Of all of the underground movements of yore, the late-’80s/early-’90s shoegazer genre seems to have aged the best. Maybe it’s because the preeminent recordings of the time sound like nothing that had come before. Or maybe it’s because the sound was never embraced by the mainstream, thus avoiding widespread saturation or burnout. Perhaps this is why Airiel’s The Battle Of Sealand (Highwheel) feels simultaneously fresh while offering what seems like a gift bag of lost tracks by My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Pale Saints. Hailing from Chicago (via Bloomington, Ind.), Airiel has gradually astounded attentive listeners by issuing five EPs since 2003 and putting on a deafening live show.
In order to erect the new, you have to raze the old.
That’s all you could hope to expect from a band started amid the rubble of Germany’s post-punk scene. A band whose name translates to “collapsing new buildings” and whose scabrous sound was born from the belly of true industrial noise: the crunch and crash of found objects, tortured synthesizers, charred guitars and downward-spiraling screams.
That Einstürzende Neubauten—guitarist/vocalist Blixa Bargeld’s junk-scientific testament to deconstruction—has managed to be more than the sum of its parts is what makes even the band’s harshest machine music tender, odd and gloriously messy. There’s a supple quality to Bargeld’s sharded whisper, hoarse holler and whimpering croon (mostly delivered in German), whether on the group’s literally smashing Kollaps debut or the quietly curvaceous new Alles Wieder Offen.
When trying to comprehend the complicated world of Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, it may help to understand where it all began. Long before forming the Fiery Furnaces and assimilating into the art/music mecca of Brooklyn, the garrulous, keyboard-crazy brother and more reserved, coolly headstrong sister spent their childhood in Oak Park, Ill., a quaint Chicago suburb known for its conflicting mix of modern, sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright houses and boxy, heavily ornamented Victorian architecture. This dynamic of new and old, simple and grand, expansive and densely jumbled is something the Furnaces have perfected over the course of seven years and five albums. Appropriately, when Matt is pressed to describe the Furnaces’ sixth LP, Widow City (Thrill Jockey), the band’s composer and chief lyricist answers in typically elusive fashion.
It’s been only a year and a half since Beirut’s debut was released to gushing praise, followed by tours of Europe, Russia and even Turkey. The worldly sensibility so inherent in Gulag Orkestar found a home wherever the then-20-year-old Zach Condon and his merrily melancholy troupe performed. All this led Condon to move to Paris, which has no doubt influenced The Flying Club Cup. The album serves as a musical travelogue through various French cities and deals with the country’s rich tradition of music, fashion and culture. Condon has also enlisted the help of an eight-piece band instead of going it almost entirely alone as he did on Gulag Orkestar. However, it doesn’t take long for Beirut’s characteristic waltz tempos, minor-key dirges and brass sections—not to mention Condon’s voice, a cross between Thom Yorke and Dean Wareham—to return. Musically, things have expanded a bit; “In The Mausoleum” uses a piano riff that might’ve been pulled from a ’50s-era jazz LP and tops it with Middle Eastern fiddle insinuations. “Cherbourg” seems to waft out of a 19th-century Paris salon despite its juxtaposition of waltz-time accordion and displaced Latin percussion. This album, like its predecessor, is stunning. If there’s a concern, it has less to do with Beirut’s musical path and more to do with the fact that, after such a startling debut in a similar mold, it’s going to be harder for The Flying Club Cup to matter. [www.badabingrecords.com]
The third full-length from guileless Swedish heartthrob Jens Lekman is chock full of all manner of swingin’ fabulousness. Blue-eyed (and blond-haired) soul, Tropicalia, Smiths-inspired melancholia and bombastic Bacharach-isms all commingle easily, but the bracingly direct lyrics and patchwork production really set Night Falls Over Kortedala apart. Lekman is in touch with his feelings to a degree that borders on exhibitionism, and he’s got no patience for reticence: “Most shy people I know are extremely boring/Either that or they are miserable,” he sings on “It Was A Strange Time In My Life.” Sonically, despite all the classic-pop leanings, Lekman’s heavily sampled digital pastiche has more in common with Dr. Dre than Phil Spector. A few demerits are warranted for pointless and distracting tempo changes in two of the album’s most satisfying songs (“Shirin” and “The Opposite Of Hallelujah”), but otherwise, the off-kilter, kitchen-sink production works well. Contemporaries Stephin Merritt and Stuart Murdoch have more fully digested their influences, but Lekman makes up for his lack of subtlety with sheer exuberance. [www.secretlycanadian.com]
Labeling Sunset Rubdown a side project has always felt a little too presumptuous. Even after Wolf Parade co-frontman Spencer Krug upgraded his bedroom solo moniker into a full-fledged band for 2006’s Shut Up I Am Dreaming, the songs still sounded like rambling WP demos. For better or worse, those lo-fi/stripped-down days are finally gone. Sunset Rubdown’s latest album is so bloated with ’70s prog-rock synthesizers and children’s fantasy novel-esque lyrics (“But the sister speaks of trickery!”), it sounds like Emerson, Lake & Palmer stumbled through a wardrobe into a mystical land filled with mythical creatures and leopard-riding virgins. While too much of Random Spirit Lover gets buried in self-indulgence, the album does have its moments. Opener “Mending Of The Gown” is a memorable mix of choppy piano chords and Television-style guitar melodies, and the apocalyptic marching-band feel of “Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot, Toot” is spine-chilling. But Krug’s non-stop croaking yelp gets old quickly, and the few highlights are hardly worth sitting through an hour of Renaissance Faire-y meandering. But if nothing else, Lover will fit right in at your next Dungeons & Dragons party. [www.jagjaguwar.com]
Former Soft Machine and Matching Mole drummer Robert Wyatt has been making solo albums for more than 30 years, incorporating jazz, lounge, folk protest, the odd Caribbean rhythm and long stretches of drone and space. Comicopera is unmistakably Wyatt: There are touches of Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, he still records with Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno, and he still likes to take his time. Here, he’s divided his work into three acts, the last one sung in Italian and featuring the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca. The tracks in act one slosh by slower than time itself, with Wyatt’s keyboards, cornet and gentle Canterbury voice guiding the way for long, cool horn harmonies. The tunes that make up act two provide an abrupt change of pace. “A Beautiful Peace” sounds at first like a rehearsal tape before slipping into the closest thing the man has ever come to country music. Elsewhere, in what becomes an increasingly obvious anti-U.S. foreign-policy sentiment, the act takes an odd swing. Yet there’s really no way to sum up the album’s blend of styles. And there’s perhaps nothing prettier than the steel drum-driven “On The Town Square.” Because Wyatt has been using varied instrumentation to tug at pop’s weatherbeaten coattails for well more than 30 years now, he’s no doubt an indie-rock godfather. The fact that Comicopera is a masterpiece proves it all right nicely. [www.dominorecordco.com]
In the case of Seattle’s Band Of Horses, you can go home again. After guitarist Mat Brooke left the group, leader Ben Bridwell and a few friends decided to high-tail it back to Mt. Pleasant, S.C., to be closer to family and friends. Cease To Begin, like 2006 debut Everything All The Time, was recorded and mixed by Phil Ek (Built To Spill, Modest Mouse) in Seattle, and the sound is again a hazy mess in the best way possible. And if it sounds like Everything All The Time Part 2 … well, it is. All the major guitar chords and reverb-soaked vocals that draped themselves over BOH’s debut are back and sound at least as good, maybe better. Cease To Begin opener “Is There A Ghost” starts things off with Bridwell creakily repeating, “I could sleep, I could sleep/When I lived alone, is there a ghost in my house,” as the guitars swell and aim for a crescendo that never comes. The crescendo does arrive on “Ode To LRC,” whose major chords erupt into big hooks. Elsewhere, Band Of Horses apes ’70s-era Beach Boys with a banged-up piano sound on “The General Specific” and fizzles out on shoegazer interlude “Lamb On The Lam (In The City).” Bridwell and Co. nail the soft/loud dynamic better than any group in recent memory, and Cease To Begin is a fine, fitting return to familiar ground. [www.subpop.com]
Cass McCombs doesn’t sit still very often. He’s the kind of troubadour who rides the Greyhound with a few $20 bills in his pocket and little else. He dodges muggers and probes interviewers and anyone else who wants a piece of him. He hears divine voices (“infinity whispers in my ear”) that urge him “onward, Christian songwriter.” But for a guy who spends most of his time on the road reading Gideons and auditioning new bandmates, Dropping The Writ is remarkably consistent. McCombs had an extended stay in London recently, and you have to wonder if he was tossed into a time machine set to 1987 and recorded with 4AD musicians during a week of rain and fog. Unlike, say, the Clientele—a modern band with a direct line to the melancholic, pastoral pop of the ’60s—McCombs sounds like the Shins interpreting a Robyn Hitchcock cover of the Zombies. Spacious arrangements leave plenty of room for layers of vocal harmonies, and unlike many crooners, McCombs is at his most endearing when he stretches his tenor. Opener “Lionkiller,” with its rolling guitar, is itching to be mashed up with Battles’ “Atlas.” It’s one of the only immediate thrills found on this album of subdued and subtle pleasures, where the weightless atmosphere is a deceptive distraction from McCombs’ songwriting strengths. [www.dominorecordco.com]
Vintage photograph on the album cover? Check. Trebly, lovesick melodies sharp enough to rip a cardigan sweater? Check. Clever, library-assistant-baiting lyrics such as “I will be de Beauvoir, if you’ll be my Sartre”? Double-check. Needless to say, Scotland’s Hermit Crabs leave no page of their country’s folk/pop fakebook un-turned. But for those frustrated by more than a year with no new music from Belle And Sebastian or Camera Obscura, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sweet ballad “Closet Fan” finds guitarist Melanie Whittle sighing about punk rock while confessing a secret love, and “Bad Timing,” with its driving beat and tastefully grinding violin, is about as close to rocking out as the Hermit Crabs are likely to get. The quartet’s jangle-pop pedigree is fairly impeccable, with a guest spot from original Teenage Fanclub drummer (and Camera Obscura manager) Francis Macdonald, and the 10 bite-sized tracks on Saw You Dancing breeze by with such ease that it’s tough to find much fault. But it’s equally difficult to get terribly excited. [www.indiepages.com/matinee]