Sunday, November 19, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 2

This has been a bang-up fall for new music from my favorites. In Part 1, I looked at the latest from American veterans Hiss Golden Messenger, Beck, and Iron & Wine. This edition features two surprising returns to form and two strong albums from artists still early in their careers.

The Clientele - Music For The Age Of Miracles While there have been a few songs released since their last album, the infinitely autumnal Bonfires On The Heath from 2009, it seemed that circumstances were conspiring against us ever having a new full-length collection from The Clientele. I counted myself beyond lucky to have seen them twice in 2014, when they were celebrating the reissue of Suburban Light, their debut, but thought that might indeed be it. 

Then, a chance meeting between singer/songwriter/guitarist Alasdair MacLean and an old friend, Anthony Harmer, catalyzed the (yes) miraculous album now under discussion. Harmer plays the saz and the santur, a Middle Eastern lute and dulcimer respectively, and is also dab hand at pop arranging. He wound up producing the album, sprinkling his sparkling instruments here and there and helping to develop jewel-like settings for each song. There are are trumpets, strings, keyboards, and detailed vocal arrangements, all in service of some of MacLean’s best songs yet. Providing the perfect foundation, as always, are bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen, whose telepathic engagement with every contour of the songs is more remarkable than ever. 

Take Lunar Days, for example, where Keen’s drums tick along almost in a bossa nova style until the chorus, when subtle taps on the snare underscore each word and gently perturb the tempo, helping to emphasize the way the words “Holloways, lunar days,” seem to spill out of the preceding verse. Constellations Echo Lanes also goes through subtle changes that seem to arise organically from the flow of the words rather than just following verse/chorus/verse. There are many such detailed moments throughout Miracles and finding them is like following Ariadne’s golden thread to the heart of The Clientele’s genius. 

When I was first falling for The Clientele, around the time of their third album, I would often find myself ticking off their influences. But now I just hear The Clientele, as no one really sounds like them. That doesn’t mean they don’t push their own envelope a little, as on Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself, which features electronic beats programmed by Harmer, amidst Keen’s drums. Keen is also responsible for three charming instrumentals, which provide space for contemplation amidst the rainswept suburbia that is MacLean’s lyrical bailiwick. That’s not a dig, by the way, as a more literate and intelligent guide would be hard to imagine. For example, the Museum of Fog is a spoken word piece (like their classic Losing Haringey) that reads perfectly as a short story and for Falling Asleep he adapts verse from World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, making lines about hounds and herons sound positively contemporary. 

As elaborate as the settings are on Miracles, a recent concert at the Bell House proved, yet again, that MacLean, Hornsey, and Keen are the heart of the band. All they need to create a whole world out of thin air is electric guitar arpeggios, gently meandering bass, precisely pulsing drums - and the comforting burr of MacLean’s vocals. It’s a remarkable conjuring to witness, and having new songs to play this time only injected more wonder into the night. From the smile on MacLean’s face as they brought album standout Everyone You Meet to a close that Sunday night, he agreed completely. Their U.S. tour has ended, but keep track of their activities - you never know when you might get a chance to see them.

Historian - Expanse I don’t want to be a jerk, but often when people DM me their music, it’s just not very good. So, when Chris Karman, (who records as Historian) sent me his debut album Shelf Life in 2013, it was a more than pleasant surprise. While somewhat unformed, especially in the vocal department, there was a spark of originality and craft to his melancholy songs that kept me listening. Somehow I missed his second album, Currents, which showed steady improvements on the way towards the excellence we find on Expanse. 

Led by Karmen’s stately keyboards and windswept guitar, the core of the band is tight and the strings of Quartetto Fantastico (which includes the brilliant Miguel Atwood-Ferguson) has elevated Historian’s sound into the realm of exquisite chamber pop. Karman’s singing, which reminds me a little of Mike Doughty, is more confident and compelling by several orders of magnitude. Each song creates its own atmospheric cloud of mood, matching the lyrics, which probe themes of existential import in enough detail that I wonder if the project should have been called Philosopher. But it’s more heartfelt than that would imply, and quite affecting. 

Although I could highlight songs like Here And Then, which is very catchy and nearly breezy, or Stars, which seems to create more mystery with each finely incised guitar riff, Expanse is a very consistent album and one which firmly plants Karman’s flag on today’s indie landscape as a talent with which to reckon. P.S. Currents is very nearly as good so you might as well save on shipping and order them both at once!

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Adios Señor Pussycat I’m not going to recount Head’s storied past with bands like Pale Fountains, Shack, and The Strands (this article does a good job of that), but suffice to say that one of his albums is called The Magical World Of The Strands and more than lives up to its title. There’s also plenty of that magic on this new release, which is perhaps the most rapturously received album in Britain this year if my Twitter feed is to be believed. 

And why not? All the Brit-folk-rock touchstones are here, as is the spirit of The Byrds - far more strongly than on that snoozefest Tom Petty produced for ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. The sound of the album, all 12-string shimmer, swaying rhythms, perfect touches of strings and sax, and Head’s warm tenor, is nothing more than the sonic expression of a person seizing a second (or maybe a third) chance at life, fully in command of their talents and grateful for the opportunity. That means songs that flow with perfect inevitability and dole out hard-won wisdom and joyous sing-alongs in equal measure. On What's The Difference we even get a dose of Love steeped in the grandeur of Ennio Morricone - grandiose, yes, but it's great to see Head still taking chances. 

If Michael Head is a completely unfamiliar name to you, there is a 30-year wealth of great songwriting to imbibe. Start with Adios Señor Pussycat and work backwards - and sign up here so you don't miss the next 30 years. 

Warhaus - Warhaus Maarten Devoldere's first brilliant album as Warhaus was called We Fucked A Flame Into Being, after a DH Lawrence quote, and I guess he knew he couldn’t top it, hence going for the self-titled option. Or maybe he was just seeking more name recognition after the first album, which I included on my Top 20 for 2016, failed to set the world on fire.

That was the world’s loss, however, and one which will now be doubled if this second slab of louche Euro-cabaret-rock escapes the notice it deserves. Devoldere has perfected his gravelly, insouciant slur of a voice while bringing more clarity to his musical conception, which is spacious and dimensional, with plenty of air around each well-chosen instrument. Tuned drums or a brushed snare define the rhythm with upright bass as a dance partner, strings may hover above, or his trademark barking trombones might intrude with apt rudeness, as piano and guitar sketch out melodies. The last point should be emphasized as Devoldere's most surprising trait may be his uncanny ability to come up with great tunes and sweeping choruses. 

Many of the songs have familiar titles - Mad World, Dangerous, Bang Bang, Fall In Love With Me - but sound brand new, which may be his sly acknowledgment of the vast territory he wishes to occupy in the zeitgeist, or (more likely) a reflection of his warmer, more direct approach this time around. But while the music may go down with less spikiness than the first album, there are still plenty of barbs to be found in the lyrics. "You have a god to forgive you it's a privilege you have/You have a book that starts with a Bret Easton Ellis autograph/Bottles to empty and prescriptions to fill/And if no god will forgive you, baby, you know I will," he sings in Mad World with a combination of contempt and compassion. And there's probably no one else alive who could get away with this line from Well Well: "And if you want to get laid/In a fashionable way/I'll try to look like I understand/What you want from a man." Thank god for unreconstructed Europeans - never change, Maarten!

With these two Warhaus albums, Devoldere is carving out a unique spot in rock, but one with enough broad appeal to be less niche than it appears. If you're looking for something with the unfiltered edge of a Gauloise and the sensibility of a true devotee to the craft of songwriting, do not hesitate. And you can bet that if he ever ventures outside of Europe for a concert, I'll be first in line. I hope you'll be ready to join me.

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.

Next time I'll return to the Record Roundup format to report on some eclectic electronica that's come out over the course of the year.

You may also enjoy:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 1

It’s a rare year indeed when so many of my bedrock artists of recent years put out new material, especially so close together, but this fall's releases are redefining "embarrassment of riches." Let's get right to it!

Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow Every record by M.C. Taylor is a labor of love, but this may be the most loving music he’s released yet. It comes hard on the heels of last year’s Heart Like A Levee, a sprawling double album shaded by its fair share of self-doubt, with many songs guided in part by the philosophy “You can’t choose your blues but you might as well own them.” This batch of songs is all together sunnier, a reflection of Taylor’s remarkable ability to use music to turn things around when things look bleak. 

There’s a looser, more collective vibe here, too, as if Taylor and his road band knocked these songs together at soundchecks and in rehearsal studios, driven by his relentless desire to get some positivity into a world filled with dark currents. Of course, when your band includes Brad and Phil Cook (bass and guitar, respectively), Josh Kaufman (guitars), Darren Jessie (drums) and people like Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig on backing vocals, you’re talking Americana royalty, people who can get into a heartfelt groove on a moment’s notice. The horns are a nice touch as well, filling out songs like the re-recorded John The Gun, originally a haunting bit of solo folksong on the deluxe edition of Levee. 

The themes, melodies, rhythms, and instrumental touches will all be familiar to fans of Dylan, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Michael Chapman -  if you want to call this “dad rock,” I think Taylor would wear the badge proudly. And this father of three connects instantly with Hiss Golden Messenger, something I can’t say for The War On Drugs, which others have embraced under that label. Maybe if my dad listened to Don Henley and Dire Straits, that would be different! 

Taylor continues to be one of the best songwriters around, and if a line like “Step back, Jack, from the darkness,” (from When The Wall Comes Down) is a little more on the nose than usual for this supremely literary lyricist, that may be what the times demand. Just as his use of "patriotic" motifs in the marketing for the album seeks to reclaim something too often associated with repressive parts of our society, a radio-friendly “classic rock,” or even “southern rock” gesture like Domino (Time Will Tell) may be a point of unity among groups who have lost the ability to converse easily. 

That may be too much weight to place on an album that contains, overall, Hiss Golden Messenger’s most effervescent music. And I can't completely ignore the fact that Hallelujah Anyhow does not cut as deep as my favorite from him, Lateness Of Dancers. But when so many American verities seem on the verge of blowing away, there’s more than enough integrity here to stand on as you wait out the storm. Catch HGM on the road - it's always a great night.

Beck - Colors As long as we’re talking politics and music, I think it’s funny that many people have predicted a great punk revival in the Trump era, as if that was the only movement that pushed against the harsher inclinations of the 70s, and I’m like, “Remember disco?” Bringing people together on the dance floor was just as radical an act as igniting a mosh pit, and maybe ultimately more effective. So I don’t think it’s any accident that Beck released his “Fuck art, let’s dance” album in 2017, even though it’s been in the works for years. 

Nothing is simple, though, and this may be Beck’s most divisive record yet, with people turned off by everything from the hyper-compressed production to the relentless cheerfulness of the thing. But if you give yourself over to the bright, shiny candy-colored surface - and Colors is almost all surface, like a James Rosenquist painting - it’s hard to stop smiling as the songs whirl past. Beck and his producer-in-crime Greg Kurstin (who also gets songwriting credit on most of the record) cook up each song for maximum enjoyment, each track filled with as many surprise and delight features as a concept car at the auto show. 

I hear echoes of Breton, Stewart Copeland, Benji Hughes, and The Beatles, all absorbed into Beck’s pop smoothies, each song sounding, somehow, unmistakably like no one other than him. That’s partly due to his distinctive, vibrato-free tenor, which is still as versatile as it was 20 years ago - he even raps a little, for the first time in several albums. While a downcast sincerity has been a hallmark of his folk-based work (Sea Change, Morning Phase), ironic detachment is a common mode for his upbeat, chopped and screwed side. That’s not the case here, as an open-hearted happiness infuses most of the album. But if irony is absent, there’s still plenty of sly surrealism. I would pay good money for a video of the moment in the studio when he inserted all those “Giddyups” into Wow - I look forward to them every time I listen. 

Unlike the great Morning Phase, however, Colors is not a perfect album. Fix Me is a half-baked song, ending the record on an ellipse when it should have gone out with a bang. Even if that had I'm not sure Colors ever would have been as good as his best work. Kurstin is just too white bread (if you can still say that) a collaborator. It's notable that Wow, which may be the best song here, is the one he is least involved in, with Beck getting a major assist from Cole M.G.N. But as I said to a friend, Colors is a party album - let's all have more parties! 

While it remains to be seen how he will integrate the new material in concert, there’s also no doubt that Beck will have a blast busting out all his best moves when he takes Colors on the road. Giddyup. 

Iron & Wine - Beast Epic I’m not one of those who greeted the eclecticism of the most recent albums by Sam Beam and Co. with a sigh, yearning for the bedroom intimacy of modern classics like The Creek That Drank The Cradle. Not only did I find his incorporation of funk, soul, jazz, and dub captivating, I listened in astonishment as Beam became one of the best singers alive. Hearing him sing Sade’s Bulletproof Soul On Sing Into My Mouth, his way underrated covers album with Ben Bridwell, sealed the deal. But I also became concerned about his songwriting inspiration, especially when he followed up with another collaborative project, this time with Jesca Hoop, which contained few memorable songs. 

Now, four years after the last I&W album of all original songs, Beam has given us a Beast Epic, not a return to his stripped-down indie folk, but a reclamation of some of that woodsy territory nonetheless. The production is no less complex than something like The Shepherd’s Dog, but every song has an acoustic center, whether big-chord strumming or hypnotic finger-picked patterns. Beam surrounds those guitars with strings, marimba, piano, reeds, brass, and percussion, creating the atmosphere of a sophisticated jam around the campfire that, varied as it is, feels as warm as an inherited Hudson’s Bay blanket. 

The songs are all solidly constructed, with melodies as natural as breathing. The lyrics have arresting koan-like nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout, such as “Nothing makes silence like experience/There’s a message in my eyes/You better love yourself/‘Cause I tried,” from Bitter Truth, and ”For all the love you left behind, you can have mine,” from Call It Dreaming, which is an instant Iron & Wine classic. There are also little bits of eccentricity that add tooth to the album, calling out to art song, the sardonic theater music of Brecht/Weill, or even the cracked Americana of Harry Partch. Hearts Walk Anywhere, one of two brief bonus songs available on vinyl only, pushes this even further, pointing in possible new directions. Theater? Chamber music? There are no limits to what Sam Beam can conjure when he's inspired and he is surely inspired on the gorgeous tapestry of Beast Epic. Let me know if you make it to one of the shows!

Coming in Part 2: The Clientele, Historian, and Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.

You may also enjoy:
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
Beam & Bridwell's AOR Utopia
Beck's Next Phase