The best albums of the last three months, May-June-July 2015 edition

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Whilst they have been a fixture of this site for the past couple of years, the monthly album round-ups didn't happen over the last few months. I have been focusing on other things, not least the new site I'm helping to launch in 2016 (it will be called Suburban Speed and it is taking shape over here). These monthly round-ups may well move over there in the future.
I did hear plenty of albums in my "break", and I've put together this digest of albums from the months I missed - May and June 2015, with a few added in from the traditionally meagre month of July. The albums aren't listed in any order, but let's say they all managed to score 7/10 or over in my hugely scientific rating system...

Jim O'Rourke 'Simple Songs' (Drag City) buy | my review
Simple Songs sounds fantastic, and the intricate arrangements mean that every time you come back to the songs they reveal something new. Most of all it gives a snapshot into the contradictions which make Jim O’Rourke so fascinating. Lyrically this is the grumblings of a middle-aged man and musically this ends up somewhere between easy listening and math-rock. This is widescreen music, not for background listening.

Jenny Hval 'Apocalypse, girl' (Sacred Bones) buy | stream
Whilst Innocence is Kinky had an edgier backing than this lighter, almost trip-hop sound, it is Jenny Hval's voice and words which draw you in. This is more arty, poetic and at times quite humorous. From the spoken word with noises-off challenge of Big Bananas to the beautiful vocal styling of the Battle is Over, Sabbath, and Take Care of Yourself - at times reminiscent of Robert Wyatt - this is an album which reveals new pleasures on every listen.

Circuit des Yeux 'in Plain Speech' (Thrill Jockey) buy | stream
A baroque-pop, experimental, Scott Walker-channeling tour de force. Haley Fohr's first recording with a "backing" band (albeit one plucked from Chicago's alternative elite) offers atmospheric backgrounds behind a powerful, intriguing vocal performance.

Death and Vanilla 'To Where The Wild Things Are' (Fire) buy | stream
Death and Vanilla are a Swedish band who tread that delicate line between sixties psychedelia, dream pop and hauntology. Oh, and there are some beats thrown in for good measure. They wear their influences proudly - from Silver Apples to Broadcast - yet ultimately this album has enough in the form of pretty tunes and interesting atmospherics to stand as a valid contemporary release.

Wilco 'Star Wars' (dBpm records) free download (ltd time)
Seemingly appearing out of nowhere, this is as good an album as Wilco have made since A Ghost Is Born nearly a decade ago. it bridges trad Americana, classic pop and skronky noise with ease.

Trembling Bells 'The Sovereign Self' (Tin Angel) buy | stream
Whilst I have enjoyed most of the Trembling Bells releases to date, this is the first one that I absolutely love. What has changed? Well, for a start there's an extra (electric) guitarist which manages to skew their already heady brew of psychedelic rock and traditional folk towards something leaner like Television. I reckon the songs are stronger too, and their vocals, as always, are something to behold.

Du Blonde 'Welcome Back to Milk' (Mute) buy | stream | my review
FKA Beth Jeans Houghton, Du Blonde’s debut may not be as extreme as the attention-seeking, merkin-wearing cover photo hints at, but there is a ferocity and a verve which suggests that it is a new lease of life. It's noisy, abrasive, though many of the most impressive aspects of Du Blonde are found in the sheer musical variety on offer. Produced by Bad Seed Jim Sclavonious, this switches between grunge power trio, epic pop songs and subtle piano tunes whilst still managing to sound coherent.

Rose Windows 'Rose Windows' (Sub Pop) buy | stream | my review
When classic influences meet a diverse bunch of musicians like this they get a new lease of life. One wise review said that although the music sounds old, in a way it could only really be made in the here and now. The music is a melting pot which has grown more complex as the years have gone on. No negativity should be read into the fact that they called it a day just before this album came out. They felt that they had run their course and wished to bow out on a high note. They have done exactly that.

Ezra Furman 'Perpetual Motion People' (Bella Union) buy | stream
This comes across as the E Street Band fronted by someone more insecure and edgy - maybe Jonathan Richman or Jad Fair? There is no doubt that Ezra is now being recognised as the special talent he so clearly is, and whilst this new record wasn't as immediate for me as its predecessor, a few more listens revealed that the songs are good and the band sound great.

Haiku Salut 'Etch and Etch Deep' (HDIF) buy | stream | my review
This music recalls the minimal quirkiness of múm, the melodic sweeps of Sigur Rós, and at times comes across like Yann Tiersen's Amelie soundtrack if had been transported to the recent future. It is still surprising to find that Haiku Salut have created all this in Derbyshire and not somewhere more exotic. Ultimately though, it is about mixing disparate influences and seeing how they blend together. Happily for all of us, this approach works brilliantly.

Holly Herndon 'Platform' (4AD) buy | stream
Every time I return to this there is something more, something I hadn't caught last time. This is genuinely experimental music, mostly based around lush, melodically rich electronica often created from voice samples. There are unusual moments, like the "massage" on 'Lonely At the Top', but ultimately this stands up as a great example of modern, progressive electronica.

Sarah Cracknell 'Red Kite' (Cherry Red) buy | stream
Whilst there is a pop heart to this solo album from the voice of Saint Etienne, Red Kite is steeped in baroque-pop and 60s folk influences. Somehow sadder and more reflective than I expected, and a fine piece of work.

Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe 'I Declare Nothing' ('a' Records) buy | stream
I'm not really aware of Tess Parks's previous music, and I'm not a big fan of Newcombe's BJM, but this has a beautifully weary quality to it, and comes across as an updated, more frazzled Mazzy Star.

Four Tet 'Morning/ Evening' (Text) buy | stream
A beautiful release from Kieron Hebden. Just two long pieces, one on each side, as contrasting as morning and evening are in reality. His biggest dalliance with Indian music to date. Although glitches and electronic buzzes give it a modern edge, the 'Morning Side' is centered around a haunting hypnotic vocal which sounds meditative and ancient.

Mbongwana Star 'From Kinshasa' (World Circuit) buy | stream
A fascinating record, and one whose influence may well be felt far into the future. Featuring former members of Staff Benda Bilili (and a guest appearance from some of Konono No1) this music sits within the Congolese soukous tradition, but also manages to push its post-punk and electronic influences to the fore just as much.

Thee Oh Sees 'Mutilator Defeated At Last' (Castle Face) buy
Thee Oh Sees are now very much a power trio and I'm sure I'm not the only one to hear echoes of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience deep in the grooves here. Wild, unhinged rock n roll, and pretty great at that.

Grimm Grimm 'Hazy Eyes Maybe' (ATP recordings) buy | stream
Coming across like a dreamy acoustic contemporary of Bo Ningen, Grimm Grimm's debut is a beautiful, subtle record. A genuinely unusual take on modern psychedelia, focusing more on acoustic weirdness rather than volume overload.

Sun Kil Moon 'Universal Themes' (Caldo Verde) buy | stream
Here Mark Kozelek continues to detail the minutae of his life (I assume the album title is ironic) with arguably a more interesting musical palette than last year's acclaimed Benji. He is still stuck on tour as female acquaintances, cats, and other musicians pass by, boxing matches happen, and so on. He has been unpleasant to watch live for a few years now, and I don't bother with his gigs anymore, but this is far from the turkey of an album that some reviewers claimed it was, post-Barbican debacle.

Rozi Plain 'Friend' (Lost Map) buy | stream
On to her third solo album already, 'Friend' sees Rozi Plain weave a dreamy mix of folk and laid-back psychedelia with the help of Serafina Steer and Alexis Taylor along the way. Opening track 'Actually' is one of my favourite songs this year.

Mac McCaughan 'Non Believers' (Merge) buy | stream | my review
It is interesting that Mac chose to release this album under his own name, almost as if he is deliberately pitching it from a time when there was no Superchunk, or Portastatic, or Merge. He is out there on his own, playing it all himself, freed from expectation. It is fitting as well that his desire to use synths and drum machines has led to a more naïve way of playing. This isn't a slick indie-rock record, although it is a very good one. This is the sound of someone feeling their way back into the music of their youth, and the end result is so much more than a vanity side project.

Loop 'Array 1' (ATP recordings) buy | stream
Perhaps a surprise that Loop have continued on after their ATP festival reformation. Array is the first of a series of releases, consisting of just four tracks so it's sort of an EP, although closing track radial clocks in at 17 minutes and makes this album length. Robert Hampson is the only constant member but this is not ambient or music concrete, instead it's driven by the kind of riffing that the original Loop excelled at, coupled with a busy, urgent percussion.

Sauna Youth 'Distractions' (Upset the Rhythm) buy | stream
As you may expect if you ever caught this lot live, this album fizzes and buzzes with energy. At times they remind me of prime period Buzzcocks, other times they are more abstract on spoken pieces like '(Taking A) Walk'. At their best of cuts like 'The Bridge' and 'Creeping' where they manage to combine strong hooks with abrasive noise really well.

The Cairo Gang 'Goes Missing' (Drag City) buy
I suppose most people will associate the Cairo Gang (and its de facto leader) Emmet Kelly with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, so it's a pleasant surprise to find that this latest album takes its cue from guitar-pop as practiced by the Byrds and more recently, Guided By Voices. This was a late arrival and made the list after one listen - it seems varied but some of the songs ('Ice Fishing' for example) are so good they knocked me sideways.

Kamasi Washington 'The Epic' (Brainfeeder) buy | stream
The Epic is so epic that I've only been able to listen to it all the way through once. Some people will visit this recording on the back of Washington's association with album-of-the-year elect To Pimp A Butterfly, yet The Epic is more of a lesson in jazz history. Released on Brainfeeder, this is more Alice Coltrane than Flying Lotus, and although some of the vocal pieces are too smooth for my tastes, the evocation of the more psychedelic works of Miles Davis and Pharaoh Saunders make it worth investigating further.

White Reaper 'White Reaper Does it Again' (Polyvinyl) buy | stream
Young American punk types, desperately in love with the American punk of old (the artwork even suggests the Minutemen), and this debut full length manages to be angst-ridden, joyous, and maybe a bit dumb - often in the course of a single song.

1 comment:

  1. the big standout in this list is Mbongwana Star 'From Kinshasa' - pure genius, could call it a new music form