Power metal gets a bad rap among fans of hard and heavy music, what with its lack of guile and its unapologetically populist nature. But few acts are as successful in their aims to pull in anyone and everyone in their sphere as Unleash The Archers, a Canadian quartet fronted by powerhouse vocalist Brittney Slayes. On the band’s fifth full-length Abyss, their mixture of fierce energy and technical playing continues to impress. And the sincerity with which Slayes approaches her lyrics, which often sound like the stomping proclamations of mighty intergalactic warriors, is almost impossible to sneer at. At the right volume, this record could bring down the walls of Minas Morgul. Use it wisely.
Soul Asylum’s seventh studio album was another unapologetic swing at mainstream success. At that point, the Minnesota alt-rockers had scored a fluke hit with “Runaway Train” in 1993, which drove the sales of previous LP Grave Dancers Union into platinum territory. It made sense to strike while the iron was hot. Cue the hiring of Nevermind producer Butch Vig and mixing engineer Andy Wallace to beef up the sound of the next record and cue a lot of self-conscious, idiom-heavy lyrics from front man Dave Pirner. The strength of the music won out in the end, with guitarist Dan Murphy’s spirited leads brushing away the music’s most leaden moments. This new vinyl pressing stands as strong as possible, considering the amount of music that had to be squeezed onto each copy. As such, it loses some of its power towards the end of both sides, but the mastering job keeps it from getting too mucked up.
If you’ve heard even a single song by Gangstagrass, the New York-based ensemble led by producer/guitarist Rench that mixes traditional bluegrass and hip-hop, you know what you’re in for with their eighth studio album No Time For Enemies. Which is not a knock on the quality of this new record. What Rench and his cast of collaborators do, they continue to do very well. The fusion of genres is in perfect balance, not sacrificing one for the other. Just check out the lovely “Hard Times Come Again No More,” which sets the rhyming of R-Son the Voice of Reason and Dolio the Sleuth against nothing more than a banjo line and some lovely accompaniment from vocalist Kaia Kater. Or their reinterpretation of Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land,” which serves as a perfect anthem for the continued protests against police brutality happening around the world as you read this.
Power pop quartet that dog. got swept up in the same post-Nevermind rush that caught fellow Angelenos Beck and Weezer, but somehow missed out on the goldmine those other two acts tapped into. Was it their gooseflesh-inducing vocal harmonies? The abundant use of Petra Haden’s violin? Did their lovestruck sunniness run afoul of the folks that wanted a little more cynicism and fury in their girl-fronted bands? Whatever fool-headed reason that that dog. didn’t get their proper due in the ’90s, now is a chance to correct the historical record thanks to Third Man’s vinyl reissues of the group’s two DGC albums. Both are spectacularly tuneful and shamelessly rocking, and blessedly free of buzzy covers or guest appearances. The band knew how strong their songs were and how well they could bring this glam-bubblegum attack to life free of any of those trappings—and maybe in defiance of their familial record biz connections (front woman Anna Waronker is the daughter of former Warner Bros. president Lenny; bassist Rachel Haden and violinist Petra are the daughters of jazz legend Charlie Haden). They stood firm on their own feet and made music for the ages.
The irony of an L.A.-based EDM musician releasing an album about ego and the thoughtless pursuit of pleasure seems lost on the artist known as Stephen. Nor does he acknowledge the privilege that cuts through every detail of his journey, which includes surviving Lyme disease and buying a one-way ticket to Thailand to “reconnect with himself.” All that aside, we should at least celebrate the fact that Stephen is clearly trying to better himself by way of Akrasia, a fine collection of glittery dance music that bears the influence of trap, industrial (the grinding, pleading “Delilah”) and indie rock (hints of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective pop up throughout this album). And let’s appreciate the fact that, with his heart-on-sleeve lyrics, he’s potentially kicking the door open for other narcissistic white dudes to do a little self-exploration. Stephen is saying the quiet parts loud on Akrasia, so his frustrated yet hopeful words might better resonate with our own experience.
Short lived Boston band Betwixt fell through the cracks of an indie music scene besotted with easier to stomach post-rock acts like Grandaddy and garage punk revivalism. Not the most welcoming atmosphere for an art-rock project anchored by the hum of a cello and the connection of their disparate interests in Eastern European folk, post-punk, funk and baroque pop. Hence Betwixt’s second and final LP, 1999’s The Salty Tang, despite getting some nice reviews from CMJ and AllMusic, wasn’t given the attention it deserved. Though the band has long since broken up, they might get their due this year with this re-release of Salty Tang on vinyl and in digital form. Mastering engineer Scott Anthony did a marvelous job leveling out the various timbres and tones of Betwixt’s lineup, with Gordon Withers’ cello finding comfortable space between the tense splay of Tom Devaney’s guitar and the sensuous pull of Leah Callahan’s vocals.
Bassist Gregg August originally composed Dialogues On Race in 2009, following the election of Barack Obama, as a musical attempt to facilitate difficult but necessary conversations about our country’s racial history—with music inspired by and sometimes featuring the words of important Black writers like Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Cornelius Eady. The combination of those texts and the bluesy bite of the music was powerful then, and it feels even more so now as a mass protest movement continues to shake our streets. August couldn’t have foreseen the fortuitousness of this release, but his Dialogues has become a crucial soundtrack for our fractious times. The devastating “Mother Mamie’s Reflections,” which sets a recording of Emmett Till’s mother recounting the emotions of seeing her son’s lifeless body against a droning improvisation by August, bass clarinetist Ken Thomson and tuba player Marcus Rojas calls to mind the powerful speeches by the families of Jacob Blake or Breonna Taylor; the agitated and driving “Sherbet” becomes a statement of joy and defiance in the face of people who are branding this modern civil rights movement as the beginning of the end for our supposedly great nation. Dialogues is an empathetic, challenging and ultimately uplifting work of art—and one of the best albums of 2020.
By the time that their fifth album was released in 1995, So Cal punkers The Vandals had been around for 15 years, with only one original member (drummer-turned-bassist Joe Escalante) still in the fold. But through it all, the band held true to their puerile sense of humor and unquestionable skills at writing fast, catchy anthems for young, pimply skaterats. Silly as it is, Life Fast, Diarrhea is one of the Vandals’ strongest statements. The lineup, including guitar shredder Warren Fitzgerald and L.A. session drummer extraordinaire Josh Freese, is tough and playful in equal measure, and unafraid to dig into the wide-eyed romanticism of “I Have A Date” (a cover of a tune by lesser known punk group The SImpletones) and a take on the Mary Poppins classic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” This vinyl reissue—pressed on clear vinyl with a brown splatter, natch—also reveals some serious flaws in the album’s construction and recording. The guitar is often frayed when it should punch, and many songs are cut off just as they are ready to fade away. The indifference fits in with the Vandals’ overall aesthetic but makes for a rough listen.
Third Man Records has been slowly moving their archival work beyond the punk, soul, blues, gospel and country sounds that label founder Jack White tends to truck in to include some wonderful outliers like this release by Detroit-based Tejano legend Martin Solis and his band Los Primos. It was long thought that the former Texan never recorded any of his music as he never thought it was good enough. But his son Frank apparently stumbled upon some home recordings by Solis and Los Primos. Initially the idea was to transfer the music to CD for his family, but the folks at Third Man were so impressed by what they heard that they offered to release it more widely. The sessions span the better part of three decades, but Solis and the various members of Los Primos remain consistent, digging into delightful originals and classics like Chucho Navarro’s “Pérdida” and Jose Morfin’s “Sin Ti” with a verve and spirit that makes up for any floppy notes or unsteady rhythms.
Prior to the release of I, Jonathan in 1992, Jonathan Richman was primarily a cult act—still drafting off the dynamic splash of the Modern Lovers’ debut, but only truly appreciated by fellow songwriters and longtime fans of his open-hearted, unaffected rock and pop. I, Jonathan may have helped turn the tide. Not enough to help turn Richman into a superstar, but with the right amount of promotional oomph that netted him appearances on Conan O’Brien and eventually on to the silver screen as the wandering troubadour in There’s Something About Mary. As this album, getting its vinyl debut this month as part of Rounder Records’ 50th anniversary, bears out, Richman’s music is downright irresistible. These 10 songs are bathed in the nostalgic glow of rock’s earliest days and colored by the memories of memorable moments (the charming “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar”) and places (“Rooming House on Venice Beach”) and artists (“Velvet Underground”) from his colorful life. Richman’s music is a big tent, open to all so long as you bring along a positive spirit and a pair of dancing shoes.
For a hot minute, L-Seven were the post-punk group in Detroit, getting plum gigs opening for all the best British acts of the time: Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Birthday Party. But during their three years together, the band only managed to release one 7”. L-Seven’s discography has been expanded considerably with this new collection that pulls together unreleased studio work and live recordings. Produced with the help of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley (who apparently came close to joining the group), this LP reveals just how deeply L-Seven’s wrote under the influence of the U.K. post-punk scene, and amplifies their copious strengths. Key among the latter is front woman Larissa Stolarchuk, a raspy, but tuneful vocalist whose style presaged the poetic pattern of Life Without Buildings singer Sue Tompkins. (The world lost a fantastic voice when L-Seven broke up but it gained a killer guitarist when Stolarchuk took up the instrument as a member of Laughing Hyenas.) And as much as this group ventured beyond the post-punk map by adding glistening guitar tones and dub production elements to their agitated compositions, they paid heed to their forebears well, as heard in their radical and furious covers of Misfits’ “London Dungeon” and the Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down.”