A glorious, long-awaited return from Lund, Sweden’s impeccably styled dream-pop maestros—and easily the most vibrant they’ve ever sounded—Running Out Of Love kicks off with a sunny, bongo-laced shimmer that would’ve fit right in on Sincerely Yours circa 2007, before moving on to slinky, synth-reggae, sleek New Order-esque tech-pop and baggy Balearic breakbeats. But if they’ve nudged themselves increasingly further from the shoegazy static of their early years, toward luminous, unshrouded melodies and astoundingly plausible dance music, it’s definitely still dance music for introverts. And fear not; vibrant is a relative term—there are still plenty of hazy, lushly burnished textures to retreat to in between the sophisti-bangers. Likewise, while this is an upfront, incisively political record for those who’re paying attention—the lyric sheet practically drips with woeful indignation at Sweden’s ominous rightward turn—Johan Duncanson’s voice remains so soft and subdued (and mixed sufficiently low) as to incite only the most subtle and tastefully restrained of revolutions.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Guitar primitivist, post-rock smoothie, dry-throated balladeer, electronic prankster, sideman extraordinaire—over the course of a three-decade career, David Pajo has disappeared into each one of these guises. At moments, Highway Songs suggests a Real World bungalow stacked to the rafters with these Pajo iterations. Brooding metal clinics “Bloom” and “Flatliners” are reminiscent of stints with Zwan and Dead Child; “Adore, A Jar” and “Walking On Coronado” recall the syncopated, liquid precision of early solo project Aerial M and 1999’s Live In A Shark Tank. “Little Girl” feels like the logical apex of his creative trajectory post-Papa M Sings. The silver lining is that still more Pajos are on this RSVP list: a devious Pajo, tweaking and twisting “The Love Particle” into sonic shrapnel; a rowdy, punk Pajo wailing on “Green Hollers.” Consider the jarring Highway Songs a retrenchment in the wake of its creator’s publicly nightmarish 2015: the album as spirit quest, as bridge.
Gather ’round, children of the ’90s. Justin Trosper and Sara Lund of the late, great Unwound have linked musical arms once again, and there’s a reason we mention the ’90s broadly as opposed to Unwound in particular. Nocturnal Habits is a different beast than what’s expected if you didn’t know about its participants’ new musical lives since Leaves Turn Inside You and that Trosper quite enjoys hopscotching over and around genres. Lead-off tracks “Ecophilia” and “Good Grief” are beckoning those who can’t afford the asking price for vinyl of the last MBV, “Wall Of Early Morning Light” is the piece Philip Glass never collaborated with Dead Can Dance on, while “Sketchbook” and “Ice Islands” pensively hum straight outta the Midwest where Shudder To Think collides with Bob Mould’s maturity. Trosper and Lund trading in ratcheting angular noisiness for alt-indie filtered through lush orchestration may be bemoaned by some, but it works. And it’s a lot easier on the senses.
To say that Miami’s Jacuzzi Boys have had trouble finding their footing outside the garage isn’t an entirely fair assessment. Over the course of their past few albums, the guitars have gotten tauter, the production slicker and the songs more direct. Where contemporaries Black Lips take a more psychedelic approach, Jacuzzi Boys lay on the riffs with the self-released Ping Pong. Following on the heels of the Happy Damage EP, Ping Pong doles out confection after barbed confection. The punchy “Boys Like Blood” and the churning “Seventeen” sound like interdimensional T.Rex outtakes, while the Boys’ punk spirit is alive and well on the relentless “New Cross.” The band even offers its own take on flower power, particularly on the breezy “Easy Motion.” For as solid as Ping Pong is (one of the group’s best), there remains a twinge of anonymity in the music. So well-versed are Jacuzzi Boys in hooky guitar pop that their boisterous personalities occasionally get lost in the mix.
Whether he’s crooning like Frank Sinatra (as he did on solo debut Black Hours) or shredding his throat on, say, the Walkmen classic “The Rat,” Hamilton Leithauser possesses one of the strongest, most expressive voices in indie rock. “I got the same voice I always did,” he proclaims on I Had A Dream That You Were Mine’s “Sick As A Dog,” but it’s quite a voice. Collaborating with Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, Leithauser sings and shouts of dreams, ghosts and spirits, but the music is alive with ideas. The kitchen-sink arrangements draw on the early rock era. “You Ain’t That Young Kid” sounds like Dylan’s “I Want You”; “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)” lurches on a bed of doo wop “sha-doobies”; “Peaceful Morning” foregrounds honky-tonk piano and banjo. But these songs rarely stay in one place, or genre, for long. Their playful mutability keeps them from being genre exercises and makes I Had A Dream a delight.
This is not the Lambchop you expect. It’s not a set of large-band country/soul done with wit and irony. It lopes and drifts and pulses like other Lambchop records, and Kurt Wagner’s restrained, conversational voice is here. But Wagner has been listening to Kendrick and Kanye and Frank Ocean, and FLOTUS (which stands for “For Love Often Turns Us Still”) has a slinky, meandering, heavily Auto-Tuned, modern R&B sound. Last year, Wagner and fellow Lambchops Ryan Norris and Scott Martin teamed as HeCTA to release an album of electropop. The tempos were faster and the beats harder on that band’s The Diet, which sounded like a diversion but turned out to foreshadow FLOTUS. The addition of longtime pianist Tony Crow and bassist Matt Swanson (along with woodwinds and horns from Matt Glassmeyer) make this an official Lambchop project. Bookended by the nearly 12-minute “In Care Of 8675309” and the 18-plus minute “The Hustle,” FLOTUS is unexpected, occasionally inscrutable and fascinating.
Back in Southern Culture On The Skids’ salad days, the crazed garageabilly trio—guitarist/vocalist Rick Miller, bassist/vocalist Mary Huff and drummer/vocalist Dave Hartman—would often practice and sometimes open for themselves as the Pinecones, an evocation of the West Coast psych/folk/country influences that rarely surfaced in the SCOTS regular output. The threesome’s groovy new album touches on a lot of their favorite ’60s reference points, but they’re heavily refracted in the band’s cracked rockabilly funhouse mirror. From the reverbed go-go shimmer of album-opener “Freak Flag” and the gothic surf-meets-Mamas And The Papas vibe of “Dirt Road” to Buck Owens-channels-Hank Williams toetapper “I Ain’t Gonna Hang Around” and the spooky Appalachian psychedelia of “Grey Skies” to the backwoods Big Star-tributes-the Doors slink of “Waiting On You,” SCOTS does exactly what it has always done from a slightly different but equally colorful and skewed vantage point.
Now a respected doyenne of avant-pop dance music with hints of skronky jazz and new wave thrown into the mix, Yoko Ono was once a hated-upon former member of the Fluxus art movement whose greatest crime was loving a Beatle. That it was the already-risk taking (and risqué, from the duo’s nude front-and-back covers of Two Virgins) John Lennon as her partner, Ono flourished in a manner befitting a superstar. Yet, these were home-recorded experiments in tape loops, heavy sound FX, monophonic manipulation—a portrait of the married pair’s new life as living-together artists in the late ’60s. Only the primal, avant-blues of her Plastic Ono Band (versus Lennon’s own) begins to resemble that which she does at present, only less musical. Spoken/screamed words the likes of which were made for great kitchen magnet poetry touching on the subject of her miscarriages married to the bleatings of saxophonist Ornette Coleman mixed with vocal technique from kabuki theater—the entire vibe of Plastic Ono Band is as aggressive as it is transgressive. These three albums are the beginning of the Chimera/Secretly Canadian reissue program of total Ono Immersion. Collect the set.
It says something about Kings Of Leon that they chose a ballad as the title track and first video for their seventh album. The group may have recruited Coldplay and Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs to shake things up on Walls, but the Kings remain an anomaly on the stadium circuit. Raised in Tennessee, where its members still reside, the extended Followill clan (three brothers and a cousin) connects much better on an intimate level—be it with a hug or a headlock. Thankfully, Walls rarely sounds like Coldplay (though, if you want to hear a poor man’s version of U2, try KOL’s 2010 misstep, Come Around Sundown). With Mechanical Bull, Walls’ excellent 2013 predecessor, the band finally got down to the business of reconciling its bigness with the modest Southern roots so apparent on 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, which cast KOL as a promising cross between the Strokes and the Allman Brothers.
Caleb Followill has come a long way since then as a singer and a songwriter, and the plainspoken power and restraint of both his lyrics and vocals on “Walls” proves it. The album as a whole continues where Mechanical Bull left off. Tracks like “Waste A Moment,” “Reverend” (likely an offhand reference to the Followills’ wayward pastor father) and “Eyes On You” manage to refine and improve on familiar KOL formulas. “Find Me” is a wholly different beast—a stylish, redneck-boogiefied slab of deconstructed new wave. Indeed, Walls finds its truest inspiration at the intersection of Britpop and Southern rock. Young as they are, Kings Of Leon can never go back, but they can move forward with an appreciation of where their strengths really lie. Walls could be their portal to lingering greatness.
Refusal to capitulate to expectations is the mark of an artist, and John K. Samson has that designation down cold. He will stay holed up in his hometown of Winnipeg for years, growing his hair and beard until he looks like Catholic Jesus. He will not update his website in a timely manner. He’ll let his former band, the Weakerthans, wither and die on the vine. And he won’t issue an album of clever, melodic pop/punk just because you want him to. What he’s been cultivating instead is his second solo album, Winter Wheat, 15 mostly doleful songs featuring vocals slow-dancing around fingerpicked acoustic guitar. The songs are quiet and emotionally intense, and they unfold like a collection of short stories in which characters and themes recur and play off each other.
On one hand, it’s an album about a dying planet and late-period capitalism: “Vampire Alberta Blues” (a riff on Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues”) protests sucking oil from the land, and “Capital” tells of how bankers fleeced the citizens of “a one-bar Wi-Fi kind of town.” But it’s not all Bernie Sanders rally soundtrack—the most affecting songs here are finely detailed character portraits of struggling academics, drug addicts and other assorted losers trying to stay afloat and alive. At times, Samson is mining a similar vein to the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, inhabiting some dark psychic corners with laser-focused lyrics. Amid all this sad-bastardom, Samson’s notes of hope ring loud and true: “I believe in you and your PowerPoints,” he sings on “Postdoc Blues.” Who among us couldn’t be saved by a sentiment like that?