[10 January 2014]
Photo: Composition of headphones. Image via Shutterstock.
As the record release schedule leaves behind its holiday break-in-the-action and warms up quickly in the new year, so too does “Listening Ahead” come out of hibernation to cover a strong slate of eagerly anticipated albums. Among the most compelling releases that the first few months of 2014 have to offer are works by seasoned pros doing what they do best, high points for up-and-coming artists now hitting their creative peaks, and timely reissues that sound as relevant as ever.
2013 was a great year for Hiss Golden Messenger. The musical outfit of M.C. Taylor put out one of the year’s best, and most celebrated, records in Haw. And now the band’s label is reissuing Bad Debt, a curious and intimate collection recorded by Taylor in the winter of 2010. Oddly enough, the CD copies of this album were destroyed in a warehouse fire in the 2011 London riots. But now the album will be widely available and it’s a crucial record to own. These songs, recorded at home, are built around Taylor’s soulful vocals and gentle guitar phrasings. The album is full of flat-out great songs, from “Balthazar’s Song” to “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” to the excellent mix of strength and vulnerability on “Drum”. The album plays like a major shift for Hiss Golden Messenger, towards the soul-folk vibe that informs both Haw and its excellent predecessor Poor Moon. This is Taylor laying himself bare, confronting uncertainty and doubt, but always with an eye away from the darkness, towards a glowing glint of light. These songs, solitary as they are, build towards possibility, towards connection, towards community. Bad Debt isn’t about what you’re saddled with, it’s about what you get when you pay it off the hard way. It’s as rewarding an album for the listener as it seems to be for Taylor in these beautiful performances. It’s an album of second (or next) chances, and now you’ve got yours to hear this record. Take advantage of it. Matthew Fiander
Of Alcest frontman Neige and his pathbreaking group’s last full-length, 2012’s Le Voyage de l’Âme, PopMatters’ Adrien Begrand wrote that it could represent “a turning point for the French artist, where he’s able to completely transcend his black metal past and create universally appealing music devoid of genre restrictions.” If it wasn’t the case then, that’s what’s happening now with Alcest’s anticipated new effort Shelter: On the heels of the ongoing debates over the taxonomy of Deafheaven‘s Sunbather, Shelter has become one of the new year’s most discussed albums, with the main talking point being that it is not a metal album—an assessment with which Neige would likely concur. Whether you want categorize it as blackgaze or shoegaze or even dream-pop, it’s somewhat academic, because most listeners won’t be worrying about genre distinctions once they indulge in Shelter‘s gleaming, beatific soundscapes. Indeed, Shelter isn’t just melodic when you consider Alcest’s roots, but it’s downright ethereal even placed next to the likes of My Bloody Valentine, particularly the shimmering “Opale” and the string-laced “Away”, which features Slowdive‘s Neil Halstead. There may be residual traces of darkness to contrast with the sweetness and light that mostly pervades Shelter, but they aren’t necessarily heavy, be it the Cure-like tones of “La Nuit Marche Avec Moi” or the searing psychodramatics of “L’Eveil Des Muses”. So whatever you want to classify Alcest as now, Shelter stands up pretty well on its own terms. Arnold Pan
There was a time where Damien Jurado was most closely associated with hushed vocals and spare acoustic arrangements to deliver his expertly detailed lyrics and stories. But with his new record, he’s now three albums deep into a working relationship with producer Richard Swift that has reinvented the singer-songwriter to brilliant result. These new, cosmic landscapes—full of echoing sounds, huge atmosphere and, in the middle of it all, Jurado at his most nuanced and confident—give his songs a new, strange, and vital life. This record works as a sort of sequel to Maraqopa, another journey out into the unknown where our narrator’s voice is surely wandering but seems to be finding his way by degrees rather than getting lost. There’s a shifting between mixed signals (such as “speaking in tongues with the tape on rewind” in “Magic Numbers”) and sifting through the gauze to find something, as on the quiet calm of “Silver Joy”. These songs drift beautifully through the haunting Latin tinges of “Silver Timothy” to the dramatic rippling out of “Jericho” to the sun-warm echoes of closer “Suns in Our Mind”, and if the terrain changes underfoot, the resolve to move forward never wavers. Jurado is a performer with a long and impressively consistent catalog, so it’s hard to call this his high-water mark. Let’s just call it another peak in a career full of them, even as he still sings down to the shadows of the valley. Matthew Fiander
Damien Jurado - Silver Timothy
At this point, you know what you’re going to get from Mogwai, which is a good thing because when have these Glasgow post-rock diehards disappointed in their almost two decades in existence? Certainly, Mogwai’s latest effort Rave Tapes doesn’t, representing another strong, worthwhile entry into the catalog of a band you’d describe as reliable and consistent, meant as the highest compliment and not faint praise. Rave Tapes’ mostly instrumental rock is patented Mogwai material that works at every level of your listening consciousness, whether as immersive atmospheric sound that makes its appeals almost subliminally or as a more total listening experience that fully occupies your attention. However you approach it, you’ll be left wondering (again) how Mogwai transforms studies in contrasting tones and textures into such complete, seamless compositions combining meticulously wrought soundscapes with rough-housing rock action, dead-serious moods with devilish humor—notice, say, how the glimmering, contemplative opener “Heard About You Last Night” gives way to fuzzy, buzzy “Simon Ferocious”. Immaculate, but not afraid to get some dirt under its nails, “Remurdered” builds a sinister sense of mood with simmering electronics, only to cut it thrillingly with thick riffs and resounding rhythms. So, yeah, these might be familiar calls out of the Mogwai playbook, but Rave Tapes makes a pretty powerful case for all the ways experience and execution can trump novelty in terms of generating excitement and intensity. Arnold Pan
The intricate silhouettes on the cover of Warpaint‘s new self-titled disc provide a good visual to convey the L.A. band’s impressionistic aesthetic: While there are passing glimpses of discernable form on it, Warpaint fascinates with its shapeshifting ways as the musical styles you hear change and slip out of your grasp just as you’re able to focus on them, like the images on the cover. It’s that aura of mystery that makes Warpaint a captivating piece, the kind of album that bears repeated listens as you chase its shadow over and over again trying to figure it out. Fluctuating between swathes of hazy atmospherics and flashes of distinct melody, first single “Love Is to Die” offers a telling teaser of the listening experience Warpaint offers, somehow evoking pop character in tone and spirit, just without cut-and-dried shape. While the after-hours simmer of “Hi” and the synth saturated “Biggy” have a more free-floating downbeat vibe to them, Warpaint ably shifts gears and inflections just so with the goth-ish dance moves of “Disco//very” and the more hefty textures of “Feeling Alright”. Yet no matter how hard it is to classify Warpaing, there’s still an intangible sense of cohesion to the album, because, even if you aren’t quite sure how Warpaint pulls off its eclectic, enigmatic sound, you get the clear sense that the band itself knows exactly what it’s doing. Arnold Pan
Apparently, Dum Dum Girls are fearless. The band has spent their catalog expanding upon and complicating their garage-rock beginnings. That sound grew to epic size and scope on the band’s last full-length, Only in Dreams, and the follow-up EP, End of Daze. Those albums were risky expansions, but the fuzz and rock heft remained. Too True, though, is a huge curveball. The band trades in its usual rough edges for shimmering, icy space. These songs feel less like they arose from a garage and more like they drifted down from the astral plane. Songs like “Cult of Love” and “Rimbaud Eyes” charge ahead on thundering drums, but over them guitars ring out and ripple, creating cool and expansive space. In that space, Dee Dee Penny’s voice has never sounded so full, a sweet steam rising among all these colder sounds. But despite the chilly shimmer of these songs, Dum Dum Girls don’t forget to hold onto their lean crunch, so there’s a vital churn to “Little Minx”. Even on the vast drifting of the beautiful closer “Trouble Is My Name”, the song digs into hard earth with brittle swirls of guitar. Too True is new territory for Dum Dum Girls, and that new ground may be coated in ice, but there’s still plenty of heart. But what makes the new work is the debt it pays to the old, folding in just enough of the band’s past success to remind us this is not just a strong sound, but their strong sound. Matthew Fiander
There’s always been a timeless quality to Lambchop‘s 2000 masterstroke Nixon, making it a particularly appropriate candidate to kick off a reissue series by Merge Records marking the label’s 25th anniversary. Despite being constructed from retro-ish styles like classic country, symphonic R&B, lite rock, and EZ-listening, Nixon was too idiosyncratic and ingenious to come off dated or nostalgic when it was initially released—or now, for that matter. If anything, Nixon has aged well, still sounding like transmissions emanating out of a radio broadcasting from another dimension, as the ragtag 14-piece indie orchestra assembled by impresario Kurt Wagner plays like the house band for a cabaret from a surreal alternate reality: While “The Old Gold Shoe”, for instance, feels like it could be a lounge standard that never was, the tastefully funky “Grumpus” carries itself like a flashback that’s both uncannily familiar and otherworldly. But the main reason Nixon worked then and still does is that Wagner and co. never settled for being kitschy or off-the-wall just for the heck of it, as easy as that could’ve been. On Muzak-tinged numbers “You Masculine You” and “What Else Could It Be”, there’s an authentic sense of admiration and care that comes through in the way the subtly grand chamber-pop passages are executed, and the soul in Wagner’s strained falsetto is just can’t be faked. No, what Lambchop aimed for and hit with the all-encompassing atmospherics of Nixon was to create something lasting that was like nothing before it and, looking back 14 years later, after it. Arnold Pan
So it might be a bit misleading to call this record July, but not because it’s chilly. It may feel that way at first, to hear the acoustic guitar ringing out with icy clarity on “Drive”, cutting through Marissa Nadler‘s typically ethereal and beautiful voice. But it’s more a mix of heat and cold. These songs are the flames to warm yourself around, as the cold and dark around them continues to grow. Nadler has always had a sense for texture and songcraft—both were on display all over her two 2011 records, Marissa Nadler and The Sister—and July is another success, a further expansion of her music’s bittersweet echo. These are songs still trailing the long shadow of the past, but trying to shake it off. “You’re a ghost and I’ve changed,” Nadler sings on “Firecrackers”, and you can feel that change on the subtle, gloomy layers of “Dead City Emily” or the meshing of clear instruments with smudged atmosphere on “Desire” or the mix of resignation and sweetness of piano-heavy closer “Nothing in My Heart”. At once grander and more nuanced than her other records, July is Marissa Nadler at her most confident and striking. These songs somehow comfort even as they haunt. To pull off one of those things is no small feat. To do both at the same time is what makes this record special. Matthew Fiander
Mark Kozelek is a perpetually busy man, cranking out live albums and cover records and side projects. But Benji is the proper studio return of his main project, Sun Kil Moon, and it’s a bittersweet and heartbreaking collection. The record focuses mostly around Kozelek and his guitar, and while the arrangements are often simpler than the work on the similarly solitary Admiral Fell Promises, the words here are twisting and wondering, complex and deeply personal. Benji meditates on family and loss, on home and distance from the past. Kozelek tells personal stories, weaving in the tragic loss of “Clarissa” or his connection to family on “I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live without My Mother’s Love”. He pokes and prods at the past on “Dogs”, wonders over violence in the present on “Pray for Newtown”, and comes back to those close to him again and again on songs like “Jim Wise”. What’s also interesting is how songs of family also connect to songs of culture, songs like “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” or “Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes”. The link is effectively murky, as if loss and connection are two sides of the same coin, a coin Kozelek flips over and over again on this record. The songs are as plainspoken as their titles, but he manages to make quotidian details (even, say, eating Panera) sound poetic. Benji can be as wry as other Kozelek records, but its deep personal connections resonate at every turn. Kozelek may be busy, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t stop to wonder, and you will too as you work through this beautiful, sad album again and again. Matthew Fiander
In many cases, what it takes for an emerging singer-songwriter to garner attention is a singular voice or a signature songwriting vision or proficient musicianship. In Angel Olsen‘s case, she flashed her promise as a triple threat who brought all these qualities to the table on 2012’s Half Way Home, staking her claim as an artist to pay attention to for her abilities to channel old-school Roy Orbison-ish rock and Leonard Cohen-esque folk into her own updated indie sensibility. But it’s on the upcoming Burn Your Fire for No Witness that Olsen fulfills her potential, delivering her own one-of-a-kind perspective with her distinctively soulful warble and an impressive versatility as a performer. Most obviously, her creative growth leaps out on Burn Your Fire in her palpable confidence and more intense focus, as she steps out of the lower-fi shell of her previous work more boldly this time around. That’s something you can’t help but notice on the album’s first single, “Forgiven/Forgotten”, which is at once grittier, brisker, and poppier than anything from Olsen’s last outing as she takes her rootsier influences and recasts them into an in-the-rough indie gem. It’s a tone and attitude that carries through the entirety of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, conveying the sense that even if Angel Olsen had an idea of who she is as an artist before, it’s now that she’s really coming into her own. Arnold Pan