BOSTON SPACESHIPS: Brown Submarine [Guided By Voices Inc.]

At least two of the following mildewed factoids seem mandatory in any Robert Pollard review: “used to be a teacher,” “sings in a fake British accent,” “takes the occasional drink” and “needs an editor.” Given the tepid reaction to some of Pollard’s recent efforts, “return to form” might be added to the lexicon of staleness when discussing the debut LP by Pollard’s latest incarnation, Boston Spaceships. (Late-period Guided By Voices bassist Chris Slusarenko on guitar and other instruments and Decemberists drummer John Moen fill out this new power trio.) Fanboys (“Return to form? Everything’s always been great!”) and naysayers (“Why does he have to release every song he writes?”) will never settle their differences. Though I generally partake in the Kool-Aid, some of Pollard’s post-GBV stuff has admittedly either gone over my head or missed the sweet spot. Brown Submarine’s pleasures, however, are inarguable. Swaggering opener “Winston’s Atomic Bird” evokes GBV circa Devil Between My Toes, while the pretty, pastoral folk pop of “Two Girl Area” conjures Every Picture Tells A Story-era Rod Stewart. The bouncy “Ready To Pop” is aptly descriptive, and the equally catchy “Andy Playboy” succinctly tells a wannabe band frontman’s story in a mere minute and a half. Boasting sharp lyrics and plenty of strong songwriting, Brown Submarine may be Pollard’s most entertaining start-to-finish record since 2006’s double-whammy of From A Compound Eye and Blues And Boogie Shoes. On or off the Pollard bandwagon, all aboard this Submarine. []

—Matt Hickey

DEAD CONFEDERATE: Wrecking Ball [The Artists Organization]

When the members of Dead Confederate got together in 1997, it was as a jam band called Redbelly, playing 30-minute songs that hovered between Neil Young and Pink Floyd. A couple of name changes later, the Athens, Ga., group has shoved aside its old, free-floating post-psych for the barbed, bruising Southern grunge of Wrecking Ball. There’s no shortage of calculation in the transition, especially in Dead Confederate’s unwavering devotion to Nirvana, but for all its familiarity, this debut is absolutely merciless. Wrecking Ball is a lumbering, angst-driven assault that’s simultaneously ear-splitting and as comfortable as an old flannel shirt. On its strongest cuts (“Heavy Petting,” “The Rat”), the band splatters noise in every direction, retooling its Floyd fascination into aggression and reinvigorating the boneheadedness of Skynyrd for maximum 21st-century effect. Even on the weaker songs, when the chord changes come secondhand and the influences arrive undigested, Wrecking Ball remains an ugly slab of guitar sludge that’s well worth the pain. []

—Kenny Berkowitz


Every big city has one: the band that should’ve made it, the act that, through whatever combination of bad luck, worse advice and blinding self-destructiveness, never quite broke out of its hometown. In Miami in the 1980s, that band was Charlie Pickett And The Eggs. Proficient in genres from cowpunk to Stones-y bar rock, Pickett made a record co-produced by the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker and suffered the usual malaise of low record sales and ruinous touring. Bar Band Americanus (Bloodshot) collects tracks from 1982-87, and the range of material is impressive, from the slide-guitar blues of “Penny Instead” to the overtly Keith Richards guitar riff that drives “On Horseback.”

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OKKERVIL RIVER: The Stand Ins [Jagjaguwar]

A year removed from 2007’s blog-tastically acclaimed The Stage Names, Okkervil River is back with its sequel, a collection of songs drawn from the same recording sessions. Think of it as a lit-rock Use Your Illusion II. While The Stage Names jettisoned much of Okkervil River’s former folk and orchestral-pop leanings, The Stand Ins leaves the door open to its roots, from now-former member Jonathan Meiburg’s ringing banjo opening “Lost Coastlines” to the appropriately Highway 61-leaning “Singer Songwriter,” a biting and brilliant takedown of the artistic leisure class. Such vintage touches mesh nicely with leader Will Sheff’s earnest vocal delivery, but elsewhere, Okkervil River’s less-adventurous approach reveals some songs for what they are: perfectly capable if unmemorable vehicles for Sheff’s lyric novellas. “Blue Tulip” meanders too long before falling into a cathartic finish, and the wordy “Pop Lie” finds Sheff indulging his fascination with his own vocation. The latter track, a rocked-out confessional, dares to close with a straight-faced recitation of the song’s “dedicated to” note, a move that feels both audacious and staggeringly precious. Okkervil River can deliver terrific songs when ambitions are kept in balance, but this uneven record is in dire need of an editor. []

—Chris Barton

THE NEW YEAR: The New Year [Touch And Go]

Matt and Bubba Kadane have never been in much of a hurry to do anything, neither with their beloved ’90s outfit Bedhead nor with their current gig, the New Year. So it’s no surprise that the follow-up to 2004’s The End Is Near took the brothers more than four years. “Folios” unfolds at the same snail-on-muscle-relaxants pace that made Bedhead so maddening and sneakily rewarding—little more than a repeated guitar chord and a tapped snare—before one of the interchangeably low-singing Kadanes ends the song with an amusing confession: “I don’t think the good years I’ve got can wait.” With that, they get right to it. This self-titled third album is, by these guys’ standards, quite the rush. Thanks to a typically front-and-center drum mix by engineer Steve Albini, walkabout pacesetters “X Off Days” and “The Door Opens” feel more like a mad dash. The unrushed songs are equally appealing, gussied up with elegant guitar and piano accents and spiked with disarming lines (“camping and orgies” are whispered among other soon-to-be-unmissed pleasures on deathbed missive “MMV”). If it takes the Kadanes another half-decade to match this half-hour of sublime music, the waiting will be the hardest part, indeed. []

—Noah Bonaparte Pais

PORTASTATIC: Some Small History [Merge]

Indie icon, folk troubadour, pop medium. Mac McCaughan has assumed many musical guises for his Portastatic project, which has existed almost as long as Superchunk, that other band he fronts. There’s a telling photo of stacks of unmixed four-track cassettes, dating as far back as Christmas 1989, inside the two-CD Some Small History. Disc one of this best-of/outtakes compilation begins with Portastatic’s roughly produced first single, “Starter” (originally released by WFMU radio host and Monk scriptwriter Tom Scharpling). What follows isn’t in chronological order, but both discs present a strong argument that McCaughan has been hoarding some of his best work for Portastatic. A 1994 seven-inch version of “San Andreas Crouch,” which later appeared on 1995’s Slow Note For A Sinking Ship, shows the sparse foundations for one of McCaughan’s best songs, and a 2003 full-band take of that album’s “Skinny Glasses Girl” improves on the original. Two discs may seem excessive, but moments like these keep Some Small History from growing stale. Bonus material: A variety of demos, acoustic versions and covers of songs by the Magnetic Fields, Hot Chip and Bob Dylan, among others. []

—Kory Grow

JOHN PHILLIPS: Pussycat [Varese Sarabande]

Anybody expecting this unreleased session by the man who assembled the heavenly vocal blend of the Mamas And The Papas to sound anything like that beloved combo is doomed to disappointment. Without the pipes of Cass Elliott, Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty, you’re left with John Phillips’ rather ordinary voice singing self-penned tunes (“Zulu Warrior,” “She’s Just 14”) that sound like they were fished from the Rolling Stones’ rag bag. Not surprising, as these 1976-77 Jagger/Richards-produced sessions feature guitar work by Mick Taylor and Ron Wood. Only “Sunset Boulevard” has the self-assured vibe of Phillips’ excellent 1970 solo debut, The Wolf King Of L.A. Bonus material: Five unreleased tracks have been added, including “Don’t Turn Back Now (World’s Greatest Dancer),” which finds Phillips hopelessly lost and attempting a Tom Jones-style production number. An instrumental version of Ricky Nelson’s ”Hello Mary Lou,” an outtake from the soundtrack sessions for 1976 David Bowie film The Man Who Fell To Earth, is glammed up beyond recognition by Mick and Keith. []

—Jud Cost

DAMON & NAOMI: More Sad Hits [20/20/20]

After Galaxie 500 burned to the ground in 1991 at the hands of frontman Dean Wareham’s blazing ego, drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang retreated and, as they outline in the liner notes to this reissue, “turned our attention to other artistic pursuits: painting, writing, publishing books.” Lucky for us, G500 producer Kramer coaxed the couple back into the studio. Freed, as they put it, from Wareham’s “bad energy” and enthralled by Kramer’s trove of recording gear, Damon & Naomi made the most of their second act, Yang’s ethereal vocals supplying an instant signature as they essayed the peripatetic, slide-guitar dream pop of “E.T.A.,” the strummy freak-folk of “Laika” and more. From the vivid Man Ray photo adorning the sleeve (now a mini-LP design) to a bluesy cover of Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper’s “Memories” and a Twin Peaks-esque take on Claudine Longet’s “This Changing World,” 1992’s More Sad Hits signals an artistic pursuit. Out of the cinders of G500, the duo emerged dreamily optimistic and triumphant. Bonus material: None. []

—Fred Mills

CALEXICO: Carried To Dust [Quarterstick]

While conventional wisdom holds that Calexico fuses mariachi and rock music, the band has always accomplished more than that. Core members Joey Burns (vocals, guitars) and John Convertino (drums) can also kick up honky-tonk sawdust, wring tears with a folk ballad or make dim lights flicker with noir-jazz ambience, and they generally sound best when they’re doing more than one thing at a time. They went wrong on 2006’s Garden Ruin by trying to boil things down to protest lyrics and big rock moves; the result was as boring as a John Mellencamp record. Carried To Dust is a return to polyglot form. Burns and Convertino have swapped sincere-yet-simplistic politics for mysterious, discursive travelogues and brought back the mariachi horns and twangy desert guitars. They also heaped on guest appearances by Sam Beam (Iron And Wine) and Doug McCombs (Tortoise) and topped it off with studio experimentation. Carried To Dust is definitely Calexico’s best-sounding record: Each voice and instrument has its place, wheeling around Convertino’s graceful drumming like dancers going around the maypole. Someone had some fun mixing Carried To Dust; on “Fractured Air,” the bass drum’s reverberations pop in and out of the song, and treated piano and steel guitars swirl vertiginously around the singing on “Red Blooms.” That fun carries over to listening; with Calexico, more is definitely more. Welcome back, guys. []

—Bill Meyer

BOUND STEMS: The Family Afloat [Flameshovel]

Bound Stems have always seemed like a band worth rooting for. 2006 debut Appreciation Night was a well-realized batch of rickety, sleeves-rolled-up indie rock that was as heavy on historical references (vocalist Bobby Gallivan teaches high-school history) as it was on hooks. But beyond that, the Chicago fivesome understood just how crowded the genre pool has become over the years, and it tangled things up with gnarly time changes and production antics. That ethos is fully intact on follow-up The Family Afloat. Gallivan’s lyrical turns remain chatty and rhythmically taut, and warm jams such as hand-clapping romp “Happens To Us All Otherwise” are still sprinkled throughout. But the Stems have toyed further with their sonic model, abandoning a lot of the Promise Ring chug and post-hardcore blasts that stood out in their past work for more Beefhearted tomfoolery. It’s a step forward for sure, though at times it reinforces the cloying feeling that the need to complicate rather than simplify makes for overwrought music. But you can’t blame a band for being thoughtful or for playing like something is at stake. []

—David Bevan