Recordings | July 2016

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, July 2016 Issue.

Tegan and Sara | Love You To Death | WB | 4halfstars

Is it a function of your humble correspondent’s advancing years, dear reader, or the duo’s own sparkling gift for reinvention, that makes Tegan and Sara stilltegan-and-sara-new-album
seem a little like a “new band” — even after a 20-year career and a breakthrough album that came out well over a decade ago? But from the early Ani-influenced folk on This Business Of Art through the anthemic alt-pop crunch of So Jealous to the shimmering turn towards mainstream pop on 2013’s Heartthrob, they’ve approached each new album like a new debut. Love You To Death sharpens up the radio-friendly pop sound of Heartthrob – and sharpens up the lyrics too, making for a different kind of breakthrough that’s joyous, life-affirming and, in its own way, a bit of a revolution.

“That Girl” kicks off with an unsparing self-portrait of a woman trying to find her way to a better version of herself, and from the huge synth swells to the highly engineered rhythm track, it’s clear they’re aiming for Taylor and Sia heights, and they deliver.

“Boyfriend,” though, is bigger. Brilliant, catchy, irresistible, this track is also one of the first Tegan and Sara songs to overtly sing about a same-sex relationship. Both of the Quin sisters are lesbians, and they’ve advocated for the LGBTQ community for years, but they’ve always finessed their lyrics towards a more neutral, could-be-anybody point of view. Not this time, as the specifics pack a punch here that powers one of their best songs to date.

The contrast between their ear-candy harmonies and their astringent lyrics has long been one of Tegan and Sara’s strengths. Here, as the pop gets shinier, the undercurrent of disquiet has grown even stronger, as on “100x” and “Dying To Know,” well-crafted miniature odes to relationships falling apart and yearnings unfulfilled. But the overall sonic sheen here makes the entire listen a joy.

The Monkees | Good Times | Rhino | 5stars

Yeah, you heard me, the Monkees. Created via auditions for a manic and groundbreaking TV comedy that debuted a distressing half-century ago, pop’s original prefab boy band quickly grew beyond its creators’ intentions and seized the reins themselves, leveraging their monster hit success into a wedge to make great music (from music hall to proto-punk to country rock) and examine, and mock, the very nature of pop fame – from their 1968 movie, Head, to their excellent, underappreciated 1997 TV movie, Hey, Hey It’s the Monkees.

the-monkees-good-timesThat’s all well and good, but why are these venerable geezers getting a record review in 2016? Because they’ve made a new album that will melt your face off, that’s why. And for some guys who were famous before most of our parents were born, that’s a feat worth appreciating. Their new album, Good Times, brings the band together with contributions from celeb superfans like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, The Jam’s Paul Weller, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Andy Schlesinger of Fountains Of Wayne, alongside a few rare previously-unfinished recordings from their golden era that have been completed for this project. The result is as good as their ‘60s records, if not better. It’s a major late-career accomplishment.

The amazing thing here is not just how well this album captures the Monkees’ 1960s sound (or how sharp and ageless the band’s vocals remain), but how well the contemporary artists songwriting contributions mesh with the ‘kees’ classic sound. Gibbard’s “Me & Magdalena” sounds like it was written in 1966, with the band’s harmonies transporting the thing beyond time in one of the most beautiful moments of their career. Schlesinger’s “Our Own World” is a summer anthem that’s as good as it gets, while Cuomo’s “She Makes Me Laugh” is as punchy, and catchy, as anything in Weezer’s catalog. “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster,” co-written by Weller and Gallagher, is hilarious and clever – a definite highlight.

The vintage material here all sounds as fresh as the newly recorded stuff, seamlessly mixing 1960s-era vocals and backing tracks with 2016 enhancements. Harry Nilsson’s title track is a thing of joy, with the late singer-songwriter himself on vocals (in a duet with longtime pal Micky Dolenz, with Dolenz’ contributions recorded recently). Beloved Monkee Davy Jones, who passed away in 2012, is represented here on archival vocals with a newly recut version of Neil Diamond’s “Love To Love,” while Monkees hit songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart contribute the lovely “Gotta Give It Time.” Like the band itself, Good Times is an impossible mix of elements that should never work, but transcends into something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s one of the best things you’ll hear this year.

Beth Orton | Kidsticks | Anti | 4stars

Lately, Beth Orton’s records have moved into the space once occupied by such giants of esoteric British folk as Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake. So it’s BethOrtoneasy to forget that when she started out, she was just as deeply steeped in electronica, collaborating with artists like the Chemical Brothers and William Orton for a “folktronica” sound that few did as well. Those electronic influences return on Kidsticks, a cathartic and bold record that builds on her strength while expanding her sonic palette considerably.

“Snow” kicks off the set with Orton’s honey-deep voice and well-honed beats, while the thundering “Petals” brings the rock in wholly unexpected ways. Orton’s obsession with (or celebration of) nature keeps that mystic touch of her recent acoustic records, with a subtle yearning that builds over time, but the adventuresome and eclectic sound of these ten songs (helmed by Fuck Buttons producer Andrew Hung) takes the entire affair to new places that will surprise both her longtime fans and more recent converts. “Corduroy Legs” is perhaps the weirdest and most wonderful moment, a mélange of chaos that somehow conjures bliss.

“1973” is perhaps the catchiest song here, a romp of a tune that focuses and distills Orton’s aesthetic into its most accessible and fun moment yet. Kidsticks feels like an artist cut loose from expectations, fearlessly playing with a variety of ideas and bringing us the best of the lot.