Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Where to begin with Mosquito. First of all, the artwork is simply hideous. I assume that’s the intention—ugliness/beauty has always been part of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs schtick. Mosquito is not as bad as its album sleeve would suggest, but the half-hearted experimentation found within simply doesn’t push the envelope far enough. Take opening track “Sacrilege”—it’s an exciting Florence & the Machines-esque affair, even ending with a “Like A Prayer”-type choir. The song builds up hope for an album the band has yet to record. As exciting as “Sacrilege” is, it segues into “Subway” which (cleverly?) uses a loop of a subway train as percussion. The song lays there, flat and lifeless, in complete juxtaposition to its predecessor. Album sequencing problems aside, the album simply goes downhill from there. The title track sounds like a tired imitation of Bow Wow Wow. The band dips its toes into reggae for “Under the Earth,” but not far enough to make it count. “These Paths” is the fun dance-y centerpiece of the LP. It’s a tent pole that’ll keep you listening to Mosquito until Dr. Octagon begins rapping on the unfortunate “Buried Alive.” Instead of picking up Mosquito, I suggest a citronella candle.
British Sea Power
Machineries of Joy
This nature-loving British sextet may be the most underexposed, broadly experiential of rock bands. No subject matter’s off-limits (WWII POWs, the collapse of an Antarctic peninsula, etc.). They’ve played shows in unusual places (caverns, sea forts), but their exploratory nature is often sloppy and unfocussed. 2011’s Valhalla Dancehall was a sprawling underachiever. Last year they put out six strange EPs. Yet let me thank BSP for those messy EPs here because, without them, Machineries of Joy wouldn’t be the return to form it is. They cherry-picked amongst the EP tracks, so when it came time to re-recording they’d honed it down to the best songs. (I could still live without “Hail Holy Queen.”) Their post-punk is more muscular than ever, and the songs are razor-sharp throughout (highlights being the flesh-loving title track and “A Light Above Descending,” which is as amorphously beautiful as its title suggests). Singers Yan and Hamilton remain weedy vocalists, which works conceptually on these 10 tracks about the ephemeral essence of life, nature, happiness and anger, and the band is in concentrated lockstep. Now all I want to know is whether “Radio Goddard” is about the French filmmaker (misspelled) or the co-leader of Hot Chip.
Before we go any further, let’s thank Charli XCX for writing one of this year’s most infectious club jams—Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” This self-described “Wednesday Addams-meets-Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice-meets Baby Spice” Londoner has been writing and performing since age 14, and at 20 she’s poised for some major stateside buzz. With help from producers who’ve worked with Robyn, Major Lazer and Lana Del Rey, her eclectic debut is a cross-pollinated mix of dark and emotional Goth-glam (“Grins,” “Set Me Free”), ethereal confessionals (“Stay Away,” “So Far Away”) and four-to-the-floor electropop (“Take My Hand,” “Black Roses”). Her pipes are powerful yet graceful, childlike yet edgy, and she might remind you of a cross between Ellie Goulding and The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson. She also drops some streetwise hip-hop on “Cloud Aura” that features the bawdy Brooke Candy handling the rhymes. The heady synth sounds here are fuzzy, dark-wave and orchestral, the production is pitch-perfect and every corner of her romantic history is explored in the lyrics. It really comes together quite nicely. Having said that, she’s made a record the charms of which continue to be revealed upon each new listen. Catch her live in L.A. on May 11 with Marina & the Diamonds.
Pale Green Ghosts
When John Grant fronted little-known but much-loved The Czars from 1996 to 2005, he utilized his gorgeous alto for a folksy take on indie rock. (Seek out Paint the Moon from 2004.) But he’s a different beast as a solo artist. On 2010’s superb coming-out platter Queen of Denmark, and now on his electro-tinged follow-up Pale Green Ghosts, Grant’s no longer interested in lulling you to a safe place. Queen of Denmark dealt often with his coming out and his years of drug addiction. Pale Green Ghosts confronts a destructive relationship and testing HIV-positive. Tough subjects all, yet Grant’s a pretty funny guy. His song about discovering his HIV status breaks down the odds with a calculator before turning, in a strange and somehow correct non-sequitur, to a movie star for guidance. (The track’s called “Ernest Borgnine.”) He devastates his ex with a few cutting lines in the bouncy “Blackbelt.” (My favorite: “You’ve got lots of time to think up new ways to deceive yourself.”) And “GMF” explains everything that is wrong with Grant before concluding that he’s the “greatest motherfucker” you’re ever going to meet. On the basis of Pale Green Ghosts, I’m not going to argue with him.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
When OMD reformed in 2010 with The History of Modern, chart success was clearly goal. Indeed, the band charted (modestly) and recorded an album filled with potential dance-pop singles that owed a lot to peers (Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Human League). But OMD was never about chart success. And indeed, the band has proved that with its second post-reunion LP, English Electric. If you’re a fan of the band, you’ll appreciate that this album pays direct homage to OMD’s most experimental LPs of the early ‘80s—Architecture & Morality (1981) and Dazzle Ships (1983). Short tracks like “Please Remain Seated,” “Decimal” and “The Future Will Be Silent” weave samples into OMD’s signature electronics and then get nestled amongst glossy pop gems like “Metroland,” “Night Café” and “Kissing the Machine,” which was co-written by Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk and features Claudia Brucken from Propaganda on vocals. There’s much to love for any ‘80s fan on English Electric, but the highlight of the LP is easily “Helen of Troy,” a virtual sequel to OMD’s 1981 hit single “Joan of Arc.” For a band 35 years into its career, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark has never sounded fresher or more relevant.
L.A. indie rockers Youngblood Hawke wowed me when I first heard “We Come Running” used in a TV promo. It is the kind of song that penetrates your brain like a pneumatic drill and stays there forever. If ever there was a positive, feel-good anthem that makes your wanna sing along and dance, this is it. And that’s the West L.A. Children’s Choir soaring in the deliciously radiant chorus (just as they did on fun.’s “We Are Young”). So, can this upstart quintet follow that up and deliver an album’s worth of similar charms? The answer is ‘hell yes.’ The piano-driven “Say Say” is a strong contender to be the next earworm to rule some radio spins, as is “Last Time,” which closes the record with quite a bang. The entire disc is an organic yet polished production, where acoustic guitars are accompanied by fat, synthesized bass sounds and urgent percussion. Each song virtually explodes with a multitude of voices in their respective chorus, making for a dynamic yet consistent, catchy yet complex listen. And it’s the kind of record you want to blare out of your car windows while breaking the speed limit on the freeway. Go running to see them live on May 22 at The Avalon.