Essential New Music: Sparrow Steeple’s “Tip Top Sorcerer”

Sparrow Steeple beckons. Follow that crooked finger and you’ll soon find yourself tumbling down the sort of rabbit hole that Lewis Carroll used to dig when he wanted to make sure that his readers got good and lost. Down there, you will be threatened by “Stabbing Wizards” and take mortal pun damage from “Handy Andean Indian,” and if you’re made of the right stuff, you’ll sit right back up and roll the 12-sided dice again.

This Philly combo is mostly composed of musicians who’ve also played in Strapping Fieldhands, and they navigate easily between T.Rex-like riffing and hobbit-snaring strum-alongs. But it’s singer Barry Goldberg who burns the deepest brand upon your brain. His fluttering delivery brings to mind Bryan Ferry back when the dapper one could still hit some high notes, and he has requisite denial of encroaching ridiculousness that you just have to have if you’re going to be an art-rock frontman. Tip Top Sorcerer synthesizes record-collector geekdom and role-playing gamer nerddom using alchemy that could get you banned in several alternate universes to come up with something greater than its already commanding parts. 

Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Olden Yolk’s “Living Theatre”

On Living Theatre, their second album as Olden Yolk, Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer double down on the micro-focused methodology that formed their splendid self-titled debut from last year. The duo—both sing, write and play multiple instruments—locked itself into a windowless workspace for a season, admitting input from percussion-playing ringer Booker Stardrum; the rest of the band joined in when they got to the studio. The roots of the Shaffer/Butler partnership lie in a shared interest in writing poetry, and their process yields songs that are a bit like chocolate-covered espresso beans. On the outside, you’ll find sweet melodies and soft voices—inside, bitter and cryptic expressions of loss and anxiety.

Olden Yolk benefited from inventive rhythms that worked against the grain of their otherwise antique-oriented arrangements. (I’m betting that between Butler and Shaffer, someone has worn out some Chills, Zombies and Beach Boys records.) This practice continues with the quickly shifting drum figures on “Every Ark,” the tick-tock groove of “Blue Paradigm” and the way that the wind-in-your-hair lope of “Cotton And Cane” contradicts one bleak line that goes, “When the debts come.” Living Theatre is all about living with what you have to live with, and on those terms, it delivers the goods.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Matthew Shipp Trio’s “Signature”

Matthew Shipp is an obliging sort of guy. After every second or third album, he questions the point of making more records—and he may go so far as to announce his retirement from recording. Then he comes back and makes some more records. Let’s make this perfectly clear: Matthew Shipp doesn’t need to retire anytime soon. He has too many good ideas for how to accompany saxophonists (lately, the lucky guys are Ivo Perelman, Mat Walerian and Evan Parker), how to make an unaccompanied piano sound like the mysteries of the cosmos made manifest, and how to grow fresh green produce from the over-farmed patch of musical turf known as the piano trio.

The latter is what he, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker do on Signature. They understand that their chosen format’s hoariest cliché is also its chief virtue. It’s a perfect setting to demonstrate close interaction between players, but it’s also full of prior examples of how you’re supposed to do it. But free jazz means being free to do it your way, never mind the supposition, and this trio’s way is to strip things back to essentials and then move with purposeful economy through the spaces they’ve opened up. Stark, swinging and magnetic, this music rewards deep-drilling exploration by players and listeners alike. Please don’t quit anytime soon, Mr. Shipp. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Various Artists “Tokyo Flashback P.S.F.: Psychedelic Speed Freaks”

Sometimes culture comes from the top down; when the Beatles, Steven Spielberg or Beyoncé have had something to say, people listened, whether or not they wanted to. But sometimes it comes up from the underground, often propelled by determined, ornery people who are sure that they know better. Hideo Ikeezumi was one such figure.

Ikeezumi—the Tokyo-based proprietor of a store (Modern Music), a magazine (G-Modern) and a label (P.S.F.)—had an unerring instinct for finding music that was rare, visionary and true. He also had the recklessness to stake everything on transmitting his selections to the world. Among those who got his nod were Keiji Haino, High Rise, Ghost and Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Pariaso U.F.O., all of whom are represented on this gorgeously packaged four-LP compilation. 

Ikeezumi died in 2017, and that same year Ghost’s Masaki Batoh compiled Tokyo Flashback P.S.F.: Psychedelic Speed Freaks, which was originally released in Japan on CD. Paying homage to the compilations that P.S.F. used to release, Batoh looked simultaneously back and right around him. The music encompasses acid folk, free improvisation and prismatic selection of rock music, from high-octane rave-ups to transcendental downer meltdowns. The early material includes psychedelic uplifts by Acid Mothers Temple and Ghost that show just how right Ikeezumi could be, and two Haino performances recorded 20 years apart testify to his enduring otherness.

But some of the best moments on this collection come from names that only an already-established scholar of the deep Japanese underground would recognize. It’s just as rewarding to get lost for the first time in Reizen’s crumbling guitar sonorities or A Qui Avec Gabriel’s lilting accordion melodies as it is to be reminded of the powers of musicians you already know. And that’s what P.S.F. was about from the start, right? 

—Bill Meyer 

Essential New Music: Jessica Pratt’s “Quiet Signs”

Jessica Pratt has a thing for irreducible essences. Quiet Signs, her third LP, barely qualifies as a long player since it clocks in at around 28 minutes. But every sound, every word, every empty space contributes to its effect. The arrangements are spare, with just a keyboard or flute posing a harmony or countermelody to complement Pratt’s acoustic guitar. They serve as a backdrop for her supple voice, which navigates between cloudy heights and shadowy lows without drawing attention to its own mobility.

The gaps within Pratt’s words are even harder to suss out, jumping from first love to loss within a phrase without ever drawing the map of how she got there. This works to their benefit, since it spares the listener the enforced intimacy that burdens so many songs written about relationships in the 21st century. Pratt’s songs are mysterious without drawing attention to their mystery, which ensures that they’ll stick longer in your mind.

—Bill Meyer