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

Essential New Music: Various Artists “Tokyo Flashback P.S.F.: Psychedelic Speed Freaks”

Sometimes culture comes from the top down; when the Beatles, Steven Spielberg or Beyoncé have had something to say, people listened, whether or not they wanted to. But sometimes it comes up from the underground, often propelled by determined, ornery people who are sure that they know better. Hideo Ikeezumi was one such figure.

Ikeezumi—the Tokyo-based proprietor of a store (Modern Music), a magazine (G-Modern) and a label (P.S.F.)—had an unerring instinct for finding music that was rare, visionary and true. He also had the recklessness to stake everything on transmitting his selections to the world. Among those who got his nod were Keiji Haino, High Rise, Ghost and Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Pariaso U.F.O., all of whom are represented on this gorgeously packaged four-LP compilation. 

Ikeezumi died in 2017, and that same year Ghost’s Masaki Batoh compiled Tokyo Flashback P.S.F.: Psychedelic Speed Freaks, which was originally released in Japan on CD. Paying homage to the compilations that P.S.F. used to release, Batoh looked simultaneously back and right around him. The music encompasses acid folk, free improvisation and prismatic selection of rock music, from high-octane rave-ups to transcendental downer meltdowns. The early material includes psychedelic uplifts by Acid Mothers Temple and Ghost that show just how right Ikeezumi could be, and two Haino performances recorded 20 years apart testify to his enduring otherness.

But some of the best moments on this collection come from names that only an already-established scholar of the deep Japanese underground would recognize. It’s just as rewarding to get lost for the first time in Reizen’s crumbling guitar sonorities or A Qui Avec Gabriel’s lilting accordion melodies as it is to be reminded of the powers of musicians you already know. And that’s what P.S.F. was about from the start, right? 

—Bill Meyer 

Essential New Music: Jessica Pratt’s “Quiet Signs”

Jessica Pratt has a thing for irreducible essences. Quiet Signs, her third LP, barely qualifies as a long player since it clocks in at around 28 minutes. But every sound, every word, every empty space contributes to its effect. The arrangements are spare, with just a keyboard or flute posing a harmony or countermelody to complement Pratt’s acoustic guitar. They serve as a backdrop for her supple voice, which navigates between cloudy heights and shadowy lows without drawing attention to its own mobility.

The gaps within Pratt’s words are even harder to suss out, jumping from first love to loss within a phrase without ever drawing the map of how she got there. This works to their benefit, since it spares the listener the enforced intimacy that burdens so many songs written about relationships in the 21st century. Pratt’s songs are mysterious without drawing attention to their mystery, which ensures that they’ll stick longer in your mind.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Mekons’ “Deserted”

People get up to all sorts of dire shit in the desert. Desert Storm, the current war in Yemen, the recent war against music in Mali, the Alamo, Arthur Rimbaud’s post-art career as businessman in Ethiopia, every spaghetti-Western ever … the list does not end. The Mekons could be on it. At the end of their last U.S. tour, they decamped to Joshua Tree, Calif., to make a record, knowing full well what happens in such arid climes; hell they even write some songs about it. But this crew of English and Welsh men and women, who live scattered around the world when they aren’t doing Mekons stuff, are oppositional to the end, so they made a swell album there instead.

Coming off the road probably has something to do with it, for the Mekons haven’t made a record that sounds this savage in a long, long time. But they aren’t just bashing it out on Deserted; the cursing guitars and wailing violins ride atop some tunes so memorable that they’ll take up residence in your head without you even inviting them in. Add to that their usual acute observations about trying to be honorable and aware while living under the setting sun of capitalism, and you’ve got something that sounds more like a triumphant reminder of how the Mekons earned our allegiance in the first place.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Sunwatchers’ “Illegal Moves”

Before you accuse Sunwatchers of pulling any illegal moves, take a look at the Scott Lenhardt illustration that wraps around the cover of their third album. A Braveheart-coifed Kool-Aid monster faces Emma Goldman, poised with pitchfork in hand while various right-wing doofuses mill around in various states of alarm or oblivion. Battle has already been joined, and no one gets very far arguing about fairness in the midst of combat. But should you need a soundtrack to power you through the field of fire, Illegal Moves is at your service.

The New York quartet, whose members have backed Eugene Chadbourne, Chris Forsyth and the late Arthur Doyle, roar into the fray blaring a jazz-rock hybrid that never forgets to rock. Jeff Tobias has the righteousness to play an Alice Coltrane tune with honor, but Jim McHugh blasts his guitar and phin (a Vietnamese stringed instrument) through pedal-amp combo that betrays his membership in the Ron Asheton fan club. The rhythm section of Jason Robira and Peter Kerlin burns enough rubber to get the job done in a biker flick. And come to think of it, wouldn’t it be cool to hear Davie Allan and Ms. Coltrane soundtrack the righting of all wrongs?

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Bill MacKay’s “Fountain Fire “

The visibility afforded guitarist Bill MacKay by his recent run as Ryley Walker’s right-hand man might create the mistaken impression that he’s new on the scene. In fact, he’s been a fixture of Chicago’s music scene for years as both a versatile sideman and a recording artist in his own right.  Fountain Fire, his second solo recording for Drag City, showcases both MacKay’s knacks for cohesive self-editing and elegant arranging, which make his instrumentals feel like complete songs.

Swooping slide licks push back the horizon on “Pre-California” and “Arcadia”; a galloping tempo and strategically situated organ harmonies invite you to imagine the anticipatory journey that preceded the jaunty salutation of “Welcome.” And when MacKay stretches out, as he does on the layered, lyrical “Dragon Country,” there’s enough tension in the exchanges between echo-drenched lead and tempo-pushing rhythm tracks that you’ll want to hang in there and see who wins. Hitherto known as an instrumentalist, MacKay sings two songs. Since Walker’s ditched his folk stylings for jazzy jams and deep dives into the Dave Matthews songbook, there’s room for a new troubadour in town, and MacKay just might be that guy. 

—Bill Meyer