Quick Spins: New Albums From Father John Misty, New Pornographers, Guided By Voices & White Reaper
By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 7, 2017 4:00PM
The New Pornographers, photo by Jenny Jimenez
Spring has sprung, so that means we are deep in the "new album season" that precedes most summer touring. This weeks is bending under the weight of much-hyped new releases, so here are a few of the best we think warrant your attention.
Father John Misty, known to his mom as Josh Tillman, does his best to present himself as some inscrutable cypher. His live and television appearances are layered with various attempts at obfuscation and eccentricity, but folks, this is all an act.
I had the good fortune to see Tillman deliver a powerful acoustic set to a room of about 25 people just ahead of the release of his last album, I Love You, Honeybear. In such a small setting, Tillman’s devotion to his craft, and the honest way in which he pursues creating the music that is his trade, put to rest any doubts I had that his output might be some sort of irony draped ruse. So I approach Tillman with a little less baggage than most might.
Perhaps the reason people don’t take Tillman at face value is because of the sonic envelope he’s chosen to deliver his work. There is a heavy does of ‘70s Laurel Canyon driving his aural aesthetic, and more than a passing resemblance to Honky Château-era Elton John in his vocal delivery. So I think that the ornate take on classic AOR causes too many to immediately short circuit and assume that Tillman is couching his delivery in winking self-awareness when in fact his focus is exactly the opposite.
We live in weird times, and Tillman tries to approach the confusion from an honest standpoint on his new album Pure Comedy. Now to be fair, while Tillman is aware that his motives have been framed as suspect by the press and critics in the past, so in an essay accompanying the new album he lays out his intentions in a pretty bare way:
Imagine if you will, as the album starts, that you’re way out in space looking at the earth and, though it’s impossible to “fall” through space, you start a free fall anyway in the direction of the bright blue marble. For the next 75 minutes you plummet toward the earth, losing more and more perspective on what an abstract and impermanent place our planet is, how predictably we step on the same rakes, slip on the same banana peels over and over again through the ages, quickly becoming more and more immersed in the very messy business of being a human - the dubious privilege of being here, the elusiveness of meaning, true love and its habitual absence, random euphoria and the inexplicable misery of others, truth and its more alluring counterfeits, the sophistication of answers that don’t make any sense, the barbarism of our appetites, lucky breaks and injustice, faith and ignorance, crippling, mind-numbing boredom, and the terror of it all ending too soon. Before you know it, you’ve delicately crash-landed and ﬁnd yourself lying on your back looking up at the stars. If you’re lucky, with someone you love; even if just for a day, a year, a lifetime. Though just an hour has passed you have no recollection of what the earth looked like from the far-ﬂung reaches of space, nor how simple it all seemed a matter of minutes ago.
If I Love You, Honeybear was Tillman grappling with his gifts and coming to peace with mining accessible melodies to deliver personal musings, Pure Comedy is where he sharpens that attack. No longer taking his gift for pop melodies for granted, he’s grafted ever more biting social and personal commentary on to the bones of his craft to deliver one of the most lyrically acerbic, yet melodically pleasurable, works of the year.
Father John Misty is on tour now and plays the Chicago Theater on May 15, and the Auditorium Theatre on Sept. 20.
Whiteout Conditions sees the departure of longtime New Pornographers Dan Bejar and Kurt Dahle, and I know it feels like heresy, but the band might be the better for it. Bejar long acted as the foil to the band’s ostensible leader—inasmuch as a group packed to the gills with superhuman musical talent can have a singular “leader’—Carl Newman. In retrospect their partnership created interesting works, but no New Pornographers album has felt like as much a solid front to back artistic victory as Whiteout Conditions does.
New drummer Joe Seiders manages to mix a swinging approach to the driving beats that propel much of the group’s power pop relentlessly forward. Opening track “Play Money” lays out the template for everything that follows, framing Neko Case’s verse vocals again Newman’s treated pre-chorus bridges and topping everything off with a healthy dollop of weird synth treatments draped over the core guitar-bass-drum attack. In other word the band has their sights on the most basic music pleasure centers in the brain, but is smart enough to throw in one or two unexpected moves to keep things interesting instead of cloyingly predictable.
Perhaps that’s the band’s greatest history on Whiteout Conditions. The New Pornographers have grown famous as the group most capable of expertly constructing perfect power-pop songs, and in that role they have gained ever-growing public acclaim, but that also carries along with it the whiff of predictability. The new album delivers on the promise of a band you can depend on to deliver the hooks, but it surprises by packing the album with no missteps and plenty of surprises. Because of this the band feels reinvigorated. After seven albums, even a supergroup can fall prey to falling into a rut, and while much of their recent output was strong it still felt a little overly premeditated. On Whiteout Conditions the band comes across as if they’ve awoken from a comfortable slumber with the intention of mining those corners of their talents that drove their earliest and most honest artistic explorations. In other words, The New Pornographers got their groove back.
The New Pornographers are on tour now and play The Metro on April 19 and 21.
The World's Best American Band
White Reaper is one of those bands that makes visible progress with each album, growing more mature without losing that spark that makes them special. Their initial EP sounded like an amphetamine-fueled punk take on Mod, and then their debut LP tapped the breaks a little to allow the hooks to stick around a little longer.
On The World’s Best American Band, White Reaper try their best to create an album that lives up to its title. And damn if they don’t deliver with this heavy guitar nod to stompin' and swaggerin' '70s rawk.
The Louisville, Kentucky quartet of Tony Esposito (guitar/vox), Ryan Hater (keyboards), Nick Wilkerson (drums) and Sam Wilkerson (bass) show more ambition on the new album, aiming for stadium rafters where they might’ve been content to hit the back of a garage before. But this isn’t a dilution of the band’s sound. Things are still rowdy and raw—it’s just that the songs have more ambition to make their mark on the annals of classic rock than they might have in the past.
White Reaper may be growing up but man do they still know how to throw an awesome party.
White Reaper is on tour right now and plays Beat Kitchen on May 5.
This is the 100th studio album—counting solo and side projects—that Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard has released since 1986's Forever Since Breakfast. So it seems fitting that Pollard actually tries to mix things up a little on August By Cake.
August By Cake is a double album—a move Pollard supposedly didn't take lightly given his worship of '70s concept double albums—but to be honest, that's not the hook here. When a band is this adept at constructing 2-minute songs and regularly packs LPs with between 20 and 30 songs at a time, the term "double album" is pretty meaningless. And even after digging through the lyric sheet accompanying this new release we're hard pressed to identify any "concept." So if you see any reviews vaunting either of these attributes you can shut your browser window, because they're just regurgitating a press release.
For the most part August By Cake is just another, albeit strong, Guided By Voices album. At this point it feels like (and by "feel" we mean "it's a fact") Pollard releases new LPs in a pretty non-stop pace. But August By Cake does mix things up a little it. Pollard has recruited yet another "new" band to back his GVB efforts, and in a rare move has actually allowed said band to take the reins and compose a few of the tunes themselves. It's not like Pollard never collaborates, but this is a rare instance where completely new, distinctive voices are allowed to come to the fore. Most notable is the addition of Bobby Bare, Jr., a relentless talent in his own right, to the band. And returning drummer Kevin March supplies the most tender moment on the album, the sweetly lilting “Sentimental Wars.” It's this openness to mixing things up a little bit that makes August By Cake feel like a cohesive album and not just another set in the long strong of songs Pollard has been churning out over the last three decades.
Also, for those keeping track at home, using your handy Guided By Voices sound-o-meter, you can file this one under "above lo-fi with crunchy guitars and healthy sonic variation."
Guided By Voices is on tour now.