Most of these appear in the print edition; Bishop Allen is online only; Siouxie got nixed for a Q&A article in the print edition.
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Authenticity is such a bore. Where is the real Devendra Banhart? Here, he’s Elvis Presley one minute, Iggy Pop the next, and Caetano Veloso most of the time. Often it’s not even clear if that’s still him on lead vocals, during the doo-wop or Nu Yorican soul excursions. Devendra likes playing dress-up, and doesn’t care if you like it or not. Witness the reaction when he emerged from two near-perfect finger-pickin’, flamenco-tinged freaky folk albums as a self-described “White Reggae Troll” whose touring band stunk too much of patchouli for most horrified hipsters.
His last fuller-than-full-length, the sprawling Cripple Creek, was a schizoid, cringe-worthy mess of the good, the bad and the goofy. He’s no less of a ham here, but this time it’s actually funny—never more so than on “Shabop Shalom” where he rhymes “foul mood” with “Talmud” and asks in a doo-wop voice, “Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” The 70s boogie of “Lover” and full-on gospel of “Saved” are equally joyous and ridiculous. In between, he’s still spins the type of delicate, fragile folk that captivated us in the first place, though now he’s more likely to layer psychedelic atmospherics or link it directly to Brazilian tropicalia. Even his reggae tendencies are redeemed, on the haunting, dubbed-out and minimally percussive “The Other Woman.”
The more he pushes these various personas, the less sense we expect him to make, and the more rewarding he becomes. “I’m scared of ever being born again/ in this form again,” he sings, but what form he’s referring to is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t sound like he’s scared of anything at all. (XL; xlrecordings.com)
The Broken String
Two Harvard grads open up their second album expressing trepidation about the dubious business of playing pop music for a living: “You’d think I’d understand that a rock’n’roll band doesn’t mean a blessed thing.” What could be cause for resignation instead emboldens songwriters Justin Rice and Christian Rudder to settle for nothing less than excellence.
Since their graduation from 2003’s Charm School, Bishop Allen spent the ensuing years on a writing spree, writing 56 songs for 12 EPs released in 2006; most of this material is re-recorded from that productive period. In that time, they matured into everything you’d ever want in a joyous pop band: neither twee nor tough, smart but not sarcastic, ornamental without being overbearing and epic when they wanna be. Toy pianos and ukuleles manage to avoid cutesy trappings, as do subtle mariachi moments. Lyrically, the Bishop has an acute eye for observational detail, as on the Zelig-like “Click Click Click Click” or the character studies of “The News From Your Bed” and “Flight 180,” populated by lonely souls crying out for emotional connections.
Coupled with their classic pop smarts, these details give the distinct impression that ten years ago Bishop Allen were carefully studying Wilco’s Being There and Ben Folds Five’s debut album; The Broken String easily takes its place alongside those classics.
(Dead Oceans; www.deadoceans.com)
In her day job as singer/guitarist in Erase Errata, Jenny Hoyston practically takes a back seat to her monstrous rhythm section, content to yelp and add scratchy guitar patterns to the no wave groove being thrown down behind her. Yet hiding behind that detached exterior is an artist who actually does know her way around a melody, and on her debut disc under her own name Hoyston proves to be remarkably diverse. No wonder she leaves us dangling with the album title: Isle Of… what? Opening with a Mary Timony-style rocker and a bluesy punk stomp that could be cut from The Gossip’s songbook, Hoyston then moves through acoustic country territory and what sounds like an 80s bedroom collaboration between Anna Domino and ESG. Though this shares some traits with her lo-fi—and comparatively unremarkable—Paradise Island project that preceded this, Isle Of is a full realization of the somewhat timid and tentative moves heard there. “Everyone’s alone,” sings Hoyston, and here she proves that with or without her band, her creative well runs deeper than one might think.
IRON & WINE
The Shepherd’s Dog
When we first met Sam Beam, it was kind of obvious from his hushed, solitary bedroom recordings that he didn’t get out of the house much. Three young children in the family will do that to you. But after the success of 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam found himself on the road with a full band—and sometimes much more than that, as witnessed on a carnivalesque tour with Calexico where upwards of a dozen people might be on stage at any given time.
The Shepherd’s Dog finds the normally clean and lean Beam pigging out at the sonic candy store, with vocals run through Leslie speakers, harmoniums blended with slide steel guitars, hand drums and sitars, and backwards tape underscoring pedal steel swells. One track (“Wolves”) sounds like he hired both Bill Laswell and Daniel Lanois and all of their favourite session players for some dub excursions.
It sounds like a lot, yet thankfully in this case more is more, thanks to the ability of returning producer Brian Deck (Califone) to weave these psychedelic layers around Beam’s bluesy song structures, and keeping his harmonies with sister Sarah front and centre. Beam’s lyrics are more imagistic and cryptic than ever (“If Christ came back he would find us in a poker game”), yet that only seems appropriate, considering the beautifully disorienting aural backdrop behind them.
To help avoid this from becoming a total rock redux incarnation of Iron & Wine, Deck also leaves drum kits out of the picture, preferring subtle percussion to ensure that conventional anchors don’t weigh down the explorations. By maintaining his intimacy while armed with the palette full of colours found here, Beam sets himself far apart from the rest of the hush-and-shush crowd. (Sub Pop, www.subpop.com)
Dropping the Writ
Cass McCombs doesn’t sit still very often. He’s the kind of troubadour who rides the Greyhound with a few 20-dollar bills in his pocket and little else. He dodges muggers and probing interviewers and anyone else that wants a piece of him. He hears divine voices (“infinity whispers in my ear”) that urge him “onward, Christian songwriter.” But for a guy who spends most of his time on the road reading Gideon’s and auditioning new bandmates, Dropping The Writ is remarkably consistent.
McCombs had an extended stay in London recently, and one wonders if, while there, he was tossed into a time machine set to 1987, recorded during a week of rain and fog with 4AD musicians, and came back home with the master tapes. Unlike, say, The Clientele—a modern band with a direct line to melancholic, pastoral pop of the 60s—McCombs sounds thrice removed: like the Shins interpreting a Robyn Hitchcock cover of the Zombies. Spacious arrangements leave plenty of room for lush layers of vocal harmonies, and—unlike many cloying crooners—McCombs is at his most endearing when he stretches his tenor with minimal effort.
The propulsive opening track “Lionkiller,” with its rolling triplet guitar line, is itching to be mashed up with Battles’ “Atlas.” That’s one of the only immediate thrills found on this album of subdued and subtle pleasures, where the pervasive weightless atmosphere is a deceptive distraction from McCombs’ songwriting strengths. (Domino)
If you’ve heard the opening track and first single “Into a Swan,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that the transformation Siouxsie is singing about has something to do with becoming Shirley Manson’s doppelganger. The song sounds like Garbage, literally—and isn’t half-bad, if for whatever inexplicable reason you happen to be jonesing for some radio-friendly 90s alt-rock.
Once that’s over with, the 50-year old punk and new wave legend makes the kind of transformation you’d always hoped she would: into a sultry Euro chanteuse with more than a few shades of Shirley Bassey, though she’ll always be Siouxsie Sioux. “Here Comes That Day” sounds like something off her own classic Peepshow album, with its stuttering staccato saxophones, rumbling tympani and vampy vocals. That song opens a mid-album hat trick that continues with “Loveless,” driven by chugging metallic guitars, a Bonham beat, malleted percussion, sawing cellos and Massive Attack-style atmospherics.
“If It Doesn’t Kill You” finds Siouxsie chanelling the pathos of a wartime torch singer, counseling her listeners, “Don’t be bitter/ don’t be gloomy”—words that sound more than a tad ironic from the godmother of goth. The rest of the record won’t convert any recovering Evanescence fans, but it sure sounds better than anything Robert Smith has done in the last 15 years. (W14; w14music.com)