Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Elbow’s “Little Fictions”

After a 25-year career that began with a Mercury Prize shortlisting and a Brit Award nod for best new band, and continued with Mercury and Brit wins (not to mention a couple of Ivor Novellos, an NME and various other accolades), composing the theme for the BBC’s 2012 Olympic coverage and generally becoming one of the U.K.’s most beloved rock bands, it might seem logical to assume that Elbow is due for a stretch of laurel resting. Nothing could be further from the truth; the group’s last album, 2014’s stunning The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, deservedly became the band’s first U.K. number one when it debuted. Coming into Elbow’s seventh studio album, paradise rumbled slightly when Richard Jupp opted out of the band, marking the first lineup change in the group’s history. Soldiering on with session drummer Alex Reeves, the remaining foursome produced Little Fictions, quite possibly the pinnacle of its storied catalog. Frontman Guy Garvey shows that he and the band have a sense of perspective about it all when he intones “What does it prove if you die for a tune?/It’s really all disco” on the psychedelically majestic “All Disco,” a laser beam among Little Fictions’ highlights. The album’s first single, “Magnificent (She Says),” begins as a quietly propulsive pop song but swells to near epic proportions with the help of the Hallé Orchestra; “Trust The Sun” finds the band gliding along on a percolating jazz riff that suggests a marriage of late-period Police and the hushed power of Talk Talk in its prime, and “K2” pulses with a gorgeous Tropicália rhythm. Elbow’s greatest gifts have always been the ability to create a dynamic and fluid atmosphere applied to songs that are simultaneously expansive and intimate, and Little Fictions may be the best example of the band’s talents in action.

—Brian Baker

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Essential New Music: Scott H. Biram’s “The Bad Testament”

Scott H. Biram has got kind of a corny shtick on paper: the old one-man band, all grizzly and gruff, just him and a guitar singing into a collection of battered vintage microphones duct-taped together. But he more than makes up for these limitations by dint of his hard-ass love for American folk roots. This is the kind of guy as likely to yodel his way through an old country song as he is to grind his teeth on some electric blues. He swears like a motherfucker, too. Thing is, this is what the blues probably sounded like back in the day. Early recording technology sanitized American roots music, making it seem quaint today. But at the time, artists were grinding out these sweaty, dirty songs in smoky bars and dancehalls and trying like hell to make something meaningful in this fucked-up world. Biram gets that. He’s one of the few members of the new roots revival who does.

—Devon Leger

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Essential New Music: Brokeback’s “Illinois River Valley Blues”

Though some things change, others stay the same. Across 22 years and multiple incarnations, Douglas McCombs (also of Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and Pullman) has remained the sole consistent member of Brokeback. Early on, the sound was focused on melodies he composed for six-string electric bass. Accompanists, recording and rhythmic approaches, and instruments have come and gone. In its current four-piece incarnation, Brokeback is a beat combo with a fairly live sound, and McCombs plays electric and baritone guitar. But if the string tone has changed, the intent to instrumentally evoke spaces and places remains. The guitars twang enough to get you thinking of Calexico or Duane Eddy, but the tunes are named for places in rural Illinois, which makes plenty of sense when you consider that flat cornfield views and desert vistas give you equally unimpeded views of the wide-open road and the empty land around it.

—Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “The Tourist”

“Indie rock” has become such an amorphous and broad category that it’s nearly meaningless. But you could do worse than to use Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to define it: The band’s 2005 self-titled debut is a genre touchstone, one of those albums that seemed to come out of nowhere fully formed. Self-released and initially self-promoted, willfully weird but eminently accessible, the record deservedly found its audience in large part due to internet word of mouth (and blog-of-ear). Led by Philly’s Alec Ounsworth, CYHSY identified as a band but was often in large part a solo project in the studio. The initial version of CYHSY disbanded after its third album, 2012’s Hysterical, and 2014’s underrated, synth-centric Only Run was basically Ounsworth solo. For the even better guitars-forward The Tourist, Ounsworth uses the touring band he drafted for Only Run, including Spinto Band guitarist Nick Krill and Bigger Lovers/Pernice Brothers drummer (and former MAGNET contributor) Patrick Berkery. Songs such as “The Vanity Of Trying” and “Down (Is Where I Want To Be )” glory in rave-up crescendos (you can glimpse the fingerprints of Dave Fridmann, who mixed the album, on these). It’s replete with Lou Reed allusions: “It seems I’ll be your mirror” (“Unfolding Above Celibate Moon”), “Turns out you were vicious/You hit me with a flower” (“Better Off”). The Tourist is still weird—how could it not be, with Ounsworth’s bleating voice and often cryptic lyrics?—but not as willfully as moments on Hysterical or 2007’s Some Loud Thunder. It’s not a facsimile of the debut—it’s more layered and less frenetic—but it’s still applause-worthy.

—Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: Eric Matthews’ “Too Much World”

Eric Matthews didn’t invent chamber pop, but he certainly set an impossibly high bar with his 1995 debut, It’s Heavy In Here, which hit with the impact of a velvet-fisted sucker punch telegraphed with hypnotic whispers. Matthews sublimated his solo career after the lukewarm response to 1997’s The Lateness Of The Hour, becoming a utility player for the Dandy Warhols, Tahiti 80 and Elliott Smith before relaunching his brand with a trio of return-to-form releases on Empyrean, including 2008’s The Imagination Stage. For his first album in nine years, Matthews brings his estimable gifts to bear on a 12-track rumination on the stunting effects of the material world on his spiritual growth. Jazzy flourishes animate “Factual Extreme,” “Dragonfly” hints at Andy Partridge’s English Settlement pastoralism, and “God Loves His Children” mirrors John Cale’s orchestral majesty. Matthews even flexes his indie-rock muscles, particularly on the forceful “Ten More Masters” and the haunting “Exactly Like Them,” which bristle with Bowie-like revelatory power. (God, he’d better not be dying.) With a few new wrinkles, Too Much World reflects and transcends the typical and sporadically consistent brilliance that Matthews has exhibited over the past two decades.

—Brian Baker

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Essential New Music: Sorority Noise’s “You’re Not As _____ As You Think”

On Sorority Noise’s “A Portrait Of,” singer Cameron Boucher mumbles a little anecdote about what the afterlife might be like—“and they’re playing “The ’59 Sound” in heaven/While the angels were drinking up whiskey and cokes.” Invoking the Gaslight Anthem’s track—a romantic song about death that asks the recently deceased, “Did you hear your favorite song one last time?”—this line is particularly telling for Sorority Noise’s third LP. The image of angels kicking back and getting drunk contrasts painfully with the record’s life on earth, one where the narrator struggles to get out of bed and wonders why they’re not up there in heaven, too.

All of this is to say that You’re Not As __ As You Think is a brutal recollection of the endless, everyday fight against grief. On “A Better Sun,” Boucher numbly recounts a cycle of pain, posturing and self-destruction, all with the same construction of “this is the part where …” In this way, “A Better Sun” presents the quiet moments of grieving (a verse spent listening to music, nodding toward Julien Baker, Into It. Over It. and Modern Baseball) in the same way it presents the loud ones (“This is the part where I explode and destroy/Everything on this god-given earth”). On You’re Not As __ As You Think, the difficulty of loss permeates through every moment.

Because death looms so heavily over this record, it’s no surprise that these songs are often interested in examining a dismayed form of spirituality. “Second Letter From St. Julien” addresses god with defiance and deference in turn, asking, “What’s your god trying to prove,” in one breath and, “Do I make him proud?” in the next. The subject of god certainly leads to some clunky moments (“He’s always trying to fuck me to the tune of my favorite song”), but the record’s conflict with divine power makes for genuinely affective music.

Mike Sapone (Brand New, Taking Back Sunday) helps bring Sorority Noise to a cleaner, more-focused sound, making the record’s more energetic tracks like “No Halo” and “Disappeared” shimmer and explode beautifully. The band’s dynamics are sharper than ever, sounding larger than life in the loud chorus of “No Halo” and intimately melancholy on slow burns like “First Letter From St. Sean.”

The album’s climax comes with “Leave The Fan On,” but it doesn’t feel like a big solution or the beginning of a grand post-grief phase. Here, the narrator still struggles to take care of himself, even failing to brush his teeth in the morning before the big, bombastic outro. But small, isolated closer “New Room” does present a subtle shift, with Boucher giving a bored, practical little solution—“I haven’t been spending enough time alone/Maybe that’s why I feel like I don’t have a home.” It seems like a big, loud ending is warranted for You’re Not As __ As You Think, but Sorority Noise doesn’t let us have it. “New Room” poses a quiet step forward as opposed to a sweeping new era, because grief doesn’t leave in one fowl swoop; in fact, it may not ever leave us. Instead, “New Room” is about finding new ways to cope, little by little.

—Jordan T. Walsh

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Essential New Music: Uniform’s “Wake In Fright”

There’s a lot to take in on this Brooklyn duo’s second record. Thematically, vocalist Michael Berdan mines his issues, burdens and neuroses for lyrical content that spans an overdriven line between unsettling experience and triumphant discharge. Sometimes the hardest part about being human is admitting our shortcomings, though it’s a lot easier when you’re able to exorcise demons physically and artistically, especially when the accompaniment is a cathartic wall of noise that calculates the blackened spot where cold industrial, monolithic post-rock and the rumbling thunder of NYC’s dirty ‘80s sonic experiments and outsider art overlap. Where Uniform steps to the left is in how varieties of sounds contribute to the punishing totality. “Tabloid” employs a hornet’s nest of samples, whereas “Habit” and “Light At The End” warp the concept of sustain into a mechanized-doom sensibility; it’s not just traditional distorted guitars playing traditionally heavy riffs here.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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Essential New Music: Shintaro Sakamoto’s “Love If Possible”

Knowing that a musician spent more than two decades in a band is a good way of telling that they have their stuff figured out. That’s the case with Shintaro Sakamoto, who led the Tokyo psych-pop trio Yura Yura Teikoku until 2010. Since then, Sakamoto has released a collection of artwork and a string of solo albums, the newest of which continues his journey to the center of his classic pop-addled mind. Mining influences from ’70s R&B, folk and early electronica, Sakamoto serves as ringleader and gatekeeper to a plush revisionist history on Love If Possible. He coos over a skeletal rhythm on “Another Planet” and shuffles slyly through “Feeling Immortal.” Sakamoto evokes other retro-minded bands and artists as much as the original artifacts: “Disco Is” features a nonchalant Stereolab vibe, while the title track uses flourishes on loan from Todd Terje or Mayer Hawthorne. Love If Possible is a delightful confection, and Sakamoto keeps it just the right amount of sweet.

—Eric Schuman

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Essential New Music: Surfer Blood’s “Snowdonia”

A darkness pervades John Paul Pitts’ lyrics on Snowdonia, the first Surfer Blood album since the death, by cancer, of guitarist Thomas Fekete, but the overall tenor is joyful. It’s a rebooted version of the band, with Pitts and original drummer Tyler Schwarz joined by guitarist Michael McCleary and bassist Lindsey Mills—the latter two the source of the breezy harmony vocals that sweetened the arrangements. This is a zippy power-pop record, full of crunchy riffs and ringing leads, even as Pitts sings of mortality, aging and sacrifice. Pitts stretches out with multipart song structure on the title track and shifts “Instant Doppelgangers” into high gear with some judiciously placed distortion that hearkens back to 2010’s Astro Coast. But most of Snowdonia is immediate and direct, as bright and sharply defined as the weather in the band’s native Florida. At times reminiscent of the Lilys’ Better Can’t Make Your Life Better, Snowdonia works within formulas, but it does so with aplomb.

—Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: Strand Of Oaks’ “Hard Love”

Tim Showalter wants you to know how much he loves rock ’n’ roll. He’s as enraptured by the life-affirming powers of a loud rock song as he’s aware of the damaging potential of a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. HEAL, his breakthrough 2014 album as Strand Of Oaks, contained a paean to the late Jason Molina, the leader of Songs:Ohia, that was both adulatory and cautionary; the new Hard Love opens by juxtaposing a break-up song (the title track) with a celebration of how the joy of hearing a great song on the radio can change a life (“Radio Kids”). Gone are his folk/rock days; Hard Love rocks hard, and when it doesn’t, it sounds aptly hung over or strung out. Philly’s Showalter doesn’t mind anchoring his songs in the styles of his heroes: The allusions reinforce his love: Dinosaur Jr and Smashing Pumpkins, Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams, Molina and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The eight-minute stoner rock of “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother” is a bit of a trudge, but Hard Love is easy to adore.

—Steve Klinge

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