* * 1/2
Phish fans generally agree that the band's albums are just an appetizer for its anything-can-happen concerts. That's because the songwriting generally lags behind the band members' skills as performers and improvisers. But each album usually boasts a few tunes that benefit from the more concise treatment, and "Joy" -- the group's 11th studio album and its first in five years -- is no exception.
Singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio (again writing with longtime lyricist-collaborator Tom Marshall) is a recovering drug addict, and several of his songs reference his struggle to regain his mental and spiritual equilibrium. "Ocelot" could be interpreted as a loopy perspective on isolation, whereas "Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan" is more direct. "Gotta blank space where my mind should be," Anastasio declares.
The music is rarely rote, nor does it jump, settling for a fussy yet placid amiability, whether the Vermont quartet is in boogie mode ("Kill Devil Falls") or unwinding a 13-minute progressive-rock suite ("Time Turns Elastic"). Tracks by bassist Mike Gordon ("Sugar Shack") and keyboardist Page McConnell ("I Been Around") are even less memorable.
But the album is framed by two winners: Anastasio's glistening solo caps the buoyant ode to friendship, "Backwards Down the Number Line," and "Twenty Years Later" spirals into a kaleidoscope-like anthem that should sound absolutely killer in Phish's natural environment: the stage.
-- Greg Kot
Much more than a catchy refrain
* * * 1/2
"Wait till you hear the refrain," sings Sondre Lerche in the title track of his new album, "Heartbeat Radio." That's not bad advice: No matter what genre he's working in -- fuzzy garage rock, breezy vocal jazz, acoustic folk-pop -- this young Norwegian singer-songwriter crafts catchier choruses than many musicians who've been working twice as long as he has. His refrains always pay off.
But skimming Lerche's songs for their juiciest bits leaves a lot of juice behind. He's a highly meticulous record-maker with a deep and abiding love for intros and verses and bridges; in his mind, each deserves to be lavished with attention.
"Heartbeat Radio" is Lerche's most eclectic outing yet, with no overarching concept beyond a consistent level of excellence. Opener "Good Luck" starts out as a wistful guitar-pop ballad, briefly transforms into a moody art-rock jam and finally climaxes in a frenzy of discordant string jabs. "I Cannot Let You Go" is mellow blue-eyed soul with a scrabbly Steely Dan guitar solo. "If Only" has old-school hip-hop beats. "Pioneer" could charm a Beatle.
The songs here aren't as deep as those on the Beatles' "White Album"; Lerche is such a pleasant sort that you can't really picture him wringing out a "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." But the approach is the same: (1) Good albums are made from good songs; (2) Good songs are made from good parts; (3) Good parts are made from good ideas; (4) Don't cheat.
-- Mikael Wood
A little bit of everything
Haih Or Amortecedor
* * *
At a time when African guitar licks are as native to Brooklyn as the corner deli and Glasgow is having a hip-hop renaissance, the idea of an indigenous "local sound" is ever more tenuous. But for decades, the Brazilian ensemble Os Mutantes has made a kind of noisy Tropicalia that sounds beamed in straight from Neptune.
The group's latest, "Haih Or Amortecedor," is a manic, sometimes frustrating and very often lovely thicket of a record, where underpinnings of Brazilian rhythmic and melodic ideas get caught in a hurricane of guitar fuzz and broken orchestras.
Within the first minute of "Querida Querida," there's dinosaur-stomp stoner rock, menacing brass and banshee-wail harmonies, yet it makes a weird sense transitioning into the dazed folk of "Teclar." "Baghdad Blues" unexpectedly sounds like a drunk walk home through ragtime New Orleans, while the cheeky "Samba Do Fidel" hews closest to something Jorge Ben Jor fans might recognize.
The album's devilish vocal interplay is a thing to behold, with giddy, cackling and pretty harmonies skulking about the mix. You'd be right to call "Haih" scattershot and exhausting. But the group aims to sound like everything, and most of what it comes up with is fantastic.
-- August Brown
One year older, one year tougher
"Everything Goes Wrong"
In the Red
* * * 1/2
The East Coast trio Vivian Girls arrived in 2008 with a 10-song, 22-minute debut that sounded as if it was recorded with a shoestring and paper cups in place of microphones, but it had an innocent charm all its own, thanks to the group's bittersweet melodies and buzzing guitars.
The follow-up is nearly twice as long, and though the production remains low-fi, the group has toughened up after a year on the road. Cassie Ramone sounds like a more confident guitarist, stretching out her leads, while the bass lines of Kickball Katy bubble out front to carry the melodies. And once again those melancholy harmonies are to die for, as Ramone chips off pieces of her heart in lamenting the boy who got away.
This time, the faster songs are harder-edged (the furious "Survival") and the slow ones eerier ("Tension," "The End"). And when a little light finally surfaces near the end of the album ("You're My Guy"), euphoria reigns.
-- Greg Kot