Feb. 23, 2014 -- intro: This week the release schedule began to pick up. We will examine the second full-length from indie-dance band Phantogram, as well as the latest from prolific alt-rock stalwarts Guided By Voices. Suzanne Vega released a new record this week, as did Tom Petty's keyboard player Benmont Tench. Singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke released the soundtrack to her new play, "My Mother Has 4 Noses." The Presidents Of The United States Of America have returned after a six-year break and indie orchestral rock outfit Lost In The Trees also released their latest record. It all adds up to a very busy week in new music.
quicklist: 1 title: Phantogram's "Voices" ****1/2 text: First off, if you downloaded this New York duo's EP late last year (a release I also reviewed) you already have four of the songs on "Voices." Perhaps this repetition is an exercise by the fickle music industry playing with marketing campaigns to see what works the best. As a listener and a fan, getting repeats from a band can be somewhat frustrating, but I have good news. The EP did not contain all of the album's highlights. On this, their second full-length, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter continue to sculpt and refine their sound into an appealing stew of trip-hop, alt-rock and retro-eighties dance grooves. There are even a couple momentary stabs at dream-pop. If "Voices" makes anything clear, it's that Phantogram are destined to eventually cross over to the mainstream pop charts some time soon. As a progressive indie-rock act that obviously spent a lot of time also listening to left-field hip-hop, their sound is dance-floor-ready. Not only that, but they are also quite enigmatically cool. If you like smart pop records, Phantogram should be one of your new favorite bands. "Voices" is a record of stirring, unceasing greatness.
"Bill Murray" Phantogram aren't the first ones to name a song "Bill Murray." Gorillaz did it a number of years ago, but Phantogram's song is a beautiful, drifting ballad that sounds like an outtake from the "Lost In Translation" soundtrack. Listening to this song, you can't help but imagine Murray and Scarlett Johansson looking around at each other in awe in the glow of the neon lights of Tokyo. This deserves to be a single and Bill should be in the video. It is wistful, dream-pop gold. And the scratched up Chi-Lites sample adds a stellar touch. In other words, this is slow-dance material of epic proportions.
"Fall In Love" Using a wonderfully warped and twisted sample of Barbara Mason's "Yes, I'm Ready," "Fall In Love" becomes a charging dance number with an orchestral glow. It sounds like Madlib or the late J Dilla battling with Daft Punk, and yet in a way, this is our generation's modern, electro answer to disco. Barthel isn't quite a disco diva, but she does have a smooth, breathy, butter-soft voice that can go from a near whisper to an anthemic shout on a dime.
"Black Out Days" The opening track from last year's EP still shines just as brightly within the album's context and it stands out, following previous singles "When I'm Small" and "Don't Move" in showcasing the group's signature glitch and groove-driven sound.
"I Don't Blame You" On this one, Carter takes the mic. Backed by scratched-up brass samples and a beat just a notch or two below "drum-n-bass" levels, he makes this song of regret sound like something otherworldly and profound. The momentum somehow adds a tone of urgency.
"Bad Dreams" This song takes an ominous approach in its verses and takes a left turn into more soulful and funk-driven terrain. Again, this should also be a single since its refrain of "Bad Dreams never affect me" is surprisingly catchy.
"Never Going Home" Another Carter-led track and another recycled bit from the EP, but it an effective, building ballad that firmly sticks its landing.
quicklist: 2 title: Guided By Voices' "Motivational Jumpsuit" **** text: Over the last 25 years or so and more than 20 albums, Guided By Voices have established a standard in haphazard, half-tipsy recording techniques. You can look to their 1994 masterpiece, "Bee Thousand" as a textbook example. Robert Pollard is as maddening a composer as he is a brilliant one and his efforts can at one turn be considered slapdash and at another be considered amazing.
After disbanding in 2004, following numerous line-up changes, the band's earliest signature lineup regrouped and began releasing records again at the beginning of 2012. "Motivational Jumpsuit" is the band's sixth release in the two years since. You read that right! Five albums and an EP. With each successive release since, the band has gotten closer to finding their sweet spot again and "Motivational Jumpsuit" stands among one of the most inspired and enjoyable collections in their entire, celebrated discography. Its 20 tracks clock in at just over 37 minutes and yet, even when the songs barely are over the one-minute mark, they feel complete. This is an assortment of little, succinct pop explosions delivered like a thrown-together collection of experiments. The loose and fuzzy nature of the record makes it seem like a home-made artifact. Often times, this lo-fi element can be the band's biggest enemy, but here, with top-notch material, it actually serves as an asset. Like "Bee Thousand" and later records like "Isolation Drills" and "Earthquake Glue," this should be seen as one of their signature records. Or, at the very least, an extremely close cousin to those records.
"The Littlest League Possible" Can a song that spans only 78 seconds be indelible? Yes! This opener begins things with a bang. Around the 33-second mark, it fizzes to a fuzzy boil and hits its mark. Would it be nice if it expanded and offered another verse? Yes. But there is something refreshing about the fact that it stands as a quick burst. One wonders if this is a leftover from the band's last record, since it was titled "English Little League."
"Vote For Me Dummy" A rocky slice of anthemic fuzz-pop, over an unwieldy, awesomely off-kilter beat, Pollard delivers a new GBV standard, declaring, "I'll tell you the truth or I'll tell you a joke."
"Zero Elasticity" This riff is a little more metallic than the band usually goes, but it has a powerfully chunky quality. Abrasive verses give away to a sing-along style chorus. And the hilarious album title is lifted from this song.
"Record Level Love" Another exercise in brevity, this one is led by Tobin Sprout, who was originally in the band from 1987 to 1997. Since his 2012 re-entrance into the group, he has proven to be a valuable asset. His song "Waving At Airplanes" was the key highlight to their 2012 album, "The Bears For Lunch."
"Planet Score" This is another loud rocker from Pollard, where the amps are turned up to 20. He writes such great pop tunes, yet insists on obscuring them in a sea of fuzz. Somehow the effect just gives the tracks more power.
quicklist: 3 title: Suzanne Vega's "Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles" **** text: What has made Suzanne Vega interesting since her debut in the mid-80s is that she's never been easy to pin down. She's from a singer-songwriter tradition, but the dashes of trip-hop found on her album "99.9" and on the later, more ethereal "Songs In Red And Grey" point to something darker and more seductively alluring. Lyrically, she has always had a knack for telling stories. Usually these are tales of troubled protagonists with a lot on their minds.
Her last proper album, "Beauty And Crime," arrived seven years ago and it was on one hand a cabaret love-letter to New York and on another a noir-expose and an exercise in character studies. Since then, Vega released four (fascinatingly essential) collections of her songs re-recorded, stripped down to their acoustic essences. "Tales From The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles" is in turn one her most songwriter-y records. It is destined for the coffee houses and yet, it is Vega's dark edges that push it notches above your average fare. This is also a sophisticated and orchestral effort, full of global sonic influences, from the Middle Eastern-flavored "Don't Cork What You Can't Contain" to the Flamenco-flavored "Jacob And The Angel."
These 10 tracks run their course a little too quickly and thus this album may demand repeat listens. People may remember Vega most for "Luka" and "Tom's Diner," but the consistent quality of her output proves that Vega has somewhat quietly become one of the best (and most underrated) singer-songwriters to emerge within the last 30 years. This album is yet another keeper in her long career.
"I Never Wear White" This grungy, bluesy, rough-sounding number is an anthem for wearing black. Vega declares, "Black is for secrets, outlaws and dancers. / For the poet of the dark.") Like her divorce-themed "Widow's Walk" from "Songs In Red And Grey," images of a doomed bride seem prominent. Black is, after all, the color of mourning. Vega wallows in the darkness beautifully.
"Jacob And The Angel" This handclap-heavy, pseudo-Biblical study is given a drifting quality by the quickly-strummed minimalistic guitar part. As the orchestra takes over toward the end of the song, it morphs into something more elegant and stately.
"Silver Bridge" Had she plugged in the guitars here, this would've been a nice power-pop number. With the quiet driving acoustic riffing, this song keeps an alterna-pop cache without hitting you over the head. Keeping it in the acoustic realm makes the transition into the more orchestral bridge-section less jarring.
"Laying On Of Hands" This one is a funky, groove-centric song about Mother Teresa. It also serves as a sequel to the equally powerful song before it, "Song Of The Stoic." This track is all about the healing power of touch. You can read into Vega's intentions all you want. She's always had a sensual side to her writing, but here she combines it with a religious element, and yet in the midst of this she sings, "I don't know about happiness, but virtue is over-rated." As the song closes, it bursts into a groovy gospel sing-a-long.
quicklist: 4 title: Benmont Tench's "You Should Be So Lucky" *** text: As the keyboard player for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Benmont Tench has spent the last 40 years earning his legacy in rock history. Besides his work with Petty, he's also a highly (and rightly) celebrated session man, adding parts to countless songs and albums over the years. In fact, the guy has been a constant industry presence. That is partly why it is surprising that "You Should Be So Lucky" is Tench's first solo album. He's an excellent musician, who has long deserved to release his own material. However, this record is a little uneven. For the most-part, the second half is far better than the first. It is evident from the initial few seconds of the opener, "Today I Took Your Picture Down," that Tench is nervous behind the mic. He barely sings above a whisper and that is made problematic during the more rocking tracks like "Veronica Said" and the title track, where his voice is buried really deeply into the mix. Never mind the fact that "Veronica Said" sounds a bit like Bruce Springsteen's "Fire," and the title track sounds like a response to "Secret Agent Man."
Tench doesn't have a bad voice. He just sounds quietly uneasy. After all, the man isn't used to being in the main spotlight. I sense this album was done as a side lark during some downtime. If he were to make more records like this, he'd eventually find his footing. Tench is a very talented guy and that still comes through on "You Should Be So Lucky." The highlights more than make up for the album's weaker points.
"Duquesne Whistle" Interestingly, Tench sounds most assured on the album's closer. It's a cover of the opening track from Bob Dylan's 2012 album "Tempest." Dylan's work has often done its best when reinterpreted by others, and here is no exception. Tench's soft voice is put to good use here. He makes the song smoother than it was with Dylan's gravelly delivery. This arrangement is stellar. Tench's piano work is stunning, which isn't a surprise, but the track also has some nice, acoustic jazz-guitar work, giving it an old tin-pan alley feel.
"Wobbles" This instrumental workout gives Tench a chance to show his piano-playing skills, while giving the listeners an old-school saloon-ready number.
"Why Don't You Quit Leavin' Me Alone" This quiet, late-night lament recalls Tom Waits' vintage reflective moments. The big surprise here is that Tench is a pretty decent songwriter, too. Considering most of Petty's material is either written by Petty or Petty and Mike Campbell, this is a nice discovery even to longtime fans.
"Like The Sun (Michoacán)" This track sounds like Petty being channeled through the Velvet Underground at their most clear-eyed. It's just a nice, breezy track with a bright melody.
"Ecor Rouge" This is another instrumental number that is mainly a strong piece of jazz. I'm actually amazed more of the album didn't take this tone. It would have been a very different kind of record. It was released by Blue Note, after all.
quicklist: 5 title: Jonatha Brooke's "My Mother Has 4 Noses" ****1/2 text: Singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke hasn't released an album since 2008's "The Works," on which she put Woody Guthrie's words to her own music. Most famous for her alt-rock radio hits, "Linger" and "Nothing Sacred," Amherst College-educated Brooke has spent recent years writing music for others. "My Mother Has 4 Noses" is actually a play currently running in New York and features the music on this album. It was inspired by Brooke's moving of her mother to New York as she suffered from Alzheimer's. So this is, in a nutshell, Brooke's loving tribute to her mother and it showcases some of her best songwriting to date. This is an intimate, string-laden album full of warmth and sadness. It's not designed for the radio, but it deserves the same attention as her other releases. This is a jarringly personal, tender record that will pull your heartstrings for all the right reasons.
Brooke's mother, Darren Stone Nelson, was a writer herself who wrote for "The Christian Science Monitor" for a number of years.
"Are You Getting This Down?" According to the liner notes, throughout most of her life, this is a question Brooke's mother frequently would ask her. Somehow this summarizes a life and serves as a declaration of her mother's love towards her in just over three minutes.
"The Wind" If you are looking for a single, "The Wind" is among her best work. It would have fit very well on her album "Steady Pull." And yet, knowing this song is about her coping with her mother fading away from her just gives it more depth. Brooke makes references in the liner notes regarding this song to "shells that no longer offered up sounds from the sea." It's a fitting, yet strikingly sad comparison.
"Sleight Of Hand" Brooke sings, "I used to be something special. / I used to be one of a kind." Watching her mother fade as everything she knew slipped away, must have been impossible to handle. Imagine being suddenly stripped of what makes you yourself, like some cruel magic trick.
"Scars" One of the album's few rock songs, "Scars" is vintage Brooke. As a songwriter, one of her best qualities is her winding sense of melody. Her songs often take intriguing turns. An unexpected note here, a momentary turn there. Like "Crumbs" from her 1997 album, "10 Cent Wings," this song offers an unusual tune, you'll want to hear it over again to monitor for unique bits and note combinations. Subject-wise, the song is about her mother recovering from surgery. Some of the lyrics are borrowed from a poem her mother wrote.
"Time" The calliope/music box used to back-up this track about Brooke not being able to face her mother's approaching death, just makes this song that much sadder. People handle grief in very different ways. Jonatha Brooke has channeled all her pain into a monumental, loving tribute.
quicklist: 6 title: The Presidents Of The United States Of America's "Kudos To You!" ***1/2 text: Yes, the band that brought you "Lump," "Kitty" and "Peaches" have returned with their sixth record, "Kudos For You!" These guys were churning out ridiculous joke-rock in the 90s, showing a jovial, more light-hearted side to Seattle rock at the peak of the otherwise serious grunge movement. It's easy to forget that these guys were floating around with some pretty important people. Leader Chris Ballew played on Beck's "One Foot In the Grave" after all, which is considered by many to be a lo-fi indie-rock classic. "Kudos For You!" offers up some surprises. The band has always been sharp, a fact that some listeners may have overlooked since they were always hell-bent on landing a joke. But underneath all the winking humor lies a pretty decent grungy power-pop band. Considering they never quite had the witty edge of a band like They Might Be Giants, they were always a little too easy to dismiss. "Kudos For You!" offers plenty of reasons why that initial dismissal may have been wrong. It's a good, silly rock record with some decently assembled tunage. And unlike many of their 90's alt-rock peers, the POTUSA have not made any efforts to change their sound to keep up with pop trends. In 2014, a '90s-style pop-rock record filled with garage-ready riffs and basic production sounds remarkably fresh.
"Crown Victoria" A creeper of a song, this track is an ace slice of pop, filled with a kind of retro-sound that wouldn't seem out of place on '70s AM radio, and yet it shows a kind of compositional sophistication one would associate with one of their other often under-rated peers, Fountains of Wayne. Yes, the song is about driving a run-down car with doughnut-stained seats, but it's one of the best songs about the subject you are ever likely to hear.
"Crappy Ghost" This is a power-pop song about a female ghost who haunts a recording studio and messes around with the equipment. She only half knows what she is doing and can't really do anything substantial since she is a ghost after all. It is hard-driving and pretty funny, too.
"Truckstop On The Moon" This is the album's closer and it is one of the slower songs on the record. The name and the lyrics about driving can't help but recall their single, "Dune Buggy," even if in their canon, this is a superior track. This is a woozy bit of acoustic balladeering with a loose, airy feeling that makes the space theme resonate even more.
"Stay With Me" This one is a righteous bit of hard-rocking punk chaos, anchored by some heavy riffing. It is raw, loud and insistent.
"She's A Nurse" In lesser hands, this song about having one's heart stitched up could seem cloying and annoyingly emo, but the Presidents make this into a fun sing-along stomper.
quicklist: 7 title: Lost In The Trees' "Past Life" ***1/2 text: Lost In The Trees' leader, Ari Picker favors atmospheric textures and ethereal soundscapes. His voice is a clear, high flexible instrument. The fact that he studied at Berklee shows all over the composerly nature of his band's fourth record. Like the Antlers' Peter Silberman, Picker crafts haunting laments about life, love and death, but he is able to convey his feelings through arrangements that are often quite stirring. "Past Life" is a mood-piece, much like the band's previous record, "A Church That Fits Our Needs," two years ago, which paid respects to Picker's deceased mother after her suicide. "Past Life" is a slightly lighter follow-up, but further plays with the conventions of that record. It is evident however that Picker's mother's death may still be a drawing point.
Listening to the record, it is striking that Lost In The Trees aren't more famous. A number of these tracks, if given the chance, could be enormous singles. Picker does tend to lean toward brooding anthems of sadness, but often these numbers quietly swell up to cathartic choruses. These tracks may be too gentle for some, but they are still steeped in authentic sense of loss.
"Daunting Friend" Destined to be a huge hit if given the right promotion, this song is under three minutes but gets to the point quickly. Think of a better, brighter alternative to James Blunt or early-career Keane and you've got an idea of how this song could land. It is soaring brilliance in a small package.
"Lady In White" Anchored by a funky drum beat and a haunting piano line, this track is truly stirring. At times Picker's high wail recalls Thom Yorke.
"Sun" Even in the brighter spots, Picker seems haunted and this is ethereal, melodic gold. One gets the feeling that this song could even be translated well into a classical piece. There is one very brief part of the melody though that strangely, momentarily reminds me of the verse section of Matthew Wilder's 1983 hit, "Break My Stride."
"Upstairs" Again, late-period Radiohead comes to mind. Tone-wise this sounds like a cousin to the "In Rainbows" cut "House Of Cards." The chorus here is extremely warm and enveloping. Considering this is the album's closer, perhaps this was done to end on a bright note and wash away any sense of sadness.
"Rites" Another key track under three minutes in length that could be a quietly satisfying single. Picker is singing at a whisper but you listen to every word he utters because the bass and the drums draw you in. The repeated refrained question, "Are you sitting down?" provides a sense of intrigue.
Next Week: Beck will release his first album since 2008's "Modern Guilt." We'll also listen to new albums from The Fray, St. Vincent and more.
Did you miss last week's list? Get the latest on the most recent solo effort from Crowded House's Neil Finn, Band Of Horses and more!