Holy smokes, it’s been a slow-ish couple weeks in New Release-ville, but that ends today. Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’ Donovan have teamed up for I’m With Her, Car Seat Headrest has a twin fantasy, Brandi Carlile has returned, Superchunk is pissed off, but Belle & Sebastian are here to soothe us. Read on…

Give me Frank Ocean’s voice and James Brown’s stage presence,” sings Will Toledo on Cute Thing, highlighting his own shortcomings – he has a tendency to sing in a tone that suggests he’s been given pesto for dinner for the seventh day in a row and he really, really wanted sausages, and a performing persona that suggests he’d rather be digging out his eyeballs with teaspoons – as well as the fact that he’s generated a fervent following with neither of those gifts. Toledo is an intriguing figure: his 11th album is a rerecording of his sixth, given extra oomph and proper production now that Car Seat Headrest is a muscular, exciting, rock band, rather than only him making music in his bedroom. There are some changes – Nervous Young Inhumans has a new set of lyrics – but in the main, this is about pulling the album into sharper focus. There’s a certain self-indulgence to Car Seat Headrest, but it’s necessary for Toledo to scratch at the scabs of his life. Over the 13 minutes of Beach-Life- in-Death, he tries to unpick his confusion and bitterness and resentment, with swoops into devastating clarity: “I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends / I never came out to my friends / We were all on Skype / And I laughed and I changed the subject.” There are times when the less charitable might be inclined to shout at Toledo to pull himself together, but Car Seat Headrest increasingly feel like a significant band, and Toledo like an unusual and compelling voice.

SUPERCHUNK, What A Time To Be Alive (CD/LP)
When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, something snapped inside the members of Superchunk. As they watched “deplorables” take cabinet positions and alt-right Nazis align, the veteran indie-rockers had a visceral reaction. The band members, four liberal-minded musicians who have called purple-state North Carolina their home since they formed in 1989, wrote all of the record’s songs in a frenzied rush between the election and February 2017 and they ultimately struck on a perfect half-hour of punky, poppy vitriol. The title track smarts with sarcasm as frontman Mac McCaughan howls, “The scum, the shame, the fucking lies/Oh, what a time to be alive” over a deceptively optimistic chord progression. On “I Got Cut,” he bellows, “All these old men won’t die too soon/Flesh balloons, still waving their arms around,” along with words of support for Chelsea Manning, between lead-guitar sighs. And on “All for You,” McCaughan challenges a solipsistic, greedy adversary (wonder who they have in mind?) with the chorus, “Fight me/I don’t like to get hit but fight me.” It’s raw, bitter and catchier than influenza (or affluenza, as the case may be). Superchunk have grown up mightily since they became indie-rock heroes with their breakout 1992 single “Slack Motherfucker,” and its insolent chorus, “I’m working but I’m not working for you,” but while the times have changed, the songs remain the same – if not a little better. They continue the through line of singing about maturity and responsibility that they started on 2010’s Majesty Shredding here – like on “Break the Glass,” one of the group’s strongest singles in ages, when McCaughan sings, “Everyone is acting normal, but no one’s sleeping through the night.” It’s an approach no one could have predicted in their salad days. He may be a disgraceful garbage-fire of a president but Trump has accomplished one good thing so far: He’s inspired the best Superchunk album in recent memory.

I’M WITH HER, See You Around (CD/LP)
It may feel like we’ve known about supergroup I’m With Her for some years now because of their spontaneous performances at music festivals like Newport Folk and Telluride Bluegrass, and then, last year, an EP release and short tour with Punch Brothers. Not to mention, all three members are accomplished, well-respected artists whose work is already so familiar to us. But See You Around is the official debut album from Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, and whether it should or not, it feels like a long time coming. The three artists co-wrote the songs (save for one Gillian Welch tune) and harmonize, sharing instrumental duties and taking turns on the occasional solo verse. A fully collaborative effort from start to finish, See You Around never sounds like a solo record from any of the women, and instead feels like the product of a new band. We get each of their sensibilities combined into something rich and rootsy. It comes as no surprise that they would already have admired each other’s work and felt it a natural fit to create something together. On album opener, we get the gorgeous folk-pop title track with Jarosz leading on vocals. The harmonies are subtle and stunning when Watkins and O’Donovan creep in, ultimately creating one crystalline voice. It’s one of the record’s standout moments for the way it shows their ability to complement each other without overpowering. There’s nuance and control that can only come from the three of them standing next to each other in the same room (the album was recorded live). “Game to Lose” features Watkins’ bewitching fiddle playing as they harmonize gently and softly before O’Donovan comes out swinging. And on “Overland” we’re treated to Watkins’ soulful powerhouse voice taking the lead. On See You Around, it’s a little bit of everything around every corner and each song unwraps like a little gift we didn’t know we needed. While Watkins, Jarosz, and O’Donovan are all, in a general sense, folk singers, their individual aesthetics are quite different and their voices distinct. The result of their recording captures that same excitement and good fortune we feel when we’ve had the opportunity to hear them play together live. There’s a sense of anticipation at the start of each song as we wonder which heavenly voice we’ll hear first.

BELLE & SEBASTIAN, How To Solve Our Human Problems (complete collection and Vol. III) (CD/LP)
Belle and Sebastian might not be able to solve all our problems (as the title of their latest implies), but they can handle the ones that involve a lack of witty, tuneful indie-pop. This 15-track set offers a tasting menu of the Scottish band’s strengths. Would you like a bittersweet ballad about that autumn feeling? They’ve got you (“Fickle Season”). A glammed-up strut about faith and doubt? Sure thing (“Show Me the Sun”). An enchanting Motown throwback about pining for the wrong person? Take your pick (“The Same Star,” “Best Friend”)! There’s also a dissonant freak-out about walking around Glasgow (“Cornflakes”), if that sounds like something you might be into. These songs were originally split into three standalone EPs, a nod to the trio of short-form classics that B&S released in 1997, at the height of their tea-and-sympathy years. In musical terms, Problems stays closer to the brighter pop hues they’ve favored ever since 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. For longtime fans, it’s a reminder that Belle and Sebastian 2.0 has now lasted more than twice as long as the original version did. If that makes you feel old, rest assured that Stuart Murdoch knows your pain. The biggest and best surprise on this album is “We Were Beautiful,” a sweeping drum ‘n’ bass ‘n’ pedal steel number about a midlife crisis in an apocalyptic warzone. Or maybe it’s just about being stuck in an insufferably hip coffee shop. Whatever the case, it works way better than it ought to. So does the album.

BRANDI CARLILE, By The Way I Forgive You (CD/LP)
There’s an off-handedness to the title of By the Way, I Forgive You, Brandi Carlile’s sixth album—as though absolution is being offered almost as an afterthought. But that’s not the story the music tells. While many of these songs deal with wounds and betrayals, Carlile inhabits a role of poise and command. Throughout, the singer-songwriter sounds resolved to make amends and move on with her life, letting go of regrets and finally letting those old wounds heal. The forgiveness she offers here isn’t a reluctant or half-hearted gesture, but something powerful and proactive. It’s fitting that these songs of self-assurance are married to the boldest, most robust production of any Carlile album since 2007’s T-Bone Burnett-produced The Story, which marries acoustic intimacy to arena-rock grandeur. Produced by Americana mastermind Dave Cobb in tandem with singer-songwriter Shooter Jennings, By the Way, I Forgive You frames Carlile’s gnarled roots-rock and folksy storytelling in grand orchestral arrangements from the late Paul Buckmaster, the famous conductor and arranger behind masterworks by Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, and the Rolling Stones. The result is an album that manages to sound like a wide-screen epic without ever losing sight of the small-scale human drama at its center or Carlile’s country roots. There’s room here for songs like the wistful country-soul of “Everytime I Hear That Song”—where the string section provides subtle accents but never overshadow the plaintive piano or high-and-lonesome harmony vocals—as well as the spare closer, “Party of One,” where Carlile’s voice and piano are bathed in a luxurious symphonic arrangement.


OUGHT, Room Inside The World (CD/LP)



U.S. GIRLS, In A Poem Unlimited (CD/LP)

JIM WHITE, Waffles, Triangles & Jesus (CD)



SETH WALKER, Live At Mauch-Chunk Opera House (2/23)

THE BREEDERS, All Nerve (3/2)

MT. JOY, Mt. Joy (3/2)


And don’t forget these STILL-NEW platters that matter!

MGMT, Little Dark Age (CD/LP)
For a group with such a major influence on the sound of 2010s alternative radio, MGMT has followed a very ’90s career arc. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Weird band scores some fluke hits (in this case, the 2008 smashes “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids”); weird band follows those hits with even weirder albums (2010’s “Congratulations” and 2013’s “MGMT”), making abundantly clear their utter disinterest in writing any future hits; casual fans lose interest, while the remaining faithful praise weird band’s artistic integrity. It’s a narrative admirably out of step with the aspirational nature of modern music culture, but at times it’s felt like MGMT was overdoing it, smothering natural melodic gifts in self-consciously “difficult” psychedelic affectations as if afraid they might accidentally write a catchy pop song again. “Little Dark Age” is a logical next step for the Wesleyan-birthed duo of Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser. Now that they’ve shed all commercial expectations and proven their freak bona fides, MGMT is free to make mildly warped, ’80s-indebted synth-pop just like all the other indie kids. The record makes liberal use of that decade’s most obvious sonic signifiers (retrofuturist keyboards, reverb-drenched drums), but while the production isn’t exactly lo-fi, there’s a similarly faded quality to it, accentuating the uncanny-valley nature of the band’s second-hand nostalgia. MGMT has always had a healthy goofball streak, and “Little Dark Age” is no exception. Maybe Ariel Pink is to blame; he co-wrote “When You Die,” which would have sounded like a “Scooby-Doo” villain’s theme song even without the cartoon ghouls laughing in the background. That sense of art-damaged mischief also pops up on the aerobics instructor spoof “She Works Out Too Much” and “When You’re Small,” a gentle, “Dark Side of the Moon”-evoking number whose chorus features the immortal observation “When you’re small/No, you’re not very big at all.” Fun as these moments are, “Me and Michael” and “James” get more mileage out of embracing the guileless romanticism that gave ’80s ballads their thumping heartbeat.

RUBY BOOTS, Don’t Talk About It (CD)
On her Bloodshot Records debut, Ruby Boots continues to map out a polished-yet-fearless, bare-knuckled self, previously hinted at on her last album, Solitude. The album rips right open with “It’s So Cruel,” strutting through the door with dual harmonic, bawdy, fuzzed-out guitars, reminiscent of a glammy, ‘70s southern-rock-soaked Queens of the Stone Age. It all captures the meteoric emotional flares of an adulterous relationship destined to fail. The Gentlemen spell a Stetson-hat wearing Wrecking Crew as they lay down dusty gothic vibes in the Nikki Lane co-written “I’ll Make It Through,” building towards a crescendoing, persevering, bright chorus. (Lane also sings background vocals on the album’s title track.) On “Believe in Heaven,” doo-wop beats, dark choral echoes, and a plucked string section lead into ZZ Top full-bodied rawk riffage. But the most defining of tones come through in spirit, when on the a capella “I Am A Woman” Ruby reaches towering vocal peaks, shredding raw, putting it all out there.The song could be a traditional spiritual, as she belts: “I am a believer / Standing strong by your side / I’m the hand to hold onto / When it’s too hard to try… I am a woman / Do you know what that means / You lay it all on the line / When you lay down with me.” Of the song Chilcott says, “‘I Am a Woman’ was conjured up amid recent events where men have spoken about, and treated women’s bodies, the way no man, or woman, should. This kind of treatment toward another human being makes every nerve in my body scream. These kinds of incidents are so ingrained in our culture and are swept under the carpet at every turn—it needs to change. As tempting as it was to just write an angry tirade I wanted to respond with integrity, so I sat with my feelings and this song emerged as a celebration of women and womanhood, of our strength and our vulnerability, all we encompass and our inner beauty, countering ignorance and vulgarity with honesty and pride and without being exclusionary to any man or woman. My hope is that we come together on this long drawn out journey. The song is the backbone to the album for me.”

FRANZ FERDINAND, Always Ascending (CD/LP)
It’s been 14 years since Franz Ferdinand helped propel indie into the British mainstream with their single Take Me Out, a lustful song that mixed Roxy Music’s polished theatrics with the spiky, wry post-punk of Josef K. Yet while the Glasgow group were easy to admire, they were hard to truly love, lacking the sweaty warmth that emanated from their more ramshackle peers. The trade-off is apparent on the titular opener (Always Ascending is a reference to a sonic trick whereby a piece of music seems to be constantly building to a climax), which matches its tightly coiled disco beat to a melody that systemically slackens into something sweepingly poppy. The same goes for Lazy Boy, which is memorable for vaguely creepy lyrics and a highly enjoyable psychobilly riff. It’s a style that demands a charismatic voice, and lyrics that walk the fine line between acerbic and heartbreaking. Huck and Jim, in which the band express a desire to export the NHS and DSS to the US, with the help of stormy guitars and a Boy Scout-style chant, sees the two styles collide, while the record climaxes with a duo of stomping disco tracks furnished with pleasingly dour melodies. They hammer home Always Ascending’s technical brilliance and visceral emotional connection.

Chris Carrabba made his name at the tail-end of the Nineties singing (and shrieking) about winning (and losing) a girl, and now he returns with Crooked Shadows, his first Dashboard Confessional album in more than eight years, with that same romantic fixation holding the center of his songs. Carrabba’s lyrical focus has evolved some in his time away, having disregarded the diaristic “I” for a unified “we,” yet emo’s heroic paternalism is still present – he’s saving, he’s dedicated, he won’t let the love die. “I’m always going to be/About us” he sings on “About Us.” His pledges of allegiance to his marriage are identical to the ones he makes to the scene. Album opener “We Fight” prescribes an understanding of his return – to be an emo singer, the lyrics suggest, is a kind of calling, and it’s a matter of duty to never give up on the kids that connect with his music (“We didn’t snicker and turn our backs/We just keep digging and giving back,” he sings). The song suggests this isn’t a capitalizing comeback, Carrabba is merely assuming the mantle; he’s still an icon in a relationship with The People, custodially tending emo’s we’re-all-in-the-same-gang mythology. Every song here says the same thing: I am still here, I never left, and I love “us.” His travails of sustained monogamy are cloaked in enough vagaries and hooks that no one’s going to be skeeved out by a dude their dad’s age panting about the rich rewards of a mature love.

BRIAN FALLON, Sleepwalkers (CD/LP)
Brian Fallon is – in the best possible way – the cosy comfort blankie of modern American guitar music. The erstwhile frontman of The Gaslight Anthem can always be relied upon for a hefty happy hour serving of anthemic rock’n’roll tunes that sound best crackling out of the speakers of a classic car or the jukebox of a dive bar, each pinned down by a voice made of gravel, broken glass and your favourite busted denim jacket. ‘Sleepwalkers’ is his second solo offering following 2016’s ‘Painkillers’ and though it’s hard to track evolution when you’ve a voice that distinctive, it’s true that Fallon has experimented with more than just heartland rock and alt-country here. Opener ‘If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven’ has a bounce lifted straight from the Motown sound while ‘Etta James’ – rather unsurprisingly – shares a slowburning intimacy with 1960s soul classics, with Fallon paying emotional tribute to the late, great singer of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’. Fallon’s longstanding love of British bands such as The Clash is no secret, but on ‘Her Majesty’s Service’ he’s jangling like The Kinks and namechecking The Rolling Stones and the Queen like he’s just been on a big red double decker bus tour of London. After singing about so much Americana for the past decade, it seems that he’s now had to cross the Atlantic in search of fresh geography to mine. There’s more support for the UK tourist board on ‘Watson’, where he mulls over the joys of Angel tube station, the Thames and quotes the Magnetic Fields dreamy ‘All The Umbrellas In London’, while ‘Neptune’ chugs along like The Zombies by way of The Jam. Even so, Fallon’s New Jersey growl means his British invasion will always sound more like the American dream.


MELODY GARDOT, Live In Europe (CD)


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