01 April 2014

Review Round-Up: March 2014

Glenn Kotche
Adventureland

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
[Pop/Dance]

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
[Art-Rock/Experimental]

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
[Post-Classical]

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]

Vermont
Vermont
[Electronic]

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
[Electronic/Ambient/Experimental/R&B]
concert preview

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
[Singer-Songwriter/Post-Classical]
concert preview


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
[Ambient/Post-Classical]
concert preview

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
[Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview

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
[Rock/Pop]
concert preview

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
[Rock/Country]
concert preview

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
[Rock]
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.
[Indie/Pop]
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
[R&B]
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
[Soul/Pop]
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

24 February 2014

Review Round-up: February 2014

Beck
Morning Phase

Even without the knowledge that it was recorded with the same musicians as 2002's beloved Sea Change – or its widely circulated pre-release description as a "companion piece" to that record – Beck's new album all but demands a direct comparison.  Album opener "Morning" is a dead ringer for Sea Change pace-setter "The Golden Age," with the same ambling lope (just a hair drowsier), a nearly identical, languidly strummed chord progression, and a correspondingly placid, glockenspiel-kissed riff.  Rather than heralding the dawn of a shining new age, though, here our man is simply waking up; ruminating idly on regret and redemption: "Won't you show me the way it could have been?" runs the airy, aching falsetto chorus.


While a song-for-song head-to-head between the two albums doesn't play out beyond that blatant initial parallel, the sonic and tonal similarities are, simply put, indisputable: fans of the earlier album's lush, ponderous moody blues will feel instantly at home.  Not that this is a wholesale rehash.  While Sea Change was a richer, more cinematic affair than the stripped-down troubadour set it's sometimes remembered as, Morning Phase heads considerably further down that road.  Beck, who's had plenty of production practice in recent years, ably takes the reins here, filling the album's crannies with an expanded, lavishly layered instrumental palette – mandolins and perky organ peeps on "Blue Moon," pedal steel and baroque woodwinds on "Blackbird Chain"; traces of harp on "Unforgiven" – and lightly psychedelic flourishes – spacey washes, ghostly descants, phasey vapor trails – that occasionally push it into the densely atmospheric terrain of 2008's Modern Guilt  (minus the drum loops.)  Then there's Beck's dad, veteran arranger David Campbell, whose work graced not only Sea Change (and Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball") but also many of the very 1970s California folk-rock LPs – by Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and Gene Clark, among others – that are clear touchstones for both albums.  His orchestral charts play a crucial role here, especially on the ominous, sinuous, sonorous centerpiece "Waves," a haunted ballad with echoes of "Unravel" and "Pyramid Song" (to cite two of Beck's art-pop contemporaries) and maybe the most distinctive thing here.


These loving, nuanced details of sound and arrangement are where Morning Phase really shines.  Where it can't help but pale by (inevitable) comparison is in the songs themselves.  Sea Change was, unabashedly, a break-up album, which helped give it a focus, clarity, and emotional resonance unlike really anything else he's done.  This one has a cogent unifying concept – every song is ostensibly set in the early morning hours – but despite promising "a symbol of your exegesis in a full-length mirror," it rarely scans as specifically relatable, or even particularly legible.  Beck's marvelous 2012 sheet-music album Song Reader – his most inventive and compelling work of the last decade – demonstrated that his ability to craft simple, succinct, emotionally affecting songs has, if anything, only grown since Sea Change.  Yet nothing here even approaches the poignancy and directness of "Lost Cause" or "Guess I'm Doing Fine," at least writing-wise.  Instead, Morning Phase is ultimately a mood piece: a quiet triumph of feeling over form.  It's a resolutely low-key offering; a smaller, more delicate record than the circumstances (Beck's first LP in six years!) perhaps suggest.  But it's a fond, heartfelt celebration nonetheless. [7.5/10]

Lydia Loveless
Somewhere Else

The somber black artwork of Somewhere Else is a far cry from the gasoline-swigging cartoon adorning Lydia Loveless' 2011 Bloodshot debut Indestructible Machine, perhaps suggesting some newfound mellowing or maturation – at the ripe old age of twenty-three – for the Ohio-bred hell-raiser.  Maybe.  Loveless jettisons her jet-fueled cowpunk and honky-tonk showboating here for a streamlined set of straight-up, rootsy rock'n'roll (capped, curiously, with a faithfully jangly Kirsty MacColl cover.)  These songs, punchy as ever, don't lean quite so heavily on unhinged, whiskey-soaked abandon.  Still, it takes mere seconds into rip-snorting opener "Really Wanna See You" before someone gives her some blow – inciting not a brawl but a wistful phone call – and the energy barely slackens from that point on, even through several bleary, heart-worn ballads, with Loveless' piercing, twang-heavy wail summoning Michelle Shocked, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams at their raggedest.  Only, where Williams couches a masturbation ode like "Right In Time" in sly, elegant poetry, Loveless lays it all out there on "Head."  She can do poetry too – check "Verlaine Shot Rimbaud" – she just prefers the passion-streaked, doomed-romantic variety. [8/10]

Gem Club
In Roses

Gem Club do write songs – stately, glacial melodies that Christopher Barnes delivers in a fragile, achingly tender head voice reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens at his gentlest.  But they're such slow-moving, delicate things, so lovingly enveloped in layers of soft, symphonic texture – and their cumulative effect, on 2011's Breakers and even more so on the lusher, more expansive In Roses, is so cohesive and itself enveloping – that they barely register as songs per se, or even discrete entities.  Appearances aside, the Somerville, MA trio's output feels less aligned with "chamber-pop" or even indie than the so-called "modern classical" new age music of Max Richter and Ólafur Arnalds; a transportive, fluidly orchestrated moodscape of dappled piano figures, synthesizer washes and swelling strings, horn and bell tones, with Barnes' voice, often layered in harmony with itself, forming a hushed highlight of the placid, snow-blind panorama that doesn't (and needn't) completely resolve into a focal point. [7/10]

Actress
Ghettoville


The abstruse, abstractly techno-oriented producer Darren Cunningham's fourth full-length as Actress was preceded by an album announcement promising a "bleached out" work "no longer contain[ing] decipherable language," and describing Cunningham as "slumped and reclined, devoid of any soul."  (It also seemingly doubled as an obituary for music itself.)  Credit the man for truth in advertising: even by his usual forbiddingly cerebral, numbingly static standards, Ghettoville is doggedly impenetrable, bleak and inhospitable.  The pain starts right off the bat with "Forgiven"'s crushing, barely-evolving seven-minute crawl, soon echoed by the similarly leaden and unremitting "Contagious."  Things lighten up slightly later in the proceedings, particularly (tellingly? tauntingly? tautologically?) on the briefer tracks (the flickering, aberrantly musical "Birdcage" and "Our"; the abruptly vocal "Rap" and "Rule"), creating the illusion that, for instance, the burned-out pro-forma tech-house of "Gaze" and "Skyline" are of interest merely because they at least bear a discernible relationship to human physical movement.  No.  But hey – if you found Actress' earlier work far too stimulating, cheerfully saccharine, and/or generally palatable, this joyless, meticulously crafted trudge may be just the ticket. [2/10]
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Sun Kil Moon
Benji
[Singer-Songwriter]

Mark Kozelek's music has always been poignant and personal, but he's never cut a record as nakedly intimate or profoundly affecting as Sun Kil Moon's Benji (Caldo Verde), which takes confessional songwriting to about the furthest imaginable extreme.  A rambling cycle of plain-spoken, minutely detailed recollections set atop spartan nylon-string fingerlings and rubbed-raw acoustic blues – touching on his Ohio childhood, early sexual experiences, love for his parents, lifelong depression, classic rock, and all varieties of death (of family members, acquaintances, celebrities; in freak accidents, mass murders, assisted suicides) – it stacks blithering mundanity alongside excruciating sentiment until the two become indistinguishable. [A]

Mark McGuire
Along The Way
[New Age/Ambient]

Along The Way (Dead Oceans) follows a relative lull for the habitually hyper-prolific guitarist/experimentalist (and ex-Emerald) Mark McGuire; clearly, he took some time with this one.  The liner notes alone are a magnum opus: an epic treatise on the self's journey across "the endless unfolding of psychological landscapes"; also the ostensible theme of album's continuous, interwoven compositions.  Fans will recognize – and revel in – the meandering, mesmerizing swathes of flittery six-string filligree, but surprises abound too, including vocals (often talkboxed and/or mixed almost inaudibly low), copious drum machines and overdriven metallic leads that aren't shy approaching "Miami Vice" levels of synth-cheese. [A]

Cibo Matto
Hotel Valentine
[Pop/Rock/Funk]

Mega-funky art-pop superheroes Cibo Matto are back (all the way from 1999!) and they've found a new place to dwell.  Love – and ghosts – are in the air at Hotel Valentine (Chimera), a swingin' haunt with a fully equipped super-relax lounge, quasi-tropical tiki bar and bangin' hip-hop/electro-funk nightclub.  The place is creeping with paranormal activity, but Yuko Honda and Miho Hatori are no mere specters of their former selves: they're still snacking on those seedless grapes, and just as fruity, funny, jazzy and snazzy as ever.  Get a room! [A-] [Sad-face: no vacancy at their Boot & Saddle gig Tuesday.  Sucks hard like a diamond.

CEO
Wonderland
[Pop]

Things've been quiet lately for the screwball Swedish popmongers at Sincerely Yours: the new album from CEO (aka The Tough Alliance's Eric Berglund) is the label's first noteworthy full-length since his 2010 debut.  Thankfully, Wonderland (Modular) upholds the crew's knack for vibrant unpredictability and luxuriously plastic soundscapes, offering a kaleidoscopic candy-box assortment of outrageously bubbly schaffel-pop (the title cut and the delightfully baroque, hardly prurient "Whorehouse"), plush pseudo-orchestral chill-out ("Harakiri"), manic ear-candy techno ("Ultrakaos") and, in the gloriously melodic "OMG,"' a slow-mo stutter-snap declaration of synth-pop solidarity: "We're in this together like Bow Wow Wow."  [B+]

Planningtorock
All Love's Legal
[Electronic/Art-Pop]

Although it shares an outspoken radical feminist agenda, sonic adventurousness and eye-popping color scheme with The Knife's incendiary Shaking the Habitual, Planningtorock's All Love's Legal (Human Level) offers a somewhat cuddlier spin on similar tones and themes.   It's hard, for instance, to imagine the Dreijer siblings – frequent collaborators of the Berlin-based multimedia artist (alias Jam Rostron) – cooing "love is a warm gift that gives life its purpose," as she does on the electro-R&B, Sade-meets-Arthur Russell title cut; meanwhile their arch catchphrase "Let's Talk About Gender, Baby" becomes, in Rostron's hands, a strutting, Grace Jones-style disco mantra, more purr than provocation. [B-]

Wild Beasts
Present Tense
[Art-Pop/Indie Rock]

It takes time to reveal itself, but Wild Beasts' fourth album ultimately emerges as the plumpest, ripest fruit yet from England's preeminent surrealist romantics.  A less dramatic evolutionary step than its predecessors, Present Tense (Domino) retains the decadent viscosity, swooningly sinuous grooves and immaculate precision of 2011's dark, lustful Smother, but adopts a brighter (or at least less irrevocably smutty) outlook and an even lusher, synth-swaddled palette, further smoothing out the band's once-jagged eccentricities.  Even Hayden Thorpe's once-startling operatic falsetto feels more fluid than ever, guiding standouts like the closing "Palace" to near-Joshua Tree levels of unflinching, epic prettiness. [B+]

Snowbird
moon
[Dream Pop]

Snowbird is the transatlantic duo of vocalist/songwriter Stephanie Dosen and erstwhile Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde.  Their debut, moon (Bella Union), has a milky-white downy softness reminiscent of Raymonde's old band (for one thing, Dosen's lithe, diaphanous soprano is not exactly dissimilar to Liz Fraser's) – similarly delicate, but less sheeny and otherworldly; more palpably organic (despite some light electronics, richly textured orchestrations and, among other things, drumming by Radiohead's Phil Selway, the album's core is Windham Hill-esque piano and sumptuous, billowing vocal embroidery – aptly befitting sylvan lyricial reveries populated with foxes, owls, bears and mice. [B]

Vtgnike
Dubna
[Electronic]

Moscow producer Vtgnike (it's as if he doesn't want people having conversations about him)* debuts on Nicolas Jaar's new Other People label with Dubna, a fluid, mostly continuous piece of dreamily amorphous electronica meandering its way through bleary, faltering drones, elusively soulful vocal fragments, limpid snatches of harp (and balalaika!) and breakbeats that play like a muffled, misremembered translation of Chicago juke.  It has some of the scuffed-up, dubbed-out, subaqueous chill of Actress's bleak, ballyhooed Ghettoville, but with about 1000% more humanity. [B+]

*update: apparently it's pronounced "vintage nike."  well all right!

Francis Harris
Minutes of Sleep
[Ambient/Electronic/House]

Like its predecessor, 2011's Leland, Francis Harris' Minutes of Sleep (Scissor and Thread) was composed as an elegy to a recently passed parent.  Not surprisingly, it's another deeply ruminative affair, suffused in melancholy and receding even further from the dancefloor imperatives of the Brooklyn producer's earlier work.  Still, Harris' dependably silky, subtle house grooves play a crucial supporting role; buttressing the album's abstract textural explorations, blanketing shrouds of white noise and vividly poignant instrumental work (particularly Greg Paulus' wearily mournful trumpet), that beat – steady, stoic, impassive – may be the most comforting sound here. [B]

Shit Robot
[Dance/House/DJ]
concert preview

If Random Access Memories taught us anything, it's that robots know how to throw a killer retro-themed dance party.  Heck, even Shit Robot – who's really not nearly so shoddy as he sounds – can kick up quite the shindig.  The Dublin-born DJ/producer and long-time DFA affiliate (Marcus Lambkin to his mum) lays out a veritable strut down EDM memory lane on the forthcoming We Got A Love, with nine tracks spanning acid techno, electro-pop, spaced-out Italo-style synth boogie, classically wiggly DFA disco-not-disco, diva-fied club fodder and straight-up jacking house.  The finely-curated invite list – always the mark of an excellent host – includes dependable sorts like the Rapture's Luke Jenner (in his oh-so-2010s stylization as JENR) and Nancy Whang (the once and future queen of dance-punk), along with Reggie Watts – who turns in a surprisingly straight, impressively soulful vocal on the title track – and Trax Records veteran Lidell Townsell, who paraphrases a question he's been asking since at least 1987 ("I wanna know if you know how to jack your body") albeit with a bit more doo-wop than usual.  

San Fermin/Son Lux
[Indie Classical/Chamber-Pop]
concert preview

San Fermin (Downtown), the elaborate eponymous debut of Ellis Ludwig-Leone's chamber-indie project (and CP's 41st favorite album of 2013) and Lanterns (Joyful Noise), the more digitally-abetted but no less lavishly stuffed third full-length from composer/producer Ryan Lott (aka Son Lux), were two of last year's most ambitious and richly gratifying efforts, applying pedigreed classical composition chops and large-scale art-music aspirations to the nebulous realm of indie rock/pop/folk/what-have-you.  It's fertile, intriguing terrain – though also fraught, with issues both logistical (how do you translate an album with a cast of nearly two dozen musical contributors in the context of the rock-club touring circuit?) and aesthetic (how do you stuff so many ideas and stylistic strains into a project without just coming off as pretentious?)  In San Fermin's case, navigating the former involves down to paring down to just six instrumentalists plus the vocalists Allen Tate (a sonorous, baritone dead ringer for The National's Matt Berninger) and Rae Cassidy (filling in for Lucius's Holly Wolfe and Jess Lausig); those singers are also the key to the latter quandary, helping sublimate the project's artier, more baroque impulses in the service of emotional potency, although Ludwig-Leone often manages to make his instrumental passages just as personable.

The Men
[Rock]
concert preview

Straight-shooting Brooklyn fivesome The Men like to keep things moving.  They've maintained a steady pace of one album per year since their 2010 debut – indeed, Tomorrow's Hits (Sacred Bones) marks their third long-player in as many years to be released in the first week of March.  And without ever fully sacrificing the spirit of  their raucous post-hardcore/noise-punk roots, they've continually broadened their scope to incorporate increasingly more aspects of good old fashioned rock'n'roll.  The new record is partially a continuation of the rootsy ramblings explored on last year's deceptively mellow New Moon and the acoustic Campfire Songs EP – you'll still find traces of lap steel and Dylan-esque harmonica – but (per the title, perhaps) it's mostly notable as their tightest, poppiest outing to date, and their furthest foray into classic rock and even glam stylings (check that Clarence-style sax on "Another Night.")  Just don't start thinking that they've gone the least bit soft – not when they can rip out rave-ups like "Pearly Gates" and "Going Down, " which are as wild and nasty as anything they've done, rockabilly underbelly or no.
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

01 February 2014

Review Round-up: January 2014

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Wig Out at Jagbags
[Rock/Pop]

With Wig Out At Jagbags (Matador), Stephen Malkmus has now made more records with his trusty Jicks than he did with Pavement – all together, as impeccable a run as anybody's had over the past twenty years – and his craft only continues to develop, in small but intriguing ways.  Building from the revelatory (relative) focus and melodic directness of 2011's Mirror Traffic, Jicks #6 stands as the tightest, nimblest and possibly the most fun Malkmus LP yet; notably the shortest since his solo debut and – note the title – easily the silliest.  "Tennyson" gets rhymed with "venison," "Hades" with "Slim Shadys," "party crash" with "Balderdash" and "Cert" with "that ain't no dessert."  A similarly glib wit extends to the musical arrangements: check the horn blasts and Thin Lizzy-style guitar leads of the rollicking "Chartjunk", or the way the album's occasional, brief jammy passages – the fake-out freak-out introducing "Houston Hades"; the wry dub reggae outro of aging-punk rallying cry "Rumble at the Rainbo" – are folded into carefully devised structures.


There's a surprising amount of heart here too, especially for such an inveterate obscurantist snarkmeister.  Malkmus' more subdued, prettier numbers have always been some of his best, but the freewheeling, atypically earnest nostalgia of "Lariat" and sweetly contented nonconformity of "Independence Street" are uncharacteristically affecting.

Maybe it's blasphemy for some, but I've long connected Malkmus with Phish's Trey Anastasio: fellow smirky, shaggy-haired Gen X guitar icon, and noted Pavement fan (also, presumptive namesake of "Jenny and the Ess-Dog"'s pooch.)  Despite its lack of extended six-string, well, wig-outs, Wig Out seems to point up that connection more than ever.  And not just because the Grateful Dead get name-checked (along with yurts, tripping one's face off and "glass-blowing funky neighbors.")  Malkmus just somehow seems like more of a hippie than a hipster these days.  But darling, don't you go and flip your wig.  Maybe it's his age; maybe it's the cumulative effect of all those years living in Portland; very possibly that's just the difference between 2014 and 1992. [A-]

Bill Callahan
Have Fun With God
[Folk/Dub]

The way Bill Callahan intones his lyrics, in that steady, laconic, somewhat eternal-seeming baritone, they have a tendency to drift lazily by, sometimes more felt than fully, consciously registered.  Have Fun With God (Drag City), therefore – a no-foolin' dub (though not reggae) rework of last year's Dream River (already perhaps his most sonically rich album), wherein about half the lines are either excised or drift off into limitless eddies of reverb – plays like the dream-logic, Zen koan approximation of the actual experience of listening to a Bill Callahan record.  It's conceptually droll, even absurd, but surreally lovely nevertheless. [B-]

Tom Brosseau
Grass Punks
[Singer-Songwriter]

North Dakota-via- finger-picker Tom Brosseau (who graces Ortlieb's this Friday) peppers Grass Punks (Crossbill), his seventh album, with wryly topical numbers – about technological interference with romantic intimacy ("Cradle Your Device"), Dairy Queens, swap meets and being stuck on the roof – but they're too understated to scan as novelty songs, and too flat-out pretty to be anti-folk.  He writes some sweet little love songs too – though nothing too straight-on – but the truest, most humbly self-evident is "I Love To Play Guitar": he so clearly does, and he plays it deftly, simply, gorgeously. [B-]

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Give The People What They Want
[Soul/Funk]

By now we know what to expect from a new Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings album, and – sure enough, yet again – Give The People What They Want (Daptone) does precisely what the title says.  The band's output is so reliably strong; their emulation of iconic '60s-vintage soul so effortless – leagues beyond novelty – that it's dangerously easy to take for granted, even given the circumstances surrounding this album's postponement: Jones' recent (triumphant!) battle with pancreatic cancer.  The passion in these grooves – several among the leanest and meanest they've cut since their gritty, hard-funking debut – and especially in her nimble, powerhouse voice – simply makes it hard to imagine anything holding these guys back. [B+]

various artists
BOATS
[Indie/Electronic]

Charity compilation albums, while admirable, tend to be musically insubstantial mishmashes, so the good people of Edinburgh's Transgressive North have managed quite a feat with the oddly-titled BOATS, which is both conceptually coherent and highly worth hearing.  A generous cast of indie and electronic A-listers contributed tracks incorporating recordings of the Love of Light Choir (i.e. the very Southeastern Indian "untouchable" children the comp's proceeds go to support), and while that may sound trite, Langley Schools Remixed this ain't: these two discs of surreal odd-pop duets and fluidly interconnected sound sculptures offer a kaleidoscopic bevy of delights. [B-]

John Talabot/Breach
DJ-Kicks
[Dance/DJ]

!K7's venerable DJ-Kicks series – which sees its 20th year (and 50th installment) in 2014 – has been in a resolutely housey mode of late, and the two mellow-leaning volumes dropped in quick succession late last year were no exceptions.  Both offered a fine assortment of streamlined thumpers, synthesizer reveries and soulful vocal cuts, but where Barcelona's John Talabot packed 27 cuts into a mix that often felt strangely tepid and inert, Breach's livelier, more fluid effort covered more ground in half as many tracks, with a particularly potent final sequence highlighting a mid-'90s chestnut from Philly's own Josh Wink.  [Talabot: C, Breach: B-]

Delorean/Mas Ysa
[Electronic/Pop]
concert preview

Barcelona's Delorean make bright, cheery electronic dance-pop with all the sharp edges sanded away into a luxuriant lather of glowing synths and big, sunbursting major chords.  Apar (True Panther), the band's first album since the international breakthrough of 2010's Subiza (they've been together and active since forming as teenagers around the turn of the century), takes its name, aptly enough, from a Basque word for "froth." It finds the foursome toning down the beach-party beats and honing in on their songcraft, but it remains a reliably warm and dreamy ride through burbling, trebly, Mediterranean waters.  The Woodstock, NY-based Mas Ysa (a.k.a. Thomas Arsenault) explores a gruffer, notably more emotionally fraught take on song-centered electro-pop with his Downtown Records debut, the wide-ranging long-form EP Worth.  Arsenault's throaty, digitally frayed vocals and industrial drum-machine throb underscore the urgency of key tracks like "Why" and "Shame" – recalling the punchy, DIY punk-flavored approach of Denver's Pictureplane – while the fragile, frosty balladry of "Years" offers a starkly minimalist counterpoint.

Ryan Hemsworth
[Electronic]
concert preview

Ryan Hemsworth is a connector.  Maybe it's a Canadian thing.  The twenty-three-year-old Halifax native, who gained attention with his bootleg reworks of Grimes and Frank Ocean and "cloud-rap" beats for artists like Deniro Farrar and Main Attraktionz, gives off a decidedly unassuming, personable vibe.  For instance: how many hip-hop or electronic producers operate under their unadorned given name?  You can hear that affability in his lush, laid-back grooves – his debut full-length, last year's Guilt Trips (Last Gang), connected the musical dots between dreamy bleep-pop, synth-addled R&B and the barbed, thuggish percussion antics of trap, with vocal guests ranging from Kitty to Baths to Disclosure affiliate Sinead Hartnett – and you've gotta imagine it helps him seal the deal on improbable juxtapositions like convincing the potty-mouthed Angel Haze to spit over his Cat Power remix.  Meanwhile, Hemsworth's recent holiday season download offering, ☺RYANPACKv.1☺ brought his ear for detail and distinctive recombinant gifts to bear on the typically moribund realm of mp3 mash-ups, brokering virtual introductions between Beyoncé and the Notwist, R. Kelly and Yann Tiersen – via the exquisite "Real Talk" tweak "La Valse D'Kellz" – and hardcore Brooklyn rapper Mr. MFN eXquire and J-pop star Kyara Pamyu Pamyu, while putting Danny Brown in a kawaii-style Koosh Coma.

Connan Mockasin
[Psych/R&B/Experimental]
concert preview

The cover of Connan Mockasin's 2010 album Forever Dolphin Love depicted him as a brightly painted papier-mâche totem/figurine – the New Zealander's shaggy blonde mop-top is, evidently, unmistakeable in any medium.  His recent follow-up, by contrast, presents him as a lounging loverman, all in white and gold, with a pencil-thin 'stache and a come-hither gaze.  The corresponding musical shift, from folky glam-psych meanderings to fever-dream seductive smooth jams, is just as marked: Caramel (Mexican Summer) was recorded in a Tokyo hotel room with the express intention of embodying the sounds suggested by its title, and none of indiedom's recent, rampant flirtations with R&B really serve as proper preparation for the album's sultry strangeness.  It's probably best described as Barry White by way of Ariel Pink, with a side-helping of Ween and/or Beck at their most Prince-addled and narcotized, and while that may sound awfully arch and off-puttingly irony-prone, Mockasin makes it surprisingly easy and enticing to succumb to his lavish alien lovescapes.

R. Stevie Moore
[Pop/Rock]
concert preview

R. Stevie Moore is, in his highly particular way, the ultimate cult artist.  He's staunchly dedicated to home recording and DIY distribution practices.  He's flabbergastingly prolific – besides thirty-odd "commercial" releases since 1976, his website lists over 300 full-length titles available on cassette, CD-R, VHS and/or via bandcamp.  His stylistic range is as sprawling as his output – enfolding jazz, country, thrash punk, metal, hip-hop, techno, and innumerable wacky sound experiments and spoken interludes – but his aesthetic remains fundamentally beholden to Zappa, Rundgren, Brian Wilson and The Beatles, which, combined with his unerring, apparently limitless knack for insidiously catchy hooks, makes him precisely the sort of artist whose followers love postulating about alternate realities with improbable, topsy-turvy top forties.  As for himself, "Why Can't I Write A Hit?" (which lead off last year's Personal Appeal compilation (Care in the Community) – as handy a single-disc condensation of his ouevre as any) finds Moore answering his own (semi-ironic) musical question, in a whispered, pitched-down, self-fulfilling mantra: "the songs are too weird."  But that's not quite it – or, okay, that's occasionally not it: if anything, it's Moore himself that's too weird.  More simply, it's really just a question of priorities.

Cate LeBon
[Pop/Rock]
concert preview

We were first introduced to Cate Le Bon as something like a protégé of her Welsh compatriot Gruff Rhys, of Super Furry Animals: she released her 2009 debut LP on his Irony Bored label, and sang with his synth-pop side project Neon Neon.  But while the two artists share a predilection for melodic psychedelia and the occasional ramble into slightly baroque ramshackle folk (plus a fondness for singing in their country's mother tongue), Le Bon's sensibilities have proven considerably darker and more dour than her affably goofy countryman.  Mug Museum (Wichita/Turnstile), her first album since relocating to Los Angeles, is her lightest, loosest foray yet – it features several pop tunes that could legitimately be called "sprightly" – but still finds room for plenty of somnolent, gracefully dirgelike ballads and a couple leery lurching rockers.  The uptick in eclecticism only shores up her musical resemblance to the Velvet Underground – well beyond the oft-noted Nico-esque starkness of her voice – which, far from whiffing of pastiche, feels unfussy, warmly familiar and entirely welcome.

Gambles
[Singer-Songwriter]
concert preview

The "gambles" invoked by New York City songwriter Matthew Daniel Siskin's recording moniker (his "bandonym," per the critic Carl Wilson) might just be the endless, inexorable crapshoot of life itself – a game in which, as his songs lay out in unflinching, plainspoken poetry, he's taken some knocks in recent years: a miscarriage, a failed marriage, a dark period of substance abuse, addiction and general listless malaise.  But it also suggests the dicey proposition of putting himself out there – on stage, on record, on the murky, lawless internet – with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a raw and resonant if slightly shaky voice, recalling the ragged, vehement diction of the young Conor Oberst or the craggy earnestness of Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay.  It's a seemingly unremarkable, commonplace act that, in Siskin's hands, takes on a visceral precariousness.  And, so far at least, that one seems to be paying off.  Hence, perhaps, the title of his debut recording, Trust (GMBLS), a gritty, frequently bleak collection that's not without its cautious, hard-fought hopefulness – and a little bit of whistling to boot.

Jason Isbell/Holly Williams
[Country/Folk]
concert preview

While the biggest noise coming out of Nashville in 2013 – cutting through the monotonous stream of trucks, dirt roads and tight jeans recently collated by Entertainment Weekly's Grady Smith – favored a spunky, decidedly youthful feminine energy (Kacey Musgraves, Pistol Annies, Keith Urban, et al.), this pedigreed pair took a decidedly different approach to crafting two of the years finest country full-lengths.  Both Southeastern (Relativity) – former Drive-By Trucker Isbell operating without his 400 Unit, and inciting uncanny Ryan-Adams-circa-Heartbreaker flashbacks – and Williams' The Highway (Georgiana) – yep, she's the daughter of Hank Jr., granddaughter of Hank, though she doesn't sound a lick like either – are markedly subdued affairs; spare, stripped-down storytelling songs with just the occasional spot of mild shit-kicking (Isbell's "Super 8," Williams' "Railroads.")  They're serious, grown-up records – Williams (with some help from her buddies Jackson, Jakob, Dierks and Gwyneth) tracing the powerful lines of love and family across the canvas of a lifetime, to the grave and beyond; the recently sober Isbell tackling alcoholism, recovery, cancer and loss among other weighty topics – maybe a little self-serious at times, but never overwrought or sentimentalized, just simply presented, beautifully sung, as frank and flat-out heart-wringing as it gets.

Bottle Rockets
[Rock/Pop]
concert preview

Among the major players in the 1990s alt-country scene, Festus, Missouri's Bottle Rockets weren't the most traditionalist (that was probably their close confederates Uncle Tupelo), nor were they the most twangily raucous (maybe Old 97s in their early days), but they boasted a potent, undeniable personality all their own, combining a tough, infectious Southern rock guitar attack with the populist storytelling of classic country.  While they've maintained a relatively steady release schedule into this century, their self-titled 1993 debut and 1995's The Brooklyn Side – both recently reissued on Bloodshot Records with a mess of bonus tracks and extras – remain the best introductions to frontman Brian Henneman's blend of down-home charm and punk-derived sarcasm, balancing good-timey odes to girls, cars and rural blue-collar life with sneering topical potshots at racist "rebel" rednecks, indie rock snobs, and antagonistic traffic cops.  As tunes like "Gravity Fails" and "I'll Be Coming Around" made clear, the band also has a long-standing knack for straight-up, classicist pop-rock, which explains why their current gig – both backing up and opening for veteran tunesmith Marshall Crenshaw – is such a natural fit.

Saintseneca
[Americana/Folk/Rock]
concert preview

This Columbus, OH quartet recently signed with the Anti- label (home to Neko Case, Tom Waits, Man Man, Dr. Dog, etc. etc.), who'll be releasing their sophomore LP, Dark Arc, this March.  It's a good fit for the band's expansive, idiosyncratic vision of Americana, which combines warmly earnest harmonies and a lively stompiness that should endear them to fans of Fleet Foxes and Edward Sharpe with refined and nuanced chamber-folk arrangements (incorporating mandolin, dulcimer, balalaika and Turkish baglama) that align them with artsier DIY collectives like Cuddle Magic and Mutual Benefit.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper