From two thumbs up to D+

Alphabeat – This Is Alphabeat
Charisma Records
Grade: A+

What happens when you take equal parts Abba and B-52’s and mix it with just a touch of the Scissor Sisters (sans the kitch & camp)? You get what is probably the closest thing to the perfect pop band that has ever existed--Alphabeat. Hailing from Denmark, their infectious melodies and perfectly crafted, hook laden arrangements dominate this album from beginning to end grabbing the listener by the collar and forcing them to their feet. If you don’t tap your toes to these songs then you are just dead and all hope for you is lost. Alphabeat are what pop is meant to sound like and it’s intelligently done making it easy to fall in love with this band without feeling guilty for listening. American pop acts could learn a lot from this sextet.

Gus Black – Today Is Not The Day…
India Records
Grade: A+

When Gus Black half whispers/half sings “Today is not the day to fu** with me” there is little doubt that he is serious. Darkly melancholic arrangements dominate the album while still remaining somewhat wistful and fragile. Black’s whispered croon is perfectly hauntingly evocative and sexy in a way that evokes equal parts Nick Cave and Jeff Buckley with just a touch of Bono and Elliot Smith for good measure.  There is a veiled urgency to this album that seems to be lingering just beneath the sparse guitar strumming and minimalist arrangements lending a certain implied intensity to the work. With this release there is little doubt that Black is at the top of his game and has nowhere to go from here  but up.

Jeremy Jay – A Place Where We Could Go
K Records
Grade: A-

It is appropriate that pop poet channeling 50’s teen idol Jeremy Jay starts off his debut release with wishing his audience “Nite Nite” because from the first jaunty strums of “Heavenly Creatures” all the way through to the end of the album Jay summons forth the ghosts of everyone from Buddy Holly to David Bowie to Morrissey and incorporates their haunting specters into the surreal fabric of his verse. The result is a dreamy, introspective trip through the ether with Jay in the driver’s seat showing the listener around his theatrical world. Jay goes from yearning and longing to earnest brooding and hits every emotion in between on the way but the sheer sincerity of his voice is enough to convince any listener to stick around for the ride.

Ben Sollee – Learning to Bend
Crash Avenue
Grade: B+

Aside from the fact that Ben Sollee is simply adorable in a geeky college boy sort of way, his debut full length release is reason enough for this reviewer to perk up and pay attention. This inspired collection of folk and jazz infused acoustic songs highlighted by Sollee’s resonating voice and warm cello (his instrument of choice) is a diamond shining in the rough of distraught and melancholic pop folk that has become popular in recent years. Having played previously in the Sparrow Quartet alongside Bela Flack and Abigail Washburn it is little surprise the depth of soul Sollee has to draw upon. The whole album is magnificent with room to grow but the standout track of the whole album—his soul drenched and heartfelt cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” – is  the one that speaks most true of Solee’s depth of ability. Keep an eye on this one. He is destined for greatness!      

Earlimart – Hymn & Her
Major Domo Records/Shout! Factory
Grade: B+

One would be well justified in thinking that fewer members of a band would equate to a smaller, more stripped down sound. Not so the case with California based Indie rock darlings Earlimart. Now down to only two members – Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray – the band’s sound is tighter and more focused than ever before. Textured arrangements interlaced with jangly pop melodies dominate the sonic landscape of Hymn & Her. Bubbly keyboards and drum machines on a loop play host to jaunty acoustic guitars and warm melodies that conspire together in an altogether lush and spacey sound that is not only hauntingly atmospheric but incredibly warm and engaging.

¡Forward, Russia! – Life Processes
Grade: B

Angst ridden post-pop inspired arrangements supporting intense vocals is the hallmark of this band and Life Processes is no exception to that rule. Venturing a bit more heavily this time out into epic math rock territory than previous work the group’s sound has definitely matured over the time since their last release. This is not only evident in the music but in the titles of the songs, in that there are titles at all instead of just “Track One”, “Track Two” and so forth. This offering is a considerable step forward for the band from the acerbic histrionics of their previous work.

Sammy Walker – Misfit Scarecrow
Ramseur Records
Grade: C

The first release from folk troubadour Sammy Walker in over 12 years finds the artist invoking the same trademark folk and traditional country and soul sounds he has always been known for. While the music sounds good enough and Walker’s raspy vocals are as warm and engaging as ever, it seems to me that there really doesn’t seem to be anything about this album that really leaps out and grabs me or encourages me to come back for more. Walker is an excellent songsmith and performer, but this recording has a sort of hollowness that resonates throughout the album and leaves the listener more intrigued than entertained. An essential piece of work for Walker fans, it really doesn’t reach much further than that and would seem somewhat disjointed and uninspiring to anyone else.

Beck – Modern Guilt
Grade: D+

Am I the only one who thinks that Beck is overrated? If his sales are any indicator then I probably am. There was a time when his music was fun and engaging but with this release (finding him teamed with Danger Mouse, the mastermind behind The Grey Album) bores me to tears. It just seems to me that Beck has moved beyond a point where his music is making any real sense into a realm where he is just being weird because that’s what people have come to expect of him. And I’m sorry but the only artists in my book who gets a pass for being weird just for the sake of it is Alice Cooper—who Beck most assuredly is not. I really want to like Beck because much of his earlier catalogue was well done and eclectic enough to be fun. The only thing fun about Modern Guilt was tossing it out the window as I journeyed down the interstate.

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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