Category: Matt Diehl

Album Review: Das Racist's "Relax"

  Album Review: Das Racist's "Relax"

"White devils like it." Those are the first words heard on Das Racist’s new album, perfectly capturing the contradictory, provocative appeal of this Brooklyn rap trio. On one hand, Das Racist co-frontman Heems rocks a Panda Bear shirt on the album’s cover and rhymes about “getting light to Jeff Mangum” over beats by Diplo and members of Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer; not surprisingly, the group’s “hipster hop” receives more airplay on Sirius XMU than Power 106. However, in the tradition of Aziz Ansari, Chris Rock and Harold and Kumar movies, Heems, partner Kool A.D. and hype man Dapwell simultaneously tweak ethnic stereotypes while dissing the dominant culture’s social mores (Heems and Dapwell are Indian American, and Kool A.D. is of Afro-Cuban and Italian descent).

“Relax” is Das Racist’s first commercial release, yet it shares the dense sprawl and uncomfortable laughs of the group’s previous Internet mixtapes. First single “Michael Jackson” proves an earworm equal to Das Racist’s breakthrough 2008 blog hit, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” — as catchy as anything by Lil Wayne, but its postmodern absurdity actually seems intentional. “Booty in the Air” suggests an R&B strip-club anthem via someone too nerdy to have ever actually gotten a lap dance, while on “Shut Up, Man,” Kool A.D. bisects a buckshot spray of surrealist wordplay evoking Ghostface and MF Doom with an insightfully pointed query: “They say I act white but sound black/ But act black but sound white/ But what’s my sound bite supposed to sound like?” He’s clearly being hypothetical: It sounds a lot like Das Racist.

Das Racist



Three and a half stars (out of four)


Album Review: St. Vincent's "Strange Mercy"

Album Review: Lady Antebellum's "Own the Night"

Album Review: Wild Flag's "Wild Flag"

--Matt Diehl

Album review: The Nightwatchman's 'World Wide Rebel Songs'

Album review: The Nightwatchman's 'World Wide Rebel Songs'

Wielding his guitar like a genre-vaporizing blowtorch, Tom Morello remains one of rock’s most distinctive instrumentalists: His iconoclastic virtuosity brings a defining character to all his projects, from the revolutionary rap-rock of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave’s post-grunge to the live-band hip-hop of Street Sweeper Social Club. Morello’s solo persona, the Nightwatchman, stands apart from his other efforts, though -- placing him front and center as the singer, in addition to using folk as the musical bedrock in lieu of the innovative metallic crunch for which he’s famed. However, while “World Wide Rebel Songs -- his third full-length under the Nightwatchman moniker -- reflects Morello’s expected radical social consciousness in its lyrics, it also evocatively expands on his sonic fingerprint.

Where previous Nightwatchman releases primarily featured Morello as an acoustic troubadour, his latest proffers more group interplay, at times recalling aspects of his other projects. “It Begins Tonight” bisects shamelessly heavy riffing with Bo Diddley beats, while “Union Town” hybridizes Morello’s trademark turntablist-influenced shredding with a chorus ready-made for protest marches; “Facing Mount Kenya,” meanwhile, balances personal introspection and political insight with sparse, atmospheric trip-hop. Surprisingly, the most appealing element here proves to be Morello’s voice -- a weary, Leonard Cohen-esque rasp that makes all the sloganeering seem oddly soothing. That human element is what makes “World Wide Rebel Songs” compelling, and ultimately cathartic: What Morello lacks in subtlety, he makes up for in visceral feeling.

Continue reading »

Album review: The Horrors 'Skying'

  Album Review: The Horror's 'Skying'

When the Horrors released “Primary Colours“ in 2009, it proved astonishing and unexpected — one of the year’s best albums, from the band least poised for success. The U.K. five-piece’s debut, 2007’s “Strange House,” underwhelmed mightily, suggesting a Gothabilly boy-band version of the Strokes. “Primary Colours,” on the other hand, exuded radical reinvention: a sprawling masterwork of pop’s most iconoclastic sounds, spanning shoegaze and krautrock through electronic psychedelia.

The Horrors’ latest opus, “Skying,” proves nearly as exciting and surprising — the key revelatory element being the group’s embrace of melody and emotion. Nearly every review of “Skying” has compared it to the era of Simple Minds when the iconic ’80s band was filling stadiums with epic synth-rock; that romantic sweep is clearly present in the album’s dramatic first single, the hooky ballad “Still Life.” And where the Horrors previously seemed to fight against their Britpop legacy, here they embrace it — from the “Bittersweet Symphony” swirl of “Changing the Rain” to the Madchester groove of “Dive In.”

Continue reading »

Album Review: Fountains of Wayne's 'Sky Full of Holes'

  Fountains of Wayne 1

That a band as literate as Fountains of Wayne ever had a hit boggles the mind, but lo and behold, in 2003 the band scored a smash with the horny suburban anthem “Stacy’s Mom.” Indeed, there’s no confection of hooks and melody as shamelessly immediate as that on “Sky Full of Holes,” Fountains of Wayne’s fifth LP, and first in four years.

Then again, if you’re still listening to them, it’s not for the singles, but the songcraft. Primary writers Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger land somewhere between John Irving and John Updike in their lyrical outlook, documenting East Coast middle-class mores with equal parts nostalgia, pop-cultured irony and a perverse humor that might give “Flight of the Conchords” a run for the laugh track.

Continue reading »

Album Review: Jenny O.'s 'Home'

  Jenny o home 1

Among the lesser-known acts featured on the new “Rave On Buddy Holly” tribute album is Jenny O., a young singer-songwriter with ties to the L.A. hipster-hippie scene that also includes Jonathan Wilson and the Chapin Sisters. (On “Rave On,” her flirty rendition of “I’m Gonna Love You Too” comes after songs by Paul McCartney and Cee Lo Green and before tunes by Patti Smith and Lou Reed.) That said, this five-track EP arrives in stores with no shortage of new-school buzz behind it: At the South by Southwest festival in March she turned tastemakers’ heads during an intimate performance in an Austin hotel room, and a few weeks ago her song “Well OK Honey” found its way onto HBO’s “True Blood.”

“Home” justifies the excitement — it’s a perfectly charming folk-pop confection sure to win the singer a following among fans of Regina Spektor, Feist and Ingrid Michaelson. Like those women, Jenny O. often embroiders her tunes with quirky instrumental touches; she’s way into the sound of a tambourine with lots of reverb on it. But her voice is alluring enough to go without the trimmings: In the best song here, “All My Wishes,” she sings softly but purposefully over a bare-bones acoustic-guitar figure. The lyrics are about the disappointment that sometimes sets in after you get what you want. It’s a feeling Jenny O. might soon encounter again.

Jenny O.


Manimal Vinyl

Three stars (Out of four)


Album review: Colbie Caillat's 'All of You'

Album review: Cali Swag District's 'The Kickback'

Album review: Zomby's 'Dedication'

— Mikael Wood

Album Review: They Might Be Giants' 'Join Us'


They might be giants 1
“Quirky” and “eclectic” may be the two most overused words in music criticism, but longtime alternative-rock iconoclasts They Might Be Giants are part of the reason why: The duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has embodied everything playful, absurdist and unpredictable in their 25-year recording career, from their choice of instrumentation (accordion, anyone?) to distinctively goofball, surrealist lyrics. “Join Us” is TMBG’s 15th full-length album (and first in four years geared to adults after a series of successful, Grammy-winning children’s music releases), and it finds the band returning to appropriately twee form.

Indeed, “Join Us” might be TMBG’s strongest set since their ’80s-era heyday represented by hits like “Don’t Let’s Start.” The album features 18 tracks and seemingly sprawls over as many genres and styles, such as the dada hip-hop of “The Lady and the Tiger” and the chiming psychedelic pop of “Old Pine Box,” all delivered with a manic grin. TMBG has retained its appealing trademark humor — lyrical references to Sleestacks and dogwalkers who actually wish they were dogs abound — but what impresses most is Flansburgh and Linnell’s ability to churn out cascades of earworm hooks. Every song teems with surprisingly memorable choruses, melodies, and, well, quirks that prove hard to forget; after such a deluge of stealthy and refined charms, resistance to the TMBG formula becomes futile.


They Might Be Giants

“Join Us”


Three stars (Out of four)


Album review: Colbie Caillat's 'All of You'

Album review: Cali Swag District's 'The Kickback'

Album review: Zomby's 'Dedication'

— Matt Diehl

The 88 gig at the Echo on Saturday, discuss working with Ray Davies on 'See My Friends'

"See My Friends," the recent solo album by erstwhile Kinks leader Ray Davies, has gained much attention for its boldfaced collaborators -- Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Corgan, Jon Bon Jovi, Mumford & Sons, Spoon and Black Francis among them.

But Davies’ most significant creative partner on the project may be local Los Angeles rockers the 88, who became the album's de facto backing band, providing support for three songs on the record, from Lucinda Williams’ poignant take on “Long Way From Home” to their own propulsive version of “David Watts,” a satirical rocker from the classic 1967 album "Something Else by the Kinks." “Davies asked us specifically if we wanted to do that song,” explains Keith Slettedahl, vocalist and guitarist for the 88 (at far right in the photo above). “We were playing it live, and I think he liked the way it sounded.”

The 88 originally encountered Davies when the band was handpicked to back him on a 2010 solo tour. “It was so out of nowhere,” Slettedahl says. “In the middle of recording our last record, we got a call saying Ray Davies was looking for a band.” Davies requested that the 88 demo three Kinks songs; the band complied, adding three more for extra credit. After getting the gig, Slettedahl was surprised to learn that Davies “doesn’t like to rehearse. We hadn’t even met him before our first show together! He didn’t even give us a list of what to do, so we just practiced a bunch of Kinks’ songs at random.”

Continue reading »

Album review: 'Glee: The Music Presents the Warblers'

Gleewarblers Another week, another “Glee” release. The smash music-driven TV series has set so many records on the pop charts that its most recent sales milestone is sure to be surpassed by the time you read this -- and the Dalton Academy Warblers will probably have something to do with it.

The Warblers are actually a rival singing group to New Directions, the high-school glee club that features the show’s main characters, with the primary distinction being that the Warblers are all male. That makes for some amusing gender reversals on their first album collection, as when the Warblers tackle the likes of Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” The latter actually gets transformed by the soulful testosterone crooning; think the Killers meet Sigur Rós meets the Jonas Brothers, if you will. Train’s ubiquitous modern-rock smash “Hey, Soul Sister” also receives an unexpectedly appealing makeover, with the Warblers giving it the effortless buoyancy of a Bruno Mars radio hit.

At their best, per “Glee” tradition, the Warblers’ cover versions can reveal the real craft behind bulletproof pop constructions. But removed from the narrative thrust of the show, these renditions can prove a little much. The gimmick of these suburban voices taking on an urban track such as Robin Thicke’s “When I Get You Alone,” for example, verges on too cute. Takes on Maroon 5’s “Misery” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” don’t really add much to the originals; an even schmaltzier rendition of Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” just seems, well, silly.

Of course, one doesn’t come to “Glee” compilations for music’s cutting edge, but when the formula works, it can prove surprisingly enjoyable, and allow a familiar song to be heard in a new way. When it doesn’t, the results make clear that, as central as the music is, “Glee” remains primarily a TV show before a listening experience.

-- Matt Diehl

"Glee: The Music Presents the Warblers"
Two stars

Album review: Holy Ghost!'s debut album

Holyghost It’s tempting to consider Holy Ghost! a de facto replacement for LCD Soundsystem, which broke up last week to great fanfare. The group records for DFA Records -- the label headed by LCD leader James Murphy -- and even performed as accompanying musicians during LCD’s final television appearance on “The Colbert Report.” Aesthetically, the two bands share a love for merging rock vocals with dance-music classicism and, in particular, sonic nods to the greed decade.

Indeed, on Holy Ghost!’s debut album, a track like “It’s Not Over,” could be a lost New Order classic, and “Do It Again” manages to make Men Without Hats a cool influence. “Some Children,” meanwhile, engages in inspired stunt casting, bringing in an actual icon from previous musical eras, Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, for silky guest vocals.

Where the students and the mentors diverge becomes clear over the course of the record, however. LCD builds songs out of drawn-out tension, primarily to showcase Murphy’s singular idiosyncrasy; Holy Ghost!, on the other hand, creates taut compositions where the search for the perfect hook seems the goal. Typically, the band succeeds: Just try getting the choruses of “Hold On” and “Say My Name” out of your head. As a result, Holy Ghost! has created a classic pop album,  albeit one dressed for dancing in hipster finery.

-- Matt Diehl

Holy Ghost!
Three and a half stars

Live review: Gang of Four at the Music Box

What happens when innovations become tropes? That depends on the innovators, as was made smashingly clear by Monday’s performance at the Music Box by Gang of Four (more about smashing later). The U.K. quartet’s classic 1979 album Entertainment! heralded the group as punk-funk progenitors, blurring disco’s dance floor urgency with punk’s political insurgency. Gang of Four since became one of popular music’s most influential concerns for everyone from R.E.M, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fugazi to new post-punk revivalists spanning Bloc Party and the Rapture.

The band, formed in Leeds in 1977, has also endured as timeless rather than nostalgic by remaining one of rock’s most kinetic live acts. When they reunited in 2005, their concerts proved even better than when Gang of Four was supposedly in their prime. While this recent performance wasn’t up to that level, it still demonstrated a commitment to savage artistry like no act in recent memory.

“The first time we played here, it was a disaster,” singer Jon King snarled a third of the way through the concert, launching into an anecdote about a bass player with a smashed nose leaving the stage slick with blood. 

Continue reading »

Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Recent Posts

Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: