THOM YORKE, Anima (CD/LP)
Thom Yorke describes his excellent new solo album Anima as “dystopian,” which isn’t exactly the hugest surprise in the world. With or without Radiohead, he’s spent his whole career mapping out the dystopia we’re living in—he does futuristic apocalypse the way John Fogerty does choogle. Yorke could have spent the entire record freestyling new verses for “Old Town Road” and it still would have turned out dystopian. But nobody could accuse him of overreacting. At a moment when the world is in even scarier shape than the last time Radiohead took its temperature, on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, he’s moved on to new nightmares. Anima is 48 minutes of abstract electro confessionals, written and produced in close collaboration with Nigel Godrich in a fit of Flying Lotus-inspired experimentation. Within the first few minutes, Yorke’s digitally warped voice is gulping “I can’t breathe” and “there’s no water” over “Idioteque”-style synth swerves and glitch-wave percussion loops. He’s tapping into anxieties both geopolitical and personal. It’s “woke,” but in the sense of “sleep-deprived so long the fluttering of your eyelids booms like kettledrums,” and that realm of paranoid body-freezing anxiety is the zone where Yorke feels right at home. Anima goes with a 15-minute “one-reeler” film with longtime Radiohead cohort Paul Thomas Anderson, set to three of the tracks and co-starring Yorke’s partner, Italian theater actress Dajana Roncione. (The film debuts on Netflix June 27, at the same time as the album.) The music has the open-ended feel of Yorke’s recent projects—his film score for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake as well as Atoms for Peace. There’s none of the uplifting rock-band rush of last year’s acclaimed Radiohead tour. Instead, he strips down for the old-school beatbox claps of “The Axe,” muttering, “Goddamn machinery, why won’t it speak to me? One day I am gonna take an axe to it.” It builds to a very Yorkean question, as he queries his computer screen: “Where’s that love you promised me?” Like his previous solo albums The Eraser and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, it’s shaped into discrete songs that stand on their own, yet the scenery is always in flux. A typical highlight is the superbly titled “I Am A Very Rude Person,” with its sinuous twist-and-crawl bassline under an eerie Gregorian-chant choir. “I have to destroy to create,” Yorke sneers. “I have to be rude to your face / I’m breaking up the turntables / Now I’m gonna watch your party die.” His voice fades under a guitar loop that builds like Robert Fripp filtered through Sonic Youth’s “Karen Koltrane.” The party dies, but not without a fight. The prize is “Dawn Chorus,” a title well known to Radiohead fans as an unrecorded bootleg track dating back to the In Rainbows era. It’s complex but sparse, with a lonesome phased keyboard drone while Yorke murmurs as if waking up from a dream: “I think I miss something, but I’m not sure what.” It makes a striking contrast with the killer finale, “Runawayaway.” It’s a swirl of Byrdsian guitar jangle—after a whole album where guitars are almost entirely absent—while Yorke repeats, over and over, “This is when you know who your real friends are.” As if to imply: Better hope you have some. “Runawayaway” is the kind of climactic album-closer that’s always been a Yorke specialty, from “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” to “Videotape” to “Nose Grows Some.” He sounds anxious, helpless, enraged—yet he also sounds unmistakably alive. And on an album as bleak as Anima, that’s a very welcome sign of hope.
FLAMING LIPS, King’s Mouth (CD/LP)
King’s Mouth has been greeted as a concise return to form for The Flaming Lips: A concept album accompanied by an immersive art exhibition and a children’s book, about a monarch with a giant head that contains galaxies and weather systems, narrated by former Clash guitarist Mick Jones. t’s a moot point as to whether Jones sounds either rapt with innocent wonder as he reads, or like a man who hasn’t got a clue what he’s supposed to be going on about.Despite the concept and accompanying folderol, what lies at its heart are a succession of songs more straightforwardly appealing than anything the Flaming Lips have come up with in years. It’s nothing as craven as a direct return to the sound of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots – it’s comparatively stripped-down, less widescreen in its musical ambitions, more obviously reliant on electronics that sound like electronics rather than a dense patchwork of samples – but it shares with those albums the sense of a band marshaling their energies and abundance of outre ideas into relatively short, honed, lushly melodic bursts. At their best – “Mouth of the King,” “All For the Life of the City” – the songs here are a total joy, reacquainting you with certain strengths the Flaming Lips have tended to obfuscate on recent releases. Multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd has the ability to mold a wildly varied set of musical backdrops into a cohesive whole – the album goes from the fidgety distorted funk of “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot” to the 10cc-ish AOR of “The Sparrow” to the cinematic, choral sample-bedecked instrumental “Funeral Parade” without seeming disjointed, largely because whatever style they’re essaying, it somehow always sounds like the Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne can still project childlike wonder and homespun wisdom without sounding cloying. It’s a trick much in evidence here: “Giant Baby” finds him reflecting on his mother’s death and concluding that “life is sometimes sad”; on the concluding “How Can a Head,” he’s gawping in wonder at the powers of the human brain. “How Can a Head” is the album’s highlight, blessed with as lovely a melody as the band have ever written. Luxuriating in it, you’re struck by the sense that you should probably enjoy it while it lasts. If the Flaming Lips’ recent history has taught us anything, it’s that their next album will probably be confounding: abnormal service resumed.
PRINCE, Originals (LP)
Capable of upstaging Eric Clapton on guitar, releasing powerful pop that toed the line between apocalyptic and sexy, and contorting his voice to do just about anything, there was no limit to Prince’s abilities. But not everybody is aware the purple one was also a prolific ghostwriter, penning hits for everyone from The Bangles to Kenny Rogers and Stevie Nicks. The new posthumous album ‘Prince: Originals’, which has been released by the Prince Estate in collaboration with Warner Bros and Jay-Z’s streaming platform Tidal, has raided the vaults of Paisley Park to bring together 14 reference tracks Prince laid down for other artists, with this collection acting as a fascinating time capsule of the 1980s. Prince nails the deep nasally vocals of a country singer on ‘You’re My Love’, a track he tellingly penned for Kenny Rogers, while his effeminate vocals channel the experience of being an independent black woman on ‘The Glamorous Life’, the hit single he wrote for frequent collaborator Shelia E. Hearing. Prince, singing two songs that are so different stylistically, reminds us just how insanely talented he was, with the artist possessing a chameleon-like ability to master practically any genre of music. ‘Prince: Originals’ is at its best when Prince lets loose and embraces his cheekier side. The phallic symbolism of ‘Sex Shooter’, which contains the playful lyrics “I need you to pull my trigger babe / I can’t do it alone”, is one hell of a ride, while the absolutely bonkers ‘Holly Rock’ sees Prince talking slick over a beat that sounds like it was crafted from a psychedelic pinball machine. Honestly, it’s a shame Prince ever gave these tracks away to other artists. Although the camp synths and indulgent guitar solos present on a lot of these tracks are clear by-products of the decade that gave us cone bras, Super Mario and The Goonies, this music also sounds prescient, with the raw experimental funk of ‘Wouldn’t You Love To Love Me’ (written in 1981 for singer Taja Seville) sounding like it would be right at home on bold 2019 releases such as Tyler, The Creator’s ‘Igor’ and Steve Lacy’s Apollo XXI. The fact you can hear Prince so obviously channeled when listening to these two modern black artists is a powerful reminder of just how ahead of its time his music was.
TUXEDO, Tuxedo III (CD/LP)
The L.A.-based duo of Mayer Hawthorne and and Jake One, collectively known as Tuxedo, was ahead of the mainstream pack upon the arrival of its self-titled 2013 EP. Boasting the Zapp-influenced bouncer “So Good” and the caressing slow-jam “Get U Home,” the guys’ sleek brand of west coast funk undoubtedly provided a few hints for both Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, with “Uptown Funk” and “24K Magic” building upon their old-school vibe—albeit with a more commercial vocal approach. Tuxedo’s first and second full-length albums, each endowed with a consistent cross-section of smooth top-down jams and laid back, lights-down passages, cemented their credibility and earned them a seriously appealing collaboration with Zapp on last year’s “Shy.” Although that gem is unfortunately not included on the team’s new Tuxedo III LP, Hawthorne and One continue to stick to their mandate of understated boogie finesse without resorting to too many faddish adornments. Assimilating instrumental moments and rap interludes into the mix, Tuxedo aims to broaden its base via numbers such as the hook-centered ditty “Gabriel’s Groove” and the lowrider swayer “Dreaming in the Daytime.” A seamless continuation of previous shining entries such as “Lost Lover” and “Watch the Dance,” the uncomplicated “You & Me” delights with lightly poppin’ percussive effects amidst a bubbly beat and sophisticated keyboard work. This example of sticking to the rhythmic foundation of the group’s defining works—while adding in a few subtle vocal embellishments—is the type of cut that continues to set Tuxedo apart from many of its contemporaries. Likewise, “OMW” carries that engagement forward. Slivers of vocoder and cleverly punctuated phrases add to its cool factor. On the slow-jam tip, the short and sweet “Extra Texture” benefits from colorful lyrics and an easily gliding, memorable hook complemented by the production prowess of DāM-FunK, and the vibrant closing number, “Close,” spotlights up-and-coming female vocalist Gavin Turek. Employing a buoyant tone which pairs ideally with Hawthorne’s co-lead and just the right dose of computerized vocal effects, she enriches the feel-good disposition of the track.A majority of the selections on Tuxedo III clock in at just under or over three minutes. That keeps the flow moving along nicely, as most of the tracks segue nicely into one another. Accordingly, listeners who’ve been with Tuxedo from the start may find themselves desiring a bit more in the meat and bones of some of the material, while newcomers are likely to find themselves intrigued with the team’s cultivated sowing of solid, yet nonabrasive, grooves and unassuming melodic stance.
LARRY SPARKS, New Moon Over My Shoulder (CD)
Larry Sparks was still a teenager when Ralph Stanley chose him to replace his brother Carter Stanley as guitarist and lead singer in the Clinch Mountain Boys in the wake of Carter’s passing in December 1966. As the ensuing decades would amply demonstrate, Sparks was to become much more than the answer to a bluegrass trivia question. His bluesy vocals and guitar work gained him a lot of fans. After a couple of years, he left to form his own band, and this new release – his first of new music in five years, and now back with his longtime label, Rebel – celebrates a half-century of touring with his Lonesome Ramblers. Along the way, he picked up a couple of IBMA nods as Male Vocalist of the Year as well as a Best Album award. Like the Stanleys, he still prefers the “old sounds” and seems to have the knack of sounding better the older he gets. Sparks’ penchant for putting the “blue” in bluegrass is on full display here, and he continues to excel at drawing material from a wide variety of sources (Roy Acuff, Jimmie Davis and longtime favorite Gary Ferguson, to name a few) covering many moods and tempos. The wistful title track, “There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder,” was a wartime hit for Tex Ritter that was still popular during Sparks’ boyhood years in Ohio, while “Henry Hill” (one of two Ferguson tunes) is a classic of the “hard times” genre. Sparks is perhaps at his best, though, on the closer, the traditional “Green Pastures In The Sky.” A man of abiding faith, it’s on these classic gospel-tinged tunes that his comfortable, craggy baritone conveys the most emotion and conviction. He’s hinted at times over the years that he thinks about retirement, and his recent releases have tended to be “anniversary” celebrations of various milestones in his career, but Sparks continues to prove he’s one of the most reliable talents in the history of the bluegrass genre, and we wouldn’t mind it if he booked some more studio time.
DELBERT MCCLINTON & THE SELF-MADE MEN, Tall, Dark & Handsome (7/26)
VIOLENT FEMMES, Hotel Last Resort (7/26)
DREW HOLCOMB & THE NEIGHBORS, Dragons (8/16)
OLD SALT UNION, Where The Dogs Don’t Bite (8/16)
And don’t forget these STILL-NEW platters that matter!
PURPLE MOUNTAINS, Purple Mountains (CD/LP)
Long live David Berman. After shutting it all down in a 2009 message board post, the mythic musician’s project Silver Jews took on an indie cult status so strong he almost resented taking a full decade off from making music. But now he’s returned with a new name and the same dark outlook. Collaborators on Purple Mountains’ eponymous album include Jeremy Earl and several other members of Earl’s band, Woods, but it’s Berman’s gloriously miserable show through and through. Purple Mountains is both a breakup album in the traditional sense and also a breakup album if all of life was one big, long breakup. Which it kind of is, depending on who you are. Take this line from “Darkness and Cold”: “The light of my life is going out tonight without a flicker of regret.” And, from “She’s Making Friends and I’m Turning Stranger”: “I’m a loser, she’s a gainer.” I mean. So simple and so sharp-edged. How can music be so sad and so catchy at the same time? “Storyline Fever” is a terrifically clever expression of the suspicion that you (either you-you or them-you, or maybe both) are so tied to your own narrative that it’s created a mutated sickness inside you and your whole little world — and it’s a raucously hooky masterpiece to boot. “All My Happiness Is Gone”, pitch-black in theme, is jangly but soft, like a dozen tambourines being casually jostled on a bed of gauze. Bruisey, purple-black gauze probably. On “Drinking Margaritas at the Mall”, Berman takes on the persona of an anti-Jimmy Buffett; if Buffett engenders worry-free, shameless indulgent buoyancy, Berman delivers the exact opposite. “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan” is like if Berman and Dan Bejar of Destroyer fused into one person, which is apt considering Bejar considers Berman an idol, and so much music is at its best when it’s smart people swapping influences and building on one another.
KHRUANGBIN, Hasta El Cielo (CD/LP)
The Houston-based trio Khruangbin is making some of the best instrumental music around. And its attention to detail is clear on its new album, “Hasta El Cielo.” Anyone who knows the band will recognize the opener, “With All the World.” In fact, the whole album will sound strikingly familiar. That’s because Khruangbin is trying something new, reimagining its 2018 project “Con Todo El Mundo” through a different musical lens: dub. The same dub that started as an offshoot of reggae in the ’60s, pioneered by the likes of Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock, and that has influenced countless musicians since. Characterized by electronic blips, heavy basslines, and spacey echoes, often in wild remixes, the genre opens up new vistas for the band in “Hasta El Cielo.” Khruangbin’s music can serve as the perfect soundtrack to passive activity, like taking a walk. But by reimagining an album this way, listeners take that same walk in a new place, triggering a sense of discovery. Khruangbin isn’t jumping into dub completely blind. The band’s bassist, Laura Lee, has said she learned how to play the instrument by listening to the genre, calling dub reggae her “ABCs of music.” One of the albums that always stood out to her is the 1982 album “Scientist Wins the World Cup” by Hopeton Brown (professionally known as dub producer Scientist). Khruangbin even enlisted Brown to remix two new tracks on the album, “Rules” and “Cómo Te Quiero.” For years, Khruangbin have been considered to be dub-adjacent, hailed for their ability to make songs that might be considered repetitive sound enthralling. Some songs, like “A La Sala” (a remake of “Evan Finds the Third Room”), had very little done to them because they were already so similar to dub. That’s not all this album is, though. Khruangbin’s original songs on “Con Todo El Mundo” drew on traditions as wide-ranging as Thai funk, southern jazz, Latin American folk, and psychedelic rock. And in rethinking them together, this just might be the band’s most unified piece of work. The ability to harness such rich diversity in sound is what makes this band stand out.
GAUCHE, A People’s History Of Gauche (CD/LP)
This record walks the tightrope between weird eclectic stuff and viable (and quite commercial) rock. Reference points include The Raincoats, X-Ray Specs, The Rezillos, The B-52’s, Slapp Happy, and Downtown Boys and Priests, whose members make up this band. So, let’s just say that this record jumps, bounces, and simply wiggles with the delight of a snake that’s about to tempt Eve with forbidden fruit. Yeah, this is joyous rock music. “Flash” is great late 70’s rock with a maze-like guitar bit and a female vocal that darts here and there with a punky attitude. And a sax dots every exclamation point. But then things get pleasantly weird. “Cycles” sings with vocals that are warm and sharp, while the band, with guitar and sax, plays to the very brink of any cliff. And then “Pay Day” jumps, bounces, and wiggles with low-flying helium rock ‘n’ roll inflation. This one zig-zags through the universe with the odd melodic quest. And the guitar temps the future. But “Surveilled Society” is guitar chord specific and hops around the history of rock with a pleasant dissonant confidence. This one stretches logic into a commercial tune. The same is true for “Copper Woman” which sounds like a warmer version of the great band Wire. Repetition is the key, like Andy Warhol Campbells’ Soup cans. “Running” continues to evoke the music of the late 70’s, while adding yet another odd vibration into the vocals. And that guitar continues to wiggle like a snake that’s about to tempt Eve with that forbidden delight. And speaking of temptation in the Garden of Eden, I once met a guy, in all places, Oregon’s Crater Lake campground, who claimed that the Bible had it all wrong, and there never was any forbidden tree, but rather, a jukebox with the future music of humanity, and Adam and Eve were instructed, specifically, to never play E-5, which was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” The final songs release the few restraints left to the music. “Rent” is a punky romp with bopping sax and vocals that whoop with tribal rock ‘n’ roll bliss. And I still think the guitar wiggles with the smile of beautiful deceit. “Rectangle” ups the tribal bliss as the vocals sing radio signals from distant planets. It’s all ramshackle and oddly tough. This is the sound of vocal cords being ripped and shredded–just like John Lennon’s torn voice as he sang “Twist and Shout” way back in The Beatles’ Please Please Me days.
GOMEZ, Liquid Skin (20th Anniversary Edition) (2xCD/2xLP)
Surrounded by instruments, broken toys and a four-track recorder, Gomez recorded large parts of their debut album Bring It On in a garage in their hometown of Southport. To create its follow-up, Liquid Skin, the group would expand their horizons sonically and geographically, visiting America, an ill-fated English stately home & some of the finest recording studios in the world between 1998 and 1999. There was no pause between Bring It On and Liquid Skin – the records were released just 518 days apart. “The first album and this one merge into one in a lot of ways. A lot of the tracks were written at the same time” explains singer/guitarist Ben Ottewell. “There’s a song called ‘Bring It On’ on Liquid Skin, which says it all really. They were made very closely together, so it seemed like part of the same process. We were constantly making records”. As a result, writing and recording for Gomez’s second album did not so much have a definitive start but instead it emerged out of the same creative energy as their debut, although it soon took its own distinctive path. Gomez’s drummer Olly Peacock commented; “Liquid Skin was the step from the four track and recording in a garage to us accepting – in the most ridiculous way – that we were now doing music professionally. ‘Oh s_t we somehow got our record deal, we are a band and we go to the studio now. We’re not going to be hacking it all together.’ There was an excitement because there were less limitations.” Going to Number 2 in the UK Album Chart on its release in September 1999, Liquid Skin not only justified the label’s faith to allow the band to work how and where they wanted, but it saw the British band crystallize their unique sound & grow audiences in America, Australia and other parts of the world, confirming that their Mercury Prize-winning debut was no fluke. The new Liquid Skin deluxe reissue will include 5 previously unreleased tracks, 4 previously unreleased alternate versions and 9 live tracks recorded at The Fillmore in San Francisco in 2000.