The New Releases Shelf: American Dream

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I mean, no one really thought there would never be another LCD Soundsystem album, right?

For all the anguish and wistful valedictory celebration that accompanied the announcement of LCD Soundsystem’s farewell, back in 2011, the dissolution of James Murphy’s triumphant collaboration of electronic extravaganzas always felt temporary. Viewed benignly, it seemed like more than an impulsive hiatus. Under more cynical examination, it had the air of a calculated put-on, which Murphy has basically admitted was the case.

And here we are, in the dazzling, spinning mirror ball reflected light of the least surprising reunion in ages. American Dream is the fourth full-length under the LCD Soundsystem name, and it no mere rehash. It shimmers and soars with all the same anxious ingenuity that has typified the group’s output from the start. Album opener “Oh Baby” immediately sets the mind at lovely unease, sounding like a warmer Public Image Ltd (I catch a hint of “Rise” in the track’s heartbeat rhythms) as Murphy pines with language that is simultaneously simple and achingly poetic (“Oh lover/ You run from me/ We move like a bad scene/ Shot in the dark”). It establishes that Murphy and his crew are back in the mode of channeling decades of electronic influences into material that is inventive and original.

In that alchemy that makes the familiar into the blazingly new, American Dream is a sort of successor — or perhaps an answer — to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Where the French duo was explicit in their glitter-doused history lessons — bringing the likes of Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder along for the rollicking ride — LCD Soundsystem is slyer, more playful in deploying echoes of influence. “Other Voices” takes the ersatz funk of Talking Heads and folds in the mind-bending casual experimentation of Laurie Anderson. It’s followed by “I Used To,” which sounds like Art of Noise with a welcome soul transplant. And “How Do You Sleep?” plays like the disco reconstruction U2 thought they were making, circa Zooropa and Pop.

Drawing those comparisons might imply American Dream is derivative. It’s not. LCD Soundsystem has long had a skill for making their material reverberate with grand invention. That remains in full evidence throughout the new album. “Tonite” is a quintessential LCD Soundsystem song, at once satirizing and mastering modern dance floor fare as Murphy zings back and forth between slump-shouldered asides and questing croons in his vocals. “But embarrassing pictures have now all been deleted/ By versions of selves that we thought were the best ones/ ‘Til versions of versions of others repeating/ Come laughing at everything we thought was important,” he sings, getting at the existential woes of the modern age with a plain perfectness that puts to shame lyricists who stick with the established she-made-me-happy-then-she-made-me-sad grammar of pop songs.

As the album grooves to a close with the elegance of “Black Screen,” a heartbroken, mournful, and icily experimental David Bowie tribute, its clear that LCD Soundsystem have provided a danceable argument for their continued contribution to the pop culture discourse, no matter what feigned bows they may have already taken. There’s no cause for a band to leave the stage when they can still dominate it. The dream is real, and it offers uncommon sonic luxuries.

The New Releases Shelf: A Deeper Understanding

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I readily concede that at this melancholy moment there’s a greedy desire to hear echoes of Tom Petty just about everywhere. But, whenever I now cycle back to A Deeper Understanding, the new album from the War on Drugs, I hear little shimmers of Petty’s reflected sensibility all over the place. The album’s first track, “Up All Night,” might open with a electronic hummingbird shiver that seems nicked from a vintage Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, but it quickly gives in to a loping, keening melody that is like an even more relaxed version of Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Elsewhere, “Pain” has the balladic ruminating and “Nothing to Find” has some of the highway reverberation I associate with the dearly departed rock legend.

Acknowledging those comparisons upfront seems only prudent, since they’ll happen anyway and will be conspicuous no matter how they’re deployed. The invocations are inevitable because I can’t listen to the War on Drugs without my mind tumbling into a undulating mass of other artists, each new musical reminiscence arriving and departing with the fleeting suddenness of a bursting bubble. When I wrote briefly about the Philadelphia band’s previous album, Lost in the Dream, I conceded my bafflement in trying to settle on an assessment of what the music contained therein sounded like to me. “Right now, I think this is the record the Waterboys would have made if Mike Scott had been raised alongside Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey,” I wrote, helplessly. The new album sounds nothing like that. Except when it does. Once again, it changes day to day.

In less certain, less capable hands, the tonal and spiritual fluidity would come across as indication of soulless, visionless music. A Deeper Understanding couldn’t be further from that. Chief songwriter and frontman Adam Granduciel builds tracks of strident sonic exploration, like a Flaming Lips record, but aspiring to the polished discipline adopted by legacy rockers when they were given the keys to state of the art recording studios in the nineteen-eighties. “In Chains” has signs of Jackson Browne’s gentle agitation, “Strangest Thing” could have retrieved from Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, and the sprawling “Thinking of a Place” is one whole side of an old LP all on its own, cooing and coaxing toward achy poignancy.

Amazingly, this tall stack of the familiar doesn’t tally up to a finished product that moans with derivativeness. Rich with the past and crackling with the easy confidence of an artist with a restless eye to the future, A Deeper Understanding feels fiercely original in its commitment to a certain true-heartedness that used to come standard on rock ‘n’ roll albums. I’m not sure if any of the predecessors of the War on Drugs feel as though they’ve passed the torch along to them, but it doesn’t matter. A Deeper Understanding shows they’ve got a firm grasp on it, and they’re carrying it proudly.

The New Releases Shelf: Painted Ruins

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(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

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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

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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

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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

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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.