It’s crazy to think that Stephen Malkmus has been fronting his band the Jicks for as long as he was ever in the band he’s best known for: the influential ’90s indie rock pioneers, Pavement. But here we are, six albums into a solo career, and Malkmus and his shape-shifting group remains as relevant and experimental as ever. On their latest, Wig Out At Jagbags, Malkmus and the Jicks churn out another catchy and off-kilter batch of songs crammed with knotty guitar lines, slack, half-sung melodies, and evocative, if elusive lyrics.
The transformation of Sharon Van Etten has been a joyful thing to witness. When the singer-songwriter first surfaced with her 2009 album, Because I Was In Love, her spare, sorrowful songs exposed a desire to escape from a confining relationship and her own deep-seated vulnerabilities and insecurities. With each record since, Van Etten has built herself up, one harmony, one guitar melody, one gut-wrenching line at a time.
Push play on the smoldering opening track “Oblivious,” and that very first gnarled squelch of feedback says it all: this is not the same Jessica Lea Mayfield. For years, the Ohio singer-songwriter trucked in the alt-country circles, crafting intriguing and melancholy songs about complex (i.e. bad) relationships and heartsick regret with an unadorned beauty. Now, Mayfield is still singing about love, restless yearning and jealousy on her latest album, Make My Head Sing…, but with a little less twang and a newfound visceral, blood on the lips fury.
A couple years ago, I wrote a post about the work of Jacob Escobedo, the visual artist behind so many great album covers and posters. He’s worked with Vampire Weekend, Active Child, and The Shins, but mostly I know him for the various music projects of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton: Dark Night Of The Soul, Gnarls Barkley, Rome and, of course, Burton’s project with James Mercer, Broken Bells.
Well, this year, Broken Bells are back with a new album, After The Disco, full of a diverse array of influences, from pop and psychedelic rock, to soul and spaghetti Westerns, to disco and funk; all smooshed together to sound like, well, most of what Danger Mouse ever touches.
It’s wild to think that Bright Eyes’ last, and eighth album, 2011’s masterful The People’s Key, was released when frontman Conor Oberst was then just 31. While still considerably younger than many of his peers that blossomed at the same time in the mid-2000s, the prodigiously talented songwriter has been cranking out confessional songs riddled with internal angst and self-doubt since his teens. But with The People’s Key, Oberst finally embraced an extroverted rockstar persona (well, for him, anyway), and an outward-looking viewpoint, pondering big metaphysical ideas about compassion in a complicated world, and humanity’s place in the wider universe. A sonically captivating, emotionally moving record, it felt like a culmination, and honestly, a celebratory farewell.
Luckily it was not a true goodbye: Here we are, three years later, and Conor Oberst is back, albeit sans the Bright Eyes moniker, with his latest, Upside Down Mountain.
Countless musicians have concocted concept albums built around all sorts of subjects, places and artistic influences. But far fewer concept albums can double as tour guide. Enter Gabriel Kahane, the prolific songwriter and composer whose latest work, The Ambassador, draws inspiration from the architecture and culture of Los Angeles. While Kahane was raised on the East Coast and in Northern California, he was born in L.A., and as such, delivers a detailed sense of place in ten songs — each one representing a different location in the city.
The best collaborations bring a push and pull that forces each member out of their comfort zones, and charts new territory they may not have ventured by themselves. Case in point: Sylvan Esso, the new project from singer Amelia Meath, of the mostly a cappella Vermont folk trio Mountain Man, and Nick Sanborn, of the North Carolina rock band Megafaun. Unlike those more guitar-based, acoustic-leaning groups, Sylvan Esso takes a stylistic leap, veering a hard left toward minimal electronic music and taut synth pop. And with their superb self-titled record, Meath and Sanborn perfectly encapsulate that creative spirit of collaboration, equally showcasing their individual talents, and creating a synthesis of their group’s respective sounds in a new way.