I write this column on my birthday, which makes it hard to not be overly introspective. The best way to avoid that: Write the second quarter reviews round-up of CDs / albums / downloads listened to over the past three months, and hope any life-choice ennui and/or regrets don’t find their way into the criticism. I’m just happy I can still listen to new music with an open mind at this “elevated” stage of life. Onward.
Low, Invisible Way (Sub Pop) -- They continue to step away from what got them here -- i.e., the death-march slow, dark, intelligent sad-core of their earlier works -- to make way for earthy pop hooks that somehow carry the same dour emotional hangover of the old stuff. I point to producer Jeff Tweedy for pop inspiration on gems like the gorgeous Mimi Parker-sung “Just Make It Stop” and mountain climber “So Blue.” As a whole, it’s faster -- and better -- but your heart will still hurt after listening to it.
Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship, You Need You -- They continue to channel the Sonic Youth / Dinosaur Jr. soundscapes explored throughout their careers, but never have their recordings sounded as consistently good. Hard, buzz-saw riffs, ‘90s bass lines and tom-heavy rhythms mean a lot of head wagging during playback, though their message continues to get lost amidst the fog of sound.
Art Brut, Top of the Pops (Cooking Vinyl Records) -- A poor man’s Pulp or a tweedy, Brit version of the Hold Steady, this collects the best of the band’s four earlier albums along with “b-sides and rarities” that you you could live without. Sassy and cynical and a bit whiney (and witty), the only album of theirs you need own.
Travelling Mercies, Motel -- What would you call this… Country? Country Rock? Alt Country? Outlaw Country? Despite its inherent twang-and-drawl it leans to the right on the rock needle. Usually. On the other hand, songs like the acoustic “Holy Mary” bend toward folk. For the most part, it’s foot-on-the-floor tractor-rock as heard on the relentless “Border Run” that rattles and crashes like a waltz in a hailstorm. There’s an overshadowing Christian lilt throughout that’s not so much “preachy” as a nod by songwriter/frontman Jeremy Mercy that yeah, there’s a higher power and He may or may not pull his ass out of the shit the next time it lands there.
Witness Tree, Breathe In -- Sounds like old-fashioned alt-radio rock heavy on the pop. Lots o’ big riffs, radio-friendly vocals and lyrics like “You could be my miracle tonight” and “You’re a bullet from a gun / You’re the fire from the heat.” You get the picture. Their songs emulate the kind of music I remember from early ‘80s FM. They’re not plowing new ground, in fact their soil is a couple generations old, and I can’t imagine they want it any other way. Harmless fun.
Big Star, Nothing Can Hurt Me (Original Soundtrack) (Omnivore) -- Picked up during Record Store Day in April, in some ways it exceeds the classic studio albums where many of these tracks’ final versions reside. Collecting alternative mixes, demos and “movie mixes,” the production is ratcheted down, revealing the songs in an even more natural environment (complete with in-studio chatter). The soundtrack to a film that never made it to Omaha.
Sputnik, Rising (Sound of the Sea) -- A cold-call received unsolicited via snail mail from Cleveland, these usually end up right in the round file, but this one ended up in heavy rotation on my iPhone. Think of it as a modern homage to classic R.E.M. or The Wedding Present or whatever jangle-pop you were into in the late-‘80s / early-90s. Worth finding.
Statistics, Peninsula (Afternoon Records)- Member of poli-punkers Desaparecidos, Denver Dalley (the studio project’s mastermind) doesn’t want you to fight, he wants you to dance, at least on half of the tracks on this, his best album to date. No doubt working alongside nebbish pal Har Mar Superstar has worn off, in fact, HMS even lends a hand on premium rump-shaker “Take The Lead” with a guest vocal that’s pure Michael reincarnated (in the body of a young Danny DeVito).
Skypiper, Troubledoer EP -- Quite a surprise considering their forgettable 2011 full-length debut. The highlight, “Free Spirit Woman,” is a cute little rock shuffle with a plethora of clever lines that paint the portrait of a local scenester who (thinks) she’s cooler than you and may well be — a woman so free that she doesn’t have time to deal with her own problems. I think I’ve met this person before (Haven’t we all?).
John Klemmensen and the Party, Songs I’ll Never Play -- The sentiment on this fine 8-song folkie/indie opus to heartbreak is summed up on fuzz-toned dub-clipped synth number “One Song With Your Name” and its opening line: “Maybe I’ve been treating you like the queen of the world / But I treat myself like a goddamn prisoner.” Both a testament to longing and a testament to self-loathing by Omaha’s undisputed king of broken hearts. With these songs he could have finally gotten the girl, except (he says) he’ll never play them on stage. A pity.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia) -- The most hyped album of 2013, it (mostly) lives up to it. In an era when EDM has never sounded more plastic, the duo goes organic and classic, teaming with disco kings like Moroder and Nile Rodgers. The final product is retro and fun (even if it’s way too slow to jog to).
Honorable mentions: Savages, Silence Yourself (Matador); Deerhunter, Monomania (4AD); !!!, Thri!!!er (Warp); Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador); Girls Names, The New Life (Slumberland).
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.