Music Reviews: Stereolab, Old 97’s, Cloud Nothings

4 new albums you’ll love this month, including which specific tracks to listen to.

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Need a new play list? These four tracks should be in heavy rotation. Plus: Liner notes, band pairings, and behind the music scuttlebutt.

Cloud Nothings' Turning On

TRACK 1

“Can’t Stay Awake”

from Cloud NothingsTurning On (Carpark)

Liner notes: One-man band Dylan Baldi unleashes a swarm of fuzzy guitars, lurching beats, and incomprehensible lyrics on this instant classic, recalling the murky exuberance of early R.E.M.

Behind the music: Employing a computer and a cheap microphone, this Cleveland teenager started recording songs in his parents’ basement in late 2009, quickly becoming a favorite among music bloggers. This fizzy set collects those low-fi gems, some originally available only on vinyl or cassette. A proper album is currently in the works.

Check it out if you like: Vivian Girls, Crocodiles, and early Wavves, all experts at balancing pop smarts and raw noise.

Old 97's The Grand Theatre Volume One

TRACK 5

“The Dance Class”

from Old 97’s The Grand Theatre Volume One (New West)

Liner notes: Powered by a twangy high-octane groove, Old 97’s front man Rhett Miller purrs, “I am in love with whoever you are,” displaying his gift for creating unsettling, even creepy, characters in this portrait of a lonely voyeur.

Behind the music: The Grand Theatre is the eighth studio album for the genre-stretching alt-country quartet, which launched in Dallas in the early ’90s. It also includes the bracing “Champaign, Illinois,” a Bob Dylan-sanctioned rewrite of his classic “Desolation Row.”

Check it out if you like: Neko Case and Ryan Adams (for the sound); Randy Newman or Eminem (for unreliable narrators).

Syl Johnson Is It Because I'm Black

DISC 3, TRACK 13

“Is It Because I’m Black”

from Syl Johnson‘s Complete Mythology (Numero Group)

Liner notes: “Something is holding me back/Is it because I’m black?” croons Johnson on this gloomy 1969 ballad. Recorded after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it was a startling departure from the R&B cult hero’s raucous party fare, such as “Dresses Too Short.”

Behind the music: This underrated Mississippi-born shouter first enjoyed success on Chicago’s tiny Twinight Records, as chronicled on this terrific four-disc, 81-track set (spanning 1959 to 1977). The collection also includes Johnson’s efforts on the even more obscure Zachron and Cha Cha labels. Unfortunately not included: his ’70s recordings for Memphis’ Hi Records, where Al Green scored his landmark hits.

Check it out if you like: Sam & Dave, Jackie Wilson, and other soul greats who never lost their gospel edge.

Stereolab's So Is Cardboard Clouds

TRACK 3

“So Is Cardboard Clouds”

from Stereolab‘s Not Music (Drag City)

Liner notes: This addictive song from Stereolab’s 12th (and perhaps final) studio album epitomizes the band’s enthralling retro-futurism, fusing analog synths, dreamy melodies, and Laetitia Sadier‘s serene yet hard-to-decipher vocals.

Behind the music: Founded by French-born Sadier and British guitarist Tim Gane in 1990, Stereolab is now on hiatus, with no return scheduled. Sadier, who recently released a solo record dealing with her sister’s suicide, has also appeared on albums by Blur, Sigmatropic, and Mouse on Mars.

Check it out if you like: Lounge pop (Esquivel), Krautrock (Kraftwerk), or California sunshine (Beach Boys).

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