Olds Sleeper – Night Comes Strong (Americana)
My first exposure to Olds Sleeper was startling, and he’s yet to disappoint me, across four albums of his own and one collaboration with the beguiling Heidi Harris (not to mention the cigar-box guitar stuff he puts out as Jellyspine Jenkins). Using lo-fi production as a device to emphasise the pure materiality of his music-making, Olds Sleeper’s songwriting achieves a form of sincerity that can’t be contrived or dissembled; he gives voice to a particular form of American street-level experience, in a musical language precisely cognate with its cultural dialects. His songs speak from the soul of the alienated, hard-drinking, working poor, casual asides that express extremities of pain and desperation as the unremarkable banalities that they are for many. Simply constructed, simply performed, austerely arranged and absolutely devastating; Night Comes Strong contains some of the most powerful music I’ve heard.
Dementio 13 – A Quiet Suburban Corner (electronica)
It never fails to amaze me just how much varied, inventive, interesting and emotionally charged music one individual can make, working alone in a home studio. Dementio 13 is notable both for his wide-ranging understanding of electronic music and production, and for the ceaseless creativity with which he puts his knowledge to work. Most of the music on A Quiet Suburban Corner has a beat, but that is by no means the dominant characteristic of the album; melody, textural variation and timbral transformations abound. More electric, rather than electronic instruments have been creeping into his work over the last several releases, but this album seems to mark a return to a more purely sequenced practice. Dementio 13 is a composer, not a songwriter, and his music is not driven by any verbal content (there are voices, but they are sampled and employed as instruments); instead its meanings reside in the feeling of the tunes, its dynamic ebb and flow, and its multifarious orchestral manoeuvres. That it manages not only to sustain interest, but to feel consistently as though it has something important to say, to reward the listener on all fronts, is all the more impressive when you consider that the music is pretty much all accessible stuff, sometimes danceable, and rarely employs any forbidding formal devices. Unassumingly brilliant.
Public Spaces – KP—LP (avant-rock)
Electropapaknit/ Dirty Beard Monthly DBM003 £3+ DD £5+ CD
Public Spaces play menacing rock with an eclectic approach, incorporating a hefty dose of sounds and practices from the worlds of jazz and industrial music, and a crafty way with electronics and production tools. These songs are built on the results of some real-time jam sessions, with additional laminations of sound effects, guest musicians and whatever else they felt like throwing at it; as such, they are not very song-y, foregrounding beats and atmospheres over words and tunes. This could be a recipe for incoherence in less capable hands, but KP—LP is informed by a very clear aesthetic vision, and when the playing of instruments becomes noticeable amidst the confusion, it’s clear that there are some real chops here as well. Grinding, bluesy grooves co-exist with disorientating avant-garde experiment, bizarre ambiences, disturbing loops and all kinds of unexpected transformations; Public Spaces are clearly an ensemble with a great deal of ambition, and they have all the rigour and skill they need to back it up. This is a truly innovative, ear-opening, and musically superior album.
Helicopter Quartet – Where Have All The Aliens Gone? (ambient)
Sounds ooze slowly on Where Have All The Aliens Gone?, initially in the form of harmonic guitar drones that drift between fragments of violin melody, later in harsher, more abrasive timbres. Although Helicopter Quartet claim a quality of darkness in the notes on their Bandcamp page, and there is an element of that, for me, the predominant emotional colour here is a kind of melancholic warmth. There are also moments of icy cold, and unsettling tension, and the music is a complex beast, for all its structural simplicity, never simply and unequivocally one thing or another, but either calm or warmth are rarely more distant than a quick consultation with short-term memory. The music on this album is all performed on physical instruments (fiddle and guitar), which keeps its meanings in touch with an idea of music that normally calls for a more discursive approach to phrasing and melody; and indeed, fully formed, extended phrases occasionally emerge from the gloaming, as happens halfway through the title track. This brings a creative and cognitive tension to the sound, a sense that it is between two worlds, always on the verge of sudden activity, or dwindling into silence. Somewhere in that interzone, Helicopter Quartet mine seams of strikingly beautiful and indefinably unsettling aural bounty. It takes real vision to stick with an approach like this long enough for it to pay off, and pay off it has; Where Have All The Aliens Gone? is a resounding creative success, and an immersive listening experience.
Stray Theories – Those Who Remain (ambient)
Already Dead Tapes AD084 $8+ DD $5 CC
Those Who Remain is an album of melodies and moods; its textures are built in the usual way of electronic ambient music, but the compositions, while formally uncomplicated, feature distinct musical statements built from successions of pitches (or ‘tunes’, as we doctors call them), rather than focussing exclusively on colour and atmosphere. It might be more to the point to call it ‘extremely laid back’, rather than ambient. Some pieces fairly motor along, albeit in a hazy and atmospheric manner, while others float in the sort of timeless volume that ambient music is so good at evoking, but all have some sense of movement, of progression from beginning to end of the arrangement. Micah Templeton-Wolfe (the project’s sole member) is adept at the creation of spatial, liquid atmospheres from electronic sources; his work has been described as cinematic, with good reason, although this movie never quite gets to the car chase… Synth pads and piano complement each other beautifully, and the Stray Theories sound is a tissue of luminous, glimmering consonance. This is a lovely record.
Apex Zero – Reality Provoking Liberation (hip-hop)
£5+ DD £7 CD
‘Conscious’ is a word that’s bandied around a great deal in hip-hop, an easy (or lazy) shorthand for anything that seeks to set itself apart from the mainstream, to claim some form of radical credibility or political authenticity. It can usually be taken as a warning to brace for incoming platitudes, and the lyrics that claim that label are as frequently ill-informed and self-contradictory as they are insightful or inspiring. I haven’t conducted an in depth analysis of Apex Zero’s lyrics on this, his debut album, but he seems, in contrast, to have gone to the bother of educating himself in some relevant areas of social and revolutionary struggle, and articulates some convincing accounts of the relation of personal experience to the power structures that shape it. His take on hip-hop is not as radical as his politics, and eschews experimentalism in favour of clear and direct communication: hard-hitting, high-energy flows, lyrics fueled by righteous moral anger, and raw, dirty beats rich with atmospheric samples all work together to drive Apex Zero’s message home with uncompromising determination. Real skills, and no bullshit.
Jackie Ord – Ropers Green (acoustic songs)
I review a lot of music that comes with an agenda (political or artistic), and a good deal of serious intensity about pursuing it. Sometimes it’s good to have a reminder that songs can just be songs, and music can just be fun. Jackie Ord’s songs are not making any arguments or trying to open our eyes to any earth-shattering insights; they simply document some of her experiences (largely positive ones), episodes in her life and places she’s lived. They do so with engaging directness and charming simplicity. Her melodies have pleasingly regular antecedent-consequent contours, and her harmonies are built mainly on primary triads; the arrangements are structured around her acoustic guitar, with additional parts sensitively performed by the members of the duo Landermason, the most attractive of which spring from Fiona Lander’s various wind instruments. Ropers Green’s positivity is unleavened by any sense of tension or darkness, and unclouded by any kind of pretension; it’s a generous and entertaining album.
Rob Dylan – Rob Dylan (acoustic songs)
Bob Dylan songs performed with understanding and a bit of oomph will always make for a good listen, because they’re great songs; and because they’re great songs they can withstand more or less anything you want to throw at them, in terms of arrangement and performance. That’s not Rob Dylan’s schtick, however: he’s more of a tribute act (and not the only British Bob Dylan tribute to go by this name). He hasn’t forced his voice into a precise facsimile of the composer’s, but his nasal, rough-toned delivery couldn’t be mistaken for being anything other than directly inspired by the records that made these songs famous. Accompanied solely by his acoustic guitar and his idiomatically correct harmonica, Rob Dylan presents a selection of songs that will be familiar to most, and for the most part these performances don’t add anything to their recorded history. He does what he does well, and it’s an approach that has a lot of appeal live; as a record, this is basically a document of his act, a well-made, nicely recorded calling card. I’ll still be reaching for the classic Dylan albums when I want to hear these songs, but this is good stuff.
Rick Fury & Lazer – Double Dragon (hip-hop)
Killamari Records £0+ DD
I know nothing about Lazer, and I can’t find out anything about him online using my standard exhaustive research methods (quick look on Facebook while I neck some coffee), but his gravelly estuarine stylings make a solid complement to the ragamuffin Tyneside spiel of Rick Fury, whose work I’ve been following as a fan and a critic for a lot of years now. There are no real surprises here, and the ingredients are pretty much what they are when Rick’s on his own: humour and dialectic wit; down-to-earth urban subjectivities; tales that find a lot of fun and excitement in the banal and ordinary; skittering, confident and sometimes dazzling flows; erudite beat-making with a wide selection of apt samples (with a particular penchant for martial arts movies); and charismatic, self-deprecating personae, that come across as people you’d like to have a few pints and a spliff with. Rick Fury knows how to do this stuff by now, and has been releasing a continuous stream of top-quality, razor-sharp hip-hop for years; this collaboration is a worthy addition to the canon. Independent UK rap that proves neither of those factors are any obstacle to achieving the very highest standards, and makes those rich famous rappers look stupid.
Ed Muirhead – Simple Life (roots rock)
Tattie Records £5+ DD £10+ CD
Musicians often put a lot of thought into the sequencing of their albums; conventional wisdom suggests opening with a strong tune, but probably saving the best until later. Ed Muirhead bucks the trend, showing all his cards with the opening track, and why not? ‘Ballad of Lorraine and Frank’ is such an incredibly arresting and involving song, and is arranged in such an intelligently dramatic manner, that I personally spent the rest of the album recovering from it… And that is intended to take nothing away from the remaining eight songs, which are also excellent. Muirhead is an earthy, rootsy songwriter, with a beautifully rough-hewn voice (and a vocal technique that has matured noticeably since Cage For The Clouds), but he’s not your typical beetle-browed acoustic guitar thrasher; as a piano player he has a broader perspective on harmony and rhythm, a sophistication which never obstructs the directness and simplicity of his material, instead affording him the tools to frame those characteristics more effectively. He does perform some of the songs on guitar, but it’s always clear the instrument is his servant, not his master. The songs are not outlandishly unusual in their choice of subject, or in the creative assumptions that inform them; but what makes them so powerful is the impression of total honesty and particularity with which they are infused. This is songwriting done right, skillfully realised, performed without equivocation; the results are moving.
Max Raptor – Mother’s Ruin (punk)
Naim Label naimcd188 £6.99 DD £9.99 CD
Max Raptor play high energy, crunchy punk-rock; it’s not exactly hardcore, and it’s not exactly overtly anarchistic, although the songs on Mother’s Ruin (as far as I can tell from a few relatively superficial auditions of the album) seem to be concerned with social and political themes. And where that sense of anarchy tends to pervade all aspects of the creative practice of more deliberately radical punk bands, this is an extremely polished, carefully crafted album. The songs are solid, melodic and accessible, with lots of variety and some imaginative twists and turns; the arrangements are very slick, the performances impeccable, and the production maximises the music’s impact without rubbing off all its corners or compressing it to death. You may see where I’m going with this; it all seems a bit too perfect really. It’s not in the same territory as the irritating extremes of American pop-punk, but it lacks that sense of challenge that makes you want to go out and build a barricade. Instead it makes you want to party really hard, and I’m in no position to prescribe what an album should or shouldn’t be, but suffice it to say that this is entertaining rock music that uses a punk based vocabulary. Will I be evangelising for this band? No. Will I be giving this record quite a few more spins for recreational purposes? Yes (apart from the sugary ballad chorus to ‘Heavy Hearts’ which I’ll be skipping every time). Good songs (mostly) and an exciting sound.
Astrosuka – ЗОЛОТАЯ—–ГРЯЗЬ (electronica)
Aural Sects $0 DD
Sometimes decidedly abstract, sometimes driven along by a danceable beat, Astrosuka’s sounds are consistently inventive exercises in electronic timbral manipulation. This is some pretty determinedly avant-garde art music, but its central concerns are not focussed on noise or ambience, as is frequently the case with electronic music of such a bent; instead the main thrust of ЗОЛОТАЯ—–ГРЯЗЬ seems to be the appropriation and subversion of relatively mainstream musical materials, welding recognisable parts into a whole that resembles a broken mirror, reflecting the pieces of a thousand electronic pop songs, none of which can quite be recognised from their fragmentary presence in Astrosuka’s fantasia. It’s actually very listenable, in a straightforward ‘this is a nice sound’ sort of a way, at least it is for me, with my taste for the contingent and open-ended; if you need your songs to come with a strong sense of closure and grammatical completeness then probably less so, but the surface textures are far from harsh or dissonant. The album continually challenges conventional prescriptive notions of musical structure and narrative aesthetics, but it’s not just smashing them up randomly; instead it’s full of alternatives. It’s experimental, but it’s also extremely coherent. Creatively rigorous, very intelligent, and generally splendid.