Warning: fans of Toronto duo Parallels’ 2010 debut, Visionaries, may not be ready for the follow-up. Begun as the collaboration of singer Holly Dodson with Crystal Castles’ touring drummer Cameron Findlay, Parallels is now primarily Dodson’s solo project, with Findlay having left to focus on his newest project, Kontravoid. And while it might seem a bit dramatic to say that the change is obvious from the first note, even the most thickheaded of listener will notice the difference.

Not to be dismissive of Dodson, but where once there was a dark edge to Parallels, with Findlay gone, it is now a shiny, glossy synth band, and XII sounds so ’80s that it goes beyond mere tribute. Findlay’s live drums gave an anchoring counterbalance to Dodson’s ethereal presence, making for the type of formula that had a ton of untapped potential. Now, there’s not even a token attempt to nudge the envelope. That’s not to say that XII doesn’t have anything of interest going for it. Dodson’s Kate Bush–esque voice is made for this type of workout, and lyrically she does manage to balance out some of the high-gloss with a touch of grit. However, the record still skews a bit Stacey Q. Here’s hoping that with future Parallels releases, Dodson pushes a little harder.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Moonlight Desires”

Sonny and the Sunsets
Longtime Companion

Having recorded 100 different songs under nearly as many pseudonyms for his ambitious 100 records project, one would have to think that Sonny Smith might subsequently have a hard time keeping a firm grasp on the sonic identity of his main preoccupation with the Sunsets. As proven by that artistic endeavor, Smith is a talented songwriter, one versatile enough to adapt different styles and even different personas. As such, it probably would be naive to assume Longtime Companion would resemble its predecessor, Hit After Hit.

The difference in tacks is most obvious on “Pretend You Love Me,” a song from Hit After Hit re-recorded for Companion. Where once the track was a greasy ’50s-styled ditty about unrequited love, Smith has stretched the song into a Hazelwoodian country lament replete with pedal steel and flute. But while one might think the seachange to be indicative of some kind of personality crisis—especially considering the existential questions asked in “I Was Born”—it is a sign of a songwriter coming into his own and becoming confident enough to follow his muse wherever it might take him. On Companion, that is largely to Music Row, though, “I See the Void” is reminiscent of where Smith’s been previously. “Pretend You Love Me” is no doubt a benchmark moment for Sonny, so it’s hard not to feel a little let down by the rest of the record, but that disappointment is tempered by the feeling that his best is yet to come.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Pretend You Love Me”

Foster Care
Bad Vibe City

Given how ultimately simple and rudimentary a style of music it is, it’s a little amazing how difficult it can be for bands to get basic three-chord punk and hardcore right. Skill, in a general sense, isn’t much of a prerequisite, and precision is never a factor live and really only matters in the recording process—and depending on the amount of chutzpah you’re bringing to the proceedings that’s not even much of a concern. Not every band that misses the mark in terms of songwriting (because that’s really what it comes down to) is necessarily terrible, but punk sure does offer plenty of ho-hum to sort through on the way to something solid.

Allow me to act as a consumer guide for a moment here: Brooklyn four-piece Foster Care get it very right on Bad Vibe City. Artists-in-residence of that titular imaginary metropolis, Foster Care is a raging ball of fucked-up, burnt-out attitude. Songs such as “Don’t Want To/Don’t Need To,” “I Never Meant To,” and “Life O’Reilly” (great pun, by the way) are first-generation hardcore rants that seethe with malcontentedness. They are the musical equivalent of getting a swift punch to the throat and then having whoever did it laugh in your face with one of those Philly Boy Roy cackles. The guitars are wiry and cantankerous, the drums take off and never look back, and the whole mess sounds like it was recorded in one glorious shit-fi take. And just to be clear, these are all good things, if of course these kinds of things are your bag. Yet as gritty as this record can be, it’s actually quite a bit of fun too. The undeniable live feel puts you right there in whatever puke-filled fire trap the band is setting up in next, and you immediately want to dive right in and sing along with the gang choruses. These songs aren’t dirges either; underneath all the grime are plenty of honest rock & roll hooks, which at times recall the best moments of the Reatards.

Still, Foster Care are not trying to paint a rosy picture of existence. Their name alone conjures unfortunate thoughts of the neglect, squalor, and abuse associated with a well-intended but flawed institution, one for children no less. I wouldn’t know if the band’s collective bad attitude is the product of such a hardscrabble background (my gut says no), but it doesn’t really matter. The world is an awful place sometimes regardless of how you’re living, and the guys in Foster Care have every right to get drunk and rage at that reality. We’re in the midst of our fifth decade of bands raging in precisely such a way, so a simple request: if you’re going to go this route, just make sure your songs don’t suck. With Foster Care that’s not a concern.
Nate Knaebel

Al Jardine
A Postcard from California

In the midst of the well-received and highly publicized Beach Boys reunion comes this solo record from one of the group’s founding members. Notably, while every other member of The Beach Boys had released solo albums before the end of the ’80s, A Postcard from California represents Al Jardine’s first studio solo album of his 50-year music career. When considered in relation to the often-disappointing efforts by his bandmates, this one was worth the wait.

It’s almost a misnomer to call Postcard a solo effort, though, since Jardine has enlisted a battalion of rock royalty and other famous friends to make guest appearances throughout the 15-track CD, with lead vocal turns by Neil Young, David Crosby and Glen Campbell and a spoken word appearance by Alec Baldwin making the headlines. The majority of the album consists of new material written by Jardine and delivered in a straightforward rock style seasoned with touches of country and folk, along with a handful of reinterpretations of old Beach Boys songs and a version of “California Dreamin.’” Noteworthy among The Beach Boys material are a laidback version of “Help Me Rhonda,” with a guest appearance by Flea on bass; a tender, fully realized version of the Beach Boys rarity “California Feelin’;” and a more traditional, rock version of “Honkin’ Down the Highway,” a song originally found on Brian Wilson’s 1977 Moog masterpiece, The Beach Boys Love You.

The main attraction, however, is the original material, and while lighthearted tracks like “Drivin’” (which includes a lead vocal by Brian Wilson) are enjoyable enough, Jardine shines on the album’s more serious songs dedicated to the state of California. The title track tells the story of the trek of Jardine’s father to San Francisco and features a dynamic melody that’s enhanced by shimmering harmonies, while album-closer “And I Always Will” features a touching solo vocal by Jardine. Perhaps the strongest moments of the album occur during “Looking Down the Coast,” a trip through the history and geography of California’s coastline, and “Don’t Fight the Sea,” a strong pop-rock song that includes a previously unheard vocal turn from the late Carl Wilson. It truly is something, though, that with so much abundant talent on the record, it really is Jardine who stands out.
Ron Wadlinger

First Time
Army of Bad Luck

Australian trio Bushwalking is comprised of Nisa Vernerosa (Fabulous Diamonds), Ela Stiles (Songs) and Karl Scullin (KES Band), and First Time is, appropriately enough, the band’s first album. And it’s a keeper. Utilizing a deceptively simple approach, what is remarkable about the album is its sense of self, an overarching aesthetic tying the whole thing together while still allowing for variations.

The record leads off with “Doona,” a dirgy slice of minimalism speckled with tender lyrical moments that then gives way to the bass-led “Seventeen Once.” On this second song, girl-group melodies emerge juxtaposed against angled guitar lines. “Hair” is heavily reminiscent of Mazzy Star, hazy vocals cast against a finger-picked lead, while meanwhile “Visual Jam Donut,” as its title might indicate, is a whirling jolt of electric, largely instrumental, post-pop. With First Time’s remainder equally varying, the uniting factor amongst the seemingly diverse tracks isn’t so much a tangible sound, but rather some underlying equation of geometry, like a magic triangle or something. Indeed, there is a spatial relationship at work between the three parties’ contributions that makes for a sense of perfection.
Stephen Slaybaugh