Irish power pop band seem like Big Stars

The #1s(pronounced number ones, not hashtag ones) are a power pop band from Ireland, and their eponymous album is one of the best rock releases of the year.

The Number Ones, is one of 2014’s most re-listenable albums, as it rapid fires hook after hook after hook and never sounds less than exhilarating.

These are bite-sized pieces of bubblegum about girls and heartache, not groundbreaking adventures, but they’re well-executed and seem self-aware of the tropes their mining which keeps things from getting rote.

The #1s’ name is reminiscent of Big Star’s debut album, Number 1 Record, but their music seems more influenced by Cheap Trick, The Strokes, The Ramones (The 1,2,3,4! countdown on “Sixteen” in particular) or even the Alex Chilton-adoring Replacements than Big Star.

While the songwriting and hooks are polished, the #1s’ sounds is decidedly fuzzy, and it gives the album an early Smith Westerns-type charm. Many of the songs on the album last less than two minutes, Each song is present to bludgeon you with a hook, then politely move on so the next song can take its turn.

These catchy, pared-down tunes are particularly welcome in 2014’s sonic landscape. 2014 is a year when the esoteric FKA Twig put out one of the most well-regarded pop albums of the year, and reliable garage-rocker Ty Segall put out an excellent, but sprawling double album.

Ultimately, The Number Ones‘ thrills are surface-level but substantial and make for one of the year’s finest guitar pop albums.

New album is kind of a Tuff listen.

King Tuff’s new release boasts increased quality of production, but it is fairly lacking in terms of quality overall.

Black Moon Spell,King Tuff’s follow-up to 2012’s awesome, eponymous release is a sizable disappointment, especially after the extremely enjoyable King Tuff.

Whereas, King Tuff seemed to draw aural inspiration from ’60s garage rock and British Invasion bands, Kyle Thomas, King Tuff’s government name, seems to have taken the primary inspiration for Black Moon Spell from hair metal.

The guitar sounds on this album sound crisp, clean and beefy, which isn’t an inherently bad thing, but King Tuff opened with the cheekily titled “Anthem”, and the slop was part of the charm. Black Moon Spell opens with “Black Moon Spell”, which does an excellent job of aping the sound of an arena-shaking anthem, but without the requisite hook.

However, it isn’t just a new sound that makes this the weakest album in King Tuff’s body of work, Black Moon Spell is equally marred by what hasn’t changed. Thomas’ lyrics have always skewed toward the humorous or absurd, but on this album the jokes fall flat.

“Headbanger” is an ode to a headbanging girl accompanied by headbanging music. It doesn’t come across as funny, it comes across as sub-Tenacious D genre pastiche. With sophomoric humor intact, but fleeting songwriting chops, it is incredibly hard to enjoy parts of this album.

This album is also done a disservice by its self-referential nature. “Beautiful Thing” would seem to be a sequel to the previous album’s thoroughly excellent, “Bad Thing”. “Bad Thing” is an excellent song that managed to make a sentiment of self-loathing into a fist-pumping earworm, “Beautiful Thing” celebrates an object of affection, but manages to sound hollow and listless.The songs on King Tuff are just so thoroughly better that I have no idea why Thomas would intentionally compare and contrast his two most recent albums.

Black Moon Spell briefly meanders into familiar sonic territory with “I love you Ugly”, but doesn’t spend the time there doing anything worthwhile. Things are pared down to King Tuff‘s production values, and the virtues of some ugliness are extolled, but it’s more of a simple jingle than a song, and after its 61-second duration it’s on to the next big, glossy track.

It’s clear this album was intended to be funny, tuneful and, most importantly, RAWK! With its burly guitar sound it definitely does one of those things exceptionally well. Unfortunately, Black Moon Spell captures the brainlessness of the genre it apes, but none of the catchy choruses.

This album would be an underwhelming joke metal album, like a much worse version of the Eagles of Death Metal, but knowing how much more King Tuff is capable of makes it regrettable.

 

My least defensible favorite album

I absolutely love Hippies by Harlem. It was released in 2010 by a band whose most notable achievement is either opening for Jack White’s side project, The Dead Weather or an incredibly entertaining Twitter account. Still, Harlem’s 2010 release, Hippies, is one of my most listened to albums of all time. It’s also probably the least defensible album among the ranks of my other favorite albums. Hippies is not a transcendental album, and it was made by a band almost no one has heard of.

Harlem is a trio from Austin, Texas by way of Tuscon, Ariz. They tend to to produce fuzzed-out pieces of garage rock with scuzzy lyrics, confrontational titles and incredibly catchy hooks. Harlem have released two albums and an EP–Free Drugs, Hippies and LSD Saves, respectively. According to Wikipedia and Twitter, the band is on indefinite hiatus to the my, and other weirdos’, chagrin

Of Harlem’s three releases only Hippies was reviewed widely enough to generate a metacritic page. The album, which was released by Matador generally well-received, Songs were praised for their effective hooks and comedic sensibilities. It received criticism for its 18-song running length and for a handful of songs that are essentially only a repeated chorus.

Hippies is certainly guilty on all charges. The majority of the songs are simple, quirky deconstructions of dysfunctional relationships. Any vitriol tends to come off as incorrigibly mischievous instead of malicious. Lyrics reference immolation of an ex, drug use, Casper the Ghost and make good use of the occasional curse word. Every song is also simple and catchy enough to make the album an inadvertent singalong. The songs will be wedged in your head, and the sparse arrangement is begging for another voice.

Of course, it is also true that Hippies contains 18 songs. None of these songs runs much longer than three minutes. Hippies fits on a single CD, but it is sort of an approximation of what a Ramones’ double album effort might be like, but with a greater folk influence. 18 songs hellbent on beating their way into your skull and then abruptly ending. I’m a fan of this quality, but there is definitely a feeling that maybe the band could have done more with less. A tight, 13-song album would definitely contain all of Hippies‘ highlights, and it would still display the band’s bottomless reservoir of garage rock ear worms. However, the album never entirely wears out its welcome given the brevity of the tracks themselves. Also, considering Harlem’s dearth of material, there has been time to get to know every song on Hippies extensively.

Ultimately, this is an imperfect album. Its songs certainly aren’t cerebral, and there sure are a lot of them. Still, in my opinion it is undeniably great despite these minor flaws. It’s a collection of garage rock and punk songs. The irreverent lyrics are more clever than they need to be and the musical arrangements sound much prettier than they mean to. There’s just the right amount of feedback and roughness around the edges of Hippies to capture the scuzz a band called Harlem desired without taking away from the stellar tunes. All in all, Hippies is an awesome collection of songs from a quasi-existent band, and it’s definitely worth a listen. Just don’t be surprised when you find yourself revisiting its warm tones.

Can I borrow a feeling? The latest from Strand of Oaks uses obvious influences to illicit honest emotion.

Heal by Strand of Oaks, Timothy Showalter, is a puree of critically lauded influences. The echoes of painfully honest Joni Mitchell lyrics, soaring Bruce Springsteen choruses, early U2 synth lines and sloppy guitar work courtesy of Pavement or Dinosaur Jr. ring throughout the album.

Although Heal is basically mystery meat made from the grounds of Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. it has been incredibly well-received–and rightly so.

Despite being transparently derivative Heal is an excellent record. The reference points are familiar, but Showalter is successful in injecting the album with intense, personal feeling entirely his own. Heal tapers off toward the end, but its first six songs are some of the best music released this year and would make a remarkable, albeit short, standalone album.

These songs run the gamut from the straight-ahead rock of the album opener , “Goshen ’97” to the emotionally raw 7-and-a-half minute tribute to Jason Molina and his music, “JM”. The album’s first half also describes a variety of emotions and Showalter’s personal battles with substance abuse and self-image, which gives it a striking resonance.

Remarkably, Heal comes across as a very cohesive album even as it hops across decades and genres and crosses emotional hemispheres  from adolescent elation to crippling depression. This is largely because a few themes thread themselves across the album. Self-deprecation  verging on self-loathing; substance use to both celebrate and medicate;  the catharsis of music and its inextricable presence in day-to-day life; and Midwestern ennui are the album’s touchstones.

It is a testament to Showalter’s ability to create enormous, wonderful choruses that Heal is life-affirming and uplifting instead of overbearingly bleak. This is a collection of weary, overtly literary song about life both before and after becoming “fat, drunk and mean” and what it’s like to “lose [your] faith in people,”, and they are absolute earworms.

 

 

These sweeping, radio-ready moments earned Strand of Oaks at least one comparison to Coldplay, but a different wildly successful ’00s band is a much closer match to Strand of Oaks’ sound. When Showalter’s voice hits the highest, soaring notes in Heal‘s gigantic choruses, it sounds extremely similar to Brandon Flower’s of The Killers, someone who was certainly no stranger to Springsteen’s influence. Comparing Strand of Oaks to the slick Las Vegas band is no insult. The album’s lyrical content and emotive vocals provide substance to match the style.

If catchy pop-music viewed through a gruff, misanthropic lens imbued with the attributes of every critically lauded singer/songwriter  of the 20th century sounds appealing to you, then even Heal‘s slightly lackluster second half should deter you from listening to and loving this album.

 

 

Cloudy with a chance of excellence

After the amazing Attack on Memory, expectations for The Cloud Nothings fourth album, Here and Nowhere Else, were stratospheric. The single, “I’m Not Part of Me”, which accompanied the album’s announcement did absolutely nothing to quell excitement.

It turns out the hype was absolutely justified. Here and Nowhere Else is so great it may actually be better than Attack on Memory.

Whereas Attack on Memory refuted the perception of Cloud Nothings’ perception as a one-man bedroom punk act, Here and Nowhere Else finds a compromise between both iterations of the band. The new Cloud Nothings record maintains the aggressive, fuller sound developed on its predecessor and applies it to the type of simple, dirty garage rock melodies abundant on early Cloud Nothings releases.

A perfect example of this duality is the 7-minute aggro-guitar freakout “Pattern Walks” preceding the album-closing lead single “I’m Not Part of me”.

The pairing of song-writing chops and ferocious sounds give this album a timeless quality. This is not to say the influence of ’90s bands such as Jawbreaker and Nirvana is no longer present. When Baldi yelps, “Swallow!” over fuzzed-out guitars and surging bass during “Giving into Seeing” it’s downright Cobain-ian.

However,  throughout Here and Nowhere Else Cloud Nothings display such clear ownership of their sound it’s impossible to imagine any other band in any other time making this album.

On April 1, when Cloud Nothings officially release, Here and Nowhere Else, they will release the best album of their young careers, and what will likely be one of the year’s best releases.

 

 

 

Second impressions of Earth

When The Strokes’ third full-length album, First Impressions of Earth was  released in 2006 it received mixed reviews and garnered international commercial indifference.

First Impressions of Earth was considered a step backward from The Strokes’ well-received sophomore effort, Room on Fire, and it was particularly brutalized anytime it was compared to the beloved Is This It.

The album was considered too long, too disjointed and the tales of the laborious recording sessions that produced it are well documented . Also, First Impressions did not sound like what an album by The Strokes was expected to sound like.

In an interview with Pitchfork Gordon Raphael, said he thinks the sound change was the result of a change in producers and a desire to monetize.

“I believe they saw all the bands that came in the door behind the first record that were selling three times more than them and were wondering if it was a production thing,” says Raphael. “At the time, they were getting married and having children and wondering how they could go higher than they did.”

The Strokes attempted a two producer approach, but David Kahne, who has produced albums for Tony Bennet, Sublime and Sugar Ray, would ultimately handle the brunt of the producing duties.

With Kahne’s production First Impressions of Earth sounds slicker and slightly heavier than any entry to The Strokes’ body of work so far.

First Impresions of Earth is by most of the band’s admission an overgrown jumble, but even a casual reveals at least a handful of good songs and a few excellent songs.

The opening four tracks of the album oscillate between some of the most joyous pop-rock The Strokes have made and the hardest rock The Strokes ever experimented with.

You Only Live Once, Juice Box, Heart in a Cage and Razorblade are all enjoyable listens.

It takes until First Impression of Earth‘s fifth track for the album to truly misfire.

The ska aping, midtempo number On the Other Side just does not have much juice. Casablancas’ drunken boredom becomes contagious, and it’s difficult to make it through the four-and-a-half-minute song.

Luckily, the album’s next song is a respite.

Vision of Division is a cleaned up take on the sound The Strokes had mined successfully in their previous two albums. The song coils, building tension and releases it expertly, and Albert Hammond Jr’s guitar sounds furious when its given free reign.

Unfortunately, there is another third of the album until the next truly worthwhile song, but it’s a doozy.

Ize of the World might just be the best song on First Impressions.

 Ize moves at a brisk pace, and is anomalous in feeling much shorter than its actual running time. The song is basically build around the lyrical conceit that verbs ending in “-ize”– an egg to fertilize, a pulse to stabilize, a body to deodorize, etc. It’s tongue-in cheek, musically interesting and features a bizarre, abrupt ending. Ize of the World is the most successful experiment on this album by far, and it would have served as an excellent closing song.

However, First Impressions still has two more inessential songs to go. Evening Sun and Red Light aren’t offensively bad, but they aren’t wonderful either. They’re symptomatic of the perplexing inclusion of entirely too much filler, which kept First Impressions from being the third unimpeachable entry into The Strokes cannon.

Despite the album’s flaws, it hits on almost half of the songs on the album, and it isn’t hard to see how if First Impressions of Earth would have been greatly improved if it had been pared down.

It is still absolutely worth a listen, but after the first run through it’s probably best to stick to the seven or so songs that you actually like.

 

 

If it Saint Baroque Don’t Fix It: Annie Clark’s latest complex pop offering rocks

Annie Clark, best known by her performing moniker St. Vincent, has always displayed impressive rock’n’roll chops for someone who primarily trades in dreamy, baroque pop, but the opening one-two punch on her new self-titled album ramps things up considerably.

Album opener “Rattle Snake” and  the proceeding track”Birth in Reverse” both vibrate with an electric energy entirely befitting Clark’s  recent switch to shock-white hair.

“St. Vincent” then moves on to spacier territory, which will be familiar and pleasant for fan’s of 2011’s superb “Strange Mercy”.

The strange, tuneful art-pop on this album will make her collaborator David Byrne proud.

Genre bending also abounds throughout “St. Vincent”. “Bring Me Your Loves” flirts with an industrial sound, “Digital Witness” is a brassy dance song with hints of Prince-like funk and closer “Severed Cross Fingers” is a fairly straightforward ballad.

The humor and genuine feeling present in this album provides warmth to the angular music on this album, and a pulsing energy gives this excellent album a sense of momentum, even if it never quite tops its opening rush.

Re-done dance

It’s not uncommon for a band to reuse a song released on an EP as a track on a full-length album,but sometimes too much tinkering can cause an EP standout to lose its appeal the second time around. These songs are songs bands got right the first time.

1. Magic Wands- “Teenage Love”

This song appeared on both “Magic, Love & Dreams EP” and on the bands debut album “Aloha Moon”. Both versions are intentionally kitschy, ironic takes on bubblegum love songs, but the first version did it better. The album version isn’t bad, but The EP version’s vocals are more subdued, drumming has a little more snap and synthesizer intro is less prominent.

For a song that’s essentially a stripped down, sneering take on “Genius of Love” less is more.

2. Ra Ra Riot- “Can You Tell”

The best version of “Can You Tell” appeared, fittingly, on the 2006 “Can You Tell EP”, and is technically a demo version of the song. It also appears on Ra Ra Riot’s 2008 album, “The Rhumb Line”. The earlier version has a rougher string section, and the word babe is used as a holding place for about a fourth of the simple song’s lyrics.

This is a schmaltzy, short love song, and it lose virtually no meaning by having a term of endearment stand in for a few lines. However, “Can You Tell” gains a lot of character by stripping a coat of varnish off of its strings.

3. The Givers- GIVERS

Four of the 10 songs on The Givers’ debut album “In Light” are contained on the band’s EP “GIVERS”. The band is bubbly and energetic, but dialed it up to 11 for their album. Every redundant song was better in its original iteration, and the remix of “Up Up Up” is also very enjoyable.

“In Light” is a fun, afrobeat inspired collection of indie pop songs, but the band from Lafeyette, La., did better with the material on their first try.

 

 

Chance the Rapper- “Acid Rap”

Chance the Rapper is an artist barely out of his adolescence from Chicago. He famously started recording music during suspension from high school. He sounds like a combination of Kanye West’s barely-outsider perspective, Kendrick Lamar’s elastic flow and observation and Lil Wayne’s bravado and vocal ticks. Gospel, jazz, soul,reggae, golden age hip-hop, scat and more conventional drum machine beats all appear on this album to create a sound that instantly comes across as familiar and infectious.

Despite all of the audible influential artists and genres Chance the Rapper’s new mix tape “Acid Rap” is some of the most schizophrenically original music released this year. A few things immediately come across when listening to this mixtape. The first is that Chance is an incredibly self-aware rapper. He raps about generational divide and the harsh realities of living in Chicago’s South Side as naturally as he cuts a party track. The second is that Chance the Rapper is totally unafraid to leave the beaten path. He’ll attempt to croon in his warbling, cracking voice before launching into a double timed barrage of word play. The last thing that quickly becomes evident about Chance is that he loves his drugs. Ecstasy, acid, cigarettes, codeine, marijuana and Hennessy all get shout outs on this album, but the album never falls into the trap of being something as simple as a drug album.

Although Chance gives a shout out to another rapping Chicago wunderkind on this mix tape everything is sonically and topically broader than anything the drill scene could possibly produce. Also, although plenty of other Chicago-area artists appear on this album, notably BJ the Chicago Kid and Twista, the guest list also includes Childish Gambino, Ab-Soul and Action Bronson. The end result of the various unorthodox mixtures is an original, ambitious effort that effectively evokes introspection and humor.

Black Kids-“Partie Traumatic”

This album is most likely my guiltiest pleasure. It is the full-length debut of a late ’00s buzz band, Black Kids, that flamed out when “Partie Traumatic” generated responses ranging from indifference to critical failure.The hype surrounding Black Kids was intense enough that I cannot simply claim they were overlooked, but their mindless pop was never popular enough for me to feign semi-ironic enjoyment.  Somehow, I love this album.

“Partie Traumatic” is gloriously cheesy, fun pop music. Silly, snotty female backing vocals that evoke The Waitresses mingle with dizzying synthesizer,bouncing  bass, pounding drums and squealing saxophone. The result is a weird amalgamation of hip-hop, indie rock and dance music all thoroughly polished with a dazzling ’80s sheen.

The album is one ear worm after another; one 3 and a half minute infuriatingly catchy pop track after another. The ability of these songs to lodge themselves in a listener’s brain manages to make “Partie Traumatic” a pleasure to listen to even as cheesy synthesizer lines clash with bizarre or absurd, laughable lyrics.

I strongly recommend this album to anyone that can overlook shortcomings in lyrical content and substance for pure, auditory serotonin.