Nite Jewel : One Second Of Love

It feels like a long time ago now, but back in December I posted a list of the twelve albums already announced for release this year that I was most looking forward to hearing. So far, the majority of those choices have proven my excitement justified, but none have confounded expectation quite as much as Nite Jewel’s One Second Of Love. Those familiar with Ramona Gonzalez’ previous releases would likely have heard the album’s first leaked track – “She’s Always Watching You” – as a logical, if impressive, progression from her debut’s lo-fi synth funk, its newly enhanced production values opening up the spaces between the jazzy, multi-tracked harmonies and taut, machine-driven rhythms to reveal a soaring avant-soul gem that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca; likewise the title track, whose Krautrockin’ Robyn bounce seemed to indicate the album would have an upbeat, accessible vibe that would see Gonzalez joining the likes of Lykke Li and Santigold among the ranks of the indie blogosphere’s pop princesses. But it seems the singer has laid something of a honey trap; the aforementioned tracks (and the jaunty “Memory Man”) aside, the rest of the record leans heavily towards down-tempo late-night torch song territory. It’s a brave move, and quite shocking at first, but one that offers some mesmerising moments. Opener “This Story” lays a majestic, sweeping vocal over a constantly shifting backdrop of skittering beats; “No I Don’t” and “Unearthly Delights” skillfully blend cavernous sub-bass and short-circuiting electronics into James Blake-style slo-mo cyber-blues, whilst “Autograph” channels Prince and ’90s girl-group R&B and closer “Clive” gives a spectral master-class in building tension and leaving an audience wanting more. It doesn’t always work (“Mind And Eyes”, with its fretless bass and rim-taps, treads perilously close to smug ’80s goons Level 42) but the new, mature sound is one that suits Nite Jewel well and, although it may not be the new jack swinging, hit-packed collection we were expecting, One Second Of Love still manages to surprise and delight in equal measure.

One Second Of Love is out March 6 on Secretly Canadian; listen to the album in full at the label’s Soundcloud page

Mike Wexler : Dispossession

original

As any good comedian will tell you, timing is everything, and for a musician picking the right moment to make a move can be a decision that makes or breaks a career. Five years ago, Mike Wexler released a rather impressive album, Sun Wheel (Amish Records), that – in a just world – would have put him firmly on the radar of discerning tastemakers across the world wide web; unfortunately, with the new wave of indie folk at the peak of its popularity, the record was unleashed into a packed field (led by Joanna Newsom’s staggering Ys) and promptly trampled underfoot by a horde of more established and more hyped artists. Thankfully, though, Wexler didn’t lose heart and now he’s back with a new long-player, Dispossession, for the esteemed Mexican Summer label that creeps and crawls like Sun Wheel‘s evil twin. Weaving delicate piano motifs, organ drones, finger-picked guitar lines and gently brushed drums into dense, sticky spider-webs, the likes of “Pariah” blur the lines between whimsical folk, dark psychedelia and electrifying free-improv; moving at a funereal pace, the song’s propulsive throb, cyclical chord progression and Wexler’s almost subliminal vocals hypnotise the listener into an uneasy trance before wrapping its clammy fingers around their throat. It’s a claustrophobic but strangely enchanting experience, and whilst it shares an obvious affinity with fellow contemporary outsider artists like Richard Youngs and Cass McCombs, its eerie beauty also recalls a long lineage of songwriting auteurs, from Scott Walker and Nick Drake to John Martyn and Robert Wyatt.

Dispossession is out March 6 on Mexican Summer

The Magnetic Fields : Love At The Bottom Of The Sea

As his musical career enters its third decade, Stephin Merritt is revisiting old haunts, in more ways than one. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, the landmark tenth long-player from Merritt’s Magnetic Fields project is the first album of new material he has recorded in over ten years for Merge, the label he called home for much of the Nineties; it also marks a return – after a trio of synth-free albums (i, Distortion and Realism) – to the combination of acoustic instruments and electro-pop sound last heard on 1999’s epic triple-disc set 69 Love Songs. Featuring the usual supporting cast of Claudia Gonson, John Woo, Johny Blood, Daniel Handler, Sam Davol and Shirley Simms, the album comprises fifteen tracks that all clock in at under three minutes and – unlike previous releases – steers clear of any thematic links or overriding concepts, making for a grab-bag of different styles: “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” uses keyboards and tinny drum machines to recall the likes of ‘80s chart-toppers Heaven 17 and the Human League, but elsewhere they are looped and sampled to create darker (“Born For Love”), more psychedelic (“I’ve Run Away To Join The Faeries”) soundscapes. As always, Merritt’s acerbic wit makes the lyrics the main focal point, spinning out humourous, pithy tales of loves lost and unrequited and ambiguous carnal misadventure; “Your Girlfriend’s Face” finds the protagonist hiring a hit-man to do in both parties in an envied relationship, whilst “God Wants Us To Wait” is a purity ring-clad middle finger to America’s youth abstinence cults (“I guess it’s true I should have told you before/ And not have waited ‘til we’re nude on the floor”). With lead single “Andrew In Drag” amongst the finest songs in his considerable catalogue, Merritt shows once again why he has been labeled “the indie Cole Porter”, and Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is a typically enchanting effort that only serves to support that claim.

Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is out March 5 on Domino in the UK and March 6 on Merge in the US, and is streaming in full now at NPR

The Men : Open Your Heart

 

 

A few weeks back, Pitchfork’s Brandon Stousy interviewed Brooklyn noisemakers The Men and uncovered the startling revelation that they were… well, just a bunch of regular guys in a band. No image, no gimmick: just a band. In an age where it seems every breakthrough artist comes equipped with a ready-made back-story, it’s refreshing to see a group attracting hype through hard work and talent alone, and right now The Men – the brightest stars in the sparkling Sacred Bones roster – are making serious waves. Open Your Heart, the third full-length addition in the space of two years to a body of work that also includes numerous singles, split releases and limited run cassettes, is already being talked up by those who have heard it as a serious contender for 2012’s “album of the year” title, in itself a major victory for good old-fashioned rock & roll and a good indication of just how much the outfit has evolved over the past few months.

If 2010 debut Immaculada was the sound of three hardcore dudes trying their hand (and succeeding admirably) at black metal atmospherics, Krautrock and Earth-style drone compositions, and last year’s excellent Leave Home saw them embracing melody and structure without sacrificing their brutal edge, Open Your Heart ties together all the best bits of both albums and polishes them up into a non-stop, no-filler thrill ride. This blossoming is doubtless thanks in part to an expanded line-up; whereas on its predecessors the core trio – bassist Chris Hansell and guitarists Mark Perro and Nick Chiericozzi – all shared vocal duties and kept the beat as best they could, the addition of full-time drummer Rich Samis has not only added real rhythmic heft but also freed up Mark and Nick to indulge in some electrifying dual-axe interplay, allowing for a more natural, live band sound.

And what a band it transpires they are: as hinted at by the Buzzcocks-riffing title track, these guys have developed into an adrenalized – and, whisper it , accessible – punk rock & roll unit of a caliber (see also Love As Laughter, Titus Andronicus) that is all too rare these days. From the explosive opening one-two punch of “Turn It Around” and “Animal” (Hansell’s finest moment and a fitting legacy – he and the group have since parted ways, his place now filled by Ben Greenberg of Zs/ Hubble, who engineered the album) to the triumphant roar of closer “Ex-Dreams”, the majority of Open Your Heart flies by at such a breakneck pace that the occasional slower songs – space-rock Spaghetti Western theme “Country Song”, droning seven minute psych-out “Presence” – serve as necessary breathers. Like the greatest bands of their ilk (the Clash, the Replacements, Sonic Youth) the Men seem to have an instinctive grasp of just how much experimentation a 45-minute album can stand, and these deviations, plus metronomic Neu! homage “Oscillation” and mid-paced country rocker “Candy”, strike the perfect balance.

So, will Open Your Heart be the best LP of 2012? Who knows; if I could see into the future I dare say I’d be using that ability for more lucrative purposes than writing music reviews, but whilst it’s quite likely that something more innovative, more “deserving”, will come along this is the kind of record that scythes through superficial bullshit like year-end lists and touches on something almost primal in its simplicity. This is a band at what must surely be their peak, breaking out with one of the finest rock albums of the past decade, and if anything else over the next ten months proves as thrillingly, addictively enjoyable as Open Your Heart, this will be a year to remember for all the right reasons.

 

Open Your Heart is out March 6 on Sacred Bones

 

Trust : TRST

If someone recommended a band to me that had released records on both the Sacred Bones label and Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts imprint, I’d have to admit I’d find it hard to imagine what they might sound like. Sure, both companies have pretty diverse rosters, but they also have pretty well-defined – and altogether different – group identities. One is best-known for its dark, slightly seedy avant-rock, most of its output pulling from punk, heavy psych and industrial noise; the other is home to a sprawling collective of interlinked groups and artists pushing guitar-led indie pop and folk into beardy, experimental territory. Toronto duo Trust – Maya Postepski and Robert Alfons – don’t fit neatly into either label’s overall aesthetic, but then they don’t really sound like they belong anywhere. Because whilst you can hear faint echoes of artists like Hercules And Love Affair, Glass Candy, Zola Jesus (all of whom, incidentally, the band have supported during the past year) and Austra (who Maya also drums for) on their almost-eponymously titled debut album TRST, the pair’s bizarre mix of up-tempo electronic beats, warped synths and morose, gothic pop sounds utterly, thrillingly alien. Stuttering opener “Shoom” is immediately disorientating, its 808 bass stabs, glassy minor-key keyboard arpeggios and treated European-sounding vocals evincing a post-op Fever Ray, but the following “Dressed For Space” is weirder still: with Alfons’ distorted croon and a pounding disco beat vying for the spotlight, it’s hard to shake the mental image of Marilyn Manson and Erasure’s Andy Bell bonding over a bottle of amyl nitrate at a Berlin S&M club. Elsewhere, “The Last Dregs” is slinky, skittering techno with a killer big-room bleep hook, “Bulbform” and “Sulk” thump like New Order in an acid-house K-hole, whilst the mournful, dubbed-out “Candy Walls” (that Sacred Bones single from last year) sounds like Depeche Mode scoring Bladerunner. Fans of Cold Cave and Crystal Castles in particular will doubtless find much to love about TRST’s sleek, menacing electro-pop, but whether your ideal night out involves zoning out on a dirty dancefloor or getting fisted in a basement dungeon there’s bound to be something here to get your blood pumping.

TRST is out February 28 on Arts & Crafts

Dirty Three : Towards The Low Sun

Seven years is a long time to be away, but whilst Australian post-rockers Dirty Three haven’t released an album of new material since 2005’s Cinder, they haven’t exactly been out of the game either: the band have maintained a healthy live presence, curating their own ATP event in 2007, whilst guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White have contributed their services to recordings by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Cat Power, Marianne Faithfull and PJ Harvey, and violinist Warren Ellis has become Nick Cave’s de facto right hand man in both the Bad Seeds and Grinderman. New record Towards The Low Sun – the group’s ninth – was recorded in Melbourne, where the trio formed twenty years ago, and its scorched solos and howling bowed strings offer a pretty accurate aural representation of Oz’s fire and flood-ravaged landscapes, but the trip home wasn’t just for inspiration; with the members now scattered across the globe (Ellis currently resides in Paris, White in Brooklyn), the rendezvous forced the group into recording in a semi-improvised, off the cuff manner that served to capture the unique energy of their live performances. From the opening seconds of “Furnace Skies” the direction is clear, yet it’s anything but predictable: despite an initial burst of crackling white noise from Turner, it’s White’s hectic, insistent drumming that drives the track, and whilst the band touch on many different styles – piano-led ballads (“Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone”), folk and country (“Moon On The Land”, “Rain Song”) and spastic funk (“Rising Below”) – the restless rhythms push much of the album out of the realms of morose instrumental rock into thrilling, uplifting free-jazz territory.

Towards The Low Sun is out February 28 on Drag City/ Bella Union, and is streaming ahead of release at The Quietus

Bad Weather California : Sunkissed

It must be particularly rewarding for a young band to be signed to an artist-run label. As satisfying as big money deals undoubtedly are, being approached by an A&R guy that sees songs in terms of giant flashing dollar signs must come a close second to the warm fuzzy glow generated by a fellow musician falling so hard for your group that they want to spend their own time and money helping you succeed. Freak-folk collective Akron/ Family are one such group. Like happy hippy Devendra Banhart, they were given an early career boost by legendary Swans frontman Michael Gira, who released their first two albums through his Young God label; now they are paying the good will forward via their own imprint, Family Tree Records. Colorado upstarts Bad Weather California are FTR’s first non-AF members, and it’s plain to see why the Akron boys felt such a strong connection: in less inspired hands Sunkissed, the quartet’s second full-length release, could have been just another collection of nondescript lo-fi garage rock tunes, but the vibe is warm and welcoming, and there are enough surprising quirks –sax solos, field recordings, dub-influenced vocal FX – to ensure this record will still have you hooked when the time comes to unpack the BBQ. Laid-back, loose-limbed and full of summery odes to the “Big Yellow Ball” in the sky, Sunkissed fuses electronic and organic sounds brilliantly, with opener “I’ll Reach Out My Hand” combining West African guitar flurries with spacey synths and “Let It Shine” recalling both the Stones’ excursions into disco/ funk territory and Sun Araw’s balmy psychedelia; but whilst AF’s Seth Olinsky and Chris Koltay deserve major kudos for their sterling studio wizardry, it’s BWC’s seemingly effortless ability to tie together strands of old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, soul and doo-wop on tracks like “Stand In My Sunshine” and “You’re My Friend” that makes the album’s joyous charms so hard to resist.

Sunkissed is out February 21 on Family Tree Records

Damien Jurado : Maraqopa

Fifteen years and ten albums into his career, former Sub Pop stalwart Damien Jurado seems to have found his perfect partner: Maraqopa is the second full-length the artist recently described by the Seattle Times as the city’s “folk-boom godfather” has recorded in collaboration with songwriter and producer Richard Swift. But whilst its predecessor (2010’s Saint Bartlett) saw the pair dancing gingerly around each other, sizing up and testing the water, this is less second-date material and more like the beautifully-realised product of a blissfully happy marriage. Jurado has worn many hats over the years, from confessional acoustic troubadour to discordant post-punk poet, but he’s never sounded as comfortable as he does atop Swift’s luxurious arrangements, pitched here somewhere between the coke-numbed classic rock of the 70s’ Laurel Canyon set and the kind of moody, spaced-out lounge-pop you might expect to find sampled on a Portishead record; a melting pot of folk, blues, jazz, exotica and rock, Maraqopa instantly feels like part of a lineage of timeless cosmic Americana that stretches from Smile! and the Grateful Dead to Mercury Rev and beyond, and Jurado – dynamic yet relaxed, vulnerable yet confident – gazes out across the dusty vista, king of all he surveys. Moving from swirling Hammond organ and howling psych guitars on opener “Nothing Is The News” to the gentle, easy-down-the-road sway of “Mountains Still Asleep” and taking in stoned bossa-nova Morricone (“This Time Next Year”), endearingly awkward attempts at Coldplay-style balladry (“Museum Of Flight”) and Brill Building pop through a fuzzy MBV filter (“Reel To Reel”), Maraqopa flows like a river, speeding up and slowing down, eddying but always heading in the same direction thanks to Swift’s otherworldly, slightly detached production, which without ever forcing its way to the foreground fills every available space with harmony vocals, keys, bells, chimes and all manner of surprising sounds, including – on “Life Away From The Garden” – call-and-response back-up from a sinister-sounding children’s choir. It’s a partnership that seems pretty equally matched, and one suspects neither party would be offended at the suggestion that one without the other could not have made a record this special, but the name on the cover is justified; Jurado’s songs here are the best he has ever recorded and spare, soulful album highlights “Working Titles” and “So On, Nevada” are among the loveliest you’re likely to hear all year.

Maraqopa is out February 20 on Secretly Canadian, and is streaming in full over at AV Club

Field Music : Plumb

The Quietus have posted another of my full-length reviews: Plumb, the new long-player from perennial also-rans Field Music, is another frustratingly brilliant offering from the brothers Brewis, one that comments on the mundanity of everyday routine but sticks largely to the same blueprint they have followed doggedly since day one. Read my review here, and make up your own mind by listening to NME’s full album stream.

Plumb is out now on Memphis Industries

Thrill Jockey double : Pontiak, Dustin Wong

   

The mighty Thrill Jockey label continues its 20th anniversary assault with new releases from two of its brightest new talents. Pontiak are a band of brothers (three of them: Lain, Van and Jennings Carney) from rural Virginia who specialise in a sleek, swaggering brand of Southern stoner rock that pulls equally from metal forefathers like Black Sabbath and contemporaries like Harvey Milk. Echo Ono is the ultra-prolific trio’s sixth full-length (and fourth in as many years for Thrill Jockey), and its huge, lurching grooves and razor-sharp riffs are the finest the group have produced since 2009’s under-appreciated gem Maker; walking the fine line between bottom-heavy brute force and mathematical precision, tracks like the strutting opener “Lions Of Least” demonstrate the kind of near-telepathic synchronicity that only siblings share. Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads, the second outing for the label by Dustin Wong, is all about chemistry of a different kind: here the ex-Ponytail guitarist takes on the role of an enthusiastic science teacher, wowing a rapt audience with lively experiments to show how several elements can react to form a completely new compound. Wong approaches his recordings the same way as his live solo performances, starting with a single circular guitar motif which is then looped whilst he adds another, and then another. As the layers build up, various reverb and delay FX are added, as are the occasional synth wash or preset drum machine beat, until the multiple strands are woven into a multicoloured and richly textured aural tapestry. If it sounds impressive, it’s because it is; better still, whereas debut double LP Infinite Love featured two sprawling (albeit awesome) album-length compositions, this time round Wong actually manages to make these engaging, inspiring displays of jaw-dropping technical proficiency sound like perfectly- structured, dynamic pop songs. Listen: “Pink Diamond”

Pontiak’s Echo Ono and Dustin Wong’s Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads are both out February 20 on Thrill Jockey