John Vanderslice
Romanian Names
Dead Oceans

John Vanderslice’s newest is subject to violent moodswings. Effervescence gives way to brooding which gives way to desperate longing, all of it filtered through Vanderslice’s trademark “sloppy hi-fi” sound. Romanian Names is the rare record on which the actual production immediately jumps out at you. I’ve heard it so far on two sets of headphones and two sets of speakers, and every time the vocals hit, 10 seconds into “Tremble and Tear,” I’m stunned by the separation of sounds and the dynamic immediacy of the recording. In this age of over-compressed bullshit rock records, that alone makes the album worth hearing.

Don’t worry, though, the songs are worth your time as well. The previously mentioned “Tremble and Tear” kicks things off in bright and shiny style, with Vanderslice and friends harmonizing about the one, the one, the one. It’s glossy and zesty, with just enough touches of noise and plaintive repetition to let the taut heartstrings show. Upbeat threads run through “Fetal Horses” and the cute and groovy la-la-la-las of “C&O Canal,” but the melodies belie the true nature of these torch songs. The opener leads us (“Here comes the one”) to believe these are songs of love presently found, when in fact it’s been very much lost. That knowledge makes sense out of the somewhat jarring shift to the dolorous “Too Much Time,” which finds Vanderslice packing his things, moving out and generally feeling despondently lonely (“Freedom is over-rated”). Four songs in, and he’s already had us dancing and crying at the same time—not bad.

At this point, Vanderslice begins documenting the tiniest of moments, and his clever, evocative songwriting is our reward for his determined focus. The previously mentioned effervescence returns for the team-sung “D.I.A.L.O.” which probably isn’t about the Defense Intelligence Agency Liaison Office. The refrain here is key: “I’ll make it on my own,” and the mood of the song builds on chords and a steady hi-hat as the narrator cultivates his determination to move on. This time the words and music match up, and Vanderslice nails that small moment of optimism that can follow the finality of a miserable experience. “Oblivion,” though, captures the first day all alone, when you’re cranking up the stereo, failing to be transcendently creative, and “playing Defender till dawn.”

The final third of the album really delivers as well, though “Summer Stock” is perhaps the only negligible track in this collection. “Hard Times” is last, and best. There’s not a lot to it; some atmospherics come and go, a couple of bowed strings keep pace, and Vanderslice sings at his most vulnerable. The story starts in a summer that, like the album, begins bright and joyful, with “swimming off the Serbian coast” and lots of reading. Now the narrator, “bloody and bruised,” is looking back and digging through the “lost year” for answers. It’s as if Vanderslice listened to the mix and removed everything that didn’t absolutely ache. What’s left is nothing but gorgeous. It’s the perfect way to end a near-perfect record of heartbreakingly true sentiments and the equally moving sounds that acompany them.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Fetal Horses”

Jarvis Cocker
Further Complications
Rough Trade

Jarvis Cocker has decided to take music back to being an art form. From the fifth until the tenth of May 2009, he installed his band for six or so hours a day in a gallery in Paris in the hopes of answering the question “What is music?” when the worldview seems to have demoted it to worthless digital content. Jarvis has already answered his own question many, many times over the course of his career with Pulp: music is a giant party with all of your friends, plenty of weirdoes in trench coats, lonely girls making out with older German boys, 20,000 people standing in a field, homemade sex videos, dating advice from an aged hipster, etc. On Further Complications, he’s boiled down every Pulp hook and Wilde-ism into the most powerful hash yet. The guitars have shaken off fey Brit-pop twinkles in favor of ax-grinded edge. The drums don’t sit in the back, they’re right underneath the vocals, the result of Steve Albini, arguably the only engineer who understands drum attack, recording the album. Elsewhere Albini’s stamp isn’t all that obvious; this is still a Jarvis Cocker record.

Lyrically, Jarvis has dropped any semblance of coy sexuality that he previously favored. Instead of “that goes in there, and that goes in there,” on “I Never Said I Was Deep” he comes right out with “I’m not looking for a relationship, just a willing receptacle. I never said I was deep, but I am profoundly shallow.” His music is art—there’s no question—but Further Complications is a pop record from front to back. The ballads are better than anything off of Pulp’s last, spaciest record, We Love Life, particularly “Slush,” and he tops the love advice he’s crooned in the past with “I Want To Be Your Lover” and the disconcertingly funky “You’re In My Eyes (Discosong).” Jarvis is that rare artist who just keeps getting better and better with age, and Further Complications is just another of many giant leaps to the top.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Angela”

Thrill Jockey

In the waning minutes of “Aestival,” Pontiak proves that the burly, monolithic metal riffs first devised by Black Sabbath will never fade out of vogue—they’ll just take different shapes, append different moods and constantly be fed from a well of deep, dark, blues. With Maker, the third record in a twelve-month span from the Carney brothers, stoner rock becomes a thinking man’s game, instead of intimidating doom and thoughtless excess their solitary psychedelia (Maker was recorded on their rural Virginia farm) is based in ruminative jams. The direction the trio takes is one that has roots in Josh Homme’s organic experimentation on his Desert Sessions, or better yet, the oft-imitated but rarely lauded Masters of Reality, abandoning stardom and ephemeral buzz in search of a more meaningful, transcendental core.

Unlike their peers in Dead Meadow, who have found a conduit between the stars and the forest floor, Pontiak are controlled wholly by gravity’s pull, broadcasting earthen, amplified blues with a heavy gait and thuds that only get slower. On “Wax Worship,” they have enough bright beaconed scales and unthreatening drone to break monotony and form a single head of sinewy steam, never settling in one camp. Similar results come in the steadfast, but craggy, “Wild Knife Night Fight” or the drowsy “Honey,” where the brothers’ harmonies brand the band with a distinctive hymnal quality. Still, Pontiak never quite find that mighty core for which they seem to be looking. That’s evident on the 13-minute title track. While it represents a perfect opportunity to show off they’re epic destinies, in contrast it meanders and missteps down a road to nowhere.
Kevin J. Elliott

White Rabbits
It’s Frightening

White Rabbits sound like Spoon. There is no way around it. It is overt and obvious (White Rabbits have toured and shared many bills with Spoon, and Daniel even helped produce It’s Frightening), but White Rabbits may just be embracing the similarities rather than shying away from them. The problem (or not) is that on It’s Frightening, White Rabbits do Spoon better than Spoon does Spoon. The rhythm section is burlier and more dangerous; they have two percussionists, but adeptly avoid Allman Brothers’ clutter on the louder songs and fill the loose gaps on the slower grooves. The lyrics are cooler: “You could beat the living daylights right out of me. I don’t care at all,” Patterson yowls on “Rudie Fails,” ironic but not slack-jawed while he’s wailing it into the microphone. If he really didn’t “care at all,” would he put his throat through the hassle of howling it? Engineer Nicholas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhunter) scatters the individual sounds of the band members across the frequencies, which gives the record a thicker, more headphone-friendly vibe than Spoon’s cavernous reverb sound. White Rabbits’ second long player, It’s Frightening is actually a bit less challenging to listen to than their first record, Fort Nightly, and will surely lead the band to alternative radio play and those who like Spoon to preferring It’s Frightening.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free
Dead Oceans

Foolish mortal, did you come to an Akron/Family hoedown with expectations? Shouldn’t you know better by now? The big story, of course, is that founding member Ryan Vanderhoof quit to become a Buddhist, leaving the remaining three to prove their mettle whilst simultaneously confounding us as usual. Luckily they don’t shy from the challenge.

Opener “Everyone is Guilty” makes one think there must be something in the indie rock water this year, resembling as it does a lot of the funky thump of Animal Collective’s latest and recent releases of the same ilk. Nonetheless, A/F burst out of the gates with dense riffs, a deep groove (I am helplessly reminded of Mike Gordon’s best work) and a ragged shout-along bridge. It’s all pretty damn impressive in and of itself, and then in the last minute, the song resolves to its more pastoral origins, leaving the strings and winds to play out the gently swinging melody that suddenly seems to have been present all along. A sweet trick, indeed.

The Family will return to stomp mode, most notably on “Creatures” and “MBF,” but in the meantime though, they’ve gotta sing about rivers, mountains and the sun. “River,” in fact, is the song I haven’t been able to shut out of my head this week. It’s hardly the best song on the record, but it’s just that catchy. And that mountain song (“The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen”) sounds like a field recording in both senses of the word, since it starts with a bit of tape hiss as well as some chirping crickets. It’s on these more barebones tracks, though, that we miss Vanderhoof, who’s clearly a better singer than anyone who remains.

As you would expect, though, the highlights of the album are the moments when they combine the many strains of technique. “Many Ghosts” combines natural and electric strings, while also juxtaposing some very pretty vocals with strained moans and nasal whines. (Black Lips + Son Volt = Akron/Family?) The effect is suitably both ethereal and earthy. And “Sun Will Shine” works its way from the rural end of the spectrum to a full-fledged noisefest in three minutes flat, before bringing back the horns for a New Orleans-on-downers finale.

The coda to the album, “Last Year,” seems an effort to remove all the artifice and give it to us straight. Everyone in the room (and it sounds like about a dozen people) sings, “Last year was a hard year for such a long time. This year’s gonna be ours,” again and again for about 90 seconds. I hope they’re right cuz they’ve sure earned it. Amazingly, despite losing 25% of their creative force, the Akron/Family has managed to take another diagonal step on their aberrant path to genius without faltering but for a very little bit.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “River”

Maximo Park
Quicken the Heart

Like the bands with which they came of age, namely the Kaiser Chiefs and Dogs Die in Hot Cars, Newcastle’s Maximo Park started off brashly showing their love of British mainstays like the Jam and XTC. While the Kaiser Chiefs have continued to enjoy widespread popularity and Dogs Die in Hot Cars—well, who knows what the hell happened to them—Maximo Park has been caught running in place in terms of success. Though the band has continued to refine the complexion of its sound, largely by working with different producers—Paul Epworth (Bloc Party, The Rapture) on the debut, A Certain Trigger, Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters) on follow-up Our Earthly Pleasures, and Nick Launay (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Cave) for the latest, Quicken the Heart—those influences have continued to inform the band, if not palpably in the songs, then at least aesthetically. As with the Jam (and the Kinds before them), there’s something distinctly British about Maximo Park, idiosyncrasies that don’t translate well to a larger (read: American) audience. We Yanks demand a certain amount of tumult in our music, and it’s why in the States a band like, say, the Style Council will only ever appeal to a small sect of Anglophilic girls.

Not that Maximo Park is another bland, wanna-be soul band—far from it. But like the band’s records before it, Quicken the Heart is lacking something that’s hard to pinpoint. Lead single “The Kids Are Sick Again” is a smashing (to use an Anglo euphemism) track that shows off the kind of taut riffs and rhythms that are the group’s best traits, but falls short of its “In the City”–like potential. So too with “A Cloud of Mystery,” whose quick clip and quirky synth chirps are charming, but somehow not riveting. To put it in another parlance, this record and I are going to just be friends, and nothing more.
Stephen Slaybaugh