Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: The Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s “Barefoot In The Head”

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood doesn’t get enough respect. Vocalist/bandleader Robinson is still distancing himself from the legacy of his old group, the Black Crowes, and far too few people have heard the many splendid recordings by his more current band of brothers. These guys are total road warriors who’ve nurtured their expansive live sound to include several aspects of cosmic American music that echo the spirit and intent of tribal pioneers like the Grateful Dead. Deep and communal, Barefoot In The Head is the CRB’s most impressive studio effort yet. Ace guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams And The Cardinals) is sharper than ever and brings out the best in Robinson, while Adam MacDougall’s vintage keyboard arsenal keeps things from sounding too clichéd. Psychedelic flourishes abound as the band’s rocking roots and fluid flashbacks interweave organically. The songs are there, the performances are spirited, Robinson’s voice is in fine form, and the good times just keep rolling along.

Mitch Myers

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Essential New Music: The Telescopes’ “As Light Return”

Like the Feelies, the Telescopes have a doughnut for a timeline. They started out in 1987 as a promising psych-pop combo whose music argued for the merits of guitars in the pre-Loveless era. After fizzling in the early ’90s, they took a decade off. Now organized around founding singer/guitarist Stephen Lawrie, they sound much heavier and quite unburdened by commercial notions. Lawrie isn’t averse to singing tunes, but he saddles them with lumbering cadences and heaping clouds of looped guitars until it seems like the noise is the point. Each of the record’s five songs inches closer to that conclusion, but it’s the epic finale, “Handful Of Ashes,” that makes the case. With the drums withdrawn and the guitars circling like hurricane clouds, it completely embraces the maelstrom.

Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Broken Social Scene’s “Hug Of Thunder”

Broken Social Scene albums have never been about raising the profiles of the group’s dozen-plus members. Though guitarist Kevin Drew and bassist Brendan Canning serve as de facto leaders, BSS thrives on collaborations that yield results greater than the sum of their parts. With several members boasting their own celebrated careers, each assembly of BSS can end up feeling like a family reunion, inside jokes and all.

Hug Of Thunder features just about all of the marquee names associated with BSS (Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines, Stars’ Amy Millan), but they share the spotlight with a handful of new recruits. Singer Ariel Engle is the most prominent addition, taking the reins on highlights “Stay Happy” and “Gonna Get Better.” Haines shines on the breathless “Protest Song,” and under Feist’s guidance, the title track is one of the band’s best.

With so many talented cooks contributing to Hug Of Thunder, not to mention the significant gap between its release and its predecessor (2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record), the retreads of familiar sonic ground are a bit disappointing. As fun as Drew’s “Halfway Home” is, it’s a total ringer for the band’s 2005 breakout, “7/4 (Shoreline).” The muscular arrangements and horn flares elevate “Vanity Pail Kids” and “Gonna Get Better” much in the same way they did for the standouts on Forgiveness Rock Record. If it’s been a minute since you’ve spent time with BSS, Hug Of Thunder could be a revelation. Otherwise, you’ll just have to settle for it being a very good album.

Eric Schuman

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Essential New Music: Grizzly Bear’s “Painted Ruins”

It’s no slight to claim that Painted Ruins contains strong trace elements of Radiohead circa OK Computer. Thom Yorke and Co. selected the Brooklyn quartet to open for their 2008 tour, and Jonny Greenwood called them his favorite band at the time. The album is full of anxiety and tension, stocked with woozy melodies that float atop precise rhythms and dramatically calibrated guitars; it foregrounds its attention to detail.

Painted Ruins, the fourth Grizzly Bear LP (not counting 2004’s Horn Of Plenty, which was essentially an Edward Droste solo recording), ends a self-imposed hiatus following 2012’s Shields. It was written in fits and starts via long-distance correspondence, with the band members split between East and West coasts, vocalist/guitarist Daniel Rossen in upstate New York, drummer Christopher Bear in Brooklyn, bassist Chris Taylor and vocalist Edward Droste in L.A. Those instrument roles are very slippery: Everyone aside from Droste plays multiple instruments, and everyone sings.

Painted Ruins itself is slippery: It’s sharply focused—and sonically beautiful—but also abstract, with an open-ended feeling to the swooping voices and lyrical ambiguities. “Great disaster, shocking sight/Scream and run or test your might,” Rossen sings on “Aquarian,” one of several tracks with political undercurrents. “With every passing day/Our history fades away/And I’m not sure why/There’s nothing left to say,” sings Droste on “Neighbors,” and he could be singing about America or about the husband he recently divorced.

Like the Antlers or Wild Beasts or, yes, Radiohead, Grizzly Bear makes records that draw you deeply into their textures and drama, with lyrics that explore feelings of alienation and uncertainty. The result is strangely comforting and compelling.

Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: The Fall’s “New Facts Emerge”

New Facts Emerge is the 32nd studio album by the Fall—an undeniable miracle, all things considered. And a micro-miracle inside that big miracle is that, starting with 1999’s The Marshall Suite and including this brand-new document, Mark E. Smith has managed to put the Fall name on 12 studio full-lengths that not only measure up to the band’s heyday of a very long time ago but exist as strong contenders against the underground rock landscape onto which each album appeared over the last 18 years. If New Facts Emerge reminds the listener of any post-millennial Fall album, I’d have to go with 2003’s The Real New Fall LP. You’d need to hire a consultant to follow the lineup turmoil that’s consistently swirled around Smith on the way to a year of activity and an album that really shouldn’t be possible, but the balance of fuck-around filler to forward-thinking tracks to what any fan would deem “a Fall classic” is contextually astonishing.

Andrew Earles

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Essential New Music: Curanderos’ “Mescalito”

Good songs may be hard to write, but sometimes the music just flows. It often seems like this is the case with Philadelphia-based psychedelic combo Bardo Pond, which can take years to come up with an album but has no problem turning out acres of marvelous stoned jams under its own name and countless side projects. Curanderos is John and Michael Gibbons, Bardo Pond’s guitarists, plus synthesizer player Aaron Igler and drummer Scott Verrastro, both of less-known but equally committed zone surveyors Kohoutek. Their collegial chemistry is undeniable. Verrastro is a relaxed but persuasive timekeeper, and Igler’s keys introduce textures rarely heard on Bardo Pond records. But their effect on the Gibbons brothers is more a vote of confidence than a push to try something new; they roll through their accompanists’ peaks and valleys like twin streams of lava, radiant and undeniable.

Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Randy Newman’s “Dark Matter”

A new Randy Newman album is an event, something that only comes around once a decade. His latest begins accordingly, with a flourish, ushering in “The Great Debate,” an extravagant showdown between the amassed forces of science and Christianity. For an artist who tends to work within well-established modes, this is something new: a mini-melodrama, with a quick-shifting musical backdrop, wherein Newman plays all the parts and speaks more than he sings. It’s a masterful showpiece for his gifts as an arranger, cultural observer and all-around wit, but the overarching setup is perhaps a tad grandiose to stand among his finest work. Newman, at his best, can slyly reveal complicating, humanizing gray shades in even the most unsavory characters, something he suggests on otherwise gleefully cartoonish vaudeville fantasia “Putin,” as the shirtless autocrat experiences a hesitant, momentary lapse of egomania.

But while these two overtly topical production numbers are the LP’s biggest attention-getters and help establish its fluidly discursive compositional style, they’re outliers on a record that might actually be Newman’s most lighthearted collection. There’s the pure historical whimsy of “Brothers” (an imagined conversation between the Kennedys, pre-Bay of Pigs, set to a salsa beat) and “Sonny Boy” (a portrait of “the only bluesman in heaven”).

And we get several reliably tender ballads from a true virtuoso sentimentalist, especially the deeply touching “Lost Without You,” whose chorus bookends the wry, poignant scenario of the narrator’s wife, on her deathbed, defending him against their concerned and/or churlish offspring. Which doesn’t sound very lighthearted. But it’s Newman’s ability to paint such a scene with humor, affection and honest humanity that makes his albums so thoroughly worth the wait. 2026 can’t come fast enough.

K. Ross Hoffman

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Essential New Music: Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now”

Arcade Fire’s tightest and tersest album since 2004’s Funeral is by far its least ambitious, and the band is cool to riff on this, with two transcendentally goofy, back-to-back versions (one punk, one country) of a song called “Infinite Content.” But maybe we shouldn’t take Arcade Fire’s satirical abilities (and this newfound Infinite Jest-like fascination) for granted when 2006’s Neon Bible was one of the subtler digs at the Iraq War. For the most part, the band’s mode circa 2017 is bumping, thwacking synth-pop like Tegan And Sara, Paramore and so many other lost indie rockers. Daft Punk itself helps out here and there, which is analogous to James Murphy manning the boards behind 2013’s Reflektor; Murphy’s a purveyor of wordy, one-foot-in-one-foot-out dance music in scare quotes, and his collaboration awkwardly shuffled itself as such. Daft Punk rocks actual houses (including Murphy’s) and encrypts such conceptuality behind the grooves.

Everything Now is focused as such, and it’s nice to give these eggheads’ brains a break and their asses a workout. “Electric Blue” and full-on Gary Numan dream “Creature Comfort” are good grooves indeed, without much aspiration toward being anything greater—which for this hopelessly grandiose band is a breath of fresh air, to offset Win Butler donning a faux-Murphy inflection to name-check girls who cut themselves on the latter. Closer to greatness are the “Stand By Me”-style chord changes of “Peter Pan” and chilling closer “We Don’t Deserve Love,” a timely shaming anthem for Trump: “If you can’t see the forest for the trees/Just burn them all down.”

Dan Weiss

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Essential New Music: Matt Pond PA’s “Still Summer”

Matt Pond and his ever-rotating gang of collaborators return with their 12th album, a melancholy song cycle that drifts down a river of long, empty days and warm, endless nights, haunted by the ghosts of lost love. The scenarios may be washed by the glowing heat of summer, but the chill of winter is lurking in the empty emotional landscapes Pond describes. His vocals seldom rise above a whisper and slowly pull you down into the album’s dreamy despondency. Even uptempo numbers such as “A Spark” and the title track are steeped in the knowledge of limitation and look forward to the inevitable end of all the good times. The strongest tracks are “Last Breath” and “Canada,” songs that face heartache directly, celebrating the momentary intensity of the love that makes life worth living. The ambient instrumental interludes that punctuate the tracks add to the overall feeling of hopelessness and sorrow.

j. poet

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Essential New Music: Doldrums’ “Esc”

Doldrums, the brainchild of Montreal denizen Airick Asher Woodhead, exists in the odd confluence of rhythmic EDM, soulful indie pop, industrial chaos, deconstructed techno and ambient margin noodling, assembled with a craftsman’s precision and an artist’s haphazard vision. For his third album, Woodhead touches on the sonic signatures of electronic pioneers Brian Eno, Philip Glass and late countryman Nash The Slash, with an aggressive rock layer that suggests Perry Farrell and Al Jourgensen (“Epilogue,” “Swim,” “Against The Glass”). Amid all that unsettling headfuckery, Woodhead and a small coterie of co-conspirators—guest vocalist Jane Penny from TOPS lends a shiver-inducing cross between Annie Lennox and Lana Del Rey on “Perv”—achieve a woozy pop aesthetic that sounds like Rufus Wainwright on a coherent acid binge (“Limerence (We Come In Pieces),” “Heater,” “Runnerup”). If the explanation sounds as chopped-up as the soundtrack to The Texas Computer Chip Massacre, trust that Woodhead-as-Doldrums has succeeded in making a compelling musical/mechanical statement.

Brian Baker

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