Felt was one of Britain’s best indie bands of the 1980s that never quite got its due in the States. Historically minded fans of early Belle And Sebastian, the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart or, especially, the Clientele should dive deeply into Cherry Red’s reissues of the first five albums (1982’s Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty, 1984’s The Splendour Of Fear and The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Short Stories, 1985’s Ignite The Seven Cannons and 1986’s Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death), each with a bonus seven-inch and other ephemera with the CD versions. (The other half of the band’s symmetrical discography will follow.) They’re essential. Longtime fans will find album number five retitled (jaunty, brief instrumental Let The Snakes Crinkle is now The Seventeenth Century) and number four drastically remixed (six tracks of Ignite have been stripped of Robin Guthrie’s dream-pop production effects, although thankfully “Primitive Painters,” the classic duet with Guthrie’s Cocteau Twins bandmate Elizabeth Fraser, remains untouched).
Lawrence, Felt’s deep-voiced auteur, went on to form hilarious glam-rock spoof Denim and still releases music as Go-Kart Mozart. Mozart’s Mini-Mart is full of short, witty synth-pop songs such as “When You’re Depressed.” Think Magnetic Fields at their most ephemeral.
Released to coincide with what would’ve been his 80th birthday, Cinema is a gorgeous, shady and gawky overview of what a solo Holger Czukay scribbled outside the shaky lines of Can’s avant-metronomic aesthetic and his moody atmospheric collaborations with David Sylvian. Along with that, there’s a lot of wonky cut-and-paste Czukay—a formidable, rubbery bassist who, on his own recordings, could and would play anything such as Dictaphone and French horn—to go around. From the primal electro of his Les Vampyrettes project of 1980 with Grönland father Conny Plank and its icy sonic counterparts done in collaboration with Brian Eno or the gentleman of Cluster, we hear Czukay as one of Euro electronic music’s avatars.
A series of moments with Can’s Jaki Liebezeit and Jah Wobble leads us to believe that Germany’s innovative Czukay could’ve co-owned Jamaica’s Black Ark studio with dub-meister Lee Perry. Mostly, though, the aptly titled Cinema (much of his craft was imagining a heavily imagistic film unspooling in his head with him improvising every soundtrack chorus) finds Czukay in subtle freeform space-jazz jam mode without ever being tasteless or proggy.
“I’m afraid of pain, both yours and mine,” sings Lucy Dacus plaintively on the cold open to “Yours And Mine,” which forms the emotional core of her raw and bracing sophomore LP. Historian finds Dacus crafting a narrative from the emotional detritus of the past year, fashioning firmness from fragility even with the headwinds of chaos ahead. By the time she gets to the end of “Yours And Mine” (“We’ve got a long way to go before we get home, ‘cuz this ain’t my home anymore”), you get a sense of strength in the face of loss, with Dacus’ voice crackling and bright (much like her fellow Southerners Cat Power and Jolie Holland) as she links tale after tale of devotion and doubt together to form the sad-eyed tale of America, circa now.
“Timefighter” is blues updated for a new generation (like Jon Spencer but without the self-conscious irony), and “Night Shift” is straight-up millennial breakup music; “Pillar Of Truth” and the album’s title track form a back-to-back reminder that sometimes it takes total darkness before we can truly see the light. Dacus—whose 2016 No Burden debut was MAGNET’s album of the year—goes from strength to strength here, and Historian is another triumph.
It was difficult not to get too excited when Philly’s Kississippi released “Cut Yr Teeth” back in December. It felt like a harbinger of something special. “Cut Yr Teeth” is basically a perfect pop-rock song, an anthem of warranted anger and bewilderment that feels less cathartic than enlightening—as if the song captures someone in the midst of realizing all the hurt they’ve been put through. The single remains vital after an outlandish number of listens, with its way of exhaling good hook after good hook alongside glistening Trasatlanticism verses and a bursting Get Up Kids chorus.
It took another four months to get to this point, and it’s exciting to say now that the resulting album is as essential as the single. Sunset Blush glows softly in a space built of prickly guitars and hazy synthesizers, telling a story of bad things that end but refuse to leave us alone. The record is loaded with glorious hooks that slide off the tongue again and again, hitting hard right away and never losing its shine. It’s one of the best debut full-lengths we’ve heard in a long time, one that deals honestly with a complex and painful subject; Sunset Blush is an album about the things a toxic relationship can do to you, and how bad it still can feel after it’s over.
A great deal of what makes Sunset Blush so special is Zoe Reynolds’ ability to write songs that are sharply detailed and somewhat opaque at one moment and stunningly blunt in the next. Opener “Once Good” weaves this line gracefully, Reynolds shortly delivering lines like “Blowing bubbles in your milk/So your palette smells of it” before the chorus ushers melancholy clarity in a refrain of “Yours is forgotten/Made room for new faces/Unsure if I would be seeing yours again.” Later, the bare, luminous “Who Said It First” reaches its apex in a lightly devastating delivery of “If you’re feeling perforated, too/I don’t feel it the way you do.”
It’s “Easier To Love” that most clearly distills everything great about Sunset Blush. It’s a lush pop song that rises as if out of smoke, sliding into the room slowly and then all at once. It’s a song about feeling like you need to change yourself to feel worthwhile to somebody, in the end feeling like you’ve forgotten yourself (“I know how hard it is to admit/I don’t belong here, I am not this”). “Lash To Lash” is a standout on the sharper end, a tricky rock song like a shifting staircase, taking surprising turns and letting the best lines stand alone in silence. Here, Reynolds is at the top of her game vocally, drawing out repeated lines in woeful emphasis. Sunset Blush tends to play out this way—emphasizing the hurt as a means of confronting it head on.
The title of Electronic Music For Piano isn’t the only paradoxical thing about it. The score, which updates an earlier set of piano pieces, specifies materials (piano, feedback) and gives instructions (“Consideration of imperfections in the silence in which the music is played”) but provides little guarantee of what you’re going to hear. Tania Chen, a veteran improviser and interpreter of composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, understood that Cage was really prescribing a process and the tools to realize it.
This realization of the score comprises three duets (with guitarist Thurston Moore, multi-instrumentalist David Toop and electronic musician Jon Leidecker) which are sequenced and mixed together in a partially chance-determined way. It lasts more than an hour, but its discontinuous structure provokes the listener to deal with its ever-changing constellation of clanks, hums and notes second by second.
There’s a crystalline, cold Nordic purity running through First Aid Kit that, combined with a streak of melancholic, autumnal folk/pop and a hefty dose of bittersweet country, makes the duo almost irresistible. Thankfully, all are very much in evidence on the Söderberg sisters’ fourth full-length. Produced by Tucker Martine, Klara and Johanna are ably supported throughout by a sympathetic cast of players, including Peter Buck and members of Wilco and Midlake, who provide a warm patina of deluxe Americana that never gets in the way or swamps the sisters’ glorious harmonies.
Even when arrangements become a little too workmanlike or lyrics drift into the realm of cliché, they emerge utterly triumphant through sheer, unwavering self-belief and (not to belabor the point) their transcendent, incandescent harmonies. Imagine an entire choir of self-harmonizing Emmylou Harrises and you’re still not close. They’re that good. When they open up and truly let go, they achieve states of near euphoria and joyous magnificence. It’s akin to some divine magic trick—best not to question and instead bask in the reflected glory.
For a record constructed in such an unconventional, informal manner, Yo La Tengo’s There’s A Riot Going On is surprisingly structural
Despite the intriguing novelty of There’s A Riot Going On’s back story, perhaps its most striking departure—as well as a subtle key to its effectiveness—is largely structural. The 15-track album has a carefully balanced form, with its 64 minutes divided about evenly between five lengthier, drone- and/or groove-based pieces (either fully or partially instrumental) and 10 more typically song-like cuts (ordered in a neatly symmetrical arrangement).
The longer pieces appear as bookends—“You Are Here” and “Here You Are” (the titles fittingly, if perhaps unintentionally, recall their great recent Man Forever collaboration, “You Were Never Here”)—and as a cluster of three in the middle of the album (least characteristic, most fully ambient piece “Shortwave,” somewhere between Tim Hecker and Julianna Barwick, is at the exact midpoint). Meanwhile, the songs, which range from classically mild fuzz-rocker “For You Too” to a slack, wispy cover of Michael Hurley’s “Polynesia” to cutesy beatbox bossa “Esportes Casual,” are arrayed in two sets of five apiece, one on either “side.”
The result is an intriguingly fluid listen. Unlike some Yo La Tengo albums that offer a motley smörgåsbord, veering from style to style, this one drifts gradually, casually from coherence to abstraction and back again.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Even after almost 35 years, Yo La Tengo still comes across—in the best sense of the word—as amateur. Not hardened professionals, rarefied visionaries or virtuosic technicians, but ordinary people, driven by an unflagging, subtly infectious love. It’s why their “greatest hits” compilation (released 13 years ago; more than a lifetime for most bands) was so aptly titled Prisoners Of Love. And it’s key to why they’ve remained such enduring, endearing favorites. One fairly unique distinction they do possess is an enviable confidence in their own instincts, which can make their risk-taking and experimentation seem utterly natural, even unremarkable, while at the same time nearly always rewarding.
So it is with their self-produced 15th LP, whose contents weren’t written or performed in the conventional sense but assembled by bassist James McNew from fragments of studio improvisations and other scraps recorded over a period of years. If that process suggests a radical shakeup in the band’s style or sound, rest assured: The finished product couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a YLT record. Coming after 2013’s Fade, which featured some of the band’s best, most focused songwriting, There’s A Riot Going On stands out as a more immersive, mood-centric record. (There are plenty of conventional songs here, but few are especially striking as such.)
While close listening reveals a bit more nuance and complexity than their typical work, the overall effect is similar to any of their more low-key outings from the past two decades. Think of it as a synthesis of 2003’s underrated Summer Sun and 2002’s more adventurous soundtrack outing The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science. Nothing, then, but another routinely enchanting, brilliantly unexceptional, standard-issue stunner from Hoboken, N.J.’s finest.
—K. Ross Hoffman
“Feeling” is more than just the name of a song for Young Jesus. It’s a statement of intent. For almost a decade, the Los Angeles act has conjured feelings of complexity through its dynamic, spacious rock songs. 2015’s Grow / Decompose took an approach of specifics, telling detailed stories with a political purpose. Last year’s S/T, now freshly reissued by Saddle Creek just months after its initial release, takes a more abstract approach, dealing less with the concrete realities to which we react and instead focusing on the concept of emotion itself.
With the seven-song, 45-minute S/T, Young Jesus give its songs room to spill out in slowly developing textures. Each song flows into the next in such a seamless and natural evolution that, in reaching the final moments of 13-minute closer “Storm,” we’re left to ponder the expanses of sonic and emotional ground covered, from the tentative meditation on memory of “Under” to the epic shapeshifting of “Feeling.”
Most bands have a discography you can chart on a timeline. Bardo Pond’s is more like a delta, with tributaries that split off from and feed the main stream. One such branch is the Volume series, a collection of CD-Rs that show the band at its loosest and most exploratory. Volume 8 is the first such release since 2009, and the first to be available from the beginning on less humble formats. It includes four instrumentals that feel wide open without sacrificing the band’s essential heaviness.
On “Kailash,” a hydra’s head of snaking guitars weave through massive drums; rare acoustic turn “Power Children” could score a shamanic cowboy flick. Ironically “And I Will,” the only tune that coheres into a song, is also the longest and wooziest thing on the record. Isobel Sollenberger’s echo-multiplied voice and Jason Kourkounis’ artfully stumbling drums erode the guitars’ solidity, spiking the record’s most massive moments with paradoxical vulnerability.