Q-Music: The art of rock

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday March 28, 2023
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Q-Music: The art of rock

You know the old adage: don't judge a book by its cover. But what about an album? What happens when the music on the record is as cool as the cover art? That sounds like a win-win situation for everyone.

Since its 2016 debut album, Chicago's Whitney has been making some of the prettiest pop of the 21st century. Kudos to Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek for finding a formula that works, and sticking with it, on Whitney's latest "Spark" (Secretly Canadian).

Nothing groundbreaking or earth-shaking happens over the course of the 12 songs, but that doesn't mean there isn't pleasure to be found, as is the case with the lightly dizzying "Twirl," and the subtle funk of "Real Love," "Memory," and "Never Crossed My Mind," the stirring "Terminal, and the retro-pop vibe of "Heart Will Beat."

Disq takes the loud/quiet/loud concept seriously on "Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet" (Saddle Creek). Did you catch the acronym? There's not really anyplace quiet on the album, although there's plenty of variety to keep listeners' attention from drifting. The first few songs alone — "Civilization Four," "Prize Contest Life," "Cujo Kiddies," and "This Time," bounce all over the musical map. The biggest treats can be found on "Charlie Chimp" and "Hitting A Nail With A BB Gun," featuring female vocalist Raina Bock on lead.

Once you get past the '90s alt bombast of "Gonna Lose," the opening track on "When The Wind Forgets Your Name" (Sub Pop) by Built to Spill you might be surprised to hear the accessible direction taken by some of the songs.

Not necessarily known for its pop chops over the course of its 30 years, Built to Spill maintains its indie rock cred while being willing to take new chances on songs including "Elements," Understood," the slow funk of "Rocksteady," the controlled freak-out of "Never Alright," and the intimate "Alright."

Divino Niño, a Chicago-via-Bogota foursome, focuses more on dance energy on its new album "The Last Spa On Earth" (Winspear) than on previous records. The result is the kind of house party soundtrack with something for almost every dancer in attendance. This includes the rapid-fire reggaeton "Tu Tonto," the slinky beats of "Nos Soltamos," the clubby "Ecstasy," the rap en Español of "Especial," and even a chance to chill out on "I Am Nobody."

As a member of Toad The Wet Sprocket (remember "Walk on the Ocean"), Glen Phillips recorded more than half a dozen albums. As a solo artist, Phillips has released at least 10, with "There Is So Much Here" (Compass) being the most recent.

Backed by a stellar array of guest musicians, including out singer/songwriter Natalia Zuckerman, as well as Dave Depper (of Death Cab For Cutie), and Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek renown), Phillips delivers a strong set of tunes including "I Was A Riot," "Stone Throat," "The Bluest Eye," "Brand New Blue," "The Sound of Drinking," and the gorgeous "Let In Anarchy."

Glen Phillips isn't the only Phillips to have made a splash in the 1990s and then went on to have a respected solo career. Grant-Lee Phillips (no relation) and his band Grant Lee Buffalo made an impression during the '90s (remember "Fuzzy"), and then he went on to be even more prolific as a solo artist, putting out nearly a dozen albums including "All That You Can Dream" (Yep Roc).

A product of the COVID and Trump/post-Trump period, you can hear the ache in Phillips' voice and lyrics. Songs such as "Cruel Trick," "Peace is a Delicate Thing," "Cut to the Ending," "Rats in a Barrel," "My Eyes Have Seen," and the title cut capture the mood of the moment, making it a soundtrack to recent history. Grant-Lee Phillips performs on June 3 at Hopmonk Tavern in Novato. www.hopmonk.com

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