John Cale
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood
Double Six

Given John Cale’s classical training and his work in the avant garde playing with the likes of John Cage, La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, it is surprising that he has continually returned to pop music in his solo work since exiting from the Velvet Underground in 1968. Not that there hasn’t been experimental aspects to his solo catalog, but one would assume he’d be more accustomed to performing 18-hour piano scores or creating drones for electric viola.

But while one might not guess it after a first listen, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is actually the product of the same kind of methodology that’s produced Cale’s more idiosyncratic recordings. Cale reportedly approached the record like a producer would, emphasizing sound and texture as much as content. He experimented with MPCs and electronic glitches, and even returned to his old ways of banging on pianos and creating viola drones.

What then is surprising is how little of the record seems out of the ordinary. The record is suffused in electronic tones that could have been created in 1988 or 2012, while Cale fluctuates between Intepol-like stoicism (“Face to the Sky”) and Bowie-esque ostentation (“Nookie Wood”). He seems equally comfortable in both roles, while the album benefits from a consistent tone. Shifty certainly isn’s as earthshaking as Cale’s past triumphs, but at this point in his career, he no longer needs to be groundbreaking, just interesting, and in that Cale succeeds.
Stephen Slaybaugh

The Vaccines
Come of Age

Perhaps what’s most striking about The Vaccines’ Come of Age, the follow up to 2010’s What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?—aside from the self-explanatory title—is the band’s sharp, smart self-awareness. Over punkish pop melodies, the London-based group—bassist Arni Aranson, guitarist Freddie Cowan, drummer Peter Robertson, and vocalist and guitarist Justin Young—broach the timeless topic of being “young and bored” from a suburban upbringing, while being unapologetic and devoid of self-consciousness.

Young winks to the Gen Y stereotypes from the get-go on “No Hope,” with lines like, “I could make an observation if you want the voice of a generation, but I’m too self-absorbed to give it clout.” Despite the band’s name, though, the record is at times innocuous, with the badassery of “Bad Mood” stopping a bit short. However, the loungy “I Wish I Was Girl” is on target, with smoothly delivered, backhanded nuggets of flattery such as, “Life is easy when you’re easy on the eye.”

In general, it’s Young’s lyrics that standout, as on the lean and quirky “Weirdo,” where he professes a litany of faults before asserting, “You know, I’m not a weirdo.” While he announces “I’m no teenage icon, I’m no Frankie Avalon,” on “Teenage Icon,” he does his best as a balladeer on the grandiose “Lonely World.” While this record might be a little too rooted in the band’s ennui at times, it’s still a fun enough listen to combat such boredom and perhaps set the world on fire.
Josie Rubio

Band of Horses
Mirage Rock

Band of Horses’ first foray into the music scene came in 2006 with the moving and alternately goofy Everything All the Time, which contained the perfectly primed for television ballad, “The Funeral.” Since then, the band has undergone line-up changes, a relocation from the Northwest to the South, and consequently, teetotaled into new territory, opting for a more straightforward smooth rock sound. This approach is continued on their latest release, the follow-up to their Grammy-nominated 2010 album, Infinite Arms.

Mirage Rock begins with “Knock Knock,” which aside from the apropos title is an introduction to the band’s neatly packaged take on Southern rock. Of course, there’s still the remnants of the earlier, more playful Band of Horses, namely on this first song, which is replete with messy guitars, punchy drums and obligatory hand claps. As such, it’s perhaps the most memorable of the lot. From there, one song after another weaves through impressions of everyone from The Eagles (“Slow Cruel Hands of Time”) to Jackson Browne.

Not that this would be a bad thing. After all, The Eagles and Jackson Browne had a few shining moments. The problem that exists on this album is that Ben Bridwell and company’s version of the breezy rock of the 1970s seems to languish, not necessarily aiming for a revitalization of the sound, but instead, for a contrived impression. Were the lyrics less manufactured storytelling and more emotive or descriptive, Mirage Rock might pass instead as a revival of sorts.

The bright spot on the album is the closer. “Heartbreak on the 101” is a tale of anguish in which Brittman gives up his signature nasal pitch for a raw, more natural tone. The gruffness of his voice is married perfectly with a sad, sweet violin. Band of Horses are quite good at what they do, but Mirage Rock is missing memorable hooks and, well, anything that makes an album historic. The entire record seems, as the title suggests, a mirage of sorts that is never quite fully realized as anything other than a reproduction.
Jennifer Farmer

Various Artists
Fac. Dance 02: Factory Records 12" Mixes & Rarities 1980–1987

There is a select group of record labels which transcended their role as mere manufacturing companies. There are the labels that earned enough of a reputation for the music they released to become as big of a draw as the artists with whom they worked. The most common example is Motown, but there are many others who carry their own slice of cultural cache. One such imprint is the infamous Factory Records founded by Tony Wilson. Part record label, part design collective and part philosophical idea, it was a miracle it carried on as long as it did. But in its heyday, Factory was uniquely positioned to capture the post-punk movement that was bubbling up in the ’80s. That included taking the ideas and philosophy of punk and applying them to dance music. While everyone knows about New Order and the Happy Mondays, Factory was fairly active in club culture and during its time released a steady diet of 12-inch singles. For those who weren’t around or weren’t aware, a selection of those singles have been released as Fac. Dance 02.

While the first Fac. Dance edition focused on hits, part two, selected by Factory Benelux head James Nice, focuses more on the deep cuts from the the label’s catalog. And so while there are name bands, notably ESG and Factory stalwarts A Certain Ratio and The Durutti Column, the majority are bands that even the most dedicated trainspotter would fall short in recognizing. As a result, Fac. Dance 02 plays like a secret history of dance music.

While that history is largely interesting, in some cases you can see why some songs fell into the dustbin of history. What the compilation brings into focus, though, is that there just weren’t that many rules when it came to dance music during that time. There are interesting collisions between live instruments and emerging drum machine and synthesizer technology as well as a heavy dub and reggae influence. At times those experiments nearly explode on the lab table. A wonky vocal here, an over zealous cranking of the drum machine there, some songs are more interesting as historical artifacts than musical compositions. But the missteps are relatively minor. While the tracks are dated in approach and production, they have a sense of anarchic joy that makes them work. And as a snapshot of the underground Fac. Dance 02 is essential.
Dorian S. Ham

Van Morrison
Born to Sing: No Plan B
Blue Note

Van Morrison is one of those performers who could sing the phone book and make it sound good. Hell, he could probably sing Fifty Shades of Grey and have it come off soul-stirring. Fortunately, on Born to Sing: No Plan B, Morrison’s latest and 34th album, that is not the case and we are treated to 10 new original compositions.

Recorded in the Irish songwriter’s hometown of Belfast, Born to Sing is the same combination of soul, jazz and rock influences that’s run through much of his catalog. As such, the mix of torchsongs and soulful ballads isn’t surprising, nor the reliance on piano and horns to punctuate its smoky feel. What is amazing is that Morrison’s voice remains so resplendent, as if intentionally living up to the record’s title. Whether backed by readymade lounge organ tones on “Going Down to Monte Carlo” or a twangy blues guitar on “Pagan Heart,” Morrison’s voice is big and powerful. And though, as I said before, it doesn’t really matter what he sings, here he’s even got something to say on cuts like “If in Money We Trust.” As such, Born to Sing is the complete package from a legend we ought not take for granted.
Stephen Slaybaugh