Music » Record Roundup

Deerhunter's dreamily scuzzy Monomania and 14 more record reviews

Nine Reader writers fan out across the world of music, with stops at RP Boo's spastic but accessible footwork tracks, Altar of Plagues' dead-planet black metal, and points beyond.

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Adult., The Way Things Fall (Ghostly International)

Detroit's most abrasive electro-punk duo have trimmed their sound's serrated edges and refashioned themselves into an Italo-inflected new-wave pop group in the same neighborhood as fellow electroclash scene survivors the Chromatics. The production is smoother, the hooks are broader, and The Way Things Fall is way more accessible than anything Adult. have ever done—but beneath the poppy veneer lurks the faceless existential horror their fans demand. Miles Raymer

Altar of Plagues, Teethed Glory & Injury (Profound Lore)

This Irish three-piece previously stuck to the Cascadian black-metal sound, whose bleak, pastoral sweep surges and ebbs like wind through trees or surf against rocks—atavistic and misanthropic, it seems to promise that our abuse of the earth will cast us back to a state of nature. The new Teethed Glory & Injury is an elegy for that overreach and collapse: the sickened pulse of the living skin of the planet, both its majestic and indifferent ecology and its corrupt human infrastructure. In the years since Altar of Plagues' second full-length, 2011's Mammal, front man James Kelly has begun releasing electronic music as Wife, and the new album shatters its icy, wind-scoured serenity with the stomp and grind of industrial violence: throbbing synth bass, snippets of static, and electronic percussion that thumps and stutters against Johnny King's thundering drums. The relatively concise songs are taut with brick-wall transitions and sudden shifts in metabolism; sheets and cataracts of guitar shatter into clipped snarls and clusters of dissonance, and the vocals climb from an enraged roar into shrieking that sounds unhinged with grief. And it's all still beautiful. Philip Montoro

Iva Bittová, Iva Bittová (ECM)

In the past few years this distinctive, charismatic Moravian violinist and singer has recorded her own composed material with New York's eclectic Bang on a Can for Elida (Cantaloupe) and the seven-part suite Mater (ECM) by Slovak composer Vladimir Godar, but on her dazzling new self-titled solo album Bittová returns to her roots in intimate, improvised music. Bookending the collection are two delicate pieces featuring her wordless vocals and translucent kalimba arpeggios (all 12 tracks are called "Fragments," numbered I though XII), but otherwise she pairs her voice with astringent strings, both bowed and plucked, sometimes dancey and sometimes somber; her singing darts around and between them and occasionally joins them in unison. As usual, she injects folk traditions from the former Czechoslovakia and eastern Europe's Roma people with bracing dissonance, ethereal melodies, classical rigor, and fearless whimsy. Peter Margasak

Black Bug, Reflecting the Light (HoZac)

You know how on Spits records they sometimes drop the Ramones thing and go full-on spastic synth-punk? Imagine an entire album of that and you're in the neighborhood of Reflecting the Light, the brand-new LP by Black Bug, a Swedish trio living in France. Droning keyboards, sinister singing, electronic voice messages, and the incessant pulse of a drum machine combine to create a nightmarish soundscape, but thanks to the songs' new-wave synth leads and hooky chord progressions, they're insanely catchy despite the bleakness. The Soft Moon this is not, though—Reflecting the Light is extremely lo-fi, bathed in tape hiss and basement-production filth. HoZac honcho Todd Novak tried to book Black Bug for this week's Blackout festival, but the band couldn't make the trip—they cited "too many problems with the law," Novak says—so Reflecting the Light will have to tide you over, at least for now. Luca Cimarusti

Deerhunter, Monomania (4AD)

In a recent Pitchfork feature about Deerhunter—basically the site's house band—front man Bradford Cox flaunts a look-at-me stance, asking the writer if the group's performance on Jimmy Fallon's show was "punk" and generally acting like a pompous asshole. It was yet another example of Cox allowing his personality—which Deerhunter's recent music has in spades—to be overshadowed by his persona. By 2010's Halcyon Digest, the Atlanta band had perfected their dreamily melodic indie rock with electronic-music trimmings. Monomania may seem like a retreat from Deerhunter's mannerist leanings—it's mostly garage rock, in the spirit of Atlanta friends Black Lips or Los Angeles friends Liars (at least their 2007 self-titled album). But garage rock is a mannerism too, and Monomania succeeds by demonstrating yet again Deerhunter's exquisite taste in songwriting and sound design. The noisiest part of the album, the title track, is shrouded in an ambient whoosh reminiscent of their early Kranky material, while "Pensacola" and "Sleepwalking" mix cocksure blooze with Deerhunter's trademark lushness. If there's any flaw, it's that there's too little of guitarist and foil Lockett Pundt, whose sole contribution, the stunning psych-pop jam "The Missing," is the record's standout. Tal Rosenberg

Freeband Gang, Black Woodstock: The Soundtrack (mixtape)

Black Woodstock is the second compilation mixtape so far this year featuring talent from the roster of the Freebandz label run by chart-dominating sui generis rap vocalist Future, and it's a looser, more casually stoned situation than January's F.B.G.: The Movie. It's Future's show for sure—he's the primary artist on half of the 19 songs here, including the woozy drug anthem "Rehab (Amy Winehouse)"—but the members of his crew can hold their own too. Test's verses on the slang-­dictionary track "Wut We Call It" make him sound like a sneering, slightly vicious Cee-Lo; Mexico Rann goes for a syrupy version of his boss's Auto-Tuned sing-­rapping on "Big Diamonds"; and Casino (whose recent mixtape, Ex Drug Dealer, remains criminally slept on) adds his recklessly enthusiastic voice to several choice cuts. Miles Raymer

Hush Point, Hush Point (Sunnyside)

This quartet features one of the most reliable and lyrical trumpeters in New York, the unjustly overlooked John McNeil, who's released a handful of dazzling pianoless quartet records that clearly draw inspiration from the quiet, highly interactive sound of 50s west-coast jazz. But don't let McNeil's debt to the past mislead you—this is a guy who's played jazz versions of Shaggs songs. After several recordings with excellent tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, he joins forces in Hush Point with bassist Aryeh Kobrinksy, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, and alto saxophonist Jeremy Udden, an ingenious musician who credibly merges jazz with Americana in his own band Plainville. Sturdy originals—some of which were written using the time-tested bebop approach of adding new melodies to the changes from standards—rub elbows with a pair of Jimmy Giuffre classics, and the band focuses on subtle interplay and refined melodic improvisation, demonstrating an elegant rapport too often lacking in jazz today. Peter Margasak

Jenny Hval, Innocence Is Kinky (Rune Grammofon)

This Norwegian artist traffics in the forbidden, and opens the title track of the second album she's made under her own name by delicately sing-speaking the lines, "That night I watch people fucking on my computer. Nobody can see me looking anyway." On song after song her poetic writing confronts the male gaze, the violence of sex, and the putridity of flesh, and "Oslo Oedipus" attempts to express the numb confusion of post-Breivik Norway: "A slow-burning flame of safety lies at the heart; we can feel it but cannot find it." Frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish produced the album, and Hval occasionally strives for visceral harshness a la Swans, such as on the feedback-flooded "Give Me That Sound"—but even in the ugliest moments there's always something delicate and pretty. Peter Margasak

Neon Neon, Praxis Makes Perfect (Lex)

Super Furry Animals front man Gruff Rhys and LA-based rap producer Boom Bip, who record together as Neon Neon, debuted in 2008 with Stainless Style, a concept album about John DeLorean—the man who built the cars that became symbols of 80s neofuturism (and 80s excess) with their brushed-steel body panels and gull-wing doors. It's a big, fun electronic-pop record that expertly evokes its inspiration—something that can't be said about Neon Neon's follow-up, Praxis Makes Perfect, which focuses on the life of left-wing Italian publisher and agitator Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, best known for publishing Doctor Zhivago. The songs are pleasant and luxurious but not exactly compatible with the story of a revolutionary who died under suspicious circumstances—they combine cheesy yacht rock, blocks of synthetic lounge pop, and late-70s electronic Krautrock that might as well have been peeled off the Autobahn. Leor Galil

Phoenix, Bankrupt! (Glassnote)

It was going to be tough for the Frenchmen of Phoenix to top "Lisztomania" and "1901," the nearly flawless singles that defined their 2009 breakout album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. And, well, Bankrupt! doesn't clear that very high bar. That's not meant to smear the album. It's a fine album. Compared to Wolfgang, it goes heavier on the slow-­burning synths and druggy 60s psychedelia—some might describe it as duller than its predecessor, but some tracks, including "S.O.S. in Bel Air," have the keen indie-pop sheen and melancholy vocal melodies of vintage Phoenix, if you consider there to be such a thing (the band did exist before Wolfgang). Though I'm a fan of the album's seven-minute title track, which consists mostly of winding layers of synth noodling, I can't help but want the band to get back to writing hooks destined for H&M's playlist. Kevin Warwick

Pretty & Nice, Golden Rules for Golden People (Equal Vision)

Four years ago, I would've predicted Boston band Pretty & Nice to turn up in the Lollapalooza lineup this summer (though probably buried with all the small-type names at the bottom). But though their 2008 debut, Get Young, was a triumph of artsy postpop, the trio soon faded from the hype-hungry blogosphere—and they hadn't been around long enough for anyone to wonder later, "Whatever happened to the band that sold T-shirts with giant ampersands on them?" As it turns out, nothing. Pretty & Nice reemerged this year with Golden Rules for Golden People and confirmed their devotion to the Sparks master plan: make the hooks as bizarre and flamboyant as they are catchy. Loaded with jagged rhythms, carnivalesque synth lines, and falsetto vocal melodies, Golden Rules is one of the year's most fun albums. With its pop-punk hammering and trippy orchestral synth swooshes, "Yonkers" is a better time than most people will have on their summer vacations. Kevin Warwick

RP Boo, Legacy (Planet Mu)

Chicago's underground electronic-music scene can be a bit like the wild west, flush with great dance tracks but pretty much lawless—a rabble-­rousing producer might make a hit using somebody else's track, or a promising talent might get robbed and left by the side of the road. South sider Kavain Space, aka RP Boo, is one of the pioneering producers responsible for evolving juke into the faster, stranger, and more shambolic sound called footwork, and he claims that fellow Chicagoan DJ Slugo nicked one of his early footwork tracks, 1999's "11-47-99," retitled it "Godzilla," and turned it into an international phenomenon. (Slugo says the track is his own.) The dispute will probably never be resolved to everybody's satisfaction, but at least now London label Planet Mu is giving RP Boo his due, releasing his proper debut full-length, Legacy. This way folks who aren't clued into warehouse parties can finally hear this Chicago legend pile up syncopated drums, palpitating bass, and spastic samples into unusually accessible footwork cuts. Leor Galil

U.S. Maple, Long Hair in Three Stages re­issue (Skin Graft)

Vocalist Al Johnson, guitarists Mark Shippy and Todd Rittmann, and drummer Pat Samson (later replaced by Adam Vida) formed U.S. Maple in 1995, and they were possibly the greatest band Chicago produced in the last half of that decade. They were also one of the most divisive. Their teasing, hinting, stop-start grind could be deeply unsettling, since they deployed elements of rock structures like Lego blocks, apparently according to Lovecraft's dreaded non-­Euclidean geometry—and they did it with an intimate physicality that made listeners accustomed to relatively bloodless postrock squirm and blush. Their 1995 debut, produced by Jim O'Rourke, was a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of that entire scene, and U.S. Maple never topped it. This reissue will be packaged in aluminum (like the 1995 limited edition), but unfortunately it wasn't ready by press time—the original metal stamper broke at the pressing plant, which forced Skin Graft to go back to the lacquer stage. (Rittmann is making use of the extra time to remaster the bonus track, "Found a Place to Have My Kittens.") The label hopes to have everything finished in June. Monica Kendrick

Various artists, Kenya Special: Selected East African Recordings From the 1970s & '80s (Soundway)

Kenya Special sails easily over the bar set by Soundway's earlier collections of Ghanaian and Nigerian pop, though it applies a similar methodology. Compiler Miles Cleret and his lieutenants have once again balanced selections that exemplify local styles against tunes that bear the imprints of Caribbean rhythms and North American soul, disco, and funk. The Rift Brothers' "Mu Afrika," for example, has the same right-on anthemic quality as James Brown's "Say It Loud!" Kenyan musicians were also canny appropriators of sounds from their own continent, absorbing the lilt of Congolese guitars, the punch of Afro-jazz horns, and sassy strut of South African kwela bass lines into their music, which helps make this set's 32 tracks broadly appealing. This could well be the soundtrack to all the best cookouts you go to this summer. Bill Meyer

Giovanni Verrando, Dulle Griet (Aeon)

This collection of recent music by Paris-based Italian composer Giovanni Verrando is a brain-rattling ride through extreme harmonies and visceral noise that sometimes rivals the eardrum-­destroying fury of Merzbow. The title composition is named for a figure from Flemish folklore known in English as "Mad Meg," depicted in a Bruegel painting as an angry, shrewish woman attempting to pillage hell; it's a dazzling electroacoustic work in which delicate coloristic passages for bass flute, clarinets, percussion, violin, and cello are alternately pulverized by screaming white noise and caressed by soft, frictive sounds made with rubber bands and cardboard. Nothing else on the disc is quite as powerful, but everything is just as rigorous and provocative—though Verrando offers esoteric academic explanations for the processes behind his writing, you don't need to understand that stuff to feel the results. Peter Margasak

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