hopesandovalHope Sandoval, best known as the lead singer for the 90’s band Mazzy Star, returns with her second solo record, eight years after her first one. To say that it’s reminiscent of both that first album, Bavarian Fruit Bread, and her work with Mazzy Star is something of an understatement, but then this is a very good thing. Sandoval’s richly evocative, heavily atmospheric blend of folk, country, blues and rock is as striking, beautiful and mysterious sounding as it has ever sounded, so fans who have been patiently, or not so patiently, waiting for new material from Sandoval will be amply rewarded. (She also has gone on record as saying another Mazzy Star album is forthcoming, though she gave no indication of a possible release date.) Her voice, which is perhaps one of the most distinctive in modern rock, is alone worth the price of admission, though musically and lyrically, Through The Devil Softly finds her and her band to be in top form, even more so than on her first solo record. Hopefully it won’t take Sandoval the better part of another decade to record a third one. Standout cuts: “Blanchard,” “For The Rest Of Your Life,” “Trouble” and “Satellite.”

http://www.myspace.com/hopesandoval

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embryonic

After releasing three albums in a row that were variously considering masterpieces, beginning with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, and continuing on with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War with the Mystics, Oklahoma based band the Flaming Lips close out the first decade of the 21st century with Embryonic, a sprawling, some may even say meandering, set of music that some will hail as yet another masterpiece, but may alienate and/or test the patience of others. It’s their most experimental, more dissonant sounding record in years: Some songs feature a deliberately distorted guitar and drum sound, snippets of seemingly random monologues taken from math lectures and conversations, and odd sounding vocals, all frequently set to sweeping psychedelic tinged soundscapes that are sometimes welcoming and sometimes somewhat menacing, and sometimes both. It’s also their most cohesive album, probably ever, really, as on repeat listens, it’s not hard to imagine the 18 tracks being individual parts of one strange, beautiful and frequently difficult whole. Embryonic is a challenging record for sure, but one that creates genuine excitement and wonder about it, and offers up a bit of fun to boot. Standout cuts: “Convinced Of The Hex,” “Powerless,” “Silver Trembling Hands” and “Watching The Planets.”

P.S.: Including a cartoonish sounding whooping “warrior Indian” on a list for “I Can Be A Frog” that otherwise includes “creatures,” insects, a vehicle and a destructive force of nature is puzzling at best, somewhat dehumanizing and offensive at worst. The lyrical gaffe mars an otherwise sweet song.

http://www.myspace.com/flaminglips

Headlights – Wildlife

October 15, 2009

headlightswildlifeI don’t think there’s any doubt that Champaign, Illinois based band Headlights ranks as one of the finest emerging American indie rock bands going. Their third album, Wildlife, further solidifies their standing, striking just the right balance between the guitar based indie rock of their first record and the dream pop of their second. Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight once again trade off vocals, amid music that’s often densely layered, atmospheric and melancholic. (More buoyant sounding songs like “Secrets,” “Get Going” and “I Don’t Mind At All” provide counterweight to that last quality.) There’s also a notable lyrical maturity that permeates the entire record, but especially evident on songs like “Love Song For Buddy,” “We’re All Animals” and the haunting “Slow Down Town.” It’s hard to imagine them delivering a more satisfying record than this one, one that keeps getting more beautiful and complex the more one listens to it. Standout cuts: “Secrets,” “Get Going,” “I Don’t Mind At All” and “Slow Down Town.”

http://www.myspace.com/headlights

clienteleIf you’re a dedicated fan of indie pop, odds are you already know about UK based band the Clientele, who’ve been making breathy, lushly produced pop since the turn of the century. Bonfires on the Heath represents all the qualities that have earned them their fanbase: Airy, dreamy vocals backed by rich and eclectic instrumentation, featuring strings, horn sections, organs, the occasional sitar and a healthy amount of reverb and acoustic guitar, all deeply influenced by 60’s and 70’s pop and psychedelia, styles they’ve made very much their own. For the most part, Bonfires On The Heath is about as laid back as its title may suggest, though there are couple of quick rockers, the all too brief “Sketch” and “Share The Night.” The overall mood is by turns romantic, pastoral, nostalgic, dreamlike and certainly haunting. I haven’t decided where this album ranks among the Clientele’s body of work, but that aside, it’s some pretty terrific music from a band that’s managed to carve their out own distinctive niche in modern indie pop. Standout cuts: “I Wonder Who We Are,” “Harvest Time,” “Never Anyone But You” and “Tonight.”

http://www.myspace.com/theclienteleofficial

theblackholliesOn the followup to their stellar record, Casting Shadows, New Jersey band the Black Hollies slow the tempo down a bit and offer up more psychedelic pop than psychedelic rock this time, but the results are generally as good. The production once again sounds like the record was made in the 60’s, though, as with Casting Shadows, the tracks are all Black Hollies originals. I do favor their faster numbers, tracks like “Run With Me Run,” “Gloomy Monday Morning” and “Look What You’ve Done,” but they also score with slower songs like the closer “Don’t Be Afraid To Ask.” The music is a dynamic, infectious mix of psychedelic rock and pop, garage rock and a little bit of soul. This is a solid third release for the Black Hollies that demonstrates their versatility while expanding their rock and pop horizons. Hopefully, this record will earn them the wider audience they deserve.

http://www.myspace.com/theblackhollies

theettesThe new album from Nashville based rock trio the Ettes, Do You Want Power, is somewhat gritty and a bit more poppy than their 2006 debut, which may or may not be a disappointment to their longtime fans, but they haven’t lost their knack for writing catchy tunes. The music here retains the blues, garage and punk rock mix that made that first album so memorable, and while they’ve retained their edges, they’ve also polished those edges up quite a lot this time out, adding some psychedelic and power pop touches here and there. They’ve even thrown in a couple of country inspired ballads, “Love Lies Bleeding” and “While Your Girl’s Away.” Do You Want Power is certainly their best sounding album, their most wide-ranging, and generally their most accomplished and fun set of music yet. Standout cuts: “I Can’t Be True,” “Modern Game,” “Seasons” and “No Home.”

http://www.myspace.com/theettes

Girls – Album

September 27, 2009

girlsalbumAlbum, the new record from San Francisco based band Girls (Christopher Owens and Chet “JR” White), didn’t exactly set me on fire the first time I heard it. I didn’t hate it, but something about the way it mixed 50’s and 60’s rock and pop styles with distinctly modern, angst ridden and sometimes profane lyrics just rubbed me the wrong way. I did like “Hellhole Ratface,” however, which starts out as a gentle Wall Of Sound influenced ballad and gradually builds into a droning guitar shoegaze influenced workout. It’s such a good song that I had to go back and listen to the album again, and I finally started to get what was bugging me about the record. The songs that influence the material on Album are frequently about complex emotions and situations that are distilled into simple, sometimes deliberately evasive lyrics. Girls, however, bring those complexities to the surface with startling and often deeply unsettling honesty, as on “Lust For Life”: “I wish I had a father / Maybe then I would’ve turned out right / But now I’m just crazy, totally mad / Yeah, I’m just crazy, I’m fucked in the head…” Of course, bands like Belle and Sebastian have made sweet sounding music laced with lyrical acid in the past, but yet the work Girls have done on Album has a unique power all its own, accomplished without a surfeit of irony or campiness. If you can listen to the album on its own terms, I think it will make for a remarkable experience. Standout cuts: “Lust For Life,” “Laura,” “Hellhole Ratface” and “Summertime.”

http://www.myspace.com/girlssanfran

boywhoknewtoomuchThe Boy Who Knew Too Much, the second album from UK singer/songwriter Mika, is a pretty obvious bid for pop star supremacy, and judged as such, I think it may end up working out pretty well for Mika. The opener, the class conscious first single, “We Are Golden,” sets the tone immediately: It’s big, bold music, polished to a high gloss, and the song by itself sounds like the theme song to the kind of high school musical you only wish had been made. Mika describes himself thusly:

“Think Beck via Queen and Elton John and a touch of Rufus W[ainwright]. Would love to blab about Harry Nilsson but I fear no one will know what I’m talking about… but if you do, you’ll know what I mean.”

It’s a pretty apt description, though I might add that one of Mika’s strong appeals, apart from his killer instinct for a pop hook, is his extravagantly powerful voice, often rightfully compared to Freddie Mercury. The best material on The Boy Who Knew Too Much appears on the first half of the album, and I say this because I enjoy his uptempo songs more than his downtempo, though this is purely a matter of taste, as he can handle a ballad like nobody’s business, too. So it’s clear I like this record, but will you like Mika’s brand of pop music? Try out the first single, “We Are Golden,” and if you are hooked, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Standout cuts: “We Are Golden,” “Blame It On The Girls,” “Rain” and “I See You.”

http://www.myspace.com/mikamyspace

thebigpinkHad 90’s era the Chemical Brothers morphed into some shoegazers, they might’ve sounded like rock duo Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell, who comprise the London based band the Big Pink. Their debut record, A Brief History Of Love, is an epic sounding mix of shoegaze, electronica and a keen ear for a pop hook, reminiscent at times of the Church or the Dandy Warhols circa Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, as well as their peers the Horrors. It’s an ambitious record that’s also great fun to listen to, as the band makes the most of their broad range of influences, changing things up enough from song to song to keep the record compelling from first note to last. Standout cuts: “Crystal Visions,” “Dominos,” “Velvet” and “A Brief History Of Love.”

http://www.myspace.com/musicfromthebigpink

higherthanthestarsListeners who were sold on Brooklyn band The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s combination of droning fuzzy guitar/Wall of Sound rock and jangle/twee pop will find this EP, which features four new songs along some remixes, to be pretty much required listening. The songs, most of which have been staples of their live show, are as good as anything on their debut record, released earlier this year. The title track may be my favorite song by them so far, in fact, and the EP’s got a stellar remix done by none other than Saint Etienne. That song and the other highlight here, “Falling Star,” in particular have a strong 80’s feeling to them, while “103” and “Twins” owe a debt to both 80’s Jesus and Mary Chain and 90’s bands like My Bloody Valentine. I think I actually enjoy this EP better than I did the LP; at any rate, this will be a band I will be paying special attention to from now on.

http://www.myspace.com/thepainsofbeingpureatheart