Essential New Music: Against Me!’s “23 Live Sex Acts”

AgainstMe

Recorded during Against Me!’s yearlong 2014 world tour, 23 Live Sex Acts opens with frontwoman Laura Jane Grace imploring, “Let’s fuck shit up.” That m.o. has been at the core of the punk band’s existence since 1997, but something its six studio albums never quite captured. Here, the raw emotion in Grace’s voice isn’t diluted or smoothed out; her rage and vibrancy are front and center, and not just in song—she cuts “New Wave” short to berate a security guard who kicks out a kid for apparently dancing and having a good time. The tracklist runs the gamut of AM!’s career and includes old favorites “Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong,” “Miami” and “Thrash Unreal,” as well as the more recent “White Crosses,” “FuckMyLife666” and “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” A particularly poignant moment comes during “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” when the crowd roars along with Grace, “The revolution was a lie!” Yes, it was. But as Against Me! has proven, the truth is out there.

—Jeanne Fury

Essential New Music: Beirut’s “No No No”

Beirut

Zach Condon was a teenage wunderkind when he recorded Gulag Orkestar, Beirut’s impressive 2006 debut. That album fused Balkan brass band music with a dose of early Magnetic Fields, and songs such as “Postcards From Italy” and “Brandenburg” became the first of many songs inspired by Condon’s peripatetic wanderings. No No No is the fifth Beirut album, counting the 2008 March Of The Zapotec/Holland double EP. It follows 2011’s The Rip Tide in its toning down of overt multi-culti arrangements, but it’s better: It avoids that work’s sometimes tepid moments—as it should, since it’s a nine-song, 30-minute record. Part of the fun of No No No comes when Condon sets his emotional, reaching voice to a bouncy beat. “Perth” starts with a soul/jazz keyboard riff—electric piano or organ play prominent roles throughout the record—and then makes way for horn fanfares; it’s a spare ditty, dressed up gloriously. There’s a catchy, singsong quality to many of the tunes here: The title track’s lyrics contain only four lines (“Don’t know the first thing about who you are/My heart is waiting, taken in from the start/If we don’t go now, we won’t get very far/Don’t know the first thing about who you are”), but Condon builds the song into a grand fugue, and the lines become more unsettling as they return. As in the past, Condon uses place-name song titles (“Gibraltar,” “Fener”) and glimpses of Balkan brass and French chanson, but No No No plays less like a travelogue than simply what it is: a really good—if brief—Beirut album.

—Steve Klinge

Essential New Music: Dr. John’s “The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1969-1974”

DrJohn

While there’s an urge (and a need) for exhaustive retrospection and rarified treasure-hunting, there’s something bluntly elegant about compacting highly specific moments in a longtime artist’s repertoire and offering up oddities. That’s the seven-year itch of this collected Atco/Atlantic singles disc from New Orleans session pianist-turned-solo oddball Mac Rebennack. These singles don’t just happen to represent Dr. John’s commercial nadir (the syncopated “Right Place Wrong Time” was a top-10 hit). This tight package represents Rebennack’s cackling vocals, shambolic guitar playing and mighty rhythmic stride piano runs at their then-strongest peak—that is, until the last decade, where everything he’s done is strong. The dusty funk of “Mos’ Scocious,” the tattered emotive soul of “Me-You=Loneliness,” the hammy jazz of “Such A Night,” the wronged blues of “A Man Of Many Words” (with Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy) and the holy rolling bits of “Well, I’ll Be John Brown” and “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” (parts one and two)” are simply gorgeous.

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: Dope Body “Kunk”

DopeBody

If the press info sent along with Kunk is to be believed, Dope Body mostly came up with the material on its latest album as it noodled around between takes and left the tape rolling while recording the previous long-player, Lifer. That record found the Baltimore noise-rockers trading in their squelchier side for a more straightforward set of nostalgi-grunge. It wasn’t a bad album, but it’s definitely the weakest in the Dope Body discography. Thankfully, the rowdy and chaotic Kunk suggests that Lifer was a detour. If Lifer was self-conscious ego, Kunk is all id—the sound that came out when the four-piece stopped thinking about want it wanted to do and just did what it does. The melodic hooks sound like Dope Body was fished out of the garbage disposal, all bent and twisted with chunks missing. Feedback is the duct tape that holds it all together. There might be a little dirt on it, but it’s still good.

—Matt Sullivan

Essential New Music: Beach House’s “Depression Cherry”

BeachHouse

Formalities first: Depression Cherry is the fifth season of Beach House, and by now, anyone who’s spent time in them knows they come partially furnished. Accordion lungs and moaning organs. Permanently overcast skies and broken chords as far as the eye can see. Since flicking on the lights in 2006, the Baltimore duo has gotten roughly equal volumes of adoration and flak for the exact same reason: It’s all so very Beach House. There have been tasteful renovations throughout the years, expansions executed with sophisticated, elaborate care, but the foundation remains the same. Expecting something different is asking for buyer’s remorse.

Amid the critical noise, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally continued to operate like shut-ins, even as their insular music grew ever more extroverted. Devotion invited the ghosts from their haunted eponymous debut to dance, and Bloom writhed in the complex, cold-bed fallout of 2010’s breakup-breakout, Teen Dream. This successor moves differently than those natural next steps did. They exhale; it inhales. They advance; it retreats. They get (moderately) faster; it goes (considerably) slower. First single “Sparks,” a shoegazing smear of washed-out vocals and long-fuse feedback wicks, is the quickest and loudest song on the album; it is neither loud nor quick.

The unbroken pacing and deliberate deliberateness may be Ambien pills at first, even for fans. But eventually, like ears adjusting to the dark, their mood takes hold, and it’s intoxicating. Depression Cherry has four masterful set pieces, staggered to hit as the odd-numbered tracks, each deepening the pervasive sense of rediscovered romance. “Levitation” is the invitation: Legrand, waiting on a train that will take her to a rendezvous, cooing her softest come-on ever (“There’s a place I want to take you”) over a plush encroaching rhythm and synths that twirl around every other measure like a lighthouse beam. It all sounds fantastic, everything in its right place. “Space Song” fades in to lapping slide-guitar ankle waves, octave-pinging Tron sonics à la Bloom and one of Legrand’s most swollen torch songs (“You wide-eyed girls, you get it right”).

10:37” and “Wildflower” are the two simplest songs here, and simply two of the best showcases this band has to offer in miniature: the latter a five-note exploding heart technique; the former a balletic, mostly a cappella anthem that conjures in extreme slow motion both Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and the wordless choruses of “Gila” and “Norway.” Taken together, they are songwriting as sculpture, not composed so much as whittled to perfection.

The tinkering waltzes of Beach House and Devotion feel circular, swirling; the horizon-stretching arpeggios of Teen Dream and Bloom seem mapped out on intersecting grids. This is both at once: a vortex in time and space, another place to get lost.

—Noah Bonaparte Pais

Essential New Music: Robert Forster’s “Songs To Play”

RobertForster

The most dangerous card shark is the one who lets you think you’ve seen his hand. Songs To Play, Robert Forster’s first record in seven years, seems simple and transparent, when in fact it’s so subtle that you might miss it when he’s pulling your leg or telling you about what comes after the apocalypse. This humor is a welcome thing. While Forster was often the more flamboyant and unpredictable one during the Go-Betweens heyday in the ’80s, his last record, The Evangelist, was a solemn affair that followed the death of fellow Go-Between Grant McLennan, from a heart attack. With its spare Loaded-meets-Blood On The Tracks arrangements, Songs To Play sounds musically assured, but it’s that double-edged sense of humor that proves that Forster is truly back. Back in the ’80s, Forster once dyed his hair to Blake Carrington’s shade of gray, so at age 57, it would be disappointing if he didn’t pull an old-guy move. He obliges by asking his inamorata not to Twitter on “Let Me Imagine You.” But even though he wears his Dylan adoration on his sleeve from song one, this isn’t comfy-shoe dad rock. There is deviltry in the details, such as when “A Poet Walks” registers the artist’s inflated self-esteem and shrunken pocketbook, as well as his sharp eye for detail, or “I Love Myself (And I Always Have)” never lets on whether it’s a put-on or a sincere expression of narcissism. What—did you really think the master was going to show you his hand?

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: FIDLAR’s “Too”

FIDLAR

These garage-dwelling skate punks were so gloriously unhinged on their debut, one couldn’t help but fear that they would rein it in a notch or two on their sophomore effort. The title of the opening track, “40 Oz. On Repeat,” should allay any such concerns. True to form, Too references enough drugs and alcohol to fell a stable of the Budweiser Clydesdales, while its darkly funny, self-loathing tone makes Mark Maron resemble Tony Robbins by comparison. “West Coast” is the Beach Boys in a red convertible drinking whiskey, huffing ether and delivering the best line of the year (“got drunk and barfed on my shadow”); “Sober” is the ultimate “fuck you” to sobriety and bad girlfriends; and “Punks” is a loping, fist-pumping blast of stadium punk. Further proof that FIDLAR’s headliner-destroying stint as the Pixies’ opening act was no fluke.

—Matt Ryan

Essential New Music: The Arcs’ “Yours, Dreamily”

Arcs

In the weeks before release, Dan Auerbach started describing Yours, Dreamily as “really experimental” and “extra weird.” Then the Black Keys frontman walked it back, letting fans know it’s “not over your head. I hate when people try to be so obviously out there.” So, how weird is it? Well, it starts with a carnival organ and a hypnotically slow human voice. (I suppose that’s pretty weird.) Its best song, “Stay In My Corner,” was inspired by the uninspiring Mayweather/Pacquiao bout. (That’s pretty weird, even if Auerbach likes to spar backstage before shows, which is weirder.) But for all the weird background noises and all the weird lyrics (“Pass me my hammer/I’ll hold it in my hand/We can never change the universe as planned”), the weirdest thing is that Auerbach felt like raising this retro-soul freak flag in the first place, and that it works so well. The band clicks perfectly, as if it had been playing these songs forever, and the album brings out another side of Auerbach, with different guitar textures and a different falsetto, channeling his blues-rock instincts in a different direction. Hell, I’d salute it.

—Kenny Berkowitz

Essential New Music: The Sword’s “High Country”

Sword

The Sword delivers the gawd-damn goods every single time. We’re simple folk and we just want some heady, heavy, nerdy grooves to get us through our stupidgoddamnmotherfuckin’ day, and the Sword delivers. We just need a record that gets the blood pumping our beleaguered brains out of our skull and away from this desk and these invoices and those emails and that damn thing that should have been done two days ago, but fuck it because it’s Tuesday. And the Sword delivers. Every. Single. Time.

High Country, the Austin band’s fifth album, is no different, and may just be its most cogent, crushing work to date. It lacks the “concept album” PR line of the band’s previous works, but the LP certainly falls within its narrative and sonic oeuvre. The Sword is still stonery as hell, crafting a guitarmony-laden trip into the metal abyss, only this time it’s in a mystical Cormac McCarthy/Joe Walsh/James Gang sense. And frankly, we could all use some Joe Walsh vibes in our lives.

Songwriter/guitarist J.D. Cronise creates a fresh new universe in which to explore his recurring occult fascinations and storytelling arcs. There is a noirish grit to the narrative that shines brightest when juxtaposed against the horns of “Early Snow” that recall the ghosts of Muscle Shoals. Whether it’s the weird ’80s gated guitars of “Seriously Mysterious” or way-moremenacing-than-it-should-be blooze jam “The Bees Of Spring,” the Sword continually updates ridiculous classic-rock tropes in the most wonderful of ways.

—Sean L. Maloney

Essential New Music: The Chemical Brothers “Born In The Echoes”

ChemicalBrothers

2015 seems like a good time to be the Chemical Brothers. Their familiar flavor of broad-minded psychedelic techno is worming its long way back toward hipness via spiritual successors like James Holden and Daniel Avery, even as the ever-more-vertiginous drops of the EDM boom make their iconically block-rocking bombast seem unthinkably subtle by comparison.

Following 2010’s streamlined synth-fantasia powerhouse Further, Born In The Echoes revisits the rockier, guest-studded template that elevated their classic ’90s LPs, but also marred much of their ’00s output, enlisting a crew of alt-rock vocalists (St. Vincent, Beck, Cate Le Bon) who contribute a bit of personality without overwhelming—or even dominating—their respective tracks. But vocals, despite appearing in some form on nearly every track, are rarely the focus—tellingly, this album’s appointed swirling, acidwashed “Setting Sun” analogue/“Tomorrow Never Knows” homage (“I’ll See You There”) is largely instrumental.

Two decades after their debut, the Chems remain committed to their singular vision, still plying those heady, slamming breakbeats and reverently swooning synths, continuing to breathe new life from the echoes.

—K. Ross Hoffman