This week, the latest from indie rock band Spoon, Boston hard-rockers Godsmack, super-group The Empty Hearts, pop singer Andy Grammer and sibling duo Angus & Julia Stone. It's a week full of ups and downs so we have much to discuss.
Spoon's "They Want My Soul" ****
By now if you haven't listened to Spoon, you have some major catching up to do. I suggest starting off with the band's 3 sure-fire classics, "Girls Can Tell" (2001), "Kill The Moonlight" (2002) and "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" (2007) before you look anywhere else, but the truth is over nearly 20 years of existence and 8 studio full-lengths the Austin band has never dropped a clunker. Even the Pixies-esque launch of their 1996 debut, "Telephono" was anchored by leader Britt Daniel's spiky, tense delivery. (He often sings like he is trying to quiet a simmer just under the surface.) Over time that energy manifested itself into a very rigid, modal song structure. Spoon's songs are often built on simple angular chord-progressions driven by a signature pound.
That sound still stands strong on their latest, "They Want My Soul" even if it is augmented by some interesting electronic touches, giving this record a distinctly dream-like sheen in spots. This album plays a touch better than their last record, the still admirable (but back-loaded) "Transference" from 4 years ago.
Still it finds the band further exploring similar sounds that they've explored before. But where this could easily come off as recycled, it more favorably shows a sense of comfort in the groundwork they have laid. It is safe to say, no other band sounds quite like Spoon. Jim Eno's very mannered drumming combined with Daniel's raspy aura of stifled, bottled-up intensity have long served as distinguishing markers. It creates something uniquely intense and gripping.
There are some looser moments here, like the flat-out dance-number, "Outlier" or the surprisingly sunny "New York Kiss," More than any of their other records, this one has a lush quality that will lend itself nicely to future dance remixes.
In a nutshell, "They Want My Soul" offers more of the same sound with an airier twist. Ultimately, that means like much of the rest of their catalog, this offering provides another excellent listen.
"Do You" This song is rather breezy by their standards and hopefully will get the major airplay it deserves. It seems destined to be blasted on beaches and at late-summer pool parties. In other words, this is the closest this band has ever gotten to a "Song Of The Summer" entry. Like most of the rest of their work, it may require repeat listens to really burrow itself into your consciousness, but trust me, it will get there if allowed.
"Rent I Pay" A raw, downright Stones-y rocker based on a three-chord meditation, this has a surprising boldness in spite of its simplicity. In some ways, this track exhibits Spoon's signature maneuvers stripped to their essence.
"New York Kiss" As mentioned above, this album closer is as warm as it is epic-sounding. It is a possible hit in the making. It also hints that this band may be able to go "pop" without losing any of their appeal.
Godsmack's "1000hp" **
Godsmack's latest studio album, much like the rest of their discography borrows extremely liberally from Alice In Chains and "Core"-era Stone Temple Pilots. Of course, this Boston band owes more to hard-edged nineties alt-rock than they do to classic metal and the riffing is somewhat standard. But it is Sully Erna's embracing of lyrical clichs that really brings the record down a few notches. On the album's title track (a song about the band's beginnings no doubt meant to remind listeners of their glory days in more ways than one) he sings, "Turn that s__t up louder! / Make it all go faster!" That's about as deep as this album gets. Calling a track "FML" seems like a move straight out of a dour metal handbook. Much of the anger in these songs comes off as woefully forced.
The musicianship here is capable. If the lyrics weren't like something that could have easily been charted out and predicted beforehand, the band might have been onto something. Godsmack have always sounded like the generic-band equivalent to more substantial grunge groups of the nineties.
This isn't the worst album you'll hear. The band sounds pretty tight and this record obviously has a built-in audience. It's just that they obviously have made no effort to grow or expand in any way. This album continues their discography but it doesn't offer very many truly exciting moments. If the band had an original key formula to begin with, this might be more excusable, but this static lack of progression can't help but disappoint on some level. This is hollow.
"Living In The Gray" This track is has some interesting guitar textures and an appealing chorus. It's one of the album's only winning moments.
"Something Different" This has a nice building sense of atmosphere before it launches into a full-on moody sonic assault.
The Empty Hearts' "The Empty Hearts" **1/2
Sometimes super-groups don't add up to the sum of their parts. Sometimes what sounds good on paper doesn't sound all that great on tape. The Empty Hearts, made up of members of The Romantics, Blondie, The Cars and the Chesterfield Kings should for all purposes be a match made in heaven, resulting in some top-notch new-wave. Instead this album offers an admittedly amiable but already tired-sounding set.
This was a band formed when the Chesterfield Kings' Andy Babiuk was working on David Chase's recent film, "Not Fade Away" which in itself was a love-letter to sixties garage rock. In other words, this band owes very little to most of the members' usual outfits. It would have worked if these songs had personality. They just don't. The problem isn't the musicianship. Between the four members they have earned their rightful places in history. It's just that this record for the most part is utterly forgettable and surprisingly lacking the distinction you'd expect from its parts.
They need to make a second album quickly with more challenging material befitting the level of their individual legacies. This feels too often like it misses even the sixties-esque mark it intends. The groove is there, but it lacks the soul.
"Fill An Empty Heart" One of the only time they almost ace the sixties target sound, although the production is a touch too glossy. Still it captures the spirit of the source inspiration a little better than the rest of the disc. I'm guessing they thought so, too considering this track has their name in its title.
"Jealousy" A decent slice of harmonica-assisted blues rock that plays like a VERY loose, slower sequel to the Romantics' "What I Like About You."
"Meet Me 'Round The Corner" Again like the two tracks listed above, with a few minor adjustments, this one would have struck that "Nuggets"-esque vibe right. The song is OK. Again, the production just sounds a tad too clean.
Andy Grammer's "Magazines Or Novels" **
On his second major label release, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Andy Grammer sounds like a performer culled together by a record executive boardroom. "Magazines Or Novels" sounds almost like a Frankenstein's monster of records. "Honey, I'm Good" has a Nashville-aping hoedown vibe while "Back Home" tries to recall the folky anthemic climb of Phillip Phillips. "Red Eye" sounds like Maroon 5 in ballad territory with a little of Imagine Dragons thrown in for good measure. "Blame It On The Stars" tries to add a touch of hip-hop into the mix, again bringing to mind Maroon 5 and a beatboxing Justin Timberlake. There's also a touch of Robin Thicke-influence in the mix as well as a few hints of low-end EDM. "Remind You" sounds like a male imitation of Imogen Heap.
No doubt these songs intend to be large pop statements. And perhaps in a way, they do have that potential. But Grammer needs to be set apart from the people he seems to be imitating. He needs to find his own way to stand out. My guess is that aiming for the pop charts in this way has the possibility of maybe paying off on the short term, but as far as the long-term is concerned, it sets "Magazines Or Novels" to be one of the more recyclable albums of 2014. Capable mimicry is fine. But usually audiences end up searching out for the real thing when they eventually put you down. This album doesn't make me want to anxiously await his next record.
"Forever" With its jazzy swing and its Motown-esque piano riffing, this is by far the best track on the record with a convincing pop stomp. The interplay with the horn section is nice, too. One wishes the vocal production was a little more pure. There's a slight electronic tinge over his vocals that hinders the end result. But then again, these days that kind of sound is nearly expected to get pop airplay.
"Holding Out" This reggae-tinged bit of pop is also one of the album's only winners, although again it sounds formulaic. Still, one can imagine this could get some decent airplay.
Angus & Julia Stone's "Angus & Julia Stone" ****
Australian folk act and siblings Angus & Julia Stone get a further boost into the big leagues on their self-titled third record. Stars in their homeland with growing indie-cred around the world, the two seem to be destined for great things and this album is one of their stronger statements. This album has a strong, rumbling backbone that doesn't give the music too much gloss. In fact they find a nice balance. But everything down to the record's beautifully sunset-ed, glitzy cover makes their intention clear. This sounds like a lost record from the late-seventies or early eighties. There's an element here that sounds almost akin to Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," with a few modern touches. At the same time this sits well next to records by bands like Of Monsters & Men and The Civil Wars. There's also a touch of Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval in Julia Stone's vocal tone.
With its hour-long playing time and its sometimes slightly elongated song-lengths, it is a record that takes its time and relishes in its key moments, bouncing from slyly funky grooves to folky laments. In some ways this record wallows in a half-drunk 4 AM-kind of wooziness, especially as it approaches its end.
Some may find that this collection perhaps puts atmosphere ahead of melody and that a couple songs have a slow, half-spoken sense of repetition, but in the end it is ultimately a pretty strong collection that no doubt will get stronger upon repeated listens. This collection has a very specific mood and a rare, intangible sonic allure.
"Crash And Burn" This is the album's closer, but it captures the album's mood the best and rocks out with a slow, efficiency. Led by Angus, it captures a world-weary uneasiness. It is pretty epic with its potent attack.
"Heart Beats Slow" A dose of driving retro rock, this sounds like a hit that could score well with a cross-section of pop, classic-rock and even country fans. It is really an appealing sonic stew.
Next Week new music from Sinead O'Connor, Gaslight Anthem and more.
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Record Release Rundown: The Latest From Spoon, Godsmack, The Empty Hearts and More