It's that time of the year again. Time to make some mid-year recommendations to friends and readers of music worth hearing. If you remain curious to know new music, these are some CDs that have been getting repeated play in my CD changer at home.
Some of these -- Okkervil River, the Decemberists, the Antlers and tUnE-yArD -- all are likely to be ranked somewhere on my "best of the year" list come mid-December. All of these discs are worth hearing if you love music as much as my geeky friends do.
I've listed them alphabetically, to avoid inducing prejudices. Seek them out and give them a spin! Summer is a great time of the year to hear live music and for listening to songs cranked up in the car.
Burst Apart, the Antlers. What are they putting in the drinking water in Brooklyn? This is the first of two bands who claim Brooklyn as home on the mid-year list. The Antlers drew critical raves for their thematically linked song-cycle Hospice back in 2009, a death bed narrative about an abravive cancer patient who falls in love with her nurse. Burst Apart, mercifully, is not as maudlin as that effort but still keeps the lo-fi home-made aesthetics in place. Songwriter Peter Silberman has a lighter touch this time around on songs like "I Don't Want Love" and "French Exit." Well worth finding.
Birds & Drums, the Bewitched Hands. This 6-piece band from Reims, France wowed audiences at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin back in March. Because they sing their lyrics in English, they seem intent on cracking the U.S. indie rock scene. They cover a gamut of styles on Birds & Drums, their initial full-length release on Sony, a sign that they haven't found a signature sound yet. Don't let that stop you from checking them out. The title track is a saccarine pop tune that seems to emulate the Cowsills. "Work" has elements of anthemic rock. "Hard to Cry", the first single, is a swirling pop tune with Feist-worthy vocals. Something for everyone!
The King is Dead, the Decemberists. Colin Meloy says he's hanging up his band director's shoes after this final CD with the Decemberists. I guess that remains to be seen. One can hope not, because this one might be their best effort yet. The band is playing the Academy of Music on June 15th and the show has been sold out for months. If they showcase this terrific collection of radio-friendly folk-rock tunes, they'll make lots of locals very happy. On the back of the new CD, the band is pictured with an array of acoustic mountain music instruments: accordian, banjo, autoharp and two guitars, one with just four strings. If this is a sly reference to The Band, it's appropriate. "Calamity Song" is one tune that will bring the house down all summer, a knowing apocalyptic smile at Harold Camping's End Timers.
Helplessness Blues, the Fleet Foxes. I haven't warmed up to this one as much as my 25 year old son has. But I am confident it will grow on me as the year goes on. The critics have been kinder than kind to the Fleet Foxes. This latest effort seems, on first listen, to be plowing the same fertile ground as the band's eponymous first full-length album. It sounds like a mix of the lush orchestral pop of the Beach Boys with a dash of British folk like the Strawbs and Fairport Convention tossed in. I don't hear anything as arresting as "White Winter Hymnal" on this new CD, but the band's hallmark fingerprints -- those lush four-part vocal harmonies -- are all over this record too. Tracks to download include "Bedouin Dress" and "Lorelie."
Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance. Brooklyn's Gang Gang Dance specializes in experimental rock that takes its cues from Brian Eno. If you like electronica or Eno's ambient and atmospheric music, you'll dig this effort. Most of the tracts are jams that go on for six to eight minutes and create soundscapes that work as well on the dancefloor as they do on your headphones. "Glass Jar", the CD's 11 minute opening opus, and "Romance Layers" are tunes for the Ipod. Adventurous souls can catch their act at Johnny Brenda's on Wednesday, July 20th.
Smart Flesh, the Low Anthem. When I caught their gig at a WXPN Free At Noon show four or five weeks ago, it became immediately obvious the Low Anthem are not your average banjo-stumming folk band. They are drawn to instruments that give their sound an old time gospel flavor: a pump organ, hammer dulcimer, acoustic guitars and fiddles were all on stage. One of the musicians used a fiddle bow to elicit eerie sounds from both a wood saw and a banjo. They recorded Smart Flesh in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Rhode Island and the album has a ambling openness that feels drawn from the building. The Low Anthem makes folk music feel fresh.
Middle Brother, Middle Brother. On paper, it sounds like an idea that's guaranteed to create problems. Take three guys who front their own indie rock bands and mash them together to form their own group. That's exactly what John McCauley (Deertick), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) were asked to consider. Middle Brother, an uproarious mash-up of alt-country and punk rock, is the end result. With sonic tips of the hat to Neil Young, Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, this CD will appeal to your inner hippie. The best cuts include "Blue Eyes", "Portland" and a two rollicking back to back rave-ups "Me, Me, Me" and "Someday".
I Am Very Far, Okkervil River. Will Sheff's best songs plumb the depths of human loss and depravity. He is the Edgar Allen Poe of indie rock. No one makes more compelling modern American music. Sheff's songs, so full of the flinty flash of sharp knives dipping into ripped and torn flesh, can haunt you for days. The new record skirts beneath the surface into a dreamscape of revelations and nighmares. Mysterious, austere and powerful. Check out the YouTube performance of "The Rider" from David Letterman's May 13th show and you'll see a band primed to grab the audience by the throat and never let go. If you don't know them yet, you soon will. Okkervil River's The Stage Names was my favorite CD of the last decade. This new one may be as good.
So Beautiful, or So What, Paul Simon. Just as Bob Dylan made Time Out of Mind when he was contemplating the end, Simon has made this great album, So Beautiful. Heralded by the critics as his best since Graceland, this new album of songs has Graceland's gospel/world music vibe. Lyrically the songs investigate the fertile themes of religious faith, death and the afterlife, love gained and love lost. From the jaunty joyfulness of the opening tract, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day", to the shimmering afro-pop of the disc's finale, the title tune, this is a welcome return to form for Simon.
Whokill, tUnE-yArDs. How does something like tUnE-yArDs (yes, the misplaced uppercase letters are purposeful) happen? Merril Garbus is a name to remember. Garbus makes noise-pop with a worldbeat bent. She tosses jazz, hip-hop, R&B and folk into the mix in what the All-Music Guide calls "fascinating collisions that are as melodic as they are abrasive, and as globally minded as they are distinctly urban." Songs to here include “Gangsta”, a brassy tune topped of with sirens and “Bizness” a nod to the Afro-pop of Fela Kuti and Congotronics. Whokill is the soul record of the year so far, sung and written by an American white girl who sounds like she was raised on the streets of Kinshasha. Check out this live performance of the band's "Bizness" here, recording in the studios of FM station KEXP in Seattle.
Yuck, Yuck. Yuck is no joke. This one is pure pop for now people. Feel the power of the 3-chord guitar riff backed by distortion. Listen to that nasty snarl! Makes you glad AC/DC left their hard rock formula around for these young Londoners to emulate. The perfect graduation present to that whipsmart prepster who thinks his dad's taste in music got stuck in 1985. Crank up the second cut, "The Wall" and watch his graduation party turn into a suburban exodus. Isn't that what makes memories!? Garage rock for muscle cars.