Arcade Fire
The Suburbs

Anticipated as a staged LeBron James press conference, The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s coming out party, wherein their indie-rock debutante status is elevated to that of arena-filler. But with their golden goose having arrived, the question is whether they are able to deliver the goods or simply lay an egg.

In many ways, Arcade Fire has named their album perfectly. Not that their sound was ever too urbane, but where there once was something wild and woolly in their grandeur, now they’ve adapted a relatively safe ambiance. The opening title track is the first indication. Here the band’s made a reduction of their past brilliance into a flickering stardusted melody carried on a piano line and simple guitar rubbing. Hardly offensive, but not the kind of riveting start for which one might hope on this all-important album. It is this innocuousness that plagues the record. Arcade Fire has seemingly gone looking for something palatial enough for their status, but as evidenced on songs like “City With No Children” and especially “Suburban War,” they’ve settled on the Springsteen model of the everyman (in any town) that they showed a predilection toward on Neon Bible. But Win Butler was better suited for the chilly, windswept realms that he and the band conquered on the frenetically charged Funeral. Here, he and his fellow Arcadians seem stunted, unable to find the transcendence to make their Born to Run or even a Joshua Tree. Butler makes vague mentions of growing older, but Arcade Fire seems far too young an endeavor to already be put out to pasture in the provincial musical equivalent of a front lawn.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Camu Tao
King of Hearts
Definitive Jux/Fat Possum

Unexpected is the least of it. Camu Tao, Columbus-resident and member of the Weathermen and the Cardboard City collective, was born Tero Smith in 1977 and died in 2008 after a long battle with lung cancer. He was working on King of Hearts at the time of his death and the resulting album has been partially polished by his Def Jux colleagues, but much of it remains raw. We’ll never know what Tao’s vision for the final version would have been like, but here’s what I can tell you about what Def Jux and Fat Possum are finally releasing to the world.

This isn’t a rap album, even though it’s got some rapping. It’s really a pop album, albeit an outrageous, leftfield, sometimes chaffing pop album. Camu sings through most of it in a distanced, alienating, sometimes harsh voice. The result is somewhere between a rough vocalist stretching to sing pretty melodies and a great voice breaking up from either raw emotion or effort. Kid Cudi’s been quoted as saying the songs are ahead of their time, and I’m inclined to agree, though what they harken back to most is a little old. Again and again I hear the influence of the great, purple master, certainly circa Sign O’ the Times, but also Dirty Mind, when Prince’s weirdness, his pop instincts, and his sexual gravity were all at their height. Camu’s “Intervention” is a perfect example. Though it’s incredibly brief, the infinitely singable chorus floats over the crunchy guitars and leaves you wanting more, more, more. Luckily, it’s followed by the title track, which features another poppy melody balanced against distorted guitars as it overtakes Camu and he ends up shouting the end of it. Highlight is too weak a word for “Plot a Little,” another song so catchy most folks would need to hire some Swedish teen-pop producers to produce anything half as memorable. I could listen to the first four bars on repeat all day and never get bored.

It’s not a perfect album, and the quirks overtake the mood occasionally, but the really great moments of songwriting and lusty crooning are unbelievably numerous. If the world had any justice, Camu Tao would have lived to hear these tracks on the radio, in the club, and in a fantastic commercial for a hot, new iSomething-or-other. El-P describes the occasion of the album’s release as a “bittersweet” one, and realizing what a talent was lost, it really is. In the moments you’re able to put that aside, though, the album is almost non-stop pleasure from beginning to end.
Matt Slaybaugh

Transit Transit

In 2005, shortly after the release of Autolux’s excellent debut album, Future Perfect, guitarist Greg Edwards told Drowned in Sound, “I’m really looking forward to doing the second record in a quicker period of time.” Five years and one label meltdown later, Autolux’s second record has finally arrived, and while it’s hard to say how much of the delay was a product of the creative process and how much was due to the folding of their label, one thing’s for certain: it was well worth the wait. Transit Transit is a bleary trip through the dark corners of LA’s collective consciousness, with lead vocalist Eugene Goreshter playing the part of the sad stoner. Grafting layers of fuzz and feedback to shimmering Beatles-esque melodies, Autolux has effectively recreated the California malaise of Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 by way of Sonic Youth.

Highlights include the riff-happy space jam, “Census,” and the dynamic rocker, “Audience No. 2.” But Autolux might be at their best when they slow it down for some late-night stargazing, as they do on the “Spots,” a dreamy chillfest under the influence of downers and Pink Floyd. Closer “The Science of Imaginary Solutions” ends things on a deceptively anthemic note, as drummer Carla Azur sings of self-deception and wasted days over chugging guitar and booming drums. It may sound epic on the surface, but the lyrics make modern life out to be a weary and futile endeavor.

In a world where every day seems to bring a new buzz band, many established acts rush to put out new material to keep up with the continuous stream of music emanating from the internet. And while a nearly six-year differential is a bit excessive, some bands could learn a thing or two from Autolux’s slower recording pace. I hope I don’t have to wait until 2015 to hear their next album, but Transit Transit proves there’s something to be said for delayed gratification.
David Holmes

Los Lobos
Tin Can Trust
Shout! Factory

If Los Lobos happen to come up in conversation, it tends to be as the answer to the question, “What was the band who covered ‘La Bamba’?” While the band has managed to maintain a 30-year career, most people only know them from their chart-topping version of the Ritchie Valens hit. But that only tells a fraction of the story. Los Lobos is a band that effortlessly shifts between classic roots rock, traditional Mexican music and sonically experimental excursions without missing a step. Their criminally overlooked ’90s albums, Kiko and Colossal Head, should be mandatory listening for people who think that Wilco and Lambchop hold the patent on pushing the boundaries of Americana. But instead of adopting an “I coulda been a contender” stance, the band has continued to explore and evolve. Their latest album, Tin Can Trust, is the result of that journey.

Los Lobos also gets pegged as being tailor-made for the NPR ghetto. The opening track, “I’ll Burn It Down,” may not dispel that perception. Joined by public radio favorite Susan Tedeschi, it sounds what you might imagine Los Lobos to sound like if you never heard Los Lobos. While it does possess a blistering guitar coda, the main body of the song is borderline Dad rock. Luckily Tin Can Trust finds its footing with the second song, the lazy AM rock shuffle of “On Main Street,” and never looks back. If you like Spanish-language numbers, there’s the mellow “Yo Canto” and the accordion-driven “Mujer Ingrata.” If moody downtempo soul numbers are your bag, then hit play on “Jupiter Or the Moon.” Pretty much everything that makes Los Lobos great is present. Musically the performances are virtuosic without being overbearing, and lyrically the songs are plain spoken without being simplistic. The only other low points on the record are back-to-back, with “All My Bridges Burning” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “West LA Fadeaway.” Performance-wise they’re as strong as anything on the record, but the lyrics of both songs, both written by the Dead’s chief lyricist, Robert Hunter, just feel clumsy in comparison to Los Lobos’ compositions. But it’s a minor quibble. Tin Can Trust shows that even after 30 years there is still plenty to howl about Los Lobos.
Dorian S. Ham

The Budos Band
The Budos Band III

Similar to a complex tiramisu, Staten Island’s Budos Band offers multi-ply strands of ’60s and ’70s Afro-soul. Its 10 instrumentalists create a heavy rhythmic melange of West African and Afro-Cuban beats ripped through trumpets, saxophones, congas, bongos, claves, trumpets and shekeres. They’re too organized to be jazz, too liberated to be funk, and too funky to be world music. They are what they sound like, and they don’t sound like anyone else.

The Budos Band III, the band’s fittingly titled third studio album, was recorded live in 48 hours and tracked to analog tape. Its underlying groove is gorgeously fierce. “Black Venom,” is the most memorable cut, with a bass line that’s darker than a fresh slab of obsidian. “Nature’s Wrath,” at the midpoint, lends a moment of calmness amidst the erstwhile barrage of beats, blasts, and sways. “Reppirt Yad,” the album’s lone cover, is a psycho-soul version of the Beatles song read in reverse. At 39 minutes, the record moves too swiftly and would be better punctuated with at least two more pieces of prolific funk fury.

Yes, this music could be construed as retro cop show soundtrack or video game swagger anthem. But if you ditch all of that, you’ll find a groove deeper than the 53rd layer of the Staten Island Landfill. To listen to the Budos Band is to get trapped in its realm. You must nod your head, you must dance like no one’s watching. And you will like it.
Alexandra Kelley

Gold Dust

The exceedingly long title for this record is actually a little misleading. It’s not a DJ mix as you might expect; it’s actually a record of instrumental compositions from the highly influential founder of Definitive Jux, Jaime Meline, a.k.a. El Producto, a.k.a. El-P. It’s pretty similar in content and form to Little Johnny From the Hospitul: Breaks & Instrumentals Vol. 1, the 1998 instrumental Company Flow release.

Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 (or WAAGTBIHMM3 for short) is loaded with El-P’s trademark drums of doom and synths of gloom and a slew of slightly disguised classic hip-hop samples and sounds. A number of these tracks are just the kind of mid-tempo, fuzzy beats that El-P loves to rap over, so one can’t help but wonder if they’ll re-appear on later releases. Certainly, amateurs all over Def Jux country will be using these to back their bedroom live shows and throwing them up on You Tube. I think El-P might be thinking more seriously about the would-be producers in his crowd, though, since the iTunes version comes with stem tracks so you can build your own mix of “I Got This.”

Most of the record feels pretty serious and dark, the kind of hip-hop that makes you want to pump your fists more than it inspires head-bobs or B-boying. It’s not all gritted teeth, though. “Jump Fence, Run, Live” matches the lock-stop drums with a bouncy 808 pulse and an oddly poppy melody to sound a bit like that Reznor-Prince teaming you’ve been fantasizing about. “Driving Down the Block (El-P Remix) Redux” starts out as a ridiculously minimal bit of jeep music before morphing into a science fiction soundtrack that’s a bit more typical of El-P. “Eat My Garbage 2” is pretty entertaining, despite the fact that it seems to be little more than nine minutes of pieces that El-P couldn’t find places for elsewhere on the disc.

The fact of the matter is that El-P just hasn’t spent as much time on his instrumental storytelling craft as his peers and buddies like RJD2, Prefuse 73 and Blockhead. So his use of the language is a little stunted; most of the songs, intricate as the production is moment to moment, are pretty static overall. Nevertheless, his work is energetic and compelling, and usually is more than worthy of both your car stereo and your high-end cans.
Matt Slaybaugh