MECHANICAL BULL, by Kings of Leon, RCA
Bands get exhausted just as often as people get exhausted of listening to them — you just hear about it less. So when Kings of Leon imploded, or took a hiatus, or merely went quiet after a tumultuous patch a couple of years back, it qualified as news, even though it really should have been considered a favor. The band had gotten big, and it needed something else, bumpy road there be damned.
And so a decade after its debut album, Kings of Leon is making a U-turn, heading back in the direction of being the band it once was. The best parts of Mechanical Bull, its sixth album, come when that exhaustion seeps into the songwriting and playing. Even though Kings of Leon has had a handful of world-killing hits -— Sex on Fire and Use Somebody chief among them -— it’s always been a haggard, handsome Southern rock band at its core, and the best songs here exude a macho kind of depression.
Rock City has the requisite sleaze, with guitars that linger like a headache and Caleb Followill ranting, “I was running through the desert/ I was looking for drugs/ and I was searching for a woman who was willing to love.” On Family Tree, almost all of the arena-size ambition is gone, and what’s left is some dirty ZZ Top-esque blues-rock, a mode that suits this band well.
Subtlety has never been one of this band’s gifts, and its lyrics can veer toward the comedic -— Comeback Story includes the punch line, “I walked a mile in your shoes/ and now I’m a mile away/ and I’ve got your shoes.”
In general, the less this band talks, the better. The high points here are the ones where it sounds as if the band has the least gas in the tank, like the elegant Beautiful War. It sounds like a band at the end of its career, leaning on instinct, and it’s savage. It also drags out past five minutes -— not to be extravagant, but rather to roll slowly to a full stop.
— JON CARAMANICA
HEREIN WILD, by Frankie Rose, Fat Possum
Frankie Rose comes partway down to earth on her second solo album, Herein Wild.
Her debut, Interstellar, announced her departure from the girl-group-meets-garage-rock reinvention that she helped instigate as a member of Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls and with her own band in 2010, Frankie Rose and the Outs. Interstellar moved toward the 1980s, with synthesizers enfolding the guitars and clean, ethereal reverb supplanting fuzztone, while the lyrics were often abstract and faraway, gazing from a distance.
Herein Wild starts, instead, with the crashing drums and distorted guitar chords of You for Me. The song heads for a chorus that admits, “Time on my own, time on my hands, couldn’t be true” -— though as major chords surge behind her, she sees a chance to change: “You for me, could be what I was waiting for.”
Through her many bands, Rose has held onto certain pop principles. The girl-group foundations of verse, chorus and bridge suit her just fine. Her melodies are always crisply defined by hooks that are distributed between riffing guitars and her high, airy voice.
Rose and her co-producer and synthesizer expert, Michael Cheever, haven’t moved that far from the sound of Interstellar. The steady eighth-note beats, the rounded bass tones and the halos of keyboards still openly echo the Cure and New Order. (The album reaches back to remake a 1985 song by the Damned, Street of Dreams, though it trades new-wave guitars for synthesizers.)
But Herein Wild slightly dispels the haze of Rose’s debut. A flesh-and-blood string section sometimes replaces keyboards, and the lyrics are less remote. Songs like The Depths and Sorrow struggle against despair, and the nervous guitar tremolos, galloping beat and choirlike voices of Heaven are contemplating death, possibly suicide: “Here it is easy to see how an end would be rest.” Rose’s pop confections aren’t simple escapes.
— JON PARELES
SEPTEMBER, by The Claudia Quintet, Cuneiform
The drummer John Hollenbeck, who writes all the music for the Claudia Quintet, is prolific enough with his output to understand that there’s often freedom in restriction. September, the group’s inspired new album, gets its name from his custom of composing new work in seclusion at artist retreats, typically during that month; each of its 10 pieces bears a date, indicating either a moment of inception or completion.
That sounds schematic, but it’s really a loose framework, a way of organizing thoughts and ideas. The instrumentation of the Claudia Quintet has remained constant since it formed in the late 1990s, so Hollenbeck knows the palette he’s working with. Along with the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed and the vibraphonist Matt Moran, his lineup now includes Red Wierenga on accordion and either Drew Gress or Chris Tordini on bass. It’s a crew ready for any kind of chamberesque or open-ended maneuvers he prescribes.
The oldest and most gorgeously melancholy theme here is 12th Coping Song, a secular hymn inspired by Sept. 11, 2001, that closes the album. At the other end of the spectrum is the opener, 20th Soterius Lakshmi, which has the staccato syncopations of a news radio theme, and a title puckishly borrowed from the names of two NPR newscasters. (Soterios Johnson probably sees that misspelling a lot.)
Somehow the bouquet of timbres that Claudia Quintet presents hasn’t lost its freshness: the slow dawn of 25th Somber Blanket, with accordion and clarinet prominent in the mix, represents a proven strategy for the band. 18th Lemons feels familiar too, at least in the minimalist rhythmic pattern that breezes through most of the tune.
On the Claudia Quintet’s previous album, What Is the Beautiful? (Cuneiform), the ensemble worked with Kenneth Patchen’s poetry. Here there’s a perversely arresting track called 29th, 1936 ‘Me Warn You’, which samples the main passage of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “smooth evasion” speech -— a gem of withering sarcasm, at the expense of his opposing party -— and redraws it in cubist fashion. This goes on for more than 10 minutes, and the premise feels exhausted maybe halfway through. But then comes an intoxicating series of chords, illuminating the text in strange new ways: a composer’s sleight of hand, executed with the lightest touch.
— NATE CHINEN