Music » Record Roundup

Robin Thicke's morbidly fascinating Paula and 15 more record reviews

Eight Reader writers take on 16 albums—including White Lung's witchy two-minute mantras, Monarch's crawling tectonic doom, and Sir Michael Rocks's bleakly sunny party rap.

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Ab-Soul, These Days . . . (Top Dawg Entertainment) Backed by a squealing jazz saxophone, Herbert Anthony "Ab-Soul" Stevens throws out a quick line on "Kendrick Lamar's Interlude" about his most famous labelmate and fellow Black Hippy crew member: "If I ain't better than Kendrick, then no one is then." This California MC is hardly the only rapper eager to knock Lamar off his throne, but on his guest-jammed album These Days . . . , Stevens sounds so eccentric—with all his strange wordplay and odd references—that I'm pretty sure he's about more than hip-hop one-upmanship. He's at his best when he follows his least predictable impulses—on "Feelin' Us" he switches his flow midstream from his usual sturdy rhythms and powerfully articulated syllables to a sort of manic, bouncy half-singing that borrows heavily from the chorus of Chief Keef's "Love Sosa." Comparing Stevens to Lamar just makes it more likely that you'll miss the idiosyncrasies that These Days . . . continues to reveal on play after play. Leor Galil


Mike Cooper, Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. With Mike Cooper (Paradise of Bachelors) In 1969 British singer and guitarist Mike Cooper was a secondary figure in England's bustling folk revival, with an abiding love for American blues; then he stumbled into a Belgian club with some friends and got hammered by the sounds of German free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. As he told Grayson Currin at Indy Week last month, "I went, 'Now this is what I've been looking for. . . . We had that music in our heads to go back to England with. It was a revelation." Inspired by free jazz, Cooper surrounded himself with improvisers for the albums he made in the aftermath of that epiphany. His music remained rooted in the singer-songwriter tradition—he cut his own vocal and guitar parts alone, then invited his collaborators to shape the arrangements—but its panstylistic looseness still feels fresh more than four decades later, with rock, soul, blues, country, and bucolic psychedelia blending in richly mottled textures. The music on Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. With Mike Cooper originally appeared on two separate LPs, released by Pye Records in 1971 and 1972, but this Paradise of Bachelors reissue (the label has also resuscitated 1970's Trout Steel) puts all 14 tracks together, as Cooper intended. The collection sounds utterly of a piece, even as it wanders freely from one track to the next. Peter Margasak


Flesh Eaters, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (Superior Viaduct) The Flesh Eaters' A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, originally released in 1981 by Slash Records subsidiary Ruby, remains one of the most unjustly overlooked treasures of Los Angeles punk. The genre was already settling into rigid stylistic templates when the Flesh Eaters tapped anew into its ethos of raw self-expression. Poet and punk critic Chris Desjardins (aka Chris D.) formed the band in 1977, playing with a rotating cast of sidemen, and it reached its manic apotheosis with the killer lineup on A Minute to Pray, which included members of X (John Doe on bass, DJ Bonebrake on percussion), the Blasters (Dave Alvin on guitar, Bill Bateman on drums), and Los Lobos (Steve Berlin on saxophone). Desjardins rants in an unholy squawk, punctuating his lurid pulp narratives with existentialist screams, and the band forges a wonderfully mangled fusion of noisy postpunk, primitive R&B, and pell-mell free jazz. The Flesh Eaters eventually settled into a more conventional hard-rock aesthetic, but the rhythmic looseness and stylistic ambiguity on this album sound as distinctive now as they did 33 years ago. Peter Margasak


Bryan Jacobs, Dis Un Il Im Ir (Carrier) This collection features five of New York's most adventurous new-music ensembles playing compositions by fellow New Yorker Bryan Jacobs, written between 2010 and 2013, that collide electronics, acoustic instruments, and voices in visceral, electrifying ways. The title piece, performed with biting precision and percussive heft by Ensemble Pamplemousse, pits terse, pointillistic flurries of flute and piano against unruly, hyperactive electronics, which occasionally manipulate the acoustic playing in real time—some single piano notes are sampled and played back machine-gun style. "Do You Need, Do to Me, 18 Me, 18 Mean" demands acrobatic movement from the six-piece vocal group Ekmeles, whose grunts, chants, trills, long tones, staccato sibilances, and unison wails cut against a shimmering low-end electronic hum or wrangle with an abrasive blast of noise. Peter Margasak


Luluc, Passerby (Sub Pop) Zoe Randell's enchanting alto has historically drifted into frosty waters, a la Nico, but on Luluc's sophomore LP her singing sometimes radiates warmth—and the best tracks, "Small Window" and "Tangled Heart," combine this newfound glow with the captivating, perfectly executed vocal harmonies of the band's other member, Steve Hassett. On Passerby the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Melbourne duo sometimes manage lush instrumental arrangements that would make for first-rate tributes to their idols, evoking Nick Drake's melancholic incandescence or the emotional crescendo of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York." But elsewhere the album sounds thin, particularly when Randell goes it alone—given how heavily her lyrics lean on couplets, she needs more than just an acoustic guitar. Passerby arrives nearly six years after Luluc's debut, Dear Hamlyn, and the duo rerecorded it completely (working with the National's Aaron Dessner) when they weren't happy with their initial work in Melbourne. The extra studio hours might've helped, but the album definitely would've benefited from more time spent fleshing out its stripped-down singer-­songwriter turns. Erin Osmon


Monarch, Sabbracadaver (Profound Lore) French trio Monarch have been playing painfully extreme doom metal since 2002, and the title of their seventh album is more than just a cute play on words; it lets you know just how perverse they've gotten in their take on the genre Tony Iommi built. You won't find any low-slung grooves or smoky riffs on Sabbracadaver, only lurching drums, tectonic slabs of thundering, oppressive noise, and vocals that sound like scraped flesh—think Burning Witch and Khanate, except with a Gallic twist. Sabbracadaver consists of three mammoth new compositions, and the tongue-in-cheek album title is the only thing about them that isn't a miserable slog through the dead of night. Emilie Bresson's strained, tormented vocals haunt the songs' desiccated landscapes like a vengeful ghost, snaking through the spaces between the band's punishing blows. Thanks to a surprisingly clean production job, you can hear her visceral screams rattling deep in her throat—and here and there, with the midsong calm in "Louves" or the opening whispers of "Mortes," she slips into sweet-voiced clarity. Hardly an album for the weak of will or the short of patience, Sabbracadaver borrows the comatose tempos of funeral doom and the riffs of an earthquake. Kim Kelly


Morrissey, World Peace Is None of Your Business (Harvest) On Morrissey's tenth solo album, World Peace Is None of Your Business, the legendary singer (and notorious canceler of tours) proves that he's still one of the sharpest musical personalities in the world. A few songs suffer from slick modern-rock production tricks, but they don't detract from the singular element that's been the highlight of everything Morrissey has done: that voice. It's as strong and beautiful as ever, thrilling and rapturous and clear as a bell. It pours drama and romance into every song on World Peace, sometimes with over-the-top silliness and sometimes with his signature smart-ass wit. Plus the chorus to "Kiss Me a Lot" sounds a lot like that one band Morrissey used to sing for in the 80s. At this rate, we may never get to see the man play live again, but he can still cut a great record. Luca Cimarusti


Novembers Doom, Bled White (The End) Founded in 1989, when Chicago had a solid local metal scene but suffered on the national-­recognition front, pioneering death-doom band Novembers Doom (they were called Laceration until 1992) have held on through many lean years and a slew of lineup changes. Now that the music market finally seems ready for them, they sound stronger than ever. Front man and sole constant member Paul Kuhr says their ninth studio album, Bled White, places more emphasis on melody and harmony than previous releases. Novembers Doom have always had a tendency toward gothic lyricism, and the new record develops it and brings it forward; dual guitars unfurl with a windswept spaciousness in "Heartfelt," and the ritualistic dirge "The Grand Circle" sounds almost like an anthem. The band can't be said to have gone soft, though—"The Brave Pawn" delivers a righteous pounding. You're listening to mature musicians, with more emotional range than most, at the peak of their powers, and Bled White offers up diverse rewards on repeated spins. Monica Kendrick


People, 3xaWoman (Telegraph Harp) Mary Halvorson and Kevin Shea are, respectively, jazz's most exciting new guitarist and most comically astute drummer, but in their trio People (with bassist Kyle Forester) they take a break from that to play in rock's most self-analytical band. On 3xaWoman, abetted by a brass trio, they veer wildly across an impressive range that includes breakneck punk, deconstructions of the Lionel Richie tune referred to in the album title, and convoluted art songs that apply a similarly analytic approach to their own arrangement and meaning. At some point each of them sings, but Halvorson's almost affectless voice best expresses the self-observing stance that informs "The Lyrics Are Simultaneously About How the Song Starts and What the Lyrics Are About," a composition that does exactly what it says on the tin. If you're put off by cleverness, this album is not for you. But if you feel like parsing odd time signatures, grappling with abstruse concepts, and thrashing around the room all at the same time, then dive right in. Bill Meyer


Rise Against, The Black Market (Interscope) Chicago punk lifers Rise Against were already gravitating toward an arena-ready sound, but with their seventh album, The Black Market, they approximate the postgrunge radio fodder that passed for butt rock in the aughts. But while the huge "Tragedy + Time" could fit into an AOR rotation between Nickel­back and Seether, the grit in Tim McIlrath's powerful, soaring vocals lend it a punk bite. The album's best tunes aren't overtly political, but Rise Against can still deliver the supercharged agitprop ragers that helped make their name (here the best example is "The Eco-Terrorist in Me"), and these guys still unflinchingly embrace dissent and transgression; McIlrath compares drug addiction to an all-­consuming love on "Methadone," in the process inviting listeners to think about how society marginalizes addicts. Leor Galil


Vanessa Rossetto, Whole Stories (Kye) In its infancy, electronic music was an institutional phenomenon; Bell Laboratories paid for Laurie Spiegel's synthesizer, and French taxpayers financed the painstaking months of work that Pierre Schaeffer needed to devise his early musique concrete. Nowadays cheap gear puts electronic music within the reach of the likes of Vanessa Rossetto, a Texas-based bookstore clerk who turns the sounds she collects on long walks and bus trips into densely layered long-form pieces that simultaneously relay and comment upon true-life narratives. On Whole Stories you can hear Rossetto explain the work she does to a bystander in a mall, then use field recordings of retail spaces, bus rides, and casinos to frame the everyday tragedies of another woman's life story. The individual elements are pretty mundane, but she stitches them together with subliminal string drones into something absolutely devastating. Bill Meyer


Sir Michael Rocks, Banco (Blended Babies Music Group) Sir Michael Rocks of the Cool Kids, aka Antoine Reed, opens his debut solo album, Banco, by explaining why he decided to move to Los Angeles while working on it. He says he needed a change of scenery, but LA's influence is only overt on "Ain't Nothin Like," a glistening ratchet track produced by the genre's architect, DJ Mustard. Most of the sun-­blasted party songs on Banco remind me instead of Miami, where Reed lives now—I keep picturing neon palm trees on the side of a giant pink-and-purple beachfront nightclub. The Cool Kids dropped their proper debut in 2011 (When Fish Ride Bicycles), went on hiatus in 2012, and officially returned this year; during that stretch Reed has bounced from city to city, and beneath his cool confidence I often sense a melancholy sort of dislocation or rootlessness. He can sneak a verse about feeling confused and low into a roof-raising party track, and on the slippery, electronic "Memo" one bleak line gives his tales of nights filled with limo rides and women carrying Fendi bags a surprising weight: "'Cause everybody just be trying not to die alone." Leor Galil


Robin Thicke, Paula (Star Trak/Interscope) Have you ever written a long letter trying to win back a recent ex, proclaiming your undying love and apologizing for every half indiscretion? Well, that's basically what 2013 chart champ Robin Thicke has done with Paula, a record inspired by and largely addressed to Paula Patton, his wife of nearly nine years (they separated in February). As much an object of morbid curiosity as an album, Paula is uneven, but fascinatingly so—it's hard to tell where the apology ends and the art begins. Thicke says he's sorry more often than he says what he's sorry for (though drinking too much and being seen with other women do come up), and even when he seems to understand how he could better be there for Patton, he often sidetracks himself into a sort of bland attempted sexiness instead of focusing on sounding sincere. Thicke sums everything up on the chorus for the 60s-style pop number "The Opposite of Me," where he sings, "All that she wants is the action not the words." Throughout Paula private autobiographical material collides in puzzling and uncomfortable ways with celebrity and artifice—it's simultaneously a Hail Mary pass and a transfixing train wreck. Leor Galil


Total Control, Typical System (Iron Lung) This Melbourne group's 2011 album Henge Beat can sound erratic and noisy—wildly pulsing, dissonant synth drives the opener, "See More Glass," which bleeds into the straight-up guitar and drums of "Retiree"—but their newest offering is calculated and sparse. The songs on Typical System are mostly hazy slow burns, often tipping their hat to the ominous early-80s sound of Gary Numan. Still, despite how prevalent and well-executed the synths are, Total Control remain a rock 'n' roll band. Founders Michael David Young (Eddy Current Suppression Ring) and Dan Stewart (UV Race), perhaps realizing that two dudes onstage with a bunch of synths can make for a boring show, have made permanent members of their touring drummer and guitarist. The seven-minute-plus "Black Spring" is paved with a low synth buzz, but what gives the song its hypnotic power—even after feedback and harsh noise come raining down—are the motorik drumming, twangy repeated guitar lick, and expressionless vocals. Kevin Warwick


Trap Them, Blissfucker (Prosthetic) Incoming biased opinion: Trap Them can do no wrong. Ever since their sophomore release, 2008's Seizures in Barren Praise, they've been one of the most reliable bands in the subgenre of relentlessly heavy and wildly pissed off. It's three long years since their third album, the titanic Darker Handcraft—thanks in part to more lineup changes around vocalist Ryan Mc­Kenney and guitarist Brian Izzi, the two remaining original members—but Trap Them's incendiary blend of grind, hardcore, and punk is risen again. Engineered by Kurt Ballou, Blissfucker sounds like a tank ablaze; Izzi's guitar tone is still as thick as a chorus of buzz saws, and the rock-solid, battering-ram drumming of Brad Fickeisen (the Red Chord) replaces the flailing style of Chris Maggio. The spasms of blastbeaten all-out grind when McKenney's vocals hit their most maniacal ("Former Linings Wide the Walls") are hold-your-breath intense, but what propels the album are the "slow jams" where you can feel the subterranean depth of the guitar in your gut ("Gift and Gift Unsteady"). Kevin Warwick


White Lung, Deep Fantasy (Domino) Attribute it to a Domino production budget, maybe, but Deep Fantasy is the fiercest and noisiest of White Lung's three albums. This is the sound of a punk band that's realized what it's about but decided not to move on from that formula—instead of expanding on its dark two-­minute mantras, White Lung carves them into unblemished diamonds. Front woman Mish Way is absolute in her command, seething with vitriol one moment ("Drown With the Monster") and belting out a grunge-tipped melody the next ("Down It Goes"). Guitarist Kenneth William hopscotches from chord to chord, his spastic, breakneck riffs kept steady not only by his own steely control but also by Anne-Marie Vassiliou's full-steam-ahead drumming. And just as she does on White Lung's other albums, Way gives Deep Fantasy a punk-rock witchiness and untouchable mystique. Kevin Warwick


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