By Gregg Shapiro
It’s a big responsibility, being the openly queer front-person of a band on the level of R.E.M., but Michael Stipe has handled it with grace and humor (at least since officially coming out as a gay man earlier this year). And it is with grace, humor, concern, and renewed rocking energy that the trio version of R.E.M. returns with Accelerate (Warner Brothers). A suitable name for an album if there ever was one, these songs literally blast off, beginning with “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” a blazing number whose title is properly credited to English clergyman and metaphysical poet George Herbert. After the band sets a new land speed record, things slow up a tad, but don’t settle down, on “Man-Sized Wreath.” Is this a fierce anti-war rant or slap in the face of homophobia? If it’s the latter, then the equally liberating queer tone of “Supernatural Superserious” is the ideal follow-up. Of course, these are politically charged times, and R.E.M. doesn’t shy away from the subject on tunes that include the unplugged “Houston” and “Until the Day Is Done,” and the blistering “Horse to Water” and the slamming “I’m Gonna DJ.”
It must be the year for returning to form. Gay brother duo the Aluminum Group certainly do so on Little Happyness (Minty Fresh). Not only has the pair returned to the label that released their acclaimed Plano and Pedals albums all those years ago, but the brothers Navin also revisit the ’60s-inspired pop style of their early discs. That’s not to say that they have sacrificed the synth explorations of their later releases. Instead, they have found a way for the styles to coexist or commingle. It’s there, crisp and clear, on “Milligram of Happiness,” the delicious “Post It,” the cruel “Beautiful Eyes,” the flawless “Headphones,” the darkly sexy “Paper Crowns (Runaway Bride),” the artificially loping “Note to Self” (which echoes the self-awareness of “Milligram of Happiness,” which contains the line “I was thinking to myself/I said ‘Self you’ve got to work it out’”), and the hypnotically queer “Think of the Boy.”
Co-led by out vocalist Holly Miranda, the Jealous Girlfriends pursue an accessible modern pop sound on their new self-titled disc (Good Fences). “How Now” is the kind of song that conjures images of a good-natured crowd bumping into each other at the foot of a stage during a live set. “The Pink Wig to My Salieri” is as musically bizarre as its title suggests, and “Something in the Water” has the potential to find a lot of listeners working up a thirst while dancing. The Jealous Girlfriends also have a way with delivering beautifully bent cuts such as “I Quit,” “Organs on the Kitchen Floor,” and “Carry Me.”
That’s out musician Jenn Alva providing the bass-line spine and backing vocals for the songs on Both Before I’m Gone (Blackheart) by San Antonio-based female trio Girl in a Coma, which will join Cyndi Lauper on selected dates for her True Colors tour this month (though probably not in Houston on June 21). Lead vocalist Nina is at times reminiscent of Kristin Hersh in her Throwing Muses period, as on “Clumsy Sky,” “Their Cell,” and “The Photographer.” Other noteworthy tracks include “Road to Home,” “Sybil Vane Was Ill,” “In the Background,” and “Celibate Now.”
On the other end of the spectrum, lesbian duo Renminbi takes its nearly wordless rock jams seriously on The Phoenix (renminbi.com). The droning quality of the first few tunes can be wearing on a listener, but if you stick it out until “Lachine,” a shift for the better occurs, with the introduction of some variety. That spirit continues on “Caveat” and “Siren.”
Without entirely abandoning the jammy roots that have been so good to them over the years, The Locals also kick out the jams on their new album, Big Picture (localsrock.com). The soaking rock of “Tidal Wave” crashes repeatedly on the shore, and “Sign of Things to Come” rocks out in unpredictable ways, as does the album closer, “Psychic Night at the Big Boy.” Longtime followers will be pleased by the title tune, “Seems So,” “Say You’ll Go,” and especially “Bending in the Wind.”
Finally, self-described gay virgin Bradford Cox, of the Deerhunter, expands his (musical) horizons with his side project Atlas Sound and the album Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (Kranky). A shimmering dream of an audio map, the disc is alternately a haunting experiment (see “Winter Vacation”) and an admirably accessible, if twisted, set of modern pop tunes, as in the case of “River Card” and “Ativan.”
Next month in OutSmart : In his annual Pride music series, Gregg Shapiro makes more recommendations.
Once again, music expert JD Doyle salutes Pride with a special program of music by GLBT performers for his monthly Queer Music Heritage segment, which airs during Queer Voices, the KPFT radio show. Doyle, who recently wrote about the milestone 100th episode of his award-winning series for this magazine (“Listen Up!” January 2008 OutSmart ), airs his annual Pride episode on Monday, June 23, 9 p.m., on KPFT 90.1 FM. Doyle then posts episodes on his website, www.queermusicheritage.us.