Essential New Music: Sharon Van Etten’s “I Don’t Want To Let You Down”

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One of Sharon Van Etten’s talents has always been her ability to make something seem bigger than it actually is. Witness the elegant, um, epic quality of her epic album, her ability to “silence drunken bars” (as TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone describes) and the deceptively sparse material of this stopgap release. Its overall pace might give tree sap a run for last place, and Van Etten’s voice is up to its usual husky/sugary, barenaked/harmonized tricks, but what sounds like downcast spaciousness is actually riddled with layers of sound complementing the expected morose and heartfelt topics.

Delicate strains of expansive keyboards, splashy drums, electronic waves, wind instruments and classical string sawing come to a climax on “Pay My Debts,” despite being understated and mixed almost subliminally. The instrumentation/production jigsaw puzzle exists in contrast to the folksy vocal rawness, except on the title track, where everything and everyone is at their grandiose best.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Essential New Music: The Space Merchants’ “The Space Merchants”

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This Brooklyn band refers to itself as “a country band travelling through space” or, when feeling particularly pretentious, “Johnny Cash explaining current theories in astrophysics.” The fact is that the debut from this motley crew—members include the drummer from Jim Jarmusch’s Sqürl and a former X-Ray Spex cover bandmate of Brian Viglione—combines the emerging days of California’s acid-rock scene and the final days of Woodstock, when the power of rock was fighting off exhaustion, overdoses and the elements.

Roughly distorted and punctuated guitar chords, echoing melodies draped in bead curtains, and a spiraling organ all splay out for a hearty co-ed vocal frontline. Images of lip-synched Top Of The Pops performances, cruising Venice Beach and the Hollywood Hills, and horizons draped in patchouli haze dominate during the finely stratified “Where’s The Rest Of Life,” “Beatniks” and “Mainline The Sun.” Spells of lethargy are brief, but noticeable on “Reavers” and “One Thousand Years Of Boredom,” which counteract the powerful hippie vibe the majority of this album exudes.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Essential New Music: Cynthia G. Mason’s “Cinematic Turn”

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Returning after a seven-year hiatus from music, Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Cynthia G. Mason has lost nary a step. Her new five-song EP is aptly titled; this music is as vivid, evocative and narratively compelling as a film. Songs like the title track and “One More Trip Back East” are both inviting and mysterious. Mason’s strikingly clear vocals and hypnotic acoustic-guitar arpeggios join together to form well-honed melodies. Her minimalistic lyrics never waste a breath, but they invite multiple interpretations.

Thanks to the subtle polish of Brian McTear’s production, hints of Suzanne Vega occasionally rise to the fore on Cinematic Turn. A trio of musicians (including drummer Christopher Sean Powell, also known as Pow Pow from Man Man) provide sympathetic backing. But the focus is truly on Mason here. The EP is as a clarion call, heralding the return of a singular talent.

—Michael Pelusi

Essential New Music: Heartless Bastards’ “Restless Ones”

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It would seem that Austin transplants Heartless Bastards have evolved into a band of unique focus—a smart, purposeful ensemble boasting one of the best rock singers of the 21st century. While vocalist Erika Wennerstrom has been the one constant and unifying force throughout its decade-plus existence, the group has solidified into a powerful, dynamic unit capable of a truly expansive sonic range, as evidenced on its fifth CD.

Clearly, Restless Ones is a statement of collective confidence and ambitious vision. From the opening bombast of “Wind Up Bird” to the final sampled strains of “Tristessa,” this LP displays a modern, muscular approach that ignores trends and enters into the realm of timeless, passionate songcraft. Wennerstrom’s whirlwind voice is beyond expressive—coupled with the Bastards’ straightforward instrumentation and equally inspired production values, Restless Ones represents some of the best rock music America has to offer this year.

—Mitch Myers

Essential New Music: Various Artists “Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton”

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She had one of the most haunting, most arresting voices in all of American musical history, as immediately recognizable as Ralph Stanley and Billie Holiday’s. Bob Dylan called her his favorite singer. The Band’s “Katie’s Been Gone” was rumored to have been written about her. Yet Karen Dalton released only two albums during her lifetime, neither of which included any original compositions. At last we have an album of original lyrics by Dalton, set to music and performed by 11 wildly literate, seriously gifted female singer/songwriters, just like she was. Its lyrical content alone would make Remembering Mountains an event, but the record is a triumph on every level, honoring Dalton’s talents even as it moves her lyrics into diverse settings. Remembering Mountains is simply looking like one of the best albums of 2015, a claim I feel sanguine making even though we’re barely at the halfway mark.

The easiest way to frame Remembering Mountains would be to make the obvious point that all 11 of the composers and performers here—from the venerable Lucinda Williams through Sharon Van Etten to comparative newcomer Laurel Halo—owe some sort of stylistic debt to Dalton’s sparse, eerily minimalist aesthetic. Halo’s sample- and production-heavy “Blue Notion” will likely be the controversial track among fans and reviewers, as it strays farthest from Dalton’s sonic territory. But even Halo clearly gets it—the wide, airy space into which Dalton poured her voice and stringed accompaniments, the roomy echoes that always made Dalton’s music sound as though it had just appeared out of the landscape as a natural extension of it, as much a part of the earth as the rocks and the trees. And rather than try to replicate that sound exactly—or, conversely, force Dalton’s lyrics into needlessly clever or unexpected arrangements—every track here honors the spirit behind her performance style first and foremost. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a so-called “tribute” record (an unhelpful description here anyway) that sounds so close, in its bones and its nerves, to the honored artist’s unique aesthetic.

So, the easiest talking point—women artists honoring a woman artist—is the least impressive element of Remembering Mountains, and any review that foregrounds that element misses the core fact: This is a superb assembly of collaborative compositions, an album whose historical significance, in terms of Karen Dalton’s work and influence, is easily matched by the quality of the music. The greatest joys here, such as the two completely distinct yet equally stunning settings of “Met An Old Friend” by Lucinda Williams and Josephine Foster, are best experienced directly and not described. It’s enough to speculate that from what we know of her tastes, Dalton would likely have loved this album. A higher compliment than that, I don’t know how to give.

—Eric Waggoner

Essential New Music: Graham Parker & The Rumour’s “Mystery Glue”

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This is Graham Parker’s second album with the reunited backup band that gave his early albums so much fire and brimstone. They’re all older now, but they still pack a punch. Parker’s voice is thinner and decidedly less angry, but his sarcasm and cutting wit are intact. He’s also gained enough insight to toss a few barbs at his own head. On “Flying Into London,” he takes responsibility for screwing up a good relationship with a dismissive one-liner: “I never did notice when other people cry.”

Tunes like “Railroad Spikes,” “Long Shot” and “Slow News Day” address the fractured state of the world and personal relationships with a mature approach that borders on bemused resignation. Guitar player Martin Belmont and keyboard ace Bob Andrews shine throughout, adding subtle fills and accents that give plenty of sparkle to arrangements that still merge R&B and rock with hints of funk and reggae.

—j. poet

Essential New Music: The Helio Sequence’s “The Helio Sequence”

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The Helio Sequence has worked on a fairly panoramic screen over the past decade and a half, projecting its evocative synth/guitar/beat constructions through the widest possible lens. Guitarist/vocalist Brandon Summers and drummer/keyboardist/vocalist Ben Weikel have often spent inordinate amounts of time and energy crafting the Helio Sequence’s expansive and layered soundtracks, and its albums have often expanded to cinemascopic proportions in the process. But the duo’s recent participation in a local Portland, Ore., songwriting exercise dubbed “The 20-Song Game” led Summers and Weikel to work in more concise and loosely organized ways on their eponymous sixth album, resulting in 10 infectiously compelling tracks in 36 breathtaking minutes.

There is a poppish melodicism to The Helio Sequence that suggests Fountains Of Wayne veering into space rock/ambient territory, a sweetening of the moodier Rufus Wainwright-fronts-U2 atmosphere of 2012’s Negotiations and a slight return to the lighter bounce of 2008’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead. The duo reins in its inclination toward broad sonic statements in favor of a more immediate approach that still manages to pack a powerful punch. Songs that would have been furiously epic on recent THS works are marvels of restraint in length and production, particularly the nervous slink of “Upward Mobility,” the elegant swagger of “Stoic Resemblance” and the thrilling pop insistence of “Deuces,” which all clock in at less than four minutes.

The real trick in all of this is that the Helio Sequence has pared down its sound and vision without losing a molecule of its well-defined identity; this album may be the simple blueprint of things to come.

—Brian Baker

Essential New Music: Beauty Pill’s “Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are”

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On its first album in 10 years, D.C. band Beauty Pill takes a sledgehammer to boundaries and orthodoxies. Prior releases on Dischord (including 2000’s The Cigarette Girl From The Future, recently reissued and expanded) were dark, fractured psych-pop takes on D.C. punk. The long-gestating Describes Things is a daring leap forward—a fever dream of loops and beats intertwining with drums and guitars, but also Japanese banjos, Africa/Brass-like horns and more.

Frontman Chad Clark’s lyrics are allusive, incisive and sometimes eerily prescient. “Ain’t A Jury In The World Gon’ Convict You Baby” now seems inescapably about Ferguson. On “Near Miss Stories,” Clark unflinchingly focuses on the virus that invaded his heart in 2007 and almost killed him. The album, largely recorded in public as a 2011 art exhibit in Arlington, Va., addresses the zeitgeist head-on and features vivid soundscapes that recall both Revolver and Stankonia. Yeah, it’s that good.

—Michael Pelusi

Essential New Music: Half Japanese’s “Volume 3, 1990-1995”

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Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t get any better than this. Period. These three albums—1990’s We Are They Who Ache With Amorous Love, 1992’s Fire In The Sky and 1995’s Hot—are Half Japanese at its most accessible, most listenable, playing with real musicians to bring out the best in its own uneven post-punk primitivism.

Championed by Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, this is the kind of music that makes you want to grab a guitar, plug it in and crank it up to 11. So what if you don’t know how to play? Who cares? Jad Fair doesn’t tune his guitar—why should you? You want to tear out your vocal cords singing about a UFO attack? You want to whistle your solo? You want to free-associate for 12 minutes about love, Pete Rose, Singapore and a thousand other things? Go for it. If rock ‘n’ roll is liberation, this is the golden key: funny, sad, exhilarating, larger than life.

—Kenny Berkowitz

Essential New Music: Low Cut Connie’s “Hi Honey”

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Even when a mere year separated the release of Low Cut Connie’s second album from its first, the energetic combo made significant strides in honing its songwriting. While the band could’ve easily churned out another batch of sweaty dance-floor fillers for LP3, the band (with roots in Philly, Delaware and Birmingham, England) hunkered down to make a career-defining effort. Hi Honey bears plenty of the group’s trademarks, from Adam Weiner’s barrelhouse piano to Daniel Finnemore’s punk-via-Merseybeat melodies.

But what sets this album apart are the little extras. The Daptone horns add heft to “Shake It Little Tina,” while Greg “Oblivian” Cartwright provides chunky guitar on the propulsive “Dumb Boy.” Other guests include tUnE-yArDs’ Merril Garbus, who supplies an urgent, rhythmic vocal from on the spooky and stellar “Little Queen Of New Orleans.” Low Cut Connie teases these flourishes throughout Hi Honey, making for an album that’s both retro-minded and forward-thinking.

—Eric Schuman