Sunday, January 31, 2016

I got a pretty solid routine these days: 2015 New Release Rush (part 1 of 2)

I'm running low on time, so I broke one of my crucial tenets -- I have heard some of these albums less than four times, though no less than two under any circumstance, even after the point when I was surely going to tear off my hair if I heard Dan Bejar sing another stupid line. These reviews are also very unpolished and casual, but if you don't expect too much from me you might not be let down.

After I got this post ready I noticed that basically every review below is either an impatient pan or an ecstatic celebration. "Real" critics hopefully aren't this beholden to their moodiness.

Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free (Southeastern)
A former member of the Drive-By Truckers, this singer-songwriter delivers pretty much what you'd expect from that pedigree. Not being a fan of the band in question I can't say how pleased acolytes would be but to neutral ears the opening cut "If It Takes a Lifetime" suffers from less of the self-seriousness and generic production that plagues the rest, which is largely morose tear-in-beer shit, albeit with some lyrical whoppers like "I thought everyone like me was dead" and a stanza about how God is "a pipe bomb."

Tame Impala: Currents (Interscope) [hr]
Kevin Parker's most delightful album to date finds his absurd mixture of sensibilities reaching its zenith with the fusion of pot-stoked old-fashioned LP listening (there are even two songs on which the record seems to be skipping) and, uh, gay disco and early '80s synthpop. The homoerotic "Cause I'm a Man" rubs up with the catchy purity of "The Moment" and with bass-driven raunch & roll on "The Less I Know the Better". Yet it all hangs together and becomes impressively seductive thanks to Parker's far-out snotty-yet-wistful vocals, crooning out gems like "they say people don't change but that's bullshit / they do" and an entire mumbled psychedelic rant about running into an ex downtown. The center of it all is "Eventually," an act of pop bliss through sheer hypnosis; it makes me dizzy even sober. Since it begins with its craziest tune -- a loping, lumbering epic called "Let It Happen" drenched in synths that fumbles through drugged-out repetition in multiple parts, the world's laziest rock opera -- you learn quickly if this is for you, but if it isn't I gotta wonder what kinda fun you're having out there.

Ashley Monroe: The Blade (Warner Bros.)
Acceptable, mostly melancholy country, well sung with a few biting moments lyrically ("if the devil don't want me, where the hell do I go?" could've been the mantra of Leslie Van Houten or similar). Likely less forgettable for fans of the genre than it is for me.

Eleventh Dream Day: Works for Tomorrow (Thrill Jockey)
Chicago alterna-rock dinosaurs apparently have remained a working unit all these years, which I didn't know; they were only ever on my radar as the support act or headliner for bands I was interested in, and though I barely remember the songs that led me to form my faint opinion of them, nothing here makes me think I've missed much. I admire the integrity of bands who plug away at this very basic guitar-and-propulsion style for decades on end without (seemingly) much financial reward; I'm glad they're enjoying themselves, but not a thing about the lo-fi recording style, the listlessly delivered vocals and yelps or the generally lackluster songs appeals to me. I don't even have the energy to determine if the target is deeply sincere rockers or irony-addicted former slackers but if you fall into either category, Check It Out.

Titus Andronicus: The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge) [c]
Ain't nobody got time for this. Ninety-minute, 29-track collection of proggy punkish shouting resembles Fucked Up's David Comes to Life and is equally insufferable, with almost no variance between songs and an exhausting attempt at a "storyline," which nine times out of ten is bad bad news for an album. The second half is slightly more listenable than the first just because it has a few jarring -- if still fairly insipid -- moments of Celtic pop, blessed silence and general dicking around and isn't all one thing... but as a formerly huge fan of this band, I can't think of a more disheartening record I've heard lately. I could not wait to eject it from my life.

Gwenno: Y Dydd Olaf (Heavenly)
Inoffensive Welsh language solo debut for former Pipettes member is Björk-lite, pretty much. It isn't exactly good but it's passable.

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss (Sargent House)
Noisy, metallic goth wailing run through with some electronic teases here and there; this is music with a very specific audience that I am not in, but it's less awful than a lot of loud droning that comes across the desk.

Future: DS2 (Epic)
Accomplished but irritating, druggy, slightly apocalyptic third album from the increasingly celebrated Atlantan, one of the grittiest rappers to become a bona fide star in recent years. Musically, it's alarmingly spare and confrontational -- taking cues from the sound of latter-day trap but using that aggression to build a sound so paranoid and pained it becomes more disorienting than perhaps any other album of its stature. Future also deserves commendation for his use of Autotune not to bury the seams of his voice a la T-Pain but to emphasize his unworldly paranoia. This is a pretty great idea for an album, but it's an absolute failure in practice because of a combination of poor writing, repetition and the limitations of Future's eye-rollingly infantile persona. If you can look past lyrics about the codeine in his piss, his thumb in her butt, his contractor building him a pool and the day he spent at the laundromat, you still have to get past the unmitigated (and weirdly mismatched) sense of drunken, spaced-out dread pouring from every second of each song. One can easily hear the art and craft in this but it's not a pleasant zone to spend time in.

Royal Headache: High (What's Your Rupture?) [hr]
The sort of thing you didn't know you needed -- a 28-minute slab of tuneful punk rock from Sydney. It reminds me of a Terry Malts a bit, which is to say like a thrashier version of the Jam. In the best tradition of their countrymen the Saints, the band breaks it up brilliantly midway through with the impeccable, soulful Byrdsian ballad "Wouldn't You Know"; it gets under your skin right away. The Replacements-like love song "Carolina" is also a nice outlier. But the fast ones are solid too, all distorted pop with great hooks and sing-song choruses, favorites being "Another World" and the triumphantly big "Love Her If I Tried". Apparently the entire album tracks a broken love affair, a sort of wonderful irony for music this infectious and full of joy; what better way to heal, really?

Beach House: Depression Cherry (Sub Pop) [hr]
At times, Beach House can uncomfortably straddle a line between shoegaze and the humdrum mooniness of new age; by removing the amplified live drums and the more conventional pop songwriting of Bloom, this might seem in theory like a step backward. Indeed, I've listened to this dozens of times now and still can't remember which song is which, but what's more telling is that I've listened to it dozens of times and it hasn't yet become remotely tired. The songs might be incomplete in the abstract but they do boast towering melodies and an immersive sound behind their mild sensation of automation. As on Bloom, every sound in the duo's canon is magnified, enchantingly so. In the end even "Sparks," the return to Teen Deam-like discordance, soars rather than digging in its heals. No one who comes to Beach House for more-of-the-same can be dissatisfied with this, but the hints of evolution that reveal themselves with time are surprisingly reassuring, and a lot of them are tied not to the music itself but to Victoria Legrand's singing. Take, for instance, her badass, profoundly beautiful vocal on "10:37," her best ever. Take "PPP," which has her mumbling along in a "Revolution 9"-like trance before she blindsides with a full-throated tune to rival them all. Beyond just being a perfect zoning-out record, this achieves even more than Bloom an out-of-time, floating sensation that seems to freeze the world around it. It's like being stoned in a planetarium, and every song sounds like a grand finale... although it will take them some time to best the mixture of aching beauty and bottom-heavy rollicking on the brilliant "Bluebird," unseating "Norway" (or "New Year" on some nights) as their finest song to date.

The Foreign Exchange: Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey (s/r) [r]
This long-running duo's latest crazed electronica/hip hop slumber party only really works as a nostalgia trip, but what a trip! Genre-hopping cloud of delectable decadence brings us squarely back into the heat of a clubbing night in the hi-NRG days. It's corny, but it's unbelievably sexual and invigorating. It has nothing unique to offer. You won't care.

Advance Base: Nephew in the Wild (Orindal) [r]
Maybe it took a second album to make a guess at the difference between CFTPA and Advance Base, at least one less superficial than the kind of synthesizers and recording devices in use: Owen Ashworth does not seem very concerned with "evolving" any more. In most respects this is practically a twin of A Shut-In's Prayer; the tempo is consistent, the melancholy maybe a tiny bit draggier, the instrumentation and melodies sometimes minute variations on prior songs. That said, no one with a taste for Ashworth's marvelously peculiar sensibility will complain if you put this on at a party, although the other partygoers might give you a tough time. Above everything else he sounds comfortable, which is what allows him to unashamedly put out something called "My Love for You Is Like a Puppy Underfoot," with a vocal by Jody Weinmann that offers no concessions to those who think being adorable and twee is now an unforgivable hipster move. "The Only Other Girl from Back Home" is the strongest cut on offer here, with Ashworth demonstrating his literary penchant for occupying the shoes and hearts of others as eloquently as on Vs. Children. The rest is a little morose and familiar, but also -- in his usual fashion -- extremely lovable.

Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There (Matador) [hr]
The warmest band in rock music is telling two stories here. Thirty-one years after their formation, they provide a sequel to their 1990 acoustic album Fakebook, a jangly folk-rock moment in time that shed every trace of inside-baseball indiedom and provided a long exploration of its authors' personalities that was then unprecedented in its intimacy and grace. They've evolved a lot since then, but the Fakebook concept itself is so singularly appealing that it's somewhat incredible they've not returned to the well all these years. It's indeed true that for the hypothetical person who only ever fell hard for Fakebook and otherwise cares little for Yo La Tengo, this is another exception; the album returns to the quartet format of the old release (with long-gone Dave Schramm taking over lead guitar, James McNew replacing long-gone Al Geller on bass) and also closely matches its mixture of covers (the lion's share), acoustic renditions of old Yo La Tengo songs, and a few new originals. Crucially, however, the album also continues down the path laid out by 2013's Fade, especially on the new songs like "Rickety", as the once wildly unpredictable unit continues to attain a hushed, ethereal beauty that increasingly feels like their gorgeous response to a contented aging process. As such, it's a more melancholy and calm affair than Fakebook, but in the end hardly less of a pleasure, especially after you spend some time living inside Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley's lovelier-than-ever vocals (Hubley's in particular). Best new song: "Rickety," with the three full-timers echoing in perfect harmony, Kaplan crooning out in front. Best old song: though it's nice to hear the words to "Deeper into Movies" clearly (and nice to have confirmation that nothing could turn "All Your Secrets" into much more than a trifle), the heretofore neglected "The Ballad of Red Buckets," revealing textures as haunting and complex in its stripped-down variation as those on any of the band's old-fashioned raveups. Best famous cover: Hubley wringing new regrets out of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" just barely trumps the fragile, unforced feeling she lends to "Friday I'm in Love." Best obscure cover: Sun Ra and pre-funk George Clinton have their moments of glory but somehow the part that gets a lump in my throat every time is the version of "Butchie's Tune" by the Lovin' Spoonful. That's a band I love but I've never heard that song, and now that Hubley's revision and the band's shattering arrangement has taken up permanent residence in my heart I'm not sure I ever want to.

Destroyer: Poison Season (Merge) [c]
Dan Bejar's follow-up to Kaputt seems to prove my suspicion that I can only put up with him in the context of either that album or the New Pornographers. This is fussy and irritating, without any of the pop smarts and throwback imagination of the vintage dreamscapes of last time out. The preoccupations of a deeply pretentious soul like Bejar's only function outside the blessed privacy of his own home and cult-filled concerts when there is some sort of music for them to rub against.

The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily (Nonesuch)
This straightforward rawk is not surprisingly the work of Dan Auerbach, on vacation from the Black Keys, and notably less offensive than his work with that band (which isn't difficult). Like most side projects it's cluttered and suffers from an serious deficit of identity, but at a time when "roots rock" doesn't seem as automatically bad as it once did, this doesn't warrant too much sniping.

Empress Of: Me (XL) [c]
The most pretentious, overly formalist brand of NYC singer-songwriter meandering; it doesn't become more palatable because it has dance beats and is classified as "indie elctronica." Empress Of's recycled chillwave and "EDM" are one thing but the songs have the same wispy unfinished quality of FKA twigs', only less ambitiously weird. So would you rather be sideswiped by a pickup truck or hit head-on by a car?

Dungen: Allas Sak (Mexican Summer)
Started to mellow out on progressive rock a few years ago, not that it's something I enjoy in the classic sense, but I see how its basic principles aren't so different from some of the trickier art rockers I dearly love, such as Radiohead and Joanna Newsom (though Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear still test every ounce of my patience; it's in my genes probably). There's also the fact that a very different kind of stuffy, snobbish formalism more beholden to the stuff I did like growing up has taken over the indieverse in the last twenty years. That said, while this long-established long-on-hiatus Swedish band seems perfectly polite, they call to mind a lot of what I naturally dislike about prog as a genre, flutes and eternal wanky guitar solos and cerebral compositions, overly mannered vocals and shapeless flaunting of dull musical virtuosity. I don't hate it, I just can't listen to it without fidgeting and/or giggling.

The Underachievers: Evermore: The Art of Duality (Brainfeeder) [r]
Part of the base appeal of the Underachievers' weedy east coast revival thing is the obvious counterintuitive contradiction between their woozy psychedelic lyrics and the banging throwback music and delivery: PM Dawn and Leaders of the New School talked a lot of the same sort of mystical guff but hardly ever bounced like these two. Brilliant later artists like Talib Kweli and Mos Def infused their lyrical consciousness with welcome brashness and an eye on the floor, but Killer Mike is the only other rapper I can think of who's so successfully melded rock & roll aggression with KRS-One style preaching, engaging even when it's silly or wrongheaded. This effect is somewhat tempered on Evermore because the group has taken care to split the record into two halves. The first has all the weird stuff, the edutainment, the late-night philosophical smoking; you can get hung up on how flighty and repetitive it all is but they're still great MCs and there's plenty of variance between tracks. Then on the back half, the pair goes on a "Backseat Freestyle"-like rampage of dredging up every hedonistic trope in the rulebook, either for satirical purposes or just to get it out of their system. This is probably the more fun half to listen to but it's kind of a shame to hear them compartmentalize themselves, and not nearly as provocatively as Danny Brown did on Old. Still, it's all in the delivery; you won't find stuff like the uncommonly fierce lite-jazz-plus-Nas masterstroke "The Dualist" or the grinning "Generation Z" on an X-Clan album. Plus AK's a far better critic of hip hop status quo than I am: "My lyrics above gimmicks, my music like drugs / when I listen to yours, I don't even get a buzz."

John Grant: Gray Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union) [c]
Right Said Fred meets wispy indie bro shit and Queens of the Stone Age rawk nonsense. Not even Tracey Thorn can redeem this.

Neon Indian: VEGA INTL. Night School (Mom + Pop) [c]
Please please please please please just shut up. This kind of bonkers sensory-overload stuff is bad enough without the elements of various played-out and reappropriated dance music subgenres. A sound collage of good times filtered through the impossible misery of memories xeroxed so many hundreds of times they've faded to a sickly gray.

***

As of this moment I'm about two months behind where I should be on 2015 stuff. To head off a similar catastrophe next year, I'm going to be starting 2016 stuff simultaneously with wrapup on last year's reviews and supplemental stuff. The timeframe I'm expecting will be something like this:
- 2015 New Release Rush part 2: around Feb. 7th
- 2015 Also Recommended: around Feb. 10th
- 2015 Top 10 List & Honorable Mentions: around Feb. 17th
- 2015 List of Lists: around Feb. 25th
- February 2016 music diary: on track for March 1st.
However, if I ultimately run behind on something, it will be the year-end stuff from last year, not new music; it'll be Done When It Gets Done. That should fix the scheduling problem and get me back into a workable routine.

See you along the way!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Hanging on if only by a thread: Autumn 2015 music diary (part 2 of 2)

By now you know the drill and if you don't, you can look back at this post for full explanations. Welcome to the least reliably scheduled music blog on the web. This post was meant for October. It's here now. Two further album review collections will follow, then a best-of-2015 post, and then more timely reviews of old and new music will hopefully resume, new music in posts just like this, old music in a new format I will explain when the time comes. Merry late Christmas.

Shamir: Ratchet (XL) [r]
Giddy Las Vegas vet pumps out solid neo-house music with good beats and great, attitude-laden vocals despite a paucity of major hooks and some pedestrian writing. The throwback, itchy '90s-style production is a real coup in a time when drugginess of a very different, more lethargic kind is the order of the day on the dance floor, but Shamir's sensual yet ungendered singing is the big attraction, solely excluding the unduly stretching they attempt on the ballad "Darker," the only real dud here.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Multi-Love (Jagjaguwar)
Guitarist Ruban Nielson's project was a big bloghype circa 2010, at which point he generated a lot of buzz by sheer force of mystery, though the work's never seemed like more than polite lo-fi of a kind that often generates undue attention these days. I wasn't compelled to give more than a cursory listen to the group's first album and skipped the second altogether; to my therefore uninformed ears this obvious departure sounds like a midlife crisis album, a bit somber and ponderous with a few well-appropriated R&B textures and one too many heinously overlong acoustic guitar solos (by which I might mean just one, though it feels like a lot). It's totally inoffensive alternative-lite, and pleasant enough.

Thee Oh Sees: Mutilator Defeated at Last (Castle Face) [r]
Long-running, hard-driving California garage rockers, historically a blind spot for me, offer up some respectable riffing and are generally impressively eclectic, running through an exciting slate of heavy and soft, sometimes instrumental and often belted, rockers and rollers.

Jamie xx: In Colour (Young Turks) [r]
Nobody familiar with Jamie Smith's previous work with his band the xx and in his collaboration with Gil-Scott Heron would question the idea that he's a bit of a sadsack, having recorded some of the most beautifully morose dance music of the last half-decade. On his first solo album even the sole solid attempt at hedonism, the doo wop-derived Young Thug guest spot "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)", sounds mostly like an anthem for people doing their best to convince themselves they're OK. Parts of the festival of dancing and despair here are sublime; these are specifically, with one exception, the vocal cuts like "Loud Places" and "Stranger in a Room," not coincidentally the songs that feature the other two members of the xx on vocals. However, the four-minute bleep-out "Obvs" finds some sort of gorgeous middle ground between Oneohtrix Point Never and Beach House; the rest is fine, but this stands out because it doesn't seem rooted in Smith's musical past and completely fulfills the album's dream of a moody comfort zone in the weird context of disco.

Sun Kil Moon: Universal Themes (Caldo Verde) [c]
The poet laureate of oversharing returns with an even more ridiculous slate of glorified diary entries; there's a world of difference between this chronic asshole's exhaustively detailed chronicles of his sheltered life and the pain and passion a true artist like Tracey Thorn, Ezra Furman and Patti Smith can wring out of their private worlds. Musically his work remains not-exactly-terrible, but it's really hard to hear that over the din of his man-child puffery. The last song in particular, wherein Mark Kozelek once again flaunts his friendship with a musician (Ben Gibbard) he mistakenly thinks is a hip name to drop then tells us all about harassing Jane Fonda in a hotel lobby and quizzing strangers about their lives (presumably so he can use the information he gains as fodder for either song lyrics or one of his petulant onstage rants), is one of the greatest atrocities ever committed against the idea of recorded music. Actually, it makes me question the value of freedom of expression, civil liberties, etc. Total time: 70 minutes, 9 seconds.

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf (s/r)
"Social," eh? Extremely boho hip hop slash jazz slash R&B commune is plentifully musical and has lots of high-profile guests, but it comes down on the wrong side of uber-friendly "consciousness" like so much hipster rap. I can't be the only one whose bullshit detector goes off the charts when I hear a song informing me of being uncool is actually, like, really "cool," especially when these meaningless, vaguely anti-counterculture platitudes are being delivered straight into my face by the likes of Big Sean and Jeremih. (See also: Miguel's song wondering if he's "normal.")

Sharon Van Etten: I Don't Want to Let You Down (Jagjaguwar EP)
Somewhat easier to digest than Are We There, its full length counterpart, but still rather monotonous despite the singer-songwriter's obvious talents. The songs are angsty but measured and formal, expressing a lot of apprehension about the future of a relationship cracked at its core by a career-based conflict. Blah.

Muse: Drones (Warner Bros.) [c]
I used to think there was something sort of fun about the way this onetime Radiohead ripoff went in the exact opposite direction of fellow Radiohead ripoffs Coldplay and became a schlocky-as-hell outfit just this side of hair-band heavy metal. I was wrong, although props to them for staying abreast of the latest war-mongerer controversies.

Mates of State: You're Going to Make It (Barsuk EP) [NO]
In which the once-vibrant and engaging duo yells at the Youths for looking at their screens all the time and seems to genuinely believe this is a cutting insight. Not only is it a disingenuous and fake thing to be upset about, it's the height of Boomer-like Rawkist hypocrisy, coming as it does from a band who got a big paycheck for a Verizon commercial barely a year ago. As with everyone who grows up and becomes an unempathetic, cantankerous pig, you have to want to look into the eyes of these two and ask them what the fuck happened to make them such boring old grouches, but as a Tuned-In Millennial I reckon I'm 2 busy looking at the "apps" on my "phone" to think about it too much lol!

Lady Lamb: After (Mom + Pop) [hr]
Working as a video store clerk enabled Quentin Tarantino to blossom into the overly clever, emotionally stunted rich kid he fantasized about being in his youth. Taking the same job on the graveyard shift in coastal Maine -- some years after the lion's share of such outlets in the nation had long since shuttered -- apparently helped Aly Spaltro refine herself into a profoundly perspicacious observer of humanity, the sort of collector of details whose grasp on the strands of thought that comprise a person's life can utterly blindside you. She writes a lot about being on trains, and the weird moments shared with strangers; and she writes a lot about the moments of unstated, dead-air strangeness between people who are intimate. And oh, incidentally, she's a Rock God -- and in the best tradition of Rock Gods from John Lennon to Killer Mike, she''s both a personally-driven, self-examining writer and a lover of the well-turned pop hook who can use these gifts to the same end: cathartically self-doubting but never tortured, sunny but never superficial songs boasting wonderful lyrics, high emotion and major musical eclecticism. Armed with some of the best melodic guitar playing on an album this year and a voice that thrills at its highest and lowest registers, she is expressive in a timelessly no-nonsense manner, singular as she is in subtle ways. Her work and interplay with her solid backing band is precise, never slapdash, and without becoming stuffy, really quite ambitious -- especially in its composition, with songs like "Violet Clementine" and "Dear Arkansas Daughter" launching into boldly disparate sections that somehow come together a la "Paranoid Android" or Buffalo Springfield's "Broken Arrow". The most widely praised songs on this criminally overlooked record, "Milk Duds" and "Billions of Eyes," boast the best lyrics -- and allow Lady Lamb to stand apart from the other most moving lyricists-rockers of the year, Courtney Barnett and Ezra Furman, who'd never try to put across songs quite so perfectly worked-out and intricate -- but are in many ways less compelling than the guitar-driven, rock & roll workouts like "Heretic" and "Spat Out Spit"... but why make a distinction? There's not a lackluster moment to be found here, and so much on the offer you'll spend ages pleasurably discovering new nooks and crannies in it.

Everything Everything: Get to Heaven (RCA) [NO]
Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh. Unlistenable, maximalist British rock about "the state of the world" or something; how many Insightful Tunes do we really need about such cultural horrors as the news cycle and -- oh dear -- "social media"? Stuart Price's involvement in this is befuddling.

Richard Thompson: Still (Fantasy)
How dumb and desperate we get in our old age. Still an engaging guitarist and sometimes a good singer. A lyricist increasingly as shallow as his son. And the arrangements are abysmal folkie MOR; Jeff Tweedy's contributions as producer seem only to enable the blando echo chamber feeling in this trip down sulk lane. Cultists will probably find their hearts in it somewhere.

Kasey Musgraves: Pageant Material (Mercury Nashville)
Musgraves has a fine voice but the songs she cowrites are still awfully generic; the safety of slick Nashville production numbs everything anyway, but one assumes she's capable of something stronger than this many songs about manners, how nice everyone "in town" is, the IMPORTANCE of FAMILEE. She knows her audience, I guess, but that seems to just inflict complacency in this oft-hellish genre. Key I-can't-believe-a-human-being-wrote-this lyric: "Mind your own biscuits and everything will be gravy."

Meg Baird: Don't Weigh Down the Light (Drag City) [hr]
It's right out of the California textbook, really (just like labelmate Joanna Newsom): multi-instrumentalist and artiste of beautiful, stark, sometimes Celtic-ish folk, a sublime collision of the exotic and homegrown, was previously a psych-rocker, now uses a pop-based command of the aural stage to craft songs stirring but minimal. The music of Appalachia runs deeply in her blood quite literally, but you don't need to know that to be mesmerized by her voice and songwriting, immersive and atmospheric but inviting, even incisive at its strongest ("Past Houses" and "I Don't Mind", both ghostly; the relatively rollicking "Good Directions"). I'm aware that Drag City's distribution model isn't incredibly convenient, but take the time and cash to seek this one out if you're at all fond of this kind of music; as far as modern stuff goes, it's like the best moments in Sam Amidon's output sustained for full length.

Thundercat: The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam (Brainfeedr EP)
Lightly funky architect of smooth, backward-looking L.A. R&B is part of the same utopian universe of post-modern soul as Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces, but this quick bite of his talents is too bloodless to make a big impression, honestly sounding more like carbon-copy bands like Yeasayer than any new or exciting artist, though Thundercat apparently made crucial contributions to two of the most acclaimed records of 2015: Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and Kamasi Washington's The Epic while recording this disc. The music is fine, even promising, just not particularly memorable.

Vince Staples: Summertime '06 (Def Jam)
In interviews, Staples seems like a brilliant dude with a pretty coherent artistic philosophy. So why is none of this evidenced by his actual music? Just like on his EP last year, aside from the occasional undeniable peak, Staples seems like one of the most overly practiced and insincere MCs in the current wave of hip hop. The production choices (No ID is the prominent contributor) are even less moving, a weird aesthetic fixation on Enter the Void-like drugged out dread fused with ringtone-rap minimalism. Sometimes the sheer lethargy of it all is infectious in a way that you can sort of respect ("Lemme Know," the endearingly pathetic hook that leads off "Loca"); otherwise, nearly every song sounds like someone freestyling over one of those fucking haunted house toys you can buy at Dollar Tree. The album picks up near the end, with the last few tracks hinting at a concept of sorts: despair over the spiritually and economically barren world Staples' generation inherits. Maybe I'm just too far out of Staples' age bracket, or maybe I'm not on enough downers?

Miguel: Wildheart (RCA)
The unkind way of looking at this is to say that Miguel's become druggy and a little ridiculous, like a parody of the Weeknd; after the knee-jerk passes, though, it does all make sense. Big guitar songs and the throaty choruses of grunge and hair metal were already in his blood way back, so a guest spot from Lenny Kravitz isn't an out-of-this-world proposition. The rock moves can be silly at times, but not nearly as silly as the coked-up seductions "the valley" and "destinado a morir," which resemble the output an alien might produce if it heard a Prince LP. On the former in particular, Miguel sings the word "fuck" in a high-pitched, oddly convicted register as though it's his first time using or even hearing the word. Pleasures do come around; the Lionel Ritchie-like "waves" is nearly as blissful and fully-constructed a pop song as "Adorn," and "a beautiful exit" is a perfect entrance number. Missteps like "NWA" -- one of the most annoying songs in the history of recorded music thanks to its use of a drum machine sample that sounds like your roof leaking into a wok -- make it a hard slog even as it seems directed at sheer mindless pleasure; does that ever not backfire?

Bilal: In Another Life (eOne) [r]
Bilal's most assured record so far -- if he's no less ambitious than sixteen years ago, he's learned to hide it behind a relaxed Stevie Wonder-like charm. The songs remain derivative but they're a pleasure to listen to, and Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. each figure in strong, buried guest spots. This never approaches the best moments of Miguel's album above, but I also never get the urge to turn it off, which is a major advantage.

Ezra Furman: Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union) [hr]
Twenty percent Mick Jagger, all grinning command and pure attitude with the periodic evidence of untold emotional damage; twenty percent Gram Parsons and Janis Joplin in all their abused bottle-swinging sorrow; sixty percent pure unadulterated rock & roll -- big body-shaking chords 'n' drums, doo wop backing vocals, sax solos right out of a Bill Haley & His Comets single, all cleverly interpolated into a cycle of well-turned phrases that chronicle making breakfast naked, sitting and waiting, and teaching friends and lovers how to feel really really really bad. That makes this sound like a festival of practiced and even smarmy playfulness and dread, and to some extent that applies; "Wobbly" and "Hark! To the Music" are funny, catchy tunes that make amusing hay out of the horrors of a life of isolated excess... or just isolation... or just excess. As Furman himself puts it at one point, "I've got a bright future in music as long as I never find true happiness." And yet, when it comes right down to the bitterest moments, the dark nights of the soul from which the best rock & roll ballads were always born and for which they were built, Furman's jokes and slogs have a genuine feeling of torture and loss, and why shouldn't they? The empathy of the spill-your-feelings partnership on "Hour of Deepest Need" expands to the audience to such a degree that you finally feel as if it's us to whom he's singing. The miseries of "Haunted Head" and "Ordinary Life" are devastating to anyone who's ever been in or around depression and mental illness, and the petty casualness with which he tosses them off is part of the design. Anthems come and go, about a restless year, not wanting to be a bad guy, and a body that was made in this particular way so fucking relax, but where he trips and chokes you up is when he issues an emotional tour de force, a plea for understanding and compassion like the Paul Westerberg-worthy "the human mind gets way fucking sick of beauty / and I know, and it's happened to me again and again." One point this can drive home is how wit doesn't have to solely equate to irony: only a real bona fide singer of the most classic brand could peak his best, starkest song with "Sometimes the wound hurts powerful indeed / But sometimes you just got to let that sucker bleed" behind a huge climactic moment of banged-out piano and have it come off not as an appropriated blast-from-the-past melodrama but a fully justified indulgence. Invariably Furman's articulate missives come to us with harrowing detail, good humor and a directness that will knock you on your ass. Invariably he sings them beautifully. Invariably the songs are as engaging and lively as the words. Invariably this is brilliant, soulful music as pure as it comes in this year or any.

Wilco: Star Wars (Anti-) [r]
This self-released, quick bit of raunch panders to consumers like nothing else in the Wilco catalog by sheer virtue of its Google-fucking title and the cat picture that adorns it, but the music itself is also clear fan service to those left in the cold by Wilco's last two or three albums, which legend has it are lackluster blando Dad rock, whereas this is serious unfussed-with straight-ahead guitar punk rock etc. As someone who loved all two or three of those lackluster blando Dad rock albums and admired the band's refusal to second-guess its instincts, I find this a regression; "raw" Wilco seems pedestrial now. There are some good riffs that drone out to oblivion and a few good slow ones, but I prefer the version of the band that doesn't think it's charming to pretend not to give a fuck.

Leon Bridges: Coming Home (Columbia) [hr]
Bridges is younger than I am by six years but the songs he writes and records are American mythology as timeless as something from Woody Guthrie or Skip James, only his language of choice is that of pre-Motown soul of Sam Cooke's era and ethos. Of course Bridges is hardly alone in his ambition to duplicate the extraordinary sound of black radio in the late '50s and early '60s; from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings to Charles Bradley, the urge to connect on nostalgia for some of the finest recorded music in our nation's history is an understandable compulsion that drives a number of careers, specialized and worldwide. What makes Bridges different is not how painstakingly his producer Niles City Sound commits to not only the musical stylistics but the tape hiss and fidelity of the years in question, the audio equivalent of Super 8's lens flare, but that the songs completely deliver; over half of them sound not like forgeries but like lost classics. And the forgeries are pretty good too; it's actually to Bridges' credit that his voice -- heavenly at its best -- is stretched past its limits on a few cuts. It suggests that this is a born experimenter who's simply driven by an out-of-time affinity for something ageless. Past the already beloved title cut, try "Brown Skin Girl" if you want to rock, "Pull Away" and "Lisa Sawyer" if you want to roll, the disarmingly spirited closing "River" if you want to be shattered. The best pure throwback record of any genre in years.

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Kwabs: Love + War
* Darkstar: Foam Island
* Alex G: Beach Music
* Erykah Badu: But You Can't Use My Phone
- Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete
- Idjut Boys: Versions
- Jay Rock: 90059
- Low: Ones and Sixes
- Telekinesis: Ad Infinitum
- Mac Miller: GO:OD AM
- Battles: La Di Da Di
- Leona Lewis: I Am
- Ryan Adams: 1989
- Disclosure: Caracal
- New Order: Music Complete
- Shopping: Why Choose
- Janet Jackson: Unbreakable
- Apollo Brown: Grandeur
- The Spook School: Try to Be Hopeful
- Corb Lund: Things That Can't Be Undone
- Israel Nash: Silver Season
- Glenn Mercer: Incidental Hum
- Dilly Dally: Sore
- Mogwai: Central Belters
- Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Style
- Guy Garvey: Courting the Squall
- Martin Courtney: Many Moons
- EL VY: Return to the Moon
- Ty Dolla $ign: Free TC
- Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder: Indie 500
- Le1f: Riot Boi
- Logic: The Incredible True Story


***

REJECTS:
Field Music: Music for Drifters
[NYIM]
Robert Forster: Songs to Play
[NYIM]
LA Priest: Inji
Matrixxman: Homesick
EZTV: Calling Out
[NYIM]
Julio Bashmore: Knockin' Boots
Stacy Barthe: BEcoming
Omar Souleyman: Bahdeni Nami
[NYIM]
Lianne La Havas: Blood
Golden Rules: Golden Ticket
Public Enemy: Man Plans, God Laughs
Gunplay: Living Legend
yuk: a n a k
Night Beds: Ivywild
The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness
Max Richter: (From) Sleep
[NYIM]
Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon
Dave Alvin: Lost Time
Richard Hawley: Hollow Meadows
[NYIM]
Craig Finn: Faith in the Future
Gary Clark, Jr.: The Story of Sunny Boy Slim
Micachu & the Shapes: Good Sad Happy Bad
Lucero: All a Man Should Do
Glen Hansard: Didn't He Ramble
David Gilmour: Rattle That Lock
Nicolas Godin: Contrepoint
[NYIM]
Baio: The Names
Keith Richards: Crosseyed Heart
Mercury Rev: The Light in You
Julia Holter: Have You in My Wilderness
Guilty Simpson: Detroit's Son
[NYIM]
The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die: Harmlessness
Graveyard: Innocence & Decadence
Stick in the Wheel: From Here
[NYIM]
No Devotion: Permanence
Patty Griffin: Servant of Love
The Dead Weather: Dodge and Burn
Sexwitch
U.S. Girls: Half Free
Girl Band: Holding Hands with Jamie
Peaches: Rub
Chvrches: Every Open Eye
the Icarus Line: All Things Under Heaven
[NYIM]
Frankie Lee: American Dreamer
[NYIM]
Kylesa: Exhausting Fire
[NYIM]
Hey Colossus: Radio Static High
Autre Ne Veut: Age of Transparency
Eagles of Death Metal: Zipper Down
Mercury Rev: The Light in You
Wavves: V
Visionist: Safe
[NYIM]
City and Colour: If I Should Go Before You
Protomartyr: The Agent Intellect
State Champs: Around the World & Back
Demi Lovato: Confident
[NYIM]
Evil Blizzard: Everybody Come to Church
Luke Haines: British Nuclear Bunkers
[NYIM]
Dan Friel: Life
[NYIM]
!!!: As If
Son Little
Vanessa Carlton: Liberman
Killing Joke: Pylon
Fuzz: II
The Yawpers: American Man
British Sea Power: Sea of Brass
Wolf Eyes: I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces
Rabit: Communion
[NYIM]
The Chills: Silver Bullets
[NYIM]
Columbia Nights: In All Things
Young Thug: Slime Season 2
Natalie Merchant: Paradise Is There
[NYIM]
Trust Fund: Seems Unfair
[NYIM]
Anna van Hausswolff: The Miraculous
Lanterns on the Lake: Beings
[NYIM]
Wreckless Eric: AmERICa
[NYIM]
Teeth of the Sea: Highly Deadly Black Tarantula
Jeff Lynne's ELO: Alone in the Universe
Alessia Cara: Know-It-All
Boots: Aquaria
Kirk Franklin: Losing My Religion
[NYIM]
Jeezy: Church in These Streets
Enya: Dark Sky Island
[NYIM]
Ringo Deathstarr: Pure Mood
Freddie Gibbs: Shadow of a Doubt
Adele: 25
[NYIM]
Lubomyr Melnyk: Rivers and Streams
[NYIM]
SOPHIE: Product
Jadakiss: Top Five Dead or Alive


***

SONGS OF THE SEASON
I've been listening to what you've all been listening to. It's devastating, really, isn't it? It would be a loss anyway, but he was making some of the best music of his career recently. What's reflected below is pure emotion; as latecoming fan -- only got into most of his albums about seven years ago -- I retain some very emotional attachments to the first custom-made career survey mix CD that my friend Steph gave to me. For more on Bowie, I give her the floor and invite you to read her remembrance of him.

Lianne La Havas "Green & Gold" [Blood]
Gunplay ft. PJK "Just Won't Do" [Living Legend]
/
David Bowie "Five Years" [The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars]
David Bowie "Sweet Thing" [Diamond Dogs]
David Bowie "Look Back in Anger" [Lodger]
David Bowie "Andy Warhol" [Hunky Dory]
David Bowie "Moss Garden" ["Heroes"]
David Bowie "Modern Love" [Let's Dance]
Ezra Furman "Hour of Deepest Need" [Perpetual Motion People]
The Chemical Brothers ft. Beck "Wide Open" [Born in the Echoes]
Leon Bridges "Pull Away" [Coming Home]
D'Angelo "Another Life" [Black Messiah]
Lady Lamb "Violet Clementine" [After]
Courtney Barnett "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party" [Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit]
Miguel "waves" [Wildheart]
Carly Rae Jepsen "Emotion" [E-MO-TION]
Jamie xx "Obvs" [In Colour]
Vince Staples "Like It Is" [Summertime '06]
Meg Baird "Past Houses" [Don't Weigh Down the Light]

*****