Ironic or not, Fancey’s vision of ’70s disco on Love Mirage is cheesy fun. On the one hand, Todd Fancey, guitarist for the New Pornographers, is serious: about his love of vintage instruments, in particular keyboards (Rhodes, Wurlitzers, clavinets); about his fondness for period references to mirror balls, movies (“Carrie”) and phrases with “baby” in them (“Baby Love,” “Baby Sunshine,” “Turn Around Baby”); about his love for AM-radio-friendly late-’70s disco (think “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”—white-bread, breezy, orchestrated pop with a disco backbeat—although Fancey and fellow vocalists Angela Kelman and 13-year-old Olivia Maye aren’t the powerhouse singers that Elton John and Kiki Dee were). But he’s also winking on this, his third ’70s-obsessed Fancey album: For every loving “Disco Queen,” there’s a silly “Witch Attack!” complete with werewolves. Regardless, it’s hard not to smile at Love Mirage’s affectionate imitation of an oft-maligned musical era.
There is the “eBay value” of what you inherit; and then there is its emotional value to you. One could argue that two decades down the line from its debut, Either/Or is both a rare Rolex of a keepsake and one that was worn by your favorite uncle—that rare totem possessing both value and the sort of sentimental equity that has no monetary equivalent. No space is wasted, no track is filler, no detail overlooked. Whether the late Elliott Smith uses layered metaphor to weave a spell of confusion over listeners as to the chicken/egg relationship between love, misery and dependence (the album’s two devastating classics “Between The Bars” and “Say Yes”), takes detailed notes of his twilight travels around Portlandia to either comic (“Rose Parade”) or tragic (“Alameda”) ends, or plays every damn instrument in the bandroom like some sort of post-rock Brian Wilson conducting an orchestra heard only in his head (personal favorites “No Name No. 5,” “Cupid’s Trick”), this is an indisputable 10-star album with no peer and no real room for improvement. The sonic rebuffing and expansion only add to this record’s charms rather than reveal a diamond that somehow wasn’t obvious previously. The Mary Lou Lord-covered “I Figured You Out” and rare Freewheelin’-esque b-side “I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out” (plus rare live tracks and alternative versions of latergrams such as “Bottle Up And Explode!”) merely confirm that Smith’s genius wouldn’t be contained to the spiderwebby acoustica he had traded in early on, but would instead translate equally well to Abbey Road-like palettes that would still wring tears from elegantly rendered realness.
Not since Public Image Ltd.’s Paris Au Printemps have a band, a city, a season and a cause (well, kind of a cause, maybe a cause célèbre) joined as one to create an entire package such as this. As PiL’s tart anger-energy live effort caught this band at its knobby peak, signaling too the rise of post-punk mutation and its eventual leap into the mainstream, the first new union of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss since its 2006 retirement (captured by 2015’s No Cities To Love and this eventual tour showcase) portrayed the need for riot wimmen to unite in an expression of pre-Trump-ian rage, to say nothing of showing off the unique tone of this trio’s bass-less, trebly torpor. Without allowing too much ’90s nostalgia to drive them or this recording (though this La Cigale gig had its share of oblong oldies-but-grrl-goodies from past classics such as The Woods, Dig Me Out, One Beat, The Hot Rock and Call The Doctor with the silly “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” S-K’s finest furriest hour), this night in Paris has the punch of the present. How else can you explain starting off this album with the snot-nosed paean to Stepford Wife-i-ness, “Price Tag,” and holding court with a majority of its newest album’s toughest tracks such as “A New Wave” and “Surface Envy?” As the live album—and such an odd thing to behold happily so many years after the grand smash likes of Kiss Alive or Got Live If You Want It—winds down, to end with a crackling new punk tune (“Dig Me Out”) as well as a taut, raw earlier one (its caustic retirement swan song “Modern Girl”) is just an epiphany and a joy.
For the past nine years, Cleveland native Dylan Baldi has been working out his lo-fi power-pop angst as Cloud Nothings. Baldi’s first release under that banner, 2009’s Turning Up, was recorded in his parents’ basement when he was 19 and alerted the world to a massively talented and insightful one-man band. 2014’s acclaimed Here And Nowhere Else was hastily written and recorded between tours with his stage-and-studio band, but his fourth album, Life Without Sound, shows how deliberation and time can improve even greatness. From the start, Baldi’s wheelhouse has been a mosh-pit collision among Tommy Keene, Velvet Crush and Hüsker Dü in a raw evocation of power-pop melodicism and punk dissonance, and Life Without Sound adheres to that basic template. The major shifts here are Baldi’s sonic sophistication and maturation as an arranger and lyricist, as evidenced by the stinging piano introduction to opener “Up To The Surface,” the ringing tribalism of epic closer “Realize My Fate” and the infectious whip-crack pop that fills the 30 minutes between them.
After a long period of self-released soundscapes and studio leftovers, Guy Blakeslee returned last fall with his first official Entrance EP in nearly a decade, the four-song Vistavision expanse of Promises, a lush but all-too-brief rumination on the nature of time. For Book Of Changes, his subsequent first full-length, Blakeslee takes the same tack, creating a gorgeously melancholy sonic tapestry by spinning psychedelic folk gold from the mundane straw of daily existence and the universal search for tranquility and resolution. Blakeslee’s quavering vibrato and copious use of orchestration place him squarely in the Lee Hazlewood/Scott Walker/Jeff Buckley camp (“The Avenue”), but it also nods toward the sense of being mesmerized by the Mamas & The Papas’ folk/pop brilliance when it transformed the musical landscape of the ’60s (“I’d Be A Fool,” the epic “Revolution Eyes”) and the baroque-pop balladry of the Beatles from the same era (“Summer’s Child”). Book Of Changes signals an extraordinary new chapter in Blakeslee’s already storied creative evolution.
Every 10 years, another generation discovers the Creation, via periodic reissues such as this. Beginning as another ’60s beat group gone aggressively R&B, the band stole the Who’s aggro-mod mantle and turbo-boosted it: more fuzz, more feedback, guitarist Eddie Phillips viciously attacking his Gibson with a violin bow, spray-can paintings burned onstage, etc. Under the production aegis of Shel Talmy, who was already supervising sessions for Britain’s hardest rockers (the Kinks, the aforementioned Who), the Creation turned out spectacular singles that essentially became the gold standard for what came to be known as freakbeat: “Making Time,” “Painter Man,” “Through My Eyes,” molten classic “How Does It Feel To Feel?” Pete Townshend reportedly wanted to bring Phillips to the Who; the Sex Pistols would cover “Through My Eyes”; Johnny Rotten would spin “Life Is Just Beginning” on the radio; the Jam would sneak a Creation 45 label into the All Mod Cons inner sleeve collage; and Alan McGee would name his record label in the band’s honor. Like many of rock’s best, the members of the Creation were never stars, but their influence outstripped their sales. Action Painting sees the band’s entire ’60s back catalog, including its pre-Creation beat recordings as the Mark Four, given loving remastering from the original sources, under Talmy’s supervision. Several classics also finally receive true stereo mixes from Talmy for the first time, with unadorned backing tracks finally receiving airing as well. They remain a signpost for all who feel smart pop shouldn’t be devoid of guitaristic and rhythmic brutality.
After a 25-year career that began with a Mercury Prize shortlisting and a Brit Award nod for best new band, and continued with Mercury and Brit wins (not to mention a couple of Ivor Novellos, an NME and various other accolades), composing the theme for the BBC’s 2012 Olympic coverage and generally becoming one of the U.K.’s most beloved rock bands, it might seem logical to assume that Elbow is due for a stretch of laurel resting. Nothing could be further from the truth; the group’s last album, 2014’s stunning The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, deservedly became the band’s first U.K. number one when it debuted. Coming into Elbow’s seventh studio album, paradise rumbled slightly when Richard Jupp opted out of the band, marking the first lineup change in the group’s history. Soldiering on with session drummer Alex Reeves, the remaining foursome produced Little Fictions, quite possibly the pinnacle of its storied catalog. Frontman Guy Garvey shows that he and the band have a sense of perspective about it all when he intones “What does it prove if you die for a tune?/It’s really all disco” on the psychedelically majestic “All Disco,” a laser beam among Little Fictions’ highlights. The album’s first single, “Magnificent (She Says),” begins as a quietly propulsive pop song but swells to near epic proportions with the help of the Hallé Orchestra; “Trust The Sun” finds the band gliding along on a percolating jazz riff that suggests a marriage of late-period Police and the hushed power of Talk Talk in its prime, and “K2” pulses with a gorgeous Tropicália rhythm. Elbow’s greatest gifts have always been the ability to create a dynamic and fluid atmosphere applied to songs that are simultaneously expansive and intimate, and Little Fictions may be the best example of the band’s talents in action.
Scott H. Biram has got kind of a corny shtick on paper: the old one-man band, all grizzly and gruff, just him and a guitar singing into a collection of battered vintage microphones duct-taped together. But he more than makes up for these limitations by dint of his hard-ass love for American folk roots. This is the kind of guy as likely to yodel his way through an old country song as he is to grind his teeth on some electric blues. He swears like a motherfucker, too. Thing is, this is what the blues probably sounded like back in the day. Early recording technology sanitized American roots music, making it seem quaint today. But at the time, artists were grinding out these sweaty, dirty songs in smoky bars and dancehalls and trying like hell to make something meaningful in this fucked-up world. Biram gets that. He’s one of the few members of the new roots revival who does.
Though some things change, others stay the same. Across 22 years and multiple incarnations, Douglas McCombs (also of Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and Pullman) has remained the sole consistent member of Brokeback. Early on, the sound was focused on melodies he composed for six-string electric bass. Accompanists, recording and rhythmic approaches, and instruments have come and gone. In its current four-piece incarnation, Brokeback is a beat combo with a fairly live sound, and McCombs plays electric and baritone guitar. But if the string tone has changed, the intent to instrumentally evoke spaces and places remains. The guitars twang enough to get you thinking of Calexico or Duane Eddy, but the tunes are named for places in rural Illinois, which makes plenty of sense when you consider that flat cornfield views and desert vistas give you equally unimpeded views of the wide-open road and the empty land around it.
“Indie rock” has become such an amorphous and broad category that it’s nearly meaningless. But you could do worse than to use Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to define it: The band’s 2005 self-titled debut is a genre touchstone, one of those albums that seemed to come out of nowhere fully formed. Self-released and initially self-promoted, willfully weird but eminently accessible, the record deservedly found its audience in large part due to internet word of mouth (and blog-of-ear). Led by Philly’s Alec Ounsworth, CYHSY identified as a band but was often in large part a solo project in the studio. The initial version of CYHSY disbanded after its third album, 2012’s Hysterical, and 2014’s underrated, synth-centric Only Run was basically Ounsworth solo. For the even better guitars-forward The Tourist, Ounsworth uses the touring band he drafted for Only Run, including Spinto Band guitarist Nick Krill and Bigger Lovers/Pernice Brothers drummer (and former MAGNET contributor) Patrick Berkery. Songs such as “The Vanity Of Trying” and “Down (Is Where I Want To Be )” glory in rave-up crescendos (you can glimpse the fingerprints of Dave Fridmann, who mixed the album, on these). It’s replete with Lou Reed allusions: “It seems I’ll be your mirror” (“Unfolding Above Celibate Moon”), “Turns out you were vicious/You hit me with a flower” (“Better Off”). The Tourist is still weird—how could it not be, with Ounsworth’s bleating voice and often cryptic lyrics?—but not as willfully as moments on Hysterical or 2007’s Some Loud Thunder. It’s not a facsimile of the debut—it’s more layered and less frenetic—but it’s still applause-worthy.