Today I kind of wish I knew more about something else other than music. What if I had intricate mental maps built for interpreting something else? What if people made art that was a series of smells that I could interpret in series while I sit at work? Should I just drink more tea and enjoy the aroma as I shift between cups and repeat, long term, the longitudinal rhythmic shifts between earl grey, chamomile, lavender, and rooibos?
Sometimes I realize that I need someone to discuss music with at length and that this exorcism of “dancing about architecture” would be much better as, well, “checkers about architecture.” That implies competition that isn’t necessary, though, so maybe “playing catch about architecture,” and really the architecture isn’t necessary, so maybe “playing catch about philosophy” is more apt. Philosophy sounds like a great thing to discuss while playing catch. Alas, I don’t want to play catch with strangers, because I’m probably going to overthrow the ball sometimes and they might not trust me to play another round. Or, what happens if I miss the ball on the first throw, take it in the nose, start crying uncontrollably and never play catch with that person ever again. Both the literal and metaphorical versions of this story have happened.
I should mention that today, in relative sparseness of things I’m actually excited about, I’ve turned to listening to the massive Autechre output of this year, in what is admittedly an egg-chicken situation. Crises of “art as faith” are always right around the corner, and there’s always an infinite landfill of electronic music on the internet, so this is really just a standard Tuesday morning. I’m disappointed by most work coming from non-electronic artists with whom I’m familiar right now, in the same way that I dislike social sing-alongs and live performances that I come across: I know these people are capable of more and they’re eschewing challenge in favor of comfort (Car Seat Headrest, Grouper). That, or they’re overreaching in the direction they know can bring them a certain success (Mount Eerie, Janelle Monae). Not changing direction, changing and challenging yourself seems natural, it’s unfair of me to judge, and I’m definitely not listening to any of those parenthetical albums from this year.
This month I became less disappointed in my own artistic output, so maybe I’m holding these artists to a higher standard. Note the amount of qualms I have with many things below, which feels new for me, as this project has been more about praise than criticism when it comes to reviewing. That might mean that it’s time for an overhaul for how I interact with music, but that will have to come next month, because I’m giving you a dump of 15 good things that I listened to this month:
Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour (Dream Country Pop)
This, or more specifically, seeing Kacey perform “Space Cowboy” in a glittering pantsuit, is my real introduction to her catalogue. It’s a great place to start and my favorite album of the year so far. Golden Hour is made up of equal parts clever, sincere songwriting, modest but accomplished delivery and great studio flourishes. Check out the string swells in the bridge of “Slow Burn” or the synth that glows over the second verse for some great production decisions. “Butterflies” is another standout, with a perfect mix of psychedelia via keys light vocal processing, and pedal steel that wind around her perfectly understated vocal delivery. It doesn’t get any stonier than “Oh, What a World”, with long tails of sound on every separate track and lyrics about fascination with discovering the world and then, her partner as part of it. All is not rosy in love and marriage, though, and we hear about it in the beautiful, spacious, trope-inverting “Space Cowboy.” Between this and the country disco smash hit “High Horse” is the only real dip in quality, though “Happy & Sad” is saved by clever turns of phrase and a timely key change. Golden hour is held together, but not limited by, its stellar production, turning great country pop into something psychedelic and dreamy.
Say Sue Me - Where We Were Together (Indie Rock)
It’s hard to say whether South Korea’s Say Sue Me is influenced by a variety of styles, or whether those styles influenced Yo La Tengo and they’re singularly influenced by YLT. It’s not quite fair to say, since YLT never goes full on surf rock (“I Just Wanna Dance”) and have never been as exuberant as SSM are on standout “Old Town.” The mid tempo songs are all Ira Kaplan guitar and Georgia Hubley vocals, though, and they’re pretty nice! This culminates in “Coming to the End,” which is essentially “I Heard You Looking” from Painful. All of this is well done, though, and results in a great indie rock canon listen all the way through, which is a rarity these days.
Confidence Man - Confident Music for Confident People (Alternative Dance)
“I must confess / I've been sleeping with your ex / Cause I heard he was the best” - from the opening seconds, you can tell that you’re in for a self-indulgent, ridiculous party album. The good news is that, for the most part, the rest of the album delivers on this promise, but in a few different ways. There’s a wide swath of influences on display, from ABBA and Aqua to LCD Soundsystem and Primal Scream. The (pretty great) goofy-ass pop singles, “Boyfriend (Repeat),” “Bubblegum,” and “Better Sit Down Boy” might have the most ConMan identity, while “Out the Window,” “Catch My Breath” and “Fascination” sound a lot like they’re Screamadelica remixes, but not in a bad way. It’s a little surprising how consistent this is. There are plenty of good album tracks, and really only one failure in “C.O.O.L. Party” and mostly successes. There also seem like there are a lot of directions to go from here, including global party domination.
Goat Girl - Goat Girl (Psych Rock)
As soon as Clottie Cream howls the titular phrase on “Burn the Stake” amidst the guitar onslaught, it reminded me of the excitement I had when I first heard rock music as a kid. Goat Girl captures a classic psych rock energy through simple songs tied together with weird, some might say unnecessary, interludes, but whose peaks are worth the journey. “Cracker Drool” and “Slowly Reclines” keep the country garage influence building, which climaxes with the very Gun Club-by “The Man” (Specifically For the Love of Ivy”). The back half is more sprawl than punch, but ends with a particularly good trio of rockers ending in a tasteful Beatles reference.
Kali Uchis - Isolation (R&B/Soul)
There’s a lot of ideas on this album, and most of them are good ideas. The production is varied, Kali’s vocal style adapts accordingly, and there’s really just a lot of fun. It seems best when it is straightforward pop: “Just a Stranger” is gonna get stuck in your head, you might have a slight “Your Teeth in My Neck” detour, and then it will be replaced by “In My Dreams”, which sounds like some long lost Gorillaz track thanks to Damon Albarn. This up-tempo weirdo pop is not only the greatest strength of this work, it is the most unique part of the formula. This makes the latin-influenced “Nuestro Planeta” the most unwelcome detour, and the quality suffers in general after “In My Dreams.” Tyler the Creator doesn’t sound obnoxious on “After the Storm,” but he’s still not very good. Despite this, Isolation feels like a complete listen and there’s a lot to enjoy along the way.
Laura Veirs - The Lookout (Indie Folk)
This is my first full Veirs album, after really enjoying her tracks on the Case / Lang collaboration a couple years ago. This is about what I expected: a set of sweet and well crafted songs with a feel-good bent to them. I especially like the not-so-folk production of “Everybody Needs You,” which calls to mind moments of Marika Hackman or Jesca Hoop. Elsewhere, “Seven Falls” has harmonies that soar over pedal steel, and Sufjan Stevens appears briefly to drill home a catchy melody on “Watch Fire.” The lusher the arrangements the better for this album, which is especially apparent when the swells of “The Canyon” breaks the starkness that typifies the middle of the album. Similarly, “When it Grows Darkest” has lovely string arrangements that build well on Veirs’s simple melodies.
The Voidz - Virtue (Art Rock)
Woah there’s a lot going on here. A sprawl of ideas and genres has never been something I think of when I think of Julian Casablancas’s, but this is the Voidz! Just take the opening trio - we go from the Strokes-esque opener to auto-tuned madness to metal breakdowns in 10 minutes. From there, some of the most successful experiments involve the restrained funk of “AlieNNatioN,” and the electro dance pop of “All Wordz Are Made Up”. “My Friend the Walls” is a push and pull between Radiohead-like verses and a catchy power pop chorus, which barely makes sense and serves as a microcosm as how the whole thing barely makes sense. The ideas really never let up, which is admirable, exhausting, and a creative triumph in equal amounts. Casablancas’s songwriting is what makes the whole thing work: he figures out how to make the most eccentric ideas work by reining them in with his penchant for rock energy and melody.
Alva Noto - Unieqav (Glitchy Techno)
This is Carsten Nicolai being relatable. Instead of (beautiful) formless ambience or a barrage of uncomfortably high frequencies, the third Uni album sees him making intense bass-heavy music and sprinkling his touchstones throughout it in palatable ways. The satisfying thud that runs throughout this work is the reason that I personally half the reason I listen to techno, the intricate details being the other half. A lot of tracks, like “Uni Mia” and “Uni Mic A/B” have an early Autechre feel, while “Uni Blue” is a standout for its shoegaze indebted distorted lead. The shortest tracks are the most challenging, like the disorienting “Uni Clip” and the frenetic “Uni Edit”. While as a whole, this is on the headphone end rather than the dance floor end, Nicolai benefits from using ideas from both ends of that spectrum.
Brian Eno with Kevin Shields - The Weight of History / Only Once Away My Son (Ambient, Shoegaze)
This is two titans of sound getting together and making something massive. It doesn’t sound quite like what you’d expect from either at this point, too: it’s darker than Eno thanks to Shields’s amazing guitar work, and it’s deep on the artsy end of things thanks to Eno’s direction. In short, it’s a match made in heaven. The A side sets the tone with Eno’s chanted vocals and foreboding atmospheres, including some really nice noisy overdubs. But the B side blows it open with the one of the heaviest pieces of music that either of them have ever recorded. Shields’s guitar has produced a lot of great sounds, but the visceral drone at the center of “Once Away My Son” is a highlight of his career, and it must have to do with Eno’s studio magic. I hope these two keep working together.
Christina Vantzou - No. 4 (Ambient, Modern Classical)
It’s easy to forget how avant garde Kranky’s output is, because most of it is surprisingly accessible. This album pulls collaborators from the label and was purportedly recorded in a non-hierarchical collaborative process. I’m left wondering whether Vantzou’s genius lies more within her high-level aesthetics, composition, or her interpersonal dynamics (she is a math teacher by day). All are on display here to make a work that feels cohesive throughout several different shifts in style and performance, from using processed vocals and electronics on the opening few tracks to mostly acoustic performances on the meat of the album, from “Doorway” through the contemplative “Staircases”. The latter third is exciting and different: “Sound House” adds a dark ambient turn to the work, and “Lava” builds on the unease. “Garden of Forking Paths” features a rubbery yet sinister bass note, which gives way to shimmering synths for the closing track. This is my favorite Kranky release since the last Steve Hauschildt record.
Daniel Avery - Song For Alpha (Ambient Techno)
Avery is my kind of techno producer, as he turns his back on the club to make a hazy, psychedelic techno record. The dance floor influences are still there, but they’re saturated with ambient, 90s Warp, and downtempo. “Stereo L” sets a tone by winding a 303 over an atypical bass beat, and is followed by “Projector”, a fun listen that is both too fast and too slow to dance to, but just right to write music reviews to. “Sensation” actually uses a four to the floor and would probably be a banger if it weren’t for tastefully restrained sound design. “Clear” is psychedelic ambience and reverb-laden synth over sixteenth-note clipped percussion. Even centerpiece “Diminuendo,” which is the most club-ready of the tracks, is also very much not, with its descent into ambience too long and sharp before it’s awesome (spoiler-alert) huge beat drop. The latter part of the record is quieter like the beginning, with the single “Slow Fade” carrying to the locked-groove finale at the end of “Quick Eternity.”
Low Jack - Riddims du Lieu-dit (Dancehall, Techno)
Philippe Hallais can be hard guy to keep up with. Is this in his wheelhouse or is this a deviation for him? These are reworking from a tape with Equiknoxx, an abstract dancehall favorite, but these cuts are quite a bit more abstract than the wax from that duo. “Partei” is particularly weird and Low Jack like, but gives way to the playful dub of “They Rule” and digital horn led banger “Brass.” The back half has the danceable “Robert” as well as the epic horn part on “Light,” which may be the highlight of the release. This convinces me further to listen to everything that Hallais puts out.
Plaster - Transition (Dark Ambient)
Transition is a close relative of some late-era Yellow Swans work. It is a curated improvised work comprised of distorted synths and fractured moments of melody. Fun fact: the only reviews I’ve read are from the label’s website and a weird dutch site called partyflock.nl…weird! On Transition, texture is king: it’s straight ear-candy if you like meaty fuzz and you aren’t worried about too much else. That isn’t to say that these pieces don’t Go Places (Yellow Swans pun intended); “The Climbers” is a great example of an ominous framework that comes to terrifying fruition through an increasingly broad sonic palette. “Disconnected Heart” instead rides a clean-ish synth groove to its emotional point of eccentricity in a similar fashion to a head-nodding guitar riff that rides through a hard rock song. Highlight “Unregistered Product” pairs a strong but simple harmonic development with the most intense noise improvisation. The latter half has a more ambient spin to it but not too much less forboding. See the beefy drone of “The Last Goodbye”, which I like to think of as a Jeff Buckley cover, leading into the epic “Children on the Cliff.”
Sarah Davachi - Let Night Come On Bells End the Day (Ambient)
I was fortunate enough to catch a Sarah Davachi performance at the Waterworks Museum recently, and this is a great document to accompany the memory of that experience. Here, Davachi’s compositions are premeditated and sequenced in a purposeful way, mores than her very enjoyable album from last year and the recent performance. The intro of “Garlands” leads into the epic organ piece “Mordents,” which itself has a contemplative intro. “At Hand” is a high-octave drone that toes the line between pleasant and unsettling. The clean piano strokes in “Buhrstone” are lovely and never fully give in to the drones that come to surround them, resolving cleanly with the key change towards the end. The drones that end this album are the most satisfying kind. They are reminiscent of Eliane Radigue’s work and carry on a lineage of pure tone exploration.
Vakula - Metaphors (Progressive Electronic)
In what is a really strange developmental arc, Mikhaylo Vityuk has turned to improvisation-heavy kraut-y progressive electronic as a new means of expressing himself. This is a development from a rather stark techno outing, preceded by a space epic that faithful NPR readers might remember having many different moments, ranging from funky to difficult. These tracks are built on synthesizers, they’re melodic and return to themes, and in a sense they’re a bunch of New Age nonsense. “Smooth Movement” is the most straight ahead progressive electronic here, while the meat of the album is composed with synthesizer and marimba playing off of each other. As a performer, he seems to keep the whole piece in his head in terms of where he wants the subtle development to go, which might have everything to do with the construction of the synthesizer track, which subtly but actively shifts from beginning to end, even on the biggest tracks. The marimba is sparse on both versions of “Tale of the Eternal Thought” and drum machines enter to spice up the journey, and with the Alternate Take, he creates a purely synthesizer based ambient journey.