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If you get any iTunes gift cards this holiday season, here are a few suggestions, as to what you might download with them. I managed to review most of these albums for this site during the year, but a few of them slipped under my radar (or beyond the time I had for writing) until later. The list simply is presented in alphabetical order; trying to arrange a countdown of my favorites would’ve driven me nuts. One thing was clearer than ever in 2011, though: Anyone who complains that there just isn’t any good music out there isn’t looking very hard for it. Tell them to tune into KRCC, for starters.
AM & Shawn Lee
Celestial Electric, the first collaborative effort by these two American indie-rock veterans, is tinged with hints of Sixties psychedelia and Seventies funk. “City Boy” and “Dark Into Light” ride on languid grooves and shimmery guitars. “Different Forces” and “Down the Line” are faster, and “Promises Are Never Far from Lies” and “The Signal” are funkier. The cover of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue” fits perfectly here; AM and Lee give the classic a fresh sound without veering too far from the original. The disc’s melodies are appealing, its instrumentation never gets too retro or obvious, and the music’s texture is lush without getting crowded. Throughout the CD, AM and Lee do their best to draw listeners into the music, but don’t try to rush the listener to any particular destination. Celestial Electric is the kind of album that listeners will want to play again and again, and share with friends.
Different Gear, Still Speeding
After guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher left Oasis in 2009, his former bandmates decided to soldier on as Beady Eye. On the group’s debut CD, Different Gear, Still Speeding, guitarist Gem Archer, bassist Andy Bell and singer Liam Gallagher collaborate on the songs, with good results. “Wind Up Dream,” “Bring the Light,” “Three Ring Circus” and “Standing on the Edge of the Noise” offer plenty of Oasis-style rock & roll swagger. The musicians flaunt their influences as overtly as they ever did in their old band, too, whether dropping hints of Wings-era McCartney (“Four Letter Word”), Lennon (“The Roller”) or even Oasis itself (“The Morning Son,” which sounds more than a little like the Oasis hit “Champagne Supernova”). And “Kill for a Dream” could even be read as Liam’s note of reconciliation to his estranged brother: “Life’s too short not to forgive/You can carry regrets, but they won’t let you live/I’m here if you want to call.” Seeing that Noel has started down his own post-Oasis path with his High-Flying Birds, Liam probably shouldn’t hold out for that call. But a chorus like “I’m gonna stand the test of time/Like Beatles and Stones!” shows that the singer clearly hasn’t let his big brother’s departure put a dent in his confidence.
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Legit rappers or gimmick-mongers? Threats to public decency or just juvenile pranksters? Everyone had an opinion about the Beastie Boys when they debuted in 1986 with Licensed to Ill, but who thought they’d still be around a quarter-century later let alone that they’d still be at the top of their game? Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, their first album in seven years, shows Mike Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Adam “MCA” Yauch still focusing on what turns them on, with little regard for trends, fashion or even the latest slang or catchphrases. The group can even joke about its own longevity: as Mike D puts it, “Oh my god, just look at me/Grandpa been rappin’ since ‘83.” The trio sticks to what it knows and likes best, and keeps most of the grooves stripped down and echoey, in tribute to the earliest Sugarhill Records releases. (Original Sugarhill rapper Spoonie Gee gets a shout-out in “Nonstop Disco Powerpack.”) In turn, the group merits respect from other hip-hop performers even an accomplished one like Nas, who delivers the chorus of “Too Many Rappers”: “One, two, three/Too many rappers and there’s still not enough MCs/It goes three, two, one/MCA, Ad-Rock, Mike D/That’s how we get it done.” The Beasties don’t break any new ground on this CD, but they clearly weren’t trying to. They know that one of the keys to staying on top of your game is remembering just what your game is.
What do you get when you send an American indie-rock band known for rough, ramshackle playing into the studio with a British producer known for polished, retro-styled recordings? Most music fans probably would guess, “The mismatch of the year.” But pairing the Black Lips with Mark Ronson resulted in Arabia Mountain, a non-stop treat. Ronson emphasized the Atlanta-based quartet’s enthusiasm and garage-rock swagger; in turn, the Black Lips responded with its most focused songwriting and performances to date. “Family Tree,” “Mad Dog,” and “Bicentennial Man” sound like classic sax-crazed frat-party romps from the Nuggets canon. The band sets the sympathetic tale of “Spidey’s Curse” to Merseybeat-style power-pop; “Raw Meat” sounds like a freshly uncovered Ramones gem. “Bone Marrow” and the unhinged museum-tripping “Modern Art” add touches like glockenspiel and spooky musical saw on the choruses. “Dumpster Dive,” “Time” and “Don’t Mess Up My Baby” hint at the early Stones. From start to finish, Arabia Mountain offers plenty of cool, down-and-dirty fun. This time, the gamble with a big-name producer paid off.
Blue Sky Black Death
(Fake Four Inc.)
The title of Blue Sky Black Death’s fourth album isn’t all that accurate: very little about Noir feels dark or foreboding. The music is warm, rich and colorful throughout. Even in its most twilit moments, the album reflects the first part of the duo’s name far more than the second. Kingston Maguire and Ian Taggart start with simple chord progressions and then develop the instrumentation subtly, varying the mood several times in each song. The graceful keyboard intro to “Our Hearts of Ruin” gives way to bells and choral voices, before dropping out to a string quartet over finger snaps. “Sleeping Children Are Still Flying” starts with Clapton-style guitar over a laid-back funk groove; then plucked violin strings carry the tune toward a surge of organ, trumpet and tympani all of which drops down to a children’s choir and a sampled conversation between two young boys. The group builds its moods gradually and gracefully, seldom letting the shifts get overdramatic or heavy-handed. Only a few of the disc’s samples are readily identifiable, such as Dusty Springfield singing “The Windmills of Your Mind” in “Farewell to the Former World” or a snippet of Solomon Burke singing “Don’t Give Up on Me” in “Falling Short.” Inviting and rich, Noir is the perfect enhancement to any blissful late-evening mood.
Move Like This
(The review for this album first appeared on TrouserPress.com. Used by permission.)
One of the least likely rock-band reunions happened in 2011: The Cars minus bassist Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000 got back together to record a new studio album. (Keyboardist Greg Hawkes shared bass duties in the studio with producer Jacknife Lee.) From the opening track, “Blue Tip,” all the familiar elements of the Cars’ classic sound are there: Hawkes’ frosty keyboards, David Robinson’s crisp drumming, synthetic handclaps, coolly unsyncopated rhythm guitar, and singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek’s wobbly, slightly adenoidal voice. “Keep on Knocking” and “Drag On Forever” rock with a sinister undertow, with choice solos from Elliot Easton, one of the most under-appreciated lead guitarists of his generation. “Soon” and “Take Another Look” are blissful, hymn-like ballads; “Sad Song” updates T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” for 21st century listeners. The poppy “Too Late” could be read as an elegy to Orr: “All the storms in life/You got to contemplate … When the mornings rise / You gotta celebrate.” Of course, it wouldn’t be The Cars without a few oddball lines, such as this couplet from “Drag On Forever”: “Your waxy face was melting in your lap/I sat there trying to crush a gingersnap.” Orr’s presence certainly is missed: his tenor would’ve sounded particularly great on the ballads. Despite that, The Cars pick up right where they left off on Move Like This, sounding no worse for time or wear. And to those who might think The Cars are just reiterating that patented New Wave sound, why shouldn’t they? They invented a lot of it, and perfected the rest of it.
The Chain Gang of 1974
(Modern Art Records)
Some musical genres are timeless; others get consigned to the trend bin of history. A lot of rock fans would drop Eighties-style synth-pop into the latter category … but don’t tell that to Kamtin Mohager. Working under the name The Chain Gang of 1974, Mohager finds plenty of inspiration in the sounds of the Eighties on his debut album, Wayward Fire. The music rides on echoey, obviously synthetic beats, insistent synthesizer grooves (often doubled on guitar), and glistening, soaring keyboard flourishes. Tracks like “Hold On,” “Heartbreakin’ Scream” and “Don’t Walk Away” recall the best work of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, with their shimmering surfaces and gliding rhythms. “Devil Is a Lady,” “Ethical Drugs” and “Undercover” are more dance-floor oriented. Mohager’s throaty, melodramatic voice sounds a lot like Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears; he switches to an Erasure-ish falsetto for funky tracks like “Devil Is a Lady.” Even though most of its songs average over five minutes “Hold On” breaks the eight-minute mark the CD doesn’t drag, because the artist loads plenty of hooks into each track to keep things moving. Wayward Fire makes a compelling case that the sounds of the Eighties still have plenty left to offer, if they’re used right.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Hysterical, the third album from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, sounds as if the Brooklyn-based quintet is taking a path away from the more homemade sound of its previous work. The band puts more emphasis on keyboards and firmer beats than it did on its first two discs. The result sounds quite a bit like The Killers; CYHSY brings the shimmery rock guitars, king-size synthesizers and big, bold melodic riffs on numbers like “Same Mistake,” “Yesterday, Never” and the title track. The keyboards in “Maniac” imitate a soul band’s horn section in a way that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of The Killers’ more dramatic numbers. “Misspent Youth” is a plaintive, piano-focused ballad, in which frontman Alec Ounsworth sings about “Trading sex for drugs … driving drunk in Daddy’s car.” And “Into Your Alien Arms” sounds as if The Cure gave one of its best new songs to The Killers to record. Hysterical is a solid, confident album full of good songs and enthusiastic playing. Fans of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s previous work might be put off by the disc’s thicker, more polished sound, but Killers fans who’ve been waiting anxiously for a new album from the boys from Vegas should check this one out.
(Ninja Tune Records)
Bespoke may be an old-fashioned term, but so is producer Alfred Darlington’s fashion sense: at his DJ appearances as Daedelus, he usually wears Victorian-style suits and waistcoats. At least half the album’s titles hint at this interest in men’s fashions. “Tailor-Made Our Way” opens the disc with a steady disco beat, wah-wah funk guitar and handclaps. Strummed acoustic guitar opens “Sew, Darn, Mend”; electric guitar picks out the melody over soft ripples of piano. The veering, buzzing synths of “Penny Loafers” move over a vaguely Eastern rhythm; the track starts to develop a feel similar to Esquivel or Martin Denny. “Suit Yourself” begins with a brass fanfare straight out of Broadway. Plucked strings and skittery drums blend into the slow, spare groove of “French Cuffs,” as guest vocalist Baths sings in subdued French, her cool soprano coursing through the song. “Slowercase D” takes on a spooky sci-fi sound, with harp accents over deep oscillating synth and a low-fi groove. Bespoke is an entertaining album whose grooves will liven up any party while still leaving enough breathing room for the guests to groove on each other.
Dengue Fever takes a fresh, original approach to rock & roll. On its fourth album, Cannibal Courtship, the L.A.-based sextet blends robust rock & roll (heavy on the surf guitar and psychedelic feel) with Cambodian-style pop. That tart Asian flavor comes not only from Cambodian-born singer Chhom Nimol’s high, slightly twangy tone and undisguised accent, but from the band’s tunings and chord structures. Keyboardist Ethan Holtzman and his guitar-playing brother Zac build the title track to an intense churn that suits Nimol’s siren-like enticement (“Be my sacrificial love”) perfectly. Most of the songs examine similarly dark relationships. “Family Business” is a noirish rocker with lyrics about a family that keeps busy with arms smuggling, drug dealing and espionage. In “Only a Friend,” Zac sings about a buddy who watches over his girlfriend back home: “I’m overseas flirting with girls/And catching diseases/He makes her laugh/And he keeps her from falling to pieces.” In the poppy rocker “Thank You Goodbye,” Nimol tells a departing lover, “Kiss me goodbye/You’re just another stamp in my passport.” In the sinister, sax-and-organ driven “Cement Slippers,” the two singers assume the roles of dysfunctional lovers: “My girlfriend loves everything at the beach/Except the water, the sand and the sun/My boyfriend loves everything about me/Except the endless hours of therapy.” Dengue Fever explores Asian pop styles more thoroughly on “Uku,” “Mr. Bubbles” and “Durian Dowry”; the instrumental “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius” sounds like a lost gem from some forgotten Sixties spy flick. Cannibal Courtship is a fully realized, thoroughly entertaining album.
Delvin Neugebauer hosts the Overnight Music Mix each Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.