer to the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song (Theme From ‘Head.’)”

“Another Day” At three minutes, this is the set’s shortest track. It is also one of the album’s mellowest moments, giving LaMontagne a chance to show off some intricately paisley-hued harmonies, while at the same time slightly recalling the haunting majesty of his 2006 album, “Till The Sun Turns Black.”

PHOTO: Nada Surf - "You Know Who You Are"
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Nada Surf’s “You Know Who You Are” ****

Twenty years after their full-length debut, “High/Low,” Brooklyn’s Nada Surf are still going strong. Their eighth studio album follows up last year’s must-hear live set, “Live At The Neptune Theatre” and 2012’s excellent, “The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy.” While that last studio record found them in more of a rocking mood, “You Know Who You Are,” finds them for the most part returning to the gentler, more inward-looking trilogy of “Let Go,” “The Weight Is A Gift” and “Lucky.” Like those albums, this album has some strong rockers as well, but there’s a soft subtlety to this set overall that has become the band’s sweet-spot.

This is also one of the band’s most subtle offerings to date. Opening single, “Cold To See Clear” is an amazing song that volleys from a gentle lullaby to a pounding charger but like the rest of this album it takes a few listens for its gifts to really shine through. Similarly, “Believe You’re Mine,” “Rushing” and the Autumn de Wilde-inspired “Friend Hospital,” all deserve a few spins. This is a thoughtful rock album for grown-ups and yet singer Matthew Caws still maintains the themes of uneasiness that he’s been working with since “The Proximity Effect,” back in 2000. You’d be hard-pressed to find a lyricist more adept at finding lyrical beauty in everyday nervousness surrounding mundane existence. This is a world full of relationships that didn’t work out in quite the expected way explored with deep introspection.

While “The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy” was their loudest and most assertive set since “The Proximity Effect,” this album is once again awash with a mournful sense of tragic beauty. Sure, “New Bird” and the title-track add a dose of upbeat fire to the mix, but they are outliers on the set. Nada Surf remain an emo band in the best sense. “You Know Who You Are” needs a few spins to grow on you, but it shows that two decades after “Popular” became an MTV staple, Nada Surf are still one of the smartest and most gifted bands working in indie rock today. This is an album that deserves real airplay. This is a critically-acclaimed, worthy band that deserves much more radio play than they receive.

Focus Tracks:

“Cold To See Clear” There’s a vaguely “Pet Sounds”-like quality to this song during its quiet portions whereas when it pumps up during the chorus, it really pummels, while keeping its sensitivity intact. This is Nada Surf’s version of the “loud/quiet/loud” formula.

“You Know Who You Are” This song begins with a vicious rumble but then quickly becomes a grungy slice of jangle-pop. This should be one of the album’s key singles.

“Believe You’re Mind” Like earlier career standouts “80 Windows” and “Killian’s Red,” this song has a drifting sense of introspective sadness.

PHOTO: Loretta Lynn - "Full Circle"
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Loretta Lynn’s “Full Circle” ****

Loretta Lynn’s last album was her collaboration with Jack White, “Van Lear Rose” in 2004. That album should be mandatory listening because it is unlike any other album ever recorded in history. It essentially sounds like Lynn fronting a more country-centric version of The White Stripes. (I kid you not.)

“Full Circle” on the other hand is a record which finds Lynn, now 83, going back to her roots. The fact that it begins with a new version of “Whispering Sea,” which she says at the start of the record was the first song she ever wrote, speaks volumes. Along the way, she explores classic tunes by the likes of A.P. Carter, and other classic figures. She covers the Willie Nelson-popularized “Always On My Mind,” and even brings Nelson in to sing the Mark Marchetti-penned “Lay Me Down.” Essentially this is a country record full of the kind of classic country most makers of what now passes for “country music” would apparently like to forget. This is real country and not the watered-down twang-y pop that comes out of Nashville now.

There are some nice surprises as well. She covers the traditional version of “In The Pines,” which served as part of the basic backdrop of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” That song as you will remember took on new life when Nirvana’s version closed their episode of “MTV Unplugged.” No doubt this is probably the only time in history Loretta Lynn and Kurt Cobain will adjacently cross paths in song.

Also, Elvis Costello shows up to sing harmony on the Lynn and Todd Snider original, “Everything It Takes.” Costello has always had an interesting fascination with classic country. It’s a fascination that has been a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to his own country-tinged output, but the fact that he’s here, proves his instincts are on point.

Fifty-three years since her debut album, Loretta Lynn still has that distinctly powerful voice. She is still every bit that “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Her voice shows little to no sign of age and she sounds like she’s happy to be singing, especially when she reaches a high-note.

“Full Circle,” isn’t an ear-catching, fascinating oddity like “Van Lear Rose.” It is Loretta Lynn returning to her roots and doing what made her famous. It mixes old classics and newer songs but it has an old feel. It is instantly vintage in the best way. Loretta Lynn still shows herself to be a country legend.

Focus Tracks:

“In The Pines” I’m sure there will be a lot of listeners who without my explanation of the Cobain and Leadbelly connection would have been wondering why this track sounds so familiar.

“Always On My Mind” This hit for Willie Nelson was famously covered in the eighties by the Pet Shop Boys. Lynn brings it back to country terrain.

“Whispering Sea” As she says in the intro, this song was written because she was fishing. Knowing this song’s genesis gives us an interesting insight into Lynn’s songwriting process.

PHOTO: Violent Femmes - "We Can Do Anything"
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Violent Femmes’ “We Can Do Anything” ***1/2

“We Can Do Anything” is the first Violent Femmes album since 2000’s excellent but largely ignored album, “Freak Magnet.” Things haven’t been easy for the Femmes. In 2007, bassist Brian Ritchie sued leader Gordon Gano after he approved the use of their classic, “Blister In The Sun” in a Wendy’s commercial. Thankfully, Ritchie and Gano have made peace since and have resurrected their band.

It’s hard to believe, but it has been 34 years since their landmark debut album give us classics like “Blister In The Sun,” “Add It Up” and “Gone Daddy Gone,” and “We Can Do Anything” acts almost like a new beginning, drawing very much from the bratty acoustic punk sound that made them famous. Thankfully Gano’s voice hasn’t changed one bit so he can still pull off that signature, petulant, semi-adolescent whine. At 10 tracks and a mere half-hour, this record is shockingly slight, but at the same time, it is obvious that they are working on getting their feet wet again after a time of strife and inactivity.

This is an appealing record that is full of short, fun, often silly songs. There are no long, drawn out ballads here. This album is more for fans of “Blister In The Sun” or later standouts like “American Music,” than it is for fans of more solemn numbers like “Country Death Song.”

From the very beginning of the record, “Memory” sounds like it is in a familiar vein while the band can even pull off something as ridiculous as “I Can Do Anything,” which tells the story of a dragon-slayer named Bongo. On “Holy Ghost,” Gano somehow seems to summon the ghost of Lou Reed, while “What You Really Mean” is gentle and strangely lovely even if it is occasionally delivered with a winking snarkiness.

The album isn’t without its half-baked points. “Foothills” seems a little slapdash and “Big Car” is a bit of an empty exercise which sounds like several other better songs from their back catalog.

Still, “We Can Do Anything” is a firm restatement and a rebirth from one of the eighties’ brightest and silliest alternative rock bands. There’s something endearingly timeless about this band’s music. It’s really nice to see that they haven’t mellowed in the least and still maintain their signature brand of likable silliness. While their debut is easily the most celebrated album in their discography, this album should serve as a reminder that through the years they have delivered somewhat steady output worth examining. This may be their first album in 16 years, but it thankfully seems like no time has passed. Hopefully there will be more new music from them in the near future.

Focus Tracks:

“Issues” I love what this song’s main riff does with its rhythm. It exudes the quirky sound that the Violent Femmes helped invent. This is almost in the same vein as They Might Be Giants. In fact, They Might Be Giants could probably do a pretty excellent cover if given the chance.

“What You Really Mean” This is a softly beautiful piece which shows the band’s gentler side.

“Memory” This is a perfect beginning for this record. It feels very much in the vein of the Femmes’ classic output.

PHOTO: Lapsley - "Long Way Home"
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Låpsley’s “Long Way Home” ****1/2

It is evident from the first listen of the debut full-length from British singer, Låpsley that she fits right in with the XL Recordings family. It also sounds like XL head Richard Russell is trying to repeat the success he had with Adele. Låpsley has a different kind of voice than Adele but a similar stately elegance. At the same time, she is almost like an edgier alternative since she combines that Adele-like core with the spacey electro influence of FKA twigs and the chilled jazzy tone of Ibeyi. All of these artists have ties to XL, so in other words, Låpsley is like a perfect storm.

The way she has used technology here is really interesting as well. The whole record has a chilled pop vibe as if to soundtrack sleek cocktail parties. Her vocals are sometimes cut up and spliced together and occasionally she pitch-shifts a second vocal line so she can call and respond with herself in space-age duets. This effect actually works beautifully on the song “Station,” where the lower, pitch-shifted voice takes over and gets the most moving part of the song. There’s something oddly beautiful about the way this sounds. Usually pitch-shifted voices end up sounding druggy and disorienting, especially in a club context. The way Låpsley uses them, she has been able to create multiple parts and multiple voices to create subtle layers in her songs.

Like most albums from XL, this album has an appeal in its sonic minimalism. While “Heartless” and “Hurt Me,” for instance could get play in the same realm as The Weeknd or ….er…Bieber’s “Sorry,” there is a subtly intriguing bareness. Nothing sounds over done or overproduced and this is pretty incredible considering how many synthetic electronic elements are present on the album. Somehow even with the glowing, electro sheen, this album still sounds strangely natural.

“Long Way Home” is destined to be one of 2016’s best and edgiest pop statements. That being said, this is the kind of record that often gets massively popular in the UK and tends to not get as much attention States-side. Whether or not this album gets the exposure it deserves, chilled pop has found a new star in Låpsley. This album deserves to be a sleeper hit.

Focus Tracks:

“Hurt Me” This is an airy ode to impending heartbreak. Again one can imagine this electro-fueled ballad becoming a massive smash if given the right audience.

“Station” The pitch-shifted voices and the sounds that sound like a mixture between a dog-bark and a plastic straw being adjusted create an alienating feeling and yet, this song is still remarkably gentle and lush.

“Painter” This is a hushes lullaby full of subtle romanticism. It does nice work with vocal layering and the music box synths add an appealing component to the mix.

PHOTO: Miike Snow - "iii"
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Miike Snow’s “iii” ***

Miike Snow is the Swedish production duo Bloodshy & Avant (Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg) paired with American singer, Andrew Wyatt. Bloodshy & Avant made their names producing and co-writing a number of pop hits including Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” As Miike Snow, with Wyatt’s help they have been allowed to indulge their edgier instincts. As the title, “iii,” would suggest, this is their third offering together.

Wyatt often sings in a high, almost possessed falsetto. This album, while more accessible than their last, still has an unnerving, almost eerie quality which stems from Wyatt’s style of delivery. This is however an upbeat album. Opener, “My Trigger,” is a happy, retro-disco-groove, while “Genghis Khan” borrows a stereotypical snake-charming melody and pairs it with a hip-hop ready beat.

Charli XCX shows up on the very busy but oddly fascinating, “For U,” while Run The Jewels add verses to the digital-only bonus remixed version of “Heart Is Full.” “I Feel The Weight” finds the group in sensitive ballad mode while “Back Of The Car” makes the most of a pounded piano loop.

As with the other Miike Snow records, this album delivers a freakier, more experimental take on the sound that made Bloodshy & Avant famous. It is worth recommending for the risks it takes and it has a lot of stunning moments. At the same time, there is something woozy and off-putting about it, as if they are thriving on a somewhat creepy energy. I suppose that is the point. If you want to hear the sound of modern pop being thrown into a semi-psychedelic whirlwind, “iii” will deliver. The music of Miike Snow often sounds like the evil twin of Bloodshy & Avant’s work with other artists.

Focus Tracks:

“For U” (Featuring Charli XCX) Considering Charli XCX was on the Santigold album last week, she is proving to be an excellent guest-artist and this is a freaky party jam that makes some excellent use of her guest vocals as she handles the choruses next to Wyatt’s verses.

“Heart Is Full” This is among the most traditional sounding tracks on the album as Wyatt works a sample-heavy groove that at points brings to mind BLACKstreet’s “No Diggity.” This might be the trio’s last strange song to date.

“I Feel The Weight” This song is wonderfully airy. The glitchy auto-tune effects on Wyatt’s voice will probably annoy some, but this song is quite effectively melodic.

Next Week: New music from Pete Yorn, Lucius and more.

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