E, the trio formed by singer/guitarists Thalia Zedek (Come, Live Skull) and Jason Sanford (Neptune, Trunk Federation) and drummer Gavin McCarthy (Karate), should be the toast of the alternative rock world. On Negative Work, the trio’s second LP, these veteran noise rockers come together to create something truly special. Zedek and Sanford treat their axes with a balance of irreverence and awe, sometimes intertwining lines like snakes in a nest, but just as often crashing them against each other like the antlers of fighting stags. McCarthy drives the noise forward relentlessly, occasionally pausing to set a foundation for more meditative, less frenzied fare. Zedek and Sanford mutter, seethe and howl over the controlled chaos. Out of the storm melodies emerge, catchy in their own way, but avoiding any semblance of clichéd indie rock turgidity. Elements of Television, Sonic Youth, Jawbox, the Touch & Go catalog and, of course, the participants’ previous bands float to the top, but never feel like theft – instead the work of peers and predecessors inspires E to make its own variation on classic noisecraft. “Poison Letter,” “Untie Me,” “A House Inside” and “Down She Goes” almost shatter trying to keep the balance of off-kilter tuneage, winding riffology and thrumming energy that drive them. In a time when rock music seems more stultifying every passing hour, E’s Negative Work stands like a glorious beacon in a barren field.
DOWNLOAD: “Poison Letter,” “A House Inside,” “Down She Goes”
Pianist Kenny Barron’s career stretches back to 1961, when he first recorded with his older brother Bill. Since then the Philadelphia native has built not only a massive catalog of his own, but logged appearances with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Jimmy Heath, Booker Ervin and the proverbial many, many more. Somehow amongst all this activity he’s also managed a career as an instructor at Rutgers University and Juilliard School of Music. In other words, Barron has more creds than most of us have had hot dinners.
Which means that, at age 75, he’s got nothing to prove. That doesn’t mean Concentric Circles, his latest album and first with his new Quintet, is a lackadaisical effort. Far from it – Barron’s writing, playing and leadership are as sharp as ever. He frequently indulges his love of Latin American sonics, covering Caetano Veloso’s “Aquele Frevo Axe” and romping through the slinky “Baile,” as well as subtly incorporating Afro-Cuban rhythms into the otherwise straight bop of “DPW.” The pianist’s sensual touch with ballads is on full display on the lush, gorgeous “A Short Journey” and the peaceful “In the Dark.” Putting the spotlight on his band, especially trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, “Blue Waters,” “Von Hangman” and Lenny White’s “L’s Bop” present timeless post-bop sounds that would be as at home in 1958 as in 2018. The Quintet also gets funky on the delightfully frisky “I’m Just Sayin’.” The group hits a remarkable peak with the title track, a melodic, atmospheric epic framing its leader’s fingerwork in the kind of tight ensemble playing that should be cited in textbooks. Barron ends the LP alone with a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections,” a nimble tribute to one of his primary inspirations.
Barron owes no one anything, instead choosing to meet his own high standards of craft and heart. Neither experimental nor even particularly boundary-pushing, Concentric Circles instead showcases a master musician still on top of his game making music purely for the love of it.
DOWNLOAD: “Concentric Circles,” “Baile,” “I’m Just Sayin’”
Family And Friend’s debut, Felix Culpa, may deal with some heavy topics: transition from childhood to adulthood; dealing with relationships new and old; searching for the meaning of life… but rarely have those issues sounded so beautiful and breezy while be tackled in 3-to-4-minute increments.
The Athens-based indie pop/folk band worked with producer Brad Wood on their first full length – a producer best known for louder bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Smashing Pumpkins – and while he does add a little more energy and texture to the band’s sound, don’t expect a complete about face from their 2015 EP. Layering elements of dreamy psychedelic and even hints of prog to the music, the group has taken a big step forward from that earlier effort. The band has still not quite managed to capture the full spirit of their live sets, but this album is a solid effort nonetheless.
Despite some heavy lyrical themes, the band’s reliance on sweet melodies and the melding of their voices into strong layered harmonies, makes the angst and coming of age questioning go down easy.
DOWNLOAD: “Ouroboros,” “Peaches” and “Houndstooth”
The roots of Uncharted Territories go back to the mid-sixties and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, then the U.K.’s premier free jazz outfit. Bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Evan Parker performed on the collective’s second album Karyōbin, and remained friends over the decades, even though they didn’t play together. Until now, that is, when Holland decided to reconnect musically with his old pal for another round of spontaneous composition, with keyboardist Craig Taborn (Holland’s bandmate in Prism and one of the most forward-thinking young lions in jazz) and percussionist Ches Smith (an avant-gardist with feet in both jazz and rock) joining in on the fun.
With terms like “spontaneity” and “free” thrown around, one might be misled into thinking the music on these two disks is complete chaos – indeed, all but three of the cuts don’t even have titles, just shorthand for the number of musicians involved, the day of the week it was recorded, and which take. While there’s certainly a lack of formal structure on most of these tracks, to assume they’re free-for-alls is a mistake. While well-versed in free improvisation, each musician here is equally skilled at composition, which allows them to think of these recordings as songs, not freak-outs. Thus a full-bodied performance like “QW2” flows as if it was written beforehand, an actual melody rising from the blend of dissonant piano, blowing sax, pulsing bass and clattering kit work. Other tracks range from duets between bass and percussion, saxophone and percussion or organ and vibraphone to trio takes of sax, bass and percussion or sax, piano and bass. Regardless of lineup, the cuts have an exploratory playfulness, the sound of musicians discovering something new as they divine their relationships in real time. Given the inherent musicality each player boasts, the results never fall into discordance – even at their most frenetic, the tracks still scan as purely musical.
Presumably as anchors, the band includes a trio of actual compositions: Smith’s “Thought On Earth” and “Unsteady As She Goes” and Holland’s “Q&A.” While more accessible than the improvisations, they’re still of a piece – no easy swing or traditional bop derivations here. Uncharted Territories is a challenge, but it’s an inclusive one – Holland and company aren’t interested in being forbidding, just in inviting listeners into a world that disorienting but liberating.
The Upshot: Two of our reviewers, both fans of the West Coast psychedelic argonauts, take somewhat different positions on the veteran rockers’ newest effort.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT AND JENNIFER KELLY
Wooden Shjips blew me away on their Back to Land record but sadly not so much on this one. There are great moments here, but they are interspersed with plenty of meh.
I think the issue rests with Ripley Johnson’s voice and the range-bound nature of the music the band makes. On the first few albums his voice added an opium cool to the proceedings, but on this album’s second track, “In the Fall,” it seems like an unnecessary addition.
“Eclipse,” though, the opener, could be Recurring era Spacemen 3. Here, Ripley’s voice meets the seedy vibe and cosmic guitar measure for measure. So when they get the equation right, they hit pay-dirt. This song recalls “Back to Land” and I can see why it was chosen for the pole position. “Red Line” doesn’t really add any new words to the psychedelic conversation, and, as such, feels like filler.
“Already Gone” is where Ripley needs to go with his voice, as it gives something more tangible to the listener instead of just being an atmospheric element. This is a dark song that really brings the goods the way I wanted the rest of the record to. “Golden Flower,” I liked more for the musical arrangement than anything else, especially with the conga jam at the end; it builds to a really cool head that will have you grooving in your seat. This makes the case for the band moving out of their well-polished groove and augmenting the sound with new instruments and making things choppier instead of constantly sailing unimpeded into the galaxy.
The band is tight, and the music ebbs and flows as usual; it just doesn’t go anywhere original. I hope the band will be able to right the shjip on their next effort. —by Jonathan Levitt (FAVE TRACKS: “Eclipse” “Already Gone” “Golden Flower”)
“Eclipse,” off this fifth full-length, is maybe the Wooden Shjips at its essence, a churn and grind of fuzzy bass, a hard, pummeling, unsyncopated drum-beat, and over this unyielding foundation, guitar notes dropping like bright, splintery shards, untethered, fragmentary but vividly colored. The rhythm section cranks the same measure over and over, locked in endless circling groove, while the guitar darts out in unpredictable geometric arcs, like a spirograph machine making intricate patterns out of slight slippages of center. A head-nodders sound. A tunnel of disorienting sensation. A lumbering beast wreathed in dreams. This is Wooden Shjips as it has always been, a fine thing indeed.
Wooden Shjips, the left coast, motoric-drone-rock collective, has been honing this aesthetic since the mid-aughts. Primitive at first — no one but Johnson came to the band as an experienced musician — they have over the years gained increasing control over their sound, though without losing a rapt be-here-now open-endedness. Now with this album – a Latin number five, a peace sign, a declaration of victory — Wooden Shjips reiterates and expands upon its notion of drone as revelation.
A word about that expanding vision: the best song sounds least like what you’ve come to expect. “Staring at the Sun” follows a slouchier, more psychedelic vibe, with a Beta Band-ish stutter step rhythm, and a little of Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop Children What’s that Sound,” in its pendulous alteration between two chords. There’s a roll in this song’s step, a subdued sort of rock and roll swagger. Lyrics about ashes falling and suns in haze reference the forest fires that damn near engulfed Johnson’s adopted home of Portland last summer, and the cut itself has a submerged, surreal glow to it. It feels both more pop and more mystical than anything Wooden Shjips has done to date. Later, on the equally fine “Golden Flower,” Johnson whispers “I wanna rock and roll,” in the softest falsetto whisper you can imagine.
Done and done well, I’d say. — by Jennifer Kelly (FAVE TRACKS: “Staring at the Sun” “Golden Flower”)
The Upshot: Distaff folk/pop duo (with some notable musical and Hollywood DNA in the mix) serves up an album’s worth of great songs to back up all expectations.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Let’s just get this out of the way up front. The folk/pop duo mmhmm is comprised of
Raelyn Nelson, Willie Nelson’s granddaughter, and Hannah Fairlight, an actress best known so far for a role in Pitch Perfect 3. And while those connections have certainly helped aim the spotlight on the band in an otherwise very crowded Nashville music scene, it’s also likely causing the duo to have to prove themselves to listeners more than the average new group. Thankfully, they have an album’s worth of great songs to back up all expectations.
Focusing in on a playful blend of pop country, heavy on acoustic guitars and ukuleles, Nelson and Fairlight mix in plenty of humor and undeniably catchy hooks, whittling out a new sub-genre in a scene awash in Bro-Country and don’t-crack-a-smile Americana. Songs like the bad day getting worse “Aw Hell” (premiered recently at BLURT) and the infectious “Up in Smoke (Don’t it Have to Wait)” are singalongs perfect for summer firepits.
There is also a fun throwback quality to the record, with Fairlight and Nelson talking each other directly throughout and a hidden track of sorts at the end of the record with a brief series of hard rock riffs. Another high point is mmhmm’s cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Take it on the Run.” Goofy, yes, but flawlessly executed.
The one big misstep here is the “Lookin’ Like a Tranny Blues,” a song that wouldn’t have drawn much attention a decade or two ago but seems wildly out of place on a record in 2018. The band has already issued and apology for the song and said they will not play it live and are looking for a way to remove it from the album.
That one obvious misstep aside, the duo delivers a fun quirky record tailor made for day drinking (leading into night drinking).
DOWNLOAD: “Aww Hell,” “Up in Smoke (Don’t it Have to Wait)” and “Take it on the Run”
The Upshot: After 18 years, a brush with death and a touch of holy madness, Carey Mercer is walking through that door to whatever’s next.
By JENNIFER KELLY
Frog Eyes ends its nearly two decade, ten album run much the way it began, with front man Carey Mercer’s frayed voice howling gnostically over slow, luridly colored processionals. Through various line-up changes, label affiliations and cross-collaborations, the band has always been supercharged and visionary. Frog Eyes taps into an allegorical vein whose meaning was never quite apparent, no less so now at the end than it was in 2002’s The Bloody Hand. If anything, Violet Psalms returns to dramatic overload after the comparatively well-behaved and baroque pop Pickpocket’s Locket. There is even, on opener “A Strand of Blue Stars,” a return of the “dinger,” a gong-like percussion instrument that Mercer and his wife Melanie Campbell found at a garage sale in the early aughts and whose microtonal clang has clashed through many, many Frog Eyes songs since.
Mercer is, as always, the wild-eyed, careening, animating force behind Frog Eyes, swooping violently over octave jumps in shamanic abandon. He’s one of those singers who seems to be riding an ungovernable force, just barely staying on top of it, rather than composing and premeditating, though of course he must do that, too. But however carefully crafted the words or melodies may be, there’s an air of anything-can-happen to Frog Eyes songs. They are certainly always haring off in unexpected directions.
He is backed, as always by Melanie Campbell, whose drumming is creative without being showy. Her rhythms bash forward and pull back, they range over unexpected timbres, they anchor the songs without tying them down to conventionalities. They are as much a part of Frog Eyes art as the “whooo-ooo-ooo” that loft crazily skyward or the skewed fairytale scenarios of the lyrics. The rest of the band is also female Terri Upton on bass and Shyla Seller on keyboards, and while these elements support rather than dominate, they are fine and colorful and varied.
But it is Mercer’s protean force, taking multiple, ever changing shapes as he pushes at the edges of melody and sense, that gives these songs life. In the wonderful “Strand of Blue Stars,” he croons that “Sometimes you’ve got to be the door that you walk through that sets you free.” After 18 years of Frog Eyes, a brush with death and a touch of holy madness, Mercer is walking through that door to whatever’s next. Let’s hope he holds it open so we can follow.
The Upshot: The veteran hornmen keep the tunes simmering, careful not to let them boil over.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas play together, it’s not just a way of passing the time. Like its in-concert predecessor, Scandal pays tribute to the work of the great sax player Wayne Shorter, both as a bandleader and as Miles Davis’ foil in his Second Great Quintet. That’s not only because the duo’s first studio album with Sound Prints contains two Shorter tunes – “Fee Fi Fo Fum” and “Juju,” from his classic albums Speak No Evil and Juju respectively. It’s also because of the way the pair perform together, weaving lines around each other as often as playing a riff in unison, spinning a web of sticky melody – a trademark of Shorter’s work with Davis and with his own bands. The pair’s originals spin off of Shorter’s penchant for consistent swing and easy accessibility – Lovano’s “Full Sun” and Douglas’ “Mission Creep” burn with energy by being joyful rather than intense, while Douglas’ “Ups and Downs” and Lovano’s “Full Moon” stream soulful balladry without crossing over to lushness. The title track, meanwhile, feels like the dream of a private detective just as he begins his latest case, while the frisky, beboppish “The Corner Tavern” nods to an even earlier era than the sixties.
Ably supported by pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Joey Baron, the hornmen keep the tunes simmering, careful not to let them boil over. Though Douglas in particular has an earned reputation for pushing whatever boundaries he’s presented with, here he and Lovano play it straight, sticking to Shorter’s sixties-style vision of postbop jazz. If that sounds retro, it doesn’t come across that way. Scandal is less about copying the past than it is refreshing tradition, and in that light Lovano and Douglas hit the target.
The Upshot: An album with a resonance outside of the jazz atmosphere, but without the scent of any compromise whatsoever.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Pianist Nik Bartsch occupies a unique spot in music. The Swiss bandleader/composer’s work with his long-running band Ronin is jazzy, but not quite jazz; heavily influenced by contemporary classical music, but not that, either; subtly funky, but definitely not funk. Bartsch calls it “ritual groove music,” which is a pretty open-ended way to describe anything. Suffice to say that Bartsch’s work makes a virtue of not fitting under an umbrella, especially on Ronin’s eight album Awase.
Since 2011’s Live, the band has undergone some changes: bassist Björn Meyer left, his successor Thomy Jordi joined, and percussionist Andy Prepato quit and was not replaced. Stripped down to a quartet, Ronin becomes tighter, more invested in ensemble playing than moving the musicians through featured roles. Jordi is a less flamboyant player than Meyer, concentrating on the grooves, rather than being a lead instrument. Woodwinds player Sha often sits in front, but he’s not soloing so much as carrying the melody. Drummer Kaspar Rast stays mostly in the pocket, pulling the rhythms back and maintaining a steady point for the rest to ride.
Bartsch himself also eases back on lead breaks and integrates his craft more keenly into the ensemble. It’s an approach that well suits his writing. Drawing inspiration from his melodies’ repetition equally from tribal sources and classical minimalism, Bartsch paints pictures with well-chosen notes and smart deployment of his musicians’ virtues. Bartsch and Jordi often double up the bass parts, but the constant movement keeps the bottom from getting heavy. The pianist then sets up a lattice of notes for Sha to hang his clarinet and sax lines on, so both can weave their bits around the melodies.
Despite all the instrumental movement, however, the arrangements never become lush or cluttered. Outside of their instrumental and compositional facilities, the musicians understand the use of space as a chief virtue. That’s especially important on the longer pieces – “Modul 36” (a Ronin staple first recorded on 2006’s Stoa) and the nearly nineteen-minute “Modul 58” maintain interest as much on their ability to relax and breathe as on their intertwined melody lines. Even a shorter piece as dense as “Modul 34” lets air into the arrangement, making it lighter than its packed space would lead you to expect.
Unafraid to show their skills, yet decidedly unflashy, Bartsch and his musicians put all of their energy into supporting the tunes themselves, rather than set up showcases. That makes Awase an album with a resonance outside of the jazz atmosphere, but without the scent of any compromise whatsoever. No mean feat, and one that helps make Ronin its own distinctive beast.
The Upshot: This is your brain on free jazz; this, on classical; and this, on rock; any questions?
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
One foot in free jazz, one in avant-garde classical music, one in aggressive rock and three in his own special system, composer John Zorn works in his own little corner of the musical universe, unconcerned whether or not anyone gets what he’s doing or not. That said, some of his recent works – the free jazz/hard rock fusion of the Simulacrum records, the acoustic guitar duets of Midsummer Moons – are actually quite accessible, like the less chaotic bits of his old band Naked City. Insurrection is one of Zorn’s most listener-friendly (for folks unaccustomed to his idiosyncratic style of writing) releases yet. Not coincidentally, it features three-fourths of Simulacrum (guitarist Matt Hollenberg, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Grohowski) and guitarist Julian Lage from Midsummer Moons.
Acting as composer and conductor and inspired by twentieth-century experimental literature from the likes of J.G. Ballard, Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut, Zorn provides the quartet with tunes and arrangements closer to rock than jazz, dipping his musicians’ toes into some surprising pools. The grooving, amiable “Pulsations” has more in common with the Allman Brothers than Naked City, while the atmospheric “The Journal of Albion Moonlight” leans straight into the prog rock-heavy fusion of the seventies. “Progeny” digs into overtly metallic grind as well as free improv, while “Nostromo” and “Mason and Dixon” sail calmer, jazzier waters. “The Recognitions” and “The Atrocity Exhibition,” meanwhile, revel in the kind of angular weirdness you’d expect from Zorn, though they pull back from being truly dissonant. Only the zany anarchy of “Cat’s Cradle” comes off as “typical” Zorn.
All of this is the Simulacrum players’ wheelhouse, if not as carnivorously physical, but the real revelation is Lage. The aggression here pushes him even further outside of his comfort zone than his recent work with Nels Cline, and the young guitar star rises to the occasion, meeting Hollenberg (whose day job is the experimental death metal band Cleric) step for step. Sounding like a true ensemble rather than a studio gathering, Hollenberg, Lage, Dunn and Grohowski become the perfect brushes to paint this particular canvas of Zorn’s musical mind.
DOWNLOAD: “The Journal of Albion Moonlight,” “The Atrocity Exhibition,” “Mason and Dixon”
Tribute: Danny Kirwan (R.I.P.) with Fleetwood Mac - "Oh Well" Seattle live '72
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea