Music » Record Roundup

Sleater-Kinney's clear-eyed, open-hearted No Cities to Love and 11 more record reviews

Eight Reader writers tackle a dozen new releases, including John Carpenter's first music not for film, Aine O'Dwyer's improvisations on pipe organ, and a reissue of Del Shannon's 1968 psych-pop masterpiece.



John Luther Adams
The Wind in High Places
(Cold Blue)

Most of the dazzling oeuvre of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams is inspired by and informed by nature, and the three recent works on this excellent album are no exception. The title piece adapts the principles underlying the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind; it treats the ensemble, in this case New York's versatile JACK Quartet, as a single 16-string instrument. Throughout its nearly 20 minutes, the players never touch their fingerboards, instead rendering its austere, melancholy melodies with open strings and ghostly harmonics. Just as gorgeous and ethereal is Canticles of the Sky, performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, which means to evoke the way atmospheric conditions can create the suggestion of a multitude of suns or moons in the arctic and in the Sonoran Desert. The final piece, played by JACK, delivers Adams's adaption of the song of the canyon wren. Peter Margasak


Setter of Unseen Snares
(Church of Fuck/Broken Limbs/Skin & Bones)

Andrew Curtis-Brignell, who records as Caïna, has long stood apart from the UK black-­metal community—his experimental, obtuse take on the genre incenses purists at least as reliably as it intrigues listeners outside the black circle. Setter of Unseen Snares is his strongest and most compelling effort yet, drawing upon Curtis-Brignell's youth steeped in hardcore punk to augment the blackened riffs of its raging first half (standouts include "Vowbound" and the voracious title track). For the album's second side he loosens his grip on the reins, expanding what's been primarily a one-person project by enlisting comrades from Hateful Abandon and Coldfell to add vocals to the simmering, postpunk-­inflected closer, "Orphan." This is also the first Caïna release to feature a full band, which forces Curtis-­Brignell to take more risks, hit harder, and howl louder. Judging from the results, collaboration suits him. Kim Kelly


John Carpenter
John Carpenter's Lost Themes
(Sacred Bones)

As Miles Raymer pointed out in these pages in 2012, director John Carpenter has inspired a legion of modern electronic-dance producers with the tense, atmospheric scores he wrote for his horror and sci-fi films—these days all sorts of people seem to want to create tracks that feel like being chased through a foggy, booby-trapped maze. But as iconic as Carpenter's music can be (the Halloween theme is hard to escape in October), for decades it's been subservient to the twists and turns of his movies. The vibrant new compositions on this album (despite its title, they're not forgotten pieces just now unearthed) run free of such celluloid shackles, jumping from one mood to another—the high-pitched synths at the end of "Domain" could've scored what surely would've been a curious Carpenter adaptation of the Legend of Zelda. Leor Galil


Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus
(Rune Grammofon)

On their second album, this Norwegian duo—veteran singer Sidsel Endresen and hotshot experimental guitarist Stian Westerhus—dive into their improvisations with increasing fearlessness, colliding wordless abstraction and floor-ratting physicality. Endresen once trafficked in a sort of post-Joni Mitchell jazz-folk sound, but now she has a language all her own: an imaginary vocabulary, elucidated in a halting tumble of cracked, wheezy, or glottal vocalizations. Westerhus uses a phalanx of effects pedals that transforms his atmospheric guitar into a miniature symphony, adding flurries of violence, smatterings of percussive noise, and fountains of gnarled feedback. The two musicians play off each other deftly but furiously, and their jagged, high-flying dance is as exciting, imaginative, and visceral as anything I've heard in years. Peter Margasak


Leather Corduroys

Leather Corduroys, aka Save Money rappers Joey Purple and Kami de Chukwu, include a skit on their debut full-length, Season, that explains how you can make your own pair of leather corduroys with polyurethane, "adhesive," and 50 dried banana peels. I imagine that pulling off such an outfit also takes a degree of finesse bordering on the magical—but Joey and Kami have it. Throughout Season they thread together patois flows, sweet soul singing, and madman screams atop genre-­blurring instrumentals. The nasty punk stomp of "Developers" sounds like a low-bit-rate tribute to Suicide; the first half of "RMS/Launch" is basically Kanye's quasi-industrial "Black Skinhead" stripped down to a playful skeleton; and "Lucile" rides a looped a cappella of the word "Lucy" that's equal parts romantic and terrifying. I hope more rappers take risks like this. Leor Galil


Aine O'Dwyer
Music for Church Cleaners Vol. I and II

London-based Irish native Aine O'Dwyer is best known for her beautifully intricate art songs for voice and harp, but after she was granted access to the pipe organ at Saint Mark's Church in Islington, she recorded these improvisations on the enormous instrument. Some of them were previously issued on cassette, but this new double LP expands on that release with two hours of music. In the spirit of John Cage, O'Dwyer made no attempt to eliminate environmental and ambient sounds, including those made by the folks cleaning the church while she played—you can hear murmured conversation and the humming of vacuums throughout her serene, drone-heavy melodies. (On "Deep Sound" Invocation a member of the janitorial staff can be heard asking her to stop sticking "on one note for a long time.") Taken as a whole, these low-key explorations can get a little monochromatic, but it's fascinating to hear O'Dwyer grow familiar with the instrument in such a casual, low-pressure way. Peter Margasak


Natalie Prass
Natalie Prass

Natalie Prass's lively, flittering vocals could easily have been the be-all and end-all of the Nashville-based singer-songwriter's debut full-length, but they aren't—and that says a lot about the album's strength. Prass's dedication to each note makes it sound like she's painstakingly feeling each twinge of self-doubt or regret but still can't or won't bring herself to show her full hand. She's powerfully emotive despite the delicacy of her singing, and though you often wish she'd let loose, at the same time you don't want her to stop doing what she's doing. The arrangements rely on more than coffee-shop acoustic guitar, mixing in strings and horns (and well-­executed hand claps) for the occasional upbeat baroque-pop number ("Your Fool") and adding swaggering, soul-stamped piano to album highlight "Why Don't You Believe in Me." You might be nagged by the suspicion that this album is too precious for you, but it ought to be squashed completely by the time you get to "Reprise," where Prass talk-sings almost chillingly over a weird, ominous loop of flute and other, less identifiable sounds. Kevin Warwick


Alasdair Roberts
Alasdair Roberts
(Drag City)

Alasdair Roberts's latest album is self-titled, but that doesn't mean the Scottish folksinger has grown self-obsessed (or run out of ideas). Instead it reflects the circumstances of its recording. After making four consecutive albums that were either collaborations or community affairs with bands of buddies, Roberts has stripped back the accompaniment so that just a few woodwinds and backing voices adorn his sturdy guitar picking and richly accented voice. "Nothing is stronger than the parable speaker," he sings on "Hurricane Brown," investing power in words rather than in the person who delivers them. Roberts weaves together Jungian symbols and Scottish folk forms into poetic considerations of humankind's place in the cosmos. His graceful delivery and dry wit make it easy to spend extra time with his complex language, which gives up its secrets a bit at a time. Bill Meyer


Del Shannon
The Further Adventures of Charles Westover
(Trouble in Mind reissue)

Sixties rocker Del Shannon had some huge hits in the first half of that decade, but he's always seemed to get short shrift. Maybe it's the downer tone of "Little Town Flirt," "Hats Off to Larry," and "I Go to Pieces" (first released by Peter & Gordon) that's kept him from being thought of alongside Buddy Holly and Elvis as a rock 'n' roll pioneer. But Shannon was ahead of the curve artistically—in 1963 he was the first American to cover the Beatles (he had a U.S. hit with "From Me to You" before the Fab Four did), and he used an early electronic keyboard on the 1961 smash "Runaway." Shannon's 1968 psych-pop masterpiece, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, sold poorly upon release and was all but ignored for decades, but it's slowly earned a golden reputation for its mournful tone, baroque arrangements, and top-level songwriting—to say nothing of the acid-spawned demons that seep into the grooves in unexpected places. The two-part "Silver Birch"/"I Think I Love You" begins delicate and morphs into a cosmic throb, and makes seeking out a costly original copy of the LP worth it. Luckily, you don't have to do that anymore—local label Trouble in Mind has persevered through two years of wrangling over royalties and masters to bring this holy grail back to the masses affordably. Thanks to a remastering job, new details pop out of the originally somewhat murky mix—especially on gorgeous chamber-pop numbers "Colour Flashing Hair" and "Magical Musical Box," which give the Zombies and the Left Banke a run for their money. Steve Krakow


No Cities to Love
(Sub Pop)

Americans are more cynical now than they were 20 years ago, and Carrie Brownstein makes a living on Portlandia mocking the same urban culture she helped invent. But No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney's first album since 2005's The Woods, is hardly a cynical affair. Announced in October 2014 via a seven-­inch of a new song slipped in with a retrospective Sleater-Kinney vinyl box set, No Cities to Love grapples with the frustration of wanting to change the world only to find the world changing without you (and in whatever direction it pleases). Instead of delivering the feminist screeds of old, the post-riot-­grrrl three-piece hammers out a tune called "No Anthems." Instead of preaching staunch anticorporatism, Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss advocate self-acceptance, even if that means dialing in to the status quo (they've got kids to feed, after all). In the 90s, Sleater-Kinney had wild hopes for a better world; in 2015, they're striving to survive in this one. And if that means betraying their former ideals, it also means holding tighter to their loved ones. The band may have narrowed their scope, but they've opened their arms that much wider. Sasha Geffen


The Deal
(Profound Lore)

When you put Aaron Turner (front man for defunct postmetal giants Isis), Nick Yacyshyn (pummeling drummer for Canadian hardcore animals Baptists), and Brian Cook (bassist for Russian Circles, These Arms Are Snakes, and Botch) together in a room, you're going to get something heavy. And The Deal, the debut full-length from Sumac (the group is basically a duo of Turner and Yacyshyn, with Cook playing bass on the recording), meets those expectations and then some—it does to your ears what atom bombs do to 1950s model suburbs full of oblivious mannequins. The sludgy epics on The Deal careen from straightforward chugging into tribal, knotty acrobatics into dissonant, ambient fuzz, then back again—gone is the airy, icy introspection of Isis. Lots of metal dudes seem to soften up in their old age, so it's nice to see veterans make an album like The Deal, whose massive ten-minute tracks bristle with terrifyingly guttural growls, head-spinning tom-tom abuse, and furious aggression. Luca Cimarusti


Universal Togetherness Band
Universal Togetherness Band
(Numero Group)

The otherworldly ecstasy radiating from the disco funk of Universal Togetherness Band makes it pretty clear why legions of people in the 70s spent their weekend nights boogying down in a soft-focus haze beneath glittering mirror balls. The eight songs on this Numero release come from sessions recorded with students in Columbia College's audio-­engineering program over the course of five semesters beginning in the late 70s. The Universal Togetherness Band didn't lean on disco alone to coax people onto the dance floor; these tunes are built from soul and jazz too. I can even hear a bit of punk in Andre Gibson's vocals on the lean "Ain't Gonna Cry"—his singing is smooth, but he clips each phrase so forcefully that it ends with a sharpened point. Leor Galil

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