Essential New Music: Brokeback’s “Illinois River Valley Blues”

Though some things change, others stay the same. Across 22 years and multiple incarnations, Douglas McCombs (also of Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and Pullman) has remained the sole consistent member of Brokeback. Early on, the sound was focused on melodies he composed for six-string electric bass. Accompanists, recording and rhythmic approaches, and instruments have come and gone. In its current four-piece incarnation, Brokeback is a beat combo with a fairly live sound, and McCombs plays electric and baritone guitar. But if the string tone has changed, the intent to instrumentally evoke spaces and places remains. The guitars twang enough to get you thinking of Calexico or Duane Eddy, but the tunes are named for places in rural Illinois, which makes plenty of sense when you consider that flat cornfield views and desert vistas give you equally unimpeded views of the wide-open road and the empty land around it.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “The Tourist”

“Indie rock” has become such an amorphous and broad category that it’s nearly meaningless. But you could do worse than to use Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to define it: The band’s 2005 self-titled debut is a genre touchstone, one of those albums that seemed to come out of nowhere fully formed. Self-released and initially self-promoted, willfully weird but eminently accessible, the record deservedly found its audience in large part due to internet word of mouth (and blog-of-ear). Led by Philly’s Alec Ounsworth, CYHSY identified as a band but was often in large part a solo project in the studio. The initial version of CYHSY disbanded after its third album, 2012’s Hysterical, and 2014’s underrated, synth-centric Only Run was basically Ounsworth solo. For the even better guitars-forward The Tourist, Ounsworth uses the touring band he drafted for Only Run, including Spinto Band guitarist Nick Krill and Bigger Lovers/Pernice Brothers drummer (and former MAGNET contributor) Patrick Berkery. Songs such as “The Vanity Of Trying” and “Down (Is Where I Want To Be )” glory in rave-up crescendos (you can glimpse the fingerprints of Dave Fridmann, who mixed the album, on these). It’s replete with Lou Reed allusions: “It seems I’ll be your mirror” (“Unfolding Above Celibate Moon”), “Turns out you were vicious/You hit me with a flower” (“Better Off”). The Tourist is still weird—how could it not be, with Ounsworth’s bleating voice and often cryptic lyrics?—but not as willfully as moments on Hysterical or 2007’s Some Loud Thunder. It’s not a facsimile of the debut—it’s more layered and less frenetic—but it’s still applause-worthy.

—Steve Klinge

Essential New Music: Eric Matthews’ “Too Much World”

Eric Matthews didn’t invent chamber pop, but he certainly set an impossibly high bar with his 1995 debut, It’s Heavy In Here, which hit with the impact of a velvet-fisted sucker punch telegraphed with hypnotic whispers. Matthews sublimated his solo career after the lukewarm response to 1997’s The Lateness Of The Hour, becoming a utility player for the Dandy Warhols, Tahiti 80 and Elliott Smith before relaunching his brand with a trio of return-to-form releases on Empyrean, including 2008’s The Imagination Stage. For his first album in nine years, Matthews brings his estimable gifts to bear on a 12-track rumination on the stunting effects of the material world on his spiritual growth. Jazzy flourishes animate “Factual Extreme,” “Dragonfly” hints at Andy Partridge’s English Settlement pastoralism, and “God Loves His Children” mirrors John Cale’s orchestral majesty. Matthews even flexes his indie-rock muscles, particularly on the forceful “Ten More Masters” and the haunting “Exactly Like Them,” which bristle with Bowie-like revelatory power. (God, he’d better not be dying.) With a few new wrinkles, Too Much World reflects and transcends the typical and sporadically consistent brilliance that Matthews has exhibited over the past two decades.

—Brian Baker

Essential New Music: Sorority Noise’s “You’re Not As _____ As You Think”

On Sorority Noise’s “A Portrait Of,” singer Cameron Boucher mumbles a little anecdote about what the afterlife might be like—“and they’re playing “The ’59 Sound” in heaven/While the angels were drinking up whiskey and cokes.” Invoking the Gaslight Anthem’s track—a romantic song about death that asks the recently deceased, “Did you hear your favorite song one last time?”—this line is particularly telling for Sorority Noise’s third LP. The image of angels kicking back and getting drunk contrasts painfully with the record’s life on earth, one where the narrator struggles to get out of bed and wonders why they’re not up there in heaven, too.

All of this is to say that You’re Not As __ As You Think is a brutal recollection of the endless, everyday fight against grief. On “A Better Sun,” Boucher numbly recounts a cycle of pain, posturing and self-destruction, all with the same construction of “this is the part where …” In this way, “A Better Sun” presents the quiet moments of grieving (a verse spent listening to music, nodding toward Julien Baker, Into It. Over It. and Modern Baseball) in the same way it presents the loud ones (“This is the part where I explode and destroy/Everything on this god-given earth”). On You’re Not As __ As You Think, the difficulty of loss permeates through every moment.

Because death looms so heavily over this record, it’s no surprise that these songs are often interested in examining a dismayed form of spirituality. “Second Letter From St. Julien” addresses god with defiance and deference in turn, asking, “What’s your god trying to prove,” in one breath and, “Do I make him proud?” in the next. The subject of god certainly leads to some clunky moments (“He’s always trying to fuck me to the tune of my favorite song”), but the record’s conflict with divine power makes for genuinely affective music.

Mike Sapone (Brand New, Taking Back Sunday) helps bring Sorority Noise to a cleaner, more-focused sound, making the record’s more energetic tracks like “No Halo” and “Disappeared” shimmer and explode beautifully. The band’s dynamics are sharper than ever, sounding larger than life in the loud chorus of “No Halo” and intimately melancholy on slow burns like “First Letter From St. Sean.”

The album’s climax comes with “Leave The Fan On,” but it doesn’t feel like a big solution or the beginning of a grand post-grief phase. Here, the narrator still struggles to take care of himself, even failing to brush his teeth in the morning before the big, bombastic outro. But small, isolated closer “New Room” does present a subtle shift, with Boucher giving a bored, practical little solution—“I haven’t been spending enough time alone/Maybe that’s why I feel like I don’t have a home.” It seems like a big, loud ending is warranted for You’re Not As __ As You Think, but Sorority Noise doesn’t let us have it. “New Room” poses a quiet step forward as opposed to a sweeping new era, because grief doesn’t leave in one fowl swoop; in fact, it may not ever leave us. Instead, “New Room” is about finding new ways to cope, little by little.

—Jordan T. Walsh

Essential New Music: Uniform’s “Wake In Fright”

There’s a lot to take in on this Brooklyn duo’s second record. Thematically, vocalist Michael Berdan mines his issues, burdens and neuroses for lyrical content that spans an overdriven line between unsettling experience and triumphant discharge. Sometimes the hardest part about being human is admitting our shortcomings, though it’s a lot easier when you’re able to exorcise demons physically and artistically, especially when the accompaniment is a cathartic wall of noise that calculates the blackened spot where cold industrial, monolithic post-rock and the rumbling thunder of NYC’s dirty ‘80s sonic experiments and outsider art overlap. Where Uniform steps to the left is in how varieties of sounds contribute to the punishing totality. “Tabloid” employs a hornet’s nest of samples, whereas “Habit” and “Light At The End” warp the concept of sustain into a mechanized-doom sensibility; it’s not just traditional distorted guitars playing traditionally heavy riffs here.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko