Category Archives: New Releases


Album: V.

Artist: Wooden Shjips

Label: Thrill Jockey

Release Date: May 25, 2018

The Upshot: Two of our reviewers, both fans of the West Coast psychedelic argonauts, take somewhat different positions on the veteran rockers’ newest effort.


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”)



MMHMM – mmhmm

Album: mmhmm

Artist: MMHMM

Label: self-released

Release Date: June 08, 2018

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.


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”


FROG EYES — Violet Psalms

Album: Violet Psalms

Artist: Frog Eyes

Label: Paper Bag

Release Date: May 18, 2018

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.


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.

DOWNLOAD: “A Strand of Blue Stars”




Album: Scandal


Label: Greenleaf Music

Release Date: April 06, 2018

The Upshot: The veteran hornmen keep the tunes simmering, careful not to let them boil over.


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.

DOWNLOAD: “Full Sun,” “Scandal,” “Ups and Downs”



Album: Awase


Label: ECM

Release Date: May 04, 2018

The Upshot: An album with a resonance outside of the jazz atmosphere, but without the scent of any compromise whatsoever.


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.

DOWNLOAD: “Modul 58,” “Modul 34,” “Modul 36”


JOHN ZORN – Insurrection

Album: Insurrection

Artist: John Zorn

Label: Tzadik

Release Date: April 20, 2018

The Upshot: This is your brain on free jazz; this, on classical; and this, on rock; any questions?


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”


THE NELS CLINE 4 – Currents, Constellations

Album: Currents, Constellations

Artist: Nels Cline 4

Label: Blue Note

Release Date: April 13, 2018

The Upshot: A masterstroke solo project from the Wilco (and Geraldine Fibber, and Mike Watt) guitar maestro.


Though Nels Cline has long been an indie/alt.rock guitar star (mainly with Wilco, but before that with the Geraldine Fibbers and Mike Watt), he had at least a decade’s worth of work in a jazz frame before that. That’s hardly news, but it seems like it’s been only lately that his ongoing work in that realm has gotten the attention his rock work has. Cue Currents, Constellations, his first album (and second for jazz powerhouse Blue Note) with the Nels Cline 4. Joined by bassist Scott Colley, drummer Tom Rainey and guitarist Julian Lage, Cline sublimates (not eliminates) his rockist tendencies, leaving the distortion and piles of effects he wields with his jazz/rock power trio the Nels Cline Singers in the closet for now.

That doesn’t mean the tracks on this record are easy listening, however. “Furtive” opens with a jittery rhythm and nervous lines that well illustrate the title. “Imperfect 10” gives the two six-stringers a spiraling, sharp-edged melody to play off, letting them circle around each other like a pair of lions who never pounce on their prey. “Amenette” uses bebop as a springboard for some dueling lines that exploit discord without crossing over into noise. “Temporarily” flits about the melody, sometimes landing on it directly, sometimes swirling about like butterflies around flowers. “Swing Ghost ‘59” does indeed swing, but within the context of a fractured tune that’s more thorny than danceable. On the other hand, the lovely ballad “As Close As That” offers a breath-catching moment, and the atmospheric epic “River Mouth (Parts 1 & 2)” really takes advantage of Cline and Lage’s abilities to mold an appealing theme into new shapes without affecting accessibility.

Cline and Lage work well together (not unexpectedly, given their duo album from a couple of years ago), with Cline both reigning himself in to keep from overwhelming his colleague and pushing Lage to color outside the lines more often than the young guitarist does in his solo work. Colley and Rainey provide a solid foundation, but also add their own accents to the rhythms without losing time. Constructed of the right tunes performed by the right players and led by the right(eous) guy, Currents, Constellations is a masterstroke.

DOWNLOAD: “Imperfect 10,” “Furtive,” “River Mouth (Parts 1 & 2)”


HENRY THREADGILL 14 OR 15 KESTRA: AGG – Dirt…and More Dirt

Album: Dirt...and More Dirt

Artist: Henry Threadgill 14 Or 15 Kestra: Agg

Label: Pi

Release Date: May 18, 2018

The Upshot: As fine an example of the alto saxophonist/flautist/composer’s art as he’s ever recorded.   


It’s not quite accurate to say the prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning Henry Threadgill has been at the forefront of jazz since the 1970s and his days leading Air (the jazz trio, not the French soundscapers). More factual to say that the alto saxophonist/flautist/composer has simply always been traveling his own musical roads, pilfering bits of postbop, free jazz, fusion, Third Stream, funk, classical and anything else that strikes his fancy, putting it all together and filtering it all through his distinctive vision.

Dirt…and More Dirt, the first album from his latest oddly-monikered collection of players, was inspired by Walter de Maria’s Earth Room exhibition and Stephen De Staebler’s sculptures, which might explain why lines and notes swoop up and down like strokes of a brush on canvas. Brass figures heavily here, with double trumpets and trombones and a tuba providing many of the main riffs, while guitarist Liberty Ellman (a mainstay of Threadgill’s ensembles for the past several years), dueling pianists David Virelles and David Bryant, cellist Christopher Hoffman and three altoists (including Threadgill himself) swirl around the metal horn line. Anchored by bassist Thomas Morgan, double drummers keep time just enough to prevent the music from derailing like a toy train hitting a curve too fast.

Threadgill music often sounds less like melody than multiple harmonies clashing at once, letting the sparks substitute for easy accessibility, and that’s certainly the case here. With pieces ranging anywhere from eight minutes to less than sixty seconds, the group gets just enough time to execute Threadgill’s complex charts and improvise. The longer pieces work the best, letting the musicians stretch out when given the chance – check “Part I” of the “And More Dirt” half, as Hoffman, Ellman and the pianists in particular distinguish themselves with some stellar solos.

It can often be challenging to figure out what Threadgill is doing – to the uninitiated, it may sound like there’s a lot of dicking around going on. But there’s definitely a method to Threadgill’s alleged madness, and once you’ve locked into it, his unique sense of music becomes mesmerizing. Dirt…and More Dirt is as fine an example of Threadgill’s art as he’s ever recorded.

 DOWNLOAD: “And More Dirt: Part 1,” “Dirt: Part IV,” “Dirt: Part 1”


THE RAMEY MEMO – The Name of this Album is Self-titled

Album: The Name of this Album is Self-titled

Artist: The Ramey Memo

Label: Descent Records

Release Date: January 08, 2018


St. Joseph’s favorite sons and daughter of the absurd, the wonderfully weird, The Ramey Memo have given us their best record to date with the self-recorded, independently released The Name of this Album is Self-Titled. Name is beautiful in a profoundly imperfect way; it’s balanced between humor and serious musicianship, it’s at times shockingly melodic tripped out rock n roll like The Meat Puppets, My Bloody Valentine and Hum used to make.  Recorded in the band’s attic practice space, Name has a warm, intimate feel that shows a band at the height of its powers musically.

The opening track “Cabinets and Open Boxes” starts the album with, what could be the band’s most flushed out song to date.  Tyson Bottoroff’s guitar work drifts from the sadness of The Cure’s Robert Smith’s playing, through James Iha inspired dreaminess and the sometimes shy aggression of the late great Kurt Cobain. The track and Self-Titled as a whole shows Bottoroff for what he truly is: one of the St. Joe music scene’s best, most entertaining guitarists and The Ramey Memo one of the city’s most interesting groups.

Though the core of the Memo (guitar/vocals Tyson Bottoroff, guitar/ vocals Raye Lynn and drummer/ vocalist Garner Quillon) has remained intact for the life of the band, a very welcome addition for Name is the arrival of Bryce Bottoroff to take over bass duties from Lynn, freeing her up to bring another guitar to the band’s already substantial wall of sound.  His vocals and understated bass melodies come together to form what could be the best track on Name with “This Car Crash Never Happened,” a song of introspection, of near mediation, of loss and triumph.

There is a seriousness at the heart of Self-Titled that has always been somewhat absent from the Memo’s previous records (300 Voices from the King Hill Pub and the follow-up Forget It); while blending the one and done splendor of For Squirrels, the criminally underrated power pop stickiness of Superdrag, the strangeness of Ween (especially the track “Crash Test Dummies”) and the drowned in distortion guitar heroics of Kevin Shields and the jangly oneness of Teenage Fanclub, The Ramey Memo create a sound that is familiar while being their own.

The Name of this Album is Self-Titled is a record packed with songs that show a band in The Ramey Memo that is pushing itself as writers and musicians, a record of influences coming together to make something truly unique.

 DOWNLOAD: “This Car Crash Never Happened,” “Electron Echo,” “As the Water Fills the Hull”






CALEXICO – The Thread That Keeps Us (2LP)

Album: The Thread That Keeps Us (2LP)

Artist: Calexico

Label: City Slang

Release Date: January 26, 2018

The Upshot: A bonafide Southwestern ambassador deftly integrating folk, rock, pedal-steel-powered country, reggae, psychedelia, and Mexican pop while also showcasing a newfound anthemic side.


By way of full disclosure, I’m hardly objective where it comes to Calexico, having known founding members Joey Burns (guitar, vocals) and John Convertino (drums) for years and additionally authoring the liners to their 2011 vinyl box set, Road Atlas. That caveat aside, I’ve long marveled at the group’s musical evolution, from a folkish desert rock duo with occasional Latin influences to a bonafide Southwestern ambassador deftly integrating folk, rock, pedal-steel-powered country, reggae, psychedelia, and Mexican pop. The single-LP or double-LP set (take your pick; it’s also available on CD) The Thread That Keeps Us maintains this sense of place, particularly on gorgeous, windswept numbers like the Morricone-esque cinematic psych of “Voices in the Field” and the Spanish-language Mariachi rock of “Flores y Tamales.”

The group also has perfected the art of the anthem—fittingly enough, as this is an overtly political album in places, its lyrics detailing and decrying the “age of extremes” we’re living in—with songs like the soaring, U2-like “End of the World With You” and heavy-twang stomper “Dead in the Water” leading the way.

Throw in a bonus LP with the deluxe edition, its seven tracks showing off a more understated, trancey side to the band, and Calexico emerges as one of the most diverse, free-ranging outfits operating.

Incidentally, fans who contributed the band’s pre-release PledgeMusic campaign were able to select an autographed LP or CD among various premiums, making for an instant collectible. (Calexico has long been prone to offering limited editions and collectebles, going all the way back to their annual calendars and tour-only CDs; the aforementioned box set collected those tour-only discs as a massive 12LP artifact.)

Sonically speaking, a forum thread at drew some lively debate over the quality of the mastering and mixing. For my part, I don’t detect any “pointlessly muffled” passages, but I did indeed have to turn the volume up on side A, which clocked in at 25 minutes. Calexico is also a large group, with 7-9 people performing at any given moment, so a bit more volume helps spread that density across the soundstage and allows their dynamic nuances to emerge. Other commenters speculated on it being a poor pressing, the 180-gm. European pressing reviewed here presumably being superior to the U.S. edition (single LP, 15 songs) on the Anti- label. Inconclusive, but still worth noting.

DOWNLOAD: “Voices in the Field,” “Flores y Tamales,” “Dead In the Water”


A version of this review originally appeared in Stereophile magazine. Also note that BLURT’s Lee Zimmerman has also reviewed the CD version of the album for us.