There are countless rock bands making music today, but most of them don’t know how to play rock ’n’ roll. Sallie Ford has never had that problem. Ever since her days with the Sound Outside, she’s been rockin’ with the kind of fundamental swing that made the music sound dangerous in the ’50s. She continues to mine the mother lode on Soul Sick, a collection that examines emotional dysfunction with plenty of deadly ironic humor. She tips her metaphorical hat to the Ronettes on “Screw Up,” a tune driven by Garth Klippert’s greasy Farfisa and Ford’s rippling guitar triplets, call-and-response backing harmonies and devil-may-care lead vocal. Ford’s chunky, distorted, quasi-surf guitar rhythm gives “Never Gonna Please” an uncompromising aura that brings home the tune’s despondent message: “You’re never gonna please everybody.” If you’re looking for pure rock ’n’ roll, try “Loneliness Is Power” and “Get Out,” howlers that bring to mind the bluesy side of the British Invasion.
Ironic or not, Fancey’s vision of ’70s disco on Love Mirage is cheesy fun. On the one hand, Todd Fancey, guitarist for the New Pornographers, is serious: about his love of vintage instruments, in particular keyboards (Rhodes, Wurlitzers, clavinets); about his fondness for period references to mirror balls, movies (“Carrie”) and phrases with “baby” in them (“Baby Love,” “Baby Sunshine,” “Turn Around Baby”); about his love for AM-radio-friendly late-’70s disco (think “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”—white-bread, breezy, orchestrated pop with a disco backbeat—although Fancey and fellow vocalists Angela Kelman and 13-year-old Olivia Maye aren’t the powerhouse singers that Elton John and Kiki Dee were). But he’s also winking on this, his third ’70s-obsessed Fancey album: For every loving “Disco Queen,” there’s a silly “Witch Attack!” complete with werewolves. Regardless, it’s hard not to smile at Love Mirage’s affectionate imitation of an oft-maligned musical era.
There is the “eBay value” of what you inherit; and then there is its emotional value to you. One could argue that two decades down the line from its debut, Either/Or is both a rare Rolex of a keepsake and one that was worn by your favorite uncle—that rare totem possessing both value and the sort of sentimental equity that has no monetary equivalent. No space is wasted, no track is filler, no detail overlooked. Whether the late Elliott Smith uses layered metaphor to weave a spell of confusion over listeners as to the chicken/egg relationship between love, misery and dependence (the album’s two devastating classics “Between The Bars” and “Say Yes”), takes detailed notes of his twilight travels around Portlandia to either comic (“Rose Parade”) or tragic (“Alameda”) ends, or plays every damn instrument in the bandroom like some sort of post-rock Brian Wilson conducting an orchestra heard only in his head (personal favorites “No Name No. 5,” “Cupid’s Trick”), this is an indisputable 10-star album with no peer and no real room for improvement. The sonic rebuffing and expansion only add to this record’s charms rather than reveal a diamond that somehow wasn’t obvious previously. The Mary Lou Lord-covered “I Figured You Out” and rare Freewheelin’-esque b-side “I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out” (plus rare live tracks and alternative versions of latergrams such as “Bottle Up And Explode!”) merely confirm that Smith’s genius wouldn’t be contained to the spiderwebby acoustica he had traded in early on, but would instead translate equally well to Abbey Road-like palettes that would still wring tears from elegantly rendered realness.
Not since Public Image Ltd.’s Paris Au Printemps have a band, a city, a season and a cause (well, kind of a cause, maybe a cause célèbre) joined as one to create an entire package such as this. As PiL’s tart anger-energy live effort caught this band at its knobby peak, signaling too the rise of post-punk mutation and its eventual leap into the mainstream, the first new union of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss since its 2006 retirement (captured by 2015’s No Cities To Love and this eventual tour showcase) portrayed the need for riot wimmen to unite in an expression of pre-Trump-ian rage, to say nothing of showing off the unique tone of this trio’s bass-less, trebly torpor. Without allowing too much ’90s nostalgia to drive them or this recording (though this La Cigale gig had its share of oblong oldies-but-grrl-goodies from past classics such as The Woods, Dig Me Out, One Beat, The Hot Rock and Call The Doctor with the silly “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” S-K’s finest furriest hour), this night in Paris has the punch of the present. How else can you explain starting off this album with the snot-nosed paean to Stepford Wife-i-ness, “Price Tag,” and holding court with a majority of its newest album’s toughest tracks such as “A New Wave” and “Surface Envy?” As the live album—and such an odd thing to behold happily so many years after the grand smash likes of Kiss Alive or Got Live If You Want It—winds down, to end with a crackling new punk tune (“Dig Me Out”) as well as a taut, raw earlier one (its caustic retirement swan song “Modern Girl”) is just an epiphany and a joy.
For the past nine years, Cleveland native Dylan Baldi has been working out his lo-fi power-pop angst as Cloud Nothings. Baldi’s first release under that banner, 2009’s Turning Up, was recorded in his parents’ basement when he was 19 and alerted the world to a massively talented and insightful one-man band. 2014’s acclaimed Here And Nowhere Else was hastily written and recorded between tours with his stage-and-studio band, but his fourth album, Life Without Sound, shows how deliberation and time can improve even greatness. From the start, Baldi’s wheelhouse has been a mosh-pit collision among Tommy Keene, Velvet Crush and Hüsker Dü in a raw evocation of power-pop melodicism and punk dissonance, and Life Without Sound adheres to that basic template. The major shifts here are Baldi’s sonic sophistication and maturation as an arranger and lyricist, as evidenced by the stinging piano introduction to opener “Up To The Surface,” the ringing tribalism of epic closer “Realize My Fate” and the infectious whip-crack pop that fills the 30 minutes between them.