Crooked Fingers
Breaks in the Armor

Beginning as a solo endeavor before turning into a “real” band, Eric Bachmann’s Crooked Fingers psuedonym has since returned to being used to mark work done on his own with the helping hands of likeminded souls wherever his wanderlust takes him. However, the number of contributors has never really determined any record’s elaborateness; compare 2001’s Bring on the Snakes with his last album, 2008’s Forfeit/Fortune, and you’ll see what I mean.

With Bachmann having reunited the Archers of Loaf in the interim to re-explore his comparatively noisy beginnings, one might expect Breaks in the Armor to be injected with some of that seminal outfit’s tumult. But aside from some crackly guitar licks on “She Tows the Line,” Breaks may be the sparsest Crooked Fingers releases to date. This sometimes doesn’t work in Bachmann’s favor—“The Counterfeiter” seems unfinished, as if it’s just a few small steps away from possessing the grandeur of such past magnificence as “New Drink for the Old Drunk” and “Here Come the Snakes”—but this understatedness is also the record’s best attribute. Bachmann’s songsmanship is able to carry a song on its own, and cuts like “The Hatchett” and “Your Apocalypse” don’t need much more than his rusty voice and guitar to render something affecting, even, as on the latter, when they do. Even if there is no pinning down exactly what Crooked Fingers is and will be, Bachmann’s made it a mark of quality.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Typhoon”

Zola Jesus
Sacred Bones

In her slow ascension as an artist, Nika Rosa Danilova—better known as Zola Jesus—hasn’t relied on constant reinvention or trending genres to reach what is a monumental summit with Conatus. The title refers to the force required to preserve one’s own existence, and the album, though sonically sleek as Danilova has ever sounded, lives to show that the soul-bearing sentiment she presented on her first single, “Poor Sons,” is still front and center. From then to now, not much has really changed, it has merely become a fortification around her greatest strength: her reality-altering voice. Conatus just provides a larger arena, higher fidelities, and a more delicate nuance in which her supernatural operatic wail can grow.

Conatus could exist even without Danilova’s enhanced sense of space and arrangements, as some of the skittered beats and evolved synth melodies distract from her innate ability to trap the listener’s attention with just rich layers of vocals. That, however, is but a slight foible and only on a few songs; “In Your Nature,” for instance, is a pure black and blues moan that could stand less crowding. More often than not, though, Conatus is majestic, bitten with abject grace, licked with abstract tongues and balanced on a plane between very real darkness and dream-driven hope. Where a composition like “Hikikomori” might have been once caked in reverb and nervous grime, here it’s crystal clear and empowering. Danilova adds strings, using them as cinematic sweeps to raise the mood. On “Vessel” and “Skin,” her landscape is bordered by monolithic piano notes echoing through deserts and snowstorms. These are big movements and grand peaks in her songwriting. The most notable evolution comes where the beats-per-minute are elevated. “Seekir” and especially “Shivers” have an unlikely crossover potential to the gothic disco, if those dancefloors were made of rubble. As natural as the journey towards Conatus appears looking back, the record almost feels too ambitious for even Danilova’s wild imaginary world. Still, she has surely carved out her existence. The awe is knowing this is simply her piedmont.
Kevin J. Elliott

High Places
Original Colors
Thrill Jockey

In the ’80s and ’90s, there was a sentiment that pitted straight rock & roll—that is, electric guitar, electric bass, and drums—against disco, techno and anything that used a drum machine or keyboards. Electronic music was denounced as soulless and bland and was seen as a bearer of the coming musical apocalypse.

Well, it never happened. Decades later, it still seems truly difficult to translate emotion into beeps and bloops, but drum machines and keyboards have been a part of popular music, as well as other forms of underground, artistically legitimate music, for as long as there’s been people to scoff. High Places is a weird, legitimizing contingent of underground art rockers that bring the disco beat into the realm of capital “A” art. Original Colors cements them as experts in the two-person gadget-music genre, as opposed to just lucky flukes that stumbled upon the right combination of thumps and clicks to make a song sound right. They’ve been at it for long enough that they’ve surpassed the Pastels comparisons and subverted the Xiu Xiu tie-ins; they have a signature sound all their own. It’s not just Mary Pearson’s voice that adds the emotional element to the music. The timing of the percussion, the placement of the tonal accents, and the rhythm of the swooshing melodies all lend to a full picture expressing genuine feelings. Album closer “Altos Lugares” belongs on the radio, while the bleepy dub of “Morning Ritual” would make Björk proud. It works as a dance album at top volume, but also as the kind of record you’d keep a little bit quiet on a Sunday morning while cleaning up last night’s mess.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Year Off”

Paley & Francis
Paley & Francis
Sonic Unyon

What happens when you take lounge music from hell to a place where they only serve lattes and non-alcoholic beer? Well, you get the brain child of Reid Paley and Black Francis. Paley & Francis is not only a terrible album, but a truly bad idea from two songwriters who should know better.

Along with generally being much too long, the songs here are by far the most generic and disappointing either musician has made in their entire careers. Reid Paley on his own is a fantastic songwriter that deserves the best that a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack has to offer, while Black Francis is still, after all of these years on his own (usually as Frank Black), trying to find his identity as a solo artist and has certainly done much more important work than this. Call it a favor to a friend who isn’t as popular as he is. Basically, this album is trying to be funny and dark at the same time and unfortunately ends up being boring and trite. The best song on the record, “Curse,” is nothing more than a bastardized soul number that allows each artist to sing front and center. There’s no excuse for either of these bosom buddies to make something as overblown and under thought as this. One would assume that this pairing was something that was better when it was simply cutting room material and not the basis of a tour that spanned multiple cities and multiple months. To put things bluntly, the only people who care about Paley and Francis’ friendship are Paley and Francis, and for better or worse, it should have stayed that way.
Terrence Adams

Aabenbaringen Over Aaskammen

American audiences’ introduction to Norway’s Casiokids, last year’s singles collection, Topp Stemning på Lokal Bar, was about as bright and shiny as they get. So by comparison, the band’s latest, Aabenbaringen Over Aaskammen, which translates to “the Revelation over the mountain,” seems like an organic version of the band. Sung mostly in Norwegian, like its predecessor, the record retains an otherworldly quality to foreign ears. That delightful strangeness isn’t confined to lyrical concerns, however, as the leadoff instrumental title track is a majestic mix of horns and other tones that conjures Middle Earth orchestras as much as, say, Jaga Jazzist.

Aabenbaringen isn’t devoid of glistening pop, and some of the album’s best moments are when the band shows its lighter side. “Golden Years” is particularly effective, setting jaunty dance beats against an etheric lilt and chirping synths. “Kaskaden” is equally flirtatious, sounding like Joe Meek resurrected for the 21st century. With jagged guitars added to the mix on “Dresinen,” the record’s vast array of tacts and instrumentation makes it clear that the Casiokids’ range extends much further than their moniker might indicate. With this confluence of artificial and natural elements never being forced, Aabenbaringen manages to be utterly modern without sounding fabricated.
Stephen Slaybaugh