The Welsh quintet’s second release goes down as easy as a mixtape on a ’90s spring day. Clocking in at just more than 20 minutes, there’s no crap on tap. Opening track “Last Year” (which appears to be about either an occult tragedy in a water park or just an affair gone wrong) goes from Huggy Bear to Velocity Girl in just minutes, thanks to the versatile vocals of Alanna McArdle, buoyed by frequent singing partner and guitarist Owen Williams.
The two are either layering their vocals over each other dream-pop-style while uttering kiss-offs (“There Is No Function Stacy”) or trading off tense call-and-responses (“Honestly Do Yr Worst”). “Jamie (Luvver)” is a ramshackle come-on à la the Vaselines. Williams and co-guitarist George Nicholls give great noise on “I Can’t Relax” and pure bliss on closer “Hey! I Wanna Be Your Best Friend!”
Better known to his mother as Jamie Smith, Jamie xx is essentially the one-man backline for London beat alchemists and modern Portishead inheritors the xx, a crate-digging omnivore and increasingly among the most in-demand remixers of his generation (Adele, Alicia Keys, plus the list essayed in the sidebar, among others).
In parallel with that of his South London band—the school they all attended is featured in rom-com Love, Actually—is a career that has blossomed over the course of various tracks Jamie has not only repurposed for others, but has now fashioned as an emerging solo artist. In Colour finds him joined by xx mates Romy Madley Croft (the unsurprisingly xx-like and sealegs-inducing “Seesaw” and “Loud Places”) and Oliver Sim (“Stranger In A Room,” with circular synth programs that find the pair stretching their signature sound into trance-meets-Doors terrain), as well as artists such as Young Thug (“I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times”) and Four Tet.
But underneath it all is a specificity of sound that threads all of the album’s tracks together like beads on a string, a Caribbean steel-drums-informed throughline that marks the entire affair as the creation of a single artist—someone making a lot out of a little, turning seemingly random squiggles and samples (as heard on the shivery “Girl” and spasmodic “The Rest Is Noise”) into something far more than the sum of their very contemporary-sounding parts. Look out for a Madonna white-label on a dance floor near you, stat.
In Our Heads, Hot Chip’s last album, was a masterpiece: an ecstatic, heart-surging testament to the intertwined power of music, positivity and love, and a clear career culmination. Why Make Sense? plucks essentially the same emotional and musical chords; its best tracks—at least half the record—continue Heads’ potent, playful synthesis of R&B, house and electronic pop, full of surprises and multiple moving (in every sense) parts.
That’s more than enough to make this probably the finest dance-party record this summer will have to offer, even if it features two (lovely, if relatively undistinguished) ballads and lacks its predecessor’s decisive spiritual coherence. The clearest throughline here is the band’s fondness for dance music’s long, illustrious history, which is on full display: There are samples of Philly soul and boogie classics, luscious disco strings and Planet Rockin’ electro, a sharp hip-house turn (courtesy of De La Soul’s Posdnuos), and nods to acid, deep house and jacking swing.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Drawn from Leonard Cohen’s Herculean world tour of 2012-’13, this rather humbly titled live disc feels like just that—a postcard, a snapshot—but it’s still a gorgeous one. Can’t Forget offers yeoman readings of a handful of songs from Cohen’s career; it’s heavy on the ’70s-’90s, opening with a stately but intense reading of “Field Commander Cohen” and moving through “Night Comes On,” “Joan Of Arc” and the title cut. But four of its 10 songs are new Cohen originals or previously unrecorded covers, including an endlessly charismatic take on George Jones’ sunset-years rumination “Choices,” which the 80-year-old Cohen tackles with what sounds like an earned gladness.
The Cohen on Can’t Forget has by now earned his Field Commander stripes, and then some: “Thank you for your generosity,” he says to a laughing Australian audience, “as a gesture of compassion to the elderly.” His last two studio albums revealed that his creative fires are still lit. But even on a comparatively light offering like this one, it’s a treat to hear Cohen so comfortable in both his old and new skins.
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks want to pump you up
The idea of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks together in the studio is at once thrilling and unsettling. There’s a distinct possibility the Mael brothers’ musical funhouse mirror will distort Franz’s gloriously histrionic indie rock into unrecognizable shapes, diluting each entity’s gifts to an unacceptable degree. Thankfully, thrilling wins the day, as Alex Kapranos and his compatriots are equal to the task of blending their earnest aesthetic with the pinwheeling madness that has defined Sparks since the early ’70s.
The beauty of FFS is that Franz benefits from the Maels’ quirky brilliance, while the Sparks braintrust receives a high-voltage surge of indie-rock adrenaline. The sextet acknowledges the doubters on “Collaborations Don’t Work,” an on-the-nose mini-rock opera about their partnership, as Kapranos and Russell Mael trade tongue-in-cheek critiques (“I don’t get your navel-gazing/I don’t get your way of phrasing”), then follows with the piquant advice of “Piss Off.” Drawing on and expanding the strengths of each band—Franz Ferdinand’s bracing rock/pop anthemics, Sparks’ whimsical swing and swagger—FFS may be the blueprint for future musical cross-pollination.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.