Friday, June 22, 2018

Record Roundup: Rock 100’s

Even if they don't end up on the charts, ruled these days by hip hop and pop from the Swedish-industrial complex, there's still a lot of great albums drawing on the rock tradition. So many, in fact, that I’m going to resort to the Bill Kopp 100-word (or less!) review method to cover as many as possible right here, right now.

Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel The great Aussie hope continues her heat-seeking trajectory with even more assurance and dynamic range than earlier works. Barnett's influences are here to return the favor in the form of Kim and Kelly Deal from The Breeders, but they don't overshadow Barnett's core players: Bones Sloane, Dave Mudie and Dan Luscombe (bass, drums, keys etc., successively), who play as one. While the songs are still deeply personal, there's a sense of the world beyond her garden, making Barnett the rare artist using her success to expand her perspective rather than narrow it. Can't wait to see her in Prospect Park!

Father John Misty - God’s Favorite Customer There's always more to write about the Father, but cruel abundance has me including him here. Suffice it to say, this is the album Josh Tillman needed to make after the searing and sardonic essays in song of Pure Comedy. GFC is sparer in construction and the production has both more edge and more transparency than past works. While not as radically reductive as Plastic Ono Band, Lennon is definitely a touchstone. With producer Jonathan Wilson more of a sideman here, much credit to Jonathan Rado of bedroom pop classicists Foxygen for helping to realize FJM’s vision.

Jane Church - Calimocho Molotov! The project of Jackson Church, who used to be in psych-rockers SpiresJane Church delivers supremely catchy rock songs with tight arrangements, superbly swinging drumming and lyrical smarts. They gig in NYC all the time and are growing fast. Go see them and grab this concise debut on cassette so you can say you knew them when. 

Andy Jenkins - Sweet Bunch According to Matthew E.White, who produced this debut with his killer Spacebomb crew, Jenkins was such a good songwriter in high school that White stopped writing songs for ten years. I believe it: after a couple of listens, I was singing along with his soulful Americana like I’d known these songs forever. Jenkins deploys his warm if modest voice with wise restraint and the musical surroundings go beyond sympathetic to symbiotic. This is kind of album that ever so kindly slips its hooks into you with no intention of letting go - and you won’t want it to. 

Melody Fields - Melody Fields Shamanistic sax, serrated fuzz guitar and 12-string jangle define the sound of these Swedish psychonauts who seem to travel through space and time with equal ease. If that makes them seem like throwbacks, the lack of self-consciousness to their approach and sheer excellence of their songs makes them thoroughly contemporary. And in Rain Man they’ve written a song worthy of their heroes from the original exploratory epoch that inspired them. 

Roaming Herds Of Buffalo - The Bugbears This Seattle band has been at it for the better part of a decade and their latest finds them at a new level of expertise, weaving guitars and keyboards into harsh and hypnotic patterns. If the vocals seem slightly like an afterthought, you won’t care at all when the herd is at full-speed stampede. 

Snail Mail - Lush Lindsey Jordan has the gift of composing songs that breathe in and out and move with the dynamics of life. Her unmannered singing is refreshing even when it slices right to the emotional bone. Besides her guitar playing (she started when she was five), which can go from a strummy jangle to a rowdy squall, the drumming of Ray Brown is the other star here - whether tight or splashy, he always knows when to fill space or create it. Jordan is just 19 and listening to her grow up in public should be a fascinating and illuminating ride. 

Starcrawler - Starcrawler
A lot of so-called garage rock sounds like a put on to me - not these guys. Pure filth, sloppy, grinding, filth, but tuneful. I'm not surprised that they're from L.A., but I am surprised that Ryan Adams produced something with this much personality. With ten songs in 27 minutes, no idea overstays its welcome, even when you want it to, as on the blistering Love’s Gone Again. I don’t think too hard about this addictive stuff, but when my lizard brain tells me to hit “repeat” I do so. 

Wand - Perfume
Also from L.A., Wand seems perpetually on the edge of a breakthrough, both artistically and commercially. Perfume is their most ambitious album yet, and while not all their attempts at expanding their psych-rock sound are 100 percent successful (Pure Romance, for example, is a little dull), when they hit it, they hit it hard. The title track is a case in point, marrying an epic construction and breakneck tempo to guitars that aim for the moon and go soaring past. 

Wooden Shjips - V. After 2011’s titanic Vol. 2, these California psych-rockers took a turn towards slickness, with, like, songs and upfront vocals. What were they thinking? While V. still has less scuzz than Vol. 2, its loose, hypnotic jams and hazy singing represent a return to form. There’s also a new pastoralism to some of the songs and, as the guitar spirals melodically skyward, you could almost be listening to the early Allman Brothers. 

What's been rocking your world?

Friday, June 15, 2018

ACME Honors Jóhann Jóhannsson At LPR

The subterranean performance space at (Le) Poisson Rouge quickly grew silent when the six musicians of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble filed on the stage last Sunday night. They took their seats and began to play an overview of the music of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died earlier this year at the age of 48. The most recent work included was bc, a gorgeous elegy for cello and electronics co-composed with ACME’s cellist and Artistic Director, Clarice Jensen and recently released on her debut solo album. bc found Jóhannsson honing many of the ideas about repetition, texture and emotional impact that he had been working on since at least 2009 when ACME put on the first concert of his music in New York on this very same stage. 

Selections from that concert were also played, which could lead to the temptation to see this show as the completion of a circle. But, as Jensen pointed out in her brief remarks, Jóhannsson’s music will live on in the many films he scored, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival, and the Golden Globe-winning The Theory Of Everything. As one of the leading cinematic composers of our time, Jóhannsson’s influence will also continue to be felt in theaters for years to come. Jensen also expressed her wish that his music live on in the concert hall as well. “There’s a big hole on stage,” she remarked, “but there’s a lot left, too.”

Taken as a whole, the concert was as strong an argument for Jóhannsson’s ongoing presence in our musical lives as can be imagined. The performances were superb, exquisitely emotional but also precisely controlled, with all of the players deserving special mention: Ben Russell and Laura Lutzke, violins; Caleb Burhans, viola; Paul Wiancko, cello; and Grey McMurray, piano, guitar and electronics. Each musician became a stand-in for the many facets of our grief about Johansson’s death, their faces expressing emotions ranging from stoicism, deep sorrow and calm acceptance.

The program, which can be found in this playlist, was also well-sequenced, beginning with selections from Jóhannsson’s first album, 2002’s Englabörn, and then traversing his career outside of film. Corpus Camera, a work for string quartet, was played, along with an excerpt from Fordlandia and a piece from IBM 1401 A User’s Manual. bc was the penultimate work before the ensemble ended with Flight From The City from Jóhannsson’s last album, Orphée. For this, one of his signature pieces, Jensen joined McMurray on the piano bench and played the piano part while he handled the electronics. It was somehow deeply satisfying to watch her fill the space between iterations of that beautiful phrase with a movement, a gathering of breath, that might have seemed exaggerated if not for the heavy emotional freight of the moment. And it is a marvelous phrase, seeming to embody reflection, memory, sorrow and regret, while maintaining an optimistic forward motion. When the piece ended, it was our turn to take in a breath, leading to a brief pause before a rapturous standing ovation.

We applauded ACME for the care and love they had shown to Jóhannsson and his music throughout the night, and indeed over the last decade. We applauded the members of his family who were present, letting them know they were not alone in their loss. And we applauded Jóhannsson’s music and all he had accomplished in his too short life. “It was like witnessing a resurrection,” my friend said after we had gathered our thoughts for a few minutes, which was true as Jóhannsson had seemed so present for an hour. But while he may be at rest now, the music must continue to be a part of our lives. Besides ACME’s playlist, I also recommend this episode of David Garland’s Spinning On Air podcast where he revisits another LPR concert from 2010 and his interview with Jóhannsson from the same year.

There is also new music to discover, such as the soundtrack to The Mercy, which came out just days before his death. This music for the story of failed circumnavigator Donald Crowhurst finds Jóhannsson in top form and is filled with detailed electro-acoustic vignettes. Just listening tells a story, from the bright, busy Boating For Beginners, like sunlight dancing on water, to the uncertainty of The Doldrums, when things are going wrong. I also imagine it captures all the feelings and images of the film with perfect acuity. While Jóhannsson repurposed some tracks from his earlier score for Free The Mind, The Mercy represents a significant addition to his legacy. There’s also his score for Mary Magdalene, which I haven’t heard yet but can see it being a perfect fit with the hymnal elements in Jóhansson’s music.

Finally, there’s the reissue of that debut, now called Englabörne & Variations, which Jóhannsson was working on when he died. Besides the original album there’s a second disc of remixes and reimaginings by his collaborators, contemporaries and influences, including Hildur Guðnadóttir, A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Although it wasn’t conceived as a tribute album, it does the job handsomely and points out the rich tapestry of relationships and resonances Jóhannsson wove in his career. I hope there will be more projects like that, and performances such as we heard at LPR. As Jóhannsson told Garland in the interview linked above, “I think it’s probably something quite visceral which I’m after, something very down in the stomach, in the blood — with the emotions. That’s where the music comes from in a way, and that’s where great music hits me.” I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Jóhannsson’s music hits me there, too, so let’s keep it circulating.

Note: ACME will be performing Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass in Athens, Greece on June 18th. Keep an eye on their website for future performances.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 15: Classical & Composed
Best Of The Rest Of 12: Composed & Contemporary

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Paul Maroon Resurfaces

After The Walkmen went on “extreme hiatus” I realized that, next to Hamilton Leithausers’s otherworldly crooning, Paul Maroon’s incandescent guitar was my favorite part of the band. So it definitely softened the blow of their dissolution when Maroon’s playing was a defining feature of Black Hours, Leithauser’s first solo album from 2014. I thought these two men were like brothers and even without a band they would continue to work together forever, or at least close to it. 

This was reinforced when Dear God, a vinyl-only release credited to both to them, came out about a year later. It was typically brilliant, even when Maroon dedicated himself to keyboards instead of guitars on a few songs. They were all good songs and all was right in my little corner of indie world. 

But then Leithauser’s next album came out and it was a collaboration with Rostam Batmanglij, late of Vampire Weekend, and Maroon was out of the picture. I never liked Vampire Weekend but thought the two songs Rostam contributed to Black Hours were pretty good and so listened to I Had a Dream That You Were Mine with an open mind. It didn’t work for me. I wanted Maroon back. Where was Maroon? I googled Maroon and found only old posts about Dear God. I even asked Twitter where he was and was told to seek out this great album called Dear God. I replied that not only did I have the album, but it had been delivered to me personally by Leithauser. That was old news. 

Maroon then became one of my little projects, like that wonderful band Hospitality, someone I would Google now and again to see if they had resurfaced. The trail was cold and I began to worry about his health. As it happened, I should have been worrying about Stewart Lupton, his former colleague from Jonathan Fire*Eater, the band that preceded The Walkmen. When Lupton died last month - far too young at 43 - I decided to check into Maroon again. My dedication paid off! There were new hits! Maroon was back!

The first thing that came up was a new column he’s writing for the AV Club, Ask An Indie Rock Veteran, where he dispenses erudite answers to questions like Do indie-rockers ever get indie-stalkers? or Is recording with a metronome or click track a must? His 30-year career has given him in-depth knowledge about music, production, touring and every other aspect of being a professional musician and he is generous with his wisdom and a damned good writer. I was enjoying reading the column but it was when I got to the end that I got really excited, for there at the bottom of a request for more questions was this line: In the meantime, come listen to my scoring work at

I clicked and found an elegant website representing Maroon’s collaboration with Morgan Henderson, the multi-instrumentalist from Fleet Foxes, whose bass playing was also all over Black Hours. Apparently they struck up a friendship during a legendary (to me) tour that had The Walkmen co-headlining with Fleet Foxes. I saw one of the shows, on the Williamsburg Waterfront with the sunset at our back, and it’s all too easy to imagine collaborations and friendships arising out of the camaraderie we witnessed on stage. 

The website features some beautiful samples of their work, showing off their versatility for potential clients. I especially love the one called Field Recordings, which is a dramatic and highly distinctive vignette that seems to tell its own story even without any visuals. There’s also the happy news that Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, which was scored by Maroon, won the 2018 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. That should lead to more of those potential clients! 

Does this recent activity mean that I won’t jump for joy if Maroon and Leithauser work together again? Certainly not, but it does my heart good to see a great musician I admire finding fulfillment and showing the world a new aspect of his talent. Long may Maroon’s flag wave! Now, if I could just find out what Amber Papini and Nathan Michel of Hospitality are up to. I hope they’re OK...

You may also enjoy:
New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon
Best Of 14 (Part 2)
Make Time For Black Hours
A Chilly Welcome From Hospitality