This week we listen to the latest from alt-rock band Dum Dum Girls, singer-songwriting legend David Crosby, New Jersey roots-rockers Gaslight Anthem, underground quirky chanteuse Eleni Mandell and the latest solo record from the Indigo Girl Amy Ray. There's a wide selection as always and it's time to dig into the latest sounds.
|Dum Dum Girls' "Too True" ****|
With each successive release, Dum Dum Girls' leader, Dee Dee, drifts further and further away from the tinny, garage-driven roots set down by her 2010 debut, "I Will Be." Since that album, she has found a strong ally in Richard Gottehrer, a music industry legend who helped co-found Sire records and co-wrote classic hits like "I Want Candy" and "Hang On Sloopy."
Dee Dee and Wagner play all the instruments on the record, which is surprising considering that in the live set-up Dee Dee fronts a full band. Why the full band doesn't play on the record is a mystery considering the fact that they put on an excellent live show.
The overall sound of this record furthers Dee Dee's unlikely progression to clean-sounding alt-pop. This is an airy, almost gothy sounding record. It is low on the kind of fuzz that punctuated earlier releases. Sure, there might be a guitar outburst from time to time, but walls of static are replaced with an echo-drenched, pristine backdrop. This album owes a lot more to bands like Love and Rockets, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure than it does to previous influence, The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Each album or EP Dee Dee has released under the Dum Dum Girls' moniker over the last four years has been remarkably different from the last, while still sounding like a product from the same band. This is the fifth Sub Pop release the band has issued in four years. As one of the label's strongest acts, they continue to show great promise.
"Trouble Is My Name" The album's closer is the successor to "Lord Knows," the infectious single from their last release, "End Of Daze." Like that song, it is a bright, simple, catchy classic. Dee Dee is obviously from the school of songwriting that her producer helped create. Straight-forward hooks lead to indelible melodies and as this slowly drifting song embraces you, she repeats the words "Trouble is my name. Is it your name, too?" Her voice is welcoming and clear and yet, you fully believe her assertion. It's the longest song on the disc at 4:02 and yet as it fades out, there's a feeling that the track deserves to play for another two and half minutes.
"In The Wake Of You" A key rock track on the record, this opener of the album's second half sounds somehow cheerily ominous. The cleaned-up production over the years has meant that Dee Dee's strong and uniquely toned voice has become more of the center focus. Here, the guitars swell and she sings at a conversational volume, but her honey-soaked singing never gets lost in the mix.
"Too True To Be Good" This song helped the album get its title and it is an infectious builder anchored by a persistent "funky-drummer" style beat. This is a slice of danceable dream-pop.
"Lost Boys & Girls Club" This is the album's actual first single and it sounds '80s pop rock with some psychedelic touches. Think of a slower, woozier companion to the Bangles' "In Your Room" and you are getting close to this song's blueprint.
"Evil Blooms" Melodically speaking, this song sounds a lot like the Strokes' "Soma" during its verse section. But Dee Dee allows it to blossom into its own electro-surf-rock confection. It becomes an ethereal wash of vocal harmonies at the chorus and possesses a bridge that takes it into a new and surprisingly fresh direction.
|David Crosby's "Croz" **1/2|
It's hard to believe that "Croz" is David Crosby's first solo record in more than 20 years. It's not like the man hasn't kept busy, with various reformations of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and his side band, CPR. He definitely hasn't faded into the background as the years have progressed. At its best, "Croz" shows its author in peak form. He still possesses quite a vocal instrument and when he's handling a strong melody, he nails it. But the highlights stand out like sore thumbs. When he doesn't grasp onto a hook, Crosby can be deadly and sedate. The less melodic tracks here don't lack ambition, so they still have strong musicianship, but without a driving hook, Crosby's voice can get lost in the jumble. Of the 11 tracks, only four really connect and leave a lasting impression. The rest of the album fades into a sleepy oblivion.
Crosby's main collaborator here is his son James Raymond. Considering that Raymond was placed for adoption in 1962, only to reconnect with Crosby later, perhaps their enduring relationship and lasting bond is a more interesting aspect to this album than any of the songs it contains.
"What's Broken" The album's opener is one of the album's strongest tracks. Written by Raymond, it has a kind of complexity only hinted at on the rest of the record. The orchestration is tight, complementing the melancholy tone of the track. As Crosby's voice swells in the chorus, one is reminded of his work with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
"Radio" Similarly, "Radio" stands out from the rest of the pack with its highly appealing chorus. This is the album's brightest sounding track. It's about saving someone from the sea in the middle of a storm. This song was written by Crosby and Raymond, and it plays extremely well.
"Dangerous Night" This track takes forever to build, but once it does, its chorus provides a nice, harmonious crescendo. Again like "Radio," the song's lyrics have a symbolically redemptive and pensive quality.
"Find A Heart" Another song about redemption, rebirth and water. The track has a slightly Latin-infused, syncopated beat and a soprano saxophone solo that works well with the rest of the song. However, it's Raymond's Fender Rhodes solo as the track heads to a jazzy breakdown that serves as the true highlight.
|The Gaslight Anthem's "The B-Sides" *1/2|
Like any good Jersey boys, the Gaslight Anthem obviously grew up loving Bruce Springsteen. They have built a career out of repurposing the Boss's blueprint into their brand, a punk-flavored bar-band rock. The swagger is there, but often they lack the gravitas to pull off such a bold move. Sure, their albums warrant their existence with a song or two each, but for the most part, they don't bring much new to the table.
This week they released a collection of B-sides and as you would guess, their leftovers suffer from the same problems. In addition, we get a few stray covers. Their take on Pearl Jam's classic, "State Of Love And Trust," isn't just terrible, it's downright atrocious. Similarly, their cover of the Rolling Stones' "Tumbling Dice" makes them sound like the warm-up band at a roadhouse. Their cover of Fake Problems' track "Songs For Teenagers" tries to conjure up the desolate homespun angst of "Nebraska," and yet it lacks intriguing drive of the original. Really, this collection is for diehard fans -- and diehard fans only. Four albums and one compilation into their career, the Gaslight Anthem still sound remarkably amateurish.
"The '59 Sound" (Acoustic) This acoustic take of the title track to their 2008 album offers up one of the collection's few bits of fresh air. Stripped down to its essence, this track becomes the kind of well-worn North-East folk that wouldn't sound that out of place on the soundtrack to "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"Great Expectations" (Acoustic) The album's only other key highlight is also an acoustic take on a previously recorded song from that same album. Really, they do their best work when singer Brian Fallon takes down his Springsteen bellow and just focuses on delivering a moving performance. This is an interesting song, at least. The band members have the songwriting chops in them when they focus, but their overall lack of a unique identity still stands as a main problem.
|Eleni Mandell's "Let's Fly A Kite" ****|
Eleni Mandell has established herself over the last 15 years as one of the quirkiest, smartest songwriters out there, building off of older traditions while blending elements of cabaret, country, alt-rock and folk. Her legend continues to grow on her ninth album, "Let's Fly A Kite."
"Let's Fly A Kite" is a quirky, upbeat, mostly country-tinged affair. It has a bright tone, akin to her 2004 album, "Afternoon." Through it all, though, Mandell maintains an almost tongue-in-cheek chanteusy tone. Her winking quality has always added depth to her work rather than detracted from it. She's always been the vaguely seductive jokester in the corner, examining life from a glorified classic perspective. Even though she may not be the biggest name around, with this record, she has continued her unceasing stream of excellent releases.
"Little Joy" "Little Joy" makes the most out of a country-styled verse section and a chorus punctuated by a horn section and a driving beat. The sitar and woodwind solos heard from the 1:40 to the 2:00 mark sound like they would fit perfectly in a Wes Anderson movie.
"Like Dreamers Do" Anchored by a tin-pan-alley beat and a dusty-sounding saxophone, "Like Dreamers Do" lyrically mentions the album's title. Nothing about the track reads 2014. It sounds more like a pre-rock standard. The piano and guitar solos even sound like they are from a distant time. Within this context, Mandell's clear voice shines.
"Wedding Ring" "Wedding Ring" is about a woman looking for a husband and finding nothing but losers. Mandell sings, "I've got a talker on the line, says he wants a wreck to own." It's darkly humorous as it pokes fun at our cultural obsession with marriage while simultaneously Mandell sings, "I am the catch, so who wants to catch me?"
"The Man Who's Always Lost" This Mariachi-flavored track is a winner with its aimless protagonist who seems rootless and groundless as he pines for a time when his life was simpler.
"Maybe Yes" This is actually a song about the use of the word "maybe" and how indecisive it is by its nature. Put in the context of a love triangle, it gets even more intriguing. Mandell may be the only person out there who can get away with lines like, "Maybe doesn't turn me on/ Maybe's not filet mignon."
|Amy Ray's "Goodnight Tender" ***1/2|
Indigo Girl, Amy Ray has quietly released a stream of solo records over the last decade or so. "Goodnight Tender" is her fifth studio album under her own name and it may surprise people that this is virtually a straight-forward country record. Her low rasp seems rightfully suited for expressively downtrodden numbers. This Georgia native lets her Southern roots shine in this set of well-written and well-delivered tunes. It's an old-style record from a homespun traditionalist perspective. This isn't glossy Nashville music. This is singer-songwriter craft taken to its earthy roots.
"Oyster And Pearl" There is a world-weary drawl that Ray brings to the powerful "Oyster And Pearl." In addition, a fat organ sound adds depth to the track.
"Duane Allman" That's right! Ray has written a down-home anthem in admiration of the late Duane Allman, declaring, "No one could play like Duane!"
"Broken Record" This snowy lament feels both desolate and soulful as Ray sings, "Can you get here before it's melted and can you listen to this broken record again?" The song is packed with lovelorn angst.
"Anyhow" Ray is half-speaking throughout most of this song. This is real banjo-picking fun for country purists. Ray's narrative style draws her listeners into her stories when she talks about her pain and hardships while choosing to "thank the lord, anyhow."
Next week: We have another batch of releases anchored by Danger Mouse and James Mercer's new Broken Bells album.