Word is Peter Doherty, one-time headline-grabbing Libertines and Babyshambles head who taught Britain’s oughties youth the joys of electric guitars, natty suits and trilbies, had long desired recording in Hamburg for its associations with the Beatles’ legend. Interesting, then, his second solo disc having more to do with “Eleanor Rigby” and post-moptops-and-collarless-suits finery than with greasy quiffs, leather jackets and sweaty amphetamine-stoked versions of “Hippy Hippy Shake.”
Mind you, Doherty’s always been as comfortable with acoustic troubadour excursions as with shambolic garage punk. The acoustic guitar, in fact, seems closer to his heart. Hence, on music-hall-flavored post-Paris-attacks lament “Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven,” the now-30-something narcotized dandy taunts modern 20-somethings, “C’mon, boys: Choose your weapon/J-45 or AK-47.” (The Gibson J-45 was John Lennon’s acoustic of choice.) Elsewhere, he mourns former soulmate Amy Winehouse on “Flags Of The Old Regime,” references both Graham Greene (“Kolly Kibber,” named for the newspaper man whose murder ignites Brighton Rock) and Anais Nin (“A Spy In The House Of Love”) and further sails the good ship Albion to Arcadia while only once directly referring to his life’s mission in the lyrics to “Oily Boker.”
Hearing how Doherty appeared in Hamburg following the most recent Libertines dates promoting last year’s Anthems For Doomed Youth comeback record and materialized at Clouds Hill Recordings unannounced after inquiring about a suitable studio, it’s obvious he still values spontaneity. Yet Hamburg Demonstrations is the most carefully produced and executed music of his career.
There could’ve been no greater, sadder or blunter advertisement for Leonard Cohen’s final album than what he told The New Yorker back in October: “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” Louder than say, David Bowie, who kept his end quiet save for the lyrical contents of his last record, Cohen here talks the talk of being at death’s door from the outset. “I’m ready my Lord,” he fireside chats through the hum of a church organ on the album’s titular opener, a song whose pace is reminiscent of his classic “First, We Take Manhattan.” During the country lilt of “Leaving The Table,” with its f-hole guitar twang worthy of Gene Pitney, Cohen sing-stings about a life where he’s out of the game: “I don’t even know the people in your picture frame.”
Yet, the poet (pop’s best, apologies to the recent Nobel Prize winner for literature) most possessed of gravel and silt for a voice, and a gypsy in his heart, wasn’t quite so ready—in song, at least—to throw in all his towels. Through the dark, Cohen smartly questions everything from the prickly possibilities of future romance (a nearly pastoral “Treaty” and its secular screed “between your love and mine”) to, quite possibly, the sacred Zen Buddhist religion where he once solidly and stoically placed his faith. From the violin-and-Gyuto monk intro of “It Seemed A Better Way” to Cohen’s whispered searing line, “It sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today,” this tower of song seems ready for Biblical justice. With that, Cohen’s au revoir kiss off through the blue bouncing electric piano of “Traveling Light” (the song with its singer crooning at his heartiest) could be to a woman, a god or life itself. The same is true of the chamber-stringed hootenanny of “Steer Your Way” where Cohen drives past the “fables of creation and the fall” to what becomes his final mea culpa. To paraphrase one of Cohen’s best, that’s no way to say goodbye. But, then, well, safe travels, Mr. Cohen.
Dismiss New Zealand’s Crowded House as a mere politely polished ’80s relic at your own peril. Sure, frontman/songwriter Neil Finn can knock out winsome McCartney-esque pop like nobody’s business, but he’s every bit as idiosyncratic a ’60s-influenced songwriter as Robyn Hitchcock or XTC’s Andy Partridge. Finn sinks his melodic hooks in deeply and lyrically; he’s often ruminative and even death-obsessed.
So this reissue series with deluxe packaging and extra CDs of bonus tracks is well overdue. The 1986 self-titled album contains their only U.S. hits (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong”) amid occasionally overbearing production touches. 1988’s Temple Of Low Men puts more focus on Finn’s brooding side, while 1991’s Woodface adds older brother Tim Finn to the lineup and emphasizes their fraternal vocal blend. 1993’s Together Alone is Crowded House’s finest album, with textured production and eclectic arrangements spotlighting the mysteries in songs like “In My Command,” “Nails In My Feet” and “Distant Sun.”
The band broke up a few years later (1999’s Afterglow is a pleasant if inessential collection of outtakes), but it reformed after the 2005 suicide of drummer Paul Hester. 2007’s Time On Earth is an especially somber reunion album, which largely plays to Finn’s strengths. But 2010’s Intriguer is a curiously bland and inert affair.
The copious demos and live versions that fill out these reissues are probably for fans only. Nevertheless, they give plenty of insight into both Finn’s craft and the band’s Hard Day’s Night-like sense of humor.
Last year, the Sword issued High Country, its fifth album of ’70s-inspired, five-o’clock-shadow stoner metal. After nine solid months of touring said record, the subsequent and inevitable ear ringing led the band’s members to wanting to tone it down a smidge without going all sappy and syrupy like Zakk Wylde when he steps away from Black Label Society. So, electrics were swapped out for acoustics, and High Country was arranged for a fireside strum-fest. The moments where added bongos/hand drums, backing vocals, percussion and effects (title track, “Mist & Shadow”) and especially the gospel/R&B edge provided by horns on “Early Snow” demonstrate an understanding that simply playing the songs acoustically is the easy way out while making up for the subtraction of their customary swagger and boogie. In spite of these alterations, however, Low Country’s appeal will definitely be mostly embraced by those already familiar with the tunes in their original guise.
Per its title, The Deaner Album is a chummy, accessible record, its occasional forays into lyrical wigginess leavened by straight-up arrangements and song structures. Mickey Melchiondo’s first record as titular frontman is a wild assortment of styles and forms, from Southern prog rock (“Dickie Betts”) to country (“Tammy”) to metal (several) to funk. It’ll be no surprise to longtime fans that the quality of the guitar playing is first-rate—the album-closing cover of Funkadelic’s “The Doo Doo Chasers” is a particularly virtuosic moment. But the record’s original compositions are eminently rewarding on their own terms. As Ween so often did, Melchiondo wraps some of the best, wittiest elements of the music inside the most insistently lunkheaded ones: “Bundle Of Joy” or “Charlie Brown,” laddish as they sound at first pass, contain lyrical turns and melodic syncopation that’ll crack you up when you catch them. Worth a listen, for Ween fans and armchair guitar heroes alike.
A glorious, long-awaited return from Lund, Sweden’s impeccably styled dream-pop maestros—and easily the most vibrant they’ve ever sounded—Running Out Of Love kicks off with a sunny, bongo-laced shimmer that would’ve fit right in on Sincerely Yours circa 2007, before moving on to slinky, synth-reggae, sleek New Order-esque tech-pop and baggy Balearic breakbeats. But if they’ve nudged themselves increasingly further from the shoegazy static of their early years, toward luminous, unshrouded melodies and astoundingly plausible dance music, it’s definitely still dance music for introverts. And fear not; vibrant is a relative term—there are still plenty of hazy, lushly burnished textures to retreat to in between the sophisti-bangers. Likewise, while this is an upfront, incisively political record for those who’re paying attention—the lyric sheet practically drips with woeful indignation at Sweden’s ominous rightward turn—Johan Duncanson’s voice remains so soft and subdued (and mixed sufficiently low) as to incite only the most subtle and tastefully restrained of revolutions.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Guitar primitivist, post-rock smoothie, dry-throated balladeer, electronic prankster, sideman extraordinaire—over the course of a three-decade career, David Pajo has disappeared into each one of these guises. At moments, Highway Songs suggests a Real World bungalow stacked to the rafters with these Pajo iterations. Brooding metal clinics “Bloom” and “Flatliners” are reminiscent of stints with Zwan and Dead Child; “Adore, A Jar” and “Walking On Coronado” recall the syncopated, liquid precision of early solo project Aerial M and 1999’s Live In A Shark Tank. “Little Girl” feels like the logical apex of his creative trajectory post-Papa M Sings. The silver lining is that still more Pajos are on this RSVP list: a devious Pajo, tweaking and twisting “The Love Particle” into sonic shrapnel; a rowdy, punk Pajo wailing on “Green Hollers.” Consider the jarring Highway Songs a retrenchment in the wake of its creator’s publicly nightmarish 2015: the album as spirit quest, as bridge.
Gather ’round, children of the ’90s. Justin Trosper and Sara Lund of the late, great Unwound have linked musical arms once again, and there’s a reason we mention the ’90s broadly as opposed to Unwound in particular. Nocturnal Habits is a different beast than what’s expected if you didn’t know about its participants’ new musical lives since Leaves Turn Inside You and that Trosper quite enjoys hopscotching over and around genres. Lead-off tracks “Ecophilia” and “Good Grief” are beckoning those who can’t afford the asking price for vinyl of the last MBV, “Wall Of Early Morning Light” is the piece Philip Glass never collaborated with Dead Can Dance on, while “Sketchbook” and “Ice Islands” pensively hum straight outta the Midwest where Shudder To Think collides with Bob Mould’s maturity. Trosper and Lund trading in ratcheting angular noisiness for alt-indie filtered through lush orchestration may be bemoaned by some, but it works. And it’s a lot easier on the senses.
To say that Miami’s Jacuzzi Boys have had trouble finding their footing outside the garage isn’t an entirely fair assessment. Over the course of their past few albums, the guitars have gotten tauter, the production slicker and the songs more direct. Where contemporaries Black Lips take a more psychedelic approach, Jacuzzi Boys lay on the riffs with the self-released Ping Pong. Following on the heels of the Happy Damage EP, Ping Pong doles out confection after barbed confection. The punchy “Boys Like Blood” and the churning “Seventeen” sound like interdimensional T.Rex outtakes, while the Boys’ punk spirit is alive and well on the relentless “New Cross.” The band even offers its own take on flower power, particularly on the breezy “Easy Motion.” For as solid as Ping Pong is (one of the group’s best), there remains a twinge of anonymity in the music. So well-versed are Jacuzzi Boys in hooky guitar pop that their boisterous personalities occasionally get lost in the mix.
Whether he’s crooning like Frank Sinatra (as he did on solo debut Black Hours) or shredding his throat on, say, the Walkmen classic “The Rat,” Hamilton Leithauser possesses one of the strongest, most expressive voices in indie rock. “I got the same voice I always did,” he proclaims on I Had A Dream That You Were Mine’s “Sick As A Dog,” but it’s quite a voice. Collaborating with Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, Leithauser sings and shouts of dreams, ghosts and spirits, but the music is alive with ideas. The kitchen-sink arrangements draw on the early rock era. “You Ain’t That Young Kid” sounds like Dylan’s “I Want You”; “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)” lurches on a bed of doo wop “sha-doobies”; “Peaceful Morning” foregrounds honky-tonk piano and banjo. But these songs rarely stay in one place, or genre, for long. Their playful mutability keeps them from being genre exercises and makes I Had A Dream a delight.