As with all cliches, there’s something to that saying about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: The Smiths. It’s safe to say that as great as the talents of the band’s principle songwriters might have been, neither Morrissey nor Johnny Marr could ever hope to approach the heights they achieved together. This is particularly evident when examining the subsequent output of the latter. While Marr has worked with such exceptional artists as Kirsty MacColl, Talking Heads, The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, and Bernard Sumner (New Order), such collaborations never produced anything on par with the fruits of his partnership with the Moz.
Somehow then, it seems fitting that his finest hour post-Smiths comes under his own name without any band moniker attached. While there isn’t anything particularly Smitty (Smithy?) about the record, “European Me” features Marr’s distinct knack for jangle, and “New Town Velocity” is enticingly melancholy. It is a core of pop hooks that unites the dozen songs here, though. The title track is wrapped in cracking beats and 21st century synth tones, but Marr grounds the song with glimmering guitar lines and his dreamily sung vocals. Even when the bombast of past work like Boomslang surfaces on cuts like “Generate! Generate!” and “Upstarts,” Marr’s guitar work is more tasteful, his words more measured. In many ways, this is the album we’ve always wanted from Marr. In many ways, it is more.
Since the release of Samantha Crain’s full-length debut, You (Understood), in 2010, the Shawnee, Oklahoma singer-songwriter has toured with the Avett Brothers, Josh Ritter and Ben Kweller and has recorded with artists ranging from Ali Harter to Murder by Death. But with her follow-up, Kid Face, recorded completely on analog tape, she proves she needs little more than her guitar, distinctive voice and storytelling ability to create a big sound that blends alt-country, folk and autobiography.
Throughout the record, Crain’s voice soars while remaining grounded enough to remain vulnerable. At 26, she shows earned wisdom in songs like the upbeat cowgirl ditty “Never Going Back,” in which she declares her independence from an old relationship, and the haunting “Churchill,” where she says, “It’s gonna take my whole life to just stop doing it wrong.” Yet she hangs onto youthful innocence in “Paint” as she asserts, “I don’t want to be a cynic. It’s much too soon for that,” over a delicate guitar line that makes you picture her making this confession next to the glow of a campfire. And you can practically feel the dust in your throat on the Western-tinged “Sand Paintings,” whose instrumental outro includes bass, theramin and violin—probably the most instruments you’ll hear at once in the album. Throughout the record, it’s both the simplicity of the instrumentation and the complexity of the songs themselves that captivate. Kid Face is equal parts raw beauty and raw power.
With her homemade debut, Milo Goes to Compton, Colleen Green showed the kind of punk gumption of her many predecessors, channelling her catchy songs through whatever was at hand, in most cases a guitar and rudimentary drum machine. The record was utterly charming in its simplicity and directness. On tracks like her superb cover of The Descendents’ “Good Good Things,” she had distilled a kind of pop-punk down to its essential elements. The record felt raw in the way that Exile in Guyville once did, only without all the sexual hang-ups.
Green’s follow-up, Sock It to Me, feels similar, with the same fuzzy guitar and paper thin drum machine beats remaining the vehicle for her odes to puppy love and cool dudes. As such the inclusion of synthesizer on the bittersweet “Time in the World,” one of the record’s strongest songs, seems like a major development, like Green is “progressing.” But like the rest of the album, the song’s barebones instrumentation only highlights its simple perfection. Even when she’s meditating on less pleasant things, as on “Heavy Shit,” there is a lightheartedness that’s inherently endearing. In other words, it’s hard not to like Sock It to Me.
MP3: “Time in the World”
Eels have always seemed to exist in numerous universes at the same time. They’re a pop combo who traffic in subjects like death, divorce and depression. They’re an incredibly sincere act that will undercut everything with a dry, sarcastic nature. They’re navel-gazers with their fists in the air. Simply put they can be hard to put a finger on. Since 1996 and over the course of nine albums lead by the man know as E (or Mark Oliver Everett if you’re collecting taxes), Eels have gotten a lot of mileage out of their balance of light and dark. Now after the 2009–10 trilogy—Hombre Lobo, End Times, and Tomorrow Morning—Eels are back for their 10th record, Wonderful, Glorious.
For each new record, there is always the question of which E is going to be stepping up to the mic. He has the unique ability to make really depressing topics sound deceptively pleasant. This time, though, things seem pretty alright. Sure, there is the downtempo meditation of “True Original,” but even a potentially super-dour song like “The Turnaround” is more world-weary than end of the world. Musically, the Eels mash together snatches of country and rockabilly that don’t seem to be belabored or overtly “wacky.” It’s a good contrast to E’s at times conversational vocal style, which again plays into the fact that balance is the most consistent trait of the Eels’ catalog. Wonderful Glorious is a strong addition to that catalog.
Dorian S. Ham
Like most people, I think, I associate a certain brand of seriously minded punk with Dischord. The label was started by Ian MacKaye, and his straightedge philosophy and no bullshit approach to music-making would seem to rule out that Dischord ever releasing a “party” record. While not exactly “Rock and Roll All Nite,” the self-titled debut from Deathfix—a band comprised of MacKaye’s former Fugazi bandmate Brendan Canty, Rich Morel, who Canty met when the two were backing Bob Mould, and Medications’ Devin Ocampo and Mark Cisneros—is comprised of the kind of big riffs and hooks more in keeping with the sounds of the ’70s than the Dischord catalog of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s.
Which—surprise—isn’t a bad thing. Canty and his cohorts channel the Raspberries and Big Star on the leadoff “Better Than Bad,” a rough-edged power-pop nugget that catches one pleasantly off-guard. The rest of the record drifts further off the map, with “Low Lying Dreams” and “Dali’s House” washed in a narcoleptic haze. It is the album’s closer that gets the farthest out there. Over the course of nearly nine minutes, the track collapses in upon itself, it’s elongated rock nodes coming undone in proggy fashion. For being just seven songs, Deathfix is a curious record, perhaps one of the strangest Dischord has released—and perhaps all the better for it.