The Soft Pink Truth, "Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?"

When I first heard the thumping house/disco EP Was It Ever Real?, I had a very hard time believing that it could possibly be a teaser for something more substantial, as much of that EP felt like top-tier Soft Pink Truth that leaves very little room for improvement. If those songs did not make the cut for the full-length, I felt the album surely had to be either absolutely brilliant or absolutely wrong-headed with no possible middle ground. As it turns out, I was at least right about the "little room for improvement" bit, as Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This? is not noticeably stronger than the preceding EP. Instead, it feels more like a lateral move, taking Drew Daniel's star-studded house party in a more kaleidoscopically arty and eccentric direction. Unsurprisingly, Deeper features roughly the same international cast of talented guests as the EP, but there are some noteworthy new additions as well, such as Nate Wooley, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, and Jaime Stewart (Xiu Xiu). The result is a bit less "all killer, no filler" this time around, but the trade-off is that Deeper is an appropriately deeper and more immersive plunge into Daniel's psyche, touching upon everything from Barry White to George Bataille to krautrock while still managing to be functional, forward-thinking, and archly fun dance music.

Thrill Jockey

The album kicks off in style with its first certified banger, "Deeper," which deceptively fades in with bleary drones before launching into a straight up classic disco groove with all the requisite hand claps and funky guitars. There is enough subtle dissonance to give it a somewhat delirious and unreal feeling right from the jump, but things do not get truly art-damaged until an unexpected church bell passage subsides. While the groove remains unswervingly propulsive for a bit longer, the insistent sexy thump is increasingly mingled with generous helpings of kitschy string stabs, tropical-sounding guitars, hazy flutes, and a host of other inspired psych touches before it all dissolves into smeary abstraction. I suppose the extended running time and ambient comedown preclude "Deeper" from being a hot single, but several of the pieces that immediately follow gamely rekindle the dancefloor fire. "La Joie Devant La Mort" is one of the album's more "perverse pop moments," as Jaime Stewart sings a George Bataille line about being in search of joy before death over an endearingly weird groove that calls to mind Coil's Love's Secret Domain album colliding with "A Fifth of Beethoven" and a chorus of tiny frogs. Wasner then takes the mic for the breezily sensuous "Wanna Know," which milks the album title's question for all its worth over a groove that could have been plucked from a Love Unlimited Orchestra album. The following "Trocadero" then pays homage to the "sleaze" disco subgenre synonymous with the titular SF club before "Mood Swing" ends the first half with a killer slow-building disco fusion of spiritual jazz, gurgling psychedelia, and Reich-ian piano patterns.

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2412 Hits

Darkroom, "Fallout 4"

Fallout 4This is my first encounter with this UK-based improv unit, but Fallout 4 is the latest installment of a series of live documents that began all the way back in 2001. The band/collective itself has existed since 1996, though it seems like there's been at least one decade-long hiatus and the ensemble's members have all been active in other projects ranging from prog to ambient to art pop (while Andrew Ostler has been busy building modular synth hardware, among other things). Notably, Darkroom has recently reactivated and released some new material, but the performance documented here dates back to 2012 and the aesthetic lies somewhere between slow-burning Tarentel-style post-rock and Tangerine Dream-inspired space ambient (though Can was apparently a significant inspiration as well). On a related note, the album was mastered by Jono Podmore, who played a significant role in yet another fine vault project (Can's The Lost Tapes). I suspect Podmore had a challenging task on his hands, as the band tellingly state that he was chosen both for "his ability to control sonic forces" and "to make sure it was finally done." While this album and the Fallout series in general capture the band in a more noirish and shadowy mood than usual, I can see why they were so keen to get these recordings out into the world even a decade late, as much of this album is spacey, slow-motion psych magic.

Expert Sleepers

At the time of the recording, Darkroom were pared down to just the core duo of Michael Bearpark (guitars) and Andrew Ostler (synths) and two of the album's three pieces are taken from the final date of the pair's 2012 tour. Amusingly, Bearpark and Ostler note that some of that performance happened "even after most of the audience had left," as they found themselves in an unusually inspired mood that night and were in no hurry to stop playing. The album's third piece is culled from other recordings from the tour, though it is not specified whether "Tuesday's Ghost" is from a different gig or a rehearsal tape. Regardless of where and when it was recorded, "Tuesday's Ghost" is one hell of a killer piece. It slowly fades into existence with hazy synth drones and a languorous bass pulse, which is a very common theme for the album, but the beauty lies in how the duo organically transform that gently spacey ambient into a hypnotic, immersive, and shoegaze-damaged epic. Each of album's three pieces gets to that place eventually, but "Tuesday's Ghost" captures the pair in especially fine form, transcending their usual fare with inspired touches like a warbling, supernatural-sounding loop; a quavering feedback howl; and a simmering, charmingly Latin-influenced beat (once it all properly catches fire, at least).

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5546 Hits

Ellis Swan, "3am"

3amThis Chicago-based singer-songwriter is a bit of an enigma to me, as details about his discography are quite slim. As far as I can tell, however, 3am is his second solo album, which is noteworthy given that it has been 8 long years since Swan’s similarly excellent debut (I'll Be Around) surfaced. What he was up to during that hiatus is mostly unknown to me (aside from "drawing the night in around his private, unnerving vigil," of course), but one thing I do know is that he formed a duo with James Schimpl called Dead Bandit that released their debut on Quindi last year (the same label behind this album). In any case, 3am is one hell of an aptly titled album, as it very much has the feel of a hushed, late-night confessional via four-track. The overall aesthetic calls to mind the "desolate outsider folk" blurring of an insomniac Elliott Smith or Zelienople with the homespun intimacy of early Iron and Wine, yet the pervasive mood of late night sadness is beautifully balanced with cool production tricks and shades of more lively and eclectic influences like Suicide and Charlie Megira.

Quindi

The album’s description insightfully notes that Swan’s aesthetic plays “on the natural distortion and delirium which occurs at the farthest end of the night,” which is an excellent way to explain how this album differs dramatically from ostensibly similar artists exploring the “after late night television pain” vein such as Russian Tsarlag or Matt Christensen. Swan has some darkness to exorcise, to be sure (check out “Hospice”), but 3am feels more like a batch of poignant and hook-filled gems that were handed off to the night itself for a “late night delirium” production overhaul. Obviously, that is not what actually happened, which makes Swan a bit of a visionary production-wise: he uses the same roughly instrumentation as everyone else, but those instruments are inevitably veiled in hiss, buried deep in the mix, or distorted by their lo-fi recording process (Swan apparently “drags the music through layer upon layer of tape fuzz” as part of his process). Significantly, he goes the opposite route with his vocals, as they sound close mic’d in a way where it feels like Swan is whispering directly into my ear. Rather than hiding himself in a fog of reverb and hiss, he expertly wields murk to weave a haunted and hallucinatory backdrop for his stark, emotionally direct songs. The album’s lead single “Puppeteers Tears” is an especially fine illustration of Swan’s inspired strain of ghostly Americana, as it feels like something from The Creek Drank the Cradle eerily enhanced with a haunting whistle loop, a buried organ motif, and a primitive drum machine groove.

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2905 Hits

Andrew Chalk, "The End Times"

The End TimesKeeping up with Andrew Chalk’s discography has always been an amusingly challenging endeavor, but the challenge has shifted from pouncing on limited edition physical releases to vigilantly ensuring that he does not quietly surface with a substantial new opus of some kind without my notice. The most recent substantial new opus is this one on Colin Potter’s ICR label, which is billed as Chalk’s “first new solo album in five years.” It certainly feels like a major statement to me, though the meaning of terms like “new” and “album” can be quite blurry and elusive given Chalk’s singularly minimalist approach to providing album details. In any case, The End Times was (perhaps prophetically) recorded earlier this year and marks a rare CD release after Chalk’s recent run of cassettes. Beyond that, further details are quite slim. That is just fine by me, as the only thing that actually matters is that Andrew Chalk is still making incredibly beautiful and distinctive music, as The End Times is a characteristically sublime and immersive dreamscape of tender melodies, elegantly shifting moods, and vividly detailed textures.

ICR

The opening “House of the Holy” provides an appropriately representative introduction to the album’s overall aesthetic, as a vaporous melody of blurred, lingering notes unfolds over a gently gurgling pulse. As the album unfolds, a few subtle new details emerge that set The End Times apart from some of Chalk’s other recent work, but the most prominent features throughout are the quivering, liquid-like character of the notes and the ephemeral brevity of the pieces. Rather than evolving and expanding, these 13 pieces instead feel like a series of enigmatic mirages that offer a fleeting and flickering glimpse of heaven before dissolving back into nothingness. Given all the gentle, blurred sounds and the tone of meditative reverie, it is deceptively easy to mistake The End Times for ambient music, yet it reveals itself to be considerably more than that for those willing to fully immerse themselves in Chalk’s slow-motion fantasia of beautiful details and small yet significant events. I view it as somewhat akin to looking through a rain-streaked window–it is easy to gaze through the glass and simply think “today is a wet and overcast day,” but it is also possible to appreciate how the individual droplets quiver and roll down the glass or how the streaks of water subtly bend and warp the appearance of the outside world. Albums like this are the reason why the genre term “lowercase” needed to exist, as Chalk’s compositions are incredibly rich, but the size of the reward is directly proportional to how closely one listens.

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2981 Hits

Oren Ambarchi, "Shebang"

Shebang Few artists have consistently fascinated and perplexed me quite like Oren Ambarchi, as I absolutely loved his early solo guitar albums like Grapes From the Estate, then witnessed him spend the next 15 or 20 years exploring improvisatory and rhythmic-driven detours to continually intensifying and breathless acclaim. I imagine it feels somewhat akin to being a Velvet Underground fan encountering unanimous rapturous praise for their post-Cale albums–I get the appeal, but that would not be my personal go-to era if I wanted to illustrate that band's greatness. Then again, maybe my perspective on Ambarchi's evolution would shift dramatically if I just liked jazz fusion more. In any case, I can certainly understand the unusual trajectory from Oren's viewpoint, as few would pass up a chance to form a trio with Jim O'Rourke and Keiji Haino and jamming with talented friends over mutant krautrock/fusion grooves seems like a hell of a lot more fun than making slow-motion guitar magic by yourself (can't fault a guy for loving spontaneity and challenging new collaborations). Both spontaneity and inspiring guest performances abound on Shebang, as Ambarchi enlisted quite a killer (virtual) ensemble, resulting in one of my favorite of his albums in recent memory (2016's Hubris being the other serious contender).

Drag City

The album is essentially a single 35-minute piece, but there are four numbered sections that segue seamlessly into one another. The first begins with a quirkily rhythmic and twinkling electric guitar motif that is soon joined by additional layers that bring unpredictably interwoven melodies and a stilted, oddly timed funkiness. It does not take long before the sheer intricacy and rhythmic sophistication of its various moving parts starts to feel dazzling and virtuosic, but the piece soon gets even better as it becomes more bass-heavy while bleary shades of psychedelia begin to bleed in. The second section announces itself when Joe Talia's skittering, shuffling drums emerge from a haze of feedback and shimmer. Curiously, all of the prominent themes from the first section fall away for a very stripped down palette of drums, subtle piano, rhythmic palm-muted guitar, and an occasional bass clarinet skwonk, but that downshift into simmering spaciousness nicely set the stage for me to be completely wrong-footed by the inspired appearance of BJ Cole's Hawaiian-sounding pedal steel.

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2773 Hits

Horace Andy, "Midnight Rocker" and "Midnight Scorchers"

I am a big fan of Adrian Sherwood's passion for luring the greatest luminaries in Jamaican music history into late-career collaborations, as it is hard to imagine a better deal than working with On-U Sound's murderers' row of killer musicians and having a contemporary dub visionary at the console. Midnight Rocker (released in April) was the first fruit of Sherwood's union with Horace Andy and (unsurprisingly) focuses primarily on Andy's legendary voice while putting a new spin on a few of the Jamaican tenor's signature jams (along with a nod to his more recent work with Massive Attack). Given the caliber of everyone involved, Rocker is a predictably likable album and an impressive return for Andy, but a big part of the fun with classic Jamaican music is the inevitable wave of dubs and variations that follow, so I connected much more deeply with the newly released companion album, Midnight Scorchers. Wisely, Andy's voice remains a central focus, so it is easy to recognize the hooks and melodies from the previous album in their new context, yet Sherwood allows himself to go a bit wild in the studio for a "sound system" take on the material. To my ears, the same songs are the strongest on both albums, but the weaker songs from Rocker benefit significantly from the more adventurous arrangements and production on Scorchers.

On-U Sound

Midnight Rocker borrows its title from the opening line of Massive Attack's "Safe From Harm," which was the lead song on their 1991 debut Blue Lines. Notably, that album was the beginning of Andy's recurring involvement with that project, but "Safe From Harm" is a curious song to revisit, as Andy did not sing on the original and it has a darker, more dramatic tone than the rest of Midnight Rocker. Given how wildly successful that album was, I imagine its inclusion here was a savvy choice, but its killer bass and tambourine groove plays far more to Sherwood's strengths than the lyrics and tone do to Andy's. The album's other trips down memory lane are a handful of contemporized resurrections from Andy's own sprawling discography such as "This Must Be Hell, "Materialist," and "Mr. Bassie." Of that lot, "Mr. Bassie" fares the best, as it boasts a strong melodic hook and wades into increasingly dubby territory as it unfolds.

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3117 Hits

Greg Davis, "New Primes"

New PrimesBack in 2009, Important Records released a landmark compilation entitled The Harmonic Series (A Compilation Of Musical Works In Just Intonation). Significantly, that album featured a Greg Davis piece entitled "Star Primes (For James Tenney)," which was Davis's earliest foray into composing using just intonation. Nearly a decade later, greyfade founder Joseph Branciforte found himself mesmerized by that piece on a long drive back home from Vermont and was inspired to contact Davis to discuss the unusual process behind the piece. As it turns out, Davis's interest in mathematical just intonation experiments ran quite deeply, as it formed the entire basis for his 2009 album Primes. Naturally, the enthusiastic Branciforte encouraged Davis to revisit his work in that vein, which led to an 8-channel performance at NYC's Fridman Gallery in 2019. The aptly titled New Primes is a reworking of that new material repurposed for a stereo home-listening experience. Needless to say, math-driven sine wave drones are not for everyone, but the cold and futuristic alien beauty of these pieces will likely resonate deeply with fans of otherworldly "ghost in the machine" opuses like Nurse With Wound's Soliloquy For Lilith.

greyfade

My interest in "generative and process-based music" is considerably more casual than Davis's or Branciforte's, but it is not hard to understand the allure, as I imagine every serious musician on earth endlessly struggles to escape familiar patterns and an excellent way to do that is to create some kind of system that either opens new pathways or makes repeating those patterns impossible. Obviously, John Cage's I Ching-driven work is an especially noteworthy touchstone, while Ben Chasny's Hexadic compositions are a more recent prominent example, but there are presumably limitless ways to elude predictable compositional paths (albeit with wildly varying results in listenability). Davis's own system is a bit more complex than my feeble mind can handle, but it can be roughly summarized as "using prime number sets as a way to develop just intonation tuning relationships and intervals" which he realizes through a "custom software system in the Max/MSP environment, using a network of pure sine tones."

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2695 Hits

Moth Cock, "Whipped Stream and Other Earthly Delights"

Whipped Stream and Other Earthly DelightsI doubt anyone can truly say that they know what to expect from a new Hausu Mountain release, but I still felt a bit gobsmacked by the latest from this ambitiously unhinged Ohio duo. While it may read like hyperbole to the uninitiated, the label's claim that Whipped Stream is a "durational smorgasbord of new music capable of knocking even the most seasoned zoner onto their ass" feels like an apt description of this triple cassette behemoth of fried and kaleidoscopic derangement (it clock in at roughly 3½ hours, after all). As I have not yet been lucky enough to experience Moth Cock's cacophonous sensory onslaught live, I was also a bit stunned to learn that most or all these pieces were culled from real-time performances. I honestly do not comprehend how two guys armed with a sax, loop pedals, and a "decades-old Electribe sampler / drum machine" can whip up such a vividly textured and wildly imaginative hurricane of sound so quickly and organically, as there seems to be some real hive mind shit afoot with these dudes. Unsurprisingly, I am at a loss to find a succinct description to explain what transpires over the course of this singular opus, but most of Whipped Stream can be reasonably described as a gnarled psychedelic freakout mashed together with Borbetomagus-style free jazz, the '80s noise tape underground, and jabbering sound collage lunacy. In the wrong hands, such an outré stew coupled with such an indulgent duration would be an effective recipe for total unlistenability, but I'll be damned if Moth Cock have not emerged from this quixotic endeavor looking like fitfully brilliant visionaries. I should add the caveat that Moth Cock also seem willfully annoying at times, but it is rare that such bumps in the road are not ultimately transformed into a near-perfect mindfuck or something unexpectedly sublime.

Hausu Mountain

It did not take long at all for me to fall in love with this album, as the opening "Castles Off Jersey" is an absolute tour de force that starts off as a layered and trippy homage to Terry Riley-esque sax-driven drone and only gets deeper and weirder from there. Along the way, it makes stops at gnarled, howling noise and burbling kosmische synth en route to an impressively apocalyptic and layered crescendo of swirling orchestral samples and electronic chaos. The following "Threefer Thursday" is still more bananas, calling to mind the viscous, squirming synths of Rashad Becker's Traditional Music Of Notional Species series before throwing sleepy Hawaiian slide guitar into the mix for an exotica nightmare. It's an audaciously sanity-dissolving collision, but that is merely the jumping off point into an unexpectedly gorgeous stretch of warm, woozy chords…and then the bottom drops out again for a finale of cold, churning industrial-damaged psychedelia that feels like it could have been plucked from a live Throbbing Gristle performance.

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2270 Hits

B. Fleischmann, "Music for Shared Rooms"

Music for Shared RoomsThis is apparently B. Fleischmann's eleventh solo album, which surprised me a bit, as I generally enjoy his work yet have only heard a small fraction of it. That said, the eclectic and shapeshifting Austrian composer's release schedule has slowed considerably since the heyday of IDM/indietronica/glitch pop in the late '90s/early 2000s that put him on the map. In fact, it has been four years since Fleischmann last surfaced with the amusingly titled but hopefully not prophetic Stop Making Fans and Music for Shared Rooms is actually more of a retrospective than a formal new statement. That said, most fans (myself included) are unlikely to have previously encountered any of the sixteen pieces collected here, as the album is a look back at some highlights from Fleischmann's extensive archive of pieces composed for film and theater. That archive apparently includes roughly 600 pieces composed over a stretch of twelve years, so Fleischmann presumably did not have much trouble coming up with a double LP worth of delights. To his credit, however, he decided to rework and recontextualize the selected pieces into a satisfying and thoughtfully constructed whole (and one that also doubles as a "kaleidoscopic glimpse of a forward-thinking musician at home in many different musical worlds"). Admittedly, some of those musical worlds appeal more to me than others, but Fleischmann almost always brings a strong pop sensibility and bittersweet warmth to the table, so the results are invariably wonderful when he hits the mark (which he does with impressive frequency here).

Morr Music

The title Music for Shared Rooms alludes to Fleischmann's vision for this album, as he views his recontextualized scores as something akin to "a photo album" in which each "page" conjures a "different scene in which you can immerse yourself." To his credit, the fundamentally "B. Fleischmann" feel of the pieces remains surprisingly constant despite their myriad moods and disparate original contexts, but nailing down the character of that aesthetic is an elusive task. In a rough sense, however, it is fair to say that Fleischmann achieves a unique blend of "seemingly naive" pop simplicity with exacting production and complex arrangements. Sometimes he admittedly leans a bit too much to the "willfully naive" side for my liking, but his instincts generally tend to be quite solid (if sometimes perplexing). Case in point: "Taxi Driver" opens as some kind of Mission Impossible/Peter Gunn theme hybrid, but unexpectedly transforms into a killer dubby groove that calls to mind prime Tortoise. 

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2316 Hits

Kyle Kidd, "Soothsayer"

SoothsayerThis first solo album from queer, androgynous soul singer Kyle Kidd is an incredibly strong contender for best debut of the year, but he/she/they (Kidd embraces all pronounds) has been been steadily releasing great music for a while as part of Cleveland's Mourning [A] BLKstar ensemble. Notably, however, Kidd's past also includes a background in church choirs as well as a stint as an American Idol competitor. Normally learning about the latter would send me running in the opposite direction, but Kidd joins the exclusive pantheon of vocal virtuosos like Ian William Craig and Zola Jesus lured away from a conventional trajectory by a healthy passion for more underground sounds. That said, a decent amount of Soothsayer legitimately feels like it could have burned up the Soul/R&B charts if it had been released in the late '70s and had a major label production team at the console. As time travel was not a viable option, Soothsayer instead found a home on the oft-stellar Chicago indie American Dreams and Kidd's sensuous, hook-filled songs eschew the polished sheen of pop production for a hypnagogic veil of tape hiss and reverb (much to my delight, predictably).

American Dreams

The gospel-inspired opener "Salvation (Ode for Eunice)" is bit of a stylistic anomaly for the album, but the understated, minimal piano chords and subtle flourishes of jazz guitar beneath Kidd's soulful, wailing vocals illustrate one of the more notable and consistent themes on Soothsayer: backing music that sounds like crackling rare grooves unearthed by a moodier, more libidinal Madlib. Consequently, I was quite surprised when I glanced at the album notes and saw the large cast of guest musicians involved, as it genuinely feels I am hearing appropriated unheard grooves from Larry Levan, Arthur Russell, or Ann Peebles' backing band transformed into smoky, subtly psych-damaged Sade territory by a producer with a vision. The result does not exactly feel loop-based, but Kidd's songs tend to be built from single-theme vamps, which is exactly the right move: just lay down a hot groove and give Kidd plenty of room to belt her heart out and a killer song is almost certain to result.

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2676 Hits

Bill Orcutt, "Music For Four Guitars"

Music for Four GuitarsOver the last few years, it has become quite clear to me that any major new solo guitar album from Bill Orcutt is destined to be an inventive, visceral, and damn near essential release. Unsurprisingly, Music for Four Guitars does absolutely nothing to disrupt that impressive run, yet I sometimes forget that Orcutt has a restless creative streak that endlessly propels him both outward and forward like some kind of avant garde shark. As a result, his discography is full of wild surprises, unexpected detours, and challenging experiments such as last year's wonderfully obsessive and completely bananas A Mechanical Joey, so anyone who thinks they know exactly what to expect from a new Bill Orcutt album is either delusional or not paying close enough attention. Case in point: Music for Four Guitars feels like an evolution upon Orcutt's Made Out of Sound approach of using a second track to improvise against himself, but he now expands it to four tracks and shifts to a more composed, focused, and melodic approach very different from his volcanic duo with Chris Corsano. Notably, this project was originally intended for a Rhys Chatham-esque quartet of guitarists and has been gestating since at least 2015, but COVID-era circumstances ultimately led Orcutt to simply do everything himself. As Tom Carter insightfully observes in the album notes, this album is a fascinating hybrid of the feral spontaneity of Orcutt's guitar albums and the "relentless, gridlike composition" of his electronic music that often calls to mind an imaginary Steve Reich-inspired post-punk/post-hardcore project from Touch and Go or Amphetamine Reptile's heyday.

Palilalia

Given how much time I have spent enjoying a handful of Bill Orcutt's recent masterpieces, I occasionally forget that he has been releasing albums for roughly three decades and his scrabbling, explosive improv eruptions are just one stylistic choice in an endlessly evolving body of work. I bring that up because Music For Four Guitars makes it clear that Orcutt could probably churn out killer riffs, intricate countermelodies, and inventive harmonies in his sleep and would seemingly be perfectly at home channeling his inner Glenn Branca, Built to Spill ("In The Rain"), Gang of Four ("From Below"), or art-damaged '90s emo band like Departures and Landfalls-era Boys Life if he felt like it. All of those stylistic threads appear in varying forms here and the determining factors tend to be whether Orcutt is inclined to craft a tense, jerkily staccato rhythm ("A Different View"), sharpen a melody with a spiky counter motif ("Two Things Close Together"), or do both at once ("In Profile").

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2632 Hits

The Soft Pink Truth, "Was It Ever Real?"

Was It Ever Real?I had successfully deluded myself into thinking that I had spent my pandemic downtime wisely and constructively for the most part, but learning that Drew Daniel spent that same period assembling an all-star disco ensemble is now making me lament the sad limitations of my imagination and ambition. The resultant album—Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This?—is slated for release this October, but this teaser mini-album (part of Thrill Jockey's 30th anniversary campaign of limited/special releases) is one hell of a release in its own right and a true jewel in Daniel's discography. Naturally, the big immediate draws are the killer single "Is It Gonna to Get Any Deeper Than This (Dark Room Mix)" and a disco/deep house reimagining of Coil's classic "The Anal Staircase," but the other two songs are every bit as good (if not better) than that pair, so no self-respecting fan of Daniel's oeuvre will want to sleep on this ostensibly minor release (very few artists choose to release their best work on cassingle in 2022). Naturally, there is plenty of psychotropic weirdness mingled with all the great grooves, but I was still legitimately taken aback by how beautifully Daniels and his collaborators shot past kitsch/homage/pastiche and landed at completely functional, fun, and legit dance music. No one would raise a quizzical eyebrow if someone secretly slipped this album into the playlist at a party (not until "Anal Staircase" dropped, at least).

Thrill Jockey

Some years back, one of Drew Daniel's friends was fatefully asked "is it going to get any deeper than this?" while DJing at a club. That question became a "kind of mantra" for Daniel, as he was fascinated by the elusive meaning of that question. I am somewhat fascinated now myself, as it inspired me to think about which elements can imbue a piece with "depth" and whether or not the opening "Is It Gonna to Get Any Deeper Than This (Dark Room Mix)" could be said to meet that enigmatic criteria. My official verdict is "absolutely," as Daniel's bevy of outsider disco brethren inventively ride an absolutely perfect, sensuous, and thumping dub techno-style groove for 8 glorious minutes without ever dispelling the magic with a single misstep. It almost feels like Coil and Rhythm & Sound teamed up to record a libidinal, floor-packing party anthem (it's a damn shame that never actually happened, but it seems like Daniel is perfectly happy and willing to fill that stylistic void himself).

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2966 Hits

William Basinski and Janek Schaefer, ". . . on reflection"

. . . on reflectionThere are several William Basinski albums that I absolutely love, but his various collaborations are rarely as compelling as his solo work (the leftfield Sparkle Division being a notable exception, of course). The fundamental issue is that Basinski's finest moments tend to be an intimate distillation of a single theme to its absolute essence, which does not leave much room at all for anyone else to add something without dispelling the fragile magic. While it is unclear if Janek Schaefer is unusually attuned to Basinski's wavelength or if the duo simply waited until the path to something lasting and beautiful organically revealed itself, I can confidently state that the pair ultimately wound up in exactly the right place regardless of how they got there. If I did not understand and appreciate the sizeable challenges inherent in crafting a hypnotically satisfying and immersive album from a mere handful of notes, I would be amused that Basinski and Schaefer first began working on this album together all the way back in 2014 and that the entire 8-year process basically resulted in just two or three simple piano melodies. In fact, I am still a little amused by this album's nearly decade-long gestation, but that does not make the result any less impressive. Significantly, " . . . on reflection " is dedicated to Harold Budd, but an even closer stylistic kindred spirit is Erik Satie (albeit a blearily impressionistic channeling of the visionary composer's work rather than any kind of straight homage).

Temporary Residence

The opening ". . . on reflection (one)" lays out Basinski and Schaefer's shared vision in gorgeously sublime fashion, as a simple and tenderly melancholy piano melody languorously and unpredictably flickers across a barely audible backdrop of room sounds. Naturally, things are deceptively far more complex than they initially seem though, as it soon sounds like two or loops of different lengths are all playing at once. A lingering haze of delay and decay gradually adds some muted streaks of color, but that is just icing on an already perfect cake, as I could listen to the melodies lazily intertwining forever. In a general sense, the piece calls to mind the delicate prettiness of a music box melody, but beautifully enhances that illusion with weighty emotional depth and seemingly endless variations in the shape and emphasis of the shifting patterns.

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3094 Hits

Ashley Paul, "I Am Fog"

I Am FogTen years after her first appearance on Keith Rankin and Seth Graham's perennially bizarre and eclectic Orange Milk label , Paul returns to the fold with her new trio. Naturally, there are plenty of similarities between this latest release and the trio's 2020 debut (Ray), but there has been some significant evolution as well. To my ears, I Am Fog feels considerably more sketchlike and challenging than Ray, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, as anyone seeking out an Ashley Paul album would presumably already have a healthy appreciation for dissonance and deconstruction. A decent analogy might be that Ray is like a short story collection while I Am Fog is more like a series of poems: the voice and vision are instantly recognizable, but these nine pieces are an unusually distilled, minimal, and impressionistic version of that voice. In less abstract terms, that means that I Am Fog again sounds like some kind of unsettling and psychotropic outsider cabaret, but the emphasis is now more upon gnarled/strangled textures and lingering uncomfortable harmonies than it is on melodic hooks and broken, lurching rhythms. In addition to the trio's overall step even further into the outré, the album also features further enticement with one of Paul's strongest "singles" to date ("Shivers").

Orange Milk

As a devout fan of Paul's unsettling and singular work, I am intrigued and fascinated by how her vision has evolved since Otto Willberg and Yoni Silver became regular collaborators. While I do miss her prickly, pointillist guitar playing a bit with this album, I quite like how Silver and Willberg provide a somewhat more traditional "jazz trio" foundation for Paul's excursions into the alien and unknown rather than simply following her into increasingly broken and sickly frontiers of strangled dissonance. The opening "A Feeling" is an especially interesting example of that dynamic, as the slow-motion chord progression and male/female vocal harmonies approximate a curdled and unraveling "black lodge" version of Low. My favorite pieces tend to fall on the "creepy and lysergic outsider cabaret" side of the spectrum however. "Escape" is the strongest incarnation of that aesthetic, as it resembles a haunted nursery rhyme recited over an obsessively repeating bass pulse, a broken-sounding martial beat, and sax playing that unpredictably drifts back and forth between a blearily melodic hook and a host of tormented whines and squeaks. It feels like someone accidentally left their childlike whimsy outside and it became partially rotted and macabre overnight.

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Insect Factory, "Celestial Cycles"

Celestial Cycles Jeff Barsky has been quietly releasing alternately sublime and noise-ravaged guitar albums for years and this latest album finds him returning to LA's oft ahead-of-the-curve Already Dead Tapes (where he last surfaced with 2015's Flickering). Normally, I would not describe an edition of 100 tapes as a major release, but most of Barsky's solo work has historically appeared on his own Insect Fields imprint so Celestial Cycles will likely reach more ears than usual. Fittingly, it is an especially strong album, capturing Barsky at the absolute height of his powers. While few solo guitarists can summon dreamlike beauty from their ax as reliably and masterfully as Barsky, the centerpiece of this album is unquestionably the swirling and nightmarish closing epic "Become The Birds," which arguably recaptures the magic of Campbell Kneale's Birchville Cat Motel project in its prime (which is damn high praise coming from me).  

Already Dead Tapes

The brief yet lovely "Follow the Moon" introduces Celestial Cycles' general aesthetic of quavering drones, flickering harmonic whines, and rippling flurries of hammer-ons and pull-offs before the album begins in earnest with the more substantial "Celestial Shift." Given the loop-based nature of Insect Factory, extended durations tend to almost always result in increased textural and harmonic sophistication and "Celestial Shift" is a solid illustration of that, as the expected shimmering beauty is nicely enhanced with a host of twinkling, smoldering, buzzing, and seesawing themes. If the remainder of the album was simply four more variations of that vision, I would be perfectly happy, but Barsky instead chose to go with a parade of cool twists and curveballs and the album is better and more memorable for it.

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Earthen Sea, "Ghost Poems"

Ghost PoemsThis latest release from the long-running ambient dub solo project of erstwhile Mi Ami/Black Eyes bassist Jacob Long is stirring up some feelings of regret about how I managed to sleep on this project for so long.  While I am not yet sure if Ghost Poems simply caught me at the right time or if Long has been unusually inspired recently, my previous exposures to Earthen Sea left me feeling like the ambient/dub balance was too heavily weighted towards the "ambient" side to leave a deep impression.  I suspect the balance has not changed all that much since I last checked in, but Long seems to have made a big leap forward in perfecting his execution with this album (it "further refines his fragile, fractured palette into fluttering arrythmias of dust, percussion, and yearning," according to the label).  Apparently, I am very much into fluttering arrhythmias of yearning now, as the first half of this album boasts a handful of pieces that can stand with just about anything in Kranky's rich and influential discography: rather than resembling dub techno that has been deconstructed and dissolved into a soft-focus haze, Ghost Poems often feels like Long has managed to seamlessly combine the best of ambient and the best of dub techno into something fresh, wonderful, and uniquely his own.

Kranky

According to Long, one of this project's central themes is "the melancholy of 7th chords on a fake Rhodes patch," which feels like quite an apt and self-aware description.  In lesser hands, that might be uncharitably viewed as a formulaic approach, but Long seems to instead belong to a more rarified type of artist who is passionately devoted to perfecting a single theme that obsesses him and he seemingly has no trouble finding myriad intriguing ways to keep that theme evolving. Unsurprisingly, blearily melancholy and repeating fake Rhodes chords are indeed the heart of the album, but Long inventively enhances that simple theme with a host of delightful textural and rhythmic elements.  Some of those elements are expected ones, such as the presence of deep bass throb, understated kick drum patterns, and subtle cymbal flourishes that give these pieces their physicality and sense of forward motion.  Those more conventionally musical touches are just pieces of a larger puzzle though, as Long also gets a lot of mileage from "domestic sounds (sink splashing, room tone, clinking objects) filtered through live FX to imbue them with an intuitive, immaterial feel." 

In theory, that is not exactly new territory, but it sure feels like it sometimes (particularly on the opening "Shiny Nowhere," as crackling, shuffling, and dripping sounds gamely replace the expected snare and cymbals in the lurching, slow-motion groove).  Given how explosive and cacophonous some of Long's previous bands have been, I was quite surprised by his talent for distilling a piece to its absolute essence and never playing a single wasted or unnecessary note.  My favorite piece is the hiss-soaked and sensuously seductive "Stolen Time," but "Felt Absence" and "Snowy Water" help make the whole first half a murderers' row of elegantly frayed and dreamlike hits.  To some degree, Long's "variations on a theme" aesthetic unavoidably starts to yield diminishing returns as I get deeper into the album, but some of his best ideas do not surface until later pieces like "Slate Horizon" and "Deep Sky" (both of which make very inspired use of subtly shivering cymbals and clicking drum sticks).

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Nonconnah, "Don't Go Down To Lonesome Holler"

Don't Go Down To Lonesome HollerIn general, releasing a three-hour album is a highly dubious endeavor, as such an extreme length usually turns even very good music into an endurance test and virtually guarantees that few people will ever listen to the entire opus more than once.  When "Memphis dronegaze cult" Nonconnah do it, however, it feels like an absolute godsend.  Part of that is because the husband/wife duo of Zachary and Denny Wilkerson Corsa lead what is possibly the most consistently fascinating and wonderful shoegaze/drone project around, but there is an equally important second part as well: the Corsas seem to be constantly collaborating with a host of talented guests.  Unsurprisingly, that generates an ungodly amount of material and each major new Nonconnah album feels like a mere tantalizing glimpse into the innumerable killer jams and recording sessions that led up to the release.  When I say that Don't Go Down to Lonesome Holler could have probably been an equally brilliant six- or nine-hour album, it is not hyperbole: there are over 50 credited performers involved in this album including folks from heavy hitters like Archers of Loaf, Swans, and No Age (as well as more than 60 instruments ranging from singing saws to cats).  My guess is that the only limiting factor was how much time the Corsas could spend culling and editing their mountain of killer material without starting to lose their goddamn minds.  This album is an absolute revelation ("Nonconnah's most comprehensive vision yet for the American halfpocalypse," according to the label).

Ernest Jenning Record Co.

Given Nonconnah's unusual compositional techniques (an endlessly shapeshifting series of themes that blur and bleed into each other), the extended song durations (nothing clocks in under 20 minutes), and the fact that this album is the culmination of six years of recordings made in many locations (silos, graveyards, overpasses, etc.) involving several dozen participants, any attempt to concisely describe a single piece is absolutely hopeless.  The overall effect, however, feels somewhat akin to being adrift on a sea of shoegaze-y guitar noise in a boat with no oars so I am completely at the mercy of wherever the waves decide to take me.  Sometimes the guitar sounds are sun-dappled and beautiful, sometimes they are quivering and hallucinatory, and other times they are roaring and gnarled.  Other times, however, the shimmering shoegaze tides roll back out to sea and leave me somewhere else enchanted and dreamlike. Occasionally, I catch myself wishing that a particular theme stuck around longer or had been expanded into a stand-alone piece, but those thoughts tend to immediately dissipate when said passage bleeds into something else that is every bit as gorgeous. 

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Širom, "The Liquified Throne of Simplicity"

The Liquified Throne of SimplicityI feel like I got into this Slovenian "imaginary folk" trio a bit late, as 2019’s A Universe That Roasts Blossoms For A Horse was the first Širom album that I picked up.  However, it also seems like each new album is the perfect time to discover Širom and those who join the party with this latest release are in for a real treat.  Along with Belgium’s Merope and the scene centered around France’s Standard In-Fi and La Nòvia labels, Širom are one of the leading lights in a new wave of imaginative and adventurous international folk ensembles and this fourth album is their most expansive to date (“for the first time the trio…ignore the time constraints of a standard vinyl record to fashion longer, more fully developed entrancing and hypnotizing peregrinations”).  Aside from making stellar use of their newly expanded song lengths, it feels like some delightful jazz influences have crept deeper into Širom’s DNA as well, as a couple of pieces feel like the various members trading wonderfully wild, visceral, and hallucinatory solos over strong, unconventional vamps (the album description also explicitly notes that Širom “echo the borderless, collective spirit of groups like Don Cherry's Organic Music Society and Art Ensemble of Chicago”).  Obviously, that is enviable and excellent company to be associated with, but Širom’s influences transcend perceived boundaries of time and space so fluidly that trying to forensically determine the contents of their record collections is both hopeless and entirely beside the point.  When they are at their best (which happens often here), Širom feel like a glimpse into an alternate timeline where the freewheeling adventurousness of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s never ended and everything just kept getting weirder, cooler, and more sophisticated forever (and record labels were delighted to foot the bill for anything that could potentially be the next The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter).

Tak:til/Glitterbeat

The album opens with one hell of a bombshell in the form of “Wilted Superstition Engaged in Copulation,” as the trio unleash an impressive run of killer solos over a pleasantly clattering, oddly timed percussion vamp.  Given the exotic nature of the instrumentation and the multiple roles that each of the band members play, it can be quite a challenge to figure out who is doing what at any given moment, but Ana Kravanja’s alternately droning and gnarled viola themes are a definite and recurring highlight.  The other highlights are a bit more challenging to wrap my mind around, as one stretch sounds like a buzzing, psychotropic duet between a strangled bagpipe and some Peruvian flutes, while another sounds like a rattling, delay-enhanced cacophony of violently jangled metal chimes.  Naturally, there are some other inspired, hard-to-describe moments along the way as well, giving the piece the feel of a 20-minute performance in which a magician pulls increasingly weirder and more surprising things out of his hat.  The band then shifts gears a bit for the more subdued “Grazes, Wrinkles, Drifts into Sleep,” as Kravanja unleashes a lovely melancholy viola melody over a quiet backdrop of intertwining balafon and banjo themes.  There are plenty of compelling twists early on (sharp and/or ghostly harmonics and warbly, wordless vocals from Kravanja), but the big payoff comes when it shoots right past “psychotropic aviary” and intensifies into a buzzing and heaving crescendo of heavy acoustic drone. 

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Félicia Atkinson, "Image Langage"

Image LanguageThis latest album from the consistently fascinating Atkinson is yet another plunge into a vibrantly textured and otherworldly dreamspace, this time drawing inspiration from an abstract dialog between house and landscape. Or more specifically, "Inside and outside, different ways of orienting a body towards the world." In keeping with that theme, Atkinson "revisited twentieth-century women artists who variously chose, and were chosen by, their homes as a place to work." Naturally, there are some other conceptual layers as well (this being a Félicia Atkinson album, after all). One of the more interesting ones is the decision to give the album a name that resembles a "fake title of a fake Godard film." In an obvious sense, that is apt given how Image Langage feels like a film with no actual images, but Godard's mischievous meaning-dissolving weirdness is also manifested in how Atkinson wields and repurposes her sounds. In more concrete terms, that means that Atkinson deliberately used instruments alternately like field recordings or characters in a murky, surreal narrative and often reduces her voice to an unpredictably drifting and elusive presence. The overall effect is like being lost in a beautiful dream where an unreliable narrator periodically drifts in with riddle-like non-clues that only lead me deeper into Atkinson's eerie, soft-focus enigma.

Shelter Press

This album is billed as “an environmental record” about “getting lost in places imagined and real.” Naturally, one of the real places central to the album is Atkinson’s home on the “wild coast of Normandy” where much of the writing and recording took place (the rest occurred at a lakeside residency in Switzerland). I bring all this up because Image Langage has an unusually enigmatic and slippery aesthetic that blurs the line between songcraft and more abstract/outré fare. At times, the album can feel very “ambient,” but it is actually chasing something akin to impressionistic clairvoyance/clairaudience. While fully grasping the shades of meaning lurking within a Félicia Atkinson is often a tall order, Thea Ballard crafted quite an illuminating statement for the album’s description, noting that Image Langage evokes a visit to Atkinson’s seaside home in which we are “invited to witness Atkinson’s acts of seeing, hearing, and reading in a sonic double of the places they occurred.” In more practical terms, that means that the overall impression left by Image Langage is that of staying in a benignly haunted cottage populated by whispered voices, bleary drones, ephemeral flickers of piano melody, and hallucinatory manipulations of nature sounds. Unsurprisingly, I find that to be characteristically immersive and fascinating Atkinson territory, but Image Langage also has a handful of great individual pieces that transcend the baseline “ASMR-inspired ambient for well-read seaside ghosts” aesthetic. Amusingly, a case could be made that this is Atkinson’s “dub album,” as two of the strongest pieces share some common ground with artists like Pole and loscil.

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Caterina Barbieri, "Spirit Exit"

Spirit ExitAfter a handful of teasing and divergent singles, Caterina Barbieri's first full-length on her own light-years imprint is finally here. To be honest, I had some early apprehensions about how well Spirit Exit would stack up against previous releases, as this is an unusual Barbieri album for a couple of significant reasons. The most obvious one, of course, is that this is the first of the Milan-based synth visionary's albums to feature vocal pieces. Equally significant is how the album was composed and recorded, however, as Barbieri's previous releases gradually took shape from her eternally evolving live performances. Spirit Exit, on the other hand, is "100% studio music, written and recorded amidst Milan's infamous, dramatic extremely strict two-month lockdown...at the very start of the pandemic in early 2020." The drama and darkness of the period unquestionably surface a lot on these pieces, but the unraveling of civilization was but one of Barbieri's major influences at the time, as Spirit Exit was also inspired by "female philosophers, mystics and poets spread across time...united in their strength at cultivating vast internal worlds." Barbieri is no slouch at cultivating vast internal worlds herself, as evidenced by the "psycho-physical effects of pattern-based repetition" explored in her earlier work and the second half of the album features several pieces that feel like instant classics. Some of Barbieri's attempts to expand her vision into more pop and dance-inspired places work a bit less well to my ears, which ultimately gives Spirit Exit a bit of a "transitional album" feel, but those pieces may someday dazzle me after being further honed by live performances or inspired collaborations (she previously managed to floor me once with Fantas and again with Fantas Variations, after all).

light-years

In classic “Fantas” fashion, Spirit Exit continues the fine Barbieri tradition of leading off her albums with an absolutely killer opener. In this case, the masterpiece is “At Your Gamut,” which resolves into something resembling beatless deconstructed house music after a brief snarl of sputtering, howling entropy. The heart of the piece is its bittersweet synth melody, however, which leaves psychotropic vapor trails and tendrils of arpeggios and countermelodies in its wake. Aside from being a great song, it is a perfect illustration of why Barbieri is on a plane all her own, as it is a fiendishly complex feast of interlocking melodies, shifting textures, and gleamingly futuristic, neon-lit beauty. Notably, “At Your Gamut” also inspired Barbieri’s first foray into sampling, as “it later gets crushed, accelerated and unrecognizably transformed into the ghostly hook” of yet another stellar piece (“Terminal Clock”). While earlier pieces on the album merely flirt with dance music, “Terminal Clock” is the piece in which Barbieri finally goes all in with absolutely sublime results, as swooning vocal fragments beautifully collide with a lurching kick drum thump, pulsing chords, melodic strings, and some wonderfully gnarled and tortured-sounding textures. To my ears, it is an instant stone-cold classic of outsider techno and an enticing glimpse of where Barbieri may be headed next. Remarkably, however, “Terminal Clock” is sandwiched between two other gems of similarly high caliber: “Life At Altitude” and “The Landscape Listens.”

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