Memory Tapes’ new album, Player Piano, is a hazy combination of lo-fi electronic music and pop-rock, which mostly succeeds but suffers for Dayve Hawks’ sometimes strained singing. Read my review for Blurt here.
I’m contributing to Paste Magazine again after a hiatus of a few years. They have scaled back from print to web-only, but they are still doing a good job covering music, TV, film, and more. Here’s my review of Young Galaxy’s new album, Shapeshifting.
Telekinesis, the fuzzy pop project from Michael Benjamin Lerner, crafts simple, exuberant, heartwarming rock and roll. Lerner is well aware of the power of the power chord, the emotive effects of loud-quiet-loud, and the eerie potency that his upper register vocals have, quavering above the 12 addictive nuggets on his new album.
12 Desperate Straight Lines gets going with unwavering aplomb, as Lerner sings about a summer-spring romance over strummed acoustic guitar. Then the bass kicks in, the overdrive-coated instrument at the core of the album. He says he was inspired by Mark Robinson’s Flin Flon project for Teenbeat, and wrote the new record’s songs mostly on bass. It’s a good idea, especially when combined with the spindly guitar lines and flange-effected drums of a song like “Please Ask For Help.” “50 Ways” slows things down a bit, bringing The Clean to mind on its sparse verses before a Weezer-style anthemic chorus punches in. Such effects may be due in part to Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla’s hand on the production tiller here, resulting in a crystal clear and extremely warm sound that serves Lerner’s songwriting well.
This is straight-up power pop projected through a vulnerably personal filter of life and love, but the songs never feel contrived. Each has its own distinctive personality, and at less than three minutes apiece, there are no frills. Yes, there are recognizable elements here, but that’s part of the pleasure. Lerner’s current touring lineup consists of sometime Robert Pollard bandmate Jason Narducy on bass and Jaguar Love and ex-Blood Brothers member Cody Votolato on guitar. So Lerner’s playing drums and singing on tour, and making better music than Phil Collins can even dream of (at least as of late). 12 Desperate Straight Lines is the proof.
Chicago-based MC Verbal Kent isn’t exactly a hip-hop household name, and maybe this is partially his own fault – in his press release, he claims to have never “shopped” one of his independently released records. But money, fame, and popularity don’t seem to matter to the rapper. Instead, he focuses on using his sinister sounding voice to spit thought-provoking lyrics while working with producers and other MCs of the highest caliber, known and unknown. In other words, as his new album, Save Yourself, attests to, it’s the craft of hip-hop that concerns him, not the flash.
Save Yourself opens with the ominously intoned “Same,” a track which finds Kent explaining that, “This isn’t the same song spit to the same beat.” Indeed. Of course, neither is “Take,” a bouncing number whose charm can be credited to the legendary Pete Rock’s bombastic old-school beat production. “Give me that, give me back real hip-hop. Give me that, take that real hip-hop” goes the chorus. One can only imagine that Kent was just as excited to work with Sadat X and Edo G on “My City,” a song on which each defends and extols his city (Chicago, NYC, and Boston accordingly). Granted, Sadat can make almost any track sound nice, but Marco Polo’s textured, luxurious beat offers a lot of mileage here.
Of course, everything in between is pretty solid as well – and don’t ignore “Last Laugh” near the end of the album, featuring Masta Ace and a Madlib on mushrooms beat by Varan. Verbal Kent remains a champion of the underground, and he’s probably not going to crack the top 40 anytime soon. As long as he keeps making solid albums like this, he’ll get what he deserves and craves, in his own words, “to be part of hip-hop history.”
Real Estate guitarist Matthew Mondanile’s solo side venture, Ducktails, carries on the tradition of lo-fi, short but sweet (although occasionally meanderingly jammy) experimental pop psychedelics of bands like Ariel Pink, War on Drugs, and great-grandaddies Guided By Voices. His third album, recorded at home without a whole lot of production value, sounds as such, but that’s exactly the appeal. His slightly muffled vocals and bright guitar tones render songs like the Dylan-esque “Hamilton Road” and the lilting “Killin’ the Vibe” charming in their simplicity. And at times, Mondanile gets interestingly weird, as on the spooky echo thumps of “The Razor’s Edge” or the stoned picking of the album’s last track, “Porch Projector.”
There are admittedly moments here when one wonders what the big deal is, as upon first pass, some of these songs sound like tunes any semi-capable basement musician could record him or herself. But taken as a whole, there’s something beyond the norm going on, a penchant for crafting concise nuggets of indie pop that skirt the border of oddity and make this album worth adding to your rotation.