CAT POWER: Jukebox [Matador]

Chan Marshall owes her career as much to psychodrama as music, but it’s just now that she’s reached her most harrowing point: a cover of George Jackson’s “Aretha, Sing One For Me” that recalls Natalie Merchant vocally and John Mayer’s pseudo-soulfulness musically. Yikes. Jukebox, Marshall’s second album of covers, mostly continues the cleaned-up, virtually lobotomized aesthetic of 2006’s unfortunately heralded The Greatest. Even if Marshall’s liberty-taking revisions of others’ tunes on 2000’s The Covers Record weren’t always successful, they at least forced you to ponder the nature of remakes altogether: How similar is too similar, and how different is disrespectful? Not so anymore. At her best, Marshall merely exposes the beauty of the Highwaymen’s “Silver Stallion” by stripping it down to an acoustic guitar. She brings more melodic cohesion to “Blue” than Joni Mitchell did, but that’s the problem: It all feels so composed. “Metal Heart,” a cover of her own song (from 1998’s Moon Pix), fares best. Whereas before, the possibility of Marshall’s imperfect arrangements falling apart any second created a narcotic tension, the conscious suspense here is no less compelling. It’s her best vocal performance, too, although her always-amazing pipes get in the way and she coasts on sounding pretty. Before, Marshall would put everything—her soul, her manic sense of musicianship, her possible psychosis—into her covers. Now, she just shows up and opens her mouth. [www.matadorrecords.com]

—Rich Juzwiak

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark [New West]

With 2006’s A Blessing And A Curse, the Drive-By Truckers—perhaps one of the most respected bands to emerge from the American Southeast—had hit a wall. The songs didn’t quite live up to the expectations set by nearly a decade’s worth of focused detail and complex half-truths. But this was nothing time off from the road and a personnel shift couldn’t fix. Gone is songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell, and in his place is founding member and guitarist John Neff. Bassist Shonna Tucker brings in her first three songs, and Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham, who’s been touring with the band of late, drops electric-piano lines that are more felt than heard. Suspended over Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is the steely insight of mainstays Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood. “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife” suggests hope through tragedy over banjo and acoustic guitar. Cooley’s small-town character sketch “Bob” has the playfulness of Tom T. Hall mingling with the Truckers’ own awareness. The problems come with the rockers, some of which seem to have the punch knocked out of them. Tucker’s “Home Field Advantage” sounds like modern-day FM-radio country, while Hood’s “The Man I Shot” wants to explode but gets straitjacketed in the studio. Yet Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is the work of a prolific, well-traveled bunch. That they’ve played themselves out of a tight corner is an impressive feat in and of itself. [www.newwestrecords.com]

—Bruce Miller

BIIRDIE: Catherine Avenue [Love Minus Zero]

Catherine Avenue is the album Rilo Kiley could’ve wowed the world with if Jenny Lewis and Co. learned the art of subtlety. Biirdie—L.A. residents Jared Flamm (guitar, vocals), Kala Savage (keyboard, vocals) and Richard Gowen (drums)—has perfected the countrified story-song, rooting its pastoral ’70s-pop in orchestral crescendos and lush harmonies. The lyrics are revealing (“Who were you thinking of when we were making love last night? Was it a good-looking stranger or a close friend of mine?”) without being embarrassing. Musically, Biirdie moves between genres like the best of them, but the changes grow naturally within each song, as opposed to the jilting country/synth/ballad shift that occurs from song to song on Rilo Kiley’s Under The Blacklight. Rather, the focus of Biirdie’s sophomore album is on buoyant, sunshiny epics told through Fleetwood Mac-style harmonies that often tinkle into a banjo boogie or swell to climbing, distorted power chords a la the Who. A sense of place roots the LP in dreamy reflection, but it’s Flamm’s voice, which rests somewhere between Jason Lytle’s airy tenor and Conor Oberst’s confessional quaver, that’s oddly affecting. [www.loveminuszero.net]

—Jessica Parker

Times New Viking: Let It Rip

As immortalized by Guided By Voices on “Dayton, Ohio 19-Something And 5,” the Buckeye State has inspired some of the greatest lo-fi and bedroom rock of the past two decades. But the members of Columbus’ Times New Viking—vocalist/drummer Adam Elliot, vocalist/keyboardist Beth Murphy and guitarist Jared Phillips—are getting a little bored with all the GBV comparisons. Despite the fact that his brother Kevin played in 84 Nash (a band on Robert Pollard’s Rockathon label in the ’90s), Elliot doesn’t cite GBV as an influence.

“Guided By Voices is definitely a reference, but musically I don’t think we’re influenced by them,” he says. “The way we create songs is similar to the way they create songs, just spending Saturday night sitting in your house, making songs with your friends. A lot of people mistake it as we’re trying to sound bad on purpose, but it’s more about recording the song three times after you learned it, so there’s still that freshness to it.”

Continue reading “Times New Viking: Let It Rip”

EVANGELICALS: The Evening Descends [Dead Oceans]

To listen to Evangelicals’ second album, you’d think the studio was hip deep in musicians, a la the Polyphonic Spree. In fact, all that swirly, spacey noise on The Evening Descends was created by three musicians and a lot of knob twiddling. Despite the soaked echo and thundering kick drums, Evangelicals’ music isn’t exactly psychedelic rock; it never meanders, and you get the sense, even as things sound close to crashing down around you, that nothing happens that the band hasn’t thought out in advance. It sounds grand in the best sense of the word: operatic and soaring, but also a little fragile, owing to Josh Jones’ high, trembling voice, which rides the swelling music like a reed atop floodwater. The layers of sound sometimes threaten to overwhelm the songs, but more often, as on the hooky “Skeleton Man” and “Stoned Again,” The Evening Descends manages to thread its expansive sound with just enough light instrumental touches—the slightest guitar fillip, a measure and a half of spiraling background vocals—to keep the mix intriguing and personal. The Evening Descends is a dizzying, carefully crafted ride; it spins, but never out of control. [www.deadoceans.com]

—Eric Waggoner

PHOTON BAND: Back Down To Earth [Empyrean]

Art Di Furia’s Photon Band was one of the cornerstones of Psychedelphia, a loose coterie of Philly bands from the mid-to-late ’90s that explored landscapes both interior and interstellar in styles ranging from terse, Nuggets-style garage rock to extended abstract explorations. Whereas the last two Photon Band LPs were recorded essentially alone by Di Furia while he was doing coursework for a Ph.D. in Renaissance art history, fifth album Back Down To Earth returns to a full-band affair. It’s a heavy, bluesy, relatively upbeat collection of psychedelic rockers, appealingly nostalgic without being annoyingly derivative. It isn’t difficult to hear the roots here: Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, the Creation and a little MC5. But that’s fine. Whether it’s the woozy, floating title track, the cheerfully strutting “Whatchagonnado?” or the soulfully slurring “Just Between Me And You,” Di Furia and cohorts have ingested those roots and swirled them into their own rocking, clangorous trip. [www.empyreanrecords.com]

—Steve Klinge

TIMES NEW VIKING: Rip It Off [Matador]

The list of band members on this Ohio trio’s MySpace page says it all: Hamish Kilgour, Mark Ibold and Brix E. Smith (plus Ron House on “tapes”). Maybe they’re not being entirely candid—I don’t hear any tapes—but there’s no denying the imprint of the Fall (circa 1978-83), Pavement (circa Slay Tracks) and most of all the Clean (especially 1983’s Odditties) upon Times New Viking’s sound. The band has the Mancunians’ rickety clatter and the Californians’ slovenly execution down pat, and it puts these affectations at the service of swaying, sing-song tunes that hook your ear as savagely as the hallowed Kiwi combo’s did back in the day when you could buy telephones with rotary dials. But good taste alone can’t carry an album. What makes Times New Viking interesting is its surplus of groovy tunes that exude a palpable sense that anything can happen and it’s gonna be great. Rip It Off is all giddy tempos, grimy textures and impossible-to-ignore melodies recorded in the sort of audio crudité that’s been making engineers wince since the first time someone blew a speaker. What’s not to like? [www.matadorrecords.com]

—Bill Meyer

JACK PEÑATE: Matinee [XL]

Jack Peñate is a posh kid from South London who nevertheless affects the professional Cockney accent that’s currently de rigueur with aspiring English pop monkeys. He’s best mates with the ubiquitous (but genuinely talented) Lily Allen and is tearing up the U.K. charts with slick, self-deprecating indie pop. He’s also, for his sins, the latest in a long line of NME-anointed saviors of the universe. Which, frankly, just goes to show how desperate the music rag is these days in its hyperventilating attempts to proclaim the next big thing. Because, for all the hype, Matinee is one of the most lightweight, fleeting and transparent debuts in recent memory. It’s initially pleasant enough, an upbeat mishmash of sub-Dexy’s Midnight Runners cod-soul vocals, anemic rockabilly licks and the odd touch of ska lite. Peñate points toward Todd Rundgren and Jeff Buckley as influences, but if anything, the bulk of Matinee recalls nothing so much as the collected b-sides of Haircut 100 and a-ha. (Not a good thing.) It’s not all terrible (“Run For Your Life” nods agreeably toward the underrated Bluetones), but overall, Matinee is a vapid album whose relentless perkiness only serves to irritate. [www.xlrecordings.com]

—Neil Ferguson

ERIC MATTHEWS: The Imagination Stage [Empyrean]

At some point, you’d figure that Eric Matthews’ hermetic lifestyle (secreted away in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain range, having not played a live gig in years) and outsized ego (which has him, in his own head at least, creating a body of work equal to that of Burt Bacharach or the Bee Gees) would catch up with him. So how is it that, 14 years beyond Cardinal’s chamber-pop debut and five albums into a sporadic solo career, we find Matthews crafting some of his finest work to date? The Imagination Stage is spilling over with Matthews’ drama-rich, breathy vocals and instruments that range from stately church organ to plunkety-plunk banjo to cheesy electronic drums. The songs here cast forth a batch of character portraits as strong as any he’s ever created. Poets, fools, lovers and enemies are all richly imagined and sewn together with care in Matthews’ ornately arranged fashion. “I knew that I’d come around/I have arrived, in my mind/And I’m not going back,” he sings plaintively on the album’s circular, piano-driven title cut. Matthews may very well be living in a self-delusional universe in which he’s the nightly guest star, but it’s a world nonetheless worth visiting. [www.empyreanrecords.com]

—Corey duBrowa

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: Distortion [Nonesuch]

A man can only wield a ukulele for so long before he runs back to the electric guitar. Anyone who thought Stephin Merritt was lost to NPR and Chinese operettas after signing to the Nonesuch label in 2002 will delight in the literally titled Distortion, which sounds like Merritt got caught up in the excitement of the recent Jesus And Mary Chain reunion. On the surface, the sonic atmosphere is the only thematic thread here, unusual for Merritt, who never sets pen to paper without a concept in mind. Most of the songs are about loathing—of both the self (“Too Drunk To Dream”) and others (anti-OC anthem “California Girls”). But it’s the LP’s running order that reveals a loose narrative. Merritt spends most of the first two-thirds of Distortion repelling all those around him (“Mr. Mistletoe,” “Please Stop Dancing”) before a wave of regret hits (“I’ll Dream Alone”) and he spends the final three songs equally fascinated and frustrated with the emotional detachment of others. Naturally, he uses the most extreme examples possible: a zombie’s lover, a nun fantasizing about being a sex worker and a musing on the carefree life of a courtesan. Longtime Magnetic Fields fans will welcome back the vocal presence of drummer Claudia Gonson, who was shut out of 2004’s i. Whether Merritt’s return to lo-fi will fly at Lincoln Center remains to be seen, but his melodic mastery is never in question. [www.nonesuch.com]

—Michael Barclay