Antony and the Johnsons
Cut the World
Secretly Canadian

If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to discover Antony and the Johnsons, this is it. Cut the World is a document of live performances and an ample potpourri of the band’s (and singer/songwriter Antony Hegarty’s) best work that transcends its purported purpose. Most of the material is pulled from The Crying Light, Antony and the Johnsons’ 2009 masterwork, but there’s just as much early material, including “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy,” from the 2001 EP of the same name. That song especially, as well as the three tracks from the band’s 2000 self-titled debut, really benefit from the orchestral backing and the 10-plus years of development Antony has put into his instrument. Of course, I mean that incredibly sensitive voice of his, which serves like a direct feed from the center of his wounded heart. As amazing as his performances are on record, listening to Cut the World, you can tell that the presence of the audience draws out the best in Hagerty. No doubt re-recording these tracks after playing them on the road for a while has also allowed him to deepen his relationships with the material, and here he finds every possible opportunity for added subtleties.

The one new song is the opening track and it’s so stunningly gorgeous that you might be halfway into the seven-minute monologue that follows before you really pay attention to what Antony’s saying. It’s petty moving, actually, but be forewarned that it includes phrases like “I must be having a homeopathic relationship with the moon,” Antony’s metaphorical declaration that he’s a witch, and that “it’s a wonderful day to die.” In person, Antony doesn’t refrain from telling long (usually funny) stories and expressing his religious, political, and philosophical views, so it’s appropriate that the album provides a taste of what that part of the live experience is like.

Antony and his group have always impressed me with their very high standards. In this case, it means that even more familiar (if you’ve been following their career) songs are worth hearing anew because they invariably morph into something very special. For example, “Another World,” intimate and heart-rending in the studio version, here becomes an ever more potently restrained, patient release of pent-up mourning. In “The Cripple and the Starfish,” Hegarty channels an abusive relationship like a method actor. And on the relatively up-beat “Kiss My Name,” you can hear that Antony is enraptured, swaying around the microphone as he traces the delicate line between celebrating found love and pleading for more. The result is a collection of peak performances that demand your attention. This isn’t music for background amusement or for ignoring while you browse YouTube. These are songs for your most vulnerable moments, when you need help finding an emotion big enough for real life.
Matt Slaybaugh

Various Artists
Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac

I’m not going to take sides here. I’ve been a lifelong Fleetwood Mac and have always been aware of their prowess among rock royalty. I can vividly remember hours staring at the Rumours cover as a toddler and having a crush on Stevie Nicks in the advent of MTV. I’m as impartial as they come. But until recently, the group was often maligned. In the past, genuine adoration for the Mac didn’t go far beyond the obvious ’70s AOR radio staples of “Don’t Stop” and “Landslide” or a dad’s dusty record collection. But somewhere along the spectrum of the last decade that I can’t pinpoint, it became acceptable to claim them as a valuable and fairly spotless touchstone in the history of rock, to be wholly influenced by their aesthetic of air-conditioned soft-pop songwriting, and to namecheck them in interviews as if they were the best private press obscurity of the decadent decades in which they thrived. All along, though, re-buying and re-discovering the mastery of the Buckingham, Nicks, McVie triforce on albums like Tusk and Mirage (though never discount Tango in the Night), it was apparent that the tumultuous quintet were sacred ground when it came to covers. This alone makes Just Tell Me That You Want Me a pointless exercise, if not an excuse to convey to the rest of the world, you finally get it.

Pointless because there’s no reason this material needs to be rewritten and rearranged. Though longtime operatic star-child Antony can sing the phonebook, you already know how restrained and enigmatic his version of “Landslide” will be before you even get to track two. Lee Renaldo doing “Albatross” with J Mascis as the first track is valiant. You’ll get those who will tell you there was a Fleetwood Mac before Buckingham and Nicks, and Peter Green–era Mac is just as underrated, but in no way superior, and most of those here know that. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s as color-by-numbers as it should be. Most of the covers are complete duds. Best Coast is the worst offender, repurposing the classic “Rhiannon” to fit Bethany Corsantino’s limited range. Only Lykki Li’s minimalistic take on “Silver Springs” and Gardens and Villas’ tasteful version of “Gypsy” are worthy of Stevie Nicks’ bohemian mystique. Lindsey Buckingham’s legacy is even more tainted on this “tribute.” It seems what Buckingham reserved as slightly psychedelic is taken to flourished extremes in mimic mode. The Crystal Ark’s “Tusk,” refashioned as a Top 40 LMFAO song, is unbearable. Further damage comes from the New Pornographers, who should work in theory, but make McVie’s “Think About Me” into circus music.

I suppose there are certain extremes that can be imagined when trying to reinterpret just what magic was being woven in the studio during the highlights, but most everyone here overshoots. Who exactly is the biggest fan of Fleetwood Mac? Surprisingly the only salvageable works come from Washed Out, whose “Straight Back” nails the wobbly nostalgia trying to be evoked, while Tame Impala’s into-the-ether version of “That’s All For Everyone” is also commendable. The sprightly Aussies seem to be the only ones genuinely “re-ing” what always has been there for better use. Simply put, avoid this collection unless of course (which is humanly impossible) you’ve worn thin the wondrous Fleetwood Mac journey you’re bound to take among their legendary streak.
Kevin J. Elliott

Enterprising Sidewalks

It has been nearly a quarter of a century since distortion, feedback and volume joined to form an unremitting flesh. It jostled the pedantry of post-punk and offered a backbone to sentimental pop across the Atlantic. At once a warm blanket and fierce intimidator, shoegaze liberated the twee literati. At the helm was Washington DC’s Slumberland Records, an imprint that established lines for these transatlantic sentiments and then some. As important as it was to introduce Stereolab to America, it was the nurture and support to bands like The Lilys, The Swirlies and Lorelei that cultivated the American underground pop aesthetic as we know it.

Lorelei’s Everyone Must Touch the Stove emerged in 1994 as an unassuming document of what features could be added to this pop underground. Suburban, yet steeped in American romanticism, this was a truly special record that, due to its raw beauty, got away with the implementation of exotic instruments. It exemplified what Emily Dickinson qualified in saying, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

With Enterprising Sidewalks, this is not a risk. The uncertainty of youth has been resolved in Lorelei’s lacunae. (A likeness was marginally more evident on their 2003 EP, Informed by the Future.) Instead of fractured eccentricity, we have wholesome craft. Lorelei has evolved appropriately, but they are not without urgency. Self-immolation be damned, their pop prowess is directed out. Enterprising Sidewalks is more a call to arms set forth by ’90s peers like Moonshake in “City Poison.” Leading by example, it walks the streets sidestepping dilettantes.
Elizabeth Murphy

Jim Coleman
Wax and Wane

Jim Coleman is a sound artist and a beat maker best known for his work with industrial bashers Cop Shoot Cop and also his remix and IDM work as Phylr. He’s also scored indie films and collaborated with plenty of big names in experience-type spectacles and hybrid projects. Trees, however, is his first record under his own proper name. For those expecting skull-crushing beats or at least a glow-stick cruncher or two, I’m sorry.

From the first track, I can’t decide if this is trumpet music over ambient soundtracks or Eno pastiche collages aimed at the Echoes crowd. Sure, the music is beautiful, and it’s not exactly easy to create something beautiful. There is a reason music like this floats behind films so well as to go almost unnoticed. It’s delicate and non-confrontational, but still pointedly assuming and manipulative. It took more than half the record to come to “Dawn,” the lone standout. I imagine a desert scene with all kinds of wicked animals just waiting for you to drift into their territory so they can poison you and slowly watch you die. Weird spirits flit about caterwauling warnings that go ignored. A paced, processed cello (maybe?) counts off the steps toward the darkness that’s quickly drowned and broken by a high-pitched banshee wail. There are no distinguishable lyrics on Trees, which is a sort of blessing. I’m not entirely sure there is a human language that would sound appropriate on top of these sounds. These songs are obviously built for visual imagery—that much is clear without even taking into account Coleman’s past soundtrack work. At this point, a listener would try to decide exactly what to do with this music. It would be nice to listen to while concentrating on something else, like painting a portrait or writing an article perhaps. It wouldn’t be as useful as something to blow speakers and have a fist-pumping catharsis. Let’s compromise: set up your easel and palette in the backyard on a gloomy day, put Trees on repeat inside and crank it up all the way. Sounds delightful.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Saint Etienne
Words and Music

It seems like Saint Etienne never get their due props. Despite being one of early practitioners of indie dance, as well as among the first salvo of the ’90s British invasion, they’re too often relegated to a footnote. Even with unqualified hit albums and a fairly consistent output, they seem to rarely get into the conversation. Undaunted, the band—comprised of Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs—have slowly begun to repackage and re-release their back catalog, filling in the blanks for those who’ve been sleeping for the past couple of decades. Now, seven years after their last studio album, Saint Etienne is back with Words and Music.

Much like 2005’s Tales from Turnpike House, Words and Music is a concept album. The concept is something that should resonate with music fans as the album is all about how music affects and resonates throughout life. The opening track, “Over the Border,” sets up such a theme very plainly with a half-spoken, half-sung approach. In the opening seconds it seems like it may be a very bad idea and odd way to open. Instead, Cracknell tells a very charming story about how she became a music fan and how such initial fandom carried through her life as she wondered what would happen when she got older. It’s the type of thing where the details may be specific, but the thought is universal. The rest of the album is full of those types of moments that elicit an inevitable smile of recognition. Whether it’s getting lost in the music at a club (“DJ”) or getting obsessive with fellow nerds online (“Popular”), it’s 48 minutes of incredible music.

Musically Saint Etienne is in fine form. While it’s far more streamlined than their earlier records, Words and Music shares the band’s past embrace of pop. The album is shiny, bright, sleek and sounds like a stainless apartment in sonic form. There’s a noticeable lack of indie rock anywhere on the premises, as Words and Music is squarely focused on the dancefloor. But the band does take properly paced moments to chill out and lower the tempo with no loss of momentum. (Although there’s a bonus disc of well selected remixes if a break is too much.) Cracknell’s voice still floats and swirls with a sense of breezy casualness while Stanley and Whiggs’ keyboards invoke classic Stock Aitken Waterman production without actually leaning retro. Words and Music is an unabashed love letter in a time of ironic musical detachment.
Dorian S. Ham