Incubus, Snoop Dogg, Rhett Miller and More Music Reviews

Which ones should you pick up?

quicklist: 1 title: Incubus’ “Trust Fall (Side A)" **** text: This week Calabasas, California’s Incubus drop a new EP. Not an album. This is a mere four songs in just over twenty minutes. It’s a slim offering and a puzzling one considering they are supposedly releasing another EP later this year. This is no doubt the reason why this release is subtitled with “(Side A).” In other words, there will be a “Side B, but as a listener, you can’t help being frustrated by this move. Personally, I would have preferred waiting until they had an entire album and getting it all that way, especially since the way the business is going, odds are when “Side B” does come out, odds are that someone will decide to eventually package everything together But the good news is, the four offerings on “Trust Fall” are (if you pardon the pun) pretty stellar. When we last heard the band, they were delivering the softer, more mature, severely under-rated “If Not Now, When?” That album showed an astonishing amount of growth for a band that always proved themselves to be adept shape-shifters. It deserved a lot of acclaim for its daringness. “Adolescents” and “Promises Promises” are two of the band’s best singles to date, and while the band toughens up their sound again here, they obviously learned a lot making that record. The key change is that DJ Chris Kilmore as on the previous record has essentially become the band’s keyboardist, adding a little psych-rock wooze to the mix.

Track by track, this EP offers up plenty to discuss in spite of its brevity. “Trust Fall” is the kind of tight, yet expansive rocker the band has been known for, akin to previous album openers “Megalomaniac” and “Nice To Know You.” “Make Out Party” is a surprisingly sludgy, extremely sexual ode to two people exploring each other’s bodies. “Absolution Calling” is a synthed-out rocker with a post-disco sheen. It sounds suited for the closing credits of a summer blockbuster. Lastly is “Dance Like Your Dumb” is a bouncy, admittedly goofy, rock-driven party jam. This is the weakest of the four tracks, but Brandon Boyd sells it completely with his playfully bizarre lyrics during the verses. Kilmore’s spacy solo also makes it a winner.

This is Incubus’ first release on Island Records after spending their career on Epic. Maybe the label shift is the reason for the album divide. Still in spite of this odd turn, the members of Incubus are still extremely vital and have many new tricks up their sleeve. Side B better be this good, as well. My feeling is that this band still has a lot more left to say.

Focus Tracks:

“Make Out Party” There are lots of reasons why this track shouldn’t work and it effectively dodges ALL of them. I guarantee that this one of the only songs I have ever liked where a guy singing in falsetto begins his verses with the words “Girl” and “Babe.” This is truly a lust-fueled anthem as Boyd sings “I get high every time I get the taste of you on my tongue.” Mike Einziger’s guitar line is also a standout feature to the track since it anchors the song’s more sultry aspects. This song is probably radio-friendly, but just barely. Nevertheless, this deserves to be a hit. This is truly an artful description of a make out session. It’s unflinchingly sensual. Tone-wise, given the source it is as unexpected as Jimmy Eat World’s tender ode to car-sex, “Night Drive” was just over a decade ago.

“Trust Fall” While the band freely experiments, this song proves their reliability and anchors the rest of the release in familiar territory.

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Is this a particularly notable, innovative funk album? Not really. It is somewhat by the numbers, but it is still quite a fun party record, designed for chilled-out days and mellow-minded gatherings. At the end, this actually feels more like a Pharrell album than a Snoop album, but it still brings the goods, even if it feels a bit breezy. “Bush” is a somewhat peaceful collection with a surprisingly sunny core.

Focus Tracks:

“This City” This song verges on house-funk, with nonsensical lines like “Champagne wishes taste like American Pie.” Whatever that means, it is evident this is designed to be light, easy-going fare. It is also one of the only places Snoop drops an actual rap verse on the record.

“I’m Ya Dogg” (Featuring Rick Ross and Kendrick Lamar) This is a slice of electro-funk peppered by verses from Ross & Lamar. Lamar in particular sounds like he’s having fun maneuvering the song’s unusual rhythm with his spaced-out verse.

“Awake” This is such a slick dose of early eighties funk that I half expected the resurrected ghost of Rick James to show up.

quicklist: 3 title: Rhett Miller’s “The Traveler” ***1/2 text: Following his albums “The Instigator,” “The Believer,” “The Dreamer,” and his live album “The Interpreter,” Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s has named his latest solo album, “The Traveler,” and it showcases his familiar mix of alt-country and alt-rock influences. With his backing band, Black Prairie, this record is a bit lower-fi than expected, as if it was recorded straight to tape and barely touched up afterwards. The truth is Black Prairie actually includes many members of the Decemberists. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and frequent R.E.M.-associate and Young Fresh Fellows leader Scott McCaughey also are present adding to the fun. In other words, Miller’s got an impressive team behind him here and production duties were handled by band member Chris Funk. Most of this album was recorded live with a few later overdubs and it sounds that way, since it sounds pretty consistently in the moment.

While this album doesn’t hit the peak of Miller’s 2009 self-titled one, it still has its strengths and it sounds grittier and more consistently grounded than his last effort. There’s an immediacy in the country-meets-alt-rock aspects of “Wanderlust” and the sweetly sweeping drunken waltz of “My Little Disaster.”

This album aims to be an organic exercise and is less produced-sounding than Miller’s previous records. This effect gives the record a fresh snap. You can almost feel the air in the room of Portland, Oregon’s Jackpot Studios where it was recorded. One gets the feeling that this is another recent album that would really come alive on vinyl.

Focus Tracks:

“My Little Disaster” Miller sings about his drunken love as she lies on the floor. The lyrics have a bizarrely endearing off-beat nature to them as he sings, “Her friends are all strangers / and she’s weird as hell. / She’s a short-story I never can tell.”

“Kiss Me On The Fire Escape” This song leans towards the more power-pop-tinged side Miller’s work with Old 97’s. It has a lot of tempo-shifts particularly around the bridge and it sounds like the band members are enjoying themselves a great deal.

“Lucky Star” This is not a Madonna cover. This is a quickly-strummed, intimate acoustic number with a chorus that would have made Alex Chilton proud.

quicklist: 4 title: Róisín Murphy’s “Hairless Toys” **** text: If you are looking for an excitingly progressive dance album with some fascinating chill elements, look no further than the third solo album from former Moloko singer Róisín Murphy. As someone who always liked the intentions behind the work of her former duo with Mark Brydon better than their execution, the slightly disturbingly-titled “Hairless Toys” shows once more that Murphy continues to grow and blossom in the solo realm, taking center stage. This is one of the most adventurous dance records of the year and the fact that the majority of the eight tracks here clock in around the six-minute mark or above means that these grooves are given plenty of room to stretch. This album is as anchored in the clubs as it is in the traditions of jazz. Murphy often sounds like a cabaret singer cooing over a house-beat while some jazz chords play in the background. Her voice is a shapeshifting marvel with a smoothness and keen sense of emotional conveyance that makes her a peer of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and Goldfrapp’s Allison Goldfrapp. Murphy, however has a soulful edge that makes her different from the rest, making this album an interesting outside-of-the-box possible pick for fans of modern R&B.

Murphy after all first came to my attention when she sang on Prince Paul and Dan The Automator’s 1999 Handsome Boy Modeling School album, “So…How’s Your Girl,” on the track, “The Truth” beside rapper J-Live. “The Truth” recently popped back into my mind when the origin of its sample, Galt MacDermot’s “Coffee Cold” was used during a key scene on AMC’s “Better Call Saul.”

Still, 16 years after that initial impression, on “Hairless Toys,” Murphy still proves herself to be among the coolest of the trend-setters. If you love progressive, innovative electronic records anchored in timeless traditions, this album is for you. It is where the dance club and the supper club meet. It’s an often hushed, always enthralling collection.

Focus Tracks:

“Exploitation” At nearly ten minutes, this groovy house track can only be seen as the centerpiece of the album. Its warped organ-line, crazy side-riffing and jazz-driven piano chords can’t help but hypnotize you as they swirl. This is quite a piece of work.

“Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)” This is from the more sedate portion of the record and it is a beautifully-crafted piece that sounds like a damaged lullaby played over a waterlogged metronome. A sea of vibraphone-esque bells swell-up at one point as a chorus bursts from the background. Over its six minutes, this track crosses over a great deal of terrain.

“Gone Fishing” Again, this song has a metronome-like structure with damaged-sounding bells playing beside vintage synths as Murphy softly coos and whispers her way through the track. It is subtle, but truly alluring.

quicklist: 5 title: Prefuse 73’s “Rivington Não Rio” **** text: If you have never heard Prefuse 73, bookmark this page and go listen to his 2003 masterwork, “One Word Extinguisher” and its companion, “Extinguished.” These are two of the best examples of hip-hop influence meeting IDM electronics to create a thought-provoking brand of “glitchtronica.” Prefuse 73 is actually Guillermo Scott Herren, whose mastery of loop manipulation brings a classical-like focus to hip-hop culture. His only true peer in this regard is the like-minded Four Tet (Kieran Hebden) and you can notice the intricacies of each man’s work upon immediate listens. Both of them seem to approach their samplers like the old jazz masters used to approach their instruments. In other words, they make electronic music of the highest form, which captivates without sticking to pop conventions.

“Rivington Não Rio,” Herren’s third and most substantial release of 2015 following the Eps “Forsyth Gardens” and “Traveling In Constants.” While none of these releases have the same jaw-dropping shock that the first listen of “One Word Extinguisher” produced, this album is a warm, winning collection of painstakingly assembled sounds. There’s a lull over this record which even remains when Pinback’s Rob Crow shows up to sing on “Quiet One.” (The same is true about both Sam Dew and Helado Negro’s respective vocal turns on “Infrared” and “See More Than Just Stars.”) It is less the case with “140 Jabs Interlude” which features rappers Milo and Busdriver. This track awakens the set from its otherwise serene atmosphere, although both MCs maintain the set’s art-house coolness with their beat-poet-like delivery.

Essentially, if you are looking for a forward-thinking, lush-sounding electronic record with more than a few passing nods to hip-hop, Prefuse 73’s “Rivington Não Rio” is for you. And again, if you listen to this record and love it as much as I do, there is a decent-sized back catalog you need to explore immediately. If he isn’t already, Prefuse 73 should be on your radar.

Focus Tracks:

“Quiet One” (Featuring Rob Crow) Considering most of Rob Crow’s Pinback work seems to be anchored in rhythmic exercises, he is an ideal collaborator for Herren. Crow’s wonderfully winding vocal melody meshes well with Herren’s dream-like backdrop.

“Applauded Assumptions” At first this track sounds like a vintage game of PONG and then it turns into something much trippier and more alien. Fans of traditional beats may find this aspect of Herren’s work to be rather disconcerting, but it is how he has built his name. He has always challenged conventional dynamics.

“Mojav Mating Call” This track is a mixture of cool drones and orchestral turns. (Is that someone scraping the strings inside a piano at the beginning of the track?) This song has a woozy bend, but its atmospheric nature keeps you hooked.

quicklist: 6 title: The Tallest Man On Earth’s “Dark Bird Is Home” ***1/2 text: Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson’s latest album as The Tallest Man On Earth, “Dark Bird Is Home” is a much more intimate affair than his previous efforts. Where his music has almost always been acoustic and it has been anchored by his near-Dylan-esque raspy, often shouted warble, here he seems more reserved and cuts like “Darkness Of The Dream” and “Sagres” sound brightly produced in comparison to his earlier work. In other words, this album is among his most commercial-sounding work, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

He still very much recalls early Dylan and “Catch The Wind”-era Donovan, but he doesn’t feel like the loose-cannon troubadour that brought us “I Won’t Be Found,” the standout opener on his 2008 album, “Shallow Grave.” In fact, the previously mentioned “Sagres,” on this record sounds like his attempt to imitate the mellower side of Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” The same goes for the following track, “Timothy.”

While this record has a distinctly different tone, it is by no means a negative shift. In fact, as a songwriter Matsson continues to grow and mature. The beautifully-crafted “Singers” and the delicate piano-ballad “Little Nowhere Towns” bring to mind his past gems while also offering a bright glimpse of future directions. “Dark Bird Is Home” once again shows The Tallest Man On Earth to be one of the most promising stars emerging from Sweden’s indie-folk scene. Even with a key shift in tone, this album should please the majority of the fans of his previous full-lengths. But this record’s focused refinement of his sound seems to indicate that he’s got his eyes set on a bigger audience.

Focus Tracks:

“Little Nowhere Towns” There’s an echo of Paul Simon in this song’s energy. It’s a song you can easily imagine Simon singing. I’m not sure why, but Matsson has effectively captured his essence.

“Singers” This song has a riff that almost recalls Nico’s version of “These Days” with some surprising atmospheric touches peppered throughout.

“Seventeen” This song has large aims as it builds and bellows along. Again, Matsson is recalling someone classic. Here, I hear echoes of Tom Petty’s peak work.

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