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Mates of State
On their seventh CD, the Connnecticut-based husband-wife duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel offer ten songs loaded with melody, hooks, and emotion. Over the spare keyboards and clattering rimshots of “Unless I’m Led,” Gardner sings about finding her way through the woods with the help of her partner. The song builds to a stately chorus full of layered keyboards and radiant one-woman vocal harmonies. In the jumping “Total Serendipity,” the two trade lines in a story (perhaps their own) about a couple meeting and, by good fortune, connecting: “She almost didn’t give you the message/Where would we be?” “Basement Money” is a brisk song about the cottage-industry aspect of indie-pop. And in “At Least I Have You,” the Mates sing about the joy of having someone special to turn to, when everyone else seems so distant: “I looked up the things that we couldn’t say/In a language that we use every day.” Hammel keeps the rhythms lean, but works in quite a few surprises; Gardner’s broad palette of keyboard sounds makes it hard to believe the music is made by just a duo. The two complement each other well as singers, too, whether on solo turns, trading off lines, harmonizing, or giving Gardner’s overdubbed harmonies the spotlight. And the duo leaves plenty of sonic space for the keyboards and vocals to move and blossom; the hooks seem to jump out from the music. Mountaintops is a superb album, full of energy, spirit and passion the kind of album that’ll make a newcomer want to check out the rest of the band’s music.
Irish singer Imelda May returns with more of the catchy rockabilly that made her previous album, Love Tattoo, such a fun retro romp. “Psycho,” “Pulling the Plug,” “Sneaky Freak,” “Let Me Out,” the strutting “All for You” and the cover of the Gloria Jones/Soft Cell classic “Tainted Love” all sizzle with rockabilly energy and enthusiasm. May sings with sassy personality and plenty of swing, and her band Darrel Higham (who’s also May’s husband), bassist Al Gare, drummer Steve Rushton and trumpeter Dave Priseman lays down the music with plenty of bounce and swagger. The group stretches a bit more this time out, though, with country-flavored numbers like “Eternity,” “Proud and Humble” and “I’m Alive” (the latter complete with pedal steel guitar) and torch songs like “Bury My Troubles.” Even a funeral dirge like “Too Sad to Cry” doesn’t detract from the album’s vitality; May still sings it with plenty of passion and style. The results do seem a bit mannered at times nothing here has much of the rock & roll sleaze and rustic flavor that marks truly classic rockabilly but Mayhem still is a catchy, invigorating disc whose best tracks are sure to enliven any party.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Anthony Gonzales, leader of the French indie-rock quintet M83, thinks in terms of albums, not just songs. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is his Smashing Pumpkins move: like that band’s epic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it’s a two-CD set that covers a wide range of sounds, moods and impressions. The album’s first three tracks, “Intro” (featuring guest vocalist Nika Danilova from the group Zola Jesus), “Midnight City” and the driving “Reunion” draw the listener in with their shimmering keyboards and sense of wide-eyed wonder. From there, it mixes songs like the bouncy “Raconte-Moi Un Histoire” and the Beach-Boys-worthy “Soon, My Friend” with interludes like “When Will You Come Home?” and the piano instrumental “Where the Boats Go.” Gonzales’ singing is reminiscent of Howard Jones right down to the yelpy tone in his upper register. The second disc kicks off with “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea,” a song about heartbreak that’s still uplifting. As with the first half, dreamier tracks like “Echoes of Mine” and “Klaus I Love You” balance out pop songs like “New Map,” “OK Pal” and “Steve McQueen,” giving the album a sense of ebb and flow. This all could’ve descended into sprawl and self-indulgence (as many two-disc albums do), but M83 manages to hold it all together. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is meant for listeners to get lost in; the whole set offers both immediately appealing pop and lush, extravagant soundscapes to make the whole trip worth taking.
My Morning Jacket
The title says it all. After the more exploratory efforts on its last two albums, the Kentucky-based quintet reconnects with its Southern-rock roots on Circuital. “Victory Dance” opens the CD with haunting keyboard, coupled with voices and guitars imitating a trumpet fanfare. Singer Jim James wonders in his wary, bluesy voice, “Should I close my eyes and prophesize/Hoping maybe someday comes?/Should I wet the ground with my own tears/Crying over what’s been done?” From there, guitarist Carl Broemel, bassist Tom Blankenship, keyboardist Bo Koster and drummer Patrick Hallahan build the song up steadily toward a frenzied hard ending. My Morning Jacket displays that mastery of dynamics throughout Circuital. In keeping with the title, a lot of the songs on this disc also are about coming full circle. In the country-tinged title track, James sings about “Going back to my childhood ways … We’re just spinning ‘round/Out on the circuit/Over the hallowed ground/Ending up in the same place/That we started out.” “Outta My System” is the story of someone who got in trouble throughout his life, and came out of it: “I’m glad I’m here now, but just between you and me/I had to get out and make the deals/And learn to know how it feels, but that it ain’t real.” Circuital does lose its momemtum a bit at the end, closing with “Slow Slow Tune” and the solemn waltz “Movin’ Away.” Apart from that, My Morning Jacket does itself proud, maturing as a band without losing its toughness.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart recorded their second album with the producer/engineer team of Alan Moulder and Flood. The result, Belong, should sound familiar to fans of such ‘90s alternative rock icons (and Moulder/Flood clients) as My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins and especially Ride. The studio team adds maximum impact and resonance to Kurt Feldman’s drums and Alex Naidus’ bass, and layers Kip Berman’s guitars and Peggy Wang’s keyboards to towering heights and scarifying depths. Wang and Berman’s whispery vocal harmonies seem both close to the ear and far away at the same time. Songs like “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” “The Body” and “Even in Dreams” are full of loneliness and the desperate need to connect with someone, all set to gorgeous melodies. Even when the lyrical outlook makes the band seem self-absorbed and self-pitying (“You can drive around all night with the radio on high/And wonder what it’s like to be liked”), each song still soars. From start to finish, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart deliver the sort of rock that makes just leaving one’s room and taking a ride somewhere feel like a leap of faith.
Parts & Labor
This Brooklyn-based trio lays down 12 tracks of big, bold-sounding, triumphant rock on its fifth album, Constant Future. The musicians start out such numbers as “Fake Names,” “Echo Chamber” and the title cut with simple elements like gentle keyboards or synth riffs that sound like they’re played on a Simon game before all hurtling in at top speed. The band introduces more dynamic shifts in songs like “Pure Annihilation” and “Skin and Bones,” with instruments dropping out rather abruptly and then surging back in. Guitarist Dan Friel sings in a robust, full-throated voice; bassist B.J. Warshaw and drummer Joe Wong drive home the rhythms with precision without ever resorting to bombast. Parts & Labor is a tight, focused ensemble that builds its songs up to towering heights rather than letting them sprawl. Constant Future gets the job done in under 40 minutes, with each song boasting enough melody and more than enough hooks to draw the listener in. It’s an exciting album from a band that labors to make each song more than the sum of its parts.
Collapse Into Now
Having made a decisive comeback with its 2008 album Accelerate, R.E.M. ends its 31-year run gracefully with Collapse Into Now. From rockers like “Discoverer,” “All the Best,” “That Someone Is You” and “Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter” to more popwise numbers like “Walk It Back,” the beautiful “Überlin” and the irritatingly titled but catchy “Mine Smell Like Honey,” the group came up with a set of good songs and trusted its collective instinct to find the right musical approach for each one the same approach that made R.E.M. one of rock’s greatest bands in the first place. Guitarist Peter Buck breaks out his mandolin for “Oh My Heart” and “It Happened Today,” and the noirish “Blue” could pass for an out-take from the band’s 1995 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (right down to Patti Smith’s guest vocal). Buck, bassist Mike Mills and singer Michael Stipe may not have intended Collapse Into Now to be their parting disc, but it’s a fine finish to a proud career. Best wishes, guys, and thank you for all the great music.
The Double Cross
One of Canada’s most beloved rock bands celebrates twenty years (and no line-up changes) with its tenth studio album, The Double Cross. As on all its previous releases, Sloan delivers pure power-pop pleasure, in the grand tradition of the Raspberries, the Hollies and Big Star. “Follow the Leader” gets the disc off to an energetic start with its Motownish beat, understated organ and acoustic guitar; the song’s early-Sixties-pop coda leads beautifully into the Mellotron-enhanced “The Answer Was You.” The rhythm section kicks it up a a bit on songs like “Unkind,” “Shadow of Love,” “I’ve Gotta Know” and the Cheap Trick-like “It’s Plain to See.” The piano and chord changes of “She’s Slowin’ Down Again” hint at early Steely Dan; “Your Daddy Will Do,” with its mournful melody, lush vocal harmonies and inventive chord changes, recalls later-period Beach Boys or prime-period Squeeze. “Beverly Terrace” could be a lost New Wave gem, with its streamlined rhythm section, keyboard bridge and clipped, Cars-like guitar. Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott blend all these influences seamlessly into a sound of their own, and the album flows splendidly from start to finish. The Double Cross is a well-crafted, instantly appealing album from a group that’s made such appeal and craft its stock in trade for twenty years … and counting.
A band name like this presents a challenge to any radio DJ, but in the case of the band otherwise known as STRFKR, the air staff at KRCC has been willing to rise to it. The Portland, Oregon-based quartet offers twelve tracks of delightful, instantly accessible pop on its second album, Reptilians. About half the time, STRFKR sounds a lot like another band that abbreviated its name, MGMT. Much like that group, STRFKR’s charm lies in its ability to sound sophisticated and amateurish at the same time. “Julius,” “Mystery Cloud” and “Millions” are deliriously poppy songs with swoony, echo-sheathed vocals and keyboard sounds that could’ve been lifted from Eighties arcade video games. “Death as a Fetish” opens with similar Atariesque synth, but breaks into acoustic guitar strumming and natural-sounding drums, all in service of a great melody. The trio flips that arrangement for the title track, whose finger-picked guitar gives way to video-game synth and some cool, chunky bass guitar. “Mona Vegas” lays icy keyboard grandeur over a hip-hop beat. Reptilians is such a dazzling pop album that I can’t help but wish the band hadn’t chosen such a limiting name. Of course, Cee-Lo Green won a Grammy last year for his rudely titled (but terrific) hit single, so I suppose anything’s possible.
After losing some focus on its last CD, 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes regain it on Angles and do what they’ve always done best. The tunes on this one may sound familiar, but none of them feels like a waste of time; they’re melodic and well-written, and the band gets them across with that cool swagger that its fans have come to expect. On standout tracks like “Under Cover of Darkness,” “You’re So Right,” the reggae-tinged “Machu Picchu” and the synth-pop “Games,” Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi’s twin guitar riffs blend and complement one another better than ever, and drummer Fab Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture keep the grooves tight. And Julian Casablancas sings with that dry, hardly-even-trying style of his 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. Taking time off from their primary band for solo projects apparently did the musicians some good; on Angles, The Strokes are refining their by-now recognized style, rather than just clinging to it. Call the Strokes a one-trick pony if you want, but it’s still a cool trick.
Delvin Neugebauer hosts the Overnight Music Mix each Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.