Xiu Xiu, Dear God, I Hate Myself (Kill Rock Stars)
Frontman Jamie Stewart has jettisoned the rickety experimental indie-isms of his band Xiu Xiu’s previous works to arrive at Dear God, a fully realized and majestic gem of an album. He manages to wring real drama out of this new material, which displays everything from orchestral timpani to videogame noise to searing punk guitar riffs—all while demonstrating a lyrical wit on par with Morrissey. Stewart’s fey vocal style and penchant for wordplay had me convinced for years he was British, but hearing a tune like “Gray Death,” I suspect it’s the city of Oakland (where he once lived) that explains his dim view. Regardless, the song (like every track on this CD) is impossible to play once, boasting a fierce Joy Division bass line, marimba-kissed chord changes and clanging cymbals. Then there’s the title track, which despite a self-loathing message is an attempt to Technicolor-ize an ugly world with inventive, if a little skewed, popcraft. File under “indie classic.”
Butch Walker & the Black Widows, I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart (One Haven)
Back when he was a heartless fame-seeker, Butch Walker and his then-band Marvelous 3 stormed the late-’90s rock charts with “Freak of the Week,” and seemed destined for greatness. To Walker’s relief, it didn’t happen. Instead he became a coveted producer, responsible for Avril Lavigne hits and co-writing with Rivers Cuomo. A prolific solo artist and live performer, Walker will likely die with a guitar strapped across his shoulders. He succeeds wildly with his new album, a brisk, bristling display of popcraft elevated to the level of art. “She Likes Hair Bands” isn’t a leftover Weezer track, but a funny Steve Miller-referencing ballad full of big, chords and falsetto hoots. The chamber-stringed “Pretty Melody” borrows a page from Phil Spector before delivering just what the title promises. Lyrically, Walker has never been funnier or more poignant, especially when he pledges to a lover: “I’ll be your waste of time/You’ll be my happy end.”
Liars, Sisterworld (Mute)
Acclaimed post-punk revivalists of the early “aughts,” New York’s Liars almost destroyed their reputation with a pretentious 2004 sophomore full-length. Fortune changed again with 2006’s fractured avant-rock classic Drum’s Not Dead, once again earning the band respect. Now Liars returns with a surprisingly consistent collection of art-damaged tunes. Walking a fine line between frat-party frenzy and performance-art purgatory, vocalist/guitarist Angus Andrew keeps the arrangements interesting, for example, the gorgeous choir of voices that opens “Scissor” degenerates into a drum-thrashing maelstrom. “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant,” meanwhile, stabs the listener in the face with a vicious guitar riff swiped from a Ventures B-side and amplified into something like a jet crash-landing into the Hudson. On the softer side, “Too Much, Too Much” closes out Sisterworld with jangly guitar lines and synths, serving as a melancholy farewell to the band’s dance-floor roots. Another first-rate effort by a band brimming with surprises.