Smart bandleaders know that if you want you band to sound good, nothing’s more important than a good drummer. You’ll hear a lot of musical differences between jazz saxophonist Greg Ward, Afrobeat combo NOMO, tropically tinged pop group Wild Belle and folk/jazz/prog singer Ryley Walker. But they’ll all tell you the same thing about Quin Kirchner: He makes their band sound good. Given his versatility, Kirchner faces an existential challenge when he puts on boss cap: What music is really his?
The Shadows And The Light affirms Kirchner’s allegiance to a jazz lineage that stretches back half a century. To a time when Sun Ra was trying to redeem us with the lure of heading for space, and when the bands soundtracking your movies and TV shows were led by and populated with folks with bonafide jazz chops. This sprawling double album is well-stocked with swinging cadences, richly textured horn riffs and pithy, expressive solos played by a gallery of crack, Chicago-based musicians. Seven sidemen step in and out from track to track as needed, which ensures variety and keeps the music from ever sounding too busy. The material is split between Kirchner’s originals and 20th-century chestnuts by Ra, Carla Bley, Kelan Phil Cohran and Frank Foster. While it feels like a crime not to give a shout out to all of the musicians, Nate Lepine’s flute and Rob Clearfield’s electric piano deserve particular acknowledgement for the spiritual, ‘70s vibe they evoke. And Kirchner’s own playing does just what it’s done for all his employers: make the band sound good.
The Mekons have been through their share of changes since they first convened in Leeds, England, in the late 1970s. Styles, label affiliations and band members may come and go and come back again, but one thing that’s been true for some time is this: Mekons records are made by getting the Mekons together in a room. There’s a practical side to this, since the band’s membership has spent the last couple decades spread out between California and Central Asia, but it also affirms and ensures the Mekons’ collective nature.
In recent times, they’ve turned recording into a destination endeavor, making 2015’s Jura on a junket to a damp Scottish island, 2016’s Existentialism in a Brooklyn theater with an audience that doubled as a choir and last year’s Deserted on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California. This April, they were scheduled to convene in Valencia, Spain, but COVID-19 put paid to that plan. But rather than calling things off, the Mekons chucked that self-made rule in order to write and record a new album as a sort of email-mediated exquisite corpse, messaging ideas and sounds from one member to the next and releasing it as a download just one week after its completion.
This pandemic has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, but it has devastated even more livelihoods, and musicians are among the number who’ve been especially hard hit. Many are scrambling to survive by playing online for tips or putting the contents of their tape cupboards and hard drives on Bandcamp. On Exquisite, the Mekons holler back and forth at each other their diverse takes on the economics of 21st-century plague living. One of them sings “order out, order in” over a robot-T.Rex stomp on “West Yorks Ballad,” invoking an experience familiar to anyone who has had the means to enjoy take-out dining over the past three months. The title song, on the other hand, takes things from micro to macro, tracing the webs of commerce and intrigue that have shuttled money, goods and the virus between China and the U.S. through a sonic matrix of folk violin and squelchy electronic bass.
Does it all add up? Of course not, so they sing about that too, admitting on “What I Believe” that “what I believe at night is not what I believe in the morning.” In places, Exquisite sounds as distorted and cluttered as a night spent spelunking in internet rabbit-holes, but the Mekons balance digital distortion with sonic tips of the hat to Tex-Mex rock, spaghetti-Western soundtracks and Black Ark dub. Chaotic and astute, Exquisite is a vivid screenshot of the time in which it’s been made.
The Powers/Rolin Duo messes with expectations in most delightful ways. Their instrumentation—hammered dulcimer and 12-string acoustic guitar—looks like something you’d see on a shady stage at a summertime art show or a farmers’ market. But this is the 21st century, and they’ve got some effects boxes. When the sounds on the Powers/Rolin Duo’s first proper LP hit your ears, what you hear is a swarm of string overtones that might bring to mind Laraaji/Eno’s ambient 1980 collaboration Day Of Radiance. In either case, the possibility of being ignored is built right in. But this Columbus, Ohio, twosome would rather have your complete attention, and they’ll handily reward you if you give it to them.
Matthew J. Rolin is an accomplished soloist who takes cues from Jim O’Rourke’s long-form acoustic-guitar music, John Fahey’s recordings for Takoma and Vanguard and, especially, the early output of James Blackshaw. He has a gift for merging melody and resonance into a force that grabs your ears, lifts your heart and makes you want to remember it while you go somewhere. While he often holds the foreground, it’s Jen Powers’ cascading dulcimer that frames and amplifies the prevailing sentiments of his playing. Musicians from Leo Kottke to Kraftwerk have already soundtracked your perfect road trip; Rolin and Powers supply the sounds to your dream of a perfect sunrise.
A tower can be an advantageous observation post or a monument to the past. Lithics’ Tower Of Age is both. The Portland quartet has an undeniable hankering for musical methods that were first developed before anyone in the band was born. The crisp, choppy grooves of drummer Wiley Hickson and bassist Bob Desaulniers are directly descended from those of post-punk combos like Pylon and Delta 5. Guitarists Aubrey Hornor and Mason Crumley have studied the start/stop structures and terse, conversational leads of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and early-‘80s Fall so closely, they could probably show the surviving members of those ensembles how to do it right again. And Desaulniers’ low-tech tape collages complicate and interrupt the band’s rocking performances in a manner similar to Fall leader’s Mark E. Smith’s disruptive C-90 interventions.
But the cultural landscape that Lithics surveys is present, or even prescient. Who can’t stroll down an American street nowadays without obsessing about somebody’s ink? “Snake Tattoo” succinctly captures the combination “Woah, what did I just see?” and “Why can’t I forget that tat?” And the lines “You take a walk with me/Hands to the side,” from first single “Hands,” nail a social-distancing vibe that may have been a choice when Hornor first gave deadpan voice to the words, but is now an essential survival strategy. Call ‘em classic or pertinent; either way, you’re right.
To misquote Bob Dylan, the times they are putting us through some changes. 2020 should’ve been a good year for Buck Curran. The American guitarist and singer, formerly a member of long-running duo Arborea, was looking forward to the release of a new album on ESP-Disk and the birth of his second child with his Italian wife, Adele Pappalardo. But then COVID-19 happened, and one of the places it hit hardest was their home base of Bergamo. With mouths to feed, and stores, venues and production facilities shut down, Curran decided to move up his record’s release and put out No Love Is Sorrow as a download on his own Obsolete imprint.
A luthier as well as a musician, Curran is steeped in guitar lore, and it shows. Most of the record’s music, which is split between vocal and instrumental pieces, is built from layered guitar tracks that reference styles without being locked into them. The title of the opener, “Blue Raga,” cues the listener for an American Primitive-style fantasia, but Curran’s percussive rhythm playing has at least as much to do with British folkies like Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson. Sustained electric notes sound an alarm on “One Evening,” while Curran predicts dire happenings before pledging to stay near his love ones; it may have been recorded last year, but it seems quite pertinent to the present time.
As the album’s title suggests, love is Dr. Curran’s prescription to heal what ails you, but the time he devotes to elegant licks suggests that the sounds of six strings ringing out is his preferred potentiator. And because downloads aren’t as time-limited as vinyl LPs, Curran has appended four alternate versions to the album’s end. They aren’t dramatically different from the originals, but whether you’re commuting with a mask at the ready or quarantined at home, you’re bound to have some time on your hands to consider the details that define them.