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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In an about-face to the insular world of American noise music, which he’d been the preeminent voice of for nearly a decade, Dominick Fernow’s 2011 album Bermuda Drain saw him integrate melodic synthesizers and (gasp!) discernible lyrics, downplaying the highly abrasive elements that he’d become synonymous with. The result was easily the best and most fully realized release of his career, and since then, Fernow—who does business as Prurient, Vatican Shadow and a host of other increasingly arcane aliases—has further explored contemporary electronic music with an increasingly head-on approach, most compellingly on the menacing demon disco of 2013’s Through The Window.
Frozen Niagara Falls, though, sets out to define Fernow’s legacy—and succeeds so comprehensively that it could effectively be repackaged as The Essential Prurient. From the stark imagery and alternatingly ear-splitting and serene sonics of standout “Cocaine Daughter” to the jarring inclusion of acoustic guitar on sublime closer “Christ Among The Broken Glass,” it’s far and away Fernow’s most affecting recorded work to date.
“So much that I can’t say to you,” Mark Kozelek croons on “Drop,” a raw, ethereal epic toward the end of the Red House Painters’ peerless 1995 emotional leveler Ocean Beach. “My voice shakes from the hurt that I hide.” Of course, by this point in Kozelek’s career, it was actually very fucking difficult to believe that the sanguinary troubadour hid even a single bloody tear from his growing coterie of acolytes. (“I’d like to come home to see you and to catch your sickness by the bedside … but then you’d know how much I really need you” does not exactly scream holding back.)
Those who missed the glorious downward spiral the first time around can now catch up with the black cloud via 4AD’s gorgeous LP boxed-set reissue of the band’s long-out-of-print first four records—a three-year drone-to-folk journey full of beauty and brood unmatched before or since.
With Foil Deer, Speedy Ortiz fully owns its style, quirks and neuroses on a level that would have been unimaginable circa 2013’s Major Arcana. Retaining a charming, inside-out tunelessness, the Northampton, Mass., quartet—coyly enough—permits tinges of saccharine to crowd the sour, and displays a newly intuitive sense of dynamics.
That guitarist/primary songwriter Sadie Dupuis recognized the need for Betty Rizzo and Angie Tempura archetypes in mod-indie is a bonus. Even at their most confident, Throwing Muses or Helium would never have written as backhandedly aggro a hoodied She-Ra anthem as “Raising The Skate.” Her ever tack-sharp mixed metaphors flow like wine; crunchy “The Graduates,” anti-tempo “Zig” and shove punk-y “Swell Content” passive-aggressively teem with them.
Elsewhere, low-end and noise-funk reign on the turgid, uncharacteristic “Puffer,” while “Dvrk Wvrld” (an uncomfortable, stormy dirge that seems to revolve around a rape) might contain the most vulnerable lyrics Dupuis has ever written.
Recent chatter around the water cooler concerns the strides Tom Jenkinson has taken toward injecting harsher, more aggressive elements into his IDM/drum ‘n’ bass/break-beats/whathaveyou on the 14th Squarepusher full-length. Whether there’s a broader message of discontent with government, anger at the general state of the world or an aggressive midlife crisis bubbling under Damogen Furies (as usual, compositions are instrumental) is something only the man buried under all the gear knows, but the beats of “Kwang Bass” and “Kontenjaz” are more furious, head-spinning, clipped and cutting.
Simultaneously, hooks and melodies are employed that forage through the fury to knock on pop music’s backdoor (“Stor Eiglass”), essentially drawing flies with honey before pouring vinegar all over ’em. Jenkinson continues his adroitness at transforming disparate juxtapositions of R2-D2 blips and bloops, deep bass drops and masterfully processed keyboard duels into sonic sculptures that are futuristically dense and engagingly hip-shaking.
For a band that titles its album No Control, Turbo Fruits really seem to have their shit together. We’re loath to call No Control “mature”—the Fruits are still the same stoned goofballs they’ve always been—but this new record finds the band making the tightest, most focused rock tunes of its career.
The drug-fueled buffoonery takes a back seat to the tension between teenage kicks and adult concerns, passion and failure, love and confusion. There is nary a wasted moment on No Control, as the Fruits have become such a fine-tuned machine that each note and bar explodes out of the stereo. Songs like “Need To Know,” with its guitarmony-laden coda, and woozy lead single “Don’t Let Me Break Your Heart Again” burrow deep into the listener’s brain and bounce around for days.
—Sean L. Maloney