Music » Record Roundup

Robert Pollard's not-at-all-haphazard Honey Locust Honky Tonk and 14 more record reviews

Six Reader writers fan out to consider Author & Punisher's dystopian robot doom, Cüneyt Sepetçi's high-octane Turkish clarinet, and lots of music even more difficult to summarize.

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Author & Punisher, Women & Children (Seventh Rule)

Industrial music is having a bit of a moment right now, thanks to the gothier arm of the 90s revivalist movement and to Kanye's booming digital meltdown, Yeezus, which has more in common with Skinny Puppy than with the new Jay Z. But even so, I don't see the industrial-­tinged metal racket of Author & Punisher finding much of a mainstream audience as a result. The project of sculptor and engineer Tristan Shone, who produces his music with a laptop and a nest of custom-built machines that looks like something out of the Terminator movies' dystopian future, Author & Punisher recently released its second full-length, an unforgivingly grim pileup of sludgy doom grooves and aggressively tweaked electronics that paints a vivid picture of an extremely unpleasant worldview. Pop audiences don't really go for that kind of thing, but anyone prone to moods where they just want to watch the world burn will be thoroughly satisfied. Miles Raymer


Robbie Basho, Visions of the Country (Gnome Life)

Originally released in 1978, Visions of the Country was the first album that singer-guitarist Robbie Basho put out on Windham Hill Records, the label founded by his former student Will Ackerman. Ever the unintentional eccentric, Basho handed Windham Hill a beatific vision of America whose fever-dream romanticism fit so poorly with the rest of the label's catalog that it went out of print in a flash and stayed that way for more than three decades. It's finally being reissued next month, and it remains a distillation of everything great about Basho's mature work. His acoustic fingerpicking is thrillingly propulsive, full of quicksilver changes in direction, but he never gets lost in it. His ululating, hyperemotional singing is the perfect vehicle for his shamelessly ardent pledges of love to nature. And on "Leaf in the Wind," one of two songs where he switches to rhapsodic piano, he proves himself a virtuoso whistler. Bill Meyer


Ciara, Ciara (Epic)

Ciara's fifth album is exactly what Rihanna's Unapologetic should have been: it delicately balances radio friendliness and sonic edginess but doesn't let its lofty ambitions get in the way of its pop pleasures. The record's main attraction, "Body Party," combines a Mike Will Made It beat, a snippet of the melody to the Ghost Town DJs' nearly perfect 1996 single "My Boo," contributions from Ciara's real-life boo Future, and coyly kittenish vocals applied to sexually aggressive lyrics—it's in the running for best pop song of the year. The rest of Ciara occasionally tries a little too hard for crossover appeal, but at least it doesn't make you sit through draggy seven-minute diptychs about parental issues or whatever. Miles Raymer


Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You (Dualtone)

This old-school Texas country singer's first studio album in four years is an ode to his wife, artist and songwriter Susanna Clark, who died in June 2012 after a long fight with cancer. Unsurprisingly, the melancholy numbers—most notably the title track—are the starkest and most moving, with Clark draping his smoky yet hardened drawl over bare acoustic arrangements. Another performer might sound flat or corny delivering Clark's lyrics about his favorite picture of his wife ("There's a fire in your eyes / You've got your heart on your sleeve / A curse on your lips / But all I can see is . . . beautiful"), but he sounds so sincere it hurts. His voice is weathered from thousands of hand-rolled cigarettes (and no doubt countless arguments with Susanna—their relationship included its share of dark times), and he sings with gentle tenderness, as though he's handling a sentimental photo that he can't bear to see fade any further. Kevin Warwick


The Convergence Quartet, Slow and Steady (No Business)

The third and best album by this nimble transatlantic jazz band (cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum is American, drummer Harris Eisenstadt is Canadian, and bassist Dominic Lash and pianist Alexander Hawkins, one of the most exciting keyboardists in improvised music, are both British) applies the distinctive musical personalities of first-rate improvisers to a series of detailed, structured compositions written by all four members. The songs veer in and out of postbop but maintain a single cogent sound. Eisenstadt's multi­partite "Third Convergence," for example, opens with knotty freebop rambling, then suddenly melts into a gorgeous ballad sequence, where Hawkins injects subtly sour, beautifully lyrical harmonies and Bynum plays a plush, radiant solo—and that's only halfway through the tune. Moods and styles shift from track to track, but no matter the territory, the musicians dissolve the gap between their jazz foundations and their predilection for abstraction. Few recordings I've heard in the past couple years have so vividly collided extended technique and pure-sound exploration with melody and crisp swing. Peter Margasak


Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus (ATP Recordings)

Once director Danny Boyle has sampled two of your songs ("Surf Solar" and "Olympians," both from 2009's Tarot Sport) for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics—even though your band's name is Fuck Buttons and the majority of your experimental ­electro would better soundtrack Ray Bradbury's more demented ruminations—it's only common courtesy to put out a new album. It took four years for Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power to release Slow Focus, the follow-­up to Tarot Sport, and it continues the process that the earlier album began: Fuck Buttons are still working with tribal beats and tense buildups of chunky synths, distancing themselves from the harsh noise with which they made their name. Slow Focus is more varied than Tarot Sport too—"The Red Wing" has a slow backbone beat that makes it prime remix material for a hip-hop tastemaker with a penchant for the bizarre, and "Stalker" earns its creepy name with dark, ominous electro full of searing buzzes and blipping dots that slice through a thick, bouncing synth. Kevin Warwick


Okkyung Lee, Ghil (Ideologic Organ)

Throughout a career that began in the mid-aughts, remarkable Korean cellist Okkyung Lee has revealed facet after facet of her rich musical personality; on this gut-wrenching solo album, she revels in the microscopic details of her instrument's frictive sound. Norwegian sound artist Lasse Marhaug recorded its nine tracks with a primitive cassette deck in several locations—his studio, an alley in downtown Oslo, a cabin in a remote forest, a former hydroelectric plant in the mountains outside Rjukan—but the only difference I can hear is that some have a bit of room sound and others don't. Lee engages intimately with the rudiments of the cello as a physical device, dragging, slashing, and thrashing her bow against its strings, and the recordings envelop you so thoroughly in the resulting vibrations that it often feels like you've got an ear pressed to the body of the instrument. Lee has always had a thing for abrasive abstraction, and Ghil offers new perspectives on (and textures of) sound qua sound—its rude drones, discordant sawing, and machinelike growls are the work of a virtuosic performer who's not just unafraid of but in love with all the noises a cello can make. Peter Margasak


Ovlov, Am (Exploding in Sound)

Connecticut alt-rockers Ovlov love sludgy, hooky jams made to be played through Marshall stacks—the burning, radio-friendly grunge on this three-piece's 2011 EP, What's So Great About the City?, flogs the loud-quiet-loud style of songwriting as though the early 90s never ended. On Ovlov's full-length debut, Am, it sounds like they took a trip north to Amherst, Massachusetts (and back in time), to raid the bedroom of a teenage J. Mascis for slacker inspiration and herb. They cool their jets and blow out the fuzz on their riffs, and though "Where's My Dini?" and "The Great Alligator" match massive melodies to almost languid tempos, they still sound thrilling and lively. Leor Galil


Else Marie Pade & Jacob Kirkegaard, Svævninger (Important Records)

The compositions on this LP are named after cloud formations, but there's nothing fluffy about them. Svævninger is a collaboration between two Danish sound artists and composers, octogenarian Else Marie Pade and Jacob Kirkegaard, who's half a century her junior. Like Englishwomen Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, Pade is enjoying a measure of appreciation denied her during her pioneering days—in this case, the middle of the 20th century, when she was her country's first electronic composer. Unlike them, she's not only still alive but also still working. Svævninger features long, glassy tones close enough to each other in pitch that they induce beating tones and lively otoacoustic emissions (sounds that occur only inside the ear). The effect is gorgeous and deeply affecting; Eliane Radigue might make something like this if she were trying to imitate the voices of jungle birds. Bill Meyer


Robert Pollard, Honey Locust Honky Tonk (GBV Inc.)

All it took was 20 records with Guided by Voices and 19 solo releases for Robert Pollard to really find his voice. On the brand-new Honey Locust Honky Tonk (which isn't a country record), Pollard is back with his signature hooks-on-hooks songwriting style, and his music has never sounded so cohesive and full. GBV got famous by making fractured, deconstructed pop, but on Honky Tonk, Pollard steps out from that band's lo-fi shadow—he crafts fully realized, mellow, carefully structured songs, deliberately paced and brimming with subtle, beautiful melodies. Hard-core Pollard fans have been calling this his best record yet, but that's a tough call to make, given that there are more than 60 releases out there from his various projects over the past three decades. What isn't hard to say, though, is that Honey Locust Honky Tonk is excellent. Luca Cimarusti


Michael Reudenbach, Szenen, Standbilder Werke 1991-2009 (Edition RZ)

This bracing two-CD overview of the career of German composer Michael Reudenbach requires some heavy lifting from listeners—anything less than total immersion is pointless—but the effort is worth it. Reudenbach studied with Helmut Lachenmann (splashes of Lachenmann's extended technique turn up here and there, such as in the sibilant, whispery vocal effects on "Choral für Stimme und Fünf Instrumente") and with Mathias Spahlinger (a likely source for Reudenbach's reductionist austerity). Most of the music is extremely quiet, so that when the strings unleash full-volume dissonance on "Und Aber. Musik für Streichquartett" it hits like a thunderclap. Some pieces seem to have been dictated by the combination of instruments Reudenbach chose—they're starkly focused on exploring the permutations of sound possible with each ensemble, with little movement or activity—and others are packed with discrete episodes. Just about everything in this collection, though, is ruthlessly concise and dense with ideas. Peter Margasak


Running, Vaguely Ethnic (Castle Face)

What made the first two proper releases from Chicago noise-punk trio Running (a self-titled LP on Permanent Records and their Asshole Savant EP on Captcha) so exciting was their explosive and reckless approach—the band sounded like they were ready to fall apart at any moment. Running's new LP, Vaguely Ethnic, is perhaps their "mature" release, though of course "mature" is a relative term. They've toned down the harsh noise just enough to let you get a better feel for what's going on underneath the damaged exterior—and believe it or not, when they play with control, their simple punk songs are straight-up catchy. One of the LP's highlights is "OoOo OoOo OoOoOo," a fun bopper sung by guitarist Jeff Tucholski that celebrates the joys of fornication. Luca Cimarusti


Cüneyt Sepetçi & Orchestra Dolapdere, Bahriye Çiftetellisi (LM Dupli-Cation)

Last summer Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost (aka A Hawk and a Hacksaw) met terrific Turkish clarinetist Cüneyt Sepetçi in the Dolapdere section of Istanbul, home to many of the city's finest Romani musicians, and convinced him to make this unvarnished recording with his working band—a vibrant document of a culture increasingly marginalized by foreign Arabic investment and Westernization. Sepetçi's grandfather was forced to move his family to Turkey from Thessaloniki in the early 1920s, when a war between Turkey and Greece ended with a compulsory population swap along Muslim/Christian lines—the kind of involuntary relocation that's been visited upon the Romani for centuries. Supported by brittle oud, sorrowful violin, sprightly kanun, and buoyant polyrhythms on darbouka and tef, Sepetçi blows astringent, rapid-fire lines on his Turkish clarinet, ripping through a venerable repertoire of regional folk songs with clarity and bite. The performances are as raw as they are virtuosic. Peter Margasak


Tee Flii and DJ Mustard, Fireworks (mixtape)

Loosely speaking, "ratchet" refers to all sorts of wild, out-of-bounds foolishness, especially sexual, and "ratchet music" is a minimalist style of rap that rules the roost in Los Angeles. LA R&B singer Christian Jones, aka Tee Flii, brings heart to ratchet, which is usually missing any acknowledgment of the vulnerability that comes with desire. He croons about his carnal drives with such blunt, naked specificity that the word "raunchy" can't do it justice, but as lascivious as he gets, he's a charmer—he knows that the women he lusts after are people with their own appetites, and he woos them accordingly. He has a great foil in DJ Mustard, the shit-hot producer behind Tyga's ubiquitous ratchet hit "Rack City": on "Ready" and "They Know," Jones's warm, buttery coo and Mustard's icy, bone-dry beats work together to make for some seriously steamy bangers. Leor Galil


Zorch, Zzoorrcchh (Sargent House)

In 2011 Austin psych-pop duo Zorch turned heads in the music media with a string of messy songs about prominent critics such as Christopher Weingarten and Ryan Dombal. It's a shame that nobody paid much attention to anything besides that stunt, though, because that same year Zorch released the stunning cassingle "Cosmic Gloss," a prog-pop jam that charts a course for the bright heart of the Milky Way with interstellar synths and melodic loops of tweaked vocal samples. That song sits near the end of the group's debut full-length, Zzoorrcchh, and it strikes a lovely, cathartic note on an album that's already packed with celebratory drum-circle patterns and pileups of uplifting synth melodies. Leor Galil


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