Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Ray Davies “Americana” And Dave Davies & Russ Davies’ “Open Road”

Ray and Dave Davies, the estranged brothers from the Kinks, can’t escape one another. Whether by coincidence or coordinated marketing strategy, each Davies has released a solo album, setting themselves up for combined reviews such as this one.

Americana is Ray’s first record since 2008; Dave has been more prolific but, as ever, lower profile. Americana is a companion piece, of sorts, to the newly knighted Sir Ray Davies’ recent memoir and includes a few brief recitations from the book. The songs recount incidents from the Kinks’ American tours and from his stints living in New Orleans and New York. Kinks geeks will relish the autobiographical elements. Fittingly, Ray drafted the Jayhawks, an archetypal Americana band, to back him, and his album is a pastiche of styles: some rootsy rock ’n’ roll, a bit of country twang, a cowboy song, a duet with Jayhawks keyboardist Karen Grotberg.

On Open Road, Dave partners with his son Russ, who has a background in electronica and producing, for a set heavy on stately, strained mid-tempo ballads. There are only a few glimmers of Dave’s electrifying guitar playing. He changed the world a half-century ago with the blown-speaker sound of “You Really Got Me,” but he’s mostly restrained here, content to strum as he and Russ sing together.

These are nostalgic albums, but that’s no surprise: Ray has been writing nostalgic songs at least since 1968’s “The Village Green Preservation Society.” Ray’s album gets the edge for wit, variety and narrative, but both men’s voices are weathered and weary, and they weigh down the songs. Don’t expect a return to any of the Kinks’ numerous glory days, but maybe that sibling friction is a spark that can be rekindled. Dave has spread rumors that he recorded some demos with his brother not long ago.

Steve Klinge

 

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Essential New Music: The Black Angels “Death Song”

For a band that makes intensely menacing music, the Black Angels are in a pretty comfortable position. The five-piece has kept the dark psychedelia fire burning over four LPs and as many EPs since forming nearly 15 years ago. The Angels are also the founders of Levitation, the Austin-based music festival that draws like-minded weirdos to their hometown and unites multiple generations of rockers. After a few albums that snuck in chiming guitars and big melodic hooks, Death Song marks a return to the churning sounds of the band’s early releases.

The Black Angels have always had a knack for blurring the line between spiraling psych/garage and blunt-edged hard rock, and they waste no time in showing off that skill on opening cut “Currency.” The band addresses political, societal and interpersonal relationships through a lens warped by human malevolence. If you think that’s heavy stuff, wait until you get to the LP’s thrilling middle section, where the springy “I Dreamt” gives way to the pulsating “Medicine.” It’s undeniably fun to hear the band lock into a groove, as it does on “Grab As Much (As You Can)” and “Death March,” but this glee is tempered by doomy drones and blistering guitar noise. To borrow John Peel’s oft-quoted quip about the Fall, the Black Angels are one of those “always different, always the same” kinds of bands. Death Song isn’t a wild step in any new direction but instead a grindstone-polished showcase of what the group does best.

—Eric Schuman

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Essential New Music: Pissed Jean’s “Why Love Now”

One of the reasons Pissed Jeans is a great band that (whether you know it or not) has released its best record (which has happened with the last four out of five albums since its formation in 2004) is its arsenal of sublime dichotomies. Snuggled in its nook like a noise-punk AC/DC but adept at pushing the boundaries at hand, the band retains a visceral, even below-the-belt, punch sonically and especially as one of the better live outfits of this era; and going against the usual grain by getting better with each record, if not each year, that passes. Utilizing a wicked sense of humor and having a surgeon’s hand at nuance so that both are applied in ways that ascend beyond afterthoughts or inside baseball. Subverting the testosterone-hemorrhaging tendencies of its chosen sub-genre, and doing the same with the all-too-common knuckle-dragging nature of its nihilism (see a band like WHORES.). And, most importantly, maintaining an honesty about its creative comfort-zone and overarching hyper-intelligence needed to organically wield everything mentioned so far.

—Andrew Earles

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Essential New Music: Real Estate’s “In Mind”

Across three LPs, Real Estate has cemented its status as a hallmark indie act, not through some buzzworthy new style or dramatic musical innovation—not, indeed, through any drama at all—but rather through the steady, diligent maintenance of a sound whose most (perhaps only) notable distinction is being eminently pleasant. (Sessionable, you could say.) So it is with its effortless fourth album, which is every bit as blissfully pretty and/or unremittingly milquetoast as what came before. More winsome melodies and chiming, Christmassy guitar leads; more of Martin Courtney’s hushed reflections on birds, music, shifting light, ambiguous contentment and other mild feelings. It’s not that these songs form an entirely undifferentiated blur—it’s just that even the nuances tend to bolster the overall sense of continuity. “Darling” is the one with the tricky rhythmic shifting and vaguely Strokes-y interlocking lines; “Two Arrows” is the sweet shimmer that meanders toward a gently psychedelic “She’s So Heavy” coda. The candied Beatle-pop harmonies of “Stained Glass” and “White Light” mark—perhaps surprisingly—the first time Real Estate has been reminiscent of that other great suburban New Jersey institution, Fountains Of Wayne. Meanwhile, the “Simple Gifts”-cribbing “Diamond Eyes” flirts with political topicality, asserting, “It’s a time to raise our voices loud and not go quietly” before devolving back into nonsense-y nature-babble. How else would these guys possibly go?

—K. Ross Hoffman

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Essential New Music: Sondre Lerche’s “Pleasure”

For more than a decade, Norwegian-turned-New-Yorker Sondre Lerche explored confessional singer/songwriter reveries, Burt Bacharach-tinted chamber pop and the kitchen-sink gamut of country/blues/psych-folk, much of it with a jazzy undertone. With 2014’s Please, Lerche channeled his inner David Byrne and fully connected with his long simmering love of ’80s synth pop and Brazilian samba on a set of songs that addressed the end of his marriage. Pleasure finds Lerche similarly searching for danceable solutions, once again setting his irresistibly twisted lyric pretzels (“I’ve got so much love to give/So many graves to dig” or “I’m always watching/Call it voyeurism or masochism, a coward’s distance”) to drum machinery, Saturday-night fever sweats and twitchy ‘80s Frankie/Duran2/Soft Cell moves. The beauty of Pleasure’s vintage danceteria lies in its sharp 21st-century focus and Lerche’s consistently reliable songwriting skills, which have proven adaptable to every genre in which he’s dabbled.

—Brian Baker

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Essential New Music: The Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Damage And Joy”

Since 1992’s Honey’s Dead, the Jesus And Mary Chain’s records have followed a certain formula: Waves of corrosive guitar distortion surfing minimal, hammered eighth-note bass and programmed beats, with just enough feedback to aid recollection of the band that created Psychocandy (opener “Amputation,” “All Things Pass,” “The Two Of Us”). Or else ballads suggesting Lee Hazlewood writing for the Velvet Underground, produced by a newly minimalist Phil Spector (“War On Peace,” “Los Feliz (Blues, And Greens),” ”Songs For A Secret”). Atop it all are Jim Reid’s mumbled vocals and occasional mute snarls, as if reacting to something provocative from guitarist brother William. Considering the siblings’ shaky relationship—a key factor in Damage And Joy being the first new JAMC release since 1998’s Munki—that might be more than imagery: “I hate my brother, and he hates me,” Jim yawns on “Facing Up To Facts,” “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

—Tim Stegall

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Essential New Music: Coco Hames’ “Coco Hames”

After a decade of fronting the Ettes, and a little time filling in for Neko Case in the New Pornographers, Coco Hames steps out with her first solo effort. This album of dyspeptic love songs was recorded in Nashville, with an A-list of the town’s indie-rock greats. Its wide-open sound is full of giant guitars, processed keyboards and retro beats, suggesting a meeting between Lee Hazlewood and Ennio Morricone at the Brill Building. Hames uses the ominous girl-group sound of “I Do Love You” to serenade a guy she knows full well will never come back. “This House Ain’t A Home” is a country waltz that describes the breakup of a marriage with an acerbic lyric, while on “Long Time Coming,” Hames delivers a playful invitation to debauchery. You can almost sense the smile on her lips when she sings, “There ain’t nothing wrong with a little bit of you tonight.”

—j. poet

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Essential New Music: Ha Ha Tonka’s “Heart-Shaped Mountain”

Music journalists like to ask unanswerable questions, and one of the most popular queries in our stringbag briefcases is, “Why isn’t [insert artist name here] the biggest thing going?” The problem is that hoary clichés are simply overused but completely appropriate observations, and so it is with Ha Ha Tonka, whose fifth album over the past decade races along like a steam locomotive with a fusion engine, the very definition of Americana and roots rock in the new millennium. There are certainly familiar traces of HHT’s brethren on Heart-Shaped Mountain, from the Kings Of Leon urgency on “Race To The Bottom” to the Heartbreakers’ intimate expanse on “Height Of My Fears” to the loping Old 97’s melancholic gallop on “The Party” to the Dawes-channels-glam balladry on “Telluride,” but it would be a mistake to invest those similarities with intent. Ha Ha Tonka filters its Ozark Mountains upbringing through the basic tenets of indie and classic rock, and organically crafts sounds that are reminiscent and yet uniquely its own. If these guys aren’t bigger, that’s on us, not them.

—Brian Baker

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Essential New Music: The Shins’ “Heartworms”

James Mercer has always been something of an old soul. On the Shins’ immortal 2001 debut Oh, Inverted World, he already sounded world-weary and wan, hiding an existential dread and terror of intimacy beneath glistening melodies and vaguely vintage recording techniques a la R.E.M. circa Murmur, and never better than on “New Slang,” the national anthem for a slack generation desperately in search of either purpose or connection. Sixteen years and four albums later, with a completely rebooted band in tow, Mercer has now dropped Heartworms on the faithful like a dayglo diary unearthed from his high-school years.

In practical terms, this means some of the Shinsiest material he’s released in yonks; “Dead Alive” and the title track seem lifted whole cloth from the Chutes Too Narrow era, while “Rubber Ballz” (what with its “can’t get her outta my bed” wink/nod at prime ELO) evokes the cloudy-coffee production moves of the Shins’ debut. But the record’s strongest songs turn out to be those that veer the farthest from the Shins’ historic playbook—“Half A Million” is straight-up Cars-issue new wave (“I take the drugs, but the drugs won’t take”), “Mildenhall” is where his Broken Bells side-project meets alt-country, with Mercer waxing nostalgic about discovering music as a military brat feeling woefully out of place in an English base community, while “Painting A Hole” conjures a psychedelic carpet ride down memory lane.

The whole affair is shot through with a lyrical wistfulness Mercer hasn’t really indulged before, but that’s perfectly suited to the kaleidoscope of sounds nonetheless. Unlike early Shins albums that immediately wormed their way into our cynical indie hearts, Heartworms is a slow-burning grower that rewards repeat listens but requires some commitment to love. Much like life itself.

Corey duBrowa

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Essential New Music: Craig Finn’s “We All Want The Same Thing”

Craig Finn’s writing style is vivid, character-driven and aphoristic. It’s what’s made the Hold Steady so rewarding over the years: He’s created a community of on-the-fringe (and sometimes unhinged) bar-dwellers and sinners. With his talk/sing delivery, his open-hearted empathy and his evangelical belief in rock ’n’ roll catharsis, Finn has chosen to drill down into his chosen territory rather than step outside it, even when he steps outside of the Hold Steady. We All Want The Same Thing is the best of his three solo albums because it lets the music serve the stories—usually of desperate but redemptive love—and the stories are great. Instead of the slightly awkward country trappings of 2012’s Clear Heart Full Eyes or the relatively sparse arrangements of 2015’s Faith In The Future, We All Want The Same Thing layers keyboards, moody electric guitar, some restrained horns and thoughtful female backing vocals. The songs don’t rock as hard as the Hold Steady, but they still rock (and roll). This one will do quite nicely for us Hold Steady fans excited by the news that keyboardist Franz Nicolay is back in the fold.

—Steve Klinge

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