Essential New Music: Donovan Quinn’s “Absalom”

In the Old Testament, Absalom is a guy so good looking, popular and sure of himself that he gets away with just about everything—until he doesn’t. Donovan Quinn’s first solo album in seven years begins with a declaration that he’s not going down that road, then spends the rest of its playing time sifting through memories of the recklessness that has made such a declaration necessary. Quinn views bad relationships, bad band experiences and the substances that go along with such circumstances through a haze of self-justification. It’s no small thing to portray fuzzy thinking as clearly as Quinn does here, but that’s not his only accomplishment.

Backed by a small band that includes members of the Papercuts and Six Organs Of Admittance, Quinn has made an album that’s easy to listen to from start to finish. The San Francisco-based multi-instrumentalist has a catalog of great guitar sounds at his disposal, and he’s a master at arranging his tunes so that they echo a lineage—Dylan, Lennon, Big Star, T.Rex, etc.—accurately enough that you know exactly where he’s coming from. But then Quinn takes you somewhere new.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Enhet För Fri Musik’s “Det Finns Ett Hjärta Som För Dig”

Enhet För Fri Musik (“Unit For Free Music”) is a quintet whose music will defy you to accurately date its origin, let alone know what the band is singing about. This is a sort of underground all-stars combo, and if membership in other groups like Neutral, Sewer Election or Blod means nothing to you, rest assured that Enhet för Fri Musik is nothing like the harsh noise and brutal songcraft of its members other outfits.

There are easy-to-track similarities with New Zealand’s Xpressway diaspora in the use of antique organs, rough analog recording and rougher editing. But the vibe Enhet För Fri Musik is going for may be more like an update of Sweden’s communal, anyone-can-walk-in-and-contribute vibe of hippie outfits from the 1960s and 1970s. The style jumps from folky strumming to churchy recital, from motor-skills-deficient free jazz to century-spanning sound collage, with Sofie Herner’s conversational, Swedish-only vocal delivery the main unifying factor on a record that is in constant flux. It all feels simultaneously intriguing and quite foreign, and in a shrinking world, the ability to create the experience of barely bridgeable distance commands respect.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Lumen Drones’ “Umbra”

Maybe someone told you about a band you really need to hear. They’re three lifer musicians, and they play instrumentals using fiddle, drums and electric guitar. Maybe you said that you already know about the Dirty Three? If so, then you still need to be clued in to Lumen Drones. This trio hails from Norway, and traditionalScandinavian sounds are twisted tightly into their DNA.

Nils Økland plays a folkloric Hardanger fiddle in additional to his more familiar violin, and he’s been mixing folk and jazz in various projects since the 1980s. Guitarist Per Steinar Lie and drummer Ørjan Haaland, on the other hand, are part of the Low Frequency In Stereo, a rock combo that’s won awards in its native land. Put them together and they make a sound that’s bears some resemblance to the Dirty Three’s. Økland’s bowing will tug at your heartstrings, while Lie’s churning chords put a boot up your backside—and there are occasions where Haaland implies the beat by playing everything around it. But Lumen Drones balances these elements with crisp grooves, pithy melodic statements and a dignified air that’s the polar opposite of the Three’s unabashed sloppiness. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: The High Sheriffs’ “High Sheriffs”

And you thought the cops were selling all that confiscated greenery. Nope, they’ve been holed up behind locked doors, dampened towels keeping the light out and the smoke in while they burn the evidence. While the leaves curl and smoke, they’ve been listening to old-time tunes and lifting choice licks and themes from them. Once liberated, those musical notions float precariously upon clouds of confusion, bobbing in the wakes cut by swooning slide guitars navigating toward a Hawaiian island that only exists in dreams.

When they stumble, briskly played banjos smack them upright. This is the real sound of confusion; you know that they don’t know what they’ll do when legalization stalks their native northern Indiana. There’s old weird America, and new weird America, and somewhere in between there’s the High Sheriffs. And when they say dance, I suggest that you comply.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Made To Break’s “F4 Fake”

In Ken Vandermark’s music, method matters. While the Chicago-based saxophone and clarinet player never performs like it doesn’t matter, each performance can also be understood as part of a rope braided from evolutionary threads. This is especially true with his ongoing bands, of which Made To Break is currently one of the most enduring. It has been around since 2011 with just one change of personnel (electric bass and guitar player Jasper Stadhouders took over for Nate McBride early on; drummer Tim Daisy and electronic musician Christof Kurzmann have been around since the beginning). 

So let’s start tugging at those threads. Vandermark usually has a band on hand where he can express his more rhythmic side; for the past decade, Made To Break has been that band. His partnership with Daisy goes back to the early aughts, when he was in the Vandermark 5. He’s also been striving for about as long to stay engaged with the possibilities of electronics. 

But there’s one thread unique to Made To Break, and that’s methodology. The quartet’s music is modular, which is to say that while there are fixed parts, they can be re-ordered on the fly whenever an appointed musician tells the rest that it’s time to change channels. They’ve been working on this way of working for as long as the band’s been around, and they’ve gotten pretty fluid at negotiating those changes. So while each of F4 Fake’s three tracks is fairly long and contains contrasting passages, they still hang together as lucid sonic narratives. 

F4 Fake’s greatest pleasures, however, are the most visceral ones. There’s palpable delight in Daisy and Stadhouders’ grooves, and the way Vandermark rides them, and also a bracing, thanks-I-needed-that smack when he or Kurzmann shove the music into freefall. So don’t steer away from this record because you think you need to have been on board for the whole trip, because the moment’s thrill is more than enough.

—Bill Meyer