Courtney Barnett brings the melodramatic kink and nonchalant quirk, Kurt Vile lays the twirling twang and wispy guitar, and together combines the trans-continental power-duo you always wanted, but never thought possible. Almost as if they were meant to be siblings glued together through music, odds couldn’t have driven a bigger wedge between them than a continents-worth of land and unspeakably large body of water. But who’s one to back down from odds when the music sways in your favor? And there’s no doubt about it on Lotta Sea Lice: the music glue was working overtime.
From teeth-gritting, low-key blues-rock numbers like “Fear Is Like a Forest” to rambling acoustic plucking on “Continental Breakfast” and “Blue Cheese”, the bag of tricks was wide open for both parties. And encapsulated in a daze of unadulterated indie-rock, “Over Everything” sits like the table centerpiece for seasoned veterans of wily guitar-work and sarcasm. As the convergence between country drawl and lackadaisical indifference, it’s no secret why “Over Everything” is an original standout and a more-than-great starting point for an even better album. Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, they trade takes on leading the others song—Vile sings majority of Barnett’s 2014 song “Out of the Woodwork” and Barnett sings all of Vile’s 2011 number “Peeping Tomboy”—before tuning down a notch for the finale with “Untogether”.
Gut instinct says this duo isn’t done, because Lotta Sea Lice is sheer magic. We may have to wait a while, so best hunker down for the long-haul. Something’s saying it will be well worth the wait. Well worth it.
With a hint of bottle-up punk-like angst, folk-esque acoustics, and hand-clapping soul, Kevin Morby’s 2017 release City Music is as classic indie rock as classic indie rock can get. Soaking up the experiences of past ventures from the NYC psychedelic-folk outfit Woods and more indie-centric efforts with The Babies and solo releases, City Music rounds off the edges and narrows his aim for a guitar-heavy powerhouse. And rather than opting for the long-haired three-piece indie jam guise, Morby focuses on including all shades of composition and structure rather than heads bobbing to the drone of reverb-laden guitar over a backbeat (although, there’s plenty of quality bobbing and reverb to be heard on City Music). There’s “Crybaby” and “1234” for the punk lovers, and just damn good indie rock with a hint of harmonic soul on “Aboard My Train”, and the indie folk from Woods on “Tin Can” and “Night Time”. But nothing hits the nail on the head better than the grandiose title track, “City Music”. Speed up and slow down, harmonizing guitar, handclaps and tambourine, “City Music” is the marquee track on a catalog standout.
Leslie Feist doesn’t owe the world a thing. Starting out as the female vocalist in the Canadian troupe, Broken Social Scene, launching a solo career captivated by the album The Reminder and pairing singles, “1234” and “I Feel It All”, and then morphing into something else entirely, it’s fair to say she’s paid some dues and been around the block once or twice. But the Feist we have today is not the Feist from The Reminder. The artistic transformation that ensued shed light on a seemingly internalized creative output seen on 2011’s Metals that turned some heads, if not entirely doing away with the iconic indie-pop image she created for herself. Like the pearl within the oyster, Pleasure brings a deeply personal and avant-garde approach to art as the follow up to Metals, resembling another drop in the river that flows further away from her former self. With songs like “Century” and “Pleasure” that drive with a gamut of percussion and distorted guitars, the catchy hooks and bouncy, cheerful lyrics of the past gave way to an elevated and exposed inspiration. Or even more so in opting for a bluesy-guitar or soulful and jazzy organ on numbers like “I’m Not Running Away” and “Young Up” does Feist truly come into her own form. And yet in a classic ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from tree’-like fashion, Feist and the acoustic guitar just can’t seem to parse with soft and soothing tracks like “Baby Be Simple”, “Any Party”, and “A Man Is Not His Song” that dive into the melodically flowing vocals and pairing acoustic guitar.
Carved out with years of dedication and keen-eyed teamwork (and a hell of production lineup to boot), Portugal. The Man’s 2017 release, Woodstock is one to be reckoned with as a powerhouse release and catalog standout. With flavors spanning from hip-hop and pop to wheelhouse PTM, it certainly kicks it up a notch for a progressive endeavor while never turning face from the carefree, joyous sound that got them here. No bones about it, Woodstock is the most pop-rock-focussed effort by the Pacific Northwest outfit-“Live In The Moment” certainly attests to that, but songs like “Rich Friends” and “Easy Tiger” are as classic PTM as 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud (just with a contemporary twist). The hit single “Feel It Still” really bolsters mainstream appeal (let alone, it’s a tidbit out of left field) and falls right in line of a more radio-friendly effort with a heavy dosage of dance. With bouncy horns, catchy hooks, and an Austin Powers-like quirk, “Feel It Still” goes miles for shaking hips and bobbing heads beyond preceding highlights like 2013’s “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” and 2009’s “People Say”. And in true PTM form, the band swaps in their traditional instruments for the good ol’ beat machine to kick off the record with the Danger Mouse-produced “Number One”, which features samples from Richie Havens’ “Freedom” (counter culture anyone?). Winding down the second half of the record, the group morphs into a full-fledged hip-hop group with tracks like the slow-grooving “So Young”, the beat-centric “Tidal Wave” and “Mr. Lonely” (featuring The Pharcyde’s Fat Lip), and the resistance anthem in “Noise Pollution” (produced by The Beastie Boys’ Mike D).
For PTM fans both new and old, Woodstock contains all the good ingredients of the past while mixing in dashes of newer, poppier nuances. It’s a different band that put out 2008’s Censored Colors, and with that some find nostalgia (note: they have a truly astonishing catalog). Woodstock is a fresh reminder that music can be contemporary without abandoning the past.
As their fourth full-length release and follow up to 2014’s monumental Lost in the Dream, the Philadelphia outfit takes another step further along the path that is characteristically “The War On Drugs” with A Deeper Understanding. Meticulously crafted with a magnifying glass over 80’s and late 70’s-esque synth orchestral, Adam Granduciel and team willfully pinpoint ambience over the manifest of sounds that got them here. From the long stretching ballads like “Strangest Thing” and head-bobbing drives with “Holding On”, A Deeper Understanding contains all the cast of characters you adored about the group from their previous releases, but look no further that the kickoff song, “Up All Night” for the primary differentiator. Substituting trashcan snares over a piano bedrock, it certainly seems to come off as contrary to their rooted manuscript, but the song hits home as it carries on (in layman’s terms, it’s fair to say the band won’t be going full-electronic any time soon…). And with their knee-jerk tendencies of throwing in a ripping, reverb-laden guitar solo over the melodic drone of acoustic guitar on “Pain”, or anthem-like luscious synth-layering on “Strangest Thing”, A Deeper Understanding couldn’t be more of a classic The War On Drugs release. Slight and menial differences aside, prop this release next to Lost in the Dream on the record shelf, because albums like this don’t come around very often (in fact, The War On Drugs albums don’t come very often), and it’s a fantastic starting point if you are unfamiliar with the group.
An orchestra of electro-pop synths and hip hop beats, guitar slaying, domination, and sentiment. If Annie Clark didn’t before, she definitely owns you now. Economically, emotionally, socially, sexually, and even a tad bit affectionately, Annie Clark is just on a different wave length than most folks. Except this time, John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, Angel Olsen) is partnered with the pop-wonderboy, Jack Antonoff (Lorde, Taylor Swift) behind the production board. And with a long list of collaborators (Jenny Lewis, Pino Palladino, Kamasi Washington) adding their two cents beside the powerhouse producing duo, St. Vincent’s latest release with Masseduction is undeniably the shredding glam-rock and fuzz-synth pop gem we’ve waited for. As if she didn’t prove it enough on 2014’s self-titled release, St. Vincent’s knack for morphing from a piano hall balladeer to a dominatrix-esque guitar virtuoso is like nothing seen before, and Masseduction plunges deep into both oddly disparate caricatures. Numbers like “Pills”, “Hang On Me” and “Los Ageless” explore a jungle of drum machines, breakdowns, and twisting guitar solos with the inner Prince and Bowie as the guiding light. But nothing tips the scale quite like the title track, “Masseduction”—a pumping backbeat, twisting and ripping guitar work, and even lyrics about manipulation like manhandling weapons. Seducing lyrics, destructive soundscapes, and domination—so about that part where Annie Clark owns you? After all, she does sing ‘I can’t turn off what turns me on’…
It’s all there. Guitar-laden melodies, driving backbeats, piano ballads, and an orator-esque style of lyrics and vocals, it’s all there.
A starkly somber and humanizing reminder of the feckless struggle between yin and yang, man and woman, child and adult, and body and society. And without the slightest sense of regret in self loathing or pity, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and co. recount anecdotal lyrics to the hum of a band ever-so present in the backdrop of the grand scheme. Frail and soft vocals up front, folk and lo-fi pop behind, and cast in an ethereal demeanor, Capacity is the glowing light that spans from melodramatic realism to avant-garde acoustic folk. With 2016’s Masterpiece in the backseat (and rightfully dubbed a masterpiece), songs like “Watering” and “Great White Shark” display perfect dynamics between melodic vocals, driving instrumentals and ambience. And as if seasoned musicianship wasn’t on display before, “Shark Smile” casts a light in case there were any doubts.
For a group of demonic missionaries (after all, their name is the The Black Angels), they sure know how to conjure the inner-psychedelic savage out of every listener. Eerie and haunting while shaking the bad juju off from a horrid trance, Alex Maas and the Austin, Texas troupe lay down all of the tarot cards and voodoo bone casts on Death Song to remind you that the devil comes in kaleidoscopic shapes and forms. And as their follow up to 2014’s Clear Lake Forest, Death Song stretches their lifelong dedication to the garage psych-rock of the Velvet Underground (see their 1967 release on The Velvet Underground & Nico, “The Black Angel’s Death Song”…) and much of the psychedelia to come out of the 60’s and 70’s. But what’s truly different about Death Song from past releases like 2010’s groundbreaking Phosphene Dream is it’s ability to charm their conjured demon into a groovy boogie. The impending apocalyptic doom is still looming like a dark cloud, but songs like “I Dreamt” and “Medicine” get the devils feet tapping and hips shaking as if it’s the last chance before that dark cloud takes over (after all, the record is dubbed Death Song…). And while certainly more cheekier than before and never short on cynicism, Death Song drives with an upbeat lifeblood faster and further than ever before, while still including that sinister synth squeal from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” to shine a light on how dark the lifeblood truly is.
As the release that separates itself from the pack of brewing angst and lost loves, Elbow’s release in Little Fictions makes ground on the integrity it’s predecessors sought. A concoction of intertwining rhythms, melodies, and moving instrumentals, Little Fictions displays individual talent within the confines of a group setting. And where heartache bent for musicianship on previous releases, newfound love makes way for years of creative and raw exertion that spans from the microphone and guitar parts to the clinging percussions and backing string ensembles. As undeniably one of the most diverse and expansive releases for the group, and quite possibly for the year, Little Fictions sits as the sweet reminder that great things comes with time.
Isn’t it tragically mundane to approach art with the same emotions and outlook time and time again? This piece fits here, put that there, and screw the lid on tight as if art is an assembly line pumping out nostalgic, bite-size morsels for the public to reminisce on until another comes out a few years down the road.
Now, some artists (even really great artists) can ride the wave of their niche for years, decades or more without getting stale, but hitting repeat or fitting art creation into a tried-and-true mold doesn’t always work for everyone. Ditching the past and solely looking forward isn’t necessarily the best approach either in certain situations, but what alt-J does on Relaxer is certainly exploring uncharted territory considering their catalog. Even for a group that’s relatively expansive, Relaxer takes that notion a bit farther. From casting a crew of blaring horns on “In Cold Blood”, adding an avant-garde twist to the folk classic, “House of the Rising Sun”, to a hip-hop-esque number with “Deadcrush”, Relaxer is undeniably the groups most ambitiously diverse effort to date. And as the characteristically black sheep of it’s forebears, “3WW” couldn’t be more of a peculiar song to kick off Relaxer. Dynamically falling with exquisite delicacy and rising to the top with a blasting chorus, “3WW” epitomizes the ebbs and flows of Relaxer and stands as one of the most unique songs ever released.