Essential New Music: John Butcher / Thomas Lehn / Matthew Shipp’s “The Clawed Stone”

The Clawed Stone is the second recording by English saxophonist John Butcher, German synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and American pianist Matthew Shipp. The trio’s first album,, 2016’s Tangle, was a splendid example of strong contrary vectors converging to create a perfect storm of spontaneous music-making. While Shipp’s output gives no quarter, it derives from recognizable traditions: free jazz, classical music and the language of the piano.  Butcher and Lehn are both committed improvisers, and each has worked determinedly against instrumental prescriptions. The former has used soprano and tenor saxes to manage sounds most commonly accessed with the use of electronics, and the latter has confined himself to older, analogue synths that respond to the human touch.  

First time around, they didn’t look for common ground, but for ways to each be themselves, and support each other’s efforts to do the same. The rematch brings additional challenge to the fray, as Lehn periodically processes Shipp and Butcher’s playing. The Clawed Stone’s digital studio sound makes the shifts from pure acoustic tones to ear-scouring static especially momentous. But such effects are never played for mere novelty. Interference and disappearance are parts of a tool kit that also includes distinctly personal gestures and contrasting responses. The outcome is music that grips and surprises at every turn.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Chris Smith’s “Second Hand Smoke”

What could be more disappointing than secondhand smoke? You breath it in, it leaves its mark on you, and you can’t even say that you had the satisfaction of lighting up in the first place. Of course, to live a while is to be disappointed, and Chris Smith has indisputably lived a while. Second Hand Smoke contains the kind of music you make when some time has passed and you’ve lived through some things. 

Smith lives in Melbourne, Australia, and he first pinged on musical radar beyond that town a year or two before everyone learned to say Y2K, when he did a bit of recording with New Zealander Peter Jefferies. Smith went on to do a lot more on his own, releasing several albums that set aching melodies swimming underneath choppy waters of guitar noise. In 2007, he made The Bad Orchestra, a record that reversed the ratio of tunes to fuzz in order to hint at a very personal interpretation of the blues. Then things went quiet for a good long while. 

Reportedly, Smith spent that time working in factories, making guitars and raising a kid, but if the sound of Second Hand Smoke is anything to go by, he also spent a lot of time listening to his favorite old records and, maybe a bit more, watching spaghetti-Westerns. This album makes no attempt to keep up with the times, and it’s better for sounding so at home with being exactly what it is. This is the kind of blues you make when you don’t have to worry about closing time, because you never left the house in the first place. 

Smith’s songs still ride in and out of the murk, but now the messy parts sound less like a frothy maelstrom and more like a funnel cloud of choking dust stirred up by bolts of jagged-edge feedback and moment-of-truth harmonica. The steed of choice for navigating the haze is often an acoustic guitar, tuned low and played slow. Smith isn’t afraid to let his influences show. When it’s not obscured by distortion, his voice sounds as lonesome and vulnerable as Hitchhiker-vintage Neil Young, and the sounds surrounding it on the forlorn “Sunny” bring to mind what Big Star’s Third might’ve sounded like if Alex Chilton and Co. had decamped to the desert. But each moment of desolation on Second Hand Smoke is followed by one of hard-won grace, often created by a surge of blessed, blasted noise.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Sally Anne Morgan’s “Thread”

Thread introduces Sally Anne Morgan as a solo artist who understands the task of being a folk musician in the 21st century. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s prior—and, quite likely, future—work as a fiddler with the Black Twig Pickers and as half of vocal/instrumental duo House And Land already knows that she can play the old songs with infectious passion and sing them like they’re real. But on Thread, she uses stories from the past to invite us to think about the present, adding some stories of her own. 

The album is book-ended by songs you might already know by Fairport Convention, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones and Mary Black. “Polly On The Shore” relates the dying regrets of a young buccaneer who’s pining for the love he left behind as he bleeds out; “Annachie Gordon” relates the death of another young woman, whose demise saves her from consummating her arranged marriage to a much older man. Of course, blood and sex have been the stuff of song since time immemorial. But just what was that young guy doing plundering the West Indies anyway? Why was that woman designated to marry a guy she didn’t pick? Pull the thread tight, and you’ll see these circumstances are drawn together by the pitiless engines of colonialism and capitalism, which turn anyone who lacks status and means into so much cannon fodder. If Morgan’s selection of covers thinks globally, her originals propose more locally attainable countermeasures. “Garden Song,” for example, extolls the pleasure and empowerment of living close to the earth, making sure that you know it’s her garden, no one else’s.

Morgan’s instrumentals also serve to bridge tradition and the present. “Sheep Shaped” (an original) and “Sugar In The Gourd” (a traditional tune that turns up a lot at fiddle competitions) are played with a strategically ragged edge and unerring timing; you can be sure that the arm pulling the bow is guided by deep knowledge of how to get folks to kick up some sawdust. But on “Ellemwood Meditation,” Morgan overdubs fiddle and piano to come up with a Blue Ridge mountaineer’s answer to Eno’s Music For Airports. Thread opens up several avenues for further exploration, leaving one curious where Morgan will go next. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Hala Strana’s “Fielding”

Hala Strana’s Fielding represents the acme of multi-instrumentalist Steve R. Smith’s dialogue with the history, music and culture of Eastern Europe. Originally released as a double CD-R in 2003, the immaculate pressing and handsome gatefold packaging of this long-overdue vinyl edition give this formally rigorous and emotionally compelling recording its due. 

Smith first came to light in Mirza and Thuja, a pair of combos that operated from the Bay Area starting in the 1990s. The former was a monstrously loud shoegazer outfit, while the latter situated quiet music within natural environments, but both were collective endeavors. Smith’s own work has usually been quite solitary; even when it sounds like a band is playing, it usually turns out to be just him. Even so, many of his albums are released under project names, of which Hala Strana was the first. The adopted monikers have usually signified either a sonic or aesthetic focus. The deep dive of Hala Strana started when Smith saw the Dog Faced Hermans break into a Romanian folk tune, sending him off to libraries and record stores to find out more about those sounds. Around the same time, Smith began making solo recordings that showcased his knack for composing melodies fit to soundtrack your best imaginary movies.

Fielding fits right into Smith’s long and still-growing catalog, but it also differs in two key ways. He didn’t just write tunes that evoked mental images of distant European villages from before the age of electricity, but he built some of them around samples of ethnographic instrumental and vocal recordings and invited a couple members of Thuja to play on and help him process these hybrid creations. Some of the contemporary contributions sound as old as the samples.

But other pieces exploit temporal tensions, such as when Smith and Glenn Donaldson’s disconsolate strumming on “Lasting” seems to be striving to match and complement the stark tragedy of a Hungarian fiddle recording. Smith also makes no effort to hide his own roots. “The Split Tree,” for example, juxtaposes his keening fiddle with a Thuja-like ambient drone and scraps of noise that sound like they could’ve been torn out of a Swell Maps jam. Such deliberate anachronisms result in a sequence of haunting performances that seem to inhabit different centuries in a way that’s different of anything else in Smith’s oeuvre.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Naked Roommate’s “Do The Duvet”

In the 21st century, the term “post-punk” has been widely applied to acts that have no punk in their blood and, at best, deserve to have their records impaled roughly upon a post. Naked Roommate is the exception to that shameful rule. The Bay Area quartet has certainly done its collective homework. You can hear evidence of Young Marble Giants’ skeletal construction and ESG’s stark funk filtered through a strategically dubwise production approach throughout Do The Duvet. But more importantly, the combo composes tunes and grooves sturdy enough to fully benefit from an aesthetic as nude as that can’t-be-unheard name.

“We Are The Babies” isn’t much more than a short spelling listen over an echo-dipped guitar and a killer disco beat, but that’s enough to start a party that’ll get your grandparents conceived on the floor during Eisenhower’s administration and keep the kids dancing long after the oldsters are in bed. Skip forward a few tunes to “Fill Space” and you’ll grasp that another key element: carefully deployed killer chops. Alejandra Alcala’s bass and Michael Zamora’s guitar are as quick and jittery as an all-day coffee jag, but they never land a note in the wrong spot; Andy Jordan’s drum machines and synths provide the elasticity that keeps Amber Sermeño’s chants airborne. These folks understand that if you’re going to plumb the sounds of earlier times at all, do all of it right.

—Bill Meyer