Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Record Roundup: Rock'n'Pop Adjacent

There are number of releases at least adjacent to rock and pop that have been energizing me throughout 2021. Get into these albums (and one playlist) and get all the feels, from raucous to reflective.   

The Muckers - Endeavor Thanks to kick-ass releases by Jane Church and Frankie and the Witch Fingers, I always keep an eye out to see what Greenway Records is putting out, which is how this caught my ear. Led by Emir Mohseni, their sleekly propulsive psych-rock generates excitement at any volume. Between Mohseni and rhythm guitarist Chris Cawley, there's a supple funkiness to much of the riffage, while the bass and drums of Anthony Azarmgin and John Zimmerman keep things moving in tireless and unfussy fashion. I can imagine The Muckers being a complete thrill in a club setting and will find out for myself when the time is right.

Acid Dad - Take It From The Dead I've been keeping a close eye on this band since at least 2016 when  I noted the "riff-tastic garage rock" on their Let's Plan A Robbery EP in my Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.. However, I did feel then, and on their 2019 debut album, that they could push their sound more. And they have! Since they're also affiliated with Greenway I'd like to think that some of Jane Church's expressive melodicism and FATWF's hypnotic power has rubbed off on them, but it's more likely just the sound of a good band getting better. Either way, this is their best album yet, with Vaughn Hunt and Sean Fahey's signature spiraling guitars and drummer and groove-oriented rhythms sounding more confident and involving than ever. This especially comes to fruition on knockout tracks BBQ, RC Driver and album-closing epic Djembe. That last one starts out quietly, with a questing bass line supporting a stately rhythm, and just keeps building in a controlled fashion, inexorably becoming your whole world. Keep'em coming, boys!

Bachelor - Doomin' Sun I loved Jay Som's last album, Anak Ko, but had a little trepidation when I saw her next release was a collaboration with an artist I was only slightly familiar with, Ellen Kempner, who records as Palehound. File the results under: Stop worrying so much. Doomin' Sun turns out to have many of the pleasures Jay Som (Melina Duterte) delivers on her own, namely well-developed melodies, songs constructed with old-school craft, and smart, relatable lyrics. So what does Palehound bring to the mix? Considering Jay Som's last two albums were made completely on her own, there is a jolt of energy and dynamics triggered by their devoted friendship, which seems to involve a lot of laughter. Palehound also brings more guitars, helping some songs build to washes of shoegazey deliciousness, and her higher voice blends beautifully with Duterte's more mezzo tones. The two make a remarkable production team, too - just listen to the sonic details on Anything At All. A side benefit of this terrific album is that digging into Palehound's back catalog made me realize I should have kept a closer eye on her. And whatever Jay Som wants to do next, or with whom, I'm on board. 

Lael Neale - Acquainted With Night Have Omnichord sales increased since this dusky jewel of an album came out in February? I wouldn't be surprised as the combination of Neale's crystalline voice with the plastic sparkle of her Omnichord is pure captivation. Her songs have the sturdy quality of folk music coupled with a haunted quality from the darker side of the girl group sound. There's a sense of privacy here, like a half-finished Nick Drake bedroom recording, that feels almost mythic. But Neale and her Omnichord are very real and no less precious for that.

UV-TV - Always Something I've been a fan since 2017 and it seemed to promise great things for the year in live music when I finally got to see them in February, 2020. Well, I was wrong about that but my ongoing fascination with the sonic vision of Rose Vastola (bass, vocal) and Ian Bernacette (guitar, vocals) has paid mighty dividends on their third album. Continuing the trend from 2019's Happy, the production has improved yet further adding sheen and heft to their taut post-punk and letting Vastola's voice soar over it all. As I secretly wished, she sings on all tracks, letting Bernacette concentrate on what he does best, namely playing guitar, drawing on familiar vocabulary (Johnny Marr, Bernard Sumner) but putting his own spin on it, whether using colorful arpeggios or layering crunchy chords. New drummer Ian Rose fits in perfectly, whether thrashing away or providing a motorik backbeat. If you have yet to tune into UV-TV, now is the time.

Palberta - Palberta5000 Unlike some of the bands included here, I'm a latecomer to the trio of Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg, and Nina Ryser, catching the caboose here on their fifth album. So I've missed their whole trajectory from exceedingly lo-fi, ramshackle avant-rock to where we are now: a heat-seeking missile of mathy minimalism with sugary vocals shining brightly over the churn und drang of the music. Some of this story may be informed by the development of Konigsberg as a songwriter, which you can trace on the excellent compilation The Best Of Lily Konigsberg Right Now, which also came out earlier this year. As that title suggests, humor is a part of the Palberta charm, very occasionally becoming self-indulgent. But most of the album is wondrously catchy art-pop. More impressive, many songs barely hit 90 seconds yet still feel absolutely complete, making my head spin at all they pack into those tiny vignettes. Fun, smart stuff - and I definitely won't miss the next one.

Ganser - Look At The Sun This Chicago band's second album, 2020's Just Look At That Sky, gained them much attention and accolades. I listened, too - a couple of times - and admired it while not being totally grabbed. This EP, which finds songs from the album being remixed by everyone from current indie sensation Bartees Strange to shoegaze maestro Andy Bell of Ride (in his electronic guise as GLOK). In the case of the former, Strange strips Emergency Equipment And Exits down to its essence, chopping off a guitar part or two and losing two minutes in the process. The result is a tidy machine of a song, highlighting Alicia Gaines' powerful voice, which takes on an unearthly tone over the chugging rhythm. And so it goes throughout, with each collaborator, including Sadie Dupuis, Algiers, and Girl Band, putting their own stamp on their track while somehow maintaining Ganser's personality. It will likely turn me back to the album and to a new appreciation of their sound and songs. 

Lucy Dacus - Home Video I've been more of an admirer from a distance than a fan of Dacus, a fine singer and songwriter who regularly lands on year-end lists and certainly doesn't need my help to get attention. But I can feel my own attention shifting with this, her third album. The songwriting seems more focused, her voice more expressive, the settings a little more pop oriented, and the production is warm and highly detailed when it needs to be but is never fussy. But those are just words I'm using to try to explain this: Home Video touches me in ways her previous albums didn't. Many of the songs revolve around her coming of age, coming to terms with her sexuality, being confronted with the pain the world can dish out, and learning that you can survive and grow through all of that. In short, most anyone can relate, even if their upbringing and circumstances were different. Home Video represents another coming of age for Dacus, this time as an artist who can tap into almost primal emotions ("I would kill him/If you let me/I would kill him/Quick and easy," she sings in Thumbs, wishing the demise of a friend's deadbeat dad) with a lethal elegance. I saw her open for Jonathan Wilson a few years ago, and she did not quite command the stage. Listening to Home Video, I can't imagine that ever happening again.

LABEL FOCUS: Eye Knee Records This is a new venture founded by expert singer-songwriters Holly Miranda, Amb. Parsley, and Chris Maxwell, self-described as "a homemade label, periodical, co-op and kitchen." Most importantly, it's a way for them to remain completely independent, without any outside influences affecting what they release or when and how they release it. They're also promising to tithe all proceeds from one in every ten releases "back to the community." Now, Holly Miranda is one of the most important artists in MY 21st century, so I'll follow her wherever - and I'm excited by the idea of her having total control over her art. I've also enjoyed Parsley's work over the years, especially in concert, and she is easily as skilled in the studio as Miranda, and Maxwell is a sharp songwriter and explosively talented guitar player. The three of them make a fantastic team, able to put together songs in nearly any style or sound, and the fruits of their labors have been impressive so far.

No albums yet, but the 11 songs Eye Knee has put out range from Let A Wolf, a dark-tinged slow-burner with smoky guitar from Maxwell and coy vocals from Parsley, to Exiled In Alicante, a hushed acoustic song that has Miranda singing with moving restraint, as if holding back a flood of emotion. Then there's Kindness Of Strangers, perhaps the finest song co-writers Maxwell and Parsley have been involved in, and one of the best of the last few years. It's a song that should be sung around campfires unto eternity, deeply human and perfectly constructed. The production by Miranda is equally perfect. She sings backing vocals and plays guitar, drums, and xylophone alongside her regular collaborators Maria Eisen on baritone sax and Josh Werner on bass. Then there's Miranda's devastating take on Bonnie Raitt's Nick Of Time, with nothing but her guitar and Parsley's backing vocals. No one but Holly can take a song that has essentially become background noise and find a way to rip your heart all over again. 

New Setlist No. 2

I got to hear her do that to Van Morrison's Sweet Thing in the open air, at a concert the three of them recently put on at Westwind Orchards in the Catskills, and it was just extraordinary. The whole show put their partnership on full display, with each supporting the others in their own songs. We got to hear  Nothingland, a new song from Maxwell, as well as his cover of Nick Lowe's When I Write The Book and a few from New Store No. 2, his marvelous 2020 album,. Parsley gave us Strangers, Wolf, and a number called Heavy Metal Stacy, which let Maxwell unleash his inner Eddie Van Halen, with the moves to match. And Miranda did some of the new songs but dug deep with classics from her catalog like Until Now, Desert Call, and Waves. There is nothing to replace the sensation of Holly Miranda standing right there, singing for all she's worth and letting it rip with one of humanity's golden voices. I'm on the edge of pretension trying to paint the picture for you, but hopefully that will compel you to get out there if she shows up and a club or an orchard near you.

All of the artists above could learn from this trio's passion, work ethic, and level of craft. I urge them - and you - to buy all the Eye Knee songs, now numbering 11, and put them in a playlist - it's as satisfying a listen as any of this year's best albums. Email me at AnEarful@icloud.com and I will gift you with what I think is the perfect sequence, which I have dubbed The Eye Knee Experience. Since neither Maxwell, Miranda, or Parsley is afraid of a bad pun, I leave you with this: I need more Eye Knee!

Eye Knee Trio Live: Amb. Parsley, Holly Miranda, and Chris Maxwell

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Songs And Singers
Record Roundup: Rock Formations
Holly Miranda's Exquisite Mutual Horse

Monday, July 05, 2021

The Best Of 2021 (So Far)


The year's halfway point is a good opportunity to take stock of the music that has been animating my year, some of which I haven't had a chance to write about yet. As always, what constitutes the "best" is simply what has demanded repeat listening because of the way it connects to my heart, soul, brain, and body, not necessarily due to a higher level of "excellence" than the other music I've written about. Here goes nothin'!

Previously covered albums are linked to their original review. Click play here or on the playlist below to listen while you read.

1. Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It

3. Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days

4. Elsa Hewitt - Lupa "Rivers and streams feeding my dreams," Hewitt sings in Car In The Sun, a line that captures everything I love about her music. Part of the reality of flowing water is that it's "never the same twice" - but, just as the Thames is always the Thames, Hewitt's music is always an invitation to a universe of wondrously hazy electronic ethereality, familiar from album to album, but never precisely the same. The fact that I'm quoting lyrics when talking about Lupa is one aspect of what makes it a new step for her: eight of the nine tracks have lyrics, when usually the opposite is true. Often any singing she does is wordless, another texture in the layers of gauze she assembles. While she's still swathing her voice in reverb, you can read along with the words either on Bandcamp or within the j-card of the limited-edition cassette. Just as her music maps out a luscious interiority, occasionally defined by beats, her lyrics have the immediacy of conversation and the intimacy of a journal entry, like these opening words from Howl: "What am I up to?/I'm just upstairs, trying to cope with/Heavy wordless love in my chest/How do I continue? How?" In addition to this extra content, the rhythms are often more intricate and defined than they have been, a drift towards the shiny lights of pop music, and one which feels entirely organic. Squirrelex opens with another lyric that feels like a mission statement: "i am warm but not too warm/i am on a journey that i adore/i am like a shaman on mtv/the cameras obstructed by fog." I adore her journey, too, in all its warmth, chill, and fog.

5. Tak Ensemble - Taylor Brook: Star Maker Fragments

6. Jane Weaver - Flock

7. Domenico Lancelotti - Raio

8. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

9. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

10. Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It

11. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg

12. Wavefield Ensemble - Concrete & Void

13. Faye Webster - I Know I'm Funny HaHa In my review of her third album, Atlanta Millionaire's Club, I noted that Webster could almost be Natalie Prass's little sister. Now, on her lush fourth album, she inched even closer, recording some of it at Spacebomb Studios and engaging Trey Pollard, their in-house polymath, to conduct some of the arrangements. By leaning further into to her country-soul inclinations she also seems ever closer to her genuine self. One of my favorite songs is Kind Of, which also seems to be a deep cut, at least if Spotify play counts are to be believed. With an organ and pedal steel dueling for the stars and a guiro's ratchet sound driving the rhythm, she ends the song by repeating the chorus, "And I feel kind of tucked away," for over a minute before relinquishing the song to the music. It's as if she casting a spell - and I'm entranced. Kind Of leads into to Cheers, which has a grungy strut yet manages to retain a delirious melancholy, the two songs forming the backbone of her most consistent album yet. And I haven't even mentioned the brilliant Better Distractions, which even managed to attract the attention of Barack Obama, or whoever creates his playlists, when it was released as a single in 2020. I do admit that my devotion to this album is not hurt at all by the fact that Prass hasn't released anything in three years. It's not that one replaces the other - and I hope Prass is OK - but they hit similar sweet spots. And it's one of my sweet spots that needs attention!

14. Mallu Magalhães - Esperança If you want to know what a smile sounds like, listen to Magalhães sing "Chin-chin-chin chin-chin chin-chin-chin" on the chorus of Barcelona from her fifth album. You will soon be smiling yourself, whatever mood you were in when you started listening. As she revealed on Facebook, the album was completed over a year ago, but she just could not see launching it in the midst of the world's troubles. That's a debatable point, but the good news is that we now have this lighter than air confection to propel us through whatever comes next. Recorded in Portugal and co-produced by her fellow Brazilian Mario Caldato, Jr., Esperança finds Magalhães perfecting her sublime blend of bossa nova, fifties-inflected pop, soul, funk, jazz, and folk. Look no further for a direct injection of pure pleasure.

15. Christopher Cerrone - The Arching Path

16. Raoul Vignal - Years In Marble As on his exquisite second album, 2018's Oak Leaf, Vignal's latest finds him generating rainswept bliss with his fingerpicked guitar, hushed voice, and the sensitive drums and percussion of Lucien Chatin. However, Vignal, who also plays bass, synth, sax and bamboo flute on the album, is also coming out of the shadows a bit, with more uptempo songs and an increased dynamism to his sound. To Bid The Dog Goodbye, for example, has flourishes (electric guitar! bongos!) and stopped-tempo moves that evince a subtle drama. But the core of it all is that guitar, which he plays with the off-hand perfection of a Michael Chapman or Nick Drake. After honing his craft for the last three years, Vignal should be top of mind for anyone seeking the finest in contemporary singers, songwriters, and guitarists.

17. Anika Pyle - Wild River

18. Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost With 2019's Igor, Tyler arrived at a new pinnacle of creativity and emotional connection, a trajectory he continues with this kaleidoscopic album. His ability to bare his soul while sailing over a multitude of genres, from synth-pop to RnB to lovers rock, with a casual virtuosity is truly remarkable. Similar to Frank Ocean, who makes an uncredited appearance here, Tyler is trying to reconcile where he is now - and who he is now - with where he came from. But he avoids solipsism by letting in the outside world through well-deployed guest spots, which do nothing to reduce the individuality of his achievement. One key feature is a voice memo from his mother describing her devotion in no uncertain terms: "I'd stand in front of a bullet, on God, over this one." Her concern somehow becomes ours and strengthens the bond between listener and artist. The centerpiece of the album is the nearly 10-minute Sweet/I Thought You Wanted To Dance, in which he transforms two well-traveled songs (this one and this one) into a two-part suite of love and loss that dazzles in all directions. As a producer, Tyler is like a painter who chooses just the right color from a polychrome palette. In addition to the transformed samples, he adds RnB singers Brent Faiyaz and Fana Hues are the perfect surrogate and foil, respectively, to illustrate the story. Tyler's ambition is as massive as his talent and, at this point, it's hard to imagine the former outstripping the latter. After Madlib, this is the hip hop album of the year - and number three is not even close!

19. Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves

20. Patricia Brennan - Maquishti

21. Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind

22. Adam Morford & Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Yesterday Is Two Days Ago

23. Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

24. Mndsgn - Rare Pleasure Sometimes an artist has to go backwards to move forward. Or something like that. Whatever the lesson, this third album from the composer, singer, and producer Ringgo Ancheta delivers on all the promise in his first, 2014's Yawn Zen in ways I couldn't even imagine, especially after Body Wash, the disappointing follow up from 2016. Richly immersive from the opening seconds, Mndsgn constructs something like the Muzak from a divine elevator, jazzy, woozy, and soulful sounds that seem to beg you to find a hammock immediately and just sway along. While wonderful, Yawn Zen, was just the bare bones of his heavenly vision. Inviting brilliant collaborators like arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to help realize those ideas is just one reason Rare Pleasure succeeds on all levels - and lives up to its title perfectly.

25. Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince

Keep up with all my listening across all genres in these playlists: 
Of Note In 2021
Of Note In 2021 (Classical)
Of Note In 2021 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2021 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2021 (Jazz, Latin & Global)
Of Note In 2021 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2021 (Out Of The Past)

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020 (So Far)
Best Of 2019 (So Far)
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.