By Gregg Shapiro
Beloved by adults and children alike, Grammy-winning band They Might Be Giants, led by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, are known for its delightful wordplay and catchy melodies. TMBG’s 1989 hit single “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is one of the best examples of this. The good news is that after 20 studio albums, including the latest one, I Like Fun (Idlewild/Megaforce), TMBG hasn’t lost its ability to entertain us while giving us something to think about.
If you’re one of those gays whose awareness of singer/songwriter Joe Henry is limited to the fact that he’s married to Madonna’s sister Melanie then you are missing out on something worthwhile. Henry, who has been a recording artist for more than 30 years has just released his new album Thrum(Ear Music) and it ranks among his very best. His brand of atmospheric Americana works well on songs “The Dark Is Light Enough”, “The World of This Room”, “The Glorious Dead”, “Now and Never” and “River Floor”.
While the name Lee Ranaldo might not be as immediately recognizable as co-founding Sonic Youth bandmates Kim Gordon or Thurston Moore, the exalted guitarist has been releasing solo albums for more than 30 years. While Ranaldo plays both electric and acoustic guitar on Electric Trim (Mute), don’t expect to hear anything that sounds like Sonic Youth. Most of the songs feature lyrics by novelist Jonathan Lethem, and include standouts such as the rhythmic “Uncle Skeleton”, the Sharon Van Etten duet “Last Looks”, the experimental pop of “Circular (Right As Rain)”, and the title track.
Ed Hamell, who has been recording as Hamell On Trial since 1989, delivers his tenth album Tackle Box (New West). The songs occupy a space between spoken-word and hip-hop and would make John Giorno proud. Hamell On Trial addresses a variety of social ills, including gun violence, and the vehemently anti-Trump “The More You Know” is a winner.
Chances are good that you’ve never heard of U-Men, unless you were a follower of the pre-grunge, noise-rock punk music scene in Seattle during the 1980s. Finally getting the due and respect they deserve, U-Men are feted with an eponymous, double disc, 30-track compilation from Sub Pop.
Winners of a Best Rock Song trophy for its song “Run”, from Concrete and Gold (RCA), at the 60th annual Grammy Awards, Foo Fighters deserved the honor because the song “rawks”! In fact, Foo Fighters has been rocking consistently for more than 22 years. However, there is plenty onConcrete and Gold to set it apart from what’s come before. Having an album co-produced by Greg Kurstin has its pop perks, especially when he brings his Bird and the Bee cohort Inara George along to sing backing vocals on the fantastic “Dirty Water”. The psychedelic “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” features vocals by Alison Mosshart of The Kills and The Dead Weather fame. “Arrows” is launched by a loud/quiet/loud bow and “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)” might be the all-time prettiest Foo Fighters song ever.
A single disc compilation of three EPs released by Belle and Sebastian in 2017, How to Solve Our Human Problems (Matador) has the distinction of also echoing some of the dance-oriented energy that made 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance such a pleasure. In other words, after 20 years, Belle and Sebastian are still find ways to keep their devoted fans interested and engaged. One of the few recent albums to successfully grab our ears right from the start, opens with the marvelous and rhythmic tunes “Sweet Dew Lee” and “We Were Beautiful”. The smart dance party continues with “The Girl Doesn’t Get It”, “The Same Star”, “Poor Boy” and the marvelous “Best Friend”. Longtime fans need not worry, as song such as “Fickle Season”, “I’ll Be Your Pilot”, “A Plague on Other Boys” and “There Is An Everlasting Song”, remain true to the spirit of early Belle and Sebastian.
In 1994, before he reinvented himself as the tatted leader of pop/soul unit Maroon 5, Adam Levine fronted a power-pop outfit called Kara’s Flowers. In spite of a major-label deal, Kara’s Flowers wilted. A few years later, Adam and KF band-mates Jesse Carmichael, Mickey Madden and Ryan Dusick formed Maroon 5. Sixteen years and six studio albums later, only Levine, Carmichael and Madden remain (along with Matt Flynn, James Valentine, PJ Morton and Sam Farrar) on Red Pills Blue (222/Interscope). Not veering too far from the formula that made Maroon 5 what it is, the band is joined by guests including SZA (the clubby “What Lovers Do”), Julia Michaels (“Help Me Out”) and A$AP Rocky (the downtempo “Whiskey”).
Back in 1997, when she was still known as Stacy Ferguson, when she was one third of the female trio Wild Orchid and dealing with a meth habit, Fergie probably never imagined the path her life would take. Joining the Black-Eyed Peas in 2003, marrying Josh Duhamel in 2009 (later separating in 2017) and having a son in 2013. She launched a solo career in 2006 and had a few hit singles, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry”. Eleven years later, Fergie’s second album Double Dutchess (Dutchess Music/BMG), finally arrived. Buoyed by the rapid-fire first single “M.I.L.F. $”, Fergie once again attempts to strike a balance between her hip-hop and blue-eyed soul worlds with mixed results.
Don’t forget about Villains (Matador) the seventh studio album in 20 years by Queens of the Stone Age. The band, led by Josh Homme, enlisted Mark Ronson as producer on Villains. While there aren’t any dance numbers on the disc, the funky “The Evil Has Landed” and the retro-rock of “Head Like A Haunted House” qualify as examples of the benefits of outside influences.