If you love familiar-sounding indie rock made by white men in their 40s, this may have been the greatest March of your certainly-not-young life.
In the past month, three veteran bands released three quality albums. None underwent a drastic overhaul. But each found new wrinkles in an old sound, modifications that sometimes felt less like minor tweaks than new musical discoveries.
Grandaddy – Last Place
Divorce has seemingly sent Jason Lytle (just turned 48 Sunday) seeking the familiar malaise of his youth. On the first Granddaddy album since 2006, wheezing synths and wending guitars once again evoke a dystopia that’s always been more “George Saunders Presents Wall-E” than “A Very Special Radiohead Episode of Black Mirror.” Lytle’s sullen yearning remains ideal for sadsack cris de coeur like “I just moved here and I don’t wanna live here anymore” and “That’s what you get for gettin’ out of bed.” He moons with the unhearable despair of a shlub locked in a Home Depot overnight, his choruses leaping up with the relieved exultation that strikes when you find the right USB in that tangle of cords you keep in your desk drawer. And of course his busted marriage is “A Lost Machine” – in a world of humans augmented with wearable tech, Lytle’s forever a rickety droid mis-wired to recognize his own mortality. On “The Boat is in the Barn,” he stumbles across his ex engrossed in her phone: “Getting rid of me is what I figured/ Delete deleting everything that had occurred.” It’s an indelible image of the kind of solitary female self-absorption that’s always freaked out insecure men – and she probably isn’t even thinking about you, dude.
The Shins – Heartworms
James Mercer (46) leads off the fifth Shins album with a fab feminist anthem for his daughters, “Name for You,” its verses wobbling like a 45 rpm single of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” that has an off-center spindle hole. Mercer’s always been one of those impatient whizzes who stumbles across melodies so easily he can’t help but mangle them into expert convolutions to amuse himself, and there are times here he insists on yelping tunefully over a free-range synthesizer whoosh. But “Mildenhall,” a shuffling tune named for the military base where his dad was stationed when Mercer was a teen, is as matter-of-fact an adolescent reminiscence as you could ask, too reportorial for nostalgia even when Mercer bravely risks “this song will change your life” jokes by recounting how a friend passed him a Jesus and Mary Chain cassette during class. “And that’s how/ We get to where we are now,” the song concludes; “So Now What,” about the floor-drop of a midlife crisis, picks up the plot from there, and “The Fear” takes us out on a rumination on anxiety that sounds a little something like an acceptance of uncertainty.
Spoon – Hot Thoughts
For nine albums now, Britt Daniel (45) has projected a manliness as self-assured and opaque as his band’s arrangements are tense and coiled -- if Daniel let the mask slip for an instant or drummer Jim Eno landed a stray beat out of the pocket the whole shebang might explode, sending springs and cogs and sprockets shooting off in all directions. “Hot Thoughts” is a mini-symphony of feigned sexual obsession designed to agitate the genuine article in some desirable other, its down escalator of a beat surrounded by guitar slashes and electronic gewgaws that sound as garish as neon signs look. On the other sexy number here, “Do I Have to Talk You Into It?,” Daniel asks “Do we have to make sense of it?” -- a question that could sum up his lyrical approach. He’d rather bear down intensely on phrases so memorable you won’t bother to ask what they mean while a groove that’s mutated over the years without losing its core identity (this band sure loves descending basslines) conveys you into a funhouse of intricately instigated sensation.