Mrs. Magician
Strange Heaven

You know, rock & roll can take a lot of forms, and we’ve already seen quite a few variations in this young century. But as old-fashioned as it may sound, it’s hard to beat some combination of catchy hooks and snotty attitude, no matter the specifics. But while it may seem like a simple thing on paper, putting the equation into practice is never as easy as it might seem.

Mrs. Magician, a San Diego four-piece, has struck that formula for its debut full-length, Strange Heaven. Produced by John Reis (of Hot Snakes, Rocket from the Crypt, and Drive Like Jehu notoriety) and released on his Swami label, the album is comprised of a baker’s dozen songs that are fueled by petulance while still indulging in the kind of melodic hooks, vocal harmonizing, and cracking rhythms that ensure each cut’s memorability. However, it is when the record’s yin and yang are in sharpest relief that the record is at its best. For example, on “There Is No God,” singer Jacob Turnbloom tells us “you’re all going to die” as lovingly as if he was whispering sweet nothings in our ear. The song’s title refrain is similarly sung (with backing la-la-la’s no less) with the kind of geniality usually reserved for more pleasant proclamations. Similarly paradoxical, the bucolic veneer and surf tones of “Prescription Vision” recall the band’s SoCal forefathers, but where Brian Wilson might have once sung about missing a girl because her daddy won’t let him see her anymore, Turnbloom is pining for his girl because she’s locked up behind bars. Even the record’s lovesongs aren’t laden with niceties, as witnessed by the chorus of “fuck the world” on “Dead 80’s,” and thankfully there’s not a moment wasted on post-modern ostentations or grad school mumbo-jumbo. Strange Heaven is instead full of whipsmart cuts whose gravitational pull is impossible not to feel immediately.
Stephen Slaybaugh

White Rabbits
Milk Famous

With their last studio album, 2009’s It’s Frightening, Brooklyn sextet White Rabbits were frequently critiqued for sounding frighteningly like Spoon. (It really didn’t help that Britt Daniels produced the album). That fact looming, the Rabbits are back with their first full-length in nearly three years, with the lofty aim to prove they can emerge unscathed from Spoon’s massive shadow and shed the constant comparison by creating their own sound.

It’s abundantly clear from the outset that Milk Famous is an attempt to distance themselves from the copycat label and establish an identity of their own. “Heavy Metal” is laced with sparse guitar riffs and vocalist Stephen Patterson’s falsetto whine. Propelled by its bassline, the darkly danceable song is a far cry from the relatively straightforward pop melodies of the Rabbits’ previous work. Though “I’m Not Me” is more reminiscent of It’s Frightening, there’s something slightly spacier and more frenetic this go-around. Even tracks that at first seem Spoon-fed veer off in the end. The album goes down more like a dirty martini, kind of cloudy and muddled together. Patterson embraces distortion, as evidenced on tracks like “Hold It to the Fire,” wherein jumbled vocals are sprawled across a gnarly musical background not unlike a Radiohead B-side. “Everybody Can’t Be Confused” is a spacey, rhythmically interesting song, shifting wildly between a low piano melody and punchy, distorted guitars underpinned with a wonderfully dirty baseline. In fact, the bass is arguably the star of this album. Complex, but never overwhelming, the low end stands out on nearly every track (especially “Danny Come Inside”) and heightens Milk Famous’ comparatively cavernous sound.

Overall, however, the tracks on this album are largely lost in a constant, dizzying din. There’s no clear statement or a particular song that makes the album stand out. While solid, Milk Famous lacks direction and blends together not long after it begins. White Rabbits do make one thing clear: they are no longer a Spoon facsimile, though whether or not that’’s a good thing remains to be seen.
Jennifer Farmer

Mux Mool
Planet High School
Ghostly International

One of oft-overlooked beauty of band names is the degree of anonymity it gives the creator. While subconsciously a prospective listener may look to the band name for hints about what’s going to transpire, the name can either support that notion or send him on a wild goose chase. While you can point to a number of bands playing that game, it always seem like electronic musicians take it one step further. So when you see a name like Mux Mool, a number of possibilities spring forward. Perhaps Mux Mool is a duo comprised of fancifully coiffed Germans who make expensive sounding techno. Or maybe it’s an abstract instrumental funk group who were inspired by both Marley Marl and Battles. The truth is that Mux Mool is the alias of producer Brian Lindgren. “Mux” is short for multiplexing while “Mool” is taken from Chac-Mool, which is an ancient Meso-American statue.

Lindgren’s first album for Ghostly, Skulltaste, came out in 2010, but he’s been making noise since ’06 with a steady stream of singles, EPs and remixes. You could call what he does “instrumental hip-hop,” but somehow that seems to sell short the huge amount of ground he covers on his second full-length, Planet High School. Loosely conceptual, but highly thematic (basically life is going to be tough so get your mind right), the album doesn’t stay put for too long. There are funky headnodders, synthy electro breakdowns and glitchy drum workouts, while Lindgren nicely navigates the balance between ear candy and the dancefloor. While other producers tend to pick one or the other, Lindgren has time for both without compromising either. But for all the sonic diversity, Planet is unceasingly cohesive. But what puts it over the top is that it’s not just a collection of loops and idea scraps. The record is more musical than what is usually thought of as instrumental hip-hop. It’s so fully realized that you might find yourself singing along before you realize there aren’t any lyrics. Planet High School is that rare thing: an instrumental album that refuses to play as background music.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Raw Gore”


Since exiting Depeche Mode in 1981—just a couple years after forming the band with Martin Gore—Vince Clarke has had his hands in both Yazoo (or Yaz, as they are usually known on this side of the pond) and Erasure, making him perhaps the most important figure in the rise of electro-pop in the ’80s. Taking the songwriting reigns in Depeche Mode after Clarke’s departure, Gore could certainly be considered in the same light. As such, the prospect of these two pioneers collaborating again for the first time in 30 years is an exciting one, even if the two never stepped foot in the same room, as is the case with Ssss, the duo’s first full-length under the name VCMG.

But while Clarke’s goal when he enlisted Gore’s assistance was to make a minimal techno album, one can’t help but hope that some of the pop brilliance of “Just Can’t Get Enough,” the one Depeche Mode song for which they share songwriting credit, might appear on the record. To be sure, that is not the case. Instead, the entirely instrumental album sticks to its stated purpose, exploring electronic textures using analog equipment, while never straying too far from its techo-oriented axis. On cuts like the leadoff “Lowly” and the closing “Flux,” where Clarke and Gore delve into the tonal qualities of their instruments, the record is most interesting, its synths and drum machine beats reverberating not with digital precision but analog organicism. The richness of such sounds is hard to miss throughout the record, so as a sonic experience, Ssss is to be appreciated. But considering the pair’s work previously, both together and apart, it’s hard to not look at the album as a missed opportunity, even as it succeeds in its intended purpose.
Stephen Slaybaugh

The Clearing
Dead Oceans

Bowerbirds are a sweet, low-key folk threesome from the state of North Carolina comprised of Philip Moore (guitar, vocals), Beth Tacular (accordion, vocals) and Matt Damron (violin, vocals). I imagine these three holding hands and skipping into the sunset—or at least that’s how I used to think of them. Now, though, with the release of The Clearing, their second full-length on Dead Oceans, Bowerbirds have expanded their repertoire beyond such bucolic sounds.

From the start, it’s clear that Bowerbirds are on the right path. “Tuck the Darkness In” is a genuinely beautiful song, with sweeping violins and harmonic vocals. It’s a fitting catalyst for what can ultimately be described as a comparatively meatier and cleaner album for the band. The punctuated strumming on “In the Yard” melds effortlessly with Tacular’s gentle, breezy voice and fanciful lyrics. At times, The Clearing is reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, but stripped of woodsy twang and with added melodic charm. “Stitch the Hem” is wrought with percussive claps and climbs languidly to wondrous peaks before slowing.

Elsewhere, the songs veer from sweetly sad (“Brave World”) to the undeniably chirpy (“Hush”). As such, The Clearing leans heavily toward the pop spectrum, as opposed to raw folk. But the Bowerbirds have always been careful to elude genre-trapping, which results this time in a mixture of the two styles. There are remnants of unabashed ernestness, specifically on “Overcome with Light,” and some of the songs tend to bleed into one another, but for the most part, each song takes on its own unique, well-arranged identity. It’s refreshing to see Bowerbirds’ growth in real time, and The Clearing shows a budding confidence in infusing their once strictly campfire fodder with an unabashedly sunny side.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “Tuck the Darkness In”