Recordings | September 2015

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, September 2015 Issue.

MUSIC_spectacularSpectacular Spectacular
Blur | 5stars

For all-female dream-pop trio Spectacular Spectacular, the band name says it all. Jessica De Grasse, Millie Chan and Isley Reust founded the band in San Francisco back in 2012. They’ve since relocated to Los Angeles and have become one of the most hotly tipped bands in town. Besides being a brilliant songwriter and musician, Reust is a multitalented artist who was featured (alongside your humble correspondent) in Laura Jane Grace’s AOL Originals series True Trans, and her compelling life story as an out trans artist has earned her still more fans. If there’s any justice in the world, the dark beauty of Blur will add to that fame.

There’s a tres-cool cinematic vibe here, recalling the soundtrack to some great lost ‘60s cult films – the lovely vocals evoke a world-wise weariness that is impossible to resist, and the songwriting is top notch. With its infectious mix of analog reverb and electropop bounce, the opening single, “Wake Me Up,” is an urgent, Ennio Morricone-esque giddyup, a desperate, dizzying escape with time running out. The spooky, hypnotic disco vibe of “Orange Juice” is music for a dead-can-dancefloor. “Show me the monsters inside of you,” De Grasse sings like a mantra. It’s one of the album’s finest and most compelling moments.

MUSIC_SpectacularBAND_CUTNot since Mazzy Star has dream pop been this good. There’s a palpable sense of mystery and peril here, like driving on some uncharted back road on a starless night. The songs aren’t afraid of the dark, though you might be. “All The Way” is total emotional crush, intimate, ethereal and full of longing. “The Dark Moon” is a dreamscape, with harmonies the Cocteau Twins would envy, while the powerful string arrangement on “50” underlines lyrics like “in the darkest of nights, your underworld is waiting … if you tempt it you’re a dead man.”

The rocking “Saturday Night” perks things up considerably, recalling Sleater-Kinney in a two-car pileup with Garbage, with Shirley Manson coming out on top, but just barely.

Ultimately, Blur is a record that isn’t afraid to get to emotional truth, wherever it leads. “If you could just tell me the truth, it wouldn’t have to hurt so bad,” she sings on the acoustic title-track closer, a dark night of the soul if ever there was one. The album is available on iTunes and at

Domino | 4halfstars

Los Angeles band Sparks (the duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael) have been making challenging, brilliant and relentlessly fun music together since before this reporter was born (and trust me, kids, I’m hella old). Along the way they’ve influenced artists from Queen to Morrissey, scared the pants off John Lennon and created classic disco anthems (“The Number One Song In Heaven” with Georgio Moroder), pogo-tastic New Wave (“Angst In My Pants,” from the Valley Girl Soundtrack), and 21st century cabaret (“Lil’ Beethoven”).

They also made fans of one of the United Kingdom’s best postpunk bands, Franz Ferdinand. It’s a rare day when such bands collaborate at all, rarer still when they unite for an entire album. Together they are FFS (Franz Ferdinand Sparks (what else could it possibly stand for?) and their debut is a Gestalt indie electropop triumph, merging the best elements of both bands into something greater still.

Franz’s Alex Kapranos gets the first word in “Johnny Delusional,” the story of a man who hasn’t got a chance with the object of his desire. Kapranos’ warm baritone whispers invitingly, before Russell Mael’s iconic falsetto launches the song’s anxiety-driven hook. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s danceable, and Mr. Delusional is wanted at the front desk.

At times it seems like the wry, arch Mael brothers have gotten the upper hand in this partnership, but Franz gives as good as they get. “Call Girl” puts Kapranos to the forefront, griping about hocking his guitar and giving up “blow and Adderall” for the girl who won’t call, not now, not ever.

“Dictator’s Son” paints a movie-worthy picture of a tyrant’s trust-fund brat tearing up LA’s club scene, while “So Desu Ne” celebrates a “pamphleteer of love” sporting a Hello Kitty Uzi. The meta-to-death “Collaborations Don’t Work” finds the bands fake-sniping at each other, tossing in references to Willem De Kooning, Andy Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright for starters. “I am the master! Independent! And if I ever need a father, it won’t be you, old man,” Kapranos sneers at Mael. “Mozart didn’t need a little hack to chart,” Mael spits back. “I’m going to do it all by myself,” they sing in unison.

The set ends with “Piss Off,” a riotous rejection of life’s little annoyances. It thumps like an Iggy Pop tune, with full-on Franz fury and razor-sharp Mael wordplay (and a “harmonize” section that will give you goose bumps). Both bands say FFS isn’t a one-off project and that there’ll be much more to come. Here’s hoping.

MUSIC_tommykeeneTommy Keene
Laugh In The Dark
Second Motion Records | 4halfstars

Tommy Keene’s new album Laugh In The Dark is the kind of joyous, heartbreakingly great rock record you dream about but never see anymore. It’s the last unicorn of rock and roll. A power pop legend (think bands like the Beatles, Big Star, Game Theory, the Replacements, the Muffs, etc.), Keene is also one of the great unheralded gay rock stars, a beloved cult figure in the music world but little-known in the LGBT community. Let’s fix that, gang.

With a songbook at least a dozen albums deep, Keane’s greatest gift is his ability to turn on a dime between spirited, witty rock and deep emotional vulnerability. He writes a hell of a catchy hook, too; you’ll be humming these tunes for the rest of your life at no additional charge.

The set kicks off with “Out Of My Mind,” a wall-of-sound smash jam-packed with tasty riffs and Keene’s sweet double-tracked harmonies.

“Save my life, come and tell me what you decide,” Keene sings on the beautiful midtempo gem “All The Lights Are Alive,” ringing with the music of the spheres. “I Want It To Be Over Now” hops with the beat of the old-school Sesame Street theme, an acerbic wit Elvis Costello would envy, and a been-there-done-that breakup tale that could only be Keene.

Slide guitar chords rule “Go Back Home” with a Bo Diddley beat, a sort of powerpop blues, while the clever and revealing “I Belong To You” showcases Keene’s ruthless talent for lyrical laceration. The guitar in “Alone In These Modern Times” blisters like a Hüsker Dü song, but with a sonic sweetness that belies its loneliness and alienation.

“All Gone Away” is an epic, psych-tinged closer, drenched in swirling keyboards and a thousand guitar chorus pedals simultaneously tripping balls in maximum Busby Berkeley glory. “Calling around the whole wide world,” Keene sings, in a voice-of-God echo that sounds like he means it. Call it “Dear Prudence II” if you want, but this is freedom rock, so turn it up, man. Keene is one of music’s all-time treasures, and Laugh In The Dark is his latest and greatest. Get it.