Sunday, July 26, 2015

Wilco's Star Power

The pre-order. The Deluxe Edition. The leaked track. The video. The Super-Deluxe Limited Edition. The website landing page. The merch. As susceptible as I am to the Pavlovian triggers of the modern album release scaffold, I do sometimes wonder if the gilding drips off the lily and forms a cage for the artist. It may be, in fact, that all of these extras are better suited to works that are already solidly canonized - go to town, Jimmy Page - but can be a drag on the ascent of a band's new music.

Wilco were solidly on that path with their last two or three albums - I have the Deluxe Editions to prove it - but have ditched it all with their new album, Star Wars, which was released as a free download with no advance warning about a week ago. Why? Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy has the answer: "Well, the biggest reason, and I'm not sure we even need any others, is that we thought it would be fun."

Remember fun? Gaiety can be in short supply when a band is 20 years into their career, which may be why it's been four years since Wilco's last album and why they spent the last couple of years in a semi-atomized state, with each member pursuing outside interests. But whatever the trajectory that led us here, there is new music from Wilco, which is always worth celebrating.

EKG kicks off the 11-song album with a short sharp shock to the system, a dissonant and dense little instrumental overture to what lies ahead. Which is More..., a fuzzed-out rocker with a touch of Glam. Nels Cline's guitar sparkles for just a second or two and there's a great moment when the rhythm guitars nearly drown everything out - more, indeed.

Random Name Generator is a romp, with a joyful riff and some Pere Ubu-esque electronics buried in the mix. An instant live favorite, no doubt. The Joke Explained is the sound of a band with the entire history of American music at their disposal, as echoes of folk, country, Chess Records, and 70's rock blend effortlessly. "If I had known, I would've never believed," Tweedy sings - and haven't we all been there?

You Satellite quiets things down to a slow burn and confirms that in the production and the arrangements, Star Wars is the most unified Wilco album since A Ghost Is Born over a decade ago. The three guitars of Tweedy, Patrick Sansone and Nels Cline create a beautiful sound, blending together in a thicket of sound bolstered by Mikael Jorgensen's electronics while the rhythm section of John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche cooks up a storm, six people playing as one. Clearly a Wilco classic from the first listen and maybe proof positive of the benefits of spending time apart.

"Why do our disasters creep so slowly into view?" Tweedy sings in the low key Taste The Ceiling, and wouldn't we all like to know? Like that line, the song seems to ask more questions than it answers, providing solace via its detailed arrangement and comforting backbeat. Pickled Ginger begins with guitar so blissfully fuzzy that it could be called furry, and more than a touch of T-Rex to the melody. Although it builds up a head of steam near the end, it's more like a sketchy Marc Bolan outtake than a jukebox single, but it's that tossed off quality that has you hitting repeat as soon as it ends.

Where Do I Begin also feels a bit like a demo for the first two minutes or so, with Tweedy accompanied only by two guitars. But then the backwards drums and bold George Harrison riffs burst in and you know you're listening to a fully finished product - and a damned good one at that. Cold Slope comes together with some fragmentary guitar and a druggy pulse before opening up into a rhapsodic section that ends as quickly as it began. The pulse returns, growing into something more rocked out before cutting back down again. Tweedy murmurs, the guitars converse and there is sense of expanded possibility. Verse/chorus/verse? Sure, but you don't have to all the time.

The pulse of Cold Slope leads directly into the stomp of King Of You, which sometimes threatens to become that old favorite I'm The Man Who Loves You, but they rein it in. Album closer Magnetized explores some of the melodic and sonic terrain of the later Beatles while remaining resolutely Wilco. It's an introspective gem that may be an ode to the band's inner magnetism, which keeps them together through thick and thin, or to the attraction that keeps us fans of the band tuned in to their every move. Either way, it's beautiful, a quiet little anthem and a perfect ending to what begins as a delightful surprise and becomes gradually more nuanced. And you know what? If they put out a Star Wars Death Star Super Deluxe Limited Edition with extra songs as good as these, sign me up for the pre-order.

 You might also enjoy:

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 1

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 2: Tweedy & Son

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Summer Party Mix: Short Takes, Singles, Etc.

It's summer, prime mixtape season, so here are some short takes on recent albums and singles with party potential that should soundtrack your next shindig.

Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf While we wait for Chance The Rapper to follow up Acid Rap we can enjoy this sunny and eclectic group effort from him and his buddies (some of them famous, like Busta Rhymes and Janelle Monae). Perhaps some of the positive vibrations are little more than bromides ("Just be you!") but it's hard not to be infected by the joyous spirit that runs through Surf. With darkness emanating from TV's and headlines everywhere this is a welcome dose of sweetness. This is free on iTunes so don't hesitate.

Beck - Dreams Well, he said the next one would be different. After the triumph of the GRAMMY-winning Morning Phase (also my #2 album from 2014), the world was Beck's oyster and he's found a new direction: polished dance-pop. While that might make you think that this notorious appropriator is being cheesy and ironic, Dreams is beautifully produced and seems completely sincere. It's delightful. I think when he performs at the GRAMMY's next year, the Twittering masses will remember who he is.

Shamir - Call It Off This young singer/songwriter from Las Vegas is getting a lot of attention and rightfully so - he's bursting with talent. After a time playing country, he's thrown his lot in with a brand of stripped down electronic R&B that at its  best is irresistible. Call It Off is the most appealing song for me, an addictively danceable kiss off that will have you moving no matter where you are. Give his album Ratchet a try, too - there's some depth there. Shamir is one to watch.

Alekesam - All Is Forgiven I heard this haunting dub-inflected beaut on an episode of Don Cheadle's excellent House Of Lies. Turns out Alekesam is the duo of Sal Masekela and Sunny Levine, the respective offspring of Hugh Masekela and his collaborator Stewart Levine. So it's in their blood - get transfused.

Holly Herndon - Morning Sun A lot of the talk about Herndon focuses on her process. While it is interesting to learn how she uses natural and found sounds to create electronic textures, it doesn't always pay off for the listener. I could scold myself for a lack of commitment - or I could just dial up Morning Sun, the sleekest song on her album Platform. Who's going to pony up the remix? Breton - you in?

Vince Staples - Summertime OK, I know you can't dance to this moody one-off from Staples' interesting debut - but you need a song to listen to after (most of) your guests have left. Even if his ambition to "be Pink Floyd" is yet to be realized, the mere fact of it is to be celebrated. This could be forever, baby...

A$AP Rocky - LSD That Pink Floyd reference might make more sense on this woozy wonder (the Gaspar Noe-influenced video is aces, too). Can't say I've ever taken the A$AP world domination plan very seriously (RIP A$AP Yams), but Rocky keeps getting better. There's other good stuff on At.Long.Last.A$AP, too, but this is classic. 

Run The Jewels (feat. Cuz) - Bust No Moves Whaddya know, even El-P and Killer Mike are getting a little spacey. But Mike's verse is as down to earth as it gets on this great jam - originally a Record Store Day exclusive.

Raekwon (feat. Estelle) - All About You This lush gem has been floating around for a couple of years and is now a high point of the album Fly International Luxurious Art. It borrows some of its drama from the Isaac Hayes school - kudos to producer Jerry Wonda - and Rae and Estelle pair up nicely. While not a classic, there's other good stuff on the album as well. 

Alessia Cara - Here The borrowing from Isaac Hayes is more explicit in Here, as Cara draws on the same Ike's Rap sample that fueled trip-hop classics by both Tricky and Portishead. Here is an ode to introversion that I can relate to, but the passion in Cara's voice means she really wants to connect - and she does

Singers & Players - Reaching The Bad Man This dubby conqueror is just one of many great tracks on Sherwood At The Controls Vol. 1 1979-1984, a killer compilation of some of Adrian Sherwood's great post-punk productions. Singers & Players was Sherwood's super-group featuring Jamaican eminences (Mikey Dread, Bim Sherman) and British avant gardists (Ari Up, Keith Levene), a fruitful blend indeed. Want more? Grab this deadly mix from Test Pressing.

Jahdan Blakkamoore - Sweetest Ting The Guayana-born Blakkamoore has the perfect voice for post-dancehall digital reggae, burnished and powerful but capable of both delicacy and joy. This song is the purest dose of sunshine from his third album, Order Of Distinction, but there's more to love there and on his earlier records. 

Buena Vista Social Club - Lost And Found This mix of thrilling live performances and nearly top-flight outtakes is the perfect hit to quench your nostalgia for when nostalgic Cuban sounds burned up the airwaves. It's a really good time and can add spice to many a mix. Right now I'm hooked on Tiene Sabor, featuring the ever-magnificent Omara Portuondo.

Various Artists - Next Cut! Yet another devastating collection of reggae rarities from Pressure Sounds, focusing on sounds from Bunny "Striker" Lee & Friends. Take your pick for your mix. 

The Notations - Still Here (1967-73) NĂºmero Group has made their name with dozens of releases bringing obscure soul music to light, as they do on this great single-artist collection. The Notations might not be The Temptations but they had a lot to offer - one listen to I Can't Stop should make you a fan. 

Fetty Wap - Trap Queen I heard the executors of Francis Scott Key's estate petitioned to have this become the new American anthem, but Soulja Boy voted them down. Sour grapes, I say. 

Your Old Droog - Kinison There was a brief period where a dash of mystery had people wondering if this was Nas in disguise. Now we know he's his own man, as this pop-culture obsessed album demonstrates. He can be funny, as on Gentrify My Hood, or blithely vicious, as on Homicide. He does have some of Nas's crisp New York flow, which could make it easy for that legend to imagine biting some of the excellent beats by El RTNC and others - better be careful, boys. Also give an ear to The Nicest, a six-track EP that just came out. Busy man - get busy catching up.

Check out my playlist featuring all of these plus a few assists from the best records of the year. What's grooving you?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Surprising Natalie Prass

Natalie Prass is full of surprises. For example, did you know that she's all about that bass? She happily owned up to the body-moving mix that played her on stage at a sold out Bowery Ballroom this past Monday. It included such club classics as the 12" version of The Men All Pause by Klymaxx and Slowes' Comb by Digable Planets - songs you might not have heard in Nashville, where she spent almost a decade before moving back to Richmond, VA, to make her instant-classic debut album

Then there were the bananas. She placed four of them on her amp before greeting the crowd. Since this show was rescheduled from May due to illness, my first thought was potassium deficiency. But no, she's just a lovable eccentric who wanted to share her band's "night nanners" tradition with the audience. Which she did, tossing the fruits into the eagerly outstretched hands of her fans. And yes - by then she had everyone eating out of her hands, whether or not you caught a banana.

While the album, lushly produced by Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, clearly displays a gifted singer, her talent was even more apparent in concert. Although her natural instrument is a little bit flighty, her control over every sound and - even more importantly - every rhythmic inflection is simply remarkable. She played with phrasing like a jazz chanteuse, finding new hooks in songs I've played to death, all the while producing the beautiful tones exactly as you hear on the record. 

Natalie & Trey
Trey Pollard is also the guitarist in her road band, pulling out shades of Les Paul or Steve Cropper as the situation demanded. He was a great foil for Prass who - surprise, surprise - is also a great performer. She moves to enact each song, either locking into the beat or finding a little bit of theater to emphasize a point, without ever seeming studied. She smiles a lot, talks to the audience and seems to like to improvise a bit. Don't be surprised if there's a charming song called New York City on her next album, she so loved singing the name of our fair metropolis. 

Her sophomore release seems in good hands either way, as she played three or four new songs that all sounded good. But it was in the indelible songs she's already recorded that she and the band really shone. Bird Of Prey, My Baby Don't Understand Me, Christy, etc. -these are all bulletproof songs, testaments to the power of her medium to put a structure to emotion and narrative and then pull us through that creation with irresistible threads of melody, harmony and groove.

My brief time in Nashville last year proved that beyond the rhinestones there is a serious and supportive community of songwriters there, from which Prass clearly benefited. But she's on another plane entirely now and well on her way to a brilliant career. She'll be at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on November 10th and I highly recommend you get your tickets in advance

The opening act was Wilder Maker, a quintet from Brooklyn who had a few surprises of their own, such as a two drummer set up that added loads of texture and excitement. While not every song was my cup of tea, they felt fully formed and bandleader Gabriel Birnbaum is extremely comfortable as a frontman. He's also put in a good portion of his 10,000 hours with his guitar, finger-picking or playing bold chords with ease. His baritone blended nicely with the more dulcet tones of Katie Von Schleicher, who also played keyboard. Based on the way they won over the crowd, which grew steadily throughout their set, I doubt Wilder Mind will be just an opening band for long. 

You might also like:
Matthew E. White: Seeking Transcendence
No Longer A Big Inner
Catching Up With 2015

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Best of 2015 (So Far)

Isn't it wonderful when an album becomes like a public square and a huge variety of people come together to debate and celebrate its merits? Kendrick Lamar's extraordinary To Pimp A Butterfly definitely falls into this category and as such is probably the most important record of the year so far. 

But it is part of the critic's duty to balance the personal and the public and to speak from their heart, which is why To Pimp A Butterfly is not my number one album at this point.

That honor goes to Holly Miranda's self-titled second (or third, depending on how you count) album. While PhD theses may not be written unpacking dense political themes, hearing her completely blossom as an artist is a thrill in its own right. Also, watching a lesbian couple sing along to All I Want Is To Be Your Girl at Holly's recent concert does lend some weight to her place in the culture at this time in history. 

With that said, and with further ado shown the door, here's my Top 20 of the year so far. 

1. Holly Miranda - Holly Miranda We've known for some time that Holly Miranda is a genius interpreter. Now she finally has written a batch of songs consistently worthy of her gifts as a singer. 

2. Gecko Turner - That Place By The Thing With The Cool Name If I were king of the world there would be no more war because we would all be too busy dancing to Gecko

3. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear With a novelist's eye for detail, a golden voice, and Jonathan Wilson as his producing partner in crime, FJM strikes again. Turning his withering gaze on himself as much as the American landscape, no one can make you laugh until you cry (and vice versa) like the former J. Tillman. And if there's a better performer hitting the stage in 2015, I'd like to know about it. 

4. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly Much has already been written about the complexities of Kendrick's masterpiece but let's not lose sight of its simpler charms, such as the fact that it is the most groovalicious hip hop album in quite some time. Give some credit to George Clinton and the Brainfeeder crew of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. But the star of the show is always Kendrick, a true virtuoso rapper who has made more than the most of his voice, which is not a naturally beautiful instrument. Believe it or not, I think he will only get better as he matures away from his focus on using dysfunctional relationships between men and women as a central metaphor for power and control. 

5. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass As a fan of Matthew E. White's cosmic Americana for the last few years, I was pre-disposed to like Natalie Prass's debut, which was produced by him and features the brilliant cast of characters from his own albums. However, I did have to fight through a slight overreaction to her chirpy vocal quirks to get to the core of her greatness. It was worth the journey, though, to connect with her rock-solid songwriting, which finds common ground between Stax and the great American songbook. There's also a toughness under the vocal delicacy that keeps it from effervescent into the ether.  

6. The Amazing - Picture You Elegance and reserve are not often on the list of psych-shoegaze virtues but this Swedish quintet emphatically make the case for them on their third album. The long songs gradually reveal more of the band's depth and versatility with each listen. Guitars are the main focus, but the production eases in organ, horns, strings and woodwinds in a most beguiling way.

7. SWR Vokalensemble - Italia Marcus Creed leads the talented singers of the SWR in an intelligently programmed selection of Italian choral music with captivating results. 

8. Jamie XX - In Colour I don't care for the XX but I loved We're New Here, Jamie's full-album remix of Gil Scott-Heron's final work so I thought I'd give this a try. Gosh am I glad I did! Aggressively hip, kaleidoscopic and alternating between melancholy and joy - sometimes in the same song - this is easily the electronic record of the year. Guest appearances by XX colleagues are brief and work well in this context but I think Jamie has more fun without them. Good times

9. Patrick Watson - Love Songs For Robots Watson has always been an expert at creating moods but on his latest he sustains one across the whole album. I think of the album as one long piece, a sleek and cinematic epic, so lush and gorgeous that your neck hairs will be permanently tingling. Glorious stuff. 

10. Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood White is no stranger to lush textures himself and follows up 2012's Big Inner with another deeply felt set of songs. He's got some of Curtis Mayfield's touch for the dramatic, both in the way he deploys horns, strings, and backup singers, but also in the way he cares so much about people and their connections. He's one of the good guys

11. BADBADNOTGOOD with Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul In which the Toronto-based post-jazz trio hook up with Wu-Tang mainstay Ghostface and create a collection of noir-inflected tracks that don't compromise the agendas of either party. Ghostface sounds invigorated, spitting gritty tales over horns and strings  and BBNG go all in on embracing their dark side. The best hip hop album no one is taking about. So I'm talking about it. 

12. Missy Mazzoli with Victoire and Glenn Kotche - Vespers For A New Dark Age Night is falling in Missy's world, too, so grab on and soar the heavens on the wings of soprano angels. 

13. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green Dazzling acoustic player Walker plies his trade in some of the sun-dappled territory marked out by Tim Buckley on such albums as Happy/Sad and Blue Afternoon - a realm not visited enough in my opinion. 

14. Leonard Cohen - Can't Forget: A Souvenir Of The Grand Tour I'm not 100% sure why, but I have found Leonard Cohen's latest albums to be no more than intermittently satisfying. For every great song like Nevermind (now the perfectly doomy theme for season two of True Detective), there are a few that seem too self-regarding. It's as if he got so caught up in being LEONARD COHEN that he couldn't just be himself. This album, an unusual hybrid of live takes of old songs, new songs recorded at soundchecks, and covers, has completely cracked the code. He's in terrific voice and his band is with him every step of the way as he transforms such classics as Field Commander Cohen and Joan Of Arc while introducing witty new gems like Never Gave Nobody Trouble. Somehow it all works together for his best collection since Ten New Songs. 

15. Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL - Mad Max Fury Road OST George Miller's surprising return to brilliantly brutal cinematic form was ably assisted by Holkenborg's smashing score. Like a cyborg Wagner, Holkenborg welds electronics and symphonics into unstoppable heat-seeking missiles of sound. You might want to be careful about driving under its influence. 

16. Noveller - Fantastic Planet Sarah Lipstate wields her guitar and a raft of electronics to explore the tributaries left by the innovations of Fripp and Eno in the 1970's and Glenn Branca in the 1980's. Beautifully atmospheric

17. Pond - Man It Feels Like Space Again Mojo Magazine docked these guys a star for being too weird. If I need say more, I'll just refer to the 3-D production, sly melodies and their supremely rhythmic take on neo-psych.

18. Bob Dylan - Shadows In The Night This may be Dylan's most atmospheric album ever, wandering the dark corners of Tin Pan Alley in a hand-picked selection of songs associated mainly with Frank Sinatra. Dylan's engagement with the clever lyrics of another era have smoothed out his voice and brought out a delightful wryness in his delivery. The production is a minimal, charcoal sketch surrounding Dylan, who stands firmly in the spotlight. Old dog, new tricks - yet again. 

19. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit The Aussie treasure returns with her first official full-length and slays with her carefully observed story-songs. She also plays a mean guitar and drives the band harder when it's called for. She's great live, too - catch her if you can. 

20. Ibeyi - Ibeyi These Parisian twins are descended from Cuban musical royalty. Based on this stunning debut, their deeper roots in Nigeria are also not too distant. Yoruba rhythms and themes collide with contemporary hip hop-based production and Ira Gershwin-influenced lyrics, all delivered as if it were no big deal by their heavenly voices

The new Apple Music has 19 of the 20 albums here - give a listen to a playlist of songs

Spotify has 18 of the 20 - listen below.

What's topping your list?