Saturday, June 18, 2022

Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part Two)

As promised, here's Part Two of this little series, now focusing mostly on what I call "Rock, Folk, Etc." - but kicking off with an excellent new Latin release.

JAZZ, LATIN, AND GLOBAL

Jimmy Delgado - A Mis Mentores...To My Mentors Delgado is master percussionist who's recorded with everyone from Ray Barreto, Willie Colon, and Eddie Palmieri to Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars. He also toured behind Harry Belafonte for years. While I have definitely heard some of those records, his was not a name with which I was familiar - nor did I know he was my upper Manhattan neighbor - until I listened to a terrific interview with him on the Inwood Art Works podcast. He talked about his glittering past but also mentioned his latest album, which pays tribute to those earlier masters of "hard salsa" in fine style. Beautifully recorded and featuring expert playing (especially the trumpets of Nelson Gazu Jaime, Dennis Hernandez, and Chris Sanchez) along side Delgado's blazing timbales, conga, and bongos, A Mis Mentores shows how vital this music still is. Delgado's fantastic debut solo album from 2002, Salsa Con Dulzura, has also been reissued digitally and should not be missed.

ROCK, FOLK, ETC.

Wet Leg - Wet Leg A great melody can be like a river, pulling you along with undeniable strength. Even better is when it sounds like the singer is in the same thrall, holding on for dear life as they send their way through the song. That was the first thing that caught my ear when Wet Leg began releasing their bright and buzzy singles last year, starting with Chaise Longue. Then the musical surrounds came into focus, filled with chiming guitars, bright keyboards, melodic bass, tight drumming, and the occasional hint of sheer abandon. But the deal was sealed when the lyrics hit me like a lobster to the face. Is there a better put down than Wet Dream's "What makes you think you're good enough to think about me when you're touching yourself...?" Except for the come-on line attributed to the same feckless man: "You said, "Baby, do you want to come home with me? I got Buffalo '66 on DVD"." And there are many such delightful examples, pricking any distended male egos within hearing distance. Bandleaders Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers give everything the ring of truth, drawing on their unfortunate relationship experiences in ways to which anyone can relate. After each single, I would say to myself, "How long can they keep this up??" Well, as this smashing debut proves, there may be no limit to their effervescent brilliance.

Laney Jones - Stories Up High Somehow I missed the moment when Jones was given “next big thing” status, which may be what led to a six-year gap in albums while she made her way through TV and movie sync deals. So I had probably heard her voice in a commercial or film along the way, although I don’t recall it. But this album seems remarkably untroubled by a need to be successful, coming rather from a place of deep interiority and a personal expression. That’s not to say it’s solipsistic; rather it’s inviting and easy to lose yourself in her songs. Even when they have familiar themes (I Can’t Stop The Rain, for one), there is a sense of artistic discovery that is hard not to get excited about. Working with producer Andrija Tokic and sympathetic musicians, Jones seems to give each song the surroundings it needs, mostly guitars, organ, and a rhythm section that lays back in the groove. Sometimes the music is delicate, and sometimes dynamic, even dropping a little 90s loud-quiet-loud on Remember, which also works as an epic soul ballad. But everything is wisely focused on Jones' remarkable voice, which wraps itself around your heart and then ever so gently slips a knife between your ribs. Hurts so good!

Father John Misty - Chloe And The Next 20th Century I am well aware that there are those who hate on FJM's music as much as I love it. So I can't help thinking that the opening track, a nodding and winking cabaret tune, complete with muted trumpet and a herky-jerk rhythm is more catnip for them than for us. How ya hate me now? he seems to be saying. It could just be don't like that song very much, clever lyrics aside, even though I'm a huge Weill/Brecht fan. As a distancing device, setting up an album about a range of characters, it's a bit too obvious. But all is IMMEDIATELY forgiven with Goodnight Mr. Blue, a gorgeous, time-suspending ballad in the Nilssonian mode and an elegy for a dead cat that represents "the only thing left of me and you." Jonathan Wilson's warm production, aided by Drew Erickson's lush string arrangement, shines here, making for an instant classic. That song sets a high bar, which the album meets more than once, especially on the epic sweep of corporate satire Q4 and the Braziliana of Olvidado (Otro Momento), which finds Erickson in full Claus Ogerman mode. The lyrics are uncharacteristically spare, perfect for a song about a language barrier: "All I want to say is words have failed me many times before/But never so completely as with you." If FJM wants to make an all-bossa nova album next, I would not complain! Funny Girl is also excellent - and hilarious - as the protagonist wanders a hall of mirrors, haunted by pizzicato strings and old TV music, and the swagger of Only A Fool could make Bob Dylan jealous. A couple of songs seem to recede pleasantly, but the finale, The Next 20th Century, is grand indeed, a brooding and tense traverse through the mind of Misty. When it erupts in a guitar freak out (likely Wilson), it seems to release millennia of tension. Breathe out, breathe in, start again. It's all we really know how to do.

Charlotte Adigery & Bolis Pupul - Topical Dancer I wrestled with where to include this album, which has elements of electronic pop, dance music, and art rock. Finally, it fused with some loose synapses that connected it to the Ze Records sound, which fused uptown dance floors with downtown punk clubs in a way that briefly felt like the next big thing. This Belgian duo wrap their polemical statements ("Do you carry the burden of this privilege?/Do you see this guilt as leverage?") in colorful grooves constructed from blooping synths, burbling bass, digital drums, and the occasional sharp guitar. In the ironically titled in Ceci n'est pas un Cliché, Adigery speak-sings "I bet this song sounds familiar" like a lighter Grace Jones, and I'm thinking, sure, but only in the most original way. And if you think they take themselves too seriously, check out Haha, which uses sampled laughter in a way unheard since Scott Johnson's Involuntary Songs - and it's impossible not to chuckle along with it.

Katie Dey - Forever Music Like Billie Eilish, Dey prizes the illusion of intimacy, processing her vocals into a near-AMSR texture that comes across like a voice note. Listen in your earbuds and you may just think she'sspeaking to you alone. The musical backings are spare, digital, and tuneful without ever going totally pop and the lyrics are baked down and telegraphic, describing painful life moments with sensory details and bursts of insight. Real Love, for example, describes a home life of "constant violence/smells of alcohol and cigarettes/when you got home," leading to worries of "what of you lives within me." She's not sure, but knows she wants "love that hurts my skin" and "rots through my limbs." As a confessional songwriter for the social media age, Dey has honed her craft to a fine point on this, her fifth album. I came across her in a tweet about how this was the worst music ever - which I suspect has more to do with prejudice against her trans identity rather than what this actually sounds like. I hope she finds not only "real love" but a bigger audience - don't be surprised if you see her opening for Eilish in a stadium somewhere.

Dexy - Sleeping Through Summer For someone who claims to be sleeping too much, Dexy sure knows how to channel some explosive energy, starting off the album with the righteous blast of I Don't Thing I Turned Out Right. With loud guitars, barroom piano, and an ass-kicking rhythm section, it practically dares you to sit still. And the album doesn't let up for the first three songs, before A Shrug To The Floor proves his way with a ballad, giving it the sweep of a glam epic. Even with two more ballads at the end, Sleeping Through Summer serves as the perfect rock and roll wake up call for any doldrums in which you might find yourself.

The Smile - A Light For Attracting Attention Is there a rueful tone to that title, considering how easy it is for Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood - the ostensible leaders of Radiohead - to attract attention? That aligns with the anonymous name of the group, which also includes Brit-jazz drummer Tom Skinner. Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich is at the controls, probably doing more than producing. But what if you didn’t know who was involved and were unfamiliar with their main band? Would this hold your attention? First up is Yorke’s voice, which I’ve heard some complain about. I think he sings better than ever here, often using the minimum of power to emit angelic tones from ghostly to soul-piercing. He’s also rediscovered his snarl, which is energizing. If you think you don’t like it, try it, and if you still don’t like it, no disrespect. Then you’ve got Greenwood, as inventive a guitarist as we’ve got, smoothly transitioning from densely picked patterns to dirty chords and equally versatile on acoustic guitar. If you’re bummed he hasn’t played guitar much on recent Radiohead albums, get here quick. The short, sharp blast of You’ll Never Work In Television Again may just take your head off.

Then there is Skinner, just an astonishing drummer with the dazzling technique of Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer) and the left field inventiveness of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit. On songs like The Opposite or A Hairdryer, Skinner is so good that you even wonder if Radiohead drummer Phil Selway is a little jealous - or worried. Greenwood also flexes his compositional and arranging muscles to wonderful affect, adding dark, velvety strings and dimensional horns to several songs. Melodic intrigue abounds and the lyrics find Yorke at his most stripped down, even telegraphic at times. If you’re a Radiohead fan, I know I’m preaching to the choir - but if you’re a lapsed fan, this could be the album you’ve been waiting for. And if you’ve never been into them but you just like art-rock shot through with a golden seam of passion, take my highest recommendation for this extremely accomplished work.

Empath - Visitor In the two-three years since their last full-length, every band has endured a stress test like no other. So the fact that this young Philly band is still together is itself a kind of miracle. And the fact that they managed to hone their craft in that time is even more special. Somehow they’ve managed to increase both the noise factor and the glossy, shiny elements, amping up their sound and heat-seeking straight to my pleasure centers. Guitars and keyboards enthrall through their interactions and the drums pummel and bounce, while the vocals chirp and soar. So Visitor is wilder AND more addictive than Active Listening: Night On Earth. Get hooked.

Mattiel - Georgia Gothic Ever since their towering 2019 album, Satis Factory, I’ve been waiting to see this band live, but the closest I’ve gotten is buying a t-shirt for their cancelled 2020 tour. Only 60 were made, so it’s a cool thing to have, but it also represents a lot of heartbreak on both sides of the stage. Mattiel Brown is not only a gifted singer and songwriter, but she’s also a fantastic communicator, so she’s managed to stay connected to her audience through deft use of social media. We saw her pivot to printmaking to create another income stream, which was inspiring, and when she and her main collaborator, Jonah Swilley, began work on this album, we shared their excitement - a sensation that only grew when Georgia Gothic finally arrived. Despite all the troubles and challenges of our times, Brown and Swilley, have given us a fun and fizzy record full of danceable rhythms, sharp guitars, swaggering horns, and badass vocals. Brown seems to have found some new directions for her voice, too, like the hyper-romantic wail on Lighthouse, or the Siouxsie Sioux incantation of You Can Have It All. Cultural Criminal seems tailor-made for Grace Jones and gives an opportunity for Brown to show that kind of strength. Swilley is an inventive partner, too, conjuring up settings ranging from the perky new-wave of Jeff Goldblum or a spaghetti western folk song for Blood In The Yolk. While I still have yet to see them in concert, I cheered them on as they took their songs on the road. I saw it all on Instagram, which was even better than getting a t-shirt.

Spoon - Lucifer On The Sofa My wife and I have a running argument about Spoon. She thinks they lack dynamic range and are to minimalist. I love that quality about them, how the tight control of the sound seems to be the only thing keeping leader Britt Daniel, a rock & roll life, from going completely ape. But even she perked up a little at the opener for this, their 10th album. Held, a blistering cover of a typically shaggy Bill Callahan song, might in fact be the most unleashed Spoon recording yet, with gritty guitars and drummer Jim Eno actually flailing away at one point. The torrid pace does not let up for the first four songs, culminating in Wild, an anthemic barnburner with rolling gospel piano like Nicky Hopkins working with the Glimmer Twins - and radio-friendly gloss from Jack Antonoff. Things grow more varied after My Babe, a sweet ballad, with a couple more rockers alongside Astral Jacket, which is so atmospheric it practically starts a smoke machine in my apartment. The title track ends the album at the after-party, a mid-tempo elegy full of regret over loss and what could've been: "What am I gonna do/With your last cigarettes/All your old records/All your old cassettes?" It's a haunting way to end an album that evinces an ongoing belief in the power of rock and roll, even as Spoon innovate new textures within the confines of the genre. Still questing, still engaged, still exciting - on the eve of their 30th anniversary, how cool is that?

Coming next: The Top 25 of 2022 (So Far)

You May Also Enjoy:
Record Roundup: Plugged In
Of Note In 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Of Note In 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Record Roundup: Rock Formations
Record Roundup: Rock 100s
Record Roundup: Rock On (And On)

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