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

Essential New Music: Marisa Anderson’s “Cloud Corner”

Marisa Anderson’s devotions to music, social transformation and good old-fashioned adventuring have kept her on the road for a fair bit of her life. She knows all about packing light and packing smart, and a similar sensibility infuses her music. Cloud Corner, her first recording for Thrill Jockey, is a studio production that layers her electric guitar with Wurlitzer piano, Andean charango and Mexican requinto jarocho. But every tune on it can be boiled down to a solo performance, and each comes with a story attached.

In concert, those stories draw you into her life and those of her subjects, but on record, the music communicates just fine with nary a word. Anderson’s tunes are rooted in American folk, blues and gospel, and charged with the life and death struggles that regular folks have faced since before this country was a nation. They give comfort, express defiance and set you pleasantly adrift in an imaginary sea of flowing melody and liquid reverb.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Barrence Whitfield & The Savages’ “Soul Flowers Of Titan”

Pre-release hype on the 12th full-length slab from these Boston kings of garage/R&B claimed it to be under the hypnotic spell of Sun Ra’s cosmic free jazz. It’s difficult to tell through the hardly-lo-fi-but-not-quite-high-fidelity sonics of Cincinnati’s clearly analog Ultra Suede Studios. Full, raucous and live-in-a-room—and definitely swelling under tube and tape compression until it explodes—the dozen-song Soul Flowers Of Titan is the sound of hard-roots vets displaying muscular expertise.

The LP, the follow-up to 2015’s Under The Savage Sky, is bolstered by new Savage Brian Olive’s thick, warm Hammond B3. But the focus remains square on Barrence Whitfield’s unhinged vocals and the screaming blues guitar and slashing power chords of Beantown punk legend Peter Greenberg (DMZ, Lyres), who also served as Soul Flowers Of Titan’s producer. The material runs the gamut from Texas blues shuffles (“Slowly Losing My Mind,” “Tall, Black And Bitter,” “Let’s Go To Mars”) to Stax-y soul stomps (“Pain,” “Tingling,” “Sunshine Don’t Make The Sun”) to street-corner doo wop (“I’ll Be Home Someday”). Retro futurists like JD McPherson should definitely take notes.

—Tim Stegall

Essential New Music: Tune-Yards’ “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life”

Oakland-based vocalist/ukuleleist Merrill Garbus is the most visionary white artist of the last decade, and such singular, hooky and uncomfortable documents as the abrasive wonder of 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs, 2011’s funkily disturbing w h o k i l l and 2014’s intersectionally playful Nikki Nack speak (loudly) for themselves. Fourth album I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is merely very good. Tired of having her political message lost in universes of sound junk and lyrical abstractions, she streamlines both here into danceable nuggets of unmistakable self-criticism.

“All I know is white centrality,” she fears on best-in-show lead single “ABC 123,” while the buzzing, Cibo Matto-esque “Colonizer” chides a version of herself that spoke too familiarly of Kenyan men. But aside from exceptions like the bass-line-and-snare-hooked “Look At Your Hands” and eerily harmonized dirge “Home,” these are some of the least catchy tunes in her catalogue, as well as the least decorous. Like Eminem on Revival, of all things, she’s too self-conscious at her most conscientious to find her ease with the material.

—Dan Weiss

Essential New Music: Ty Segall’s “Freedom’s Goblin”

You can be forgiven for not keeping up with Ty Segall’s myriad releases (at minimum an album a year), but you could do worse than use Freedom’s Goblin as your chance to catch up. It’s a 19-track double LP of Segall’s many moods, from acoustic love songs to extended guitar jams to, most often, fuzzed-out rock.

Like the similarly prolific Bob Pollard, Segall draws on classic lexicons—in his case, the deep vocabulary of stoner metal, glam and scuzzy garage rock—but he’s eager to subvert expectations, too. He’ll add horns as sweeteners, or take a ’70s disco track (Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner”) and railroad it into a grand-funk stomp. Even at its most abrasive or cartoonishly violent, Freedom’s Goblin has hooks and strong songwriting, and the quality is more consistent than Segall’s norm. Of course, Segall’s not really interested in consistency or norms. He likes his rock ’n’ roll damaged and weird.

—Steve Klinge