The Decemberists
The King Is Dead

Peter Buck must have laughed aloud when he heard the opening riff to “Calamity Song.” It’s such a blatant rip-off of “Talk About the Passion” that the word “tribute” hardly suffices. And just when you’re wondering what REM would think about it, look into the liner notes and you’ll notice that it’s actually Buck himself playing the riff. Okay, so that’s the Decemberists’ place in the alt-music landscape: revered craftsman who’ve turned their idols into peers. Good for them.

They want you to think of Neil Young here, but Meloy can’t get the over-practiced ache out of his voice, or the over-done Celtic lilt out of his songwriting. So prepare yourself to take the simple pleasures and leave the rest. The aforementioned “Calamity Song” is a rousing, literate, jangly rave-up, and the band sounds completely at home in that setting. And when they sing “January Hymn,” a Shins-worthy classic of the “happy song tinged with regretful lyrics” form, it’s totally convincing. But when they try to play it all rough-hewn and world-weary on “Down By the Water” or “June Hymn,” it feels like a pose. And singing about war must have seemed like a good idea, but “This Is Why We Fight” comes off like another put-on since they don’t actually have anything to say about it.

Anyway, I’m glad to hear that Colin Meloy and his crew have stopped trying so hard (mostly). The King Is Dead isn’t going to earn them many new fans or set the world on its ear, but it does sound like they had a pretty good time making it, and for the most part, that successfully translates to the listening experience. The sound of it really isn’t as different as you may have read elsewhere; most of it just sounds a lot like the shorter songs on their earlier albums, at least when it doesn’t sound like the Gin Blossoms or some other band that also wanted to be REM.
Matt Slaybaugh

Ghostface Killah
Apollo Kids
Def Jam

Ghostdini is dead. Long live Tony Stark.

After a brief foray into R&B, Ghostface Killah has gone back to basics, consolidating the grit and soulfulness of his best work into a focused, efficient killing-machine of a record. While it may lack the epic scope and varied sonic palette of Fishscale and Supreme Clientele, Apollo Kids is the work of a legendary rapper unwilling to act his age or rest on his laurels.

The first track, “Purified Thoughts,” segues strangely from Ghostface feeding children in Somalia with Nelson Mandela (and being cheered on “like Coachella”) to GZA sending body parts on a daily basis. But after this odd intro, it’s all classic Ghostface going forward: “Superstar” features lightning-fast boasts; “Black Tequila” is a multi-cultural crime story/culinary epic; and “Starkology” is a free association rant over a vintage beat that contains some of the rapper’s best one-liners in years.

Ghostface’s unique mastery of cadence and rhythm, along with his trademark imagistic storytelling, have made him one of the last decade’s strongest voices, in or outside of hip-hop. If Apollo Kids is any indication, then we can expect him to own the 20-teens as well. Between this record, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, and GZA’s upcoming Liquid Swords 2, the Wu-Tang Clan, nearly 20 years after its formation, are as strong as ever.
David Holmes

Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics

Matthew Mondanile’s first two solo albums as the nostalgically named Ducktails did as nostalgia does, providing brief, vivid flashes of memory through a blurry, semi-conscious lens. Though completely agreeable and unique in counter to other one-man bedroom projects, his aimless, watery meandering never quite took hold. Only two years removed from his debut, those initial recordings seem to define ephemeral and his aesthetic has now been carbon copied by a bevy of hypnagogic wannabes. With buoyant instrumental dreamscapes eschewed for prominent vocals and concrete structure, the problem (if you’d call it a problem) with Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics is that it’s hard to determine if Mondanile’s sudden evolution is a result of his sidework in Real Estate or a true shedding of Ducktails’ amorphous beginnings.

Whichever the case, this is a different face for Ducktails. The theory that Real Estate’s earnest success has rubbed off on Mondanile’s songwriting is wholly believable when listening to songs like “Killing the Vibe” and “Hamilton Road” as they could have been borne of a casual jam with his New Jersey bros and resemble, in spirit and mood, the tunes of cohorts Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker. It’s hard to fault with Mondanile for wanting to expand upon the breezy, soft folk leanings of his brethren, especially when placed within the context of Arcade Dynamics. Among those lazily spun laments, it’s apparent that Mondanile has expanded in other dimensions, solidifying his personality outside of the lucrative base. The psychedelic undertones of his earlier recordings are brought to the fore in strangely hypnotic interludes. Whether it’s the synth-doom desert march of “The Razor’s Edge,” the interwoven rustic intricacies of “Little Window” or the 10-minute, meditative raga of closer “Porch Projector,” Mondanile’s main objective is for the listener to get lost in his guitar excursions. Butting these languid trips up against a batch of confidently spartan pop only magnifies how easy it is for Mondanile’s playing to lead us into that grotesque wilderness.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Hamilton Road”

By the Hedge
Captured Tracks

Part post-punk hangover haze and part lo-fi gurgle of the sort that’s become Captured Tracks’ bread-and-butter, the sonic temperament of New York duo Minks on their debut full-length, By the Hedge is hard to judge. Shifting between shimmery, mopish pop (“Kusmi,” “Ophelia,” “Juniper”) and turgid balls of slacker fumbling (“Out of Tune,” “Boys Run Wild”), it’s hard to tell if their successes are happy accidents or if their failures reveal that they really don’t give a shit. Neither Shaun Kilfoyle nor Amalie Bruun, who take turns singing, are able to convey more than the slightest bit of emotion for too long, making it questionable whether their songs hold their own attention, let alone ours. To call it a mixed bag would be to imply that there’s a cogent form holding all this together; the dozen songs here often give the impression of winding up next to each other completely by happenstance.

Well, that might be overstating the shambolic nature found within Minks. Such qualities breed frustration, frustration that actually admiring a good portion of the record feels like being deceived. Songs like “Cemetary Rain” strike a nice balance between narcoleptic intonations and twinkling guitar tones, conveying a day-dreamy ebullience that’s certainly not unpleasant. As it is, once the final notes of the admirably Felt-like “Arboretum Dogs” fade, By the Hedge recedes into the aether from whence it came, leaving just as inoffensively (and unremarkably) as it entered.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Cemetary Rain”

Duran Duran
All You Need Is Now

With all the current ’80s pop influences (as noted in my top albums of 2010), it’s nice to hear the originals do what they do best devoid of hipster kitsch. Produced by Mark Ronson (known for his work with Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Adele), Simon Le Bon, John and Andy Taylor and Nick Rhodes are back to the fun hitmaking form of their glory years. They once again resemble the men who stalked beautiful women through tropical climes in “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Elements of “Rio” are hinted at in “Girl Panic!” but the band hits its stride with “Being Followed”—irresistible, energetic pop that makes Duran Duran soar.

And speaking of women and jungle cats, the haunting “Man Who Stole a Leopard” is an obsessive love story, with guest vocals by Kelis. Here are almost the same haunting, tentative keyboards of “The Chaffeur,” but on a more grandiose level thanks to the string arrangements courtesy of Owen Pallett. (The track could do without the faux news announcement at the end, which takes away from the song a bit.) “Leave a Light On” could be a post-script to “Save a Prayer,” boasting the same kind of smooth melancholy.

There are some lows among All You Need Is Now’s nine tracks. The title track recalls the past, but this time negatively, sounding like scraps left over from Duran Duran’s hitmaking factory with some ’90s industrial beats thrown in for good measure. And while “Blame the Machines” shows glimmers of promise, it somehow sounds anemic when compared to the other tracks. Looking back at other Duran Duran albums, I suppose these songs are to All You Need Is Now as the “Drowning Man” and “UMF” were to The Wedding Album (as if anyone remembers those songs). But overall, after 30 years and some lackluster reception to recent albums, Duran Duran is back, just in time to show these kids how real pop is done.
Josie Rubio