In this week’s Listening Post, I take a look at some records from The Singer and the Songwriter, Charli XCX, Sugar Candy Mountain and Shady Elders. From jazzy indie pop rhythms to elastic Technicolor pop implosions and vibratory indie rock melodies, these records will get inside your head and rattle around before nestling down comfortably somewhere in your subconscious. Which albums are you looking forward to hearing this week?
The Singer and the Songwriter, “What a Difference a Melody Makes”
Some things just go together: peanut butter and jelly, for instance. But when you talk about how different genres fit together to form a larger rhythmic canvas, things can get a little more complicated. That is, until you hear the casual cross-genre explorations of San Francisco duo The Singer and the Songwriter (AKA Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran). Their folk and jazz-centric musings could easily have become awkward combinations of mismatched tones and melodies, but by using the common musical threads of these respective genres, they are able to successfully integrate a wealth of influences into a cohesive rhythmic whole-the result of which is their debut LP, “What a Difference a Melody Makes.”
Tying together Garcia’s love of jazz and blues vocalists, as well as early pop artists like Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons and Elvis, with Tran’s modern folk tendencies and keen poetic lyricism, this collection of songs acts as an homage to their shared musical inspirations. His guitar shimmies and swings like Django Reinhardt while her voice wraps around each note, swaying in unison like a modern-day Ella Fitzgerald. But it’s at the crossroads of their influences that the real identity of The Singer and the Songwriter emerges. Not content to simply be the expression of a set of shared influences, the duo creates something unique from these all-too-common sounds.
Charli XCX, “Sucker”
Pop music has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Gone are the bland production generalizations; in their place has risen a group of producers and musicians determined to bring out the seasoned pop heart in their songs. We’ve already had some curiously affecting music this year from mainstream pop artists like Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus (yes, they’re good, and no, I’m not joking). But for London pop-maker Charli XCX, this transition to the mainstream came a little slower. After a fantastic debut album, 2013’s “True Romance,” she became increasingly disenfranchised with the music industry and retreated to Sweden to record her follow-up. And this sense of musical impermanence has given her a ferocious new platform from which to vent her frustrations.
On her sophomore record, “Sucker,” she manages to leave the electro pop clash behind and focus instead on the viability of her own creative drive. This is no compromise to the mainstream here-this is Charli at her most independent and resilient. It’s jacked-up pop without the saccharine aftertaste and with a few carefully plotted detours into new wave and punk for good measure. She rarely stays still for very long and jumps from one influence to the next in the blink of an eye, often within the same song. This album bears the mark of her previous material but positions her as the next big thing-even if these songs don’t bring her the attention that she so clearly deserves.
Sugar Candy Mountain, “Mystic Hits”
Oakland, California, outfit Sugar Candy Mountain feels like they never really had their time to shine in the ’60s. Which isn’t exactly surprising, given that no band members were even alive then and have just now released their first widely distributed album. Equal parts warped Tropicalia and reverberating pop wonder (imagine Os Mustantes fronting The Kinks), their music is as much a throwback as it is a refreshing take on modern pop experimentalism. And on their new album, “Mystic Hits,” the band shuffles through their influences, emerging 13 tracks later with a new perspective on these ingrained rhythms.
Whether they’re wading through the vibrant waters of midperiod Beach Boys or the more psych-influenced songs of The Beatles, Sugar Candy Mountain is not afraid to wear its inspirations proudly for all to see. But that isn’t the limit of the band’s abilities. Sure, they can sling an amazing organ riff right along with Question Mark & the Mysterians, but they also marry each sound perfectly to the next in a series of unpredictable rhythmic landscapes. Loose and prone to wander (in a wonderfully ramshackle way), these songs feel as though they are barely held together-as if one good push could scatter their various melodies across some vast and rugged terrain.
Shady Elders, “The Night Air”
It takes a lot for any new dream pop-leaning or shoegaze-leaning band to make much of a sizable first impression. There are simply far too many bands doing exactly the same thing for most artists to contribute anything of relevance to this particular conversation. But that is where Denver-based dream pop band Shady Elders come into the picture. By focusing on the core mechanics of the genre and then slowly blossoming out from its center, they have made the conversation interesting again. Their jangling guitars, softly cooed vocals and gently somnambulic rhythms all add up to a wonderfully faithful adaptation of bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Chapterhouse.
But like their more muscular shoegaze cousins, Shady Elders engage in an occasionally dense and thoughtful exploration of what happens when you break a song down into concurrent waves of melody and momentum. And this is most evident on their latest record, “The Night Air,” an EP of jingling rhythms and plunging vocals that exhibit the flair and personality of dream pop while maintaining the bulk and weight of shoegaze. It’s fascinating to see how the band uses these genre templates to mold and fashion something vaguely similar to their influences but still entirely their own. Singer Fox Rodemich’s voice carries you along in an upswell of confidence and rhythmic tenacity that still conveys their feeling that there is some trouble waiting out there. And you’d best meet it head-on.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.