Of the four new albums here, two feature a modern-rock journeyman in exuberant form and back to work, against extraordinary odds. Another affirms the full-strength return of a great American band, 30 years after they broke up. And they are all rich in the exhilarating — and healing — chime of electric guitars.
There are comebacks in rock & roll, even resurrections. Then there is Scott McCaughey. In November 2017, the singer-guitarist-songwriter of the Minus 5 suffered a near-fatal stroke on the road, erasing a life of songs with his many bands including the Young Fresh Fellows, the Baseball Project and R.E.M. where he was a touring and studio sideman for 17 years. The Minus 5’s new album, Stroke Manor (Yep Roc), is a crisply melodic, jubilantly played account of how McCaughey fought to regain his powers of speech and pop with good friends-in-need such as R.E.M. guitarist and Minus 5 sidekick Peter Buck, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and the Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee. The pop came back fast (the punch and jump of “Well In Fact She Said”). So did the humor (“Bleach Boys and Beach Girls,” a seaside-garage homage to the Beach Boys). The free-associative lyrics read like Beefheart in a blender, but there is poignant, underlying logic: “Beatles Forever (Little Red),” a psychedelic waltz in the manner of the ’66 Byrds, is a thank-you to the Beatles playlist, compiled by Buck, that helped jar McCaughey’s musical recall. And when he sings “We want complete what must be missing” in the fuzz-lined gem “My Collection,” it is the sound of desperately certain recovery.
McCaughey is back in service to others as well, playing with Buck on Emerald Valley (Kill Rock Stars), their second album with Sleater-Kinney singer Corin Tucker as the topically impassioned Pacific Northwest band Filthy Friends. “Enough, enough, the land has given up,” Tucker sings at the edge of patience against a vintage-R.E.M. tangle of guitars in “The Elliott,” named after an Oregon state forest nearly sold to commercial interests in 2015 and still in endangered limbo. Fracking is on the agenda in “Pipeline”; “Angels” is a direct hit on ICE’s breakup of immigrant families, a sin against innocent children and the nation’s history as refuge. But the music is equal to the issues, a hearty clang that suggests a hard-rock Fairport Convention with the ’77 vocal lightning of Poly Styrene from Britain’s X-Ray Spex at the bow, especially in the well-titled “Last Chance County.”
Also back in action after an absence that seemed all but final: the Dream Syndicate, a central band in the Eighties’ Paisley Underground, who reformed for the stage in 2012 then made it official in the studio on 2017’s How Did I Find Myself Here? The group’s new album, These Times (Anti), retains its original, caustic drive — like Lou Reed running Crazy Horse, grounded again by drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton — while moving forward with more textured force in the percolating-Kraftwerk loop of “Bullet Holes” and the glazed vocal effect in the breakneck “Speedway.” In “Put Some Miles On,” a machine-like pulse runs alongside the song’s straight, hard road and the droning corrosion of Steve Wynn and Jason Victor’s guitars like the keyboard sequence in the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” “You know that I’m the man/Who’s on a mission,” Wynn, who started the band in 1981, sings in the opening track “The Way In” — picking up like he never left off.
Expect the unexpected from Natural Facts (Beyond the Beyond), the second full-length studio album by the New Jersey quartet Garcia Peoples. The quartet’s name draws a straight line back to the perpetual, searching enthusiasm of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. But the tripping in these nine songs comes in four-to-five-minute servings crowded with the bristling exchange and harmonized climb of Danny Arakaki and Tom Malach’s twin-lead guitars. “High Noon Violence” compresses the dreamy, jamming peaks of David Crosby’s 1971 space-out If I Could Only Remember My Name with a taut double-guitar chime descended from Television. “Break Me Down” makes you wonder how the Dead’s American Beauty might have sounded with songs written by the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley. A little more improvising would have brought this album closer to the longer spells Garcia Peoples cast on stage. But in a world where time is tight, Natural Facts is a fine high without a long wait.