Some of Summer 2019’s Best, Worst, and Middling Albums

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“Social Cues”- Cage The Elephant

Cage the Elephant’s latest effort is frustratingly close to being great. “Social Cues” mostly underwhelms and sometimes confuses, but has moments of pure excitement and satisfaction. “Night Running” begins with a jarring feature from a half-rapping Beck, but when the entire band enters during the chorus and Matt Shultz takes the mic, the pieces are slammed into place. It’s 25 seconds of attitude and groove before the second verse kills all the excitement again. This is how the majority of the records feels. “House of Glass” is the first time the group has had edge in years. It’s claustrophobic, sonically and lyrically, and the record’s darkest track by far. They sound like a band at the top of their game that’s angry and hungry to dominate the genre again. Then, it’s followed by “Love’s the Only Way,” a lackluster, boring acoustic cut. Dynamics are important in music, of course, but when one is substantially more enjoyable, it harms the experience.  Glimmers of what makes Cage the Elephant one of indie rock’s best bands can be found, but it takes too much patience than necessary to hear them.

Favorite Tracks: “Broken Boy” and “House of Glass”

“King’s Mouth: Music and Songs”- The Flaming Lips 

The Flaming Lips have always been psychedelic rock’s lovable weirdos, but they have really outdone themselves. “King’s Mouth” is a concept album with a story so absurd it’s wonderful. From what I’ve been able to gather, the record follows an extraterrestrial city that’s home to a giant baby, who grows up to be the city’s giant king. The king dies, and his citizens sever his head to use as a healing temple of sorts. Despite Mick Jones’ Gorillaz-esque narrations, I still don’t completely understand what’s happening, even after six listens. Story aside, the music itself is great. It’s just more of the group’s colorful and experimental psychedelia, but listening to it back-to-back with past Lips albums, I can’t help but feel it could’ve used some more time in the oven. With the exception of “All For the Life of the City,” the songs don’t feel completely finished. Most of them just sound like extended interludes. It couldn’t have been another “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1” or “The Terror,” but with some more polish, “King’s Mouth” could’ve stood alongside some of the group’s better projects of late. 

Favorite Track: “All For the Life of the City”

“Let’s Rock”- The Black Keys

When the Black Keys announced their first new album in five years and released “Lo/Hi,” things were looking up for the group after the release of 2014’s underwhelming disappointing “Turn Blue.” “Lo/Hi” is an energetic, catchy and most importantly a fun single. The accompanying record, “Let’s Rock,” is not that. The record isn’t awful, but the band just sounds tired. The guitars can be really fuzzy and nasty but they aren’t even close to being as impactful as past songs like “Thickfreakness” and “Little Black Submarines.” Pat Carney’s excellent drum performance is barely even noticeable most of the time, which is very disappointing. “Let’s Rock” has a couple good songs, but other than that, the album is just decent and doesn’t really warrant repeated listens.     

Favorite Tracks: “Lo/Hi” and “Fire Walk With Me”

“Purple Mountains”- Purple Mountains

In early August, the indie rock and poetry community grieved the loss of Silver Jews frontman David Berman. Just a month before, Berman released his final album, “Purple Mountains,” as part of a project of the same name. It’s been 11 years since his last musical effort with the Silver Jews, but his songwriting skills seem to have only gotten sharper during his time away. Berman’s mostly upbeat instrumentals are contradicted by the year’s most dour lyrics. His lyricism is despondent in the most mature way, somehow oozing both beauty and warmth. A personal favorite is this passage from “All My Happiness is Gone”: “Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old/ And keeping them is harder than you might suppose/ Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go/ Some of them were once people I was happy to know.” “Purple Mountains” is an excellent reflection on aging, sentimentality, and death without sounding sappy or corny. It’s rare, but always refreshing to get an album so emotionally potent.

Favorite Tracks: “All My Happiness is Gone,” “Margaritas at the Mall” and “Nights That Won’t Happen”

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