MisterWives – “Connect the Dots”

(Photo Credit: Has It Leaked?)Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Drummer Boy,” “Oh Love”

43 minutes, Photo Finish Records

MisterWives’ sophomore album is blunt in its mission statement – color. The album’s title is “Connect the Dots,” along with the bright cover of partially colored-in animals. One of the album’s better tracks is titled “Coloring Outside the Lines.” This is all important to note for two reasons – indie and alternative bands always have to conquer the notorious sophomore slump, where they must prove themselves more than a one-trick pony; and the indie scene which birthed the group has almost completely faded away. Mumford and Sons got electric and boring, and stalwarts like Grouplove, Three Door Cinema Club, and countless others have mostly failed at adapting to the recent trend of darker, more political music. So by setting up this identity of color – something the band has always had plenty of anyways – it gives them that personal tick to succeed in 2017.

Of course, it takes more than color – it takes the music, too. I wrote about this band’s first album and my experience finding them playing an opening gig in some carved out Manhattan bar. That album, as you can tell, is also colorful (with our animal friends making an earlier appearance). “Connect the Dots” doesn’t exactly stand up to “Our Own House” in an immediate way, although it certainly doesn’t make this a bad album. The difference lies in the diversity of the tracks. “Our Own House” had a freeing sense of ambition, in that the band easily blended sounds and emotions into a relative whole. “Connect the Dots” is, as the title maybe unintentionally implies, a simpler album. It is more straightforward indie-pop, with few digressions.

One of the album’s more interesting tracks is the opener, “Machine.” New fans who may have heard “Reflections” on the radio may be surprised by the song’s seeming appropriation of latin music. Singer Mandy Lee even sounds like Shakira at points. (It’s maybe not the most appropriate thing, but we’re all just letting Drake get away with way worse). After that track, though, comes “Chasing This” and “Only Human,” two perfectly enjoyable but largely interchangeable indie songs that half-halt any momentum built by “Machine.”

One of the great things about “Our Own House” was the ways in which varying members got featured. Lee’s amazing voice obviously carried “Reflections,” but other tracks got to shine instrumentally. The band feels more collective here, which in many alleys is a plus. But it also means the songs sound less individual than before, and it shows through much of the album. MisterWives have crafted the perfect kind of innocent, often optimistic brand of indie-pop that is never corny, always enjoyable, yet mostly just passing. And that’s what most of this album is – very pleasant, perfect for warm days and small gatherings, and not a whole lot more.

“Out of Tune Piano” is one of the album’s better songs because of, well, the out of tune piano. It lumbers up and down during the verses in a bouncy tune. The last two tracks are also effective. “Oh Love” is a hectic blast of ‘everything we couldn’t turn into a full song,’ that winds through a pace that’s pretty breakneck for indie music. The closer “Let the Light In” might spend too long building, but the big payoff is worth it regardless.

Lee’s voice, the domineering force of the band, is both centered in the middle and also placed at the same volume as everything else in a way that lets her physical voice shine through but muddles the actual lyrics in the music. Still, there’s some beautiful lines throughout. The one that stuck out to me was in “Coloring Outside the Lines,” where Lee sings “They say that time slips away when you’re having fun / That’s why you said ‘let’s change our lives to a dull one.'”

So, “Connect the Dots” is ultimately a standard indie album. The band has the advantage of Lee’s powerful vocals, and their use of color in and out of music. If you’ve ever seen a picture of this band, they look like a very specific type of subgroup, of the people who go to Coachella, take some molly, rap along with black rappers but also are genuinely good people. I cannot say how accurate this is, but it’s the real vibe the album gives off. MisterWives sound like they’re having a lot of fun in the studio, and even if that fun doesn’t always translate to the listener, it can still be enjoyable. The indie rebirth phase has almost completely checked out, and it leaves bands like MisterWives out in the cold. But it shouldn’t take away from the fact that they’re a solid, fun group making some effortlessly joyous music.

-By Andrew McNally

Bon Iver – “22, A Million”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)Grade: B-

You might be reading articles about people in media and come across the concept of an artist making something “for themselves.” I think it’s a great idea – as a singer/director/painter/composer/what have you, someone is fed up with reviews, praise and criticism that they make a piece of art that they know they’ll enjoy. We’ve seen it in music – look at Bob Dylan’s recent output. He’s been doing it for practically his whole career, it’s just that people latched on to most of it. We saw it in film version earlier this year, when my favorite filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen put out a movie called “Hail, Caesar” that was so into their own irrelevant personal politics that it was borderline unwatchable to anyone who didn’t share their name(s). This is what Justin Vernon’s new album sounds like. Vernon, the frontman and ship-commander of Bon Iver, has never been shy to air his grievances on tape. It’s just here, he does it in a way that alters between being heartbreakingly original and just painfully pretentious.

Vernon is a man who has always dipped his feet into many different pools. It would be easy to say that his big break came when Bon Iver picked up two huge Grammys in 2012 – Best Alternative Album, beating Radiohead and Death Cab For Cutie, and Best New Artist, beating – wait for this – The Band Perry, J. Cole, Skrillex, and Nicki Minaj. But in that same year, Justin Vernon was featured on an album, maybe you know it, Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Although he swept up the Grammy’s in his own indie-folk persona, he snuck in a bunch of nominations via Kanye, a fan who invited him in the studio. I would argue that “Monster,” in which Vernon is 1/5 of musicians present, is one of this century’s best hip-hop songs, and it introduced a whole different audience to his music.

I mention all of this not to be condescending or anything; I mention it because it has become clear that a possibly unintentional association to the hip-hop community has definitely changed Vernon’s music. The first two Bon Iver albums – which came out in 2008 and 2011, respectively, capitalized on the indie-folk movement that was big at the time. They’re gems, throughout. I’ll admit that I’ve never felt the connection to them that a lot of people have, but they are gems. Four years later, after a self-imposed hiatus, Vernon’s Bon Iver still reflects the music movements of today. But it doesn’t capture the current eclectic zeitgeist as well. In an age where A$ap Rocky records with Florence Welch, David Bowie writes an album inspired by Kendrick Lamar, and Bruce Springsteen praises Kanye, there is an insane amount of cross-blending going on.

At times, Bon Iver’s album hits emotional highs where his new concoction of hip-hop induced freakfolk strikes an emotional cord that somehow has not been hit yet. Opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is a brutally honest way to open an album, with Vernon seemingly pondering his own existence, singing “It might be over soon.” The song falls to a saxophone bit that plays over a particularly grating chant. One of the album’s best tracks is “33”GOD”,” which ironically works because of its clarity. The song is the clearest song on the album – the song that sounds the most like traditional Bon Iver. In a weird way, it’s refreshing.

Vernon’s lyrics throughout the album are his strongest suit. His words are emotionally distant and discontent – the words of a man who never planned on being famous and showing up on Kanye albums. The main problem is, sometimes those lyrics are simply indecipherable. Parts of this album beg the question often posed to bands like Lightning Bolt or Deafheaven – does renegading your lyrics behind a curtain of indecipherability render them pointless?

The album, when not highlighting a poignant, dissonant emotional feel, gives into its worst indulgences. Vernon has recorded with and under a number of bands and aliases, so it’s tough not to wonder why he felt the Bon Iver moniker was the right one for this album. It’s wildly different, to a point where it feels like Vernon flaunting his own split in the biggest avenue he can find, and that avenue just happens to be Bon Iver. The album has great tracks – but ones like the utterly dull “29 #Stafford APTS” or the annoyingly grating, a capella “715 – CRΣΣKS” make you wonder why this album has to exist in the first place. There’s little middle ground here – there’s either tracks that capture beauty amidst roughness, or just the roughness. On both go-arounds I made of this album, I had to restart “8 (circle)” because both times I completely forgot I was listening to music. Vernon retreats into himself on this album – and when he has an emotional center to bounce off, then he’s written some of the best songs of his career. But at other times, he’s become so self-indulgent that it doesn’t even feel like there should be another listener besides him.

The song titles don’t help his case. Don’t trust every review that praises the mystical song titles – sure, each one has a number. Do we know what it means? Not really. Does it seem to matter? Not really. I don’t know how many people were truly excited to see the torch that Devendra Banhart abandoned be picked up, but this isn’t really the way to do it. Calling a song something like “____45_____” doesn’t intrinsically add anything of value, it just makes it look different. And in this case, that different is goofy, not inspirational. Vernon treats this album like he is the grandmaster of freakfolk, but he isn’t, not by decades. Maybe he was influenced by Kanye, maybe these tracks came out of his own frutration and I’m just not accepting them correctly. But “22, A Million” just doesn’t feel like the revolutionary piece of art that the band so seems to think it is. It definitely takes multiple listens, and it is never what you expect. At times, it is nothing but sheer greatness. But it is also such a mess of pretentious experimental nonsense that it never answers the basic question of why it needs to exist in the first place. Some people will love it; some really won’t. Maybe Justin Vernon made this album for himself, or maybe he made it for those fans. Either way, “22, A Million” never rises above being a reminder of the better freak-folk acts of the past.

-By Andrew McNally

Radiohead – “A Moon Shaped Pool”

Grade: A

Key tracks: “Burn the Witch,” “Glass Eyes”

This review was originally posted at the filtered lens

By this point, we don’t really need to be reviewing Radiohead’s albums. Their last, 2011’s “The King of Limbs,” shocked audiences by getting a reception that was only pretty good, not great. Nothing noteworthy for other bands, but a huge misfire for them (and, personally, it’s one of my favorite RH albums). They’re a cultural institution, changing themselves and popular music with each release. They’ve done it again here, on their ninth album “A Moon Shaped Pool,” an album that balances emotions just as it balances its instrumentation.

The most immediate sound on the album is the alarming strings of opener and lead single “Burn the Witch.” It’s a very compact song, clocking in at 3:41, relatively short by the band’s standards. It has that catchy, staccato string rhythm that’s somewhat infectious, unexpected for a band that doesn’t exactly have the most whistle-able tunes. The second song and second single “Daydreaming,” hits the much more familiar other-end-of-the-spectrum, a 6+ minute haunting electro-ballad. It’s a gorgeous song, equally enthralling and terrifying. The two songs, released close together and playing back-to-back, are uniquely different in a way that doesn’t exactly work, and to have them kick off the album seems like it’s setting a path for an album of great songs but with a lacking cohesiveness.

This couldn’t be less of the case. Other reviewers have used the word “symphonic” to describe the album, and it settles into that kind of groove. The next four tracks – “Decks Dark,” “Desert Island Disk,” “Ful Stop,” and “Glass Eyes,” act as a massive (and excellent) suite. “Decks” transitions into “Desert,” and although the other songs aren’t connected, there is a real vulnerable and murky tone to the songs that draw the listener for quite a while (about 17 minutes, through the four songs). And just when that set starts to feel a little worn-in, they turn on a dime to the more rhythmic “Identikit,” one of a few songs they’ve recorded for the album after playing them live for years. It’s not an energetic track, but it feels like after the previous five.

Radiohead’s best albums have a real cohesiveness to them, and “A Moon Shaped Pool” is about as cohesive as they come. The biggest outlier is “Burn the Witch,” with a bursting energy not found anywhere else. A majority of the tracks are slow-burning ballads, to varying success, although most are sheer Radiohead brilliance. “Glass Eyes,” the shortest track, is also the most effective. Closing song “True Love Waits” is the same (and another song that Radiohead has been kicking around for years). The album shares a cohesiveness with “Kid A,” but without doing a retread of that album’s murky synths. There is a lot of synth here, but it’s a more spellbinding and complex use of them, and occasional strings and acoustic guitar work to fully complement the otherwise electro-heavy music.

As with some of Radiohead’s other albums, the lyrics don’t take a full priority. Between the importance placed on music, and Thom Yorke’s typically high-flying and jumbled vocals, the lyrics aren’t always the most discernible. Still, “Decks Dark” has a great line, “There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky,” which complements the song’s spacey feel (that would feel in place on “OK Computer”).

This certainly isn’t one of Radiohead’s most accessible or immediately enjoyable albums. In fact, some of the tracks might not even sound great individually. This is an album meant to be consumed whole. Their last two albums, “In Rainbows” and “The King of Limbs,” had pop standouts that you could listen to and love immediately – this album is more of a grower. In time, it’ll go down as one the band’s best albums yet, but we have to give it time to get there. Trust me, give it the time.

-By Andrew McNally

Tancred – “Out of the Garden”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Bed Case” “Sell My Head”

Tancred’s last album, a self-titled album, was an excellent work of little numbers that was weirdly out-of-place. It was released through Topshelf Records, the label home to various emo and pop-punk bands like Into It. Over It., Defeater and A Great Big Pile of Leaves. But Tancred, nee Jess Abbott, really didn’t fit in that club. Even if her songs had a simplistic beauty to them, they were tough to categorize. And in the three years since that album, the scene has become overblown and overstayed. On her third album, Abbott finds herself moving even further away from any emo/pop-punk association, with a collection of fuzzed-up guitar tracks ripped out of the Breeders’ songbook.

There were guitar tunes on her previous albums, but this album’s riffy opener, “Bed Case,” is a stark contrast to “The Ring,” the beautiful, floating song that opened her last album. There is less restraint on “Out of the Garden,” and a lot more volume and energy. The energy isn’t maintained throughout, but more often than not there is enough oomph to keep listener riding down the nostalgia train. Abbott, alongside Terrence Vitali and Kevin Medina, create a world that falls somewhere in the 90’s boom between pop-punk and shoegaze, often swaying one way or the other. “Sell My Head” seems distinctly punk, while “Control Me” falls closer to shoegaze.

Abbott’s lyrics often center around relationships, as well as individualism, something she came into working in a bad section of Minneapolis. On “Sell My Head,” she sings, “I drank you up like wine / Until my teeth were black and white.” She muses on love in regards to self-expression all across the record. “This is how we learned to be happy / This is how we learned the hard way,” on “Control Me.” “Tie me up with ropes made of you,” she sings on “Poise,” and “You look like California / Take me there, take me there / You put me in a coma / But I don’t scare” on “Bed Case.”

90’s revivalists will have a lot to piece through on this album. All members come across well on the album, and while the fuzz-induced boom isn’t quite enough to sustain across the whole album, there’s enough great tracks here to certainly hold up. Tancred has always seemed fitful to place themselves in any genre, and this album is a delightful mix of everything in between.

Watch the video for their excellent single, “Bed Case” below (although not if you have epilepsy):

-By Andrew McNally

Cage the Elephant – “Tell Me I’m Pretty”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Cry Baby,” “Trouble”

On their debut album, Cage the Elephant gave us a funky, bluesy version of themselves. On “Thank You Happy Birthday,” we got the grunge version of the band, and on “Melophobia” we were given a garage-soul version of them. On the band’s fourth album, we get a new version of Cage the Elephant – themselves.

With a few big albums and a slough of hit singles under their belt, Cage the Elephant is finally exploring themselves instead of making odes to music past. That may have also come from the production of Black Key Dan Auerbach, who is on his quest to make every artist from Dr. John to Lana Del Rey sound a little more like the Black Keys. Auerbach is a no-brainer for Cage the Elephant, a riotous Midwestern alternative band. Take away a few members and you have the Black Keys.

“Tell Me I’m Pretty” is the band’s most coherent album; ironically, the coherence comes from a wider diversity in emotion. This is easily the band’s most personal and introspective album yet, filled with emotional ballads and tales of loss and separation. In fact, the middle portion of the album is all ballads, until late-album kicker “That’s Right.” Lines like “I been facing trouble almost all my life” (“Trouble”) are expected, but “I think we should just let go” (“Sweetie Little Jean”) is a new, softer side for them. It’s telling that they’ve stripped away other instruments, along with the mania. Here, they’re a band – vocals, drums, guitars, bass.

I’m usually turned off when fun alternative bands start writing slower music (*cough* TV on the Radio), but I’ve always had faith in Cage the Elephant. The band has said that by working on their own identity as a group, they’ve focused on making every song individually different from every other song, and it shows. That’s where the cohesiveness comes in – their first three albums focused on the album as a piece of art, this one focuses on songs. There’s a broader range in emotion and influence. “Mess Around” was an obvious lead single, but each song is so crafted that really any of them would be prepped for rock radio.

The songs on “Tell Me I’m Pretty” might not immediately grab a listener the way some of the songs on, say, “Thank You Happy Birthday” do, they require a little more patience. But each one eventually grabs, even without any hooks or bursts of manic energy (though some do with that, too). The songs here feel more like we’re being let in, like we’ve been invited to finally see the real Cage the Elephant. This might not be their best album, and it won’t have the replay value of their crazier work. But it proves that Cage the Elephant have done their homework and can create music that’s their very own, not an ode to a different era. In this reviewer’s opinion, Cage the Elephant are four-for-four.

If you like this, try: Cold War Kids’ “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,” another indie band that’s used various influences to create their own, wholly original sound.

Nerina Pallot – “The Sound and the Fury”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “There is a Drum,” “Rousseau”

The phrase “The Sound and the Fury” has a history deep in death. Macbeth first utters the phrase in a soliloquy in Act V, after learning of the death of his lady. And, more famously, William Faulkner adapted it as the title for what is arguably his most well-known novel. It doesn’t necessarily work for any real context on Nerina Pallot’s fifth studio album, but it does separate her from other singers. Pallot, by definition a singer-songwriter, incorporates more music (Sound) and darker themes (Fury) into her music than her contemporaries. “Fury,” like her previous albums, is filled start to finish with memorable songs, each brimming with Pallot’s devotion to making every moment unique.

The album’s opening is indicative of her music as a whole. “There is a Drum” starts with a half-minute of pretty, dreamy guitar before stopping completely and giving way to a haunting, disproportionately-loud horn that sounds like it came from the mountains of Tibet. It sets the tone for the album – two parts melodic, one part dark, and filled with music. “Drum” and later track “Spirit Walks” handle inspiration and music from other cultures, a thin line that British native Pallot walks largely with respect.

Other musical highlights on the album include the previously released “Rousseau,” a slower song centered on a steady, picked guitar line that might not sound out of place in an older Coldplay song (alternately – speed it up and it’s almost ska-like). “The Road,” the album’s other single besides “Rousseau,” has a long musical outro that highlights Pallot’s reliance on a full package, not just her. “Boy on the Bus” has a unique, wavey sound, and closer “The Longest Memory” ends the album on a strong musical note (no pun intended).

Most of the album’s songs were released last year. Pallot released an EP a month in 2014, and put the fan-voted best tracks on “Fury,” plus a few new songs. A busy Pallot released 60 songs last year, and this album serves somewhat as a highlights package. But it is cohesive; you wouldn’t even know this borders as a collection. Musically and lyrically, it maintains a tone but each song shoots off of it in a different direction. Some songs are full in sound, some intentionally restrained. Pallot’s earlier releases generally match “Fury” in both tone and quality. Pallot hasn’t broken in America yet; in fact, she’s barely spoken in whispers. I don’t know why this is. Pallot probably isn’t bothered by it. But for me, that’s my “Fury.”

If you like this, try: MisterWives debut, “Our Own House.” It’s got less substance, but it’s also an inherently great and diverse indie-folk work.

Titus Andronicus – “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Lonely Boy” “Dimed Out” “More Perfect Union”

One of the things that made Seinfeld so great was a general lack of continuity – you can flip on any episode on TBS at 3pm or am and jump in. Sure, there’s recurring jokes – the person getting washed behind the sheet at the hospital George’s mom is in is my favorite. But each episode is pretty standalone, even for a sitcom. So it’s weird that Titus Andronicus stands by their Seinfeld references, in a way. Their fourth album, “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” is an album that links all three of their previous albums up. It continues the “No Future” trend from “Titus Andronicus” and “The Monitor,” but left off of “Local Business.” One of this album’s best songs, “More Perfect Union,” is a reference to “A More Perfect Union,” from “The Monitor.” And “I’m Going Insane (Finish Him)” is a lyrical cover of their own “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” from “Local Business.” There’s even the Seinfeld reference, a “Hello, Newman” shout on “Lonely Boy.”

Look, I love Titus Andronicus. I’ve long called them “America’s best rock band.” A picture I took of them at the Brooklyn Bowl has been the background on my phone for a few years. I didn’t ‘stand by them’ when they released “Local Business” – it’s one of my very favorite albums, I listen to it in full nearly once a week. So when they announced a 29 song, 93+ minute rock opera, I went into cardiac arrest. And as I was staring at it after it came out, before I listened, I thought – “there’s few bands that could really pull this off, and I’m not sure +@ even can.” “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” isn’t their strongest album, but in terms of ambition and effort, it is indeed unmatched.

The album is separated into five acts, much like Foxygen’s “…And Star Power” last year. The opera follows Our Hero, as he meets his doppelganger and struggles with manic depression, a reflection of Patrick Stickles’ own struggles. Stickles has reflected before – “The Monitor” reflected his depression, where my favorite +@ song “My Eating Disorder” details his selective eating.

There’s a lot to take in on the album, at 29 songs and over an hour and a half long. Given that the band has always centered itself equally on music and lyrics, there’s rarely one more worthy of attention – and that comes through the most on songs that feel like they could’ve been cut. It runs too long, even as an art project, and the average-lengthed songs start to bleed together a bit. There’s also a surprising number of them – although two of the songs are over nine minutes, and thirteen are under two minutes, most of the other tracks are between 3:00 and 4:30, unexpected for a band comfortable in the 5:00-6:30 range. Some songs, like “Dimed Out” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” feel zipped-up and perfectly sliced because of it, but some songs feel underdeveloped in that range.

The album keeps things interesting by engulfing all of Patrick Stickles’ influences, rather than focusing on one. Early on, especially on “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” and “Lonely Boy,” the band directly channels their inner Springsteen. As the album gets more indulging, the band expands influences, from hardcore (“Look Alive”) to the Pogues (“A Pair of Brown Eyes”) to the traditional (an unexpected “Auld Lang Syne”). There’s a lot going on here, and it gets switched up so consistently that it feels like where in the manic itself.

“The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a flawed but strong album. Just when it starts to lag, it winds up again and hits you with another punk blast. And it’s needlessly but joyously self-indulgent, keeping all of the band’s linked narratives going. It’s punk, it’s indie, it’s gospel, it’s anything you’d imagine Titus Andronicus to be. It succeeds just because it has the sheer audacity to demand it so. “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a beast, and with another dense, lengthy concept album under their belt, it’s safe to say we have no idea where +@ are going next. Their next album might equate struggles with body identity to stories of ancient gods, or it might be a Bon Jovi covers album. It’s tough to say, and that’s what makes +@ America’s best rock band.

If you like this, try: self-immolation

-By Andrew McNally