Music » Record Roundup

Anohni’s heartfelt but clumsy Hopelessness and 13 more record reviews

Nine Reader writers tackle new releases from ambient wizard Brian Eno, self-proclaimed “Hood Pope” A$AP Ferg, and wintry folksinger Marissa Nadler, to name a few.

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Anohni
Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)

Hopelessness, Anohni's first album since changing her name from Antony Hegarty, is immaculate and ambitious, but though its experimental electronic ­pop has its heart in the right place, the songs sometimes go adrift. Anohni has an otherworldly voice, and you can hear her intuitive ear for melodies and rhythms that set cold hearts aflame in Hopelessness's Autobahn-swift passages of glistening synths and pirouettes of percussion. Her words, on the other hand, are more blunt than deft, and her idealism can obscure the human suffering behind her pointed sloganeering. Hopelessness is more interesting when Anohni ditches the political platform and explores multiple perspectives. On "Watch Me" her brassy voice lends some humanity to the Big Brothers tracking our every move online, even as she skewers the public justifications they offer for their surveillance. Her lyrics often lack nuance and can land awkwardly (the line "Protecting me from child molesters" sticks out like a sore thumb), but the messiness of her songs does have one virtue: it suggests there are no easy answers. —Leor Galil



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A$AP Ferg
Always Strive and Prosper (A$AP Worldwide, Polo Grounds)

A$AP Ferg is dead-ass serious about stepping up his rap game: the lead single from his sophomore full-length, Always Strive and Prosper, is called "New Level" (and features Future). The album is his testament, weaving in and out of EDM and trap beats as it delivers a documentary-­style view of his ascent to self-declared "Hood Pope" status. On the first track, "Rebirth," a prophetic declaration directs Ferg on his new path: "Be the voice of the people who couldn't make it out of the hood." The middle of the album contains its best series of tracks—including the Schoolboy Q-­assisted, Lex Luger-produced "Let It Bang"—but unfortunately Ferg gets sidetracked three songs later, reverting to shallow raps about money and misogyny on "Swipe Life" and "Uzi Gang." He returns to his mission, though, with the Black Lives Matter anthem "Beautiful People," featuring Public Enemy's Chuck D: "Beautiful people, let's take a second and think / We continue these issues, our ship will drown and we sink." The album could've ended here, but it labors on for four more tracks (and three more skits). Though Always Strive and Prosper is a bit heavy on features, it gives us reason to keep Ferg on the radar. —Tiffany Walden



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Debo Band
Ere Gobez (FPE)

This 11-member Boston-based band devotes itself to golden-age Ethiopian pop, which combines traditional scales and vocal styles with Western soul, funk, and rock. Seven of the 11 tracks on their second full-length, Ere Gobez, are covers or adaptations—some of East African songs, others of unrelated material using similar harmonies, including Duke Ellington's "Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues)" and a 1948 Okinawan tune called "Hiyamikachi Bushi." Front man Bruck Tesfaye enlivens his hoarse, athletic voice with a tense quaver, and the large leaps built into the pentatonic scales give the melodies a daredevil energy, simultaneously suspenseful and celebratory. Electric guitar chatters and slashes, accordion surges and flutters, and plump sousaphone dances in tandem with electric bass, braided together into a lively counterweight to Debo's joyous massed horns and strings. Frothy and extroverted, the front line has the feel of a crowd that's always almost unraveling, reminiscent of the gang soloing in Dixieland or Balkan brass bands. Licks and riffs cycle independent of one another, and you can take your pick of which to follow—it's like the friendly bustle of a dance floor where there's always someone to lead you no matter where you turn. The bubbly, sinuous rhythms alternate between swaying, waltzlike three-beat groupings and funky, rocking twos, and the songs often overlay one atop the other—dancing to this, suspended between two pulses, feels pleasantly like bobbing in a warm sea. —Philip Montoro



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Brian Eno
The Ship (Warp)

Brian Eno is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to groundbreaking sounds—whether with his early-70s alien-glam or his gorgeous ambient compositions, he's been operating ahead of the curve for decades. On his brand-new solo LP, The Ship, Eno allows other colors from his expansive sonic palette to creep into his trademark tranquil minimalism. Hypnotic, multi­tracked spiritual chants gently interrupt the dreamy, crystal-clear electronic soundscape of the title tune, and the next number, "Fickle Sun (I)," erupts into grandeur with a bombastic, orchestral climax and layers of bubbly, distorted vocals. The ambient wizard has conquered a whole new realm of sounds—which makes it even more fun when he brings The Ship full circle on its last track by paying tribute to the psyched-out 60s that shaped him with a cover of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Set Free." —Luca Cimarusti



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Fire! Orchestra
Ritual (Rune Grammofon)

Swedish reedist Mats Gustafsson built this unruly ensemble around his trio Fire!, a fleet, energetic group with bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin (Wildbirds & Peacedrums). On previous recordings the Fire! Orchestra has swelled to 28 members, thickening the trio's tough grooves and harsh textures with an armada of horns, chanted vocals, writhing electric guitars, and pure noise. The lineup on Ritual is pared down to 18, but the results are no less powerful. The album's five-­movement suite puts the singing of Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg front and center, where they toggle between hectoring melodies and wordless caterwauling. Gustafsson's control of the ensemble has never been surer, whether the music is exploding in a torrent of violence and tightly coiled riffing or pulling back to a smoldering vamp—and this dynamic richness turns the record into a roller-­coaster ride. It's exhilarating to hear so many of Scandinavia's finest improvisers unite unerringly behind a single purpose. —Peter Margasak



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Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir
VDSQ Solo Acoustic Vol. 14 (VDSQ)

Icelandic violist and composer Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir, now based in LA, generally works on fringes of new music, fastidiously experimenting with electronics, field recordings, and unusual tuning systems. Her engagement with the acoustic guitar is more casual, but no less impressive: her contribution to Vin du Select Qualitite's excellent ongoing series of solo guitar music is anything but lazy or ordinary. Most artists in the series have built their music with fingerstyle techniques, but Haraldsdottir is more methodical. On the opener, "Night," she uses overdubs to layer gorgeous drones, percussive effects, frictive bowing, and deliberately plucked melodies; elsewhere she prefers a more direct, resonant style, its beauty driven by arpeggiated figures whose lyrical qualities matter more than their technique. —Peter Margasak



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Robin Hayward
Stop Time (Important)

British tuba player Robin Hayward has been among the most indefatigable explorers of that notoriously unwieldy horn for two decades, both as a top-flight free improviser and more significantly as an advocate of applying microtonal tuning systems to his instrument. In 2009 he helped develop a micro­tonal version of the tuba, which he's used in solo contexts as well as in the wonderful tuba trio Microtub. Stop Time is a 30-­minute piece that uses another of his innovations, a software interface called the Hayward Tuning Vine, which helps players visualize and explore the intricacies of just intonation—a system popularized by La Monte Young and the late Tony Conrad in which the intervals in a scale are derived not from a constant frequency multiplier but from varying ratios of whole numbers. For Stop Time a portion of the interface is adapted into a physical score, which Hayward, cellist Pieter Matthynssens, and baritone saxophonist Bertel Schollaert follow to generate sounds whose pitch relationships are mapped out in overlapping, color-coded quadrants; those colors are projected during live performances to encourage interaction between hue and tone. That might sound like gobbledygook, but the music is exquisite, rippling with dazzling harmonic effects that give its droning tones a seductive richness. —Peter Margasak



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Kaytranada
99.9% (XL)

Louis Kevin Celestin, aka Haitian-born, Montreal-­based producer Kaytranada, knows that the first and last measure of a great dance track is whether it can make people move. He's proved it over the past few years with a string of remixes and productions for rappers on multiple continents, including locals such as Towkio, Mick Jenkins, and Save Money leader Vic Mensa, who pops up on the woozy, thrumming "Drive Me Crazy," from Kaytranada's full-length debut, 99.9%. The album demonstrates Celestin's ability to bend to his collaborators' personalities—the Internet front woman Syd, for instance, brings her dreamy R&B to "You're the One"—but retain his refined mix of shimmering funk, clattering disco, and bass-heavy hip-hop. Many of the guest vocalists he's assembled are part of pop music's "now" (Anderson .Paak, Goldlink), but he comes out the other side as the album's dominant force. —Leor Galil



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Little Scream
Cult Following (Merge)

Laurel Sprengelmeyer established herself as a piercing vocal presence on Little Scream's 2011 debut, The Golden Record. Amid the album's stark arrangements, marked by dusky guitars, she was a conspiratorial narrator wielding a bluesy wail or a keening howl. Little Scream's second album, Cult Following, which Sprengelmeyer crafted with creative partner Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, builds on this economical foundation. Seething synthesizers and orchestral washes fill every nook and cranny, creating bulked-up indie-folk songs with an otherworldly tint. Sprengelmeyer has also diversified her singing, adding exuberant falsetto to the diffracted disco strut of "Love as a Weapon" and 80s pop-siren shrieks to the electro-pop-tinged "Dark Dance." In an even more affecting moment, she matches the regal guest vocals of Mary Margaret O'Hara on "Wishing Well," an ethereal pop song beamed in from above the clouds. Cult Following is difficult to pigeonhole, but its mystery makes it enchanting. —Annie Zaleski



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Modern Baseball
Holy Ghost (Run for Cover)

Modern Baseball were in the right place at the right time when they dropped their previous album, 2014's You're Gonna Miss It All—their trenchant mix of underground pop-punk and emo arrived right as the thirst for those sounds hit a new peak, and the Philadelphia-­via-Maryland band landed in the upper half of the Billboard charts. Success came with challenges, though, and a recent Fader feature detailed the postbreakout struggles that singer and guitarist Brendan Lukens had with addiction, depression, and suicidal thoughts. MoBo channeled their collective grief and postadolescent weariness into the concise, nervy Holy Ghost, which combats those heavy feelings with adrenalized anxiety and euphoria. Lukens's feral howl on "Apple Cider I Don't Mind" lends conviction to his lyrics, about reconciling his youthful hopes with his troublesome present—and the song's shimmering guitars and galloping pace suggest that he hasn't lost all of his optimism. —Leor Galil



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Marissa Nadler
Strangers (Sacred Bones)

Marissa Nadler's wintry folk has reached its highest peak yet on her sixth studio album, Strangers. She hasn't strayed too far from her intimate guitar and lap-steel arrangements, and her lyrics remain spectral reflections of the people in her songs—but her silky voice has matured beautifully. Nadler excels as a narrative storyteller. Her characters are ghosts aching to touch the living—in the title track, she sings, "I am a stranger now / Playing in the dark," and yearning colors her voice as profoundly as any electronic effect. And "Waking" tells of a soul who sleeps forever to shut out an unbearable grief in a world that will not stay as it was. But the album isn't entirely concerned with the intangible and ethereal: the narrator of "Shadow Show Diane" is like a sadder, less drug-­addicted version of Ellen Burstyn's character in Requiem for a Dream, transfixed to a television and waiting for an epiphany that will never come. Nadler richly illustrates her fascination with desperation through her characters, and she chooses her instrumentation for its similarly desolate tones. A synthesized organ adds an atmosphere of reverence, and the minor chords of the lap steel are fraught with hunger that mirrors the characters' own. As enchanting as Nadler's voice is when paired with a simple acoustic guitar, the grander songs shine the brightest—they're the most compelling representations of the snowy, gossamer world she builds. The ghosts she summons with Strangers linger long after the album ends. —Meagan Fredette



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Repos
Poser (Youth Attack!)

The Repos have existed for 14 years—in fits and starts, granted, given their breakup in 2008, eventual re-formation as the Ropes, and later reversion to the Repos name—and that's a colossal feat for a band that delivers one-minute­-or-less blasts of filthy and terrifying hardcore. But front man Aaron Aspinwall, guitarist Joe Phillips, and company have been in the Chicago scene way too long to kick the habit now—and they've earned the support of hardcore superhoncho Mark McCoy and his Youth Attack! label to boot. While many hateful bands can barely make it to the van to load their gear before combusting, the Repos just keep releasing white-knuckle records full of battering-ram rhythms and demented, gruff vocals. Their newest, Poser (whose album art, by Reader contributor Ryan Lowry, is bound to end up my favorite of the year), transitions from 45 seconds of foot-on-the-gas, pummeling disgust ("Everyone Was Upset Except You") to the stalking title track, which would make a jolly theme song for a hunt through a war zone with a spiked baseball bat and satchel of grenades. Plus, Aspinwall sounds closer than ever to straight-up devouring the microphone—cord, stand, and all. —Kevin Warwick



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Susanna
Triangle (SusannaSonata)

On this sprawling, 70-minute opus, meticulous Norwegian singer Susanna (nee Susanna Wallumrød) shows off the full diapason of her talent, moving among stark piano ballads, gooey pop songs, harrowing psychodramas, and more. As usual her gorgeously refined, exquisitely mannered voice provides the heart of the music, whether she's accompanied by nothing more than her piano or joined by a dizzying cast of collaborators from her homeland and abroad (including guitarist Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang and Chicago cellist Allison Chesley). Triangle is both her most diverse effort and her most personal one: "Hole" is steeped in despair that's belied by an ethereal slow-jam vibe, and the swooping "Born Again" conveys hope despite its paranoid electronic swirls and the spooky saxophone curlicues of Poing's Rolf-Erik Nystrøm. Triangle sure feels like a masterpiece. —Peter Margasak



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La Tène
Vouerca/Fahy (Three:Four Records)

Ethnography and ecstasy commingle on Vouerca/Fahy, the debut LP by Swiss-French trio La Tène. Alexis Degrenier, Cyril Bondi, and D'incise have named themselves after a town that's in turn named after the Iron Age culture that preceded the Romans in broad expanses of Europe, and they use traditional instrumentation—hurdy-gurdy, harmonium, and drums—to set in motion cadences derived from the folk music of eastern France and western Switzerland. They bolster their acoustic drones with subliminal, pulsing electronics and elongate their appropriated rhythms with implacable repetitions inspired by minimalists and eccentrics such as Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, and Moondog. Each of the album's two pieces spans an album side but feels like it could go on all night. La Tène's music sounds medieval and European, but it's as trance inducing as something you'd hear at a powwow. —Bill Meyer  v

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