• Review: J. Cole Goes DIY on the Reflective '2014 Forest Hills Drive'

    Review: J. Cole Goes DIY on the Reflective '2014 Forest Hills Drive'

    "No singles." So decreed J. Cole in mid-November, when word first came of his December surprise. And detractors might nod to themselves, "Mission accomplished." Zero guest spots, samples mostly relegated to clangorous snippets, blink and miss 'em choruses, a general sleepy vibe — this is about as fundamental as crowd-pleasing hip-hop gets.Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a self-described personal statement, named after the childhood North Carolina home he recently bought back. It's also quite the solemn affair, no surprise from a young man so uncommonly serious he turned a mild Nas diss into a crisis of confidence threnody. Rap fans who prefer juicy feuds on par with Ja Rule blinking 50 Cent's blood from his eyes might sneer at Cole's accommodating approach although false contenders get called out with malice this time around: Iggy Azalea, consider yourself warned.

  • Review: Foo Fighters' 'Sonic Highways' Is the Missing Link Between Dio And Big Star

    Review: Foo Fighters' 'Sonic Highways' Is the Missing Link Between Dio And Big Star

    These are weird times for alt-rock lifers. During a recent week-long residency on Late Show with David Letterman, the Foo Fighters hauled Zac Brown onstage to chug through Sabbath's "War Pigs," allowing a country singer with ten No. 1 singles to bellow about witches at black masses while a founding member of the Germs swayed behind him.

  • On Handjobs and Hopelessness: The Lovesick Zeal of Jenny Lewis' 'The Voyager'

    On Handjobs and Hopelessness: The Lovesick Zeal of Jenny Lewis' 'The Voyager'

    "I've been wearin' all black/ Since the day it started." That's how Jenny Lewis opens The Voyager, even though her third solo album features the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman sporting a pastel-splashed pantsuit that would be the envy of any L.A. hipster (or Care Bear). It's a depressive/celebratory yin-yang that exemplifies her welcome return to music after six years offstage. Recent interviews have hinted at tough times, with family loss and insomnia referenced as source material. But you wouldn't assume a troubled backstory from the music — Lewis has channeled her grievances into a statement of life-affirming and ebullient guitar pop.All of this songwriter's familiar touchstones are present in leadoff track "Head Underwater," from her clear delineation of cheery gloom ("my own mortality I contemplated") to jittery '80s hookcraft reminiscent of fellow Californians Haim.

  • Parquet Courts Are Inscrutably Awesome on 'Sunbathing Animal' (Which Does Not Sound Like Pavement)

    Parquet Courts Are Inscrutably Awesome on 'Sunbathing Animal' (Which Does Not Sound Like Pavement)

    Parquet Courts are tough lads to nail down. There are geographical inconsistencies at play: Denton, Texas-based band makes good in Brooklyn. There's lyrical obscurantism masking greater truths: "Death to all false prophets/ Around here we praise a dollar." There's a slacker ethos that at times seems little more than a feint, washed-out production values relegating the bass player to dusty stage corners, eight-minute drum machine stoner fables ("He's Seeing Paths") closing out five-song EPs (last year's Tally All The Things That You Broke). And then there's the band's sound, so alt-rock self-referential it sends music critics into reverie, a supposed apotheosis of indie rock's past and future, beholden to more post-punk scofflaws than any self-respecting record collector might ever hope to catalog, which is ok so long as noise-tune royalty Pavement gets top billing. Pavement, man.

  • Unsung Guitar Heroes Wussy Nail Rust-Belt Americana on 'Attica!'

    Unsung Guitar Heroes Wussy Nail Rust-Belt Americana on 'Attica!'

    Over the last decade, Cincinnati garage/pop/folk practitioners Wussy have refined a winning formula. Every 15 months or so, they break from full-time jobs (stonemasonry, waitressing, special ed), record a dozen-ish songs, play some clubs, then return to their 9 to 5s. Many an indie band can claim a similar bio, but few match the songwriting consistency of former Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver and formerly unaffiliated Lisa Walker.Simply put, Cleaver and Walker write great songs every time out. This uniformity hasn't translated into sales, which one might blame on the curse of smart regionalism (Wussy remains as quintessentially Cincinnati as Skyline Chili) or perhaps contemporary indie's more general disinterest in direct storytelling.

  • The Afghan Whigs Trounce Corgan, Channel Usher on Righteous Comeback 'Do to the Beast'

    The Afghan Whigs Trounce Corgan, Channel Usher on Righteous Comeback 'Do to the Beast'

    Allowing for grumbling from small cohorts of naysayers, it seems safe to posit that the Afghan Whigs have overseen the most artistically successful alternative rock reengagement of recent years (outside of Kathleen Hanna's triumphant 2013 Julie Ruin return, that is). Perhaps you're among the naysayers. You might point to the low bar set by the recent run of remarkably dispiriting '90s alt reunions: the Pixies cycling furiously through Kim Deal replacements, or Billy Corgan noodling away inside Madame ZuZu's. You might roll your eyes at the lothario shtick Greg Dulli's been finessing since 1986. You might ask where in the Christ original guitarist Rick McCollum is.Whatever your protestations, the Whigs have always stood slightly apart from their supposed peers.

  • Jon Langford Questions War, Puff Pieces on Delightful 'Here Be Monsters'

    Jon Langford Questions War, Puff Pieces on Delightful 'Here Be Monsters'

    Welsh-born Chicagoan Jon Langford boasts a unique creative energy, unless you can name another individual who helped pioneer cowpunk (Fear And Whiskey) while contributing artwork to craft breweries (Dogfish Head). But while The Mekons remain Langford's triumph, his enthusiasms spill over into worthy side-projects, from the Waco Brothers to children's music ensemble Wee Hairy Beasties.Langford once self-effacingly referred to his Skull Orchard project as a dumping ground for material deemed "too Welsh," but Here Be Monsters sounds like a fleshed-out band, graced with Mekons-derived musical trademarks, from melancholy fiddle/guitar ("Mars") to Creedence boogie ("Gone Without A Trace").

  • The Hold Steady / Photo by Danny Clinch

    The Hold Steady Reboot Their Sad-Bastard Rock Moves on 'Teeth Dreams'

    Craig Finn's the kind of rock and roller who references W.B. Yeats and John Berryman because he's dog-eared their paperbacks, not just because he likes the way the syllables roll off his tongue. So when Finn named an entire Hold Steady album after Jack Kerouac's On the Road soliloquy about boys and girls in America having such sad times together, you could tell he held the line in high esteem, enough to pit it against the foreboding presence of Berryman the Confessional Poet, who takes the plunge off Minneapolis's Washington Avenue Bridge midway through "Stuck Between Stations." Finn's a smart reader: he knows Kerouac's literary reputation wilts before that of Berryman's.

  • Beck / Photo by Krista Schlueter

    Beck Harvests Some West-Coast-Folkie Sunlight on the Stark, Lovely 'Morning Phase'

    Before considering whether Beck's first album in six years is really Sea Change II (spoiler alert: not exactly), a slight detour into armchair psychology seems in order. No matter what you think of Beck Hansen the artist, be he trendsetter or trend-follower, much of his recorded artistic trajectory seems to derive from early audience encounters when he was little more than a baby-faced cassette terrorist donning stormtrooper masks and riffing surrealistic rhymes about burger joints, the better to keep the hecklers quiet.Unfortunately, the same aw-shucks dada tricks that helped our young Lafayette Park busker gain a foothold among troubadour-wary L.A.

  • Dum Dum Girls / Photo by Shawn Brackbill

    Dum Dum Girls Convene Their Own Dead French Poets Society on 'Too True'

    On their expertly arranged and fleet-footed third album, Dee Dee Penny and her Dum Dum Girls (current lineup: Jules, Sandy, Malia) exemplify what is hereby dubbed indie-rock's Wowee Zowee/A Season in Hell rule. To wit, a) bedroom projects, no matter how lo-fi their origins, soon embrace multi-tracked studio grandeur, and b) all white bohemians eventually discover the French Symbolists.Concerning that first point, Dee Dee's been moving steadily beyond the tinny clatter of her first EPs since signing to Sub Pop in 2009, all those whipsaw guitars crunching into separate channels while her throaty contralto gained heft and distinction.

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