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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kristian Matsson is a musician who can hold a theater of thousands in rapt attention with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. So, there’s some uncertainty in hearing that his latest outing skews more band-oriented. Not quite in a “he’s gone electric” way, but more in a worry at the loss of intimacy. Passenger made a band record last year, and that tanked.
Fortunately, the approach of Matsson’s Tallest Man On Earth on the new Dark Bird Is Home is much more restrained and tasteful. The jangling “Darkness Of The Dream” is a boss anthem, but isn’t overly polished. The dreamy “Slow Dance” has harmonica and Springsteen-y hoots and hollers, but there’s a spacious atmosphere about it: reverb, distant horns, a synthesizer undercurrent.
For the Tallest Man of 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now, see achingly beautiful piano number “Little Nowhere Towns.” For the jauntiest and most personal you’ve heard Matsson, listen to the woodwind-laden “Timothy,” which hits some serious Joshua Tree notes.
Since 1994, the Danish indie rockers in Mew have found interesting and engaging ways to bend progressive rock into exotic new shapes that appeal to modern sensibilities. Their latest album, the cryptically titled + –, is a departure from their last release, which sported a title that doubled as a short story. In addition to its seriously truncated name, + – finds Mew channeling several diverse musical approaches, dispensing with the obtuse songwriting/production techniques that marked 2009’s No More Stories... and tapping into the band’s natural rock/pop tendencies.
Opener “Satellites” soothes and stings like a math-rock tribute to Genesis (both early-club and late-arena versions), while “Making Friends” could pass for an Owl City reverie with a little Muse bombast thrown in for good measure. “Rows” and “Cross The River On Your Own,” finish + – in epic fashion, taking up nearly a third of the album’s length with shifting moods and tempos. Cameos from pop princess Kimbra and Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack are the delicate icing on Mew’s richly satisfying prog/pop cake.
In an about-face to the insular world of American noise music, which he’d been the preeminent voice of for nearly a decade, Dominick Fernow’s 2011 album Bermuda Drain saw him integrate melodic synthesizers and (gasp!) discernible lyrics, downplaying the highly abrasive elements that he’d become synonymous with. The result was easily the best and most fully realized release of his career, and since then, Fernow—who does business as Prurient, Vatican Shadow and a host of other increasingly arcane aliases—has further explored contemporary electronic music with an increasingly head-on approach, most compellingly on the menacing demon disco of 2013’s Through The Window.
Frozen Niagara Falls, though, sets out to define Fernow’s legacy—and succeeds so comprehensively that it could effectively be repackaged as The Essential Prurient. From the stark imagery and alternatingly ear-splitting and serene sonics of standout “Cocaine Daughter” to the jarring inclusion of acoustic guitar on sublime closer “Christ Among The Broken Glass,” it’s far and away Fernow’s most affecting recorded work to date.
A curiously self-titled Wire album betrays a lack of new ideas
When a band names its debut after itself, the meaning is clear: “This is who we are.” When it happens after a long layoff, the message is: “We’re back.” But for Wire, the eponymous option is harder to decode. Wire follows its predecessor, Change Becomes Us, by only two years. It’s the combo’s 13th or 14th studio album (depending on how you count ’em) in a career that spans 39 years, and while it’s its first to feature guitarist Matthew Simms as a fully participating member alongside founders Colin Newman, Edvard Graham Lewis and Robert “Gotobed” Grey, he’s been touring with the band for years. It’s hardly starting over.
But when you consider that Change Becomes Us was a reworking of material abandoned in 1980, a more troubling notion emerges: Are these guys running out of ideas? The first Wire track, “Blogging,” does not reassure. It sounds crisp, but disengaged, as Newman’s voice recites observations about electronically mediated interaction. It registers skepticism, but not enough bite. Fortunately, things pick up from there, with a series of earworm tunes, glassy guitar licks and brittle beats that sound like an alternative follow-up to Wire’s icily electronic effort from 1986, The Ideal Copy. Still, a shroud of familiarity veils everything save the remorselessly heavy closer, “Harpooned,” which points out what is missing: Wire needs more of the barbed wit and brute anger that has enabled the band’s best post-2000 work stand up to its iconic ’70s recordings.