I loved Jungle’s 2018 album For Ever, and am just now circling back to hear their 2014 debut. Pleased as punch to find several more gems from this English “collective,” as apparently they prefer calling themselves. At the core of this collective are childhood friends Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, both masters of electronica. Amazing vocal harmony mixes here; incredibly credited to only one person (Rudi Salmon). Love the first six songs, then things fall off. Still, there’s an incredible vibe to everything they do.
Pigeonhole: Neo soul, funk, neo disco
There is something deeply calming and peaceful about M. Ward’s latest, Migration Stories, his tenth album. By the end of the second song, “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer,” I was fully engaged in the halcyon depths. The third song, “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show,” is a particular standout. These cuts were inspired by stories of migrants, in Ward’s own country of Canada, but also in the sometimes-hostile environment of his adopted United States. It’s a subject close to his heart; his grandfather immigrated to the US in the 1920s from Mexico. Ward’s interpretation of the hundred year-old “Along the Santa Fe Trail” is particularly wonderful. Ward is also member of She & Him and folk-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk. His playing style is considered an example of American primitive guitar, utilizing fingerstyle plucking with fingernails or finger picks.
Pigeonhole: Indie folk
San Francisco DJ Justin Martin has dropped a new single, “Stay,” with great vocals and lyrics by Dalilah. This is not to be confused with the 2014 Justin Martin remix on Henry Krinkle’s single “Stay,” which is a totally different jam. Or the four other mixes of “Stay” on that Krinkle disc. I’m clearly missing something with this obsession with the word stay. Also, checked out the remixes of Martin’s 2012 Ghettos and Gardens. It’s good, not great. “Butterflies” (Cats ‘n Dogz remix) is a little redundant but okay. I have a file in Spotify titled Sex Music, where I immediately copied the Danny Daze remix of “The Gurner,” featuring Pillow Talk. “Don’t Go’” (Leroy Peppers remix) is pretty stellar, too.
Pigeonhole: House, electronica
Britt Daniel is one of my favorite voices in rock. At times the Spoon lead singer’s voice is smooth as butter, and at other times he sounds like he’s gargling gravel. Or yelling. Daniel’s knows how to let his voice convey more than just words, like on pretty much any track on They Want My Soul, the Austin band’s eighth studio album from 2014. The lead track “Rent I Pay” sets a high bar for the rest of the record, and it delivers. “Inside Out,” “Let Me Be Mine,” and “New York Kiss” are all terrific. More of Daniel’s genius can be found on his 2012 side project with the Divine Fits. “Would That Not Be Nice” is perhaps my favorite song released that year.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
Todd Terje It’s Album Time (2014)
This was Terje’s debut, which took him three years to create and produce, and it’s his only solo work to date. Terje is a Norwegean DJ and producer who’s a multi instrumentalist and master of all things electronica, including the arpeggiator. There’s no common thread on this album; it veers wildly between cheeky electronic play (“Leisure Suit Preben”), to full-blown samba (“Svensk Sas”), to Seventies porno soundtrack ready (“Preben Goes to Acapulco”). The only commonality is Terje’s tongue-in-cheekiness; he never takes himself too seriously. The poppy “Johnny and Mary” is a cover of a Robert Palmer song that drags a bit under the weight of guest vocalist Bryan Ferry (after a few passes, I grew to like it). Terje’s most played tune is the Daft Punk reminiscent “Inspector Norse.” If nothing else, this album is an hour’s worth of quirky dance beats and pure entertainment. Perhaps the best description of this album’s mood can be summed up in the title, and the beat, of the second to last track: “Oh Joy,” a total throwback to the gay disco floors of the late Seventies (I assume), and just a whole lot of fun to experience.
Pigeonhole: Nu-disco; electronic, exotica
Elephant Stone Hollow (2020)
This fifth album from Canadian indie rock band Elephant Stone incorporates East Indian instruments (sitar, table, dilruba) with mostly pleasant results. The fist two cuts are strong, the next three land rather flat. But from there things really take off as “We Cry” bleeds into “Harmonia” to elevate the album to the next level. “I See You” is a tasty slow groove (a la Tame Impala) with a nifty final minute. “The Clampdown” is a nice burn. “Fox on the Run” has some U2 elements. “House on Fire” is the album’s best, with a chord progression in the chorus that reminds me of a song I still can’t place. The final cut “A Way Home” is the weakest.
Pigeonhole: Indie, psychedelic rock
Alaina Castillo just might be the next Youtube success story, perhaps on the scale of Alessia Cara or Carly Rae Jepsen. Two years ago as a senior at a Houston high school, Castillo’s video “Sing You to Sleep” exploded on Youtube with a quick million views. Now, Spotify has signed her to its platform called RADAR, which gives developing artists publicity and support. Her debut EP The Voicenoteswas released today and all four cuts deliver. I hear echoes of King Princess, particularly on “Sad Girl.”
As a possible alternative to the Stevie Wonder suggestion for Earth Day (previous post), might I suggest ZOMA by the English band Glass Animals (2014). Several cuts transition into each other with the jungle sounds of birds and insects. The cut “Toes” was developed as a musical interpretation of the novels Heart of Darkness and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Other cuts with earthy titles like “Hazy,” “Pools” and “Gooey” further the theme of nature. If you need to chill and lower your blood pressure, ZOMA could be the perfect accompaniment. Mello nearly to the point of monotone, this album is sparse but colored beautifully with the soothing falscetto of Dave Bayley.
Pigeonhole: Psychedelic, indie pop
It’s Earth Day #50, the perfect excuse to listen to Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants from 1979. In the beginning, of course, there was Earth, and so begins the album, with “Earth’s Creation,” which, thanks to crashing cymbals, suggests more of a Big Bang theory than the six-day undertaking suggested in Genesis. But that’s a bigger bite than I can chew right now. Next we hear the sounds of a newborn jungle, with bird chirps and primate screeches, as the earth, and the album, come to life (“The First Garden” and “Voyage to India.)” Wonder’s first vocal appearance isn’t until the forth cut. The only single from the album, “Send One Your Love,” has nothing to do with nature or plants or Earth, unless you count the line: “Send her your love/With a dozen roses.” One of my favorite moments is the stereo affect of a housefly in “Venus Fly trap And The Bug,” buzzing from the left to right channels. But the album is, for the most part, insufferable, with only occasional nods to interesting.
Pigeonhole: New age
Wasn’t aware of the term “blue-eyed soul” until I saw it used to describe Scottish singer/multi-instrumentalist Paola Nutini. Joe Cocker (green eyes) and Rod Stewart (brown) were early examples of this style, but it was the hazel-eyed George Michael’s Faith (1987) that became the first record by a white artist to top the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Nutini’s third album Caustic Love (2014) has several great rhythm and bluesy cuts (“Numpty,” “Looking For Something”). Nutini’s vocals are rich with emotion and power, perhaps best demonstrated on “Cherry Blossom.” Jannelle Monae offers a sweet rap on “Fashion.”
Pigeonhole: Pop rock, soul rock, folk, blue-eyed soul
In honor of today’s date, I Googled: “best albums to smoke to” and found a familiar list (Dark Side of the Moon, Beach House). Also some surprises, like a lovely disc from an Icelandic outfit called Sigor Ros. Their 1999 album Agates Byrjun (“good start” in Icelandic) is heavy on orchestration and other worldliness. The opening cut is dreamy and trance inducing, all ten minutes of it. Part of the tripiness of the collection is that it’s sung entirely in Icelandic, something rarely heard in pop music. Even Iceland’s most famous musician Bjork sings entirely in English. Sigor Ros’s lead singer Jonsi Birgisson offers mostly understated falsetto vocals and plays a variety of instruments, including the bowed guitar, a guitar played with a bow and not a bent guitar, as I initially envisioned.
Pigeonhole: Art rock, dream pop, ambient
Ed O’Brien’s debut, away from his day job as guitarist of Radiohead, just dropped and it’s everything you’d expect from a musician with his pedigree. The earlier singles are all here and great, along with five new cuts that collectively make up Earth. It’s hard to image anything pushing this out of my top ten for 2020. If there was any doubt of O’Brien’s influence on Radiohead, this album can dispel that. The blusy, Clapton-esque, “Deep Days” is infectious and incredible. “Long Time Coming” could have been a Cat Stevens single in the seventies (which is not a bad thing). “Banksters” is the best of the new ones. The only one I didn’t immediately connect with is “Sail On.” But maybe time will change that. From the earlier singles, “Shangri-La” and “Brasil” are incredible.
Pigeonhole: Alt rock, electronic
It’s probably safe to say you’ve never heard anything like Fiona Apple’s brand new album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters. There’s no simple way to describe it other than layered and complex. There’s as much jazz influence as rock. Based on the reaction so far, it will end up as one of the top albums of the year, maybe the album of the year when it comes awards time. The main elements here are percussion, piano and Apple’s incredible voice, which seems capable of absolutely anything she dreams up. And not standard percussion, either, but found objects from her Venice Beach home where much of Bolt Cutters was recorded. These aren’t melodic tunes; there’s nothing to hum or tap your foot to. But it’s pure musical genius. Comparisons to Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Tom Waits seem fair. Apple has said the album is about breaking out of your personal prison with a set of bolt cutters. She pushed her record company to release the album now, instead of October as planned, as an offering to those in lockdown. Apple credits her own pre-covid self-isolation as essential to the development of the album.
Before my Covid hiatus I posted about Beck’s 2019 album Hyperspace, which I found super enjoyable. Today I went back a few more years, to 2014, and found something even better, the absolutely incredible Morning Phase. It’s a brilliant and haunting collection, particularly when heard for the first time while wandering the barren streets of Los Angeles at what normally would be rush hour on a Friday. But today, like every other day of Lockdown, there’s little traffic and almost no one out, and those who are out are almost all wearing facemasks. When the seventh song comes on, “Wave,” it feels like a commentary on this gloomy moment. It starts off bleak and suspenseful against an orchestral backdrop, with lyrics about a “form of a disturbance.” It ends, appropriately, with the Beck singing the word isolation four times, building to a chilling crescendo. A little later, “Morning” includes the line “can we start it all over again,” which happened to be the question on everyone’s mind, in terms of opening up the economy post Lockdown. “Blue Moon” has moments of Beach Boys harmonies. “Heart as a Drum” feels like a misplaced Iron & Wine tune. I often mark times in my life with albums. This may be the one for now.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock
Ty Segall has twelve album titles to his solo career and until I started researching the best LPs of 2014, I’d never heard of him. But that year Manipulator was released, and it got a lot of attention for its delicious retro, garage band fuzziness. Segall’s throwback sound ignites a nostalgia that belies his comparative youth (26 when it was released). He’s the mastermind of everything you hear, vocals, guitar, drums, bass and keyboard. Echoes of The Yardbirds, Thin Lizzy and Bowie are numerous. Seventeen cuts makeup this double album, with many highlights, like the ferocious “The Crawler,” “Feel” (not to be confused with the sixteenth cut “The Feels”) and “Green Belly.”
Pigeonhole: Garage rock, retro rock
The Dutch deep house trio Cubicolor released their second album last month, Hardly A Day, Hardly A Night, which was written and developed entirely while on a boat in Amsterdam. This sophomore effort unfolds very slowly. When vocalist Tim Digby-Bell makes his enterance (more than a minute into the second cut), I immediately hear echoes of Tyrone Lindqvist of Rufus du Sol (and again on “Wake Me Up”). This twelve-tune collection could stand a little more development; in fact I’m not sure it ever really reaches its potential. Too many moments that drag (like “Kindling”). Perhaps a producer with more imagination could have made it really pop. But there’s reason to keep watching these guys.
Obviously, something has gone terribly awry. I won’t trouble you with the details, other than to say that Covid-19 hit close to home. Both parents hospitalized, both now recovering. When I had a minute during this familial crisis, I retreated to music I already knew. I didn’t have time or focus to concentrate on new music. But I believe I’m back now, as I await the other shoe to fall.