2007 so far: CD reviews

These are the CDs I’ve reviewed so far in 2007 for Pioneer Press Newspapers. For the purposes of this site, though, I prefer to use a five-star rather than a four-star rating system (or, um five bees?) – there’s just a little more room for differentiation that way.

ANTIBALAS / Security

The template for this “Afrobeat orchestra” out of Brooklyn is obvious – the groundbreaking funky music of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti. But Antibalas (which includes Evanston native Stuart Bogie as musical director) does more than mimic Fela, grooving on long tracks that take Afrobeat in a jazzy direction. The songs are filled with aggressive, in-your-face horn blasts and drumbeats that impel your feet to dance. The jams go on so long that it’s practically an instrumental record. When the vocals come in, they take on political themes, such as a humorous chant speculating on the true meaning of the initials “G.O.P.” Produced in Chicago by John McEntire of Tortoise, “Security” is a more-than-worthy encore to Antibalas’ fabulous 2004 album Who Is This America? www.antibalas.com

ARCADE FIRE / Neon Bible

Three years after shaking the indie-rock world with the debut album Funeral, Montreal’s Arcade Fire are back with more throbbing, multilayered anthems — and one of the year’s best albums so far. Since 2004, this band (which includes Northwestern grad Will Butler, brother of lead vocalist Win Butler) has catapulted from playing gigs at the Empty Bottle to headlining three nights at the Chicago Theatre and smashing guitars on “Saturday Night Live.” The death theme of the first record is gone, but a mood of angst and dislocation still permeates the songs. On “(Antichrist Television Blues),” Win Butler pleads, “Don’t want to work in a building downtown/No, I don’t want to see when the planes hit the ground.” At first glance, the group seems to have streamlined its quasi-orchestral sound a little on this sophomore album, but then all of its subtleties reveal themselves. And even when it’s gloomy, the tense arrangements and the feeling of catharsis make the record feel a celebration of music’s transformative power. www.arcadefire.com

THE AUTUMN DEFENSE / The Autumn Defense

Listening to the Autumn Defense, a band featuring two members of Wilco, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, reminds one of Chuck Mangione’s appearance on the cartoon “King of the Hill,” when he exhorted an audience: “Let’s soft rock!” Stirratt and Sansone appear to be angling to become a new Seals and Croft or Bread. Their last album, Circles, had several superb songs, and this one has its share of pleasant moments, and more of a jazzy vibe. But it’s all a little too pleasant. If they sang with more grit in their voices or cranked up their amps past 3 once in a while, it would make the pleasantness more bearable. www.theautumndefense.com

THE BROKEN WEST / I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On

The Broken West hails from California, and there’s definitely something sunny about the band’s West Coast sound. One of the latest groups to sign to the Merge label, the Broken West (formerly known as the Brokedown) plays catchy pop filled with jangly guitar riffs, melodic hooks that hearken back to the ‘60s and appealing vocal harmonies. At moments, the band sounds like Wilco, back in the era of Summerteeth, which is not a bad thing at all. www.myspace.com/thebrokenwest


A truly independent indie-rock band, these Brooklynites are proving they aren’t sell-outs. After winning the adoration of blogs everywhere with their debut, they’ve put out their second record without bothering to sign with a label. Clap Your Hands did hire a respected producer, David Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Sleater-Kinney), but the band is refusing to get rid of all the quirks that could make its music just a little annoying to listeners of mainstream pop. The opening track is deliberately noisy, like a badly recorded demo. That’s not to say that Clap Your Hands is always abrasive. The songs have plenty of hooks to pull you in, with odd rhythms, enigmatic lyrics and Alec Ounsworth’s very David Byrne-esque vocals. The group hasn’t quite moved beyond its Talking Heads fixation, but when it all clicks, it’s a bracing combination. www.clapyourhandssayyeah.com

CLINIC / Visitations

Clinic first attracted the attention of critics a few years ago, partly because of the unusual concert garb worn by these Liverpudlians: surgical masks. They’re still concealing their faces, which makes it impossible to see what expressions they’re wearing, but it’s easy to imagine lead singer Ade Blackburn sneering or clenching his teeth as he delivers these tunes. The atmosphere is tense and gloomy, likely to put you in the same sort of mood you experience listening to Joy Division, but Clinic is also sounding more like a scrappy garage band these days. “Visitations” is the ominous sound of fuzzy ’60s psychedelia melding with doomsday ’80s New Wave. It’s a strong combination. www.clinicvoot.org

DOLLY VARDEN / The Panic Bell

There’s an everyman quality to Dolly Varden’s mature pop music. The melodies and singing might seem a little plain at first, like songs that anyone could imagine singing themselves, but they’re filled with subtle touches that keep you coming back for more listens. Led by the husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen, this Chicago band hasn’t put out an album for five years. This one ranks among its best, with Dawson and Christiansen swapping lead vocals on the emotionally affecting songs. The only disappointment is that Christiansen wrote only one track this time (it’s one of the best, “Small Pockets”), ceding most of the composing duties to her more prolific husband. Still, it sounds like a true group effort. www.dollyvarden.com

DOLOREAN / You Can’t Win

Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Dolorean already has a couple of fine albums to its credit, including 2004’s excellent “Violence in the Snowy Fields.” Singer-songwriter Al James has a soft, sweet vocal quality that brings James Taylor to mind, but this album’s unusual atmospherics are in another universe entirely. Like previous Dolorean records, this album has a melancholy tinge. Ranging from fairly straightforward acoustic ballads to artsy tracks built around rhythms or moody keyboards, “You Can’t Win” has a loose vibe, like a live recording from a restrained private performance. James’ words are heartfelt and direct, and his melodies stick in the mind. http://dolorean.wordpress.com/

EXPLODING STAR ORCHESTRA / We Are All From Somewhere Else

Chicago’s Rob Mazurek brought together this 14-musician jazz ensemble for a concert last summer at Millennium Park. Even though it lacks lyrics, the orchestra’s debut album supposedly tells stories about stingrays becoming stars and people talking with intelligent electric eels. The music is colorful, varied and – despite the “avant-garde” label – very listenable. The record opens with a pulsing sense of urgency. Eventually, it meanders into some noodling, but most of it’s pretty compelling, whatever stories you imagine when you’re listening. www.thrilljockey.com

FIELD MUSIC / Tones of Town

It’s not surprising that Field Music bears some resemblance to the Futureheads, since both bands hail from Sunderland, England. Field Music also includes the Futureheads’ original drummer, and it’s clear that both groups have plenty of XTC in their musical DNA. Less abrasive than the Futureheads, Field Music specializes in rhythms and melodies with unexpectedly jerky stops and starts, but the assured vocal harmonies give it all an elegance that’s lacking from most new wave revivalism. Tones of Town is consistently enjoyable..www.field-music.co.uk


Instead of being billed for what it is – a pretty good solo album by Blur and Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn – this record comes with the “supergroup” label. Albarn teamed up with producer Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley fame, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Fela Kuti drummer extraordinaire Tony Allen for this project, but he dominates every track with his typically wistful Brit pop lullabies. Albarn’s an expert at concocting pretty and very English-sounding “Oh, woe is me” melodies, and he does it again here. It’s just a shame that the Good, the Bad and the Queen doesn’t live up to its full potential. www.thegodthebadandthequeen.com

MENOMENA / Friend and Foe

The sound of Menomena is hard to place – it’s not that far removed from radio-friendly emo rock, but it also contains more than a little bit of art rock, even some Kurt Weill cabaret and sonic touches reminiscent of Mercury Rev. While there’s plenty of guitar, a percussive combination of piano and drums is central to Menomena’s sound. When the vocals reach their peaks of intensity, there’s a sense of real drama. www.menomena.com

OF MONTREAL / Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

Like the Postal Service, Of Montreal is an indie-rock band that requires a certain tolerance of techno pop and new wave. At times, you may forget that you’re listening to a band that’s supposed to be hip in 2006 and think you’re experiencing an early ’80s flashback. At times, the ornate layers of beeping noise are grating, but singer Kevin Barnes comes up with better-than-average turns of phrase, as the album’s peculiar title indicates. www.ofmontreal.net

THE ONE AM RADIO / This Too Will Pass

Basically a one-man band, the One AM Radio is Hrishikesh Hirway, who used to be a punk rocker before he mellowed out. Now he’s playing soft and melancholy folk rock, with the occasional woodwind solo or electronic drum beat giving it an artsy veneer. It makes for a pretty sonic tapestry. www.theoneamradio.com

THE SHINS / Wincing the Night Away

You may not realize just how ornate the Shins’ songs are until you read the lyrics sheet, which is filled with references to things like “the android’s conundrum” and “this wily comet tale.” The words fit perfectly with Shins singer-songwriter James Mercer’s serpentine melodies, and it all comes together in a way that sounds so natural – as if Mercer is spinning out these incredibly elaborate psychedelic pop tunes with the greatest of ease. Mercer’s distinctive voice hits all the high notes with a strong sense of yearning. The Shins haven’t radically changed their formula on Wincing the Night Away, their third album, though a few of the sonic touches are new. It’s an album with one strong track after another, making for addictive listening. www.theshins.com

JESSE SYKES & THE SWEET HEREAFTER / Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul

Jesse Sykes has one of those husky chanteuse voices that always sound mournful. Maybe it’s just not possible for her to sing a happy tune. On her new album, clean guitar lines and gently brushed drums create a moody atmosphere for Sykes to sing her songs of sad lovers and dying prisoners. As on Sykes’ previous album, Oh, My Girl, the tracks tend to sound similar at first, but they distinguish themselves on repeat listens. Even the more upbeat tracks, such as the rocker “You Might Walk Away,” have a downbeat quality. With their subtle melodies, these songs make for some good and spooky late-night listening. www.jessesykes.com

DAVID VANDERVELDE / The Moonstation House Band

Lincoln Park resident David Vandervelde plays virtually all of the instruments on his debut, with a little help from ex-Wilco member Jay Bennett. The sound is straight out of the ’70s – reverb-drenched, heavily layered power pop with Badfinger-esque melodies and some T. Rex swagger. Just eight tracks long, this charming throwback of an album leaves you wanting more. www.davidvandervelde.com