Hot off the presses: new music! Better said, new music that is worth your time.
Franz Ferdinand – Always Ascending – 10 songs / 39 minutes
The guys from Scotland continue to refine their unique style of dance-rock, with mostly great effect, on their latest Domino recording.
The sheer volume of worthwhile music on this album was shocking to me, given that the two singles released in advance of this record – of course also the first two tracks on the album – are quite honestly pure drivel. The title track and its successor “Lazy Boy” made me want to move on, but I am glad that I didn’t. There are plenty of high points on this album, even as they continue to modify their formula in their second decade as a band.
Franz Ferdinand have always been at their best when their synthy and catchy brand of dance-rock has a guitar riff front and center – see the megahits “Take Me Out” and “Right Action”, or personal favorite “This Fire”. However, Always Ascending proves to be the exception to that rule. Guitars are present, of course, but they rarely carry the mail on this effort. Having said that, their sound is still intact, and even a pop-hater like me finds plenty to love.
The best song on the album, “Paper Cages”, features some solid guitar, but the synths, piano, and drums carry this one along as Alex sings of being trapped in our lives while living free in our imaginations, imploring us to “step out, step out of our cages, step out, of our paper cages, we’re living our lives in paper cages”. Alex’s voice shines on this track, and reminds us why we loved this band when they burst onto the scene back in 2004. The keyboards and backing vocals compliment Alex’s half spoken/half sung lyrics perfectly.
Another highlight is the understated and mellowed “The Academy Award”, where over an acoustic guitar riff Alex seductively laments the frequency of death and destruction in our society, even commenting on how much our 8 pints of blood really is visually when seen spilled on the concrete – complete with a chorus telling someone (his wife, I think) that “the Academy Award for good times goes to you; there’s a camera held in every hand, the clamor of applause in every mind, but the Academy Award for good times goes to you”. Dark and brooding, although the drums and synths come in on the choruses, this one is among the best in their canon.
Even the somewhat weaker tracks drive ahead and have that melodic swagger that take you along with them: see the bananas “Lois Lane” (ignore the overly repetitive ending) or the backhanded ode to America that is “Huck and Jim”. “Finally” finds Alex celebrating finding people that he can relate to and feel comfortable around, while on “Feel the Love Go” he calls out someone who is doing things that are not “them” (aka being a poser), and there is a theme here of being yourself and finding those people who will accept that.
Key Tracks: “Paper Cages”, “Huck and Jim”, “The Academy Award”
The Wombats – Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life – 11 songs / 37 minutes
English blokes specializing in pop-meets-post punk vibes earworm their way to my heart with their latest release.
The Wombats boast nearly four million Spotify listeners, so it is clear that I arrived fashionably late to their party, but I am glad I finally showed up. A three-piece guitar/bass/drums attack that is rock and roll yet feels quite poppy, even with a lack of synthesizers or drum machines, these guys have been doing this for nearly fifteen years, and somehow I was ignorant of them until this album – their fourth – found its way onto my radar. I have been consistently spinning this one in the last week since it came out, and it has staying power. Never veering too close to the black hole that is pure pop, they incorporate loads of dance-y grooves and plenty of melody to the rock scene.
Whether they are spewing infectious hooks (“Cheetah Tongue”, “Lethal Combination”), intriguing lyrics (“Turn”, “Lemon to A Knife Fight”), or straight up rock riffs (“White Eyes”), there is a lot to like here. Lead singer and guitar player Matthew Murphy is a superstar in the making, with a voice that is laid back and everyman while having its own distinct delivery that suits this music quite well.
The album closer, “I Don’t Know Why I Like You But I Do”, is the quietest here but closes it out nicely, complete with a subtly soothing guitar riff and absurd lyrics like “you’re in the cherry cake and swimming in my wine, you’re in the orange juice that I spill at high tide; I keep it up to date, and you stay misinformed, just like the cameraman you force to shot your porn”. This is followed up by a classic guitar solo and the line “We both know that it’s time to go; we both know that you’re going to stay; I don’t know why I like you, but I do”.
It doesn’t hurt that I am sucker for the vocals of an Englishman: see my infatuation with Radiohead, Travis, and the brothers Gallagher, among others. When on “Lemon to A Knife Fight” Matthew sings about saliva on the dash and it comes out as “saliver” in his British drawl, it is worth the price of admission. Come for the catchy melodies and stay for the music that actually has a lot more going on than meets the ear initially. Now, I am on to explore their back catalogue!
Key Tracks: “White Eyes”, “Lemon to A Knife Fight”, “I Don’t Know Why I Like You But I Do”
Hockey Dad – Blend Inn – 12 songs / 40 minutes
Too well–produced to be considered lo-fi, this recording has a live and off the cuff feel – and it will, it will, rock you.
Zach Stephenson and Billy Fleming hail from Australia and are exactly what they sound like: young guys who grew up friends surfing their native coast before beginning to make music together. Recorded in Seattle with John Goodmanson at the helm, this music is no-frills, and features only guitar and drums and a distinct lack of production value or added layering or sounds. Some tracks sound as though they were recorded in one take on one microphone, such as the melodic almost spoken word “Sweet Release” that begins with someone coughing before the music starts.
While nothing here is revolutionary in nature, this is consistently quality rock and roll stripped down to basics. Ironically, some of the best songs here are also the most repetitive: “Danny”, “Running Out” and “Stalker” all apply. On the lovesick Danny, Zach asks “Danny, don’t leave me, Danny where’d you get all that money; can’t you be like me and spend your life at home, what am I supposed to do when you’re gone”? If that is not sad enough, there’s this: “Danny, I see you in my dreams, Danny its killing me; three more days and it’s our anniversary, come on baby don’t keep doing this to me, Danny”.
“Wanna Be Everybody” confronts the fear of not fitting in, and the desire to be everything to everyone all the time. Zach tells of going out and seeing all of these people that are interesting and seem to fit in with ease, and how it just makes him want to go home. After all, getting stoned and playing guitar with your buddies sure beats trying to impress strange women.
Along the same theme of not fitting in or feeling unconfident, on “Join the Club” we are snidely instructed on just how to be “hip”: “you better be happy, better be healthy, better be pretty, better be skinny, better have money, better be funny; it’s not too hard, to join the club”. You can hear the sneer on his face as he belts this out.
“Whatever” and album closer “Eggshells” show that there is some depth here, as both are subdued and veer from the fast tempo riff and drums formula, and both work very well. Keep an eye on these two Aussies; they are keeping the tradition of the two-man rock group alive. For that, I toast them!
Key Tracks: “Join the Club”, “Danny”, “Running Out”
Also listened to (but just once, thanks):
MGMT – Little Dark Age
Son Lux – Brighter Wounds
Legend of the Seagullmen – Legend of the Seagullmen
Palm – Rock Island