Zola Jesus
The Spoils
Sacred Bones

If the collegiate climes of Madison, Wisconsin seem like an unlikely place for the bleak sounds of Zola Jesus to emanate from, then you’ve probably never experienced the crushing homeostasis of a Midwestern upbringing. Whatever the case, though, there’s no denying that the songs on the first full-length from Nika Roza Danilova are borne from a place as pure as it is furnished with spectral motifs. From the first oscillated tones of “Six Feet (From My Baby),” The Spoils exists outside of locale or context, a whole unto itself where each note, noise and utterance does it part to erect a sonic sphere with its own gravitational pull.

Danilova was trained as an opera singer, and it’s her voice that gives the record its grounding, even as it soars to recommend that you “let the devil take you” (“Devil Take You”). Though more mechanical and steely in tone, one can hear echoes of the Banshees (The Scream, in particular); Zola Jesus shares a similar sense of gothic drama and one can’t help but be reminded of Siouxsie Sioux by Danilova’s mighty pipes. In this cloistered terrain, however, the machinery’s austere output only helps to elucidate her caterwaul, like a voice in the dark. There’s a warmth here too, if only emanating from Danilova’s pulse, for few beat as strong.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Eyedea & Abilities
By the Throat

It’s not widespread enough to be a movement, but there’s definitely something afoot in the world of underground hip-hop. It seems that inspiration is coming less from dusty boom-bap grooves and more from the like-minded brethren of the punk and indie world. You can hear it on any of POS’s records, the new Cage album, and now on the latest Eyedea & Abilities release, By The Throat.

It’s been five years since the last full-length from the Minneapolis-based duo, so fans have been clamoring for the return of Abilities’ razor sharp DJ skills and Eyedea’s rapid fire MCing over industrial strength hip-hop beats. Uh, keep waiting. Between releases Eyedea has spent time in punk bands and that influence has been slowly introduced into the live set. Those performances give an inkling of what to expect, but still, what the hell?

The best thing to do is to throw out all expectations because E&A have taken a sharp left turn. On first listen, By The Throat is a lo-fi rock album that at times collides with hip-hop. It sound like the recording equipment was cobbled together from multiple Goodwill trips, then recorded live to a Maxwell 90-minute tape. As a result, it’s a difficult record: the vocals are buried; the music is fuzzed out; and the beats sound like they were done with Baby’s First Beatbox. It’s as if E&A have abandoned hip-hop completely.

But with repeated listening (an easy task as the album is only 29 minutes long) the charms of By The Throat reveal themselves. Abilities is still a beast on the decks and Eyedea is still rapping his ass off, but they’ve chosen a different sonic palate and added fairly serviceable singing. The songwriting is still sharp as ever, mixing character sketches (“Time Flies When You Have A Gun”) and more introspective fare (“Hay Fever”). While the new sound may not instantly grab listeners by their throats, it will eventually get them nonetheless.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “This Story”

Julian Plenti
...Is Skyscraper

Despite the fact that Paul Banks claims his Julian Plenti solo venture is something conceived long before he suited up in darker shades to become the uncomforting frontman of Interpol, it will be a hard feat to distinguish ...Is Skyscraper as anything other than a sturdy, if failed extension, of his steady gravy train. Be that as it may, stacking this record against Interpol’s major label debacle, Our Love to Admire, might, to the dismay of his bandmates, reveal that Banks was holding out with some of his best work in some time. While ...Is Skyscraper does little to steer clear of the mediocrity in songwriting and scope in which that last record was doused, there are spots here where the combination of texture by arrangement and Banks’ naked heart make for an intriguing listen.

The sheer sonic density of “Unwind” alone warrants a second listen. With its bright regal horns set upon deeply bowed strings, tragic piano raindrops and sci-fi atmospherics, the song transcends the gloomy touchstone of Banks’ other self and becomes nearly inspirational. But it’s when he seemingly takes on the persona of Julian Plenti that his tone shifts, giving way to less redundancy and showcasing a bedroom muse that’s been hidden. Of course, as a side-project, expectations for a more intimate side of Banks are upheld with the lounge lizard voyeurism of “Girl on the Sporting News” and the folk-flecked finger-picking that highlights “On the Esplanade.” But these fragile moments do little to outweigh the record’s broad, studio-bolstered strokes. For the most part, Banks is a circular and calculating songwriter, rarely heading down a linear path, thus rarely staying interesting for more than the initial hook. As a result, songs like “The Fun That We Had” and “Games for Days,” though dolled-up in a facade of layered guitars, synths and overall non-essential baubles, suffer from a vacancy of depth. It’s not as if he isn’t trying; the album is bookended with some instrumental drama via “Only If You Run” and “H,” injecting found samples and actual orchestral movements. But alas, that is not enough to save this generally yawn-inducing affair.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Games for Days”

Cale Parks
To Swift Mars ep

Cale Parks is the lanky, multi-talented musician often hidden behind the drum kit as a member of bands such as Aloha and White Williams, but Parks is anything but an ordinary percussionist. When not recording or touring with those groups, he is creating music for his own solo releases. He operates electric machinery like a mad maestro, switching seamlessly between his crash pad, vibraphone, keyboard, etc. All this would seem less impressive, but for the fact that he reproduces it without a missing a beat—both literally and figuratively—live.

For his third release, the EP To Swift Mars, Parks expounds on his trademark electro-beats and dreamy, if slightly monotone, vocals. The songs are structured, and, not surprisingly, built heavily around the percussion. However, what is unexpected is the fullness of the music, especially as Parks utilizes relatively few instruments. Certainly there are more than a few five- and six-piece bands in the music industry that would find it difficult to pull off the sound that Parks so naturally achieves.

The contradiction between the depth and the rawness of Parks’ music is unique, especially when flanked by such ethereal lyricism. The result is a hazy dreamscape, where, unfortunately, many songs tend to blend into one another into one another without ever fully peaking. Even more upbeat tracks like “One at a Time” and “Eyes Won’t Shut,” while a pleasant listen, lapse without much effect. Ultimately, though, Mars is a noble creative outlet for Parks, who certainly makes music intriguing enough to warrant a little more time in the limelight.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “One at a Time”

Amadou & Mariam
The Magic Couple

The musical tradition of Mali is as rich as any country in the world. From the Afro-blues of Ali Farka Toure to the desert soul of Tinariwen, artists from Mali have incorporated Cuban, Arabic, Far Eastern and American technique and instrumentation into the ancient sounds of the Mande Empire. This diverse musical identity helps explain why artists like Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, the blind Francophonic husband and wife duo from Bamako, have ascended from local fame to international stardom, writing songs with Damon Albarn and going on the road with Coldplay. Their phenomenal 2008 release, Welcome to Mali, proved that the duo has the songwriting chops to sustain a fruitful career long after the buzz surrounding them inevitably dissipates. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t capitalize on the added exposure by releasing an album like The Magic Couple, which compiles 15 old tracks from the three albums they released between 1999 and 2003.

If these songs seem slightly underwhelming at first listen, it’s only because we’ve been spoiled by the brilliance and ambition of their more recent output. Opener “Je Pense a Toi” shows that even on their earliest recordings, Amadou & Mariam were purveyors of musical globalization, bringing together Indian percussion, melancholy Arabian violin, and Amadou’s omnipresent Fender Stratocaster. “Sarama” features piano free-styling straight out of a 1920s speakeasy, and “Beki Miri” wouldn’t sound out of place at an outdoor jazz and booze fest in New Orleans. Sonically, Amadou & Mariam sound just as crisp and clear as they do on their later, more expensive recordings, and if the band ever had any rough edges to iron out, they aren’t evident here. But fortunately, one of the band’s greatest strengths is their ability to polish their songs to immaculate perfection without sounding like they were packaged in cellophane for public consumption.

Nothing on The Magic Couple matches highlights like “Sabali” or “Ce N’est Pas Bon” off of Welcome to Mali. And at the time of these recordings, the band had yet to absorb into their musical arsenal the synthesizers which were put to such great use on Welcome. But this only illustrates how much the duo have expanded their sound over the past decade. And at ages 44 and 41, respectively, Amadou & Mariam show no sign of slowing down as they continue pick up new collaborators and new fans with every successive release.
David Holmes

Sian Alice Group
Troubled, Shaken Etc.
The Social Registry

I’ve never known how to interpret the phrase “avant-garde.” Since childhood, what comes to mind is a pale gent peering from a velvet curtain with tipped hat and steely eyes. As it relates to music, I think of dreamy, unapologetically obscure sounds that mysteriously retain their intellectualism.

Troubled, Shaken Etc, the second full-length release by London-based Sian Alice Group, is epically avant-garde. Cerebral yet organic, it ebbs and flows like a mechanically controlled rhythmic forest. It’s post-rock wisp pop at its finest.

Sian Alice Ahern, Rupert Clervaux, and Ben Crook are the band’s founding members. Sian (pronounced Shahn) sings lead vocals, Rupert plays piano and drums (and serves as engineer and producer), and Ben plays guitar. Guitarist Mike Bones, bassist Eben Bull, and violinist Sasha Vine round out the ensemble. This is an assemblage of classically trained musicians who embrace improvisation and still appreciate strict arrangements. They repeat chords emphatically; perhaps it’s how they envelop you into their articulate stratosphere.

The album’s first track “Love That Moves the Sun” gently but immediately unlocks the door and lures you in for some self-introspection and a spot of tea. “Grow Again, Repeat” reminded me so much of Harriet Wheeler that I wish the Sundays would just reform already. The haunting “Close to the Ground” would be a worthy contender for one of those teen bloodlust vampire soundtracks. These are songs that beckon your patience but yield gratifying rewards. I suppose it’s time to put the kettle on.
Alexandra Kelley

MP3: “Close to the Ground”