June 19, 2020


Phantom Planet – Devastator (Gong Records)

If you’re like me and you were a huge closet fan (because you were way too old to be an “out” fan) of the teen drama the O.C. in the early 2000s, then you are already familiar with at least one song by Phantom Planet, “California”. This little band actually had 4 studio albums between 1994-2008, but haven’t played together or released anything since. Even though Jason Schwartzman is no longer a band member (fun fact, he was the drummer for the band from 1994-2003), I am still a fan of this band that I have heard dubbed as the kings of “wholesome American Indie”.

It’s always tricky for bands with long spanning careers to release new albums, especially when they have fallen into a strict genre of music. On the one hand, fans expect a sound that they can recognize. We want to be able to turn on the radio and say “Hey, that’s Phantom Planet!” On the other hand, we want something fresh and new, something that doesn’t sound exactly like the previous album from 2018. Devastator does a great job of this on both accounts. Their unnecessary teenage angst is gone (come on guys, you live in California), but what remains is an album of heartfelt melodies, exceptional instrumentals, and an album that I have not been able to stop playing on repeat.

My favorite song on the album also happens to be the first single released: “Time Moves On”. This is a bit of a sad and angsty song (albeit more grown up level angst) about time passing us by and the constant hope for things to change, all the while they just stay the same. “BALISONG” and “Party Animal” both play like upbeat rock anthems, and “Through the Trees” is a tale of accepting heartbreak from a “gated community turf”. “Torture Me”, “Waiting for the Lights to Change”, and “Gold Body Spray” are all also break up songs, presumably about the “devastator” who seems to have done just that.

Overall, Devastator is a no-skip playthrough, an album that will remind you of your emo days while remaining modern and relevant.

FFO: Rooney, Augustana, Neon Trees

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May 15, 2020


The Dears – Lovers Rock (Dangerbird)

Before getting into the music on this album, a couple points of clarification need to be made. Firstly, this is not a band. It is an undefined collective led by Montreal-based icon and presumed Bond villain, Murray Lightburn. Secondly, any act that self-indentifies with Serge Gainsbourg is saying 2 things: 1) “We don’t want to be pigeon-holed into a genre”, and b) “We might be French”. 

Their eighth studio release is a collection of reflective tunes that can best be described as eclectic orchestral pop. From the Bowie-esque “Is This What You Really Want?”, to the early-Weezer sounding “I Know What You’re Thinking About And It’s Awful”, to the Motown love song “Play Dead”, the instrumentation is always full and rich. This is no surprise, since the list of contributors on the album may as well be the Montreal phone book. 

Throughout all of it, Lightburn’s voice shifts between styles effortlessly, doing what is needed to float, cut through, punch up and generally take control of every track. His charisma has a Neil Diamond-at-the-cabaret quality to it that’s undeniable and enchanting. The flow of the record feels more like a well-crafted playlist, easily moving from song to song without seeming repetitive or jarringly different. 

It’s brilliant.

FFO: Serge Gainsbourg, Broken Social Scene, British Sea Power

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May 8th, 2020


Mark Lanegan – Straight Songs of Sorrow (Heavenly Recordings)

Since the dissolution of Screaming Trees in the mid-90s, Lanegan has pumped out a steady stream of solo, quasi-solo, and collaborative projects. Each of these projects falls inconsistently into the generic and not-so-descriptive genre of “rock”. While some of his work has a definite and undeniable relationship to blues, folk, and shoegaze pop, a large proportion of it is rather tightly related to Leonard Cohen’s brand of nearly monotonous croaking. This places the emphasis on the dark poetry of the lyrics, rather than be distracted by trifling diversions like melody and beat.

Straight Songs of Sorrow is not an exception to this tendency. Rather, it feels like Lanegan digging his heels in, daring us to challenge his brand. His voice is croakier than ever, nary finding a foothold on whatever staggered melodies exist. In most of the tracks on the record, we have a choice to make: do we focus on the poetry or the attempt. When the poetry is good, it’s emotive and colorful and we hear his internal struggle. When it’s not good, it’s super-repetitive and banal, grasping at overused imagery and ‘sung’ with no connection whatsoever. 

The musical attempt is pretty typical of Lanegan’s tendency toward slow, three-chord progressions. By itself, it isn’t much to write about, as it relies heavily on a relationship with his voice. When that relationship is evident, it bangs. It’s a vibe that Lanegan has repeatedly dubbed “Dark Disco” in the lyrics to his songs (“Ode to Sad Disco” from Blues Funeral, “Dark Disco Jag” from Somebody’s Knocking). 

The big problem with Songs of Sorrow is that the 2 elements rarely line up. When the poetry is keen, the music is dispassionate, and the song falls short (“Burying Ground”). When the music is cool and reaching for attention, the lyrics are rambling and incoherent (“Bleed All Over”, “At Zero Below”). And sometimes neither is there (“I Wouldn’t Want To Say”). The middle of the record has the songs that stick out as examples of what Mark is capable of. For 3 contiguous songs, everything lines up, the clouds allow the light in, and we get to bask in his post-grunge, drug-addled perfection (“Stockholm City Blues”, “Skeleton Key”, “Daylight In The Nocturnal House”). 

FFO: Screaming Trees, Afghan Whigs, Leonard Cohen, PJ Harvey

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