What we're listening to
One of the things that makes Girls so special is Christopher Owens' ability to write so directly about the unavoidable aspects of life without falling into cliché. So it is on "Heartbreaker," which begins with the observation, "When I look in the mirror/ I'm not as young as I used to be/ I'm not quite as beautiful as when you were next to me." A newer addition to Girls' nascent greatness, as displayed on this six-song collection, is their facility at traversing various genres while always sounding like themselves. The reggae and early rock 'n' roll fusion "Oh So Fortunate One," the bossa nova touches of "Heartbreaker," and the country lament of the superb title track (complete with pedal steel) sound like ... Girls. While the sonic palette shifts from song to song — and sometimes within them — more than one composition evokes the anthemic balladry of their 2009 debut album's "Hellhole Ratrace." That's no small achievement. The outlook, though, is less hopeful and more disillusioned. Who knows what the future holds.
There should probably be a moratorium placed on the use of the word panda in group names, but the man known as Gold Panda can be forgiven, based on the sheer zinging energy of this album, which has nothing in common with any Beach Boys-flavored Animal Collective endeavors. One of Gold Panda's trademarks is a sharply-edited, sped-up approach to vocal samples that makes Kanye West's sound like screw. Instrumental tracks such as "Vanilla Minus," "Snow & Taxis," and the incandescent "Marriage" call the crackling warmth of the Field to mind, but their energy is more hyper, their outlook much more colorful. "Same Dream China" takes the glassy percussion of Pantha Du Prince's "Stick to My Side" into out there realms — it's one of a few tracks that maneuvers across a high wire just above exotica and Orientalism. A late contender for techno album of the year.
San Francisco's the Mantles deliver great straightforward rock 'n' roll. Dressed in a cover by local artist Michelle Blade, this EP picks up where their debut album left off, as guitarist-singer Michael Olivares leads the charge with vocals that somehow manage to sneer and snarl and seem amiable at the same time. "Situations" is actually kind of harsh, taking a scenester or gold-digger to task for his or her shallow and failure-fated state of being. "Lily Never Married" is more reflective, a portrait of a spinster that opens into thoughts about family within a changing world. "Waiting Out the Storm" finds the group trying on its epic journey boots, and they fit just fine.
The Effective Disconnect
A disturbing subject yields mournful tone poems on this album by Stars of the Lid's McBride, which collects elements of his soundtrack for Vanishing of the Bees, a 2009 documentary on colony collapse disorder. (Mercifully, voice over by Ellen Page is left off the album.) There's no flight-of-the-bumblebee whimsy in McBride's musical testimony to the spirit of the beehive. In the liner notes, he writes that filmmakers George Langworthy and Maryam Henein suggested he focus on "the gloriousness of the bees, the endurance and hardships of traditional beekeepers, pesticides, and the holistic nature of non-industrial agriculture." These elements aren't always clearly distinguished, but they are present in a manner that avoids cliché.
ARTHUR RUSSELL AND THE FLYING HEARTS FEATURING ALLEN GINSBERG
Ballad of the Lights