01 July 2015

Review Round-Up: June 2015

Kacey Musgraves
Pageant Material


It all came up roses around this then-Nashville newbie’s first album, with its plainspoken universality and fresh spins on a dozen old cliches – but despite surface similarities of her decidedly samey second, it’s hard not to feel like the bloom is off.  Take “Biscuits,” a close cousin to big-tent anthem “Follow Your Arrow” that adds little but a cute refrain and a semi-creepy libertarian inversion of the central message.  Elsewhere, her once-penetrating observations on Middle American life are replaced by aw-shucks Hallmark-isms (“This Town,” “Family is Family”); the relationship songs are distressingly generic; she backpedals on her “edgy” (for country) envelope-pushing (although appealingly languid opener “High Time” might be a veiled extension of her noted pro-pot streak), and she sings about what she’s not – decountryfied by fame (“Dimestore Cowgirl”), part of an “Ol’ Boys Club,” charm-schooled and polished (the ironically eager-to-please title cut) – too often to illuminate what she is.  Her music, likewise, has lost a lot of its spunk, with nothing approaching the rockiness of, say, “Blowing Smoke” to disrupt the general mid-tempo pleasantness.  Well, it’s like she says: “You can’t be everybody’s cup of tea.”

Lee Bannon
Pattern of Excel


Lee Bannon’s not quite a renaissance man – not yet, anyway – but he isn’t just a genre-hopping dilettante either.  Think of him as a itinerant enthusiast; an infectiously excitable tinkerer.  The Sacramento producer came up DJing throwback boom-bap for Joey Bada$$, he boasts a backlog of blunted Madlibbian beat-tapes; his first Ninja Tune full-length was a full-throttle drum’n’bass opus, and, in retrospect, it’s almost tediously typical that his second would be an ambient excursion.  But Pattern of Excel’s a bit trickier than you might surmise.  Functioning, in a sense, as a smaller-scale reflection of Bannon’s career-defining restlessness, it’s a loosely coherent mood piece that, despite (mostly) maintaining a murky, somnambulant vibe, nevertheless leapfrogs around an impressive scrap-heap of refurbished ideas, from the opener’s dizzying surrealist bricolage through jittery vocal-sample pointillism (“Suffer Gene”), airily mournful deconstructed trip-hop (“Paofex”), dread-laced synth smears (“Aga”), a resurgent breakbeat microburst (“inflatable”), staticky Caretaker-esque pianism, and even an unexpectedly lush, melodic bit of ersatz Bill Frisell (“Disneµ Girls.”)  File this alongside Jeff Bridges’ Sleeping Tapes as one of the year’s confounding, engrossing naptime incitements.
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Shamir
[Dance/Pop]
concert preview


“Hi hi, howdy howdy, hi hi.”  Those six words (okay, two), and a few marbles dropped on a cowbell, introduced us to Shamir Bailey via the unstoppably smile-inducing “On The Regular.”  But that circa-1991 hip-house aesthetic merely scratched the surface of what this chameleonic twenty-year-old Las Vegan can do – break your heart with an acoustic country ballad, for instance, or (per his XL debut LP, Ratchet) deliver the most spine-shivering disco vocal since Antony’s iconic turn on Hercules & Love Affair’s “Blind.”  We hear he’s a mean knitter too.

Heems/The Very Best
[Hip-Hop/Pop/Electronic]
concert preview


Himanshu Suri is best known as one of the erudite post-everything yuksters in Das Racist, and his whip-smart boom-bap wisecracks remain pretty much peerless – which makes Eat Pray Thug’s (Greedhead/Megaforce) soberingly personal ruminations on being brown in post-9/11 NYC all the more arrestingly potent.  As for fellow class-of-2008 globalist indie/internet breakouts The Very Best – now a duo of Swedish producer Johan Hugo and Malawian vocalist Esau Mwamwaya – their richly satisfying Makes A King (Moshi Moshi) introduces newfound space and rootedness to their glittery electronic/Afro-pop melange, without tamping down the world-lifting euphoria.


The Dø
[Indie Pop]
concert preview


This French-Finnish duo’s inscrutability – beyond the mystique of Olivia Merilahti’s beguiling, illustrious voice – was always more about their resistance to easy categorization than any aversion to melodies, catchy grooves, or emotionalism.  So Shake Shook Shaken (Cinq 7) is the most conventional and “accessible” of their three albums mostly due to its narrowed compositional focus – sticking with a relatively standard indie-electro-pop toolkit (albeit a slightly sparse, jerry-rigged one) – it just so happens to contain several of their naggingest earworms to date, including the positively luminous “Trustful Hands.”


Best Coast
[Pop/Rock]
concert preview


Best Coast have grown up from lovably scruffy stoners singing about cats and sunshine into a bona-fide modern rock outfit, with all the respectable, immaculately polished production that suggests.  But they’re growing comfortable – familiar, not boring.  Bobb Bruno’s guitar hooks are as dependably catchy as ever, Bethany Cosentino’s voice is if anything even more lustrous (and her lyrics every bit as lackluster.)  And naturally, their home-state love will never die – look no further than the title of last month’s California Nights (Harvest), which kicks off, aptly enough, with a pair of winsome songs about feeling, respectively, “okay” and “fine.”

Viet Cong/Lower Dens/Girl Band
[Punk/Rock]
concert preview


It can be a head-scratcher when Philly’s defining hipster dance party books rock acts, but the powerhouse triple-bill for this 15th-anniversary installment should inspire - if not outright demand - plenty of potent bodily motion.  Knotty, clangorous Calgary post-punkers Viet Cong shapeshift considerably across the seven tracks of their eponymous LP (Jagjaguwar), but twitchily insistent rhythms are a constant.  Meanwhile, Baltimore’s moody Lower Dens modulate into surprisingly slinky ‘80s pop mode on their new wavey new Escape from Evil (Ribbon), while Ireland’s (all-male) Girl Band’s excoriating Early Years EP features, among other incitements, a monstrously demented beat-punk reworking of UK Bass icon Blawan.

Richard Thompson
[Rock/Folk]
concert preview


Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has been quietly catalyzing a growing array of musical heroes toward some very fine work lately, and he does the same producing the deathless UK folk-rock pioneer on Still (Fantasy), a tight set evoking the muscular directness of 1999’s magnificent Mock Tudor, and proffering such primed-for-onstage-elaboration delights as “All Buttoned Up” – a sprightlier but no less crankily undersexed counterpart to Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” – and the tour-de-force history lesson/show-off extravaganza “Guitar Heroes.”

Jessica Pratt/Ryley Walker
[Folk]
concert preview


Less dutiful revivalists than old souls in young flesh, Californian acoustic mesmerist Jessica Pratt, with her patient fingerpicking and weathered wisp of a voice, keeps spiritual company with faerie-folk foremothers like Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs throughout On Your Own Love Again (Drag City), while the more self-consciously styled (and eminently spoonerisable) Chicago jazz-folk troubadour Ryler Walker augments the virtuosic fingerwork of Primrose Green (Dead Oceans) with mystical blue-green flourishes on loan – as his sleeve-note readily admits – from the likes of Tim Buckley and Bert Jansch.

Torres
[Rock/Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview


More than as a songwriter, lyricist, or vocalist per se – though she’s solid and inventive in the former department, and frequently arresting in the latter two – 2013’s Torres introduced Mackenzie Scott, most strikingly, simply as a force to be reckoned with; a gritty, fearless, soul-baring expressionist.  Sprinter (Partisan) – for which she tellingly enlisted a couple of seasoned PJ Harvey collaborators (plus Portishead’s Adrien Utley) – only ratchets up the potent, unflinching intimacy, stretching out across a dramatic dynamic range from hushed confessionals to electric rage, and delving into impressionistic excavations of her Southern Baptist upbringing.

Active Child
[Electronic/R&B]
concert preview


Pat Grossi, who now lives in LA, got his earliest performance experience as a member of the Philadelphia Boy’s Choir, and the music he creates as Active Child has a decidedly choral sense of grace and spacious evocation, largely thanks to his spellbinding, often multi-tracked falsetto, which manages to be ethereal and earthy in the same breath.  Mercy (Vagrant), his first full-length in four years, occasionally revisits the clubbier direction teased on 2013’s Rapor EP, but its primary focus is on moody, gently dramatic electronic R&B.

Colleen
[Experimental/Pop]
concert preview


Parisian dreamweaver Cécile Schott has explored myriad musical pathways over the years, always leading to a similarly shimmering, gently surreal reverie, from gauzy, ambling sample-scapes to twinkling music boxes to starkly minimalist works for baroque-era instrumentation – most notably the gut-string viola da gamba.  Captain of None, her sixth album and first for Thrill Jockey, forays further afield into dub textures (complete with melodica and abundant percussive sounds, largely coaxed from her gamba) and whispery ambient pop songs whose vocal layering should appeal to Julianna Barwick fans.

Ximena Sariñana
[Pop/Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview


This is how they make pop starlets in Mexico: smart, savvy, sophisticated, multi-talented.  Sariñana, a telenovela and film actress since age 11, who left us utterly charmed on her last visit to Philly, followed up her sprightly, semi-glossy English-language sophomore set with last year’s No todo lo puedes dar (Warner Brothers), a mix of cool, understatedly funky electropop and richly emotive ballads which hearken to one of her avowed primary influences: Fiona Apple.


Ibeyi
[International/Pop]
concert preview


French-Cuban twin sisters Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz cover a lot of musical and cultural ground on their debut as Ibeyi (XL) – drawing on their Yoruban and Cuban heritage via chanted invocations and abundant hand percussion, but also incorporating plenty of soulful piano-based soft pop, oddly-textured electronics and gentle trip-hop grooves, recalling Zap Mama and Sylvan Esso in equal measure – yet the end result remains satisfyingly sparse and spacious.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

31 May 2015

Review Round-Up: May 2015

Hot Chip
Why Make Sense?


In Our Heads, Hot Chip’s last album, was a masterpiece, and a clear culmination of their career to date: an ecstatic, heart-surging testament to the intertwined power of music, positivity and love.  Why Make Sense? picks up essentially the same emotional and musical threads; its best tracks – at least half the record – continue Heads’ potent, playful synthesis of R&B, house and electronic pop, full of surprises and multiple moving (in every sense) parts.  That’s more than enough to make this probably the finest dance party record this summer will have to offer, even if it features two (lovely, if relatively undistinguished) ballads and lacks its predecessor’s decisive spiritual coherence.  The clearest throughline here is the band’s fondness for dance music’s long, illustrious history, which is on full display: there are samples of Philly soul and boogie classics, Planet Rockin’ electro and luscious disco strings, a sharp hip-house turn (courtesy of De La Soul’s Posdnuos), nods to acid, deep house and jacking swing, even some chiptune-y bleeps on the stark overloaded title track, which closes the album on its most urgent, restlessly strange and, yes, not-quite-sensical note.

Robert Pollard
Faulty Superheroes

Faulty Superheroes – for those keeping score – is Robert Pollard’s first album (under his own name, that is) since Guided By Voices’ September’s re-dissolution, and its title feels like a fitting send-off/summation/epithet for those storied, glorious strivers.  As for Bob himself, look no further than the name of this batch’s opening knock: “What A Man.”  Indeed.  The tune, a righteous, self-anthemizing salvo (“He’s back!”) that slips in on a bed of churning, steely riffs, notches approximatelyIsolation Drills levels of stadium crunch, setting the tone for the high-octane half-hour that follows.  Save the slightly teary ninety-second trudge of “The Real Wilderness,” it’s a rollicking pummel throughout, efficiently stocked with timeless/tossed-off highlights (stomp-pop sandblaster “Faster the Great”; the improbably epic and yearning “Take Me To Yolita”) until we’re set down with the haunting, dreamily profound acoustic curio “Perikeet Vista.”  Catnip for the faithful; nectar for strayed sheep; ample safe grazing for the uninitiated.  What a man.
originally published in Magnet Magazine


Mandolin Orange
[Folk/Roots]
concert preview

As sweet, familiar and refreshing as the juice of their groanably punning namesake, this North Carolina folk-pop duo’s close harmonies, mournful fiddling and, yes, frequent mandolin use evoke the still-chugging bluegrass revival – but only loosely, with more interest in resonant, heart-tugging expressiveness than musical virtuosity.  Their second Yep Roc release, Such Jubilee, is several shades more wistful than its title might suggest: dusty and downbeat, but warmly comforting all the same.



San Fermin
[Art-Rock/Chamber Pop]
concert preview

Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s post-collegiate composition project-turned-unlikely touring juggernaut return with a sophomore record, Jackrabbit (Downtown), which streamlines some of their artier impulses and hones in on melody and groove, yielding results that are more immediate but certainly no less dramatic (bombastic, even – it’s the second indie opus of 2015 to offer a delicately-wrought reminder that “we’re all gonna die”) and beautifully orchestrated.




Fred Thomas
[Indie Pop/Singer Songwriter]
concert preview

Michigander DIY die-hard Fred Thomas has made plenty of records in his time – scruffy-edged pop with Saturday Looks Good To Me, emo-punk with Lovesick, rootsy folk rock under his own name, electronic forays as City Center – but there’s a fresh immediacy to All Are Saved (Polyvinyl), whose vividly impressionistic spoken-sung confessionals are close cousins to both The Hold Steady’s Midwestern scenester narratives and the radically candid diarism of Yoni Wolf and Mark Kozelek.



Föllakzoid
[Psych/Space Rock]
concert preview

These guys may be Chilean, but they are unabashed Germanophiles, a fixation which, in the case of the four lengthy, lysergic meanders comprising their third album, III (Sacred Bones), extends beyond the umlaut and their well-honed handle on the rigidly rubbery rhythms of vintage ‘70s Krautrock to their enlisting of wily Frankfurt knob-twiddler Uwe Schmidt (aka Atom and, in his more Latin-leaning moments, Señor Coconut), who used one of Kraftwerk’s old Korgs to further woozy up the trio’s creepy-yet-comforting swamp-dub grooves.



Bitchin Bajas
[Kosmiche/New Age]
concert preview

This Chicago duo fashion zone-out music par excellence, but there’s a little too much going on – too much personality, perhaps – in their gently cosmic drone-voyages for them to compute as ambient in the simple, minimalist sense we’ve come to expect.  At any given point across the eighty-minute sprawl of last year’s self-titled, Asian-tinged magnum opus (Drag City), we might be dealing with flutes, harps, organs or birdsong, gauzily bowed strings or burbling synthesizers, gamelan bell-tones or glistening electric guitar leads.



East India Youth
[Art-Pop/Indie Electronic]
concert preview

Fledgling electronic art-pop auteur William Doyle wears his influences and his ambition on his sleeve, making plain his veneration for the greats – Eno, Wyatt, Bowie, Tennant & Lowe, etc. – and casting himself in their impeccably tasteful, exultantly English lineage.  His heart’s a cagier matter however.  Culture of Volume (XL) follows last year’s Mercury Prize-nominated debut with a more song-oriented approach, but still veers from industrial technoise workouts to shimmery dance-pop to lush, darkly Romantic OMD-ish synth balladry – all of it tantalizingly close to convincing.



Holly Herndon
[Electronic/Experimental]
concert preview

Glitch, as a genre, doesn’t get much play these days – if only because, as a technique, it has become so fully pervasive – but what this eerily doll-like electronic composer does on her new Platform (RVNG Intl) isn’t so far removed from turn-of-the-century conceptualists like Oval and Akufen.  It’s bewildering but engrossing; abstract but never purely clinical, comprised of sputtering malfunctions that seem cyborgian rather than simply digital.  If you squint hard enough these things could almost be pop songs.  Or possibly infomercials.



Hudson Mohawke
[Electronic]
concert preview

Ross Birchard, the antic Glaswegian producer who named himself after two New Yorke rivers, is best known as one-half of trap-rave catalysts TNGHT, though the gloopy plasticine electro-funk of his solo work casts a wider, wilder and (very occasionally) more nuanced net.  Lantern (Warp), a typically giddy set of maximalist miniatures that’s his first full-length in six years, enlists a bevy of distinctive vocalists (Miguel, Antony, Jhene Aiko) but it sings loudest when he lets his gallumphing, blinding-neon synths lead the way.



Purity Ring
[Pop/Electronic]
concert preview

Another Eternity (4AD) may lack the scintillating strangeness of the singles which first introduced us, back in 2011, to Purity Ring’s peculiar prism on electronic pop – Corin Roddick’s side-chained, syncopated synths and Megan James’ fluidly expressive body poetry now feel warmly familiar instead of alluringly alien – but that lens has since been buffed and polished to a high gleam, and their finest moments remain a potent nexus of gritty, fleshy and celestial.



Seinabo Sey
[Pop]
concert preview

With only a handful of singles to her name – collected on last year’s For Madeleine EP, which was dedicated to her mother – this twenty-five year old pop singer and songwriter was already enough of a force to appear on a postage stamp in her native Sweden this January.  The four-track For Maudo (named, respectively, for her Gambian musician father) continues to develop her blend of electronic club-pop, gritty R&B and moody, broad-sweeping anthemics, clinched by her bluesy powerhouse of a voice.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

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