Category Archives: FEATURES

Deerhoof: Fresh Born

Deerhoof

By not changing anything (or changing everything), Deerhoof has made The Magic

After two decades of crafting noisily compelling avant indie art rock—or other silly record-store divider-card descriptions—while disregarding the prevailing sonic trends or studio protocols, Deerhoof approached its new album, The Magic, by defying its standard modus operandi. A neat trick, considering the band doesn’t have one.

“We operate by consensus and never do anything that any one of us doesn’t agree with, and if we can all be satisfied by something, that’s saying a lot,” says drummer Greg Saunier, the band’s sole remaining original member among the longstanding lineup of vocalist/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki and guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez. “We don’t complain about an idea or song if the source doesn’t conform to some previously fixed notion of our band’s system. We don’t have a system. We’re very lucky to have each other.”

Deerhoof’s first Magic steps were inspired by a cattle call for song submissions to HBO for the show that became Vinyl. The band’s licensing company, Terrorbird, forwarded HBO’s request on a Friday; the deadline was the following Monday.

“There’s no way we’re getting a contribution together in two days. We were like, ‘Forget it,’” says Saunier. “The next morning, I thought, ‘It’s too bad, because I’d probably do something like this’ … Before you know it, I’m plugging guitars into the computer and getting together a rough demo. Sunday night, I sent it to Terrorbird and cc’d my bandmates. To my shock, I get an e-mail from John and he’s recorded a demo; a half hour later, Ed sends a song he’s been working on. The original call was pretty specific about the style HBO was looking for. The songs we did are completely different from each other and show the extent to which we seem to be incapable of understanding instructions or imitating musical styles.”

With those three guidepost songs—Dieterich’s “Dispossessor,” Rodriguez’s “That Ain’t No Light To Me” and Saunier’s “Plastic Thrills,” rejected by HBO—along with demos Matsuzaki had done alone, Dieterich rented abandoned office space near his Albuquerque home, where the band convened for a week to shape new material. “Once the band gets their hands on it, all bets are off,” says Saunier. “You really don’t know how things might take off in a different direction.” For The Magic’s wildly diverse stylistic mashup, Deerhoof’s members brought songs that tapped into sounds from their individual childhoods, channeling their inner music fan from a time when adrenaline was a vital mixer for a rock cocktail.

“Old-school rap kept reappearing, and hair metal,” says Saunier. “It was a certain kind of ‘hit’ feeling that we remembered from when we were younger that could inspire you or pump you up.”

Subsequently, The Magic is a wildly varied and brilliantly unhinged soundtrack to a movie played upside down and edited inside out, which still makes a sort of hallucinogenic sense; imagine a round-robin scoring session with the Pixies, Pere Ubu and the Flaming Lips.

There isn’t a hint of compromise in The Magic, but the album could transcend Deerhoof’s loyal fan base and reach a broader audience. Saunier makes it clear that any accessibility on Deerhoof’s part is strictly accidental, other than the intentional part.

“We’re always trying to be accessible, so it’s not more than usual,” he says. “I think this time we let our guard down with each other. Since we’re no longer living in the same city, it’s becomes even less predictable what somebody might present to the band, but it was never predictable when we did live in the same city. Somebody would say, ‘My song goes like this,’ and you’d go, ‘How is that even a song?’ It’s utterly confounding. There’s a process of figuring out what the others are thinking and to make sense of someone’s dream report.”

—Brian Baker

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The Figgs: Somewhere Under The Radar

Figgs

Hiding in plain sight, the Figgs demand your attention

“Gimmicks,” a tune from the Figgs’ new On The Slide (Stomper)—the prolific trio’s 13th album—finds guitarist/songwriter Mike Gentwith rock ‘n’ roll poseurs in his caustic crosshairs: “Looking like a bunch of pricks/Another schmuck with a new shtick/Your tattoos are fading, your eyeliner’s running.”

But if the target is anyone specific, Gent’s not telling.

“Some of it’s probably aimed at myself,” he says from his Boston home. “Who’s not a sucker for a good gimmick?”

While never resorting to ploys or fakery, the Figgs have rightly been angling for greater acclaim since the band’s 1987 formation in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The group began as a trio with Gent, bassist/songwriter Pete Donnelly and drummer Guy Lyons; Lyons left in 1989 and was replaced by Pete Hayes, only to return as a guitarist in 1992 before permanently departing after 1997’s Couldn’t Get High.

Breaking up then was a possibility, but one not seriously entertained. “I think everyone was expecting us to, but I knew our best years were still ahead,” says Gent. Instead, the threesome soldiered on and has continued to craft an outstanding catalog full of pub-rock, power-pop and soul-inflected nuggets blemished only by the occasional sound of crickets greeting it.

“It’s frustrating when we’ve been doing this for almost three decades and certain magazines have completely ignored us from the start, and late-night TV has no interest in having us on,” says Gent. “You see a new band come out and get a ton of hype, then after a couple of years, or even months, they’re kaput. But it really doesn’t matter. We have a great, little fanbase that loves and supports the band. We make records and play shows for them. It would be fun to play on TV again, though.”

On The Slide arrives just more than a year after 2015’s Other Planes Of Here; the original plan was to follow it up even sooner—in six months, à la Elvis Costello’s 1986 Blood And Chocolate and King Of America. Much of Slide was cut during the same sessions, and an early version, dubbed Smartest Of The Dumb Ones, was mixed, but Gent and Donnelly decided to continue shaping the LP with additional tunes.

The duo doesn’t follow a strict “my song then yours” policy when sequencing records, unlike, say, Hüsker Dü (maybe because they don’t hate each other). But even when it turns out that way, the results are seamless thanks to how the pair now works together. (Hayes also writes, but not lately; his “Je T’Adore,” off 2004’s Palais, was featured in a ubiquitous 2013 Lexus commercial.)

“The last few records, there’s been a lot of writing and collaborating while in the studio,” says Gent. “On the earlier records, each member would come in with a group of their songs pretty much finished, and we would pick the ones that we liked the most, rehearse them and play them live for a bit, then record them.”

More new stuff has already been tracked— we did say they’re prolific—and another Figgs album will likely be released in 2017, the band’s 30th anniversary. There’ll be some nostalgic celebrating as well, followed by some well-earned rest.

“It’d be nice to do something special—maybe record and tour a little bit with Guy,” says Gent. “There are some really cool reissues and other archive releases being discussed. After that, I want to take a full year off and recharge. We deserve it.”

—Matt Hickey

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Anna Vogelzang: Declaration Of Independence

AnnaVogelzang

Anna Vogelzang continues to do it her way

According to singer/songwriter Anna Vogelzang, she had no alternate career path.

“There was no other option,” she says from her home in Madison, Wisc. “Everybody in my family is musical. I’ve been playing guitar and singing my whole life, first in a punk band in high school, then as a performing songwriter. ”

Vogelzang has just returned from SXSW, where she gigged, saw a lot of inspiring music and participated in the Artists As Labels symposium. “I spoke about being on my own label,” she says. “What artists can do to remain independent and when it makes sense to move on to being with a label.”

Her latest album, Hiker, is her 10th for her own label, Paper Anchor. It was recorded live, in one week, with bass player and producer Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird) and drummer Shane Leonard (Field Report).

“Before this, I always produced or co-produced my records,” says Vogelzang. “It felt good to let go of the reins and surrender to the songs. We had one day to rehearse and work out arrangements. We made notes with ideas about instruments and tempos, then played together, each in our own booth, looking at each other, like a live gig. There are little imperfections in the music, but that’s what makes the album special. All three of us were in the moment, capturing the emotions of the songs.”

Hiker has a wide-open, expansive sound, with layers of acoustic and electric guitars, bass, kalimba, banjo, percussion and keyboards weaving a sparkling sonic tapestry to support Vogelzang’s warm, silky vocals.

“The songs explore the animal nature of human beings and our drive to keep moving forward, despite the obstacles in our way,” she says. “I wanted to make music that puts you in visual space, surrounded by the sounds and sights you experience outside of the city.”

—j. poet; photo by Anda Marie

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The So So Glos: The Glos Of Adulthood

SoSoGlows

The So So Glos get back to basics but mature philosophically with Kamikaze

The past four years have been a whirlwind for the So So Glos. The Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, pop/punk foursome—brothers Alex Levine (vocals, bass) and Ryan Levine (guitar, vocals), childhood friend-turned-stepbrother Zach Staggers (drums, vocals) and pal Matt Elkins (guitar, vocals)—recorded breakthrough album Blowout in 2013, gigged relentlessly behind its release, then experienced a long, dark teatime of the soul to emerge with latest triumph Kamikaze.

“It was a really big growth period, creatively, spiritually, emotionally, artistically,” says Alex Levine. “Some of us spent time in medical institutions, some of us had bad break-ups, there were natural disasters—Hurricane Sandy, in particular—and there were a lot of trials and tribulations within the band and individually. I think this record is a reflection of that. It feels like a mid-to-late-20s record, when reality hits you like a brick wall to the face. That’s what this record is to me.”

Where Blowout found the Glos concentrating on the punk side of the equation, Kamikaze accentuates the pop side, albeit with the band’s signature unbridled fury and un-varnished honesty.

“It was a tough record to make, and it came out sounding tough,” says Levine. “It’s a hardened record, but the quiets are quieter. A song like ‘Sunny Side,’ I wasn’t ready to write until it happened. But it’s still a party. There’s always going to be a bittersweet element to our music, which is my favorite type of art, the kind of stuff that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. I hope that comes across—these poppy, melodic things and underneath there’s a darker subtext.”

Indeed it does. But the fact remains, although the band went through a good deal of personal transformation to arrive at Kamikaze, it was preparing for those shifts immediately after Blowout.

“‘A.D.D. Life’ and ‘Dancing Industry’ were written about three days after Blowout was finished, which was about a year before it came out,” says Levine. “It was very organic; it just started up right after. Some songs we brought back from a couple years ago, some songs were written two days before we recorded.”

One big hurdle that the Glos had to surmount was the expectations surrounding Kamikaze after the acclaim heaped on Blowout, which generated a lot of top-albums-of-the-year attention. That’s a buzz that can distract from the next task, but the band remained focused on the present and future.

“I like the Bright Eyes quote; ‘Ambition I’ve found can lead only to failure/I do not read the reviews,’” says Levine with a laugh. “You have to get to a place of not giving a shit, and I think this record is really like that. There are certain expectations you have to let go of, especially after making a record that some people liked. You’ve got to throw that out.”

The Glos are never far from the gang vocals and swaggering intensity of the Clash and the Ramones, but Kamikaze—produced by Rocket From The Crypt/Hot Snakes frontman John Reis, who, Levine notes, “whipped the band into shape and helped us cut some of the fat”—shows an increased depth and versatility; the string arrangements on the aforementioned “Sunny Side” suggest similar explorations by the Suicide Machines, and Levine’s lyrical phrasing is reminiscent of art/pop eccentric Martin Newell. Now that the So So Glos have notched five releases over the past nine years, there’s a sense that they’ve evolved beyond directly accessing their influences.

“I think everyone starts out on the backs of someone else,” says Levine. “We definitely have influences, but I don’t think about them when I’m starting something. I think the band’s found its voice. There’s nothing new under the sun. Stuff that Joe Strummer was saying was basically stuff that Woody Guthrie was saying, which was basically stuff that Jesus Christ was saying. You just hope you’re in the right tribe, that you’ve fallen under the right timeline and that you influence like-minded people, like people who have influenced you. I just like to be a part of the conversation that’s been going on forever. Maybe we were meant to be born in another time, but a band like us is very much of this time. Our message is what’s going on now.”

—Brian Baker

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Kristoffer Lo: Norwegian Good

KristofferLo

Kristoffer Lo proves recording the tuba in a lighthouse makes for a great record

Kristoffer Lo’s name may not ring many non-Norwegian bells, but at home he’s recognized as a genre-defying multi-instrumentalist who blurs musical disciplines via nontraditional instrumentation. Since his teens, Lo has been extracting the sonorous honk of his primary instrument, the tuba, from marching bands and classical ensembles, finding a home for the big horn in indie pop (Highasakite), drone jazz (YODOK) and doom/sludge metal (Sunswitch). He was also recently nominated for a Norwegian Grammy for Savages, a piece originally commissioned for 2014’s Moldejazz Festival.

“Tuba was my main instrument when I studied jazz at the University of Trondheim,” he says. “I started adding effects and altering stuff when I was 17 years old. I had a bunch of guitar pedals that I used with my Marilyn Manson-ish band, so I just tried using them on my tuba, and it worked.”

In keeping with his persistent thinking outside an already fluctuating box, Lo is set to deliver his second solo full-length, The Black Meat. Consisting of three lengthy improvised sibilating soundscapes, The Black Meat is as notable for ethereal haunting as it is for the story surrounding its creation during a weekend at Ryvingen, Norway’s southernmost lighthouse.

“The decision to go to Ryvingen was actually made by a journalist called Andre Løyning,” says Lo. “He wanted to make a documentary about me and film it at the lighthouse. When he showed me pictures, I got the idea to record there. The lighthouse is on an island off the coast. So we loaded a small fishing boat full of amplifiers and recording equipment and carried it in wheelbarrows up 600 meters of steep hill and the staircases inside the lighthouse.

“We did encounter some minor power outlet issues. We had to get power from a shed across the lawn and keep two doors ajar so the cables could sneak in. That became an issue when the storms were hitting hard outside. You can hear the winds hitting the walls of the lighthouse and slamming the door on the recording. But, it was fun, in a strange way, and how often do you get the chance to record at a lighthouse in the middle of the night?”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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Robert Ellis: Texas Sidestep

RobertEllis

On his self-titled third release, Robert Ellis refuses to walk the line

Robert Ellis is out to dismantle the Texas troubadour mystique. He may not come out and say as much, but it was glaringly evident at his South By Southwest showcase this past March. Ellis couldn’t have been less the self-possessed strummer as he and his band battled house music that continued to play over the PA during their set and an industry crowd responding with varying degrees of interest. He spent a significant chunk of time on keyboards, and when he did strap on the guitar, his solos were vicious. It was the sound of exceptionally talented musical misfit telling his audience, “Submit to the controlled chaos or go home.”

The same goes for Robert Ellis (New West), the Lake Jackson, Texas, native’s aptly titled third album. “There’s definitely an angsty teenager inside me itching to come out,” says Ellis over a late breakfast at a busy Mexican joint on Austin’s South Congress Avenue. “A lot of that is just self-competition—like seeing if I can do a pop jam or pushing myself to have a Duke Ellington bridge in a song. All that shit is just me trying to stay interested when I’m making music.”

After a pair of solid releases that established Ellis as an eccentric singer/songwriter with a traditional country foothold, his latest is as definitive and weirdly beautiful a statement of defiance as you’d expect from a guy whose primary touchstones are Paul Simon and Randy Newman, as opposed to Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. Perhaps that’s why the two best tracks on a uniformly great record—the structurally sophisticated yet effortless opener “Perfect Strangers” and the brooding, soulful “California”—are keyboard-based. Already an acknowledged ace on guitar at 27, Ellis has been reacquainting himself with the keys over the last few years.

“My mom’s a piano teacher, so that was my first instrument,” he says. “But then I fell in love with the guitar, and I didn’t play for a long time.”

In the midst of a discussion about “California,” there’s a mention of Doobie Brothers keyboardist/crooner Michael McDonald—and it didn’t come from Ellis. But he’s fine with it. “Totally,” he says. “We’ve been described as a redneck Steely Dan. I don’t think we have a lot of people who sit on the fence with this new stuff. We get a strong response, one way or the other.” And when he’s not on the road willing his way into the good graces of skeptical audiences, Ellis has got a pretty lucrative side job.

“Me and my band have church gigs when we’re back in Houston,” says Ellis. “The church we play at is held at the House of Blues—we’re a like a cool Americana band. There’s fuckin’ serious money in playing for the Lord.”

Not that Ellis is religious or anything. “But I really enjoy it,” he says. “I grew up going to church, and I like getting up early and making money before 11 a.m. But I think it would be difficult for me to have any kind of faith in anything. I’ve been pretty far down the rabbit hole, so that would be pretty hard to reconcile, you know what I mean?”

—Hobart Rowland

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Journalism: Media Matters

Journalism

Journalism explores self-doubt on debut album Faces

As you might imagine, slapping your band with the moniker Journalism is asking for a lambasting from choirs of millennial armchair quarterbacks and commentators determined to sardonically point out every bit of life’s ironic minutiae that can be twisted into internet meme-ology. Guitarist/vocalist/ co-founder Kegan Zema—who, having graduated from the University of Maine’s journalism program with his thesis on rock criticism in hand, obviously doesn’t shy away from the fi ring-squad wall—is taking it all in stride. And by “taking it in stride,” we mean LOL-ing at the clever quips thrown at the dartboard Journalism mounted its promo pic on.

“We’ll see some funny stuff on Twitter,” he says. “Usually, it’s either, ‘Oh great, there’s a band called Journalism. Are they going to tour with Writer?’ Or, ‘Indie rock and music journalism are dead; they’ve become self-referential and self-aware.’ But that was kind of the point. I choose the name both for the idea that we’re journaling from a point in time and for the humor.”

Journalism’s roots go back about four years when Zema moved to NYC to play music with his high-school buddy, original bassist Owen Keiter. After drafting drummer Brendan Mehan and guitarist Dara Hirsch (Keiter has since been replaced by Nico Headly), the quartet coated itself in elbow grease, recorded debut EP 1324 and embarked upon a series of DIY tours. The personal and business discoveries during this spell have contributed to the theme of debut album Faces. Backing the skittish lushness and gritty Danelectro twang of its soul-searching anthems is a rock record about being a rock band.

“A lot of the feelings discussed on the album are basically conversations between me and my self-doubt and complaints about being in a band reconciled with the fact that I’m really lucky to be able to do this, even though we’re struggling in obscurity,” says Zema. “It’s a lot of work, and it would probably be easier to give up at any point. We don’t have to do this, so even when people tell us the game is rigged, that guitar rock is dead or that we don’t have the PR budget to be heard, it’s something we care about.”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko; photo by Jeanette D. Moses

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Bird Of Youth: All Things Must Pass

BirdOfYouth

Bird Of Youth brings the dark night of the soul to light

Most bands express grief, loss and rage with singers screaming and guitars playing at an ear-blistering volume. On Get Off, the second album from Brooklyn’s Bird Of Youth, songwriter and singer Beth Wawerna takes a different approach. The music is played with a quiet intensity that emphasizes its poignant melodic structure, while her conversational vocals are delivered with a matter-of-fact anguish.

“The songs on this album were written during the darkest period of my life,” says Wawerna. “The songs are about coming of age, trying to be in a band, while working a day job and losing a parent. I was taking care of my dad while he was dying of cancer. It plunged me into a depression that was hard to deal with. I wrote most of the songs after he passed, in a fever dream of emotional intensity.”

In the songs, Wawerna shifts between the first and third person, mirroring the disjointed way some people experience feelings of alienation. “When I wrote ‘Passing Phase’ (one of the songs on the album), I made that shift a lot,” she says. “I didn’t realize I was doing it until I made the demo and heard myself switching from ‘she’ to ‘I.’ I wanted to convey the sense of watching myself doing self-destructive things. It was me, but I didn’t want it to be me. I want people to be uncomfortable when they listen to this album. I want them to feel those ugly, mad, hideous feelings and the cathartic release as well.”

When she sings, Wawerna has the syncopated phrasing of a jazz vocalist, fluidly dropping words before, after and against the beat.

“I haven’t studied jazz, but I love phrasing, and it plays into the way I write a song,” she says. “I never write words fi rst and then put music behind them. I start with a melody and go from there. There’s something in the phrasing of words that conveys as much emotion and feeling as the words themselves. I often think of Elvis Costello, Squeeze and the Replacements when I’m writing. I took the different ways you can work around a note or a beat from them. I probably labor over the words too much, but it’s just who I am as a writer. I want to tell stories that will make you feel something.”

Near the end of Get Off, the band switches gears. After six introspective songs, the group erupts on “Bitter Filth,” a searing punk-rock screed. “I never though of writing a punk song,” says Wawerna. “Clint (Newman), my musical partner and guitarist, came up with a punchy riff, and we wrote the words together on top of it. It describes working at a crappy day job and playing in a band at night, slogging it out in a club with only four people in the audience. We vented our frustrations, and it was really fun. One day, I might want to write a whole record like that.”

—j. poet

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Tanya Donelly: Feeding The Tree

TanyaDonelly

Tanya Donelly returns with ambitious triple album Swan Song Series

Fortunately, Tanya Donelly didn’t title her latest effort Swan Song Series because the three-disc set will be her last. Fact is, Donelly has a lot of irons in the fire.

“They’re slow-moving irons, but they’re there,” she says from her home outside of Boston. Donelly is prepping for a reunion tour with Belly, her acclaimed band from the ’90s, and she’s beginning an as-yet-unnamed new project with friend Brian Sullivan of Dylan In The Movies. (The pair released a cover of “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” on a Smiths tribute in 2011.)

Swan Song Series isn’t a concept album about water fowl, although it does include “Mr. Swan,” “Cygnet Song” and “Storm Blown Bird” among its 31 tracks. She attributes the bird motif (which also includes “Snow Goose And Me”) and the recurring references to skies, oceans and street names to happenstance. “New England girl—there’s a finite amount of things I see during my day,” she says.

The set does have a concept, though. It’s a collection of collaborations that began as a series of self-financed Bandcamp EPs that Donelly released individually beginning in 2013. The idea started when Wesley Stace (also known as John Wesley Harding) asked Donelly to participate in one of his Cabinet Of Wonders variety shows that bring together musicians, authors, poets and other artists.

“I always love those nights, they’re so fun,” says Donelly. “He got in touch with me, and we hadn’t seen each other in a few years. I had had my second child at that point, and I was sort of unconsciously slipping into retirement without knowing that that was what I was doing. He said, ‘Come do this thing in Boston. It’ll be fun.’ It sounded like a good first step. That night, I reconnected with Wes and met (writer) Rick Moody, and at the end of the night, the way musicians say goodnight is by saying, ‘We should do something together.’ And I followed up on those conversations, which most people don’t normally do.”

As a lead guitarist and songwriter, the 49-year-old Donelly has been in bands since she and stepsister Kristin Hersh started Throwing Muses in their teens. When Donelly was in the Breeders, Kim Deal did the songwriting. In Belly, Donelly was the principal writer, although she wrote much of 1995’s King with fellow guitarist Tom Gorman. For Swan Song Series, she collaborated with friends old and new. She has written with her husband Dean Fisher (who also played in Juliana Hatfield’s band) going back to her solo albums, and she has a longstanding partnership with Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom. Belly bandmates Gorman, Fred Abong and Gail Greenwood contribute individually, too. She also wrote with the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson (Magnetic Fields cellist Sam Davol plays on many tracks), Future Bible Heroes’ Chris Ewen, Robyn Hitchcock, author Mary Gaitskill and Damon And Naomi.

“It’s just so energizing. There’s so many people that you come across in life that you’re like, ‘I would love to write a song with you,’” she says. While some of the collaborations happened in the same room, many were via correspondence, and the source materials varied widely.

“Claudia from Magnetic Fields sent me some chord progressions on her phone, and you have Wes, who’s like, ‘Here’s a full backing track!’ And then you have Mary Gaitskill, who sent me a short story she wrote for the project, and I turned that into a song. Rick Moody is a lyricist himself, because he also writes songs, so he would send full lyrics. We did everything very differently from song to song.”

The collaborations presented some new challenges for Donelly. She’d never written music for someone else’s words before; she’d never written a synth-pop song like “Flying At Night,” the one with Ewen, and that turned out to be one of her favorites. The song styles range widely, too. Although many of the tracks are midtempo ballads, there are Belly-ish rockers, artful meditations, playful pop, lullabies—all anchored by Donelly’s familiar voice, a melodic alto with a raspy edge that’s deepened only slightly from the days of “Not Too Soon,” “Feed The Tree” and “Pretty Deep.”

The Series includes the five Bandcamp EPs Donelly released between August 2013 and March 2014 plus seven additional tracks. It’s a capstone of that era, and aside from a few shows in Boston and New York, the cities where most of the collaborators are concentrated, Donelly doesn’t plan to tour behind it, especially now that she’ll spend much of the summer on the road with Belly.

“It’s kind of an impolite amount of music,” she says. “It kind of does feel like a compilation record, but I do like that they’re all huddled together now.”

—Steve Klinge

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Big Thief: Steal This Record

BigThief

Big Thief makes hardcore music with an angelic message

Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief’s main songwriter, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, creates music that slips hazily between genres with traces of folk, pop and hardcore. The songs on Masterpiece, the band’s debut, show off her emotional range, as both a writer and a singer. Sometimes her vocals are submerged in the mix, fighting against lead guitarist Buck Meek’s avant-garde noise. On other songs, her singing is the quiet whisper of a friend, baring all, in a confidential midnight conversation.

The songs on the album grapple with love, loss and the specter of mortality. “We’ve all had losses of different kinds,” says Lenker. “From the time you can form memories, you learn about losing things. Eventually, you become OK with losing everything in your life, until you’re even resigned to losing your body.”

The band—Lenker, Meek, Max Oleartchik on bass and Jason Burger on drums—made the LP with producer Andrew Sarlo in a studio they put together themselves, in an old house on the shore of Lake Champlain, N.Y.

“We wanted to capture the spirit of the live show, so we played all the songs together as a band, in one room,” says Lenker. “We only overdubbed a couple of things here and there.”

On Masterpiece, Big Thief’s diverse sonic palette creates startling juxtapositions. “Randy” is a soft electric-guitar lullaby with a hushed vocal; “Little Arrow” sounds like a folk song being played on an Edison cylinder from the 1920s; the title track is a murky, mid- tempo rocker with an impressive, distorted guitar solo.

“‘Masterpiece’ was a last-minute addition to the album,” says Lenker. “Andrew gave us five minutes to learn the song, then we went in and tracked it live, so we didn’t have any time to think. We just played it.”

—j. poet

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