Album Review: Be the Cowboy by Mitski


AlbumBe the Cowboy
Artist: Mitski
Release Date: 17 August 2018
Favorite Tracks: “A Geyser,” “A Pearl,” “Me and My Husband,” “Nobody,” “Washing Machine Heart,” and “Two Slow Dancers.”
Thoughts: Something of a concept album from the point of view of a married woman expressing her angst and ennui underneath a cheerful veneer. I love Mitski’s dynamic vocals and her guitar-playing style. She’s versatile musically too, transitioning through country, disco, and electro-pop without breaking a sweat. Lyrically she has a power with words to express introspection and vulnerability, even if it’s coming from the point of view of a character.
Rating: ***1/2

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Album Review: Nightstand by Tancred


Album: Nightstand
Artist: Tancred
Release Date: June 1, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Queen of New York
  • Something Else
  • Underwear
  • Reviews

Thoughts:

This album from Tancred, the stage name for a project of Maine’s own Jess Abbott, is a collection of 90s style power pop, somewhere in-between Letters to Cleo and The Breeders.  The lyrics are confessional and intimate.  Abbott alternates rockers with quieter, acoustic tunes.  I prefer the former, but really there’s something for everyone here.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Hell-On by Neko Case


Album: Hell-On
Artist: Neko Case
Release Date: June 1, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Hell-On
  • Halls of Sarah
  • Curse Of The I-5 Corridor
  • Sleep All Summer
  • Pitch or Honey

Thoughts:

Looking through my archive I’m surprised that I’ve never reviewed a Neko Case album before as she is one of the great voices of our times, whether on her own or with the New Pornographers and side projects like case/lang/veirs.  Turns out this is Case’s first solo album in five years, and I haven’t been reviewing albums that long.  Hell-On offers what you expect from Neko Case – strong singing, heartfelt and poetic lyrics, and dynamic music that surprises and pleases.  This album also has a lot of guest artists including Beth Ditto, k.d. lang, AC Newman, Kelly Hogan, Doug Gillard, Laura Veirs, Joey Burns, Mark Lanegan, and Eric Bachmann (the last two each share vocals with Case on a pair of stunning duets).  This isn’t Case’s best album (it’s a few notches below Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and Middle Cyclone) but a merely good Neko Case album is still a wonder to behold.

Rating: ***1/2

 

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Album Review: Wide Awake! by Parquet Courts


 

Album: Wide Awake!
Artist: Parquet Courts
Release Date: May 18, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Violence
  • Before the Water Gets Too High
  • Mardi Gras Beads
  • Almost Had To Start A Fight/In and Out of Patience
  • Tenderness

Thoughts:  The Parquet Courts are an indie rock band from New York City by way of Texas.  Produced by Danger Mouse, the music has a lot of elements of classic punk rock mixed with funk, psychedelia, Everley Brothers-style harmonies, dub reggae, and pub sing-a-longs.  This approach could be generic but the Parquet Courts manage to make a joyful sound that’s even danceable.  Despite the amalgam of retro sounds, the lyrics of this album are “woke” (ast the title implies) focusing on current issues, albeit not through specific references but via moods that are rooted in our times.
Rating: ****

Album Review: Kiss Yr Frenemies by Illuminati Hotties


Album: Kiss Yr Frenemies
Artist: Illuminati Hotties
Release Date: May 11, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • (You’re Better) Than Ever
  • Shape of My Hands
  • Paying off the Happiness

Thoughts:

The Los Angeles-based band lead by Sarah Tudzin plays bubblegum rock songs with an edge, a style they call tenderpunk.  Over the catchy melodies are lyrics with wit and whimsy of the woes of the twentysomething.  My favorite track, the cheerful power pop of “Paying off Happiness” is about being in constant debt.  As the young people say these days, it’s relatable.

Rating: ***

 

Album Review: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett


AlbumTell Me How You Really Feel
Artist: Courtney Barnett
Release Date: May 18, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Hopefulessness”
  • “Charity”
  • “Need a Little Time”
  • “Nameless, Faceless”
  • “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”
  • “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence”

Thoughts:

Australian singer-songwriter Barnett’s second album contains crunching guitars and strong punk melodies over which Barnett’s world-weary voice sings quotidian lyrics of frustration and self-doubt, anger and tenderness, confrontation and ambivalence.  The 90s indie rock sound is aided by the guest appearance of Kim and Kelley Deal on “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence.” But this is not retro music, it’s fully-engaged in the cultural issues of our times, just not in an anthemic, speaking for everyone manner.  If I’d gotten around to making a best albums of 2015 list, Barnett’s debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit would’ve been a shoe-in, and Tell Me How You Really Feel builds and improves on that. I’m grateful to be alive at a time when I can hear an artist like Courtney Barnett coming into her own.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Vessel by Frankie Cosmos


AlbumVessel
Artist: Frankie Cosmos
Release Date: March 30, 2018
Thoughts:

Frankie Cosmos – the stage name of Greta Kline (a perfectly fine popstar name but I suppose she’s trying to distance herself from her famous parents, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) – sings in a sweet voice over power pop arrangements, sounding kind of like Kimya Dawson crossed with 90s bands like Velocity Girl and Belly.  The songs are short and the 18 tracks combined total just over 30 minutes so the album feels over before it really gets started.  The music is pleasant but it doesn’t leave a lasting impression on me. Maybe I’ve just gotten too old to relate?

Rating: **

Album Review: The Deconstruction by Eels


AlbumThe Deconstruction
Artist: Eels
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Favorite Tracks: “The Deconstruction” and “Bone Dry”
Thoughts:

I’ve liked Eels (a one-man band of Mark Oliver Everett) for some time going back to 1996’s “Novocaine for the Soul.” There’s something about lush orchestration behind a gravelly voice singing songs of self-incriminating introspection. The thing is, what worked in 1996 doesn’t work for 2018.  While Everett attempts some more upbeat music and optimistic lyrics, the overall sound hasn’t changed much, and he’d be better off releasing a greatest hits compilation.  That said, the first two tracks, “The Deconstruction” and “Bone Dry,” are pretty spectacular.  If only Eels released a single instead, because the rest of the album is meh.

Rating: **

Album Review: I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists


AlbumI’ll Be Your Girl
Artist: The Decemberists
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Once In My Life
  • Severed
  • Everything is Awful

Thoughts:

Of the two albums by bands I really like released this week, I didn’t expect to like The Decemberists more than Yo La Tengo, but I do.  Sometimes a band goes for a new sound, and in this case The Decemberists go for several sounds from 80s synthpop to a Laurel Canyon, but overall there’s a much more electric sizzle compared with the acoustic folk sound of previous albums.  Like any album of 2018, the lyrics have more of a political bent as well.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: All Nerve by The Breeders


AlbumAll Nerve
Artist:The Breeders
Release Date: March 2, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Nervous Mary
  • Spacewoman
  • Dawn: Making an Effort

Thoughts:

The Breeders’ Last Splash is a masterpiece of 1990s rock music.  All Nerve is the first album with the same personnel that made Last Splash, and sounds very much like a follow-up if you ignore the 25 years and 2 albums with different lineups in the interim.  I find the album hit or miss, but The Breeders definitely have an energy and talent on display that show they’re still a vital band, especially compared with the blah Pixies album released a few years back.

Rating: ***

Album Review: There’s a Riot Going On by Yo La Tengo


AlbumThere’s a Riot Going On
Artist: Yo La Tengo
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Shades of Blue
  • Above the Sound
  • Forever

Thoughts:

Even as a diehard Yo La Tengo fan, I felt apprehensive that their new album is named identically to a classic Sly & The Family Stone album.  Having listened to it, I suspect this is the quietest riot ever.  I enjoy Georgia Hubley or Ira Kaplan singing quietly over a guitar or piano track, but previous Yo La Tengo albums always mixed in some rave-ups with the gentler stuff.  This is not a protest album so much as a retreat from the horrors of the present day.  I think this album will grow on me with more listens, but I don’t think it will ever live up to the statement made by its title and the history contained within it.

Rating: ***

Monthly Mixtape – March 2018


Hot songs spinning in my ears over the past month.

Courtney Barnett – “Nameless, Faceless”

Femi Kuti – “One People One World”

Jorge Elbrecht – “Here Lies (Feat. Tamaryn)”

Orquesta Akokan– “Mambo Rapidito”

Khruangbin – “Maria También”

Hollie Cook – “Stay Alive”

 

Previous Mixtapes:

Album Review: Cocoa Sugar by Young Fathers


Album: Cocoa Sugar
Artist: Young Fathers
Release Date: March 9, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Fee Fi
  • In My View
  • Turn
  • Tremelo
  • Wow
  • Wire

Thoughts:

Critics call the music of the Scottish trio Young Fathers genre-defying, or that Young Fathers are their own genre, and I’ve seen the music of Cocoa Sugar described as art-rap or rap deconstruction.  Whatever you call it, Cocoa Sugar is an excellent collection of dense, lo-fi, rock/rap/electronic folk music.  Take a listen and discover it for yourself.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Clean by Soccer Mommy


AlbumClean
Artist: Soccer Mommy
Release Date:  March 2, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Your Dog
  • Last Girl

Thoughts:

Next to the album title Clean in my music streaming service is the letter “E” for explicit, the first sign that this album is not Clean at all.  The next thing that is not as it seems is that Soccer Mommy is the stage name of 20 year old singer/songwriter Sophie Allison, who almost certainly does not have children of soccer playing age.  Her music is largely introspective pop, a  gentle voice accompanied by guitar.  The lyrics are thoughtful and mature, but the music doesn’t do much for me as it sounds like something I’ve heard a thousand times before.

Rating: **1/2

Album Review: What a Time to Be Alive by Superchunk


AlbumWhat a Time to Be Alive
Artist: Superchunk
Release Date: 2018 February 16
Favorite Tracks:

  • “What a Time to Be Alive”
  • “Reagan Youth”
  • “Break the Glass”

Thoughts:

Superchunk is a band I’ve been aware of since the 1990s, but never got around to listening to them.  When I heard positive reviews of their new album full of protest music, I decided I should check it out.  The sound is clearly very 90s, jangly indie-pop, which is good if you like that style and are feeling nostalgic, not so much if you like hearing musical styles grow and evolve.  The album is short, the band is tight and the lyrics are pointed, making it both breezy and angry.  Superchunk is at it’s best on a track like “Reagan Youth,” both a tribute to the 80s punk band and a recognition of what’s become of the youth who grew up under Reagan. Maybe not the great protest album of our time, but definitely worth a listen.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Little Dark Age by MGMT


Album: Little Dark Age
ArtistMGMT
Release Date: 2018 February 9
Favorite Tracks:

  • Little Dark Age
  • Me and Michael
  • One Thing Left to Try

Thoughts:

Little Dark Age sounds like it was recorded in 1985 and has been sitting in a vault all these years to finally be released.  You could find it on the shelf somewhere between Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and the Pet Shop Boys, and even the lyrics of songs like “She Works Out Too Much” sound like commentary on the 80s aerobic craze. The songs on this album are hit or miss, and it’s never going to live up to Oracular Spectacular, but it’s a fun pop confection.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Marble Skies by Django Django


AlbumMarble Skies
ArtistDjango Django
Release Date: 26 January 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Marble Skies
  • Tic Tac Toe
  • Beam Me Up
  • In Your Beat

Thoughts:

England’s Django Django is reminiscent of late 60s pop and 80s New Wave synthpop and sometimes both at the same time. No matter what particular influence they’re working on they do a solid job interpreting it.  The enjoyable eclecticism makes it sound like a career-spanning compilation album, but remains surprisingly coherent musical journey.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: The Thread That Keeps Us by Calexico


Album: The Thread That Keeps Us 
Artist: Calexico
Release Date: 2018 January 26
Favorite Tracks: “Under the Wheels,” “Flores Y Tamales,” “Eyes Wide Awake,” and “Shortboard”
Thoughts:

Calexico is a band that’s been active for more than two decades, although I was not familiar with their work until I heard “Under the Wheels” and decided to check out the rest of the album.  As the name implies, this Arizona-based indie rock band takes inspiration from the borderlands between Mexico and the southwestern United States. Those aren’t their only influences though, as listening to this album I heard music similar to John Lennon’s solo work, the 1980s oeuvre of bands like U2 and Midnight Oil, and even surf rock.  The feel of the music is cinematic, painting pictures of the desert landscape and the people who inhabit.  Lyrically, the songs are topically relevant – perhaps gaining significance from our national political disorder – as border politics and wildfires color the stories of everyday people.

Rating: ***

Album Review: I Like Fun by They Might Be Giants


AlbumI Like Fun
ArtistThey Might Be Giants
Release Date: 19 January 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • I Left My Body
  • By the Time You Get This
  • Push Back the Hands
  • The Greatest
  • Last Wave

Thoughts:

I wouldn’t be fair to say that They Might Be Giants peaked early, but it’s hard not to judge any new TMBG album without comparing it to their early work.  TMBG were one of the first “alternative” bands to gain widespread appeal and yet while they sounded nothing like mainstream music of the late 1980s, they also sound nothing like the other alternative bands.  All of this is a long way of saying that TMBG have dropped another solid album although nothing they do will ever seem so transformative as Lincoln and Flood when they were first released.

True to form, I Like Fun contains cheerful ditties with humorous lyrics that reflect on darker topics ranging from individual mortality to murder to the extinction of the human race. “They call me “the greatest”/’Cause I’m not very good/and they’re being sarcastic,” begins “The Greatest” with a gut punch.  “Last Wave” closes the album with the cheerful chorus “We die alone we die afraid/We live in terror we’re naked and alone.”

There are experiments in music styles and instrumentation, and several tracks have a crunchy guitar that makes it more straight-out rock music than typical TMBG.  But overall it sticks to the well-defined TMBG template the band has crafted over 30  years of doing their own damn thing and doing it well.

Rating: ***1/2

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Album Review: SEMICIRCLE by The Go! Team


AlbumSEMICIRCLE
ArtistThe Go! Team
Release Date: 19 January 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • The Semicircle Song
  • The Answer’s No — Now What’s the Question
  • She’s Got Guns

Thoughts:

The Go! Team is gimmick band that mixes together a late-60s pop/soul sound with samples of marching bands, cheerleader chants, and movie dialogue, among other things. But it’s a very good gimmick as they manage to once again produce a solid album of upbeat pop confection. Strange that this is released in January actually, as SEMICIRCLE is ripe to score the soundtrack of summer.

Rating: ***