The Drums
Summertime! ep
Twenty Seven

Brooklyn’s latest duo du jour, the lazily named Drums, have the unfortunate distinction of coming at the end of my threshold for beach-themed bands. And whether or not your summer was spent chilling, surfing, and reclined to the simple, nostalgia-filled arpeggios and faux-calypso timbres of what seems like an endless wave of groups co-opting Paul Simon and New Order with equal aplomb, there are only so many stories about suntan lotion a Midwesterner can take before reverting to an hour’s worth of death metal. This six-song sampler, a precursor to a debut that will likely set the nets ablaze, is not offensive by any stretch—unless of course you take offense to an American band watering down the perfectly infectious formula of Sweden’s Tough Alliance, which is what the Drums do on “The Saddest Summer” and “Let’s Go Surfing.” Imagine Peter Hook’s ubiquitous basslines, sped to Ritalin conditioned tempos and sprayed with streaks of juvenile neon graffiti. You can’t fault them for sugary playground rhymes, extremely cheeky background vocals, handclaps and whistles, which pad the otherwise skeletal pop.

Further investigation tells that the Drums were entirely influenced by one song (“Pale Specter”) by one particular Factory band (The Wake), who were themselves a fey imitation of Joy Division. Of course, as par for the course, in learning about the Wake for the first time, the similarities are uncanny. At least the Drums have their impression down. But like Vampire Weekend, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and (read last week) Girls before them, survival will depend on how such regurgitated fodder is delivered. It’s either with a knowing and imaginative smirk, an indifferent shrug, or with blinders incapable of finding the line between homage and rip-off. Though parts of the Summertime! EP are perfectly acceptable ear candy, I’m not exactly sure which expression the duo is vamping in the mirror.
Kevin J. Elliott

Kris Kristofferson
Closer to the Bone
New West

Kris Kristofferson may be the closest thing to an American folk hero that we have left. During his 73 years, he’s variously been known as Rhodes Scholar, Columbia Studios janitor, helicopter pilot, Janis Joplin’s love interest, and accomplished actor. But Kristofferson’s true love may have always been music. He’s still at it, as Closer to the Bone, is his 20th studio album, but his first since 2006.

Perhaps unfortunately, at first glance the record seems to represent the continuation of an attempt by producer Don Was at replicating the success of Rick Rubin’s Johnny Cash formula: take an aging but venerable country and folk music icon, dress his music with modern production aesthetics and watch the critical accolades and financial riches roll in. Much like Cash’s American albums, Kristofferson’s recent Was-produced records follow the model of Rubin’s sparse instrumentation and no-frills approach that focuses primarily upon the subject’s clean, close-miked vocal and straightforward guitar accompaniment. Indeed, Cash’s ghost is clearly present here, as evidenced by “Good Morning John,” a song of encouragement written for the Man in Black during Cash’s well-documented struggles in the ’70s.

But it’s hard to fault Closer to the Bone for any perceived faults on the part of Was, seeing as the songs and Kristofferson’s compelling delivery of them make for a truly rewarding listen. At his age, Kristofferson’s voice is a bit worn, but he sings with a grizzled softness that lends an air of well-earned experience to his lyrics. Whether it’s refrains of encouragement for his children (“From Here To Forever”), laments of lost love (“Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”) or half-playful, understanding odes to fellow outlaws (“Sister Sinead”), the songs on Closer To The Bone live up to the high level of craftsmanship found throughout the Kristofferson catalog. In fact, the centerpiece of the album, “Hall Of Angels,” a moving ballad on the dearly departed, fits well alongside the best folk songs.

As much as Kristofferson focuses backward on the album, it is perhaps fitting that it ends with what he claims was the first song he ever completed, at the wise age of eleven. “I Hate Your Ugly Face” is a fully lighthearted, self-assured rant delivered to a former love. It shows that Kristofferson always had a gift for penning a quality song—a gift that he still makes good use of to this day.
Ron Wadlinger

Various Artists
Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy
Shout! Factory

Culling together a wide breadth of talent, Ciao My Shining Star is both a tribute to and a benefit for Mark Mulcahy, singer for Miracle Legion and Polaris (known for their musical contributions to cult favorite kid’s show The Adventures of Pete and Pete), and, more recently, a solo artist. Mulcahy is also a widow and a father; his wife Melissa, whose photograph graces the album cover, died unexpectedly last year, leaving Mark to care for his twin three-year-old daughters on his own. As such, the record is being released to raise money for the artist and his small family, while a side effect is certainly to also bring a renewed appreciation to this long overlooked songwriter.

As much as I am for supporting this cause, as a longtime fan of the man and his music, it’s hard not to be disappointed with the song selection for the album. Of the record’s 21 tracks covered, 15 come from Mulcahy’s four solo outings, while only five are Miracle Legion songs and only one comes from the Polaris songbook. This is inherently problematic, given that, for as strong as they are, Mulcahy’s solo records can’t touch his best work with Miracle Legion. Songs like “Ladies from Town,” “Sea Hag” and “Out to Play,” among others, are conspicuously absent, giving a half-empty aura to the record.

That said, taking the album at face value, there’s still plenty to recommend it. Thom Yorke’s glitched run through “All for the Best” (from Miracle Legion’s Surprise Surprise Surprise) is the perfect augmentation of the song’s original melodic lament and innovation. Similarly, on “The Backyard” (the title track from Miracle Legion’s debut EP) Dinosaur Jr. substitutes distortion for jangle. “Micon the Icon,” (the highlight of Mulcahy’s Smile Sunset LP) as done by Chris Hartford and the Band of Changes, which includes Miracle Legion guitarist Ray Neal, is true to the original, albeit less sparse. Others worth the while include the National’s “Ashamed of the Story I Told” and Mercury Rev’s take on “Sailors and Animals,” both of which reveal more reverence for Mulcahy’s great songwriting talent.

In fact, as with Mulcahy’s catalog, there’s hardly a song not worth hearing on Ciao My Shining Star. It’s only when you consider the potential for new renditions of his best work that there is room for reconsideration. (Another 20 tracks are going to be released digitally, however.) But given the below cult status of Mulcahy’s music, most listeners still have the pleasure of hearing the originals awaiting them anyway, so there’s no reason to belabor the point.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Robin Guthrie

Robin Guthrie is known for his role as cofounder of the legendary Cocteau Twins, so the fact that subsequent solo efforts are perfectly suited for use in a sleep clinic seems quite apropos. And indeed, Guthrie’s most recent solo effort, Carousel, is perhaps his dreamiest one yet. The album is a dense instrumental journey that provides an ideal cure for insomnia—or maybe just nice background noise on a cloudy day. Either way, Carousel’s somnulent qualities aren’t the least bit boring, nor far-fetched. (Guthrie will be releasing an EP entitled Songs to Help My Children Sleep in November.)

While some might think it strange to hear such beautiful music without the innately wistful vocals of Elizabeth Fraser, Guthrie’s technical and musical skills, as well as his ears for tone and sound, create an atmosphere where, frankly, vocals would seem obsolete. Guthrie has an uncanny ability to produce swimmingly whimsical and heartbreakingly picturesque dreamscapes that are equal parts fantastical and serene.

Carousel showcases Guthrie’s musical prowess, both instrumental and technical. He has the ability not only to play a plethora of musical instruments, but also to mix and arrange songs that manage to sound as though a full orchestra were in the room with him. Most impressive, however, is that unlike many post-punk instrumental bands, Guthrie uses distortion quite sparingly, and not as a crutch.

Some of Guthrie’s melodies are impossibly beautiful, while others are baleful, and yet others have a mysterious childlike daze to them. Carousel really runs the full gamut life’s milieus, but overall, the album is truly akin to an impossibly resplendent Carousel ride for which you’ll want to try your damndest to stay awake.
Jennifer Farmer
MP3: “Sparkle”

The Fresh & Onlys
Grey-Eyed Girls

By all accounts, it’s been said that Tim Cohen of San Francisco’s Fresh & Onlys is a bit of a prodigy. If Cohen’s not a closeted genius, than he’s at least one of the more prolific songwriters operating in the loosely defined circle of garage rock. The band’s self-titled debut, released earlier in the year, was stunning. While it wasn’t entirely original, it also wasn’t by-the-numbers garage. Then again, in the style of the current Bay Area revivalists (see Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, Mantles), it wouldn’t be a surprise to be confronted with the same dusty jangle for yet another album—and still sound fresh.

Instead, Grey-Eyed Girls attempts to showcase Cohen’s grab-bagged variety as a songwriter, his colorfully intriguing textures, and his smug black humor. All this is accomplished without hipster guise or folly as Cohen has avoided trendy trapdoors in exchange for his own darkly-hewn haunted pop. It’s hard not to imagine Calvin Johnson and Beat Happening snapping fingers to the motley mod of “Black Coffin” that begins the record or the graveyard sing-along of “Dude’s Got a Tender Heart.” There’s something sinister in the vocal inflections, accented even more in the droning notes floating like specters behind the buzz of “Invisible Forces,” itself indicative of the gothic overtones of the many Manchurian post-punk outfits to which Cohen is indebted.

But all of this is constantly countered by songs soused in the bubblegum of the kaleidoscopic ’60s. Cohen’s whimsy is apparent on a track like “D.Y.” ditching the fuzz and firebrand completely and subbing in acoustics and handclaps for an uncharacteristically sweet tune. Throughout Grey-Eyed Girls, he applies copious amounts of Meek and Spector sonic splash, saturating and overwhelming the background and giving the songs not only a rich, worn, vintage feel but also a breathless claustrophobia and a cheerful sense of dread. In a perfect culmination, “Delusions of Men,” the album’s finale, is what sets the Fresh & Onlys directly to the left of their initial pigeonhole and their peers. The run-time is a bit epic for the standard garage torch-bearers, and the record is full of set-ending fireworks, piled-on solos, sci-fi bells and whistles—all the junk those types seem to shy away from. If only, like Cohen does here, they knew how to (ab)use it properly.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Invisible Forces”

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions
Through the Devil Softly

If Neil Young can be twisted into the “Godfather of Grunge” and Paul Weller can be retrofitted as the “Modfather” then a case can be made for declaring Hope Sandoval as the “Queen of Slowcore.” As the lead singer of Mazzy Star, and arguably the only member anyone can name from that band, Sandoval trafficked in a particularly relaxed brand of singing that stood in drastic contrast to her ’90s contemporaries.

What also set Sandoval apart was how she seemed to hide in plain sight. While she was the singer and visual focus of the band, she shied away from the press cycles, making her seem a reluctant star. So when Mazzy Star slowly dissolved, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Sandoval disappeared permanently from the music scene. Instead, Sandoval stayed busy with a series of collaborations, including a surprising amount of electronic artists, before she landed with her own project, the Warm Inventions. Now eight years after the band’s debut Bavarian Fruit Bread, they’ve re[emerged with the follow-up, Through the Devil Softly.

For fans of Mazzy Star, Through the Devil Softly is probably the closest you’ll get without it being called “Mazzy Star.” All the elements are there: a snatch of pedal steel, a glass slide and, most importantly, the languid pace. But what it does establish is that Sandoval was probably more involved in the sonic identity of that band than anyone expected. Another element that both bands have in common is the way that the music seems to invoke a Louis L’Amour–romantic version of the old American west. It’s nothing explicit—there are no “yee-haws” or references to life on the range—but Through the Devil Softly has something of a modern, high lonesome sound.

It’s easy to imagine Sandoval’s voice being the last things sailors heard before they crashed upon the rocks, it splashed with reverb and the pace relaxed as a sloth waking up from a Nyquil stupor. While Through the Devil Softly doesn’t have an individual song as strong as “Fade Into You,” as a whole it works remarkably well. Sandoval can squeeze the most from the most minimal backing, such as on “For The Rest of Your Life,” where a repeating bass slide and sparse xylophone hits are the main foundation. Just in time for dark nights of introspection, this is exactly the record you wanted from Sandoval and her Warm Inventions.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Trouble”