Throughout her illustrious 48-year solo career, Mavis Staples has never stayed musically stagnant, melding her radiant sound with some of the best musicians of the era including Curtis Mayfield, Prince and Ry Cooder. But after last year’s M. Ward-produced Livin’ on a High Note, the 78-year old soul legend returned to work with her most frequent collaborator, Jeff Tweedy.
Written and produced entirely by the Wilco frontman, Staples’ 16th full-length is a classy, enlightening look into the politics and issues of post-Trump America, showing the civil rights activist assertively in her wheelhouse. But even if this ten-track, 35-minute LP didn’t boast such insightful lyrics like, “If all I was was black, looking at you, you might look past all the love I give” (“If All I Was Was Black”) or “when they tell their lies, spread around rumours, I know they’re still human, and they need my love” (“We Go High”), it would still stand as an achievement in Staples’ discography. Mavis’s delivery here is impassioned and insightful, and it’s paired nicely with Tweedy’s raw and imperfect guitar playing and his son Spencer’s perfectly hands-off percussion.
If All I Was Was Black is another late-career winner from Staples, an album that perfectly captures her gentle, loving and elegant way of making a political statement without sacrificing the passion she’s built her career upon. (Anti)
When James Holden released his superb 2013 LP The Inheritors, critics likened his synthetic psychedelia to first-wave electronic experimenters like Can and Cluster. On his followup, The Animal Spirits, the British musician explores this brand of tactile songwriting to its fullest, employing a band (featuring a cornet player, saxophonist and drummer) and recording much of this nine-track, 47-minute LP live off the floor — and often from single takes.
Listening in, it makes sense that Holden started his career off in the late ’90s releasing trance singles, as tracks like the aptly titled “Pass Through the Fire” and the rhythmically sweeping “Thunder Moon Gathering” turn into riotously unbridled abstractions that somehow also feel locked-in and groovy.
Although any capable group can record live in the studio, it takes a skilled bandleader to control the energy of the room and pull out great performances. Luckily, Holden does just that, helping the cascading “The Beginning & End of the World” and the noisy-but-stylish “The Neverending” build and unfold at tempered and palatable paces.
On his third LP, James Holden establishes a sound wholly his own, allowing The Animal Spirits‘ gorgeous, absorbing and wonderfully unkempt mix of psych, jazz, folk and electronic to infiltrate the listener’s psyche. (PIAS)
Folk-based music has always been infatuated with the days of yore: Bob Dylan started his career indebted to Woody Guthrie; a more modern example is Pokey Lafarge, who often calls back to the early 1900s sound of Bill Monroe. So it’s completely understandable that Langhorne Slim would reach for the dust bowl vibe on his latest LP, Lost at Last Vol. 1. But six albums in, the fact that the Pennsylvania singer-songwriter has failed to properly move forward in his own craft seems a bit troublesome.
An accomplished guitarist and banjo player with the gift of a golden voice, Slim possesses the raw talent to create something captivating with these 13 tracks. Instead, he seems content to recycle old ideas and sounds, resting almost solely on the novelty of his old-timey sound. Tracks like the rambling “Old Things,” the hoedown-lite “Bluebird” and perhaps the most precious song about outlaw life, “Private Property,” shoot for middle-of-the-road appreciation, sucking out any grit from the recording.
As with many of his LPs, Slim’s strong songwriting shines through on a handful of tracks, including the quirky Motown-inspired “House of My Soul,” the Junior Kimbrough-inspired blues number “Funny Feelin'” and the ideal lo-fi production sound of the Theremin-aided “Zombie.” Those tracks demonstrate exactly what Slim can achieve when truly inspired. Optimists will view Lost at Last Vol. 1 as a transitional album, with hopes that volume two finds the songwriter taking more chances and kicking a little more ass. (Dualtone)
Listening to “Ontological Intercourse,” the opening track from Gun Outfit’s fifth LP, Out of Range, it’s apparent that the L.A.-via-Olympia group aren’t your average Americana band. As a lo-fi synthesizer buzz kicks off the aforementioned five-minute track, Gun Outfit co-vocalist Dylan Sharp quotes Ovid’s Metamorphosis, giving the Orpheus myth a modern day, gritty overhaul.
Having started out as a grinding post-punk band, Gun Outfit know how to sound murky and dank, but it’s their literary slant and patient delivery, along with Sharp’s baritone and Caroline Keith’s vocal style that make Gun Outfit’s latest their strongest to date. Throughout the album’s 11 tracks and over 42 minutes of music, the quartet manage to brood their way through numerous artistic themes, from Bruegel the Elder to Samuel Beckett, running each through a Western American scope.
Gone are the distortion pedals and feedback, but Sharp and Keith still keep an indie rock slant, giving tracks like “Landscape Painter” and “Primacy of Love” imperfect but textural guitar playing that adds an extra weight to their grit. And sonically stylized tracks like “The 101” and “Second Decade” demonstrate that there aren’t many bands making music right now with a clearer vision that Gun Outfit. (Paradise)
Quickly following up last year’s well-received A Mineral Love, Stephen Wilkinson (aka Bibio) becomes something of a medium as he channels haunted sounds on his largely improvised follow-up, Phantom Brickworks.
Recording in places that have been, according to Wilkinson, “charged with atmosphere because of what it has been through or what it has been,” the nine-track, 75-minute LP finds the British artist completely abandoning his folktronica sound for something more atmospheric and shapeless. Utilizing icy piano and a cascading wash of gentle effects, Wilkinson has crafted his first fully ambient LP, coming off a bit less structured than the KLF’s Chill Out and a bit more repetitive and rhythmic than Brian Eno’s Ambient 1:Music for Airports.
Though Wilkinson has always approached his craft with a level of serenity and detail, much of this LP works with beautifully constructed melodies that seem to unfold throughout each piece. Unfortunately, at times Phantom Brickworksseems too single-minded to justify some tracks’ 13- and 16-minute runtimes, with only the two-minute “Ivy Charcoal” providing the listener with something wholly digestible.
Wilkinson’s eighth full-length shows the musician’s adeptness at thoughtful, patient compositions, but he seems to have forgotten the value of self-editing. (Warp)
Yarrow, the first album from the Deep Dark Woods since 2013, shows the trad-folk band feeling positively reenergized yet tempered. After taking a four-year hiatus, the Saskatoon trio give LP number six an invigorating new restoration that finds them sounding more patient, intricate and contemplative than they’ve ever been.
Perhaps finding inspiration in the dark, moody delivery of groups like the Handsome Family and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, with Yarrow the Deep Dark Woods have released the closest thing Canada has to a fully fleshed-out Southern gothic fable. Produced by singer Ryan Boldt and Edmonton singer/songwriter Shuyler Jansen, this nine-song LP is an achievement in sonic style, as tracks like the organ-hummed “Fallen Leaves,” the guitar-driven nine-minute epic “The Birds Will Stop Their Singing” and the haunted echoes of “Teardrops Fell” transport the listener into such an unambiguous world that just a single listen is enough to create a spellbinding experience.
But the secret weapon on Yarrow may be the presence of Saskatchewan duo Kacy & Clayton, as Kacy Anderson’s haunted backing vocals drift throughout the record, giving this multidimensional album even more breadth. Although at only 38-minutes in length, the album’s slightly weaker moments — like during the too-precious “Roll Julia” and “San Juan Hill” — stick out a bit more than they should, there’s simply so much to love here that it hardly matters; another 500 glowing words could be written about Yarrow and still not do it justice. (Six Shooter)
Although Max Richter has been scoring film for about just as long as he’s been releasing LPs, it wasn’t until the release of his touching musical accompaniment to the 2008 Golden Globe-winning documentary Waltz with Bashir that the German composer was fully a part of the conversation for the top working film composers today.
Although he’s now worked on over 50 film and television projects (including The Leftovers, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Arrival), Richter’s recorded scores have largely remained unreleased. Now, under his own StudioRichter imprint, the 51-year-old composer has made three of his most celebrated works available digitally and on vinyl.
Originally released on compact disc in 2008, Henry May Long finds Richter still searching for his sound with a sweeping, string-rich 14-song suite that comes off just as archetypally cinematic and textural as you’d expect from a period piece. Much of the LP relies on emotional cello works and slow moving electronics, nicely accented by his minimal piano works.
Richter’s 25-minute score to the first episode of season three of Black Mirror, titled “Nosedive,” is incredibly intricate and cutting-edge, as the composer blends repetitious piano musings with sputtering electronics to create something extremely affecting and alien at the same time, working wonderfully in contrast to and in step with the show’s tragi-comedy themes.
Richter’s work from this year’s BBC One program Taboo incorporates a swath of sounds and genres, but most importantly, it plays with mood, as he incorporates some of his most minimal compositions to date, working off of a single piano note before moving into full-string symphonies and scratchy violin.
With the release of Henry May Long, Black Mirror: Nosedive and Taboo, Max Richter reveals to listeners what film music supervisors have known for over a decade: this is a composer with a terrific sense of sonic style and narrative. (StudioRichter / Deutsche Grammophon)