This Week’s Best Albums: January 18, 2011

This Week's Best Albums: January 18, 2011

Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow discuss ALARM’s favorite new releases in a download-able podcast.

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Steven Drozd: The Heart is a Drum MachineSteven Drozd: The Heart Is A Drum Machine (The Score) (Twinkle Cash Co.)

Steven Drozd: “Born”

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Steven Drozd is a multi-instrumentalist and the third-most-tenured member of The Flaming Lips; live, he usually plays guitar and keyboards and sings a bit, but he began his stint as the band’s drummer. Now he’s releasing the nearly instrumental accompaniment to the documentary The Heart is a Drum Machine, a film by the producers of the Moog documentary that attempts to explain what music “is” and how it affects human beings.

The music shares a lot of characteristics with the Flaming Lips of the past dozen years – synthesized grooves, big rock beats, fuzz bass, airy keyboards, and different instrumental flourishes weaving in and out. Listeners are unlikely to confuse the two, however, and the score succeeds as a standalone album as well as a film accompaniment. Maynard James Keenan of Tool and A Perfect Circle provides guest vocals on a cover of Elton John‘s “Rocket Man,” which feels a bit out of place when listening straight through, but it’s a unique rendition of a classic-rock hit.

Beep: City of the FutureBeep: City of the Future (Third Culture)

Beep: “Robo Pup”

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A genre-bending electro-rock-meets-experimental-jazz trio, Beep is a Bay Area band that began as a more traditional jazz outfit.  But with its third album, City of the Future, it has moved into a category all its own. Accessible beats and upright-bass grooves build into keyboard leads and polyrhythmic breakdowns, and though a few passages become harder to follow, it doesn’t take long for Beep’s powerful melodies and rhythms to come back to the fore.

The best contemporary comparison here might be a group like Kneebody, which expertly combines some of the best elements of rock and jazz. Beep, however, adds more disparate elements in the way of wordless vocal harmonies, an electrified mbira, woodblocks, and electronic squiggles, and City of the Future pulls all of that together for a swirling jazz-rock odyssey. Ultimately, beyond the style shifting, it showcases a real knack for melody as evidenced by the final track, “Robo Pup,” which premiered last week on AlarmPress.com.

Ghost: Opus EponymousGhost: Opus Eponymous (Metal Blade / Rise Above)

Ghost: “Con Clavi Con Dio”

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With its debut full-length, Swedish metal band Ghost — not to be confused with the Japanese psych-rock band of the same name — has quickly built buzz thanks to its infectious mix of classic metal riffs, sing-along vocals, and abundant melodies. The overarching satanic themes and high-priest visual aesthetic don’t hurt either in appealing to the band’s target market.

Opus Eponymous, out now in the USA on Metal Blade, is being billed as a black-metal album.  There’s a bit of that in the darker moments, but truthfully, it falls much closer to classic rock with its organs and vocal harmonies. The press materials recommend it for fans of Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, and Blue Öyster Cult, but there are just enough left-field elements – Benedictine-style chants, church bells, spaced-out keyboards – to separate these guys from the pack.

Braids: Native SpeakerBraids: Native Speaker (Kanine)

Braids: “Lemonade”

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Another promising debut this week comes via the highly orchestrated indie-rock creations of Braids – not to be confused with indie-rock favorites Braid from Champaign, Illinois. The pluralized version is actually a group of kids, still just a few years removed from high school, who skipped college, moved to Montreal, and began making a record. The result is an album that’s mature beyond its years, with musical dynamics that many bands never achieve — and chops that aren’t too shabby either, perhaps best shown by rapid, looping guitar work.

The durations of Braids’ songs are another indie-rock anomaly, often eclipsing seven and eight minutes. Thanks to that and the band’s other elongated, reverberated guitar parts, it has a fair share in common with post-rock and bands such as Mono, even if the music is topped with sugary pop vocals. But even those elements are turned on their heads at times, and vocalist/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston, who’s also capable of Björk-style power, borders on manic shrieking in the song “Glass Dears.”

Joel Harrison String Choir: The Music of Paul MotianJoel Harrison String Choir: The Music of Paul Motian (Sunnyside)

Joel Harrison String Choir: “Misterioso”

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Guitarist/composer Joel Harrison has a head-spinning discography, spanning world music, ethnic folk songs, country and Appalachian tunes, avant-classical music, experimental jazz, blues, hymns, and more. Now the boundary-defying songwriter has undertaken another ambitious project: translating the music of legendary jazz drummer Paul Motian to fixed and improvised chamber renditions.

Having played with Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk in addition to recording dozens of albums as a bandleader, Motian has a wealth of material from which to choose. Harrison, in these new versions, does an exemplary job of balancing classical orchestration with improvisation. And he accomplishes this (for the most part) with two guitars plus a string quartet – omitting bass and drums, which usually are crucial jazz elements.

Honorable Mentions

Amina Alaoui: Gharnati, En Concert (Music & Words / Saphrane)

The Decemberists: The King is Dead (Capitol)

Electric Wizard: Black Masses (Rise Above)

Eulogies: Tear the Fences Down (Dangerbird)

Fergus & Geronimo: Unlearn (Hardly Art)

Ion: Immaculada (Restricted Release)

Daniel Martin Moore: In the Cool of the Day (Sub Pop)

Aaron Novik: Floating World Vol. 1 (Porto Franco)

Smith Westerns: Dye it Blonde (Fat Possum)

Social Distortion: Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes (Epitaph)