Essential New Music: The Helio Sequence’s “The Helio Sequence”

Helio

The Helio Sequence has worked on a fairly panoramic screen over the past decade and a half, projecting its evocative synth/guitar/beat constructions through the widest possible lens. Guitarist/vocalist Brandon Summers and drummer/keyboardist/vocalist Ben Weikel have often spent inordinate amounts of time and energy crafting the Helio Sequence’s expansive and layered soundtracks, and its albums have often expanded to cinemascopic proportions in the process. But the duo’s recent participation in a local Portland, Ore., songwriting exercise dubbed “The 20-Song Game” led Summers and Weikel to work in more concise and loosely organized ways on their eponymous sixth album, resulting in 10 infectiously compelling tracks in 36 breathtaking minutes.

There is a poppish melodicism to The Helio Sequence that suggests Fountains Of Wayne veering into space rock/ambient territory, a sweetening of the moodier Rufus Wainwright-fronts-U2 atmosphere of 2012’s Negotiations and a slight return to the lighter bounce of 2008’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead. The duo reins in its inclination toward broad sonic statements in favor of a more immediate approach that still manages to pack a powerful punch. Songs that would have been furiously epic on recent THS works are marvels of restraint in length and production, particularly the nervous slink of “Upward Mobility,” the elegant swagger of “Stoic Resemblance” and the thrilling pop insistence of “Deuces,” which all clock in at less than four minutes.

The real trick in all of this is that the Helio Sequence has pared down its sound and vision without losing a molecule of its well-defined identity; this album may be the simple blueprint of things to come.

—Brian Baker

Essential New Music: Beauty Pill’s “Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are”

BeautyPill

On its first album in 10 years, D.C. band Beauty Pill takes a sledgehammer to boundaries and orthodoxies. Prior releases on Dischord (including 2000’s The Cigarette Girl From The Future, recently reissued and expanded) were dark, fractured psych-pop takes on D.C. punk. The long-gestating Describes Things is a daring leap forward—a fever dream of loops and beats intertwining with drums and guitars, but also Japanese banjos, Africa/Brass-like horns and more.

Frontman Chad Clark’s lyrics are allusive, incisive and sometimes eerily prescient. “Ain’t A Jury In The World Gon’ Convict You Baby” now seems inescapably about Ferguson. On “Near Miss Stories,” Clark unflinchingly focuses on the virus that invaded his heart in 2007 and almost killed him. The album, largely recorded in public as a 2011 art exhibit in Arlington, Va., addresses the zeitgeist head-on and features vivid soundscapes that recall both Revolver and Stankonia. Yeah, it’s that good.

—Michael Pelusi

Essential New Music: Half Japanese’s “Volume 3, 1990-1995”

HalfJapanese

Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t get any better than this. Period. These three albums—1990’s We Are They Who Ache With Amorous Love, 1992’s Fire In The Sky and 1995’s Hot—are Half Japanese at its most accessible, most listenable, playing with real musicians to bring out the best in its own uneven post-punk primitivism.

Championed by Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, this is the kind of music that makes you want to grab a guitar, plug it in and crank it up to 11. So what if you don’t know how to play? Who cares? Jad Fair doesn’t tune his guitar—why should you? You want to tear out your vocal cords singing about a UFO attack? You want to whistle your solo? You want to free-associate for 12 minutes about love, Pete Rose, Singapore and a thousand other things? Go for it. If rock ‘n’ roll is liberation, this is the golden key: funny, sad, exhilarating, larger than life.

—Kenny Berkowitz

Essential New Music: Low Cut Connie’s “Hi Honey”

LowCutConnie

Even when a mere year separated the release of Low Cut Connie’s second album from its first, the energetic combo made significant strides in honing its songwriting. While the band could’ve easily churned out another batch of sweaty dance-floor fillers for LP3, the band (with roots in Philly, Delaware and Birmingham, England) hunkered down to make a career-defining effort. Hi Honey bears plenty of the group’s trademarks, from Adam Weiner’s barrelhouse piano to Daniel Finnemore’s punk-via-Merseybeat melodies.

But what sets this album apart are the little extras. The Daptone horns add heft to “Shake It Little Tina,” while Greg “Oblivian” Cartwright provides chunky guitar on the propulsive “Dumb Boy.” Other guests include tUnE-yArDs’ Merril Garbus, who supplies an urgent, rhythmic vocal from on the spooky and stellar “Little Queen Of New Orleans.” Low Cut Connie teases these flourishes throughout Hi Honey, making for an album that’s both retro-minded and forward-thinking.

—Eric Schuman

Essential New Music: Mew’s “+ -“

Mew

Since 1994, the Danish indie rockers in Mew have found interesting and engaging ways to bend progressive rock into exotic new shapes that appeal to modern sensibilities. Their latest album, the cryptically titled + –, is a departure from their last release, which sported a title that doubled as a short story. In addition to its seriously truncated name, + – finds Mew channeling several diverse musical approaches, dispensing with the obtuse songwriting/production techniques that marked 2009’s No More Stories... and tapping into the band’s natural rock/pop tendencies.

Opener “Satellites” soothes and stings like a math-rock tribute to Genesis (both early-club and late-arena versions), while “Making Friends” could pass for an Owl City reverie with a little Muse bombast thrown in for good measure. “Rows” and “Cross The River On Your Own,” finish + – in epic fashion, taking up nearly a third of the album’s length with shifting moods and tempos. Cameos from pop princess Kimbra and Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack are the delicate icing on Mew’s richly satisfying prog/pop cake.

—Brian Baker