Every time I am about to write off this bit of malarkey we call “Americana,” something pulls me from the brink. Don’t roll your eyes at me. In the years since Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers made acoustic cool again, we’ve seen one trust-fund Brooklyn kid with the big beard, thrift store hat, and credit card fiddle after another peddling counterfeit country.
But then, something like Matthew O’Neill’s Trophic Cascade comes along with just the right bit of – oh, I don’t want to say “weird,” so let’s say “quirk” – to make what might have been another round of the same sound far more interesting. And perhaps Americana is the wrong descriptor, used and abused as it has been. O’Neill brings interesting shades to songs like “Golden Boy,” “Telepathy,” and “Alzheimer’s Blues” and, in a moment when I felt like one more stirring pedal steel line would likely set me into wall-busting rage, O’Neill has brought me back down (if only temporarily).
Trophic Cascade is worth a listen, and Matthew O’Neill has a great deal of promise ahead of him, so long as he doesn’t fall into the trap of playing to type. Americana…you win this time.
Get Matthew O’Neill’s Trophic Cascade here.
Another winner is Coke Belda who is probably as far from Americana as one gets. On his latest, the German resident extols the virtues of an Australian (by way of Britain) family by the name of Gibb. Coke Belda 3 (Gs), A Tribute To The Bee Gees explores the band’s earliest material, revealing them to be as psychedelic as the best of them from the ’60s. And a heavy dose of credit goes to Belda for his selections. There’s really only one big hit from this time, being “I’ve Got To Get A Message To You,” and easier targets are avoided, as are the huge hits from the 1970s.
Curiously, the comeback hit “You Win Again” from the E.S.P. album is represented. Further, a song that was supposed to be a part of the mega-hit Saturday Night Fever soundtrack but was discarded at the last moment also appears. Instead, the song “(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away” became a huge hit for brother Andy Gibb.
Belda hits those ridiculously high Barry Gibb falsettos which, trust me, are not easy. At the same time, he nails the Barry, Maurice, and Robin harmonies that cemented the band’s success long before disco fever swept the world. Coke Belda 3 (Gs), A Tribute To The Bee Gees is merely a document certifying that, in spite of the biases created after a certain period of success, the Brothers Gibb apparently always knew what they were doing. So does Coke Belda.
The worst mistake Steven Wilson’s To The Bone makes is following after Hand Cannot Erase. His latest is an exploration of the song versus the song cycle, and while it does not yield the kind of obsessive repeat listens Hand Cannot Erase insisted upon, To The Bone does the producer/performer credit.
The necessity lies in the effort to accept the album on its own terms, which might be difficult for those who view Wilson as some kind of prog rock messiah. That’s not me throwing stones at the fan club, either. It took me four or five listens to the album to shake away what my expectations were and to accept what was actually being given. It’s not actually that hard to do. One of my favorites of Wilson’s was Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream, which had glistening pop moments like “Piano Lessons” and “This Is No Rehearsal.” If you take To The Bone in that context, rather than as the follow-up to an ambitious, multimedia project like Hand Cannot Erase, it should endear itself very quickly.
Now, having said that, I do believe some of Wilson’s performances on Blackfield V from earlier this year had greater impact on me. It should be noted that the majority of the album was written by Blackfield mastermind Aviv Geffen, so credit might be more deserving going in that direction instead. But in the end, both albums are hardly throwaway, and To The Bone is already making serious leaps up the U.K. pop charts, so it is worth a try. I think it will eventually win you over too.
You can find To The Bone here.
As opposed to Arcade Fire’s Everything Now. I have tried. Honestly, I have. And the stylistic change curve between this and the band’s earlier albums Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs mirrors those of Wilson’s latest and his more aggressive earlier work. But here’s the big difference: I just don’t hear the songs on Everything Now. The band could trade in the programmed beats, the synths, and the super-compressed vocals for the guitar aggression and Godspeed You Black Emperor string accompaniment of before and the songs, sadly, would still fall flat.
It would be easy to blame the band’s leap from major-indie Merge Records to Columbia/Sony as a contributing factor, but that’s unfair to both labels. This was a direction Arcade Fire signaled (with a high-intensity spotlight) with the previous Reflektor, and while I was not particularly enamored with that record, it had a smattering of songs worth remembering. More than that, it had songs that could be played raw in a live setting and sound dynamic and interesting.
I’ve wanted Everything Now to emerge from what it is into something else, but the wishful thinking is not turning it into a grower. Instead, it’s turning the record into what I think will be the biggest misfire of 2017.
The exact opposite of misfire, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Villains is the band’s most accessible, most danceable, and indeed, most fun record they’ve ever done. And I know some people are going to hate it. Josh Homme and company simply don’t sound as twisted and wrecked as they did on Lullabies To Paralyze and Era Vulgaris, as beloved as those albums are. Their producer this time out is hitmaker Mark Ronson (“Uptown Funk”), and guess what? He made a bunch of hits.
But Homme brought the songs, as warped as ever, and often with tongue firmly in cheek, up a molar, and straight down the throat. “Fortress” is a song that rock radio should be clinging to for dear life, with its new wave undercurrent and uncharacteristically straightforward sentiment and execution waving like a protest banner. This is not, perhaps, the QOTSA album the fans hoped for, but it’s definitely the album rock fans need right now.
Find it at the QOTSA Shop here.
And coming in as probably one of the top five power-pop albums of the year is The John Sally Ride’s A New Set Of Downs. John Dunbar, Sal Nunziato, and honest-to-god pow-pop royalty Sal Maida (Roxy Music, Sparks, Cracker, Milk ‘n Cookies, and much more) funnel crunchy rockers, Kinks-esque Brit Pop, and everything in-between into a record that, once it starts, is hard to turn off. I suppose I’m saying this is a traditional pop-rock record that would have been right at home in ’68-’75, but there’s hardly a minute on A New Set Of Downs that doesn’t pay off.