On the Record
Andrew Bird, Break it Yourself
Over the past several albums, Bird has gone from being a solo artist with a cast of sidemen to the leader of a bona fide band. That new vibe fuels Break it Yourself, a remarkably accomplished album from a talented artist so deep in his career. The merging of multiple genres is still evident throughout, but there’s also a looser vibe to many of the songs, with jazzy shuffles and nods to pop styles of decades past (the ‘50s and ‘60s specifically). The loose-limbed playing gives Bird’s stories and observations a decidedly fresh vibe compared to the more-stately and formal classical-influence he sported on earlier albums. Even as the material takes on darker shades near the end, Bird and his cohorts’ sharp playing keeps it lively.
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
The Boss still moves well for someone on the verge of cashing in his Social Security checks, and his latest continues the energetic, late-career ride he’s been on since the turn of the century. Here, Springsteen uses the current economic and social turmoil to fantastic effect, hearkening back to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s “glory days”. Sonically, Wrecking Ball is the most accomplished of his recent albums, finally finding a merging point between the glorious pomp of the E Street Band and the folk music of more recent albums. Still, the passing of the years is felt throughout the album, such as on the studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” when Clarence Clemons unleashes his final E Street sax solo, reminding us of what is now gone.
Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea
Stephin Merritt and company return to Merge Records (the home of their breakout 69 Love Songs) with a short release full of the off-kilter humor and oddly engaging tunes that have marked the band from the beginning. That’s clear from the opening “God Wants Us to Wait,” and runs through the opening songs (“Andrew in Drag” and “Your Girlfriend’s Face”), while all the way keeping their collective tongues in cheek (well, I hope so, since the last is about hiring a hit man to kill a rival after beating his girlfriend). The songs are brief (all under 3 minutes) and while I appreciate tight narratives, a number of these feel as underdeveloped as the back half of a Guided by Voices album. A bit more would go a long way.
The Men, Open Your Heart
On album closer “Ex-Dreams,” this New York-based group brings back the raw specter of 1980s-era Sonic Youth, blazing a blistering path of feedback and too-cool-for-school vocals. It’s not that the band apes the music of the past, but it infuses every note and pose with that sense of danger and adventure that is often lost by bands trying to ape a particular moment in history instead of understanding the full continuum of rock music. You can hear nods to moments past (the Stiff Little Fingers riff that opens the album), but all of this – from raging, distortion-laded noise (the epic “Oscillation” for example) to slightly softer territory (“Country Song”) – comes with such passion that the whole album is immediate, fresh, and invigorating.