I find myself spellbound when taking in Komachi, Meitei’s delicately crafted mix of nostalgia and loop-making science. It rewards unbroken attention, wrought as it is with quiet details, gentle moods, and subtle changes. The simple act of listening carefully will reward you, even if, like most of us, you have no reference point for what the artist is trying to accomplish. For a more profound experience, it’s worth meditating on the concept of Wabi-Sabi, which Meitei describes as “a Japanese aesthetic and worldview centered around finding beauty in imperfections as well as the transience of life.” Indeed, the album invites you to an ocean of sounds that seem washed onto shore from a world long passed. And the sound of the ocean itself (as well as bubbling brooks, bouncing rivers, and crashing waves) frequently accompany the spare rhythms. Rarely do these 12 tracks achieve anything like momentum. Rather they have the effect of slowing your breathe, wheeling back time, and transporting you to someplace smaller, more placid and much more humane. MS
With their second full-length collaboration, The Imperial, Willy Vlautin (of Richmond Fontaine) and Amy Boone of (of the Damnations) have released a masterful combination of sultry torch songs and flickering broadcasts from the forgotten corners of America. Sympathetic playing from the cream of the Pacific Northwest, including Tucker Jackson’s pedal steel, Cory Gray’s keys and delicate arrangements, and Freddy Trujillo’s oozing bass, lifts these solid, sharp songs. Vlautin and Boone sketch these characters in grim settings and precarious situations with love and understanding. Surging with nostalgic strings, the title track’s one-sided conversation with an old lover who’s landed in jail breaks every heart for miles with line like, “So let’s have one last drink. Hold my hand under the table before I leave.” Elsewhere, album closer “Eddie and Polly,” draws to a darkened conclusion with the revolving final chorus reminding us, “The party never stops so the pressure starts.” RS
For some, it’s probably wild to think that emo would be a route for a rock resurgence this decade. Thanks to bands like The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, The Hotelier, and a bevy in between, this genre started to hit its stride again in the mid-2010s with some truly momentous records. It felt like almost everything, for a matter of time, was imperative listening.
Fast-forward to 2019 and emo risks becoming templatized again, with uninspired all-dude bands releasing records of outright whining and incessant math rock riffs. Thankfully, Jade Lilitri, the singer-songwriter behind Oso Oso, arrived to reset our expectations. While there were plenty of releases that rubbed shoulders with Basking in the Glow, none came even remotely close to this album’s simple majesty. With more than half its songs contending for top honors, a purely catchy guitar rock album hasn’t resonated this well since early Jimmy Eat World — and even then, Basking in the Glow arguably shines brighter. Once you clear “Intro” and hit “The View,” you’re carried off on a set of seamless, yet distinguished, songs, all of which hold choruses you wish wouldn’t end. Not to burden Lilitri with being emo’s savior, but after this, who else is better suited than him? ML
Having earned a reputation during the first few years of their existence for their live show, London’s Crows finally delivered their debut full-length in 2019—and it didn’t disappoint. Equally noisy, ethereal and catchy, Silver Tongues is reminiscent of the output of such shining luminaries as Spacemen 3 and Loop, although with a bit more energy, the Crows are probably more likely to be on amphetamines than LSD. Over just the first three cuts, the album segues easily from the cacophonic dirge of the title track to the amped-up “Demeanour” and subsequently to the shoegazing swirl of “Empyrean.” The rest of the record is similarly shapeshifting and equally mesmerizing, managing the neat trick of being at once visceral and atmospheric and moody. It’s an absolute stunner, to be sure. SS
The recent glut of underground acts riffing heavy on the danceable post-punk of late-70s and early-80s has sometimes revealed the downside of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. And while these vamps on The Slits, A Certain Ration, Malaria, and the like certainly make for quality listens, they can be a little indistinct after a while. Trash Kit, by contrast, are an exception and a stand out. Offering a beguilingly original take of this recent trend with its 2019 LP Horizon, the band combines the taught minimalist grooves of those inspirations we know so well, but adds doses of spiritual jazz moodiness, highlife guitar buoyancy (in addition to other African pop traditions), and even a little good ol’ math-rock angularity. And with Rachel Aggs alternately haunting and vibrant violin standing out among it all, Horizon becomes a record that isn’t so much reminiscent of any movement that came before it—or even paying tribute to one—but rather offering its very own bold statement for the present and the future. NK
After years of pursuing other projects and false starts at getting back to music, David Berman returned with Purple Mountains, an album as strong as any he’d put out in his years leading Silver Jews, then committed suicide. That biographical punctuation made this self-titled album—full of vibrant, nuanced playing from members of Woods—hard for many of us to write and talk about. Like the poet Jack Spicer’s line, “My vocabulary did this to me, your love will let you go on,” the 10 songs on Purple Mountains keenly know language’s vitality in shaping each of our worlds and also its hopeless inadequacy. It’s easy to read this album as one last punch at the stone monuments of life before giving in but it’s just as easy to see it as the starting blocks leading into another long, rich run. On the riotous honkytonk stomp of “That’s Just the Way I Fell,” Berman almost laughs through “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion” with self-aware, dark bravado that would make Merle Haggard smile. The stasis of the character on “Margaritas at the Mall” orbits around a haunting garage organ and pedal steel leaving smoke trails. His laconic delivery of the line, “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind,” on “Nights That Won’t Happen” doesn’t belie the shake in “All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” These songs will provide comfort in times of grief for years down the line. RS
The most effective anthem of our crash-landing decade is Kim Gordon’s “AirBnb.” The lyrics really are about an AirBnb, with “47-inch flat TV, parking garage, Andy Warhol prints on the wall.” The place is a “rustic, romantic Malibu getaway,” and you know it’s a really good find, cause she repeats “Superhost!” over and over. In her desperate, breathy, unbalanced delivery, she ironizes the rotten, rotting center of the obese American Empire. I’ve read a million angry polemics these last few years, but none of them ignites the smoldering ashes in my blood like this song. And the seven tracks that follow are no less necessary. “Cookie Butter” hits hard, moving from the way she spits the words out in the first minute to the vulnerability of “I hide” halfway through, followed up by two minutes of hateful noise. Isn’t “Murdered Out” exactly how you want to feel when the world has messed with you for the last time and you’re finally ready to stand up for yourself? This is Kim Gordon at 66, as angry and brave as ever, making all the indie babies look like a bunch wet blankets and blasting a gruesome hole in your lazy malaise. MS
Very few artists take the trajectory that has been sought by Alexander Giannascoli. As his star has risen and his portfolio increased, he’s made it a mission to get even weirder, to push the boundaries of his bric-a-brac bedroom pop, adapt it to a full band, and make an album, in House of Sugar, that posits his fever-dreaming genre-jumping as a mainstream commodity. I’d like to imagine that Giannascoli knows his precedents: freaks like the Elephant Six stalwarts, Thinking Fellers, Sun City Girls, or R. Stevie Moore, who dabbled in cross-cultural experimentation and collage aesthetics. The whole of House of Sugar feels incomplete, with many songs not actually songs but snippets that bleed into each other and segues that connect the weightier moments. For some, incomplete may sound like a denigrating attribute, but for Giannascoli it signals praise, as his ability to seamlessly weave such a profound collection of sounds is a quality that works for a choose-your-own-adventure type of record. In that, House of Sugar, demands multiple listens, with multiple interpretations, and multiple identities when it’s all said and done. The best part is you can’t wait to see what he does next. KJE
As she revealed on her breakthrough sophomore album, Party, Aldous Harding is an artist capable of shapeshifting not only track to track, but at times somewhere between verses. Her third album, Designer, seemingly belying its title, is similarly slippery, with Harding’s voice being the most slithery of its elements.
With ”Fixture Picture,” the record begins with a honey-toned acoustic reverie. Here, she evokes a somewhat bittersweet vibe, her band slowly joining in to fill in the empty spaces and add their voices to hers. By the second track, though, Harding has already changed pace, adapting a different voice and cadence for something more airy and light. The highlight here, though, is first single “The Barrel.” The song’s mid-tempo groove plays off of Harding’s mix of voices, and the juxtaposition makes it all the more unearthly. Produced by noted PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, Designer feels intimate, without being desolate, and intricate without being too precious, and something utterly unique. SS
It’s hard to pick just one of the two stellar releases from Big Thief this year, because both of them come from very different realms, and both come from a band that is just starting to peak and feel completely comfortable in their powers. Those powers belie all of the pigeonholing rock crits have bestowed upon Adrienne Lenker and company. U.F.O.F. is the sound of a folk-inflected, semi-precious indie band recording in an intimate space, mostly acoustic and hushed. In those moments of quiet reflection, the band takes on a singular persona that falls somewhere between Fleetwood Mac (circa Tango in the Night) and—wait for it—Radiohead, simply for being greater than the sum of their parts and rising above any terrestrial anchors into an expansive sonic universe. Two Hands, in stark contrast, shows Big Thief at their most raw and dynamic. It is perhaps a statement (or just an in-the-moment document) that the band does have the chops and complexities that those who want to cast them aside aren’t listening hard enough to hear. I’ve seen the quartet live several times over the past two years and can attest that Big Thief is a band much bigger than themselves or the neat little corners they get painted into. That they can rage in improvised chaos, bending distortion and volume at their whim, or craft a hypnotizing lullaby with just voice and guitar, displays a range and nuance few American bands possess these days. KJE