Brian Wilson and more...
Strike Hard, Young Diamond
There’s not much that sets the youthful Wildlife apart from the rest of the indie rock pack, except that they’re great. Their debut Strike Hard, Young Diamond is a concept album about—what else?—the vagaries of young adulthood, carried by huge hooks played on—what else?—huge guitars, a fair-weather horn section, and the occasional banjo. The key to its distinction beyond empty ebullience is its accuracy. The shout-along chorus “Move to the city / Move back home / Move to another city” turns futile optimism into something of a spiritual triumph. “I’ve got a fire to keep my house warm / I’ve got shoes but they’re worn through” is privileged self-loathing’s hand-to-mouth posturing. And “Killing For Fun” goes down fighting when there’s no one to fight. They gained my attention when half a “leak” of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was really this album, and honest-to-goodness, these heart-on-sleeve Canadians make those heart-on-sleeve Canadians sound, well, kind of old. Benjamin Aspray
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
You cannot overstate the significance of a genius like Brian Wilson reinterpreting the work of a titan like George Gershwin, but the storied Beach Boy’s Reimagines Gershwin shouldn’t be treated merely as a footnote or even a full chapter in the chronicle of American popular song. No, the album is instead a vibrant and lush collection of tunes, treated alternately with reverence (“I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”, “Someone to Watch Over Me”) and playfulness (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, “I Got Rhythm”). It’s another notch in the belt of Wilson’s late-career comeback, following in the improbable completion of Smile and his most recent collection of all-new material, That Lucky Old Sun, and it stands up as not only a tribute to one of the founders of a beloved form but also as a living, breathing example of a modern artist who still has plenty to say. Michael Lello
Rock fans who have followed him through his days with the Hallucinations and J. Geils Band have known for years that Peter Wolf is a rare treasure—if he visits your local classic rock station to guest-DJ while on tour, be sure to cancel all other engagements and tune in to hear a master at work and learn a thing or 12 about rock history—so it’s not news that Midnight Souvenirs is good. But it’s a pleasant surprise that the record is firing-on-all-cylinders great. Whether on his own (“I Don’t Wanna Know”) or with ringers like Merle Haggard, Shelby Lynne and Neko Case who play off his shaggy vocals beautifully (especially the latter on the goosebump-inducing “Green Grass of Summer”), covering Allen Toussaint (“Everything I Do (Gonna Be Funky)”), giving his libido a workout on “Overnight Lows”, or mourning fellow-musical-wandering soul Willy DeVille on “The Night Comes Down”, Midnight Souvenirs finds the 64-year-old Wolf in full command of his rock/soul/R&B/funk talents—and hell, he even painted the album cover. Stephen Haag
What Wolf Parade does—guitar work buttressed by synths, or vice versa, depending on perspective—isn’t particularly unique in the current indie rock pantheon. But how Wolf Parade does it—with verve and emotion, with a seemingly tossed-off approach that results in sprawling songs that somehow maintain their melodic drive—is different and memorable and makes for a rich listening experience. There’s a prominent photo of Wolf Parade performing live in the liner booklet, which might stand out as incongruous for a studio album, but it’s appropriate, considering the raw nature of the tracks, many of which sound like they could’ve sprung from soundcheck jams. This is evident from the get-go with opener “Cloud Shadow on the Moon”, which has no introduction and seems to begin at mid-verse. Michael Lello
The Calgary-based quartet’s sophomore effort bleeds and snarls like a fractured tribute to Evol-era Sonic Youth with an occasional interest in Fugazi-esque two-guitar attack (“Heat Distraction”) or messy krautrock (“China Steps”). Hooky in parts, fiercely noisy and lo-fi in others (the recording process reportedly made use of boom boxes and tape machines), Public Strain was produced by multitalented Canadian artist Chad VanGaalen, whose Soft Airplane was one of 2008’s greatest (and most underappreciated) records. Almost as overlooked (but not nearly as pretty), Public Strain plays out like Halycon Digest‘s uglier, tantrum-prone cousin. It’s also an impressively confident hint at where this band is headed next. (Unless it has already broken up. Which is apparently uncertain.) Zach Schonfeld
Dear God, I Hate Myself
I bought plenty of vinyl records in 2010, but the one that I seemed to pick out of my collection the most often was the seventh studio album from the rather avant-garde Xiu Xiu, fronted by Jamie Stewart. It’s not a perfect record, as it does have its share of filler—particularly in the two bonus tracks that can be downloaded as MP3—and it boasts a rather strange and out-of-place cover of the folk standard “Cumberland Gap”. However, listening to this LP is akin to driving past a bad car wreck in that you simply can’t turn away. Filled with all sorts of eight-bit videogame-esque blips and bloops, Dear God, I Hate Myself is the kind of album Trent Reznor might have made if he’d been influenced by old-school Nintendo games, Kate Bush and the Smiths instead of industrial and Europop music. The album also has some sublimely delicious moments in the title track, “Chocolate Makes You Happy” and the astounding “This Too Shall Pass Away (For Freddy)”. Dear God, I Hate Myself is a puzzling record, full of high and lows, and perhaps this is what makes it so returnable. It’s enigmatic and strange, and something you have to listen to over and over again, simply to try to make sense of its sprawl. Zachary Houle
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