So basically, right now, I’m living for September.
I mentioned in a previous column that September is a veritable gold mine of potentially great records this year. Well, it just keeps getting better. In fact, September 2013 is starting to look like the best month ever. Here, I’ll just list off the new releases I’m getting week by week. We’ll talk about a few of them after, but for now, just marvel at the sheer scale of this month. (And wonder how I’m going to get around to reviewing all this stuff.)
Sept. 3: Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You; Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks; Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium; Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World; John Legend, Love in the Future; Glasvegas, Later…When the TV Turns to Static; Volcano Choir, Repave; Smashing Pumpkins, Live in NYC.
Sept. 10: Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady; The Weeknd, Kiss Land; Ministry, From Beer to Eternity; Arctic Monkeys, AM.
Sept. 17: Elvis Costello and the Roots, Wise Up Ghost; MGMT; Toad the Wet Sprocket, New Constellation; Tom Odell, Long Way Down; Mike Doughty, Circles; Islands, Ski Mask.
Sept. 24: Mazzy Star, Seasons of Your Day; Dream Theater; Peter Gabriel, And I’ll Scratch Yours; Sting, The Last Ship; Elton John, The Diving Board; Metallica, Through the Never; Jellyfish, Radio Jellyfish.
See? 25 new albums, all of which (with the possible exception of Ministry) I expect to enjoy. Oh, and somewhere in there, Fish will unleash his new opus, A Feast of Consequences. So that’s 26, with more added to the roster all the time. And it’s not like the flow of good music has stopped, either. Next week we get new ones from the Polyphonic Spree and the Civil Wars, and in the next few weeks we’ll see records from Glen Campbell, John Mayer, Travis, White Lies, Julianna Barwick and the great BT.
It’s just… so much wonderful.
A few notes about the list above. Neko Case has the album title of the year so far for me. I have heard the Over the Rhine, and it’s marvelous. Janelle Monae has a spot in my top 10 list reserved for her, and I hope The Electric Lady earns it. Elvis Costello and the Roots may be the greatest counter-intuitive pairing I’ve heard in a long time. Mazzy Star is back! MAZZY STAR IS BACK! Tom Odell’s “Can’t Pretend” was used in a promo for The Newsroom on HBO, and that’s where I first heard it. It’s breathtaking. The Metallica album is live, and the Jellyfish record a collection of radio appearances.
And Peter Gabriel has finally, finally finished the companion album to Scratch My Back. The original concept was simple: Gabriel would record covers of tunes by some of his favorite artists, and in turn those artists would cover one of Gabriel’s songs. Gabriel’s covers came out in 2010, and only about half the chosen artists delivered their reciprocal tracks. It’s taken this long to put the rest of the tributes together, and two of the original artists didn’t even participate. But the final list is strong. You can see it here. The ones I’ve heard have been amazing, particularly the Bon Iver, David Byrne and Elbow tracks.
So yeah, September. Now all we have to do is get there. In the meantime, here are quick looks at three good new ones you can buy right now.
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I don’t know why Jimmy Gnecco isn’t a star.
The man sings like Jeff Buckley and looks like Trent Reznor circa 1995. He writes sweeping, glorious rock anthems with his band Ours, songs that should be hits. But they’re not. I first heard Ours in 2001, when “Sometimes,” the first single from Distorted Lullabies, hit MTV. Here, I thought, is a superstar. This band is going to be enormous.
So of course, 12 years later, Gnecco is still plugging away, and his audience is smaller than ever. He turned to PledgeMusic to fund the fourth Ours album, Ballet the Boxer I, and self-released it. The cover is minimal – white text on black, a far cry from the elaborate gothic imagery of previous Ours records. It looks like a slapdash demo, like the sad fate of a fallen band.
Which means, naturally, that the album is really good. This is a leaner Ours, Gnecco playing many of the instruments himself, and aiming for a punchy sound. His voice is still a remarkable thing, gliding atop these songs and then filling the room with his extraordinary howl. I mentioned Jeff Buckley before, and the comparison is still apt. Gnecco has astounding power and control, and his voice remains Ours’ biggest asset.
The songs on this album are also pretty terrific. Opener “Pretty Pain” is a circular-guitar dirge that puts the emphasis on that voice, but “Coming For You” is a shifting melodic rocker with some great moments. “Devil” feels much more epic than its 4:24, with its dramatic piano chords and soaring guitar solo. “Been Down” is loose and almost funky, while “Stand” lurches forward on a thudding beat and a 6/8 strum. “Boxer” is gorgeous and huge, and “Sing” is dark and pulsing.
There are more epic tunes here than you’d think would fit in a mere 43 minutes, none more sweeping than the closer, “Fall Into My Hands.” Gnecco unleashes his falsetto on the wide-open choruses, and the song builds over six minutes into a massive anthem. While Ballet the Boxer I may look like a cheap garage effort, it sounds as rich and full as any Ours album, and more than some. Presumably Ballet the Boxer II is in the works, and I hope it’s as terrific as this first installment. Jimmy Gnecco should be a star, but I’m glad he’s still making the music he wants to make anyway. This album is splendid.
Buy it here.
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There’s really no other band like Gogol Bordello.
Led by frequently shirtless Ukranian madman Eugene Hutz, the nine-member New York band bills itself as “gypsy punk,” and that’s as good a description as any. They incorporate influences from a dozen traditional European musics, and play them all with the subtlety and speed of a locomotive. Their albums are exhausting, their live shows even more so. I have no idea where Hutz, 41 years old next month, gets all his energy. He seems to have a boundless reserve, and Gogol Bordello on stage is just anarchy, a musical carnival of crazy.
If you’ve been thinking of trying out this band, but you’ve been a bit scared, now is probably the best chance you’ll ever have. Gogol Bordello’s sixth album, Pura Vida Conspiracy, is their most streamlined and accessible effort – 12 short, memorable songs, played with (for them) a measure of restraint. It’s also great, possibly their best studio effort. Rather than try to distill the live experience down on disc, producer Andrew Scheps and the band have opted to create a layered, almost radio-friendly sound for this album.
I don’t mean to suggest that the band’s energy has been sapped. Far from it – opener “We Rise Again” is an anthem that can stand alongside anything else they’ve done, Hutz screaming his heart out on the choruses. “Malandrino” starts off on acoustic guitar, but quickly explodes into what sounds like double-time Russian punk, complete with violin flourishes. “Lost Innocent World” smashes up polka and surf-rock guitar, with a shouted chorus over flailing, unstoppable drums and congas.
This still sounds like Gogol Bordello, but there’s something welcoming about it, where an album like Super Taranta just sounds daunting. Every song here is hummable – “Dig Deep Enough” may be the greatest singalong they’ve written, and “I Just Realized” is actually pretty – and every song seems designed to make new fans. This isn’t quite the manic, go-for-broke Gogol Bordello you’ll see on stage, but somehow reining in Hutz and his comrades has resulted in one of the band’s very best records. There’s no other band like them, and if you’re looking for an introduction, Pura Vida Conspiracy is it.
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Lately, everyone’s been going nuts over Robin Thicke. (Want to jumpstart your career? Just add boobs.) But if I’m looking for sexy, sarcastic white-boy soul, I turn to Mayer Hawthorne instead.
While I’m pretty sure Thicke is kind of an asshole, Hawthorne is always winking at you, no matter how well-written and sophisticated his music gets. His third album is called Where Does This Door Go, and the cover is literal – Hawthorne sits in a chair by an open door, owl on his shoulder, pondering the title question. It’s hilarious, and though the album it adorns is Hawthorne’s most serious and meticulous, that sense of playful, ironic fun suffuses all of it. Hawthorne’s style is soul-pop, reminiscent of Hall and Oates and Steely Dan, and what may have started as a joke now feels like a genuine slice of musical awesomeness.
Opener “Back Seat Lover” is middling, but once the skipping “The Innocent” kicks in, the album never flags. Hawthorne gives up his producer credit here, ceding the chair to the likes of Pharrell Williams and Greg Wells (who worked on Adele’s 21). He’s added a fine helping of electro-pop and hip-hop to his neo-soul sound, so much so that a guest verse by Kendrick Lamar on “Crime” doesn’t feel out of place. There’s a nerdy fussiness to a lot of this, but the fun-as-hell vibe prevails – just listen to the piano-bar-meets-dance-club “The Only One,” with its marvelous brass hits and soaring harmonies. It’s swell.
The hooks keep on coming on this record – it’s one three-minute wonder after another, ‘70s-style hits dressed up in modern clothes. The title track is a mini-epic, bringing Nillsson’s “One” to mind, with bold strings and big chords, while “Robot Love” is just as clanging and funny as you’d expect. Hawthorne only slows it down once, at the very end – closer “All Better” drifts in on delicate electric piano, a plaintive plea that builds to monumental soft-rock proportions. He’s not serious – no one would seriously use that drum pattern – and yet, he’s very serious. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but Mayer Hawthorne manages it throughout this record, never losing his balance.
Most importantly, though, Where Does This Door Go is a lot of fun. And that’s really all it needs to be. I’m not sure if Mayer Hawthorne has a well-thought-out musical mission statement, or if he’s just having a good time. Either way, his record’s a blast. From the past, and otherwise.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.