Essential New Music: Jake Xerxes Fussell’s “Out Of Sight”

Jake Xerxes Fussell has a storyteller’s voice. It’s big and clear, and you won’t miss a word he sings. Warm and friendly, it invites you to pull up a chair and listen to his tales, which are drawn from American and adjacent folk traditions. Fussell is also a gifted guitar accompanist; whether backing gospel and blues performers or framing his own singing, he knows just how put the vocalist in the spotlight with strategic licks that, when you single them out, sound as right as the first cup of coffee in the morning. The challenge that faced Fussell in making his third album for Paradise Of Bachelors was to figure out how to use the resources of a full band without getting in the way of his gifts. He and his crew, which includes associates of Pelt and the Mountain Goats, have gotten it right by crafting unfussy arrangements that honor the antiquity of the material without trying to reproduce it.

Atmospheric steel and strings amplify the mystery of fisherman’s lament, “The River St. Johns.” A dragging cadence and behind-the-beat piano underscore the fatigue of the working stiff narrating “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” and the churchy backing of “Drinking Of The Wine” invites the listener to consider how the same substance that made last night so lively brings spiritual peace on Sunday morning. Out Of Sight is the first Fussell record to include vocal-free tunes, and both “16-20” and “Three Ravens” afford moments of reflection on an album that is otherwise alive with imagery. There’s no song named “Out Of Sight,” but perhaps the LP’s title acknowledges that Fussell and his team have knocked this one out of the park.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Elkhorn’s “Sun Cycle/Elk Jam”

Elkhorn is a relatively young band, but it has a lot of history behind it. Electric guitarist Drew Gardner and acoustic 12-string guitarist Jesse Sheppard have been the core members of Elkhorn since 2013, but they’ve been playing together off and on since the 1980s. This explains the duo’s chemistry; while each man contributes something very different to the music, they sound like they couldn’t trip each other up if they tried. Gardner casts fluent, burning lines into the beyond while Sheppard supplies both rhythmic propulsion and resonant aura so radiant that the solar panels on your roof will absorb its energy.

But while these guys sound complete in each other’s company, they’re not a closed circle. Guitarist Willie Lane adds a third dimension to several tracks, and percussionist Ryan Jewell adds a varied-yet-unstinting drive. Sun Cycle and Elk Jam were recorded during the same sessions. The former has more compositional structure while the latter wears its spontaneous provenance on its sleeve, but they’re so complementary that they might just as well have come together in a gatefold sleeve. 

—Bill Meyer 

Essential New Music: Sonic Youth’s “Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008”

The members of Sonic Youth accomplished two things on July 4, 2008. First, they coaxed the Feelies out of retirement after a 19-year break in order to be their opening act at an outdoor concert in New York’s Battery Park. They banked a lot of good karma for getting Haledon, N.J.’s finest out of the basement and onto a stage again. Second, the band documented a late example of a phenomenon that would soon cease to exist. Sonic Youth released final album The Eternal in 2009, and stopped performing two years later. This 10-song set, which was original bundled as a bonus with The Eternal and has now been released separately for the first time, remains the band’s final live recording. 

Sonic Youth always operated on a continuum between experimental volatility and classic-rock reliability. Sometimes the experiments didn’t work, but even when a new album was burdened with duds, the band had a great catalog to fall back upon. Battery Park, NYC leans on the oldies. Aside from one song from 2006’s Rather Ripped, everything on the record dates from the 20th century, including four songs from 1988’s Daydream Nation. But while the songs were familiar, the band played them with plenty of fire in their collective belly. The three-guitar (by this point Kim Gordon had moved to guitar and Pavement’s Mark Ibold played bass) tangle on “The Sprawl” flares like a post-volcanic sunset, and Gordon’s urgent singing on “Bull In The Heather” puts barbs on an already sharp tune. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: C Joynes And The Furlong Bray’s “The Borametz Tree”

Past outings prove that C Joynes is a well-traveled guy. The guitarist’s previous recordings have reflected this. His picking is as likely to reference Malian desert-blues licks or Jamaican-dub recording techniques as it is English and American folk themes. But circling around the globe with a guitar as your traveling companion can also be a mite lonely, and Joynes’ latest album suggests that for the moment, he’d rather pursue his musical adventures in good company.

The Furlong Bray is a handy title for what’s really a crew of like-minded friends, including fellow pickers Cam Deas and Nick Jonah Davis, plus unidentified members of the Dead Rat Orchestra. Together they sound like the band that Tom Waits would feel lucky to find if he ended up in the British countryside. They’ve got the versatility to go from late-night Gamelan sonorities to rickety tango to ecstatic quasi-raga, traversing cultures and genres as easily as a jumbo jet crosses the ocean, but without the carbon footprint. Put The Borametz Tree on the platter, flip open your atlas to a random page, and start dreaming.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Rat Fancy’s “Stay Cool”

More often than not, girly mags and rom-coms tell young folk that courtship (and breakups) must involve some sort of deception. They lay out “tests” to prove the charming target’s loyalty, and suggest diffident airs to feign so that you’ll entice a chase. But when you live outside the status quo, you soon realize that real, mutual relationships don’t form (or break) with such catch-and-release tactics. The folks in L.A.’s Rat Fancy certainly aren’t the first to staple their hearts on their sleeves with power pop. But Diana Barraza and Gregory Johnson share something more: They’re proud to hold hands and stand out.

As such, the band’s proper debut adds more than just extra decibels to the gang’s whirligig twee approach. Granted, Barraza’s beefier riffs are nothing to sneeze at—just listen to the sugar-rush punk on “Stuck With You,” where new drummer Matt Sturgis kicks into overdrive. Rat Fancy has never been so bold before; 2017’s Suck A Lemon EP skewed way closer to candy-floss twee (with, as the name implies, a pinch of world-weary sour). Still, the sweetness still prevails on Stay Cool, as our protagonist sets up a clever parallel between messed-up tattoos that won’t rub off and a friend or lover that she hopes never fades away. Ditto for “Finely Knitted,” a Cars-esque chug where Barraza laments the loss of her favorite sweater, and not the ex who “borrowed” it. So, for Rat Fancy, this newly harnessed firepower amplifies the many emotions that Barraza could already convey with such poise.

Perhaps it’s more fitting to think of Stay Cool as a fortification of the ramparts, not ammunition for the artillery. “Never Is Forever” lays down solid, arena-thick walls between Barraza and the creeps who sneak into gigs: “They’ve got to know, they’ve got to see/You’re not for us, you’re not for me.” Likewise, “Making Trouble” steels the nerves of skittish romantics who’ve always felt too awkward to fess up to their lover with congenial jangling and a consolation: “It’s OK to be mad, and it’s OK to feel so strange.”

That pinch of kooky is key to the message—these days, only the weirdos seem to cut through the chit-chat to speak their minds. For those aficionados of the weird, Barraza manages to sneak in a couple supernatural media homages onto the album. Power-ballad bruiser “RIP Future” describes the present day as a “twilight zone,” where day-to-day social life often leads to petty arguments and unfounded demands. On the flip, the C86 echoes of Rat Fancy’s revised “Beyond Belief” plays out somewhat like one of the nicer scenarios from the same show, as Barraza meditates on the protagonist’s sleepless night alone. Could something as fleeting as love kept this person awake? Fact or fiction? Barraza answers unanimously: “The truth is, the truth is shining like a light.”

As breezy as Stay Cool might feel on the surface, a quiet and affirming force pulses underneath. Rat Fancy has grown leaps and bounds in the past two years. And yet, as decent folks who you can always turn to with open arms, they really haven’t changed. And the girly mags never told you that friends like that are worth locking down.

—Lee Adcock

Essential New Music: Isasa’s “Insilio”

The roads that lead to the style known as American Primitive guitar tend to wind, and the trips that practitioners take to get there tend to make their music more interesting. Conrado Isasa came up in the Spanish hardcore scene, and he got turned on to fingerstyle acoustic guitar by Geoff Farina’s performance of a Mississippi John Hurt song. Once on the path, he made his way to the source. He tips his hat to genre godfather John Fahey as well as Fahey’s forbears by opening “Arquitecto Tenista” (“Tennis Architect) with a quote from folk tune “John Henry,” and he directly tips his hat to the guy on “Copla Para John Fahey.” But most importantly, he has gotten the message of this musical discipline, which is that you have to have something of your own to say and make you music say it.

Insilio takes you on a personal journey through its maker’s heritage, his geographical perambulations and his internal states of mind. A sequence of tunes on side two dedicated to a Spanish church and a couple of Uruguayan cities embed sadness in their evocations of beauty, and even the mundanity of “Conversaciones En Un Supermercado” is shaded with an awareness of otherness. Isasa’s guitar isn’t quite alone; harmonium, electronics and percussion offer support and counterpoint. By expressing emotional complexity with musical elegance, Isasa has gotten to the heart of his chosen style and made it his own. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: The Get Up Kids’ “Problems”

Problems, the first full-length from the Get Up Kids in more than eight years, pulls an excellent trick. Like the best comeback records (think Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love or Braid’s No Coast), Problems doesn’t focus its energy on concocting a new identity for an established band––the Kids already did that with their first return in 2011 and underrated fuzz-rock LP There Are Rules. Following on last year’s sugar-rushed homecoming EP Kicker, Problems is a look back at everything that’s always made the Get Up Kids a great band, a refresh of their most lovable qualities that never feels false or pandering. It reinforces the greatness of their past as much as it provides something awesome of its own accord. 

All of this is to say that Problems fits in perfectly with the band’s original run of records in the most worthwhile way possible. It’s outrageously hooky, emotionally blunt and honest, melodically quirky—and even a little bit sad sometimes. It’s the Get Up Kids in their pure form. And it’s an absolute blast. 

The music of the Get Up Kids has always bloomed from an essential feeling of loneliness. On 1998’s seminal Something To Write Home About, the band distilled that feeling into a document of buzzing, hands-to-the-sky catharsis, a yearning for something lost or never existent that could be worn on your sleeve, shouted from the top of your lungs to nobody in particular. So it’s fitting that Problems begins with an introverted anthem, a celebration of the act of being alone as opposed to being lonely. “Satellite” is a bursting rock song to bounce along to by yourself on a Saturday night, and the bright way Matt Pryor sings the hook (“It’s a long way down for me/The satellite orbiting the world alone”) gives you permission to have the time of your life all on your own. 

Later on, songs like “Salina” and “Now Or Never” go for the tried-and-true Get Up Kids subjects with little, but meaningful, twists along the way. “Salina” is a road song about being away from a loved one, wonderfully moody but self-aware of its own drama (“Sentimental fool who writes all these words for you”). “Now Or Never” (with Jim Suptic taking the lead) is a classic pop/punk tune on which the titular cliche is delivered with the rare sense that “never” is a viable option. “Now Or Never” is also home to a classic Get Up Kids one-liner: “Our indifference is a sickness we caught together.” A little sad, but not too sad, and sung with an almost cheery tone, the line serves as a microcosm of that subtle mix of emotions that has always put this band ahead of its peers.

At this point, it feels silly to try and measure Problems against the band’s classic records. But songs like “The Advocate” and “Fairweather Friends” are easy to rank among its best. “The Advocate” falls in line with “Satellite,” an empathetic song that seeks to treat its subject with honesty and respect. Pryor has said that he wrote “Satellite” for his son, and “The Advocate” also feels like it could be directed toward a child, its core hook––“Arms around whoever you may be”––a stomping, sweet reminder of love for somebody even as they push away. 

“Fairweather Friends,” on the other hand, is delightfully cheeky song addressed to anyone who might say, “Why do the Get Up Kids still exist?” Twenty years removed from their most beloved record, there are bound to be some people who tuned out at some point and assumed that everyone else did the same. The exuberant chorus doesn’t give them an inch: “Fairweather friends will say/All good days just fade away/To those fools I say/Stay out.” It’s not bitter. It’s not mean. It’s a pure, fun anthem for keeping your head held high even when you’re told to wonder “What’s the point?” The song, and Problems as a whole, answer that question with just as much power as the Get Up Kids ever yielded––there are still plenty of songs to be sung at the top of your lungs. 

—Jordan Walsh

Essential New Music: Sparrow Steeple’s “Tip Top Sorcerer”

Sparrow Steeple beckons. Follow that crooked finger and you’ll soon find yourself tumbling down the sort of rabbit hole that Lewis Carroll used to dig when he wanted to make sure that his readers got good and lost. Down there, you will be threatened by “Stabbing Wizards” and take mortal pun damage from “Handy Andean Indian,” and if you’re made of the right stuff, you’ll sit right back up and roll the 12-sided dice again.

This Philly combo is mostly composed of musicians who’ve also played in Strapping Fieldhands, and they navigate easily between T.Rex-like riffing and hobbit-snaring strum-alongs. But it’s singer Barry Goldberg who burns the deepest brand upon your brain. His fluttering delivery brings to mind Bryan Ferry back when the dapper one could still hit some high notes, and he has requisite denial of encroaching ridiculousness that you just have to have if you’re going to be an art-rock frontman. Tip Top Sorcerer synthesizes record-collector geekdom and role-playing gamer nerddom using alchemy that could get you banned in several alternate universes to come up with something greater than its already commanding parts. 

Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Olden Yolk’s “Living Theatre”

On Living Theatre, their second album as Olden Yolk, Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer double down on the micro-focused methodology that formed their splendid self-titled debut from last year. The duo—both sing, write and play multiple instruments—locked itself into a windowless workspace for a season, admitting input from percussion-playing ringer Booker Stardrum; the rest of the band joined in when they got to the studio. The roots of the Shaffer/Butler partnership lie in a shared interest in writing poetry, and their process yields songs that are a bit like chocolate-covered espresso beans. On the outside, you’ll find sweet melodies and soft voices—inside, bitter and cryptic expressions of loss and anxiety.

Olden Yolk benefited from inventive rhythms that worked against the grain of their otherwise antique-oriented arrangements. (I’m betting that between Butler and Shaffer, someone has worn out some Chills, Zombies and Beach Boys records.) This practice continues with the quickly shifting drum figures on “Every Ark,” the tick-tock groove of “Blue Paradigm” and the way that the wind-in-your-hair lope of “Cotton And Cane” contradicts one bleak line that goes, “When the debts come.” Living Theatre is all about living with what you have to live with, and on those terms, it delivers the goods.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Matthew Shipp Trio’s “Signature”

Matthew Shipp is an obliging sort of guy. After every second or third album, he questions the point of making more records—and he may go so far as to announce his retirement from recording. Then he comes back and makes some more records. Let’s make this perfectly clear: Matthew Shipp doesn’t need to retire anytime soon. He has too many good ideas for how to accompany saxophonists (lately, the lucky guys are Ivo Perelman, Mat Walerian and Evan Parker), how to make an unaccompanied piano sound like the mysteries of the cosmos made manifest, and how to grow fresh green produce from the over-farmed patch of musical turf known as the piano trio.

The latter is what he, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker do on Signature. They understand that their chosen format’s hoariest cliché is also its chief virtue. It’s a perfect setting to demonstrate close interaction between players, but it’s also full of prior examples of how you’re supposed to do it. But free jazz means being free to do it your way, never mind the supposition, and this trio’s way is to strip things back to essentials and then move with purposeful economy through the spaces they’ve opened up. Stark, swinging and magnetic, this music rewards deep-drilling exploration by players and listeners alike. Please don’t quit anytime soon, Mr. Shipp. 

—Bill Meyer