Hot on the Box: Man Man, The Duke Spirit, Peter Moren, Frightened Rabbit

Good stuff all around:

Man Man-Rabbit Habits
For as long as they make music, Man Man will never be able to escape the Tom Waits/Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart comparisons that have dogged them since their inception. Not that you can blame the critics for making the comparisons; Waits’ Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones, in particular, are obvious touchstones for Man Man’s demented, delirious brand of theatrical funhouse rock. But give them more credit than that; behind their rowdy, rambunctious three-ring-circus there has always lurked a strong sense of songcraft and lyricism. Their last album wore its lovelorn confessions on its sleeve, and their ANTI- debut, Rabbit Habits, is the most ambitious thing they’ve ever done-a surreal musical carnival in which the anarchic music mirrors the absurdism and increasingly nihilistic streak running through the band’s songs. “She don’t believe in a God of mercy,” sings ringleader Honus Honus of one character; and later: “There ain’t no God here.” It’s a bizarre-and bizarrely moving-document of the madness of the times in which we leave. And, in true Man Man style, it’s also a party record.

The Duke Spirit-Neptune
Liela Moss might just be one of the cockiest, sexiest, and most assured rock and roll frontwomen since Chrissie Hyde, and her band, The Duke Spirit, rocks with the same kind of vengeful attitude and nasty edge that The Pretenders exhibited on their debut, and lost shortly thereafter. Hopefully, The Duke Spirit will stay on their game a bit longer than that, because their second full-length, the nautically-themed Neptune, is an irresistible set of visceral, hard-hitting rock, punk attitude, sharp songwriting, and the kind of musical left turns generally reserved for White Stripes albums. Neptune is filled with frantic, crackling garage rock, but Moss and Co. spice things up with some piano-driven Motown pop, breakneck punk, Sonic Youth-style noise, and some disarmingly pretty ballads. It’s an album of careening energy and piledriving momentum, and it’s all delivered with the confidence of a much older band. Sure, it might be a bit too polished at times, but that’s a minor quibble with an album that packs plenty of punch and is over way too fast.

Peter Moren-The Last Tycoon
Peter Moren is one third of the pop trio Peter, Bjorn and John-he’s the one who sounds a little bit like a Scandinavian John Lennon, and he’s also the first of the troupe to unveil his work as a solo performer. And in many ways, his first album, The Last Tycoon, is exactly what you’d expect from a PJ&B solo album-it’s got the same smart pop hooks that Moren and his bandmates are known for, but it’s a simpler, sparser, and more reflective affair, with the emphasis on the lyrics as much as on the melodies. There’s a literary twist here-Moren envisions this song cycle as a loose retelling of the F. Scott Fisgerald novel that gives it its name-but don’t let that distract you, because while this isn’t an album that grabs you immediately (it’s not nearly as upbeat or as polished as PJ&B’s work tends to be), it is an album of small, simple delights that gradually reveals itself to be a smart, sophisticated, and thoroughly enjoyable singer-songwriter album. Moren’s melodies are endearing, and his lyrics touch on matters of the heart with wit and wisdom. And while the foundation of the record is Moren’s acoustic guitar performances, there are enough sonic twists and instrumental flourishes to give it variety and character, and prevent the songs from sounding similar. It’s a warm, heartfelt affair, and that alone makes it a record you’ll want to revisit more than once.

Frightened Rabbit-Midnight Organ Fight
This band of Scotsmen could give The Frames a run for their money with their flare for drama and their love for the grandiose; in fact, the ruckus they create reaches such a feverish catharsis that they come pretty close to belonging on the same level as Arcade Fire. Comparisons and the wretched band name aside, Frightened Rabbit has made the heart-on-sleeve indie rock record to beat in 2008. They have in singer Scott Hutchinson a singer more soulful than most in indie rock, with a thick Scottish brogue and songwriting that mixes disarming vulnerability with startling moments of violence. As for the band, they’ve mastered the soaring euphoria of U2-style anthems, but they also prove adept as folksy ballads; such is their intensity and the edge of Hutchinson’s songwriting that their quieter, acoustic moments seem to bristle with about as much energy and emotion as their rockers. They stir up such a soul-shaking, barn-burning noise that it’s hard to believe they’re just a trio.

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