17 July 2014

Review Round-Up: May 2014

Lily Allen

His fans may not like it, but Kanye's actually a pretty fair point of comparison for Lily Beatrice Rose Cooper née Allen.  Both are artists whose work is in consistent, complicated tension with their broader media-personality status; both are uncensored loudmouths, lightning rods for controversy, and outsized jumbles of vulnerability, arrogance and creativity.  Sheezus gives us all three off the bat in a title track portraying pop as a title fight, with Allen confiding her insecurities before summarily demanding the crown.  She means business too: perky electro-burst "L8 CMMR" is her shiniest, most radio-ready cut yet (notwithstanding the verses' come-lately auto-tune slather), and the sweetest, giddiest celebration of marital love since "Countdown" – naturally, from the author of "Not Big" and "It's Not Fair," the titular entendre is the highest praise possible.  Producer Greg Kurstin ensures a familiarly sparkly synth-pop sheen throughout, with enough sonic left-turns – Zydeco accordion and bottleneck blues on the "Faith"-riffing "As Long As I Got You"; soft-touch throwback R&B on the pisstaking "Insincerely Yours" and convincingly slinky sex jam "Close Your Eyes" – to maintain Allen's magpie reputation.  The singer's achilles heel, popwise, is also her most defining trait: her bent for unfiltered snarkiness, which rears its head increasingly as the album progresses, most troublingly on the mean-spirited, 'netizen-skewering wobble-step of "URL Badman" and the petulant class politics of "Silver Spoon."  As with Kanye, it can be tricky keeping track of which lyrical clunkers are deliberately dumb, in-character satire and which are merely failed attempts at wit.  The humor's appreciated, but – as Allen probably learned from the inane kerfuffle over this album's first preview video [see sidebar] – you can't be too subtle sometimes.

From her 2006 emergence as the first MySpace breakout star, visuals have always played a major role in Allen's output.  Not counting the nifty Nintendo-inspired lyric video for "L8 CMMR," Sheezus has spawned three promo clips to date:

"Hard Out Here"
Pop-rap parody qua feminist empowerment anthem: hardly groundbreaking, and certainly problematic (since when are ass and brains mutually exclusive?), but straightforward enough.  The clip extends the spoof and critique visually, juggling familiar rap-video tropes including, natch, a cadre of twerking booty dancers (also, a memorable skewering of "Blurred Lines"' mylar balloons.)  Light-hearted satire aside, with so much freighted imagery crammed into three minutes, it's little wonder folks got upset.

"Air Balloon"
An appealingly insubstantial nonsense jingle with gently loopy visuals to match: Allen in candy-raver chic, basking in the South African countryside, chilling with cheetahs among magic toadstools while the camera loops-the-loop into the stratosphere and beyond, eventually culminating in a Gravity-style free-float.

"Our Time"
A fully serviceable mindless party-time anthem that's also a gentle send-up of mindless party-time anthems; a point made only slightly more evident by the video wherein four separate Lily Allens (one wearing a hot dog costume) "enjoy" a sloppy night out in London (without ever leaving their taxi.)
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Do It Again

Those hoping for a re-up of Body Talk's instant-crush hyperpop magik may be let down: of the five cuts (35 minutes) comprising Robyksopp's Do It Again "mini-album" (Interscope), only the majestically punchy glitter-disco title track really satisfies on that score.  While "Every Little Thing" revives the Swede's less-heralded genius for heart-tugging balladry, the rest – one sinewy, acid-house Speak'n'Spell duet and two expansive slabs of sumptuous, swirling electronica (one instrumental, almost Reichian; the other a sneakily addictive epic of gracefulness and poise) – is more in Röyksopp's wheelhouse, and up there with the Norwegian duo's finest work.  [A-]

Sylvan Esso

This Durham-based duo – Amelia Meath of Mountain Man and Megafaun bassist Nick Sanborn – marry their infectious indie-pop playfulness (feistier than Feist; more toned-down than tourmates-to-be tUnE-yArDs) and fresh, crunchy DIY synth grooves (somewhere between The Blow and Purity Ring) with the urbane slinkiness of '90s girl-group R&B and the communality and casualness of kids' songs and sing-a-longs (they manage to interpolate both "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and Tommy James' "Hanky Panky" and without it seeming at all gimmicky.)  All told, it's a pretty lovable combination of things, and their self-titled debut (Partisan) is utterly swoon-worthy. [A-]

Nikki Nick

Merrill Garbus is a one-woman carnival, and Nikki Nack (4AD) is her wildest, thrillingest ride yet.  Seemingly nothing is off limits in her technicolor DIY-pop playground: she interpolates Busta Rhymes, Bill Haley, Jonathan Swift; impersonates Coco-Cola® (I think?); calls out life by name; conflates counting rhymes with civics lessons, bloody satire with bubblegum funk, diatribes with dance parties.  The sheer volume of musical information here – tribal chanting! fiddle tunes! field hollers! clattery junkyard drum circles! slinky showchoir R&B! lazers! – makes the album feel like a continuously erupting fountain of confetti, as delirious as it is disorienting. [B+]

Lykke Li
I Never Learn

Sweden's favorite dreamy, doomed romantic has spent much of her career fusing the nakedly intimate with the brazenly anthemic; little wonder, then, that her bleakest, sparsest record to date also boasts her biggest choruses yet.  I Never Learn (LL/Atlantic) pares back the singer's wall of sound, swapping handclaps for strummed acoustics (but retaining the strings and massive drumbeats) to yield something at once lush, spacious and majestically chilly.  Title notwithstanding, she's well-schooled in the classic pop art of misdirection: proclaiming "I'm never gonna love again" – in full-on, no-fooling powerballad mode – like it's the most joyous, triumphant sentiment imaginable. [A-]

La Sera
Hour of the Dawn
[Indie Pop/Rock]

While the first two LPs from "Kickball" Katy Goodman's solo(ish) guise were relatively restrained, dreamily downcast affairs, Hour of the Dawn (Hardly Art) warrants its title: it's easily the erstwhile Vivian Girl's liveliest, jauntiest outing yet; ideally suited for the fast-approaching summer.  Musically, at least – "The sun's gone away/die young; get replaced" is not an entirely unrepresentative lyric.  There's a gratifying newfound looseness and punky muscle to the album's bouncy surf jangles and power-pop jams – not to mention frequent, surprisingly blistering guitar solos – while Goodman's Zooey Deschanelish sweetness is tempered by just a hint of Corin Tucker wail. [B-]

Yellow Memories

This London-based Senegalese-Swedish soul sister is clearly a fervent disciple in the church of Baduizm, evoking Ms. Erykah in both her smoked honey pipes and gritty, simmering, Dilla-fied grooves.  Her sneakily addictive debut Yellow Memories (Eglo), though crafted in collaboration with a small army of forward-thinking producers (Floating Points, Oh No, Flako, Theo Parrish...), asserts a distinct identity within its musically omnivorous array of stripped-down jazzy funk, airy kalimba-kissed shuffles, multi-tracked a cappella canticles and, especially, the punchy polyrhythms of commanding, groove-hopping centerpiece "La Neta." [B+]

Tori Amos
Unrepentant Geraldines

Unrepentant Geraldines (Mercury Classics) is neither a conceptual opus nor a foray into classical or theater music.  But its ostensible return to "pop" still proceeds very much on Tori's terms, which means quirky, suite-like songs, slyly experimental arrangements, sumptuous piano ballads, willfully affected English diction and tangled, poetic ruminations on family, aging, relationships and contemporary politics refracted through art, history, fairy tales and mythological metaphor.  Like her spiritual and aesthetic predecessor Kate Bush, Amos has sacrificed precisely none of her restless, iconically idiosyncratic artistic ambition with middle age, and her vision hasn't felt this lucid or approachable in some time. [B]

Owen Pallett
[Indie Pop/Experimental]
concert preview

Owen Pallett's new album, In Conflict (Domino), is sumptuously orchestrated – we'd expect nothing less from a first-call arranger to the indie stars (and beyond) – but it's also the first time the loop-loving violinist has cut many of his basic tracks live with a band.  Synths and drums are as central to these dozen baroque-pop vignettes as are the strings and brass of the Czech Philharmonic (or Brian Eno's several choral cameos), and they lend the florid, ever-shifting backdrops beneath Pallett's increasingly magnificent tenor – he'd be equally thrilling as a church chorister or a Broadway belter – a dramatic urgency that underpins the album's title.  Thematically, Pallett trades his earlier work's self-reflexive fantasy realms for the boundless emotional topography and neurodiversity of real life: we get a poignant glimpse of our hero as a young, cosmically conscious sci-fi nerd, in thrall to "the terror of the infinite," and, later, a childless, gin-guzzling thirty-something cynic one only hopes isn't entirely autobiographical.

Daniel Avery
concert preview

Daniel Avery's phenomenally enjoyable debut album, Drone Logic (Phantasy Sound), got compared a lot to the Chemical Brothers when it came out last year – something you really don't hear enough in discerning electronic music circles – which nails its conspicuously accessible appeal, epic emotional scale, acid-soaked aesthetic and unabashedly Big (like they used to say) Beats.  Indeed, these tracks could've slotted easily into, say, the magnificent back half of Surrender.  But where the Chems are all-embracing, Beatles-besotted, pop-minded polyglots, Avery's much more of a purist: a classicist in construction – not a drop or build out of place – with an almost ascetic devotion to writhing acid synths lines, infinitely syncopated hemiolas and tech-house thump, limiting his vocal inclusions to the odd spoken phrase or two.  (Sometimes very odd: whatever the hell "water jump" is supposed to mean, Avery's deliriously deep, slurred intonation makes it downright anthemic.)

concert preview

Synthpop music slid, early this century, from cheesy '80s-throwback novelty to burgeoning revivalist subculture to mainstream, even dominant, cultural force, relatively free of "retro" baggage.  The not-dissimilarly once-dated "vintage" styles of electro-funk and slick, blue-eyed plastic soul (cf. the lately rehabilitated Hall & Oates) may be undergoing a similar shift in status, with everyone from Phoenix and Cherub to Mayer Hawthorne and Robin Thicke taking part.  Montreal's Dave 1 and P-Thugg have been it for over a decade now, and four albums in – White Women (Atlantic) drops next week – what was once unabashedly schticky now just plays like great pop: expertly crafted (the humorous but almost radically sincere opener "Jealous" should make Katy Perry, say, jealous indeed); lovingly packed with old-school reference points but still breezily modern-feeling; winkingly witty; utterly committed to a stylistically apt sensitive-loverman persona ("our love's too great to attenuate"), but no less genuinely seductive because of it.

concert preview

Especially compared to what we expect from Scandinavian women in their mid-20s, MØ – the moniker derives from Karen Marie Ørsted's initials, and sounds approximately like an apathetic cow – makes a curious kind of pop.  The hooks are there, on the Dane's debut No Mythologies to Follow (RCA), but they're the sort that wait for you to come to them rather of lunging out, over-excitedly, to snare you on first listen.  The production is synth-based, and generally danceable, but it's far from the bubbly, disco-derived electro-pop of, say, Robyn: it's denser, slinkier, a little bit murky, drawing heavily from trap and dubstep, combining with MØ's dusky, expressive vocals to suggest a more thugged-out crosspollination of Lana's smoldering neo-trip-hop and Lykke Li's mournful torch balladry.

Fear of Men/Pains of Being Pure at Heart
[Indie Pop]
concert preview

I'll confess: I was initially put off Fear of Men by the name, which, especially coupled with the album title Loom (Kanine), makes the British quartet seem way more angsty and post-punky and generally (gender-)troubled than their music actually sounds.  Granted, all that stuff's probably still there in the lyrics.  And you could hardly call them sunny – at best: blissfully bleak.  But Jessica Weiss has a voice like melted butter, the band absolutely nails that pristine, shimmery guitar and those haunting angelic plainsong harmonies (cf. Veronica Falls), and theirs is the prettiest, dreamiest indie-pop debut in some time.  Nothing to fear!  The headlining – and, likewise, painless – Pains... just dropped the super-duper-shiny Days of Abandon (Yebo) – amazeballs sample song title: "Masokissed" – which reconciles their debut's C86 giddiness with its successor's major-league alt-rock muscularity, upping the ante with utterly irresistible Cure-at-their-poppiest bounce and just a pinch of Lovelessy smear.

The Both
concert preview

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo are well-matched in wit, stature, and partiality to good old-fashioned pop/rock tunefulness (not to mention goofy videos), but they still seem like a fairly odd couple, less for stylistic reasons than energetic ones: Leo's scrappy, perennially excitable exuberance vs. Mann's wry, cucumber-cool dispassion.  Initially, The Both (SuperEgo) seems to tip the scales toward Mann's more reserved M.O. – Leo's presence doesn't, for instance, magically jolt her back into long-forgotten rock'n'roll mode (á la 1995's I'm With Stupid) – and, as often with her output, it takes a few spins to really reveal itself.  Just a few though, and ultimately it feels just like it should: an elegantly balanced collaboration, with Teddy's fingerprints abundantly evident on jaunty, deliciously hooky highlights like "Volunteers of America" and "Milwaukee" (whose video was partially shot at Boot & Saddle), in the album's mild political bent (particularly the lovely environmental protest tune "Hummingbird") and in the choice of a Thin Lizzy cover (the pensive "Honesty Is No Excuse" – also tackled recently by Cass McCombs) and plenty of sprightly, Lizzy-esque guitar solos.

Wye Oak/Braids
concert preview

After a draining two years of touring behind the well-received Civilian, Wye Oak songwriter/guitarslayer/frontwoman Jenn Wasner took a breather from her mainstay indie rock duo – and from six-strings altogether – with the fun, retro-leaning electronic pop/R&B side project Dungeonesse.  What then seemed like an unabashed (and delightful) lark turns out to be a significant signpost for the direction Wassner has now taken her main band on their new, fourth, full-length.  Shriek (Merge) fits somewhere vaguely between that outfit and the Wye Oak of old, but it still registers as a major, dramatic shift, recasting Wassner's subtle, emotionally potent songwriting and ever-more-evocative alto onto nuanced, layered electronic art-pop soundscapes that will impose even more improbable demands on their already intricate two-person stage setup.  It also makes them, suddenly, unusually apt touring partners for Montreal's Braids, whose stunningly lovely Flourish//Perish (Arbutus) traverses similarly delicate Kate Bush-via-Kid A territory; alternately lush, droning and jittery, with the added otherworldliness of Raphaelle Standell-Preston's breathy, fairy-like vocals.

Reigning Sound
concert preview

Greg Cartwright, rock'n'roll true believer and man of infinitely many bands (Compulsive Gamblers, Parting Gifts, Detroit Cobras...) got his gritty, stripped-down stomp on last year with the blistering on-record return of proto-neo garage punks the Oblivians, but the forthcoming Merge debut from his more rootsily-inclined Reigning Sound – that group's first outing in five years – finds his retro-rocking pendulum swinging hard in the other direction.  Shattered, despite the title, is a wonderfully warm, surprisingly polished ride – several cuts feature strings – blending country with organ-drenched, Stax-style R&B like only a born Tennesseean could (though Cartwright pays homage to his current home-state – and his label's – on funky country strut "North Cackalacky Girl") and generally hearkening to the peerless, pop-minded blue-eyed soul of the Rascals or, especially, fellow Memphian Alex Chilton's Box Tops.

Guided By Voices
concert preview

Magnet Magazine, publishing in Philly since 1993, have long trumpeted their endearingly objectivity-free adoration for all things Guided by Voices.  So it's no shocker in Gloomtown that they'd tap the Ohioan juggernauts to keynote their 21st birthday bash, alongside two bands – Jersey's Titus Andronicus and Florida's Surfer Blood – who surfaced during the magazine's several-year print hiatus but share its decidedly '90s-steeped sensibilities.  GbV, who likewise emerged from hibernation c. 2011 – and who should probably consider a subscription-based model themselves – earned a general best-post-reunion-effort consensus for February's Motivational Jumpsuit (it certainly takes best-title honors) but they've already moved on: the polar vortex-inspired Cool Planet (GBV Inc.) marks their sixth full-length since 2012 – at this rate, this new incarnation will eclipse the original's two-decade, sixteen-album run in just four more years.  It's a tad ballad-heavy, but still has its share of chirpy hits and glamtastic riffs, though tonight's lovefest will likely skew toward moldy oldies anyway.

concert preview

How do Michael Gira and his unrelentingly resurgent Swans follow up The Seer, the intimidatingly massive 2012 opus that Gira described as the culmination of all his musical efforts over the past three decades?  Well, certainly not by scaling anything back.  To Be Kind (Young God) is another double-disc behemoth, if anything even more extreme than the last.  Dark (to say the least), but far from monochromatic; its two uncompromising, utterly compelling hours encompass dread-steeped cosmic blues, furiously churning riffage, glacial death-folk dirges, nightmarish incantations, demented devil-horn funk (the surprisingly dance-punky "Oxygen") and endless, pummeling, primordial rhythms, with Gira spouting mystic declamations atop the maelstrom like an unholy composite of Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, and Lucifer.

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Slint occupy a weird place in the alt-rock cosmology: little heard during their brief initial lifespan ('86-'91), eventually elevated via murmur and myth to critical preeminence as secret forefathers of the 1990s indie rock movement, but it's still not like their name comes up all that often.  Which makes sense.  Spiderland (Touch and Go), the 1991 sophomore LP and swan song, now lavishly reissued, upon which their classic status essentially rests, is a pretty weird album: slow to reveal itself, seemingly instrumental in spirit if only because Brian McMahan's enigmatic, softly spoken narratives are mixed almost too low to register.  It's more exploratory than exclamatory; wending its dark, brooding way through oblique, quirky compositional avenues.  Those roads, starting from nearly nowhere (Louisville KY, geographically, but also the splintering tail-end shards of the '80s' hardcore and college rock demiverses) eventually seemed to lead almost everywhere in the ensuing decades of underground rock: slowcore, emo, math rock, doom metal, post-punk and most especially the fertile expanse of post-rock; the band's breadcrumb trail leading equally to the intricate jazzy restraint of Tortoise (who once counted Slint's David Pajo as a member) and the epic bombast of Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor!

A Minor Forest
concert preview

Following last week's visit from reunited/reissued/revered alt-rock harbingers Slint comes another band of resurgent '90s nonconformists who were among that Louisville group's most direct early influencees.  At once jagged and meticulous, this San Francisco outfit homed in on the mostly-latent traces of hardcore punk haunting Slint's ineffable, crudely cinematic proto-post rock.  They interspersed their knotty but somehow meditative guitar-work with episodes of overt aggression that made them an anomalously screamy outlier on Chicago post-rock hub Thrill Jockey (who reissued their two albums – 1996's awesomely named Flemish Altruism and 1998's Inindependence – for Record Store Day.)  The established pigeonhole is "math rock," but while they had (and presumably retain) the requisite technical dizziness, compositional instability and penchant for jokey and/or esoteric song titles – "Jacking Off George Lucas," "Putting the Gay Back in Reggae" – the term suggests a clinical dispassion that's decidedly absent here.

concert preview

The early buzz on ††† – the side project super-trio of The Deftones' Chino Moreno, fellow '90s alt-rock survivor Shaun Lopez (of the band Far) and the enigmatic Chuck Doom – linked the band to the murky, oft-mocked electronic semi-genre of witch house, but that connection is mostly limited to generalized gothiness and a commitment to using typographical daggers in place of the letter "T" – †hus, na†urally, no† a soli†ary †rack †i†le on †heir eponymous debu† (Sumerian) omi†s †ha† le††er.  (Incidentally, you can pronounce their name as "Crosses," although "the typographical daggers" would be way radder.)  What we get instead is a particularly palatable, moderately adventurous take on semi-heavy, semi-electronic industrial arena rock, a la mid-90s Depeche Mode or any-era Nine Inch Nails.  Now, where's the keyboard shortcut for a backward "N"?
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

19 May 2014

Review Round-Up: April 2014

And here's the reviews part of the equation.  Some really good stuff this month(s)!  It has felt like a bit of a slow start to the year, music-wise, but I think we're finally kicking into gear by now.  Some party bangers which are definitely gonna be in high rotation this #partysummer; some sweet sad softies, and a bit of everything in between.  As usual, starting off with a review from MAGNET; not necessarily my favorite of the bunch, but certainly nice enough, and my isn't that a lovely cover...

Ben Watt

As half of Everything But The Girl and then head of Buzzin' Fly records, Ben Watt was responsible for two of the '90s' most peerless electronic pop records and some of the '00s' finest deep house singles, comps and club nights.  Hendra, a sort of solo re-debut – technically, it follows 1983's North Marine Drive – has little to do with any of that; the more salient reference point would be the adult-contemporary folk-pop of EBTG's '80s work, minus the cocktail-jazz trappings.  The reliable through-line, certainly applicable here, is a commitment to smoothness, warmth and emotional resonance, in this case underscored musically by producer Ewan Pearson's subtle synth inflections and Bernard Butler's strikingly Knopfleresque guitar work.   Watt's voice may not be quite as preternaturally stunning as that of his partner, Tracey Thorn (whose is?), but it's eloquent and expressive, and fits beautifully with these ten unflinching, autumnal ruminations, character sketches, pastoral travelogues and reflections on loss: a scattering of ashes; a walk on sea-cliffs; portraits from memory; further inquiries into the ever-mysterious inner workings of the human mind and heart. [7.5/10]

originally published in Magnet Magazine

Bad Blood, Good Blood

Spencer Kingman's high, lonesome, hymnlike singing, gently frolicsome melodies, and spare, unfussy fingerpicking form some of the most strangely arresting – and straight-up loveliest – music you could hope to hear.  Spend some time, though, with the songwriter's debut LP, Bad Blood, Good Blood (Ethereal Sequence), and you'll notice some distressingly dark undercurrents beneath all that prettiness, with intimations of shadowy cults and mystical, historical violence.  And still greater mysteries: "Woke up with ketchup on my pants and face," runs one notable line.  Also: "How'm I gonna get this piano to play cards with me?" Now, who can't relate to that? [B+]

Old 97's
Most Messed Up

Old 97's are one of the great rock bands – no sub-genre qualifiers needed – of the last twenty years, and Most Messed Up (ATO) is, easy, the best on-record testament to that fact in well over ten.  They've probably earned the album's sorta-hokey, career-recapping opener (whose own lyrics express openly self-referential skepticism of self-referentiality – hmm), but it's everything afterward that demonstrates why, with the Dallas quartet's rowdiest set in ages getting them back in touch with their country-punk roots, and frontman Rhett Miller in loose-livin' "serial ladykiller" mode like we haven't seen, maybe ever. [A-]  
(now if they could only learn how to use an apostrophe...i'm totally not buying this explanation.)

Damon Albarn
Everyday Robots

Damon Albarn – rockstar, cartoon character, opera composer, pan-global musical collaborator and instigator – hunkers down in arguably his best, fondest guise for de facto solo debut Everyday Robots (Parlophone): as a singer of sweet, tender, wistfully resigned songs; the Country Sad Ballad Man.  The country in question being, of course, England, though this album downplays the Anglocentrism of kissing-cousin The Good, The Bad and the Queen, while retaining its lush, downcast electronic/acoustic moodscapes – jaunty African ukulele detour "Mr. Tembo" excepted – in favor of reaching toward a bruised, bedraggled, tech-addled, but still-beating Universal, on humbly personal terms. [B+]

Joan as Police Woman
The Classic

Joan as Police Woman plays by her own laws.  The NY singer-songwriter (think a weirder, gutsier Feist) may be taking her shot at retro-style soul on fourth album The Classic (PIAS), but it's hardly slavish or tradition-bound; as she asserts on one of several ambitiously epic cuts here: "I don't want to be nostalgic."  She's got a knack for confronting emotions – and melodies – from unpredictable angles; alternately piling on the organs, wah-wahs and leftfield metaphors (q.v. horny high-point "Holy City") and stripping it down, as with the title track's carefree, a cappella doo-wop (Reggie Watts beatbox!) or the lilting rocksteady closer. [B]

Ramona Lisa

If Arcadia (Terrible) was made in 1987 – and it totally could've been, by some esoteric art-pop auteur like The Blue Nile or Talk Talk... production by Eno or Sakamoto, vocals by Liz Fraser or Tracey Thorn... – it probably would've cost a few hundred thousand in a state-of-the-art studio.  Caroline Polachek recorded it in hotel rooms using MIDI plug-ins and her laptop's built-in mic.  I guess that's progress.  The Chairlift singer's woozy, carnivalesque synthetic pastorale works in the context of today's vaporwave and weirdo experimental R&B, but it'd be just as enticing – and strange – in any era. [A-]

...and bandname/artwork synergy brings us to...

Duck Sauce

The full-length bow from A-Trak and Armand van Helden's joking/not-joking partystarter DJ duo, entitled – what else? – Quack (Fool's Gold), is one of the most infectious party albums in recent memory – and certainly the silliest.  It's also a campy but undeniably heartfelt love letter to NYC dance culture, rooted in string-laden retro-disco and thumping, treble-heavy house – including the still-banging singles "aNYway" and "Barbra Streisand" – and spiked with salsa, doo-wop, MJ-esque soul-pop and Sugar Hill Gang-style hip-hop, all interlarded with ridiculous, birdbrained skits, one of which sums up the proceedings, aptly enough, as "acid house meets Elmer Fudd." [B]

Todd Terje
It's Album Time

When Norse disco god Todd Terje declares It's Album Time (Olsen), he doesn't just mean an extra-generous portion of his patented starry Eurodance floor-fillers.  Rest assured, the party's here – cherry-picked favorites from his beloved 12"s alongside amenably bubbly newbies like the euphoric "Oh Joy" – but he's gotta work his way to it, via assorted cosmic cine-schmaltz, Miami Vice funktasias, yacht-pop balladry (Bryan Ferry singing Robert Palmer, no less) and a truly inspired bit of muppet-samba goofiness (seems like he's been taking notes from buddy Lindstrøm re: cartoonishly proggy excess.)  Absolutely no less gonzo/corny/lovable than Random Access Memories. [B+]

Millie and Andrea
Drop The Vowels

Millie and Andrea is/are Miles Whittaker (of Demdike Stare) and Andy Stott, two principals among the abstract techno troublemakers at Manchester's Modern Love label.  Drop the Vowels finds the twosome running amok through a brittle, blown-out, post-industrial soundscape; bookended by queasy, clanking ambience but otherwise seething with innumerable frenzied, sawn-off breakbeats – erratic, jerry-rigged slabs of jungle, footwork, and syncopated quasi-house with only the rarest, sparest spikes of melody.  It's all about as vibrant and gleeful as you can imagine of an album that's also well represented by track titles like "Corrosive" and "Stay Ugly." [B+]

Christian Löffler
Young Alaska

This German producer's 2012 debut was a lush, verdant, tenderly organic thing that fully earned its pointedly non-electronica-ish title, A Forest.  Briefer but no less enchanted, Young Alaska (Ki) breathes even more warmth and melody into a similar palette of woody plinks and crinkles, mist-shrouded synths, gently thrumming grooves and the kind of ineffable, twinkling bell-tones patented by sleepytime house master Pantha du Prince, making particularly fine use of murmuring, sometimes nearly subliminal vocals.  It's as graceful and meticulous as the mounted, grayscale butterflies on the cover (Löffler's own design), but the exact opposite of colorless and dead. [A]


On his third Dial Records full-length, Berlin-based minimal meister Phillip Sollmann sidelines his moody, after-hours deep house for a starker if still magnificently slinky full-on foray into micro-techno.  Decay's durably thumping grooves are smooth, supple and very nearly lulling, but there's always a hint of unease: gorgeously rippling synths that never quite find resolution; eerily seductive swirls of melody; billowing atmospheres that toe the line between swaddling and smothering.  Occasional, slightly surreal spoken interjections (like Salvador Dali on the '50s gameshow "What's My Line?") augment the sense of drifting somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. [B-]


Bécs (Editions Mego) – we're told, rather unhelpfully, that it's pronounced "baeetch" – is the Austrian sound-sculptor's first full-length in five years and only his third since 2001's landmark Endless Summer, whose absorbing flirtations with warmly approachable harmonic and textural sensibilities he revisits here.  Not that it's anyone's idea of "pop," exactly, but it's just the sort of embodied, expansive ambient abstraction that's guaranteed to raise a smile as the days grow longer, dominated and defined by shimmering and surprisingly muscular guitars; earthy, blissed-out organ drones and (heavily distorted) piano as much as glitchy squalling and gauzy sheets of stippled static.  Surf's up! [B]


Inventions is both a safe bet and a somewhat unpredictable proposition: Matthew Cooper (aka Eluvium) and Explosions in the Sky's Mark T. Smith are each masters of atmospheric, deeply emotive instrumental music, but how exactly would their distinct modes of ambient/post-rock/what-have-you – Cooper's dappled drones; Smith's surging guitar-work – align?  The duo's unsurprisingly warm-sounding self-titled debut (Temporary Residence) favors an Eluvium-like gentleness and ease, though with an almost dizzying array of sounds – murmury subvocalizations, primeval drumbeats, thick shoals of white noise – that help stir up considerable motion and drama without resorting to full-on Explosions-style crescendi and bombast. [B-]

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

Preview Round-Up: April 2014

Big Haul for April (and, being late finally getting to it, I've added a few more chronologically relevant to the pile since the start of publishing May, which is practically over already....) – – so, I'm splitting this up into two posts.  (If nothing else, it affords me more labels.)  Next one will be reviews, this one is concert previews, as usual something of a mish-mash but predominantly timely.  The ladysingers – Frankie! Holly! Juana! Nina! – definitely take it this time.  (Hat-tip, too, to the tip-top NYC girlpoppers Habibi, whose tunes were in my ears for weeks and whom I desperately wanted to write about, but whose communication skillz and possibly-probably college-kids-only show details were both kinda woefully scant...hopefully next time!)

Frankie Cosmos
[Super-Indie Pop]
concert preview

NYC singer-songwriter Greta Kline has the wide-eyed infectiousness of someone about half her age – which wouldn't be such an unusual statement except that she only just turned 20.  Consider the cute, behatted puppy and KidPix-y crayon lettering adorning her just-released Zentropy (Double Double Whammy), whose lyrics include things like "I'm the kind of girl buses splash with rain" and "My daddy is a fireman."  (Definitely untrue, incidentally: her parents are rather famous movie actors.)  But all that undeniably twee sweetness – tempered by plenty of relatable adolescent angst, and unabashed sadness about the death of her dog; cover star Joe-Joe – never feels insipid, or even particularly precious, probably because the songs are so clearly, simply, drawn from life.  Zentropy, her first studio album, consists of re-recordings from the forty-something homemade releases on her bandcamp page – most of them made in 2011 under the name Ingrid Superstar – which, in their frankness and brevity (her songs are rarely longer than two minutes, often shorter than one) feel more like an audio diary (or, maybe more fittingly, a Tumblr) than a "back catalog" per se.  Gussied up – just a tad – they have the puckishly spunk of prime K records (with her deep-voiced boyfriend/drummer, Porches' Aaron Maine, as her own personal Calvin Johnson) and the winsome, gritty jangle of early Best Coast.

Nina Persson
[Singer-Songwriter/Indie Pop]
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Technically speaking, Animal Heart (The End) is the first solo album in Nina Persson's twenty-year career, but it's much less a clean break than a continuation of the magnificent, countrified torch balladry she's made with/as A Camp, or the morose, strummy melodrama of the latter-day Cardigans records – indeed, it carries on down the rootsy, bummer-bound trajectory she's followed ever since the sardonic glitterbomb pinnacle of "Lovefool."  Sonically speaking, it's actually one of the poppier things she's done since then, the lap steels and lounge piano sharing space with ample synthesizers and almost-danceable drumming – the title track, in particular, recalls the muted electro-sparkle of the recent Broken Bells record.  But the production, and even the songs – among Persson's most restrained and introspective, co-written with her longtime collaborator and husband Nathan Larson (of Shudder to Think) and producer Eric D. Johnson (of Fruit Bats) – take a backseat to the potent-as-ever evocation of her searing, raspy, inimitable voice.

Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs
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Holly Golightly was born in London, where – yes indeed – her mama named her after a certain sprightly Truman Capote heroine.  But whereas her literary namesake was a Southern country girl making her way in the big city, this Golightly has taken the opposite course: she now makes her home on a rural Georgia farm, alongside Lawyer Dave, her Texas-born partner in twang and the long-running only member of The Brokeoffs.  A quick listen to any of the ridiculously many recordings Holly's made in the last two decades – running the gamut from blues, country and rockabilly to'50s-style R&B and rootsy garage pop, typically infused with a punkish impetuousness that, if anything, makes it all the more authentic – will leave little doubt that's probably where she belongs.  All Her Fault (Transdreamer), album number twenty-something, involved a longer creative process than usual (they made it at home, juggling recording and farm duties), but it's still plenty ragged and right, and a mighty fine place to dip your toe into her catalog; surveying all the aforementioned styles but tending toward the country-blues end of things, including a swampy, stompy rendition of the standard "Trouble in Mind."

Juana Molina/Arc Iris
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Argentina's Juana Molina is the kind of artist who, having established a specific stylistic niche for herself, has been content to remain there, exploring and burrowing in, making only minor modifications over the years.  It's hard to fault her: Molina's particular sound-world really is that endlessly entrancing, and utterly unique.  Her music blurs the boundaries between acoustic, folk-based songwriting and gently abstract electronic sound design, with layers of hushed, hypnotic vocals, Bossa-tinged guitar figures, delicate sine-wave synths and an unpredictable array of organic and digital percussion all playing textural roles as much as melodic, harmonic or rhythmic ones.  Last year's Wed 21 (Crammed Discs) – her sixth album and first in five years – did evince somewhat more variation than usual; it may be her most sonically adventurous outing yet, even verging on aggressive at times, though never sacrificing her singular, dreamlike beauty.  Opener Arc Iris (that's "rainbow" in Molina's native tongue...almost) is the new project of former Low Anthem member Jocie Adams, whose ambitious Anti- debut flits from banjo-happy indie folk to pensive chamber pop to croony cabaret-jazz, showcasing a mercurial, somewhat saccharine soprano warble somewhere in the vicinity of Vermont's Anaïs Mitchell or our own dear, departed (just for New Orleans, don't worry!) Carsie Blanton.

Mac DeMarco/Juan Wauters
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What's eating Mac DeMarco?  The impish indie-popper's second-ish album, Salad Days (Captured Tracks), is a beautiful bummer; a smoothed-out, ultimately mellow set of forlorn romantic odes, reclusive soliloquies and musings on a life spent "always feeling tired/smiling when required" (as the Kinks-cribbing title track has it), buoyed mostly by his signature limpid, warbly guitar tone.  Onstage, he remains a lovable, asinine goofball, given to good-natured crowd heckling and abrupt, muppet-y death-metal growls – more apt to parlay a mincing lyrical sentiment like "If you don't agree with the things that go on within my life/well honey that's fine, just know that you're wasting your time" into a crude couple-word outburst (probably "suck my cock!")  Still, he seems awfully down for a 23-year-old quasi-rockstar.  (As for what he's eating – I bet you he doesn't know the first thing about salad!)  As for DeMarco's Uruguayan-born, Queens-based labelmate Juan Wauters, his daffily lackadaisical debut, N.A.P. North American Poetry, splits the difference between The Beets (Wauters' Fugs-y, no-fi garage punk/folk outfit) and the Beats, offering naïf, absurdist nursery-rhyme ditties like "Escucho Mucho" and "All Tall Mall Will Fall" that sound agreeably as though they were dreamed up on the spot.

Dean Wareham
[Indie Pop/Singer-Songwriter]
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With the quietly seminal Galaxie 500 and the equally lovely, undersung Luna, Dean Wareham was a pioneer of and steadfast footsoldier for a soft, dreamy strain of indie rock that's only grown in influence and stature in the decade since Luna's mid-'00s dissipation.  He's kept busy since then, and kept fighting the good, gently melodic fight, in a duo with wife/bassist Britta Phillips, but somehow it's taken until now, twenty-six years into a career perennially studded with projects – film scores, collaborations, 7"s, books, endless covers – for him to start recording under his own name: first last year's Emancipated Hearts EP, and now what we must, improbably, call his solo debut.  Not surprisingly, Dean Wareham (Double Feature) is an understated affair, a subtly orchestrated, acoustic-leaning showcase for his high, reedy tenor (a bit Neil Young, a bit Jonathan Donahue of sometime collaborators Mercury Rev.)  True to form, it adds a few new highlights to his songwriting canon, most notably – perhaps fitting given his stylistic steadiness over the decades – "Holding Pattern," which sums up a certain cultural mentality with the great drivetime couplet "Kansas, Boston, Toto, Journey, Foreigner and Styx/San Diego over Denver seventeen to six."

Real Estate
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Real Estate are armchair archivists, cartographers of the humdrum, perpetually honing and re-indexing their inventory of suburban contentment and ennui, worry and nostalgia from beneath a continuous, cozy blanket of reverb.  Their unsurprisingly lovely third album may be entitled Atlas (Domino) (with songs including "Horizon" and "Navigator") but it hardly charts much territory not already intimately mapped out by Matt Mondanile's rippling six-string and Martin Courtney's hushed tenor.  It's a further, familiar survey of the "subtle landscape where [they] come from" – Ridgewood NJ, to put a point on it – another ten meticulously shimmery miniature miracles, as pristine as ever, albeit newly shadowed by domestic disquiet and the bewilderment of encroaching middle age.  It's less interested in hooks, even – though a few, like "Talking Backwards"' sprightly frustration and "Primitive"'s lovelorn daze, do poke out – than in refining and abiding in its own particular topography of twinkly reverie.  Curiously, like Pierre Menard writing Don Quixote, the band's current tourmates (and fellow haze-hounds) Pure X have followed a roundabout route to arrive, recently, at markedly similar terrain: the Austin-based group's past releases traversed considerably darker, bleaker, psych-damaged ground, but with the forthcoming Angel (Acephale) they have, for all intents and purposes, made a Real Estate album.

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On record – specifically, the just-released Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art) – Detroit four-piece Protomartyr cut an curious enough figure of a punk band: able to rail and pummel with the best of them but not averse to cleanly-picked guitar lines and blunt-edged tunefulness; offsetting vocalist Joe Casey's wordy, dour (but funny!) Mark E. Smith-style screeds with alternating patches of claustrophobia and spaciousness.  On stage, though, they overwhelm: dialing down the textural nuance in favor of forceful squalling while Casey – a decidedly un-punk-looking figure in rumpled businesswear, hair thinning – spews his rants with a smirking, Tourretic nonchalance tinged with apathetic disgust; a recent set at SXSW left me unsure whether to smile or shudder.

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Loop formed in London in 1986, spent five years kicking up a stormcloud of loud, dark, drony, stony noise, and promptly disbanded, with the sense of a mission fully and utterly accomplished.  Their trio of LPs – Heaven's End (1987), Fade Out (1989), A Gilded Eternity (1990); the titles neatly sum up the band's sound, ethos and career trajectory – synthesized the disparate heavinesses of Can, Suicide, Hawkwind and the Stooges into their own distinct shoegaze/post-punk/space rock amalgam, less heralded but no less eruptive than fellow-travelers like Sonic Youth and Spacemen 3.  (All were recently reissued on their own Reactor label with bonus tracks galore.)  Their return, twenty-three years after the fact, feels less like a victory lap or cash-grab than a spot-check to make sure the world's bad vibes remain properly stoked.

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The German composer/pianist Volker Bertelmann – his pseudonym makes reference to both the skin care company and an earlier, similarly Romantic German composer – is one of the most notable modern practitioners of prepared piano: the technique, most often associated with John Cage, of sticking assorted objects onto and into a piano's strings to change the instrument's timbral palette.  Hence, even though his new record Abandoned City (City Slang/Temporary Residence) is essentially a solo piano effort, and entirely acoustic, it never sounds like it.  These nine hypnotic, dreamily percussive pieces, inspired by actual empty and forgotten municipalities (deserted mining towns; evacuated disaster sites; unrealized, once-futuristic planned communities), feature an array of pseudo-electronic and/or orchestral-sounding tones and textures that it's hard to imagine being created live without either a stage full of instrumentalists or a table full of blinking boxes.  Sunday's performance, then, should be somewhere in between a concert and a conjuring show.

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After the breakout splash of 2011's Dive, San Francisco producer Scott Hansen – who's also, rather tellingly, a noted graphic design artist – returns for another dip in similarly balmy, impressionistic waters.  It's called Awake (Ghostly International), but that's not exactly the state it most readily evokes or inspires, except perhaps in a glimmering, cosmic existential sense: Tycho – incarnated here as a three-piece outfit, augmenting Hansen's endless pristine, placid synth melodies with live drums and plenty of palm-muted guitar texture – remains a reliable source of dreamytime music for any hour of the day, as luxuriant and tranquilizing as an electric blanket.

The Sounds
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The sounds you'll hear on these gloriously vapid Swedish slicksters' fifth album, Weekend (Arnioki), aren't too different from the sounds you heard on the first four: big, dumb, inescapable drumbeats; terse, trashy guitar glitz; squealing confetti synths and, most crucially, the brassy, impetuous wails of vocalist Maja Ivarsson.  They just about perfected the knack for candy-coated, punk-derived, neo-New Wave dance-pop/rock on 2006's great Dying to Say This To You, and they've barely deviated from course since then.  Well, mostly: to be honest, there are definitely more acoustic guitars here than usual – particularly after the previous album's detour into synth-heavy electrica – and there's even a bit of banjo.  Just don't take that as a sign they've mellowed too much.  Lyrical development?  The dance-punky opener is an injunction to "shake shake shake shake," which more or less sets the tone.  Oh, but title track is a personally-inflected ballad, that must signal some maturity, no?  Here's how they get intimate: "If you're wondering what it's like to be me/I live for the weekend baby!"

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She may be more readily associated with Sri Lanka, London or, more recently, Los Angeles, but it always feels like a homecoming of sorts when Maya Arulpragasam plays Philly.  It was here, after all, while shacking up with Diplo, a full mind-boggling decade ago, that she and the then-Hollertronix-fronting DJ – her producer-turned-beau-turned-twitter-feuding nemesis – cooked up the notice-serving, zeitgeist-nailing, still-slammin' Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape, passing out the first copies at a Northern Liberties dance party.  Ten years, four albums, one massive, inadvertent crossover anthem (the untouchable "Paper Planes") and countless beefs and controversies later – her genius has always been for aesthetic innovation and provocation, not nuanced articulation or political theory, which understandably gets her into some trouble – M.I.A. is still causing plenty of ruckus and, more importantly, getting the party started.  Last year's curiously overlooked Matangi (Interscope) was as sharp, inventive and addictive as anything she's done; not only her boldest, most idiosyncratic full-length yet but – unlike 2010's uneven, self-consciously confrontational /\/\ /\ Y /\ – one where her attitude and snark added to the fun rather than short-circuiting it.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

01 April 2014

Review Round-Up: March 2014

Glenn Kotche

Glenn Kotche's Adventureland is a dazzling jumble of sound, textural curiosity and thrilling movement; inviting to explore, though far from easily untangled.  Unlike the first three, strictly solo percussion offerings from the composer – better known as the drummer for Wilco, Loose Fur and On Fillmore, though only the latter of those bears any real relationship to what he's up to here – this one compiles compositions for larger ensembles: the ever-game Kronos Quartet takes on "Anomaly" (whose seven movements veer from burbling sine-waves to brooding strings to drifting, refracted bell tones), while the five-part "The Haunted" is scored for "two pianos vs. percussion" (though truthfully the pianos are treated as just another part of wide-ranging percussive onslaught.)  Oddly, instead of presenting these pieces independently, their movements are alternated and interspersed with others (jaunty gamelan episode "The Traveling Turtle," disorienting soundscape "Triple Fantasy.")  Perhaps this is meant to enhance a sense of album-ness, though it mainly serves to ensure a total lack of continuity.  It's unclear whether even Kotche really knows what's happening half the time here, but it's a delightfully puzzling ride nevertheless. [7/10]
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Broken Bells
After The Disco
[Indie Pop]

Maybe it's the benefit of recalibrated expectations – neither James Mercer nor Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) is the indie it-kid he once was – but the duo's follow-up to their resolutely ho-hum 2010 Broken Bells debut is a thoroughly pleasant surprise.  A batch of trebly Mercer melodies as sweetly gratifying as any recent Shins album – the gently dancy title track in particular – paired with decidedly livelier (if still kinda glum) bleep-scapes from Mr. Mouse, After The Disco (Columbia) is a distinctive sequel that readily outshines its predecessor.  [B]

Katy B
Little Red

If Katy B's early triumphs helped set the stage for mushrooming UK dance acts like Disclosure and Rudimental, sophomore album Little Red (Rinse/Columbia) is the flame-haired siren's leapfrogging bid for an even bolder pop crossover; enlisting name songwriters and street-level beatsmiths alike.  There's nothing little about it though: not the production, which courts Adele-caliber power-ballad pyrotechnics and laser-point club fire (anthemic peak-time house spiked with the syncopations of 2-step and UK funky), often simultaneously; certainly not Katy's singing, which is in full-throated soul diva mode throughout – if she scans a tad faceless at times, her chops are unassailable. [A-]

Death Vessel
Island Intervals
[Indie Pop]

Providence-based tunesmith Joel Thibodeau used to make spare, fingerpicky falsetto folk-pop as Death Vessel.  That's still the core of Island Intervals (Sub Pop), but the songs here are arrayed in sheaths of dreamy, shimmery sound: chimes, pump-organs, layered vocals, gently clattery junk-drawer percussion.  It was – unmistakably – recorded in Rejkyavik, with associates of Múm and Sigur Rós, and resembles nothing so much as Jonsí's prismatic Go (Thibodeau's voice is equally distinctive, similarly elfin and angelic) only with the alien histrionics replaced by a tender, cheery, unassuming sweetness. [B+]

Linda Perhacs
The Soul Of All Natural Things
[Folk/New Age]

Linda Perhacs' sui generis pastoral-psych manifestation Parallelograms sank unheard in 1970, like a stone in the impassive Pacific, sending long-range time-lapse ripples through the 21st century "freak folk" underground that have lapped back to resurface, nearly half a century later, as The Soul of All Natural Things (Asthmatic Kitty), a second LP that finds the Californian's gentle, moon-dappled spirit very much still with us.  Not everyone will embrace Perhacs' soft-focus mysticism, polyrhythmic drum-circle trances and impressionistic choral tone-poetry (abetted by spiritual progeny Julia Holter and Nite Jewel) this time around, either, but those who do will accept a truly rare, unexpected gift. [B+]

These New Puritans
Field of Reeds

Save the occasional volley of intricate, mechanistic drumming, Field of Reeds (finally available stateside via Infectious/PIAS) bears zero resemblance to These New Puritans' jittery 2008 debut: the frenetic guitars eclipsed by plangent, contrapuntal piano and topiary thickets of horn and woodwind; Jack Barnett's Mark E. Smith bark modulated into a wistful Robert Wyatt warble.  (Imagine the transformation between XTC's Drums and Wires and the "orchustic" Apple Venus, only far more severe – compressed into three albums.)  The result is wholly breathtaking: an enigmatic, moodily majestic suite steeped in the estuary landscape of their native Essex; painstakingly sculpted yet gloriously inviting, impressionistic and immersive. [A-]

Christina Vantzou
No. 2

It's odd to think of drones as "efficient," but the hauntingly cinematic atmospheres of Christina Vantzou's No. 2 (Kranky) – which is titled, and behaves, less like an album per se than a classical composition; scored for strings, woodwinds, synthesizer, piano and, almost imperceptibly, voice – function similarly to the work of her best known collaborator, Stars of the Lid's Adam Wiltzie (who mixes here), only in miniature.  Vantzou might craft a two-minute vignette where he would stretch it to several times that length, managing just as much emotional resonance and considerably more subtle harmonic movement and coloration in a fraction of the time. [B]


What sort of strange, foreign images might the name "Vermont" evoke for a couple of urban German club heads like Danilow Plessow (aka Motor City Drum Ensemble) and Marcus Worgull (of Innervisions), who've chosen it to title their collaborative, eponymous Kompakt debut?  In comparison to both producers' typical house and techno output, this LP constitutes a substantial vacation, a sort of homespun pastoral exotica; full of twinkly synthesizer meanderings and modest maple-sugar melodies, gentle and beatless but not quite ambient, with an analog tinker-toy charm redolent of Plone, ISAN or early Boards of Canada. [B-]

Deadbeat and Paul St. Hilaire
The Infinity Dub Sessions
[Dub Techo]

"What the heck dem expect from we?" muses semi-legendary dub techno vocalist Paul St. Hilaire (aka Tikiman) on his inaugural full-length collaboration with the equally iconic Canadian producer Deadbeat.  Followers of the genre should know precisely what to expect from this pairing – nothing but the deepest, smoothest, most richly detailed electronic dub – and that's precisely what The Infinity Dub Sessions (BLKRTZ) delivers; a warm, roots-leaning set in contrast to the starker techno vibe of Deadbeat's recent work, and a fully worthy successor to Tikiman's pioneering material with Rhythm & Sound. [B]

Ricky Eat Acid/Forest Swords/How To Dress Well
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This well-balanced triple-bill convenes three of contemporary electronica's most subtle, emotionally absorbing soundscapers.  Maryland-based newcomer Sam Ray – who records as Ricky Eat Acid – is fresh off a gorgeous debut LP whose uncommonly personal, tactile warmth recalls the conceptual, atmospheric approach of early Tim Hecker.  Three Love Songs (Orchid Tapes) builds steam from an ambient shell of twinkling bell-like tones clusters, flickering found sound and white noise crinkles toward mirage-like trip-hop – the out-of-nowhere centerpiece "In my dreams we're almost touching" massages a looped snippet from a YouTube Drake cover atop a clubby, narcotic thump – before unfurling into lush, pocket-symphonic IDM haze.  English producer Matthew Barnes' work as Forest Swords is similarly unpredictable, dreamy and evocative, though it's not exactly easy listening: his Engravings LP (Tri Angle) recasts dubstep's dead-of-night disquietude with swathes of rusticated psychedelia and an almost primordial percussive sense.  Barnes' haunted, heavy-going vibe should be nicely offset by a rare full band set from gently smoldering electro-R&B crooner Tom Krell (a.k.a. How To Dress Well), who just dropped a typically poignant and lustrous new single, "Words I Can't Remember."

Douglas Dare
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Douglas Dare is something of an anomaly on the Erased Tapes roster; a singer-songwriter on a label more commonly associated with the abstract ambient compositions of Olafur Arnalds and current tourmate Nils Frahm.  But it makes some sense when you hear Whelm – his debut full length, swiftly recorded between November and January, and due out in May – whose songs are rooted in Dare's poignant, often historically informed lyrics and dominated by his simple, potent piano playing, but communicate just as much through textural immersion and the sub-verbal expressiveness of his aching, James Blakean tenor.  While the album's title (meaning to engulf or submerge) suggests an unbearable, overpowering intensity, the prevailing sense is of riding out the waves of uncertainty; finding solace, even calm, within chaos – as Dare sings, mantra-like: "I am blessed in this unrest."

A Winged Victory For The Sullen
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The 2011 debut from A Winged Victory for the Sullen – the joint project of drone major Adam Wiltzie (of the ineffable Stars of the Lid) and the neo-classicist Dustin O'Halloran – carved out a quietly distinctive, spacious space at the nexus of the two composers' discrete, meditative muses; a carefully balanced arithmetic of placidly drifting orchestration and focused pianism that was at once expansive and intimate.  (This show was moved from the First Unitarian Side Chapel to the church's sanctuary; it's easy to imagine both spaces lending themselves well to the duo's approach while emphasizing divergent aspects of the experience.)  A new album, Atomos (Kranky) is due this year, the score for a long-form dance piece; the harbinging (and somewhat confusingly named) Atomos VII EP introduces firmly bowed chords and a few marcato string figures in the place of O'Halloran's piano, perhaps gesturing toward a kinetic framework that might relate to actual human movement as opposed to, say, crystal growth, or the breaking dawn.

Marissa Nadler
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Marissa Nadler is now seven albums deep into a remarkably consistent catalog: consistent not just in quality but in stylistic purview (sparse acoustic balladry with rarefied glimmers of English and American folk roots), mood (bleak, haunted, gloomily resigned), subject matter (a hundred flavors of love gone sour), and sonic structure (Nadler's luminous, ethereal soprano and delicate, unwavering fingerpicking underpinned by a parade of atmospheric, often drone-inclined instrumental collaborators) – but also in her ability to find new nuances and subtle, revelatory variations within an outwardly static approach.  July, her raw, entrancing debut for Sacred Bones, is her most direct and personal collection yet, its songs grounded in a familiar contemporary maze of highways and hotels, dead city centers and disappearing seasons, and shaded with an American Gothic ambience reminiscent of a dialed-down Lana Del Rey, who herself may well have learned a thing or two from Nadler's soft, sad-eyed intensity.

Mark Mulcahy
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Active through the college-rock '80s and the alterna-'90s as frontman for the Connecticut-based Miracle Legion and spin-off project Polaris (who memorably soundtracked Nickelodeon's "Adventures of Pete and Pete") and later as a moodily inclined solo artist, songwriter Mark Mulcahy probably qualifies as a cult artist several times over.  (As evidenced by the 2009 tribute album Ciao My Shining Star, said cult includes the likes of Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe and The National; some pretty good folks to have on your side.)  The delightful Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You (Fire/Mezzotint) – his first album since 2005, newly available domestically after its initial UK release last June – offers an immediately appealing introduction to what the rest of us have been missing: it's playful and quirky but still heartfelt; sarcastic without being mean-spirited; a little gritty, a little pretty, full of jangly, unpredictable acoustic/electric guitar-pop tunes and earthy, personable wit.  Jonathan Richman, Eleanor Friedberger, Elliott Smith and Harry Nilsson all feel like relevant if not entirely reliable reference points.  Highlights abound, though the call and response chorus of "She Makes The World Turn Backwards" – "Where does it hurt? Everywhere! Can you stand up? I don't care!" – would be particularly great in concert as an audience back-and-forth.

D Charles Speer and the Helix
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D. Charles Speer – known to his mama as one Dave Shuford – is a longstanding member of semi-legendary avant-folk freaks No Neck Blues Band (he also moonlights with Coach Fingers and Brooklyn-psych super-trio Rhyton, among others), but he may be best known around these parts for his involvement in one of the late, lamented Jack Rose's final recordings: the defiantly loose, just-posthumously released collaborative EP Ragged and Right.  That's an epithet that'd be just as fitting for Doubled Exposure (Thrill Jockey), Speer's latest outing with well-oiled backing unit The Helix, which rambles from "Wallwalker's" Lou Reed-y krautrock choogle to "Cretan Lords"' bouzouki-tinged breakdown (Speer's got a well-established Grecian "thing") with stops at sprightly Western swing ("The Heated Hand"'), loping moonshine country-rock ("Red Clay Road"), blown-out boogie-woogie ("Tough Soup"') and the ten-minute drone-folk suite "Mandorla at Dawn."  It's Americana in full-on melting pot mode, with the weirdness knob cranked up at least halfway.  Hard to predict what manner of bar-band shenanigans they may get up to at Ortlieb's tomorrow night, but here's hoping they pour one out for Jack.

Vertical Scratchers/Boogarins
[Indie Rock/Pop]
concert preview

John Schmersal is one of indie rock's great itinerant semi-geniuses, so it's little surprise that Merge (whose roster has become a veritable hall of fame for leftfield '90s icons) would scoop up his latest project Vertical Scratchers, a duo with Christian Beaulieu of Triclops! and Anywhere (the name is shorthand for guitar playing).  Following Brainiac's robotic art-punk depravity and Enon's skewed sophistication, the Anglophilic fuzz-pop on Daughter of Everything's marks a relative back-to-basics move, scrambling through fifteen hook-heavy song-nubbins in half an hour, GbV-style (and would'ntchaknow, Bob Pollard himself turns up partway through to bless the proceedings), though Schmersal's strikingly Ray Davies-ish falsetto lends the ballady cuts a more purely winsome, earnest sweetness.  Boogarins – Goiânia, Brazil teenagers Fernando Almeida and Benke Ferraz – are similarly beholden to the legacy of '60s greats as filtered through a '90s lo-fi aesthetic (i.e. recorded in their parents' basements), though in their case, on last year's debut As Plantas Que Curam (Other Music), it's the manic psychedelic pop pranksters of their country's Tropicalismo movement that hold sway, flecked with lackadaisy folk and a heavy dose of fuzzed-out blooze.

Vaadat Charigim
concert preview [concert was cancelled]

Lyrical comprehension is pretty low down the list of priorities when it comes to shoegaze – behind texture, mood, dynamics, rhythmic drive, physical viscerality and, eventually, melody – so the fact that Vaadat Charigim (which translates to "exceptions committee") sing entirely in Hebrew is easily a net positive, particularly since the frequent gutturals add some intrigue to Juval Haring's deep, affectless baritone drone.  Per last year's debut album The World is Well Lost (Burger), the Tel Aviv trio have a solid handle on all of the aforementioned elements, melody in particular.  Overall, they tend to favor reverb over distortion, prettiness over forcefulness, finely woven noise-blankets over all-out squalling (though there's space for that too), coming across as Israel's answer to Diiv or even Real Estate as much as Slowdive or Ride.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
concert preview

Detroit's Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. specialize in a kind of sunny, shimmery, precision-tooled indie soft-pop that's probably too familiar for its own good.  They'd be easy to write off as just another blithe, cheery everyband cluttering up the territory between Cut Copy and Vampire Weekend, in thrall to the eternal verities of Beach Boy harmonies and strummy acoustics; gussying up their fizzy confectionary with some Afro-pop rhythmic nuance here, a dollop of synthesizer burble there.  (Their name, of course, does them few favors.)  But this stuff is overdone for a reason, and The Speed of Things (Warner Brothers) distinguishes itself with an uncommon degree of personality and charm, not to mention craftsmanship.  The big crowd-pleasers hit their marks admirably – check made-to-order indie night anthem "If You Didn't See Me (You Weren't On The Dancefloor)" – but the quieter, sensitive ones are actually more intriguing, even soulful, revealing an insightful, heart-on-sleeve tenderness just beneath that sheeny exterior.

The Internet
concert preview

The loose, dreamy R&B that Odd Future confederates Syd tha Kyd and Matt Martians cook up as The Internet is miles from the brutal, blustery confrontationalism most readily associated with that many-tentacled hip-hop posse.  Which isn't to say they're total strangers to boundary-pushing, though they tend more toward the formal variety, such as slotting lengthy, largely instrumental electro-funk beat suites next to windchimes 'n' scented candles neo-soul (Syd's breathy pipes should win over Jill Scott fans in a fluttery heartbeat), or the narcoleptic live-band cloud-rap of "Wanders of the Mind" next to the Paisley Park-indebted, Chad Hugo-produced pop stab "Don'cha."  So goes the succinctly titled Feel Good (Odd Future), whose subtly intricate jam-prone instrumentalism suggests the potential for even deeper blazing in concert.

Eli "Paperboy" Reed
concert preview

Boston belter Eli "Paperboy" Reed has got to be soul brother number four or five, at least, by now, with a solid schooling in the classics, a tough, testifyin' tenor somewhere between Tyrone Davis and Wilson Pickett, and a wildman whoop that'd do Little Richard proud.  The teaser singles for Nights Like This (Warner Bros) are "Shock to the System" and "WooHoo" – the titles give a pretty good indication of the energy level in store; both tracks find the hitherto retro purist tweaking his approach just slightly with  bit of updated pop production fizz, though the soul claps arrive fully intact.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper