I have no doubt that John Dwyer and the occasionally rotating crew of musicians he calls Thee Oh Sees are nice people. I feel the need to point this out because Thee Oh Sees are a mean, mean band. It’s not that these guys are stingy; in fact, Dwyer is staggeringly prolific both within and without Thee Oh Sees. The menace comes from the monstrous brew of psychedelia that arrives reliably each year in the form of a new Oh Sees album.
The ninth full-length released under this particular epithet is just as much of a bruiser as its title suggests. In just more than 30 minutes, Dwyer leads his compatriots in an unrelenting barrage of sonic creativity and rhythmic overload. From hulking opener “Web” to disarmingly delicate late-album instrumental “Holy Smoke,” Mutilator continues Thee Oh Sees’ unprecedented, mind-melting hot streak.
According to William Blake, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom … you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” Ever-prolific singer/songwriter Ryan Adams has flirted with excess for more than two decades and still may not know when enough is enough.
For diehard fans who haven’t already been supersaturated, this limited-edition six-LP/iTunes/42-track Live At Carnegie Hall should satisfy. With little overlap between his back-to-back acoustic solo performances recorded last November, we’re provided a sterling overview of Adams’ impressive catalogue. As indulgent as it may seem, Adams’ naked exploration of his output provides plenty of highlights that should sway all but the most cynical unbelievers. The guy sure can sing and write, and his melodic genius nearly matches his drive. For those still hedging their bets, there’s a 10-track version, which should be considered a gateway drug to the full experience.
Continuing their film-buff aesthetic (band moniker plus the director their side project Herzog is named for—look it up if necessary) with a cover that features John Cassavetes and his best-known muse, Gena Rowlands, this Seattle (mostly) instrumental quartet is also continuing a hot sort-of-comeback streak with 7 (Or 8), the relatively raging follow-up to 2013’s Cosy Moments.
Always distinct from the Mogwai/Mono/Explosions In The Sky pack for real rock dynamics via riffs and sonic drive, and far preferable to psych/improv/jam-out Six Organs-type hipster/hippie fare because it stays on point and combines these two elements with true heaviness, Kinski has probably never rocked this hard, not even on previous 2005 touchstone Alpine Static. Some of the rocking, like pre-release focus track “Flight Risk” and “Operation Negligee,” features vocals to round out the deal—something Kinski leaned toward with its last record, and something that the band pulls off with a deft hand when such a thing for a group like this could mean face-planting failure.
It’s not as if Jim O’Rourke made easily digestible vocal records when he was part of the indie-avant pop milieu before 2005. Like his most spare, intimate and beautifully innate instrumental albums (e.g., 2001’s deceptively titled I’m Happy, And I’m Singing, And A 1,2,3,4), O’Rourke’s lyric-filled moments—such as 1999’s Eureka and 2001’s Insignificance—pulled you toward them in confidence, no matter how bitterly misanthropic they may have been. Then there was his tiny, windy voice; in comparison to the plush instrumentation, it too welcomed you onto its bed of (thorny) roses. Leaving the convention of Sonic Youth and indie-everything, oddly enough, hasn’t changed his vocal moods, his lyrical love of the sardonic, unreliable narrator (a favorite literary motif of his and They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell) or his sonic range/palette.
Like Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy played by Martin Denny’s orchestra (remember, O’Rourke did record a tribute to Burt Bacharach for the Japanese-only market) at its quietest—then quieter—Simple Songs is that, and then hardly that. So, gently finicky, flighty songs such as “Friends With Benefits” and “Half Life Crisis” sarcastically veer from their titles (he has no friends) with just enough breath to get through the humbly (hummable) memorable verses. “Hotel Blue” is like dark-chocolate ice cream—soft, bittersweet, cold. Every instrument on Simple Songs (all him, as with The Visitor, his gorgeously wordless free-ballad album) sounds as if its player taped cotton balls on his fingertips, and the whole thing is ghoulishly gorgeous in the most comfortably comfortable way. That’s so O’Rourke.
The pleasantly cacophonous joy of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel is the unpredictable blessing and occasional curse of Mates Of State. They are wife and husband, keys and drums, singer and singer, indie pop puzzle-piece soulmates—even when their vining harmonies might lead them into semi-contradictory notes and ideas.
So, we’ve learned to love them as much when they’re on the same page as when they’re not. You’re Going To Make It, just five songs long, is awesome, a never-sappy snapshot of two people who drive each other wild. They straight-up say so on the “Staring Contest,” which pumps with the heart of the Go-Go’s and the lungs of ABBA. “Beautiful Kids,” meanwhile, is a moody, nearly new-wave thinkpiece about “staring into cracked screens” in the post-book, post-magazine (um … ), post-intimacy era. Gives me that old catchy/paranoid/Postal Service heartsickness. And, holy shit, “I Want To Run” is synthy, radio-ready, pop perfection like only the Mates could make. What’s not to love?
Evan Caminiti’s main gig is Barn Owl, a duo in which he helps concoct desert-scorched drones that are pierced by twangy guitar flourishes. His last two solo records (Dreamless Sleep and Night Dust, both released in 2012) were minimalist endeavors, but they still managed to explore the outer edges of what a guitar could sound like. On Meridian, guitars don’t figure much into the equation. This time around, he’s gone full-on electronic, crafting synthscapes that are a lot less earthbound than his previous work.
What elevates Meridian above the throngs of similar abstract, mod-synth ambient records are the same sensibilities that carried albums like Dreamless Sleep, even if the tools are different this time around. Tracks that, for the most part, sound formless—never careless. And those electronic washes are performed—not just programmed—so while the sound is cleaner than usual, it’s also loose and limber.
With the promise of several new Major Lazer albums immediately following this, Peace Is The Mission is an opening salvo of sorts: DJ/producer Diplo, Walshy Fire and Jillionaire’s seductive, weird soul take on multicultural trap muzik circa 2015. Or, it could all just be a commercial for the Major’s FX Network cartoon series with Aziz Ansari. It’s hard to tell.
Either way, Diplo makes it so that his crew fits comfortably within the framework of a delectable Bollywood wind that glides as easily as a trombone (“Lean On”), a jittery house-music ballad with Mariah Carey manqué Ariana Grande (“All My Love”) and Caribbean spiced-nut hip hop with added salt (“Night Riders” with 2 Chainz, Pusha T and Mad Cobra). The best cuts here (“Too Original” and “Light It Up”) happen to be those hewing closer to Major Lazer’s wake-and-bake dancehall origins. Then again, whatever stays as it once was on Diplo’s dance floor?
The Welsh quintet’s second release goes down as easy as a mixtape on a ’90s spring day. Clocking in at just more than 20 minutes, there’s no crap on tap. Opening track “Last Year” (which appears to be about either an occult tragedy in a water park or just an affair gone wrong) goes from Huggy Bear to Velocity Girl in just minutes, thanks to the versatile vocals of Alanna McArdle, buoyed by frequent singing partner and guitarist Owen Williams.
The two are either layering their vocals over each other dream-pop-style while uttering kiss-offs (“There Is No Function Stacy”) or trading off tense call-and-responses (“Honestly Do Yr Worst”). “Jamie (Luvver)” is a ramshackle come-on à la the Vaselines. Williams and co-guitarist George Nicholls give great noise on “I Can’t Relax” and pure bliss on closer “Hey! I Wanna Be Your Best Friend!”
Better known to his mother as Jamie Smith, Jamie xx is essentially the one-man backline for London beat alchemists and modern Portishead inheritors the xx, a crate-digging omnivore and increasingly among the most in-demand remixers of his generation (Adele, Alicia Keys, plus the list essayed in the sidebar, among others).
In parallel with that of his South London band—the school they all attended is featured in rom-com Love, Actually—is a career that has blossomed over the course of various tracks Jamie has not only repurposed for others, but has now fashioned as an emerging solo artist. In Colour finds him joined by xx mates Romy Madley Croft (the unsurprisingly xx-like and sealegs-inducing “Seesaw” and “Loud Places”) and Oliver Sim (“Stranger In A Room,” with circular synth programs that find the pair stretching their signature sound into trance-meets-Doors terrain), as well as artists such as Young Thug (“I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times”) and Four Tet.
But underneath it all is a specificity of sound that threads all of the album’s tracks together like beads on a string, a Caribbean steel-drums-informed throughline that marks the entire affair as the creation of a single artist—someone making a lot out of a little, turning seemingly random squiggles and samples (as heard on the shivery “Girl” and spasmodic “The Rest Is Noise”) into something far more than the sum of their very contemporary-sounding parts. Look out for a Madonna white-label on a dance floor near you, stat.
In Our Heads, Hot Chip’s last album, was a masterpiece: an ecstatic, heart-surging testament to the intertwined power of music, positivity and love, and a clear career culmination. Why Make Sense? plucks essentially the same emotional and musical chords; its best tracks—at least half the record—continue Heads’ potent, playful synthesis of R&B, house and electronic pop, full of surprises and multiple moving (in every sense) parts.
That’s more than enough to make this probably the finest dance-party record this summer will have to offer, even if it features two (lovely, if relatively undistinguished) ballads and lacks its predecessor’s decisive spiritual coherence. The clearest throughline here is the band’s fondness for dance music’s long, illustrious history, which is on full display: There are samples of Philly soul and boogie classics, luscious disco strings and Planet Rockin’ electro, a sharp hip-house turn (courtesy of De La Soul’s Posdnuos), and nods to acid, deep house and jacking swing.
—K. Ross Hoffman