Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots (Warner) That Damon Albarn still seems not only relevant but downright innovative in 2014, so many years after the accelerated rise & fall of Britpop in the early ‘90s, is a very good thing—and maybe the best possible argument for talented people to minimize overexposure to ensure career longevity. Translation: Though his former band Blur debuted with their album Leisure in 1991, and Albarn’s celebrated side-projects have included Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, the Mali Music project, Everyday Robots is, 23 years later, being promoted as Albarn’s very first “fully-realised” solo album. And while that may be a nice way of side-stepping his aggressively obtuse, “strange pastoral folk” Dr Dee album of 2012, it’s not altogether incorrect. Albarn’s new set is complex, featuring appearances by Brian Eno and Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes, the odd Lord Buckley sample, the inescapable, quirkily melodic tuneage Albarn regularly provides that evokes late ‘60s Ray Davies, and a conspicuous oozing of outright intelligence, which is never a bad thing. All told, its innate quirkiness never overrides its substance as a solid collection of songs, and Albarn, all these years and side-projects later, still offers a commercial and critical worthiness that has left many of his one-time contemporaries by the wayside. Good, solid stuff here.
Pixies: Indie Cindy (Pixiesmusic) It’s very, very strange in retrospect to observe how deeply influential the Pixies were to a younger generation of musicians whose own legend vastly overshadowed their forebears. When Pearl Jam first emerged years ago, no one heard their first album and proclaimed them to be staggeringly innovative--but only a few years later, it seemed like every up-and-coming alt-rock combo sounded like Pearl Jam. And while the Pixies garnered fab reviews for Surfer Rosa all those years ago, back then it seemed well-played, smart, gorgeously packaged, but still nothing truly extraordinary. And yet it, and the Pixies, became the alternative rock model for the next 15 years. Though they’ve been reunited for a decade, this new album is their first studio set since 1991’s Trompe Le Monde. It’s by no means a letdown; it’s sharp and angular, as the band always was, and that duality of subtlety and emotionalism that was always the backbone of their entire “loud soft loud” thing remains, however reined-in. This is a good rock ‘n’ roll album and a nice addition to the Pixies’ legacy—not exactly expected, and all that much nicer because of it.
Ray LaMontagne: Supernova (RCA) Never the recipient of less-than-stellar reviews—which isn’t always a good thing—singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne hasn’t gradually faded out into the inevitable samey-sounding singer/songwriter hell many of his contemporaries can’t evade. This is mainly because none of his songs sound the same, and that the winner of the 2011 Grammy for the Best Contemporary Folk Album (God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise) can concoct some of the snazziest pop hooks you’d want to hear on tracks here like “Lavender” and “Supernova,” if the spirit moves him. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, recorded in Nashville, and jam-packed with really strong, non-derivative songs that don’t sound like anyone else's—such a rarity, really—Supernova is remarkably good, and the kind of chance-taking albums musicians don’t usually make once they’ve won a Grammy. He keeps getting better, and he didn’t exactly start out average.
Ben Watt: Hendra (Unmade Road) One very unexpected pleasure after all this time is Hendra--the first solo album by Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt since there was an Everything But The Girl, way back in 1982. Aside from a previous single and his marvelous North Marine Drive solo album, Watt’s career has mostly been devoted to his much-loved duo with wife Tracey Thorn—inactive for a decade or so—and his Buzzin’ Fly record label, also now on hold. So this new album? Good stuff, very much worth the wait, and while the influences of long ago (Drake/Martyn/Vini Reilly) might be less pronounced, let’s not forget that as a youth, Watt recorded with the likes of Kevin Coyne and Robert Wyatt—and here can be heard in the illustrious company of Suede’s Bernard Butler and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Watt himself calls the album “a folk-rock album in an electronic age,” and that just about nails it—warmth pervades, but musical sophistication never goes missing. An excellent set, Hendra makes one wonder—with all due respect to EBTG--what music Watt might have been made on his own all these years.
Wye Oak: Shriek (Merge) I remember encountering Wye Oak years ago at South By Southwest and asking the inevitable question about their name only to be told that there was a big tree with that name in Baltimore, or something. Great answer. They were young, they’d just put out their first album on Merge, they were charming, musical, and absolutely dandy. Since then? They’ve only gotten better, and new album Shriek—their fourth overall—showcases how much Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner have matured both as songwriters and sonic landscape-types. Referred to as “the culmination of their intent to express the emotional and intuitive self by acting out animalistic exclamations through cathartic release”—not unlike Sam The Sham & the Pharaohs—Shriek is another step up for a band who are subtle, artful and improving with age.
Vanilla Fudge: The Complete Atco Singles (Real Gone Music) Must confess to being profoundly taken with the Vanilla Fudge from the very beginning, mostly because—as someone in the notes here wisely put it—there they were in the late ‘60s, the perfect merger of psychedelia and heavy metal. Renowned for their melodrama-laden versions of pop classics like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and “Ticket To Ride,” the New York combo swiftly evolved via wacky concept albums laying out the complete history of pop music (The Beat Goes On), more fascinating covers “Season Of The Witch,” “Windmills Of Your Mind,” “Some Velvet Morning,” and a side-long jam (“Break Song”) that for better or worse paved the way for both Cactus and Beck, Bogert & Appice. This terrific collection—in the same tradition as Real Gone’s spectacular Grass Roots reissue—collects all the various singles the Fudge released, mostly in rare mono versions, and frankly, all these years later, could not sound better, hipper, and exactly like what the world needs to hear right now.
Ed Kuepper: The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom (Valve) Must pay respect to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s very finest writers, singers and all-around characters, and that would be Australia’s Ed Kuepper, one-time member of legendary punk band the Saints, later leader of the Laughing Clowns, and since 1985 or so, a prolific performer whose work has remained oddly mesmerizing. With its title a nod toward 1995’s I Was A Mail Order Bridegroom, this new set features acoustic renditions of classics penned by Kuepper or others (“Hey Joe,” Tom Rush/Walker Bros.’ “No Regrets”), all of it a swirling mess of goodness, fine quality, and a modern-day assertion that Kuepper’s still a vital talent. Details to be had here.
Death: Leprosy (Relapse) At the very top of my list of bands I’d not only like to be in, but to be forced to explain to an elderly woman I might randomly be sitting next to on an airplane (“Um, yes, I am in a band, and we have a new album called Leprosy. Our name? Umm…”), Death’s back in a big way! Well, not really, but this reissue of the defunct band's second album—a 1988 special, deeply influenced by the rockin’ metal sounds of Slayer, Venom & co.—is always welcome in anyone’s house! Available in 2-CD and bonus-packed 3-CD form (get it here ), the album is fascinating nearly any way you’d like to look at it: graphically, sonically, sociologically, and even legally! How the heck did they get the rights to their name? The feel-good reissue of the year!
Momus: UnAmerica (Penny-Ante Editions) Because I have a healthy respect for tradition, and have been writing about the works of Nick Currie—aka Momus—since Hector was a pup, why stop now? Not an album—though making them has never seemed a problem—Currie’s latest work is in fact a book, featuring text and everything, principal facts about which include “God doesn’t love America. Quite the reverse,” and the book is an apparent remodel of a “charmingly naïve sixth century Christian tale—The Voyage Of Saint Brendan—for the 21st Century.” Got that? It is witty, clever, well-written, and exactly the sort of project Currie can seemingly toss off at his leisure. Get acquainted with him, if you’re not already.