Essential New Music: I’m With Her’s “See You Around”

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.

—j. poet

Essential New Music: Ministry’s “AmeriKKKant”

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?”

—j. poet

Essential New Music: They Might Be Giants’ “I Like Fun”

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

The Velvet Underground’s John Cale: Some Velvet Morning

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.”

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: The Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground”

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 Loadedand 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.

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: Grant-Lee Phillips’ “Widdershins”

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.

—Corey duBrowa

Jack White: Schoolhouse Rock

Boarding House Reach not only shows off Jack White’s master’s-level skills as a musician but also lyrics that will make some English professors avaricious

The three words composing the title of Jack White’s new album should be readily comprehensible to any average anglophone—unlike, for instance, Blunderbuss or Lazaretto—but that doesn’t mean the LP doesn’t offer plenty of opportunities for White to flaunt his sesquipedalian predilections vis-à-vis his song titles. Here’s a quick rundown/cheat sheet to some of the album’s most highfalutin verbiage.

“Hypermisophoniac”
“Misophonia” (literally “hatred of sound”) turns out to be a little-understood condition involving a psychological sensitivity to specific noises—a fitting title for a song peppered with all sorts of beeps and electronic swooshes, wherein “Every sound I hear/Is louder than the last” and “When you click your teeth/I need relief.” It’s unclear how that connects to the central refrain about “robbin’ a bank,” but the “hyper” part seems pretty apt, too.

“Abulia And Akrasia”
These sound like the names of intriguingly exotic characters (perhaps somehow connected to the Ezmerelda who turns up later in the album), but they refer to two distinct-yet-related concepts—one from neurology, the other from classical philosophy—involving the lack of willpower. In the case of the magniloquent, pleonastic, circumlocutious speaker in this odd interlude, spluttering on about abjuration and repudiation, it’s apparently related to tea-drinking.

“Ice Station Zebra”
What’s the link between this boisterous Beasties-esque boomer (whose title, like the two aforementioned, doesn’t appear in its lyrics) and the eponymous Cold War-era arctic espionage thriller? We don’t know Jack, although White does manage to make space for references to both Caravaggio and James Brown, while misleadingly suggesting at one point that the song is called “Cool Hand Luke.”

—K. Ross Hoffman

Essential New Music: Jack White’s “Boarding House Reach”

Of the many would-be millennial “rock ’n’ roll saviors” kicking around in the early aughts, Jack White has done the most, both with the White Stripes and beyond, to merit the mantle—even if he’d likely scoff at it (outwardly, at least). He’s become one of the very few (only?) honest-to-goodness rock stars to emerge this century, delved into and reconnected with the messy, idiosyncratic spirit of the music’s vital, primal roots—which is to say, among other things, not forgetting about the “’n’ roll” part—while also, and increasingly, remaking it in his own image. Not surprisingly, White’s got some thoughts on the subject of influence and innovation, which turn up on his third solo album in the form of “Ice Station Zebra,” a bashing, swaggering gonzo-funk polemic: “If you rewind the tape, we’re all copying God.” It’s a sentiment that smacks equally of hubris or humility, depending how you angle it—which seems just about right for White.

Of course, as he’s rapped in the past, even God herself has fewer plans than he—and that’s never been more true than here, with what is by some distance the weirdest, wildest White we’ve yet encountered on record. Boarding House Reach may start off in readily recognizable territory, with rather rote, lumbering gospel-tinged ballad (and lead single) “Connected By Love,” but we don’t really get back there until the penultimate country/folk “What’s Done Is Done” (a lovely, possibly suicidal shuffle that nevertheless features an amusingly loopy synth solo.) In between, we get an unpredictable array of deconstructed bangers, shape-shifting jams and freakouts, and woozily atmospheric spoken-word passages—along with a biting, brooding canine-rights diatribe/dirge and a jazzy piano rendition of a sentimental Dvorák setting that was apparently once transcribed by Al Capone.

Replete with percussive tangents, synth squelches and densely warped voice-play—even when he’s throwing the headbangers a bone and playing (quite explicitly) into Promethean rock-god mythology with the Zep-worthy riffage and block-rockin’ beats of “Over And Over And Over”—this kaleidoscopic gallimaufry is a seemingly ultimate repudiation of the White Stripes’ studied minimalism and formal concision. It doesn’t ever violate White’s analog ethos and, somehow, never seems to stray all that far from the myriad shades and permutations of the blues. Given White’s stature, it’ll get hailed as everything from blinding, boundary-pushing brilliance to wanton, haphazard (and possibly heretical) indulgence, but it really all depends on your vantage point. As White bellows on one of the album’s strangest interludes, “Do you want to question everything?/Think of a good question!”

—K. Ross Hoffman

Essential New Music: Mary Gauthier’s “Rifles & Rosary Beads”

Where have all the soldiers gone? American battles once pitted brother against brother and accentuated the gap between parents and children; more recent wars are barely a blip in our nonstop news cycle. If you’re not in one of the ever-shrinking number of military families, you probably don’t know any soldiers, let alone what they’ve been through. Mary Gauthier fills in the blanks with the 11 somber-yet-empathetic songs on Rifles & Rosary Beads.

The perspectives of her co-writers—eight vets and 12 military spouses—aren’t uniform, but they share a common thread of processing trauma and feeling left behind. One standout is “Iraq,” the story of an Army mechanic whose real enemy isn’t the country where she’s been shipped but the men in her own unit who see her body as just one more thing to conquer. By bringing experiences like hers to light, Gauthier does us all a service.

—M.J. Fine

Essential New Music: Keiji Haino + SUMAC’s “American Dollar Bill—Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On”

It had to happen. Keiji Haino has played with folk musicians and Faust, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and Merzbow. Sooner or later, he had to play with a metal band, right? Well, half right. SUMAC isn’t just any metal band. While the trio’s members wield the tools of 21st-century metal with a facility born of close acquaintance, they don’t sound like any other metal combo. They don’t just sing about chaos, they enact it, which means they’re well matched to master disrupter Haino.

On American Dollar Bill, Haino carries on like some demon apparition from a Noh play, shrieking and cooing and exhaling. Rather than try to wedge what Haino does into song form, SUMAC makes the songs fall apart. The band’s riffs and solos topple like old growth redwoods unmoored by a mudslide, and when Haino drops his mic to join the fray on guitar and electronics, the collapse is complete.

—Bill Meyer