! = recommended
* = all-ages
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The usual is all here for The Magnetic Fields fans: Stephin Merritt with Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, John Woo, Shirley Simms, Johny Blood, and Daniel Handler making Spanish influenza-catchy, basement speakeasy lo-fi itchy, top shelf bourbon-breathed novelty hate snog orgies out of lyrical cliches, turned around and spanked sweetly.
However, there are some obvious twists on Love At The Bottom Of The Sea -- starting with the fact that they're back on Merge Records, the label that launched them as DIY synth-pop demigods in the 90s. And for the occasion TMF bring back the keyboards with all the squeaking, squonking, squealing, and the beep-beep-beeps beneath. The sweet fragrance of infatuations crooned and bleated on alt-boom classics like Get Lost and The Charm of the Highway Strip lingers here, but richly infused with the robust LP-learnin' Merritt and friends have been bringing in from late 60s/early 70s pop-folk-AM cabaret on their albums since the immense, ever-expanding 69 Love Songs.
Whether it’s primal joy or just effervescent boy-joy, Takers and Leavers remains mischievous and playful even in its most serious moments. It’s impossible to stop grinning as you sing along to the line, “all of my friends are dying.” Kithkin may not be tame, but as in nature, all is not chaos on Takers and Leavers. There is an organizing principle behind the music of this urban tribe of woodland creatures. The playing is tight, the vocals are strong, and for all their youth (did I mention that Kithkin are KEXP Sound Off! alumns?) the lyrics can be on the profound side.
...when the tissue paper layers of his songs build to sufficient thickness, it’s impossible not to be swept away, as evidenced by Blues Funeral.
Blues Funeral is the first album released under the name Mark Lanegan Band since 2004’s Bubblegum, but don’t think Lanegan hasn’t been busy. He has released albums with Isobel Campbell, The Twilight Singers, Soulsavers, and The Guttertwins, in addition to making numerous guest appearances in the meantime. Despite eight years and nine albums separating them, Blues Funeral follows logically from Bubblegum. Blues Funeral is the more cohesive of the two, yet rarely dips into monotony. Guest appearances by frequent collaborators, Josh Homme, Greg Dulli, and Jack Irons connect the album to Lanegan’s other projects.
Blues Funeral is best enjoyed in its entirety in a darkened room, through headphones, with a bourbon in hand. Throughout the whole, lyrics are placed front and center, where, like the Man in Black, Lanegan yearningly explores unwholesome themes with only a flickering hope of Christian redemption.
It appears as though the idea with Stars was essentially to avoid over-thinking: seventh track "Looking Through", for example, was recorded the day after it was written. The result is an album that immediately sounds familiar, not because it's a retread but because Nada Surf have so aptly captured the shimmering, lovely essence of what makes them so enchanting in the first place. Opener "Clear Eye Clouded Mind" bursts with punchy, high energy guitars and (of course) flawless harmonies. I suspect it will be a highlight of live shows on their current tour and beyond. "When I Was Young" is no less than an indie-riffic masterpiece, slowly building into a heart-wrenching instant classic.
Though I didn't really need further convincing, Stars reaffirms Caws' place as perhaps the greatest writer of pop tunes in America (all due respect to Adam Schlesinger!). With Nada Surf, what you
see hear is what you get. And in this instance, that's a beautiful thing.
I have come to expect a few things from TMBG: Brass and polka-tron influences, references to interesting people of historical significance, and to err on the side of the absurd. TMBG have a strange influence on their fans - they appeal to children as much as adults, but one would should not mistake brevity for simplicity. I was delighted to find several TMBG tracks were included on a shyly-collated mixtape from my boyfriend; many years later we would play several of their songs at our wedding. I was sitting in a play a week ago, and the cast included "Ana Ng" in their scant soundtrack, without it sounding out of place. TMBG have a diverse appeal, in all their galloping, oom-pah-pah craziness and joy.