Destroyer’s “ken” Is One of Dan Bejar’s Best Albums in Many Years

17 Jan

Dan Bejar has been recording and performing as Destroyer for more than 20 years. The Canadian artist has been prolific, with 12 full-length albums to his credit — not counting his work with the popular New Pornographers, of which he is a founding member.

But as familiar as his distinctive, slightly dry and somewhat quirky, narrative vocal style can be — with nods to artists such as David Bowie and even Leonard Cohen — his lyrics are consistently designed to take you out of your comfort zone and challenge your thought process.

Bejar’s latest, ken, is no exception. The title is borrowed from the working title for Suede’s ballad, “Wild Ones,” from 1994. Bejar has been quoted as saying he was thinking about the last years of Margaret Thatcher’s 11-plus-year reign as prime minister of the U.K., from 1979 through 1990. Assuming that’s the case, it’s interesting that Bejar has incorporated some tasty synth-pop and delicious brass flourishes, which make it seem like ken could have been one of Bowie’s artsy masterpieces from the 1980s.

Destroyer’s work isn’t meant to be easy to consume, although this album has several extremely catchy, melodic tracks such as the first single release, “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood.” But Bejar’s work — especially on this album — slowly gets under your skin until it’s affecting you in profound ways.

Track highlights: The second song, “In the Morning,” is a march-like, anthemic rock number with searing guitars and oblique references to the “Death Star in bloom.”

“Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” is as big a “hit” as Bejar has had in many years. It integrates a mesmerizing synth bass line, synth strings, an out-of-sync beat, and smooth vocals with just a touch of trumpet (or synthesized trumpet).

“Cover from the Sun” is next with a bit more than two minutes of wide-open, uplifting, jangly, fun rock ‘n’ roll that takes Destroyer in a very different direction from what we’re used to.

Track 9, “Ivory Coast” features a big pulsing synth with leisurely liquid guitar chords in the choruses. The album closes with “La Regle” Du Jeu,” with jittery keyboards overlaid with swelling synth strings and an 80s pop melody confidently sung by Bejar.

Critically acclaimed by most of the online music publications, Destroyer’s ken is an outstanding addition to indie rock’s solid 2017 portfolio.

 

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St. Vincent’s “Masseduction” Is One of 2017’s Very Best

2 Jan

Annie Clark is an enigma. Her career as a rock ‘n’ roll artist and guitar goddess who records as St. Vincent has always been intriguingly mysterious, unpredictable and difficult to easily categorize — earning her an art-pop label and favorable comparisons to the legendary artistry of David Bowie.

St. Vincent debuted in 2007 with the album Marry Me when she was recording and touring with the Polyphonic Spree and opening for acts such as Sufjan Stevens. (Interestingly, she claims that she doesn’t even have a copy of this album.) She followed Marry Me with Strange Mercy and then the critically acclaimed, self-titled St. Vincent (the #1 album of 2014 on many indie tabulations), as well as an excellent collaboration in 2012 with David Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads).

Now comes 2017’s Masseduction, an album that takes fans on another unexpected journey as Clark experiments with new melodies, a new producer (pop powerhouse, Jack Antonoff) and different instrumentation — incorporating much more synthesizer to compliment her virtuoso guitar work.

In the run-up to its release, Masseduction was billed as a significant departure for Clark. And it is that, and much more. True, it’s musically distinct from her past albums — with plenty of approachable pop numbers interspersed with some of her trademark guitar shredding. But it also reveals continued maturity in her songwriting abilities — with lyrics that are at times highly personal and revealing, taking both Clark and us as listeners out of our comfort zone.

The album is so consistently excellent that’s it difficult to choose which tracks to feature, but here goes:

Track highlights: After an intriguing beat-driven opener, the second track, “Pills,” is a mesmerizing pop tune that make wry observations about the role prescription medicines play in our culture today. The catchy sing-song chorus (sung by Clark’s ex Cara Delevingne) is intercut with some outstanding guitar riffs from Clark.

The title track, “Masseduction” also integrates jittery synth and beats with Clark’s edgy guitar.

“Los Ageless” is a synth-driven electro-pop standard with biting commentary about the dog-eat-dog crucible of Los Angeles. This title is often misspelled on the web as “Los Angeles,” with the title of the album also misspelled as “Masseducation.”

“Happy Birthday, Johnny” is both a beautiful and sad number about a young man that Clark had some sort of personal relationship with. The song is gentle, polished and highly person — with Clark even referring to herself as “Annie.”

The eighth track is an ode to her homebase of “New York City.” It relies on piano and strings, and Clark’s vocals are brittle and emotional.

Masseduction ends with another introspective tune. It’s got one of the best verses on the album, “Sometimes I feel like an inland ocean/Too big to be a lake/Too small to be an attraction/And when you wander in and start to flail a bit/I let it happen, let it happen, let it happen.” Clark sings the song in the lowest parts of her register with a world weariness that reaches to the core of your soul.

In short, Masseduction is precisely what St. Vincent strives for with every project — an album that leaves people a little wiser and better off than before they heard it.

 

Nick Heyward’s “Woodland Echoes” Is Catchy, Melodic Britpop in a McCartney Style

27 Dec

Nick Heyward is a UK-based singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist who made his debut with the New Wave band, Haircut 100, in 1982. While Haircut 100 was only active for a handful of years and a couple of albums, Heyward’s career would last for decades and include many solo albums including his latest — Woodland Echoes.

This is his 7th solo release and first new album in more than ten years. The 12-song set features melodic pop-rock (and one excellent Americana track) that sounds amazingly like Paul McCartney when he was with the Beatles and in the early years of his solo career.

Heyward has a gift for writing catchy melodies with lyrics about love and life. While his music is certainly a throwback to an earlier era, the album does not sound dated. This is a strong indie pop-rock album that works as well today as it would have in the mid 60s or early 70s.

Track highlights: Woodland Echoes opens with “Love Is the Key by the Sea.” The song starts with a clock ticking like a metronome, which sets the tempo for a lilting tune that features strummed guitar and playful piano. The rich harmonies surrounding Heyward’s lead vocals are reminiscent of the Beatles during their Rubber Soul period.

Track 2 is “Mountaintop,” a rollicking Americana number with fiddle and jaw harp that while standing alone on the album, nevertheless fits perfectly. Don’t forget that the Beatles had a habit of adding a country-flavored tune to several of their albums — such as Ringo’s cover of the Buck Owens song “Act Naturally” on Yesterday and Today.

“Baby Blue Sky” was the first single release from Woodland Echoes, and it’s a big guitar-driven pop-rock arrangement with a definite Beatles shine to it. Track 9, “Perfect Sunday Sun,” is another Britpop guitar rocker that’s a strong follow-up single.

The second-to-last track, “I Got a Lot,” perfectly reflects Heyward’s talent as a songwriter and pop crooner. It’s a mellow tune featuring a harmonious, uplifting melody marked by confident lead vocals with some call-and-response backing vocals. You’ll find yourself humming this tune long after you’ve put the CD away.

Heyward may not be a household name these days, but it’s great to have him back after such a long absence with such a solid Britpop entry as Woodland Echoes.

 

Marika Hackman’s “I’m Not Your Man” an Unexpected Departure and Delight

20 Dec

Marika Hackman is a promising young multi-instrumentalist and vocalist from the U.K. Just 25, she released a couple of EPs in 2013 and 2014, before completing her first full-length album in 2015, We Slept at Last. That album received generally favorable reviews — with The Guardian calling it “…superbly understated and atmospheric electro folk.” The publication went on to say, “her music’s unsettling quality and old-as-the-hills delivery makes her different. Full of shadows and animalistic imagery, her songs are like journeys through haunted forests or darker crevices of her mind.”

Well, The Guardian clearly hit on something because Hackman’s sophomore release — I’m Not your Man — is breathtakingly unexpected. Moving away from the crystalline and introspective style of her first album, Hackman offers bold and bracing Britpop with just a tinge of grunge. The lyrics explore life lived large — impulsively, erotically and with a wicked sense of humor.

Hackman is backed on the album by Big Moon, a popular four-piece all-female band out of London that can really rock.

Track highlights: The lead single and first track from I’m Not your Man is a perfect example of the offerings that await. It’s a story about easily luring a man’s girlfriend away because “No one takes us seriously just because I wear a dress.” With a wink, she sings “A woman really needs a man to make her scream.”

Track 5 “Violet” is another sensuous song. The sultry guitar-based melody moves at a luxurious pace as Hackman sings, “With violet eyes, I’ll make you succumb to my mind/And through it all/I’ll keep you blind and close my mouth.” The music builds to a louder, grungier conclusion.

“Apple Tree” is pensive and hesitant, with a subtle rhythm. It veers more toward the haunted folk sound Hackman captured on her first album — perhaps with a hint of a chamber sound.

“Eastbound Train” is a mover that makes good use of Big Moon’s rich instrumentation. The melody is memorable and Hackman’s voice is light and lovely — which is always the case, even in the grungiest parts of her songs. It makes for an interesting interplay between a feeling of aggression and innocence.

There are a number of other standouts on I’m Not your Man,” but unfortunately, they can’t be played on the radio without an edit or two. I like “My Lover Cindy,” “Time’s Been Reckless” and “Cigarette” as outstanding songs that you can’t get out of your head. So, if you’re okay with explicit language, this is an exceptional album, top to bottom.

After the widely divergent styles of Hackman’s first two releases, it will be interesting to see what she does for her third in a few years.

 

 

The Best Indie Rock Album of 2017 by a Band You Haven’t Heard Of — Yet

23 Nov

I can almost guarantee that you haven’t heard of a band named Circus of the West. An indie rock group from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Circus of the West is a four-piece led by Edwin Caldie (vocals, keys), Joel Leviton (guitars), Ben Court (lead guitar), Jason Kapel (bass, keys), and Alan Einisman (drums).

The band describes itself as song-driven, and that’s quite an apt description. The songs on their debut full-length album, We’ll See Ourselves Out, are built around strong, hook-y melodies with lyrics about life, love and making your way in the world.

For me, the sound spans several generations. There’s a clear 90s influence — with an alt-rock edge that’s something like the Barenaked Ladies. But in addition, the roots of the sound actually go back to the mid-1970s, when pop began to be infused with progressive rock tendencies — moving it away from the traditional cookie-cutter formulaic approach. Examples of some of these 70s crossover artists range from Todd Rundgren or Leon Russell to Harry Chapin.

Track highlights: “Birdhand” is a rousing rock opener on We’ll See Ourselves Out. There’s a definite similarity to an up-tempo Barenaked Ladies song with searing guitar, driving drums and nice use of organ from time to time.

“Nothing Special” slows the tempo. The piano ballad showcases Caldie’s range and ability to bring drama to the vocals, like Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater.

“Valentine Eyes” is another mellow ballad, mixing acoustic guitar and synth with Caldie’s bittersweet vocals and some jangly guitar in the lead breaks.

One of my favorite tracks on the 11-song collection is “Asma.” This is a bouncy indie rock number that has the most similarity to some of the classic rock arrangements from the 1970s. Great guitar licks and terrific backing vocals. If this isn’t one of the singles from We’ll See Ourselves Out, it should be.

The last song before an epilogue, “More,” is a mid-tempo, melodic piano-based number. There’s a nice swing to it and again, solid vocals — with a bit of pedal steel guitar in the lead break.

So…if you haven’t heard We’ll See Ourselves Out — and I know you haven’t — do yourself a favor and give it a listen. You’re going to love it!

Yusuf/Cat Stevens Returns With a New Album That Stands the Test of Time

7 Nov

English folk-rock singer, Cat Stevens, has been writing and recording music for more than a half century. His debut, Matthew and Son, was released in 1967 — although the first single, “I Love My Dog,” was actually distributed the previous year. The album rose to #7 on the UK charts and established Stevens as an artist of note.

By the early 1970s, Stevens had become a force on both sides of the Atlantic. 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman was certified gold with more than 500,000 copies sold and “Wild World” was a major hit. That was followed by Teaser and the Firecat, which earned gold status within three weeks and contained the hits “Moonshadow,” “Peace Train” and “Morning Has Broken.”

In 1976, Stevens reportedly nearly drowned while swimming off the coast of Southern California. This proved to be a decisive moment in a journey he’d been on for some time to find meaning in his life. After learning about a number of the world’s religions, he converted to the Muslim faith and took the name Yusuf Islam.

For nearly three decades, he left his musical career behind. But over the past ten years or so, he has returned to making music. And this fall, he released his latest album, The Laughing Apple, under the name Yusuf/Cat Stevens.

The Laughing Apple represents a completion of the circle for Yusuf/Stevens. The album is a collection of both earlier compositions — some of which made it no further than the demo stage — with a few newer compositions. The album is particularly satisfying because Yusuf’s introspective vocals and sensitive lyrics now also convey a wisdom based on a lifetime of experience that simply wasn’t possible in his teens and twenties. The result is a contemporary folk-rock record that would be a great addition to any collection — whether you’re discovering Yusuf/Stevens for the first time or rediscovering an old friend from your distant past.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Blackness of the Night,” an uplifting song that tells a story about the journey we’re all on. Yusuf’s vocals are minstrel-like, with strumming guitar, simple percussion and a bit of organ or synth.

“See What Love Did to Me” is more up-tempo and bouncy. There’s a Middle Eastern influence in the lead break.

“Mary and the Little Lamb” starts with a few lines from the familiar nursery rhyme and then evolves into a simple lesson about persistence and learning how to love in a world that seems to try harder to discourage it every day.

The second-to-last track on the album, “Don’t Blame Them,” is a peaceful melody that’s sweet and lovely — with its electric piano or synth and Yusuf’s world-weary vocals — while warning us to not blame our misfortune on others — because we’ll just be blamed in return.

The Laughing Apple is accompanied by Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ original art — again similar to the illustrations he created for his earliest albums in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Fox Grin Offers Fun Rock and Dream Pop on “Dawn” EP

2 Nov

Fox Grin describes itself as an art rock/dream pop band. They’re originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but currently reside in Nashville, Tennessee. The band is primarily a duo consisting of Thom Chapman on lead vocals, guitars and keys, with David Bean on bass and backing vocals.

The four songs on Fox Grin’s latest EP, Dawn, deliver accessible rock with full arrangements and an occasional throwback feeling to an earlier era. The music is not nearly as artsy — read “challenging” — as some art-rock bands are known for, while remaining highly creative and captivating.

Dawn is the band’s second EP since Fox Grin’s debut in 2012, and they have one full-length album, Animals, released in 2013.

Track highlights: The first track on Dawn is “Fall into You.” It’s got a driving rock groove and features a full arrangement with guitar, bass, piano and tumbling drums. Dynamic changes in tempo add to the interest.

“All Alright” is mid-tempo rock with a Christian rock theme. The vocals are back in a mix that features strummed electric guitar with effects added in the chorus. The lyrics say, “Jesus, you saved my life/Now that it’s all alright.”

My personal favorite on this short four-track EP is “Jack Quick.” It’s slower pop-rock with a nice hook to the melody. To me, this has a throwback feeling similar to some of the album-oriented pop-rock that was on the radio in the 1970s — with cascading piano, strings, and synths the choruses. Overall, this is a nice effort from a very promising indie band.