Music » Record Roundup

Danny Brown's thoughtfully raunchy Old and 15 more record reviews

Eight Reader writers take on 16 albums—including the Dirtbombs' bubblegum garage, Glasser's peculiar electro-pop, and Traxman's user-friendly footwork.

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Daníel Bjarnason, Over Light Earth (Bedroom Community)

For his second album, prodigiously talented Icelandic composer and pianist Daníel Bjarnason conducted the Reykjavik Sinfonia and played piano on three of his recent works. The title piece, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was inspired by New York abstract expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. More exciting are the clashing layers of shimmering strings and turbulent horns on the three-part Emergence, whose lumbering, ominous melody hits its conclusion without resolving the piece's unsettling harmonies, making for a tension-riddled trip to the very end. The album concludes with a version of the piano concerto Solitudes that combines brittle, twangy prepared piano with a rippling electronic sheen added by frequent Bjarnason collaborators Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurdsson. Peter Margasak


Danny Brown, Old (Fool's Gold)

When Detroit rapper Danny Brown released his breakout mixtape, XXX, in 2011, he seemed to have emerged fully formed: the self-styled Adderall Admiral was a wiry, colorful lothario with a flamboyant hairdo and a honking, nasal flow, oscillating between thoughtful insights about growing up in the D and nasty rhymes about what he liked to do with women (answer: everything). Two years later, on Old, Brown is still rapping about daily struggles and balls-out bacchanalia, and he balances those dueling impulses even more successfully. The eclectic beats stoke Brown's clever, detailed wordplay: on "25 Bucks" he gets serious about the struggles of black America over a moody, cloudy track from Purity Ring, while on "Handstand" he bounds into cartoonish raunch atop high-pitched twirling synths and bombastic drums. Brown has also grown as a storyteller, and on "Wonderbread" he's able to make an engaging tale out of something as mundane as a kid's trip to get some grub. Leor Galil


Connections, Body Language (Anyway)

This five-piece from Columbus, Ohio, whose lineup includes Adam Elliott of Times New Viking on drums and his brother Kevin on lead vocals, made it abundantly clear from the get-go that they want to sound like Guided by Voices. Now it's beginning to look like they're following the lead of those megaprolific lo-fi pioneers in terms of output too: the first Connections album dropped in early 2013, Body Language comes out this week, and another LP is in the works for the end of the year. Body Language picks up where the first record, Private Airplane, left off: upbeat, heartfelt indie pop, heavy on the Fender Strat and made by guys who graduated from the Robert Pollard school of cramming as many hooks as possible into every song. Luca Cimarusti


Dirtbombs, Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey! (In the Red)

Garage-rock wizard Mick Collins and his lovable Dirtbombs have devoted albums to covers of classic soul and Detroit techno, but for their long-­threatened bubble­gum record Collins wrote everything himself, inspired by the likes of the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Monkees, the Spencer Davis Group, and the fictional bands on old Saturday-­morning cartoons. (The almost painfully twee illustration on the back cover re­imagines the Dirtbombs as a two-­drummer version of the Archies.) Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-­Blooey! rushes at you with its arms outstretched, full of sunshiny major chords, shamelessly sentimental lyrics, stupidly catchy choruses, sticky-sweet backup vocals, frisky tambourine, and plummy horns—including a maudlin Ren Faire oboe part ("It took me three months to find an oboist," says Collins). Even the pinched blurts of totally destroyed fuzz guitar come off as cute. Of course, because this is the Dirtbombs we're talking about, the album sounds like the band played it wearing catcher's mitts—but if anything, that makes it more endearing than the showbiz productions that inspired it. It's like a construction-­paper valentine with gluey finger­prints all over. Philip Montoro


Glasser, Interiors (True Panther Sounds)

Cameron Mesirow (aka Glasser) ain't quite on an even keel, which is a pretty promising quality in anyone making ethereal electro-­pop. Interiors is more experimental than her debut, 2010's Ring, blending Kraftwerk-­style synth ("Design") with quasi-tribal rhythms or carving out her own niche with experiments in beats, vocal layering, and noisy effects that nudge her just a tick more out-there than flamboyant contemporaries such as Natasha Kahn and Grimes. Mesirow's smoldering vocals can rise suddenly from the depths of her belly to a dramatic falsetto in a bizarre, almost stair-steppy way, moving haltingly but with an ease that's as eerie as it is pretty. The album can sometimes be operatic in its darkness, but its peculiarities rarely feel overwrought—"impressive" is a much more appropriate word. Kevin Warwick


Arve Henriksen, Places of Worship (Rune Grammofon)

On Places of Worship Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen delivers one of his most intimate performances, inspired by sacred sites and practices (the pieces are titled "Bayon," "The Sacristan," "Adhan," and so forth). Henriksen is well-known for his membership in mysterious improvising group Supersilent, but on this album his main partners are Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, the producers responsible for Norway's Punkt Festival and its "live remix" aesthetic. They provide a foundation of chopped-up orchestral samples, atmospheric sounds, and ambient blurs, occasionally assisted by live musicians such as percussionist Ingar Zach and bassist Lars Danielsson, and Henriksen occupies the foreground with his muted, fragile, instantly recognizable tone and gentle, introspective lyricism (he even does some gorgeous falsetto singing on "Lament"). I liked the grit and intensity Henriksen displayed a couple weeks ago at his album-release concert in Oslo, but that hasn't prevented me enjoying this lush, meditative recording. Peter Margasak


The Internet, Feel Good (Odd Future)

Syd the Kyd is the odd one out in the Odd Future crew: the beat maker behind a bunch of rappers, the lone female in a gang of dudes, and the one introvert amid a busload of loudmouths and social-media soul barers. The Internet, her partnership with fellow producer Matt Martians, gives Syd a voice on a metaphorical level (she gets to make music without taking any rappers into account) as well as on a literal one: she sings. She's an untrained vocalist with a fragile delivery, but there's something pure and tender about her singing that adds depth to the retro-funky soul that she, Martians, and their recently acquired backing band have made their trademark. They're a nimble group, equally indebted to Stevie Wonder and the Neptunes, and they're just as capable of pulling off a dubstep reference as a nod to bossa nova. The considerable skills and broad range of tastes displayed on Feel Good prove that, even after a decade of second-rate Jill Scott knockoffs, there's still life left in neosoul. Miles Raymer


Matt Mitchell, Fiction (Pi)

Pianist Matt Mitchell is much in demand, and plays with some of creative music's most restless ensembles, including Tim Berne's Snakeoil, John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, and the Dave Douglas Quintet. So it's great news that he's finally released a widely available recording under his own name: Fiction, a series of concentrated-information duets with drummer Ches Smith, allows listeners to experience his aesthetic in sharp relief. Mitchell wrote its 15 pieces as etudes to help him address specific technical challenges, and when he'd run through a few before concerts with Berne's group, Smith would playfully join in. As the performances on Fiction make plain, though, since then they've transformed those studies into heady vehicles for tightly wound improvised interplay. Mitchell's playing is all about oblique angles and collisions, its muscular left-hand figures contrasting with fleet right-hand improvisations. Smith's drumming mimics the jagged lyricism of the compositions, doubling Mitchell's lines with deadly precision even as it propels the action; on a few pieces he plays vibraphone, interweaving harmonies and providing contrapuntal bite. ;Peter Margasak


Nohome, Nohome (Trost)

In the late 80s and early 90s, guitarist Caspar Brötzmann (son of saxophonist Peter) foretold the imminent commingling of noise, metal, and improvisation with his band Massaker. But he hasn't made a record as a leader since 1999, and he's only occasionally surfaced in any context, most often accompanying a dance company or playing behind rapper Thomas D. The trio album Nohome is a bracing return, as heavy as you'd hope. On two tracks F.M. Einheit (formerly of Einstürzende Neubaten) beats on an amplified steel spring, which brings back a bit of Massaker's sound of collapse, but bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller (who also play with the elder Brötzmann in Full Blast) keep Caspar from treading old ground. They match his ferocity, bringing an irresistible momentum to this set of live blowouts; at its best, it sounds like Hendrix surfing over the looped hoofbeats of a herd of stampeding bison. Bill Meyer


Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven (Warp)

On previous albums, Oneohtrix Point Never (the best-known guise of Brooklyn-based musician Daniel Lopatin) got its signature sound from "Judy"—that's the name of the Roland Juno-60 synthesizer that gave Lopatin's tracks their Vangelis-style "like tears in rain" feel. The 2011 release Replica added cut-up samples from old TV commercials, but that hardly foreshadowed the flat-out formal break of OPN's fourth album, R Plus Seven—if the Juno-60 appears on it anywhere, it's untraceable. Though there are ten "songs," R Plus Seven feels like a single extended piece, its array of brief, sewn-together samples moving at a frenetic, strobe-light pace. More than any OPN material before it, R Plus Seven brings to mind Lopatin's background in library science, in which he holds an MA—it's simultaneously academic and goofy, like Michael Nyman and Laurie Anderson filtered through Aphex Twin and Prince Paul. Tal Rosenberg


Parquet Courts, Tally All the Things That You Broke (What's Your Rupture?)

Every time rock 'n' roll gets so ponderously loaded down with aesthetic and philosophical baggage that even the back-to-basics young Turks who are supposed to be saving it seem overburdened, a band or two comes along with a radically primitivist take on the sound that's so quintessential and perfect that it gives pause to even the most die-hard "rock is dead" types. During the era of prog rock and think pieces about What Punk Means, that role fell to the likes of the Modern Lovers and the Feelies; during the dethroning of hair metal by alt-rock, Beat Happening and the Mummies stepped up. Today it's Brooklyn's Parquet Courts, who over the past couple years have become rock's last best hope. Their stripped-down new EP is just the kind of punch to the heart that the style desperately needs, before it sinks completely beneath the weight of self-satisfied, idea-free traditionalists like the Black Keys. Four of its five tracks are electrifying, bliss-inducing messes of choppy drums, chugging guitars, and raggedly shouted vocals. The fifth, "He's Seeing Paths," is a pileup of hip-hop rhythms, tape delay, and sound effects—it's basically Parquet Courts taking the piss out of their own reputation as the genre's minimalist redeemers. Miles Raymer


Touche Amore, Is Survived By (Deathwish Inc.)

LA five-piece Touche Amore is one of the most exciting bands rejuvenating the aggressive emo subgenre called "screamo." Along with Grand Rapids' La Dispute and Baltimore's Pianos Become the Teeth, Touche Amore has contributed a rough but palatable sound to the constantly evolving fourth-wave emo scene—a nationwide community whose music has started seeping from the underground into the mainstream. Touche's third album, Is Survived By, seems sure to be among the handful of releases that help the burgeoning emo sound cross over: it's tight, melodic, and heartfelt, balancing posthardcore avalanches with cavernously beautiful slowcore melodies. The songs are mostly less than three minutes long, and they work well when considered as a single piece of music—the way the pent-up "Praise/Love" slowly builds and bleeds into the blazing "Anyone/Anything" is particularly cathartic. Leor Galil


Traxman, Teklife Vol. 3: The Architek (Lit City Trax)

Footwork music can be an acquired taste: for every fan who's intoxicated by the way its syncopated, erratic drums crisscross loops of fragmented vocal samples, somebody else is bound to find it suffocating or grating. On Teklife Vol. 3 Chicago footwork icon Traxman presents a version of the local dance style that diehards and wary outsiders can both enjoy, spreading out the artfully caustic overlapping sounds and letting in a little air between the beats. On "Buddha Muzik" and "I'm the Life of the Party" he forgoes the usual scattered, sputtering deployment of vocal samples, instead using gentler, steadier loops that meld gracefully with his programmed drums—the latter tune sounds like a skipping 70s soul LP played over a skeletal juke beat. That's not to say nothing on Teklife Vol. 3 is fierce or disorienting—you'd never mistake the piercing "Blow Your Whistle" for anything but a footwork track—but you don't need to watch your feet to get down to this album. Leor Galil


TV Ghost, Disconnect (In the Red)

TV Ghost have gone through an incredible amount of evolution over the past four years. On their 2009 In the Red debut, Cold Fish, this band from Lafayette, Indiana, indulged in naked Cramps worship, their high-strung, nervy tunes topped off with distorted organ and the unchained ramblings of front man Tim Gick. On the brand-new Disconnect, these guys sound like completely different musicians, though only their bassist has been replaced since Cold Fish: they've spaced out and chilled out, and now they play atmospheric, synth-heavy goth-pop. Gick's vocals have become a desperate, theatrical wail, adding a bleak sense of drama to his beautifully twisted melodies. TV Ghost have always been great, but this growth spurt has transformed them into one of the coolest, creepiest groups around. Luca Cimarusti


Charles Waters Quartet, Chroma Colossus: 13 Visions of the City (Amish)

Alto sax and clarinet player Charles Waters witnessed the 9/11 attacks from the plaza between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and the wounds they gouged into the heart of his adopted home impelled him to compose this suite for jazz quartet, which he recorded in 2004. It begins and ends with funeral chorales, as befits dark times, but in between are pithy, soulful assertions of defiance. The contra­puntal figures Waters articulates with trombonist Chris McIntyre on "Broadway Truce" draw equally from the impetuous fire of Charles Mingus and the structural ingenuity of J.S. Bach; drummer Andrew Barker and bassist George Rush tackle everything the tunes throw at them, whether it's passages of sinuous swing, breakneck charges, or the circuitous "Coney Island Rag," which sounds like a musical version of a spiral staircase. Why this LP has lain dormant for nine years is beyond me. Bill Meyer


Iannis Xenakis, Synaphaï (Decca)

Released as part of Universal Music's ongoing 50-title survey of key 20th-century classical works, this collection of four orchestral pieces by divisive Greek composer Iannis Xenakis includes some of his most monumental, mind-melting midcareer work. Aroura, Antikhthon, and the title piece were all composed between 1969 and '71, and the versions here were recorded in 1976; Keqrops was composed in 1986 and recorded 11 years later, though like Synaphaï it employs intense interplay between difficult piano passages and muscular, dissonant orchestral parts. The passage of time has softened the impact of this music's radicalism a bit, but because it started out so radical it still sounds as intense and jarring as anything I've heard all year—Xenakis drew upon his background in mathematics and architecture to design intricate lattices of timbral juxtaposition whose emotional scale swings from intimate to apocalyptic. Peter Margasak

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