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Faye Webster - Underdressed at the Symphony

Underdressed at the Symphony is a fitting title for an album that finds Faye Webster slowly trading her initial country-rock inclinations for a sumptuous chamber pop: underneath her sophisticated trappings, she remains a slacker whose presence isn't ostentatious but is certainly felt. Not so much a shift in direction as an idiosyncratic evolution from the soft-focus shimmer of I Know I'm Funny Haha, the 2021 album that gained enough buzz to cross the radar of former President Barack Obama (he chose "Better Distractions" as one of his picks to click for 2020), Underdressed at the Symphony intensifies the lush, languid undertones lurking within her music.  Her quivering, tentative voice cuts against the opulence of the arrangements, particularly when it's run through an Auto-Tune that accentuates her gangly, slightly cynical sensitivity. Those slight traces of 21st century modernism -- brought to the forefront on the aggressively chipper "He Loves Me Yeah!" and "Lego Ring," which features Webster's old middle school friend Lil Yachty --can feel like a signifier, a way to make clear that she's not a musician who indulges in the smooth seduction of nostalgia. Those understated but evident protestations are needed because the rest of Underdressed at the Symphony could be mistaken for a deliberate evocation of classic rock -- specifically the hazy netherworld of the late '70s and early '80s, when pop was delivered with exquisite precision by studio pros. Underdressed at the Symphony often can sound like 21st century yacht rock, particularly in how "Thinking About You" finds endless comfort in its trilling guitar and laid-back groove or how "But Not Kiss" billows forth on waves of steel guitar and piano. The appeal in this refurbished soft rock lies in the atmosphere and supple interplay, how the musicians twist melodic clichés without refuting their power, an execution that mirrors how Webster writes songs that feel slightly off-center: she delivers subtle surprises without neglecting basic pop pleasures.

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Urgency is a common thread in the work of Alynda Segarra, the singer/songwriter who writes and records under the name Hurray for the Riff Raff.  Relaxed in its gait and softened around the edges, The Past Is Still Alive feels gentle, even comforting, on the surface; the tempos never push, the melodies ring out clearly, and Segarra sings with reassurance. Underneath the burnished surface, the album is every bit as vital as its predecessors, examining situations fraught with private and political pitfalls. Written in the wake of the death of their father, The Past Is Still Alive is rife with Segarra reckoning with personal loss, using their grief to mourn a world where things are starting to decay and fray, possibly to the point of extinction. On "Colossus of Roads," they sing "Say goodbye to America, I want to see it dissolve," concluding at the record's close "I used to think I was born in the wrong generation, but now I know I made it right on time/To watch the world burn, with a tear in my eye." It's hard to shake such gloom but the remarkable thing about The Past Is Still Alive is that it never feels despairing: the warmth offers solace and companionship, even suggesting there's a future beyond the end of the world. ~Stephen Thomas Erlewine,


Grandaddy - Blu Wav

A prolific storyteller, Jason Lytle is inspired by the overwhelming beauty of nature to the mundane moments that spark life's strongest memories. With the album title Blu Wav meant to be a literal mash-up of "bluegrass" and "new wave", the new collection has a distinct feel, a uniform vibe, and a somewhat unexpected sound. It was conceived as Grandaddy maestro Jason Lytle was driving through the Nevada desert, and Patti Page's 'Tennessee Waltz' came across the classic country station on the radio. He was immediately intrigued by the possibilities of what it might sound like to keep the slow sway and sweet, simple lyrics of the bluegrass waltz while adding layers of dense synthesizers and the electronics of new wave. It incorporates the lo-fi lushness and sometimes-psychedelic orchestration Grandaddy is known for with Lytle's first foray into true country. Seven of it's 13 songs are waltzes, and as Lytle notes, "there's an inordinate amount of pedal steel."

Helado Negro -- Phasor

Everything on Helado Negro's eighth album feels serendipitous, from its sunny electronics to its mingling of psych-rock, jazz, and kosmische to the understated yet undeniable grooves that give Roberto Carlos Lange's musings a flowing foundation. While Phasor feels loose and expansive, it’s Lange’s tightest collection—deep, atmospheric, meticulously executed. It’s aligned with 2019’s This Is How You Smile, which found him incorporating more upfront drums and bass and focused grooves. Sequentially, it follows the expansive hour-plus long Far In, whose title was inspired by new age legend Laraaji and created in lockdown, in Marfa, Texas - lyrically digging into connection and focused on being in quarantine. Phasor, in turn, is an homage to going outside again. It’s a returning-to-life record, remembering what the sun feels like and letting it warm your skin. 


Vijay Iyer/Linday May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey - Compassion

Pianist-composer Vijay Iyer follows his 2021 ECM disc Uneasy - the first to showcase his trio featuring bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey - with Compassion, another album in league with these two gifted partners. The New York Times captured the special qualities of this group, pointing to the trio's flair for playing "with a lithe range of motion and resplendent clarity... while stoking a kind of writhing internal tension. Crucial to that balance is their ability to connect with each other almost telepathically.”  , Iyer's eighth release as a leader for ECM, continues his drive to explore fresh territory while also referencing his forebears along the way, two of them long associated with the label. The album includes a lyrical homage to Chick Corea via the late pianist's valedictory interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." Another tip of the hat comes with "Nonaah," a whirlwind of a piece by avant-garde sage Roscoe Mitchell, a key mentor for the pianist. Then there are Iyer's own melodically alluring, rhythmically invigorating compositions, ranging from the pensive title track to the hook-laced highlights "Tempest" and "Ghostrumental.”  ~Thom Jurek,

Yard Act - Wheres My Utopia

With their debut album, 2022's The Overload, Leeds outfit Yard Act fell squarely under the umbrella of post-Brexit post-punk while managing to stand out with an in-your-face, disgruntled delivery by vocalist James Smith, timely political subject matter, alternately playful and biting wit, and an infectiously nervy musical bearing. The album shot to number two in the U.K. and snagged a Mercury Prize nomination.   Where's My Utopia? gets the groove going with the weird and warped "An Illusion," which, after a sampled "It’s now my great pleasure to introduce to you the greatest voice of the entire century," opens with a wearily spoke-sung, "It's a bank holiday/So all the hospitals are shut/Guess I'll have to saw off my own foot." After developing into something cinematic enhanced by strings and sunshine pop-styled backing vocals, that's followed by the funky, half-rapped "We Make Hits," a diatribe against landlords and income disparity that makes reference to the Grammatics, Nile Rodgers, and "post-punks latest poster boys," while calling the titular hitmakers "two broke millennial men" ("And we'd do it again"). Wry, riveting, chaotic, and infectious throughout, Where's My Utopia? easily upstages what was an impressive debut. ~Marcy Donelson

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