New This Week: The Shins, Esperanza Spalding & More

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 03.20.12 in Spotlights

Port Of Morrow

The Shins

I’ve been back from Austin for about 48 hours, but my body is only just now starting to adjust to things like normal sleep patterns, being stationary for long periods of time, and not drinking beer every day. Soon, I will stop having dreams that I am being chased by a giant, furious side of brisket. I look forward to those days in breathless anticipation. Until they arrive, here’s this week’s New Arrivals:

The Shins, Port of Morrow: I really wanted this to be my Shins review, but then I heard the record and actually kind of liked it, so the joke’s on me, as it usually is. The Shins have cleaned up quite a bit since their intoxicating and mysterious Oh, Inverted World. There were cobwebs in the corners of those songs, but Port of Morrow is pure California sun — even though James Mercer lives in the Pacific Northwest. So there goes that analogy. You get a lot of ceiling-scraping vocals, rich arrangements and sly, sideways choruses. So, you win this round, Shins. But my withering sarcasm will live to fight another day. RECOMMENDED

Daniel Roessen, Silent Hour/Golden Mile: Solo EP from Dan from Grizzly Bear, this one is beautiful in all the ways you might expect: high-arcing vocals and rich, rambling instrumentation — twinkling banjos, chain-link guitars, plaintive piano, all in the service of Roessen’s singularly beautiful songwriting. RECOMMENDED

Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs: This is lovely chamber pop, classically-inspired but sprawling and beautiful. This level of ambition is rare in indie rock, and to hear someone pulling it off so effortlessly is inspiring. This is RECOMMENDED. Here’s Laura Leebove with the scoop:

On Lost in the Trees’ second LP, frontman Ari Picker again takes the story of a hurt family and turns it into folk songs complex as the events that sparked them. This time it’s a compassionate tribute to his mother, who committed suicide in 2009, told through layers of full-bodied strings, horns, intricate percussion, Picker’s tenor and Emma Nadeau’s haunting soprano.

Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society: The woman whose face graced the dartboards of a zillion Justin Bieber fans returns with a lithe new record that’s perfect for springtime. Advance press would have you believe this is her pop crossover, but there’s a lot more slinky Erykah Badu style R&B here than anything else. eMusic’s Britt Robson lays it out for you:

By ignoring boundaries, Spalding upends expectations. She enlists august jazz tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano to provide a dulcet lilt to a Stevie Wonder cover (“I Can’t Help It”) and hip-hop titan Q-Tip to play glockenspiel and co-produce the jazzy tribute to her native Portland, Oregon(“City of Roses”). Assembling a phalanx of 23 players and vocalists for a flashy, powerhouse “Radio Song,” she sings about the giddiness of being seized by a new jam coming out of the speakers as her own electric bass wends its way through the song’s buoyant center. Three songs later, with just the sparse backing of organist James Weidman, she tells the saga of a man falsely imprisoned for 30 years on a bogus murder conviction. On Radio, both extremes are fair game.

Kindness, World, You Need a Change of Mind: This kid! This sounds like Paula Abdul as played on a boombox underwater, and if you think that’s a bad thing, I’m not sure we can be friends anymore. Lovely, liquid productions with dreamy vocals and the occasional flash of straight-up pop (“That’s Alright” which is the best pop song 1987 never produced). Kindness put a queasy spin on ’80s chart pop, making it safe for people who think it needs to be made safe for them and retaining the hooks for those of us who have always loved it. Guess what? RECOMMENDED

Robert Pollard, Mouseman Cloud: It’s been almost 20 minutes since we had a new record from Robert Pollard, so here he comes, high-kicking from stage left, to remedy that situation. This sounds a bit gutsier than his usual stuff — the drums are a bit bigger, the vocals a bit cleaner, and the attitude a lot more capital-R Rock. Oh, Bob. Don’t ever leave us again. Unless it’s to make yet another record.

Mello Music, Self-Sacrifice: The Mello Music Group remains one of my favorite labels going these days. Their track record is honestly incredible — I’m not sure they’ve put out a bad record yet. You can and should read more about them here. If you want a quick sample of what the artists on Mello sound like, this is the place to start. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Odd Future, The OF Tape, Vol. 2: Speaking of hip-hop! The buzz of last year return with a batch of new bangers. I was talking a lot of smack about OF as recently as last week, but the stuff here sounds like it’s staying the course — plenty of blippy production and acrobatic rapping. You know plenty about the kind of lyrical content these guys favor, so if that’s not your thing, stay away.

Melanie Fiona, The MF Life: I really like Melanie Fiona. Canadian R&B singer with some kind of tertiary contact to the Roots, this is truly tough and bright R&B — rich, soulful, emotional and strong. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Split Cranium, Split Cranium: The rules of life dictate that if a band is called Split Cranium and their album is out on Hydra Head, I am legally obligated to like it. When it ftatures Aaron Turner of Isis on vocals, that law becomes binding. Guess what? I like this. Out-of-control hardcore with galloping tempos and slashing guitars. RECOMMENDED

Anti-Flag, The General Strike: Anti-Flag! Still making records! eMusic’s Andrew Mueller has more:

Though defiantly simplistic in both style and content, The General Strike is not without invigorating appeal. Anti-Flag have honed a knack for daftly irresistible shout-along choruses, and the likes of “Neoliberal Anthem” and “The Ranks of the Masses” — the titles, like the lyrics, are composed in some realm beyond satire — are at least bracing the first time, suggesting an incongruously radicalised Ramones, or a more earnest Green Day.

Azusa Plane Where the Sands Turn to Gold: Philadelphia’s Jason DiEmilio wrote striking, open-ended, often beautiful solo guitar compositions so loud and stunning that they eventually led to DiEmilio contracting tinnitus, a fact that made him so distraught that he ended his own life in 2006. That the cover image is taken from Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar seems tragically appropriate. This is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. eMusic’s Rob Young has more:

At times suffocatingly dense, these homemade tracks swell up and outward like gas giants composed of controlled feedback waves. Like a more scientific MBV, Azusa Plane’s gorgeously abrasive textures were infinitely malleable: they could take the shape of sweet indie pop (“Live At Leeds”), they could serve as hero salutes (“Shooting Speed With Lou Reed,” “Calvin Johnson Has Saved Rock For An Entire Generation”), even score political points (“United States Direct Investment In Other Countries”).

The Sherlock Holmes Investigation, Investigation No. 1: Uh, oK, first things first, this is a funk band called The Sherlock Holmes Investigation, so I don’t know why you’re not already hitting “Download All.” The music is fat, greasy and funky, strutting bass lines. There are some ballads — most notably, a highly unlikely yet nonetheless real cover of the Carpenters’ “Close to You.” The physical version of this is one of the rarest, hardest-to-find funk jams of all time. So that will give me something to do for the next few months/years.

Choir of Young Believers, Rhine Gold: More angelic pop music from COYB. eMusic’s Laura Studarus has more:

A proud purveyor of broken-hearted orchestral pop, Jannis Makrigiannis’s lush compositions here feel more optimistic — even as his sad tenor (a kissing-cousin to Andrew Bird’s vocal slur) provides a wistful undercurrent. The 10-minute “Paralyse” plays with this dichotomy, its hallucinatory cloud of tape wobbles and abrupt tempo changes echoing The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” as Makrigiannis laments his lover’s “guillotine goodbye.” But Makrigiannis is a man, not a heartsick (beach) boy…despite what some of his high-arcing vocals may suggest.

Birdy, Birdy: This is a record by a woman named Birdy that has a lot of indie rock covers (Phoenix, Bon Iver, The National, The Postal Service). Cool.

BDDUB, Serenity: Slow, cooling synths just in time for the summer heat. Icy, languid and lovely.

Parson Red Heads, Murmurations: This is some lovely country-style indie rock from the Parson Red Heads, bright and glistening with emphasis on rich, rolling harmonies.

Frank Black & the Catholics, Live at Melkweg (March 24, 2001): I kind of like the symmetry in this being released nearly 11 years after it was recorded. In the early ’00s, Frank was fronting a nasty little band called the Catholics which was sometimes garage rock, sometimes country, always undeniably Frank. There’s a song on here called “Llano Del Rio” which seems kind of prescient.

The Wedding Present, Valusia: Another batch of tortured love songs from the semi-recently reactivated Wedding Present. To paraphrase Mark E. Smith (because why not?), the Weddoes are more or less just Gedge and yer granny on bongos, but the songs here still have that same steel-girder guitar sound you fell in love with so many years ago.

Pins of Light, II: Everyone else is cashing in on the AmRep sound (although, OK, “cashing in” is probably not phrasing it accurately), so why shouldn’t AmRep? This is some roaring, gruesome hard rock, not too far afield from, let’s say, Motorhead.

Unsane, Wreck: Speaking of AmRep! Unsane return with more filthy, furious scuzzbucket sludge-rock. We had a long discussion about the notion of pigfuck a few weeks ago. Whether or not Unsane fit that bill is probably up for debate. Feel free to do so in the comments. What is not up for debate is the fact that this is RECOMMENDED

If These Trees Could Talk, Red Forest: Bruising instrumental post-rock where quiet, searching verses build to explosive choruses. I realize I just basically described the entire genre of post-rock, but Trees are more managed and controlled than most.

Worm Ouroboros, Come the Thaw: This is really, really lovely. Mysterious, drifting music, not too far off from Dead Can Dance or, say, a more linear Cocteau Twins. Really pretty and slow with female vocals that drift through the songs like sad spirits. I am a sad spirit, and so I say this is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Novella, Novella: Trivia: back when I was a born again Christian, there was a hard rock band called Novella that put out 2 albums, and that I went to see play a strip mall church while I was in college. That may or may not have had a definitive impact on me reshaping my religious views. Fortunately, this is not that Novella. This is lovely, swirling shoegaze music with hints of MBV (as you’d probably guess), but with more clearly-defined choruses.

DVA, Pretty Ugly: Glitchy, funky electronic album grounded in sweet soul vocals that find it straddling the fine line between electro and R&B. In fact, the vocal tracks are the ones that engage me the most; it’s like ’80s R&B getting remixed by some weird kid in a flat in London.

Ozzy Osbourne, Diary of a Madman (Reissue): A while back, Sharon Osbourne enraged metal fans (and not for the first time) by replacing the original bass and drum tracks on this record with new tracks recorded by members of Ozzy’s touring band, due to outstanding legal issues with the original musicians. Because what’s history if you can’t rewrite it? This new reissue mercifully restores the original tracks, and the sanity of Ozzy fans everywhere.

Desolate Winds, In Times of Cold: This one opens with a blinding, 16-minute black metal track that gains in momentum and power as it goes on — truly stunning and enveloping. The second track is pretty good, too. RECOMMENDED

Mi Ami, Decade: Mi Ami turn a hard left on this one, going in more for spacey synths than their usual hard party jams.

Various Artists, The Bristol Reggae Explosion 3: The 80′s Part 2: Winner of the Longest Record Title of the Week award, this is another survey of the Bristol reggae scene, with a special emphasis on roots rockers. You can find pretty exhaustive notes on it here. To my ears, this is some sweet and dandy reggae, just in time for summer.

Jazz Picks, by Dave Sumner
River Cow Orchestra, Going Softly Into the Good Night: New release from excellent Kansas City based large ensemble. Trumpet that soars atmospherically a la fusion era Miles Davis, melodies that swoon and entrance, dynamic improvisation but cohesive as any soundtrack. Experimental, yet supremely likable and approachable. Their last album was wonderful, too. Find of the Week.

Motian Sickness: The Music of Paul Motian, For the Love of Sarah: A quartet of drums, viola, mandolin, and bass interpret ten Paul Motian compositions with brilliant results. Effectively captures Motian’s rhythmic dynamics and dream-like qualities. Viola is, in effect, the long slow delivery of Motian collaborator saxophonist Joe Lovano, and mandolin doubles down on the folkish quality of many Motian performances. “The Story of Maryam” may be the prettiest song you’ll hear this year. Highly Recommended.

Wee Trio, Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective: Trio of vibes, bass, and drums tackle the Bowie songbook. A few tracks that treat Bowie melodies somewhat literally, others that extrapolate off a Bowie melody fragment and go off into some thrilling directions. Nifty recording, and one I hope that inspires other jazz outfits to do the same.

Brad Mehldau Trio, Ode: Arguably the top pianist on the jazz scene. With regular collaborators Jeff Ballard on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass, Ode presents a series of originals that were initially inspired by other people and written as tributes to those people. Mehldau is immensely lyrical in sound and style, and his trio is in possession of a grace achieved by only the best of the best piano trios. Just a beautiful set. Pick of the Week.

Dan Cray, Meridies: Nice straight-ahead set of tunes featuring former Chicagoan Dan Cray on piano leading a quartet that includes new sax wunderkind Noah Preminger. Nothing groundbreaking, just decent jazz. Album ender “March of the Archetypes” not only sends the album off on a terrifically addictive note, but has me intrigued to see where Cray goes with his next recording. I love an album that ends on a strong note.

Dudley Owens/Aaron Wright Band, People Calling: Oh how I do love when a group manages to fuse a sense of danger into a set of pretty tunes. Recalling the talent of Clifford Jordan to bring together the roots of jazz and modern compositions, this quintet of tenor/soprano sax, trumpet, piano, double bass, and drums captures those same qualities for a very cool recording. It swings and it prowls, joyful but ready to fight. Modern straight-ahead, but imbued with the spiritual jazz of the sixties. Opening tracks of “R.O.” and “People Calling” an outstanding one-two punch. A very strong effort and Highly Recommended.

Masabumi Kikuchi Trio, Sunrise: Quiet piano trio, sort of typical of the ECM label. Notable, perhaps, that ECM claims it is the final recording of Paul Motian on ECM, which in and of itself doesn’t make it worth buying. However, the interplay between Motian and bassist Thomas Morgan absolutely does; it’s the beating heart of the album.

Aldo Romano/Louis Sclavis/Henri Texier, 3+3: The trio of Louis Sclavis (soprano sax, clarinet), Henri Texier (double bass), and Also Romano (drums, perc) have put out some amazing modern jazz recordings together, and with this recording, it appears that the trend has continued. Guest appearances by Nguyen Le, Bojan Z, and Enrico Rava. What little I could find online about this album is that its taken from a live recording in 2011. Regardless of the recording’s bio details, this is great jazz from three great artists. Recommended.

Twopool, Traffic Bins: Quartet of alto sax, trombone, drums, and cello for some serious avant-garde music. Chaotic free jazz interspersed with sublime classical interludes. If you need a dissonance fix, stop here and listen.

Cyrus Chestnut, The Cyrus Chestnut Quartet: New recording from talented pianist. Leads a quartet with bass, drums, and sax. I was listening to Chestnut recordings long ago, long before I focused primarily on jazz of the present day. They’re always tasteful, strong musicianship, and straight-ahead jazz. Sometimes it’s got some swing, sometimes the blues, and sometimes a bit mainstream, but it’s always good stuff.

Sinouj, Here: They describe their music as “Afro-Mediterranean band which bases its music on Magreb and Middle Eastern traditions that they mix with contemporary jazz, funk, as well as African musics.” Or said differently, it’s world jazz that you can party to. Joyful, lively, and all types of groove for the bounce addicts. So glad I ran into this one.

Nesso G, Nesso G: Okay, this one is a couple years old, but we’ll mention it anyway. A quartet consisting of two tenor saxes, bass, and drums. Fiery modern jazz that blasts away when the mood invites them. Long sonorous sax lines as drums and bass scatter buckshot in the background. Not afraid to be free, not afraid to embrace a melody. Too cool. Recommended.

John Coltrane, The Impulse Albums Vol. 5: Consists of the albums Live in Seattle, Sun Ship, Transition, Infinity (with Alice Coltrane and Strings) and Live in Japan. For Coltrane novices, this late period of his career found him going freer and more dissonant than ever before. Reissue/Archival Find of the Week.