Mac DeMarco - Salad Days

With his 2012 debut, 2, Canadian songwriter Mac DeMarco offered the world a look into his dazed but brilliant mind's eye, his songs landing somewhere between a hallucinogenic re-imagination of '70s soft rock, oddball outsider jams, and laid-back indie fare. The tunes were somehow both tuneful and antagonistic in the subtlest of ways, and DeMarco easily shifted between characters of the stoned joker and sincere balladeer, playing each remarkably convincingly. Salad Days picks up where the strange vibes of 2 left off, brightening the production and shying away from Mac's more insane impulses for a clearer picture of his immensely cracked idea of what pop music is. By this point, DeMarco's guitar sound is becoming one of his signatures. Mellow, snaking, busy lines of chorus-drenched leads intertwine and chime over the top of thoughtful, sometimes restrained chords.  Absent from this album are both the highly contrasting moments of dreamy-eyed indie rock and wobbly, Ween-indebted weirdness that came through more sharply on 2. With songs touching on themes of maturation, life in the public eye, and good old-fashioned romance, DeMarco has trimmed the fat both musically and conceptually on Salad Days, turning in a streamlined picture of his musical development. With more memorable tracks and a slightly more accessible feel, the album is less distracted and more tuneful than before without losing any of the freewheeling spirit that made his songs and persona so attractive in the first place. equally strange, but possibly more grown up. ~ Fred Thomas, Rovi

 

St. Paul & the Broken Bones -- Half The City

With a charismatic, dynamic, and theatrical lead singer who seems to channel the intensity of James Brown on-stage, a loose and punchy two-man horn section, and a garage band back line that holds everything down, Birmingham, Alabama's St. Paul & the Broken Bones at their best capture a retro-soul sound that echoes nothing so much as the classic Stax and Muscle Shoals sides from the late '60s and early '70s. Lead vocalist Paul Janeway's gospel-inflected soul singing is impassioned to say the least, and he wrings every ounce of sweat and soul out of the tracks included on this, the band's debut full-length album. From the opener, "I'm Torn Up," the stage is set for track after track of slow-burning and heart-wrenching soul ballads, a form that is obviously Janeway's specialty. He croons, and roars, and gasps, and groans, and slides through these songs like the second coming of Al Green, somehow smooth and rough and raw all at the same time, pure emotion tempered with a dose of gospel spark, and there's no denying this is his show.. This debut album is pretty good, and this band shows a lot of heart. With a singer like Janeway, there's no reason to think that things won't just get bigger and better for this band. ~Steve Leggett, allmusic.com

Courtney Barnett -- Sea Of Split Peas

The first album from Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett isn't a traditional full-length. Sea of Split Peas is in fact two EPs tied together to create a full body of work, and it's a testament to her talented songwriting that the track list flows almost seamlessly from her breakthrough 2013 EP How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose into her 2012 release, I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. Barnett's greatest asset is her down-to-earth lyrical simplicity, which transforms what would otherwise be a mundane day or story into a tale of intrigue and significance. Obvious standout track "Avant Gardener" is typical of Barnett's dry wit as she explains her unsuccessful attempt at gardening, which results in a panic attack and the realization that she struggles with some of life's simplest tasks as she muses, "I'm not that good at breathing in." Her poetic words are set to a soundtrack of psychedelic-leaning guitar wails and chugging slacker-rock chords, which provide a freewheeling accompaniment to her narration. There is of course more to Barnett than her storytelling, and the churning melodies of "History Eraser" and the excitable "David" both indulge in a few organ blasts, piano twinkles, and rambling riffs that flare into the odd guitar solo. The difference between the two EPs is slightly obvious when the studio polish of 2013's Carve a Carrot Into a Rose -- which makes up the first half of the album -- breaks into the lo-fi sounding I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. The slight change of pace is heard in the unfurling tracks "Are You Looking After Yourself" and "Porcelain," which revel in their simplicity, and Barnett herself admits that this release was never intended to be noted as a full-length album, and was simply an exercise in collecting her work onto one disc. It's clear to see that together these EPs are an indicator of her wonderful songwriting talent. ~ Scott Kerr, Rovi



Drive-By Truckers -- English Oceans

For years, Mike Cooley has been the George Harrison of the Drive-By Truckers, the guy who contributed two or three fine songs to each DBTs album while frontman Patterson Hood penned the bulk of the band's repertoire. That changes with English Oceans, the band's tenth studio album, where Cooley gets co-star status for a change -- he penned six of the album's 13 tunes, and sings lead on Hood's "Til He's Dead or Rises." By accident or design, the increased presence of Cooley's songs gives English Oceans a feel of call and response, as Cooley's smart but plainspoken style faces off against Hood's more artful approach as they both spin tales of characters struggling to make sense of the world around them. While the album opens with a world-class rocker, Cooley's "Shit Shots Count," which could pass for a Dixie-fried outtake from Exile on Main St., for the most part English Oceans finds the Truckers in a thoughtful, low-key mood, with the guitar firepower dialed back a bit and both writers imagining characters whose lives range from the poignant ("Primer Coat," "When He's Gone") to the bitter ("The Part of Him") to the tragic ("Made Up English Oceans," "When Walter Went Crazy Ten albums and 18 years on from their first show, the Drive-By Truckers are still capable of mixing things up and showing off new sides of their skill set, and that's certainly the case with English Oceans, which shows them making wise use of all their talents -- not just Mike Cooley.  Mark Deming, allmusic.com

 

Future Islands -- Singles

After a solid run of albums that showed growth each time, Future Islands explode into greatness on their fourth album, and first for 4AD, 2014's Singles. Streamlining their synth-heavy, experimental, almost danceable sound of the past into something laser-focused, new wave familiar, and very, very immediate, the album is a great leap forward that's filled with intensely catchy songs and allows vocalist Samuel T. Herring to shine like the star he's always been. His David Thomas of Pere Ubu meets David Prater of Sam & Dave singing style is both more expansive than ever and more restrained. He ducks and bobs around the pulsing disco beats and glittering synths like a boxer, sometimes knocking you out with histrionic growls and deep-throated snarls, sometimes setting you up with lightly crooned pleading that hits like a heart punch. It's a masterful performance that's matched by Chris Coady's expert production and the work of bassist/guitarist William Cashion and guitarist/synthist J. Gerrit Welmers (as well as session drummer Denny Bowen). Coady smooths the group's sound out without sacrificing any punch, then layers in horns, backing vocals, and keys until the album shines like a well-polished diamond. A whole album of songs like that feels like a dream come true. It's real, though, and the vocals, the songs, the music, and the production work together to make Singles a one-of-a-kind experience that's nearly perfect. –Tim Sendra, allmusic.com



Dean Wareham -- Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham's first full-length solo album, 2014's eponymously titled Dean Wareham, features production by My Morning Jacket's Jim James and an elegiac, lyrical tone. In that sense, the album fits nicely into Wareham's existing discography as the leader of bands like Galaxie 500, Luna, and Dean & Britta, the latter two being critically acclaimed projects with his wife and bassist, Britta Phillips (who appears here as well). While Wareham has always evinced a love of dewy-eyed '60s and '70s pop music, here he imbues his softly melodic, sweetly poignant, and often psychedelic sound with a somewhat regretful and sad tone. The album's most buoyant track, the leadoff single "Holding Pattern," finds Wareham contemplating a sense of stasis in his life. Thankfully, another of Wareham's trademark traits, his deadpan humor, is also on display here as he evokes the monotony of constant touring by juxtaposing the music he's listening to on his device with the locations he find himself in. He sings "Kansas, Boston, Toto, Journey, Foreigner and Styx/San Diego over Denver seventeen to six/Living in a holding pattern, this is not my voice/Stuck inside a drop-down menu, this is not my choice." Ultimately, although melancholy has always been Wareham's default musical disposition, here he delivers his sadness with a coy, charming half-smile.  ~Matt Collar, Allmusic

 

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