This month, our resident music critic Kevin O’Conner agreed to give his harried editor a break and handle the lion’s share of the reviews. His one requirement was that we give him a crack at the new Fiona Apple album. Happy to oblige, Kevin…
The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
The release of a Fiona Apple album is always an event. Her second album (When the Pawn…) directed a middle finger toward mainstream conventions with its 90-word title. On 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, debates raged regarding the source and quality of a leaked version of the record (not to mention the inexplicable hype surrounding the whole “Free Fiona” campaign).
Seven years later, Fiona returns with a new album and another long title. Comparatively, it’s not that long, so it’s more of a mini-event, unlikely to overshadow the music this time, which is a good thing, because these extraneous events distract from the real question: how does the album sound? Musically, The Idler Wheel stands as her most sophisticated statement to date, and while complexity doesn’t necessarily translate into quality, her latest release is defiant, gorgeous and thoroughly satisfying.
The record’s idiosyncratic arrangements stand out for their heavy emphasis on rhythmic elements; in fact, there’s not a conventional rhythm track in sight. Half of the songs feature sampled percussion loops (those on “Jonathan” and “Regret” appearing to come from factory/workshop sounds, and the loop on “Anything We Want” evokes, somewhat oddly, the one found on Suzanne Vega’s “Blood Makes Noise”). The only place a “regular” drum kit makes an appearance is on “Left Alone,” and even then, the rhythm shuns the typical 4/4 pulse in favor of a sparkly shuffle. In other places, percussion serves mostly as texture, follows the vocal, or both. Even Fiona’s piano is often used mostly for its rhythmic qualities; on most of the songs (particularly on “Left Alone”), it is effectively part of the rhythm section.
Despite the prominence of the rhythmic elements, The Idler Wheel… transcends a percussive exercise, with ample flourishes tucked within the production rewarding repeated listening. As for the songs themselves, Fiona is in top form throughout―she even breaks out into sea-shanty-like shouts in “Every Single Night” (a logical extension of “Extraordinary Machine”) and “Periphery.” Her protagonists struggle with insecurities, quirks, desires, and troubles in relationships gone awry (i.e. “don’t let me ruin me/I may need a chaperone,” from “Daredevil”).
In the playful “Anything We Want”, she reminisces about the beginnings of a happy relationship (“let’s pretend we’re 8 years old, playing hooky/I’ll draw on the wall and you can play UFC rookie”); while on the closing track, “Hot Knife”, Fiona effectively channels her inner Beyoncé (“All the Single Ladies”) and En Vogue (“My Lovin’”) in a jazzy arrangement with a rich chorus of voices accompanied mainly by tympani.
The deluxe edition of the album includes a bonus DVD featuring parts of Fiona’s March 2012 SXSW performance, a 40-page notebook reproduction, photos, and a fold-out poster. The notebook alone is worth the extra bucks, with details so vivid that you’ll forget you’re looking at a copy. If you spring for the deluxe edition on iTunes, you’ll also get the bonus track “Largo”―but you have to buy the full album to get it, as it’s not available as a separate download. -Kevin O’Conner
Key Tracks: “Every Single Night”, “Daredevil”, “Left Alone”, “Anything We Want”, “Hot Knife”
For Fans of: Fiona Apple―there’s nobody else quite like her
The soundtrack to your next roadtrip
Resembling an early ’90s grunge album with all the one-word song titles (e.g., “Wild”, “Sketch”, “Unemployment”, etc.), Wild, The Inner Banks’ third album, is a largely mellow affair. Even the more uptempo tracks carry a certain amount of restraint. In fact, thanks to its arrangements, Wild feels more like a road-movie soundtrack, with about half the songs being instrumentals.
Early into the record the band betray an abiding ’60s pop influence, as well as that of early ’90s shoe-gazing bands, set to modern beats. Caroline Schutz’s vocals brew the airiness of Lush’s Emma Anderson with the relative huskiness of Lush’s Miki Berenyi―most notably on “Found Holiday”, which also contains delightfully quirky drum patterns that amble and weave like a freshman walking out of a frat party, yet the beats remain firmly on track.
The only real drawback is the album’s sonics, muffled by a dull veneer that shrouds the otherwise bright music. Cinematic material like this requires more dynamics and polish than they manage on this effort. That being said, don’t set out on your next roadtrip without this. -KO
Key Tracks: “Unemployment,” “Box and Crown”
For fans of: Juliana Hatfield, The Folk Implosion
Ruler of the Night
Let’s go for a swim…
If your bag is quirky little records that keep you guessing with each beat, lyric or bridge, then look no further. The label’s band page compares frontman Tim Cohen to “weirdo-luminary forbears Daniel Johnston and R. Stevie Moore,” and while that vibe is vaguely present, the delivery isn’t as lo-fi as Daniel Johnston, nor does it have the lightness or clarity of an R. Stevie Moore record.
Instead we have an album of quiet (or at least downtempo) songs mastered partly for volume―yup, another loud record that doesn’t need to be. And the vocals (and some of the instruments) sound as though they were recorded in a swimming pool―though that does actually work well in some spots.
On the other hand, this aesthetic seems to be a Magic Trick hallmark. So, if you liked The Glad Birth of Love, or any of Tim Cohen’s previous works, you’ll be salivating by the third track. If not, you may face some rough going. Still, except for the Johnny Cash-like vocals on parts of “Melodies”, this disc doesn’t sound like anything else out there. And that is a good thing. But keep it on your iPod. -KO
Key Tracks: “Melodies”, “Torture”, “Ruby”
For Fans of: lo-fi pop/rock, idiosyncrasy, swimming pools
This is PiL
You are now entering a kinder, gentler PiL zone…and PiL have never sounded better
Twenty years on, John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. return with This is PiL, their self-released new record. Purists will decry the absence of Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, but it’s worth noting that This is PiL hews closer, stylistically at least, to the early PiL records (but with smoother edges) than to their later, more “commercial” 1980s discs, which had PiL sounding quite, well, conventional.
This is PiL, on the other hand, doesn’t sound like anything else out there. The sound is warm, full, and live, often with thick, dubby bass. Technically speaking, PiL have never sounded better. Lydon’s voice has mellowed considerably since the last PiL album; that nasal edge is largely gone, though he can still bring out the sneer when he wants to.
Astonishingly, Lydon sounds happy. While the album occasionally rails with biting commentary (“Human”, “Fool”) and full-contact shoegazing (“The Room I Am In”), for the most part, Lydon and cohorts indulge their playful sides, just having a blast playing new music again―particularly on “Lollipop Opera”, on which Lydon’s treated vocal sounds like something out of Jamaican dancehall. Let the purists complain. This is PiL! -KO
Key Tracks: One Drop, Human, I Must Be Dreaming, Lollipop Opera, Reggie Song
For Fans of: The Clash, Joy Division, Sex Pistols
Down at the Rec Center
Tin Year probably isn’t what you’d expect from a band called Rec Center―even after taking the simple, very tasteful cover art into consideration. Most of the songs fall firmly into the singer/songwriter mold, featuring introspective lyrics, tasteful instrumentation, and slower tempos.
Then again, given Rec Center singer/songwriter Susie Ulrey’s decade-plus struggle with MS (as mentioned in a recent interview), this isn’t much of a surprise. While the music considers a broad range of themes and textures, much of the melancholy undoubtedly stems from Ulrey working through some of the accompanying emotions.
“Monster in Your Heart”, with its funereal organ drone and half-whispered vocal, showcases the best of this sparsely melodic sound; it perfectly captures the feeling of that inner pep talk which is in danger of being overcome by difficult circumstances. The regret-laden “Take it Back” would not have been out of place in Magnolia.
The relatively snappy, uptempo “Swimming”, and “Damn, Julie. Damn.” [sic] provide welcome breaks from all the introspection, which at times starts to feel slightly claustrophobic.
Tin Year would certainly benefit from a vinyl release, although the absence of vinyl shouldn’t keep you from enjoying it right now. -KO
Key Tracks: Monster in Your Heart, Take it Back, Stages, Sister
For Fans of: The Maccabees (not the UK band), Pohgoh
Making the singer-songwriter respectable again.
The “singer-songwriter” tag has long held the stigma of its association with the oh-so-earnest introspective moping of its 1970s incarnation. On his first full-length album (following 2009’s EP of Acoustic Awesomeness), Seattle-based Tommy Simmons doesn’t shy away from introspection and earnestness, as in “Joseph” and “San Diego”―but he also knows how to bare his teeth, as in the snarling “Potential” and “Velocity.” Plus, the songs are catchy as hell and very soulful.
No doubt thanks to Simmons’ relentless gigging up and down the West Coast, the performances retain a loose, live vibe, while the full band arrangements achieve the rare feat of actually improving upon the original EP versions (though the original “San Diego” intro isn’t featured here). There are also some delightfully unexpected touches: the opening track has a slight reggae lilt, “Potential” features funky clav throughout, and album-closer “Sing with Me” ends with a bit of New Orleans. All of this is topped off with Simmons’ unique phrasing and breathy-yet-smoky voice.
Finally, this may be the best-sounding release of the year; the sound is both warm and dynamic. You can comfortably crank this one up and sing along―and you might surprise yourself to find that’s exactly what you end up doing. Highly recommended. -KO
Key Tracks: All of them (or “Joseph”, “San Diego”, “Potential”, if you must narrow it down)
For Fans of: John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz
Analog man meets the digital world.
It’s been 20 years since the last Joe Walsh album―longer, if you’re one of those folks who found his mid-’80s albums disappointing and gave up. Now he’s back with Analog Man, and while it’s good to see Walsh making his own music again, Analog Man ultimately disappoints. Part of it is that it is all-too digital. It comes on fairly loud, and doesn’t really let up―which doesn’t make for the repeated listening a good album requires.
The other problem is Jeff Lynne. Much of the music bears his stamp―sonically, at least―and a Joe Walsh album really needs its space (think of …But Seriously, Folks or any of his ’70s classics). Lest we forget the man behind the record, Analog Man shines in a number of places. “Analog Man” is a fine update of the Joe Walsh sound, and our hero shows he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. “Funk 50” is a fun sequel to/remake of “Funk #49”, and “India” is a cool instrumental with some wicked guitar.
Recommendation: Spring for the vinyl edition, then go see him live. -KO
Key Tracks: “Analog Man”, “Funk 50”, “India”
For Fans of: Joe Walsh, Eagles, James Gang
The Bravest Man In The Universe
A sugary sweet does of Southern soul with some surprising special guests
Bobby Womack has recorded over 20 studio albums, nearly 50 singles and he has been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame—and he’s not planning on stopping anytime soon. In addition to years of pulverizing drug addiction, Womack has also struggled with diabetes, not to mention an eye-watering parade of personal hardships. An amazing conglomerate of both triumphs and tribulations, Womack celebrates it all on his new and diverse record, The Bravest Man in the Universe. Co-produced by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and XL Records president Richard Russell, it is an orchestra of old soul and R&B and new hip-hop and electronic beats, with Womack conducting, front and center.
Generations collide coming straight out of the gate with the titled track, where Womack’s gravelly voice enters, powerfully and unaccompanied. Then the beat drops, adding a smooth groove that enhances, rather than detracts from, his central melody. The song’s rhythm remains constant, with some variations like whistling and electric guitar riffs that weave in and out. It’s a juicy and enticing thesis to the album. From there, Womack continues to dazzle in various forms.
“Deep River” strays from the hip-hop-meets-soul vibe of the rest of the album. Instead, the traditional Southern spiritual features Womack on his own, allowing him to return to his soul roots with nothing more than his voice and an acoustic guitar. Then, he throws a curveball by featuring Lana Del Ray on “Dayglo Reflection.” This may be the only low point on the album—Del Ray’s sleepy vocals do not add any spice to the already sluggish beat. Skip that track and move on to “Stupid Interlude” to enjoy the caramel smooth voice of Gil Scott-Heron, the spoken-word artist also known as the father of rap. “Love is Gonna Lift You Up” is just as joyous as its title infers, complete with an infectious chorus and simple, yet pleasing, horn section.
Womack offers listeners an array of song styles and delivers on all of them. This record is recommended to long-time fans and especially the kids who haven’t heard of him so they can join in worshiping a legend. -Tori Kerr (TNB Music Intern)
A warm summer breeze for your brain
The digital revolution has ruthlessly upended the music industry in both the way that music is now distributed and the very way musicians craft it; the former resulted in iTunes; the latter resulted in a maddening abundance of lazy shortcuts that take the form of GarageBand drum loops and phony software distortion. Years ago, the Jesus and Mary Chain explored these sonic pastures the old fashioned way–with their instruments. Copycats and pretenders rushed to fill the vacuum of their late-90s split, regurgitating gauzy sonic vignettes with digital cheats that yielded too much distortion and not enough melody.
Echo Lake arrive with a debut that strikes directly into the sweet spot between droning, fuzzy distortion and light, captivating melody, in the guise of Linda Jarvis’ vocals. With shifting tempos and layered rhythms, the sugary grooves wash gently over tracks like “Further Down,” while on punchier affairs such as “Even the Blind,” Jarvis’ vocals float just above the rhythms, investing the melody with moody hues and vibrant shades that contrast brightly with the monolithic delivery of a Mazzy Star record. This speaks to something Echo Lake do very well—mix tempo and emotion extremely well, focusing on one or the other, but never simultaneously, allowing the listener to easily enjoy their infectious cocktail of reverb-infused bliss.
More than a sleepy Sunday morning soundtrack, Wild Peace boasts a fair share of grooves and electro-inspired dance beats, creating a depth and even urgency to their sound, which renders this album eminently worthwhile. -Joe Daly
Key tracks: “Further Down,” “Monday 5am,” “Another Day”
Sounds like: The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, Mazzy Star