Inara George and Van Dyke Parks | An Invitation| Everloving

It takes a few weeks of constant listening to An Invitation, the lifetime-in-the-making collaboration between The Bird and the Bee singer Inara George and composer-arranger Van Dyke Parks, before the “symphonic fantasy” they have created fully blossoms. The pair, who met mere days after George was born (Parks was friends with her late father, singer Lowell George), seemed destined to do something together, and this first collaboration has resulted in an oddly beautiful, timeless piece — but one that’s not without its difficulties.

Parks has always spoken his own language (among dozens of other highlights, he has collaborated with Joanna Newsom on her richly rewarding Ys, and has arranged, most famously, for the Beach Boys), but on An Invitation, that accent is pretty thick. He crafts each phrase with a harmonic complexity that’s tough to digest on first — or second, or, for that matter, third — listen. Which is to say, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the orchestra back there, and Parks doesn’t spoon-feed it to us. Each chunk of string melody, muted trumpet burst or tango-esque accordion run seems to exist as its own miniature piece. Some songs, like “Right as Wrong,” feel structured as a vast panoply of these bits, like a fleet of snowglobes scattered on a marble table. There are so many of them there, each with its own mini vista, but they’re in no easily discernible order. Sometimes, as well, these pieces are a tad precious, too Anglo-Victorian, too fancy for their own good (Parks doesn’t seem to have a dissonant bone in his body), but when he arranges them with some sort of obvious logic, they’re more easily appreciated. To mix metaphors, it’s almost as though Parks has written a beautiful Getrude Stein–esque Dada poem — in Latin.

It’s George’s responsibility to conjure vocal patterns and lyrics to support Parks’ occasional aimlessness, though she doesn’t have the strongest voice, and seems unwilling (or unable) to wander too high in the register. But then, George has never been a hot dog, preferring to deliver her lines with smart, curlicue phrasing to gymnastic-melismatic runs. At the pair’s best, as on “Duet,” the contrast between his Victorian flourish and her streamlined Shaker lines becomes a strength, and magically binds orchestra and voice. Sometimes, though, as on “Family Tree,” Parks’ arrangements call for vocal runs that George can’t deliver. I’d love to hear Streisand tackle that song — “I could be/your baby tree/I want to settle down.” Mostly, George makes them work. She is, after all, the center of these songs, and therefore rides the confidence of ownership. It’s the sort of ownership that might be difficult to transfer to fans, though, at least those reliant on a 4/4 beat and typical A-A-B-A pop-song structure. Whether it’s worth the effort depends on how willing you are in this day and age to sweat for your musical sustenance. Soulja Boy, anyone?

—Randall Roberts

Darker My Love |2|Dangerbird

I really want to like Darker My Love. All the ingredients are there: L.A. band with a cool name making substantive rock music in an age of Young Turks who think skronked-out six-minute feedback loops are the shit. But the music industry vets who comprise DML’s lineup (members have played with the Nerve Agents, the Distillers and the Fall) seem content to rely on a few too many tired clichés only occasionally lit by flashes of inspiration. Equal parts classic rock and shoegazer band, Darker’s second full-length sounds at times like Jane’s Addiction channeling My Bloody Valentine. The guitars are sludgy and thick, dripping with sticky, distorted power chords. But the screeching solos floating above are often tricked out with wah-wah pedals, infusing the songs with druggy, ’70s psychedelia. Tim Presley and Rob Barbato’s dueling vocals wind around each other in hushed figure eights, incongruously jutting the band’s dark(er) atmosphere up against sunny California pop conventions. If this sounds like a disconnect, DML try to make it work, proof being the dreamy, ethereally swinging “White Composition.” The band is definitely not afraid to jam. Both the ambient buildup of “Add One to the Other One” and the stoner riffing of “All the Hurry and Wait” showcase musicians intent on creating atmosphere through steady layering of sounds and ideas. It’s a cohesive album, yes, with some solid melodic moments. It simply lacks freshness and ingenuity.

—Jonah Flicker

Hawthorne Heights |Fragile Future| Victory Records

Without a stand-apart shtick like, say, My Chemical Romance, Ohio’s Hawthorne Heights became unlikely emo heroes when their 2004 debut album, The Silence In Black and White (eventually) went platinum at a time when rock records just weren’t. Follow-up If Only You Were Lonely shifted swiftly, too. Then guitarist Casey Calvert died on their tour bus last November. It’s admirable that HH made a third album at all, and that they didn’t replace their departed friend, but Fragile Future is an overdressed, stylistically insecure affair. Groping for the punctuating energy of Calvert’s signature screams while trying to tart up their now dated formula of earnestly-tossed guitars and mall-odramatic vocals, they sonically squirm like dogs in a sack: gang choruses, gargantuan stadium drums. “Strawberry Fields Forever” Mellotron and vocoderized backups simply don’t make these workmanlike anthems wonderful. Hawthorne Heights remain tuneful and epic, their genre-requisite optimism now understandably sepia-tinted, but Fragile Future is a scribbly statement numbed by vocalist JT Woodruff’s pull-yourself-together yap.

—Paul Rogers

The Starlite Desperation |Take It Personally| Infrasonic

Los Angeles trio the Starlite Desperation have accumulated a laundry list of career variations, including: label changes — GSL, Flapping Jet, Cold Sweat, Capitol; locale changes — San Francisco, Detroit, Los Angeles; band-name transformations — Starlite Desperation, Lost Kids, Spirit Army; and a lead singer whose own moniker changes just as frequently — Dante White, Dante Aliano, Dante Adrian, Dante Adrian White. But their music is consistently recognizable, mainly due to Adrian’s delicate and sophisticated vocals, which contrast and cut through Jeff Ehrenberg’s garage-punk drumming. The high timbre and loose, experimental feel of Take It Personally, their fourth, is most reminiscent of Starlite’s first album, 2001’s Show You What a Baby Won’t. Both have an on-edge intensity and reach their greatest potential with the simpler pop tracks. New songs “Spirit Army,” “My Favorite Place” and “I Love This!” accomplish much while remaining deceptively simple, invoking feelings of “Sweet Cherry Wine”–era Tommy James in Starlite’s capacity to deliver catchy, dynamic songs by working and reworking accessible pop formulas — and then throwing in a little unexpected texture to shake those formulas up. Take It Personally is a showcase for what Starlite Desperation do best — writing great garage/pop tunes that stick in your head for days and days and days.

—Rena Kosnett

LA Weekly