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KRCC’s Delvin Neugebauer reviews new releases from British Sea Power, Cake, Gang of Four, The Low Anthem, New York Dolls, The Strokes and Twin Shadow. All the albums reviewed are recent additions to KRCC’s music library. Tune in to the Music Mix on KRCC to hear these new releases.
British Sea Power
(Rough Trade Records)
Like most English bands in the years since MTV shifted its primary focus away from music videos, British Sea Power has yet to find the big American audience that its talents justify, even as it’s become increasingly renowned on its home turf. Valhalla Dancehall, BSP’s fifth album, shows the group continuing to refine the drama and dynamics in its music. The sextet builds up songs like “We Are Sound,” “Georgie Ray,” “Luna” and the waltz-tempo “Cleaning Out the Rooms” from quiet, ambient atmospherics to sweeping anthemic rock, and then back down to hushed quiet. On the 11-minute “Once More Now,” the band does this two or three times, and makes it work. The group brings the rock to tracks like “Who’s in Control,” “Stunde Null,” “Living Is So Easy,” “Observe the Skies” and the punkish “Thin Black Sail” more succinctly. Casual listeners might find lead vocalist Yan (Scott Wilkinson to his mum) hard to distinguish from a lot of other British rock singers of the past couple decades. Yan strains a bit when he tries to project, and drops down to a breathy croon in the quieter numbers — a fourth- or fifth-generation Bryan Ferry. But his voice does suit the wide-eyed drama that his band works hard to achieve. Valhalla Dancehall is a great rock album to get lost in. It may not be particularly danceable, but it does aspire to a majestic height that might make the Norse gods take notice.
Showroom of Compassion
After two decades, Cake’s music still sounds the same as it did in 1994, when the group released its debut single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle”: laid-back grooves, ensemble playing that never gets too fussy, analog synthesizers, Vince DiFiore’s trumpet, and John McCrea’s dry, laconic singing. From its debut album to its seventh one, the Motorcade of Generosity leads right to the Showroom of Compassion. The good news is, the band hasn’t gone stale. Sure, the leadoff single, “Sick of You,” is standard-issue Cake, with a stripped-down rock & roll sound, McCrea’s distorted speak-singing and the rest of the band shouting out lines in the background. But “What’s Now Is Now” is one of the band’s most impressively melodic songs to date, and “Mustache Man (Wasted)” is one of its funkiest tunes, right down to the crowd of partygoers chatting away in the margins. “Got to Move” has a surprising lullaby quality to its melody, and “Bound Away” is a rustic country waltz. McCrea rarely has been a very serious lyricist, and the two songs on this album that would seem (from the titles) to be topical simply aren’t. “Federal Funding” is more snarky comment than statement, and “Teenage Pregnancy” is an instrumental. But “What’s Now Is Now” has an excellent lyric about burying the hatchet (“What’s now is now/And I’ll forget what happened then/I know you will/And we can still begin again”), and “Easy to Crash” offers a view on a sleeping consumer culture: “Clouds hung hugely and oppressively/We didn’t notice/We didn’t care … Driving along in our luxury cars/Down to our pretty city of stars.” Summary: If you’re already a Cake fan, you’ll like Showroom of Compassion. If you don’t like the band, this album won’t change your mind. If you’re not already familiar with the band’s music — well, some fans might disagree with me on this, but I’d say this disc is a good place to start.
Gang of Four
Content is Gang of Four’s first studio album of new material since the original lineup reunited for a concert tour in 2004. That reunion was partly a response to several bands that arose in the 2000s — such as Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Radio 4 and The Dead 60s — that showed a pronounced Gang of Four influence. Regrettably, the classic line-up didn’t stay together long enough to record anything new. On this CD, vocalist Jon King still sings with a plaintive wail, and guitarist Andy Gill still churns out the choppy, buzzing, staccato guitar riffs that practically defined the word “angular” in the Eighties. Those two are the only charter members reporting for duty; drummer Mark Heaney and bassist Thomas McNeice fill in the ranks. As the album’s title suggests, King and Gill still are writing pointed critiques of consumerist culture and its effects on people’s lives and thoughts – particularly how it can turn intimate relationships between people into transactions (most explicitly pointed out in “She Said ‘You Made a Thing of Me'”). In “Who Am I?” King asks about the easily-within-reach nature of Internet commerce, “Who wants old when everything is new?/Who can steal when everything is free?/Who am I when everything is me?” “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face” has a more traditional funk sound; “I Party All the Time” recalls “I Love a Man in a Uniform” with its female backing vocals and its loping groove. But Content doesn’t convey much of the urgency that made Go4’s first three albums such classics. Although Heaney and McNeice make a tight rhythm section, they really don’t play against the guitar and vocal, the way original drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen did. On this new disc, the rhythms are always crisp and sharp, but too often they end up just supporting Gill and King, rather than creating the push-pull tension that made the band’s earlier work feel so alive and desperate. Content is a decent album, but the 2011 version of Gang of Four sounds like just another band that’s influenced by the original quartet.
The Low Anthem
The Providence-based quartet The Low Anthem recorded its fourth album in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Rhode Island. Band member Jeff Prystowsky has suggested that this environment dictated Smart Flesh‘s overall feel. As Prystowsky put it, “rowdier” songs tended to be overwhelmed by the factory’s acoustics. (The blaring sound of “Boeing 737,” one such tune that did make the cut, would appear to support his assertion.) Throughout most of the disc, the band sticks to a hushed folk/blues approach. The album’s opener, a cover of George Carter’s 1937 gospel song “Ghost Woman Blues,” sets the tone with its stripped-down piano, plucked strings, and tight male/female vocal harmonies. The spare, slightly woozy feel of that song carries through on the waltz-timed country tune “Apothecary Love,” the lonely “Love and Altar,” and the mournful blues of “Golden Cattle,” “Burn,” Matter of Time” and “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes.” (Radio-tuning static filters through on that last song, perfectly suiting the lonely, sorrowful lyric about not carrying out a deceased friend’s final wishes.) The Low Anthem takes a slightly Dylanesque approach on two of the album’s songs. (Perhaps that’s too easy a cliché for any artist whose music takes its roots in folk, but it’s apt here.) The cranked-up organ intro and raucous rhythm section on “Hey, All You Hippies!” give the song a hint of that Highway 61 feel, even though the dated references in the lyric are silly: “Hey, all you hippies/You got a bad name/Ever since you let your guard down/Here comes Ronald Reagan/O’er the Hollywood Hills/Don’t look like he’s foolin’ around.” And the disc-concluding title track is a slow folk song with jaw harp accents, musical saw, and the Dylan-style vocal close to the ear — and this time, lyrics that are worthwhile: “Pretty girls, go and take your time/For Lord only knows how you have taken mine/I chased them clear to the ends of time/To hold their smart, smart flesh.” Overall, this album makes a good late-night disc as a party winds down, when the last few guests are tired and bleary, yet no one feels like going home quite yet.
New York Dolls
Dancing Backward in High Heels
This is the New York Dolls’ third album since reuniting in 2004, which means the reactivated version of the band has been more productive than the original group was in the Seventies. Only two members from that original lineup, singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, have survived to rock today. The current roster is filled out by drummer Brian Delaney, ex-Blondie guitarist Frank Infante and ex-Louis XIV bassist Jason Hill (who also produced the new CD). This lineup offers none of the frantic, feverishly messed-up guitar vibe that made the Dolls famous. (Okay, granted, it made them famous years after the band broke up.) In fact, Dancing Backward in High Heels is surprisingly light on guitar. Most of these twelve upbeat songs feature Johansen’s bluesy, rheumy voice backed primarily by organ, bass, drums, and backing choruses that echo dreamily in the sonic space. The effect is like a street-grimy approach to Phil Spector’s production style — the Wall of Sound with a lot of beer spilled and splashed on it. “Round and Round She Goes” and “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” offer all the brio of Spector’s classic productions, without all that pesky sophistication. The ballad “You Don’t Have to Cry” get more ornate by the measure, piling on horns, harpsichord and string quartet. “Funky But Chic” rides on a Motown groove; “Baby, Tell Me What I’m On” and the disc-closing “End of the Summer” are charming ska-flavored tunes, delivered with a light touch. For all the harsh times and indulgences the Dolls went through the first time around, Johansen and Sylvain’s upbeat looking-for-a-kiss charm remains intact. In “Streetcake,” Johansen woos the object of his desire by name-checking Mitch Ryder, Tommy James & the Shondells, Pablo Casals, Marie Antoinette and (well, why not, while he’s at it?) the New York Dolls. Not every track on this CD works: in “I’m So Fabulous,” Johansen tries to dismiss those who would bite his style or try to match his savoir faire, but ends up just sounding like a guy going off at a party after a few too many drinks. “Kids Like You” is just a flimsy rewrite of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” (And no rock star — not even a survivor like Johansen — should sing a song that offers advice to “kids.”) Dancing Backward in High Heels will never be the touchstone that the original Dolls albums New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon eventually became. But of course, such works of art just can’t be duplicated … especially if most of the guys who helped create that art have left this world behind.
The previous Strokes CD, 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, came under some fire from fans and reviewers for being unfocused (although it did contain several good songs). Apparently, the message wasn’t lost on the band: The ten songs on Angles show the Strokes returning to what they did best on their first two albums, 2001’s Is This It and 2003’s Room on Fire. “Under Cover of Darkness” sounds and feels more than a little bit similar to “Last Nite,” the 2001 single that broke the group into the big time. “You’re So Right” revisits the unsyncopated guitar riffs of “Barely Legal” and “Hard to Explain.” Drummer Fab Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture keep the grooves as tight as ever. And Julian Casablancas sings with that familiar, dry, hardly-even-trying style — as if he’s talking to you at a party just so he has something to do while he’s waiting for his ride to show up. For all that, the Strokes are still refining their by-now recognized style, rather than just clinging to it — and the refinements are all to the good. The songs are melodic and well-written, and the musicians get them across with plenty of enthusiasm and energy. Even if a few of the tunes sound familiar, none of them feels like a waste of time. The band lays down a reggae groove on the album-opening “Machu Picchu” (not their first dabbling in reggae, but their best to date), and takes the synth-pop approach to “Games.” And Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi’s twin guitar riffs blend and complement one another more than ever. Call the Strokes a one-trick pony, if you want, but it’s still a good trick … and on Angles, they make that trick sound fresh.
The debut CD from Twin Shadow — the one-man-band name of Dominican-born, Florida-raised George Lewis, Jr. — opens with a quiet, bleak-sounding, synth-based number called “Tyrant Destroyed.” Lewis sings the song in a hushed voice; if the listener isn’t paying close attention, the lyric can slip under the radar pretty easily: “When you were 15, I know what you said/’I’ll never let another black boy break my heart.'” From there, Lewis takes the listener through ten instantly catchy tunes with danceable pop grooves, engaging melodies and (occasionally) similar depth charges in the lyrics. “Castles in the Snow,” “When We’re Dancing,” “I Can’t Wait” and “Yellow Balloon” are Eighties-inflected pop. “Shooting Holes” sports a funky groove, with quick, darting synth accents and some very graceful one-man vocal harmonies in the chorus. “At My Heels” rides a busier groove, its guitar and keyboard riffs shimmering elegantly and its lyrics full of ecstatic invitation: “There is no key to my gate/You can still come around/Lean your ladder against my window/And I’ll come down.” “Tether Beat” starts as a mournful song, moving along to a shuffling, mechanical rhythm, until Lewis gradually introduces some African-flavored guitar groove and percussion. Over the perky groove of “For Now,” Lewis asks the rueful question, “Is there anything as quiet as a night alone with you?/Had it ever been as clear on the day that you went away?” Working with Grizzly Bear bassist/producer Chris Taylor, Lewis works confidently in the studio, never losing focus or getting over-indulgent; his vocals show a pronounced Morrissey influence. (So do lyrics like, “You’re my favorite daydream/I’m your famous nightmare … Here’s all I know/Your checkered room and your velvet fold/Your Elvis song in my ear/That moonlit voice that I hear.”) Even when Lewis isn’t trying to startle or surprise with his lyrics, his songs and performances are enough to get the listener’s attention, and hold onto it. Forget is an excellent debut that already has me looking forward to what Twin Shadow will come up with next.
Contact the reviewer at firstname.lastname@example.org.