Name a more iconic duo…

 Brian King and David Prowse’s cicada-like reemergence is an excellent new album slightly out of their comfort zone.

Japandroids already have a couple of near-perfect album’s in their oeuvre. Post-Nothing, their 2009 break through, is an adored cult classic and Celebration Rock , as its name suggests, is a triumphant, rock masterpiece. At this point, their playing with house money when it comes to critical good will, and it allowed them to adventure toward some new sounds on their brilliant new album Near the Wild Heart of Life.

There are new sounds on Near the Wild Heart of Life. There’s Americana influence and electronic textures and female backing vocals, and it’s not quite the barbaric yop of raw-nerve feeling of Celebration Rock or the distorted, lo-fi “newgaze” revelation of Post-Nothing, but it is obviously a Japandroids album.

On Near the Wild Heart…Japandroids finally sound as big as they’ve always been to me. They have always produced irrepressible, energetic anthems that have conjured irresponsible levels of energy in me, and on the new album they sound ready to conquer stadiums.

The tug-of-war between roots and a chosen home, the reconciliation between ambition and humble beginnings and the bracing affirmation that to live is to feel are still omnipresent as are the wonderful guitar  sounds that strike the perfect balance between Hüsker Dü and My Bloody Valentine and the “Oh, woah-ohh” vocal fills.

The opening title track of the album makes that abundantly clear.

It sounds as much like a Japandroids song as any song that ever was and serves as sort of an origin story of a band that started in rural Canada before calling Vancouver home and later splitting time in Vancouver and New Orleans.

It’s also a carpe diem mission statement about acknowledging your dreams and being bold enough to attempt to realize them
The next song, “North South East West” manages to sound like “Ain’t that America” and “When You Were Young” but still be completely awesome despite some serious mawkishness and corny lyrics. They actually  shout N-O-L-A, USA at one point, and I don’t hate it. This is definitely the Japandroids’ road album, and it’s fun to hear a couple of Canucks grapple with the immensity of the North American continent.

“True Love and a Life of Free Will” is a pretty wonderful, understated song about two wild people finding a love that works for them and the adorably titled”I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” sounds like a throwback to 2009.

“Arc of Bar” is a slow-burning, seven-minute epic that features electronic textures and crescendos to a gospel conclusion. It’s very different, but it’s still very easy to pick out the shimmering, chugging guitar in the background and feel like you’re in familiar territory.

The album is very heavy on  King, but “Midnight to Morning” gives Prowse a chance to handle lead vocals, and he does a great job. It’s got a fantastic, roaring guitar texture that makes its four-minute-plus running time seem completely justified.

“No Known Drink or Drug” has a real “Evil’s Sway” vibe, but with “sha-la-la” backing vocals that I don’t think I’ve heard before. It also further drives home what a love letter the whole album is to the American South, specifically New Orleans. The lyrics, “We ward off the weather with a witch’s brew of dominoes and prose and Delta Blues,” really make their past Gun Club cover make a lot more sense.

The album closes with “In a Body Like a Grave”, which brings Japandroids to a perfect 3-3 on album closers. It boasts an uncharacteristic jangly guitar that contrasts nicely with what is otherwise a meditation on the way life beats a series of imperfections into our being until we die and the way every pleasure can also hurt.

Religion, school, your hometown, love, simply living and even the life-giving sun are all painted as omnipresent, utterly necessary evils that rob us of our innate mint condition. 

 I really and truly cannot imagine any other band describing life as basically a slow demise in a flesh prison with such conviction and feeling as to actually  make the universal sentiment an affirmation. “It’s all in a lifetime and all in a body like a grave” should be the most fatalist, yet wonderful chorus of the year as long as Titus Andronicus don’t have a new album in the works.

This is super accessible, slightly weird Japandroids, but thoroughly excellent. If I had to rank each of their eight-track-long releases, I’d slide it right between Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock with it trailing the latter by just a hair.

 

Shoulder Angel

With her latest album, My Woman, the consistently excellent Angel Olsen stays, well, consistently excellent.

The folk-rocker with the inimitable voice has put out another strong release, and one I prefer to 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness.

My Woman essentially functions as two five-song albums with the first five songs being shorter, punchier rock-folk songs.

Whichever distinct side of an album houses the instant-classic “Shut Up Kiss Me” was always destined to be my favorite. It’s just an absolutely flawless blend of perfect bubblegum pop, tortured torch song and lo-fi rock.

“Shut Up Kiss Me” is the obvious standout, but really everything after the de facto intro, “Intern” to the fade out of”Not Gonna Kill You”is superb folk-tinged rock from an artist with an utterly singular vocal delivery.

Everything in that stretch of the album has a distinctive ’60s influence. It ranges from the girl group groove and sentiments of “Shut Up and Kiss Me”, to the early Beatles unrequited love song feel of “Never Be Mine” to the classic rock dual guitar twang of the flat out stomper “Give It Up”. It all builds  toward wonderful screaming release and undulating guitar spasms toward the end of “Not Gonna Kill You” which conjures up some serious Grace Slick vibes.

Thoroughly outstanding stuff.

The spacier, longer second half has its merits as well.

The slow, country simmer of “Heart Shaped Face”is incredibly listenable, even if it bothers the hell out of me that there’s no hyphen in that compound modifier.

“Sister” is an absolute epic. It keeps building and building and teasing the guitar heroics to come before satisfyingly boiling over.

Album closer,”Pops”, is a sort of distorted John Lennon-esque piano song that doesn’t quite reach the moony feeling of a ballad feels like a perfect place to end the album.

All 10 songs boast a foible, melody or moment of triumph that demands multiple listens. There’s really nothing justifiably skippable even if aside from “Sister” nothing in the back half really approximates the thrills of the first five songs.

And those first five songs are an unbridled joy to revisit way too often.

 

 

Martha my dear

Martha are a group of DIY punk-rockers from northeastern England. They’re self-described anarchist, straightedge vegans, and their new album, Blisters in the Pit of My Heart, is fantastic.

Aside from a throwaway line about crooked police being protected by corrupt politicians, not much of Martha’s ethos really come through in the album, but it is a collection of ridiculously catchy pop punk made by a group of people earnest enough to openly support anarchy.

These are the sort of people who would make the closing track of their punk album a gentle allusion to Paul Westerberg’s body of work, and like their source of inspiration, Martha know how to marry ramshackle energy and an anthemic hook. And they do so, over and over and over again.

 

 

There is not one skippable song on the entire album, which essentially careens from one massive, fist-pumping hook to the next with chugging guitar to fill the gaps. The longest song, “Do Nothing” is a perfect example of this methodology.

It’s basically two songs–a brooding, shout-y ode to laziness with muted musical backing that allows the lyrics some breathing room. It culminates as it must; with  excellently spastic guitar shredding.

It’d be a tremendous song if it ended after four minutes, but then it transitions into a stripped down power pop song that could fit in with the best Exploding Hearts tracks.

Every track is a catchy blast of energy that could serve as an alt-song of summer, but standout track and source of the album’s title”Ice Cream and Sunscreen” probably takes that title for me.

Clever detailed lyrics, duet vocals and a running time just a bit longer than two minutes makes it a damn near perfect pop song, and it’s surrounded by nothing but excellent guitar pop.

If sugary hooks and passionately nihilistic sentiments are your thing, this album is mandatory listening.

 

 

Dog pile!

Within the last week or so a new Radiohead album came out. The ubiquitous, reviews, reactions and think-pieces made me want to kill myself, but that’s just what Thom Yorke and those jerks in Radiohead would want me to do.

So instead, I listened to Pile by Austin’s A Giant Dog and found it to be an enjoyable slice of old-fashioned, ass-kicking, self-aware and slightly campy rock music. The band’s third release for Merge Records is just a really solid, fun album–basically the opposite of a Radiohead release.

Pile is basically every redeeming quality of FM Rock Radio jammed onto one disc. It’s bombastic, there’s guitar shredding, folksier contemplative songs and the phrase “Rock’n’Roll” can be belted out with abandon in the choruses of multiple songs.

There’s also a cheeky sense of humor to the proceedings, which could be distracting in an Eagles of Death Metal way if executed poorly, but when listening to the album, it becomes pretty clear the band has lots and lots of love for the rock radio they draw their sound from. Plus, the jokes are generally self-effacing or skewering a certain dirtball lifestyle that I get the impression A Giant Dog are more than a bit familiar with.

It also helps that Sabrina Ellis, who splits vocal duties with guitarist Andrew Cashen, has an amazingly charismatic set of pipes. Really, you couldn’t ask for a bandleader who sounds like their having more fun, and it’s infectious as underscored by the video below.

 

 

This almost isn’t the greatest album ever made, but Pile is the most unbridled joy I’ve head in a while, and it’s kind of perfect over a car stereo on a summer day.

Don’t sleep on Car Seat Headrest

While Will Toledo had toiled on bandcamp under the name  Car Seat Headrest for almost a half-decade gradually gaining production values and band members, it was last year’s very good album Teens of Style that put the band on most people’s radar. (Including me).

Teens of Style was something of a greatest hits record of Car Seat Headrest material from 2010-12, and it’s success ensured the next release from Toledo and company would have an actual budget and an anticipatory audience.

It’s follow-up album, Teens of Denial does not disappoint, but it does surprise.

The Julian Casablancas-esque vocals and early Dylan Baldi project garage rock vibe are intact, but there are also Frank Black howls, sloppy guitar-God jams reminiscent of (pick your ’90s shoegaze rocker of choice for a point of reference),  lyrical allusions to Pavement and even a re-working of the most famous song by The Cars.

The insistent, building guitar noise on “Vincent” also gives me a serious Television vibe, but without the interplay of another guitar.

There’s also a variety to the instrumentation to match the varied influence. There’s xylophone, horns, moments of  call and response, unexpected studio chatter and even some neat swirling production effects that are super enjoyable in headphones.

This isn’t the usual case of a lo-fi band hitting the studio, losing their reverb and calling it growth. The invested resources really seem to have lead to some shifts, changes and worthwhile experimentation without losing a grounded, DIY sensibility.

Pleasant production surprises aside, Teens of Denial is also an unexpectedly thematically heavy album. There’s examinations of  mortality, morality and what it means to define yourself by interpersonal relationships. Plus, self-degrading tales of drug trips and drunk driving enter the fray.

The oddball stylistic shifts and a genuine sense of humor keep things from being all doom and gloom. Somehow even pontification on death terror is delivered with awry sense of humor and there are some moments of guitar-shredding release that are pure bliss.

The one-two punch of “1937 State Park” and “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not an)” in the middle of the album is an absolute highlight for me. They’re a tandem of weird rockers that leave you excited for but unsure of what will come next.

Teens of Denial is an early favorite for my album of the year pick. Listen to it immediately.

 

 

Super psyched

A$AP Ferg’s newest album Always Strive and Prosper is an improvement on his debut, Trap Lord , it’s catchier, more personal and much weirder. I fully recommend listening to the entire album.

But more important than it being a quality album, it introduces a new character to the pantheon of hip-hop uncles–a topic near and dear to my heart.

On the track, “Psycho” we’re introduced to Darold Ferguson Jr.’s uncle Psycho. The very next song delves a little further into Uncle Psycho, but the song named for him pretty firmly establishes his character.

He is a fit man with braids, who smells of liquor, emulates ODB, smokes crack, brandishes weapons, is in and out of mental institutions, has a signature dance and scraps for money in a public park. He also sometimes sleeps in that same park, and it’s also where he brings his two children, one of whom was born as an attempt at emotional blackmail, for recreation.

Literally, nothing said about Ferg’s uncle sounds remotely positive, but the entire description is delivered with affection, and by the end of the song the blatantly obvious reveal that maybe Uncle Psycho wasn’t a particularly positive role model for A$AP Ferg still packs an emotional wallop.

It’s an awesome song, but an even better hip-hop uncle.

My favorite Pavement song is 2/3 of a song

Pavement are a band I’ve never really been able to get into. I appreciate that they’re sort of a quintessential indie rock band–basically a slacker version of The Replacements: sloppy, fun live performances, an implosion right before they should’ve been huge and lots of disdain for their more self-serious peers.

I even appreciate that Stephen Malkmus is an excellent musician. He’s maybe just a half-tier below Jay Mascis on the indie rock guitar god totem pole.

Still, it’s never really clicked, but there is an exception. I absolutely adore most of the song “Shady Lane/ J vs S”. Specifically, I love the “Shady Lane” portion.

I’m on board as soon as the song gets to the hyper-specific, very funny second verse. “Redder shade of neck on a whiter shade of trash/ this emery board is giving me a rash.” Those are some  of my all-time favorite acerbic lyrics, and one of the more creative ways I’ve heard a redneck described in song.

The rest of the song is just a shaggy, plodding joy that always makes me inadvertently nod my head. It’s catchy, and while the lyrics never really soar to the heights of the second verse, it does include awesome somewhat-obtuse but memorable phrases ( You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of  the sequel to your life).

Unfortunately, what could have been a tight two-minute musical joy has to unwind with “J vs. S” a zonked out minute-long guitar outro that sort of wrecks things.

Still, the part of the song with lyrics are among my favorite 160 seconds of music.