Conor Oberst

New This Week: The Roots, Conor Oberst, Haley Bonar & More

Jayson Greene

By Jayson Greene

on 05.21.14 in Features

There are a lot of records this week. A lot of them. So let’s not waste time up here, shall we? No small talk, let’s do this, starting off with:

The Roots, …and then you shoot your cousin: The Roots contemplate mortality through familiar sounds, from vintage soul samples to a well-known cast of collaborators. Christina Lee says:

“Black Rock” features Dice Raw playing the apathetic street-corner dealer, the clanging blues-rock sample punctuating his humdrum transactions: a 40-ounce for breakfast, a quarter ounce sold. But the album finds new ways to make genre’s dances with the devil feel unsettling as opposed to well-worn. On “The Coming,” Mercedes Martinez of Philly neosoul duo Jazzyfatnastees quivers as she delivers news of people screaming, like a shaken town crier. Her words bleed into the dirge-like “The Dark (Trinity),” making even Black Thought’s rote-sounding inventory count — “Hashtag, diamond dog tag, money bag, nice swag, pockets need an ice bag, tote tag, body bag” — sound bleak.

Haley Bonar, Last War: Once classified as “folk” or the less glamorous tag “alt-country,” the St. Paul singer/songwriter finds herself under the guise of confessional garage-pop troubadour and it suits her. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Steven Hyden says:

No matter the insight Bonar puts into her lyrics, Last War is focused primarily on sound — specifically, driving, synth-accented, often angry and electrified rock. Bonar proves herself a natural at spooky, darkly-hued new wave on hooky tracks like “Woke Up in My Future” and “Heaven’s Made for Two.” Only on the final song “Eat For Free” does Bonar return to a stripped-down, guitar-only arrangement, though she does let the song’s climactic line — “We eat for free/ to put on a show for everyone” — slowly build from a murmured mantra to a booming affirmation of surviving in the music business, with or without just rewards.

Conor Oberst, Upside Down Mountain: The Bright Eyes frontman’s latest is like a pleasant letter from an old friend. Megan Seling says:

Oberst’s search to find, and accept, his place in the world is a common theme on Upside Down Mountain. Many of the songs (which were recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and, as a result, possess a country vibe and plenty of slide guitar) have the kind of wisdom and calmness that come with surviving the storm, so it’s easy to assume that Oberst is addressing his younger self when he sings, in his familiar, wavering voice, “There are hundreds of ways to get through the days/ now you just find one.”

Jolie Holland, Wine Dark Sea: The songwriter’s latest is one of her messiest, but also one of the best she’s made. John Everhart says:

The energy here is organic, spontaneous, and band-oriented, akin to Neil Young’s frayed and underappreciated masterpiece Time Fades Away. Holland undercuts the tough sound with aching vulnerability: Opener “On and On” finds her abjectly pleading “Please be gentle with my heart/ Cause I’m in love with you,” while the woozy, mid-tempo number “Saint Dympha” shows her conflating romantic heartbreak with the deaths of outsider icons. “Most of my heroes died in the gutter — Johnson and Foster, MacTell, and Hurston,” she drawls, before conceding, “I follow them down, and ride with the current that’s pulling me home.” It’s a keenly self-aware sentiment, and indeed, Holland’s never sounded more self-assured then she does in these flashbulb moments of dignified resignation.

Herzog, Boys: The “subtlety-free” Cleveland rock band lunges for greatness and nearly grasps it. Steven Hyden says:

With songwriting responsibilities shared by singer-guitarist Nick Tolar and lyricist Tony Vorell, Herzog specializes in juxtaposing gregarious, fuzzed-up guitar-rock that plays like a call to arms with lyrics that thoughtfully unpack how being in band starts to feel a little silly by the end of your 20s. “More and more as I grow old/and nobody sings my songs/ it’s harder to keep believing,” Tolar sings on “Mad Men” over a crunchy guitar/synth sundae that triangulates “The Blue Album,” Siamese Dream, and classic rock radio. Herzog nod again to Weezer on “Teenage Metalhead,” a wised-up update of “In the Garage” where the kid’s rock-star fantasies become run-down bar-band reality.

Coldplay, Ghost Stories – Chris Martin drowns his post-breakup sorrows in maybe the most muted, grayscale Coldplay album. An oddly minor entry from one of the biggest bands in the world, seems to be slipping out in the universe with a shrug. I’m generally a huge fan of this band’s singles, and always want to live in a world where there are new Coldplay songs playing in the supermarket, but I don’t hear the big checkout-aisle contender here.

Yann Tiersen, Infinity: The Breton composer’s latest is not quite out-of-this-world, but somewhere at the edge of it. Simon Price says:

Tiersen’s eighth studio album, Infinity, is inseparably tied to the place in which it was conceived. It’s partly inspired by “Ar Maen Bihan,” a short story in Breton (a strikingly similar language to fellow surviving Brythonic tongues Welsh and Cornish) by writer Emilie Quinquis aka Tiny Feet. The story gives its name to one instrumental track here and, for another, is translated into Icelandic as “Steinn” by Sigur Rós collaborators Amiina, who know a thing or two themselves about living on a rocky outcrops (the album was partly recorded in their native Iceland).

Arto Lindsay, Encyclopedia of Arto – A comprehensive and compelling compilation of the no-wave legend and NYC pioneer Arto Lindsay, on the impeccable Northern Spy label.

Matt Berry, Music for Insomniacs: An interesting diversion for the actor/writer/musician, but not one that demands a sequel. Andrew Mueller says:

Music for Insomniacs bears no relation to the lush prog-folk ponderings that comprise the rest of Berry’s musical oeuvre. It consists of two tracks, “Part 1″ and “Part 2,” each 20-odd minutes long, both sounding rather like Berry made them up as he went along. The music, which is largely keyboard-oriented, meanders between understated riffing, ambient backwashes of synthesizer chords and occasional moments of drama, involving portentous percussion and the yelps of what sound like people drowning in the morass.

Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Party Jail: Wild post-punk alternating with jabs at naïve indie pop. Beverly Bryan says:

The title track is a hot slice of raw boned dance punk made for a freaky dance party someplace airless and illegal. On such songs, singer-songwriter and drummer Ed Schrader wrests sturdy, rump-moving beats from his lone floor tom, while bassist Devin Rice locks into grimey punk-boogie grooves. They get an outsized amount and variety of rock ‘n’ roll from their minimalist set-up.

Alexander Tucker, Alexander Tucker – This was initially a RSD exclusive, a repressing of Alexander Tucker’s self-titled debut that initially only existed on CD-R. Lovely folk, with country tinges, ripped slightly out of time.

Comet Control, Comet Control – Toronto psych-rock outfit hit with metal-tinged psycheledia on their self-titled debut. Long, blurred lines of guitars that pulse like a headache, coolly cooing vocals. Good stuff.

The Projects, Elektrichka’s Favourite Party Record: Bringing the late Graeme Wilson’s cosmic, collaborative vision vividly to life. Amber Cowan says:

The songs were written when Wilson, who was the founder of the experimental London collective The Projects, was suffering from serious ill-health, not that you can tell from the lo-fi oscillations of opener “Set a Course for the Stars.” Like Prolapse or Broadcast, Wilson uses motorik grooves to lock down imaginative flights of fancy: “Set a Course…” is a dream vision about finding an Earth-like planet in another galaxy. “Cold Fusion Experiment” is a piece of electro chemistry about cracking the nuclear code. “Emma Nutt” is a space age tribute to the world’s first female telephone operator, who reportedly memorised every number in the New England directory.

Archie Bronson Outfit, Wild Crush – Tinny, bratty, fantastic-sounding garage-pop psychedelia. Like Thee Oh Sees with more of a sweet-tooth. Very catchy and fun.

Erik Friedlander, Nighthawks – A stunning collection from the jazz cellist Erik Friedlander, an album written during a blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy. At turns hauntingly becalmed and restlessly inventive. RECOMMENDED.

Syd Arthur, Sound Mirror: Blending jazz-fusion grooves, psychedelic guitar riffs and pastoral orchestrations. Ryan Reed says:

Prog is dead. And it has been since the late 1970s, when the Sex Pistols plunged the final nail in the genre’s commercial coffin. One thrilling exception: Canterbury newcomers Syd Arthur. The band’s second LP, Sound Mirror, is a sonic anachronism — blending jazz-fusion grooves, psychedelic guitar riffs, and pastoral orchestrations, its deftly assembled songs echo the eclecticism of the ’70s Canterbury prog movement (which spawned bands like Camel, Caravan, and the Soft Machine), conjuring images of sword-fighting knights and misty mountains.

Deniro Farrar, Rebirth: The Charlotte, North Carolina, rapper’s new EP is a blasphemous mix of Saturday night robbery plans and regrets over missing the pastor’s sermon the next morning. David Turner says:

On “Rebirth / Holding On,” Farrar begs for forgiveness before confessing to crimes and revealing his brother’s recent jail stint and an uncle’s alcoholism. It’s a heavy opening two minutes, and it sets the tone for the rest of the EP. On “Notice,” Farrar offers a hand to a struggling single mother, railing against those that have abandoned or just want to take advantage of her. While he may see his own mother in this unnamed woman, his voyeuristic reading of her life doesn’t come off much nobler than that of the thirsty men he chastises.

Blu, Good To Be Home – New double album from the erstwhile rap-underground Great Hope; it sounds excellent, though maybe not like he’s stretching himself stylistically. Still, this guy can rap, and he’s called this his defining project. As the title indicates, the album is a celebration of Blu’s hometown of LA.

Legion, The Lost Tapes – The word “grimy” is way, way overused in hip-hop writing to the point where anyone with boots and a scowl gets slapped with the label. But Legion is the kind of rap for which the term was invented. A trio signed by Black Sheep in the early ’90s, they basically offer the sound of the Bronx, distilled – Roy Ayers samples, drums that echo off of chipped concrete, crisp empty space-filled mixes, and the kind of gruff, bleak rapping that ruled the underground scene. This is what a lot of hardcore rap traditionalists are talking about when they talk about “That real,” and it still sounds great. This is a compilation that does double duty as a rarities comp and an intro to the group.

Brantley Gilbert, Just As I Am – He actually says “I’m a free bird” on the opening song “If You Want a Bad Boy”; Brantley Gilbert owns this bad boy-with-a-heart routine. His singing is perfect for the part, though, and the songwriting, which is all that really matters anyway when it comes to commercial country, is pretty excellent. I wouldn’t mind hearing the midtempo rocker “17 Again” over the summer, for example.

Plaid, Reachy Prints: Andy Turner and Ed Handley’s latest is programmed entirely for headphones consumption — that’s not a complaint.

Andy Turner and Ed Handley’s latest electronic compositions are sharp and engaging enough to compensate for their early-middle-age retirement from the clubbing world. Aside from a website that allows users to manipulate the video for the single “Tether,” nor is there much of the techno-gimmickry that has marked recent albums: instead, the pair concentrate on serving up superior, rarefied examples of the genre that appears unable to shake off the description “intelligent dance music” (even if Plaid are no longer moving our feet).

Smoke Faeries, Smoke Faeries – New album from British duo swirl wisps of gothic darkness and roots-folk portent into their dream-pop reveries.

American Football, American Football – The reissue of the cult-beloved ’99 emo album, complete with live disc and rarities. The #emorevival continues!

Mr. Scruff, Friendly Bacteria: Producer Andrew Carthy drops some of his humor, but remains infectious. Andrew Harrison says:

Luckily, the sound-bending values of old have only been slighty muted. There’s rubbery funk on “Where Am I?” and fat fuzzy bass squelching from a hip-hop beat on the title track. Best of all is the slo-mo acid disco of “We Are Coming,” and the full-on tropical jazz-dub of album finale “Feel Free.” Though tracks like “Deliverance” and the single “Render Me” follow a light and meandering path, there are no focus-less ambient confections. Scruff keeps the beat — however gentle — and the effect is subtly invigorating, like a morning stroll rather than a 4 a.m. zonk-out.

Bo Ningen, III: The London-based Japanese quartet sharpen their aim. Sharon O’Connell says:

Singer and bassist Taigen’s admiration of Steve Reich has played its part, but there’s nothing here that smacks of academic exercise and, despite their membership of the freeform, psychedelic rock fraternity and obvious love of the deep motorik groove, Bo Ningen are absolutely not a “jam band.” Thrills abound in their battery of controlled eruptions, as they corral occasional quasi-hardcore workouts (as on “Psychedelic Misemono Goya [Reprise]” and “Kaifuku”), cartwheeling drum patterns (“Mitsume”), see-sawing guitar curlicues (“Mukaeni Ikenai”) and primal shrieking (pretty much everywhere) into service. Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth ups the anxiety ante on the steadily accelerating “CC,” but bliss-pop relief is provided by an oceanic “Ogosokana Ao.”

Various Artists, Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle Funk, Modern Soul & Boogie Volume II 1972-1987 – The fantastic series from LITA devoted to cataloguing Seattle’s under-appreciated funk riches continues.

Various Artists, Soul Jazz Records Presents PUNK 45: Sick On You! One Way Spit! After The Love & Before The Revolution: Proto-Punk 1969-77 – The first volume was called Kill Hippies! Kill Yourself! and there’s nowhere to go, title-wise, but down from there. But the stuff collected here is still sterling, and a vital piece of history – more of the twisted yawps that would eventually coagulate into what we know of as punk music, a few years before the term hit the culture.

Tom Brousseau, Today Is a Bright New Day – Excellent odds and sods EP from the singer-songwriter Tom Brousseau. Features a live cover of “When the Saints Go Marching On.”

Heliotropes, A Constant Sea -This is the previously unreleased title track from the Brooklyn psych-rock quartet’s debut album, and it’s A) gorgeous, and B) a bit switch-up from the album. The song is a dusky and limpid a piano ballad with swelling vocal harmonies, furnished at the edges with quiet oboe and mellotron. The singing is beautiful.

Mirel Wagner, Oak Tree – New Sub Pop signee Mirel Wagner released a spectacularly dark self-titled collection in 2012 that featured a ballad about sex with dead people. Her new album is called When The Cellar Children See The Light of Day, so yeah, she’s got a flair for this sort of subject matter. This is the single from that record, which sounds like it will wonderful.

Spank Rock, Gully – Remember Spank Rock? They were fun in 2005. They should probably have just been a 2005 thing.