Bob Mould has become more cheery than he was on brooding, post-Hüsker Dü solo albums such as 1989’s Workbook and 1991’s Black Sheets Of Rain. The 47-year-old Mould now laughs a lot and seems more pragmatic than the guy who swore he’d never play his Minneapolis trio’s tunes again and was all-around gnarly when asked about anything other than his solo career and subsequent band, Sugar. But then again, everybody was pissed off in the ’90s, including fans disappointed in Mould for breaking up Hüsker Dü in order to make acoustic folk/rock and MOR punk. After playing pop/punk with Sugar, Mould dropped the sweetener and made heavy-duty electronic records and crafted complex solo efforts while maintaining the smartly harsh ruminative lyrical stance that made him both a prick and a saint. Suddenly, Mould began to look back, something he seemed incapable of doing. Mould’s current backing band coaxed him into doing Hüsker Dü tunes, which were taped for a documentary DVD, Circle Of Friends (MVD). He also signed to Anti- to release the new District Line, his most varied solo effort of acoustic blues, hard-ass guitars and subtly electronic tracks. And he’s laughing.
Look out, Karen O. On this San Diego trio’s debut, drummer Kristin Gundred proves she’s mastered more than just the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman’s sneering swagger and come-hither growl. She can also sing. Sounding like a pissed-off bastard child of Grace Slick, Gundred’s voice dominates Humanimals. Whether she’s snarling in sing-speak or breaking out in a bone-rattling wail, every word that crosses her lips quakes with raw emotion. Back it up with some bouncing bass lines and a half-dozen spidery guitar melodies, and it’s as if Jefferson Airplane had been reborn in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta, weaned solely on rotgut moonshine, one-night-stands and Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs. Humanimals works best when it sticks to the minimalist formula, as on the slinky “Nasty Habit” and the cymbal-crashing “Gypsy March,” giving Gundred’s expressive screech a strong melodic counterpoint. But the real highlight is opener “Look Out Young Son,” a dark, chugging anthem of seduction on which Gundred proclaims, “I must be the devil’s daughter/Such a dark father to dwell in me.” So that explains the voice. Sorry, Karen O: Looks like you’re screwed. [www.myspace.com/grandoleparty]
Canadians have a reputation for affability, and first-generation singer/songwriter Basia Bulat, the daughter of a Polish music teacher, is no exception. But that doesn’t mean roiling angst and quiet desperation don’t lick at the edges of Bulat’s debut album, Oh, My Darling (Rough Trade), in spite of its lighthearted feel and the sunny undulations of her golden vocals. According to Bulat, Darling emerges from the quiet hurts suffered when native sweetness brushes up against harsh reality. She recalls a moment when her childhood love of oldies radio was ridiculed by classmates.
“All the kids were into the song ‘Good Vibrations,’ and I thought they were talking about the Beach Boys,” says Bulat on a patio outside the San Francisco venue where she’s performing. “But they were talking about Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch, and I was ostracized. The girl who came to my birthday party and gave me the tape told me I was a big loser for not knowing who they were … There’s darkness on this record! Darkness!”
The fifth record from the one-man outfit previously known as Say Hi To Your Mom is about as bedroom-band as they come. Judging from its lyrical content, there have been long stretches of down time in Eric Elbogen’s bedroom lately. Love lost, love longed-for, love misplaced, love mislaid, love otherwise absent or unaccounted for—every damned song deals with a variation on the grand theme. Even at a brief half-hour and change, The Wishes And The Glitch starts to verge on the banal. What saves it, sort of, is the album’s expansive musical approach. Awash in echo and occasionally saddled with a cross-rhythmic drum-machine track, the music manages to be both open and claustrophobic. Song by song, the approach works, making Wishes sound like the sparse, cold thoughts that flit through your head after a bad breakup. The album reaches its most successful balance of these elements on the chugging “Back Before We Were Brittle,” the keening “We Lost The Albatross” and the willfully enigmatic “Magic Beans And Truth Machines” (at a scant two minutes, it’s the best song here). Still, you wish Elbogen had pared it down a little further; there’s a good EP in here, but not quite enough to prop up even a short album. [www.ilikesayhi.com]
2005’s The Weight Is A Gift found Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws dealing with the fallout of a toxic relationship. Lucky, the NYC trio’s fifth LP, finds Caws, while apparently still reeling a bit, tentatively dipping his toes back into the pool. Feeling disoriented on the opening “See These Bones” (“I don’t like to call or write, except when it’s too late at night/I mostly just think in the dark”), he seeks solace in music on the lilting “Beautiful Beat” and eventually seems to find peace, if not everlasting happiness, in the prospect of a new love: “I was on the wagon, I thought I was done … But I like what you say/You say, ‘Baby, I only want to make you happy’” (“I Like What You Say”). Lucky is somewhat muted compared to past Nada Surf records—change-of-pace World War I historical sketch “Ice On The Wing” (complete with an olde-tyme oompa-band outro) is really the only uptempo rocker, and powerhouse drummer Ira Elliot occasionally sounds like he’s playing wet Yellow Pages—but it’s so melodic, so lush, so beautiful, there’s nothing missing. A quality outfit from 1996 debut High/Low, Nada Surf took it to The Next Level with 2003’s near-flawless Let Go and has followed it up with two amazing, richly rewarding efforts. How fortunate are we? [www.barsuk.com]
Tempted to split and tested by hard times, the Helio Sequence holds steady as the constantly reinventing center of Portland, Ore.’s indie-rock scene. By Matthew Fritch
In 2004, Benjamin Weikel walked away from the biggest alt-rock band in America. Weikel, a gifted drummer from Portland, Ore., had been recruited by Isaac Brock to play on Modest Mouse’s platinum-selling Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Over the course of four subsequent tours as a member of Modest Mouse, Weikel experienced the golden moments of success: the late-night-TV performances, the swelling crowds and bigger venues, the feeling of driving into Los Angeles in a tour van and hearing the DJ on KROQ trumpet the arrival of sure-shot hit single “Float On.”
But Weikel had already made plans to swim upstream. “[Modest Mouse] wanted me to be in the band at the end (of the last tour),” he says. “They asked me fairly often, even after I’d officially left. I was supposed to do Jimmy Kimmel with Modest Mouse and had to say, ‘Well, I have a Helio Sequence gig booked on that day.’ Then that was it.”
“[Weikel] gave up on the number-one band in America,” says Trevor Solomon, a friend and Portland-based booking agent. “It’s fascinating, because he stuck to his guns. Most people would have sold out for the money.”
As with most of the bands on the indie-pop Matineé label, it’s apparent that the C-86 movement was a huge deal to the members of Strawberry Whiplash. The Glasgow duo of Sandra and Laz, who also record under the name Bubblegum Lemonade, crank the fuzzboxes up to 11 and put as much reverb on the drums as humanly possible. This EP’s title cut has Sandra tossing out “ba-ba-ba”s while Laz adds the musical equivalent of cotton candy to the proceedings. “It Rains On Other Planets” is all tambourines and good vibes, while “My Day Today” has some of the best roller-rink keyboards since the first Soup Dragons record or early Talulah Gosh. [www.indiepages.com/matinee]
Joe Jackson has earned the right to the nostalgia trip he’s been on this decade, having worn many hats in his 30-year career (agitated young new waver, jump-blues bandleader, balladeer, classical composer— not to mention the reggae, Latin and jazz phases), and all of them with some degree of style. So far, the trip has produced pleasant surprises (2000’s inspired Night And Day II) and a reunion with the Joe Jackson Band lineup that didn’t live up to its punchy, nervy past (2003’s Volume 4). Rain falls squarely between the two. It’s a simple collection of typically melody-rich songs for piano, bass and drums (Jackson is backed by JJB alums Graham Maby and Dave Houghton) that occasionally swings (“The Uptown Train”) and sometimes lurches like the good old days (“King Pleasure Time”). Jackson’s ability to look at love with frayed nerves and make it sound pretty remains sharp, as evidenced on “Wasted Time.” And his voice, whether he’s singing in his bug-eyed tenor or doing the jump-and-jive falsetto thing, is in fine form. The guitar-less format tends slightly toward the cabaret over the course of 10 songs, but in reality, an electric guitar probably wouldn’t enhance these tunes all that much. Jackson devotees don’t necessarily need Rain, but they’ll want it enough. And they’ll be very satisfied with their purchase. [www.rykodisc.com]
Chris Walla is a talented guy. His role as guitarist, producer and co-writer in Death Cab For Cutie has led to high-profile production jobs with the Decemberists and Tegan & Sara; like Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, he seems like a behind-the-scenes mastermind. Strange, then, that his first solo album sounds simply like a Death Cab For Cutie LP. Field Manual is full of melancholy, wistful pop songs with lilting melodies carrying carefully written lyrics. Walla’s tenor vocals are even similar to Ben Gibbard’s, but—and this is a big but—Gibbard is the better singer, with a fuller, more assured tone. Walla sounds best on sprightly songs (the jangly “Our Plans, Collapsing,” the bouncy “Sing Again”), multi-tracking his harmony vocals. Left naked and exposed on the somber “It’s Unsustainable,” however, his reedy voice detracts, and you can’t help but wish to substitute Gibbard. Aside from the awkwardly grungy “The Score,” these are good songs well-played, with Walla handling everything except for drums. But ersatz is still ersatz. [www.barsuk.com]
For Thao Nguyen’s second LP, she enlisted backing band the Get Down Stay Down, and the 11 tunes here are as perky as they are melancholy. With a twang in her voice that’s bound to garner comparisons to Chan Marshall’s drawl, Virginia native Nguyen can make torture sound joyful. “Fear And Convenience” wraps Joanna Newsom-like playfulness, horns and handclaps around a disturbing lyric (“Did he hurt you in a new way?”). “Violet” goes one deeper, dealing with domestic violence without budging from the giddy musical backdrops the band provides. It’s the Get Down’s ability to take what might otherwise be clichéd chord patterns and make them breathe (with bits of tympani, dulcimer and trombone) that ultimately makes We Brave Bee Stings And All interesting, if not a bit fey. On the other hand, from the reggae-like riff of “Bag Of Hammers” to album closer “We Go” and its 50/50 mix of dirge and revelry, Nguyen has the smarts to sense her own catchiness, which fits her like a favorite party dress worn to a neighbor’s funeral. [www.killrockstars.com]