Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Rostam’s “Half Light”

Rostam Batmanglij is substantially responsible for shaping the sound and music of Vampire Weekend, so it’s unsurprising—probably inevitable—that the producer/multi-instrumentalist’s solo debut would share some hallmarks with his former band: borrowings from Western classical music (strings and harpsichords, playing those signature Alberti bass figures) and other international traditions (the tabla beats and Persian tunings on Bollywood baroque fantasia “Wood”); sampling/quoting as a compositional tool (from the Specials to “Simple Gifts” to Paul Simon’s Brazilian samba drums). Nor is Rostam’s gently sleepy vocal delivery worlds away from Ezra Koenig’s amiable tenor. But he’s working with a broader palette here (incorporating, for instance, skittering electro beats akin to his side project Discovery), pursuing his distinctively colorful sonic exploration more for its own sake than as a means of embellishing indie-pop songs, per se, even if most of Half-Light approximately fits that bill. It’s less an emphatic, assertive statement than a patchwork scrapbook of disparate moods and tunes (some dating back to 2011) that, taken as a whole, feels not unpleasantly unfinished, somewhat hazy and dreamlike (a recurring lyrical theme) and understatedly charismatic.

K. Ross Hoffman

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Essential New Music: The Yawpers’ “Boy In A Well”

On this disturbing album, the Yawpers give us a song cycle—you can call it a rock opera without indulging in hyperbole—that’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Nate Cook and Jesse Parmet play acoustic instruments, but they produce an extraordinary palette of tone, color and sound as they range through the worlds of rockabilly, early R&B, blues, folk and punk. Noah Shomberg’s inventive drumming fills in the background on this tale of murder and retribution. Boy In A Well’s cinematic arch is complemented by the comic book that comes with the album, illustrated by J. D. Wilkes of the Legendary Shack Shakers. Cook tells the story of a baby abandoned in a well on the last day of World War I, following the infant though his brief, tragic life and death. His vocals are as wrenching as the grim scenarios he describes, a performance that leaves you desolated and emotionally exhausted.

j. poet

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Essential New Music: Ben Sollee And Kentucky Native’s “Ben Sollee And Kentucky Native”

Cellist, songwriter, activist and proud Kentucky native Ben Sollee has always been a difficult artist to predict. The difference between his R&B-based 2012 album Half Made Man and his far-reaching 2016 LP Infowars was night and day, and that’s not counting the four other EPs and albums he produced in between that many never heard about. So what to expect with his new album under new name Ben Sollee And Kentucky Native? Perhaps a quantum leap beyond his indie cello-folk genre to something entirely new? Instead, he’s moved backward, dipping deep into the loamy roots of bluegrass and Appalachian music. Banjo rings throughout, his cello sounds more like a fiddle than ever, and the melodies hew either Celtic or old-timey. It’s a thoroughly delightful and very listenable album. Though perhaps not as cleverly complex as his previous work, it seems to strike closer to Sollee’s home and heart.

Devon Leger

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Essential New Music: Moses Sumney’s “Aromanticism”

In the video for his single “Doomed,” Moses Sumney performs submerged in azure water, lit softly from above (or is it within?) as if he’s a fetal offspring of the benevolent extraterrestrials from The Abyss. It’s the perfect visual accompaniment for his amniotic anthem, which plays like the sonogram soundtrack every expectant parent hears in their head: four subtle synth murmurs underscoring Sumney’s ultrasonic falsetto, itself a chest-tightening miracle of nature. Given the crystalline perfection of that track, this conceptual debut LP first comes across as a willfully obscure abstraction, an oblong listen with snatches of new-age spoken word, prog-jazz wandering and urban field recordings deliberately halting any conventional momentum. But repeated spins reveal an exotic, intoxicating soup: Sumney can summon Jim James, Thom Yorke and Nick Drake without sounding precisely like any of them, and the nebulous music begins to resemble a magnetic field that follows him around, changing its shape to fit his many moods.

Noah Bonaparte Pais

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Essential New Music: Shout Out Louds’ “Ease My Mind”

It’s easy to love Swedish bands like the Mary Onettes, Radio Dept. and Shout Out Louds. They have a knack for sweeping, resonant guitar pop that triggers memories of New Order, the Cure or Echo & The Bunnymen without sounding slavishly nostalgic or imitative. Ease My Mind, the fifth album from Stockholm’s Shout Out Louds, is the latest example: It’s got big, sing-along melodies (“Oh Oh”), chiming, propulsive love songs (“Paolo”) and beautiful counterpoint vocals between Adam Olenius and Bebban Stenborg (“Jumbo Jet”). Everything is polished with a reverb sheen until the closing “Souvenirs,” which begins with somber melody anchored in a few stark, minor-key chords before it too bursts into Technicolor when the keyboards join in about a third of the way through its nearly five minutes. Ease My Mind has some sharper edges and fewer lush arrangements than the last Shout Out Louds album, 2013’s equally excellent Optica, but the changes are slight. The Swedes are reliable that way.

Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: Wand’s “Plum”

Los Angeles’ modern psych-rock heroes return with their fourth LP and first since 2015’s stunning 1000 Days. Plum finds the freshly five-pieced band in a shockingly calmer space than its last efforts. Transient fuzz and overdriven synths make way for meatier melodies and, dare we say, more mature songwriting. Fear not, this is a kick-ass rock ’n’ roll record all the way around. The evidence lies within the grooves that these songs are a conglomerate effort with perhaps not as much heavy lifting by Cory Hanson in the songwriting or triple-teaming multiple instruments. New additions of Robbie Cody’s guitar and Sofia Arreguin’s keys and sultry backing vocals have rounded out the trio to this starting five. Evan Burrows’ tub thumping is one of the best in the game, and hell, while we’re at it, Lee Landy, your low end ain’t too shabby either.

Scott Zuppardo

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Essential New Music: Alan Vega’s “IT”

As aggressively influential as the scorched-earth electro of Suicide was (that being vocalist/poet/painter Alan Vega’s duo with machine manipulation Martin Rev), it was Vega who had an ongoing, prolific dialogue with his audience, as IT—recorded with wife Liz Lamere from 2010 until his passing in 2016—was his 11th solo album, and perhaps his finest. Built lyrically and sonically from the lean inspiration of downtown NYC’s mean streets (a given; his usual), Vega added to the detritus around him without sentiment. “Life is no joke,” he forcefully croon-cackles on “DTM” (stands for “dead to me”) while the industrial scrawl, pucker and bounce of neo-industrial noise spins behind him. Add a ghostly chain’s clinking and Vega’s vocal tics (“whoa,” “yeaaah”) and you get “Vision” and its fire-and-brimstone breaks. Unlike on Suicide albums (and even his own), Vega’s forceful voice is boldly high in the mix, allowing the bubble-in-the-throat growl of “Dukes God Bar” and his shouts of “Hey lousy white racists/Stay away” to come through nice and clear. That’s good; Vega rarely got the opportunity to be heard beyond the underground, so clarity—in passing—was essential. And all the more piercing for it.

A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Oh Sees’ “Orc”

What’s in a name? For guitar wildman John Dwyer, it’s hard to tell. After several releases under various permutations of “OCS,” “the Ohsees” and “the Oh Sees” (to name a bare minimum), the psych-revival whiz finally settled on “Thee Oh Sees” for 10 years and a dozen albums. Dwyer has upended that streak by streamlining the band’s name to just “Oh Sees” on his 19th creation, Orc. The wild and wiry “The Static God” sets the stage with pummeling dual drums and scraping guitars. Several of Dwyer’s side-genre interests get added to the fold, too: There’s seething R&B on “Jettison” and menacing metal on “Animated Violence.” The album’s centerpiece is “Keys To The Castle,” which starts as a blood-pumping rave-up before transforming into a scorched-earth instrumental in its second half. Name games aside, Orc is a continuation of the careening energy and creativity that has defined the most recent handful of Oh Sees’ records, making it one of the most beastly in the bunch.

Eric Schuman

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Essential New Music: Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton’s “Choir Of The Mind”

In Metric, Emily Haines specializes in glossy, synth-centric pop. In her occasional stints as one of Broken Social Scene’s many vocalists, she shows she can rock out. On her solo albums, though, she favors melancholy, thoughtful piano ballads. Choir Of The Mind, her third, is a showcase for Haines’ delicate, careful voice; it’s serious and artful without being heavy handed (as long as you don’t mind a lengthy spoken-word passage from an Indian mystic poet). Whereas she fleshed out 2006’s Knives Don’t Have Your Back with strings and horns, here she’s assisted only by Metric bandmate James Shaw (and, on one track, Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor). The focus is on the vocals, and Haines often layers her voice into lush backing choirs. The outlier is “Fatal Gift,” which, with more glitz, could be a Metric track; as it is, it’s the album’s most extroverted moment, with dense layers of harmony vocals and a tense rhythm track. But Choir Of The Mind is more often introspective and engrossing.

Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: The Clientele’s “Music For The Age Of Miracles”

Some artists believe so thoroughly in the imaginary worlds they create, the listener winds up being convinced of their existence, too. Such a dogmatic dreamer is Clientele anchor Alasdair MacLean, who loses himself so thoroughly in his dreamy, Fairport Convention-folky universe on the band’s first album in seven years that it almost borders on satire, like Spinal Tap’s ’60s-retro spoof “Listen To The Flower People.” But MacLean (who wheezes like a more bookish Steve Kilbey) is as ardent as Sheldon Cooper on gently plucked numbers like “Lunar Days” (“This is the year that the monster will come,” he gently warns), a wispy “The Neighbour” (“How will you ever know the dancer from the dance?” he puzzles) and head-scratcher “Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself” (on which he calmly notes that “Nothing here is quite the same/Songbirds singing new refrains”). By the time MacLean gets around to a spoken-word revisit to an old haunt, “The Museum Of Fog,” you’re happily along for the surreal ride.

Tom Lanham

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