Record Release Rundown: The Latest From EMA, OFF!, Patton Oswalt, John Frusciante and More

PHOTO: Patton Oswalt performs onstage at the Shrine Auditorium, April 5, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

This week is a very scattered and rocking collection of records. Every now and then you have a week of clustered releases in one genre and this week is very heavily indie-rock based. First Erika M. Anderson (AKA EMA) returns with her second record full of rock and electronic influences, then the hardcore super-group OFF! deliver some old-school rage, then Patton Oswalt switches it up with his latest comedy album. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante delves heavily into sonic exploration, while another rock super-group, Sweet Apple get nostalgic for the 70’s. Last but not least, electro-rockers the Faint return after a six year absence. It’s a hard-edged week. Be prepared.

PHOTO: EMAs "The Futures Void"
Courtesy Amazon.com
EMA’s “The Future’s Void” ****

On her third solo record under the moniker EMA, Erika M. Anderson continues to enthrall and beguile. Like a strange art-house cross between Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Sky Ferreira, she knows both how to make an interesting pop song and how to coat it with enough fuzz to keep things interesting. She’s also a bit of a throwback, dwelling in a post-Cobain-ian world while also possessing a subtly Trent Reznor-esque industrial backbone.

Much like her last album, “Past Life Martyred Saints,” 3 years ago, “The Future’s Void” merges alt-rock cool, a danceable electro flare and a performance-art level of rawness. This album is every bit as compelling as her last one and yet it is more focused and honed. In general, these songs pop a touch more without losing intensity, although there may not be anything here quite as strangely stirring as her last album’s standout, “Marked.”

Even if it maintains some of her first album’s off-kilter hallmarks, this record is a muted, more mainstreamed answer to that record. It has an alt-rock core, but it is never overwhelmingly abrasive. It often possesses a quiet sense of approaching menace.

This is a stunning record that almost dares the pop world to accept these very challenging sets of sounds. Twenty years ago, EMA would’ve been a PJ Harvey-level superstar. She would’ve been a leader of the alt-rock nation and the music that came before her echoes very strongly in her work. Like many other acts just below the surface, Anderson is trying her best to bring back nineties-style experimentation to the mainstream.

Should this album get airplay? Absolutely! There are at least four or five really stellar singles on this ten-song set, but in the polished, EDM-flavored, clean-cut world of pop radio, few music directors will have the guts to add an excellent single like “So Blonde.” Progress only happens when the industry is willing to take chances. Because radio has become increasingly closed, it will take a miracle for another nineties-style revolution to actually take place. The music is definitely out there, though, firmly planting the seeds for the cycle to repeat itself.

Back in 2011, EMA delivered one of the better covers on “Spin” magazine’s tribute to Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” with a spot-on take of the difficult “Endless Nameless.” That level of passion is ever-present on “The Future’s Void,” whether EMA is screaming at the top of her lungs or quietly singing a stark ballad. She comes off as a brave and open performer. It makes her all the more compelling to her listeners.

Focus Tracks:

“So Blonde” This song plays like something that Louise Post would have put on her half of Veruca Salt’s “American Thighs.” Think of it as a low-key, chilled successor to “Spiderman ‘79.” EMA nicely moves from the nonchalant verse delivery to the more aggressive chorus delivery of “She’s SOOOO BLONDE!” This is an effective bit of pop-infused, ramshackle alt-rock blues. The GIF-filled video is however incredibly bizarre.

“Satellites” The album’s other key single opens the album with a wash of static and noise before launching into a slow build. The way the noise alternates with a low electro bass note for the first part of the track keeps things interesting. This song blends adventurous experiments in sound eventually with a driving beat. In remixed form, I can imagine this being a left-field club hit.

“When She Comes” Anderson whisper-sings over a jangly acoustic guitar as a mid-tempo beat keeps the groove anchored. Bonus points are earned for ear-catching lyrics like, “She’s my favorite animal.” Pay attention also to the feedback-soaked solo.

“Dead Celebrity” I’m guessing the fact that this song is only a note or three off of “Taps” and that the beat sounds like a 10-gun-salute is no coincidence. This closes the album as a stark, organ-fueled eulogy. The fireworks in the middle of the song are a nice touch, giving an air of mournful celebration.

“3Jane” Quite possibly the cleanest-sounding production that EMA has ever worked with, the curiously titled “3Jane” is a slow-burning ballad. It is also a bid for a wider audience.

PHOTO: OFF!s "Wasted Years"
Courtesy Amazon.com
OFF!’s – “Wasted Years” ****

Hardcore can be quick, ugly and celebratory all at the same time and the super-group OFF! are trying to bring the genre back to its late-seventies/early eighties level of glory. Featuring Keith Morris, who used to front the Circle Jerks and was also one of the many rotating front-men of Black Flag, this is an act full of grizzled know-how. Other members include Redd Kross’ Steve McDonald, Burning Brides’ Demitri Coats and Hot Snakes’ Mario Rubalcaba. One thing is certain. These guys know the sound they are after.

This is a bracing whiplash of a record, going through its 17 tracks in 23 minutes. That being said, those 23 minutes seem leisurely and expanded after their last effort’s blistering mere 15 minutes and 44 seconds. Morris and company in classic hardcore fashion thrive on brutality and brevity. Morris shouts over walls of guitar sound. He sounds buried in the mix, as if he is straining to be heard, but to anyone who knows the genre well, this is the way it should be. The noisier the production the better. This no-frills rock. If you are looking for melody, this isn’t a place you’ll find it. This album is meant to be shouted along to while you are in a crowd. It’s all about releasing angst. That being said, this is the most mature and developed album OFF! have released yet. All of these songs clock over a minute and seem fully developed by hardcore standards.

Hardcore is a genre that can easily be done badly. Listen to the latest incarnation of Black Flag and their awkward release from last year, “What The..” to hear how it can go wrong. In contrast, the seasoned veterans in OFF! show that hardcore can age gracefully while still trying to kick listeners in the teeth. Believe it or not, making good hardcore is a very delicate art.

Focus Tracks:

“No Easy Escape” Whereas previous releases kept the paces at a rush, this album has moments where the tempos are slowed. “No Easy Escape” is just over a minute long but it has some riffage that sounds more akin to Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer.

“Hypnotized” At 2:15, this is an epic by hardcore standards and it again finds them flexing their muscles at a comparatively mid-tempo. And yet Morris’ cranky bark loses no venom delivered against this backdrop.

“It Didn’t Matter To Me” Anchored by a guitar riff in a downward spiral, this fully shows a sense of frustration and yet Morris’ repetition of the title fully embodies a sense of hardened punk ethos.

“All I Can Grab” “I’ll take what you can’t have. / I’ll take all I can grab.” Morris shouts these lines with glee in this more typical hardcore exercise.

PHOTO: Patton Oswalts "Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time"
Courtesy Amazon.com
Patton Oswalt’s “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time” ****

I don’t want to give away too many jokes, but on his fifth comedy album Patton Oswalt brings the twisted, insightful , likable humor we have come to expect from him. Oswalt is at this point a well-respected mainstay in the standup scene and over time, he has gotten more reflective in nature. This record doesn’t have as many laugh-out-loud moments as his last effort, “Finest Hour” but it contains just as affecting a set.

Oswalt has not only been a respected figure in the stand-up world for the last 15 years or so but he has also earned himself respect as an actor. (It is my opinion that both he and Charlize Theron should have received Oscar nominations for their strikingly dark work in “Young Adult.”) Oswalt, at this point in his career has rightfully earned a great deal of respect in many circles. He’s famous as the voice of Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” he currently narrates the ABC show “The Goldbergs,” and if you haven’t seen the full seven-minute ad-libbed filibuster he delivered while guesting on “Parks & Recreation,” about his theories of where JJ Abrams can take the new “Star Wars” movies, you should do so immediately, because it is a work of genius.

On this set, (nicely packaged with a DVD of the performance as well) he approaches a wide variety of typical subjects (parenthood, Florida, depression, etc.) in a unique way. He wonders if he is a good enough father to his young daughter, he wants to get into better shape and after hearing his supermarket story about shopping for “Lean Cuisine,” you’ll never quite think of Toto’s song “Africa” in the same way.

Oswalt is at his core, like all great comedians an excellent story-teller. He knows how to get a point across and he’s made yet another stand-up album worth passing down to generations to come.

Focus Tracks:

“I’m A Great Dad” / “I’m An Awful Dad” A huge portion of the album is about his small daughter. As he looks around at kids on the playground being horrible to one another, he debates if he’s given her the skills she needs to deal with the presumably horrible people these kids may grow up to become. He worries when she gets scared and wants to keep her from having nightmares, but the things that give her nightmares aren’t always what he might expect. This segment of this record is frank and honest and it shows real sincerity. Don’t get me wrong, Oswalt is not a tender goodie-goodie. This record fully earns its parental advisory sticker, but when he mixes his no-holds-barred pessimism with warm sentiment, he hits a unique sweet spot.

“Sellout” He makes a point that when he was 25 he would always yell that people were “selling out.” Now at 44, he realizes that people hit a “crossroads” and made a decision. He also realizes that perhaps he kept yelling “sell-out” because no one at the time wanted what he was selling. There is wisdom in such a realization. His observations about Nickelback that lead up to this conversation are striking. He also tells a hilarious story about a time he really sold out and it involves up to 400 drunk people at a casino. I could go further into depth, but as I said, I don’t want to give too much away…

PHOTO: John Frusciantes "Enclosure"
Courtesy Amazon.com
John Frusciante’s “Enclosure” **1/2

Former Red Hot Chili Pepper, John Frusciante has issued many solo records since he first left the band in the 1992. Usually these albums are challenging listens. The closest he has ever gotten to mainstream gold was his 2004 album, “Shadows Collide With People” which still stands as an ambitious mini-masterpiece. He of course quickly followed that album up multiple times, releasing a total of five records that year! (No one should ever say that he doesn’t have lofty goals.)

He often favors experimentalism over cohesion. This isn’t to say that his latest effort, “Enclosure” isn’t the work of a great musician. It is. He’s an amazing guitarist and his willingness to take chances in admirable. It is just that many of the experiments here do not inspire habitual listening.

He experiments with a variety of tempo-shifts and leans on some crazily manipulated drum machines to create some rapid-fire “drum-n-bass” moments. In fact, this is a very electro-sounding record. There are passing points that would make for good score music, but there is nothing truly catchy.

In the end, this collection does deliver a mesmerizing display, but like much of Frusciante’s solo work, it sounds like it was made by a musical genius firing on all cylinders with very little filter to focus it all in.

On “Shadows Collide With People” as well as the Chili Peppers’ 2002 classic, “By The Way” he proved he can sometimes rein in these instincts and create epic music with both the ambition and the pop potential in equal balance. Let loose, his music can be dizzying but captivating if you are up to the challenge. “Enclosure” has an awful lot going on. It feels at times a tad too tightly packed and claustrophobic. Given its title, maybe that was Frusciante’s goal.

Focus Tracks:

“Crowded” This beat-heavy rocker shows what Frusciante can do when he harnesses his sense of melody to his advantage. This song is still busier than it should be, but it is obviously not his intension to make a commercial record. The interesting melody keeps things moving, especially when he momentarily adopts a scream.

“Stage” Another moment of near-clarity, this is an electro-break-beat work-out with echo-soaked vocals. Frusciante sounds like he is battling reflections of his own voice in a large, extended tunnel.

“Clinch” A workman-like instrumental, this is just as dizzying as the rest of the record, but it reminds listeners of his often impressive level of skill as a guitarist.

PHOTO: Sweet Apples "The Golden Age Of Glitter"
Courtesy Amazon.com
Sweet Apple’s “The Golden Age Of Glitter” ****

On their second album, the indie-rock super-group, Sweet Apple continue to hone their brand of power pop and they increasingly sound like a hard-edged answer to Big Star. In fact, the ghostly influence of the work of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell is all over this record. Vocalist John Petkovic (also of the band Cobra Verde) almost seems to go to great lengths to even sound like vintage Chilton. Dave Sweetapple (from the band Witch) plays bass and believe it or not J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. plays drums. This would sound like mere imitation if the songs weren’t so good. But this is a top-notch set that sounds like it came straight out of 1975. This is old-school rock song-writing with excellent pop hooks. There is also a healthy dose of Cheap Trick influence in the mix.

The group’s last album, 2010’s “Love and Desperation” had a cover reminiscent of Roxy Music’s infamous “Country Life.” This time around, they take this a little further. The cover of this album has a naked woman in a swimming pool with certain areas strategically covered. (In the liner notes, however, there are more revealing pictures. They are on the arty side, however.) Interestingly, you would think with the obvious use of female objectification that the music would be rather weak and ham-fisted, but no. This is top-notch well-written and executed power-pop and guests like Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, that dog’s Rachel Haden and Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age all drop by to lend a hand.

The members of Sweet Apple improve on the formula they established on their debut and deliver one of the best power-pop revivalist records in recent memory. This album is meant to be played on vinyl at full-blast.

Focus Tracks:

“Troubled Sleep” This is a roaring rocker and as the amps get turned down for the chorus of “I’m In Trouble” they give way to a beautiful, bouncy riff.

“Wish You Could Stay (A Little Longer)” (Featuring Mark Lanegan) Seventies-rock revivalism doesn’t get better than this. This track is thick with melodic romanticism and the hook is positively giant. Yes, this is coated in a nineties-style layer of fuzz, but it still plays to an older rock standard.

“Under The Liquor Sign” (Featuring Robert Pollard) This is an ode to suburban boredom, about meeting outside of a liquor store and then smoking and drinking outside of said liquor store. It is delivered with such fervor and zeal and the tune is so appealing, you can’t help but bob your head and sing along.

“Let’s Take The Same Plane” (Featuring Rachel Haden) This soft acoustic ballad has a sweet sensitivity and the vocal interplay works quite well.

The Faint’s “Doom Abuse” ****

It has been 6 long years since Omaha, Nebraska electro-rockers The Faint dropped a record and “Doom Abuse” is a bold restatement of purpose. Their punk edges are sharpened and yet the electro-elements are still intact. This album is slightly more rock-edged than dance-driven, whereas on previous records they surfed both lines. But this is a fuzzed-out, insistent collection with an aim to show a strong sense of force. This comes off like their loudest, roughest collection to date and that abrasive nature drives the sound home.

Often times on previous albums like “Danse Macabre” and “Wet From Birth” the band’s punk and electro sides would clash, yielding uneven results. This album creates more of a cohesive unit, delivering the richest sound they have produced yet. In the past, some of the electronic elements sounded cheaply dated. Here, they accentuate the already forceful tracks to create something that often plays like a hardcore answer to Devo.

After six years, the band members have reemerged ready to attack. They are hungry and that hunger comes through, resulting in what I think is the best album of their career. Considering the unbalanced nature of their discography, it really is nice that this record works so well. Be prepared to be pummeled into submission.

Focus Tracks:

“Mental Radio” A hybrid between the Cure’s earliest sound with Devo’s “Whip It,” this is a computerized punked-out assault. “Damage Control” One of the few tracks where the dance elements take over and the rock approach is softened, this ends up having an echo-y and serene feeling. This should be a single, even if by the end it sounds like there is something wrong with a vacuum cleaner.

“Scapegoat” The fuzzed-out notes at the beginning serve as a warning for what’s to come. This is a brutal new-wave exercise. If eighties synth-pop bands lent themselves to mosh-pits, they’d sound like this.

“Your Stranger” This track is back-to-back with “Scapegoat” and it keeps that manic, brutal energy going.

“Animal Needs” I am a little amazed that the band chose to release “Help In The Head” as the first single. Yes, it is more representative of the album’s overall sound, but I would’ve gone with the dancier “Animal Needs.” Its shouted chants of “We don’t need cars. / We don’t need pools. / We don’t need trophies. / We don’t need jewels. / We’ve got animal needs,” are meant to be screamed by dancing crowds.

Next Week: Aimee Mann and Ted Leo join forces as The Both, the latest from Ingrid Michaelson, the Afghan Whigs return and more.

Miss last week's? Get the latest from Kaiser Chiefs, Christina Perri, Cloud Nothings, Nick Cannon and more.

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