British alternative titans the Orielles‘ new double album, Tableau, is one of those invigorating works of art in which the process of its creation becomes its underlying theme. “On a musical level, the record felt to me to have a massive theme of breaking out of old patterns,” says guitarist Henry Carlyle-Wade. “I think [Tableau] echoed the sentiment of us changing processes, finding new sounds.”
Clocking in at 108 minutes, Tableau expands the band’s danceable indie-rock sound through experiments with improvisation, graphic notation, tape loops, tasteful dashes of Auto-Tune, and guidance from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. “The lyrics are for the most part about creativity and process and abandoning structure and stuff like that, just through different guises, through different artistic forms,” says drummer Sidonie Hand-Halford. – Kyle Cochrun
Natural Brown Prom Queen
Singer-songwriter and violinist Sudan Archives, the stage name of Brittney Parks, has always been an artist worth watching. Her mesmerizing work on her instrument, inspired by string sounds from east Africa as well as punk rock sounds and ethos, is both nimble and sensationally hooky. Sophomore album Natural Brown Prom Queen sees her branch out further than ever. Her strings are still buoyant as they are back high-spirited, plugged-in pop of the highest caliber. Singles like the sensual jam “Home Maker” and the blithe empowerment anthem “Selfish Soul” are memorable standouts, but the release is pretty much immaculate, with touches of the vaguely old school (“Freakalizer,” “Yellow Brick Road”) complementing the au courant (heavyweights include “Ciara” and “OMG BRITT”) in splash after splash of bright and innovative music. Sudan Archives continues to be a force in terms of both her artistry and her personality, both of which are expertly interwoven in the brilliant songs of Natural Brown Prom Queen. – Adriane Pontecorvo
In 1981, the Irish post-punk band U2 included the song “Stranger in a Strange Land” in October, a double nod to a checkpoint crossing in East Berlin and biblical themes of displacement. In 2022, the Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C. continued their own ongoing meditation on place and identity with a brooding and complex follow-up to their critically acclaimed sophomore offering, 2020’s A Hero’s Death. Skinty Fia burst onto the 2022 music landscape as a rhythmically dark meditation on identity and place in the postmodern landscape.
While their Dublin predecessors searched for hope in the Cold War era, the Fontaines D.C. album is more in the legacy of Joy Division’s sound and mood. Even given the comparisons, Skinty Fia stands out as strikingly original with its self-conscious inclusion of Gaelic phrases and Irish curses tethered within the industrial guitar riffs and ominous bass lines. The band’s artistry brilliantly evokes the turbulence of displacement in a post-Brexit context, the fractures of connection, and the stubborn reminders to never forget who you are. Musically and lyrically, Skinty Fia gives testimony to a band continuing to come fully into its own voice and mature in theme and sound. – Rick Quinn
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Life on Earth
The wolves are already at the door. As Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff) sings on “Wolves”, the opening track on her latest album, Life on Earth. It’s not secure being at home or anywhere else anymore. The songs that follow explore different survival strategies one can take to endure and thrive during our short Life on Earth. Her schemes include a combination of having the right pissed-off punk attitude and an appreciation of one’s place in the natural order.
Segarra sings and plays (guitars, synths, drums) on every cut, along with producer Brad Cook (guitars, synths, keys, bass), except for the final track “Kin”, a field recording of chimes hung on an oak tree in a New Orleans city park. Some songs feature snippets of spoken word dialogues and other musical accompaniment, but the album also offers intimacy between Segarra and her audience. Segarra is the voice crooning in your ear.
The two most compelling cuts on the album are “Precious Cargo” and “Saga” which address personal pain as the result of totally different circumstances. “Precious Cargo” tells the tale of an immigrant mother’s journey to the United States and the cruelty of ICE treating her like a criminal. “Saga” is the story of being molested but not believed by those in authority. Segarra treats both situations as the nightmares they are. They share the same message: we need to help others. It is our moral obligation as citizens of the world. The emphasis is on all beings aiding each other. The album is dedicated “to all the creatures, plant life, and energy forms of planet Earth”. – Steve Horowitz
Where’s the One?
The cast of characters who make up Congotronics International make for a uniquely invigorating supergroup. Members of Congolese DIY rock groups Kasai Allstars and Konono No1 team up with indie stars Juana Molina, Deerhoof, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, and Skeletons’ Matt Mehlan on Where’s the One?, a gloriously hectic release that represents the culmination of nearly two decades of Crammed Discs’ groundbreaking Congotronics series. Pulled together from painstakingly edited live and studio recordings made since the ensemble’s world tour ten years ago, Where’s the One? is comprised of gloriously distinct styles that interweave and morph from start to finish.
Each artist feeds off the building energy of the group as rumba meets noise and folk meets futurism to generate multitextured sonic frenzies at high volume. What Congotronics International maps out in their music is exactly what their name suggests: a world of musical connections based around Kinshasa’s tradi-moderne scene and an unbounded collaborative spirit. An invigorating and imaginative bending of genre conventions. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Instead of sounding like another band on each successive recording, Black Midi sound like they’re tampering with different genres. There remain the Black Midi staples – Geordie Greep’s Claypoolian speak-sing delivery, their machine-gun stops, the distortion of meter and time in the name of generating heat. But, on Hellfire, the group’s third LP to date and their second in successive years, Black Midi are out to toy with the trappings of jazz – and they perform their task with King Crimson-level technical prowess and zeal.
The record is a real workout – a mind-bender – and Greep, in particular, unleashes arhythmic guitar lines and blurred line readings of his lead vocals nearly to the point of exhaustion. He positively melts down halfway through “The Race Is About to Begin”. But that’s what we’ve come to love about Black Midi. Hellfire is a wonderful entry in their growing and impressive canon, the sort of recording invented for critics to throw phrases like “tour-de-force” at it. Black Midi continue to put out adventurous and challenging music that keeps listeners on the tips of their toes. — Justin Vellucci
Let’s Say for Instance
There’s no need to attempt to find subtext in the songs from Emeli Sandé‘s Let’s Say for Instance because they are, for the most part, smart, uplifting pop songs with the kind of inspirational lyrics that would soothe a wide variety of adversarial circumstances. The cultural climate has been difficult and an album like this one works as a healing balm. So, whether one is struggling with sexual/gender identity, illness, or failed romance, there’s a song on Let’s Say for Instance that will fit; it’s so beautifully sung and well-produced that to find fault would seem churlish.
The work on Let’s Say for Instance has a pleasingly diverse sound as the music touches upon different kinds of popular music: although Sandé maintains her UK Soul/R&B roots, she also incorporates dance, arena rock, and pop. It’s an expensive record that operates like a big-budget film with an appealing leading lady. Though the songs’ production is quite dense and thick – there’s a lot of studio gloss and sheen – Sandé’s strong, distinct voice slices through. In a song like “There Isn’t Much”, there’s in fact so much going on – a haunting gospel choir, programmed percussion, U2-style electric guitars – but the pointed lyrics and the urgent vocals balance the crowded production. Sandé’s voice has a gorgeous catch that injects anything she sings – even the “you, go girl!” lyrics – with a twinge of poignancy. – Peter Piatkowski
Nothing to Declare
One of the best hip-hop albums released this year was 700 Bliss’ Nothing to Declare. The duo, comprised of Philadelphia artist/rapper Moor Mother and New Jersey producer DJ Haram, craft an exciting and muscular brand of experimental electronica, an intensely-physical style of production over which Moor Mother spits off-kilter bars teeming with charisma and menace. Tracks like “Discipline” and “Bless Grips” epitomize the album’s tough, captivating, and often downright-scary tone, making Nothing to Declare as rewarding as it is confrontational. – Tom Morgan
Now into their 18th year of making records, UK synthpoppers Hot Chip show no sign of flagging on Freakout/Release, as they build on an enviable catalog of open-hearted floor fillers and finely crafted pop-dance tunes. On their eighth album, they harness a newfound band dynamic and improvisational spirit gained from their live shows and a new studio, while they draw on a period of pandemic-induced anxiety that’s seemingly left a trail of good people damaged and traumatized. They, therefore, serve up 11 multi-stylistic songs that are admirably adventurous in their preoccupation with troubled states of being.
“Down” is wonderfully funky, soulful, and urgent, with vocalist Alexis Taylor ramping up the intensity in the role of a paranoid lover. The title track is an aggressive rock/dance hybrid, while “Broken” is a heartfelt ballad possessed of a divine melody, a delicate vocal, and a big chorus of chiming synth chords. Added to this is “Hard to Be Funky”, on which Joe Goddard frets (always the fretting) about aging, grooving, and loving over a noirish groove, before the straight-ahead house outing that is “Time”. Hell, you can forgive Hot Chip for the occasional daft lyric concerning Andre the Giant, Samuel Beckett, and carpools when you have tunes like this. – Adam Mason
Take It Like a Man
Amanda Shires‘ Take It Like a Man carries the deep cuts of a confessional release. Shires has never been shy, but her latest release digs particularly deep. Were it a gush of catharsis, it wouldn’t work, but Shires writes from a place of deep reflection, raising more questions than it provides answers. Much of the album centers on the struggles and potential decline of a relationship, but Shires’ writing has too much complexity for the disc to be a simple break-up album.
Over the course of the record, Shires goes through a number of emotions, despair near the top, but with desire still burning. The opener “Hawk for the Dove” creates the context in which all of those emotions and philosophical concerns can flourish. Shires’ passion comes through with both determination and a latent potential for destruction. She’s moved well out of her folk and country roots for the most part, and her expanded sound finds various ways to corral these various meditations. The album closes with a sort of peace during “Everything Has Its Time,” suggesting that resignation has turned to acceptance. The album’s consistent beauty makes its difficult experiences more navigable, finally settling here, unhappy but with a sort of rest, wanted or not. – Justin Cober-Lake