Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Brockhampton’s “Saturation III”

Hip-hop acts—let alone ones with boy-band underpinnings—rarely showcase the sheer chemistry that Brockhampton has managed with its Saturation trilogy. And juggling the various personalities and competing organic and factory-made pop/rap aspirations of a 14-member posse shouldn’t amount to something as cohesive and satisfying as Saturation III. As persistent beat changes keep the listener on notice, hooks form a memorable equilibrium of carefully crafted complexity on tracks like “Zipper,” “Stupid” and “Johnny.” The Los Angeles outfit forwards the themes prominent on the previous two Saturation entries. The lyrics are personal and sometimes random, but they often carry surprising weight. “Could’ve got a job at McDonald’s, but I like curly fries,” Kevin Abstract raps on “Johnny.” “That’s a metaphor for my life, and I like taller guys.” A big reason why Saturation III holds together so well is the otherworldly production of Romil Hemnani, Jabari Manwa and Kiko Merley. On “Sister/Nation,” arguably the album’s most memorable moment, futuristic instrumentation effortlessly transitions into borderline Pink Floyd-like prog rock, while “Johnny” is propelled by a stylish beat flip. Elsewhere, Houston-born rapper Ameer Vann’s aggressive flows provide a charismatic edge to “Boogie,” “Stupid” and “Alaska.” A well-honed celebration of experimentation and novelty, Saturation III dually embodies steady growth and unrealized potential. Throughout, Brockhampton finds comfort in the awkward and acceptance in rejection, overarching themes that carry over from track to track, member to member, regardless of the topic. Saturation III is for all of us—and especially those who don’t want to be like the rest.

—Fran Miller

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Essential New Music: Pere Ubu’s “20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo”

Like its immediate predecessors, 2013’s Lady From Shanghai and 2014’s Carnival Of Souls, Pere Ubu’s newest skates the line between moody atmospherics (“I Can Still See” and the frankly outstanding “The Healer”) and deep-groove cuts that seem to have been beamed in from Mars (“Monkey Bizness,” “Funk 49,” “Swampland”). But the canvas here is a bit larger, as the primary unifying concept seems to be David Thomas and Co. going wherever the collaborative impulse takes them. Often it takes them to very spirited places, which means 20 Years frequently sounds like the best sort of Pere Ubu: brainy, funky, dry and sly in its copious wit. Thomas’ burbling, wobbly-jowl blues intonations on “Howl,” bouncy hiccups on “Plan From Frag 9” and insistent delivery on “Red Eye Blues” are the sound of an artist fully in the pocket, warbling away happily down there with a whole crew of co-conspirators. Pere Ubu’s been turning in accomplished records the past few years, but 20 Years sounds like it was a blast to make. The playful side of the band, which often gets scant notice, is on full display.

—Eric Waggoner

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Essential New Music: King Krule’s “The Ooz”

Much has been made of the British artist known to his family as Archy Marshall in the years between his youthful debut in 2010 as Zoo Kid and then the King Krule and Archy Marshall releases that followed in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Was he all Cockney guttersnipe in Artful Dodger mold? A down-at-the-heels art kid à la Amy Winehouse? The Streets redux? After listening to the latest instantiation of King Krule, the fact is Marshall is all and none of these things. His raw-throated voice goes from whisper to semi-scream in seconds flat across multiple styles (the jazzy low-key leanings of “Biscuit Town” and “La Lune,” the rockier, moodier edges of his spectrum via “The Locomotive” and “Emergency Blimp”), rendering his entire oeuvre something of an aural Rorschach test: What do you hear in it? As for me: I hear another kid in the time-honored tradition of Paul Weller between the Jam and the Style Council, eager to explore the musical universe without any adults telling him how to go about it.

—Corey duBrowa

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Essential New Music: Ariel Pink’s “Dedicated To Bobby Jameson”

L.A.’s Ariel Rosenberg gives great, ur-gauche pastiche; he remains a pop perfectionist and illusionist. Dedicated To Bobby Jameson reintroduces the billowing murk 2014’s pom pom was missing, and—with the arguable exception of engorged prog opener “Time To Meet Your God”—continues that album’s less-provocative lyrical streak. Rosenberg’s muse, happily, cannot be contained. So “Another Weekend” is a dazed late-’70s bummer for abandoned campground karaoke, “Acting” infiltrates a late-’80s R&B interlude, and the lush “Kitchen Witch” campaigns for some imaginary disco roller-rink crown. Impossibly, Rosenberg’s artistry still feels mysterious, unknowable, capable of surprise. By now, we damn well know that earworms like the dank, peppy title track and denim-buttoned clapper “Bubblegum Dreams” are firmly within his stylistic wheelhouse—and yet they never fail to startle, to dazzle, to charm.

—Raymond Cummings

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Essential New Music: The Replacements’ “For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986”

Considered as the Replacements’ only professionally recorded full-length concert, For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986 would be noteworthy. Here’s the better news: This is a double album’s worth of a first-rate show by a great rock ’n’ roll band that, on this night anyway, clearly came to play. In February 1986, the Mats’ major-label bow Tim topped critical polls, but sales dragged. Not a month earlier, their network television debut on SNL had gotten them banned from NBC virtually before Saturday became Sunday. Under those circumstances, knowing that Sire Records was throwing its support behind a pro recording with a state-of-the-art remote truck, the Replacements were absolutely capable of purposefully screwing the pooch. Instead, they turned in a career-spanning, stitch-tight set, and stuck damn near every landing. The setlist draws heavily from Tim, but reaches all the way back to Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, with “Fuck School” and “Takin’ A Ride” getting blistering, definitive readings. Personnel and management shakeups caused the project to be shelved, but in the digital age there remain very few great “lost” albums. Make no mistake: This is one.

—Eric Waggoner

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Essential New Music: Dungen’s “Häxan-Versions By Prins Thomas”

While prog and dub are rarely discussed together, this album makes a pretty strong case for bridging the two aesthetics together. Dungen is best known for a series of psych/prog albums that hit it big with Pitchfork readers despite being sung in Swedish. The original Häxan LP waxed the quartet’s soundtrack for 90-year-old silent film The Adventures Of Prince Achmed. While an instrumental record might seem like a detour for a band that writes “songs,” it showcased the group’s strong playing, evocative hooks and good taste in antique keyboard sounds, and turned into Dungen’s biggest project of the decade; they have devoted several world tours to accompanying the film. Enter Prins Thomas, a Norwegian producer renowned for his space-disco records with Lindstrøm. He’s ported the dub practices of post-production exaggeration and reimagination to Häxan’s tracks, lingering long over certain sounds and grooves. It’s not as swell as the original item, but if you already have that and want more, this will stuff your stocking quite nicely.

—Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Jon Langford’s “Four Lost Souls”

Jon Langford releases albums at a feverish pace, whether under his own name or with one of his myriad bands, from the still-active Mekons, who debuted 40 years ago, to the Waco Brothers to Bad Luck Jonathan, whose first LP arrived last December. Solo album Four Lost Souls, though, is something unique: He recorded it in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with veteran session players from the late ’60s/early ’70s, and he brought along singers Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome and guitarist John Szymanski from his Chicago hometown. The album credits say, “File under: SECULAR GOSPEL / NOO-WOP,” but the sound works variations on the blend of R&B, country, soul and rock ’n’ roll that flowed from north Alabama (and Memphis) nearly a half century ago.

Langford’s always had a historical perspective, but he usually works with his contemporaries. The guys in the band—steel guitarist Pete Finney, piano/organ player Randy McCormick, guitarist Grant Johnson, bassist David Hood and drummer Justin Holder—may not be familiar names, but individually they’ve worked on classics from the likes of Paul Simon, the Staple Singers, Percy Sledge, Bob Seger, Etta James and Willie Nelson (and Hood is father to the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood); producer Norbert Putnam played with Elvis Presley and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

While some songs overtly address the South, and the shared lead vocals with Thomas and Newsome often bring a soulful, bluesy flavor, Langford hasn’t gone out of his way to imitate the Muscle Shoals Sound. It’s easy to imagine “Half Way Home” or “Snake Behind Glass” as Waco Brothers songs, and Langford nods to his Welsh roots with an allusion to Dylan Thomas.

There have been many very good Jon Langford albums; this outlier is one of the best.

—Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: The Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead”

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Morrissey + Marr ranks right up there with Lennon/McCartney, the Glimmer Twins and the Everly Brothers on the scale of GOAT songwriting partnerships. The Queen Is Dead represents the very top of Smiths Mountain: a majestic cultural moment captured in album form, the point at which Marr’s gift for melody and a playing style at odds with Guitar Heroes Past (all gorgeous color, no solo wankery) met Morrissey’s perfectly poisonous Oscar Wilde-style humor at the crossroads of a decade fed up with conservative politics and old-guard prejudices.

At the remove of three decades, this album remains as fresh and unconventional as the day the songs were first committed to tape, with a few (“Cemetery Gates,” “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”) rising to the level of work that gets you mooted to membership in some heavenly celestial body. There are legions of fans, bands and trends that can be traced directly back to this LP, and even if the surplus/demo material included here—b-side “Asleep” is the core of Andy Wood’s Mother Love Bone ballads, “Money Changes Everything” is the horizon line at which Japan and Dire Straits’ latter day careers weirdly merge—doesn’t yield a treasure-trove of insight, it’s still fascinating to hear a tune as cracking as “Bigmouth Strikes Again” in early form, nearly as fully formed as it would ultimately become.

The compulsory bonus live disc—captured at a prime Boston tour stop—merely confirms what those of us who caught them back then already know: The Smiths were as skillful in the wild as they were in the studio. This is the sound my teen years make when I try to distill them in my head: stormy and smart-assy and sad and stylish, all at once.

—Corey duBrowa

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Essential New Music: The Beatles’ “The Christmas Records”

Considering I’m writing this on the 37th anniversary of John Lennon’s death without realizing that it was the assassination’s destiny date until the middle of my day makes me sad. Makes me think that there’s now a distance between all that the Beatles meant to me in my youth (British-ness, rebellion, silliness, harmony, jangle, bangs) and who they are to me now: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr endlessly touring the oldies, happily playing the hits. That’s not wrong, but it’s not entirely right.

What sets Beatles listeners on the right track, however, is one of the few remaining treasure troves that went unreleased for so long and now is available. The U.K. and U.S. fan-club Christmas recordings seemed long lost in legal red tape and a desire to remain within the Apple family circle. Until now, with the release The Christmas Records.

“The Beatles’ annual holiday tradition of recording jolly Christmas messages for fan club members was an important part of the band’s relationship with their most ardent supporters, affectionately referred to by them as Beatle People” is the official statement on the seemingly forever-buried series of holiday recordings that began in 1963 during the Great British rise of the Fab Four and ended in 1969 when the quartet did.

Pressed on colored flexi discs and sent out solely to the membership of its fan club, these primarily comic singles—mostly spoken-word tracks lasting more than five minutes at a clip and sounding more like Monty Python sketches than Lennon/McCartney songs—never found their way into the mainstream like lost tracks on, say, the doggedly researched and lengthy Anthology project or the In Mono collection did. Written and produced by Liverpool pal Anthony F. J. “Tony” Barrow (until George Martin took over), the singles were primarily spoken-word works of downright silly, screechy fun and frolic. When the Beatles busted up, there was a very limited-to-fan-club-only full album compiled for the 1970 Christmas season, and that was all she wrote.

The Christmas Records, a limited-edition seven-inch boxed set (with its facsimile sleeves, which didn’t start looking great until the Beatles’ psychedelic years), came out on the same day as the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 180-gram LP and limited-edition picture-disc LP, and one week after PBS premiered Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week—The Touring Years. If anything details the triumphs of youth (over having to live in seedy Hamburg before that) and the decay of boredom and distaste for adulthood—let alone all of the band members’ personalities and sounds—it is The Christmas Records. Like the four mop-top lads living in one large flat in the movie Help!, the Beatles are a goofball musical brotherhood on the first three singles. They romp about making high-pitched funny voices, mock-sing “Good King Wenceslas,” tease Starr with “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Ringo,” perform some truly off-key versions of “Yesterday” and Lennon’s “Happy Christmas To Ya List’nas,” as well as use the now-famous phrase, “A merry grew year. Crimble maybe.”

By the time we get to the 1966 single, the Beatles themselves are the writers of their scripts, and Martin has taken over the sound board. The result: Recorded between sessions for Strawberry Fields Forever, the 1966 offering uses original songs such as “Everywhere It’s Christmas,” “Orowainya” and “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back,” in-between several theatrical holiday skits. The 1967 single is even richer in story and sound as the Beatles pretend to be one of several new groups auditioning for the BBC holiday show, do impersonations and read poems such as “When Christmas Time Is Over.”

After this, you can feel the tension within the troupe as the 1968 single (produced by comic Kenny Evertt, no less) is the first (of two) where each Beatle records his holiday message separate from the others, with Lennon working with and referring to Yoko Ono on prose pieces such as “Jock And Yono,” with McCartney’s “Happy Christmas, Happy New Year” as a musical highlight. By 1969, Christmas cheer felt more like a eulogy—eggs without the nog—which is probably how the Beatles felt at that point, so close to the end.

With that, The Christmas Records is just like a family life’s well lived and sourly ended. Through the good times and bad, there are still Christmas songs and poems to be had, and maybe a few laughs, even if they’re not made together as one.

—A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Cécile McLorin Salvant’s “Dreams And Daggers”

The irreproachably hip, fiendishly virtuosic Cécile McLorin Salvant continues her one-woman revitalization of the once-grand vocal-jazz tradition with another fine showcase for her savvy and adventurous approach to both song selection and interpretation. Dreams And Daggers is at once a step forward and something of a victory lap for the fêted chanteuse: It’s a double album, but that’s less a signal of expanding ambitions than an opportunity for Salvant—and, especially, her top-flight backing trio—to stretch out over an eclectic set of standards, nearly all of it recorded live at the Village Vanguard. The erudite curation favors Salvant’s well-established modes: ribald and/or proto-feminist pre-war blues; smirking takes on outmoded would-be kitsch (“If A Girl Isn’t Pretty”); sprightly romps by folks like Berlin, Dorough and Loesser; lesser-heard ballads; fascinating artifacts like Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes aria “Somehow I Never Could Believe.” She makes it all her playground, offering sometimes acrobatic but always sensitive readings. Regrettably, Salvant’s own compositions—often the poetically affecting highlights of previous albums—take a backseat, limited to a handful of brief, haunting vignettes (with gorgeous string arrangements) interspersed throughout, which suggest a variety of themes (desire, uncertainty, gender, race) without quite elucidating them.

—K. Ross Hoffman

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