I feel like I should have a really, really good reason for being so late with this, and being so sporadic with these posts. Let’s get straight to it.
Ural Thomas and The Pain, s/t (Mississippi Records, 2016)
Take stock of all the artists you know about, including those that you listen to, those that you’re kind of aware of and want to listen to, or those that you think a friend told you about that will tantalize your dreams until your memory regurgitates it at some unforeseen future date: you’re still never going to cover all the artists in the world, and that’s one of the beautiful aspects about music (namely, that so many feel compelled to tell their stories or search for something through the beat, regardless of commercial success or any other recognition). Ural Thomas is an interesting figure here, a Portland soul staple who cut their teeth opening for soul and rhythm and blues legends. Thomas has played Apollo Theatre countless times, and this professional status is reflected in the silky smooth supporting band (The Pain) driving home a brilliant set of standards and deep cuts. This album is perhaps the best rhythm and blues you’ll hear in quite some time, if not only for just learning of Thomas now, uncovering a gem from the 1960s touring circuit, but also for the affirmation both that this form of music is always something perfectly familiar and perhaps the most redeemable aspect of American vernacular music and that’s impeccably delivered in such a way to heighten its emotional appeal.
ONO, “Racewar/OZ” (Ian’s Party, 2016/2017)
The work of black revolutions populated every moment of Spooks, the group’s incredible double LP that is now a couple years old but relevant evermore. ONO released “Racewar/OZ” for the 2017 Ian’s Party, and the fidelity of this video captures their layered live sound and energy with phenomenal accuracy. I’d like to dream that in some future universe the bass noise / synth noise / metallic guitar / drum quartet drives popular jazz forms, because this format delivers so much sound and intensity as ONO demonstrate. The band that has been playing experimental music longer than I’ve been alive, the band that has fostered one of Chicago’s fringe scenes, the band that turned me on to the limitless spirituality of noise proves once again that they cannot be bested, and there is no dearth of material in their gospel/industrial well.
Moor Mother Goddess, Recurrence Plot (R. Phillips novel soundtrack, 2015)
It’s impossible for me to reference this soundtrack without citing Fetish Bones, Moor Mother’s guttwisting 2016 debut, and for good reason: one of Moor Mother’s impossible executions on their debut is the prevalence of sound-snippet production, where vocal deliveries flow over an everchanging landscape of brief sound effects, blurbs, samples, blasts, beats, and fantastical whims. Accompanying R. Phillips’ novel of the same name, I believe this Moor Mother recording predates Fetish Bones, but it places the snippet focal point of Moor Mother’s production front and center. This demonstrates brilliant flexibility and creativity, spawning music that at once feels like abstract or free jazz, and maybe even some form of distorted dance music for a realm yet uncovered. Fitting for a book imprint devoted to Black Quantum Futurism, which uses a range of poetry, philosophy, and prose to explore the manner in which the future determines the past in non-linear and African formats of time. Not unlike ONO, there are black revolutions inherent, and if you listen closely enough they are reaching from the future to guide us along to new political constellations. If only we’d listen.
Hand Habits, Wildly Idle (Woodsist, 2017)
Sometimes I like music because it channels something that I’d like to write. I first heard the tail end of “All the While” on WLUW in the car stereo, and was floored by the transition from barely-there-folk to a winding guitar solo populated by blips of regenerative, overdriven reverb. I promptly picked up the album as soon as I could, and am consistently floored by this total bummer of beautiful pop. The folk is almost off-track sometimes, sounding like everything could unwind, but the little glimpses of psychedelia or shoegaze layers make this sound perfectly in-place. Throughout our rainy and cold May, this album has been on autoplay as perfectly sad and atmospheric for our current environment.
Viper is so amazing, it’s not even funny. How does one produce a rap album a day and still come up with gems like this? “Hops” must reach the Top 10 Raps About Basketball of all time, praise which is due to the deep roaming (synthetic?) bass and slightly-flanging synth horns.
Matt Jencik, Weird Times (Hands in the Dark, 2017)
Implodes populated Chicago with a particularly heavy brand of shoegaze nearly a decade ago (!!!), with Matt Jencik serving as the principal singer and one of the group’s guitar players. The group’s members have embarked on different projects over the last few years, including several solo records. Jencik’s includes (to my understanding) “recycled” guitar recordings that are reprocessed, mixed, and layered into abstract landscapes. The album is everything one could want from heavy ambient music: devastating repetition, dark overtones, washing crescendos, and stunning stillness.
Muyassar Kurdi, Intersections and variations (Self, 2017)
I’ve mentioned in the past that I thought some of Muyassar Kurdi’s work was going into more accessible, structured songwriting at times (a good thing), allowing for glimpses of serene pop to appear beneath the experimentation. Intersections and Variations takes a sharp left turn as a duo collaboration that is cello-percussion and challenges the listener with minimal exercises. Kurdi’s vocal experiments are suited for this room, offering the listener a glimpse into a small performance space. The minimal sound here presents an enclosed feeling, adding a brilliant physicality to the proceedings. There is something about the silence here that is just so breathtaking, it is as though the listener can feel the performers pace out their timing and (presumable) improvisational energy.
Algiers, “The Underside of Power” (Matador, 2017)
After their layered and energetic debut release, Algiers hit the road and presented their experimental blend of gospel and industrial pop as a quartet. Their drummer, Matt Tong, officially joined the group as they hit the studio while touring, and damn if that road, that intimacy of the club, or live energy doesn’t appear on the band’s first single from their forthcoming Matador LP. In the past, where a leap into synthetic parts, samples, or noise might be warranted, the quartet cool things off for a soulful refrain that wouldn’t sound out of place on Gordy Records. Of course, I highly suspect that the noise, the samples, and the synths are there too, which makes me even more curious to see the new paths this group will take on their new album.
Jordan Reyes, A Central Nervous System Depressant (Selective Abstractions, 2017)
I’ve never seen Jordan perform live, but I kind of wish that I had after hearing this startling collage of noise, ambient folk, and voyeuristic field recordings. Where those karaoke recordings came from, I am not sure I’d like to know, but the scathing machinery appearing over those bar-loosened vocals is some kind of heaven. This type of collagery reminds me of a bleak interpretation of Letha Rothman Melchior, or an unstructured Cheveu. All of this is a good thing, this is thought-provoking dissonance and frightening dissociation between songs.
Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair (Mercury, 1985).
Some albums from the 1980s aged terribly, and others, programmed by synthetic geniuses and played by skilled songwriters, did not. This one ages perfectly, a type of moody blast of vocal-driven synth excursions that basically sounds like the 1980s Simon and Garfunkel. I finally broke down and bought a used copy of this CD because I haven’t been album to find a vinyl copy (thanks Chicago!) and my grocery store frequently plays this stuff while I’m shopping (try picking poblanos to this, life is one divine inside joke after another).
Sleater-Kinney, Live in Paris (Sub Pop, 2017)
Sleater-Kinney are greater than The Beatles, for several reasons. First, they are distinctly feminist music, and The Beatles are distinctly not feminist music. Second, Sleater-Kinney’s “record for the times” is One Beat, a political dissent against the post-9/11 conservative backlash, whereas The Beatles’ “record for the times” (Sgt. Pepper’s) is a vacant, filler-laden exploration of the first time John’s mom let him do acid. Third, Sleater-Kinney wrote better songs and produced albums with significantly less filler despite working with (presumably) a fraction of the budget. The only thing The Beatles have going for them was that Abbey Road had amazing producers and engineers, such that maybe you could say Sir George Martin is a better producer than John Goodmanson. Maybe you could say The Beatles were a better live band, but this record by Sleater-Kinney puts that to shame, and a decade after their first break no less (The Beatles never came back a decade after their split). All of this is to say, love your idols and kill your idols, and maybe let’s allow ourselves to enjoy the possibility that we’ve not yet heard the greatest band ever. Except that we have, since Sleater-Kinney are the best band.
Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary (Sub Pop, 1994)
Two injustices: (1) I despise the fact that Pearl Jam made the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame before Chaka Khan or Janet Jackson. (2) I despise the fact that Pearl Jam somehow represents a “1990s sound” worth memorializing more than, say, Sunny Day Real Estate. If you’re going to retort that Sunny Day Real Estate belongs in a museum, I’d argue that they are “more Seattle” than Pearl Jam and better, too. There is some alternate universe where Sunny Day Real Estate are the band that broke Sub Pop into the mainstream, and perhaps there Chaka Khan and Janet Jackson are also in the Hall of Fame while Eddie Vedder is frowning behind the counter of a trading desk or something.