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Review: Mogwai, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

4.0

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Mogwai, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Last year’s Burning documentary captured Scotland’s Mogwai in a particularly seething mood. Shot starkly in black and white, the film showcased the volatile side of the Mogwai songbook, with The Hawk Is Howling‘s cacophonous “Batcat” providing a suitably visceral finale. Since Mogwai chose to present themselves at their heaviest, I figured that 2011 would be the year that the art-rock vets would embrace their somewhat unfashionable metal influences and push their sound to the next plateau of amp-blowing menace—a wager I took to be more or less confirmed when they announced their new album’s hilariously foreboding title, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.

As it turns out, the album finds Mogwai going easier on the ears than they have since 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People. Washed-out electronic textures, vocodered singing, and gentle piano envelop much of the album in a pastoral haze, and while Mogwai’s signature guitar dynamics are both present and predictably melodramatic, they eschew the balls-out heavy-metal tantrums that Burning so capably highlighted. Feedback and distortion gather like clouds on “Rano Pano” and “Death Rays,” but the storm never breaks. And when the band’s three guitarists let loose on “George Square Thatcher Death Party” (a strong contender for best song title of the year) and “How to Be a Werewolf,” they opt for melodic phrasings that owe as much to Slash as they do to Sonic Youth.

With only one track exceeding seven minutes, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is also among the most concise and well-paced albums in Mogwai’s catalogue. Coming from nearly any other act, an opening salvo of five- and six-minute songs would feel bloated and gratuitous, but this is a band whose fan favorites include thunderous 16-minute marathons and painstakingly austere compositions built around single riffs and arpeggios. In that context, a track like “Mexican Grand Prix,” which sprints through its five-minute runtime on a rollicking, almost pop-punk drumbeat, is a welcome example of self-editing.

What’s more, the shift toward shorter songs seems to have prompted a new compositional tack, one far less dependent on the theatrical build-and-release dynamics which have doomed a few too many of the band’s self-styled epics to predictability. Only with the album’s closer, “You’re Lionel Richie,” does Mogwai tread back to the murky waters first plunged by Slint, but at that point, they’ve withheld long enough that any fan will be positively aching for the sturm und drang. Hell, they’ll probably be disappointed that Mogwai manages to gather and expel their wrath in a mere eight-and-a-half minutes.

Label: Sub Pop Release Date: February 15, 2011 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Caribou’s Suddenly Is an Inviting Dive Into Familial Waters

The album takes family as its central theme with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.

4.5

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Caribou, Suddenly
Photo: Thomas Neukum

The narrative arc of Dan Snaith’s career as Caribou (and Manitoba before it) has been one of increasing devotion to humanity. His earlier work was chilly enough that the Shakespeare-referencing title of 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness could be read as tongue-in-cheek. But starting with 2007’s Andorra, Snaith began delving deeper into human emotions. Our Love, from 2014, was a tender examination of, well, love, while his latest, Suddenly, takes family as its central theme—the title comes from his daughter’s obsession with the word—with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.

Snaith builds his songs with a cool, measured precision, as one might expect from someone who holds a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the fun games to play with this album is unpacking its myriad references and samples. “Lime,” for instance, boasts the peppiness of a Röyksopp song filtered through the muzak setting on a Casio synthesizer. “Never Come Back” possesses the propulsive beat of a ‘90s dance-floor filler. “Like I Love You” is built on the bones of what sounds like an early-aughts R&B track. The album rewards this type of reference-spotting, and it’s a treat to listen to the way such a masterful musician mines his own record collection for inspiration.

What makes the album so spectacular, though, is Snaith’s voice. This is the first Caribou effort on which he sings on every track, and his vocals are mixed higher than they have been in the past. Throughout, his mesmerizing vocals elevate songs that might otherwise scan as banal. “Like I Love You” trades in a fairly well-trod sentiment, with Snaith rhapsodizing about an ex-lover, but he wrings every last drop of emotional possibility out of lines like “Does he love you like I used to do?/Do you ever miss me like I miss you?” Elsewhere, “Magpie” finds Snaith employing his vocals to maximum impact. The first half of the song, which features a lovely, McCartney-esque melody, is buried under compression that makes it sound like it’s playing from the busted speakers of an old cathode-ray TV set. That distortion falls away halfway through, as Snaith sings, “And now the world is catching up to you,” and the song blossoms, capturing the feeling of being in the first flush of love. This shift is but one among many moments of striking revelation throughout the album.

The brief “Sister” is a gentle, affecting lullaby about the responsibilities of love. Amid a whirl of rich, warm synth notes, Snaith sings softly, “Sister, I promise you I’m changing/You’ve had broken promises I know/If you want to change it you must break it/Rip it up and something new will grow.” At the end of the line, a burst of static introduces a sample taken from an old tape of Snaith’s mother singing his sister a lullaby. The political overtones of the lines are obvious, but the personal nature of the sample gives the song a weight that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. What he’s addressing isn’t as important as how he does it.

Label: Merge Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Best Guided by Voices Songs

We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in the band’s dauntingly huge catalogue.

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Guided by Voices
Photo: Tony Nelson

Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices has seemed to be on a mission to record more long-players than they did during the entirety of their original run, a 17-year stretch that began with 1987’s charming, self-produced Devil Between My Toes and ended 15 albums later in 2004 with the muscular, mature Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Conventional wisdom says the band peaked with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the last album featuring the “classic” lineup featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, but anyone who continued to pay attention after the band fell out of indie-snob favor knows that any permutation of the group only has one essential member: lead singer and world-class songwriter Robert Pollard. His mastery has never ceased for creating two-minute post-punk anthems that make singing along at maximum volume seem like the greatest pastime in the world.

We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in Guided by Voices’s dauntingly huge catalogue. It’s a list cut down from an initial group of 60, any one of which could’ve been included here. So if you don’t see one of your personal favorites, know that I probably wrestled over whether to include it. With that caveat out of the way, here are the 25 tracks that most proudly represent a group that’s not just one of the very best indie-rock bands, but on the short list of the greatest rock n’ roll bands in history.

25. “Space Gun”

The title track from Guided by Voices’s 2018 album is, like the album itself, one of the true highlights of the band’s reformation and resurgence in the last decade. With production pitched between the spiky compression of their 4-track beginnings and the cleaner big-rock noise of their post-Alien Lanes run in the 2000s, it’s a four-minute glam-prog stomper built around a glittering guitar line that sounds like “I Am a Tree” took the brown acid. And with lyrics which name-check John Philip Sousa, it isn’t difficult to imagine “Space Gun” as the future fight song for a gang of besotted galactic raiders.

24. “An Unmarketed Product”

At various times in the band’s storied career, Robert Pollard has abandoned his normal lyrical template of beguiling cosmic Dadaism to provide meta commentary on the band’s legacy as mischievous outsiders playing on the margins of the corporate rock game. The lyrics caution, “I can give you credit/Suitable and custom tailored/And if you have any luck/You’ll get ahead/Before you’re dead,” as this 69-second piss-take anthem mines sugary post-punk for a single-finger salute to the KROQ dreams that should’ve been the band’s birthright.

23. “Man Called Aerodynamics”

When Bee Thousand first conquered the ‘90s indie-rock landscape, rock criticism’s elder guard bemoaned the melodic ADD of their songs, with their manic rush to hooks and choruses an alleged affront to classic-rock formalism. What, then, would they have made of this roaring track from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, seeming to begin midstream, at the very moment where its ‘60s and ‘70s forebears would already be at the minute mark? Sharing with “Space Gun” a sound that could be described as “Pete Townsend destroying his Gibson in a wind tunnel,” “Man Called Aerodynamics” is as mammoth as anything lo-fi indie rock has ever produced.

22. “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”

“G-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!” chants the raucous crowd at the beginning of the nearly six-minute epic that kicks off the band’s transitional 1992 album Propeller. As we’d discover later, the “crowd” was the band themselves using echo and a little striving wish fulfillment to imagine the kind of frenzied excitement that would greet the band a few years later. The track itself is like many of the group’s forays into prog-rock: blazing mini-songs (technically two, if the title is to be trusted, though three by structure) strung together like a “Stars on 45” for the British invasion (non-Beatles edition), starting restless and rough, turning bright and hopeful, and then concluding in a cascade of reverbing choral tranquility.

21. “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”

Because almost everything Bob and the boys do is like a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of rock n’ roll, when it comes to lighter-waving power ballads, their ne-plus-ultra entry stops right when everyone else’s is just reaching the chorus. Built on a bed of keys from a piano that one imagines stained with tears, whiskey and spit, “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is both melancholy and majestic—Leonard Cohen via “Champagne Supernova”—and the spectral production is so perfect that when And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead covered it years later with 10 times the budget, the dollars couldn’t add a thing beyond surface shine.

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Review: Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory Is Bound by a Sense of Maturity

The album explores darker, weightier subject matter than its predecessor.

3.5

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Soccer Mommy, Color Theory
Photo: Brian Ziff

With 2018’s Clean, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison emerged on the scene sounding a lot like a moody indie rock incarnation of Taylor Swift. That album’s “Your Dog” and “Cool” are effortless anthems that possess the same instantly anthemic quality as many of Swift’s mega-hits. But the main connection between the two is a pseudo-adolescent outlook wherein their dating lives and associated travails are elevated to matters of life and death. Just 20 at the time of Clean’s release, Allison was consumed by thoughts like “She’s so pretty/Even more than me.”

With Color Theory, Allison raises the stakes. Slicker than Clean, and beefed up by her touring band, the album’s sparkling guitars and restrained studio sheen bring her sound closer to, if not Swift, then familiar ‘90s alt-rock touchstones like Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Allison’s progression as a songwriter is more acutely evident in the album’s darker, weightier subject matter: Continuing to draw on personal experience, she largely eschews songs about her love life, instead confronting her issues with mental health and abandonment.

Color Theory rarely progresses beyond the admittedly rich template established in its opening track, “Bloodstream.” Here, Allison offers frank and poetic ruminations on her history of depression and self-harm as rhythm guitars thrum behind her. Her visceral lyrics—“Now a river runs red from my knuckles into the sink”—are partially obscured by a deceptively cheery chord progression, just like she once “covered up the wounds with my long sleeves.”

In its subject matter, chords, rhythm, and tempo, “Circle the Drain” bears a strong resemblance to “Bloodstream.” But the song’s most lasting impression is its hook, a sing-song “Round and around” refrain that’s deafening in its obviousness—not because it’s uncreative, but because it’s a wonder no one else thought of it sooner. Indeed, Allison’s best melodic hooks—like the overlapping guitar lines on “Crawling in My Skin”—are often simple but indelible.

Even as Allison delves deep into heavy subject matter, she usually sounds more angsty than haunted. Which is fine when she delivers that angst with such melodic verve (the album’s dourest-sounding songs, especially the final two, are easily the weakest, as they lack melodies strong enough to buoy Allison’s disaffected musings). Her still-youthful perspective means that the charmingly tongue-in-cheek “Royal Screw Up,” on which she imagines herself as an emotionally damaged waifu (“My dungeon of fire, I’m the princess of screwing up/And you wear your armor and you save pretty girls like me”), isn’t totally out of place here.

Still, a sense of maturity binds the album’s best moments. “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” lazily unfolds over seven-plus minutes, but as with “Bloodstream,” there’s pain hidden beneath the pleasant vibes. Dogged by memories of her terminally ill mother, Allison laments that even her daydreams of happier times are tainted by the knowledge of what’s to come: “Loving you isn’t enough/You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.”

Color Theory’s lynchpin is “Lucy,” which makes clear just how much Allison has grown as a songwriter since Clean. Allison is having trouble with a boy, and there’s another girl involved who’s complicating matters. But this time, the boy isn’t just a mean boyfriend; he’s “the root of all evil,” intent on dragging her to hell, perhaps literally so. And the other girl isn’t a prettier or cooler rival; she seems to be a part of Allison’s own psyche, constantly tormenting her. “Oh Lucy please/Quit taunting me,” Allison pleads over and over, a refrain as menacing as it is catchy. Though some deeper and darker has taken root in this indie rock wunderkind, her melodic grip remains the backbone of her music.

Label: Loma Vista Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Justin Bieber’s Changes Represents a Marked Shift in the Singer’s Perspective

The album finds the singer trying to usher in a new era characterized in large part by asking for help.

3

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Justin Bieber, Changes
Photo: Outside Organisation

In 2017, after over 250 tour dates across six continents, Justin Bieber canceled what remained of his Purpose World Tour, citing extreme exhaustion. The decision is touched on in the first episode of his YouTube docu-series Justin Bieber: Seasons, a not totally uncynical and yet undeniably humanizing snapshot of a troubled performer whose youthful mistakes were augmented by incredible wealth, increasing isolation, and a public whose gaze has been made all the more searing by the rapid growth of social media.

Taken together, Seasons and Changes, the singer’s fifth album, find Bieber trying to usher in a new era in his life and career characterized in large part by asking for and receiving help. Along with medical professionals who are helping him to manage his recently diagnosed Lyme disease and Epstein Barr, in addition to his chronic anxiety, his new wife, Hailey Baldwin, seems also to have had a calming effect on his music. Where Bieber’s previous albums have often felt engineered almost exclusively for the purpose of stimulating audience response, Changes seems focused instead on the tenderness and comfort of his newlywed bubble.

Seasons makes much of his perfectionism, showing him cut vocal tracks line by line, singing on a loop until he hits each note just right. But it’s that attention to detail, along with the use of vocal effects that coat his voice in a plastic sheen, that holds Bieber at an unfortunate remove from us. In leaning into a more subdued palette of R&B, Changes creates a space for Bieber’s voice to take a central role. But for an album that focuses so strongly on human connection, there’s a certain lack of emotion that might have come from a looser recording process. That distance is counteracted in large part by a certain lyrical openheartedness, and though Bieber often veers into cliché—“When your battery gets low/I’ll be the one to charge you up,” he sings on “Take It Out on Me”—there’s a real charm to the songs that rest so deeply not just on love or sex, but trust and commitment.

Although the tonal fluidity of Changes errs, from time to time, toward homogeneity, there’s a weightlessness to it that seems to signify the slipping of a long-held burden from Bieber’s shoulders. His most personal offering to date, the album feels like a reflection of actual experience as opposed to a projection of a fantasy. Putting aside the album’s lead single, “Yummy,” a Tik-Tok-baiting affront to both sex and music in equal measure, this is an album that feels very much like the documentation of a very specific moment in time in the singer’s life and an accompanying marked shift in his perspective.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans Is More Parody Than Tribute

The album seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year.

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Yacht Rock Revue, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans
Photo: Please Rock

Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year. It’s the work of an affable group of guys who travel the country playing the kind of ‘70s and ‘80s light rock that gives their band its name. Over the past decade, Yacht Rock Revue has built something of a soft-rock empire, playing in major venues across the country and hosting an annual festival in Atlanta where they’re often joined on stage by the musicians they’ve made their bones covering. Now, having established themselves as the premier purveyors of yesteryear’s smoothest hits, the band is releasing their first album of original material. But while Yacht Rock Revue is a stellar live band, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans often fails to show what makes them special in the first place.

Having made music as a cover band for so long, Yacht Rock Revue seems tempted to play “spot the reference” with their original material rather than engaging with the songs on their own merits. Some of the tracks, of course, wear their influences on their sleeves: “House in the Clouds” is built around a Matthew Wilder/Thomas Dolby synth riff, while “Change of Scene” apes Stevie Wonder. The album’s palette isn’t exclusively limited to the ‘70s—“You’re Welcome Baby” sounds uncannily like Kishi Bashi’s brand of indie-pop—but it’s easy to get distracted wondering who the band might be trying to sound like in any given song.

The album’s larger issue is exemplified by opening track “The Doobie Bounce,” the title of which is a winking reference to the jaunty rhythm perfected by the Doobie Brothers that JD Ryznar has held up as a hallmark of the genre on his podcast Yacht or Nyacht. The song itself is about the pleasures of getting stoned and listening to records, referencing the Doobie Brothers, Sade, and, perhaps surprisingly, OutKast, and it has one good laugh line: “I used to sleep on couches/Now I sleep on nicer couches.” Yacht rock has a reputation for skimming the surface of emotions, but that stereotype isn’t totally fair: Daryl Hall is a clever songwriter, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are among the sharpest and most acidic satirists in rock. These songs, though, are disappointingly obvious. “House in the Clouds” is about living in a house above the clouds, and “Another Song About California” is, well, I’ll let you guess.

The band’s tendency toward obviousness comes to a head on “Bad Tequila,” a party anthem that revises the old chesnut about turning lemons into lemonade into a joke about turning tequila into margaritas. It’s certainly catchy, and pure escapism certainly has a proud tradition in pop, but it’s also, at five minutes long, frustratingly repetitive.

Say what you will about the genre, but most AOR bands were tight musicians, and Yacht Rock Revue has likewise honed their craft to a razor’s edge. The appeal of their live shows lies in the way they treat their music with utmost reverence, even as they perform dressed in costume to crows of people crushing daiquiris and wearing captain’s hats. From its jokey title and cover art to the somewhat undercooked songs, however, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans feels more like a parody than a tribute to the genre Yacht Rock Revue so clearly love.

Label: Please Rock Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guided by Voices’s Surrender Your Poppy Field Serves Power Pop with a Twist

Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop.

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Guided by Voices, Surrender Your Poppy Field
Photo: Tony Nelson

Nearly 40 years into his career, Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop, like a magician forever pulling rabbits out of a hat. Ever since Pollard assembled a new Guided by Voices lineup for 2017’s August by Cake, the band has showcased a different facet of their sound with each outing, and that diversification continues on Surrender Your Poppy Field. The album weaves the unusual time signatures, song lengths, and baroque-prog structures of last year’s Sweating the Plague with the tight melodicism that’s made some of Pollard’s best solo albums so memorable.

In comparison to their longer counterparts on Sweating the Plague, almost every song here runs through several moods and styles rapidly—but without ever sounding rushed or contrived. “Cul-de-Sac Kids” alternates between gentle acoustic strumming and brief full-band bashing before launching into an underdogs-win-the-day chorus—“Cul-de-sac kids throw the best parties!”—bolstered by the album’s most driving riff. It’s the most complex and exhilarating track on the album, all in just a little over two-and-a-half minutes.

The album’s lead single, “Volcano,” is a Pixies-esque ballad buoyed by Mark Shue’s muted bass runs. What makes the song both uniquely strange and beautiful in the Guided by Voices catalog is the inclusion of atmospheric keyboard phrases that play over verses containing some of the prettiest lyrics Pollard has written: “True is the time when I see you/Blue from the blinds that I see through.” The explosion of the chorus into a wall of power chords provides Pollard’s life-affirming exhortation—“On the trail of lovers/Never failing with their loving eyes around you to prove your rage isn’t true”—with the perfect euphoric accompaniment.

The album’s biggest surprise is that several tracks—“Arthur Has Business Elsewhere,” “Steely Dodgers,” and “Andre the Hawk”—utilize waltz time to evoke the kind of carnival-esque stomps that comprised some of Guided By Voices’s earliest recordings, including 1987’s Sandbox and 1989’s Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. These songs offer a compelling contrast to more straightforward rock tracks like “Stone Cold Moron,” which features a double electric guitar attack from Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. that’s pure arena-rock euphoria.

Indeed, waltzes aside, Surrender Your Poppy Field may be the most consistently hard-edged and rocking Guided by Voices effort since 2018’s Space Gun. “Queen Parking Lot” and “Man Called Blunder” waste no time as rousing, unfussy riffs barrel into verse-chorus-verse sing-alongs. It all leads to a stunning conclusion, as “Next Sea Level” transforms an eerie demo-quality recording of chime-like guitar strums into a majestic full-band and orchestra-accompanied crescendo. The song’s title and chants of “rising” suggest a climate change apocalypse, but since that would be far too on the nose, the ever-oblique Pollard ends with something mysteriously hopeful: “To hear you/To touch you/To know you’re coming around/Still coming around.” Beyond the Tommy reference, “Next Sea Level” proves that Pollard can foster worlds of thought and feeling out of sparse yet strategic gestures.

“Next Sea Level” also represents the welcome maturity of the current incarnation of Guided by Voices, whose only Achilles’ heel is an exhausting deluge of content. Some have lamented Pollard’s prolific songwriting for diluting the quality of his output, but at this stage of his career Surrender Your Poppy Field proves he’s deepening rather than merely proliferating his music, continuing to grow up instead of growing old.

Label: GbV Release Date: February 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Billie Eilish Drops Lush James Bond Theme Song “No Time to Die”

The lush, darkly cinematic track feature an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and guitar from Johnny Marr.

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Billie Eilish, No Time to Die
Photo: Interscope Records

On the heels of her historic Grammy wins, singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has unveiled “No Time to Die,” the theme song from the upcoming James Bond film of the same name. The song was produced by her brother and frequent collaborator, Finneas, and veteran knob-twirler Stephen Lipson. The lush, darkly cinematic track falls in line with past 007 themes, with an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Matt Dunkley, and featuring guitar from Johnny Marr of the Smiths.

The 18-year-old Eilish, the youngest person and first woman to win the four main Grammy categories in the same year, is now the youngest artist to both write and record a Bond theme. She will perform the song live for the first time at The Brit Awards on February 18.

No Time to Die hits U.S. theaters on April 10 through MGM/United Artists Releasing.

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Review: The Men’s Mercy Finds a Mercurial Band Settling Into Their Sound

The album boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.

3.5

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The Men
Photo: Sacred Bones

The Men is a mercurial band, having moved with remarkable swiftness from the punishing noise-punk of their early albums to the more radio-friendly rock of their more recent output. The Brooklyn band’s eighth album, Mercy, continues to challenge the boundaries of genre, with psych-folk sitting alongside twangy alt-country and rave-up hardcore. The album’s variety displays a commendable commitment to sonic adventurousness, though the band isn’t quite pushing boundaries like it once did.

Mercy is the Men’s third consecutive album with the same roster, and this relative stability has allowed them to settle into their sound. The album was recorded mostly live with minimal overdubbing, a testament to just how in sync the current lineup has become as a unit. The penultimate track, “Breeze,” is a fuzztone ripper with a throat-searing vocal that moves at a breakneck pace, while lead single “Children All Over the World” pairs serpentine guitar licks with singer Nick Chiericozzi’s sinister whisper and a dark, delightfully ‘80s-inspired synth riff. The song builds to a blistering solo almost reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen, rendering it simultaneously familiar but fresh—at least for the Men.

The country-rock sound that the band began exploring on 2012’s Open Your Heart was a radical departure from their earlier style, and here these genre excursions prove to be some of the album’s strongest. “Cool Water” is a loose, Laurel Canyon-esque rocker, while the title track is a folky deathbed sigh, with Chiericozzi coolly pleading, “I need mercy at the hour of my death.” And though its title nods to Sleater-Kinney, “Call the Dr.” isn’t a spiky punk song, but rather a chooglin’ country romp with a first-person murder narrative in the vein of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” The song’s narrator tells a story about getting gunned down after a heist, dying atop his ill-gotten goods. The lyrics display a powerful sense of economy, sketching out just enough details to make the story vivid without becoming overwrought. The finger-picked guitar fills and Chiericozzi’s raspy vocals give the track a sort of dusty, western verisimilitude.

The album’s centerpiece, “Wading in Dirty Water,” is a 10-minute psychedelic jam with an unsettling but catchy synth hook; the guitar solo sounds like vintage Nels Cline, though it drags on for at least a couple of minutes too long. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the spare piano ballad “Fallin’ Thru” veers into crooner territory, with vocals that are mixed almost like an ASMR video. The song seems to be aiming for a quiet menace reminiscent of Tom Waits or Nick Cave, but the overall effect is somewhere between soporific and goofy.

Overall, Mercy doesn’t quite measure up to the band’s stellar triptych of albums released between 2012 and 2014, on which they stretched to expand their repertoire, challenging themselves to explore various sounds from throughout the history of rock while refining their chops and chasing wild hares. Mercy boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.

Label: Sacred Bones Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Pet Shop Boys’s Hotspot Points to Potential Joy Amid a Backdrop of Dread

If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.

4

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Pet Shop Boys
Photo: Phil Fisk

Reportedly the last in a trilogy of collaborations with producer Stuart Price, Hotspot is stuffed with instantly infectious melodies and lyrics that flaunt the Pet Shop Boys’s fierce intellect. Eternally sly postmodernists Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are at their funniest here, embedding bouncy synths with barbs directed at failing political institutions across the globe (their own kind of hotspot), social hypocrisies, and even themselves.

The bleeping synth hook of the opening track, “Will-o-the-Wisp,” is the sonic equivalent of mainlining sucrose, and only Tennant would think to use the song’s chorus as an occasion to reference the Vienna U-Bahn metro system. But he’s after something less esoteric and much knottier. A kind of sequel to 1993’s groundbreaking “Can You Forgive Her?,” a song about repressed homosexuality, “Will-o-the-Wisp” finds the narrator running into an old flame on a train and wondering what’s become of him and whether the two will even acknowledge each other. “But maybe you’ve gone respectable/With a wife and job and all that,” Tennant deadpans in a tone of hilarious disdain that suggests no fate could be more horrifying, before delivering the come-on: “Give me a smile for old time’s sake/Before you run away.”

Hotspot consistently points to potential joy amid a backdrop of dread. Over the euphoric house keyboards of “Happy People,” Tennant’s nimble rapped verses (lest we forget that this is the group that launched their career with “West End Girls”) allude to “The sense of so much missing/When the world gets in the way.” Lead single “Dreamland”—featuring Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, whose own work is indebted to the Pet Shop Boys—might scan at first as romantic four-on-the-floor club filler, but the famously progressive and unflinching Tennant employs the title’s fantastical metaphor to eviscerate the very real leaders who’ve abdicated their countries’ responsibility to take in refugees. “You don’t need a visa,” he sings of an imagined destination. “You can come and go and still be here.”

Not all is (quite) so grim. “You Are the One,” with its sweet yearnings and sticky percussion, ranks among the Pet Shop Boys’s most straightforward love songs, and they’ve rarely sounded more convincing. While they’ve long knocked rock music (Tennant recently joked that the acoustic guitar “should be banned”), “Burning the Heather” adopts the rock textures of 2002’s Release with, um, an acoustic guitar. Autobiographical lyrics describe a fading troubadour who sits in a bar alone insisting that he’s fine before, finally, reaching out for company.

Tennant’s satire can, however, sometimes tend toward glibness, as on “Monkey Business,” in which he vaguely targets a traveler who just wants to get wasted on margaritas and wine. But the track is saved by the irresistible disco production and the darker implications of the unchecked hedonist at its center looking for “a party where we all cross the line.” If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.

The Pet Shop Boys are pranksters to the end, in this case literally. Non-fans would be forgiven for finding closer “Wedding in Berlin” confusing or just grating. But its tragicomic vision of marriage represents a statement of defiance. Church organs interrupt the aggressive EDM beat more like a nightmare than a reprieve. Tennant clearly takes vows less than seriously, reducing them to an act of bourgeois convenience: “A lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay.” It’s a happily stinging finish to an album that proves no one is safe in the hands of Tennant and Lowe, and that pop can be anything but pedestrian.

Label: x2 Release Date: January 24, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Drive-By Truckers’s The Unraveling Is a Bleak Reflection of the Times

The band’s 12th album is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.

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Drive-By Truckers
Photo: ATO Records

Drive-By Truckers’s American Band was released a month before the 2016 presidential election—seemingly an eternity ago both in terms of the political landscape and the time between albums for the typically prolific band. American Band was supposed to be their final word on all that, but according to Patterson Hood’s notes for their 12th studio effort, The Unraveling, “writing silly love songs just seemed the height of privilege.”

This is a dark, uncompromising album about such topics as gun violence, white nationalism, the opioid crisis, and putting children in cages. But despite similar subject matter, it isn’t a sequel to American Band. Never mind that there are no individual tracks quite as immediate as “Surrender Under Protest” or “Guns of Umpqua.” But whereas the previous album was composed largely of the narrative history lessons that have been the Truckers’s stock in trade for over 20 years, The Unraveling is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.

Hood frames multiple songs around either trying to explain daily horrors to his two young kids, or hoping they will one day make things better. “When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain/It hurts me that I have to look away,” he sings on “Thoughts and Prayers,” a plainspoken accounting of the onslaught of gun violence in America. He repeats the sentiment on the pointedly titled “Babies in Cages”: “I’m sorry to my children/I’m sorry what they see/I’m sorry for the world that they’ll inherit from me.” All Hood can do in “21st Century USA” is “hope and pray that they can conjure up a better day.”

This is heavy stuff, with only the wishful catharsis of the soaring “Thoughts and Prayers” offering much respite. Other flashes of optimism are fleeting: Lead single “Armageddon’s Back in Town” is an uptempo travelogue with a blazoning classic rock riff, but Hood sings about broken-down buses, standing in the rain, and his “responsibility for the darkness and the pain.” It’s not until the song’s frenzied instrumental coda—a thrilling showcase for the band’s usually unassuming drummer, Brad Morgan—that the adrenaline really kicks in.

Mike Cooley, a sort of redneck Confucius who seems to never run out of sardonic one-liners, only wrote two songs here, and one of them, “Grievance Merchants”—a trenchant breakdown of the alt-right pipeline—is one of the most lyrically serious-minded, musically dramatic songs he’s ever written. Delivered in Cooley’s uniquely conversational style, it’s an arresting effort; hearing him sound so scared out of his wits that he can’t even muster a single quip is genuinely chilling. His other contribution, “Slow Ride Argument,” is much more fun, with its overlapping vocal hooks and cheeky advice for cooling down after a heated debate, political or otherwise by, basically, going for a drive, possibly after downing a couple of tall boy beers (“not one, not three,” Cooley advises). A driving, minor-key rocker that stylistically lands somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and early R.E.M., it’s yet more evidence that Drive-By Truckers transcend the Southern rock label they inexplicably still get pigeonholed into.

Where The Unraveling really distances itself from its predecessor, and all of the band’s prior work, is its sonic complexity. Former Sugar bassist David Barbe has produced every Drive-by Truckers album since 2001, and to his credit, not one of them sounds alike. But armed with the vintage analog toys at his disposal, and accompanied by engineer Matt Ross-Spang, Barbe has helped the band craft its first true piece of sonic art. A wisp of a song like “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” is transformed into something captivating by the sheer depth of the mix: the subtle tremolo guitar accents, the snaky violin/viola accompaniment, the delicate mingling of Hood’s vocal and the natural reverb off the piano. From reliable tricks (old school slapback on Cooley’s vocals) to new ones (running a washboard through a guitar amp, wah pedal, and delay to add an otherworldly effect to “Babies in Cages”), there’s no shortage of ear candy here.

The album ends with the eight-minute-plus “Awaiting Resurrection,” which, with its unrelenting bleakness and all the air between Morgan’s minimalist drums and Hood and Cooley’s cobweb-like guitars, is the closest the band has ever come to post-rock. “I hold my family close/Trying to find the balance/Between the bad shit going down/And the beauty that this life can keep injecting,” Hood intones in a ghostly growl, returning once again to the same theme of many of the preceding songs. Hood and Cooley dwell more on the bad shit than the beauty throughout The Unraveling. It’s perhaps their most confrontational, challenging effort to date, an intricate work that’s more a reflection of than an antidote to the darkness.

Label: ATO Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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