Essential New Music: Jaimie Branch’s “Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise”

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Whether you’re playing music or fighting for freedom, you have to be ready to go the distance. The 2017 debut album by Jaimie Branch’s Fly Or Die band came close to a knock-out punch. But there’s always the next gig, the next record and the next racist rally to contend with, and Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise serves notice that Branch is ready on all fronts. It builds upon the long-form ambition and free jazz fire of its predecessor, adding explicit messages and exuberant, multi-cultural grooves.

In addition to her commanding trumpet playing and subliminal synth work, she’s a technically adept and emotionally undeniable singer, equally at home hollering dire warnings about wild-eyed racists on the 11-minute “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2” and crooning tenderness to people who just don’t deserve it on closer “Love Song.” In between those two tracks, Branch and crew use interlocking string patterns, seething drones and layers of percussion to dance the listener back and forth between inner space and an all-night party in the town square. These musicians are in it for the long haul, and this album will do wonders for the listener’s stick-to-it-tude. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Rempis/Abrams/Ra + Baker’s “Apsis”

An “apsis” is the nearest or farthest point of a planet’s orbit. It’s a handy metaphor for the dynamics of this quartet, which draws together four Chicago improvisers from different cohorts. Saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Joshua Abrams each came to the city in the 1990s; synth/piano player Jim Baker and drummer Avreeayl Ra have each been on the scene for decades. They all specialize in creating longform, unscripted pieces that range widely in style and mood, but always sustain a lucid narrative thread.

In other words, Rempis, Abrams, Ra and Baker can devise tunes strong enough to stick in your head and grooves that’ll move you on the fly. But they’re willing to shift away from what they’ve invented and dive into a maelstrom to see what comes up next. The “+” in the band’s moniker denotes Baker’s status as the its walk-on wild card; he flits from complimentary accompaniment to productive disruption, alternately energizing and corroding the ensemble’s interplay with acid bubbles from his ARP synthesizer. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Wet Tuna’s “Water Weird”

When Matt Valentine and Pat “P.G. Six” Gubler played together in Tower Recordings, they often seemed to represent opposing methodologies within that communal endeavor. While Valentine favored a distinctly American form of entropy, Gubler seemed to advocate for a close study of English folk forms. These differences dissolve in Wet Tuna, which features Gubler and Valentine alone except for a sequence of pinch-hitting drummers. There’s no mistaking Valentine’s voice, even though it’s been funneled through enough effects to make it crinkle like thrice-used aluminum foil.

These two men seem united in their evocation of the sorts of sounds that lure far-gone record nerds down rabbit holes that are far deeper than they look. You can imagine them sitting in some basement home studio, finishing each other’s thoughts as they first propose and then realize ridiculous-yet-possible recording scenarios. “What if Scratch Perry took over John Martyn’s One World sessions … ” Gubler begins. “… But Garcia and Weir sat in and got everyone to play over Arthur Russell b-sides,” finishes Matt. They nod sagely to each other in perfect unison, and then make it so. Water Weird is the home-brewed, rural disco album with dancing-bear-embossed socks on that you never knew until now that you needed. But now that you know, it cannot be denied. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: City Of Djinn’s “City Of Djinn”

“Hakawati,” the song that kicks of City Of Djinn’s self-titled second album, comes at you like a cavalry attack over rough ground. The drums stomp, a rhythm guitar pounds, and an electric buzuq casts an intricate lead the long way around, flanking you on either side before the massed vocals charge straight at you. The message is resistance, and the sound is big and stirring.

It’s a bit of a shock to find out that the Chicago-based band numbers only two men: Marwan Kamel and Micah Bezold. But that’s what volume, determination and a few overdubs can do for you. Even more shocking is that the record sounds pretty close to how they do in concert, where these guys keep the beat with kick drums while they bash out power chords and snake their way through winding, modal scales. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: David Kilgour And The Heavy Eights’ “Bobbie’s A Girl”

David Kilgour’s first album in five years confirms his enduring strengths as a singer, guitarist and composer, but it also stands apart from anything else he’s done. Half of Bobbie’s A Girl, which was recorded in Kilgour’s hometown of Dunedin, New Zealand, is instrumental, and it sustains a low-key vibe from start to end. Drums played with brushes and gauzy vibraphone set the stage for Kilgour’s gentle singing, which tends to cycle through a few repeated phrases that sound off-hand until you realize that he’s singing about some of the heaviest stuff around.

The album came together after Kilgour lost an old friend and a parent, and there are moments where you become aware you’re eavesdropping on a conversation with someone in the afterlife. But Bobbie’s A Girl isn’t about wallowing in grief; it’s about letting go and carrying on. The guitars, played by Kilgour and long-time Heavy Eight Thom Bell, do a lot of the talking; sparse, tremolo leads impart the feeling of being between times and states, but patiently choogling rhythms alert you to the fact that the world’s not going to stop. And if you’re playing or listening, you don’t need stop either, not just yet. The album’s cover depicts a stray cat that turned up on Kilgour’s front porch and became a part of the family. Like its namesake, Bobbie’s A Girl is a comforting presence. 

—Bill Meyer