Essential New Music: Jonathan Wilson’s “Rare Birds”

Jonathan Wilson is very good at a lot of things. Emerging as an auspicious talent in an already crowded Southern California rock-revival scene, Wilson has played guitar and sung with authority while hitting all the right hipster buttons for a decade. Nowadays, as part of Roger Waters’ touring band and producing the likes of Father John Misty, Conor Oberst, Roy Harper and Johnathan Rice, Wilson is poised to move even further up the entertainment ladder. (Given 2013’s Fanfare featured contributions from David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Benmont Tench and Josh Tillman, as well as members of Wilco and Dawes, he already has a lot of rock stars’ numbers in his phone.)

On his third solo disc, the Laurel Canyon-based Wilson is brilliant and creative yet hindered by his own expansive eclecticism and purple prose. An extremely personal collection that spans a multitude of styles, Rare Birds is an ambitious psychedelic excursion set firmly in the present with sonic references abounding. From the pulsing hypnotica of “Loving You” (featuring singer Laraaji) to the profane “49 Hairflips” (with Tillman and Lana Del Rey), this 13-track, 79-minute LP contains Floydian flourishes, synth-pop anthems, hippie dreams and singer/songwriter confessionals.

—Mitch Myers

Essential New Music: Steve Reich’s “Pulse/Quartet”

Pulse/Quartet’s one-sheet is bogged down in minutiae and erudite discussion of the theory and instrumentation constituting the halves of minimalist composer Steve Reich’s latest album. And while we’re sure “serious music” proponents will find value in this highfalutin discourse, what of the casual listener standing outside the pipe-smoke circle? “Pulse,” as performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, is a piece rooted in modern classical and PBS documentary scores focusing on clashing tones and deviant resolutions. The result see-saws between silky smoothness and sandpapery coarseness, and approximates the calm before a storm that never actually arrives.

“Quartet” has the Colin Currie Group performing a composition designed for two vibraphones and two pianos that Reich himself describes as one of his most complex. The three movements play with tempo and key changes and a lilting staccato. In the end, the dominant strain is melodically powerful modern jazz where “Mvt.-I” and “Mvt.-III” are the triumphant highlights with joyous Paper Chase and jittery Peanuts reference points. Those comparisons may have unflinching, furrow-browed listeners crowing about sacrilege, but we’re just calling ’em like we hear ’em.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Essential New Music: J.D. Wilkes’ “Fire Dream”

Oh, what whimsy J.D. Wilkes can pack into a svelte 10-song solo debut. The Legendary Shack Shaker has outdone himself with this offering of gypsy funk wrapped in a cavalcade of musical stylings like a birthday cake of fireworks, each song a fiery report in its own right or, better yet, rite. The oddball creative-genius Colonel is on full display—a scholar of all things hillbilly, jazzy, bluesy, fiddley. He’s Paducah, Ky., in musical form.

Fire Dream is a journey through the center of the man. Each is song personally whittled with a half-broken pen knife bouncing between operatic and cinematic to dingy and dusty to crystalline opulence. The album incites a tap and clog, stomp and stammer, and a beatnik’s prose all within the same audible journey yet fits perfectly together like some twisted jigsaw puzzle. Theoretically, this shouldn’t work, but it does in spades. And its constant motion is terribly addicting and moving.

—Scott Zuppardo

Essential New Music: Shannon & The Clams’ “Onion”

Based on the strength and maturity of the fifth album from vocalist/bassist Shannon Shaw and her Clams, every studio session should shadow tragedy. Onion was cut one month after the December 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in their native Oakland, and their writing focused on the importance of identity and community to the general human condition.

With the band ensconced in Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, a layered-yet-vintage, warm, highly analog sound ensued. Auerbach taps into his inner Bert Berns as a producer, finding each song’s emotional core, pitching every note to a shrieking, hysterical climax, all instruments and vocals reaching tape as intimate as a lover’s whispered plea. Onion’s an alternate 1962 AM-radio top-13 chart, where Del Shannon cuts a “Runaway” sequel (“Backstreets”) as a response to the aforementioned fire, and the wailing, pleading “If you ever change your mind” hook on “The Boy” is number one.

—Tim Stegall

Essential New Music: Tracey Thorn’s “Record”

One of the most singularly affecting musical voices (literal and figurative) of the last 35 years, Tracey Thorn has often found her truest métier breathing warmth into glistening electronic soundscapes (Massive Attack’s epochal “Protection,” Everything But The Girl’s immaculate Walking Wounded), so it’s a thrill that her first proper album since the ruminant mid-life balladry of 2010’s Love And Its Opposite marks an emphatic return to synth-pop. It’s a largely uncharacteristically lighthearted affair comprising, per Thorn’s pithy summation, “nine feminist bangers.” That’s a decent gloss—and Ewan Pearson’s productions certainly bang, shimmer and simmer resplendently as called for (though, only nine?!)—but these are hardly the pro forma femmepowerment anthems it might suggest.

You’ll find ample sisterly solidarity in the album’s righteously smoldering, Corinne Bailey Rae-abetted centerpiece (“Sister”), but overall you could handily replace “feminist” with “human” or just “honest.” Like Saint Etienne’s similarly nostalgia-tinged Words And Music, Record is essentially a chronicle of a life lived through music and love, an episodic autobiography in song that takes us from schoolyard gender trouble (“Air”) to planned and blissful parenthood (“Babies”) to Facebook-stalking at 50-something (“Face.”) Meanwhile, “Smoke” deftly intertwines family history with contemporary political unease, and “Guitar” brilliantly remembers the anonymous anyboy who taught Thorn her first chords: “And though we kissed and kissed and kissed/You were just a catalyst … Thank God I could sing/And I had my guitar.” Amen to that!

—K. Ross Hoffman

Essential New Music: Refrigerator’s “High Desert Lows”

It’s a tough lot, being the flagship band on a willfully obscure record label, but Refrigerator’s never taken the easy path. The group has rarely toured, its albums are hard to find, and its jangly, off-kilter sound is more of a slow-burn obsession than love at first listen. Built around Allen Callaci’s blue-collar soulful voice, High Desert Lows (produced by Simon Joyner) shows the band in a blue period. These songs are mournful and searching, a withering waltz here, a cockeyed folk ballad there.

Swooning strings and twinkly pianos abound, but the general vibe is idiosyncratic Americana. “Cardboard Death Elevator” is a gorgeous defeatist anthem, bolstered by a bruising guitar solo from band co-founder/Shrimper CEO Dennis Callaci. “Mission & Garey,” “Twice As Less,” “Bonnie Pointer” and several others thrive in that sweet spot between awe and bitterness. “Drag my body through the ditch,” Callaci sings on “Save For Baltimore.” “Sing my swansong in perfect pitch.”

—Patrick Rapa

Essential New Music: Pianos Become The Teeth’s “Wait For Love”

Pianos Become The Teeth aren’t suddenly all sunshine on Wait For Love, but they do feel somewhat lighter-chested. Continuing down the same path forged by 2014’s Keep You, which marked a shift away from post-hardcore screaming to a more composed and collected indie rock, Wait For Love refines the band’s still-fresh sonic space. These 10 songs are less concerned with catharsis and more interested in letting the light in. “Fake Lighting” is a brimming call to action, insisting a celebration in lighter tones.

Wait For Love radiates the kind of late-night beauty akin to the National’s Boxer, with its punchy, dizzy percussion and its ability to pull some heavy results out of small details, like a child’s resemblance to his passed grandfather on the sober sunset of “Blue.” Keep You and 2011’s The Lack Long After were outstanding and brutal documents of grief; Wait For Love is a beautiful consideration of what comes next.

—Jordan Walsh

Essential New Music: Matthew Lux’s Communication Arts Quartet’s “Contra/Fact”

Have you ever said something and then, upon reflection, thought you could say it just a little better? Nowadays, the sequential release of music on different formats provides a readymade opportunity to polish your points, and that’s exactly what Matthew Lux has done with the LP edition of Contra/Fact. The Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist, whose work has covered the spectrum from psychedelic jazz with Rob Mazurek to lyrical folk rock with Moon Bros, rearranged, condensed and remastered the music from the original cassette to create a pithier, punchier LP. It was the right move.

Given the stark lyricism of Ben Lamar Gay’s cornet and the depth of Lux’s grooves, it’s easy to compare this music to that of Miles Davis’ early electric period, but that leaves out a host of other influences. While jazz-rooted improvisation glues it together, there are moments when Contra/Fact sounds like a Brazilian street party and others that are closer to musique concrète.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Dick Stusso’s “In Heaven”

For the past few years, Oakland’s Dick Stusso has been writing dark, apprehensive quasi-country scenarios, dwelling on the less savory aspects of life on earth. He delivers his messages with a lo-fi, homemade approach that makes them sound like notes from a soul finely balanced on the edge of despair. Despite the implied salvation in the title, In Heaven continues to address the numbing overstimulation of present-day existence with a tone somewhere between a grimace and a smirk.

The plodding tempos, muffled background vocals and Stusso’s rumbling baritone give laments like “Terror Management,” “Bullshit Century, Part 1” and “Phasing Out” a bleak, hopeless authenticity. The slow lumbering beat of “Modern Music” actually harks back to the sound of an early R&B hit, with shrieks of spaghetti-Western guitar and primal bluesy piano supporting a morose lyric that declaims, “Modern life is a palace built on endless suffering.”

—j. poet

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

It’s difficult to really miss a band like the Get Up Kids. Sure, it’s been seven years since the band put out its last LP—extremely underrated fuzz-rock set There Are Rules—but at this point the fivesome has made its indelible mark. You can hear the Kids all over the place in modern emo, From the dusty, sincere wail of acts like awakebutstillinbed to the detailed and direct pop of artists like Oso Oso, the many sides of the Get Up Kids are with us even when the band is not.

But there’s no reason a band with this kind of legacy in this little niche can’t come back and sound natural as ever. Kicker, the new four-song EP from the band, is a quick little jumpstart for the group, and it has a lot to give in just 13 minutes. Opener “Maybe” is like candy for anyone who’s ever loved this genre—a loud, pounding anthem with all the biting spirit of the band’s best work. “Better This Way” and “I’m Sorry” are pure fun to fill out the center of the EP while setting us up for the crowning jewel of the collection: “My Own Reflection.” This song so easily encapsulates everything that has always been great about the Get Up Kids, a reminder of why so many people have connected with this band over its long career. Matt Pryor sings as the song opens, “It’s hard enough to stay awake/Let alone to motivate/But we do this everyday.” For all the discontent, the angst, the anxiety of everyday life, this band has always been excellent at living through the stomach knots and aimless longing to turn the Kids into something that feels damn good to sing along to. And when that loud, vibrant synth line comes in to take center stage, the kind of sound you turn up far too loud on a lonely, dark drive because you just want to pull it close as you can, it’s hard to deny that the band is still as good at this as it ever was.

There’s a déjà-vu sensation that comes when listening to these songs. That’s fine—these songs are not anything drastically new for the Get Up Kids. The band has made plenty of trips to new sounds and textures over the years, and they’ve all been rewarding. But Kicker doesn’t want to go anywhere new really; it just sounds like it wants to come home. And no matter where else they may go on this new run, it sure was nice to have the Get Up Kids touch base in a sound as comfortable as the one that Kicker provides.

—Jordan Walsh