May 4, 2014 -- intro: This week we got the first Pixies full-length album in 23 years, Ray LaMontagne decided to explore his psychedelic side, Blur/Gorillaz front-man Damon Albarn and Distillers front-woman Brody Dalle delivered solo offerings, comedian Jim Gaffigan proved himself once again to be one of the wackiest people on the planet, indie rock duo Wye Oak delivered a slicker, more electronic record and Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl released their latest collection under the name The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger.
quicklist: 1 title: Pixies’ “Indie Cindy” **** text: Welcome to what is perhaps the most polarizing record of 2014. Ever since the announcement last June that longtime Pixies bassist Kim Deal had left the band (probably to spend her time on solo pursuits and working with her other band the Breeders) some fans have voiced concern and said that without Kim, this band is no longer the same. While those fans are right and Deal is an irreplaceable, missed presence, “Indie Cindy” still shows Black Francis, Joey Santiago and David Lovering doing their best to continue their band’s now epic legacy.
This album had a peculiar unveiling. It is their first full-length in 23 years, but they chose to release it in three chunks, starting last year. So, this record is essentially a compilation of the rearranged tracks from those three EPs. (If you will recall, I favorably reviewed “EP2” back in January.)
When a band gets back together, particularly after being partially fractured, there will always be listeners complaining that they aren’t as good as they used to be. Saying that denies the band the ability to grow and evolve. I’m not sure what album this record’s harshest critics are hearing, but to me, this sounds like a fitting next step. Deal’s absence is greatly felt, but this is still every bit a Pixies album which builds effectively off their previous work.
“Greens And Blues” The best song on “EP2” is also the standout on the collection as a whole. It still stands among their best work, playing with their most accessible side. This is pop gold with rough edges. The song gives the repeat button a new level of purpose.
"Andro Queen"What often gets forgotten in the Pixies’ legacy is how much they love ethereal music. I hear echos of “Wave Of Mutilation (UK Surf)” and “Ana,” and, tune-wise this is also a cousin to “Where Is My Mind?” This is a tenderly, beautifully-crafted romantic ballad full of vivid lyrical imagery, seemingly culminating in a make-out session. Bonus points for the rambling spoken-word bit of Spanish in the middle of the song.
“Bagboy” This was the first track of the set to be released and despite the Deal impression during the chorus that now seems like a mistake, this is the kind of track that finds the band roaring back into action. It has the kind of muscular wallop suited for high-profile sporting events. Lovering’s drum-kit packs a punch, especially when paired with Santiago’s off-kilter riffing. It plays like an intense explosion.
“Indie Cindy” The title-track is effectively moody slice of blues, sandwiching shouted rants with a beautiful chorus. This perfectly captures that signature Pixies sense of tension.
“Jaime Bravo” Another ethereal piece, but this one churns and bounces with a pogoing beat and Francis’ falsetto is as strong as ever. This upbeat song is a strangely fitting closer as it ends the album with a chorus of goodbyes. I’m really hoping this isn’t a one-off record and that in another year or two there will be more releases. An influential band of this caliber deserves to get their ultimate pop redemption and to get the praise they deserve.
quicklist: 2 title: Ray LaMontagne’s “Supernova” ****1/2 text: Forget any pre-conceived notions you have of what a Ray LaMontagne record should sound like. With the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach as his producer, the two effectively deliver a striking bit of upbeat psychedelia. LaMontagne’s soulful voice is effectively often coated in bits of reverb and echo and the instrumentation sounds simultaneously trippy and dusty.
This bit of reinvention is a relief: He and Auerbach sound like they are having a blast. This is a long way from the ballads like “Trouble” and “Barfly” and yet the sound suits him well. On the more treated tracks he doesn’t sound unlike the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz during the experimental “Porpoise Song”/”Head” period. On other tracks, when he adopts a rasp, he sounds like a completely different singer. In many ways, this record shows his versatility better than any other release he has issued to this point.
Like Matt Costa’s excellent (but often overlooked) 2010 masterpiece, “Mobile Chateau,” this record wears its sixties influences proudly. This is an effective game of retro-playtime and it is the kind of album you probably need to hear on vinyl. This is one of the best surprises I’ve gotten in a while.
LaMontagne’s previous career high-point was his 2006 sophomore effort, “Till The Sun Turns Black.” This record is every bit as strong as that one and yet, they couldn’t be more different. LaMontagne and Auerbach better continue this professional partnership. To say it works well is an understatement.
“Lavender” This woozy, paisley opener is a complex tune packed with texture and nuance. There’s a Beck-esque bit of slide-guitar working in the background paired with a marching-band beat that sounds like a slower response to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” LaMontagne is unexpectedly suited for this sound. And I would bet most of the fans of his previous work would not recognize this as a piece of his work.
“Airwaves” A laid-back piece of bossa nova-folk that doesn’t sound that different from the work of Rodriguez of “Searching For Sugarman” fame. Even LaMontagne’s strange whispers and heavy-breathing throughout the song don’t distract from its satisfying tone.
“Pick Up A Gun” It takes LaMontagne more than a minute to start singing and during that time, the track is packed with scratchy bits of organ and acid-drenched guitar. The melody of this song is sung with a slightly eerie sense of calm.
“Smashing” Another strong bit of psychedelia. When the guitars recede, LaMontagne sadly sings, “I look at you and I don’t know who I am. / I look at you and I see my life is a sham. / Am I just a con-man? / Fooled you once and I can do it again.” Somehow LaMontagne has repurposed the sense of gravity found in his earlier work into this newer, more upbeat material.
“Supernova” This cut stands out because it is more like mid-seventies folk-pop fare than the rest of the record. Had LaMontagne been performing back then he would’ve been extremely popular.
quicklist: 3 title: Damon Albarn’s “Everyday Robots” **** text: Over the last two decades, Damon Albarn has established himself as one of rock’s most adventurous tastemakers, but still he seems up for any adventure. “Everyday Robots” is touted on the cover sticker as his official solo debut. That is odd, considering last year’s solo release “Dr. Dee.” But then again, such a conversation is probably nitpicking anyway, considering how many projects he has helmed outside of Blur.
As expected, this is a thoughtful collection of tunes with an adventurous international flare. As time has progressed, he’s become a more contemplative songwriter. Fans of Blur should know that the majority of this album is closer to late-period triumphs “Out Of Time” and “Under The Westway” than “Girls & Boys” and “Song 2.” Still, there is a lighthearted side still intact. The upbeat “Mr. Tembo” is like a Tanzanian cousin of “Parklife” or “Country House” Mostly, though this is a quietly inventive collection of low-key numbers thick with playful atmospheric touches. With each passing moment, Albarn’s work is getting more and more sophisticated. He approaches each new project with an impressive level of focus. There’s a sense of peace throughout this set.
“You & Me” A 7-minute low-key excursion that finds Albarn exploring a rich narrative style throughout. It gets particularly beautiful during the song’s second half when Albarn starts to sing about “when the twilight comes.” As he does on the rest of this record, producer and XL-Recordings head Richard Russell approaches the album with great care.
“The Selfish Giant” Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan is somewhere buried in this track giving some subtle harmonies over a slow bass-line. Again, this is meticulously crafted and not for mere casual listening. This track also has some really fascinating piano passages.
“Everyday Robots” The main single and opening title-track doesn’t sound much like a single at all in the conventional sense, but it is a well-crafted number built around a tripped up and looped string-section line. Subject-wise this echoes the Blur song “The Universal,” although unlike that song’s futuristic optimism, this track is steeped in minor-key sadness, lamenting our tendencies to cling to technology. “We are everyday robots on our phones,” Albarn sings as if setting the scene for some sort of dystopia.
“Heavy Seas Of Love” (Featuring Brian Eno) The closing track plays like a gospel-driven plea for salvation after some of the album’s darker moments, and yet the chorus is downright celebratory, as if to offer a bit of comfort before the exit.
“Photographs (You Are Taking Now)” This track is gentle in its tone, but that gentleness is cut with a sampled warning, “Beware of the photographs you are taking now.” It reminds me of the people in the early days of photography who thought that having their pictures taken would rob them of their souls.
quicklist: 4 title: Brody Dalle’s “Diploid Love” **** text: If you’ve never heard The Distillers’ album “Coral Fang,” you need to drop everything just to listen to Brody Dalle spit bile at a level that makes Courtney Love sound sweet. The Distillers broke up shortly after that record, and after a period of time Dalle reappeared as the frontwoman for the more-polished Spinnerette. Over the years Dalle has been a key guest, having appeared on her husband, Josh Homme’s records with Queens of The Stone Age and the Eagles of Death Metal. Last month for Record Store Day, Dalle released a pair of tracks recorded with Garbage.
“Diploid Love” is Dalle’s debut solo statement. Like Spinnerette, it is a little more polished than her work with the Distillers but she still packs quite a powerful vocal instrument and on the rare occasion she does decide to scream it is quite amazing. These nine tracks go faster than you want them to but are full of interesting moments. Really it is a shame Dalle didn’t hit the scene a decade before she did. She would’ve done well in the nineties. And even on the poppier, hookier numbers here, she exudes no-nonsense authority. On “Don’t Mess With Me,” for instance, she delivers her message loud and clear that you don’t want to mess with her, even if she has you dancing at the same time.
Dalle finds a nice balance here between accessibility and brutality. Many of these songs merge grungy textures with dance beats. Maybe that is why she made such an ideal collaborator with Garbage. There are a couple of points on here that sound downright industrial. In any case, “Diploid Love” delivers a potent concoction.
“Rat Race” This opener is a perfect example of this album’s sound, balancing Dalle’s Joan Jett and Courtney Love influence as she goes from a mutter to a bellow. It is some grungy new-wave.
“Meet The Foetus / Oh The Joy” This is a driving, slightly unsettling number with a surprising pop core. It is two songs on the same track merged with the first half being a sly, fast-tempoed yet chilled rocker and the second half being a slightly faster punk rave-up.
“I Don’t Need Your Love” One of the few tracks that isn’t guitar-led, finds Dalle quietly singing over a minor key piano riff and a syncopated beat. She has a nicely haunted energy here, and this track really shows her vocal range.
“Blood In Gutters” This is a driving, creeping, slightly glammy serving of stadium rock packed with dark imagery. If you are familiar with the album art for the Distillers’ “Coral Fang,” it should come as no surprise that Dalle has a bit of a gory streak. After all, the main single off that record was called “Drain The Blood.”
quicklist: 5 title: Jim Gaffigan’s “Obsessed.” **** text: At this point, not only is Jim Gaffigan a celebrated comedian, but he’s also a respected actor, sometimes appearing in more serious roles than you would imagine. But on his sixth standup record, “Obsessed” he continues to turn observational, often absurdist comedy into an art. At this point you wouldn’t expect to hear a bit about food that sounded fresh, but until Gaffigan pointed it out, I had never thought about exactly why there are no paintings of doughnuts in museums.
Food is a favorite topic. If you are familiar with his body of work, you’ve probably heard his classic “Hot Pocket” bit. This time we get a wonderful diatribe about the awfulness of kale and how lobsters and crabs are just “bug-meat” we use as an excuse to consume copious amounts of butter. Southern foods, fried foods and clam chowder are also discussed.
Gaffigan also has great comedy bits about his family, particularly his wife and his five kids. “Big families are like waterbed stores,” he says, “they used to be everywhere and now they’re just weird.”
Stray observations push this album above the pack. Gaffigan is a crowd-pleaser for a reason. He also has a self-deprecating charm. This is a hilariously ridiculous collection. Some of these jokes you may find yourself quoting years from now.
“Weddings” As with most comedy albums, I don’t want to give away too many jokes, but he has an inspired bit about the absurdity of wedding ceremonies in modern times. It is like pretending you have a kingdom and then taking “a completely unjustified vacation.”
“Bars” Gaffigan’s bit comparing the behavior at a bar at 2 AM with the behavior at a pre-school is comedy gold.
“Live Longer” Gaffigan says, “I was at a school event because I have a thousand children and one of the moms was nice enough to make a bean soup so I went over and I tasted it and I said, ‘This is very good,’ and she leaned and said, ‘I snuck some kale in there,’ and I wanted to throw the bowl at her…” He explores the fickle nature of modern health trends with a sharp, acerbic wit.
“Victoria’s Secret” Going into “Victoria’s Secret” when he is shopping for something for his wife makes him feel like a pervert. He captures the awkwardness of the shopping experience well.
quicklist: 6 title: Wye Oak’s “Shriek” *** text: Baltimore duo Wye Oak’s fourth album, “Shriek” steps away from the moody, mannered indie rock that made their last album, “Civilian” a career high-point and explores more electronic terrain. This can be thrilling sometimes and claustrophobic other times. This album doesn’t quite possess the dark undercurrent of the previous release and sometimes its backdrops can be a little too spare and repetitive, but several times throughout the set it captures a shiny sense of majesty, anchored by Jenn Wasner’s often slightly detached delivery. The album has its share of moments but it often sounds like a capable cousin of other bands like Chairlift and Braids. It doesn’t sound quite as distinctive as it should. The best moments come when some unexpected artier moments arise, allowing it to separate from the background. Interestingly, the slicker tracks toward the second half of the record provide the best moments. This is an enjoyable record that shows its charms when it takes unexpected turns.
“Sick Talk” This icy groove has some true momentum. The beat is tightly balanced with some strong doses of bass. The best moments come though when backward elements and slight touches of distortion are introduced.
“Glory” This upbeat dance number is punctuated by some ambient sound in the background, adding the right amount of tension. The scratchy bits of guitar and sharp synth stabs during the solo provide track high points.
“Logic Of Color” This bright album closer provides one of the album’s best melodies, backed by a glowing synth bass. The track also has a compelling sense of rhythm.
“Paradise” The most chaotic track on the record is also the most tightly-wound. The textural guitar wails heard throughout add an unsettled element that would’ve suited the rest of the record. The drums are really pounding away with a statement of purpose.
quicklist: 7 title: The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger’s “Midnight Sun” ****1/2 text: Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s latest effort as The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger finds the two rocking more than ever before with grace and confidence. Building off of the aptly titles “Acoustic Sessions” and the funkier “La Carotte Bleue,” this record packs the most muscle of their releases. Throughout there’s a churning sense of experimentation reminiscent of Lennon’s tenure as a member of Cibo Matto. Lennon and Kemp Muhl, who are a couple, explore funk and psychedelia in equal measure. Interestingly, this probably provides the strongest echoes of Lennon’s father’s work to date, a comparison he can’t help but earn, since some of this plays like a groovy answer to “Sgt. Pepper.” But there’s also enough post-grunge rock elements brought to the table to make this a truly compelling stew. In all truth this might be Lennon’s best work to date.
Kemp Muhl also proves herself to be a vital player. Her voice is clear as a bell and adds warmth. This is the work of two dedicated artists meeting together to make something truly compelling. It’s a stew that essentially combines a multitude of genres from the past 40 years. It is a truly winning collection. This isn’t an album you should miss.
“Johannesburg” There is so much to be said for this Mark Ronson produced track led by Kemp Muhl. Between the hip-hop infused beat and the Stereolab-style synths it really sets itself apart. There is also a uniquely sexy European element as well, with Kemp Muhl’s playful screams in the background recalling the work of Serge Gainsbourg.
“Animals” From its minor-key chord progression to its guitar-wall chorus, this perfectly marries the sounds of the late sixties with those of the early nineties. It’s too bad the Beastie Boys-helmed label Grand Royal no longer exists. Lennon used to be signed by them and this album would have fit well on their roster.
“Golden Earing” This is a truly inventive, inspired record and if you need evidence of that, just listen to this track and take note of the clever uses of organ and rhythm. Lennon is really coming into his own here and with Kemp Muhl he has found an ideal partner.
“Poor Paul Getty” This is a bouncy ode to John Paul Getty III, who was famously kidnapped and had his ear cut off. It is a horrible story of being the bystander of privilege and celebrity and the unintended craziness that can result, which no doubt is something to which Lennon can relate. It is an interesting subject choice.
“Too Deep” Lennon probably wants to escape the shadow of his famous father, but because of genetic factors, it is impossible to listen to something as rocking like “Too Deep” and not think of cuts like the Beatles’ “Rain.” He definitely inherited his father’s gift.
“Xanadu” A spacey, Eastern-flavored romp that again recalls the Beatles, but it has a wah-wah funk level that makes it all the more groovy. The harmonies between Lennon and Kemp Muhl are priceless.
Next week new music from Sarah McLachlan, Lily Allen, Lykke Li and more!