Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy

On their first three albums, Titus Andronicus made it clear they were among the most thematically and stylistically ambitious bands to emerge from the punkier end of indie rock since the dawn of the new millennium. Having shown they were equal to the task of a concept album on 2010's The Monitor, TA leader Patrick Stickles has chosen to scale the slippery slope of a creative challenge that has bested many great bands: the rock opera. 2015's The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a narrative in five acts concerning a man scarred by abuse, drugs, and mental illness who encounters his doppelganger, leading to an internal crisis that explodes into violence. In the grand tradition of rock operas from the Who's Tommy to Fucked Up's David Comes to Life, The Most Lamentable Tragedy doesn't always scan very clearly as a story, with the through line from song to song often getting lost or wandering astray. But Stickles has done an outstanding job in drafting his protagonist, making his anger, fear, and madness seem vivid and powerfully honest, and Stickles' vocals bring the haunted man to vivid life. Sometimes suggesting a cross between Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and Bruce Springsteen's The River, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is as big, smart, and heartfelt as either of those albums, and a striking example of what Titus Andronicus can achieve. Anyone who doubted they were one of the major bands of our day will doubtless be convinced after a couple spins of The Most Lamentable Tragedy. [The CD version added three bonus tracks.]  ~Mark Deming, allmusic.com


Lianne La Havas -- Blood

After she completed extensive touring in support of Is Your Love Big Enough?, Lianne La Havas visited Jamaica with her native Jamaican mother and connected with distant relatives. Additionally inspired by her Greek roots through her father -- hence the album's title -- and possibly fortified by her experiences recording with Prince, Alt-J, and Tourist, Blood is no mere rehash of the Top Five U.K. debut that preceded it. Matt Hales, aka Aqualung, remains on board as a production and co-writing partner, but he contributes to fewer songs. Among the collaborators here are Stephen McGregor (son of Freddie McGregor), retro-soul specialist Jamie Lidell, Disclosure's Howard Lawrence, and pop heavy weights Mark Batson and Paul Epworth. La Havas goes for a bigger, bolder, more produced sound without glossing over her singer/songwriter/guitarist origin. The point is made in the opener, a storybook love song about being swept away that is carried on a rhythm firmer than anything heard on the debut. On "Tokyo," La Havas' yearning and state of disorientation is intensified by hazy effects and an appealingly chunky and slow groove that wouldn't be out of place on Jessie Ware's Devotion. "Midnight" and "Ghost" likewise wouldn't have the same resonance if merely sung and strummed, while "Never Get Enough" enters discretely but repeatedly veers into a dissonant stomp of lust and vexation. A few moments, like the wistful "Wonderful" and candid closer, are as hushed and restrained as the first album's highlights. The most vivid autobiographical song is "Green & Gold," a standout Lidell collaboration referencing La Havas' growth into an adult who is proud and understanding of her background and identity. This work leaves the debut, impressive as it was, in the dust.~Andy Kellman, allmusic.com

Neil Young -- The Monsanto Years

Old folkie that he is, Neil Young harbors a soft spot for songs as protest, and The Monsanto Years is full of them. Where he often railed against war, here the purported target is the agricultural company Monsanto, a firm that, among other things, specializes in genetically modified crops, but Young uses that as a pivot to rage against all manner of modern outrages. Apathy among the populace, avarice among corporations, and cultural homogenization provide the throughline on The Monsanto Years, and while the weathered hippie takes some time to lay down his electric guitar and breathe, this isn't a mournful album like Living with War, his W-era missive. This is a raging record and to that end, Young hired the Promise of the Real, a ragtag outfit led by Willie Nelson's guitarist son Lukas, to approximate Crazy Horse's lop-legged lumber. Usually it works: the group roars not with righteousness but with their own glee at making noise. Plus, the Promise of the Real is adept at the softer side, too, so they ably follow Young, laying down the electric and harmonizing in a fashion reminiscent of an unwashed CSN. Young is blessed with a younger, wilier version of his old compadres and that suits his tunes, which feel comfortable yet have a bite. Young uses his sturdy footing to lash out at what he perceives as destructive forces -- to our dinner tables and social fabric -- and if the individual message may wind up fading like yesterday's newspapers, the music will keep The Monsanto Years burning bright.  ~Stephen Thomas Erlewine, allmusic.com

Ghost/Ghost B.C.-- Meliora

Meliora, the third long-player by Sweden's Ghost, looks back at what made their 2011 debut, Opus Eponymous, so special: Beautifully written, hook-laden, hard rock songs with clean (and even serene) singing. Produced by pop-heavy hitter Klas Åhlund (Usher, Katy Perry, Madonna) and mixed by Andy Wallace (Slayer, Rob Zombie, Sepultura), Meliora is a calculated step into accessibility, and offers a clear window into the band's collective career ambitions. Their anonymous, cowled and masked monk costumes and the skull-faced, anti-Papal dress of their frontman Papa Emeritus III (same guy as Papa Emeritus I and II), who delivers lyrics of unabashed, worshipful Satanism, however, are their only links to black metal. The rest comes straight out of rock's storied past, from Alice Cooper and Blue Öyster Cult to Witchfinder General, Venom, and many, many more. (The gorgeous vocal harmonies woven throughout the album reveal they've also spent time listening to the San Francisco, L.A., and Laurel Canyon sounds of the late '60s and early '70s ). Schtick aside, this band's songwriting makes for some of the most compelling hard rock out there. "From the Pinnacle to the Pit,"'s verse recalls Alice In Chains, yet contains one of the most compelling refrains since "Don't Fear the Reaper," with a large church organ sifted in for measure. Closer "Deus in Absentia" pays homage to Thin Lizzy with its dual lead guitar harmonies, and to BÖC (who seem to haunt all Ghost's albums to some degree) with a pumping acoustic piano and thundering tom-toms. Meliora jumps so quickly from classic hard rock to prog to glam metal it can be dizzying (and perhaps even dazzling) for listeners. What holds it all together is solid writing that sticks close to stock pop/rock methodology. Ghost's lyrics often turn to Lucifer for comfort and consolation here -- their loving allure may prove to be shocking to parents (who may indeed enjoy the melodies). But the kids get the gag, and they'll have the final say as to whether Ghost achieves the mass popularity they so desperately seek.~Thom Jurek, allmusic.com


Jason Isbell -- Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell's 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern was written and recorded in the wake of Isbell's newfound sobriety, and it often sounded and felt like a musical version of the Fourth Step, in which Isbell took a long, hard look in the mirror as he came to terms with the emotional wreckage he left in his wake during his years as a drunk. By comparison, Something More Than Free, Isbell's 2015 follow-up, plays out as the work of a man a year or so into his recovery, grateful but still working with the nuts and bolts of living as a better and more mature man while the shadows of the past remain faintly but clearly visible. The opening tune, "If It Takes a Lifetime," is sung in the voice of a man adjusting to a quiet existence, not in love with every aspect of life as a working stiff but happy to be in a better place, and it sets the stage for a set of songs that move back and forth between past and present as Isbell's characters deal with lovers they wronged ("How to Forget"), the burdens of family ("Children of Children"), the dignity and restlessness of labor ("Something More Than Free"), and making sense of the responsibilities and disappointments of adult life ("Hudson Commodore" and "The Life You Chose"). Something More Than Free lacks some of the keen focus of Southeastern, in part because it plays on a broader emotional backdrop, and musically the set has a more eclectic feel, with poppier accents and a tone that's a bit more artful (there also isn't a full-on rocker here like Southeastern's "Super 8"). But Something More Than Free makes clear Southeastern was no fluke; the insights Isbell gained as a songwriter are just as evident on these 11 songs, and as a performer he's attained a nuanced maturity that demonstrates how far he's come since his days with the Drive-By Truckers (where he already sounded like a prodigy), but without a hint of pretension. Southeastern was a triumph from a talented songwriter and vocalist who stepped up to a new level; Something More Than Free shows Jason Isbell knows he just got there, and is still making use of that hard-won knowledge -- it confirms his status as a major artist. ~Mark Deming, allmusic.com

La Luz -- Weirdo Shrine

La Luz are clearly not afraid to mix things up, taking the reverb-soaked guitars of vintage surf rock, the harmonies of '60s girl group pop, and the simple, revved-up melodies of first-generation garage rock and twisting them together into a sound that miraculously stays true to its influences without sounding like the musicians are struggling to live in the past. La Luz aren't trading in irony or misplaced nostalgia on their second long-player, 2015's Weirdo Shrine -- they've simply appropriated bits and pieces of rock & roll's past the way a kid might build a hot rod out of scattered parts found at a junkyard, and like that hot rod the band has created something that runs like a top and has a personality and swagger all its own regardless of how it was put together. While producer and engineer Ty Segall might have been expected to add some of his own speaker-blowing psychedelia to La Luz's formula on Weirdo Shrine, he's clearly put his own ego on the back burner at the service of the band's own approach, and he's given Weirdo Shrine a sound that's tight and uncluttered but also captures the energy and space of a live performance. The interplay between guitarist and lead vocalist Shana Cleveland, bassist Lena Simon, keyboardist Alice Sandahl, and drummer Marian Li Pino is excellent, just loose enough to suit the often languid mood of the surf-influenced tunes but tight enough to deliver when the band cranks up the amps and makes with the rock. And if the vocals are further back in the mix on Weirdo Shrine than they were on 2013's It's Alive (which was already a bit murky), making it hard to tell just what Cleveland is here to tell us, the harmonies are executed with skill, and the overall vibe is smart without forcing any particular issue. Weirdo Shrine shows La Luz are more than living up to the promise of their early work, and that they're still one of the most interesting and entertaining acts on the Pacific Northwest scene in 2015. ~Mark Deming, allmusic.com



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