Essential New Music: Foxing’s “Nearer My God”

Listening to Foxing’s Nearer My God in broad daylight almost feels like you’re getting away with something. It’s a little wrong. The songs on Nearer My God are things you toss and turn with. They haunt your sleep and they’re still ringing, mysteriously, in your ears when you bolt upright at four in the morning. Listening to them in the blaring sunlight, a gentle breeze relaxing into your hair on a silent and serene summer day, is a little like cheating yourself into something else that’s happening far from you—the difference is that dramatic. It’s like peering through a window into a tortured, black night.

This is to say there’s something agitated about the songs on Nearer My God, but the source is often opaque. It’s an unconscious, uncertain restlessness that pervades tracks like “Grand Paradise,” which glides in on a gentle tickle of a beat before slowly becoming a big, booming rock song. Conor Murphy sings, “I try but I can’t seem to remember anything,” in a layered, anxious falsetto. “Grand Paradise” is a song that treats the idea of ascending into heaven the way one might recount an alien abduction, or maybe it’s giving an alien abduction a holy light. Either way, the subject in this song is being followed, watched, judged: “They’re breathing down my neck/I’m embarrassing myself again.” Or maybe they’re just tired, “starving for sleep.”

The confident, nervy, nightmarish “Grand Paradise” sets the scene for the rest of Nearer My God, stretching Foxing’s sound to grander heights and expanding its canvas so the band can really do whatever it wants. And Foxing does. Where 2015’s Dealer was a more intimate, centralized record that pretty much spent its run time building on and polishing one sound or vibe, Nearer My God feels limitless by comparison. “Five Cups” is a nine-minute ambient odyssey. “Gameshark” is a frantically groovy fantasy opposed by the title track’s blissful, intensely layered pop. “Heartbeats” is mournfully orchestral, while “Crown Candy” is almost circus fare with its dramatic hook. The heart of “Bastardizer” is a literal bagpipe solo. Nearer My God is an eclectic, daring and draining record that’s very difficult to define once its hour-long runtime is up. It’s the sound of a band trying very, very hard. And that’s the best thing about it.

Not everything on Nearer My God comes out of left field, though. Closing duo “Won’t Drown” and “Lambert” sound like heightened versions of Dealer’s best songs. “Won’t Drown” is a particular stand out, the most outwardly impassioned track on the LP, the repetition of “pray that we won’t drown, so we keep the water running out” desperately floating above the sonic currents that sound gentle when picked out individually, but feel chaotic and urgent in the way they clash together. “Lambert,” meanwhile, is a tour de force in the build and release of tension, its final apex an essential catharsis, with a ruminative coda that feels like a plea to the demons that surely haunt this record: “Tell them all to go home.”

Foxing has long made freezing, pensive and occasionally bombastic songs for dark times. But Nearer My God is its sharpest, most giving document yet. It’s a swing for the fences that hits the mark at practically every turn, with every attempt to spread the band’s sound in so many different directions, while Foxing reaches further into the night.

—Jordan Walsh

Essential New Music: Matchess’ “Sacracorpa”

Whitney Johnson is the sort of side person who makes any project sound better. For confirmation, check out her strings and singing on recordings and live work with Ryley Walker, Circuit des Yeux and Sarah Davachi. She also has some strong ideas about how music should sound on her own, and they come together quite vividly on the fourth LP by her solo project Matchess. Medium and message converge on a half-dozen songs that sound a little like Stereolab condensed into a soundtrack for inner exploration and healing.

Effects blur Johnson viola, Acetone organ, cassette tapes, singing and drum machines, smudging the clear lines of her melodies and evoking a struggle between conflict-induced unease and inner-generated lucidity. The instrument she messes with the most is her own voice, which induces the listener to follow Johnson into the zone of supernatural calm located at the center of her songs.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Daniel Bachman’s “The Morning Star”

Whichever celestial body you apply it to, the morning star is that bright light you see in the sky just before dawn. If The Morning Star is anything to go by, Daniel Bachman’s been through a long, dark night. The acoustic guitarist’s last album featured pristinely recorded instrumental appreciations of the good things in life and hopeful-sounding, gospel-steeped themes.

This time, his steel-stringed acoustic guitar shares space with consciousness-obliterating drones and cellphone field recordings of squabbling birds and raging radio preachers. Alternating between resonant fingerpicking and voluptuous slide explorations, Bachman’s playing seems to be searching for resolutions that remain quite out of reach for most of the album’s four sides. It’s a harrowing but ultimately cathartic trip.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Nathan Salsburg’s “Third”

Between his day job at a curator for the Alan Lomax Archive and his gigs accompanying Joan Shelley, Jim Elkington and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Kentucky-based guitarist Nathan Salsburg hasn’t had much time to play solo music. Third comes five years after predecessor Hard For To Win And Can’t Be Won, but as anyone who lives south of the Ohio River’s banks can attest, time has a way of distilling things.

The album’s 10 acoustic instrumentals elegantly express a variety of moods and styles, some of which hail from environs an ocean away from Louisville. “Planxty Davis” combines baroque construction with a Celtic lilt, and if Scottish fingerpicker Davey Graham were still with us, he’d see his shadow in “Sketch From Life.” “The Walls Of The World” twists and turns with an air of determination that quietly reflects the spirit of people who have to get around such things to stay alive. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Suuns’ “Felt”

The problem with drone rock is that sometimes a band bears down on the “drone” and forgets about the “rock.” That’s never been the case with this Montreal outfit. Felt delivers in established structural ways while giving the songs frequent jolts to the system—either overall or in precision-chosen moments. Take second cut “X-ALT,” which begins with a jittery melodic line, heavy on delay effects and carried along by Ben Shemie’s breathy vocal until the 1:54 mark, at which point an abstract sax line gets dropped into the mix, sounding at once unexpected and perfectly sutured into the dominant root chord.

That kind of small touch, which occurs throughout the LP, keeps Felt interesting and fun throughout. Other outfits might flood the sound with textures and processed backgrounds, a la fellow Canadians Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but Suuns seem to prefer minimal arrangements that allow them to showcase individual sonic elements by turns. That reserve makes their fourth full-length sound both punchy and hazy, a mix that suits the music well.

—Eric Waggoner

Essential New Music: Body/Head’s “The Switch”

The binary name of this duo promises a focus on the essentials, and The Switch delivers. Singer/guitarist Kim Gordon and guitarist Bill Nace don’t play licks or sing songs. Instead, they wield sound waves like a couple of planetary bodies directing ocean currents or weather fronts through the influence of gravity and energy. Sounds shudder and scythe across the stereo spectrum, pressing upon your sternum and messing with your head.

The titular switch may refer to the fact that where most Body/Head music sounds like it was committed live to tape, this album makes use of studio resources. Gordon’s utterances flit in and out of hearing like radio stations that your tuner can’t quite pull in. Instead of just slamming you, the guitars bear the audible marks of traveling through filters and atmospheres, which makes this the most dynamic and disorienting Body/Head record to date. Don’t fight—Switch.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Jonathan Wilson’s “Rare Birds”

Jonathan Wilson is very good at a lot of things. Emerging as an auspicious talent in an already crowded Southern California rock-revival scene, Wilson has played guitar and sung with authority while hitting all the right hipster buttons for a decade. Nowadays, as part of Roger Waters’ touring band and producing the likes of Father John Misty, Conor Oberst, Roy Harper and Johnathan Rice, Wilson is poised to move even further up the entertainment ladder. (Given 2013’s Fanfare featured contributions from David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Benmont Tench and Josh Tillman, as well as members of Wilco and Dawes, he already has a lot of rock stars’ numbers in his phone.)

On his third solo disc, the Laurel Canyon-based Wilson is brilliant and creative yet hindered by his own expansive eclecticism and purple prose. An extremely personal collection that spans a multitude of styles, Rare Birds is an ambitious psychedelic excursion set firmly in the present with sonic references abounding. From the pulsing hypnotica of “Loving You” (featuring singer Laraaji) to the profane “49 Hairflips” (with Tillman and Lana Del Rey), this 13-track, 79-minute LP contains Floydian flourishes, synth-pop anthems, hippie dreams and singer/songwriter confessionals.

—Mitch Myers

Essential New Music: Steve Reich’s “Pulse/Quartet”

Pulse/Quartet’s one-sheet is bogged down in minutiae and erudite discussion of the theory and instrumentation constituting the halves of minimalist composer Steve Reich’s latest album. And while we’re sure “serious music” proponents will find value in this highfalutin discourse, what of the casual listener standing outside the pipe-smoke circle? “Pulse,” as performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, is a piece rooted in modern classical and PBS documentary scores focusing on clashing tones and deviant resolutions. The result see-saws between silky smoothness and sandpapery coarseness, and approximates the calm before a storm that never actually arrives.

“Quartet” has the Colin Currie Group performing a composition designed for two vibraphones and two pianos that Reich himself describes as one of his most complex. The three movements play with tempo and key changes and a lilting staccato. In the end, the dominant strain is melodically powerful modern jazz where “Mvt.-I” and “Mvt.-III” are the triumphant highlights with joyous Paper Chase and jittery Peanuts reference points. Those comparisons may have unflinching, furrow-browed listeners crowing about sacrilege, but we’re just calling ’em like we hear ’em.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Essential New Music: J.D. Wilkes’ “Fire Dream”

Oh, what whimsy J.D. Wilkes can pack into a svelte 10-song solo debut. The Legendary Shack Shaker has outdone himself with this offering of gypsy funk wrapped in a cavalcade of musical stylings like a birthday cake of fireworks, each song a fiery report in its own right or, better yet, rite. The oddball creative-genius Colonel is on full display—a scholar of all things hillbilly, jazzy, bluesy, fiddley. He’s Paducah, Ky., in musical form.

Fire Dream is a journey through the center of the man. Each is song personally whittled with a half-broken pen knife bouncing between operatic and cinematic to dingy and dusty to crystalline opulence. The album incites a tap and clog, stomp and stammer, and a beatnik’s prose all within the same audible journey yet fits perfectly together like some twisted jigsaw puzzle. Theoretically, this shouldn’t work, but it does in spades. And its constant motion is terribly addicting and moving.

—Scott Zuppardo

Essential New Music: Shannon & The Clams’ “Onion”

Based on the strength and maturity of the fifth album from vocalist/bassist Shannon Shaw and her Clams, every studio session should shadow tragedy. Onion was cut one month after the December 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in their native Oakland, and their writing focused on the importance of identity and community to the general human condition.

With the band ensconced in Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, a layered-yet-vintage, warm, highly analog sound ensued. Auerbach taps into his inner Bert Berns as a producer, finding each song’s emotional core, pitching every note to a shrieking, hysterical climax, all instruments and vocals reaching tape as intimate as a lover’s whispered plea. Onion’s an alternate 1962 AM-radio top-13 chart, where Del Shannon cuts a “Runaway” sequel (“Backstreets”) as a response to the aforementioned fire, and the wailing, pleading “If you ever change your mind” hook on “The Boy” is number one.

—Tim Stegall