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
Drawn from Leonard Cohen’s Herculean world tour of 2012-’13, this rather humbly titled live disc feels like just that—a postcard, a snapshot—but it’s still a gorgeous one. Can’t Forget offers yeoman readings of a handful of songs from Cohen’s career; it’s heavy on the ’70s-’90s, opening with a stately but intense reading of “Field Commander Cohen” and moving through “Night Comes On,” “Joan Of Arc” and the title cut. But four of its 10 songs are new Cohen originals or previously unrecorded covers, including an endlessly charismatic take on George Jones’ sunset-years rumination “Choices,” which the 80-year-old Cohen tackles with what sounds like an earned gladness.
The Cohen on Can’t Forget has by now earned his Field Commander stripes, and then some: “Thank you for your generosity,” he says to a laughing Australian audience, “as a gesture of compassion to the elderly.” His last two studio albums revealed that his creative fires are still lit. But even on a comparatively light offering like this one, it’s a treat to hear Cohen so comfortable in both his old and new skins.
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks want to pump you up
The idea of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks together in the studio is at once thrilling and unsettling. There’s a distinct possibility the Mael brothers’ musical funhouse mirror will distort Franz’s gloriously histrionic indie rock into unrecognizable shapes, diluting each entity’s gifts to an unacceptable degree. Thankfully, thrilling wins the day, as Alex Kapranos and his compatriots are equal to the task of blending their earnest aesthetic with the pinwheeling madness that has defined Sparks since the early ’70s.
The beauty of FFS is that Franz benefits from the Maels’ quirky brilliance, while the Sparks braintrust receives a high-voltage surge of indie-rock adrenaline. The sextet acknowledges the doubters on “Collaborations Don’t Work,” an on-the-nose mini-rock opera about their partnership, as Kapranos and Russell Mael trade tongue-in-cheek critiques (“I don’t get your navel-gazing/I don’t get your way of phrasing”), then follows with the piquant advice of “Piss Off.” Drawing on and expanding the strengths of each band—Franz Ferdinand’s bracing rock/pop anthemics, Sparks’ whimsical swing and swagger—FFS may be the blueprint for future musical cross-pollination.
One of Sharon Van Etten’s talents has always been her ability to make something seem bigger than it actually is. Witness the elegant, um, epic quality of her epic album, her ability to “silence drunken bars” (as TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone describes) and the deceptively sparse material of this stopgap release. Its overall pace might give tree sap a run for last place, and Van Etten’s voice is up to its usual husky/sugary, barenaked/harmonized tricks, but what sounds like downcast spaciousness is actually riddled with layers of sound complementing the expected morose and heartfelt topics.
Delicate strains of expansive keyboards, splashy drums, electronic waves, wind instruments and classical string sawing come to a climax on “Pay My Debts,” despite being understated and mixed almost subliminally. The instrumentation/production jigsaw puzzle exists in contrast to the folksy vocal rawness, except on the title track, where everything and everyone is at their grandiose best.