Viet Cong - Viet Cong

Viet Cong are the sort of band that makes you think use of the word "eclectic" should have been saved especially for them. On their first full-length album, simply titled Viet Cong, this group's music encompasses lo-fi noise and hi-fi electronic sheen, fuzzy guitars and thundering digital percussion, relentless drum patterns looping through banks of undefinable and formless sound, droning keyboards bumping up against indie rock guitar bashing, and clean and jangly 12-strings cheek by jowl with deep, echo-laden vocals. While Viet Cong only boasts seven songs, there seems to be at least three times as many musical personalities making their way through this music, and despite the spacious range of sounds and perspectives, Viet Cong manage to fuse it all into something scattershot yet coherent, unified by a strong stylistic through-line and an abundance of energy. Viet Cong's four collaborators -- Matthew Flegel, Scott Munro, Michael Wallace, and Daniel Christiansen -- have filled this album with cool but addictive melodies, guitar work that can sooth or bludgeon at will, and plenty of sonic atmosphere, while producer Graham Walsh (working in tandem with Flegel and Munro) gives the music a muscular presence, making especially interesting use of the stereo image. And while Viet Cong have more than a passing fancy for indie rock's past -- Sonic Youth, Gang of Four, and the Jesus and Mary Chain are just three of the obvious touchstones one can hear in these songs -- the performances are full of the joy of discovery and the crackle of fresh ideas introduced to the mix. Viet Cong were a group full of promise on their debut EP, Cassette, and with their harder, heavier, and more powerful debut album, they're making it clear they have the talent and smarts to become a major force in Canada's indie community.


The Lone Bellow -- Then Came Morning

Given the enthusiasm that the Lone Bellow's self-titled 2013 debut generated, they had their work cut out for them on album number two. Then Came the Morning is no sophomore slump; it establishes the group's individual identity. They co-wrote all the material and took real chances with arrangements and sound. This time out, the Lone Bellow enlisted the National's Aaron Dessner as producer. His brother Bryce is also on board, adding various string, wind, and horn orchestrations. This set is far more varied, savvy, and uplifting than its predecessor, yet sacrifices no depth. While some songs are still rooted in feelings of mortality, others deliver quiet passion, spiritual zeal, and hard-won affirmation, while remaining centered in their trademark "Brooklyn country music." Zach Williams' passionate, soulful voice leads all but one of the 13 songs, soaring above the guitars, mandolins, pedal steels, clattering snares, keyboards, strings, and horns in Peter Katis' mix. On the title track that opens the set, backing choral harmonies from bandmates Kanene Doheney Pipkin and Brian Elmquist almost lift the record off the ground. "Take My Love" begins with urgent, thickly reverbed snares and pedal steel wrapped in warm layers of electric and acoustic guitars and gentle keyboards. Williams' singing underscores the anthemic quality of the narrative. Then Came the Morning reveals so much growth it's hard to believe this is only the Lone Bellow's second album. This trio pulls off a chosen weave of hybrid roots sounds with seeming ease, passion, and verve. No one else performing Americana or crossover country music attempts anything like it, leaving the trio in its own class. ~Thom Jurek,

John Carpenter -- Lost Themes

Though his filmmaking career slowed in the 2000s and 2010s, John Carpenter's influence as a composer only grew. Along with Tangerine Dream, his immediately recognizable sound -- full of pulsing synths and ever-ratcheting tension -- inspired a new generation of acts like Zombi, Majeure, Umberto, Espectrostatic, and Geoff Barrow's Drokk project, among many others, so the timing couldn't have been more perfect for Carpenter to release new music when Lost Themes arrived. Despite that title, these songs aren't attached to any films; instead, they offer a multiplex worth of possibilities for listeners to soundtrack their lives. As Carpenter gives fans exactly what they want -- those ominous synth arpeggios appear less than a minute into the opening track, "Vortex" -- he also engages them on a slightly different level, allowing them to put their imagery and stories to his music for the first time. Soundtrack geeks will also enjoy connecting Lost Themes to his previous work: the power chords that slash through the album call to mind his later, guitar-oriented scores like Vampires, and the intricate keyboard counterpoint that begins "Mystery" shares more than a little of Halloween's sparkling menace. However, it's not necessary to be a Carpenter expert to enjoy "Domain's brassy duel between danger and victory. Throughout Lost Themes, Carpenter -- aided by his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies -- uses a more-is-more approach that sets him apart from his followers, most of whom focus on tastefully taut atmospheres. A big part of Lost Themes' brilliance lies in Carpenter's refusal to update his aesthetic -- the more '80s it is, the more vital it sounds. As he leaps from one thrill to the next, he evokes his past without rehashing it, delivering a complete and immensely satisfying portrait of his music along the way.  ~Heather Phares,

Dengue Fever -- The Deepest Lake

While Dengue Fever could almost have qualified as a novelty act when they first started out (Los Angeles hipsters playing decades-old Cambodian pop tunes? Talk about high concept!), they've matured into a richly satisfying band, blending several different cultures and styles into an indie rock melting pot, and 2015's The Deepest Lake, their sixth studio album, is another striking and pleasurable example of East meeting West. Though the exotica accents and semi-psychedelic drift of their earlier work are still clearly visible on The Deepest Lake (most notably on the lovely "Golden Flute"), African percussive accents and hip-hop elements play a larger role in this music, while "Rom Say Sok" is steeped in American R&B, "Cardboard Castles" lays distorted guitars and graceful guitars over quietly churning percussion, and "Still Waters Run Deep" sounds like the main theme of a spy movie set in Phnom Penh with its punchy horns and dramatic twists and turns. The members of Dengue Fever wrote, produced, and recorded all ten tunes on The Deepest Lake, bringing a witty and intelligent melodic sense to the songs and a clean, atmospheric tone to the audio, and while the songs are primarily sung in a Cambodian dialect by lead vocalist Chhom Nimol, the occasional bursts of English add considerably to the multi-cultural flavor of the music, allowing both sides to play like strangers in a strange land. And Dengue Fever simply play brilliantly as a band, with Zac Holtzman's guitars and Ethan Holtzman's keyboards lending the songs a broad spectrum of tonal colors and attitudes, David Ralicke's horns commenting on the surroundings with wisdom and smarts, and bassist Senon Williams and drummer Paul Dreux Smith nudging the music forward with just the right touch. Dengue Fever have grown far beyond a mere world music pastiche; on The Deepest Lake, they deliver music that's thoughtful, imaginative, and sensuous in all the best ways, and this album is a joy for listeners with a taste for sonic adventure. ~Mark Deming,


Andy Shauf -- The Bearer Of Bad News

Like the long, cold prairie winters during which it was recorded, Andy Shauf's sophomore LP, The Bearer of Bad News, on Tender Loving Empire records, is both grim and beautiful, bearing the kind of weary warmth of a bedroom lamp lit after a five p.m. sunset. Recorded in his basement in Regina, Saskatchewan over the course of two years and written over four, it has the deep, refined feeling of being worked on, but not overworked. The 11 tracks here are decidedly rustic at heart, with a hushed, Spartan feeling akin to early Elliott Smith albums, an acknowledged influence of Shauf's. The vision is singular, with Shauf supplying all the vocals and instrumentation save for drums on one track. From the dead-string strumming of the buoyant opener "Hometown Hero" to the foreboding creep of "Wendell Walker," he paints a descriptive picture of small-town life and lonesome folks looking inward with desolate lines like "Now this past winter was the coldest in years/It's hard to explain if you've never lived here." Shauf's brand of Canadiana is rooted in folk music, but the sophistication of his arrangements reveals a keen pop sensibility that saves it from wallowing too deeply in the sepia-toned doldrums. His clever and often dissonant clarinet and string orchestrations on songs like "I'm Not Falling Asleep" and "The Man on Stage" add a richness of color that belies the album's generally somber tone. The Bearer of Bad News may be a sad, introspective album, but Shauf's lyrical poeticism and multidimensional musicality are what sets it apart from others of its ilk. ~Timothy Monger, allmusic

Justin Townes Earle -- Absent Fathers

On Justin Townes Earle’s last album, Single Mothers, the folky troubadour was especially intimate, explaining his childhood tersely on the title track: “single mothers, absent fathers, broken home.” That line was the LP’s thesis statement, a recurring theme made more personal by the fact that Earle is the son of country-rock legend Steve Earle, who left Justin’s mother when his son was only 2. Although Single Mothers was originally meant to be a double album, Earle ultimately scrapped that idea in favor of releasing two separate but interconnected efforts. Earle’s sixth full-length, Absent Fathers, is the second half of the recording sessions, coming out just four months after Single Mothers. The worthy companion album matches its predecessor in tone, length, and emotional resonance.
Because it was recorded alongside Single Mothers, Absent Fathers features the same three-piece band backing Earle, including Paul Niehaus (Lambchop, Calexico) on pedal steel. With those players in place, the album boasts an unfussy but seamless blend of Nashville classic country (“Slow Monday”), Memphis-inspired blues rock (“Round The Bend”), and ’60s soul (“When The One You Love Loses Faith”). Earle remains a skillful frontman, more than able to land both heart-wrenching and uplifting lines. As much as Earle’s twangy croon drives the music, an equally melodic force comes from Niehaus, whose dulcet pedal steel tones give the songs a lush and moody backbone. The less-is-more album standouts “Day And Night” and “Slow Monday” feature just Earle and Niehaus.  With the separate releases of Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, Earle has made two distinct albums that manage to succeed both as standalone and complementary works. While his steadfast consistency isn’t the flashiest trait in a songwriter, his newfound confessional streak is alarmingly resonant and refreshing.~ Josh Terry, AV Club



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