Push and Shove
It’s been 12 years since No Doubt’s last release of new songs, and in that time, singer Gwen Stefani dropped her solo record (and another child), and the band basically remained dormant. And though Gwen always maintains that being in No Doubt “feels like home,” this new effort could easily be mistaken for another solo record—meaning it’s much more pop, mature and slick sounding. Granted, it ain’t 1997 anymore, so we can’t expect them to sound as hungry or edgy. Instead, the band wisely fine-tunes their pop, electro and reggae chops, and there’s some pleasant moments going on. “One More Summer” almost sounds like The Motels, with a beaming vocal chorus hook from Stefani. Of the ska-inflected jams, the title track is a barnburner that features varying tempos, and first single “Settle Down” is truly a classic-sounding, infectious confection. While the latter half of the disc is mellower and ballad-heavy, “Easy” shines with a wonderfully breezy and atmospheric allure, and “Sparkle” is a reggae-pop gem. Though the songs I mention stand the best chance of putting the band back on top, the honest truth is that this disc is lacking in any kind of immediate, leaps-out-at-you smash hit. And time will tell how the fans react, too. —Paul V.
Of all the indie bands to gain commercial traction over the last 10 years, the least likely must certainly be Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear. Not that they don’t deserve it; it’s simply that their delicate, ornate and, at times, bombastic music seems to be the antithesis of what passes for popular. And though they’re an extraordinary live band, their studio records (much as I love them) feel arid, cluttered, overthought. That said, I worry that their fourth release, Shields, will be where the backlash begins, since it’s their most straightforward and most immediate work to date. In other words, that pristine attention to sonic detail they exhibited on Yellow House and Veckatimest is forsaken on Shields in the pursuit of raw emotion. (They’ve only once come as close to such unbridled emotion, on their expert cover of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).”) They don’t waste a lot of time with overtures here; from the opening chords of “Sleeping Ute” through the martialing power of “Speak in Rounds” to the scuzz-guitar breakdown of “Half Gate,” this is a band not known for spontaneity letting loose. And it suits them as beautifully as their much-lauded four-part harmonies and studio perfectionism. —Dan Loughry
Menomena have made a career for the past 10 years turning bombast into pop music. Distorted guitars, explosive—almost assaultive—percussion and creepily discordant piano are looped, ripped up and reversed into glorious indie pop akin to an experimental Arcade Fire. Their last few albums have been difficult, complex masterpieces that continue to reward upon repeated listens. This makes it more than a bit disconcerting that founding member Brent Knoph left the trio to focus on his other band, Ramona Falls. Ramona Falls is pretty great and frankly sounds very similar to Menomena, but its albums aren’t as good as any by Menomena—until now. Moms sounds like other Menomena LPs. All the boxes are checked, but yet it feels both louder and more tired at the same time. While Ramona Falls’ output sounds like the softer, more tuneful side of Menomena, Moms without Knoph rocks harder but also lacks the innovation, the weirdness, the brilliant pop songs that emerged from the mess. Moms isn’t a bad album—and songs like “Heavy is as Heavy Does” and the unfortunately titled “Skintercourse” hint at what a future direction might sound like—but considering Menomena is now a duo, they might need to try and change up their sound more significantly. This Moms tired. —Dominik Rothbard
Australian duo The Presets have delivered some of the most heart-racing electronica ever, starting with their debut in 2005. Each of their discs has its own signature, and Pacifica is no different. However, as a longtime fan, I was slightly perplexed with their first two singles (“Youth In Trouble” and “Ghosts”), as both seemed to lack the ballsy, instantaneous crunch of previous singles like “My People” or “Down Down Down.” But once I allowed multiple spins to penetrate my brain, it dawned on me: if Frankie Goes to Hollywood released their debut in 2012—with production by Moby or M83—it might sound exactly like this. This is actually their most confident effort, with much more attention paid to melody and anecdotal lyrics. This is most prevalent on “A.O.,” which marries a ballistic chant with the sound of spewing lazerguns and buzzing-bees synths. Conversely, “Fall” is just about the most radiant, effortless pop song of their career, with its celestial keyboard washes and delicate melody. Also, the minimal techno of “Surrender” proves their less-is-more approach can be compelling, while “Promises” is absolutely next-generation Pet Shop Boys, meshing twinkling, glistening synths with singer Julian Hamilton’s plaintive vocals. Dreamers and schemers, this is your dance music. —Paul V.
The Canadian collective Stars may share a few band members with their Toronto neighbors Broken Social Scene, but over the past decade they’ve carved out an identity all their own. For the uninitiated, their decadent new-wave chamber pop echoes a dancier (and way less British) Belle & Sebastian, but where B&S have grown tired over the past few albums, Stars only grows stronger. The North is easily Stars’ best record since 2004’s beloved Set Yourself On Fire. The North has a lot in common with that album. If you’re a casual fan who’s lost track of the band, it’s time to check back in. Album opener “The Theory of Relativity” opens with an instantly classic synth line echoing the Human League. Torq Campbell’s cool voice slithers and condescends. Co-vocalist Amy Millan’s warmth contrasts with Torq’s apathy and so sets the tone for the album. “Backlines” is one of the best Millan tracks the band’s recorded so far. “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” is as much a hit single as it is a mouthful, with a radio-friendly M83-esque chorus. There are endless highlights, but the standout is clearly “A Song is a Weapon.” The song explodes as most good Stars songs do, but with The North, Stars have upped their game, and it’ll be interesting to see how they top it. —Dominik Rothbard
The Unwinding Hours
Guitarist Iain Cook and vocalist Craig B., late of alt-quartet Aerogramme, formed the Scottish duo The Unwinding Hours in 2008 and released a worthy, somewhat underrated and definitely overlooked 2010 debut. The band took its name from an obscure reference in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and there was a stately ambience to its debut that mirrored that influence—it was methodical, spooky and shallow. Their sophomore release, Afterlives, is less influenced by cinema and more indebted to Craig B.’s ongoing university studies of theology and sociology. Big subjects, those, and not necessarily the meat and potatoes of your standard rock music, yet The Unwinding Hours makes them palatable on this successful follow-up. How? By merging thoughtful lyrics to compelling indie rock that runs the gamut from U2-lite (“The Promised Land”) to the minor-key soundscapes of their countryman The Twilight Sad (“Wayward”) to the chill-hop arpeggios of standout cut “Skin on Skin.” Cook is a graceful guitarist; he could let loose nearly anywhere here yet reigns himself in much like another under-sung player, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sargeant. And Craig B.’s soft, vulnerable voice is the perfect complement to songs of faith and devotion that are all the stronger for never preening over their importance. —Dan Loughry