Puig Destroyer, FKA Twigs, and other new albums.

Puig Destroyer started out as something of a joke (their name alludes to American grindcore act Pig Destroyer) among a few baseball-loving musicians, including Riley Breckenridge and Ian Miller of the Productive Outs podcast, but they’ve now morphed into a real if virtual hardcore punk band that performs loud, fast, short songs about baseball topics – including one song I can honestly claim to have inspired, “Umpshow.” Their first full-length album, Puig Destroyer, includes twenty songs, none over 2:06, with the best song titles anyone’s produced since Seth Putnam died, including “Three True Outcomes,” “Trumbomb,” and the entirely truthful “No One Cares About Your Fantasy Team.” This kind of post-hardcore isn’t for everyone – I’ve seen them described as grindcore, but Puig Destroyer isn’t in Napalm Death territory – with blast beats, shouted vocals, and heavy bass lines, but it’s tightly produced and you can hear the strong musicianship underlying the jokes about sabermetrics and ligament reconstruction surgery. The album is available for preorder for $7 now through that link, and you get an immediate download of the song “Mike Trout.” (Full disclosure: I’ve met Ian, been on the Productive Outs podcast, and received a digital review copy of the album.)

* Meanwhile, longtime hardcore stalwarts Sick of It All are about to release The Last Act of Defiance, their first album in four years, one that shows a band in steep decline. Not only are the fourteen tracks generic and tired, but the song “2061” sees the group espousing 9/11 conspiracy-theory nonsense, claiming that the U.S. government is hiding the “truth” about the attacks until confidential documents are made public in the year of the song’s title. That kind of “truther” bullshit is an intelligence test, and Sick of It All just failed.

* In Flames’ newest album, Siren Charms, continues in the vein of their more recent work, where they try to straddle the space between their melodic death metal roots and more radio-friendly American metalcore, which produces a very unsatisfying end result. In Flames’ signature twin guitar leads are present all over the album, but aren’t front and center on enough tracks for fans of their work or, in my case, fans of that particular brand of extreme-metal riffing.

* FKA twigs (née Tahliah Debrett Barnett) might suffocate under the weight of all of the positive reviews of her debut album LP1, including a nomination for this year’s Mercury Prize. While Barnett shows beauty in her emotional, restrained style of singing, I can’t add to the effusive plaudits thrown her way because the severely understated trip-hop style where she plies her musical trade strikes me as little more than background music. There’s almost nothing here to praise or critique; it’s barely music, an unstable foundation for Barnett’s impressive vocal acrobatics, unable to hold my attention for even the length of a song. She may very well win the Mercury Prize, which alt-J took home two years ago for An Awesome Wave, given the critical acclaim LP1 has received; I’m just not hearing what everyone else is.

* English hard-rock band Amplifier draws influence from about three decades of rock and metal, from the ’70s (notably Pink Floyd, with hints of Black Sabbath) to the ’90s (Nirvana, Soundgarden), but the result on their forthcoming album Mystoria is surprisingly tame. I certainly expected more experimentation based on their reviews and press clippings, but after the opening pair of tracks, we get some generic album-oriented rock tracks made marginally more interesting with heavy use of effects pedals. The instrumental opener, “Magic Carpet,” and second track, “Black Rainbow,” are the only standouts here, with the off-beat percussion line in the latter track giving it the experimental feel that the guitar riff lacks.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up, as is my newest boardgame review for Paste, on the deckbuilding game Valley of the Kings.

Alton Brown mentioned Steven Sherrill’s novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break twice on podcasts I listened to this spring/summer, once on his own and once on the Nerdist podcast, saying it was his all-time favorite novel, one he re-reads regularly. That was good enough for me to check it out – especially once I saw it wasn’t some thousand-page monolith – and it is indeed a fabulous book, clever, compelling, and incredibly warm-hearted, which is funny since the main character is quite literally a monster.

That would the capital-M Minotaur, spawn of Pasiphaë, devourer of virgins, bane of Minos, half-man and half-bull, now five thousand years old and working as a line cook in North Carolina. That’s Sherrill’s one nod to unreality, as everything that comes after that fact of the Minotaur’s existence, the peculiarity of which generates no remark from the non-monster characters in the book. (He does encounter a couple of other immortals – Daphne the Naiad appears briefly toward the end of the book, and we see Medusa in most unfortunate circumstances as well.) With that one given, Sherrill treats the Minotaur as a very human character, at least emotionally, since the guy does have the head of a bull, but other than that and some difficulty speaking, the Minotaur is a protagonist with whom most readers will easily empathize.

Working in the kitchen for a traditional American restaurant, the Minotaur is a diligent and precise worker, getting along with most of his co-workers, mostly because he has the patience of a creature who’s lived five thousand years and seen all manner of unkindness from the humans with whom he’s interacted. He lives in a trailer park, apparently the latest in an endless string of short-term residences, and is an expert at diagnosing and repairing problems with car engines, a skill he trades to his landlord in place of rent. He has a crush on one co-worker, Kelly, but flirts with Cecie, is one of the few who respects the gay expediter David, and tolerates (to a point) the juvenile behavior of Mike and Shane. But he has a pervasive sense of unease that a change for the worse is coming, and eventually his habit of going along to get along lands him in a situation where he has to choose between being proactive and letting history continue to drag him along for the ride.

Sherrill builds his story around largely mundane events. He has great feel for the rhythm of a restaurant kitchen and the repetitive tasks that go into preparing hundreds of identical meals over the course of a few hours, a tedium that the Minotaur actually enjoys. He goes into similar levels of detail on the workings of combustion engines, which I’ll assume is all accurate because I know little more than that you turn the key to start the motor. The twin emphases on specific aspects of these endeavors and on telling the story of the Minotaur’s quotidian life without requiring any Big Events to move the plot will make you forget that the main character is a mythical beast. And he infuses the Minotaur with profound understanding of human behavior and emotions – not supernaturally so, just enough that he becomes the ideal lens through which to watch the actions of the people around him, many of them screwed up in one way or another, the remainder busy screwing themselves up as fast as they can.

The Minotaur barely speaks, finding it difficult to articulate clearly given his bull’s tongue and a clear bout of self-consciousness because of this, so much of his dialogue comes out as grunts that his coworkers all understand – which also puts them in the position of doing most of the talking. That puts the Minotaur roughly into the everyman/observer archetype, sort of a bull-headed Nick Jenkins, someone who watches the action for us but isn’t completely neutral or uninvolved. (The bull-headed bit is a dash of irony on Sherrill’s part, as the Minotaur is neither stubborn nor decisive, but is quite thoughtful and even aware of his habit of sometimes making bad decisions.) He’s the title character, and ultimately it’s his decision and his choices that shape the conclusion of the novel, but the real interest here is the diverse side characters, who are eccentric and flawed and whose real natures are reflected in their interactions with the hero. He’s deeply empathetic toward them, the result of his complex origins and five thousand years of watching humans be human, and most of them are similarly empathetic towards him.

Grub, the amusingly-named owner of the restaurant where the Minotaur – called “M.” by all his friends and colleagues – works, hires a new waitress named Kelly, who is revealed to be an epileptic when she has a grand mal seizure during a shift. The Minotaur’s affection for her seems to go beyond a mere physical attraction; he sees in her some kind of kindred spirit, another lonely soul wandering through life without a clear destination and with too much awareness of her own differences. The story ends with an unexpected sequence of events that force M. to finally be proactive and make a real choice to shape his own destiny, but he needs a little help from an unexpected deus ex machina and a lot of understanding to get to the point, where Sherrill leaves the reader in ambiguity, but with the possibility of hope, which seems to be all the Minotaur is asking the world to give him.

Next up: John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing.

America Walks Into a Bar.

I have a post up for Insiders today on keeping faith in some players who had less-than-great years.

Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops is a thoroughly academic look at the history of the watering hole, mostly in the United States but with a brief look at its origins in Europe and in the Near East. Like most histories, it lacks any real narrative thread, but Sismondo does present a clear thesis – that the bar or tavern has had an essential role in the cultural history of the U.S. – and does a great job of backing it up through interesting and often funny anecdotes.

The book is built around discrete chapters, each of which covers a specific movement that either got its start in the taverns or found faster growth through tavern culture, starting with the revolutionary spirit in the U.S. that led to the Stamp Act protests, the Tea Party (the real one, folks), and eventually the American Revolution and the nascent U.S. government. In that era, there were no real town halls or any kind of community center where anyone (meaning any adult man, although occasionally women were admitted) could gather to hear news, exchange information, or tip off the ragtag militia that the British were coming. Even churches would often have to close due to weather, moving their religious services to the local to take advantage of the latter facility’s heating. From there, Sismondo jumps ahead slightly to the abolitionist movement, then bounces through about 150 years of U.S. history, covering the temperance movement (and the Anti-Saloon League), the disaster of Prohibition, and the gay-rights movement that exploded, in literal and metaphorical terms, during a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

The challenge for Sismondo isn’t making this interesting – she’s talking about booze and bars, with the frequent injections of sex and violence, so, really, I already have your attention by now – but making her arguments convincing. Some are easy, like the rise of the American revolutionary movement in taverns, because at the time, that’s all there was. If you wanted to associate, you had few options besides the town local. Others are more difficult, such as the speakeasy’s role in advancing women’s rights, because earlier proscriptions on women drinking alongside men or even sharing the same space in a tavern were dropped when all such establishments were banned. The political machines of the 1800s, notably the Tammany Hall regime in New York, certainly rose through the taverns of the age, especially because votes were procured in exchange for booze, but would they have risen without those places? Couldn’t votes be bought in other ways, as they are today here and in other countries? Sismondo makes a strong case, but it’s all anecdotal (as it has to be), so those chapters are more about reader interest than proving a hypothesis.

The interest level can be pretty high, depending on the chapter and subject. Sismondo gives brief portraits of some of the earliest celebrity bartenders, such as Jerry Thomas, and gives a lot of detail on some of the key figures in the Haymarket riot, where anarchists bombed a peaceful pro-labor rally, leading to four executions in a gross miscarriage of justice that further spurred the embryonic American labor movement. We get a sketch of Mary “Texas” Guinan, an actress who owned a speakeasy, the 300 Club, that became one of the most popular during Prohibition and launched careers of the likes of George Raft and Walter Winchell (the latter of whom made his name by printing the gossip Guinan fed him). And there’s a host of amusing stories of Prohibition evasion, much of it tolerated, enabled, or even run by the very folks who were supposed to be enforcing the silly, misguided Volstead Act. My main complaint with the book, though, is that we never seem to get enough of any of these things. The stories are all short, which keeps the book moving, but misses opportunities to add color to its pages with details on the eccentric characters or the devious/comical events that were planned at or took place in the American bar.

Next up: I just finished Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book Alton Brown recommended twice on podcasts earlier this year, and have begun John Williams’ western novel Butcher’s Crossing.

The Kooks’ Listen.

The Kooks’ fourth album, Listen, comes after a three-year hiatus that saw lead singer and songwriter Luke Pritchard traveling to the U.S. and collaborating with other songwriters for the first time. The resulting album from their reunion sounds a lot like the old Kooks, just with more pronounced percussion lines. There are some great singles here, with sort of a second-wave Britpop feel that might not play as well in the United States, but it doesn’t have the impact I was hoping for given the layoff and the band’s discussion of a new direction for the disc.

“Down,” the lead single from the album, is the perfect example of a solid pop-rock song that would play much better in London than Los Angeles. Pritchard always sounds like he’s singing with a head cold, but the opening lines are only missing Peter Sellers following them up with “I wish I could sing like that.” The vocals overshadow the unconventional percussion lines, heavy on cymbals and hand-claps, that make the song otherwise compelling, and probably the best pure pop song on the album, even if the chorus’s silly “down-down-diggety-down” pattern desperately needs a modulation to another key.

“Forgive and Forget” does a better job of melding the influences Pritchard wanted to incorporate in the album, a neo-soul approach that reflected his time in the U.S., here mixing the drums to the front of the chorus (with Motown-style backup vocals) and driving the song on a set of funky guitar lines – with the funk sound coming from the strumming pattern rather than just the notes. The song comes off as a celebration, emphasized by the brief drum fill right before the 3-minute mark that raises the intensity right before the endless chorus that closes the track. “Bad Habit,” the current single, bears similar influences but mixes them into the album’s most conventional rock format, with guitar lines derived from blues-rock standards and drums that nod back to John Bonham after each chorus.

There’s plenty of experimentation on this album, at least relative to previous Kooks efforts, but it’s a mixed bag of results. The psychedelic “Dreams” pairs the Kooks’ best lyrical imagery of the disc with a faux-Arab rhythm and fuzzed-out keyboard line, all of which has the wisdom to get out after three minutes before the clever gambit turns stale. “Are We Electric” shifts back to sunny pop, one of a few moments on the album where the Kooks come off as the smarter, less overproduced OneRepublic. (I can’t stand OneRepublic, but I have to concede that they craft some strong pop hooks.) And if I just play the first fifteen seconds of “It Was London” for you, you’re going to assume it’s from Spoon’s latest album. But when Pritchard turns more introspective, we get the maudlin “See Me Now,” a song to the father Pritchard lost at age three, and the perfunctory “Westside,” with a boring drum-machine kickoff (a possible nod to The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”) and lyrics that I want to believe are somehow meant to be ironic (“Oh we can settle down/start a family/you’re still my best friend/and you’re so good to me”). If that’s “love song number 23,” I’d rather not hear numbers one to twenty-two.

If the Kooks’ goal on Listen was to expand their musical boundaries, I’m not sure we can call it a success. There’s a lot here that’s been done before, either by the Kooks themselves or by a host of other bands, mostly based in the U.S., that have infused soul or funk elements into indie-rock. If instead we evaluate Listen on its own merits, however, it’s one of the strongest collections of pop-rock singles of the year, with at least four songs that merit airplay on alternative and pop outlets. If we can just get Pritchard a decongestant, the Kooks might really have something here.

Royal Blood and Opeth.

Royal Blood put out one of my favorite songs of the first half of this year, but their self-titled debut album didn’t come out until the very end of August, a long wait from the hype and airplay they received from “Out of the Black” in the first few months of 2014. Royal Blood delivers on the promise of that first track with a compact half-hour of loud, hard, hook-filled tracks, nothing that breaks new ground, just heavy earworms for folks who like rock that rocks.

“Out of the Black” is one of the best songs of 2014, an huge, heavy bass-and-drum track that comes in so loud and hard that you would swear it was multiple guitars, not the work of a two-piece band that recorded everything without overdubs or multiple instruments. The synchronized drum and machine-gun bass riff that opens the song follows up with a vast, distorted sonic boom that, here, announces the entire album’s arrival – this is loud, heavy, unapologetic rock music. It’s produced in a different way, but the aural effect is familiar.

The best tracks on Royal Blood remind me a lot of one of my favorite under-the-radar albums of late last year, the self-titled debut from Drenge, another UK-based two-piece rock. The initial riff to “Come on Over,” maybe the album’s second-best track after the opener, could easily have come from Drenge. Where Drenge stayed in the post-punk lane, Royal Blood runs more with the blues-rock aesthetic of 1970s hard rock and British Heavy Metal. With huge riffs and frequent stops and starts, most of the tracks on Royal Blood would fit in on Ozzy’s Boneyard on Sirius XM in between songs from Iron Maiden and Saxon.

That bluesy feel – it’s not really “blues” in the traditional sense – comes out more when they turn the amps down slightly, as on “You Can Be So Cruel,” which sacrifices none of the heaviness of the rest of the album but drives more than it thumps. It’s also a great example of how bassist Mike Kerr manages to create a full sound just with his bass and heavy distortion, music that you would otherwise swear had come from two six-string guitars working in tandem. His technique is more apparent on “Blood Hands” because he moderates his picking slightly to make some of the individual notes clearer and less distorted.

They’re also going to get a lot of Jack White comparisons because of Kerr’s vocal style and their shared use of heavily distorted guitar lines played in isolation or just over a drum beat. The interstitial riffs on “Careless” feel ripped straight from a great Jack White or White Stripes track – and I can’t figure out how he can produce notes that high on a traditional bass guitar., while the descending staircase vocals of “Figure It Out” also bring White’s voice and songwriting to mind. But there are little allusions to other genres that White wouldn’t incorporate into his straight-up rockers – like the syncopated, funk-tinged riffs of “Ten-Tonne Skeleton” or the hints at early doom on “You Can Be So Cruel.”

Royal Blood‘s brief 32 minutes don’t allow the duo much time to introduce anything new or innovative, although I don’t think that was part of their mission statement. They had a bunch of hooks, and a new kind of sound they wanted to introduce, two counts on which they were successful. At some point, they’ll have to expand the formula; for now, a half-hour that rocks works just fine.

I also missed the release of Opeth’s latest album, Pale Communion, their second in their new incarnation as a prog-rock outfit. It’s hard to believe this is the same band that produced the watershed progressive death-metal album Blackwater Park, which combined death-growl doom-metal vocals with classical music influences and Gothenburg-style riffing in epic tracks that could run 10-12 minutes. Pale Communion sounds more like King Crimson or Marillion than it does like At the Gates or In Flames, with clean, sometimes harmonized vocals, intricate song structures (the one real holdover from their earlier output), and influences that range as far afield as folk and jazz. Opener “Eternal Rains Will Come” is pure 1970s prog-rock with some gorgeous instrumental passages, while “Cusp of Eternity” incorporates more hard-rock elements with a huge classic-rock guitar solo before the Hammond organ – which practically defines this album – returns.

It’s still brilliant, the kind of intelligent songwriting you can easily recognize, but it’s also a challenging listen because of the unconventional structure and lack of clear hooks. I don’t agree with Pitchfork’s review, which savaged the album mostly because it’s not the old Opeth, but I do agree with the reviewer’s specific criticism that the album doesn’t feel like its musical ideas are new, only its structures and arrangements. Opeth was so groundbreaking in their death-metal phase, defying conventions of even the adventurous melodic death metal movements of Gothenburg and Finland, that it’s a little odd to hear them as a prog-rock outfit that doesn’t seem to bring many new ideas or energies. Pale Communion is still among the best albums of the year, because of its ambition and sheer intelligence; I just want a band that has historically been so full of ideas to bring that same creativity to their new sound.

Saturday five, 9/6/14.

I wrote about the potential impact of some September callups for Insider, and held a Klawchat on Friday. I’m back on Baseball Tonight in the small hours this evening, with the show airing at 2:30 am Eastern.

This week’s links, from food science to gender bias in sports fanbases:

Also, for fellow fans of melodic death metal, the upcoming In Flames album, Siren Charms, is available as a $5 pre-order through that link. I’m not that familiar with their work, but if anyone’s heard the new album, I’d love to hear your opinions.

More NYC pizza and gelato.

Today’s Klawchat went well, I think. I’ll be back on BBTN tonight at 1:30 am Eastern.

I’ve gotten to two more spots from that (somewhat dubious) Food and Wine list of the nation’s best pizzerias, both in Manhattan, home to eleven of the 43 restaurants to make their cut. I still have five left in New York City, three of which (Di Fara, Paulie Gee’s, Sottocasa) are tricky because their hours are limited.

Forcella boasts three locations in the city, with the original in Brooklyn; I went to their NoHo location, on the Bowery between 2nd and 3rd (that’s Manhattan, for those of you unfamiliar with NYC neighborhoods). Their biggest claim to fame is as one of the first pizzerias, perhaps the first, to introduce the Neapolitan style of pizza known as “pizza montanara,” where the dough is quickly deep-fried to set and slightly crisp the crust, after which it’s topped and baked in a hot oven like most authentic Neapolitan pizzas are. This was my first experience with any kind of fried pizza, so I have no means of comparison, but I can say it was spectacular – the direct contact of the hot oil with the crust produces far more caramelization of the exterior starches and sugars than you’ll get from the indirect heat of a hotter oven, and there’s a hint of the flavor of a zeppole (the Italian take on fried dough, often served in a paper bag and drowned in powdered sugar). The crushed tomatoes were bright and very sweet, but I might argue for a little more cheese so you’re not just eating a plate of (delicious) fried bread. It is a steal at $9, by the way.

Pizza montanara at Forcella.

Rubirosa is a full-fledged Italian restaurant that happens to serve very good pizza. I saw it on Mulberry Street, between Prince and Spring, a fairly unassuming storefront that hides a larger seating area in the back. Rubirosa’s pizza isn’t true Neapolitan style, as it has very little exterior “lip” and is more cracker-like underneath, as opposed to the traditional wet-centered Neapolitan style. While the toppings were a little more generous than those at Forcella, the tomatoes weren’t as bright and their acidity overpowered the rest of the pizza because the crust was so thin. I enjoy these crispier crusts, like those at the Grimaldi’s chain in Arizona (I haven’t tried their NY outposts yet), but it’s a different product than true Neapolitan pizza, where you can really taste and feel the craft of the baker behind the bread. Also, at $17 for a small pizza, it’s overpriced for what you get.

Mo’ Gelato‘s coffee gelato is some of the strongest-flavored I’ve ever tasted, although that’s not saying much considering how most coffee-flavored gelatos, even those dubbed “espresso” flavor, often taste about as much like coffee as a light-and-sweet cup of swill from Dunkin’ Donuts. Mo’ Gelato’s looks darker and tastes it, so that the sweetness has real balance from the sharp note of roasted coffee. Their chocolate sorbet was a little pale in comparison, even though its color and flavor are both very dark – the lack of any kind of additional fat created a hollow flavor that, paired with the butterfat in the coffee gelato, seemed flat.

Il Buco Alimentaria is an Italian market and sandwich/small plates shop that also serves a small selection of gelato flavors, about eight when I visited, dished up by a rather fetching Sicilian woman who looked about as Italian as I do (which is to say, not much). Their chocolate gelato was superb, very smooth with a pudding-like flavor and texture, a rich semi-sweet chocolate that wasn’t extremely dark but less cloying or sweet than milk chocolate. The caramel gelato, however, was way too mild; in an era of sea salt caramel gelato and ice cream, weak caramel flavors just won’t cut it.

The next pizza stop will probably be Via Tribunali, an import to Manhattan from Seattle that is the only one of the F&W pizzerias in Manhattan that I haven’t tried and that is open for lunch.

August music update.

Today’s Insider column covers notable September callups.

I held this back until after the holiday weekend, both to make sure more of you would see it and because I was hoping we’d get some new singles out on Tuesday, which worked out with songs from HAERTS and TV on the Radio released this morning. I’ve created another Spotify playlist with all of this month’s songs.

alt-J – “Every Other Freckle.” Their sophomore album, This is All Yours, drops on September 22nd, and the the third single released from it is the best and most alt-J-ish one yet, a precise, rapidly-shifting track that seamlessly combines genres while boasting some of the band’s trademark double-edged lyrics: “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out, and lick you like a crisp packet.” I can’t wait for the album to see how all of these songs work together, given how cohesive An Awesome Wave was. Speaking of which, the Mercury Prize shortlist announcement is just eight days away.

Faded Paper Figures – “Real Lies.” I think Spotify suggested FPF to me because I’ve listened to alt-J, but they’re not similar beyond a shared interest in electro-pop sounds. Where alt-J is surgically precise, FPF is free-flowing; where alt-J is musically understated, FPF is bold and poppy. They do both engage in a fair amount of wordplay, as the Figures do here, singing “real lies” as you’d pronounce “realize,” and opening a song about reality and illusion with a reference to “the broken I.”

The Rentals – “Thought Of Sound.” Hard to believe their novelty/cult hit “Friends of P” came out 19 years ago next month; in the interim, they released another album, broke up, reformed, released several mini-albums on their own, then signed with Polyvinyl for the album Lost in Alphaville, which just came out last week. The band’s founder, Matt Sharp, started out as the bassist for Weezer, and I think the Rentals sound more like the original Weezer than current Weezer does. “Thought of Sound” fits that rubric: it’s not overtly poppy or catchy, but comes at you more subtly, with a balance of atmospheric and slightly dark music with the more optimistic lyrics.

Interpol – “All The Rage Back Home.” This sounds like vintage Interpol. I think that’s a good thing, but then again, I really like Joy Division.

Echosmith – “Cool Kids.” My daughter’s favorite new song of the summer is actually a pretty strong track overall, not bad for a group of four siblings, three of them still teenagers. I particularly like their use of silence when it would be almost instinctive to fill all of that space with more sound; the starkness underscores the isolation of the lyrics’ speakers.

Twerps – “Heavy Hands.” This Australian act’s influences are largely from that country and less familiar to my ears, at least, bands like the Clean and the Go-Betweens who never crossed over to U.S. radio. Their new 8-song EP, Underlay, continues their exploration of mellow jangle-pop textures, with a couple of songs under two minutes as the band has one idea, gets after it, and gets out. “Heavy Hands” is my favorite track from the album, deceptively upbeat, reminiscent of the earliest output by the Cure or New Order before their sounds expanded with bigger recording budgets.

Wild Beasts – “Wanderlust.” Radiohead meets alt-J meets … I don’t even know, the Dazz Band? It doesn’t always work, often coming off as weird for weirdness’ sake, but this track is the album’s best, fluid and abstract musically, punctuated by the singer’s refrain of “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.” I won’t – I promise.

Bear in Heaven – “Autumn.” I’ve got their latest, Time is Over One Day Old, on the to-listen list. “Autumn,” the second single from the album, is dark, pulsing, almost menacing in its combination of intensity and the stark keyboard lines.

Royal Blood – “Figure It Out.” I’ll review their debut album later this week; nothing on it can match the standout “Out of the Black,” one of my favorite songs of the year, but the second single is solid, more classic blues-rock than the heavier sound of their first hit.

Strand of Oaks – “Goshen ’97.” A reader recommendation, and a pretty good one. The album’s uneven but this nostalgia-tinged rocker – can we already feel nostalgic about 1997? God have mercy on us all – brings back memories not just of grunge but of the Replacements and similar loose garage-rock artists of the 1980s. I didn’t need to know about the porn and menthols under his bed, though.

Phantogram – “Black Out Days.” I’ve been remiss in omitting this song from the last two lists, as the song has been all over XMU/Alt Nation since the spring. Singer Sarah Barthels elevates this song beyond the electronic-rock norm with her hypnotic Cocteau Twins-esque vocals.

The Kooks – “Bad Habit.” The British rock quartet’s fourth album, Listen, came out today in the U.K. and is due next Tuesday here; “Bad Habit” is the second single released, after April’s “Down,” and it sounds a lot like a Kooks song – catchy, riffing heavily on classic-rock influences, less Britpop and a little more Arctic Monkeys.

Ryan Adams – “Gimme Something Good.” His best song since “Cuts Like a Knife” back in ’83.

Glass Animals – “Pools.” “Gooey” was their big alternative hit this summer, but I’m not a fan of the song itself or the production that seems to melt the lyrics back into the music. “Pools” has far more energy, driven by a jungle/tropical rhythm that’s a better contrast to the breathy low-baritone vocals.

Milky Chance – “Stolen Dance.” You’ve probably heard this by now – 77 million plays on Spotify can’t be wrong, can they? (Answer: Of course they can.) I don’t rate the song quite that highly, but it doesn’t sound like anything else out there right now, and, as Rakim might say, the beat is fresh.

HAERTS – “Giving Up.” Their debut album is due by year-end, after a slew of promising singles, including this one, released today, a bright slice of indie-pop driven by singer Nini Fabi’s strong, sultry vocals. If you liked Haim, this is a million times better than anything they released.

TV on the Radio – “Happy Idiot.” Also released today, “Happy Idiot” previews the band’s upcoming album Seeds, due November 18th. (It won’t include last year’s amazing “Mercy,” however, which was my #4 song of 2013.) Shifting into serious new wave territory with the drum machine and staccato guitar line, “Happy Idiot” has a subtler hook than “Mercy” but builds tension through layering of guitars as the song crescendoes toward the end of its three minutes. Stereogum called it TV on the Radio’s best song since Pure Science; I disagree, since “Mercy” was one of their best two or three tracks ever. Instead, I’ll just say that “Happy Idiot” is a hopeful preview of their upcoming album.

The Silkworm.

J.K. Rowling’s second detective novel starring Cormoran Strike, The Silkworm, continues to establish the detective character as the star of the series – a critical trait in any variation on the hard-boiled theme – while dropping Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, into the world of publishing and avant-garde literature. While the crime and its resolution are just as compelling as that of the first novel in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, it’s Strike and Robin who keep the story moving, as Rowling develops each character and explores their professional and personal relationship.

Strike is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost one of his lower legs to an IED, born out of wedlock to a groupie of the rock star Jonny Rokeby, with whom Strike has next to no relationship at all, although I get the sense we’ll meet Rokeby in a future book. His foundering private investigation business has received a huge boost after he solved the murder in The Cuckoo’s Calling, which brings Leonora Quine, the wife of the eccentric and would-be transgressive novelist Owen Quine, to his office to track down her missing husband. Of course, Owen’s been murdered, in a grisly fashion that mirrors the concluding scene of his new, unpublished book Bombyx Mori (Latin for “silkworm”). Solving the murder requires Strike and Robin to navigate the huge egos of Quine’s corner of the publishing world while also engaging in the kind of textual analysis you might expect to find in a college literature class. (I would have loved more passages from the fake book, but I’m generally a sucker for metafiction – and it would be fun to see Rowling mock transgressive literature.)

Rowling seems to have had a lot of fun sending up her targets in the worlds of literature and publishing, not least in the character of Quine – a philandering artiste of questionable talent, still living off the reviews of his first novel, published decades earlier, and financial support from his longtime agent, Liz Tassel. Quine’s ability and commercial success both pale compared to those of his rival, Michael Fancourt, who appears to be his own biggest fan and who has some very curious thoughts on literature, art, and love. I don’t recognize any specific targets of these parodies, if that is indeed what they are, and while they’re all entertaining and more than just two-dimensional side characters, they only come to life at all because of how Strike and Robin work them over during their investigation.

In the first novel in the series, Robin came on board as a temp and served primarily as Strike’s admistrative assistant and chief organizer, but we knew then that she had aspirations of joining Cormoran in detective work. She gets more such opportunities in the Quine case, and the result might be The Silkworm‘s greatest strength: Rowling crafts her into a strong, compelling, three-dimensional female co-lead, so while Strike is still front and center, it’ll be hard to imagine him working without her, both because she can do things he can’t (particularly where a more sensitive touch is needed with a witness or suspect) and because he’s coming to depend on her professionally and even emotionally.

That development means that The Silkworm does suffer from some second-novel blues, as Rowling spends time on her two characters on plot threads that aren’t related to the crime (something you’d never find in a classic hard-boiled detective novel) and that don’t lead to any specific resolution or catharsis at the end of the novel. Strike’s relationship with the beautiful but damaged Charlotte, which ended at the start of the first book, takes a few more turns for the worse, while Robin’s relationship with her fiancé Matt hits the skids over her commitment to a job he didn’t want her to keep. Those diversions are still critical to the evolution of Robin’s relationship with Strike, and I can imagine further development in all three relationships (or, in the case of Strike/Charlotte, a relationship that won’t quite end) in future books in the series, but they came across as too tangential to The Silkworm‘s story.

Rowling’s greatest gift as a writer – and I believe she has several – is storycraft, and while The Silkworm isn’t as involved as any of the Harry Potter novels or even The Casual Vacancy, it is tight and gripping and, in hindsight, gives the reader sufficient clues to sniff out the killer, although I was never really sure and ultimately fell for Rowling’s final feint. The investigation is convoluted and nonlinear, with Strike and Robin pursuing multiple leads at once, and Rowling eventually telling us what they’re doing without telling us what they find so she can obscure the killer’s identity until the very end of the book. The emphasis on the process, such as Strike’s advice to Robin before her first attempt to interrogate a witness, added a realistic element to the novel.

The New York Times review of The Silkworm ended with an ambiguous opinion on the novel, that “the most compelling characters are not the killer or the victim, but the detectives charged with solving the crime.” To me, however, that is an unequivocal statement of praise – a great detective novel starts and ends with the detective him- or herself. The story’s the thing in a mystery, although the detective can become part of the appeal in that genre as well, but I enjoy detective novels when I like the detective, whether he’s hard-boiled or sunnyside-up. I’ve always enjoyed Rowling’s voice and ability to craft a story I can’t put down, and now that she’s attached those to a great if unusual detective character, I’m all in.

Next up: Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

Brill Bruisers.

Today’s Klawchat transcript includes a lot of Kyle Schwarber talk and other baseball stuff.

The New Pornographers get the “supergroup” label a little too easily – I think of a supergroup as a group that includes a couple of artists who are well-known for their solo work, but among the half-dozen members of the New Pornographers the only solo artist who might qualify for that term is Neko Case. The characterization of the group as a collection of solo artists seems to me to diminish the work they do together, which has often been critically acclaimed but hasn’t broken out of the indie/alternative category on the commercial side. Their latest album, Brill Bruisers, is garnering more positive reviews, but it’s also their most overtly pop work yet – a power-pop showcase that bursts with energy beneath the band’s obscure lyrics.

The album opens with the title track and first single, which refers to the Brill Building era and style of songwriting, also apparent in the melody and backing harmoanies to the song. It’s a bouncy, exuberant track that sends a strong opening signal that we’re going to hear big pop sounds that reach back as far as the 1950s for musical inspiration. Bandleader A.C. Newman wrote about 3/4 of the tracks – Dan Bejar (of Destroyer) wrote the rest – pairing his stark lyrics with these huge major-chord hooks. “Fantasy Fools,” which is not actually about Eric Karabell and Nate Ravitz, is an even higher-energy ride with the explosions into the crescendoing harmony – one of the strongest uses on the album of the group’s mixed-gender vocals. The second track, “Champions of Red Wine,” has a space-age bachelor bad feel mixed with a Fleetwood Mac guitar line and vocals from both Case and Katherine Calder, while the album’s soft middle section leads into a rousing finish with three of the four final tracks, including the stomping closer “You Tell Me Where.”

Bejar’s best contribution brings the electricity too, but in a more frenzied fashion, particularly on the album’s second single, “War on the East Coast,” which opens with a staccato guitar riff that careens into the big chorus, only for Bejar to take a strange detour into a drunken harmonica solo. He falls short with “Spidyr,” a slower and more precious number that takes far too long to get to the huge drum incursion that powers the song’s final minute – a whole track like that might have been overkill, but it would have been preferable to Bejar’s too-close vocal style without much of any music behind him. Amber Webber of Black Mountain and Lightning Dust adds her vocals to Bejar’s other addition to the album, “Born With a Sound,” a song that would have fit in beautifully on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs musically and with Bejar and Webber’s back-and-forth.

The band gets too mired in some of its past references, like “Backstairs” quaffing too deeply on the ’70s, and the lyrics are often inscrutable and/or pretentious, like the raucous “Dancehall Domine,” detracting from the album’s most glorious song with a weird, obsolete word in the title. Most of Newman’s songs have few lyrics and don’t tell a story or even paint a still image, so while they include some clever wordplay there isn’t much substance there. Brill Bruisers is foremost a record of great music, clipped and concise pop gems with strong support on keyboards from Calder and Blaine Thurier, with influences from about four decades of music yet without ever sounding derivative of any of them.