Tim Showalter wants you to know how much he loves rock ’n’ roll. He’s as enraptured by the life-affirming powers of a loud rock song as he’s aware of the damaging potential of a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. HEAL, his breakthrough 2014 album as Strand Of Oaks, contained a paean to the late Jason Molina, the leader of Songs:Ohia, that was both adulatory and cautionary; the new Hard Love opens by juxtaposing a break-up song (the title track) with a celebration of how the joy of hearing a great song on the radio can change a life (“Radio Kids”). Gone are his folk/rock days; Hard Love rocks hard, and when it doesn’t, it sounds aptly hung over or strung out. Philly’s Showalter doesn’t mind anchoring his songs in the styles of his heroes: The allusions reinforce his love: Dinosaur Jr and Smashing Pumpkins, Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams, Molina and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The eight-minute stoner rock of “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother” is a bit of a trudge, but Hard Love is easy to adore.
There are two kinds of Sadies on Northern Passages—one group making spacey, airy country/folk rock that sounds like it could’ve been pulled from the soundtrack to Zabriskie Point, and another plugging in their cords and turning the volume and fuzzboxes up to 11. This is a compliment. Since 1998, the Sadies have been one of the most quietly impressive outfits in cross-genre guitar-based roots music, touching on country, folk, rock and other traditions as desired. Northern Passages finds brothers Dallas and Travis Good taking the group through a collection of songs split evenly between the sweet and the salty (and some with elements of both; see brief, hilariously warped country-western set piece “God Bless The Infidels”). As always, the record features banks of reverb-and-tremolo-soaked guitars, the band’s stock in trade—and a fitting one, given how much of the music deals with loss and wistful regret—but the peculiar genius of the Sadies is to find new variations on a sonic model that, by this point, no other band is working with quite as much earned confidence.
Matthew Shipp’s music cycles like the seasons, and death and rebirth are part of the program. Piano Song is his final album for Thirsty Ear, a label he co-curates, and the second with the current lineup of Shipp on piano, Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. Baker’s devotion to fundamental rhythms transforms the group from the bottom up, inducing Shipp’s stark themes to swing more traditionally than they have in the past and shining light into the moss-on-bark closeness of Bisio and Shipp’s musical connection. But he’s also right there when the trio breaks things down, so that the transition between crashing chords and a throttled-back groove on “Flying Carpet” not only makes sense, it feels as inevitable and natural as the first green shoots poking out of the melting snow. If you want to hear Shipp getting everything just right, go first to his 2011 release The Art Of The Improviser. But if you want to hear him reconciling the roots of his music with a future he hasn’t found yet, this is the next fearless step into the future.
Chuck Prophet’s albums are noted for their literary lyrics, foreboding melodies and his ironic outlook. As if to underscore that point, he calls this collection of tunes “California noir,” and the album delivers on that promise with songs that explore the deteriorating American dream in all its faded glory. The title track is a cryptic rocker with a strong chorus and Prophet’s big, twang-heavy guitar echoing the tune of Bobby Fuller’s lone hit, “I Fought The Law.” A growling, metallic surf guitar and galloping backbeat push “In The Mausoleum” into overdrive, as Prophet looks death in the eye and laughs. “Jesus Was A Social Drinker” is a quietly blasphemous talking blues that imagines The Lord as an ordinary working-class guy. “We Got Up And Played” closes the set with the sad tale of a band on the road performing to an empty room, but putting on a good show nonetheless.
Across three vinyl LPs, the tech-heavy work of stonily cool singer Philip Oakey and a handful of knob twiddlers, drum machinists and early sequencer artists from the post-punk ’70s onward is presented as a road map tracing the robotic travels of synthesized sound from rigid electronic punk to synth pop and 808 soul, with the help of brand names such as Martin Rushent and Jam & Lewis as its guideposts. This was the real punk, the rue revolution, in many minds. That this machine muzik was the product of Sheffield, England, gives the Human League’s tone a perfectly British stiff upper lip as Oakey, Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh—just barely on the heels of guitar punk’s rage and the age of the Sex Pistols—began producing the murk and gurgle death disco of “Being Boiled,” the silvery industrialism of “The Dignity Of Labour [Part 3]” and the robo-romantic “Empire State Human.” Crack-snap covers of Mick Ronson’s “Only After Dark” and Iggy/Bowie’s Berlin-period “Nightclubbing” sound dated, dark but cute, a steely sound that doesn’t exactly prepare you for the doomy Orwellian (“The Sound Of The Crowd”), but rather 1981’s perky-pop Dare and the hit-machine to come (“Don’t You Want Me, Baby,” etc.). Smashing.