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Five modern-rock releases you need to hear, from The Muffs to Rhett Miller

Elevate your modern-rock mood with releases from The Muffs, doubleVee, Imaad Wasif, Sleepyhead and Rhett Miller

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By Peter Lindblad

Elevate your mood with Omnivore Recordings’ exquisite re-release of The Muffs’ Really Really Happy, join with Imaad Wasif in saying So Long Mr. Fear, have a bag of Starlight Mints-style psych-pop with doubleVee, rediscover Sleepyhead and hang around with The Misfit that is the Old 97s’ Rhett Miller in this month’s batch of modern-rock reviews.

  

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The Muffs – Really Really Happy (Omnivore Recordings)

It felt as if The Muffs were starting over. Left to fend for themselves, the scrappy power-pop trio was suddenly bereft of management and a record label to call home. They were at a crossroads, but the Muffs didn’t make a deal with the devil to stay together, choosing instead to take stock and rest up so they could come out swinging out with Really Really Happy.

That is, except for the industrious Kim Shattuck – sadly, now deceased after fighting ALS. In the concise, yet illuminating, liner notes accompanying Omnivore’s smartly packaged reissue of the 2004 album, drummer Roy McDonald writes that Shattuck “… formed another band, recorded an album, quit drinking, began writing commercial jingles, met the love of her life, and got married!” As luck would have it, The Muffs would also land with Five Foot Two Records, a label owned by the Go-Gos’ Charlotte Caffey and That Dog’s Anna Waronker. They’d found safe harbor … and freedom.

Suddenly, all was right with the world, with Shattuck recording Really Really Happy in the kitchen of the apartment where she lived with husband, Kevin Sutherland. The Muffs had an aversion to the studio by this point. In retrospect, the joyful, scratch-and-dent noise of Really Really Happy seems an off-the-cuff product of its jerry-rigged DIY assembly line. Almost giddy with excitement, yet always grounded and real, Really Really Happy revs up with the blistering punk of “By My Side” and “Oh Poor You,” finds pop bliss in “The Story of Me,” “How I Pass the Time” and “A Little Luxury,” and bounces wildly on the pogoing romp “Don’t Pick on Me.”

As sarcastic and sassy as ever, Shattuck turns vulnerable in the unvarnished “My Awful Dream,” a soul-baring, gently spun acoustic ballad that’s forthright and sincere about its fears. It’s not the only slow song on Really Really Happy, as the threadbare “Fancy Girl” sashays through a thrift store of harmonica, a softly chugging riff, tambourine, and plain-woven, yet sparkling, harmonies and “And I Go Pow” roughly swaggers into a comfortable, ambling groove.

Mostly though, the album snaps, crackles, and pops, with lively, infectious hit-and-runs “Freak Out,” “My Lucky Day” and “I’m Here, I’m Not” speeding away. Her guitar snarling at passersby and that familiar raspy croon of hers laced with arsenic, Shattuck gets more bees with honeyed hooks and melodies on the boisterous and slightly ragged Really Really Happy, but they can still sting. And that disc of feral demos included here, lovingly curated, reveals that even in their rawest form, these songs have an impossible-to-ignore immediacy, and that Shattuck was willing to tinker with tempos, rhythms, and chord changes. They’re coated in a layer of ‘60s garage-y mange that adds grit and a dogged tenacity to the title track and the rest, including “Something Inside.” This is something to be Really Really Happy about.

Grade: B+

  

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Imaad Wasif – So Long Mr. Fear (Sonic Ritual)

Cloistered inside the atmospheric So Long Mr. Fear, a quiet monastery of enthralling indie-folk intimacy, Imaad Wasif has the place to himself. Its droning corridors lined with soft reverb, maps of Wasif’s labyrinthine acoustic guitar figures on its walls, his sixth solo album is a deeply introspective and poetic study of subconscious anxiety, obsession, and dread. And yet, even in solitary confinement, Wasif never succumbs to hopeless resignation, never admits defeat.

He could be forgiven for doing so, the pandemic having left so many despondent and dispirited, but in “I Am Free,” the sun peaks out, as Wasif – a touring guitarist for the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and former lieutenant in Lou Barlow’s Folk Implosion side project – declares, “If the darkness sinks in, I won’t let it take hold.” A thin thread of shape-shifting electrified distortion floats over a steady gait of careful, starkly melodic plucking, as Wasif wards off black thoughts with pristine vocals. Catharsis also awaits in the title track, with its downy buoyancy and soaring chorus bringing the insular So Long Mr. Fear as close to wintry pop nirvana as possible, although the wondrously lush closer “Jealous Kind” seems to know the way.

Exposed, yet unafraid, Wasif is “… waiting for the beast to transform” in the gently surging, dreamy transcendence of “Fader,” accompanied by Jen Wood’s tender cooing while clinging to life and love in a baptismal swirl of piano and keyboards. Walking hand in hand with a ghostly Karen O – reborn here as Nico apparently – as allies in the haunting, apocalyptic “Poet of the Damned,” Wasif holds the keys to the “Doomsday Machine” and assesses his own destruction, then emerges from a bunker to a new day. What the state of the world is in its aftermath is unclear.

In a sense, Wood and Karen O appear like imaginary friends, as does producer/musician Bobb Bruno – all contributing from a distance, with Best Coast’s Bruno adding bass, drums, and synthesizer. And then there’s Evan Haros and his blooms of morphing sitar copper bringing exotic mystery to “Regeneration” and “Elemental.” Maybe Wasif isn’t so alone after all.

Grade: A-

  

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doubleVee – Treat Her Strangely (Self-released)

Before closing in 2009, quality assurance at the Starlight Mints’ psychedelic ear candy factory was unimpeachable, their orchestral indie-pop whimsy, bright energy and fizzy melodic sugar rushes lighting up four carnivalesque studio recordings and an entertaining live effort. Allan Vest, the Mints’ principal songwriter, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist, reopened the plant under the name doubleVee with wife Barbara.

Production is humming right along, as the sublime Treat Her Strangely tags along playfully after doubleVee’s surreal 2017 debut concept album The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider, with guest musicians Christi Wans (trumpet, piccolo trumpet), Kevin Webb (trombone) and Brent Williams (viola, violin) coloring inside the lines of wondrously inventive arrangements. The rich, imaginative diversity of doubleVee’s fantastical ecosystem – a haven for timeless songwriting – rivals that of the Mints, making for compelling and wondrous theater.

Or maybe Treat Her Strangely is more of a festival, where every ride is meant to be taken again and again. Where the summery flutter and insistent buzz of a curio like “Matador Bell” visit a verdant park in Robyn Hitchcock’s head and the stomping euphoria and sweet carbonation of “No More Nickels and Dimes” paddle divergent streams of strings, while referencing Hawkwind. Where “The Middle Side of Me” embarks on acoustic strum and fragile piano before falling into a symphonic swirl, as does the dreamy “Walk Away,” seduced by otherworldly vocal harmonies. Ghost towns of western noir and romantic innocence are slowly constructed in “We’ll Meet Again” and “Your Love Is It Real?” Meanwhile, upbeat ‘60s pop gets a beatific makeover in “The Fever is You” and its lush warmth, its overflowing bounty of lovely, charming hooks. Treat doubleVee right. The rewards are many.

Grade: A-

  

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Rhett Miller – The Misfit (ATO Records)

Even without access to the Hubble telescope, Rhett Miller’s amateur astronomy lesson from the indie-pop zephyr “Follow You Home” rings true, as he declares, “The universe is all we have, and the stars aren’t half bad.” Staring at the night sky with Miller is comforting, as light, crestfallen hooks blow by on gossamer strumming and airy backing vocals, getting snagged on a little knot of repetitious piano supplication. If his innocence was lost, it’s been found.

The sweet, life-affirming wonder of “Follow You Home” – singers Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero along for the ride with the top down, their lovely harmonies blowing in the wind – recalls the Traveling Wilburys’ effortless grace and charm, while a similarly cast “Go Through You” sighs in a fully realized Pet Soundsdaydream. Miller’s gone exploring again on The Misfit.

Feeling restless, the leading man for alt.-country kingpins the Old 97s grows more and more sophisticated with his songwriting, arrangements, and storytelling with age, as “Fascination” and “Just When it Gets Good” swan dive in waterfalls of engrossing psychedelic excess and “Already There” and “The White Tops” go to bittersweet, dream-pop heaven. Only traces of his twangy roots are found on Miller’s ninth studio album, and first solo effort in four years, with the electro-pop rush of opener “Heart Attack Days,” the reverb soaked, organ-powered soul ballad “You’ll Be Glad” and the sweeping, slow-building orchestral pop glory of “Beautiful Life” pulling him in different directions. If occasionally sluggish, The Misfit is mostly pure ecstasy. Who cares if it doesn’t fit in.

Grade: B+

  

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Sleepyhead – New Alchemy (Self-released)

New Alchemy is the same old Sleepyhead, idealistic and genial, its bushelful of ripe pop hooks and melodies bursting with all the sweetness of New England blueberries. As spirited and big-hearted as Buffalo Tom’s faded glory, with the wistful jangle of The Lemonheads and Julianna Hatfield, the ‘90s indie-rock underdogs’ delightful sixth album is named after a 1970s utopian experiment conducted in guitarist/vocalist Chris O’Rourke’s Massachusetts home of Falmouth. It encouraged sustainability and communal living. Sleepyhead practices what it preached.

Decades removed from their humble beginnings in an NYU college dorm basement, where O’Rourke, drummer/vocalist Rachel McNally, and bassist Mike Galinsky first threw in their lot together, Sleepyhead has matured gracefully. O’Rourke and Rachel got married, Galinsky became a filmmaker and Derek van Beever eventually settled in as a handyman, handling vocals, keyboards, and bass duties, the band having surfed couches with revered record labels such as Homestead and Slumberland and shared stages with the likes of Yo La Tengo, Helium, The Dambuilders and Luna.

They still haven’t had enough of silly love songs, as the swoon and rush of an upbeat “Pam and Eddie” and the sparkly, easygoing swing of “Molly-Joe” – both cooled by breezy harmonies – find themselves in the strummed throes of young romance, as does the fetching “Without U.” Relationships are work, though, and Sleepyhead navigates adulthood’s rough waters with the light, swaying ballad “Renovation Blues” restoring a crumbling foundation, a swaggering, slightly twangy “Good Goodbye” fumbling to bandage open wounds and a plea for a reconciliation smacking of desperation in an earnest, surging “Can You Leave the Light On?”

While the yearning “Some” grabs for a little bit of happiness, a plaintive “Fort Misery” and the lighthearted, rich character study “Tony the Drunk Is a Thief” are staggering, countrified sweeps and waltzes, respectively, that travel well via evocative storytelling. New Alchemy cheers up with the engaging, quixotic title track, a catchy nugget of pop perfection that envisions a better world, if only it would embrace the song’s high-minded principles. Sleepyhead can dream, can’t they?

Go to Sleepyhead's Facebook page for more info.

Grade: B+