Saturday, October 16, 2021

Record Roundup: Plugged In

Electricity has been a driving force in music at least Leon Theremin developed his pioneering instrument over a century ago. So here's a collection of recent records that all rely on alternating currents, starting with more abstract efforts and ramping up to something more visceral. 

Matt Evans - Touchless Sonically, this is quite a different vibe from the percussion-based soundscapes on New Topographics, Evans' brilliant 2020 album. But as he helpfully points out, the methodology - a blend of electronics, field recordings, and acoustic instruments - remains the same, it's just the emotions being limned here are a world away from the more philosophical ideas being explored there. Specifically, Evans fearlessly delves into the realms of grief and loss he has had to live in since his partner, artist Devra Freelander, was tragically killed in a biking accident, arriving at a series of semi-ambient tracks that strand us on an arctic permafrost for much of the album. But when you listen deeper and hear the contribution of "practice room piano" - such a deeply human sound - along with Tristan Kasten-Krause's upright bass, David Lackner's sax, and Elori Saxl's violin, things warm up quite a bit. Contemplative, melancholy, and seamlessly presented, Touchless further expands on Evans' overall project, and may give others succor in their own moments of sorrow. As with New Topographics, the artwork is by Freelander, and reflects yet another facet of her multifarious talents.

Luce Celestiale - Discepolato Nella Nuova Era This is a debut from a duo made up of Andalusian painter Lorena Serrano Rodriguez and Tuscan "electronic sorcerer" Devid Ciampalini and the result is pure alchemy. Combining vintage synths, percussion, and sound generators, they create a candy-coated sci-fi fantasia of imaginary galaxies. Pere Ubu's synth magus Allen Ravenstine would heartily approve of the abstraction and textural variety while maybe getting a little jealous of just how much FUN this is to listen to. Delight awaits so don't hesitate!

Freak Slug - Slow Down Babe I was introduced to the work of Xenya Genovese when HBO's audacious skater series Betty featured her cover of Joy Division's Disorder in a scene that had me hitting Shazam. Her draggy, dreamy take has no shortage of attitude as she takes on post-punk bedrock without seeming intimidated. On her latest album, she collaborates with producer Dwyer for a series of downbeat slow jams spun from looped guitar strums, lo-fi beats, a pulsating synth clouds, and her airy voice. It's almost all mood as one song blends into another, but its a mood I'm happy to have on tap.

Scott Hirsch - Windless Day Building on the career high point of 2018's Lost Time Behind The Moon,  Hirsch's approach has never been more confident or clear than it is here. First, start with the songs, which are instantly old favorites in the Americana vein, drawing on folk, country, blues, and soul. Next, consider the production, which features every sound burnished to a warm glow, whether Clavinet (Phil Cook in the house, perhaps?), as on the slow burn funk of Dreamer, or Hirsch's trademark pedal steel, as on Dreamer, sung with Kelly McFarland. On the instrumental Redstone, he touches on soundtrack territory, perhaps auditioning for Netflix's next revisionist western. Either way, it's atmospheric, and Drummer Of Shiloh, a collaboration with The Dead Tongues, is even more so. The word that keeps coming to mind while listening to Windless Day is rich - and this album is so rich in spirit and sound that it lives up to that from many perspectives. Enrich your ears. 

Summer Like The Season - Hum FINALLY! I've been waiting for the first full-length from this Detroit-based "bizarre" art-pop band since I saw them cram the stage at Sidewalk back in 2018. Fueled by Summer Krinsky's polyrhythmic drumming, "cram" is still the operative word as each song is filled with sonic details, whether tricky percussive patterns, throbbing bass lines, funky guitars, splashy synths, or a multitude of vocal parts. Krinsky also has a quirky but very flexible voice that can wend its way through any serpentine melody she devises. The band also excels at episodic songwriting, as on Stranger, which hopscotches through three modules in the first minute or so, before returning to the opening duel between Summer's high-pitched vocal and a nasty little post-punk guitar part, all underpinned by a subterranean bass and dance-punk drums. Tune into Krinsky's sessions on Twitch to see some of her audio collage and sculpting skills in action, methods that infuse this kaleidoscopic album with freshness, creativity, and artfulness. I have never doubted that SLTS is one of America's most exciting bands - now I have the evidence to prove it.

Matthew E. White - K-Bay Has it really been six years since White doubled-down on his expansive soul and gospel-infused Americana on Fresh Blood? Indeed it has. He's been busy since then, releasing a lush set of often sublime cover songs with Flo Morrissey in 2017 and an exploratory album with artist Lonnie Holley earlier this year. Some of those sonic excursions touched his process for making this album, which is anything but a tripling down on his earlier sound. Embracing a newly declamatory voice, these songs are packed with touches from electro-pop, R&B, funk, disco, and Krautrock, swirling through a variety of styles, sometimes in the same song. I'm not surprised to see Natalie Prass get co-write credits on a few songs as her 2018 smash, The Future And The Past, pushed White's Spacebomb studio in some sleek and shiny new directions. 

White's arranging powers have only grown, too, as a song like Take Your Time (And Find That Orange To Squeeze) proves, with its sweeping piano and gleaming horns. Fell Like An Ax is another example of the bold choices, with burbling synths competing with strings and what sounds first like an Ellington horn arrangement and then a distant salsa band, eventually floating off in a cloud of woodwinds. Lyrically, he's often in as frisky and antic a mood as the music, with more lust and love than the odes to inner strength on his previous albums. He seems to have a specific object of his affections, too, as the name Judy crops up on multiple songs, not just the one named Judy. 

On Only In America/When The Curtains Of The Night Are Peeled Back he goes into social commentary mode, reflecting on our country's dark legacy and dedicating the song to some of its victims, from Emmett Till to Sandra Bland. Perhaps a little heavy-handed lyrically,  the song generates equal parts uplift and introspection thanks to the extraordinary orchestration. George Floyd does not get a mention as the song was written in 2017, which is further proof that White's heart is in the right place. Overall, White's vision of what America CAN be comes through loud and clear in the stew of sounds he stirs up with such daring aplomb throughout this knockout album.

Colin Linden - bLow After a 45 year career inspired by a seismic encounter with Howling Wolf when he was 11, Linden, who has played with The Band, Gregg Allman, and Bob Dylan, among many others, has just now made his first electric blues album. And he sounds like a hungry new artist, whether letting rip outrageously overdriven solos or digging into a seductive backbeat. There's nothing revolutionary here, just blues and boogie delivered with the freedom - and occasionally abandon - that only great mastery can produce. No wonder Lucinda Williams chose Linden as the first outside release on her Highway 20 label. Put them on the road together and there will be good rockin' nights a-plenty. 

Amyl And The Sniffers - Comfort To Me These Aussie punks could have flamed out after that explosive debut. Instead, they tightened up their songwriting and nailed down their playing so there's slightly less chaos but no less power on this follow-up. Singer Amy Taylor is still a force of nature, delivering her outsider imprecations (Freaks To The Front!) in a controlled shout. The songs are sometimes about bigger topics, like Knifey, which has Taylor coming on like Courtney Barnett's more dangerous sister: "All I ever wanted was to walk by the park/All I ever wanted was to walk by the river, see the stars/Please, stop fucking me up/Out comes the night, out comes my knifey/This is how I get home nicely." But visceral impact trumps introspection every time in the Amyl universe. Taylor's stagecraft is already the stuff of legend and it's easy to picture her antics after initiating an especially good solo from guitarist Dec Martens with a guttural "Ugh" on Capital. The show taking place in your head as they steamroll through the set only adds to the experience - I hope I get see it in person someday.  

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