05 May 2015

Review Round-up: April 2015

Blur
The Magic Whip


This really could not have gone any better.  Reunion albums are a notoriously dodgy business, and this one, considering the haphazard, piecemeal circumstances of its creation, would seem to warrant particular trepidation.  But Blur have never let us down before, and The Magic Whip, which has all the hallmarks of their best work – it’s bursting with ideas; intriguingly messy and exploratory, but never at the expense of a smart pop hook and groove; full of songs that are emotive and elusive, sardonic and sentimental all at once – can stand proudly alongside anything else they’ve done.

Whip effectively splits the difference between the sharp polish and pomp of their Britpop heyday and the maturity, restlessness and grit of their later work, particularly the looped and layered experimentation of 2003’s underrated Think Tank.   But it’s hardly a backward-looking affair.  There are gestures toward familiar Blur song “types” – punky riff-driven fuzzbombs (“I Broadcast”); classically melancholy Albarnian weepers (“New World Towers,” “Mirrorball”) – but most of these tracks do much murkier things, smudging the usual emotional and musical lines between rockers, ballads, pop songs and dirges, hearkening to the band’s past work in strange, unpredictable ways.  The quirky, bleep-blooping, dubiously cheerful “Ice Cream Man” strikes a curious counterpose to Blur’s jagged “Country Sad Ballad Man.”  “There Are Too Many Of Us” – one of their most striking, unsettling creations – is a strident, string-laden death march on themes of population overcrowding that comes on like a minor-key inversion of “The Universal.”  (Here, and throughout, the backdrop of Hong Kong helps provide a fresh angle on familiar themes of globalization, consumer culture, world-weariness, alienation and distance.)


And then there’s the simple, alchemical miracle of hearing Graham Coxon’s indelibly scrawled guitar work once more sharing space with Damon Albarn’s yearning, bleary-eyed melodies – most poignantly on “My Terracotta Heart,” which directly confronts their past estrangement.  Magic, indeed.
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Sufjan Stevens
[Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview

Coming from a guy whose last release climaxed with the epic goofball absurdity of “Christmas Unicorn,” Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty) requires some readjustment.  A return to the hushed sonics (and biblical allusiveness) of 2004’s Seven Swans, these deeply personal songs are Stevens’ reaction to his mother’s passing; an unflinching examination of a complex and troubled relationship.  Despite the harrowing subject matter, the music is wondrously warm and comforting: Stevens’ fastidious fingerpicking and unwavering plainspoken singing may seem spare, but there are subtleties and shadings in these arrangements that are as meticulously crafted – and as gorgeously effective – as any of his earlier electro-orchestral extravaganzas.

Matthew E. White
[Folk-Soul]
concert preview

Even more than the hippie-soul spiritualism and unhurried grandeur of his 2012 debut, Matthew E. White’s Fresh Blood (Domino) charts a curious course between breeziness and depth; employing the lavish orchestral and choral arrangements and warm, meticulous production that are the hallmarks of this long-haired Virginian’s Spacebomb operation (q.v. Natalie Prass’ spellbinding 2015 debut) to establish a tone of effortlessly laid-back, almost-drowsy languor.  There’s a fine line, somewhere, between hushed reverence and dull, self-contented mumbling, but it’s hard to mind much when the tunes slide so smoothly by.

Sir Richard Bishop
[Folk/Instrumental]
concert preview

Amid the teeming ranks of finger-style guitar virtuosi, Richard Bishop stands out – and earns his noble sobriquet – for his long pedigree of iconoclasm and adventure, musical and otherwise, that includes co-founding both iconic experimental-eclecticists Sun City Girls and the DIY ethno-musicological rummage sale that is the Sublime Frequencies label.  His latest solo foray, the fully improvised Tangier Sessions (Drag City) – recorded in Morocco on a mysterious 19th century guitar he picked up in Geneva – is a typically atypical offering, meandering freely through tinges of flamenco, Indian raga, Malian blues, gypsy folk and beyond.

The Sonics
[Garage Rock]
concert preview

The basic template for garage rock hasn’t really changed since these guys first established it some fifty years ago with their raucous, sneering proto-punk originals and roughed-up R&B covers.  So This Is The Sonics (Revox) – outrageously, the band’s first proper album since 1967’s Introducing the Sonics – doesn’t feel like a throwback, a retread, a revamp, or even a reflection of former glory: it just feels like a party.  The current lineup boasts three original members – not bad after a half-century gap! – including O.G. screamer Gerry Roslie, sounding, if anything, more demented than ever.

Kitty Daisy and Lewis
[R&B/Swing/Pop]
concert preview


This retro-worshipping London sibling trio may have grown a bit since they first enchanted us at Kung Fu Necktie back in 2009 with their prodigious multi-instrumentalism and red-hot rockabilly fashion sense – two-thirds of the group were still teenagers at the time.  But The Third (Sunday Best), an assortment of lovingly re-enacted first-wave ska, juke-joint swing and hard-stomping rhythm and blues that was produced by the Clash’s Mick Jones (in their self-built analog studio, in a converted Camden curry joint) – suggests they haven’t lost an ounce of those ample vintage-loving charms.  And they still let mom and dad tag along as their rhythm section.



Speedy Ortiz
[Indie Rock]
concert preview



As grungy alt-whatever revivalists goes, Sadie Dupuis is the Liz Phair-est of them all.  But her band’s too good to stick in the “retro-’90s” ghetto.  Their new literarily oblique/manifestly feminist Foil Deer (Carpark) (I keep waiting for that title to be clever…it’ll hit me someday) is a sharp-edged (and sharper-tongued) dissertation on gnarly melody and totally radical riffage.





Ex Hex
[Rock/Pop]
concert preview


Not only was the inaugural all-killer hookfest from Mary Timony’s power-pop power-trio CP’s third favorite album of 2014, it’s also a fun fill-in-the-blank game.  Rips (Merge) up the rock’n’roll rulebook and starts over?  (Well, not exactly.)  Rips off The Cars/The Pretenders/Cheap Trick/whoever?  (Yeah, but, what’s your point?)  Rips you a new one?  Okay, how about just flat-out Rips?



Liturgy
[Noise Rock/Post-Metal]
concert preview

The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey) opens with a strident brass fanfare, traditional enough – seemingly – until it warps into a queasy, disorienting tussle between real and synthetic horns.  In truth, though, almost the entire album functions as an epic, unrelenting fanfare; a near-constant, cacophonous crescendo of celestial axe-throttling, spluttering digital scree, Greg Fox’s convulsive drumming, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s monkish, incisive chants: a sonic density so maddening you almost don’t notice the bagpipes.  The album as full-body drum-roll.  Forget the genre wars Liturgy has incited in the past: whatever this music is, it’s too blinding to be black, too molten to be metal.

Public Service Broadcasting
[Space Pop/Electronic]
concert preview

Somewhere between a post-rockier version of The Books and They Might Be Giants in full-on educational mode, the dubiously-monikered Wrigglesworth and J. Wilgoose Esq. combine archival spoken-word samples with epic, semi-electronic krautrock instrumentals, essentially creating impressionistic audio documentaries on subjects such as – in the case of sophomore outing The Race for Space (Test Card) – developments in space exploration, c. 1957-1972 – complete with suitably inspiring, funky, whimsical and dramatic soundtrack cues.  Their banter-free live show, incorporating footage on loan from the British Film Institute, should bring the experience full circle.

Clark/Nosaj Thing
[Electronic]
concert preview


These one-time IDM wunderkinder have grown into two of the more distinctive producers out there, albeit mining quite disparate veins.  Nosaj is an LA beat-scene head-nodder given to dusty downbeats and classicist overtones; his moody-grooving new single suggests the forthcoming Fated (Innovative Leisure) will only deepen his music’s placid, insular melancholy.  Comparatively, Clark’s acid-damaged eponymous 2014 LP (Warp) and new Flame Rave EP feel compositionally and emotionally volatile, even paradoxically so (“Strength Through Fragility” is one telling track title), but they’re never less than engaging; repeatedly, defiantly clutching musicality (and funk) from the jaws of technoid abstraction.

Action Bronson
[Hip-Hop]
concert preview


This Queens-repping rapper/chef cultivates a gleefully oversized persona – driven by gluttonous, wittily chronicled appetites for weed, women and exquisitely prepared cuisine – that’s at once lovably nonchalant and completely reprehensible.  His characteristically absurdist major label bow, Mr. Wonderful (Atlantic), echoes that duality with an irreverence to “hip-hop album” protocol that’s sometimes delightful (see: phone conversations with his mom), more often frustrating (indulgent “conceptual” stunts, wayward schlock-rock rips, a lot of highly questionable singing) – but still comes through with its quota of quotables.
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper











05 April 2015

Review Round-Up: March 2015

The Mountain Goats
Beat The Champ

For most artists, a concept album about professional wrestling would be a cute novelty curveball, and probably a dubious artistic proposition: something to be approached with a smirk and cautiously lowered expectations.  For John Danielle, it feels no more improbable – if anything, maybe less – than, say, a song cycle chronicling depression after a breakup.  Given his preoccupations with desperation, obsessiveness, emotional volatility, marginalized figures and imaginative escape-worlds, wrestlers and their fans make for readily familiar and natural Darnielle character-narrators.  And the (totally unsurprising) information that the young Darnielle was a big wrestling fan himself adds an element of autobiography – as with the unabashed adulation and vicarious catharsis in "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero"; a pure, great example of Mountain Goats "pop" – and underscores the sheer glee he takes in delivering lines like "I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object."


So, no surprises here: these songs do exactly the kind of things that latter-day Mountain Goats songs do, and they do them obliquely, evocatively, and enviably well.  There are subdued, piano-driven ruminations on troubling memories ("Southwestern Territory"); furiously spluttering id-eruptions ("Choked Out," with its brilliant AAAA rhyme scheme and breathless, sub-two-minute run time; the ferally tense "Werewolf Gimmick"); unlikely but biographically accurate portraits of celebrities well past their turn in the spotlight ("Luna," "The Ballad of Bull Ramos"); patiently chronicled juxtapositions of depravity and tenderness ("Unmasked!," "Hair Match.")  The wrestling angle turns out to be less a gimmick – as they'd say in the business – than a jumping-off point, sketching the shared world these characters inhabit without scripting specific throughlines connecting them, in a set of first-person songs that are ultimately no less earnest or affecting than those on the aforementioned break-up record, albeit more given to colorful insider jargon and particularly inventive physical violence.

The Go! Team
The Scene Between


The Go! Team burst out like a blitz of technicolor confetti back in 2004, with a debut whose rambunctious energy and nostalgia-primed sonics sparked a lot of chatter about vintage Saturday morning cartoons, positioning themselves as the lovably scrappy underdog heroes.  So it's worth a hearty whoop to hear them still kicking around a full decade later, and minorly miraculous that they haven't lost a step or an ounce of pep, nor – heaven forbid – have they matured one iota.  The Scene Between is another breathless, time-collapsing rush of day-glo retro lo-fi indie spunk, cutting back on the hip-hop inflections, schoolyard chants and cut-and-paste sample-collage to focus squarely on melody – pop's cheapest, most vital commodity – and on nailing that deliciously woozy, trebly, overstuffed, immaculately crummy recording quality.  The results – bouncy junk-gospel theme tune "Art of Getting By," kindershoegaze creampuff "Her Last Wave," the title track's slo-mo harpsichord-funk and the sighing bubblegum-baroque balladry of "Did You Know?" – are some of the project's best-realized songs to date, and enough sugar-powered adrenaline to tide us over for another four years.
originally published in Magnet Magazine

A Winged Victory For The Sullen/Loscil
[Post-Classical/Ambient]
concert preview


Some veritable titans of 21st century ambient music grace our hallowed Unitarian sanctuary tonight; respectively responsible for two of 2014’s most beautiful and subtly inventive releases (both on Kranky.)  Loscil – Vancouver’s Scott Morgan – continued to refine and evolve his warmly atmospheric, dub-infused drone work on Sea Island, adding understated hints of vibraphone and vocals, while Winged Victory – Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie and pianist Dustin O’Halloran – offered the majestic, multi-part Atomos suite, introducing ever-so-slightly more motion and textural variety to their richly cinematic, stately neoclassicism.

Bing & Ruth
[Post-Classical/Ambient]
concert preview


The name suggests two people, and the actual ensemble consists of seven (two clarinets, two basses, cello, piano and tape-delay), but the music on Bing & Ruth’s Tomorrow Was The Golden Age (Rvng Intl) sounds either like it wasn’t made by humans at all, or else like it was made by several hundred, spread out across a vast field.  A vast, rippling smear of meditative, quietly obliterating sound, like the midpoint between Debussy nocturnes and those 800% slowed-down versions of pop songs on YouTube.


Tobias Jesso, Jr.
[Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview

This lanky Canadian writes simple, earnest, decidedly unfashionable piano ballads about heartbreak and friendship and struggling with Los Angeles, and he does it with seemingly zero of the ironic distance of, say, a Father John Misty.  The opening moments of his quietly addictive debut album recall things like “Rocket Man” and the theme from Cheers.  There’s a song addressed to his (imaginary, I think?) one-day-old daughter which, amusingly, sounds like Randy Newman’s “Short People.”  If nothing else, Goon (True Panther) points up how far we’ve come, for better and worse, since the heyday of Paul McCartney, Carole King and Harry Nilsson.  Which, in itself, is surely worth something.

of Montreal
[Indie Pop/Rock]
concert preview


Over two decades of of Montreal, Kevin Barnes has spewed his prolix psychobabble and wrangled his harmonic fripperies onto wispy twee-folk, neo-baroque psychedelia, prismatic disco-pop, writhing, overstuffed ersatz-R&B, and stranger things still.  Aureate Gloom (Polyvinyl) could almost be his first punk album: less a successor to 2013's rootsy, band-based re-boot Lousy with Sylvianbriar than a muddying of its relatively clear-eyed '70s pastiche, spiking oddly specific Velvets, Stooges and Television cues with typically protean, inimitably Barnesian flourishes.


Makthaverskan
[Rock/Pop]
concert preview

If these Gothenburgers are punks - a lineage they claim in contradistinction to the "happy and cute" indie-pop dominating their local scene – they have a curious way of showing it.  Sure, II (Run For Cover) evinces potent urgency, even fury (and F-bombs aplenty), especially in Maja Milner's searing, clarion lead vocals, but even she's hardly immune to Sweden's nationally endemic melodicism and sweetness, and the album's supple basslines, reverb-dosed leads and general late-'80s dream-pop semi-gloss would fit right in on Labrador or, say, your average Peter Björn & John record.

James Murphy
[DJ/Dance]
concert preview

It’s hard to believe that LCD Soundsystem is now four years gone (as of next week, specifically) – and equally hard to imagine a time when the band’s spirit won’t remain vitally relevant; when James Murphy will cease to reign, bemusedly but benevolently, over the ever-morphing/ever-staying-the-same indie/dance/electronic/whatever world, as patron saint and perennially lovable hip dad figure.  He’s kept busy – designing coffee and sound systems, scoring his buddy Noah Baumbach’s movies, “remixing” US Open tennis data – but his highest calling, same as it ever was, is simply to share some awesome records with the people.

Big Data
[Electro-pop]
concert preview


Brooklyn producer Alan Wilkis, who’s racked up a series of playfully frothy, electro-fried remixes for Yeasayer, Phantogram and Yelle, among others, and scored an aptly viral hit (last summer’s Alternative #1 “Dangerous”) with his “internet-themed” band Big Data, flexes his indie-pop rolodex and punchy electro-house synths on 2.0 (Warner Brothers), enlisting Jamie Lidell, Kimbra, Rivers Cuomo and more for a muscular, unsubtle-but-effective set that owes at least as much to the bludgeoning filter-stomp of Paris’ Ed Banger stable as to the pages of Wired.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper







19 March 2015

Preview Round-Up: January/February 2015



Natalie Prass
[Folk/Soul/Pop]
concert preview



On their own, this Nashvillean's songs are quiet, intimate, love-troubled things, and her impossibly sweet voice a vulnerable, elfin wisp.  But bolstered – as they are on her self-titled debut LP (Spacebomb), and as they will be on stage tonight – by the luxurious fantasy-throwback orchestrations of producer/collaborators Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, they emerge as improbable beacons of modern-day countrypolitan R&B: calmly jubilant, buoyed by a graceful, grown-and-sexy elegance and steeped in deep Southern swamp-gospel soul.




Justin Townes Earle
[Folk]
concert preview



September's Single Mothers and its recently-released companion Absent Fathers (Vagrant) are, as their titles suggest, not exactly feel-good albums: each offers ten torn-and-tender, pedal-steel-draped tunes on all-too-autobiographical themes of abandonment, struggle and uncertain redemption.  There's solace to be had here too, but it's mostly in the sound – a little bit soul-searing country, a little rock'n'roll – of one of our most promising songwriters settling into a comfortable groove that at this rate (he's only 33) could sustain him for decades, though one hopes it doesn't have to.




Ariel Pink
[Psycho/Pop]
concert preview



A decade after his Animal Collective-abetted emergence as home-taping neo-lo-fi hero (and improbable chillwave forerunner), Ariel Pink has somehow morphed into indiedom's reigning king of the freaks; a cartoonish mutant-pop ringmaster and a relentlessly trolling social media instigator.  Last year's powderpuff-pink pom pom (4AD) is his twisted, taste-defying magnum opus: an overstuffed seventeen-track schlocktacular that plays like Frank Zappa by way of John Waters – several of its campy/creepy hyper-retro goof-offs were co-written with ur-L.A.-misfit Kim Fowley (R.I.P.), whose spirit looms large here – but somehow manages space for some effortlessly pretty psych-pop ballads too.



Hundred Waters
[Experimental/Indie]
concert preview



This Gainesville FL band take their name from Austrian architect (Friedensreich) Hundertwasser, whose whimsically fluid, boldly colorful and environmentally-minded buildings defy the stuffy grandiloquence of his native Vienna in much the same way their music sticks out from the context of circa 2015 "indie rock," and, certainly, from the typical purview of their label boss Skrillex.  Last year's sophomore set The Moon Rang Like A Bell (OWSLA) is all rounded edges and dreamy pastel textures; mystical post-classical pop forged at the intersection of polished instrumentalism and subdued but sprightly electronics.





Zola Jesus
[Pop]
concert preview


"I thought fear brought me closer to the truth," sings Nika Danilova midway through 2014's Taiga (Mute) – which may explain some things about the art-gothery and foreboding that so dominated her past oeuvre, and why this, her fifth album as Zola Jesus, pushes so emphatically past it.  There are breakbeats; there are brass chorales; there is some serious affirmation and emotional empowerment afoot.  Pop goes the ego.







Kishi Bashi String Quartet
[Pop/Chamber Music]
concert preview



Twee-prog whiz kid K. Ishibashi routinely loops and layers his ever-frolicsome fiddle-work into the equivalent of at least a quartet, so hearing him accompanied by four more string players at this "special seated show" should approach chamber orchestra territory.  It'll be interesting to hear how the giddy-goofy dance-pop of cuts like "The Ballad of Mr. Steak" (from last year's irrepressible Lighght (Joyful Noise)) translate – if they're doing it right, the show shouldn't remain seated for long.






Elisa Ambrogio
[Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview


Elisa Ambrogio's markedly song-oriented solo debut, The Immoralist (Drag City), feels like a distant cousin, at best, to both the noisenik skronk she spearheads in Magik Markers and the sleepy-sparse folk of 200 Years, her duo with Ben Chasny. These ten tunes have their share of clangor and drone, but also an understated sweetness (see, especially, the chiming "Superstitious"), and rough-edged naturalism recalling Waxahatchee and Torres in their commingling of grit and grace.




Damien Jurado
[Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview



Eleven albums into what was once a relatively demure indie-folk career, things are getting mighty interesting for this Seattle songsmith.  Last year's Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun (Secretly Canadian), Jurado's third straight collaboration with neo-psych production MVP Richard Swift, got about as far out as he could get without jettisoning the "singer-songwriter" umbrella entirely – a murky, mystical psycho-spiritual concept opus with bombastically plush, dub-touched sonic whizbangery to match.




Jeffrery Lewis/Diane Cluck
[Folk/Anti-Folk]
concert preview


West Philly house/gallery Eris Temple Arts is a suitably scruffy and intimate setting for these veterans of New York's loose "anti-folk" scene (basically, songwriters unaverse to personality, topicality and humor – kinda like what folk used to mean.)  Lewis is an endearingly muppetish, ever-personable performer and a top-notch cartoonist (fingers crossed he brings along some of his illustrated "low-budget music video" flip-books); the Lancaster-bred, self-described "intuitive" Cluck tends more to the poetic, even austere, as on last year's brief-but-affecting Boneset (Important),but she's got her quirks for sure, and a magnificent warble of a voice.



Until The Ribbon Breaks
[Rock/Electronic]
concert preview



Not many acts would seem equally at home sharing stages with heavy-lidded lounge-poppers London Grammar – tomorrow night's headliners – and the flat-out heavy rap duo Run The Jewels (with whom they've traded album guest spots), but this Welsh trio fits the bill.  Their assured if rather forbiddingly sober debut, A Lesson Unlearnt (Cobalt) somehow synthesizes the past half-decade's trends in electro-pop, lushly moody avant-R&B, indie rock anthemism and egghead hip-hop, with precisely the kind of fluid fluency their cassette-tape-referencing moniker lacks.





RiFF RAFF
[Hip-Hop]
concert preview



If Riff Raff didn't exist, Mad Decent, who signed the Houston rapper/freakazoid to an eight-album deal (two down, as of last summer's Neon Icon) may have had to invent him – he shares head homeboy Diplo's gonzo maximalism and tireless hustle, but with a gleeful, improbably ingenuous absurdism with which the globetrotting label boss could only dream of keeping pace.






Kölsch
[Electronic/House]
concert preview


Rune Reilly Kölsch hails not from Köln – though his label, Kompakt, is there – but from Denmark's autonomous hippie "freetown" of Christiania, where he may have learned something about utopian visions.  2013's 1977 (titled, T-Swift/FlyLo-style, after his birth year) was a masterclass in warmly enveloping, straightforward-but-not-simplistic house, unafraid of sentimentality; last month's mix for the Balance series accomplished similar things in slightly whooshier fashion, imbued (via the likes of Radiohead, Caribou and Coldplay) with an almost hymn like serenity and a big-tent populism that transcends his counter-cultural roots.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

03 January 2015

Review Round-up: 2014 Year-End List Blurbs (for Publications)



St. Vincent
St. Vincent

Annie Clark's self-titled fourth album as St. Vincent doesn't mark a dramatic shift in approach from 2011's similarly singular Strange Mercy, nor is it a grand defining statement in any immediately obvious sense.  Then again, little about Clark can really be described as "obvious" at this point (save perhaps that, as their recent collaboration demonstrated, she would and did make an ideal mirror/foil/counterpart/inheritor to David Byrne's nervy-smart art-rock eminence.)  But St. Vincent earns its eponymity in how fully it embodies its creator's essential idiosyncrasies.  Of course, there is Clark's merciless, mercurial guitar-wielding – she continues to wrangle astonishing new shapes and textures from her axe – often juxtaposed against some of her most tenderly lyrical vocal melodies.  Like her previous work – but even more so – St. Vincent is rooted in the tensions (and slippages) between humanity and artificiality, a fascination which is not (only) esoterically conceptual – informing, among other things, her increasingly theatrical visual presentation and stagecraft – but also gleefully visceral, audible in everything from the nervous, kinetic digital sputters of "Rattlesnake" (with its somewhat Byrneian naked-in-nature narrative) to the deliciously terrifying cyborg death-march of "Bring Me Your Loves" to the eerily perfect, almost baroque lushness of "Severed Crossed Fingers."  For all its gestures toward relatability, even mundanity ("take out the garbage, masturbate…"), it's an album that only seems more alien the more familiar it gets.


Against Me!
Transgender Dysphoria Blues

The compelling narrative of frontwoman Laura Jane Grace's coming out as transgender – explored in depth in Jonathan Valania's MAGNET interview in January – gave Transgender Dysphoria Blues a hooky backstory, attracting plenty of listeners who'd probably otherwise have little interest in a self-released effort by a fifteen-year-old Florida punk band.  And, of course, that story is undeniably central to the album, most of which speaks in no uncertain terms to the complex (and very punk rock) tangle of emotions – resentment, futility, isolation, confusion, awkwardness, self-loathing and ultimately (less in the lyrics per se than in Grace's searing, triumphant delivery of them) defiant pride – accompanying her experience, and those of trans people more generally.  These songs are not always as direct and legible as you might (or might not) expect, but they are never less than effective – equally potent as consciousness-raisers, psychological portraits and conflicted but rousing empowerment anthems.  What kept us listening all year long, however, is simply that this is among 2014's best and most thrilling rock'n'roll albums, flat-out: a breathless half hour of lean, surging riffs and pummeling drums, ready and primed for fist-pumping sing-alongs, as much in line with the guitar-rock classicism of Ted Leo or the Hold Steady as with any number of populist punk touchstones.
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso

Equal parts cozy and coy, Sylvan Esso's fertile trans-genre cross-pollination (dub-indie? folkstep?) brought us electronic pop music on an invitingly human scale, with Nick Sanborn's homespun, bass-savvy beatwork recasting Amelia Meath's folksy, feisty Mountain Man warble – and vice versa – to yield some of the year's purest pop pleasures ("Play It Right") and teardrop-tender slow jams (the lilting shakers-and-heartbreak of "Coffee") as well as, with the schoolyard-ready D.I.Y. tech-house of "H.S.K.T." perhaps 2014's most improbably infectious dance party anthem.
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

Review Round-Up: August-December 2014

The 2 Bears
The Night Is Young

The music that Raf Rundell and Hot Chip's Joe Goddard make as The 2 Bears draws deeply and lovingly on classicist dance forms – house music, most emphatically, but also UK garage, dub and dancehall reggae – with enough soul, variety and cheery playfulness to win over the staunchest technophobes.  The Night Is Young (Southern Fried), album number two for the London duo, packs in a tremendous array of sounds, styles and voices (toasters, divas, psychotropic ramblers and the sweet-voiced South African Sbusiso, to name a few); an almost Basement Jaxx-like level of polychromatic sonic detailing which makes it rather more disjointed than its superb predecessor, despite comparable highs.  Even the seemingly straight-ahead dance-pop banger "Angel (Touch Me)," built around an indelibly tasty piano lick, somehow manages a detour into tribal African village ambience.  While things get a touch unfocused in the final stretch, the Hot Chip chaps are always good for a grandly uplifting closing statement, and the gently expansive, marimba-led title track fits that bill beautifully.

Basement Jaxx
Junto

Junto is a jolt; a juggernaut; an absolute joyride.  Per the sleek, white-dominated cover, it's the most streamlined, frill-free BJaxx album ever: not without its allotment of sound-stuffed, multi-culti diversions – check Mykki Blanco-featuring breakbeat-ragga detour "Buffalo," or "Mermaid of Salinas"' delirious Carnaval vibes – but otherwise a relatively uncluttered mainline of diva-house bangers and soulful dance-pop, complete with the requisite arms-in-the-air comedown closer.  It's also the closest they've come to the ecstatic, hedonistic rush of their holy initial trinity in the decade since.  Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton never really went away – they've maintained a steady trickle of singles while engaging in go-to career dalliances (a film score, an orchestral collaboration) – but it's been five years since their last proper full-length, during which their influence – on post-dubstep "maximalists" Rustie and TNGHT and, especially, pop-friendly dance acts like Disclosure, Rudimental, Calvin Harris and Hercules & Love Affair – has never been easier to spot.  So this return feels perfectly timed, with only one major quibble: the album's not out until late August, when by rights it should be soundtracking beach-bound cruises and poolside fiestas all summer long.

The Juan MacLean
In A Dream

The Juan Maclean play the long game; they won't be rushed.  Now by some margin DFA's longest-running act, this is only their third album since their debut singles helped inaugurate the label back in 2002 – and, per their usual habit, its high points are all epics.  Indeed, there's practically an inverse relationship here between track length and quality.  The album opens with eight drama-filled minutes of Moroderesque robo-disco and closes with ten of darkly romantic, pillowy-soft tech-house; both bookends are majestically expansive and inviting.  Atypically fluid, almost Balearic slo-mo funker "Running Back To You" and the burbling, crisply catchy "A Simple Design" – one of several showcases for Nancy Whang's always-captivating vocals – are seven minutes and pretty great.  Most of the sub-6:30-cuts, though – some relatively undistinguished synthpop stabs, plus "Here I Am"'s improbably handbaggy house – fall weirdly flat,.  It's not that these guys can't do tight, compelling pop hooks – the longer cuts here have some great ones – it's just the kind they craft seem to work best with plenty of room to wriggle and stretch.

Simian Mobile Disco
Whorl

From the era-defining, indie-friendly electro-house of their debut to Temporary Pleasure's misbegotten populism, Delicacies' hard techno turn and Unpatterns' subtler, spirit-ridden shadings – not to mention their freewheeling DJ mixes and last year's fantastic, career-glossing Live – Simian Mobile Disco have, stylistically speaking, more than lived up to the middle third of their name.  Whorl, also essentially an in-concert recording – cut before an audience in the California desert using a small, all-analog hardware setup – is yet another marked departure.  It's easily the duo's most abstract and exploratory work yet, building on and veering beyond their recent focus on acid-flecked techno, and their first outing unambiguously geared toward listening rather than body-moving.  Which isn't to say it doesn't get there: "Hypnick Jerk"'s sinuous minimalism and "Dervish"'s filtered, martial stutter-funk offer two of their most infectious, nuanced grooves.  But it's a patient, meandering journey, punctuated by spacey synth-wash ambience (it's almost ten minutes before the first beat drops.)  Where Unpatterns was an assured culmination, this is a fresh, auspicious strike into new territory from a group that deserves far more recognition.

JJ
V

jj – as they were then styled – emerged mid-2009 with a fully-formed, fascinating aesthetic: all white everything (save the occasional blood splatter), a hazy, tenderly oblique indie-pop sound built around scintillating synths, billowing acoustic guitars and unpredictable samples, and an unabashed, twee-style infatuation with thuggish US hip-hop, all wrapped around Elin Kastlander's drowsy, druggy, offhandedly luscious vocals.  Within 18 months, they'd mined two delicate, magical albums from this inimitable template, plus the deliriously plunderphonic/swag-jacking Kills mixtape, but several ensuing years of intermittent singles largely failed to point a way forward.  Third album V brings some new ideas to the JJ playbook – a level of bombast vaguely befitting their newfound capitalization; a runtime (considerably) longer than half an hour; one half of an almost-rock song – but it plods across ultimately familiar ground, still as plush and pillowy as ever (on rave-flecked dance beats and string-draped, auto-tuned ballads alike), still rhyming "drugs" with "hugs."  The duo's intoxicating sense of endless sonic possibility remains, but the many lovely moments rarely amount to memorable songs, and several pointed shout-outs to their still-enchanting debut feel like cruel teases.

various artists
Beck Song Reader

Never meant to exist – yet probably always inevitable – the record-album [evidently] entitled Beck Song Reader couldn't hope to match the charm and fascination of Beck's Song Reader, the 2012 album (as in loose-leaf folio) of turn-of-last-century-styled sheet music that remains his finest achievement of the past decade – but it's a valiant and enjoyably varied attempt, by a seriously stacked cast of contributors.  As with any V/A grab-bag, not everything's gold (Beck's own offering, "Heaven's Ladder," is hardly a highlight – plus he gets half the words wrong!), but a respectable percentage truly is.  Many renditions veer rootsy and reverent, ranging from quite nice (Norah Jones' country-pop "Just Noise") to just ok – but (perhaps not bespeaking highly of the songs themselves) the best ones furnish more distinctive personality, predictably or otherwise: "I'm Down"'s an unsurprisingly great fit for Jack White's current mad scientist-Americana mode, while David Johansen does well by "Rough on Rats"' Tom Waits-isms, but less-likely candidates Swamp Dogg, Jarvis Cocker and fun. make their selections lovingly their own, while Juanes' sparkling, subversive translation – into Spanish and synth-pop – of "Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard" may be best of all.
originally published in Magnet Magazine


Music Go Music
Impressions
[Pop]

There are several moments on Impressions (Thousand Tongues), this slightly-ineffable LA outfit's magnificent second LP, when they go out of their way to sound like ABBA.  Take the glorious "Shine Down Forever," which handily elevates "Gimme Gimme Gimme..."'s godless desperation to pure, pious romantic rapture ("you are the sun to me/shine on me always with gentle beams of empathy...") – well before they actuall tease the riff.  Most of the time, though, it happens completely naturally.  But don't think of them as copyists – it's just that, evidently, more bands should make brilliantly melodic almost-funk disco-pop with a curious surfeit of harpsichords. [A]

Jenny Lewis
The Voyager
[Pop-Rock]

Polished and pristine as a SoCal sunset, The Voyager (Warner Brothers) does double duty as one of the summer's breeziest, most easy-pleasing pop records and one of its subtlest, wryest heartbreakers.  Jenny Lewis' not-at-all-difficult third album passes over roots and country (to say nothing of "indie") in favor of a luxuriously crafted '70s L.A. soft-rock throwback (hey there, Haim) – complete with a cast of celebs and studio pros (Ryan Adams and Beck swap out behind the boards) – that's all achingly sunny melody and equally aching, smarting narratives of romantic regret and nagging displacement. [B+]

Spoon
They Want My Soul
[Rock/Pop]

They Want My Soul (Loma Vista) kicks off with decisively Stonesy strut, which is refreshing and anomalous since the remaining 35 minutes are as inimitably, unrelentingly Spoony as Spoony can be, ticking all the band's paradoxical boxes – tidy grit, substantial stylishness, effortless propulsion, layered minimalism, dispassionate rocking-out (in spots, the hardest they have in ages) – all of which, coming after a four-year hiatus, is more than enough to generate the thrill of reuniting with an old friend.  It breaks approximately zero new ground, but then again Spoon don't have to bend – the universe bends to them. [B+]

The New Pornographers
Brill Bruisers
[Pop/Rock]

The hydra-headed indie perennials' previous LP, 2010's Together, was underrated (or overlooked) simply for being more of the (superlative) same; their fifth-straight master class in oblique-angled power-pop euphorics.  The intriguingly synth-heavy Brill Bruisers (Matador) – their sixth, and the closest they've come to a stumble – seems poised to be overrated by way of correction.  Though it ends strong (as usual) and adds a few firecrackers to the repertoire – the vocodey "Backstairs," "Dancehall Domine," some fine Bejar chuggers – it's the first time that treading largely familiar ground has yielded less than thrilling results, with the melody lines too often terse and truncated, the nonsense verse oddly inelegant, the productions shruggably overblown. [C+]

Land Observations
The Grand Tour
[Instrumental]

Following the marvelously meditative, highly thematic albeit instrumental compositions making up his solo debut, Roman Roads IV-XI, visual artist and post-post-rocker James Brooks – who means his musical moniker quite seriously – returns with a second set of geo-historically minded European peregrinations: The Grand Tour (Mute), informed by the post-collegiate Continental gallivants of all those 19th-century English novel protagonists.  Once again, Brooks imbues his solitary electric guitar with a clean, gently crisp tone, shaping it into tidy, meticulously layered metronomic reveries; placid and measured but softly searching. [B+]

Caribou
[Electronic]
concert preview

An obvious career culmination and one of the year's most beautiful albums, Our Love (Merge) swirls together virtually every facet of Dan Snaith's constantly evolving output – the delicate, prismatic electro-acoustic hybrids of his early days as Manitoba, Andorra's psychedelic soft-pop, the genial house and acid bangers of his Daphni alias – raises the stakes with the most personal songs he's ever written, and enlists some help from fellow Ontarians Jessy Lanza (who also opens tonight's show) and Owen Pallett just for good measure. 


Zammuto
[Pop/Experimental]
concert preview

Nick Zammuto's post-Books operation isn't quite as restlessly inventive and cerebral as his old band, but they're no less singular and, in their quiet way, just as playful.  (They also have a ridiculously good drummer.)  Probably the Vermonter's most plainly accessible work yet, Anchor (Temporary Residence) feels like a friendlier (and funnier) take on latter-day Radiohead/Thom Yorke, balancing crisp, gently mathy metronomics with low-key, curiously affecting and slightly folky song-craft.


Steve Gunn
[Folk/Rock]
concert preview

Hot on the heels of last year's quietly luxuriant Time Out and his great recent duo summit with Mike Cooper, rapidly rising six-stringer Steve Gunn's wide-ranging Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors) unfurls at an elastic, easygoing pace that belies his rate of productivity; translating the meditative mentality of American Primitivist ragas into ragged-edged (and at times surprisingly Stones-y) folk-rock.



Rock*A*Teens
[Indie Rock]
concert preview

Atlanta, GA's Rock*A*Teens represent a generally little-remembered chapter of Merge records' (and '90s indie rock) history, though this summer – which marks their first public activity as a band since 2002 – has somewhat improbably seen the release of not one but two live recordings from their heyday: one a stand-alone cheekily entitled A Major Motion Picture (Chunklet), the other packaged as a bonus disc with a reissue of the band's 2000 swan song, Sweet Bird of Youth.  The available evidence presents them as a hard-hitting but surprisingly versatile outfit who were both ahead of and very much of their time, trafficking in everything from gothy rockabilly and woozy, soon-to-be-vogueish carnivalesque psych to tortuous, semi-baroque lit-rock reminiscent of Quasi and Destroyer, while predicting the raggedly earnest likes of Okkervil River (frontman Chris Lopez is an clear influence on Will Sheff) and The Arcade Fire (who cut their first record for Merge four years after R*A*Ts cut their last.)
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper