Legacy Looks

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Record Roundup: Rock Formations


Rock isn’t dead. It’s all around us, shattered into a million pieces, genres and sub-genres too numerous to list. To give a sense of the kaleidoscopic reality, here are quick takes on seven albums representing some of those different shards.

Jay Som - Anak Ko Melina Duterte, who performs and records as Jay Som, made quite a splash in 2017 with Everybody Works, an exceedingly tuneful pop-rock album which had a slick and shiny surface belying its creation in her home studio. Did I mention she played all the instruments, including guitar, keyboards, bass, drums, accordion, and trumpet? A rare talent, indeed, and she has only doubled down on the pleasure principle on Anak Ko, whether on the Can-inflected twists and turns of If You Want It or the breezy strumming of Superbike. The way the latter song ends in a heavily processed guitar solo is one indication that she doesn’t want to limit herself to the dreamier side of things. Melody, emotion, creativity, it’s all here, and if you’re still holding on to summer, put Anak Ko on repeat. 

Mattiel - Satis Factory I may be late to the table - this is Mattiel Brown’s second album - but, man, am I enjoying this kicky feast. With a surprising deep, declamatory voice that’s nearly a bellow, Mattiel sounds like she’s singing down from on high, from the pulpit in the church of rock & roll. Messianic, that’s the word, as she calls you back to the verities of The Doors, Bessie Smith, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and The Crystals. But with sure, sharp, deeply informed backing from her collaborators Jonah Swilley (guitar), Travis Murphy (bass), and Jordan Manley (drums), this is a collection made for these unsatisfactory times. “Did you expect a guarantee/Working in that satis factory?” Mattiel sings in Millionaire - well, no...but I guarantee you’ll be more than satisfied with this killer collection. 

Tool - Fear Inoculum It’s always interesting when a singular band takes a long hiatus. The question becomes whether all the musical water under the bridge since their last appearance will have any effect on their sound. Steely Dan comes to mind - think about all that happened between 1980’s Gaucho and Two Against Nature in 2000: the rise of hip hop, new worlds of electronic music, both dance-oriented and not, new wave, hair metal, grunge - would any of these movements change Becker and Fagen’s sound? Should they? The answer was a firm “negatory,” and rightly so: no one else gave us what they did so their doubling down on crisp production, swaggering horns and bent lyrics was a welcome relief. So it is with Tool, Fear Inoculum coming out of the gate as the Ur-expression of all that made them great. Longer songs, more repetition, increased creativity by the already mega-inventive percussionist, Danny Carey, more varied singing by Maynard James Keenan. The question is not whether they’re living up to their earlier albums but have they made them obsolete? After all, this is a band whose sound quickly matured from whiny alt-metal to something which nearly redefined song structure and the relationships of the instruments in a rock band, so they don’t really owe us more in the form of grand innovations. But Chocolate Chip Trip into 7empest - with some of Adam Jones’ most stinging guitar - may rank with their greatest one-two punches ever - and how many bands can say that over two decades into their career? One that comes to mind is Killing Joke, now 40 years in - and kudos to Tool for bringing the industrial post-punk legends on tour. Long may both of them reign.

Amyl and the Sniffers - Amyl and the Sniffers Another entry in the ongoing inquiry into what exactly is in the water in Australia, as amped up Amy Taylor and her gang of beautiful losers blast out riffs galore, chugging beats like a runaway train, shouty background vocals, and all the glam-punk tropes that should not take flight as they do here. Sometimes it seems only the force of will gets them airborne, like an oil-drenched seagull, but damned if it doesn't work every time. They've also gone about things the right way - grinding it out on their own for a couple of EP's, starting with 2016's Giddy Up, then hooking up with Ross Orton, who gave a new heft to the Arctic Monkeys on 2013's AM. Orton organized and polished their sound - but only just. There's still plenty of chaos to go around within the confines of their blistering yet catchy songs. This is one band I cannot wait to see in concert.

Bon Iver - i,i There is a distance between the recent performances I’ve seen by Justin Vernon (first at Mass MoCA with TU Dance and then at the 37d03d Festival at Pioneer Works) and his work on this album that took a little getting used to. While not as wide as that of Joy Division’s live work and their records, there is an elemental fire that seems slightly banked here. Then there’s also the fact that Hey, Ma, the first single from i,i, has a melody that feels so well-worn that I was concerned it was a remake of an earlier song. 

But it’s only because Vernon has delivered so much emotional richness and sonic innovation over the years that my expectations run so high in the first place. And there’s plenty of both of them here, on what is the most collectively created album in the Bon Iver discography, and one with far more organic textures than 22, A Million, the last album. The stellar contributions of regular band members like percussionist Sean Carey, saxophonist Mike Lewis, guitarist Andrew Fitzpatrick, and new guitarist Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak) serve to amplify even the sparely orchestrated moments, giving a sense of muscular weight to even the smallest sounds. This includes Vernon’s voice, an instrument of seemingly unending nuance and perfectly calibrated doses of raw power. It’s him I think of as I welcome these new wonders into my life.

Ex Hex - It’s Real When this band of indie-rock vets, including Mary Timoney (of Helium, Wild Flag, etc.), guitars and vocals, Betsy Wright, bass and vocals, and Laura Harris, drums, put out their first album a few years ago, I enjoyed the stripped down, straightforward rock-for-rock's-sake approach, but only in small doses. This time around, however, they’ve hit the sweet spot over and over - and with dead eyed accuracy. Whether it’s the increased amount of air between the power chords, a little more swing in the rhythm section, or the heightened flamboyance of Timoney’s lead lines, spraying sound around like your hair in a Corvette T-Top going 90, it just sounds like they are having more actual fun, instead of just thinking about it. And you will, too!

Ocean Music - Fan Fiction For Planet Earth This stellar collection showcases the slightly more extroverted side of Richard Aufrichtig, whose Troubadour No. 1, with its quiet majesty and intricate arrangements is my #1 album of 2019 so far. Don’t be fooled by prosaic titles like The Parking Lot Song and The Basement Song - when Aufrichtig and Kevin Schwartzbach's guitars start to soar in the latter you will be lifted. Some of these songs have been around for a while in various evolutions, but here tracks like When I Went To California are at their rhapsodic best. Aufrichtig is always going to make deeply felt, emotionally immersive music and this is his most direct shot to the gut yet. Why wouldn’t you try it?

Tracks from all these albums and many more can be found in this playlist or below. Click the little heart to keep up with what is yet to come - and let me know what I may have missed. 



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