Comeback Kids: March Goes Out Like a Lion With Some Fantastic New Albums

The Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
The Magnetic Fields bandleader Stephin Merritt, one of the great living American songwriters, has returned to indie label Merge, picked up his synthesizers, and released his strongest album in years. No concepts or overarching themes this time out, just a collection of 15 short, crafty pop songs (all under three minutes) from a master of the form. The song titles alone will elicit giddy grins from fans (“God Wants Us to Wait,” “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”). Merritt covers a fair amount of ground: clever synth-pop, of course (“The Machine in Your Hand” is about wanting to be a crush’s mobile device); a spurned lover’s revenge fantasy (“Your Girlfriend’s Face,” which the song’s protagonist has hired a hitman to, um, remove); country (“Going Back to the Country”); and Gary Numan–style ’80s new wave (“Infatuation [With Your Gyration]”). Almost every track’s a keeper, and the (very) few that miss their marks are over before they wear out their welcome. It’s the band’s most consistently entertaining album since 69 Love Songs, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

The Ting Tings, Sounds from Nowheresville (Columbia)
Manchester pop duo and Apple darlings The Ting Tings follow up their ubiquitous international hits “That’s Not My Name” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go” with a confident, polished collection of smart, sassy modern pop. Highlights abound: The twin chant-a-longs “Hang It Up” and “Hit Me Down Sonny” could pass for M.I.A. at her catchiest, and “Soul Killing” is an admirable stab at a ska anthem. Elsewhere, the album effortlessly shifts from the ’90s heyday electronica of “One By One" to the deft radio-ready pop of “Day to Day.” The spare, haunting closing track “In Your Life” ends the album with hushed vocals, acoustic guitar, and viola—a well-deserved cooldown after a half hour of uptempo, spirited fun.

School of Seven Bells, Ghostory (Ghostly International)
The third album from NYC’s answer to M83 is another inspired mix of electronica and early-’90s dreampop.The band is now a duo after the departure of vocalist Alejandra Deheza’s twin sister, Claudia, but the vocals here soar as effectively as on prior releases. Ghostory is a concept album (thankfully without the minor-key dirges or goth trappings its title might imply), but while close attention reveals a story  and the group’s trademark lyrical wordplay amid Benjamin Curtis’ swirling guitar textures, the individual songs are strong enough to stand on their own without narrative context. The propulsive opening track “The Night” is as good a song as any the band has yet produced, and “White Wind” packs a heavy, Garbage-like punch. Only on the trance-inducing “Show Me Love” and the percussion-less “Reappear” does atmosphere overtake songcraft.

Miike Snow, Happy to You (Downtown Records/Universal Republic)
Proving this Swedish trio’s stellar eponymous debut was no fluke, the self-produced Happy to You gamely picks up where its predecessor left off, with 10 more tracks of  sonically tricked-out, expertly crafted songs that stylistically fall somewhere between The Postal Service and MGMT. While no single track reaches the dizzying pop heights of “Animal” (the first album’s finest moment and one of the best songs of 2009), some (“Paddling Out,” “Pretender,” and “Archipelago”) come awfully close. The album as a whole is packed with an arsenal of production tricks, sound effects, and marching band brass and drums that will hold your attention throughout.

Nite Jewel, One Second of Love (Secretly Canadian)
L.A. singer Ramona Gonzalez’s sophomore album of hip, lean, laptop disco retains the D.I.Y. charm of her earlier recordings, which have earned her a legitimate cult following. The main difference here is the expected studio polish and her improved songwriting chops. Half of the album consists of hooky pop confections like “Memory Man,” “Mind & Eyes,” and the album’s infectious title track and first single, all benefitting greatly from the cleaner, leaner sound. The remaining half is more stark, minimalist, and experimental, and should appeal to adventurous ears—the kind of music enthusiasts who prefer their pop in quotation marks.

Bright Moments, Natives (Luaka Bop)
Multi-instrumentalist Kelly Pratt, who has played brass and wind instruments for the likes of Beirut, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem, has released a solo album on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and it’s a charmer. Natives is a home-studio recorded confection of odd samples, warm vocals, keyboards, and Pratt’s trademark trumpet flourishes. The Kentucky native’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to recording fills out the album with all manner of nifty sonic details without making it sound cluttered, and the songs themselves are tuneful and melodic (Careful: You’ll have the melody of “Travelers” stuck in your head for days.) A promising debut.

Plants and Animals, The End of That (Secret City Records)
The Montreal trio’s third folk-infused, guitar-centric indie rock record has a raw, intimate, in-session sound, with Warren Spicer’s vocals way up front in the mix, suiting the material just fine. While the lovely harmonies that sweetened their Polaris-nominated debut album, Parc Avenue, are missed, understated acoustic moments like opening track “Before,” and the midway interlude “HC” nicely offset Crazy Horse–style rave-ups like “Crisis!” (featuring the priceless chorus “We’re somewhere between a crisis and a pretty good time”). The End of That manages the neat trick of sounding contemporary, even as it harkens back to loose, ’70s-style guitar rock, ragged in all the right ways.

BBook x SXSW: Austin Starts To Wear Us Down

SXSW, you have hit me like a ton of bricks and all I want to do is sleep and be submerged in silence. I am exhausted. In real life I don’t go out, staying up late is being awake until midnight, and I don’t drink. Partying was something I got out of my system in my early twenties, and I have never had the desire to do it again. SXSW is awesome because it is a forum for people to showcase their creativity in this crazy concentrated world for five days. I am all down for that. What I am not so much all down for is the massive — and I mean MASSIVE — crowds of drunk people 24/7. I am completely fascinated as an observer of this madness, but after three days I’m beginning to lose steam and patience am utterly and completely worn down.

Maybe it’s because I am so beat, or maybe it’s because everyone else is too, but for some reason yesterday was pretty meh music-wise. Out of the seven acts we saw, only two of them were good.

We were both really amped to finally get a chance to check out the Fader Fort, which is pretty much its own mini-festival within the festival itself. It was awesome. There were two outdoor open bars, a room with about six mattresses lined with pillows and separated by charging stations for your phone, porch swings, lawn chairs, and free copies of Fader scattered all over the place. Our initial thought was, Wow, Fader, you really know how to do it up. We grabbed a couple of drinks (when in Rome) and got comfy on a mattress with an issue of the magazine. There was an opening in the room we were in that framed the stage, and so for the first couple of acts we watched in leisure. Nothing stirred us to get up; in fact the exact opposite happened.

About an hour later, Nite Jewel came on. We got off our butts and headed to the stage, excited to finally get to see some good music. The singer Ramona Gonzalez started off the set by making kind of a backhanded jab at the acts that went on before her. “We aren’t a blues band, but that’s okay,” she stated. At that point I honestly couldn’t tell if it was condescending or not, but after comments made throughout the set like, “We drove here from Dallas,” to which people in the crowd who were clearly from Dallas cheered and she responded, “We are definitely not from Dallas, Dallas has a lot of freeways, and that’s all I have to say about that,” it was clear. I’m never a supporter of blatant condescension but it’s one thing to be condescending and still be killing it on stage. It’s a complete other thing to give a lackluster, slightly off-tune performance and then rag on the audience in between songs. Throughout the whole set Ramona just seemed to be in her own world and not so interested in being on stage. I really desperately wanted to like Nite Jewel; in fact I even really loved the music that was going on behind her. But every time she started to sing something seemed off. Despite being disappointed in the live performance and the attitude that went a long with it, I’m not counting them out. I think I might actually really enjoy the album itself, but oy. And that’s all I have to say about that.

The only good performance that we saw in the four hours that we were in the Fader Fort was Zola Jesus. This is going to sound super cheesy and new agey, but Zola Jesus is one of those rare performers along the lines of Stevie Nicks and Tori Amos whose soul emanates through her voice. The whole set was beautiful and she is just the coolest. Her white dress, white hair, and pale complexion just added to her mystique, and she radiated some crazy energy on stage. The performance was almost able to make up for the rest of the acts that went on before her.

I am really hoping that I am able to turn my mindset around, after all we are really lucky to be here.

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