Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke

In his liner notes to A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, pianist/electronicist Vijay Iyer writes that while working in trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet/Quintet between 2005 and 2010, the pair often became "a unit within a unit." Evidenced by Tabligh in 2008 and Golden Quintet's half of the 2009 double-disc Spiritual Dimensions, this album (marking the trumpeter's first appearance on ECM in more than two decades) underscores that assertion via distillation. It is one of essences. It reveals the intricacies of music-making according to principles of instinct as well as close listening. Iyer's opening "Passage" is a surprise. The pianist's gently investigatory chords and thematic harmonics offer the hallmarks of a chamber piece. Smith illuminates them with expressive songlike statements, though more insistent staccato speech occurs near the end as Iyer builds to an implied crescendo. The majority of the album is claimed by the title work, a seven-part suite inspired by the drawings of the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Its various sections offer a complete portrait of how deep and wide this duo can go. Iyer's Rhodes piano shines darkly underneath the carefully articulated blues and angular shapes in Smith's playing. The trumpeter's "Marian Anderson" bookends the album in a resonant assertion of tribute. Iyer's care in responding highlights sometimes quizzical elucidations in the melody, moving the tune toward the unknown. It is the perfect consummation for A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. The instincts these players offer in these works display the duo's mutual desire for intimate communication and spiritual trust through the medium of sound. Their uncompromising movement toward them results in a shared musical mind that speaks in a distinctive, unique emotional language.~ Thom Jurek, allmusic.com

 

Sturgill Simpson-- A Sailor's Guide To Earth

Back when he released High Top Mountain in 2013, the retro sensibilities of Sturgill Simpson seemed to be rooted solely in outlaw country: he swaggered like the second coming of Waylon Jennings, a man on a mission to restore muscle and drama to country music. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, his 2014 sophomore set, was a curve ball revealing just how unorthodox his rulebook was. After nearly two decades of alternative country doubling down on po-faced authenticity where simpler was better, Simpson embraced indulgence, pushing new wave, psychedelia, and digital-age saturation, all in an attempt to add the cosmic back into American music. A Sailor's Guide to Earth goes one step further: it's an old-fashioned concept album, one that tells a story -- it's a letter to his newborn son, telling him how to become a man -- and is dressed in garish art suited to the side of a Chevy van. The overarching aesthetics are a throwback to the golden age of vinyl but Simpson is too smart to succumb to mere revivalism: he seeks to expand, not retract. To that end, he'll posit that Nirvana's "In Bloom" exists on a continuum that runs back toward Glen Campbell's renditions of Jimmy Webb tunes, which hints at how, for as steeped in the '70s as A Sailor's Guide to Earth is, Simpson doesn't limit his prog to merely rock. He's equally attracted to the symphonic haze of progressive folk and the boundary-blurring soul of Muscle Shoals, using its thick swathes of horns and smears of slide guitar as binding agents in songs that occasionally need to be pulled together. Blame that on Simpson sometime prioritizing the journey over the destination. He's certainly not indifferent to songs -- strong ones punctuate the voyage, ones that veer closer to soul than country -- but he cherishes the voyage, so there are times when A Sailor's Guide to Earth threatens to float away on a slipstream of strings and melodies that are heartfelt and hookless. Even at these moments, his ambition remains ingratiating: he might not quite arrive precisely where he intended, but as he makes it so clear throughout the album, what matters is the journey itself. ~Stephen Thomas Erlewine, allmusic.com

Explosions in the Sky-- The Wilderness

For their first non-soundtrack work in five years, Texan instrumental rock quartet Explosions in the Sky have made a slight departure from the cinematic crescendo-core they've become famous for since making their debut in the early 2000s. Unlike the majority of their previous studio full-lengths, The Wilderness doesn't contain any songs that approach the ten-minute mark. It seems like the immediacy of the group's film scores has helped guide the group's direction, and the electronic experimentation of Inventions (EitS member Mark T. Smith's side project with Eluvium's Matthew Cooper) has certainly encouraged the band to add some different tonal colors to its landscapes. In some ways, the album seems more influenced by minimalism than previous works, particularly in how rhythms steadily build on tracks like opener "Wilderness." Having said that, the group unpredictably tears things apart on songs like "Logic of a Dream," which opens with drawn-out melancholy chords before introducing rippling tom-toms and ghostly vocals, and then violently building up to a heavy climax and swooping down with sinister strings. After this, however, the group launches into a coda of light, sprightly indie pop. More than ever, the band seems delighted to use the recording studio as an instrument. Overloaded crunchy distortion gives a bite to the drums, which range from galloping marching band cadences to rolling toms that resemble waves rocking a boat on a stormy sea. The group use beautifully smudged electronic tones throughout the album, experimenting with dub-influenced crashing echo on "Colors in Space" and beginning "The Ecstatics" with light, bubbling arpeggios. The album is every bit as intricate and multi-layered as its elaborate foldout packaging, adventurously encouraging listeners to dive in and explore. On The Wilderness, Explosions in the Sky deconstruct and rebuild their sound from the ground up, giving it a revitalized sense of urgency and resulting in some of their most dynamic work yet .~Paul Simpson, allmusic.com



Margot Price--Midwest Farmer's Daughter


Midwest Farmer's Daughter isn't merely an autobiographical title for the retro country singer/songwriter Margo Price, it's a nice tip of the hat to one of her primary inspirations, Loretta Lynn. The connections between the two country singers don't end there. Toward the end of her career, the Coal Miner's Daughter wound up collaborating with Jack White for 2004's Van Lear Rose, and White's Third Man Records provides a launching pad for Price, releasing her self-financed solo debut as-is as Midwest Farmer's Daughter. Spare and lean like Loretta in her prime, Price nevertheless writes with the studied precision of a modern Americana songwriter; even when she gets explicitly autobiographical, as she does on the opening "Hands of Time," it doesn't play as confession ripped from the soul, it plays as poetry. Similarly, when she tightens the screws so her song turns into something sleek, it doesn't play as Music City precision, it feels savvy and personal, surprising with its light hint of funk and Price's clear, plaintive, and powerful vocal. This tension between the head and heart, between the country and the city, is what fuels Midwest Farmer's Daughter, placing it on a warm, hazy plane that feels simultaneously sophisticated and down-home. Part of this dichotomy is due to Price's singing: she sounds like the Illinois girl that she is, possessing a voice that's pretty, plain, and unadorned, carrying an innocence that cuts against the worldliness of her songs. Her band, though, provides her songs with a genuine honky tonk kick, but even when the album drifts toward the traditional -- as it does on "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)" or "Four Years of Chances" -- Price's sensibility is modern, turning these old-fashioned tales of heartbreak, love, loss, and perseverance into something fresh and affecting. ~Stephen Thomas Erlewins, allmusic.com

 

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard--Nonagon Infinity

The prolific Australian psychedelic pop combo King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard aren't the kind of band prone to repeating themselves. Over the course of their short career, they've established themselves as voracious sonic explorers who aren't afraid to take chances and never met a gimmick they didn't like. With such a weird and varied track record, their 2016 album, Nonagon Infinity, could have gone just about anywhere and done anything.  On it, King Gizzard deliver their best trick yet to go along with their most focused, most ferocious music to date. The album is designed to flow continuously from song to song with no breaks in what the band calls an infinite loop, and unless one is listening very closely it's hard to tell where one song stops and the next begins. To help make the gimmick work, the songs are very similar in energy and approach, with lyrics from one song turning up in another and guitar riffs cycling through from one section to another. The energy level is mainly set to search and destroy throughout as the drums thunder, the lightning-fast guitars slash and burn, and the spacy vocals often break out into ecstatic shouts. The band has added some supercharged Sabbath-y metal to its sound, and it works very well. The opening suite of songs punches fast and hard, like someone is slapping you repeatedly with a copy of a Saxon album. It's way more blown-out and weird than that, but you can hear a lot of late-'70s no-frills metal in the sound. The rest of the record is a little more varied, with moments of calm proggy respite, jazz-rock dreaminess, and blown-out psych-pop to balanced the frantic, sustained attack. The way the album is put together is an impressive feat, but almost beside the point since each song within the loop is worthy of standing alone. King Gizzard's inventive sound, giant hooks, and hard-as-titanium playing make Nonagon Infinity not only their best album yet, but maybe the best psych-metal-jazz-prog album ever. That can be debated, but at the very least artists like the Flaming Lips, Ty Segall, and others who think they are doing something cool and weird should check it out and take a few notes. ~Tim Sendra, allmusic.com



The Dandy Warhols -- Distortland

Distortland, the ninth studio LP from Portland, Oregon quartet the Dandy Warhols, continues the band's post-Odditorium maturation, taming a bit of their edge. As singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor acknowledges on "The Grow Up Song," "I've got to admit, I'm too old for this shit." With less sleaze and more reflection, the Dandies retain their wit with a wink, but aren't as sneering as on prior releases. While their most popular hits tend to veer toward the infectious pop side of the spectrum, most of their albums contain a hefty amount of trippy dreamscapes. Distortland isn't as in-your-face as the more muscular tracks on This Machine, nor is it as shiny as Welcome to the Monkey House. Without any immediate hits like "We Used to Be Friends" or "Bohemian Like You," the band seems to have left behind that commercial urge on Distortland, instead focusing on vibes and sensations. The album struts but never fully rocks out, leaning heavily on the dulcet side. There are a few moments where the Dandies allow that grit to dirty things a bit, like on the nocturnal creep of "Semper Fidelis," whose sinister crunch could fit nicely alongside Monkey House's darker selections.  Distortland is ready-made for wandering open roads and tripping out in grassy fields, especially on the enveloping fuzz of "Give." The psych-haze billows in on the opening "Search Party," a '60s-style acid wash that floats along on a synth cloud and hand claps, while "Catcher in the Rye" is a classic Dandies plodder with Zia McCabe's elastic bass providing a mellow bounce that sounds like the sibling to 2003's "I Am Over It." While the band remains eclectic, exploring some new concepts and expanding on past sonics, Distortland doesn't meander as much as the Dandies have on past efforts, keeping things relatively focused making Distortland  an enjoyable late-era addition to their catalog that breathes as much as it pleases. ~Neil Yeung, allmusic.com

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