Category Archives: ESSENTIAL NEW MUSIC

Essential New Music: Anders Parker’s “The Man Who Fell From Earth”

Anders Parker has worked in every conceivable context—Space Needle, Varnaline, Gob Iron with Jay Farrar, his broadly varied solo output—but some of his most potent statements come when his voice and acoustic guitar are presented alone in the naked glare of the studio. The Man Who Fell From Earth follows that blueprint with filigrees of electric guitar, cello and violin as Parker channels his inner Nick Drake and T Bone Burnett on a gorgeous set of emotional and passionate songs. Parker balances joy and melancholy with a juggler’s skill as he dives (“As The Stars Fell Down On Me,” the title track) and soars (“High Flying Bird,” “On Flying Hill”), simultaneously fixed on the road ahead (“Our New Blood,” “No Regrets, No Turning ‘Round, No Looking Back”) and the troubled path behind (“I Don’t Do That Anymore,” “Endless Blues”). Even as Parker documents the crashing of the heavens, he notes that “everyone is made of stars,” reiterating the reality that rebirth follows death and the greatest growth typically occurs after the greatest destruction. Just as typically, the scuffed beauty of Parker’s delivery elevates the proceedings, shining a soft, delicate light on his darkest messages.

—Brian Baker

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Essential New Music: White Reaper’s “The World’s Best American Band”

On its first two records, White Reaper’s garage punk garnered comparisons to Ty Segall and Jay Reatard, but those really in the know recognized the Kentuckians as the spiritual successors to the Marked Men. Both bands made joyful, memorable pop music in the guise of grainy, fuzz-toned punk rock. Though it will initially elicit double takes, The World’s Best American Band is a logical next step for the group, one that largely leaves punk in the rearview in favor of glam, power pop and ’80s Sunset Strip. The result is a raucous party of a record that should play well to the fist-pumping cheap seats. The title track nicks its aesthetic from Big Star’s “In The Streets” (the Cheap Trick version), “Judy French” is teenage summer nights in audio form, and “Tell Me” boasts a guitar strut lascivious enough to warrant a parental advisory warning. Yes, this album is a turophile’s dream, but only the most black-hearted cynic could resist joining the party.

—Matt Ryan

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Essential New Music: Old 97’s “Graveyard Whistling”

The first decade of this century found the Old 97’s getting a little complacent. It’s not that competent efforts like Drag It Up and Blame It On Gravity were a stain on the band’s record, but they nevertheless seemed light-years away from Too Far To Care, a time when Rhett Miller was threatening to get drunk and burn the nightclub down (“Niteclub”). That all changed with 2014’s Most Messed Up, which heard the band getting its mojo back and, more critically, Miller reclaiming the lyrical irreverence that characterized his earlier work. Any doubts that the Old 97’s could sustain this creative resurgence are summarily dismissed with Graveyard Whistling.

“He makes wine from water, but I just bought you a beer,” Miller sings on the rollicking, honky-tonk “Jesus Loves You,” a song packed with such an embarrassment of lyrical gems that you can’t help grinning like an idiot as it unfolds. The good-natured blasphemy continues on “Good With God,” the album’s first single (featuring alt-country wailer Brandi Carlile), wherein Miller imagines God as a woman (“I wonder how she feels about me?/I guess we’ll have to wait and see”). As with all the best Old 97’s music, ornery women (“She Hates Everybody”) and whiskey (“Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls,” “Drinkin’ Song”) figure prominently as the band careens from ballads to barn burners with Ken Bethea’s surf guitar and the Hammond/Peeples’ rhythm locomotive in full effect. Thankfully, for the Old 97’s, last call is still nowhere in sight.

—Matt Ryan

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Essential New Music: The New Pornographers’ “Whiteout Conditions”

The headline for Whiteout Conditions, the New Pornographers’ latest triumph, isn’t necessarily that the adrenalized Canadian septet has crafted its seventh collection of infectiously pinwheeling indie rock; the breaking news would be if the band hadn’t. But there are significant firsts and diversions on Whiteout Conditions that bear examination, given the consistency the Pornographers maintain on their new missive. To begin, Whiteout Conditions represents the first New Porns album without longtime drummer Kurt Dahle, who left the band after 2014’s Brill Bruisers, and the first with new beatkeeper Joe Seiders. It also represents the first LP without co-songwriter Dan Bejar, who was presumably busy with Destroyer pursuits, and his absence is the most pointed; his often hallucinogenic contributions made frontman A.C. Newman’s impenetrable lyric pretzels seem sane by comparison.

It is Newman’s steady creative hand and brilliant understanding of pop music’s beating human heart that once again win the day on Whiteout Conditions. Newman and Co. up their own ante from the synth pop pulse of Brill Bruisers, taking a chilly motorik cue from ’70s krautrock and heating it to a boil over the Pornographers’ sterno can of undeniable hooks and fearless melodicism. “Play Money” and “High Ticket Attractions” throb at the exuberant new-wave pace that has marked the band’s catalog from the start. On the quietly propulsive “Second Sleep,” vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder coo like fellow Canadian Jane Siberry while synths burble like a musical stream of consciousness, but even in the more sedate moments (“This Is The World Of The Theatre,” “We’ve Been Here Before”), there’s an underlying insistence that ties the 11-track set together in a typically neat package that sits comfortably and appropriately in one of rock’s greatest band catalogs.

—Brian Baker

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Essential New Music: Sera Cahoone’s “From Where I Started”

After several successful albums that leaned more toward the rock side of the country-rock equation, Seattle songwriter (and former drummer) Sera Cahoone heads back to her roots. The classic country songs of heartbreak that originally inspired her to play music inform From Where I Started’s tunes, but the tunes here are understated. The atmospheric arrangements give the material a feel that’s more reminiscent of empty bedrooms than smoky barrooms. Cahoone’s acoustic fingerpicking and a soft loping beat drives “Always Turn Around,” a song that equates stage fright with the fear of intimacy. Her whispered vocal is steeped in resignation and regret. “Dusty Lungs” is a lament for a young miner facing a slow death, featuring Cahoone’s haunting multitracked harmonies and Annalisa Tornfelt’s ominous fiddling. The album closes on an upbeat note with “House Our Own,” wherein the singer daydreams about an ideal relationship in a home by the side of a lake, far from the city.

—j. poet

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Essential New Music: Diamanda Galás’ “All The Way” And “At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem”

Every time Diamanda Galás sings, it feels like something bad is going to happen. Whether it be her originals or gutting recognizable standards from the inside out with her astronomical range and avant-garde piano playing, the music that passes through Galás’ lens feels like guerilla incantations being delivered at the gates of hell moments before the Earth’s crust opens up and swallows humanity whole. Or worse. The wild-eyed-wilder-lunged chanteuse’s two new albums fall along this unnerving/horrifying line: All The Way funereally reimagines Sinatra, Thelonious Monk and Johnny Paycheck as well as longtime live favorite “O Death,” while At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem offers live performances of Italian, German, French and Greek “death songs” in her inimitable style. Both elicit a simultaneous sense of terror and wonder as to what demons are flowing through her bloodstream and how she’s managed to harness them for the power of artistic good.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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Essential New Music: Anjou’s “Epithymía”

To turn an axiom on its head, Anjou knows its history and is not repeating it. Robert Donne and Mark Nelson have plenty of history in common, having spent six years jointly crafting haunting mood music in Labradford. After that trio went on permanent hiatus 16 years ago, Donne dove deep into abrasive digital electronics with Cristal. Nelson mapped out a more circuitous path through the far corners of drone, dub and noir-ish ambience in Pan•American. Donne reunited with Nelson to contribute some bass to Pan•American’s last album, but Anjou’s new aesthetic stands apart from all of its past endeavors. They’ve abandoned songs entirely in favor of pulsing, predominately electronic pieces that radiate a warmth that contrasts dramatically with Labradford’s chilly austerity but makes perfect sense when you note that the title of this album is a Greek word for forbidden desire. Nelson and Donne know all about youthful alienation, and they’re happy to leave it in the past.

—Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Buzzcocks’ “Buzzcocks (mk.1) Box”

Hard to believe but it’s now 40 years since the Buzzcocks self-released Spiral Scratch. To celebrate, Domino has put together a suitably reverent and sumptuous boxed set featuring the aforementioned landmark plus Time’s Up, the Howard Devoto-fronted collection of demos, previously only available as a bootleg, plus countless assorted extras that have become de rigeur for any self-respecting boxed set these days. But why, you might ask, should we care? Because, frankly, Spiral Scratch in particular remains an absolutely epochal release, as historically important as, say, the Damned’s “New Rose” or the Pistols and Clash debuts in the launch of U.K. punk. By turns angular, arch and endearingly amateurish, it fairly whips along fueled by youthful exuberance and a surfeit of ideas. A peerless example of punk’s nascent DIY aesthetic, it single-handedly launched the British indie movement and kick-started the burgeoning Manchester scene, largely by proving relocation to the bright lights and rapaciousness of the London music biz was no longer a necessity. It’s the musical gift that just kept on giving, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.

—Neil Ferguson

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Essential New Music: George Harrison’s “The Vinyl Collection”

Growing up Beatles-ish came with a dilemma when post-breakup solo excursions came to call: Which Mop Top would you most cling to? You never worried about Ringo because neither you nor he took what he did seriously. The psychic battle between the soft-pop Paul and the edgy-rock John became your main problem, as much of George’s work—beyond his holy, epic All Things Must Pass—seemed thin. Harrison made impressive but often watery rock tunes, sung in nasal Scouse accent, in dribs and drabs and always with too much top-tier assistance from guys like Eric Clapton, a relationship as fraught with weirdness as George’s ties to the Fab Four. Director Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Living In The Material World documentary somehow emboldened Harrison with new (even pragmatic) light shed onto the singer/guitarist/composer’s 13 albums released between 1968 and 2002.

As revealed through this crackling, crisp Vinyl Collection—one whose improved sonic depths provide richly enhanced nuances and a bass mix deep and melodic—a new Harrison emerges: one elegantly poetic and (of course) soulfully searching for his spiritual space real estate (Living In The Material World, All Things) as well as an eerie experimentalist with a nod to his later involvement in film work (Wonderwall Music, Electronic Sound). Pore through these sleeve-replicated volumes and there are amusing takes on ’70s Hollywood jazz/funk through the horniness of Dark Horse, something tartly and sarcastically glam-poppy in the era of Bowie with Extra Texture (Read All About It) and an amusingly dry, English chamber-like tone to Thirty Three & 1/3 and Cloud Nine. Though 1990s Harrison is a bit mucky (Gone Troppo), there’s enough nervy blues and folk within his latter days to reconsider his final decade.

—A.D. Amorosi

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Essential New Music: Bob Dylan’s “Triplicate”

In a career dotted with perverse gestures, Bob Dylan’s recent busman’s holiday as a jazz/standard crooner is, superficially anyway, among the strangest. Not that that matters in the least, critically: Mainstream reviews of 2015’s Shadows In The Night and 2016’s Fallen Angels oriented themselves by flipping the line on Dylan’s vocals—Dylan’s less a singer than a stylist anyway, and look how he’s made these songs his own—but the fact is, folk/blues covers are right in His Bobness’ expressive wheelhouse, while the 20th-century American Songbook favors more traditionally tuneful renditions. (This is likely the only professional chance I’ll ever have to tell a Nobel recipient that his performance of “Stormy Weather” is a bit pitchy, and pardon me, but I intend to take it.)

This perversity is, of course, the whole point of Triplicate, whose sheer scope one has to imagine is partially a rebuff to the naysayers. (“You didn’t care for two albums of jazz standards? Here’s three more all at once.”) The key to this particular project lies in the fact that Dylan himself clearly understands his formal limitations in the idiom. No one, certainly not Dylan, seriously considers him a true vocal competitor for a lightning-strike artist like Billie Holiday, a master like Sinatra, even a technical virtuoso like Johnny Mercer. Yet, these songs in their many renditions have become domesticated through age and distance. Hearing Dylan creak and clatter them up with a weathered tonality that respects their structural possibilities—he’s all over the phrasing but never sloppily and always expressively—allows us to hear the strangeness in them, the obsessive love, the painful longing, all over again. Traditional covers couldn’t unlock that box; they’d sound like homages or tributes. But turns out the Great Raider of American Music found the key. Call it “Self-Portrait In An Old Radio.”

—Eric Waggoner

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