CD Reviews


Stornoway Beachcomber’s Windowsill (4AD)

Delicate, slightly skewed alternative folk-pop from Oxford, England, isn’t something I thought I needed to hear until spinning the lovely Beachcomber’s Windowsill, a 11-song opus that draws comparisons to earlier U.S. musical collective Elephant 6 (Beulah, Neutral Milk Hotel), but with a distinct British sensibility. Stornoway is named after a Scottish isle town, and frontman Brian Briggs has the requisite, fey falsetto down pat, and his melancholy lyrics and earthy melodic shifts convey the sense that perhaps working-class England is a bit more love-torn than it gets credit for. The bouncy, trumpet-touched “Zorbing” sums up the dreamy vibe with Briggs imploring someone—construction foreman?—for a small reprieve: “Send my body out to work/but leave my senses/In orbit over southeast London.” On the other hand, “The Coldharbour Road,” with its murky yet nimble piano chords and trembling violin flourishes, suggests this wildly talented, modest little group won’t be satisfied with the inherent limitations of pop music for more than another album. ★★★★☆


Los Lobos Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory)

It’s tempting to apply adjectives such as “dedicated” and “respected” to East L.A. quintet Los Lobos, who have consistently made well-reviewed albums for more than 30 years. But to use such easy adjectives would be a serious injustice to the degree of creativity and imaginative arrangements these guys bring to every album, especially Tin Can Trust, which clangs and clatters with unrivaled accomplishment. Opener “Burn It Down,” with its layers of mandolin and guest vocals courtesy of Susan Tedeschi, makes for a great road-trip song for the ride out of town. The Spanish-language “Yo Canto,” a suave salsa number par excellence, gives Latin percussionist (and unofficial sixth member) Cougar Estrada a chance to shine. The bluesy, noir-blasted funk cover of the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway,” meanwhile, sketches the sketchiest of characters, a guy looking for trouble, love or both in pay-by-the-hour fleabag motels. Overall, this is yet another solid, ambitious album by one of rock’s greatest groups. ★★★★☆


Liz Phair Funstyle (Self-released)

“These songs lost me my management, my record deal and a lot of nights of sleep,” Liz Phair announced on her website, surprising everyone by self-releasing her sixth album, Funstyle, for a $5.99 download. It’s been seven years since her hit “Why Can’t I?” (co-penned by Britney Spears songwriter The Matrix) lit up the charts, and the backlash against her mainstream ambition never really subsided—until now? Let’s hope so, because Funstyle is a return to the fun-loving Phair of yesteryear, back when the Queen of “Fuck and Run” didn’t care so much about selling her music via Banana Republic and instead embraced market-defying genre-hopping. Much has already been made about the rap (“Bollywood”) that appears here, but it’s a sharp record-label-dissing tune that has a long tradition in pop music. On the brighter side: “I fell in love along the way,” she sings in “Satisfied,” a hook-laden, guitar-centered anthem that suggests Phair knows she made the right choice. Welcome back, big sis. ★★★☆☆


The Innocence Mission My Room in the Trees (Badman)

No other dream-pop band has so perfectly and exquisitely captured the essence of an untroubled childhood with all its persistent mystery and fleeting beauty better than Lancaster, Pa.’s The Innocence Mission. Singer Karen Peris has the loveliest, purest, most girlish voice in the world. To hear her outline the smallest details of a kid’s private sphere, in which “the imaginary dogs beside us / are old friends, they will speak to you” (“The Happy Mondays”), is an exercise in quasi-melancholy nostalgia. I made the mistake of spinning this CD while viewing some old digitized Super 8s of my family in Florida, and had to dab my eyes repeatedly with a tissue—this from someone who considers himself a callous metalhead! Yes, the Mission mixes in religious lyrics (see “God Is Love”), but it’s nothing John Lennon would’ve eschewed. If you enjoy textured, chiming guitars à la The Smiths, and gorgeous vocals with a subtle Christian bent, this album will haunt you. ★★★★★


Klaus Schulze Volumes III and IV (Revisisted/SPV)

Before electronic music was kidnapped by psychedelic discothèques, New Age charlatans and Muzak terrorists, visionaries such as German musician Klaus Schulze explored the genre in artistic and challenging ways. The former Tangerine Dream member’s limited-edition ’70s-era output, mostly solo live performances throughout Europe, has been reissued/repackaged, with the third and fourth volume in the series just released in the States. Liner notes, by music historian Darren Bergstein and Schulze manager Klaus Mueller, vividly contextualize the recordings, which are epic in scope and pristine in quality. “I Sing the Body Electric,” inspired by the Ray Bradbury sci-fi story collection of the same name, is the 50-minute highlight, full of oscillating coldness and darkly soaring synth textures. Never mind if your roommates complain of rattling kitchen appliances; you know in your heart that what you’re hearing is atmospheric, deeply spiritual music. If you care at all about electronica and its European roots and history, this is mandatory. ★★★★★


Arcade Fire The Suburbs (Merge)

Everything you need to know about suburban existence—the mass conformity, the creeping isolation and more—can be found in Canadian rock band Rush’s incredible song “Subdivisions.” Fellow Canadians Arcade Fire don’t know this, and launched a fruitless mission to make a profound statement in the wake of Neon Bible, a Springsteen-influenced, Grammy-nominated, best-selling indie-rock album from 2007 that offered a blistering critique of American TV preachers/con men and other soft targets. Frontman/songwriter Win Butler was born in the U.S. and, despite living in Canada for years, remains angry about how easy he had it growing up here. The Suburbs is gloomy, tedious, offering little in the way of joy and much in the thrall of Elliott Smith (for instance, the title track) and, yep, the Boss (“Half Light II”). “City With No Children” almost gathers some rock-ish momentum, but is ultimately ruined by Butler’s attempt to sound like a blue-collar folkie when in fact, and you can tell by listening, he’s anything but. Nice try, guys, but I’ll stick with Rush.  ★☆☆☆☆

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