The Killers – Imploding The Mirage (Island)
Spotify currently has them listed as the 214th most popular act in the world. So, if you’ve never heard them, I doubt that anything you’ve read on this website is of any use to you. Even the rock you’ve been living under has “Mr. Brightside” on its iPod Nano.
Full disclosure: I’ve never really been a fan of The Killers. Sure, the hits have merit. The songs are fun, full of emotion, technically and artistically beautiful, and the lyrics are wonderfully poetic…but that voice. There’s just something about it that is a complete turnoff for me. It’s like he’s trying really hard to sound like he’s not trying hard.
Until Imploding The Mirage.
This feels like an extreme melodic shift for the band. Instead of bellowing borderline-atonal anthems in Springsteen fashion, the new method is to keep the vocals chill and let the music set the tone and energy in the style of The Pretenders, Tom Petty, or…well, Bruce Springsteen. That is most notable on the perfectly crafted, “Dying Breed”, and the surprising range shown off in “Caution”. Their Talking Heads influence comes out strong in “Fire and Bone”, making it one of the most instantly likeable tracks on the record. The two guest spots on the album, Weyes Blood and k.d. Lang (really?), are highlighted with the most dramatic moments, “My God” and “Lightning Fields”.
Musically, there’s little more to say about the band. They add New Wave keyboards and heavily-triggered drums to classic rock-and-roll sensibilities. It’s what they have been doing since Hot Fuss came out in 2004 and it’s what they will continue to do until somebody stops them. For the first time, I am willing to say that I want them to continue. They’re maturing, and the songs are maturing with them. So, while I’m not ready to say that I like them (I mean, it took them 6 albums for me to say positive things instead of a noncommittal shrug), I am willing to look forward to the next thing.
“My Own Soul’s Warning”, “When The Dreams Run Dry”, and “Imploding The Mirage” are the tracks that sound the most like something that would fall on previous Killers releases, making them my least favorite tracks on the record. Do what you will with that information.
FFO: Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, Talking Heads
Alex The Astronaut – The Theory of Absolutely Nothing (Nettwerk)
First things first. The Theory of Absolutely Nothing is a bit of a misleading title, as Australian folk artist Alex the Astronaut covers many topics: unexpected pregnancy (“Lost”), aging far too fast (“Split the Sky”), and being there for someone else when they need it the most (“I Think You’re Great”). Sure, none of these are explicitly “happy” topics, and it’s important to note the difference between “happy” and “positive”. Listening to The Theory of Absolutely Nothing made me feel hopeful and optimistic, not sullen and downtrodden. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but it’s a nice change-of-pace.
Musically, the tempo is typically upbeat, with a mostly vocal-and-guitar delivery from Alex the Astronaut. There is a bit of an electronic presence – a bleep here, a bloop there – and a few other instruments sparingly, but they’re all more for accent. Alex’s vocals are perfectly suited for her style of music, taking command of each track without being abrasive. The lyrics are front-and-center, and considering how good the songwriting is, that’s a good thing.
Overall, The Theory of Absolutely Nothing is a great album. I have been enjoying feel-good jams more and more, considering the current state of things, and this one really hit the spot. I will be filing this one away to help brighten up my days.
FFO: The Moldy Peaches, Florence + The Machine
Blaqk Audio – Beneath the Black Palms (BMG)
We here at Fairly KickAss are fans of a great many things: gratuitous profanity, various cheeses, and, of course, music. But one lesser known love of ours is the Canadian television show Letterkenny. For those who are uninitiated, Letterkenny is a hilarious slice-of-life comedy that expands on many Canadian stereotypes, to hilarious effect. It’s over-the-top and unrealistic, yet highly topical. In short: it’s great.
Why do I mention all that? Because among others, Letterkenny features a group of ne’er-do-well misfits, lovingly referred to as “The Skids”. They do copious amounts of drugs (sometimes purchased on the “Dark Web”) and dance as if everywhere they go is their own personal rave. And that is the best way I can describe Beneath the Black Palms: an album you would listen to if you were a fictionalized goth who enjoyed meth in between playing retro video games for hours on end.
The players in the Beneath the Black Palms game are known quantities: David Marchand (better known as Davey Havok) and Jade Puget are both members of the hardcore punk/horror punk/post-hardcore/emo/alternative rock/gothic rock band, AFI. (Shout-out to Wikipedia for the very long genre hookup there!) Davey was there from the beginning, and Jade joined before the recording of the band’s fourth album, Black Sails in the Sunset. AFI is now on album #11 but they still have had time to release their fifth(!) album under the Blaqk Audio name.
Davey’s voice is undeniable, but the rest is nothing like what you would expect from AFI: we’re talking synth-on-synth-on-synth electro-industrial jams here. If you’re hoping for a bit of a darker feel, you won’t be disappointed: look no further than tracks like “1948” and “Hiss” for a taste of that. But overall, it sounds somewhat cheerful. “Consort” and “Fish Bite” may even get you up out of your seat to groove to the music!
I have no idea how Davey and Jade balance everything so well. Besides AFI and Blaqk Audio, the two also released a one-shot hardcore straight-edge album with supergroup XTRMST in 2014, and Davey partnered up with the band members of No Doubt for a new-wavey release under moniker Dreamcar in 2017. As I mentioned, AFI is currently working on their eleventh studio album as well. Meanwhile, I’ll be lucky if I get off of my ass and mow the lawn this week.
(Signs point to “no”.)
FFO: Skinny Puppy, Gridlock
Maya Hawke – Blush (Mom+Pop)
The character Robin Buckley was one of the best things about the most recent season of Stranger Things. Those who watched know what I mean: her biting quips, her undercover (and then very NOT undercover) nerdiness, and her ability to translate secret Russian transmissions. Her chemistry with some of the other characters, namely Steve Harrington and Erica Sinclair.
Turns out that the very talented actress behind that character, Maya Hawke, is a pretty damn talented singer too.
Maya’s parents, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke – perhaps you’ve heard of them? – are amazing in their own right. But Maya is the star of this show, and her debut album, Blush, puts her on full display. Maya’s vocals are breathy, but natural, creating a sound that’s less sultry and more soothing. It’s nearly ASMR in texture, which admittedly doesn’t work as well in the faster-paced songs with a bit more going on. Luckily, “Animal Enough” and “Cricket” are the only two tracks out of twelve that truly fit that bill.
Lyrically, Blush is quite impressive, especially for a first album. With the help of producer Jesse Harris, Maya’s words are brought to life superbly. My favorite jam is “Coverage” (“I told you it’s gums and teeth/There’s nothing moving underneath/But there are shades you can’t replace/With blush or blues or lights or grace”), followed closely by the beautiful, soft “Mirth” (“Well, in a thunder breath, I coughed up my heart/My life in my hands, a good place to start”).
To be honest, the original plan was to write this as a quickie, to basically say “hey Robin from Stranger Things did an album and it’s whatever!”, but it was so good that I had to give it the full work-up. Very high marks from me.
FFO: Johanna Warren, Anna Burch, Sad13
Erasure – The Neon (Mute Artist Ltd)
Erasure was formed in 1985 when a founding member of Depeche Mode and Yaz got bored and put out an ad for a vocalist. Out of (presumably) TENS of audition tapes, a singer was chosen. Ever since that moment, Erasure has been releasing the second best songs for which you can’t quite remember the artist. That’s right, “Chains of Love”, “A Little Respect”, and “Always” were these 2 British dudes.
Seriously though, they have always had a knack for writing kitschy, fun pop songs that had the whimsy and skill of DEVO, but the pop sense of Thompson Twins and Human League.
This record in particular is not without some deeper moments. “Tower of Love” is an incredibly dramatic take on Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty (hard to tell which). “New Horizons” is a soft plea for everyone to see light at the end of the tunnel. And the album closer, “Kid You’re Not Alone”, is almost a lecture about finding a way out of the darkness. I don’t know about you, but I see a theme.
Listen, these cats have been at this for 35 years and, I think, 24 albums. If you want something timeless and enjoyable, look no further than “Hey Now (Think I Got A Feeling)”, but if you want musical dimensions and nuance lyrics…
Erasure ain’t your stop.
FFO: Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode
You know Erasure. I know Erasure. Even if I can’t recite a discography, I know that trademarked synthy sound – and you likely do too. I could tell you all about it, but instead let me save all of us some time and say this: The Neon is vintage Erasure. That’s not to say that it’s boring, or too similar; but, rather, that it will be familiar to you.
Sure, vocalist Andy Bell sounds a bit different – being on this planet for 56 years will do that to you (and fellow member Vince Clarke has him by four years, if you can believe that). But the mood is spot-on, the synth is solid, the lyrics are perfect, and… I mean, it’s Erasure. What else do you want? It’s very Erasure. It’s extremely Erasure.
FFO: Dead or Alive, Soft Cell… and Erasure, of course.
Blues Pills – Holy Moly! (Nuclear Blast)
The musical world has seen its share of politically vocal, extremely talented women with a chip on their shoulder. The blues has not been a genre that births a lot of them, however. Elin Larsson is everything you want in a modern powerhouse vocalist. She shares the best qualities of Janis Joplin and Lizzy Hale, and her lyrics are honest and potent.
The music changes shape a few times, but mostly, it feels like stoner metal, garage rock, and blues gave blood on a sacrificial altar.
The most intoxicating track on the record is “California”, a haunting Joe Cocker-esque soul track that makes me think Larsson may actually be the reincarnation of Janis. But that track is far from the only gem. “Proud Woman” and “Low Road” tell us exactly where she stands. “Rhythm in the Blood” is a rockin’ good time, belting out, “Unless you’ve got the rhythm and blues, you’ll lose”. “Dust” is a perfectly sultry lounge-act song, practically summoning the dim lights and cigarette smoke to your living room.
This is not a record you should sleep on. Get after it.
FFO: Deap Vally, Goodbye June, Royal Blood
Kill The Lights – The Sinner (Fearless)
Featuring members of Bullet For My Valentine, Throw The Fight, Still Remains, and Threat Signal, this is truly the loud rock supergroup that Octane Radio has been clamoring for. Blending power metal, metalcore, and post-hardcore, they are relentless, melodic and full of anger. The guitar and drum work on this album is pretty amazing, even if the songs are predictable.
Start with: “Faceless”, “Watch You Fall”
FFO: Avenged Sevenfold, Atreyu, everyone mentioned above
The Front Bottoms – In Sickness & In Flames (Fueled By Ramen)
It’s rare that a band can manage to have fun music, smart lyrics, a positive outlook, and actual talent all at the same time.
I could say all that and more about The Front Bottoms and it still wouldn’t do it justice. This is one of the best examples of pop-rock-n-roll since the last time Weezer released something worth listening to. This is what O.K. GO could have been and wishes they were.
The New Jersey-based duo is now 5 albums in, and I hope they’re just picking up speed.
Start with: “everyone blooms”, “camouflage”, “the truth”
FFO: Dismemberment Plan, Weezer, Desaparecidos
Mandy Barnett – A Nashville Songbook (Melody Place)
Since I could be in Downtown Nashville within a half-hour, I feel like I should review A Nashville Songbook by country artist Mandy Barnett. This isn’t exactly a country album though – it’s a covers album.
You got some traditional country jams (“I Love a Rainy Night” from Eddie Rabbitt, “A Fool Such as I” from Hank Snow), and some tracks from other genres (“Love Hurts” from Nazareth, “The End of the World” from Skeeter Davis). Mandy does a great job to make them all her own, while not letting her distinctive sound overtake the original track. Cover albums can be a bit boring and unnecessary, but A Nashville Songbook works really well for what it is.
FFO: Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss
Siv Jakobsen – A Temporary Soothing (U OK?)
There aren’t enough hours in the day, sadly. If there were, we would definitely be giving more time to fun releases, like A Temporary Soothing by Norwegian singer-songwriter Siv Jakobsen. True to title, Siv’s voice is very, very soothing, bringing with it a sense of comfort and okay-ness. There’s also a good mix of instrumental tracks (the title track and “Mothecombe”) to go along with the traditional vocal tracks (“Shine”, “Only Life”).
A great chill record for a long day.
FFO: Rosemary & Garlic, Rosie Carney
Guided By Voices – Mirrored Aztec (Guided By Voices Inc)
Despite his Ross-and-Rachel relationship with record labels, Robert Pollard and his blitzkreig approach to songwriting still have a name. It’s comforting to know that some things don’t change. His songs are short bursts of strong melodies, smart guitar licks, and word salad lyrics. As a part of the wave of garage-indie that permeated the 80s and 90s, it should be no surprise what comes out of the speaker when you hit play.
Start with: “Please Don’t Be Honest”, “Math Rock”
FFO: Built To Spill, Superchunk, Sugar