Ahh, dance punk- the music of the future of the past that's presently inescapable and instantly recognizable, even with shrill electronic noises trying to pull your ears away from the obvious trend. Montreal's We Are Wolves infuse the ubiquitous robotic high-hat beat with garbled, mechanized garage rawk that's not so easy on the ears. And you certainly can't dance to it. Devolution, indeed. The electronic bits are deliberately dated like mussed up hair on a hipster who pretends not to care. Shouted, distorted vocals with no discernable melody occasionally distract from the syncopated clamor that sounds like some sort of cyber-punk army brigade or just bad techno. "T.R.O.U.B.L.E." leans in the direction of something as pedestrian as structure, replete with a fuzzy bass line that almost meanders into a melody, but it sounds more like The Hives struggling with their English. Oh, but they're from Montreal, so they're bilingual. Funny, since the song titles read like a bad babelfish translation. Go figure. I guess nonsense is better than no sense at all.
I hate it when bands publicly deny obvious influences. It's just so pretentious to act like a band you so clearly take after was of no consequence to your development whatsoever. I guess it's just a defensive reaction to the inevitable flack any band would receive for knicking someone else's idiosyncrasies. Just because Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Alec Ounsworth is an undeniable dead ringer for David Byrne doesn't mean his band doesn't produce infectious and inventive indie rock of its own, but it'd be better if Ounsworth would just cop to the similarities, even if he didn't necessarily mean to sound like David Byrne with severe sinusitis.
So with the inevitable Talking Heads references out of the way, it's easier to focus on what Brooklyn, New York's (by way of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah does right. Despite riding an unprecedented, almost gratuitous wave of hype for a self-released album, this band plays solid yet by the numbers post-Modest Mouse indie rock; however, with Ounsworth's bizarre vocal ticks, off-kilter melodies, and sublimely catchy hooks Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sounds like anything but your typical indie rock band infused with a lightning rod of personality. By turns goofy, intellectual, and non-sequitur lyrics are indecipherable without the lyric sheet, but the strangely alluring charm of songs like “The Skin of My Country Yellow Teeth” will have you clamoring for more.
One of the most anticipated indie releases of the year is Wolf Parade's Apologies to the Queen Mary, which quickly follows the band's critically lauded self-titled EP from July. With Isaac Brock behind the controls for much of the album, a Modest Mouse influence looms large, particularly in the idiosyncratic dual vocal yelping, which also recalls a bit of Black Francis at the height of his game. There are hints of The Velvet Underground's simplicity and also of ‘70's glam, Bowie-style, amidst surging, staccato guitars and truncated, spastic beats. Lyrically, the band opts for wild eccentricities over anything resembling linear stories, which is a polite way of saying the nonsense isn't a deal-breaker. Once all the influences roll off your tongue, however, you'll find yourself speechless before the excitement this album will invariably instigate.
Kanye West's rise to utter ubiquity has not been without skill. He's a polarizing figure whose mouth may know no bounds (“George Bush doesn't care about black people”), but he's clearly a talented pop writer, despite his MC skills being a tad sluggish. Late Registration, his follow up to last year's College Dropout definitely mines familiar terrain, but West's zeal for clever wordplay juxtaposed with his unflinching confidence makes for a charismatic and often electrifying punch. Longtime Fiona Apple contributor Jon Brion adds an anachronistic swing to West's classy schtick with healthy dollops of brass and strings. It's a definite case of more of the same, but that shit ain't broke yet.
Columbia, South Carolina native Sammy Beam's Iron and Wine hooks up with Tucson, Arizona's Calexico to blend Beam's soft, dreamy narrative with the latter band's obsession with Southwestern nuance and Ennio Morricone on In the Reins. The result is gorgeous, lush, and surprisingly optimistic, where it easily could have been a disaster on all counts, as collaborations of this sort have a tendency to fall short of expectations (the soundtrack to Judgement Night anyone?). Beam's wistful vocals glide over top pedal steel guitars, blasts of horns, and bluesy stomps. The gleeful, galloping “A History of Lovers” adds a piano boogie to Beam's unlikely lively cadence. And Calexico doesn't fuck it all up with monotonous mariachi-style indulgence, either.
Three years after its sepulchral () album, Sigur Ros returns with its best impression of what this Icelandic quartet deems upbeat. Takk is sharper and more direct than anything the band has previously churned out, but that is not to say it's by any means accessible by normal standards. The music still ebbs and flows in an other-worldly spell but now cacophonous blasts of testosterone-fueled guitars that feel like glaciers melting pin back the eyelids, while ethereal vocals twitter and fade in the times between. What sounded like the soundtrack to the most exquisite death on albums past now sounds like a live band playing its guts out.
A dilettante to some, a spoiled shit to others, and a poseur to most, Ryan Adams makes up for his bratty self-indulgence with convincing immersion into his carefully calculated roles. He's back to country crooner this year. Lick finger, hold it up to wind…yep, country it is this year. On Cold Roses Adams channeled his reverence for the Grateful Dead a bit too persuasively, living up to the Dead's disdain for pithiness with an album that far outstayed its welcome, despite some flawless moments. I can't believe I just referenced the Dead without falling asleep. Anyway, for Jacksonville City Nights, the second installment of a planned trilogy this year, Adams is harking back to a purer form of country, which he manages to imitate with frightening ease. See, he's not completely useless.