LCD’s nuts: James Murphy and Co. deliver another stunning album

American Dream‘s album-opening song is not “Dance Yrslf Clean”.

Because the awesome, impossibly huge synths kick in about three minutes earlier on “Oh Baby” which seems destined to rank among the upper echelon of LCD Soundsystem songs despite the impossibly tough standard set by its predecessor.

The notes are deeper and less frenetic than on LCD’s last side-one, track-one, but the crunchy tone is the same.

Then James Murphy is cooing comforting phrases and shimmering keys enter the fray. Quickly, whatever concerns you have that  8 years away from the improbably cool post-rock-dance-punk indie icons may have dulled their penchant for cranking out classics melt away.

You’ll even forget about the terrible album cover, which I’ve lovingly recreated in MS paint below.

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And rightfully so, because this is a damn good album.

But quality concerns are replace by other anxieties in the more paranoid second track, andfor most of the rest of the album, there’s a whole new slate of anxieties to contend with.

Any album titled American Dream was bound to have a dark undercurrent given the current climate , and by the time a group vocals shout, “resisting other voices” over a cowbell-infused dance groove it’s clear that the mellow opener was a bit of a fake out.

Aging, dying, reconciling a shared human condition with wildly disparate points of view and a general malaise creep in from around the edges.

Of course, Murphy first broke through with “Losing My Edge”, so if anyone can make those themes sound like a party, it’s him.

And he does just that by employing tricks honed over the past three albums,

“Tonite” is a robotic Daft Punkian jam that bluntly and positively addresses mortality in its first minute. It’s “Losing my Edge” taken to its logical conclusion and crossed with a hefty dose of “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and a dash of “You Wanted a Hit” sneer.

“Change Yr Mind” is a depressive “Us V Them” that doesn’t sacrifice much in regards to beats per minute. It adds some interesting screeches to the classic LCD click-track thing with lyrics about being a shut-in, and has a familiar misspelling in the title.

“How Do You Sleep” is a 9-minute epic that starts slow and adds layers a la “All of My Friends” but those layers end up including a synth line that works its way into your bones like “Dance Yrslf Clean”.

“Emotional Haircut” is the best possible version of the “Drunk Girls” model of LCD Soundsystem song. It’s a guitar spazz built around a dumb phrase, but I actually like it a lot more this time around.

Really, if I had to say a bad thing about American Dream, it’s that I think fans of the band will find it a bit self-referential.

“Oh, look, it’s LCD Soundsystem and they’re doing an LCD Soundsystem thing.”

But the synthesis of past ideas and tackling weighty topics is so deft and so good, it didn’t bother me.

It’s sort of the platonic ideal of LCD Soundsystem, and an hour-plus listen goes by really, really smoothly.

I’m not positive because I’ve only given the album two spins, but I don’t think there’s a track I would put in my personal top 3 LCD songs, but I think it is the LCD Soundsystem I could listen to the most in its entirety.

American Dream is superb. It’s everything I love about one of my favorite bands, but it’s a little darker, the commentary is more pointed and the portions are positively epic.

 

 

Boomiversal appeal: The new Big Boi is pretty darn dope if you ask me.

Big Boi was the dependably solid half of Outkast, while his musical partner was the mad scientist that gave their impeccable discography a delightfully odd bent.

Antwan Andrè Patton was the street smart ATLien with an elastic flow that kept the seminal duo grounded in the world of rap while Andre 3000 got progressively weirder, sang more and started play guitar.

Then, Three Stacks went to do a little acting, and Sir Lucious Left Foot started pumping out solo albums, and should’ve always been clear became obvious — Big Boi is a profoundly weird dude in the tradition of George Clinton’s funk mythology.

This worked out to brilliant effect in Big Boi’s long-gestating solo debut, but yielded uneven results on Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors , which was in part hampered  by being a super bloated album.

Go back and listen, there were definitely some good ideas scattered around that album.

Big Boi’s newest offering, Boomiverse, has a hit ratio much more in line with Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, and is frequently a bizarre delight, even if its not quite that album’s equal.

Big Boi is as nimble on the mic as ever, his guest list features Southern rap royalty like Killer Mike, Scar, Pimp C, Curren$y and an expertly deployed Gucci Mane, and there are some truly awesome tracks.

“In the South” is an absolute essential if you’re a fan of a certain type of  Dirty South rap. Gucci Mane raps the way a cat stretches over an icy beat with a hook scoffed by Pimp C. It’s perfect and highlights everything a Big Boi track could possibly do well.

But once again Big Boi is slightly undercut by his dedication to experimentation and willingness to throw things at the wall, which while admirable can sort of derail things.

It means some clunker ideas (Adam Levine feature) co-mingling with awesome ideas  (A Big Rube narration over dramatically swelling strings) on Boomiverse.

It also means more dabbling in electronic sounds, which is sometimes fun, but just doesn’t sound as exciting as the warm, analogue-sounding noise on a track like “All Night”, which mines the same dixieland vein as the criminally underrated Speakerboxxx deepcut, “Bowtie”.

Big Boi managing to drawl and double-time over the same piano beat is one of  this world’s purest joys. “All Night” grabs you by the ear and demands to be on every cookout playlist you make this summer.

But the next six tracks never really hit that high again. There’s some interesting textures, a good bit of introspection and quality rapping, but “All Night” and “In the South” are the two best songs, and they’re on the same half of Boomiverse, which also happens to be the half of the album with “Kill Jill” which is the elevated to the position of best weird song by some inspired huffing and puffing by the big bad Killer Mike.

One Side 2, “Overthought” is a worthwhile if unspectacular meditation on how anxiety is habit-forming and Snoop see whose verse can sound the most like auditory butter, which is pretty damn fun.

This is a good album with flashes of greatness, and songs as good  or odd as “Kill Jill” and “In the South” are worth enduring a thousand less-than-wonderful crossover attempts like “Mic Jack”.

 

 

Get down to this Sick Scene

LC! sound pretty darn well on album No. 6

I adore each and every Los Campesinos! album nearly equally.

The bratty snarl and twee chime of  Hold On Now, Youngster, the guy-girl duets counterbalanced by Xiu Xiu-esque noise on Romance is Boring, the Goldilocks zone of We are Beautiful, We are Doomed and the rock-solid literary pop-rock of their later releases all have a special place in my heart and hard drives.

But for all their consistent, excellence, I’m not sure that LC! have ever had a better side one, track one than the opener for their sixth  album, Sick Scenes. “Renato Dall’Ara (2008)” is a jam.

It’s a sub-3-minute blast of guitar and Gareth Campesinos! signature  multi-syllabic, lilting bleat. It’s light, catchy and features some of the strongest group vocals since singer and keyboardist Aleks Campesinos! left the group. Imagine  if Romance is Boring started off with “Romance is Boring”. It’s like that.

And it’s wholly appropriate, because aside from a couple of tracks toward the album’s back half, the energy level hardly flags. This is the most buoyant and boisterous  record sincetheir 2008 debut, and I’d have to say it’s among their best.

 

 

It’s fairly clear from the music, and at one point even explicitly stated, that Gareth’s songwriting focus has moved past the sometimes plodding malaise that marked long stretches of No Blues and Hello Sadness. Not that LC! staples have gone anywhere. Soccer, relationship woes, self-loathing, death obsession, class-ism, anxiety and heart swells are still all over the album, but they’re presented with acceptance and urgency. A sort of declaration : I feel crummy, but I really feel it.

While the album has a uniform urgency, there’s a wide variety of sounds on the back half of the album.

“The Fall of Home” is a delicate, acoustic number about a changing, declining hometowm that musically recalls the prettiest moments of the All’s Well that Ends EP.

The shiny, electronic “Here’s To The Fourth Time” has some legitimate pop chops, and the synthesizer pops up to add a little extra crunch to “For Whom the Belly Tells”. There’s legitimate guitar heroics on the bridge for “Got Stendhal’s”. None of it is exactly earth-shattering experimentation, but it adds to the lively feeling.

And, LC! absolutely stick the landing with closer “Hung Empty”, which is a thoroughly excellent song. It finishes things off with fist-pumping ennui that you’d only expect to find on a Los Campesinos! record.

I cannot wait to sit down with liner notes and lyrics and give this another serious listen or five.

 

Magellan goes wonderfully off course

I remember sitting on a stolen park bench in my college apartment playing NBA 2K13. A pink triangle of tongue was probing outward from the corner of my mouth, and hangover sweats dampened my clammy forehead while I tried to make Eric Gordon’s easily packed jumper work.

But even more vividly, I recall my concentration was broken when I heard a familiar World Music-tinged bursts of strings and drums that all but demand body rolls. “Dirty Projectors are on this game?” a delighted exclamation.

That was the moment, I had to explain to my friend and roommate who The Dirty Projectors were, but more importantly it should’ve been the first inkling the new, self-titled album from Dave Longstreth would sound the way it sounds.

Longstreth writing for Solange and Rihanna as well as collaborating with Kanye West should’ve been giveaways too  because Dirty Projectors shares about as much musical DNA with “Runaway” as it does with “About to Die”.

There is plenty of woozy vocoder, confessional themes, rapping and Mr. West even gets a shout out on the absolutely fantastic and introspective “Up in Hudson”.

 

 

That standout track also addresses one of the album’s other overwhelming influences–Longstreth’s breakup with longtime girlfriend and stellar guitarist Amber Coffman.

Every song on the album either reminisces about their time together, laments their separation, dwells on loneliness or in the case of “Keep Your Name” fires off some parting shots.

Aside from the thematic fuel, Coffman’s absence could explain the hard turn for the electronic since 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan.

Staccato guitar bursts have decidedly been removed from the album’s vocabulary.  Instead warbles, static and all manner of electric bleeps and bloops have joined the piano, eventful percussion and gift for marrying experimentation with undeniable melody that has always been The Dirty Projectors’ calling card.

And the album sounds absolutely fantastic. It’s almost always a sonic lasagna of  disparate parts. On any given song you might hear electronic effects, autotune, piano, drum loops, horns, violins or even organ, but it’s never muddled, and aside from a few indulgent moments of faux static, it never seems busy for the sake of being busy.

It is a wonderful headpones album.

However it was that Longstreth arrived at the new album’s sound, the result is the same: a deeply engaging album that manages to double-down on both pop influence and weirdness.

I sincerely hope “Cool Your Heart”, which includes a fantastic feature from D∆WN, a frantic drum bridge and layer after layer of brass instruments, soundtracks a future basketball video game.

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.

 

At least the music didn’t suck this year

The idea that 2016 sucked is a full-blown meme at this point, but the sentiment makes a lot of sense.
Terror attacks devastated Paris and Orlando, civilian children are being killed daily in Aleppo and the U.S. presidential election was a mean-spirited wallow in tribal politics even before it became apparent it was heavily influenced by foreign governments and fake news.
The music world didn’t offer much respite. Quite a few brilliant artists were lost this year, including David Bowie, Phife Dog, Sharon Jones and Leonard Cohen.

Music junkies around the world suffered a kick to the ribs that mostly flew under the radar.

In late November, invite-only music sharing website What.CD came to an end after a server was raided by authorities. Over nearly a decade of existence, What.CD had become the standard-bearer for music trackers, and in the wake of its demise, a lot of former users wondered if it had hosted the most expansive and meticulously mapped library of music ever collected.

Safe to say no one is going to pull a young Jeff Tweedy and demand to have their memories of 2016 restored.

On a positive note, the strength of the music released this year offers quite a bit of redemption for 2016.

In my opinion the year lacked an obvious standout album, but there were so, so many good albums that came out this year I can’t really gripe.

This year, rap was dependably kept loopy, which for me is a huge positive. Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, A$AP Ferg and Danny Brown all put out inventive, great albums. Even Top 40 radio got in on the act as DRAM and Lil Yachty collaborated for one of the year’s biggest singles and featured a red, plastic recorder in the music video.

If you emotionally earnest rock music is more to your liking, 2016 offered an embarrassment of riches. Just like every modern comedy seems to include a painful undercurrent of loss and regret or at least a sad subplot, catharsis or an appeal to pathos seems to be a necessary part of modern rock music.

Martha, PUP,  American Football The Hotelier and Modern Baseball all revived various emo sensibilities to thoroughly enjoyable effects. (I didn’t skip Joyce Manor, their release just wasn’t particularly good).

Angel Olsen, Mitski and Car Seat Headrest both put out albums including a ton of personal detail and incredibly quotable lyrics. A Giant Dog mixed an appetite for destruction with observations about aging out of a scene. Jeff Rosenstock put out a 17-song punk opus called Worry.

While normally R&B is a bit of a blind spot for me, there were some brilliant releases in 2016 grabbed my attention.The  sisters Knowles–Solange and Beyoncé– both put out excellent, charged albums, Blood Orange’s latest offering was superb and while I still don’t really get Frank Ocean, there were definitely songs on Blonde even I realized were excellent.

While this year’s disappointments were so large that they cast the immediate global future in an anxious shadow of uncertainty, the steep decline of Western Civilization sounded as good as ever.

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.