Monday, November 20, 2017

I Bury The Living: A Few Words About Low In High School From Morrissey

I have tried to only post positive, or moderately positive, reviews here over the course of the last decade in an attempt to encourage enthusiasm (mostly mine) about music rather than foster negativity. And, it's worth noting that one of this site's very first posts was my review of Morrissey's concert in Washington, D.C., way back in November 2007. So I'm a fan. All that being said, let what follows be seen as less a screed about the abysmal new album from Morrissey but, rather, a corrective gesture meant to highlight some of the many, many missteps on Low in High School. Ultimately, I am writing here in the perhaps vain hope that Morrissey will, at some point in the very near-future, return to even the moderate successes found on his records of just a decade ago.

Over the course of 12 tunes, Morrissey offers up his weakest batch of music since 1991's Kill Uncle. And yet, to say that is to malign the record that gave us "Sing Your Life" and "Our Frank", 2 of the best Moz singles from the early Nineties. In 20 years, I doubt that many people will be looking at this record and using a similar argument, as the apparent singles here -- the jaunty "Spent The Day In Bed", for example, or the almost-catchy "Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up On The Stage" -- fail to do much more than generate a sense of bemusement in a listener. And while I can applaud Morrissey's risk-taking here on stuff like the epic "Israel", I can also say that it is a song I need never hear again. The cut is lugubrious piddle, as is "Home is a Question Mark", a selection that, like so many numbers here, can be imagined as a far better song given its title. Morrissey has perhaps finally lived down to that famous Elvis Costello quote: "Morrissey writes wonderful song titles, but sadly he often forgets to write the song."

"I Wish You Lonely" is moderately successful and spry, but it remains more like a B-side from the days when Moz was vainly fighting the good fight amid waves of Britpop ruling the airwaves, while "The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn't Kneel" earns points for at least fully committing to its vaguely rhumba-like hook. "I Bury The Living" gets credit for its apparent anti-war stance but it's frankly excruciating, toddling along for more than 7 minutes in a haze. Risky? Yes. Brave? Yes. Wise? Not in the least.

Morrissey has spent his career making choices that would have felled other, lesser performers, and even at his absolute worst, he at least provides grist for the mental mill. That said, the cuts here on Low in High School arrive in a cloud of controversial statements, and a string of odd actions from the man himself that have prejudiced a listener from the start, even before the record can begin. And I tried to love this one in some small way, but I simply cannot find much to recommend here on Low in High School. Stream this legally on Spotify and save your money. Heck, simply read the titles and imagine what kind of songs Morrissey would have made out of these back in 1992 or so, when Morrissey seemed to want to please as much as he wanted to provoke. Messy, muddled, and boringly unhinged in many spots, Low In High School is out now.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Reverence: A Few Pics From The Jesus And Mary Chain Concert In Baltimore Last Night

Work commitments prevented me from going out to to see The Jesus and Mary Chain at Rams Head Live! in Baltimore last night. But, luckily, talented photographer Nalinee Darmrong was able to attend and shoot some pics that I could share here. If you haven't already, be sure to get her book of photos of The Smiths from when she followed the band around America and England in the Eighties. It is truly a fabulous document of a fabulous era. There's a link over there on the sidebar, or just go to Rizzoli Books to buy her book.

All photos are the property of Nalinee Darmrong.

More details via her official website, or her Facebook page

The Jesus and Mary Chain are touring in support of their latest record, Damage and Joy. More details on The Jesus and Mary Chain via the band's official website, or via the band's official Facebook page.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

My Rocking Days: A Brief Review Of The New Compilation From The Cleaners From Venus (Martin Newell)

A new release associated in any way with Martin Newell is something to perk up about. That the release is a rarities compilation, like Martin Newell's Jumble Sale, is yet another reason to get excited. The odds-and-sods collection will drop on Friday and I'm here to tell you how wonderful it is. Now, if you are even halfway a fan of Martin's, you'll realize what an understatement that is.

When diving into Martin Newell's Jumble Sale, a listener should marvel at how consistent this stuff is, especially since it's not sequenced chronologically. That means that a cut like the Kinks-recalling "A Bluebeat Kid" from 1979 sounds fine when propped up next to the chiming XTC-isms of "Red Guitars and Silver Tambourines" from earlier this year. Similarly, the faux-rockabilly of 1980's "My Rocking Days" sits comfortably next to the Robyn Hitchcock-esque "The Lunatic Lantern" from 2011. Elsewhere, the gentle "English Girl on a Horse" from 2015 mines a vein less power-pop and more cocktail jazz, before the absolutely sublime "Moonraking" from 2003 proceeds to haunt the ear on first and every subsequent listen. The ballad is so thoroughly perfect that a long-time Newell fan is almost taken by surprise by how a beauty like this could be counted as a rarity and go (presumably) unreleased or hard-to-find until now. Similarly, "That Kind of a Day" marries a jaunty melodic-line with one of Newell's most playful vocal performances from recent years, the 2014 number shining as a highlight here on Martin Newell's Jumble Sale. The collection ends with the one-two punch of New Wave-y "Ain't No Silicone Chip" from 1979, Newell trying his hand at the sort of electro-pop then the rage on both sides of the Atlantic, and then the final cut, "Somewhere in 1975..." from 1975, all Bowie-styled glam pleading mixed with a McCartney-like way with a direct hook.

Thoroughly listenable, essential for fans, and a fine compilation of English power-pop, Martin Newell's Jumble Sale is this week's most necessary purchase. The compilation is out on Friday. More details below.

[Photo: Uncredited 2014 promo pic]

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lift A Finger: A Quick Review Of The New Album From OCS (Thee Oh Sees)

In the same year that they've changed their name from Thee Oh Sees to simply Oh Sees, timed to the release of their last album, Orc, John Dwyer's outfit have decided to confound expectations and change their name again (this time to OCS) and drop yet another record. Memory Of A Cut Off Head, out Friday on Castle Face Records, is also the group's best recent release and a contender for one of 2017's best American indie records.

Opening with the Jimmy Webb-isms of the title cut, and leading into the stately chamber pop of "The Remote Viewer", a spin of the record reveals a change in direction to go along with the name change. Less fuzzy garage rock and more like leftovers from a Left Banke session, the best numbers on Memory Of A Cut Off Head are superb examples of the strengths of Dwyer as a composer and front-man. Stuff like the spacious "On And On Corridor" recalls Broadcast a bit, Brigid Dawon's vocals bringing to mind those of the late Trish Keenan in spots here, while the more languid "The Fool" approaches a Nico-like starkness that is at odds with earlier Thee Oh Sees records. Maybe it was a good idea for Dwyer to change the band's name? Elsewhere, the complicated "Time Tuner" faintly echoes the Cale compositions from one of the first 2 Velvet Underground records, while the elegant closer, "Lift A Finger", somehow manages to channel early Stereolab and recent Clientele offerings with an ornate precision.

Memory Of A Cut Off Head is, in some ways, shockingly different from earlier Thee Oh Sees records, given its focus on a very specific kind of pop-craft. That said, it's still discernibly a John Dwyer affair, equal parts backwards glances to Sixties archetypes and forward looks into a kind of visionary future indie-rock.

More details on OCS via the band's official website, or their official Facebook page. Memory Of A Cut Off Head is out on Friday via Castle Face Records.

[Photo: John Dwyer]

Much More Than That: A Quick Look At The New Reissue Of The First Sharon Van Etten Album

The debut album from Sharon Van Etten, (it was) because I was in love, is the sort of record that seems nearly too intimate to be easily understood by a mass audience. That said, the rare ability possessed by Sharon as a singer is the ease with which she makes the personal something to be sung and shared. And with the reissue of her debut, out Friday on Vinyl Me, Please, and the usual digital outlets, more and more fans will be added to those who are already well-acquainted with her skills as a singer and songwriter.

At her best here, like on the aching "Consolation Prize", Van Etten bridges the kind of folk-rock played by Joni Mitchell with the indie-folk of early Elliott Smith. At times painful, the lyrics and tunes drip with a sort of lived-in warmth that very few other performers can pull off without appearing too precious. On "Much More Than That", the melodic turns and vocal-lines suggest the best material that Sandy Denny brought to life, while the more upbeat "It's Not Like" seems to draw equal bits of inspiration from Joni (again, for the vocals) and Jimmy Page (for the supple guitar hooks). Fans of Laura Nyro should find a lot to love with the gentle "Have You Seen" and the quietly-lovely "For You", 2 numbers that seem like confessions sung by Sharon with nary a thought given for the possibility of an audience, or a listener ever hearing them. The strength of Van Etten's approach remains that kind of fearlessness, an attempt to simply bring the song to life with the simplest of tools and little ornamentation. And for all those moments that feel like an updating of folk styles from an earlier era, something like "Tornado" stuns with its melodic verve, a sideways hook warped under a madrigal in the style of Mary Margaret O'Hara (for those who will get, and appreciate, that reference).

As essential in its approach as was Roman Candle by Elliott Smith, (it was) because I was in love from Sharon Van Etten is a masterpiece of simplicity. Van Etten is so good at this that a listener sometimes marvels at how very much is here behind these lyrics and guitar-lines. Human and unpretentious, Sharon Van Etten, in some ways, redefined the very nature of folk music with her debut record. Get it, or get reacquainted with it, this Friday.

More details via Sharon Van Etten's official website. The reissue of (it was) because I was in love is out on Friday via Vinyl Me, Please, and the usual digital outlets.

[Photo: Miche Williams]

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Rattle On: A Brief Review Of The New Album From The Golden Boys

The new album from The Golden Boys, Better Than Good Times, is the type of release that's going to catch a lot of people off guard. The album, out on Friday via 12XU, is a collection of surprisingly riotous and rollicking American indie of the sort in short supply these days.

The Golden Boys -- Nay Nay Arbeitman, Matt Hoopengardner, Patrick Travis, John Wesley Coleman III, and Bryan Schmitz -- make raucous tunes like "So Cowoby" and the lyrical "Cincinnati" work in the manner of old Replacements numbers, for lack of an easier comparison. The nearly-lovely "Kick The Can" offers up a near-twang-y vibe, while the excellent and catchy "She's A Song" made me think of the music of The Grifters. Elsewhere, the title cut and the punchy "Lonely Girls" deliver pure adrenaline, while the ragged "Rattle On" clangs with an impressive sense of abandon. "Let The Cold Wind Blow" even adds a faint hint of Nicky Hopkins-era Stones to the mix as this record closes.

The sixth album from this lot, Better Than Good Times from The Golden Boys is a blast of a record. Thoroughly unpretentious and full of furiously direct indie-rock, this one is sure to please fans of bands as disparate as The Jayhawks, Pavement, and Big Black.

Better Than Good Times is out on Friday via 12XU. More details on the band via that link below.

[Photo: Angela Betancourt]

Space Mates: A Quick Review Of The New Sun Ra Reissue From Superior Viaduct

The folks at Superior Viaduct are truly doing God's work. Following a string of bold recent releases, including that John Frusciante reissue, and that visionary Cindy Lee record, the label is readying a vinyl reissue of Sun Ra And His Arkestra Featuring Pharoah Sanders And Black Harold, a seminal live recording from the jazz legend. Joined here by sax player Pharoah Sanders prior to Sanders joining Coltrane's band, this is a vital and essential release.

Opening with the glorious cacophony of "Gods on a Safari", this 1964 live recording reveals some masterful playing by Sun Ra on the keys before the roar of "The World Shadow" unveils dueling saxes from Marshall Allen, long-time Sun Ra associate, and Pharoah Sanders. This album's version of the cut is, according to online sources, the earliest known recording of Sun Ra staple "The Shadow World" with its title here reversed. Far more appealing for Sun Ra fans is the swirling racket of "Rocket Ninety Nine" which finds all the player firing on all cylinders, and Sun Ra himself running wild on the piano. Flautist Harold Murray ("Black Harold") shines on both "The Voice of Pan" and "Dawn Over Israel" later on the record. Sun Ra And His Arkestra Featuring Pharoah Sanders And Black Harold closes with the nearly-gentle "Space Mates", Sun Ra favoring a light touch on the keys on this one.

Sun Ra And His Arkestra Featuring Pharoah Sanders And Black Harold is out on Friday via Superior Viaduct. Fans of both classic jazz and Sun Ra's progression as a musical titan are advised to seek this one out.

Wrap Your Love Around My Heart: In Which I Catch Up With A Few Releases From Lia Pamina

Spanish singer Lia Pamina has recently offered up a few releases on the seminal Elefant Records label and now that I've caught up with these fine records, I'm here to tell you how wonderful the work of this singer is.

Single "Better Off Without You" purrs like an Astrud Gilberto classic, but it's flip "Record Collection" that thoroughly charmed me. The clever lyrical concerns about "...being alone with my record collection" indicate a sort of self-awareness that I liked, even if Lia's breathy vocals carried the light-as-air tune into the stratosphere. The track is that rare cut that manages to please both intellectually and emotionally.

Even more excellent is the Sycamore Tree EP whose title cut sees Lia sing a Sixties-influenced vocal-line over what amounts to a nice mix of bubblegum pop and something more refined. If "One Step" very clearly nods in the direction of Margo Guryan, the direct "Wrap Your Love Around My Heart" echoes Broadcast numbers a tiny bit. Lia reveals herself to be a fine purveyor of this sort of thing and a number like this hints at future greatness from this singer as her music is sure to grow further into something less reliant on its influences.

Lia's final release of 2017 was the "The Boy I Used To Know" single, another breathy throwback to the Bacharach era. The flip-side here, "Cards On The Table", is one of the best things Lia's recorded so far, an elegant bit of chamber pop business that references with measured certainty artists as disparate as Mary Hopkin and John Barry. The number is such a well-crafted piece of indie-pop that a listener spends less time placing the references and more time basking in Lia's voice and her mastery of this sort of thing.

Admittedly, the appeal of Lia Pamina rests on how well she can crank out this sort of very obviously Sixties-styled pop, but her skills run deeper than just those of a revivalist. While lots here will appeal to fans of Margo Guryan, Broadcast, and The Cardigans, the songs will also charm anyone who loves a good hook and who appreciates a very classic sense of how pop should be constructed. On the basis of these singles that I caught up with, I think it's safe to say that Lia Pamina understands what a wonderful art form the great pop single can be. That she also knows how to make great pop singles is why she's a name to pay attention to.

More details on these releases from Lia Pamina via the Elefant Records website.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

I Don't Mind: A Quick Word About The New EP From Native Sun

New York's Native Sun sound like about a dozen other bands but they also manage to bring a great deal of energy to this sort of thing. And, for that reason mainly, I'm here to offer a few words of praise about their new EP, Songs Born From Love And Hate, out Friday via Paper Cup Music.

Naturally, some of this looks to The Strokes for inspiration, namely opener "Sister" which sounds like a band trying very hard to sound like the bands that inspired The Strokes maybe more than The Strokes themselves. Elsewhere, the superb "I Don't Mind" roars past like The Hives or early Supergrass, all revved-up riffs and approximations of a bad attitude, while the melodic "Palindrome" brings a nice power-pop snap to things. Far less successful are the 2 longer songs on the EP which seem a tiny bit aimless but, hey, this is a very new band and there's more to like on Songs Born From Love And Hate than there are things to nitpick.

Songs Born From Love And Hate is out on Friday via Paper Cup Music. More details on Native Sun from the band's official Facebook page.

Friday, November 10, 2017

On The Edge Of A New Age: A Brief Review Of The New Album From Teen Daze

Following on from his earlier offering this year, the exquisite Themes For Dying Earth, Jamison Isaak is back with a new Teen Daze record already. The sublime Themes For A New Earth is out today on Jamison's own FLORA label and it's the sort of release I would highly recommend to attentive listeners.

Opening with the feather-light "Shibuya Again", Isaak then segues into the gently-propulsive "On The Edge Of A New Age" with its rippling guitar-figures and delicate keyboard-lines. Elsewhere, "River Walk" reminded me of the sort of thing found on the second half of David Sylvian's sprawling Gone To Earth, Isaak's axe echoing hooks from both Fripp and Bill Nelson in spots, while the quietly-lush "Station" offered up nods in the direction of both Harold Budd and The Blue Nile. Teen Daze pulls this sort of thing off with a great deal of ease and a decided lack of pretension. In that regard, Isaak seems to be placing himself (rightly) next to musicians like Vini Reilly who favor a kind of deliberate and delicate music-making that sometimes hints at more than it delivers. As Themes For A New Earth ends with "Prophets", an attentive listener feels transported and thankful that music like this is still being made somewhere on this earth.

Perhaps more easily accessible than his last record, Themes For A New Earth is out today on FLORA. More details on Teen Daze there.

[Photo: Cameron Ballensky]

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Special: A Quick Review Of The New Angel Olsen Compilation

Angel Olsen is having a good year. The singer has released an acclaimed record, gained a boatload of new fans, and has now prepped a rarities and B-sides compilation. Phases is out tomorrow on Jagjaguwwar and it's as fine a release as one would expect from this singer, and a fairly succinct summation of her enormous skill as a performer too.

"Fly On The Wall" opens things with a slow-surge of near-alt-country, while the more languid "Special" sees Olsen croon around a slinky melodic line that positively haunts. Elsewhere, "All Right Now" offers up delicate folk, while the woozy alt-rock of "Sweet Dreams" suggests a marriage of the styles of solo Kendra Smith and Maria McKee. The softer songs here, like "Endless Road", certainly charm with a sort of hypnotic grace but the numbers that are more direct, like a fine cover of Springsteen's "Tougher Than The Rest", possess an equal kind of power. Taken as a whole, this variety of styles indicates -- once again -- that Angel Olsen is one of the best vocalists working today. Her mastery of a range of material is impressive, as is her ability to deliver a full palette of emotional colors. From hints of vulnerability, to bursts of forcefulness, Angel Olsen somehow manages to seem the heir to both Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry, for two easy comparison points. And still, ignoring those worthy influences, a listener is simply overwhelmed with the quiet fire and sure power of Olsen's voice, especially so here on Phases. The overall impact of her singing is something special, and something so rare that even a bunch of B-sides and rarities can seem major pieces of art.

More details on Angel Olsen via her official website, or on her official Facebook page. Phases is out tomorrow on Jagjaguwwar.

[Photo: Kylie Coutts]

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Lonely At The Top: A Few Words About The New Album From Escape-Ism (Ian Svenonius) On Merge Records

That fellow up there has had a busy year. Not only has his band, Chain and The Gang, released 2 records (reviewed by me here and here), but he's been on the road fronting a revived and revitalized Make-Up, as shown from my pic up there of their triumphant gig at D.C.'s Black Cat a few months ago. And now, just in time for all those year-end best-of-2017-lists, he's finally brought forth the debut full-length record from his Escape-ism solo outfit. The fittingly-titled Introduction To Escape-ism drops on Merge Records this Friday and it is, frankly, one of the strongest Svenonius-related projects in quite some time.

Now, I say that not to knock his work with other bands recently but, rather, to highlight just how impressive this new endeavor is. That's especially true when one considers that this is basically a one-man thing for Ian. As such, a listener can sense a palpable lo-fi despair creeping through numbers like "Walking In The Dark", even as others, like the superb "Lonely At The Top", deliver Fad Gadget-like levels of unease and paranoia exceptionally well. Similarly, "Rome Wasn't Burnt In A Day" is fuzzy bravado mixed with a little taste of rage at the establishment, especially now in these days of having a sociopath in the White House, while the sneer of "Almost No One (Can Have My Love)" casts a disproving eye at nearly the entire swath of the mainstream (and rightly so, one might add). The political is personal-rule applies to this former Dischord Records legend, especially on "They Took The Waves", the closet thing to a direct protest song this cat is likely to write in the 21st century. I don't mean to fault for Svenonius for not being more explicit but, instead, want to signify that this dude's skills run so deep that he can get a whole lot across without beating a listener over the head to make his points. Couching his screeds in music like this was a wise move as the message is more wonderfully insidious and subversive in spots. And for the selections that are not even halfway trying to make some larger points about society, the level of success achieved here is significant, with the claustrophobia of "I Don't Remember You" recalling any number of bands from the early days of Mute Records, while the catchy "Crime Wave Rock" manages to work in a Nuggets-worthy bit of garage snarl even if the only guy rocking out is Ian himself, and not a band of miscreants.

Quietly incendiary, the songs on Introduction To Escape-ism are some of the best compositions Ian Svenonius has offered up in years, and that's saying something considering his recent burst of creativity. Using a limited set of tools, and a simple palette of sonic colors, Svenonius has here delivered something bracing which remains largely tuneful. The guy may have been frontin' the revolution a few years ago with both Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up but there are many ways to kick things off. If those bands' tunes were rabble-rousing anthems, these cuts here on Introduction To Escape-ism are whispered suggestions, the hint of an incitement to action purred in the ear. Heed the call, folks.

Introduction To Escape-ism drops on Merge Records on Friday.