April 10th, 2020

Sparta – Trust The River (Jim Ward)

For their 4th release, the first in 14 years, Sparta has decided to make themselves almost unrecognizable, moving even farther from the volume and intricacy of their origin in At The Drive-In. Maybe it’s time we stop expecting Ward and company to sound like replicants of themselves from a quarter-century ago. Thoughts?

Trust The River is a new chapter, a dynamic renaissance for a pioneer of modern emo-punk and post-hardcore. Strip away the technicality, scale back the power, remove nearly all preconceived notions of yourself, and what’s left? A pretty straightforward garage-style trock album that highlights songwriting, as opposed to songcraft. 

While I don’t believe they will ever top 2002’s Wiretap Scars, this effort solidly tops their other 2 records, in this listener’s not-so-humble opinion, brushing them aside like so much unwanted detritus. Unfortunately for Sparta, I don’t think it’s strong or important enough to revive the genre and make them relevant again.  

FFO: Engine Down, Hot Water Music

Local H – LIFERS (AntiFragile)

I must say: I appreciate bands like Local H.  I’m all for experimenting, finding a new sound, and adapting to the times.  But there’s also comfort in the familiar, and this album is an 11-track masterclass in familiarity.  Think of bands like The Offspring and Weezer: do you really want them to depart from their signature sounds?  It would probably still be amazing, but there’s enough amazing music in the world.  Let Local H be Local H, for goodness sakes.

Now, they could’ve easily phoned it in, and their distinctive sound coupled with the nostalgia would’ve been enough to get listens.  But these tracks stand up under their own weight, including a glorious one-two punch to close it out (“Defy And Surrender”, followed by “Innocents”).  I’ll fight against my urges to end this with a tired old 90s trope, and will instead tell you, dear reader, that this album is most definitely worth your ear.  You won’t expect too much from it, and you won’t be let down. The urges won, sorry.

FFO: I mean, Local H, really

Joe Satriani – Shapeshifting (Sony)

I love guitar work, whether that’s riffing, shredding, wailing, or just holding down a solid melody. For his 18th studio full-length release, Satch is a rock n’ roll chameleon. Showing off blues, pop, metal, new wave, and any other styles he feels like in the moment. Shapeshifting is a testament to that prodigious talent, traveling between genres like changing lanes on a highway. 

However, that admirable effort just causes the album to feel disjointed, jarring and unintentional, sometimes even within a single track (lead single, “1980”). Then there’s the ‘80s Rom-Com under-narrative backing track that is “Big Distortion”, where even the name sounds like it should be used for generic purposes.

That is not to say that the record is without its charms. On the contrary, the opening title track is a gritty, riff-heavy jam that feels like it ends too soon. Another stand-out track is the mellow, bluesy groove “Teardrop”, filled with so much emotion, and dripping with so much cool, that I forgot it was an instrumental. There is also a mandolin appearance by Christopher Guest on the album finale, “Yesterday’s Yesterday”, which appears to have been written by Guest.

Ultimately, aside from a few great tunes, most of Shapeshifting was uninspired and a little sleepy. 

FFO: Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Hoey

STRFKR – Never The Same (Polyvinyl)

Very upbeat, well-layered, futuristic sound.  Much like last month’s Deap Lips… thing, it’s a chaotic jigsaw puzzle.  Each bleep and bloop nestles in nicely with the next, but without getting too far off the rails.  Everything is still tight and curated.

But more than anything, the foundation is wonderful.  Take out all the other sounds, and you still have a great, upbeat indie rock album.  It’s indie rock, as played through a Holophonor. It’s indie rock, as generated by a neural network that someone poured Hawaiian Punch all over.  It’ll get you tapping your foot at parts, and slowly nodding your head with others. “Deep Dream” may even force you to hop up and dance your very weirdest dance, without realizing that you’re doing it.  It’s got many faces, but none of those faces are boring, and nearly all of them are quite enjoyable to boot.

FFO: MGMT, Empire of the Sun

The Sleep Eazys – Easy To Buy, Hard To Sell (J&R Adventures)

The rest of this outfit has an interesting effect on Joe Bonamassa. It feels like a genre challenge, posed to “the virtuoso who things he can do everything”. 

‘Hey, can you play Big Band Swing?


‘Ok, but can you play Calliope-Jazz?

Didn’t know that was a thing, but sure.

‘What about ZZ Top Slow Blues?

…c’mon man.

This record is the instrumental equivalent of a decathlon. Yeah, there are similarities between some of the events, but a different skill set is needed for each. And there is a reason that Joey Bon gets recruited to play on EVERY. ALBUM. EVER. He is a true musical magician, flawless at everything he does. 

Blistering leads compliment the oddball rhythm section perfectly, leaving you with a sense that the world is a picture of harmony. Fire up the grill, throw some cornhole, and enjoy the bright summer day.

Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers – Neither One Of Us Is Wrong

Great folk.

That was going to be my entire write-up for this album, because it is truthful and concise, and sometimes you just want a one-liner because you got shit to do.  I get it. But I’m still gonna hit you with just a little bit more, because I got shit to do too, and this is that shit.

Neither One Of Us Is Wrong is a perfectly pleasant album, one that sounds extremely polished all the way through.  It seems like some tracks (title track, “Some Things Change”) work far better than others (“Marching On”, “November”), and I honestly can’t put a finger on why that is.  But even though I liked some more and some less, I still didn’t dislike a single track throughout. It’s a very easy listen too, which I appreciate, as it’s nice to just put on an album and chill for a few hours sometimes.

Will Neither One Of Us Is Wrong knock anyone’s socks off?  Definitely not. But what it will do is fill your ears with solid, enjoyable music, with minimal effort on your end.  Sometimes, that’s all you need.

FFO: Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside (-Anti)

All of you undoubtedly know who Bob Ross is, at least in a broad sense: the hair, the “happy trees”.  But I recognize that many of you are too young to have actually watched an episode of The Joy of Painting, so let me set the scene: Bob, some brushes, some paints, and a canvas.  He starts with a general idea, a vision; but what happens throughout the program is best described as “art improv”.  It’s far from directionless, yet it certainly isn’t akin to reading off of cue cards.

In that sense, The Universe Inside is basically five episodes of The Joy of Painting for your ears – and with tracks ranging in length from 7:37 to 20:27, each one runs damn near as long as the TV show.  To dismiss it as simply psychedelic, tie-dyed fervor would be selling it short, as this shit has layers. Nuances. Sounds that you may only hear once in a specific spot of one of the tracks, because dammit that’s where it fits.  I admit that it’s not personally my bag, and I suspect it will not land with many of you. However, if you are up for taking a drive off the cliff of the normal, you could do a lot worse than having The Universe Inside break your fall.

FFO: Opal/Mazzy Star, Quarkspace

HellgardeN – Making Noise, Living Fast (Brutal)

This album made me go into a full-on nostalgic craving for Pantera. And I mean that in the best way. 

Ruthlessly heavy riff grooves. 

Screaming solos and bombastic basslines.

Punchy, powerful, pounding percussion.

Vocals that are ripped to shreds.

On their debut cut, this Brazilian band provides us with the rebirth of a breed of metal that has only really existed in that most hallowed of Texas quartets. Listening to former Pantera members’ other outfits, Down, Necrophagia, Kill Devil Hill, and HELLYEAH, has given us something to fill the gap left by the erstwhile metal gods, but they never managed to capture the glory of where they started. 

Enter HellgardeN. I need a moment. 

The Strokes – The New Abnormal (RCA)

Are The Strokes a band, or just a vehicle for supermodel hipster front-man, Julian Casablancas, to get in front of people? You know what? I don’t care!

Significantly less political than his other recent project, The Voidz (though not completely sans), The New Abnormal sees the leather-jacketed crooner returning to the sound that got him cred in the first place. Sharp, clean guitars play riffs that are usually described as “angular” (whatever the hell that means). Casablancas’s now iconic vocal lilt drips stories about honesty, relationships, and hating certain days of the week. The songs are sharp-witted and classy, dynamic and emotional, gaining in volume and grit when appropriate and showing restraint in equal measure. 

While it might seem ever-so-slightly subdued to O.G. Strokes fans, I feel that The New Abnormal is a cut above, showing a new level of maturity, poise and eloquence. 

FFO: The Libertines, The Raconteurs

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