outersouthOuter South is the first official release from Nebraska based singer/songwriter Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band (Nik Freitas, Taylor Hollingsworth, Jason Boesel and Macey Taylor). It’s a true collaboration, as six of the sixteen tracks were written by Oberst’s bandmates, with one song, “Worldwide,” written by Oberst for Taylor to sing. Oberst and the band sound pretty great together, and at their most inspired moments, they recall great bands like Neil Young and Crazy Horse or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I imagine that they will make a terrific live band. So the music making certainly isn’t an issue on Outer South; what is an issue, however, is that the superb musicianship on display here is in the service of an album that is frequently meandering and unfocused. The record as a whole never really finds a tone, and instead jumps from song to song, which works fine for a while, but then starts to sound a bit haphazard over its 70 minute length. Lyrically, it’s a bit haphazard, too, Oberst’s material as well as that of his band mates. The lighter material (i.e. “Air Mattress,” “Nikorette”) often seems to work the best, as the weighty material gets bogged down somehow or just falls flat. All that said, as uneven and flawed as Outer South is, there are enough high points to merit a listen, as the good tracks are very good, and it’s fun to hear how well they have clicked as a band. It may not be a great album, but it has enough moments of promise to make me look forward to what they come up with the next time out. Standout cuts: “Slowly (Oh So Slowly),” “To All The Lights In The Windows,” “Air Mattress,” and “Nikorette.”


A Camp – Colonia

April 28, 2009

acampNina Persson, lead singer of the Cardigans, returns with her solo project A Camp, this time working with her husband Nathan Larson and Niclas Frisk, the latter being the musician with which she’d done the demos for the first A Camp record. The result is some of Persson’s best work ever, as Colonia is an intelligently written and expertly crafted pop record that often rivals her best work with the Cardigans. Reportedly inspired by a trip to Africa, the album takes up such weighty subjects as colonialism and American culture and politics and treats them with wit and a welcome lack of pretension. It’s maybe not the last word on either of those subjects, but it’s a sign of Persson’s continued artistic growth that she can craft such infectious, lush and sweet music around such decidedly dour lyrical subject matter. Colonia is her ambitious record, and while it’s certainly not perfect, it’s absolutely worth a listen. Standout cuts: “The Crowning,” “Stronger Than Jesus,” “Love Has Left The Room” and “Golden Teeth And Silver Medals”


thejuanmacleanThough the new album from the Juan MacLean (John MacLean working with vocalist Nancy Whang and musician/DFA label boss James Murphy) draws from a broad range of electronic and dance influences from the 70’s through now, once MacLean’s vocals kick in, most people will be thinking of one band in particular: The Human League. In fact, MacLean has described The Future Will Come as “a disco inflected Human League sounding record,” which will give you an idea of its basic sound, but not how immensely pleasurable and out and out fun this record is from first note to last. The tracks range from the high energy opening track and the fantastic singles “One Day” and “Happy House” to more moody, slower numbers like “Human Disaster” and “Tonight.” Many of the songs are duets featuring MacLean and Whang, though it’s Whang who kicks off the album with lead vocals on “The Simple Life,” one of the long songs that bookend the record. (The third long song, “Tonight,” arrives right at the midpoint.) Far from being simply a “retro” record, The Future Will Come functions more as a joyous celebration of the musical influences that have brought us to where we are now, and will continue to push us forward to where we need to be. Standout cuts: “The Simple Life,” “One Day,” “Human Disaster” and “Happy Home.”


superfurryanimalsThe more I’ve listened to Dark Days/Light Years, the new release from Welsh band Super Furry Animals, the more I’ve appreciated the nutty pop brilliance that invigorates so much of the album. Over the course of an hour and twelve tracks, the band fuses acid rock, shoegaze, electronica, sunny 60’s pop and blissed out psychedelic jams into an almost improbably entertaining and addictively listenable batch of music. To paraphrase a Last FM listener, the Super Furry Animals are one of the few bands that could write a song about trams and then have it as their first single: “Let us celebrate this monumental progress / We have reduced emissions by seventy-five per cent…” Dark Days/Light Years is a great funhouse of an album, multilayered and often epic in scale, a record to get lost and found in again and again. Standout cuts: “Mt,” “Inaugural Trams,” “Cardiff In The Sun” and “The Very Best Of Neil Diamond.”


grandduchyGrand Duchy is husband and wife Black Francis (aka Frank Black aka Charles Thompson) and Violet Clark, and Petit Fours is their debut album. It’s pretty much a winner, 9 tracks of New Wave and 80’s inspired pop, heavy on the synthesizers, with a touch of the Pixies, especially on “Black Suit,” one of the album highlights. Clark’s vocals tend to recall the Pixies as well, as she can sound a lot like Kim Deal at times, though not to the point of distraction. Clark and Black Francis trade off on lead vocal duties, with Clark doing most of the singing, though Black Francis makes his presence known on every song just the same, either through his musical influence or his very cool, distinctive guitar playing throughout. I’m not sure if Grand Duchy will turn out to be a one off project or not, but it’s yielded a pretty enjoyable album, with some great tunes. Definitely worth a listen, for fans of Black Francis/Frank Black and the Pixies, and for fans of indie pop in general. Standout cuts: “Lovesick,” “Fort Wayne,” “Black Suit” and “Ermesinde.”


inlandterritoryWhen I say that Vienna Teng’s new album, Inland Territory, is a mixed bag, I don’t mean that in terms of its quality, but rather in terms of style. (That said, it does open with the one song I didn’t care for, “The Last Snowfall,” which I found to be a bit too sentimental.) Though the album as a whole could fit nicely under the category “adult alternative,” that barely scratches the surface in terms of the ground Inland Territory covers, as Teng weaves jazzy piano and electronica driven pop together with choral and orchestral touches, and throws in at least one song that sounds like it’s wandered in from a Broadway musical (“Antebellum”), and another that would be right at home on an Americana style record. That track, the a cappella clap-along “Grandmother Song,” arrives midway through the record, just in time to give what is otherwise an immaculately produced album a much needed shot of spontaneity. Though there’s no song that captivated me quite as much as Dreaming Through The Noise‘s “Whatever You Want,” Inland Territory is a solid collection, with Teng’s musical versatility and adventurousness on full display. Definitely recommended. Standout cuts: “White Light,” “Antebellum,” “Stray Italian Greyhound” and “Watershed.”


batforlashes_twosunsWith her striking second album, Two Suns, Bat For Lashes (Natasha Khan) puts her own gloss on musical territory mined by the likes of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, Bjork and P.J. Harvey. The result is eclectic, high gloss electropop, with some world music flourishes as well as nods to 80’s synthpop and 90’s trip hop. While most of Two Suns is alluring and often quite arresting and beautiful, there are a couple of tracks that could have used some fleshing out, “Peace Of Mind” and “The Big Sleep” in particular, which start out in promising ways but end too soon. In general, however, the commitment to relative brevity (none of the songs crack the five minute mark, and most of them hover around four minutes) works in the album’s favor, as Khan has crafted the best of the material here into densely packed, shimmering little gems. Standout cuts: “Glass,” “Daniel,” “Siren Song” and “Two Planets.”


telekinesisIndie pop fans, meet your new favorite band: Seattle based Telekinesis (Michael Benjamin Lerner in the studio; live, he’s joined by three accompanying musicians). Indie pop is a far richer genre than the term may sometimes imply in some people’s minds, which Lerner demonstrates by credibly and seemingly effortlessly jumping from style to style song by song. His music has echoes of Matthew Sweet, Marshall Crenshaw, Death Cab For Cutie, Tegan and Sara and Elliott Smith, even a bit of Cheap Trick at their poppiest. Since he’s clearly mastered this indie pop thing, it’ll be interesting to see where Lerner goes with his next album, but for now, this is a pretty ideal debut. Standout cuts: “Coast Of Carolina,” “Tokyo,” “Foreign Room” and “All Of A Sudden.”


superchunk“I stopped sinking / and learned how to surf…”

After nearly a decade, Chapel Hill based Superchunk (Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster), one of America’s finest bands and perhaps its premier indie rock band, returns with all new material on Leaves In The Gutter. It’s only an EP with four new songs and an acoustic version of the first track, but it’s a very good EP, with the first two songs being pretty much excellent. Things kick off with the power pop anthem, “Learned To Surf,” followed immediately by the rave up “Misfits & Mistakes,” both of which can stand up to any of their past best material. The other two tracks, “Screw It Up” and “Knock Knock Knock,” are hardly throwaways, in particularly the latter track, which may eventually turn into a favorite song of mine after I give the EP a few zillion more listens. Things end nicely with an acoustic cover of “Learned To Surf.” Hopefully, this is a sign that an LP will soon follow, but for now, it’s great to have at least these new songs.


dovesThe fourth album in ten years from UK based band Doves, Kingdom Of Rust, subtly breaks some new musical ground for them, while at the same time further refining their signature blend of foot stomping rock, electronica, shoegaze and psychedelia. They also throw in some elements of 60’s choral pop and some folk, even a bit of dance and funk on “Compulsion,” which adds ever more layers to their dense, sometimes positively cavernous sound. Doves certainly haven’t forgotten how to write pop hooks in the four years since their last album, so it’s easy to get drawn into Kingdom Of Rust, as it contains some of their catchiest, most accessible material yet. The album is not without its flaws, as it has its meandering moments, but for the most part, it works. I think Doves fans will embrace the record most of all, but generally speaking, this is a solid return for a great band. Standout cuts: “Jetstream,” “Kingdom Of Rust,” “10:03” and “Compulsion.”