Yo La Tengo
Popular Songs

Yo La Tengo turned 25 this year and at this point I’m wondering if it’s even possible for them to make a bad album. Sure, they came close with 2003’s Summer Sun, but even that record revealed its charms over time, and today it stands as a warm paean to dog days past. Now, three years removed from their triumphant return to distortion and destruction, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, the Hoboken trio is back with their best album in almost a decade. And unlike with many artists who continue to release fine albums over 20 years into their career, to say Yo La Tengo has “aged gracefully” would be committing a great disservice. Instead, Popular Songs is further proof that the band’s continued relevance has less to do with their name and past successes than it does with their enduring ability to create timeless and satisfying albums that never fail to combine focused songcraft with wandering eclecticism.

On the album’s first nine songs, Yo La Tengo makes quantum leaps through the past 50 years of rock & roll, copping the string melody from the Four Tops’ “Same Old Song” on “If It’s True,” channeling shoegazers like Jason Pierce through mountains of orchestral distortion on “Here to Fall,” and recapturing the band’s own youthful punk exuberance on “Nothing to Hide.” (By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the amazing ’90s-style video for this song that stars labelmates Times New Viking and takes place at Columbus’ Lost Weekend Records, then crank up your tinny computer speakers and check it out on YouTube before you do anything else.) Elsewhere, “By Two’s” recalls the spectral allure of Yo La Tengo’s landmark 2000 release, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, while “Periodically Double Or Triple” imitates the charmingly fey stomp that fellow Matadorians Belle & Sebastian exhibited on The Life Pursuit. If all this sounds too self-referential or derivative, don’t worry: when the songs are this good, you might as well be listening to them in a cultural vacuum anyway.

This brings us to the final tracks, which are all stark departures from the nine “popular songs” that precede them. At nine minutes, 11 minutes, and 15 minutes respectively, the three atmospheric slow-burners are—depending on your viewpoint, mood or perhaps level of chemical consumption—either powerfully hypnotic or willfully difficult. But regardless of how each individual listener reacts to the unexpected finale, Yo La Tengo’s willingness to end the album like this demonstrates that their devotion to experimentation is still alive and kicking. Which is crucial, considering that the desire to push things forward while never abandoning both the love for melody and a respect for rock & roll history has endeared so many listeners to Yo La Tengo over their storied career. Here’s to 25 more years.
David Holmes

MP3: “Here to Fall”

Vivian Girls
Everything Goes Wrong
In the Red

On the second track of Everything Goes Wrong, Cassie Ramone repeatedly intones “I have no fun,” and perhaps she’s trying to give us fair warning. The Girls’ second LP certainly has something of a dark heart (the trio of “Tension,” “Survival” and “The End”) and a couple of songs even top the four-minute mark. But don’t let Ms. Ramone over-sell it; the album’s a ton of fun. It does what we wish all second albums by real originals can do: it sticks to the successful game plan, while stretching the boundaries just enough to keep things fresh.

On “Can’t Get Over You,” as Kickball Katy and Ali Koehler fill in with some back-up “oohs,” Cassie Ramone tells a sad sack girl-meets-boy fable worthy of her namesake. “I’m Not Asleep” brings the Mamas & the Papas kicking and screaming into the equation; “Out for the Sun” is downright heavy; and I think that “Before I Start to Cry” has to be classified as a ballad. “Desert” has a chorus that climaxes with a long-held note that explodes first into the second verse, then into the blistering instrumental section. It’s ostensibly a joyous song about finding “the one,” but something in the harried intensity of the guitars, or maybe the failing lilt in Cassie’s voice, or the defiant sing-along before the final verse (or maybe the titles of all the other songs on the album) hints at irony instead of glee.

The album is three tracks and 15 minutes longer than its predecessor, but still clocks in at a sleak 35 minutes. That’s the way the Vivians do it—never wasting a moment, never saying more than necessary, never dragging a song out with unsightly guitar solos or pointlessly repeating choruses. Maybe the next album will find them hanging out with Eno or booking time with a Philharmonic. For now, though, strong and steady wins the race.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “When I’m Gone”

Os Mutantes
Haih or Amortecedor

Of all the original Tropicalistas it was Sergio Dias Baptista, his brother Arnaldo and Rita Lee that fell furthest from the tree. Incorporating acid-soaked garage rock and absurdist takes on Beatles pop to classic sides of samba and bossa nova, Os Mutantes took the Tropicalia theory of musical cannibalism to an extreme, juggling skewed social commentary and a vibrant, kaleidoscopic sound while always rewiring the traditional rhythms of their Brazilian homeland to fit through a psychedelic pinhole. Perhaps that’s why, when it was time for them to change with the times, they strode towards excess and those ’60s stereotypes they’d originally mocked, splintering and self-destructing in the process. When listeners north of the equator finally found their buried treasure more than two decades later, getting them back together to even touch upon these gems would be a feat of fantasy to accomplish.

In the age of fly-by-night reunion tours and impassionate comeback records, it’s apropos that the legend of Os Mutantes continues with Haih or Amotecedor, an album (comeback as it may be) that bucks against any hollow concept of what returning after 35 years might imply. Minus Arnaldo and Lee, Sergio has added vocalist Bia Mendes to be his female foil and a handful of more than competent players, as well as lyrics by Tom Ze and a songwriting credit for Jorge Ben, to surprise even those who might balk at what a 21st century version of Os Mutantes might sound like. It’s certainly not as cut-and-paste or immediately frenetic as 1968, but who could muster that energy these days? Still Baptista sees that inconsistencies have not subsided in Brazilian culture and politics, and his reflection of that world is as potent and madcap as ever.

First timers might be turned off by the slick production and adherence to form of songs like “O Careca,” but what may come across as smooth jazz and exotic beach fodder is in fact the current pulse of MPB (Musica Popular Brasileiro). What follows is a realization that most of the Tropicalistas continue to mine the classics. Closer listens, though, reveal a progressive samba with wild harmonies and sharp pangs of electric dissonance. “200 or Agarrum” and “Samba do Fidel” likewise show Baptista as forever the cannibal, making Spanish guitar scattershot and Cuban protest blank canvases for psychedelic mischief. On Haih, Baptista frequently uses words plucked from native languages and constructed from Portuguese fragments, no matter the Southern Hemisphere hokum and lyrics lost in translation, and the vibe isn’t any less potent than in the days of the military regime.

The wild power pop of “O Mesangeiro” is an irresistible celebration of Os Mutantes’ undying experiment. Here Baptista’s wise fool goes shining through a Byrdsian prism with a boisterous chorus clearly mockish and silly. Beyond the chants of “happy birthday” and a hair metal solo, in Os Mutantes’ existential sphere and convoluted history, the juxtapositions are strangely brilliant.
Kevin J. Elliott

Wild Beasts
Two Dancers

It brings out the skeptic in me when a band manages to release albums practically back-to-back, wondering if the quickly following successor will be a shoddily thrown together hodge-podge of leftover songs that didn’t quite fit on the last album. My cynical self says that more often than not it is. Yet after giving Two Dancers a proper listen, I suppose I’ll have to rethink such disparaging intuitions. Wild Beasts’ last album, the charmingly opulent Limbo, Panto, was released just last June, so I was surprised to see that they were releasing their first single off Dancers in the UK this past July—just a year and one month later. How is it that a band could manage to support one album while simultaneously recording another? Well, the answer is that they didn’t, really. Limbo, Panto, though a critical darling, never quite gained the fanbase it deserved, and thus, Wild Beasts have been unleashed upon us once more—this time hopefully with a much different reception.

At first, with the maddeningly unforgettable howl of vocalist Hayden Thorpe, I wrote this album off as another attempt at Limbo, Panto’s rococo grandeur. However, a simple repeat, Two Dancers is most certainly not. Sure, it is retains the tantamount Victorian opulence, but the sinister undertone of Two Dancers is a luscious surprise.

Though Limbo, Panto was splendid in its artistry and originality, there was a slight emotional disconnect. But Two Dancers seems for answer that, and then some. It is equal parts arresting and affecting, with much more thought to the music this go around. Rather than playful ditties, there are truly fantastical and slightly baleful guitar riffs (“Hooting and Howling”), which seem wholly contradictory to the omnipresent falsetto of Thorpe’s voice. Strangely, though, this paradox between the happiness of the vocals and the heaviness of the music (and percussion) feels much less gimmicky. One place, however, where Thorpe’s wail sounds just as haunting as the music is on the evocative “We Still Got the Taste Dancin’ on Our Tongues.” Some find Thorpe’s voice a deal-breaker, but there is an outlet, as bassist Tom Fleming contributes a significant amount of vocals as well. His voice is a bit easier on the ears, with the deep, smooth sound of a 1950s lounge singer, which meshes ever so gracefully into the music.

The percussion this time around is especially exciting, and it is with the aid of such introductory beats on songs like “When I’m Sleepy” and “This Is Our Lot” that Two Beasts wastes no time dithering in childish melodies. For the first few seconds, “All The King’s Men,” might as well be “Rock and Roll Part 2”—minus the glam-rock pretenses. But Two Dancers, with its timeless elegance, is one giant leap for baroque-rock kind.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “All the King’s Men”

Get Color
Lovepump United

Eventually, after the robots have taken over the world, they’ll discover their gonads (or invent them) and start making rock music. The psychic distress will ignite their circuit boards. Get Color is the broken robot rock of those unfortunate machines.

HEALTH are well known for the jagged shards of synths and waves of white noise that, on their sophomore effort, continue to dominate their work. There’s not always a solid rhythm driving though the twisted wrecks of the songs, but when there is, it’s all about primal, 4/4 pounding. Occasionally they find a groove, but they just as soon ricochet out of it into a wall of drone or buzzing static. The vocals meanwhile sound like angels trying to escape some monotonous prison sentence. The overall effect is mesmerizing, but in large doses can start to feel oppressive. Sometimes you just might not want to feel the way HEALTH makes you feel.

A lot of listeners will certainly find themselves challenged by the strange forms with which HEALTH work. Even the mystified, though, will have no problem surrendering to the burning-ice guitar work in “We Are Water” or the post-Depeche disco mode they take on in “Die Slow” (definitely the most straightforward song of the set). If you like things even more chaotic, try “Eat Flesh,” which plays like Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” on serious uppers. But if you’re not looking for creepy or angry or angstful tonight, you’d best move on.
Matt Slaybaugh

Where Were You When It Happened?
Drag City

Monotonix is one of those bands that seems to garner only extreme reactions. People either love ’em or hate ’em. Often this is in direct relation to the Israeli band’s bombastic live show. If you’re a fan of lighter fluid pyrotechnics, copious sweaty body hair, singers who empty trashcans onto drummers and having your beer taken from you and dumped on your head, you’ll likely be in the “love” camp. Otherwise, you’re probably just going to be annoyed.

And so it is that the music of Monotonix often gets lost in the proverbial shuffle. With the release of Where Were You When It Happened?, the band’s debut full-length and follow up to last year’s Body Language EP, Monotonix attempts to prove that it’s more than just a one-dimensional novelty act. The bulk of the album is comprised of what the band does best—minimalistic, energetic, heavy guitar rock. Songs like “Flesh and Blood” and “My Needs” are the trio’s bread and butter: riff-oriented jams that conjure a hot, beer-soaked basement reeking of weed in 1974. The guitar work is definitely impressive, and it’s quickly clear that this deft fretwork is the main sonic attraction of the Monotonix sound, both as the star of the show and the glue that holds everything together.

The songs are less effective when the band stumbles outside of its comfort zone. The almost mopey “Something Has Dried,” ostensibly an attempt at a dramatic ballad, drags on too long. Ditto for “As Noise” and closer “Hunt You Down,” which eschews the group’s guitar-drums-vocals formula for an organ-based sound. Another unfortunate downside of the group’s studio incarnation is that its lyrics are more intelligible, revealing some cringe-worthy phrasings (see “Set Me Free,” which includes the line “Have you ever seen the face of nervous breakdown in your place”).

Ultimately, Monotonix operates best when the band focuses on its unabashed celebration of heavy rock’s sonic excesses. The path doesn’t lead to any great revelations, but is there really anything wrong with having a good time?
Ron Wadlinger

MP3: “Set Me Free”

Drive-By Truckers
The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003–2008)
New West

Fulfillment albums can be tricky. It often seems like a band succumbs to releasing half-baked material for its jilted label to wring every last bit of profit. Regardless of their relationship with New West, Drive-By Truckers compiled a surefooted series of previously unreleased tracks as its parting gift to the Austin-based record company.

With several cuts from 2004’s Dirty South sessions and two contributions from departed singer and songwriter Jason Isbell, The Fine Print is a breather from the band’s massive concept albums. It has all the elements of an ideal rarities compendium: never-released original recordings, B-sides, covers, and a sense of humor. Like a second helping of a home-cooked meal, it’s a tad excessive but hard to resist.

Since forming Drive-By Truckers 13 years ago in Athens, Georgia, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have shared lead vocal and songwriting helms. Cooley’s salty inflections and outlaw lyrics comprise much of the band’s Dixie folklore, but Hood’s loose-cannon howl and defiant swagger hold the master key to this henhouse. Throw in third songwriter and bassist Shonna Tucker and you have a gravelly Southern rock multiple personality disorder.

The Fine Print is best suited for DBT diehards. The band’s alternate version of “Goode’s Field Road” wields the most signature pluck, while Isbell’s “When The Well Runs Dry” is a reminder of his balladic force. The tawdry “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono” probably won’t be chosen for Disney’s next Christmas movie, but it will muster some chortles. Of the album’s four covers, which also includes Tom Petty’s “Rebels,” Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” and Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken)” feels both genuine and adequately refitted. This lighthearted reprieve won’t last long; the Truckers plan to release their ninth album early next year on their own label Ruth St. Records.
Alexandra Kelley

MP3: “The Great Car Dealer War”