Record Review: Upper Wilds’ “Mars”

Concept-record fans, take note. Mars is a space/rock opera concerning an alternate history in which humans have already settled elsewhere in the solar system and taken all their problems with them. “Skylab” posits labor unrest in orbit, and “Dead Mall” indicates that low gravity won’t necessarily buoy up business. While this album makes enough noise to compete with an Apollo launch, it also completes a journey you would make with a boomerang rather than booster rockets.

It started with bandleader Dan Friel’s old rock band Parts & Labor, whose early albums managed the unlikely achievement of channeling Hüsker Dü’s anthemic roar through Atari-grade electronics. After P&L wound down, Friel’s electronics became the whole show, but Upper Wilds represents the re-embrace of rock. He’s singing again and bringing the noise with an electric guitar, with a bassist and drummer on hand to drive the music—hard. Friel’s electronics come out mainly to turn his voice into a fair approximation of P&L’s keys. If you loved the way his early music lavished noise and hooks, you’ll find a lot to like on Mars.

The one thing that keeps the album from blasting into deep space is the stiff, staccato drumming; these songs could do with a bit more looseness and wildness in the grooves. But since Upper Wilds are planning to make records about a few more planets, they’ll have chances to get things even more right than they already are.

—Bill Meyer

Record Review: Various Artists “Freedom Of The Press”

Music and journalism have this in common: They’re both means to communicate what’s going on. That means that both can be the targets of those who don’t want folks to know what’s happening, and there’s a lot of that going on right now. Attacks on newsrooms and individual journalists are on the rise, even in the ostensible lands of the free. Enter Kith & Kin, a new label founded to give a helping hand in a hard time. Its first release is a compilation of 14 tracks donated by psychedelic and roots-oriented musicians to raise money for the Freedom Of The Press Foundation, which defends public-interest journalism and sponsors improvements in digital security.

It’s not entirely accidental that so much of this music seems rooted in the 1960s; things were ugly then, too, and it’s nice to be able to pull out a map when you’re trying to find your way through the wilderness. But artists like the Weather Station and Hans Chew have plenty to say about the 21st century anxiety, and while Elkhorn and John Andrews & The Yawns propose a couple ways to take the edge off. Even the tunes that fail to transcend derivativeness fall easy on the ears—and it’s for an essential cause.

—Bill Meyer

Record Review: Mako Sica & Hamid Drake’s “Ronda”

It may take a village to raise a child and two record labels (Feeding Tube and Astral Spirits) to put out this album, but it only takes one master drummer to elevate a group to new heights. Mako Sica is a Chicago-based trio descended from art-rock ensemble Rope with a knack for pulling eerie atmospherics out of the improvisational moment. Percussionist Hamid Drake is one of the great improvising drummers of his generation, but despite enduring connections with the likes of William Parker and Peter Brötzmann, he remains wide open to new encounters.

An initial collaboration onstage went well enough for Drake and Mako Sica to check into the studio twice. The mostly side-long pieces are like journeys that wind patiently through an uncharted landscape of mood and sound combinations. Wordless vocals and echo-laden instrumentation keep things spooky, but it’s the purposeful change-up of rhythmic ideas and means that make the sonic narrative gripping.

—Bill Meyer

Record Review: The Skygreen Leopards’ “The Jingling World Of The Skygreen Leopards”

When Donavan Quinn and Glenn Donaldson started the Skygreen Leopards in 2001, they agreed upon some ground rules. They would keep the tunes short; never solo; never fix a mistake; and never quit until they filled up the tracks on the tape. From these prescriptions flowed a series of sweetly melodic, fragmentary songs, which they released on a pair of CD-Rs. We all know by now how long those things last, and Skygreen Leopards aren’t exactly filling the shelves with new product, so the Soft Abuse label has stepped up to put the contents of those fading discs on LP.

Quinn and Donovan’s voices are usually swathed in enough reverb to drown literal meaning, but there’s no mistaking the avuncular intent of their strummed acoustic and chiming 12-string electric guitars. If the idea of really early Bats setting Syd Barrett songs to Byrds tablature tomes makes sense to you, so will The Jingling World Of The Skygreen Leopards.

—Bill Meyer

Record Review: Titus Andronicus’ “A Productive Cough”

The shift that Titus Andronicus makes with A Productive Cough shouldn’t catch us off guard—long have Patrick Stickles and Co. drawn from Bob Dylan to create detailed ballads of modern America—but that doesn’t keep LP number five from feeling a little bit jarring. It’s a strange feeling for a Titus album to kind of plod along like A Productive Cough, compared to the dynamic sprawl of the band’s first four full-lengths, especially 2015 double-LP rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy.

“Number One (In New York),” probably the best of the seven songs here, builds incrementally alongside Stickles’ always-vibrant imagery, yet it fails to come to any kind of apex. “Real Talk” has a little bit more energy and adds some welcome layers of harmonies and horns, but it gets gratingly repetitious. And there’s even a cover of “Like A Rolling Stone,” which at nine minutes, goes on for even longer than the already-lengthy original. Such is the case for the whole of A Productive Cough. Some new ideas are welcome more than a decade into the Jersey outfit’s career, but they could’ve been used to more exciting ends.

—Jordan Walsh

Franz Ferdinand: All My Friends

Franz Ferdinand is playing at James Murphy’s house.

One of the best Franz Ferdinand performances is on an LCD Soundsystem record. When James Murphy and Co. released multiple single versions for their epochal “All My Friends” from 2007’s Sound Of Silver, they included cover versions from both Franz Ferdinand and the Velvet Underground’s venerable John Cale. (FF’s take on the song also appears on LCD Soundsystem’s A Bunch Of Stuff EP, and it’s the b-side for its own “Can’t Stop Feeling” single from 2009.)

Franz Ferdinand, while not straying radically from the dynamics of LCD’s original, digs deeply into the song’s motorik rhythm while upping the rock ‘n’ roll thrills. Alex Kapranos may be doing a James Murphy impression, but it’s a good one. He trades Murphy’s melancholy undertones with an emphatic desperation and a rocking, rather than dance-floor-ready catharsis. Nothing lazy about this version.

—Steve Klinge

Record Review: Franz Ferdinand’s “Always Ascending”

Franz Ferdinand seems to have a thing for laziness. In addition to the Glasgow band’s generally louche persona, there’s a direct thread from “Fabulously Lazy” (a 2005 b-side) to “Lazy Boy” (off its fifth album; not including FF’s 2015 collaboration with Sparks as FFS). “I’m a lazy boy, I’m lazy boy, always be a lazy boy/I’m a lazy boy, yes a lazy boy, lazy in the evening boy/I’m a lazy boy, like you,” sings Alex Kapranos, in the rapid cadence of a playground taunt, and it’s hard not to apply his proclamation to the grating repetitiveness of the lyrics.

“Finally I found my people, found the people who were meant to be found by me, finally, finally, finally I’m here, in my place, oh, I’m here,” he sings on “Finally.” Repetition is a valuable strategy to anchor a chorus, of course, but at some point it becomes intrusive, and on Always Ascending, Franz Ferdinand often crosses that line. Or, the band becomes heavy-handed and didactic, such as on “Huck And Jim”: “We’re going to America/We’re going to tell them about the NHS.” (Although maybe Kapranos and Co.’s work with Sparks has turned them into satirists and the song, which includes something about “drinking 40s with Huck and Jim,” is a misfired joke.)

It’s frustrating, because behind the superficial surfaces, these songs can thrill. “Lazy Boy” even matches a pulsing disco beat to bursts of serrated, spaghetti-Western guitars, and “Feel The Love Go” has a similar disco/rock alchemy, plus a sax solo. The title track kicks in with a familiar Franz Ferdinand thump, and closing ballad “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow” features some of Kapranos’ best Jarvis Cocker-like crooning.

Always Ascending is a rebooted Franz Ferdinand: Founding guitarist Nick McCarthy (who sang lead on “Fabulously Lazy”) left in 2016 and has been replaced with keyboardist Julian Corrie (Miaoux Miaoux) and guitarist Dino Bardot (1990s, V-Twin). The band sounds energized, even when the words suggest otherwise.

—Steve Klinge

Record Review: The Decemberists’ “I’ll Be Your Girl”

Anyone who’s been cussed out by “Ben Franklin’s Song” knows Colin Meloy still has some poison left in his quill. But there’s a thunderbolt caveat—as catchy as the Decemberists make that Hamilton addendum, the lyrics were penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (And oh, what lyrics: “I am Poor Richard’s Almanack-writing Benjamin Fuckin’ Franklin!”)

Poor Colin’s Almanack hasn’t been quite the same since his Crane Wife flapped off. His finest offering since that Capitol-conquering opus, 2011’s The King Is Dead, forwent ornate storytelling and baroque instrumentation in favor of an Americana revolution, a salty hoedown sans frills. When the band did swaddle itself in the gabardine fabrics of olde, you could hear it swallowing its own tail. “June Hymn” is a ventricle-rending tune, but it’s “Red Right Ankle” from a different angle.

I’ll Be Your Girl answers an unposed question: Would you prefer more variations on the same themes, or risky stabs at a new one entirely? The King Is Dead proved the Decemberists’ erudite, radio-play vibe could jibe—even thrive—with unannotated folk/rock. This new LP proves no such definitive thing, except maybe that synthesizer anthems aren’t in this band’s wheelhouse. It’s often fun to hear them go for it, as on the high-contrast drama of “Cutting Stone” and severe lead single “Severed.” (Do stick around through the tonally serrated side two, which is stolen by some exquisitely bonkers backup-singer arrangements.)

What it’s missing is haunting songs—calamity songs, the kind of songs that used to proliferate on Decemberists albums like soot-smudged Victorian orphans. And no amount of Castlevania harpsichord or of Montreal choral carbonation can take their place.

—Noah Bonaparte Pais

Record Review: Weezer’s “Weezer”

Weezer

Weezer, the 10th album by Weezer, is about as good (or bad, your call) as Weezer, several measures worse than Weezer and a once-you-hear-it, you’ll-never-unhear-it skid mark on the shorts of Weezer. If that sentence needs color-decoding, don’t waste your time—just go on turning Californian, gawking at “L.A. Girlz” or, more likely, stabbing stop as quickly as possible.

Further dissection of this fourth and most pallid chromatic chromosome in Rivers Cuomo’s rapidly unraveling musical DNA would be as pointless and obscene as autopsying a baby inside a dingo. It should be objectively obvious that this is terrible, often abominable music, and to anyone with any affinity for Weezer’s first two LPs—hell, even the next two—more obvious why. The truly devastating and impregnable question is how: How did we get here?

Forget for a moment the pathetic infantilism of 40-something rockers devoting an entire record to behavior that lands one on watch lists: hanging out with kids and getting away with girls. How does such a sharp, funny, honest observer of the teenage condition become so hollow and tone deaf to it? How did Cuomo go from “I asked you to go to the Green Day concert/You said you never heard of them” to “We could ride a Greyhound/All the way to the Galápagos”? To “Just a couple lovebirds/Happy to be singing” from “I’ve got your letter/You’ve got my song”?

How does the pilot of so many world-turning, round-robin, fourth-chorus liftoffs crash into Max Martin mountain over and over and over? How do three actually passable nu-Weezer songs (“Summer Elaine And Drunk Dori,” “Jacked Up” and “Endless Bummer,” all in the last four tracks) get jackknifed by the most willfully imbecilic side-one cash grab in all Weezerdom? And just how smart does Matt Sharp look now?

There are no answers. Not even Cuomo knows, if his comments are to be believed. (“I’m proud of the demented lyrics that are like, ‘What? Who says that? Who thinks that? What planet am I on? I don’t know, but I kinda wanna stay!’”) That he subtitled it The White Album is the cherry on top of a quadruple-scoop shit sundae. This album is brown.

—Noah Bonaparte Pais

Record Review: The Late Greats’ “Kids You Knew”

LateGreats

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and Jesus And Mary Chain fame is often noted with the phrase, “A band is only as good as it’s drummer.” Though I have some agreeances with this statement, I must offer a different opinion: A band is only as good as its songwriting. Philadelphia’s the Late Greats just released their debut EP, Kids You Knew, a tight and concise batch of crafted garage-rock earworms. While their sound breaks down no new barriers, the band offers interesting perspectives on the genre of garage rock. As they write in the liner notes, “It’s the sound of 1976 filtered through the summer of ’96.” In a time where most consider rock ‘n’ roll falling apart, the Late Greats pick up the pieces to construct their own interpretation of the genre.

From the “Vertigo”-esque chug and harmonized dual Thin Lizzy guitar lines of opener “M.I.A.” to the post-punk influences on “Nowhere To Find Me,” the band channels powerful musical chops through tightly composed songwriting. Luke Bauerlein’s slightly reverbed vocals flow over the thoughtfully composed music, which consists of attentive use of background vocals and strong Guided By Voices-type licks (provided by guitarists Matt Hayes and Andrew Baranek) in order to fill the gaps from the rest of the band.

“Walk Away” is reminiscent of Pinkerton-era Weezer (which was not coincidentally released at the end of “the summer of ’96”), with its fall-apart-at-the-seams instrumentation and acoustic fingerpicking interludes. Songs like “Walk Away” and “Knock Me Down” are based on sturdy rhythmic time changes, provided and improved by bassist John Velez, keyboardist Adam Wassel, and the drumming of Brad Eash (also proving a band is only as good as its drummer).

Thematically, the band tends to focus on the past, in not just in the music but lyrics as well. Failed relationships, nights gone wrong, and searching for answers as years go by are consistent themes throughout the record. Kids You Knew serves as not only the title of the record, but also seems to be a way the band sees themselves. Bauerlein knows he can act childish sometimes (as any of us can), and as he sings on “Nowhere To Find Me”: “Exploit my fear of solitude and self-control I’m known to lack.”

For a band that uses a Wilco song as a reference point for its name, they stray away from Jeff Tweedy’s roots-rock in favor of a Replacements-style barrage, but the storytelling remains similar. As said earlier, the band does not explore a lot of new ground sonically on the record. “Lost Highway” and “Knock Me Down” come off as mid to late-2000s blog-rock (a la Bloc Party or Cage The Elephant) in their presentation, and there is little to no experimentation in the musical tones used. But the Late Greats were never trying to set any trends with their music, and this is not music for those looking for the sound of 2015. This is music for those who long for the sound of 1976 filtered through the summer of ’96. And as they prove with their intricate and dense songwriting, being innovative can show itself in more ways than one.

—Tyler Asay