The New Releases Shelf: Painted Ruins

grizzly bear
(image found elsewhere)

In the best way, Grizzly Bear makes music that nags at me. Although there’s the occasional track that is immediately arresting — “Yet Again,” from 2012’s Shields, for example — but my predominant experience with the group’s music is one of not realizing it’s taking up residence in my brain until it seems as if it’s spilled and swelled to take up every corner. Other bands are all clamor and clatter. Grizzly Bear insinuates.

This is usually the kind of description that sends me skittering for different quarry in the record store, generally adverse to the sort of sonic wallpaper it often represents. At least across Grizzly Bear’s past couple of albums — including the new Painted Ruins, their first in five years — my normal rules of engagement are torn up and scattered to the winds. The songs are sly and rich with tricky, intriguing musical details. As I listen to Painted Ruins, I’m not immediately intoxicated, but there’s a bourbony waft that creates a quick comfort.

The opening track, “Wasted Acres,” appropriately establishes the vibe of the album. It is a lushly lackadaisical seduction, as if the end goal is a dozy cuddle in a hammock rather than something more carnal. The lyrics are spare, even simple (“Were you even listening?/ Were you riding with me?/ Were you even listening?”), putting the burden on the music. Like a living thing, the music rises up to meet the challenge, taking swerving curves as it goes. Both perpetuating and reinventing the textures of electronica, the song — like the rest of the album — is bold, vivid, inventive. At their most head-spinning, Grizzly Bear is like Sonic Youth if they’d tried to make something unbearably pretty.

Despite the layers of creativity, Grizzly Bear’s music sounds decidedly unlabored, as if it simply sprung into being or was at least captured casually. On the jabbing “Mourning Sound,” Edward Droste sings, “It’s the sound of distant shots and passing trucks,” and it’s easy to imagine the song here began as the same sort of syncopated ambiance. Thrillingly, the album has the feel of interpretation as much as creation. A universe collapsed into the studio and Grizzly Bear described what they saw, most of them using instruments rather than words. Only by capturing the pulse of that mystical dimension do they find their way to the chugging, pinging musical refrain of “Losing All Sense” or the forceful bursts in the heart of “Cut-Out.”

Others were a skill for crafting music — or at least a reasonable grasp of its composite tasks — can undoubtedly identify the mechanics of the tracks on Painted Ruins better than me. I’m left with elaborate equations, such as noting the tick-tock rhythm, warbling electronic effects, and mildly psychedelic come on vocals on “Glass Hillside” make it into the musical equivalent of slowly slurping a neon elixir through a bendy straw. There might be some flailing nonsense built into that description, evidence of a need to make sense of something that it slightly beyond me. But I’ve got to make my attempts, no matter how flawed. As I noted, Painted Ruins is rebounding around my head.

The New Releases Shelf: Dark Matter

dark matter

In November, Randy Newman will turn seventy-four years old. Despite his advancing years, he sounds exactly the same as he always has in his latest full-length release, Dark Matter, his eleventh studio album. That’s not a testament to virile youthfulness bursting forth from the record. To the contrary, Dark Matter fits comfortably into Newman’s discography because he’s sounded like a cantankerous old man from the very beginning. The masterful early albums 12 Songs and Sail Away sound like they were crafted by the most world weary human being imaginable, his very soul beaten down by years of cynicism-inducing spiritual abuse. He was still in his twenties when he made those.

Dark Matter opens with Newman extolling, “Welcome, welcome, welcome,” in the last moment of benevolence the album holds. Well, even that’s not quite true, as the sentiment drips with irony, introducing the atypically sprawling song to come. Across the eight minutes of “The Great Debate,” Newman presents the scientific and political arguments of the day as a moderated argument (“Next question, global warming/ Is it? And if so, so what?”), playing every role and alternately freely between vaudevillian showmanship, Broadway bombast, and co-opted gospel (the latter representing the “true believers,” who respond to every major mystery of the universe with “I’ll take Jesus every time”). The listening public is put on notice: Newman is going to do whatever the hell he wants to do.

Sometimes, that generally admirable credo doesn’t yield gold. “Putin,” a track about the Russian leader, is dopey and frankly beneath Newman. It plays like a song hammered together absentmindedly in a bid for attention. His ode to Sonny Boy Williamson, “Sonny Boy,” similarly would make a better opening number for a musical about the blues icon rather than an album centerpiece. That quality slips into other tracks on the album, giving it a veneer of skilled cast-offs rather than a cohesive artistic statement. Sometimes, that’s clearly the case, as with “It’s a Jungle Out There,” which was first written for the television show Monk, over a decade ago. That’s not uniformly problematic (Newman’s cast-offs are better than most songwriter’s pinnacles), but I couldn’t help but wish that the album grabbed me a little more tightly, with a little more urgency.

As much as Newman has been justly vaunted for his bleak comedy over the years, he’s at his best when he gives in to an inclination towards the quietly lovely, though even his sentimental streak is speckled with defeat. “Lost Without You” unfolds as the tenderest of love songs, briefly and gently obscuring its story of a dying woman and the grown children wary of looking after the drunken widower left behind (“They said, ‘Has he been drinking again?/ He stumbled at the door/ He can’t take care of himself, Mama/ We can’t do this any more'”). Album closer “Wandering Boy” is also tinged with loss, imaging a father worried about a son who’s gone missing. They’re poignant short stories rendered as lyrics, the piano kindly providing a melodic pulse.

Newman, of course, has nothing to prove. He can approach any new album with diverted attention and still wind up with something that can stand proudly within his discography. If Dark Matter is unlikely to become a major entry in the Newman canon, matching the genius of his first few records (or his finest movie scores, for that matter) is an unreasonable goal anyway. Uncompromising perseverance is achievement enough. If a few truly exquisite moments are delivered, too — and they are — all the better. Maybe the world isn’t all that wearying, after all.

The New Releases Shelf: Everything Now

arcade fire

When I first heard songs from Reflektor, the fourth album from Arcade Fire, I was left a little cold. The long run-up to that album, the Montreal band’s follow-up to the surprise Grammy winner The Suburbs, doled out songs one by one. The strategy was meant to tantalize, but it did the material a disservice. Individually, the track could seem muddled, aimless, overburdened by a seeming attempt to present a sonically different identity for the band. Together, though, they cohered into something grand and complicated. Emboldened by success, Arcade Fire was intent to keep growing, evolving, challenging.

I shared this observation as acknowledgement that I consider my initial reactions to Arcade Fire music to be a little suspect. With each new release, there are mysteries afoot, and, more than any of their contemporaries, Arcade Fire is a band that operates with a stealthy ingenuity. While they have a flair for opening salvos — whether advance singles or opening tracks — that fiercely demolish expectations, their clearest, more enviable skill is a level of musical craft that seeps into the psyche. Their music lasts.

Everything Now is Arcade Fire’s fifth album, and it has already stirred some of the predictable commentary about unwanted shifts in sound. To my ears, it takes no more dramatic of a step than any of its predecessors. It draws on an expands on the clamorous electronics of Reflektor, just as Reflektor took and transformed the fevered propulsive energy of The Suburbs, and that album was an understandable next step from the complex layering of Neon Bible. Only someone who hasn’t sampled the band since the days of their debut, Funeral, should find the sound of Everything Now jarring.

And when Everything Now is at its most grand and grabbing — at its most immediate — it is as good as all of those terrific earlier albums. The title cut sparkles with Abba-esque pop flair, driven by dreamy swirls bracketing an exuberant chant, like it’s just waiting for the modern equivalent of Olivia Newton-John roller skating her cares away. The lyrics are less celebratory, sketching out an existence of helpless consumption that bludgeons the soul, that friction is part of what makes the track strong. There are similar gratifying contradictions on the skittering “Creature Comfort” and the air disco of “Electric Blue.” The lyrics can get a touch too leaden, burdened by ill-conceived melding of the literal and the coyly cryptic, but the band’s showmanship provides a good enough disguise much of the time.

Although I’m inclined to give the band quite a but of latitude, there are stretches that come across as half-baked or otherwise poorly thought out. “Chemistry,” with its odd Reggae-tinged beat, plays like an experiment that no one involved had the nerve to veto, and and the double dose of “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” misguidedly marvels at the different ways the second word can be pronounced and the altered meanings that come with the shift. It’s presumably meant to be cheeky, but it winds up merely dopey, the intellectual posturing of a teen who thinks they’re the first to discover a philosophical pun.

There’s fine material on Everything Now. Arcade Fire is likely awash in too much creativity to turn in a true dud — at this point, at least — but the new album is the first to suggest they can stretch little notions too far, until they snap and recoil back to leave a nasty welt. I thought bits and pieces of prior albums were drab until they eroded my resistance, so gradual forces might also be at play here. What’s different is that I’d occasionally found passages of the earlier albums drab, and Everything Now sometimes crosses over to grating.

Maybe I’m judging too quickly. I’ve been mistaken before. It’s time to live with Everything Now, holding out hope it will win me over. It’s got a tougher task than I ever would have expected.

The New Releases Shelf — Out in the Storm

come back

It causes me some amount of pain to acknowledge that an album with a distinctly nineteen-nineties alternative rock sound is a throwback. My aged bones ache a touch more heartily at the mere thought of it. But here we are again, with Out in the Storm, the fourth album from Waxahatchee. It doesn’t pummel the nostalgia cluster of my cerebrum in quite the same way as its immediate predecessor, the fine Ivy Tripp, but there’s still a buzzy, ponderous guitar and backbeat sound that gives it a clear lineage to the days when grunge and grunge-adjacent music ruled the left end of the radio dial.

Where Ivy Tripp could feel a little depersonalized because of its sonic antecedents — not an echo so much as someone yelling back repeated words from across the canyon — Out in the Storm carries the weight of heavy truth. Katie Crutchfield, the main creative driver of Waxahatchee, has acknowledged that a romantic breakup fueled the songwriting, and the album has that trembling pain built into it. There’s less “If You See Her Say Hello” directness to the lyrics and more of a precise capturing of a heart-rattling feel, descents into misery and then emergence into a stronger sense of self, albeit not one that is basked in sunlight just yet.

The album’s opening track, “Never Been Wrong,” is appropriately the one that sounds the most like the Waxahatchee that Ivy Tripp fans will be seeking: a guitar sound that is rich and rough, keening vocals, and a bassline that takes its low groove churn straight from the Kim Deal fake book. It’s an ideal introduction, if only because of the intricate, enticing ways the remainder of the album diverges from the template it sets. The very next track, “8 Ball,” downshifts the power, and then “Silver” restores it, only to dress it up in the sort of candy coated dark pop that Tanya Donelly carries with her from project to project. After Crutchfield establishes who she is as an artist, she proceeds to rapidly, convincingly show all the range she has without that identity. The album never shocks with shifts to wildly divergent styles, but it offers a gratifying thesis on variety of musical thought within parameters.

There’s a soulful openness across the album, rendered to piercing effect on the tenderly questing “A Little More” and with a relaxed urgency on “Sparks Fly.” Compounding my sense of musically-complex confession, “Brass Beam” sounds to me like the product of a mystical land where Lucinda Williams fronted Guided By Voices. I keep circling back to the the somberly beautiful “Recite Remorse” as my touchstone. The track offers some of the most purposeful emotional fragility I’ve ever heard on a record, as if Crutchfield is transforming splintered vulnerability into steely strength within the bars of the song. “For a moment, I was not lost/ I was waiting for permission to take off,” Crutchfield sings, and it is devastating and inspiring all at the same time.

My summary of “Recite Remorse” works quite well for the entirety of Out in the Storm. It is album that asserts its staying power. It makes its point immediately and strongly, and then it resonates.

The New Releases Shelf — Something to Tell You

Image from the Music Box Twitter account.

I’m glad there’s a place in the pop universe for the music made by Haim. There is no claim being made here that the trio of sisters from Los Angeles are delivering something wildly transgressive or otherwise deviously edgy in its sun-dappled simplicity. Nor do I believe that they are deploying some sort of cunning scheme to cut against the thudding insistence of most tracks that make headway on the charts. Perhaps it’s naïveté on my part, but I believe the eleven tracks on Something to Tell You, the group’s sophomore effort, are free of calculation. This is exactly who Haim is, and this is exactly who Haim wants to be.

Their debut, Days Are Gone, was comprised of artful nineteen-seventies pop — think Fleetwood Mac, Rickie Lee Jones, and the like — hit with a nineteen-nineties gentle production sheen, settled in gracefully like one of the more discrete Instagram filters. I found it charming as can be, though I’ll readily concede that results may vary. The new album is recognizably — unmistakably, really — a product of the same band, but with maybe a little more assurance. They’re not drawing from influences so much as nicely coming into their own.

As it should, lead single and album opener “I Want You Back” tells the story. There are lithe harmonies, lyrics of lovelorn regret, and a rhythm that ambles then skips then ambles again. It’s a blithe act of seduction with the pining for reconciliation sounding more wistful than pained, like its meant for the last ferris wheel ride of night, taken as other lights across the fairground are flickering off.

It is arguably the entrenchment in the offhand sadness of dashed romance that most clearly instills a strong sense of classic pop stylings to the album. On “Kept Me Crying,” the lyrics chime out “I was your lover/ I was your friend/ Now I’m only just someone you call/ When it’s late enough to forget,” nestled against a trotting melody.  And “Right Now” offers the following lines: “Gave you my love, you gave me nothing/ Said what I gave wasn’t enough/ You had me feeling I was foolish for ever thinking/ This could be the one.” As if aware some of the sentiments aren’t especially inventive — and if Haim has a recurring flaw, it’s a repetitiveness that can test even the mightiest hooks — the band and their chief producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, adorn the track with little details around the fringes such as a nifty sonic squall in the middle which suggests the sound of a breaking heart fed through a misfiring synthesizer. Similarly, while others might blanch at the echoing spoken word bits, but they strike me as just right. When so much of an album is meticulously Crayola-ed in, it’s nice to see a few streaks of color the spike outside the lines.

“Little of Your Love” zings with a cheery tang that recalls the best of Juice Newton, and “Ready for You” has a touch of airy, aspirational funk that endearingly calls attention to just how far away Haim is from being well-suited to join one of George Clinton’s crews. Those songs are indicative of the whole album’s vibe. Indeed, the fact that I’m using the word “vibe” may be the most telling element of this review. I can’t say I was clamoring for an album that prompted me to excavate that word from my vocabulary, but Something to Tell You makes a good argument that maybe I should have been.

The New Releases Shelf: Goths

(Image credit: the man himself)

I have a lot of affection for the Mountain Goats, but I was disappointed with their last album. Released in 2015, Beat the Champ was a concept album, awash in songwriter John Darnielle’s abiding affection for professional wrestling, and not the kind that takes up hours of national programming hours with intricate stories and flashy production values. Darnielle was writing for the hardscrabble, downscale grapplers who shed blood and sweat (but no tears in this manliest of sports) in half-filled municipal coliseums and on static dappled UHF stations in his younger years.

Much as I appreciate Darnielle’s conviction that absolutely anything is viable inspiration for a deeply emotional rock song, I found Beat the Champ to be a little tedious. The distinctiveness of Darnielle’s songwriting receded, which I attributed to the concept album format.  For a guy who can come up with a tuneful, evocative song about whatever springs to mind, why confine himself to single topic across an album? He’d certainly made thematically unified releases previously — and there were great albums in that number — but locking in so narrowly was too limiting, I figured.

As is often the case when I fall out of alignment with an artist whose work I admire, it turns out the the problem was me, not him. I come to this conclusion because the new Mountain Goats album, Goths, is again a concept album, wound as tightly in its specific subculture as its immediate predecessor. Evidently — and, let’s face it, obviously — I simply needed Darnielle to focus on an insular world that I love as much as he does.

I never had a phase of hair dyed black (it’s most of the way there already frankly) and sullen eyeliner. I have no business truly terming myself a goth, but I have a deep affinity for the ideas that run across the album: of deep connection to bands, of finding freedom and identity in music, of becoming an aged-out discard from a preferred youth culture ahead of a corresponding willingness to abandon it. It about fist-in-the-air rebellion meeting the mellowing of advancing year. Over a jazzy shuffle on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” Darnielle sings, “I’m pretty hardcore but I’m not that hardcore.” I know the feeling, and I’ve known it for a good long time now.

Mid-tempo understatement is the default setting of the Goths. Among the pronouncements about the album’s is the promise that there are no guitars, a notable first given that many of the earliest Mountain Goats releases were created with little more than Darnielle, an acoustic guitar, and the boombox he recorded them on (including the clicks as he turned the tape player on and off). The band gets a reasonable amount of mileage out of the discord of lyrics about the gloomy bombast of goth music settled against chilled out, slyly spare tunes. In the right setting, the lyrics of “Wear Black” could carry some menace (“Wear black on your forgotten red heart/ Wear black in the present tense/ Wear black when you come around/ Wear black in your absence”), but that setting isn’t the easy swing of the Mountain Goats version of the Huey Lewis and the News version of Philly soul. The joke might wear thin eventually, but it sounds pretty dang delightful to me right now.

The closest Goths comes to truly evoking the music style it lyrically addresses with wit and insight is on album opener “Rain in Soho,” which come across like the showstopper in a middle school production of the Sisters of Mercy video for “This Corrosion.” Fittingly, that leads into “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds,” which imagines the Sisters of Mercy lead singer living out the black leather pants version of the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Darnielle has always mined culture freely, and Goths namechecks enough specific artists to fill a modest record store. “Stench of the Unburied” paints a perfect picture of a certain sort of weary bliss with the repeated lines “Outside it’s ninety-two degrees/ And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees.”

But the most joyously offbeat example of pulling lyrical details straight from the pages of Trouser Press comes on the album’s last song, “Abandoned Flesh.” Siouxsie Sioux is mentioned again, as is Robert Smith (and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry!), but the bulk of the song is about the band Gene Loves Jezebel. Delivered with the gentlest lounge swagger, the track offers a sympathetic few words to the sort of band that flared brightly but faded out of the canon almost entirely (“They charted once or twice/ They were on a major label/ When the singer went solo/ He left money on the table”). Darnielle’s generosity of spirit infuses the track, rescuing it from any judgment or mockery. As with everything else on Goths, he sings about thus bygone band because they fascinate and energize him. Maybe somewhere in that sentiment is the elusive element I missed on Beat the Champ, but found more easily here, because I knew better how to look for it. Every song is worth writing and singing as long as it is written and sung with love, respect, and purpose. I don’t know how goth that idea is, but it seems like a fine credo to me.

The New Releases Shelf: No Shape

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How ludicrously exquisite can pop music get? Truly, how much tingly elegance can be layered into songs of piercing beauty before the material shifts and ripples into something else entirely, some fragile creation that begs for the invention of a whole new artistic designation. Words must be coined, because the contents of the current dictionary are inadequate. Others have flirted with this level of dazzling transformation — Kate Bush comes immediately to mind — but it’s beginning to seem that Mike Hadreas, in his guise as Perfume Genius, may yet reach it.

No Shape is the fourth full-length studio release under the Perfume Genius banner, and it’s plainly a stunner. The album opens with “Otherside,” a spare, lovely melody playing as Hadreas coos out the lyrics with agonizing patience. After he intones, “Rocking you to sleep/ From the otherside,” the music explodes into a burst of astonishing sound that seems designed to accompany the dense shower of golden streamers from the rafters of the world’s most resplendent gay dance club on the last night of the universe. Really, that’s the closest I can come to describing the impact of the moment. And it’s not atypical. Across the album’s thirteen tracks, Hadreas offers densely-packed musical creations that meld the orchestral with the intimate. It’s a movie score from a better future that’s also been scorched with the sharp emotion of poetry wrenched from a hesitant, blooming soul.

By Hadreas’s own accounting, it is the stabilizing force of a healthy romantic relationship that has made his pen mighty. The album is filled with songs that are precious paeans to the love he’s found, such as the surging single “Slip Away” (“Take my hand/ Take my everything/ If we only got a moment/ Give it to me now’) and the tender album closer “Alan” (named after Hadreas’s partner). But Hadreas knows the world can also scald, and the songs carry those lessons, too. Sounding like the product a amalgamation of Magnetic Fields and Culture Club assembled in Heaven, “Just Like Love” is an it-gets-better testimony to finding resolve in the darkest times within a bullying society (“When it happens again/ Baby hold on and stare them down”). And the pulsating “Wreath” finds Hadreas confronting the failings of his own body (he has been afflicted with Crohn’s disease) with a dizzying mix of resignation and defiance.

Arguably more than any other performer actively making music today, Hadreas is insistent about bringing the listener along on his questing journey of damage and rejoicing. In exposing the roiling wavelengths of his inner life, Hadreas challenges himself to craft music that is a proper match to the entanglements of sensations he finds when he cracks wide his heart. It’s stirring to realize that he largely meets this challenge. Though this might be overstatement, it feels true: No Shape approaches the miraculous.