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.
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.
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.
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.
This superstar bluegrass-flavored trio features former Nickel Creek fiddler/guitarist Sara Watkins, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan (known for her stunning vocal work with Crooked Still and Sometymes Why). Debut See You Around shows off the band’s celestial harmonies, instrumental prowess and impressive songwriting with 11 originals and unrecorded Gillian Welch gem “Hundred Miles.”
The women alternate lead vocals throughout the album, but when their voices blend, moving from two-part to three-part harmonies, the music really takes off. There’s a hint of ’50s R&B on “Ryland (Under The Apple Tree)” with subtle, twangy electric guitar supporting the trio’s smooth vocal interplay. “Close It Down” is an old-fashion country cheating song, given a new spin by the trio’s arch vocals as they brush aside the advances of a smug Lothario. “Hundred Miles” wraps things up with a mostly a cappella rendition of this chilling, traditional-sounding tune.
Ministry headman Al Jourgensen has been outspoken about his repulsion for the current administration and its disregard for truth, justice, human rights, science and common decency. He amplifies those concerns on AmeriKKKant, one of the most powerful and overtly political albums he’s ever made. “Antifa” celebrates the current resistance movement with a stomping metal beat, a wall of guitars and growling lyrics that raise a fist—and a middle finger—to right-wing bigots.
Jourgensen doesn’t call out our commander-in-chief by name, but the blistering speed-metal screed of “We’re Tired Of It” lines out his faults (political and physical) with a bracing jolt of rage and vicious humor. “Twilight Zone” echoes the helpless fury and confusion many people felt on Nov. 9, 2016, with a confusion of overdubbed voices, a grinding industrial beat and the question many of us keep asking: “Where do we go from here?”
As a quintessential fan’s band (seemingly beloved, at some point, by virtually anyone who’s been a nerdy adolescent in the past 30 years—and/or a nerdy pre-tween in the past 15) whose work is absurdly consistent in both quality and inimitable, idiosyncratic M.O., it’s hard to imagine any new TMBG record either majorly disappointing their faithful or engaging those outside the fold. Their 20th—and perhaps most aptly titled—likely won’t change the latter, either, but it deserves to more than most. Musically, it’s another melodic goldmine and their most vigorous, least fussy work in ages, hearkening back to 2007’s The Else, and even 1994’s John Henry, in favoring guitar-centric power pop and straight-up rock ’n’ roll.
Lyrically, I Like Fun might be the most black-humored of an often deceptively dark catalog—the album’s positively anthemic final refrain runs, in part, “We die alone/We die afraid/We live in terror”—which is likely an oblique sign of the times. While little here is overtly political, it’s hard not to read many of these characteristically sly, knotty songs—a triumphal-sounding yet crushingly sardonic time-capsule missive; a report of “lake monsters” swarming the polling stations; feeble optimism following some unnamed, probably apocalyptic catastrophe; even a posthumous post-mortem from one of Bluebeard’s victims—as reflective of our current grim state of affairs. As the irrepressibly bouncy swingtime opener puts it: “Let’s Get This Over With.”
—K. Ross Hoffman
John Cale talks about his VU past and future
Rather than being a man of rumination after 50 years in the biz, John Cale is still pretty much a forward-looking chap. Along with recently finishing off what he calls “a fairly funky” studio effort influenced in part by Kendrick Lamar, Cale is considering new film scores and touring opportunities. Hitting 75, however—to say nothing of the Velvets’ golden anniversary—did give him pause, enough so to stage birthday and anniversary events in the VU’s name at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last November.
“I’m interested in changing the possibilities of all the Velvets’ songs, even the instrumentation,” he told MAGNET in advance of the shows. “I’m aware that people expect to hear things as they remember them—which isn’t going to happen anyway. But we have a lot to work with.”
Cale chatted about the past in its place—of his initial relationship with Reed (“We mentored each other”), with Warhol’s lust for fame (“He was good at getting attention”) and failing to generate record sales (“We snarled a lot”). Cale also mentioned future Velvets endeavors such as Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes’ upcoming VU documentary. “I don’t know where he’s going with it,” he says, “but I got a good feeling.”
Save for the rarity of its “lost” 1969 sessions, another repackaging of Lou Reed and John Cale’s now-canonical, dry-icy, holy-terror take on then-experimental rock might seem exploitative, extending the 50th anniversary of March 1967’s The Velvet Underground And Nico for solely commercial purpose. Yet, this all-vinyl collection is the first to finally connect the dots between the scarred streetwise poetic Reed/Cale VU of 1967 and 1968, the entirety of 1969 (the year’s complete sessions, stitched together by project overseer Bill Levenson) and 1970’s Loaded—and go one step further. By including Nico’s softly spun Chelsea Girl—Warhol named rather than produced, with songs by a united Reed and Cale—from the same year as VU’s debut, a truer picture of that epoch is made and maintained.
The value of the monotone German VU chanteuse coo-hooting her way through dramatic Reed/Cale originals “Little Sister” and “It Was A Pleasure Then” (to say nothing of Reed’s co-penned “Chelsea Girl” with the Velvets’ second guitarist Sterling Morrison) is raised and placed on par with the VU’s debut selections such as “Sunday Morning” (sun-dappled-at-dawn elegant) and “Femme Fatale” or “Venus In Furs” (darkly, discordantly sensual). Placing Nico in context with Reed and Cale alone is worth the price of admission here, and a trick worth repeating (e.g. Rhino’s recent Berlin-years Bowie boxed set that should’ve included the Iggy Pop albums he co-wrote and produced at the same place and time).
Beyond re-evaluating 1967 and restructuring 1969 to include stuff such as “She’s My Best Friend” and “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” (eventual Reed solo cuts that show he wasted nothing), this weighty six-LP box sounds tighter and crisper than any VU redo.
Grant-Lee Phillips has now been making solo records for far longer than he served as the celebrated frontman of ’90s-era L.A. trio Grant Lee Buffalo. Yet the same precepts hold true in both cases: His best records tend to evoke power and dark sophistication from simple, emotionally honest corners. (Think 1994’s Mighty Joe Moon or 2001 solo effort Mobilize.) Now that we’re a year deep into the Alternative Facts era, Phillips draws upon the prevailing fear, uncertainty and doubt to unleash Widdershins (the term means “counterclockwise,” or more literally in Low German, “to go against”).
He’s most successful when stripping down his lyrical ideas and melodic underpinnings to their simplest expressions, in a live-in-the-studio trio format. “Totally You Gunslinger” benefits from a propulsive churn and classically Phillips sentiment (the “Do you wanna be like him?” chorus sounds less like scolding than free-floating regret), “Walk In Circles” splits the difference between prime-time GLB and R.E.M., while “King Of Catastrophes” comes on like Creedence at its most minor-key. It may be a mad world we’re navigating at the moment, but Phillips’ righteous indignation and fiery storytelling sound perfectly tailor-made for these times.