Much as was the case with the album-introducing single U2 recently debuted during Super Bowl weekend, Coldplay is hardly swinging for the fences with “Magic,” a low-key preview of the new Ghost Stories, set for release in May. It starts quietly and never builds to the Coldplay-esque emotional crescendo you assume must be coming, settling instead on a nice medium boil. Does this suggest that Ghost Stories is Coldplay’s “mood” record, the “difficult” Kid A to Mylo Xyloto’s grandiose OK Computer? At this point, it’s just “Magic,” so you know, never believe it’s not so.
tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack Megamix
Here’s something I thought I’d never say: I really like the new tUnE-yArDs record. It’s not that I disliked Merrill Garbus’s vocally virtuosic, relentlessly percussive, and oft-abrasive music before hearing her forthcoming LP, Nikki Nack. I admired her energy as a live performer and recognized the confrontational verve of records like 2011’s critically worshipped whokill. It’s just that, for me, the baseline requirement for music — that it be, you know, fun to listen to — wasn’t being fulfilled here. As much as I respected the vision of whokill, putting it on felt like work. And a headache. A really discomforting headache. It was strictly “easier to admire than like” stuff, as far as I was concerned. In that regard, Nikki Nackis a significant improvement. It’s certainly an easier album to appreciate — the vocals are smoother, and the beats are simpler and more pop. It sounds to me like Garbus’s Merriweather Post Pavilion move — an accessible triumph from a difficult artist designed to finally win over weary skeptics. It is also one of 2014’s standout headphone records, though I suspect it will score more than a few parties this summer.
Robert Ellis, “Steady as the Rising Sun”
Since we’re on the subject of giving artists second chances, I want to give it up for Nashville singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, whose recent LP The Lights From the Chemical Plant I initially passed over because I found his previous record, 2011’s Photographs, a rather mundane and undercooked Americana record. But after a couple of friendly nudges, I stuck with Chemical Plant, and while the LP does occasionally slip into a log-cabin malaise, it has enough gently wandering, warmly jazzy numbers like “Steady as the Rising Sun” to keep me coming back.
The Orwells, “Dirty Sheets”
This Chicago’s band’s Letterman appearance from January was one of the great recent rock-group talk-show performances. In terms of presenting a professional and well-honed musical act, it was a disaster. But being a disaster is essentially the Orwells’ aesthetic, as the group’s knuckle-dragging LP Disgraceland attests. “Dirty Sheets” is typical of the album’s mind-numbingly simple Neanderthal-rock yawps, and yet these guys sound like they barely know how to get through their own material. It’s possible this incompetence is affected, because it’s responsible for most of Disgraceland’s charm. “We ain’t the worst, we ain’t the best,” immaculately disheveled frontman Mario Cuomo sings, and he’s absolutely correct. If you’ve been wishing for a band that makes the Seeds sound like the Mars Volta, voilà.
The Fresh & Onlys, “Bells of Paonia”
This dreamy San Francisco psych band has one of the most underrated discographies of any rock band in the past 10 years. The group’s previous record, 2012’s Long Slow Dance, was its prettiest and most romantic yet. But the Fresh & Onlys also have a dark side, and if drone-drenched first single “Bells of Paonia” is any indication, the upcoming House of Spirits will be just as seductively evil as its predecessor was blessedly sweet.
Ringworm, “One of Us Is Going to Have to Die”
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Your midcolumn heavy metal smoke break, courtesy of Ringworm’s forthcoming album, Hammer of the Witch.
Hans Chew, “Tom Hughes Town”
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Chew is a 38-year-old rock-and-roll pianist who has played with excellent guitarists (Jack Rose and Chris Forsyth) and backwoods country-folkies (Hiss Golden Messenger and D. Charles Speer). On his own 2010 record Tennessee and Other Stories … he went the thoughtful singer-songwriter route, which was nice but (to my ears anyway) not as grabby as the forthcoming Life & Love, which finds him exploring a hard-rocking, Elton John–circa–11-17-70 vibe.
Todd Terje, “Delorean Dynamite”
As an avowed devotee of Air’s Moon Safari, I’m always game for the latest example of self-aware, retro-futurist lounge pop. The best I’ve heard of this admittedly niche genre in a while is It’s Album Time (due April 8), the debut LP by Norwegian super-producer Todd Terje. “Delorean Dynamite” is an unabashed Giorgio Moroder tribute, and unlike Daft Punk, Terje doesn’t let the real Moroder get in the way of the disco goodness with historical pontificating. “Delorean Dynamite” is an exercise in groovy insinuation custom made for your next imaginary binge session on cocaine and caviar.
Slough Feg, “Laser Enforcer”
The mastermind of this long-running San Francisco metal band is Mike Scalzi, a professor and writer who specializes in blazing Celtic-accented riff machines that reference both Iron Maiden and Bertrand Russell. This just proves, once again, that it takes very smart people to successfully pull off a rock song as brilliantly stupid as “Laser Enforcer.”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, “Simple and Sure”
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The most accurately named song of 2014’s first quarter.