Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Alison Moyet’s “Other”

Alison Moyet’s husky alto can dominate any landscape, from the perky synth-pop of her youthful collaboration with Vince Clarke in Yazoo to the top-40 pop of “Whispering Your Name” or “It Won’t Be Long.” It’s forceful, soulful and empathetic, and 35 years after Yazoo’s classic “Only You,” it’s lost none of its power or beauty. Her profile has remained higher in her native U.K. than in the U.S., but her solo albums—Other is her ninth—have been consistently rewarding. A sequel of sorts to 2013’s The Minutes, Other reunites her with electronic producer Guy Sigsworth (Björk, Madonna) for a set that’s by turns tender and spare (piano ballad “Other”), aggressive and angry (the heavy-handed “Beautiful Gun”) and perky and poppy (the new wavish “Happy Giddy”). But whether juxtaposed with string sections, dark electronics or thumping beats, Moyet’s deeply sonorous voice is still the dramatic center.

—Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s “Best Troubador”

The first song Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) ever sang onstage was a Merle Haggard cover. He repays the debt fully with this 16-track compilation of Haggard covers. With two exceptions, he avoids the obvious hits, choosing to shine a light on Haggard’s often downhearted love songs with arrangements that avoid country-music conventions. A spooky slide guitar makes “Roses In The Winter” sound like a lament, with Oldham’s trembling voice adding to the song’s despondent feel. “My Old Pal” echoes the Carter Family with its folky harmonies and simple melody, while a smoky sax makes “I Always Get Lucky With You,” a hit Haggard wrote for George Jones, sound like a cocktail-lounge standard. After a slow start, Oldham and the band romp through “Wouldn’t That Be Something,” a tune that shows off Haggard’s interest in science fiction and includes a wry, self-referential quote from the more famous and oft-covered “Today I Started Loving You Again.”

—j. poet

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Essential New Music: Benjamin Booker’s “Witness”

Armed with an Epiphone and the raspy voice of a grizzled rock veteran, 25-year-old Benjamin Booker released a debut in 2014 humming with urgency, rocking ears and asses with a steady stream of blues-infused, jangle-punk ditties. In contrast, outright rockers are few on Witness, which has Motown, gospel and soul influences moving to the forefront. With this shift, Booker explores his gifts as a vocalist, his restless guitar frequently assuming a supporting role. “Believe” is a case in point, opening with a swell of Motown strings as Booker, with soul singer accompaniment, delivers an impassioned performance. It’s reminiscent of his contemporary, Leon Bridges—if Bridges had a five-pack-a-day habit. Similarly, on the title track, Booker enlists Mavis Staples to confront racism and police violence in the guise of a Sunday-morning singalong. Like his labelmates in Alabama Shakes, Booker takes inspiration from the past to make huge artistic leaps forward.

—Matt Ryan

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Essential New Music: Paul Weller’s “A Kind Revolution”

As the promotional material for Paul Weller’s 12th solo album reminds us, it’s been nearly 40 years since the debut album from the Jam, the mod-punk band that launched his career. Ever the contrarian, he apparently chooses to “celebrate” In The City’s issue not with a deluxe retrospective tour as many of his peers are doing, but instead by making new music. “It’s not about looking back,” he’s quoted as saying, going on further to talk of creating ever-new additions to his vast legacy, eternal modernist that he is.

So, why does most of A Kind Revolution sound like Weller’s been listening to nothing but his scratchy old ’70s soul 45s? Weller’s way forward has always been in his rear-view mirror. A Kind Revolution sets some of his most reflective lyrics to Watergate-era soul pastiches—it could’ve been called 10 Flavors Of R&B. Not that it starts that way: Opener “Woo Sé Mama” resembles the Faces at their most Meters-damaged, featuring vocal cameos from expatriate ’60s soul divas P.P. Arnold and Madeline Bell. “Nova” appears to be a David Bowie homage, a glam space opera that’s seemingly a cut-up of “Space Oddity” and “Ziggy Stardust.” From there, we get tastes of everything from JBs-style funk (“She Moves With The Fayre,” featuring a Robert Wyatt cameo) to Blaxploitation soundtracks (“New York,” “Satellite Kid”), even “Hopper,” an odd psych-Beatles ode to American realist painter Edward. Weller has always created a fine present out of traces of the past; A Kind Revolution is a funkier present.

—Tim Stegall

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Essential New Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “async”

Musician/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has been on the creative scene and making records since the late 1970s. A godfather of synth-pop, techno and other electro fetishes, Sakamoto’s aesthetic has greatly evolved. Crafting sophisticated ambient and orchestral themes while making soundtracks for films has resulted in him winning Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Awards. Now he’s in his mid-60s, having recently survived a bout with cancer, and his first solo effort in eight years is a gentle, mostly instrumental aural meditation. These existential sonic sketches are minimalist in nature but come together as an electroacoustic whole far greater than its composite parts. A conceptual rec ord, async addresses the limits and contexts of life, art and nature. He also references experimental filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky by dubbing this musical effort an imaginary soundtrack to a Tarkovsky movie that never was. No beats here, and it’s all meta, all the time.

—Mitch Myers

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Essential New Music: Chastity Belt’s “I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone”

“How did I get here?” “Do you ever dream about what it’s like to give up?” “I wanna feel like nothing’s wrong, sleep it off.” “I should quit my job and get a life/Fuck Friday nights.” Or my favorite, “I’m not OK”—as a chorus. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear that Seattle female alt-pop quartet Chastity Belt was vying for the coveted title of “most bummed-out group in a bummed-out town” (non-fake news: We had only four sunny days in five months). And yet, there they are in their breakout video for the album’s opening cut, “Different Now,” performing a goofy flannel-shirted homage to Temple Of The Dog’s “Hunger Strike.” Or bobbing and weaving playfully between tracks that otherwise sound like a mashup of K Records and beloved jangle acts like Seapony or La Sera. Simply put: This band knows how to do sweet and sour right, and its third LP—recorded at Portland’s Jackpot! Studio—bears all the trace evidence of a group coming into its own as performers and songwriters. Goofy and awkward, yet mature and sincere, this album showcases a band making magic from the mudpies of millennial angst.

—Corey duBrowa

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Essential New Music: Ride’s “Weather Diaries”

A lot can happen in 21 years. A newborn can legally drink; a community organizer can become president; and a band whose principals split on non-speaking terms can reunite and sound as if they never parted. Such is the story of Oxford shoegazer quartet Ride, whose final album, 1996’s creative low-water-mark Tarantula, gave zero indicators that there was any gas left in the tank. (One founding guitarist, Mark Gardener, tried both band and solo work before becoming a farmer in France; the other, Andy Bell, became the bass player in Oasis in a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” move for the ages.)

The band’s original four members are all back in the fold, and Weather Diaries finds them rejuvenated and in top form. “Charm Assault” and “Home Is A Feeling,” the first two singles, feature a cathedral of Ride’s signature chiming guitars, while the title track and the stately, hypnotic “Impermanence” serve as reminders that some of the group’s finest moments were as much about exploring the infinite confines of inner space as the far reaches of outer space. Not every track kills—“Rocket Silver Symphony” fails to achieve liftoff—but this is an album squarely in the spirit of the band’s underrated mid-period venture Carnival Of Light, a classic-rock record with none of the baggage that phrase might imply.

–Corey duBrowa

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Essential New Music: Todd Rundgren’s “White Knight”

Only Todd Rundgren—wizard, true star, avatar of vocal blue-eyed soul—would execute something as trendily popular as a duets album. And only Rundgren would write all new songs for the effort, and then not even sing during moments such as the gorgeously gurgling, synth-phonic “That Could Have Been Me” featuring a weepy Robyn. Rundgren loves shifting expectations as much as he digs the notion of collaboration, as he’s played along with most of his production charges in his 50-year-career. (Google it.) That camaraderie shows through on the wriggly, Moog-jazzy “Chance For Us” featuring Philly pal Daryl Hall. With Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Rundgren harmonizes on the menacingly Trump-ian “Tin Foil Hat,” chewing on lines such as, “The man in the tin foil hat/Is sitting on the throne tonight/It kinda feels like a coup d’état.” The mixed-bag effect of White Knight reaches its best moments on Runt’s partnership with R&B shouter Bettye LaVette on the salty soul of “Naked & Afraid,” and his teaming with Nine Inch Nails’ film composition team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the crushing, cinematic “Deaf Ears.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Justin Townes Earle’s “Kids In The Street”

Justin Townes Earle used his first six albums for a good deal of self-examination, to document his alcohol and substance excesses and to lighten the shadow of his similarly flawed and inescapably famous father, not to mention the ghost of the iconic songwriter that inhabits his middle name. On Kids In The Street, Earle’s New West debut and first with an outside producer (Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis), he finds himself content for the first time in his personal and professional lives: married, on the verge of fatherhood and ready to comment on the world his scion will inherit. Earle does this most poignantly on the title track, a quiet folk reflection on the gentrification of the poor Nashville neighborhood where he grew up. But even as he points out life’s injustices and unpleasantries, there’s an ease and comfort with which he accesses his long list of Americana influences. The honky-tonk sway with a touch of Van Dyke Parks (“What’s Goin’ Wrong”), traditional country twang (“Faded Valentine,” “What’s She Crying For”), blues both jubilant (“Champagne Corolla”) and menacing (“If I Was The Devil”) and second-line soul (“15-25”) are all dynamic, diverse and cohesive glimpses into Earle’s musical evolution.

—Brian Baker

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Essential New Music: Slowdive’s “Slowdive”

With bands such as Beach House, Fear Of Men and Purity Ring rediscovering the effects pedals of the dream-pop era, Slowdive’s reunion is timely. Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell and Co. released three albums in the first half of the ’90s, the first two of which, Just For A Day and Souvlaki, are shoegaze classics. (Pygmalion is a pleasant ambient diversion before the band morphed into Mojave 3.) This self-titled album, after a 22-year gap, sounds neither nostalgic nor willful. Halstead has taken some of the world-weariness that permeated his mostly acoustic solo albums and melded it with the swirling, swooning electric textures that Slowdive perfected, and his vocals and guitars mesh with Goswell’s like old friends slipping naturally into a comfort zone. The album has moments of propulsive triumph (“Star Roving”), shimmering transcendence (“Sugar For The Pill”) and calm beauty (“Falling Ashes”). While early Slowdive albums sounded like worthy descendants of the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, this new one sounds happily like a distillation of the best of Slowdive. The effects—and the effects pedals—are still dreamy.

—Steve Klinge

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