Bonnie Raitt: Dig in Deep (Redwing Music)
Raitt deserves recognition for her continued presence as one of the most reliably unchanged voices in American popular music; her latest album is typically low on surprises and risky strokes but you're guaranteed a good time if you're already fond of her, and she easily sounds as passionate and professional now as she ever did, as though surrounded by a force field that melts all outside interference. I quite enjoy her cover of INXS's "Need You Tonight", and the guitar playing is of course consistently exquisite.
Emma Pollock: In Search of Harperfield (Chemikal Underground)
Scottish singer-songwriter Pollock has been in several indie rock bands of mostly nondescript variety, but like anyone who's dabbled to such an extent she's garnered a cult. Her voice resembles Leslie Feist's at its best, but it more often strikes me as pedestrian and disaffected; this is likely amplified by the mostly listless songs. (The performances are polished, if not terribly engaging, throughout the record.) It's hard to imagine drawing inspiration from this, but undoubtedly there's a Nashville assembly line quality to it that takes talent. The only time I perk up is on the slightly beat-driven "Parks and Recreation"; some interestingly ghostly production aside, there's just not much else here that speaks to me.
Esperanza Spalding: Emily's D+Evolution (EMI) [r]
Credible -- if demanding -- R&B / jazz fusion record sounds like Joni Mitchell fronting a '70s art-rock outfit, which fits given Tony Visconti's involvement; Spalding's voice is strong enough to wrap around the verbose lyrics most of the time, though the highlight may be the cover of Veruca Salt's show-stopping "I Want It Now" number from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
The Coral: Distance Inbetween (Ignition) [c]
Fully dreadful Brit-indie veterans return with insufferable lite-metal sludge for comic book dorks. I can't with this.
Poliça: United Crushers (Mom + Pop) [r]
Extremely enjoyable survey of the political landscape from terrified young marrieds -- from "it's all shit" to "I cannot fuck you enough," it all seems pretty fair and accurate to this newlywed who loves his comfortable life and is in a state of paralyzed fear for the world -- musically sounds like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs out in front of Chromatics or the xx, yet it also feels like something you could go to the mall and buy at Tape World. It's a tad too long and repetitive, but also immersive and ideal for a pulsating late night of dancing-despite-everything.
M. Ward: More Rain (Merge) [c]
Begins well enough but descends into a peculiar incompetence even less impressive than the wholly frivolous Wasteland Companion. The guy should already know better than to cover a great Beach Boys song he's incapable of singing well. The originals are atmospheric noodling, and it only takes a few minutes for it to wear you down. Once a master of ethereal playfulness, Ward desperately needs a change of pace; he's begun to sound like an insular mess.
The Wave Pictures: A Season in Hull (s/r) [hr]
In some contexts, an album whose name is a pun on a Rimbaud prose poem might be a red flag, but this particular band knocked us out last year with the warm, punkish, rowdy, funny Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon and another collection of their thoughtful and exuberant songs would be welcome regardless of cultural context or particular quirk. As it turns out, this is quite an oddity -- recorded acoustically with a single microphone and no overdubs, then issued strictly on limited edition vinyl. That means no downloads, no streaming except a couple of samples on Soundcloud, nada. We normally don't advocate jumping through hoops to hear something, but there's a very good reason to make an exception this time: the record is brilliant -- passionate, quiet, intricate folk rock that sparkles in its lack of adornment and just sounds cozy and correct in every way, like something you'll instinctively reach for to put on the turntable for a long time to come. Thirteen songs with titles like "Thin Lizzy Live and Dangerous" and "David in a Field of Pumpkins" mark this as playful, and it is, but the operative feeling is intimacy. The words are devotedly beautiful and literate, but as seems to be the norm for this band, the attraction is as much in the precise, indelibly mysterious playing and singing as in leader David Tattersall's affable wit. It's a bit like being in a room with a friendly, unwinding version of Television with nothing to prove. It's spooky sometimes, it's full-on country at others. But it hangs together, as haunting as the moonlight when it wants ("Remains"; "The Coaster in Santa Cruz"), or circular and obtuse ("Slick Black River from the Rain"), or delicately melodic ("Don't Worry My Friend, Don't Worry at All"), or just as engagingly lively and silly as waking up in a pumpkin patch. This feels almost eerily timeless, but still original and distinctive; I want to share it with everyone I know. This includes you. Not to be a total consumerist, but buy this while you can.
Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered. (Interscope) [hr]
Someday in psych class there will be a personality test making some outlandish conclusion about you based on whether you prefer the conceptually rich and heavy To Pimp a Butterfly or this abruptly released set of eight stragglers from the same sessions, including such odds and ends as a track that was written for an appearance on The Colbert Report and a tacked-on session of acoustic noodling. Mere organization and commitment to well-honed craft is almost beside the point, though, if the sound of the professional yet unpolished moves you or, better yet, if you appreciate each of these songs as a complete idea and production unto itself rather than an inextricable part of a weighty whole, which was what made Pimp an endurance test for me. No slur on Lamar's other work but so long as you ditch the last few minutes of "untitled 07", these songs each take their grooves home, around in circles and back again. The pure seriousness of spirit that makes Lamar such a treasure and oddity isn't absent; these are anything but the puerile scraps of something like Amnesiac or even the naked runs-for-cover of a Tattoo You. From the mumbled Gil Scott-Heron come-on that raises the curtain to the last throes of the most apt song about economic disenfranchisement to surface in this awful year, this is still a journey -- it's just a modest one, which will make it more powerful than anything else he's done for some people, myself included. The live jazz nods of Butterfly are foregrounded here often (as on the bare, fragmented "untitled 03", which feels like stems of a D'Angelo song eerily spread out and mutated), and each cut seems more intricate and complex than the last. And oh, there are hooks, meatier and fiercer than ever; you can't carp with the commercial accessibility of the soft, warm "06" -- best use of Cee-Lo in years -- or the gorgeously demanding "08" when Lamar neither expects them to land or filters out the creeping fear and doubt that seems to be overtaking him as his fame accumulates. His fixations remain pronounced and righteous: a white culture chewing up individualistic art and spitting it out, the eternal guilt for his own accomplishments / broken promises ("I just got a raise, I spent it all on me" is as close to sincere boasting as he gets), the carefully listed inadequacies of drugs, love and money to redeem a tormented life. All this is sharper than ever because Lamar's voice is unprocessed, front-and-center, totally uninhibited, shouting out his best verses ever outside of the Flying Lotus cut "Never Catch Me". Damn the guy for not naming these songs; as already demonstrated by that Mountain Goats album with all the cuts named for Bible verses, I'll never in a gazillion years remember which one is which. But I'll also never forget this: "Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God / Now I'm thinkin' to myself, hollow tips is all I got / Now I'm drinkin' by myself, at the intersection, parked." Stripping Lamar's music of concept only serves to demonstrate that whole of his persona and actual self is the concept, a provocative destiny for someone with so many important things to say.
Anna Meredith: Varmints (Moshi Moshi)
Cerebral, prickly electronica from this British composer has received semi-questionable accolades from quarters that know more about this genre than I seem to, but it all washes over me as purely generic.
Lizzo: Big GRRL Small World (s/r) [hr]
The second solo record by this extraordinary rapper from Minneapolis is all sorts of magic -- a three-pronged, fresh, funny, sick, head-spinning attack on body image tyranny, white entitlement, bad politics and bad sex that ebbs and flows majestically even as it dismantles the room and puts it back together. Lizzo's filth and fury come fast and hard, conscious but fun as hell, and even though this slamming party doesn't ever top its brilliant, biting opener "Ain't I," pretty much everything here is windows-down glorious. The production is mostly divided evenly between BJ Burton and Boink Taylor, both of whom play to Lizzo's effervescent voice and give her lots of room while backing her with an appealingly paced mixture of hypnotic subterranean beds of sound and hard rap hard trap made for the mall rap, usually a fair bit of both on each cut. Even the slightly overwrought slow ones that don't bend toward such unpredictability are forgivable because Lizzo herself is so damned engaging as a rapper, a singer, a cult of personality, a motivational speaker. If you don't think the empowering anthem "BGSW" advising big girls they can take over the world is important -- and fuck you, it is -- there's plenty of acid ruthlessness too: "There should be a support group for men without Lizzo / meet once a week and deal with all your issues / then Google me and jack off in a tissue." What a talent, deservedly in love with herself -- and since she released this, Atlantic has snapped her up, so expect more soon.
Rihanna: ANTI (Universal) [hr]
This superstar's been releasing great singles for over a decade now, but her latest album is so consistent it could easily match any greatest-hits set you might conjure. There's no doubt she's courting crossover, with a Tame Impala cover (which is left-field and sublime, making you wish she could sing along to all of Currents), plenty of enjoyably profane asides and even a jazzy weed song, but the subliminal base appeal here retains that of all her best music: it's that goddamn voice, completely self-possessed and confident but also three-dimensional at every pitch. Most every song on this 44-minute album works, several of them phenomenally -- "Love on the Brain" is probably the most successful bid anyone's made in decades to revive doo wop not as a throwback but as a viable genre with radio potential, "Never Ending" borrows half a melody from a very good Dido song but takes it to another planet, and as for the instant classic "Work"... all you can say is, it takes someone with serious chops to wring so much depth and joy out of the simple act of singing that word five times fast.
Beauty Pill Describes Things They Are (Butterscotch 2015)
Washingtonian Chad Clark, famously a Dischord veteran, comes back from the dead all but literally after several open heart surgeries; like Donuts, it's music that could almost have been crafted from someone's bed, using evocative loops on top of slightly proggy guitar-based structures. Even with my prejudice against that sort of thing, I sorely wish this was instrumental; Clark's voice unfortunately bothers me even though his lyrics are beautifully parsed and affecting. Primarily for cultists but probably worth at least a look for everyone else.
Pusha T: King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude (Def Jam 2015) [hr]
Pusha's debut album My Name Is My Name slipped by me uneventfully, and I was similarly apathetic about the EP Fear of God II, but in my frankly vague memories of them I can't recall them being remotely as unified as this one that's positioned as a "prelude" to his upcoming third album, which I hope isn't the only reason it's such an impeccably brash, fast-paced half hour of music. There's no denying that it's a throwback, with hard beats and almost uninterrupted flow plus production from -- get this -- Puff Daddy, Timbaland, Q-Tip and Kanye West (who demonstrates here once and for all that he is consciouslychoosing to do whatever off-the-wall shit is happening over on his own records, for better or for worse). And it must be said, these are acclamed masters of the craft for a reason; it's hard to name a recent rap record with so many instantly unforgettable beats (the hooks tend to be slightly less strong but are still passable, with one supreme moment thanks to Jill Scott): the Atari sound cutting through lush surroundings on "Crutches Crosses Caskets", the trademark Timbaland weirdness on "Got 'Em Covered" and (more familiarly) "Retribution", the classic Blueprint-era Kanye West of "Sunshine", but best of all the mournful "Blame Game"-like backing of "MPA" and Q-Tip's astounding, propulsive "FIFA", coming on like "Buggin' Out" re-rendered as Big Beat. At first glance I thought the exceptional production was why I found this so endearing, since I've always felt there are limits to Pusha's coke-dealer narrative; he's not over it, with only one song here not returning to that well, but the menace and threat of the music melds perfectly with his emptily boastful reflections and intricate stories of the easy-come-easy-go vicious cycle. He compares himself to Biggie and Dilla (and despite the pointed lack of innovation here he's skilled enough that it isn't laughable), but comes off more haunted and desperate than either. The probing self-awareness of Pusha insisting "I'm the L. Ron Hubbard of the cupboard" -- who's bringing him the cash and why, and are they as deceived and victimized as Hubbard's followers? -- implies as easily as the violent underground debt warning on "FIFA" that Pusha's fixation is on leaping through the fire and betraying whatever's necessary to save yourself. This extends to his peers who are being stiffed by labels and big business, with the message that rap money is less trustworthy than crack money: "Niggas talking it, but ain’t living it / Two years later admitting it, all them niggas is renting shit / They ask why I’m still talking dope, why not? / The biggest rappers in the game broke, voilà." So there's a lot going on here even without mentioning the murderer's row of guests: The-Dream doing dancehall, Kanye West and A$AP Rocky droning atonally on a hook, and Beanie Sigel blowing everybody out of the room and making us wonder where he's been. A triumph that would have made my 2015 list had it been out sooner.
Underworld: Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future (Caroline) [r]
Underworld transitioned from part of the crowded field of British synthpop in the late '80s to a respected electro outfit heavily indebted to house and d'n'b. The key to appreciating their return after a six-year hiatus is to treat it as one long upward slope to a gobsmacking climax; your feelings about the first five cuts will depend on how readily you can tolerate the Karl Hyde Bot's detached vocals, which come off these days like a sexless Alan Vega or a goofier Colin Newman. (A good litmus test is "Santiago Cuatro", which cribs the melody from Robyn's "Fembot", a nice bit of irony.) Enabled perhaps by the florid, luxuriously slow-pacedstructure favored by the likes of James Murphy, the record uses the cinematic maneuver of saving its least facile songs till the very end. If the whole album were like "Ova Nova" and "Nylon Strung", a pair of breathtaking, time-stopping, delicately beautiful and immersive glow-in-the-dark club songs, it would be a masterpiece. When he ditches the smugness and becomes subservient to Rick Smith's lovely production, Hyde sheds the years and couldn't be more appealing.
Sheer Mag: III (s/r EP) [hr]
Go to Bandcamp immediately and hear a 7" worth of tight, blissful, hooky hard rock from these Philadelphian Marxists. What the hell else do you need to know? Lyrics are provided so you can fully appreciate the feminist rallying cry of "Can't Stop Fighting". (Personal note: please please please restock the vinyl, guys.)
The Range: Potential (Domino) [r]
I'm 100% in favor of a trip hop revival and this moody electro is at least part of the way there, but it's a throwback in several other significant ways -- the Brooklynite artiste samples Youtube clips as liberally as J. Dilla trawled through boxes of 45s and ends up making the most instantly appealing the-obscure-past-is-the-public-future dance record since such things were deeply in vogue in the early 2000s. The suggestion of the infinite possibilities of the door opening to the long-uninvestigated, as provided by the internet, perversely provides one of the few optimistic visions of a more inclusive and rhythmic future in a notoriously apocalyptic genre. It's a bit like the troubled joy of Sterling Void's "It's Alright" -- a rejection of paranoia by a realist, rendered as hedonistic abstraction. So while it's outwardly modest and its songcraft sticks to the cautionary obvious most of the time, there's sublime relief in this album's grooves.
Bob Mould: Patch the Sky (Merge)
Twelve albums into a quiet solo career, Mould remains in a holding pattern sound-wise that does little to dispel either a sense of repetitiveness for any non-cultist or the immense admiration that comes from knowing just how much impact he's had on nearly every guitar band to emerge since the '80s.
Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith: A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM)
Two giants of piano and trumpet respectively collaborate and the results have been earmarked as having major crossover appeal from sites that -- like this blog -- don't generally take note of very much jazz. I personally find it pleasant but don't hear much besides Iyer giving it up for lots of long, slow solos by Smith and generally bare-minimum structure and production. Among the few modern jazz albums I tend to hear, it just seems ordinary, but others equally broken from today's version of the genre seem to be hearing more in it.
Kamaiyah: A Good Night in the Ghetto (s/r) [r]
Energetic twenty year-old neo-diva takes phone calls, blows smoke at you and occasionally finds time to lay down a track on this cushy mixtape; she makes use largely of 1980s-infected, audaciously funky oldschool beats laced now with wonderfully profane jolts, gags and insults. A cheery roll through the psyche of a person with unlimited potential who knows this world is gonna be hers and is pretty damn relaxed about it.
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Lapsley: Long Way Home
* Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive
* Meilyr Jones: 2013
- Andrew Weatherall: Convenanza
- Robert Pollard: Of Course You Are
- Loretta Lynn: Full Circle
- Clark: The Last Panthers
- Grant Lee Phillips: The Narrows
- Iggy Pop: Post Pop Depression
- Glenn Jones: Fleeting
- Fatima Al Qadiri: Brute
Rick Ross: Black Market
Saul Williams: MartyrLoserKing
Cavern of Anti-Matter: Void Beats/Invocation Trex [NYIM]
Bullion: Loop the Loop [NYIM]
Waco Brothers: Going Down in History
Mothers: When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired
Mount Moriah: How to Dance [NYIM]
The 1975: I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
Quilt: Plaza [NYIM]
Steve Mason: Meet the Humans
Santigold: 99 Cents [NYIM]
Barry Adamson: Know Where to Run
Ray LaMontagne: Ouroboros
Matthew Bourne: Moogmemory [NYIM]
Wussy: Forever Sounds
Heron Oblivion [NYIM]
Aurora: All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend
Brian Fallon: Painkillers
Emmy the Great: Second Love
Into It. Over It.: Standards
Treetop Flyers: Palomino [NYIM]
Damien Jurado: Visions of Us on the Land
Richard Fontaine: You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing to Go Back To [NYIM]