Essential New Music: Sunwatchers’ “Illegal Moves”

Before you accuse Sunwatchers of pulling any illegal moves, take a look at the Scott Lenhardt illustration that wraps around the cover of their third album. A Braveheart-coifed Kool-Aid monster faces Emma Goldman, poised with pitchfork in hand while various right-wing doofuses mill around in various states of alarm or oblivion. Battle has already been joined, and no one gets very far arguing about fairness in the midst of combat. But should you need a soundtrack to power you through the field of fire, Illegal Moves is at your service.

The New York quartet, whose members have backed Eugene Chadbourne, Chris Forsyth and the late Arthur Doyle, roar into the fray blaring a jazz-rock hybrid that never forgets to rock. Jeff Tobias has the righteousness to play an Alice Coltrane tune with honor, but Jim McHugh blasts his guitar and phin (a Vietnamese stringed instrument) through pedal-amp combo that betrays his membership in the Ron Asheton fan club. The rhythm section of Jason Robira and Peter Kerlin burns enough rubber to get the job done in a biker flick. And come to think of it, wouldn’t it be cool to hear Davie Allan and Ms. Coltrane soundtrack the righting of all wrongs?

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Bill MacKay’s “Fountain Fire “

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The visibility afforded guitarist Bill MacKay by his recent run as Ryley Walker’s right-hand man might create the mistaken impression that he’s new on the scene. In fact, he’s been a fixture of Chicago’s music scene for years as both a versatile sideman and a recording artist in his own right.  Fountain Fire, his second solo recording for Drag City, showcases both MacKay’s knacks for cohesive self-editing and elegant arranging, which make his instrumentals feel like complete songs.

Swooping slide licks push back the horizon on “Pre-California” and “Arcadia”; a galloping tempo and strategically situated organ harmonies invite you to imagine the anticipatory journey that preceded the jaunty salutation of “Welcome.” And when MacKay stretches out, as he does on the layered, lyrical “Dragon Country,” there’s enough tension in the exchanges between echo-drenched lead and tempo-pushing rhythm tracks that you’ll want to hang in there and see who wins. Hitherto known as an instrumentalist, MacKay sings two songs. Since Walker’s ditched his folk stylings for jazzy jams and deep dives into the Dave Matthews songbook, there’s room for a new troubadour in town, and MacKay just might be that guy. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Elena Setién’s “Another Kind Of Revolution”

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Generally, revolutions are decisive acts of will, but not the one that Elena Setién has in mind. While the songs on the Basque songwriter’s Thrill Jockey debut are disinclined to give up their secrets on first encounter, you don’t have to dig for long to turn up evidence of surrender. Sometimes they surrender to another person, sometimes to mortality, sometimes to nature, but there’s a lot of gentle letting go.

Ironically, Setién exercised a lot of control in making Another Kind Of Revolution. Aside from the electric guitars of Andreas Fugelbæk and Steve Gunn, she’s the principal performer, deftly framing her multi-tracked voice with keyboards, violin and drums. A battery of effects transform her voice, and with it the listener’s point of view; compression takes you into a narrator’s head, then a sudden wash of reverb places you outside looking in. This is one revolution that’s defined by small details.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Michael Chapman’s “True North”

True North is Michael Chapman’s second album for Paradise Of Bachelors, and once again Steve Gunn sits in the producer’s chair. But this is very different from 2017’s 50, which paired the veteran English singer/guitarist with a much younger band of Americans who probably remember his old records better than he does. Now that the 78-year-old Chapman has scratched the urge to make an American record off of his bucket list, he’s gotten down to the more serious matter of taking stock of a long life.

Chapman’s dogged guitar picking evokes the road, and the curving pedal steel and cello melodies that wrap around his picking suggest a warm comfort that he can’t quite grasp. Closer at hand is his old friend Bridget St. John, whose voice has a similarly lived-in sound. Their harmonies add just enough sugar to make Chapman’s plainly stated, bitterly measured observations go down one after another. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Pedro The Lion’s “Phoenix”

Much of David Bazan’s music over the past two decades has fixated on the many ways in which we ache, the ways we deal with the pain we feel we can do nothing about. Pedro The Lion’s 2002 record Control lingered on the fiery ache of infidelity and moral rot. Bazan’s 2009 solo album Curse Your Branches dealt with the pain of losing faith and gaining responsibilities. Phoenix, Bazan’s first LP under the Pedro The Lion name in 15 years, falls in line with this observation, dealing with the dull, sometimes yearning and sometimes regretful ache of nostalgia. 

Pedro The Lion’s return comes in the form of a rumination on Bazan’s first hometown and the years he spent growing up there. Phoenix is baked in the harsh sunlight of the Arizona city it’s named after, perfectly encapsulating the strange, melancholy fondness of childhood memories. On “Yellow Bike,” the first proper song on the record, Bazan speaks from the perspective of his six-year-old self on the day he received his first bicycle. The sheer excitement and the overwhelming possibility of the scene gives a simple memory all of the grave importance that a child might feel in this situation, a kid in complete control for the very first time: “First freedom, second life/All the places I could ride.” Later on, “Quietest Friend” recounts the young Bazan’s complicity in bullying another child with such remorse that it could’ve happened yesterday. The song jams through heavy, thick guitars as Bazan mines that regret, showing how it ripples into the way his older self interacts with the world: 

“We could write me some reminders/I’d memorize them/I could sing them to myself/And whoever’s listening/I could put them on a record/About my hometown/Sitting here with pen and paper/I’m listening now”

Adopting such a young perspective can often be a minefield of clichés and low stakes, but Bazan approaches his younger self and his past life with such empathy and conviction that it consistently pays off. “Circle K” is a legitimately mournful song about Bazan blowing all his pocket money on candy. On the flip side, “Clean Up” is a bright, upbeat track with the cadence of a kindergarten sing-along that turns the idea of tidying up your room into a mantra for taking care of your brain. Bazan succeeds in this sleight of hand over and over

Phoenix plays out like a collection of related short stories—each one stands on its own, but together the 13 tracks provide a larger, richer portrait of the same world. The schoolyard tales of tracks like “Yellow Bike” are balanced with songs like “Black Canyon,” a song about a Phoenix man who took his own life by jumping in front of an oncoming truck. It’s a story heard secondhand, and Bazan focuses on the humanity of the scene, a paramedic losing her composure for just a moment of pure empathy (“She gathered herself and crept back to the truck/Remembering all of the times she’d nearly given up”). 

The climax of the record, “My Phoenix,” is the fiercest rock song on the album. The song gives weight to the complex ache of nostalgia, as Bazan takes a look at his hometown broadly and articulates the ways in which a place with such deep roots in his life can fail him: “From a disappointed son/To the city that he loves/The flags you wave around have got me wondering/If my Phoenix still shines?” It’s not easy to look critically at a remnant of a past life, but purposefully obscuring the bad parts does more harm than good. 

In the final movement of closer “Leaving The Valley,” Bazan namechecks a number of signifiers of his hometown and his childhood, from streets like Dunlap to symbols like the cactus. These are details without clear stories, but the way Bazan sings them, with such care, is like each one is a page in an old photo album. It’s the final symbol, the crossroads of Union Hill and 35th Avenue (which someone has already figured out is the location of Bazan’s vice, the Circle K), that carries the most weight, Bazan repeating the line with more conviction, more strange longing, his voice breaking just ever so slightly on the “Avenue” as the song reaches its conclusion. As Bazan returns to his past in more ways than one in Pedro The Lion’s first record in a decade and a half, the ache of his nostalgia reveals a small, universal truth: You can always return to your past, but it will never be quite the same. Bazan is comfortable with this truth on Phoenix, and it makes for one of the best albums of his career. 

—Jordan Walsh

Essential New Music: Masaki Batoh’s “Nowhere”

Don’t look back, Dylan once quoted. (Negro/Major League pitching great Satchel Paige actually initially said the words). Spoken like a young man. Masaki Batoh, former frontman of Ghost and the Silence, has been around a while, and he has no qualms about looking backward as well as forward. Singing in several languages, Batoh examines cycles of life and death, and of sin and redemption. He always comes back to the present instant, using his awareness of temporal and moral dimensions to generate a jolt in the moment of performance.

The strategy works. Freed from the obligation to give everyone in the band something to do on every song, Batoh builds the arrangements on Nowhere up from a quietly impassioned vocal and his ornate, finger-style guitar, adding additional instrumentation when necessary. This is post-acid acid folk, music that’s existentially aware and ready to make the most of a moment’s beauty. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Various Artists “Stax ’68: A Memphis Story”

The legendary Stax imprint was and always will be a phoenix among ashes. Stax ’68: A Memphis Story is a meticulous five-disc set celebrating every seven-inch single released during that year. 1968 was a tumultuous time for the United States, particularly the South. On the heels of labor strikes, race riots and the still “mysterious,” cold-blooded murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis was an epicenter of unending turmoil. Legend has it the Stax building was literally the only building standing on its block at one point, unscathed at that. That tale is just one of the many told between the lines and notes in this 134-song monolith.

One could scrawl for ages on the social, political and racial unrest inflicting Memphis and the South as whole in 1968. In addition, Stax label keystone Otis Redding—and nearly all of backing band the Bar-Kays—died in a plane crash, snuffing out the heart light of the label’s promising future in the winter of 1967. On top of all that, Stax was stripped of its on-loan superstars from distributing label Atlantic: Sam & Dave. Not only did Stax lose the powerful soul duo, but also its distribution deal with Atlantic. Instead of folding, Stax regrouped and formidably forged onward and upward.

Disc one of Stax ’68 commences fittingly with Redding’s timeless “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” b/w “Sweet Lorene” as an opening two-punch salvo. Sam & Dave follow up with body blows, while Rufus Thomas and William Bell wait to finish the round with deadening combinations. All five discs follow suit, a handful of bruising rounds in the almighty name of blues, R&B and rock ’n’ soul. The collection is packed with hit makers and household names; however, it’s the lesser-knowns that shine brightly. We all adore Otis, worship Booker T and his MGs, salivate over Albert King’s licks and shake it down with Eddie Floyd and Johnnie Taylor. That’s not to overlook the Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes or the inimitable Carla Thomas. But the story of white soul singer Linda Lyndell harbors interest, as does the psych rock of the Aardvarks and the jazzy jump blues of Fresh Air. Are you well-versed in the Soul Children? How about the Pop Corn Generation or Ollie & The Nightingales? Stax spent 1968 reinventing itself both audibly and structurally. Risks were taken on both fronts.

Music legends are the main draw of Stax ’68, but the set is essential because of the all-but-forgottens. Stax was more than busy in 1968, and this is the ultimate collection, warts and all. The artwork is impeccable, with previously unshared photographs depicting the incivility of the times and, conversely, the high times the cherished label and its artists share. The liner notes leave nothing to be desired and are penned by Memphis music scholars Andrea Lisle and Robert Gordon, as well as S-Curve Records mastermind Steve Greenberg. Stax ’68 is a museum-quality boxed set of sight, sound and the human condition—a feast for the ears, soul and mind.

—Scott Zuppardo

Essential New Music: Steve Gunn’s “The Unseen In Between”

Great music often comes from the effort to contain contradictory impulses, and so it is with The Unseen In Between. It aims higher and sounds bigger and bolder than anything else in Steve Gunn’s discography. The production is full, the melodies direct, the rhythms crisp and the gorgeous strings and subtle steel-guitar flourishes can sweep you up without you even noticing. This album strives to make an impact right away. 

But Gunn’s singing is tinged with a reserve that filters this impact, letting The Unseen In Between’s principal themes of connecting with people and carrying on when you lose them soak in rather than hit you head-on. This slow-growing emotional effect gives listeners reasons to keep coming back for more after they’ve grown accustomed to the hooks and start to take the alternately lilting and growling guitars for granted. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Michael Hurley’s “Living Ljubljana”

It’s a bit daunting to pick an entry point into a career that spans more than half a century. It’s a little easier when the subject of inquiry is Michael Hurley, since the virtues of his music have been very consistent throughout that time. His honest appraisal of life as viewed from the sidelines, his skewed humor and his winningly wobbly warble have all been in place since his 1964 debut LP for Folkways.

What makes Living Ljubljana, a mid-’90s live recording from Slovenia, a good starting point is the extra half-dose of pep in Hurley’s step, which manifests in some gleefully loony high notes on “I Paint A Design” and uncharacteristically loquacious guitar picking on “The Portland Water.” Hurley’s a master of the affective turnaround; here he ponders the undeniability of equine flatulence at length on “Horse’s Ass,” then goes straight to waxing romantic on “O My Stars.” True to the spirit of a man who was once the best eight-track tape repairman in Virginia (he lives in Oregon now), this is an analog-only release. Not only does it sound right on vinyl, you can enjoy the details of his wolfish cover painting.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Zaïmph’s “Rhizomatic Gaze”

You shouldn’t make a double LP if you aren’t ready to stretch a bit. Marcia Bassett of Zaïmph (ex-Un, Hototogisu, Double Leopards) not only stretches, she puts her arms around a multitude of sonic spaces that do not sound the same but have complementary effects when drawn together. Rhizomatic Gaze includes zonked drones, claustrophobic collages, anxiety-laden repetition studies and haunting synthscapes.

Individually they generate vivid sensate experiences that point attention away from her tools (squelching electronics, curdled guitars, effects-fried vocals) and toward states of altered consciousness. “Two In One,” for example, sinks into a near-paralyzed dream state, while “Inside The Space” floats like a hot-air balloon over the misty imaginary jungle vistas. Bassett’s other projects have often portrayed or induced abandon, but not Rhizomatic Gaze. She’s in absolute control throughout, navigating through the music’s moods like the shaman-in-chief of a vision quest.

—Bill Meyer