Animal Collective
Centipede Hz

Animal Collective is one of those bands with whom I invest way too much of my free time. Either you believe they are shaping the course of modern pop music or you think they are a total charade of modern bohemian ethos. With each successive Animal Collective album, I’m always looking back at my reflections on the one that has come before it. Centipede Hz is the first time hindsight won’t do you any good. For better or worse, this is an album that explains the totality of their existence. Every little metamorphosis that the band has endured is displayed here in a hyper sensory overload that goes well beyond the current norm. It’s a bit readymade from a group who has been seen as organic as they come. It’s been heavily publicized that, opposed to the trans-continental piecemeal of prior records, Centipede Hz was created by all members jamming in a room for weeks on end. In the past, the distance and separate roles of each member was understood and accepted. Perhaps then, Centipede Hz is too close for comfort.

This album sounds like Animal Collective as theme park. There are psychedelic tilt-a-whirls (as on the circular melodies of “Monkey Riches”), sideshows boasting “synth modulations never before seen,” stomach churning rollercoasters of sonic frenzy (try not to get dizzy by the end of “Applesauce”) and lesser rides which simply add to the scenery. With “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural,” you’re treated to two e-ticket attractions from the very start. Both are monuments to the maximalist spirit of Centipede Hz worth the price of admission, but they’re so packed with euphoric moments that everything that comes after feels empty. That tends to be the major fault of the album: Animal Collective was so set on giving audiences extreme thrills that they forgot to include the songs, the substance that made former dalliances in pop experimentation so sublime. Centipede Hz is not a failure, however. The record is as dense and mysterious as anything I’ve heard this year, and perhaps the absolute truth of the album comes with repeated listens. That’s a trait afforded to few bands in these empty times, which lends well to my theory that Animal Collective is the Yankee equivalent to Radiohead, another group whose wild left turns and narcoleptic missteps are easily forgiven. Centipede Hz’s closer, “Amanita,” is the closest AC has come to crafting an OK Computer-esque masterpiece. It’s just too bad it has to end an album that is mired in highs and lows that never quite meet in the middle. Proceed with caution and keep your hands in the car at all times.
Kevin J. Elliott

Jens Lekman
I Know What Love Isn’t
Secretly Canadian

Jens Lekman, the bright-eyed Swedish crooner known mainly for his quirky, buoyant melodies and witty lyrical repartee, is back with the keenly awaited follow-up to last September’s largely lauded EP, An Argument with Myself. Though it’s been roughly only a year between the releases of the two records, I Know What Love Isn’t finds Lekman in an uncharacteristically blase headspace, reflected in the music as well as the subject matter.

The album shows Lekman doing what he does best: creating cheesy and whimsical pop songs that are heavy on metaphors and sweeping narratives sung in his deep, polished voice, recalling a 1940s lounge singer. Lekman’s known best for a self-deprecating sense of humor, and this album is no exception, using failed romances and missed opportunities as the fodder for the majority of these tracks. For all the heartbreak this guy must have gone through (considering he’s filled three full-length albums and numerous EPs), it’s fascinating that he remains so good-natured. Lekman’s essentially a much brighter, markedly less bitter, male version of Taylor Swift. “She Just Don’t Want to Be with You Anymore” is rife with somber piano melodies and swelling, spacey accompaniment. “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots” sees Lekman focus on a pair of cowboy boots as a metaphor for a failed relationship (like so many other literary devices on the album). “The World Moves On” is a little ditty containing missives centering on the mundane recall of commonplace events—wrecking his bike, etc.—all leading (eventually) to the fact that the world moves on no matter why you’re grieving. Sure, he’s making a statement with the lyrics, but it’s like a jam band going on too long sometimes, with little discernible structure.

More easily digestable is “Erica America,” a systematically clever pop song that includes a guest appearance from ethereal Melbourne vocalist Sophie Brous. I Know as a whole is not boring, it’s just not the expected leap forward from Argument. It’s sort of an empty shell, like the much of Paul Simon’s solo foray into soft rock. In an interview, Lekman said he sees this album as a definite shift in his songwriting, but wants to use it as an opportunity to strip everything down and make it lighter. In the end, though, everything is just a little lackluster.
Jennifer Farmer

Neil Halstead
Palindrone Hunches

There's never been an album that Neil Halstead has had his hand in that’s been quick to reveal itself. Whether ensconced in a swirl of guitar effects and atmospherics (Slowdive), filtered through a gauze of haze and sunshine (Mojave 3), or delivered in a barebones manner (solo), Halstead’s songwriting has relied as much on subtlety and nuance as the poignancy of his lyrics. Even the seemingly simple songs that made up the decidedly buoyant Oh! Mighty Engine, his last solo album from 2008, eventually gave way with repeated listens to more complex thoughts and emotions lurking below the record’s surface level. It’s not so much a matter of subterfuge as it is the cumulative effect of melody and lyric coming into focus to impart some golden thought or little truism.

Palindrone Hunches, Halstead’s new album, is no different. Though it is cast with a darker pall than the British singer-songwriter has exhibited heretofore, the album also takes its time to disclose its depth. The album was recorded with members of Wallingford’s Band of Hope in a primary school instead of a proper studio, so while Halstead’s songs are augmented with violin, piano and back-up vocals, there is still a sparseness to the proceedings. As such, it bears a folkier ambiance than his other records, while Halstead for his part now recalls Nick Drake more than when he’s been compared to him in the past, especially in the minor key of “Tied to You.” “Wittgenstein’s Arm” is the most obvious downer, based as it is on the story of a pianist who lost his arm in World War I. But even with a bouncy piano line, a song like “Hey Daydreamer” still seems to be covering up some underlying heartbreak in hopeful refrains like, “I don’t wanna feel all right. I don’t wanna be just okay. I want to go everywhere. I want to see everything.” Halstead has shown himself time and time again to be a talented songwriter, and Palindrone Hunches is just further proof of his unusual gifts.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Gallon Drunk
The Road Gets Darker from Here
Clouds Hill

One wouldn’t have been surprised if Gallon Drunk called it a day last year after the death of bassist Simon Wring. The British band has been going at it for more than two decades, and having released a plethora a viscera-shaking records, could easily rest in peace knowing that they made a good showing of it. But the band decided they weren’t ready to hang up their boots quite yet, hence their new album, The Road Gets Darker from Here.

Led by former Bad Seed and current member of Faust James Johnston (vocals and guitar), Gallon Drunk has always occupied a unique niche where strains of Nick Cave and the Jesus Lizard intersect, and The Road sits at a similar intersection. Lead-off track “You Made Me” is a vitriolic accusation comprised of snake-oiled guitars and a groove of bent blues. The rest of the record’s nine tracks follow a similar MO, Johnston and cohorts Terry Edwards (bass, saxophone) and Ian White (drums) delivering songs of woe, but with a good deal of greasy wryness attached. “A Thousand Years” is perhaps the best of these laments, with Johnston singing lines like, “If we’re going to go, let’s go out in style,” between belts of Edwards’ sax. Despite its title, The Road is perhaps no darker than any other Gallon Drunk record, but this time, the band almost revels in the bleakness. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that is surely the case here.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Richard Hawley
Standing at the Sky’s Edge

Richard Hawley has a unique ability to write melodies that sound classic the moment you first hear them. My first experience with his music was “Run for Me,” the opening track off his second proper album, Lowedges. I thought it was a bit confused, being a song about a motorcycle racer sung by a guy recalling Mark Lanegan, in leather and ducktail but with a slow, smoldering couch of gigantic Brit rock guitars devoid of the hard edge one would expect from a rockabilly-looking tough. Then somebody told me he’d played with Pulp and it became clear that he wouldn’t fit into any simple genre box. This mixture of the contradicting and the familiar continues with his eighth release under his own name, Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Where I keep expecting new stuff from him to devolve into the rockabilly role for which he dresses, I find that he just expands the sound niche he has cleared for himself.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge takes a step beyond previous releases by going from light pastoral guitar work, as on “Seek It,” to way out into the black cosmos with “Leave Your Body Behind You.” Instead of floating around in the middle of the guitar spectrum and avoiding the stark and harsh alike, Hawley bounces off the walls and takes to places where he didn’t tread before. There are some gnarly riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by Sheffield pals and collaborators Arctic Monkeys. It’s clear Hawley wanted to stretch out, but not so much that he’d lose sight of his comfortable aesthetic. Opening track, “Brings the Sunlight,” clocks in at just less than seven and a half minutes and starts off with a sitar (or a cleverly manipulated guitar) before diving into a bed of Hawley’s most languid lyrics. The narratives Hawley injects into all his songs are dense and mysterious, with the kind of expert delivery that makes each stand on its own, leaving it to the listener to piece together the arc. Hawley doesn’t make throw-off stuff. He spends time on his music, and he expects us to spend time listening to it. I can spend a whole lot more time with this one for sure.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Leave Your Body Behind You”