When you write an album review every single weekday — as I have done at New Times' music blog, Up On The Sun, since January 1 — you become sensitive to the ebb and flow of new releases. For whatever reason, when it comes to shit worth listening to, sometimes it's feast and other times it's famine. The doldrums of April gave way to a blustery May, which was nice. The upward trajectory may just peak with Tuesday, June 8, a day which just may go down as the year's biggest release date.
Here's a small sampling of much-hyped records that came out this week. It's going to take me more than a week to sort all this out, so visit www.nothingnotnew.com daily through June and the rest of the year for more on these records, as well as discs by The Gaslight Anthem, The Constellations, Sia, Suckers, Scissor Sisters, Wolf Parade, Danzig, Devo, Delorean, Ratatat, and as many more as I can cram in.
Becoming a Jackal
The debut record by the one-man Irish buzz band Villagers is an intimate and delicate exploration of life's uncertainties. Conor J. O'Brien, who plays nearly every instrument on this 11-song record, seems to be searching for a comfortable place to call his own in a world full of wide-open spaces — and someone one to share it with. "Will you wake me when we're almost halfway? / I don't want to take this trip alone / 'Cuz I'd never reach my home," sings O'Brien in "Home." In that song and most others on Becoming a Jackal, O'Brien's image-heavy songwriting and understated vocals recall Paul Simon's more nakedly fragile efforts. Strings and French horn effectively lend weight throughout this marriage of spare, unconventional pop and modern singer-songwriter tunes. Fans of the love story Once and its attendant songs should take note. Listen: the title track, in which O'Brien warns, "So before you take this song as truth / You should wonder what I'm taking from you."
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Destroyer of the Void
Blitzen Trapper's fifth full-length record is an intriguing take on the dry, American folksy country-rock of the 1970s. On Destroyer of the Void, the Portland, Oregon band succeeds more often than it fails in straddling the line between slavishly copying its obvious influences (The Band, The Dead) and discreetly paying its respects to them. Whether he's singing about a "black-eyed angel of the evening star" or how "Heaven's right below the hurricane," bandleader Eric Earley taps his inner-Dylan throughout the 12-song record's lyric-heavy, richly narrated tales of characters looking for signs as they travel along winding roads through unknown lands toward their homes. After the six-minute progged-out opening title track, Earley's six-piece band minds its manners and lays low throughout, its playing tasteful almost to a fault as it cedes the spotlight to Earley's vocals and some well-placed, tight harmonies. You've been warned: Blitzen Trapper may unwittingly lead a Grateful Dead revival. Listen: album closer "Sadie."
Crystal Castles II
The second self-titled record by this Canadian boy-girl duo was slated for release on June 8, but someone leaked a master copy that wound up on the Internet, prompting Crystal Castles' label to drop it officially late last month. It's too bad, because it would have been worth the wait. The super-hyped electro duo is all about juxtaposing the beautiful and the ugly, the smooth and the abrasive. Ostensibly a dance-music band, Crystal Castles turns up the heat with grimy industrial-rock touches. In a genre where so many bands share so many sonic similarities, Crystal Castles stand out among their peers. Singer Alice Glass' vocals are manipulated and distorted, often to the point of being unintelligible, but the lyrics are beside the point here — her voice is simply the most versatile instrument on a record that is equal parts challenging and accessible. Listen: "Year of Silence."
With equal nods to Strummer's rabble-rousing ("White cross on the church lawn / I want to smash them all") and Springsteen's populist storytelling ("You left home for a fresh start / Working as a waitress down in Bradenton / With my name tattoo'd into your skin"), the Florida band Against Me! is gunning for the big time with their fifth album, White Crosses. The 10 songs on this Butch Vig-produced disc are arena-size singalong mall-punk anthems, equal parts Green Day and Bon Jovi. In case the exclamation point in the band's name didn't give it away, the Against Me! stock in trade is urgent earnestness. And the conviction in Tom Gabel's vocals is mostly effective in selling it, thanks to Vig's production, which draws out the melodies — and tempers the hysterics — in Gabel's singing. If just one Against Me! fan graduates to listening to the band's antecedents, then they shall be forgiven for writing such schlocky pandering as "I Was a Teenage Anarchist." Listen: the title track.
On their 10th record, the Scottish band Teenage Fanclub seems to have settled into middle age — and they're perfectly okay with that. With their hit-making days behind them and little else to prove, the longtime purveyors of (sometimes awesomely scruffy) power pop have all but ditched the power in their formula for a more peaceful, easy feeling. The result is an appealing, but not terribly exciting, collection of lightweight jingle-jangle and, as always, compelling harmonies. Opener "Sometimes I Don't Need to Believe in Anything" establishes the record's theme — that aging ain't so bad, especially when you do it gracefully. From there, the band piles on the good vibes, assuring us that "the dark clouds will drift away" and that "sweet, sweet days are waiting for you." Though the thrill is gone, Teenage Fanclub wants you to know there are worse bands to grow old with. Listen: "When I Still Have Thee," in which "The Rolling Stones wrote a song for me . . . And I don't need much / When I still have thee."