The New Releases Shelf — The Center Won’t Hold

sleater kinney

If No Cities to Love, the 2015 comeback album from Sleater-Kinney, was an assurance that the beloved group could reemergence from a decade-long hiatus with their roaring power and vibrant creativity intact, then The Center Won’t Hold is the provocative mission statement of sonic evolution as a constant. Sleater-Kinney didn’t pull their touring amps out of deep storage simply to rehash old glories. The new album maps the boundaries of the Sleater-Kinney sound and then roller skates along the edges, letting rubberized wheels occasionally slip just past the lines, as if defiantly proving that they’re only imaginary anyway.

Dusting for fingerprints on The Center Won’t Hold inevitably turns up a lot of thumb smudges from Annie Clark, professionally known as St. Vincent. Internet chatter reached cyclone proportions at the start of the year when social media photos revealed Clark was producing new Sleater-Kinney music, and an initial listen to the results produces an instinctive you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter reaction of distinct flavors combining to form a new whole that strongly maintains the qualities of its individual parts. But dismissals that Sleater-Kinney lost themselves in the St. Vincent studio wonderland ignore the simple truth that the band always operated in a state of perpetual reinvention. It was a major leap from All Hands on the Bad One to One Beat and yet another record-challenging long jump to reach The Woods. The reason Sleater-Kinney is formidable is because they don’t sit still, stamping out what’s expected.

It’s admittedly easy to pluck of the most dramatic disruptions of expectation, such as the disco fervor of the repeated line “You got me used to lovin’ you” on the chewy single “Hurry on Home” or the expansive explorations of “Bad Dance,” which sounds like the soundtrack to a ride on a melting carousel. “Can I Go On” traces the contradictions of modern life against a loping beat and guitars that squawk and reverberate, like Chvrches with the sunshine squeezed out. But Sleater-Kinney also looks backward to go forward. The title cut channels PJ Harvey from the mid-nineteen-nineties, at least until the more familiar Sleater-Kinney bulldozer of guitars and drums bursts through on the track’s last third, and “Restless” carries faint yet distinct echoes of the downbeat indie rock that emerged in the same era as a weary retort to the arena-ready booms of grunge pretenders.

The retrospection is more overt on “Love,” which tracks through the band’s history complete with Easter egg references. But even that is ultimately in service of an assertion of uncompromising forward motion, a commitment to now and beyond (“We can be young/ And we can be old/ As long as we have each other to hold”). A similar sentiment crops up on “The Future is Here” (“I need you more than I ever have/ Because the future’s here and we can’t go back”), highlighting the solace and security Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein found in rejuvenating their longtime collaboration.

After The Center Won’t Hold was recorded, a supporting tour was announced, and related promotional ventures were launched, drummer Janet Weiss announced she was leaving the band, evidently lacking enthusiasm for the newer material. The sense of reforged togetherness found on album sits strangely at odds with that bit of late-breaking news, but it’s Tucker and Brownstein who were there from the jump (though she’s been the drummer for most of the band’s life, Weiss was technically the fourth person to occupy the stool behind the kit), and the most poignant expressions of shared strength are the musical equivalent of Louise Sawyer and Thelma Dickinson intertwining fingers as their Ford Thunderbird races toward the canyon’s edge. They are in this together, proceeding under their own terms.

The album closes with the spare ballad “Broken,” which in its plaintive piano and smooth vocals is probably the furthest removed from anything Sleater-Kinney has put on record previously. But I’ll wager that track wouldn’t have stirred any resentment from purists who want their musical acts to echo on into infinity. “Broken” adheres to what a rock band is allowed to do, the kind of stretching of an artistic mandate that is deemed appropriate. But Sleater-Kinney doesn’t need to follow the snooty rules drawn up haphazardly by others. That’s another point make clear in “Love”: “And we can be rough/ And we can be smooth/ There’s nothing to hide/ And there’s nothing to prove.” Agreed. And bravo.


courtney kinney

The New Releases Shelf — Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?


Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? is the third full-length release from the L.A.-based band Bleached, and I think it might be their first recording that truly shows off their talent. Prior outings have been imbued with a thrilling, devil-may-care rawness that echoed the attitudes of their college rock ancestors, the ones who routinely sabotaged their own success in a preemptive strike on accusations of the despised sin of selling out. I’m certainly not the person to deny the appeal of that approach, but I also recognize it’s a firework that burns out quickly. The new album from Bleached sounds more like the product of an act that’s built to last.

Primarily comprised of sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin (drummer Spencer Lere is maybe, kinda, sorta a band member, too), Bleached operates with a clear-eyed assurance on Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?, delivering tracks notable for their exemplary songcraft and a production polish that saunters right up to the point of off-putting slickness without sliding even a millimeter past the foul line. Lead single “Hard to Kill” is emblematic, the band riding its perfect hook across a reference to “Friday in Love” and lyrics that allude to enduring through destructive behavior, presumably to find some light on the other end. It’s the sort of cut that radiate goodwill across an entire album.

That observation isn’t meant to imply that the other songs on Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? need the boost of extra credit. Song after song impresses, whether the hopscotching “I Get What I Need” or “Real Life,” with its taffy pull snap. Bleached places themselves decisively on the continuum of bands that have ruled cool kids record collections for ages. “Somebody Dial 911” is like some tougher version of the Darling Buds or Voice of the Beehive, or one of those other mildly obscure pop-rock outfits that sparkled on college radio in the late-nineteen-eighties and early-nineteen-nineties, album closer “Shitty Ballet” recalls vintage Liz Phair, and “Kiss You Goodbye” has just enough of a Blondie touch to inspire the  reflexive announcement of a backwards skate. Sleater-Kinney was the easy comparison for earlier Bleached releases, so it’s somewhat fitting that “Silly Girl” keeps pace with the post-reunion phase of those Pacific Northwest icons.

The Clavins have been candid in acknowledging Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? is the first album they’ve made since deciding to get sober. It’s tempting to credit that laudable personal development for the sturdiness of the resulting material, but that’s likely too simple. Just because it’s satisfying to impose a simple narrative on a creative process doesn’t mean it’s fair or accurate to do so. There are surely countless explanations for the level of accomplishment found on Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?, and, for happy listeners, the journey is less important than the destination. And the new Bleached album is a shining city on the rock ‘n’ roll map.

The New Releases Shelf — Let’s Rock

black keys rock

The new Black Keys album, Let’s Rock, is their first in a decade without Danger Mouse behind the board. For four straight records, the noted studio maestro named after a cartoon rodent spy served as producer or co-producer for the Black Keys, working with guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney to give their bluesy rock ‘n’ roll a sheen of hard candy modernity. Initially the approach took the duo a little too far away from their foundation (I think most agree Attack & Release, the Black Keys’ first collaboration with Danger Mouse, is among the weakest albums in the band’s catalog), but eventually it clearly strengthened the musical output, eliding the slip into redundancy that can so easily cause retro rock acts to stumble. The Black Keys found a way to stay current without sacrificing their core.

Fruitful as the collaboration clearly was, Let’s Rock is an assertion of independence. Auerbach and Carney are the only producers listed for the album, and it’s officially stamped as a release on Easy Eye Sound, the shingle connected to Auerbach’s Nashville studio of the same name. (Nonesuch, the band’s label since 2006’s Magic Potion, distributes the album.) They haven’t exactly gone back to basics, though. They’ll probably never again approach the chainsaw fury of early efforts Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory. Instead, there’s a confident groove to Let’s Rock that indicates a band settling into a comfortable — if still tougher-than-the-rest — middle age. The track “Sit Around and Miss You” is even like one of those mid-career Paul McCartney songs, when everyone he wrote was seemingly meant to be played on someone’s well-appointed porch in the mid-evening light.

The filthy guitar licks and the thrilling thunder of drums are still present, and they can stir the same old happy shudders. The expansive “Lo/Hi” is quintessential Black Keys, buzzing and quivering like blown out speakers. That familiar expertise contrasts agreeably with some of the more restrained playing, such as “Walk Across the Water,” which almost has a Wilco vibe. And “Get Yourself Together” employs a shuffling beat to come across like an easygoing “Lonely Boy.”

The Black Keys are coming up on twenty years as a going concern, and they’ve long since proven they can rattle walls with the best of them. Let’s Rock feels to me like a statement of permanence. I can imagine the duo dropping a dozen more albums almost exactly like this one over the next couple decades, and having every last one of them sound great. None of the rest would be called Let’s Rock, of course, but I’d wager the successors will largely live up to the battle cry and the promise of that title.

The New Releases Shelf — Help Us Stranger


Over ten years has passed since the release of Consolers of the Lonely, the album from the the Raconteurs that is the direct predecessor of their latest, Help Us Stranger. Any reasonable music fan might have wondered if the band was still any sort of ongoing concern, especially as individual members bounded off to other projects. The diversions taken by the professionally mercurial Jack White have been most prominent, but his Raconteurs co-songwriter Brendan Benson has also released three solo albums in the interim and taken of plenty of producing gigs. Drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist Jack Lawrence cycled back to the their band the Greenhornes and each picked up plenty of side jobs, including with White’s other endeavors, such as solo outings and his band the Dead Weather. The more time passed, I suspect the less curiosity there was about a third album by the Raconteurs. So Help Us Stranger arrives to a tricky question: What makes this record necessary?

Maybe necessary is too harsh a standard. It could be enough that the album contains enough strong cuts to be a happy diversion. “Bored and Razed” sounds like a Firehose song enduring a hostile takeover by Kiss, and it would only take the most minor of production tweaks to make “Shine the Light on Me” pass for a vintage XTC dazzler. The flinty, rambunctious cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” could have been dropped anywhere, onto a soundtrack or tacked on to last year’s Consolers of the Lonely anniversary rerelease. Instead, it’s here, right in the middle of everything, giving the impression of a band of crack musicians happily at play. The ambling “Only Child” is good, as is “Don’t Bother Me,” which is probably the cut that comes closest to White’s trademark runaway-train rock. It’s all fun and smart and well-played, and that should be enough.

Because White is there, right at the front, I keep instinctually wanting to force Help Us Stranger to be more than it is. Except for the legacy artists making what could be the throat clears to their closing statements, White can seem like the last rocker standing right now. He’s a constant toiler who still believes in the primacy of records and the basic structures of the immediate descendants of the blues, even as the rest of the music industry is shunting his loves to the side in favor of manufactured sonic gizmos cycling through the fleeting privilege of being runner-up to “Old Town Road,” our permanent #1 and future National Anthem. Forget the cosplay of Greta Van Fleet and other acts rummaging through the till at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When White and his cohorts tear into “Live a Lie” like it’s some long lost late-nineteen-seventies power pop classic, intoning lyrics of profound simplicity (“I like it better when you tell me lies/ When you hide what’s behind those eyes “), they really mean it. 

I suppose that’s it. The answer is simple. Help Us Stranger is necessary, or at least valuable, because the Raconteurs really mean it. In the calculus of rock ‘n’ roll, nothing matters more.

The New Releases Shelf — Patience

mannequin pussy

It starts with the guitar, a jackhammer line joined by a propulsive rhythm section beat. And then lead singer Marisa Dabice starts singing, her voice fierce and fragile at the same time as she delivers lyrics about a toxic relationship: “Who told you/ That my body was yours to own.” The title cut to Mannequin Pussy’s third full-length, Patience, opens the album like a manifesto scrawled in blood. There’s resignation, fervor, anger, and reclaimed power kneaded into it. The track makes exactly the right kind of racket.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Mannequin Pussy blazes and punches with every song, channeling a rock ferocity that I’d begun to assume had receded for good. Dabice’s vocals make the riot grrrl movement of the nineteen-nineties an easy comparison, but I think they more convincingly echo college radio titans who first rattled speakers in the decade prior, when the folding of melodic sensibilities and more nuanced lyrics into punk-propelled songs was a new enough practice to be raw and revolutionary. “Cream” is such a concentrated burst of guitar that’s both catchy and ear-assaulting that it was genuinely a surprise to me when the singing started and it wasn’t Bob Mould’s voice, and a less ostentatious version of J. Mascis’s Dinosur Jr. guitar tricks texture “Drunk II.”

Mannequin Pussy slip back and forth between sonic speeds with exciting ease. The album has room for the pure punk blasts of “Drunk I” and “Clams” — both tracks clocking in at under one minute, bless them — and a more restrained version of intensity on cuts such as “High Horse” and methodical, piercing “Fear/+/Desire” (“When you hit me, it does not feel like a kiss/ Like the singers promised, a lie that was written for them/ And you’re touching me, my skin, it turns to mold/ And I’m crying out, a story never told”). “Who You Are” calls to mind Hole, circa Celebrity Skin, as if wresting away a glitter-and-spit-speckled baton away from the band that collapsed after approaching greatness. It’s been some time, but Mannequin Pussy can take the next leg of that sweaty race on a rutted track.

For me, listening to Patience is like having someone unexpectedly clap their hands together loudly millimeters away from the tip of my nose. It delivers a jolt, surges the adrenaline, wakes me up from my mental drift. Some albums insinuate. Patience has no time for that sort of nonsense. It asserts itself with awesome immediacy.

The New Releases Shelf — Designer


Designer, the third album from New Zealander Aldous Harding, is so luxurious in its beauty that listening to it is like sinking into a cushion so soft it defies the laws of physics. And yet it’s not precisely right to describe the music contained therein as comforting. There’s a tension at play across the album, a sense that the songs are withholding surprises that might or might not hit with devastating impact. “Zoo Eyes” tilts toward the twee pop of the early two-thousands, but there’s a low threat of escalating into the realm of the boisterously baroque. Such a swerve — or lack thereof — is neither good or bad necessarily. The sustained possibility is where the magic lies.

All of the material is delivered by Harding with a poise that plays like forthright confidence. Designer has an air of nineteen-seventies singer-songwriter about it, albeit with less of the precipice dangling that was part of the era. It could have come out of a Laurel Canyon scene defined by peaceful inquisitiveness instead of hippie sex rules and drugs laid out like Brach’s assortments. The title cut is reminiscent of vintage Joni Mitchell with a swirl of dream pop added.

More recent artists come to mind, too. “The Barrel” suggests Sarah McLachlan had she taken the mystery and seduction of her earliest albums and gone in a far flintier, more interesting creative direction, and “Damn” is in the territory of Fiona Apple’s torch songs, including in the mingling of airy, elusive metaphor and disarming emotional directness (“There must be a reason, he said/ I know the reason, he meant”). All of Designer is also distinctively, uniquely Harding’s. There are kindred spirits, perhaps, and useful comparisons, but Harding establishes her considerable distance from other artists — influences or not — with greater conviction and authority than she evokes predecessors.

The album closes with the breathtaking delicacy of “Heaven is Empty” followed by “Pilot,” a probing, rich song that would raise pride and envy in Harry Nilsson. By the end, Harding has laid herself bare and maintained a sly distance from the listener, hinting that there is so much more to give, acres left undiscovered. Designer gives a lot. One of its primary gifts is the promise that the wealth of Harding’s talent just might have no limit.

The New Releases Shelf — Western Stars

bruce western

Three months shy of his seventieth birthday, no one would chastise Bruce Springsteen for hanging up his guitar strap. Especially following the monumental Springsteen on Broadway run, it would seem the man who strummed his first formative chords with the New Jersey band Steel Mill fifty years ago this year had reached a point where he could reasonably crimp an airtight cap onto the frothy bottle of his career. Or maybe he could take a little bit of a break, survey his recent accomplishments, and determine where he could possibly go next. Instead, Springsteen has released Western Stars, his first full-length studio album of new material in five years.

Described by Springsteen as “influenced by Southern California pop music of the seventies,” it almost seems as though Western Stars is an album meant to help fill in a particular gap in his own biography through music. The memoir Born to Run keeps circling back to California. It was a promised land sought by Springsteen’s father. It was an imperfect early testing ground for Springsteen’s aspirations of music stardom beyond the Jersey Shore. It was the place Springsteen settled with his wife, Patti Scialfa, seeking solace from the demons of depression and other emotional turmoil that defined him more than he cared to admit. When Springsteen used his book as framework for the Broadway show, mingling reminiscence with reflective songwriting, it’s not hard to imagine him coming to the realization that there was a gap in his discography. The Golden State was unaccounted for.

The tone is set from the jump, Springsteen evoking a Woody Guthrie ease and simplicity on “Hitch Hikin’.” A gentle melody joins in, but the song is dominated by acoustic plunks and Springsteen’s keening voice. The vagabond has arrived to recount his travels, glories, and rueful disappointments. Springsteen describes these as character-driven songs, and it’s been folly to ascribe too much autobiography to Springsteen’s songwriting since at least the early nineteen-nineties, when he seemed to realize that his wealth and fame had carried him too far from the earthy territory of his preferred storytelling, that he could only go so much further as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Even so, much of Western Stars feels like Springsteen imagining who he might have been had he joined his father on the move west or otherwise settled near the Pacific earlier.

That sense of the personal prominent, the material on Western Stars is among the best Springsteen had crafted in some time. A borrowed Laurel Canyon gentleness inspires Springsteen to temper his usual bombast. The album is not as stark as The Ghost of Tom Joad or Nebraska. Instead, it is a cousin to Tunnel of Love, the wringing anguish imposed by a marriage falling apart replaced by a proving of the self and a resulting playfulness. “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” could even be a companion to “Old Joe’s Place,” the jaunty number from Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. I don’t mean to imply that Springsteen skirts parody (he is susceptible to that flaw). Instead, like the marvelous Guest film, Springsteen somehow makes pastiche into the genuine, mostly through earnest commitment to honoring his inspirations.

Elsewhere on the album, “Tucson Train” makes for a highly respectable addition to the long, long, long line of train songs in the American musical story, and “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” is gentle, smart, and detailed in recounting the wounds and tenacity found in the practitioners of the Hollywood occupation named in parentheses. “Sundown” is prime example of Springsteen indulging his penchant for the epic, keeping it nicely contained. Album closer “Moonlight Motel” is properly elegiac (“Pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag/ Poured one for me and for you as well/ And it was one more shot poured out in the parking lot/ To the Moonlight Motel”), a repository of dreams that might not be fully shattered, but are definitely sporting heavy distress.

In my teens, I was devoted to Springsteen like few other artists, fully subscribing to Rolling Stone‘s ratification of him as a performer practically unparalleled. Not long ago, I was ready to declare him basically a figure of the past, a creator whose grasp of his old tools had grown shaky. Western Stars doesn’t exactly elbow its way into the pantheon of Springsteen’s finest albums, but it is strong, sometimes even vital. After all this time, this tramp can still run.