From the initial salvo of Farm’s opening track, it’s readily apparent that Dinosaur Jr. is picking up where it left off. Not even five minutes into the album, the trio delivers all of its trademarks: loud guitars, explosive solos, falsetto harmonies, and J Mascis’ distinctive drawl.
Obviously, this is good news for Dinosaur Jr. fans. Farm serves as confirmation that 2007’s Beyond was not a mere aberration or one-off reunion. Indeed, the band, which reunited original members Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph in 2005, seems to be back to peak form as a recording unit. Farm pretty much sounds like most of the Dinosaur Jr. records from the past 20 years. There’s a healthy dose of great riffs, a bunch of Mascis’ slacker romance tunes, and guitar solos coming from every direction.
Like Beyond, Farm benefits from the presence of Barlow. Even if his songs aren’t as strong as those of Mascis, Barlow’s entries act as nice counterpoints, adding an extra dimension that was missing from the band’s output in the ’90s. The prime example of this interplay fittingly comes at the album’s conclusion, with “I Don’t Wanna Go There,” Mascis’ nearly nine-minute opus that proves his guitar work is still as explosive as ever, transitioning into Barlow’s “Imagination Blind.” After the guitar pyrotechnics, Barlow’s mid-tempo rocker draws the album to a fitting conclusion. It’s always been impressive what Dinosaur Jr. has been capable of when the players are getting on amicably. Here’s hoping that the good times keep on rolling.
MP3: “I Want You to Know”
It’s hard to tell which came first when approaching and absorbing Guns Don’t Kill People... Lazers Do: the Scientist-inspired character Major Lazer, a zombie fighting, vampire slaying, Jamaican sound-system warrior, or the idea of (now) mega-producers Diplo and Switch bringing together dancehall’s brightest stars into a funhouse of traditional riddims and future-forward beats. Whichever the case and regardless of how the duo’s constructed persona has somewhat overshadowed the music before the album’s release, there’s always been a knowing trust that whatever import the two bring to the table for display (be it baile funk, cumbia or Baltimore bump) is bound to be universally accepted into the patois of dance culture simply for bearing the name of it’s cosigners. In this case, it’s the current sound of Jamaica, be it reggae, ragga, rocksteady, dancehall, dub or on the soon-to-be Top 40 smash “Keep It Going Louder,” featuring Akon doppelganger Ricky Blaze and Nina Sky, hyper-colored auto-tuned lover’s rock.
While Diplo and Switch have often been accused of exploiting their subject matter, anyone who’s followed closely the constant barrage of souvenirs brought back from exotic locales knows full and well that they handle their luggage with the utmost care and respect. And as dancehall is a genre known for shape-shifting, high levels of ephemeral energy and magnifying over-the-top island stereotypes, then their engaging opus is authentic to its very core. At the legendary Tuff Gong studio, the two convinced the likes of Vybz Kartel, Mr. Lexxx, Ms. Thing and Prince Zimboo to lend their party-starting talents to the mega-club bangers composed by the duo. Icing on the cake is including Santigold and Amanda Blank in the festivities so as to not scare off the xenophobes who find those names unfamiliar.
The promise in the months leading up to Guns’ release was to provide an anthem for every week of the summer, and at the very least, as a dancehall primer, it succeeds. From the very beginning, in the frenetic spaghetti-western surf-guitar refrain of “Hold the Line,” featuring an extremely vicious Santigold, it’s apparent that the energy level will remain at a peak throughout. Even when the mood and tempo dials down to the sweat-soaked, sun-baked, throwback “Can’t Stop Now” (a worthy clone to the classic “Uptown Top Ranking”), there’s electricity buzzing through, especially at ideal volumes, which suggests it’s only a breather, a replenishing diversion before the arms rise again.
To the casual listener and clubbing fraternity, Guns will, in many spots, catch ears ablaze, even if it’s not consistently explosive as first hoped. The fireworks come with Diplo and Switch’s effort to elevate the material beyond mixtape fodder, as each song becomes dense with bells and whistles (feel free to insert horses and babies or cell-phones and bongs), like a pachinko machine on blast. As a team, they’ve found a sensory overloaded style all their own and adapted it to any dance cult hiding in the four corners of the earth. Such distinction is found in the hypnotic brass on the deceptively dub “Cash Flow” and in the live-from-your-speakers drumline that structures “Pon de Floor.” In the process of assembling the year’s summer jam, they’ve also raised the bar by simultaneously making a statement few can retort.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: “Anything Goes”
Oh Spencer Krug, Spencer Krug. Are you trying to overwhelm us with releases? Don’t you know I’m still trying to decipher everything you said on that Swan Lake album? Alas and alack. The story here is that Sunset Rubdown is no longer a solo project with hired players; it’s now a real band, working together in the studio and recording a more “live” experience. The record does feel more immediate, and there’s definitely more interplay between the musicians, as they pass the lead around and respond and react together. The songs often seem built with the instrumentation as foundation, rather than ornamentation, as has often previously been the case.
As for the songs, there’s probably nothing that will surprise you here, and I mean that in a totally positive way. Whattaya want from the guy? Wolf Parade with more drama? You got it. Swan Lake lit-nerd-lyrics with an emphasis on fairy tales? Definitely. Krug’s heart not just on his sleeve, but smashed and smeared all over his shirt? Well, that’s the Rubdown’s speciality. The narrators on these songs seem suspended in that awful moment when your girl has just said the most hurtful thing you could imagine and is now on her way out of the apartment before you can even respond. Krug sounds as if he’s pressed pause and is singing every line to that girl’s back
Thanks to the contributions of the band, though, Dragonslayer is more than just melodramatic, it’s also thrillingly visceral more often than not. The band really drives the record on “Black Swan” and “Nightingale/December Song.” Mark Nicol (the drummer and newest member) makes particularly tasty contributions on “Idiot Heart,” and “You Go Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II),” accelerating the group from deliberate opening verses to the edge of chaos.
It’s worth nothing that the songs are, on average, shorter than most of those on Sunset Rubdown’s last record, Random Spirit Lover. Krug can’t resist the epic, though, and the album closes with “Dragon’s Lair,” 10 minutes of resigned, apologetic praise to that lover who’s in the midst walking away. It may be the ultimate statement of everything Krug does well. The lyrics seem to tip towards the surrealistic, but in fact, those Grimm references are the flailing attempts of despair trying to hide its face in the midst of another long and gloriously broken pop song.
MP3: “Idiot Heart”
For those who have seen live music in Ohio, it can be argued that all the cities are known for certain styles: there’s the proto-punk and old rock & roll of Cleveland, Columbus’ current lo-fi, and Dayton’s off-kilter rock (Brainiac, Guided By Voices). Cincinnati can always be counted on for honest rock with a Southern edge, much like the city itself. So it’s not surprising that Brian Olive’s self-titled debut (recorded in a Cincy basement) is full of Southern-tinged guitars, soulful harmonies and straightforward melodies borrowed from the 1960s. Olive started his career as guitarist for the Greenhornes—some of whom went on to form the Raconteurs with Jack White of the White Stripes—and went on to join the Soledad Brothers. Some former Greenhornes also appear in the album credits, as does Mike Weinel, formerly of Heartless Bastards.
Unexpected, however, is just how much musical ground is covered in this gem of a record, and with such cohesive results. There’s the upbeat horn- and piano-infused New Orleans parade of “The Day the Sun Is Coming (Sainte-Marie’s Dream),” the swagger of “Stealin’” and rollicking “Ida Red.” Throughout much of the record, Donna Jay Rubin and Holly and Tori Kadish lend their backing vocals for melodies that add soul and depth without ever being superfluous. “High Low” is aptly named, with its low sax and drums rumble laced with intricate bits of guitar. “See Me Mariona” is fully psychedelic—the Stone Roses meet 007 circa ’67. While “Echoing Light” comes off as a sweetly retro ballad, the record loses some of its momentum on slower tracks like “There Is Love” and “Killing Stone.” Still, it’s hard to find fault in these simple, yet inarguably pretty, ballads. Even those who are familiar with Olive’s work in other bands should have expectations succeeded by this impressive debut.
MP3: “There Is Love”
Rhett Miller’s old band, the Old 97s, oscillated between raucous, alt-country twang, and the Tempe sound favored by the small, schlocky school of bands playing six degrees of Gin Blossoms. And so my taste for them also oscillated, song to song, between outright love and a pretty severe disappointment, depending on how those axes happened to align. Often, though, the deciding factor was whether or not Rhett Miller asserted his songwriting talents.
His solo albums have been similarly mixed, though. At their best, Miller squints his ironic viewpoint at characters and moments exhibiting a very specific kind of oddity and writes a pleasant tune. At their worst, Miller picks a country music stereotype, turns up the amp, and rides a totally cliche chorus off into the sunset. Most notably, his solo records have lacked the punch that the occasionally punky Old 97s could provide. On his latest, though, there’s something else at work.
Miller himself describes it as a relatively dark record, owing to “the death of my grandmother, the suicide of my hero, David Foster Wallace.” Nevertheless, the album essentially sticks to the sad lyrics/happy melody formula he’s mastered. It doesn’t take long, though, to realize that a bigger difference is being made by his back-up band, which this time round features member of the Apples in Stereo, and on several tracks, uber-producer Jon Brion. Basically, it’s still Rhett Miller, but it sounds like he’s been working out. There’s more muscle.
And so, when Miller lets the band drive him or outright take-over, as on “Haphazardly” and the organ-stuffed “Refusing Temptation,” the songs are filled to the brink with harmonies , hooks, and in small measure, some much-needed dissonance. On “Caroline,” another tired country riff takes hold, but when he hits the chorus, several guitar licks and some shiny back-up vocals kick in to mix things up. “Bonfire” is another sad Miller ballad, but it’s not nearly so pristine, and I challenge you not to hear a hundred indie rock crooners in the bridge. Miller is such a good songwriter (and an exceedingly meticulous lyricist) that when his performances get pushed to the edge, the songs start to have some of the raw emotional content they deserve. On this one, Miller hits that mark seven times out of 10. It’s an improvement to be sure, and I’m anxious to hear the next step.