New This Week (With Audio & Video): Smith Westerns, Mavis Staples, Numero Group & More

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 06.25.13 in Spotlights

A note before we get started with this week’s roundup: eMusic’s editorial department has been taking turns writing this New This Week roundup for years now, and we haven’t really fiddled with the format a whole lot. I decided to stretch out a bit a few weeks ago, adding some video and audio. I’m continuing with that experiment in this week’s installment.

My favorite new release roundups come from places like Aquarius Records and Other Music and Midheaven, which round up not only the records I’ve been waiting for, but also a whole host of rare finds and surprises as well. We’ve always tried to do that with these roundups, but I wanted to recommit to that idea. The flip side is that it will take a little bit longer for the roundup to post — late afternoon instead of early afternoon — but hopefully the tradeoff will be worth it. We’ll also add video and audio for albums we think are of particular interest.

Additionally, Dave Sumner likes to really dig in for his New Jazz column, too — as you’ve probably noticed, Dave’s list has been going live on Wednesdays to give him a bit more time to listen, and will continue to do so from here on out.

Sound good? Any feedback? Feel free to let us know in the comments. In the meantime, let’s get into this week’s new releases.

Mavis Staples, One True Vine: Mavis Staples’s second Jeff Tweedy-produced record is, not surprisingly, very, very good. The first track is a gorgeous cover of Low’s “Holy Ghost” from this year’s The Invisible Way (we see what you did there, Tweedy). Barry Walters says:

The follow-up to 2010′s stunning You Are Not Alone, One True Vine continues her collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a pairing that seems strange in theory but sounds utterly sweet and mutually flattering in the grooves. As before, Tweedy gets unguarded performances from Staples that have sometimes eluded more conventional producers, and Staples helps Tweedy focus on musical and emotional fundamentals in a way he hasn’t always done with Wilco.

Smith Westerns, Soft Will: Smith Westerns graduate from the scuzzy, high-school garage-rock of their early days.

In the two years since 2011′s splendid Dye It Blonde, such palpable buzz may have subsided. But the band’s knack for infectious guitar and synth riffs has surely not. Their latest album, Soft Will, may not flip the script, but it does refine their mission: There’s less of the debut’s punkish posture — a pose that sometimes verged on snotty — and no song is as instantly catchy as Dye It Blonde‘s “Weekend.” What’s left though is a greater emphasis on melodic consistency, chirpy guitar licks and hummable hooks.

Blondes, Swisher: Surprise! Electronic duo Blondes spring their second record on an unsuspecting public. There was no run-up promotion, no announcement, no pre-release hype, just WHAM, here it is. And it’s good! Minimalist electronic music with pinpoint rhythms and foglike electronics, as opaque and drifting as a cluster of ghosts. But don’t take my word for it — you can stream the whole record below.

The Numero Group Comes to eMusic
If you’re a record fanatic like me, you’re more than familiar with the amazing Chicago label The Numero Group, who have been excavating underheard and regional R&B (and psych-folk and cumbia and gospel and…) for the last 10 years. They are a top-to-bottom brilliant label — everything they do shows evidence of the great care they take in their releases: there’s a unified design scheme, a “sensibility” that dictates most of what they reissue, and a commitment to quality that has few equals. So I was beside myself with excitement when I heard that they were coming to eMusic. We’ve only got three releases so far, but they’re super winners. They are:

I. Various Artists, King Bullard Version: Songs of the BOS Label: I mean, this one is spectacular, and a really good entry into the Numero universe for the unfamiliar. This compilation collects tracks released on Cleveland’s BOS label in the late ’60s and, man oh man, are they earth-shakers. Scorching, soul-influenced gospel music full of passion and heart and fire. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

II. Iasos, Celestial Soul Portrait: Numero moves way outside their usual wheelhouse for this one, a collection of tranquil New Age music (!) by the Greek musician Iasos. As eMusic’s Richard Gehr put it in his review, “The twangy, swooping double-necked slide guitar of “Rainbow Canyon” is much more of a third-ear pleaser than, say, the echoing flute fantasia of “Winds of Olympus.” Whatever lies inside of “Siren Shallows” is carbonated irresistibly, while “Crystal Petals” could be the score to a glassine Ballardian apocalypse.” RECOMMENDED

III. The Sixth Station, Deep Night: Here’s the crazy thing about this one — I actually bought this on cassette years ago from — I think — the Princeton Record Exchange, that’s how long the weird legend of this record has been floating around. Recorded by Illinois priest Tony Trosley in the early ’80s, the album is a weirdo Christian psych-folk masterpiece, centered around Trosley’s high-pitched, wobbly, on-and-off-the-note singing. That he’s such a novice singer works to the record’s tremendous advantage, and makes it feel that much weirder and eerier. I was raised on Christian rock and Jesus People music, but this is in a class by itself. Eerie and magical and transporting and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Big Star, Nothing Can Hurt Me: There’s a Big Star documentary coming next month, and this is its soundtrack. Says Barry Walters:

Although all of its songs have appeared elsewhere, all of these versions are previously unreleased. Six are cleaner, more detailed variations on familiar album cuts, created last year for the film by tape archivist Adam Hill and Big Star producer John Fry. Two of Chris Bell’s masterful post-Star solo tracks, “I Am the Cosmos” and “Better Save Yourself,” get the polished mixes they’ve always deserved, and the results are actually harsher and more harrowing because the clarity reveals yet-unheard pain within these well-loved songs.

Various Artists, Five Days Married & Other Laments: Song and Dance from Northern Greece, 1928-1958: Assembled by expert curator Christopher King (there’s a great interview with him here), Five Days Married shines a light on “rebetikia,” which is the folk music of the “urban Greek underworld.” The listed time period gives a loose sense of what this music sounds like — it’s an analog, in some ways, to early American music, albeit in distinct, European tunings. There are darting strings and jittery guitars and strange, snake-charmer-style clarinets and woodwinds and insistent, chant-like vocals. The whole package is spectacular and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Devo, Hardcore Vol. 1 and Vol. 2: Whoah! Originally issued in the early ’90s, these two compilations gather up super-early, super rough Devo demos from the mid ’70s. And they’re crazy and great! Even weirder for being so underproduced, they capture the group at their obtuse best, with bent-wire guitars and science-lab synths and jittery, chattery vocals. Devo were always ahead of their time, but these demos do a good job of showcasing just how odd and experimental they really were. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Palms, Palms: Deftones frontman joins with members of ISIS to show a sensitive indie-rock side? Andrew Parks says:

There’s a sensitive indie rocker lurking beyond Chino Moreno’s crimson wail. And he may have found a proper backup plan here, with songs that are as spacious and sun-screened as the coastal shot on Palms‘ album cover. Meanwhile, the ISIS camp take their winding compositions into uncharted territories that are closer in spirit to Jeff Caxide and Bryant Clifford Meyer’s cavernous work with Red Sparowes. Simply put, these are songs to luxuriate in.

Jay Arner, Jay Arner: His solo debut mixes mopey postpunk instrumentation with power-pop song structures. Stephen M. Deusner says:

A Vancouver-based musician who has helmed albums by Mount Eerie, Apollo Ghosts and Rose Melberg, Arner recorded these new songs during lonely sessions at his practice space, recording straight to laptop to emphasize a DIY mid-fi sound, and the resulting Jay Arner mixes mopey postpunk instrumentation with power-pop song structures.

Treetop Flyers, The Mountain Moves: The young British group is essentially “a Crosby, Stills & Nash for the 21st century.” Hilary Saunders says:

The Mountain Moves doesn’t stray from any of Treetop Flyers’ influences or contemporaries (the band met as members of the same English scene that produced groups like Mumford & Sons, Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling and Florence Welch) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Big choruses and sticky melodies mark the entire record, starting with opener “Things Will Change” and lead single “Houses Are Burning.”

Alela Diane, About Farewell: Heartrending, autobiographical record from California singer-songwriter in which she documents her divorce and the rush of conflicting feelings it produced. Neither bitter nor lachrymose nor overly sentimental, it is instead a clear-eyed, note-perfect examination of love and loss. RECOMMENDED

Lightning Dust, Fantasy: I was a massive fan of the last Lightning Dust record, Infinite Light, which was a big, booming blast of psych-folk that put a heavy emphasis on Amber Webber’s massive, mighty typhoon of a voice. So I was a little taken aback by the hard right turn the group took on Fantasy, shucking the razor-edged, devil-channeling acoustic guitars in favor of soft, pillowy synths. The result recalls early Sinead O’Connor, or maybe a forgotten Stevie Nicks/Yeasayer collabo.

Slum Village, Evolution: Latest from the group that once featured the late J Dilla, Slum Village is now mostly founding rapper T3 supported by Young RJ, and Illa J and a host of guests (the roster on this one includes Blu and DJ Jazzy Jeff). What hasn’t changed is the group’s commitment to limber, smoky throwback hip-hop, the same kind they were proffering in their prime. You can take a listen to the whole thing over at Okayplayer.

Ashrae Fax, Static Crash: Static Crash was originally issued a decade ago and gained the group a cult following before vanishing into obscurity. Mexican Summer sets out to right that wrong, bringing this batch of weirdo electro-goth experimentalism into the world. There’s a lot of craziness happening here, from the sun-warped synths to vocalist Renee Mendoza’s doomy, hypnotized Siouxsie Sioux vocals. It’s an odd, fascinating listen. RECOMMENDED

Matias Aguayo, The Visitor: The Kompakt odd duck’s latest is his most thoroughly steeped in invigorating, choppy rhythms and chants. Michaelangelo Matos says:

Aguayo is Chilean, and South American rhythms and percussion have made their way increasingly into his recordings; in 2009 he founded the label Cómeme to explore the intersection of analog gear and Latin grooves. It’s not surprising that Aguayo’s decision to issue The Visitor on Cómeme (which Kompakt distributes) means that it’s his most thoroughly steeped in invigorating, choppy rhythms and chants, as well as his archetypal Berlin-bred minimalist psychedelia.

Man’s Gin, Rebellion Hymns: New on the always-outstanding Profound Lore label, Man’s Gin is a side project of Cobalt’s Erik Wunder. That the album cover looks exactly like a classic Swans album is no coincidence: much of Rebellion Hymns operates in that same field of scorched, suffocating horror-Americana. Horroricana? Amerihorror? Whatever. Moment’s of brisk, open-throated doom folk collide with oppressive instrumentals for a final product that is gripping and tense.

Amon Amarth, Deceiver of the Gods: Brilliant, brutal new record from Swedish death metallers is sweeping and expansive and punishing all at once. The melodic guitars provide a glimmering counterpoint to the growled vocals, and the entire record has the kind of scope you’d expect from an epic film. RECOMMENDED

Booker T, Sound the Alarm: Legendary R&B organist Booker T. Jones returns to Stax records, for whom he recorded ’60s classics like “Green Onions.” This is an unabashed crossover bid — folks like Mayer Hawthorne and Estelle and Raphael Saadiq show up to help edge the record into the neo-retro-soul category. How you feel about that will largely inform your opinion of the record.

Bass Drum of Death, s/t: BDOD practice a strange strain of garage rock, blending that genre’s usual howl-and-sneer vocals with elements of surf and straight-up punk. John Barrett’s vocals are submerged in reverb, adding to the sense of spookiness.

Larry & his Flask, By the Lamplight: Big, beery singalong songs from Oregonain bluegrass punks. Think a scruffier, hornless version of early Squirrel Nut Zippers and you’ve got a loose idea of the story here. Jenny Owens Youngs contributes vocals to two songs here, too. Ragtime bar rock bonanza!

Light Heat, Light Heat: Light Heat is Quentin Stoltzfus of the massively-underrated Mazarin, whose Watch it Happen is a lost indie rock classic. For real! Light Heat is a bit looser and slightly more psych, sometimes recalling the haziest moments of the first Shins record. Stoltzfus has a high-arcing voice and a fondness for gently-tugging vocal melodies, and the songs here are perfect for humid summer nights. The New York Times has the whole album available for streaming here.

Ruby Pins, Ruby Pins: On the excellent M’Ladys Records comes Ruby Pins, a side project of Grass Widow drummer Lillian Maring. This is a lot darker than Grass Widow for sure, full of detuned guitars and minor-key gloom — not unlike the kind of thing Rough Trade might have put out in its earliest years (a lot of this kind of reminds me of some lost, scuffed-up Joy Division demos or something, albeit topped with Marin’s morose alto). This is basically right up my alley, and gets a hearty RECOMMENDED


Rose Windows, The Sun Dogs: Seattle psych group operate with bright eyes and big smiles and the proper hint of the mysterious and unsettling — like Olivia Tremor Control, maybe, if OTC were a little more occult, or like Karen Dalton if Karen Dalton spent a little more time around a Ouija Board. A few straight-ahead folk moments balance out the ’60s hallucinogenic paisley flutter of the rest.

Montag, Phases: Bright and twinkly electropop from Antoine Bédard under the Montag tag. Moments here recall the pained new romanticism of early Depeche Mode, but it’s even moodier and more melancholy. Wistful synthpop in minor keys, for broken hearts.

The Orwells, Other Voices: Brief EP from this super young Chicago group (they’re all around 18 years old) produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio retains a properly scruffy edge, despite the fact that it’s on a major label imprint. This is beery and woozy stuff, with a few shout-along choruses thrown in for good measure. More anthemic than many of their garage peers. Burger is putting out the cassette. Naturally.

Locrian, Return to Annihilation: Latest masterpiece from metal experimentalist Locrian, recorded by Greg Norman (Pelican, Russian, Circles, Serena Maneesh) at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studios. The album is, at least conceptually, a tribute to ’70s prog masters like Yes and King Crimson, though damned if you can hear it in the music. This is, instead, more gripping, haunting music that veers from expansive, minor-key electronics to droning, metallic guitar and back again. It’s spooky and beautiful and captivating and RECOMMENDED

Bosnian Rainbows, s/t: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez returns with Bosnian Rainbows, a group that does not sound a thing like I expected. Gone are the corkscrew riffs and knotty prog song constructions that defined ORLy’s previous work (and of which I was never a huge fan). In its place are ominous keyboards and the surprisingly sinister vocals of Teri Gender Bender (I’m just quoting the press release on that one, folks). You can hear the whole thing over at NPR.

Cüneyt Sepetçi and the Orchestra Dolapder, Bahriye Çiftetellisi: Super good outing from Turkish clarinet player Sepetçi. This is a real whirling dervish of sound, whiplash clarinet lines darting and jabbing all over the place, with steadily-simmering percussion. This album comes courtesy of A Hawk & a Handsaw, who heard Sepetçi in 2012 and were blown away. You will be, too. That’s why this one is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Isaak, The Longer the Beard the Harder the Sound: For sure a front-runner for my favorite album title of the year. Italian hard rock group will satisfy the same type of folks who went gaga for the recent Queens of the Stone Age record. Big, beefy riffs and blustery, High on Firey vocals for your summer blasting pleasure. Originally issued last year, this one is repackaged and reissued via stoner masterminds Small Stone records.

Wale, The Gifted: Wale’s third full-length pushed him even further from his backpacker roots (although it does feature a cameo by Jerry Seinfeld, who was the central focus of two of Wale’s lauded early mixtapes). Musically, the album splits the difference between glowing soul and slicked-up bass-heavy club beats. Wale’s personality — which was sharp and spry and playful on his earliest releases — has seemed diluted to me on his more recent work, but what do I know.

Lucius EP: NYC group crafts fizzy, synth-based music that sounds a bit like Tegan & Sara, but a bit more bubbly and a bit lighter in tone.

Imprecation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita: Acid-gut death metal with scorched-larynx bark vocals and machine press guitars. Evil!

Bob Marley, Legend Remixed: The world’s most popular reggae album gets remixed. Barry Walters says:

Legend: Remixed takes that classic status and stirs it up with drastically different remixes that downplay reggae in favor of largely bombastic hip-hop and EDM beats. The generally far-more-aggressive results aren’t always spiritual or spliff-friendly: The inevitable dubstep track, Stephen Marley’s interpretation of “Easy Skanking,” features a counter-intuitively uneasy bass rattle that suggests Skrillex. Stephen pulls many of the same tricks, with greater success, on his dad’s “Buffalo Soldier,” which itself is about dislocation and therefore suits the disjunctive new arrangement.

Serengeti, Kenny Dennis LP: Latest from Chicago rapper continues the saga of Kenny Dennis, a made-up persona that Serengeti describes as a 50-year old “bratwurst downing, Brian Dennehy-worshipping rapper.” There’s a whole tangled backstory I won’t go into here, but the mythology gets pretty labyrinthine (those curious can start here and work outward). The corresponding album is as surreal as you might expect.