Brought to You by the Letter Gby Grant Moser
Portishead: Third (Mercury/Island)
This is not the Portishead of yore, lulling you with melodies reminiscent of sinking underwater slowly. Remember, these guys have been stewing in their dark, dank, dismal juices for a decade now; they’ve evolved the bittersweet sound of goodbye. Third is, impossible as it may seem, more haunting, sullen, and moody than the group’s previous efforts. And Beth Gibbons’ voice is even more tortured. If Portishead’s last album was like drowning slowly and romantically, this time around it’s the police finding the bloated body at the bottom of the lake. Amplifying the stark, unforgiving mood, several songs simply cut off in mid-beat, leaving you with deafening silence before they trudge on with more dismay. “We Carry On” is the frightened heartbeat of a hunted deer; “Machine Gun” rattles you with four minutes of repeating rat-a-tat-tats; and on the closer, “Threads,” Gibbons moans, “I’m always so unsure.” I’m sure that Portishead has made a desolate and bleak album, and made it sound good. Ten years is a long time to wait, but Third will give you plenty of material to autopsy for years to come.
Plants and Animals: Parc Avenue (Secret City)
I get it: This band is talented. They write layered music with an epic feel. They craft well-built songs that grow and twist in ways you’d never expect, like “Faerie Dance,” an inventive tune that’s dark and beautiful but, at the end, switches to a soft seventies-radio rock vibe. This would be fine if not for the fact that half the album relies on this same hook. Plants and Animals have the languid, rolling, Steely Dan songwriting down, but the problem is that it’s safe and ultimately boring. “Faerie Dance” is their best song because it’s not safe, because it takes chances, because it sounds like alt-folk as played by Jane’s Addiction. The rest of the album fares even worse, meandering off into the ether. Plants and Animals has been described as math-rock, which, as near as I can tell, translates loosely to “Phish-like,” and Phish’s influence does seem to show here and there. P&A are talented, but I only occasionally catch glimpses of it. As they sing on the opening track: “It takes a good friend / To say you’ve got your head up your ass.” Well…
The Kooks: Konk (Astralwerks)
The Kooks have taken a beating from the press for this album: The songs are poppy, rely on guitar riffs, and all talk about girls. God forbid. Look, these guys were never going to reshape rock ’n’ roll; they’re a bunch of early-twenty-somethings that like making fun music. Sure, the music on Konk is poppy, but not any more than their last album. The songs are good and will be played often this summer. And the band sounds like they’re enjoying themselves. So stop listening to music critics and listen to Bowie instead: “So take a chance / With a couple of Kooks / Hung up on romancing.”
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson: Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson (Say Hey)
Once you get past his somewhat ridiculous moniker this guy references a bunch of names old and new (Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Beck, Lightspeed Champion) and pays a fine homage. If you’re looking for a new singer-songwriter to idolize, this could be the guy. Espousing that garage-y, DIY, folky lo-fi sound, MBAR brings to mind that early Bright Eyes production style of “I’m spilling out my heart and recording it in my depressing lonely bedroom.” Songs start sparsely and then slowly build, growing lavishly. The first song starts with the lyrics “This is my last song about myself,” and this theme of self-annihilation continues throughout the album. You’ll learn a lot about MBAR, his life, friends, fears, and joys on this (appropriately enough) eponymous album. The good news is that his imagery comes through loud and clear, the songwriting is beautiful, and you’ll have no trouble remembering the singer’s name.
The Silver Seas: High Society (Cheap Lullaby)
This band really, really likes the music of their parents. Not that that’s a bad thing. The songs range from Van Morrison to Steely Dan, from Roy Orbison channeling the Beach Boys to maudlin George Michael (“Cowboys and Angels”), to some soft-groovy light-rock rash that made my skin crawl. Don’t get me wrong: I like their influences. Heck, we’ve all got secret CDs stashed under the mattress that we don’t tell our friends about, that we pull out when we’re feeling vulnerable and alone. (Except for me.) However, there’s a difference between being influenced by a past musician and being a cover band. There’s a difference between recycling a decade and re-recording it. The Silver Seas sound like they’re doing K-Tel’s Best of Lite Rock, until they start believing what they’ve been shoveling and try and write some original (albeit still elevator-ish) tunes. These songs, of course, make my skin crawl even more. High Society is out on the Silver Seas aboard the Titanic, and heading very, very rapidly toward an iceberg.
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.