Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Anjou’s “Epithymía”

To turn an axiom on its head, Anjou knows its history and is not repeating it. Robert Donne and Mark Nelson have plenty of history in common, having spent six years jointly crafting haunting mood music in Labradford. After that trio went on permanent hiatus 16 years ago, Donne dove deep into abrasive digital electronics with Cristal. Nelson mapped out a more circuitous path through the far corners of drone, dub and noir-ish ambience in Pan•American. Donne reunited with Nelson to contribute some bass to Pan•American’s last album, but Anjou’s new aesthetic stands apart from all of its past endeavors. They’ve abandoned songs entirely in favor of pulsing, predominately electronic pieces that radiate a warmth that contrasts dramatically with Labradford’s chilly austerity but makes perfect sense when you note that the title of this album is a Greek word for forbidden desire. Nelson and Donne know all about youthful alienation, and they’re happy to leave it in the past.

—Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Buzzcocks’ “Buzzcocks (mk.1) Box”

Hard to believe but it’s now 40 years since the Buzzcocks self-released Spiral Scratch. To celebrate, Domino has put together a suitably reverent and sumptuous boxed set featuring the aforementioned landmark plus Time’s Up, the Howard Devoto-fronted collection of demos, previously only available as a bootleg, plus countless assorted extras that have become de rigeur for any self-respecting boxed set these days. But why, you might ask, should we care? Because, frankly, Spiral Scratch in particular remains an absolutely epochal release, as historically important as, say, the Damned’s “New Rose” or the Pistols and Clash debuts in the launch of U.K. punk. By turns angular, arch and endearingly amateurish, it fairly whips along fueled by youthful exuberance and a surfeit of ideas. A peerless example of punk’s nascent DIY aesthetic, it single-handedly launched the British indie movement and kick-started the burgeoning Manchester scene, largely by proving relocation to the bright lights and rapaciousness of the London music biz was no longer a necessity. It’s the musical gift that just kept on giving, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.

—Neil Ferguson

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Essential New Music: George Harrison’s “The Vinyl Collection”

Growing up Beatles-ish came with a dilemma when post-breakup solo excursions came to call: Which Mop Top would you most cling to? You never worried about Ringo because neither you nor he took what he did seriously. The psychic battle between the soft-pop Paul and the edgy-rock John became your main problem, as much of George’s work—beyond his holy, epic All Things Must Pass—seemed thin. Harrison made impressive but often watery rock tunes, sung in nasal Scouse accent, in dribs and drabs and always with too much top-tier assistance from guys like Eric Clapton, a relationship as fraught with weirdness as George’s ties to the Fab Four. Director Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Living In The Material World documentary somehow emboldened Harrison with new (even pragmatic) light shed onto the singer/guitarist/composer’s 13 albums released between 1968 and 2002.

As revealed through this crackling, crisp Vinyl Collection—one whose improved sonic depths provide richly enhanced nuances and a bass mix deep and melodic—a new Harrison emerges: one elegantly poetic and (of course) soulfully searching for his spiritual space real estate (Living In The Material World, All Things) as well as an eerie experimentalist with a nod to his later involvement in film work (Wonderwall Music, Electronic Sound). Pore through these sleeve-replicated volumes and there are amusing takes on ’70s Hollywood jazz/funk through the horniness of Dark Horse, something tartly and sarcastically glam-poppy in the era of Bowie with Extra Texture (Read All About It) and an amusingly dry, English chamber-like tone to Thirty Three & 1/3 and Cloud Nine. Though 1990s Harrison is a bit mucky (Gone Troppo), there’s enough nervy blues and folk within his latter days to reconsider his final decade.

—A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Bob Dylan’s “Triplicate”

In a career dotted with perverse gestures, Bob Dylan’s recent busman’s holiday as a jazz/standard crooner is, superficially anyway, among the strangest. Not that that matters in the least, critically: Mainstream reviews of 2015’s Shadows In The Night and 2016’s Fallen Angels oriented themselves by flipping the line on Dylan’s vocals—Dylan’s less a singer than a stylist anyway, and look how he’s made these songs his own—but the fact is, folk/blues covers are right in His Bobness’ expressive wheelhouse, while the 20th-century American Songbook favors more traditionally tuneful renditions. (This is likely the only professional chance I’ll ever have to tell a Nobel recipient that his performance of “Stormy Weather” is a bit pitchy, and pardon me, but I intend to take it.)

This perversity is, of course, the whole point of Triplicate, whose sheer scope one has to imagine is partially a rebuff to the naysayers. (“You didn’t care for two albums of jazz standards? Here’s three more all at once.”) The key to this particular project lies in the fact that Dylan himself clearly understands his formal limitations in the idiom. No one, certainly not Dylan, seriously considers him a true vocal competitor for a lightning-strike artist like Billie Holiday, a master like Sinatra, even a technical virtuoso like Johnny Mercer. Yet, these songs in their many renditions have become domesticated through age and distance. Hearing Dylan creak and clatter them up with a weathered tonality that respects their structural possibilities—he’s all over the phrasing but never sloppily and always expressively—allows us to hear the strangeness in them, the obsessive love, the painful longing, all over again. Traditional covers couldn’t unlock that box; they’d sound like homages or tributes. But turns out the Great Raider of American Music found the key. Call it “Self-Portrait In An Old Radio.”

—Eric Waggoner

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Essential New Music: WHY?’s “Moh Lhean”

The Wolf brothers, Yoni and Josiah (but mostly the former), were always the mopey children of the lo-fi, bedsit, folksy, shoegaze rap movement since its 2003 start, and that only really changed with its brighter, bolder albums such as 2008’s Alopecia and 2012’s Mumps Etc. So, here you have Moh Lhean—a snarky return to the more intimate sounds of WHY?’s beginnings and its even more adventurous nature: the still life of clarinet, voice and guitar (until its blasted-off finale) that is “Consequence Of Nonaction” and the Eno/Byrne-ish art-dub-funk of “The Water.” Usually an outfit cloistered and within itself (brother acts have a knack for such insular behavior), WHY? reaches out as it rarely does via collaborations with mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss on “Proactive Evolution” (a loosely knit, forlorn meditation on Yoni’s mid-life health scare that led to depression) and the ooky-spooky psychedelia of “The Barely Blur” (featuring Son Lux), which flips sadness on its ear by reaching into death’s great beyond.

—A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Wire’s “Silver/Lead”

Wire turns 40 this year. Any band with that many years and its own migratory festival could easily settle for jogging victory laps, but the edition of Wire:DRILL that came to Chicago in 2015 did just the opposite. The band opened for other groups under an assumed name, played deep catalog cuts as well as hits and even indulged an impromptu jam with Jon Spencer. The latter was a disaster, but that only underscored Wire’s willingness to not play it safe. On Silver/Lead, the band takes another risk by dropping the archness that has been both sidearm and armor throughout its many phases. Musically, Silver/Lead is in the same vein as its immediate predecessors, homing in on the crisp pop aspects of Wire’s hydra-headed sound. But instead of spiking its tunes with sardonicism and bile, singers Colin Newman and Graham Lewis express concern and vulnerability. While one might miss the lacerating intensity of its brilliant ’70s records or bracing early-aughts comeback, you have to toast Wire’s willingness to keep on trying new things.

—Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Sampha’s “Process”

Over the last half-decade, through collaborations with Jessie Ware, Solange, Frank Ocean, SBTRKT, Drake and others, Sampha Sisay has probably contributed as much to the state of contemporary left-field R&B as anyone without an album out. So it makes sense that Process, which culminates the triple-threat Londoner’s gifts as a singer, songwriter and producer, feels familiar; it’s right in line with the elegantly emotive British school of Ware, Jamie Woon and (particularly) James Blake. Which isn’t to say that Sisay doesn’t distinguish himself beautifully. His voice, predictably, shines throughout—soft, poignant, by turns angelic and careworn. More surprising is his varied, inventive production work—tense, off-kilter drum loops propelling the haunted fever dream “Blood On Me”; warped sample-skitters on “Reverse Faults”; digital harps and synth pads on the lush, beatless closer. And his songwriting is equally flexible and strong, the ballads especially: “Timmy’s Prayer,” building from a loping Chi-Lites riff and some decidedly Blake-ian “whoo!”s to a driving, polyrhythmic peak, is the album’s emotional centerpiece, while the aptly unadorned “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano,” its most intimate moment, has the hallmarks of a modern standard.

—K. Ross Hoffman

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Essential New Music: Xiu Xiu’s “Forget”

As Xiu Xiu is anything and anyone that wobbly, quivering singer/sound-sculptor Jamie Stewart wants (David Lynch’s music to Twin Peaks, ever-changing membership), Forget is no different, yet very different, from the previous Xiu Xiu and the Xiu Xiu before that. Now with production and playing from John Congleton, Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) and Kristof Hahn (Swans), Stewart finds himself somewhere between Suicide and ABBA with hints of dub, drone, first John Foxx solo album twitches and Nervous Norvus in the fuzzy, fussy, souped-up mongrel/mix. In its sparest moments such as “Get Up,” Stewart allows his sizzling synths and uneasy melodies a calm retreat as he croons absurdist lines like “a piano fell on my face” through simple echo processors. Most of Forget, though, is more overly ornate, synthy arrangements and grand sonic gestures, all while Stewart quavers (“The Call”), throatily hacks (“Queen Of The Losers”), growls through the clutter (“Wondering”) and tap dances across a silvery sheen of garage organs and sand-shifting percussion (“Hey Choco Bananas”). It’s really good Xiu but not the best Xiu; surely Stewart is readying something else new Xiu as we speak.

—A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy”

Your enjoyment of Pure Comedy very strongly depends on what you expect from a Father John Misty album in 2017. If it’s bombastic arrangements and big choruses you seek, best turn back now (or at least dust off your copy of Fear Fun). With a blunt-yet-poetic lyrical approach, Josh Tillman’s third FJM full-length is by far his most ambitious work to date. But there’s a big difference between an ambitious album and a good one.

Pure Comedy’s title is apt; the title track wrestles with religion, government and other human follies, albeit from the distance of an omniscient narrator with a “can you believe this shit?” demeanor. Following the extremely personal document that was I Love You, Honeybear, such a clinical observation of capital-I Issues might seem cynical, but Tillman’s deft and cutting lyrics are inspiring in some perverse way. The same goes for his examination of art vs. artifice on “The Memo,” as well as the rollicking indictment of on-demand content, “Total Entertainment Forever.”

Working again with producer Jonathan Wilson, Tillman wisely scales back the orchestration and flourishes to their bare minimum in order to put his voice and lyrics at the forefront. This approach reaches its zenith on the album’s centerpiece: the 10-verse, chorus-less diatribe that is “Leaving LA,” a metatextual, self-referential masterstroke. Where some of Pure Comedy’s other songs’ lyrical density can be a bit suffocating, “Leaving LA” is expertly paced and astonishingly honest.

—Eric Schuman

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Essential New Music: Spoon’s “Hot Thoughts”

The members of Spoon are masters of playing what’s not there. They have explored how space can sharpen an arrangement by snapping everything into high relief and emphasizing the beat, whether rock ’n’ roll swagger, slinky funk or Motown bounce. Britt Daniel and Jim Eno established this aesthetic on 2001’s Girls Can Tell after two albums of Wire-y rock, and with a variety of bass and keyboard players have managed to reinvent and reconfigure ever since, with unerringly rewarding results. Their minimalistic approach makes the choice to work with producer Dave Fridmann surprising. Fridmann is a maximalist, known for layering Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev albums with kaleidoscopic, psychedelic density. He worked on four tracks on 2014’s They Want My Soul, and he returns to produce, with the quartet, all of Hot Thoughts, the ninth Spoon full-length.

The extra oomph in the drums and the airy swooshes in the background of “I Ain’t The One”—a kind of rewrite of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”—are probably Fridmann’s doing, and they lend sonic heft without distracting. That light touch is emblematic of Hot Thoughts: While the end of “Tear It Down” briefly veers into a psychedelic coda and instrumental closer “Us” is primarily a reverb-enhanced sax solo, most tracks stay true to Spoon’s sharp, clear, punchy style, just juiced up, especially with Alec Fischel’s staccato keyboards.

Daniel’s lyrics are, as usual, often accusatory, and although they sometimes explicitly address an ex-lover (“First Caress”), in early 2017 Trumpist America it’s hard not to hear some lines as political: “Let them build a wall around us/I don’t care, I’m gonna tear it down” (“Tear It Down”); “You and me dreamin’ ‘bout full medical and dental” (“You Brought A Shotgun”); “When the mood of the era’s gone/Everybody’s failing me, even my ma/And the words get stuck on the tip of my tongue/Feeling cut off from everyone” (“Do I Have To Talk You Into It”). “Hot Thoughts” itself is about lust, but the album, fun though it is, also burns with anger and tension. It’s another way Spoon throws into sharp relief what’s there—and what’s not.

—Steve Klinge

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