01 October 2015

Review Round-Up: September 2015

Lou Barlow
Brace The Wave

Lou Barlow is a legit legend – if, as he’d probably prefer it, of the little-“l” variety – and every bit as much of an old-guard indie-rock lifer as Malkmus or Pollard or, say, his old nemesis J Mascis.  If he lacks much of those dudes’ cachet and practically any of their mystique, put it down to his unassuming, emphatically casual persona, as reflected by his preferred aesthetic modes, both aural and visual: low-key, low-strung, lower-case (and hand-written) – and, naturally, lo-fi.  Historically speaking, at least.  Brace the Wave, like the two previous Lou Barlow LPs, is a notably more polished and considered affair than his erstwhile Sentridoh offerings, though it captures a comparable sense of intimacy and immediacy.  (Elliott Smith’s Either/Or is a decent reference point, sonically and otherwise.)

Given the prolificacy (and, y’know, lenient self-editing) of Barlow’s home-taping decades, it’s telling that, even trailing his last album by six years (which saw the continuation of successful reunions for both Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr.) this outing contains a mere nine songs.  Frill-free cover on down, this is a deliberately small record: trim, but hardly slight.  Each song boasts a strong, memorable melody, buoyed as always by Barlow’s familiarly resonant, expressive, pliable voice, and there’s an appreciable dynamic range within its generally understated, drum-free palette – from the poppy, burnished near-rocker “Boundaries” to the sweet, gentle acoustic picking of “Repeat.”  Early standout “Nerve” – one of many self-critical ruminations here, with Barlow staring down fifty, haunted by memory and sleeplessness – builds from a gruff, jagged off-kilter march into an unexpectedly lush, harmonized chorus: “What’s wrong with wanting more than I deserve?”  As usual, he’s selling himself short.  Go get it, Lou!

The Diet

Kurt Wagner – Lambchop mainbrain and inveterate Nashville weirdo – is not entirely a newbie to beat-based music (peep the early experiments and remixes cached on 2001’s Tools in the Dryer comp) but he’s probably one of the last people you’d expect to find making an, er, electronica album in 2015.  As opposed to, say, 1997, when basically everyone was messing around with dubious bleeps and drum loops.

HeCTA, Wagner’s amiably befuddled new project, evokes some of the what-the-hey knob-twiddling spirit of that happily bygone era, layering his familiarly laconic musings (and, in one instance, a sliced-up old Buddy Hackett routine) atop an assortment of dense, not especially subtle (nor, incidentally, very danceable) beatscapes.  It’s pretty weird.  Not necessarily any weirder than your average Lambchop record, although it is, for the most part, considerably less gorgeous.  (Perhaps tellingly, The Diet is best at its mellowest – the warm, poignant synth-pop of “Sympathy for the Auto Industry”; the almost Books-ish chamber-glitch “We Are Glistening.”)  Decidedly – and by design – a curiosity, but worth seeking out for those who enjoy such things.
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Yo La Tengo
[Indie Rock/Folk]
concert preview

Stuff Like That There (Matador) is our darling Yo La Tengo’s gentlest, sleepiest album; a significant distinction, considering stiff competition from 2013’s understated stunner Fade, 2003’s underrated Summer Sun, and 1990s Fakebook, the curveball fan-fave whose template – an acoustic, country-tinged smattering of covers, self-covers, and a couple new originals – they’re blatantly revisiting here.  Ira Kaplan has called this move the crassest thing they’ve ever done, but retracing familiar footsteps – complete with Fakebook-era guitarist Dave Schramm – makes it, if anything, all the more endearingly personal.  So lay back, relax, enjoy this “an evening with” business, just don’t get too cozy – they’ll totally bring the blazing feedback-solo epics next time around.  Right??

Bad Bad Hats/Mynabirds
[Indie Pop]
concert preview

Lovers Know (Saddle Creek), Laura Burhenn’s atypically glossy third Mynabirds album, marks a further stride away from her debut’s rootsy, gospel-tinged stylings in favor of familiarly synth-kissed mid-tempo/mid-budget mid-‘10s “indie”, while retaining her sturdy, world-weary anthemism.  Nobody’ll mistake her for Dusty Springfield this time out – Florence Welch is more likely.  I get a little Sundays/Blake Babies vibe, meanwhile, from Psychic Reader (Afternoon), the debut by Minneapolis’ Bad Bad Hats; its jangly sweetness tempered by pleasantly spiky power-pop moves and Kerry Alexander’s lightly raspy, Lana Del Rey-ish alto.

Thee Oh Sees
concert preview

Mutilator Defeated at Last (Castle Face), this year’s Oh Sees episode – they've reliably issued one album (or more) annually since 2006, last year’s putative “hiatus” notwithstanding – sure sounds victorious.  And it is indeed a triumph: one of the band’s strongest outings yet, despite (or perhaps due to) representing a significant retreat from their typically coarse, blistering garage-psych assault.  Fear not: John Dwyer and co. still bring the flamethrowing guitar-scrawl and regular bouts of gnarly, contortionist punk-scuzz – they’re just tempered here by atypical levels of moody, kraut-blues nuance and (relative) polish; even, on murky seven-minute centerpiece “Sticky Hulks,” some downright pretty organ playing.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
concert preview

These ineffable Quebecois cranks – the po-faced agitprop mystics with the goofball moniker – came juddering out of semi-retirement in 2010, still nine strong, the fury, passion and esoteric allure of their towering instrumental manifestations undimmed by the typical reunion rock hokum.  This year’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (Constellation) is a continuous full-album suite that traverses familiar tropes (dramatically building, buzzing drones) and some curveballs (unexpectedly sanguine opener “Peasantry” lurches toward a drunken, folksy jam-along) in satisfying, if admittedly succinct fashion.  This is their first Philly show in over a decade not to sell out months in advance, if only because it now seems clear they’ll be around for awhile.

Sturgill Simpson
concert preview

Sturgill Simpson’s gently genre-muddling 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (Thirty Tigers), introduced just a dropperful of psych into its earnestly reverential honky-tonk.  Lead single “Turtles,” despite flanger-dosed references to psilocybin and reptile aliens, sets a tone with its Elvis in Memphis guitars and Waylon Jennings twang that mostly hold sway throughout the spirited boot-scootin’ shuffles (plus one tear-stained synth-pop cover) that follow.  It’s not until the backmasking, cavernous reverb and resplendent fuzz-tones of the LP’s mini-epic closer kick in that things really start getting wooly and “meta-modern,” though one senses that might happen more quickly in a live context.

Jenny Hval
concert preview

This year’s Fringe Festival is bringing us several opportunities to experience challenging, high-concept Norwegians, and Jenny Hval should fit right in.  Even more than her previous work (notably 2012’s mini-breakthrough Innocence is Kinky), the recent Apocalpyse, Girl (Sacred Bones) offers an exquisite juxtaposition of pleasure and discomfort, with Hval’s airy voice as likely to whisper discomfortable, deadpan semi-absurdities – poetic pokes at political, gender-troubled and/or bodily squirminess – as it is to soar sirenically atop serene, transporting art-pop shimmer. 

concert preview

What is to be said?  In her words: bitch, she’s Madonna.  What exactly that means in 2015 is a subject explored exhaustively, if hardly conclusively, across the twenty-five or so tracks comprising Rebel Heart (Live Nation/Interscope)’s bewildering assortment of editions.  It’s an archetypically sprawling, messy affair, encompassing ballads and bangers, glorious throwback house-pop and edgy, almost-au-courant dubstep twerks, heartfelt triumph and utterly embarrassing silliness, familiar themes (sex, religion, rinse, repeat) and uncommon stabs at introspection – all adding up to easily her most vital work in a decade.

The Internet
concert preview

The Internet started out as an Odd Future satellite side-project – initially, the low-key duo of singer-songwriter Syd the Kid and producer Matt Martians; now, as of their excellent third album Ego Death (Odd Future/Columbia), a fully operational, delectably funky live band – but their output pointedly lacks the confrontationalism – or, indeed, ego – of that collective.  Rather, they emanate a graciously grooving, loosely jazzy, distinctly Soulquarian vibe – Syd’s airy, mellifluous voice, in particular, is deeply reminiscent of Jill Scott.  So Philly should know just how to get down.

Earl Sweatshirt
concert preview

He couldn’t really spell it any more clearly: the title I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside (Columbia), slapped against a flat, tattered black field, makes for a pointedly un-enticing cover image, and the contents of the latest full-length from Odd Future’s most gnomic member – a one-time prodigy turned bitter, disillusioned veteran at age 21 – follow suit.  It’s a deeply dour, insular affair, an old-school-style half hour/ten tracks of little but bleakly minimalist post-El-P beats (mostly self-produced) and Sweatshirt’s dogged, deliberate, ticked-off rhyming.

concert preview

The word that Germany’s Lorenz Brenner chose for his production alias – one I personally will never encounter without hearing Gang Starr’s Guru discuss Thelonious Monk, though that’s another matter – means “abstruse” or “little-known.”  It’s a nifty name, sure, but not especially applicable to his music, which is decidedly straight-ahead, if particularly elegant minimal tech-house, garnished with warmly seductive bass tones (as on his recent Iffy LP (Innervisions) –another top-notch adjective) or subtle tweaks of 303 (per 2012’s breakthrough On Acid.)  Nor, at least in certain circles, does it apply to the man himself, considering that scene-defining electronica website Resident Advisor named him as the most popular live act of 2014.

[Space Disco]
concert preview

His buddy Todd Terje may get all the shine these days, but Hans-Peter Lindstrøm remains the original impishly irreverent Norwegian cosmic synthesizer-disco maestro.  Ever since his excellent, wildly divergent 2012 LPs – the concise, scintillating dancefloor bomb Smalhans and the sprawling, demented screwball-prog fantasia Six Cups of Rebel – his work has been increasingly bifurcated, and his 2015 output follows suit: a couple majestically buoyant dance-pop singles with female vocalists – Maya Vik’s “YMD (Young Michael Douglas)” and piano-house stomper “Home Tonight” – plus the utterly loopy, tripped-out Todd Rundgren collaboration Runddans.  Who knows which version of Lindstrøm we’ll get tonight; either way, cosmic euphoria is a pretty safe bet.

The Orb
concert preview

For anyone who may have lost the signal sometime in the quarter-century since Dr. Alex Paterson first kinda-sorta launched the concept of ambient house: yes, the Orb are still orbiting; still blithely bouncing around the cosmos; still grooving along in their lush, trippy, gently whimsical fashion.  And they may quite well still be doing so 688 years hence.  Or such seems to be the promise of Moonbuilding 2703 AD (Kompakt) – somehow, improbably, the outfit’s first overtly moon-oriented LP – whose four typically languorous, extended bliss-outs, apart from the titular trip-hoppy funk-a-thon, mine an enjoyably fluid, slowly-morphing minimal techno vein.

concert preview

It’s been ten years since JD Twitch and JG Wilkes devised the mashup-era apotheosis that was their brazenly eclectic, almost obnoxiously tasteful How To Kill The DJ – a psychedelic/techno/post-punk/worldbeat whirlwind that remains, for what it’s worth, easily the highest-rated DJ mix in Pitchfork’s cache – and five since the shuttering of their storied, eponymous Glasgow club night.  But while times have changed and tastes have streamlined, the duo’s reputation as adventurous, dependably unpredictable party-starters hasn’t waned.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

Blanck Mass
concert preview

Blanck Mass, a.k.a. Benjamin John Power (an exceptionally apt surname), is only one half of Fuck Buttons, but by pretty much any other measure – drama, magnificence, sheer intensity – his music readily equals that of his better-known electro-noise project.  Plus it’s a good bit easier to dance to.  Terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure, Power’s body-troubled concept-opus Dumb Flesh (Sacred Bones) is a miasma of throbbing, towering industrial grooves; writhing sheets of cyborg sound wrapped around thunderously funky drums, with squealing, distended melodies that splice the difference between disco-diva wails and haunted-house screams.
originally intended for publication in Philadelphia City Paper, until the show was cancelled.

01 September 2015

Review Round-Up: August 2015

Kitchen Cinq
When The Rainbow Disappears: An Anthology 1965-68

The industrious pop archaeologists at Light in the Attic continue their trawl through Lee Hazlewood’s ill-fated LHI imprint with a set compiling the lone LP (1967’s Everything But) and a slew of associated recordings by this little-known, absurdly named (and frequently re-named) Amarillo, TX everyband, whose story traces a familiar That Thing You Do-esque boom/bust arc.

Boasting several decently punchy (if rather lyrically dweeby) originals and a grab-bag of covers ranging from Buffy Sainte-Marie to the Coasters, their oeuvre includes thrillingly competent snatches of pretty much every imaginable mid-sixties trope: Nuggets-y garage snarl, affable folk-rock, Hollies-style boy-band harmonies (probably their strongest suit), quasi-psych conceptualism, Wrecking Crew-enabled baroque chamber-pop, etc.  In other words, these guys really didn’t have much of their own musical identity.  Key Cinq-ster Mark Creamer, as quoted in the lovingly researched booklet, regarding the band’s whirl with the LA limelight: “We basically floated through the whole thing, you know?”  You don’t say. 
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Ariel Kalma/Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe
[New Age/Ambient/Electronic]
concert preview

Last year the forward-thinking folks at Rvng, Intl. compiled some unreleased 1970s proto-New Age tape recordings by Paris-born composer and experimental musical wayfarer Ariel Kalma; this Spring they linked him up with latter-day psycho-spiritualist Robert A.A. Lowe (Lichens, Om) for the 12th installment of their intergenerational FRKWYS collaboration series.  The resulting We Know Each Other Somehow LP opens in a dense field-recorded thicket of droplets and crickets before wading deep into drone, saxophony and meandering modular synthesis – so it feels fitting that they’ll be performing by the river with, apparently, an actual plant as the opening act.

Time Wharp/Magical Mistakes
concert preview

True to its name, Astro Nautico specializes in heady electronica that’s a little bit spacey, a little bit soupy.  Saturday’s event, something of a local coming-out party for the label, in conjunction with their fellow Philly/Brooklyn-straddling pals at Paxico records, boasts live sets from Time Wharp – whose recent eponymous LP swirled buzzy, meandering jazz-fusion vibes with zoned-out but serviceable house – and Osaka, Japan’s Magical Mistakes, whose Cracks in the Surface EP is built largely from wonky analog wheezes and kinetic, slightly cartoonish percussion.

Kamasi Washington
concert preview

This Trane-worshiping tenor hero’s involvement in the latest Kendrick and Flying Lotus opuses, and the self-evident audacity of his own three-hour, triple-disc debut for FlyLo’s Brainfeeder label, has turned plenty of (habitually jazz-averse) heads, raised some eyebrows and made The Epic one of 2015’s loudest conversation pieces.  Silencing the chatter and listening to the beast yields a far more enjoyable, less intellectually taxing proposition than the hullaballoo suggests: a roundly impressive, surprisingly tradition-steeped set of lush, impassioned big-band jazz ranging from knotty post-bop and acid-funk groovers to smooth, soul-stirring slow-burns – with just the occasional over-the-top choral/orchestral apotheosis.

Nicki Minaj/Meek Mill
concert preview

Hip-hop’s first couple of the moment have been doing a lot of stirring the pot lately, between Nicki’s Swift-baiting sour grapes over the VMA nominations and Meek’s righteous twitter assaults on Drake’s realness. (I suppose, as fellow Philadelphians, we’re vaguely obligated to side with Mill, although the whole business feels pretty silly and rather charmingly old-fashioned.) Whether all this hashtag-heavy topicality makes for a compelling mega-concert remains to be seen, though at least they’ll have plenty to talk about.

La Luz
[Indie Pop/Rock]
concert preview

Surf rock and airy girl-group harmonies typically conjure up sunny, summery vibes, but this Seattle four-piece clearly prefers the dark end of the beach.  Their Ty Segall-produced sophomore jaunt, Weirdo Shrine (Hardly Art), is a decidedly overcast affair; between Shana Cleveland’s spooky, deadpan vocals and classically twanging Wray/Dale-style leads, and Katie Jacobsen’s rickety organ, the mood is darkly atmospheric and shiver-inducing on roughed-up rawkers and wistful ballads alike.
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

01 August 2015

Review Round-Up: July 2015


In “What’s Normal Anyway?,” a sort of misfit’s miscellany, Miguel Pimentel touchingly enumerates his internal contradictions: “too opinionated for the pacifists,” “too far out for the in crowd,” etc.  He’s a mess of them – a sensitive dreamer, a flamboyant bad boy, a wide-eyed romantic (he and Taylor Swift would find plenty common ground), a wantonly lascivious horndog.

Wildheart is darker than its immaculately crafted predecessor, toughening up Kaleidoscope Dream’s paisley swirl of bedroom R&B and blissy pop with snarling rock guitars and hard-edged funk, but its palette remains expansive.  Take the back-to-back sex jams which are – respectively – sweet enough to sing for your grandma (the luxuriously creamy “Coffee”) and filthy enough to make Prince blush (“the valley.”)  Speaking of the Purple One – well, it’s hard not to, and hard to overstate his overarching influence on Miguel’s entire fearlessly polymorphic mien, which also makes it tempting to mentally position this set alongside his own similarly audacious, inventive and dirty-minded third, and dream wild dreams about what’s still in store.  For now, if he’s still too hippie-dippy for the bad-asses, too edgy for the soul heads, too smooth for the punks, whatever – well, that’s their loss.

The Chemical Brothers
Born In The Echoes

2015 seems like a good time to be the Chemical Brothers.  Their familiar flavor of broad-minded psychedelic techno is worming its long way back toward hipness via spiritual successors like James Holden and Daniel Avery, even as the ever-more-vertiginous drops of the EDM boom make their iconically block-rocking bombast seem unthinkably subtle by comparison.  Following 2010’s streamlined synth-fantasia powerhouse Further, Echoes revisits the rockier, guest-studded template that elevated their classic ‘90s LPs but also marred much of their ‘00s output, enlisting a crew of alt-rock vocalists (St. Vincent, Beck, Cate Le Bon) who contribute a bit of personality without overwhelming (or even dominating) their respective tracks.  (The same can’t be said for Q-Tip, whose rote, hokey “Go” is a clear nadir – couldn’t they have gotten an even marginally vital rapper?)  But vocals, despite appearing in some form on nearly every track, are rarely the focus – tellingly, this album’s ritual swirling, acid-washed “Setting Sun“ analogue/“Tomorrow Never Knows” homage (“I’ll See You There”) is largely instrumental.  Two decades after their debut, the Chems remain committed to their singular vision, still plying those heady, slamming breakbeats and reverently swooning synths, continuing to breathe new life from the echoes.
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Laura Marling/Marika Hackman
concert preview

Short Movie (Ribbon), Marling’s fifth feature-length opus and fifth straight stunner, may be the preternaturally poised Brit-folk goddess’ “goes electric” moment, but it’s hardly the stylistic swerve that might suggest – for that, you’ll need the recent “Director’s Cut” expansion, with its bombastically rumbling alternate versions.  Rather, take it as continued (albeit richly redundant) confirmation of her forbidding lyrical and instrumental prowess, in just-slightly looser, more personal form.  Come out early for Hackman, whose poetic, slyly macabre We Slept At Last (Dirty Hit) is one of the year’s most haunting debuts.

concert preview

However much this UK trio hearkens to a redolent, just-distant-enough era of quirky, vaguely rootsy alt-rock – across their excellent 2014 debut, Weird Little Birthday (Bar/None), they echo early Sparklehorse’s whispery scraggle, emulate several mid-period Wilco tunes, and generally manifest a marked debt to Sebadoh, Pavement, etc. – they never feel like revivalists, maybe because of how fully and authentically they embody that peculiar poppy/punky/funny/lo-fi slacker aesthetic.  Or maybe it’s just cause this is a killer bunch of tunes, with strong melodies, surreally poignant lyrics, and just the right balance of catchy, fuzzed-up rockers and beautifully loping ballads.

concert preview

This venerable English outfit of raggedy outsider art-punks are touring not in support of a new album – their latest was 2011’s wide-ranging, conceptually ambitious Ancient and Modern: 1911-2011 – but rather a documentary, Revenge of the Mekons, which somewhat unhelpfully screened at the International House last Friday.  If that means the band’s in a retrospective mood, they’ve got countless incarnations to revisit, spanning their nearly four active decades – as class-of-1977 agit-punks, unhinged alt-country progenitors, wily communitarian folkies, rave-up noise-rockers, and more.

[Indie Pop]
concert preview

You might dismiss Matthew Mondanile’s mostly-solo project as the lesser, ugly (duckling) stepbrother to his better-known (albeit newer) band Real Estate, but the two outfits have historically fulfilled distinct, if similarly chill, niches; the former’s loose, hazy experimentation neatly complementing the latter’s meticulous perfection.  2013’s eclectic Flower Lane – a big bright breakout after half a decade of noodly bedroom-psych hometapes – muddied that distinction somewhat, and St. Catherine (Domino) threatens to break it down altogether, boasting Ducktails’ cleanest production and most precise (and downright baroque) arrangements to date, but the overall off-the-cuff, pleasantly sleepy daze abides.

concert preview

There’s girlishness, and there’s grrl-power, but the two are rarely paired as ably as in the work of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker; two LA teens who recently relocated to West Philly.  The duo’s startlingly spare guitar/bass miniatures and blunt-sweet, affably bratty vocals (always twinned, either in unison or harmony) evoke the heady strangeness and nostalgic potency of childhood – per the title of their captivating, all-too-fleeting debut, Before The World Was Big (Wichita) – in a way that’s neither regressive nor sentimental, but honest: reflecting how adulthood can feel just as bewildering.

Mr. Twin Sister
[Indie Pop/Electronic]
concert preview

This Long Island outfit have always been musically chameleonic – their 2011 LP as Twin Sister hopscotched from wispy dream pop to retro spy-soundtrack and spaghetti western pastiche to full-bore disco-funk – so the most striking shift accompanying last year’s name change and eponymous re-debut LP (Infinite Best) was less about sound than attitude: Mr. Twin Sister’s elegant, streamlined excursions into laid-back lounge-pop, torchy electro-soul and dark, stylish house reveal a matured, much less cutesy (though still playful) band brimming with confidence, sophistication and poise.  You can call them sir now.

Skylar Spence
concert preview

Ryan DeRobertis first made a name for himself as St. Pepsi, dispensing shiny sample-based “future funk” that, as these things go, generally looked more to the sounds of the past: French touch filter-disco; chillwave; the primordial 1980s.  Lest the multinational soft-drink behemoth not take kindly to being canonized, he’s now re-branded himself, while also adding more vocals to the formula, though the product – as on the slick, blindingly neon-hued forthcoming Prom King (Carpark) – is as fizzy, saccharine and rapidly gratifying as ever.

Tanlines/Mas Ysa
concert preview

Tanlines specialize in summery, eminently pleasant indie dance-pop that’s somehow distinctive despite seeming almost deliberately generic.  More jangly/less jungly second album Highlights (True Panther), for all its watered-down New Order basslines and re-fried New Wave drumbeats, is naggingly difficult to deny.  Befuddlingly-monikered Montrealer Mas Ysa, meanwhile, takes a decidedly different approach to the same general genre umbrella on his strange, effortful debut LP Seraph (Downtown), hammering home the melodramatics and dynamic shifts, and frequently raising his unpretty, Oberstian voice from a quavering whisper to a strangulated yowl.

Memory Tapes/School Dance
[Electronic Pop]
concert preview

We haven’t heard much from dreamy Jersey synth-pop loner Davye Hawk since 2012’s fluidly expansive Grace/Confusion, but he sidled back into the active column this spring with a single, “Fallout”/“House On Fire” (Carpark), suggesting two intriguingly disparate paths forward: the former a sharp, post-punky anxiety-blast; the latter a gentle, softly glowing flashback to the patient guitar lines and sub-tropical vibes of his celestial early work.  Fellow former Philly duo School Dance (now based in Denver) bring their similarly atmospheric, slightly spooky indie-pop along for the ride.
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

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

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
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
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
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
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
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.

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
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.

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
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.

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
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.

[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
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
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
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
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