Weezer – “Weezer”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “California Girls,” “Thank God For Girls”

No one really knows what goes on within Weezer. The bandmates who aren’t Rivers Cuomo might not even know what’s going on. But what went on, for many torturous years, was that Cuomo broke Weezer’s very easy-to-replicate formula. Their first four albums – “Weezer,” (Blue), “Pinkerton,” “Weezer,” (Green), and “Maladroit,” were all pretty similar works, even if the former two eclipse the latter two in terms of quality. And then, for whatever reason, the band released four mediocre-to-downright-unlistenable albums, in relatively quick succession. “Make Believe,” “Weezer” (Red), “Raditude” and “Hurley” all have individual songs that are worthwhile, but none were worth the wait. “Raditude” in particular showed the band giving in to their worst desires. 2014’s “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” was a shaky, tentative return to form that left listeners with their fingers crosses, hopeful for the future. And while their new, fourth self-titled album (White) isn’t a masterpiece or even one that really demands a second play, it is reminiscent of the Weezer past. So, it’s exactly what we’ve been asking for.

This has been billed as a concept album, with all ten tracks set during the summertime. I wouldn’t make the “concept album” distinction, however. Hits from their mediocre albums like “Memories” and “Beverly Hills” have been just as summer-y. Once Rivers Cuomo grew up, got that Harvard education and married that Japanese woman he questionably craved in “El Scorcho,” he couldn’t play the role of the nerdy underdog anymore. Whether something in Cuomo changed, or he was/is playing a character, Weezer’s lyrics switched from the very nerdy (“In the Garage”) to the very social (“We Are All on Drugs”). That change may have had an impact on the music, with the band only now relenting and reverting to their older, better style. Again, we can only speculate as to what goes on inside Weezer. But these are summer-y songs, because that’s what Weezer does now.

The average length of a radio single used to be 3:30, and I’m not sure if that still holds, but that seems to be something in the brains of the members. Seven of the album’s ten songs fall within the sex-second range of 3:24-3:30. These are songs built for the convention of pop radio, even if not the band’s focus. They’re fun, breezy, over as soon as they start. There’s not one but three songs with “Girl” in the title, as well as one with “Kids” and one “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori.”

As we’ve learned both the easy and hard ways, Weezer operate best when they’re repurposing older material and ideas. The riff and feel of “Beverly Hills” is essentially repurposed for the great opener “California Kids.” The summer-y lyrics throughout repurpose the best parts of their worse albums, as well as any mid-range Beach Boys. Their influence is felt on this album, even amidst the guitar fuzz. And the crunchy guitar is back to stay, apparently. It’s here throughout, pleasantly buoying Cuomo’s lyrics. There’s no songs that stand out from the crowd, Weezer aimed more for a complete package.

Cuomo’s lyrics might seem bland at first listen (and especially at first glance, with the aforementioned trio of “Girl” songs), but they’re packing some punches. Early single “Thank God For Girls” comes off as a little sexist until you investigate the playfulness of the verses. There’s the not-so-subtle line about a “big, fat cannoli,” and the ode to “strong” and “sweaty” women. I don’t think Cuomo is trying to rewrite “Lola” here, instead remarking on the state of gender roles and attraction. Whether it works or not is up to you (jury’s still out on my end). Elsewhere, there’s predictably weird references to Burt Bacharach, the Galapagos and Sisyphus, among others. All very heady and unexpected for a summer album.

It’s easy to criticize the frustrating lack of originality on this album, because you do come off wishing it had some more zings to it. But when they tried to add those zings, we criticized them more harshly. So, take the album for what it is. It isn’t a great Weezer album, but it is a very good one, and it’s the one we deserve. From the hip “California Kids” to the surprisingly forlorn ballad “Endless Bummer,” Weezer have provided a solid set of songs that could end up going down as one of their better collections. Soak it in, dudes.

-By Andrew McNally

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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

Future of the Left – “The Peace and Truce of Future of the Left” & “To Failed States and Forest Clearings”

The Peace and Truce of Future of the Left:

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “The Limits of Battleships” “No Son Will Ease Their Solitude”

With all of the line-up changes that Welsh post-punk band Future of the Left has gone through, it’s pretty remarkable that 2/3rds of their line-up is original members. That said, they are currently down to a three-piece. Andy “Falco” Falkous will run this band until it dies, and he’s currently joined by his wife, Julia Ruzicka, and third wheel drummer Jack Egglestone, who has been around since the beginning (and also played in Falco’s previous band, mclusky). Their fifth album takes a more math-rock based stance, which can be frustrating at times.

The album’s first few songs all have very complex riffs, designed not to be catchy. They’re all heavy, of course, it wouldn’t be Future of the Left without unnecessary volume. The chugging midtempo rhythm and shrieking guitar of opener “If AT&T Drank Tea What Would BP Do” shouldn’t come as a surprise, their last album opened with a similar song. But it isn’t until “Grass Parade,” the fifth track, that we get a song with a real graspable rhythm. The first four tracks all have clunky, demanding rhythms, and while they’re all good in their own right, it does not request another listen very easily.

Once the album ‘picks up,’ which I’m using loosely, it falls more into a Future of the Left groove. “The Limits of Battleships” and “Eating For None” both have great rhythms, snuck in amidst the volume and anger. “Back When I Was Brilliant” is an effective midtempo, midalbum bruiser, and “White Privilege Blues” has an excellent breakdown in it. “Reference Point Zero” has an intense climax that fits in amidst the band’s best energy songs. And closer “No Son Will Ease Their Solitude” is a tense and building finale that’s delectably unpredictable, without going too off the rails.

Falco’s lyrics are frustratingly buried in the music at times. As a singer, he has been praised and criticized for his on-the-nose subject matter, often tackling a specific target or industry. Or, sometimes, he’ll shield himself behind satire (my personal favorite Falco song is “I Am the Least Of Your Problems”). Sometimes, the lyrics come through here. One of the better tracks, “Miner’s Gruel,” is a subtlety-lacking look at teenage privilege. Album cover included, there’s a few tracks that reference the military. As always, there’s references that seem to make sense only to him, like to curry houses on “Back When I Was Brilliant,” to asking “How many farmer’s markets does it take to change a light bulb?” on “Proper Music” and bemusing, “My bank account is not a hole, it has no purpose and a hole has one” on “No Son.” Perhaps the best lyrical moment, though, is on “Eating For None,” when he proclaims, “I am most of the time perfectly happy.” With all due respect, I’ll believe it when I see it.

To Failed States and Forest Clearings:

Grade: A

Key Track: “The Cock That Walked”

The band crowdfunded “Peace and Truce,” and gave the record to paying fans early, promising another EP soon to follow. To nonpaying customers, they came at the same time. If the full-length was designed as a progression into less punk and post-punk and more complex music, then this is the refresher. The six tracks on this EP could have fit on any previous Future of the Left album, and should have. There isn’t a weak track on this release.

Opening song “The Cock That Walked” is about, apparently, creeps who get an erection on public transit. It has a pounding, fast-but-not-too-fast rhythm ripped out of their own playbook. Four of the six songs maintain this, a more standard Future of the Left sound. Keyboards mixed in with booming bass and crunching guitar lines. “Problem Thinker” is the first of the outliers, a much more slowburning song that really takes it’s time to build to a big conclusion. Also, “There’s Always Paul” is a bit lighter, centered more around light percussion and handclaps than anything else.

Overall, this EP has a kind of goofy feeling to it. Look no further than “Animals Beginning with a B,” where Falco sings “I can’t see a baboon from where I’m currently sitting but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them at the city petting zoo.” Look, I’m not sure what angle he’s taking here. But this EP is different than the album because Falco’s lyrics are both clearer and weirder. On “Fireproof (Boy vs. Bison)” he sings, “Someone at the party said to get fucked and he had not heard of that.” The lyrics throughout this EP are the kind that would truly divide Falco’s fans and critics. It acts as a companion piece to the full-length, and it should absolutely be for any longtime fans such as myself.

Read my review of Future of the Left’s “How To Stop Your Brain in an Accident.

-By Andrew McNally

Ty Segall – “Emotional Mugger”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Californian Hills,” “Emotional Mugger / Leopard Priestess”

With a non-stop flurry of activity, Ty Segall has done his best job at distancing himself from any one sound. But ironically, as “Emotional Mugger” proves, there is a distinct ‘Ty Segall sound’. It’s one part T. Rex, one part Count Five, one part Deep Purple, and like a half a part of Jack White. “Mugger” jumps around a bunch, but overall, it’s a trippy, fuzzy and loud trip down all of Segall’s interests.

“Mugger” is his eighth solo album in his seven year career, which is impressive in its own right. But this time period also includes, naturally, two albums with Fuzz, an album with the equally busy Mikal Cronin, an album with Ty Segall Band (one of my personal favorite albums), an album with White Fence, a T. Rex covers album, and long-gone singles with bands like Epsilons, Party Fowl, Sic Alps, the Perverts and the Traditional Fools. So the manic energy of his music makes sense – he has to be this manic to be this productive.

Segall’s last proper solo album (T. Rex cover album notwithstanding) was a surprisingly reflective, acoustic work that highlighted his more classic-rock influence. It was an inevitable album, there was only so many ways Segall could spin garage rock into something unique, and he was going to have to slow down at some point. But that point, much like the time in between his albums, wasn’t very long. “Mugger” doesn’t match the volume of the Fuzz albums, or the mania of the Ty Segall Band release, “Slaughterhouse,” but it blends fuzzy guitar, garage rock energy and smooth vocals as well as anything else he’s done.

Musically, there isn’t much to say about a Ty Segall album that’s unexpected – it’s loud and fuzzy, his guitar is center-stage, and every song is an adventure in some way. The great opening track, “Squealer,” is a very staccato song, and it transitions nicely into “Californian Hills,” a song that shows restraint but gives way to two-bar bits of mania every so often. He takes two guitar solos, on “Diversion,” and “Mandy Cream,” both effective. And his almost-signature guitar shrieking permeates the longest track, “Emotional Mugger / Leopard Priestess.”

A word being used in other reviews of this album is “addictive,” but without context, it’s a word that can be applied to his whole discography. He makes music that’s very easy to get into, even if it’s immensely heavy. It’s always almost catchy. Check “Preacher,” from Fuzz. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but yet everyone could get into it. Also, his music always has high replay value. The addiction on this album is an incredibly innocent one. This album is, at least sometimes, about childhood. A child’s voice shows up at the end of “Candy Sam,” one of the two songs that references candy. The other one is, uh, “Baby Big Man (I Want a Mommy).” There’s a, uh, baby on the cover, too. The album seems to have an innocence to it that Segall sometimes shies away from on other records. He’s a man that likes to have fun in the studio, and comparisons to the equally boy-ish Thurston Moore are not unjustified. Here, he embraces it, with childlike innocence and childlike innocence. It’s just that kids probably wouldn’t enjoy his shrieking guitar and destroyed pedalboards.

“Emotional Mugger” isn’t one of the best Segall albums, but it’s got some great tracks. And even when Segall isn’t at his most effective, he’s usually still entertaining. This is a more than passable set of loud jams for people who like fun, fuzzy rock tracks. It is diverse and energetic, and hits basically every mark in the Segall book. Now, to just wait and see what he does next.

If you like this, try: Peach Kelli Pop! I never got a review of her third album out but she makes an incomprehensible mix of garage-rock, hardcore punk and the poppiest, girly-girl imagery. She comes from the same garage Segall did.

Jeff Lynne’s ELO – “Alone in the Universe”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “I’m Leaving You” “Alone in the Universe”

There’s always a risk when a classic rock artist comes back out of the woodworks and releases “their first album in [x] years.” There’s even more risk when you have to change your name because of legal troubles. So on paper, Jeff Lynne’s ELO’s new album, “Alone in the Universe,” shouldn’t have a purpose. And maybe it doesn’t. But it’s better than it deserves to be.

The name ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ serves a dual meaning. As part of a court deal, it lets audiences know that it’s the Jeff Lynne version, the only constant member in the band’s run (and not ELO II, a different off-shoot). But it’s also billed as such because between songwriting and instrumentation, Jeff Lynne is credited with “everything except the shaker and the tambourine.” He plays all instruments here, and it’s really not ELO. There’s no O and hardly any E or L. It is, for all intents and purposes, a Jeff Lynne solo album.

That said, it’s also a victory lap for Lynne. Lynne, and ELO, had a substantially longer and more packed career than people expected them to. Their Greatest Hits discs are loaded start to finish with rock radio perennials. And after everything, ELO ended up marred by legal battles, so Lynne deserves something like this.

There’s a discord on this release, and it’s what makes the record better than expected. ELO always had a self-competing sound: they had the space-y ambition and imagery of Boston and Pink Floyd, but coupled it with brilliant, simple pop songwriting. It hardly makes sense on any song, nonetheless many excellent albums. This record embraces that discord – two competing song titles, “When The Night Comes” and “The Sun Will Shine On You” sit back to back. And the second track, “Love and Rain,” sits on the line, “Love and rain keep coming back again.” Likewise, this album is one that sounds nothing like any other ELO album and is a major outlier in their catalog, yet is Lynne’s victory lap for such a successful run. Just like their other music – it doesn’t make sense only because it does make sense.

The fact that this album, pleasant and reflective (if not largely immemorable), works at all is a testament to Lynne’s songwriting. Each track is a simple, often quite optimistic rock song. Lynne’s experience with the Traveling Wilburys is strong on the album, especially on “I’m Leaving You,” where Lynne’s vocal rhythm mirrors Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” The songs are much more grounded than anything in regular-ELO, and there’s really no song that is better or worse than any other one. The title track (and finale) is a great piece of meta-commentary, with Lynne now the sole member in a band whose numbers have fluctuated past six. Lynne proves to us that no matter what happens, he’ll always be able to write a damn good pop song. None of the songs on this album are particularly great, and none of them will stand the test of time with “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Rockaria!,” but they don’t need to. Lynne feels comfortable in this new form. This album sounds like it was recorded as much for him as it was for us – to prove to himself that he can do just fine by himself. “Alone in the Universe” isn’t going to shatter anyone’s foundations, but it’s a nice addition to the ELO catalog, and a late-stage classic rock album superior to most of what has been done by Lynne’s peers. Lynne has announced that he’s still here, and Jeff, as long as you are, we are too.

-By Andrew McNally

Grimes – “Art Angels”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Flesh Without Blood,” “Kill V. Maim”

Grimes has never been known by one genre. She’s sometimes included in witch house, but she defies one of the basic principles of the genre. Her stage name – Claire Boucher, offstage – is short and easy to remember. “Grimes.” Template witch house artists do the opposite, names that can’t be found on Google. Like M△S▴C△RA, or ///▲▲▲\\\ (pronounced ‘Horse MacGyver’), or oOoOO. Her new album, her fourth, is predictable only that we’ve come to expect anything we haven’t heard from Grimes before. “Art Angels” is, more than anything, a pop album.

“Art Angels” is a very mixed album. As always, Grimes blends many influences and ideas to create a wholly original, bastardized sound not unlike the baby on the cover. It isn’t as consistent, this time around, although the high points are just as high as ever. The album takes a much more conventional format, overall. This might be due to Grimes famously scrapping the album she was working on last year because she felt it was “too depressing,” keeping only “REALiTi,” an altered version of which shows up here. Something about the album feels familiar, in the song structures, as if Grimes was leading us by hand into a dark forest but keeping us from being afraid.

Generally, the album’s better songs are the ones that have density and energy. “Flesh Without Blood” is one of the catchiest songs of the year, regardless of lyrical content. There are catchy tunes throughout. “Easily” is a dancy (if not somewhat lacking) song. “REALiTi” and “World Princess, Pt. II,” although similar, are both exceptional and engrossing late-album bangers. “SCREAM,” which heavily features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, is also an excellent track.

“Belly of the Beat” might be the album’s lowpoint, a largely acoustic track that might sound better if there was a different artist’s name attached to it. Some of the ‘lighter’ songs are disappointing. “California” borders on being too poppy, especially as it’s placement as the first real song, after the intro “laughing and not being normal” (which is a great track, while we’re on it). It centers itself as a lyrical ode, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before.

Still, you have to pride Grimes on trying new things. She’s included just about everything she can into her music, and she’s even made conventionality work for her. “Art Angels” tells us that, yes, Grimes can occasionally do wrong. But even when she does, she’ll right it on the next song and she’ll still sound great when she does. Her vocal screams – you know the thing she does – permeate the album, breaking up the songs from being too radio-friendly (“California” lacks them, and suffers because of it). It’s also impossible to ignore the power she holds. Grimes learned how to play multiple instruments after recording her last album, the near-perfect “Oblivion.” She does everything herself now. After realizing that only men were being allowed to use the production equipment for her music, she’s begun producing herself. Now she writes, performs all music, produces, choreographs shows and designs the album art and videos. And the video for “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” is really something. And although she defies all genres, she’s generally lumped in with electronica music, which is chronically male-heavy. Grimes can release albums that aren’t perfect, and it doesn’t really matter, because she can tell young girls listening that they can do this, too. It’s why the collaboration with Janelle Monae makes sense – they’re two drastically different artists, but they’re both energetic, genre-bashing feminist singers.

Sorry. Went on a little tangent there. But Grimes is an incredibly important musician, and even if this album is frustratingly inconsistent, it could stand as her bid for greatness. “Flesh Without Blood” probably isn’t going to pick up any radio play, but it’ll gain more new listeners than “Genesis” or “Go” did. I’m worried about her next projects, that Grimes scrapped an entire album and ended up with an album like “Art Angels,” which flirts with greatness but rarely gets to it. But, she remains one of the most interesting artists in music today, and the album works well enough for the listener to forgive the sagging moments. “Art Angels” works because Grimes makes damn sure of it.

-By Andrew McNally

The Dead Weather – “Dodge and Burn”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Rough Detective” “Open Up”

Whenever I bring up the Dead Weather, I find myself constantly defending them. I always ask myself ‘why? I think they’re a great band.’ But I get that that their brooding, scuzzy alt-pop is kind of a turn-off to some, and an unnecessary throwback to others. Plus, there’s the whole “Jack White is a dumpster human” thing. But “Dodge and Burn,” their third album, tries to right those wrongs.

Off the bat, there’s a problem with this album – the energy isn’t really kicked in until the halfway point. Their last album, 2010’s “Sea of Cowards,” starts off with a deafening rhythm on “Blue Blood Blues.” No rhythm matches that until “Rough Detective,” the sixth track of twelve. But the Dead Weather are trying to show that they don’t need to up the volume to be weird, to be engaging. It doesn’t always work from the get-go, “Buzzkill(er)” lives up to it’s title. But early tracks like “Three Dollar Hat” show that the band is adapt to minimalism as much as the opposite.

Still, the volume-heavy tracks like “Rough Detective” and immediate follow-up “Open Up” are the strongest – there’s just nothing like them. The Dead Weather show a wider range on “Dodge and Burn,” and although it leaves more room for mistakes, it shows them uniting as a band too. The Dead Weather work best when the listener remembers they’re a band – in paradoxical ways. Sometimes, they’re in unison, and sometimes they’re competing for the spotlight. The Mosshart/White vocal tracks have always been the band’s best, and we get too few, but it’s what makes “Rough Detective” so strong. Unlike White’s other projects, the Dead Weather feels the most like four people, expressing their emotions related to the project. This is reflective in the songwriting credits – each member is credited to at least five songs, with four songs credited to all four members. The Dead Weather are a band, and they reflect it.

The only song with a single credit is the piano finale, “Impossible Winner,” credited solely to Alison Mosshart. It is weirdly toned-down song, too pretty for a Dead Weather. It isn’t a red herring, necessarily, but it isn’t a showcase of talent, either, because we already knew these musicians were capable of it from their other projects. Though a great song on it’s own merit, it sticks out as a mistake on “Dodge and Burn.”

The album does have its inconsistencies, but it does balance restraint and, well, the opposite. It isn’t the strongest Dead Weather album, but it’s a good listen, and nice just to have them back in the first place. We can look forward to their next album, in either eight months of five years.