Under-the-radar sounds of summer
We don’t listen to music the way we used to, as most anybody with ears has observed. The days of buying an album, listening to it until you play it out, getting to know it front to back and moving on to another obsession only when you have the cash to buy another record have long passed. Now, for the most part, we might listen to a song we like a few times at most — whether downloaded, streamed or YouTubed — before we get distracted and move on.
Other than inescapable hit singles like Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” or Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (does anybody else ironically get angry whenever they hear that one at this point?), we don’t give songs a lot of repeat listens — we pick stuff up, give it a digital spin and then drop it.
I’m the same way for the most part, though I usually give a new album a few front-to-back listens before I either throw its best tracks onto a shuffle mix or let it fade back into the digital ether.
A handful of new albums stuck with me this summer, though, and I found myself returning to them repeatedly. None of these three was a breakout hit by any measure, but they compelled me to stick with them and keep giving them full-length listens.
Stardeath and White Dwarfs
“Wastoid” (Federal Prism)
Stardeath and White Dwarfs will never escape the shadow cast by The Flaming Lips, but their new album “Wastoid” — released in August — suggests they’re blossoming despite the shade.
The Oklahoma City band — fronted by Dennis Coyne, nephew of Lips bandleader Wayne Coyne — has frequently collaborated with the Lips, including the full-album cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” and the two bands currently share a drummer. The Lips’ sonic fingerprints are unsurprisingly all over “Wastoid,” and the Lips themselves guest on the song “Screaming,” but Stardeath finds its own path in the psychedelic rock terrain pioneered by Uncle Wayne’s band.
Album opener “The Chrome Children” begins with minimal keyboards before exploding with a thumping drumbeat and fuzzy guitars, building into a grand anarchy that sets the tone for an unpredictable 11-track album. “Frequency” has a similar hushed build-up, but instead of breaking out into the big, churning metal chords you might expect, it crests into an acoustic guitar-driven bridge as Coyne repeats: “Paranoid mothers and paranoid fathers/Breeding paranoid sons and paranoid daughters.” The album continues to swerve in unexpected directions — the sludge metal on “Birds of War,” the pop ballad of “Luminous Veil,” the blissed-out psych-folk of “Sleeping Pills and Ginger Ale” and “Surprised.”
Some might write these guys off as a Flaming Lips spinoff, but “Wastoid” shows Stardeath and White Dwarfs spinning in some interesting directions.
“EDJ” (Easy Sound)
Eric D. Johnson’s indie-folk outfit Fruit Bats broke up last year after five albums of sunny, smart folk-pop — but fans need not despair. Johnson’s first solo record, under the name EDJ, will please the faithful while adding some new textures and more somber touches on what Johnson calls his “existential make-out songs.”
On that note, in “Odd Love,” he sings, “I love you with all my beating heart/It’s an odd love, but it’s our love.”
His self-titled new album showcases his witty lyrics and catchy melodies, along with his knack for conjuring a bittersweet nostalgia through seemingly simple guitar chords, keyboard riffs and his distinctively nasal tenor. The upbeat melodies and the “ooh” and “ahh” background harmonies belie the complex emotional ground Johnson covers. These songs can be almost cinematic in their portraits of losing friends (“For the Boy Who Moved Away”) or the uncertainty in starting over in a new place (“A West Country Girl”). It should come as no surprise that Johnson scored more than half a dozen films in the past three years, as the instrumental “The Mountain on Fire (In the Rearview)” conveys an ephemeral sense of dread and sketches the title’s story in two short minutes.
Johnson has stayed busy in the three years since Fruit Bats’ last album, including stints with The Shins and the film scores, but this understated gem of a record is enough to make fans hope for more of him as EDJ.
“Model of You” (Apollo)
Sam Ricketts and Tom Clarke’s second album as Cloud Boat builds a record-long soundscape of guitar, drum machine, synth, reverb and electronic loops. But on “Model of You,” Cloud Boat doesn’t treat the intricate, heavily produced ambient landscape as an end in itself — the duo uses it to frame Clarke’s soaring, emotive vocals.
The seven-minute album closer, “Hallow,” for instance, opens with a skittering electronic loop overlaid with a simple guitar strum. Clarke’s voice comes in along with a subtle four-on-the-floor beat, and then the song breaks into silence before swooping back and crescendoing into a thickly textured, danceable final movement with Clarke matching its intensity. It’s an ambitious song on an ambitious album that aims to inject some hot-blooded melodrama into the emotionally chilly world of electronica.
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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