Big Ups – Before a Million Universes (2016)

Big UpsA nervy, fractured blast of millennial unease, Before a Million Universes, the sophomore studio long player from the Big Apple-based punk/post-hardcore quartet, is as fiery as it is laconic, invoking names like Fugazi, Gallows, the Pixies, and even, to a lesser extent, early Pavement. Big Ups‘ 2013 debut, the seething Eighteen Hours of Static, offered up a vital, yet familiar sounding amalgam of early-’80s socio-political punk and elliptic, early-’90s lo-fi American underground indie rock.
Before a Million Universes does much of the same, but with a more progressive bent. The former NYU tech students’ vocational chops are on full display throughout the album’s just-over-40-minute run time, and vocalist Joe Galarraga’s nonchalant mumble/full-on Ian MacKaye-inspired howl…

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…lends weight/restraint where needed with surprising efficacy. Yes, this is classic loud/quiet/loud stuff. Early standouts like “Contain Myself” and “Capitalize” excel on all fronts, teasing melodies out into the open and then taking them down with a precision headshot. Further in, the propulsive and punitive “Negative” is prefaced by a dreamy instrumental intro that’s awash in bucolic major sevenths, and the surprisingly affecting “National Parks” dials back on the capitalism takedowns and turns down the spotlight on social injustice in favor of a more personal narrative that sees Galarraga singing the praises of the single mother who raised him. That everything segues into each other helps Before a Million Universes transcend its less immediate moments, which are luckily peppered throughout as opposed to corralled together in one big miasmic cluster, but even those sonic aberrations are largely economical. A smart young band in an increasingly dumbed-down world, Big Ups may have found their voice in the past, but they’re clearly swinging for a brighter future.

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Anna Meredith – Varmints (2016)

Anna MeredithSo, we’ve all been waiting for an experimental yet accessible album of electronic, big band hair metal which at once evokes ’80s computer game sound-effects and the future – right? Right. Even if we didn’t know it. Thankfully, Anna Meredith is on hand to enlighten us with a gallivanting record of those extreme proportions and more.
During her career as a contemporary classical composer, thus far she has restlessly worked to broaden horizons and challenge any of the genre’s perceived dourness. Take the concerto she composed for beatboxers Handsfree; here is a body percussion piece performed by the National Youth Orchestra. You can but marvel at the audacity of getting a group of young musicians to perform a piece at the BBC Proms entirely without instruments.

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It’s a handicapping, thigh slapping, chest beating composition with a smattering of the odd abstract vocal, whose collective outcome is visually and musically arresting. Hearing what she can create with a few pairs of youthful hands, it’s no wonder that Varmints’ wider palette offers a cacophony of riches.

Her approach to music is leavened with a sense of fun and adventure, as evidenced in the aforementioned compositions, and her first foray into ‘pop’ is no exception. Varmints opens with the big, brassy fanfare of Nautilus. It’s a Wagnerian foghorn of an introduction, announcing the arrival of a very special record with a culmination of horns, unsettling synths and sparsely insistent percussion. Being an album that consistently keeps you on your toes, the following track, Taken, couldn’t be less like the first. It’s an out-and-out blast of pop assisted not least by the first helping of Meredith’s honeyed vocals.

The rolling restless direction the record takes compels the listener forward through expertly arranged track-listing. Dowager is administered as a soothing balm after the brutalist hammer drill electronica of the excellent R Type: Shill’s valiantly synthesised hair metal prefaces Blackfriar’s metronomic tick and exquisitely yearning strings. Meredith manages genre hopping and variations in pace masterfully. It’s telling that she claims to rarely listen to, nor get her inspiration from other music – afraid of merely aping other artists and essentially creating a ‘shit version’ of it. This approach is fresh and vibrant, and unlike anything produced by other classical crossover artists.

Possibly something she owes to her classical background is her ability to execute ‘the build’ as expertly as she does repeatedly on Varmints. Scrimshaw is a fine example: it builds and builds until it breaks at the peak of a musical wave and splurges out the most satisfying of payoffs. The Vapours is an equal delight – growing and repeating a guitar riff and all manner of electronics, only to unleash the brass and flip it into the most magnificent of show tunes. It’s a deliciously bonkers piece that’ll have you highly confused, exhausted and grinning from ear to ear all at once.

Yes it’s an electronic album, but it’s so much more than that. Meredith’s unfettered creative reach grants the album freedom from categorisation, trends or fashion. The limitless possibility she has afforded herself is grasped and explored with effervescent courage. This is a record expansive enough to hold the experimental rise and fall of Honeyed Words alongside Something’s roving bass that frames the sweetest vocal to create a disco ball of a tune.

Varmints is never haughtily exclusive or frustratingly obtuse: this is an album to be widely relished. Anna Meredith’s self-described ‘collection of musical pests’ should welcomely plague many a listener for a long time to come. It’s a marvellously un-sobering boisterous beast of a record, and a sparkling début.

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Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution [Deluxe Edition] (2016)

Esperanza SpaldingOn previous albums, Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding dived into jazz standards, Brazilian rhythms, and sophisticated, harmonically nuanced R&B. But with her 2016 album, Emily’s D+Evolution, she takes an entirely different approach. A concept album revolving around a central character named Emily (Spalding’s middle name), Emily’s D+Evolution is not a jazz album — though jazz does inform much of the music here. Instead, Spalding — who also co-produced the album alongside legendary producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie) — builds the release largely around angular, electric guitar-rich prog rock, kinetic, rhythmically rich jazz fusion, and lyrically poetic pop. Of course, Spalding’s version of pop is never predictable, always harmonically…

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…inventive, and frequently imbued with as many improvisational moments as possible within the boundaries of a given song. But relative to her previous releases, this is still a significant shift.

Helping to bring Emily’s D+Evolution to life is a band Spalding put together specifically for this project, including guitarist Matthew Stevens, drummer Karriem Riggins, keyboardist Corey King, and others. Conceptually, the character of Emily represents Spalding as a young girl, and works as a conduit through which she explores and unpacks complex ideas about life, love, sex, race, education, and the creative process. While it would be reductive to call Emily’s D+Evolution a retro album, Spalding’s harmonic and melodic content and production aesthetics definitely have a ’70s quality. Cuts like “Earth to Heaven” and “Noble Nobles” bring to mind the forward-thinking sound of singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell’s work with jazz artists like Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius, whose liquid bass style is an obvious antecedent to Spalding’s approach here. While Spalding never sounds anything less than original on the album, part of the beauty here is in recognizing her inspirations and reveling in how she has made them her own. “Elevate or Operate” sounds like a serpentine Steely Dan melody, sung with Valkyrian agility over a strident, Dr. Dre-friendly militaristic beat. Similarly, “One” brings to mind Mitchell’s soaring vocal style, set against a Greek chorus of harmonized backing vocals and accented by Stevens’ cascading guitar lines, like something John McLaughlin would do with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Elsewhere, tracks like “Good Lava” and “Funk the Fear” reveal Spalding’s swaggering, inner rock goddess and sound like a fantasy collaboration between Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix. While Spalding has long been a virtuoso bassist and commanding, lithe vocalist, she’s developed into a gifted songwriter with a poet’s sense for imagistic, emotionally resonant lyrics. It’s a formidable combination best represented here by the epic “Ebony and Ivy.” Bookended with a machine-gun-fire spoken word poem, the song allows Spalding as Emily to explore a mythic childhood netherworld in which she ambitiously juxtaposes the joys of learning from the natural world and the desire for a formal education against historical notions of how science was, ironically, used to justify slavery. She sings, “It’s been hard to grow outside/Growin’ good and act happy/And pretend that the ivy vines/Didn’t weigh our branches down.”

01. Good Lava 3:38
02. Unconditional Love 3:46
03. Judas 4:10
04. Earth to Heaven 3:50
05. One 3:15
06. Rest in Pleasure 4:57
07. Ebony and Ivy 4:21
08. Noble Nobles 3:32
09. Farewell Dolly 2:08
10. Elevate Or Operate 4:04
11. Funk the Fear 5:04
12. I Want It Now 2:51
Deluxe Edition:
13. Change Us 03:56
14. Unconditional Love (Alternate Version) 09:39

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La Sera – Music for Listening to Music To (2016)

La SeraAs you’d expect from a country record, La Sera’s fourth album is full of love.
This love includes good and bad romances, adoration of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing and classic songwriting, but essentially it’s in love with the redemptive power of music. Hence the title, which is up there with Spacemen 3’s Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To as one of the most straight to the point album titles ever.
La Sera are now a duo, with mainstay Katy Goodman joined by her husband Todd Wisenbaker who produced 2014’s Hour of the Dawn. He’s replaced in the producers chair here by Ryan Adams, who adds his signature analogue and live sounding feel with minimal overdubs. The punkier lo-fi edges to Goodman’s songs have been pared…

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…back, but as a result the songs sound more golden and timeless than ever.

Despite all the changes, Goodman’s voice is still the star of the show. The opener “High Notes” flies in with a blaze of furious rockabilly guitar from Wisenbaker before Goodman’s deliciously nonchalant vocal arrives, where she comes on like a modern day June Carter. It sets the template for the brevity of the songs, at just over two minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome – if anything it could have been rather longer. And the video is something else, a bonkers 50s homage, complete with hilariously naff aliens.

The sparseness of the production helps the upbeat songs to pack a real punch. The vibrant duet between Goodman and Wisenbaker on “One True Love” is brimming with energy and the guitar chords move in all sorts of unexpectedly pleasant directions, it also checks another 80s guitar hero, R.E.M.s Peter Buck, especially his playing on their debut Murmur. “I Need An Angel” which again has Wisenbaker’s guitar chiming away beautifully is also a duet, with Goodman playing the part of the vengeful angel of the title. As she coos “Hear them all crying for me…” it could be Sweetheart of The Rodeo era The Byrds with Grace Slick on vocals.

The slower songs show a more restrained take on modern country. The waltz of “A Thousand Ways” (which spins a riff on the guitar from The Smiths “Reel Around The Fountain”) is wonderfully romantic. With the line “Stay here with me, always” it’s the sort of song you can imagine being played at a 50s prom. The plaintive “Take My Heart”, which also borrows a Marr riff – this time “Back To The Old House” – has a central line “Do you believe in me?” that possesses a lovely vulnerability. The closing “Too Little Too Late” is a song about realising that opportunities are sometimes missed for a reason. It’s a wistful way to end the record, but provides a sense of closure to an album that muses on matters of the heart with humour, irreverence and touching acuity.

Having a superstar producer such as Adams could have resulted in him imposing his sound on the band, but given the love of music that La Sera and their producer share there’s no such interference at play, Adams lets them be themselves. The sound of the record and the simplicity of the arrangements bring out the accomplishment of the playing and singing.

Instead the recording session prompted another album. Adams, Wisenbaker and drummer Nate Lotz recorded his cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 two months later and the Johnny Marr nods that are all over Music for Listening To Music To would go on to be found in the “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” guitar phrasing that ended up on his take on “Wildest Dreams”.

Music for Listening To Music To is a record that sounds simultaneously old-fashioned and modern, a delightful reminder of ‘that’s how it used to be done’ but ultimately a modern country album charged with electric guitars, a love of jangle and a showcase of Goodman’s glorious singing. But most importantly, it’s a gorgeous collection of timeless songs.

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Anenon – Petrol (2016)

AnenonAnenon‘s Petrol is bookended by the sounds of freeway noise, so you don’t have to look very far to find the meaning behind the title. But it’s fortuitous that the album, with its viscous, reverberant swirls of reeds and violin, has the same dusky resonance as the color. If this is an album about Anenon’s native Los Angeles, the setting is somewhere just past sundown, the sky steadily leeched of color as lines of cars streak toward the horizon like rivers full of embers.
Anenon is Brian Allen Simon, an electronic producer and saxophone player, and Petrol is his third album. It represents a major step forward for him. His debut, 2012’s Inner Hue, evoked Tycho and the Field in its shimmering ambient sketches and crisp drums; 2014’s Sagrada went further in its pursuit…

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…of a new kind of beat music composed using acoustic instruments, Fender Rhodes, and tons of reverb. But its rhythms lacked distinction—”Lights and Rocks” was basically an Aphex Twin pastiche, and the TR-808 sounds elsewhere on the album seemed out of place—while his saxophone melodies sometimes scanned as rote. But Petrol, a looser, messier album, does a better job of communicating new ideas, and its emotional depth feels less gestural and more genuine.

The album’s raw material comes from an improvisation session alongside violinist Yvette Holzwarth and bass clarinetist Max Kaplan; back in his studio, working with the drummer Jon-Kyle Mohr, he reworked those tapes, cutting and resampling them into their final, hybrid electronic form. The opening “Body” is typical for the album, with cool, analog-style synthesizers and the humming of distant cars creating a buoyant cushion for Simon’s melancholy saxophone riffing. The mood is evocative of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, but elsewhere things are less placid and misty-eyed; the drums on “Once” and “CXP”  recreate the head-over-heels tumble of drum ‘n’ bass, inspiring greater urgency in Simon’s sax work. “Mouth” and “Petrol,” meanwhile, bring to mind Philip Glass’ work. Simon has described how the album was partly inspired by the experience of standing on a pedestrian walkway above the freeway—”I found a sense of Zen in that as I was making the record,” he told the Fader—and it’s easy to hear parallels between the spinning chrome wheels his music evokes and the sped-up industrial choreography of the Glass-scored Koyaanisqatsi.

But some of the finest moments on Petrol turn out to be the simplest. “Hinoki” is nothing but two minutes of downcast sax melody over fathomless reverb, and “Panes” takes a similar idea and adds a bassline fashioned from bleating bass clarinet. In the first few seconds of “Panes,” a human voice is briefly audible—as far as I can make out, it says “Maybe”—before it disappears into the murk again. It’s the only voice on the album, but its appearance seems fitting; if Petrol‘s twin themes are the way that cars and distance define the experience of Los Angeles, that snippet of speech is what creates a sense of human scale before the album’s lonely denouement, when everything that has come before disappears beneath the din of freeway noise.

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Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros (2016)

Ray LaMontagneAmerican musician Ray LaMontagne‘s sixth studio album is a picturesque grower.

Not because it doesn’t sound great the first time you listen, but because most of the songs on Ouroboros are so beautifully languid that you have no choice but to soak in them. While it’s only eight tracks, the song lengths here average well over six minutes, as LaMontagne stretches his guitar lines into space-rock territory.

Recorded with My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, the record exists as a stunning portrait of their time together. “Never going to hear this song on the radio,” he confesses on the album closer, Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph, “But wouldn’t it make a lovely photograph.”

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1. Part One – Homecoming (8:28)
2. Part One – Hey, No Pressure (6:34)
3. Part One – The Changing Man (4:13)
4. Part One – While It Still Beats (4:10)
5. Part Two – In My Own Way (6:36)
6. Part Two – Another Day (3:05)
7. Part Two – A Murmuration of Starlings (2:33)
8. Part Two – Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph (3:58)

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Stephen Kellogg – South, West, North, East (2016)

Stephen KelloggConnecticut-based roots rock troubadour Stephen Kellogg delivers a sprawling, 20-song effort that branches out — literally — in multiple directions without ever losing its identity. South, West, North, East is just the second of Kellogg’s solo releases since he put his longtime band the Sixers on hiatus, and over the course of its four distinct sections, he stretches out using four different co-producers, bands, and studios around the country. It’s certainly an ambitious concept, but Kellogg’s thoughtful take on Americana proves malleable enough to absorb his chosen geographies and bend them to his means. Beginning in the South and winding his journey clockwise around the country, he fades like the seasons from the country- rock twang of “High Horse” to the lonesome…

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…Western expansiveness of “Mother and Child” and onward through the regions. Representing the North, songs like “Greta Girl” and “Wolf” begin to take on more experimental rock and folk-leaning affectations, and by the time he returns to his home turf in the East, the music and its production are at their most vibrant, with colorful synths and anthemic pop choruses painting the landscapes of “Galaxy” and “Barricade.”

Essentially a collection of individual EPs, the sequence of the full set hangs together remarkably well thanks largely to Kellogg’s steadfast songwriting, which may play around with various stylistic forms but doesn’t stray too far from his warm Americana core. The album really does manage to resemble a journey, and by the time he delivers the poignant ballad “H-O-M-E” in the final section, the distance traveled feels palpable and rich with experience.

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Loretta Lynn – Full Circle (2016)

Loretta LynnFull Circle is no accidental title for this, Loretta Lynn’s first album after a 12-year break. Released as Lynn approaches her 83rd birthday, Full Circle not only deliberately returns the country legend to her Kentucky roots, it’s constructed as a summation of her life. It opens with the first song she ever wrote — a lovelorn waltz called “Whispering Sea” — and runs through old folk tunes she sang as a child, revisits hits she had in her prime, and adds new tunes to her repertoire, all the while acknowledging that she’s closer to the end of her life than the beginning. It’s a weighty concept directed by co-producers John Carter Cash and Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Reynolds, two scions of country royalty keenly aware of the nuances of legacy and tradition. Cash and Reynolds began recording Lynn back in…

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…2007, stockpiling hundreds of songs in the ensuing eight years. Full Circle is culled from those sessions, and while there certainly must be many equally compelling tunes lying in the vaults, the album benefits from its canny construction, touching upon so many aspects of Lynn’s multi-faceted art without lingering on any single part. One of the record’s attributes is its clean, simple sound. Spare but never skeletal, the record feels intimate but never haunted; it feels as if Lynn is playing songs for old friends in her living room, relying on beloved tunes and well-told stories. If there’s possibly a slight contrivance in the reliance on songs about death — good as they are, “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?” and “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” put perhaps too fine a point upon her eventual passing — these clear-eyed ruminations never feel ghoulish due to that straight-ahead sound. As produced by her daughter and family friend, Lynn is in good, trusting hands who wish to present her at her best and, more or less, that’s precisely what Full Circle offers.

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