Japanese Breakfast, The Dears, Sheer Mag, and more in this week’s music reviews

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast (Photo: Ebru Yildiz)
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast (Photo: Ebru Yildiz)

Japanese Breakfast masks internal strife and insecurities with artfully upbeat experiments

Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Grade: A-

[Dead Oceans]

Michelle Zauner is slowly cultivating a legacy as an expansive overachiever—a sort of 21st-century Björk, whose idiosyncratic career path Zauner has even somewhat mirrored by going from rock band to more esoteric solo fare. After releasing a pair of albums with underappreciated, punk-leaning indie rockers Little Big League, she temporarily returned to her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, to help tend to her cancer-stricken mother (who would sadly die shortly thereafter). While there, she began recording solo material that, two proper albums later, is truly blooming.

While last year’s Psychopomp flashed what could be loosely categorized as versatile dream pop (created in the wake of mourning her mother, no less), Soft Sounds From Another Planet is even more flexible. Zauner dabbles with conviction in electronic dance, liberal use of Auto-Tune, and even a saxophone solo on surprisingly compelling lead single “Machinist,” one of the tracks that validates the album’s title. Nearly seven-minute-long opener “Diving Woman” is both driving and enchanting, with a krautrock groove and shoegaze atmosphere. Elsewhere she dabbles in acoustic ballads (“This House”) and straightforward melancholic indie rock (“12 Steps,” “Body Is A Blade”) to equally exemplary results.

Songs like those provide a sensible bridge from Little Big League’s abbreviated catalog, but that’s surely a coincidence. When it comes to solo artists, comparisons to their previous bands always feel a little backhanded. Still, it’s mandatory in the case of “Boyish,” a reworking of a track from LBL’s 2014 album, Tropical Jinx, and a song that wields some of the same raw sexual insecurities Zauner has been expressing ever since that group’s 2013 debut, These Are Good People. On that album, she recalled “giving road head on the turnpike” during a Thanksgiving drive, calling it off when she saw what she’d “become was just holes and shape.” Similar to that sentiment is Soft Sounds’ “Boyish,” which is transformed from a seasick, grungy tromp into a sparkling ballad akin to Roy Orbison that takes a brutally honest look at body dysmorphia. And hell, the second track is called “Road Head,” a slice of lightly rhythmic, low-key synth-pop expanded from its original version on Zauner’s early American Sound cassette, though this particular take comes off more evenhanded. Overall, Zauner sounds like she’s in a better place than on Psychopomp, despite the occasional shadowy fear lurking beneath its shiny surface. And while everything on Japanese Breakfast’s proper sophomore effort isn’t entirely fresh, and its structure is somewhat loose, there’s a confidence and crispness to Soft Sounds that shows just how fully realized Zauner’s formerly homemade experiments have become.

Purchase Soft Sounds From Another Planet here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Sheer Mag’s proper debut is a rowdy rock celebration cracked by emotional fissures

Sheer Mag, Need To Feel Your Love
Grade: B

[Wilsuns RC]

Listen to certain strains of late-’70s bands with the benefit of hindsight—Cheap Trick, The Clash, Shoes, Off Broadway—and the lines separating punk, classic rock, and power-pop seem nonexistent. That’s something Sheer Mag intuitively understands: The Philly band’s first three EPs (collected in early 2017 as Compilation LP) exist in that sweet spot between the era’s arena-sized rock radio jams and DIY rabble-rousing.

Need To Feel Your Love, Sheer Mag’s proper full-length debut, continues along the same path. Although the gloriously messy record has a few outliers—the laid-back disco-twang grooves of the title track and the lo-fi electric-punk ballad “Until You Find The One”—the general sonic approach involves revved-engine riffage, Tina Halladay’s gravelly vocal lacerations, and taut tempos. Among the diverse highlights: the melodic jangle rocker “Milk And Honey,” grimy Midwest art-punk of “Turn It Up,” and the proto-glam sleaze-fest “Meet Me In The Street.”

The latter song sets the tone for the record, as it rails against the ugliness of privilege (“Silver spoon suckers headed for a fall / And justice for all”) and encourages an uprising against authority. Equally galvanizing is “Suffer Me,” a song about the Stonewall Riots, and “Expect The Bayonet,” which is about marginalized groups banding together to fight oppression: “If you don’t give us the ballot / Expect the bayonet.”

But the specter of fractured relationships also hangs over Need To Feel Your Love, which gives the record its most poignant emotional depth. “Turn It Up” is a stinging kiss-off to an ex (“Don’t even think about touching my records now”), though other songs are more reluctant about a clean break (“’Til You Find The One”) or wistful about what might have been (“Milk And Honey”). Such thematic complexity serves as an ideal counterpoint to the band’s rowdier sonic sentiments, and ensures that the knotty Need To Feel Your Love feels as lasting as its inspirations.

Purchase Need To Feel Your Love here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

The Dears turn marriage woes into a melodramatic slog on Times Infinity Volume Two

The Dears, Times Infinity Volume Two
Grade: D+

[Dangerbird Records]

There’s a very fine line between romance and melodrama, between melancholy and maudlin, that Montreal’s The Dears have always walked. On 2003’s breakout No Cities Left, they straddled that divide with a majesty and grace that earned its blend of new-wave brooding and chamber-pop bombast (along with the “best new band in the world” hype that surrounded it). Across 2006’s Gang Of Losers and 2008’s Missiles, that swooning sincerity continued to fall just this side of overwrought, yet still remained deeply felt. But with 2011’s Degeneration Street, all those huge, heartsick moments began to blur into overly sentimental glurge. Lead singer Murray Lightburn has long been dogged by Morrissey comparisons, but shit, at least Moz pens a one-liner now and again.

It hasn’t gotten any better since—for Lightburn’s mood or The Dears’ music, as sadly confirmed by Times Infinity Volume Two. The second volume of the group’s recent comeback from a nearly six-year hiatus finds it reduced, essentially, to Lightburn and his wife, keyboardist Natalia Yanchak. Fittingly, the record bears the stamp of a fussed-over home project made by two people who could really stand to call up some friends and get out of the house for a night. Press materials promise it finds “the microscope turned on Lightburn and Yanchak themselves,” drawing songwriting inspiration from their own marriage. By the sound of things, they could probably use some counseling.

Instead, we get a series of songs that relentlessly declare that love is a battlefield, perpetually hinging on life-or-death circumstances, expressed in lyrics that have all the soul-baring honesty of your annoying friend’s cryptic Facebook statuses. “Don’t mind the apocalypse / Forget about the chains and whips,” Yanchak sings in opener “Taking It To The Grave,” while Lightburn answers her theatrics in “Until Deathrow” with “I’ve watched an empire fall / This hasn’t changed anything / My love is powerful.” The song titles alone—“All The Hail Marys,” “Nothing In It For Me Nothing In It For You,” “I’m Sorry That I Wished You Dead,” “I Love You Times Infinity”—convey the album’s cumulative sense of dulling exhaustion. Listening to it reminds you of being friends with a couple who’s always getting into tearful shouting matches outside of restaurants, when it’s not also like sitting through 40 minutes of their personally written wedding vows. By the time it gets to “Guns Or Knives” and Lightburn asking, “Should I be bringing guns and knives / To this fight for our lives?” you kind of just wish they would break up already. Or Christ, order in some food and watch Netflix. Surely things aren’t always this serious?

Of course, The Dears have chest-thumped and wallowed like this plenty in the past, but it’s usually been redeemed by music just soaring enough to sell it. Here there are only a handful of moments that shine despite their uniformly lachrymose surroundings: With their tastefully minimalist organ grooves, “All The Hail Marys” and “1998” have, respectively, a slinky Marvin Gaye soulfulness and a jaunty swing that recalls Gang Of Losers’ “Whites Only Party.” Meanwhile, “Nothing In It For Me Nothing In It For You” boasts a space-lounge groove seemingly cribbed from Air’s Moon Safari, giving it a natural flow so much of the album lacks. “I Love You Times Infinity” probably comes closest to recapturing the gloomy glory of classic Dears with its simple arpeggiated synths, finger-picked guitar, and orchestral swells validating the gushy hyperbole of its name.

But throughout, the album is marred by dated, slathered-on digital effects or chintzy, ’70s romantic drama synth-strings, or laden with clunky refrains like that on “Of Fisticuffs” that suck out the energy. And whenever Yanchak takes the lead, as she does on “Taking It To The Grave” and the cringe-inducing “I’m Sorry That I Wished You Dead,” there’s no amount of studio fussiness that can overcome the half-hearted flatness of her voice. All told, Times Infinity Volume Two feels like the sort of intensely personal conversation that’s mostly meaningful to the two people having it. Hopefully The Dears got it all out of their system on this, so they can get back to making the sort of misery everyone can enjoy.

Purchase Times Infinity Volume Two here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

David Bazan and friends revisit ’90s indie rock as Lo Tom

Lo Tom, Lo Tom
Grade: B

[Barsuk Records]

David Bazan has kept himself plenty busy since dissolving Pedro The Lion over a decade ago. He’s spun a solo career that includes a bunch of fine albums (2009’s Curse Your Branches is particularly strong) and side projects. The latest of those, Lo Tom, actually gathers players from Pedro The Lion history for a quick one-off that’s long on simplicity and light on the kinds of heady concepts that Bazan frequently goes for. That makes sense considering that the band’s self-titled debut was recorded over just a couple of weekends, and it’s billed as a chance for old friends to connect.

The looseness is apparent, and welcome: Lo Tom sounds like Neil Young And Crazy Horse filtered through ’90s indie rock, with Bazan in fine vocal form in front of a band that’s more concerned with simple grooves than anything more complex. Which isn’t to say that Bazan’s not still a downer in the lyric department, but with a simple, propulsive rock band behind him—former Pedro members Trey Many and T.W. Walsh along with Jason Martin of Starflyer 59—he sounds as fresh as ever. Sometimes quick-and-dirty is the way to go, and with just eight straightforward songs, Lo Tom does it really well. It’s hard to say if anybody beyond the Bazan-devoted will jump on board—or even find a record like this—but his flock should be delighted.

Purchase Lo Tom here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

For its 24th record in 25 years, Boris slows to a mighty crawl

Boris, Dear
Grade: B-

[Daymare Recordings]

Boris is not the kind of band that stresses over career trajectory. You don’t release 24 albums in 25 years agonizing about what each new one means in the grand scheme of your discography. Such productivity requires a willingness to chase rock ’n’ roll muses wherever they might go—to plug in, start playing, and then unleash the results on the world. No wonder the Tokyo trio’s style covers such a wide swathe of the hard-rock spectrum, alternately taking the shape of metal, punk, noise, drone, shoegaze, psychedelia, and even a muscular strain of J-pop: Genre limits tend to crumble when you’re too busy to overthink your sound.

As quick as the releases come (2015 brought three on the same day), these workaholics know how to bring the music itself to a crawl. They go slow and heavy on Dear, crossing the two-dozen-records mark at a lumber instead of a sprint. This is Boris’ doomiest album in years, nearly every track offering a subterranean Black Sabbath rumble. Most of the songs stretch past the six-minute mark, riding thunderous bass and thick currents of feedback into oblivion. Even when the vocals soar, reaching for the back of the stadium on “DEADSONG” or tightening into a heavenly falsetto on “Kagero,” they’re nearly swallowed by the guttural blare of down-tuned guitar. There are stray blasts of righteous melody, like the anthemic crescendos that erupt from the placid surface of “Beyond.” But most of Dear’s sonic earthquakes seem designed to rattle the bones, not catch the ears.

Those only familiar with Pink, the record that introduced Boris to a lot of American headbangers, may be disappointed by the lack of kicky stoner blitzkriegs. Named for the band’s very first LP, groove-metal highlight “Absolutego” picks up the pace a little. Most of the other songs sound like drowning in a tar pit. Even doom fanatics may yearn for a more consistent track list; one drawback to churning out new records at this frequency is that the output can be uneven, mixing the transcendent with the forgettable. The members of Boris went into the recording booth thinking it could be their last hurrah, but they deserve a farewell as grand as “Farewell.” Of course, there would be a certain integrity to going out on such a deafening note. Dear is definitely loud enough to be your last record.

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