Sunday, May 31, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.

This is the big one - 17 albums that go from gentle and introspective to aggressive and angular. Reviews will be short and to the point, just enough to get you to listen for yourselves. Find tracks from each of these in the 40 For 2020 playlist, alongside selections from recent pieces for Classical, Electronic, Hip Hop, and Jazz. The main playlist for Rock, Folk, Etc. has 10 hours of album tracks and singles and the year isn't even half over. Embrace the overwhelm!

Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman When singles started dropping from this project last year, I had a feeling the album would be one of the best of 2020. Thankfully, the trio of Anais Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric D. Johnson didn't let the quality slip over the 10 tracks on this remarkable album. As I said on my video review, these songs, some of them centuries old, sound both brand new and like instant old friends. Cameos from Justin Vernon and This Is The Kit only serve to up the level of indie-folk bliss. It was a constant listen when it came out in the halcyon days of January, making it sound only more otherworldly now. Expect it high on my best of the year list and many others.

Jonathan Wilson - Dixie Blur I went deep into the roots, process, and results of Wilson's latest brilliant collection in my article for Rock & Roll Globe - read that if you still haven't yet gotten on board. TL/DR: Some of Wilson's most personal songs yet, given the high-Americana treatment, including the incandescent fiddling of Mark O'Conner and key contributions from Wilco's Pat Sansone, who also co-produces.

Nadia Reid - Out Of My Province Reid has one of those voices that, when you see her live, you can barely believe is emitting, seemingly without effort, from the human being standing in front of you. It's the perfect vehicle for her literate yet raw songs of love, loss, and the aching moments in between. For her first album made outside her native New Zealand, she went to Spacebomb, Matthew E. White's nexus of cosmic American music and it proves to be a heavenly collaboration, with their smart yet soulful horns and strings limning Reid's glorious songs with a warm glow. She may be far from her province, but she sounds right at home.

Aoife Nessa Frances - Land Of No Junction I'd been wondering what became of Cian Nugent since he released Night Fiction in 2016 (one of the best of that decade, donchaknow) when I spotted his name while scanning a Pitchfork newsletter that mentioned this album. It seems that he and Frances had been working on this wonderfully distinctive album for a while, and, besides further expanding our view of Nugent as a crafter of sound, it's a dreamy introduction to a singer-songwriter with a wonderfully hazy style. After a few listens, what at first seemed impossibly diaphanous, like chasing a butterfly's stardust trail, gradually reveals itself to be a deeply informed array of psych-folk gestures in song, all coming from a well of real feeling. Catch up with her solo performance from the Sea Change festival - one of the richest live-streams of the COVID-19 era - and the songs only uncover themselves further. Truly wondrous stuff.

Ocean Music x Jerome Ellis - Morsels After 2019's double-whammy of Troubadour No. 1 - best album of the year - and Fan Fiction For Planet Earth (also incredible) I would not have faulted Richard Aufrichtig for taking 2020 off. But the man is as prolific as he is talented so we have this interesting project, with short fragments of songs intended to be looped, along with a generous selection of bonus material from the Fan Fiction sessions. Even though I'm still waiting for my cassette, which has each fragment looped for 34 seconds, it still works on many levels, with moments of high drama or mellow contemplation each creating a complete universe in less than a minute. The extras, whether demos or b-sides, show off Aufrichtig's range in moving fashion - he's incapable of being insincere or anywhere else than rooted in the moment of his performances - rooted, but flying so free. Fly with him. P.S. I've heard some of his next album, too, and it will go as far, or further, than what we've already heard. Get a preview.

Frazey Ford - U Kin B The Sun I don't know what Vancouver native Ford has been up to in the six years since her last album, but it has done wonders for her art. This is her most direct, focused shot to the heart yet, and the sensitive soul cooked up by her collaborators carries each song like a perfect vessel - kudos to bassist Darren Parris and drummer Leon Power. Political, personal, or poetic, Ford is in rare form here, and now lands at the pinnacle of today's singer-songwriters. Perhaps its time for her to follow Nadia Reid (and Natalie Prass) to Spacebomb - could be mind-blowing!

Hamilton Leithauser - The Loves Of Your Life I don't want to belabor the point, but I really didn't like Leithauser's last album, a failure I lay at the feet of his collaborator, Rostam Batmanglij from the regrettable Vampire Weekend. As word started to trickle out about this album, I was riding a razor's edge, with anticipation and excitement on one side and protection against disappointment on the other. Well, I'm happy to report that, as the sporting announcers say, "It's IN and it's GOOD." Now, I don't want to say I told you so, but there's no question that the return of Paul Maroon to the fold (on six of 11 tracks) has helped bring out the best in Leithauser once more. Yet this is also Leithauser's most self-sufficient album so far - recorded, produced and mixed by him at his home studio, known as the "Struggle Hut," with many songs featuring him as the sole instrumentalist, playing everything from guitars, bass, and drums to glockenspiel and violin. The lyrics are all pithy portraits of various down and outers, a series of missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds, all drawn with the compassion of a 19th-century novelist. Jeez, this guy is incredible, and I haven't even mentioned that indelible voice - lordy, can he sing. I've already pronounced Black Hours, his first solo album, one of the best of the 2010's - this one will certainly be in the running for the current era.

Honey Cutt - Coasting Led by Kaley Honeycutt, this trio sails in as a lighter-than-air confection of indie jangle with a little bit of quirk to add to the fun. There are moments, too, where the three of them take flight in a manner that suggests they are great live - one day I'll find out for myself. For now, I'll just revel in this delightful sophomore effort that feels very much like a debut.

Soccer Mommy - Color Theory I've kept an eye on Sophie Allison's project since inception, admiring more than loving her indie-rock for it's sheer minimalist competence. It was always an enjoyable listen, but never involving - until now. Color Theory has her slow burn catching complete fire as she opens up her emotional world and lets us in. The music is hotter, too, surrounding her crystalline voice with wraiths of guitar-haze, edging into psychedelia at times, keeping a protective distance from the pain at the core of many of these songs. Even though this is her second official album, it feels like I've met a brand-new artist. Welcome, Soccer Mommy, we've been waiting for you.

Squirrel Flower - I Was Born Swimming I read about Ella O'Conner Williams in Mojo where this was presented as a debut album - the marketing states the same. But a quick dig into Spotify reveals earlier albums, recorded solo, but with her shimmering guitar and gorgeous voice fully present. There's no question, however, that the band format serves her very well, especially with accompaniment this sensitive (including her father, Jesse Williams on bass) and that time has honed her songwriting to a fine point. Whether this is her first album or her third, it's just plain GREAT.

Dana Gavanski - Yesterday Is Gone There's a dignity and restraint to Gavanski's folk-rock that makes you lean in and listen closely. Apparently a late bloomer - she was originally pursuing film - these songs seem born of experience and a long apprenticeship. Already a fully formed artist, the possibilities for what she'll accomplish in the future are thrilling.

Ultraista - Sister Nigel Godrich is known for producing Radiohead, among many other bands, and playing in Thom Yorke side projects like Atoms For Piece. Drummer Joey Waronker, also an Atoms veteran, has played for Beck, Roger Waters, and more. With singer Laura Bettinson, they are Ultraista, and this sleekly propulsive electro-pop album is their second since 2012. Worth the wait, with tighter songwriting, deeper emotions, and the sense of great power held in abeyance. Best of all, it feels truly collaborative - there are no guns for hire in Ultraista, just talented musicians who have found common ground.

Wire - Mind Hive Was it just this year that these post-punk legends, over 40 years into their career, released one of their finest albums? Why yes, it was! Hope you didn't miss it as it gives all the many young bands who have been carrying the legacy forward a run for their collective money. From sleek yet barbed shots across the bow like Cactused to gently pulsing wonders like Unrepentant - as lovely as anything Cluster ever perpetrated - all of their virtues are on display. Long may they reign, etc., etc.

Porridge Radio - Every Bad There's a bit of post-punk in the DNA of this band, not only Wire but also The Raincoats, especially in the way singer-songwriter Dana Margolin wears her heart on her sleeve in a most relatable way. The lyrics are conversational ("And maybe I was born confused/And baby, I was born confused/So I don't know what's going on/Maybe nothing's going on" - Born Confused) but Margolin's use of repetition has a way of heightening the quotidian message, somewhat like The Courtneys did on their brilliant second album. It took them four years to follow up the charms of 2016's Rice, Pasta, and Other Fillers, and while the increase in craft is palpable, I hope we don't have to wait that long for more!

Dogleg - Melee This Michigan band also took four years between their debut and this album, making an even bigger leap in the process, going from a lo-fi solo project for main man Alex Stoitsiadis to a powerhouse trio (Chase Macinski - bass, backing vocals, Parker Grissom - drums, backing vocals) with an impressively massive sound. Even more impressive when you see the modest credit, "Recorded by Alex Stoitsiadis at home" - kid's got talent far beyond strumming and shouting, which he also does really well. Even at high tempos, Grissom finds the groove, and the addition of double bass, trumpet, and violin enlarges the sound further. Add the almost desperate passion of a young Paul Westerberg and you've got a Melee worth diving into.

The Strokes - The New Abnormal As I recently pointed out on an episode of Sound Opinions (they often take my calls, LOL), if you don't accept the fact that Angles is nearly as fantastic as Is This It?, you probably shouldn't be reviewing this album. Or even listening to it for that matter. But if you loved Angles, this will thrill you, with some of Julian Casablancas' most nakedly emotional writing and singing married to sleek yet engaged playing from the rest of the band. Often accused of being rock & roll scavengers, they cleverly spin gold out of rust by bolting together a bit of Modern English's Melt With You and a lot of Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself to arrive at Making Bad Decisions, an instant hit. But they also pursue newer sounds, such as the siren-like guitar and implacable drums of Eternal Summer or the synth-driven At The Door. A triumph for the band and for producer Rick Rubin. 

Lucinda Williams - Good Souls, Better Angels If there is one American musician still working today who has less to prove than Lucinda Williams - and who's not Bob Dylan - I'd like to hear about it. Even so, Williams and her main foil, guitarist Stuart Mathis, come ready to rumble on this, her 12th album of original material. Often using a variety of well-worn blues and Americana structures - but unafraid to invoke The Stooges and The Clash - and fueled by Williams' rage at our current situation, many of these songs reach their apotheosis when Mathis fires off a solo written in pure lightning. While Williams speaks for us in her dissection of the loathsome creature in the White House in Man Without A Soul, she also offers a bulwark against despair in a song like Big Black Train ("I can hear it comin' on down the track/And I don't wanna get onboard"). Williams is also wise enough to use metaphor and allusion to avoid creating songs with built-in expiration dates. Besides, there will always be something to be pissed off and sad about - Williams will have your back no matter what is going on in the headlines. And I can't imagine the catharsis - both on stage and in the crowd - when these songs are unleashed in concert. I hope to be there.

Hear more in the vein of these albums in my Of Note in 2020 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) playlist and make sure to follow it so you can keep up with the wonders yet to come.


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