Music » Record Roundup

Lily Allen's almost annoyingly catchy Sheezus and 15 more record reviews

Nine Reader writers sift through a musical farrago that includes Ben Frost's defibrillating body music, Dawn Golden's alchemical electro-pop, and Sleaford Mods' grimly minimalist postpunk.

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Lily Allen, Sheezus (Regal) Sheezus is the first album from English pop singer Lily Allen since 2009's It's Not Me, It's You, where she moved away from the retro ska and dancehall production of her 2006 debut Alright, Still, to dive headfirst into high-gloss electro-pop. It's also her first album since becoming a wife and mother—and the woman who made her name flaunting a don't-give-a-fuck attitude and swearing like a sailor is now singing about the joys of feeding babies and staying in at night. These subjects are anything but edgy or interesting, and the lyrics are sometimes cringe-inducingly sappy, but Allen still oozes with charm, which makes most of the tracks super fun anyway. Sheezus uses simple, synth-heavy electronic production with the occasional modern radio-pop trick or layer of Auto-Tune, and its songs (like much of Allen's earlier material) are so glued-to-your-brain catchy that it's almost annoying. Luca Cimarusti

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Ambarchi / O'Malley / Dunn, Shade Themes From Kairos (Drag City) While in the studio to soundtrack the short film Kairos by Belgian filmmaker Alexis Destoop, Sunn O))) cofounder Stephen O'Malley and percussionist-guitarist Oren Ambarchi enlisted engineer Randall Dunn as a third collaborator, and their trio mutated the score into an immersive slow burn of glacial guitar drone and scurrying, cyclical beats. At the album's most abrasive, especially on "Temporal, Eponymous," the long scrapes of distorted guitar slice through the fog of synths and steady patter of drums like dull serrated knives, sometimes with startling violence. But its nonstop onslaught like that is nowhere near Shade Themes From Kairos's most menacing moment. That's "Ebony Pagoda," the 20-plus-minute closer, whose towering, mythic-size drones stretch far up into the clouds, so edgelessly huge that they're almost more sensed than heard. And that kind of unknown is what makes your hair stand on end. Kevin Warwick

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Black Anvil, Hail Death (Relapse) New York City black-metal troupe Black Anvil have long struggled to hack out a niche in the city's thriving underground scene. For the most part their early efforts were greeted dismissively: "Hardcore dudes playing black metal? Yeah, right." And it's true that you can hear these guys' NYHC roots in some of their burlier grooves. But the thrashy black metal on Black Anvil's third full-length, Hail Death, is compelling and dynamic—it's more Marduk meets Metallica (classic Metallica, of course) than it is Murphy's Law. There's a lot to take in: monstrous thrash epics ("Still Reborn"), gloomy introspection ("Next Level Black"), and full-on Nordic blasts ("Redemption Through Blood"). And under the icy tremolo picking, Hail Death has a big fat rock 'n' roll swagger—it even ends with a brooding Kiss cover, which rules way harder than it has any right to. Black Anvil have finally come into their own. Kim Kelly

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Bok Bok, Your Charizmatic Self (Night Slugs) Dance-music producers sometimes get to a point where they're less invested in the fetishization of rhythm that defines the style and more interested in melody. London-­based producer Alex "Bok Bok" Sushon, who's had a hand in the rapid rise of on-the-verge R&B chanteuse Kelela (both as a producer on her 2013 debut, Cut 4 Me, and as cofounder of the Night Slugs label that helped release it), plays around with pop structures in his trademark dark-and-bassy sound in a way that suggests he's hit that stage. A couple of tracks on his new Your Charizmatic Self EP seem like sketches of melodies, with not enough of a beat to distract from their unfinished feel. But some of them pop: "Funkiest (Be Yourself)" essentially makes a whole song out of two alternating bass lines and a handful of drums, and "Melba's Call" blends Sushon's bare-bones arrangement and Kelela's voice so seamlessly and symbiotically that you might get some Timbaland-and-­Aaliyah chills. Miles Raymer

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Dawn Golden, Still Life (Downtown/Mad Decent) It's been more than three years since Diplo's label, Mad Decent, signed Dawn Golden & Rosy Cross, aka the solo electronic project of Dexter Tortoriello from Houses, on the strength of the six-song Bandcamp release Blow. In 2013 Tortoriello put out another beautiful, dreamy Houses album (A Quiet Darkness), and this month Dawn Golden (no more Rosy Cross) finally dropped its debut full-length. At its best the tantalizingly outre electro-pop on Still Life is achingly romantic, with a drowsy-­sounding Tortoriello singing sweetly about fractured love—he'll occasionally provide his own backing vocals, processed to sound like he's sucked on a helium balloon. His singing, the delicate synths, and the stacks of percussion that shift throughout each song make for an album that will gets its hooks into your heart; I've had "I Won't Bend" on repeat, charmed by its sputtering synths and demented take on the Ronettes' classic "Be My Baby" drumbeat. The ingredients are simple, but Tortoriello's alchemical wizardry helps them take off and light up like a fireworks display. Leor Galil

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Arne Deforce & Mika Vainio, Hephaestus (Editions Mego) Over the past decade or so, Belgian cellist Arne Deforce has established himself as a technically fearsome interpreter of new music, rising to the challenge of pieces by the likes of Raphael Cendo, Alvin Curran, and Phill Niblock; his recording of the complete cello music of Xenakis (with members of MusikFabrik) is nothing short of astonishing. On Hephaestus he continues to pursue his investment in sound qua sound by partnering with Finnish electronic-music maven Mika Vainio (ex-Pan Sonic). Most of its six harrowing duets are built around seething, peripatetic long tones subjected to ferocious striation and distortion—a combination of psychoacoustic phenomena and electronic manipulation creates strange harmonic effects, making certain sounds seem startlingly huge or cutting. The pieces toggle between ominous serenity and floor-rumbling fury; Vainio's electronics are both delicate and raw, and dovetail with Deforce's extended techniques to produce, say, a pizzicato that's oddly enlarged and echoing. On "Cocytus (River of Lamentation)" cello scrapes drift within reverb and murmuring static, like the distant bleat of an unseen foghorn, and on "Acheron (River of Woe)" Deforce's descending glissandos convey a brute physicality as hard and harsh as any blast of synthetic noise. Despite the incongruity of their instrumentation, these two musicians achieve a simpatico bond that makes every tone cut deeper. Peter Margasak

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John Escreet, Sound, Space and Structures (Sunnyside) In 2006 British pianist John Escreet moved to New York, where he's become one of the most thoughtful composers and improvisers around. He's amassed an impressive discography playing heady, liquid postbop, and he finally gives his skills as a free improviser a proper airing on this quartet date with his strong working trio—bassist John Hébert and drummer Tyshawn Sorey—and brilliant British reedist Evan Parker. There's plenty of extended technique, including Parker's circular breathing and Escreet's deft, textural prepared piano, but the album is less about showing off and more about ensemble playing—spontaneously developed gestures and structures progress according to a clear internal logic, whether the darting, quicksilver flutters and scrapes on "Part III" or the brisk, fractured swing feel on "Part VII." The album also includes a few duos between Escreet and various bandmates, which underline the intimate musical connections on display. Peter Margasak

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Fennesz, Bécs (Editions Mego) The world has changed since the late 90s, when Christian Fennesz and his buddies Pita and Jim O'Rourke could rattle an audience's preconceptions simply by parking their laptops in opposite corners of the Empty Bottle and slinging sharpened hunks of digital sound at one another. Perhaps in response, Fennesz's music has changed as well. His previous couple solo albums were moody affairs that used aquatic imagery and lush sonorities to lament the slow sinking of old Europe. The title of his latest, Bécs, spikes such elegiac sentiments with a bit of his earlier confrontational attitude; it's the Hungarian name for his hometown of Vienna, and it's pronounced something like "baeetch." The music is charged by jolts of granulated noise and dust-on-needle static, which toughen up the leisurely strummed guitar melodies and looming synth swells without sacrificing their grandeur. It's still immersive stuff, but instead of sinking in melancholy, Bécs soars with defiance. Bill Meyer

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Ben Frost, Aurora (Mute) Ben Frost's music isn't "approachable" by most definitions of the term, and his latest album, Aurora, can challenge even adventurous listeners. Frost's music has evolved from the sound of snarling wolves crushing your skull (2009's By the Throat) to the sound of being sucked into a jet engine—and it turns out that it's more difficult to get your head around the sound of being sucked into a jet engine. Some tracks on Aurora leave themselves a little breathing space, which they fill with bells, techno-­ish synths, and distant drums, but others ("Nolan," "Diphenyl Oxalate") seem designed specifically to destroy your headphones and your eardrums. Like Frost's previous work, Aurora is noise music that's just as notable for what it leaves out as for what it includes—he punctuates long stretches of tense silence or hushed sounds with black holes of face-­peeling loudness—but when he plunges into pure noise, it's claustrophobic and heavily compressed. This is pure body music, provided you want to jolt your body with a defibrillator. Tal Rosenberg

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Probcause, Waves (Bonafyde Media) Evanston-reared Chicago rapper Probcause recently wrapped up a tour with Nashville electro-pop outfit Cherub, and on his new Waves EP many of the instrumentals have the razzle-dazzle of a danceable electro-pop number aimed at the charts. The lanky MC's vocal gymnastics have an elastic flow, and his performances on "Neon Dreams" and "Breezy" are positively playful—he raps like a fan in the crowd hollering at the DJ to pump up the volume. For the most part Waves is sleek and shimmering, but it departs from that aesthetic on "Chicago Style," which mutates into a lean juke track halfway through, then hits you with a sinister synth melody and an aggressive drop from Twista—but it's as lively and high-energy as the rest of the EP, even when it sounds a bit more raw. Leor Galil

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Jarekus Singleton, Refuse to Lose (Alligator) Blues guitarist Jarekus Singleton, who lives near Jackson, Mississippi, fell in love with rap and hip-hop while playing gospel in church as a boy, but in his midteens he discovered the blues—and since then, he's been combining all three influences into a style that's rooted in but not beholden to Mississippi's deep-blues heritage. On Refuse to Lose, his second album (and first national release), Singleton plays searing guitar solos that soar in ascending arcs, and his vocal parts and band arrangements are complex and challenging; he'll segue from hard-edged testifying to melancholy meditation and back again in a verse or two, and he spikes his compositions with abrupt, often intentionally jarring melodic and rhythmic turnarounds and stop-time interruptions. He infuses extended passages with overdriven rock propulsion, and from his hip-hop background he's learned to craft layered, multifaceted rhymes, with witty, sometimes confrontational lyrics that blend street-hardened signifying, pop-culture shout-outs, and an uncompromising toughness about his principles and his manhood. David Whiteis

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Sleaford Mods, Divide and Exit (Harbinger Sound) Every song on the second LP from Nottingham duo Sleaford Mods adheres to the same brutally minimalist formula: atop a starkly simple postpunk drumbeat and rudimentary looping bass line by instrumentalist Andrew Fearn, front man Jason Williamson unleashes a torrent of vitriolic, borderline-­coherent sprechgesang like a continually outraged corner-bar drunk who's somehow acquired a backing band. The primary focus of Williamson's lyrics is how unbelievably shit living in Nottingham is, followed closely by how unbelievably shit life is in general. He spits out an ugly collage of disjointed images in an accusatory tone—"Pied Piper / Whiskey notes / The Wonderwall fell down on you" is how one line goes, assuming I've figured out his accent—and it adds up to a grim portrait of existence in postcrash England, where everyone is either poor and miserable or lying to themselves about not being poor and miserable. Williamson's barely controlled verbosity and the music's panic-attack energy beg for comparisons to the Fall, but given the album's nasty lo-fi production, obsession with documenting the minutiae of a place that "real" society treats like a trash pile, and mordant, pitch-black humor, Sleaford Mods seem to have more in common with the Wu-Tang Clan. Miles Raymer

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Weatherbox, Flies in All Directions (Triple Crown/Favorite Gentlemen) On their third-full length, San Diego punks Weatherbox cement their reputation as southern California's answer to the Thermals. Flies in All Directions melds clean, joyous pop songwriting with pound-the-steering-wheel road-trip punk just as well as that beloved Portland three-piece, adding knotty, interlocking emo guitars for good measure. Guitarist and front man Brian Warren hollers about bad decisions and bygone youth with precisely controlled fury—Weatherbox know how to get a crowd pumping their fists and yelling the lyrics. But Warren and company are interested in more than huge, catchy anthems: the intimate "The Devil and Whom" and "Love Me a Good Microcosm" pack the same emotional punch as the loudest songs. Leor Galil

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Lee Weisert, Wild Arc (New Focus) This dazzling survey of the music of Lee Weisert benefits from his involvement—the composer, who lives and teaches in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, plays on all but one of the eight pieces, switching among guitar, winds, and electronics. "Érard," a solo piano meditation deftly performed by Clara Yang, is delicate and deliberately mechanical; the rest of this rigorous collection explores the possibilities of electronics, either on their own or with conventional instruments. "Hohle Fels" is a mind-melting collage of the tiny sounds that the keys and holes on flutes and clarinets make when pressed or closed—accidental noises created in the process of playing intentional notes. "Entropic Death" is an electronic "process piece" in which two pure 400 Hz sine waves drift gradually and randomly up and down in pitch until one of them reaches 50 Hz above or below where it started; at that point both tones split, creating two at 350 Hz and two at 450; this continues, creating all sorts of bizarre momentary chords and intervals, until 14 simultaneous sine waves express a range of frequencies from 50 to 750 Hz. Part of the beauty of this piece—which it shares with most of the music on Wild Arc—is that you don't need to understand the methodology in order to enjoy it. Peter Margasak

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Leslie Winer, Witch (Superior Viaduct) In the late 70s, Leslie Winer's contrarian wit helped her build a friendship with William S. Burroughs, and in 1986 her androgynous looks landed her on the cover of UK fashion magazine The Face. Since ditching modeling for music, she's worked with artists as disparate as Grace Jones and CM von Hausswolff. In the early 90s, performing as © (yes, a copyright symbol), she released a white-label record of scathing musings spoken or sung over roots-reggae samples and echoing beats, and in the intervening years it's been recognized as an ur-document of trip-hop. Witch has just been reissued on vinyl, and what makes it compelling in 2014 are the hybrid vigor of the backing tracks and the flinty intelligence of Winer's still-pertinent observations about sexual politics. Her deft way with a mixing desk can turn her voice, fragments of Nyabinghi drumming, and a riff from Captain Beefheart's "Clear Spot" into a compulsively playable groove excursion. Bill Meyer

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Alexis Zoumbas, A Lament for Epirus 1926-1928 (Angry Mom Archives) In 1910 violinist Alexis Zoumbas moved to New York, leaving his family behind in Ioannina, the city of his birth, in the mountainous Epirus region of Greece (the northwest part of the country, near Albania). Almost 20 years later, he cut these dozen songs that hark back to his old homeland. By that time he'd made records with prominent Greek singers such as Marika Papagika and Amalia Bakas (with whom he had a stormy romantic relationship), working in the popular rembetika style, but when he finally entered the studio on his own he played skaros and mirologi, profoundly emotional and melodically ornate styles from Epirus. The first is a song form that relies heavily on improvisation, intended to calm the listener (originally a shepherd's flock), and the second is a lament delivered every day for five years at the grave of a deceased person—a kind of ecstatic expression of grief and acceptance of loss. Christopher King, a researcher who compiled this album, theorizes in his detailed liner notes that Zoumbas was fueled by homesickness, and judging by the emotional wallop he delivers on the very first track, "Epirotiko Mirologi," he was certainly feeling something with almost unbearable intensity. Zoumbas's mix of rustic, unrefined bite and virtuosic technique makes his playing feel like an antique folk-music relic, but in its power to stir the blood it hasn't aged a day. Peter Margasak

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