Brian Wilson: No Pier Pressure (Capitol) BrianWilson’s impact on the world of popular music may seem overstated to those who’ve been hearing about it all their lives, but this record—which comes nearly three years after the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary—proves that isn’t so: There’s enough really fine music here to prove that whatever he once had, he hasn’t lost it. There are 16songs, most of which are commercial and “radio friendly,” albeit in that sense that no longer seems applicable in 2015, and despite its surplus of colorful guest stars, No Pier Pressure sounds very much like a Brian Wilson album, which is no small thing. Sometimes the guest stars sound completely fabulous—like She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel, who makes “On The Island” sound like a great lost Honeys track—and sometimes they sound completely fine but strangely random, as does fun.’s Nate Ruess, who recalls Christopher Cross in his chirping heyday on the pop-oozing “Saturday Night.” But mostly the guests sound sonically welcome—as do Wilson’s Beach Boy buddies Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chaplin on scattered tracks, the unexpected gorgeous presence of Mark Isham’s occasional trumpet, and even country star Kacey Musgraves on “Guess You Had To Be There.” Longtime Beach Boys fans will hear “Somewhere Quiet” and recognize the melody but not the words--it’s a vocal version of “Summer Means New Love,” from the 1965 Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) album—and, if nothing else, appreciate the thought. An upbeat, very welcome record, No Pier Pressure ultimately sounds like Brian Wilson making a record with those sort of bands from a while back who liked the Beach Boys so much—say the High Llamas or the Pearlfishers--they could almost evoke their sound on command. Which makes all of it very easy going down. It is a very solid, fascinating album that needs no excuses or asterisks next to it in the discography, and we should all be grateful Wilson is still around to have made it.
The Waterboys: Modern Blues (Harlequin And Clown) If common wisdom holds that Scottish-born Mike Scott started out his band with a boom in the early ‘80s, focusing on the so-called “Big Music” he sang about and popularized, it also holds that sometime around 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues, he embraced his inner Celtic muse and never really returned. But this is not so, and this album in particular refutes the notion that Scott’s wandered off into some arty alley where violins play, pipes blow, and someone somewhere is randomly invoking the names of Yeats, Frost or Eliot. This is a rocking album for Mike Scott, and while there are a whole new batch of names being dropped—Jack Kerouac, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc.—there is no sense of repetition here, there is that same freshness and vivid aspect to Scott’s music that populated his very best work in the ’80s. It’s good stuff, it’s rock stuff and pop stuff, and it’s capable of being enjoyed by the well read and the illiterate among us equally. Which of course means it’s a big win. Recommended.
Priory: Need To Know (Warner Bros.) Just caught this Portland, Oregon-based band at SXSW last month and was impressed by the polish of their work, the skills of their live set, and especially the precision of this, their new album. Whether they’re a pop band, a rock band, an electro-pop band, or something else entirely—hell, it’s 2015, they might as well be—it doesn’t matter. Live, I couldn’t figure out if the lead guitarist’s tone was evoking Dickie Betts or the lead guitarist of the Lotus Eaters, which means they must know their stuff. Chockfull of catchy pop, much of it laden with the best kind of personal politics, Need To Know is an excellent statement maybe one massive hit away from making Priory big-like. And if a new generation of Young Americans starts singing along to, “Boys will be boys who like boys who dress like girls /And that's alright / We're hanging with the boys that look like girls tonight,” that will be a very big thing indeed.
The Lilac Time: No Sad Songs (Tapete) I’ve spent the past few weeks listening to a charming, low-key album that gets better with each listening by none other that Stephen “Tintin” Duffy, whose name is prefaced by “none other than” merely because, well, that’s the way it has to be. There is a generation of Duran Duran fans who know Duffy was a very early member of that combo; there is a slightly older generation of music fans who see Duffy’s post-Duran career, first as a poppy solo artist, then as the full-on arty Lilac Time, as a very convincing, slightly daring move. Starting with their 1987 debut, Duffy’s Lilac Time was melodic, acoustic, pastel, and nearly everything the most popular and commercial-driven music of that era wasn’t. It was also quite nice, and sounds even nicer today. Much has happened since; fans of Brit star Robbie Williams know he’s a massive Duffy fan, and recorded an entire album attesting to that, and popular music fashion now holds the Lilac Time’s mood, sound and intent as remarkably prescient. It’s now 2015, this is the ninth Lilac Time album, and yes, it’s very nice and you should hear it.
Bad Company: Bad Company (Deluxe Edition) Straight Shooter (Deluxe Edition) (both Rhino/Atlantic) These are actually both fascinating reissues that merit a listen. Why? Not only because these albums rock, which they were intended to do, and because they sound better than ever now, having been remastered for 2015 ears, but because they’re fascinating cultural touchstones. Meaning: What happens when you take an enormously powerful singer and drummer from one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best bands—that would be Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke, respectively, of Brit band Free—throw in an underplayed giant of a guitarist/songwriter Mick Ralphs, and then add a bassist/vocalist from one of the artiest configurations of early King Crimson? You’d get staggeringly powerful, monumentally impressive rock ‘n’ roll, right? Well, no, not really. You’d get fine, functional, non-flashy and deliberately understated rock that pre-figured the anthemic radio rock ballads to come during the later ‘70s...but lacked the minimalism that was a hallmark of Free and the excess that was a hallmark of Mott The Hoople. How weird was that? Regardless, these are welcome reissues, the sound is superb throughout, and the extra discs—alternate takes, demos, “slow versions”—are meaty, substantial, and worthwhile to any fan of 20th Century rock ‘n’ roll.
Dion: Live At The Bitter End, August 1971 (Omnivore) Speaking of Mott The Hoople, I find it interesting that 1) One of my very favorite Mott songs ever was “Your Own Backyard” from their manic 1971 set Brain Capers, and 2) I grew up in Miami, Florida, and saw Mr. Dion DiMucci many, many times in concert, during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and likely saw him perform that song many times, and 3) I have no recollection of it whatsoever. So: all praises to the people of Omnivore & Ace Records for resurrecting this superb live set from Dion in his early-‘70s prime. He is in fine voice, his low-key guitar accompaniment serves him well, and the songs he sings—from “Abraham, Martin And John,” “Your Own Backyard,” and even “The Wanderer” and “Ruby Baby”—are immaculately performed, emotionally sung, and better than most everything you’re likely to hear for a while. And this was just something he whipped out in mid-1971. It’s a great addition to anyone’s music library, and a superb encapsulation of all that was great about Dion back when he finally decided to stop wanderin’.
Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas - Soundprints: Live At The Monterey Jazz Festival (Blue Note) An album bearing the distinguished Blue Note Records logo, as well as the “live at the Monterey Jazz Festival” tag, may have a lot to live up to, culturally speaking, in 2015—but if there are any players who can wear both tags extraordinarily well, it would be saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas. Captured live at the 2013 Monterey Festival with their quintet also featuring pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Baron—who together comprise the unit dubbed Soundprints, named in honor of band inspiration Wayne Shorter’s tune “Footprints”—the group play originals, a few new tunes that Shorter himself had a hand in, and exactly the sort of music that does the Blue Note/Monterey/Lovano/Douglas tag—and all the weight that comes with that—enormously proud. Forward-looking stuff, and now it’s 2015.
Waxahatchee: Ivy Tripp (Merge) Must give a nod to the excellent, interestingly textured new album from Katie Crutchfield, the Merge Records artist who records under the name Waxahatchee—a tribute to a creek near her onetime home in Alabama. The songs are intriguing, the production low-key but substantial, and the mood—as on Crutchfield’s prior Merge sets—detached and delightfully intelligent. “I have thought of it like this,” she notes, “[her 2013 album] Cerulean Salt is a solid and Ivy Tripp is a gas.” You don’t have to be a physicist to note the next one may be all wet.