Nathan Williams’ innate creative restlessness has always served Wavves well, helping the stoner-surf rock group quietly amass one of the most consistent, consistently unpredictable back catalogs around. That reliability continues on the band’s sixth album, You’re Welcome, which is another gleeful collection of smartly entertaining sonic curveballs.
Sunny harmonies introduce “Hollowed Out,” a song that very quickly turns into a rainbow-hued, Of Montreal-esque pop confection. “Come To The Valley” has a similar retro ’60s vibe, buoyed by organs plucked from a carnival midway, while “I Love You” is a surprisingly faithful update of a ’50s sock-hop showstopper, replete with intricate, doo-wop-influenced vocals. The swaggering glam stomp “Million Enemies,” meanwhile, is built on debauched riffs, glittering keyboards, and a slinky tempo that give way to jubilant choruses boasting stacked harmonies, screaming new-wave guitars, and a cascading bass line. It may be Wavves’ finest moment to date.
While there’s a sense of pastiche to its varied plundering of genres and eras, Wavves impressively makes these disparate sounds and eras its own. You’re Welcome isn’t a mere homage to the history of popular music; the band has assimilated these influences into its own sonic approach. As a result, even Wavves’ familiar inspirations feel invigorated. The title track sounds like Weezer being played half-speed and underwater, but it eventually takes on a ghostly tint courtesy of rickety organ. Opening track “Daisy,” meanwhile, is loopy, beach-blanket bingo rock ’n’ roll with stinging guitar riffs, and “Stupid In Love” possesses a thrashing surf-rock beat. Six albums in, Williams still doesn’t have life figured out, but he’s still fired up to try.
Whether it’s with intimate, self-recorded, and Elliott Smith-channeling cassettes like 2012’s Trick; the hushed, personal rockers on 2014’s DSU; or his darkly experimental Domino debut, 2015’s Beach Music, 24-year-old Philadelphia songwriter Alex Giannascoli a.k.a. (Sandy) Alex G has always pushed indie rock to introspective and beguiling places. Though the artist, who until recently performed as just Alex G, made headlines for his surprise guitar contributions on Frank Ocean’s Endless and Blond, he subverts expectations even more with his latest, Rocket, which goes full-on country for several of its 14 songs.
Take “Bobby,” the album’s lead single. Even for an indie-pop weirdo attempting twang, it’s one of the best country songs of the year, full of heartache, fiddle, and collaborator Emily Yacina’s vulnerable backing vocals. Though Giannascoli is no stranger to lyrical gut punches (see Trick bonus cut “Sarah”), the way he sings lines here like “I’d leave him for you, if you want me to” count among his most resonant yet. On buoyant country-rocker “Proud,” Giannascoli’s words turn biting as he coos sarcastically, “I wanna be fake like you / Walk around with rocks in my shoes.” And when he indulges his impulse for Americana, it’s his best work, like the gorgeous fiddle-led instrumental title track or the front-porch folk of “Powerful Man.”
But because this is a (Sandy) Alex G album, it boasts eccentric musical flourishes and noise experiments as much as it does ambling, pastoral twang. The sometimes-jazzy “Country” is a golden throwback to Giannascoli’s days as an introverted dorm-room Bandcamp artist, while the brooding “Witch” and “Horse” showcase feverish electronics. While those songs are successful, a cacophonous punk screamer like “Brick” would work better in a project that featured tracks in the same universe. Even though Rocket sometimes feels messy, only a songwriter as prolific and uninhibited as Giannascoli can make the chaos this thrilling and affecting.
While American acts kick out the protest jams Stateside, their British counterparts are scoring the end of the European Union as we know it. Among them are synth-pop stalwarts Andy Bell and Vince Clarke of Erasure, who touted the release of their 17th studio album as “optimistic rabble-rousing music.” And yet, Erasure has been making the personal political for its entire career, with songs like “Hideaway” and “A Little Respect” transforming the process of coming out into moving, sing-along anthems.
Still, it’s clear the dance-club hitmakers have left fiery takedowns of the Leave Party to the analysts, preferring to focus on promoting love instead of hate on the 10-track World Be Gone. The result is a solid addition to the group’s repertoire, but it’s less a galvanizing listen than it is a sweet, danceable consolation. The title track features Bell’s rounded vocals set to sparser synths than usual, but it’s still classic Erasure. “Love You To The Sky” is a beat-driven opener, but one whose message quickly dissipates. And “Sweet Summer Loving” is just as it sounds—a reliable pop song with soulful vocals and a standout chorus.
When the rhetoric is ramped up, like on “Oh What A World,” it’s paired with more muted compositions from Clarke, who layers in more subdued synths than those heard on some of the album’s predecessors (including 2014’s The Violet Flame, the group’s excellent return to form). “Still It’s Not Over” is the most successful of these message tracks, with Bell delivering the album’s most powerful performance as he sings of the hope—and continued heartbreak—of the gay rights movement. But for the most part, World Be Gone is better suited for relaxing after a rousing march or successful phone-bank campaign than something that would rally the troops.
What’s the long-term plan for a band that just wants to keep the party going? With 2015’s As If, it seemed as though disco-loving stalwarts !!! were trying to deliberately liven up their sound, creating a record that wholly cast off the “-punk” half of the “dance-punk” tag that defined the group for much of its career. (It was always more of an ethos and edge than apt musical descriptor anyway, as !!! never really fit into the category of bands assigned that tag, preferring to just lean into a solid disco groove and never disturb the rhythm.) The band continues that trend, to shrug-worthy results, on Shake The Shudder, a record that sounds more like a compilation album of funk-inflected house music from throughout the past 30 years than any sort of recognizably indie vibe.
It’s a decent dance record, but it often doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from a host of other slickly produced club bangers. It’s a fine, fun record, but also not terribly memorable. There are still some oddball elements that remind you of the group’s fucking-with-you attitude of the Louden Up Now years, especially the noise bursts of “Throw Yourself In The River” and the guest 4-year-old vocals on “What R U Up 2Day.” But more often, there’s a funky bass line, a slinky disco beat, and a rotating cast of singers joining Nic Offer to diversify the proceedings without a strong hook to ground the track. “Blah blah blah, the end is near / Everyone predicts it every single year,” goes the sassily introspective “Five Companies,” as though the group is tired of being expected to do anything other than lean into the groove and deliver a steady accompaniment to a sweaty dance floor. There’s no reason not to throw on Shake The Shudder and dance it out, but like many fun-yet-hazy late nights, it doesn’t leave much of an impression afterward.
It reveals a kind of twisted wit on Aldous Harding’s part to name her sophomore record Party. The 27-year-old New Zealander, after all, plies emotionally intense gothic folk songs, and Party is no major departure. It is, by and large, a stark and almost primitive affair, where producer John Parish employs only the barest necessities to complement Harding’s compositions and haunting voice.
Party finds Harding’s quiet songs adorned with flourishes that echo Parish’s work on P.J. Harvey’s Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake (even borrowing a saxophonist from Harvey’s band). Particularly in Harding’s lower range, comparisons to Harvey are inevitable. But Party sees Harding explore a wider vocal territory that calls up Joanna Newsom and Linda Perhacs throughout, and even Joan Armatrading in the jazz-tinted “I’m So Sorry.” Often these different voices unite in a single song: “Imagining My Man” is a dirge-like love song driven by piano that lives somewhere between Harvey’s England and Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, with Harding turning on a dime from a low speak-singing to a high, serrated wail. Her idiosyncrasy translates to her lyrics as well, in one breath expressing a gritty determination to “Make my own / Put it on a disc,” while in the next darkly pondering, “What if birds aren’t singing, they’re screaming?”
At times, Party is so minimalist as to feel undernourished. In the album’s second half, the monotony of one slowly fingerpicked song after another begins to take its toll, and all the fantastic background experimentation, bleating wind instruments, and appearances by Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) are ultimately too slight to lend the record much in the way of dynamics. Still, Harding’s command of her craft is evident and worth witnessing on Party—and worth keeping an eye on in the future.
Land Of Talk’s superlative Life After Youth represents one of the more unexpected musical resurrections of late: In the years after the indie-rock band’s last album, 2010’s Cloak And Cipher, which followed a string of well-received releases from the Broken Social Scene affiliate, founder Elizabeth Powell retreated almost completely from the spotlight. As it turns out, the songwriter had very good reasons for the hiatus: After weathering a catastrophic laptop crash that cost her everything she’d been working on, Powell spent time caring for her father, who had a stroke in late 2013.
At the urging of her father, Powell has slowly edged her way back into music. The first result is “This Time,” a song that acknowledges uncertainty and bodily weakness, but pledges to persist anyway. “I don’t want to waste it this time / I don’t want to waste it, my life,” she resolutely sings, while stirring guitars à la David Bowie’s “Heroes” envelop her in strength. Powell affirms these dualities throughout the rest of Life After Youth. “How am I going to live if I can’t love?” she muses on the Sundays-like “Spiritual Intimidation.” “I don’t want to live if I can’t love.” These thorny emotional complications also find their expression musically, as Powell—primarily known for her knotty guitar compositions—brings in more of her synthesizer- and loop-based experiments. The lo-fi folk dirge “What Was I Thinking?” boasts especially eerie keyboards, while perforated, wobbly synths add unease to “Inner Lover.”
Life After Youth marks a reunion between Powell and original Land Of Talk drummer Bucky Wheaton, with their chemistry bolstering the desperation-tinted synth-rock highlights “Heartcore” and “World Made,” but she also brings in a few new guests. The Smiths-esque ballad “In Florida” features ex-Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Roxy Music/Sparks bassist Sal Maida in its dreamy backdrop, while “Loving” features friend and songwriting collaborator Sharon Van Etten. Life After Youth is a welcome reminder of why Land Of Talk was missed, and a promising glimpse at a second chance.
Christopher Willits has increasingly made records that stretch Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music (“as ignorable as it is interesting”) to the breaking point, making tranquil sounds that are only once removed from aural wallpaper. With each successive release, the multimedia artist—who bills himself as making “meditative” sounds specifically designed to accompany his video work—has moved further away from song structures, vocals, even distinct instrumentation, these things being mere distractions from Willits’ goal of creating one sustained, pleasant mood for fostering deep self-reflection. By bringing in Tycho to add some actual beats and almost-melodies for 2014’s Opening, Willits practically made his own Appetite For Destruction. But he’s firmly back in the ether with the new Horizon, a “3-D spatial audio album” that aims to give the listener a truly immersive experience in pure sound.
What it doesn’t give you is a whole lot to hold onto—or talk about. Like all of Willits’ work, Horizon is intended to encourage “serenity” and to provide you with space to contemplate “inner change,” which he achieves here by not overly troubling you with any music to focus on. The uniformly airy, pleasant drones, developed using Willits’ own open-source software, are occasionally reminiscent of Eno’s Ambient series without all the world music flourishes, or Stars Of The Lid without the gravitas, but they mostly resemble the sort of purposefully invisible tones you’d hear while getting a massage. Often the only thing distinguishing one track from another is the occasional overdubbed field recording—“Return” is the one with chirping crickets; “Waipio” has the tweeting birds. Only the somber “Simplicity” comes the closest to an actual melody with its slowly shifting, two-note structure and just the tiniest soupçon of elongated feedback. But for the most part, Horizon is content to establish a prolonged, peaceful atmosphere, of the sort you only really notice when it’s over.
Which is fine: Frankly, we could all use a timeout, and in that respect, Horizon is pretty much a yoga class on red wine and Xanax. It’s also possible that, in the ideal environment—like one of Willits’ specially designed listening spaces in San Francisco—Horizon’s “spatial audio” tricks prove slightly more transformative than the sort of basic, now-it’s-over-here panning that it becomes in ordinary headphones. But even fans of the genre will find Horizon to be ambient music at its most purely utilitarian, useful as the background to a nice bath or to help them fall asleep on a plane, maybe, but leaving little behind besides a brief sense of calm for the real world to come crashing back in on.