The Jayhawks--Paging Mr Proust

When Mark Olson parted ways with the Jayhawks in 1996, the band responded with 1997's Sound of Lies, one of their scrappiest and most eclectic albums. It was as if the Jayhawks (in particular Gary Louris) wanted to show the world they were still strong and lively despite the departure of one of their co-founders. Olson returned to the Jayhawks for the 2011 reunion album Mockingbird Time, only to leave the band again on less than cordial terms. Released in 2016, Paging Mr. Proust is the first Jayhawks studio project since, and once again it finds Louris and his bandmates mixing up their formula, introducing new edges and angles to the group's evocative, lonesome Midwestern sound. Louris adds lots of jagged guitar to the loop-based construction of "Ace," while "Lost the Summer" is a lean, ominous rocker with a noisy attack. ("Pretty Roses in Your Hair" is another, more subtle tune built around a ghostly drum loop.) Much of the time, Louris' vocals and melodies follow the template he's established in the past, but there's a fresh degree of energy in these performances. Peter Buck and Tucker Martine (who co-produced the album with Louris) have given the guitars an edgier and less pastoral sound than one might expect from the Jayhawks. Neil Young is still the clear inspiration behind Louris' soloing, but here the tone is sharper and the crunch has more impact, even when the songs are gentle at heart. All in all, Paging Mr. Proust is an album that honors the traditions of the Jayhawks but isn't afraid to play with convention. ~Mark Deming,


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,

Brian Eno -- The Ship

The Ship marks Brian Eno's first ambient album since 2012's Lux. Work on the album began as a 3-D sound installation in Stockholm, but altered to stereo when Eno realized he could sing in a low C, The Ship's root note. The Ship contains two works, the 21-minute title track, and the three-part "Fickle Sun." The title piece, a reflection on the sinking of the Titanic, recalls a moment in his distant past: he released Gavin Bryars' Sinking of the Titanic on his Obscure Music label in 1975.

The two could not be more different. Bryars' work, composed of a folk-like chamber melody, is evolutionary; it changes as the composer learns more about the event. The Ship is self-contained. It emerges from keyboard sounds and samples in a drone that unfolds in gently undulating waves until actual songs -- freed from the concept of fixed rhythm -- emerge. Eno's singing voice fronts a two-chord melody that sets his subject inside the frame of a rolling, undulant seascape. The narrative submerges individual stories under a loose but inextricably connected narrative. Softly played keyboards, synthesized strings (suggesting the ship's dance band), sonar sounds, sampled ghost voices from radio broadcasts, and a siren chorale (provided by the Elgin Marvels) allow sensory impressions from these fragmented stories to emerge. Eno's lyrics depict water, the boat, mortal transience, and the envelopment of it all into a vast, roaring, eternal silence. His singing recedes into droning chords and layers of ambient sound that all but consume spoken voices in Catalan and English. In the end, all that remains are his words, "wave, after wave, after wave."

By contrast, "Fickle Sun" begins dramatically. The first section, over 18 minutes, reflects on the "hubris and arrogance" of WWI. Swirling, nightmarish sine pulses, blurry vocals, and colliding keyboards create a dissonant, near-gothic drone. Eno's chant-like monotone delivery recalls Nico's doomsday singing. The track builds to a crescendo but it's subsumed by a stark, chilly ambience, sampled radio voices and his own, by a vocoder framed by fragmented noise. The feel is sinister and tense. The brief second part (subtitled "The Hour Is Thin") features a lone piano and is narrated by Peter Serafinowicz. It adds poignancy and emotional resonance contrasting sharply with the first. It crossfades into a reverential cover of Velvet Underground's "I'm Set Free." Aided by Nell Catchpole's violin and viola, Jon Hopkins' layered keyboards, and Leo Abrahams' guitar, Eno's own instrumentation -- including drums -- and singing deliver a gorgeous reading. This pop note -- drenched in the haunted irony of Lou Reed's lyrics: "I'm set free/To find a new illusion" -- almost decenters the record but ultimately underscores it as a tender yet powerful commentary. The Ship is a memorial to and meditation on history and human foibles. Just as importantly, it places an exclamation point on Eno's career as curiosity, experimentation, chance, and form gel; his relentless sense of adventure remains undiminished by time.  ~ Thom Jurek,

Karl Blau--Introducing Karl Blau

In 2004, producer Tucker Martine recorded an instrumental cover of Tom T. Hall's 1968 country classic "That's How I Got to Memphis." He asked the mercurial -- and prolific -- Karl Blau if he would sing on it. Martine, the husband of Laura Veirs, had been taken with Blau's work with her, and impressed with the results of the song, he released it as a Mount Analog single and the pair vowed to work on a covers album. It would take a decade to realize. Introducing Karl Blau includes that song as its opener, and reveals another side to the quirky, restless, D.I.Y. musician. It brings his honeyed baritone singing to the fore in a set of classic songs from the '60s and '70s.
Link Wray's 1971 ballad "Fallin' Rain," from his self-titled Polydor album, is introduced with pillowy, folky psychedelic trimmings -- shimmering piano, fingerpicked Telecasters, congas, and organ. But when Blau starts singing, the song's tragic lyric transports the listener into the heart of bewildered melancholy and it becomes an elegy for the lost. Don Gibson's "Woman (Sensuous Woman)" is a honky tonk waltz, melding bright, acoustic, twangy electric and pedal steel guitars. A droning tamboura, Jew's harp, 12-string acoustics, and fuzzy electric and pedal steel guitars are all blended impeccably. Arguably, the best moment here is also the most personal: It's a reading of Layng Martine, Jr.'s "Let the World Go By." (He's Tucker's dad, and a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He's written songs for everyone from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to the Pointer Sisters and Reba McEntire.) This version offers a darker, more rock-oriented Lee Hazlewood-esque take on Glenn Yarborough's 1968 original that was arranged as a strange, wonderful pop vocal-cum-countrypolitan big-band number.

The past isn't revived on Introducing Karl Blau. Instead, it's recontextualized by Martine as a showcase for a truly gifted song interpreter. ~Thom Jurek,


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,

Bombino -- Azel

After a 'brief' 25 hour delay in Morocco on his way from Niger, Bombino arrived in Woodstock, New York to record his new album at Applehead Studio with Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors). Applehead was the perfect atmosphere for Bombino and his group to create new music over the course of the 10 days they had there. Longstreth, meanwhile, proved to be a fantastic match for Bombino as this album’s producer. He has a deep respect for the Saharan music tradition and guided their sessions with a gentle but skilled hand. Fans of Bombino and Tuareg music in general will notice a few remarkable innovations on this album. The first is the introduction of a new style Bombino is pioneering that he affectionally calls 'Tuareggae' - a sunny blend of Tuareg blues/rock with reggae one-drop and bounce. Another is the first-ever use of Western vocal harmonies in recorded Tuareg music, (due to Longstreth's influence) which give the songs new depth and color. Finally, the band behind him is tighter and more energetic than ever before. The result is Bombino's best, most well-rounded, and groundbreaking album to date: Azel.





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