Stranger to Stranger (Concord)
Paul Simon was once called “one of rock’s great lightweights,” though I’d offer “one of lightweight rock’s greats” instead. While Simon has never shown interest in proper rocking, he’s imbued pop songs with short-story richness while keeping them catchy, allowing you to sing along with lines like “the poor boy changes clothes and puts on aftershave to compensate for his ordinary shoes.” No mean feat.
Having actively ignored Simon’s last few albums, turned off by his blithe pillaging of global vernaculars and his infamous treachery against Los Lobos, Stranger to Stranger came as a small shock. Simon’s voice, never born to soar, was apparently built to last. He’s also tentatively engaged, addressing economic inequality on “The Werewolf” and “Wristband.” It’s irksome that Simon leaves the topic hanging, especially given his privileged space beyond both the destructive political economy and any resulting fallout. But he’s mordantly funny, and the clattering grooves thrum with life. Stranger to Stranger is no end-of-career miracle, but it’s no gentle going, and the best of it can stand with Simon’s classics. No mean feat.
Despite joyful lead single “Can’t Get Enough of Myself,” Santigold’s third solo album met with general indifference when it was released in February. Now that it’s blazing outside with the kind of heat that sinks into your body and loosens your muscles, the vibrant palette of 99¢ is worth revisiting.
An industry vet who has also fronted a ska band and collaborated with GZA, Santigold falls between cracks, too weird for standardized R&B radio and too “urban” for modern rock radio. But her disregard of genre conventions is her strength—not that her tunes sound like nothing you’ve ever heard, they just sound like whatever she wants. Eighties new wave is particularly fertile ground, including the ebullient album-closer “Who I Thought You Were” and “Rendezvous Girl,” which burbles like a lost Eurythmics track. (It also features the album’s best vocal; Santigold dances into her upper register, avoiding a monotonous yelpy quality that plagues some tracks, including the plodding “Outside the War.”) The album title may reference the commodification infecting modern society, but throughout 99¢ Santigold demonstrates a deeper, autonomous currency.
The Mild High Club
Skiptracing (Stones Throw)
From the album’s first sounds—a ping-pongy Casiotone bossa nova rhythm track—one might take Skiptracing for jaded hipster dreck. Indeed, the song proceeds through cheesy lounge-jazz guitar chords, a vibraphone, groggy vocals, a stony slide-guitar passage and, yes, cowbell. But Alexander Brettin, the Los Angeles-based musician who records as The Mild High Club, has sophisticated chops and deceptively sincere songcraft, and Skiptracing transcends irony, despite the band name. Despite the cowbell. Despite that another song is called “Kokopelli.”
If there’s a minor issue with Skiptracing, it’s the distraction of a relentless parade of fairly specific reference points: “Between the Sheets,” “Sentimental Lady,” “Just the Two of Us.” There are variations: On one track Brettin peels off a brief, twisted guitar solo, and “Whodunit” is two minutes of crashing percussion and squalling sonics that can only be explained as a palate-cleanser. But mostly, Skiptracing sticks to its hazy, loopy script, so if you like the idea of ’70s lite rock and soft soul blended with Hawaiian Tropic and cough syrup, this might actually be your jam of the summer.