Zammuto

When sonic surgeons the Books parted ways earlier this year, it came as neither a particularly big surprise or – in all honesty – a massive disappointment. A decade plus change and five albums into a journey that saw the duo rewrite the book on plunderphonic pop-leaning sound collages for a new generation of indie kids, it felt as though they had reached their final destination; whilst their later output was never less than interesting, it rarely managed to emulate the highs of their (still immaculate) debut Thought For Food, and often seemed like tiny variations on a well-worn theme. The same might be said about founder member Nick Zammuto’s first post-Books album, but here it’s a small detail that makes a huge difference. Zammuto finds its creator assuming the role of bandleader, handling guitar, keys and vocals in a live group set-up that also includes his brother Mikey on bass, ex-Books live guitarist Gene Back and drummer Sean Dixon, building the sound from the ground up before giving it a brief going over with the digital scissors and tape. It’s a back-to-basics approach that is far from a backwards step; with a renewed interest in the product rather than the process, Zammuto sounds energised and reinvigorated. Whereas the Books’ cut-and-paste soundscapes often crept into chill-out territory, the full band dynamic gives the album real momentum. “Groan Man, Don’t Cry” is driven by a lively funk rhythm and fluttering African-sounding guitars; “Weird Ceiling” sounds like Death Grips jamming over acid house records and even the sparse “Idiom Wind” feels like it’s constantly pulling at the reins thanks to the insistent, tension-building rim-shots and stop-start elastic bass groove. Zammuto may not be a natural frontman just yet – after years of hiding behind laptops and samplers, his voice here is mostly disguised by vocoders and auto-tuners, at times conjuring a mental image of a malfunctioning robot crashing the stage at a Tortoise gig – but he’s a brilliant arranger with a new lease of life, leading a group of particularly gifted musicians, blending organic and electronic elements like an alchemist juggling test tubes and coming up with pure gold.

Zammuto is out April 2 on Temporary Residence

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Ryan Power : I Don’t Want To Die

Ryan Power looks like Jesus and sounds like a hunky angel. His cheeky, cheesy press shots suggest he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s apparently a good guy too: he recently moved temporarily from New Hampshire to Arkansas just to help his Katrina victim brother get his storm-damaged life back on track. He seems like the kind of too-perfect person bitter, cynical old bastards like me are predisposed to hate, but even I want to marry the dude. On top of all this, he’s an immensely talented songwriter and producer, and prolific too; although the past few decade has been spent toiling away in relative obscurity, latest offering I Don’t Want To Die (previously available at live shows and now given a proper release by the NNA Tapes label) is actually the Burlington, Vermont native’s fifth album. It’s a big leap forward from Power’s folk-tinged earlier work, though, with guitars replaced by keyboards and soulful electronic pop that leans heavily on the radio-friendly sound of suddenly in-vogue smoothies Steely Dan and Scritti Politti, and also tips its hat to contemporary mischief-makers like Hot Chip and Ariel Pink. Opener “I Don’t Care” is low-BPM cyber-jazz, a neon-lit ballad for the wee small (post-club) hours, and like much of the album recalls the kaleidoscopic prog-pop of the Dirty Projectors, with a choir of disembodied mini-Powers looped to form a lush backdrop for the singer’s velvety croon. With its galloping Linn drums and bubbling midi-bass, “Mondo Rush” sounds like a more upbeat Junior Boys, whilst “Transition Possible” is a cleverly arranged collision of twisting time signatures and throughout the eight-song set Power’s production prowess (“Rag Rug” is composed almost entirely of synth stabs and sampled beatboxing; “The Knowhow” is an explosion of breakneck Aphex Twin style drum and bass) is clear to see. But it’s his mellow melancholy and warped sense of humour that adds infinite replay value; the title track adds a dollop of Todd Rundgren’s plastic blue-eyed soul, whilst “The Way It’s Always Been” – which starts with the brilliant, tongue-in-cheek line “I want to fuck every girl I see” and goes on to describe in fine detail a series of disastrous sexual exploits – would sit nicely on a mixtape between Jim O’Rourke’s “Get A Room” and, well, anything by Jarvis Cocker. A delightful, well-rounded triumph of an album that should – hopefully – shine the spotlight on a singular talent too long in the shadows.

I Don’t Want To Die is out April 10 on NNA Tapes

Lotus Plaza : Spooky Action At A Distance

Imagine being a talented songwriter in a band with a frontman like Bradford Cox. For Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt, AKA Lotus Plaza, the past few years as sidekick to one of the biggest personalities in contemporary music must have been something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he has seen his group rapidly climb up through the indie ranks, helped in no small part by Cox’s habit of playing up to the egotistical rock star/ tortured poet/ drug-fucked sociopath (dependent on mood/ health/ day of the week) stereotype; on the other hand, despite penning and/ or providing lead vocals on some of their finest songs (“Strange Lights”, “Agoraphobia”, “Desire Lines”, “Fountain Stairs“), Pundt – like the other members of Deerhunter – is still seen (or not, as the case may be) by many as a mere background player. Following the muted meanderings of his first solo record, 2009’s The Floodlight Collective, I have to admit I wasn’t too buzzed about follow-up Spooky Action At A Distance – until I heard its lead single “Strangers“, that is; a glorious, dense sugar-rush of jangling guitars and walking basslines with a wistful, melancholy vocal melody to rival Deerhunter’s poppiest moments. Amazingly, it isn’t even the album’s best song. That honour is shared between “Jet Out Of The Tundra”, which offsets decsending piano chord scales against a gliding motorik Dinger-beat, and overdriven see-sawing rocker “White Galactic One“, Pundt’s most overt nod to Deerhunter’s abrasive, post-punk side. With driving live and programmed drums and crystalline guitars that sound like a less stoned Real Estate, all bathed in a shoegazey gauze flecked with buzzing synths and electronic sparks, Spooky Action is an end-to-end triumph, ten consistently excellent tracks that shimmer and burst into bright technicolor in all the right places; all the more impressive considering Pundt has crafted the whole thing pretty much singlehandedly. It’s one of the strongest indie rock albums you’ll hear all year. Maybe Bradford Cox isn’t Deerhunter’s real star after all…

Spooky Action At A Distance is out April 2 on Kranky

Mac DeMarco : Rock And Roll Nightclub

Track artwork

If, in terms of rock ‘n’ roll heirarchy, Elvis was the original king and Prince his logical successor, one has to wonder which of today’s young upstarts will seize the crown when that day inevitably arrives. On the basis of Rock And Roll Nightclub, his debut album for the Captured Tracks label, you might want to put some early money on it being Mac DeMarco. The Vancouver native, who has previously recorded under the pseudonym Makeout Videotape, simply oozes star quality, combining ’50s matinee idol charm with raw, freaky sexuality; a hunk of burning love who isn’t averse to stripping off and caking himself in make-up for photo-shoots. Musically, too, DeMarco turns out to be some sort of hybrid of Presley and His Purple Highness. Throughout the album, the singer employs a deep, drawling croon that is a curled lip away from pure parody, but backs it up with a procession of rockabilly guitar hooks that suggest his hip-swivelling is nothing less than sincere; throw in some rudimentary disco and funk beats that sound like they were found in the presets of a decaying keyboard used on Dirty Mind, and you have a set of songs that skillfully combine smooth grooves and primal swagger. There’s a variety here that prevents things getting predictable, as evidenced by the shuffling boogie of “I’m A Man” and sickly sweet love song “She’s Really All I Need“, but whilst you could reel off a dozen names that seem to have inspired this young auteur – from Ariel Pink (whose lo-fi productions clearly influenced the tape hiss and recurring melted-vinyl wobble that gives the album its warped, or – to quote the artist himself – “jizz jazz” feel) to David Bowie in his androgynous alien phase – DeMarco has crafted a singular and, more impressively, unique sound that sets him apart from the crowd, and a debut that marks the arrival of a surefire future star.

Rock And Roll Nightclub is out March 27 on Captured Tracks

Black Breath : Sentenced To Life

As mentioned previously, I’m still a relative newcomer to the wonderful world of heavy metal; I’m fairly confident its origins can be traced back to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (although, according to some seasoned headbangers I recently ended up arguing with, most definitely not the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”), and I know what NWOBHM and USBM stand for, but when it comes to the myriad sub-genres and what is or isn’t “cool” or “authentic” I’m certainly no expert. In fact – and don’t tell anyone this – you could put me in a room with a bunch of corpse-painted, leather-clad longhairs for an hour and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you whether they were from Sweden or Norway! Still, I know what I like, and Black Breath’s killer 2010 debut Heavy Breathing – one of the first contemporary metal albums to really click with me – has been a regular fixture on the Foam Hands stereo for the past couple of years. Refining their combination of old-school thrash and hardcore brutality, the Seattle five-piece’s second long-player Sentenced To Life – produced once again at God City Studios by Converge’s Kurt Ballou – sees the band dropping the bluesy rock & roll throb of old in favour of a wider variety of tempos and textures; from the overdriven chug of raging opener “Feast Of The Damned” to the galloping “Home Of The Grave”, multi-part doom symphony “Endless Corpse” and the clean guitar solo that closes the triumphant “Obey”, the album is full of surprisingly cerebral arrangements and classic rock flourishes that in no way sacrifice the typical Black Breath ferocity. It’s a nasty, agressive hell-ride – “Mother Abyss” opens with an explosion that leaves the listener feeling like they woke up in the middle of a plane crash – but it’s a shit-load of fun and packed to bursting point with moments that display real growth; a considerable improvement on an already awesome debut. Now, is this the part where I throw my devil horns in the air…?

Sentenced To Life is out March 26 on Southern Lord

THEESatisfaction :awE naturalE

Just a real quick post this morning as I have just finished a full-length review of this album for the Quietus, which I will link to in due course… THEESatisfaction are the ladies whose honeyed tones and needle-sharp rapping you will have heard backing Ishmael Butler on my favourite album of 2011, Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up. If that record was an Afro-futurist acid-trip into the heart of the mind’s eye, then the self-produced debut full-length from Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White – awE naturalE, out April 9 on Sub Pop – is more of a stoned Sunday morning picnic, drawing from the softer, sunnier sides of ’60s and ’70s funk, soul and jazz as well as the conscious, “peace and love” rap of hip hop’s Daisy Age. It’s every bit as infectious as Black Up, and a genuine contender for this year’s top spot. Stream the album in full  over at NPR now, and keep an eye out for my Quietus review which will be online in a couple of weeks.

Quakers

If you ever find yourself wondering why it’s taking trip-hop legends Portishead so long to record a new album, here’s your answer. As well as running the Invada label and lending his production services to the likes of Anika and the Horrors, Geoff Barrow has spent the past few years moonlighting with three other groups: Krautrock outfit Beak, sci-fi synth project Drokk and hip hop crew Quakers, whose monstrous 41-track debut LP is out next week on Stones Throw. Centered around the three-man production team of Barrow, Invada co-founder Ashley Anderson and Portishead engineer Stuart Matthews (working under the pseudonyms Fuzzface, Katalyst and 7-Stu-7) the project also features a staggering 32 MCs, including established names like Dead Prez, Prince Po, Aloe Blacc, Guilty Simpson, MED and Diverse as well as a host of lesser-known talent discovered via word of mouth and various social networking sites. Particularly impressive among these are Tone Tank, whose punch-drunk flow on the horn-led “What Chew Want” falls somewhere between Slick Rick and the late ODB, the gravelly Dave Dub, Bristol boy Deed, lone female voice Lyric Jones and Coin Locker Kid, who appears on three tracks and is currently working with Barrow on his own album. Surprisingly, though, it’s the production rather than any of the rappers that steals the show. Mining similar source material (obscure soul, heavy psych, world music) as crate-diggers like Stones Throw staple Madlib and the late J. Dilla, these short songs (most of the vocal tracks hover around the two minute mark) and instrumental interludes make up a vibrant patchwork full of memorable hooks and hefty, head-knocking rhythms; even more impressively, considering that beats were finished first and then sent out to MCs at random, each track suits its vocalist perfectly, giving each equal opportunity to shine. Barrow has said Quakers was intended as an homage to hip hop, an album that today’s kids could treasure like his generation treasured Public Enemy and Run DMC; it might not shock and amaze like those seminal acts, but with impeccable production and all the right lyrical boxes (sex, swagger, politics, humour) ticked, this epic release will certainly help a lot of people fall in love with rap music all over again. Listen: “Fitta, Happier” ft. Guilty Simpson & MED

Quakers is out March 26 on Stones Throw

Constellation Double : Eric Chenaux, Elfin Saddle

 

Montreal’s Constellation Records may be more nowadays than just an outlet for music from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their various spin-off groups, but the quality control standards are still exceptionally high; last year the label released two of the most astounding albums in recent memory, from Sandro Perri and Matana Roberts, and this month sees two more additions to their impressive catalogue. Eric Chenaux is one of Canada’s most respected experimental musicians, and his fourth LP for the label Guitar And Voice – as its title suggests – features only the artist and his instrument; alternating between longer, vocal songs and shorter bursts of bowed guitar noise, Chenaux channels his usual reference points (jazz, blues, free-improv, folk, baroque pop and psychedelia) into a collection of blissful, shimmering drones and sweetly skewed ballads. In the hands of a lesser player, such restricted resources could prove limiting, but Chenaux is a guitarist on a par with masters like Marc Ribot or the late Derek Bailey, and with a high, cracked croon not unlike that of Arthur Russell songs (the Sandro Perri- produced “Put In Music”) and instrumentals (“Sliabh Aughty”, which sounds like Hendrix tackling African desert blues) alike are handled with just the right balance of subtlety and showmanship. Devastates, the third long player from Elfin Saddle, explores much of the same territory, but with considerably more bombastic results. Using a unique array of acoustic instruments – tuba, cello, ukulele, accordion, double bass etc – and found sounds salvaged from the same junkyards that used to service core duo Emi Honda and Jordan McKenzie’s multi-media art installations, the pair (plus auxiliary members Kristina Koropecki and Shapes & Sizes’ Nathan Gage) have sculpted an intense, passionate song cycle loosely themed around the environment and the way the human race is failing in its responsibilities to the planet. With Honda’s operatic trill and McKenzie’s woody baritone coming together atop wheezing pump-organ, chiming glockenspiels and clattering percussion, the album salutes traditional English folk, neo-classical composition and the minimal sounds of the Far East, and at its dramatic, violent best (“The Changing Wind”, “The Wind Come Carry”) it is as stark and as beautiful as the landscapes that inspired it.

Devastates by Elfin Saddle and Guitar And Voice by Eric Chenaux are both out March 26 on Constellation, and can be previewed in full at the label’s website

Lee Ranaldo : Between The Times And The Tides

With indie-rock’s favourite fairytale romance – the marriage of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore – now officially over, the likelihood of new Sonic Youth material shrinks a little more with each passing day; thankfully, the group’s various members have never been shy about venturing out on their own, or with different collaborators, in order to channel their creative energies. Not counting the umpteen collaborative discs he has appeared on over the years, Between The Times And The Tides (streaming ahead of release over at Drowned In Sound), recorded with recent SY producer John Agnello, is guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s ninth solo album, but here the 56-year old shows no sign of fatigue. In fact, he sounds as sprightly here as he did thirty years ago, energised no doubt by a particularly tight all-star band (Alan Licht and Nels Cline on guitar, jazz pianist John Medeski, Irwin Menken on bass and old cohort Steve Shelley on drums) who seem just as adept at cranking out dissonant Sonic Youth-style art-rockers (“Xtina As I Know Her”, “Waiting On A Dream”) as they do breezing through jangling pop numbers like “Off The Wall” or “Lost” that pull from the Byrds and early REM. Ranaldo’s wife Leah Singer guests, reciting poetry over “Shouts” as does erstwhile genius Jim O’Rourke (who contributes bass to “Tomorrow Never Comes”), but the spotlight rarely strays from the man himself; particularly impressive are the Television-esque guitar duels with Licht and Cline, whilst the mixture of personal and political subject matter (“Shouts” was inspired by the Occupy movement and Arab Spring protests) proves Ranaldo is still as relevant now as he ever was.

Between The Times And The Tides is out March 26 on Matador