Burial, Kindred (Hyperdub)
Twenty minutes shorter than 2007’s magisterial Untrue, this 3-track EP nonetheless feels epic, and not only because two tracks push past eleven minutes each. These atmospheric pieces build off the complexity of Burial’s previous work, complete with false endings and multi-part structures that suggest “composition” rather than bricolage, and helps explain why some have dubbed this “prog house,” even if one recoils from doing so. What differentiates the once-anonymous William Bevan from his supposed contemporaries is an organic approach that rejects rigidity in favor of reconfiguring barely familiar elements from both soul and electronica into one atmospheric whole. One might argue the recorded evidence suggests dubstep to be merely a series of ever-fussier and less profound variations on what seems to come naturally to Bevan - that his detachment from whatever scene he’s nominally a trendsetting member of proves his gifts and interests lie far outside mere genre. Heretical sentiments in a time of micro-styles, admittedly. But even when his tracks court pretension, as the relatively short and upbeat “Loner” does, these beat-driven soundscapes are always too removed, subtle, and weird to get tripped up by false grandeur, partly because nothing rings false and partly because these creations really are grand. Basking in ghostly vocal snippets that help proceedings retain their humanity even as abstraction dominates and with his steady hand ensuring listeners lose track of how much is actually going on within each number, Bevan makes his peers seem either hyperactive or addicted to cheap gloom, which is another way of saying that he really has no peers. If his vision is too rooted in aesthetics to be anything other than a minor presence in popular music, that may well be to his credit.
Sleigh Bells, Reign Of Terror (Mom & Pop)
Responses to this much-anticipated follow-up have been far from negative, yet lukewarm disappointment runs through enough of the commentary I’ve sampled to suggest this isn’t wowing acolytes the way 2010’s Treats did. One common gripe seems to turn on this installment’s aggro quotient, although whether the problem is surplus or deficit differs markedly between listeners. Perhaps if your life was changed by Treats, any minute variation on that text might prove a letdown. But how could Treats have changed anyone’s life? Having already exploited in-the-red extremes, of course this duo backed off slightly on the volume knob, although if anything, Derek Miller’s guitars are even sleazier this time around, conjuring up Def Leppard and the bombast of Queen. Besides, there’s a far more conceptual difference taking place than loud/soft dynamics, with singer Alexis Krauss now a fully contributing (ie, composing) member as opposed to simply the mouthpiece for Miller’s preexisting blueprints. So while it’s impossible for an outsider like me to discern when and where songwriting duties diverge, I’m willing to guess that teen pop/indie mashups like “End Of The Line” owe much to Krauss’ bubblegum past. And while it’d be foolish to focus on lyrics with a band this addicted to sound and image, it would be equally foolish to assume the words are mere afterthoughts. With explicit references to teen suicide and depression, both of which she thinks are bummers, Krauss rejects ironic distancing and morbidity in favor of heart-to-heart chats. I mean, “Comeback Kid” is literally a pep talk. So, big guitar + big beats + chants + melodies, some of them quite good, all in service of talking to the kids. Pretty much what I’d hoped for, and pretty much what I got.
Chris Forsyth & Koen Holtkamp, Early Astral (Blackest Rainbow)
This is your basic krautrock groove with sidelong embellishments, and if that seems a weak endorsement, even the artists acknowledge the specialized nature of these experiments, unless you think making an album available exclusively through mp3 download or “limited edition 140g grey vinyl” is an attempt to set the world afire. But guitar(s) plus synth/electronics achieves more here then the plain-old synth/electronics deployed by Holtkamp at his steady gig, the somewhat more tedious Mountains. First track builds and builds, chugging guitar gradually subsumed by fuzz and swirling noise before biting solos wind their way out of the haze. A gentle descent into slide guitar leads directly to the second of two tracks, with Forsyth channelling the birdcall vocabulary of vintage Duane Allman, after which things once again turn atmospheric. If this sounds intriguing without quite selling you on those 100 copies of grey vinyl, the good folks over at Blackest Rainbow Records have set up the album for free streaming. Of course, if you pretended this was a recently unearthed 1973 Cologne one-off, free streaming might seem like the compromise it sometimes is.
Blu, NoYork (download)
Warner Brothers was so cool on this offering that the San Pedro-based rapper took to passing out free copies at West Coast gigs, and unless you’re a regular habitué of Los Angeles club and claque Low End Theory, you might have been cool on NoYork, too. Unlike many another indie rapper, Blu’s abstruse qualities aren’t necessarily entrenched within his rhymes - lyrically, this seems a fairly straightforward examination of the attractions and limitations of upward mobility. His specific rhymes seem pretty grounded, too, enthralled as he is with getting “busy in the Burger King bathroom” and his longing for “lap dances anytime that I please”. Where this gets diffuse is in the production, a noisy electro-beat din that insists upon erasing hip-hop boundaries while at times courting mere unpleasantness. Blu has enough control over proceedings to ensure the album follows a slow trajectory away from computer sound effects towards a concluding jazz-drenched groove more typical of his earlier efforts. In other words, this is exactly the sort of esoteric, dense, demanding hip-hop so many intelligent listeners crave. Since Shabazz Palaces and Flying Lotus remain my go-to esoteric hip-hoppers, don’t lump me in with diffuse-wary Warner Brothers, please. Just note that I prefer my abstruse hip-hop less busy and more bass-heavy.
Tennis, Young & Old (Fat Possum)
The narrative conceit of a seven-month Eastern seaboard sailing journey informed this real-life couple’s debut in a manner less meet-cute than meet-puke, unless looking at other people’s vacation photos gets your juices flowing. Still, Alaina Moore had a voice expressive and charming, and both contributing members possessed a solid enough grasp of classic pop to make Cape Dory the kind of minor indie artifact certain fans swoon over. This sophomore effort is both less conceptual (meaning, no sail boats) and just very slightly harder-edged, which some might attribute to scoring the drummer from The Black Keys as a producer. Hooks they still got, and it’s the rare track that doesn’t claim some melodic right to your attention, with “Petition” especially melding Brill Building piano to fetching chorus. But the unrelenting cheeriness of these sugary tunes eventually lends credence to the false claim that anybody can write great melodies. And while I don’t wish to spoil the honeymoon, as somebody who’s been married a bit longer than, um, Tennis, it’s worth noting that these tales of first glances, taking it slow, hands on hands, riding trains, and sitting near one another sound a bit sweet and toothless to lay claim to any real-life connection to a long-term relationship. Or perhaps they simply aim for portraiture that is cloying. At any rate, at least they have each other.
Ulrich Schnauss & Mark Peters, Underrated Silence (Bureau B)
Nice as it would be to take the title of this Music For Slow-Motion Mountain Climbing project as an act of winking self-deprecation, and much as I’d hoped entitling one of the gauziest numbers “Amoxicillin” meant anything at all, something tells me Schnauss fully embodies the Germanic stereotype of the humorless Kulturschaffende. But not due to any supposed humor deficiency from a culture that lays claim to both Werner Herzog and The Comedian Harmonists. Rather, blame the literal kitsch that is Schnauss’ devotion to the porn-ambient production ethos of a 4AD that may well only exist in his mind.