Music » Record Roundup

Swervedriver's watered-down I Wasn't Born to Lose You and 11 more record reviews

Seven Reader writers tackle a dozen new releases, including Cannibal Ox's long-awaited comeback album, Jack DeJohnette's love letter to Chicago-born jazz, and Ata Kak's oddball Ghanaian electro-rap.



Ata Kak
Obaa Sima
(Awesome Tapes From Africa)

Distinctive reissue label Awesome Tapes From Africa grew out of a blog of the same name by Evanston native Brian Shimkovitz, who posted MP3 rips of African cassettes he assumed were impossible to find outside the continent—and the tape that inspired him to start the blog was this bizarre electro-rap album, recorded in Toronto in 1991 and '92 by Ghanaian expat Yaw Atta-Owusu, aka Ata Kak. A self-taught musician, he got his start playing drums in a reggae band in Germany, but by the time he moved to Canada he'd been recruited into a burgeoning highlife group, though he didn't care much for the style at the time—and even after he grew to enjoy it, he had a different sound in mind. He recorded the electro-funk grooves on Obaa Sima on his own, relying on his rudimentary synthesizer and computer skills. He was oblivious to the nascent Ghanaian genre of hiplife, which fused hip-hop and highlife, but most of the tracks feature primitive, looping grooves that borrow from American hip-hop, Twi-language rapping and singing, and rather trite pop melodies. Obaa Sima has the feel of outsider music—its experiment in pop-rap seems to be the product of intuition alone, not the self-conscious combination of influences. Shimkovitz bought a copy of the tape in Ghana in 2002; four years later he launched his blog and began his efforts to track down Ata Kak, who moved back to Ghana that year. Once they finally set about reissuing the album, they discovered that the original DAT recording had been rendered useless by years of heat and humidity; the present version has been mastered from a cassette, giving it an apt lo-fi quality. Peter Margasak


Cannibal Ox
Blade of the Ronin

In their duo Cannibal Ox, MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Mega were an integral part of New York City's burgeoning underground hip-hop scene in the early aughts. They were responsible for three of the earliest releases on Definitive Jux, helping set the standard for cerebral, sinister rap, and their 2001 debut LP, The Cold Vein, became one of the most important ever put out by that influential independent label, which cofounder El-P shut down in 2010. Until now, though, it's been their only full-length album: Cannibal Ox fell silent after a live record in the mid-aughts. The timing of Blade of the Ronin couldn't be better: El-P, who produced The Cold Vein, has been on a tear with Run the Jewels, and even though Cannibal Ox are no longer working with him, his success has only enhanced the reputation of that seminal LP. At 19 tracks, Blade of the Ronin could use a trim, but cuts such as "The Power Cosmiq," where Vast Aire and Vordul Mega circle a mutated boom-bap beat and a sample of what sounds like a liturgical chant, make it easy to ride out the occasional filler. Cannibal Ox plays at the Abbey Pub on Fri 3/13. Leor Galil


DJ Clent
Last Bus to Lake Park
(Duck n' Cover)

Chicago house producer Clenton Hill, aka DJ Clent, began releasing records nearly two decades ago through vanguard underground label Dance Mania. Hill is part of a generation of DJs and producers who molded ghetto house into juke and footwork, and like many of those older cats, he's yet to get his due; his first proper full-length, the recent Last Bus to Lake Park, should help. Hill's immersive, bustling tracks meld dirty, scrambled ghetto-­house percussion with the pulsating synths and stuttering looped samples of footwork. He creates a space where footwork's whiplash-inducing speed can cohabit with slow-burning samples, such as the low-rider G-funk synth that sears "The Wickedness." Leor Galil


Jack DeJohnette
Made in Chicago

Recorded live in 2013 on the opening night of the Chicago Jazz Festival (on whose programming committee I serve), Made in Chicago is a testament to the sense of community that characterizes Chicago jazz—particularly the group of players who formed the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians 50 years ago. Drummer Jack DeJohnette, a Chicago native, was once a member of the AACM, and his ties to its members remain deep—he enlisted some of its greatest figures for this dream band, namely pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and reedists Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell. (None of them has lived in town for decades, but the bassist in the group, Larry Gray, is still here.) The members of the quintet brought in new compositions and rehearsed for several days, and though their set was certainly loose, they brought serious heat, playing with all the intensity and adventurousness they've ever had (with the exception of Gray, everyone is 71 or older). Mitchell's droning "Chant" is a dazzling vehicle for his command of circular breathing, while DeJohnette's "Museum of Time" is a beautifully introspective ballad that showcases Abrams at his most broodingly lyrical. Abrams and Threadgill also contribute pieces, and the album concludes with a bracing group improvisation. Most exciting, this band is no longer a one-off project—it's signed on for further performances. Here's hoping these venerable Chicago expats make it back home. Peter Margasak


Ghost Bath
(Northern Silence)

This anonymous black-metal act, which originally claimed to be from Chong­qing, China, recently confessed that it's based in Minot, North Dakota. But the only thing lost with the unraveling of this fiction is an exotic origin story—the new Moonlover, recorded with Michigan-based engineer Josh Schroeder (one early hint that the band's biography was bogus), is atmospheric, almost lyrical black metal with no perceptible Chinese character. The music has attracted comparisons to Deafheaven, presumably for its bleak but triumphal melodies, elegant postrock bombast, and wistful, aspirational chord progressions. This is Ghost Bath's first release recorded in a proper studio, and the drumming is tight and powerful even at blistering speeds, instead of sounding like a bunch of tin cans dragged behind a car. The arrangements shift expertly between torrential blastbeats, meditative passages of lovely arpeggiated guitar or piano (often accompanied by bird calls, running water, or the chittering and buzzing of insects), and monumental, wide-open riffs that feel almost like hardcore breakdowns; this diversity of structure makes Moonlover function more like conventionally accessible rock than the hermetic, ritualistic music of many similar black-metal bands. The band says the album is about "hopeless longing for something unattainable," and the vocals—mostly deranged, grief-stricken sobs and howls—bear that out. This beautiful, ferocious music demonstrates how fine the line can be between exhilaration and terror—it's for people who can't take a walk in the woods without seeing all the decaying bodies feeding the roots of the trees. Philip Montoro


Harm's Way
(Deathwish Inc.)

If you're at all intimidated by the uncanny sort of primal aggression that lawless straight-edge hardcore incites in its more excitable fans—picture a pit seething with typhoons of roundhouse kicks and wildly flailing limbs—then you're much better off stepping to the back of the room when Harm's Way hits the stage. Because the new full-length from this Chicago band, Rust, is a firestorm of hypermuscular guitar riffs, annihilating double kick drum, and bile-filled vocals—and you have to be this tall to ride this ride. Though the album's production flirts with industrial metal's overprocessed crunch (heavy studio compression reminiscent of a cursed subgenre beginning with "nu-" occasionally obscures the rawness of the band's sound), the breakdowns still pack the explosive power of two rogue cannonballs colliding above a hair-trigger minefield. On the latter half of Rust, Harm's Way indulges in a pair of almost singsongy experiments, including guest vocals from Emily Jancetic of Arctic Sleep on "Turn to Stone," but they're short detours from a path of mass destruction. Kevin Warwick


Jarboe & Helen Money
Jarboe & Helen Money
(Aurora Borealis)

I've been looking forward to this album since I learned two months ago that it was coming, and I'm not at all disappointed. Vocalist, keyboardist, and composer Jarboe made her name by helping to transform Swans from a bit of a one-trick pony (albeit with a pretty fantastic trick) into a multi­faceted band—and she got flak for it, much like another brilliant and unfairly reviled female avant-­gardist, Yoko Ono. Since leaving the group when it split in 1998, she's pursued a solo career that's included guest appearances and collaborations with metal bands of various schools, including Neurosis, Anthrax, Jesu, and Cattle Decapitation. Former Chicagoan Helen Money was the cellist in underrated indie-rock band Verbow, and she's grown into a badass composer and arranger, sailing her instrument through seas of avant-metal and drone like a Viking longboat come to conquer. This is her first album to incorporate vocals, and the result is even more than the sum of its parts. This duo's grasp of dynamics and suspense is flawless, and Jarboe's singing and lyrics add a human element that often heightens the tension­—the harrowing cracks in her voice at the end of "Hello Mr. Blue," for instance. "Wired" is aggressive and challenging right out of the gate, while "Every Confidence," the only instrumental, begins low and ethereal, its sweet siren drone carrying you through a crunching surge like superpowered early Sonic Youth, then into repetitive cello riffs that build to a distorted frenzy. Monica Kendrick


José Prates and Mieco Askanasy
Tam . . . Tam . . . Tam . . . !

Record collectors have been rescuing cast-off sides from oblivion and introducing them to wider audiences ever since Harry Smith put together his Anthology of American Folk Music at the dawn of the LP age. For just as long, the eccentricities of their tastes have presented those audiences with distorted reflections of the music of yesteryear. One recent example is the 1958 LP Tam . . . Tam . . . Tam . . . !, ostensibly a cornerstone of contemporary Brazilian music but in fact the soundtrack of a revue that little-­known arranger José Prates put together for Polish impresario Mieco Askanasy, who toured it through South America, Europe, and Israel during the 50s. Just prior to this reissue, originals of the LP were going for more than $1,500. The record's infectious macumba and candomblé rhythms, executed by an ensemble that's heavy on the hand drums and woodwinds, are nearly undone by some plummy baritone singing, but there's no discounting the appeal of kitsch. Bill Meyer


Martin Sky
Everywhere but Here

Chicago rapper and producer Martin Sky is only 20 years old, but the south-sider has already developed an astute grasp of atmosphere. On his new ten-track EP, Everywhere but Here, he evokes dread, grandeur, sadness, and uncertainty with spacious arrangements that combine minimal percussion, shadowy synths, and low-key but melodic rhymes casually punctuated with wordless grunts. Sky recruited several better-known artists for the EP: drill king Young Chop shares production duties on "Stay Up 2015," and MCs Casey Veggies, Rockie Fresh, and Saba rap on a track apiece. But Sky didn't need help to create the trancelike vibe of Everywhere but Here, which gets its hooks in you with the unsettling but engrossing synth rhythms that criss-cross throughout the opener, "No More Talking," and then never lets go. Leor Galil


I Wasn't Born to Lose You

Founded in Oxford, England, and initially active from 1989 till 1998, Swervedriver arose from the original shoegaze movement, but their knotty, rhythmically muscular sound contrasted sharply with that of their dreamier peers. In 2008 the band got back together to tour the reunion circuit, and now they're releasing their first LP in 17 years, I Wasn't Born to Lose You, where they try their best to recapture the glory days of 1991's Raise and 1993's Mezcal Head. They pack the new record's crunchy songs with washes of fuzzy, spaced-out guitar and richly layered vocal melodies, but the years have clearly mellowed these dudes—their bite has softened, and the air of desperation that helped make their original output so potent is gone. I Wasn't Born to Lose You is a solid set of pretty, punchy indie pop, but compared to those old albums, it feels a little limp and watered down—it's not going to move anyone quite like the band did in 1991. Swervedriver play at Thalia Hall on Sat 3/14 as part of Levitation Chicago. Luca Cimarusti


Yabby You
Dread Prophecy: The Strange and Wonderful Story of Yabby You

This archival three-disc set should right some wrongs and elevate Yabby You (born Vivian Jackson) to his proper place among reggae royalty. The singer, songwriter, and producer was something of an outsider in Jamaica, beginning in his youth; he left home at 12 and lived as a wanderer, and even after he settled with a Rasta sect (they slept outdoors and lived on diet consisting mostly of root vegetables) he clung to the Christian beliefs he'd grown up with. Yabby saved enough money selling scrap metal to cut his classic debut single, "Conquering Lion," in 1972, and stayed busy as a musician for two decades (he died in 2010 at age 63). Dread Prophecy breaks down his output into three categories: classics released under his own name, collaborations and productions, and rarities uncovered in archives left to his wife and to a close friend in Canada. The set includes killer work with King Tubby, singers such as Michael Prophet and Willi Williams, and DJs including Trinity and Jah Stich. It makes vividly clear just how thoroughly Yabby held on to his personal blend of soul and spirituality throughout his career. Peter Margasak


Ingar Zach & Miguel Angel Tolosa

This collaboration between Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach (Hunstville, Dans les Arbres) and Spanish sound artist Miguel Angel Tolosa consists of four sustained, hovering drones constructed from a mixture of field recordings, metal percussion (both rung and bowed), electric guitar, and electronics. Details occasionally emerge clearly enough that you can almost feel the object that created them—a bell jangling, a bowed cymbal keening—but identifying sound sources is hardly the point here. Zach and Tolosa revel in sound for its own sake, shaping expanses of noise that roll in and out like a tide. "Whirlworlds" pushes toward a peak that's reminiscent of industrial music before suddenly dropping away, leaving just the gurgling of water, but for the most part these pieces avoid sharp transitions. Not a lot happens here, but it's a compelling place to wander. Peter Margasak

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