KUTX Music Editor Jeff McCord’s take on some of the most talked about albums this month. Albums are rated on a five-point scale.
Sweet Spirit – Singles EP (Nine Mile) || A Giant Dog – Neon Bible (Merge)
Two new releases from the Sabrina Ellis / Andrew Cashen axis, both veering off the beaten path. Once wildly different – Sweet Spirit a nine-piece rave-up, A Giant Dog stripped-down, profane and punkish – their sounds have become harder to distinguish over time. And both band’s output has slowed. Neither has released an album of original material since 2017. Neon Bible is a track-by-track remake of the 2007 Arcade Fire release, commissioned by Merge Records as part of their 30th anniversary. The Singles EP plays cleanup, rounding up three previously released singles, throwing in one new song. Both acts, in no small part because of Ellis’ commanding presence, are thrilling live. The louder and messier things get, the more they seem to lock-in. Their recordings follow the same blueprint. The louder and messier things get, the more they seem to lock-in. The new song on the Singles EP, “Wait”, is a rare and powerful slow burner. On Neon Bible, not surprisingly, the band sounds at their best when they sound the most like AGD. They tend to veer from the Arcade Fire playbook and take more liberties with the deeper tracks – “The Well and The Lighthouse”, “Black Wave”, “My Body Is a Cage” – bringing them to a raucous finale. Their craft in recreating someone else’s work is impressive, yet there’s virtually nothing here you would trade for their original material. So when is more of that coming? Ellis and Cashen are gifted collaborators, but Cashen sounded like a man at a crossroads on his recent solo album, Back In Texas. Here’s hoping one or both bands find a way out of their holding pattern soon.
Neon Bible – 3 || Singles EP – 3.25
Buy Singles EP here.
Buy Neon Bible here.
Hovvdy – Heavy Lifter (Double Double Whammy)
The self- described “pillow-core” made by Austin’s Charlie Martin and Will Taylor feels a lot fuller on Heavy Lifter, stuffed with overdubs of ear candy and actual beats. Those accustomed to the dead slow, gauzy and open-ended music of their previous two albums would be hard-pressed to identify Lifter’s buoyant single, “Mr. Lee”, as even the same duo. Yet they haven’t fully escaped the minimalist label. Both originally drummers, Martin and Taylor feel too tentative on their strummed guitars and other instruments to seem fully rounded. And it doesn’t seem to be their intent; there are still a good number of downcast school zone tempos. “Lee” seems sunny, it dwells on a very lonely man. Still, the new album is a conscious move toward songs more directional and pointed. Producer/musician Ben Lttlejohn has brought Hovvdy’s vocals out of the soup, and their lyrics present them as ambiguous observers, finding a sort of detached childhood nostalgia. There’s something uncanny about the pair’s synchronicity – it’s hard to determine who writes what. They weave their voices and build emotion with the simplest of devices – a harmony echo, a syrupy slow bass, a three-note synthesizer riff. Their early material seemed influenced by bands like Bedhead, who wore their badge of mystery proudly. But with their soft voices now amplified, they can sound an awful lot like Iron & Wine. Yet overall, Heavy Lifter represents a step forward. When the beats surface, they animate Martin and Taylor’s already intriguing sound.
Buy Heavy Lifter here.
Molly Sarlé – Karaoke Angel (Partisan)
“Human”, the track released earlier this year from North Carolina’s Molly Sarlé, addresses emotional frailty, a desire for what is perceived to be unattainable, and confusion on why, or even if, you actually do. “If I asked you/to understand/that I see what I see/I don’t see what I can’t/you’d know I’m nothing/other than human.” This uncertainty surfaces again and again on Sarlé’s remarkable solo debut. Sarlé is 1/3 of the folk trio Mountain Man (with Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Heath), whose harmonies grace their mesmeric recordings. But like a lot of multi-songwriter efforts, they feel emotionally rounded by compromise. Karaoke Angel holds back nothing. Avoiding mawkishness or self-pity, Sarlé lays out her insecurities. “I’m far from knowing/what I’m doing here,” she confesses on “Passenger Side”. “Looking for a bird’s eye view/in a rear-view mirror/watching so many things/disappear.” The title track uses karaoke as a metaphor for opening your heart and addresses those off the stage. “I don’t know much about love but/the view/sure is nice”. Her wit and perception are framed by slow, realized, if somewhat pedestrian arrangements, and held fast by Sarle’s warm charm as a vocalist. But it’s the bare emotional truths that hook you – the fleeting love of “Suddenly”, or the bitter doubts and moral ambiguity of “Twisted”. “You know who you are/and we’ve all been used” she cries. “I know who I am/and I’ll never get used/to it.”
Buy Karaoke Angel here.
(Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar (Domino)
Everything about Alex Giannascoli’s music is a mystery. There are his lyrics, which seem autobiographical, yet reveal nothing. His lighter-than-air vocals, which vanish at times in his own songs. And the music itself- Byrds-like pop, synths, effects-laden psych guitars, electronic drum beats – all not as much harmoniously blended as jumbled together into a sour mash. It should be a mess. Instead, it’s luminous. Giannascoli has self-released several EP’s and albums over the years. Since signing with Domino and having more time to spend on his still largely homemade recordings, he’s found a more appreciative audience. Sugar, named for Philly’s SugarHouse casino – a former sugar mill, isn’t a confectionary. “Hope” is an unsentimental look at an unnamed fallen friend. The album’s best song, “Southern Sky”, seems to be a dream about his brother, but you’re never quite sure. “I count black sheep on my way to sleep,” he sings, “I can’t pick and choose these devils/In my patterned dreams.” The melody strains to climb above ethereal chiming. Elsewhere, there are abrupt stylistic turns. “Project 2” is an eerie industrial instrumental, “In My Arms” a melancholy Big Star-like ode to lost love, “Gretel” a noise-pop drone. Giannascoli takes a lot of chances – he seems determined to not repeat himself – and not everything works. But in a Brian Wilson-in-a-sandbox way, the creative scope of his work is breathtaking.
Buy House of Sugar here.
The Replacements – Dead Man’s Pop (Rhino)
On the surface, this seems like an oddity – a 4-CD, 1 LP box set based around the band’s most contentious album, 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul. The slick, effects-laden final mix made Soul an outlier in band’s catalog – both band and critics hated it. But it was also their best-selling album, and not without its fans. By giving producer Matt Wallace a chance to mix the album that was initially taken away from him thirty years ago, this is an attempt to rewrite history.
The Replacements were always a band that couldn’t get out of their own way. Drunken anarchy followed them wherever they went. Yet Paul Westerberg’s don’t- give-a-fuck attitude hid a songwriter that clearly did. The same could be said for the band. The Replacements had been around for ten years at this point, Westerberg was nearing thirty. Their previous two major label albums, Tim and Pleased To Meet Me had done well enough to earn them a contract extension. But peers like R.E.M. were quickly outpacing them, and everyone, including the band, was hoping for more this time out. There was pressure on all fronts.
Yet the long Pleased tour had left the band spent – in part due to their antics – and the songs Westerberg found himself writing in the tour’s wake were darker and more reflective. They were also some of the best of his career. Dead Man’s Pop was the project’s working title, born from Westerberg’s fear that his ragged melodic rock was no longer in vogue. He fretted his new songs weren’t right for the band. On top of that, they couldn’t find a producer. Champion bridge-burning had left them with a shortlist. They’d already bailed on an aborted, expensive session at New York’s Bearsville with producer Tony Berg. They finally settled on Matt Wallace, a young, unproven producer (he would later click with Faith No More). Somehow, he hung in the ‘Mats typhoon long enough for things to click, and eventually, they got the album done. But having no real track record, the label gave the mixing duties over to Chris Lord-Algae, who specialized, in his own words, at ‘songs on steroids’. It was an ill fit.
It’s hard to undo thirty years of aural muscle memory, and stripped of cannon-shot drums, cheesy guitar effects and sped-up tempos, Wallace’s mix at first sounds modest. The songs and performances are still the same, after all. But he’s accomplished something crucial – he’s slipped right back into Westerberg’s mindset decades ago. It finally sounds like a Replacements album, and with songs like “Darlin’ One”, “Achin’ To Be”, “I’ll Be You”, and “They’re Blind” in the mix, one of their better ones.
The second disc is the most dispensable: all outtakes, including the classic apologia “Portland”, the Bearsville sessions (interesting but most are missing any real spark) and a newly discovered drunken late night session with mutual admirer Tom Waits (fun to hear – once, anyway).
Better yet are discs three and four, an entire concert, titled Inconcerated Live, from the 1989 Soul tour recorded in Madison WI. Only five of these songs have been previously released. Live albums from the Replacements are few and far between (one of the first, 1985’s cassette-only Shit Hits The Fans, was recorded here at Liberty Lunch and released by Austin’s Roscoe Shoemaker. The excellent 1986 set from Hoboken, For Sale, wasn’t released until 2017). Listening to the songs from the box set on shuffle play, the electricity of these live tracks stuns you when they pop on. You think: What happened to THIS band? With the possible exception of Let It Be, they never found this power in the studio. One classic after another mixes in with Slade, Johnny Thunders and Only Ones covers, in exhilarating fashion. They knew the tape was rolling in Madison, so they at least tried to, you know, actually finish most of the songs. Still, it’s far from perfect. The ‘Mats were never about that. Chaos was a part of the package, and it stayed that way until the end. The Replacements would only have one more album left in them, All Shook Down, essentially a Westerberg solo project. Aside from a brief reunion a few years back, they were done. They may have never scaled the charts, but they were, for a time, one of this country’s greatest rock and roll bands. And on that point alone, Dead Man’s Pop sets the record straight.
Buy Dead Man’s Pop here.