The Month in Music

Hello everyone! My name is Stephen and I will be your Resident Musical Correspondent, reporting the first Friday of every month. My goal will be to highlight albums from the past month that I’ve particularly enjoyed, unless there haven’t been enough of those, in which case I’ll make something else up (musical of course, I won’t subject you to my thoughts on what I had for dinner or anything). The region of the musicsphere I tend to occupy is that between mainstream and indie rock – basically, indie bands there’s a chance the average person has heard of. I don’t do Nickelback (obviously), but neither do I do That Obscure Electrodisco Quartet from Oslo That Only Twelve People Even Know Exists and Which Releases Its EPs Exclusively on Analog Tape. Those kinds of bands I tend to find are obscure for a reason. Anyway, March was conveniently a very good month in music, so let’s get right to it!

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Delta Spirit – Delta Spirit

Either this or Dr. Dog’s Be the Void is my favorite album of the year so far. I was first turned on to Delta Spirit because of frontman Matthew Vasquez’s foray with the indie folk supergroup Middle Brother (also featuring Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, another great band you should check out). Delta Spirit’s last album, History from Below, was reasonably good, but it wasn’t anything life-changing – on this album though, they’ve taken a huge leap forward. In fact, it’s self-titled because they felt like they nailed the sound they’ve been trying for, and this is how they wanted to define their band. Talk about a good sign. Rolling Stone put this album up on their website a couple weeks before it came out as an exclusive early listen, and in their description of it they said that like Wilco, Radiohead, and My Morning Jacket before them, Delta Spirit had expanded their sonic palette and gone in new directions with their sound. This may have been a bit hyperbolic (that’s quite some company to be thrown together with), but it largely hits the mark. Perhaps the best example of their new and exciting approach is “Tellin’ the Mind”. It starts out with a distorted amalgamation of voiced beats, with Vasquez trilling shrilly over it all and flaming out in a yelp. Then the guitars and organ pour on slowly, finally exploding hot and heavy under loads of distortion after the first chorus. The verses are all restrained tension, Vasquez spitting his lyrics over a confident, bluesy bass line. I love everything about this song, but those trills in particular. They provide the perfect release to the tension built up in the verses, and are a good example of what I love most in music – stuff that comes out of left field, but works well musically and sounds awesome. Anyway, I’ve given that one song a lot of real estate here, but literally every other song is outstanding and showcases their startling growth in musicianship. This album also specializes in memorable hooks and choruses – “Tear It Up”, “California”, “Idaho”, “Otherside”, “Tellin’ the Mind”, “Time Bomb”, and “Money Saves” all definitely have snatches that will stay in your head for days on end – and that’s over half the album! Great stuff. The lyrics are also quality; some of my favorite lines are: “I want you to move to California for yourself, but not for me” and “Meet me on the other side / No I can’t be honest with myself / No I wouldn’t believe a word I said”. If I haven’t convinced you to go listen to this album, I don’t know what to tell you.

Start with: Geez, well, I guess . . . “California”, “Otherside”, “Tellin’ the Mind”

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Happy to You – Miike Snow

This album is much weirder than their smash debut, and it’s very interesting because of it. They paint with a largely electronic palette again, but this time they move to the edges of that palette, weaving less conventional sounds and effects into spooky, alternate-universe club anthems. Pretty much every song has a sticky melody (from Stephen’s Glossary of Made-Up Musical Terms: ”A melody that gets stuck in your head easily”)  and at least one or two really memorable parts – for instance, check out the chipmunk synths in “Enter the Joker’s Lair” or the creepy vocals contributed by Lykke Li to “Black Tin Box” (whatever that box is, you clearly don’t wanna be messing with it). Despite its depressing lyrical content, “God Help This Divorce” is a particular standout, with plinking synthesizers, harp runs, and metallic percussion underpinning singer Andrew Wyatt’s wistful vocals.

Start with: “Devil’s Work”, “God Help This Divorce”, “Bavarian #1 (Say You Will)”

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Port of Morrow – The Shins

Port of Morrow has been a long time coming – it’s been almost 5 years since the Shins’ last album, 2007’s excellent Wincing the Night Away. To say the band has undergone some changes since then would be an understatement. Frontman James Mercer, always the brainchild behind the Shins, is the only one left in the band from WTNA, and how that came about was a little controversial. Mercer basically dismissed the old drummer and bassist – albeit for the very intriguing reason that he wanted to go for a groove-heavier sound – but they took to the media to vent their displeasure, and while the Shins has always been Mercer’s project, it did kind of give off bad vibes. So for reasons karmic and otherwise, I was skeptical that this album would be all that solid. Mercer is over 40 now (I know, hard to believe, sorry if I just made you feel old), and, well, indie rockers have a mixed record when it comes to aging gracefully. Thankfully, however, Mercer dismisses all such petty concerns on Port of Morrow and delivers an excellent collection of songs. The groove Mercer wanted is there, though it doesn’t beat you over the head, instead ably driving along Mercer’s infectious jams. Like WTNA, each song is stuffed with quirky little fills and riffs, most of which are contributed by Mercer’s new bandmates –  but of course Mercer’s voice stands out above it all. I saw them live at SXSW in March, and he is definitely a talented singer – he makes those ridiculous high notes (for example, see the chorus of “Simple Song”) look easy. Every song is high quality, the only minor complaint being “No Way Down”, which while excellent musically, is typical fare for musicians who get political (liberally oversimplified, in multiple senses of the phrase). The title track provides a trippy close to it all, with Mercer’s croon soaring above music that sounds inspired by his sojourn in the side-project Broken Bells.

Start with: “Simple Song”, “Bait and Switch”, “For a Fool”

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Busting Visions – Zeus

On their second album, Zeus polish the great sound they crafted on their debut, giving a modernized, unique take on classic rock. Many of the elements they use are recognizable from eras past, but Zeus tie them all together in unpredictable ways, whether it’s rinky-dink pianos slashing randomly into verses, or harmonies sneaking up from underneath noisy guitars. The album gets off to a rollicking start – “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” is a strong contender to be my favorite song of the year – and keeps going until settling down into “Let It Go, Don’t Let It Go”, a slower, more psychedelic number along the lines of “The Sound of You” off their debut. Later on, “With Eyes Closed” starts off sounding like something the Hollies could have put out in their heyday, but as the chorus approaches, a gaggle of ghostly harmonies floats in and makes the song Zeus’s own. It’s by doing things like this, experimenting with their arrangements and structures, not to mention the instruments they choose to use and when they use them, that Zeus keeps their sound fresh and exciting. Another solid effort by a solid band.

Start with: “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?”, “Anything You Want Dear”, “Hello, Tender Love”

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