Dead Cross, Neil Young, Ben Gibbard, and more in this week’s music reviews

Dead Cross (Photo: SAWA)
Dead Cross (Photo: SAWA)

Dead Cross bursts with manic intensity

Dead Cross, Dead Cross
Grade: B+

[Ipecac Recordings]

Dave Lombardo’s AK-47 drumming, Mike Patton’s Mad Hatter yowls, Mike Crain’s car-crash guitar riffs, and Justin Pearson’s punk brilliance—each member of Dead Cross has developed an inimitable style over the years, and they fit together like puzzle pieces. Crackling with raw verve, the band’s self-titled debut is a rarity among supergroup albums.

Opener “Seizure And Desist” begins with electronic pulsing, then cuts through those sounds with razorblades of snotty, grind-infused punk. As Lombardo launches a blast-beat offensive, Patton’s weirdo vocals ride Crain’s and Pearson’s violently bucking riffs. Throughout the record, Patton revives the syncopated Jekyll-and-Hyde approach he used on The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Irony Is A Dead Scene, which fits Dead Cross like a custom-made leotard.

“Idiopathic,” “Shillelagh,” and “Divine Filth” are swarming amalgams of zany hardcore, thrash, and grind, while a cover of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” gives its death ’n’ roll march a serrated edge. “Gag Reflex” jams a wrench in the spokes with sparse percussion and bleak noise before hopping back onto the runaway-coal-car punk of the album’s previous tracks. Closer “Church Of The Motherfuckers” then throws a sonic tantrum, refusing to rest in a single mode. Whereas many supergroup albums feel tired and humorless, Dead Cross is a lean hardcore record that drills eardrums like a nitrous-addled dentist.

Purchase Dead Cross here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Neil Young digs deep, finds unreleased gold

Neil Young, Hitchhiker
Grade: B+

[Reprise Records]

[Note: As of today, August 4, Hitchhiker’s official release has been pushed back to September 8. —ed.]

Neil Young might not be the king of the “lost album”—that title might go to Prince, funnily enough—but he’s certainly royalty. From entire great sets that went out of print for years (even classics like On The Beach) to discs that live on only in legend (like Homegrown), there’s a legacy of hard-to-find material. Young even released a sequel to a lost album about 10 years ago: Chrome Dreams II exists in the world, though Chrome Dreams itself doesn’t.

Hitchhiker was apparently planned for release in 1976, though it doesn’t have the same air of legend that other “lost” Young records do. That doesn’t take any of its magic away, though: For fans of Neil Young in the ’70s—his pretty undeniable peak—this one is fantastic. Beyond that, it could easily serve as an introduction to a generation that hasn’t heard his music. (With grunge far in the rearview, it’s hard to determine what Young’s current cultural cachet is.)

Hitchhiker features just Young’s voice and guitar (and occasional harmonica), and most of its songs will be familiar to longtime fans, though not necessarily in these stripped-down versions. “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger” are gorgeously naked and intimate, the sound of a singer-songwriter at the moment just after he’s perfected them. (They wouldn’t see official release, on Rust Never Sleeps, until three years later, and those were full-band versions.) For the completists, Hitchhiker offers a pair of theoretically unheard songs in “Hawaii” (good but not essential) and the fantastic “Give Me Strength,” which might be the last untapped Young song from this era. On the other hand, maybe not: The guy apparently recorded and scrapped albums regularly at the time. If the bottom of the barrel sounds this good, he should keep ’em coming.

On Call It Love, Briana Marela grows emotionally, if not necessarily musically

Briana Marela, Call It Love
Grade: B-

[Jagjaguwar Records]

Briana Marela isn’t a fan of abstraction. Her lyrics are some of the simplest and most straightforward pop expressions this side of a Patsy Cline ballad. So while Call It Love, her sophomore release for Jagjaguwar Records, is full of hard-won lessons learned from breakups, and tales of relationship joys and losses, it doesn’t sound any more sophisticated than the similar ideas conveyed on her last album, All Around Us. Even when specific words are lost by the washed-out production and her breathy delivery, the refrains are usually just repetitions of the song titles—“Be In Love,” “Give Me Your Love,” “Feel What I Feel”—and emotions are conveyed in the fewest number of words, using the most direct language. At least the meaning of each track is very clear, even when her consonants aren’t.

Which is to say that Call It Love is immediately identifiable as a Briana Marela record, and if it doesn’t sound like much of an evolution, it also doesn’t depart from the stylistic earnestness that has made her an appealing performer. Many of the songs here follow a similar pattern: an airy fog of synths and string sounds hum continuously in the background, while her signature layers of vocal notes are looped and repeated as she delivers a few variations on a theme, tapping rhythms and throbbing bass undergirding each transition. The sound is notably fuller than on her last album, but it also gets a bit repetitive, with only changes like the piano-driven “He Knows” or “Farthest Shore” straying from the formula, and even then not too far.

The most direct pop tracks are also the most successful, as Marela lends some better beats to her often ethereal and interchangeable rhythms. The title track is the best of these, with a danceable ’80s beat featuring a pulsing rhythm and a gated snare. “How will we know?” she sings, addressing the level of emotional intimacy with an unnamed paramour. It still delivers her swirling, looping airiness, but harnessed to bursts of groovy dance-pop, plus a final refrain that shows she’s capable of stepping outside the self-imposed boundaries of affect and reverb on her vocals to which the other songs cling.

There are moments of confession that are just as affecting throughout, from the aching sadness of “You quit calling my name” on the refrain of “Quit” to the anthemic build of album closer “Rise,” which finds her declaring, “Now I’m trying to change,” as melody builds atop melody, before ironically returning to the same looping line with which the song began. It’s a fitting metaphor for Call It Love as a whole: This is a record that plays it safe musically, even as it probes uncomfortable emotional states and difficult experiences.

Purchase Call It Love here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Randy Newman’s Dark Matter is a weighty, but enjoyable, romp through today’s weird times

Randy Newman, Dark Matter
Grade: A-

[Nonesuch Records]

In a recent interview with Vulture, Randy Newman professed his dislike for the work that comes with making a new record, which might explain the nine years that have elapsed since the release of 2008’s Harps And Angels. Listening to Dark Matter, the latest from one of pop music’s smartest, craftiest songwriters, it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from. Strings, horns, choirs, and countless other carefully orchestrated arrangements make up the nine-track affair, so the “work” is considerable. But fortunately for Newman, it’s work that more than pays off.

Dark Matter is dense, complicated stuff, though it’s also an engrossing display of pop theater. The record opens with “The Great Debate,” which, at eight-plus minutes, weaves its way between menacing symphony and hair-raising gospel while Newman ponders the dark forces at play in the world. “We need some answers to some complicated questions if we’re gonna get it right,” he speak-sings in his low baritone.

It’s unclear what answers Newman comes away with at the end of Dark Matter, but it’s no less fun to follow him on his journey. Newman’s music has grown increasingly theatrical over the course of his career, resulting in a record that plays more like a collection of vignettes than songs. The singer assumes the role of multiple characters throughout, sometimes within the same song. He slips into the skin of people like Robert and John F. Kennedy (“Brothers”) and Sonny Boy Williamson (“Sonny Boy”). And while “Putin” hits all the right notes of cartoonish villainy, the song could just as easily be an indictment of another world leader much closer to home. “Sometimes a leader towers over his country,” he sings. “One shot at glory, you don’t get a second chance.”

When he’s not using historical figures to his own musical ends, Newman displays an equally deft hand at crafting more personal fictionalized characters—the wife and mother wrestling with a future without her husband on “Lost Without You,” the father pledging his concern for his estranged son on “Wandering Boy,” and the unlucky guy who gets lucky in love on “She Chose Me.” There are a lot of big themes, political and universal, to wade through on Dark Matter, and it’s anything but a light, breezy listen. But it takes true skill to make it all sound this enjoyable. It’s never been Newman’s style to take it easy, but those willing to settle into his funny, subversive, and touching musical worldview will be glad they—and he—made the effort.

Purchase Dark Matter here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard gives himself to Teenage Fanclub

Benjamin Gibbard, Bandwagonesque
Grade: B+

[Canvasback/Turntable Kitchen]

Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie called Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque “my favorite record by my favorite band of all time,” which isn’t the kind of statement you can really hedge on or take back. It might seem dangerous to try to improve on something you love so much, but Gibbard’s full-album cover version—originally intended as a limited vinyl-only release for Turntable Kitchen with digital availability as well—has clearly benefited from years of study. It’s sometimes very similar to the source material, sometimes nicely departing, but always has hearts in its eyes.

Gibbard’s version should be plenty easy to love for those who already appreciate the Scottish band’s 1991 pop masterpiece, which was famously named SPIN’s album of the year over Nirvana’s Nevermind. (Nobody knew what would happen to the world of music, not at that point, anyway.) Reviewing some of Gibbard’s versions is essentially just reviewing the originals: “What You Do To Me,” “Star Sign,” and “Metal Baby” might have just suffered from any sort of experimentation, so he leaves well enough alone.

On album-opener “The Concept,” though, Gibbard teases out a towering indie-rock vibe that was only hinted at in the original, adding a couple of minutes of hugeness. “I Don’t Know” gets a bit more swing in its hips than the original, sounding like the earliest Death Cab records, complete with tinny guitar. The bite-sized “Pet Rock” gets taken to church, with organ and multi-tracked vocals—it’s a bit of Beach Boys in the midst of the Scottish rock ’n’ rain. For fans of the original, Gibbard’s Bandwagonesque should be a nice, unsurprising treat; for fans of Gibbard’s who may not be familiar with the original’s charms, hopefully it’ll be a way in.

Purchase Bandwagonesque here, which helps support The A.V. Club.