SavagesAlbumCov.jpgSAVAGES: Silence Yourself

Matador, 39 minutes
Rating: 2.5/5

Savages are the “it” indie group of the ... week, I guess, owed in part to their reductive-yet-easily-translatable byline: an all-female Joy Division. That’s not to say their music sounds exactly like that oft-copied group, or that it doesn’t hold some unknown pleasures of its own. But it’s the glaring similarities — the gothic atmosphere, stark colour scheme, “too cool for a photograph” cold stares — that have earned their debut album Silence Yourself the kind of pre-release buzz other bands would pay a fortune for.

Having read a half-dozen fawning write-ups of Savages before hearing their music, I imagined a better album than Silence Yourself. It’s certainly entertaining, with production so smooth it practically glides, and highlights like “Shut Up” and the Sleater-Kinney-esque “Strife“ holding court with the best any modern day post-punk act has to offer. But their routine grows tired; Jehnny Beth’s quivering bark — really, as close to Buddy Holly as Ian Curtis — is captivating the first time one hears it, a bit more insufferable with each listen. When the band can’t find a hook to hang a tune on (“Waiting for a Sign,” “She Will”), their keen sense of atmosphere can’t save them. When they fill up time with aimless interludes (“Dead Nature”) it seems they may have rushed the album to meet an imposed deadline of blog hype.

For Savages there are less obvious comparisons to make — they themselves have cited Siouxsie & the Banshees as a strong influence — but Curtis and Co. keep coming to mind, if only for the way both bands used pungent self-seriousness as a marketing strategy. It felt novel 30 years ago, less so right now.  

HanniAlbumCov.jpgHANNI EL KHATIB: Head in the Dirt
Innovative Leisure, 33 minutes

Rating: 4/5

Without knowing beforehand, you might guess Hanni El Khatib’s second album Head in the Dirt was produced by Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Hanni shares the Keys’ affection for moody blues-rock licks, marching rhythms and tight, economical songwriting.

But even at their darkest, the Keys still sound like two friends having a good time. Hanni’s musical world is darker, less radio-friendly. Even at his most energized (“Family,” “Penny”) he sounds kinda bummed, a bit strung out. This could’ve made for a dreary listen but Hanni has a strong sense of melody that never fails him. A lot of these songs seem to be about the life of a bored urbanite, but are crucially never boring in and of themselves.

At 33 minutes, Head in the Dirt is about the perfect length for a true-blue rock and roll album (with a few genre diversions, like the passably reggae “Nobody Move”). While Black Keys have long since forgotten how to pack their punches with brevity, Hanni still knows. Head in the Dirt is perfectly nasty, brutish and short.

She_Him_cov.jpgSHE & HIM: Volume 3
Merge, 42 minutes
Rating: 3.5/5

Who would’ve thought She & Him would last? The joining of actress Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward (an accomplished songwriter in his own right, who leaves that job up to She) in musical matrimony seemed like a novelty in 2008, a way for She to earn some legitimate artistic cred and He to actually sell records.

But with each passing year, She & Him feels more like serious business, less and less like some dalliance for two otherwise employable people. Across four albums, including A Very She & Him Christmas (2011), they’ve earned as much begrudging critical respect any group that has Zooey Deschanel as its lead singer could ever hope to, cracked pop, folk, and indie charts — all they set out to do and more.

Volume 3 is another fine addition to their catalogue. Deschanel hasn’t improved much as a vocalist, but her writing is stronger now. Her original songs (highlighted with “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” and the shimmering “Shadow of Love”) fit more smoothly with pop covers (Ellie Greenwich’s swinging “Baby,” the Harry Noble-penned standard “Hole Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Blondie’s “Sunday Girl”) than on previous She & Him efforts. With such an ever-growing way with a pen, it’s little wonder She & Him have survived well beyond their awkward stage.

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