Guitars? Never heard of ’em.
Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Matador)
Brit Daniel is one hell of a shapeshifter despite possessing the inflexible vocal dexterity of Eddie Vedder. While Vedder’s martyrdom complex left him chasing Kurt’s ghost, Daniel’s free-flowing minimalism lightens his load and keeps him nimble. That’s not so say he welcomes complacency. This album is among the band’s most immediate and surprising, musically speaking. Less interested than ever in the guitar, they satisfy their long-gestating synth-pop fantasies with typical punch and snappiness. Every instrument is a drum, be they guttural bass churns, reverberating keyboards, Daniel’s staccato vocal delivery or literal drums courtesy of the real MVP Jim Eno. Aside from an abiding love for the primordial groove is a treasure trove of tricks that play counterpoint to their steadfast tempos — “Can I Sit Next To You” comes with a warbling, off-key synth fill I can’t stop whistling. The lyrics remain as vague and cryptic as Daniel himself, although he gives politics a go on the anti-border wall anthem, “Tear It Down.” But I’m more captivated by “Pink Up,” an experimental jam in which Daniel’s vocals are played backwards, making them another colorful instrument in a kaleidoscope of sound. Praise be to the front man who knows when to get out of the way. It lets the rest of us have some fun. GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “Can I Sit Next To You” / “Hot Thoughts” / “Shotgun”
The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord)
A.C. Newman is the most forgettable of the indie-pop ringleaders. Not only is he Canadian, but he shares mic duties with the ebullient and personable Neko Case – a Virginia-born redhead who spent three years studying art in British Columbia. Though Newman is as plain as they come, his sturdy melodic gifts have sustained this band for 20 years. This album is their first without collaborator and Destroyer auteur Dan Bejar, whose contributions were as clunky and disposable as Newman’s remain effervescent. With no more art-pop inklings to satisfy, it’s straight ahead on 11 songs in a taut 41 minutes. As is the new norm these days for guitar geeks in mid-life crisis, Newman’s latest musical infatuation is synthesizers that digitize the growing ire he holds against his chosen profession. The music glistens, for sure — only insomniacs and the dead are immune to the opening choral of “Second Sleep” — but their pop sensibilities only serve to contrast songs about the downside of the industry: ticket scalpers as leeches, the highway as purgatory and musicians as careerists instead of inspired radicals. Their complaints reflect their milieu, which stunts their market share. But hooks for the sake of hooks ain’t a bad way to enjoy life in the terrible year of 2017. GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “High Ticket Attractions” / “This is the World of the Theater” / “Colosseums”