Japandroids, Train, Ty Segall and More Music Reviews

PHOTO: Brian King and David Prouse of Japandroids perform at the Treasure Island Music Festival, Oct. 20, 2013, in San Francisco, California.
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This week rock duo Japandroids released its first album since 2012, we got a new studio album from Train, prolific garage rocker Ty Segall added another entry to his long discography, rapper P.O.S made a triumphant return, Allison Crutchfield dropped her first proper solo record, folk singer Julie Byrne released a starmaking record and indie rockers Cloud Nothings didn’t disappoint. This is the first really strong release week of the year, giving plenty of exciting records to explore.

PHOTO: Japandroids - "Near The Wild Heart Of Life"
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Japandroids’ “Near the Wild Heart of Life” ****

Five years have passed since the last Japandroids record, and the Canadian rock duo has come back more streamlined than ever, ready for its big arena close-up. “Near the Wild Heart of Life” is nowhere near as raw as “Post-Nothing” or “Celebration Rock," but it still maintains the loud spirit of those two albums, even if the songs now have more depth to their construction.

Brian King and Dave Prowse have now made an album that still charges but has increased commercial appeal as well. You can’t argue when you listen to the opening title track or the anthem of Canadian pride “North South East West” that they are aiming firmly beyond the lo-fi, hard rock of their previous releases. This is a big, bold, earnest record that still is full of fist-pumping abandon.

The production is also the boldest we have ever heard from them. There are the kind of textures you’d expect from an electro record on “Arc of Bar” while the two-minute wistful and emotional plea “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” is a bit of a brief but welcome stylistic departure. It is clear that the aim here is to firmly widen their sonic scope, and odds are that King and Prowse have done so without alienating a large portion of the fans of their previous work.

While before, their work sold itself on sheer power, here they find a stronger sense of composition. Like its predecessors, the album is only eight tracks. It is also a clear winner. For Japandroids, “Near the Wild Heart of Life” is a calculated, well-executed maneuver in sonic expansion.

Focus Tracks:

“Near the Wild Heart Of Life” Like previous standouts “The House That Heaven Built” and “The Boys Are Leaving Town,” this album opener is meant to be a giant anthem. However, this song might sound better in the acoustic realm than both of those high points.

“Arc of Bar” This arena stomper is seven minutes long and has an appealing high-tech approach. Part of me wonders if they were listening to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” on repeat for an extended period before laying this down.

“No Known Drink or Drug” This is a quick rocker. Like most of this record, the theme of world travel emerges in the lyrics. There are also mentions of new love in the mix, making the comparisons between an emerging romance with a woman and a religious rebirth.

PHOTO: Train - "a girl a bottle a boat"
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Train’s “a girl a bottle a boat” **

If one band illustrates the tragic downfall of pop radio and what is accepted and played within its current closed and myopic nature, it is Train. The members of the band are excellent musicians and a mere six months after releasing a surprisingly spot-on take on “Led Zeppelin II,” it seems disheartening that they would release an album as stale and formulaic as “a girl a bottle a boat.” Presumably, in order to get pop airplay, they have to severely dumb down the sound that was once their calling card. Listen to “Meet Virginia” with its Counting Crows-meets-Tracy Chapman majesty and listen to “Drops of Jupiter” again with its Black Crowes-esque tone and you realize that there is an earthy, skilled band here.

But on this album, you get “Play That Song,” a profoundly lame and painfully easy rewrite of “Heart & Soul.” Elsewhere they rotate between aiming for Maroon 5 and playing in Jason Mraz territory. “Drink Up” is a far too compressed-sounding and forced party anthem, while other songs mix a slight Latin and hip-hop flare with the kind of slick delivery that makes you think all the people involved should be wearing Fedoras. Pat Monahan is one of the most gifted and versatile singers working today, so it is sad to hear him sing forgettable, clunky pop like “Working Girl.” The doo-wop flavor of “Valentine” works better, even if a late January release makes the band’s motives extremely transparent.

The one good thing that can be said about this record is that the band occasionally has some good work dealing with drum-loops. There are a couple thunderous moments on both “Lottery” and “Silver Dollar,” even if the latter suffers from some sub-par lyrics and a bit too much cocky swagger.

This is purposely a loud pop record with the band’s organic qualities turned down in favor of syncopated lyrics and electro effects. From time to time, they occasionally hit gold. “The News” sort of works, as does the closing ballad “You Better Believe,” but ultimately “a girl a bottle a boat” is a heavy-handed, unimaginative stab at the pop charts. Odds are, this will work in Train’s favor and they’ll sell a lot of album copies, but they are a better band than this album shows. It is proof that a band can aim for the charts but fall short of their potential.

They’ll certainly have hits on their current trajectory, but with more natural touches and fewer self-conscious and targeted writing they would have had respect as well. Right now it seems like they are wasting their potential and just spinning the wheels to play the industry’s game. They are capable of much better records.

Focus Tracks:

“Valentine” No mistake here. This is post-fifties doo-wop at its most formulaic, with an updated modern beat. It’s also the album’s best showcase for Pat Monahan’s voice.

“The News” Here the pop angles and tricks are all in place, but it sort of works with a bit of an R&B swing. The tempo and tripping beat works in the track’s favor as well.

PHOTO: Ty Segall - "Ty Segall"
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Ty Segall’s “Ty Segall” ****

Ty Segall’s new self-titled album is either his ninth or his tenth album since 2008 depending on how you count. The 29-year old psychedelic punk fuses the raw “Nuggets”-like energy of the sixties with the post-Nirvana grunginess of the nineties to make an appealing concoction. This album is closer to the former, obviously taking most of its cues from hard rock acts like Blue Cheer. Of course, you could argue a song like “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)” is just as Cobain-ian as it is Beatle-esque. The Nirvana comparisons on the set on the whole are probably also emphasized by the fact that the it was recorded by underground-rock god, Steve Albini, who was also famously behind the boards for “In Utero.”

It’s no wonder that Segall has become a highly-respected carrier of the garage-rock torch. His music isn’t sunny, but it isn’t particularly dark either, but it is still remarkable and hard to imagine that his brand of dense sludge is coming from a native of Laguna Beach, California.

This album isn’t all hard-edged either. You can imagine someone like Elliott Smith handling a song like “Orange Color Queen,” and “Talkin’” has a laid-back, almost country feel that wouldn’t sound out of place on the second half of Beck’s “Mutations.”

This is a brief collection, but it shows many of Segall’s sides quite effectively. It’s a remarkably focused and yet diverse-sounding set, which may be the exact reason why Segall decided to make it a self-titled effort. It is also noteworthy that in an extremely old-school move, Segall has managed to put the lyrics on the back-cover of the album itself.

If you miss the harder rock sounds of the past, this will be one of your new favorite records.

Focus Tracks:

“Thank You Mr. K" This is Segall working at his most psychedelic and most chaotic as he sings a very retro-sounding number about “Taking Mr. K for a ride.” During the middle of the song, the music stops and you hear something being smashed to bits on the studio floor.

“Orange Color Queen” Segall isn’t really known for gentle compositions, but this song shows that the mood fits him well. As stated above, Elliott Smith and the Beatles seem like clear influences here.

“Talkin’” A slow swagger of a song, this meanders and takes its time but it also consistently keeps your attention with melodic fortitude and a vague country vibe.

PHOTO: P.O.S. - "Chill, Dummy"
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P.O.S’ “Chill, Dummy” ****1/2

P.O.S is one of the best rappers whose work you probably don’t know. With "Chill Dummy," the Minneapolis native and Doomtree rapper returns after a five-year break, a health-scare and a kidney transplant. The new album is one of his most brash and confrontational-sounding albums to date. This is measured chaos in spots with emphasis on experimental beats and slick rhymes. It also doesn’t hurt his delivery style that P.O.S has hardcore punk roots, having been in the band Building Better Bombs.

No doubt, this is an album for our chaotic times. Sonically it is wonderfully jarring in spots in ways that could be influential. On “Bully,” he and guests Moncelas Boston and Rapper Hooks gleefully play with both pitch-shifted vocals and randomly bleeped-out words. Elsewhere on the set P.O.S makes mentions of the Black Lives Matter movement and name-checks Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

On the slick R&B-groove “Faded,” he ends up at a near whisper, almost adopting an approach similar to Tricky on his classic recordings. But if you want to know if this record is for you, all you have to do is give “Wearing a Bear” a spin at top volume. It's quite possibly his best track to date and if there is any justice, it will be respected in some circles as a hip-hop classic.

This is a driven, guest-filled record that doesn’t try too hard to please, but nonetheless succeeds in an effortless manner. There’s a raw, live feeling at work here. When guests pop onto the mic, it feels like it is being passed from one MC to the other and you can judge the distance from the mic in spots.

"Chill, Dummy" is a fresh, vibrant record and the first great hip-hop statement of 2017. If you consider yourself a fan of thought-provoking, experimental hip-hop and you don’t know P.O.S, you have some exploring to do, my friend.

Focus Tracks:

“Wearing a Bear” This is a concise two minutes and forty seconds of raw power. P.O.S comes in ready for battle and rips the mic apart. Righteous hip-hop doesn’t get much better or more on point. It’s also a great argument for him to position himself for a guest-spot on the next Run the Jewels record. As he rhymes with political fervor and drive, it is obvious that he was raised holding the Native Tongues and Fugazi at similar levels of esteem.

“Thieves/Kings” Over a beautiful beat with a synth-line that will bounce between your ears, P.O.S draws the excellent comparison between royalty and rogues, while still maintaining the same brand of momentum.

“Infinite Scroll” (Featuring Open Mike Eagle and Manchita) Over a spacey, synth-driven, semi-apocalyptic beat, P.O.S, Open Mike Eagle and Manchita all drop some cryptic bars. Throughout, the rapping gives way momentarily to singing. This track is an appealing mix of genres and could thus end up with a wide net of appeal.

PHOTO: Allison Crutchfield - "Tourist In This Town"
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Allison Crutchfield’s “Tourist in This Town” ****

Allison Crutchfield is the twin-sister of Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield. If you are a regular reader of these reviews, you may remember that Waxahatchee’s album “Cerulean Salt” topped my year-end list back in 2013. But “Tourist in This Town” is Allison’s first proper solo album, having been in the bands P.S. Eliot (with Katie) and Swearin’.

For obvious genetic reasons, this album should sound immediately familiar to fans of Waxahatchee’s records, even if the opening of “Broad Daylight” has a vintage country quality and the album on the whole boasts a lot more synth-accompaniment. There’s no denying that both of the Crutchfield twins share a strong, compositional sense. Single “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California” sounds like a much less grungy response to her sister’s work. It makes sense that they each occasionally guest on each other’s records.

“Charlie” has a tender, intimate feeling while “Dean’s Room” pounds thunderously, even if it sounds like a new-wave dance-party jam. “Expatriate” has a beat that recalls both the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” before giving ways to a faster chorus.

“Mile Away” makes the most of its synthesizer riff, while “The Marriage” is a little, infectious power-pop burst. By the end of closer, “Chopsticks on Pots and Pans,” it becomes apparent that in spite of different instrumentation choices, there is a continuous thread going through the songwriting of both Crutchfields. In other words, if you like Waxahatchee, you’ll probably like this record, too. If you don’t know Waxahatchee but enjoy Allison Crutchfield’s work here, you have your homework cut out for you.

With “Tourist in This Town,” Allison Crutchfield establishes herself as a formidable force and singer-songwriter worth your attention. This is a bold and compelling album.

Focus Tracks:

“I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California” The Philadelphia-based Crutchfield sings here about a glorious west-coast trip, declaring, “I keep confusing love and nostalgia." What a great concept.

“Dean’s Room” It seems like it is about the breakup of a passionate relationship. Crutchfield sings, “There are no photographs of us. / There is nothing left discuss. / You crawl around on your belly and you ask for forgiveness. / All while maintaining your innocence.” There is a bright, bouncy tone to the track, contrasting well with the song’s lyrics. At its core, this is a bright pop song.

“The Marriage” A mere fifty six seconds, this really explodes quickly to its point. Strangely, even with its brevity, it seems complete even though it probably could have been expanded much further.

PHOTO: Julie Bryne - "Not Even Happiness"
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Julie Byrne’s “Not Even Happiness” ****

On her second album, “Not Even Happiness,” singer-songwriter Julie Byrne makes a quiet, but powerful statement, mining similar indie folk territory as singers like Julien Baker and Laura Marling. This is a gentle record that demands your attention, from the sweeping opener, “Follow My Voice,” which has a title that also works as a telling command, and the haunting “Natural Blue,” which may permeate your dreams if you aren’t careful.

Byrne has a delivery style that is thick with sophistication and purpose. This album sounds modern, but at the same time, there's something timeless about her method of song-craft. There’s also a bit of a powerful sense of atmosphere throughout the set that hits its apex during the instrumental "Interlude."

This is a fascinating offering. Like many of the albums this week, it is also quite short, but it makes the most of its 32 minutes and change. You'll want to turn the volume up as you listen to the guitar textures on “Morning Dove,” and you will no doubt find yourself enveloped by record’s closer, “I Live Now as a Singer."

Julie Byrne is a new star waiting to happen. This record may be nuanced, but it grabs you by the ears if you give it the attention it deserves. "Not Even Happiness" will wash over you like a warm, welcoming sonic hug.

Focus Tracks:

“Natural Blue” This track is ethereal in the best sense and you want to hang onto each one of Byrne’s words as her voice floats over the guitar and string lines. The Buffalo, New York native has an otherworldly approach that gives her a unique edge.

“Morning Dove” Again, I must mention that earnest, rich and intricate guitar line, which serves as a pensive backbone to the song on the whole.

“I Live Now as a Singer” This closing track is a synth-drenched hymn of sorts. It is extremely minimalist in nature, but it allows Byrne’s soft voice to take center-stage. On headphones, these textures sound downright majestic.

PHOTO: Cloud Nothings - "Life Without Sound"
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Cloud Nothings’ “Life Without Sound” ****1/2

Indie rockers Cloud Nothings follow up 2014’s excellent “Here and Nowhere Else” with an equally great new album, "Life Without Sound." This time, songwriter and vocalist Dylan Baldi puts more emphasis on a pop-driven sunnier side, as if progressing off of the last album’s closing track (and main single) "I'm Not Part of Me." However, if you think that means the intensity is lessened you are wrong. This album may begin unexpectedly with a piano, but songs like "Strange Year" and "Realize My Fate" both growl with immense ferociousness.

“Darkened Rings” bounces along quite effectively but it still maintains a lo-fi punk feeling. Still. you can feel Baldi reaching closer and closer to the mainstream. There is definitely another hard-rock/grunge renaissance happening on the fringes and it has been brewing for quite a few years. At any moment, one of these bands should theoretically make a cross-over to the pop charts in the way that Nirvana did back in 1991. Cloud Nothings could have that potential.

"Enter Entirely" here is a sharp piece of music, as is the jangle-pop song, "Modern Act." If rock radio still existed in the way it did two decades ago, this album would get the appropriate platform it deserves. Yet again, Cloud Nothings have delivered a redefining set that could potentially propel them to the big leagues. Whether it will, only time will tell.

“Life Without Sound” is still just as powerful as other Cloud Nothings releases in the recent past, but it also has a confident sense of fortitude. This is grungy pop-punk with a hint of sophistication and a great deal of bite.

Focus Tracks:

“Modern Act” Easily the brightest song on the set, with an ace power-pop punch. It is immediately infectious in its tuneful approach. A bright melody seems to mask melancholy lyrics like "I am alive but all alone."

"Enter Entirely" This plays like a lost nugget from the nineties, with its layered guitars. Dylan Baldi really knows how to work a spiky sonic build with his unique vocal rasp. This is also a really well put-together track. It has an appealing, catchy core, but it has a sense of maturity in its framework.

“Things Are Right with You” This is another insistent and grungy dose of serious, grounded pop-punk. You get the feeling with each album that Cloud Nothings are purposely honing their sense of musical craftsmanship. This song has an anthem quality without trying too hard to hit you over the head. It is natural in its approach. It deserves to be a hit.

Next Week: New music from Elbow, Big Sean and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest from John Mayer, Kid Koala, and more.

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