Music Reviews: Broken Bells, Beck, The China Gang of 1974, Drowners, Lake Street Dive, Maximo PArk
Frontiers Staff

Broken Bells
After the Disco
* * *

Broken Bells (The Shins’ James Mercer and Danger Mouse) have finally released a second album after four years, and it’s aimed to please the crowds. Quiet and moody, the first Broken Bells album appeared out of the blue, essentially making Mercer a songwriting force to be reckoned with. The joy of that album was how unexpected it was—fresh and different while being safe and similar. The group’s follow-up, After the Disco, is the same but also different. With a sophomore album come expectations, and Mercer and (er...) Mouse (?) have decided to go the safe route, ensuring their albums will still be stocked at Starbucks. It’s a very pretty album. It’s catchy. The lyrics are good. Unfortunately, it’s the sound of two talented men not pushing themselves far enough. Album opener “A Perfect World” is pleasant enough, and the chorus of lead single (and title track) “After the Disco” is pretty memorable, but by the time we get to later album tracks like “Lazy Wonderland” and “The Angel and the Fool” you just yearn for these guys to start taking chances again. The album fritters away quietly. It’s not bad, but After the Disco is a missed opportunity. —Dominik Rothbard

Morning Phase
* * * *

So, um, I’m not the biggest Beck fan. I prefer Mellow Gold to Odelay, and I think Sea Change is lovely though overrated. The rest I can take or leave. Yet here’s the thing—I don’t miss a release, because the man is always worth listening to, regardless of whatever shape he’s shifted himself into. The acoustic troubadour he channels on his 12th release, Morning Phase, is one of his best guises; the record is a stunner. There’s certainly melancholy shot through the veins of these songs, but it’s a sadness dappled with the steady onslaught of Los Angeles sun. “Morning” is all sturm und drang in drone drag—you can feel the June gloom breaking through palm trees. “Heart Is a Drum” is a primo Laurel Canyon lovefest, replete with CSN&Y-style harmonies. “Blackbird Chain” is nearly Byrds-ian in its folk simplicity. The similarly downtempo vibe of its 48-minute playing time keeps Morning Phase from masterpiece status, but it comes closer than anything Beck has done since, well, Sea Change. And though I’m sure the Coachella crowd will demand some “Where It’s At” and “Loser” come April, I hope he plays this entire release front-to-back. —Dan Loughry

The Chain Gang of 1974
Daydream Forever
(Warner Brothers)
* * * *

L.A.-based Kamtin Mohager (ex-bassist for 3OH!3) is the man behind The Chain Gang of 1974, acting as programmer, singer, producer and mixer. The aptly titled Daydream Forever is his third release, really showcasing his multiple talents. With its mélange of indietronic beats, shoegaze haze and heady vocals, it’s an intriguing listen. You might already know the dreamy and expansive “Sleepwalking” from Grand Theft Auto V, which could also perfectly soundtrack a classic John Hughes film. With layers of fuzz, grungy bass tones and atmospheric production, he draws inspiration from ‘80s synthpop icons like New Order (“Miko,” “Death Metal Punk”), The Raveonettes (“Ordinary Fools”) and even Hot Chip (on the poignant “You,” written about a real-life bicyclist’s death by hit and run), so there’s a little something for everyone here. It’s the kind of record that straddles the fence between late-night dreampop and dirty dance floor grit, and if you love the gauzy charms of M83 or Chvrches—yet tweaked with more beats and energy—this new Chain Gang of 1974 album will inhabit your headspace quite well. And stick around for the bonus remixes of “Sleepwalking” and “Miko” at the tail end of the disc—they’re both terrific interpolations. —Paul V.

* * *

It would be easy to call Drowners beyond derivative. These 20-something New Yorkers sound a hell of a lot like many of the 2Ks’ indie punk bands before them (The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys or The Libertines), and the group named its debut after a Britpop-defining single by Suede. But not so fast, ‘cause some tight ‘n taught guitar riffs, punchy hooks and morning-after ruminations abound here. As does singer Matt Hitt (who is actually from Wales) and his aping of Julian Casablancas’ dispassionate-cum-flirtatious vocal style. Yet this band clearly aspires to some of the greats from the ‘80s, too—“Watch You Change” and “Let Me Finish” are unashamedly inspired by The Housemartins (Google them!), and those guitar lines are pure Johnny Marr. A standout is “Unzip Your Harrington,” where the tempo chills a bit and features the cheeky line “I’m gonna hang around, long enough to be part of the furniture.” Which might be debatable if this band doesn’t evolve with its own sound. But then you start to forgive them, because there are such good hooks and melodies going on with these carefree, rapid-fire, garage bangers. And, let’s face it—don’t we all wish The Strokes would make a record that sounds like this again? Your move, Julian. —Paul V.

Lake Street Dive
Bad Self Portraits
(Signature Sound Recordings)
* * * *

Lake Street Dive is one of those bands that seems to wallow in obscurity and then—bang!—overnight sensation. The Massachusetts foursome, which met at the New England Conservatory, has had quite the last few years. The group worked with T-Bone Burnett for a Town Hall performance of music inspired by Inside Llewyn Davis. The band received rave notices in Rolling Stone and Hollywood Reporter. And now comes the release of this fifth record, Bad Self Portraits, a real throwback of a pop record by consummate musicians who love soul, the blues, the British Invasion and a well-tuned turn of phrase. Guitarist Mike Olson, stand-up bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese bring the chops; vocalist Rachael Price brings the magic. She’s a cross between the young Etta James, the middle-aged Bonnie Raitt and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard. No matter what she sings, she imbues her words with depths of unexpected soul. “You Go Down Smooth” melds swamp blues with Motown; “Better Than” is Otis Redding-meets-Nick of Time; and the title track is a self-deprecating hoot. Young people worried about how they haven’t amounted to much at 25, taking stock and trying to better themselves—how twisted is that?! —Dan Loughry

Maximo Park
Too Much Information

Maximo Park arrived at the tail end of the angular guitar British invasion in the mid-2000s. Perhaps this explains the band’s longevitiy. While many of Maximo Park’s more successful contemporaries have disappeared, the band has been releasing a steady stream of albums quietly exploring the genre. Essentially the band has learned what worked and what didn’t on the previous four albums (and also lead vocalist Paul Smith’s unfortunately dull solo record), creating a mélange for this latest LP, Too Much Information. Lead single “Brain Cells” sounds like today—it’s fresh and paranoid in that Radiohead way, but with an incredibly hooky chorus. “Lydia, the Ink Will Never Dry” sounds decidedly retro in a jangly guitar Housemartins way. “Leave This Island” comes across as the band’s take on old-school Fischerspooner-style electro, and it’s gorgeous. It should be the next single. Paul Smith’s vocals have also grown tremendously. While usually content to let out a screech and wail, his deep, velvety tones come off as mannered in the best possible way, giving the tunes an assured maturity the band was once lacking. It’s rare that a band is able to cover so much terrain while creating such a consistent album. This is Maximo Park’s best since the band’s debut. —Dominik Rothbard

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