Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”

If a pop masterpiece drops in the forest, does it make a sound? It took four years for “I Am The Cosmos”/“You And Your Sister” to be released as a single. It took another 14 years for the rest of these songs to become the greatest posthumous pop album ever released. It took 17 more for the Rhino Handmade deluxe reissue and another eight for this Omnivore 35-track extended version. (Omnivore also just released the six-LP The Complete Chris Bell, which includes this extended I Am The Cosmos, pre-Big Star recordings and an unreleased 1975 radio interview.) With each Cosmos reissue, there’s another handful of alternate mixes/outtakes, another set of tweaks that fall short of the versions Bell started shopping in 1975. At this point, there’s little gold left to mine, but with each new pressing, we get another chance to hear Bell in all his passionate pop perfectionism, to marvel at the intensity of these performances, to imagine what might’ve happened if he hadn’t died—and to be amazed that these recordings even exist. If Bell’s brother had given up hope, and if Rykodisc hadn’t championed these songs in 1992, who would’ve known?

—Kenny Berkowitz

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Essential New Music: Acetone’s “1992-2001”

Acetone is just the latest ’90s curiosity to be plucked from hushed, record-store-counter cult status (read: utter anonymity) by Seattle reissue label Light In The Attic. The trio was a prodigiously talented outfit from northeastern Los Angeles—which decades prior attracted the likes of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Neil Young, who put Acetone’s final two albums out on his Vapor imprint—for all of its windswept melancholy. 1992-2001 functions as a perfect introduction to the band’s catalog, bundling tracks from its five albums with nine unreleased songs, beginning with the stunning “Shaker,” which plays like a swirling, tripped-out take on some long-lost soul cut, and including covers of “Midnight Cowboy” and “How Sweet I Roamed.” Theirs is a hypnotic, out-of-time tone, indebted equally to surf rock, country and R&B, nailing that elusive “high and lonesome sound” like few have since.

—Möhammad Choudhery

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Essential New Music: David Bowie’s “A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982)”

The story of how David Bowie got from L.A. to Berlin is infamous: Tired of cocaine and plasticity, he left the City Of Angels for a drying-out, DIY environment behind the Wall, brought Iggy Pop, hooked up with Brian Eno and crafted the most potent and inventive music of his career. Considering what he’d already accomplished—compiled on previous boxed sets from this series Five Years (1969–1973) and Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976)—that’s saying something, especially since with the Berlin Trilogy, he all but invented the new wave and all synth-punk from that point forward.

To go with the sad, minimalist spikiness of 1977’s Low, the jagged freneticism of “Heroes” (also 1977) and the wonky tribalism of 1979’s Lodger—all featuring Burroughs-technique cut-and-paste lyrical play—Bowie examined Bertolt Brecht cabaret (the BBC-aired Baal), icy elegant ambience (second album sides of Low and “Heroes”, along with 1980 instrumental single “Crystal Japan”) and, with 1980’s NYC-recorded Scary Monsters, menacing music and lyrics that were angry, forlorn and inclusive of all he learned in Berlin.

The tortured drama of Bowie’s life unfolding (“seeping out” is a better metaphor) was a perfect match for his adopted city—a tone he brought, too, as co-writer/producer for Iggy’s The Idiot and Lust For Life, two 1977 albums that would’ve made sense for inclusion within A New Career. The trilogy’s scarred, scary travelogue defines ’70s Berlin as much as it does Bowie in uncompromising recovery mode: the freakout of “Breaking Glass,” the crucifying “Joe The Lion,” the blasé “Fantastic Voyage.”

By the time Bowie jettisoned Berlin for Manhattan, moments such as “It’s No Game (No. 1)” and “It’s No Game (No. 2)” portray an artist not just shedding his skin—which he’d done so many times in the past—but crawling out of one, as if lost in a fever dream. Brilliant.

—A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Rostam’s “Half Light”

Rostam Batmanglij is substantially responsible for shaping the sound and music of Vampire Weekend, so it’s unsurprising—probably inevitable—that the producer/multi-instrumentalist’s solo debut would share some hallmarks with his former band: borrowings from Western classical music (strings and harpsichords, playing those signature Alberti bass figures) and other international traditions (the tabla beats and Persian tunings on Bollywood baroque fantasia “Wood”); sampling/quoting as a compositional tool (from the Specials to “Simple Gifts” to Paul Simon’s Brazilian samba drums). Nor is Rostam’s gently sleepy vocal delivery worlds away from Ezra Koenig’s amiable tenor. But he’s working with a broader palette here (incorporating, for instance, skittering electro beats akin to his side project Discovery), pursuing his distinctively colorful sonic exploration more for its own sake than as a means of embellishing indie-pop songs, per se, even if most of Half-Light approximately fits that bill. It’s less an emphatic, assertive statement than a patchwork scrapbook of disparate moods and tunes (some dating back to 2011) that, taken as a whole, feels not unpleasantly unfinished, somewhat hazy and dreamlike (a recurring lyrical theme) and understatedly charismatic.

K. Ross Hoffman

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Essential New Music: The Yawpers’ “Boy In A Well”

On this disturbing album, the Yawpers give us a song cycle—you can call it a rock opera without indulging in hyperbole—that’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Nate Cook and Jesse Parmet play acoustic instruments, but they produce an extraordinary palette of tone, color and sound as they range through the worlds of rockabilly, early R&B, blues, folk and punk. Noah Shomberg’s inventive drumming fills in the background on this tale of murder and retribution. Boy In A Well’s cinematic arch is complemented by the comic book that comes with the album, illustrated by J. D. Wilkes of the Legendary Shack Shakers. Cook tells the story of a baby abandoned in a well on the last day of World War I, following the infant though his brief, tragic life and death. His vocals are as wrenching as the grim scenarios he describes, a performance that leaves you desolated and emotionally exhausted.

j. poet

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Essential New Music: Ben Sollee And Kentucky Native’s “Ben Sollee And Kentucky Native”

Cellist, songwriter, activist and proud Kentucky native Ben Sollee has always been a difficult artist to predict. The difference between his R&B-based 2012 album Half Made Man and his far-reaching 2016 LP Infowars was night and day, and that’s not counting the four other EPs and albums he produced in between that many never heard about. So what to expect with his new album under new name Ben Sollee And Kentucky Native? Perhaps a quantum leap beyond his indie cello-folk genre to something entirely new? Instead, he’s moved backward, dipping deep into the loamy roots of bluegrass and Appalachian music. Banjo rings throughout, his cello sounds more like a fiddle than ever, and the melodies hew either Celtic or old-timey. It’s a thoroughly delightful and very listenable album. Though perhaps not as cleverly complex as his previous work, it seems to strike closer to Sollee’s home and heart.

Devon Leger

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Essential New Music: Moses Sumney’s “Aromanticism”

In the video for his single “Doomed,” Moses Sumney performs submerged in azure water, lit softly from above (or is it within?) as if he’s a fetal offspring of the benevolent extraterrestrials from The Abyss. It’s the perfect visual accompaniment for his amniotic anthem, which plays like the sonogram soundtrack every expectant parent hears in their head: four subtle synth murmurs underscoring Sumney’s ultrasonic falsetto, itself a chest-tightening miracle of nature. Given the crystalline perfection of that track, this conceptual debut LP first comes across as a willfully obscure abstraction, an oblong listen with snatches of new-age spoken word, prog-jazz wandering and urban field recordings deliberately halting any conventional momentum. But repeated spins reveal an exotic, intoxicating soup: Sumney can summon Jim James, Thom Yorke and Nick Drake without sounding precisely like any of them, and the nebulous music begins to resemble a magnetic field that follows him around, changing its shape to fit his many moods.

Noah Bonaparte Pais

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Essential New Music: Shout Out Louds’ “Ease My Mind”

It’s easy to love Swedish bands like the Mary Onettes, Radio Dept. and Shout Out Louds. They have a knack for sweeping, resonant guitar pop that triggers memories of New Order, the Cure or Echo & The Bunnymen without sounding slavishly nostalgic or imitative. Ease My Mind, the fifth album from Stockholm’s Shout Out Louds, is the latest example: It’s got big, sing-along melodies (“Oh Oh”), chiming, propulsive love songs (“Paolo”) and beautiful counterpoint vocals between Adam Olenius and Bebban Stenborg (“Jumbo Jet”). Everything is polished with a reverb sheen until the closing “Souvenirs,” which begins with somber melody anchored in a few stark, minor-key chords before it too bursts into Technicolor when the keyboards join in about a third of the way through its nearly five minutes. Ease My Mind has some sharper edges and fewer lush arrangements than the last Shout Out Louds album, 2013’s equally excellent Optica, but the changes are slight. The Swedes are reliable that way.

Steve Klinge

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Essential New Music: Wand’s “Plum”

Los Angeles’ modern psych-rock heroes return with their fourth LP and first since 2015’s stunning 1000 Days. Plum finds the freshly five-pieced band in a shockingly calmer space than its last efforts. Transient fuzz and overdriven synths make way for meatier melodies and, dare we say, more mature songwriting. Fear not, this is a kick-ass rock ’n’ roll record all the way around. The evidence lies within the grooves that these songs are a conglomerate effort with perhaps not as much heavy lifting by Cory Hanson in the songwriting or triple-teaming multiple instruments. New additions of Robbie Cody’s guitar and Sofia Arreguin’s keys and sultry backing vocals have rounded out the trio to this starting five. Evan Burrows’ tub thumping is one of the best in the game, and hell, while we’re at it, Lee Landy, your low end ain’t too shabby either.

Scott Zuppardo

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Essential New Music: Alan Vega’s “IT”

As aggressively influential as the scorched-earth electro of Suicide was (that being vocalist/poet/painter Alan Vega’s duo with machine manipulation Martin Rev), it was Vega who had an ongoing, prolific dialogue with his audience, as IT—recorded with wife Liz Lamere from 2010 until his passing in 2016—was his 11th solo album, and perhaps his finest. Built lyrically and sonically from the lean inspiration of downtown NYC’s mean streets (a given; his usual), Vega added to the detritus around him without sentiment. “Life is no joke,” he forcefully croon-cackles on “DTM” (stands for “dead to me”) while the industrial scrawl, pucker and bounce of neo-industrial noise spins behind him. Add a ghostly chain’s clinking and Vega’s vocal tics (“whoa,” “yeaaah”) and you get “Vision” and its fire-and-brimstone breaks. Unlike on Suicide albums (and even his own), Vega’s forceful voice is boldly high in the mix, allowing the bubble-in-the-throat growl of “Dukes God Bar” and his shouts of “Hey lousy white racists/Stay away” to come through nice and clear. That’s good; Vega rarely got the opportunity to be heard beyond the underground, so clarity—in passing—was essential. And all the more piercing for it.

A.D. Amorosi

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