It would seem that Austin transplants Heartless Bastards have evolved into a band of unique focus—a smart, purposeful ensemble boasting one of the best rock singers of the 21st century. While vocalist Erika Wennerstrom has been the one constant and unifying force throughout its decade-plus existence, the group has solidified into a powerful, dynamic unit capable of a truly expansive sonic range, as evidenced on its fifth CD.
Clearly, Restless Ones is a statement of collective confidence and ambitious vision. From the opening bombast of “Wind Up Bird” to the final sampled strains of “Tristessa,” this LP displays a modern, muscular approach that ignores trends and enters into the realm of timeless, passionate songcraft. Wennerstrom’s whirlwind voice is beyond expressive—coupled with the Bastards’ straightforward instrumentation and equally inspired production values, Restless Ones represents some of the best rock music America has to offer this year.
She had one of the most haunting, most arresting voices in all of American musical history, as immediately recognizable as Ralph Stanley and Billie Holiday’s. Bob Dylan called her his favorite singer. The Band’s “Katie’s Been Gone” was rumored to have been written about her. Yet Karen Dalton released only two albums during her lifetime, neither of which included any original compositions. At last we have an album of original lyrics by Dalton, set to music and performed by 11 wildly literate, seriously gifted female singer/songwriters, just like she was. Its lyrical content alone would make Remembering Mountains an event, but the record is a triumph on every level, honoring Dalton’s talents even as it moves her lyrics into diverse settings. Remembering Mountains is simply looking like one of the best albums of 2015, a claim I feel sanguine making even though we’re barely at the halfway mark.
The easiest way to frame Remembering Mountains would be to make the obvious point that all 11 of the composers and performers here—from the venerable Lucinda Williams through Sharon Van Etten to comparative newcomer Laurel Halo—owe some sort of stylistic debt to Dalton’s sparse, eerily minimalist aesthetic. Halo’s sample- and production-heavy “Blue Notion” will likely be the controversial track among fans and reviewers, as it strays farthest from Dalton’s sonic territory. But even Halo clearly gets it—the wide, airy space into which Dalton poured her voice and stringed accompaniments, the roomy echoes that always made Dalton’s music sound as though it had just appeared out of the landscape as a natural extension of it, as much a part of the earth as the rocks and the trees. And rather than try to replicate that sound exactly—or, conversely, force Dalton’s lyrics into needlessly clever or unexpected arrangements—every track here honors the spirit behind her performance style first and foremost. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a so-called “tribute” record (an unhelpful description here anyway) that sounds so close, in its bones and its nerves, to the honored artist’s unique aesthetic.
So, the easiest talking point—women artists honoring a woman artist—is the least impressive element of Remembering Mountains, and any review that foregrounds that element misses the core fact: This is a superb assembly of collaborative compositions, an album whose historical significance, in terms of Karen Dalton’s work and influence, is easily matched by the quality of the music. The greatest joys here, such as the two completely distinct yet equally stunning settings of “Met An Old Friend” by Lucinda Williams and Josephine Foster, are best experienced directly and not described. It’s enough to speculate that from what we know of her tastes, Dalton would likely have loved this album. A higher compliment than that, I don’t know how to give.
This is Graham Parker’s second album with the reunited backup band that gave his early albums so much fire and brimstone. They’re all older now, but they still pack a punch. Parker’s voice is thinner and decidedly less angry, but his sarcasm and cutting wit are intact. He’s also gained enough insight to toss a few barbs at his own head. On “Flying Into London,” he takes responsibility for screwing up a good relationship with a dismissive one-liner: “I never did notice when other people cry.”
Tunes like “Railroad Spikes,” “Long Shot” and “Slow News Day” address the fractured state of the world and personal relationships with a mature approach that borders on bemused resignation. Guitar player Martin Belmont and keyboard ace Bob Andrews shine throughout, adding subtle fills and accents that give plenty of sparkle to arrangements that still merge R&B and rock with hints of funk and reggae.
The Helio Sequence has worked on a fairly panoramic screen over the past decade and a half, projecting its evocative synth/guitar/beat constructions through the widest possible lens. Guitarist/vocalist Brandon Summers and drummer/keyboardist/vocalist Ben Weikel have often spent inordinate amounts of time and energy crafting the Helio Sequence’s expansive and layered soundtracks, and its albums have often expanded to cinemascopic proportions in the process. But the duo’s recent participation in a local Portland, Ore., songwriting exercise dubbed “The 20-Song Game” led Summers and Weikel to work in more concise and loosely organized ways on their eponymous sixth album, resulting in 10 infectiously compelling tracks in 36 breathtaking minutes.
There is a poppish melodicism to The Helio Sequence that suggests Fountains Of Wayne veering into space rock/ambient territory, a sweetening of the moodier Rufus Wainwright-fronts-U2 atmosphere of 2012’s Negotiations and a slight return to the lighter bounce of 2008’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead. The duo reins in its inclination toward broad sonic statements in favor of a more immediate approach that still manages to pack a powerful punch. Songs that would have been furiously epic on recent THS works are marvels of restraint in length and production, particularly the nervous slink of “Upward Mobility,” the elegant swagger of “Stoic Resemblance” and the thrilling pop insistence of “Deuces,” which all clock in at less than four minutes.
The real trick in all of this is that the Helio Sequence has pared down its sound and vision without losing a molecule of its well-defined identity; this album may be the simple blueprint of things to come.
On its first album in 10 years, D.C. band Beauty Pill takes a sledgehammer to boundaries and orthodoxies. Prior releases on Dischord (including 2000’s The Cigarette Girl From The Future, recently reissued and expanded) were dark, fractured psych-pop takes on D.C. punk. The long-gestating Describes Things is a daring leap forward—a fever dream of loops and beats intertwining with drums and guitars, but also Japanese banjos, Africa/Brass-like horns and more.
Frontman Chad Clark’s lyrics are allusive, incisive and sometimes eerily prescient. “Ain’t A Jury In The World Gon’ Convict You Baby” now seems inescapably about Ferguson. On “Near Miss Stories,” Clark unflinchingly focuses on the virus that invaded his heart in 2007 and almost killed him. The album, largely recorded in public as a 2011 art exhibit in Arlington, Va., addresses the zeitgeist head-on and features vivid soundscapes that recall both Revolver and Stankonia. Yeah, it’s that good.