Wait…what? The year is already half over? What the hell have I been doing the last six months? Okay, so I actually know what I’ve been doing…When not listening and listening and listening. The second quarter of 2015 hasn’t just lived up to the promise of the first, it’s kicked the year into high gear. There just doesn’t seem to be a limit to the great music we’re going to get this year, so while dimmer wits worry about the “song of the summer” here’s a twelve pack of albums that will actually matter when it’s said and done.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit [Mom & Pop Music]: Am I the only one unaware John Cooper-Clarke and Patti Smith had a daughter? It’s hard to tell what’s cooler about Barnett – her gift for turning the most ordinary acts and common scenery into kickass storytelling, the clattering guitar punk she employs to hammer her stories into songs or that outback-flattened, matter-of-fact rasp she “sings” them with. Listening to Sometimes I Sit and Think is like hanging out with that friend from school who’s smarter than you, but never seems to get their shit together. We know Barnett isn’t that person [she’s been running her own label since 2012], but it’s easy to believe every now and then, she just says “fuck it” and stays in bed eating butter pecan from the carton and binge watching Godzilla movies or something.
Beauty Slap EP [Bandcamp]: Everything about this makes sense, except for the fact it happened in Pittsburgh [where almost nothing happens until after it’s happened everywhere else]: C-Street Brass, a classical horn quintet doing a residence at CMU meets up with an aspiring undergraduate DJ and realize they have a taste for phat beats and making people dance…The result is Beauty Slap, which is all that and a bag of chips. You really need to see them live, but this EP is a tasty tease of simmering ideas, trip-hop sheen, and horns with bite. Word on the street is they’re working on a full album as we speak, so be on the look out. And remember where you heard it first.
Leon Bridges – Coming Home [Columbia]: There’s an era that never really existed, but people still remember like it happened to them. This was a time when all the music was great, everyone loved and respected each other, People had the Power, Beauty and Truth walked hand in hand, and True Love could conquer fear, hate, oppression and evil in time for the Hero to walk off into the sunset. None of that ever happened, and shows no signs of ever happening now. But for the time it takes to listen to this record , you’ll believe it’s all true. It’s not, but damn, it feels good thinking it might be. It’s obvious Bridges is dedicated to bringing the classic soul sounds and styles into the modern arena, but it’s also clear that he wants to be more than just an curator or revivalist. Coming Home always sounds warm and real, never antiquated or reconstituted. Bridges isn’t afraid to stretch boundaries either; his flair for open verses and extended melodies turn tracks like the biographical “Lisa Sawyer” from soul to Art Song. The only downside here is the short running time [only 34 minutes], that leave us fearing Bridges hasn’t anything left in the tank after his opening statement. We won’t know about that until we know, but for now, even a small slice of heaven is heavenly.
Duo Jatekok – Danses [Mirare]: Anyone who still thinks piano recital albums must be scholarly affairs needs to hear this record. For their debut recording, Adelaide Panaget and Nairi Badal unleash their four-handed piano sorcery on a series of miniatures and danses by Borodin, Ravel, Grieg and Barber with never a dull moment. Running the spectrum from multi coloured fireworks to muted, pastel nocturnes, the duo’s technique never feels forced or gimmicky. It would be easy to believe they’re actually twins separated at birth and not just long time friends and classmates who naturally evolved towards each other. There will probably be a more lauded piano recital this year, but there won’t be a better or more exciting one.
Melody Gardot – Currency of Man [Verve]: So far, this is the best album this year that nobody seems to be talking about. With her leathery voice and patient style, Gardot has always seemed wise beyond her years, but that’s probably what comes when you take up singing and playing guitar as therapy from a life-altering traffic accident. While she’s always had a wont for small “p” politics and capital “L” Love, she’s never voiced them as forcefully before. Larry Klein’s silken production and Clement Ducol’s sly orchestrations give Currency a feeling closer to soul than the Artful Jazz Gardot is known for. Pieces like “It Gonna Come” and “She Don’t Know” feel luxuriously retro, poised at the intersection of Womack and Mayfield while “Bad News” comes off like the Tom Waits cover that Peggy Lee never got to sing. Affer the gripping art house soul of “Preacherman” [based on the 1955 lynching murder of Emmett Till, Melody goes back to the sumptuous, timeless jazz that’s her first love, with predictably beautiful results. Throughout Currency of Man, Gardot, Klein and Ducol realize there’s not much new under the sun, but that old, familiar things never stop being beautiful if we love them enough.
Kovacs – 50 Shades of Black [WEA]: At first glance, Sharon Kovacs look like the sort of chanteuse you used to see in the bar scenes of dystopian-to video Sci Fi movies, which is the highest kind of compliment. Her dark, astringent voice feels sand-crusted and laboratory perfect at once, matching the music on 50, which can veer from vintage to modern in the space of a verse. When Kovacs assures us she “can be a Witch/A Bitch/A Murderer” on the title track, we don’t doubt her… but we still want to be closer to her. As the inky trip-hop darkens the room, we can only hope her bite brings as much pleasure as her bark.
Jerry Lawson – Just a Mortal Man [Red Beet Records]: How did the we get along without Jerry Lawson’s voice being famous? After a 40 year run with cult a cappella group the Persuasions, Lawson’s “debut” album feels like a masterwork a lifetime in the making. The elegant, restrained AAA backing that producer Eric Brace stages allows Lawson’s voice to own every moment of this record. Weathered, tender and glowing with earned wisdom, Lawson gives the quiet defiance of “Peace Like a River” power a thousand shouting voices can’t equal, while rocking “Never Been to Memphis” with classy warmth. “I Hope That Love Always Knows Your Name” trembles like that goodbye you gave the one you loved enough to let go of, but can’t forget. Because he knows he’s great, Lawson makes it all sound simple and effortless; Part of wisdom is knowing Mortal Man is the highest accolade one can hope for. An Album of the Year Contender.
Lonelady – Hinterland [ Warp]: If anybody in the mainstream had cared at the time, the “Manchester Sound” could have become a generational/locational cliche much like “Haight Ashbury,” “The Summer of Love” of “The First 100 Days of Punk.” Fortunately, that didn’t happen and the raw materials people attribute to Manchester lay dormant, waiting for re-discovery. Enter Mancunian native Julie Campbell, to breathe life and motion into her collection of itchy, analog noises and rhythms under the [very post-punk] nom de guerre of Lonelady. Track after track, Campbell turns the blue-gray sounds of her hometown into witty, accessible but cerebral dance music, all topped with her semi-sweet, avian voice. Campbell really seems to have found new formulae from familiar elements…What else is she inventing in there?
The Milk Carton Kids – Monterey [Anti]: You should probably see the Milk Carton Kids live before buying. Their elegant melodies introspective lyrics, dexterous fret work and heart-splitting harmonies are almost too much to take without the good humor they sprinkle throughout their live show. Their po-mo take on Smothers Brothers values is almost a necessary leavener for the earnest beauty of their music. Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan recorded the songs on Monterey at while on tour at various venues pre-show. This ties in with the album’s “concept” of travel, but the songs don’t convey the feeling of escape. There is a sense of motion: uncertain rootlessness without set destination. These are stories of people who are always moving, but ending up at the same place [ask any touring musician what that’s like]. Because Pattengale and Ryan are so committed to their songs, the quieter Monterey gets, the more you feel it. While that’s how folk music is supposed to work, it’s rarely the case, which is what makes this record so special.
Mojo Juju – Seeing Red/Feeling Blue [ABC/Universal]: Mojo Juju deserves better lovers. As fascinating as her pop art is, nobody needs to spend this much time staring at that unsettling color that happens when desire and heartache meet. Mojo disregards convention, but she’s a soul traditionalist at heart, which means that no matter how strong or proud, she’s a careless glance away from being struck down by love, betrayed by her own will. She can flip Cupid off all she likes, but when he cuts, she bleeds. It shouldn’t be so fascinating for us to watch and hear, but always is, and you can’t get more traditional than that.
Nadine Shah – Fast Food [Apollo ]: The elegance and ease Nadine Shah makes confessions with used to be the purview of strumming lady folkies and self-styled “piano men,” not a post punk priestess like Shah. The richly textured, densely layered post punk Shah uses to recount her tales of love, desire, emotional twists and loss is stunning because we don’t usually expect this kind of interpersonal heat inside of such cerebral art music. Comparisons to Polly Harvey and Nick Cave [who she name-checks in “Fool”] aren’t out of line, but the pre-goth sounds of Lene Lovich and/or Nina Hagen feel more accurate from here.. An Englishwoman of Pakistani and Norwegian parents, Shah’s biggest creative influence was Nina Simone, another outsider artist capable of forcing the intellect and the emotional together, splitting them into new colors. Her dark contralto is more malleable than it seems at first, enveloping the eros of “Big Hands” in blue smoke, but curdling into an arch and testy tell-off to the poseurs of “Fool” and “Living,” then rippling with regret and heartache on “Divided” and “Nothing Else to Do.” For Shah, relationships are hard, confusing and almost always in vain…but it’s also necessary and worth the risk…so she falls and we fall with her. Fast Food is likely going to become a Breakup Album for a lot of people, which is pretty high praise, really.
Pops Staples – Don’t Lose This [Anti]: In a civilised nation, Roebuck Staples’ face would be on money. At least he left us with one last riveting document of his quiet greatness. Originally recorded as demos for a final Staples Singers record, a dying Staples left the tapes in the care of his daughter Mavis, telling her “Don’t lose this.” She didn’t, though it took nearly 15 years to turn the original recordings into an album. Mavis took the demos to Jeff Tweedy, producer of her recent “comeback” albums. Tweedy didn’t produce a record, so much as build a pedestal for Roebuck to deliver a final address from, adding his own bass work, the drumming of his son Spencer and the backing vocals of Mavis, Yvonne and Cleotha Staples. The final result is as direct and immediate as the Staples’ classic Vee Jay gospel records as Roebuck’s voice and tremolo guitar act as a magnetic center that the sisters revolve around. The ten tracks are amazing simple gifts from a man brave enough to realize that love, friendship and faith are the most courageous acts of revolution anyone can commit. When Roebuck Staples says Don’t Lose This, he’s talking about bigger things than just a record album.
NEXT: It’s Not You, It’s Me…