Kristian Matsson is a musician who can hold a theater of thousands in rapt attention with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. So, there’s some uncertainty in hearing that his latest outing skews more band-oriented. Not quite in a “he’s gone electric” way, but more in a worry at the loss of intimacy. Passenger made a band record last year, and that tanked.
Fortunately, the approach of Matsson’s Tallest Man On Earth on the new Dark Bird Is Home is much more restrained and tasteful. The jangling “Darkness Of The Dream” is a boss anthem, but isn’t overly polished. The dreamy “Slow Dance” has harmonica and Springsteen-y hoots and hollers, but there’s a spacious atmosphere about it: reverb, distant horns, a synthesizer undercurrent.
For the Tallest Man of 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now, see achingly beautiful piano number “Little Nowhere Towns.” For the jauntiest and most personal you’ve heard Matsson, listen to the woodwind-laden “Timothy,” which hits some serious Joshua Tree notes.
Since 1994, the Danish indie rockers in Mew have found interesting and engaging ways to bend progressive rock into exotic new shapes that appeal to modern sensibilities. Their latest album, the cryptically titled + -, is a departure from their last release, which sported a title that doubled as a short story. In addition to its seriously truncated name, + - finds Mew channeling several diverse musical approaches, dispensing with the obtuse songwriting/production techniques that marked 2009’s No More Stories... and tapping into the band’s natural rock/pop tendencies.
Opener “Satellites” soothes and stings like a math-rock tribute to Genesis (both early-club and late-arena versions), while “Making Friends” could pass for an Owl City reverie with a little Muse bombast thrown in for good measure. “Rows” and “Cross The River On Your Own,” finish + - in epic fashion, taking up nearly a third of the album’s length with shifting moods and tempos. Cameos from pop princess Kimbra and Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack are the delicate icing on Mew’s richly satisfying prog/pop cake.
In an about-face to the insular world of American noise music, which he’d been the preeminent voice of for nearly a decade, Dominick Fernow’s 2011 album Bermuda Drain saw him integrate melodic synthesizers and (gasp!) discernible lyrics, downplaying the highly abrasive elements that he’d become synonymous with. The result was easily the best and most fully realized release of his career, and since then, Fernow—who does business as Prurient, Vatican Shadow and a host of other increasingly arcane aliases—has further explored contemporary electronic music with an increasingly head-on approach, most compellingly on the menacing demon disco of 2013’s Through The Window.
Frozen Niagara Falls, though, sets out to define Fernow’s legacy—and succeeds so comprehensively that it could effectively be repackaged as The Essential Prurient. From the stark imagery and alternatingly ear-splitting and serene sonics of standout “Cocaine Daughter” to the jarring inclusion of acoustic guitar on sublime closer “Christ Among The Broken Glass,” it’s far and away Fernow’s most affecting recorded work to date.
A curiously self-titled Wire album betrays a lack of new ideas
When a band names its debut after itself, the meaning is clear: “This is who we are.” When it happens after a long layoff, the message is: “We’re back.” But for Wire, the eponymous option is harder to decode. Wire follows its predecessor, Change Becomes Us, by only two years. It’s the combo’s 13th or 14th studio album (depending on how you count ’em) in a career that spans 39 years, and while it’s its first to feature guitarist Matthew Simms as a fully participating member alongside founders Colin Newman, Edvard Graham Lewis and Robert “Gotobed” Grey, he’s been touring with the band for years. It’s hardly starting over.
But when you consider that Change Becomes Us was a reworking of material abandoned in 1980, a more troubling notion emerges: Are these guys running out of ideas? The first Wire track, “Blogging,” does not reassure. It sounds crisp, but disengaged, as Newman’s voice recites observations about electronically mediated interaction. It registers skepticism, but not enough bite. Fortunately, things pick up from there, with a series of earworm tunes, glassy guitar licks and brittle beats that sound like an alternative follow-up to Wire’s icily electronic effort from 1986, The Ideal Copy. Still, a shroud of familiarity veils everything save the remorselessly heavy closer, “Harpooned,” which points out what is missing: Wire needs more of the barbed wit and brute anger that has enabled the band’s best post-2000 work stand up to its iconic ’70s recordings.
“So much that I can’t say to you,” Mark Kozelek croons on “Drop,” a raw, ethereal epic toward the end of the Red House Painters’ peerless 1995 emotional leveler Ocean Beach. “My voice shakes from the hurt that I hide.” Of course, by this point in Kozelek’s career, it was actually very fucking difficult to believe that the sanguinary troubadour hid even a single bloody tear from his growing coterie of acolytes. (“I’d like to come home to see you and to catch your sickness by the bedside … but then you’d know how much I really need you” does not exactly scream holding back.)
Those who missed the glorious downward spiral the first time around can now catch up with the black cloud via 4AD’s gorgeous LP boxed-set reissue of the band’s long-out-of-print first four records—a three-year drone-to-folk journey full of beauty and brood unmatched before or since.
Post-hardcore throwback Metz unloads sophomore thump
Metz spent five years solidifying a reputation as a must-see live band before it ever got around to releasing a full-length record. That lengthy gestation period (which included a handful of seven-inches) eventually produced a self-titled debut that perfectly captured the trio’s whirlwind live show while also showcasing a clinical and precise approach to punk, post-hardcore and noise rock. That album ruled, and Metz didn’t make any drastic changes on sophomore effort II, because why would you?
The Jesus Lizard and Drive Like Jehu comparisons that popped up in reviews of Metz are still applicable here. Leadoff track “Acetate” is buoyed by a bass line that’s repetitive enough to propel it, but tricky enough to throw you off every time it doesn’t resolve the way you think it’s going to. Alex Edkins screams, snarls and sneers, while the rhythm section pushes the air out of the room and his guitar slices through the vacuum with staccato barbs. There’s plenty of noise-mongering to let you know that the band’s art-rock tendencies haven’t gone anywhere. And just like on the first record, there are no wasted gestures on the second one. The 10 tracks on Metz clocked in at less than 30 minutes, while the 10 on II sit right at half an hour.
But the early grunge influences are a little closer to the forefront this time around. II is looser and fuzzier than its predecessor, with tracks like “The Swimmer” and “Spit You Out” sporting anthemic shout-along choruses that might’ve had a shot at radio 25 years ago. Instead, we’ll have to settle with those being standout tracks on one of 2015’s standout records.
With Foil Deer, Speedy Ortiz fully owns its style, quirks and neuroses on a level that would have been unimaginable circa 2013’s Major Arcana. Retaining a charming, inside-out tunelessness, the Northampton, Mass., quartet—coyly enough—permits tinges of saccharine to crowd the sour, and displays a newly intuitive sense of dynamics.
That guitarist/primary songwriter Sadie Dupuis recognized the need for Betty Rizzo and Angie Tempura archetypes in mod-indie is a bonus. Even at their most confident, Throwing Muses or Helium would never have written as backhandedly aggro a hoodied She-Ra anthem as “Raising The Skate.” Her ever tack-sharp mixed metaphors flow like wine; crunchy “The Graduates,” anti-tempo “Zig” and shove punk-y “Swell Content” passive-aggressively teem with them.
Elsewhere, low-end and noise-funk reign on the turgid, uncharacteristic “Puffer,” while “Dvrk Wvrld” (an uncomfortable, stormy dirge that seems to revolve around a rape) might contain the most vulnerable lyrics Dupuis has ever written.
Recent chatter around the water cooler concerns the strides Tom Jenkinson has taken toward injecting harsher, more aggressive elements into his IDM/drum ‘n’ bass/break-beats/whathaveyou on the 14th Squarepusher full-length. Whether there’s a broader message of discontent with government, anger at the general state of the world or an aggressive midlife crisis bubbling under Damogen Furies (as usual, compositions are instrumental) is something only the man buried under all the gear knows, but the beats of “Kwang Bass” and “Kontenjaz” are more furious, head-spinning, clipped and cutting.
Simultaneously, hooks and melodies are employed that forage through the fury to knock on pop music’s backdoor (“Stor Eiglass”), essentially drawing flies with honey before pouring vinegar all over ’em. Jenkinson continues his adroitness at transforming disparate juxtapositions of R2-D2 blips and bloops, deep bass drops and masterfully processed keyboard duels into sonic sculptures that are futuristically dense and engagingly hip-shaking.
For a band that titles its album No Control, Turbo Fruits really seem to have their shit together. We’re loath to call No Control “mature”—the Fruits are still the same stoned goofballs they’ve always been—but this new record finds the band making the tightest, most focused rock tunes of its career.
The drug-fueled buffoonery takes a back seat to the tension between teenage kicks and adult concerns, passion and failure, love and confusion. There is nary a wasted moment on No Control, as the Fruits have become such a fine-tuned machine that each note and bar explodes out of the stereo. Songs like “Need To Know,” with its guitarmony-laden coda, and woozy lead single “Don’t Let Me Break Your Heart Again” burrow deep into the listener’s brain and bounce around for days.
—Sean L. Maloney
The Replacements’ studio output illustrates that the Minnesota legends were at their best together
If your dictionary had really good pictures and you looked next to the word “shambolic,” you’d find a snapshot of Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson—lips curled with a teeth-barely-there grin as well as tangled mussy hair. Flip the pages and go to “chaotic” or “dizzy outright fucking mess,” and you’d find the same snap, no matter when it was shot between 1981 and 1990. Because the Replacements—those two characters, with some variation of Bob Stinson, Chris Mars, Slim Dunlap and Steve Foley—were always that: trashed. Only 1990’s All Shook Down, with its mostly acoustic, mostly Westerberg-ian sound, isn’t trashed; it’s just a world-weary finale to the adrenaline rush and eternal booze cruise/pub-hardcore vibe of the seven records that came before it.
Bound together and boxed up, 1982’s Stink, 1983’s Hootenanny, 1984’s Let It Be, 1985’s Tim, 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me and 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul could be one long, salty, sweaty pop/punk suite, with its start geared toward fellow Minnesotan hardcore artistes Hüsker Dü (that’d be 1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash) and stopgaps to celebrate fellow Minnesotan poet Bob Dylan, which occurs in Westerberg’s best (or worst?) lyrical longings. For all the rush and rust of their clunky instrumentation, the Replacements’ trump card was the smirking poetic texts and humorous ramblings of punk-warbling frontman Westerberg, a guy who could make the phrase “Struttin’ up the aisle, big deal, you get to fly/You ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky” come across like a love sonnet. But make no mistake, these guys worked best as a band (their solo projects, each and every one, blow), and this boxed set is a welcome gift. Drink up.