The Black Watch
Witches! (Atom Records)
The Black Watch, led by the band's lone constant member John Andrew Frederick, could easily be mistaken for yet another British post-punk band swept up in the musical wave that brought over everyone from the Cure and The Psychedelic Furs to the Smiths. But Frederick's faux-Brit vocals aside, the group is actually from Santa Barbara, CA. It's odd that he would chose this obvious affectation, as the result is more annoyance than appeal.
Once you can get over the vocals - and that's a big if â€“ the band plays a somewhat decent version of '80s British dream pop that has garnered them plenty of fans among music critics. "Witches!" the band's 16th record, is far from their strongest effort to date. Coming less than a year after the band's last LP, there is a sense that many of the tracks here simply didn't fit on the last album. There is little that tie the songs together. For every solid pop number like "Georgette Georgette," there are three more throw away tracks.
Much like a Wes Anderson movie, there seems to be a collective assumption by critics that Black Watch albums simply get a thumbs up just for existing. If that's the case, I'll just sit on my hands.
Living in Extraordinary Times (Infectious/BMG)
The English-based alt rock band James has turned to a familiar topic throughout "Living in Extraordinary Times," their 15th studio album: the current, global political landscape. President Trump and his fellow right wing, nationalist contemporaries in the UK have brought every racism and jingoism to the forefront of everyone's day to day life, so it's not surprising that musicians from countless genres are tapping the Grand Wizard In Chief for lyrical inspiration these days. From the lines in "Many Faces" ("There's only one human race/Many faces /Everybody belongs here"), to the sharp lyrics of "Head," with laments of fake news and the poor voting against their own interest, Tim Booth crafts his most focused lyrics in years.
The album is a mix of the band's sublime '90s alt rock sound with adventurous paths towards a more electronic sound, making for a satisfyingly original album that challenges any preconceived notions that the band is supposed to be little more than a nostalgia act for Gen X. "Living in Extraordinary Times" manages to offer strong social cometary while avoiding the preaching clichÃ©s.
At this rate, Trump is on record to inspire more albums than the Reagan and W. Bush administrations combined.
Look To The Skies [Vinyl LP] (Pirate Press Records)
England's classic street punk torchbearers The Filaments had a couple of solid releases under their belts before calling it a day in 2005 when their singer emigrated to the U.S.
But with atrocities and injustice ripe for railing against, steadily building up, the band reformed a few years later. "Look To The Skies" is their first official coming out record since the reformation and damn is it a great one. A clarion call for the disenfranchised to wake up and speak out, this record could not have come at a better time.
Across 11 tracks, the band deftly and feverishly blend classic British punk rock, ska and flashes a psychobilly for their most energetic and consistently satisfying album since their original founding. From the opening chords of the brilliant anti-MAGA hat wearers anthem "Fuck the Alt-Right," through to the final ringing of the crash cymbals of "Killing Machine" there is hardly a moment to breath in between; Just righteous indignation delivered in impossible to resist punk rock anthems.
Glad to have you back!
Children of Paradise (River House Records)
At 70, Willie is on an impressive decades-long streak of putting out one great, gritty roots rock album after another. And as his latest shows, he is just now hitting his stride. Lyrically, he's one of the savviest, writers out there and damn can he lay down a rock riff; all the proof you need that Nile is certainly in his prime is all over "Children of Paradise".
This, his 12th album, is also his best in more than a decade with topics vacillating between fun distractions from the shitty political climate we now live in ("All Dressed Up And No Place To Go," "I Defy") and taking on those political realities head on ("Getting' Ugly Out There," "Don't"). The album is crammed with everything from sweet slow burn tracks, the closest thing Nile has come to a ballad ("Secret Weapon" with the brilliant lyric "I love you more than anything, even rock and roll") to barn burners, with gang vocal-like backing choruses that would make him the envy of any punk band today.
The album also features a number of haunting black and white portraits of people from Nile's Greenwich Village neighborhood, folks on the outside fringes of society highlighting the beauty in those who are likely overlooked. The photos manage to compliment Nile's songs perfectly â€“ gritty, emotional and wholly original.
To The Sunset (Silver Knife Records/Thirty Tigers)
It's taken five albums â€“ albeit all really good releases â€“ but Texas native Amanda Shires has finally put out a career-defining record.
The fiddle-playing singer/songwriter may have started out with The Texas Playboys, before moving to Jason Isbell's backing band, but proves her proper place is in the spotlight, in front of the mic.
"To The Sunset" is a big step away from her earlier, more traditional Americana/folk efforts, taking her music to the rockier edges with louder guitars and more confrontational vocals. The album starts off with some of her softer, calmer fare, but halfway in she finds the gas pedal and tears it up with the gloriously raucous "Eve's Daughter," followed in quick succession by the equally satisfying "Pop the Champagne" and "Take on the Dark". Shires allows you to catch your breath on "White Feather" and "Mirror, Mirror," before ending with the emotionally-charged "Wasn't I Paying Attention?".
Shires, always an impressive songwriter, continues the trend with her knack for creating stirring, compelling character studies over the course of just three-minutes tacking everything from self-esteem to addiction and mental illness.
Her husband, Isbell, plays guitar throughout alongside David Cobb, pulling double duty on bass, while simultaneously producing. "To The Sunset" is an impressive contribution from one of Americana's best kept secrets... but likely not for long.