The Bats
Free All the Monsters
Flying Nun

After decades of relatively sporadic releases, it’s truly a wonder to have another Bats album in hand just two years after 2009’s The Guilty Office. (And this in the same year as a Robert Scott solo album no less!) Released by the revitalized Flying Nun Records (founder Roger Shepherd reacquired the label from the Warner Music Group in 2009), Free All the Monsters may not bear the same manic jangle of the band’s earliest releases, but 29 years after forming, The Bats are still possessed by the same verve and knack for ageless pop.

Producer Dale Cotton obviously understood this while working the record, lending a brightness to the album that hasn’t been there in the recent past to the same degree. Songs like “Spacejunk” and the title track absolutely sparkle as their melodies beam out from amongst propulsive guitar strumming and crackling rhythms. Such cuts are easily some of the band’s best work, and in general, Monsters sticks out as an exceptional album in a discography littered with exceptional albums. Even when Scott gets introspective (“See Right Through Me”) or melancholic (“When the Day Comes”), it’s hard not to recognize the focused intent present, even if the delivery is more subtle. However disappointing, it wouldn’t be surprising if The Bats go quiet again, but judging from the results, prolificness suits Scott and his cohorts.
Stephen Slaybaugh

The Duke Spirit

Formed in 2003, The Duke Spirit released their blistering debut full-length, Cuts Across the Land, in 2005. Following critical acclaim, a specialty compilation for the late, great Alexander McQueen’s capsule collection with Target, another album (2008’s Neptune) and two solid years of touring, the London noise-pop dignitaries relinquished to a state of relative obscurity. The female-fronted five-some hopes to change that with their much-anticipated third full-length release, Bruises.

While not as bombastic as Land or Neptune, Bruises is a solid continuation of The Duke Spirit on a different, more meticulously engineered plane. Though it drags a bit at certain junctures, beginning with the gritty, guitar-driven “Cherry Tree,” it’s clear that Duke Spirit have ascribed to a higher production value, which makes perfect sense considering the album was mixed by Alan Moulder (The Jesus and Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails). There are glaring examples of this refined approach in the slow-to-unfold climaxes, haunting minor chords and palm-muted guitars of “Procession” and the wondrous “Everybody’s Under Your Spell.” Really, though, the highlight comes in the form of an upbeat, pseudo-80s homage, “Don’t Wait,” and its beautifully written lyrics and powerful, climbing chords. Here, Leila Moss’ captivatingly raw vocals are finally the center of attention.

The sad truth is that in this present internet buzz–filled age, where powerful female vocalists (Adele) and female-fronted bands (Florence + the Machine) are making not just waves, but history, it’s even harder for a female-fronted group to get noticed in the alterna-pop realm. With sultry vocals in the vein of a sober Janis Joplin, Leila Moss can certainly hold her own, but the songs themselves lack the memorable hooks and choruses to embed them into the collective popular ADD-consciousness. Perhaps, though, with the release of Bruiser, a wider, calmer audience will finally be able to appreciate The Duke Spirit.
Jennifer Farmer

Lateef the Truthspeaker

For his new collection of recordings, FireWire, Lateef the Truthseeker seemingly refused to deny any possible source of inspiration. You’ll hear his love of disco (“Left Alone”), go-go and even Air Supply (“Testimony”) come through at various times. There’s even one track, “We the People,” that comes off like some School House Rock, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s a good thing. We’ve got a mixed-bag of beats, but at least they’re all interesting. That’s always been the implicit promise of the Quannum crew, that they’ll be different. Alas, Lateef fails to lyrically deliver in a similarly adventurous way. To take just one example, the opening of “So Sexy” infuriates, as Lateef treats us to a sparse beat with plenty of room for exploration, then opens with, “Guess who stepped in the door?” Wait, wait, let me guess. Mr. Truthseeker! We never need to hear another rapper ask that question, and you of all people are supposed to know that. Yes, I realize that even conscious rappers just want to have fun sometimes. Too bad, dude. Anyway you slice it, this is just terrible brand-management.

And what’s with all the rappers who want to be R&B singers all of a sudden? The worst part of it is that when he gets melodic (on the DJ Shadow–produced “Say What You Want”), Lateef, like his brethren, completely abandons any remaining lyrical ingenuity and takes to crooning about a girlfriend who lies a lot. Isn’t that always the topic when rappers sing? Someone should get some stats on that.

So here’s the new Lateef, not the same as the old Lateef. Yes, his parents were famous Black Panthers, but he just wants to host a great party. He’s hardly the first consciousnness-raiser to say so. Sometimes he pulls it off, but just as often I’m left wondering what he had against the old Truthseeker.
Matt Slaybaugh

She & Him
A Very She & Him Christmas

Frankly, it’s shocking that it’s taken so long for Zooey Deschanel to record a Christmas album. Before the debut of her TV show, New Girl, most people probably thought of her as that girl from Elf, and her singing in the film was a major plot device. You would think a full-blown Christmas album would be a no-brainer, but Deschanel has always taken a slightly crooked career path. In fact, she appeared to have no intention of ever making music professionally until out of nowhere she linked up with low-key folkie M. Ward as She & Him.

If you’ve heard either of the duo’s other two records, you know what to expect: a low-key ’50s transistor radio vibe. Essentially, A Very She & Him Christmas doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but there are some subtle changes afoot. Songs feature unadorned guitar accompaniment, and Deschanel has a jazz lilt to her voice, while Ward only steps to the mic a few times. It has a very intimate feel that lends a whisper of melancholy and gives it a nice balance. Sure, there are some upbeat moments, “Sleigh Ride” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” for example, but it’s nice not to be punched in the face by glee. Deschanel and Ward reprise Elf’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” but with a gender role reversal, which inadvertently highlights the creepy underbelly of the song. While this record may not make bring the band any new converts, A Very She & Him Christmas may very well prove to be a new holiday classic.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “The Christmas Waltz”

Ty Segall
Singles 2007–2010

With four albums in three years, along with countless singles, EPs, splits and various collaborations to his name, Ty Segall has become something of a garage rock tour de force. It’s understandable why, as he’s managed to find a perfect sweet and sour blend of pop, fuzz and dissonance, which he’s manifested both on all those aforementioned records and in blistering live performances.

Goner, who released 2009’s Lemons and 2010’s Melted, has done those unwilling or unable to keep up with Segall’s profuse output the favor of collecting many of his odds and sods on the pragmatically titled Singles 2007–2010. The Memphis label released some of these the first time around, like the “Cents” and “Caesar” 7-inches, but they’ve also collected cuts from more obscure sources. For example, his echo-drenched cover of The Gories’ “I Think I’ve Had It” from an issue of Yeti is a suitably barebones, but noisy, tribute to those luminaries. Similarly, his cover of Chain Gang’s “Son of Sam” (not sure where this one came from) is a flurry of stomping beats, howled vocals and guitar overload.

While much of the album is filled with those noisy permutations for which Ty is known, it is the album’s sparsest moments that are the biggest revelations. The demo for “Lovely One” shows the development of the song from an acoustic guitar line into the track that appeared on Lemons. Also cool is “The Drag,” which in its infant stage here is just a simple drum machine beating behind Segall’s scorched vocals and clanging guitar riff. Most records of this nature are little more than curiosities, but as with everything Ty has done, there is nary a clunker amongst the album’s 25 cuts. With this kind of consistency, there’s no reason to ever bet against the man.
Stephen Slaybaugh