Iron and Wine
Kiss Each Other Clean
Warner Bros.

Iron and Wine’s new single, “Walking Far from Home” is an instant classic, no doubt winning an honored place on many a mixtape. And it serves well as a microcosm for Sam Beam’s intent on his newest Iron and Wine full-length, Kiss Each Other Clean. The song starts simply enough, highlighting Beam’s beautiful voice, a quiet chord progression and a melody that’ll leave its mark on your psyche, but then slowly adds atmospheric background noises to the harmonies until the potent imagery of the lyrics fades altogether into dense layers of vocal and instrumental wailing.

The album works the same way, revealing songs that will reliably please the fan base, while each track takes one small step further from familiar territory. Some wah-wah and a guitar solo mark “Monkeys Uptown,” with its startlingly funky ending, while actual lead guitar appears on “Rabbit Will Run.” “Big Burned Hand” is the first track, though, that you might actually mistake for someone else. The sax solo and distorted fills might remind you of certain late-70s Lou Reed records. Maybe, though, it’s Beam’s inevitable foray into somewhat freaky folk. Similarly, the closer, “Your Fake Name Is a Good Thing” will earn unavoidable comparisons to Ariel Pink’s 2010 opus, though it’s significantly more structured than any the songs found on that album.

Overall, the album finds Beam embracing a larger, more open sound for the band and especially his voice. “Glad Man Singing” is almost arena-ready, and “Tree By the River” is as pretty as anything he’s written, but now it sounds like he’s really fronting a band and not just singing into your ear.
Matt Slaybaugh

Cloud Nothings
Cloud Nothings

Like most who were first introduced to the Cloud Nothings last year with Turning On, we here at Agit headquarters were soon infatuated with the Cleveland band’s beguiling mix of fuzzy fidelity and instinctual songwriting. With that record, head Nothing Dylan Baldi, who records on his own but enlists a few buddies when it comes to bashing it out live, exhibited the kind of pop smarts that have become an Ohio trademark from the Mice to Guided By Voices to Times New Viking and beyond.

For this self-titled follow-up, released by Carpark, who reissued Turning On last year, Baldi ventured to Baltimore where he enlisted Chester Gwazda (Dan Deacon, Future Islands) to produce. Baldi left the band at home again and played everything himself. Surprisingly, the record more closely resembles the frantic live sets in which the Nothings have come to specialize, with Gwazda’s marginal production work adding to the impression by recalling a sub-par PA. At times the record seems to be literally riding the band’s buzz. “Nothing’s Wrong” and “Heartbeat” are hyperactive song surges, all hooks and choruses. Such moments, though, are too sugar-coated to have the lasting effect of past glories like “Can’t Stay Awake” and “Hey Cool Kid.” As such, it’s when Baldi slows things down to real time that he delivers on his promise. “Understand At All” knocks around in frustration and “You’re Not That Good At Anything” stutters with frenetic energy. Both are nearly just as harried as the aforementioned cuts, but here Baldi shows the kind of finesse that first separated him from his peers. Baldi’s talent hasn’t come to fruition quite yet, but Cloud Nothings is another step in the right direction, even if that’s not forward.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Social Distortion
Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

Social Distortion has been doing it for a long time. They’re the kind of band that has reached the point where they barely need to put out records anymore. The back catalog and fairly regular touring insure that Social D. will always be on the minds of both back-in-the-day fans and young upstarts. But it makes sense to keep the taint of “oldies” band away by releasing new material. So after a six-year break, Social Distortion is back with its first record on Epitaph, the self-produced Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes.

Social Distortion and, specifically, leader Mike Ness would never be accused of subtlety. Huge guitar solos, big gnarly vocals and lyrically plainspoken, it’s the type of thing that inspires young men to sing along loudly and play air guitar unashamed and with no sense of irony. So you know what you’re going to get from a Social D. record, and it’s with some shock then when Hard Times opens up with an instrumental and when the next song, “California (Hustle And Flow),” features gospel-style back-up vocals.

Well, fear not! There are some new stylistic touches, but the classic blend of rockabilly, punk, classic rock & roll and country remain at the forefront. And with repeated spins, the newer elements, which are only on two of the 11 tracks, seem far less jarring than initially. While Social Distortion with a gospel chorus might seem as natural as Rollins Band with gospel singers—which also happened—it’s also a stylistic tribute showing Ness’ love for the Rolling Stones, and in that sense it makes sense. And Ness has never been shy about showing his influences.

But those are minor quibbles as there are enough songs here as tight and inspired as tunes from earlier releases. And while Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is the third groaner in a row as far as album tiles go, Social Distortion are still serious about rocking out.
Dorian S. Ham

White Lies

White Lies is a band, quite literally, built upon hype. Having delayed a show specifically for the purpose of whetting media curiosity, the threesome from London released their debut album, To Lose My Life..., in January 2009 to, not surprisingly, glowing reviews. All that build-up translated into a whirlwind of headlining shows and awards on the other side of the Atlantic, and they’re back for a second effort, this time to capture American hearts—or at least the airwaves.

Ritual is a grandiose homage to late-80s post-punk—Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, or any other string of British bands in the same deconstructionist vein. The album’s single, “Bigger Than Us,” is telltale; it is indeed much too big for the genre these Britons are trying to emulate. The song, with its distinct cyclical drumbeats and synth crescendoes, bursts outlandishly and ostentatiously into a major chorus, replete with time signatures and harmonies anew! Surely the single—and perhaps the whole album—will get radio play in the States, where we like to see things through to the bitter end. Unfortunately, White Lies omit all of the reactionary anxiety ingrained in the post-punk foundation. Gone is the mystique of the music to which they’re paying homage, replaced instead by clean finishes that flourish throughout. To wit, switch the vocal stylings of Geddy Lee in Rush for Ian McCollough and you get the synth-driven “Streetlights.” The large finishes and all-too-blatant emulation are almost too much.

Regardless, one thing is certain: White Lies are trying to breathe life into a delicate genre, and if their single is any indication, they may very well be able to do just that—at least for the masses.
Jennifer Farmer

Smith Westerns
Dye It Blonde
Fat Possum

A lot of the chatter surrounding Chicago’s Smith Westerns over the past year has focused on the youth of the band. But even though some members of the band haven’t yet reached the ripe old age of 20, Dye It Blonde serves as notice that the group has moved beyond the wunderkind label and ought to be treated like a serious, experienced rock outfit.

A follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut on the venerable Hozac label, Dye It Blonde finds Smith Westerns honing their breezy pop rock. In contrast to the lo-fi nature of the band’s previous efforts, the sound here is clean and crisp throughout, with the traditional guitar-bass-drums set-up supplemented with subtle use of synthesizers and a bit of reverb that lends a hint of Phil Spector flavor to the proceedings. The production gives an immediacy to the album, most of which sounds more like glam pop than the garage rock with which the band was originally associated. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine songs like “Imagine Pt. 3,” “End of the Night” and “Dye the World” as something a millennial Bowie would concoct—vibrant, soaring pop numbers that squeeze in just a touch of youthful disaffectedness amongst the catchy fuzz guitar leads. With songs like these, Smith Westerns could be the next Hozac alum to generate coast-to-coast underground buzz (a la the Dum Dum Girls) in 2011.
Ron Wadlinger