Best Albums: Man Man, Arctic Monkeys, Balance and Composure, Obits, Cock & Swan, Tremor

This week’s best albums

– With its fifth album, quirk-rock quintet Man Man offers a “band reboot,” merging its Tom Waits-ian, trop-pop weirdness with Talking Heads inspirations, old-school soul, and other oddities.

Arctic Monkeys makes another surprise transition, this time with a slinky nightclub record that channels bluesy rock riffs from the ’70s.

Balance and Composure, among the new guard of indie-rock bands that actually rock, makes an advancement of musical and songwriting depth.

– Rick Froberg’s Obits, on its third LP, better balances its members’ blues, rock, psych, and world-music influences with the more familiar snarl of their post-hardcore precursors.

– Following a more acoustic LP, Seattle duo Cock & Swan crafts an album of washed-out ambience, breathy vocals, glitching syncopation, and pop nostalgia.

– Argentinian “folklorica” outfit Tremor utilizes human voice for the first time, offering a poppier blend of folk and electronica.

Honorable mentions

The Weeknd: Kiss Land (Republic)

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Obits: Nonchalant Rock ‘n’ Roll

Obits: I Blame YouObits: I Blame You (Sub Pop, 3/24/09)

Obits: “Pine On”

[audio:|titles=Obits: “Pine On”]

As I chat with Sohrab Habibion, guitar player for Obits, a sense of calm hangs in the stale basement air of a tiny Chicago rock club on a misty December evening. Minutes before the group’s performance, two or three band members haphazardly try to locate a marker and some paper to scribble down a set list. You’d think that they were preparing to empty a dishwasher or fold laundry instead of gearing up to play a show — their 12th ever.

“It’s just a crappy rock band, basically,” says singer/guitarist Rick Froberg, casually cutting in when I ask Habibion whether the band has a particular musical vision. “If people like that, that’s cool. It’s really just about having fun.” Froberg is the band’s wiry, 40-ish lead man, who, with previous bands Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu, helped shape the sound that some refer to as “post-hardcore.” Along with most of his present cohorts, he has paid his dues in the independent-rock circuit. Straining to make a favorable impression on teen masses, market themselves inside of a scene, or even sell records seems to be an athema to the guys that make up this new project.

But just a crappy rock band? No matter what he says, that ain’t the case. Obits released its debut full-length in March of 2009. Titled I Blame You, it’s a breezy, lo-fi rock-’n’-roll record that revels in dirty garage rock, pop, punk, and ’60s psych. Among originals, the album includes an impressive cover of “Milk Cow Blues” by Chicago blues musician Kokomo Arnold. One of those original numbers, “Two Sided Coin,” mixes punk with a sleazy, groove-laden bass line until Froberg’s voice cuts through and grinds it down into something that resembles timely and frenetic garage rock. Reminiscent of Jehu’s best, “Light Sweet Crude” shows the band at its most tight, blazing, and concise.

“It’s just a crappy rock band, basically. If people like that, that’s cool. It’s really just about having fun.”

Despite the album’s merits, the band’s reputation as an indie-rock stalwart clearly precedes it, though Froberg would eschew the suggestion. “The music stands on its own,” he says. “I mean, if that — our background — gets them to hear us, that’s great. But I’d hope that people would be open-minded enough to listen to the music for what it actually is.”

Habibion says that listeners may have “expectations based on familiarity with our past projects,” like his own former Jade Tree band Edsel, but he emphasizes that this new endeavor is firstly for themselves. “It’s not like we’re actively trying to do something different, just like before I wasn’t actively trying to play or not play hardcore music,” he says. “Other people define those terms. We’re just trying to let our influences bleed…come out a bit more in the music, and hopefully arrange the stuff that we like into something that people enjoy.” However, Habibion admits to being a bit more selfish this time around. “I think we’re more worried about what we take away from it. Like, did we have fun?”

Though a lack of urgency is evident before the show, Obits shines onstage regardless of whether its members are playing for themselves or for the audience. With drummer Scott Gursky and bassist Greg Simpson joining Froberg and Habibion, the music is no more “refined” than the members’ previous groups, mixing surf rock with heavy guitar solos. It’s still rooted in abrasive punk rock, but with a slightly more easygoing tone. And though they might have appeared flippant during their interview, the members’ enthusiasm for their “crappy rock band” clearly shows though.

So what does Froberg want listeners to take away from an Obits performance, if anything? “I want people to have a good time,” he says simply, before adding, “unless they go away, like, openly hostile. I wouldn’t want that!”

Taking a page from the Stuckism book of Billy Childish, which implies that the value of artistic expression is in communicating emotional experience rather than constantly searching for the next big thing or aggressively trying to break new ground, Obits is simply playing what it wants to play and having fun doing it. That’s the only big reward.

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Record Review: Obits’ Moody, Standard and Poor

Obits: Moody, Standard and PoorObits: Moody, Standard and Poor (Sub Pop, 3/29/11)

Obits: “Shift Operator”

[audio:|titles=Obits: “Shift Operator”]

Few bands have had their first live shows bootlegged by fans. But when Obits‘ January 12, 2008 gig at the Cake Shop in New York City leaked on the Internet, few were surprised. Followers of Rick Froberg‘s previous bands, Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes, had been anxiously awaiting his new partnership with Sohrab Habibion, of Washington, DC-based Edsel, since the band began writing and rehearsing together in 2006.

After a fan leaked the lo-fi recordings, things moved quickly for the Brooklyn-based indie rockers. Obits posted two of the songs to its MySpace page, was subsequently signed to Sub Pop in late 2008, and released its first record, I Blame You, in March of 2009.

Its follow-up album, Moody, Standard and Poor, finds Obits further honing its gutsy blend of melodic garage punk without sacrificing the energy that defined its first release.

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The Thermals’ favorite current records

The Thermals: “I Don’t Believe You” (Personal Life, KRS, 9/7/10)

The Thermals – I Don’t Believe You

We asked The Thermals, the Portland pop-punk power trio, to name a few of its favorite recent releases. The band’s drummer, Westin Glass, responded with a list of five records that ranges from radio-friendly pop to an independent artist that calls himself the “black Bob Dylan.” Whether or not you share Glass’ taste, you can appreciate his sentiment that some music exists to help you laugh and get laid.

Jason DeRulo1. Jason DeRulo: s/t (Beluga Heights [Warner Brothers], 2010)

This one may be hard to swallow for you indie-rock fans — but I assure you, it’s worth it. Definitely a “singles” record, with three mega smash hits on Top 40 radio. I first heard Jason DeRulo‘s track “Whatcha Say” blasting on the one working speaker in my friend’s car last year and immediately loved it. The digitally distressed Imogen Heap sample in that song makes for the most memorable hook of 2009.

I also love “Ridin’ Solo,” a great post-breakup, self-psych-up song. Jason DeRulo knows how to make a fucking hit — a bubble-gummy blast of ear sugar that will lighten your mood and get stuck in your head. Speaking of which, his track “In My Head” is stuck in my head right now.

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