Coming of age in the go-go electronic era of electroclash and ’80s revivalism of the early ’00s, Ladytron combined Krautrock stoicism with Parisian cool, even though the band formed in Liverpool at the turn of the century. Since then, one could be forgiven for having forgotten the band, not just because it’s been three years since their last album, but because their heavily stylized sound and presentation never seemed built to last past that shot time span and its fetish with synthesized sounds. Of course, it didn’t help that the quality of their records dipped just as interest was beginning to wane.
Similarly, you couldn’t blame the group if they had called it a day. Instead, though, Ladytron has created an album that surpasses all they’ve made previously, which as you can imagine, comes as quite a surprise. Just as surprisingly, the band’s icy veneer has melted to a great degree, leaving in its place warm (synthesized) hues. The leadoff track, “White Elephant,” sparkles with churning tubular bells, while even Helen Marnie’s vocals seem somehow rosier. On “Ace of Hz,” it’s easier to hear elements of Yaz than Kraftwerk or Neu in the oscillating keyboard tones, and on the appropriately titled “Melting Ice,” there is an almost organic quality to the synthetic melody they weave. Obviously, the artificial facade remains to some degree, but with Gravity the Seducer, Ladytron digs its hooks in much deeper.
Despite the ubiquity of Fleetwood Mac throughout the years and Rumors’ continued reign as the quintessence of ’70s classic rock, Lindsay Buckingham, as a solo artist, has never managed to connect with any popular zeitgeist outside of a cult of admirers who know full and well that he was always the wizard pulling (most of) the strings behind the curtain. Talk about disparity, in the 30 years since he released Law and Order, his first solo album, Buckingham has only scored one Top Ten hit, “Trouble” in 1982. Meanwhile, Stevie Nicks was gobbling up all the cocaine and radio play she could wrap her chubby little arms around. All of this of course means nothing to Buckingham. He has seemingly blocked out the mega-years with a Zen-like composure, the drama, the dance and the stardom brushed aside as if a burden. Sure, the man fills his reunion quota as needed, but few people are aware of the meticulously crafted pop albums that will eventually serve as his true legacy. It’s hard to deny the Mac for what it was—most of their catalog is untouchable and easily revisited—but there’s always the hope in the back of every Buckingham fan’s mind that this will be the one that might finally elevate Buckingham’s lone wolf status (and work) above those of his band and his bandmates.
With Seeds We Sow, only Buckingham’s sixth studio album in those 30 years, that hope is quickly extinguished and we’re soon back to reality. Those who know Buckingham (or think that they know him) are aware that he is incapable of such a feat. It was apparent as far back as Tusk. As a songwriter, he has few peers—even today—but as an auteur, his quirky tinkering, idiosyncratic production techniques, and overall reserved way of doing things will always cast him away from the legion wanting vintage Mac. For the cult, that’s completely fine, but given the unusually high ratio of pristine guitar pop (potential radio hits in another life) found on 2008’s Gift of Screws, all signs pointed to Seeds We Sow to overflow with that same magic. Seeds is not so much a surprise as it is more of a return to the heavily finger-picked minimalism (see the precious title track) and hushed countenance of 2006’s Under the Skin (another crucially underrated album). Again, with Buckingham, it’s best to leave expectations behind because he’ll never live up to them. Instead, his audience is going to get whatever whimsy follows him into the studio on that particular day. Fortunately, it’s difficult to ignore most of Buckingham’s muses, even if on a song like the dizzying “Stars are Crazy” it simply sounds like he’s dabbling in studio tricks after listening to a pile of Animal Collective outtakes. Seeds We Sow has a handful of those fleeting, fever-dream type of moments: the “Never Going Back Again” inflections in “Rock Away Blind” and the pastoral whisper of “She Smile Sweetly.” It is perhaps what defines the record, but the highlights come when Buckingham sounds cunning as a producer. “Illumination” is Buckingham at his most experimental, harkening back to his Go Insane days, where electronic beats and riffs used as percussive devices dominated the atmosphere. And then there’s “Gone too Far,” a song that’s the closest he’s come to Mac in years, thus destroying my theory of Buckingham’s isolationism, and in one sweeping chorus, reminding the world why we should love him even if he resorts to hermitage for another five years.
Kevin J. Elliott
Yes, the title should be an indication as to the theme of this album, but for some reason, the product was not at all what I was expecting from a band whose previous records have earned them a spot on the freak folks’ roster. American Goldwing is Blitzen Trapper’s sixth full-length album—the third on Sub Pop—but it’s clear these Portland natives are outgrowing, though not fully abandoning, outright folk for a deeper, nostalgic sound. To be clear, this is still the same band that made the stellar 2008 album, Furr, but they’re headed off in a Southerly direction—figuratively, that is.
The opener, “Might Find It Cheap,” and its twin brother, “Fletcher,” are as straightforward as sunny Southern rock can get, so much so that it makes you wonder whether Ronnie Van Zant was ever really on that fateful flight in 1977. If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then at least Blitzen Trapper gets it right with Goldwing. They pay homage to a bygone era of dirty pedal-steel guitars, plucky banjos, and the familiar vibrato of the harmonica with “Street Fighting Sun” and the title track in particular. To wit, there’s even a song called “Your Crying Eyes.”
That’s not to say that they’ve abandoned the signatures of their previous work entirely, though. There are certainly some shining stars amassed throughout. “Girl In a Coat” is a breezy, introspective Brit-folk tune on which singer and guitarist Eric Early does an eerily remarkable Donovan impersonation, and thusly, Blitzen Trapper manage to tie a nice little bow around both sides of the pond. “Astronaut” is filled with brilliantly written, metaphorical lyrics, driven by piano and harmonica and set atop a hazy soundscape.
Whether Blitzen Trapper’s doing John Prine or the Eagles, everything old is new again. Though they’re essentially rehashing old territory (albeit with modern equipment), the fact of the matter is that American Goldwing is Blitzen Trapper at their most comfortable, and consequently, their tightest, which makes the album impossible not to enjoy.
MP3: “Love the Way You Walk Away”
You wouldn’t be mistaken if you thought that there always seems to be a new Dan Melchior record on the horizon. Catbirds and Cardinals is the second album released this year by the ever-prolific English songsmith. Melchior’s proliferant pace is more impressive, though, when one considers the consistently high quality of his records, each of which has its own unique character and sound. Catbirds and Cardinals continues in this tradition.
Whereas his previous record, Assemblage Blues (released earlier this year on the Siltbreeze label), featured a dark and experimental sound, Catbirds and Cardinals finds Melchior exploring the poppier side of his personality to great effect. This 11-song LP does feature the trademarks of Melchior’s work—the biting wit of his lyrics, his fiery guitar work, and the raw lo-fi production sound—but from the opening guitar riff of “Summer in Siberia,” he seems to be on a mission to create a melodic masterpiece. “Deep Fried Circuits,” with its quiet, melancholy acoustic verses and anthemic chorus, is an instant classic, while the rollicking “Poison Pete’s Holiday” perfectly matches fuzzy guitars and keyboards with a great melody to create a track that would be a radio hit in an ideal world. By the time psychedelic album closer “Gnomes on the Runway” wraps up, you’re left wanting more. Catbirds and Cardinals stands as Melchior’s best album in his das Menace period, which is no small feat.
Columbus, Ohio’s Lydia Loveless has the type of story that has press types losing their minds. The idea of a wonder girl who is equal parts punk rock and country, with a powerful voice that could peel the paint off a battleship and songs that seem to be underwritten by the whiskey industry, seems tailor-made for normally country-allergic music fans. Having released her first album while still in her teens, booze-legal Loveless’ second album, Indestructible Machine, is her debut on like-minded Bloodshot Records.
Although everyone will talk about this as a country album, there’s a noisiness and general roughshod approach to Indestructible Machine that has more kinship with rock than with the line-dancing masses. But make no mistakes, much as advertised, Loveless and her band keep the country and rock in perfect balance. If there’s some nitpicking to be done, though, it’s that Indestructible Machine is too rocking. The production makes Loveless’ voice have to fight against the band to be heard, and while she sells her stories of hard livin’ and hard lovin’, a few songs get away from Loveless. These are the moments when the emotional residue is missing a certain lived-in quality. But those are honestly minor quibbles. Indestructible Machine is a great mix of humor and heartbreak, honkytonk and flying V, and just might make country fans out of rockers.
Dorian S. Ham
MP3: “Can’t Change Me”