Plants and Animals
La La Land
Secret City

Montreal’s Plants and Animals made a strong impression on me at last summer’s Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, muscling a lot of spirit into a unenviable early slot and managing to make a lot of people sit up and take notice. So it was with anticipation that I put their apparent ode to Los Angeles on the stereo.

Much of La La Land seems to be P&A’s attempt to push against the superficiality of the internet age. “Tom Cruz” could be about Facebook as much as anything else when they refrain, “We’re dying to be friends.” And there are songs called “Fake It,” “American Idol” and “Jeans Jeans Jeans.” So, as their mission dictates, they encase the music in a dazzling array of superficial effects. Said effects, though, sometimes overwhelm the sense and sensibility of their ideas. “Future from the 80s” could be a harsh critique of our flashback culture, but it comes off more like a limp paean to the currently dominating decade of camp influence.

“Game Shows” is pretty gorgeous, though, and the upbeat “The Mama Papa” fits right in with the currently trending Hall and Oates fad. But most of the time, P&A just sound beat down. “Fake It” evolves into a kicking instrumental workout, for instance, but the lyrics fail to say anything more incisive than “whoa oh oh.” And “Jeans Jeans Jeans?” That song really just seems to be about jeans. Irony or just ironic?
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Tom Cruz”

Sam Amidon
I See the Sign
Bedroom Community

On first listen, you might think Sam Amidon is just another indie-folk guy obsessed with old timey phrases and imagery. But unlike, say, Colin Meloy, when Amidon invokes “pretty fair damsels,” it’s neither a pose nor a form of escapism. Amidon borrows the lyrics of gospel and folk songs that are decades or centuries old to conjure the inner thoughts of our ancestors. And while he uses traditional folk instruments like banjo and acoustic guitar for the backbone of each song, he adds textures of free-jazz, classical and electronic music. These elements make up a rich new environment for the words of long-dead and sometimes unknown songwriters in a way that is neither distracting nor anachronistic.

“You Better Mind,” a classic gospel song written, like most gospel songs, in a major-key, is here given a minor-key makeover that strikes the fear of God in the listener far more effectively than the pleasantly jaunty church version. Coming from Amidon’s throat, “You better mind what you’re talking about,” sounds less like an empty admonishment and more like the strong recommendation with fiery consequences it’s intended to be. Another highlight is “Pretty Young Damsel,” a tragic tale of a woman waiting for her lost soldier lover written in the form of a dialogue between the lonely woman and a gentleman caller. Near the end of I See the Sign, when Amidon sings “What a relief to know there’s an angel in the sky, what a relief to know that love is still alive,” it doesn’t sound like a mawkish, Celine Dion—caliber lyric like it appears on paper. Instead, it’s a warm reassurance that bookends a record full of loss, sin and repentance written by those who experienced it first-hand.
David Holmes

Various Artists
Bustin’ Loose

The DJ scene is a hungry machine that’s always looking for the next big thing to send the dancefloor into overdrive. As a result, there’s no shortage of individuals trying hard to score a big blog banger. But the more community-minded start up labels to focus and showcase upcoming talent. Jesse Tittsworth (a.k.a. DJ Tittsworth) and his partner Ayers Hixton (a.k.a. DJ Ayers) went that route and formed T&A Records. The label casts a pretty wide net across the dance landscape, and its newest compilation, Bustin’ Loose, is a platform for their comrades. There aren’t any “big” names to speak of on the compilation; Dave Nada, Nick Catchdubs, Proper Villains, and DJ Tittsworth are flying well below the average fan’s radar. So potentially Bustin’ Loose could be a Year Zero moment for not only them, but also the other artists featured on the disc. Well, if that happens it will almost be despite their appearance on the disc.

Unfortunately, Bustin’ Loose is one of the worst sequenced compilation in ages. It’s like they waited until five minutes before it was due, dragged 18 tracks into iTunes, and called it a day. There’s no sense of pacing or flow, and there are two cases where the remix comes before the original song. But that’s not even as bad as the run of songs where “Got Me Gone (Sound Bwoy Dub)” is followed by “Work For This” and subsequently “Got Me Gone (Nick Catchdubs + Proper Villains Remix).” What. The. Hell. Furthermore, “Got Me Gone” appears in four iterations, while others tracks also rack up repeatedly. While it wouldn’t be a problem if this was a 12-inch release, on an album it just seems lazy. And while Tittsworth and Ayers maybe chose not to make it a DJ session (so that the tracks could stand on their own), the presentation is appalling. There are some good tunes and remixes to make a dancefloor break a proper sweat, but overall, Bustin’ Loose needs to tighten up.
Dorian S. Ham

Horse Feathers
Thistled Spring
Kill Rock Stars

This is Horse Feathers’ third album, and second for Kill Rock Stars, and it’s gratifying to see that the band is finding enough success to slowly evolve with each release. House With No Name was a solid release, but it looks pretty dour and even a little tedious in comparison to this one.

Singer/songwriter Justin Ringle’s voice gets a little more tender each time out and you might even miss some of the rough edges that have marked his past work. His writing, though, gets nothing but better. It’s tempting to say that Thistled Spring is taking the band further out, but I don’t actually think that's the point. I’m more impressed by the way he’s digging deeper into his song structures and the limited palette of his band to produce a more satisfying whole.

Cases in point, the sudden mood swing in the middle of “Belly of June,” the extra-mileage he wrings out of the deceptively simple strings-and-guitar figure that runs through “Cascades,” and the way “This Bed” manages to be uplifting and catchy, but still pretty darn sad. And though the album kicks off with a couple of relatively upbeat sounding songs, a closer look at the lyrics or a patient wait for the middle of the record reveals that Ringle still has plenty of haunted nights to share.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Belly of June”

The Apples in Stereo
Travellers in Space and Time
Yep Roc/Simian/Elephant 6

The Apples in Stereo have come a long way from their psychedelic-tinged Elephant 6 heydays, and it’s been almost three years since 2007’s poptastically pleasurable, New Magnetic Wonder. What the Apples have offered us this go around is the decidedly more kitschy Travellers in Space and Time, the second release on Frodo... er, Elijah Wood’s record label, Simian Records.

Travellers, as a whole, recalls certain facets of New Magnetic Wonder: a tracklist packed like a mix CD, quirky voice distortions, and songs uplifting enough to rival Prozac. The bevy of songs and interludes are infused with ample amounts of ’70s charm and cheese (think Three Dog Night meets Studio 54). This time around, however, the Apples have (metaphorically) aimed for the stars. Travellers is teeming with 16 tracks of love, leave-taking and longing, all sung in the direction of outer space.

“Strange Solar System” is an eerie, robotic ode to alien space travel that transitions seamlessly into the aptly titled space-disco ditty, “Dance Floor.” The prime example of the Apples’ sound this time around, however, is glimpsed on “Dream of the Future.” Much more R&B than psychedelic, which, in theory, seems strange, given the whiny, nasal tinge of Robert Schneider’s vocals, but the transition has been gradual and surprisingly agreeable. Ultimately, a snippet of the chorus of “C.P.U.” (that stands for “central processing unit,” for those of us not up on our computer speak), appropriately sums up the status of the continually groove-worthy Apples. Here Schneider croons, “You’ve been gone. You’ve been away for too long.” Indeed the band has been absent, but it’s good to have their constant mood-lifting pop back in time for sunnier days.
Jennifer Farmer

Kim Salmon & the Surrealists
Grand Unifying Theory
Low Transit Industries

Since his beginning with the Scientists in the late ’70s, Kim Salmon has experimented with various forms of blues, punk and boogie rock, pairing and dismantling those forms into a vast array of algorithms. And while for the last two decades he’s mostly split his time between Beasts of Burden and leading the Surrealists, Grand Unifying Theory is the first album of any kind to come from the man in 13 years.

Seeing as the album was made by a man who’s never been easy to pin down, Theory is hardly a revolutionary statement. In fact, the record was made as nonchalantly as can be, with Salmon and producer Mike Stranges recording the band rehearsing over the course of several sessions and then assembling those recordings into the album. That strategy—capturing the band’s collective spontaneity—may be the only common thread to the record, as it veers through all of Salmon’s predilections.

Leading off with “Turn Turn,” the record starts in a Sun Ra-ed groove of spacey verve. “Order of Things,” which champions the artistic realm, similarly taps a cosmic slop, while the title tracks (Parts I and II) trade free-from feedback sculpting for structure. On the second part, this motif is extrapolated into 20-some minutes of repetition and noise, the Surrealists at their most surreal as they find variances in the minutiae. Still, one can’t help be most attracted to the moments where Salmon and his mates generate a more standard model of extremity. They lash out with fuzzy abandon on mondo fireball “RQ1” and on the sharp-ended statement of sustained adolescent intent, “Childhood Living.” Salmon’s approach could have resulted in just an incoherent clutter of ideas, but instead he’s made an album that’s messy where it’s suitable and intellectually impetuous elsewhere simply (and fantastically) as a matter of course.
Stephen Slaybaugh