a-ha “Hits South America”

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a-ha’s contribution to this year’s Record Store Day was a mini album titled “Hits South America”, where we are brought back to a show in Brazil during the summer of 1991. These recordings are previously unreleased, and a sweet package for those of us who are fond of the 90s rock version of a-ha. This album is only available on vinyl.

The previously released video/DVD “Live In South America” is from the same tour that “Hits South America” stems from. Fortunately this EP has no overlap with the video, which was released on DVD for the first time ever as a bonus disc on last year’s deluxe edition of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”

“The Blood That Moves the Body” is the opening track, and this is an excellent version. Paul Waaktaar plays a driving guitar, infusing the song with a strong rock element which gives a totally different experience than the studio version from “Stay On These Roads.” I definitely think the rock expression of the 1990s suits the band best.

The band had a fantastic rhythm section at this time, with bassist Jørun Bøgeberg and drummer Per Hillestad contributing a very tight and organic sound. For this reason alone it is a shame that we don’t have a complete concert recording from the period 1991-1994, but fortunately we do have some things to enjoy from this period. With the release of “Hits South America” we are a lot closer to having live versions of all the songs from the 1991 tour, but a few are (of course) still missing.

“Manhattan Skyline” has always been a highlight in a-ha’s catalogue, whether studio or live. This time we get a version with more of the urgent Waaktaar-guitars, whilst Magne Furuholmen adds the usual atmospheric keys on top. Morten Harket is just the right amount of ballsy up front, and all in all this leaves us with the toughest version of this great song to date. Just to hear Paul take off in the solo is worth this album alone.

“You Are the One” is another song which ends up quite different than the studio version, but not quite as raw as some of the other tracks. It features some saxophone solos from Sigurd Køhn, and otherwise the well-known cheeryness of the song is more than present in this version as well.

The guitars are back again on “Stay On These Roads”, both energizing the song and contributing a lot of spice on top of it in the process. Still, this beautiful ballad never loses its core melody and is a relatively faithful rendiion. It has always been a showcase number for Morten’s vocal, but then again, which song isn’t? It ends up being a great combination of the original expression with some more interesting things also happening here and there.

It all ends with “Hunting High And Low.” The acoustic guitar is brought out, and Magne plays some hauntingly beautiful piano lines on top. Morten nails it as usual. After a while, Paul brings in the electric guitar again, giving this song some of the same embellishment we saw on “Stay On These Roads.” And, of course, we get to hear some 200,000 Brazilians sing the chorus in perfect unison. Goosebumps. Pure goosebumps.

The only problem with “Hits South America” is that it only contains five tracks. You’ve eaten the entire meal, but you’re still left hungry. In any case, this is a-ha on top of their game, and the combination of melodic gens and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s rock guitar is nothing less than phenomenal.

Album Review: The Vaccines – English Graffiti

I mostly listen to music through headphones and whilst my current set are not studio quality, they’re decent enough to cope with any type of music and give a good listening experience.  So I was surprised when I hit play on English Graffiti, the third studio album from The Vaccines. It was so loud that I had to swiftly remove the headphones for fear of damaging my hearing, but checking the volume, it was on my normal setting.

Start again – still too loud. Turn down volume, that’s better. But wait –  it still sounds too loud, so loud in fact that the sound is all distorted. Only it’s not loud anymore, just distorted. Something is wrong with my headphones, try another set – just the same. Must be the device? Try another device – still the same.

After skipping through a few tracks I  came to the conclusion it must be a flawed download or something. Almost every track sounded heavily distorted, as if it had been recorded with the meters in the red the whole time. The bass is hard to hear, lost under a hail of distorted drums and guitars.

Here’s one of the worst offenders

I did a quick internet search to see if there was a known problem with the download. But it turns out it’s just the way it is. I did find this article where they say they wanted to make an album that would sound terrible in 10 years, but sorry guys it sounds terrible NOW!

http://www.nme.com/news/the-vaccines/82370

I don’t know the first thing about recording music, so I don’t know whether it’s the production, engineering or something else that has made it sound this way. Whatever it is, the result is that the album sucks. Which is a real shame, because The Vaccines are a great energetic, melodic band with two great albums behind them. I’ve often gotten into a band after only discovering them at the third or fourth album and I’ve got to say that if this was my first experience of The Vaccines I would be in no hurry to listen to them again.

It sounds like there might be some good songs here too, I just can’t listen to it long enough to tell.

Score: 2 suns out 10 (1 for actually writing some decent songs and 1 for having the sheer balls to try something this stupid)

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Here’s one they made earlier, which shows how good they CAN sound!

Album Review: Thomas Kercheval – We Were Here

If you’re a fan of Scottish rock band Big Country, you’ll love this album. Even if you’re not and you just enjoy quality rock music, you’ll still love it. Tom is a huge Big Country fan (as some reading this will know) and this is obvious in the album’s overall sound. He even played live with Big Country once, but he doesn’t like to talk about it. The album is self produced but this is no lo-fi bedroom portastudio effort; it’s highly professional sounding, but without being overly polished, which is a bigger crime in my book. What makes it more remarkable is that Tom plays all the instruments (according to the CD booklet) with the exception of some additional vocals, and the wind which is ‘courtesy of nature’. As a Big Country fan myself I can hear influences from the whole of the band’s career, from their first album right through to their later work and even demos and B-sides, but without being able to actually pinpoint particular songs. Well maybe just the once with the One Great Thing-like ending on The Ones Who Love You. There is even a track – Quasimodo – that is distinctly Skids sounding (you probably know this already but in case you don’t, the Skids were Big Country founder Stuart Adamson’s previous band.) There are a number of stand-out tracks, the best being Lonely Rider. It has a whole album’s worth of guitar parts crammed into one song, but every one fits perfectly and it never sounds cluttered. And if the guitars are not enough there’s even some keyboard bagpipes. Tom is a multi-instrumentalist, but even his talent doesn’t extend to the bagpipes, or maybe he just doesn’t own a real set, or doesn’t want to drive out all of his neighbours. Flicker is another of the stand-outs and is the most radio friendly song from the collection. It’s a song about love saving you from a destructive, or at least an unfulfilled life. Lyrically the album inhabits much of the Big Country territory, with songs about love, family and war. All except Window Unit, which appears to be a song about air conditioning, but it’s none the worse for it! This song actually contains my favourite lyric – “And you could never see how the weight of world kept pulling on me, and you’ll never understand all the strength you can find in a trembling hand” – poetic.

There are some much heavier moments to be found, particularly Melt Away with its menacing bass-line and lyrics. Then there’s the acoustic lull which gives way to an almighty scream that sounds like he’s channelling some Norwegian rage, followed by a top notch classic rock guitar solo. The album ends on a much lighter note with Papoose; Tom shows his versatility again with a bit of banjo and one of the best vocal performances. It’s hard to find fault with this album at all but if I’m being overly critical I don’t like some of the vocal effects, but strangely they work fantastically well on the female vocals on Flicker. I know we’re only in April so there’s much new music to come this year, but I’m already certain this album will make my end of year top 10.

Score: 9 suns out of 10 dc7ejqKc9

You can preview “We Were Here” on both Spotify and Reverbnation, at

http://www.reverbnation.com/thomaskercheval

The CD is also available at both CDBaby and Bandcamp at:

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/thomaskercheval

and

http://thomaskercheval.bandcamp.com/releases

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Album Review: The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

There are few musical guilty pleasures like a new album from The Prodigy. Sadly The Day Is My Enemy does not offer much more than that.  It’s not a bad album, there’s just nothing new here. On the plus side there’s been no mellowing with age; The Prodigy are still hard as nails 25 years down the line.

Most of the tracks are of the hard edged dance variety that you would expect from this band.  Opening track The Day Is My Enemy sets the tone – it sounds like a chainsaw – and that ferocity pretty much lasts for the duration of the album. No doubt these songs will still go down a storm at the summer festivals.

There are a couple of high points – Rhythm Bomb is gloriously old school and Beyond The Deathray sounds like it would be a brilliant live opener that would have a crowd whipped into a frenzy before the beats kick in. The low point is Nasty, which sounds like a Prodigy parody (yes, even more so than Firestarter or Smack My B**** Up!)

The Prodigy were groundbreaking once, but it’s been a long long time since they could claim that. So the wait for another Music For The Jilted Generation continues – not only one of the best dance albums ever made, but one of the best in any genre. While they may never reach those heights again, hats off to them for sticking with it and never compromising.

Score: 6 suns out of 10

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Normally at this point there would be a link to something from the new album, but here’s an oldie instead.

Ferocious or what!

Album Review: The Waterboys – Modern Blues

Mike Scott and company release their freshest album since Fisherman’s Blues with a focus on sharply-observed lyrics and accessible tunes

Mike Scott and The Waterboys are one of music’s most enigmatic and interesting acts. In their three decade career going back to their 1983 eponymous debut, Waterboys (and Scott solo) albums are always marked by intricate, poignantly poetic lyrics combined with outstanding musicianship.

On their first three albums (The Waterboys, 1984’s A Pagan Place and 1985’s This Is The Sea) the Waterboys were often grouped together in with U2, Big Country, The Alarm and Simple Minds in what was called the Big Music movement (after a song on A Pagan Place). More a convenience for journalists than a conscious music collective, the description fit though and stuck through the 1980s; these five bands were writing songs based on Big Ideas of spirituality, politics and the politics of love in a complex, soaring, anthemic way that was in another universe than the vapid pop of the day. The music was uplifting, the singing was passionate, the lyrics were mind-expanding and no band exemplified this spirit better than the Waterboys, culminating for me with one of the 10 best songs of the 1980s, This Is The Sea’s “The Whole Of The Moon”.

After this opening trilogy of albums, Waterboys founding member Karl Wallinger (late of World Party) and others departed the band, and Scott and the Waterboys relocated to Ireland and took a hard right turn into a more rustic Celtic style for the stone-cold classic 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues and its raggle-taggle followup, 1990’s Room To Roam. This was an extremely fertile time for the now-sprawling combo as shown by the magnificent six-disc version (!) of Fisherman’s Blues released in 2013 that showed the depth of the work that they were doing in that period. This version of the band is one of my favorite groups of all time.

In 1991 Scott broke up this version of the Waterboys (as he is want to do from time to time), moved to New York and essentially restarted the band from scratch, with a more conventional rock electric sound that continues on to this day with a focus on exquisite word play and a harder-edged sound starting with 1993’s Dream Harder.

In the 22 years since Dream Harder, Scott has released two major solo albums and by my count eight studio Waterboys albums that have all been consistently high quality additions to the catalogue and solidify Scott’s place as one of the great writers of the rock era bringing to mind comparisons to Dylan and Morrison (Van, not Jim).

I admit that from time to time as Scott has delved deeper and deeper into literary allusions and mystic references, he sometimes has gone so deep as to risk losing even some of his devoted fans like me. For every accessible album like 1997’s solo Still Burnin’ or 2007’s Book Of Lightning, there are more impenetrable albums like 2003’s Universal Hall or 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, (based on the poetry of William Butler Yeats) that are carefully crafted but so personal to Scott that I personally find them to be difficult listening. At his most obscure, the literary allusions, location references and mystic quotes that I understand only highlight how much of his writing that I don’t understand. I’m convinced that Scott is a lyrical genius even if I don’t understand the half of what he’s on to.

Live, Scott and the Waterboys are one of the most interesting bands going. I’ve seen them probably a dozen times over the years and no two shows have been the same. More than most musicians, Scott channels his muse in his live shows and it can be a remarkable experience to witness. I’ve seen Scott rapturous, expansive, mercurial and funny on stage, and I’ve also seen him angry and churlish; but, never anything other than absolutely authentic.

At their best live, it is as if each musician is not playing their own instruments, but rather the instruments of the other band members around them. It’s hard to explain, but startling to watch, particularly as they play within rhythms, melodies and tempos within a single song. It’s what every jamband aspires to, but the Waterboys at their best are effortless at at it. Their Washington DC show in the weeks after 9/11 was maybe the most empathic show I’ve ever seen both within a band and between a band and an audience.

On their Fall 2013 US tour, I was delighted to hear some new songs and a new direction in their music, which brings us to the nine songs on their excellent new album Modern Blues, released in the US on 2015-04-07.

Recorded in Nashville with American session musicians and long-standing musical ally Steve Wickham on violin, Modern Blues is Scott’s most consistently successful album in years, rating with the best work in his canon.

Modern Blues shines the spotlight on some of the sharpest, most observant and incisive lyrics of Scott’s long career. The music serves to support and highlight the lyrics, and the lyrics demand to be heard. They are more personal and less literary (and thus more universal) than much of Scott’s recent work; they really are more like poems set to music than traditional rock songs.

More than just the words themselves it is the way that Scott enunciates, pronounces and accents the words shows the exacting and precise placement of the writing. There’s not a single sloppy or excess word, even though some of the couplets are stuffed to the brim.

Released in the US a week after Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit, Modern Blues is an interesting counterpoint. Barnett seems to work hard to have a spontaneous stream-of-conscious, nearly throw-away style to her lyrics that belies the obvious care and craft that she’s put in, whereas with Modern Blues Scott let’s you see the meticulous, crafted brilliance he’s employed throughout.

Whether it’s a quick line like his description of Elvis Presley as “razor-quiffed and leather-squeezed, sideburns flickering in the breeze” in his vision of musicians and famous figures mixing together in the afterlife in I Can See Elvis, or the extended excellence of “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”, each song has at least one lyrical sequence that pops out to you as you hear it.

“The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” is a sly, lyrical standout from start to finish. Based on the light-hearted title and chorus, it sounds like sort of a throwaway until you hear his description of a sexual tryst:

“…When we sang in tongues together and our synchronized guitars

Played music to the rafters and made love among the stars

And our bodies beat like light in love’s beautiful embrace

As her tiny kisses burst like popping suns around my face

But then drift, recline, collapse, the lights went out, she fell asleep again

Before my kiss-wet face was even dry”

Or try this verse I’m picking at random from the first single, Beautiful Now”:

 “Look down a carousel of years and darling there you are

A Dancer crying salty tears, a Vagabond, a Star

The Slayer of Mediocrity, of every sacred cow

You were beautiful then, sweet angel

You’re way more beautiful now”.

However, before you think that this is one of Those Difficult Albums That Are Hard Work To Listen To, this is actually perhaps the most accessible Waterboys album musically since Fisherman’s Blues. Whether it’s the up-tempo romp of the opener “Destinies Entwined”, the mid-tempo ballad “November Tale”, the jaunty and self-deprecating “Still A Freak”, the doo-wop vocals and handclaps of “I Can See Elvis”, or the gentle slow-dance elegy of “Nearest Thing To Hip”, this is inviting and entertaining music.

Beautiful Now” is probably the most poppy and dare I say radio-friendly single from Scott in years, with a bouncy beat, organ and backup vocals over an innocuous hook and melody that rewards repeated listening. In a more just world, this would be a hit on Adult Alternative Radio in the US.

Before I nominate Scott for sainthood, I personally didn’t think that “Long Strange Golden Road” needed the sample of Jack Kerouac reciting from “On The Road”, and I personally found the kissoff to a romantic rival in “Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy” to be too vitriolic to be appealing on repeated listens.

However, these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable, likable album from start to finish, and for me it’s bound to be one of the notable albums of the year.

The album is scheduled to be on streaming services in the US as of 2015-04-07, but in the meantime you can find the album as a YouTube streaming playlist at:

Mr. Scott – feel free to continue making Big Music for the next three decades as well. I know that you never went away, but welcome back anyway.

Download: “Beautiful Now”, “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”. Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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Waterboys-MODERN

Album Review: Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

Public Service Broadcasting‘s previous releases have been based on, strangely enough, old public service broadcasts; mainly British wartime broadcasts.

The Race For Space puts a soundtrack to the 1960s & 70s space race heyday using broadcasts from the time.  All the major firsts are covered – first launch, first man in space, first woman in space, space walk, lunar orbit and lunar landing. The soundtrack is largely electronic with virtually no vocals other than the broadcasts themselves.

The tracks are in chronological order starting off with The Race For Space, which takes JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech and puts it to a heavenly chorus that sounds like the voice of space itself. Sputnik is next, with a hypnotic electronic beat and synths which build and build to a crescendo, adding in layers of sound and crashing drums along the way.

The first single from the album, Gargarin, sounds slightly out of place, with its funky guitar and brass. As a standalone track it worked well, but it disturbs the mood of the album somewhat, in particular because the following track Fire In The Cockpit is a very sombre affair which covers the Apollo 1 fire which killed three astronauts.

Right in the middle of the album are two tracks which perfectly capture the mood of the events they recount – E.V.A. which covers the first man to walk in space, and The Other Side, about the first manned lunar orbit. You can feel the tension and then the joy as each mission is successful.

Valentina is clearly about the first woman in space, but is the only track that doesn’t use any broadcasts from the event. Instead it is a largely instrumental guitar track, with the only vocal being an evolving chorus of the name ‘Valentina’.

The album ends on two tracks which cover the lunar landings. Go! cleverly focus on the landing, rather than the first moon walk, and Tomorrow completes the race for space with the final departure from the moon by the Apollo 17 mission.

So, an early contender for album of 2015, and even if electronic music is not your thing, it’s at least a good history lesson.


Album Review: Idlewild – Everything Ever Written

Scottish indie rockers Idlewild return with their eighth album – Everything Ever Written.  Since their last album, frontman Roddy Woomble released his second and third solo albums which disappointed (his first was superb) so expectations were low for Everything Ever Written. Instead they have delivered an excellent album which mixes the best of Woomble’s solo folk work with Idlewild’s familiar rock.

Collect Yourself is a good rocky opener and is followed by single release Come on Ghost. The single was enjoyable, and it was good to hear Woomble’s distinctive voice back once again on an Idlewild song. But it sounds poorer when heard in the context of the album; it lurches along at an uneasy pace and is easily surpassed by other tracks on the album as a single choice.

The standout track, and obvious single choice, is Nothing I Can Do About It. This is Idlewild doing ‘big music’ and doing it brilliantly. Big guitars, galloping drums, some Elbow-esque strings and a sprinkling of piano all add up to a huge sound, but the female backing vocals are what really elevate the song, in the choruses and the wonderful “ooh ah, ah, ah’s” in the outro.

The second highlight is (Use It) If You Can Use It. This is one of a couple of tracks where Woomble’s voice has a much more laid back quality than usual, but still manages to retain his distinctive tone. The song has shades of The Charlatans’ North Country Boy, which is a good thing, and it has an epic playout, an almost live jam affair, with funky bass, soulful keys, piano, horns, squealing guitar, and maybe even the kitchen sink in there somewhere.

If you’re still looking for the Idlewild of old, look no further than On Another Plant, the rockiest track from the collection which burns out beautifully.

Lyrically the album is more mature than before, no doubt down to the band nearing middle age. There are songs of regret and bitterness, beside songs about accepting and even embracing old age. Some of the more obvious examples include “You know I worn out my ambitions, I soaked them in wine”, ” In my dreams I am always young”, “Do you ever get the feeling that I made important decisions far too late in life” and the simple but effective chorus “There’s nothing that I can do about it”.

I don’t ‘get’ all the lyrics though, and I wish I could figure out Radium Girl, because it’s a great song which adds to a strong finish to the album, which includes the atmospheric piano and vocal number Utopia; the perfect ending to a highly enjoyable experience.


Album Review: Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

It’s hard to believe this is Belle and Sebastian‘s ninth studio album, but then I still think of them as a new band, when actually next year (2016) will see their 20th anniversary.

 

Nobody’s Empire kicks off the album in typical Belle and Sebastian style, gentle and melodic with personal, confessional lyrics. The rest of the album is not as typical, in fact it is eclectic to say the least. After second track Allie it goes all dance, in a definite departure from their usual style. The Party Line has throbbing bass and funky guitar, and Enter Sylvia Plath is, dare I say it, full on Eurovision. The electronic songs, of which there are several, have a slightly Pet Shop Boys feel; perhaps after eight albums they’re going after a little more mainstream success or more likely they just wanted to make an album you can dance to. Not that you couldn’t dance to their previous releases and I’ve always imagined the average Belle and Sebastian fan enjoys dancing alone to them in their bedroom.

 

It’s not all synth pop though and there’s plenty to keep those looking for the classic Belle and Sebastian happy, like Ever Had a Little Faith? (which could have come right out of a Belle and Sebastian song name generator).

 

Other highlights are the blistering guitar outro on The Book of You, The Cat With The Cream with its delightful strings and vocal harmonies, and the jazz/Cossack hybrid of The Everlasting Muse. I told you it was eclectic!

 


Official video for Nobody’s Empire. Contains some nice vintage clips of Glasgow, including a couple of shots of the city’s greatest artwork:

 

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities To Love” – The Welcome Return of the Riot Grrrls

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Sleater-Kinney return after a decade’s hiatus with the best album of their career. 

When a band reforms after a long layoff, there’s always a bit of trepidation. For every example of a successful reunion that results in an album that’s a welcome addition to a band’s canon, such as Big Country’s “The Journey” or Toad The Wet Sprocket’s “New Constellation”, both from 2013, there are many more examples where the band was obviously unable to catch the previous magic and frankly embarrasses themselves.

Rarest of all is the case where a reunited band creates the best work of their career, which is exactly what Sleater-Kinney have done with their outstanding new album “No Cities To Love” on Sub Pop. “No Cities” is the most assured, confident and accessible album of their career, and may stand as a career-defining work for this three-piece from the Pacific Northwest.

Background: Sleater-Kinney was the most proficient and well-known band to come out of the 1990s seminal “Riot Grrrl” movement. “Riot Grrrl” was a broad label applied to a group of post-grunge female alternative bands, primarily based out of the Seattle scene such as Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Riot Grrrl was as much a political movement as a musical one, featuring a feminist political stance and a DIY aesthetic.

Sleater-Kinney (named after an Interstate exit near Lacey, Washington where the band practiced) consists of Corin Tucker (vocals and guitars), Carrie Brownstein (guitars and vocals) and Janet Weiss (drums). Sleater-Kinney released seven well-regarded albums between 1995 and 2005 starting with an eponymous debut in 1995 and ending with “The Woods” in 2005. After breaking up, Tucker continued to play with various bands, and Brownstein/Weiss went on to form a band called Wild Flag that released a well-reviewed album in 2010. Of course, the most visible project from any of the members has been Brownstein’s turn as half of the creative team behind the satirical “Portlandia” TV series with her partner Fred Armisen.

Always a critical favorite, their influence was disproportionate to their commercial success, with their highest charting album being “The Woods” at number 80 on the US charts. However, their influence was felt throughout the indie/alternative scene throughout their career, influencing bands from L7 and Hole to No Doubt. Sleater-Kinney featured the interplay between Tucker’s dramatic vocals, variously shouted, yelped and sung at top of her range reminiscent of PJ Harvey, over Brownstein’s angular, skittering and alternately heavy and sludgy guitar (and occasional vocals) and anchored by Weiss’s solid and metronomic drums.

I admit I was slow in climbing on the bandwagon. From the start, I recognized what they were attempting to achieve, agreed that they were hitting their mark, and that what they were doing had value. Truthfully, though, although I liked individual songs from them I never really clicked on an entire album from them until their fifth album “All Hands On The Bad One” from 2000. I suppose that I liked the idea of early Sleater-Kinney better than the actual thing until I finally caught up to what they were (and now are again) doing.

I saw them live once, and they were just a crashing wall of sound. I only really remember two things: Janet Weiss bashing the drums like a maniac, beating them as though they’d crashed her car, and the way that Brownstein/Tucker traded off lead guitar licks, and without a bass player in the band one of them (usually Tucker) would occasionally play bass lines on the guitar. I liked that – it’s always good to remind bass players that they are optional. Here’s a linked overview that gives you some of the history if you’re unfamiliar with them:

Which brings us to “No Cities To Love”. This album is a 33-minute, 10-song revelation, if not revolution, full of ferocious and inventive riffs, licks and melodies. The guitar tones draw as much from Gang Of Four, Wire, and Television as they do anything from 90s or 00s alternative.   The guitars can veer from Sabbath-esque sludge to post-millenial Futureheads/Editors within a single song, reaching all the way to pre-synth Devo or early B-52s on occasion. Tucker’s (and occasionally Brownstein’s) quasi-operatic vocal prowess is undiminished, Weiss’s drumming is outstanding, with lots of quirky polyrhythmic touches to complement her jackhammer style.

The lyrics show a mature self-awareness and multiple shadings whether discussing domestic life and the struggles to make ends meet – and also maybe also the price of fame – (“Price Tag”) or “Fangless”’s kissoff to an unnamed person that also hints at regrets for their past (“Where’s the evidence, the scars, the dents That I was ever here?”). Perhaps the most curious lyric is on the title track. Given the identity that the band has with the Pacific Northwest, it’s strange to hear them sing “There are no cities, no cities to love; it’s not the city, it’s the weather we love!” The implication is that all cities are the same, it’s only the geography that matters, but given how specifically they have been tied to Seattle in the past and of course now Portland due to Portlandia, I don’t quite get the lyric.

But I digress.

The album leads off with “Price Tag” which sets the tone for the full album, full of spiky, quirky and occasionally atonal guitar lines, straining vocals and a bludgeoning drumline. “Fangless” is built around a classic S-K swirling guitar figure. “Surface Envy” (featured live on their recent Conan O’Brien performance) has demented guitar accents that squonk and squeal and a descending guitar line over a classic alternative sing-along chorus.

“No Cities To Love” is perhaps the most memorable song on the album. Over a propulsive beat and bass-line played on guitar and another bouncy, spiky guitar riff, the song has a great bridge and chorus that is instantly memorable and will have you humming it all week. “A New Wave” and “No Anthems” complete a strong three-song mini manifesto at the center of the album. Brownstein sings the galloping beat of “A New Wave” with punky enthusiasm “It’s not a new wave it’s just you and me….invent our own kind of obscurity” and it’s clear that although she’s become best known as a comic actor on Portlandia she can still bring the noise.

“No Anthems” is a bit of misnomer; the bridge/chorus are as anthemic in their own way as anything they’ve ever done. “Bury Our Friends” is another winner. Spitting furious lyrics over insistent guitar lines, it’s a call to action, a manifesto that rings as true as anything they’ve ever done while lamenting the passage of “our own gilded age”.

The album runs out of breath a little bit in the last two songs, but with the first eight songs being as enjoyable as they are, “No Cities To Love” is already a candidate for rock album of the year. Welcome back, ladies, we missed you.  Download: “Price Tag”, “No Cities To Love” Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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Here they are doing “A New Wave” on Letterman: