Not a single review below four stars -- now that's some good listening!
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Given how big of a role the people you know can play in shaping just what kind of person you are, it makes sense that Neko Case's most autobiographical album to date focuses on relationships. After hitting a dark point in her life following the death of her grandmother and parents, "The Worse Things Get…" is appropriately devastating at parts, but Case manages to dole out plenty of resilience and humor paired with the anger and sadness that anchor the album. Armed with her captivatingly strong vocals, Case takes listeners on an emotional rollercoaster, from the sneering rocker "Man," to the heartbreaking "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," an a capella track in which Case sets aside her typical wit for blunt lines chronicling the verbal abuse of a youth she saw while travelling. Throughout it all, Case stays resilient, providing a exquisitely recorded account of the woman she's become in 12 wonderful tracks. - Alex Bieler
The Silver Gymnasium
After devoting past material to pained characters like "Black Sheep Boy" and exploring rock 'n' roll tales, Okkervil River's Will Sheff aims for a more personal target on his latest album – himself. "The Silver Gymnasium" focuses on Meriden, N.H., Sheff's hometown back in the '80s when he was a youth. Appropriately, the album is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia, aided by Sheff's yearning vocals of past times, with lyrics of old friends and playing Atari scattered throughout. Sheff mixes in musical elements of mid '80s as well, as "Stay Young" kicks off with warm synths and some elements of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band peppering tracks like "On a Balcony." It all adds up to an album of longing and celebration, collecting Sheff's childhood memories, both good and bad, into a 11-piece folk-rock autobiography that's nostalgic enough to take you back in time with it. - Alex Bieler
No matter what he does from now on, people will always compare any band that Justin Vernon is involved in to Bon Iver. Given the critical adoration of "For Emma, Forever Ago" and "Bon Iver, Bon Iver," that's to be expected. While his back-to-basics rock group The Shouting Matches provided a sonic getaway for Vernon, Volcano Choir's second album returns him to his ethereal wheelhouse. That does not mean that "Repave" is just a shameless rip off of Bon Iver albums, by any means. Yes, the double-tracked vocals and gorgeous echoing soundscapes of are still there, particularly on opener "Tiderays," but Vernon's Volcano Choir bandmates provide a much more muscular body to Vernon's gentle framework and, at times, awkward lyrics. "Repave" is most definitely a group effort, a more grizzled and guitar heavy affair that manages to be rough without sacrificing the beautiful. - Alex Bieler
The Arctic Monkeys have all but taken the beaten path to stardom. First, the sought-after Sheffield, England-based band warded off major labels, releasing their songs themselves while using the Internet as their primary mode of distribution to then sign with Domino – who remains the band's label – in 2005, favoring its DIY nature. From there, they've been chart-toppers, world tourers, and darlings to the pub-punk, indie-rock scene. Ten years later, the band's fifth studio album, "AM," retains the elements that made them popular in the first place and just as relevant. "Do You Wanna Know?" opens the album, a slow-build power-chord thumper, setting the mood for the majority of this slower-burner. "R U Mine?" stands out, a track clearly bearing Josh Homme's thumbprint with fuzz-soaked guitar riffs set against drum fill after drum fill behind distorted vocals. Another welcomed addition to an already impressive catalogue, "AM" will draw listeners to the dance floor for sure. - Ben Speggen