Dum Dum Girls
Only in Dreams
Sub Pop

With the ground having settled somewhat after the explosion of bands mining a varied mix of lo-fi aesthetics, shoegaze shimmer and ’60s vocal melodies, it’s been interesting to see who’s left standing. With an excellent full-length debut, I Will Be, the Dum Dum Girls were always leaders of the pack, so I’m hardly surprised that they’ve returned with a suitable follow-up. What is startling is just how good it is.

While I Will Be was a collection of recordings done by top Girl Dee Dee at home and then polished by producer Richard Gottheher (Blondie, Go-Go’s), Only in Dreams was made in a more traditional manner. This time the band that Dee Dee recruited in the interim and Gottheher joined her in an honest-to-God studio, Josh Homme’s Pink Duck. Not that the distinction is particularly palpable; the record is concocted using a modern mix of girl-group harmonies and a foggy jangle of guitars similar to that of the debut. No, the difference here is Dee Dee herself. In the intervening years, her voice has accumulated a tawny husk to take on a Chrissie Hynde–like patina, most noticeable on cuts like “Heartbeat” and “Caught in One,” while her songwriting has matured as well. Thematically, the record is predominated by the death of her mother, whose visage appeared on both I Will Be and the Dum Dum Girls’ self-titled EP. Each song seems to deal with her mother’s battle with cancer and ultimate demise in different ways, revealing the complex swirl of emotions the singer was awash in while writing the record. The closing “Hold Your Hand” is a directly voiced lament while the aforementioned “Caught in One” is more clever in describing the impending death. Regardless of the approach, the subject matter is never diminished by being over-sentimentalized. As such, Only in Dreams manages to be intensely personal while buzzing with sonic bliss.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Coming Down”

Twin Sister
In Heaven

In my mind, buzz is buzz until that buzz can be proven deserved in the form of a full-length record. It’s been a common practice among the internet media to posit many bands amid the dais of this buzz with little proof to back it up. Usually, all a band needs is a blog-worthy single or EP and a fashionable hook to create this false crowning. For Twin Sister, a band I’m completely guilty of putting on a pedestal, it was the sparkling pop of the Color Your Life EP and singer Andrea Estrella’s alien voice and bewitching looks that gave them a quick ascension. Becoming darlings of the blogosphere was the easy part, solidifying that deafening buzz is something that would have to be proven on their long-awaited debut, In Heaven.

For the most part, Twin Sister’s chemistry is what makes In Heaven an immaculate collection of irresistible pop songs, fine-tuning and edifying all of those elements which gave them clout in the first place. Through their short existence, the band has accumulated a number of subtle influences. While venturing from nostalgic chill wave vibrations into echoes of soft-rock and a grab-bag of exotica, they never seem to stray from a nucleus of matured songwriting. The tricks played on In Heaven are not gimmicks. Even when their sound travels from the Far East to Francophone bop and onto “Spain,” one gets the sense that these are merely fever-dream influences, swimming in and out of the band’s very concentrated aesthetic. Somehow it’s a classy mix, which transcends the genres from which the band picks fruit.

Estrella, of course, is the budding star here, projecting a voice all her own. To each phrase, she lends an iconic grace not unlike Kate Bush, Björk, or even Karen O before her. Estrella’s greatest strength isn’t even her adorably quirky coo, but her ability to be a chameleon without giving up her unique, if aloof, delivery. She changes vocal costumes throughout, morphing from a funky minimalist “Borderline” reversal on “Bad Street” to a flirty chanteuse on “Gene Ciampi” and then a celestial space oddity on “Luna’s Theme.” Still, she never really takes all the spotlight at any moment, instead giving the songs an effervescent charm while melting into the surrounding band’s dream-pop atmospherics. It would be a disservice to leave out the power found in the dynamics of keyboardist Dev Gupta and guitarist Eric Cardona. Both of them, whether it be the jangled chords of Cardona on “Saturday Sunday” or the stunning new-romantic nods provided by Gupta on “Kimmi in a Rice Field,” hold an irreplaceable role throughout this enlightening record. It all culminates in the album’s finale, “Eastern Green,” a song that starts innocently enough (really conjuring the breeziness of Fleetwood Mac’s ghost) before exploding into a kaleidoscope of sonic color and aural pleasures and siphoning everything heard previously into one giant psychedelic mass before disintegrating across the cosmos. In Heaven is proof that the buzz is warranted, and may continue to grow, as Twin Sister may have just released the dream-pop album of the year.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Bad Street”

DJ Shadow
The Less You Know, the Better

In the recent past, DJ Shadow has proven himself adept at all sorts of music. He’s snapped more than a few necks with his straight-up beat-making. He’s taken listeners on absorbing, exhilarating journeys with the long-form explorations of The Private Press. And let’s face it, even if you didn’t like the hyphy mess of The Outsider, at least it was clear that the dude was enjoying himself.

So what’s this then? Largely, The Less You Know, the Better is a mixed bag, but it’s not all for naught. The opening cut, “Back to Front,” will definitely remind you of the Shadow of old, and it’s most certainly intended to. But then “Border Crossing” crashes some metallic riffage into your ears and rarely settles into a groove after that. It’s strange, actually, to hear Talib Kweli and Posdnuos preaching conservative old school–ism on “Stay the Course” since none of these three have ever been happy resting on their laurels.

I guess that’s why Shadow’s still throwing so many new things against the wall—he’s waiting to see what sticks, a necessary evil, it seems, for a still-evolving artist. So he tries a little Depeche Mode here, a little Major Lazer there, even some (God forbid) Moby in a couple of places. But if you’re wondering about this album because you’re still crazy over Entroducing after all these years, then tracks 7 to 12 are where you want to live. For 20 glorious minutes, he does that thing that he does better than anyone else ever, and it’s a damn triumph.
Matt Slaybaugh

Wild Flag
Wild Flag

Since hearing about Wild Flag, the new collaboration between Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney, and more recently, of Portlandia fame) and Mary Timony (Helium), I’ve been wondering why the pair didn’t consider it a revisitation of their Spells project, the name under which they released an excellent EP, The Age of Backwards, in 1999. As former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole of The Minders are also in the band, there was the possibility of also calling it The Shadow Mortons, the name of their garage-rock group. So I guess I answered my own question: the sum of the band’s four parts is different than anything else they’ve done together heretofore.

That said, it’s easy to pick out the elements each member contributes: Timony’s wiry guitar lines and spectral vocals, Brownstein’s hiccupy singing and charged six-string, Weiss’ cracking beats, and Cole’s underlying keyboard whines. But again, it’s how their contributions come together that really matters here. It’s this, in several bouts of self-reference, that Wild Flag also concerns themselves. On the leadoff “Romance,” a lean, poppy cut that bounds in multiple directions, the bind between the women is seemingly addressed when all four sing, “Sound is what found us. Sound is the blood between me and you,” on the song’s chorus. Similarly, on the subsequent “Something Came Over Me,” Timony intones, “You’re coming through in stereo sound,” which no doubt is a metaphor for something else (though it’s always hard to tell with her), but also points to the band’s predilection towards sonance over matter. Just having a song titled “Boom” would hint at this preference as well. By track seven, “Electric Band,” when Timony sings that “here comes the electric band,” it’s a declaration of the band’s cohesiveness and unity. Indeed, if this debut is any indication, there’s nothing that can stop them.
Stephen Slaybaugh

The Janks
Hands of Time

The Janks are a power-trio of hip looking long-hairs from Los Angeles, who’ve been around since 2009, long enough to put out one full-length and one EP before the release of Hands of Time. It’s pretty obvious that classic rock records have informed their sound, and luckily for me, they acknowledge it in their press info. I’d really hate to call out a band for pilfering an old band’s sound, but imitation is the highest form of flattery. The good parts of the record are those with this throwback sound, and it’s not just in the song structure or guitar wankery. The production nails that crunchy, but clean, sheen a la Portugal, The Man, in the way both bands nod to ripping rock studio records of the ’70s like Rush’s first album and Queen II. I can hear T-Rex maybe, Kinks on the kookier stuff (like “Drama King’s Ball”), some Faces in there, and a little Slade perhaps. There’s just not enough of any of it and a little too much of the trending, yelping-boy voice that’s been pervading the radio waves as of late. That said, vocalist Zack Zmed can pull off a pretty good Freddie Mercury, especially on the title track. And it’s not a bad thing to play the styles you admire, especially if you’re good at it and you own up to those influences. “Can’t Give Up” starts off with a nod to Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way,” but takes a much less wistful tack lyrically, although the slide guitar pushed in the background by tons of reverb keeps a remnant of that ’70s nostalgia. The lyrics won’t win any prizes, but I don’t think they’re aiming for the deepest meaning they can find. Such content is accessible and easy to understand, but also doesn’t talk down to the listener. Some of the song structures are a bit tedious, making the tracks seem longer than they are, but such is the case with plenty of super-rock bands from the past, so I guess it’s not so much of a problem here as it is a symptom of the genre.

The Janks aren’t rip-off artists, they’re incredibly proficient musicians and Hands of Time is definite proof. Some may prefer to just stick with their old Queen and Zeppelin records, but I’m positive that there’s plenty of teenage girls that will make this the soundtrack of those formative years before they discover Bowie and Roxy Music.
Michael O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Dead Man”